the Disillusioned kid: February 2007
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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

March into March

Saturday's demonstration against the occupation of Iraq and the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile system was a nice day out. Particularly because I'd decided to go down by train rather than coach which meant I didn't have to get up at some godforsaken hour. Estimating numbers at these things is notoriously difficult. Jim puts the figure (albeit tentatively) at or near 100,000, although I suspect that's a bit high, but there were certainly a lot of people, as you can see:The march followed the traditional route, running from Speakers' Corner, down Park Lane, up Piccadily to Piccadily Circus, down Haymarket and then into Trafalgar Square where people congregated for speakers and assorted stalls. I've been to lots of these things and long ago stopped paying much attention to the speakers, most of whom simply recounted the reasons why I was there. Which I already knew. Mark Thomas, however, was very good as you can see for yourselves courtesy of MyTube:

I took various photos, most of them not very good, some which you can find over on my Flickr acount. There also seem to have been a surprising number of bloggers present, not that I ran into any of them, including Davide Simonette, Jim, Lenny and Rachel, all of whom have written up their experiences in case you're interested.

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Happy Independence Day

As Will points out, today (February 27) is Western Sahara Independence Day. This marks the 31st anniversary of the declaration of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in Bir Lehlou. Celebrations within the territories controlled by Polisario (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro) are to include a march, a solidarity conference, a meeting of towns twinned with Saharawi towns and a "super-marathon" between Bir Lahlou and Tifariti, SADR's temporary capital.

(Map of Western Sahara from New Internationalist)

Western Sahara's history is not one which has provided many opportunities for celebration. Polisario was originally formed in 1973 its mission was to drive out the Spanish, who had controlled the territory since 1884, and indeed when Franco was lying on his death bed he did rescind Spanish control, but handed it over to Morocco and Mauritania rather than to the Saharawi themselves. Polisario were able to drive out Mauritania by 1979, but the more powerful Moroccan military proved a tougher prospect. To a large extent things haven't changed all that much since then. A ceasefire in 1991 appears to have remained in force, although human rights abuses by Moroccan authorities persist and there was a limited intifada in 2005. While talks continue, genuine independence still appears to be a distant prospect.

Regular readers may recall that I've written about Western Sahara previously, but those of you looking to discover more about Africa's last colony, which remains little-known despite that status, would do well to check out Will's blog, Western Sahara online and/or the Western Sahara Campaign.


Friday, February 23, 2007

Labouring under delusions

The other night I was invited to a Labour Against the War meeting in Nottingham. As the event was limited to Labour Party members and their friends, I had to pretend to be Tom's friend, although I suppose that's better than having to pretend to be a party member. Entry requirements aside, the event provided an interesting insight into the plight of deluded progressive elements within the party.

Maya Evans and Milan Rai from Justice Not Vengeance (neither of whom are party members as far as I'm aware) discussed the burdgeoning conflict with Iran and the ongoing assault on our civil liberties. As ever Mil was incisive and informative. Maya ran through territory with which I am more familiar, but her personal experiences (she was the first person arrested under Section 132 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 after she read out the names of the dead in Iraq outside Downing Street) were something I hadn't heard before.

Mohammed Azam from the National Assembly Against Racism arrived late after getting lost in the Meadows. Once he got underway he laid into the BNP and urged party members to make anti-racism central to their campaigning. While none of this was particularly disagreeable, it equally didn't strike me as particularly original.

Christine Shawcroft from the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC) meanwhile hit all the right notes on Iran and Trident, but decided to couple that with the hoary old cliche about "reclaiming the party," even encouraging people to rejoin "for peace." It would presumably be churlish to point out here that the combined forces of the nine people in the audience (of whom I was one) is likely to be insufficient to reclaim anything more impressive than the local bus shelter. Not that this seemed to lessen Christine's apparently boundless enthusiasm.

The key-note speaker was to have been Alan Simpson, Labour MP for Notingham South. He's always an interesting speaker and I'd figured he'd be even more so following his announcement over the weekend that he was standing down as an MP. Unfortunately, Alan was defeated by the complexities of the British public transport system, i.e. he got of at the wrong station and missed the meeting entirely.

