Monthly Archives: January 2011

Anti-Semitism in Manchester?

by nineteensixtyseven

There have been a number of press reports today uncritically reporting that NUS President Aaron Porter was subjected to anti-Semitic abuse ahead of the demo in Manchester.  It is possible that the reports are true.  If this is the case  then it is clearly a very serious incident and should be totally condemned in no uncertain terms as a sinister development in the ongoing debate around his leadership.  However, it is necessary to look closer at the reports in the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and on Sky before we reach any conclusions.

The Daily Mail reports that “One photographer reported chants of ‘Tory Jew scum’” and on the basis of this anonymous source constructs its story.  Sky asserts without supporting evidence or an indication of any source that demonstrators ‘surrounded him, chanting anti-Semitic insults and calling for him to resign as he attended the rally’ and the Telegraph reports that unnamed ‘Witnesses report that among the chants directed at him from a small number of demonstrators were “——- Tory Jew”. So far we have as evidence a photographer and unnamed witnesses as the basis of these news stories.

It is interesting to note that the allegations of anti-Semitism do not appear on the Guardian’s coverage of the Manchester demo nor the recently updated BBC report, which says only that a ‘small but loud group also made their views heard about wanting to replace the National Union of Students president, Aaron Porter.’  Only the right-wing media outlets have been stressing this particular angle of the story, with Reuters neglecting to mention it.  Do the other media outlets not trust its basis in truth? It is quite possible from the hostile tone of their previous coverage that the Mail, Telegraph and Sky are pushing their own political agenda to discredit student protesters on the basis of flimsy supporting evidence.

Footage has emerged of the final moments of the demonstration which suggest one source of potential confusion:

The chant, “Aaron Porter, we know you.  You’re a fucking Tory too!” is clearly audible and it is one that most of us familiar with demos have heard, whether with reference to Porter or Nick Clegg.  The Mail, too, reports this as being the main chant, basing their story on the separate utterance, ‘Tory Jew scum’ as allegedly heard by a photographer.  The Telegraph, however, reports the anti-Semitic chanting as “——- Tory Jew” which is very similar in sound to ‘Tory too’ and makes no mention of ‘Tory Jew scum’.

This similarity has been noticed by Edinburgh Anti-Cuts who attended the demo and wrote on Twitter that “Reports #Manchester chanting ‘you’re a Tory jew’ to Aaron Porter today – Not true – actual chant was ‘You’re a Tory too’ #demo2011#dayx.”  An eye-witness account by a member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty also fails to mention the anti-Semitic angle, and this is from a group known for its sensitivity to anti-Semitism on the Left. If we accept the reasonable possibility that the Telegraph has conflated ‘Tory Jew’ and ‘Tory too’ then this leaves us with only the word of an unnamed photographer as the substantive basis for these allegations.

In fact, the Mail goes further by positing a direct causality between the alleged anti-Semitic remarks and Porter pulling out of the rally in Manchester.  This seems to be stretching the facts too far because it see more likely that Porter knew the rest of the general crowd would be hostile.  Debates about his leadership have been ongoing for weeks and student unions have been preparing motions of no confidence in his presidency.  If this was Porter’s reasoning then it was sound because the reception given to his Vice President, Shane Chowen, from the much larger crowd at the rally forced him off the platform.  On this point, then, the Mail article is potentially misleading.  It is also misleading of Sky and the Telegraph to assert that demonstrators ‘surrounded [Porter], chanting anti-Semitic insults’ if, as the Telegraph appears to suggest, it was only ‘a small number of demonstrators’ who are alleged to have used anti-Semitic terms and even this is open to dispute in the Telegraph’s account of events.

Again, it is quite possible that some anti-Semitic remarks were made.  That the rest of the protesters, according to the Telegraph, chanted “No to racism, no to racism” suggests that this might have been the case.  However, reasons for suspicion lie in the fact that the only outlets to report this angle of the story are right-wing and politically biased against students.  Moreover, the sources are unnamed and potentially conflicting, and it is possible that the Telegraph’s ‘witnesses’ misheard a more innocuous chant.  In the absence of stronger corroborating evidence and video footage proving the allegations of anti-Semitism the student movement has to be careful about debilitating smears from the Tory press whilst also making it clear, if the reports are true, that no form of racism can ever be tolerated in our movement.

