Sunday, 15 December 2013

"Breeding Speaks to Breeding" - farewell Peter O'Toole

The world said good bye to a giant of stage and screen today with the passing of Peter O'Toole. Famous from the start for his complex portrayal of T.E. Lawrence in David Lean's 1962 epic, he acted prolifically on stage and in film, with no fewer than eight Oscar nominations as well as winning a BAFTA, an Emmy and four Golden Globe awards. In the films Beckett and The Lion in Winter, he brought to life two distinctly different portrayals of King Henry the Second, while he was infinitely more sympathetic in Goodbye Mr Chips.

But it was the role of Jack Gurney, the accidental14th Earl of Gurney, in The Ruling Class which gave him perhaps the fullest opportunity to demonstrate his range of characterisation and his penchant for satire. Without plot spoiling, his speech to the nobility on taking his place in the House of Lords splendidly destroys the whole conceit of inherited authority.

He grew up in Leeds, of mixed Scottish and Irish parentage and set out as a journalist on the Yorkshire Evening Post before being called up to do national service in the Royal Navy. It was with the encouragement of an officer there that he entered theatre on leaving service via a scholarship to the Royal Academy.

Although dogged by ill health and marital breakdown, complicated by drinking problems, he said he had a good life and was both surprised and grateful for it. With friends numbering Richard Burton and Richard Harris as well as his long and successful career, few would demur. He will be long remembered and his work enjoyed by posterity.

And The Ruling Class remains as pertinent now as at its release in 1972.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Goodbye Madiba

"As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Nelson Mandela, 18 July 1918 to 5 December 2013

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Old Before You Die? You'll Need To Be

Government Projections of a 0.1% fall in retirement costs as a % of GDP between 2010 and 2050 somehow make pensions unaffordable, apparently.
While claiming the recovery in the British economy is now firmly underway in his Autumn Statement this week, Chancellor George Osborne's Government slipped in the forecast, trailed in an anti-welfare speech he made a few days earlier, that the qualifying age for the state pension, already rising from 65 to 67, will apparently "need" to rise further to 70 and above in the coming decades. In future, Osborne has decided, if life expectancy rises, the pension age will be indexed to rise with it. Older folks are having the temerity to live longer and, if they are not working, they truly are a burden to our Not-So-Big Society, it seems.

For sometime, we have become accustomed to hearing the refrain that "it's great people are living longer, but...(we can't really afford them)." And on the face of it, it appears to be a logical argument - more people living longer but not working longer will mean an increase in costs. Sure. But there is a difference between an increase in expense and what is affordable especially if the overall economy continues to grow, which it is expected to do. For example, in the last 10 years, wealth in Britain has increased by over £60 billion, in spite of everything. But only £1 billion of this has gone to ordinary households in the form of income. The other £59 billion has gone to shareholders as dividends or higher valued stocks.

The fact is, there is plenty of wealth to go around and afford retirement, as well as pay for higher education and a range of other services for younger and middle aged people as well. In fact, projections by the Pensions Policy Institute indicate that, as a share of GDP, the cost of the current pensions system (with retirement at 65) would only rise from 5.6% in 2010 to 5.8% in 2050; while Government forecasts indicate an actual decrease of 0.1%. But of course, if fewer and fewer corporations and individuals avoid tax and Government continues to allow this, retirement costs, as well as other social benefits, will become harder to afford as although the economy might grow faster than the rate of aging, there will indeed be less public finance available. Add on top of this a Government ideologically determined to "shrink the state" and drive pensions increasingly into the arms of private finance companies, and it soon becomes obvious that the choices being foisted onto British people are not about what is affordable at all - rather, it is about priorities and the sort of society we want to see.

Why is it affordable for the state to hand out over £70 billions to just one private company to clean up its mess at Sellafield nuclear plant, or pay out £4 billions in subsidies every year to private rail companies to hand on to their shareholders in dividends, but pensions can't be afforded for ordinary people, mostly on low incomes to begin with (we are, after all, talking about state pensions, not private or occupational schemes)?

The priorities become even more troubling when you reflect that although people are living longer, not all are doing so in good health nor are they all living to the same age, and social class and income closely correlate to your chances of survival. The bottom line is that poorer people do not live as long as wealthier citizens: geographically, life expectancy at birth ranges according to one (experimental) set of ONS figures from over 93 years in wealthy Moreton Hall ward in Bury St Edmonds in West Suffolk to just 65.4 years in less well off Rooksdown ward in Basingstoke in Hampshire.

But even these are averages: there are many variations and lower paid, manual workers live shorter lives even now in the 21st century. As pointed out by another recent study of life expectancy among people who have already retired (among whom a village in Somerset comes out as the best prospect), your location itself doesn't determine your chances of survival - rather it hints at other factors, primarily your wealth and the lifestyle it affords, including access to better food, health services and environmental factors such as housing and leisure. Consequently, people in areas with lower wealth live significantly shorter lives, with healthy life expectancy in Manchester a meagre 55 years, similar to some parts of Glasgow and poor districts in other larger cities.

And so, the reality is that with our privatisation-obsessed, inequality-promoting government seducing the populace into accepting the idea of old age being supposedly unaffordable, a growing number of the poorest will not only have to wait longer to get their meagre state pension - they will need to do without it altogether.

Why? Because they will be dead.

Friday, 29 November 2013

The "Deserving Rich" - A Confederacy of Dunces

Many years ago, I witnessed an evangelical church service which culminated in the pastor asking the congregation to thank God for blessing one of their number with a business so successful that he had now taken delivery of his second Daimler motor vehicle. It might seem an indulgence to have not one but two such cars, he explained, but by providing in this way, The Lord ensured that there would be more comfortable seats for this Chosen One (and his similarly blessed spouse) to drive elderly congregants to the Sunday Service.

The rich run the world. It has been this way for generations. Once upon a time, religion was used (as it often still is) to sanctify the status quo with Divine Approval, or even Divine Inevitability. To challenge your Lord was to challenge The Lord - Church and State, Indivisible, as Emperor Constantine appreciated when he adopted monotheism at the height of a bloody six-sided Roman civil war back in the fourth century.

Religion has declined somewhat since then in its ability to reinforce the established social order and indeed at times religious people have led the charge against it. So now, in 21st century, the defenders of the beleaguered, de-regulated market capitalism which our entire planet is relentlessly subjected to have to come up with some other means of validating their bloated share of its resources. God won't cut it - and even the Pope is signalling some measure of distaste for the sheer scale of the skew of wealth on an increasingly resource-scarce planet. While one billion people exist in permanent hunger, just one thousand corporations and their shareholders dominate the world: the top 10% of the world's population own nearly 90% of the world's assets; the bottom half - nearly three billion people, share 1% - just one per cent - between them. And within the 10% richest, the skew is even more marked - the 1% at the very top own nearly half of everything. These figures are from 2000 - in the last ten years, things have got even worse.

Advocates of this inequality have, of course, long argued that it is the only workable way of doing things; that it harnesses the allegedly innate greed and competitiveness in human nature and, somehow, the agglomeration of lots of individuals pursuing their own selfish desires to better themselves over their rivals somehow benefits the common good. The rich would generously "trickle down" their wealth to the rest of us (somehow that sounds marginally better than "the masters would throw scraps from their tables").

To oil this process, everything becomes fair game - a potential commodity. Anything remotely scarce can be priced and bought and sold - and, as we see in a world where food and water are coming under increasing pressure in terms of supply, even the absolute essentials of life are now mercilessly viewed as items for speculation and profit. Water is not a human right, says the former CEO of Nestle as his company wipes out rivers in India for their bottling plants; while Monsanto owns 93% of India's cotton seed against a backdrop of a silent Armageddon - nearly a quarter of a million Indian farmers have committed suicide since 1995; one farmer every thirty minutes. Indeed, a tidal wave of mental health problems and rise in suicides has been increasingly a hallmark of global capitalism in country after country. iPhone users will be relieved to know that Apple have at least installed "suicide nets" on some of their buildings to stop their staff throwing themselves out of top storeys.

