Sunday, 20 November 2011

Why capitalism likes us to behave irrationally
It’s a great irony that although human beings, as distinct from other animals, are characterised by their ability for rational thinking, so much of our behaviour is irrational. This contradiction has been unashamedly exploited by big businesses in marketing their products as well as by politicians trying to persuade us to vote for them. We are sometimes our own worst enemies because of this.

Understanding in what way and why we are irrational would help us avoid the worst pitfalls. It has been amply demonstrated that most of us, under no outside pressures, would behave according to social norms we have learned from the society around us. Thus most people in most circumstances wouldn’t steal, aren’t dishonest and would express solidarity with others. This was very well demonstrated in the former socialist countries, where social behaviour was the bedrock of society and the sudden introduction of market values after 1989 came as a profound shock. People were no longer sure how to behave and became easy victims for unscrupulous exploiters.

Most of us can be persuaded to abandon our social behaviour under certain circumstances and adopt irrational ‘market norms’. Let me demonstrate this with a key example. Few of us today can be unaware of the potential dangers of climate change to the very existence of mankind, however many if asked by pollsters on the street whether petrol should be taxed more will counter vociferously and argue isntead for a cut in petrol taxes and for the maintenance of cheap airfares. Instant gratification (our animal instinct) takes precendence over essential long-term planning (what our rational mind should be telling us).

Human beings also have a strongly inbuilt reluctance to kill or harm their fellow humans, and in order to overcome such essential social behaviour, these deep feelings have to be ‘deconstructed’. This is what armies have to do in order to train soldiers. That’s why they first destroy a recruit’s individuality, his civilian value system and sense of self-worth. It’s also the reason they show or allow recruits watch violent and pornographic films to desensitise them and turn them into killing machines. Brecht demonstrated this so magnificently in his play ‘Man is Man’. Irrational violence replaces feelings of human solidarity.

As Freud pointed out, we all internalise certain social values and these will normally hold good in most circumstances unless we come under undue pressure and temptation. Doing good stimulates the rewards centres of our brain, but this profess can be overridden given the right triggers.

Coalition cuts now being made to childcare, pensions and working conditions also come at a heavy cost to our social fabric. Additionally, they affect workers’ productivity as well as their sense of collective responsibility and of service to society. Workers are often prepared to work longer hours or increase production if it is seen as for the good of society and their fellow workers, but if they are treated only as mercenary employees, they will then behave as such. For the duration of our lives we continuously enter into social relationships, but on occasions we also enter into purely ‘market relationships’ i.e. when we buy goods or someone buys from us. Our behaviour will be conditioned by whichever.situation we think we are in.

Since Thatcher, who notoriously said ‘society doesn’t exist’ relationships that were primarily social have become increasingly transformed into purely impersonal monetary ones. Whether in education, healthcare or even in soliciting help or advice, all is being reduced to a financial transaction and the social element becomes marginalised. Performance-based salaries, targets, test scores and league tables for schools, all undermine social relationships, replacing them with monetary or statistical values.

Organisations, businesses and institutions used to talk of corporate loyalty, which was important to them. Most workers in the health service or education carry out their jobs as a public service they are proud of that. Of course they are paid for doing their jobs, but payment is often less than they could earn elsewhere in the private sector. It is their sense of public service, the rewards they received in terms of social status, gratitude, warmth, collegiality and generosity that gives them their sense of worth. Once you reduce all that to a purely ‘market’ relationship any sense of a wider loyalty will go by the board.

Even Ed Miliband in a recent speech (Guardian 18 Nov) stressed that ‘the morality of markets is fast becoming the next battleground of politics’. He went on to argue that a more moral, less predatory capitalism is also a more efficient one. This is undoubtedly true, but capitalism by its very nature, based on the profit motive, cannot become ‘moral’. The independent High Pay Commission in a recent report also stressed that inflated rewards for top bankers and businessmen lead to an ‘erosion of trust in the private sector’. Social behaviour is, of course, based largely on trust; once that is eroded, we do have a breakdown of such behaviour.

Capitalism plays on our irrational urge of wanting immediate gratification. Although we know rationally that by taking credit we are only delaying the painful payment process, and being required to pay more in the end, but our irrational selves take over and we do it anyway if the temptation is made attractive enough. Like ‘free trial’ periods for goods. The sales people know that once we have an item in our possession we are unlikely to give it up and send it back, whereas if we were told we had to pay upfront, we would seriously consider whether we actually want or need the item and also if we can afford to pay for it.

The sophistication of marketing today, with all the latest psychological insights at its disposal, can turn almost anything into a tempting opportunity – a must have possession. Advertising aimed at children and their parents implies that if you don’t purchase a particular toy for your child, then your love is deficient, thus manipulating our consciences and sense of love and duty towards our children.

In his book ‘Escape from Freedom’ Eric Fromm wrote that in a democracy people do not lack opportunity, but a confusing abundance of it. We are continually reminded that we can do anything and be anything we want to be. The problem is living up to this dream.

Although we all are fundamentally rational, our deeper-seated animal instincts can be played upon to ensure we make irrational decisions, particularly by those forces that see a quick profit in such irrationality. The only way to counter this anti-social system is to start in schools by helping students develop strategies and tools for making better and more rational decisions in their lives.

Monday, 7 November 2011

4 November 2011

If there were any doubts remaining about Poppy Day now being a largely jingoistic exercise, the present British Legion poster campaign will settle them. They portray celebrities like Helen Mirren saying: ‘The true stars are our troops’, and Katherine Jenkins:’ It’s our unsung heroes who deserve the applause’. It has always been said that 11 November is a day to commemorate those soldiers who died fighting to defend their country (primarily in the First and Second World Wars). I was unaware that it now means cheerleading for British troops under any circumstances. Those now fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and bombing in Libya as well as those who humiliated and murdered innocent Iraqi civilians can hardly, I would submit, be termed ‘stars’ or be deserving of applause. I’ll be wearing a white poppy to commemorate all those, both civilian and military, killed in wars. It is the only possible honest and meaningful statement.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Exploiting our leisure time
How do companies like Diesel build a £1bn business on selling new jeans which already look worn out? How do junk food manufacturers convince consumers, against all scientifically-based health advice, to buy their products?
Despite the recession, sportswear group Nike beat analysts' forecasts to post a jump in quarterly profits for 2011 of 13.8% to £371m. Firms like Nike, with aggressive advertising, even manage to target children as young as seven, who already want that tick on their clothes.
Profits also jumped at fashion company Burberry. The group saw a 49% rise in first half pre-tax profits to £129m. They are just two of such ‘brand’ companies seemingly defying the recession. Slick and well-targeted advertising is the key to their success - what we buy and what we wear gives us status, particularly when these products are associated with the names of film and sports stars and other assorted ‘celebrities’. Global firms like McDonalds and Coca Cola realised ages ago that the key to bumper profits is to make your product as cheap as possible, but keep your advertising huge.
The intensity and pace of work is now at an unprecedented level and is unsustainable in the long-term. However the damage done in the meantime to workers’ mental and physical health, to communities, family life and leisure is enormous.

Have you noticed how the share price of public companies rises every time sackings are announced? This seemingly contradictory fact only demonstrates that the more intensively you can exploit your workers, the more profitable you are likely to be, so fewer workers working harder is the goal of the system. The facts and figures, however, don’t reveal the underlying dire sociological alienation that is buried under the welter of economic data.

The monopolisation of ownership of the media, the means of mass distribution and dispersal beyond previous geographical, cultural and political boundaries also has a profound impact on the way big companies operate; it is not just workers in the producing countries that are shamelessly exploited but so are the duped consumers, who are conned into valuing brand labels before quality.

Marx eloquently described how we become alienated from our own humanity by the exploitive capitalist system. Alienation from the work we produce and from our fellow workers or producers. Capitalism, he points out, reduces labour to a commercial commodity to be traded on the market, when it once was primarily a social relationship between people involved in a common effort for survival or betterment. Citizens are dehumanised by being valued for the function they perform, as surplus-value-generating units, rather than the all-round beings they are.

The competitive labour market in industrial capitalist economies is designed to extract as much value as possible from those who work, to fill the coffers of those who own the enterprises and control the means of production; these days largely anonymous equity companies, pension and hedge funds rather than individuals.

Not only are the producers alienated from their product – they have little control over the production process, the final product itself or its sale - they also become alienated from their fellow workers and their class. Worker becomes pitted against worker and their mutual goal - to get the best out of their employer, through combining in solidarity - becomes blurred. The owners of capital also control the mass media, so that we are fed a diet of trivia and titillation. The effect, if not the aim is to turn us away from politics, deprive us of real information about the world that could help us understand it and thus think about changing it. This produces an effect Marx called false consciousness: we fail to see ourselves as we are, as exploited and manipulated beings.

Alienation is not only profound at work, but also in our leisure activities. Exhausted from the working day, we come home to unwind, but often have little energy for mental or physical activities; it’s so much easier to push a button and have our means of relaxation piped into our homes. In the era before mass electronic communications, people did make their own entertainment and their leisure was enjoyed with family, friends and neighbours in an active participatory way. In the post-war era, with increased incomes, cheap consumer products and increased leisure time, a rich potential source of profit opened up. The result has been a radical commercialisation and leisure activities have become based more on passive consumerism than active participation. So that we now face a double form of exploitation and alienation, as workers and consumers.

