Monday, February 28, 2011

Can we finally talk about Johann Hari's Muslim problem? posted by Richard Seymour

A cautionary note about polling and propaganda. In 2009, an independent poll was carried out in an area supposedly known as a 'no go' area for white people, to probe . It found, among other things, that 98% of Muslims in the area would accept their son or daughter if they came out as gay. The point of the poll was to underline just how much tabloid polling on Muslim social and political attitudes was designed to produce a response that could be used to demonise Muslims - and how a different set of questions asked in a different way would produce a very different picture. A typical scaremongering poll appeared in The Sunday Times in 2008. It dealt with Muslim students, and it alleged a series of nasty attitudes on their part. Among other things, it said: "Homophobia was rife, with 25% saying they had little or no respect for gays." What it meant to say, of course, was that acceptance of gays was rife, with 75% of Muslim students having some or much respect for gays. There was also a famously distorted study for the right-wing Policy Exchange in 2007, which claimed that only 30% of British Muslims disagreed with the claim that homosexuality is morally wrong and should be illegal.

In general, whether using manipulated polls or anecdotes, there has been a concerted effort to depict Muslims as overwhelmingly homophobic. Yet whenever there have been initiatives to help combat homophobia among Muslims, or when Muslim groups and mosques denounce homophobia, the same reactionaries who claim to care about the issue can barely contain their sneers. For what it's worth, I consider such tactics similar to those deployed by the Right (and, as it happens, the FBI) to divide black and Jewish groups in the United States by putting it about that black people are antisemitic - in an attempt to break up an historic coalition between oppressed groups. I raise all this because the burden of a recent attack article on British Muslims by Johann Hari involves the suggestion that Muslims just don't accept gays, and are in fact engaging in an escalating wave of violence against them. He writes:

The most detailed opinion survey of British Muslims was carried out by Gallup, who correctly predicted the result of the last general election. In their extensive polling, they found literally no British Muslims who would say homosexuality is "morally acceptable." Every one of the Muslims they polled objected to it. Even more worryingly, younger Muslims had more stridently anti-gay views than older Muslims. These attitudes have consequences - and they are worst of all for gay Muslims, who have to live a sham half-life of lies, or be shunned by their families.

No, Muslims are not the only homophobes among us. But the gap between them and the rest is startling. It's zero percent of British Muslims vs. 58 percent of other Brits who say we are "acceptable."

Hari isn't stupid. He knows perfectly well that this isn't a credible figure, that no one actually believes it. It is quite obviously a statistical freak. The results of previous polls, the existence of British Muslims who are gay, and the existence of British Muslims who are vocally supportive of gay rights, simply make it impossible that 0% of Muslims consider gays to be acceptable. If even the reactionary anti-Muslim wind-ups find at least 30% of Muslims who accept gays, then we can assume that this poll is an outlier. But this really doesn't need to be demonstrated - it's just common sense. Just as it's a common sense inference that almost 100% of Islamophobes in Britain are white.

Hari went on to claim:

"East London has seen the highest increase in homophobic attacks anywhere in Britain. Everybody knows why, and nobody wants to say it. It is because East London has the highest Muslim population in Britain, and we have allowed a fanatically intolerant attitude towards gay people to incubate there, in the name of 'tolerance'".

Ava Vidal was pissed off with this, and wrote to explain that Met crime figures actually showed a reduction in anti-gay attacks in those areas with the highest Muslim populations. Hari snorted that she was "extremely unintelligent". But Vidal was just underlining a point that had already been made to Hari by Patrick Lilley of UK Black Pride, and which he had ignored. The exploitation of homophobia to demonise East End Muslims is becoming urgent as Islamophobes with the support of EDL members try to organise what they're calling an 'East End Gay Pride' event, though the organisers apparently have nothing whatever to do with the East End. This actually raises the possibility that EDL members, who didn't dare march in the East End previously, will now be able to get in there under the pretext of opposing homophobia. It would seem rather important, therefore, not to make injudicious, disproportionate, inflammatory or just bigoted comments scapegoating British Muslims for the very real homophobia that exists in Britain. Unfortunately, Hari - who does know better, so it must be a self-serving, calculated provocation - has acted in such a way as to set back the ongoing efforts to overcome divisions between Muslim and gay groups with this disingenuous diatribe.

And yes, this is 2011, and we're still having these ridiculous arguments, even after a spate of anti-gay beatings and killings that have had nothing to do with Muslims.

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Gramsci on Americanism and Fordism posted by Richard Seymour

Gramsci's discussion of Fordism constitutes one of his rare extended interrogations of hegemony and historic blocs outside of Italy, dealing as it does with impact of US ascendancy and American production methods on post-WWI Europe. There are parts of the analysis, concerning the regulation of the sexual instinct, which seem odd out of context, or perhaps even passe. But, though it would seem to have only conjunctural relevance, dealing with America's move toward a planned economy during the Great Depression, several aspects of the analysis are of enduring significance, not least because of the methodology they imply.

The basis of Gramsci's analysis was that Fordism represented potentially a new industrial-productive historical bloc. As an attempt to rationalise production and resolve the dilemmas of capitalism (particularly its crisis-prone nature) within the constraints of capitalism itself, it potentially represented a 'passive revolution' that would usher in modernization without violent social struggles. Fordism, by rationalising production and subordinating activities extrinsic to direct production, enabled products to be sold more cheaply, and workers to be paid a 'high' wage that enabled them to buy the products that they made. It became the paradigmatic model for the organisation of capitalism for some decades thereafter. Gramsci wanted to know just how much Americanisation was penetrating European production methods, and its associated cultures, and how much it was related to European fascism.

He argued first that Fordism was possible to implement in the US chiefly inasmuch as the US lacked the "vast army of parasites", that is classes with no economic function, the unproductive landed gentry, clerics and middle classes, who still predominated in parts of Europe. These parasites, depending on 'rents' and 'pensions' made available to them because of the continued existence of feudal forms and cultural norms (no family member of a canon could be associated with manual labour, for example), provided the basis for the reactionary form of resistance to 'Americanisation'. The US had benefited from a rationalisation of its demographic composition, the prolonged psycho-physical adaptation of masses of people to urban living, so that it was possible to introduce Fordism without provoking moral, romantic opposition from significant sectors of the population.

In the US, because commerce, trade and transport were 'subaltern' rather than primary forms of economic activity - because, in effect, the entire life of the country was being organised around industrial production - hegemony could begin in the factory, and didn't require much political or ideological mediation. In Europe, the still acuminous weapons of the old order - the appeal to craft rights, for instance - could be wielded against industrialism. Against the Fordist dreams of super-cities, complex, grandiose fantasies of future capitalist development, there was ruralism, the exaltation of artisanal life, idyllic patriarchalism, Catholicism, simplicity and sobriety. Advocates of the latter charged that cities were sterile and unproductive: "there is love but no generation, consumption but no production". Inasmuch as cities had a much lower birth-rate, these critiques were not wholly off the mark - and this fact was itself one of the factors constantly changing the terrain in which proletarian hegemonic struggles were taking place, because lower urban birth-rates tended to result in rural workers being sucked into urban environments to which they were not acculturated, or bringing in workers of different nationalities and 'races'.

Gramsci perceived Fordism as a relatively progressive tendency away from individualism and competition, toward planning and cooperation. The question was whether the working class itself would be able to take over this trend. Corporativismo, he said, existed as a movement, and the conditions existed for technical-economic change on a large scale. However, in Italy, workers were not in a position to either oppose it or take control of it. And because of the persistence of old social forms preserved by Fascism, the tendency would be for corporatism in the form of coordination between monopoly capital and the state to simply shore up the crumbling unproductive elements rather than eliminiate them. Fordism required a certain type of structure, a certain type of (basically liberal) state, and the elimination of the old rentiers.
But under fascism, the rentiers were being protected and proliferated, and more and more machinery was being elaborated to protect the old order. In part, this was necessary because the corporatist trend operated in a situation of mass unemployment. It thus depended on certain protections for the employed to sustain conditions that would collapse if there were free competition.

