Institutional racism in Marks and Spencer distribution

GMB at M&S 2

M&S 1M&S 2

On 11th February, I helped organise a demonstration of around 100 GMB members outside the Marks & Spencer store in Swindon in protest against what has been described by Siôn Simon MEP, (Labour’s European Parliament spokesperson on employment) as “modern day slavery”. We were joined by Cllr Jim Grant, the leader of the Labour Group on Swindon Borough Council, and Labour councillors Nadine Watts and Steve Allsopp.

This date was deliberately chosen to coincide with the 47th anniversary of the start of an industrial dispute organised by Martin Luther King in Memphis Tennessee USA.

The Memphis Sanitation Strike began on 11th February 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. The strike received inspirational support from civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and he was assassinated in Memphis on 4th April 1968, while actively supporting the strikers. The issues that led the Memphis workers to strike included the management practices of sending staff home as soon as they started their shift with no pay, poverty wages, lack of safety equipment, and climate of fear where workers were afraid to complain, as they might get sacked or lose shifts. The strikers adopted the slogan “I am a man!”, to emphasize that they demanded respect at work.

I recently read Michael K Honey’s fantastic book “Going Down Jericho Road” about the strike, and King’s last days, which is one of the most insightful and inspiring books about trade union activism I have ever read, especially as it deals with the unglamorous reality of organising, where we have to inspire a commonwealth of solidarity between people who have all the usual human frailties that make such an enterprise difficult; and especially among working people who have been abused and oppressed, it is necessary to build confidence among those who have become accustomed to being afraid.

I have been working for about a year with the agency workers at the South Marston distribution centre of Marks and Spencer in Swindon. The workforce is divided into the following levels. i) DHL Managers, ii) “tier one” employees of DHL, iii) “tier two” employees of DHL (doing the same work but lower paid), and iv) agency workers, recruited through 24-7 Recruitment Services Ltd, but employed by an umbrella company, called Tempay Ltd. One of the most shocking aspects of industrial relations at the site is that there is a clear correlation between skin colour and pay grade. I will shortly be producing a more formal report on this, based upon the employer’s own data.

The agency workers, who are at the bottom of the heap in terms of pay and conditions, comprise the majority of the workforce; and I have been struck by how their treatment echoes the same themes as the Sanitation Workers dispute, all those years ago, which occurred in a much more avowedly racist society.The same practice occurs of abusing workers, so that when they come on for a shift they are immediately sent home, without pay. This specific practice occurs frequently at the Marks and Spencer site, and agency staff are out of pocket, especially as lack of public transport means that they often have to travel by taxi to work. This selfsame practice was one of the immediate triggers of the Sanitation Workers dispute in Memphis.

The agency workers at South Marston are given a contract for 7 hours per week, on minimum wage, but are given a rota with 37.5 hours per week. They can have their shifts cancelled at no notice, without any compensation; yet if they are unavailable for work, they can be disciplined for absenteeism. It is very hard to see how this meets the contractual requirement for mutuality of obligation, and smacks of modern day slavery.

Agency workers, many of whom have worked on the same site and same job for years, are also given inferior PPE compared to the DHL staff, who do exactly the same work, and while the DHL staff get warm clothes for the winter work in exposed areas, the agency staff get no warm clothing provided. This difference in the provision of PPE between more and less privilaged workers was again one of the grievances in Memphis.

This week, I was at a meeting where one of our members, a man of Goan heritage, was talking to a number of other workers from a different employers in Swindon, and he described the culture of casual racism from the predominantly white supervisors. He said they were expected to work harder then white employees, his audience of other mainly Goan workers nodded with an acknowlegment of shared experience.

Two Goans members were excluded from the Marks and Spencer site at the beginning of December, and were racially abused by a supervisor. GMB managed to get them back to work. At that time the contract was run by Wincanton, not DHL. Interestingly, the subsequent investigation by Wincanton concluded that the racist manager had not told the truth in his own account of the incident, and should surely therefore be regarded as an unreliable witness, however they still preferred his word over the testimony of the two workers who had been abused and excluded from the site, over the issue of whether he used racist language. One of the most pernicious aspects of institutional racism is that victims are disbelieved, discouraged and made voiceless.

In the last speech that Dr King made, on the very eve of his murder, he addressed a mass meeting of the striking sanitation workers and their supporters. Referring to the legal injunctions that had been made by Tennessee’s courts against the workers and their union, he said that he would not have been surprised if legal measures to prevent workers’ asserting their rights, in striking and demonstrating, had been made in other countries, which had no commitment to human rights, and the pursuit of liberty, but he called upon the USA to be as good as its word. The USA claimed to be a democracy based upon the rule of law, justice and individual rights, and those rights should not be only for the rich or privileged, but also even more importantly for those who most need their protection.

