Sunday, 26 June 2011
Bono, as you were probably aware, is the lead singer of the band U2. His real name is Paul David Hewson. Aside from being the frontman of one of the world’s biggest rock bands, Mr Hewson also fancies himself as something of an activist, and can often be seen hobnobbing with world leaders and entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, encouraging them to "give generously" to some worthy cause or another. He has even been given a knighthood and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times.
U2 performed on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury Festival on Friday evening. During the band’s set, Art Uncut, an offshoot of UK Uncut, unveiled a 20ft balloon with "U Pay Your Tax 2" emblazoned on it in huge letters. Scuffles between security goons and protesters ensued before the balloon was eventually pulled down.
Art Uncut’s criticism of U2 is essentially this: Bono, the rich Irish rock star and campaigner against Third World debt, is asking the Irish government to contribute more to Africa. At the same time, he and his band have reduced tax payments that could help fund that aid.
The accusation refers to the 2006 decision by U2 to move their tax liability from Ireland to the Netherlands. The move came after Ireland scrapped tax breaks that allowed musicians and artists to avoid paying taxes on royalties.
When asked about the move, U2’s lead guitarist, David Evans, aka "The Edge", said "Of course we're trying to be tax-efficient. Who doesn't want to be tax-efficient?"
The answer to that question is of course those asking for more government revenue to be diverted to the world’s poor. The term "tax-efficient" is little more than cover for the denial of money earmarked for the exchequer – and in effect hospitals, schools and, importantly in this case, the international aid budget.
This is not the first time U2 have been in the spotlight for their self-interested financial projects. In 2006 Bono helped found a venture capital firm called Elevation, named after the U2 song of the same name. In August 2006 Elevation announced it had made an investment in Forbes Media, the parent company of Forbes magazine and Forbes.com. Sources stated that the deal gave Elevation a stake of more than 40 percent of the company. After Elevation invested in Forbes, while U2 raked in the money, the employee pension plan was frozen. In the years that followed, there were numerous rounds of layoffs worldwide.
"U2 are arch-capitalists - arch-capitalists - but it looks as if they're not", says Jim Aiken, a music promoter who helped stage U2 concerts in Ireland during the 1980s and 1990s.
Journalists Richard Tomlinson and Fergal O’Brien have also written that Bono used the band's 2006 Vertigo world tour to promote his ONE Campaign while at the same time "U2 was racking up $389 million in gross ticket receipts, making Vertigo the second-most lucrative tour of all time, according to Billboard magazine. . . . Revenue from the Vertigo tour [was then] funnelled through companies that are mostly...structured to minimise taxes."
On 15 December 2005, Paul Theroux published an op-ed in the New York Times called The Rock Star's Burden that criticised stars such as Bono, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie, labelling them "mythomaniacs" and "people who wish to convince the world of their worth."
Bono and Bob Geldof’s attempts to "save" Africa during the Live Aid and Live 8 concerts were notoriously short of actual African faces; and the latest Hollywood fashion accessory – a fly-speckled African baby – smacks of a patronising colonial attitude. As Theroux went on to say: "[When] Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie [were] recently in Ethiopia, cuddling African children and lecturing the world on charity, the image that immediately sprang to my mind was Tarzan and Jane."
The Dragon’s Den entrepreneur James Caan even went so far as to offer an impoverished family 100,000 rupees – about £745 – for a baby on a recent trip to Pakistan.
On the outside, Bono and his ilk smell of the soft and cuddly capitalism of the noughties. The capitalist elite at the time liked to think it was presenting a new face to the masses. They tore off their ties, threw open their shirt necks and, as Terry Eagleton put it, "fretted about their employees’ spiritual well-being."
What did not change was the substance behind the feel-good rhetoric. Espousing megalomaniacal platitudes is perfectly well and good, but when it comes down to it, if you are simultaneously cutting the feet from under your own government’s ability to provide for the very poorest in the developing world, then your stance is worse than meaningless: it is rank hypocrisy.
As Clement Atlee pointed out some half a century ago, "Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim".
Monday, 20 June 2011
In Cuba the weather is changing. Saying goodbye to the sultry spring and welcoming the searing summer heat is something Cubans do every year. In the better, or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say less bad government buildings, battered air conditioning units rattle and hum away, making it uncomfortably cold for visitors. Spending time in the midday sun is inadvisable. The only people doing so are the tourists in the resorts and the increasing number of Cubans who make a “living” walking the streets selling peanuts and hustling tourists. The heat in the case of the latter is offset by the desire to fill an empty stomach.
