the Disillusioned kid: August 2004
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Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Public Transport Ate My Life

I don't (can't? won't?) drive. Therefore if when traveling around the country to visit friends and family or to get to some demos or conferences I typically find myself using the trains to get there. This was the case over the last weekend and as a consequence I feel inspired to make a few comments on the state of the public transport system and the trains more specifically.

I still have a lingering fascination with trains; a hangover from my childhood. I also consider myself something of an environmentalist and understand the damage cars inflict on the planet. Unfortunately when these instincts impact with the reality of the rail system, they tend not to come of so well. It's quite hard to remain positive about the idea of train travel when there aren't enough seats on your train, which is running late anyway, and as a result you find yourself perching on a bin. For an hour and a half. As if that weren't bad enough, you apparently can't go directly from London, the UK's capital city, to Birmingham, the second city, on a bank holiday and on returning home I calculated that during my 5 hour journey I had been traveling at a breathtaking average speed of 34 miles an hour. All very impressive, I'm sure you'll agree.

There is a serious point to this, quite apart from my own irritation about the not inconsiderable chunk of my life lost to the rail system. Global warming is one of the most serious problems humanity will face over the coming century, much more serious that the threat from terrorism. There is no panacea which will miraculously save us from the problem which we have brought on ourselves, but a reduction in car usage would be a sensible and constructive step. The best way to achieve this is to encourage people to make greater use of public transport. Climate change network Rising Tide argue that we should seek a 90% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and have called for a 90% reduction in the price of public transport as a way of moving towards this. Reducing the price of public transport would certainly be a positive step, but we should also ensure that the system is reliable and convenient.

A few weeks ago I caught part of a programme on Channel 5 called something like "Ultimate Trains". You know the sort of thing, lots of big toys for the boys, all dripping with superlatives (safest, fastest, best etc.) and packed with detailed technical specifications. Anyway, this looked at the rail systems in various other countries, many of which were far better than our own. The French, for instance, have the TGV system which has specially built tracks and can reach hundreds of miles an hour. The German variation on this system is not only fast, but also safe, having only had one accident in its history. In Japan, they've even begun building Maglevs which operate using electromagnets and so do not actually make contact with the rails, allowing them to reach dizzying speeds. None of this is inconceivable in this country. We can apparently find the money to build roads all over the country, much to the chagrin of green campaigners. Why not develop a new rail infrastructure instead? This would surely not cost much more (the Maglev system, being a likely exception) and might actually go some way to reducing the proliferation of cars taking over the roads.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

You Were Saying?

Sometime ago, I suggested that readers write to their MPs to encourage them to support Early Day Motion 1355 which related to the plight of the Chagossians, forced from their home by the British government of the day to make way for a US military base. For my troubles I got a pro forma response (thank you for bringing this to my attention, there's not much I can do given my position, I will contact the relevant minister and get back to you etc.) which promised a further communication from Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell. This arrived subsequently and contained little of interest. This communication however referred to further information sheets, which arrived yesterday. For the most part, as I expected, the document, accredited to the Overseas Territories Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), reflects Bill Rammell's contribution to the Parliamentary debate on the issue which took place in July. As it extends to three pages I won't deal with everything it covers, but I thought it might be constructive to highlight a few points.

The document begins with some historical background to how the islands came to be inhabited, which seems to be essentially accurate and reflects the government's recent acceptance that there was a settled population on the island, where they had previously claimed it was inhabitted only by transient labourers. The first thing which particularly struck me was a statement at the beginning of the third paragraph:
Prior to Mauritius achieving independence and with the agreement of the Mauritius Council of Ministers, the islands were detached in 1965 to form part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), together with some other small island groups that were detached from (but later reverted to) Seychelles.
This might sound fair enough, but the UK Chagos Support Association (hereafter UKCSA) point out (in a recommended backgrounder on the issue, from which most of the claims attributed to them in what follows are taken) that the dismemberment of the islands
was a violation of UN Declaration 1514 of 1960 stating the inalienable right of colonial peoples to independence, and Resolution 2066 of 1965 (which Britain never signed), instructing Britain to "take no action which would dismember the territory of Mauritius and violate [its] territorial integrity".
Indeed the FCO document notes, "Since the 1970s successive Mauritian governments have asserted a sovereignty claim to the islands arguing that they were detached illegally" (my emphasis).

The document then explains that "a series of bilateral agreements" were entered into with the United States. The first of these "to which the later ones are essentially supplementary" was signed in 1966 and provided that the Territory would "remain available for the defence needs of the two countries for an initial period of 50 years." To suggest that a base thousands of miles from either country has anything to do with genuine "defence" seems pretty ridiculous. The bases true purpose, as its use in the two Gulf Wars and the bombing of Afghanistan has demonstrated, is offensive. The "defence" euphemism, of course, is virtually ubiquitous and I would expect nothing less in a government document.

The document then moves onto the "relocation of the population". This is presented as an easy process. We are told, "In the late 1960s/early 1970s arrangements were made for the islanders to be relocated to Mauritius and the Seychelles" with the vast majority being sent to Mauritius. The UKCSA offers a very different interpretation:
With no warning or consultation, the islanders, numbering about 2000 at this time, were told that they were all being evicted. Those who tried to flee to the outer islands were rounded up. The islanders were isolated, intimidated, and tricked into believing that they would be settled into a similar environment with their own land and houses.

