Friday, August 26, 2011

The Free Voice of Labour

Time for something completely different. This delightful documentary, from 1980, about the American Yiddish Anarchist newspaper, Fraye Arbeter Shtime, is a brilliant piece of social and labour history. It lasts around an hour, but watching it will be time well spent.

"You have to be idealistic or you might as well take a gun and blow your brains out"

Thanks to the commenter here

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cognitive dissonance

Simon Jenkins: Even though it worked and the result is welcome, it was still wrong.

Seumas Milne: Even though it was a success, it is a failure and a betrayal.

Robert Fisk: Doomed, I tell 'e doomed!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

And still not gone yet ...

As the events in Tripoli continue to unfold, this short article from Shadi Hamid provides a coherent argument about the importance of interventions and the lessons to be drawn from Libya.
It's odd, but not necessarily surprising, that critics of the Libya intervention were calling it any number of things: mistake, quagmire, dangerous, an Iraq repeat, and so on. It is odd because the ultimate outcome -- the rebels winning and Qaddafi falling -- never seemed much in doubt. It was a matter of when, not if. For both better and worse, Libya confirms the reality that the role of external actors (in this case, the United States and Europe) can still be decisive in the Arab struggle for freedom.
 And he remakes a point that should be reiterated constantly:
When you have the ability to act, doing nothing is no longer a neutral position. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Going, going ...

They are still wittering away whilst Gadaffi falls:
You hear no such appeals to humanity while Nato, in the name of the rebels (whoever they are), prepares to lay siege to Tripoli, a city of nearly 2 million people.

Libyan rebels are now advancing on the capital city of Tripoli with the aid of Nato strikes; this is sure to result in a real bloodbath, as opposed to the one that was conjured in Benghazi this past winter.
 In the meantime, in Tripoli, Simon Jenkins' readers take to the streets.

And the Alex Crawford video mentioned in the previous post has now been uploaded to YouTube.

And still the miserable tendency of the liberal press grumble on - this from the Independent. Ignore them, read this instead:  The Top Ten Myths About the Libya War. I particularly liked this:
The Libyan Revolution was a civil war. It was not, if by that is meant a fight between two big groups within the body politic. There was nothing like the vicious sectarian civilian-on-civilian fighting in Baghdad in 2006. The revolution began as peaceful public protests, and only when the urban crowds were subjected to artillery, tank, mortar and cluster bomb barrages did the revolutionaries begin arming themselves. When fighting began, it was volunteer combatants representing their city quarters taking on trained regular army troops and mercenaries. That is a revolution, not a civil war. 
G'day hat tip.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


An astonishing video report
Alex Crawford, accompanying the rebels, said the opposition fighters had been greeted with scenes of jubilation as they made their way through the outskirts of the capital.

As they entered the city, their cars gridlocked the roads, she said, and hundreds of people came out onto the streets to greet them.

"These scenes are amazing - there are hundreds of people who have come out onto the streets to greet this convoy of rebel soldiers.

"You can hear them singing and dancing, it is an amazing scene.

"We are now just a very short distance from the centre, with more and more people are coming onto the streets."

Strange and stranger

Anyone who has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome knows that it is no joke and is massively physically debilitating.  In the early days of its identification people also had to fight off the stigma of it being seen as a psychological, rather than physiological, disease. This is rarely the case today, but though I knew of the early debate, I knew nothing about the extraordinary actions of CFS militants until I read this article today.
One researcher told the Observer that a woman protester who had turned up at one of his lectures was found to be carrying a knife. Another scientist had to abandon a collaboration with American doctors after being told she risked being shot, while another was punched in the street. All said they had received death threats and vitriolic abuse.
The reason? They were investigating psychological factors as part of the syndrome.  Remarkably, none of the researchers believe that the causes are purely psychological, they think that there are external factors such as a virus infection as well. Yet this has not stopped the intimidation.
Many of the extremists' claims are bizarre, said Professor Simon Wessely, of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London. "They say I am in league with pharmaceutical companies in order to suppress data that shows a link between viruses and the syndrome. But why on earth would drug companies do that? If they could link the condition to a virus they would be well on the way to developing lucrative treatments and vaccines. It is crazy."
So here we have conspiracy theory, deep mistrust of properly conducted scientific research, and ... well, who knows what else? It is the same sort of obsessive behaviour and half-digested pseudo-knowledge that fuels the 9/11 Truthers, the climate change deniers and many others who ignore established fact in favour of the fictions that feed their imaginations. Research into CFS though? That's a new one on me.

