Friday, 31 July 2015

When The Bubble Bursts - An Open Letter to the Guardian Newspaper

How low the Guardian has fallen when it excoriates a belief in values of equality, public services and peace as "opening the road to the forces of real darkness". Did I really just read that in a supposedly progressive paper, or have you secretly amalgamated with the Telegraph? Nay, the Mail?!

Political Editor Michael White's counsel is one of despair, of minimizing the response to the social and environmental crises that our society and world face, of softly softly business-as-usual. He dismisses Corbyn's meetings for their similarity with revivalist meetings in the Scottish referendum campaign. Now while I do agree they are part of a continuing revolt by ordinary people against established politics - but why is that a problem? With the referendum "losers", the SNP, sweeping 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland in May, surely if Corbyn has a similar impact down here, it is all for the good?

You really should get out of your cosy bubble Guardian and see what is going on. Please don't dismissively patronise those of us who want genuine radical change as "well-meaning", sandal-wearing lentil munchers blind to the allegedly immutable "real" world. Because your real world is one where the likes of Blair and Brown, Clegg and Cameron have shamelessly sold out our national wealth to the corporates who fund them, and then tell us there is no other choice, no alternative. And now you simply echo them, these mundane, machine-men, Guardian.

You could speak for us, with us, rather than at us - it's what you used to do.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

"A Different World Is Possible" - Jeremy Corbyn at the Oxford Union

A world where we care for each other.
A passionate speech on why socialism works from Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn at the Oxford Union from 2013. Interestingly, from a Green perspective, a good chunk of it is on ecology and saving the environment, and humanity, from the ravages of the free market. Well worth watching him facing down Tory extremist John Redwood and by the end you can only concur with the statement on the YouTube blurb accidentally made about Jeremy Corbyn by the Oxford Union:

Friday, 24 July 2015

Better Morons Than Mordor

The Labour MPs who have nominated left winger Jeremy Corbyn to stand for leader are morons. So says John McTernan.

Who he? He is former special adviser to Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister and he popped up on Newsnight to slag off the apparent front-runner in the Labour leadership contest in the same week his former boss came out of hiding to claim that anyone whose heart was with Corbyn "needs a heart transplant".

Now of course hearing Blair talking about something as warm and empathetic as a human heart somehow feels strange, jarring against reality as it does, but his pompous histrionics are pretty illustrative of an Establishment in crisis. Although it has been clear for sometime that, with Labour now a one-member-one-vote party, Corbyn stood to poll well, an opinion poll last week putting him 17% ahead of supposed favourite Andy Burnham among Labour members has panicked the complacent upper crust of Nu-Labour. 

Democracy it seems isn't keeping to the script. As people listen to the patently sincere Islington North MP talking about ending austerity, taxing the rich and scrapping nuclear weapons and then compare him to the muddled middle of Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper alongside the sub-Tory clown that is Liz Kendall, his popularity and chances have surged. As well as drawing hundreds to his meetings, he has prompted a wave of voters, especially younger people, to join the Labour Party to support him.

Faced with this revolt, Labour MPs are in meltdown. To stand, candidates needed the nominations of 35 Labour MPs, a high number in their depleted ranks, and Corbyn just made it with two minutes to the deadline when some non-supporters agreed to sign for him. Some apparently nominated him simply to "widen the debate", assuming he would be content to turn up at hustings, be patronised a bit as an unrealistic idealist and then come last in the vote, finally putting a nail in the coffin of the Labour Left. Then the neoliberals who have been in charge since Blair could get on with tactics like not opposing the Tory Welfare Bill and a strategy of seeking to match the Tories on their own far right ground.

And so we have the spectacle of the media, from the Torigraph through the BBC and Sky News to the New Statesman trying to portray the Corbyn surge as some sort of summer silly season story. Just as they have rubbished every other popular revolt, from the Scottish referendum to Syriza and Podemos, they repeatedly seek to decry any demand for genuine change: the public must be misled/having a laugh to not keep the Establishment in place.

One piece suggested Labour members aren't taking the future of their party seriously, otherwise they would know that the last thing they would want would be some crazy old guy calling for wild-eyed schemes such as, er, renationalising the rail companies or energy firms, or investing in public services. The Telegraph today suggested that as a handful of his nominators had said they won't vote for Corbyn because he might win, he no longer has a mandate to stand - which must be the first time someone's burgeoning popularity has been viewed as losing a mandate!

