Iran – provocation and the prospect of war

28th November 2020

Assassination scene – the car of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh after the attack

The assassination yesterday of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is widely believed to have been the work of the Israeli secret service, Mossad.  Having the means, motive and finding the opportunity is part of the Mossad modus operandi.  The long standing hostility towards Iran of the Israeli regime, particularly the faction supporting Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been well documented and the danger of further military intervention by the Israelis long feared in the Middle East.

The timing of this particular act is clearly linked to the change in the administration in the United States.  Israel has had no stronger supporter than President Donald Trump in recent years and it is feared that Joe Biden will take a more consensual line towards Iran than the openly provocative positions taken by Trump.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), widely known as the Iran nuclear deal, agreed between the Western powers, including the United States, and the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2015 was one of the first foreign policy casualties of the Donald Trump presidency.  Since the United States’ withdrawal from the JCPOA, in May 2018, a period of exacerbated uncertainty has existed in relations between the two countries and across the Middle East.   

The United States has used the demonisation of the Islamic Republic as cover for changing the balance of forces in the Middle East, in particular the negotiation of agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to recognise and trade with Israel.  At a stroke Trump has blown apart the fragile alliance of Arab states supporting the rights of Palestinians to self determination, in opposition to the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

However, the Biden/Harris ticket, while remaining unwavering in US foreign policy terms in its support for Israel, is unlikely to be quite as hostile towards Iran.  As Vice-President to Barack Obama, Biden was part of the administration which orchestrated the Iran nuclear deal and is unlikely to view it in terms as hostile as Donald Trump.

The ongoing struggle to control the COVID-19 coronavirus will be a major priority for a Biden administration.  With the US still the world leader in the death count from the disease, Biden is unlikely to want to risk body bags returning from an unnecessary conflict in the Middle East.  The regime in Iran may be many things but it would not be a pushover militarily.

The prospect of normalising relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel and with it the possibility of military action against Iran may not be far away.  As well as the assassination of Fakhrizadeh the dangers are underlined by the recent mission of two US B52 bombers which recently conducted a surprise, round-trip to the Persian Gulf area allegedly “to deter aggression and reassure U.S. partners and allies”.

With just under two months left in office there remains the danger that Trump, either directly or through one of the US regional proxies, will take a foreign policy initiative in the Middle East that will damage the chances of a new administration being able to chart a less provocative course.

For the people of Iran the situation remains bleak.  Widespread protests against economic mismanagement and corruption continue.  The tightening of economic sanctions by the Trump administration has only served to make what was already a bad situation for the Iranian people even worse.  The inability to trade major commodities, oil in particular, has plunged the economy into near hyper-inflation with the associated redundancies, job insecurity and impoverishment which inevitably follows.

The economic crisis inside Iran is also affecting the capacity of the regime to continue its extraterritorial military activities in the Middle East (especially in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon) and with it, the financial and moral influence to continue “exporting Islamic revolution”.  

There are reports that the Russian government has raised the issue with the regime in Iran of removing its military forces and ceasing its operations in Syria. Since 2011, the regime has annually spent between $5bn and $11bn in Syria in pursuit of its strategic plans. Russia envisages a different future model for Syria to that of the theocratic regime in Iran.

The progress of the much debated 25-year strategic agreement between Iran and China is also likely to be affected by other regional influences with Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, recently proposing the formation of a forum in the Middle East to foster multilateral engagements with the “equal participation of all stakeholders.”

As ever in the Middle East there are many players with conflicting interests and the balance of forces can easily be tipped by the slightest action.  The question has to be asked, in whose interest is the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh?  It is certainly not in the interests of the Iranian people who are only likely to suffer further from economic hardship or, worse still, military intervention.

A destabilised Iran may well suit the agenda of the neo-con backers of Donald Trump and potentially reinforces Israel as the region’s strong man.  How Iran reacts, and whether the hardliners in Tehran gain the upper hand, could well determine whether there is any prospect for peace in the short term or whether the people of the Middle East face a further round of conflict.

Warfare not welfare

21st November 2020

Tanks again – military bosses win out while frontline workers see freeze on pay

Nothing should surprise us any more about the brazen desire of the Tories to promote the interests of their class, while wrapping themselves in the Union Jack flag and telling the rest of us that they are acting in our interests.  Nevertheless, there is still cause to wonder at times, who is in charge of their public relations. 

On Wednesday this week UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced a massive £16.5bn increase in the military budget.  Taken together with existing military spending commitments the announcement amounts to a staggering £21.5bn increase in the period to March 2025.  In spite of the additional needs of the country to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson insisted that “the defence of the realm must come first.”

The headlines suggest that spend will include the creation of a National Cyber Force, basically a group of hackers to conduct cyber war; a Space Command, able to launch rockets from 2022, a nod to the Star Wars days of Thatcher and Reagan; and an agency dedicated to artificial intelligence.  Some genuine intelligence would suggest that over £20bn could be more usefully spent on tackling the pandemic, supporting those who have lost jobs and livelihoods as a result and developing socially useful infrastructure investment to rebuild the economy.