So much for the common good.

Yet with the banking crisis perhaps not quite overthrowing the system but shocking it so severely and at such a direct cost to hundreds of millions of taxpayers around the world, the proponents of free market capitalism may well be beginning to feel a little anxious. Not only it the system coming under growing strain, but more and more people are openly questioning its sustainability and, even, its morality. Rich individuals' ability to avoid tax is well attested, while fewer and fewer companies pay corporation taxes via perfectly legal methods such as off shoring and using tax havens. Moreover, within companies, we no longer exist in a world where CEOs might earn 10, 20 or even 50 times the lowest paid in their company - the figures now reel off in the hundreds; or, in the case of Wal Mart, the CEO, the appropriately named Mr Duke, earns 1,034 times the median salary of his company workers: the lowest paid rate is not on record.

For a long time, the orthodox view was, of course, that we had to put up with these excesses; that without such captains of industry well rewarded for their efforts steering the means of wealth creation forward, we would all be the poorer and whole industries, even nations, would be ruined. But 2008/9 and the rank inefficiencies and corrupt practices exposed across the world in boardroom after boardroom put paid to that myth. Stretching back to the origins of capitalism, the job creating, risk taking entrepreneur was prized as the person who would create employment and prosperity for others. In essence, this was always a myth, though a powerful one - Robert Tressell in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists written in 1911 illustrated repeatedly how deeply held this belief was even among the starving poor.

But it became a transparent lie when the risks being taken were clearly with other people's money, often the pensions and savings of individuals or the debts of the very poorest, and the people taking the risks were seen to be little but talentless, self-regarding gamblers. That most of them have endured and continue to pay themselves large bonuses and are currently busy inventing ways to bypass new EU rules on bonus caps, shows the tenacity of the system.

And yet, with the myths exposed, if the system is to remain validated, a new talisman or fetish needs to be established to excuse and sanctify the status quo.

Enter Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, earlier this week. His case was that IQ, or intelligence quotient, the measure of an individual's ability to understand concepts and problem solve, means that inequality is inevitable. With 16% of "our species" with low IQ measures and 2% with super-high ones, it is apparently inevitable that "if you shake the cornflake packet, some of the cornflakes will reach the top." It was an odd proposition - as far as I am aware, IQ tests , which are rather debatable measures in themselves, are not used to appoint CEOs and senior staff of big corporations; which is not to say that the occasional (but very different) psychometric test isn't thrown a little wildly into the mix from time to time. And of course, EQ, or emotional intelligence, the ability to empathise with other humans, is an ever more remote requirement for such positions: in fact, quite the opposite traits are often prized, as demonstrated in Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work, by Babiak and Hare. But, whatever we live in, it is not a meritocracy and does nothing to explain or excuse inequality of outcomes in the workplace or wider society.

After this supposedly clever, even allegedly intelligent, analogy, Johnson followed up with an argument echoing the "greed is good" speech of the fictitious villain Gordon Gekko character in the movie Wall Street. Although he did issue a sop to the need for wealth to be voluntarily shared more than in the past, Johnson went on to argue, as Gekko's character did, that greed is the driver of humanity.

Quite aside from the unsustainability of a world filled with billions of relentlessly self-interested, greedy humans, this argument, repeated so many times by the wealthy over the last three centuries since the emergence of a market economy, is contradicted completely by the realities of human experience down throw tens of thousands of years of existence. Archaeology and other human science research has shown pretty conclusively that the most inherent tendency among both humans and other primates is to co-operate and empathise with each other. Without this, society would never have come into existence - we might at the very best have hoped to still roam the Savannah in small groups of bickering sociopaths. But more likely, we would have died out from eating each other many aeons ago.

Our planet has sustained capitalism for barely three centuries, a blink in the eye of both its existence and humanity's. It is not our natural way of doing things, nor is it sustainable - although severe damage has been done to our world, with fairer distribution of resources, one billion people would not need to go to bed hungry, and we would not be driven to rape our world of its diminishing natural resources. Greater equality, pooling and sharing resources and nurturing our inherent sympathy and empathy for other people need to be at the heart of both our social and economic cultures. None of these can be achieved through an economic system centred on maximising private profit.

The rich both now and in the past argue that a fairer society is not practicable - but then, of course, they would, wouldn't they? A bit like the guilt-ridden Church at the start of this piece, they know deep down that what they are doing is wrong, is not working. But, seduced by their own greed, they project the same motives to everyone else, dismissing any calls for change, for redistribution, as mere cries of envy, rather than pleas for justice. Let them eat cake, indeed. Or go to food banks - except now some of Johnson's bloated colleagues are even suggesting these encourage poor people to be feckless.

The result is a society twisted into unnatural conflict and self-harm. Although we have never had more wealth in Britain, for example, we are told we cannot afford community - young people must pay for their own education, old people are a burden and social services of all kinds, from care homes to libraries, must be cut or tendered out to profit-seekers. There is no such thing as society - only individuals, competing and coveting each other.

For three hundred years, we have been told again and again that we cannot manage without this system and the people who run it and who benefit wildly disproportionately by all measures, whether on the basis of ability, contribution or need.

But in the world we face now, with diminishing resources and environmental degradation, with food and water under pressure and our seas acidifying at a truly terrifying rate, the Earth will not sustain capitalism for another three centuries - even three decades seems increasingly unlikely.

The plain, simple truth is that we can no longer afford it.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Man Who Stares at Groats - positive currency for Scotland's Future

Salmond and the ancient Scots groat
The Scottish Government has today launched a far reaching white paper, Scotland's Future, outlining its plans for a new, independent country if Scottish voters say Yes next September. In a polished performance, as well as presenting the proposed constitutional settlement and complex division of assets and liabilities between Scotland and the remainder of the United Kingdom, First Minister Alex Salmond and his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, outlined a range of key policy objectives should the SNP be successfully elected as the government of a newly independent country.

The SNP's plans are mildly left of centre, with economic growth at the heart of their plans for a settlement along a vaguely Scandinavian type model of mixed ownership and social welfare - an objective probably reflecting the broad political consensus within Scotland but something increasingly alien to the gradually harsher, neoliberal approach of the two and a half main parties south of the border.

Controversially, the paper includes retaining a currency union with the rest of the UK and keeping the pound sterling as Scotland's currency. This may be driven by the SNP seeking to reassure voters that independence will not create some new alien world with a return to the ancient Scottish coinage of the groat but it leaves a post-independence Scotland somewhat beholden to the economic policies of its much larger neighbour, precisely the recipe for disaster that has racked the European Union in recent years. What if, as does not seem unlikley, an independent Scottish Government wishes to follow an expansionist policy while London continues to opt for austerity? There is little doubt which piper would call the tune and Scotland's independence in economics at least would be curtailed as a result.

Independent countries are most successful if they have independent currencies - and of Scotland's Scandinavian comparators, only Finland has yielded to the Euro. Sweden, Denmark and Norway, two inside and the other outside the EU, thrive by their own currencies, while the remarkable turnaround in Iceland's economy since the disaster of 2009 would not have been possible without its sovereignty on currency (as well as a Green - Left government). A Scottish currency is a key part of the Scottish Green Party's egalitarian pro-independence platform, lauched by MSPs Patrick Harvie and Alison Johnstone a couple of weeks ago. (Q&A video with Patrick Harvie below.)

There is little doubt Scotland could function very well indeed as an independent state and given the increasing cultural and political divergence between Scotland and, in particular, the dominant "middle England", there is no compelling reason to remain in a union which few south of the border are particularly bothered about. If the unionists' call north of Gretna is Better Together, their southern equivalent, were there one, could as easily be titled Couldn't Care Less.

