Sunday, 22 November 2015

Guest Blog: Stuart Jeffrey - Urgent Action on the NHS Consultation. What YOU Can Do!

Tell Jeremy Hunt what to do with the NHS!

You need to do this tonight! Jeremy Hunt has sneaked out a consultation on the NHS without really letting people know - a great way of ensuring that you don't get an answer that you don't want. The consultation ends on 23rd November, so follow the link below to tell him what to do with the NHS.

38 Degrees have picked up on this and have set up an easy response system. Visit them here.

Feel free to use my responses in the text, or better still write your own if you have time:
  • £10bn still leaves 4% cuts required each year to 2020. This will not be possible without severe restrictions to services or a significant decline in the quality and safety of care.
  • The mandate should contain a commitment to increase funding in line with the £30bn that the NHS will need to provide safe, effective care by 2020.
  • It should contain a commitment to ending privatisation of the NHS.
  • There should be a requirement that all health ministers and their families have no interests in any private health care company.
  • There should be a buying back of PFI and a commitment to no new PFI contracts
  • There should be a commitment to end the health care market which costs billions to run.

Stuart Jeffrey is a Green Party activist and campaigner from Kent. You can read more of his blog here:

Thursday, 19 November 2015

We Can't Wait: Day of the Toilet

Today is (just) World Toilet Day. It's coincidence with International Men's Day has of course led to some satire about a combined symbol being an upright toilet seat, but Toilet Day has some very serious issues to raise.

2.5 billion people - over a third of the humans on our planet - do not have access to adequate sanitation and 1 billion have no access at all to toilets, instead having to relieve themselves in the open with all the abundance of bad consequences for their own and others' health. This is compounded by the fact that many people facing such circumstances live in cramped conditions alongside tens or even hundreds of thousands of others in shanty towns and refugee camps. With water shortages increasing across the world owing to a combination of overuse and global warming, the situation is likely to get much worse without rapid action - this on the same day as it was revealed that superbugs resistant to the most powerful "last ditch" antibiotics have been identified in China.

Growing stress on water supplies
In the West, we take being able to use Thomas Crapper's invention for granted, complaining when it gets blocked or if the water runs out on a crowded over-filled outdated commuter train. Yet for so many of our fellow humans, it is a constant problem hour after hour, day after day.

Learn more about the purpose of World Toilet Day on the website here and in the videos below.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Polymath of Revolution: Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson is more often than not remembered by mainstream white culture as the deep, melancholic voice of American musicals, though sometimes in roles that ultimately pandered to white stereotypes of black people. But there was much, much more to this remarkable radical whose life straddled so many of the defining struggles of the 20th century.

He was born in 1898 in New Jersey to a mixed race mother and a black father who had been born a slave before escaping and eventually becoming a pastor. In spite of facing a barrage of racism in his early years, Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers College where he excelled at sport and played in the National Football League. At the same time, he studied and qualified in law from Columbia Law School, but on graduation, he was faced with patronising racial barriers to progressing in the profession. Encouraged by his new wife Essie, who supported him financially, he switched instead to theatre in Harlem where he soon worked with a range of radical bohemian artists. His performances were widely praised, but the subjects of many of the productions he appeared in challenged prevailing norms about race and society, and led to death threats.

This didn't stop him and he was soon singing as well, presenting concerts of slave spirituals, arguing against the prevalent trend among middle class blacks to eschew their history and culture. Later, while working in theatre in London, he enrolled in courses at the School of Oriental and African Studies to understand African languages and dialects more deeply. Yet as he appeared in more films, he soon encountered racial stereotyping - and appalling treatment where what directors like Alexander Korba assured him were roles taking a more progressive slant on race were twisted round on the editor's floor. This soon sharpened and heightened his political awareness and thirst for social change.

While keen to foster African Americans' pride in their culture and identity, he also deeply believed in the universality of all humanity and through this was drawn to communism. In 1929 in London he encountered striking miners who had marched from Wales and learned of their poverty. He raised funds and travelled to the Valleys with food for their families and supported trade union activists. Later, he met socialist thinkers like H G Wells and this inspired him on his return to the USA to hold concerts to fund raise for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. A couple of years later he became Chair of the Council on African Affairs, a left-wing body advocating for black rights in the USA and against imperialism and colonialism globally. Although tolerated during the war because of the alliance with the USSR, it was listed by the FBI as a subversive organisation in 1946.

He visted the Soviet Union in 1948 (although as with many on the Left at the time he was largely uncritical of Stalinism), worked for Progressive Party US Presidential candidate Henry A Wallace in the same year and supported the American Communist Party, all of which led to him being blacklisted during the McCarthy repression. Along with other CAA leaders, he was charged with subversion in 1953 and denied a passport for five years, seriously damaging his international career as well as cutting his domestic earnings. Surviving this, however, he staged a moderate come back in concerts in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

After the lynching of four black men by a white mob in 1946, Robeson had secured a meeting with President Truman to petition for action to protect black people. However, when he warned the President that failure to stop lynchings would lead to a violent backlash from African Americans, Truman had angrily terminated the meeting. This did not stop Robeson from continuing to campaign, but it was to be another 15 years before the rise of the civil rights movement was to see any real progress. Robeson was for a while active in the movement but ill health compelled him to retire from public view. He died in 1976.

Paul Robeson was a deeply intellectual, multi-faceted man, a true polymath but one even now frequently relegated to a stereotype by white dominated culture.  It is an insipid, patronising and even self-defeating racism in so many ways similar to the "genteel" racial barriers that he had encountered during his brief foray into the legal profession. That he nevertheless held to a politics which, while celebrating cultural difference, fostered the underpinning unity of humankind is consequently all the more impressive.

Here is a full length film biography of Paul Robeson and, below that, his rendition (in a rare English version) of the Soviet National Anthem.

Monday, 16 November 2015

The Ancient Art of Industrial Action: the World's First Strike

Our society, with its arrogant belief in our modernity, often looks back at our ancestors with a mixture of disdain towards their supposedly primitive, superstitious nature yet, paradoxically if sometimes patronisingly, stares in awe at some of their (literally) monumental achievements, from the Great Wall to the Colosseum, or from the polished marble statues of the Hellenes to the giant pyramids of Egypt.