In spite of Johnson’s recent announcement that he would steal Labour’s clothes and invest in a ‘green revolution’, the military establishment are cleaning their rifles and stamping their boots in glee.  More so because the cash bonanza appears to be baked in, with Labour suggesting that the military spending increase represented “a welcome and long overdue upgrade to Britain’s defences after a decade of decline.”

While boosting the weapons budget Chancellor Rishi Sunak is at the same time proposing to cut the UK Overseas aid budget by £4bn, a reduction from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP.   Overseas aid goes to those parts of the world that UK capital has successfully exploited in the past and are now left under resourced, economically restrained and generally impoverished.  In short it is guilt money for past transgressions and an ongoing down payment for continuing influence in developing nations, described by former PMs Tony Blair and David Cameron as a key strategic part of the UK’s ‘soft power’ influence.

While the rationale behind the overseas aid budget is less than altruistic it remains symbolically significant that, faced with the choice of spending on the military or supporting programmes of social development, the Tories have leapt significantly in one direction while back pedalling on the other.

By Thursday the government had clearly lost the PR plot altogether when it was widely leaked that, in his mini-budget next week, Rishi Sunak would be announcing a freeze on public sector pay increases as a means of contributing to paying for the costs of the pandemic.  Sunak attempted to sweeten the pill by suggesting that this would not affect NHS staff who have been in the frontline in fighting COVID-19, while blithely ignoring the fact that thousands of local government workers, teachers, police and firefighters, all of whom have made their contribution to the fight against COVID, would be swept up in the pay freeze.

There was never going to be any doubt that the Tories would look to pass on the burden of the costs of the pandemic to the population at large, in a further round of austerity that would make the George Osborne years look like a walk in the park.  Protecting the economy for the Tories always means protecting the banks, corporations and the City of London at all costs, however abject their performance, while telling the rest of us that “we are all in it together” and must all row in the same direction, no doubt putting the defence of the realm first.

This is only the story so far.  We have yet to have the final signoff on the £150bn spend on weapons of mass destruction, in the form of the replacement of the Trident nuclear submarine fleet, or to have a real assessment of the likely economic cost of the Tories mishandling of the Brexit negotiations, which will no doubt hit already hard pressed consumers harder still.

That the government is incompetent, even in its own terms of managing the capitalist system is self evident.  What is becoming increasingly clear to many however is the fact that the system itself does not function in the interests of the working people of the country and needs to be overhauled. 

It is the many, not the few, who need to be at the helm, deciding spending priorities and putting the country on the road to a socialist future.  Anything less is merely taking us on a journey down the road well travelled and for most, that is a road to nowhere.

Pawns in a wider game

15th November 2020

Cummings – merely a pawn?

Cronyism has always been part of the Tories’ stock in trade.  The old school tie network from Eton to Oxford, and onwards to the government and Cabinet, is a well worn route for the upper classes with aspirations.  The occasional upstart from the ranks of the lower middle classes are allowed through once in while but the Bullingdon Boys Club usually reasserts itself.

The pattern is mirrored in the upper echelons of the Civil Service, with the Oxbridge conveyor belt being the main supplier of Permanent Secretaries, designed to defend the status quo and all of the class privileges that come with it.  Scratch the surface of the UK’s spook services, MI5 and MI6, and the same pattern will emerge.  The Armed Forces ditto.

While industry and the business sector may allow for some degree of upward mobility, the system of knighthoods, lordships and sundry other honours are designed to make sure that those coming through the class glass ceiling and not going to be worrying too much about their roots.

Institutionally and constitutionally the Monarchy and the Church of England, as the State established church, are the cherry on the cake giving the veneer of longevity and legitimacy to the British ‘way of life’, stalwart safeguards against those who would denigrate British ‘values’.

The purpose of all of this backslapping camaraderie is to ensure that the capitalist system remains safe for capitalists and those who continue to benefit from the unequal distribution of resources, land and power.

The illusion of ‘democracy’ must be preserved however, which is why demagogues and petty tyrants will always identify themselves with the people, even when they are acting in ways which are diametrically opposed to the people’s interests.

Margaret Thatcher comparing running the economy to managing the household budget was one such ploy.  Boris Johnson’s talk of ‘levelling up’, a concept he patently has no interest in achieving, is another such Tory sleight of hand.  Failed TV personality and sometime millionaire, Donald Trump, built a successful pitch for the US Presidency around being an outsider and the voice of the ordinary disenfranchised US worker.  Trump may have been found out but he leaves behind a toxic legacy which will not be cleaned up overnight through the election of Joe Biden.     

The extent to which the working class can assert itself against such entrenched power and privilege depends to a large degree upon its strength in collective organisation and the ability of its leadership to expose the mendacity of those holding the reins of power.   

In the UK that means a Labour Party with a programme for change which can mobilise mass support on the streets and in communities, which can begin to speak truth to power and which must be committed at every level to change in society in the interests of the working class.  The stirrings of such an opportunity where there under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, certainly from 2015 to 2017, but were systematically extinguished by the enemies of change, both inside and outside of the Labour Party, resulting in the 2019 election defeat and the emergence of the supine Kier Starmer as Labour leader.

