Sunday, 20 November 2016

To Brexit or not to Brexit?

As Theresa May’s self-imposed deadline of the end of March for triggering Brexit is only 130 days away away, even the run-up process is turning out to be more chaotic and painful than imagined.

I was one of those who voted for Brexit because I wanted to help send a strong signal to the political elite in Europe and at home that we, the people, were not happy with the undemocratic way the EU was being run. I did not imagine for a moment that the majority would vote for it. I felt somewhat uncomfortable about my vote because I found myself, unwittingly, in bed with some unsavoury characters. And, as we have seen the campaign around Brexit, waged by the right wing on both sides of the divide, was mendacious, superficial and incompetent.

The much more cogent left-wing arguments for opting out of the EU were given no airing by the mainstream media, which were more interested in the sensationalist mock battles between Farage, Gove and Johnson versus Cameron and Labour grandees. The right-wing Brexiteers, led by UKIP, played on widespread fears of immigration and whipped up xenophobia. A state, as Lenin noted, can only be truly democratic if its people are fully informed. On Brexit there was scant information but tons of noxious hot air.

It is now generally recognised that the unexpected majority vote for Brexit reflected more people’s anger and disgust at a political elite divorced from and uninterested in the lives of ordinary people, rather that being a vote against the EU as such.

What has become very clear as the details surrounding the Brexit process now emerge is that a so-called ‘hard’ Brexit which seems increasingly unavoidable will be very painful indeed, and it will hit working people hardest. What the Tory government is asking for is akin to someone filing for divorce but demanding that his partner continues to honour her marriage vows while leaving him free to go off and philander as he wishes.

What the government seems unable to understand is – in terms of trade, research, human rights and inter-state co-operation – Britain needs the rest of Europe much more than the other way around. The big players in the EU are making it very clear that if Britain triggers Article 50 there will be no soft landing; they will make sure we land head-first on the rocks. The EU has been so designed that  an injury-free opting out is almost impossible; no parachute has been included in the package.

A document prepared by consultants on behalf of the government reveals that Whitehall officials from different departments have listed 500 projects relating to our departure from the EU that would require 30,000 extra staff to untangle. Article 50 gives the leaving country two years to negotiate an exit deal, and once set in motion, it cannot be stopped except by unanimous consent of all member states. To untangle and renegotiate our contractual relations with the EU could not be done within that timeframe. ‘Article 50 is a bit like The Bomb: best kept as an implicit threat.’ David Cameron’s former special advisor, Mats Persson, once said, but now the timing device is ticking.

There is a whole raft of EU legislation that most of us would agree that we should keep and other items which we could and should dispense with but untangling these many agreements, laws and regulations would take longer than the two-year timetable allowed for leaving the EU once Article 50 has been triggered.

The implications are momentous. Apart from the threatened loss of our biggest trading partner or the imposition of draconian customs tariffs, what happens to all those Britons now working in Europe or married to European partners? What about health insurance outside Britain?

Keir Starmer, Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, says Labour would not block a parliamentary vote to trigger article 50 but would insist on first knowing the government’s plans for how it would proceed. He also said that the party could try to amend any bill to begin the process of beginning Brexit, and would seek to preserve access to the EU’s customs union and elements of the single market. He is said to be furious about McDonnell’s recent policy speech, in which he said: ‘Labour accepts the referendum result as the voice of the majority and we must embrace the enormous opportunities to reshape our country that Brexit has opened for us’.

Of course it would be gratifying if we could return to Britain’s glorious past as an independent manufacturing centre, but since Thatcher destroyed all that we have hardly any manufacturing infrastructure left and those few big companies operating in the country today are almost all foreign-owned. To re-establish a manufacturing base – essential if we want to survive Brexit economically ­–­ we would have to invest enormous amounts into manufacturing industries and rapidly develop the skills needed, something that could be done but that would take decades.

