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Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Voter apathy isn't the problem

This is The fifth in a series looking at and debunking specific 'tactical voting' strategies and election narratives from an anti-electoral perspective. With thanks to Phil Dickens over at LibCom.org http://libcom.org/blog/voter-apathy-isnt-problem-28022015 Part one on holding your nose to vote labour Part two on voting for radical third parties Part three on voting as anti-racism Part four on alternative voting systems are all available on libcom. Despite the vast amount of column inches dedicated to who you should vote for, tactically or on principle, and the huge amounts of time, money and energy spent to 'get out the vote,' a great many people won't. They won't vote Labour to stop the Tories, or vote a third party to either pull Labour left or present an alternative to them. In fact, they won’t be voting at all because (whiny liberal voice) “they just don’t care.” This graphic sums up the argument of why this is supposedly such a problem: It should be immediately obvious what’s wrong with this graphic. ‘These people’ are highly unlikely to all vote in a similar direction, let alone for the same party, so they’re not a decisive victory for a single party waiting in the wings. Not to mention that a 100% turnout wouldn’t change the fundamental role of the state as the manager of capital and upholder of social order with a monopoly on violence. Nor would it guarantee that people do anything other than vote, like join unions or get involved in struggles for social change. You know, the stufff that actually could change everything. If you’re dismayed with the dismal lack of change that comes from elections, maybe look at why electoralism isn’t a vehicle for social change, before you start the rallying cry to ‘wake up sheeple!’ That isn’t to say there isn’t a serious issue to be addressed. A considerable majority of those who don’t vote will be of that position because they see no point. Even without necessarily having an anarchist analysis of the state, they can see that largely the same shit results whoever gets in. They’re alienated, atomised and disenchanted. In other words, they’re suffering not from apathy but from the proletarian condition. And though they might not consider themselves ‘political,’ a lot of them will see what the problem is better than those who simply insist that we need to vote Labour. If they’re white, working class and alienated, then there’s a huge risk that someone like UKIP or the BNP will have some appeal. Not because they’re racist, necessarily, but because the main parties have abandoned them, the left is non-existent on council estates, and these guys are actually talking about jobs, housing and social conditions - even if they are picking the wrong target and using the issues to stir up racism and xenophobia. So yes, ‘apathy’ needs to be tackled. There needs to be a serious effort to talk politics with our class, counter the racist myths, and build real working class unity instead of partitioning it and allowing class to be co-opted for race and nation (white working class, British working class, etc). But does this mean that we need to get people voting, specifically, or write them off as uncaring if they don’t? Of course not. Whether someone votes or not is incidental. Apathy isn't defined by whether you put an X in a box every five years but by whether you care about the real issues assaulting our class. Most people do, but feel powerless to do anything about them. That powerlessness is what breeds real apathy, not the unwillingness to vote but the feeling that they can't change anything. That makes the real challenge not getting out the vote but giving workers confidence in their own collective power to force change in the workplace and the community. For that, you have to think outside the ballot box.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Angry Not Apathetic, What anarchists do instead of voting

The general election is here, and once again the parties are all over us like a rash, promising that they will fix things. But you don’t have to be an anarchist to know that nothing changes, whoever gets in. This is why politicians are keen on new methods such as postal voting. Labour, Tory, Liberal Democrat, nationalist (Plaid Cymru, SNP, Sinn Fein), ‘principled’ or ‘radical’ (Green Party, or leftists in some alliance), or nationalist-racist (UKIP etc), the fundamentals of the system are the same. Whether we have the present electoral system or proportional representation, or however many people vote or don’t vote in an election or referendum, as we have just seen in Scotland, capitalism is at the driving wheel globally. As working class people, we are exploited whether we can take part in ‘free’ elections or live under an authoritarian regime. Capitalists and property owners continue to control the wealth that we create, and they protect it through the police, legal system, and military. You can’t complain Non-voters are told that, “If you don't vote you can't complain”. But voting under these circumstances is just pretending that the system we have is basically alright. It lets the winning party off the hook. The fact is, we have next to no say in the decisions that get taken by the people we elect. This is called ‘representative democracy’. Anarchists organise by ‘direct democracy’, where we can have a say in every decision, if we want to. We don’t put our power in someone else’s hands, so no one can betray us and abuse it. This really could work globally! Ask us how... Campaigning against voting A “don't vote” campaign on its own is just as much a waste of time. The same goes for a protest vote for a leftist or novelty candidate. The time and money spent campaigning could be better used fixing some of the problems we face in our lives. Protesting, whether it is spoiling a ballot paper or marching in the street, fails to offer any real challenge. So, anarchists say, vote, or don’t vote. It won’t make any difference. What is more important, is to realise that elections prop up a corrupt system and divert us from winning real change. Don’t vote, organise! We should organise with our neighbours, workmates, other people we have shared interests with, and others who don’t have the privileges that some people have. We are the experts on what we need, and on the best way to run things for the common good. We need to use direct action to achieve this. Direct action is where we solve a problem without someone else representing us. By this we mean, not just protesting and asking for change, but things like occupying, sabotaging, working to rule, refusing to pay their prices or their rent, and striking (but not waiting for union leaders to tell us when we can and can’t!). For example, when workers aren’t paid the wages owed them, rather than asking the government to give us better legal protection, we take action to force employers to pay. The Department for Work & Pensions has even named the Anarchist Federation and the Solidarity Federation among groups that