Finding It Hard To Care

September 22, 2009

If, like me, you head for the sport section of the newspaper first, avoiding the puddle-deep ‘he-said, she-said’ gossip that passes for serious political journalism, you may have come across the howls of outrage from the likes of Mark Hughes over Manchester United’s very late winner against Manchester City on Sunday.

For those unfamiliar with the events that unfolded, after a thrilling 90 minutes with the local rivals locked at 3-3, the fourth official indicated that at least four minutes should be added on.  United’s Michael Owen scored the winner in the sixth minute of injury time.

Now, it is hardly an unusual event for Manchester United to be given a little more time than other teams to turn one point into three, and for their media apologists to come up with all sorts of contorted calculations to suggest why so long was added on.  What is unusual is the general sympathy towards Manchester City.

This wasn’t a plucky lower or non-league side that Manchester United scraped past, but a team owned by a billionaire who have spent, by my calculations, around £190 million on new players in 2009 alone.  I find it hard to care that a minor has been done to them, when the structural injustices and inequalities in football mean that clubs lower down the pyramid find it hard to survive, fans of the top clubs are priced out of games, and players outside the rarified echelons face a short career without riches to sustain them when it ends in their mid-thirties.

This doesn’t seem to be an isolated phenomenon.  In the mainstream media there are regular articles outlining the plight of women working in executive positions in corporations or the City, about how they don’t earn as much as their male counterparts or passed over for promotion to boardroom.  I find it hard to care.

You will rarely see an article about the fact that many women can only get part-time, very low paid, insecure work, and that they are subject to the bullying of management on a daily basis.  I even saw a female worker, who was only offered part-time hours, being berated by her manager for asking to swap shifts so she could go to the second job she was compelled to take to make ends meet.  Trade unionists, particularly in the retail sector, will be able to recall countless versions of the pattern of bullying that affects female workers in particular, not restricted to the sacking of pregnant women and victimisation for taking time off for health and family matters.

Of course, this is not restricted to women, and as a man I have experienced and seen oppressive, exploitative and unpleasant managers and employers.  It’s a class issue, us v them, and those women in the City who bleat about only getting £200 grand a year instead of £300 grand are the enemy, not an ally of working class feminists.

The mainstream media play a useful propaganda role without realising it.  They furnish us constantly with tales that invite us to sympathise with the difficult lot of the rich and powerful.  This is not down to any sinister conspiracy or overt cynicism on the part of journalists, but a reflection of their class background and current social status.

A revealing study conducted by the Sutton Trust, which aims to help working class children get into the leading universities:

“found that leading news and current affairs journalists – those figures who are so central in shaping public opinion and national debate – are more likely than not to have been to independent schools which educate just 7% of the population. Of the top 100 journalists in 2006, 54% were independently educated an increase from 49% in 1986…1986, and in 2006 just 14% of the leading figures in journalism had been to comprehensive schools, which now educate almost 90% of children.”

Is it any wonder that national newspapers, radio and television pump out so much class-biased nonsense?

But that isn’t entirely the picture.  The fact that the ’embedding’ of reporters in military units leads to overwhelmingly skewed coverage is generally realised (if not stated that often by the organisations that do it, or benefit from it).  The ’embedding’ of reporters in the Westminster Village and the City is less obvious, though the constant lunching with senior politicians, civil servants and financial sector detritus is clearly going to engender a sympathy and solidarity for the world views of those people.

We are constantly invited to swallow our objections to various measures because to not do them would make these masters of the universe unhappy.  Steve Richards of the Independent, a shameless New Labour propagandist, once advised us to accept the loss of civil liberties, lest the lack of authoritarian measures give the likes of Jack Straw sleepless nights, fearing they would be blamed for any terrorist attacks!

As ever, I try to look for answers.  An independent, pro-worker media is clearly essential, as is the constant harrying of the mainstream media.  Most left parties have their own newspapers and web presence, and some of their members have blogs.  The value of this is incalculable, but the idea of a general non-sectarian left media that has been proposed by many others on countless occasions would be an important addition.  While it would be obviously quite difficult to gain a hearing alongside the more established corporate and State media outlets, it would be worth trying.

