Archive for the ‘Capitalism’ Category

Sins of the Father Belfast Launch 15th September at 7pm

September 14, 2011

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The Tory Dream Future for UK Higher Education Begins. Or, Inequality Commodified

June 5, 2011

David Cameron, Gideon “Call me George” Osborne, and David “No Two Brains” Willets must be wetting themselves with excitment. Their plans to open up third level education to private providers (including from the US) have received a major boost with news that a new private university has been founded in London with the aim of soon ranking alongside Oxford and Cambridge. Fees will be £18,000 per annum. The new university is called New College of the Humanities. Its website boasts that

New College of the Humanities is a new concept in university education. It offers education in excellence and an outstanding academic environment in the heart of London. The College was founded by 14 of the world’s top academics

Who are these 14 academics? It is a list drawn from people who currently work (and from the looks of things will continue to work) at some of the world’s best-known universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Princeton, and University College London. It is filled with well-known (and some might say annoying) names including AC Grayling, Niall Ferguson, Ronald Dworkin, Steve Jones and Richard Dawkins. All these people will teach, and if you are one of the lucky few who can afford it accepted, you will soon be on first name terms with all your fellow students and the staff. I’m sure that those who turn up expecting weekly one-to-one tutorials with the likes of Richard Dawkins will in no way be disappointed. Actually

New College has a world-class team of Professors with a stellar reputation for academic excellence, supported by a young, talented team of tutors and other teaching staff. All of them are committed to teaching and research.

Our Professors and tutors are international experts in their chosen fields. You will meet and hear these world-leading academics. You can attend Professorial lectures even if they are not in your own subjects.

Hmmmm.

All this for £18,000? A bargain you might think, especially if you are lucky enough to get one of the full scholarships, or to have your fees reduced by two-thirds. No numbers for these are available on the college’s website at this time, but they say more than a fifth of students will have scholarships or exhibitions, meaning no fees or reduced fees. The scholarships are means tested: the exhibitions are by competition. In other words, the richest person in the world can get one, and feel that they earned it, without having to trouble themselves about how inequality may have contributed to such a situation in the first place (to pick up a theme from Walter Benn Michael). I may have missed it, but I didn’t notice any reference to the scholarship including living expenses.

And just look at the Advisory Board.

Members are drawn from public and academy schools as well as from the private sector, and are chosen for their expertise in relevant areas.

Filled then with the heads of several of the most elite schools in England, and some random people from business, publishing and media. No need, obviously, to explain what relevant expertise to a university education they are bringing. I am sure the head of a secondary school or a publisher knows loads about running a university or teaching in one. It certainly couldn’t be that they expect the atmosphere at this new institution to be like a cross between public school and Oxbridge, and are therefore getting on board people who understand how to pander to the needs of their target audience.

Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems have also been firmly pushing this idea of opening up higher education to alternative providers. Clegg has also attached the use of old boy networks and unpaid internships. I wonder what he thinks about this reason for choosing the new institution. From the message of AC Grayling, the Master of this new institution.

Professional Skills will give you the tools to write well, present your ideas, lead and work in teams, read a balance sheet, and understand the worlds of finance, business and employment. You will be ready to make an immediate contribution in business, government, media or the arts following graduation. You will have a dedicated member of College staff who will arrange vacation internships for work experience. They will help you with CV preparation and securing interviews with leading firms as graduation approaches.

I guess you get what you pay for. But what is it, exactly, that you get? The answer is that the new institution will not, in fact, be awarding degrees of its own. It will be awarding Diplomas. The degrees will come from the University of London, and students will have access to University of London facilities.

So what we have is a private institution that will not in fact award degrees of its own, but award you the same degree that you can get from several other institutions across London, and where there seems to be as good a chance of ending up being taught for a substantial period by a world-class scholar. Maybe the Tories and their yellow LibDem allies shouldn’t be getting over-excited after all.

