the Disillusioned kid: April 2006
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Wednesday, April 26, 2006


I don't really understand why unions feel the need invite government ministers to address their conferences, as if they're going to spout anything but propaganda. That said, if you are going to invite them, it's a great opportunity to bring them down a notch. Patricia Hewitt the minister responsible for the National Health Service has received a distinctly frosty reception from both Unison and the Royal College of Nursing.

The reason for anger amongst nurses is not difficult to find. As a result of a looming budget deficit, the NHS is haemoraging staff at a disturbing rate. NHS Watch was set up in early April to keep track of job losses accross the service. At the time of writing, the total stands at 10,349. Unsurprisingly a lot of nurses are looking at those figures and wondering if they might be next and that's before we even start thinking about the ramifications for patient care. Rather more surprising is Hewitt's assertion that the NHS has witnessed its best years since its inception.

Hewitt has also done little to endear herself to healthworkers by blaming them for the NHS' current difficulties, suggesting they are a consequence of recent pay rises. Cynics have pointed out, however, that the ever increasing involvement of private firms in the NHS might just have had an impact. It goes without saying that private firms are not getting involved in the health service to help people. They're there to make money; as businesses that's their raison d'etre. As such, the idea that privatisation (whether it's called that or not) is in patients' best interests is dubious at best.

I'm not a great believer in old-fashioned nationalisation. Why would we expect large faceless bureaucracies to operate in the interests of normal people? Nevertheless, it should be pretty obvious that the profit motive is almost certainly worse and takes away even the pretense of democratic accountability, which of course is part of the reason why it's so popular in some circles. The current drive to integrate the private and public sectors is in many ways the worst of all worlds, but does do a very good job of moving public money into private hands. Which is all well and good if they're your hands, but not quite so good if you die in a hospital corridor waiting for a nurse.

Monday, April 24, 2006

What the hell is heteronormativity anyway?

Yesterday was Blog Against Heteronormativity Day. I had heard of this a while back, but a combination of forgetfulness and a lack of anything interesting to say resulted in my failure to partake. That said, tardiness is a venerable activist tradition which I have no intention (nor hope) of overturning, so y'all can consider this my contribution, although I still don't have anything interesting to say.

As Pacian implies, heteronormativity is hardly a mainstay of most people's vocabulary. Hell, I'd never even heard of it before the innauguration of the Blog Against... idea. It's probably worth making some effort to define exactly what we're talking about; enter stage left Nubian:
in brief, heteronormativity is a term that can be used to describe institutions, policies and beliefs that reinforce the rigid categories of male and female. these categories, supposedly, determine our sex, sexuality, sexual desire, gender identity, and gender roles. therefore, there are expected behaviors for males (such as the patriarch of the nuclear family for example), as are there expected behaviors for females (the submissive wife to the patriarch, among other things). but we all know---THAT'S BULLSHIT!
As off-putting as the polysyllabic appellation - coined by Michael Warner in 1991 - may be, it would appear that the concept itself isn't so hard to grasp.

It is apparent that heterenormativity isn't the same thing as patriarchy or heterosexism. Like Medusa and her sisters Sthenno and Euryale, that other infamously horrid Greek tripartite, each is hideous on their own and all too often they are found together, yet it remains possible and helpful to discriminate between them. Patriarchy describes a situation whereby males are in a dominant position and where, consequentially, women are oppressed. Heteronormativity, meanwhile is concerned with enforcing a strict binary gender system, this is not a prerequisite of patriarchy, but it can be very helpful for the 'efficient' running of the patriarchy. So much more complicated if we've got to work out who and what to oppress.

This isn't something I feel particularly competent to write much more about, although I think that it is a concept meritous of thought and more importantly action. The struggles for women's and gay liberation have come a long way in their relatively short lives, but there is still much to be done. Oppression will not be truly defeated until we destroy the ways of thinking on which it is based. Long story short: kill the heteronormativist in your head.

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

The case for the Defense (Department)

Things were starting to look up for the Chagossians; a handful have been allowed to visit the islands for the first time since their eviction and there are rumours of a second trip. Problem is, it was never likely to last and it's fallen to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to do the dirty.

The court ruled that federal courts were powerless to grant compensation to the islanders for the disposession because this entailed reviewing 40-year old Defense Department decisions. Quoth Judge Janice Brown (who incidentally happens to be a Bush apointee):
If we were to hold that the executive owed a duty of care toward the Chagossians, or that the executive's actions in depopulating the islands and constructing the base had to comport with some minimum level of protections, we would be meddling in foreign affairs beyond our institutional competence.
She continued, "We may not dictate to the executive what its priorities should have been."