UPDATE:  See another good analysis from Alex Andrews which has a definite chronology to the news reports in a way that I was technically incapable of finding out!

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Egyptian riot cops running away

For some other updates on the anti-Mubarak protests in Egpyt, check out the freeegypt Youtube channel and the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page.

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Student Union election manifesto

Student Union elections are coming up on a lot of campuses this term. Time to dust off an old post I wrote last year. Try not to vote for people who say things like this:

Hi. I’m running for [position] in [students' union name] because I care about what the union can do for you. I am a friendly and approachable person with the passion and commitment to take our union forward. I am passionate about my CV and committed to my future career.

I have lots of experience sitting on some committee you’ve never heard of in a position you didn’t elect, where my spineless toadying brought minimal changes. I was head [boy/girl] at my school full of rich kids who faced no actual problems, and for some reason think that this fact is relevant to my campaign for a leadership position in a union. I have also served as [treasurer/secretary/persistent arse licker] of the debating society which is weird because I have no discernible opinions about anything.

I will aim to represent all students rather than push a political agenda, because I’m afraid that if I tell people what I think about things, they will disagree with me. I will rise above factional politics by refusing to ever commit myself to anything. Students are sick of politics getting in the way of achieving change. I will improve communication by sending out more of the same emails that people will, for some reason, actually read this year.

Some people say that students have become apathetic. To them I say: I don’t care about this. But I will put my name to some wanky liberal campaigns that no-one except a hard-right nut-bar could complain about. Probably something to do with the environment. But I pledge to continue to use the myth of student apathy as a cover for my right-wing views.

I have no principles in which to ground my policies so I will just write the first thing that comes into my head, something like [more vending machines/more student discounts/something vague to do with sports facilities] to make it sound like I’ve actually thought anything through.

I think it’s imperative that we keep the cap on tuition fees because I want to pay lip service to a tradition of student radicalism to which I have never belonged. We can achieve this through mature negotiations and not mindless activism. I passionately believe that people are stupid enough to fall for this crap. We need to find dynamic and efficient new ways of sitting on our arse for a whole year while the Higher Education sector is smashed to pieces.

Vote for me because I am the pragmatic, experienced candidate and I will deliver on my promises, if you can remind me what any of them were. Here is a photo of me in some costume or other during freshers’ week to remind you that I like a laugh, really. And in the end, isn’t that what student unions are really about?

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ReelNews: Blacklisted

I just came across this excellent short documentary from Reel News about blacklisting in the construction industry, made last year.

It covers all sorts from the Shrewsbury pickets in the 1970s, to the attempted use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act against trade unionist Steve Acheson in 2009.

You can order this and more Reel News stuff here.

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Adventures in Music and Politics III: Robb Johnson

by Edd Mustill

When I caught up with singer Robb Johnson before a gig in a small Brentford pub, it was like meeting an old friend in some ways. He was instrumental in my discovery of “political” music when my dad picked up a copy of his Tony Blair: My part in his downfall in a shop in Derbyshire many years ago.

Last year he released a new album, Man Walks Into a Pub, and collaborated with Leon Rosselson on The Liberty Tree, a concept album charting the life of Thomas Paine. The latter is a project you could only expect from radical musicians. Robb has been operating from his own label, Irregular Records, for twenty-five years. What’s wrong with mainstream labels?

“They won’t do anything… since punk, they’re scared of anything they can’t control.”

In any case, he says, “People need to create their own culture.”

Perhaps that’s more difficult than it sounds. For a while, around London at least, anything folky has evoked the image of young, privately-educated people singing about the problems that young, privately-educated people have. Beyond universal platitudes, there is precious little that most people can relate to in the lyrics of the Johnny Flynns and Laura Marlings who populate the “singer-songwriter” genre.

