Our festival of lights

I’m talking about Bonfire Night and adjacent celebrations and, when saying ‘our’, am speaking as a Brit.

Guy Fawkes Night was one of the highlights of my childhood, as much for the associated food as for the meagre number of fireworks our dad could (or would) buy.* In this country at least, November the 5th marks the beginning of winter and goes back a lot further than the torture and execution of that failed Catholic assassin. Some of our Celtic neighbours kept the memory of Samhain and I’m sure the Saxons and other Germanic tribes had something similar. The nights are starting earlier and lasting longer and the weather’s getting colder, which is as good a reason as any for a big fire, some warming grub and making as much light as possible. Nor are we alone and the Hindu festival of Diwali happens around this time of year also. What they have in common is ‘the victory of light over darkness’.

It coincides with other festivals for remembering the dead. Hallowe’en, which has almost replaced Guy Fawkes Night as a boom time for retailers to cash in with loads of junk ‘for the kiddies’ to enjoy, is actually the Eve of All Saints’ Day in the Roman Catholic calendar, while November 2nd is All Souls Day when believers visited the graves of their ancestors and deceased family and is often a colourful event, as in Mexico. Not forgetting ‘Remembrance Day’ to commemorate the end of World War 1.

So, with plenty of dry leaves and dry wood from pruning that the gardeners want to get rid of, a big fire is a logical response, which provides a good excuse for an outdoor party before it’s too cold. Candles and lamps would be needed too and I guess gunpowder came into the mix when the government made the failure of Fawkes & Co to blow up Parliament with the stuff an official holiday. Its use in fireworks has persisted, despite repeated attempts to limit or ban it. And we’d want something to warm us inside and what we used to get was baked potatoes (cooked in the bonfire an option), toffee apples and black treacle toffee. My brother remembers soft vanilla fudge as well.

These days family or neighbourhood parties in the back garden or a nearby open space have been increasingly replaced by big shows put on by some charity or community group with much more fancy and expensive fireworks and other features to be burned – one I saw was a large model in wood and paper of the original target, the Palace of Westminster.

As I’ve written elsewhere, these events used to mark the changes in the seasons and served to map out the year. Whether those that are popular now gain the same level of tradition remains to be seen.

[* What I didn’t at first include in this discourse is the tradition of ‘A penny for the guy’. This meant the kids, or a parent, making a ‘guy’ (from Guido Fawkes) to sacrifice on the bonfire. A dummy would be made with your mum’s worn-out tights or stockings, stuffed with screwed-up balls of paper, for its arms, legs and torso and something similar for its head. It would be dressed in worn-out jacket and trousers, possibly shoes, and the head provided with a papier-mâché mask most commonly in the supposed likeness of Fawkes (now well known from its reincarnation by the campaigners of Anonymous), or some other hate-figure (eg Maggie Thatcher). According to my younger brother, we once put a mask on the youngest and used him instead, but I don’t recall it. Kids would take their creation to a favourable street location and beg passers-by for a contribution to their firework fund. They might even chant old rhymes, like “Remember, remember the fifth of November with gunpowder, treason and plot”, even if they didn’t really know the history of it. On the night, the guy would sit on top of the bonfire to be immolated. Whether these were originally folk memories of a similar fate for witches and heretics, I’ll leave to the historians and anthropologists.] 
“Wossall the noise about?”
A similar money-making pastime to ‘A penny for the guy’ was carolling. Kids would stand outside a likely residence and sing xmas carols, then knock on the door and wait to receive some cash or a mince pie the occupants hoped would make us go away. I and at least one of my brothers did this for a few years until it was killed off by television. Then they couldn’t hear us until we knocked or rang the doorbell, which would leave us all the unenviable task of listening to our attempts to sound angelic and harmonious, or even remember the words. This had its origin in the tradition of ‘wassailing’, when the poor would do the same outside the homes of the more well-to-do in expectation of a drink and something to eat, if not cash as well.
Thankfully it died out and is now replaced with kids threatening ‘Trick or treat’ on Hallowe’en. In these more ‘egalitarian’ and paranoid times, one could wonder if there’ll ever be other traditions like them … that is apart from buskers or homeless beggars asking for ‘spare change’ while wearing any seasonal decoration they can find.

RA 29.10.21

Money or “Who says I’m better off?”

(a beginner’s guide to why you’re not rich)

I woke up this morning thinking about money and what it is. I don’t know why but I seemed to be coming out of a dream phase. Anyway I was thinking about inflation – how a pound is now worth about 10p compared to fifty years ago. On the other hand, my income is probably ten times larger than it was then, so that cancels out and economists will tell me that, ‘in real terms’, I’m in fact better off. In some ways that might seem true but it’s worth looking at more closely.

The musings that follow aren’t new, even for me, but have been spiced up somewhat by listening to a radio programme called ‘Promises, Promises, A History of Debt’ written and presented by David Graeber, a well known anthropologist.

What is money?
The standard answer is ‘a medium of exchange’, that is something, whose value can be agreed on, given in return for goods or services. That value, however, is clearly somewhat variable, as inflation shows. But what about the thing itself? Let’s start with the paper kind.

The title of Dr Graeber’s programme seems to refer to a lovely little phrase that the Bank of England’s notes still carry, ‘I promise to pay the bearer the sum of … pounds’. Did you ever wonder what that meant? If you had, you’d have been told that bank notes were originally promissory notes which could be exchanged for the real thing – metal money, ie coins. We were told that this ended when the UK ‘came off the gold standard’, but gold was never the main metal used for money, that was silver. In fact what that promise on our bank notes meant was the Bank of England owed you so many pounds in weight of sterling silver. Sterling is a fixed standard of purity for silver – 92.5%. Whether a Bank of England £1 note ever got you that, I don’t know, but that was the theory. Currently 1lb sterling silver is worth a little over £250 – that’s inflation. Best of luck getting them to cough up at that rate.

But how did metal become a means of exchange? There have been other things used, like beads and shells, but the main feature seems to be their scarcity value rather than their usefulness. Gold and silver were chosen because they were shiny and gold, at least, didn’t tarnish. Other metals are used as well and we still talk about ‘coppers’ and, in some parts of the country, ‘brass’ and ‘tin’. These are very useful materials, so it isn’t difficult to imagine a time when not everyone knew how to mine and refine them from rocks in the ground, even if you had access to those ores. It would have seemed a magical thing, or at least it did to me when I was a kid. Thus a little lump of copper or tin, that could be worked into beautiful jewellery or a tool or a weapon, would be worth having in exchange for whatever you had to offer at an agreed rate.

Whether or not that scenario ever happened, it would have come under the heading of ‘barter’ and the only advantage metal had over other items was that it took up less room than, say corn, and so was easier to carry. This was for many years the standard history of the beginnings of metal money. However Graeber points out that the actual history is different and, for centuries, people traded almost exclusively on credit. Coinage only came into use as a means to pay soldiers and, in particular, mercenaries. So money and war have a common origin. How surprising is that?

Money hasn’t stopped being magical. If paper notes could stand in for real coins, then the next move was that we could write our own notes – cheques. This worked when a bank was holding our money and would transfer some of it to another person when they received that piece of paper. Magic. Then some smart-arse invented the credit card, which did away with the dreary task of writing out a cheque. But that didn’t mean someone would carry a bag of coins, or even paper, from your bank to the other person’s – it was just the numbers that changed in the ledgers and the banks agreed between themselves who had what. Then came computers and the whole process speeded up exponentially and money became even more abstract and mythical, but it was still just numbers flying around on wires and fibres in the form of electrical pulses. So where was the real money?

Banks and exchanges
We’re told that banks were invented in Italy in the 14th century but the business was around a lot longer than that. All you needed was a large or regular supply of cash* and a customer. The people with the money supply were generally big merchants while, as Graeber told us, the customers were usually rulers who had a war on their hands or in their plans. [* the word cash originally meant ‘box’, like the ones money was kept in, then it transferred to the money itself]

Apart from money-lenders, the other kind of dealers were the money-changers – you may have heard of Jesus chasing them out of the temple in Jerusalem. These exchanged gentile Greek and Roman coins for ones that were acceptable to the priests. Presumably they made a profit on the trade. Elsewhere it seems that no-one bothered much where the coins came from so long as you knew what they were worth compared to your local currency. At least that was the case until nation states became more protectionist about whose money was circulating in their territory. That’s when the exchange, the cambio bank, made its appearance.

Karl Marx defined capitalism as the trade in ‘money as a commodity’. Capitalism isn’t private industry, it’s the trade in money itself. As far as I’m concerned, that’s one of the few things Marx got right. Multinational corporations may be richer than all but the strongest countries on the planet, but the real power lies in banking and currency markets. That’s why there was so much resistance to the UK changing from pounds to euros – one less currency for the gamblers to play with.

Credit & Debt
As far as I can see the difference between them depends on class. If you’re working class, what you owe is a debt. If you’re middle class, what you owe is your credit. If you’re ruling class, you don’t care either way – someone else will pay.

Generally it doesn’t matter how much you owe as long as you’re able to keep up the repayments. It was the banks, mortgage companies and currency traders pushing that logic to its extreme that caused the crash of 2008. And who paid for that? The poor of course. All those huge numbers flitting around the memories of computers across the world may have seemed like fairy dust to those pushing the buttons, but the reality came down to who and what it all was based on – real people making and needing real things, like food, jobs, housing. Wealth means having, or controlling, a lot of those real things by whatever means.

So the real source of wealth is people and all that money – cash, credit, debt – means is ‘how much are you worth?’ The answer to that depends on the person asking the question. In other words, ‘how useful are you to me?’ The answer to that is ‘do you have something I need?’ Well, do you? What do you do, find, produce, transport, package or deliver, that I need? If you tell me that there is something and I believe you, then you’re in credit. If I get it, I owe you and I’m in debt to you. I’m promising to give you something in return. Money was invented as just one way to sort out that agreement but it went on before that for as long as humans have been around.

Is there another possible system? A friend of mine used to talk about the ‘cosmic supply company’. What he meant was, if you give somebody something – a cigarette, a cup of tea, a meal, a lift, some of your time – then there was a good chance that somebody else would give you what you needed another time. Sounds fantastical, but how often has that happened to you? Could we run a world on that system? Who knows? We haven’t tried it for a while.

RA 24-29.8.16

Taxation and off-shore money +

Taxation and off-shore money

The so-called ‘Paradise Papers’ have made this front page news but it’s nothing new. Up to 30 years ago my main mode of long-distance travel was by hitch-hiking and it’s common knowledge that this situation tends to make people a lot more open in what they say than they would otherwise be. So, over that time, I had some interesting conversations. One of them was with the boss of a fairly large and well-known company who talked about the amount of taxes that the government lost from corporations which had large off-shore holdings – he mentioned BP and ICI as two of the biggest. He reckoned that, if the government would offer a deal, some of that taxable income could be brought back home. They never did, preferring to demonise poor people on welfare instead. The scale then of lost taxes versus estimated benefit fraud was 10 to 1. It’s got to be a lot bigger now since George Osborne made it even easier for companies to legally base themselves here, in what a former tax inspector on Radio 4’s ‘Money Box’ called ‘brass plate’ status (ie in name only), while their income was safely stashed away elsewhere. When the government conspires to keep their friends rich at the expense of the rest of the population the best description of the UK is a ‘banana republic’, monarchy or not.