These uncomfortable truths have to be faced by all of us, however we voted. To ignore them, would be infantile and dangerous. But once Brexit is triggered our lifeboat will be cast off and set adrift with no land in sight.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

It's the economy stupid - what the Labour Party needs to do

It's the economy stupid - what the Labour Party needs to do
The economy has always been Labour’s Achilles Heel in terms of it being able to win elections. This perceived short-coming is, it has to be said, not all of its own doing. The Tory mantra that Labour cannot be trusted to run the economy, has had a dripping water effect on public perceptions. The Labour Party has allowed the Conservatives to determine the debate and set the economic agenda for far too long. It has allowed them to blame Labour for the global crisis and portray the financial collapse of the banks as a public spending crisis.

However, the clear bankruptcy of the neo-liberal economic model has presented the Labour Party with the rare opportunity of retaking the initiative. The Tories have also demonstrated their bankruptcy in the realm of ideas and like lunatics, continue to implement the same policies in the hope that the outcome will somehow change.

With John McDonnell as shadow chancellor, we have for the first time a socialist economist at the helm, one who listens, consults and offers intelligent insight. He is supremely aware that Labour has to regain public confidence and  demonstrate that it can run the economy better than the Tories, but he also knows that this will involve a fight.

Earlier in the year he gave a lecture entitled, The New Economics, at the LSE where he laid out his vision, his programme and ideas for a radical economic rethink. For this purpose, he has set up an Economic Advisory Council made up of some of the world’s leading progressive economists to examine how a future Labour government could radically turn around our economy.

He has been talking and listening to people in key areas of the economy: trade unionists, small business people, public and private sector representatives, steel workers facing job cuts, the TUC and CBI.  He’s looking for new ideas, he says; he is not tabling a cut-and–dried economic blueprint, but is asking for input from everyone; he knows he alone can not have all the answers, that is why he is appealing for everyone to contribute. However, his bottom line is that the neo-liberal model has failed and we have to construct a new one that can create jobs, bring about fairer wealth distribution and implement a more equitable tax system, a model that will promote social cohesion and stability not division. We must have a new economic policy to deliver such change he argues. We have to end the austerity policies that have hit working people and do nothing to revitalise the economy. We also need to articulate new ideas for state intervention in the economy; the old post-war nationalised industries did not work as efficiently as they could have done, and a centralised state-owned system as in the old Soviet Union is certainly not the answer either.

McDonnell has asked his Economic Council to look at the role of the Treasury, HMRC and judge whether it is fit for purpose, and he has called for a comprehensive tax review.

How can it be that the failed policies of the past are still dominating the political and economic debate? While he is very aware that we need a radical rethink, he also knows that we will have a fight on our hands to get the message across t the general public. That is the main challenge the Labour Party now faces.

Socialists should welcome his approach. In the past there has been a strong tendency on the part of all socialists to imagine that when the banks and the means of production are taken into public/state ownership, then everything will run smoothly. The lessons from the socialist countries of Eastern Europe are that that is far from the case. There the complete abolition of private enterprise and the centralisation of decision-making led to a stifling of initiative, bureaucratisation and widespread inefficiency. State ownership of itself is not the solution. Rather, what is needed is strong state intervention to regulate working and employing practices as well as a robust, adequately staffed tax regime that is fair without stifling private initiative. There should be roles in our society for public, private and co-operative forms of ownership. Large and multi-national corporations can be reined in if such measures are put in place and rigorously implemented, with a tax system that prevents the accumulation of untold wealth by a few individuals. The state should be there to set the rules, regulate and tax in ways that ensure a fairer system, not to function as chief employer and micro-manager. Hopefully, the result of McDonnell’s consultation will come up with the necessary ideas to begin the necessary transformation of our economic system and begin building a fairer society.

Trump's victory is a triumph for right-wing extremism

Trump's victory is a triumph for right-wing extremism
Not many months ago Donald trump was the joke candidate in the US presidential elections, the clown, the bogeyman outsider. However, as Michael Moore noted perceptively at the time: the pundits and political elite myopically underestimated the man and his popular appeal because they were completely out of touch with ordinary people.

