Dead Men Left

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Light blogging expected

Between moving house and going to snarl at the G8, I'm not likely to be around over the next week or so. If I get the chance in Edinburgh I'll post something rude about Bono.

Blogger's dilemma: many, short and often; or longer, fewer and (ideally) better?

Ken Livingstone's greatest miscalculation

Ken Livingstone, confirming a long-held suspicion of mine about the Olympic bid:

Livingstone admits London's transformation from an outsider to a potential winner since the bid was launched in 2003 has surprised him.

"Four years ago, I thought with all the fiasco of the Dome, Wembley and Pickett's Lock that we didn't have a chance of winning this, but we'd get resources for London out of it," he said.

I always thought Livingstone saw the Games as ruse to squeeze central government for more cash, secure in the knowledge that a combination of crumbling transport, generic incompetence, and (if all else fails) crap weather would spare London the immense burden of having to host this monstrously overblown athletics contest. He must be kicking himself that it has all gone so horribly wrong, and that London is in with a shout of winning.

It's possible sanity will prevail, Hackney won't have to be turned into a car-park, the rest of us won't have to foot the bill, and Paris - wonderful Paris, everyone likes Paris, who wouldn't want to go to Paris? - will be graced with the Olympic presence.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Actually Existing on terrorism. Worth a read.

Monbiot on PFI

George Monbiot, still on top form:

On June 10, the National Audit Office published a report showing how the companies that had built the Norfolk and Norwich hospital had, as well as making stupendous profits, legally walked off with an additional payment of £73m by exploiting the gap between the financial risk the government said they had taken on and the risk they had really shouldered. It wasn't as if the government didn't know this was coming: in June 2001, a summary of leaked documents that showed this was going to happen was published in this column. The Treasury sat back and watched.

On June 9, the Health Service Journal published an extraordinary admission by a senior civil servant in the Department of Health. PFI deals, Bob Ricketts revealed, were locking the NHS into 30-year contracts for services that might become useless in five. "I've seen some awfully grand PFI schemes," he warned, "that are starting to give us a real problem."

Allyson Pollock, professor of health policy at University College London, is an outspoken critic of the PFI scheme. Read her indictment of the new, PFI-funded UCL hospital here. Here's what's been happening at a PFI-funded hospital for the mentally ill. By any normal, reasonable standards, PFI, dreamt up by the Tories in the dog-days of their government, would have been dropped by New Labour faster than Clause IV. By the voodoo accounting standards that New Labour actually uses, PFI looks like a sensible means to mobilise private capital for public infrastructure projects.

Blair and friends have developed an uncanny ability to create problems for themselves in the future: tax credits have already burst, but still brewing are PFI, ID cards, energy crises, top-up fees and incapacity benefits. No wonder Tony's planning an early exit.

Reasons to Make Richard Curtis History, in addition to The Vicar of Dibley. The Telegraph is worried by it all. (Ah, the "black block". Remember them?)

PS: Haloscan is playing up. Keeps disappearing on me.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Biddip, biddip, biddly-ding BONG.

Salvation Army food parcels

A reminder about that tax credits scandal:

Citizens Advice said, in the most extreme cases, families had been threatened with repossession or eviction, and CAB staff had had to arrange Salvation Army food parcels for others because they did not have enough money left to eat.

Sam Dunn, in yesterday's Independent, contrasts the penny-pinching at the bottom end of society with the pampering at the top:

No handouts here - we're talking fine wines amassed in cellars over the years. In around 10 months from now, owners of these collections will be able to put them into self-invested personal pensions (Sipps) - where they will earn instant tax relief and boost the retirement funds of the wealthy. This is thanks to "A-Day" - a new plan that allows sophisticated investors to pull fancy levers to engineer better pensions.

From 6 April next year, these investors will also be able to squeeze buy-to-lets, their homes and even commodities such as gold into their Sipps - and again enjoy the tax relief.

But for the average worker, the treats on offer are less tantalising. Being able to place half your annual salary in a pension fund sounds great, but who can afford to do so in practice? What about finding the money for bills and mortgages?