This alienating process is, of course, not limited to industrial workers, but to every working person. Cultural workers – those who produce our entertainment, works of art, books and music – are also victims of the same process. Today, with the unprecedented mechanisation of reproduction, together with electronification, the process of cultural production has engendered an alienation far beyond that which Marx could have imagined.

Whether in television, music or film, there is now a globalisation and simultaneous downward levelling of taste. The creative input of cultural workers now resembles more a car assembly line than an artistic process. Television is dominated by cheaply produced game shows, soaps, and competitive gladiatorial competitions like X-factor, The Apprentice, Dragon’s Den, Master Chef etc. which perpetuate the worst aspects of an individualistic capitalist system: we are passive onlookers as individuals fight it out for fame and fortune. Soaps create virtual communities, based on the real ones of the past as well as a nostalgia for those that have been destroyed; there is a substitution of real life discourse for a virtual one.

Film is dominated by horror, violence and escapist fantasy stories, and music is monopolised by the big record labels, that promote bland, soporific muzak instead of real individual voices. Even in those leisure areas, where there is a level of participatory activity, like sport, we see a domination of designer labels and aggressive individualism over-shadowing the sporting activity itself. Football teams have become little more than global advertisers of consumer goods, while the players are live capital to be bought and sold like any other asset. Of course, there are still examples of genuine artistic creativity, participatory sport and individual voices, but they are marginalised niche activities.

Only by consciously rejecting ‘junk-food-entertainment’ and instead becoming more involved at a local level in community activities, in organising and re-connecting with our neighbours and our own humanity will we begin to overcome the worst effects of this alienation.
1 November 2011

Dear Sir
Stephen Pinker (If it bleeds, it misleads: why the Cassandras got it wrong; Guardian 1 November 2011) sets up an Aunt Sally to press a dubious argument. Surely the task today is not to solve the impossible and rather pointless conundrum of whether more people are killed by wars today than in previous eras, but to rail against the iniquity of war itself as a means of solving the world’s problems. Body counts, even if accurate, can never reveal the true horrors of war. The fact is that the world today is devoting inordinate and unafordable amounts of wealth on weapons of war instead of on education, health and well-being - that is the real horror. In a report for the British American Security Information Council, the US alone is planning to spend $700bn on nuclear weapons over the next decade. This is how real destruction and killing takes place today.
What Pinker ignores is that all wars in history have, in essence, been fought for economic reasons. Today’s power-brokers have other means at their disposal than actual invasions or killing with weapons hardware. Hundreds of thousands are dying of hunger and poverty as a direct result of the wastage of weapons spending and imperialist policies of imposing imbalanced trading mechanisms; guns are a last resort to be used on those few incalcitrant nations that refuse to toe the line.

John Green

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Penny Red – Notes from the New Age of Dissent
By Laurie Penny
Pbck. £12.99
Pluto Press

Since her blogs form the front line of the student demos in 2010 and her column in the New Statesman, Laurie Penny has becomes the unofficial voice of the recent youth rebellion. This is a selection of her published blogs and articles.

She writes with a visceral, often unrefined, but eloquent style, full of righteous indignation. She encapsulates the frustrations and anger of a generation abandoned by the political elite, those being forced to pay for the mess these and the bankers have created.

Her reporting from the thick of the student demos of 2010 is reporting at its very best, conveying the fear, exhilaration and blow-by-blow chronology of events, while also reflecting on their significance. It is not the refined and honed journalism as written from the comfort of a newsroom or TV studio; it is raw and clearly experienced first-hand. She provides an antidotal and revelatory narrative to the ‘mindless thugs’ put-down of the mainstream media.

Penny is foremost a feminist and a number of articles here confront the commodification of sex in our society. She demolishes the idea of phenomena like burlesque and lap-dancing as empowering women. They only serve to objectivise and define women as sexual objects. She demonstrates time and again how capitalism warps the values and ethical base of society. You may not agree with everything she says, but her commitment, her passion and anger, but also understanding of what is cancerous in our present society cannot be questioned. Her succinct take on the infatuation with princesses and the adulation of Kate Middleton is exemplary. ‘She is the perfect modern-day princess,’ she writes, ‘in that she appears essentially void of personality, a dress-up dolly for the age of austerity.’

This book is an invaluable commentary on our times. If Penny doesn’t get sucked into the circles of the comfortable commentariat, she promises to become one of the best journalists of this era.
Remaking Scarcity – from capitalist inefficiency to economic democracy
By Costas Panayotakis
Pubs. Pluto Press and Fernwood Publishing
Pbck. £18.04

This book is an invaluable addition to any catalogue of modern Marxist economic thought. Panayotakis delivers a devastating critique of neo-liberal economic dogma and at the same time provides an up-to-date analysis of capitalism’s inbuilt destructiveness.

He lucidly demonstrates, giving detailed sources, how the capitalist system creates and exacerbates scarcity. It is often argued that capitalism, if nothing else, is efficient (particularly vis-à-vis socialist economies), but Panayotakis demonstrates that it is in fact the opposite. He also provides a cursory explanation of why the Soviet system collapsed without resorting to simplistic labelling or knee-jerk clichés. He also underlines what many forget, that despite all its weaknesses the socialist world not only provided a bulwark against the worst ravages of capitalism, but also pressured capitalism into making concessions to the working class; ones that are now being rapidly demolished.

He also polemicises against those who argued that socialism would usher in an era of super-abundance and unlimited productive capacity. Whatever the system, he argues, we have to live with scarcity in order to ensure an environmentally sustainable world.

The unprecedented lobbying power of big companies has led to an abject subservience of governments and states to their dictat, as seen in Greece and elsewhere. Panayotakis argues that this corrosive relationship can only be broken by struggling for and extending economic democracy alongside political democracy.

He concludes by offering useful pointers to a way forward – not a blueprint or quasi manifesto – towards what he sees as the key to change: economic democracy. Economic democracy for him means everyone having a say in setting society’s economic priorities and the way wealth is distributed. He sees the world social forum, popular budget-setting as practised in Porto Alegre and in Kerala, as well as worker take-overs of factories in Argentina and Venezuela, as positive examples of people power. He emphasises, though, that successful local struggles or isolated examples of co-operative action will not, of themselves, bring about the necessary changes at national or world level. Panayotakis’s prose can be dryly academic, sometimes repetitive, with the flow interrupted by an over-abundance of source quotes, but despite this minor caveat, this is an insightful and illuminating read for anyone wishing to better comprehend the present crisis and the mechanisms of capitalism. He is also strong on environmentalism and the importance of the feminist project. In his concluding chapter he examines several ideas for future organisation and illustrates these with examples from around the world, without donning any particular sectarian or ideological straitjacket.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Jesus is a macho man
Since Bush and Blair began their ‘crusades’ against terrorism and invoked god as their leader, Christianity entered a new era. They’ve managed to do for modern Christianity what Judas did for it in its early days and he isn’t much loved either.
This new form of macho Christianity has now been taken up with gusto by the Christian right. They feel that the idea of Jesus as a Palestinian Jewish wimp is a historical conspiracy, and argue that he was more a combination of Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger. You probably don’t believe in the idea of Jesus being the son of god anyway and aren’t that much interested in arcane theological debates. But for the Christian Right the image of Jesus is a hot issue.

Most of us, in the western world grew up with images of Jesus as portrayed in the soft hues of Renaissance paintings or El Greco’s lurid sanctimoniousness and then that romantic image, so beloved of the Victorians, of a trans-gender figure, bathed in ethereal light, by Pre-Raphaelite Holman Hunt that used to hang on the wall in every school in the country. All these images were of handsome bearded, mild, fatherly figures. Such images were not fortuitous, but intended to reinforce the church hierarchy’s teachings of subservience, loyal obedience and acceptance of one’s lot in life. The last thing they wanted was for Jesus’ revolutionary and rebellious spirit to be communicated.

It’s not easy to wage a battle against Islam and ‘communistic atheism’ and also to promote and defend the US role as a Christian crusader, with imagery and a message that calls for tolerance, turning the other cheek and even, god help us, pacifism. That’s why some key figures on the Christian Right have decided that Jesus needs a face-lift, an image make-over. They don’t want a feminised wimp as their icon, no ‘Jesus meek and mild’, and have set about creating their own Jesus, not in god’s image but their own fantasy one – a long-maned, Terminator-like figure, resplendent with Christian tattoos, more reminiscent of a handsome Hell’s Angel than a peaceful evangelist.
Such a figure is being promoted in books from the Christian Right with such alluring titles as: ‘No More Mr. Christian Nice Guy’, ‘The Church Impotent – the feminisation of Christianity’, ‘Why Men Hate going to Church’ and ‘No more jellyfish, chickens or wimps – raising secure assertive kids in a tough world’. Paul Coughlin, author of ‘No More Christian Mr. Nice Guy’ hosts a radio show in Southern Oregon and his writings and talks receive wide coverage in the USA. He is also a ‘life coach for passive men’. To give you a flavour, chapter two of his book is titled ‘Jesus the bearded woman’.