Trade Unions Must Die

February 7, 2011

Trade unions must die. Not (this time) the sentiments of the Sindo, but quite close to the call from the UK Institute of Directors for union rights to be curbed for public sector workers in the health and education sectors. This call forms part of a list of “freebies” that are

a mix of immediate measures to boost private sector growth and long-term commitments aimed at creating a positive vision for the UK

These include such great ideas as handing the green belt over to developers, reducing government spending as a percentage of GDP while simultaneously handing over huge amounts of money to private construction companies through “key national projects”, make it easier to sack people, and reduce workers’ rights generally. Not for nothing did the TUC describe this as a “Thatcherite fantasy world”.

This may well be the wish list of a bunch of right-wing nutters, but the danger here is that such ideas may gain traction with the coalition. We have seen just how right-wing the Lib Dems really are, and the Tories are hell-bent on restoring the capitalism of the nineteenth century. What we are seeing here are the opening shots in an ideological war to further erode workers’ rights, and to break up and privatise as much of the state sector as possible. The list is a joke. The intentions behind it are not. One need only look at the list of demands, and then look at the behaviour of the Dublin government over decades, and see how realistic the danger of a right-wing joke becoming a disgusting reality is.

Hobsbawm on Where We Are and Where We Might Go

January 16, 2011

Just put this up on Cedar Lounge Revolution too.

The prospect of a new Eric Hobsbawm book is always one to pique your interest. And today in the Observer, there is an interview with Hobsbawm on How To Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism. Unfortunately, the interview is conducted by Tristam Hunt MP, but still makes for interesting reading (there’s another, and shorter, interview in the New Statesman, and a review in the Daily Telegraph here). I have to say though that one’s confidence in the publishers and those writing about it is slightly diminished by the fact no-one seems to have noticed it is 162 years since The Communist Manifesto was published, and not Das Kapital.

So what is the book about? It is a collection of previously published and new essays, including, Hunt tells us, “some fine new chapters on the meaning of Gramsci”. Hobsbawm seems to be arguing that the current crisis has breathed new life not only into interest in Marx, but also into the possibility of systemic change, though he is unclear as to how it might come about.

he rediscovery of Marx in this period of capitalist crisis is because he predicted far more of the modern world than anyone else in 1848. That is, I think, what has drawn the attention of a number of new observers to his work – paradoxically, first among business people and business commentators rather than the left. I remember noticing this just around the time of the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto, when not very many plans were being made for celebrating it on the left. I discovered to my amazement that the editors of the [in-flight] magazine of United Airlines said they wanted to have something about the Manifesto. Then, a bit later on, I was having lunch with [financier] George Soros, who asked: “What do you think of Marx?” Even though we don’t agree on very much, he said to me: “There’s definitely something to this man.”

Hobsbawm sees the resurgence of Marx as coming about in particular from the fact that the crisis has proven neo-liberal economic orthodoxy completely wrong – we are in a crisis of a kind it said could not happen, in his view. The collapse of the USSR and associated countries, in Hobsbawm’s view, by removing a lot of the passion from the situation, allowed people to look at Marx afresh. Globalisation has become the victim of its own success.

You see, in a sense, the globalised economy was effectively run by what one might call the global north-west [western Europe and North America] and they pushed forward this ultra-extreme market fundamentalism. Initially, it seemed to work quite well – at least in the old north-west – even though from the start, you could see that at the periphery of the global economy it created earthquakes, big earthquakes. In Latin America, there was a huge financial crisis in the early 1980s. In the early 1990s, in Russia, there was an economic catastrophe. And then towards the end of the century, there was this enormous, almost global, breakdown ranging from Russia to [South] Korea, Indonesia and Argentina. This began to make people think, I feel, that there was a basic instability in the system that they had previously dismissed.

Hobsbawm continues his in his view that one of the main consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union has been the destruction of any meaningful form of social democracy.

In fact, one of the things I’m trying to show in the book is that the crisis of Marxism is not only the crisis of the revolutionary branch of Marxism but in the social democratic branch too. The new situation in the new globalised economy eventually killed off not only Marxist-Leninism but also social democratic reformism – which was essentially the working class putting pressure on their nation states. But with globalisation, the capacity of the states to respond to this pressure effectively diminished. And so the left retreated to suggest: “Look, the capitalists are doing all right, all we need to do is let them make as much profit and see that we get our share.”