This is all on Brown's watch. These schemes promoted and administered by his departments. As Dunn says of the Chancellor, "A man committed to society's less well-off should be able to tell that it stinks." Under New Labour, the richest 1% have doubled their wealth; the poorest 50% have seen their share of national wealth decline. Britain is now a more unequal society than under Margaret Thatcher.

Friday, June 24, 2005

On that perennial problem of regional economic disparities, this recent study by Patricia Rice and Tony Venables (PDF) thinks that much of the variation in economic performance across the UK can be explained by proximity to major population centres. Disparities have grown since 1995, with the strong centripetal tendencies of the 1990s recovery left unaddressed by successive governments. The recommendation is that improvements in transports, reducing effective proximity, would have significant spillover effects on regional productivity. If New Labour still had a coherent transport policy - beyond roads, roads, roads - they would be in a better position to address the issue.

Toynbee and tax credits

Polly Toynbee's strategy, if we can allow her the forethought required, is to cloak New Labour puffery with old-fashioned social democratic truths. Here she is, for instance, putting a spin on the tax credits debacle:

However, there is one serious long-term critique of tax credits. They are a massive hidden subsidy to low pay, allowing employers to pay sub-survivable wages in this most unequal of EU countries. (When did the CBI ever murmur a word of thanks?) The only countries that have succeeded in all but abolishing child poverty - the Nordic nations - created societies far more equal in pay from top to bottom. There is no known or imagined economic model that can abolish child poverty while the rich soar ever further away at the top, leaving growing numbers of people trapped in low pay at the bottom. Tax credits have taken a million children out of poverty - but not a single economist thinks tax credits alone can do the heavy lifting to reach the other 3 million. The very low minimum wage - £4.85 - would need to rise to become a living wage. Gradually incomes would have to converge nearer the middle, in the Swedish way. And taxes would have to rise. Everyone knows it, no one in government says it.

The subsidy of poverty pay is endemic to New Labour's welfare reforms. The New Deal, for example, with its badly-monitored in-work "training" wages, is a bonus for employers unwilling to pay their employees properly: that is to say, it subsidises the very worst employers. The significant re-entry rate of New Deal participants, with very large numbers sitting through scheme time and time again, strongly suggests that both employers are collectively more than happy to maintain a convenient poverty-pay labour force. Forty thousand 18-24 year olds have been through the entire six month-long programme at least three times in just four years.

Underlying structural problems in the economy are not addressed by the New Deal. See, for instance, this short report (PDF) from the Centre for Economic Policy covering the incredible variations in regional unemployment rates; tinkering with microeconomic reforms simply will not address longstanding economic disparities on this scale.

Toynbee doesn't touch on any of this, leaving £2bn tax credit overpayments as the circumstantial result of administrative incompetence, and a predictable (privately-contracted) public sector IT failure. Despite her apparent aspiration to create a more humane and effective labour market, she provides no clue as to get there. The paragraph above is left hanging - a rhetorical device, rather than a serious political programme. Her call is to rally round tax credits against the right-wing hordes eager to remove even this slender prop for millions of poverty-stricken workers. The real left has to start constructing alternatives: a significant increase in the minimum wage would be an excellent start.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Patrick Bond, Denis Brutus and Virginia Shetshedi on NGO co-option

The heart of the problem is that the large mainstream NGOs ­ and here we do not mean War on Want, the World Development Movement and Christian Aid - are not putting serious pressure on the G8. For example, when anti-poverty campaigners call for"cancellation of poor countries' unpayable debts", this leaves undefined what, exactly, is 'unpayable' (quite a weasel word) and concedes that the vast populations of lower-middle income countries will suffer under indefinite debt peonage. NGO and rock star endorsements of the partial debt relief gimmick announced by Gordon Brown and the G8 finance ministers on June 11 illustrate the confusion.

The rest is worth reading.

Hoody demonstration at Elephant and Castle

It's a bit long, but it's to be hoped the example is taken up elsewhere. The ASBO backlash is overdue. This protest was launched at the 400-strong Respect meeting last week - the response was extremely good, there's a bunch of people up for this - so we'll see what happens on Saturday.