My conclusion at the end of the evening was that the reclamation of the Labour Party is dead in the water. It's time to put the old girl out of her misery. This isn't a great surprise to me, but I hope it gave some of the people there pause for thought.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Alan Simpson MP represents the area in Nottingham where I live and regularly speaks at political meetings in the city and further afield. As such, I've seen him talk more times than I care to remember, including a at several events I've been involved in organising, and spoken to him personally several times. While I agree with him on many issues, find him an affable chap and consider him an excellent public speaker (infinitely better than Broxtowe MP Nick Palmer with whom I once saw him share a platform), we do have a number of political disagreements, although his decision to stand down as a Labour MP suggests we've now got one less.

For years his big thing has been the need for progressives within the party to reassert control from the Blairites, warmongerers and neoliberals. In the run-up to the war, while party members were leaving in droves in protest against Blair's commitment to military action, he called on people not to do so. Subsequently, the line shifted to a call for people of a progressive persuasion to join the party in order to influence the forthcoming leadership campaign. For sometime I assumed - cynically, I admit - he was maneuvering himself for those elections, but if he ever had any such ambitions, he's clearly given up on them.

According to the Beeb, in a letter to constituency party members he explained that concern about the environment was central to his motivation and asserted that "he would be more effective campaigning for radical environmental change outside parliament, rather than remaining on the back benches." This, broadly correlates with my own perspective on electoral politics. It is my opinion, as I may have mentioned before, that change always originates outside Houses of Commons, forcing its way onto the Parliamentary agenda regardless of who our soi-disant representatives are, once the groups pursuing it become influential enough.

Simpson continues, "There are good people in the Parliamentary Labour Party but not enough of them. At times, I feel that colleagues would vote for the slaughter of the first born if asked to." They certainly don't appear to have been particularly troubled by the human cost of the invasion of Iraq. Which, as a friend noted, raises the question of whether there might not have been a time when his resignation might have exerted greater influence. Timing aside, I'm glad he's finally seen sense and look forward to working with him in the future.

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Conference Call

Organising events tends to require a lot of effort and more often than not is decidedly stressful. When things go well that tends to make up for everything, though. That's probably a fairly good summation of my experience with the Peace Conference which I helped organise and which took place on Sunday.

By all accounts everybody involved including speakers and audience members seemed to find it enjoyable and interesting. The first session on the linkages between oil, war and environmental damage was slightly marred by Life of Brian-style exchanges, but nonetheless there was much of interest on peak oil, Iraqi unions and the connections between these issues and the state of the public transport system. While the No Sweat session didn't happen due to "limited" interest (a probably consequence of the aforementioned exchanges), but the workshops on life as an asylum seeker and peak oil, both of which I dipped into, were well attended and seemed to be stimulating healthy debate.The day's big event was Craig Murray, former British mabassador to Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, Craig was running a little late, which was a little worrying for myself and fellow organisers, but he more than made up for it when he got here with a compelling and amusing talk. To be fair, it was largely the same speech he gave when I saw him in Manchester, with many of the same jokes, but few of the other people in the audience had been there and, in any case, I still found myself laughing. This was certainly a personal highlight for me and afterwards I was able to get my copy of his Murder in Samarkand signed.

Whether because of the incredible organisation or by sheer luck, we finished in time for the awesome fireworks display put on, down by the lake just of campus, for Chinese New Year. Which was nice.

Notts Indymedia has more on the Conference and KnowledgeLab, an event which ran across the weekend and alongside on the Sunday, including various photos by the legendary Tash, from which the picture above has been purloined.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Oaxaca comes to Nottingham

I seem to be quite the busybody this week. Which is fine. It's not like I've got any work to do or anything. Tuesday night I found my way to the Nottingham stop on the speaking tour by an activist from Oaxaca. Apart from being the second poorest state in Mexico, Oaxaca last year witnessed a widespread revolt which challenged the state government and reverberated around the world. Andres Aullet is a activist-lawyer who was involved in the struggle and is now a member of Committee of Relatives of Political Prisoners of Oaxaca, which he described as a Trotskyist grouping.