Even more darkly, an item in this week's New Statesman quoted a Labour MP as saying if Corbyn wins, the MPs will remove him "by Christmas." This has to be about as shocking and blatantly undemocratic a threat as could be expected, and proof positive of the ill intent and innate hostility of the elite to any true assertion of democracy.

Labour MPs, cravenly sucking up to the right wing media, have bought the narrative that the only voters that matter, the only people whose views should be taken into account in framing future political debate, are the 3 or 4% of the electorate among the 24% that voted Tory who might one day be persuaded to vote Labour. As these people are by default pretty right of centre, that means Labour must spend their time timidly trying to simply sound like slightly nicer Tories. The 76% who did not vote Tory and who, according to the polls, are generally well disposed to left wing policies on tax, equality, nationalisation and public services (even among UKIP voters)  are discounted.

But it is among the 76% that Corbyn is drawing his support. One note showed how his key nine campaign promises are supported by the majority of the electorate and just as the turnouts at his rallies and the polls show, when people hear him, they warm to him. An LBC debate on Wednesday evening was followed by a phone-in where over 90% of callers, many of them people who had not previously voted Labour, said they supported Corbyn.

It will be some weeks before we know the outcome. A not unlikely scenario is that Jeremy Corbyn will poll first place but, because of the transfers of second and third preference votes from Kendall and Cooper, Burnham will probably scrape in on the second or even third count. If his response or, possibly more likely, the response of those around him in Labour's High Command is to patronise or diminish acknowledgement of the strength of feeling behind Corbyn's campaign for genuine socialist values, the continuing unity of Labour must be seriously in doubt. Yet while this may spark considerable turmoil on the Left, it may also kindle many positive new possibilities of a major and lasting realignment of political forces.

As blogged previously, British politics are in generational transition. The rise of UKIP, the Scottish referendum, the Green surge, and the SNP triumph in May are each way markers on the journey. The Corbyn campaign shifts the gear up substantially in that process. But progressives need to keep guard, and keep calm. Each step forward, each small victory will be derided, scorned and downplayed by the agents of status quo, many of whom simply can't understand what is happening as they are not programmed to. For in a political class whose motto is about near complete personal pragmatism, any candidate or movement gathered under anything remotely resembling an ideological banner will be viewed as an aberration, and a dangerous one at that.

So #GoJezzer. He carries the hopes of millions with him and strikes fear deep into the heart of the heartless Establishment. Blair's Friends and Sponsors won't go quietly or cleanly, but as the Eye of Tony falls disapprovingly on the horde of tiny morons who should know better than to challenge his dark legacy, it is quite clear whose hearts are full of hope as the march on Mordor quickens its pace.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Book Review: A Secret History of Time To Come

Above - Post-apocalyptic art by Rolf Bertz
History has its turning points, but even if it is ultimately a linear process, are its contents nonetheless circular, endlessly recurring? Does humanity's nature condemn us to repeat ceaselessly the mistakes of the past? Are we fixed to a future where this most innovative and intelligent of species is nevertheless trapped, inert and doomed forever to not realise its potential?

Robie MacAuley's 1979 novel, "A Secret History of Time To Come", posits this at the very heart of its narrative: a story of a wanderer, Kinkaid, in future centuries, several generations on from an apocalyptic conflict that destroyed the industrial world and left in its wake scattered communities eking a lonely living among the decayed, overgrown ruins of the forefather days. Folk memories and snatched bits of history recall the times of the war between the "burnt" people and the ancestors, of waggons without horses and boxes that spoke over long distances.

Set in an arc from Cleveland to Chicago to Memphis, the journey of Kinkaid has been inspired when, as a child, his father gave shelter to a dying stranger in his home village in Pennsylvan-land far to the east. The man had an ancient ESSO ROAD MAP OF THE NORTH CENTRAL STATES with a line marked on it to a point named Haven. Now, as a young man, he is tracing the line back to seek the origin of the stranger. As he traverses a landscape largely empty of humans but replete with the artefacts of the past and the thick, choking vegetation of today, reclaiming the lands once conquered from Nature itself, he is drawn into his surroundings: "a dream of infinity - a green enigma of trees and bush, vaster than comprehension, stretching about him not miles but centuries..."

Into his dream comes repeatedly one of the "burnt" people of the past. A man in strange clothes carrying something for him, something he does not know or understand.

