Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Occupy Everything - Reflections On Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere

Just over twelve months ago, in the wake of the anti-fees student uprising, and in the midst of what would soon become known as the 'Arab Spring', Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason posted a blog entitled 'Twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere'. The article went viral within seconds, and set off debates within the new, young, hyper-linked activist circles which were starting to form. Mason has since gone on to turn the article into a book of his own, but this title is a compendium of mostly British activist responses to the suggestions and questions he raised.

Each of the dozen articles is extremely interesting in its own way, and offers a slightly different perspective on modern activism. But there are still important limitations.

Thomas Gillespie and Victoria Habermehl kick of proceedings with a description of the problems facing "the graduate with no future" - one of the key new factors identified by Mason. They do an excellent job of detailing the policy changes - plus the historical economic thrust behind them. An alternative university of the future is offered, where "participating in education is about producing the common, not about purchasing a commodity." Unfortunately, little guidance is given for us reaching such a utopia.

Next, the 500 Hammers writing collective ponder the "ideology fail" which has left many people feeling politically disenfranchised, and has meant that "finding someone who unequivocally supports a particular political party is akin to encountering an evangelical Christian". The group find hope in this situation, especially at a time when "critical analysis often comes to you", unlike when one had to consciously seek it out.

My candidate for least effective essay is the contribution by The Free Association, another writing group, who - having failed to offer any outline of potential resistance - merely ask us to "put a little bit of fucking fairy dust over the bastard", in a bizarre reference to something a Troggs member once said...about a Troggs song. Swearing aside, they have almost nothing to offer.

The now disbanded Deterritorial Support Group give us an interesting overview of how focus of the message board 4Chan evolved from a masturbatory obsession with 'random' pranksterism ("EVERYTHING IN THE LULZ, NOTHING OUTSIDE THE LULZ, NOTHING AGAINST THE LULZ") to the "Sincerity" of the Anonymous hactivist phenomenon. I covered similar ground in a blog post last summer, but DSG are on home ground discussing this, whilst I was just an intrigued visitor to that world.

Ben Lear and Raph Schlembach trace the death of the "capitalist promise" that each generation will be a little better off than the one before it, arguing that this has triggered something like despair amongst many young people, but also that this itself could be an occasion for hope, since there is a certain power "in the recognition that capital simply cannot fulfil its promise". This assertion seems rather pale as Lear and Schlembach paint it, but the subsequent rise of the Occupy mass movement has shown that collective despair is easily translated into collective anger, and collective anger into collective political action.

Camille Barbagallo and Nic Beuret's examination of 'precarity' in work and life - especially for that younger generation - is a powerful one. Some shocking statistics are followed by excellent autonomist analysis of how this young precarious worker relates to capital, and vice versa. Since the collapse in Keynesianism and then neoliberalism as traditionally conceived, now "only revenge is possible" as an avenue of working class political expression. They conclude that "We must seize the means of reproduction, violently, and with a hatred of life enslaved."

Vradis argues it's becoming impossible to "take a day off" from Greek struggle
The next two chapters pick up Mason's contention that - in contrast to the miners and families during the 1980s strike - young radicals can "take a day off". David Robertshaw, Rohan Orton and Will Barker clearly differentiate between the situations in Egypt and the UK, while revisiting the situationist Vaneigem's quote and implying that while we're likely not dying of starvation, retreat from 'the struggle' sometimes risks "dying of boredom". But starvation is an everyday phenomenon in Greece, and Antonis Vradis of the Occupied London blog writes of how last summer's Syntagma Square occupiers "stayed put in the face of a police onslaught [...] before spreading the spirit of the square occupation into neighbourhoods, workplaces and their everyday life." For Vradis, an all-encompassing desperation is spreading throughout people's lives everywhere, and this necessitates quotidian commitment to fighting back.

Tabitha Bast and Hannah McClure invoke the parody archetypal female revolutionary of 2004 film Raspberry Reich, to look at the implications of Mason's woman as the "backbone" of modern radical movements. They conclude that only through participation in struggle can women transcend the traditional roles ascribed by patriarchal society: "With rebel joy we take to the streets but it is as much in the transformation of the occupiers as the occupation that we rejoice."

Andre Pusey and Bertie Russell also take on alienation when they emphasise the ways in which modern capitalism has alienated workers from one another, and created what they call an "entrepreneuriat" at war with itself. The corollary of this is that the coming struggles "will necessitate a co-ordinated pyscho-social deprogramming".

Federico Campagna sidesteps the book's main theme and claims it is time to try radicalising the armed forces. While this is a great idea in theory, Campagna does not give any tips on how this can be done practically, without exposing ourselves to great danger. However, at a time when the government is preparing to bring in paratroopers to repress future outbreaks of unrest, the question could soon be an urgent one.

Finally, Emma Dowling explains how the 'Big Society' is much more than the joke it is sometimes held to be in activist circles, and is actually a vital part of the coalition's plans for reproducing capital value following the austerity agenda. For her, "solidarity and creativity in and against" the Big Society can be a basis for radical change.

As might be guessed from my descriptions, the collection feels very fragmentary. No-one really tries to provide any overarching structure, and that is fine in of itself; there is no obligation to do so. But the result is that almost every individual article - for all their good points - seems self-reflective. Almost all project their own priorities on the 'movement' as a whole, without offering much in the way of context.

Furthermore, even though the oldest piece was only written a year ago, much of the material feels dated. The world of the collection was one where the summer riots had yet to occur, where Wall Street and the City of London were yet to be 'Occupied', and where the worker response to public sector cuts had yet to be manifested, to say nothing of the successful Sparks movement of electricians. If a week was a long time in politics back in Harold Wilson's day, it almost seems like an eternity since the current economic crisis began. Of course, this is no reflection on any of the contributors, but it does perhaps point to disadvantages of relying on ink in the midst of instant communication.