Past and present

It was one of those remarks that pull you up short when you are teaching a class. A few years ago, I was coming up with the usual liberal stuff about deprivation, anti-social behaviour and the criminal justice system, when a student sat back in her chair with a look of disgust on her face and said, "It’s all right for you, you don’t have to live next door to the little bastards".

I think that this gives a clue as to why some of the most potent condemnation of the riots has come from people sharing the same background as the rioters, something that Christopher Hitchens noted as part of his reflections on the perennial violence of British society.

Rioting in Britain is not a novelty, the product of some new social disease.  Riots have been a feature of British society for centuries.  Frequently, they were the way people defended and extended their rights. Industrial relations were often carried out through riot. Workers were known to demolish employers' houses until their demands were met and machine breaking was not just a feature of the Luddite rebellion. Food riots were endemic as were rural riots against enclosure, turnpikes and, during the Swing riots of the 1830s, the introduction of the threshing machine. Workhouses were burnt down in protests against the Poor Laws. And politics was always a riotous affair.  Whilst my leftist soul looks on these with sympathy, we have to remember that  'King and Country' mobs were as prominent as radical ones, as were anti-Irish disturbances and, going way back to 1190, a wave of anti-Semitic pogroms culminated in the appalling massacre of the Jewish population of York in Clifford's Tower.  Our attitude towards riots should reflect precisely who was doing the rioting and for what reason.

It is difficult to pin down the latest wave of disturbances. The proximate cause of the rioting in Tottenham was very different to what took place in, for instance, Salford. The riots were limited to a few cities and towns, appear to have been short-lived and were carried out by relatively small numbers of people. Motivations for participation were different, ranging from excitement and opportunism to anger and alienation. But there was also something taking place that was unpleasant and disturbing.  The result was that, rather than uniting communities in protest, they divided them, with large numbers of working class people expressing disgust.

Part of the hostility was down to a continuing generational conflict, part a moral revulsion at the destruction and, let's not forget them, the murders that accompanied the rioting and looting, although there is more to it than that. And this is where the views of my student comes in.

For anyone living on what are euphemistically known as 'problem estates', this wasn't a riot; it was a breakout group. Sporadic arson (accompanied by attacks on fire-fighters), joy riding, burglary and the sort of systematic bullying and intimidation that can even drive people to suicide are some of the everyday difficulties people face that can make their lives misery. It is a part of the backdrop to poverty. The same people who attacked property in town centres were, or were assumed to be, often the same ones who make the struggles of poverty so much worse. Hard experience had already bred antipathy.

In addition, there is evidence of some heavy violence in places with a history of gun crime and drug wars. And that is not all, if there has been an overt political agenda, in some places it seems to have been set by the far right. Riots are not arbitrary affairs; their targets are rarely random. Asian businesses have been consistently picked out wherever rioting took place, gay communities have been under attack too. (The gay village in Manchester was safe though. It was well aware of the threat and set up its own defence group to see off any potential attackers.  Seriously, you would not want to mess with these guys.) In Salford, the police have fingered the far right as one of the main instigators of the attacks on the Precinct.