Marks and Spencer claims to be an ethical business, yet despite the malpractices at the South Marston site being brought to their attention months ago, their distribution centre is still based upon an oppressive culture, abusing the Swedish Derogation to avoid the equal pay provisions of the Agency Worker Regulations, and exploiting the resulting insecurity and precarious access to working hours of the majority of staff. In such circumstances where workers are treated not as human beings, but as disposable commodities, it is no surprise that the interaction of race and class has imposed itself so that out of 80 managers only 4 are non-white, but of 500 agency workers, some 90% of them are black.

Marks and Spencer should be ashamed of themselves.

Jihadi John may not be a victim, but he is a consequence

imagesThe sympathetic portrayal of Mohammed Emwazi (Jihadi John) by Asim Qureshi of the campaigning group CAGE inevitably and understandably met with short shrift in a society that is rightly repelled by the brutality of IS. Mr Qureshi was guilty of the heinous crime of raising his voice in dissent against the mainstream, and both he and CAGE have experienced an avalanche of vilification as a consequence.

While I can admit to the the courage of Asim Qureshi in attempting to humanise a man that most consider a monster, it seems unconscionable he would do so. Emwazi is a medieval sectarian beast who, along with his acolytes within the so-called Islamic State, is embarked on a mission to turn the Middle East into a graveyard of those whose only crime is to practice a different religion than them, or practice the same religion in a way they disapprove of.

Sawing off people’s heads while they are still alive, being filmed while doing it, and glorying in the event can be described as many things, but the actions of a ‘beautiful man’ it is not. Nothing can justify such butchery – just as nothing could justify Hitler’s project to destroy Europe’s Jews, gays, gypsies, and other minorities; and just as nothing could justify Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and their mission in Cambodia to turn the clock back to year zero. The only place for an ideology that fuels such barbaric movements and sanctions such grotesque carnage is the grave, along with those who adhere to it. The threat such ideologies pose to the very foundations of civilisation, their violation of the most fundamental belief in the sanctity of human life, demands nothing less than their complete and utter destruction.

But those who assert that there is no connection between the West’s foreign policy and the cancer of IS as its reach spreads ever wider throughout the Middle East are either ignorant or mendacious. In fact it is as absurd as attempting to deny a link between sex and pregnancy.

One flows inexorably from the other.

This is what we as a society need to confront. The scale of the damage ‘we’ have inflicted on the Middle East over the past 13 years is immeasurable. The problem is that we are cocooned from its full effects and impact by news coverage that is sanitised and with few exceptions compromised by its attachment to the prevailing orthodoxy of those responsible – i.e. our own governments.

Afghanistan is broken, Iraq is broken, and Syria – where we have given succour, inadvertently or otherwise, to IS with our staggeringly insane support for a moderate opposition that does not exist – is on fire. As for Libya, four years after David Cameron was in the country congratulating its anti-Gaddafi rebels for “choosing democracy”, it is now officially a failed state in which competing factions and gangs are vying for territory and power. The resulting chaos has provided the space for IS to emerge, which it did recently in dramatic fashion with the mass beheading of 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt on a Libyan beach.

When will we ever learn?

We are living in an age of extremes. Wherever we look it seems that humanity is struggling to hold on to any last vestige of reason. A West intoxicated with power has lurched from one part of the world to another like an out of control juggernaut, destroying everything in its path, producing its own monsters in the process.

Mohammed Ewazi is not a victim of this juggernaut and its effects, but he is a consequence whose actions are leaving a vast trail of victims behind him and are leading to evermore disastrous consequences. And whether we are comfortable about admitting it or not, the only difference between the brutal violence unleashed by IS and the violence we have unleashed and/or supported by proxy in recent years, is that theirs would not have erupted without ours creating the conditions for it to erupt. Just as the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in the aftermath of the US carpet bombing of the country in 1975, so IS has spread and its ideology proliferated on the back of the destruction of Iraq and the unquantifiable trauma suffered by the Iraqi people, radicalising the entire region and young Muslims across the world at the same time.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

What does the general election mean for the NHS?

With the general election just weeks away, it is worth considering what the stakes are for the NHS.

Although the record of the last Labour government is controversial in some respects, such as introducing PFI, and bringing rapacious private contractors like Carillion, and ISS into the NHS, both of whom the GMB trade union have been engaged in disputes with, the overall impact was enormously positive.

When Labour came to power in 1997, the Conservatives had run NHS spending down to breaking point: health spending was at around 5% of GDP, and the conditions had been created by the Tories for an expansion of insurance based private sector.

Labour saved the NHS by increasing NHS spending by 6% each and every year. Labour built 149 new hospitals, and recruited 80000 more nurses, 38000 more doctors, and 4500 more NHS dentists. Health spending rose to be around 10% of GDP by 2010. Indeed, the expansion of the NHS when Tony Blair was prime minister was the most effective and sustained period of growth in the NHS since the 1940s. The spirit of ’45 indeed.