The Chagossian's legal fight was only ever going to get them so far. The law in the US and UK remains largely subordinate to the interests of power, rhetoric aside. We are still waiting for the decision in the High Court case into the Orders in Council which prevent islanders even stepping foot on the island without express permission, but frankly I don't hold out much hope for a positive outcome. The battlefield may change, but the fight goes on.

Those of you interested in such things can find the ruling in all its glory as a pdf here and assorted documents pertaining to the case here.

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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Nepal kicks off

Nepal is a landlocked Himalayan country bordered by China to the north and India to the south. It's population is estimated to be around 28 million, of whom some 80% are Hindu. This means it has the dubious honour of being the world's only Hindu monarchy. The way things are going, however, it is far from clear that this state of affairs is going to last. The Nepalese people have had enough of the King and they want everybody to know it.

Nepal has traditionally been ruled by a Monarch, but in 1989 the "Jan Andolan" (People's) Movement was able to force the regime to accept constitutional reforms, leading to the establishment of a multiparty parliament in May 1991. Nevertheless, the country remained economically feudalist and the king appears to have retained rather more powers than are bestowed on his British counterpart. In 1996 this encouraged the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) to launch a "people's war" to bring down the Monarchy and establish a socialist republic.

In 2001 it emerged that the Nepalese Royal Family were even crazier than ours when on June 1 Heir Apparent Dipendra responded to his parents' rejection of his choice of wife by going postal the royal palace, killing nine and wounding four. Clearly feeling left out he topped himself three days later. In the aftermath of the massacre Prince Gyanendra ascended to the throne an act which was accompanied by the inevitable conspiracy theorising.

In February 2005, Gyanendra dismissed the entire government and assumed executive powers ostensibly to quash the Maoist movement. This attracted considerable international criticism and was never exactly going to be popular with opposition party supporters. There have been sporadic protests ever since, but earlier this month things seemed to have stepped up a gear. Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in the face of a ban on political rallies, a curfew and indiscriminate police brutality. This mobilisation has been accompanied by a General Strike which is today in its 27th day.

Participation in the insurrection seems to be extensive. Lok Raj Baral, head of the Nepal Centre for Contemporary Studies, avers, “The scale of this uprising is unprecedented. During the people’s movement in 1990 that brought democracy to the country, the uprising was significantly smaller in size and scale. This time, every locality in Kathmandu Valley, and every district in the country are in spontaneous revolt.” There are even reports of tourists getting involved, which must make for an interesting slant on the package holiday.

Clearly Gyanendra is bricking it in the face of such massive popular outrage. Last night he even offered to return the executive powers he seized last year "to the people," although still intended to hold onto the throne. The opposition parties weren't impressed, believing that it didn't go far enough. The Nepali Congress opined that the king had "not clearly addressed the road map of the protest movement" and pledged that protests would continue.

There can be little doubt that one of the key factors influencing the course taken by the demonstrations and any subsequent political reform will be the response of the Maoists. After more than ten-years of war they control around 70% of the country. Although they don't seem to have always been on the same page, the Maoists reached a twelve-point understanding with seven opposition parties in November last year. In fact, this document is surprisingly liberal - particularly in light of the brutal manner in which the Maoists have pursued the "people's war" - declaring support for a "competitive multiparty system, fundamental rights of the people, human rights, and rule of law and democratic principles and values." Hell, even the authors of the Euston Manifesto would struggle to find much to disagree with.

Participation by the Maoists may have a detrimental effect on international relations with certain other countries in the event of a succesful revolution. The US and UK view Nepal's campaign against the Maoists as part of the "War on Terror." The Americans have sent military advisers and 5,000 M-16s, while the Brits have provided communications technology, helicopters and training. Conveniently - and with a delightful touch of irony - British aid is provided under the aegis of the "global conflict prevention" fund which means that it can be sent covertly and largely bypasses Parliamentary scrutiny. The Indians are concerned that Nepal's people's warriors may encourage India's own domestic Maoists, hence they have been Nepal's single biggest donor of military hardware. That said, there is a suggestion that India may have helped facilitate the twelve-point understanding, presumably on the basis that a stable liberal democracy serves there interests much better than an ongoing revolutionary war. The Chinese meanwhile are embarassed by a Maoist revolution so near to their own border which detracts from their attempts to excise China's communist past and present themselves as good capitalists and has continued military aid to the Royal Nepalese Army even while the US, EU and India have cut-off arms supplies.