And yet, while we may look back at seemingly distant, lost landscapes of elusive societies and long dead beliefs, in truth, far more commonality stretches across the centuries than we often realise. So many of the norms and values and challenges we face now are the very same that those who were here aeons ago also encountered.

The very earliest human societies, back in Palaeolithic times, had all the hallmarks of equality and co-operation: archaeology almost universally has excavated village after village of similarly sized houses, commonly used tools and shared fields and livestock. Contrary to the Hollywood version of savage tribes led by psychopathic cavemen, the earliest humans, who dominated our world for as much as ten times as long as the so-called civilised world we now inhabit, were an egalitarian lot, with men and women working together and sharing their resources communally, leading Marx and Engels to name them "primitive communists".

However, a combination of climate change and the innovation it spurred in agriculture and technology led increasingly to specialisation: the development of the plough, the domestication of the horse, irrigating and fertilising fields and the advances in metal work all led to the need for workers with specialist skills. Trade developed too as materials were sought from further afield. Finally, and most powerfully, village life became transformed into urban as the first cities grew - not, as traditional history would have it, from one place (Ur) gradually spreading out, but quite spontaneously in different places across the planet where humans encountered similar situations.

Subsistence economies began to produce surpluses - by 2,500BC, crops in the Fertile Crescent (modern Iraq) had yields of 86 times the sowing and with these surpluses came the rise of the first ruling classes. These initially consisted of men selected by their communities as protectors from outside threats or as priests directed to foster the surplus for the common good.

While at first both depended on the consent of their communities, in time, through what Neil Faulkener (A Marxist History of the World) has described as "force and fraud", they gradually "usurped the power of society to become power over society". Archaeology from around 4,000BC on shows increasing gaps in wealth with some houses four or five times the size of the norm, while early records show temple property gradually passing into the hands of priests and other officials appointed to administer public services such as irrigation and building. Sometimes, as in ancient Sumeria, the priesthood held sway and appointed the military; in others, such as Pharaonic Egypt, it was the opposite way round, although the militaristic Pharaoh was always proclaimed a living god as well as commander of the army.

Yet, even as once free, equal people were pressed into hierarchical and patriarchal societies where the overwhelming majority lived as slaves or peasants, ancient notions of equity and the public good persisted, ingrained deep in the human psyche, our mental DNA. And in 1152BC, during the construction of the pyramid of Pharaoh Rameses III, a combination of failure to pay rations and corruption by priests and public officials led, remarkably, to the first verifiable recorded strike*, which is preserved in the so called "Strike Papyrus" in the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy.

After their due rations of beer and grain had been delivered intermittently for some weeks, skilled stonemasons downed tools on 14 November and over the next week staged a series of protests first at the local town hall and then, it seems, in various places within the pyramid itself. This astonishingly included a sit-in in what was to be the sacred chamber where the Pharaoh himself would be laid to rest for his voyage to the after-life. In a show of sisterly solidarity, their wives joined them after the first couple of days.

The police attended, including the Chief of Police, who tried to reason with them, while the Mayor of Thebes did a Blairite "I'm an honest guy" turn with the disbelieving workers. Completely at a loss, on the seventh day, management caved in and provided the strikers with:

Year 29, second month of winter, day 17
Giving the ration of the second month:
1 foreman: 7½ sacks
the scribe: 3¾ sacks
8 men, each one: 52/4 sacks, making 44 sacks.
Left side:
1 foreman: 7½ sacks
the scribe: 3¾ sacks
8 men, each one: 52/4 sacks, making 44 sacks.
The two gatekeepers, the four washermen ...

Although they returned to work, the stonemasons were back on the picket line just four weeks later and this time called a scribe to set down their grievances to go to the Pharaoh himself (as with many later examples, such as the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 in England, ordinary people, saturated by the propaganda of the irreplaceable efficacy or even the fraudulent divinity of the ruling class, still saw the king ultimately as The Benefactor, unknowingly let down by corrupt or incompetent officials). However, it wasn't failure to pay rations that was on their minds, but corruption by temple administrators (priests). As well as accusing one Weserhat of unpriestly activities with a Lady Menat, they charged the holy-man and his colleague Pentaweret with stealing building materials and oxen which were meant to belong to the communal religious site.

The outcome of the second dispute is not clearly preserved but further strikes are documented and they apparently became a feature of pyramid building. It seems the skilled craftsmen grew aware of their value to the ruler as he needed them to construct what was intended to be a powerful totem of his alleged supremacy, a hallmark of his god-given dominance over his people and all the lands of Earth.

However, whatever the Pharaoh's delusions of grandeur, the first strike was a success for the workers and a powerful reminder that, whatever system of power is in place, our species is rooted in values of fairness, justice and solidarity.

*It is to be noted this is the first strike that is verifiable by contemporary documents. The "Father of History", Herodotus, refers to one that may have occurred as much as 400 years earlier, also in Egypt, by workers building the Great Pyramid of Cheops, who were angry when their garlic rations were late.

The Strike Papyrus

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Capitalism Kills The Truth - Fox Buys National Geographic

Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox Corporation has bought up the prestigious National Geographic magazine and its associated TV channel. Within 24 hours of the title exchanging hands, 180 staff (about 9% of the total) were "let go" and although Murdoch's spokespeople have insisted that the editorial board and writing staff are largely intact, the Digger's reach is likely to go beyond the frozen staff benefits pot.

National Geographic, first published in 1888, has long been prized as an impartial and highly reliable source of news about the world. Although with a heavy focus (literally) on wildlife and wilderness landscapes, it has also contributed massively to the mainstreaming of the debate on climate change with leading articles on global warming, resource depletion and environmental damage. Its photo-journalism has sometimes been the conclusive proof of corporations' damage of rainforest, pollution of the seas and assault on indigenous communities.

Click through to a few National Geographic pieces:

"Yes, We can take action to fix climate change!" 