These Reflections are well worth reading, but do not expect a blueprint for revolution. Instead, you will likely be left with the overall impression that the capitalist model has catastrophically broken (us) down, but there is still no real alternative. For that, we need much more thorough analysis of workplace struggles, because it is primarily in the workplace that we can create a new society.

Occupy Everything is available from minorcompositions, or as a pdf.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Why Workfare is an Attack on the Entire Working Class

Capitalism is based on exploitation. That's to say at root, it is exploitation. Without exploitation there could be no profit, because profit is the difference between the value of a worker's labour and their compensation for it. This contradiction is the foundation of all class struggle - the employers always want to extract more value from their employees, and the employees desire the opposite. How much better for an employer then - and how much worse for the employee - for there to be a wage of zero!

This is - or at least was - the cornerstone of the coalition's workfare policy. The long-term unemployed would be forced to work for nothing, for a period of up to six months, after which the employer - likely a huge corporation such as Tesco, Asda or Burger King, may decide to reward a productive employee with some pay. But then again - unless the employee was particularly productive - why would they bother? Why settle for surplus value of say 75% when you could have 100 from another vulnerable conscript?

And that was undoubtedly the coalition government's own calculation, for all the ridiculous propaganda about 'providing experience'. After all, the coalition's cuts have greatly worsened unemployment, and much worse is on the way. The ratio of Jobseekers' Allowance claimants to vacancies is currently 4.6 to 1, and climbing. Of course, this does not count the people on other benefits or none at all who are looking for work, nor those who are currently in paid employment. Even people with lots of work experience are struggling to find paid work - especially amongst the over fifties. In such circumstances, any tiny 'economic growth' is going to come entirely from the more thorough exploitation of those in employment. If they are not even paid at all, profit levels will rise all the more.

All this is a downward pressure on those who are paid for their labour, and judging by the public reaction to what Laurie Penny has labelled "a line in the sand", working class people are now seeing the connection. While workers have seen the inflation-adjusted worth of their pay tumble since 2008, Tesco et al are raking it in - directly and indirectly at our expense. Many millions understand that wage slavery is bad enough; actual slavery is just taking the piss. As a result, many of those corporations who stood to make a killing from workfare have now backed out, or are looking at actually paying those who make them money. This is a serious gain, and is not to be sniffed at.

The same applies to the coalition's retreat over the mandatory nature of workfare. As public opposition grew last week, government ministers got themselves in all kinds of a muddle, denying that there was any mandatory element at all. Ed Vaizey's abject performance on Question Time was perhaps the most humorous example of this. The DWP has been caught throwing references to compulsion down an Orwellian memory hole, but it remains to be seen what effect this will have on the ground, i.e in the job centre.

With this in mind, the Boycott Workfare group are planning a week of actions, culminating on Saturday 3rd of March. Take a look at their website and get involved! After all, if you are working class, this is an issue of self defence!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Chicago Factory Occupiers Face 'Serious' Challenge

Workers and supporters rallying outside the factory last night
In 2008, two hundred and sixty workers at Chicago's Republic Windows and Doors occupied their factory, after the company sacked them at the moment's notice, and offered no redundancy payments. Over a week, the Republic case became emblematic of blue collar workers paying for others' mistakes, and the occupation became a media cause célèbre. Then President Elect Barack Obama was embarrassed into raising the issue, and Michael Moore later highlighted their action in his film Capitalism: A Love Story. The workers eventually won significant severance packages, and the new owners - Serious Materials - pledged to rehire them.

Three years and two months later, it turns out that Serious Materials only rehired seventy-five of the occupiers, and Serious too are now planning to close down the factory. The news broke yesterday, and so sixty of the experienced campaigners began another sit-in, locking themselves in the cafeteria. However, unlike in 2008, they had a ready made support network to call on - in the shape of Occupy Chicago. Over the next hours, occupiers and Occupiers mobilised over Twitter, and a large crowd soon assembled at the plant.

Tonight, representatives from the United Electrical union are claiming victory, after Serious agreed to keep operations going for ninety days, with a view to selling on the business yet again.

But if this is a victory, so far it is only a very marginal one. As Serious declared in their original statement:
"Ongoing economic challenges in construction and building products, collapse in demand for window products, difficulty in obtaining favorable lease terms, high leasing and utility costs and taxes and a range of other factors unrelated to labor costs, have compelled Serious to cease production at the Chicago facility"
Given the current state of the both the US and global economies, these conditions will likely be very similar - or even worse - three months from now. The relatively small proportion of the Republic workers rehired by Serious in 2009 was an indication that in an economic depression, it is necessary for industrial capitalists to drastically 'downsize' - that is, attack jobs, wages and conditions - if they are to maintain or increase their profitability.

It seems quite likely that no buyer will be forthcoming by the end of May. But if one does come forward, they will surely want to further increase the rate of exploitation at the factory. If so, yesterday's showdown could be a mere dress rehearsal for struggles to come.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sparks Electricians Claim Victory Over Employers

Guess who's come to gatecrash dinner? Sparks in Central London last week.
This evening the rank and file Sparks group of electricians is claiming victory over the construction companies who sought to tear up their current contracts, and enforce a new settlement which would have cost many 35% of their wage packet, and severely deskilled the trade.

Right now, the Sparks Facebook page is filling up with joyful, celebratory comments such as:
"Grieg do you remember way back at the start of all this we were saying to each other WE R FUCKED. Unless everyone gets together the industry is fucked. Well now they r fucked they have gave us a platform to launch an attack like they have never seen. Thanks"
I have been reporting on the Sparks' struggle since last September (see here, here, here, here, here and here). In my last update, I was very pessimistic about their chances of success, but the last week has seen construction company after construction company back away from the 'sign or be sacked' Building Engineering Services National Agreement. Balfour Beatty - the largest of the "septic seven" - was the first to reconsider. This came in the wake of a court decision allowing Unite's official one day strike ballot to stand, but also - and likely far more importantly - after electricians took Balfour Beatty executives and police by surprise at a swanky Park Lane dinner, and literally chased the fat cats around the building.