And it is in dreams that MacAuley's tale not merely links but binds the future and the past: for Kinkaid's dream is shared in time by an unnamed narrator from the 1980s who appears juxtaposed with him in the future in the initial chapters. This is a black journalist who is drawn into a devastatingly vicious race war as the USA is riven by unrest, civil conflict and, though unnamed, ethnic cleansing by what remains of the white-led government. In his own dreams, he sees the man in homespun clothes and a broad hat coming through the forests of the future, or perhaps the past, seeking something from him and, in time, he realises the importance of recording events to leave an account, secreted away, maybe for his future companion to find and learn.

The future world is a harsh one: genetic mutations, plague and the incomprehensible dangers from the forefather ruins haunt the small groups of tomorrow's people huddled behind their stockades. A few keep reading and writing alive, often like medieval monks in their scriptoria transcribing from old books passages they only sporadically understand. Ancient manuals for cars, maintenance guidance for recording equipment, cooking instructions for dishes with strange contents sit alongside tales of Robin Hood, the random reading of some forefather. Like the jumbled contents of our own bookshelves, what would be made of them, outside any context at all, salvaged by our descendants in a world where the chord of learning was snapped aeons before?

Yet in this world there remains so much of today - ego, violence, slavery, lust and love - tied back and ever repeating like the narrator and Kinkaid's visions. Across golden flatlands, along breathtaking rivers and through the deepest, verdant forests pierced with difficulty by the old roadways, and most striking of all amidst the "cliffs" - Kinkaid's word for the crumbling shells of the skyscrapers in the ruins of Chicago - his odyssey encounters suspicion, threat, hostility and friendship as he trades his skills in healing for bowls of food from his hosts' hearth-pots.

MacAuley's prose is rich, hauntingly lucid, evoking a world we know but have never seen other than in our own dreams, or maybe nightmares. It is a world where the familiar is fading and our species, bar a few individuals, seems to be sleepwalking, oblivious to its continuing self-harm. The major difference, perhaps, is that in this future humanity appears as a threat only to itself - it is no longer powerful enough to threaten the world, which is in any case gradually re-absorbing homo sapiens into the thick canopy of the endless forest.

There was a chance, he thought, that this might be the place of refuge of the forefathers he'd often pictured in his mind and that there might be sleeping people of the old race over there as he watched. But the sense that came to him from the silent towers was of emptiness. There was no light except for the moon's and no sound came over the water and no smells of life - only the river smell. The great place almost seemed to speak of its death.

MacAuley's writing is filled with empathy, not only for Kinkaid and the companions he befriends, but even for his opponents, and chillingly enters the mind of a psychopathic horseman, the ironically named Hurt. In one particularly striking passage, Hurt is drawn to the physique of a young woman captive thus: He seemed to see the lines of the bay colt his father had given him when he was a boy; the forefather gun, curled lines drawn in its metal and polished stock, that once he'd owned; the white-winged birds he'd seen sailing one morning in the northern sky. He didn't know why these things came to him. The colt had died; his father had traded the gun; the birds had flown away.

Robie MacAuley, 1919 - 1995
Born in 1919 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Robie MacAuley grew up in a family of artists and publishers and was consequently drawn towards a literary life. After studying under the novelist Ford Maddox Ford, he served in US Counter-Intelligence in Europe and Japan in the last years of the war. He was involved in the liberation of Flossenberg concentration camp in April 1945.

"Most of the bodies that I saw had been stripped and it was impossible to tell which were those of Jews and which of Christians. Nazi murder was a great leveller, fully ecumenical... Hitler's bell tolled for all."

It is an account that has clear echoes in one early passage in A Secret History, just as his wartime experiences informed a number of short stories he wrote in the late 1940s. However, after ending his military service in the early 1950s, his main focus was to be on teaching American literature in colleges and later on as a literary critic, including editorship of the prestigious Kenyon Review. Perhaps more controversially, in the 1970s MacAuley was Fiction Editor of Playboy. There, he published work by a wide range of prominent writers including Doris Lessing, Saul Below, Ursula K Le Guin and a host of others.

He wrote only two other novels, on completely unrelated themes - one set in the Alps during the Great War and another about a university love affair - although he did produce a wide range of short stories. He received praise from his literary peers but was largely unrecognised as an author before his death in 1995 from cancer.

A Secret History of Time To Come is a novel I have read six times now over almost thirty years (I have the 1983 edition). On each of my journeys with Kinkaid, there has been something new, something previously unnoticed to discover and oftentimes delight among the verbal dexterity and visual ingenuity. There is a clear narrative, its pace rising as the book continues, but it is also a meditation on memory, on connection and on solitude, on time and, above all, on hope. For this is a world where, like our own, it might be all so easy to stagnate, seduced though unstimulated by the familiar, the known. But, driven by a map from the past, a dream about a stranger and an inherently human thirst for knowledge, Kinkaid endures and more than that explores, goes ever on, out from the dark thickets of forest and onwards under the boundless sky.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Saturn Eats His Own: Winter Has Come to Europe

"There was once a dream that was Rome, you could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish. It was so fragile and I fear that it will not survive the winter."