Almost a century ago another man with a ridiculous moustache, a shrill voice and theatrical gestures was also mocked. On the back of mass unemployment and poverty in the country as well as widespread dissatisfaction with the mainstream parties, he rose rapidly to power. Like Trump, he also promised to make his country great again and rid it of the ‘vermin’ who were undermining the nation’s moral fibre and its economy. I’m not suggesting that Trump is the new Hitler, but there are very worrying parallels. Just look at what Trump has said during his campaign and who he is appointing to his new cabinet.

His main campaign slogan, ‘Make American great again’, and his major promises to improve the US economy by emphasising ‘straight talking’, patriotism and standing against ‘political correctness’, could have come straight out of Dr. Goebbel’s propaganda bible, in which he emphasised the need toavoid abstract ideas - appeal to the emotions; constantly repeat just a few ideas, use stereotyped phrases; give only one side of the argument; continuously criticize your opponents; and pick out one “enemy” for special vilification. Sound familiar?
Trump is not a natural master of rhetoric, but he has internalised the points Goebbels makes, and is playing on the fears of those whose jobs are at risk, whose communities have been devastated by capitalist greed, by blaming immigrants and foreigners:
 ‘I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me … I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words’, he repeated. 
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you, they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bring crime. They’re rapists… And some, I assume, are good people.’
Not satisfied with a vilification of Mexicans, he turned on the Muslims, calling for a ban on Muslims entering the USA.

His racism is further underlined by his remarks about Obama, first doubting the details of his birth and then implying that he is associated with (black) thugs: ‘Our great African-American President hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore, he said.’

As if that were not enough, he has views on global warming that are Medieval: ‘It’s freezing and snowing in New York – we need global warming!’, he quipped. He has also appointed a climate change denier to oversee the transition of the Environmental Protection Agency and he is planning to quit the Paris Climate Deal.

In his first interview with CBS after his election, Trump said: that he would expel or jail up to 3 million undocumented immigrants from the US who are ‘criminal’. And that future Supreme Court nominees would be ‘pro-life’ – i.e. anti-abortion, and would defend the constitutional right to bear arms.

All this should have set alarm bells ringing around the globe and invoked outrage, but instead Trump is rapidly becoming accepted by government leaders and the mainstream media. It’s not unlike the way Hitler, Franco and all the other dictators were treated in their day, with kid gloves – it’s called appeasement.

In Trump’s case the apple has clearly not fallen far from the tree. His father, Fred Trump, was once arrested at a KKK rally and was sued by the US Justice Department for refusing to rent flats to African-Americans. Donald Trump inherited his property owning father’s wealth which was lucky as he was clearly no high-flyer at school. He was expelled at the age of 13 and sent to the New York military academy.

Most past US presidents have been right-wing but we broadly knew that we were getting what it said on the packet. With Trump, for the first time, we have an unpredictable, but reactionary individual.

It is, though, not only Trump we should fear but those extreme right-wingers he is appointing to his cabinet. His chief strategist is Steve Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who runs the right-wing Breitbart News Network website, and appears to be as misogynist as Trump.

Buzzfeed quotes Bannon as saying, that ‘one of the unintended consequences of the women’s liberation movement is that ‘the women that would lead this country would be feminine, they would be pro-family, they would have husbands, they would love their children. They wouldn’t be a bunch of dykes that came from the 7 Sisters schools’.

Bannon has connections to the alt-right – a loose group of people with far right ideologies who reject even mainstream conservatism in the US and believe in white supremecy. He believes that those who believe in a progressive agenda espouse a philosophy of victimhood: ‘They’re either a victim of race. They’re victim of their sexual preference. They’re a victim of gender. All about victimhood and the United States is the great oppressor, not the great liberator,’ he says.

In the divorce court Bannon’s ex-wife Louise Piccard accused him of being an anti-semite, saying that he had made antisemitic  remarks about choice of schools, not wishing to send his daughters to a local school beloved of  Jewish families because ‘Jews raise their children to be whiny brats’. He has denied the accusation.