The Climate Change Special Issue

Weather versus Climate change

Learning from Indigenous Peoples About Climate Change

It has a website devoted to explaining climate change: HERE

By contrast, take a look at Murdoch's Fox News Channel's output on this major issue of our times:

 Fossil Fuels are no catastrophe: they have made our lives better.

Weather Channel founder blasts climate change (as fake)  

 Climate change is "Superstition"

Many commentators have criticised Fox for its lax standards of verite, not only on global warming but on a wide range of issues. But it's obsessive traducing of the climate crisis is creating serious damage to the fight to save humanity from self-destruction. The widespread scientific consensus on global warming being caused by human activity is denounced as fraud perpetrated by a Protocols of Zion type world-wide conspiracy by universities in search of grants, while every flake of snow is pronounced another nail in the coffin of the "liberal" myth of a warming planet. Although happy to trouser millions from the biblical climate change epic Noah, Murdoch himself crassly pronounced modern, scientifically proven climate change false after he flew over 300 miles of ice - in the Arctic!

With one analysis declaring 93% of its output as "misleading" on climate change,   the enduring tragedy is that more Americans trust Fox News thant President Obama on the issue - not that, with his own addiction to fracking, Barak has not exaclty covered himself in glory on the environment.

But Fox is critical in slowing and blocking the crucial opt-in to global action on greenhouse gas emissions by the USA without which action by other countries will have limited impact (It is worth noting here that Chinese coal use is now falling and China, doubtlessly in thrall to liberals!, is investing more in clean energy than the rest of the world combined).

Murdoch has of course already insisted there will be no loss of editorial independence, but anyone following the British satirical magazine Private Eye's regular tracking of tie-ins and cross-selling between his UK Sky, Times and Sun media brands will know differently.

Like any good global capitalist, for Rupert Murdoch, global warming, even at its now accelerating pace, is of far less concern than his year on year profits. His poisonous legacy - and those of hundreds of similar global magnates - will exact a huge price from his grandchildren's generation. But of course, by then Rupert will have long since gone to the Corporate Boardroom in (the) Sky.

Below - Spoofs abound already: but is the future bleak for National Geographic?

Friday, 16 October 2015

Keep Left

Over the last three weekends, I have taken a tour of the left landscape of England. First a weekend on the south coast at Bournemouth for the Green Party's first conference since its moderate advances at the General Election and, of course, Jeremy Corbyn's election as Labour leader. The following weekend it was the People's Assembly co-ordinated Anti-Austerity march outside the Conservative conference in Manchester, complete with eggs and pig masks. And last Saturday afternoon, at a smaller gathering in Leeds, a couple of highly insightful lectures on Marxism from Red Flag, a new leftwing grouping in the Labour Party.

There was an underlying theme at all three - change is in the air. As covered here a number of times before, the last few years have seen a gathering ferment of unpredictable change, from the BNP bubble and the rise of UKIP, to Cleggmania, the Green Surge, the remarkable Scottish independence referendum and the backwash that swept away the once unassailable Scottish Labour Party; and now to the rise of Corbyn. These developments are seemingly mirrored elsewhere in the western world - whether on the populist right such as the USA's Trumpism or Greece's Golden Dawn fascists; or on the left by the Hellenic Syriza and Hispanic Podemos or, across the Pond, by the insurgency of socialist Democrat Bernie Sandars as he challenges for the Democrat nomination.

Police outside "1984: the Musical" at the Manchester protest
The Establishment is under assault in a way it hasn't had to handle since the Depression Era. In growing numbers, tens of millions of people are searching for alternatives to the desperate inequality and insipid greed of de-regulated capitalism as it destroys the lives of individuals and communities, turns its own nostrums on their heads and bares it rapacious teeth so nakedly that it threatens to devour our entire habitat within a generation.

And yet, while there is progressive hope as not for sometime, with the stakes so high, the decision-point grows ever sharper. Especially when the so-called centre-ground is actually far to the right of the political graph, the time for compromise is over. If there ever was a chance of some "moderate" resolution to the conflict in our society, a dubious proposition at the best of times, it is long gone as we encounter a sea of existential threats - just this week, the IMF predicted a high chance of  serious recession within 18 months, much deeper and more persistent that the 2008/9 crash. And beyond, with resource depletion accompanied by exponential demand, capitalism's response to the growing range of crises will not be to support people and conserve what we can - rather it will be to seek out ever more obscene forms of money-making.

Where then is the response on the Left? And what is it?

Pigs need justice from the Tories too!
Jeremy Corbyn and the leftwing movement supporting him in the Labour Party launched on a platform of opposing austerity and tackling inequality. Labour under his stewardship and the economics of Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell seems set to move towards a more socialist take on solutions to the current crisis and on developing a future society that is fairer and kinder. After years of "Nu-Labour" dissimulation, this is a powerfully refreshing change and one that finally offers real hope of genuine, radical reform of how our society works and what its values are.

Yet, while socialism potentially offers a more responsible use of resources and Corbyn's environmental platform was powerfully akin to the Green Party's own proposals back in May, there remains a commitment to an economy based as much on growth as on egalitarianism. Similarly, while the plans to extend public ownership over railways are welcome, it does not take the capitalist bull by the horns and wrestle down the inherent threat of a system that is not and can never be sustainable.

Still, Greens could carp too much, though so far only a few have done so. Corbyn's slightly bizarre suggestion that some Welsh coalmines might be reopened if carbon-capture technology can be developed to effectively nullify emissions (something pretty much from the realms of sci fi) has been seized upon to denigrate him as some sort of climate change denier.

Karl Marx saw capitalism as a threat to the planet.
Similarly, a handful have growled hostilely at any Labour plans to grow the economy, forgetting that just a few months ago, Greens were arguing for just that, with massive investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency and public transport at the core of our manifesto. And for all that Corbyn may have work to do on taming the capitalist monster, Greens are on the whole still committed to some sort of undefined market system, albeit localised and regulated by as yet unclarified means.

Both these strands, of Corbyn's Labour and the Greens, are clearly of the Left. If, in the finest traditions of the Left, there was to be any sinking into tribalism, calling out every policy difference as a fundamental point of departure, it would be a tragedy. The ground would be left open not only for the Tory incumbents to continue their dire project, but also for populists like UKIP to monopolise any pseudo-challenge to the status quo.

