Sunday, May 30, 2010

Who Benefits From Cuts?

European governments have been announcing public spending cuts almost daily since they agreed a €750 billion bank bailout a fortnight back. Greece (€30 billion), Spain (€80 billion), Italy (£24 billion) and Portugal (£2 billion), were this week joined by the new UK government, which slashed £6 billion with immediate effect, and promised the financial markets much, much more.

In their statement, Conservative Chancellor George Osbourne and Liberal Democrat Treasury secretary David Laws (who would later be forced to resign following expenses revelations) declared there would be a civil service "recruitment freeze", along with substantial losses for regional and university budgets. The Transport department will lose £683 million, meaning a drastic scaling back of badly needed road maintenance seems inevitable.

The coalition's announcement was merely a starter course, meant to reassure the super rich that it means business, ahead of an 'emergency budget' next month. Still, public sector job losses are expected to be in the hundreds of thousands. Those hundreds of thousands will join dole queues, at a time when the unemployment rate is already 8%. There, they will be exposed to the reforms being prepared by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith.

Despite his professed concern for the UK's "broken society", Duncan Smith wants to cut the welfare bill, and - perhaps more importantly from the ruling class point of view - exert downward pressure on wages, by having many more desperate people fighting for each vacancy. Jobseeker's Allowance claimants face losing benefits if they refuse to "do the right thing" and take a job offer on new "work programmes". Meanwhile, Incapacity Benefit recipients will also be attending Job Centres, because "tougher" medical tests will apparently decide if they are capable of undertaking "desk or administrative jobs or part-time work". On top of this, entitlement to housing assistance will be cut, and Duncan Smith wants to phase out the idea of a default retirement age altogether, so that workers "continue to keep working and contributing".

While the corporate media routinely demonises unemployed people who get as little as £60 a week - or less if aged under twenty-five - on which to exist, it rarely questions the vastly greater handouts to those bankers at the top, who genuinely do contribute nothing to society, and have no plans ever to do so. Exposed to this propaganda on a daily basis, some working class people will support Duncan Smith's proposal to bury the "cradle to grave" welfare state - a post-war gain which workers fought tooth and nail to secure. But the ratio of jobseekers to available jobs is growing, and that is a state of affairs which only benefits the elite. A broad-based workers' fightback will have to extend solidarity to welfare claimants, as a matter of pure self-interest.

This article was also published on The Commune website.

American: The Bill Hicks Story (15)

For once, the hype is justified. Bill Hicks really was "the outlaw comic who tried to save the world". This fascinating, inspiring and hilarious documentary tells his story in an innovative fashion, using the recollections and photographs of many who were closest to him.

The man was a 'rock and roll comedian' in the early 1990s, when many of the rock stars who did what he demanded and played "from their fucking heart" were killing themselves with drugs. So it was no coincidence that Hicks likely did the same, dying from cancer at the tragically early age of thirty-two, a process which was surely helped along by his abuse of his own body, and his liver in particular. But his brief candle burned with ferocious intensity, and he left behind an extraordinary body of work, some highlights of which are featured here.

Having said that, it's possible you've never heard any of his stuff. He was the archetypal 'cult' figure; largely shunned by a US media that couldn't take his brutal dissection of the American dream. The advertisers he advised to commit suicide instead put pressure on programme makers, and Hicks didn't get the exposure he certainly merited. However, he became wildly popular in the UK, where people who were far enough removed from that horror could appreciate the signs of what was coming their way.

It's quite easy to imagine what Hicks would be railing against these days. Swap Bush the Second for Bush the First, Obama for Clinton, the Jonas Brothers for New Kids On The Block, and multiply the insanity by about five. But no review can do justice to the scope of his craft, from spontaneous rants (in E-minor or otherwise) and angry denunciations of all in authority, to sprawling monologues which grasped for ideas that might change the world. His love for humanity fought it out with his misanthropy, and watching what he gave us remains an enthralling experience.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Can't Pay £1 Trillion, Won't Pay £1 Trillion!

At the time of writing, the UK national debt was estimated to be £914,930,818,716. Okay, that sounds really scary, but what does it actually mean? Well, it means that the government owed nearly a trillion pounds to its lenders. When you're used to dealing with hundreds and thousands, a number like that is mind-boggling, and seems impossible to understand. But when you divide it by the total population, it comes to nearly £15,000 for every man, woman and child, or nearly £32,000 for every person in paid work.