The narrow and mean-minded approach of the unionist camp - denouncing currency union as fantasy when they had previously endorsed it and running on a ceaseless tirade of abuse towards Alex Salmond in particular - does little to enhance its case. It lacks vision and seems bereft of any emotional connection with the debate, trading often dubiously constructed figures about fiscal changes and bizarre stories about not being able to see Dr Who on the TV, rather than addressing any positive reasons for remaining in union. Its harsh rebuttal of the white paper before it was even published will do little to help its case just as some polls seem to show the gap between the two sides narrowing slightly. If the Coalition Government and Labour unionists remain as stridently intransigent on opposing currency union, it is to be hoped the SNP does the logical thing which it should have done in the first place and moves to a separate Scottish currency as the only choice remaining given the blatant ill will of the UK parties. It would be a massive error to nail their colours to the mast on a union with entities that don't reciprocate.

In the meantime, there are over 600 pages to read, available here, and ten months of campaigning to go. For Scottish expats like myself, south of the border for some years, it will be an interesting time guaging the impact of the debate on the rest of the country - the commonly held, but rather incorrect, view being that Scotland is subsidised by the English taxpayer (Scotland actually contributes more tax per head than the rest of the UK and receives significantly less than Londoners and many parts of the north of England).

With the rightwing media portraying Scotland as a burden to the rest of the UK, this line of argument no matter how incorrect may nevertheless become more of an issue south of the border in the run up to September. In the event of a No vote, then, as the Coalition's Secretary of State for Scotland has indicated, there may well be some move to change the public funding for Scotland in the long established Barnett formula, which sets funding for Scottish services. Consequently, having voted against independence after being told it would be economically damaging, Scots may then face being economically damaged by Westminster in any case.

So, the choice may become starker still - who do people in Scotland have confidence in most : an increasingly remote, centralist Government in Westminster; or themselves?

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Who Needs A Bedroom When You've Got the House of Commons?

MPs debated the Bedroom Tax this week. Tories and Lib Dems combined to vote down a  Labour proposal to scrap this pernicious tax which has driven thousands of vulnerable people out of their homes and left others in debt for the first time, anxious about their future. It is so counter-productive that in the Mersey, one social housing society is even considering bulldozing perfectly good houses because the way the bedroom tax works means that they can no longer let them out to any one.

But for one Tory MP, caught in the heat of the debate, it all got too much.

So he had a kip.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Perfect Night

"There's only X amount of time. You can do whatever you want with that time. It's your time."
- Lou Reed, who died today aged 71.

He also said, "These really are terribly rough times, and we should try to be as nice to each other as possible."


Sunday, 15 September 2013


What do you think an artist is?
An imbecile who has nothing but eyes if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre at every level of his heart if he is a poet, or nothing but muscles if he is a boxer? Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being, constantly aware of what goes on in the world, whether it be harrowing, bitter, or sweet, and he cannot help being shaped by it.
How would it be possible not to take an interest in other people, and to withdraw into an ivory tower from participation in their existence? No, painting is not interior decoration. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy. —Pablo Picasso

(quote is sourced from the International Socialist Review article on Guernica, HERE

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Green Party Conference: Speeches by MP and Leader

Green Party conference is meeting this weekend in Brighton, where it runs the local council. It has backed a number of motions on opposing the sell off of the Royal Mail, re-emphasising its commitment to re-nationalise the railways and supporting alternative energy rather than dirty solutions like fracking.

Here are speeches from the Greens' MP, Caroline Lucas, and leader, Natalie Bennett.

More Green Party news HERE.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

9/11 - Never Giving Up on Humanity

Twelve years ago today, the world witnessed the appalling and devastating attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, as well as on the Pentagon and the would be fourth attack on possibly the Whitehouse or Congress which was seemingly stymied by the bravery of passengers on board the doomed flight. Since the thousands of deaths on that dreadful day, hundreds of thousands more have died or been injured or displaced in the terrible wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and scores of other places.

With the War on Terror fought out on battlefields across the world, some of them in the ether of the internet, the polarisation between the west and particularly the Middle East, between Christian and Muslim, has been assumed to be total. Just as Islam divides the world between a Dar-al Islam (the House of Islam) and a Dar-al Harb (the House of War) so the narrative has been that we are all now in two, mutually hostile camps with little in common and even less hope of any reconciliation.

And yet, as with so much in the modern, dumbed-down reporting that passes for journalism and news today, all is not as it seems. Throughout the world, people of all faiths and none continue to do what they have always done - live together, work together, even pray together. Whether the Egyptian Christians who formed a protective cordon round Muslims at prayer during the anti-Mubarak protests, or the Muslims who similarly formed a protective cordon round Christian churches to defend them against assaults by Islamist extremists; or the many other examples of interfaith dialogue and support, ordinary people, believers and non-believers, continue to believe in each other.

Here are some videos on this Day of Commemoration which give hope for a better, safer and peaceful future. A future where the message of love that is at the heart of all faiths and in the hearts of all people is able to be heard and lived out in full.

Watch and have faith in us. All of us.

In America:

In Egypt:

They are saying: "We are the Egyptians, Muslims and Christians all together. Oh Egypt, our mother, here's your people, gathering all together for you, Lord is greater, Christians and Muslims we say, long live Egypt. Long live Egypt."

And "In the name of Jesus and Muhammed, we unify our ranks,"

Whilst, still in Egypt, people are brought together by traditions older than both faiths:

And in Kenya:

Last but far from least, Syrian Muslims join Syrian Christians to worship in their Church together. (commentary in Arabic only)

If The Lights Go Out...

Well, whether Green or capitalist, we are all concerned about the risk of future energy demands outstripping supply. Just this week, Channel 4 ran a "docdrama" on a fictional Britain without electricity for a week after a cyber attack crashes the national grid. Chaos and eventually violence ensued, taking its cue from some other reports warning how tenuous our civilised veneer is in the context of just-in-time delivery of so many essentials of life, particularly fuel and food. Andrew Sims' booklet, Nine Meals from Anarchy, powerfully sets out how our over-reliance on thinly stocked supermarkets leaves us extremely vulnerable to a breakdown in a system with so many interconnecting threads - power, traffic, environment, electronic communications and so on - the failure of any one of which could quickly unravel the others.

So we need to take a long, long look at a world where so much rests on so little. But in the meantime, we can always sing about it.

Cheer up. It might never happen. But there again....

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Frankie Goes To Damascus

The current impasse over Syria between Presidents Obama and Putin, which came to a head at this week's G20 summit with separate camps and even dinner table snubs, is redolent of a time which supposedly ended with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Like an unwelcome odour from a stale fridge, a blast of Cold War bombast errupted from both sides, with America shaping up for a unilateral strike on Syria while rumours abound of a possible strike on Saudi Arabia by Putin if an American attack on Damascus goes ahead - Russia holds Saudi Arabia responsible for supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels and to Islamists in Russian-held Chechenya.

In between all this posturing by men who happily sell weapons to nearly all-takers, sit of course millions of innocent Syrians, who side with neither force in their civil war and live in constant fear of attack from all quarters. The delicate balance between different ethnic and religious groups in one of the relatively few genuinely secular states in the Middle East is lost on the policymakers in Moscow and Washington (as well as the media and public nearly everywhere) as they play their Power Politics games, posturing and threatening.

At least following the vote in the House of Commons, Britain seems out of the race to fire missiles into Syria, however accidentally. But what would truly concentrate minds on the only feasible outcome - peace talks - might be if rather than using hi-tech missiles or "boots on the ground" in the form of infantry and marines, our conservative-leaning leaders resorted to a more traditional means of conflict resolution.

Settling war by a duel between the leaders.

David & Goliath dueled to settle the war of the Israelites and Philistines
Yes, perhaps it is time for our Presidents and Premiers to go themselves where they currently put others in harm's way: let Putin and Obama, and Assad and the leader of al-Qaeda in Syria sort it all out in the arena. Middle East "Peace" Envoy Tony Blair could be even thrown in for a bit of warm up sport between them all. After all, look back in history and there are at least a few examples of leaders with the bravery to save the lives of their troops and civilians by settling their scores in precisely this way, and duels, whilst illegal, were a not unknown feature of early US politics.