Under Labour, virtually no-one waited 13 weeks for treatment, Specialist appointments were guaranteed within 2 weeks of referral, and a doctor’s appointment was guaranteed in 2 days. Interestingly, pre-election promises to stick within the spending plans of John Major’s retiring Conservative administration were quietly abandoned  in the NHS, when the full scale of the Conservative’s poisoned legacy in the health service became appreciated. Labour prioritised patient care.

What is more, Labour helped local councils provide decent services for social care, with a 43% real terms increase since 1997.

In contrast, since 2010, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have yet again created an almost existential crisis for the health service. Despite promising “no top down reorganisation of the NHS”, the government has spent £3 billion breaking up the NHS, and outsourcing to private health companies.

The full scale of the threat to the NHS has yet to become apparent to most people, as the Conservative’s reforms have not yet fully worked themselves through, but already the impact on patient care has been dramatic, and now 1 in 4 patients wait a week or more to see their GP. Over a million people have waited longer than 4 hours in A&E over the last year. Over half a million people are on waiting lists for treatment.

What is more,  coalition has made massive cuts of £3,5 billion to social care budgets. Almost 250000 fewer older people are receiving services than in 2010.

The Labour Party has made clear commitments, that will be implemented when Ed Miliband is prime minister.

Labour will recruit 20000 more nurses, and 8000 more GPs, funded by a tax on houses worth more than £2 million.

Labour will guarantee a GP appointment within 48 hours, and on the same day if medically needed

Labour will repeal the Lib-Dem & Conservative Health and Social Care Act, to stop further privatisation of the NHS. The NHS will be the preferred service provider.

Labour will give Mental Health greater priority.

Labour will gurantee that patients will wait no more than one week for vital cancer tests by 2020.

There will undoubtedly continue to be problems. The legacy of PFI debt needs to be addressed, the cost of which is unsustainable. There is certainly a case to be made that given the scale of the NHS crisis in 1997, and in the context of a robustly successful economy, the decision to turn to complex instruments for private finance was within the proportionate and reasonable range of policy options for a centre-left government, bringing as it did some perceived advantages of not requiring controversial rises in public sector borrowing. There is a distinct difference between Labour introducing PFI in the context of using private borrowing to expand and improve public services, with the Tory policy of privatising to disrupt and curtail public services. Indeed, the argument of using private money for capital projects as a mechanism to avoid increasing the PSBR is not indefensible.

However, even in that context, the illusions of greater efficiency and administrative competence from private companies were always naive, and even if private sector funding for capital projects might be justified, long term service contracts with the private sector have been both costly and ill advised: bringing as they do inevitable cost cutting in pursuit of profit, and reduction in public service.

Margaret Thatcher made great political capital out of her adopted persona as a housewife seeking to balance the household budget. Similarly, many voters today are familiar with the idea of seeking to restructure household debt, consolidating loans and, seeking to remortgage at a lower interest rate. By analogy, the unsustainable cost of PFI debt does require bold action,to restructure, and reduce overly high interest payments that are not in the public interest. This is an argument that the left and the trade unions will need to advance during the period of the next Labour government.

The Ukrainian conflict and Western hypocrisy

It has been a year of growing and escalating crisis in Europe since the Maidan Square protests in Kiev succeeded in toppling Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. Those protests, which people in eastern Ukraine consider to have been the basis of a coup that brought down their government and thus trampled over their rights, were openly and materially supported by the West. It saw the likes of US Senator John McCain – a man whose quest for a new Vietnam War never ends – travelling to the country to personally urge on the demonstrators in Kiev alongside Britain’s Catherine Ashton, representing the EU.

With this in mind, just imagine the reaction if Russian politicians had travelled to Mexico to urge on an anti-US protest movement to topple the elected government there and replace it with a pro-Russian alternative. And imagine too that at the head of this movement to topple said government were avowed neo-Nazis and fascists. Imagine what the reaction of the United States would have been then.

Then we have the open admission by the US State Department’s Victoria Nuland, another visitor to Maidan Square during the protests, that the US had ‘invested’ $5billion dollars to help secure Ukraine’s ‘democratic future’ since 1991, combined with the staggering contents of a taped telephone conversation she conducted in early February 2014 with the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, during which they discuss whom they would like to see ‘appointed’ the new Ukrainian president, anticipating Yanukovych’s imminent demise.

Is there anybody who seriously believes, given the aforementioned, that the US and its European allies were not engaged in a nefarious attempt to destabilise and undermine an elected government?

Ukraine’s history is inextricably linked to Russia’s. In the east of the country especially, cultural, ethnic, economic, and historical links with Russia are deeply entrenched. It describes a fissure between east and west in which one half of Ukraine favours close and fraternal ties to Russia on the basis of those links, while in western Ukraine the dominant political current is anti-Russian and pro-West.