The relevance of morality, sex, gender and religious coercion comes in here because, as Gramsci writes, the new Fordist order required a particular kind of person. This is why Henry Ford's interrogations into the private lives of workers was so important. Ford wanted to be sure that the worker's private life was compatible with her working life, that she had really found a way of living that allowed her to efficiently reproduce her labour in its normal state every day. Such corporate paternalism was not just tyrannical and intrusive, according to Gramsci, but an attempt to answer a problem from a capitalist perspective that will be relevant to any attempt to create a rational social order. The regulation of the sexual instinct, of reproduction, of gender relations and of one's basic 'animality' is something which Gramsci thinks is necessary and historically progressive - citing the first such regulation when hunter-gatherer societies were replaced by settled agricultural communities. Here, he seems to be influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis. Gramsci's argument, though, is that moral and ethical changes which would in the past have been imposed by the despotism of the church and state, have to be undertaken on the initiative of workers themselves, or at least from within the formally 'neutral' terrain of the state. This is the only way to ensure their widespread acceptance and thus their efficacy.

But here he tends to contradict himself. He is sympathetic to feminism in one instance, resistant to sexual moralising. The next, he sees sexual openness in America as bourgeois libertinism, supports 'the family' and sees feminism as a 'deviation'. He makes some heavy weather of the idea that American workers largely backed the Volstead Act (Prohibition) - which is a hostage to fortune as it is both not wholly true and omits the impact of Christianity (rather than industrial rationalism) in galvanising support for the Act. In fact, Ford himself was very keen on preventing his workforce from being influenced by the growing sensualisation of culture, and eager to advance Prohibition and moral rectitude, which was one of the reasons for his attempt to build a little enclave of Fordist America in Brazil, known as Fordlandia. He also blames its downfall on the upper classes, whom he says is the only social group with sufficient money and leisure time to pursue drinking and free love. In light of some of his earlier writings, for example on socialist education, it's fair to say that Gramsci had a small-c socially conservative aspect to his outlook, which conflicted with his small-l liberalism, and undermined his critique of the bourgeois state and the Catholic church. He is, to his credit, critical of Trotsky's idea of militarising labour, but he also has an exaggerated worry about 'totalitarian' hypocrisy, in the sense that he believes that moral hypocrisy is principally a sin of moralising authorities under class societies, but could become general and thus only manageable through coercion in a classless society. That is to say, he worries that people will express formal adherence to sumptuary and sexual norms, but will not live them, or will consistently violate them. This seems to me to be an unanswerable fear, which isn't susceptible to disproof and can only be met with constant surveillance. There are other difficulties too. For example, Gramsci overstates the degree of rationalisation of America's demographic structure, thus missing the central role played by the petit-bourgeoisie in the reproduction of Fordist Americana. There's also no explicit approach to the issue of racism, antisemitism and anticommunism in the production of Fordist paternalism. The brutal anti-unionism of Fordist managers is discussed only in passing, in terms of the way in which horizontal solidarity between free trade unions is turned into vertical, factory-based solidarity.

Still, what is important here is how Gramsci approaches Fordism and its triumphs and challenges from manifold directions, attempting to assess every important, resonant aspect, as he sees it, of the 'historical bloc' that it comprised. He looks at the impact of wages, literacy, gender and sexual morality on reproduction, industry, political hegemony and left-wing political formation. Ideology, morality and culture are seen not as passive reflections of a dynamic economic base, but rather as formative, organising and shaping the economic base, allowing or inhibiting the process of rationalisation (or otherwise). Again, geographic variations and uneven development play a key role here, determining the pace of development and the morphology of the political terrain.

Fordism's decline has been exaggerated by theorists of post-industrial capitalism. Manufacturing and industrial capitalism retains a centrality to global production, even as its spatial dimensions and distribution have been radically altered. But let's say for the sake of argument that we operate in a post-Fordist historical bloc - that is a capitalism in which hegemony flows from the financial markets rather than the factories, and in which the whole of national and international life is increasingly organised around the model of speculation and debt. Using Gramsci's conceptual syntax, we could begin to theorise how its different aspects - wages and debt, cultural and spatial homogenisation (with specific regional configurations), sexual morality, gender and race, commodification, productive and distributive 'anarchy', etc., fit together. It would provide a productive way of dealing with socialist strategy on issues such as imperialism, sexism, 'culture wars' and immigration which don't lapse into a sterile 'politicist'/'economist' dichotomy - the sort of binary that results in the argument from a number of ex-New Leftists such as Todd Gitlin and Michael Tomasky that there's been too much emphasis on culture wars and not enough on 'class', as if class is a pristine category that is prior to and not lived through and composed by race, gender, culture, etc. As if neoliberal accumulation patterns don't (re)produce classes with particular cultural, sexual and regional dimensions that need to be central to left-wing composition. For my own purposes, it can help explain something about the strange, some time morbid and deadlocked, and apparently contradictory array of ideological and political forces in Britain. In particular an appraisal of neoliberalism as an historical bloc can help grasp the doomed, declining constellation of forces behind Tory England, their deep hatred for Cameron, their resentment of European infringements on the sovereign nation-state fetish, their abortive attempt to stop EU migration, and their thus far failed (but far from finished) attempt to mobilise a broad coalition behind the idea of containing Islam, supporting the troops, and preventing the dilution of 'Britishness'.

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Bernard Lewis: Arabs are not ready for democracy posted by Richard Seymour

Having rented himself out to the global PR effort on Qadhafi's behalf, Bernard Lewis is now issuing strident warning calls against democracy in the Middle East:

We, in the Western world particularly, tend to think of democracy in our own terms – that’s natural and normal – to mean periodic elections in our style. But I think it’s a great mistake to try and think of the Middle East in those terms and that can only lead to disastrous results, as you’ve already seen in various places. They are simply not ready for free and fair elections...

If there’s a genuinely free election – assuming that such a thing could happen – the religious parties have an immediate advantage. First, they have a network of communication through the preacher and the mosque which no other political tendency can hope to equal. Second, they use familiar language. The language of Western democracy is for the most part newly translated and not intelligible to the great masses.

In genuinely fair and free elections, [the Muslim parties] are very likely to win and I think that would be a disaster. A much better course would be a gradual development of democracy, not through general elections, but rather through local self-governing institutions. For that, there is a real tradition in the region.

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Wisconsin solidarity spreads posted by Richard Seymour

There were fifty pro-union rallies in fifty state capitols today, outnumbering their right-wing Tea Party opponents when the latter bothered to show up. This is what one would expect. The Right can bring out numbers, but it can't usually match the Left in this terrain - its real power is in the support it gets from the state and the ruling class. But more surprising perhaps is the way in which two crucial aspects of the state in Wisconsin have swung behind the protesters. First of all, the local Democratic Party has actually demonstrated more spine than I've seen in the Labour Party of late. Second of all, the police - yes, the poh-leece - refused to evacuate protesters from the capitol building on orders from the governor today, and instead joined them.

This is raising questions which I don't fully know how to answer at the moment. It's surely unprecedented for major components of local power structures to swing behind labour in such a major way. And this is all happening in the much maligned mid-West: the strikes have been breaking not only in Wisconsin, but in Iowa and Ohio where similar measures are threatened. The scale of the protests and strikes, with 70,000 marching in Madison last weekend, the degree of organisation and rank-and-file militancy that has been unleashed, and the speedy way in which the campaign has taken the elements of popular discontent, articulated them and polarised them to the Left, may have shocked the political establishment. It may also be that this has raised doubts among sectors of the ruling class who previously accepted the direction of the Koch Brothers/Tea Party wing of the Republicans purely for the material benefit of tax breaks and weaker unions, without having invested in the wider strategy of outright conflict. After all, if strikes spread, these employers could stand to lose tens of millions for every day of action, perhaps more than they gain in any tax breaks. And the risk of energising and rebuilding a national left-wing movement after the Obama administration had successfully coopted the elements of leftist, working class dissent, rearticulated and neutralised them, is one that they may be wary of. But the Wisconsin campaign shouldn't just be looked at in terms of the crisis of capitalism, the divisions among the ruling class and the crisis of the state apparatus, as important as these are. The initiative is very much on the side of the workers at the moment, and the way it has energised the Left across the US suggests that it might in the near future demand study as an example of a successful left-wing, labour-based political intervention.