Sectarian division over what to the wider electorate can be quite opaque differences is a dangerous tendency. It is sometimes seemingly inherent among progressives who, perhaps because our politics are rooted far more deeply in principle rather than the pragmatism of the right, can struggle to compromise. Often that is not a bad thing and the Greens' role may well be to act as the ecological conscience of the Left as a whole, constantly reminding the materialists of Momentum (the Corbynistas' new grouping) that social justice and environmental sustainability are inevitably and irrevocably co-dependent.

But Corbyn faces a big enough challenge seeing off the Blairite remnants who still occupy most of the Labour Parliamentary benches as well as a number of other key roles. As we have seen by the behaviour of some of them this last week over the Fiscal Charter debate, the Blairite rump is quite happy to trundle into TV studios and bare their "souls" to journalists if they think it will wound the new leader's attempts to transform his party and the wider political landscape. Sniping at him from a platform of verdant moral superiority will do nothing to help foster real change. Greens can assert a confident identity by positively advancing our beliefs without any need to join in the chorus of ill intended media barons and neoliberals keen to stop any effective challenge to the Establishment in its tracks.

The Green Left meeting in Bournemouth took the general view that Greens must work in a genuinely plural way; as indeed Jeremy Corbyn has a track record of doing with Caroline Lucas and Natalie Bennett, both of whom have welcomed his election and expressed hope for a wider alliance. This will be vital both to infuse the progressive movement with a genuinely green outlook and also, in the event Corbyn fails inside Labour, to ensure there is a viable political machine able to carry on the struggle for a fairer, more egalitarian society. A Green Party with a generous stance towards kindred spirits in the Labour movement might be where Corbyn supporters will feel able to come if their current party turns on them, although possibly the rather meagre scale of the much touted Labour MPs' "revolt" last Tuesday perhaps makes this scenario a little less likely.

A wide movement looking for change outside the Tory Conference
A society based on the twin pillars of social justice and environmental sustainability will be vital for the survival of both people and planet. Ecosocialism, the synthesis of ecology and socialism that is espoused by leftwing activists across several Left parties, provides a sound philosophical basis for this. It is a rationale explored by Green Party International Co-ordinator Dr Derek Wall in his new book, "Economics After Capitalism", which is well worth a read by anyone interested in what sort of longterm society we can and must develop.

And so, as we face a winter of continuing austerity, of further war in the Middle East and the continued dominance of the media by an increasingly unbound Conservative regime, it is vital more than ever that those on the progressive left put relatively small policy differences aside and work together. As the mantra said, it's For the Common Good.
Greens on the march in Manchester

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Real Corbyn Speech: "The Hope That Lives In All of Us"

Jeremy Corbyn delivered his first speech as Labour Party leader today. It was passionate though reasonable, showing him as an authentic person, caring and decent. On a Sky TV survey designed to pick holes in him, 53% of those watching reported that they could see him as Prime Minister, while an ITN News online survey chalked up an 89% approval rate at one point.

Needless to say, the media were quick to ignore these figures. Instead, the BBC's Danny Savage spent the afternoon in a pub in Leeds where he found a man who said the liked Corbyn but he "is far too decent." Shocking.Clearly he prefers to be ruled by men capable of gross indecency, perhaps committed while joining a millionaires' mutual appreciation society at university.

Similarly, Sky decided to wheel on a PR "specialist" to look at some photos of Corbyn in his office. Breathtakingly, she managed to invent all sorts of meanings into meaninglessness - his white shirt apparently was to show voters he was organised, while a fruit bowl on his table was supposedly planned to portray him as hard working (eating on the go, no lunch!). To be fair, she did concede that maybe in fact it was all just genuine stuff, especially when she looked at his red socks and sandals, before she toddled off, perhaps for her own expensive lunch.

But while his speech today, importantly dwelling on his values, was a good start, perhaps the speech he made in the video below during his barnstorming leadership campaign is The Speech that sums up what Corbyn is about, and what all of us in the anti-austerity, pro-equality movement are about. Passionate, angry at times, dissecting the gross inequality of the betrayed democracy we live in, and the desperate world around us, this is his Political Testimony, a cri de coeur which powerfully expounds on what is wrong and what could replace it.

Watch it, share it, then go and work for it, "the hope that lives in all of us."

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Capital Crimes: Honesty Doesn't Sell Cars

Volkswagen, the so-called "Peoples' Car" company originally created by the Nazi Deutsche Arbeitsfront in 1937, is in crisis.

Once an apparent byword for trust and reliability, it has been revealed to have been deliberately falsifying the level of emissions from its diesel cars by a factor of up to forty times (yes, that's 4,000%) in US Environmental Protection Agency tests. Special software designed to identify when their cars are subjected to pollution tests alters emissions to mislead the regulator - and the buying public. Over 11 million cars are affected worldwide and VW in the USA are setting aside over $6.5 billion to pay anticipated compensation, with fines expected to be two to three times that. Half a million cars - Volkswagen and Audis sold between 2009 and 2015 - are already being recalled with many more to follow.

The company's European vehicles are likely to be just as polluting, but European tests are less rigorous so, in the view of one commentator today, there is less need to falsify outcomes. Europe may be just as badly affected by the deceit though - one early analysis suggests that over half the additional one million tonnes of emissions released by the rigged vehicles will have been on this side of the Atlantic.

With its shares falling 23% in value in one day as predatory investors anticipate lower profits as customers desert the brand, the company is rushing to shore up its battered reputation with about as devious a statement as you might expect:
"Volkswagen is committed to fixing this issue as soon as possible. We want to assure customers and owners of these models that their automobiles are safe to drive, and we are working to develop a remedy that meets emissions standards and satisfies our loyal and valued customers."

  their automobiles are safe to drive
  their automobiles are safe to drive

...except of course, they are not safe at all. That's the whole point about falsifying pollution emissions.