Baccy and guns

Another couple of those highway revelations are worth mentioning here. One was over 40 years ago when I was picked up by the Chief Marketing Manager for British-American tobacco. I asked him if he was at all worried by the anti-tobacco lobby, which was beginning to make itself noticed. He wasn’t bothered at all, pointing out that, even if it was totally banned here, they now had their first factory in China and the market there would dwarf anything in the rest of the world.

The other was the cop who took me one night from Warminster to Bristol. Whether the beret and combat jacket I was wearing fooled him into thinking I was a squaddie, I don’t know but he was quite forthcoming. We got onto the subject of when police carried firearms and he said blithely that it happened a lot more often than the public was aware of. As he was obviously CID, I figured he knew what he was talking about.

Goes to show just how much is hidden from the general view, not in secret, but in plain sight.

RA 11.11.17

The women as usual …

This title is part of a quote from an account in a local newspaper of the Exeter Bread Riot of 1854, it goes on, ’The women as usual were the beginning of the disturbance.’ (Western Times, 14th January 1854) I love that because it reveals a truth that, as managers of the domestic economy, generally, women are the ones who know when the situation is no longer supportable. Whether it’s about hunger, as in the bread riots, demanding safer working conditions, as the fishermen’s wives and widows from Hull in the 1960s, or against murder and disappearances, as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo a decade later, women are often the first into battle. They then force the men into action, sometimes by leading them. The storming of the Bastille may have signalled the beginning of the French Revolution, but it was the march of women to Versailles that sealed Louis XVI’s fate. Likewise, it’s not well known that it was the women who started the Russian Revolution in March 1917, appropriately enough on International Women’s Day*, when female workers in a clothes factory in St Petersburg went on strike and called out the men in other works to join them. The Bolsheviks weren’t consulted, Lenin was still in Switzerland, the Winter Palace was unstormed. Shame that Eisenstein didn’t make a film about that.

Of course I’m talking about poor women, not the ones who become professional politicians, business leaders or academic writers. So, while Theresa May desperately tries to get the Tories to back-pedal and take on some of Labour’s policies, we can only wait and hope for the crunch to come.

[* started by a Jewish garment worker and socialist who was an immigrant from Russia to the USA. Come on chickens … time to roost!]

RA 4-6.10.17

Inferior Practice or ‘Why pick on Trotsky?’

You probably won’t have spotted the bad pun in the title but it’s relevant – there’s theory and there’s practice (or praxis, if you’re a pedant). Leon Trotsky was outstanding at the first and, many would claim, just as great at the second but I’d object that there was a grave mismatch. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to involve a lot of marxist theory or terminology. I will explain one though, which might come up, and that’s ‘dialectics’. Initially it meant a logical discussion between people with opposing points of view. A German philosopher called Georg Hegel proposed a three-stage process – argument, counter-argument, resolution (thesis, antithesis, synthesis in his terminology). Marx and Engels borrowed this and twisted it to their own uses in order to explain changes in human history. I’d describe it as an attempt to base their theories in science – in this case Newton’s Third Law of Motion: action and reaction are equal and opposite. It’s a useful approach but shouldn’t be used obsessively ’cos we’re talking about human beings not billiard balls. That’s where bolsheviks like Trotsky went horribly wrong.

According to Marx and Engels, the dialectics of history meant that the oppressed and exploited working class (proletariat) would inevitably rise up and replace the ruling class (bourgeoisie) through ‘self-activity’. Class distinctions would then disappear and communism would bring prosperity and peace to the world. It’s a nice theory and still might happen but has nothing to do with what is perceived to be communism by its enemies, nor with what’s been done in its name. Trotsky played a major part in that degeneration.

I don’t disrespect him, Leon (Lev) Bronstein, who changed his name to Trotsky, was a real revolutionary, at least to begin with, and did time twice (1899 and 1906) for his activities even before the Revolution. He was also a great speaker and writer. I’ve read the first part of his ‘History of the Russian Revolution’ in translation and it’s an excellent, if obviously very partisan, account. Like many, his positions changed several times, starting with the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1898 (note the name, friends in Labour and those supposed Social Democrats now with the Lib-Dems; it didn’t become the Communist Party until 1918). When the RSDLP split at the London Congress in 1903, he sided with the moderate minority (Menshevik) faction but tried to get the two parts to work together. He didn’t join the Bolsheviks until after the Revolution kicked off in March 1917 (note also that this was the real revolution; what happened in November – October in the old calendar – wasn’t a revolution but a coup d’état). He rose rapidly to the top. This is when theory and practice began to diverge.

Of course Marx and Engels hadn’t been too shy to contradict their own theories. Not content to let the inevitable march of history take its own course, they set up the International Workingmen’s Association (the 1st International) with the aim of steering it in the right direction. Soon enough they managed to throw out the anarchists by the simple expedient of moving the 1876 congress to New York, knowing the anarchists couldn’t afford the fare. So much for self-activity.

The bolsheviks weren’t slow to follow, beginning with the suppression of all the other revolutionary groups in Russia, not forgetting the anarchists, which Trotsky did not oppose. Trotsky began his revisions soon enough, firstly by putting trade unions under military control, so that strikes couldn’t happen, then by putting all the soviets (assemblies), that had formed amongst soldiers, sailors, workers and peasants in the early days of the revolution, under direct Bolshevik control. This was followed by the suppression of the soviets in the armed forces and the reinstatement of tsarist officers. The rationale (ie pitiful excuse) for this was the failure of German communists to effect a revolution after the fall of the Kaiser, thus contradicting Marx’s prediction that the working classes of the advanced economies in the West would rise first. Russia was the wrong place to start the revolution, so they’d have to busk it. This was how Marxist-Leninism was born. Consequently the civil war continued for 4-5 years more against the tsarist White Army and its allies, England and France, sending reluctant soldiers who’d just defeated the Germans to overthrow the revolution … and, of course, the anarchists in the Ukraine.

Then there was Kronstadt. If any Trot gives you the old line “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, resist the urge to break theirs and say “You can’t make an omelette unless the hens lay eggs.” That’s another thing the bolsheviks got wrong. It’s 1921 and the régime of ‘war communism’ drags on – the Red Army is winning and has just crushed the anarchist Black Army that helped them beat the tsarists, but workers’ rations and wages are still low and peasants are tired of having their produce ‘requisitioned’ without payment (ie stolen) to feed the Party and the army. Strikes break out in Petrograd (St Petersburg’s better name), birthplace of the revolution. The sailors and soldiers at the naval base of Kronstadt at the mouth of the Neva River come out in support. They produce a list of demands which includes, amongst other things, an end to one-party rule by the bolsheviks. As Commissar for War, Trotsky negotiates by sending in the army. In twelve days the revolutionaries are crushed, those who don’t die or escape to Finland are sent to the gulag. The leaders are executed or gaoled (much the same thing in those prisons). Lenin then recognised the justification of the rebels cause by ending war communism and allowing some liberalisation of the economy (the New Economic Policy). Trots will still defend this with old bolshevik conspiracy theories (lies) and omelette obscenities but those are the bare historical facts.

What’s my conclusion to all this? That Lev Trotsky began as a brave and genuine revolutionary but, when the bolsheviks took over the Russian people’s revolution in November 1917, he joined what he saw as the winning side and he then crushed the revolution … yes, he gets most of the credit. To my mind it was effectively over by 1919 when the unions and soviets were taken over completely by the bolsheviks and Trotsky was the person who headed that process. Kronstadt was the last gasp of independence. He remains a hero to many on the Left now because he tried to resist Stalin but he’d laid the table for Josip and the rest was inevitable. Did he deserve that icepick in the head in 1940? It was just cause and effect … or dialectics, if you like.

RA 2-4.8.17

Education makes you stupid ..

.. that’s its job. I’m not the first to make this observation but it probably confuses most people. ‘Surely,’ they think, ‘education makes you smart or makes smart people smarter ..’ That’s the sales pitch it comes with but the truth is more complicated. The simple answer is: it depends on who is providing it and who it’s designed for. One example comes is that, in Victorian Britain when primary school education was extended to all children, girls and boys were usually taught separately. The boys learned geography because they were expected in many cases to travel abroad in the service of the Empire. Girls often weren’t because it might worry their tender minds if they knew that a bigger world existed beyond the borders of their villages or towns.

The word ‘education’ comes from Latin and originally meant ‘leading out’ – presumably from the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge. Indeed the road sign for a school used to be a flaming torch, signifying just that. However even a slight dip into the history of schooling shows that it was never that simple. Back in Classical-period Greece the great philosopher, Socrates, bemoaned the teaching of reading as undermining the ability of Athenian youths to use their memories. He might have been right but literacy extends what can be known so much that in the modern world it’s hard to survive without it. But, while wider learning was essential for the rulers and their advisors, for the majority of the population all they needed to learn were the skills of their trade. These latter were learned from your parents or your master, if you became an apprentice. Nowadays it’s called vocational training.

With the rise of Christianity and Islam, education became almost exclusively the domain of the clerics and they guarded their knowledge jealously. Thus in moslem countries the Koran is taught to most children by rote and only in Arabic; in christian lands under Catholic control, scriptures were all in Latin for centuries and anyone who tried to translate them into a modern language stood a good chance of getting burned alive. The Orthodox Church controls its scripture in other, but no less thorough, ways. As societies became more complex, it became more necessary to spread literacy and numeracy more widely in the population, but schools beyond the primary level remained by and large still in the hands of the clergy. This remained the case in England and Wales up to the 1870s and in fact there are still plenty of schools designated Church of England or Roman Catholic. In Ireland this lasted well into the 20th century. The purpose of these schools was to create firm believers and well-behaved, compliant citizens. In their alphabetically arranged ranks, children were taught literally to ‘know your place’, whether that was to be a leader or a follower. These ‘faith schools’ are seen by aspirational parents as the better choice for their children than the anarchy of state comprehensives, especially those in the inner cities and other deprived areas. This is put down to their ‘ethos’ – discipline, uniforms, etc – but is more likely a result of better funding, for whatever reason, providing more qualified staff and more equipment.