Things in Cuba are beginning to change. Not only in rhetoric, but also on the street. Politically, however, the regime is as sclerotic as ever. The biggest surprise (although it should not have been) at the recent Cuban Communist Party congress was the selection of 80-year-old Jose Machado Ventura as second secretary and 78-year-old Ramiro Valdes as the party's number three. Many Cuba watchers were hoping a younger man would have been promoted, synchronising a degree of political change with the economic changes that are taking place. What they got instead was a heavy dose of free-market reform with little political reform. In way of political change only term limits for those in office was proposed – something which won’t affect the current generation and loses much of its credibility when those proposing it have been in office for five decades.
In practice many of the “reforms” agreed to at the congress will result in Cubans being pushed towards the free-market with no say as to whether they approve of this direction of travel or not. As in China, they will be forced to accept capitalist exploitation in the same way they have been forced to live with the exploitation of the Stalinist system for so many years. The Miami Herald even admitted harbouring a “great hope that the economic moves will finally be the shock therapy Cuba has long awaited.” Considering the grinding poverty and dramatic drop in life expectancy “shock therapy” brought to Eastern Europe and Russia in the early 1990s, it seems fair to say this is not what the Cuban people are waiting for, regardless of how attractive the proposition sounds from an office block in Miami.
When Fidel Castro was still President one used to hear it said that his brother was an admirer of the Chinese model. One no longer needs to speculate. Raúl Castro’s politics appear to have followed the transition of the Chinese line from tyrannical statism to ruthless imposition of the free-market with little deviation. When visiting China in April of 2005 he told his Chinese hosts that “it was truly encouraging everything that you have done here…there are some people around who are preoccupied by China’s development; however, we feel happy and reassured, because you have confirmed something that we say over there, and that is that a better world is possible.”
An unsettling proposition is that Raúl would also look to the Chinese method of dealing with dissent should unrest become widespread in Cuba. With the United States on its doorstep, however, this would be an extremely foolish course to take.
What the Cuban leadership has perhaps learned from the collapse of communism in Europe is the ability of well-placed individuals to profit from the transition to the market. What I mean by this is the ability of well-placed bureaucrats to make spectacular profits from the privatisation of state industries.
Until 2006 Raúl Castro was Cuba’s armed forces Minister. The military currently controls 60 per cent of the economy through the management of hundreds of enterprises in key economic sectors. Since Raúl took over from Fidel in 2006 military personnel have increasingly been promoted to prominent leadership roles. With Fidel increasingly marginalised the less idealistic of the Revolution’s original generation are positioning themselves, it would seem, to cash in on the spoils of soon-to-be privatised industries – with the military replacing the communist party as the guiding hand of the state.
The Soviet-era economic system is undoubtedly approaching its end. It has been on life support for some time but simply needed someone to kill it. Corruption is endemic and double-think is a way of life. It resembles, not only the situation in the 1980s in the Soviet Union, but the description given of that era at the time by Mikhail Gorbachev's Prime Minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov:
"[We] stole from ourselves, took and gave bribes, lied in the reports, in newspapers, from high podiums, wallowed in our lies, hung medals on one another. And all of this - from top to bottom and from bottom to top.”
What the Cuban Communist Party, at the recent congress, called the older generation’s “final service to the Revolution” is in reality a form of positioning that will ensure those who have maintained an iron grip on the economy during the Stalinist era will be the ones reaping the benefits when privatisation comes. It will also mean, more importantly, that those who have born the brunt of Cuban communism for 50 years will be at the forefront of exploitation during coming capitalist restoration: Cuban workers.
Thursday, 16 June 2011
On the back of the Channel 4 documentary, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, the UK Government has renewed its calls for an independent investigation into alleged war crimes in the country.
Anyone watching the program, broadcast on Tuesday evening, could not but be appalled by the footage of summary executions and unarmed Tamil civilians being shelled during the final days of the conflict in Sri Lanka two years ago.
South African law professor, Christof Heyns, who the UN has been consulting on matters of extra-judicial killings in Sri Lanka, has said "What is reflected in the extended video are crimes of the highest order, definitive war crimes."
In London, Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt has issued a statement warning the Sri Lankan Government that if it does not respond to calls for an inquiry “we will support the international community in revisiting all options available to press the Sri Lankan Government to fulfil its obligations."
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who won a second term in January last year following the military victory over the separatists, has repeatedly denied any involvement in or knowledge of human rights abuses.
Defence Secretary Liam Fox met with President Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan leadership in London last year, soon after the atrocities are alleged to have taken place. According to the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence, Fox assured the Sri Lankan delegation that “the role of the international community at this stage [is] not to keep raising question[s], but to see how best to help in bringing the communities in Sri Lanka together.”
