Tag Archives: BBC

Workfare: doesn’t work, not fair.

by Anne Archist

So, the workfare debate has remained in the headlines since my last post on it… That’s interesting, as I didn’t think there would be quite this much public anger over the proposals – if anything, I thought most people would just ejaculate DailyMailisms in the direction of anyone who dared to question a system of transitory, mandatory, unpaid labour. The government has been in a right flap over the campaign against workfare, resorting to a whole host of amusing tactics, with some degree of cooperation from third parties. I’ll give a run-down of some of the controversy with relevant links, and then move onto the question of the government’s real misdirection tactics.

A comedy of ostriches

First there was the hilarious claim by Chris Grayling that the SWP had “hacked” his email account. Apparently he told the Daily Mail that “‘Somebody used my email address to lodge a formal complaint with Tesco. This campaign has got fake activity”. He also told the BBC: “Let me give you an example, my own e-mail address was hacked by this organisation and used to lodge a complaint with Tesco, so I don’t accept the scale of the campaign is very large “. This was given short shrift, and he toned it down to the bizarre and vague assertion that his account had been “used in the campaign”.

After that nonsense, there was the question of Datasift research into the debate. Newsnight’s article on workfare suggested that the research had measured the hashtag #welfaretowork; if this is in fact the case, they are obviously idiots because most people are using #workfare. Datasift claim they included #workfare in their research, but I have my doubts as to how true this is. Perhaps this will be clarified in some way, but at present they seem to have deleted some or all of the tweets where they claimed they had included #workfare – several can be seen on google cached versions of pages but not on the actual twitter streams themselves. I have no idea why this might be so.

So where do we stand?

So far, so typical. Apparently nobody’s talking about it, those that are don’t understand it, those that do aren’t bothered by it, and those campaigning against it are – without exception – trots (which, I take it, are alien creatures something like this). This is the sort of masterful Machiavellianism we have come to expect from subtle statesmen like Chris Grayling. The outcome of all of this is that after companies threatening to pull out, protests and so on, the government have amended the rules so that people will no longer be sanctioned if they pull out of the work experience.

The spin on this change is that it’s all ok now because everyone taking part in the scheme is doing so voluntarily. The unspoken implication here is that it’s therefore none of anyone else’s business. I think this is a deliberate tactic of misdirection (combined with prioritising the demands of corporations over those of citizens/workers/consumers).

 The real problems

The government’s workfare schemes have serious and systematic problems that cannot be put right by ensuring that the schemes are voluntary. Participants are likely not to be in a position to make an informed and uncoerced decision about whether it’s worth working for free, due to a combination of government propaganda, poor ‘economic literacy’ among the general population and Jobcentre lies (they have been known to tell people schemes are compulsory when they’re voluntary, etc).

Even if all the participants take part entirely voluntarily, this still poses a problem for the rest of us, since it puts downward pressure on the terms and conditions of everyone else – if firms can acquire free labour based on the hope of future work, they are less likely to take on more staff, raise the wages of those they already have, etc. Labour-market competition will drive down wages in the private sector, which will probably then increase the public/private divide, leading to more conflict and hostility towards public sector pay and conditions, thus indirectly eroding them via increasing public support for the government doing so.

More harm than good?

This question of less staff being taken on brings us on to the next problem, which is that the scheme may actually make unemployment worse. The data released so far suggests that participants are on JSA longer on average than non-participants, and that dreaded beast “common sense” suggests that workers will create less jobs if free labour is available than they would otherwise. The notion that workfare would alleviate unemployment is based on the idea that a noticeable chunk of unemployment in this country is caused by a lack of basic employment experienced at an unskilled level. This seems simply unrealistic - I find it hard to envisage a situation in which employers are throwing their hands up in despair because they refuse to employ people who haven’t sat behind a checkout.

Are loads of huge corporations sitting around twiddling their thumbs saying “Oh golly, we’d love to employ someone to fill this role in the company, but none of them has shelf-stacking experience, so I guess we’ll just have to wait however long it takes until someone comes up who has”?  I find that very hard to believe. If they’re not, then the work experience itself isn’t really going to help. It merely means that a company that would otherwise employ someone with no experience will be employing somebody with some experience. And this assessment makes sense – how does providing more people with experience create jobs?