The meeting was organised by No Sweat, (which for those of you keeping score is an Alliance for Workers' Liberty (AWL) front-group). It was chaired by Tom an "activist in the NUT," with some contributions from Sofie Buckland from No Sweat and the "students' movement." The event kicked of almost half an hour late due to technical difficulties, but once everything was sorted they quickly moved onto two short videos, one a fairly propagandist documentary and the other an assortment of video clips taken throughout the course of the struggle. Tom had suggested that the latter would include some riot porn, although in actuality it was fairly tame (much more so than many of the images of protests in Oaxaca).

Andreas spoke through a translator, which was just as well given how rusty my Spanish has become. He began by recounting the context of the struggle and how it had begun with a strike by teachers. Strikers took control of the main square, but were violently removed by the police. As the struggle escalated, its demands shifted from the purely economic (i.e wage increases) to the political (i.e. the resignation of the state governor) and incorporated increasingly broad sections of Oaxacan society, leading to the constitution of the APPO (Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca).

Andreas described how a number of activists had demanded space to put their demands on TV. When refused, they had simply taken control of the TV station and had they say anyway. Similar scenes also took place with the local radio. Meanwhile, a number of teachers had decided (apparently against the wishes of some of APPO's leaders) to march to Mexico City, to put their demands to those in the seat of Mexican power.

Despite the militancy of the protests and the number of people on the streets (one march apparently attracted 1 million people, an impressive figure in a city of 2.5 million) various union leaders were keen to negotiate. While the movement had taken up the demand for the governor's resignation, the sycophantic bureaucrats were content to limit themselves to the initial demands of the teachers. This obeisance continued when the Federal Police sought to retake the city on November 25. Union leaders called for people to acquiesce to their return, but many ignored them and when it came to defending the final barricade in the university, thousands turned out to resist the police.

Andreas was critical of the movement's "betrayal" by the leadership, but felt that the strike had nonetheless been important. He argued that Oaxaca had shown that class struggle was still alive and that there were lessons for the workers, who he believed could have been victorious under a different leadership. During the Q&A session he extended his criticisms to the EZLN (the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, commonly known simply as the Zapatistas, a movement based in Chiapas which borders Oaxaca to the south) who he argued didn't understand the need to take power and had initially been wary of supporting the Oaxacan struggle because of the presence of corrupt union leaders. In his analysis this remained their position until the attempts to retake the city in late November. While I disagree with his assertions as to the need to "take power" (a Leninist obsession) I wonder if there isn't an element of truth to his analysis of the Zapatistas' approach. I certainly didn't become aware of any EZLN statements regarding the situation until late-November, but this may simply reflect my own ignorance.

While Andreas' political position is quite different from my own, his insight into the struggle was interesting. Oaxaca was hugely inspirational to activists around the world, including myself. It is always useful to learn about the successes and weaknesses of other struggles and hearing it from a Mexican trot is a helpful corrective to any illusions one might have about an imminent anarchist revolution in the periphery. Now if only we could bring a little bit of the Oaxaca spirit to Nottingham's Market Square...

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Apparently I've been pushing people's buttons. Which is always a good thing. I hope. Anyway, it's got me into this week's Carnival of the Green so I'm happy.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

The UK Chagos Support Association have a brand spanking new blog. Why not have a gander?

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Morning glory

There are a number of pieces of equipment which activists should not be without and an alarm clock is pretty near the top of the list. Of course, even if you've got one they're of limited use if you don't bother to set it. While several of my friends were forcing themselves out of bed at some ungodly hour to get down to Harmondsworth detention centre, I'd planned a more placid day with an hour or two giving out flyers in Market Square. Given that the Stop the War stall didn't kick off until twelve I figured I wouldn't bother with the alarm. Surely, I thought, my body long ago slipped into the routine of getting up fairly early. How wrong I was.

Things got off to a bad start when I woke up at one, something I haven't done for sometime. Honest. Once I'd got myself sorted and in to town, Stop the War were long gone. Some of the guys from the NHS campaign were holding a stall as were representatives of the putative Notts branch of Unite Against Fascism, so I offered my typically enthusiastic support to the former (i.e. I stood around looking uncomfortable, occasionally proffering any passing pedestrians a pamphlet). Unfortunately there wasn't a great deal of material to distribute (which is strange, because the unions ostensibly supporting the campaign are hardly short of money), although on the upside this did mean I didn't have to spend that long standing around in the cold before beating a retreat to the comfort of a public house.