A government can't allow a situation like that to go on; it's poison for the economy. The new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition pledge to cut much of this deficit over the next five year Parliament, as indeed Labour promised before their defeat. But even if they wanted to, our rulers couldn't simply wave a magic wand and make the debt disappear. The money has to come from somewhere, so there are three options.

One: raise taxes to an astronomical level. Two: make enormous slashing cuts to government spending. Three: some combination of the two.

The United Kingdom went into this crisis as the second most unequal of the world's most prosperous ten nations, behind the United States. A February report by the National Equality Panel found that the richest 10% of the population were one hundred times wealthier than the poorest 10%. Poverty rates were the highest in Western Europe, while the richest one thousand individuals were worth more than three times what they were in 1997, when New Labour came to power under Tony Blair.

Much of the debate during the election campaign was focused on how the next government would make an initial £6 billion cut to spending. But in a country where those richest one thousand have a combined fortune of £333.5 billion, it might be argued that a 'fair' solution would be to grab the money from those kinds of people. After all, they wouldn't really miss it, and those of us who struggle to make ends meet wouldn't have to suffer job losses, cuts to the services we rely on, or 2.5p in the pound on our weekly shop. What's more, that privileged layer of society doesn't actually create any wealth, they just consume it, or gamble with it if they are the investment bankers who triggered the 2008-09 crash. Much of the government's debt comes from Labour's banker bailouts! So surely any 'neutral' government would take up Robin Hood politics right now, if they wanted to govern in the interests of the majority.

Unfortunately for us, there's no such thing as a 'fair' and 'neutral' government. There never has been, and there never could be. For centuries, governments on these islands openly and proudly ruled on behalf of the aristocracy, who claimed the 'divine right' to live in luxury and dictate the laws. After the Civil War, Parliament became more powerful, so owners of land and eventually factories argued about what was in the 'national interest'. Then the struggles of the Chartists, labour unions and suffragettes helped win more and more people the right to choose who sat in Parliament. People from working class backgrounds were soon elected, and they were usually members of the Labour Party.

But even those who genuinely wanted to change the system from within found that the system changed them far more. Suddenly they were rubbing shoulders with the elite, and they found they had different interests to the folks back home. Besides, there was an economy to run. Economies run on profit, and profit comes from making people work harder, for less reward. If politicians in this country couldn't do that, they'd fall behind their rivals all around the world. Sure, they made big changes in the 1940s, when Britain had an empire, and could afford it. But even then, things like a National Health Service and a comprehensive welfare state were largely concessions granted to protect the rich from returning soldiers, who had lived through the Great Depression and Second World War.

So if the debt burden isn't going to be shared 'fairly', what will happen over the next few years? We can predict that the coalition will try to claw the national debt from the backs of those who can least afford it. That's certainly what's happening in Greece, where their equivalent of the British Labour Party wants to wring €30 billion from a country of only eleven million people. In return for a bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, Prime Minister Giorgios Papandreou has announced various drastic cuts packages over the last few months. Workers have responded by holding one day national strikes, and even trying to storm 'their' parliament - but these actions have failed to stop any of the measures. Portugal and Spain are announcing similar cuts, whilst Romanian pensioners recently fought police, following a 15% cut in payouts, which takes many below the breadline.

Ordinary working people around the world are confronting disaster, as 'their' governments steal from the poor to give to the super rich. But if we have less money to spend, we'll be putting less back into the economy, which will inevitably bring a new, and deeper recession. We can then expect governments to repeat their trick when necessary, and announce yet more savage cuts. The global economy is on a downward spiral into another depression. Capitalism is eating itself.

But this present round of government spending cuts is bad enough, and it's set to be worse for people in Liverpool than in much of the UK. This is because the city's economy is significantly more dependent on public money than most, according to research by Stuart Wilks-Heeg from the University of Liverpool. In 2008, he found that 65% of the previous decade's new local jobs were in the public sector. And yet Liverpool's unemployment rate was over 10%, even in those boom years. Latest unemployment figures show 54,000 Liverpool city region residents claiming Jobseeker's Allowance, and many more need other benefits just to keep a roof over their heads. This might be the tip of the iceberg, because the government currently subsidises other areas of the local economy. It's clear that many Liverpool people face devastation in the near future.