That worked when part of that share took the form of creating welfare states, but from the 1970s on, this no longer worked and what you had to do then was, in effect, what Blair and Brown did: let them make as much money as possible and hope that enough of it will trickle down to make our people better off.

The significance, he says, of the current crisis is that living standards are clearly failling once again, and so the question of reformism will emerge once more.

Again, he continues with a pre-existing line, namely his argument that the traditional proletariat is no longer sufficient to change society on its own. Instead, it must form the backbone of progressive alliances. Hence Hobsbawm stating that

Today, ideologically, I feel most at home in Latin America because it remains the one part of the world where people still talk and conduct their politics in the old language, in the 19th- and 20th-century language of socialism, communism and Marxism.

Against some of the more excitable comments about the student protests, Hobsbawm questions the extent of the shift in student consciousness and reminds Hunt that the last major student protests (i.e. 1968) didn’t actually amount to all that much (an argument I have a great deal of sympathy for). In another argument I have some sympathy for, he seems unimpressed with Zizek as well.

I suppose Zizek is rightly described as a performer. He has this element of provocation that is very characteristic and does help to interest people, but I’m not certain that people who are reading Zizek are actually drawn very much nearer rethinking the problems of the left.

Hobsbawm, like everybody else on the left, feels that the coalition is taking the opportunity provided by the crisis to pursue a Thatcherite ideological agenda.

Behind the various cuts being suggested, with the justification of getting rid of the deficit, there clearly seems to be a systematic, ideological demand for deconstructing, semi-privatising, the old arrangements – whether it’s the pension system, welfare system, school system or even the health system. These things in most cases were not actually provided for either in the Conservative or the Liberal manifesto and yet, looking at it from the outside, this is a much more radically rightwing government than it looked at first sight.

I don’t think I’d agree with the remark that the government didn’t look this rightwing from the start. I think that was an illusion about Clegg and the Orange book LibDems, and perhaps even about Cameron, that some of the British centre-left allowed themselves to indulge in, culminating of course in the Guardian’s deluded and foolish call for progressives to vote LibDem. Hobsbawm calls for the Labour Party to concentrate on defending public services from cradle to the grave, and pointing to improvements it made in power. In other words, to move further to the left than Ed Miliband has positioned it so far.

Hunt points out that Hobsbawm’s book’s final paragraph notes that

the supersession of capitalism still sounds plausible to me

. Hobsbawm’s response suggests that he believes a move to socialism unlikely, but that he thinks the neo-liberal era may well be left in the past.

The record of Karl Marx, an unarmed prophet inspiring major changes, is undeniable. I’m quite deliberately not saying that there are any equivalent prospects now. What I’m saying now is that the basic problems of the 21st century would require solutions that neither the pure market, nor pure liberal democracy can adequately deal with. And to that extent, a different combination, a different mix of public and private, of state action and control and freedom would have to be worked out.

What you will call that, I don’t know. But it may well no longer be capitalism, certainly not in the sense in which we have known it in this country and the United States.

In a sense then, there’s not a lot new in this interview, and probably not a lot new in terms of Hobsbawm’s views on contemporary politics, as noted by the Telegraph review. I suspect that for the CLR audience, those of us who read it will find the more historical, philosophical or interpretive reflections on Marx and his followers as being of more interest than Hobsbawm’s political message, which seems perhaps unduly limited and perhaps defeatist.

You know the bourgeoisie are feeling the pinch…

August 27, 2010

when stories like this appear in the Telegraph.