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Ireland's left breakthrough posted by Richard Seymour

Looks like the United Left Alliance has made a breakthrough in the Irish elections gaining three confirmed seats, with two pending. The formerly ruling Fianna Fail had its first preference votes slashed by 24%, with the surplus distributed among Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Fein. The Greens got less than 2% of first preference votes and lost all their seats (I hope the Liberals are taking note). Here's the analysis:

Voters have given the main Irish bosses' party a drubbing in the country’s general election. And the radical left has made a breakthrough, getting at least three TDs elected, with more results to come.

The biggest shift is the slump in support for the Fianna Fáil. Its share of the vote fell to less than 15 percent nationally – compared to 42 percent in the 2007 election.

This is the worst ever defeat for the party that has dominated Irish politics since independence from Britain in 1921 and that has been in power since 1997.

Fianna Fáil’s support in Dublin stood at less than 8 percent. They went from 13 to 1 TD in the capital. This is from a party that historically had 100,000 members when the country’s population was 3.5 million. It previously would have expected to get 40 percent of working class votes. Political dynasties that have controlled constituencies for decades are gone and places that have returned Fianna Fáil TDs (MPs) since the 1920s are now looking elsewhere.

The Irish Green Party, which had slavishly propped up the Fianna Fáil government in coalition, was decimated at the polls and now has no member in parliament.

The Irish Labour Party vote rose massively. But its determined lack of radicalism means that it will not look to use that vote to campaign against austerity. Instead, it is likely to go into coalition with the bosses’ second preference party Fine Gael. Sinn Fein gained and looked set to be the biggest opposition party after getting around 18 percent of the vote.

The radical left made a significant breakthrough with the candidates who are part of the United Left Alliance.

Newly elected TDs in the Alliance include Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party, Clare Daly of the Socialist Party, and Seamus Healy of the Tipperary Unemployed and Works Action Group.

Richard Boyd Barrett for the People before Profit Alliance and Joan Collins of the People before Profit Alliance and could both be elected, as the counting continues. Other members of the United Left Alliance polled strongly but are unlikely to win a seat.

The vote was so close in Richard Boyd Barrett’s Dún Laoghaire constituency that a recount has been called for tomorrow.

And here's the essential background.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

The great £29bn rip-off posted by Richard Seymour

Me in The Guardian on the subject of unpaid overtime and the absolute increase in the rate of exploitation in Britain:

You're being exploited in more ways than you know. The TUC reports, not for the first time and surely not for the last, on a form of exploitation that rarely gets attention in the media. Workers are contributing £29bn worth of free labour to British employers every year simply by working unpaid overtime. This surplus is being squeezed out of workers through market discipline – the threat of unemployment or reduced prospects.

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Making the Tories History posted by Richard Seymour

Don't forget that this is taking place tomorrow:

Making the Tories History
organised by the London Socialist Historians Group

Saturday 26th February 2011, 9.30am - 4.30pm
Institute of Historical Research
Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1

The decision of the neo-liberal ‘Con-Dem’ coalition government to appoint the liberal historian Simon Schama over arch-Tory champion of Western imperial power Niall Ferguson, to advise them on re-designing the national curriculum for history in British schools suggests a space for debate about the nature of history and history teaching in the UK

Schama, now famous as a ‘TV historian’ was associated with History Workshop in the 1980s but subsequently discovered that he disliked the idea of revolution of any sort. More recently he has been associated with New Labour and the Obama administration in the US.

However it is Education Secretary Michael Gove that looks to be calling the shots. The Tories seem to want a return to the kind of ‘traditional history’ taught in schools decades ago, designed primarily to inspire loyalty to the British Empire. This kind of ‘history’ was effectively satirised in W.C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman’s anti-imperialist classic, 1066 and All That, which began by stressing that the only ‘memorable history’ was the “self-sacrificing determination…of the…Great British People…to become Top Nation” and concluded by noting that now “America was thus clearly Top Nation and history came to a .”

Yet the weakness of this new Conservative-led government is epitomised by the fact that the Tories also have a quite ‘memorable history’ of their own as the political party of choice of not only many notorious reactionaries but of the British ruling class as a whole–while there is also a‘memorable history’ of working class resistance to them. The Tories have subsequently long been detested and distrusted by the organised British working class movement but also wider swathes of society.

At the same time there are other sides to Toryism. George Orwell said that when you meet a clever Conservative it is time to count your change and check your wallet. The Tory Party has not survived for two hundred years simply by being vicious; it has shown a remarkable capacity for adaptation. Disraeli is the archetypal Tory thinker, but the Conference will also look at ‘left Tories’ like Harold Macmillan in the 1930s and the way the Tory Party adapted to the post-World War II world (as studied in Nigel Harris’s Competition and the Corporate Society: British Conservatives, the State and Industry, 1945-1964, Methuen, London, 1971 and 1973.). Finally the question of ‘compassionate conservatism’/ Red Toryism will be reviewed. Is it hypocritical froth or does it have a more serious ideological role?

This conference, ‘Making the Tories History’, organised by the London Socialist Historians Group aims to discuss some of the parts of the Tories’ own history as a political party that they would prefer people either forgot or knew nothing at all about. Developing ‘a socialist history of the Tories’ can help act as a weapon in the wider struggle against the Con-Dem cuts and their relentless attacks on working class people, as well as rally the resistance of those concerned in defending history from pro-imperialist propagandists like Michael Gove.

I'll be speaking as part of a panel on the modern Conservative Party from 12.45pm.

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Qadhafi and the Third Way posted by Richard Seymour

So, I've been keeping track in my mind of the connections between Qadhafi and the Third Way, since it turned out that Blair and Mandelson were tight with the dictator's son. This morning, I found out that Qadhafi's international lobbying operation, involved Richard Perle, Francis Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis, Dick Cheney and ... Anthony Giddens. Which would explain this:

As one-party states go, Libya is not especially repressive. Gadafy seems genuinely popular. Our discussion of human rights centred mostly upon freedom of the press. Would he allow greater diversity of expression in the country? There isn't any such thing at the moment. Well, he appeared to confirm that he would. Almost every house in Libya already seems to have a satellite dish. And the internet is poised to sweep the country. Gadafy spoke of supporting a scheme that will make computers with internet access, priced at $100 each, available to all, starting with schoolchildren.

Will real progress be possible only when Gadafy leaves the scene? I tend to think the opposite. If he is sincere in wanting change, as I think he is, he could play a role in muting conflict that might otherwise arise as modernisation takes hold. My ideal future for Libya in two or three decades' time would be a Norway of North Africa: prosperous, egalitarian and forward-looking. Not easy to achieve, but not impossible.

I would like to think that Giddens would be embarrassed by this sort of thing, but this is the man who wrote The Third Way. He clearly lacks the capacity for embarrassment.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

A regime in mortal freefall posted by Richard Seymour

The Gadaffi regime is prepared to fight to the last drop of blood to crush the revolution. This isn't new. He and his Free Officer allies have always hammered opposition with ruthless efficiency - the public execution has been a centrepiece of the regime's repertoire since serious challenges first emerged in the 1980s. What is new is the level of escalation demanded of the dictatorship. When they couldn't rely on the police and army to crush the protesters, they turned to mercenaries to butcher them in their hundreds. The massacres have continued today, just enough to keep the regime entrenched in the capital, even as large swathes of Libya are declared liberated. To deal with those liberated and nearly-liberated populations, the regime ordered the army to carry out air strikes. The divisions in the state have been sufficient to send soldiers and police to the protesters' side, and a number of soldiers who refused to carry out air strikes have taken their planes to Malta and sought refuge. The army has abandoned the border, leaving it to the control of People's Committees. Benghazi, where the regime had been totally defeated and sent packing, was set to be the target of vengeful air strikes tonight - except that two of the planes ordered to attack reportedly landed in the city, the pilots refusing to drop their payload. The city has been declared safe for now. Even at the Libyan embassy in London, staff joined anti-Gadaffi protests.

The surreal atmosphere in the presidential palace is communicated in dispatches from defecting officers. "I am the one who created Libya," Gadaffi reportedly said, "and I will be the one to destroy it." Last night, one of Gadaffi's thuggish sons - an alumnus of the London School of Economics, as well as a close friend of Prince Andrew and Lord Mandelson - threatened civil war if people didn't go home and stop protesting. They've cut off the internet and the landlines, and banned foreign journalists in order to be able to carry out massacres under the cover of secrecy. This is a catastrophic lashing out by a regime in mortal freefall. It is seeking, in effect, a blood tribute in compensation for its lost authority.