are a serious threat to workfare, because we have shut down programmes. This was achieved with only a few hundred people. Imagine what could be done with thousands! Taking it back In reality, people are understandably afraid of taking the state on. But direct action doesn’t have to mean an all-out fight to defeat capitalism in one go. Anarchists do think that ultimately, there has to be a full revolution. But by confronting the system directly at any point we can start to take control. In fact, all the good things we think of as having been created by the state – free health care, free education, health & safety laws to protect us at work, housing regulations, sick pay, unemployment benefits, pensions – came about historically to put an end to organised campaigns of collective direct action that threatened their power. And where we would fail as individuals, together we can win. --- Labour and the Unions The infatuation of the trade unions with the Labour party should be nothing other than mystifying for ordinary workers. Whether it is ‘Unions Together’ or TUC voter registration drives, trade union members amongst us should feel deeply insulted at being asked to prop-up the Labour party as the best available solution. The Labour Party was set up in the early twentieth century as a political wing of the trade union movement. Despite the rose-tinted view of history, it has continually regulated workers under capitalism. It is not a case of Labour having ‘lost its way’ and needing recapturing. To echo the anarchist Rudolf Rocker, political parties and elections haven’t brought workers “a hair’s breadth closer to socialism.” The ‘Special Relationship’ The TUC and parts of the left continually present us with a picture of Labour which has nothing in common with its actual actions. They tell us that we still have a ‘special relationship’, and that despite its failings, the Labour Party stands-up best for ordinary working people. So we should support it ‘without illusions’, because it is better than the Tories. Not that you would notice! All the major parties support austerity against the working class. This is irrefutable, and Labour even says as much. What remains of the dwindling trade union movement is essentially shackled by harsh restrictive anti-union laws and a totally compliant TUC leadership. These laws tell us how to manage our affairs, seriously restrict our ability to withdraw labour, and tell us who we can and can’t expel, which means that we have to accept scabbing in our own unions. They restrict free association in a way that no other organisation can under British law and are regularly condemned by the International Labour Organisation, which is hardly a hotbed of radicalism. The only time Labour repealed anti-union laws was when its hand was forced by a mass grassroots workers movement in the 1970s. Overturning these present laws and rebuilding a militant culture around the workplace is going to require not the politics of the ballot box, but sheer will and the determination to oppose so-called ‘representatives’ in both the Labour Party and the TUC. Their class interests under capitalism are intimately linked; our interests begin and end with us. --- Free Education and the Liberal Democrats: A Student’s Perspective Living in Sheffield at the time of the last election, I saw that there was massive voter turn-out and support for the Lib Dems amongst students. A tangible optimism and excitement existed in Nick Clegg’s constituency. Personally, I spoiled my ballot paper with, ‘If voting changed anything they’d make it illegal’. However, I did wonder whether a Lib-Dem rise could contest the New Labour/Conservative stalemate of neoliberal similarity. Clegg now sports a satisfaction rating of minus-40 (Mori survey). This is well deserved. Instead of capping tuition fees he has overseen them triple to £9,000. Young people among many others who voted Lib-Dem have been left disillusioned by this, becoming disengaged from politics. What has been proven is not that young people are not interested in politics, but that politicians are not interested in young people. Debt I was lucky and only had to pay £3,000/year in fees. But I now owe the Students Loan Company £23,000. This increases by at least £30 a month due to interest, which started whilst I was still at university! I am persistently being hassled by them checking if I’m earning enough yet to start paying it back. Neo-liberalisation When I finished university I wanted to continue studying. However, funding for a social science Master’s degree is rare and most students are self-funded. I couldn’t stand the thought of incurring more debt by taking out a loan, so I gave up on the idea. I moved home and worked in a café trying to get out of my overdraft. I found out that there are no tuition fees in Sweden for EU citizens. I applied to Stockholm University and got in, paying living costs with money I’d earned in the café. I then found out I could return to the UK on an Erasmus exchange, avoiding tuition fees and even getting an EU grant! This illustrates the lengths that you have to go to if you come from a background where higher education is unaffordable. Furthermore, it has taught me that a free education is feasible, but cannot be accomplished by relying on political parties and the establishment. The neo-liberalisation of higher education has proliferated under the Coalition. Education is becoming the preserve of the upper-middle-class. Research too must now be ‘competitive’, not expressing critical, independent thought. To contest this, to strive for free education, the only way is to self-organise! The demise of the Lib-Dems has shown we cannot rely on any political party to deliver this. This is why we argue ‘Don’t Vote – Organise!’ --- “Tories on bikes”: the Green Party in power “F***ing Tories on bikes” – that’s how one Brighton bin worker describes the Green Party. As the largest party on the local council, with 23 seats at the 2011 election, Brighton is the only place in the UK where the Greens have had so much as a sniff of power. And look what they’ve done with it. Despite trumpeting a commitment to the living wage (£7.85 an hour outside London, compared to a National Minimum Wage of £6.50), they tried to impose a “pay modernisation” scheme on low-paid council workers with the support of the Conservative group on the council. It meant that refuse and recycling staff at Hollingdean depot faced a paycut of up to £4,000 a year. Acting like the worst kind of union-busting boss, the council threatened the workers that if they refused to accept the new terms, they would sack them and re-employ them ‘on a worse contract, without compensation’. Binworkers responded with a wildcat occupation of their depot, and there have been numerous strikes and wildcat stoppages since. And the attacks on the binworkers’ terms and conditions of employment continue. Litter picking Green MP, Caroline Lucas claims to have made her opposition to the proposals clear, and even said that she would “join the picket line if the Council forces a pay cut on low paid staff.” Well, we haven’t seen her on