This rings true to me. I worked with many students emerging from troubled backgrounds who were directed towards adult education after problems with the police, drink and drugs, or gang related activity. This was a time when the social services and probation officers were under less pressure and more sympathetic to offenders. I met some fascinating and very able people, but the stories they told about what they were leaving behind made my flesh creep. And politically they had invariably come from the far right.

So, the working class sense of disgust is hardly surprising and I cannot shake off a sense of unease about these events. They strike me as troubling actions by troubled people. However, I have no sympathy at all with the indignation of the conservative right.

What a complete load of steaming ordure is flowing out of the orifice of the conservative press, even more from the office of the Prime Minister. All the old tropes, 'break down of community', 'decline of moral order', 'decay of civilisation', 'single parents' - no, 'single mothers', never forget that this argument is heavily gendered, decrying feckless women lacking the firm smack of the masculine discipline that features heavily in their fantasies. There have been endless streams of the stuff, lubricated by the laxative of moral indignation, all accompanied by the foetid stench of class hatred.

And this isn't new either; every generation has indulged in the same dreary guff. The Economist's Bagehot blog got there before me in using Geoffrey Pearson's marvellous book, Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears, a mainstay of my reading lists for years (and now shamefully out of print). It is a great post and worth reading in full.

There is nothing as unedifying as the spectacle of an establishment in full moral panic. In a chapter in his book, Customs in Common, E P Thompson wrote of the macabre theatre that was the Eighteenth Century riot, a masque of performance and ritual. Thompson was not just writing about the actions of rioters, he included in this notion of theatre the grim and bloody reaction of the courts. Little seems to have changed.

Today the punishments may not be as draconian, but the use of the law as an exercise in humiliation is still with us. And now the dust is settling, the first detailed reviews of convictions and the courts are showing an unsurprising pattern. Much harsher sentences are being handed out (with, thankfully, some successful appeals and acquittals beginning to follow) and, of course, they show that the majority of rioters were poor, unemployed and from 'deprived' areas.

And so we are left with the unmistakable correlation of deprivation and disaffection - a disaffection that can produce violence, much of it self-destructive, just as it harbours outrage at that violence within the same community. This is even more so in a society that parades its inequalities, rewards its failures with grotesquely huge pay-offs and is suffused with the sort of suburban self-satisfaction that is nurtured by well-rewarded mediocrity. If you strip out opportunity and hope, then people will create their own alternatives with the materials that they have to hand and the results, as this astonishing piece about Argentinian football shows, are not always pretty.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


After a nervous afternoon following texts from a friend at the ground and Internet news feeds, it is celebration time. Swinton beat South Wales 40-28, whilst Keighley lost at Workington, to become Championship Division One champions with two games left to play and win automatic promotion. A grand old club is on the way back.

Last night



And the August full moon

Saturday, August 13, 2011


It is the night of the August full moon. And we are promised a meteor shower too.
The radio will be playing songs about the moon all day, people will stay up late and maybe there will be music and dancing.

It is a sentimental time, so perhaps we should take a walk ...

Thursday, August 11, 2011


And in the meantime, groups of feral rating agencies are roaming the world economic system, burning credit ratings, wantonly removing 'A's, smashing share prices and throwing rocks at anyone trying to come to the rescue. France is the latest country to be engulfed.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Random thoughts

It is holiday time in Greece so all is quiet on the rioting front, not so in my other home of Salford. I found what was happening there disturbing. National Greek rioting followed the shooting of a teenager in December 2008. It was aimed at the police. Riots and demonstrations have taken place against the austerity packages. They were aimed at the government. But Manchester and Salford? What was going on?

Obviously, riots like these are not the sign of a healthy society or of an economy that is functioning smoothly, but I am sorry I cannot see this as an uprising, a proto-revolutionary movement or even an outburst of inchoate rage at the Tories. What was on view in my other home was something that is very familiar to all who live there, seriously screwed up young people. Only this time there were more of them in one place. Not that many, a few hundred perhaps, but enough to be effective.  Unlike in Greece, where much of the nation was broadly in sympathy with the protests, if not their methods, the people of Manchester and Salford seem horrified.