The sheer scale and breadth of this uprising means that it must surely be terminal for Gyanendra. The only question would seem to be how long he can hold on and how much damage he is prepared to before he releases his hold on the reins of power. Burdgeoning international solidarity is a positive development worthy of support and could potentially play an important role. Now if only we could get ourselves organised and follow the Nepalese example...

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Friday, April 21, 2006

It never reigns it pours

God save the queen
She ain't no human being
There is no future
In England's dreaming
- Sex Pistols,God Save the Queen
It's almost thirty-years since John Lydon and his band of less than merry men railed against the preposterousness of the Monarchy, bringing us the number one that never was. While Lydon is now reduced to little more than a parody of his former self on reality TV repeats, her Madge Queen Elizabeth II reigns on (and on and on) even as she enters her eightieth year. Mores the pity says I.

The refusal of the Monarchy to die is mildly less irritating than society's refusal to kill it. We still seem to be wed to a belief that there are such things as natural social superiors and retain a curious distaste for democracy. It's telling that the arguments offered as justifications for the Royal Family's continuing existence are universally hollow. Witness the claim that it brings tourists to the country as if France or the US don't attract holiday makers.

There is, however, one glimmer on the horizon. Unbeknownst to all but a small cabal of anti-Monarchists, a secret team of highly-trained agents has infiltrated the Royal Family itself and been developing what is likely to be the most potent weapon in the Republican arsenal since the guillotine. This weapon is to be unleashed on the Queen's death and currently operates under the codename Charles.

Seriously though, I actually think that Charles may be the most powerful piece of kit in the Republican toolbox. Lizzy has, if nothing else, been good at keeping her head down and her mouth shut, which has by and large allowed her to steer clear of controversy. Charlie Boy by contrast seems to have inherited none of this tact and seems to have acquired his father's ability to piss people off to boot. In anybody else these character flaws might be dismissed as idiosyncracies, in a modern king they have the potential to bring down the Monarchy. Imagine what could happen if he tried to take on Parliament. One of his namesakes tried that. It all got a bit out of hand and he lost his head.

Frankly I can't wait.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Resisting the database state one step at a time

renew for freedom - MAY 2006 - renew your passport


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

OK, so it probably isn't at the top of most people's holiday wishlist right now, but you really wouldn't want to be gay in The New Iraq.

The other Iranian strike

George Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be busy squaring-up in the hopes of demonstrating that their wang is bigger than the other guy's, but away from the media spotlight, Iran's internal struggles look like they are hotting up. Although strikes are illegal in the Islamic Republic, the country's unions are putting their British counterparts to shame:
Angered by unpaid salaries and generally low wages, workers in the northern Iranian provincial capital Rasht blocked streets and protested in front of government offices a fortnight ago brandishing banners that read: "We are hungry!" It wasn't the first time that thousands of employees at the country's largest state-owned textile factory had laid down their tools. But this time they were joined by dam workers in the western province of Elam and employees of a pharmaceutical factory in Tehran. Recently, workers have also gone on strike against harsh work conditions and impending layoffs in mines and petrochemical plants across the country, with hundreds of coal miners from the northern province of Gilan protesting the fact that they have not been paid for 13 months. Workers were also on strike in the car factories of the Iran-Khodro company, already the site of a massive work stoppage on last year's Day of Social Welfare and Securities (July 16), when strikers demanded the introduction of a minimum wage.
Ahmadinejad rose to power on the back of a campaign characterised by political and economic populism. It is the former which has perhaps acheived the most attention and expressed itself in militaristic posturing, anti-Semitic rhetoric and a vicious anti-gay crackdown. His promises to improve living conditions and raise incomes, however, appear to have fallen by the wayside. According to the Iranian Central Bank, more than half the population live below the poverty line, defined as €230 ($280) a month for a family of five.

The current wave of strikes was initiated by bus drivers in Tehran in January. The government response was immediate and harsh: several hundred drivers were incacerated within hours of the strikes commencement. One of the strike leaders, Mansur Hayat-Ghebi was held until March 19 and then re-arrested shortly after. He was finally released again on April 10 after being on hunger strike for several days. The strike had originally been called to demand recognition of the union and collective bargaining and for the release of Mansoor Ossanlou who remains in prison where he has been held since December 22 without charge or access to lawyers. Reports suggest he is suffering from a number of medical conditions including a recently contracted skin condition. And Scargill thought he had a bad time of it with Thatcher!

The imprisoned drivers have been locked out without pay since their release and the Worker-Communist Party of Iran suggests that they are likely to lose their jobs for having the temerity to stand up and demand their rights:
On 9 March the 'termination of contracts' of 46 workers - most union activists - was announced. Also, last Wednesday, 5 April, the workers, protesting outside the bus company's headquarters, were told that another 116 workers have been formally sacked, though no names were released.