Professor of Russian and European Politics, Richard Sakwa, explores the two competing models of statehood that have arisen on the basis of this fissure in his recent book, Frontline Ukraine (IB Taurus 2015). He describes the first of these as monist nationalism, involving the assertion of an ethnocentric identity that underpins a regeneration of the nation’s culture and social values along rigid and exclusionary nationalist lines. The second he refers to as a pluralist model, denoting an inclusive Ukrainian identity that embraces the disparate and diverse peoples and ethnic groups who make up the country, a consequence of its “long history of fragmented statehood”.

These two contested models of statehood are being played out in the current Ukrainian conflict, which has been ramped up by the geopolitical stakes involved as Washington and its allies seeks to ‘contain’ Russia in a struggle over the continuation of the unipolarity enjoyed by the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, or the multipolar alternative which Russia’s re-emergence as a global power demands.

With over 5000 people killed and over a million displaced in the ensuing conflict in eastern Ukraine, the need for a political solution is self evident. Yet, judging by the intensity of the demonisation of Vladimir Putin and Russia by the British political and media establishment recently, it is clear that an intensification of the conflict is the preferred option of those who refuse to accept that the British Empire no longer exists.

When he’s not being compared to Hitler, a particularly offensive caricature for historical reasons, the Russian leader is being accused of harbouring ambitions of forging a ‘Russian Empire’. However, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon takes the biscuit with his ludicrous assertion that Putin constitutes as great a threat to Europe as Islamic State. It reveals a political class that has suffered intellectual collapse.

That such accusations stem from a nation whose government has played a key part in reducing Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya to a state of chaos in recent years, only makes them all the more hypocritical if not downright noxious.

But then this should come as no surprise, as we’ve been here before, haven’t we? Remember when Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez was being similarly demonised and held up as a dictator? His crime when he came to power and remained there on the back of numerous democratic elections was his refusal to allow Venezuela’s wealth to continue to be shipped out of the country, as it had been for decades, by a small group of Western-supported oligarchs.

What the crisis and conflict in Ukraine has done is remind us that we live in a world in which the West’s interests and rights are the only ones deemed legitimate. This is what drives the repeated attempts by Washington and its allies, especially the UK, to push a hegemonic agenda. And whether in the Middle East or in Europe, it is this agenda that has been the root cause of instability and conflict that is unfolding in eastern Ukraine at present and which has pushed the Middle East into an abyss of carnage and barbarism.

The US is a global hegemon. With over 1,000 military bases covering the planet, 11 navy battle carrier groups, and a military budget exceeding that of every other major industrialised nation combined, the challenge facing the world is not how to contain Russia but rather how to contain Washington. Vladimir Putin and Russia’s crime is to dare resist this US Empire, taking a stand against the hypocrisy, double standards, and complete lack of respect for other countries, cultures, and values it represents. The concerted attempt to expand NATO and an ever more militant EU all the way up to Russia’s border has nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with the projection of imperial power masquerading as democracy.

When it comes to Britain, ours is a government that has made a virtue out of attaching itself to Washington’s coattails. Indeed it is no exaggeration to state that when Washington sneezes Britain is ready with a handkerchief to blow its nose. It is a sordid and eminently dishonourable relationship that has allowed the UK to parade itself as a first rate power when in truth it hardly qualifies as third rate.

An escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine benefits no one, least of all Russia. But the principle at stake is one that must be upheld – namely an end to the West dictating orders to the rest of the world and thereby spreading destabilisation rather than stability, war instead of peace, and chaos at the expense of respect for international law. Only when the proponents of ‘democratism’, an ideology not to be confused with democracy, understand that the world is not theirs to control will there be an end to the never-ending spiral of conflict that shows no sign of abating anytime soon.

The enemy is not Russia or Vladimir Putin. The enemy is hypocrisy.

 

 

 

The movie Whiplash and the ugly truth of the American Dream

Morning Star

Of the movies nominated for Best Picture at this year’s upcoming Oscars awards ceremony on February 22, American Sniper and Selma each offer a different perspective of America and US society. The former depicts the war in Iraq via the prism of US exceptionalism, a ‘window’ inviting its audience to participate or collude in a revisionist history in which the Iraqis are portrayed as a barbaric horde and the US troops as patriots trying to bring civilization and democracy to an ungrateful populace.

Selma, meanwhile, holds a ‘mirror’ up to the ugly truth of America’s past, a recent past whose wounds remain open given the ongoing issue of police brutality against young black men and social indicators that reveal the gap between whites and blacks is the same as it was when MLK declared “I have a dream” from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC in 1963.

It is arguable, however, that another nomination for Best Picture comes closest to understanding America, its psyche, and the ethos upon which it was built and exists. Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, takes us on a journey into the dark heart of ruthless ambition, individualism, and the insatiable hunger for success that describes the reality behind the myth of the American Dream.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a young man with a dream. It is to become one of the “greats” as a jazz drummer, emulating those who’ve gone before such as Buddy Rich. He is a student at a prestigious music school in New York, where he initially moves between its dimly lit corridors to and from classes with a minimum of fuss or interaction with his fellow students. In his spare time he practices alone, emphasising his dedication to his craft and determination to master it.

