Monthly Archives: July 2010

Facebook – come clean on censorship!

by Anne Archist

“Although the page and its contents are clearly distasteful to some, users are expressing how they feel about a public figure, or in the comments relating to the police, a public institution, so it is within the terms of use of the site as it is an expression of personal opinion.”

This was the statement Facebook made about a tribute to Raoul Moat, implying that the site champions free speech, resists censorship, and supports controversial or minority viewpoints under fire. However, the reality is quite different – Facebook is hardly the Wikileaks of social networking! Using excuses like “technical errors”, facebook has repeatedly closed “anti-establishment” groups and suspended the accounts of their admins; examples are ‘Solidarity With The People Of Greece’ based in the UK and ‘Free Ricardo Palmera!’ based in the US (http://www.fightbacknews.org/2010/7/2/facebook-shuts-down-free-ricardo-palmera-group).

These are not the only instances of facebook hiding behind policies and systems errors to silence left-wing or otherwise ‘subversive’/’countercultural’ groups (while notably leaving hundreds, if not thousands of racist and sexist groups open despite far worse transgressions of the code of conduct). The latest in the series is ‘Our Porn, Our Selves’, a pro-porn feminist group (if I may call their stated aims feminist – I don’t think it’s unreasonable).  It appears to have been shut down after a campaign of falsely flagging the group as inappropriate and/or in violation of the code of conduct in some other way. The group was based in America, but the campaign against it was conducted in part by the same kind of people I’ve blogged about before, although in the American context this is even more likely to have been in conjunction with reactionary and conservative (probably religious) groups.

Our Porn, Our Selves questioned the “feminist” orthodoxy on porn and sex work, asked difficult questions of the “leaders” of the mainstream stateside feminist movement and opened up a space for women in particular to confront and explore their sexuality – they posted links about female porn directors, introductory advice for women interested in consuming porn, etc. Sadly the (religious and “feminist”) right chose to resist this and chose censorship as their weapon of choice. It’s about time people realised that Facebook doesn’t act benignly in the face of these confrontations and that their record on censorship is not as spotless as they would have us believe. Of course the censorship is not all-pervasive, and Facebook is still a useful tool for organising, debating, etc; on the other hand, if we don’t resist and question the rise of social networking censorship we may see the problem seriously worsen.

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Nick Clegg: Economic with the truth and untruthful with the economy

by nineteensixtyseven

Continuing on the theme of Nick Clegg’s awfulness, it has emerged this week that he may have deliberately mislead the electorate over his position on spending cuts during the the General Election campaign.

First of all, Clegg said that he had changed his mind over the need for cuts because of public and private pronouncements from the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, in the aftermath of the election.  In an interview with the Observer, Clegg cited a telephone conversation with King on the 15th May as the reason behind his volte face: “He couldn’t have been more emphatic. He said: ‘If you don’t do this, then because of the deterioration of market conditions it will be even more painful to do it later.”  However, King said on Wednesday that, “I said nothing that was not already in the public domain. In the telephone conversation I basically repeated what I had said at the press conference [on the 12th of May]“.

It has now emerged that King spoke to Clegg on the request of the coalition government to set out his views on the danger of the UK’s debt situation and the threat of a sovereign debt crisis.  The Guardian notes that:

“Asked by the Labour backbench MP, Chuka Umunna, whether he felt comfortable being drawn into politically sensitive matters, King replied: ” I do not think central bankers ever feel comfortable when they are drawn into comments made by politicians. But on this occasion the government has asked openly in writing for me to express my views which I did at the inflation report press conference, and I was asked if I would accept a telephone call by the deputy prime minister on the Saturday morning. I think it would have been unreasonable not to have accepted that telephone call. I did so and I had a private conversation”.

Now, call me cynical but this looks suspiciously like the government used King to provide cover for their own pre-conceived ideological predilection towards cuts.  The Clegg-King conversation was on the 15th of May yet three days earlier, on the 12th, the coalition published an outline agreement promising “a significantly accelerated reduction in the structural deficit over the course of a parliament, with the main burden of deficit reduction borne by reduced spending rather than increased taxes.”

These suspicions, it appears, were well founded because on Thursday it was reported that Clegg actually changed his mind over cuts before the General Election, ‘despite publicly telling the electorate weeks before the poll that early deep cuts would be “economic masochism.”‘  On last night’s BBC 2 documentary ‘Five Days’ about the period following the election, Clegg replied to a question from Nick Robinson asking whether he changed his mind during the negotiation period, saying that “I changed my mind earlier than that … firstly remember between March and the actual general election … a financial earthquake occurred in on our European doorstep.”  If this is true then he certainly did not let the electorate in on his little secret, allowing gullible voters lend their support to the Liberal Democrats as a left-wing alternative to the Labour Party.