Much is still unclear, and I will produce a full account of this stunning transformation over the coming days, but workers in all sectors should be inspired by this success, and know that that 'direct action gets the goods' is far from just being some anarchist saying. The best elements of the Sparks' campaign must now be replicated across the country, and even throughout the world.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Political Upheaval Looms Large in Greece

The Greek class war is being fought ever more openly
There is no doubt that Greece is on the verge of a dramatic political change, following years of banker-dictated austerity measures which have slashed living standards for all but the super-rich. But there is much doubt about exactly what will happen next. Are Greek workers about to storm heaven, or will they be crushed under fascist jackboots? I think there seem to be four main possibilities.

Nine days ago, Athens and other cities burned as vast multitudes of Greeks made their raging anger at the latest brutal austerity vote explicitly clear. In return for a further bailout of Greek banks - and therefore the banks of other nations which are owed money by the Greek finance houses - the parliament acceded to the demands of the so-called 'Troika', which includes the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. 'Technocrat' Prime Minister Lucas Papademos - the former banker who the Troika manoeuvred into power last autumn - was unsurprisingly keen to see his masters' bidding done. So were the parties of the coalition government - the nominally centre-left Social Democrats, centre-right New Democracy and the neo-fascist Popular Orthodox Rally. But there was dissent within the ranks of each - with many MPs doubtless looking to their future careers or even future safety on the streets. As a result, forty-three MPs were expelled from their parties.

All three coalition parties have seen their poll ratings plummet to almost nothing, and are unlikely to gain enough seats at the forthcoming elections to command any mandate. So whatever happens, Greece will find itself in a very new political situation. So this is where my four possibilities come in. Either:

1) Some combination of the fake left parties takes power
The coalition parties are currently polling at a combined 37%, with New Democracy leading due to the anti-austerity stance they held until then Social Democratic Prime Minister Papandreou called their bluff prior to his own removal. But the supposedly 'extreme left' parties - each of which mouth the phrases of revolutionary change and on paper oppose austerity - have a combined 47%. So if the elections were to be held tomorrow, there would be an 'extreme left' landslide.

All these 'extreme left' parties are deceiving the Greek working class when they pretend to represent their interests. Instead, they represent different layers of the very trade union bureaucracy which has conspired to manage worker rebellion so far. At the moment, they are torn between making a popular appeal against austerity, and satisfying the powers behind the throne - the bankers' Troika and the powerful Greek military. To preserve their own class privileges, these actors could only consider offering the Democratic Left, the Communist Party, the Coalition of the Radical Left and the Greens any political office if they accept 'the need' for the continued impoverishment of the masses. 

President Papoulias may play a pivotal role in the coming period
or 2) The Troika cancels the parliamentary elections
Of course, Greece is officially a sovereign nation, and can hold elections whenever it chooses. The history of recent months and years shows this is far from the reality. The bankers' palace coup that brought Papademos to power shows that 'the cradle of democracy' no longer has any claim to being a representative democracy, and the financial parasites of Europe and the USA will only allow an election if they feel it will be in their interests. Already - two months ahead of the polls - a spokesman for the German finance ministry is demanding "reliability beyond any election date." [emphasis added] In this scenario, the military would have to side with the Troika to enforce further agonising austerity attacks on the working class. 

or 3) The military cancels the elections and withdraws from the Euro
Greece had a military dictatorship in the not too distant past, and over the last few months the military have been flexing their muscles. A rare TV appearance by President Karolos Papoulias - during which he was flanked by military brass - poured scorn on the German, Dutch and Finnish governments. This display was partly a chauvinist diversion, but it also speaks of the direction in which sections of the Greek elites are moving - towards a policy of isolationalist self-sufficiency. With a Greek default looking possible next month, the military may be thinking of plotting such a move. But the economy would collapse even faster under this scenario than under the current debt spiral, and inflation would sky-rocket, making workers' pay packets nearly worthless.

Kilkis hospital is now under working class control
or 4) The working class seizes economic and political power for itself
As attacks on the working class have escalated since 2008, so too has the resistance. The trade union tops have largely managed to stifle it so far, but it seems the point of no return has come, and people are collectively deciding that enough is enough. Two weeks ago I blogged about a worker takeover of a hospital in Kilkis, and this week has brought news of longtime unpaid journalists starting their own newspaper - reporting from a working class perspective. These initiatives should be welcomed by all those who have the interests of Greek workers at heart, but this type of direct action needs to be expanded to the commanding heights of the entire Greek economy, and Greek workers need to set up their own organs of political representation - in opposition to the union fat cats, the government, the military and the bankers. If they are to achieve this, they will need practical solidarity from the international working class, as it too comes increasingly into direct struggle with their respective oppressors.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Help My Turkish Friend Raise Money For His Film!


Paper Boat from Ozgur Karakaya on Vimeo.

Look, I know you've probably got hardly any money 'spare' at the moment, and if you do have some then you could probably think of other things to do with it, rather than give it to my Turkish friend so he can make a film. So that's why I'm not asking you to give anything if you can't afford it, I just want you to pass the info on in any way you can.

Ozgur Karakaya has been living in the UK for quite a few years now, and he's trying to raise money for a new film, called Paper Boat, about a ten-year-old boy whose father is a prisoner in Turkey, which Ozgur says was partly inspired by the work of Ken Loach. He's using the Sponsume platform, which means people are able to pledge money via the film's web page, and the total so far is shown next to the number of days remaining in the appeal. So far, Ozgur has raised 24% of his £1,250 goal, and there are thirty-eight days remaining.

Please visit the Paper Boat page, take a look at what Ozgur and his producer have to say, and then spread the word however you can. Thankyou.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Syrian Civil War and the Media Propaganda Offensive

'Free Syrian Army' soliders just over the border from Turkey in December
The 'Free Syrian Army' - the so-called 'rebel' group armed and funded by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar - is involved in a violent insurgency against the Syrian government. That is not just my opinion, it is the view of the Arab League observer mission sent into the country to gather evidence against the ruling Assad regime. But when reports didn't fit the political agenda, the League pulled the plug on the mission, and the Syrian government was subtlely blamed.