Artist Stephen Sawyer is also tapping into these new demands by offering a new iconography. He has his own website ‘Art for God’, and is instrumental in promoting Jesus as muscular Titan. What’s more alarming is that such an outlook is gaining ground in Britain too. Women have always outnumbered men in their adherence to the church and fundamentalists want to redress that balance. Eric Delve is one of those in Britain calling for a more macho image for males to follow. He is founder and chairman of both the Spirit and the Bride Trust and Revival Fire Conferences Ltd and vicar of St Luke’s, Maidstone. Others prefer to use poetry to get their image across, like this ‘poem’ posted online, titled, ‘Jesus Was A Macho Man’:

‘Some, even though Christians, feel that Jesus was a wimp
He taught of love and had to turn the other cheek
I'm here to attest to his mighty strength
And to say that he was not weak…
He could have saved his very own hide just to rebuke the word
But he took the cross on his shoulders because Jesus was a macho man.’
So forget ‘Wesley’s popular hymn ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,’ and start re-learning Monsell and Boyd’s 1863 hymn: ‘Fight the good fight with all thy might - Christ is thy Strength, and Christ thy Right’!

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Murder in Notting Hill
By Mark Olden
Zero Books
Pbck 196pp

‘Sunday May 17 1959. It was late when the phone rang at the Sunday Express. Frank Draper, a junior reporter on the night shift, reached for it. When he was interviewed by the police five weeks later, this was how he described the conversation that followed; “Are you interested in a murder?”’ That’s how Mark Olden’s investigative Odyssey begins. It could be the opening of a classic detective novel, but this is no fiction.

On that early summer day, a young Antiguan carpenter called Kelso Cochrane was stabbed to death on his way home in Notting Hill. Only a year previously the infamous race riots had given the area a new notoriety. Cochrane’s name, like that of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993, soon became symbolic for the state of race relations in Britain as well as a rallying focus for campaigns to free Britain of race hate.

Kelso Cochrane’s murderers were never caught. Mark Olden, TV producer and writer, undertook the arduous task of trying to do what the police failed to: discover the truth about his murder. He had already made an investigative documentary about Cochrane’s killing for the BBC, but with this book he has now turned that into a more in-depth analysis. It is un-put-downable read and, like any good detective story, follows a riveting forensic trail. However, Olden does not just tell the story of a murder, but places Kelso’s killing within a vividly painted social and political context: of Rachman’s infamous slum landlordism in the area, in the wake of the Tory’s abolition of regulated rents, of police corruption, of youth unemployment and a heady mix of new black immigration into an already volatile social milieu.

As with many killings of black people before and since that of Kelso Cochrane, many black people believe that if these murder victims had been white, then the investigations would have been pursued with vigour and more prosecutions would have followed. The chief investigator on Cochrane’s case was Ian Forbes-Leith – an ex-RAF officer who wore a bowler hat to work and whose very traditional, upper crust background seemed particularly unsuitable for an investigator put to work in a deprived working class area of which he would have little understanding or sympathy.

While much has changed in Britain since the late fifties - Britain as a multi-cultural society is now accepted by all, bar a marginal few, and the police have undergone serious race-relations training - a latent racism is still deeply embedded in the psyche of our society. A deterioration of the present economic crisis, rising unemployment and an exacerbated housing shortage could at any time, one feels, awaken that atavistic racism.

Interestingly it was the Labour MP, Barbara Castle, who immediately spotted a possible connection between this racist killing and the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in Kenya. ‘If the British people are going to allow those responsible for the beating of 11 detainees to death in the Hola concentration camp in Kenya to go untraced and unpunished we shall have given the green light to every “nigger-baiting” Teddy Boy in Notting Hill,’ she said. Does that not resonate with Iraq and Afghanistan today, as well as the recent demands for compensation by Kenyan victims of Britain’s imperial brutality in the fifties?

At times, as Olden’s investigation proceeds, it reads as if he were really talking about today. Payment of the police by the media is not apparently, as some may believe, a recent issue. Olden relates how there was corrupt and intimate liaison between top police officers and the media already then, there was also a refusal by the authorities to see this murder as racially motivated and a political elite was desperately trying to put a lid back on the tinderbox. Political myopia is also something common to most governing elites. Olden illustrates how deprivation, unemployment and disaffection by sections of white working class youth fuelled racial hatred and played into the hands of Moseley’s resurgent fascists and Colin Jordan’s abhorrent White Defence League.

Olden also shows how a small anti-racist movement was active even then, led by such figures as the black Communist Claudia Jones. He illustrates how the Conservative government, in cahoots with right wing Caribbean Uncle Toms, attempted to smear the left anti-racist campaign rather than damn the right over Kelso’s death.
While Olden can’t quite prove who the murderer was – many witnesses had died in the meantime, including the putative killer – he leaves little doubt as to who he was. This book is not simply a look back at the past, but a useful historical document that still has resonances for us today.
Mark Olden’s documentary: ‘Who killed my brother, Kelso Cochrane? Was broadcast on BBC 2 in April 2006.

World turned upside down

What is happening out there? Billionaire investor Warren Buffett, in a recent interview with the New York Times, called for the ‘mega-rich’ like himself to pay more in taxes. Is this a rare case of turkeys voting for Christmas?
Buffett noted that the mega-rich pay income tax at 15 percent on most investment income but practically nothing in income tax. Most workers in the USA pay between 15 and 25% in income tax. Buffett says he knows many of the mega-rich well, and most wouldn't mind paying more in taxes, especially when so many of their fellow citizens are suffering. He also said he has yet to see anyone shy away from investing because of tax rates on potential gains. ‘People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off,’ he said.
Then we have Nouriel Roubini, a New York University professor, arguing that Karl Marx's critique of capitalism is being played out in the present global financial crisis. ‘Karl Marx got it right,’ he says, ‘at some point capitalism can destroy itself. We thought markets worked. They're not working.’
He characterises the free market as: ‘The rich run a global system that allows them to accumulate capital and pay the lowest possible price for labour. The freedom that results applies only to them. The many simply have to work harder, in conditions that grow ever more insecure, to enrich the few’. Roubini earned himself the nickname ‘Dr Doom’ for being one of the first economic commentators to declare that there was something rotten and the core of the world's economic system.
These are not isolated cases. Leading newspapers in many countries are today discussing Marx, only a few years after the ‘end of history’ was declared with the demise of the socialist countries of Eastern Europe.
However, the real power brokers - most global financial institutions and political leaders are still advocating wholly orthodox approaches to managing budget deficits and economic instability. The truth is perhaps too scary for them to contemplate. Either that or the temporary winners in the current system are simply filling their pockets with as much as they can before the next even bigger crash.
While the recent riots can hardly be described as working class uprisings, they do reflect the dire situation the present capitalist system finds itself in despite their inarticulacy and wanton vandalism. Those, like Cameron and his fellow Bullingdon boys, who regard these riots as ‘criminality pure and simple’ will see no connection between Roubini's declaration that Marx was right and young people from the inner cities lifting TVs and brand labelled goods from high street shops.
Few would argue that those who took part in the riots were motivated by any higher sense of political insight, but for many it was probably a gut response to a system that pampers the richest and most privileged while ignoring their concerns. They might not be able to list the reasons for their anger and preparedness to simply rob to get what they want, but the unashamed greed, corruption and venality at the top of our political system cannot have completely passed them by.
Schools Minister Michael Gove raged against ‘these criminals’ on Newsnight. This is the same Michael Gove who confused one of his houses with another in order to avail himself of £7,000 (or £13,000, depending on which house you think was which) of taxpayers’ money to which he was not entitled.

Or take Salford MP Hazel Blears, who was loudly calling for draconian action against looters. Is there any ethical distinction between Blears’s expense cheating and tax avoidance, and the robbery carried out by the looters? She cheated apparently forgot which house she lived in, and benefited to the tune of £18,000. Then there was Gerald Kaufman who submitted a claim for three months’ expenses totalling £14,301.60, which included £8,865 for a Bang & Olufsen television. And I could go on listing many more offences committed by our ‘outraged’ leaders. We have to ask who the real looters in our society are.

Even the police, charged with preventing crime and prosecuting criminals are up to their necks in corruption. Former Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman thought nothing of enjoying free champagne dinners with those he was meant to be investigating, and then joined Murdoch’s company on leaving the Met. Or Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson who accepted £12,000 worth of health spa treatment from Champneys, which had an ex-executive editor of News International on its board. Nothing wrong with that, he claimed with outraged dignity. Can these people really be surprised when the country’s culture is swamped in greed and a lust for consumer goods of the most base kind?
We also have the chief political commentator of the Daily ‘Torygraph’, Peter Oborne, in his commentary on18 August, giving his readers a rare dose of home truth. What is the world coming to?

In his piece he said, ‘the moral decay of our society is as bad at the top as the bottom.’ He went on: ‘there was also something very phoney and hypocritical about all the shock and outrage expressed in parliament. MPs spoke about the week’s dreadful events as if they were nothing to do with them. I cannot accept that this is the case. Indeed, I believe that the criminality in our streets cannot be dissociated from the moral disintegration in the highest ranks of modern British society. The last two decades have seen a terrifying decline in standards among the British governing elite. It has become acceptable for our politicians to lie and to cheat. An almost universal culture of selfishness and greed has grown up.’
He wrote of the ‘feral rich’ who live in their safe enclaves of Chelsea and Kensington. Surely this must be like writing a suicide note? It will certainly have had the dowagers and city gents spewing up their croissants as they read his words over breakfast.
Rotherham MP Denis MacShane remarked that, “What the looters wanted was for a few minutes to enter the world of Sloane Street consumption.” This from the man who notoriously claimed £5,900 for eight laptops, but of course, as an MP he obtained them legally through expenses.
Cameron speaks of morality, but only as something to be applied to very poor: ‘We will restore a stronger sense of morality and responsibility – in every town, in every street and in every estate,’ he intoned.
As Oborne put it, ‘These double standards from Downing Street are symptomatic of widespread double standards at the very top of our society. The culture of greed and impunity we are witnessing on our TV screens stretches right up into corporate boardrooms and the Cabinet. It embraces the police and large parts of our media. It is not just its damaged youth, but Britain itself that needs a moral reformation.’
No, the recent riots are not the early sparks of a coming revolution, but they are the pus seeping from the ulcers of a system in terminal decay.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Karl Marx and World Literature
By. S. S. Prawer
Pbck £16.99

Prawer makes clear he is not attempting to discuss Marx’s theories of literary criticism, but to illuminate the role literature played in Marx’s life and development of his thinking. It is an absorbing and accessible investigation. He reveals a sensitive and highly perceptive approach to Marx’s relationship with world literature and the way it helped shape his world view. He has a deep understanding and sympathy for Marx’s political thinking and an exceptional knowledge of Marx’s work, and is thus able to make the relevant and appropriate connections.