This would mean pooling the resources not just of political parties, but unions and other campaign groups, to found a web portal, newspaper, radio station and TV channel.  Founding a radio station and TV channel may sound grand, but in the days of digital radio and multi-channel TV, is not nearly as expensive as it once was.  It would require a commitment to non-sectarian, democratic, open and collaborative ways of working, which is not something parts of the Left have been renowned for, but might have to learn to try.


Public Sector Waste

September 18, 2009

It’s pretty obvious that, as Seumas Milne has pointed out, the focus put on public spending cuts by the Tories has succeeded in diverting the political debate away from the inherent instability of capitalism (and neo-liberal capitalism in particular) and the crimes of the banks towards the need to clear the debt by slashing public spending.

Labour, of course, after putting out mixed messages over the summer, has acquiesced to this agenda.  This is only natural given that they now share the same fundamental world view as the Tories.

The Left does need to continue to point out that cuts would not be painless as is suggested, and that they would mean workers paying for the folly and greed of the bankers and the capitalist system as a whole.

But as always, we don’t set the agenda, the capitalist parties and the capitalist media (the BBC included, being a semi-autonomous arm of the capitalist State) do.  This means that we have to respond to the questions and situations posed by that agenda.  The ‘common sense’ position being spouted by all three main parties, and in general the media as a whole, is that the national debt is too large, and needs to be reduced to make it more manageable.  Spending cuts and, to a lesser extent, tax rises are posed as the only way to do this.

The Tories are positively salivating at the mouth at the prospect of cuts.  The dirty little secret is that despite occasional hints that they will agonise over every cut, Labour are relishing it somewhat as well.  New Labourites get a special little glint in their eye when they are doing something that is Right Wing and that will be perceived to be ‘tough’, and proving that they can be ruthless slash and burners will give the likes of Mandelson a warm fuzzy feeling inside, to last them until they take up their lucrative directorships next Summer.

So how do we respond to the talk of cuts?  We make our arguments as always, and also point out that countries such as France and Germany, which threw even more money at bailing out their economies, and have no immediate plans to clear the debts, are already out of recession, and have not experienced the levels of job losses that the US and Britain have.

We can also point out that there are plenty of measures to reduce spending that the main parties don’t consider, but would be popular and effective.  Scrapping Trident and ID cards are the two most obvious measures, as is a complete ban on public bodies paying outside consultants, who usually only recommend job cuts and are largely ignorant bullshit-merchants.

In the NHS, the sheer cost associated with the operating and regulation of a market can be swept away by abolishing that market.  The PFI hospitals and companies could be nationalised without compensation, as should the pharmaceutical companies, who overcharge massively for drugs, and whose efforts at introducing and aggressively implementing intellectual property restrictions on medicines condemn millions to an early grave.

In education, again PFI can be despatched, and also the exam boards nationalised.  Exam costs take up an unjustifiably high proportion of school budgets, and this money could be freed up to provide more teachers, technology, equipment and books.

The expensive plans to monitor every single citizen either by CCTV cameras (which don’t reduce crime) or by paranoid vetting procedures could also go, and the legalisation of drugs would not only reduce the costs associated with prohibition, of crime, enforcement of drug laws and imprisonment, and damage to health, but also provide a stream of income from the taxation of the narcotics, sold on licensed premises as alcohol is.

Defence is a budget we could gladly take not a scalpel, but a meat cleaver to, with cuts here accompanied by a complete withdrawal from foreign lands, including Germany and Cyprus as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.  The subsidising of the murderous arms industry can end as well.

The transport budget can certainly go further than it does at the moment, and a good way of doing that would be the nationalisation of the railways and buses.  Not only do they cost more for the passenger in private hands, they cost more to subsidise, as millions are inevitably shovelled into shareholders pockets.

As for welfare, we should always defend the benefits that exist, and seek to improve them, as they are at insultingly low levels.  But we can make the argument that if work were shared out on the basis of full employment, the budget for this department would shrink.  It’s worth bearing in mind that the social security budget rocketed under the Tories in the 1980s, and is a sign of a damaged society, with millions permanently on the scrapheap.

There is scope to raise money also, and this can be done by properly nationalising the banks that were given State aid, and not paying out any bonuses.  A State monopoly of foreign trade combined with sharply progressive taxation of individuals and businesses would also contribute.

We should agree that there is a tremendous amount of money wasted in the public sector.  But it is wasted on profiteering spivs, not the wages and pensions of hard working public servants.