Even at this late hour, it would be foolish to underestimate Gadaffi's ability to just hang on, to clench Libya in a rigor mortis grip. As crazed as he manifestly is, he has demonstrated considerable shrewdness in his time. For example, as soon as the Islamist opposition started become a real threat to his regime in the late 1990s, he started to look for ways to be accepted by the US-led caste of 'good guys'. The collapse of the USSR as a supplier of military hardware, trade, and ideological and moral leadership for Third Worldist states, would also have had something to do with this. The transition was made easier after 2001, and completed in 2004 partially at the best of Anglo-American oil. Gadaffi went so far, in his attempts to win over his erstwhile opponents, as to participate in anti-Islamist counterinsurgency operations in the Philippines with international support, lavish intelligence on US agencies and even compensate the victims of Lockerbie for a crime that Libya had not committed. The Bush administration might still have resisted such serenading were it not for the eager rush of European capital into Tripoli. So, Bush and Blair turned it into a story of Gadaffi seeing the light and giving up his non-existent WMD programmes, which charade Gadaffi duly participated in. This whole sequence of events was bizarre and improbable, but it worked: the subsequent oil contracts, amid a global oil price spike produced by Bush's wars, made him and his regime very wealthy. He was also able to hang opponents in public under the pretext of a fight against 'radical Islamists'. Joining the camp of American client dictatorships enabled Gadaffi to survive until this moment.

It has also ensured that the big guns are on his side now that he faces this potentially fatal challenge to his regime. Because the trouble for the US and UK governments in this revolt is that they really, really don't want Gadaffi to fall. Gadaffi is someone with whom they can do business. By contrast, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, long a leading element in the resistance, is less likely to be so pliable. They US and UK invested too much in Gadaffi to lose him now, not least military hardware, the very weapons of repression which they knew full well would be used for the primary goal of keeping him in power. That is why the phrases on the lips of US and European ambassadors and statespersons are so mealy-mouthed. Hillary Clinton's berating of Libya's government for "unacceptable" levels of violence has approximately the same passion and conviction as a school marm telling off a child for running with scissors. These people, the caretakers, intellectuals, politicos and lackeys of empire, have spent more than two decades telling us that they were outraged by every drop of blood spilt by dictatorships, that they were if anything overly eager in their solicitations for democracy and human rights, messianic to a fault. This never had a moment's plausibility, but it has never looked as vile and sinister as it does now, amid a genuinely heroic revolutionary democratic struggle.

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

"Egypt Supports Wisconsin Workers" posted by Richard Seymour

Via Mother Jones:

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Bahrain, and the Anglo-American oil frontier posted by Richard Seymour

When, in 1968, the British government announced that Britain's formal protectorate in the Gulf would end in 1971, American planners were anxious and distraught. After Suez, the US had taken the lead in defending Anglo-American interests in the Middle East, but the structure of power in the 'East of Suez' was still conserved by the old colonial power. The Persian Gulf states at that time supplied 30% of total oil resources. The reconstruction of Europe and especially Japan after WWII was driven by Gulf oil. And the US had no alternative structure of security elaborated for when Britain let go.

Bahrain, off the eastern shore of the Saudi Kingdom, had been subject to many of the same basic forms of state and market formation as the Saudi monarchy itself. Its commercial markets were first penetrated by British capitalism when East India company adventurers first arrived in the eighteenth century. It became a British 'protectorate', courtesy of gunboat diplomacy, in 1861. When I say 'gunboat diplomacy', I am being quite literal. The British had first imposed a 'General Treaty of Peace' on Gulf states, signalling their subordination to British power in the 1820s. This stated that Bahrain was not permitted to dispose of its territory except to the United Kingdom, or get involved in a relationship with any government without British consent. It was a way of keeping competing European powers out of the Gulf. The British later imposed their own 'Resident in the Persian Gulf' to manage their growing paramountcy in the region through a series of local advisors in Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait. All of this was supported and maintained by a large naval squadron. In return Britain promised to support the rule of Shaikh Al Khalifa, which established the UK's tradition of supporting Sunni dynastic rule over a largely Shia population. This system of rule was later centred on the British Raj, which maintained a Shaikhdom in Bahrain, and used the islands-state as a base for defending its regional interests, particularly during WWI.

Until the discovery and use of oil, Bahrain's major trades had included pearling, but throughout the 19th Century it diversified sufficiently for Manama to become the dominant trading city in the Gulf region, overtaking Basra and Kuwait. When oil was discovered in 1932, however, and Bahrain began exporting in 1934, it was just as traditional industries were suffering a severe decline amid global Depression. Unemployment had been soaring, and the pearl industry sinking. The sudden availability of oil revenues, a third of which were nominally controlled by the Shaikdom, paid for state-led capitalist development. Bahrain became what some social scientists call a 'rentier state', inasmuch as it depended by far on revenues derived from the sale of its oil on international markets than from the productive efforts of the society as a whole. The modern state of Saudi Arabia was formed under King Abdul Aziz bin Saud with British support in 1932, and it too began to export oil, with the industry taking off in 1938. This is when the current ties with the Saudi kingdom and US capital were first forged.

When Socal and Texaco initially combined in 1936 to form Aramco, the subsidiary was intended to run the oil concessions in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Aramco, we know from Robert Vitalis, simultaneously created a public identity for itself as a partner in development and modernization, and reproduced the Jim Crow labour market structures then prevalent in the United States. The racial hierarchies maintained in the labour force, with white American workers at the apex and migrant workers from southern Asia at the bottom, still have operative effects in Bahrain's political system today. But the PR efforts, which involved paying a platoon of journalists, writers and scholars, building up research centres. Writers like Wallace Stegner took the 'myth of the frontier' elaborated by Frederick Jackson Turner, in which America's rugged democratic experiment was held to depend on the restless advance westward as hardy American citizens settled and improved otherwise empty land (oh yeah), and applied it to the oil frontiers. There, the oil companies were the pioneering heroes of civilization, the natives barely registering except as grateful recipients of racial uplift. At the same time, the British established more bases on the islands to entrench its control.

In partnership with British imperialism, represented in the person of 'advisor' Charles Belgrave, the oil firms helped construct forms of governance, geographies of accumulation, and market structures that guaranteed that this miraculous substance of myriad uses, this black gold, this vital source of industrialisation and advancement, would be controlled and directed by the 'West'. Bahrain, along with other Gulf states, was controlled from British India until 1947. In the postwar era, Britain maintained its 'informal' empire in the Gulf through a system of local advisors and client regimes backed by military force. Modernisation projects, such as the creation of a national education system, were built under British imperial tutelage. Challenges to the regime were assisted by British weaponry, as during the suppression of anti-British riots in the immediate post-war years, the containment of strikes by the left-wing National Union Committee, the crushing of pro-Egyptian demonstrations in 1956, and the putting down of the pro-independence March Intifada in 1965.

Until 1971, then, the British provided the security and patronage framework within which US oil capital operated. Under the banner of 'guided development', the British ruling class cultivated sterling-based networks of regional clients, and developed internal security apparati (mukhabarat) to sustain regimes which would operate only minimally within the integument of formal sovereignty. This model could occasionally conflict with US strategy. If American planners were not keen for rapid decolonization, fearing not just the exclusion of US investors but also the emergence of a worldwide systemic alternative to capitalism, they nonetheless had a conception of geographical accumulation, based substantially on the work of geographer Isaiah Bowman and other social scientists in light of their own experiments in direct colonial rule, which did not necessarily depend on direct territorial control. A global hierarchy of sovereign states operating an 'open door' policy was in principle compatible with US imperial hegemony, provided there was no revolutionary challenge to that hegemony. As such, the US had not initially worried overly about the Free Officers taking over Egypt in 1952, or Iraq in 1958. The real worry came later, in the 1960s, when Arab nationalism took a radical leftist turn. And though one context of Britain's declaration of withdrawal from its 'East of Suez' engagements was a traumatic defeat for Arab nationalism, there was still no certainty that ensuing movements and regimes would provide favourable territories for continued US capital accumulation. Britain's retreat from its imperial commitments 'East of Suez reflected defeat of a similar kind to that being inflicted on the US in Vietnam - this despite often brutal counterinsurgency campaigns in Malaysia and Aden (Yemen). Because of the growing political and economic costs of these commitments for a crisis-hit British capitalism, the Conservatives pledged to honour Wilson's withdrawal plans.