It should be obvious by now that I’m talking about ‘official’ education, not all learning. There has always been forbidden, occult learning that had to be suppressed – the province of heretics, wizards and witches and celebrated in stories like ‘Faust’. In the colonies of European empires, learning among the ‘natives’ was similarly viewed and, in the case of slaves, often illegal and punished severely. Later on, during the Cold War, teachers in countries newly independent or still fighting their colonisers, teachers were usually the main targets of right-wing death squads. Now those executions are carried out in the name of fundamentalist islam, not democracy, especially if they’re teaching girls. Meanwhile in the USA, it’s the fundamentalist ‘christians’ who are fighting liberal, science-based learning. Education has thus long been a battleground. For the bosses it’s a balancing act between providing a workforce capable of creating and running the ever more clever technology and having a population that’s thinking for itself. Under the Tudors there was an expansion of schools which led, on the one hand, to Shakespeare and on the other to an educated class who fought a civil war and cut the king’s head off. In the 1960s the UK saw the rise, not only of comprehensive education, but also ‘child-centred learning’. While this approach was well supported by research evidence, it was not implemented with any consistency and failures were seized on by Conservative politicians and the right-wing press as proof of its evil. The student-led protests against colonial wars, exploitation of workers and capitalism in general showed what needed to be done – firstly take control of the curriculum, particularly the teaching of history. The under-classes have long struggled to hold on to their own histories and, instead, been force-fed that of kings and ‘patriotic’ wars to keep them compliant with the current world order. Even the Labour government’s 1948 Education Act failed to touch that. In 1988 the Tories brought in the National Curriculum to put the genie back in its bottle. Now they’re dismantling it for their own ‘academies’ and ‘free schools’ to give them more flexibility, but not too much, while blaming their own straightjacket on Labour. Same old, same old ..

But history isn’t the only area of dogmatism and not all the issues are Political. There have been and continue to be struggles in the teaching of languages, especially ‘correctness’ and grammar, literacy, geography – whose viewpoint to take, mathematics – numeracy or understanding and even science – so much has to be accepted as ‘proven’ before you’re allowed to question anything and, if your results or your equations don’t match the ‘right’ answers, you got it wrong. So, as this essay claims, the purpose of education is to make you stupid .. and compliant, uncomplaining, unquestioning and increasingly in debt. In this way the rulers hope to create the ideal population of zombies to keep themselves in power and wealth. When everyone has the chance to learn to think for themselves, the human race may have a hope to survive.

RA 11.5.17

And all that jazz

Jazz was the dominant music of the 20th century and looks like keeping that status in the current one. Jazz was the classical music of the 20th century. Jazz is a generic word for ‘music of black origin’, as the designers of the MOBO award came to describe it. Jazz is talking dirty, jiving, rapping. Jazz is music for the body, mind and soul. Jazz is whatever it wants to be.

Etymologists may argue over the origin of the word itself but the music it came to describe, it’s generally agreed, arose in and around New Orleans in the early years of the 20th century. However that was not its only birthplace – its African creators were the victims of kidnap, rape and slavery and that wasn’t confined to North America. Calypso, soca, ska, reggae, son, rhumba, mambo, salsa, samba and all the other styles that arose in the Caribbean and Latin America are equally jazz. Purists will object and point to essential elements like improvisation, riffing, but these aren’t absent from jazz’s cousins and even improvisation can be scripted, rehearsed and orchestrated. The point is that those southern sounds have the same roots – consensual miscegenation of African and European music. Nor did it stop there, musicians travel and, when recording became possible, so did music. Consequently jazz recrossed the Atlantic to Africa and was adopted by musicians there. So did its twin, the blues, their bastard offspring, rock ’n roll and more recently another brat generally called hip-hop. From Algeria to Azania the infection spread and gave us rai, mbalax, high life, Afro-beat, soukous, mbaqanga and many more right across the continent have all been touched by Afro-American musical styles and just as often made their own connections with European music. There’s an album of music mainly from Natal, I believe, called ‘Rhythms of Resistance’ that was made at the height of the anti-apartheid movement. On it is a track, whose title and players I sadly don’t know because I only have a bootlegged cassette tape, when a fiddle joins in. In my mind’s eye I could clearly see that one night an Irish seaman wandered into an unlicensed drinking establishment in Durban or Port Elizabeth, bought a drink and listened to the local guys jamming there. Having his fiddle with him and being Irish, he joined in. One of the local musos thought, ‘That works. I’ll have some of that.’ At some other point the visitor said “This is a great shebeen!” “What’s a shebeen?” someone asked him. “A place like this.” ‘OK,’ they thought, ‘we’ll borrow that too.’ So shabini is the word used from South Africa to Zimbabwe for a dive, a blues, a speakeasy, a juke joint.

Of course it didn’t stop with Africa, jazz got to Western Europe very early on and the feedback came from there as well. Since when it has gone global – there’s not a part of the planet that this music, whatever name it goes by, hasn’t reached and where it’s enjoyed neat or blended with the native sounds. Jazz is the quintessential musique sans frontières, like all music in fact. It’s our heartbeat.

RA 26.6.17

Is there any hope ..

More on the suppression of dope (hashish and marijuana) and the persecution of its users.

Part Two – Police and Policy
The first thing to note is that, if you live in the UK, especially if you’re rich, you are beneficiaries of the biggest drugs cartel and people trafficker the world has ever seen – the British Empire. So much for the moral position. We quit the trade in humans in 1807 and, after getting round to abolishing legal slavery altogether in 1833, compensated slave owners with the largest government payout of all time, which appears to have been a major factor in the growth of British industry in that century. However those enslaved people from Africa and the debt-slaves in and from India had been essential as producers of our drugs. Which ones? Opium*, tobacco, tea, coffee, cocoa and sugar (yes, sugar) – all of them psychoactive chemicals to which many of us remain addicted … there aren’t many people in the ‘developed world’ and beyond who doesn’t use one or more of those. The claim “I’ve never used drugs”? Wrong, they’re just not illegal at this time. Then at the start of the 20th century governments began to worry about opium. This, it’s said, was primarily racist because they feared the influx of Chinese workers, both debt slaves and kidnap victims, to North America and Europe was spreading the smoking of opium. Ironic because it was the British who’d made the habit common in China by waging two wars to enforce their illegal trade in cheap opium. At the time the Brits produced the best quality opium in the world in Bengal but this was losing its status as synthetic derivatives, like morphine, could be made from any quality of plant. In 1909 an international commission was set up to regulate the trade and restrictions gradually grew tighter. Nevertheless, until it was superseded by other chemicals, opium was remained a big component in the pharmaceutical industry for many more decades and I may well have been fed some as a child. This is when prohibition began. Cannabis came later.
[* The best book on this I’ve come across is ‘The Opium War’ by Brian Inglis, 1976, who also wrote another on recreational drugs, called ‘The Forbidden Game: A Social History of Drugs’, 1975]

There are accounts of why and how cannabis became a prohibited substance but I like the one I read in one of Pete Loveday’s ‘Russell’ comics (Plain Rapper Comix #2). Hemp is a very useful plant, not just for its medicinal properties but in the garden and in industry. Until suitable plastics arrived, hemp rope was the best you could get and in the age of sail you needed lots, it also provided the sails and canvas clothing – the British navy alone required thousands of tons a year. Simply put, the hemp that’s grown for fibre tends not to be much good for smoking, it has some of the alkaloids but concentrations are low. Consequently smoking or eating hemp and its resin didn’t catch on with Europeans before they had more contact with cultures that did in North Africa, the Middle East and India. It was regarded then as exotic and therefore dubious. Certainly soldiers and sailors who served in those parts tried it and still do (I’ve been told that it was also common among bargees when our canals were still industrial highways). In America, North and South, smoking weed came with black people kidnapped and shipped from Africa, as it was practised in many parts of that continent, whether brought there by the Arabs or discovered locally. That fact didn’t endear it to the racist establishment in the USA, so back to Loveday’s story. By the end of the 19th century the biggest producer of hemp in the world was Russia, then in the 1920s they developed a new method of making paper cheaply using hemp fibre. This scared the shit out of William Randolph Hearst, the original to Rupert Murdoch, who had bought whole forests to provide wood pulp for his newspapers. But Hearst had a friend, J Edgar Hoover, boss of the FBI. Prohibition of alcohol was in force and Hoover was sympathetic to the idea that marijuana, because of its link to jazz and black culture, shouldn’t replace booze. The ban was soon in force and the African-Americans got another stick to beat them. Whatever the validity of that account, it’s definitely plausible. What is certain is that in 1925 the International Opium Convention imposed its first regulation on hashish and the game was on.

Cannabis first became illegal in the UK in 1928 when the 1925 Dangerous Drugs Act came into force but no-one took much notice of it. The only people really affected by the law were the West Indian migrants to Britain after World War 2. I can remember seeing reports in my dad’s News of the World of ‘Jamaicans’ (they were all Jamaicans according to our ‘journalists’) being busted and often gaoled for planting budgerigar seeds in their gardens. I couldn’t see the harm in that but it wasn’t explained. Then in the 1960s white kids began to catch on and the moral panic grew. But this time the youth were often university educated and had friends in high places. The fightback started. So, while it was OK to persecute major black artists like Louis Armstrong, when the cops started busting famous white musicians like Jagger and Richards it didn’t go down so well. That’s when that notorious advert in The Times appeared. From 1967 onwards smoking dope and taking acid (LSD) exploded across North America and Europe and the authorities went mental. I’ve heard Trotskyists claim it was all just a middle-class diversion, which shows how out of touch they were with working-class youth, who embraced it and the music enthusiastically. The powers that be were terrified that these kids were out of their control and becoming too laid back to take work seriously enough for the profiteers. The UK’s anti-drug laws were amended constantly – the first time in 1964, then in ’67, ’71 , ’85 , ’86 , ’91 , ’98, 200, ’03 , ’06 – ’09, the latest in 2016. Drug squads proliferated and eventually became more effective. Likewise customs officers and the coast guards – as prices began to rise, the professionals moved in to smuggle and deal. The problem was that hashish is very bulky and aromatic, marijuana even more so, which made them easy to discover with sniffer dogs, however well packaged the goods were. The best hash from the tribal areas between India and Pakistan, from Nepal, Afghanistan and the Lebanon disappeared, even before wars broke out there, and was replaced with cheap, lowgrade shit from Morocco. Thus giving rise to the claim that ‘the cannabis available now is stronger than you’re used to’. Not me, sunshine! What happened instead was that the smugglers and dealers could make more money from powders like heroin and cocaine, which are harder to detect. The argument that cannabis is ‘a gateway’ to harder drugs is a lie, it was the law what done it. That’s the simple historical fact. Then we got the ‘War on Drugs’ and all hell broke loose.

There’s much that’s good about the American people but their grasp of history is probably worse than of geography. So the lessons of Prohibition hadn’t sunk in but this replay was no farce. Invasions by the USSR and then USA, destroyed peace in Afghanistan and the autonomous Pashtun and Waziri regions of Pakistan. The hashish industry virtually disappeared and was replaced by opium cultivation and heroin production. In the Golden Triangle of Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Thailand indigenous rebel movements and corrupt army generals (warlords) now got CIA backing against the ‘communists’ in China and North Viet Nam. As Brian Inglis described it, CIA planes flew heroin from Laos to South Viet Nam from where the local gangsters shipped it on. According to him this led to the insanity of the widows of Viet Cong fighters selling smack to GI, to come home as junkies if they survived. This was such an open secret that Hollywood made a film called ‘Air America’ (the actual name of the CIA’s airline) telling the story as a comedy with Mel Gibson in the lead!