Save the planet - and its people!
Sure, they won't crash or blow up or anything so blatantly dangerous. Rather, insidiously, invisibly, they are helping to kill the life on our planet, poisoning our atmosphere, sickening our kids and killing our elderly.

All carbon fuel emissions are damaging to the environment and the creatures inhabiting it, which includes human beings - all of us. But while petrol is bad enough with its carbon dioxide outputs, diesel is even worse. Although marketed as "clean" because its particulates are largely invisible and it produces less carbon dioxide, it produces much more nitrogen oxide. This is a far more damaging gas when it comes to global warming as well as highly carcinogenic and as such a serious threat to human health. Many British cities, including most of London, Glasgow and Manchester have higher than legal levels of nitrogen dioxide emissions under EU regulations, but no decisive action has been taken to stop this in spite of the impact on people.

Bear in mind that around 60,000 early deaths in the UK are attributed to pollution every single year with about a quarter of these linked to diesel exhaust emissions and you can see the scale of this problem. But we have a UK Government which is subsidising carbon-packed fracking at the very same time as imposing new taxes on clean, renewable energy (now ludicrously and cruelly subjected to a carbon tax in spite of having nil carbon emissions).

That's right - it's really not safe to drive.
Put into this mix the drive (no pun) of VW and all private companies to maximise their profits (legally their sole objective) and wheezes like the US emissions falsifications become routine.

We are often told of course that capitalism is an engine of creativity, that it will find the solutions to all our problems and if nothing else consumer power will force companies to clean up their act and the planet. Yet isn't this just another marketing ploy, this time to sell us the concept that there is no alternative? Nothing works allegedly other than a system that commodifies everything and extracts surplus value from the work of the mass majority of people in order to maximise the profits of the few (owners).

The reality?
Capitalism pushes its participants to exploit, not conserve; to compete not co-operate; and to lie rather than be open - VW's crime in this context is simply to be caught out rather than doing what it did. Because, under the imperative of maximising the return for its shareholding owners, fixing the testing mechanism rather than investing millions in real fuel efficiency becomes the logical thing to do.

We've never trusted vehicle sales reps for a reason. It's because, in our economic system, honesty doesn't sell cars.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Despatches from the Dustbin of History

This will be a brief post as the Lib Dems are barely worth a mention now. But the last few days have seen a smattering of risible press notices as they gather for their first conference since their near wipe out at the General Election where, after five years of enthusiastic collusion with the most extreme rightwing government we have ever had, they ended up with their lowest vote share since the 1950s and just 8 MPs. Their new leader, the rather inconsequential Tim Farron, promised a more progressive left of centre, anti-austerity strategy, claiming this was the natural ground for his battered party.

However, a month and a bit on from his election, this shifty character has shifted his politics distinctly to the right. With Jeremy Corbyn installed as Labour leader after one of the largest democratic exercises in British political history outside of legislative elections, hysterical Lib Dems are claiming a "gap in the market" is opening for their party to "fightback".

1981 - rightwing Labour MPs set up the SDP, which merged with the Liberals
Apparently, this is the yawning chasm between the Corbynite Labour Party and the Cameron Tories. Timmy apparently has fallen for the Daily Mail/BBC line that Corbyn is Stalin's angrier cousin and is preparing to impose a reign of red terror in spite of one analysis showing his economic policies are very close to those of the 1980s SDP-Liberal Alliance.

And so, we have Farron's former deputy boss, Vince Cable, the slayer of employment rights and the defeated MP for Twickenham, declaring that a veritable avalanche of anti-Corbyn Labour MPs are about to defect to the tattered banners of the House of Farron. Timmy himself said that he had "distressed" Labour MPs texting him (they apparently didn't feel like actually calling him) expressing how upset they are at the hundreds of thousands of new members who have joined the Labour Party.

The Labour rightwing have unsurprisingly dismissed the Lib Dems' claims. Yet perhaps it would make sense - our party system is no longer fit for purpose, reflecting neither voters nor even the politics of the respective parties members. We have been governed in a neoliberal consensus for so long that, like the old "front parties" in the Soviet bloc, many of the allegedly democratic choices we are given are devoid of all content, never mind differentiation.

As previously blogged here and across the Left, a realignment is needed and is indeed coming. Corbyn's election is the latest and perhaps most evident stage in it, but it is far from complete. Much sweat and tears will flow before any conclusion is reached - but just as Corbynites and others on the Left like the Greens need to work together, the Labour Right needs a new repository for its band of chancers, warmongers, privateers and dinosaurs. Where better than the apparently welcoming arms of the Lib Dems, whose twisting and weaving rootlessness would be ideal for the pro-austerity Blairites to find some modicum of machinery, however modest or even theoretical it might be in many parts of the country? They might even set up some sort of alliance and promise to break the mould of British politics.

80s revival or a has-beens' tour?
For now it probably is just dreaming on the part of Farron and Cable, a kickback to the 1980s with its perennial false dawns of centrist SDP/Liberal advance in their younger days. As  former New Romantic Timmy's more successful musical contemporaries China Crisis trilled, a case of Wishful Thinking.

For as he surveys the Bournemouth conference hall this weekend, this desperate would-be political gadfly might do well to reflect that the political divide is no longer along some sort of 1980's slide rule with a big soppy, soggy centre segment. In our broken nation, with its ever-growing extremes of rich and poor, the dividing line between progressive and neoliberal is growing ever sharper and deeper. Answers will be found in conviction and commitment to deep-seated change, not spin and dissimulation in some dilatory defence of a slightly softer status quo. Britain and politics have moved on from the vacuum of centrist opportunism.

Timmy may well see a great gap in front of his party. Indeed, it may even be a chasm - the wide, yawning dark mouth of the dustbin of history, beckoning him to jump in.

A Kick up the 80's - Wishful Thinking

Sunday, 6 September 2015

All These Moments Will Be Lost in a Shower of Cash: On The Bladerunner Sequel

"Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. More human than human is our motto."
- Dr Eldon Tyrell

A sequel to the 1982 science fiction classic film Bladerunner is being made next year for 2017 release - 35 years after the original with Harrison Ford reprising his role as Deckard and Ryan Gosling as an as yet unknown new lead. This verges on an act of cultural vandalism. If any film stands alone with absolutely no need of a sequel, it is this.