(By the way, I don't expect blogging to suddenly become a fantastic new organising tool. The hard slog of leafletting, contacting individuals, getting the word out to "civil society organisations" - ah, NGO-speak, it's great - is what makes the difference. Now almost-forgotten hysteria over May Day protests long past would latch onto the internet as the source of the trouble - evil-minded anarchists able to summon a mob with just a brief email message. Utter nonsense, although flash-mobbing has come close to this on occasion. I think it's worth putting this sort of thing up because it is worth recording in itself, and those interested in British politics ought to be aware of the more subterranean events taking place. David Widgery, in the introduction to his The Left in Britain, 1956-68, recorded how he would carefully file the ephemera of protests and meetings, and gradually amassed an archive. This is immediately before Peter Sedgwick's inimitable contribution to the same volume which involved millions of discarded spermatazoa shouting "WASTE! WASTE!" It's not a bad book.)


RESPECT for Youth – Stop Criminalising Young People
RESPECT for Hoodies and against ASBOs!
RESPECT call for young people, youth workers, trade unionists, and pensioners to unite to stop criminalising our young people



This action is supported by ASBO Concern, Lambeth & Southwark pensioners' convention, and by local teachers and youth workers.

Following Bluewater shopping centre's blanket ban on anyone donning a hoody on May 11, all sorts of unusual suspects are joining the Bluewater backlash. Richard and Judy, told Channel Four viewers that they'd attempt to breach Bluewater's new dress code and wear hoodies to see if they'd be stopped from entering the shopping Mecca.
Broadcaster James O'Brien from London's LBC radio station appealed for senior listeners on Thursday who genuinely wear hoodies to join his army of "hoody-wearing pensioners".

On May 13, bosses at the world-famous Elephant and Castle shopping centre in south London issued an all-out ban on hoodies yet no-one takes action to stop them being sold.


Children are the subject of more antisocial behaviour orders than adults, leading commentators to warn that the Government is in danger of making it a "crime to become a child". Latest figures show that children have become the prime target of antisocial behaviour orders with more than half of Asbos issued between June 2000 and March 2004 against children - 1,177 against children and 1,143 against adults
* Forty-two per cent of all Asbos were breached up to December 2003, compared to 36 per cent for the period up to December 2002
* A Mori poll this month found that while 89 per cent of people support Asbos, only 39 per cent feel they are effective
* The British Institute for Brain-Injured Children says at least five children with autism and other brain disorders have been given Asbos

RESPECT recognises a growing tension on estates and in public areas where young people are forced to congregate and play on the streets. However, we believe that this is due to over-crowded homes and the increasing privatisation of our public areas and facilities. Over recent years, across the country we have seen the number of council-run centres privatised or closed. Private centres now focus on adult fitness facilities to maximise income, dramatically reducing the opportunities for individual and team sports for young people.

We do not believe that the scapegoating of young people is a solution. Instead, these policies will lead to a generation of working class people getting written off. Already, studies are showing that young people are experiencing more emotional problems due to feeling that they 'have no future'. New Labour policies of privatising our homes, education and health service, and of cutting welfare spending, pushing the burden onto individual working class families has nothing to offer young people.

RESPECT believes that the solution lies with the following:

The provision of properly funded youth service and community facilities that fulfil the needs of young working class people. We will join with young people in local communities, tenants, trade unions and other such bodies and individuals calling for an end to the privatisation of these services, and for reinvestment in facilities and jobs
· An end to ASBOs. Instead the money used to publicise and police ASBOs, curfews and banning orders can be diverted into funding extra facilities
· Decent, secure jobs with a future. This includes a minimum wage set at the European Union Decency threshold (currently £7.40 an hour). Instead of encouraging high street 'McJobs', the government should be investing in apprenticeships, with jobs upon completion, for young people.
· Free, comprehensive education for all young people, from nursery to university. This includes the ending of tuition fees in higher education and the PFI funding of schools


Update: I notice an embarrassingly inaccurate report of the demonstration is doing the rounds. It appears to have been written by someone breaking the journalist's cardinal rule of not leaving before the event has actually started. Anyway, here's that raving lefty rag, the Telegraph, on the demo:

The garment has been vilified as a symbol of Britain's feral youth, but a group of about 50 protesters wore their "hoodies" with pride yesterday.