Of course, you don't hear anything of the mission's report on BBC or other corporate news sources. Instead, Assad is portrayed as leading an indiscriminate slaughter in the 'rebel' stronghold of Homs. Today, BBC reported that "15 people had died as tanks and artillery continued to bombard the city of Homs". It didn't mention how many were on each side, or even that there are sides. The implication was that the Syrian government had done all the killing.

And maybe they had. After all, Assad is a brutal dictator, and he does carry out atrocities against the Syrian people. But then we are now almost a year into an armed insurgency, so how do we expect him to react? How would David Cameron react if 'rebels' armed by Norway and Denmark were holding Glasgow? In its willingness to cheerlead for NATO 'intervention' - i.e. a western-led bloodbath - the oh-so-conservative media finds itself supporting insurrection.

Ten days ago, I described how:
"The past couple of months have seen a sustained effort to create a pretext for attacking Syria. The Syrian government - like the Libyan Gaddafi regime before it - is currently undertaking a brutal crackdown on the "rebel" movement which emerged from last year's 'Arab spring'. Of course, the same could be said of the Bahraini government for example, but Bahrain is an American ally. So the Obama administration is using its Arab League proxies - each of which receives large foreign aid and military assistance from US imperialism - to give the coming military intervention a regional popularist colouring."
Since then, Russia and China have vetoed a UN resolution on Syria, which they feared could provide a figleaf for NATO aggression, much as the equivalent did with Libya last March. In response, the US, UK and French governments denounced Russia and China in the strongest terms, with UK Foreign Secretary William Hague describing the veto as the UN's "hour of shame", and rhetorically asking "How many more need to die before Russia and China allow the UN Security Council to act?" Unsurprisingly, no-one asked Hague how many times the US and UK have vetoed UN resolutions on Israeli aggression in Palestine and elsewhere. The answer is nearly fifty.

Foreign Secretary William Hague is guilty of gross hypocrisy over Syria
The NATO aggressors are waiting to make their next political move, but plans for a war on Syria are already well advanced. At the beginning of the week, the Pentagon announced they were beginning an "internal review" of military options, although Ambassador Susan Rice told CNN the focus was on exhausting all other means of change first. This pretence is crucial for the US, because it is relying on Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar for armed support, and does not want to inflame opposition in client states unneccessarily.

Meanwhile, an unnamed State Department official told the Daily Telegraph that "the international community may be forced to 'militarise' the crisis in Syria" and that "the debate in Washington has shifted away from diplomacy." In turn, the Telegraph surmised that "Any plan to supply aid or set up a buffer zone would involve a military dimension to protect aid convoys or vulnerable civilians."

But according to Israeli intelligence website Debka-File, both British and Qatari special forces are already "operating with rebel forces under cover in the Syrian city of Homs just 162 kilometers from Damascus… Our sources report the two foreign contingents have set up four centers of operation—in the northern Homs district of Khaldiya, Bab Amro in the east, and Bab Derib and Rastan in the north. Each district is home to about a quarter of a million people."

In this context, the BBC and other bleeding heart western journalists embedded with the 'Free Syrian Army' are therefore providing a vital propaganda role in their deception. They are preparing the public consciousness for yet another 'humanitarian' war. As with Libya last year, it is necessary for communists to reject the false choice between the Syrian regime and the so-called 'rebels'. Instead, we must argue for the interests of the Syrian - and indeed the international - working class.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Manic Street Preachers - Generation Terrorists

Generation Terrorists was released twenty years ago today, and like the young Manic Street Preachers themselves, it was shot through with apparent contradictions. It was revolutionary yet depressive, punk yet stadium rock, testosterone-charged yet played by 'feminine'-looking men, uncommercial yet pop. And precisely because it was all those extreme things, it was absolutely bloody great.

Great, but not their masterpiece. That would come in 1994, as talismanic lyricist Richey Edwards stared into his personal abyss. There were enough hints of those heights (depths?) on the first half here though, and the Manics quickly established themselves as the ultimate Marmite band.

When you listen to Generation Terrorists, you hear Thatcher's children coming of age. The band had formed - and spent their formative years - in the town of Blackwood in South Wales. The locale had a radical history dating back to the Chartists, but in the 1970s and 80s it was devastated by the closure of nearby coal pits, and was left as a pile of "rubble and shit", as Edwards famously described it.

In other words, the teenage Manics had already lived through the destruction of a hyper-masculine way of working life, and represented the post-industrial working class wreckage peering out into the world. They had been radicalised by events such as the miners' strike, and had read their share of Marx and other philosophers, but these seemed to make little sense in a time when the Berlin Wall had just fallen, a "new [capitalist] world order" had been promised and "the end of history" was about to be declared.

The album opens with the Guns n' Roses-alike sounds of Slash n' Burn, a raucous invitation to personal destruction, paralleling the capitalist system's ferocious appetites. Guitarist and lead vocalist James Dean Bradfield is on particularly fine form living out his metal fantasies. Then it's Nat West - Barclays - Midlands - Lloyds (which would be RBS - Barclays - HSBC - Lloyds these days), which similarly denounces the economic machinations of the ruling class, condemning "Prosperity" as being "Mein Kampf for beginners". But rather than following this with some kind of revolutionary manifesto, Born To End instead introduces the band's nihilism, before the absolute classic of all classics Motorcycle Emptiness mournfully reconciles the fiery radical with the lonely self-harmer. "Each day living out a lie", it despairs, "Life sold cheaply forever".