Armed men put the islanders in groups of 300 or more on to a ship designed to carry 50 and shipped them off to Mauritius or the Seychelles. They were forced to abandon their homes and all their possessions except one small bag each. These men slaughtered their livestock and destroyed their homes. Many of the exiles witnessed all of this.
They continue:
After a voyage of six days in what must have been appalling conditions, the exiles were dumped on the quayside at Port Louis, Mauritius, homeless and penniless. No-one from the British High Commission in Mauritius even came to the quayside to offer help. Yet these were Commonwealth subjects. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has never explained why. (When we asked them recently, they simply pointed to the £650,000 compensation granted in 1973, and the court decision in 2003 to grant nothing further).
And indeed, true to form, the FCO document emphasises the "£65,000 available to the Mauritius Government for the express purpose of assisting resettlement." Note that it was given to the Mauritian Government, rather than the Chagossians forced from their homes, no more is said on whether guarantees were obtained that this would be invested to help the refugees. In fact, as the UKCSA point out, this payment was not made until 1973 (recall that the "relocation" had begun in 1965). They note,
Some of this money was intended to be used to resettle the exiles on farm land but there was much disagreement and the exiles were so desperate for money, that the resettlement plan was abandoned and, eventually, in 1978 the money was disbursed. Although this money helped some of the exiles to obtain better housing, most of them were left no better off. All of them had been forced to borrow money in order to survive and their share had to be used to discharge their debts.
All of which goes some way to taking the shine of the government's supposed generosity.

Quite apart from how they had been removed from their homes and questions of compensation the conditions in which they were reduced to living after the "relocation" were dreadful, to say the least. The UKCSA comment,
Mauritius was the worst possible destination for the Chagossians. It was over-populated and had high unemployment. The exiles, without formal education and not fluent in the local language, had little or no hope of finding work. They were not welcomed by the Mauritian people and suffered, and are still suffering, racial abuse. Many have turned to alcohol and drugs, there have been several suicides, whole families have perished from malnutrition.
All of which suggests that the "arrangements" made for the "relocation" of theChagossians did not have the islanders well-being as their top priority.

The document then moves onto the various claims brought against it over its conduct with regard to the Chagossians. It begins with a claim brought in the mid 1970s, which reached an agreement in 1982. In this they say,
Britain make an ex gratia payment of £4 million for the benefit of the Chagossian community in Mauritius [note: no mention of those Chagossians living in the Seychelles or the UK] and the Mauritian government agreed to make land worth £1 million available for their resettlement. It was agreed that the payment by the British Government was in full and final settlement of all claims against the Government arising out of their relocation of the Chagossians to Mauritius and their preclusion from returning to the Chagos islands.
The requirement that they sign away their right to return to the islands in order to access the compensation does not appear to have been popular amongst the Chagossian population and in 1983, the year after the agreement, the Chagos Refugee Group was formed. Various further cases were brought against the government and the FCO document runs through them, up to the Court of Appeal's decision to uphold a High Court ruling denying their right to repatriation and compensation in July of this year.

In closing the document goes on to discuss "possible resettlement of the islanders". As is the government's wont, it presents as an argument against resettlement the study they commissioned "by independent experts into the feasibility of resettling the Chagossians in the islands (other than Diego Garcia)" in June 2002. This report, however, has been widely criticised. Harvard resettlement expert Jonathan Jenness described the study's conclusions as "erroneous in every assertion" and also criticised the lack of data, lack of objectivity, and a complete failure to consult with the Chagossians themselves.

Furthermore, it appears that the government has distorted some of the report's findings. (I have been unable to obtain a copy of the report, what follows is drawn from the Parliamentary Debate on the issue.) The government claims that the report cites climate change as a barrier to resettlement, but in fact it notes, "At the present time it is not possible to quantify the risk associated with climate change for the Chagos Islands." This lead Tam Dayell MP to comment that any conclusions that climate change made resettlement impossible had "crept in from somewhere else." The presence of the largest US military base outside the continental United States, which the US government are currently seeking to extend permission for until 2016, would also seem to discredit suggestions that the archipelago is about to disappear beneath the waves. Government assertions that the report makes clear that the cost of resettlement is likely to be prohibitive are similarly unsupported, as the consultants make clear in the report they had "not been tasked with investigating the financial costs and benefits of resettlements".

The document asserts that the two Orders in Council made on June 10, which prevent the Chagossian traveling to the islands, were a response to the conclusions of the report and the UK's treaty obligations, the concerns of the refugees, presumably being irrelevant. It also claims that the "two Orders restored the legal position to what it had been understood to be before the High Court decision of 3 November 2000." In that case the High Court ruled that the expulsion of the Chagossians had been illegal and that the order which had expelled them must be amended to allow those born their and their children to resettle. A decision which the government argued needed to be balanced with treaty obligations to the US, a balancing act where the likely victor is obvious.