Recall that there are less jobs available than there are people looking for work. Part of this is because our economy assumes a natural rate of unemployment, of which possibly more in a future post. But nevertheless this means that even if everybody who was looking for work had exactly the skills, contacts, experience, etc they needed to find a job, there would still not be enough to go around. The fact that more skills are available in the economy doesn’t cause employers to want to employ more people; even a highly skilled labour force doesn’t mean full employment, and there is a massive difference between genuine work skills and generalised unskilled work experience.

On that note, it’s important to understand the difference between slating the work experience scheme and being against training for the unemployed in general. Work experience and skills training are different things; the work experience programme is about putting mostly unskilled young workers into unskilled roles for a short period of time in the hope that this will, in the words of the right wing, “get them out of bed in the morning”. I’m not saying this won’t help anybody – I can see how a voluntary agreement to try to do some work every week over a period of time might help someone suffering from depression and so on. But I can’t see it having a positive effect overall because it fails to impart real shortage skills; being a graphic designer, a computer programmer, an electrician or a doctor is not comparable to having spent ages in Poundland making items go ‘beep’ and cleaning up on aisle 5 in Tesco.

The conservative motto

Finally – and I think this has been somewhat understated by the campaigners against workfare due to their focus on the fact that taxpayers are subsidising private firms, etc – there should be a principled opposition to unpaid labour of this kind. The public debate about workfare represents an opportunity to forge an alliance around the issue of unpaid work; it would certainly include claimants and interns – it may also include workers in relation to unpaid overtime and even housewives and feminists of the Wages for Housework persuasion, etc.

In relation to workfare and interns, we should be arguing the point that if  you run a for-profit company and you have someone work for you, the fact that you are ‘providing them with experience’ is not an excuse for not paying them; all work ‘provides people with experience’, but we still pay unless the person doing it is young or has a history of unemployment. This is straightforward exploitation of people’s vulnerability in the labour market. Providing someone with genuine training, as I have said, is not the same as throwing them into an unskilled job for a few weeks.

People don’t necessarily have to be paid to learn useful new skills that employers are demanding and finding a shortage of, but they should certainly be paid to work. There may of course be exceptions in very specific circumstances like genuine volunteering via charitable or political organisations, but if you are creating value that will be appropriated for profit, I see no reason why you shouldn’t receive a wage for doing so. The very least the government could do if they’re not willing to introduce the minimum wage on the programme (although there have been suggestions that it legally applies), or even the apprentice rate for the minimum wage, is make the employers pay the JSA and any expenses directly to the claimant rather than subsidising big business with free labour at the taxpayer’s expense.

There is already an ongoing struggle to get the minimum wage actively applied to interns, but so far there has been little success. Given that companies in some industries habitually rely on several unpaid interns at a time in order to function properly, this is often not the philanthropic provision of training on the job to some lucky apprentice, it is the use of those desperate to break into an industry as free labour to grease the cogs. In fact, apprentices are actually paid, although less than other workers. Socialists often struggle with the incentive structure of capitalism and take a stand on the basis of justice. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I can see a case from an economic and politically pragmatic point of view for perhaps conceding that the apprentice rate should apply to interns and jobseekers on work placements, rather than the full minimum wage.

Political misdirection

If people continue to be distracted by the question of whether schemes are compulsory or semi-compulsory or presented as compulsory or whatever, though, they will miss the important questions about remuneration and the wider efficacy of the programme. Personally I don’t think there would be such a big problem with making a scheme compulsory if it was paid, whereas a voluntary but unpaid scheme still raises my hackles. And that’s precisely the point – the government are trying to divert us from the real issues here by purposefully misconstruing the public outcry and leading us down a dead-end path for the sake of preserving corporate subsidies and holding down working class wages and conditions.

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It’s not crazy

It’s difficult to know how to add to the discussion about the riots in a constructive way, but here’s a few thoughts.

First, let’s stop saying “it’s mad,” “it’s crazy,” and “they’re mental” because what that actually means is “I know there are obviously reasons behind this but they’re too complicated for me to bother trying to come to terms with.” This goes for people on the left as well as the right.

Most of the discussion has involved people saying, “This isn’t X, it’s Y.” It’s not political, it’s just looting. It’s not criminality, it’s an oppressed group rising up. It’s not about Mark Duggan, it’s about people wanting new trainers. It’s not about consumerism, it’s about poverty. And so on.

Everyone could be right to an extent. The ideas in everyone’s head are complicated at the best of times. Any explanation will be a simplification, but we can broadly say that last night saw a shift away from more “political” anti-police action to fairly indiscriminate looting.