Based on the Philip K Dick 1968 novella, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? , Ridley Scott's film was a seminal pace-setter for the future. Referencing film noir, with its darkly dystopian cinematography of an urban world of perpetual rain-soaked night, Bladerunner posited a whole gamut of questions around the development of high-functioning artificial intelligence, the ruthless sociopathy of corporations and their abuse of science. Above all, perhaps, it threw into sharp relief the willingness of the agents of any ruling class, like the Bladerunner-policeman Deckard, to enforce the subjugation of those deemed lesser.

In the film, Rutger Hauer plays Roy Batty, Deckard's antagonist and leader of a small group of exceptionally anthropomorphic-appearing android slave-workers, or replicants, who have escaped the clutches of their manufacturers and owner, the Tyrell Corporation. Deckard is charged to track them down using a combination of psycho-electronic empathy testing and sheer hard bullets and muscle. Given just four years of lifespan, as the replicants develop self-awareness, they become hungry for life. This motivation, common to any sentient being, becomes the central theme of the film as Deckard and his Bladerunner colleagues hunt them down to terminate them.

Asked by the attractive Corporation staffer Rachael (played by Sean Young) if he ever regrets his work, Deckard coldly responds: "Replicants are like any other machine. They're either a benefit or a hazard. If they're a benefit, it's not my problem."

But he begins to question his own views when, ordered to test her, he realises Rachael is herself an unknowing replicant, with implanted memories of a false childhood.

Harrison Ford as Bladerunner Rick Deckard
"Tyrell really did a job on Rachael. Right down to a snapshot of a mother she never had... a daughter she never was. Replicants weren't supposed to have feelings... neither were blade runners. What the hell was happening to me? Leon's pictures had to be as phony as Rachael's. I didn't know why a Replicant would collect photos. Maybe they were like Rachael... they needed memories."

He grows close to her in spite of her apparent artificial origins, leading him to question his mission against Batty, whose own objectives are simply to snatch more life for himself and his companions. And indeed, one version of the film uses a striking inserted sequence to question Deckard's own human nature; or not.

This was a visionary piece of work, significantly building on Dick's writing to highlight questions that are becoming ever more salient today. A.I. is increasingly aiding but also supplanting humans. In the not distant future, it will be able to out-think us and replicate itself. 

In the last 18 months or so there has been an explosion of speculative articles in both the scientific and the business press about the replacement of human jobs with technology - one Oxford University study estimates a 47% replacement rate in less than two decades while Harvard research found that this trend is already impacting on the incomes and prospects of manual workers. This is an infinitely faster transition that any previous wave of socio-industrial change and will completely challenge how we organise our economies and live our lives.

While much of it is in the disembodied power of computer systems, a lot of work is underway creating robotic entities for a wide range of autonomous activities, from soldiering and hazardous civilian work to medicine and even replacing humans as empathetic companions for the elderly and sick. In such circumstances, the questions posited by the original Bladerunner about the benefits and the hazards and, above all, the rights of artificial but self-aware entities become ever more pertinent. 

"Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave."

So, what is the point of a sequel, especially after so long? Sometimes, questions are best left unanswered and mysteries shrouded in the unknown. Indeed, casting Ford as Deckard 35 years on will destroy the abiding enigma of the original film - whether he looks much older or thanks to CGI hasn't aged, we will finally know what he is. And how can anything realistically follow what was in effect Bladerunner's conclusion, the utterly sublime Tears In Rain sequence?

But in this world of untrammelled commerce, where even humans can be exchanged for robots in pursuit of profit, why should we hope capitalism might leave a good story alone?

Monday, 31 August 2015

Better Than Them

Nazis on trial, Nuremburg 1946     
We are used to the media twisting stories, but few stories are more emotive than Osama Bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks in the USA. So when issues around them are twisted and misrepresented, the result can be the makings of yet a further tragedy - the sacrifice of truth.

Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn is being excoriated by the Tory press, the leader of what is left of the Lib Dems and by his own party's defence spokesperson for saying in 2011 that :
"There was no attempt whatsoever that I can see to arrest (Osama Bin Laden), to put him on trial, to go through that process. This was an assassination attempt, and is yet another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy. The World Trade Centre was a tragedy, the attack on Afghanistan was a tragedy, the war in Iraq was a tragedy. Tens of thousands of people have died."

Lib Dem Tim Farron attacked these comments as "utterly wrong", apparently unaware that his predecessor Paddy Ashdown had in fact uttered very similar sentiments at the same time as Corbyn, saying that Bin Laden's killing rather than trial under the due process of the law was "wholly, wholly, wholly wrong".

Undeterred, Labour's Kevan Jones chimed in that Corbyn's comments showed he was out of touch with ordinary people. Yet, what is it that appals us most about al-Qaeda and ISIS and their ilk? Is at least one aspect of it not their arbitrary killings of people without any due process of law?

Labour leader contender Jeremy Corbyn
We will probably never know for sure what happened when Bin Laden was shot dead by US commandos when they burst into his bedroom. It may or may not have been possible to arrest him. But why would we not regret the absence of a trial?

After all, aren't some of the most famous trials in history the ones that took place at Nuremburg in 1946, when the surviving Nazi leaders of Germany were put on trial to account for their many crimes. It was a showcase for both the appalling acts they had committed and for the fact that, what defined democratic countries over brutal thugs like Hitler's henchmen and, by extension, Bin Laden's gang, was and should be the rule of law and the judicial process of fair trial.

Corbyn has made clear he totally opposes all that al-Qaeda stands for; none of the words he has spoken indicate any sympathy or support for Bin Laden and his terrible deeds. What they do warn is that, if we spiral down rather than hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards, we risk prolonging the agony of conflict and we also perversely allow al-Qaeda to win no matter how many times we kill Bin Laden. That is because what al-Qaeda and ISIS want more than anything is for us to stop being ourselves, stop having free countries ruled by fair laws passed by democratic legislatures and enforced by properly functioning courts using due process.