The fictitious (as far as we know) words of Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Ridley Scott's 2000 film Gladiator. The aged philosopher-king was bewailing the slide of the ideals of the Roman Republic into the hands of greedy and corrupt nobles and politicians.

It was perhaps  an apt movie to emerge in the Millennium Days. Alongside a decade long boom sustained unsustainably on the debts of the poor, the 2000s saw the rise of the Euro, the international currency adopted by 19 of the 28 member states of the European Union - the first such since Marcus Aurelius' Imperium introduced the denarii as the single currency from Bagdhad to Newcastle. It would of course have been 20 states had Tony Blair and Nick Clegg had their way - but we have old prudence himself, Chancellor Gordon Brown, to thank for keeping the UK out. He was content to hand us over instead to the deregulated City financiers in London and our Eurozone membership (as distinct from our EU membership) was kept on indefinite hold.

The Euro was  seen as a huge step forward in the "ever closer union" of Europe. A single unit of exchange, binding economies as diverse in size, social objectives and wealth distribution as Germany and France, Portugal and Cyprus and several of the until recently Communist states of eastern Europe. This would be Europe's dollar, a standard to solidify the Continent's economic power around so that it could compete equally with the declining USA and more importantly the rising superpowers of China and India.

Basic economics however cautioned from the outset against any such optimism. With such a wide range of economies, the Euro would always struggle between rich and poor, between Governments keen to intervene and influence economies to the benefit of their citizens and those favouring laissez-faire market economics. As with the entire banking sector, it was and remains adherents of the second type who control the European Central Bank, the major economies of the EU and the IMF. Consequently, their view has repeatedly prevailed in terms of Eurozone policy.

The impact of this has been manifest on the smaller, poorer economies of the southern states. Portugal, Spain, Italy, Cyprus and Greece have all struggled. As members of the Eurozone, unlike the UK, they have ceded their fiscal autonomy to the ECB. Whereas in the past they could print or borrow money in their own right, now they are at the behest of the ECB and when it is committed to austerity and market economics, they have in the end no choice but to comply, regardless of the consequences on their societies.

And so we see this week, the rich states of the north combining under the ultimate neoliberal standard bearer of Angela Merkel to "waterboard" (as one EU official gleefully put it) the Greek Prime Minister into surrendering huge swathes of his nation's wealth to privatisation and at the same time increasing sales tax and cutting pensions, both measures which will directly harm millions of the poorest Greeks. The EU will put up tens of billions of Euros in bailout money, but this will go to pay Greece's debts to German and other EU banks, not to aiding any recovery in the Greek economy.

The corporate thieves in charge of the EU have had their way: a democratically elected left wing government, having had the temerity to stand up to the bully boys of the neoliberal establishment, has had the legs cut from under it. Already, they are looking to install a rightwing regime in spite of the conservative Nea Demokratia's trouncing at the polls. Syriza, once the hope of hundreds of millions across Europe, is now divided and its party banners set on fire by former supporters on the streets of Athens this evening. Spain has been duly served a warning should it be so impertinent as to vote for the wrong people and elect Podemos in its elections in November.

So what remains of the great European Ideal?

Established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, once it was to establish a harmonious, prosperous union across a Continent previously riven by endless centuries of war, almost since the days of Marcus Aurelius himself. Alongside a single market, social programmes would share wealth and protect ordinary people from big business taking advantage of them. Employment laws, health and safety standards, environmental protection, social benefits and consumer rights would be equalised so that citizens were empowered. The European Parliament would speak for them and a democratic family of nations would flourish, a beacon in a troubled world.

How far removed from that we are tonight. The dream has become a nightmare as policy imposes real hardship - hunger, homelessness and despair - on European citizens. The suicide rate has risen sharply in Greece with one university professor so distressed that he died by setting fire to himself in Syntagma Square in a desperate plea to the European leaders to give relief to his nation. But he was of no consequence to the psychopaths in suits.