any picket lines. We did see her picking up litter during the strike of June 2013, despite a statement from the bin-workers asking people not to, because as they say, “any attempts to lessen the impact of a strike [by picking up litter] completely undermines our action.” No doubt the Greens in Brighton have made “tough choices,” with their “hands tied” by central government. So is that all there is to politics – “tough choices” and a world of perpetual disappointment when your elected representatives betray you? As anarchists, we say that the problem is not with who is in power, and how they exercise that power. The problem is political power itself. As anarchist Noam Chomsky points out, “the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” The Greens might be on the fringes of that spectrum, but they’re still part of the party political system, established to keep us quiet. --- with thanks to Anarchist federation and their pamphlett resistance which you can read more at http://www.afed.org.uk/publications/resistance-bulletin/437-resistance-bulletin-issue-158-angry-not-apathetic-general-election-special-issue-spring-2015.html

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Syriza's first month

with thanks to libcom http://libcom.org/blog/syrizas-first-month-28022015A month since its election Syriza has moved far from its anti-austerity, anti-bailout rhetoric. It's been just over a month since Syriza won the Greek elections and formed a government. A month can be a long time in the Greek crisis and already the enthusiasm and hope that greeted the Leftist victory seems like something from the distant past. The new government's first few weeks saw a mix of action, inaction, retreat and surrender as it looked to find its feet both within the Greek state and in Europe. The news of Syriza's victory was greeted with joy from the Left across Europe. A Leftist anti-austerity party had actually won an election and was making grand promises of changing Europe. This enthusiasm was tempered somewhat by Syriza's formation of a coalition with right-wing Independent Greeks(AN.EL). This move was not surprising as the two parties have had an informal alliance for sometime as both are firmly anti-austerity. Whilst AN.EL took the valuable Defence Ministry they have so far kept themselves in the background. The formation of a coalition with AN.EL indicated that the main goal of the new government was to create an anti-austerity front to carry on negotiations with the Troika(IMF,EU,ECB). Syriza was elected on a promise to end the memorandums, the notorious bailout agreements through which the Greek state has been ruled for the last five years. Syriza's rhetoric started off by claiming an end to the bailouts and declaring the death of the Troika. From this rhetorical high ground Syriza gradually climbed down over the next few weeks. The claim that Greek debt would be written off was swiftly dropped. Charismatic Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis stated that 70% of the bailout agreements was actually good and he only wanted to change the other 30%. Though Syriza demonstrated its willingness to quickly back down the talks with EU leaders dragged on. In part this was likely a deliberate move by the EU in order to push Syriza to further concessions and to punish the Leftist government in the manner of a teacher disciplining a back-talking pupil. In the end a slow bank run in Greece helped bring about a new agreement. The Troika was not dead after all but was just renamed. Syriza agreed to an extension of the previous bailout for four months, at which point a new arrangement will be made. Syriza won a few minor concessions such as a reduction in primary surplus targets and the ability to write some of their own reforms. The wording of the agreements has been changed, for instance no naming of the Troika, but other than that the extension is exactly the same as the previous government was prepared to implement. In just a few weeks Syriza has gone from ending the bailouts to extending them. The main substantial difference between Syriza and the previous governments in terms of the bailout agreements is that Syriza will be able to implement the deal from a position of popularity. The war of words the between the government and EU leaders during the negotiations stoked national pride in a country used to its politicians meekly submitting to Troika demands. Though there are doubts about the extension, Syriza is, for the moment, a popular government and was even able to call pro-government demonstrations-an almost unheard of event in Greece. Unrest is never far away though, there are already signs that the surrender to the Troika is causing disputes within Syriza and at the moment it is not clear if the deal will be put before parliament for a vote. One reason behind Syriza's popularity is their adept use of symbolism. The first days of the new government saw a number of symbolic gestures aimed at creating the impression of a new start. For the first time a Prime Minister was sworn in with a civil oath rather than a religious one. The fences which have surrounded the parliament building for the last years were removed. The police were restrained also. When an anti-fascist demonstration took place the riot police were told to sit back and watch while demonstrators were even allowed to paint and graffiti police buses (apparently the police were left 'confused and uncertain'), at the same event last year the police beat and chased people even onto the metro lines. The early symbolism was meant to demonstrate a break with the past but later moves pointed to a continuation of previous practices. Syriza proposed and elected Prokopis Pavlopoulos as president of the Republic. Pavlopoulos represents the old order of Greek politics, he was a high ranking member of conservative New Democracy and served as a government minister. Unforgivably he was Interior Minister during December 2008. His election represents a reconciliation rather than a break with the old order. Away from symbolism and the Troika negotiations another of Syriza's actions has had a more positive impact. After another suicide in the migrant detention camp of Amygdaleza, a Syriza minister visited the infamously poor camp and ordered the release of those held there. A number of people have already been released from the network of migrant detention camps across the Greek territories and it is hoped more will be freed. Other measures may also remove the worst abuses migrants are often subjected to by the Greek state. Other pre-election promises have so far been shelved or not acted upon. The fate of the controversial gold mine at Skouries is uncertain with Syriza seeming reluctant to act decisively against one of the only substantial recent foreign investments in the Greek state. As part of the bailout extension deal a number of privatisations are likely to go ahead rather than be frozen. The promised restoration of the minimum wage has to wait to 2016 at the earliest. Syriza now faces the same challenge as that has faced by previous Greek governments, how to implement the unpopular bailouts and the attached austerity. Their current popularity, bolstered by various symbolic gestures, will aid them in the process. But after having spent so long waiting for Syriza to end austerity, the Leftist's swift climb down will disappoint many. On Thursday night a few hundred protesters marched through Athens and clashed with police in the first small scale riot under Syriza. While insignificant in themselves, the clashes show that not everyone is following Syriza's path.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Greece, Syriza’s predicted climbdown