They may have benefited from the same de-politicisation of folk music that Robb sees as responsible for something much more sinister:

“When I first started going to folk clubs in the 1970s they were great places,” he says. “Then they became museums, the politics was taken out, and that’s what allowed the BNP to claim that music as their own… it’s about a fairytale England.”

This is something that comes through on the best track of his latest album, A Place in the Country, which is about “our” history versus “theirs,” as represented by country houses and the like:

“And it’s all built on slavery, legalised theft/
From Bombay to Bradford they worked us to death/
In their mines and their mills, now there’s nothing much left/
And it wasn’t that merry to start with.”

While folk music was never an exclusive left-wing paradise, there is something in this argument. And it is linked to wider social processes too. Robb also sees long-term causes as responsible for the success of things like X Factor:

“The shared working class cultural experiences have gone… it’s like football. Most people consume their football by watching it on Sky TV down the pub.”

Much of his music is about these shared experiences, football included. In Life is Football he reminds us, “It’s not like on the telly/But then real life never is.”

It is about rescuing something real from the brutal fantasies of capitalist celebrity that surround us. The mixture of anarchism, cheek, emotion, and everyday existence that makes up most of Robb Johnson’s songs makes for genuine, conscious, working class music.

There is definitely a space for this. Robb himself notes that more folk clubs are appearing in London as pubs agree put on more nights as they try to fight off closure.

But will we see a folk-revival-revival? Or post-post-punk? Or something altogether new?

“Is four minutes thirty-three seconds of silence the best we’ve got?” asks Robb.

Let’s hope not.

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Rosa Luxemburg 1871-1919

“The specialisation of professional activity as trade-union leaders, as well as the naturally restricted horizon which is bound up with disconnected economic struggles in a peaceful period, leads only too easily, amongst trade-union officials, to bureaucratism and a certain narrowness of outlook. Both, however, express themselves in a whole series of tendencies which may be fateful in the highest degree for the future of the trade-union movement. There is first of all the overvaluation of the organisation, which from a means has gradually been changed into an end in itself, a precious thing, to which the interests of the struggles should be subordinated. From this also comes that openly admitted need for peace which shrinks from great risks and presumed dangers to the stability of the trade-unions, and further, the overvaluation of the trade-union method of struggle itself, its prospects and its successes.”

The Mass Strike

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Save EMA protest flyer

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The Return of History

by nineteensixtyseven

The recent issue of the New Left Review contained an interesting paper by Michael Denning, ‘Wageless Life’ which aims to ‘decentre wage labour in our conception of life under capitalism’ by stressing the point that ‘capitalism begins not with the offer of work, but with the imperative to earn a living.’ In other words:

‘Unemployment precedes employment, and the informal economy precedes the formal, both historically and conceptually. We must insist that ‘proletarian’ is not a synonym for ‘wage labourer’ but for dispossession, expropriation and radical dependence on the market. You don’t need a job to be a proletarian: wageless life, not wage labour, is the starting point in understanding the free market.’

‘Proletarianisation’, thus, was a definite historical process which, if we follow E.P. Thompson, disrupted the moral economy of pre-capitalist formations and which has, as Marx put it, ‘pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.”

What caught my attention most, however, was the historical analysis of the construction of ‘unemployment’ as a concept, and especially the comment that the ‘modern notion of unemployment depended on the normalization of employment, the intricate process by which participation in labour markets is made ordinary.’  This was by no means an even process, as a transitional craft consciousness remained as workers struggled against their separation from the means of production and the imposition of more authoritarian forms of socialised factory production on the one hand, and attempted to prevent the entry of unskilled and female workers to the labour market on the other.

The concept of unemployment itself also evolved from a symptom of idleness and individual failure to a more contingent phenomenon to be ‘insured’ against through contributory National Insurance.’ When the Great Depression exposed the limitations of this view it was then reconceptualised in terms of aggregate demand and integrated into the macro-economics of Keynesianism.