In the UK, we face a referendum on whether or not to remain in the European Union, possibly as early as next autumn and by 2017 at the latest. The Cameron Government is posturing that it will get a new deal for Britain in Europe - one which, for all the rhetoric, will simply strengthen the power of the rich over the poor in the our country. For Cameron plans to get opt outs on the limited protections in the workplace that the EU even now does guarantee - against long hours, against discrimination and in favour of some basic employee consultation on matters such as redundancy. These are the things the Farage and Cameron want to remove: they will be quite happy for big business to continue to rob the taxpayer and profit from workers and customers alike.

Because of this, Greens and many others on the Left have to widely varying degrees of enthusiasm (or reluctance) favoured staying in the EU. But now, as we see the European Union's mask slipping and its mouth gaping like Saturn's rictus as he devoured his own, it is time to think again.

We share none of UKIP's anti-migrant agenda and so we hesitate to stand on the "Brexit" side of the debate. But ask ourselves, when we talk of a social Europe, where is it? And what possible prospect is there that we will ever see it?

Goya's Saturn, god of Rome, eating his children
Is an institution that not only abandons but actively preys on the weakest, an institution whose Ideal seems more wedded to economic eugenics than democracy, an institution that ransacks the common wealth of an impoverished society - is it really one that we can campaign to remain part of? For what possible reason?

The European Parliament, perhaps the one crumb of progressive hope in the whole rotten edifice, is as emasculated as ever. We have seen this with the secrecy around the TTIP negotiations - yet another measure that is about to offer all of us up to the wolves of Wall Street and their global buddies.Why would any socialist, progressive, Green or human being wish to continue to be part of it?

I write this with much sadness. All my life I have dreamt of a genuine European confederation, a union of equal nations and equal peoples, finally putting aside the conflicts of the past. Our Continent, for all its claims of birthing democracy and industry, has also been the locus and cause of the worst wars by far in human history. If there was ever to be any prospect of ending that appalling cycle, perhaps the "ever closer union" that was the European dream would have provided it.

But with Greece now probably on the precipice of social conflict akin to the break up of Yugoslavia and several other states facing similar fates, such a Europe is, as perhaps it always was, a dream. In its place, we face instead the nightmare of neoliberalism run amok.

We can play no part in it. What we seek is not on offer. If we are to ever show another way, another Europe and one day another world, is possible, perhaps we do indeed need to leave this Guild of Thieves.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Long, Lingering Death of Labour? (Part One)

People across the left join to oppose austerity in London in June
The Labour leadership election contest is well underway with four MPs competing for what might be increasingly seen to be a post that comes complete with its own poisoned chalice. With the collapse of the party in its old Scottish heartlands, its vote in northern England eaten into by UKIP and with many leftwing young voters switching to the Greens, the rushed vote to replace Ed Miliband is rapidly revealing a party that is bereft of both unity and a soul.

In the media at least, the frontrunners are seen as Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, both very much graduates of New Labour, while the odious Liz Kendall seems to be positioning herself day by day more and more to the right. These three represent all that has gone wrong since Blair's ditching of Clause 4 and the subsequently quick march to the right. Committed to market economics, privatisation, austerity and spending cuts, the party has abandoned all the things that it once stood for - in place of equality comes choice (determined by access to cash); in place of public services comes "partnership" with the profiteers; and in place of fairness is at best an emphasis on "opportunity" rather than outcomes. You can't help but wonder why they don't just join the Tories and get on with it; except of course that would vacate the Labour Party to those on the left who still have some desire to stand for something, to work for something better, more egalitarian. People who even now sometimes dare to whisper the word "socialism".

Labours Choice: Cooper, Corbyn, Kendall and Burnham
People like Jeremy Corbyn. This left wing Labour MP may yet be the surprise in an election which, to be fair, embraces a very broad constituency - members all now get one vote as the electoral college and union block votes have been abolished. Anyone can register as a supporter for £3 and vote. Many on the non-Labour Left have done just this to have the chance to vote for Corbyn, whose unalloyed commitment to end austerity and return to socialist values have put the only sparks into an otherwise tedious contest between would-be meritocrats. With his meetings drawing vast audiences and key unions backing him over the pseudo-left Burnham, there is every chance that Corbyn will poll very strongly indeed. If he wins, which is not impossible, he will be at odds with the hierarchy of his party, but he will have a powerful mandate to change the party and begin to shape a genuine choice in 2020.

