Saturday, September 28, 2013

Alternative History (2013)

Book Review from the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Human Front, by Ken Macleod. PM Press, 2013.

Alternative history is a strange genre. Its central premise, that small changes in history can lead to radically different worlds is somewhat tenuous: Hitler dying as a small child is unlikely to have prevented a Second World War (merely changing the cast and their precise lines, instead). It is, though, fiction, and it provides a useful means of exploring ‘what ifs’, where the route to the alternative history is usually just an excuse to look at a world that might have been or is simply just different from our own. Being able to imagine different societies is a useful skill, in and of itself.

A few are wish fulfilments, and there’s a few too many ‘If the South won the Civil War’ or ‘If the Germans won the Second World War’ and even ‘If the British Empire never fell’. And of course, the less said about Zeppelins, the better.

Ken Macleod’s work has featured in our review columns before, often for their interesting examination of the ideas and cultures of the revolutionary left, as well as for his commitment to libertarian (proper sense) causes. The Human Front was his first published novella, and it has recently been reissued, along with an essay and an interview that further flesh out some of its themes.

It begins with the news that the Communist partisan Joseph Stalin has been killed in early 1963. The Soviet Union had fallen in 1949, under assault from Allied super hi-tech secret weapons. As Macleod explains in the essay, this dramatically changes the shape of the post-war world, leading to the unrestrained use of military superiority to maintain the colonial powers’ positions. The absence of the Soviet Union and the ongoing Chinese revolution means Maoism rather than Trotskyism comes to predominate on the British left. This leads to several scenes of ‘People’s War’ in the Scottish Highlands, with all the horror and brutality that entails.

Originally published in 2001, the image of a fugitive Stalin gunned down escaping is now resonant with the fates of Hussein and Bin Laden, and indeed, of our present unipolar world with the unrestrained use of drone strikes. Tens of years on, it seems more like prescience than alternative history. Although the novella soars off into high science fiction for its end twist, its grounding in the Scotland and the Lewis of Macleod’s childhood gives it a sense of solidity, grounding it in real history and left wing arguments remembered.

This reissue is an opportunity to not only consider the themes of the original story, but also alternative history itself and the way in which we shape our pasts to try and make our own future.
Pik Smeet


An Easy Match for Mammon (2013)

The Cooking the Books column from the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard


On 25 July the Archbishop of Canterbury, who fancies himself as a bit of a financial expert, said that it was his Church’s intention to drive the payday loan company Wonga out of business. He revealed that he had told Wonga’s boss that ‘we’re not in the business of trying to legislate you out of existence, we’re trying to compete you out of existence’ (London Times, 26 July).  The next day he was left red-faced when it came out that his Church had money invested in a venture capitalist, Accel Partners, that was one of Wonga’s financial backers.

His plan is to encourage credit unions by offering them premises in churches and expert advice from Christian businessmen. But the idea that credit unions could out-compete capitalist money-lending enterprises like Wonga is pure fantasy.

A credit union is basically a savings and loan club. People pay in small amounts of money (on which they receive some interest) which gives them the right to borrow small sums of money (on which they pay interest) when they need it. To remain viable by covering its administrative costs, the union has to charge a higher rate of interest to borrowers than it pays to savers. Basically, they are a form of bank, mainly for poor people. Ideally, they are run democratically by their members.

A payday loan company, on the other hand, is a profit-seeking capitalist enterprise specialising in short term (from payday to payday) loans at a very high rate of interest. They don’t particularly target poor people, but rather anyone in short-term financial difficulty. In fact they prefer people who have another payday coming. The money they lend is theirs (or put up by backers such as Accel Partners) – and they have to have it in the first place.

It’s all about money and getting an income from lending it, but the Archbishop didn’t offer to put up any of his Church’s money, merely to let the credit unions use his churches as their offices. Even if he had, it is unlikely that the Church Commissioners, who manage the Church’s millions, would have approved as the rate of return, though eminently ‘ethical’, would have been too low. They have to choose investments with a higher rate of return to generate the income to pay the salaries and pensions of the clergy and for the maintenance of the bishop’s palaces. They are forced to behave capitalistically too.

If the Archbishop really thinks that local credit unions, operating from churches, can out-compete capitalist enterprises like Wonga (who have the resources to advertise every day on TV) by stealing their customers, he can’t be the financial expert he thinks he is. But at least he doesn’t think banks can create money out of nothing which if true (but it isn’t) would surely solve the problem. A Church bank creating money out of nothing would easily out-compete a payday loan company which has to already have the money to lend.

The only way the Church would have a chance of driving payday loan companies out of business would be to set up its own payday loan company, charging ‘ethical’ rates of usury and sending polite, ‘ethical’ solicitor’s letters to defaulters.

You can’t stand a chance of beating capitalist businesses unless you join them but there’s no guarantee that if you do join them you will beat them, as the ‘ethical’ Cooperative Bank has found to its cost.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Iron Lady (2012)

Film Review from the February 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

The film The Iron Lady is a paean to a personality rather than a political documentary, and must be judged as such. The personal is political, however, and therefore anyone who lived through what happened in Britain in the 1980s will have some reaction to the politics of this film. Meryl Streep's acting, as ever, is extraordinary and this is by far the most remarkable thing about this film. Most of the action effectively takes place inside Thatcher's head, as her senile dementia filters a mish-mash of memories, regrets, resentments and pride over the course of her career. This allows the film some poetic license in its random and one-sided presentation of historical events. This device enables, as it were, a multitude of sins, as we are allowed only the most cursory of glances into the dogmatic arrogance of her rule or the huge suffering and destruction of life which her governments both oversaw and caused.

We are invited to share in her principled stand that, "we must never give in to terrorists" without even so much as a clue that she was simultaneously financing and sponsoring terror on a vast scale through her support of foreign dictatorships and the sales of arms (which, on a smaller scale, her beloved son Mark was to become thoroughly embroiled in). We are shown in some detail how she had to brave the entrenched male chauvinism of the Conservative Party to be selected as a candidate (and that of the Labour front bench once she arrived in parliament) but are given no clue of the utter contempt she held for the miners' wives who bravely struggled against the violent attack she unleashed on them, their husbands and children and the whole communities that were destroyed by her calculating policies in defence of the profits of the already powerful and privileged. (Regarding the otherwise very realistically filmed scenes in parliament, was there really not a single other woman MP in the country throughout the 70s and 80s?)

There is a nice motif running through the film of her struggling to pack away the extensive wardrobe of her recently deceased husband, which apart from being used to explore and amplify her love for him, also perhaps serves to accentuate how she had to brush away the extraordinary male dominance which had marked the Palace of Westminster until then. Not that any great change was sustained even in those regards, however, as today's few hundred political representatives are still overwhelmingly male as well as overwhelmingly white, public school, Oxford and Cambridge and wealthy (not that this makes any significant difference to the operation of capitalism anyhow).

There is an interesting turning-point half-way through the film, when the rising score and deftly stylised camera work accentuate her supposed moment of epiphany, that she has been "chosen" to lead the movement to end the consensus politics which had prevailed since the Second World War, and embark on her supposedly inspired battle against conciliation. This, and other moments such as the laughably over-played scene where she finally leaves Downing Street for the last time (This gets the fully absurd Hollywood treatment, with hundreds of red roses along the marble floor she treads, and her entire household staff of several dozen servants all in floods of tears!) are the film's greatest indulgences, which perhaps take inspiration from the fiasco of Evita with its focus on the supposedly moving love of "the masses" for their vicious dictators.