Fox also visited President Rajapaksa three times in 2009. His visit in March of that year, paid for by the Sri Lankan Government, came amid reports of the killings of up to 2,000 Tamil civilians in Vanni, as documented by Human Rights Watch, and weeks after the then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton had condemned Sri Lanka’s systematic shelling of civilian safe zones and medical facilities.
Furthermore, a week after his visit in November of that year, paid for by the Sri Lankan Development Trust, Fox said in a speech to parliament that:
“As members of the European Union, we have to be careful not to lecture too much or give too few incentives in a country that is beginning to move very much in the right direction.”
There was no mention in the speech of the fact that he was at the Sri Lankan President’s party convention the week before.
In all Liam Fox travelled to Sri Lanka three times in 2009 to meet the country’s President in a personal capacity. Fox also received a £50,000 donation from a UK Defence Industry owner selling arms to Sri Lanka on the 26th of January 2010.
Are British calls for an inquiry into alleged atrocities not undermined by a Defence Secretary with a history of freelancing and “private” meetings with the Sri Lankan President?
Monday, 13 June 2011
George Orwell is often evoked as a figure of exemplary moral character. Name-dropping Orwell, or attaching the “Orwellian” label to some policy or method of speech, implies an awareness of an attempt at control and an opposition to authority. Cutting through the doublespeak and distortions of power, Orwell is said to represent the conscience of the bourgeois liberal – deeply suspicious of big ideas and the state as well as instinctively hostile to totalitarianism.
Orwell’s genuine political ideas are often lost in the clamour to evoke his name and tailor the ideas he espoused to fit a respectable political posture.
Today Orwell is best remembered for his anti-totalitarian tracts Animal Farm and 1984. Respectable discourse often neglects to mention much of the other work Orwell produced during the course of his life - work that was scathing in its attacks on British imperialism and capitalism in general.
Orwell’s most famous works are not in fact an abandonment of socialism at all. George Orwell remained until his death in 1950 an adherent to the socialist cause, stating that “every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly and indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.” Attempting to write off socialism by equating the idea with Soviet communism is nothing new of course, as anyone who has ever had an argument with a simple-minded conservative will be aware. “It didn’t work” or “you didn’t learn anything from Russia” they will say, as if there was ever a prolonged period in the former USSR when the workers really were in control.
What is lost in the clamour to turn Orwell into an "End of History" propagandist – "socialism will inevitably turn into totalitarianism etc" - are the nuanced positions he held during his life, represented by a consistent opposition to totalitarianism and tyranny as well as a hostility to capitalist imperialism.
Conveniently, much of what is forgotten or ignored in Orwell’s politics is that which is most valuable and worth listening to today: i.e. it is no good indulging crass second-campism because tyranny is pointing AK47s in the direction of the United States; but it’s not much better demanding hostile regimes adhere to human rights while ignoring the flagrant abuses of Western capital or the suspension of the rights of Palestinians in Gaza.
A proper examination of Orwell’s work reveals not only a firm commitment to socialism, but a disdain for any attempt to propagandise against the USSR and communism when accompanied by silence on the crimes of Western imperialism. Today of course, it is not British imperialism of the 20th century which is whitewashed, so much as there is a widespread adoption of the notion that behaviour of this sort by Western powers is consigned only to historical record.
Viewing the attempt at moral equivalence between totalitarianism and parliamentary democracy as "the argument that half a loaf is no different from no bread at all”, Orwell instinctively recognised the double standards of those who behaved as Thomas Paine’s abroad but Edmund Burke’s at home. In his reply (dated 15 November 1943) to an invitation from the Duchess of Atholl to speak for the British League for European Freedom, he stated that he didn't agree with their objectives. Acknowledging that what they said was "more truthful than the lying propaganda found in most of the press" he added that he could "not associate himself with an essentially Conservative body" that claimed to "defend democracy in Europe" but had "nothing to say about British imperialism". His closing paragraph stated: "I belong to the Left and must work inside it, much as I hate Russian totalitarianism and its poisonous influence in this country."
The argument retains much of its force today for those who seemingly view British and American power in the 21st century as transformed and benign. One need not be an anti-American lunatic to see capitalism as having lost none of its ruthlessness – either at home or abroad; or the willingness of the British establishment to compromise with the “right sort” of tyranny, as David Cameron’s recent sojourn around the Middle-East with a contingent of arms dealers in-toe demonstrates.