Manics circa 1992 (left to right: Despair, Culture, Alienation and Boredom)
Then we're onto the punk fury of You Love Us, which slags off basically everyone who isn't the Manics in an almost infantile way, yet also contains one of the band's most visually impressive lines ("'Til I see love in statues, your lessons drill inherited sin"). Another metallic effort follows, in the shape of Love's Sweet Exile, one more alienation anthem. Then it's the somewhat tender Little Baby Nothing, which is a duet with porn star Traci Lords, in which she denounces 'her' own industry, and all men are written off as "useless sluts". Which could hardly be a greater contrast to the chest-thumping of Repeat (Stars and Stripes), with its slogan-heavy playground (but still great) assaults on royalty and nationalism.

From here, the quality noticeably dips. The Manics had told the press they'd release one double album, it would sell eighteen million copies, the world would be changed forever, and the band would split. They did the double album, and padded it out with what - when compared to Motorcycle Emptiness - is very definitely filler. Damn Dog - a cover of some band's very mediocre song - is particularly unworthy. But there are still some superb moments. Stay Beautiful is a fitting tribute to their obsessive fans, Spectators Of Suicide gives us an balladic introduction to situationism over weird bongo rhythms, and Crucifix Kiss nails Christianity from a decidedly Marxist perspective. For all its bombast, final track Condemned To Rock 'n' Roll is a technically brilliant slice of metal pie. But the main action was in the first half, and the second is a compendium of a sensational band on an off day.

I had my first proper kiss to Generation Terrorists - a few years later I hasten to add - and on some level it's deeply shocking that this soundtrack to my youth is two decades old. In a way I prefer the working title - Culture, Alienation, Boredom & Despair - because the Manics certainly brought the culture to the alienation, boredom and despair of my late teenhood.

Macbeth

Macbeth is a deeply conflicted but ultimately self-interested figure
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Simon Plumridge
Platform 4
Unity Theatre (8th-9th February 2012)

Platform 4 delivered a suitably brooding production of Shakespeare's Scottish play to enthusiastic Liverpool audiences. The intense acting, coupled with a minimalistic set design, worked perfectly on the Unity's compact stage, giving us a ringside view of the political leader's pyschology.

The play was first performed over four hundred years ago now, but it retains its power, precisely because of its social impact. That's not to say the author intended it that way. Very much a courtier, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth as a celebration of James I's coming to the throne. The new monarch fancied himself descended from the Banquo of legend, and there are many allusions within the text to the turmoil of the preceeding Tudor years. However, as critic Terry Eagleton commented in regards to Charles Dickens this week, "a writer’s imagination may be more radical than his or her ideology." By giving us such insight into the fictional thought-processes of Macbeth, Shakespeare shows us what is going through the mind of all potential rulers.

For those who don't know the story, it begins on a "blasted heath", whereupon the general Macbeth is returning from battle with his companion Banquo. Their armies have just seen off the combined forces of Norway and Ireland, and both are flushed with success. But they meet three "weird sisters", who hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis (his current title), Thane of Cawdor, and future king of Scotland. Banquo is told he will not be king himself, but his bloodline will be kings. Both are shocked, but this is hardened to belief when a messenger reveals that the current Thane of Cawdor is to be executed for treason, and Macbeth will be promoted to his title.

When Macbeth reaches home, he discusses the matter with his wife, and they concoct a plot to kill King Duncan, on the assumption that the murderer will then be elevated to the throne. Macbeth is by turns reluctant to kill his longtime friend, and determined to gain untold untold wealth and power. But the decisive role is played by Lady Macbeth, who exhorts him to "screw [his] courage to the sticking place". The deadly deed is finally done, but the couple's waking nightmare is only just beginning.

Platform 4 resist the temptation to do anything new with Macbeth, and their minimalistic approach encourages the audience to deeply consider both the text and the actors' interpretation of it. And so we were fortunate that James Bellorini in the title role was able to combine a puffed-up military-bred masculinity with a convincing emotional frailty. Tamsin Fessey too was every inch an archetypal Lady Macbeth - scheming and seductive, yet tormented. But excellent though both were, they are upstaged by Ralf Higgins in a relative cameo as Macduff. His grief-stricken horror at learning of his family's slaughter has to be seen to be believed.

There are two shortcomings. One, the constant guitar music adds little, and is often intrusive with its wild inappropriateness. Secondly, Shakespeare conceived of power being spoiled by a few 'evil' apples. But many in modern audiences know better, and can fill in the gaps to condemn all oppressive power structures.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Borgen

PM Nyborg doesn't seem like a real character, though she reacts like one
The first series of Danish political drama Borgen has just finished a run on BBC4, where it attracted what were - for the channel - very high ratings. Taking its name from the nickname (translated as 'the castle') for the main buildings of the Danish government, it continued the recent trend for Scandinavian thrillers gaining significant popularity in the UK.

It is quite easy to see what a certain type of viewer might find appealing in Borgen, as well as shows like The Killing. They are almost unique in drama these days, in so much as they contain well-structured stories, clever scripts and realistic character development. That these features - which should really be basic for any drama - are so lauded when they appear, illustrates the paucity of such fare served up by production line production companies over the last decade or so. I can only list The Wire, Mad Men and The Tudors as other exceptions this millennium.

Moreover, all the lead parts - two of which are refreshingly female - are extremely well acted. Sidse Babett Knudsen is perfect as deeply conflicted Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg, Pilou Asbæk as her spin doctor Kasper is the vision of man carrying the accumulating weight of his deceptions around with him, and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen is convincing as idealistic but continually thwarted TV journalist Katrine Fønsmark. The depth and complexity of real life interactions is rendered particularly well.

Perhaps the best example of this is the relationship between Sørensen as Fønsmark and her boss at the news station, Torben Friis (Søren Malling). Malling is the pragmatic counterweight to Sørensen's idealism, and is constantly trying to balance his own sincerely-held beliefs about what journalism should be and pressure from 'upstairs' - whether that means problems with advertisers or politicians. Of course, it is such pragmatism that ultimately leads to media outlets slavishly adhering to the corporate line, and we can see some of that tragedy here.