The artful and manipulative direction here tries to uphold The Iron Lady as a hugely sympathetic portrait of a woman whom any intelligent political analysis can easily demonstrate to have benefited the super-rich and supervised widespread and often intense suffering for millions of people who were already deprived and became more so. As for the increasing groundswell of anger and resentment, fury and resistance amongst those millions - that was conflated into a few seconds here and there in which an amorphous and animalistic crowd screamed and punched at her as she sat looking dignified and patient like Joan of Arc inside her Bentley.

She is shown as simply reacting to the nuisance of trade union solidarity and the atrocities of the IRA (both the killing of her friend Airey Neave and the bombing of the Brighton Grand are given prominent and fairly graphic attention), rather than having initiated conflict by, for example, waging war on organised labour or benefits claimants. We see her order the attack on the Belgrano, which killed 300 Argentinean conscripts, but those deaths are quickly skated over as we are encouraged to dwell, like her, only on the English volunteers who died in the revenge attack. In short, The Iron Lady portrays Margaret Thatcher on the whole as compassionate, principled and patriotic rather than as a pious, arrogant and dogmatic warrior for the wealthy, who not only scoffed at ideas of social conscience or solidarity but even denied the existence of "society" itself.
Clifford Slapper

Friday, September 6, 2013

All That Stuff – And Nonsense (2013)

The Greasy Pole Column from the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the 1945 election the Labour Party offered a manifesto with the title blazoned across the front cover – Let Us Face The Future – which provoked the more retentive voter to comment that this was because they dare not face their past – Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden, Jimmy Thomas, the 1931 'National' government... Now Ed Miliband is trying the same desperate technique – concentrating on the promised future and ignoring the indefensible past –Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Alistair Campbell, Iraq, Afghanistan...And if anyone anywhere is still doubtful there is Labour's paddock of developing talent, presented so as to include A Future Leader Of The Party.

Epiphany

One of the brightest and most pyrotechnic of these is Stella Creasy, whose present prospects are for a steady whizz up the Greasy Pole –unless she turns out to have gone too far too fast. It all began when she was asked, at school, to join a noisy protest about the export of sheep from the docks at Brightlingsea. She underwent a political 'epiphany' leaving her dissatisfied with the idea of shouting and waving posters: 'you had to get stuff done'. Any excitement for her in this flash of conversion should have been calmed when in 1989 she joined the Labour Party – at a time when it was sliding towards New Labour with its immovable resolve to win votes by keeping stuff as it was and always had been. If she had any reservations on this whole issue she controlled them, taking jobs as a speech-writer for, among others, Douglas Alexander and Charles Clarke. Elected as a councillor in Walthamstow, she wrote herself a speech which unwisely argued that the nascent recession was passing so that 'We're already starting to see movement out of it...' Such loyalty to that fading government justified her nomination for the parliamentary seat at Walthamstow, which she won in the 2010 election with a majority well over nine thousand.

Praise

Perhaps she was unaware of the enormity of it but she began her time in the Commons by trying to use a lift. Another MP (Conservative and male), apparently unable to accept that a blonde younger women could also be an Honourable Member, informed her that the lift was reserved for MPs. Outrageous as this was it should have been useful to Creasy as an introduction to the prejudice and arrogance rife among those who have such power to regulate our behaviour in the interests of a ruling class. How she responded to that fool is not recorded but a guess can be made from the opinions of others. The Spectator named her Campaigner of the year 2011: 'an example of how to do opposition politics'. The Conservative Home website rated her as 'one of the few genuine Labour stars of the 2010 intake'. Even more impressive (and unnerving) Iain Duncan Smith thought that 'She has certainly got a bright future. Stella will go all the way'. After some delay, Ed Miliband gave her a minor job – Shadow Minister for Crime Prevention.

Threats

Any doubts on whether her promotion would devitalise Creasy's ambitions were answered when she joined Caroline Criado-Perez in her agitation for a female image to appear on the new£10 bank note –which provoked a storm of Twitter abuse and threats of violence, including rape, toward both of them. The consequent panic obscured the fact that the monetary system is a necessary appendage to capitalism's commodity economy with all that means in terms of poverty and disaster, compared to which the style of bank notes is drastically irrelevant. Creasy has also spoken out about the problem of domestic violence, which on average results in the deaths of two women each week. This is one of the ugliest problems in this society, persisting whatever efforts are made to ease it. But it is not so straightforward; it is often in the confines of a home that the despair, the fear and the frustrations of an impoverished existence overrun all restraints, leading to behaviour which is internal and illegal as distinct from other, more damaging, violence for which people are clothed in uniforms and decorated with medals.

Incorrect

These are just samples of the 'stuff' which Creasy has involved herself in, on the assumption that there was something to be achieved in this way. She regarded Alexander as 'incredibly intelligent and kind' but the fact is that during his time in Parliament under Blair he rose through a series of ministries and is now Shadow Foreign Secretary, apparently complacent to have been part of that wretched experience. There is nothing better to say about Charles Clarke, who was Home Secretary under Blair. He made himself notorious for his readiness to undermine some of the most important legal safeguards of people up against criminal charges. He closed down the Stephen Lawrence Steering Group, set up by Jack Straw to oversee the implementation of the recommendations of the MacPherson report on that racist murder, on the grounds that the majority of the Report had been implemented – which Stephen's mother, did not accept: ' I cannot believe we have achieved anything near what we should have done in the Steering Group'. Creasy's overall view of that government's record was crudely inadequate; on the murderous war in Iraq, and the lies, she '...didn't agree with the decision to go to war. I think, however, that we have moved on and we have a duty now... to both learn from that experience and address where Iraq is...'

To understand the working of this social system, enabling its passage into a sorrowful history, it is not necessary to experience anything like an 'epiphany'; the case for the abolition of capitalism now is constructive of past systems and human abilities within them. For example animals are exported, often with cruel suffering, for breeding or to be sold for profit. That is part of the nature of capitalism's wealth, always and everywhere as commodities. This is a fact which does not respond to shouting on the dockyard or elsewhere and it needs more than 'stuff' to change it.
Ivan

Policing the Proles (2012)

From the February 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

All coppers might be workers but their role is helping maintain capitalist law and order.

“Evening All”. That was the opening catchphrase of PC George Dixon the eponymous hero of the homely television series Dixon of Dock Green that ran from 1955-73. Crime was of the petty variety. The real crux of the show amounted to the perception of Dock Green “nick” as an extension of George’s cosy semi-detached. Each episode ended with a homily about being a good citizen, a dutiful salute and the final vigilant "Goodnight all". Entertainment? Maybe. But the by-product amounted to a masterful PR campaign for the police force, one that nowadays they would swap their tasers for at the drop of riot shield.

The police force is barely a couple of hundred years old, but the Special Constabulary dates back to “Anglo Saxon times, when people policed themselves”. In 1673, King Charles II brought in an Act which deemed that “any citizen might be sworn in as a temporary peace-officer for a specific occasion, in particular when there was a threat of great disturbances”. Essentially the neighbourhood bobby had become politicised.