As recipients of a solid German secondary school education, both Marx and Engels gained a thorough grounding in the classical literature of Greece and Rome as well as Biblical Hebrew, alongside the greats of the European enlightenment - Voltaire, Shakespeare, Goethe etc. While the future political ideas of both men would challenge some of the most determinedly held assumptions of western establishments, they found much of their inspiration in the literary works of the past.

As a young student Marx was more interested in literature than history or philosophy and one of his earliest dreams was to become a writer and he toyed with the idea of publishing his poetry. Even in his earliest literary efforts as a teenager one can find the germs of his later thinking. He identified closely with literary figures who were men of action, ‘world changers’, like Prometheus and Odysseus. In his own poems he expresses an overpowering drive to action, for ‘praxis’, rejecting romantic contemplation. A whole number of Marx’s mature ideas appear to have found their nascence in key images from literature. Certainly the evocative and fiery language used in the Communist Manifesto testifies to Marx’s eloquent command of language.

Much of his early writings are littered with preconfigurations of his later mature thinking. In the poem ‘Human pride, written as a 19 year-old, he evokes the ‘alienation’ and oppressiveness of a modern city, but emphasises that the city’s buildings did not create themselves, but were made by human ingenuity i.e. human labour. Even though strongly influenced by European romantic writers, he very early on rejects romanticism as a road to understanding society. He sees writers, poets and painters as ‘producers’ of works, in the same way that craftsmen and women are; not in the first instance as a different species of humanity - ‘creative beings’.

Marx recognised the dialectical connection between aesthetics and content. It was often the case, as with Balzac and Dickens, that the authors themselves were not political militants, but captured essential truths about the societies they wrote about. He and Engels were among the first to recognise that literature and indeed all the arts were dialectically related and connected to the societies in which they were produced. Marx considered literature a means of establishing complex connections between humanity’s economic and cultural activities. He made clear that not only economic and social struggle matter, but demonstrated how artistic works can and do enrich our world. He never fell into the trap of praising writers who held progressive ideas, but were poor writers.
Many crude Marxists have attempted to establish direct causal links between works of art and the economic system. Marx always emphasised, though, that the base-superstructure relationship between the arts and the economic system was not a mechanical one; works of art don’t simply reflect the societies in which they were given birth, but are refracted and may have only a tenuous link with the economic base. Only in a communist society, he argued, will everyone be in a position to express themselves creatively; as long as class society exists, the ruling classes will maintain their hegemony over creative labour.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

5 July 2011

Dear Sir,

Erecting a monument to Ronald Reagan in London is an offence not only to Londoners, but to all humanity. This small-time actor, a one time Nazi sympathiser and anti-Semite climbed the career ladder by shopping his fellow actors and film-makers to the House Un-American Activities Committee. It is a terrible comment on our times that someone like Reagan, with a political mindset stuck in the McCarthy era, ignorant, simplistic in his thinking and an inveterate liar could be elected president of the USA. His avuncular charm masked his sclerotic cowboy imperialist mentality. He used secret drug money to fund an illegal war (according to the findings of his own country’s judiciary) against revolutionary Nicaragua which wiped out the cream of that country’s young leaders and professionals. He also led the invasion of the tiny island of Grenada with the excuse that Cuba was building a missile base there. Reagan’s championing of a massive US re-armament campaign under his paranoid Star Wars initiative would almost certainly have led us into a third world war if Gorbachov had not thrown in the towel. It was Gorbachov who ended the Cold War, not Reagan.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Is your job killing you?

Most of us are defined by the job we do. It’s usually the first thing strangers ask: ‘What do you do for a living?’ We used to talk about pride in our work too, but now with Britons spending more time toiling than ever, and stress levels at record levels is this still the case? The average working week in the UK is now three hours longer than the European average according to TUC figures.

You only have to look at recent surveys and sociological investigations to recognise that people’s job satisfaction levels have also plunged. Alienation in the workplace is the most characteristic and chronic symbol of the present phase of capitalist development. And, on top of that, take home pay is at its lowest since 1981 according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

Alienation was an aspect of capitalism that Marx highlighted, but it receives little exposition. Battles till now, particularly those waged by the trade union movement, have been fought over the need for jobs and the right to work, rather than the issue of what sort of jobs we want. Of course, having a job is still the bottom line as far as survival is concerned, but perhaps we should now be addressing more strongly what sort of jobs we want in a civilised society.

The logic of capitalism is to squeeze out of the worker as much surplus value as possible. This is done by forcing down wages, by making us work longer hours and by using fewer workers.

Perhaps some readers will remember the Harold Wilson era when the government talked excitedly about the impact of technology and how it would free us from mundane work and we would need to be educated to utilise the enormously increased leisure time that would be generated. Books and learned articles were written about the issue. Today we have a technology far more sophisticated and labour-saving than those gurus of the Wilson era could have dreamt of, but what has happened to all the leisure promised? We are now working longer hours and more intensively than ever. Jobs have become even more routine and robotic. We now have more part-time working and a massive increase in low-skilled service jobs; workers are increasingly placed under electronic surveillance, their every move observed and monitored. Even the most mundane control over our daily working lives is being taken from us. Even the promises of a proper work-life balance seem to have been forgotten.

Work, as Marx so eloquently expressed it, should not be like that and in a better organised society, ‘Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. ... Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.' Alienation and stress at work takes an enormous toll on the lives of workers and their families. The resultant ill-health is also a drain on the health service, and it shortens as well as destroys lives.

Stress has consistently been the second most commonly reported type of work-related illness, according to the HSE. In 2009/10 an estimated 435, 000 working people in Britain suffered stress caused or made worse by their work. This equates to 1,500 per 100, 000 people (1.5%). But these figures only cover illness, not stress itself. Work-related stress is one of the biggest causes of sick leave. In a 2006 HSE survey, one in six working people in the UK reported that their job was very or extremely stressful and that figure will no doubt be even higher today.

Diana Holland, assistant general secretary of Unite, underlined the consequences of stress at a TUC disability conference in May: 'This time of cuts and fears about the future is causing tremendous anxiety for working people. For many workers these are very uncertain times. Higher targets, increased workloads, more pressure and less staff are placing an unbearable strain on workers.' She added: 'The good news though is that stress at work is avoidable. If management carry out risk assessments and act swiftly to put action plans in place, work-related stress can be tackled. This is why Unite is calling on all its workplace representatives to conduct Stress at Work surveys.’

Even mild stress has been proven to lead to people being unable to work, health experts say. Research carried out by the University of Bristol and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden reveal that even mild stress increases the chance of someone being on disability payments for physical problems by 70 per cent, and more than doubles the likelihood they will suffer psychiatric problems. It also found a strong relationship between increasing levels of psychological distress and the likelihood of being awarded a disability pension within five years. One in four benefits for physical illness, such as high blood pressure, angina and stroke, and almost two-thirds for mental illness, were attributable to stress.
The TUC has said that jobs are the single biggest cause of stress, and this can be caused by a variety of factors, such as overwork, bullying, low job satisfaction, job insecurity, new ways of working, poor management, pace of work and lack of control over the job you are paid to do. Mental symptoms of stress range from sleeplessness and listlessness through to clinical depression and suicide. The physical effects range from appetite loss and nausea through to heart damage and stroke. Stress is, above all, a symptom of alienation.
Cary Cooper, Distinguished Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University Management School, says that the growing long hours culture is symptomatic of unmanageable workloads and that the stress of this is directly related to medical problems and long-term absence form work.
Research on effects of long-hours working among civil servants reveals that working more than 11 hours a day increases the risk if heart disease by 67%. The increase in retirement age being brought in by this government will mean even more people becoming ill while at work
Returning to Marx once again, he says, alienation is a systemic result of capitalism. His theory is founded on his observation that, ‘within the capitalist mode of production, workers invariably lose determination over their lives and destinies by being deprived of the right to conceive of themselves as the director of their actions, to determine the character of their actions, to define their relationship to other actors, to use or own the value of what is produced by their actions.’ Workers become autonomous, but are directed into activities dictated by those who own the means of production in order to extract from them the maximal amount of surplus value. ‘Alienation in capitalist societies,’ he says, ‘occurs because workers can only express this fundamentally social aspect of their individuality through a production system that is not collectively, but privately owned, a privatised asset for which each individual functions not as a social being, but as an instrument.’
In response to the present coalition-imposed job cuts and lower wages, we need to challenge the whole concept of work in this context. We are not born to be wage slaves all our life. We must demand humane working conditions, jobs that provide satisfaction and allow adequate time for leisure. The technology and know-how is there to make this possible immediately. Only the system needs changing!