Now the IPCC are reporting that there is no evidence that Mark Duggan fired on police officers before they shot and killed him last week (This was finally just mentioned – fourteen minutes into the Six O’clock news). Will this turn the focus back on the repressive role of the police in the capital’s working class areas? How much of the political content of the rioting will remain once the looting subsides? Will they lead, in the short or long term, to greater political self-organisation in these areas? We can’t possibly tell.

Lot’s of people talk about rioting being self-defeating because it is a community destroying itself. Again, this is true to an extent, but these kids don’t own any businesses. See this video. Is there less of a sense of a whole community fighting the police or state than there was in, say, Brixton in 1981? Has a sense of community solidarity disintegrated in parallel to the disintegration of the labour movement? Or is asking this just romanticising the past?

It’s a huge weakness of the left that we don’t know the answers to these questions; it shows how little implantation or influence we have in these communities.

Worryingly, BBC News 24 seems more and more to be a mouthpiece for reactionary opinion. Some of our viewers are saying we should be deploying the army, minister, what do you have to say to that? Some of you are saying the police are being too soft. Some of our viewers say things would be better if we brought back slavery, why not tell us what you think?

Here’s Darcus Howe trying to give an alternative opinion:

Notice how the reporter interrupts him and talks over him. He must unequivocally condemn the riots before he is even allowed into the conversation. “You say you’re not shocked. Does this mean you condone what happened?” What an idiotic question.

Just before this interview, militaristic high Tory Patrick Mercer was interviewed. He said police might need to look at using water cannon and maybe plastic bullets. He said police officers should start to think more like infantry officers. The reporter didn’t interrupt him by saying “Hang on, about a thousand people have taken to the streets and suddenly you’re talking about militarising the police. Isn’t that a bit stupid?”

I sense a shift to the right. But there have also been videos of people accosting Nick Clegg and confronting him about the government’s cuts programme. Complicated and contradictory ideas in people’s heads again?

As I wrote this it turned into what just seems to be a string of questions. Anyone got any more ideas?

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The Russian Revolution, as covered by Sky.

by Liam McNulty

In the wake of the first Russian Revolution in March 1917, let’s survey some of the media coverage.

Sky News

-There are fears in London tonight over just who will come to power in the wake of this week’s events in Petrograd.  Just days after US President Wilson insisted that the Tsarist regime was ‘stable’, reports from Russia indicate that Tsar Nicolas II has abdicated, leaving a dangerous power vacuum in the capital.  To help make sense of the recent political developments, we have on the line Prof. Hawk Stanford from the Hoover Institute. Professor, what sort of regime do you predict will take power in Russia after this week’s revolution?

-Well, Kay, the first thing to note is that this revolution will not be welcomed in the West for several reasons.  Despite Russia lacking any of the political freedoms and civil liberties that we preach to the world about, the Tsar did bring a measure of stability to Russia.  Also, Tsar Nicolas II was a key ally in the War on Germany and any indication that the new régime may scale back Russia’s military commitments on the Eastern Front will be met with consternation in Whitehall.  Did I mention stability? Oh yes. Finally, there is a worry that anti-Western elements may exploit the situation to establish international socialism.  This would not be conducive to British geopolitical interests in the region.

-Thanks, Professor.  We’ll have to cut it short now because on the line from Petrograd we have the Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, Irakli Tsereteli.  Mr. Tsereteli, there have been concerns about the use of violence during the course of revolution, reports of broken windows at the Winter Palace and some Cossacks have been injured.  Do you condemn the violence?

-Well, Kay, this was a revolution so it would be very surprising if there was no violence of any sort…

-So, what you are saying is that the violence this week was acceptable?  The broken windows?

-What you have to understand is that we have had peaceful demonstrations in the past and they have just been ignored by the media- or worse, violently massacred…

-But violence is violence.

-Kay, the main violence in Russia has always come from the state.  Bloody Sunday, the Lena Goldfields Massacre-

-But it is the case, Mr. Tsereteli, that viewers at home will see broken windows and turn off.  What does this criminal damage achieve?

-It has achieved the abdication of the Tsar and the establishment of a Provisional Government.

-Mr. Tsereteli, we’ll have to end this here.  Irakli Tsereteli there, from the Petrograd Soviet defending this week’s violence.

BBC News

-Following the revolutions in Russia last week, Prime Minister Lloyd George has come under fire for the UK Government’s botched attempts to evacuate British holidaymakers.  We turn now to our correspondent in Petrograd.