Having seen off the class enemy, for the time being at least, the ruling class can indulge in its own blood letting, having little opposition to deal with.   Thus, less than one year after an election victory which delivered an 80 strong Parliamentary majority, the inner circle around UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has fallen apart in spectacular fashion, with Director of Communications, Lee Cain, and chief political adviser, Dominic Cummings being shown the door.

The departures of Cain and Cummings are indicators of fissures which have been central to the Tory Party for half a century.  The faction which captured the high ground and ran a successful Brexit campaign is by no means representative of all Tory thinking.  There remains a strong allegiance in the Tory Party to a view which sees the safest haven for British capital as being within the EU bloc, better to exploit cheap East European labour and for the City of London to retain its pre-eminence in European financial trading.  There is broad agreement on this neo-liberal consensus in the Starmer led wing of the Labour Party.  

The Brexit leaning faction captured the populist high ground with a population disaffected by the lack of any tangible benefit to being in the EU and a Labour Party at war with itself, unable to articulate a clear alternative vision.  Johnson was a handy wise cracking poster boy, with little political conviction but enough ambition to front both the Leave campaign and the Tories election hopes.  His usefulness however, may be wearing thin.  As the deadline day for an EU trade deal looms, and the incompetence of the Johnson government has been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the pro-EU anti-Johnson Tories are beginning to make their play. 

In spite of his Parliamentary majority Johnson is not invulnerable.  There are those within the political establishment who would deeply desire a rapprochement with the EU.  The trade bloc may have its faults, even from a capitalist perspective, but is it better to sup with the devil you know than rely on the prospect of a trade deal with a volatile and divided United States?

The stakes remain high and there are many moves left to make.  Cain and, especially Cummings, may have an inflated sense of their self importance but could turn out to be mere pawns taken in a much wider opening gambit.  However the play develops, there will be no victory for the working class until the rules are changed, the board is cleared and new pieces are in play.  That will mean the Queen, knights and the bishops having to worry about their positions and their room for manoeuvre.

Stay awake, vigilant and mobilised

8th November 2020

Protestors demand the counting of all votes in the US presidential election

The undignified scramble for power by representatives of a rich elite, squeezing as much finance as possible from their corporate backers while posing as tribunes of the people, has long been the defining characteristic of presidential politics in the United States. The 2020 presidential race fitted this template no less than many others but it also contained special features which heightened its significance and had people across the world hanging on the outcome.

The incumbent, Donald Trump, had gained ascendency in the Republican Party in 2016 backed by a right wing neo-con clique, determined to shift the political centre of gravity in the United States even further to the right.  Trump’s phoney man of the people persona, his visibility as a TV personality from the US version of The Apprentice and the easy target the Democrats provided in fielding a dyed in the wool establishment figure such as Hillary Clinton, meant Trump was able to squeeze an electoral college victory, in spite of being 3 million votes behind Clinton in the popular vote.

To suggest that Trump failed to imbue the office with any gravitas would be an understatement.  The constant and often bizarre communication by Twitter; the regular abusing of journalists who posed difficult questions; and his routine embracing of leaders of dubious character, from Kim Jong-un to Jair Bolsonaro, from Benjamin Netanyahu to Boris Johnson, combined to make Trump a constant target for the centre and Left.

The ‘Make America Great Again’ mantra of Trump’s 2016 campaign resonated with many Americans who saw the US as having lost status in the world and lost economic ground to an increasingly strong Chinese economy.  Withdrawal from the Iran anti-nuclear deal, negotiated by Barack Obama in 2015, made it easy to rail against the Iranian regime and its failings.  Withdrawal from the World Health Organisation (WHO) provided a scapegoat for failing to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, where almost a quarter of a million people have now died.   

As ever, the tried and tested tactic of demagogues has always been to set up some easy targets then knock them down.  This was a feature of the Trump presidency.  Blame Iran for uncertainty in the Middle East; Mexico for illegal immigration into the US; China for unfair trade practices hitting US jobs; Cuba, for simply daring to exist in spite of the 60 year long illegal trade embargo, the terms of which Trump tightened further.  

Against this background it is easy to see Trump as a divisive force in US politics and society.  There can be little doubt that Trump polarised opinion in the country.  Those divisions did not appear with the presidency of Donald Trump however.  Certainly, Trump did nothing to address them and often, on questions of racism especially did much to exacerbate them, but he cannot be accused of creating them. Trump did not divide America; a divided America produced Trump.

Much has been made of the fact that in 2020 Joe Biden has received more votes than any other presidential candidate in US history.  Less is being made of the fact that Donald Trump’s vote in 2020 is the second highest for any candidate in US presidential history.  Those who support Trump remain a significant and vociferous bloc. 

As a narcissist and a bad loser Trump will drag out the legal challenges to the electoral process as far as he can.  It is widely expected that these will not gain traction. If so Trump will no doubt continue to shout from the sidelines once Biden’s presidency gets underway. He will be a vocal but marginal figure.

