Saturday, 28 July 2012

Vultures’ Picnic A Tale of High Finance and Investigative Reporting Author: Greg Palast Pubs Constable & Robinson (London) Pbck. £9.99 Greg Palast needs little introduction to Star readers. His uncompromising investigative journalism and his unmasking of corporate sleaze and corruption are second to none. Here we are provided with a selection of his recent writings on the issue of international corporate criminality in the oil industry. What he reveals is a horror story of corporate criminality and political connivance at the highest levels. Unfortunately the collection has been put together with the hurried carelessness of a thief leaving the scene of his crime, with the result that it confusingly hops about from country to country and story to story. However, Palast is witty, fast-paced and sharp. His writing here is often reminiscent of a Dashiel Hammett gumshoe novel, in which he, with his curvaceous assistant Miss Badpenny, is Sam Spade. For my taste, Palast’s writing overdoes the fictional style at the cost of his factual investigations, and this tends to undermine the serious meat of the story beneath. He is clearly a man on a mission, but his adventurous anecdotes about himself as well as his rather cavalier attitude to sources can provoke sceptical questioning of some of his ‘facts’. Certainly he stays on the trail of our corporate and government gangsters with the tenacity of a leech and what he uncovers must make their trigger fingers very itchy. His revelations of BP’s was involvement in paying big bungs to Azerbaijani officials to obtain control of its rich oil resources is an eye-opener. The money, apparently carried in the plane that took Margaret Thatcher to Azerbaijan on an official visit, accompanied by then-BP boss Lord Browne. He also relates how Hilary Clinton became a legal adviser for a big US oil company keen to exploit oil reserves in Arkansas while hubby Bill was governor. Palast goes to great lengths to help untangle the complex web of the political-industrial complex of global oil. Some of his revelations may sound far-fetched, but if they are, why aren’t the accused suing him through the courts? A revelatory read. END
Communism – has its time come? It wasn’t too long ago that Francis Fukuyama was declaiming ‘The End of History’. Communism and Marxism had been conclusively defeated. How history can so easily upset the applecart of complacent thinking is now clearly emerging. Only a few years since that iconic statement was pronounced, global capitalism is in deep crisis, there are mass demonstrations on the streets, corporate bosses are reeling on the back foot As Al Jazeera recently reported, Marxism and the discussion of a communist society are back in fashion and Marxism is again at the centre of intellectual discussion. New editions of Marx's texts have returned to our bookstores accompanied by new introductions, biographies, and interpretations of his thinking. In our universities, too, we are experiencing a sea-change. Not long ago, few academics who valued their status and their funding would be willing to admit to being Marxists, now they seem to be queuing up to do so. A whole number of renowned philosophers (among them Judith Balso, Bruno Bosteels, Susan Buck-Mors, Jodi Dean, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, and Slavoj Zizek), have began to envision how society could be constructed to avoid the pitfalls and injustices of capitalism and are looking at it in communist terms. Here in Britain too, there are a number of Marxist thinkers who are openly challenging the ethical and philosophical basis of capitalism. Not only celebrated academics like Terry Eagleton, but from the mainstream too, like professors Swyngedouw, Ben Fine, Sean Sayers, Terrel Carver and sociologists like Danny Dorling, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett are all challenging capitalist ideology. Recently, Turner short listed artist Phil Collins’s showed his video compilation ‘Marxism Today’ at London’s South bank on the teaching of Marxist economics in the GDR. It received enthusiastic reviews and avid public interest. There are new websites like ‘Marx and Philosophy’ and ‘Historical Materialism’. Recent conferences in London, Berlin, Paris and New York have been attended by thousands of academics, students, and activists around the ideas of Marxism and communism. There is a plethora of best-selling books such as Negri and Hardt's Empire, Badiou's The Communist Hypothesis and Vattimo's Ecce Comu, as well as new biographies of Engels, essays by the Peruvian Marxist Mariategui, and new publications on Gramsci and Rosa Luxemburg and so on. What is happening? Although not all these thinkers consider themselves communist, the fact that communist thought is now back at the centre of economic, political, sociological and philosophic