-Yes, John.  I’m here at Petrograd airport and have been talking to people cutting their holidays short in an attempt to get home safely. The Coalition Government has faced heavy criticism from holidaymakers for what they say was a hesitant and incompetent effort to evacuate UK nationals from Russia in the wake of the revolution.  I’m joined here by Phil who took his family on a ten-day package holiday to a ski resort in the Caucuses.  Phil, what has been your experience of the revolution?

-Well, I booked this package over the summer and we’re absolutely gutted that the Russian proletariat has chosen to launch its revolution now.  At the end of the day, we’ve worked hard and saved our money to go on this holiday and it’s disappointing that our enjoyment has been marred by people seeking fundamental human rights.  We’re gonna try and get the Provisional Government to pay the excess on the holiday insurance but I’ll not hold me breath.

-As you said, John, some disgruntled holidaymakers.  Back to the studio.

The New Statesman columnist

It’s a cold morning outside the Putilov factory and the workers are on strike.  Across the promenade, a line of Cossacks stare menacingly at us, like furry-headed agents of Tsarist absolutism.  Glass lies strewn on the street, each glittering shard a symbol of a potential future.  I meet the eyes of a Russian worker, just for a second.  I can tell he is not a seasoned Socialist Revolutionary from the tremble of his lips; a steely resolve matched with the nervousness of a naive first-time striker.

Elsewhere, dourfaced Bolsheviks are selling Pravda.  It’s frustrating to see the old parties attempt to control what has thus far been a spontaneous and creative movement.  Yesterday morning we were kettled by Cossacks for several hours.  Kids lit fires to keep warm, burning priceless artefacts from a nearby palace.  I’m not interested in whether this is a bourgeois-democratic revolution or will pass uninterruptedly into a socialist revolution because only the proletarian dictatorship is capable of solving the necessary tasks; I care about who can generate heat from a Rembrandt.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with a crowd of angry women, something remarkable happened.  They reached a line of soldiers, eyeball to eyeball they lined up in an ostensible display of mutual antipathy.  Then one of the soldiers winked in a friendly manner.  With this almost imperceptible gesture I knew, at that moment, that a movement had been born.  This is only the beginning.

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BBC WTF?

by Edd Mustill

So Mubarak has finally gone. Fantastic stuff.

The BBC News live page currently includes the following update:

1825: President of the Islamic Republic of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tweets: “Youth of Iran! Anybody who promises not to protest will receive 1900 Microsoft Points.”

A quick look at the Twitter account in question tells us that “M_Ahmadinejad” is obviously not the Iranian President. Other updates include:

“Great Satans! Check out who is still in power. That’s right, it’s me, The Mahd Dogg.”

“Well, so far so good: still no protesters and no still no gays in Iran. Will keep you posted.”

Please tell me someone at the BBC is having a laugh, and that they don’t think this is really the Iranian President’s Twitter?

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The February Theses

by Anne Archist


Newsnight Economics Editor Paul Mason (allegedly a former member of Workers’ Power, though I don’t know if this is true or not) has written 20 theses on the current situation, particularly regarding anti-austerity dissent in Europe and the revolutionary upsurge in the Middle East. He specifically asked for comments and replies on twitter, so I’m here to remind him to be careful what he wishes for…

 

1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future…

Is there? “It all” here refers not only to the student protests in this country, and the wider anti-cuts movement, but also anti-austerity mobilisations elsewhere in Europe and even the rebellions spreading across the Middle East. Can we put all of these down to the “graduate with no future”? I think not – my experience of the anti-cuts movement in this country is that it is largely composed of activists, students and trade unionists. Only some of these students have “no future” (yes, some people who do have secure futures are capable of dissent too!) and only some of them are in higher education.

2. …with access to social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and eg Yfrog so they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyrrany [sic].

True to an extent, but it is important to bear in mind the descriptive and potentially momentary nature of this. The fact that people are using the internet a lot doesn’t imply that people ought to rely on it; there is massive potential for these sorts of coordination to be hampered or prevented altogether if it becomes really necessary (apparently the USA are working on an internet kill switch that would allow the president to unplug the country on a whim).

3. Therefore truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable.

There’s no reason to assume that truth moves faster than lies through social networks!

4. They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies: Labourism, Islamism, Fianna Fail Catholicism etc… in fact hermetic ideologies of all forms are rejected.

Au contraire – membership has risen for Labour and far left groups, and I’ve been in contact with sixth formers keen to learn more about Marxism and Anarchism, for instance.