In more modern times, especially recent decades, not only do political leaders no longer actively participate in the wars they start, many have never even seen military service whilst apparently happily using the military to project their own policies and strategy from the safety of their command posts. They are far removed from the consequences of all their talk, or failure to talk. A system of leaders' duels would soon change that. Indeed, as one writer noted at the time of the Iraq war, when the Iraqi Vice-President was dismissed as "irresponsible" by the White House for suggesting Saddam and Bush fight a duel to settle their differences rather than engage in total war, such personalisation of combat would completely transform international politics.

Sound familiar if far-fetched? Yes, all these year's ago in the mid-1980s, Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Two Tribes envisaged the Soviet and American leaders in (unarmed) hand to hand combat in a boxing ring. So, time to dust down the video and call out our leaders, the donkeys who pretend to be lions.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Declaration of War

"Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life has crashed into ruins."
I am not a pacifist but there are few wars I believe have been just or right to fight. Fortunately, though fairly unusually in history, the vast majority of my generation have been spared the call to arms.

But today marks 74 years since Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940, announced Britain's declaration of war on Nazi Germany, a just war if there ever was one. It is haunting to hear the sonorous voice of Chamberlain, speaking words that broke not only his policy and premiership, but his own spirit - he had resisted war because of his experiences in 1914 to 1918. Although he had not served in the military, like many of his time he was traumatised by the slaughter of the trenches and the "missing generation" that resulted, leading to the time known as "the great silence". At almost all costs, he was determined to avoid a repeat, leading him to seek to appease Hitler and either equivocating or even tolerating episodes of aggression by Germany and Italy which, with hindsight, it is easy to criticise, but at the time represented a desperate search for peace.

Listening to him here, he is clearly troubled and defeated, a poignant and sharp contrast with the rhetoric of the armchair warriors who head so many of our warmongering governments today: when he appeared a few days later before MPs, he admitted that "Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life has crashed into ruins."

He dedicated himself to working for victory, but it was not to be. Vacillating as Poland fell and Hitler menaced France during the long Phoney War (originally nicknamed the Bore War for its lack of action), he was replaced by Churchill in May 1940 after the disastrous attempt to intervene in Norway and as the Germans were finally moving through the Low Countries. Although he continued to serve in the Government as Lord President, he was found to have terminal cancer and died in November that year.

He left a mixed legacy - many, such as Michael Foot the future Labour leader, as well as his successor Winston Churchill, saw him as having failed Britain by not acting decisively enough to deter the Nazis. His support of sanctions against Republican Spain, assailed by the fascist Franco, similarly appeared to encourage the Axis aggressors. Yet looking back, it seems nigh impossible that anything other than war would have stopped Hitler and given the very fresh and real slaughter of the trenches, the patrician Tory's reluctance to stomach another major conflict seems a little more understandable.

It is unlikely that history will ever be kind to Neville Chamberlain, but contrasting him these last few weeks with the gung-ho readiness of modern politicians to expose service men and woman and Syrian civilians to military action, perhaps a few more men with his pause and hesitation would be welcome in today's corridors of power.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Elysium Now: One Planet, Two Worlds

So it is Hollywood not arthouse, but the movie "Elysium", from the Director of the powerful "District 9" provides a thought-provoking as well as action-packed story, in the best traditions of science fiction. Similarly, as with all good sci fi, it is as much about today as it is about any future.

The premise is that by 2154, the world has become so overpopulated and over polluted and, by implication, so dangerously unequal, that the richest have literally fled the Earth to a gigantic orbital space station known as Elysium (the name of heaven in Greek mythology). Now we know what the bankers mean when they say they will go somewhere else if we make them pay their taxes.

There, in a santised world of great mansions and green gardens, the wealthy truly live in a bubble, their every need met by the resources sucked up from the poor on Terra Firma below. It's a sort of Stepford in Space, or maybe an off world Kensington, populated by smug people  who can live in ignorance of the unwashed below - on a rare visit to a factory on the surface, the Elysium-dwelling owner rebukes his foreman for not covering his mouth when he speaks to him. This revolting elite is able to live for a highly extended lifespan thanks to medical technology that they only allow to be available to themselves - a simple scan can wipe out cancer and apparently even exploded skulls can be mended in a few minutes. In sharp contrast, down on Earth, queues form at rare public health centres where the simplest medical treatment is rationed and staff have to work shifts lasting several days at a time.

The parallels are strikingly and clearly deliberate - in our current austerity driven western societies, at the very time scientific advances are creating all sorts of terrifyingly amazing possibilities for medical advance (including huge expansion of life expectancy), the economics of inequality are ensuring that even basic medical treatment is gradually becoming less readily available to many, even in the wealthiest societies on Earth. And it is medical need that drives the film's main protagonist, Max da Costa, played by Matt Damon. After a work accident caused by punishing schedules and faulty equipment, he is dying of radiation poisoning, while his former girlfriend's daughter is in the final stages of leukaemia. On Elysium, technology could save them in moments, but on the surface of the Earth, living in a planet-wide slum, their only prospect is death.

And so the adventure begins: with a strong performance from Damon and an all too brief role for Jody Foster as the pugnacious Defence Chief of Elysium, a struggle commences for control of the celestial Pleasuredome. The scripting is elegant and amusing by turns and the characterisation strong - and the denouement, without spoiling anything, will make you believe again in the great potential of humanity.

Keeping true to original American film tradition, there are themes around insurrection and injustice, but perhaps one unsurprising fault is the almost inevitable central premise that just one person can make all the difference - though to be fair Matt does get a bit of help from his friends.

But then it wouldn't be Hollywood if, instead of the hero's dash into space, there had to be a committee meeting followed by a card vote and an impartial selection process for a balanced team of co-insurrectionists.

Nor would it be half as enjoyable to watch.

Lib Dems & Fracking - Having It Both Ways

The fracking controversy in the UK is driven by one key factor - after some years of refusal or at least prevaricating on a decision, late last year the Government decided to permit it to go ahead, and it has increasingly featured as a key component of planning for future enrgy supplies. As blogged before, the Coalition's claim to seek to be the "greenest Government in history" has long since fallen by the wayside as it cut the renewable energy feed-in tariff and virtually abolished community-owned clean energy schemes. Using vast quantities of water to force shale gas and oil out of the ground beneath our feet has become a major objective of Government energy policy as we follow the United States in seeking out yet more carbon fuel, seemingly oblivious to the environmental impact.

To date, the only significant UK-wide political party to oppose fracking has been the Greens - the Green MP, Caroline Lucas, was arrested for blocking the road during a peaceful protest at the Balcombe test site earlier this week. Green leader, Natalie Bennett, has also spoken at the site and Greens across the country have been involved in arguing against fracking. By contrast, with a few, largely self-interested local exceptions, Tories, Labour and UKIP have welcomed the process, awed by the massive development of it in the USA and dismissive of the impact of both extraction and use of yet more global warming gases.

And as for the once supposedly "greener-than-the-Greens" Liberal Democrats?

Well, today, as a poll shows massive public opposition to fracking (with three times as many preferring wind farms to those supporting fracking), the Lib Dems have finally issued a statement condemning fracking. It turns out that, although they are part of the Coalition, they are opposed to this particular policy.

Now, at least. They didn't say anything earlier, perhaps waiting to see which way the wind blew in terms of popular opinion.

As for tomorrow, who knows where they will stand? Presumably, we will get a clearer idea of what they actually think after they have expelled the Energy Secretary Ed Davey from their party. After all, it was Mr Ed (Lib Dem) who gave the go-ahead for fracking, just as his predecessor, Chris Huhne (Lib Dem), approved new nuclear power stations after years of saying they didn't work, were too expensive and too dangerous. Mr Davey sees fracking as "useful" and thinks it it is "fantastic for energy security...and the climate." Although he has said the environment should be protected, it isn't clear how and he has signed up to trying to bribe local communities with a share of fracking revenues to try to stymie opposition.