In this vein, when fighting for the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) in Spain, Orwell felt uneasy about the clamour for war by many journalists who themselves were living comfortably at a safe distance from the Front. “One of the most horrible features of war is that all the war propaganda, all the screaming lies and hatreds, come from people who are not fighting....The people who wrote pamphlets against us and vilified us in the newspapers all remained safe at home...hundreds of miles from the bullets and the mud...the tub thumping, the heroics, the vilification of the enemy – all this was done as usual by people...who in many cases would have run 100 miles sooner than fight”.
It was the daily realities of the Spanish Civil War which dragged Orwell’s politics to the left. As the late Peter Sedgewick wrote, “Orwell was pre-conditioned by his entire experience as a Socialist to see the Spanish Revolution in a proletarian rather than Popular-Frontist terms. Undeveloped and eccentric as his politics were, they retained enough basic class-sense to collide against Stalinism’s attempt (abetted by the ‘liberal’ Left like Gollancz and the New Statesman) to crush the Spanish workers’ own revolution...once Orwell came up against the reality of the CP’s counter-revolutionary terror, he was inevitably pushed further to the Left. And his experience of human fraternity, in revolutionary Barcelona and at the front with POUM, dissolved the waverings of gentility: ‘I have seen wonderful things,’ he wrote back to Cyril Connolly from Spain, ‘and at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before.’”
When he returned from Spain, Orwell warned those Western intellectuals who lionised the Soviet Union to "remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Do not imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist of the sovietic regime, or any other regime, and then suddenly return to honesty and reason. Once a whore, always a whore."
There are some today who would do well to remember these wise words when excusing no-end-of hideous barbarism in the name of “anti-imperialism”.
Saturday, 4 June 2011
The problem is not simply the sexualisation of children; the problem is a society which treats women as sexual objects because it sells.
A furore has erupted over the apparent "sexualisation of children". The Daily Mail is calling for a “real watershed” and “a return to the days when parents could be confident that programmes broadcast before 9pm would be suitable for the whole family.” David Cameron meanwhile has weighed in with an attack on the “creepy sexualisation of children”.
Leaving aside for a moment the suspicion that the Mail secretly wants a return to Saturday nights with Alf Garnet and Bernard Manning; not to mention the absurdity of David Cameron claiming he’s “never believed that we can leave everything to market forces” while essentially privatising the NHS, they sort of have a point. The fact that so many teenage girls today harbour ambitions to become glamour models and WAGS is testament to the dumbing down of female aspiration that begins in childhood. Whereas last century women fought to be educated, work and forge relationships on an equal basis with men (and many still do, despite being ignored by the media), the message saturating the mainstream today is one of young women doing whatever it takes to please men – whether through learning to pole dance or by obsessive dieting and cosmetic surgery.
Neither David Cameron nor the Mail however makes the link between the objectification of adult women and the increasing sexualisation of young girls. The latest moral panic about sexualised children contains no discourse on the obvious point that a society increasingly treating women as sexual objects because that is what sells will inevitably treat young girls in a similar fashion when it becomes profitable to do so.
Alongside endless moralising about raunchy iconography on shows such as Britain’s Got Talent, the Mail carries in its own pages a supplement called Femail Today which calculates on every page the value of a woman based on how many wrinkles she has, how much weight she is carrying and which male celebrity she is currently dating. That this is delivered with bilious insinuations directed at any remotely promiscuous woman gives the impression that the Mail has no problem with the objectification of women per se, but rather only with a certain kind of sexually liberated, independent woman whose main concern is not behaving as a trophy for a high-powered husband. It is important to bear this in mind the next time the Mail gets hysterical over a young and attractive woman acting provocatively on a stage.
It is of course desirable that children be kept away from certain types of sexual imagery. Much sexualised entertainment today however is shallow and degrading to both adults and children. Moralising about the sexualisation of children without tackling the sexualisation of adult women (and increasingly men) is a dead end. It is unrealistic to think children can be kept in isolation from popular culture and the commercialisation of anything that can viably generate a profit.
The debate also combines the patriarchal absurdity of labelling any woman who expresses sexuality a “slut” with a free-market that uses the scantily-clad female form to sell everything from deodorant to pop-songs to mascara. In the end, much of the hand-wringing is little-more than right-wing ideologues discovering they don’t much like some aspects of the free-market after all.
Censoring and clamping down on the kids will always be easier than challenging big business, Lad’s mag culture and the casual misogyny of the mainstream. The latter would involve a confrontation with both the market and the Tory back-benches, something neither the Mail nor David Cameron has any appetite for.