The US strategy in the Gulf was thus to engage in a Metternichian 'power-balancing' strategy. This involved strengthening its ally, the Shah, who asserted an Iranian claim to Bahrain, while also working to bolster the opposing Ba'athist regime in Iraq. With respect to Bahrain, a US naval squadron took up where the British navy departed. The formally independent emirate of Bahrain maintained its cosy relationship with Anglo-American power. Despite the creation of a parliament elected solely by male voters in 1973, the monarch retained the ability to impose laws by decree, such as the highly repressive State Security Law. Surging oil revenues in the 1970s contributed to the restoration of relative political stability, and attracted waves of migrant workers from civil war struck Lebanon and from southern Asia. The decline of the Left and of Arab nationalism in the same period opened the field of dissent to Islamists inspired by the Iranian revolution of 1979, and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain attempted a coup in 1981. In this context, the Anglo-American archipelago became an important counter-weight to the Islamic Republic, as its hosting of the US Navy's 'Fifth Fleet' provided a basis for the US military to threaten and contain Iran while Saddam Hussein mounted his invasion.

The ties with the Saudi kingdom, which was engaged in a region-wide struggle to prevent the influence of the Iranian revolution from spreading, were crucial in helping the Bahrain monarch defeat the Islamist challenge. In 1981, the Gulf Cooperation Council was forged to coordinate economic and political strategies among six key Gulf states, under Saudi hegemony. Economic associations were created to avoid the duplication of outlay. The Saudi-Kuwaiti-Bahraini Petrochemicals Company (Gulf Petrochemicals Company) was also formed. The Saudi-Bahrain connection was even rendered manifest by the King Fahd Causeway, a World Bank supported white elephant which has connected the Aramco city of Dahran to the refineries of Bahrain since completion in 1986. When oil prices collapsed in the 1990s, unemployment protests culminated in a wave of uprisings took place lasting from 1994 to 2000. The challenge to the monarchy united leftists, Islamists and liberals, and was met with much the same forms of indiscriminate violence by Saudi-backed security forces as we have witnessed recently. In fact, 'indiscriminate' may not be quite the word I'm looking for - the attacks were clearly targeted at Shi'ite areas. The uprising only ended when a new emir promised a series of liberalising political reforms specified in the National Action Charter, which - while carefully conserving private property and the market - included some promises of social justice, the defence of public property, and the extension of democracy. The official state of emergency imposed since 1975 was dropped, and women were permitted to vote for the first time in 2002. This reform was intended to do what repression had not succeeded in doing, conserving the power of the ruling clan. And it was supported by over 98% of the population in a nationwide referendum.

While these reforms did not turn Bahrain into a democracy, they did permit previously covert opposition groups to emerge into the open. Nationwide protests and strikes favouring real democracy and opposing the demeaning, racist treatment of migrant workers, have been a regular occurrence since, often defying official protest bans. These have combined the Shi'ite opposition with leftist and Arab nationalist opposition currents. Official racism, not only discriminating against and repressing the majority Shia population, who are deprived of all military-oriented jobs as well as roles in strategically important government positions, but also attempting to 'reclaim' Manama 'for Bahrainis' has been part of the conservative response to these protests. In the 2000s, the al-Wefaq (Islamic National Accord) party has been the major political vehicle through which the Shi'ite majority has attempted to resist discrimination. Though they boycotted the 2002 elections in protest at the dominance of royal-appointed placemen in the upper chamber, their participation in the 2006 elections saw 16 of their 17 candidates for a 40-seat lower chamber get elected. Al-Wefaq's support for greater democracy, the decentralisation of power and the redistribution of wealth and resources has always posed at least a latent challenge to the ruling royals. In place of governorates, it aims to transfer considerable power to municipal councils which would be controlled by the Shia majority. In place of a royal-dominated upper chamber, it seeks to place legislative power decisively in the hands of the elected majority and will work with other opposition parties to this end. Meanwhile its socially conservative 'morality' campaigns challenge the avowedly secular culture of the regime. Its emergence and support in the mosques is significant given the traditionally quietist role of religious authorities schooled in the conservative Akhbari Shia tradition. The biggest leftist bloc is National Democratic Action, which also boycotted the 2002 elections and has participated in the major protest movements. It is rooted in workers movements and womens' associations. In terms of members and votes, it is smaller than al-Wefaq, but both have been willing to work together in parliamentary and extra-parliamentary battles. The 'Democratic Bloc', formerly the Communist Party of Bahrain, did stand in the 2002 elections and received a decent share of the vote. There are also Sunni Islamist and salafist groups which are occasionally oppositional, and a relatively large liberal-right parliamentary group called the 'Economists Bloc' which supports the status quo.

The uprising in Bahrain began on the 10th anniversary of the National Action Charter being passed by referendum. The accumulated grievances over the lack of democracy, discrimination against the Shia, the use of torture and repression, and the lack of workers' rights were already producing a serious challenge to the monarchy. But then, Tunisia. Then, Egypt. As protests were prepared for 14th February, the regime panicked. The kingdom ordered that every family be given 1000 Bahraini dinars (equivalent to $2,600) to celebrate the anniversary of the National Action Charter. But the bribe didn't work. Nor did the King's gesture of releasing 450 political prisoners. The police used tear gas and rubber bullets on 14th February. On 15th, they fired on the funeral of a protester killed the previous day. Protesters took control of the Pearl Roundabout in Manama. On 16th, the protests grew larger. On 17th, hundreds were injured and dozens killed as police attacked the occupation of Pearl Square. The government imposed a state of emergency. Yesterday, security forces crackdowns included the murder of paramedics tending to injured protesters. Today, weapons from Britain and the US sustain Bahrain's crackdown, and the Saudi kingdom is reported to be supporting the repression in Bahrain. So, as in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Middle East - above all Palestine - what the rebels are up against is not just their own state but a global configuration of power predicated on oil flows that stands behind it. It is that system of power based on neoliberal accumulation and oil capital If the Bahrain monarchy falls, then the crisis of US imperialism is intensified. The country may cease to host the US Navy. Saudi Arabia may no longer have its junior ally, and its own population, not least the Shia majority, may start to build on the protests already in evidence. At some point, the US will have to up its ante. But what will it do? Invade? Let Israel off the leash? And if it does either of these things, what are the chances that it may just radicalise and spread the revolution further still?

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Libya's uprising posted by Richard Seymour

I was just writing a lengthy post about the uprisings in the Bahrain archipelago, going into the history of Anglo-American imperialism and the oil frontier, with some comments on the relationship to the Saudi kleptocracy. The regime has been struggling to keep it together for some time, and has been facing protests and working class rebellions at least since the invasion of Iraq, which gave birth to a germinal new left in the region and is itself a tributary to the current revolutionary wave. This latest convulsion may well finish off the Sunni monarchy. But it seems that Libya is the surer bet for an overthrow in very near future. All of the ingredients are there. The state is cracking down with extreme brutality. In Benghazi, mercenaries shipped in by Gaddafi are carrying out random killings, with dozens reportedly dead so far. The regime is intent on terrorising the population into submission and has even, predictably, shut down the internet. The electricity has been shut off in insurgent areas. Yet it says a lot that Gaddafi is so lacking in authority over his own state structure that he's having to hire mercenaries to come in and put down the revolt. This is happening in part because, so I understand, sections of the army and police have gone over to the protests. This is in contrast to Bahrain, where the regime instructed the army to shoot at peaceful protesters and paramedics, and the soldiers obeyed. The protesters have successfully taken over airports and shut down cities. Eastern parts of the country appear to be effectively liberated from the state's control. Benina airport has apparently had its runways sabotaged to stop the landing of mercenaries from overseas, and "clashes" between protesters and the authorities are reportedly taking place there at this very moment. Al Jazeera reports that in Benghazi, army tanks have been taken over by protesters. If a fraction of what is being reported, tweeted and youtubed is accurate, then it seems implausible that the regime will hang on. It would seem that the US and UK made their peace with the dictatorship in its dying hours.