It struck me, of course, that this normalization of employment paralleled the normalization of the capitalist mode of production as the ‘natural’ state of affairs.  This, too, was an uneven process as the peasantry clung to pre-capitalist economic relations.  Indeed, upon the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 the reaction of peasants in some areas was to insist on the return of 19th communal forestry rights perceived to have been stolen from them in the act of enclosure.

This more generalised normalization of capitalism was reflected in the evolution of economics. The classical economists, including Smith and Marx, were all political economists in the sense that their analysis of ‘economics’ was synthesised with a wider view of society and the line between micro and macro was barely pronounced. Moreover, the classical school was predicated on variations of the labour theory of value, conceiving of value as a creation of production.

The labour theory of value had obvious political connotations and was of course developed into the basis of Marx’s argument for the exploitative nature of capitalism. More fundamentally, Marx exposed the social relations concealed in the commodity and transcended classical political economy by revealing the historical nature of these relations of production. Hilferding expressed the significance of this well in his response to Böhm-Bawerk that ‘the demonstration of the historic transitoriness of bourgeois relationships of production signifies the close of political economy as a bourgeois science and its foundation as a proletarian science.’

For the neoclassical school, however, value was not a product of objective social relations but was subjective in character. That is to say, as Mandel puts it, neoclassical economics and the theory of marginal utiltiy start ‘from individual consumption rather than social production’ and therefore:

‘whereas Marx and the classical economists start from the social character of the act of exchange, and regard exchange value as an objective link between owners (producers) of different commodities, the marginalists start from the individual character of needs, and regard exchange-value as a subjective link between the individual and the thing.’

In other words, the micro-economic and subjectivist starting position of the neo-classical theorists of marginal utility conceals conceals the true nature of the commodity as a product of definite social relations. These relations are presumed a priori and are thereby naturalised. It need not be added that these theorists had no theory of crisis until it took Schumpeter to recognise the systemic nature of capitalist crisis and internalise it as a positive- ‘creative destruction.’

The main issue with the subjectivist turn in economics was that it was essentially static. No system of thought which abstracted itself from the social character of the economy could integrate a conception of development, for history is in essence the product of social agents acting in aggregate. Perhaps this suited the post-1848 generation well, withdrawing to mathematical models in imitation of the fin de siècle retreat into the realm of the unconscious; the Austrian school of Carl Menger sharing a commonality with Vienna’s most famous father of psychoanalysis.

The fundamental point is that history, then and now, is dangerous and that is why the bourgeoisie were so keen to abstract from it or indeed have it declared ‘ended’ with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The knowledge that everything is potentially transitory is the elephant in room for any upholder of the status quo, whether in the 19th century or now.  Simply put, the idea that the current system had a beginning suggests the possibility that it also will end.  The symptoms suggest themselves.  9/11 has confounded the Hegelian unfolding of liberal democracy and September 2008 discredited the purveyors of neoliberalism theology. As Alan Greenspan’s mental universe imploded in front of Congress, commentators grasped around for some historical anchor to prevent them from drowning in the relativistic void resulting from postmodernism’s myopic destruction of the grand narrative.

Humanity faces huge choices as we enter the second decade of the 21st century. Economic and environmental catastrophes are not mere discourses and history has not ended so let us return to a critical engagement with the world around us as a prerequisite for changing it.

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Arrest as Cameron visits Newcastle

From the Newcastle Uni occupation blog:

Update (17:30): A member of the occupation just phoned the office of local Labour MP Chi Onwurah, to see what assistance she might officer. On calling, the student was informed by the MP’s case worker that Chi’s office had not even been informed of the Prime Minister’s visit, which is a breach of Parliamentary protocol.

Original press release

David Cameron visited Newcastle secretly today, not the actions of a popular Prime Minister. It was felt by many people that this was an opportunity to bring attention to the crippling ideological attack on public services which will disproportionately effect the North East. One protestor commented “Upon hearing David Cameron was in town, we decided to stage an impromptu rally. We then went around repeatedly requesting for Cameron to come and address the people of North East”.

The peaceful protestors assembled outside the Newcastle Centre for Life, an educational charity which plays a vital role in the local community for engaging with schools and colleges to promote education and scientific research.