The existence of private property is why the police exist. As property devolved more and more in to the hands of the few, property owners began to fear for their property. Jeremy Bentham suggested a Ministry of Police, but an 1818 Parliamentary Committee saw it as "a plan which would make every servant of every house a spy on the actions of his master, and all classes of society spies on each other"(E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class). One year later 400 Special Constables joined a military presence of hundreds of armed men to confront a crowd of protestors seeking the reform of parliamentary representation at St Peters Fields, Manchester. Fifteen people were killed and 400-700 people were injured as the Cavalry charged with drawn sabres to disperse the crowd.

In 1829 Sir Robert Peel established the Metropolitan Police Force with 1000 constables. By 1857 all of the UK’s cities had formed their own police forces. Peel is said to have developed the “Peelian Principles” an ethical philosophy that supposedly underpins policing. At the forefront of the code is the principle: “The police are the public and the public are the police”. This could be interpreted as another meaningless slogan like the millionaire David Cameron’s jingle “we’re all in it together”. But the police are workers; just as much a part of the 99 percent as bank workers, dustman, nurses, bricklayers, miners, etc.

Discussing the Police Strike of 1919, the Socialist Standard pointed out that “the policeman is so essentially a member of the exploited class that he cannot get his admitted grievances redressed until he threatens to cease to be a policeman”. And in addressing a point that is frequently made nowadays: "the statement that a policeman is only such to support the State” it commented, “The complement of this half truth is, of course, that the State is only an instrument for keeping the workers in subjection.” (Editorial, June 1919)

The state was busy subjugating workers in 1910 when: “Riotous scenes without parallel in a South Wales Coalfield were enacted last night in mid-Rhondda and at Aberaman. At both places, the police and the mob were in fierce conflict for many hours, charge after charge being made by the constabulary upon the crowd. In the mid-Rhondda alone over a hundred casualties were reported, injured strikers being conveyed to local surgeries for treatment." (South Wales Daily News, 9 November 1910)  The state was at it again in 1919 when the City of Glasgow Police repeatedly baton-charged workers who were campaigning for shorter working hours to alleviate unemployment. On “Bloody Friday” a mass meeting was to be held in George Square, but the state intervened, initially with the police. But by Friday night the police had been reinforced with the state’s military muscle when "10,000 troops armed with machine guns, tanks and a howitzer arrived”. Ruling class paranoia revealed itself when the decision was made that: “No Glaswegian troops were deployed, with the British government fearing that fellow Glaswegians, soldiers or otherwise, would go over to the workers' side if a revolutionary situation developed in Glasgow” (Wikipedia).

The 1926 General Strike demonstrated how all pervading state power can be when profits are threatened. A warship was sent to Newcastle and 226,000 special policemen were recruited. Police baton-charged strikers in Hull, Preston, Liverpool, London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. The government “seized all supplies of paper, which hindered publication of the TUC's paper, “The British Worker”. The Catholic Church declared the strike “a sin”. And the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, declared the strike an attack on Britain's democracy.

During the NUM strike of 1984-5 Margaret Thatcher speaking to Parliament said (as Stanley Baldwin before her did) that “giving in to the miners would be surrendering the rule of parliamentary democracy to the rule of the mob”; she referred to the striking miners as ‘the enemy within’. Demonising your opponents is a well-worn tactic of the ruling class, made considerably more effective when it is aided and abetted by a tame media. "By the time the strike was over the miners had experienced at first hand the way in which the coercive power of the state can be, and is, used in defence of ruling class interests. The police, the judiciary, criminal courts and civil courts, even the DHSS were all used against the striking miners” (SPGB, The Strike Weapon: Lessons of the Miners’ Strike. 1985).

The NUM strike of 1984 to 1985 was a watershed in the class war. The power of the unions was on the wane. And the “rolling back of the state” was underway. The ruling class was on the offensive in the defence of profits. The Selsdon Group of right-wing Tories was at the centre of the ideology dubbed Thatcherism. And Margaret Thatcher was its public image. Perhaps her speech in May 1988 to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland reveals the callousness of the ruling class when she proffered a biblical validation for her view on how capitalism should work. Quoting St Paul she said, "If a man will not work he shall not eat". This ideology has driven state policy ever since and is peddled to workers as part of a divide-and-rule strategy.

The Director-General of MI5, Dame Stella Rimington, revealed in her autobiography how “counter-subversion” tactics were employed against the striking miners. Seumas Milne’s book The Enemy Within: Thatcher's Secret War Against the Miners reveals a great deal more, including phone tapping, forged documents, informers, phoney bank deposits and the use of agents provocateurs. The use of agent provocateurs to infiltrate working class organisations is not new. Marx described how the state spy, Joseph Crémer, was expelled from the German Workers’ Educational Society in 1852.

Baton charges, and the panic created by charging mounted police has been reinforced by the methodical use of surveillance techniques and the controversial policy of kettling. It is no longer just the striking worker that has been looked upon as a threat to ruling class power—any group that might threaten profits is now judged to be the “enemy within”. The use of agent provocateurs is perhaps the most despised of all ploys used by the state. And the police are loath to be exposed as employing such tactics because it undermines their self-image as impartial. The reality though is very different.

In June 2008, in a letter to the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, the then MP George Galloway accused the “Metropolitan Police of engaging in ‘a deliberate conspiracy to bring about scenes of violent disorder’ during President George W. Bush’s visit to the UK last week."

Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake who joined G20 protestors in London saw what he believed to be two plain-clothes police officers go through a police cordon after presenting their ID cards. “When I was in the middle of the crowd, two people came over to me and said, 'There are people over there who we believe are policemen and who have been encouraging the crowd to throw things at the police’” (Observer 10 May 2009).

Mark Kennedy an undercover Metropolitan police officer was the subject of a Channel 4 documentary aired in October 2011. By his own admission he stated that he spent seven years infiltrating, befriending, and informing on peaceful environmental groups in Britain, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Italy and Iceland. He claimed that he “knew of fifteen other undercover police officers operating in protest groups during the last decade” (Ecologist 9 February 2011). A quote from the Channel 4 documentary by Michael Meacher, former Labour Environment Minister reveals the real motivation behind these police tactics “. . .behind it are corporate interests. . .who don’t want interference, and they don’t want public opinion aroused against a product that is extraordinarily profitable for them”. And who are these corporate interests? The Guardian reported on the 14 February 2011 that: “The energy giant E.ON, Britain's second-biggest coal producer Scottish Resources Group and Scottish Power, one of the UK's largest electricity-generators, have been paying for the services of a private security firm that has been secretly monitoring activists”.

The Occupy Movement has the potential to become a real threat to capitalism. Theirs isn’t simply a strikers or eco-protestors threat to profits. They can expect the state to employ all its powers and guile to discredit and destroy their nascent movement. New York Police Departments recent raid on the “People’s Library” at Zuccotti Park reveals how frightened our masters are of ideas.  Police “confiscated approximately 4,000 books. . . 1,275 books of the 4,000 books seized had been recovered; of those, one-third was damaged to the point of being unusable. It’s estimated that 2,725 books had been destroyed "(Truth-out.org).

For too long now our class has been lied to, tricked, beaten, tortured and murdered by the ruling class through the agency of the state. It must end. It’s up to you to bring that about?
Andy Matthews

Material World: Mexican Drug Wars (2013)

The Material World Column from the April 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the late 19th and early 20th century opium was imported into Mexico, mainly by Chinese immigrants. But by the 1920s and 1930s Mexicans were growing the poppies. Opium, cocaine, heroin and marijuana crossed the border into the United States with relative ease. With the outlawing of narcotics in the US, exporting became a very profitable line of business for those prepared to take the risks.