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Petit bourgeois vermin of the week posted by Richard Seymour

You will forgive me this detour into hate-mongering, I hope. Normal service will be resumed shortly. It's just that I read this tale of a minor attempted theft, in which a worker tried to take his boss, owner of a small flooring company, to the tune of £845 by writing a company cheque out and trying to cash it at Cash Converters. For non-UK readers, Cash Converters is one of those predatory loan shark outfits that are proliferating across Britain like the plague. I feel it's important to underline that it was an attempted theft, as the press aren't making that distinction. The worker claims he was owed the sum he attempted to steal in wages, which the boss denies. And the boss, when he suspected the attempted theft, had the worker beaten up and falsely imprisoned with the assistance of three other men, then frogmarched the worker down to the police station with a sign around his neck reading "Thief". The newspapers tend to understate the physical violence that accompanied this act, but the bloke ended up with bruises, rope burns and a black eye, so at the very least you have false imprisonment and actual bodily harm. The worker was cautioned by police, as a court case in such circumstances would have been a complete waste of time. It is unlikely that even a fine would have been imposed. The people who beat up and falsely imprisoned the worker, on the other hand, were fortunate that prosecutors decided not to pursue a case of false imprisonment. Instead, the worker rightly pursued a civil case, seeking compensation for the humiliation and distress caused. He got £13,000. The boss, one Simon Cremer, still refuses to admit that he did anything wrong, and is now bleating to the press that he'll have to sell his house to pay for the compensation. And that's why Simon Cremer is the Lenin's Tomb 'petit bourgeois vermin of the week'.

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Revolutionary feminism posted by Richard Seymour

The wonderful Nawal el-Saadawi on the Egyptian revolution:

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Britain in Bahrain posted by Richard Seymour

"The secret police – the Bahrain national security agency, known in Arabic as the Mukhabarat – has undergone a process of "Bahrainisation" in recent years after being dominated by the British until long after independence in 1971. Ian Henderson, who retired as its director in 1998, is still remembered as the "Butcher of Bahrain" because of his alleged use of torture. A Jordanian official is currently described as the organisation's "master torturer"."

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The class struggle in America posted by Richard Seymour

The key class battle in the United States today is in Wisconsin. Governor Scott Walker is a Tea Party reptile. He's used his position to launch an attack on local union rights. The public sector unions are being treated as pampered spoilsports, refusing to make 'sacrifices' that others Americans have to make. The capitalist media rarely forgets to shove that theme down the US gullett. And it often seems difficult for unions, who represent a small minority of workers, to fight back. Especially given the model of business unionism that has dominated in the US labour movement for generations. But when Walker cited a budget deficit to justify severe public sector cuts, he threw in an attack on union bargaining rights on a whole series of fronts, including on pensions and benefits. (Details here). As it happens, there isn't even a budget crisis. The whole thing has been contrived, it seems, at least according to data from the state fiscal office, which expects to end the year with a surplus. Nonetheless, there are real crises breaking out across a number of US states, where vital infrastructure is being sold off or left to rot. Budget cuts are being rolled out across the country, driven by Obama with only marginal resistance from Democrats. The Republicans are pushing for more. GOP House leader John Boehner, asked about the inevitable job losses that would result from the attacks, said: "If some of those jobs are lost, so be it. We're broke."

But the unions in Madison, Wisconsin were not buying it, and when it became clear that unions might strike over these measures, Scott Walker threatened to bring in the National Guard. And then? "I am fully prepared for whatever may happen." The protests against Walker's plans have been tremendous. Tens of thousands have taken to the streets. Teachers and students have walked out of school to join the protests. Protesters referenced Tahrir Square. If Egypt can have democracy, some said, why can't we? So they forced their way into the Capitol building and embarked on an amazing occupation:

Now, one doesn't make comparisons thoughtlessly. It would seem hubristic to reference the revolutionary struggles in the Middle East in connection with this. Those struggles, continuing in Egypt and Tunisia, emerging nascently in Saudi Arabia, and manifest in Bahrain, Algeria, Libya, Yemen, and Iran too, are taking place in very different circumstances. But the global crisis that links them is raising the same questions everywhere. It's turning what was a chronic dilapidation and slide in popular living standards into an acute, unbearable crisis for millions. The Right's response to this is to try to rebuild their hegemony by racialising the question - it's all the immigrants and uppity black people and Muslims trying to take over. The litany goes that immigrants take American jobs, black Americans make endless claims on the Treasury and borrow irresponsibly, while Muslims threaten America's core values. And if enough people believe it, they can be incorporated into a neo-nativist, anti-socialist, counter-subversive bloc. That's what the Glenn Becks of this world are for. But sometimes it doesn't work. The attack on Christians in Egypt, countered by immediate Muslim solidarity, didn't stop the revolution. Racism and sectarianism doesn't always work. And sometimes a local struggle resonates far beyond it's immediate boundaries and becomes the stimulus for a wave of wider revolts, especially when it taps into something that is popularly perceived as intolerable and for which the ruling class is held responsible. And given what's happening in US states, I'd suggest keeping an eye on Wisconsin, because this could be the trigger for something beautiful.

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Aaron Porter: what counts as the last straw? posted by Richard Seymour

Is it possible that Porter could go too far for his narrow layer of supporters? Is there a principle by which they would recognise that he has done too much damage to students to be worth defending? What counts as the last straw? Not when he advocated cutting maintenance grants for the poorest students. Not when he joined in media denunciations of protesters. Not when he backtracked on promises to support occupations. Not when he refused to back the student protests in London last month. Not when he misled people over allegations of antisemitic abuse toward him in Manchester. Not when he basically waved a white flag to the government, declaring that the NUS should re-direct its campaigning to lobby universities not to raise fees too high. What about when a memo, circulated to NUS officers, declares government reforms 'progressive' and opposes campaigning against high fees - especially with respect to those universities most likely to apply the maximum, among the Russell Group, Britain's ivy league of universities? Is that enough? Will that do? Will you now, please, stop pretending that the widespread contempt for Porter is anything other than justified? Will you stop claiming that protests against this despicable creep amount to 'bullying'? Pwetty pweeeeshe?

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Can councils resist cuts? posted by Richard Seymour

The deepest, cruelest cuts in public spending were made to council spending. The worst hit councils also happen to be in the most deprived areas. Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Newham, Liverpool and Manchester are among the worst sufferers. The Local Government Association expects to shed a total of 140,000 jobs, and the total cuts over the next few years will amount to a real terms cut of 31%. The Tory strategy seems to involve attempting to devolve blame for cuts onto local councils. Local councils then say "we have no choice, the government has cut our funding and we must set a legal budget, or risk having the process taken over by a section 151 officer, who will impose cuts in the most inhumane way". If they're a Labour council, they might say, as Lewisham Central councillor Mike Harris did in communication with the local anti-cuts campaign, that it's surely better to have "democratic socialist" cuts than Tory ones. A similar case was made by Islington councillor Charlynne Pullen at the Right to Work People's Convention this weekend. Local trade unions will be mobilising across the country with strike ballots, and working to pressure council leaders to stop cuts. In Lewisham today, there are protests at the town hall, and cops and crowd control barriers are out in force. So, it's really important to get this right.

While one understands the difficulties faced by councils, and while it would seem hubristic to expect the return of Poplarism in this day, it is worth considering exactly what the options are. First of all, it is true that a council has to pass a legal budget, or an appointed S151 officer can take over. Manchester City Council has drafted a legal document explaining some of the background (and basically justifying cuts) here. Secondly, it would seem improbable at the least that council tax could cover what is needed, even if that was a fair alternative. The tax covers only a small proportion of local council income. In Wales, trade unions and the local administration have reached a deal whereby they collectively consider all available alternatives, including raising taxes and charging for certain services. But, of course, that coopts trade unions in a cuts process and it's hardly fair that working class communities should have to pay more for services. On the face of it, unable to raise adequate money, bound by legislation to pass a balanced budget, councils are left with no option but to cooperate. But the trouble is that passing 'democratic socialist' or 'lesser evil' cuts is still imposing cuts - deep, savage cuts - and it still involves councillors who should be attempting to defend their local communities in savagely attacking them - which most of them don't want to do. What could a radical left-wing council do that would be different?