For those behind Trump however, the struggle to maintain US global hegemony and to turn back the clock in terms of social policy, will continue.  The trade wars with China, the undermining of international organisations of co-operation, the interference in the Middle East which has undermined support for the Palestinian cause, the tightening of restrictions on Cuba, are all policy shifts which Joe Biden will not be in a position to reverse in a four year period.

More significantly still, the conservative 6-3 majority on the US Supreme Court, the key arbiter in crucial policy judgements such as abortion rights, is a legacy which will outlast several presidential terms.  The United States is a society with deep racial divisions and inequalities.  Even the much heralded presidency of Barack Obama did little to change that.  The recent upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement illustrates the distance left to travel.

The Communist Party USA puts the position succinctly,

“Even with the acceptance of the votes and certification of the election for Biden/Harris, the fight will not be over. Take Trump at his word. What will compel his administration to hand over power? Here the mixed election results, the narrowness of the contests, amplify the degree of the danger. We are confronting two mass movements, of unequal strength—one fascist-tinged and in power, the other democratic and ascending. This is no ordinary election, and the situation remains far from clear. It’s time to stay awake, vigilant, and mobilized.”

President-elect, Joe Biden, has promised “a new day for America” and there is no doubt that the removal of Trump is a significant and symbolic step forward. The reduction of politics to the personalities of the main protagonists however is always a danger.  The shadowy forces behind Trump may have failed in their attempt to secure him a second term but their sights will already be set firmly on 2024 and extending the ‘gains’ they have made under Trump.

For all of the immediate significance of his victory, Joe Biden is little more than a caretaker president. The work to really turn the tide in the United States must continue with working class, black and Latino organisations combining to provide a people’s force with a progressive agenda for change.  The next four years will be crucial in building an effective base for resistance and ultimately for progress.

Nationwide lockdown in England to tackle second wave

31st October 2020

Who is that masked man? Boris Johnson announces national lockdown for England

England is now into a second national lockdown, for one month initially from Thursday 5th November, following an announcement this evening by Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.  Schools and universities will remain open, non-essential shops and the hospitality sector will close. The National Education Union are calling for schools to be included in any lockdown, as infection rates are increasing significantly in secondary schools.

This situation has come about through a combination of factors but is predominantly due to the blatantly class biased handling of the pandemic by the Tory government. This has resulted in a loss of public trust in the government’s strategy, leading many to make their own decisions about how best to navigate a route through the crisis.

There has always been a lumpen hard core for whom, as far as they are concerned, the rules do not apply.   This group can be as diverse as organisers of house parties on working class estates, dinner party hosts in the suburbs, to the Prime Minister’s chief political adviser.  The real unravelling of trust came with Dominic Cummings’ ill fated trip to Barnard Castle, after which it was clear that there was one rule for some and one for others.

Confidence in the government was certainly not universal before the Cummings debacle but there was a greater degree of latitude given by most people, prepared to believe the line that the government was ‘following the science’ and that what was tough today, would result in a brighter tomorrow.

The Tories initially fuelled the illusion of a quick fix by dangling a series of carrots at the daily government propaganda briefings into the summer.  Discussion about air corridors made it sound as though holiday plans could actually be delivered.  The ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme fostered the idea that some degree of economic normality was around the corner, with gyms, shops and libraries also opening across the summer.

A vaccine before Christmas has been talked up time and again by the Tories and the right wing press, although the medical and scientific community are noticeably cooler about the prospect.    The much vaunted Operation Moonshot, the Tories’ post summer big idea has gone quiet.  Test and trace is widely regarded as a farrago, which has succeeded in doing little more than putting £12bn into the pockets of Tory supporters Serco, while doing little or nothing to save lives.  In mid October Serco announced it expects bumper profits after securing an extension to its Test and Trace contract.

Funding Christmas panto in ten cities across England, from the National Lottery, was a further desperate attempt to garner some popularity as the government’s credibility with the general public guttered into the autumn.  While schools opened and students returned to university in September it was clear that a second wave was well underway.  The need to break chains of transmission, by introducing a national lockdown period, was the clear scientific advice being pressed upon the government in late September.

This advice was deemed too unpopular so was ignored.  Any illusion that the government was following the science, was stripped away.  The big players in the hospitality sector were clearly worried about their profits, the small individual businesses were not promised enough in the way of government support to give them a chance to survive.  Meanwhile, many companies in the arts and cultural sectors remain in danger of going to the wall, while individual freelancers are having to take any job they can to make ends meet.

It is only two weeks into the three tier system announced by the government, aimed at managing the pandemic at a local level, and that appears to be failing, with infection rates soaring and predictions that a second wave could see twice as many deaths as the first. 

The government has always tried to sell the line that it is backing both public health needs and those of the economy.  The reality remains however that private wealth has always edged ahead of public health in the government’s planning.  The poor, the elderly and those from ethnic minorities in working class communities have never been the natural constituency of the Tories.  The fact that the death count is highest amongst these communities is clearly a factor in the gamble the government is taking with the lives of ordinary people.