What, they aren't going to expel Mr Davey? And they're not going to change the Government's policy? No, because, in spite of the rhetoric, the Lib Dems continue to support "limited" fracking - but of course, do nothing to explain what limited means. Watch this space, depending on where you are in the country.

Surely the Lib Dems aren't trying to have it both ways by pretending to be in Government and in Opposition at the same time?

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Fracking Greed and Money

Don't drink the water! - from "Gasland" - view trailer here.

"It's two factors - greed and money."

The words of a resident of a Texan town that ran out of water, partly from drought but also because of the huge quantities of water drawn from the local aquifer by an oil company undertaking fracking in the area.

Pollution of water supplies by fracking - highlighted most dramatically by flaring kitchen sink taps in the film "Gasland" - is often cited as a major fear of those opposed to fracking for gas. But the process of hydraulic fracturing itself uses massive quantities of water, pumped into the shale to force gas out. In any scenario where there is pressure on water supply, fracking can only compound it. And with global warming leading to warmer and warmer summers, even countries with traditionally moderate climates like the UK will likely face fracking-induced droughts - with the additional threat that the water that is still available might be poisoned in any case.

This video, from The Guardian Newspaper, tells the story of the Texan town that ran dry...

Originally published in The Guardian 11 August 2013:   Texan drought sets residents against fracking 
Next video: Fracking explained in 2 minutes. 

Monday, 5 August 2013

Enterprise Britain

The Coalition's supposedly "red-tape free flexible economy" has been exposed for what it is this week - exploitative and seedy in turn; yet at the very moment the torchlight is shone into some of the darker corners of the British workplace, new employment tribunal rules and the near destruction of legal aid will make it harder still for anyone to obtain justice in the workplace.

First has come the revelation that a number of prestigious and highly profitable organisations operate zero-hours contracts where staff are guaranteed no work or pay at all, but have to be available at short notice at the whim of the employer and in many cases need to obtain permission to work for anyone else. The Royal Household, never a paragon of good employment practice, heads this list of shame, followed by Cineworld and a string of retailers. This morning, the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development released the results of a survey of employers which suggests one million people in Britain are on such precarious contracts - five times the official government figure but almost certainly a substantial underestimate of the real picture. The voluntary and public sectors, reflecting (in many, though not all cases) the impact of austerity, use such arrangements far more frequently than the private sector - almost twice as often.

Some, including the Green Party leader Nathalie Bennett, have called for zero hours - or casual contracts - to be abolished. A total ban could be misjudged - there are, occasionally, circumstances where a casual arrangement can be to the benefit of both parties, as long as it is genuinely one where there is no mutual obligation on either side and it is for truly occasional work. However, many of those on zero hours arrangements in fact report being used pretty much on a full time basis with their employers demanding their presence when needed with no real opportunity to decline the "offer" of work.

It is dubious practice - where someone is used regularly, contrary to what the media and many campaigners have been saying, the law in fact applies similar and in many respects identical rights as it does to those on more regular contracts. Pro rata to time worked, a casual employee accrues the same rights to holiday pay, sick pay and employment protection as anyone on a more regularised contract - in law. But in reality, their employers often don't recognise these rights and, in the absence of unionised workplaces, the only way someone can seek to assert their rights is to go to an employment tribunal.

And, as of this week, it is now much harder for anyone to do so - to take a case, you will now need to pay a deposit of up to £1,200 - a tall order if you are on a zero hours contract or have just been dismissed. If you lose your case, which most people do (contrary to media myth), you forfeit the money - on the other hand, even if you win, with the average payout for losing your livelihood hovering around £7,000, it's not exactly the most effective process for realising justice. Moreover, legal aid has now been withdrawn from nearly all employment cases, so aside from your deposit, you will now either have to fight your case by yourself, go to a no-win, no-fee lawyer or hire a solicitor with the near certainty that even if you win hands down, you are likely to end up out of pocket.

The Tories and Lib Dems claim that this will stop vexatious claims - well, it might, but surely there would have been an easier way of filtering these out. What the combined impact of the legal changes and the ever-growing casualisation of employment and insecurity of employment means is that even the most shocking abuses of employment law will now increasingly go unchallenged - which is the true agenda behind these changes (Vince Cable, the Cabinet Minister for business, has already doubled the probation period for one to two years before employees gain any employee protection, as well as making it easier for employers to "suggest" to staff they should leave via "protected conversations" where there is little effective comeback). More and more, bad employment practices and greedy owners and shareholders will slice their pounds of flesh from their workforce knowing that they are virtually unassailable. Collective rights were destroyed twenty years ago with the defeat of the unions by the last Tory Government; now this one is wiping out the rights of individual employees too.

But no worries, as they keep telling us, there is always work for the willing. Just this week, in spite of David Cameron railing about the need to curb internet pornography last week, it seems live porn is ok - a Government Jobmatch website has been advertising jobs for lap dancers in contravention of their own rules. This includes vacancies at the "Sugar & Spice" American Style Table Dancing Club, which offers topless and naked dancers.

How long before "Gentlemen's Clubs" are sponsoring apprenticeship pole dancers? How long before someone turning down such a "career opportunity" has her benefits cut? It seems only a matter of time and yet more breath-taking flexibility on the part of our enterprising Ministers.

Coming next: the wiping out of workplace safety. Welcome to the New Victorian Age.

There's always moonlight and music, and lap-dancing. (source- "The Independent")

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

GAME OVER? : The North Pole Is Now A Lake

And so it finally has happened. After several years of ignored warnings, with environmentalists dismissed as alarmist, the evidence is irrefutable.

Unreported by a world media more interested in the birth of the Royal baby, the ice at the North Pole has thinned dramatically until water has burst up from underneath. As shown by the photograph below, from a permanent cam set up a the Pole, where once there was solid ice there is now instead a slushy lake.

The clock is no longer ticking. The hour has struck. And still we close our eyes and party on.

"Enjoy yourself. It's later than you think."

Source - Live

Counting the Cost of Fire & Ice: methane melt and the business case

A report this week has acknowledged that the increasing release of methane gases trapped for millions of years under now-melting permafrost in the Arctic regions may lead to significant costs to the world economy - $70 trillion, virtually the equivalent of a full year of global economic activity worldwide. 

The report  by researchers at the Erasmus University in the Netherlands warns of the failure of governments, business and economists to take the impact of the methane melt into account in their typical, cold calculations of whether or not the world "can afford" to tackle global warming during the current recession. With the British Government increasingly seduced by the dirty fuel provided by fracking, in spite of the poison it leaves in the ground as well as the atmosphere, our headlong rush to put profit before people and planet continues.

Methane is twenty times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide - the gas currently most driving man-made climate change. As carbon has warmed the Earth, the permafrost has begun to melt and as it does so, the potential for greenhouse gases in our atmosphere to rise exponentially with the release of millions of tonnes of previously trapped methane is alarmingly close. If it was all released, the amount of methane in the atmosphere could treble.

And this is where the world economy, supposedly freed of the regulations that were a feature of most of the post-world war international settlement, is in a state of delusion. With neoliberal capitalism commodifying everything that exists (including the recent suggestions by the Chairman of Nestle that "access to water is not a public right" - his company needs to buy up a lot of it to help make their profits), the idea that the market will deliver the change in behaviour and habits that we need to save our way of life and maybe even our species is ever more surreal.

