Monday, 29 November 2010
We are regularly encouraged to believe that changing the world today is about people working together and avoiding confrontation. The highest form of altruism is nowadays embodied by the likes of Angelena Jolie holding a fly-speckled African baby, representing as it does the sanitised and heroic Hollywood rescue of a single child. Any attempt at a global re-distribution of wealth is, it would seem, all a bit last century.
Back in 2005 we were told that if we wore brightly-coloured plastic wristbands we would 'make poverty history'. In the years that followed, that a rock concert did not alleviate starvation seemed to be of secondary importance - people felt good about themselves; and the self-congratulatory spectacle of Bob Geldoff and Bono worked to combine the two things that always go together so effortlessly - music and megalomaniacal delusions of saving the world.
The widespread and in-your-face feelgood factor on the back of events such as Make Poverty History appears even more transparent when one compares such seemingly altruistic public attitudes with rampant and commonly espoused prejudices directed towards those actually fleeing poverty - i.e. asylum seekers and immigrants. It is indeed difficult to deny that when 'charity' involves a greater sacrifice than simply clicking a grain of rice on a website, adding a 'twibbon' to a twitter profile, or going on a long walk in heels with your tits out, the British public are somewhat less philanthropic than the media would have us believe.
A word has even evolved for this very modern a form of activism: 'Slacktivism' - the act of having a go at activism for a cause, but not really doing anything at all.
The latest 'awareness' campaign involves changing one's Facebook profile picture to that of a cartoon character.
The meme reads:
"From now until December 7, change your profile picture to a cartoon character from your childhood. The objective of this is not to see any human faces on Facebook but an invasion of memories for the fight against Violence to Children. Remember we were kids too."
A recent campaign to 'raise awareness' of breast cancer also contained it's own dose of wacky narcissism, with pink push-up bras, pink-patterned T-shirts, and packets of crisps embellished with rosy ribbons proudly displayed in every corner shop, leaving the impression that even cancer must now be 'edgy' to attract significant attention. The reality of fighting for better cancer treatment is of course more tedious and exponentially harder work than that of updating one's Facebook profile. As Laurie Penny put it:
"Until we have boring, unsexy things such as properly financed health care and a government that isn't determined to drain away science funding, this sugary-pink, boob-bouncing carnival of concerned consumerism will remain worse than useless"
There is of course nothing wrong with hosting a picture of a cartoon character on a Facebook profile to raise awareness of an unarguably admirable cause. At the same time however, it should be clear to all that the cause of child welfare is not being advanced in any significant way by an image of a grinning Animaniac. Indeed, I don't think it would be dishonest to suggest that we are yet to see any significant evidence that Dennis the Menace has helped put an end to violence to children, encouraged people to foster more children, or advanced any of the campaigns against cuts to children's services the current government is so enthusiastically pursuing.
Wednesday, 17 November 2010
"To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and imposition on posterity. For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and tho' himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them. One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in Kings, is that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule, by giving mankind an ass for a lion.
Secondly, as no man at first could possess any other public honors than were bestowed upon him, so the givers of those honors could have no power to give away the right of posterity, and though they might say "We choose you for our head," they could not without manifest injustice to their children say "that your children and your children's children shall reign over ours forever." Because such an unwise, unjust, unnatural compact might (perhaps) in the next succession put them under the government of a rogue or a fool. Most wise men in their private sentiments have ever treated hereditary right with contempt; yet it is one of those evils which when once established is not easily removed: many submit from fear, others from superstition, and the more powerful part shares with the king the plunder of the rest."
Common Sense,'Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession'.
Thursday, 11 November 2010
Judging by the ceaseless whining from certain quarters at the 'violence' of yesterday's student protests, you could be forgiven for thinking we'd just witnessed a mass lynching, rather than a small amount of carefully targeted property damage at Tory HQ.
As protests go, the gathering of upwards of 50,000 students in central London was a resounding success - there was an impressive turnout; very little in the way of injuries; and a strong message was sent to those politicians who got into power on the back of misleading the student vote.