research is highly significant and encouraging. Why is all this happening now? It is not simply a reaction to the global financial crisis, but has been brewing for some time. Facing the seemingly incapability of capitalism to address the problems of environmental catastrophe, climate change, over-population and social breakdown, more and more thinkers are looking to alternatives. And Marxism still offers the most useful pointers and potential solutions to these seemingly intractable problems Clearly, at these conferences and in these books, communism is not being proposed as a programme for political parties to repeat previous historical attempts to build communist societies, but more an existential response to the current neo-liberal global condition. Politics, economic planning and government policies should be based ideally on the goal of bettering the human condition, rather than, as at present, simple subservience to the chaotic meanderings of rampant and feral capitalism. To achieve this, we sorely need the input of academic research and innovative ideas. The Al Jazeera report, mentioned above, says: ‘But today, things are not that different if we consider the latest effects of neo-liberalism - apart from our current financial crisis, where differentials in material well-being have never been so explicit - slum populations are growing by an shocking 25 million people a year, and the devastation of our planet's natural resources is causing dire ecological consequences throughout the world, and in many cases it is too late to correct.’ Even the ruling class is recognising the ‘danger’ of a resurgence of Marxism. A recent UK Ministry of Defence report predicts not only a resurgence of, ‘anti-capitalist ideologies, possibly linked to religious, anarchist or nihilist movements, but also to populism and the revival of Marxism’. Of course the word ‘communist’ is loaded with different meanings, but in the minds of most people in the west it is associated with Eastern European attempts to build new societies. It is not only considered a remnant of the past but seen as a political system where everything is controlled by an all-powerful state. In this context, Zizek comments in his inimitable dialectical style: ‘If state communism didn't work, it's primarily because of the failure of anti-statist politics, of the endeavour to break out of the constraints of State, to replace statal forms of organisation with “direct” non-representative forms of self-organisation.’ Communism, as an anti-statist concept has today become the best idea, hypothesis, and guide for non-governmental and international political movements, such as those that arose from the protests in Seattle (1999), Cochabamba (2000), and Barcelona (2011), as well as in the World Social Forum movement, and in experimental new forms of governing as seen in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Kerala, India and in Latin America. Although each of these movements fought for different specific causes (against injurious economic globalisation, the privatisation of water supplies, and harmful financial policies) their enemy was the same: Western democracy's unjust system of property distribution under capitalism. As the increasing poverty and slum populations in the world demonstrate, this model has left behind all those who do not succeed within capitalism’s parameters, and this is generating new communists. What is still missing is a sufficiently strong mass movement of working people to force through the changes that are now becoming increasingly possible; however this situation can change very quickly. END

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Jonathan Freedland is right to warn of the probable protracted emasculation of the BBC World Service (Guardian 14 July 2012: This world class institution explains Britain to the world). Its role has been vital in providing those living in countries where news and information was scarce or distorted with a more objective picture. It knew that it had to report broadly and truthfully to maintain credibility, and it used journalists who knew first hand the countries on which they reported. It is a pity, however, that British listeners of the BBC are provided with a much more bland and tendentious news and information service than the better informed World Service listeners. It is also true that, despite its worthy reputation, it also pursued an establishment political agenda. Broadcasts to communist countries were also aimed at undermining. Blacklists were used to filter those employed by the BBC and, certainly in the case of broadcasts to East Germany, the Corporation was not averse to making up their own ‘listeners letters’ as they received so few! I only wish we here in the UK could receive World Service news bulletins instead of the superficial fare we are invariably fed.