The problem with all these measures is that no Government under capitalism will be allowed to carry out such a programme, it would be cut short before you can say ‘military coup’.  The greatest thing the Left can do is to take our very reasonable suggestions to workers, responding pro-actively to an agenda not of our own making, and point out that none of the main parties would do it, and even if they tried to, the system would never let them.

The Death of Blogs

September 17, 2009

Many blogs seem to have fallen on their swords over the Summer.  Vengeance and Fashion is not one of them, and will be returning to normal service now.  But although it is well known that most blogs that are started never get past the first couple of posts, the death of more established ones seems less common.

The main blog to have ceased trading over the Summer is the excellent Left Luggage.  In a statement on the site announcing that there will be no more posts, the authors outline the three main reasons why they are not continuing, which I reproduce below:

1) The amount of time and energy needed for a small number of people to maintain a regular supply of high-quality content (many of our pieces have been lengthy compared to other blogs). Clearly we have limited time outside of work and we therefore felt that in the long term this could compromise the local political initiatives the group is involved with individually, simply because of the time we were tending to devote to Left Luggage. Obviously this would contradict the key strategic direction we have been advocating. In addition, one of the two editors of the site is planning to launch a new project with young people in London this autumn, which will even further squeeze the time available to update Left Lugagge.

2) While we had established a regular readership of about 100 unique users per day, we seemed to have plateaued despite some peaks when we had content posted on other website or articles of especial interest to a wider readership. Most of the people posting on the website seemed to be (largely) receptive to what we have been argued; they were generally broadly in accord with our analysis of the Left, its limitations and key elements of a future strategy. Therefore, if we were mainly reaching the same people using similar same arguments, with which they generally agreed, it raised the question as to how much use Left Luggage could be in promoting this perspective.

3) Additionally, we felt at the risk of repeating ourselves. In the 75 articles we have published since March, we have covered a lot of ground and an enormous variety of issues. But fundamentally we are addressing ourselves to the same cluster of problems and proposing a modest set of strategic solutions. From the beginning we set ourselves the task of covering a specific central issue: why is the Left so weak and out of touch with the vast majority of working class people. We never sought to cover every international or even national issue, and do not propose to offer a detailed political theory, just some simple strategic points.

I have a great deal of sympathy with each of these points.  As regular readers of the blog will be aware, I have been far too busy to post properly for a few weeks, life and work being what it is.  Even when I can spare the time, I can usually only muster enough for one proper post a week.  I also get the impression from the comments that those who read the blog are largely sympathetic already to what I am saying.  I’m also aware of the need to say something new, which is quite difficult when the fundamental arguments I put forward are that the Left – as Left Luggage put it more eloquently than I can – needs to continually be:

Speaking to the concerns of working class people; proving itself to be the best fighters for the immediate interests of that class; engaging in long-term political work to rebuild working class self-organisation and political culture.

Left Luggage was different in that it presented itself as an arena for debate amongst the Left over strategy.  I, like most bloggers, wear my prejudices and biases openly.  I am sympathetic to the politics and strategy of groups such as the Commune, the IWCA and the Socialist Party, and generally hostile to the pernicious influence of the Stalinist left (the CPB), the middle-class radical left (the SWP) and the ultra-left (the CPGB).

This website is no replacement for Left Luggage, but I would hope that a similar site establishes itself in the near future.  Vengeance and Fashion is no place for it, though I would hope that more people who disagree with me would comment here and spark up a productive debate.  I wish the contributors to Left Luggage all the best in their current and future activism, and thank them for the wealth of material and insight that will continue to exist on that site.

Normal Service Will Resume Shortly

September 10, 2009

Not just with this blog, which I haven’t had much time to spend on these last few weeks, but with English football.  An excellent result last night, but it was against an unusually poor Croatia team.

My prediction is that the defensive frailties will come back to haunt England in the World Cup, and all the hype that will be generated will turn to bile.  Again.  Pity South Africa for the masses of drunk jingoistic morons that will descend on it next Summer.

V&F will return soon, and he will return with meatier topics, possibly slagging off liberals here, calling for x, y and z to be legalised there, and also solving the national debt and budget deficit, all before breakfast.

Worthy Causes

August 28, 2009

No time for a proper post this week, so I’ll simply plug a few causes I think are worthy of a mention:

Hands Off the People of Iran – It is ludicrous to suggest that a tiny sect like the CPGB could operate a front such as this.  Rather it is a broad campaign that takes the classical, and correct Marxist position of opposing the theocracy and imperialist intervention.  Despite the silence of the media, the situation in Iran is very much alive, and there will surely be more protests and uprisings to come.