The Dutch researchers hope their report will encourage bodies like the World Bank, the IMF and multinationals think for on its meaning and implications - by translating the message of environmental emergency into finance-speak. But it's not the first time this has been tried - remember the Stern Report? - and with many still hoping against reality and the mounting evidence around us every day that climate change is an issue for future generations, what chance is there that a system driven by profit will possibly stop what it exists to do and magically transform into something more benign? Even if some or many of the actors involved have a change of heart, the system itself drives people and corporations onwards on its profit-maximising, resource-exhausting path. If food harvests fall due to climate change, the price of food rises and profits and dividends rise too. Immoral? Of course, and many individuals in the Finance Sector would be as appalled at the prospect as much as anyone. But the whole point of a liberal economy is that, if the won't do it, someone else will - the money-making imperative wins. Only when it is constrained, regulated and even removed will anything change.

We have already passed the point where a 2 degree rise in global temperatures is now inevitable - it may not sound much, but it will play havoc with global food systems, water distribution, extreme climate events and more. And at 5 degrees, an increasingly likely scenario by late on in the century our species will encounter conditions it has never before experienced - with huge swathes of the planet rendered uninhabitable, with all the conflict and disruption that will entail and, even more alarmingly, with the potential for air to ignite and hurl giant fireball storms across the sky.

What price action then?

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Take My Breath Away: Surfing on the Solar Impulse

Solar Impulse - its not fuel as we know it.

Air travel is often highlighted as a major contributor to the carbon emissions that are driving global warming. With humanity seemingly addicted to air travel which, in the absence of any serious aviation fuel tax anywhere on the planet, is also ludicrously cheap in comparison to less polluting travel options such as railways, the challenge of green air travel has always seemed elusive. While some airlines have dabbled in biofuel development and others have speculated on cleaner fuels, today has however seen a groundbreaking event which, although very much in its infancy, does offer the tantalising prospect that, one day, we may indeed have carbon-free air flights.

The Solar Impulse is an amazing aircraft - an aeroplane fuelled solely by the solar panels on its 63 metres wide wings, and it has just completed its first flight across the continental United States of America. Yesterday, it touched down at John F Kennedy Airport at the end of a two month journey. Its four propellers are powered by some twenty thousand fuel cells and the next challenge is to circumnavigate the planet.

Developed in Switzerland by Bertrand Piccard and his team, the plane is internationally funded by a mix of private and public investment, and can fly day and night without needing any fuel. Obviously, it offers no realistic challenge to carbon-fuelled aircraft, for now. But with enough investment and time, today could eventually mark as seminal a moment as, perhaps, the Wright Brothers' flight on the Kittyhawk, or Bleriot's crossing of the Channel. In a world where traditional fuels are both damaging our worldwide environment and gradually become more expensive as they grew scarcer, the massive, overwhelming power of the ultimate source of pollution-free and completely clean energy, the Sun, as well as offering energy for our homes and workplaces, will provide a revolutionary new way of moving around our planet without choking it to death at the same time.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Choking on the Crumbs: Breadline Britain

Britain's jobless fell by 5,000 this week. In our recession hit country, a mere two and a half million souls are officially out of work. The BBC trumpeted the Coalition spin that, as public sector jobs have fallen to their lowest number in over a decade, new jobs have been created in the private sector. "The Government's prediction that the private sector will compensate for the public cuts is coming true," said the gushing economics correspondent on the News channel.

Is it really? Not likely.

For not only are we not comparing like jobs, we are not comparing like terms either. Most of the public sector jobs cut have been full-time; most of the new private sector are part-time, temporary and often lower paid. Office of National Statistics figures show that at the end of 2012, full-time employment was 378,000 lower than in April to June 2008, the first quarter of the 2008/09 recession. Part-time employment was 572,000 higher comparing the same period.

Factor on top of this the findings published today that, on average, British workers are more than six per cent worse off in real terms than six years ago due to several years of pay freezes and lower than cost-of-living increases and it is little wonder that we remain in recession. This is unprecedented and in the same week that the Chief Executive of RBS, Stephen Hester, has resigned with a package of £5.6 million as a payoff for his failure in post - a situation he admits even his mother finds distasteful, but he's not listening to her never mind the rest of us.

A further squeeze has come from the Government, determined to cut a benefits bill which is constantly misrepresented as having increased because of some mysterious surge of disability and worklessness. In truth, while pensioners continue to cost over 50% of the £160 billions social security costs, less than 15% goes to disabled people and less than 5% is paid to unemployed people. Among non-pensioners, the biggest costs are things like housing benefit and child support for working families, their living costs squeezed between low wages and deregulated rents. In-work poverty has increased significantly since 2008. In a report published yesterday, Department of Work & Pensions' own statistics demonstrated that nearly one million more people fell into poverty in the Coalition's first full year in office - and of the 300,000 children living in families that fell into poverty in that time, all of them - every single one - was a working household.

There are two steps the Government could take tomorrow that would save the taxpayers billions and release money into the economy to get Britain working again.

The first would be to increase the national minimum wage to the living wage level - this is currently £7.45 per hour outside London and £8.55 inside the capital as opposed to the NMW's £6.19 (less if you are under 22 years of age). It is calculated on the basis of what most families need their breadwinners to earn to free them from poverty. It would significantly reduce the need for the State to pay benefits (effectively subsidising greedy employers) and improve the spending power and lives of millions of the poorest in our society. The deficit would be reduced - winners all round. Just as the introduction of the NMW did not lead to the increased unemployment that some right-wingers predicted before its introduction, the living wage would similarly challenge only the scale of currently massive profits and dividends, not employment levels.

Source: Guardian Newspaper
The second step would be to reintroduce controls on rents, which were abolished by the last Conservative regime, and outlaw buy-to-rent mortgages (which only became permissible in the late 1990s). The combination of cheap buy-to-let loans and no controls over the rents charged led to landlords expanding their property portfolios and pushing their rent levels up and up knowing that they would be covered by housing benefit from the state in millions of cases. With fewer people able to afford to buy houses, the numbers renting have increased by over one fifth in the last decade, many of them needing support with their costs as rents increased. Consequently the cost of housing benefit has risen substantially, reaching over £16 billions last year.

However, in response, the current Government, rather than capping rents, has capped the support net of housing benefit, which has simply caused disruption and misery for hundreds of thousands of low paid workers and their families, who have been left with a choice of somehow finding the cash to make up the gap between their housing benefit and rent, or moving to cheaper, inferior accommodation. Many of the poorest in London have been moved out of the city altogether to depressed areas like Newcastle where rents are lower, but jobs are even scarcer. It is a wicked policy that destroys lives and hope, even driving people out of work.

A final step would of course to be to make companies pay their fair share of corporation tax - although the HMRC says it has recouped over £20 billions of unpaid tax by challenging major corporations over the last three years, this makes for an average of £7 billions per annum - on some estimates, as highlighted by Green MP Caroline Lucas, barely one twentieth of the tax that is dodged each year.

But, of course, much of the austerity agenda is not about financial necessity at all - rather it is politically driven, a red herring to provide the excuse the Tories and their allies want to dismantle what is left of the welfare state and entrench the power and privilege of the rich elite which sponsors them and which has in effect bought up our democracy, our country and our planet.

Austerity Britain - still full of wealth, but in fewer and fewer hands. Growth will not solve the economic crisis - as our whole world moves towards increasing resource crises and challenges to economic sustainability, the traditional process of "trickledown" economics, with just enough crumbs falling from the tables of the rich to almost satisfy the less well off, will no longer work. Only a shift in the economic paradigm, a decisive move to a society of communal ownership of resources and a fair distribution of wealth will, in the long run, solve this deepest and most intractable of economic crises for many decades.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Guest Blog: Edward Thomas on Syria's Disabled Future

As Britain, France and the USA step up their preparations to supply weapons to some of the rebel factions in increasingly divided, sectarian and violent Syria, Edward Thomas, who has worked on a wide range of children's rights projects in Africa and the Middle East, writes on the unreported plight of disabled children in the emerging warzone.