Previous instances of defiance include not only the Poplar rate-capping rebellion in 1921, but also the Clay Cross councillors, who refused to implement the Heath administration's Housing Finance Act. Most famous, perhaps, is the defiance of Militant Labour councillors in Liverpool, who took on the Thatcher administration in 1984 by passing an illegal budget. The context is the Thatcher government's war on local council spending. They cut the 'Rate Support Grant', which was essential to local councils to support services. They said that rents and rates would have to go up, or cuts would have to be made. They then imposed the Rates Bill, which capped rates to ensure that spending was kept low. This was all part of the neoliberal social engineering, to create a more conservative society, expanding the social bloc with an interest in opposing 'municipal socialism', and to transfer wealth to the middle classes and the rich.

The incoming Labour council in Liverpool, which was under strong Militant influence, had inherited an austere budget, but they were determined to increase spending on housing. In postwar administrations until 1979, no Liverpool council had built fewer than 1,500 council houses. The highest number built was by Labour in 1972-3, which built over 4,000. Between 1979 and 1983, the hung council built a miserly 127 houses. And since housing conditions were so terrible, the Militant councillors felt they needed to spend at least £25 million on top of what the council had already budgeted. So, against opposition from Liberals, Tories and right-wing Labourites, they pressed ahead. The government at that time was in the middle of a titanic fight with the miners and sent Patrick Jenkin as Environment secretary to look at housing conditions. Jenkin, who had pushed rate-capping legislation through parliament, insisting that he would resign if it wasn't passed, conceded that the government might offer the council £20m. The success can be over-stated. The number of houses that the Militant-led council succeeded in building was short of a thousand.

However, the example it set was immediately taken up by others on the Labour Left. The leaders of Labour councils in Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark and Greenwich agreed to a strategy of non-compliance with the Rates Bill. John McDonnell, who was then chairing the finance committee on the GLC, also signed up. David Blunkett, leader of Sheffield council, participated in non-compliance. In some cases, councillors were willing to defy the law and risk being fined and disqualified. In July 1984, Labour's Local Government Conference resolved to defy rate-capping. Bastions of resistance were cropping up all over the country, and often gaining popular support.

Thatcher ranted and raved about how the enemies of law and order stretched from the IRA to the hard Left. But she would have found it far more difficult to defeat this campaign had not Kinnock been determined to break this policy. The mainstream of Labourism had always seen the law as a neutral force, which could be used by elected administrations . Kinnock was therefore not defying orthodoxy when he insisted that Labour councils should work exclusively within the law to defend local services - "better a dented shield than no shield at all", he said. Following the defeat of the miners' strike, he collaborated with Ken Livingstone to undermine any attempt by the GLC to resist rate-capping. Within weeks of the end of the strike, most left-wing councils gave up the ghost. Only Lambeth and Liverpool continued defiance and Thatcher, in a triumphant mood, instead of making concessions stuck the boot in. The councillors were 'surcharged' (fined), and disqualified. Meanwhile, the Militant were witch-hunted out of Labour, left-winger Eric Heffer was drummed off the executive, Labour Party Young Socialists was attacked and its paper shut down. By 1986, the atmosphere of defeat in Labour was such that most members were willing to go along with the witch hunts, an the 'new realism' favouring free market policies. The Labour Party that emerged from this process was one that ended up imposing the hugely unpopular Poll Tax, refusing to support non-compliance campaigns and prosecuting non-payers through the courts.

The lesson of the above would appear to be that the success of non-compliance campaigns depends on a mixture of political will and wider circumstances. If the government of the day is already experiencing difficulties, and if you are able and willing to mobilise grassroots support for your strategy, then it may pay off. But perhaps this seems academic. Today, even left-wing councillors are not promising defiance, but grudging compliance. This is despite the fact that they do not face fines any more, and are not really in danger of disqualification. The SWP's Preston councillor Michael Lavalette has been pressing for a non-compliance position but, despite the deep unhappiness of local Labour councillors with the cuts, they're all voting for them. Their mood is determined by their feeling of weakness. The political culture of the Labour Left has not survived Blairism, and the stranglehold of managerialism. Neither, in fact, has Labour's presence on local councils, which was seriously eroded over the last decade or so. So, Labour councillors are not feeling ebullient and combative. The coming struggle is therefore likely to resemble the Poll Tax campaigns more than the rate-capping campaigns, inasmuch as anti-cuts movements are likely to be operating in defiance of Labour councils more than in collaboration with them. There are some councillors who want to encourage public sector resistance to the cuts without actually leading that resistance themselves. But unfortunately the result is the same: they push through 'humane' cuts, finding 'efficiency' savings, and relying on 'voluntary' redundancies and 'natural wasteage'.

Some Labour supporters argue that one shouldn't criticise Labour councillors for imposing cuts this year, as they have to move in a very short space of time and aren't likely to be in a position to build extra-parliamentary resistance, even if they were so motivated. This is a comprehensible position. However, it is also a destructive and politically defeatist position. If arriving at a quick stopgap is the concern here, then councils are in a position to borrow and draw on reserves in the short-term. This is what the Socialist Party has been arguing in Lewisham. But that's obviously not the concern. There is also a tendency among those defending 'humane' cuts to snigger at the idea of opposing all cuts - should we really defend every white elephant project, every single manager's job, every single inefficient outlay? The answer is clear: we should oppose any cuts in the spending totals. If councils want to deploy resources more efficiently by shedding managers and stopping useless schemes, and spending more on the vulnerable, all well and good - but if so, shouldn't they have been doing that already? At its worst, this argument says that everything should be subordinate to getting Labour back in office. Only that will make a difference, and nothing else matters. This exact logic, which relies on the willingness of working class voters to put up with anything Labour does and keep voting for them, is precisely what cost Labour 5 million voters between 1997 and 2010. Yes, the legal position is clear. It is true that the government can resort to imposing a budget through section 151 officers. But do they actually want to have to do this? Or would they rather have the connivance of local councils giving the cuts the appearance of a democratic mandate? Is the difference between section 151 cuts and 'humane' cuts sufficient to justify going along with this attack? And is the fear of taking on the government not a little exaggerated? This isn't Thatcherism at the height of its powers, but rather a weak Tory-led government amid a generalised crisis of the system they're defending. Their cuts are deeply unpopular, and have already provoked tremors of resistance that caused a panic in Tory HQ. They can't even sell off the forests without encountering resistance big enough to force a retreat. If the obstruction of local councils were large enough, the campaign threatening enough to them, the Tories would make concessions, as they have been compelled to do before.

If Labour councillors aren't prepared to resist, it will fall to trade unionists and community activists to defend services. And if Labour councillors defy strikes and local community campaigns, as the logic of their position may compel them to do, then anticuts campaigns would be strategically justified in standing candidates in local elections, explicitly standing on a platform of non-compliance. That may alienate Labour activists, but the latter surely can't expect everyone else to tail the local Labour leadership.

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Egyptian army moves to preserve its power posted by Richard Seymour

The revolutionaries demanded Mubarak's overthrow, and insisted that Suleiman should not be put in charge. They have won that. They demanded that the NDP-dominated parliament be prorogued in the interim before elections, and the constitution suspended. They have won that. But they also demanded that between now and elections, there should be a collective, civilian governing council, that the emergency law should be terminated, that unions and parties should have the right to form without the permission of the state. They haven't won that. The army has instead taken control, is attempting to dismantle the democracy village in Tahrir Square, and has been arresting activists today. This does not mean that the army is going to get its way over the future of Egypt, or even that its hesitant, faltering efforts today - and they did falter - represent anything but a tentative foot in the water, an attempt to see if something like order can be restored. In fact, the army's premature provocation resulted in thousands of people pouring back into the square, some rough confrontations, and eventually groups of army and police standing around looking perplexed. Some police even came to the square pleading to be accepted as comrades of the revolution. The army will have to concede some form of representative electoral system, with some basic political freedoms. The state will be weakened in its repressive capacity, and the government will be strengthened in its representative capacity. But the precise balance of forces in the new polity has still to be decided, and in particular the army's central role has to be negotiated (and struggled against). Everything the army does, therefore - whether they decide to keep the NDP men in place or throw them aside, for example - has to be read in terms of their determination to remain in charge.