But then Neiman encounters one of the teachers at the school, Fletcher (JK Simmons), a man who literally and metaphorically arrives into his life out of the shadows. When he does everything changes. If Nieman thought he’d been dedicated to his goal up until now, he soon learns that he’s only been skimming the surface, as Fletcher – demonic, lean, and muscular in his uniform of tight black t-shirt and black suit, a vision of tough, single minded asceticism at odds with his genteel and preppy environment – proceeds to climb inside his head and exert the complete and utter domination of his being.

Being great involves more than mere dedication, the movie through Fletcher informs us. It involves total sacrifice, obsession, and the absence of morals. In the process, Neiman metamorphoses from a friendly, quiet, balanced, and shy young man who still enjoys regular trips to the movies with his loving and regular dad (Paul Reiser), into a monster of his Svengali Fletcher’s creation.

Nieman thereafter embarks on an existential struggle to rise from the herd towards the summit of fame and, with it, the status and respect without which life is not worth living in a society that separates humanity between winners and losers. “The two most harmful words in the English language are ‘good job’,” Fletcher instructs him, and in a pitiless war against the mediocrity described in those words the teacher’s every waking breath is focused on cultivating the next Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker. As Fletcher has it, Parker is a jazz legend whose defining moment came when a conductor launched a cymbal at his head during a gig in some backwater jazz club in Reno for this very crime of mediocrity. It was the seminal and defining moment of Parker’s life and career, launching him into a relentless quest for the greatness he would go on to achieve, involving hours and hours of practice to the exclusion of all else. It informs the moment in the movie when Fletcher does likewise to Nieman during a rehearsal, hoping to galvanise his student with the same motivation that propelled Parker to greatness.

By now the inference is clear: talent does not underpin achievement and success in life, practice and all consuming dedication does in a society ruled by the values of machine-men in which everything is reduced to numbers on a graph.

Neiman is a willing student. In fact more than willing he is absolutely committed, trusting Fletcher as a dog trusts its master. He drums and drums and practices and practices, even until his hand bleed. Then he practices some more. Nothing except death will deter him from reaching his goal of emulating Buddy Rich, an objective now indistinguishable from doing whatever it takes to win Fletcher’s approval.

Along the way he proves he has what it takes by sacrificing/ending his relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoit) and pulling away from his father, whom Fletcher continually reminds him is a “loser”, and the balance and normality they both represent.

By the time Nieman crawls from the wreckage of a car crash while attempting to keep his place in the school band, after forgetting his drumsticks and driving like a madman to retrieve them before they go onstage to perform, we are following him through his own personal hell, a young man literally willing to die in the attempt to win Fletcher’s approval.

In the closing scene, when after being publicly humiliated by Fletcher during a performance in revenge for his role in having him kicked out of the school, Nieman has a choice to make. He can either chose to return to the loving, balanced world of his ‘loser’ father, where mediocrity reigns, or man up and prove to himself, the world, and most of all to Fletcher that he has what it takes.

When he breaks away from his father’s sympathetic hug and solace offstage to return to the arena and face Fletcher again, Nieman is Nietzsche’s superman come to life. The magnificent drum solo he performs is not only the culmination of a process that has seen him go from ‘nobody’ to ‘somebody’, it is an expiation of weakness and the assertion of strength. Fletcher, like the audience, is rendered awestruck as Nieman – reaching a frenzied climax – touches that all-elusive summit of greatness that no mere mortal can ever hope to reach.

Now, finally, the Frankenstein’s monster Fletcher created has been let loose upon the world.

The America depicted in and through Whiplash is a country whose mask of innocence and idealism is ripped away to reveal a sordid truth. The nation of the Bill of Rights, Abe Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Jimmy Stewart is horseshit. Instead we come face to face with the real America, a nation and society founded on slavery, violence, injustice, and crippling inequality. It is the America of Dick Cheney, Enron, and Wall Street – corrupt, brutal, ruthless and shallow – a dark, soulless place hurtling towards its own doom, driven there by those machine-men for whom the sine qua non of meaning is the abandonment of humanity in service to the objective of escaping humanity.

Whatever Nieman has won, in the end it is nothing to what he has lost.

Yanis Varoufakis: How I became an erratic Marxist

In 2008, capitalism had its second global spasm. The financial crisis set off a chain reaction that pushed Europe into a downward spiral that continues to this day. Europe’s present situation is not merely a threat for workers, for the dispossessed, for the bankers, for social classes or, indeed, nations. No, Europe’s current posture poses a threat to civilisation as we know it.

If my prognosis is correct, and we are not facing just another cyclical slump soon to be overcome, the question that arises for radicals is this: should we welcome this crisis of European capitalism as an opportunity to replace it with a better system? Or should we be so worried about it as to embark upon a campaign for stabilising European capitalism?