In Latin America the situation became almost as catastrophic. Previously most of the good weed had come from Mexico and much still does, but interdiction made it ever harder giving rise to two results. One was entrepreneurial heads from LA and San Francisco moving to the forests in Northern California and Oregon where they set up up farms to grow their own. Not having the same amount of sun as south of the border, they went to selective breeding to boost the THC content of their crop. Firstly they popularised ‘sensi’ – sin semilla (seedless) weed – where the female plant produces more resin instead of wasting its energy on making the fruit. Then they created skunk and its relatives … and here we are. The second result of the success of border controls was to hand the business to gangsters who, as we’ve seen, make the Sicilian Mafia look like Boy Scouts. Marijuana still gets through but the big bucks are in cocaine, even more so since the advent of ‘crack’. These gangs terrorised whole countries and practically took over some smaller ones, most famously Panama, as they tried one new route after another to get stuff into the US. Economists are clear that, as long as there’s a demand, a supply will be found and in North America the demand was vast. Everything’s been used – shipping containers, small boats, small planes and, recently it’s said, small submarines but the favourite remains ‘mules’, human couriers poor and desperate enough to take the risk. As Inglis pointed out, and even officials have conceded, customs only finds about 10% of the smuggled goods coming through. The cartels can afford that and factor it into their prices. So prisons fill up with the by-catch. In the UK the men have HMP Verne, on Portland Bill, while the women were sent to Holloway when it was still open. Those people aren’t criminals but the victims of US and European economic imperialism and this stupid campaign to stop their better-off people having fun.

That’s enough for this episode so I’ll sum up. The current state of the world, including the levels of crime and drug misuse, is entirely the fault of governments and moralising pressure groups. Sloppy journalists should have the facts rammed down their throats or told to shut the fuck up – for one thing, everything they label as ‘the 60s’ actually happened in the 1970s. No authority on earth will ever stop humans using chemicals of one sort or another to give themselves a different outlook or a good time. More and more professionals, including senior police officers, have realised the truth of this and that cannabis is not the evil it’s been painted to be. States in the USA have legalised medicinal marijuana and more countries have stopped busting users, even if few have yet made buying dope legal, but still the war goes on and now there’s a psychopath in the White House who embodies everything that’s insane and perverted in the American character. He won’t win either but who knows what more damage he’ll create.

One final footnote: despite the subtitle, I’ve said little about the conduct and the crimes (and I do mean crimes) of police forces in all this because they’d fill a whole book, even to deal with superficially. The biggest of these is that throughout the 1970s and 1980s and probably beyond, there was a secret war between the CIA and the FBI, one supporting the drugs trade, the other trying to stop it. Talk about chickens coming home to roost!

RA 6.8.17

Is there any hope ..

.. for sanity? BBC Radio 4 today (4th August) broadcast a discussion of sorts on the famous advert in The Times 50 years ago in the form of an open letter to demand the decriminalisation of cannabis. The programme was devised and presented by Peter Hitchens, a Tory and so-called journalist for that arseswipe called The Daily Mail. In it he interviewed a number of the signatories to that letter to see if they still agreed with it. All of them did, despite Hitchens’ attempts to get them to revise their position by repeating the lies about skunk being the ‘stronger cannabis’ now commonly available. Sadly, though some of them talked about their objection to prohibition, no-one made the point that it was precisely prohibition that led to skunk, to the spread of addiction to heroin and crack, to the creation of dodgy ‘designer’ drugs and all the criminal cartels and gangs, whose bloody trade wars fill the front pages of the tabloid press and their cousins in other media.

Should I write to the Beeb to request something to ‘balance’ that broadcast? Experience tells me not to waste the stamp. So, if there’s anyone out there reading this, here’s my reply to it.

Part One – Chemistry
Firstly skunk is not stronger than the weed we used to get hold of, it’s just been bred by dope farmers in Northern California to have a much higher content of THC than it normally had. Does that make it stronger? No, it just throws the balance of psycho-active chemicals out of kilter. What difference does that make? Well I’m a smoker not a neurologist and wasn’t aware of that modification when I first tried it, but I didn’t like the hammer blow it seemed to deliver to my brain and I quickly decided to avoid it. Forty years ago BBC’s ‘Panorama’ did an investigation into the current state of research. The reason for it was that the government had just imposed a tax on synthetic tobacco. You can be forgiven for never having heard of that as it soon died a death because it had no hit to it at all. Its development was clearly for a purpose and that was as the vehicle for mass-produced joints of fake baccy laced with THC. This is what the tobacco industry had lined up for us, if dope was legalised and a very good reason for preferring decriminalisation to legalisation. Only the well-off would be able to afford the real thing. The Panorama team interviewed a number of researchers into cannabis and they fell into two camps – those who claimed it was addictive and those who said it wasn’t. Sadly I didn’t get hold of a recording but came away with the distinct impression that the ‘addictive’ trials were using synthetic THC not herbal cannabis.

We’ve been here before – it’s called the search for the active principle. As chemistry became a science during the 18th and 19th centuries, it became clear that what made herbal remedies work were the chemicals they contained. So chemists went looking for them and the pharmaceutical industry was born. They had another idea, however, to remove the ‘impurities’ that caused problems like addiction. Opium was an obvious target, so they refined it and produced morphine (1804) – much stronger than the plant resin or tinctures and … more addictive. So they had another go and produced heroin (1874) and still the penny didn’t drop. This mindset has yet to change. Whatever they’ve evolved to do for the plants (mostly defence mechanisms against pests and diseases), in humans the effects of the chemicals associated with those ‘active principles’ may be good or bad. In the latter case practitioners have learned over centuries how to deal with them. In the case of hemp, on the other hand, there are a number of cannabinoid alkaloids that buffer the effect of THC and make it a much more benign drug. This has been realised by a number of researchers but ignored by law-makers and moralists who hate us having fun. As for tabloid journalists .. forget it, too complicated for their tiny brains.

Whatever the truth is for THC, traditional cannabis, herb or resin, is completely non-addictive and I speak from personal experience over several decades. In fact it has zero-tolerance, which means that, however much you use it, you don’t need more to get high. Medical practitioners who claim otherwise clearly don’t understand what addiction is – a physical change in the body – as opposed to a habit – a psychological dependency. Some people can succumb to the latter with cannabis but it’s easily dealt with if the underlying mental problems are sorted.

So dope is not a dangerous drug except to those who want to control our minds. In fact it’s been used by humans in many parts of the world for thousands of years and has appeared in the archeological record even earlier than alcohol. In our times, until it was banned and replaced, one of the commonest medicinal uses for cannabis tincture (extract in alcohol) was in childbirth, to relax the mother’s birth canal and make delivery easier. So much for it being a dangerous drug.

There’s much more to be said on this topic but I’ll save that for later. Meanwhile look out for more put-downs of the social revolutions that climaxed in the 1960s, the Tories are getting jittery again. Journalists, especially for right-wing rags, like to typify dope smokers as lazy and superficial – talk about pots and kettles!

RA 4-5.8.17

The zero-hours gig

Just listened to an interview and Q&A with Matthew Taylor, who’s written a report for the government on these approaches to employment (or not, depending on your legal advisor). Although he claims an intention to protect the low paid and vulnerable, his main thrust seemed to be avoiding loading too much regulation on small and start-up businesses. While there are people who find these options suit them well, there are many more who are ripped off by them. As I’ve written before, ‘the flexible workforce’ means one that bends over so it can be screwed more easily. Whether or not there is genuine choice in taking such a job was raised but didn’t touch two key points. One is pressure from the Job Centre to take such a job or lose benefits; the other is that once on a zero-hours contract or self-employed, you’re not entitled to Jobseekers Allowance and virtually impossible to claim anything else because your hours, and therefore income, are unpredictable. I’ve met this when driven to sign on with a temp agency and found myself being hired from Tuesday to Thursday, laid off, hired from Tuesday to Thursday … etc. I managed to bail out of that but these days it’s a lot harder. What makes that even more of a rat’s nest now is the time it takes for your benefits to be processed, if you are entitled to claim, since computers have replaced paperwork in the Job Centres. Instead of a couple of days, it can now take 6 weeks or more. I’ve just learned that this situation will get worse because the misgovernment is planning to close about 1 in 10 of those Job Centres. What a surprise …

Meanwhile the self-employed and small-business owners have long been hard-line Tory supporters and see themselves as the most persecuted section of the population. It never seems to occur to them that they get turned over by Tory governments probably more than by Labour. It would be good if it was made easier for people to start a business, if they want to, such as letting them claim unemployment benefit or whatever until the business starts making a profit. There is too much regulation for small businesses but that could be eased by giving them quick access to the laws and regulations small employers need to me aware of and by providing more accessible legal protection and redress for workers. What we have now is a licence to rob and avoid responsibilities to staff.

RA 12.7.17

The business of war

This year is the 50th anniversary of a great book but one that relatively few people will have heard of. It was called ‘Report from Iron Mountain – on the Possibility and Desirability of Peace’ and it was a spoof. At that time there was almost a fashion in think-tanks, like the Rand Corporation, producing studies for governments and industry on current trends and possible futures. Iron Mountain, or more fully ‘Iron Mountain Atomic Storage Corporation’, was real – it was a depository for business records, set up in a former iron mine outside of Boston, for those corporations who hoped to carry on trading after a nuclear war. This was in the 1950s. The firm is still going and has branches around the world, including in the UK, but now of course most of the data is digitised. This name gave the book, which really was a slim volume, credibility as a genuine think-tank report. Its subject, as the subtitle shows, is an interesting one – it was not just a question of the possibility of peace but also its desirability. But surely peace is always desirable?

The book answers that question early on because the premise of the book was ‘business as usual’. The question then was ‘is peace compatible with business?’ The difficulty is that under capitalism capital needs to be destroyed periodically to allow for renewal, reinvestment and more profits. This analysis is basically marxist and, though the book didn’t point that out, American business has been aware of its truth for a long time. The main mechanism for the destruction of capital, the argument ran, is war and in fact we live in a warfare state. However simplistic that sounds, you only have to watch the news. So for peace instead of war, a replacement must be found for that function. The book considers three principal options.

The first, and most popular with liberals, would be a massive programme to bring living standards in the ‘3rd World’ up to the levels we enjoy in the West. However it is is soon dismissed because, while vast amounts of investment capital would be required to to bring this about, it would then plateau and would not deliver the destruction of that capital needed to maintain the capitalist system.

The second option was another massive programme to explore and possibly colonise the rest of the solar system. This has had its proponents recently too. But it would suffer the same problem – an even more massive outlay of capital but then nothing more – just another plateau.

