Thursday, 24 June 2010
Depending on who you listen to, Venezuela is either a socialist tyranny on the way to destroying the economy, or at the head of a heroic anti-imperialist bloc representing all that is positive in Latin American governance over the past decade.
The reality is more nuanced.
While chipping away at democracy, Chavez has in the past retained a solid level of support precisely because it is not his democratic credentials, or lack of, that the United States has taken issue with. It is his willingness to redistribute wealth and shun the American model while empowering indigenous groups who under Chavez's rule have for the first time had their rights recognised in the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution of Venezuela. The lack of rhetoric emanating from Washingtonian academics during last year's anti-democratic coup in Honduras, compared to the reaction of those same people at even the mention of Chavez's name, speaks volumes for the notion that in the market-democracy a far greater importance is attached to the profit motive rather than the polling booth.
On the other hand, while propping up the Communist regime in Cuba through the supply of heavily subsidised oil (some 100,000 barrels a day,) Chavez has overseen an increasing Cubanisation of Venezuelan society, with some 30,000 Cuban personnel working in the areas of health care and education; and perhaps more tellingly, 100s of Cuban military technicians working in various departments of the National Armed Forces of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
American support for an anti-democratic coup in 2002, which briefly saw Chavez deposed in order to make way for a pro-Washington stooge, gave Chavez the incentive to set up an internal defence force similar to that already existing in Cuba - neighbourhood militias organised around the idea of a "people's war" should the United States invade. The corresponding system in Cuba, the "Committees for the Defence of the Revolution" (CDR), which exist in every Cuban neighbourhood, are based upon the idea of "defending socialism against foreign aggression". In reality they spend the majority of their time spying on any citizens suspected of "counter-revolutionary activity" - a broad and all encompassing term.
With the Bush presidency ramping up its rhetoric in the years before and after the 2002 coup, hard questions were seldom asked in Venezuela as to Chavez's democratic credentials. Many who were not natural supporters of Chavez still saw a need to defend the elected President during a time when United States ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, was pushing the sinister and ludicrous suggestion that Cuba was producing biological weapons. The prospect of a US invasion of Venezuela was palpably real if only in perception.
The degeneration of Cuba into a military dictatorship is perhaps befitting of Susan Sontag's term "fascism with a human face" to describe the trajectory of communism in practice. Chavez's rhetoric in recent times has been increasingly Castroist in tone, while in substance more than misleading with regard to the "actually existing" situation on the island nation, returning from a recent visit to describe the country as a "sea of happiness". One wonders what Chavez might call the actual seas surrounding Cuba, where an unknown number have lost their lives over the years trying to flee "paradise"; and been contemptuously and posthumously written of as "gusanos" (worms) by the authorities in Havana.
In February Vice President of the Cuban Council of State, Ramiro Valdez, travelled to Venezuela on the pretext of helping the country overcome its energy crisis, prompting many to question the logic behind the appointment of the former Minster of the Interior of a country which suffers 24 hour blackouts to oversee the energy policy of one of the world's largest oil exporters. The visit of the longest serving Cuban Minister of the Interior at a time when Chavez's chances of re-election are sliding should perhaps indicate that Chavez is looking with increasing interest towards the Cuban model of dealing with democratic dissent. It is Valdes after all who presides over Cuba's Internet network, or, more accurately, it is Valdes who is in charge of preventing Cubans from accessing the Internet. One thing Valdes has no experience in is the energy sector.
"For us engineers in Venezuela, it makes no sense," Enzo Betancourt, president of Venezuela's Association of Engineers, said in a recent interview with CNN.
Coming after a recent speech in which Chavez branded the spreading of criticism over the Internet as "terrorism"; and in a week where Venezuela has asked Interpol to arrest the owner of the only TV station still openly critical of Chavez, things are looking bleak for the increasingly hectored Venezuelan opposition to "21st century socialism".
To some in Caracas the fear is that things may be about to take a decidedly 20th century turn of the Stalinist variety.
Tuesday, 22 June 2010
"My story may help provide some balance to the attacks on public sector pensions. I have worked for just shy of 40 years in universities. I am 61 and about to retire, having taken voluntary severance. I was both a head of department and head of school. A friend of mine is nine years younger and designs computer programmes for a well-known bank. He too has been offered voluntary severance. If he gets it, he will receive three times his £100,000 salary, i.e. £300,000. My severance is one-tenth of that sum and I will need to receive my pension for 22 years before I overtake my friend's amount! It is also worth noting that my pension is not typical of the public sector, being more generous than most."
Phil Lee, Southport, Merseyside, The Guardian, letters page, 21/06/10
Monday, 7 June 2010
The ominously named English Defence League have, in the past year, been travelling the country holding street demonstrations with the stated purpose of "opposing Islamic extremism". The fortunes of the EDL have been in direct opposition to the decline in the fortunes of the British National Party, who, while receiving a total of 500,000 votes in the recent general election, had expected to do considerably better; and have, in recent times, been plagued by factionalism and splits - not to mention a disillusionment of more hardcore elements over the party's decision to allow Black and Asian membership.
The EDL seem to have appeared from nowhere. Representing a diverse mix ranging from football hooligans, unemployed and working class youths, seasoned far-right activists, and even a smither of (allegedly) gay rights protesters at one rally, the EDL have come onto the scene to fill the void left by a political mainstream who long ago vacated the electoral territory of the white working class. A specifically protest orientated grouping, thus far the EDL has not engaged with electoral politics.