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Peace Out

In case you happen to be in the Nottingham area next weekend:

Sunday February 18, Portland Building

11:00 – What's oil got to do with it?
Sue Blount, local Green Party councillor
James Howard, Powerswitch
Tom Unterrainer, No Sweat

1:30 – Workshops
Destitution Group, Being an asylum seeker
No Sweat, Workers' struggles and solidarity
Powerswitch, Peak oil
More TBC

4:00 – Speaker
Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan

All Day – Atrium
Stalls from local campaigns (including Amnesty, Defy-ID, Faslane 365, No Sweat, Stop the War) and vegan catering by Veggies

Organised by Nottingham Student Peace Movement

This event is taking place alongside the Fourth Knowledge Lab, which you might also be interested in.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Fair's Fair

[This is an article I've knocked together for the next edition of Ceasefire, the irregular Nottingham Student Peace Movement newsletter. It's possible it'll undergo a few changes before publication, but I include it here for your delectation.]

Taking things which hitherto have been viewed as ethically dubious and producing more salutary alternatives is in vogue nowadays, especially within large sections of the activist community. Hence ethical consumerism, ethical careers, ethical investment, fair trade and all the rest. In recent years, the popularity of these has blossomed. In 2005, 40% of UK households bought fair trade products, which can be purchased in more than 55,000 supermarkets across Europe. Fair trade brands now account for 20% of the roast and ground coffee market, while 2005 saw the sale of more than a billion litres of fair trade wine. (All facts from New Internationalist 395, p. 19) This all sounds good and in its own way it is a positive step, but I want to problematise the importance that many activists afford to living “ethically.”

I am not questioning the motives of those who purchase fair trade or pursue ethical careers, both are things I have done and intend to continue doing. In a sense, the unmediated nature of such actions is compelling. You don't have to wait for anybody else. You just get on and do it yourself. My argument is that we should be wary of overstating the important we attach to individual ethical choices. Bedecking ourselves in ethically produced, sweat-free t-shirts made of organic cotton while sipping fair-trade tea from recycled cardboard cups may well leave us with a warm feeling inside, but what has it done to actually improve the world? Sure, one or two people may have been paid slightly more than they otherwise would have been, but global capitalism continues undaunted.

It might be retorted that I am arguing against a straw man. That no-one actually holds such a nuance-free position. It would be nice to think that were true, but New Consumer, ethical shopping's trade magazine proclaims, without a trace of hyperbole that “creating a world that works for everyone has never been easier. It lies in your simple shopping decisions and lifestyle habits!” (Quoted in New Internationalist 385, p. 3) Even if such views are unusual within activist circles (activists after all are, by definition, involved in activism) we should be wary of disseminating messages which reinforce such disconnected perspectives on social change.

It seems to me that one of the key problems with this whole “ethical” business is the fact that it focuses on individual choices rather than collective action, perpetuating the atomising effects of capitalism. Unless you are in an unusual position of influence, your individual choices are likely to have a fairly limited impact. If you want to make the world a better place, you're likely to find rather more success if you combine your efforts with other people. One and a half million atomised individuals moaning about the invasion of Iraq wouldn't have had a fraction of the influence of the same number coming together on February 15. As that example demonstrates, large numbers alone aren't a guarantee of success, the problems we face are huge after all, but there is a long history of movements which have transformed the world. The civil rights movement in the States defeated segregation; the resistance in Vietnam defeated US imperialism; and the suffragettes achieved votes for women.

It might be averred that the anti-apartheid struggle demonstrated the success of ethical consumerism, at least insofar as the boycott of South African goods helped to weaken the regime. It is important to bear in mind, however, that in South Africa the African National Congress (ANC) were well organised and supported by groups around the world. People's choice about whether to buy red or white grapes took place within the context of a wider, larger struggle.

A further problem it seems to me is that the insertion of the “ethical” prefix presupposes that there are also unethical alternatives and implies that these remain in existence. In fact, I would argue that the entire exercise is predicated, albeit usually implicitly, on the continuation of the decidedly unethical status quo. The basic notion is that while exploitation, environmental destruction and the assorted evils of capitalism carry on as they have always done, we can console ourselves that it isn't our responsibility. We've done our bit by choosing fair trade chocolate over a Mars bar; by deciding to work for a wind turbine company rather than BAE Systems.