TV journalist Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) in pursuit of the truth
In some ways, the modern political world is also sketched well by the writing team. The degeneration of the formerly social democratic Labour Party into neoliberal power-chasers is made manifest by the oleaginous character of Labour leader Michael Laugesen (Peter Mygind), who could only be more Tony Blair if he sounded Oxbridge. And the behind-the-scenes manoeverings often reminded me of The Thick Of It, albeit with considerably fewer laughs and much less swearing.

Unfortunately, the central problem with the series lies in the politics of Prime Minister Nyborg herself. In episodes one and two she brought her 'Moderate Party' to power, though this is limited by coalition partners nominally to her left. But far from being a Nick Clegg kind of stuffed shirt, she is far too caring about 'ordinary people', and tries to introduce social democratic policies. However, these initiatives exist in the most nebulous terms - the only numbers mentioned in the entire series are poll scores, quotas for women on company boards, and the amount of weeks since the PM last had sex. So on one level she is unrealistic because - her gender aside - she is maybe thirty years out of time, and on the other her political attitudes are meant to be conveyed by - for example - the way she looks at a homeless person, rather than any even fragmentary programme for reducing homelessness. I find myself 'cheering her on', but with massive disbelief in the back of my mind. This is a huge shame, because in all other respects the programme is entirely believable.

It looks like series two (which has already been screened in Denmark) will see Nyborg readjusting following the loss of her husband to divorce and her finance minister to a Machiavellian political downfall. Unfortunately, as time passes both in the real world and on the show, I can only see the contradictions at the heart of Borgen becoming its Achilles' heel.

Borgen can be viewed on BBC iPlayer.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Yosh - Fled The Flock

When Yosh sent me his Fled The Flock MP3s for review during that hinterland period between Christmas and new year, I was kind of excited that it was really my first fresh music of 2012, because it was due for release on 1st January. Since then, the Mancunian has released two entirely separate new tracks, with yet another album on the way. I say "yet another" because in 2011 he brought out two EPs! On top of this, almost every day it seems I see him on Twitter, hustling producers for new material to spit over. Yes, Mr Yosh Stanisauskis is nothing if not prolific, and it's inspiring to see someone with such a hunger for his art.

He's also controversial, or at least Greater Manchester Police seemed to think so when they stopped his set in Rochdale last summer, after the MC asked the young crowd "who wants to hear how the police statistically stop more ethnic minorities than white people?" Apparently public discussion of institutional racism was verboten.

But I have to say, the thing which immediately struck me about Fled The Flock was how amazingly well produced it is, considering we're not exactly talking about a (and I hope Yosh doesn't mind the comparison) Timbaland here. Yet each track is hooky and catchy in a way that conscious rappers don't often aspire to. Hiphoplifeandtimes.com had it exactly right when they commented: "I think sometimes people wrongly assume that just because a record is catchy and easy to listen to, then that some how that means the content will automatically be watered down. It just comes as standard, right? Wrong. This is the type of joint I can show to my less musically astute friends (that’s a nice way of saying ‘crappy music’) and they can still get something from it without asking me to turn the radio back on."

That's all and good, and it's a facet of the music which will surely gain Yosh a bigger audience, but what about the message? Well overall I'd say the album's central theme is uplift of the self, and through this, uplift of society. Of course, if you are going to talk about uplift, then an important aspect of that is acknowledging that the present day - and I take it Yosh believes the life of the average hiphop fan - just isn't good enough.

These elements are probably most pronounced on One Step Closer. It lists numerous small personal changes which could be certainly seen as helping to improve the world, such as "every time a youth chooses education over picking up a weapon". Don't get me wrong, this is still a very good song, but in some ways the positivity seems almost negative, due to its individualist limitations. Of course, as the old feminist maxim goes, 'the personal is political', but there is only so far that personal self-improvement can be used to illustrate or overcome societal problems, and so the picture he paints sometimes seems incomplete. And occasionally on Fled The Flock - for instance on the title track and opener Fell To Earth - this individualism is coupled with a certain kind of exaggerated self-importance, almost like a Matrix-ish Neo character - i.e. 'the one' who has come to show us the light ("my mind's too liberated to be sedated by the flock mentality"). It's all very well fleeing the flock, but if you do, you're not really in a position to influence it.

Our man's on much firmer ground when he describes the links between individual problems and the capitalist social system, like he does on Reali T.V. (which holds trash TV to account for the dumbing-down of critical faculties), and the wonderful Remembrance Day, which bewails the utterly futile deaths of soldiers serving the US and UK ruling elites ("I'd rather not remember them, I'd rather they be living"). Finally, album closer What Am I sees the normally straight-forward Yosh wax poetic about his place in the universe, over a gorgeous string section.

Yosh certainly has plenty of skills, even though in my opinion they were better showcased on 2011's The Poisoning. He definitely has an ability to source talented collaborators, and a knack of coming across 110% committed to what he is rapping about with such spot-on flow. If he can focus on understanding the day-to-day problems facing 'the flock', and immerse himself in the unfolding political struggles raging around the globe, Yosh might well find himself a strong voice for a dispossessed generation.

Fled The Flock is available to download from Yosh's Bandcamp page.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Greek Hospital Occupied By Workers

As Greek political leaders - including banker turned unelected Prime Minister Lucas Papademos - hold talks over another punishing round of attacks on the working class, the workforce of one hospital has taken matters into their own hands, and declared that "we occupy the public hospital and put it under our direct and absolute control".

The Athens summit is aimed at putting forward another programme of privatisations, cuts and possibly new taxes, aimed at appeasing the international financiers who are poised to loan billions of Euros more to the Greek government. The Greek government will then be able to pay its creditors the next tranche of repayments, and will avoid a default in mid-March. Over the last few years, a typical Greek worker has seen their living standards slashed by at least a fifth, and the new scheme put forward the government will be but the latest deepening of their misery.