The story does not, by any means end here. The FCO document mentions at the end that Chagossians plan to apply for judicial review of the two Orders, although it seems unlikely, to me anyway, that they will be quashed. The Mauritians are also making noises about asserting their sovereignty over the islands and there is talk of the case being taken to the International Court of Justice. Elsewhere the UKCSA reports that the Chagos Refugee Group has written to the Queen, Tony Blair and Bill Rammell stating that if the government does not take steps to help them by the end of August they "will have no choice but to go and live and sleep in front of the British High Commission in Port Louis to ask for our rights and start a hunger strike if we are not being given appropriate consideration by the UK Government. Meanwhile plans for a "peace flotilla", calling for the closure of the military base and the return of all the islanders, led by Mauritian socialist group Lalit, continue.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Scabs For Hire

I am quite a fan of the writings of American activist Paul Street. A vociferous critic of the invasion and occupation of Iraq and an anti-capitalist, many of his writings have sought to draw the parallels between US policy abroad and at home. This informed the title of his blog (now subsumed into the Z-Net Blog) and forthcoming book: Empire and Inequality. He argues that policies at home and abroad reflect and reinforce each other in what he, as a former Marxist, describes as a "dialectical relationship" (whatever that means!). Examples he cites include similarities between the treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Americans held in the American prison system and the fact, as reported by the New York Times, that the US military "mirrors Working-Class America," with representatives of the elites who make the decision to go to war being under-represented. This is an insight I find compelling. While it applies very clearly to American policies, it is not difficult to find British examples. A report in the Guardian (via James at Dead Men Left) reveals just one: with the use of private "contractors" in roles formerly filled by professional soldiers, which has become common in Iraq, being considered as a possible response to strike action by firefighters.

The use of private security firms (probably more properly described as mercenaries) is not a new phenomenon, but in Iraq it has occurred on an unprecedented scale. Writing in March, Robert Fisk and Severin Carrell reported that there were as many as 400 firms operating in Iraq involved in a wide variety of activities:
Security firms are escorting convoys. Armed men from an American company are guarding US troops at night inside the former presidential palace where Paul Bremer, the American proconsul, has his headquarters. When a US helicopter crashed near Fallujah last year, an American security firm took control of the area and began rescue operations.
The full extent of such firms influence is unclear and they are not counted among "coalition" casualty figures. It is clear that their presence in Iraq is extensive and is not limited to what you would normally consider "security" tasks. When the stories of torture at Abu Ghraib began to attract attention, it emerged that the US had even hired private contractors as interrogators, many of whom were directly involved in abuses.

Although the dispute between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the government which has simmered for years now looks as though it has been resolved, it appeared, even very recently, as though it might again flare up and see firefighters downing tools. The Guardian reported that in preparation for this eventuality, the government had been training 11,500 members of the armed forces in preparation for them having to provide fire services in the event of a strike. This figure, however, is 7,500 lower than the 19,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen stationed around the country during the 2002/3 dispute. Contractors could be hired to make up the shortfall. There was also a suggestion that if the government sought to requisition red fire appliances, contractors might be used to transfer them to military depots as police and military chiefs were concerned about their personnel crossing picket lines and being drawn into clashes with firefighters.

Talks apparently took place between government officials (possibly even John Prescott himself) and "senior figures" in Group 4 Securicor over "capacity". Mr Prescott's office issued the obligatory denial that it had any plans to use private contractors during a strike, but the report cites "well placed sources" who insist that the issue was discussed within the department. That the threat of strike has been averted means that the idea is likely to be put on a backburner, but it is not inconceivable that it could be resurrected at some point in the future.

Monday, August 23, 2004

I Say Lefty, You Say?

In a response to a previous post, timx opined that I should stop using the terms left and right wing because they are passe and don't really mean anything in the modern political context. This got me thinking about political labels and their value. In the interests of furthering my thoughts in this area and possibly stimulating a debate on the issue, I append some thoughts on the question below...

The terms left and right have their origins in the early stages of the French Revolution. The French Assembly of 1789 was organised so that the nobility were seated on the right and the common people on the left. "Thus," as Wikipedia notes, "'right' generally meant conservative, upholding the existing social or political order, and 'left' meant radical, attempting to change or overthrow the existing order." The point of reference for the political spectrum was the ancien regime ("old order"). 'Right' implied support for royalty, aristocracy and the associated baggage, while 'left' implied opposition to all that.

With the ancien regime no longer relevant, the terms have shifted considerably. Various opinions are offered as to exactly what they refer to. Wikipedia suggests the following interpretations:
# Whether the state should prioritize equality (left) or liberty (right).
# Whether the government's involvement with the economy should be interventionist (left) or laissez-faire (right).
# Whether the government should be secular and separate itself from religious beliefs (left) or should take a stance of religious morality (right).
# Fair outcomes (left) versus fair processes (right)
# Whether one embraces change (left) or prefers rigorous justification for change (right). This was proposed by Eric Hoffer.
# Whether human nature and society is malleable (left) or fixed (right). This was proposed by Thomas Sowell.
# Support for the economic interests of the poor (left) or the rich (right).
There is some truth to all of them, but it seems to me that each alone is missing something. Perhaps the truth is a combination of some or all of the above.

Whatever the significance of the terms, some argue that the left-right dichotomy is of limited use. The Political Compass argues that the terms are "one dimensional" and asks,
On the standard left-right scale, how do you distinguish leftists like Stalin and Gandhi? It's not sufficient to say that Stalin was simply more left than Gandhi. There are fundamental political differences between them that the old categories on their own can't explain. Similarly, we generally describe social reactionaries as 'right-wingers', yet that leaves left-wing reactionaries like Robert Mugabe and Pol Pot off the hook.
They suggest a new scale. This operates by comparing people's opinions on broadly economic questions along a left-right axis and plotting this against their positions on social issues, which defines people as libertarian or authoritarian (or more accurately, places them somewhere in between). The resulting graph looks something like the diagram which you should hopefully be able to see below. They have a test which you can do to see where you lie in this scale. I scored -8.75 on the economic scale and -7.79 on the social, which puts me firmly in the libertarian left, which is what I expected.

