Archive for November, 2009

Quelle Surprise

November 26, 2009


Profiteering from Death?

November 23, 2009

Interesting story in today’s Sunday Times about the price of death notices in newspapers. We all know that the newspaper industry is an industry in crisis, that ad revenues have been falling, and that many titles are struggling to survive. We also know that over much of Ireland there are many thousands of people for whom the death notices are the most important part of a newspaper – you only have to look at the Irish News or the Anderstown News to see how important. So there is something about this that leaves a very bad taste in the mouth, especially given the importance of death notices in working-class communities.

The cost of placing a death notice in Ireland’s national newspapers has increased by up to 17% in the past three years, more than five times the rate of inflation. Charges have also been introduced to view funeral arrangements online.

It’s hard to argue with the Consumers’ Association of Ireland.

Dermott Jewell, its chief executive, said: “This is an area where consumers don’t want to question prices. They are not in anything resembling a frame of mind to query costs.”

However, like everything else, it seems things are beginning to move with the times, with the emergence of the free website I’m not saying newspapers shouldn’t charge for death notices, but 300 euro seems like a hell of a lot. The profit imperative as usual steamrollers human decency.


1 Million US Children Fall Asleep Hungry

November 18, 2009

The Guardian reports that 1 million American children regularly go to bed hungry, and that in 2008 1 American in 6 – that is 50 million people – has at some point been unable to afford food sufficient to keep themselves healthy. 6.7 million regularly do not have enough to eat. And this information does not come from a poverty or children’s charity, but from the US Government itself. The figure of 50 million is a rise of a third on the year before. Not only that, but the Secretary for Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, said he expected this year’s figure to be worse again. 17 million children live in households that experienced food shortage at some time. Unsurprisingly, those worst affected are from minorities. There are millions more on foodstamps, or who rely on foodbanks. Significantly, Feeding America, which runs 200 food banks helping to feed 25 million people, says that 40% of those it helps are families with at least one working adult.

Such figures, we are expected to say, are shocking. Which they are. At another level, however, they are the predictable outcome of the capitalist system. We are used to see people suffering hunger, and starvation as well, in Africa and Asia, but we do not expect to see it in the most powerful country the earth has ever seen, with unprecedented riches and massive productive capacity. But herein lies the point. America has a very vicious and brutal form of capitalism. Although it can be highly regulated – one need only look at salary caps and player drafts in sports to see an area where US capitalism is more regulated than European – US capitalism as we all know is much more unchecked than we in western Europe are used to, with brutal consequences for those at the sharp end of economic exploitation. That it is not just the unemployed but large numbers of working people that can’t feed their families drives home how unforgiving capitalism is.

Vilsack talks about the need “for us to get very serious about food security and hunger, about nutrition and food safety in this country.” I’m sure that is music to the ears of US agri-business, which has long benefited from the patronage of its government, both through subsidies and protection against foreign competition. They have also been benefiting recently from an alliance with the energy industry. Fidel Castro has been pointing out for some time the danger to the world’s food supply and humanity’s poorest and most vulnerable represented by the promotion of biofuels. Food security means much more than simply ensuring food on the table. The US must take into account the environmental and human impact of their policies on the planet as a whole.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels predicted that modern capitalism would result in the immiseration of the working class, provoking the proletariat to overthrow the system and institute socialism. While they in fact meant immiseration in relative rather than absolute terms, it is undeniable that the ability of capitalism to raise the absolute living standards of workers to an acceptable level of comfort has been responsible for the survival of liberal capitalist political systems. That success has blinded a lot of people on the left to the real nature of capitalism. Statistics such as these, and the figures from Britain showing that inequality has worsened under Labour, should help remove their blinkers. They should also demonstrate to those on the left inclined to single-issue campaigning the absolute centrality of politics. The main difference between the US and western Europe lies in its political culture. The US singularly lacks any significant form of working-class political organisation. Hungry children and families, ordinary people unable to access decent healthcare, parents working two and sometimes three jobs in a desperate effort to make ends meet, drug culture, criminality, apathy, and capitalism running amok are the results. If we are not to follow the US example, then we must remember the centrality of the organised working class, in trade unions and political parties.

As for the President, who has been making welcome and strenuous efforts to extend healthcare, what was his response? The situation is “unsettling”. Change you can truly believe in.

The Equalizer Dies

November 16, 2009

Sorry to hear today of the death of Edward Woodward, star of one of my favourite TV shows when younger, The Equalizer, which had the greatest theme tune ever, even better than that of Airwolf. In retrospect, The Equalizer was a phenomenon of Reganite America, and was in many senses deeply reactionary. As most readers will know, its premise involved an ex-CIA agent acting in defence of the weak and defenceless, often with the aid of old colleagues. I guess in that sense it was a bit like a darker version of the A-Team. It was still great though, and I loved it.

Iraqi CP Opposes Anti-Democratic Changes

November 12, 2009

The following statement from the Iraqi CP is well worth reading. And disturbing, if not that great a shock.

Iraqi Communist Party: Unjust amendments to the election law
are real threat to democracy

The Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Iraqi Communist Party issued a statement on 10th November 2009, exposing the unjust amendments to the election law that the Iraqi Parliament had passed a day earlier. The endorsement of the election law “and the grave measures it includes, constitute a fundamental retreat from democracy in our country and a real threat to its future,” the statement said. The party called on the Presidency of the Republic, which is in charge of ensuring adherence to the Constitution, to overturn articles 1 and 3 of the election law that was approved on 9th November 2009, and send them back to the Parliament to be amended so that the law is truly democratic.