During the Cold War, a number of top officials of the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS) were involved, together with elements of the CIA and the World Anti-Communist League (WACL), in trafficking drugs into the United States. This apparently continued for at least 40 years.

Nevertheless, the Mexican army was used as part of a national campaign to eradicate the drug trade, and the growing of poppies. Much of this was ineffectual as growers bribed officials to leave their crops alone. In some states, such as Guerrero, the army was involved in armed conflict with local peasants. Indeed, when I was in Guerrero in 1979, travelling in a bus between Acapulco and Monelos, we were stopped by a unit of the army and forced to get out. In fact, the army was as much, if not more, concerned with combating ‘subversives’ as drug traffickers.

In Drug War Mexico: Politics, Neoliberalism and Violence in the New Narcoeconomy (Zed books, 2012) Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda detail what, in 1976, was called Operation Condor, which involved the aerial spraying of opium fields with such chemicals as paraquat. It was a partial success. For a while the volume of drugs entering the United States was halved. But the demand for drugs in the US was, and still is, insatiable.

The Mexican state and drug traffickers have had, as the authors note, ‘a long history of collaboration, and it was generally state actors who supervised the entire business.’ This increased in the 1980s. Interestingly, the actual consumption of drugs including marijuana is and was lower in Mexico than in other Latin American countries and insignificant compared with the United States.

Since the 1980s, however, the poverty of the working class has exacerbated and perpetuated both drug production in Mexico and export to the US. According to Watt and Zepeda:

‘The prevalence of drug production, combined with economic reforms that essentially excluded much of the rural workforce from legitimate commercial activity, meant that it was very difficult to create suitable alternatives within the formal economy.’

By the mid-1980s Colombian drug cartels joined Mexican traffickers in establishing smuggling operations into the United States.

The election of Vincente Fox to the Mexican presidency in 2000, brought with it massive opportunities for the increasing and expanding of business by the narco-traffickers. And it allowed Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán Fuentes, the Capo of the Sinaloa cartel, to become the world’s most powerful and richest trafficker. ‘Perhaps the most significant charge in narcotrafficking as the new millennium began,’ say Watt and Zepeda, ‘was the cartels now started to treat members of the army, police forces, bankers and political officials as their employees,’ a reversal of the old arrangement. The development of a limited, bourgeois democracy in Mexico from the old authoritarian regime actually increased the power of the wealth of the narcotraffickers! As a result, Mexicans now live in a society characterised by ever-rising crime and insecurity.

The authors of Drug War Mexico note that although narcotics have been prevalent in Mexico since the 19th century, the level of illicit drug production and trafficking has now reached unprecedented proportions. For example, 90 per cent of all cocaine consumed in the US is trafficked through Mexico.

Many towns and cities in Mexico are suffering from organised crime. The exact number of deaths related to drug cartel violence is not known. Between 2006 and 2011 it was officially estimated at 39,000. More than 5,000 persons were reported as missing or disappeared, and 9,000 corpses have yet to be identified. My guess is that up to 100,000 Mexicans have died since 2005. More than 500,000 Mexicans are now directly or indirectly involved or employed in organised crime related to drugs. According to Juan Ramóde la Fuente in Foreign Affairs Latinomérica (2009), ‘We are confronted by a brutal and very sophisticated force, which has submarines, helicopters, airplanes, and sophisticated weaponry.’ The anti-drugs activities and efforts of both the Mexican and United States authorities have had little effect to date; although the Mexican army appears to have had more success in combating the so-called Zapatista uprising in Chiapas (the Zapatistas oppose the consumption of both narcotics and alcohol).

Is there a solution or solutions to Mexico’s drug wars, violence and killings, or the trade in drugs? Watt and Zepeda see some hope in legislation and in pressure groups – but not much. The brutal facts are that, within capitalism, in Mexico, the United States and globally, the commodification of drugs will continue as long as there are big profits to be made from their production, sale and trafficking.
Peter E. Newell

Material World: Mexico – The Disappeared (2013)

The Material World Column from the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the article ‘Mexican drug wars’ (Socialist Standard, April) we noted that between 2006 and 2011 it was officially estimated that, in Mexico, the number of deaths related to the drug wars was 39,000. We suggested that up to 100,000 Mexicans have died or disappeared since 2005.

We don’t seem to have been far out. Jo Tuckman, writing in the Guardian (17 July) reported that ‘The violence is estimated to have killed more than 80,000 people’ since 2006. It is not just the number of corpses discovered (more than 9,000 unidentified). It is the disappeared.

On Sunday, May 26 this year, 12 young people were abducted in Mexico City from an after-hours nightclub called ‘Heaven’, in the district known as Zona Rosa. About 17 assailants drove up in a number of cars, and just bundled the youngsters into the vehicles, all of whom were from the impoverished neighbourhood of Tepito. None of them has been seen since. But they are far from alone, despite the fact that Mexico City is said to be safer than Washington in the United States.

Oakland Ross, in a feature (Toronto Star, 22 June), highlights the disappearances, and known murders, in Mexico from 2006 to the end of 2012. He notes that at least 26,121 individuals have vanished. And he adds:

‘During the same six-year period, roughly 70,000 additional people are reckoned to have died in drug-related violence – slain by either the feuding drug cartels, or else by Mexican soldiers or police, or possibly by ‘disorganised’ criminals using the central drug-fuelled fray as a cover to settle scores.’

Ross notes that the likely abductors – police or soldiers – were probably responsible in more than half the disappearances. ‘Convictions have been recorded in only two cases during the past six years’, according to figures released by the Federal attorney general’s office. Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Center in Washington, says that there is a breakdown of law and order in Mexico. And, continues Wood:

‘People believe they can get away with anything – and they are right! There's a great likelihood, if you carry out a crime in Mexico, that you will get away with it.’

But Ross notes that the severity of the problem varies from region to region. The most violent parts of Mexico are, not surprisingly, along the United States border; and, as I have witnessed , such states as Guerro, where feuds between drug gangs are particularly violent – and not forgetting the activities of the police and army.

Most of the disappearances are, of course, related to the illegal narcotics trade with the US. But not all. As the Toronto Star relates: ‘The exceptions involve migrants – mostly Mexicans, but also people from other Latin American countries or even farther away – all trying to sneak across the border to the United States.’ Most of the human trafficking, however, is mainly controlled by the same gangs that supply the US and Canada with cocaine and other narcotics.

Most of the disappeared within Mexico never reappear. The families are left to conduct the investigations into their vanished relatives – where possible. The government agencies are either overworked or just incompetent; and not ignoring where the state itself is responsible for the missing persons.  Lopez Portillo of the Institute for Security and Democracy blames ‘slow bureaucratic procedures, as well as chronic institutional divisions between the police and Federal prosecutors’.

No one, it seems, blames the real culprit – capitalism and the profit system where people are forced to get money, one way or another, to survive.
Peter E. Newell

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Marx as our non-contemporary (2013)

Book Review from the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber (Liveright Publishing)

In this new 600-page biography Jonathan Sperber states from the outset that he aims to portray Marx as a 19th century figure rather than as ‘our contemporary.’ Fair enough. It is his basic ideas – his analysis of capitalism, his theory of history, and his insistence on the need to win control of political power to change society – that are still relevant, not the details of his personal life or the political stance he took towards the events of his day.