Another possibility raised by last night’s programme was that either Clegg mislead David Cameron over Labour’s supposed offer of electoral reform without a referendum, or Cameron mislead his MPs.  To be fair, politics is a dirty game and all parties understandably wish to maximise their hand in negotiations, but added to Clegg’s apparent dishonesty over cuts this raises the question whether we can believe a word the coalition says.  Although Cameron is “absolutely certain” that Clegg had been offered reform without a referendum, Clegg denies that he told Cameron this offer had been made:

“The perception, which I think was accurate, was discussions are out, and it might have been an offer that might had been made and might have been considered. In answer to your direct question – was it ever formally made to me? – no, it wasn’t formally made to me.”

Either Cameron lied to his MPs in order to swing them behind the coalition or Nick Clegg lied to Cameron during the negotiations.  One thing, however, is clear from these revelations:  certainly don’t trust Nick Clegg.

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Government cuts: The Forgemasters episode

by Edd Mustill

Deputy Prime Minister and MP for Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg, has defended the government’s decision to axe an £80m loan to Sheffield Forgemasters in the pages of the Sheffield Star. The loan was to be used for a giant steel press to make components for the civil nuclear industry.

Clegg explains, “If we hadn’t got control of the deficit, interest rates would be increased, making it more difficult for businesses in Sheffield to borrow money. Jobs would be lost.” Presumably, if the government has already “got control of the deficit,” they can scrap all these other cuts they keep announcing. The whole episode, coupled with Liberal-led Sheffield Council’s budget cut announcements yesterday, has contributed to Clegg’s growing unpopularity in the city.

Forgemasters has become a political football, despite the wishes of its management, with the Labour Party both locally and nationally aiming to score the goals. The Labour Party has not raised the possibility of the nationalisation of Forgemasters or the rest of the steel industry, just as it did not when Corus mothballed its Redcar plant when Labour were still in government. Ironically, their decision to leave Teesside to the ravages of the market was probably a major factor in them losing the Redcar parliamentary constituency to… the Liberal Democrats.

Labour have raised allegations that the cancellation of the loan was done at the behest of Andrew Cook, a Sheffield businessmen and Conservative Party donor. Although Cook was an opponent of the loan, it seems more likely that this was due to him sharing the coalition government’s free market ideology, rather than having his business benefit directly from a setback for Forgemasters, as Labour seem to have been trying to imply. Whether or not decisions on spending cuts correlate to whether projects are supported or opposed by Tory donors remains to be seen (see also, St Helena International Airport).

However, the government has been reticent to say exactly what the financial reasons for cancelling the loan were, other than the usual stock phrases about the country being broke and there being no money left. Clegg accuses the Forgemasters loan as being one of the “cheques the government knew would bounce.” But a loan would presumably have made the government money through interest in the long run, unlike a simple cash injection or unconditional bailout.

Forgemasters is an easier issue for Labour to agitate around than most, because of the historical and emotional pull of Sheffield steel. Forgemasters has held out as the Don Valley steel industry around it has decayed and rusted, by taking on specialist projects such as that which this loan was supposed to go towards. But it should be remembered that demanding that a government loan money to a private company is hardly radical. Remember those banks?

Even nationalisation on its own isn’t much of a demand any more, as the banking crisis has shown us. Banks like RBS which have been in theory owned by “the people” through the government owning a majority of shares, have no more obligation to help out companies like Forgemasters, or for that matter treat their customers better, than any other bank. It is likely, in this case, that a democratically run RBS would have lent to a democratically run Forgemasters.

The Forgemasters episode may not be at the top of the agenda for environmentalists and those of us with qualms about the use of nuclear power (although it is probably worth mentioning that the company is also moving into hydropower too), but it does raise among other things the question of exactly how socialists should call for workplaces to be run. This has also been raised recently on the Isle of Wight, where some former Vestas workers have set up a new blade factory. The high profile but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to save the Vestas plant a year ago was one in which socialist activists were heavily involved, and where the RMT played an admirable role in organising a largely un-unionised workforce. But it seems that the new company is not a workers’ co-operative or union-run venture, although it has declared its intention to try to employ former Vestas workers.