5. Women very numerous as the backbone of movements. After twenty years of modernised labour markets and higher-education access the “archetypal” protest leader, organizer, facilitator, spokesperson now is an educated young woman.

To put this down to the development of modernised markets undermines the hard work that has been done throughout the history of social struggles to improve the lot of women within them. Would “modernised labour markets and higher education access” have ensured the same result without the input of socialist-feminists taking male leaders to task, the active and conscious selection of women as spokespersons for campaigns, the use of women’s caucuses in trade unions, etc? Most groups purposely and self-consciously deal with gender issues within the campaign, and to put the observation of women organisers/etc down to economic factors is to do a political disservice to these groups and to the hard work of women within them. Women had to fight for the position they are now beginning to occupy, and it’s by no means assured or entirely equal!

6. Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton.

Perhaps Mason means something specific by ‘vertical’ hierarchies (are there such things as horizontal hierarchies?), but hierarchies of sorts certainly persist in the face of technology. They may be different kinds of hierarchies (those who have a smartphone vs those who don’t), and they may in fact be even less appealing ones. This is the sort of point made well in the classic pamphlet The Tyranny of Structurelessness. At least a democratic hierarchy allows us to choose and change who is at the top; emergent accidental hierarchies may be decided by factors like income, etc.

7. Memes: “A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.” (Wikipedia) – so what happens is that ideas arise, are very quickly “market tested” and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes. Prior to the internet this theory (see Richard Dawkins, 1976) seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes.

I don’t have anything to add here…

8. They all seem to know each other: not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy – but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form. So if you “follow” somebody from the UCL occupation on Twitter, as I have done, you can easily run into a radical blogger from Egypt, or a lecturer in peaceful resistance in California who mainly does work on Burma so then there are the Burmese tweets to follow. During the early 20th century people would ride hanging on the undersides of train carriages across borders just to make links like these.

Again, though, this idea of ‘networks’ can be dangerous if it leads to the formation of cabals that are unaccountable, personality cults, etc.

9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess [sic] – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

People get unhappy when the economy turns to shit – nothing too surprising there.

10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

I’m not entirely sure what this is about – how is it “compounded”? Maybe I just don’t understand what’s being said here.

11.To amplify: I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

But a revolution of poor lawyers produces a social order organised for rich lawyers – the French revolution was an essentially bourgeois revolution, this is no surprise. Unrest in the Middle East, China, etc may lead to a revolution of poor lawyers that throws off political repression and so forth (and this is by no means inevitable). More economically developed, liberal-democratic states are already organised for rich lawyers, however…

12.The weakness of organised labour means there’s a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris – heavy predomination of the “progressive” intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a “stage army” to be marched on and off the scene of history.

Well, this in itself is making very few claims – in what sense is the intelligentsia predominant? What has the relationship changed from and to? I’m not convinced that the claims it does make are true – the intelligentsia seems to have little to do with anything when it comes to the politics of the street that are emerging.

13.This leads to a loss of fear among the young radicals of any movement: they can pick and choose; there is no confrontation they can’t retreat from. They can “have a day off” from protesting, occupying: whereas twith he [sic] old working-class based movements, their place in the ranks of battle was determined and they couldn’t retreat once things started. You couldn’t “have a day off” from the miners’ strike if you lived in a pit village.

This is a pedantic point, but it’s not a loss of fear if they’re young radicals that weren’t involved in social movements like this before, because they never had occasion to fear in the first place. Taking a day off from protesting (and occupying) is not as easy as it may seem – certainly you won’t get people threatening to break your legs, but you might reasonably expect peer pressure, guilt, and so forth. On the other hand, it may be true that the struggle these days is being fought in a more ‘tactical’ hit-and-run fashion. The question remains whether this is merely a transitory phenomenon or whether we are in a new era of struggle; soon we should be seeing a lot more industrial action, and we’ll see how comfortable people feel from having a day off then…

14.In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week.

This isn’t to do with the changed nature of class relations within the movement or anything of the sort. The core activists of most campaigns do tend to overlap, and they always have done historically. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Socialist groups in the 60s in the USA would have had a place in the civil rights/black power struggle, the women’s liberation movement, the unions, community groups, the anti-vietnam protests, etc.

15. People just know more than they used to. Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives and truth. More or less everything you need to know to make sense of the world is available as freely downloadable content on the internet: and it’s not pre-digested for you by your teachers, parents, priests, imams. For example there are huge numbers of facts available to me now about the subjects I studied at university that were not known when I was there in the 1980s. Then whole academic terms would be spent disputing basic facts, or trying to research them. Now that is still true but the plane of reasoning can be more complex because people have an instant reference source for the undisputed premises of arguments. It’s as if physics has been replaced by quantum physics, but in every discipline.