Ethical consumerism may not just fail to challenge capitalism, but actually reinforce it. Nestlé, long criticised for policies in the third world, now sells fair trade coffee; L'Oréal purchased the Body Shop in May last year, despite a long-history of animal testing; and fair trade coffee is now available in Starbucks and even some McDonald's outlets (the former sells it in 23 countries, the latter only in New England). (All facts from New Internationalist 395, p. 2) Perhaps the most egregious example is BAE Systems decision to begin production of an 'ethical' bullet, which is lead-free. (New Internationalist 395, p. 1) BAE note without a hint of irony, “Lead used in ammunition can harm the environment and pose a risk to people.” ( Perhaps naively, I'd always assumed that posing a risk to people was ammunition's raison d'etre. If you're an Iraqi civilian getting shot with these things, I doubt it hurts any less. The words may have changed, but the song remains the same.

Capitalism is not a problem we're going to buy our way out of. Our personal choices have only a limited role to play in the struggle for a new, better world. At best they allow us to minimise our culpability in the current system. They won't defeat that system, nor stop its devastation of the environment. Those are things we're going to have to fight for. That might not be as easy as popping out for a fair trade cappuccino, but maybe it's worth the effort.


Friday, February 09, 2007

In case you haven't noticed already, the always excellent UKWatch is back up and running with a swanky new look. Why not swing by and say hello?


Financial health

In my predictions for 2007, I averred that the campaign to defend the NHS would be one of the major campaigns on the year. I stand by that claim, largely because it seems self-evident. Nottingham, might take a little while to catch up, however.

Last night I toddled along to the public meeting held by the local branch of Keep Our NHS Public. There were probably 20-30 people in attendance (I didn't bother to count), but to my mind the problem was not so much the limited numbers, but the limited representation of what I flipantly refer to as "real people." I probably recognised half, perhaps more, of the audience from assorted campaigns. The three largest socialist parties in Nottingham (SWP, AWL and SPEW) were all out in what passes for force in today's Marxist left. Much of the rest of the audience were made up of independent activists and trade unionists. The public were striking in their absence.

In some ways this is actually very surprising. Last year's "Protect the Patients" march in the city (which I missed because I was fighting the system elsewhere), was by all accounts huge, attracting perhaps 3,000 participants. Where have all those people gone? Are they actively resisting government cuts and reforms or have they all now gone back to their lives, content with the fact that they've "had their say" on the issue? Alternatively, are those people put off by a lefty-dominated public meeting in which they are told what many of them (particularly those who work in the NHS) already know? To be honest, I don't know, although I suspect there may be a combination of factors in play.

To be fair, the meeting was much more informative than many I've been to. Demagoguery was avoided in favour of that most dangerous of amunition, information. The picture of the NHS I came away with is an interesting one, but one which I think has not been widely disseminated. Various speakers acknowledged the fact that New Labour had invested record amounts in the NHS, but the key point is not how much money is in the system, but where it's going. It became apparent that what New Labour are doing (whether consciously or not, a question which was raised, but left hanging) is turning the NHS into a corporate welfare system, taking money from the public purse and handing it to corporate interests.

While my notes are less than comprehensive, some of the processes by which this takes place include: new rules require GPs to present patients with at least three "choices" when they are being referred, which must include at least one private provider; Independent Treatment Centres (ITCs) set up ostensibly to reduce waiting lists are guaranteed payment for a certain number of treatments whether they conduct them or not; the outsourcing of both support (catering and cleaning) and clinical roles; and Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes which often lead to Trusts paying more for buildings in the long-term. The upshot of all this has been not only a proliferation of private companies providing health services, but a massive increase in administration costs. One speaker estimated that administration constitutes something in the order to 15-20% of the NHS' total budget (at least in England).

It is unfortunate that such an analysis of the problems afflicitng the NHS has not been disseminated more widely. It gets us beyond government obfuscation about the wages being earned by doctors and nurses, while providing an insight into the working of state capitalism (in which the state and capital are mutually reinforcing) which I think guides people implicitly towards a more radical critique than a broadly conservative (note the small 'c') appeal to "save the NHS."