On the other hand, the smart money remains on Cooper or Burnham and herein lies the seeds of yet more problems for Labour. For if either of them scrape through in a second or third round over Corbyn after he polls the largest minority vote in the first round, Labour's splits will come ever more into the open. This may finally lead to a fracturing and realignment of progressive politics in England, perhaps on a par with the huge shift in Scotland. If other parties on the left, and especially the Greens, stand open to co-operate and welcome new allies, it may finally be possible to build a genuine alternative to the politics of austerity, fear and profiteering. Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, has already talked about cross-party co-operation and plenty was evident across the Left in the recent People's Assembly March Against Austerity. With the budget this week showing a Tory Government warring on the poorest yet again, the appeal of a genuinely socialist left alternative is growing.

Corbyn campaigning with Greens Romayne Phoenix & Caroline Lucas MP
It will be no fast task. But it is feasible and even essential. A good showing for Corbyn may ironically hasten the process of party disintegration and realignment, but it won't be before time. If Labour is no longer a political home for someone such as Tommy Shepherd, formerly a senior Labour member but now an SNP MP (see the video below), then it is little wonder if, faced with Tory versus Pseudo-Tory, voters abandon Labour. What real purpose does it now play apart from validating the deeply illusory nature of our supposedly democratic system?

It is unlikely to be a pretty or comforting process. It may take many years to complete the change fully, but voters are less and less impressed by the major parties and, just as Corbyn is wowing crowds for the leadership election, who knows what unexpected train of events might kick in very rapidly indeed if there was a substantial and real leftwing choice on offer? Syriza and Podemos may yet reach our shores.

Monday, 6 July 2015

The Killing Fields of Srebrenica - Our History or Our Destiny?

Sousse, Tunisia last week
Ten days ago in Sousse, Tunisia, crowds of people rested by swimming pools and on sandy beaches enjoying the warmth of the Mediterranean sun. A man approached with a sun brolly which concealed his automatic firearm. Within an hour, 38 people - including 30 British tourists - were dead and others seriously injured. Local people, at great personal risk, cornered the gunman who was later shot dead by the police. He was, it became known, inspired by the Islamic State and its call to arms against unbelievers.

Ten years ago tomorrow, in London, hundreds of thousands of people headed for work on a warm July morning. While some took the bus, many massed into the stairwells and lifts that descended into the Undergound tunnels of the city's tube system. Among them were three men from Yorkshire wearing backpacks, like tourists heading for the airport. As their separate trains headed round the multi-coloured lines that snake beneath the British capital, they pressed the buttons that linked through wires to the packs of explosives strapped around their bodies, exploding themselves in tiny, cramped spaces. As a fourth man on the surface, disoriented when he found his designated tube station closed for repairs, boarded a bus and blew
Murder in Russell Square, London, 7 July 2005
himself up along with several passengers, 52 people met their deaths as they went around their daily work routine, with over 700 maimed and injured.

As it would be in Sousse, the four men drew their inspiration from a belief that they were acting in the name of their Muslim faith. Their deaths and their taking of lives would be rewarded in the afterlife.

Twenty years ago, today, with the blessing by the Christian priest done, the Serbian paramilitary commander signalled his men forward. For months they had surrounded the thousands of Muslim civilians and a handful of lightly armed defenders huddled into the small protected town of Srebrenica in the Bosnian valley below. A small United Nations force of largely Dutch blue helmets provided thin cover between the two groups and melted out of the way as the well-armed attackers moved on the town, their heavy armour provided by the remnants of the Yugoslav Federal Army. As the inhabitants fled into an ever smaller area around the Dutch military compound, the military observers reported that the Serbs were "ethnically cleansing" the streets and buildings that came under their control in the name of Christian civilisation.

Within five days, after the Dutch troops watched as the Serbs separated men and boys from women and put them all on separate buses to drive them off into the hills, over 8,000 unarmed Bosniac Muslim males lay dead in ditches, in fields and in mineshafts. To this day, many are unrecovered and those that are come in shattered bundles of broken bones and partial bodies.

The three scenarios may be separated by decades, by thousands of miles and by different faiths and lives. But they are intimately, fatefully connected and they each and together provide an awful warning of what may lie ahead if we let it be so.

Srebrenica was just the latest of many, many atrocities committed by the Serbian rebels led by Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, proteges of the nationalistic President of the Serbian Republic, Slobodan Milosevic. They had rebelled in 1992 against the democratically elected government of Bosnia Hercegovina and, fuelled, funded and armed by Milosevic, they set out with the declared aim of eliminating the 1,800,000 Bosnian Muslims who made up around 45% of the population of the newly independent state. Karadzic declared that, although from the same genetic stock as himself, Bosnian Muslims were to have "no further hope of survival or continued existence."  
Over three bloody years, their army of butchers killed about one in every twenty Muslims and displaced many more. Rape camps worked to impregnate captive Muslim women with Christian Serb men's children and communities that had lived peacefully alongside and with each other for several centuries were wiped out forever.