To me, the answer is clear. Europe’s crisis is far less likely to give birth to a better alternative to capitalism than it is to unleash dangerously regressive forces that have the capacity to cause a humanitarian bloodbath, while extinguishing the hope for any progressive moves for generations to come.

For this view I have been accused, by well-meaning radical voices, of being “defeatist” and of trying to save an indefensible European socioeconomic system. This criticism, I confess, hurts. And it hurts because it contains more than a kernel of truth.

I share the view that this European Union is typified by a large democratic deficit that, in combination with the denial of the faulty architecture of its monetary union, has put Europe’s peoples on a path to permanent recession. And I also bow to the criticism that I have campaigned on an agenda founded on the assumption that the left was, and remains, squarely defeated. I confess I would much rather be promoting a radical agenda, the raison d’être of which is to replace European capitalism with a different system.

Yet my aim here is to offer a window into my view of a repugnant European capitalism whose implosion, despite its many ills, should be avoided at all costs. It is a confession intended to convince radicals that we have a contradictory mission: to arrest the freefall of European capitalism in order to buy the time we need to formulate its alternative. Click to continue reading

The board of HSBC should be arrested and the bank taken into public ownership

The enduring truth of Bertolt Brecht’s aphorism that it is a far greater crime to own a bank than to rob one has never been more evident in the wake of the scandal involving HSBC. Its involvement in helping some very rich account holders evade tax, money laundering, and the extent to which both the current and previous government have enabled the rich to get away with ‘it’ all these years while treating the poor as fair game for exemplary punishment and persecution has exposed the corruption and venality that has poisoned the nation’s democracy.

The sheer scale of tax evasion on the part of the rich in the UK is staggering. A report compiled last year on behalf of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents staff at HMRC, calculated that in 2014 more than £80 billion was lost to the Exchequer as a result of tax evasion in 2014. Tax avoidance, meanwhile, which unlike tax evasion is legal, if not moral, has been estimated to cost the Exchequer around £25 billion each year.

At the other end of the social spectrum benefit fraud costs just over £1 billion each year, yet considering the resources applied to detecting and prosecuting the latter compared to the former, you would automatically think that those figures were reversed.

Even when tax evaders have been caught the revelation that HMRC has been doing its utmost to avoid prosecuting them illustrates the fact that we have a two tier system of justice when it comes to defrauding the taxpayer. Those found guilty of benefit fraud are maligned, shamed, and demonised while their rich counterparts are allowed to avoid the inconvenience of prosecution and court in return for an undisclosed pay off to make the problem disappear.

Underpinning this issue and scandal is of course class. The top execs within HSBC and other major British banks and corporations go to the same private schools and are products of the same cultural, social, and economic values as most of those who occupy the green benches in the Commons. In fact given the way cabinet ministers and former prime ministers end up entering corporate boardrooms at the end of their parliamentary careers, the UK’s political system has been reduced to nothing more than a transmission belt onto a lucrative career as a non executive director in a corporate boardroom somewhere. Some take advantage of the opportunities to cash in more than others. Tony Blair, for example, has morphed into a veritable Crassus since leaving office, and shows no evidence of letting up anytime soon when it comes to filling his boots.

It is a scandal on top of a scandal, which more than bringing our democracy into disrepute exposes it as a sham, with the conflict of interest that lies at its heart a festering sore that has gone untreated for far too long.

We have in Britain a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich, the consequences of which are tangible. With the advent of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, caused by the greed and recklessness of the banks, the government has effected the transference of wealth from the poor to the rich under the rubric of austerity, a process measured in food banks, payday loans, benefit sanctions, the bedroom tax, and zero hours contracts at one end of the social and economic spectrum, alongside an increase in the wealth of the country’s 1000 richest people over the same period.

Further and even more damning evidence of the extent to which the rich are ‘getting away with it’ is provided by the fact that despite the mammoth difference in cost to the UK taxpayer the resources that have been deployed to crack down on benefit fraud are exponentially more than tax evasion.

In a just society, given the nature of this scandal, the board of HSBC would be placed under arrest and the bank taken into public ownership. Unfortunately, in 2015 we don’t live in a just society.

We live in Britain.

Syriza fights for all of us

Already, after just two weeks in office, the Syriza-led coalition government in Greece has put every other government in the EU to shame.

Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis, the country’s new Prime Minister and Finance Minister respectively, have reaffirmed our faith in politics as a way to transform and improve people’s lives – specifically the lives of those crying out for transformation and improvement. For far too long we have been accustomed to politicians as machine-men devoted to upholding a status quo of gross inequality and the interests of the rich over those of the poor and ordinary working people.

In the UK we are into the fifth year of a coalition government that has extended itself in crushing the lives of the least well off beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of austerity. In the same period the rich have seen their wealth increase, the banks continue to operate as before, and all is well in Toryshire.