The third and winning option I would summarise as an ongoing series of managed environmental disasters. To quote the book, ‘Nevertheless, an effective political substitute for war would require “alternate enemies”, some of which might seem equally farfetched in the context of the current war system. It may be, for instance, that gross pollution of the environment can eventually replace the possibility of mass destruction by nuclear weapons as the principal apparent threat to the survival of the species. Poisoning of the air and of the principal sources of food and water supply is already well advanced, and at first glance would seem promising in this respect; it constitutes a threat that can be dealt with only through social organization and political power. But from present indications it will be a generation to a generation and a half before environmental pollution, however severe, will be sufficiently menacing, on a global scale, to offer a possible basis for a solution.’ Sound familiar? The advantage of this over the other two is that the destruction would be ongoing and, hence, would keep capitalism running.

Now I’m not suggesting that this is already happening, but I am hoping no-one thinks of mentioning it to D Trump. Of course, what ‘Iron Mountain’ deliberately avoids considering is the ending of capitalism as well as warfare. To quote the book again. ‘War is not, as is widely assumed, primarily an instrument of policy utilized by nations to extend or defend their expressed political values or their economic interests. On the contrary, it is itself the principal basis of organization on which all modern societies are constructed.’ How does that make you feel?

I have massively compressed and simplified the arguments in this work, which is much more cleverly constructed to look like an authentic study for a US government deeply entangled in the Vietnam War and heading for the near-global revolutionary upsurge of 1968. Many people still believe it’s real. If you want to check it out for yourself, it can still be bought on line or downloaded. Happy trails!

RA 21.6.17

Swings and roundabouts

I’m starting this just after midnight on election night and the pundits are panicking (looks like bookies are better at it). If I have any readers, you might be thinking that my last post showed I was equally adrift but I don’t think so. JC got a better showing in the campaign than he’s had previously but the make-up of the Labour Party hasn’t changed yet. To be honest, I hoped it would be wiped out and most of the Blairite hacks gone. If they’re still in their seats, then I reckon my assessment of the future has yet to be disproved unless .. a good result makes them recalculate their view of their leader. I’d be happy with a hung Parliament (trying to ignore visions of lamp-posts in Parliament Square) with a weak Tory government and a strong Opposition of different parties that actually stop their more vicious policies. The best outcome would be the public waking up from its zombie condition and becoming politically active. Much is being made of the youth/student vote – reasons to be cheerful. Yes, I’m an optimist really. Opposition is useful!

I’m puzzled that the SNP has lost so much support but even more that the Tories have gained at the nationalists’ expense when the Scots weren’t in favour of Brexit. I’m too far away to know what that’s about. Apologies to any friends in the North.

Resurrection time ..
JC lives! .. despite the best assassination attempts of his colleagues. Will his disciples do a better job this time? Mandelson leads the recalculation with his familiar ‘No Labour’ refrain that, to get into power, they need to win over Tory voters. That’s not why they got 40% of the poll this time. Will Jeremy keep steering left? Ask your bookie.

The May Queen got herself well tangled up on her pole (’scuse the pun) but, if I were to wear my most cynical hat, I might suspect she planned to lose so that Labour got lumbered with the EU negotiations and catch all the flying smelly stuff that’s going to come with that. Whatever – now is not the moment for the rest of us to relax.

RA 9.6.17

The Labour Party – a post-mortem

The British Labour Party – born 1900; died 1995 – was a coalition of different tendencies. This is pretty much the standard model of political parties in liberal democracies and these divisions are always a source of internal tension and power struggles, which usually subside if that party comes to power but surface again when in opposition. Generally though, parties that do get into government tend to hold together despite the cracks.

However the Labour Party in the UK was unique in its mixture compared to similar parties elsewhere. Whereas most European social-democratic parties had some kind of marxist basis 1, the Labour Party differed in that the UK already had a strong trade union movement that was indigenous and not much influenced by Marx or marxist thinking. The UK also differed in that in the last half of the 19th century, the Liberal Party had been seen as the defender of working class rights and interests. But by the end of that century the limitations of that relationship were showing more clearly as the mass trade unions, like those of the railway workers and miners, became more powerful than the older ‘craft’ unions. As the pressure for a voice for workers in Parliament increased, those Liberals who favoured ‘social’ liberalism over economic liberalism joined with trade unionists and socialists (social-democrats) to form the Labour Representation Committee. This was the body that grew into the Labour Party.

So, from its inception, the Labour Party was a reformist one and at times has included or worked with groups, like the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the Co-operative Party and the Fabian Society. Its constitution was famously written by two Fabians, Sydney and Beatrice Webb in 1917 and adopted in 1918. The Webbs, like all Fabians, were avowedly reformist, despite their admiration of Lenin and the Russian Revolution, nevertheless they included in that constitution the famous Clause 4:-

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

This short declaration of intent became the battleground for nearly all the future battles between the left and the right of the Party.

The centre of the dispute was the phrase, ‘common ownership’. For the Webbs and many others it meant nationalisation, for the Co-op Party it meant co-operatives, but for many left socialists it meant full workers’ control. Many within the Party saw nationalised industries and services, preferably under a Labour government, as the same thing as workers’ control.

I’ve seen a photo of a group of miners setting up a signboard outside their pit in 1947, which read: “This colliery is now under worker’s control”, whereas the ‘truth’ was shown in the one below.

In fact both groups of men were as deluded as the Russian workers who thought that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ meant they were in control. ‘On behalf of the people’ here meant, as in Russia, on behalf of the government. In other words, state capitalism.

As long as business is good, state capitalism seems to work in the workers’ favour, but they have no say as to the use of profits, the investment of more capital or the development of the industry. The classic case was the GPO, which successive governments milked, whether or not it made money, and hid that extraction from the public when calculating its ‘losses’.

On the other hand, workers didn’t help themselves much either. Trade unions fought for their members interests first and foremost 2 and rarely co-operated. This was reinforced by the ‘closed shop’ which was intended to safeguard unionised workers from having their wages undercut by non-union workers. Instead it led to constant ‘demarcation disputes’ about who had the ‘right’ to a particular job. It also created resentment among those unemployed workers excluded from work. The trade unions in the UK never had ‘too much power’ but they did become inward-looking and self-satisfied. Too often they failed to react to new technologies in time or to keep the public on their side until it was too late.

When the Tories under Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, they had their plans to destroy union power in place. Using the right-wing press as their shock troops they pinned the economic downturn, caused by the steep price of oil when OPEC 3 was formed, on Labour and the unions. Cameron and Co have done exactly the same with the collapse of the banks in 2008. In both cases this has left the Labour Party speechless with panic, so it turned on its own left wing for a scapegoat.

If the right wing of the party consists of liberals and reformists who believe in accommodation with capitalism and getting workers the best ‘deal’ they can, the left is, or was, a more varied mix. It included militant trade unionists, left socialists who believed in the gradual achievement of Clause 4’s aims by ‘evolution not revolution’ and, by this time, various Trotskyists. The biggest group of these were organised in Militant Tendency, though there were others, notably the International Marxist Group (IMG, aka the ‘Migs’).

These groups were mostly the product of the near-global revolution of 1968. That year was the high point of radicalism that had spread across the world following WW2, driven by the liberation wars of colonial peoples, civil rights struggles of minorities and a general rejection of the political status quo – especially of the so-called Communist Party, but also the social-democratic parties. But, while the latter were seen as part of the problem, some at least, like the UK Labour Party, could be pushed into making useful legislation. However, with the defeat of those uprisings in France, Czechoslovakia and the USA, militants who still believed in political revolution looked for other tactics. Trotskyists, who saw themselves as the true heirs of Marx, in the UK began a programme of ‘entryism’. This involved joining the Labour Party, not with the intention of taking it over, but pushing a left-wing agenda and ultimately recruiting as many of its disaffected militants as possible before leaving with them and setting up a ‘real’ revolutionary party. Unfortunately their ‘analysis’ of the situation in 1980s Britain failed to take account of the forces against them and the lack of fight amongst the working class. They became the best target the Labour right had had since the Communist Party in the 1930s.

The settling of accounts came in 1986. One bunch of right-wingers had already jumped ship in 1981 and set up the Social Democratic Party, unconscious of the irony that the first with that name was founded by Karl Marx. Then the right sat back and let the triumphalist left write the manifesto for the 1983 General Election. This reasonable, if hopelessly optimistic, wish-list, dubbed by Gerald Kaufman as ‘the longest suicide note in history’, was then blamed for the party’s third defeat in a row. Everyone else knew that had been caused by Thatcher’s ‘victory’ in the Falklands War.

So, at the Labour Party Conference in 1985, Neil Kinnock declared war on Militant Tendency. Those who did not renounce the faith were soon expelled. The right wing of the party had finally won and awarded themselves a red rose to celebrate the fact (thus alienating all their supporters in Yorkshire). Nor was this their only error. Not only did they get rid of those invasive Trots, they also lost most of their young activists who were in touch with the ‘grass roots’ – not perhaps the Labour hard core voters and trade unionists who still had jobs, but all the rest whose lives and livings were being decimated by Thatcherite ‘monetarism’ and the mass exodus of capital and industries to cheaper off-shore havens of exploitation.

The defeat of the Tories in 1997 was misread by the right as a vindication of their policies. They followed up Kinnock’s ‘New Realism’ – neither new nor realistic, just the mantra that they’d never win again without middle-class votes – with New Labour. A wave of, mainly university-bred, MPs and ‘advisors’ took over in the sure belief they could run capitalism better than the Tories. For a while they did.

Sadly, in fact, Labour was already dead. At the party conference in 1995, they had ditched Clause 4 and with it any pretence that they were a party of ‘labour’. They had watched as the Tories wiped out whole industries, sold off nationalised ones, sold off council housing to tenants, sold mental hospitals and school playing fields to ‘developers’, destroyed the National Union of Mineworkers and outlawed any effective industrial action by other unions. When they got back in power under Blair, none of this was reversed. Furthermore they had colluded in the enforcement of the Poll Tax until mass action broke it down. Ignoring the haemorrhage of working class activists and belief, they put their faith in ‘floating voters’ and the residual traditions of sympathy in the once-upon-a-time industrial heartlands.

They’ve lost the plot and don’t know where to look for it. The slaughter of their Scottish MPs in the election of 2015 was not a result of rising nationalism – the referendum made that clear – but a total loss of any trust in the Labour Party to defend them from the Tories’ depredations, whether in power or not. The Labour leadership weren’t even able to defend themselves from the ludicrous lie that they, and not the casino banks, were responsible for the economic collapse since 2008. They weren’t because Gordon Brown had made it clear in 1997 that he would be continuing Tory economic policies. To admit that would be to reveal how far right they’d moved. There’s nothing left to choose between them and the liars and thieves running the country. Small wonder that many working class voters looked to UKIP’s clowns to save them from redundancy and penury.

