Thursday, 24 February 2011

still not getting it

How is it that after 13 years, after 13 bloody years, of Labour government, some people still don't get it?

So recently we've had a few rather excitable actions which have brought down a whole heap of condemnation on the more out there bits of the far left (or are one person, put it rhetorically, "enemies of the Labour movement?"); kettling the head of NUS for basically being pro-fees and pro-education cuts, occupying council meetings in protest at Labour councillors cutting services and protesting TUC chief Brendan Barber, apparently for not calling a general strike.

Cue much wailing and moaning about sectarianism, and the "infantile ultra-left". Now, all of these people, Labour loyalists to a man/woman, stood with that Labour government for 13 years (not Porter, too young). You remember that Labour government? The one that introduced PFI to every part of the public sector, that opened the door that the Tories are walking through? The one that presided over widening social inequality, that stood by as it got comfortable with the filthy rich, that left the anti-trade union laws as they were, that sat on its hands as the financial sector took over the country, that enabled massive tax avoidance by the rich, that started the demonisation of the unemployed and the sick, that put together a myriad of plans to victimise, humiliate and attack them. Yeah, THAT Labour Party.

They stood with that Labour Party, and they supported it, they gave it money, and they tried to make all of us vote for it. That Labour Party, the one that to this day, has only one serious gripe with Tory policy, the pace and depth of the cuts. The Labour Party that to this day, has no principled objection to privatisation (how could it?), nor any serious proposal even for reducing the influence of the finance sector over public policy and economic development.

All of these people are bureaucrats in that party. That party that sat down and chose its leaders, and chose its MPs, and returned people who are, undeniably, representatives of the very same class that has brought this country to its present situation, the situation that this country is essentially at the service of international finance.

Now you say, Jack, "representatives of the ruling class", it all sounds a bit sectarian and ultra-left! A bit serious-face, ranty marxist. But until we all get our heads around the fact that our political class, our entire political class, is composed largely of people just waiting for their turn to manage the status quo - that our interests, that any radically different future for us, is off the table - we'll continue to go round and round in demented circles.

There are people essentially pumping out the message that we just need to wait until the Tories are out, and it's "our" turn again. That when Labour get back in, everything will be fine again. That the opposition should be just enough to embarrass the Tories, but not enough to challenge the heavenly capitalist democracy we live under.

And fine, you say, a Labour government is the best we can possibly hope for. It might well be. But there's a difference between a Labour government taking power over a country that's angry, seething and desperate for change, and a Labour government taking their turn after we've all patiently waited.

I don't know if the attacks on Porter, Barber and the Labour councillors were great strategy or not, whether they'll have the effect they were supposed to. But I sure as hell would prefer that Labour Party officials and union bureaucrats knew that there are people out there with expectations, grievances and the will to press them, than not. Whatever the particularities of those actions, these people are "fair game" and centrists should stop being so precious about being challenged on the actual reality of their credentials.

Monday, 21 February 2011

privatisation as a form of insanity

There's a rather clichéd definition of insanity that runs like this: insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. I feel like it is completely apt for Cameron's latest public policy pronouncement, in which he basically states that the private sector should be assumed to be better unless proven otherwise.

As anyone who gives enough of a shit to check can tell you, the history of public sector privatisation argues exactly the opposite. So rubbish (for service users and workers) have these policies been that the assumption should be that they will always be terrible unless proven otherwise.

Do I really need to even list the examples? The railways, 50% more expensive than in the rest of Europe (in 2009), still subsidised and the odd (unprecedented) massive accident. The privatisation of utility companies resulted in rising levels of fuel poverty. The outsourcing of various services in our hospitals resulted in higher costs, lower wages and poorer service provision.

It's a really simple concept to get your head round. If you give a private company 100m to run a service, it wants as much of that money as possible to finish up in their shareholders pocket. If you give it to a public institution it spends every penny on the service. For the private company to turn a profit, it has to spend less on the service or charge more for it. Why, logically, would you expect it to give better value for money? Why?