Although all this happened on the doorstep of Europe, with a few notable exceptions, European politicians stood by wringing their hands. They claimed to impose an arms embargo on the area, a chilling echo of the Spanish civil war when, as in Bosnia, a democratically elected government was only thinly armed against well-equipped rightwing militarists and embargoes served merely to stack the odds ever more in favour of the nationalists. The British Government was particularly active in opposing any intervention to stop the bloodshed - Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd was especially keen to express the need to not get involved, although he was personally very happy to get very involved in lucrative business deals with the Milosevic regime a few years later.

The Bosnia war was finally brought to an end after a short bombing campaign by US jets against the rebel Serbs' positions around besieged Sarajevo, but the damage was done. With nearly 90% of the civilian dead Muslims, the apparent willingness of Europe to stand aside while tens of thousands of "westernised, integrated" Muslims were slaughtered purely for their faith gave an abundance of fuel to the hate preachers and extremists who wanted to turn the gaps and misunderstandings between the West and Islam into a chasm of violence and division.

In this context, the appalling London bombings, on the tenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, are not excused or legitimised in any way but there is little doubt that the Bosnian bloodbath radicalised many younger Muslims and made their recruitment by the psychopaths of ISIS and al Qaeda that bit easier.

And now, another decade on and the blood flows - in Sousse, in Paris, in Aleppo, Baghdad, Raqqa, Damascus, Gaza... the list is endless. And the plans for the future? The answer to the deathly black flags and the murders amidst the ruins of Palmyra? More bombing, more weapons, more death.

The phrase that those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it is hackneyed, but never more true. But perhaps what is even more important is how history is written and what is remembered. For in so many narratives, on all sides, only snippets and single events are recalled, commemorated and alternately reviled or celebrated.

Mass burial of Srebernica dead, 2010: 1,500 bodies remain missing
Churchill said that "History will be kind to me as I am going to write it" and this has never been more so than now, when our media and commentators rarely go much beyond last week to explain the events of the day. To them, Bosnia is as obscurely distant in time and as irrelevant as the War of Jenkins Ear or the Vikings' sack of Lucca. But, as even today bodies are recovered and children born of industrial-scale rape reach adulthood, it has never been more important to understand how the prejudice and conflicts of the past are the building blocks of today. Everything is connected, as we all are, and commemoration of the past is pointless unless we learn from it so we both understand today and make a better tomorrow.

"The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice," was Mark Twain's verdict. In a world shaped by the poison pens of the Daily Mail and the narratives of the bloodthirsty, arms manufacturing elite, we must look hard, listen hard and reflect on the truth so often buried from view. And that is that what unites humanity is in fact much more than the cultures, faiths and traditions that are held up to divide us by the Presidents and Prime Ministers, by the Caliphs and Kings - by those who do not want us to question the grip they hold on our world.

For the true history is that people of all faiths and none have lived in peace for incalculably more time than they have fought with each other. Our hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares are much the same, regardless of the trappings of difference in clothes or buildings or customs or ritual. But for some it is an inconvenient truth and a dangerous one for their continued domain over the rest of us. Their watchword is our ignorance.

Srebrenica, London, Sousse. They are our history, but they do not need to be our destiny.

Previous posts on Bosnia -  "The Ghosts of Bosnia"
                                               "Indicting Mladic for Srebrenica, Sarajevo - and London"

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Greece: A Vote for All of Us

Greece has voted decisively to reject the latest demands from the European Union for austerity economics.
The Hellenic people have today dealt a huge blow for all Europeans against the corporate interests that over the last 8 years have foisted the political choice of austerity economics across the Continent. The 60%-plus vote to reject the latest demands for massive cuts in public services and welfare to the poorest represents a major victory in the struggle to reverse the "mainstream" view that the monetarism first adopted by Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s should be the default form of orthodox economics. It is a massive vote of confidence in the Syriza government and the stewardship of Prime Minister Tsipras and Finance Minister Varoufakis, but it leaves huge questions for them to tackle in terms of next steps. For although Greece has spoken loudly and clearly, the anti-democratic forces in the European Central Bank and the IMF, backed by the neoliberalism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are unlikely to deviate from their obsession with reducing the public sector and increasing the wealth of the rich across the Eurozone. The economics of austerity will not go quietly or quickly.