Political Compass

For comparative purposes, they present the positions of several "globally known figures". In case you're interested, I'm way more left-wing and liberal than anyof the figures they select. I invite you to draw your own conclusions.

Political Compass Famous People

The political compass strikes me as a sensible and potentially very useful scale for analysing and comparing political positions and I have used the vague idea as a guide for sometime. Nonetheless as timx points out, I do tend to go on about "the left". When I use this term I am referring to those who consider themselves to be involved in radical social change. This (very small) milieu is, unfortunately in my opinion, dominated by Marxists of various shades, but also encompasses the anarchist movement (such as it is) and radical environmentalist and feminists. While I think most of these groups have serious, perhaps even fatal, flaws and wonder at times if they are not the greatest barrier to social change in this country, they interest me because they reflect my belief that things can and have to change. Until something else comes along, they are unfortunately the only game in town.

The one thing timx is definitely right about is his implication that the left-right dichotomy is irrelevant within the mainstream political spectrum. That the Labour Party has abandoned socialism and the associated baggage should hardly be news. It is interesting that the Conservative Party's move away from its roots doesn't seem to have attracted so much comment. (I may be wrong about this because I don't move in 'right-wing' circles, but it is at least my impression.) Recall that conservatism (note the small-c) originally referred to movements primarily concerned with conserving the status quo. The basic idea was, "If it ain't broke don't fix it," and perhaps even, "If it is broke, don't fix it anyway" or, "If you do have to fix it, change as little as you can". This seems to bear little relation to the radical neo-liberalism of Thatcher and her successors. That the LibDems are seen as by many (even some of my friends) as the 'left-wing' party says a lot about the paucity of choice presented to voters at the ballot box.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Realign Your Ass

After yesterday's post on what I consider to be the strategic errors of much of the left in focusing overly on international questions at the expense of the domestic, it was inevitable that I would follow it up with a post which flew in the face of those insights. And so a post on the US's troop realignment plans.

For those of you who haven't been paying attention, the Bush Administration intends to remove something in the order of 70,000 troops from Europe and Asia, primarily Germany and South Korea. The point of this post is not primarily to analyse the realignment itself or the motivations behind it. For those of you looking for such analysis I recommend Rahul Mahajan's thoughts on the matter. Instead, I'm interested in where the troops may be moved to.

Mahajan notes that the two favoured locations seem to be the "forward operating locations" set up over recent years in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Bagila Bukharbayeva, writing for the Associated Press in an article reprinted in the Marine Corps Times lists Poland, Romania and Uzbekistan as being among the "new allies" who would host increased numbers of US troops. Regular readers may recall that I have written previously about the political situation in Uzbekistan and it was news of the deployment to this country which piqued my interest in the story.

Bukharbayeva's story doesn't go into much detail about the likely specifics of any deployment, instead focusing on the political implications for the Central Asian republic. The article quotes Atonazar Arifov, leader of the ERK (Liberty) Democratic Party, a banned opposition group, who warns that a permanent and increased US presence might strengthen anti-American feelings among Uzbeks who are likely to view the deployment as a sign that Washington supports Islam Karimov's brutal regime. He comments, ?I welcome American democracy, but I cannot respect the use of force.? Continuing, ?Uzbekistan might turn into a center of anti-Americanism.?

Some have suggested that the terrorist attacks in the republic in March and April and the recent suicide bombings in Tashkent are the consequence of the Karimov regime's close relationship with the US. Following September 11th, US troops were stationed at the Karshi-Khanabad air base in southern Uzbekistan, 145 kilometers (90 miles) from the Afghan border - the first US deployment in a former Soviet country. Although the US insist that the base was intended to be temporary it currently hosts 1,000 troops and at times this number has been several thousand.

Nonetheless, as Bukharbayeva points out, critics argue the violence is likely to have been triggered by Karimov's brutal crackdown on dissident Muslims. I tend to prefer the latter explanation, but the targeting of the US and Israeli embassies in the recent suicide bombings suggest that opposition to US policies is a factor in the emergence of Islamic extremist groups and that an increase in troop numbers in the country can only exacerbate the problem. As Kamal Burkhanov, director of the Kazakhstan-based Institute of Russia and China, points out, ?One or two more American bases will hardly improve the situation there, which is very explosive."

Questions also arise as to how this squares with the State Department decision to reduce aid to the country, ostensibly to encourage the regime to improve its atrocious human rights record. Increasing the number of troops stationed in the republic seems a strange way to demonstrate your opposition to the regime's actions. In his assessment of plans to reduce aid to Uzbekistan in January, Mahajan opined that the move "look[ed] like another move in the interminable drama of State vs. Defense, realist vs. neocon, rather than a sudden access of concern for human rights." If he was correct, this may simply be the subsequent response.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Well, Blow Me Down With A Feather

An interesting article in today's Guardian reveals, "The average voter does not share the keen interest of the political and media classes with Iraq, according to the results of this month's Guardian/ ICM opinion poll." The survey (available here in pdf) shows that voters rank the issue last out of a list of 10 issues when asked which they consider most important. Asked to name "two or three" issues which they considered most important 59% listed the health service, 42% education and 35% law and order. This is followed by the "traditional issues" (to borrow the Guardian's charming terminology) of the economy and government spending and then the issue immigration, named by 20%.