In Greece this assault on the poor and working people has been even more extreme, threatening the very fabric of society, unleashing the ugly recrudescence of fascism in the shape of Golden Dawn, a party with a penchant for demonising and attacking immigrants and people with skin darker than their own. Does this ring any bells?

Syriza’s historic election victory came as a last gasp of hope in a valley of despair, the voice of a proud and ancient people summoning the collective will to defy the forces unleashed against them in the name of fiscal responsibility. A spirit and soul-crushing attack on the very foundations of a civilised society, which had been criminalised by the powerful in service to an ideology that holds human beings as the means to the end rather than the end in itself, had been rejected. The question now became: who rules Greece? Is it the people through the ballot box or the Troika?

The evidence of the disaster unfolding as a consequence of the terms attached to a bailout package to meet Greece’s crippling debt is irrefutable. Its economy contracted by 25% in 2014 alone, resulting in a spike in unemployment, homelessness, and poverty. Greece’s healthcare budget was decimated, the impact measured in an increase in infant mortality, untreated infections, and suicide.

No matter, the Troika of the IMF, European Commission, and the European Central Bank had tried and convicted Greece and its people in the court of high finance and neoliberal orthodoxy, and only the most egregious and exemplary punishment would do. The description of this punishment as “fiscal waterboarding” by Yanis Varoufakis was witheringly accurate.

The scenes of joy and jubilation that met Syriza’s recent election victory in Greece were consistent with a country and society that had just been liberated from an occupation. A seminal moment in Greece’s long history had arrived, with hope replacing despair and optimism in place of the oppression that had reduced life for millions to a struggle for survival.

The media followed Yanis Varoufakis as he toured European capitals economy-class in the immediate aftermath of his appointment as finance minister. His objective was simple: cooperation, compassion, solidarity, and common sense. Dressed in leather jacket and open-neck shirt rather than the contrived stiff suits of his counterparts, Mr Varoufakis epitomised someone come to do battle and fight in the interests of the common man.

The short shrift he received was entirely predictable. However in the process he succeeded in drawing a clear ideological line between the haves and have nots, the one percent and the ninety nine percent. Since the economic crisis crashed on top of our heads seven years ago, this line had been increasingly blurred as political parties and voices emerged which diverted attention away from the one percent, inequality and the concentration of wealth and power as the locus of the problem, turning our guns instead against immigrants and immigration.

Alexis Tsipras and the newly installed government he leads will back down, commentators predicted. And it was hard to argue, given the commitment made to servicing the debt and to remaining within the EU and the Eurozone, despite the fact the political capital allowing him to default and withdraw from both the aforementioned was his.

But, no, it seemed Mr Tsipras had only boxed himself in, as his attempt to gain respite and a restructuring of the debt was rebuffed. Worse, it was followed by a move by the ECB to tighten the screws with the decision to cancel the facility allowing Athens to use government debt as loan collateral, thus opening the door to a run on Greek banks.

But so far the Greek government is holding fast. Alexis Tsipras has pledged to raise the minimum wage, re-employ public sector workers, maintain the current retirement age, and various other reforms with the objective of reintroducing aggregate demand into the economy.

The defiance demonstrated by Tsipras and Varoufakis in face of huge pressure to back down is a breath of fresh air. Their message that it doesn’t have to be this way, that there is an alternative, is not meant per se for the ears of Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, or David Cameron. It is meant for the masses, not only in Greece but also throughout Europe and the Eurozone, in response to an economic crisis that has morphed into a humanitarian crisis.

A struggle is now underway for the future not only of Greece but every country in Europe currently labouring under the iron heel of austerity and austerity governments and parties.

What happens in Greece does not stay in Greece. Syriza fights for all of us and we must fight for them.

Prince Charles: British-Saudi venality and hypocrisy

By Nu’man Abd al-Wahid

Churchill’s Karma

Before flying out to pay his last respects to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the last time Prince Charles jetted out to the Kingdom was on Tuesday, 18th November, 2014 to bring a ceremonial end to a long running business saga by literally dancing to the tune of the Saudi-Wahhabi clan. The first in line to the British crown, dressed in the traditional military regalia of the Saudi nepotistic despots, helped to seal yet another military deal which will burnish the bottom line of Europe’s largest arms manufacturer, BAE Systems. The price for 72 Eurofighter Typhoon jets was finally agreed to by the Saudi clan.

The deal, aptly and Orwellianly named “Salam” (i.e. Peace), is worth £4.5 billion (equivalent to roughly $7.1 billion) and according to a report in the Times of London, is part of the notorious and corrupt £40 billion “Yamamah” (i.e. Dove) deal.

Furthermore, the hundreds of millions of pounds newly “wringed” from the Saudi clan will underpin thousands of jobs in the North West of England “and around the British defence supply chain” added the Times.

The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), an organisation which monitors the arms industry, claimed that the United Kingdom sells more weapons to the Saudis than any other country in the world. On the day of the Prince’s arrival to Saudi Arabia, a CAAT spokesman urged him to “disassociate” himself from the “despotic regime” so as not to confer legitimacy on it. They also urged Charles to raise the issue of human rights abuses in the Kingdom.