The narrative since the protest from some however, has been that anything beyond a quiet trot through central London, fitting within the narrow box of respectable dissent, is 'going too far'.
It's perhaps of little surprise to hear that Aaron Porter, head of the National Union of Students, is calling for 'restraint' when confronting Tory and Lib-Dem destruction of higher-education - he also supports charging students for their education, via a large graduate tax on future earnings.
The argument put forward by proponents of an increased levy on students is that those who go to university will, as a rule, earn more in their lifetimes than those who do not and should therefore pay for the advantage. While the earnings argument holds water - on average graduates will earn more than those who do not attend university - it ignores the fact that many others will also earn more over the course of their lives - those who take over family businesses, inherit property, or just happen to live in more pleasant areas of the country - than those lacking these particular advantages yet who may have prospered in the albeit flawed yet at least partially democratic area of educational achievement.
Notwithstanding the increasingly outdated notion of education as a tool with which to learn about the world for its own sake (how radical is that!), those seeking to justify a huge tax on graduates almost universally got their own educations for free. Talk about kicking the ladder away once you've reached the top!
As for loose talk about the protests compromising democracy, perhaps if politics was not such a mass of lies, folly, and evasions then the windows of the political ruling class would still be intact.
Or maybe, like Aaron Porter, we should simply be satisfied with tokenism - showing the politicians we're not happy with what they are doing but going along with it anyway.
Answers on a postcard as to the effectiveness of that strategy.
Tuesday, 9 November 2010
For many on the left Cuba continues to represent, if not a socialist paradise, at least progress of a sort. In fashionable circles, the reality that life on the island corresponds in no way to the ideals espoused by its most vociferous apologists, goes politely unmentioned.
A common defence of Cuba will most-likely begin with an emotionally-charged denunciation of United States policy towards the island. It would be foolish indeed not to concur that US policy towards Cuba since 1959 is reason alone to afford the Cuban government a degree of control over the electoral process - can a multi-party system really function satisfactorily when the most powerful nation on Earth is attempting to destabilise the island?
In truth however, repression in Cuba exists independently of US policy and is rooted in something far deeper - just as the Cuban economic malaise is more acute than can be attributed to the US economic embargo alone.
The insurmountable objection for any socialist must be that the Cuban system is based upon a discredited system of revolutionary Stalinism from above, which inevitably carries with it a denial of basic rights to the Cuban people 'for their own good'. Cuba is not the USSR under Stalin, nor is it China under Mao; but make no mistake, the Cuban regime is modelled upon those systems - of which personal dictatorship, political repression, mass-censorship and economic failure are all a feature.
Unlike the revolutionary tourists who flock to the island, Cuban citizens are forbidden from travelling overseas without first obtaining permission from the government, which is often denied, and sometimes punitively. This was also common to the former Eastern European 'socialist' states, where citizens were unable to travel outside of the Socialist Bloc through fear they would never return. The spectacle of the 'worker's paradise' hemming in its citizenry with walls, barricades and in the case of Cuba, the big stamp on the top of the page that reads 'Permission Denied', should provoke feelings of repulsion in any serious person of the left.
Travel is not the only area of life in which Cubans face intolerable restrictions. According to the illegal but tolerated Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, thousands of young Cubans are in prison on the charge of 'peligrosidad predelectiva' - that is, they are considered 'likely' to commit a crime. One awaits the outcry of those 'radicals' who waste no time in denouncing (and rightly so) the relatively minor restrictions on civil liberties in their own countries.
Nowadays Cuba actively welcomes those from the capitalist countries, who flock to the island with their much-needed dollars and their apparently insatiable appetite for the locals. According to Michael Clancy, author of The Globalisation of Sex Tourism and Cuba, the Cuban government's attitude towards the 'consumers' of this 'profession' has been to "send a message to the global sex tourist community that [the country] was open for business".