If Bannon’s actual words don’t disqualify him from holding a top position in the Trump White House, the headlines he published at Breitbart should: ‘Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy’. ‘Theres no hiring bias against women in tech. They just suck at interviews’. ‘World Health Organisation report: Trannies 49x higher HIV rate’.

Then there is Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), who has been appointed as Trump’s chief of staff. He worked to bring Wisconsin's Tea Party movement together with the mainstream Republican party organization.

Newt Gingrich is another close adviser to Trump. He was one of those influential advisers to Ronald Reagan who adopted his idea of  an ‘opportunity society’ as laid out in his book, Window of Opportunity. Gingrich encouraged Republicans to ‘speak like Newt’ and put out a memo containing lists of words with negative connotations such as ‘radical’, ‘sick’ and ‘traitors’. That, too, could have come from Goebbel’s notebook. That is how fake news and lies become mainstream, particularly when magnified by the right-wing press and other media.

Boris Johnson, our modern-day version of Chamberlain, is likely to meet Gingrich when he visits the States shortly. He claimed Trump’s election should be seen as a ‘moment of opportunity’ for the UK. After complaining about the ‘whinge-o-rama’ in response to the election result, he added: ‘I think there is a lot to be positive about and it is very important not to pre-judge the president-elect or his administration’.
Theresa May also appeared to support Trump’s stance when speaking this week at the Lord Mayor’s banquet, when she adopted her tribune of the working people pose: ‘People – often those on modest to low incomes living in rich countries like our own – see their jobs being outsourced and wages undercut. They see their communities changing around them and don’t remember agreeing to that change,” … ‘When you fail to see that the liberal consensus that has held sway for decades (sic) has failed to maintain the consent of many people, you’re not the champion of liberalism but the enemy of it,’ she said. In other words, Trump’s election is the answer to years of failed liberalism.
We have to demand of our government that it has no truck with Trump and his vitriol. If he is not vehemently opposed and his dangerous rhetoric exposed, the insidious march of right-wing populism will gain traction elsewhere too.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Replacing reality with fantasy
The gullibility of even sophisticated audiences and readers when it comes to accepting pure fiction as reality never ceases to amaze me. This is particularly so with portrayals of East-West relations and the characterisation of communists and former communist countries. The recent, much-hyped German series Deutschland 83 is no exception. Cold War clichés and the most improbably scenarios seem to be de rigueur. Such fictionalised dramatisations then take on a life of their own replacing real facts and real events in people’s memories.
The blurb for the new series, which is based on real events, promised to offer a new and different perspective. British-American author Anna Winger, co-producer of the series with her German husband, Joerg, said significantly in an interview about the film: ‘It’s important to remember that  a lot of people were happy in East Germany, It didn’t work economically, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t feel good to be part of it sometimes. The existence of the East made the West more humane but now, in an era of unbridled capitalism, we don’t have that balance.’ Quite promising, you might think. The series does indeed begin quite well with a family party scene in the GDR that doesn’t rely on the clichés of drab-greyness, dour East Germans and low living standards. We actually have attractive looking individuals and young people who could just as easily be from the West, listening to rock music and enjoying themselves. Even when we meet the film’s young protagonist, Martin Rauch, who is a GDR border guard, we are presented with a pleasant young man taking two West German visitors to East Berlin gently to task for buying books in the East with money exchanged illegally. He tells them to scarper, unscathed, but keeps some of their books.
Unfortunately the drama very soon begins to serve the usual stereotyped narratives. When a couple of Stasi agents visit the family home to recruit the young man to work as a mole in the West German Bundeswehr, we are presented with two hard-bitten, stony-faced men, one of whom callously breaks one of the young man’s fingers and they drug his coffee so that he can be kidnapped.
When Martin wakes up in the West, now as an unlikely agent of the Stasi, he walks into a supermarket and is mesmerised by the array of goods on the shelves. Most GDR citizens regularly watched West German TV and, even if they or their families hadn’t travelled to the West at any time, they would have been used to seeing consumer adverts and programmes that featured big cars, shopping malls and glamour. They would hardly be surprised to see it first hand.