As many of us who have been around for a while and were not swept up in all the excitement of a so called leftparty gaining power in Greece will have thought this recent news of a Syriza sell out comes as no surprise to us. We take no joy in this and in fact will only serve to boost the right who will play on this. “We won the battle, not the war,” declared Alexis Tsipras on February 21 after the euro group decided to extend the bailout deal for another four months. This was conditional upon the Syriza-led government submitting economic and other ‘reforms’ deemed acceptable to its creditors (especially Germany). Neither part of the Greek prime minister’s statement is true, of course. Athens blinked first, as was always going to be the case, and decisively lost the battle. And you can confidently predict that the isolated Syriza government will lose the war as well: the enemy is too big. Yes, the new deal may have averted immediate bankruptcy and a potentially catastrophic ‘Grexit’, but the country remains locked into austerity. Still at the tender mercies of the despised European Commission-European Central Bank-International Monetary Fund troika (even if they are now officially called the “institutions”). Now that the deal has been signed, with the troika (sorry, institutions) due to deliver a more detailed verdict by the end of April before the last tranche of €7.2 billion can be paid out, only the most deluded can fail to see that the agreement constitutes a headlong retreat from the Thessaloniki programme first presented last September - which itself represented a significant watering down of Syriza’s original radical goals (eg, nationalisation of the banks was dumped). The manifesto or “national reconstruction plan” was based on four central pillars: “confronting” the humanitarian crisis; “restarting” the economy and promoting tax justice; a “national plan” to regain employment; and “transforming” the political system to “deepen democracy”.1 At the wider, European, level, the programme demanded a European “New Deal” of large-scale public investment by the European Investment Bank, extending quantitative easing by the ECB and a conference for the reduction of Greek and southern European debt modelled on the London Debt Agreement of 1953. Rather unfortunately, Tsipras stated at the time that the programme is “not negotiable” - when in reality it has been negotiated out of existence. Relatively minor concessions aside, such as a possible reduction in the primary budget surplus2 and some theoretical leeway to propose his own fiscal/economic policies (which can be rejected at any time), the Syriza government has agreed to conform to the bailout, not buck it - let alone reverse or overthrow it. If that is a victory, then one dreads to think what a defeat would look like. Pie in the sky Thus the six-page letter signed by finance minister Yanis Varoufakis rowed back on virtually all the campaign pledges - he may be erratic, but he is definitely not Marxist. What Syriza originally wanted (there is no reason to doubt their sincerity) was the complete overhaul-cum-cancellation of the bailout and its onerous austerity terms; no more ‘supervision’ from the hated troika; reduction in the debt owed to the rest of the euro zone and a profits transfer from the ECB’s sovereign bond purchase programme; substantial easing of the requirement for Athens to indefinitely run large budget surpluses; an increase in the statutory minimum wage from €530 a month to €751; and, of course, an end to all privatisation programmes. What Syriza actually consented to, however, was an extension of existing bailout terms and conditions; some minimal reforms to supposedly address the humanitarian crisis (like food stamps), so long as they have no “negative fiscal effects”; a commitment to work in “close agreement” with its creditors (ie, the troika/institutions); maintaining current privatisations and “improving” the terms of privatisations that are not yet launched; the reduction/rationalisation of benefits, whilst keeping the public-sector wage bill to its current level; no debt repudiation or write-off, but a conditional promise of future transfer of central bank bond purchase profits to Athens; reduction in the required 2015 budget surplus from 4.5% to 1.5% (still harsh in a depressed economy); and the reintroduction over time of some form of collective bargaining, and no “unilateral” or “one-sided” changes to economic policies and fiscal targets - meaning minimum wage and other spending pledges are up in the air. Syriza also agreed to abandon plans to use some €11 billion in leftover European bank support funds to help “restart” the Greek economy. Then, of course, we have the vague and maybe unfulfillable promise to ‘crack down’ on the oligarchs and criminals - drawing up a €7.3 billion ‘hit list’. In this manner, we are told, the Greek government hopes to gather €2.5 billion in tax receipts from the fortunes of powerful Greek tycoons - and a similar amount, apparently, would be drawn from back taxes owed to the state by various individuals and businesses. A clampdown on illegal smuggling of petrol and cigarettes would yield another €2.3 billion for government coffers, we discover. Frankly, this is wildly optimistic. Obviously, such measures - assuming they ever happen - would not generate anywhere near the revenue expected or hoped: the oligarchs’ money has long left the country, relocated to London or New York. The only option, if you were serious about getting the money, would be to confiscate their assets - but clearly that would be to violate EU law and therefore will not happen. The Tsipras leadership would not risk getting kicked out of the EU. What we now have is austerity in the colours of Syriza, which was inevitable, once Tsipras et al agreed to form a government (unless they wanted to ‘do an Albania’, of course). Germany and its close allies were never going to consent to any form of debt relief or repudiation, as that would set a dangerous precedent - sparking rebellion across Europe. Expressing this worry, one of Schäuble’s senior officials told the Financial Times: “If we go deeper into the debt discount debate, there will be no more reforms in Europe. There will be joyful celebrations in the French presidential palace and probably in Rome, too, if we go down this path.” In other words, what Germany is really worried about - quite understandably from its own point of view - is that the austerity regimes imposed on Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy could unravel. The latter country, it goes without saying, is too big to fail - if it did, that would be the end of the euro zone. Now, you might have dreamed that Tsipras and Varoufakis were playing a highly sophisticated and devious game - master chess players. Knowing full well that they could not scrap or reverse the bailout deal, they actually had another secret plan up their sleeve: Grexit. They would revert back to the drachma, erect stringent capital controls and nationalise almost everything, whilst developing trade links with Russia, China, Venezuela, the Brics and Mint economies4, etc. After all, only a few weeks ago, Panos Kammenos, defence minister and leader of the Independent Greeks - coalition partners to Syriza - openly mused about a “plan B” to get “funding from other countries”: eg, Russian and China.5 True, in order to do this the Syriza government would have to effectively seal off Greek society - dig deep trenches, plant endless anti-tank mines, build millions of bunkers, massively expand the secret police and construct an enormous East German-like wall around the country to stop people fleeing: about two million have already left, after all. So just imagine how many more would want to leave after drachmaisation, which would see a considerable plunge in living standards: a ‘middle class’ exodus of doctors, lecturers, lawyers, etc. Tough, sure, but at least it would have been an act of resistance. Pure fantasy, of course. Those grouped around Syriza’s leadership never had a plan B, or even much of a plan A - apart from getting what crumbs they could from ‘renegotiating’ the bailout and doing whatever they had to do to remain within the euro/EU. But the Socialist Worker headline correctly sums up the situation: ‘New Greek deal turns the screws on Syriza’ (February 24). Unhappily, Syriza’s problems are only just beginning. Whilst the EC was quick to support the Greek formula, both the ECB and IMF are a lot more ambiguous about the bailout extension. Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, and Mario Draghi, ECB president, have expressed strong reservations to Dijsselbloem. Lagarde thinks the Greek proposals are not sufficiently concrete, singling out “critical” undertakings such as VAT, pension and labour market reforms and privatisation - in these and other areas, the Greek letter is “not conveying clear assurances”. For his part, Draghi complained that the pledges outlined by the Tsipras government “differ from existing programme commitments”, meaning that the ECB will have to assess whether any possible new measures or policies are of “equal or better quality” - ie, are sufficiently committed to austerity and neoliberal reforms. The troika might come back later for yet more flesh. In his own way, Schäuble hit the nail on the head when he said that Syriza “certainly will have a difficult time to explain the deal to their voters”. He reminded radio listeners that the Greek government had told the people “something completely different in the campaign and afterwards” - hence the question now is “whether one can believe the Greek government’s assurances or not”. Many within Syriza are far from happy. Manolis Glezos, MEP and anti-Nazi resistance veteran - who famously in May 1941 climbed on top of the Acropolis and tore down the swastika - was one of the first to slam the deal. In a withering statement he wrote: “Renaming the ‘troika’ as the ‘institutions’, their ‘memorandum of understanding’ as an ‘agreement’ and the ‘lenders’ into ‘partners’ doesn’t change the situation.” He has called for urgent opposition inside the party on the grounds that there can be “no compromise between oppressor and oppressed”. Sofia Sakorafa, another MEP - the first MP to quit Pasok over its support for austerity - and leading Syriza economist John Milios quickly endorsed Glezos’s statement. Similarly, Costas Lapavitsas, Syriza MP, professor of economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies - and a prominent member of the Left Platform tendency - wrote a scathing open letter on his blog, outlining how “difficult” it is see how the Thessaloniki programme (which includes writing off the biggest part of the debt and scrapping the memorandum) “can be implemented through this agreement”. He went on to say that it is necessary to “give substantial answers immediately to these questions” in order to “retain the large support and the dynamism given to us by the Greek people”.6 Perhaps even more damning was the reaction from Stathis Kouvelakis, member of the Syriza central committee. He bluntly stated that “going on this way can only mean defeat”, as under the deal the Syriza government will have “no choice other than to administer the memorandum framework”.7 In turn, this will “disappoint the hopes and expectations” of those who voted for the party. He warned that Syriza could “disintegrate” and that there could be a “reconfiguration” of the current political alliances, as there is no longer any reason why pro-memorandum forces “should go on refusing to collaborate” with Alexis Tsipras. It is far from impossible, he contended, that To Potami, Pasok and even a wing of New Democracy could end up getting into bed with Tsipras - and it was “precisely” the latter that Syriza was “giving a nod and a wink to” when it chose to support Prokopis Pavlopoulos, a leading figure from ND’s centrist wing, for president (with 233 votes in favour). This is all turning very sour very quickly for Syriza and a left revival in Europe looks badly miss judged. We all know that any government who looks to manage the system better ends up beign managed themselves by the system itself. This is no more clear than Syriza itself who is bending its programme to fit the narrative being dictated to it by te EU. As for Golden Dawn and other far-right formations, their attitude is totally predictable - Tsipras is a national traitor like all Marxists and communists: look at how they have betrayed the country. Greece will continue to be polarised between the far right (maybe including sections of the Independent Greeks) and the far left: the centre cannot possibly hold. Under such crisis conditions, it is not entirely inconceivable that the EU will sponsor some sort of coup - whether militarily or constitutionally. Perhaps attempt to get a technocratic government installed, as in Italy. All this demonstrates the folly of tying yourself to the Syriza flag, as Left Unity stupidly did - making it a sister party and so on. Even worse, forces within Left Unity in the UK are now talking about an “anti-austerity alliance”, using Syriza as their model. Complete madness, when you consider that the Syriza government is now committed to implementing its version of austerity - lite or otherwise. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1047/austerity-in-the-colours-of-syriza/ with thanks to quotes from the weekly worker at http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1047/austerity-in-the-colours-of-syriza/

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

FIVE REASONS THE IWW ARE CHALLENGING THE CULTURE OF THE UK LEFT (AND WHY YOU SHOULD BE TOO!)