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Marx Was Right
By Terry Eagleton
Pubs. Yale University Press
Hdbck £16.99

This is no abstract argumentation, but an eloquent, fact-based rebuttal of the usual criticisms of Marxism; Eagleton buttresses his own arguments using Marx’s own texts. He takes aim at ten of the most standard criticisms and systematically shoots them down like an accomplished clay pigeon marksman. Leavened with Brechtian wit, his argumentation is succinct and to the point.

‘Rather as a bout of dengue fever makes you newly aware of your body,’ he writes, ‘so a form of social life [capitalism] can be perceived for what it is when it begins to break down. Capitalism is uniquely in crisis, the system has ceased to be as natural as the air we breathe, and can be seen instead as the historically rather recent phenomenon it is.’

Eagleton stresses Marx’s dictum that the collapse of capitalism will not automatically take us to socialism, but could just as easily lead to barbarism if we are unable to build strong political, socialist movements. In confronting reformism, he quotes R.H. Tawny - very apposite given the shambles social democracy now finds itself in – ‘you can peel an onion layer by layer but you cannot defeat a tiger claw by claw!’

Referring to Lenin, Eagleton points out that unfortunately revolutions are most likely to break out in places where they are hardest to sustain, as in Tsarist Russia or feudal China. He underlines that people will only be prepared to undertake revolution when they indeed have ‘nothing to lose but their chains’. As long as capitalism can offer a measure of satisfaction and fulfil many of our needs, there will be no clamour for changing the system.

He knocks down the well-worn argument that ‘Marxists believe in an all-powerful state’. Marx’s ideal model of government, he points out, was the Paris Commune. Workers cannot, in any case, simply take over the state, as its structure has been refined for the purposes of the ruling bourgeois class. Marx writes that ‘instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes.’ The Commune, Marx concludes, was essentially a working-class government.

Eagleton knows the writings of Marx inside out and also doesn’t ignore Engels or Lenin, in his argumentation. Unfortunately he does, though, continue to peddle the myth of Engels as a ‘philanderer’. He needs to remember that it was Marx who made his housekeeper pregnant, not Engels! But that is a minor quibble about a volume that is thought-provoking, optimistic and which you can chuckle over. He is a writer who believes passionately in what he writes. His words often slash like razor blades, and with dialectical panache he can suddenly illuminate dark corners with unexpected bolts of lightening.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Letter publishewd in Guardian 24 May 2011 on Labour Party policy
Ed Miliband says he ‘has listened’ to what the electorate wants, but his latest policy statement is nothing more than a rehash of his acceptance speech after winning the Labour Party leadership. So what has he learned by listening? ( ‘Why I’ll never hug a husky’; Guardian 21 May)
He says the last Labour government ‘made mistakes’, but it wasn’t mistakes it made by adopting its ideological obsequiousness to big business. It accepted the precepts of the global financial institutions and believed, sailing blithely on the wave of incontinent consumer spending, that ‘boom and bust’ were of the past. It is its failure to understand the incendiary characteristics of casino capitalism that has led us into the present ongoing crisis.
His language, too, shows that he hasn’t understood the need for ideological change. Giving people a chance to ‘get onto the housing ladder’, as he writes, reveals the same blinkered thinking that characterised New Labour. Housing should be a right, and most people want simply that: a decent place to live. The ladder concept is a Thatcherite one and implies buying to invest, moving up the property and status chain, and it is that sort of thinking which created the housing bubble in the first place.
Until the Labour Party is able to offer people an alternative vision to outdated capitalism and imbue them with realistic hope of a society based on justice, fairness and stability, they will be doomed to repeat the sad history of social democracy throughout Europe.
The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance
By Robin Tudge
Pubs. New Internationalist (2011)
Pbck £7.99

In Berlin recently I happened to drive past a new building site which looked like an enormous prison complex or brutalist housing estate. Curious, I read the sign and learned that this will be the new HQ of the quaintly-named Federal News Service (BND) - the German equivalent of our own MI5. It is a salutary reminder of the central power such spying agencies occupy in our societies today. In his book, Tudge offers numerous examples of the epidemic-like spread and tentacular reach of surveillance systems everywhere.

This is the 12th in the excellent New Internationalist series of guides to vital subjects ranging from Islam to human rights, from global terrorism to Green politics. Tudge demonstrates how seemingly innocuous TV shows like Big Brother help inure us to the idea that surveillance is merely entertainment, with no insidious purpose. He takes us on a historical rollercoaster of how surveillance systems have developed from our earliest historical beginnings. God, of course, is the prototypical ideal of omniscient surveillance. Tudge demonstrates how ruling elites throughout history have developed and refined systems of surveillance as a means of controlling their underlings.

His research is meticulous and comprehensive, but he does, inexplicably, call the Tsarist secret police, the Ochrinka instead of its correct name Okhrana. It is a good read, not short on black humour, but also much useful detail. My main criticism is that it builds a scary scenario of a future ruled by TV cameras, data banks and ID systems, in which we will all live permanently on a ‘Big Brother’ planet, but he offers no suggestions as to how to combat or avert such a scenario.

Monday, 2 May 2011

The Banker who knows his Kapital
Edgar Most has recently retired from his position as a director of the Deutsche Bank in Berlin, but still works a full week using his banking and financial skills to argue forcefully for an end to jungle capitalism. His outlook and career are unique in the financial world. In GDR times he was Vice-president of the State Bank and knew the socialist economy inside out. With the demise of the GDR and its incorporation into the Federal Republic, he immediately founded German Credit Bank – the first private bank on the territory of the former GDR. By doing so he was able to secure the jobs of 13,000 ex-GDR bank employees who would otherwise have ended on the scrap-heap. When this bank was taken over shortly after unification by the big Deutsche Bank, he was made a member of the board.

Most makes no secret of his former membership of the Socialist Unity Party or his pride in what the GDR achieved. Born during the war, the son of a Thuringian miner, he was given every opportunity by the GDR state to gain the necessary qualifications for a career in banking. His abilities and commitment to the socialist state saw him rise rapidly to become, at 26, the GDR’s youngest bank director and later Vice-president of its State Bank.

‘My father was a simple man with a high sense of morality and ethics. Today in our society I miss that. This society produces so much immorality. Politicians are corrupt, many lawyers feel no obligation to justice and law. There is fiddling, chicanery hustling, tax fraud is an everyday sport and even doctors can be bribed by pharmaceutical companies. I know that making such criticisms is deemed populist, but it’s still true that this latent immorality brutalises and perverts society.’

‘I don’t have dreams of a communist utopia any longer,’ he says, ‘the new human beings that would require are simply not there. I’m a pragmatic thinking person, who has genuinely studied his Marx. I completely agree with his analysis of capitalism - how it becomes deformed once you loosen the reins. But I too, as a left-thinking person, have not given up seeking ways to bring about a more just society in which everyone has the freedom to develop their potential. However, ‘without capital human society can’t function,’ he emphasises, ‘but of itself it is not fair, democratic or scrupulous. In the world of capital, there is no constitution, no submission to an electorate and no moral code. Capital is oriented towards profit maximisation and becomes an explosive mixture that threatens the stability of states, economic systems and societies.’ Of course many people are now asking how this crisis was caused, was it bank managers, corrupt rating agencies, dilettante regulation or are politicians to blame or, as I maintain, capitalism itself.

For Most the central question is how the state can rein-in jungle capitalism, to prevent it devouring itself. The vital need, he argues, is for the relationship between capital and state to be re-structured. He is optimistic that it can be done and very clear that what we are now experiencing is not simply a financial crisis but a crisis of the system itself and, he says, it demands a new ordering of the world-wide economy. Part of his solution is to break up the big banks, nationalise the ratings agencies and introduce a global currency. Sadly, the strongest symptom of the continued crisis is the mass flight of the so-called elite from any sense of responsibility, he says.

‘The effects of this crisis can only be controlled to a limited extent by individual governments or institutions. There can be no return to the previous situation; we have to look to the future and deal with the real problems and introduce the necessary regulatory mechanisms commensurate with a globalised economy. The World Bank should be placed under the governorship of the UN and an attempt should be made to introduce a global currency with strict regulatory mechanisms in place, under uncompromising oversight. If we wish to puncture the balloon of casino capitalism and its system-endangering speculative bubbles, then we have to go down this road.’

He has written two best-selling books ‘Funfzig Jahre im Auftrag des Kapitals’ (Fifty years working for capital), a form of autobiography and ‘Sprengstoff Kapital’ (Explosive Capital) in which he is interviewed about his ideas.

He feels that with his experience at the top of a socialist bank for 26 years and then working in a capitalist bank, has given him unique insights which he is determined to pass on to others.

When he first started working for Deutsche Bank, he says his new ‘West German’ colleagues saw him as an oddity and felt themselves superior. They didn’t take kindly to his criticisms and suggestions for improvement. He tried to tell them that in the GDR they had dealt with a number of social and economic problems that the new Germany and Europe as a whole were now facing, but that only irritated them. The GDR, he says, was more conscious of these problems and offered better solutions.

He vehemently refuses to accept that the GDR was, as the German government and the mainstream media describe it, as an ‘Unrechtsstaat’ (an unjust and illegal state). He makes no secret of his feelings of affection for the GDR which he still views as his real homeland. Of course there was good and bad in the GDR and he had his own difficulties battling the bureaucrats and officialdom, but he was ‘nevertheless hundred percent behind the state and what it stood for’. Most blames Gorbachov for what happened with the GDR. He maintains that the country could have survived in a different form and most of the industries and jobs could have been saved if there had been no rush to impose the West German currency and if Gorbachov had not preferred a quick agreement with Kohl the conqueror rather than one with his defeated comrades in the East.