I see little hope for the future of that corpse being revived. In the last two years there has been a major revival of Labour’s membership under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. To the horror of the Labour right wing, the left has returned stronger than ever but they refuse to accept it. They’re totally glued to the idea that a socialist Labour Party in unelectable and are doing everything in their power to stop Corbyn and his supporters in their tracks. So far, apart from saying so out loud in public, they’ve collaborated with zionist activists to accuse of anti-semitism any critics of the Israeli government’s policy of apartheid and ethnic cleansing in the West Bank. They’ve even tried to accuse the Trotskyists of trying to take over the party again, even though they’re shadows of their previous selves. No trick is too dirty to use. Corbyn, meanwhile, continues to try to hold the party together and, outnumbered by his enemies in Parliament rolls over and reluctantly agrees with the right’s policies and lies. Unless he finds his backbone, the Labour Party isn’t just a headless chicken, it’s a gutless one too.

ra 10.5.15, updated 1.5.17

1 Although many European socialist parties still have their roots in marxism, the rise of the Communist Party after the Russian Revolution saw them all rejecting it and any attempts at revolutionary change.

2 This was almost always built into their constitutions, which saw their rôle as solely looking after the interests of their members within the current system and nothing more. So they’ve had no other agenda beyond fighting for more pay, improving conditions of work (rarely) and hanging on to jobs and old practices in the face of changes in their industries and services. The NUM, the union with the best record of defending other workers, especially nurses, was crushed with Labour’s approval. The Tories had managed what Barbara Castle and ‘In Place of Strife’ had failed to do.

3 The Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, who had organised themselves for the first time to get a fair price, instead of letting the oil companies continue to rip them off.

Disclaimer: the above is a personal and frankly partisan (not party) opinion piece of someone who lived through the second half of the 20th century and been on the fringes of some of the events described. Historians and partisans of other credos will undoubtedly trash it. Good luck with coming up with a better one.

Getting flocked

The vultures are joining Donald Trump (hereafter known as DT – delerium tremens) at the feast. So far Farrage and Gove. Who’s next? Marine Le Pen? Berlusconi? Every other sociopath and neo-fascist on the block? Even that Nobel Prizewinning war criminal and friend of Putin, Henry Kissinger, got in on the act. Opposition is growing but there’s no reason to relax – the last time we were here was the Reagan-Thatcher axis and we’re still living with the consequences of that nightmare. At least the Wicked Witch of the West put a dent in our home-grown fascists’ aspirations by nicking their policies. Now they could be partying on the White House lawn.

Every sane person is fearful of the prospects for the future but that’s not enough – we need to get organised. As the old Berlin anarchists slogan said, ‘Tu wat!’ – Do something. So look out for who’s running your favourite campaign and join it .. or start your own. Resistance is useful.

RA 20.1.17

Multiculturalism ..

.. has had a bad press in recent years and, personally, I’m not surprised. 30 years ago there was a major debate on the Left and in the Labour Party as to which was the best approach to dealing with the racism endemic in this country, multiculturalism or anti-racism. I favoured the latter and this is why.

I love living in a multicultural and multi-ethnic country. It was part of our national DNA long before the slave trade made racism a necessary excuse for treating other human beings as beasts to be slaughtered or worked to death. As post-war immigration brought more and more of those formerly enslaved or colonised peoples to this country, racism fell out of fashion amongst most of the political class, with significant exceptions. Those immigrants brought as much of their home cultures with them as they could and this led to some frictions with the local populations. Likewise there were and are aspects of our ‘British’ culture that did not sit well with all those incomers. Multiculturalism was supposed to be the answer to this clash by suggesting that each community should live by its own values without interference, except where these broke ‘our’ laws. I shouldn’t need to list all of the times this has gone wrong, from female genital mutilation to ‘honour killings’ and child sexual exploitation. Those examples may seem to be one-sided but, interestingly, the authorities have had less difficulty in trying to suppress Afro-Caribbean activities like smoking ganja and shooting each other (there’s an element of cause and effect there – not the smoking but the suppression).

Consequently a parallel debate has arisen between ‘integration’ and ‘assimilation’. Too many people think they mean the same thing but they don’t. Integration is a two-way process of people from different backgrounds learning to understand each other and live together. Assimilation means that the newcomers must become identical with the residents. Like the British did in India and Africa …

What the white British people needed to learn, and are still groping their way towards, is an understanding of their prejudices and how to deal with them. In a nutshell, when you hear the phrase “I’m not a racist but …”, you know that what follows will be a racist statement. It would be better to say “I am a racist but .. I’m trying to learn not to be one.” Meanwhile those new communities still clinging to their old cultures need to realise that, while they have a right to their own beliefs, in this country they do not have the right to impose them on their families or other members of their community. Tough lessons all round and a way to go but we can still do it.

RA 25.3.17

Scab & picket/ The women, as usual

On 4th March this year the Trade Union Act came into force but you could be forgiven for missing that event. I’m not going to try to describe all its features – all you have to know is that it’s the latest move in the Conservative Party’s long campaign to screw workers into their place. We’ve had decades of media barons (some of whom are real ones) telling us that union barons (who aren’t till they retire and didn’t cause too much trouble) have ‘too much power’. What that means is any power at all to protect workers from the greed of their employers.

It took a long time to build up this structure and it was always in the face of legal and illegal resistance, from the Combination Acts, which got the famous Tolpuddle Martyrs sentenced to transportation to Australia, to the secret blacklists of union activists and other ‘troublemakers’, which reappear each time after another one is exposed. At the beginning of the 20th century the forerunner of the CBI, the bosses’ trade union, was formed under the slogan of one of its founders, “If we all club together, we can beat the workers down.” Usually though the clubbing was left to the police. In the UK then unions began as mutual aid societies, through which members’ subscriptions would pay workers and their families some subsistence in case of sickness, death and lay-offs, long before it became legal to go on strike. As these were generally organised amongst those in the same line of work, in this country they became trade unions while, in countries like France and Spain, they’re formed along political lines, from right-wing to hard left. Thus these tend to be much bigger and therefore potentially more powerful than ours.

Striking has always been a tough decision, whatever the right-wing media may say. There are very few workers secure enough in their jobs and their finances that they can lose wages without a really good cause. Likewise unions have very limited resources compared to bosses or governments and so, if strike pay runs out, strikers can face real hardship and, in the past, starvation. This is why strike-breakers, scabs, are hated so much. A ‘blackleg’ was a miner who was sneaked in to work during a strike and was recognised by the coal dust on his legs under his coat on his way home in the days before pithead baths. Seeing his children go hungry a striking worker could very easily be moved to a violent response. Because our whole industry and society once depended wholly on coal for their power supply, mineworkers became the most powerful trade unionists in the UK. Because coal miners tended to live in small communities, where nearly everyone depended on the work provided by the nearby pit, communal ties and solidarity were the strongest and crossing a picket line, any picket line, was a sin few would commit at any price.

It was that fear and hatred of strike-breakers that led to the doctrine of the ‘closed shop’ – you can’t work here unless you’re in the right union and you can’t get in the union unless you have the job – and ‘demarcation’ – you didn’t presume to do another man’s (or woman’s) work. These made sense in terms of preventing bosses using cheaper labour to undermine the workers’ negotiating position and was often a question of safety, if those replacements were untrained or less skilled. However it later became a source of irritation and outright stupidity, including inter-union disputes, which saw trade unions losing credibility among the general public, particularly from the 1960s onwards. Too many working-class people read the Sun and too many of the lower middle classes read the Mail as they pumped out their endless streams of lies and misinformation about unions, socialism, immigrants, the Common Market/EU and all the other targets of their masters – banks and big corporations, mostly based in the US. The slogan that unions had ‘too much power’ became widely accepted, even among sections of the Labour Party. But they did nothing much to stop apprenticeships disappearing or to call out the lazy, cheapskate bosses who preferred to poach workers already trained by other firms. The ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978-79 saw unions go head to head with a Labour government over the latter’s attempts to hold down wages despite rapidly increasing inflation. The Right milked this for all it was worth and the Labour leadership turned on the Left in a desperate attempt to win back middle-class voters. When Thatcher’s government took power in 1979, thanks to the tactics of the Labour Party’s right wing, they immediately began to unpick the ‘One Nation’ consensus that had evolved during and after WW2. The unions were their main target and especially the miners. They were determined to break the NUM once and for all and had been planning this before they won that election.

Mineworkers had not just been the most militant of workers, starting the General Strike in 1926 and holding out longest, but they would also come out in support of those, like nurses, who couldn’t strike. Then they’d brought down Edward Heath’s government in 1974. The divided miners’ strike of 1984-85 was engineered by the Tory government. No expense was spared to break it. The police were let off the leash and the resultant clashes, like Orgreave, became inevitable. Not many people know this, not even cops, that the police had had their own strikes in 1917 and 1919. They had been bought off with better pay and conditions and a no-strike-allowed association, the Police Federation. Thatcher made sure of their loyalty by another pay rise almost as soon she came to power.

The TUC and the Labour Party sat back and watched the striking miners be ground down and defeated by Ian MacGregor, the man who did the same thing in the States. If you want to know what that was like, go watch a film called ‘Harlan County USA’ and see a picket murdered by the mine’s security chief. Of course, no prosecution. So did none of those so-called ‘democratic socialist’ leaders foresee what was coming? Not only the complete destruction of the British coal mining industry within a matter of years, their communities left to rot, but the continued disempowerment of trade unions with one new regulation after another. Membership dropped through the floor as industries were outsourced to cheaper, non-unionised workforces abroad, thanks to the lifting of exchange controls so that capital could move freely around the world even if workers couldn’t. Those who still had a job realised that the union’s ability to protect them was vanishing and preferred to spend the ‘subs’ on other things. They also agreed to changes in their contracts that saw colleagues being made redundant while new technologies got them working longer hours for a bit more money. Jobs were thus sold off cheaply and the investors got richer. Labour, both the old and the ‘New’, did nothing but collude in this.

So, if you’re lucky enough to be working and not in the union, just hope that management likes you and you don’t get bullied or sick. That’s when having someone to back you up is crucial. If you are in the union but it doesn’t seem to do much to help you, get involved – a union is what it says, a group of people and is only as strong as its membership. Don’t agonise, organise.

The women, as usual …
Right now we’re coming up to International Women’s Day. It’s a good time to remember that it was established in commemoration of a strike in 1908 by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in the USA; the strike of the ‘match girls’ of Bryant & May’s factory in 1888 was the spark that led to the growth of the new mass trade unions in this country that we see today; then in 1917 women in Petrograd’s factories went on strike for ‘bread and peace’ and started the real Russian Revolution in February of that year (old calendar) that brought down the Tsar and ended the Romanov dynasty. As the Western Times reported of the ‘bread riots’ in Exeter in 1854, ‘The women, as usual, were the beginners of the disturbance.’ As we face the nightmare of a world dominated by bigots, xenophobes, religious fascists and megalomaniacs like Trump and RaasPutin, be sure that women will be at the front of the resistance.