We can’t put our faith in the ballot box The recent election of SYRIZA in Greece has invested a lot of hope in the emergence of a popular anti-austerity front across Europe. However the deep resistance that SYRIZA are facing to even the modest social reforms they are proposing from their European partners gives an indication of the intrinsic limits of parliamentary action alone to wider, and particularly deeper, social change. That is not to say that there are no important lessons to be drawn from this situation. Part of SYRIZA’s success story is in the way in which it has effectively capitalised on political ground that has been largely conceded by the parties of the social democratic centre in their widespread commitment to “responsible” economic policies and continuing austerity. This is a situation repeated across many European democracies. The so-called PASOKification of the centre left (in the UK and particularly in Scotland) has left a certain degree of political space “up for the taking”. The recent explosion in Green Party membership in England and Wales fits this story nicely: some might even find themselves feeling optimistic about alternatives to the Political status quo. Nonetheless, we need to be hard-headed in how we deal with these recent trends. Poverty, hopelessness and powerlessness have drawn many throughout Europe, including a considerable section of both our own and the Greek electorate, to the populist and far-right. Understanding why it was the left that triumphed recently requires more than looking to SYRIZA’s leadership and electoral strategies – we need to look at the way broader Greek anti-capitalist culture operates. For decades a vibrant network of extra-parliamentary parties, social movements and trade union groups have sustained the continuing case for basic social solidarity through the maintenance of left spaces, solidarity networks and other forms of community engagement. This genuinely life-sustaining work has highlighted the pragmatism of socialist ideas above the individualistic solutions offered by the far-right and pro-austerity left. The future of SYRIZA’s relation to these social and extra-parliamentary movements is very unclear at this stage. Similarly, but on a smaller scale, is it possible to understand the surge in SNP popularity following the independence referendum without also appreciating the explosion in grassroots activity that preceded it? In England and Wales the outlook is even bleaker. Not only is the left generally lacking in the basic forms of outreach and engagement that has empowered our Greek and Scottish friends, but the electoral system is stacked against any chance of even a modest swing in electoral sentiment. Even if the Green Party was to mobilise an army of supporters comparable to that seen in the Scottish referendum the “breakthrough” would be underwhelming, at most a victory of a handful of parliamentary seats. The splitting of the political centre ground, combined with the massive disenfranchisement brought about by austerity policies, leaves a great deal of potential for any movement offering real and practical non-parliamentary alternatives. As solidarity unionists we believe that grassroots engagement and direct action are not merely the means of realising that latent potential, they are the basis for the worker-run society we’re trying to build. Meaningful and lasting victories can be won through these activities in a number of highly adaptable and scalable forms – from the group of workmates who march on the boss to win back their tip jar to the occupied and collectivised factory employing thousands of workers, we’ve got a working model for building the society we want. 2. Whose movement is it anyway? Trade union membership in the UK has been in steady decline since the late 1970s. In the last decade membership figures have largely plateaued with a few thousand dropping off the figures each year. The most active and visible unions, as well as those with the largest memberships, are those employed in the now shrinking public sector. Since the 2008 financial crisis the TUC has offered little to nothing in the way of meaningful resistance to public sector cuts, stagnation in pay and attacks on workers’ rights. Tribunal fees, one of the earliest and most damaging legal changes introduced by the coalition government have been subject to a number of unsuccessful legal challenges by the larger unions but there has been no effort to mobilise collective opposition. One-day strikes and repeated, progressively dwindling protests and demonstrations against attacks on their pensions, pay and conditions have delivered nothing. At the IWW strategy conference three years ago it was resolved that the mission of this union was to organise “the unorganised, the abandoned and the betrayed”. For many of us in the IWW the first category is a familiar one as (like a massive section of service, hospitality and restaurant workers in the UK) our members frequently find themselves in workplaces without a union. That shouldn’t, however, detract from the fact that we are in desperate need of rank-and-file initiatives within the existing trade union apparatus that can affectively mobilise a cynical and worn out membership. Trade unions have wholesale retreated from actual day-to-day engagement and organising in favour of top down and institutional action. Our networks of dual-carders spread across the existing trade unions need to cut through the inertia and get workers mobilised and enthusiastic again. Not for a new officer or protest or lobby but for those principles that should be the bedrock of the labour movement: common action on the job to improve the conditions of your workmates. 3. We’re making gains where it counts The rules of the political game may have changed, but how we play in response to it remains the same. Building a mass movement for social change has to start with an active engagement with the issues that exist in our workplaces and communities. Your neighbours, workmates and fellow claimants need to see that action can and must be taken to re-build the broken links of social solidarity that have been so effectively dismantled over the past thirty years. In addressing those real, immediate challenges that people feel in their everyday lives we can start to work together to build alternatives. A modest but important example of this is the campaign that Sheffield GMB recently conducted against the owner of a local deli. The campaign was in response to a fellow worker who was unfairly (and possibly illegally) dismissed from the deli following an incident where they addressed the bullying and harassing behaviour of the owner. In spite of the limited scope of the focus – a single employer operating one business in the restaurant and hospitality sector – it became an incredibly vibrant and energising campaign that involved members from a number of IWW branches, a great turnout from the local community, ex-employees of the deli, TUs and many others too numerous to name. We believe that this additional momentum behind the campaign was due to a number of key factors;  The campaign filled a vacuum of Left engagement with local issues except on an electoral or purely symbolic level.  It was very focused with a clear measure for victory by having strictly defined demands. This focus allowed us to channel the energy from more general grievances associated with precarious and zero-hour work (particularly in the restaurant and hospitality sector where these issues are widespread) that might otherwise be seen as isolated and individual cases.  It sent a clear message to other restaurant owners in the city that unfair labour practices should not be accepted as normal and provides an example to others in precarious and zero hour work on how to take action.  The strength and passion of the response on the part of the union serves as a very real counter-example to the generally weak and capitulating attitudes of the TUC (even when the issues they deal with are far more serious abuses of workers’ rights). Contrary to conventional wisdom, it seems that there is not necessarily a blanket unwillingness to engage with radical alternatives. Rather, people’s faith has been tested too often. We need to demonstrate that we have the capacity, organisational skills and determination to win small in ways that allow us to think big. This allows us to credibly push the principle and practice of a fighting union across workplaces and in areas where union engagement is unknown. However, visible campaigns like the above shouldn’t detract from long-term, steady work of those organising amongst their workmates or the less exciting organising work that underpins the campaign itself. In both cases the principles of the IWW approach are underlined by a belief that in order to challenge capitalism we should not be looking “to the skies” but to how we can shift the balance of power in our everyday lives. 