Marx, who was born in 1818 and died in 1883, was, says Sperber, typical of  certain radical, university-educated Germans of the period (though his father had been born in a German-speaking part of France and his mother was Dutch). He was born and brought up in Trier, a German provincial town on the Moselle, which was in a part of Germany, the left bank of the Rhine, that had been annexed to France until 1815. Following the defeat of Napoleon it was handed over to Prussia.

Prussian rule of the Rhineland was unpopular with its inhabitants. At university in Bonn and Berlin Marx became influenced by radical, atheist followers of Hegel’s philosophy and became one of them. In 1842 he got a job as a journalist and editor of a newspaper in Cologne, the main city in the Rhineland. This was the mouthpiece of the local liberal-minded bourgeoisie, who financed it, and who wanted free trade and a liberal constitution in place of authoritarian rule of Prussia and its Kaiser. When the paper was suppressed by the authorities in 1843 Marx left to live in Paris where he came under the influence of communist ideas (as socialist ideas were then called).

Expelled from France, Marx moved to Brussels, in Belgium, where he was active in exiles’ radical-democratic and communist circles until 1848, a year of popular uprisings all over continental Europe. European radicals and communists had seen it coming and Marx had been delegated to write a manifesto for the Communist League of Germany. This of course was the Communist Manifesto. The Manifesto illustrates the extent to which Marx is and is not our contemporary. The historical part about the origins and development of capitalism and the working class is still relevant, but the practical part about the programme the Communist League would implement if it had come to power at that time and its relations with other parties and movements is of historical interest only.

Bourgeois revolution

When the unrest spread to Germany Marx hurried back to Cologne where, again with the financial support of the radical section of the local bourgeoisie, he edited a newspaper. It may seem strange that a socialist should be editing a radical-bourgeois paper putting forward their demands, but this was in accordance with the perspective set out in the Manifesto that ‘the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.’

Marx insisted on a bourgeois revolution first and fell out with other communists in Cologne who wanted the working class to take a hostile attitude toward the bourgeoisie. Marx had already fallen out in 1846 with another German communist, Wilhelm Weitling, over the same issue. Sperber writes of this incident:

‘Weitling, in his letter to Hess, explained their differences: Marx had insisted that ‘at the moment there can be no talk of the realization of communism; the bourgeoisie must first take control’.’

This is one illustration why Marx is not our contemporary as far as his practical political stances are concerned. He may well have been right that communism was not an immediate possibility in the 1840s and that a period of bourgeois rule (in place of authoritarian dynastic rule) was needed first, but this is not the case today and has not been for at least a century. Even so, at the time, Marx still thought that the period of bourgeois rule would be relatively short.

According to Sperber, Marx’s conception of two revolutions in a relatively short period of time was coloured by what had happened in the French Revolution: beginning as a bourgeois revolution in 1789 with the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, it developed in a more radical way when in 1793 the Jacobins came to power, proclaimed a republic and executed the king. Sperber’s view is not implausible when you consider that the French revolution had taken place only sixty years previously and that there are still people today who look to the Russian Revolution of over ninety years ago as a model.

Things did not turn out that way in Germany and not even the bourgeois revolution took place. Marx had to go into exile again, first in France but there too the reaction had triumphed and then in August 1849 to England, where he lived for the rest of his life. Within a few years a split occurred in the Communist League, again over the issue of whether or not the aim should be an immediate communist insurrection. Marx was against and eventually gave up involvement in exiled Germans’ politics, getting a job as an overseas correspondent of the New York Tribune. In fact, in so far as Marx had a profession it was journalism.

War against Russia

Previously, Sperber points out, Marx had relied on a war against Russia sparking off the bourgeois-democratic revolution that was to be followed by a proletarian one. Now, he looked to an economic crisis to do this. Sperber quotes an amusing anecdote on this (which shows that for some Marx is their contemporary):

‘As Wilhelm Leibknecht remembered, Marx’s constant expectation of an economic crisis became a standing joke among his London friends and associates.’

Even so, when the Crimean war broke out in 1853 Marx was an enthusiastic supporter of the Franco-British-Turkish side. Opposition to Tsarist Russia was common amongst European radicals, so Marx was no exception here. It was a position he maintained for the rest of his life. But it became an obsession for him. He even wrote a book, best forgotten, The Secret Diplomatic History of the Eighteenth Century, which advanced the conspiracy theory that Palmerston was a Russian agent and that his Whig predecessors in the previous century had been too. Much of his other immediate ‘foreign policy’ stances were shaped by this: his support for Polish independence and for Austria in its war with France in Northern Italy in 1859. Sperber argues that towards the end of his life Marx had more sympathy for the Tories than the Liberals because of their anti-Russia stance. Certainly, he wrote an anonymous article for the Daily Telegraph denouncing what he saw as Gladstone’s pro-Russia stance.

Anti-Prussia

Marx was anti-Prussian too throughout his life (which makes the title of an earlier biography of him, The Red Prussian, an absurdity). Prussia for most of Marx’s life was only one of a number of German states and statelets. Sperber points out that many non-Prussian German-speakers wanted a united Germany but not under Prussian dominance. Marx, like many other radical Germans, was one of these, and wanted to see a united German democratic republic. To that extent, he was a German nationalist.

This was the basis of his opposition to Lassalle, an early would-be leader of the German workers’ movement. Lassalle allowed himself to be used by Bismarck against the bourgeoisie who were demanding a liberal constitution. Marx regarded the bourgeoisie as the lesser evil to Bismarck and the Kaiser, denouncing Lassalle’s followers for describing all other classes than the working class as ’one reactionary mass’.

In all these respects, then, Marx was not our contemporary but someone politically active in a period which was quite different from ours today. Socialists today are not called upon to defend the positions taken up by Marx, and we haven’t. In fact we have criticised him for taking sides in wars. His actions in the International Working Men’s Association, on the other hand, where he encouraged trade-unionism and emphasised the need for working-class political action, are more to our liking.

Marx the Man

Sperber is sympathetic to Marx the man, defending him against critics who judge his behaviour and attitudes by 20th and 21st century standards, including his bourgeois life-style and alleged anti-semitism (and indeed alleged Jewishness). As an expert in 19th century European and German history Sterber is well-placed to situate Marx in his time. He does this well, to the extent that his book is also a history of the time. His summaries of Marx’s philosophical and political views are accurate enough, though when it comes to his economic views there are a few errors (concerning the rate of profit, particularly its averaging and tendency to fall).

All in all, though, this is a good, scholarly biography of Marx, to be read alongside the other recent one by Francis Wheen.
Adam Buick

Water, Waste and War (2013)

From the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

UN data predicts that by 2025 more than half of countries will be either under water stress or have outright shortages. Many rivers are overtaxed, for example the Nile, Jordan, Yangtze and Ganges; and underground aquifers below growing urban areas such as New Delhi, Beijing have falling levels. World population is rising and there is also increased demand by people for water as part of rising living standards. The minimum requirement per person is 1,000 cubic metres per year for drinking, hygiene and growing food (Marlin Falkenburg of Stockholm International Water Institute -and others).