A 'disciplinary committee' is reportedly working its way through a long list of workers to be fired for their part in the strike of 28 January.
Digby Jones would love these guys if they ever had the misfortune of meeting him.

It appears that the international dimension of their struggle is not lost on the striking workers and the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company sent a message of congratulation to French workers following the recent defeat of the CPE. It behooves those of us opposed to an attack on Iran and to the country's incumbent regime to do what we can to support those struggling within the Islamic Republic for a better society. If you want to find out how, start here or here.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Nick Griffin must die

Apparently "academics working for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation [claim] that one in four voters are thinking of voting for the BNP." I say apparently because the report to which the Grauniad seems to be referring isn't available online yet (although I think it will become available here in due course). This is unfortunate, because the claim could be read a number of ways: is that one in four from the population of voting age, from constituencies which will be holding elections in May or from constituencies where the BNP are standing? Whichever is correct, it's clearly one out of four too many. Coupled with Margaret Hodge's suggestion over the weekend that as many as eight out of ten white working class people in her constituency could vote for the party, it shouldn't be surprising that some people are worried.

For what it's worth, I suspect Hodge's assertion is something of an overstatement and that many of those "thinking of voting for the BNP" will see sense - if memory serves, third parties rarely do as well in elections as polls suggest they will (you may be happy to tell a pollster that you'll vote BNP or Green or Stark Raving Loony, but change your mind when you get into the polling booth). Nevertheless, those of use concerned about and opposed to the far-right need to take stock of the current situation and work out where how we respond.

There has been much discussion about the way the BNP has been able to capitalise on Labour's decision to abandon the working-class. As the three major parties compete for a small segment of middle England, it shouldn't be surprising that the rest of the country feel ignored. Couple that with shitty housing, shitty jobs and shitty pay and it's no great surprise that so many people have had enough of the LibLabCon.

That said, I don't just want to point at the failures of others. The BNP's success also constitutes a failure on the part of anarchists, lefties and radicals. Most of the people now expressing support for the BNP have been shat on from a great height by the capitalist system. They are exactly the sort of people who we should be attracting, the people we claim to be fighting for, but instead they are moving towards the racist, fascist prattle peddled by Griff & Co. If we're serious about defeating the far-right than we need to take them on ideologically, anti-racist platitudes just ain't gonna cut it.

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Monday, April 17, 2006

The law is an ass

The trial and subsequent incaceration of RAF Doctor Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith seems to have generated some confusion among many anti-war commentators. This seems to stem primarily from a few basic misconceptions about international law. Now, I don't want to pretend to be an expert on this, although I did study one module on the subject and happen to think I didn't do too badly in it thank you very much. Based on this foundation - which shaky though it is gives me an advantage over many of my fellow activists - lets consider some of the salient points.

Firstly, it's worth pointing out that international law isn't very much like normal, domestic, national law. The most obvious difference being that while the latter draws its authority from a single sovereign, namely the State (in whatever form that may take), the former operates in a system of interacting sovereigns, without any overarching power. Sure, the UN might see itself filling that role and it does talk the talk at times, but it falls far short of the omnipotence of the state. Some have argued on this basis that international law is not law at all, but that's a discussion for another blog on another day. Let us proceed on the assumption that it is a form of law, albeit a heterodox one.

With good reason there has been extensive discussion about the legality of the invasion of Iraq. Many commentators have argued that there was no legal basis for the war and one of my lecturers suggested that this was the overwhelming opinion amongst international legal scholars with perhaps 9 out of 10 holding the view. It is clearly somewhat beyond my means to evaluate the accuracy of this estimate, but there is no question that there were many highly respected scholars who considered the invasion illegal.

Even the government's Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith expressed reservations about the legality of the conflict in a secret memo, although as you may recall these mysteriously disappeared from the summary he released to Parliament in order to bolster the government's case for war. The basis of Goldsmith's concerns lay with his worry that previous UN Security Council resolutions (most crucially Resolution 1441) did not authorise military action given the current situation and that a further Security Council (which was unlikely to be forthcoming) was neccesary.

Security Council authorisation is crucial because the UN Charter forbids the use or threat of force (Article 2) except in cases of self defence (Article 51) or where the Security Council has given the go-ahead (Article 42). If 1441 didn't authorise force as activists, scholars and most of the countries who voted for it seemed to think then there was no legal basis for the invasion. Ergo: war crime.