Defend the Four – Four members of the Socialist Party have been shamefully witchhunted by the pro-New Labour leadership.  They have been suspended from office but are continuing their efforts to clear their names.

Save Vestas – The occupation might be over but the struggle continues.

Defend Tommy Sheridan – Defending Scotland’s well known socialist ahead of his State initiated witchhunt of a perjury trial.

A Brave and Strange Decision

August 20, 2009

I can’t help but admire the Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, in facing down the ferocious rhetoric and phone calls from American officials including Hillary Clinton.  In today releasing Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the Lockerbie bombings, MacAskill risked the ire of the American Government and many in his own country.

I think we know what would have happened had this particular power not been conveniently devolved to Scotland by Westminster.  The spineless creep Jack Straw will have hastened to assure Washington that it would get what it wanted, if indeed they did oppose Megrahi’s release.  I wonder whether State department officials compete to come up with the most degrading and ridiculous requests and demands, to see if the New Labour Atlanticists have a limit or capacity for independent thought.

Apparently not, and I’m hoping that they are cooking up some plan to have David Miliband ride backwards on a donkey, naked, into the UN General Assembly, or perhaps ask Gordon Brown to hold his breath for 10 minutes, or more cruelly for him and the rest of us, smile for one minute.

So MacAskill was brave, but was his decision correct?  I think so, but not for the curious reasons he gave at the press conference earlier today.  The decision to release Megrahi was correct solely because there is too much doubt about his guilt, because he was never given a fair trial where all evidence was presented, as the excellent work by the late Paul Foot showed.

While the American relatives of the Lockerbie victims seem content that Megrahi was the perpetrator and that he should therefore end his days in a Scottish prison, many of the British relatives are less convinced.  Both sets of relatives are clear that we haven’t learned the full truth of what happened, and that the US and UK governments will not let us find out.  The demand for a full, unrestricted inquiry is completely right of course, though the suffocating secrecy surrounding the murky actions of the British and American States means we will probably never get one until capitalism is overthrown.  Luckily that should be happening in 2010, so I hear.

So what of MacAskill’s decision today?  The right one for the wrong reasons.  MacAskill reasoned that Megrahi had received punishment from a ‘higher power’ in the form of his terminal cancer for his alleged crimes, and that it was the compassionate and merciful thing to send him home to die.  Wrong and wrong.

The first assertion is downright insulting, suggesting that cancer is somehow a punishment for wrongdoing, and invoking a God giving people cancer as divine justice.  This isn’t far removed from the kind of assertion that cost Glenn Hoddle the England job, namely that disabled people must have done something wrong in a previous life.  Illness and infirmity is a sign of immorality or criminality in this world view, a very offensive and dangerous one.  It also assumes Megrahi actually committed the bombings, a highly dubious conclusion.

The second assertion I have found troubling also.  If Megrahi had committed this atrocity, the idea that he should be allowed to go home to die does seem to clash with the fact that hundreds of innocent people were killed without warning and without a chance to say goodbye to loved ones.  If Megrahi had committed this crime, we shouldn’t feel compassion, he really should have ended his days in Greenock Prison.

In a way, those of us commenting on this affair are playing hide and seek in the dark.  We can only really guess at the intrigues and manoeuvres  behind the scenes.  Megrahi was clearly required to drop his second appeal in order to be released, and this was to stop any revelations coming out in that appeal.  The American Government probably support the release behind closed doors for this reason, the British government likewise.  As to who committed this terrorist act, they have got away with it for a variety of reasons we are not party to.  This is unacceptable.

One of the demands of the Left with regard to private companies is ‘Open the books’, and the opening of the State books would make very interesting reading.  State secrecy allows security and intelligence services to commit horrific and immoral actions under the cloak of darkness.  Our demand should always be for full-disclosure, and to encourage the development anjd defence of media such as WikiLeaks and IndyMedia so we can check, in a limited way, what the Masters of the Universe are up to.  One day what we find out might bring one of these Masters to justice for their crimes, in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Palestine.  Or maybe Lockerbie.