This is an interesting observation from an academic point of view, but I doubt as to whether it tells us much about the nature of the movements we’re examining.

16.There is no Cold War, and the War on Terror is not as effective as the Cold War was in solidifying elites against change. Egypt is proving to be a worked example of this: though it is highly likely things will spiral out of control, post Mubarak – as in all the colour revolutons [sic] – the dire warnings of the US right that this will lead to Islamism are a “meme” that has not taken off. In fact you could make an interesting study of how the meme starts, blossoms and fades away over the space of 12 days. To be clear: I am not saying they are wrong – only that the fear of an Islamist takeover in Egypt has not been strong enough to swing the US presidency or the media behind Mubarak.

I don’t have anything to add here either.

17. It is – with international pressure and some powerful NGOs – possible to bring down a repressive government without having to spend years in the jungle as a guerilla, or years in the urban underground: instead the oppositional youth – both in the west in repressive regimes like Tunisia/Egypt, and above all in China – live in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks. The internet is not key here – it is for example the things people swap by text message, the music they swap with each other etc: the hidden meanings in graffiti, street art etc which those in authority fail to spot.

This is romanticising protest aesthetics as if they were a source of political power in themselves – to paraphrase Mason, “they use graffiti” is missing the point of what they use it for. Furthermore, it’s always been possible to bring down a government without spending years in the jungle – “international pressure and some powerful NGOs” is not the way to do it, however. The Russian February Revolution was the work of the women proletarians and the product of bread queues. International pressure generally comes to nought unless it consists of foreign interference; Egyptians don’t want the US to replace Mubarak with a CIA-approved puppet, they want to force him out and decide what follows.

18. People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various “revolutions” in their own lives as part of an “exodus” from oppression, not – as previous generations did – as a “diversion into the personal”. While Foucault could tell Gilles Deleuze: “We had to wait until the nineteenth century before we began to understand the nature of exploitation, and to this day, we have yet to fully comprehend the nature of power”,- that’s probably changed.

Again, this is part of the Laurie Penny narrative according to which young people have no truck with old-fashioned notions that social workers and billionaire property tycoons have conflicting class interests. This isn’t representative of the consciousness I encounter in the movement, however.

19. As the algebraic sum of all these factors it feels like the protest “meme” that is sweeping the world – if that premise is indeed true – is profoundly less radical on economics than the one that swept the world in the 1910s and 1920s; they don’t seek a total overturn: they seek a moderation of excesses. However on politics the common theme is the dissolution of centralized power and the demand for “autonomy” and personal freedom in addition to formal democracy and an end to corrupt, family based power-elites.

The task of socialists, of course, will be to reverse this, as it has always been!

20. Technology has – in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera – expanded the space and power of the individual.

Expanded the space of the individual? At this point Mason seems to be getting a little too keen on Foucault. It’s interesting that he mentions CCTV cameras as if they expand the power of protesters; this thesis forgets that for every blog there is now a tank, for every smartphone there is now a wiretap, for every soundsystem there is now a Forward Intelligence Team.

 

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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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Hulture Secretary extrapolates from statistics and somehow this is controversial.

by Anne Archist (yes, I’m back!)

Jeremy Cunt, the Hulture Secretary, was this week throwing stones from inside his glass second home. The tory cabinet minister, whose responsibilities include the Olympic Games nobody wanted anyway, has courted controversy by suggesting that the BBC suffer from a left-wing bias.

In an interview with the Observer, Cunt suggested that the BBC’s staff were more likely to vote Labour or Lib Dem than tory. With recent YouGov polls putting his party just above 40% in the polls, questions will be asked about why the fuck this is comment-worthy.

Labour leader ‘Red’ Ed Guevara responded to the interview with these thoughts: “The worrying thing is that he seems to be completely oblivious of how unpopular his party is. Statistically, the same could be said of a bunch of people herded off the street, so the voting habits of BBC employees really are unremarkable.”

Cunt, whose portfolio also includes the media, further alleged that BBC staff had been “out of step” with public opinion on some issues over the last decade. The tories, on the other hand, were entirely in tune with the public, allowing them to lose several successive general elections.