RA 6.3.17

Spooks, spies & plausible deniability

Ricky Tomlinson has stirred up a little media storm by accusing the late Richard Whiteley of being an MI5 agent when Mr T was fitted up with the other flying pickets of the Shrewsbury 24. This had led Whiteley’s partner to claim that he was not in any way capable of such a rôle. Now I don’t know the details of the accusation but the lady and possibly the accuser seem to share the same confusion most people have between ‘agents’ and members of the security forces. The latter, the real spooks, are employees of the British state with military ranks and are, for the most part, ‘handlers’ while the latter are mainly civilians or possibly members of the armed forces of other states who do the actual spying, possibly for pay or out of ‘patriotism’ or for other personal reasons. They don’t have to steal real secrets, often they just report what they see to add to the general picture the handlers are building up of their targets, whether those are individuals, organisations or whole countries. Anyone can be an agent, aka informant or ‘useful idiot’. Others can actually do things, like spreading lies and counter-propaganda or even acts of sabotage. It depends on the job. I’m not saying that security officers never do any spying of their own, GCHQ is an obvious example, but it’s rarer than you think. And let’s not forget Special Branch, who are just policemen who carry out most of the leg-work for MI5, including surveillance, undercover work and, when they get lucky, arrests of suspects because the spooks don’t have those legal powers.

James Bond has created an image of the spy as a super-hero with ‘a licence to kill’, but he’s the fictional creation of a former spook. The heads of our secret police, MI5, and our spies, MI6, have consistently denied that they kill people and the double-0 squad does not exist. Of course it doesn’t, that’s what the SAS is for. The Special Air Squadron was created during WW2 for, initially airborne, guerrilla actions like those of the Marine Commandos. It has been suggested that its later activities have been more like those of the special tactical team of the Waffen-SS led by the infamous Otto Skorzeny, who rescued Mussolini from his first captors in 1943. This was a military outfit for political objectives. While they may operate in overt military activities, they also do so in situations where the involvement of the UK government should not be visible. For years they worked in the states of Muscat and Oman and the other sultanates of the southern Arabian Peninsula, where they kept the local rulers, who’d made deals with western oil companies, in power and fought off rivals, nationalists and supposed communists. This under-the-radar counter-insurgency was fictionalised by Patrick McGoohan in the ‘Danger Man’ series and mentioned in passing by Ranulph Fiennes on Radio 4. At other times it’s obvious that they were labelled ‘advisors’ or ‘mercenaries’. Their most high-profile action was the execution, or murder depending on your point of view, of an IRA team in Gibraltar in 1988. That’s the doctrine of ‘plausible deniability’ in action.

So, when your heart stops beating with pride at the display Daniel Craig put on with Lizzie’s stunt double at the London Olympics, consider how these secret police, spies and assassins protect our liberties. The question then is whose is the ‘our’?

RA 2.3.17

In fidelity

There are two pieces I’ve already written on the topics of patriarchy and on romantic love but want to start with their most long-lasting and deepest ingrained outcome – monogamy. I’ll leave out Islam and any other cultures that allow polygamy but the implications for women are much the same. Likewise the gay and lesbian relations ’cos I’m less clear on how it works in those communities. For heterosexuals then, our lives, our histories, literature, talk shows, law courts, therapists’ and counsellors’ consulting rooms are full of the effects and failures of monogamous fidelity. But in the West, at least, the place of women and their economic and political independence has changed out of all recognition, whatever remains to be achieved in terms of equality. Yet this insistence on fidelity persists and it’s not just the men who demand it and/or deviate from it. Why?

It goes beyond financial security and even the effects of parents’ examples – our culture is steeped in this concept that the relationships of couples, at least heterosexual couples, ought to be exclusive. There have been attempts by many individuals and movements to move beyond that restriction but they have all tended to fail at some point. Nevertheless, as researchers into human behaviour have shown beyond all doubt, we are a promiscuous species. So why is it so difficult to break free of the bonds of monogamy (or monotony)?

I’m not a sociologist or anthropologist and don’t have any figures to back up my views but have lived through these contradictions for the last 50 years and that’s just in my own relationships. While women may seem to have most to lose from infidelity, especially if they’re dependent on their man’s income and have children, there are plenty of men who are just as hung up about it. One reason might be the fear of being alone in a very unsettled and competitive world after feeling secure for some time. This might be overcome if there was a sense of greater fluidity in the field. By this I mean that, if there were more potential partners available, we might be less inclined to cling on so desperately to the one we have. Those same rules certainly seem to apply in the job’s market.

Another possible scenario is when women become really economically independent. In English we used to have the expression ‘to swear like a fishwife’. These ladies, wives of fisherman, had the job of selling their husband’s catch and effectively managed the finances of the family .. moreover they carried very sharp knives. Whether this gave them more sexual freedom I can’t say – perhaps there’s a study out there somewhere – but I’m forced to a comparison with women with a similar rôle in places like Burma, where an Indian friend of mine lost his virginity as a passing fancy to a young woman from a similar background as our fishwives as he could never had done at home in Punjab. Then another band of self-employed matriarchs are still celebrated in the history of Brazil – the baianas. Even under slavery some Africans were allowed to provide services as independent traders, presumably on payment of some kind to their masters. In Salvador, the capital of Bahia state, women ran the markets and even traded with Africa. They wore their wealth in gold plaques on their chests. They also preserved their tribal deities, suitably disguised as Catholic saints. This is a description by a real anthropologist, Ruth Landes: ‘The black priestesses of Bahia accept lovers, not husbands. What matrimony gives in prestige, it takes away in freedom and happiness. None of them is interested in formal marriage before a priest or judge. None wants to be a handcuffed wife, a Mrs Someone-or-other. Heads erect, with languid swings, the priestesses move like queens of Creation, condemning their men to the incomparable torment of jealousy of the gods.’ – quoted in ‘Century of Wind’ by Eduardo Galeano. Take away the gods and there’s hope for us all.

RA 7.1.17

Where did all these rough sleepers come from?

tank500px_optIn the 1950s, 60s and 70s the only people you saw living rough outside of central London were old ‘tramps’. Then, in 1984, Thatcher’s government reduced Jobseekers Allowance and Social Security benefits for 16-25 year olds and suddenly every city had young people on the streets because they couldn’t afford to ‘top-up’ their rents. When Labour came to power they didn’t reverse that. In many towns and cities voluntary organisations do a lot to help but they can’t provide much in the way of accommodation. Most have only limited space for some who are stable enough to prepare for permanent housing. But nowadays there is little short-term accommodation for the homeless since the old system of ‘the spike’ hostels for vagrants ended. It is true that some homeless people have become habituated to this life-style, but they’re a minority. Most end up on the street because it can now take the DWP up to 6 weeks to process a new claim or when someone changes locality, despite computerisation of their systems. If the Tories’ plan to stop all Housing Benefit for under-21s goes ahead it will put thousands more on the streets. Those of us lucky enough to have a roof over our heads have no reason to be afraid of rough sleepers. If you are threatened by someone physically or verbally, tell the police. Otherwise have some sympathy at least. It’s tough way to survive, especially in winter, while local authorities try to bring in PSPOs (Public Space Protection Orders) to chase the homeless out of sight with the threat of fines (which they obviously can’t pay) and confiscation of property, ie what little shelter they can carry. At the same time at least one privately-run prison has been discharging people with a tent and sleeping bag because there are no probation hostels or other accommodation available! This situation and those attitudes which ‘blame the victim for the crime’ of being on the streets is intolerable. There are no easy solutions without a general change of attitude. Start by giving your MP and local councillor a hard time for a change.

RA 3.10.16, updated 2.1.17

Safe in our hands

‘The National Health Service is safe in our hands/ is too expensive’
The UK’s NHS is one of the best, if not the best, health service on the planet. However, if this Tory government has its way, it will be a thing of the past or, more accurately, just the label on a dismembered, mostly privatised mockery of what we had. This is not paranoia – it’s already happening. Besides which Jeremy Hunt has made it clear that’s what the Tories want. Regarding a review of the service, he’s quoted as saying “The NHS is the best health system in the world but we know there is still too much variation in care. Sir David’s proposals go hand in hand with the NHS five-year forward view on how to meet the challenges of the future, and they will be food for thought for hospitals and commissioners looking to innovate, supported by the £200m transformation fund we announced last week.” ‘Sir David’ is David Dalton, Chief Executive of Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust, tasked by Hunt to “make it easy for NHS super-heads to take over struggling organisations”. ‘His report, produced in December 2014, suggested that concessions could be established by which companies are given contracts to operate publicly-funded hospitals.’ (Wikipedia).

Why? Partly ideological hatred of anything created by the Labour Party, but mostly simple greed. Tory hostility to public ownership of industries and services is not that they’re inefficient (that’s a lie drummed into us by the bosses’ ‘free press’) but because they have to help pay for them and can’t make any profit out of them.

When the NHS was created, Aneurin Bevan had to let the consultants (medical, not management) keep their private practices in order to bring them on board. At that time, at least, the ‘professions’ had the power to stand up to government. That concession left a split in the NHS which led to a two-tier service where those, who could afford it, could buy a faster and better level of treatment. Thus the nationalised part was always left looking less effective. Nevertheless it worked and became an essential part of people’s lives in this country. However no-one foresaw the scale of the costs involved and cuts were made – one of the first to go was free dental treatment (1951). In the 1980’s the government came out with the mantra that ‘demand on the NHS could be infinite’ unless it was restricted. This is another old school lie. The population isn’t infinite, nor is it sick all the time and the same thing could be said about the demands on other kinds of insurance that function quite happily, even making big profits. Insurance companies use actuarial tables to work out the levels of risk and make provisions accordingly. The NHS could do the same instead of being made by the government to waste time and money on meeting targets and dealing with the bureaucracy of internal markets.

Meanwhile, there are some facts of which you may not be aware. One is that the Secretary of State for Health is since 2012 no longer responsible for the NHS. Another is that there are plans to close hospitals and some critical services – maternity, stroke care, serious accident and emergency cases – and centralise them in bigger hospitals, whatever extra travelling times that will incur. To make room for these extra burdens, those hospital will unload their ‘bed-blockers’ to go home to die in the care of social services which, themselves, are at the point of collapse due to underfunding. These patients will no longer be the responsibility of the NHS but of local authorities, whose budgets have been slashed by the government. So local politicians can either take the blame for the inevitable failures or for raising Council Tax to make it work. HMG says ‘It’s not our fault’! Great system.

Right now we need to fight off the cuts being made and reverse the ‘reforms’ while we still have a real national health service.

RA 23.11.16

Keeping order

Today is the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. Some readers may know what that was but, for the benefit of the others, it was a mass action in 1936 to stop thousands of members and supporters of the British Union of Fascists from marching through a largely Jewish part of East London. I suspect that the majority of those who have heard about this will think it was a battle with the fascists. It wasn’t, it was a battle with the police. Here’s a newsreel clip: Battle newsreel on YouTube

This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been on a demo when trouble broke out. Every demo or march or event I’ve been at where a ‘riot’ occurred was started by the cops. Sure someone may well have thrown an empty drinks can at them, maybe even a bottle, but those individuals are always safely back in the thick of the crowd. The ones who get battered and arrested by our increasingly well-armoured police are those brave souls on the front line. This is called ‘keeping the peace’ or ‘protecting public order’ and that’s when the fighting begins.