Thursday, 10 February 2011

tiki-taka my arse

The headline in today's "20 minutos" read "victoria sí, tiki-taka no" for Spain's just barely home win over Colombia. Apparently Spain managing to sneak a win without playing well was wholly out-of-character.

Unless of course you actually watched Spain in the world cup without a pair of red and yellow specs, your shirt off and "VILLA MARAVILLA" written in body paint on your stomach. Then, whisper it, but Marquis Vicente del Bosque's Spain are a monumentally boring team to watch.

But Spain are a magnificent passing team, I hear you cry, with Iniesta and Xavi pulling the strings and flair players like Silva, Torres, Villa! The players are certainly there, which is why it beggars belief that Del Bosque's chosen style is a brand of passing football that stylistically is about as impressive as Sam Allardyce's Blackburn.

The mere fact of keeping possession and stringing together passes doesn't make a team exciting, nor attacking. In the case of Spain their addiction to stringing together endless passes in un-threatening areas of the pitch, their abject terror at the prospect of ever doing something that might lose them the ball might make them effective but it certainly doesn't set the pulse racing.

TIKI-TAKA, the ideal that certainly describes Guardiola's Barcelona and described Luís Aragones ' European Champions, has been turned into a monstrously slow way to kill games, as opponents are gradually lulled to sleep by the TIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIK-IIIIIIIIIIII-TAAAAAAAAAAK-AAAAAAAAAA of the world champions.

This was certainly par for the course for "La Furia Roja" (more, "El Pequeño Molesto Roja"), who had a world cup that consisted of struggling to overcome limited opposition, and failing to do so in the event that said opponents scored first and they were expected to chase a game, then game-killing against good teams (their semi and final were dire affairs).

Spain fans awaiting the return of some fictitious attacking, élan and flair filled national teams, will be waiting a long time. It'll feel like even longer as they watch all those pretty passing exchanges on the half-way line.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

the right to starve in freedom

There is a very simple explanation for the uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East. People don't like living under dictatorships and they want political freedom. What they want are liberal democracies on the European model, where they have basic civil liberties like freedom of association, free elections, free speech and freedom of the press.

Except that's a crap explanation, isn't it? People tolerate dictatorships all the time. They spend years and years making totally logical decisions that show they aren't actually that bothered by political freedom, in fact. Not just that they can't mount the force to overthrow the guy in charge, but also that they stay in the country, they get on with their lives. Imagine yourself as a middle class person in a prosperous dictatorship. You go to work, you earn money, you can buy things and you go home and enjoy those things. Like a lot of people all over the world, you're not especially interested in politics, so you get on with your life and keep your nose clean. So, you just get on with your life. In fact, you do what most people in the developed world do when their civil liberties are threatened, which is, essentially ignore it, unless you form part of a the political motivated activist minority. It's this principle that's kept the likes of Mubarak and Ben Ali in power all these years; that 99% of the time the best thing to do personally under a dictatorship is to ignore it.

So, a lack of political freedom is a terrible thing, but if you have to live with it, you live with it. On the other hand, something you absolutely can't live with, is lacking the ability to make a living. That directly affects your ability to get by, to exist, to live in the day to day. It's no coincidence that this is happening during an economic recession. Unemployment rises, prices rise, the value of wages falls, state assistance decreases. People see other people in the same situations, and the see the people running the country continuing to prosper (because they're always prospering!). The lack of freedom, the lack of right to get angry at these bastards starts to pick at you that much more. It overcomes your impulse to keep quiet, to keep your head down, to get on with your life. Then all it takes is the realisation that we have the power to change all this.

So, their might be some people, comfortably off, who are just liberal-minded, who want a democratically elected government that will keep them prosperous. But for the majority, want they want is a change. Now a change in this sense doesn't mean that you leave the country as it is but dismantle the police state. It means that the new government needs to improve the people's lives in a material way, not just give them civil liberties.