This ruling class onslaught has certainly not gone unchallenged, and multiple general strikes have shut down large sections of the Greek economy for one or two days at a time, although these have largely been stifled by the trade union bureaucracies. There have been many battles between workers and police, and even between workers and the Greek Communist Party. And last summer, many young people occupied public spaces such as Syntagma Square, as part of the southern European 'indignados' wave, which was a forerunner to the global Occupy movement.

There have been brief workplace occupations too, but none as potentially interesting as this one, because the involvement of such an important public resource as a hospital makes huge public solidarity seem very likely. The original Greek statement has been published on a few websites, but the English translation only appears a few times online. Please spread the news to all your networks!

The following is the English translation:
"The workers of the Γ.Ν. (General Hospital) of Kilkis: doctors, nursing and the rest of the staff that participated in the General Assembly concluded that:
  1. We recognize that the current and enduring problems of Ε.Σ.Υ (the national health system) and related organizations cannot be solved with specific and isolated demands or demands serving our special interests, since these problems are a product of a more general anti-popular governmental policy and of the bold global neoliberalism.
  2. We recognize, as well, that by insisting in the promotion of that kind of demands we essentially participate in the game of the ruthless authority. That authority which, in order to face its enemy - i.e. the people- weakened and fragmented, wishes to prevent the creation of a universal labour and popular front on a national and global level with common interests and demands against the social impoverishment that the authority's policies bring.
  3. For this reason, we place our special interests inside a general framework of political and economic demands that are posed by a huge portion of the greek people that today is under the most brutal capitalist attack; demands that in order to be fruitful must be promoted until the end in cooperation with the middle and lower classes of our society.
  4. The only way to achieve this is to question, in action, not only its political legitimacy, but also the legality of the arbitrary authoritarian and anti-popular power and hierarchy which is moving towards totalitarianism with accelerating pace.
  5. The workers at the General Hospital of Kilkis answer to this totalitarianism with democracy. We occupy the public hospital and put it under our direct and absolute control. The Γ.N. of Kilkis, will henceforth be self-governed and the only legitimate means of administrative decision making will be the General Assembly of its workers.
  6. The government is not released of its economic obligations of staffing and suppling the hospital, but if they continue to ignore these obligations, we will be forced to inform the public of this and ask the local government but most importantly the society to support us in any way possible for: (a) the survival of our hospital (b) the overall support of the right for public and free healthcare (c) the overthrow, through a common popular struggle, of the current government and any other neoliberal policy, no matter where it comes from (d) a deep and substantial democratization, that is, one that will have society, rather than a third party, responsible for making decisions for its own future.
  7. The labour union of the Γ.N. of Kilkis, will begin, from 6 February, the retention of work, serving only emergency incidents in our hospital until the complete payment for the hours worked, and the rise of our income to the levels it was before the arrival of the troika (EU-ECB-IMF). Meanwhile, knowing fully well what our social mission and moral obligations are, we will protect the health of the citizens that come to the hospital by providing free healthcare to those in need, accommodating and calling the government to finally accept its responsibilities, overcoming even in the last minute its immoderate social ruthlessness.
  8. We decide that a new general assembly will take place, on Monday 13 February in the assembly hall of the new building of the hospital at 11 am, in order to decide the procedures that are needed to efficiently implement the occupation of the administrative services and to successfully realise the self-governance of the hospital, which will start from that day. The general assemblies will take place daily and will be the paramount instrument for decision making regarding the employees and the operation of the hospital."
"We ask for the solidarity of the people and workers from all fields, the collaboration of all workers' unions and progressive organizations, as well as the support from any media organization that chooses to tell the truth. We are determined to continue until the traitors that sell out our country and our people leave. It's either them or us!
"The above decisions will be made public through a news conference to which all the Mass Media (local and national) will be invited on Wednesday 15/2/2012 at 12.30. Our daily assemblies begin on 13 February. We will inform the citizens about every important event taking place in our hospital by means of news releases and conferences. Furthermore, we will use any means available to publicise these events in order to make this mobilization successful.
"We call
a) our fellow citizens to show solidarity to our effort,
b) every unfairly treated citizen of our country in contestation and opposition, with actions, against his'/her's oppressors,
c) our fellow workers from other hospitals to make similar decisions,
d) the employees in other fields of the public and private sector and the participants in labour and progressive organizations to act likewise, in order to help our mobilization take the form of a universal labour and popular resistance and uprising, until our final victory against the economic and political elite that today oppresses our country and the whole world."

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Irish Workplace Occupations Highlight Class Tensions

Vita Cortex foam packers are determined to get redundancy pay from Jack Ronan
The Republic of Ireland was one of the original PIGS, or heavily indebted states targeted by bankers after the great crash of 2008. Under the previous Fianna Fáil government, the Irish working class was pummelled with hammer blow after hammer blow, as dictated by the international finance elite, but offered little resistance when compared with their counterparts in Portugal, Greece and Spain. To some extent, this could be attributed to the treacherous machinations of the trade union bureaucracy. But in recent weeks, with the Fine Gael administration of Enda Kelly continuing the onslaught, a small but significant section of workers have taken matters into their own hands, and occupied their workplaces.

On December 15th last year, the twenty-nine strong workforce at Lagan Bricks Ltd. in County Cavan were told they were to be immediately dismissed, with no severance pay. A company statement made it very clear that this was their punishment for refusing to accept a pay cut. In response, the staff began a constant picket of the site, with the intention of preventing equipment from being removed. At any time at least three pickets are present, and they operate on six hour shifts.

The workers and management reached an agreement with the Labour Relations Commission a fortnight ago, with the picketers allowing the release to customers of 300,000 bricks, in return for the supposedly 'independent' assessor "examin[ing] the company's books and assess[ing] the viability of continuing manufacturing at the facility". Originally, the assessor was due to report back within two weeks, but on 26th January the picketers' Facebook group reported that a new date of Monday 6th February had been set. The picket has now been in place for seven weeks, including over the Christmas period.