As an anarchist, I'm wary of large state-run bureaucracies, but there can be no doubt that capitalism with a national health service is better than capitalism without (something the UK had not so long ago as an activist from the pensioners' movement noted). At least, if you care about things like quality and length of life. There is much about the NHS which merits criticism, but until we get around to organising the revolution (are you doing anything next Tuesday?) I think it behooves us to protect what's good about it (i.e. free, universal healthcare). How we do that and how we attract more people is a question which I'll leave open, but it's probably an important one.

Addendum: I forgot to mention that there's a regional demonstration in Birmingham on Saturday March 3, which speakers encouraged people to promote and participate in. This seems to be part of a national day of action, so maybe there's something going down in your area which you might care to check out.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Drive like bad wind


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They're at it again...!

Do these shits have no shame?:
More than three decades after British islands in the Indian Ocean were depopulated to make way for an American base, the Government will ask the courts today to ban the inhabitants from ever returning home...

The High Court has twice given the islanders, known as the Chagossians, the right to return and Britain had initially accepted the ruling when the islanders won their first case in 2000.

But today the Government will try and overturn a second ruling in the Court of Appeal.
Way back when in 2000, the Chagossians won the right to return home in the High Court, which ruled that the order used to expel them had been unlawful. At the time Robin Cook, then foreign secretary stated, "The Government will not be appealing" and declined to defend "what was done or said 30 years ago". Following that ruling the government prevaricated until 2004 when on June 10, "Super Thursday," the day of European, local and GLA elections, the Queen signed two Orders in Council which prohibited the Chagossians from setting foot on the archipelago. These Orders were challenged in the High Court last year and once again, the ruling went against the government, much to their chagrin. That's more or less how we got where we are today.

One might wonder why the government is getting so worked up about a few islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean:
"The evidence points to this being done largely at Washington's request," said Clive Baldwin, from the Minority Rights Group, which is campaigning for the Chagossians. "After September 11 and with the island being used as a base for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military value of Diego Garcia has increased."

Bombers operating from Diego Garcia can strike deep into the Middle East and South Asia. Naval vessels using its harbour can patrol the strategically vital waters of the Indian Ocean and the approaches to the Red Sea. Diego Garcia was a crucial launching pad for the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Some 1,000 American and 40 British military personnel are based there...

A letter of November 2004 from Lincoln Bloomfield, an assistant secretary at the US state department, to Robert Culshaw, a British official responsible for overseas territories, read: "Diego Garcia is a vital and indispensable platform for global US military operations. . . an attempt to resettle any of the islands of the Chagos Archipelago would severely compromise Diego Garcia's unparalleled security and have a deleterious impact on our military operations."
It's worth emphasising here, that although Diego Garcia is the largest island in the Chagos Archipelago, it is but one among sixty and the only one on which there is a military presence. There is no obvious reason why other islands such as Peros Banhos and Salamon couldn't be resettled without having any impact upon the base on Diego Garcia. Indeed, Chagossian leader Olivier Bancoult has averred, "We can agree to co-habit with the Americans." (For what it's worth, my own personal opinion is that the base should be shut down, but a more pragmatic solution is at the very least conceivable.) Certainly nobody has suggested that the Chagossians pose any kind of threat to US military operations. Nevertheless, when the US took out a lease of the island in December 1966, they asked for them to be "swept" and "sanitised", a move described in a secret file as part of "a neat, sensible package".

This isn't to exculpate the British state which has consistently, regardless of which party is in power, shafted the Chagossians and frustrated their attempts to achieve justice. Indeed, it is worth mentioning that when then Mauritian PM Paul Berenger visited the US and UK to discuss the issue of Chagos he received a far more cordial response in the States than he did here. One could argue until the cows come home about who is most responsible for the current situation, but frankly it strikes me as fairly irrelevant. Neither of them has been particularly nice. Both deserve a solid kicking.