This would seem to fly in the face of the assertions of some on the left that Iraq "is still a raging political issue for both Bush and Blair on the domestic front." Or that "[i]t is the fundamental cause of the growing dissatisfaction with Blair." (In case you're interested, these quotes come from an article in the Socialist Worker, but they are probably fairly typical.) Nonetheless, the results of the survey should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. Polls have showed fairly consistent opposition to the war (albeit with a major dip when the invasion began) and an increasing support for a UK withdrawal from Iraq. Ordinary people (as opposed to leftists like myself), however, are understandably more concerned about issues which affect them directly.

The failure of the left to understand this seems to be a reflection of the echo chamber phenomenon. As in any other grouping, there is a tendency to interact with those of similar beliefs. Because leftists tend to regard Iraq as an important issue, it is easy to develop the misconception that so does everyone else. I think the question of Iraq represents a general problem among many on the left who have come to believe that foreign policy issues can, or perhaps will, form the catalyst for social change. Radical social change occurs when social relations within a state become untenable, this may be exacerbated by a government's actions abroad, but you can't build a revolution (for want of a better term) on the back of an anti-war movement. The consequence of this leftist misconception has been an unhealthy focus on international affairs, often at the expense of domestic issues. I'd be the first to concede that I've been as guilty of this as anyone.

None of this is to suggest that Iraq isn't an important issue. It is one of the issues of our age and to not have an opinion on it would be a serious omission. There is also the question of US power which, as Rahul Mahajan has pointed out, impacts on a huge range of other issues from trade and development, through the environment, but has staked its credibility "on one country, Iraq, and the success of one policy, occupation, [as a consequence Iraq] looms far larger than it would otherwise." Not to forget the very serious question of British complicity in actions which amount to war crimes.

This widespread problem is one of the things which fuels my interest in the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA). I'm not for a minute suggesting that their politics are impeccable, or that there is nothing which they say or do which I disagree with, but I think they are one of the most interesting and possibly most important projects on the British left (such as it is). Their focus on community work and talking to people about the issues that concern them, rather than those we think are important is probably something the rest of us could learn a lot from. That they have seen some electoral success on the back of their efforts, only reinforces my belief that they must be doing something right.

In order to pre-empt any criticisms from people who take the time to read the Guardian article, its probably worth commenting on the issue of Europe. The article points out that "voters do not appear to share Westminster's preoccupation with the European Union and rank it only eighth out of 10." Some might point out that this apparent disinterest didn't harm UKIP in the European Elections. Quite true, but this is likely to reflect a tendency for people to vote differently in the European rather than General or Local Elections. It is also worth noting that UKIP's share of the vote has crashed from 4% in a June poll to 1% now, suggesting that any political capital which could be made from the issue wasn't sustainable. As such it hardly forms the basis of a model which the left could or should follow.

Monday, August 16, 2004

In Other News...

With the world's attention focused on Najaf (quite understandably) much has slipped under the radar. You may have missed reports, for instance, of swarms of locusts approaching the Darfur region of Sudan. The swarms have already devastated parts of neighbouring Chad and if they do reach the conflict ravaged region, they can only exacerbate the already grim humanitarian situation. It doesn't rain. It pours.

One major story which has received only limited coverage, at least in the UK, is the referendum which took place in Venezuela yesterday (Sunday). Before I go into the details a quick history lesson for those of you at the back who haven't been paying attention...

Venezuela is a Latin American country and the world's fifth largest oil exporter. While very rich much of its population lives in destitute poverty as is the case across so much of the world. In 1998 the population voted Hugo Chavez into power on a platform of land reform, rights for women and indigenous people and free healthcare and education. This has angered the rich elite in the country who were quite happy with the status quo. He also pissed-off the Americans by selling oil to Cuba and refused overflying rights to US planes supplying "Plan Colombia" (part of the US "War on Drugs"). Long story short: He had to go.

Efforts to remove Chavez began with a coup attempt in April 2002. This was briefly successful, but Chavez ultimately returned to power. Between 2002 and February 2003 the elite held a "National Strike" which closed down large parts of the country and reduced the flow of oil. Again their attempts failed, although the country did experience extensive difficulties as a result of the effect on the economy. More recently the elite organised a petition to collect enough votes to precipitate a recall referendum which would allow the population to vote on whether Chavez should continue as president or not. It was this referendum which took place yesterday.

In the run-up to the vote, both sides held huge rallies and insisted that they could and would win. It was widely accepted, however, that Chavez was likely to win, as indeed he did. The response of the opposition? Unsurprisingly, they dismissed the referendum as a "fraud", citing their own apparently somehow superior figures which miraculously showed that the opposition had won. The response of the "international community" to the referendum will be telling. Will they accept the claims of the elite without evidence or demand that the democratic wishes of the Venezuelan people be followed? That the US will use the "controversy"as the justification for some form of intervention is not inconceivable.

Reading a lot of the leftist rhetoric about Chavez, one might be forgiven for thinking that Chavez is some kind of revolutionary. Indeed, he often talks of the Bolivarian Revolution, seeing himself as a disciple of Simon Bolivar who fought the Spanish during the 19th Century. In fact, it appears to me that his politics are more akin to what in Europe is called "social democracy." That he is seen as a serious radical says a lot about how restricted the neo-liberal consensus has become. That aside, I still believe that a Chavez government would be better for the people of Venezuela, particularly the poor, than one subservient to the demands of the elite and the US.

Given the limited role of the UK in the country there seems little that those of us here can do. Nonetheless seeking to understand what is going on is a good start. My own history of the events leading up to the referendum is woefully inadequate. To find out more check out Z-Net's Venezuela Watch and some of the links contained within. For news on current developments I recommend Justin Podur's who is blogging from Caracas on the newly updated (and highly recommended) Z-Net Blog.