This article originally appeared on 14 May on the Middle East Research & Information Project website, here

For background, see Peter Harling and Sarah Birke, “The Syrian Heartbreak,” Middle East Report Online, April 16, 2013.
Jamal is not yet a teenager. His school closed in 2011, soon after the Syrian revolution turned into an armed conflict, and his father found him a factory job. One day in 2012 as he returned from work there was a battle going on in the main street near his home. Jamal immediately started carrying wounded children smaller than he is to shelter in a mosque. Then Syrian army reinforcements arrived, clearing the streets with gunfire and hitting Jamal in the spine. The youngsters who took him to the hospital advised him to say that “terrorists” had caused his injury. But Jamal did not want to lie -- he told the doctors that a soldier had fired the bullet. The doctors told him to shut up and say it was the terrorists. But they treated him anyway.
From "The Guardian" 28 May; Steve Bell on William Hague
& Vladimir Putin's arming of Syria's fighters.
Syrian hospitals are at the front line of the conflict. Bullet wounds in children’s bodies are regarded as signs of sedition. Security men prowl wards disguised as medical staff; there are checkpoints outside hospitals and snipers on the roofs. Arrest and torture await doctors who treat opposition fighters or demonstrators, instead of handing them over to the security services.[1] Doctors loyal to their jobs or salaries are sometimes targeted for kidnapping by criminal gangs or armed opposition groups. [2] Health workers in conflict zones cannot get to work and vaccination systems are disintegrating -- the government reported in March that 36 percent of its hospitals are out of service. [3] Many pharmaceutical factories have been destroyed, leading the World Health Organization to express worry about shortages of life-saving medicines. In opposition-controlled areas, makeshift field hospitals slopping with infections offer crude, agonizing surgical procedures.
Things are worse in areas contested between the government and its revolutionary adversaries. Up to half of Syria’s population -- including Jamal’s family -- lives in informal urban settlements, relatively poor districts that provided the vanguard for the revolution and now are often battlegrounds. [4] These settlements mostly populated by rural in-migrants are also places where over the past four decades the Baathist state created a new Syria of textile and service industries, with free education, health and social services, and electricity and running water in nearly every home. Syria largely avoided foreign debt on its path to development. Instead, the country amassed “strategic rent” -- aid from Iran, and before that from the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia. Syria traded with these donors its resistance to US hegemony; alternative possible futures for the Palestinians; and a version of the Arab state that was not dependent on Israeli or US guarantees.
Jamal is seeking treatment in a neighboring country. Syria’s health care system, which before the conflict delivered better health outcomes than Saudi Arabia’s, is now too politicized to cope with a child hit by indiscriminate fire. [5] Nonetheless, many of the government’s supporters today have kept their faith that the Syrian state has provided for the people. “Didn’t we give you houses? Didn’t we give you schools? Are you tired of them?” are rhetorical questions sometimes brandished by security men in house-to-house raids or torture centers.

No Longer Free

But the Syrian success story was in trouble before the conflict began. The government was not able to supply productive opportunities for many rural youngsters, many of whom were shipped off to Lebanon’s harsh labor market. Conflicts between factions of the country’s inscrutable elite -- rent-seeking bureaucrats and businessmen -- generated periodic economic crises that pushed Syria to seek external resources and policy inspiration. [6] The crisis of the past decade prompted a reconsideration of the country’s social welfare system. In 2005, a new “social market” policy encouraged foreign investment and simultaneously cut social welfare provision. The new approach brought in billions of dollars of Arab and Asian investment in construction, banking and tourism, and opened Syria’s producers to competition from countries with less generous welfare systems. As the policy came into effect, Syria’s oil production peaked and three years of mismanaged drought walloped agricultural workers. Refugees from the Syrian countryside arriving in neighboring countries tell stories of unexpectedly low social provisions -- of unvaccinated five-year olds and unschooled teenagers. These reports suggest that the service provision in rural areas was deteriorating before the conflict -- that the drought-stricken countryside was being de-developed while the center boomed. Or perhaps that the Baathist tale of modern transformation was something of an exaggeration.
Along with the lack of rainfall, the government’s social and economic policy shifts shaped the backdrop to the conflict. Farmers were pushed off the land into cities where industrial workers were being laid off, rents were no longer controlled and Gulf capital fueled feverish markets in land. [7] Government wages and pensions no longer covered basic needs and the security forces had a correspondingly bigger role in maintaining social discipline. The new rich established private hospitals and schools, while government health spending contracted. With the support of the European Union and the World Bank, the government began to outsource health services, and out-of-pocket expenditures on health care increased. [8]
Many international institutions promote a model of health financing that stresses the state’s regulatory role, allowing a retreat from the public financing of health care. Syria’s adaptation of these international models began in 2003, with immediate implications for its small disability sector. In addition to mostly free health care, Syrians with disabilities are entitled to special schooling and cash benefits, provided by the state. Like other authoritarian socialist disability systems, Syria’s did not promote independent living. The system isolated disabled people from everyday social and economic life in special schools or residential institutions. Rehabilitation services -- the mix of physiotherapy, social activities and assistance technologies designed to include disabled children and young people in social and economic life and give them the capabilities needed to live independently -- were rare, and were mostly provided by local charitable organizations. But as Syria restructured welfare, it also opened up to the international language of disability rights that inspired the UN’s 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Syria ratified the convention in 2009, and the first lady, Asma al-Asad, pushed the language of disability rights through her charitable foundation, the Syria Trust for Development. The rights of persons with disabilities, like women’s and children’s rights, became a resource for reframing the legitimacy of her husband’s government as it withdrew investment from welfare.

Syria’s experiments in “social markets” were intended to shift costs from the state to families and small-scale social actors. This shift involved a reshaping of its constituencies -- the security men, bureaucrats, farmers and industrial workers who benefited to varying degrees from Baathist rule. In retrospect, the experiments were catastrophic. The government’s post-conflict budgets have tried to reverse the catastrophe, injecting new resources into the welfare and subsidies systems that helped the Baath Party to maintain social control for so long. [9] This generosity will eventually find its limits, though, and the forces that were prodding Syria toward a shrunken neoliberal private sector will resume their efforts. Syria will probably emerge from its current crisis into a long period of indebtedness, and its health and welfare systems will probably no longer be free.

The Neighbors

What would a debt-laden, post-crisis Syrian health and social system offer Jamal? How could that system help Jamal and his family work out how to bear the heavy financial burdens that war-induced disability has brought them -- increased health costs and loss of income? Might Syria’s neighbors, some of which have also undergone protracted conflicts, have found some solutions worth emulating? These questions, which weigh on the mind of every refugee now looking to finance health care in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, are not easy to answer because the health and social systems of Syria’s neighbors are not at all easy to generalize from. Two neighboring post-conflict systems -- Iraq’s and Lebanon’s -- are particularly heterogeneous, but each offers some starting points for comparison. In Iraq, there is sobering evidence of the effects of sanctions and drawn-out urban bombardment on health and social systems. In Lebanon, the unique mix of markets and sectarianism provides insights into how privately financed health and social welfare systems operate.
The Red Cross estimates that 150,000 people have been disabled in the course of Iraq’s multiple wars -- they make up part of a much wider population of disabled people. [10] Article 32 of Iraq’s 2005 constitution assigns the state the task of rehabilitating and reintegrating the disabled: In practice, responsibility for services to disabled children is scattered among government and charitable associations. [11] And health care, which represents much of the financial burden of disability, suffered terribly during Iraq’s uniquely unfortunate recent history. After Iraq’s defeat in the 1991 Gulf war, its well-funded, high-performance, authoritarian health care system was eviscerated by 13 years of sanctions, which eventually replaced government finances with a cashless Oil for Food system. With the state’s coffers empty, public spending on health care fell to 1 percent of total health spending, foisting nearly all the costs of health care upon families.[12] Under the US-led occupation, health spending saw modest increases. Between 2008 and 2010, as the occupiers withdrew and the Iraqi government sought to garner popular legitimacy, per capita health spending more than doubled, from $118 to $247 ($340 at purchasing power parity). [13] Iraq’s health spending is still well below the global average and disabled people are poor -- Celine Cantat, a disability worker in Damascus before Syria’s conflict broke out, commented on the large numbers of disabled Iraqi children who were on the streets there at the time. A 2011 report on child disability financed by the UN Children’s Fund bemoaned the continuing lack of statistics on disability prevalence, the low state benefits (or social salaries) for disabled people, and the way that the state has devolved to NGOs its constitutional responsibility for disability services and their financing. [14]
NGO funding and NGO services are a sign that the state is relinquishing the financial burden of disability care. Families can cope with short-term illnesses using their own resources, but the costs of chronic disease and disability are much harder to privatize. Social institutions have to play a role. Lebanon’s private health and welfare systems illustrate the importance -- and the political costs -- of giving private institutions responsibility for health and social services. Three quarters of all health spending was in the private sector in 2011, according to World Health Organization data. Private religious associations provided most of the social welfare there, too. Private health and social welfare systems do not necessarily deliver better outcomes: In 2010, Lebanon’s gross national income per capita was more than three times that of Syria, but Lebanon’s child mortality rates and life expectancy were marginally worse. [15] 