In fact, some (not least yours truly) have alleged that the invasion was worse than that and actually constituted a war of agression. This stems from the fact - patently obvious at the time, despite the protestations of our leaders to the contrary - that Iraq posed no threat to the UK or US. Wars of agression are hardly triffling matters: this was one of the charges levelled at Nazi leaders at Nuremberg and the Tribunal averred, "To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime. It is the supreme international crime differing from other war crimes only in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole," which seems pretty unambiguous.

Had Kendall-Smith decided to make his stand against the war prior to or during the invasion it appears he would have been on stronger ground, although it's worth noting that the presiding Judge Advocate Jack Baylis rejected the notion that a lowly Lieutenant could be complicit in the crime of agression. Kendall-Smith's real mistake, however, was to apply an essentially accurate analysis of the legality of the invasion to the wholly different legal context of the ongoing occupation.

When the dust of the invasion was just beginning to settle, the US and UK went back to the Security Council to get a resolution to legitimise. The various council members didn't want to miss out on a chance to get their chunk of the pie and happily provided them with not one, but a whole series which have been introduced over the past few years with every twist and turn of the occupiers' strategy (if such a grand appellation is appropriate). They have also been able to secure the consent of the government they helped to install and are probably the last line of defence for. Call it a sham if you want, but it's a legally water-tight one.

This doesn't mean that everything the occupiers do is legal. Quite the contrary. The various Security Council resolutions impose requirements on them as do the Geneva Conventions and the Hague regulations. There's considerable evidence that these have been breached on numerous occasions (Abu Ghraib being only the most highl profile example). Nevertheless, these breaches, crimes and attrocities don't impact on the legality of the occupation itself.

Not that any of this makes the occupation right. A UN fig leaf isn't going to count for a damn if the US decided to drop a bunker buster on an "insurgent stronghold" which happens to also be your house or if some trigger happy checkpoint guard blows your brains out because you don't respond to his arm signals with sufficient alacrity. Indeed, the imprimatur has not only done nothing to prevent the corporate carving up of Iraq, but has actually facilitated it. For consistent anti-war activists (as opposed to opportunists like the LibDems) legality or otherwise should be only a peripheral issue.

The invasion would have been wrong even with a blue globe stamped on its pimply arse. The occupation is wrong regardless of the presence of blue helmets and the odd white van. It follows therefore that Kendall-Smith deserves our support, bad legal advice or not. He is a model for what every man and woman in the British armed forces should be doing. It behooves us to encourage others to follow his lead, but you can start by signing the petition here.

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Sunday, April 16, 2006

It is axiomatic that lefty sects multiply at an exponential rate matched only by bacteria and American detective shows. As such, the emergence of an incipient Marxist-Britneyism shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

According to the Beeb, the British and Mauritian governments are considering allowing a second visit to the Chagos Archipelago (they also have pictures of the first here). If true, this is obviously a good thing, although it remains a long way short of permanent resettlement. One hopes it won't take quite as long to come to fruition as the first - and thus far only such visit - did.
The War on Easter starts here apparently.

Friday, April 14, 2006


In my last post I discussed some of the flaws of trade unionism, with particular emphasis on the local government pensions dispute. I suggested in conclusion that many of relevant issues were touched upon in this article by Simon Tormey (who I'll confess from the word go was one of my lecturers) and promised to examine some of its implications which is more or less how we ended up here. Tormey's article was written in response to a piece by Hilary Wainwright advocating the coalescence of assorted social movements around a new lefty party. As such, Tormey's article focuses primarily on political parties. Nevertheless, many of the points it makes generalise and applying them to trade unions is, I suggest, a worthwhile task.

Tormey asserts:
Collective action has, perversely become individualised. Yes, we want to join with others to make our voices heard – no we don’t want those voices to crystallise into a fixed or static programme which then ‘represents’ us or our views. We want to act, but we want our actions to be distinct, to somehow remain our own. We want our voices heard – not drowned out by the megaphone politics of the politicians.
The theoryheads amongst you may notice the hints at Deleuzo-Guattarian philosophy with its rejection of representation and focus on the assertion of "univocity" and difference, but the thrust of the argument ought not to be lost on the rest of us.

Tormey's argument strikes me as particularly attractive. It explains the ongoing demise of political parties of all stripes and dovetails nicely with my own distaste for party lines or political platforms. One is entitled to ask however, exactly how such a politics might manifest itself and how it might exert influence on the prevailing order. It is axiomatic that atomised individuals cannot confront the forces arrayed against them (army, police etc.) alone. Unity - as any lefty can tell you - is strength. How then is this unity to be achieved without representation, without crystallisation, without trade unionists?