Monday, 9 July 2012

A Buddhist take on Marxism I have often thought that while Marxism is a wonderful tool for analysing society and its various processes, but with its overemphasis on classes it largely ignores the question of individual morality and ethical behaviour as determining factors in the historical process. This ‘missing link’ in Marxism may partially explain why the communist project went badly wrong. Professor Richard Winter readily admits that his suggestion of connecting Marxism and Buddhism could appear ‘surprising or even downright bizarre’ to many. When I realised that he is suggesting this as a way of countering the denigration of our humanity under capitalism, I too thought he must be a little ‘off-beam’. However, his lucidly and concisely argued case completely disabused me. Far from being an ‘odd ball’ he is a man with a deep comprehension of the ills of our present system and he has a thorough understanding and appreciation of the value of Marxism as an analytical tool. He has his feet firmly on the ground, based on his wide experience working in our educational system, and he sees education as a potential tool for change. His desire for radical change, together with his strong sense of compassion and justice led him to examine Buddhism as a means of individual self-enlightenment, and as an additional means of bringing about the sort of social change many of us desire: first by changing ourselves. Buddhism is often seen about being about ‘enlightenment’, but it is really more concerned in reshaping character and behaviour than mystical experience; younger Buddhists are more likely to be fired by social action. I remain sceptical of those who suggest answers to our pressing problems can be found in ‘exotic’ cultures, whether Indian Hinduism, North American indigenous traditions or Chinese Confucianism, even if they can offer us new and valuable insights. But Winter is not suggesting this. He is attempting to address Marxism’s underplaying of the role of the individual by suggesting a combination of Marxist theory with a meditational approach derived from Buddhism. However, while I can go a long way with him and even accept that aspects of Buddhist teachings have much to offer us in the West; I doubt such ideas could be easily adopted. Yes, it might be a good idea, but is it feasible or even imaginable that one could persuade a sizable proportion of people not steeped in a Buddhist tradition to adopt such a Buddhist approach to their lives? That is always the dilemma for those who want to change society without being able to obtain a majority electoral mandate: where can you effectively start? Winter argues that one of the keys lies in education. ‘Without changes in our individual awareness and behaviour our attempts to make our institutions more just and more compassionate are doomed in the long run,’ he says. His advocating meditation is basically suggesting a series of straightforward actions that anyone can engage in. Meditation is a method of personal change, he says, and he demonstrates how it can refine our personal and ethical responses to practical situations and how it could support the effectiveness of our attempts to change political and economic structures. Meditation as ‘pure awareness’ can have merely the general and familiar meaning of sustained purposeful thought, he says.’ It involves a heightened state of concentration, derived from being a wholly absorbed awareness of the present. ‘This methodology,’ he argues, ‘helps us resist our spontaneous ego-orientation and thus our assimilation into the stress-filled responses of our exploitive culture, whose ramifications penetrate so deeply into our lives.’ Meditation practice is inseparable from ethical awareness. Winter is not suggesting that we adopt Buddhism as the new religion or see it as a magic solution. But using Buddhist ideas, particularly that of meditation could help us understand ourselves and help us better comprehend and deal with our society in terms of its pressures, stresses and consumer demands. Buddhism places an emphasis on the present and on those things in life that are vital to a meaningful and happy existence, that represent enduring reality. In other words, all the ephemeral trappings of wealth and fame, of vanity and worries about the future or preoccupation with the past, only distract us from the real question of the here and now, and dissipate our creative energies. ‘For Buddhism in its origins and most of its contemporary versions meditation is the primary practice; its teachings are, above all, a rationale for the validity and power of meditation as an individual path of self-transformation,’ he writes. It also helps overcome self-doubt and encourages our creativity. What is certainly true, and something few would deny, is that if we wish to change the world we have first to change ourselves; and in our own behaviour we have to encapsulate the type of society we aim to create. Both Marxist and Buddhist perspectives also emphasise that ‘our spontaneous experiences are frequently based on misperceptions of reality; what Marx called ‘false consciousness’. That is why, Winter argues, that any education curriculum needs to go beyond simply involving students’ personal experience in the learning process: a ‘curriculum for transformation’ is needed to help students engage in a radical critique of their experience.’ He says, perceptively, that behaviour, which constitutes part of the ‘ethics’ of capitalism, is not really endorsed by the general population: rather it is seen as a regrettable compromise. He realises that simply putting forward yet another ‘vacuous plea’ for a ‘change of culture’ is pointless. He knows that such pleas avoid the crunch question: through what agency could the changes we desire be brought about? That’s why he argues forcibly that we are all potentially ‘agents for change’. One might not agree with much of Winter’s argumentation, but his ideas are certainly thought-provoking and deserving of close attention. (Prof Winter’s recent book: Power, Freedom Compassion; Willow Tree Press; £10)