The trial of Osama Bin Laden would have laid bare his crimes, his poisonous worldview and might have put a crashing halt to the radicalisation of some of those who regard him as a hero. Doubtless, it might have raised some difficult questions too about his past affiliations and the Bush family's relationship with his own relatives; but in the struggle to oppose the Islamists advancing through Syria and Iraq, what could possibly have been a more powerful way of showing that we were better than them?

Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Human Tide

Weeping refugee in Kos with his children - the face of the future?
This week has seen yet more appalling news about the deaths of hundreds of refugees trying to flee from fighting in the Middle East to the alleged safety of Europe. While over 200 were feared drowned when yet another over-packed boat sank, 70 were found suffocated to death inside a  small freezer truck in Austria, having been abandoned by Hungarian people smugglers.

Yet in the UK, which has taken barely 200 Syrian refugees compared to Germany's 800,000, our Prime Minister's main concern this was was that he and his wife had been swimming in shit off the coast of Cornwall. Poor Camerons worried that their own Government's failure to dispose of human waste properly might lead to them getting tummy bugs after surfboarding in the sea. At least they made it to shore and when they did the people waiting for them were there to protect rather than arrest or abuse them.

Cameron was a leading proponent of the bombing of Libya in 2011. In a few short weeks, British, French and other NATO jets inflicted some £20 billions of damage as well as helped plunge the country into anarchy. After a quick trip to crow over his work and tout for business for his mates in "reconstructing" the country he had just helped devastate, Dave retreated back behind his English Channel defences. And now, although arguably breaking the law in ordering British military action at present in Syria without parliamentary approval, he has continued to refuse to contemplate the consequences of his actions.

Syrian refugees reach Greece. Ordinary people in extraordinary times.
One in four Syrians is now a refugee, while in Libya, millions have fled one part of the country or another. In both places, ISIS and/or al-Qaeda or their offshoots are growing. Gaddaffi may have been brutal in his own way, but under him we never saw Christians paraded on the shores of Libyan beaches and beheaded; women were not burnt alive for alleged witchcraft and black Africans in the country were accorded some degree of equality - whereas now they are routinely murdered. And similarly, in Syria, while in no way endorsing the corrupt cronyism of the Assad dictatorship, a complex web of different faith groups co-existed in peace until weapons from the West's great ally, Saudi Arabia, flooded into the country and helped fuel the rise of ISIS and other extremist groups.

So having participated in making the world infinitely more dangerous, what is our Government doing? Well, the Prime Minister himelf has mainly spent his time stigmatising a mere 3,000 people in Calais who want to come here as a "swarm" threatening to undermine the very way of life of our country. The only idea on any actual action to date seems to be that the Tories want international agreement to invade Libya solely to destroy boats as opposed to do anything about putting right the mess they helped make. If they indeed have their way, how many fishing communities might be destroyed when the invaders decide to sink their boats as well given that they will, of course, become a target for people traffickers whose own boats have been sunk? How will that help anyone?

The bottom line is that our world is now a world of refugees. Earlier this week, I listened in disbelief as a senior BBC journalist questioned a UNHCR representative with "I can see why young men might board boats to Europe to take the risk, but why would a woman take her young children on board?" He seemed either incapable or unwilling to comprehend what it is that people are fleeing from - in Libya, trapped on the narrow strip of inhabited coastline and facing persecution and death, you have three choices: stay and die; go south into the Sahara Desert or go north across the sea to Europe. Which would you choose if it was you, or your children? Or are Cameron and his coterie seriously saying people should stay or even be sent back to exist in the midst of civil wars or under the black flags of al-Qaeda and ISIS?

Of the 11 million refugees across the world, barely 200,000 are in Britain, where we pride ourselves on alleged tolerance and claimed generosity. The majority are to be found in Iran (just under 1 million), Pakistan (2.6 million), in Lebanon (1.1 million), Jordan (2.4 million) and Turkey (1.6 million) and scores of other states, none of them in Europe. While one in every 319 people in Britain is a refugee, the figure is 1 in 310 in France, 1 in 144 in Germany, 1 in 74 in Iran, 1 in 70 in Pakistan, 1 in 31 in Chad, 1 in 4 in Lebanon and 1 in 3 in Jordan. Full tables here. 

Return her to ISIS?
This is not "Europe's migrant crisis" and even with the large numbers coming, we do not face hordes compared to other countries. But there is a global refugee crisis and it will become much, much worse.

Razor wire, patrol boats, hostile media and populist politicians will not solve this. Refugees move primarily for two reasons - to escape poverty and violence. These are growing and with the developed world's cavalier approach to rapidly increasing inequality and the rapacious destruction of our natural resources, both of which have the greatest impact first on the poorest, the numbers now crossing the sea to Europe from Africa and the Near East will be as a trickle compared to what will come.

And the deluge to follow will not be halted unless we take real action to tackle the causes of flight. For that, we will need new international leadership, unbound by the interests of arms-dealing multinational business and free of the prejudice and bigotry of the Trumps and others who are setting the western political agenda for now.

And as for Cameron, as he sits on a sea of crap without a paddle, may he perhaps take some time to reflect on the consequences of his actions. May he consider that the people grasping onto their drowning children as their own lives fade away are coming in an apparently hopeless bid to appeal to him and others of his ilk for sanctuary in a troubled world. It is unlikely, but we can hope that if he does so, he may just conceivably temper his sociopathic hubris with some small degree of compassion towards not a swarm, but rather a tide - a tide of fragile flesh and blood, a tide of lives broken and hopes lost forever; a tide of humanity.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Pennies from the Heavens

The Weather Forecast is being put out to tender.

So the Meteorological Office has lost its contract with the BBC to provide and present the weather forecast. After 96 years, it seems it isn't cheap enough so the BBC are "going out to tender" to get better value for money.

Now, there have been a few spectacular mistakes over the years - viz of course Michael Fish's infamous reassurance that there was no hurricane coming in 1987, just before half the country was submerged in gales and floods of supposedly biblical proportions. But the science of weather has improved massively over the decades and the Met, itself a public body, has a global reputation as a paragon of good practice.