And now for your delictation, some pictures which you may not have seen. Firstly a "Si" campaign (that is anti-Chavez) billboard and below a "No" vote (pro-Chavez) rally.

Opposition Propaganda

Chavistas Demo

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Iraq... Again

The past week or so has seen fighting between "coalition" forces in Iraq and the Mahdi militia loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr reignite. The sight of US soldiers fighting in the holy city of Najaf has enrage large parts of the Shia and wider Muslim world. The situation is worrying, the issues it raises serious and so I've returned once more to the issue of Iraq.

Many on the left have been quite supportive of Sadr's uprising against the occupation, however it is important not to be over simplistic when talking about al-Sadr and his supporters. Juan Cole describes his followers as "narrow-minded, thug-like puritans who impose their power on civilians by coercion," an assessment echoed by Salam Pax in his last blog entry back in April. Similarly the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq described the conflict between the US and forces loyal to Sadr as a "war of terrorists". Certainly the areas under the control of the Mahdi militia have implemented a strict form of Sharia law and you certainly don't want to run an off-licence while these guys are around. It may even be true, as many supporters of the US action claim, that the majority of the population of Najaf oppose Sadr. However, as Cole points out, this is likely to be because "Muqtada's social and political base lies elsewhere. It isn't that he doesn't have one." He appears to have extensive support amongst the ranks or young, poor Shia such as those living in Sadr city, a Baghdad slum named after Moqtada's late father. According to a poll in May, support for Sadr ran at 32% with another 36% saying they somewhat supported him. This made him the most popular man in the country after Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

With US forces massing around Najaf there has been an outpouring of anger and support in Iraq. There have been demonstrations in central Baghdad, Kufa and Samawa. In Diwaniya protesters attacked and occupied the offices of PM Iyad Allawi's party, the Iraqi National Accord. There were even protests in Fallujah, a city described by Cole as "strongly Sunni". At Hilla, Polish troops were apparently surrounded in the police station by demonstrators. Large numbers of Shia are also making their way to the city to act as human shields around al-Sadr (these pictures apparently show people on their way).

When Saddam fell, Sadr was a cleric with limited influence. His paper Al-Hawza was read by something like 10,000 people. It printed conspiracy theories about the occupying forces, but was hardly alone in this practice which occurs in many of the hundreds of papers now available in Iraq. However the US decided to close his paper down, which led to demonstrations and ultimately open conflict (for more on this and some links see my post on the matter from April). Later in the year he made noises about setting up a political party and working through the political process. But laws preventing those with "illegal" militias from participating meant that this did not come to fruition. I can't help but wonder why the US didn't make further efforts to co-opt Sadr which would have made their job much easier. Instead they seem set on getting themselves into fights they cannot win (at least politically: they could have flattened Najaf, but not without losing what support they have within the Shia community and for that matter the world).

The situation in Iraq still strikes me as bleak. There are at this point no good solutions. There is a real risk that when the US withdraw some form of undemocratic theocracy could take power, but I still do not believe that this is a justification for the ongoing occupation or the assault on Najaf. However is seems that Islamist groups are taking legitimacy from their opposition to the occupation as there is no credible secular force filling that role. The longer the occupation continues the stronger they may become. Quoting Noam Chomsky is something of a lefty cliche, but in this case he makes a point so well, I feel it's justified. With regard to the unpredictable consequences of an "expeditious withdrawal" he notes,
We cannot say much with confidence, of course, any more than we could have said anything with confidence about withdrawal of Japanese armies from much of Asia in the early 1940s, or of Russian forces from Afghanistan, and many other cases. But that lack of confidence is not much of an argument for military occupation.
There are, I repeat, no easy answers. However, it seems clear that the US and UK cannot bring peace and stability, let alone democracy to Iraq by force of arms. The occupation is part of the problem (arguably a large part), not the solution. We are going to have to withdraw eventually. If I am right and the presence of the "coalition" is only strengthening the hand of the reactionaries, is it not better that we leave now to maximise the chance of a good outcome, rather than allowing these groups to grow in strength?

Of course if people had listened to me 18 months ago when I warned that the invasion of Iraq would inevitably lead to a quagmire, then we wouldn't be faced with this pretty dire set of choices now.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Me In Print Again!

Nottingham Alternative News is an independent media project based in Nottingham, England which aims "to provide a platform for issues that are not given prominence in the mainstream media including mainstream local newspapers and radio stations." It comes out monthly and is a good source of information on campaigns in and around Nottingham. Those who want to can submit their own articles for consideration. I've done just that and they've been kind (daft?) enough to publish my piece, an article on the dispossession of the Chagossians. It's available for your delictation and indifference here and while you're at it, why not have a look at some of the other stuff?

The Security-Industrial Complex

Most people don't read the business pages much, if at all. This is quite understandable, they're hardly the world's most exciting read (far from it in fact) and if you don't have a background in economics or business it is easy to feel lost. This is unfortunate. That economics plays a central role in the way the world run should be fairly uncontroversial. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, in 2000 corporations made up 51 of the largest 100 economies in the world. This means they can exert massive influence on governments (it is possible to debate the extent to which this happens, but not that it occurs). Political leaders of all stripes go out of their way to show that they are business friendly and that their policies either are or will be. You don't have to be an anti-capitalist to see any of this.