As the days go on and it becomes increasingly blatant that the consultative plans and voluntarism of the Big Society have nothing to do with democracy when the government sticks to its cuts mantra, perhaps raising ideas about workplace democracy, currently so far outside the political mainstream, is one of the best ways of fighting cuts and popularising socialism.

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The Right to Strike

by nineteensixtyseven

Over at Comment Is Free, Keith Ewing, professor of Public Law at King’s College London, has written a great article on the right to strike.  Bemoaning the media bias in coverage of recent industrial action and a recent Moral Maze programme which asked whether or not striking was a human right, he lists the international treaties which enshrine the right to organise and withdrawn one’s labour:

It begins with the International Labour Organisation’s convention on the right to organise and bargain collectively of 1948, which a British Labour government was the first to ratify; followed by the Council of Europe’s social charter of 1961, which a British Tory government was the first to ratify; followed, in turn, by the UN’s international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights of 1966.

In April 2009 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the right to strike is included in the provisions of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Enerji Yapi-Yol Sen v. Turkey), expanding on the ruling of the previous November (Demir and Baykara v. Turkey):

Freedom of assembly and association
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
2. No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.

Nevertheless, as the injunctions sought by British Airways and granted by British judges demonstrate, British jurisprudence has been preventing these rights from being exercised through the Human Rights Act.  Furthermore, the ruling on the ECHR provides that labour rights must be protected to minimum international standards but the UK does not meet its obligations under International Labour Organisation conventions. For instance, in 1994 the report of the International Labour Conference on the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87), and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98) noted that:

Sympathy strikes, which are recognized as lawful in some countries, are becoming increasingly frequent because of the move towards the concentration of enterprises, the globalization of the economy and the delocalization of work centres. While pointing out that a number of distinctions need to be drawn here (such as an exact definition of the concept of a sympathy strike; a relationship justifying recourse to this type of strike, etc.), the Committee considers that a general prohibition on sympathy strikes could lead to abuse and that workers should be able to take such action, provided the initial strike they are supporting is itself lawful.

In 2005 only bureaucratic tricks prevented the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party voting in support of legalising sympathy strikes (outlawed by the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992).  Back then Tony Woodley (now of Unite) was general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union and called for a change in the law.  Now, Ed Miliband has shown his appreciation for Unite’s backing of his campaign to become leader of the Labour Party by announcing that he would oppose even the legalisation of secondary picketing.  What would Ralph say were he still with us?

As it stands, there are severe restrictions on the right to strike and, therefore, on human rights in the United Kingdom.   The Metrobus Ltd v Unite the Union decision by the Court of Appeal in 2009 that that the statutory requirements relating to ballots and strike notification (Part V of the 1992 Act) do not unduly restrict the exercise of the right to strike has allowed employers to seek injunctions on the smallest technical issues in order to block democratic strike actions, and sympathy strikes have been illegal for almost twenty years.  The Court of Appeal cannot go beyond the Metrobus decision to rule the statutory requirements for balloting to be in contravention of the Human Rights Act but in her ruling on British Airways Plc v Unite the Union (2009), Mrs Justice Cox said:

“Sooner or later, the extent to which the current statutory regime is in compliance with those international obligations and with relevant international jurisprudence will fall to be carefully reconsidered.”

Such reconsideration is long overdue.

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Featuring…

by Edd Mustill

Casting a socialist eye over the Top 40 singles chart isn’t often done and may seem fruitless to some people, but something has been bugging me recently. There’s a lot of tracks in the charts right now, and not all of them bad, by So-and-So ft. Someone else. They range from B.o.B. ft. Hayley Williams (not bad), though Katy Perry ft. Snoop Dogg (awful), to Professor Green ft. Lily Allen (inexplicable).

Mostly they sound like two people singing bits of two different songs alternately. What I’d like to know is, are these genuinely experimental artistic collaborations, or the result of industry machinations to keep two currently-famous performers in the public eye for a bit longer? Or is the truth somewhere in the middle? This has been on my mind, for some reason, since the Gaga-Beyonce Telephone alliance.

Has someone in the music industry decided that bands just aren’t where it’s at? Maybe my sixth-form self is just pining for the return of three guitars and a drum-kit to the charts. Or any anti-recession, angry, state-of-the-nation stuff that we can all nod glumly along to. I’m not inclined to Pack Up my troubles in my old kit bag, whatever Eliza Doolittle thinks.