How to be unpopular

August 14, 2009

At the moment a lot of what the Left stands for and speaks out at is popular.  We are swimming with the tide when we denounce free market neoliberalism, the war in Afghanistan, defend the NHS from Tory attacks, and laugh at David Cameron squirming in his tetchy defence of his party’s position on the NHS.

Whether this is doing us any good, in terms of our ideas spreading and being taken up, is debatable.  The Vestas occupation was a spontaneous act by the workforce, and even when you consider the disputes that the Left has played a key role in, such as Visteon and Lindsey, the general reaction to job cuts and reduction of hours has been grudging acceptance.

In times when we are looking to use the fact that much of what we are saying (like workers control of banks) doesn’t sound outlandish or strange, should we take the risk and voice opinions that are likely to be viewed as extreme or weird?  If not now, then when?  When there is no audience for socialist ideas?

I have to say, this is a problematic one, do we go for the ‘radical honesty’ of the CPGB, or the avoidance of certain issues like drugs and assisted suicide like many other Left organisations?  I think neither, though I don’t pretend to offer a real solution, more a series of thoughts that hopefully people will react to and develop.

I think the problem with the CPGB’s approach is that they put forward positions, such as the right to bear arms, that are fairly abstract and are not the sort of thing that most people talk about.  As it happens, I broadly agree with them on the right to bear arms, as I don’t believe that a State monopoly of arms is desirable, and I don’t believe that guns kill people, rather the other determinants and causes of crime working through individuals.

To raise the point is foolish though, as being the correct thing to say doesn’t mean you should go about saying it – water has the formula H2O, but it would be a little odd to devote countless articles in a newspaper (or the Weekly Worker, whichever applies) to the fact, as it is largely irrelevant when there are so many things to talk about – workplace democracy, getting the private sector out of the NHS, scrapping Trident etc., where we can be correct, relevant, and link them to other arguments.

If I was asked about my position on the right to bear arms, I would state my position truthfully, regardless of the views of who I’m talking to.  In a country where probably the majority of workers support strict control on guns, to do otherwise would be opportunistic yet unproductive, as it would mean missing an opportunity to discuss the nature of the State,  and the real causes of crime.

Drugs is another one, and this is where the major Left parties keep quiet.  Now, I don’t know whether this is because their position is to maintain the status quo or to legalise the purchase and consumption of currently illegal drugs, perhaps through licensed shops in the same way as alcohol.  For some it may be the former, perhaps because of effects of the sale and taking of drugs on individuals and communities.  If it’s the latter, a position I hold, why are they keeping quiet?

I think it is because the perception is that it would be very unpopular if they advocated legalisation.  It may be, but it can be presented as a means of undermining organised crime, decriminalising casual users who cause no harm, raising taxes, reducing harm by guaranteeing purity and dosage, and treating drug addicts as a health problem rather than a criminal one will go some way to helping them, and reducing their need to commit crimes to fund their habit.   It would also really annoy Daily Mail readers, always near the top of the ‘Pros’ column.  The case can be made quite easily, particularly to young people.

Taking a risk in advocating something that might be unpopular, but which you can persuade people to support it is likely to further improve the Left’s image as detached fully from the hypocrisy and stale consensus of mainstream politics.

The secret I think lies in being relevant, not getting ahead of yourself, and having the courage of your convictions to put forward a position that won’t be immediately popular.  Workers will not put up with airy-fairy ideas that sound as if they were cooked up at 1 in the morning in a student house with a suspicious smell and enough empty pizza boxes to block out the light from the street.  If we are going to put forward an unpopular position we need to gather all the evidence and examples we can to put forward the case, and put forward practical suggestions that could be implemented tomorrow.

By coming out with unpopular ideas we could well improve our image as straight talkers, change ideas about particular issues and open up opportunities to discuss deeper issues underlying them.   As with most things it’s about getting the balance right, regularly talking to other workers so you don’t get distracted by unimportant matters, and being honest.  And not being afraid of getting it wrong, so long as we’re prepared to admit it when we do.

That might be a little difficult for the likes of the SWP, of course.  If George Washington had been a member of the SWP, when confronted by his father over the felled cherry tree with an axe in his hand, he would have denied that there was a cherry tree there, then claimed it had always been lying like that, then would have angrily denounced his father for distracting from the urgent need to defeat the fascists.

It’s no wonder they are in the state that they are in, when they can’t even acknowledge certain home truths themselves, let alone be honest with the rest of the Left or the wider working class.