Worryingly, Nick Lowles, of Searchlight, has said: “What we are seeing now is the most serious, most dangerous, political phenomenon that we have had in Britain for a number of years. With EDL protests that are growing week in, week out there is a chance for major disorder and a major political shift to the right in this country.”
A recent undercover Guardian report highlighted plans by the EDL to hit racially sensitive areas over the summer months, including Bradford and Tower Hamlets, raising the spectre of a repeat of the race riots that plagued the North of England in 2001; and leaving the chilling prospect of far-right activists of all stripes descending en masse upon Bradford's large Asian communities during the August Bank Holiday weekend.
"Since the last major riot, many shops have moved out, businesses have collapsed, and jobs have been lost. The Odeon Cinema is rotting away, and half the city has become one massive hole in the ground. Only last week, another Yorkshire Ripper-style mass murderer “the Crossbow Cannibal” was arrested for murdering prostitutes. Black, white or Asian, impoverished long-suffering Bradfordians just want to get on their lives in peace, not suffer the mother of all race riots."
Bradford South Labour MP, Gerry Sutcliffe has said: "We support legitimate protest but this is not legitimate, it is designed to stir up trouble. The people of Bradford will want no part of it.”
If he really believes, or is attempting to imply, that the EDL do not have widespread support in white working-class households, then to describe him as politically naive would be over-generous. It is perhaps indicative of the sense of denial inside the Labour Party at the disillusionment felt by so many of their traditionally "core" voters; and he ignores at his peril the historical susceptibility of the working classes to race-based demagoguery when a vacuum is left by the abandonment of their traditional defenders inside the Labour movement.
One issue, discussion of which has all too commonly been dismissed as "racist", that the EDL have cottoned onto, is the creeping and unopposed return of religion to the public sphere in the form of Sharia and the repressive Burka, shamefully ignored by the Guardian-reading chatterati who, as it happens, don't live in those areas that harbour the fractured communities of unemployed British youth living directly alongside burka-wearing woman and Muslim communities. It is this lacerating sense, so keenly felt, that every other group in Britain is indulged while the white working class are dismissed as kebab eating, Stella drinking "chavs": the only group in British society who cannot dance/parade/swagger through the streets on a parade to celebrate an accident of birth (sorry, one's culture) without being immediately written off as beyond the pale. The social networking site Facebook was recently awash with groups speculating that the England football shirt had been "banned" from public places due to the potential offence it may cause ethnic minorities. While untrue and ridiculous, the perception held by so many that this really was true says a lot about the contempt with which great swathes of society feels they are held by the ruling classes.
The gradual journey of the Labour Party away from an alternative economic model has coincided with their championing of the notion that one's race, gender, ailment, or even sexual preference, qualifies one for the adoption of the over-used term "progressive". It becomes rather easy to see how a member of the urban poor might feel somewhat distant from those whom, claiming to represent "progressive" opinion, need only utter the sacred phrase "speaking as a ....." while expectantly assuming that their hide, sexuality, or disability will act as the only needed qualification in and of itself. That the only people seemingly speaking for them and who look and sound like them sometimes hold a sinister agenda and deeply unpleasant racist views is unimportant when viewed through the prism of identity politics - all they in fact need is to be "speaking as a white working class male". Identity politics works both ways.
The disappearance of manufacturing and job stability smashed the post-war consensus built upon the idea of full employment and the "working community" - i.e. factory and pub life coexisting side by side. All that remains is a periphery of low skilled, poorly paid jobs that offer little in the way of pride and less in the way of job security. Significance no longer comes through work and the only meaning left is felt through patriotism and the love of one's country: something which feels increasingly threatened by the decline in the importance of the nation state, the decline in Britain's standing in the world, and the increasing insecurity generated by capitalism's global context - which brings with it the mass movement of capital and the mass movement of ever cheaper labour. Mass immigration from inside the European Union and an unwillingness to integrate by many of those coming from outside the EU results in a toxic mix of alienation and poverty, both cultural and financial - the ideal and most fertile soil in which the seed of far-right politics is free to germinate.
Is the most sensible way to confront a group such as the EDL to write-off a generation of working class youth as "Nazi scum"?; and to scoff and intellectually defecate on the soft, football supporting patriotism, group solidarity and desire for "real work" that probably occupies the minds ot the majority of EDL members? Or is it possible to robustly confront the racism and anti-Asian bigotry (I won't use the silly term "Islamophobia") at the forefront of the EDL, while also seeking to provide real jobs and a route out of poverty and an all-together crap life by offering something more substantial than bingo and the lottery in those places where the EDL and BNP gather the greatest support?
As the EDL becomes more mainstream it may well fracture into disparate groupings. Or, unless something is done about the profound sense of alienation felt by so many at not just the bottom, but the lower middle as well (historically the base of fascism), there may be something more than a few fights in Whetherspoons on match day to contend with - by which time those most enthusiastic advocates of both the ruthless free market and multiculturalism will be safely enclosed in their gated communities, - while both of those groupings whom the labour movement always claimed to represent: the poor and ethnic minorities, will suffer the real consequences of dithering inaction and an unwillingness to confront a potentially nightmarish situation in the here and now through fear of what are trivial by comparison short-term consequences.