Under Lebanon’s largely private welfare system, the financial burdens of disability are mostly borne by private individuals and the family. With severely limited public funds, disabled people need to find affiliations and networks outside the state in order to bear the costs of disability. In Lebanon’s uniquely sectarian political system, disabled people often seek assistance from religious institutions. Most institutions providing subsidized health and social care are linked to Lebanon’s officially recognized sects. They fund themselves through international charitable donations or by using their sects’ political clout to colonize the government’s modest welfare budgets. In order to gain access to this subsidized welfare system, poor disabled people and their families often have to invoke their religious identities. As in any private system, resources for poor people are limited. One way of limiting resources for disabled children is to provide services in residential institutions that separate them from family and social life. They are often known as orphanages, not because the children in them are parentless, but because underfunded institutions can limit costs by imposing the drastic condition of family separation on the beneficiaries of their services. In 2003, Lebanon’s privatized welfare system had 32,484 children in residential institutions; in 2004, Syria had 3,904 such children (Syria’s population is more than five times larger than Lebanon’s). [16]
Disabled people in Lebanon’s privatized, confessional welfare system have to negotiate its soup kitchens and emphatic sectarian markers in order to survive. Syrian refugees in Lebanon (there were nearly half a million as of April) sometimes get caught up in this sectarian system of services. Because Syria and Lebanon have a similar ethnic and religious diversity, Syrian refugees can negotiate access to sectarian services by representing themselves as Shi‘i Muslim or Greek Catholic or whatever -- in the same way that many disabled Lebanese people must. By forcing disabled and other poor people to invoke sectarian identities for food and medicine, Lebanon’s welfare systems give its confessional system a material basis, a tangibility lacking in many accounts of its curious identity politics.

From Secular to Sectarian

Syrian identity politics is a different matter. Officially, Syria still has a secular constitution and free welfare services. But all that is changing. The government keeps welfare services functioning in government-controlled areas and malfunctioning in contested or opposition-dominated areas. Access to health and social services is being reconfigured around the geography of conflict. This geography has a sectarian dimension, too, as some of Syria’s smaller religious groups are concentrated in areas where there has been less fighting. People from these areas and groups are then seen as constituencies of the regime. Syria’s religious and ethnic diversity is being turned into the basis for sectarianism, with many Syrian and international actors using religious differences to mobilize military support, build political constituencies, and include or exclude people from the state’s protection.
Possible futures for Syrian welfare financing may aggravate tendencies toward sectarian division. The government is facing an economic crisis -- although its 2013 budget envisages spending increases, the government may not be able to generate enough revenue to deliver them. [17]The government’s flirtation with neoliberalism reshaped the way civil society organized. It allowed religious organizations, financed by businessmen benefiting from economic change, to flourish. In the run-up to the conflict, over half of Syria’s charitable organizations were Islamic ones, and their beneficiaries were largely Syrians who were looking for new social networks to meet basic needs as the state retreated from welfare provision. [18] Syria’s conflict will make people radically dependent on new social networks for survival.
These transformations have serious consequences for children with disabilities. Disability services need to be comprehensive, to join up accessible education and health care with measures for social and economic inclusion if people with disabilities are to live dignified independent lives. But Syria’s welfare system is fragmenting under multiple pressures. Future state-funded welfare systems are likely to be much more parsimonious, and to impose the draconian targeting methods of Lebanon’s orphanages. Families disoriented and impoverished by disability are likely to seek out new social networks to survive -- and these networks are likely to emphasize social differences. International aid agencies are unlikely to step in. With few exceptions, these international agencies invest little in disability -- although good disability services are powerful ways to build an inclusive society, they do not offer the quick, decisive impacts that their management consultants promise them elsewhere.
Jamal did not engage in calculations about responsibility for the costs of health care when he went to help the wounded children he encountered in a street battle. Now a refugee, he has personal experience of the region’s health financing dilemmas. He mostly lies in a hospital bed, his big observant eyes set in a round childish face on the cusp of adolescence. He is cool and assured, and his morale is exemplary. Nursing staff say that with the right treatment he could walk again, and he has taken steps with assistive devices. His father, hard-working, poor, shrewd and warm, with old-fashioned country manners still intact after years of city living, is bravely hustling to gather the thousands of dollars that a spinal cord operation will cost, while trying to keep his family fed.


[1] “Torture in Syria’s Hospitals,” The Lancet, November 5, 2011, p. 1606.
[2] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, A/HRC/22/59, Geneva, February 5, 2013.
[3] World Health Organization, Situation Report, March 12, 2013, p. 1.
[4] Robert Goulden, “Housing, Inequality and Economic Change in Syria,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 38/2 (August 2011).
[5] UNICEF and Syrian Commission for Family Affairs, Situation Analysis of Childhood Status in Syria (Damascus, 2008), p. 26.
[6] See Volker Perthes, The Political Economy of Syria Under Asad (London: I. B. Tauris, 1995); and Bassam Haddad, “Syria’s State Bourgeoisie: An Organic Backbone for the Regime,” Middle East Critique 21/3 (Fall 2012).
[7] Raymond Hinnebusch, “Syria: From ‘Authoritarian Upgrading’ to Revolution?” International Affairs 88/1 (January 2012).
[8] Kasturi Sen and Waleed al Faisal, “Syria: Neoliberal Reforms in Health Sector Financing: Embedding Unequal Access?” Social Medicine 6/3 (March 2012).
[9] Syria Report, October 26, 2011.
[10] International Committee of the Red Cross, “Iraq: Giving Disabled People a Chance to Live a Normal Life,” October 20, 2011.
[11] Alison Alborz et al, “A Study of Mainstream Education Opportunities for Disabled Children and Youth and Early Childhood Development in Iraq” (London: Council for Assistance to Refugee Academics, London South Bank University, 2011).
[12] According to World Health Organization data available here.
[13] Thamer Kadum Al Hilfi, Riyadh Lafta and Gilbert Burnham, “Health Services in Iraq,” The Lancet, March 13, 2013, p. 946.
[14] Alborz et al, op cit.
[15] UNICEF, State of the World’s Children (New York, 2012), pp. 89-90.
[16] UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Article 44 of the Convention: Third Periodic Reports of States Parties Due in 2003, Lebanon, CRC/C/129/Add.7, Geneva, October 25, 2005, p. 60; UNICEF and Syrian Commission for Family Affairs, Situation Analysis of Childhood Status in Syria (Damascus, 2008), p. 138.
[17] Economist Intelligence Unit, Country Report: Syria, March 2013, p. 6.
[18] Line Khatib, “Syria’s Civil Society as a Tool for Regime Legitimacy” in Paul Aarts and Francesco Cavatorta, eds., Civil Society in Syria and Iran: Activism in Authoritarian Contexts(Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2013), p. 30ff.