People like this guy will tell you that political liberalisation brings economic liberalisation and prosperity for all:

"The street protests in Tunisia and elsewhere in the region are momentous not just for the Arab world but have the potential to foreshadow a brighter economic future for the globe. The protesters' basic message is not to stifle the economic aspirations of the younger gener"ation, especially one as well-educated as Tunisia's. Shackle them at your own peril.

While Arab governments correctly interpret this cry for change as predominantly driven by economic hardship, their responses are unfortunately misdirected. Kuwait is giving its citizens free food rations and a grant of $4,000. Other governments have announced that they, too, plan to allocate millions of dollars to the poor; and Arab leaders are rushing to set up a $2 billion fund to support their economies. These measures won't save them."

So this neoliberal sees Tunisia's revolution as enabling the country to better manage capitalism and create more jobs. It sees the dictatorship as "stifling the economic aspirations of the younger generation".

He goes on to recommend:

"Establish a mechanism to get uncollateralized credit for those small-business owners who, by skill or by luck, have created the most productive job opportunities. That would fuel economic growth and undermine the corrupt old boys' comfortable monopolies. And it would make room for a new generation of entrepreneurs in areas such as food distribution, machining, construction, equipment and parts fabrication, retailing, power distribution, transportation, communications—and, yes, media."

This, obviously, is a fantasy land that offers nothing to the vast majority of people overthrowing governments in developing countries. What this guy is arguing is basically that countries where a very substantial proportion of the population live in abject poverty should retain the economic system that put them there, and strengthen the neo-liberal tendency that leads to widening inequality, that is the tendency that is pushing down wages and living standards in developed countries as we speak. He's asking them to patiently accept their poverty for the time being, promising that economic liberalisation might lead them to prosperity in decades or even generations time. That is, assuming that the corruption among the dominant classes can even be dealt with, without dispossessing the existing capitalist class that enriched itself under Ben Ali. Finally, it merits fairly serious attention that no one from the IMF/World Bank/the US Treasury or the European Commission was going around telling these governments that their economic policies were a problem (the exact opposite in fact), it seems convenient that these countries are apparently too economically illiberal as soon as their government falls over.

If the hopes of liberals come to fruition the peoples of these regions day-to-day problems they will have to live with. The problems that they actually want solved above all else will have to let go, and they will have to accept that the end of the police state is all that democrats should aspire to. It is not a forecast that holds much promise. Developing world countries that have liberated themselves from oppression seldom find themselves joining the rich world as a consequence. As in South Africa, Brazil and in many other countries all over the world, populations find that they can't eat liberal civil society. That they continue to be exploited, to be impoverished, to starve and to die for the same reasons as before.

South Africa in particular serves as a model for what "peaceful transition" means in reality. Before apartheid fell there was a quite strong fear that years of racist oppression and exploitation would result in a fierce backlash by the African community toward the white population. What in fact was negotiated, by ANC political leaders desperate to end years of political repression, was a "peaceful transition" that not only guaranteed the basic civil rights and physical safety of white South Africans, but also that existing property relations would remain essentially untouched, maintaining the economic basis of apartheid.

Sure enough the result was that post-apartheid South Africa retained its social divisions, to the detriment of community relations and any attempt to heal ethnic tension. In fact, as the global economy was now opened up to South African companies, and the government ushered in an era of neo-liberalism, social inequality and poverty actually got worse in post-apartheid South Africa something that should (but doesn't particularly) shame the ANC. As far as the political mainstream is concerned this is the limits of freedom, the right to be poor under an elected government.

Any survey of economic development and poverty over the past 30 years wouldn't particularly illustrate that liberal political institutions are any more conducive to alleviating actual social problems than authoritarian ones (in fact a look at the post-soviet block would actually show you the opposite was true). The reality is that for the working classes, overthrowing a dictator often seems to offer only the right to complain about starving, rather than an end to the starvation itself. You have to wonder if that really is what people in Egypt and Tunisia have given their lives for.