A national lockdown is here.  The carrot this time is to ‘save Christmas’.  Exactly what will be saved and for whom is almost too macabre to predict.  A four week lockdown, followed by a frenzy of household mixing and a breakdown of social distancing, can only end up with one result come January.  

It is probable that the Tories’ big business backers will not tolerate measures much more stringent than this over their honeypot period in December.  Is it likely that the government will be believed by the public if they take a harder line anyway?  Nevertheless, measures to manage Christmas need to be thought through and agreed well in advance, in order to allow plans for the holiday period to be made with some degree of confidence well in advance.

The irony is that, along with endangering so many lives by not taking a stronger public health line, the economy is on the brink of crashing anyway and threatening the livelihoods of millions. 

Priorities need to change as a matter of urgency.  Test and trace needs to be taken out of the hands of the money grabbing private sector and put into the hands of local Directors of Public Health.  The companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook, profiting from the pandemic, need to be made to pay their way.  The opposition needs to build outside Parliament to make sure that Tory class interests are exposed. 

The Labour opposition inside Parliament, uninspiring so far, needs to challenge the government more effectively.  Kier Starmer has not shown himself capable of that to date.  A question mark must hang over his future if Labour is to be a force for working class people once more.  

Never mind the cake, let’s take the bakery!

24th October 2020

Fine dining – not for eveyryone during school holidays

The appeal by Manchester United footballer, Marcus Rashford, that those children on free school meals may have no bread during school holidays, has met with a resounding “let them eat cake” response by UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, backed by his thumping House of Commons majority.  As with most aspects of the current crisis, Labour were once again late to the oppose the government, but did put down a motion in the House of Commons on Wednesday, inspired by Rashford’s campaign, which was defeated by 322 votes to 261.

Over the school summer holiday period Rashford was able to force a concession from the government, to provide meal vouchers of £15 per week for those families with children on free schools meals, in order to provide support for the lowest paid, most vulnerable and those most likely to be working in sectors where the pandemic would have the most impact.

The Commons vote has triggered a wave of opposition from Councils across England, there are schemes to support children during school holidays elsewhere in the UK, who are preparing to make local interventions if the government is not prepared to back down.  They have been joined by cafes and businesses pledging to help, while Rashford’s petition to implement a national food strategy has gathered over 500,000 signatures.  Official figures are showing that 1.4 million children in England are eligible for free school meals, with unofficial estimates suggesting that this may now be closer to 2 million.

That there is the prospect of any child going hungry in the world’s fifth richest nation, never mind 2 million, is a damning indictment of the priorities within a capitalist economy.  Even Nick Forbes, Leader of Newcastle City Council and Leader of the Local Government Association Labour Group, but hardly a left wing firebrand, commented,

“Children should never be left to go hungry – the fact that this Conservative government can’t see that shows it has completely lost its moral compass. They have wasted millions on high-paid consultants and have given billions to Serco to run a test and trace system that doesn’t work, but they draw the line at using a tiny fraction of that to prevent children going hungry this half term.  It is sickening.”

At the other end of the social spectrum things are, as ever, not so stark.  An exemption included in the tier 2 rules allows freelancers to work over lunch, a caveat which has meant some high end London restaurants interpreting this to mean up to 30 can dine at a time, as long as “the topic is business.”  These restaurants are relying on “exception 3” in the government’s regulations which states,

 “Exception 3 is that the gathering is reasonably necessary – (a) for work purposes or for the provision of voluntary or charitable services.”

At the Sexy Fish restaurant in Mayfair diners could select king crab and caviar sushi at £42 a piece (or nearly 3 free school meal vouchers) and this was only one of a number of high end restaurants doing a roaring trade this week.  It is unlikely that any of the ‘freelance’ diners were amongst the thousands of workers in the cultural sector struggling to survive the closure of arts and music venues across the country, many of whom have slipped through the net of government support.

Current estimates suggest that on average a self-employed worker in the arts or hospitality sector will get a mere £450 a month from the Treasury’s self employment income support scheme, just half the level during the first lockdown.  Not much king crab and caviar sushi likely to be bought on those wages.  It is estimated that 500,000 self employed people work in sectors of the economy which are either shut or struggling under the weight of COVID-19 restrictions.  A record 250,000 self employed people have fallen out of work since the start of 2020.

The extent to which the government have mishandled the pandemic is disgraceful in every aspect. Increasingly, the eyes of many are being opened to the calamitous choice made at the last election and the iniquities which are endemic to capitalism.  A system which allows some to dine on caviar while others scrape together the money to feed the kids during school holidays will never ‘level up’, however much Boris Johnson chooses to repeat his most hollow mantra.

The real flaw in the system is in fact the system itself.  No amount of tinkering will ultimately change the capitalist leopard’s spots.  The realisation is growing that real change has to come.  It is not the need to eat cake, or even grasp a bigger slice that is required, it is time to take over the entire bakery and put production in the hands of those who will ensure the cake is fairly distributed, so no-one goes hungry during school holidays, or at any other time of the year.