These confrontations have a long history, both here and across the globe. One of the most notorious in the UK in recent times was the Battle of the Beanfield. On 1 June 1985 the Peace Convoy of travellers, trying to get to Stonehenge for a festival, were intercepted and some forced off the road by police into a field, whereupon their vehicles were attacked and wrecked. The people in those vehicles, including pregnant women, were beaten and arrested. A brief video clip was aired on television some time later and what it showed was brutal – unarmed and unprotected people being manhandled and hit with batons, windows being smashed, the interiors of vans trashed. What it also showed was police in riot gear, with their ID numbers concealed, causing criminal damage and assaults which, if had been done to them, would have been classed as grievous bodily harm. In other words, it was a police riot. No charges were brought against those officers*. Journalists and photographers were arrested or threatened. Films were ‘lost’. The travellers lost their homes and I’ve been told that some of the travellers even lost their children, because they were taken into care by Social Services and sent for adoption.

One officer, who was present, left the police and became a criminologist. He later made this observation, “When you have a body of men … and a hierarchy of authority, violence is bound to occur.” This is all I can remember, but what it means is, that it’s not sufficient to blame the men on the ground for breaking the rules, because they know their actions have been implicitly sanctioned by their superiors. One policy could be banned is that of officers being told to conceal their identifying numbers in these situations … and advising reporters to stay away!

Now, not all coppers are bastards but the point I’m making is that the job is. The question is, whose ‘peace’ is being kept, whose ‘order’ is being protected? Why do fascist marchers get more police protection than anti-fascists? Why do strikers and pickets get beaten up but not thieving bosses? Why are Romanies and other travellers prevented from stopping for a night’s rest, while you’ll be told to shut down if your party or festival music disturbs the sleep of well-off neighbours? Work it out.

Update: 11.10.16
As J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, said in 1968, “Justice is merely incidental to law and order.”
That’s telling it as it is.

RA 3.10.16

[* A number of the travellers successfully sued Wiltshire Police for ‘false imprisonment, damage to property and wrongful arrest’ and one police sergeant was found guilty of actual bodily harm. It was only a token victory because legal costs swallowed all the compensation they were awarded. If you want to see some more, here’s a documentary made in 1991: YouTube video ]

A word to the wise
The word ‘mob’ comes from a legal term in Latin, ‘mobile vulgus’, which my dictionary translates as ‘the fickle multitude’ but I prefer ‘the mobile common people’. The state wants you screwed into your place (and in debt) – Don’t move! Sit still! – and, especially, don’t organise yourselves without the authorities sayso.

The problem of power

“Who wants the job?”

We all know there’s a war going on in the British Labour Party between its elected leader and nearly all his MPs. Not many outside of the party, however, know just how vicious and dirty this has become with claims of anti-semitism and/or a Trotskyite takeover flying out from the right wing on a daily basis. One wonders what they’ll come up with next. At the heart of this struggle is one key slogan of those dissidents, ‘With this leader we’ll never get elected!’ Whether or not that’s true remains to be seen but the question then arises, ‘What do you want it for?’ The experience, for its core constituents, of having a Labour government over the last half century has been mixed at best. Over the last thirty years it’s been indistinguishable from a Conservative one and, when the latter were in power, Labour’s efforts have been equally ineffective. Plenty of people are now saying this country doesn’t need another Labour government that does nothing useful, what we need is a real opposition.

I could go into the history of the Labour Party – beginning as an alliance of trade unionists, socialists and Liberals, through its fight with the Communists, the triumph of 1945 and so on, but I want to look at this question of power. This is the crucial question in all political systems. In a democracy it supposedly rests with ‘the people’ who exercise it in voting for their leaders and their representatives. Any slight examination of the facts shows that it’s not that simple. There’s a whole array of different forces in play – other states’ influences, business interests, often the armed forces or parties within them, professional groups, trade unions, the media and so on. In all this ‘the people’s’ interests may came a long way down the queue. Social-democrat parties, like Labour, have been tangled up in this web since their beginnings. The Communist Party (another example of the abuse of language) thought they could cut through this by ruling in the name of the people, or at least in the name of ‘the workers’. Their utter failure is one reason why we’re in this mess now. It seems that every attempt to make a revolutionary change to a better society goes through the same stages of euphoria, paranoia, terror, repression and finally compromise or collapse. For those who still want to achieve socialism or any kind of democratic world, it’s important to figure out how to avoid that fate. I don’t have any answers but I do have some things to watch out for.

As an anarchist I’ve been reluctant to recognise that we’re a hierarchical species but the evidence seems to be overwhelming. We’re taught from our earliest days to ‘do as you’re told’ and that lesson sinks in deep. Some learn that they have a ‘right’ to be superior and follow that through. I believe that, even as babies, we instinctively know who has the most power in the room. However there’s no reason why such rankings in our societies should be fixed. There are plenty of reasons to think otherwise. One is that we don’t accept them for ever – history is full of examples of revolts by the underdogs and not just those which arose in Europe from the 14th century onwards. There are examples in human history and among our primate cousins, the chimpanzees, showing that leaders can be chosen and rejected by the rest of the group. The problem is: who wants the job?

There are those who become leaders because of their seniority, experience and ability. There are others who have the ambition to be on top – the reasons are several but related. The first, evolutionary, impulse is access to the first choice of mates; the second, and probably derived one, is ego satisfaction – glory/honour/reputation; the third is access to the pick of the goodies – aka wealth. This last is a much later development that did not appear until humans learned how to create surpluses.

The point is that, whatever the system, some people will try to take control. And the likelihood is that, even after a revolution, they’ll be the same kind of people as those seen in the previous regime. This is why the process of social change seems to go through the same sequence. So, while it’s possible to design better political systems than we have, there will never be a perfect one. The USSR had on paper a good constitution and legal code, but that didn’t stop Stalin and his henchmen sending millions of innocent people to suffer and die in the gulag archipelago.

Is there a way to stop power junkies? Who knows? Being aware of this danger would be a start but it would also be useful to know where the power comes from – it comes from us. Power means the ability to do work, both the electricity that makes a lightbulb glow and the muscles that flipped the switch. Whether we actively support the power structure in a social group, or merely passively submit, we’re supplying our power to whoever’s in control. We have the ability to withdraw that supply and even actively use it against the controllers. Of course, there can be costs involved in doing this, but that choice remains. It’s up to you.

RA 15.9.16

Keep politics out of sport

football protest

That’s a refrain we hear every time someone uses a sporting occasion to make a political stand or point. It comes usually from both politicians and from fans who don’t like their entertainment spoiled by intrusive thoughts from the real world. But what they amazingly overlook is that sport is riddled with politics, especially at the international level.

Sport is war by other means
This spin on Clausewitz’s famous quote that “War is the continuation of politics by other means” is merely an observation of a fact that goes back at least to the Classical Greek period and the function of the original Olympic Games. It was a chance for rival city states to compete with one another for glory without the expense of all out war. The revival of that tradition in 1894 had the same aim but with about as much success at ending war. Instead it’s been used continually for states to promote their image and their interests* or for others to contest them. The 1936 Berlin Games may be the most notorious but there have been others, like the boycott by the USA and others of the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. Nothing sums this up more than the flag waving at the opening ceremony and the medal ceremonies. The games are supposed to be about the sportsmen and women but all the commentators crow about the number of prizes their country has won as if the whole nation had been running, jumping or throwing things. That’s why so many states have been directly involved in doping their athletes to improve their chances of more medals and greater prestige.

Nor is this confined to the Olympics – it applies to every other sport, especially football. The night after England beat Germany 5:1 in the World Cup series of 2001, the celebrations in the streets of my town made me think it was a rerun of VE Day.

Of course, these vicarious war games aren’t confined to international competitions but are at the heart of inter-city and inter-regional rivalries that can spill over into gang violence between ‘hooligans’ with different loyalties. That’s frowned on by the authorities who however have no problem with endorsing the rhetoric behind it, if it suits them. One well-known American footballer quit the game because he was fed up helping the fans enjoy their aggression by proxy through him.

black power saluteThere are many more examples that could be given, even of governments winning or losing elections because of the results of major sporting events and not forgetting the 1969 war between Honduras and El Salvador over a football match! So, please, let’s stop pretending we believe that sport has nothing to do with politics and vice versa. Politics means ‘people’s business’ and sport is definitely one of those businesses.

[* This occasionally backfires as with the 1972 Munich Olympics. I was in France and reading Charlie Hebdo where a column by François Cavanna described how the US contingent “200 strong … the earth trembling at their tread”, because of the beautiful accident of the alphabet, were followed by the North Vietnamese squad – three men and one woman. I wonder how many Americans saw the irony in that, if inded they were allowed to see it. That was also the year Black September kidnapped a load of Israeli athletes and their government gave a green light to the German authorities to intercept them at all costs. I’m quoting Charlie Hebdo again for that.]

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(picture credits: Eric Reid (left) and Colin Kaepernick from BBC News Online; Tommie Smith (center) and bronze medalist John Carlos (right) at the 1968 Summer Olympics, Mexico City, from Wikipedia)


Coming home to roost

I was in Trinity Church, listening to a reggae sound system. The church had been deconsecrated some time before and given over to the local citizens as a rather inadequate community centre and a fair-sized music venue. The occupants of the graveyard had been removed but it seemed that some of the ghosts had resented this and got their revenge by buggering up the electrics and the sounds as often as they could.

Nevertheless, although it was situated on the edge of the city’s Asian quarter, it was also close enough to the black neighbourhood for them to comfortably share it with the white indie scene. The atmosphere was relaxed enough for both parties to mix if they wished.

So I’m probably a little stoned and had a couple of pints before getting there. Listening to the obligatory invocations of Jah Rastafari, it occurred to me how appropriate this all was. So-called ‘Christians’, like those who erected this building, had kidnapped these peoples’ ancestors from Africa and enslaved them in the West Indies to make this city rich. Now their descendants had come to reclaim their property in the name of their version of that patriarchal deity they’d been forced to believe in.

Not only that, there’d been a riot here not long since, caused, as usual, by the cops. This had resulted of course in a little looting. I’d recently read that that word came originally from the Bengali word for ‘steal’ that we learned from the troops levied from that part of the world to fight for the British, as we forced the Chinese empire to keep tolerating the recently nationalised drug smuggling industry selling opium to its subjects. They’d looted their way up the coast and inland as far as Peking in the name of ‘free trade’.

Now the looting was done by the great great grandchildren of those slaves, while the opium – refined, thanks to European chemists, into heroin – was fucking the brains of the great great grandchildren of the slavers. Yes, the chickens had really come home to roost. I smiled and started dancing.

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