The International Assessment of Agriculture Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) conclusion on worldwide water quality is that conditions appear degraded in almost all regions through extensive agriculture and other developments; with pollution as a growing problem and faecal contamination serious in developing countries. It is estimated that half of wetlands have been lost during the last century. The land has been converted to agricultural or urban use – or filled in to combat diseases  – with the resultant adverse effect on flood control, storage and purification of water, and habitat for biodiversity. There were differences in the damage caused by the December 2004 tsunami on shores protected by functional coral reefs, and shores where reefs had been degraded (IAASTD 2008 P36).

It is not just developing countries that face difficulties. Parts of the United States have suffered severe droughts; northern parts of Georgia and large areas of the South west. Global climate change can increase aridity and reduce supply. Then there is the problem of waste disposal – things like releases of industrial pollutants, fertilizer run off, and coastal influxes of salt-water into aquifers as groundwater is depleted. As has happened in Almeria in the South of Spain where there are some 20,000 hectares of greenhouses in a desert where they consume 5 times more water than the region gets in rainfall (The Sahara Forest Project 2008).

There is plenty of information about the problems including warnings about the urgent need to make changes in the way critical resources are used. At the World Water Week in Stockholm in August 2011 a report issued jointly by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said that water limits are close to being reached or breached in many of the world’s breadbaskets (including the plains of northern China, India’s Punjab and the Western United States); that 1.6 billion people already have inadequate access to freshwater. The report An Ecosystem Services Approach to Water and Food Supply calls for a more sustainable approach to food production requiring co-operation and co-ordination between the various agricultural and environmental interests. However the kind of co-operation called for between ‘international, national and local level’ decision makers in order for them to ‘embrace an agro-ecosystem approach to food production’ cannot overcome the competitive nature of market production.

International organisations earnestly strive to resolve problems related to food security and the environment – the IWMI and its partners in the CGIAR (consultative group on international Agricultural research) are developing a multi-million research programme that will look at water as an integral part of the ecosystem. However governments act on behalf of their national agricultural and industrial business interests which means concerns about profit and cost have a higher priority than any ecosystem.  It is reckoned that up to 90 percent of China’s freshwater has been contaminated as have 40 percent of US rivers and lakes – in spite of stricter environmental laws.

Unfortunately within capitalism the solutions are seen in terms of return on investment. The massive spending required on infrastructure in order to cope with the increasing demand for water and resolve some of the disputes over access to water sources is seen as providing ‘economic opportunities’. The water industry is worth $480 billion and is growing at a rate of 6 percent a year (Global Water Intelligence quoted in Money Week 20.04.2012). However analysts have estimated that the world will need to invest $trillion a year to ensure water supplies through 2030 (Annual military expenditure worldwide is $1.6 trillion. globalissues.org).

It was observed in 2008 that investment in water facilities as a percentage of GDP had dropped by half since the late 90’s, and that if a crisis comes it would not be for the lack of know-how but from an unwillingness to spend the money. New technologies do not need to be invented “we must simply accelerate the adoption of existing technologies to conserve and enhance the water supply.” (Scientific American, August 2008).

Technologies exist …

Technologies  – ways in which water resources can be better conserved and used  – are already known. However the proposed solutions and predictions all assume the continuance of the present system and the calls for better water management that work with nature may only be applied where economic advantage can be demonstrated.

Among useful ideas are the underground storage of water in sub-surface reservoirs to limit evaporation loss. Such ‘water banks’ are operating in Arizona and California and being proposed for Singapore. Drip-irrigation systems minimise consumption, and there is 'investment' in new crop varieties that tolerate drought conditions and saltish water. Hygiene and sanitation facilities could adopt dry, low water use devices. Technologies exist which not only use less water but can convert waste material into an organic compost. There are pilot projects for example in the Gebers Housing Project in a suburb of Stockholm.

As well as saving water there is also the possibility of desalination to increase supply. Only 3 percent of water is fresh the rest is salty. Large scale desalination plants have been built for example in Singapore. More energy efficient technology has meant substantial savings in the cost, and scientists are working on reverse osmosis filters composed of carbon nano tubes with the potential to lower the costs still further (Experiments are also being conducted on forward osmosis and biomimetics with the same object the results of which are expected to be ‘on the market’ in 3 to 5 years). Despite improvements the technology is still energy intensive.

A more promising method is The Seawater Greenhouse which uses solar energy, seawater and the humidity of the surrounding air to provide desalination and cooling- and fresh water for plants. It is seen as a sustainable way of cultivating high quality crops in hot, arid coastal regions. The process produces 5 times more freshwater than is needed for the plants and it is claimed could have reversed the environmental damage caused by the greenhouses in Almeria. There the authorities looked at diverting the Ebra River but have chosen instead to build twenty large scale desalination plants on the coast. Trials have been taking place in Tenerife (1992), Abu Dhabi, UAR (2000) and Oman (2004) and have shown how well crops of salads and vegetables have grown in hot desert areas. The first commercial seawater greenhouse farm is situated near Port Augusta in Southern Australia and is on degraded land that would not be suitable for agriculture. Using only seawater and sunlight the farm produces a variety of vegetables and salt. It has a brine cooking facility which produces ‘gourmet salts and nutrients.’

But profit comes first

Even new technologies will not resolve the problems inherent in a social system where profit and cost provide and qualify the motivation for action, and fuel the rivalry over resources. For example where river systems cross national frontiers countries upstream have the advantage when it comes to harnessing the waters for hydroelectric power or irrigation which can interfere with the access to water for territories downstream. Water is an aspect of Chinese occupation of Tibet – the continent’s watershed. China has built many dams on Tibet’s river systems, and more large dams are planned and under construction for example on the Salween. On the Upper Mekong dams have “dramatically altered the flow of the river” affecting five countries downstream (The Epoch Times March 22, 2010).

A US intelligence agencies report commissioned by the Department of State warns that during the next ten years many countries “important to the US” will experience water problems that will contribute to instability and state failure. This is seen as a danger threatening American interests (Money Week 20.04.2012).

Some of the unstable areas where there is competition for waterways are managed by special commissions.

The Indus Waters Treaty was signed between India and Pakistan in 1960. Water is a core issue in the dispute over Kashmir but the treaty has held good even when those countries have been at war; and the severing of diplomatic relations has not prevented the treaty stipulated Indus Waters Commission having amicable meetings and sharing hydrological data (Slate newsletter Aug 4 2011). It remains to be seen how well the treaty can stand up to the pressure of increasing rival demands for the vital resource. An added factor is of shrinking glaciers in the region –at least 30 percent of the Indus waters comes from glaciers. It was suggested 60 years ago that the whole Indus system should be operated as a single unit.

The logical conclusion is for the whole world to be considered as a single unit. The best framework for dealing with the effects of climate change and the increasing pressures being put on water supplies by growing populations, and the demands made by agriculture, is to have resources owned in common and democratically controlled by the whole world community. So that agricultural production, and indeed all production, would be solely for the use of human beings and not for sale and profit. This would mean worldwide co-operation and co-ordination so that sustainable agricultural practices which have proper regard for biodiversity would be the normal way of providing for the needs of people. Measures now suggested for the more efficient use of water in agriculture which include stopping up leaks, and implementing low loss storage would simply be the commonsense way of doing things.
Pat Deutz


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Civil War in Syria (2013)

From the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

The civil war in Syria, now in its third year, originated in the 'Arab Spring' of 2010-11 when popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya overthrew long-time dictators. The 'cradle of the Syrian revolution' was Daraa in the impoverished south of Syria. In 2011 Syrian workers shouted: 'One, One, One, the Syrian People Are One !' but today Islamic fundamentalists are chanting ' Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the Grave !' According to the UN Human Rights Data Analysis Group there have been 92,901 reported killings in the period March 2011 to April 2013 in Syria.