Tormey notes, "To speak of an alternative in the singular is already to miss the point." He points to an explosion of "unofficial or DIY boycotts" which enable people to act, rather than have others act for them. I think this diversity is potentially a great strength and I am not here seeking to articulate a one-size fits all solution. Indeed, I do not offer a definitive solution. Instead I wish to point to a few methods of organising, drawn from history and my own experience, which I believe may provide some inspiration. Continuing today's theme, I'm going to focus predominantly on labour struggles.

The Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (National Labour Confederation, CNT) is a Spanish anarcho-syndicalist union which reached its nadir during the Spanish Civil War. The CNT was established intially in opposition to the socialist Union General de los Trabajadores (General Union of Workers, UGT) and made some effort to distinguish itself from its more conventional contemporaries as Wikipedia explains:
The national confederation was split into smaller regional ones, which were again broken down into smaller trade unions. Despite this many-tiered structure bureaucracy was consciously avoided. Initiatives for decisions came largely from the individual unions. There were no paid officials; all positions were staffed by common workers. Decisions made by the national delegations did not have to be followed.
Even today the CNT refuses to participate in industrial committees which consist of elected representatives of the workers who participate in negotiations on collective bargaining agreements. The upshot of which is that the organisation cannot legally call strikes, although quite rightly this doesn't seem to stop them. As this interview with a CNT member shows, they seem to place great faith in the collective action of workers and have little interest in negotiations which the interviewee suggests "do not depend on anything other than force."

None of this is to suggest that the CNT model could or should be adopted wholesale in the UK. It is worth recalling that during the civil war the CNT did participate in the government, with several prominent members taking positions as ministers a move which remains controversial amongst anarchists. Furthermore, the CNT is a fraction of its former size. In 1979, shortly after being decriminalised following the demise of General Franco, the organisation demonstrated its commitment to leftist principles by splitting. This was motivated largely by disagreement over whether the union should participate in elecciones sindicales to elect workers' representatives, with those who supported such a moving going on to become the Confederación General del Trabajo (General Labour Confederation, CGT) which is nowdays the larger of the two.

It is worth pointing out that there is already a British organisation organised along the lines of the CNT, but unfortunately its unfluence seems to be virtually nonexistent. The Solidarity Federation is the British affiliate of the International Workers Association/Associación Internacional de los Trabajadores (IWA/AIT) which the CNT innaugurated and remains the most prominent member of. SolFed even has a Public Service Workers Network, which one can envisage intervening in the current pensions struggle, but its membership appears to be small and diffuse. I certainly wouldn't expect them to be offered places in the Cabinet anytime soon.

If we apply Tormey's analysis it is arguable that SolFed's minimal influence is at least partly attributable to the fact that it carries almost as much ideological baggage as the average lefty party. It has in short, crystallised into a fixed or static programme, in exactly the manner Tormey suggests we should avoid. While my Spanish is worse than rusty, I would hazard a guess that the CNT is plagued by similar problems. This shouldn't be all that surprising, anarcho-syndicalism was seen by its exponents, not only as a more militant form of trade unionism, but rather as a - even the - method for bringing about a revolution. Like Marxism it emerged in a particular historical context, but continues to be espoused as a response to the very different situation which we face today in an era of post-Fordist capitalism (at least in the Global North).

Rather than attempting to recreate the CNT I wonder if it wouldn't be possible to conceive of a non-ideological entity filling the same role. Many will balk at this, suggesting that ideological unity is key, but I disagree. One only need to look at the proliferation of lefty sects as factions split over matters of seemingly little significance. In the course of my own activism, I have had some experience with groups which try to dispense with an ideological "line" which I think has served them well. During my time at university, I was a member (and president for two years) of Nottingham Student Peace Movement (NSPM).

As you might expect given the name, NSPM was a movement made up with students concerned about the "War on Terror" and related isues. As is often the case with such groups it had a distinct lefty bias, but we always avoided taking a line on issues and never even had an official position on the invasion of Iraq (although we were obviously actively involved in opposing it). The strength of this, in my view, was that students from a wide range of political perspectives (Marxists, anarchists, pacifists, social-democrats, Quakers, Muslims etc.) could become involved without feeling compromised and the array of issues we dealt with was impressive (Aceh, the arms-trade, ethical investment, globalisation, India-Pakistan, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, racism, religion, surveillance etc.). Despite our non-iedological position, we never shied away from controversial issues and it was not unknown for discussions to become heated. In my opinion this is healthy and made us stronger. If we'd been a Marxist party we'd have had to split every other week which would have been problematic given how difficult it was to elect a committee (a prerequisite of affiliation ot the students' union) even once a year.