The amendments to the law, passed by the Parliament after weeks of bickering among influential and dominant blocs, may have averted the consequences of postponing the elections (originally scheduled for 16th January 2010), and endorsed the “open list” system. But the party statement warned against the grave consequences of these totally undemocratic amendments and the gross violation of the rights of the Iraqi electorate.

“It seems as if the noisy verbal battles that accompanied the haggling during the past few weeks about linking the issue of Kirkuk to the election law were fabricated to cover up passing the above-mentioned measures with the votes of the MPs of dominant blocs, who were mobilized for the vote in an unprecedented manner.”

“The Parliament, in the first article of the law, cut down the number of compensatory seats, originally allocated to the lists that do not meet the electoral threshold at the provincial level but achieve it at the national level, from 45 in the original law to about 15 seats! And when we know that part of these seats will be allocated to quotas for some of the ethnic and religious minorities (8 seats), and for the deputies who would be elected by Iraqis living abroad who constitute more than 10 percent of Iraq’s population, we can see how this reduction is arbitrary and irresponsible. The seven or eight remaining seats will not be enough to cover even the votes abroad.”
“On the other hand, this reduction (of the number of compensatory seats) effectively usurps the right of the lists that achieve the national electoral threshold to gain representation in Parliament. This reveals the selfishness of most of the dominant blocs and their disregard of plurality and diversity in the Parliament, their quest to extend full control over Parliament and the whole of political power, monopolizing and carving it up among themselves, in contravention of democratic norms.”

“In Article 3 of the law, the big parliamentary blocs went much further in violating democracy and displaying blatant disregard for the voters. They have imposed, once again, giving the vacant seats to the top winning lists, rather than putting them – as obligated by democracy, logic and justice – at the disposal of the lists that attain the highest remaining votes. They have thus opened the door again to a repetition of the infamous experience in the provincial elections earlier this year, when the big blocs stole the votes of more than two and a quarter million people who had given their votes to other lists. This was used by those big blocs to grab additional seats in the provincial councils.”

“What arouses astonishment and indignation is that the dominant blocs are repeating the same behaviour (as in the provincial elections), despite all the manifestations of popular rejection, protests and condemnation, which such anti-democratic practice had met at the time. It is clear that they are doing the same thing today despite being fully aware that it contradicts the principles of the Constitution as well. They also do so in a predetermined manner and in defiance of the voters and their will, and of their constitutional right to choose whom they want to represent them in Parliament and other elected bodies.”

“The measures taken by the big blocs yesterday (9th November 2009) is a very serious phenomenon in the political and constitutional experience in our country, a heavy blow to the fledgling democracy, and an outright retreat from its course.

“This development runs against the expectation of national public opinion, which had been looking forward to a serious and positive move to rectify the deficiencies in the electoral law that had been in force until yesterday, in order to make it a democratic law that ensures wider participation of our people, especially the youth, a better embodiment of the principle of citizenship and the consolidation of national unity.

“It is our duty to warn against the immediate consequences of all this for the upcoming elections. It is well-known that the credibility of these elections could face a severe challenge due to the reluctance of a large proportion of voters, who are frustrated as a result of the policies of powerful blocs themselves, to go the ballot box. This probability is increasing today because the new law stipulates giving the vacant seats to the winning lists. The supporters of the other lists are wondering, and they are right to do so, what would be the point of their participation in the elections as long as their votes will go in the end, against their will, to the winning lists that they reject and do not want in any way to endorse.”

“For this reason too, as well as the points mentioned earlier, we call on the Presidency of the Republic, which is in charge of ensuring adherence to the Constitution, to overturn articles 1 and 3 of the election law that was approved yesterday, and to send them back to the Parliament in order to reconsider them and ensure they are grounded in a proper democratic context.”

“We also call upon the masses of our people and public opinion, civil society organizations and all those concerned for democracy and its future in Iraq, to reject the afore-mentioned articles and press for amending them so that law will be truly democratic, ensuring political pluralism and proper representation of all the Iraqi people.”

Dawn Purvis Stands up for the Bill of Rights

November 5, 2009

The Bill of Rights saga has been a total disaster, partly due to the approach taken by the Commission, and partly because unionists are averse to such a thing in the first place. Which we might consider a bit ironic given that one of the major things guaranteeing civil and religious liberty (for male Protestant property-owners anyway) under King Billy was in fact a Bill of Rights. First as tragedy, then as farce eh?

The topic came up recently in the Assembly at Stormont, with Dawn Purvis of the PUP taking the lead. Interestingly, she raised the point that the conditions that bred the Troubles – discrimination in jobs and housing among other things – would have been prevented by a strong Bill of Rights, much to the annoyance of a UUP sensitive over its shameful record. A strong and enforceable Bill of Rights has been a central plank of Workers’ Party policy in NI for decades, and remains so. So it’s good to see someone standing up for a bill of rights on class grounds, even if it is couched in terms of working class protestants.

The lack of honesty in the other unionist parties in this chamber is disheartening,” said Ms Purvis.
“Are they afraid that if the Protestant working classes fully understood and recognised their own rights, they would then have expectations of a more equitable society?
“Are they afraid that they couldn’t then deliver such a society? Or do they just not want to deliver such a society?”
She added: “The duplicity continues. Every week the parties in this chamber wax lyrical about how hard they are working on the issues they are seeing in their constituency offices.
“Problems with housing, access to medication and adequate care, mental health services, the post-primary transfer and the guarantee of a decent education.
“What exactly do they think these are? These are rights for which people are seeking protection.”

Hard to argue with a lot of that, especially when the DUP and Ulster Unionists remain hostile. Dawn Purvis was calling for a public consultation on the issue. Personally I’d rather see the government produce a bill of rights. Can’t see it happening though.