‘Here in Europe we are confronted with appalling levels of imbalance. There are also the inequalities in wealth distribution. The numbers of badly paid and short-term contract workers is mounting in the so-called ‘wealthy’ countries; German salaries have been almost static or sinking for years. These widening disparities of income and wealth are not only socially corrosive and unjust, but signify a decreasing purchasing power.

Instead of re-investing in productive capital what would make economic sense, many big firms have accumulated financial capital and use it for speculation, much of it abroad, and in the deficit countries of the EU (Portugal, Ireland etc). Today the financial conjurors are borrowing low interest money from the European Central bank and lending it to these countries that are in deep trouble at interest rates of 8, 9 or 10%. That’s great business!’

‘For a long time now I’ve been of the opinion that the term “worldwide financial crisis” is not a proper description. It’s abundantly clear that we are facing a crisis whose root causes lie within the system itself; in that sense spending millions in order to rescue banks is only tinkering with the symptoms. In the system that rules at the moment, finance and the real economy have become de-coupled. More and more capital flows into financial instruments instead of into the real economy. That’s happening not only in the USA where Wall Street’s contribution to the Gross National Product, in comparison with the producing sector, has increased enormously. The stock exchanges have speculated with borrowed money – there are a few winners and countless losers. Economic experts have calculated that the total indebtedness within the global financial markets between 1970-2005 rose by a factor of thirty times and the monetary value of shares rose by a factor of forty. In the meantime trading in the financial markets at 4,400 trillion dollars annually is larger by a factor of seventy than annual worldwide economic output. That signifies an incredible expansion of income from financial and property transactions, making it only logical that the contribution made by the productive sector has, in comparison, continually decreased.

‘With the power of the dollar and its military the US wanted to prevent the spread of socialism in the world. What during the Cold War was masked under the cloak of ideology and was accelerated by the collapse of communism, is very clear today: money became a thing to be traded in its own right.’ What was a symbol for expressing value, a simplification of the bartering process, took on a life of its own. Money was no longer the oil keeping the wheels of real industry and commerce turning, but a means of reproducing itself.

‘For years the sanctity of deregulation and reducing the role of the state to a minimum has been preached along with the theory of the self-regulating market with, in Most’s opinion, devastating consequences. Capital and the market became the rulers of the system and began to determine economic policies, politics and social processes. Capitalism was given a totally free rein. But Capital is not of itself ‘social’ and cannot be.

If the political powers only tackle symptoms of the crisis instead of fixing the structural deficiencies in the system, then capitalism will destroy itself in the short or longer term,’ he says categorically.

‘Our society is as sick as the banking system – individual states have profited from a financial system that is now seen as obnoxious. In the USA and UK for instance the financial sector now accounts for at least a third of GDP. This makes me furious because the consequence of their shameless financial greed and the crash is that there has been and is an ongoing redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, from the many to the few, from individuals to capital conglomerates. But in the end the bankers and financiers have only taken the opportunities opened up by the politicians in a de-regulated market.’ This crisis has also exposed the vacuousness of the establishment economic theorists.

‘From my experience as a GDR state banker,’ he says, ‘I have always said that internationally we need to control the amount of money in circulation and enforce limitations if it increases beyond the values created by society. In the GDR we had long debates on the question of credit and inflationary tendencies and felt that credit needed to be tightly controlled.’ In the West the opposite approach was taken. ‘Money-making machines can always be set in motion, he says, ‘but the products and consequences of this are seldom recognised or understood. Because we in the GDR had a non-convertible currency and a reasonably insulated market so we were able to regulate the amount of money in circulation and keep inflation under control.’

‘In the East, we took some steps in this direction. I wouldn’t want to spread illusions, but Comecon was set up to regulate trade between the USSR and the other socialist countries and for this purpose the ‘Transfer Rouble’ (as a common trading currency) was introduced and the system functioned very well over many years. But many view such examples only through ideological blinkers and reject them out of hand. What is also vital is that the political sphere reasserts its primacy over the economy and re-orders the relationship between state and capital. After all, the end goal is that capital serves the needs and requirements of society. If politics can’t achieve that – and on a global scale – than the financial world will continue to be unregulated and will carry on as before. Every day over 4 billion dollars are being traded around the world in currency speculation and the profits from that end up in private pockets. One doesn’t know what the immense credit and credit card deals mean for the banking system, let alone the exorbitant state debt that has brought whole countries to the edge of bankruptcy.’

Finally, he says, perceptively: ‘I take care not to make money my ultimate goal; then you become a slave to it. Because you don’t have the freedom to handle money but continually worry how to make it grow.’

Most quotations are taken from the book, Sprengstoff Kapital by Edgar Most in an interview with the journalist Steffen Uhlmann Pubs. Das Neue Berlin 2011.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Dancing with Dynamite - social movements and States in Latin America
By Benjamin Dangl
AK Press
Pbck. £12.00

History teaches us that one of the central problems of any successful revolution is that once revolutionaries gain power they become conservatives or, even worse, congeal into authoritarian regimes. How can we ensure that a revolution maintains its momentum for change and radicalism? How can the grass-roots movements that brought about the change ensure that they are not neutered and absorbed into the new power structures? Mao was very much aware of this dilemma and the Chinese Communist Party’s Great Leap Forward, followed by the Cultural Revolution were attempts to maintain a ‘permanent revolution’ and prevent ossification happening.

Dangl takes seven Latin American countries that have recently experienced radical grass-roots movements that have successfully led to progressive governments. He examines the relationship between these movements and the new governments in the context of how radical and democratic grass-roots movements can maintain their momentum without undermining the progressive governments that are fulfilling many of their hopes.

His is an anarchist perspective, but he knows Latin America well and he provides a clear and sympathetic account of the tectonic changes that have happened there over recent decades. In a mixture of factual narrative, vivid description and interviews, Dangl gives us a comprehensive overview of what has been happening and poses some apposite questions.

In Venezuela, for instance, he shows how a radical restructuring of political power, never before seen in Latin America, has transformed the country. On the other hand power is very centralised around Chavez and clientism is still inherent in the system. Chavismo could easily be transformed into even more of a personality cult than it already is. Dangl, while fully supporting the present governments, certainly doesn’t wear rose-tinted spectacles and pinpoints the potential problem of charismatic leaders like Chavez, and Morales in Bolivia, who are the repository of people’s hopes and aspirations, and wield enormous power. They won power on the tsumani of a mass movement of the poor and dispossessed, but they still have to build the effective power structures to maintain their revolutions. Since coming to power, Chavez has devolved an enormous amount of power to the people and encouraged participatory democracy at grass-roots level, but will that be maintained? Some elements in the government undoubtedly do see local movements and organisations merely as transmission belts of state policy (similar to what happened in the socialist countries) A dependency upon such central and powerful figures holds its own dangers.

The anarchist solution to radical political change probably places too much faith in the effectiveness of local autonomy and fully devolved power, but a highly centralised state system is certainly not the answer either, as has been well demonstrated. A useful and thought-provoking book.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Letter to NS

The description of many socialists and social democrats as being essentially conservative is a not a new concept, but conservatism needs to be properly defined. Maurice Glasman (NS 3 April 2011) seems to confuse this with ‘blue’ Conservatism. Many on the left wish to see the reinstatement of the essential human values of community, solidarity and equality of opportunity – all conservative values. The so-called Conservatives are the real revolutionary wreckers because they are prepared to destroy any sense of society, of social cohesion and human progress in their worship of market forces and the profit motive. We have allowed them to hijack the conservative idea with our own amour fou for revolution. The majority of citizens want, above all, stability and security in their lives, not revolutionary turmoil. The Conservatives can never offer that because their belief in the sanctity of market forces means that life will be continual turmoil, marked by financial crises, job insecurity and destructive individualism. Socialism, based more on co-operatives than state-run enterprises, can offer that security and stability, as long as the necessary checks and balances are in place to prevent state domination, as happened in Eastern Europe.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Libya and the myth of humanitarian aid
Once again military intervention, this time in Libya, is justified on the basis of ‘humanitarian concern’. Despite the recent devastating experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, lessons have not been learned.

I, like many Star readers no doubt, was shocked to see that all but 15 MPs, including a number of left-wingers, voted with the Con-Dem coalition in support of military intervention in Libya. Why do so many blindly accept that this is justified? They argue that ‘we’ cannot just stand by and see innocent civilians being murdered by a despot, but they don’t ask why it is apparently all right to do so in the many cases of other despotic rulers. Why has Gaddafi been singled out?

There are few, if any, examples in the whole history of mankind when states have intervened militarily in other countries’ affairs for humanitarian reasons. In the past, nation states always undertook military adventures for pure economic gain, even if these were masked by slogans of imperial glory and of ‘liberating’ the natives. In the more recent past, with nation states superseded by globalised financial capital, we have been witnessing supra-national interventions, still for economic gain, but now in the interests of global capitalism rather than individual nation states.