Different politics, different priorities

17th October 2020

Cuba – reopening the door for tourism

Chaotic, uncoordinated, directionless – all terms which have at various times been used to describe the Tory government’s handling of the current COVID-19 pandemic.  Ostensibly it is hard to deny such accusations, given the debacle which emerges following each set of policy announcements in relation to dealing with the crisis.  Johnson’s government may well be inept but it is not entirely without purpose.  The guiding principles of the handling of the pandemic to date have been to protect private wealth over public health and this continues to be the case.

How can this be, when the strategy of the government appears to threaten the livelihoods of many small businesses and entrepreneurs, previously just making enough to get by but now in danger of going under, as the furlough scheme ends and the government support on offer is barely enough to cover the bills, never mind pay the wages of staff?

In reality, not only is the government not in control of the virus, it is not in control of the basic laws of capitalism.  One basic tendency of capital is that towards monopoly, the swallowing up of smaller competition by bigger providers, thus creating ever larger conglomerates which dominate particular fields of industry, retail or communications.

Dealing with competition by takeover has long been a key feature of capitalism and is no different in the modern world of digital and virtual technologies.  Facebook dealt with the threat from WhatsApp and Instagram by buying them up for example.

The demise of the high street shop may not be on quite such a scale but the opportunity is there for the bigger retailers to step into the void left by independent retailers, no longer able to make their way.  This may take the form of more ‘local’ Tesco or Sainsbury’s outlets, or a high street Starbucks, but nonetheless increases the reach of the corporate pyramids.

Capitalism also functions according to basic laws governing the supply and demand of labour.  In times of crisis, when jobs are going and labour is being shed, pay becomes a buyers market.  In spite of minimum wage legislation and working time rights, employers have managed to get round much of this by the simple trick of not being employers.  Nowadays many companies will contract ‘self employed’ individuals, paid on piece rates to deliver goods or produce product.

Apart from driving down the hourly rate of pay such an approach divests employers of the responsibility for national insurance or pension payments.   In the short term this may sustain profits but crises of job insecurity, a low skills low wage economy and a future pensions crisis are undoubtedly in store.

Large sections of the population effectively living hand to mouth, in areas of work where it is difficult to co-operate or unionise, will continue to increase as the pandemic progresses.  This reserve army of labour, either unemployed or in unstable employment, will continue to be a resource for the suppression of wage rates and will continue to be a threat to those in low paid work, in danger of falling into the twilight world of semi-employment.

In any crisis there are also winners.  There are no signs of Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook or Netflix going under.  Nor are there any signs of any of the major profiteers from the pandemic coming under pressure to pay their share of taxes, to support those suffering at the sharp end.  It is not in their interest to offer, nor in the interests of the Tories to ask.

The day to day practicalities of what it means to be in Tier 2 and what cannot be done in Tier 3 are in danger of consuming many, as the pandemic moves into the winter flu season and the trajectory of infections increase.    To a certain extent that is inevitable as people attempt to make sense of a system almost designed to obfuscate and confuse.

However, many are also increasingly seeing that, beyond the present crisis there are questions to be answered about how society is organised and managed; how the means of production are distributed and controlled; why over 40,000 have died in the world’s fifth richest economy while the death toll in China, with a billion strong population, has not yet hit five figures; how a struggling  developing economy like Cuba is re-opening its doors for tourism.

Different politics, a different view of the world, means different priorities. When the profits of the international corporations are not your number one concern it is possible to do things differently and genuinely do things in the interests of people, not private profit.

Panto is back but can it save the show?

11th October 2020

Panto – enough to save the cultural sector?

With anticipated new measures to further lockdown huge areas of England expected this week and much of Scotland already under significant lockdown, there has been a glimmer of good news.  There may be some pantomime this Christmas.  This would be more welcome if the government’s handling of the pandemic so far had not been such a performance.  However, the joy with which the news of National Lottery funded pantomime in ten cities was greeted is symptomatic of a nation desperate for something to do, somewhere to go and some distraction from the grim realities of COVID-19.

Music venues are tentatively testing out the possibility of socially distanced performance to the same rapturous response.  A modest, socially distanced, autumn music programme announced by the Sage Gateshead for example sold out within hours.  Theatres and venues across the country are tentatively dipping their toes in the water of performance, on a limited scale.  Most local authorities have opened up library services, albeit on a reduced basis, providing many local communities with a lifeline both to literature and the possibility of human contact beyond their immediate family.  Local museums have similarly seen a gradual return of visitors, although most report that this is at little more than 30% of usual levels.

While the gradual return of some cultural life is to be welcomed the context of rising infection rates, growing hospitalisations, and the creeping up of the death rate does raise the question as to how sustainable any cultural revival will be.   

The cultural sector more widely has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, with theatre and live music venues closed, the summer festival programme cancelled and cinemas operating on a restricted basis with little new film product.

The sector relies more that most on freelance workers, both in the creative and technical sides of the industry, while many organisations necessarily rely upon significant grant aid, sponsorship and, critically, ticket sales to survive; the so-called three legged stool of cultural funding.