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My Summer Meditations

by Anne Archist

I’ve spent the past few days immersed in the break-up of the ‘Soviet Bloc’. Having first watched Shooting Robert King, I decided to finally crack open Summer Meditations, a book written by Václav Havel, the post-’Communist’ Czechoslovakian president. Since the former follows a photojournalist through various conflict zones over the course of a decade and a half, sections of the film highlight aspects of the fall of ‘Communism’ (I can’t bring myself to write it without the scare quotes when referring to the USSR and other totalitarian-socialist party regimes) as he encountered them.

Naive to almost the end of the film, King views the fall of the ‘Communists’ from power as an event of unbridled good; while undoubtedly there were significant steps forward in the release from totalitarian party rule, King overlooks the social harm that can be done by a transition from even the most poorly-managed and indifferent socialist economy to a market-based one. King sees a silver lining but misses the cloud, and particularly has no thoughts on how the public might react when they realise that West-style capitalism is not all they have been led to believe.

In one telling scene, a woman buys fifteen bananas and attempts to eat them in twenty minutes – fresh fruit is only just being released back into the ‘Second World’ markets at the time. King sees this not only as a bizarre form of erotic fulfilment for himself, but also as a vindication of the market and a triumph for American producers. Indifferent to detail, he simply replies “part of NAFTA” when it’s pointed out that the bananas came from South America, not the USA. Again, the journalist seems nonplussed when the subject of his supposedly-erotic art vomits a dozen freshly-ingested bananas on to the hotel room floor; “low grade fruit” is the excuse this time. Clearly, “want bananas, get bananas, eat bananas, be sick, regret bananas somewhat” could  be an allegory for the whole process of globalisation and westernisation of second- and third- world countries under the auspices of NAFTA, IMF, WTO, World Bank, etc.

Summer Meditations, written very much in the period of reform and liberalisation in Czechoslovaki, shortly after the fall of the ‘Communist’ party and before the country fractured into two states, paints a portrait of a confused man with his own words. Despite his position as a champion of the market and Western ties, Havel considers himself a type of Socialist. It’s remarkable at times to see how little faith Havel actually has in the market and how realistic he is in the face of market dogma:

[On state funding of culture and heritage:] There can’t be a hotel in every castle or château to pay for its upkeep, nor can the old aristocracy be expected to return and provide for their upkeep merely to preserve family honour”

[On energy policy:] One doesn’t need to be an expert to understand that the marketplace alone cannot decide which direction Czechoslovakia should take in the matter of energy production”

[On the environmental impact of industry and agriculture:] The state must systematically make use of all the means it has to compel companies to behave responsibly.”

There is also evident contradiction in Havel’s writing between the pro-market approach he adopts and the end results he hopes to see; it is a contradiction we have seen throughout history since at least the development of capitalism, if not earlier. Wishing to build a society in which land is cared for, work is fulfilling, the environment is treated with caution and so on, Havel naively expects the market to provide this. Havel’s politics come across more as one-nation-toryism with a place for the state-sector than neoliberal deregulation and profit maximisation. Readers might wonder why he has even the limited faith in the market that he does, given passages like:

“At all levels, schools must cultivate a spirit of free and independent thinking in the students. Schools will have to be humanised, both in the sense that their basic component must be the human personalities of the teachers… and in the sense that technical and other specialised education will be balanced by a general education in the humanities. The role of the schools is… to send out into life thoughtful people capable of thinking about the wider social, historical and philosophical implications of their specialities… The schools must also lead young people to become self-confident, participating citizens; if everyone doesn’t take an interest in politics, it will become the domain of those least suited to it.

The universities will not select students; everyone must have access to education… The more citizens who complete university, the better. I do not see what harm it can do for a businessman, a restaurant owner, or an official of state to have studied law.”

Overall it’s a pretty interesting book, and if you get your hands on it then take a day or two to flick through. Obviously some of his political analysis is highly flawed, but at the very least it’s an opportunity to get inside the head of a fundamentally altruistic and ‘progressive’ pro-capitalist reformer. I’ll leave you with a practically comic demonstration of Havel’s inability to accurately assess the effects of the market, in a passage that could just as easily be a fast food chain handbook as a critique of ‘Communist’ agricultural policy (but all of which is mistakenly singled out as the results of ‘Soviet’ policy, of course):