However, we live in Neoliberal Land, so, as with nearly everything now, even the weather has to be outsourced. Given that most public service contracts have a supposed split of 60% of the decision being made on quality of service and 40% on price (no one seems able to explain quite how that works in practice), the bids put against the tender may make interesting reading. Who will be putting them in? After all, there's not another Met Office out there and we are more likely to see some commercial organisation take it over. Indeed, on the ITV channels we already see that "the weather is sponsored by" a whole range of private companies - none of whom seem to be very successful at improving the climate.

What might we have ahead of us?

The Sun would be an obvious sponsor for the weather - but in Britain, could they deliver? Amazon could provide us a forecast of warm winds offshore, while the ubiquitous Crapita could give up half way through the shipping forecast when it turns out to be just a bit too difficult for the guy with the tea leaves to be sure if millions of tons of maritime capital should set sail or not.

Typically, when there was no public weather forecast, in 1854, the Government's Board of Trade established the Met as a public service to private maritime companies. Now, with the entire nation benefiting, it is time to sell it off, except that, as has been the case with most privatisation, privately outsourced weather forecasting is highly unlikely to match the Met. This has already been signalled by the fact that when it really counts, the BBC has given up on its new franchisees before they are even known. For severe weather events, it seems, the Corporation will still use the Met forecasts.

However, a concering coda, highlighted by Green Party Energy Speaker Cllr Andrew Cooper, is whether the BBC, now under massive pressure from the Tory Government on a range of issues from funding to editorial, will continue to look to the Met's global leadership on global warming. With a recent programme by rightwing commentator Quentin Letts controversially subverting the Met Office on this very issue with, to say the least, a questionable range of "information", there is a real concern that this major step will undermine the struggle for our planet's future.

What is more public than the weather and providing accurate information on its effects on everything from growing our food to what clothes to wear on a morning? And what should be less commodifiable by profit-seekers than our climate? But, in truth, who is surprised by this latest auctioning off of our society's assets?

So here is the Forecast -
Income swelling and heavy showers of profits expected in City areas. Dividends, good.
Severe public service failure across the UK. Imminent.


Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Pulp Fiction - DWP at Work

So what we always knew is now admitted. The Department of Work & Pensions tells lies.

Picture - Philip Absolon
 In this case, it is in their propaganda. They have made up quotes and used actors for stories of people supposedly put back on "the right track" by having their benefits sanctioned. Odd, isn't it, how the Tories (and previously their Lib Dem orcs) claim to oppose the so-called "nanny state", yet they more than anyone patronise our citizens over the need to be corrected, disciplined into being the deserving poor.

One "story" is particularly appalling because, although the person on the leaflet is not real, the tale almost certainly illustrates the experience of many. "Sarah" was advised by the benevolently guiding hand of her kindly work coach to produce a curriculum vitae (c.v.) to aid her search for employment. Although she didn't think it would help, Sarah agreed to produce a cv. But she didn't do it quickly enough and missed a meeting with Obi Wan Worksearchi, so she got a letter cutting her benefit for two weeks. Now however it is back to normal and Sarah is really pleased to have a good cv. "It's going to help me when I am ready to go back to work."

Except perhaps the last sentence is the cruelest of all. Worse than the sanctions almost. Because in terms of gaining employment, cvs are only of marginal help in gaining employment and the lack of one is certainly not a valid reason to sanction someone's benefits. C.V.s are eclectic in layout and content, rarely geared to the job being applied for and in the majority of cases if you use one to apply to any medium or larger employer, often as not they are likely to be consigned to the shredder.

Indeed, the Government's own advisory employment body, ACAS, guides employers to use their own application forms NOT cvs.

"Application forms can help the recruitment process by providing necessary and relevant information about the applicant and their skills....CVs can be time-consuming and may not provide the information required." (ACAS Recruitment & Induction Guidance Booklet, page 15)

The DWP has had to withdraw these "illustrative" fables, but what are they up to? Are they really trying to provide unemployed people with a hand up? Or are they simply piling agony on vulnerable people to grind them down?

The truth is, if Sarah was real, she would be one of the people who, to keep their benefits, are required to "contract" to apply for dozens of jobs each week simply to keep their benefits. Quantity is how it is counted and what matters; not chances of success or actual outcomes. And their cvs are the means to do so - scattered ed from Job Clubs like confetti in every direction, applying for work the applicants often know little to nothing about, are not qualified to do and have no chance of getting. But proof to their patronising gauleiters that they are complying and obeying their orders. Even if it is near pointless and at best cruelly misleading to jobseekers.

Our society is rotten and sick to the core - 50% of sanctions appealed against are overturned. While on the one hand it shows the system can be challenged successfully, that very statistic shows its sheer inhumanity. So many do not appeal because they either don't understand how to or fear rocking the boat further. But more than this it shows the appalling nonchalance with which they are doled out by DWP staff who are now known to be working to targets to impose sanctions. So, even if everyone complied, many would still be sanctioned nevertheless.

 With ever more punitive measures being introduced to force people into low paid jobs and even unpaid "experience",  the depths to which freeloading Ministers like Ian Duncan Smith are prepared to sink in their war on the poor seem to scoop ever lower. And the doublespeak and doublethink drilled into the skulls of DWP staff carrying out their directives become ever more twisted until the outsourced wretches who day by day impose sanctions come to view their clients not as fellow humans needing help but as targets.

This may be some sort of Stockholm Syndrome, some means of psychologically getting by, who knows, but it manifests itself not only in ever more bizarre decisions, but in their behaviour. A while ago we saw the official working for DWP contractor ATOS who blogged about clients as "parasitic wankers". A DWP worker left and reported that she "got brownie points for cruelty", including phoning a man in hospital to sanction him at her manager's insistence. Meanwhile, a number of terminally ill benefits claimants have been asked to estimate how soon it will be before they are dead.

All this is done in our name - and if not already then one day, whoever we are, however arrogantly we may think it never will be, however impervious to the unforeseen we feel, it could be any one of us being sanctioned.

So IDS becomes Kafka. Josef K should have done that c.v.