As David Cameron left the Centre of Life, some of the protestors attempted to stop the motorcade in protest of his unwillingness to listen to the concerns of more than just a hand picked section of society. Danny Youkee, 25, a student at Newcastle University said that “The shutters opened and we slowed David Cameron’s car, several protesters surround it and were apprehended by plain clothes police. Several of the protesters were then pushed to the other side of the road”.

It was after this that Ewan Brown was “pushed against a fence by a plain clothes police officer” and then more than30 protesters surrounded the police that were holding Ewan to show support. “We asked why he was being taken and got no answer” said a protester.

There will be a demonstration today at 6pm outside Etal Lane Police Station, Westerhope, Newcastle where Ewan is being held.

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The Siege of Sidney Street and East End Anarchism

by Edd Mustill

A century ago, in the morning of 3rd January 1911, a house in Sidney Street, in the East End of London, was surrounded by police and soldiers. Inside the house were members of a political criminal gang who were suspected of involvement in the killing of three police officers on Houndsditch two weeks earlier.

A gunshot from the house hit an officer in the chest and wounded him. Following this, two companies of soldiers from the Scots Guards were brought in, and the police withdrew to keep the gathering crowd of curious cockneys away from the street.

By lunchtime the house was on fire. The cause of the fire has never been conclusively established. It could have been the army throwing an incendiary device, or the three trapped criminals. When firemen eventually moved in to put out the fire, falling masonry injured a group of them. One of them died later.

Inside the house the bodies of two of the gang, Marx and Svaas, were found. “Peter the Painter,” supposedly the leader, was never found, dead or alive.

This is the story of the Sidney Street Siege, an episode of East End history which is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands.

The one-room exhibition crams in all the narrative above, along with artefacts such as the coat Home Secretary Winston Churchill wore when he arrived on the scene, and the scale model of the Houndsditch jewellery shop the gang planned to rob, carved out of wood, for use as evidence in the subsequent trial.

There are inevitably some gaps in what is a small exhibition. Some attempt is made to put the siege in the context of the politically radical, largely Jewish immigrant community that existed in the East End at the time, but the big strikes of Jewish tailors and the role of anarchists and socialists in labour organisation don’t get much of a mention.

One reproduced poster, from 1890, advertises a meeting at which figures as diverse as John Burns, Kropotkin, Eleanor Marx,William Morris, and Felix Volkovsky were billed to speak. This was an era when different organisational and ideological affiliations often bled into each other. There is controversy over the extent to which the Houndsditch gang were “anarchists.” Three of the four who went to trial were members of the Lettish Social Democratic Party’s exile organisation. And there were certainly anarchists, like Rudolf Rocker, who snubbed any violent activity. Rocker alleged that Peter the Painter himself became an agent in the Bolshevik secret police after the Russian Revolution.

A smaller controversy surrounds the landlady of the Sidney Street house. Oral testimony in the exhibition says she helped the gang to hide out, but William Fishman in his book East End Jewish Radicals claims she was the one who alerted the police of their presence. Both could, of course, be true.

The whole episode led to a demonisation of “anarchists” and “aliens” in the press, and not just from the usual suspects. Socialist papers like Clarion and Justice took the opportunity to smear anarchism.

This contributed to the decline of East End anarchism but did not prevent its finest hour, during the tailors’ strike of 1912. This was not only a big success, but overlapped with the dock strike of the same year to break down hostility between different communities. Jewish families offered to accommodate the children of striking, largely Irish, dock workers.

Despite not giving a mention to the tailors’ strikes of 1906 and 1912, this exhibition, and the museum in general, is well worth a visit. Resting as it does in the shadow of the capitalist dystopia of Canary Wharf, it reminds us of a time when East London was at the forefront of class struggle, a crucible for radical ideas – and all the victories, defeats, and tragedies that are inseparable parts of this history.

“London Under Siege: Churchill and the Anarchists” runs at the Docklands Museum until 10th April. Entry is free.

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