4. Thinking outside the box room of a pub What would a branch of one hundred Wobblies look like? This was a question that was considered largely academic to seasoned members over a decade ago when local meetings would be composed of a handful of members in scattered industries. The IWW is still a small (but growing) union. A healthy growth in membership has, however, led us to seriously address what a genuinely inclusive and active union culture at this scale should look like. As we grow, learn and experiment it is becoming increasingly apparent that many of the presumptions we brought from the activist milieu are just as unfit for purpose as those of the traditional trade union movement. A branch meeting dictated by the local paid officials and organisers can be as alienating as the mystifying codes and practices of consensus decision making. It has become apparent that structures need to be able to accommodate a culture of debate and grassroots democracy as much as they need to be balanced by a healthy and accountable centre. These challenges have also led us to question our own assumptions when it comes to internal organisational culture. This is particularly the case in terms of our experiences of a continuing attitude in the Left that meetings should be considered an end unto themselves. That simply attracting x number of people to a public meeting or holding a successful conference or gathering is a sufficient measure for organisational success. This is a dangerous approach not only for its basic insularity but also for its flattening of organisational success to the simple measure of “bums on seats”. If workers’ organisations are to be effective they need to be not only building greater but stronger levels of participation. That means raising the bar in terms of both the quantity and quality of membership, or as we like to say – aiming to turn every member into an organiser. Our measure of success should not just be the number of people who “get” what we are trying to achieve but how we have made them better equipped to do something about it through organising, campaigning, or rep assistance. 5. We’re finding balance Social struggle is hard work, but we don’t need to burn out. Any veteran of social justice activism who has endured a three/four hour meeting on decision-making process will likely agree that there seems to be a particularly masochistic bent to some of the more unique cultural practices of the contemporary Left. On a basic level this is symptomatic of a general level of disorganisation amongst the activist milieu as well as a tendency for political principles to be prioritised over a more grounded and sensible organisational practice. The idea that these things should be taken as par for the course stems from a wider mindset that associates political activity with a form of service or obligation. We feel that these are demobilising and exclusive attitudes that need to be challenged. We are all pressed for time in busy and stressful lives. Balancing work and family life is often hard enough without the additional obligations of political activism. We think it is important then that any time that a group of Wobblies get together we should aim for it to be a mobilising and empowering experience. If this is a public action it should be an affirmation of the alternative we want to offer, we should celebrate the fact that workers have felt confident enough to make their grievances public and that we are strong enough to take to the streets. If it is a meeting or a gathering it should aim to develop the membership, through skill-shares, education, training, union culture or even just hosting a vibrant social event. Members should always feel that they have gained something extra from their union. That’s not to say that if something isn’t “fun” it shouldn’t be done. Lots of aspects of union organising are quite stressful and demand a great deal of time and patience. What we don’t need, however, are martyrs who feel obligated to sacrifice everything for the cause but people who want to invest in union culture because they feel empowered by it. By newsyndicalist https://newsyndicalist.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/five-reasons-the-iww-are-challenging-the-culture-of-the-uk-left-and-why-you-should-be-too/

Monday, 23 February 2015

Middle Class Solutions To Working Class Problems Is Why Charities Like MIND Keep Getting It So Wrong

Reblogged from JohnnyVoid, with thanks https://johnnyvoid.wordpress.com/2015/02/13/middle-class-solutions-to-working-class-problems-is-why-charities-like-mind-keep-getting-it-so-wrong/ Iain Duncan Smith must be pissing himself. A report released at the end of last year by mental health charity MIND could not have gone further in endorsing the core ideas that lie behind his bungled and brutal welfare reforms. The report is titled “We’ve Got Work To Do” and claims to demand ‘fundamental reform’ of the workplace and social security system to better support people with a mental health condition. Sadly it is calling for nothing of the sort and is underpinned by the exact same lies and toxic assumptions that have driven both Tory and Labour welfare reforms. Just like the DWP, MIND have adopted the flawed medical consensus that work is good for your health. The charity does acknowledge that this isn’t actually always true, but falls short of saying that work can be bad for your health, instead arguing that “inappropriate or poor quality work can have as negative an effect on people’s mental health as not being in work”. They base this opinion on research carried out in Australia that found that “the mental health of those who were unemployed was comparable or more often superior to those in jobs of the poorest psychosocial quality.” In other words work can be worse for your mental health than being unemployed, rather than just equally bad as MIND claim. It is not nit-picking to point out the discrepency between what this research found and what MIND say it found because it reveals the charity’s opinions to be based on ideology, not facts. This same factual slippage occurs elsewhere in the report when MIND begin by saying that most people with mental health conditions want to work, which later becomes everyone with a mental health condition wants to work. The truth, as revealed in the footnotes to the report, are that only around 58% of people out of work due to a mental health condition strongly agreed they wanted to return to work whilst 20% did not feel they were well enough. These two distortions – or let’s call them lies – have allowed the despised Work Capability Assessment, benefit sanctions and workfare all to be misrepresented as ‘support’ or ‘help’. In truth these measures destroy lives. The medical consensus that work is good for you does often not apply to those on the lower end of the income scale who face being forced by Jobcentres into the kind of work likely to make them ill. MIND’s Chief Executive Paul Farmer claims at the beginning of the report that there have been “improvements in how people with mental health problems are supported”, although it is unclear what they are. There then follows an emotive journey about someone’s journey through the benefit system after leaving work due to depression. This is actually where their journey would stop, because unless they could provide reems of medical evidence to the Jobcentre they would be disallowed benefits for giving up work. That this reports begins by misrepresenting the benefit system as it currently functions just shows how removed these giant disability benefits charities have become from the lives of those they claim to support. Instead the ‘fundamental reform’ they call for is actually more of the same or worse – such as the dangerous idea that sensitive health information from the Work Capability Assessment should be passed over to Work Programme providers like A4e and G4S. This is like your boss having access to your medical history and appallingly MIND relaxed about this as well. Much of the early part of the report is taken up by calling for improvements in the working environment for people suffering mental ill-health. Which is fine, everyone wants that, except greedy employers who worry it might cost them money or who harbour nasty little prejudices about mental health. According to MIND themselves this is about 40% of them. Yet one of MIND’s recommendations is that the Maximus run ‘Fit To Work’ service – the new telephone helpline which will be