The army's manoeuvering now is presumably aimed at breaking up the remarkably broad coalition that was first assembled in 2006. This has included of course the Muslim Brothers, the Nasserist 'Karama' party, the Labour Party (which is Islamist), the Tagammu Party (leftist), the Revolutionary Socialists (self-explanatory), Kefaya (an alliance which includes many of the above elements), the Ghad Party (a liberal offshoot of the Wafdists which was the first party to be approached by Mubarak for negotiations), and Mohammed El Baradei's National Alliance for Change. It has to be said that the alliance might have been quite difficult to maintain if the left had taken the sectarian attitude of some of the older layers of marxists who basically maintained that the Muslim Brothers were a tool of the capitalist class, simply an ally of neoliberalism and imperialism, and so on. The Revolutionary Socialists played a key role in overcoming that. Samir Najib, working in the Centre for Socialist Studies, argued that it was vital to understand that the Muslim Brothers as in part a movement of the oppressed, involving many rank and file activists who came from poor and working class backgrounds. Some of them had been on the Left, and been alienated from the Left because of their experiences under Nasser and because of the way the poor bore the brunt of the crisis that marked the latter years of the Nasser regime. He argued that socialists should act independently of the Islamists, but not dismissively of them. They should defend them when they were opposed to the state on issues such as the emergency laws, or the independence of the judiciary, and should be prepared to work with them on democratic demands. Such was an important argument in preparing the socialist Left to be directly involved in, rather than secluded from, the mass movements that have precipitated Mubarak's downfall. The subsequent alliance also meant that the Muslim Brothers were more sensitive to criticism, as when they were forced to recant on their 'Islam is the solution' slogan in 2005, which Christians and socialists argued was sectarian.

The army's strategy of forcing a transition managed by the armed forces themselves is partly possible because both Mohammed El Baradei and the Muslim Brothers appear to have supported an army takeover to avert an all-out social explosion. One expects that, though they were the slowest to support the recent revolution, they will be the first to be consulted by the armed forces. Under Mubarak, the Muslim Brothers were effectively coopted, operating as a loyal opposition. There were and remain tensions in the organisation between the businessmen and professionals who dominate the leadership and the poorer base, with more radical layers wanting to take a more uncompromising stance, and these started to come to the fore in the context of the Second Intifada. This building pressure contributed to the decision by the Muslim Brothers to form an alliance with left-wing and secular forces to depose Mubarak back in 2006. So, it would be mistaken to assume that the rank and file of the Brothers will necessarily accept whatever carve-up the leadership opts for. Similarly, while many of the leading middle class activists are declaring the revolution to be over, effectively throwing in the towel before they've even secured the minimal political and democratic rights that they are in it for, there is likely to be a mass of middle class radicals who will continue to want to fight. I expect they'll be among the thousands of people who remained in Tahrir Square as of today.

Internationally, the armed forces seem determined to hold on to Egypt's current role. The indications so far are that the Camp David peace treaty with Israel, which underpins the Palestinians' miserable plight and Egypt's participation in the seige of Gaza, is to be maintained. This is purchased with $1.5bn a year in aid plus training, but it's also part of a global orientation of power predicated on US-led neoliberalism. Again, the army's task is made slightly easier here, because El Baradei supports the peace treaty. The Muslim Brothers do not, but they are highly unlikely to push for its abrogation. Unless an alternative orientation for capital accumulation emerges, the Egyptian ruling class will likely continue to seek a profitable alliance with the US. Only the continuation of the popular movements can force an alternative path.

It seems clear enough that the revolution has further convulsions to go. It seems equally clear that the alliance which led to this revolution is going to be reconfigured. Juan Cole has long argued that this revolution was centrally based on the labour movement, the alliance of blue and white collar workers that first emerged in 2006. This has united textile workers with tax collectors. But the movement has also been characterised by a fairly broad alliance between the most militant sections of the working class and the liberal and radical sections of the middle class, the latter including lawyers, doctors, probably a lot of small businessmen not integrated into the regime, and so on. The focus, in the Anglophone media, on the Twitterati, may have overstated the relevance of the middle class, but they did not fabricate their role. In the current situation, it is often the small businessmen and middle class professionals (like the Google marketing head Wael Ghonim, currently in a meeting with the higher council of the armed forces) who are in a hurry to call an end to hostilities. They want to get back to earning money. The accent is shifting far more clearly to the organised working class. Perhaps more serious than today's arrests, then, is the attempted banning of labour activism. This is where a new front of struggle is going to be opened up.

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Egypt solidarity rally posted by Richard Seymour

Amnesty International and the Stop the War Coalition in London today.

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"Revolution is a locomotive" posted by Richard Seymour

Those middle class activists who think that Egyptians will now return to work to labour under a military regime - Wael Ghonim, the Google employee incessantly puffed by the Anglophone media as the 'leader' of this revolution, 'trusts' the army and urges people to go back to work - are about to be disabused and disillusioned. The protesters in Tahrir today are chanting that they want a civil, not a military government. The workers are still on strike. The steel mills, the sugar factories, public transport... they are not going to return to work just because the army now says it's in control. In the last week, the hard cutting edge of this revolution was the working class, and those whose revolutionary agenda did not include the interests of the working class are likely to find themselves left behind by events very soon.

Meanwhile, with celebrations erupting in Gaza, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, all over the Middle East (and, I might add, in London), the struggle in Algeria is continuing today. In Algiers, the train services have been stopped, to prevent protesters from flooding into the capital. Thousands of police have been deployed. Crowds are being attacked with tear gas lobbed by police and rocks thrown by plain clothes thugs. Initially, only a few dozens managed to reach the main square where the protest was due to take place, with other scattered throughout the city. But it seems that the protesters have managed to break police cordons, despite considerable resistance. Algeria is an interesting contrast to both Tunisia and Egypt. The police have recently been awarded staggering 50% pay rises amid an economic crisis that is slashing working class incomes, and they have thus far been able to contain and disperse the rebellions with calculated violence and homicide. The main opposition groups, whether the Left or the Islamists, have been effectively repressed and then coopted over the years, such that they are playing only a small role in what is otherwise plainly a class uprising. The main trade union federation has had regime-friendly apparatchiks planted in its leadership, so it has done nothing to support the revolt. As a consequence, the riots which began to break out first in December 2010, then in force this January, initially had little institutional support. The protesters have now developed an umbrella co-ordinating body comprising opposition parties and factions, but this is only a few weeks old. As such, it's early days for the Algerian uprising. But the miraculous breakthrough in Egypt will have given it, and every other brewing rebellion in the vicinity, a tremendous shot in the arm.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Shut up, Obama posted by Richard Seymour

Obama is speechifying in his classically elevated, sonorous fashion. He should shut up. He has nothing to say. He spent weeks first backing Mubarak, then the torturer Suleiman. He thought his man, Suleiman, had been put in charge last night. It never once crossed his mind that he would stop aid to the regime, even stop sending the bullets and tear gas that have been used against protesters. The US has been handed its arse by the Egyptian people, the vanguard of global democracy, and should at this point be feigning humility.

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Mubarak is gone posted by Richard Seymour

Mubarak has been ousted. Just after four o'clock GMT he announced his resignation. He has fled, reportedly to Sharm el-Shaikh. He should be arrested and tried. Egypt is celebrating. It is not over, of course. But the generals who made their move are not in control of events, and they can't crush the real forms of grassroots democracy that have developed in this revolution. They can't risk taking on the people who forced their hand today with such unprecedented, furious protests. Don't forget what bloody clashes preceded Mubarak's departure, how many Egyptians were killed in his crazed last gamble for power. Two million protesters thronged into Tahrir Square, and people kept coming. People marched on the presidential palace. An NDP headquarters was taken over. In el-Arish, cops killed five people. This was won with heavy losses, and there's further to go. Next stop, open the Rafah crossings. And it doesn't end with Egypt. Look at what's happening in Bahrain, in Yemen, Algeria, even Saudi Arabia. In Algeria even now, police are trying to repress a celebration of the revolt. These are beginnings, not conclusions. America's chain of icily psychopathic despotisms is beginning to shake.

Update: found this at Socialist Unity. Watch as the crowd suddenly roars:

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