Even the war against Hitler, upheld as a fight of good against evil, of democracy versus fascism, was waged for economic reasons – Hitler threatened British world dominance. Yugoslavia is the most recent aggression to be cited as a successful ‘humanitarian intervention’ and used to justify the same in Libya, but again this obscures the real reasons. Professor Gibbs of the University of Arizona pointed this out recently in his article in the Guardian where he said that ‘The idea that Kosovo is a model of humanitarian intervention in Libya is based on a series of myths’. Before military intervention, Yugoslavia was still nominally a socialist country and refused to kow-tow to European Union dictates and open up its country to neo-liberal privatisation. Its break up was essential to bring all European countries under the one umbrella of global capitalism. Germany, in an unprecedented move, began the process by unilaterally recognising Croatia. Serbia, in a desperate attempt to hold the federation together, began a counter offensive. Atrocities were committed, but not on a large scale to begin with – these only escalated after armed NATO intervention. Once Muslim mercenaries were brought in to fight on the side of the Kosovans, and NATO began its bombing, things deteriorated rapidly. Subsequent atrocities and ethnic cleansing of the Serbs by Kosovans have elicited few words of condemnation and no calls for international intervention. So much for humanitarian concerns.

The left opposing such wars is accused by the warmongers of knee jerk reaction: of blindly condemning anything the USA or Britain does. There may be some who react in this way, but to dismiss all opposition to such ill-planned military adventurism in this way is no argument. What this dichotomy of views really reveals is that some understand the dynamics of social change, and politics as a class-based struggle for hegemony in the world and others see things through class-neutral glasses. If you fail to understand the underlying economic and class mechanisms of social movements, then you fail to understand the principles of history and will always be in danger of falling into the trap of supporting ruling class action, believing the fig-leaf justifications, rather than looking for the underlying motivations.

The supporters of Cameron and Sarkozy’s gung-ho Libyan intervention should ask themselves why the West has not called for intervention over the killing of civilian protesters in Bahrain or Yemen on in Israel over its bombing of unarmed civilians in the Gaza Strip, but there is only an embarassing silence.

The reason Libya has been targeted is that Gaddafi, despite a recent rapprochement with the West, was always a maverick and not an easily controlled puppet like those ruling other Middle-East oil-rich countries. Of course he is a dictatorial leader, but little different from the dozens of others with whom the west has very close relations.

The real knee-jerk reaction here is that of NATO forces imposing a no fly zone and bombing Libya with no thought-out long-term strategy, with no political solutions on offer. It is simply another example of a member of the awkward squad being taught the lesson that you stand up to western imperialism at your peril.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Letter to Guardian

Garton Ash offers the Arab countries advice on overcoming their dictatorial pasts by holding up Germany as a model: ‘out of the experience of dealing with two dictatorships contemporary Germany offers the gold standard for dealing with a difficult past’ (Guardian 17 March - Germany can show reborn nations the art of overcoming a difficult past). His description is a good example of how not to conduct Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with history). His amnesia or ignorance of the way West Germany dealt with its Nazi past is astounding. Hitler’s chief of counter insurgency became the Federal Republic’s top intelligence agent, Nazi generals like Hans Speidel continued to serve in the top echelons of the army (General Bastian, who became a leading Green and peace campaigner was forced out of the Bundeswehr by unreconstructed Nazis still in positions of power); leading judges, doctors and academics who served the Nazis with ardent commitment continued in their former posts while those who had fought the fascists were often persecuted, had their pensions docked and were treated as lepers. The present meticulously orchestrated campaign against the GDR state security forces has more to do with extirpating any remaining ‘nostalgia’ for the GDR and of the idea of an alternative to capitalism than it does with a genuine desire to overcome the past.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Lyttelton Theatre at the National
Plays until April 2011

A play about climate change doesn’t sound like a thrilling subject for the theatre. Theatre can deal easily with grand concepts, but not with abstract ones. Here four of Britain’s brightest young writers - Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne – have been given the task of bringing the clock-ticking issue of global warming home to us in a series of vignettes that are only related in terms of subject matter. A small ensemble of versatile actors plays all the various roles. They achieve this seamlessly and with real verve. This is not theatre in the traditional sense, more like Peter Brook’s anti-Vietnam war drama, ‘US’ - a kind of agit-prop. It raises many of the questions we all encounter, not least the head-in-the-sand behaviour of, ‘I don’t think it will affect me and the science is dubious anyway’. The issues of the sustainability of mass consumption with food being flown into our supermarkets from all over the world; the role played by the big oil and gas companies in frustrating climate control measures; which forms of active protest to adopt - all are explored through the intimate interaction of individuals. The play manages to avoid an over-earnestness and the writers inject plenty of humour to lighten the apocalyptic vision, symbolised by thunderous noise, frenetic strobe lighting and on-stage chaos. I particularly liked the advice given on where to buy a house to be safe from rising sea levels – choose one near Hinckley Point, as the government is bound to do all in its power to stop a nuclear power station being flooded, but not to save Brighton or Bournemouth! I also like the appearance of an incredibly realistic and very hungry polar bear that traumatises a camp of arctic researchers. It is a short, two-hour piece and, despite imaginative and effective direction by Bijan Sheibani and a strong commitment and persuasiveness by the actors, you feel it wouldn’t be able to hold your attention for much longer. It is, though, a very worthwhile dramatic polemic for young people and those still sitting on the fence. The National is to be congratulated on trying to address burning contemporary issues in this way, and judging by the packed auditorium of mainly young people, it is succeeding splendidly.
Marxism Today
By Phil Collins
BFI Gallery
4 Feb- 10 April

Phil Collins, a Turner Prize short listed artist, here looks at the legacy of the German Democratic Republic from the perspective of today in the midst of a capitalist economic meltdown. He has found three former teachers of Marxism-Leninism in the GDR (interestingly all three women) and he interviews them about their past and what the demise of the GDR has meant to them. He has made two short documentaries that run back-to-back at the BFI’s gallery on the South Bank. One film allows one of the women, who has a Ph.D in economics, explain to a class of sceptical students the basis of Marxist economic theory, particularly the idea of surplus value. She is a vivacious and very articulate communicator and gives a highly convincing and graphic demonstration. The other film is made up of interviews with the three ex-teachers, intercut with GDR-made documentary material, as well as shots of the bronze sculpture of Marx being (temporarily) removed from Berlin’s Marx Engels Platz during its renovation. What a welcome blast of fresh air to have here a young artist determined to search for a truth at variance with the mainstream narrative of a Stasi-run state where everyone was oppressed and unhappy. These three women relate how fulfilling their lives were in the GDR and how much they believed in the system. How the GDR’s disappearance was a traumatic shock in their lives, forcing them to retrain and cope with the exigencies of a capitalist system for the first time. One of them relates how the then Chancellor Kohl came to East Germany and offered bananas and Coca Cola to the naively celebrating crowds. ‘That’s why I no longer eat bananas or drink Coca Cola, she says forcefully and with dignity. These films should be seen by anyone who wants to understand that the GDR also had its supporters and why they believed in socialism. It is a highly effective antidote to the Stalinist caricatures that are usually peddled.
It is also beautifully filmed, mostly in close-up with an unusually static camera, and with no intrusive interrogation by the interviewer to interrupt the flow of what the three women have to say. Almost all of it is in German with excellently translated English subtitles, although one of the lecturers gives her interview in very good English.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg
Ed. Georg Adler, Peter Hudis & Annelies Laschitza
translated by George Shriver
Pubs. Verso

This volume of 230 of her letters was published to commerorate the 40th anniversary of her birth in March 1871, based largely on the German selection, Herzlichst, Ihre Rosa, and published by Dietz Verlag in the GDR in 1989. This is the first volume in English of what is hoped will eventually be her complete works in 14 volumes.
Verso is once again to be congratulated for publishing this collection for the first time in English, in an excellent translation by George Shriver. What is also invaluable is a glossary of personalities mentioned in the letters and very informative footnotes.
Luxemburg has always been a controversial figure on the Left, but was revered in her day and was undoubtedly one of the alltime leading thinkers of the socialist and communist movements.
She famously clashed with Lenin on the tactics adopted by the Bolsheviks and was always clear that socialism at the expense of democracy was not a road she was willing to take.
Like all collections of letters not originally intended for a wider readerhsip or publication, much here is concerned with the daily trials and tribulations of friends, comrades and lovers and observations of a purely personal nature. They do, though, give a unique insight into her character, her deep humanity as well as her passionate commitment to the struggle for socialism. Her unsuccessful attempts to reconcile her need for personal love, stability and homely pleasures with the enormous demands of the struggle would be ideal material for a dramatist.
She was often imprisoned by the German authorities who feared her fiery rhetoric and popularity, and included here are some of her prison letters. Despite the harsh conditions and frustration at her incarceration, she always dismisses her own deprivations to enquire about the health and well-being of friends outside and always attempts to cheer them up and reignite their commitment to the cause. She can be severely critical, uncompromisingly militant but also warm and compassionate. Her resilience in the face of great odds, her thirst for knowledge and breadth of interests, as well as her self-sacrifice and sense of humour are still inspirations for us today.
The odd quirky Americanisms grate a little but are minor: ‘Kuchen’ is hardly ‘Cookie’ and ‘Titmice’ will sound archaic to an English readership.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Interview with Gesine Lötzsch – Co-Chair of Die Linke Germany
Gesine Lötzsch, the first woman leader of Die Linke, the Left Party in Germany, is widely seen as representative of the ‘pragmatic wing’ of the party and, when Oskar Lafontaine resigned the leadership (for health reasons) she called on party members to maintain unity, as only this could ensure a continuation of the party’s successful struggle for social justice.