Sunday, February 04, 2007

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

The whole Islamic-terrorist-beheading plot seems to have got the media very excited. Predictably the dubious (i.e. vastly exaggerated) nature of past "plots" (the ricin plot, the red mercury plot, last year's explosive liquids plot, Forest Gate etc.) has been forgotten or ignored by the bastions of objectivity in the corporate media. Why demur about the details or even existence of any plot when you can have an exciting headline about beheading? If it all turns out to be nonsense later you just ignore the fact and everyone can carry on cowering in fear before the awesome threat to our very bodily fluids posed by Islamic Fifth Columnists.

This isn't to suggest that this has necessarily all been made up. There might have been a terrorist cell. They might have planned to kidnap somebody. They might have wanted to lop that person's head off. They might have intended to post the video on the internet. It's just that when somebody's cried wolf as many times as the British counter-terrorism establishment, simply taking what they say at face value is the height of naivete.

Things become particularly murky when we turn to the leaks which have populated various articles in the media following the raid. According to the Grauniad (via), police investigating the alleged plot "expressed growing anger yesterday at a series of leaks and briefings which they say are hampering their inquiry":
Whitehall officials briefed journalists early on Wednesday before all of the suspects had been found, with the result that lurid details of the alleged plot were broadcast while one suspect remained at large. At least one tabloid newspaper had even been tipped off the night before the dawn raids, and its reporters put on standby to race to Birmingham...

Paul Snape, vice chair of West Midlands Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, said: "The police force is asking the question, where did it all come from? There may be political reasons for it, such as what was going on at the Home Office and at Downing Street."
The timing is indeed convenient with the Cash for Honours and BAE scandals, the problems in the Home Office and, as Davide Simonetti points out, John Reid's renewed campaign to get support for holding terror suspects for more than 28 days without charge.

Whatever the truth or otherwise of the various claims made about the plot, there is little question that raids such as this don't play well in the Muslim community who feel persecuted. A sentiment which can't be helped by the mainstream media's eagerness to run with any story about Muslim intransigence, no matter what its basis in fact (recall the niqab/pantomime horse story). Insofar as the "War on Terror" is synonymous with the struggle against militant Islamic fundamentalism (as opposed to simply an excuse to invade other countries), it cannot be won without the support of the vast majority of the Muslim community. We won't get that if our default settings instruct us to accept every bad thing said about them. Scepticism is your friend.

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Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Dictatorship of Democracy

"...We are convinced that liberty without socialism is privilege, injustice; and that socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality."
- Mikhail Bakunin
I've written about the soi-disant "Bolivarian revolution," currently underway in Venezuela, previously (here, here and here) and I have neither the time nor the inclination to rehearse the very real (if oftentimes overstated) benefits it has brought so far, nor my concerns about the excessive identification of the various reforms with President Hugo Chavez. What I want to focus on is the news earlier this week, that Venezuela's Congress had given him authority to legislate by decree. According to AP:
The law gives Chavez, who is beginning a fresh six-year term, more power than he has ever had in eight years as president, and he plans to use it during the next 18 months to transform broad areas of public life, from the economy and the oil industry in particular, to "social matters" and the very structure of the state.
This hasn't gone down well with right-wing critics, who have been accusing Chavez of being a putative dictator for years. Vice President Jorge Rodriguez didn't exactly help matters in this respect when he opined, "Dictatorship is what there used to be. We want to impose the dictatorship of a true democracy," consciously or not, echoing Marx's "Dictatorship of the Proletariat." You don't need me to tell you that that particular notion has understandably (and quite rightly) been discredited in light of its application in the USSR. This is not to suggest that Venezuela is about to become a Stalinist dictatorship (although that seems to be the line being pushed by right-wing critics of the regime), which I think remains unlikely, but a descent into Stalinism is hardly the only conceivable basis for criticising the new powers.

Again according to AP, Chavez wants to use the new powers to nationalise "Venezuela's largest telecommunications company and the electricity sector, slap new taxes on the rich, and impose greater state control over the oil and natural gas industries":
The law also allows Chavez to dictate unspecified measures to transform state institutions; reform banking, tax, insurance and financial regulations; decide on security and defense matters such as gun regulations and military organization; and "adapt" legislation to ensure "the equal distribution of wealth'' as part of a new "social and economic model."