The End of the Home Owning Dream

August 15, 2010

The Observer today reports on the end of what was in many ways the most emblematic feature of the Thatcherite programme – home ownership. We know that the Tory decision to sell off huge quantities of public housing in the UK was driven by both ideological and more nakedly party political considerations. Displaying an awareness of the truth of Marx’s theory that it is social existence that determines human consciousness, the Tories aimed to change the consciousness and political inclinations of large sections of the working class by allowing them to buy their homes cheaply. In the words of Norman Tebbitt, they aimed to make them possessors of capital, and thus, to turn them literally into capitalists. This, along with the deliberate de-industrialisation of the country, was part of a plan to destroy the social conditions that had bred the assertive labour movement of the 1970s, and to hand over the keys of the kingdom to finance capital. At a party-political level, as seen most nakedly in Westminster, it was expected that the new homeowners would vote Tory. The consequences of course were deepening inequality and division, and the devastation of the former mining and industrial areas that were left behind. The transfer of property was reliant upon cheap credit. At the same time, the orgy of speculation and spiralling property prices that resulted has now reached the stage where although the cult of home ownership has become firmly embedded in British social and political culture, it is becoming an unreachable dream for growing numbers. As could only ever happen, it has created a new contradiction in economy and society, especially now credit has dried up as a result of the current crisis. A new generation faces a lifetime of renting in a culture that valorises home ownership.

The Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) warns today that the “golden age of home ownership” is coming to an end. In the most expensive parts of the country, lenders are demanding deposits of £40,000 for even the cheapest properties – requiring a level of savings that most renters could only dream of.

The British rental sector, the Observer reports, is in crisis, and demands are growing that the government take action to address the needs of the 3m households in the private rented sector.

Campaigners and experts point to government figures that show 44% of all privately rented homes are classified as “non-decent” – a far higher level than for owner-occupied houses (32%) and social rented homes (26). They also highlight the plight of the “in-betweens” – low-paid workers unlikely to be offered council housing but with little chance of buying a home.

There are other problems as well, with short-term leases with one or two month notice periods creating insecurity, especially for families with children. In the social housing sector, things look like getting worse under the Con-Dem coalition. Along with changes to housing benefit that put up to three quarter of a million people at risk of becoming homeless, Cameron recently announced that he planned to end social housing tenancies for life, and that council tenants would have to move on if their circumstances changed. This is what the big society means. Forcibly removing publicly-provided resources and facilities in order to allow profiteering in a private sector that is incapable of providing what is needed, as the figures for non-decent housing in the private rented sector show.

Not surprisingly, there is a generation gap here.

Estate agency Savills has identified 1976 as a key year dividing the property haves and the have-nots. For those born before that year, there have been far more chances to get on to the housing ladder and profit from it. For the younger generation, it is a different story. Many have not made it on to the ladder, and many of those who succeeded bought at the peak of the market and risk being plunged into negative equity.

So what might be the answer?

Sarah Webb, chief executive of the CIH, says the time has come to move away from the notion of “right to buy” and “wrong to rent” and to focus on how to make renting a positive choice. In essence, campaigners want to see a cultural shift on a par with the one Thatcher began in 1980, this time in favour of promoting renting

It seems sensible that there is going to have to be a change in culture, in which renting becomes more normalised. Not only because of the problem of affordability, but also because of the environmental sustainability issues surrounding ever-increasing numbers of houses being built. Those who have bought in flood plains and who are getting flooded every couple of years would probably agree, but there are also issues surrounding demands on the sewage system, transport links etc. An integrated approach to housing and urban planning is definitely needed, in which the issue of renting is part of a broader plan. Of prime importance must be the provision of social housing built by the state. The property speculators and the private sector have made more than enough out of the public sector, and out of the public. We have seen the damage that has been wrought economically and environmentally by handing over control to the market. If the government takes responsibility for providing affordable quality social housing, then we will have gone some way to solving the problems caused by the collapse of the Thatcherite dream. And at an ideological level, with the state demonstrating its power to transform the lives of citizens for the better, we may have gone some way to reversing the damage done to social consciousness as well.

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.

International Solidarity for Coca Cola Workers and Seán Garland

October 27, 2009

greekcocacolademo

This post also appears over at Cedar Lounge Revolution.