It is indeed hard to see any meaningful socialism left at all in Cuba. As anybody who has travelled there will know, this is an island where everybody is on the take. The official economy does function, but only just. It is the illegal black market that supplies Cubans with everything from chicken and soap to the latest Hollywood blockbusters. There exists an unregulated and rampant capitalism whereby government Peso shops stand empty while those which operate in convertible Pesos (Cuba uses two currencies) offer overpriced Western products that most Cubans can only gawk at through the filthy shop windows. Supplying most Cubans are illicit street vendors, who walk the crumbling back-streets hollering the name of whatever it is they are selling: coffee, chicken, pork - itself pilfered from state coffers.
The late Cabrera Infante, one of Cuba's greatest writers, once said: "For us Cubans socialism was a ponderous joke that killed us laughing. It is still wearing us out - a joke on us".
The joke however appears not to have worn off for those whose 'anti-imperialism' trumps all other considerations - a position defined by a willingness to let others in far-away lands break their backs for the coveted 'alternative'.
It is the job of anyone who wishes to be taken seriously on the left to denounce such 'socialism', not to act as quintessential apologists for the monarchical regime of two unapologetic Caribbean Stalinists.
Saturday, 6 November 2010
36 years ago Harold Wilson's government faced assailment from all sides. Wilson, slandered by the right-wing press and establishment as a communist spy and an IRA sympathiser who was in the pocket of leftist unions, faced an elite that was baring it's teeth by sending troops and tanks to Heathrow in a show of strength.
It has since come to light, according to former top-army commander, the late Michael Carver, that preparations for the overthrow of Harold Wilson were discussed by fairly senior members of Her Majesty's Armed Forces.
As Jonathan Freedland put it:
"The great and the good feared that the country was out of control, and that Wilson lacked either the will or the desire to stand firm. Retired intelligence officers gathered with military brass and plotted a coup d'etat. They would seize Heathrow airport, the BBC and Buckingham Palace. Lord Mountbatten would be the strongman, acting as interim prime minister. The Queen would read a statement urging the public to support the armed forces, because the government was no longer able to keep order."
In 1980s Britain such undemocratic rumblings were again heard - the respectable Times newspaper editorialised that should Michael-Foot lead the Labour Party to win the 1983 election, it should not be allowed to form a government.
The history of modern democracy is littered with such instances, not only in Britain, but around the world. Parliamentary democracy is espoused as the highest attainable political system, yet when such a parliamentary mandate exists which threatens the interests of the rich and the powerful, the democratic mask begins to slip; and backed by force, steps are taken to ensure things are swiftly brought back under the tutelage of those who's mandate really matters - establishment and business elites.
The example of Chile, a country who's democratic tradition stretches back further than many European countries, being subverted by the sinister forces around Richard Nixon lies in stark contrast to the treatment meted out by the CIA towards Cuba - undoubtedly a repressive dictatorship - but a regime that in the early 1960s looked entirely preferable to its CIA-backed Latin-American counterparts - themselves busy throwing political opponents out of aeroplanes and gang-raping female student-dissidents. Under United States policy regimes indulging in such practices were tolerable so-long as the interests of US multi-nationals remained untouched.
The modern consensus in Britain dictates that since the disintegration of the Soviet Union we no longer face a "red threat"; and rightist coup-plotters have simply melted away - itself implying the aspiring putschists of the past were pardonable due to a perceived threat from the East.
In reality, the idea of a seizure of power by reactionary figures has been negated by the fact that the major political parties have adopted the very pro-establishment and pro-capital policies advocated by the coup plotters themselves. Coinciding with these developments has been the increasing disenfranchisement of working people from the parliamentary system - turnout in all the liberal-democracies has been in rapid decline since the 1980s.
The disillusioned still exist and are more numerous than in years gone by; it's just that unlike the Lord Mountbattens and military chiefs of the past they cannot send the tanks to Heathrow when their disability benefits are snatched away, nor can they threaten to move off-shore when asked to pay their fair share of taxes.
History remembers the latter years of Harold Wilson's government as a tragic saga of a deeply paranoid man ravaged by dementia, while the genuine threat to parliamentary democracy by the chauvinistic forces of reaction is all but forgotten.
Nowadays of course, the sinister threat of the reaction of "the market" is evoked to beat back dissenting voices - far more subtle and effective than a display of military might and armed men stood outside Terminal 5.