This is a particularly pernicious form of political economy - it holds that balanced budgets are key for governments, whose involvement in society should rarely extend beyond basic policing and the military (although in practice it actually extends to providing subsidies and  handouts to the big corporations that fund our political masters, either via bailouts viz the banking system or "private finance initiatives" and outsourcing of services such as health and education at criminally high costs to the taxpayer).

Syriza's Varoufakis and Tsipras
 In this scenario, there is a fetish about reducing the deficit even when sucking money (and demand) out of a becalmed economy will simply lead to a downward spiral with huge costs to the lives of ordinary people. Its proponents however claim that, in the long-run, a harmonious equilibrium of supply and demand will be reached - although this is somewhat incredulously to be determined by the mystical invisible hand of the market rather than any socially-conscious intervention by humans. We are to serve economics, it seems, not the other way round.

The counterpoise to this - the investment-led approach of Keynesian economics - is somewhat more humane (albeit not necessarily an exclusively socialist response). It sees social objectives, primarily the minimisation of unemployment, as a key objective. Here, Governments will borrow or even just print new money to keep demand going in the economy, keeping activity moving so that people stay in work - this reduces the cost of out of work welfare and increases tax take, so that in time, if useful, the deficit can be reduced or eliminated without ruining the lives of ordinary people. As Keynes said of those who would leave things for the market to somehow work things out in the longrun, "In the long run, we are all dead." Economics should serve society; social objectives should be their sole purpose, not the enrichment of an ever -smaller circle of owners and shareholders.

However, the neoliberal elite who came to dominate our political landscape as well as the economy during and since the 1980s have made several key changes that undermine the potential for investment-led economics. They removed many of the controls on money and globalised the movement of capital; and they gave banks the right to create new money out of nothing - a ludicrous and highly dangerous arrangement that led to the 2008 crisis and continues to this day.

And into the midst of this, although Britain is outside it, the Eurozone came into being and countries like Greece surrendered their economic and monetary independence to the European Central Bank. This now determines the economic policies not only of Greece but in effect all Eurozone states. And with its decisions in the hands of austerity-obsessed bankers whose sole objective has been to increase the power and wealth of the elite, the social needs of the poor in Greece, or Spain or even Germany have been of no concern. Hence their belief that Greece should cut and cut and cut and simply keep on bleeding.

In this context, we have seen Greece previously be forced to accept an unelected Prime Minister to impose the diktats of the ECB on its people. This was being openly contemplated again in Berlin last week as Merkel and her gang felt bullish about a Yes vote in the referendum cutting the legs from under the elected Syriza government. This is the same mindset that reportedly led to some bankers allegedly opening a book on whether or not there might be a military coup d'etat to "solve" their problems with the irritant of democratically elected Greek politicians not going along with inflicting ever more misery on their people.

Greece has said no to the austerity that is at the cold heart of Europe now. But the only real option for the Hellenic democracy is to now leave the Eurozone as quickly as possible. With the drachma restored, they would be free to adopt an investment-led recovery, restore their battered public services and revive their economy. In doing this, they would be leading the way for democratic forces across Europe to rise and turn our fractured societies away from the austerity that has left Britons to choose between heating and eating, Spaniards to watch their health services crumble and youth unemployment soar, and Greeks to see their country unravel around them, their young and their rich taking flight abroad.

For some of us on the progressive left in Britain, until now reluctant supporters of the European Union as at least some form of minimal defence against the corporatocracy, the treatment of Greece (and of Portugal, Spain and Italy) demands we revisit our views ahead of the British referendum. The Europe we seek, one that puts people and planet before the profit of big companies and the demands of our elite, is not on offer.

It may feel uncomfortable to be on the same side of the fence as the likes of UKIP, but is it any easier standing alongside the three pro-EU, pro-TTIP, pro-austerity parties coalesced under David Cameron? At the very least, the debate must be had - why should any progressive wish us to remain part of this "ever closer union" that would willingly, even enthusiastically, destroy one of its own? Can this project be saved from itself? How do we get a social Europe genuinely on the agenda? Or do we need to break away to come back together in something more constructive and sustainable?

The No vote for the Hellenes is no negative result. It is a terrifying but optimistic vote that says society must be for everyone. That the collective need, the common good, must come before the apologists of robber-capitalism who hold power in the boardroom, banks and Cabinet offices in capitals across the European Union (including London). It is a line in the sand, but will need to be the first of many.

It is a vote for a future that is about people, not profits.

From the birthplace of democracy, it is a vote for all of us.

Athens was the birthplace of European democracy: this ballot said "No" to Themistocles in a vote 2,400 years ago.