Despite these criticisms, he said that for most BBC journalists “their commitment to independent journalism comes before any political affiliation”, which is why he recently took the decision to freeze the license fee until 2017. Mr Cunt explained his decision as “a response to the unacceptable lack of right-wing bias”, saying: “we are not Italy. We do not have all the government’s key people in the state controlled media, and this needs to change”.

These comments come in the wake of two BBC radio presenters attracting amusement by accidentally referring to the minister as “Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary”. Initial confusion over his name and position were cleared up when one of the BBC’s researchers realised that a Culture Secretary would have known what caused the Hillsborough disaster, but cue-cards were not amended, leaving red faces all round.

 

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Industrial Unionism and the BBC

by Edd Mustill

The National Union of Journalists has announced that its members at the BBC will be holding two 48-hour strikes in November, after they voted to reject the latest pensions offer.

According the the Guardian, NUJ members voted by 70% to reject management’s latest offer while members of Bectu, the biggest union at the corporation, voted 65% in favour. Members of three other unions which represent smaller numbers of BBC staff – Unite, Equity, and the Musicians’ Union – also voted to accept the latest offer.

The leaderships of the two biggest unions had decided to not recommend to their members to vote a particular way, but the statements the unions gave during the ballot tell that the leaderships of Bectu and the NUJ are seeing things differently.

Bectu said: “In BECTU’s view this is the best that can be achieved through negotiation and we believe that to try and improve this offer would take substantial and lengthy industrial action from all our members with significant loss in salary.”

At the same time, NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear predicted a “winter of growing discontent” at the BBC.

This may lead to an undesirable situation where enough people are working to make sure all shows go out. Without breaking any union rules, members could find themselves rendering a strike by other union members ineffective.

More than one union is present in workplaces in most industries. On the rails, while the RMT is the best-known and biggest union, TSSA and ASLEF have many members. Public sector workplaces could employ members of Unison, the GMB, the PCS and Unite, as well as more specialist unions like the FBU.

Perhaps it’s time for the Left to once again start talking about industrial unionism – the idea that everyone in a particular industry should be in the same union. This helps advance class consciousness and fosters solidarity among “all grades” – people who may be on different contracts or work very different jobs, but still work for the same employer or set of employers.

The beginnings of our modern unions lie in this idea. Many were formed in the periods of industrial militancy before and after the first world war. Industrial unionism, and the consequent merging of unions, was the idea of a movement on the offensive. While the mergers were not a purely “bottom up” phenomenon in this period, syndicalists in the Amalgamation Committees Movement should take much of the credit.

The National Union of Railwayman, which later became the RMT, was founded in 1913 when several smaller rail unions came together. The Amalgamated Engineering Union, forerunner of Amicus, was formed in 1920. Most famously the Transport and General Workers’ Union was constituted in 1922 from a disparate array of, well, transport and general workers’ unions.

These latter two recently merged to form Unite, the biggest union in British history. But what we have seen in more recent years is union amalgamation as a defensive measure, as a method of survival rather than a sign of confidence. Unite is a product of this.

Today’s big “superunions” are not industrial unions. Their memberships overlap. For example, the GMB recruits some dissatisfied nurses from Unison, or vice versa. During the Lindsey dispute, a GMB nurse expressed his frustration to me that, although he was in the same union as a lot of the Lindsey engineering construction workers, he could do little more to support them than if he hadn’t been a GMB member.

An industrial union has its potential drawbacks too. In the case of broadcasting, for example, it would encompass incredibly well-paid star performers. The results of this have been seen in the BBC dispute, where several big-names signed a letter criticising the NUJ’s earlier decision to call a strike during the Tories’ party conference. Of course, in the latest BBC vote, if all the workforce were in the same union, there would have been a majority accepting the offer and there wouldn’t be any strike action at all.

Another question is how far the inclusion of “all grades” would climb up the sometimes complicated structures of management. Many lower level “managers” are in fact just workers with slightly higher pay and more responsibilities, and having them in the same union can, over time, have positive effects on unity in the workplace. But obviously a line should be drawn, as it is now, before higher-end managers.

However, in a period where we want unions to be more aggressive, and where the TUC is at least nominally committed to joint strike action, we should be thinking about ways to break down the historical reality of sectionalism which is still a defining characteristic of the trade union movement.

Networks of shop stewards can play a role in this. If committees of reps from all unions in a workplace are established and strengthened, this can lead to unity at the “point of production” for dealing with many issues. But as long as separate unions exist in the same industry, the constant threat of division at crucial moments will keep resurfacing, as it is now at the BBC.