Here is Martin Bright:
I remember talking to Camila Batmanghelidjh of Kids Company in the aftermath of the killing of Damilola Taylor and she said she was concerned that some children in her project had become “suicidally uncaring”. She meant that there was a group of young people who were so damaged that they had no empathy for others. Many of them were effectively homeless. Most disturbingly, they had developed their own parallel morality. This was over a decade ago. 
You can read more from her here. From my former work in adult and community education I can recognise what she describes and think back to the really tough minded activists who work hard to overcome nihilistic, destructive alienation and the wonderful projects that can do so much to rescue people. I would also argue that the best work is not done by the state, its role is ambiguous as it is an enforcer as much as an enabler, it is done by the voluntary sector, doing difficult work with difficult people. It is just that the state is the only viable source of the necessary funding and this is being stripped away, leaving only the parallel world. This is no liberation.

I don't see a just society emerging from the ashes of a fully insured Miss Selfridge, but there was a thought that I couldn't let go as I watched the pictures and read the feeds of what seemed more like a systematic exercise in looting than a riot. Immature and damaged children, and yes they are children, were the ones who will appear on the CTV footage and later on in the courts. What of the fences who take the goods off them, the ones who make the money, the ones who hawk the stolen goods around? They aren't on the streets or the cameras. This was no heroic uprising, it was exploitation of the already exploited, of the vulnerable and immature. It was child abuse.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Simple pastimes

They always used to say that every man should have a hobby. You know the sort of thing; collecting model trains, building replica ships out of matchsticks, splitting atoms.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011


When you need a little light relief, turn to Simon Jenkins.  In the midst of the most awful guff he always comes out with a gem. In this terrible piece on Libya he pulls out a general principle, an 'iron law' no less:
The iron law of plunging into someone else's civil war is choose the side most likely to win and make sure it does.
So that's what you should do. Franco? A dead cert. Lets get the RAF up there with those Luftwaffe chaps and bomb the crap out of Guernica. Pol Pot? A clear winner - if you need any help spotting those intellectuals to be exterminated, we're your boys.

I don't think so somehow. In any international conflict with global implications (aka "someone else's civil war") the basis of choice is not who is the likely winner, that would usually be the best armed and equipped, it is who you would want to see win. It is a moral and political choice. And in many cases, the side who we would like to see victorious is often the least well equipped. It may well consist of popular, democratic forces lined up against the tanks and troops of a fascistic dictatorship. And that is why intervention is necessary at times, to prevent them being crushed with all the consequences that may result.

The amoral, 'realist' perspective that Jenkins comes out with is actually unreal, detached from a real world where we face the constant necessity of making ethical judgements, taking risks, fulfilling our responsibilities and standing up for our principles.

Hard times

Everyday difficulties in Greece, described here by Angelique Chrisafis.

And it ain't over yet.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Kill or cure

The OECD are confident. But, as Aditya Chakrabortty reports from Greece, others are not so sure:
One senior investment banker is more blunt: "People are scared that the government doesn't know what the fuck it's doing." 
Reading this, together with his other report on a complex loan deal of dubious legality, you have to say that they might have a point.

Greece certainly needs reform, though the real point is which reforms it needs and which it could do without, and it also needs investment. At the moment we are seeing the start of a reform process, linked to austerity packages drawn from the manuals of orthodoxy, being cheered on by international institutions and bright-eyed American trained technocrats. In the meantime sceptical Greek people are conducting a quiet run on the banks and withdrawing cash. We will see who is right.

Phew, what a scorcher

I saw this report yesterday about the excessive heat in Britain (28C - a pleasantly warm late evening here).
Parts of Britain have enjoyed sunshine and scorching heat as temperatures were higher than in Sydney and Rio.
It forgot to mention that in Sydney and Rio it is winter.