What brought NSPM together was a mutually shared concern about issues of war and peace, even where we might have major disagreements over priorities, tactics, principles and (inevitably) money. In the context of labour disputes it seems obvious that workers could come together on the basis of their shared interests. Indeed, such an organisation (if organisation is really the appropriate word) could conceivably exist alongside more conventional union structures, at least until we're ready to move beyond them.

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The Grand Old Dukes of York

In France weeks of protests, strikes, occupations and riots has forced the government to abandon the hugely controversial CPE labour law which would have allowed employers to fire workers under the age of 26 without reason in their first 2 years of employment. (Incidentally, the panoply of anti-CPE actions have apparently brought the country's riot police to the brink of exhaustion.) Nevertheless, actions continue (albeit with some drop off in participation) against the CNE which gives similar freedoms to small employers and in order to discourage the government from reintroducing similar laws in a new form.

The parallel (chronologically if not tactically) struggle in the UK in defence of local government pensions has taken a rather more ambiguous turn. On Wednesday the various participating unions released a statement via the Trades Union Congress (TUC) announcing that a "joint statement" with the Local Government Association (LGA) would form the basis of further negotiations and that these talks were to be facilitated by the suspensions of plans for strike action. The statement suggests that the decision to call-off strikes was made "at a meeting of all the unions representing members covered by the Local Government Pension scheme" and planned action was not officially suspended until the relevant union bodies had a chance to meet, but there was never any real doubt that they'd do as they were told. The role of ordinary union members in the decision was so slight that my branch found out that strike action was off from the BBC.

As you might expect, the statement was welcomed by various union bureaucrats. Unison big cheese Dave Prentis averred, "The joint union/LGA statement is a positive step and that is why we have decided to suspend our planned strike action. It provides a framework to enable negotiations to take place on the future of the local government pension scheme and on protection arrangements." So after getting perhaps 1.5 million people what do we have to show for it apart from a framework for negotiations? To be fair to him, Prentis does concede there's lot of talking to be done, but I'm a tad dubious about exactly what constitutes a "satisfactory conclusion" in his eyes.

Unison helpfully précis the joint statement, which "commits both sides to:"
  • discussing proper protection for current members of the LGPS pension scheme if the Rule of 85 were to be abolished
  • making 50% of the savings available to pay for protections, and of savings from changes to the commutation arrangements
  • agreeing that changes in future should be made by agreement where possible
  • negotiating a fair new-look scheme for the future.
This strikes me as a particularly loaded kettle of fish. Note the implicit acceptance of the abolition of the "Rule of 85" (which allows workers to retire with a full pension at the age of 6o when the sum of their age and years of service exceeds 85), the only issue being exactly what protection will be available for those affected. Recall that the Rule of 85 was part of the contract to which LGPS members signed up. Imagine if the situation were reversed and I decided that I wasn't going to do my contractural hours anymore and instead was only going to turn up every other Thursday. One assumes my managers wouldn't be appeased by offers of negotiation about how the impact of my absence could be mitigated.

Note also that only protection for "current members" is up for discussion. This is essentially what civil servants and others on public sector pensions have "won," but I'm sure I'm not alone in wondering where exactly this leaves newcomers. Are they simply supposed to work until they die? (One assumes that death is considered an acceptable excuse for stopping work amongst all but the most extreme advocates of an increased age of retirment.) Lastly, but by no means leastly, what is one to make of the commitment to agree any future changes "where possible"? Is anybody so naive as to think that if the LGA decides to cut back the scheme again in a few years time (as they may well do given the prevailing climate) and fail to reach a consensus with the unions, that this glorified gentleman's agreement is going to stop them forcing their reforms through?

Furthermore it should be pointed out that the joint statement envisages discussions continuing until June. I don't want to stick my neck out and suggest that I can predict the outcome of these talks, although I'm not all that positive. Regardless of what we're presented with at the end of the day, the fact that any kind of action has been forestalled until June precludes the possibility of action to coincide with local elections which I continue to believe could have been one of our strongest weapons against an intransigent, but politically isolated Labour government. Too bad that once again it looks like the unions have bottled their chance to really challenge the government.

None of this is greatly surprising and I have never made much secret of my cynicism about modern trade unions. In the here and now you'll have to look long without success for an organisation similarly well suited to defending workers' interests, yet rather than taking the fight to the bosses, they are content to focus their energy on negotiations. By "representing" workers in this manner, they actually manage to disipate potential militancy and direct it towards less confrontational avenues. Hence they actually reinforce the status quo.