The shift in emphasis over many years in the cultural sector has been away from state aid, as Arts Council budgets are regularly slashed, and has moved increasingly towards philanthropy and income generated through ticket sales.  While this has resulted in some creative responses to funding and income generation in the cultural sector, with a sharpened approach to product differentiation and merchandising, these still rely upon significant footfall and spend at the venue.  Only so much marketing is successful online if you have not seen the show!

As a business model in relatively good times, when there is enough disposable income in the economy, this has allowed the sector to survive, if not always to flourish.  Community theatre, grass roots music venues and local authority support for seedcorn arts projects, have continued to struggle against the tsunami of austerity over the past ten years.  The pipeline of new talent from working class and black and minority ethnic communities, trying to find a foothold in the cultural sector, has suffered accordingly.  Local museums and libraries, often the lifeblood of engagement at a community level, have increasingly fallen victim to austerity as council budgets are squeezed.

The various packages so far offered by Chancellor Rishi Sunak have done little to help cultural workers at the sharp end survive.  Self employed artists and local theatre companies, reliant on commissions from local government, the education sector and the private sector have found the well running dry. Many freelancers did not qualify for individual support while business loans were little compensation to arts organisations uncertain of their future prospects and their ability to meet repayments.  Little in the current packages on offer from the government indicate a significant change.

Whatever largesse the private sector may have found for arts sponsorship is unlikely to be forthcoming for some time, as most retrench and restructure as a result of the pandemic.  Ticket sales will be affected by whatever social distancing measures venues have to observe as well as some degree of audience reluctance, if infection levels are not brought under control.

There will no doubt be protection for the national institutions in the cultural sector.  Will the government allow the British Museum, V&A, Royal Opera, the RSC, Tate Modern and other national cultural icons to disappear?  It is unlikely.

However, while the pandemic has dramatically exposed the fragility of an NHS which has been under resourced for over a decade and has been overwhelmed by a surge in demand, it has also exposed the fault lines in the funding structures for the cultural sector.  The £1.57bn Cultural Recovery Fund administered through Arts Council England, currently dispersing this fund, may address some short term issues but even there demand has very much outstripped supply.

At some point sponsorship will return to the big names and, with greater confidence, so too will audiences.  How much of the sector is left at a local level though may well depend upon the extent to which funding through local authorities can be increased to target cultural activity and support community arts and education. It will take more than a few high profile pantomime announcements to address these issues.

Trump – stand by to stand down

2nd October 2020

Protests continue to grow in the US as the election approaches

There are many ironies to the news this morning that Donald and Melania Trump have tested positive for COVID-19.  There is the fact that Trump spent months in denial that the virus existed.  He moved on to suggest that an injection of bleach may be a suitable cure.  Trump has subsequently done all in his power to weaponise the pandemic, as part of his anti-China campaign and his attempt to maintain the global economic and military power balance in favour of the United States.

It is an irony that the greatest perpetrator of fake news, a term regularly used by Trump in order to deflect criticism from the liberal media, has fallen prey to many being prepared to believe that his positive diagnosis is just the latest in a long line of pre-election stunts to bolster his faltering campaign for re-election.

Whatever the reality, for the military industrial complex and the alt-right social conservatives in the US, Trump may be reaching the point of being expendable.  In four years Trump has effectively eradicated any hint of liberal social policy, limited though it was, that Barack Obama was able to introduce in his two terms in office.

The ‘Make America Great Again’ mantra was always a tilt at the perceived failings under Obama, even though foreign aggression and wars of intervention were a feature of Obama’s watch. The persistent condemnation of the New York Times and what passes for liberal media in the United States has helped undermine what little trust many Americans had in their government and given succour to the bully boys of white supremacy, from the Ku Klux Klan to the Proud Boys.

For the conservative alt-right a key achievement of the Trump presidency is undoubtedly the shift in power balance on the US Supreme Court.  With the likely appointment of dedicated Catholic and anti-abortionist, Amy Coney Barrett, Trump will have succeeded in shifting the balance of the court 6-3 in favour of conservative judges.

Access to abortion in the US relies upon a landmark 1973 ruling, Roe vs Wade, which legalised abortion nationwide.  It has long been a target of the alt-right in the US to have the ruling overturned and the shifting power balance in the Supreme Court is seen as a key means to achieving the reversal.

The shift reflects the pattern of white supremacist organisations being allowed to gain ground as a result of the upsurge in the Black Lives Matter movement, following a string of deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers in the US.

Trump has actively encouraged this trend. During Tuesday’s presidential debate with Democratic nominee Joe Biden, Trump was asked if he was willing to denounce “white supremacists and militia groups” and tell them to stand down amid violence that has marred anti-racism protests in some US cities.

Trump requested a specific name, and Biden mentioned the Proud Boys, an organisation that describes itself as a club of “Western chauvinists”.

“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump said. The comment drew widespread criticism and was viewed by many to be a sign of encouragement for the group.  Trump has subsequently back pedalled, claiming that his comments were misinterpreted, but given his history of inflammatory comments on the subject of racism the ‘climb down’ appears to be little more than a PR exercise.