If the picture I've painted seems bleak, there's not much I can do about that. Our situation is bleak. But this catastrophic crisis also brings an opportunity for reorganising society. We are used to safe and ritualistic ways of trying to make change - voting for MPs, marching from Point A to Point B, even going on official strikes (if the courts will let us). But surely it is now clear that these strategies achieve very little. Politicians generally only care about our views when they are after our votes. More than a million marched against the invasion of Iraq, but it happened anyway. And how many successful official strikes can you remember since the miners were defeated in the eighties?

It is time to recognise that the profit system works against the interests of all except the elites and their bought hangers-on. It causes vast poverty, despite having revolutionised technology, and therefore creating the tantalizing prospect of prosperity for all. It alienates people from each other and their work, where they spend a large chunk of their waking lives. It creates environmental destruction, because sustainability is a barrier to profitability. Perhaps worst of all, it threatens the survival of our species, as governments around the world respond to the crisis by becoming even more nationalistic.

The movements against cuts springing up around the world must bring people together, as they look for new ways to resist their oppression, and change things for the better. The only sane system would be one where the people who create wealth (be they builders, nurses, or parents bringing up their children) also control it, and run it in their own interests. Call that socialism, communism, or common sense, it doesn't particularly matter. The big question is this: how do we make it happen?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Workers' Fightback - War Without Frontiers

The first coalition government since World War Two was formed in the United Kingdom last week, as Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats joined David Cameron’s Conservatives, giving the latter a big enough majority to oust Gordon Brown and Labour. Clegg’s decision marked a historic stage in another grim fight to the death – between the ruling capitalists and the working class.

Prior to Brown’s resignation, he and other leading politicians from the three main parties had all spoken of the need for a “strong, stable” government to emerge from the general election result, which saw Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems alike fail to win sufficient support for their very similar policies of brutal cuts to social spending.

In return for seats in Cabinet, the Lib Dems have abandoned their modestly ‘centre-left’ policies, and embraced Cameron’s stridently anti-working class agenda. Gone are the pledges to impose a ‘mansion tax’, to make employers pay extra National Insurance contributions, and tax bankers’ bonuses. The Trident nuclear missile will be retained, at a cost running into the tens of billions, and £6 billion to vital social provision will be announced in a forthcoming ‘emergency budget’, in which a 2.5% rise in VAT is also expected to feature.

But this massive assault is merely a taster for the main course to come. With the UK national debt at almost £1 trillion following the bank bailouts, the super rich are demanding an unprecedented war on working class living standards.

However, events in southern Europe give some clues as to what’s coming. Greek Prime Minister Giorgios Papandreou has made slashing cut after slashing cut for the last few months, trying to wring €30 billion from a country of only eleven million people. His latest announcement – an attack on pension entitlements – provoked large demonstrations, in a nation that has seen numerous one day general strikes this year.

Now the leaders of Spain and Portugal are getting in on the act, after the announcement of a further trillion dollar bank bailout by the European Union. Presiding over a country with an official unemployment rate of more than 20%, Spain’s José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero declared a 5% cut in public sector pay to be followed by a wage freeze, the elimination of a significant subsidy for families with new babies, and the end of government spending on prescription drugs. Cuts in local government spending were also unveiled.

Not to be outdone, Portugal’s José Sócrates indicated he would take the axe to local government, public sector jobs and salaries, and even unemployment benefits, at the time when they are most needed.

Though this kind of ferocity is yet to reach British shores, the Cameron/Clegg government will keep it in mind when dealing with the situation at British Airways, where another round of strikes against pay and job cuts is scheduled to begin this week, despite pressure from the courts and the Unite leadership’s best efforts to manage the anger of their members. The ‘I support the BA cabin crew strikes!’ Facebook group is here, and the 'An injury to one is an injury to all! Defend the right to strike!’ group is here.

Finally, there have been two general strikes in the Middle East over the past week. In Yemen, the General Labour Union called a series of nationwide stoppages in protest at price increases, which have pushed many workers into destitution. And in Iran – another country subject to US aggression – workers in all Kurdish cities and towns went on strike, despite martial law measures carried out by the Islamic regime. Indeed, the action was sparked by the execution of five labour activists, and was supported by hundreds of Kurds on the Turkish side, who tried to cross the border into Iran.