used to certify time off instead of GPs – should more effectively engage with employers. About the only decent thing about Fit To Work, which is designed to bully people back into the workplace before they are better, is that currently you have the right to keep your boss out of any discussions. The final part of the report discusses what future welfare-to-work schemes should look like for those with a mental health condition. The charity are calling for “new specialist scheme for people with mental health problems on ESA”. A scheme which should be run by those who “have expertise and experience of working with people with mental health problems”. And here lies the real reason for this report. It’s a fucking advert to any incoming Labour Government to give MIND a lucrative contract to run a new welfare-to-work service. There is no longer any doubt that endless Atos assessments, workfare and benefit sanctions are creating a crisis in the lives of those with a mental health condition. The tragic death toll rises ever higher. Yet nowhere in this report does MIND call for these brutal policies to be scrapped. Even if MIND were handed a contract to be nicer to people on ESA this would still leave those who have been found fit for work abandoned and dumped onto mainstream unemployment benefits alongside those whose condition is at yet undiagnosed. On twitter yesterday MIND claimed they couldn’t call for sanctions to be scrapped for people who are unemployed because it wasn’t a key issue. If your mental health condition isn’t bad enough to be able to claim ESA then tough shit seems to be the charity’s response if you get sanctioned. The thing is, naked profiteering aside, MIND are not bastards. They have dedicated front line workers who don’t get paid anywhere near enough and are sincere committed people. Workers who would probably agree that benefit sanctions and the Work Capability Assessment should be scrapped immediately. They see the carnage that is being caused everyday. The problem is that reports like these are overseen and commissioned by highly paid charity executives who live lifestyles that their service users and lowest paid staff can only dream of. These lifestyles lead them to make assumptions based on their own distorted experience of the world. Over time they become unable to avoid inflicting solutions to the problems faced by working class people based on their own middle class values because that is all they know. It is near impossible for someone on a huge salary who does a job they love to understand why someone may not feel up to working at present. That, to someone like MIND Chief Executive Paul Farmer, really does seem like madness. Likewise charity bosses have no real understanding of why it might be dangerous to allow other bosses to snoop around your health records. Bosses think bosses are lovely people who would never abuse their powers – or at least not without a damn good reason. And bosses know best, they tell each other that all the time. Charity bosses in particular have their own view of themselves as benevolent experts confirmed everyday by politicians and journalists who would far rather talk to them than someone on the dole. Their whopping salaries provide further proof of their own ability. As do arse-licking middle managers who continually tell them how wonderful and clever they are, to their faces at least. So Paul Farmer must be is right because he’s Paul Farmer and MIND are right because they are MIND and anyone criticising them just doesn’t understand. Because they are not experts. That’s how MIND alongside other disability and anti-poverty charities can so easily dismiss the demands of grassroots campaigns comprising of disabled people and benefit claimants. Groups which are more or less united in calling for benefit sanctions and the WCA to be scrapped completely. These people are not experts. At worst they might even be service users. And you don’t want them getting too uppity. Before you know where you are you’ll have working class people running organisations together to address working class problems. Then there’d be nothing at all for poor Paul Farmer to do. He might even have to get a real job. https://johnnyvoid.wordpress.com/2015/02/13/middle-class-solutions-to-working-class-problems-is-why-charities-like-mind-keep-getting-it-so-wrong/

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Order and discipline from the tories, unpaid work or loose your benifits

So. Now we have it. Both major parties in the UK, Labour and Conservative have outlined their plans for young people and entitlement to social security. Increased conditionality, ever more punitive and sorely lacking in any empathy. Less carrot and more stick. Albeit, the Tories undoubtedly are wielding a bigger stick. A much bigger stick indeed. David Cameron announced that ‘What these young people need is work experience and the order and discipline of turning up for work each day…a Conservative government would require them to do daily community work from the very start of their claim, as well as searching for work.” Far from considering the changing nature of employment (particularly youth employment) the talk is, for youth scholars, wearily familiar. ‘Discipline’ is what they need – not jobs. Because young people want jobs. They don’t want compelled labour programs. They don’t want the drudgery that will be thrown them, making them feel like cattle. This will simply heighten anomie, leading to increased problems – probably increasing their distance from the labour market, not bringing them into it. The end game here will be that young people will simply end up removing themselves from the job ‘market’ altogether. Some will choose to engage with the workfare, some will inevitably turn to alternative sources of income and many will be shifted into poverty as they forego the humiliation of this ‘work’ and elect to do without social security. But perhaps this is the aim in any case. As Guy Standing notes in his book The Precariat, rather than instilling ‘discipline’, these forced labour programmes: …do the reverse, making many people sullen and resentful. And doing an enforced full-time job will prevent people from searching for a real job. Workfare schemes do not cut public spending either. They are expensive, involving high administrative costs and low-productivity ‘jobs’. Their main intention is rather to massage the level of unemployment down, not by creating jobs but by discouraging the unemployed from claiming benefits. And therein lies the rub. These programmes do not create jobs, they simply park people (young people) for a period of time. And worse, they can actually act as a deterrent for young people in the labour market. Research by Robin Simmons and colleagues found that: …engagement in poor work can act in synergy with real and imagined barriers to participation and curtail the desire to work. As we have seen, chronic churning between repeated low-level training courses and certain forms of paid and unpaid employment, often characterised by insecurity and exploitation, was the norm for those participating in our research. Whilst official discourses about building work experience are superficially seductive, we found that disillusion engendered by continued failure to secure employment of reasonable quality set in sooner or later, often with negative consequences for attitudes to employment. There has been a multitude of research conducted into the attitudes of young people towards work. All point in the same direction – young people want to work. They don’t require discipline. They require work. Meaningful work which offers fulfillment, security and a sense that they are contributing to society. Furthermore, research has shown that marginality is the story of the youth labour market, not exclusion. It is not the case that young people are out of work for sustained periods of time, but rather drift in and out of work as opportunities arise (part-time employment, short-term contracts, educational opportunities etc etc). This is not the consequence of the poor work attitudes of young people (which Cameron’s language is seeking to frame it as) but of a fragmented labour market which is hostile to the presence of (primariliy working-class) young people. This further negates the requirement for the language of ‘discipline’. Young people will seize opportunities if they are there. They are no different to the rest of us. So why are we picking on them? Neither the Conservatives or Labour seem to have the answer to this. Easier to punish, or discipline. Sooner or later this will reach older age groups too, if we don’t assist young people to resist this. But who is speaking up for young people?