Of course, reading the business pages alone may not be very useful. Business people can make use of them because they understand how the information contained within fits into the wider system and how to make money from it. Those of us seeking to use it to understand how the world works, particularly those of doing so from a dissident perspective, must also develop an understanding of the context and background to what we are (or more accurately as I suggested above, aren't) reading.

Consider this article by Gary Duncan and Ingrid Mansell from yesterday's Times (7/10/04). The headline should make the ears of anyone dubious about corporations prick up: "Companies profit off back of terror threat". Probably the details are slightly different from what you might expect given this beginning, but it remains a fascinating and potentially quite informative insight into the working of the global capitalist system.

Duncan and Mansell report that the US's homeland security budget has more than doubled to $40.1 billion (£21.8 billion) since the creation of the Department for Homeland Security (DHS) in the aftermath of September 11th. This offers "a new and large source of revenue for companies, says Merrill Lynch, the investment bank. The pile of money is also spilling across the Atlantic where British companies are profiting from the increasing security consciousness."

They quote Jose Rasco from Merrill Lynch who notes, "While the jury is out on how these programmes will affect the economy and our productive capacity as we become more of a wartime economy, it is clear that certain sectors within the defence industry stand to benefit." Those particular sectors being "technologically driven, productivity enhancing areas of the defence industry."They continue,
Other analysts believe the benefits of the massive security drive will spill over into other high technology sectors, including electronics and the biotech industries, both in America and in leading developed economies including the UK.
The benefits may already be accruing. According to Justin Urquhart Stewart, of Seven Investment Management, the asset manager, ?"There have been huge gains by high-tech development companies. This is where we are seeing growth in the British defence industry - not in the traditional, big industrial companies, but in smaller, specialist high-tech ones.?"

That corporations are profiting from the DHS' programmes and activities seems clear, but there are some voices of dissent.
The scale of the build-up in security spending, as well as the steep increase in more traditional defence spending on the US Armed Forces, has created concern among some analysts over potential damage to America?s economic performance. These activities are seen by economists as frequently inefficient and their rapid expansion could undercut US productivity growth across the economy as a whole.
But, Rasco suggests that we needn't worry. Duncan and Mansell note that he "believes that use of next generation equipment in many of the new security programmes could mean greater efficiency as well as potential spin-off benefits." He points out that much of equipment being purchased uses cutting-edge technology and notes, "The good news is that they are often highly productive as well." He goes further to suggest that the investment could lead to commercial spin-offs, citing as a precedent the development of Teflon as a spin-off from the Apollo programme to reach the moon.

In fact Rasco could have used any number of examples, the phenomenon is far from unusual. Contrary to the rhetoric about free markets, Western economies remain quite interventionist, albeit in oftentimes subtle ways. Noam Chomsky discusses this on a number of occasions, although one of the best expositions appears in Understanding Power (Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel eds., The New Press, New York, 2002). He points out that after the Second World War the world economy was in serious difficulties and argues that
every one of the rich countries hit upon more or less the same method of getting out. They did it independently, but they more or less hit upon the same method - namely, state spending, public spending of some kind, what's called 'Keynesian stimulation.'
He discusses the history of the US example, considering how this role was filled first by the New Deal and then by the war effort (when the US had a full-blown command economy controlled from Washington, largely by corporate executives). After the war it was clear that some form of government stimulation was needed, although he suggests that there was some question as to whether government spending should be focused on social or military spending. The latter, of course, won out because it "doesn't distribute wealth, it's not democratizing, it doesn't create popular constituencies or encourage people to get involved in decision making." People don't have an opinion on whether the government should build a stealth bomber or a cruise missile (a bad example to be sure, but you get the idea), but they do care where schools, hospitals and the like are built and on how they are run.

Chomsky points out that other countries did it slightly differently. Japan set up The Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). This discusses with major corporations how the economic system will be run over the next few years. They plan how much consumption there will be, how much investment will occur and where. He compares the levels of spending on lasers and software made during efforts to develop the "Star Wars" missile defence programme and points out that they were roughly the same as the amounts spent by MITI in those areas. The Japanese system is more efficient than its US counterpart, subsides go straight to commercial market, rather than being channeled into the military, which might develop something from which there's a commercial spin-off.

It should be clear that the rhetoric about "free markets" and the like leaves a lot out. Nonetheless it remains a useful propaganda tool against the workers, who remain subject to "flexible labour markets" and must content themselves with low-pay and bad hours. While the DHS may function as a new method of stimulating the economy, there is nothing new about the role it plays.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Success Story

I said a while ago that I wouldn't blog about Iraq for a while and indeed I haven't. The situation is becoming increasingly depressing. Sifting through the wealth of information coming out of the country it is difficult to find much, to be positive about. The Sunni insurrection continues, the Shia uprising centered around Moqtada Al-Sadr has reignited and people continue dying, with the country's Christian population becoming targets for the first time in a particularly horrific turn of events. To be fair their are occasional good news stories. The US has finally gotten around to organising rubbish collection in Baghdad, but, given that this has taken almost a year and a half, its difficult to get very excited about it.

One of the most telling stories about the conduct of the occupation is the situation in Basra, which (tellingly in my opinion) does not seem to have attracted much comment in the media. You may recall that Basra has been presented as the "success story". Administered by British troops, who according to the British media at least, are much better behaved than their American counterparts (before anyone accuses me of anti-Americanism, I remain very dubious about these claims) it has largely avoided the violence which has blighted so much of the rest of Iraq and remained relatively peaceful. Even here however, the situation for the population is grim. Ross Mountain, acting special representative of the UN Secretary General for Iraq, told Reuters, "We are confronting a potential serious humanitarian crisis," with a shortage of drinking water at the peak of summer, a situation exacerbated by ongoing power cuts.