But what makes this series very much of a missed opportunity is that the facts of the real story are just as dramatic if less fantastical.
In 1983 the world really was on the edge of a nuclear holocaust and it was a single East German counter-espionage agent who saved the day. Ronald Reagan had been elected president of the USA in 1980 and unleashed an unprecedented and hysterical campaign against the ‘Evil Empire’ as he characterised the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc allies. He, along with his close political ally, Margaret Thatcher embarked on a new and dangerous confrontational policy, surrounding himself with fanatical anti-communist warriors, like Richard Perle (the Prince of Darkness), Dick Cheney, Caspar Weinberger, Paul Wolfowitz and George Bush who were all determined to confront the Soviet Union and bring about its downfall. After years of detente, the Helsinki Accords and a general easing of tension, the world was once again plunged into a new phase confrontation that threatened to destabilize post war detente with dangerous brinkmanship.
In 1979 as part of its medium range nuclear modernisation programme NATO began deploying cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe. The first particularly destabilising Pershing missiles were deployed in West Germany in autumn 1983. Because of this provocative escalation and the reduction of launch warning time, tensions were stretched to breaking point. All the more, as the Soviet leadership was absolutely convinced that the US was seriously planning a nuclear surprise attack under the cover of carrying out military exercises.
NATO’s giant ABLE ARCHER exercise in 1983 was meant to simulate a pre-emptive attack on the Soviet Union with weapons. It would take place close to the German-German border. As tension mounted, Soviet nuclear bombers were deployed, on the tarmac at their East German airbases, engines running, waiting for the order to go. If the order had come, most likely nuclear holocaust, at least for Europe and the UK would have ensued. Recently released papers indicate that even among British military leaders Reagan’s reckless agenda aroused concerns that the Russians might take the exercise for the real thing and be provoked to take irreversible action in return.
We were spared this scenario largely due to the efforts of one man: Rainer Rupp, who at the time held a top job in NATO headquarters in Brussels, but at the same time was secretly working for the GDR’s foreign intelligence service HVA. As a student, Rainer Rupp had been active in the student protest and peace movement and was recruited by the GDR to help them monitor Western intentions. He managed to work his way up the hierarchy in NATO and had access to top level and highly secret documents. He saw his role as keeping the Soviet Union and its allies up to date on NATO strategies in order to help avoid the sort of hellish scenario that seemed to be unfolding. In an interview for the Channel 4 programme 1983: The Brink of Apocalypse, about exercise Able Archer 83, broadcast in the UK on 5 January 2008, Rupp said that he had transmitted the message that NATO was not preparing to launch a surprise nuclear attack against the USSR during the exercise to his HVA controllers. He viewed this as vital to preventing a Soviet pre-emptive strike against NATO forces. In the same program, Rupp said he was proud of the damage he did to NATO over the years of his intelligence activities. he wasn’t paid as an agent by the GDR but carried out his work out of conviction that NATO’s purpose was to undermine and in the end bring about the demise of socialism in Eastern Europe.
Richard Perle, State Secretary in the Pentagon for planning and policy, was of the opinion that a limited nuclear war against the Soviet Union could be fought and won without massive damage to the US. Back in the early 1980s the US knew that the Soviet Union had an advantage in terms of conventional weaponry as well as the large size of its armed forces and would prevail in a non-nuclear war scenario, so a pre-emptive nuclear strike was logical from this warped perspective.
In the autumn of 1983 the worst case scenario looked as if it was about to unfold. Reagan’s crusader rhetoric and his Star Wars programme, together with the decision to station Pershings in Europe had dangerously raised the stakes. The Soviet Union would now have only minutes of warning in the event of a nuclear attack. It considered that NATO’s previous policy of defence preparation had now been transformed by Reagan and his cohorts into one of waging a pre-emptive war. It had already experienced surprise invasions into its territory in the Second World War, which cost the USSR 27 million lives, and it didn’t wish to be caught out again.