The strike by Coca Cola workers over plans to sack 130 workers and outsource their jobs pits Irish workers against Coca Cola HBC Ireland Ltd, which is a subsidiary of the Greece-based Coca Cola HBC. Following a request from the International Department of The Workers’ Party, the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and the workers’ organisation PAME organised a protest in solidarity with the Irish workers at a recent shareholders’ meeting of Coca Cola HBC in Athens. The KKE has also been a strong supporter of Seán Garland, with a delegate from their international department who was present at the 2005 Ard Fheis when Seán was first arrested taking part in protests, and protests taking place in Athens within days. The KKE also raised the issue in the European Parliament.

Meanwhile, two musical giants have added their voice to the campaign against the extradition of Seán Garland, who is due to appear in court again tomorrow. The 90-year old folk music legend Pete Seeger has been active in left-wing politics since the 1930s. Like the Hollywood Ten, he refused to plead the fifth amendment against the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities Committee, and was subsequently convicted of contempt of Congress, a conviction subsequently overturned. Seeger opposed the Vietnam War, and was active in the US Civil Rights movement. He was one of those who helped popularise its anthem “We Shall Overcome”. His is a powerful voice to be added to the campaign against the extradition, and hopefully will help raise the profile of the issue in progressive circles and beyond in the United States. Christy Moore, who of course needs no introduction here, has also added his support to the campaign, another sign of his long-term commitment to progressive causes. Both of their signatures are signs that the injustice of attempting to extradite Seán Garland to the US is plain for all to see.

And the British branch of the Campaign to Stop the Extradition of Seán Garland is holding an awareness music and social night to raise the profile of the case in Britain. It will addressed by Councillor Ted Tynan of The Workers’ Party. It takes place in the Green Room in Lewisham High Street on Saturday October 31st at 8pm.

Internationalism is alive and well.

Class, Community and Starbucks

September 29, 2009

The Telegraph reports the work of Professor Bryan Simon which argues that Starbucks has had an extremely detrimental effect on community life. The report comes ahead of the launch of Simon’s book on Starbucks, Everything But the Coffee. Based on research in nine countries, Simon argues that although Starbucks supposedly offers a communal experience, in reality most of its shops represent a conglomeration of individuals.

“People immediately create their own little private, gated communities. You come in, set up your laptop and put on your headphones,” he said yesterday. “You couldn’t be more alone in public if you wanted to be.”

Simon compares the coffee shops of today to the coffeeshops of the past, and their role in providing a forum for debating issues of political importance.

He said the rise of Starbucks and its rivals was a far cry from the British coffee houses of the 18th and 19th centuries “which were the cornerstone of democracy with a small ‘d’”.

The most interesting part of the article though is that which discusses the class aspect of Starbucks, and its relationship to the aspirational consumerist lifestyle. By opening up in expensive areas, and charging high prices, Starbucks creates a feeling among its clientele that they are successful, sophisticated, and fashionable. This is a reflection of how modern consumer capitalism seeks to provide atomised consumers with the illusion that they are part of a broader community. Whether it is the self-congratulatory recognition of a fellow owner or an iPhone or whatever the gadget du jour is, or online fora to discuss ownership of a pricey item, it provides people with a sense of being part of something bigger and yet exclusive, while in reality hindering the development of genuine community feeling. As Simon points out, sitting in a room with like-minded people is not the same as engaging with them.

In this sense, Starbucks is representative of a broader issue within society. Capitalism has succeeded as never before in driving out a sense of the collective, and the organisations capable of collective action. Whether it is non-union workplaces or the fetishisation of the small business by Maggie Thatcher, the impulse is the same. To wage an ideological war against the solidarity necessary for class politics. Starbucks stands for many things. But it is perhaps as a representative of the fall in solidarity that it is most significant.

Trickle Down Economics No Answer

September 21, 2009

The Irish Left Review has a short article by the Research Section of The Workers’ Party analysing the failure of trickle down economics in Northern Ireland, in light of Peter Robinson’s declared faith in trickle down economics. Here is its conclusion, pointing to the twin failures of the current set up:

Just as the current Stormont regime has sectarianism built into its DNA, it seems as if any social democratic policy urges will be severely constrained by the privatising agenda of the UK Treasury. And nothing will trickle down to the working class.