They were objecting at the Elephant and Castle shopping complex, in south London, which banned hoodies in mid-May in an effort to crack down on gangs and petty crime.


One of our Lambeth Respect comrades has died, quite suddenly:

To call Disley Jones, who has died at the age of 79, a stage designer is to understate his talents. He was a theatrical polymath, bursting with informed and idiosyncratic ideas on text, performance and direction; moreover, at any moment he would unhesitatingly take up a hammer or paintbrush and work through the night to put the show on...

He remained a Bohemian in the old style. He was a fixture in Soho's French House pub, where his photograph graces the walls and where he would hold forth unstoppably on theatre, films, arts, sex and politics, in which he stayed faithful to a non-specific, liberal, far left line. He missed no new play or film, and despite no visible means of support apart from his state pension, somehow managed to live with an air of grand extravagance. Only three days before his sudden death, he had returned from a holiday in the south of France, short of cash but full of new ideas.

As he grew frailer, he played old age as a rewarding character role. He and Cornish had lived in a sequence of carefully chosen and spectacularly furnished homes, though Disley spent his last years in sheltered housing in Kennington. He took it in his stride, planted a garden, and threw occasional parties for his startled fellow-residents.

Not just "occasional parties": Disley was a master of outraged invective against the swingeing penny-pinching in sheltered accommodation that a miserable local administration was imposing, and campaigned with startling energy against them. Read the Guardian piece, anyway.

Back to the old skool: Euroscepticism lives

Gordon Brown, Mansion House speech:

"Our task now and in the years to come is to move Europe from the old trading bloc to the new global Europe it can become and we should do so under the banner of a pro-European realism, where Europe itself becomes more competitive, more flexible and more enterprising.

"This is a long-term programme of economic reform that we will now promote in our presidency of the EU."

Welcomed, noisily, by Tory Eurosceptic (and arch-Thatcherite) John Redwood. Combined with Blair's attempted handbagging of European leaders last week, New Labour's considered (if predictable) response to the rejection of the proposed EU constitution is to demand yet more of precisely the elements vociferously rejected. "...more competitive, more flexible and more enterprising": the language of neoliberalism. Why, incidentally, are we asked to imagine Gordon Brown as more "left-wing" than Blair?

In other news, Lenin kicks a poor befuddled drunk when he's down. The cad. Relatedly, here's a potted guide to Leo Strauss, from a Straussian.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Respect can't build in the working class blah blah Muslim votes blah blah blah...

On using religion as an excuse

Now this is what I call inciting religious hatred:

Reality TV show Big Brother portrays role models with values that inspire its viewers, the chief executive of Channel 4 has said.

Andy Duncan said the show offered positive values, transformatory experiences and examples of personal self-improvement and growth.

The contestants had honesty, integrity, constancy and kindness, he added.

Mr Duncan, a practising Christian, was talking to a Christian group about his channel's religious output.

"Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain..." Off to the fiery pits with that wretched sinner, then.

Incidentally, the "Christian group" in question is Faithworks, who have a history of talking communtarian gibberish and who - lo! a miracle! - count Blair amongst their suppoters.

Gordon Brown, the People's Hero (again)

Having endorsed the protests, Brown now wants to clasp us tightly to his bosom:

Gordon Brown today revealed he hopes to take part in a massive demonstration during the G8 summit.

The Chancellor said he had been invited to the Make Poverty History march in Edinburgh next month.

Mr Brown is the first Cabinet member to state that he is likely to attend the rally, which is expected to bring up to a million people on to the streets of the Scottish capital...

When he was asked about the march, Mr Brown said: “I have been invited to speak at one event and I hope that I will be able to do so.”