ABLE ARCHER took place in that context. The planned combined NATO exercises were viewed by the Soviets as a pretext for a first strike, but they were not prepared to wait and find out. They desperately needed to know urgently if such a plan was indeed about to be put into practice. They were convinced that the exercises were a ruse to initiate a first strike.
The exercises were to be carried out under very realistic conditions, and would take place over ten days, beginning on 2 November and involve all Western European NATO members. The aim was a simulation of a co-ordinated deployment of nuclear weapons and their use. What was particularly alarming was that there were new elements in this exercise: middle-range nuclear weapons were brought onto the field for the first time and absolute radio silence was maintained; a new code format was introduced for communications. And, for the first time, leaders of all the NATO countries were intimately involved which also alerted Moscow to its unusually high political significance. Moscow also thought, wrongly, that the USA had put its troops on the highest alarm stage, DEFCON 1. In reality DEFCON 1 was only simulated during the exercise.
Convinced of an immediate US attack, the Soviet Union put its own strategic nuclear forces on red alert. The smallest mistake could have unleashed a catastrophe. Even Gorbachev later declared that the situation at the time was as dangerous as the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, but with an even greater nuclear potential.
At virtually the last minute, Rainer Rupp was able to photocopy a whole swathe of top secret documents that convinced the Russians it was indeed only an exercise, thus saving the day. Years later, at a Berlin conference on international espionage in 2005, the former CIA-head for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Milton Bearden, congratulated the former Head of East German foreign intelligence HVA, the legendary Markus Wolf, saying that thanks to his excellently placed source in NATO-HQ in Brussels peace had been saved in 1983, as he had ‘been able to calm the recipients in Moscow’ and in this way, avoid a nuclear war. Rainer Rupp, the agent who literally did save the world, was given a 12 year sentence for his troubles after the demise of the GDR and his British-born wife, also an employee at NATO HQ was also imprisoned.
That is the real story, but Deutschland 83 has used the background to create a fantasy scenario for commercial purposes. Even though the series attempts to portray daily life in the GDR with some sense of balance and doesn’t hide Reagan’s vitriolic rhetoric or the concerns of NATO generals vis a vis his dangerous policies. In the blurb to the series written by Gabriel Tate for the Guardian Guide, he writes: ‘The arms race is on and Ronald Reagan and his Russian counterpart Yuri Andropov are ramping up the rhetoric from the White House and the Kremlin. Germany is caught in the middle, split in half and subject to the whims of its effective occupiers’. The rhetoric, though, was coming solely from Reagan and the White House, not from Andropov who was acting with restraint and caution. The last things the Russian wanted was a war with the West; they had enough of their own internal political and economic problems to deal with
Coming back once more to the series, while it holds much promise, it soon relinquishes any claim it may have to historical accuracy or providing insight through creating its own fantasy world. Did the producers not have any proper consultants from the secret services to point out how ridiculous much of the story line is and how stilted the dialogue?  That East German security services could recruit a young GDR soldier against his will, drug and kidnap him, dumping him in West Germany where, within days, he will become aide de camp to one of the country’s top generals is whimsy in the extreme. The agent is given, what appears to be a cursory training and then let loose on his target. While a visiting top US general and his own chief are out to lunch, he breaks into the latter’s office and photographs secret documents left conveniently behind in an unlocked briefcase, listing all the US nuclear targets in the East. At the general’s house at a party given for the same visiting US general, he slips away from the crowd and telephones his girlfriend in the GDR from the general’s own telephone, only to be overheard by one of the general’s daughters, so has to pop a heavy sedative into her drink very quickly to render her unconscious. His GDR handler meets him and waves copies of secret documents in his face while he is in the middle of a jog at an army training camp. The improbabilities and fantasies mount as the story unfolds.
            There is in principle nothing wrong with entertaining fiction, however wild and improbable, but when it replaces historical fact in the minds of viewers it becomes dangerously corrupting, and then has more in common with Goebbels’ methodology than Rowling's Harry Potter.