USA and Britain vacillate over intervention in Syria. It was only in July that the USA agreed to 'limited military support for vetted rebel groups', although General Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said at the Senate Armed Services Committee there was a 'risk arming al-Qaeda-aligned extremist forces amongst rebels'. David Cameron observed recently that the Syrian opposition contained 'a lot of bad guys' which means Islamic fundamentalists, Jihadists, and Al Qaeda.

Ba’athists

The Ba'athist Party have been in power in Syria since 1963 and the Assad family have been dictators of Syria since 1970. The Assad family are Arabs of the Alawite sect of Shia Islam who only comprise 12 percent of the population. The largest ethnic and religious group are the Arab Sunni Muslims who comprise 65 percent of the Syrian population. About 10-12 percent are Christians and 9 percent Kurds.

Modern Syria was born as a League of Nations mandate territory given to France in 1920. Under French rule the minority Alawites were recruited into the Syrian Army as they were not able to buy themselves out of military service. After Syrian independence in 1946 the Alawite Muslims had a large representation in the Officer Corps.

In post-independence Syria, society was still 'quasi-feudal' in nature and dominated by conservative rural landlords and the peasantry. The small industrial capitalist class vacillated between cooperation and antagonism with the landowning class which was ultimately a fetter on the industrialisation of Syria. There were regular political upheavals in Syria with coups and counter-coups, which was not good for capitalist development.

In 1947 the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party of Syria was established which advocated Arab Nationalism and Arab 'Socialism', which in reality meant state capitalism. The word 'ba'ath' is Arabic for 'renaissance' but for the Syrian working class it was still the wages system under new management. A military coup in 1963 by the Alawite Muslim Ba'athist officer corps was supported by the peasantry, religious minorities such as Christians and the Sunni capitalist class. The Ba'athist regime was sometimes called 'Bonapartist' because it rested on 'the conservative peasant' and a radicalised layer of ‘petty-bourgeois’ Alawite army officers. Raymond Hinnebusch in Syria: Revolution from Above (2004) wrote that 'without the peasantry there could not have been a Ba'athist revolution'.

The 'social pact' was the foundation of Ba'ath Party rule which meant land distribution for the peasantry, social welfare for the working class, industrialisation for the capitalist class but no free speech, and banned trade unions. It was a planned state run economy loosely modelled on the state capitalism of the USSR. In 1965 the Ba'ath regime 'nationalised' 106 industries which included electricity, water, industrial plants, the transport system, insurance companies, and commercial banks.

Ba'ath Party rule ensured economic and political privileges were given to Alawite Shia Muslims and in 1970 Hafez Al-Assad, an Alawite, came to power as sole ruler. Assad became known as 'the Lion of Damascus', a personality cult was developed around him and the internal repression meant Syria became known as the 'kingdom of silence'. Assad's regime exploited sectarian divisions in Syrian society to defend the minority Alawite capitalist and political class from the Sunni Muslim working class majority.

The 1970s in Syria was a time of economic growth with a peak GDP growth rate of 10.2 percent in 1981 but Syria's state capitalism was not immune to the world capitalist slump and in 1984 GDP was -2.1 percent.

Crony capitalism

The Assad regime's response was 'Intifah' (economic liberalisation) modelled after Deng's introduction of the market into Chinese state capitalism in the 1980s. In Syria more private economic activity was permitted, state controls were loosened, free trade zones were established, tax exemptions and cheap credit introduced and local traders and merchants were allowed economic freedom to import and export goods. Nationalised industries were 'privatised' which meant state ownership was transferred to cronies of the regime. 'Crony capitalism' meant that by the mid 90s 'an upper class has emerged both greater in number and wealthier than the bourgeoisie of the pre-Ba'athist era' wrote Volker Perthes in The Political Economy of Syria under Assad (1995).

In 2000 Hafez died and his son Bashar became leader, and economic liberalisation continued. In March 2009 Assad opened the Damascus Securities Exchange, Syria's first stock market in over forty years. The IMF and World Bank were satisfied with the Syrian economy with its 'privatisations', and cuts in corporation tax for the capitalist class. The wealth of the crony capitalist class was evident when Maserati launched its range of high-priced vehicles in Damascus in 2010. One particular 'crony capitalist' was Rami Makhlouf, cousin of Assad who owned Syriatel (telecommunications), a TV network, assets in oil, gas, construction, real estate, banking, airlines, retail, and duty free stores. His assets were worth $5 billion and he was known to the Syrian working class as 'Mr Ten Percent'. In the uprising his properties and assets were attacked.

The 2011 uprising has its origins in economic inequality, poverty, inflation, unemployment in Syrian society, and 'crony capitalism'. Significantly Syrians abroad who previously sent home remittances returned to Syria following the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, workers returned from the Gulf following the Dubai financial crisis of 2008, and 1.5 million Iraqi refugees poured into Syria following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Also significant was the 'proletarianisation in the countryside' because land redistribution failed as many peasants ended up with holdings too small to support a family and therefore were forced to become wage labourers for larger landowners or forced to work in new factories and mines. The 'privatisation' of state land led to peasant evictions, and the drought of 2008-10 forced tens of thousands of peasants to flee to the cities.

Underclass rebellion

Hanna Batatu writing in the 1981 Middle East Journal is prophetic about the 2011 uprising: 'rural people, driven by economic distress or lack of security, move into the main cities, settle in the outlying districts, enter before long into relations or forge common links with elements of the urban poor, who are themselves often earlier migrants from the countryside, and together they challenge the old established classes'.

An Associated Press Report of 16 October 2012 identified that the rebels were poor, religiously conservative from the underdeveloped countryside who felt economically marginalised, were against elite merchants and industrialists who dominated Aleppo and allied to the regime. An ex-car mechanic now in the rebel army said: 'those who have money in Aleppo worry about their wealth and interests when we have long lived in poverty'. The report concluded that the uprising was 'as much a revolt of the underclass as a rebellion against the regime's authoritarian grip'.

The Syrian opposition is the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces which advocates a secular, democratic, liberal, bourgeois capitalist Syria. The Vice President of the National Coalition is Riad Seif, a Sunni capitalist who once owned the Adidas franchise in Damascus.

The Free Syrian Army contains mainly Arab Sunni Muslims but also Islamic Fundamentalists, Jihadists, and Salafist militias. The Wall Street Journal (16 April) reported that the Obama administration did not want an outright rebel military victory because they believe 'the good guys' may not come out on top, and feared that Islamists tied to al-Qaeda were increasingly dominating the opposition to Assad. The Washington Post (1 May) reported 'If things continue as they are, the Syrian government will certainly be the party that has the major advantage in any talks, it is clear the Insurgency does not pose an existential threat to the regime'.