Chavez plans to reorganize regional territories and carry out reforms aimed at bringing "power to the people" through thousands of newly formed Communal Councils designed to give Venezuelans a say on spending an increasing flow of state money on projects in their neighborhoods, from public housing to potholes.
The contradictions in the last paragraph are obvious, but it strikes me there is a more interesting point here. Lawmakers supported the "enabling law" unanimously, suggesting an astonishing degree of support for Chavez's policies amongst representatives. Blair could propose a Be Nice to Other People Bill and a large chunk of MPs would vote against it just to spite him. Given this level of support, it seems unlikely that Chavez would have any difficulty getting almost any reform through Congress, which surely renders the decree completely unneccessary, even from Chavez's perspective.

Anyone who still wants to give Chavez the benefit of the doubt on this would do well to bear in mind that this Presidential decree sounds an awful lot like something Blair tried unsuccessfully to sneak in last-year: the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. Save Parliament who mobilised against the Bill, note that in its initial form, the LRRB "had the power to grant any minister the ability to amend, replace, or repeal existing legislation." The minister in question could have amended virtually any piece of legislation save the Bill itself and the Human Rights Act 1998. "So, as was pointed out in The Times by 6 law professors from Cambridge, a minister would have been able to abolish trial by jury, suspend habeas corpus (your right not to be arbitrarily arrested), or change any of the legislation governing the legal system..." Maybe Blair and Chavez aren't quite as different as their political allegiances and rhetorical styles might suggest, or maybe its further evidence in support of the essentially anarchist thesis that power corrupts.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

Cinema Verite

With the Broadway, Screen Room, Savoy, Showcase and UGC, Nottingham isn't short of cinemas. But if you're looking for underground activist documentaries, you'll have to try elsewhere, namely the Scroat, which takes place (more or less) weekly at the Sumac Centre. They show a wide range of videos, often with speakers who are actively involved in the issues covered. There's even food provided beforehand and a bar to provide fuel for post-film discussions.

Last night's offering was Jill's Film, about the life and death of Jill Phipps. Jill was an animal rights activist killed during protests against live animal exports twelve years ago today (February 1). Clearly the film was, on one level, about animal rights. The focus, however, wasn't so much on the philosophical, ethical and strategic questions that this raises, but on Jill's own life and how she had come to be involved in the animal liberation movement.

Put together and edited by one of her friends and with extensive comments from her mother (who was also involved in campaigning) the film made no pretense about offering an objective account, instead offering an insight into Jill from the perspective of those who knew and loved her. Sure, it probably wouldn't get past the gatekeepers on the TV, but that wasn't its intent.

Propaganda films can come across as didactic which is often off-putting, even where you broadly agree with the points being made. Jill's Film isn't without such moments and there are a few occasions where the resort to cliche ("Fur coats are worn by beautiful animals and ugly people") struck me as pointless and unconvincing sloganeering, but for the most part the film avoids this and is much the stronger for doing so. We follow Jill from her childhood, through the punk scene, into anti-fascism and onto the nascent 1980s animal rights movement. We learn about some of her early experiences, her break from activism after her son was born and her ill-fated return in the hope of stopping live animal exports from Coventry Airport.

While I've been a vegetarian for sometime and peripherally involved in animal rights activity, it's not something I've ever felt able to throw myself into for various reasons. In part this is because the situation seems so hopeless given the sheer scale of animal abuse and the largely disinterested response of most people. Most people don't seem to care about the huge numbers of humans being brutalised, starved and killed across the world; what chance is there that they're going to give a damn about other species? For me, one of the weaknesses of the film (at least from a propagandist perspective) was that it compounded this feeling of powerlessness. Sure the clips of pigs being kicked, sheep having the throats slit while they're still alive and chickens confined to tiny cages are horrific, but by emphasising the immense scale of the problem my response isn't anger (which can lead to action), but depression (which doesn't).

This needn't be the case. Live animal exports were and remain a weak point in the system. The nature of the beast is that it presents relatively easy targets (as lorries have to get onto boats or load their "cargo" into planes and typically have to follow predictable routes to do so) and generates huge opposition from across the political spectrum (as was clear from the video). To be fair, the guy responsible for the film (whose name escapes me) made this point after the film showing.

Long story short: if you get the chance (and you can download it for free so you all have) watch it. If nothing else, it'll go someway to dispelling some of the more ridiculous characterisations of animal rights activist which appear in the media.

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