She is comfortable with her leading position and can count on a strong local party organisation. She is recognised and respected as an excellent trouble-shooter, helping to heal arguments and reach consensus.

In the difficult period between 2002 and 2005, when the PDS failed to jump the 5% hurdle for automatic party representation, she was one of only two PDS representatives in the Bundestag. There Lötzsch has the reputation of being a very competent commentator on economic affairs and someone who can articulate clear positions.

The left in post-war Germany has never had a female leader. I remind her that here we had Margaret Thatcher and Germany has Angela Merkel, also a politician who grew up in the GDR. Neither, I suggest, is an ideal of political progress. Will she be different?

‘I certainly hope I can be’, she says emphatically, ‘they were probably role models for the political right, but I hope I can be a role model for a more progressive political agenda.’

I wonder whether growing up in the GDR provided a useful background and if it had been in any way a positive experience. ‘Yes it was,’ she says, ‘it gave me a sense of collective responsibility and heightened awareness of what building a more just and socialist society is all about – both in a positive and a negative sense.’

In the GDR Ms. Lötzsch became a qualified teacher of German and English and later obtained a doctorate in philology. She became a member of the Socialist Unity Party and, after the demise of the GDR, remained a member of its successor party, PDS and then Die Linke. She was elected to the German parliament (Bundestag) for the PDS in 2002 and has been re-elected ever since. In the last national elections she won 47.5% of the vote in her Berlin constituency.

She remarks with a smile that she remembers reading the Morning Star as a student, when it was used to help improve students’ English. It was the only British newspaper available in the GDR and she imagined it to have a mass circulation.

Recently, she came under concerted attack in Germany for comments she made about communism in an interview for the paper 'Junge Welt’ in the context of a commemorative conference on Rosa Luxemburg.

In her contribution she said: ‘We can only find a path to communism if we actually choose a path and try it out, whether in opposition or in government’. This created a furore in the mainstream media and among right-wing politicians, with hysterical and McCarthyite demands for her party, Die Linke, to be investigated by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the country's internal security agency, and accusations that she wants to ‘re-introduce Stalinist terror’. The general secretary of the right-wing CDU actually suggested her remarks constituted ‘a danger to democracy’, but she hasn’t let all this worry her unduly or divert her from pressing political tasks.

She says, ‘Everyone in Die Linke has signed up to a programme of democratic socialism; without social justice there is no freedom. My political goal is democratic socialism, as I described it in the article: a peaceful and democratic society for all people, free from exploitation.’

I wonder if the virulence and hysterical tone of these attacks was because the German ruling elite still fears communism as a ‘spectre haunting the continent’. She responds by saying that, ‘any party demanding social justice and calling for the redistribution of wealth, together with a change in property ownership is bound to be attacked by the upholders of the present system. Communism is a utopian idea,’ she says, ‘which people have thought about and discussed for centuries. The writer Thomas Mann said that “anti-communism was the idiocy of the epoch”. My aim is to help create a community living in freedom and equality, characterised by dignity and solidarity.’

‘The snarling fury unleashed by my comments illustrate how insecure the establishment is when alternatives to the capitalist system are raised. In the face of the dire financial crisis they have been rattled and are no longer certain of their ideology and that’s why they’ve reacted so hysterically to a debate about how to create a more just society.’

‘I took up the challenge of the subject,’ she says proudly, ‘and argued for left reforms and for a democratic socialism based on the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg. I called for us to leave the old cul-de-sacs and not view them as courageous paths to communism. The road to communism is a long and stony one.’

Lötzsch also makes clear that she was not in any way suggesting a return to Soviet-style communism as her detractors have impugned, but has always distanced herself and the party from the crimes of Stalinism, committed in the name of communism.

‘I also made it absolutely clear that for me politics, and specifically the politics of Die Linke stand firmly in the challenging tradition of social change and realistic radical politics,’ she says. ‘We have put forward our concept for dealing with the economic crisis and for surmounting the ecological challenges. Present problems, as in the Middle East or Afghanistan can’t be solved by military means.’

‘We are calling for a democratisation of the German economy. I quote Luxemburg in her differences with both Lenin and Trotsky, when she says, “you can make decrees from on high in terms of deconstruction and implementing something negative, but you can’t decree the implementation of positive action and construction” - that has to come from the bottom up.’

No doubt the viciousness and hatred of these attacks also reflect the fact that Gesine Lötzsch is extremely popular. She has an easy charm, a finely-tuned sense of humour and doesn’t fit the cliché caricature of a Molotov-cocktail wielding urban guerrilla.
She forcefully rebuts the right-wing’s attempts to stigmatise her as “a closet agitator for the violent overthrow of the democratic order”. She is quietly spoken, unpretentious, calm but with a determined conviction.

‘I believe all problems in society can be solved in a peaceful manner, ‘she says, ‘and in my contribution I referred to Rosa Luxemburg’s understanding of freedom. Individual freedom and social freedom don’t have to be seen as contradictory, and we must always take the freedom of the individual as our starting point. Rosa Luxemburg memorably said that, ‘freedom is always freedom for the dissenter’ in her 1918 essay, The Russian Revolution, penned as part of a critical debate with the Bolsheviks. And that is still a vital principle for us.’

‘Die Linke,’ she emphasises, ‘is fighting on a platform demanding a change in property relationships. We want a radical renewal of democracy that also includes decision-making at the economic level and for all property relationships to be subjected to emancipatory and ecological standards.

‘We are fighting for a broad transformatory process of social change, for a democratic socialism of the 21st century. This process will involve many small and some large steps of reform, of ruptures and revolutionary changes.

We want to see large undertakings taken out of the hands of the capitalists and transformed into social property, in the form of state or local ownership, co-operatives or employee-run enterprises, but this can only be decided in democratic process.’

I ask her what chances Die Linke has in forthcoming elections. She is mildly optimistic but won’t be drawn into detailed prophecies. ‘When the SPD was part of a government coalition they introduced Agenda 2010 which incorporated a general attack on the welfare state and involved cuts in pensions and unemployment benefits. This led to a haemorrhaging of their support and, as Die Linke was the de facto left opposition, it brought us significant electoral gains and a foothold in the western parts of Germany where our party had previously been weak or electorally non-existent.’ Since returning to the opposition,’ she says, ‘the SPD has ‘rediscovered’ its radical roots. This will undoubtedly have a negative effect on the electoral chances for Die Linke.’

I wonder how close relations are between Die Linke and the trade unions. She says the German trade union movement has traditionally been close to the SPD, but ‘relations between Die Linke and the unions are steadily improving and at grass roots level a number of officials are members of or close to the party.’

Berlin offers a good example of what can be achieved if Die Linke has a say in power. There it has been in coalition with the SPD since 2001. It’s been able to make a decisive impact on the capital city’s politics. It helped create 120,000 new jobs and prevented the introduction of student fees. It also substantially increased the number of nursery places in the city as well as more free places for the less well off; it has introduced an ongoing educational reform programme and implemented new forms of direct citizen participation in many areas, making them very much the norm.

Germany has not been so badly hit as other countries by the world economic crisis, so what are the campaigning priorities for the party?

She agrees the country is, at the moment, in better health than some other countries, but the establishment is nevertheless trying to roll back the welfare state. ‘Although unemployment is not high, many are working in part-time jobs or for low wages. Young people, particularly, face a bleak future.’ Die Linke hopes its comprehensive programme for a social alternative will, in the end, convince enough people to give it a mandate to implement measures which will help it turn vision into reality.

information box:

Die Linke is the fourth largest party in Germany. It has over 77,000 registered members. It is represented at all levels of government. It has 76 members of parliament, 193 seats in regional parliaments and 8 seats in the European parliament.
Gesine Lötzsch was elected chair of Die Linke, in 2010 together with co-chair Klaus Ernst, a former trade union official. Die Linke came into being after a merger between the PDS – a party based in eastern Germany - which emerged out of the former GDR Socialist Unity Party (SED) and the WASG, a West German grouping of leftists, comprising disillusioned ex-members of the SPD and others close to the trade union movement. The joint Chair-persons were elected to ensure a leadership representative of the areas of the two former Germanies with their different political and cultural backgrounds.
The emergence of a national German party of the left was no easy birth. The experience of those who grew up under GDR state socialism was very different from that under capitalism in the FRG, and creating a consensus out of such different experiences and perceptions was no cake-walk. It was facilitated by the fact that two former leaders, Gregor Gysi from the east and Oskar Lafontaine from the west, both charismatic and experienced political figures, took up the reins and were determined to make the new party work.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Letter to Guardian

26 January 2011

Dear Sir,

Ian McEwan is either being extremely naïve or disingenuous in his justification for accepting the Jerusalem prize (letters 26 January). To compare his action with that of Daniel Barenboim completely misses the point. Barenboim is actively bringing together Palestinians and Israelis to work for a common purpose and to begin a dialogue with each other through music. He has been vilified for his efforts by the Israelis. If McEwan thinks the Israelis will see his visit as a gesture of opposition to their policies he is living in cloud cuckoo land. They will rightly see it as an endorsement of the legitimacy of their policies. Like McEwan, many used similar arguments in relation to apartheid South Africa, but such so-called ‘dialogue’ didn’t work, but the boycott did. He thinks ‘literature can reach across the political divide’ - not by collaborating with oppression it can’t. The names of other writers who accepted the Jerusalem Prize he lists to justify his decision did so at a time before Israeli politics took on its present extreme belligerence, inhumanity and arrogant rejection of international law and opinion.
Please think again Ian.