Capital's global struggle against working class people is provoking a response which transcends the system of rival capitalist nation states.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Four Lions (15)

Directed by Christopher Morris
Written by Sam Bain, Jesse Armstrong and Christopher Morris
On general release from 7th May 2010


Throughout an often brilliant two decade career, Chris Morris (The Day Today, Brass Eye, Jam, Nathan Barley) has used controversy to delightfully subversive effect, holding a darkened mirror up to the media and other pillars of the establishment. But controversy and comedy are not necessarily the same thing, and there are times when Morris' big screen debut falls short for precisely that reason.

The first (and presumably last) 'suicide bomb-com', Four Lions tells the tale of four jihadists, bent on holy war against western imperialist infidels in the Yorkshire area. Sheep, crows and pharmacists beware!

Apart from their de facto leader Omar (the promising Riz Ahmed), the gang are confused and emotionally stunted shambling incompetents. Much of the comedy comes from the synthesis of their reactionary extremism and extreme ordinariness. This leads them down "a sad, fucked-up cul-de-sac of rubbish", according to Morris, and it's hard to disagree. But then who amongst us hasn't taken a trip down the odd one of those?

Amongst all the laughs, the most powerful moments come in moments of vulnerability, such as when Omar tells his child a mujahid version of The Lion King, or the easily misled Waj (Kayvan Novak) expresses doubts about blowing himself up during the London marathon. In these precious few moments, we are presented with scared and naive young men, trying to help those suffering in Afghanistan and around the Muslim world with the very limited resources at their disposal. Peep Show writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong bring out the farcical futility of it all with great skill, but ultimately Morris and co. gleefully surf the wave of jihad madness, rather than engaging with it on any meaningful level.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Merseyside May Day Festival: A "Wonderful Event"

May Day was celebrated in fitting style over the weekend, as the festival organised by the Merseyside Mayday Collective attracted around five hundred to St Luke's ('bombed-out') church on Berry Street.

Preparations for the festival began a year ago, partly in response to the pitiful TUC event at Wallasey's Central Park. Writing at the time, I commented that:
"Against the backdrop of a mounting crisis engulfing thousands on Merseyside and millions around the world, there was something almost tragicomic about the inadequacy of the event. [...] The steep prices are no doubt one part of the explanation for the extremely low turnout. Another is that hardly any publicity had gone out. But more importantly, this is symptomatic of an event organised by a bureaucracy that has significant resources, yet few surviving links with working class communities, and even less credibility within them."
With thoughts like these in mind, a group of grassroots class struggle activists set about trying to reclaim International Workers' Day - in direct opposition to the bureaucrats who had strangled all vitality out of previous celebrations.

The festivities began at 1 pm, as the stalls opened around the perimeter of the church. Each of the stalls was run by a volunteer from a grassroots organisation, from anarchists and communists to guerilla gardeners, and Nerve magazine to the feminist Angry Women Of Liverpool. Refreshments were provided by Food From Nowhere (who are based in the Next To Nowhere social centre), and later by dockers' pub The Casa. There was much good-humoured debate around the stalls, and an overwhelming sense that more can be achieved by combining forces in the months and years to come.

Inside the church itself, various musicians played to an audience who were enjoying the sunshine and unique atmosphere as well as the free music. A personal musical highlight was the performance by Liverpool Socialist Choir, who sang a capella versions of a South African trade union song, Italian anti-fascist anthem Bella Ciao, and clenched fist classics The Internationale and Bandiera Rossa.

This was followed by the Picketers' Platform, which saw speakers from the Industrial Workers of the World and the Solidarity Federation argue for workers' control over their own struggles, their own workplaces, and their own lives. Greg Dropkin from Liverpool Friends Of Palestine also asked the crowd not to vote for Parliamentary candidates who support the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

By all accounts, the 'official' TUC march was much better attended this year, perhaps due to the closeness of the election, the Liverpool location, and the effect of the new festival in town. However, after marching around the city centre, it heard appeals for votes from local Labour leader Joe Anderson, plus trade union bureaucrats 'Red' Len McCluskey and Emily Kelly. All three seek to maintain their privileged positions, whilst ultimately accepting the profit system and division of the world into rival states.

In stark contrast, the gathering at St Luke's was about working class people empowering themselves, and taking steps to improve their own lives. It was far from perfect, and serious attention will have to be given to the question of how we fund future May Days (even volunteer-run festivals on this scale cost a lot of money!), but as person after person told the tall, long-haired guy in the steward's jacket, it was a "wonderful event", and definitely a solid foundation to build on.

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