The terms of political debate in the US have shifted so far in the past four years that Trump can routinely characterise Joe Biden as a socialist.  In reality Biden, like Obama before him and every US President of modern times, is a representative of the super rich elite which are central to US politics.  An American presidency is never won without being bankrolled by the vested interests which are at the heart of the US finance and military industrial complex.

The Obama presidency, with its emphasis upon increased healthcare for the poor and a limited thawing of relations with Cuba, was about as liberal as the US bankers and corporations were prepared to allow.  Even that was too much for the neo-cons, who have channelled their agenda through Trump, turning his phoney ‘man of the people’ rhetoric to advantage while deepening poverty, increasing unemployment and killing thousands during the course of the pandemic.

To that extent, whether Trump stays or goes, will not change the shape of US politics in the short term.  His departure would be welcome and undoubtedly a symbolic victory.  However, it must go alongside a growth of the mass opposition to how the United States is run and the constant election of governments representative of the elite, by the elite, for the elite.  The voices of the people must be heard, the struggle must continue.  At best the election on 3rd November, if it results in Trump’s defeat, will be one small step.

More endless carping

23rd September 2020

Rees-Mogg wants a stop to “endless carping”

Less than a week after local authorities in the North East of England requested local restrictions, which were subsequently approved by the Secretary of State, Matt Hancock, the rest of England is now facing similar restrictions in the face of an exponential rise in the COVID-19 virus.  

Having spent the summer encouraging everyone to ‘eat out to help out’; go to the pub; go to the beach; return to town centre shopping; get back to work where they can; and take overseas holidays along so called air corridors, the government strategy of prioritising private wealth over public health is once again exposed.

The second wave of COVID-19, which is now officially acknowledged, was predicted by everyone except the government.  The exhortation to ‘control the virus’ was always doomed to failure.  The virus cannot be controlled.  It’s spread can be suppressed, through effective test, trace and isolate or its impact neutralised through the development of an effective vaccine.

While the vaccine option is not yet within reach, more effective test and trace has been demonstrated in various parts of the world, including China, Cuba, Vietnam and New Zealand.  It is little surprise that ideological bigotry will prevent the UK government taking any lessons from the first three of those countries but even the example of New Zealand, or for that matter South Korea or Germany, seems to be a step beyond the government’s capability.

As ever, the Johnson government has been too quick to listen to the interests of the breweries and alcohol manufacturers, euphemistically branded as the hospitality sector, rather than those of its own public health professionals.  The former saw the summer as an opportunity to cash in on fine weather, the easing of lockdown restrictions and the general desire of many sections of the population to get out of the house.

Public health professionals saw the summer as an opportunity to put in place an effective test and trace system, engage with local environmental health teams to gather intelligence, and prepare for the inevitable rise in COVID-19 cases over the autumn and winter period.  Not surprisingly, this did not happen on a wide enough scale.

It is widely held that the test and trace operation headed up by failed mobile phone company Chief Executive, Dido Harding, is a debacle.  Stories of people having to drive hundreds of miles for tests, only to find that sites are at capacity, are legion.  It is no use Tory millionaire Jacob Rees-Mogg suggesting that people should stop ‘endless carping’ about the failures of the test and trace system.  Unlike Rees-Mogg, most of those relying on tests are having to travel for miles, take time off work and then, if they need to isolate, potentially losing income they can ill afford.

There is the rub.  Apart from any systemic failures with test and trace there are the personal calculations families are making about whether or not they can afford to isolate.  Poverty is lurking and unemployment is just around the corner for many already on the breadline.  These are the realities for millions of working class families.  They have every right to ‘carp’ at a system which is failing to give them protection and is set to see thousands more die over the winter.

The government has once again implemented a series of measures which are too half hearted to have an impact.  Closing pubs and restaurants at 10pm is not enough, unless it is followed up with strict and well resourced enforcement action against businesses which continue to abuse the rules.  Failing that, closure altogether.  Visiting between households is no longer permitted in Scotland or the North East of England.  This needs to be a national position if chains of transmission are to be broken.

All of which needs to be implemented with a properly resourced and managed test and trace operation in place.  It is no good Johnson proclaiming that we are a ‘freedom loving people’ therefore it makes it difficult to enforce the rules.  That is simply baloney.  Keep the rules clear, simple, enforceable and applicable to all, even Prime Ministerial advisers, and they may begin to have an impact.

In the meantime, if the government are calculating that the current situation is to be with us for up to six months, a review of the furlough and other compensation schemes for businesses and individuals is essential.  Those hit hardest by the virus are those least likely to have the cushion of savings, multiple income streams or inherited wealth. A further tranche of short term support is vital. 

In the longer term it is not just systemic failures of test and trace but those of capitalism which need to be addressed.  For most people getting through their day to day lives and trying to keep up with the stream of obfuscation from the government is as much as they can manage.  However, people are increasingly seeing the realities of a system in crisis and once again, who is being made to pay.  Jacob Rees-Mogg and his ilk may not like the ‘carping’ but it is only going to get louder and, with the right leadership, more organised.