The 'bad guys' include the Jabhat Al-Nusra Front which is very well organised with access to resources and continues to gain control of Syrian oil fields. Jabhat Al-Nusra is a Sunni Salafist Jihadist militia which in April 2013 was incorporated into Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant and is the group of choice for foreign Jihadists coming to Syria. Jabhat Al-Nusra is financed by donations from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan, all allies of the USA and Britain. The New York Times (27 April) reported from Aleppo, the industrial and commercial hub of Syria, that the Jabhat Al-Nusra Front controlled the power plant, ran the bakeries and headed a court that applied Islamic Sharia law. The report concluded that 'nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of'.

Proxy war

Recently the EU has lifted sanctions on oil exports from the Syrian oil fields (mainly in the eastern part of Syria near the border with Iraq) because they are in rebel-controlled areas although mostly controlled by the Jabhat Al-Nusra Front. Before the civil war, the EU spent $4.1 billion on Syrian oil imports, in 2010 oil sales generated $3.2 billion which accounted for 25 per cent of Syria's revenue. Syria has estimated oil reserves of 2.5 billion barrels. With economic liberalisation foreign oil companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, Total SA, Gulfsands Petroleum, China National Petroleum Company, Stroytansgaz, and India Oil and Gas Corporation went to work in Syria although all operations were suspended by the civil war. In 2008 Syria produced 187 billion cubic feet of natural gas and has estimated reserves of 9.1 trillion cubic feet which led to SunCorp, a Canadian energy corporation that owns Petro-Canada to invest $1.2 billion in the extraction of Syrian gas reserves.

'The Road to Tehran Goes Via Damascus' is key to western capitalism's view of Syria. Iran is the second largest oil producing country in the world. The USA and Israel view Assad's Syria as a 'rogue state' and part of an 'axis of evil' with Iran. The competitive economic struggle between western capitalism and eastern capitalism (Russia and China) is reflected in Syria where Assad's regime is supported by Putin's Russia and by China while the West backs the Syrian opposition.

Assad's regime has given political support to Hezbollah, the Shia Islamic group which has been in conflict with the Israeli state. Hezbollah receives large military and economic support from Iran. Hezbollah are fighting alongside Assad's army against the rebels and recently Israel launched air strikes on Hezbollah forces in Syria.

As well as a proxy war between the West and Russia and China, between Israel and Hezbollah and Iran, the USA and Iran, Syria is also a regional proxy war between the Sunni Muslim capitalism of the Persian Gulf states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar allied with the Sunni Muslim state of Turkey against the Shia Islamic capitalism of Assad's Syria and Iran. The Financial Times (17 May) reported that Qatar had spent $3 billion over the last two years supporting the Syrian revolt, and this was only exceeded by donations from Saudi Arabia.

A planned natural gas pipeline from Iran (second largest gas reserves in the world) through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean and Europe has had its route through Iraq agreed in May. There is a rival pipeline planned from Qatar through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria which makes the defeat of the Assad regime in Syria all the more urgent.

For the Syrian working class the best likely outcome in present circumstances from an ending of the civil war is a bourgeois capitalist liberal democracy and at worst an Islamic fundamentalist reactionary theocracy. Any group replacing the Assad regime will have to continue to run Syrian capitalism for the benefit of the Syrian capitalist class.
Steve Clayton

Post-Tory World (2013)

Book Review from the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

How I Killed Margaret Thatcher, By Anthony Cartwright Tindel Street Press, 2012.

Anthony Cartwright’s novel evokes memories familiar to anyone who lived (or, especially, was growing up) during the early 1980s and the reign of Thatcher. It is the story of 9-year old Sean, growing up in Dudley, amidst his family as they and their aspirations, hopes and fears evolve under Tory rule. The narrative structure, of Sean as an adult looking back and telling his tale and where he is now, adds to the sense of historical movement.

It starts with a fight between his grandfather and his uncle, who has voted Tory and gets a smack in the gob for his pains. Sean’s father daren’t admit he voted for Thatcher too. They all live in a heavily industrial area, working in the Midlands’ factories. Sean’s father wants to move out of the street he grew up on, and own a house of his own, gaining a mortgage that looms, throughout the narrative, foreshadowing the eventual havoc de-industrialisation was going to wreak on the family.

The story shows how some working class voters did support Thatcher, and the offer she made to take them out of the conditions they were living under. Working class people are shown as not monolithic or consistent: Sean’s mother, who opposes Thatcher is still aspirational enough to correct his dialect ‘yew am’ to ‘you are’. Chapters are interspersed with quotes from Thatcher that show her trying to appeal to working class sensibilities.

Sean absorbs the antipathy towards Thatcher, blaming her for all his ills, and begins to scheme violent vengeance. He is aware, with each news report, with the family gathered in front of the telly, whose side he is on. Although, as we know now, he never did kill Thatcher, his trajectory through the pain inflicted on his family, into a post-Tory world seems to grasp the evaporation of a clear narrative of the workers’ movement. There is no hope at the end of this novel, only a continuation of a hard life.

This is a simple but powerful book, showing where we have come from and where we are now.
Pik Smeet

One State, Two States or No States? (2013)

Editorial from the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Talks have started between the Israeli State and the Palestinian ‘Authority’. In a world where might is right, it will be an unbalanced negotiation between a well-armed occupying power and its virtually unarmed opponent whose population has been quite literally beaten into submission. All the Palestine side has going for them is US pressure on Israel, its client state which it has maintained and armed over the years and which acts as its proxy in the Middle East, an area of strategic importance as well as containing most of the world’s more easily-extractable oil.

Israel was set up after the last world war by Jewish nationalists, the Zionists, as a ‘homeland’for people of Jewish background. It is an entirely artificial state based on the religious myth that Judaism’s tribal god gave the land of Palestine to the Jews to live on. Formally, Israel is a European-type parliamentary democracy and there is more freedom of speech and of organisation there than in any other state in the Middle East. But is also a sectarian state –‘A Jewish State for Jewish People’–where its non-Jewish subjects, mainly native Arab-speakers who make up 20 percent of its population, are second class citizens. Its rulers, with the support of most of their Jewish subjects, are not going to consent to ending its sectarian character as it is the basis of their power.

This is why one proposed solution –a single, non-sectarian, democratic state made up of the present Israel and the west bank of the river Jordan –is not on the agenda. The most likely outcome of any negotiations is the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the Israeli one. This state will be weak and will have to accept that there are limits as to how far it can be independent. But at least its subjects will no longer be subject to direct Israeli rule and oppression.

There is another way of looking at the question. At the end of July Gary Davis, who in 1948 famously renounced his US citizenship and declared himself a ‘world citizen’, died. Arguing that ‘the nation-state is a political fiction which perpetuates anarchy and the breeding ground for war,’he spent the rest of his life campaigning for one world without frontiers with a world government.

He was wrong, but on the right track. It is capitalism, with its built-in competitive struggle for sources of raw material, markets, trade routes and investment outlets, that is the breeding ground for war, but so-called ‘nation’-states are part of this. They are instruments of force, acting in capitalist interests, through which this struggle is waged, sometimes by threats explicit or understood (‘might is right’), sometimes by military action.

The solution is indeed one world without frontiers and without states, but not a world government presiding over a world capitalist economy. It is world socialism, where the resources of the planet have become the common heritage of all, to be used for the benefit of all Earth’s people. A Palestinian state will be one more such instrument of capitalist competition at the service of its ruling class.