"We have no indication that there is anywhere else in the country that is facing this kind of crisis. Nobody is facing 50 degree (Celsius) temperatures with less than half the supply of water required ... There is nowhere as bad as the Basra area." Basra has apparently always faced problems accessing drinking water despite being close to the Shatt al-Arab waterway formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. This is a consequence of a lack of investment (presumably because the city is largely Shia), the effect of three wars and the sanctions regime. "The south does present the most dire prospect at the moment in terms of (drinking water) supplies. Basra has been traditionally neglected. Lack of maintenance, lack of attention means it is the first to go. The pumps will collapse." Nonetheless these long-running problems should not obscure the fact that the situation in the city is worse than it was before the war. Not only can we not maintain order, but we can't keep the water running either.

Mountain warns that levels were at 40-60% of those required by the population and that "[i]f emergency measures are not taken, there will be loss of life and disease." He also warned of civil unrest, noting, "Water is life and if people don't get water they are unlikely to sit quietly at home. The first demonstrations have already taken place with people protesting and it is not unreasonable to think that could happen again." It goes without saying that the last thing that the occupying forces and the Interim Government need is further unrest in Iraq.

One of the things that's struck me following the developments in Iraq has been the incompetence of the occupying forces: their clumsy efforts to silence Moqtada Al-Sadr's ravings by closing down his paper brought them into open conflict with him and his supporters; their brutal attack on Fallujah turned the entire city against them and forced the US into an embarrassing retreat; and now because we can't get organised to provide the population of Basra with water, we may see them turn against us as well.

Friday, August 06, 2004

For Simplicity's Sake?

I've commented before on my perception that much of the coverage of the conflict/situation/genocide (take your pick according to where you want to put the emphasis) is simplistic and perhaps even misleading. One example of this is the distinction drawn between Darfurian "Africans" and Janjaweed "Arabs". While not strictly inaccurate terms they are somewhat misleading. Both communities are in fact black and follow Islam. I am worried that some seem to want to portray the conflict in the region as one waged by an Islamic government against an innocent (Christian?) minority. This "Clash of Civillisations" nonsense will do little to reassure those in the Muslim world who perceive (quite wrongly in my opinion) the "War on Terror" as a "War on Islam". It will only polarise multicultural communities in the West and sour relations between the Western and Islamic worlds and it's not as if the situation in both cases isn't bad enough already.

For a very detailed (and hence quite long) account of the historical context of the current crisis check out this excellent article from the London Review of Books by Alex De Waal, author and director of Justice Africa. I found this thanks to the Passion Of The Present blog, probably the best source of information on what's going on in the region and the efforts to do something about it. A must read for anyone who wants to keep up with what's going on. While I'm recommending stuff, this article from the Christian Science Monitor is pretty interesting and considers the Bush Administration's motives for getting involved in the situation.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Priorities... Priorities...

The UN Security Council passed a resolution on Friday on the situation in Darfur, Sudan. It has been widely criticised for calling on the Sudanese government to take steps to disarm the Janajweed militia terrorising the population of the region. Critics point out that the militias and the government are in fact working together and that as a result the resolution is a waste of time, which will allow the massacres and displacement to continue at least until the next monthly review. Initially the Sudanese government made noises about rejecting the resolution, but subsequently appears to have accepted it, although insisting that they need more time. Which brings me to the main point of this post...

I don't usually read the News Of The World (the Sunday edition of Rupert Murdoch's rightwing tabloid rag, The Sun), but on Monday I was flicking through a copy (it didn't take long). They had a brief article on the Sudanese government having "caved-in" on the UN Resolution. They clearly thought this was very important as it apparently merited 43 words, including the headline. By contrast "Svengate", the sexual exploits of England manager Sven Goran-Eriksson was considered worthy of coverage on at least 7 pages (and perhaps more in the sport section). In case anyone's forgotten 1 million people may die as a result of the situation in Darfur, as far as I'm aware nobody's likely to die as a result of the goings on at the FA.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

I had thought about waiting to write something about the government's "Preparing For Emergencies" information until my booklet came through, skimming the website there's a disappointing amount of interesting stuff, maybe when I get the hard-copy I'll find something which inspires me to write. Or not. In the meantime check out this amusing spoof. The site, purporting to represent The Ministry of Vague Paranoia, includes this helpful advice on what to do in the event of an emergency:
  • Run
  • Really, really fast.
  • Follow the advice of the emergency services, unless that advice is something other than "Run".
  • Try to remain calm and think before acting, and try to reassure others. Or, trample them in a desperate attempt to flee as the building you're in is consumed by a radioactive cloud.
  • Check for injuries. Here's a hint: if it's painful, it's probably injured. However, hurting when you pee is probably not an injury related to the incident. But get yourself checked out anyway.
  • My personal favourite tit-bit is the advice on what to do in the event of a zombie attack: "The assailants can be stopped by removing the head or destroying the brain. Suitable tools you may find in your shed include shovels, cricket bats, and similar items." (At this point, I should probably confess my penchant for zombie movies. This particular reference is to the recent, and rather good, Shaun Of The Dead).

    Probably best to check this out soon. The government aren't best pleased. They apparently sent the webmaster a letter encouraging him to "take down the site, immediately, and not put it up again in another guise" "[i]n the interests of helping people to cope in the event of a crisis or a disaster". Who says they don't have a sense of humour?!

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