The French experience shows an alternative. While the unions did play an important part in the anti-CPE movement, they don't appear to have been its driving force. Instead this appears to have been driven by the spontaneous action of others, notably students, which forced the hands of the unionists. Obviously other forces were at play and nobody would deny that French unions are much more militant than their British counterparts and rather quicker to call a strike, nevertheless, the anti-CPE campaign seems to have been unusually militant and hetrogenous even for France. All of which is a rather long-winded way of pointing you towards this article (via) by Simon Tormey which does a compelling demolition job on the concept of representation and its utility in movement building. Tormey's is an argument which has some interesting implications, but they'll have to wait until my next post.

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Friday, April 07, 2006

Believe it or not, I actually have a life beyond the internet. Last weekend this saw me end up standing around in Parliament Square while the names of some of the 200,000-odd people who have lost their lives in Iraq following the invasion were read out. The event was also a protest against the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 which prohibits unauthorised demonstrations with 1km of Parliament. Unfortunately, standing around was about the extent of my involvement, which probably makes this the least exciting piece of lawbreaking I've been involved in for sometime. On the plus-side I did get some nice photos which are available for your delictation here.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

What is one to make of this? (via)

Visitation Rights

Not all that long ago the visit by a group of Chagossians to their island homes was starting to look a lot like Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy: long awaited, much delayed and as yet amounting to diddly squat. Therefore, when stories began to emerge in January about preparations for such a visit my bullshit detector was going two-to-the-dozen. Unusually, my usually impeccable cynicism was misplaced on this occasion. Long story short: the visit has actually taken place.

Quoth the Foreign and Commonwealth Office:
Following their successful visit to the Saloman Islands yesterday [April 4], the Chagossians today [April 5] visited Ile de Coin at Peros Banhos.

With no other suitable landing place, the group disembarked from their Mauritian vessel Trochetia directly onto the beach.

Once ashore, they wandered freely on the island and attended a church service in the old church conducted by the two Mauritian priests accompanying the visit, Father Marion and Father Mongellard. The opportunity was then taken to tend family graves on the island, after which a short service was also held.

Their final act was to unveil a stone commemorating the visit, which was produced in Mauritius and taken to the island with the Chagossians. They returned to the Trochetia for the overnight passage to their final Chagos Islands destination, Diego Garcia, which they will reach tomorrow, (April 6th).
The press release explains, "The humanitarian visit is being jointly organised by the British and Mauritian governments in co-operation with leaders of the Chagossian communities. The role of the British and Mauritian governments is to facilitate the Chagossians own programme of events on each island. British Forces personnel are providing logistic support." The FCO also reveals that the trip is being accompanied by "a professional Royal Navy camera team" (is anybody else surprised that such a thing exists?!). "Their footage will be available on a pooled basis from Reuters in Singapore on the evening of Friday 7th April." If you can't wait that long there are photos here and here.

No doubt the participants in the visit were fulfilling a lifetime's dream, but many of those not given the same opportunity consider their situation less than fair. According to Afrol News, "At Port Louis harbour in Mauritius, some 500 Chagossians waved goodbye to the few selected ones. Many were crying." Those Chagossians who are now resident in the UK are particularly unhappy. Allain Vinticassin, the de facto leader of the Chagossian community in the UK, asserted, "We were not informed and they did not say they needed a list from the UK group." Afrol News suggests a more complex picture:
According to Robert Bain from the UK Chagos Support Association, however, Chagos refugees in Mauritius maintain that their British comrades had been "offered places, when the trip was first planned a few years ago, but they turned them down." The trip was postponed several times and when the British Chagossians finally decided they did want places, "it was too late," Mr Bain had been told.
Whatever the truth on this particular point, it is clear that the visit is only the start. This isn't to say it shouldn't be viewed as a victory, but rather that we shouldn't lose perspective. The group participating in the visit numbered only 120, a fraction of the total Chagossian population (which probably numbers around 3,000) and lasted merely three days, of which only part was actually spent on the islands. The Chagossians and their allies haven't been fighting for forty-years to stop now.

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Uh huh:
Following successful industrial action by UNISON and 10 other unions on Tuesday 28 March, informal talks have taken place with the employers and government on the future of the Local Government Pension Scheme.

UNISON is now calling on meat hygiene staff to report for work as normal on Monday. Further talks will begin early next week to determine whether an agreement can be reached to protect existing staff and begin negotiations on the new scheme.

The action has been deferred to allow the best chance for a successful resolution of the dispute.
Question is, who gets to define "successful"?

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