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Bosses call for laws that favour bosses

by Edd Mustill

The Confederation of British Industry has released a report arguing for even tighter laws regulating trade union activity in Britain. The proposals in Keeping the wheels turning: modernising the legal framework of industrial relations aim to build on the restrictive body of union law already in place and make strikes more difficult to organise, and less effective when they are organised.

The headline-grabbing proposal is that 40% of an entire union workforce, rather than just those who vote, should back a call for strike for it to be legally allowed to go ahead.

The CBI’s approach to voting is novel, because it assumes and enforces an opinion on behalf of everyone who wasn’t bothered enough to vote at all. This is not democratic. A defeated candidate in an election couldn’t get the result overturned on the basis of low turnout, saying “I know the people who didn’t vote prefer me to the other guy.”

Recently, the high profile strikes on the tube and at British Airways, and the prospective strikes at the BBC, have all have at least 40% of the workforce voting in favour. With that in mind, here’s a fun quiz:

Q. Of the country’s post-war elected governments, how many would have fallen short of the 40% threshold?

A. All of them. In fact, Labour in 1951 is the only party to have had more than 40% of the electorate voting for them. And they lost the election.

Other proposals are more potentially damaging than the 40% threshold. Employers are pushing to be able to go to agencies to hire workers during strikes. Currently they can only hire temps directly. If this proposal were to become law, it could turn temping agencies into big pools of strikebreaking labour.

It is of vital importance that unions step up efforts to enrol and organise agency and temporary workers. Any use of temps to work through strikes in the public sector will be fatal to the union movement.

Unions currently have to give seven days notice between the result of a ballot and any strike action. The CBI wants this increased to fourteen days. This, especially coupled with the proposal to use agency workers, will render the vast majority of strikes, limited as they are to 24 or 48 hours, totally useless. Employers can easily ride out these strikes with little effect, by planning what work needs to be done in advance, and hiring people to do it.

Tube workers are very powerful in this respect because of the large economic impact of even a 24 hour standstill in the capital. Nevertheless, it is clear that now, with the spending review and all its consequences looming, union leaderships and rank-and-file members need to be prepared to engage in longer, potentially more bitter, disputes than the one or two day strikes that have been customary in recent years.

No response from the government has been forthcoming as yet – we shall see what noises are made at the Tory conference this week – but Boris Johnson has been vocal in proposing his own tightening up of the union laws. With the Coalition looking for ways to diffuse any movement against their cuts programme, the CBI’s proposals will get a hearing.

The CBI are only in the position to present their proposals as common sense because of the weakness of the trade union movement, and because of Labour’s refusal to repeal any of the substantial body of union law passed by the last Conservative government. And so far from Ed Miliband, we have had a condemnation of the BBC strike and not a whisper about the tube. The union’s strength will come from their own membership, and the wider support of the working class. That is the strength that the CBI is seeking to dissolve with anti-strike laws.

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Citizen Cable

by Edd Mustill

Guys, we’ve won. Pack up your banners, put your pamphlets in the recycling bin, and let’s go down the pub. It turns out that there’s a rabid anti-capitalist activist in the very corridors of power.

Vince Cable has single-handedly shattered the doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility and shaken Whitehall to its core by launching a scathing attack on the capitalist system. So say various media outlets.

Except that the vast majority of his speech had nothing to do with any of that. In fact, take out the one line about “spivs and gamblers” in the banking sector and you’re left with a vociferous defence of the Coalition Government’s programme. Cuts, the privatisation of the Royal Mail, that sort of thing. This is the sort of Marxism that only a former chief economist of a major oil company could adhere to.*

Peoples' Front for the Liberation of Twickenham?

Far from any of the guff about capitalism, the most important line of the speech was this: “The biggest test of our party’s contribution to the coalition is whether we can ensure fairness more widely.”

What does this sentence even mean? It gives away absolutely nothing, and contains no political content whatsoever. “Ensure fairness more widely” is a phrase which is much more revealing about the nature of the Liberal Democrats: utterly pointless.

* The BBC News website has predictably provided us with a helpful comparison of the respective philosophies of Vince Cable and Karl Marx. It reminds us that Marx said: “Capitalism is dead labour, which, vampire-like, survives only by sucking living labour.” That’s great, except that Marx didn’t say it because it makes no sense. Capital is dead labour. Capitalism is something else entirely. Still, don’t let a fundamental misunderstanding of your subject matter get in the way of producing a quirky, misleading article.

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