“Farmers are no longer close to their livestock of the soil. Animals were moved from pastures and well-kept stables laid with clean straw into vast factory barns where they stand in stalls on metal grates, often never seeing the sun or having the run of a meadow in their entire lives. These barns were painted with toxic disinfectant. The land was polluted with chemical fertilisers. Ploughing under the strips and hedgerows dividing the fields and introducing heavy machinery led to the destruction of the ecological balance, to erosion, and to the disintegration, compacting, and deadening of the soil, which in turn led to more excessive chemical fertilising and the expensive liquidation of pests that would otherwise be eaten by the birds that had been driven from the fields. The yields are decent, it is true, but the produce is not of high quality, and the meat sometimes contains toxic substances. The absurd centralisation (so-called wholesale production) and, in some places, unnatural specialisation disproportionately increased the consumption of energy in agriculture. Farmers are dependent on the large and often monopolistic purchasing, processing and distributing organisations that have them – and the distributors – completely in their hands. “

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William Ferguson Massey and the Trade Union Movement

by nineteensixtyseven

The historian Dr. James Watson recently published a biography of the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, William Ferguson Massey. Massey was born in my hometown of Limavady in 1856 and emigrated to New Zealand in 1870, quickly establishing himself as a leading politician in the Reform Party, a right-wing party representing the interests of large landowners. I am not one for sentimental localism and, whilst I understand there is a deal of pride in Limavady producing a man who became the Prime Minister of a country and played a role in the Paris Peace Conference, I must admit that the celebration of Massey leaves me cold.

Let me state from the outset that my objections to Massey have nothing to do with his Unionism, nor his membership of the Orange Order. In 2008, Sinn Fein carried these sorts of objections to a ridiculous degree by proposing the removal of the statue of Massey outside the Limavady Borough Council offices. Massey is an historical figure with strong roots to the town so I thought this idea to be ridiculous.

No, my objections stem rather from a number of incidents which occurred during Massey’s premiership with regards to the trade union movement in New Zealand. Massey became Prime Minister in 1912, in the middle of a period of serious industrial unrest not only in New Zealand but in the United States, Britain (the ‘Great Unrest’ after which this blog is named) and Ireland, with the Dublin Lock-Out of 1913 standing out as one of the defining moments of Irish trade unionism. In New Zealand, as with elsewhere, much of this unrest was led by proponents of revolutionary syndicalism. James Connolly for instance had recently returned to Ireland from the US, having been an organizer for the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and Tom Mann, veteran of the great London Dock Strike of 1889, helped establish the Industrial Syndicalist Education League which operated between 1910 and 1913.

1912 saw the outbreak of the Waihi miners’ strike amongst gold miners, just before Massey came to power. The Waihi Goldmining Company was notorious for industrial accidents and refused to pay compensation; workers toiled in horrendous conditions for subsistence wages and if they were not injured, maimed or killed in the mines, miners’ phthisis- tuberculosis- was guaranteed to do lifelong damage to the workers’ lungs.  When the companies formed a scab union to break the power of the Federation of Labour, the workers called a strike. Massey reacted furiously, promising to crush the ‘enemies of order’, and before long it is estimated that ten percent of New Zealand’s police force was dispatched to Waihi. In the region of sixty miners were imprisoned, and the IWW began to increase in influence. Then, in October, the company used blackleg labour to re-open the mine, prompting further confrontations. Tensions increased further until the 12 November, on ‘Black Tuesday’, when a union meeting was attacked by police and armed scab labourers. During the ensuing scuffle, Fred Evans, a trade unionist, was beaten to death by the police after wounding a police officer in the stomach. The police officer, Constable Gerald Wade, recovered but Evans was left lying for an hour and a half in police cells and never regained consciousness.  Five days later, at his funeral, thousands lined the streets in memory of their martyred comrade,  one of only two people to die in the history of New Zealand industrial disputes.

The following year, a strike of Wellington shipwrights spread through New Zealand, almost becoming a General Strike. Firstly, miners, including three union representatives, were sacked at a company in Huntly on October 6th. Twelve days later, the shipwrights called a strike and, when they attempted to return to work they found that scabs had taken their place. As a consequence, a meeting was held and 1,500 workers resolved “That no work shall be accepted until such time as the victimised men are re-instated”. The events at Huntly and Wellington were by this stage attracting national attention, and Wobblies in Auckland and Wellington called for concerted action.

Massey reacted to these outbreaks of militancy with violence, using his links with the Legion of Frontiersmen, to send mounted troops (‘Massey’s Cossacks’) to attack the strikers. It is fair to say that my sympathies in these matters do not lie with William Massey. I may hail from the same town as the late Prime Minister, but my allegiances are with the labour movement and the international working class. Perhaps as local people celebrate Massey’s links with my town, local trade unionists will commemorate those martyred and maimed by his violent response to New Zealand’s ‘Great Unrest’.

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