The following day, CAAT was more forthright and condemned Prince Charles for securing the Typhoon deal with the ruling clan. The spokesman once again reiterated the organisation’s contention that the deal primarily lends “legitimacy” to the Saudi repressive regime.

On the other hand, an analyst at the investment bank, RBC Capital claimed that with “Salam cash coming in, this should give BAE more flexibility for cash deployment moving forward.”

From Saudi Arabia, the Prince travelled to the only other Wahhabi kingdom in the region, its neighbor Qatar, where there are currently military bids on the table for (coincidentally!) 72 fighter jets. One of the bidders is surprise, surprise, BAE Systems — but amazingly Prince Charles seems to only have had time for his favourite hobby horse, global environmental degradation. Naturally he commended the work done by Qataris in addressing the environmental challenges faced by the principality then merrily flew back to Blighty.

It is all very well for CAAT to argue the UK and its wondrous Prince Charming are conferring and bestowing “legitimacy” on the Saudis, but if it wasn’t for the Saudis and the other Arabian despots of the Persian Gulf who else would be purchasing arms from BAE Systems or for that matter bankrolling the British economy?

In the past decade, Saudi Arabia and the Arab statelets (i.e. Kuwait, UAE, Qatar) — created by British Imperialism during the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth century — have been pumping billions into the British economy, keeping it afloat in these financially difficult times. Each of the statelets have highly dubious human rights records and none are democracies in any sense of the word.

Qatar recently purchased Harrods, the world famous store, and built the tallest building in western Europe, the Shard in London. The opulence and waste behind the Shard was partly justified as Qatari “confidence” in London’s economy. Sainsbury’s, a national UK supermarket chain has been kept afloat by the ruling Qatari al-Thani family as well. London’s Olympic Village is under Qatari ownership after a deal worth hundreds of millions of pounds. Recently, it was announced that £10billion is on the verge of being invested by Qatar in British infrastructure projects.

Kuwait, on the other hand, has already invested half of that on these projects in the UK. The Little Chef, a UK roadside diner was bailed out by a Kuwaiti company and the British national lingerie retailer La Senza was saved from bankruptcy by another Kuwaiti company.

The Gulf statelets have also invested heavily in British sports events through sponsorship and even purchasing football clubs such as Manchester City or Nottingham Forrest. UAE helped to build Arsenal Football Club’s stadium. Cricket stadiums built by British companies, a sport which has little traction for Arabs, are multiplying in the Gulf. The UAE and Qatar ruling families also possess a soft spot for British race horses, spending millions on these animals while indigenous Arabs in the hinterland of the Arab World scrape a living and Palestinians continue to endure occupation, theft and ethnic cleansing.

Furthermore, Qatar and UAE have a combined 48% stake in the London Stock Exchange. When Barclays Bank was on the verge of collapse during the recent financial crises, its Chief Executive travelled to Qatar for financial assistance.

Is it really a contradiction that the world’s main harbingers and supporters of jihadism, al-Qaida and the theology that spawns these violent trends is also the main and largest customer of Great Britain’s ultimate merchant of death, BAE Systems?

More so, when Prince Charles complains about the ‘tragic plight’ of Christians in the Middle East isn’t he just exposing his own and Her Majesty’s Government’s hypocrisy knowing full well that this plight is caused by the ‘sugar daddies’ of the British economy, i.e. the Gulf states, in their support for jihadis in Iraq and Syria?

It is all very well for CAAT to bemoan Prince Charles’s visit to the Kingdom and insist he redeem himself by advocating for secular human rights, but the British have been dependent on the Gulf despots for a long time.

In the late 1950’s Harold Macmillan, a former British Prime Minister, stated that without the oil of the Arabian peninsula the British nation would be “lost” and the whole structure of the British “economy would collapse.”

“Without oil,” Macmillan noted, “and without the profits from oil” the UK will not be able to survive. [1]

The late Prime Minister’s opinion is probably more true today than it was back in the 1950’s when Great Britain was still renowned for its (now greatly diminished) manufacturing industry. Indeed, the very status of BAE Systems as a leading manufacturer would very much be in question without the “profits from oil.”

In conclusion, CAAT’s notion the Prince should be preaching human rights to the Saudi, Thani or any other Gulf Kingdom that British imperialism brought into existence misses the point. Venality and doing business with despots, is the latest economic strategy in a long line of total and inexcusable immoral policies rooted in British imperialist history. Doing business with the Saudis and the other Gulf nepotistic despots today is just as important to British prosperity as piracy, the slave trade, imperialist military conquest and colonialism was in the past.

Notes

[1] Alistair Horne, “Macmillan 1894-1956 Volume 1 of the Official Biography” (London: Macmillan, 1988) pg.411,422 and 429 respectively.