Former La Senza workers have been occupying for the basic pay they are owed
Thirty-two Vita Cortex foam packers were sacked in the same week, and have been fully occupying their factory ever since, in protest at management's claims that there was "no money" for any redundancy payments. Vita Cortex is just one of a twenty-nine businesses owned by Tipperary entrepreneur Jack Ronan, who has fingers in pies of the retail park, stud farms, fertiliser and even supermarket industries, and whose personal wealth is estimated at many millions.

This morning, the Vita Cortex occupation blog announced that they had been given assurances by the Department of Social Protection that the workers would start receiving their entitlement next Monday. This is a great victory considering Ronan would have left them with nothing, but they are wisely determined to remain in occupation until they are sure of a "full and just settlement".

Meanwhile, sacked staff from a Dublin branch of the La Senza lingerie chain are still waiting for the €800 in wages they were promised by the stricken company's administrators, KPMG. The 'deal' was made three weeks ago, following an occupation of the store by workers from three different branches. But as the La Senza sit-in Facebook group posted this morning:
"3 weeks on from our agreement with KPMG and STILL no money and no answers! Not being paid in the first place was bad enough but to be lied to AGAIN and break a written and verbal agreement is beyond disgraceful. Many of the La Senza employees have families and need the money(which they earned) asap but KPMG continue to ignore the basic needs of hard working individuals who trusted them when they made empty promises. We will not go away until we get paid!!!"
There has been practical solidarity between the three struggles, and in particular between Vita Cortex and La Senza occupiers. Taken together, these flashpoints show that Irish workers - utterly abandoned by trade union tops complicit in the austerity agenda - are rediscovering class war methods better known to previous generations. The tide is starting to turn in Ireland, but a widening of participation and a deepening of perspective will be needed to inflict serious defeats on the ruling class and their agents.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

America, Syria, Iran and the Seeds of World War Three

Attacks on Syria and Iran risk a much wider conflagration
The United States government is aggressively ratcheting-up its drive for global domination, by menacing Syria, Iran and ultimately China. Though on the one hand American politicians speak of hopes for diplomacy, they are preparing for war with all three nations, in a reckless thrust which threatens the future of humanity. But in the minds of imperial planners, the possibility of life's destruction in a nuclear holocaust is as nothing compared with the need to win on the 'grand chessboard'.

The US economy has long been in a relative economic decline when compared with the Eurozone and especially the hugely expanding China - a nation frequently labelled "the sweatshop of the world". For the last fifteen years, the American ruling class has responded with an attempt to use its overwhelming military supremacy to offset its production-based profitability crisis. Wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and most recently Libya have all cut across the material interests of Chinese empire-building. But the global economic turmoil has pushed this imperative into overdrive, creating the strong possibility of a final showdown with China itself, plus Chinese allies such as Russia.

The past couple of months have seen a sustained effort to create a pretext for attacking Syria. The Syrian government - like the Libyan Gaddafi regime before it - is currently undertaking a brutal crackdown on the "rebel" movement which emerged from last year's 'Arab spring'. Of course, the same could be said of the Bahraini government for example, but Bahrain is an American ally. So the Obama administration is using its Arab League proxies - each of which receives large foreign aid and military assistance from US imperialism - to give the coming military intervention a regional popularist colouring. In truth however, each regional government is deeply unpopular with broad layers of its population.

The Arab League is reprising its craven role in the run-up to the bloody overthrow of Gaddafi. In particular, Qatar and Saudi Arabia - both of whom are ruled by venal despots - are pushing for a United Nations resolution to lay the basis for a Libya-style military intervention. In such an event, the US would likely be joined by the United Kingdom and France amongst others in bombing the Syrians from the air, allowing the 'rebel' forces a clearer path to the capital.

The US and its allies have no particular interest in the natural resources of Syria. Unlike Libya, it is a relatively small player in terms of oil production and reserves. But it is seen as being a friend of Iran - Obama's ultimate military target for 2012.

The drums of war against Iran have been growing louder again for a couple of years now. On the one hand, this is due to pressure from Israel, which fears a challenge to its regional dominance. But on the other - and more significantly given America's virtual veto over Israeli policy - the US wants to get its hands on Iran's oil. Having dramatically failed with a similar adventure in Iraq, the US is playing a deadly game of 'double or quits'.

For imperial policymakers, China not having Iran's oil to aid its expansion is almost as important as America having it. Under the Ahmadinejad government, Iran has increased its links to China, and supplies it with a large proportion of its oil.

The Strait of Hormuz is a potential flashpoint
Using the phoney pretext of Iran developing nuclear weapons, which borrows from the Iraq narrative, and which even the US-leaning International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has failed to find any supporting evidence for, the US is allowing Israel to lead a propaganda campaign against Ahmadinejad. There is a grim irony in Israel - a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which illegally maintains a large stockpile of nuclear weaponry - accusing Iran - a signatory which insists its nuclear programme is for civilian use and allows IAEA inspectors in relatively unrestricted. But like Saddam Hussein in 2002/2003, Ahmadinejad is being asked to prove a negative - a theoretical and practical impossibility.

The US is looking to tighten the net on Iran by imposing further sanctions on its oil industry amongst other key economic sectors. In retaliation to this relentless provocation, Iran has threatened to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, through which one fifth of the world's oil routinely passes. In response, the US has declared this possibility a "red line", as if Iran was the primary aggressor. A military buildup is well underway, with the Pentagon modifying its bunker-buster bombs for use on Iranian facilities, and there are discussions about kitting out a transport and docking ship as an "afloat forward staging base" for troops and air assaults. In maybe the grimmest irony in human history, the Wall Street Journal straightfacedly reported a tactical debate amongst US military brass over using a nuclear weapon.

From the perspective of the Chinese ruling class, the US cannot be allowed to continue chipping at its influence. Each time they allow the Americans to get away with it, they come to believe they can get away with more. Iran's oil is of huge strategic importance to two imperial rivals, and without decisive intervention from the international working class, it could conceivably be the prize which beckons a fight to the death of billions.

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