Don't mention the war.

Tax credits: a thoroughly New Labour triumph

The tax credits scandal has finally broken into the headlines:

The government's tax credit system is subject to "completely unacceptable" errors, Citizens Advice (CAB) has said.

A third of recipient families have been overpaid - and many forced into poverty when HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) takes back overpayments, the charity said...

CAB's damning report - based on 150,000 cases handled by the charity, which runs the Citizens Advice Bureaux - said that HMRC had "failed to live up to its own standards of information, clarity and efficiency of service" in the administration of tax credits.

From the Guardian:

In the first year alone, one third of all awards - 1,879,000 - were overpaid by a total of £1,931m, official figures revealed.

The ombudsman - who is in charge of investigating complaints against government departments - was unable to say how many of those had been due to government mistakes and how many had been caused by delays in claimants reporting changed circumstances.

Her report noted that 1,000 officials were currently handling complaints, and said overpayments caused by official errors in the first two years could be written off.

This dreadful mess cannot be blamed only on bad administration. Tax credits are so complex that they have deterred literally hundreds of thousands of potential beneficiaries. (PDF file; see p.36, where the IFS spin the figures to state that 150,000 non-claimants is only "fractionally lower" than predicted.) It is the combination of that complexity and a seriously under-prepared administration has proved disastrous, not least for the thousands of families now suffering as a result.

It is a direct result of the "Third Way": over-complex schemes, carefully devised to meet the requirements of the labour market alongside some nodding acquaintance with social justice have produced this mess. The bizarre idea that markets, if cajoled, can somehow produce social justice is integral to New Labour's thinking, and not least to the thoughts of its most active exponent, Gordon Brown.

The Rowntree Foundation, some time ago, recommended a simple redistribution of wealth to meet poverty and inequality targets. This IESR report is an important critique of targetted benefits. The case for a simple and efficient system of redistributive taxation, stripped of means-testing, is strengthened by the tax credit debacle.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Our Word is Our Weapon on William Easterly and his enormous fallacy. Fnar fnar. Critical bit:

Firstly, there's a logical fallacy, in that it assumes that because Africa received aid and got poorer, the aid caused the poverty. But quite a lot of other things were going on at the same time, so the aid need not have caused the poverty - it could even have relieved a potentially much worse situation. And in fact that's exactly what did happen.

The second reason is that all that $450bn is described as 'aid'. This statement is usually dragged up to criticise today's aid-giving, and the implication is that today's aid is no different from that $450bn. Well, that's not true. Much of that 'aid' was simply bribes the rich countries paid to friendly African regimes not in order to promote development but in order to promote their foreign policy. The 'aid' was not expected to be spent as aid, nor was it. So pointing out that it didn't benefit Africa says nothing about the effectiveness of aid today.

He has links, too, so go there for them. I'd only add that I'm not going to get too excited about the latest round of debt and aid shennanigans because of the way both are being used to promote free trade at the expense of development.

Productivity growth, a-bloody-gain

Having jumped all over the mythology of Brown's "economic miracle", and in particular the failure to address longstanding productivity issues, along comes this article:

But amid this summer of our discontent there is, still, some cause for optimism. A silver lining rings the clouds in the form of the possibility of a sustained acceleration in Britain’s productivity. It is an enticing prospect that holds out the promise of a transformation in the country’s economic potential. If it is confirmed, it could yet do much to offset the impact of the cyclical slowdown upon which the economy seems to have embarked...

Until last year Britain’s recent productivity record could reasonably be dismissed as dire. It reached a nadir in 2002, when the annual growth of productivity measured by output per worker fell to only 0.7 per cent. Over the first three years of this decade the average figure was only 1.7 per cent. That compares with an average annual rate of 2.8 per cent in the Sixties, the nation’s productivity heyday.

Last year, however, there were signs of improvement. Productivity growth jumped to 2.8 per cent in the second quarter and remained at a respectable 2.2 per cent in the following three months. Admittedly it then slowed again, to 1.7 per cent, in the final quarter of last year. But, as Ms Redwood observes, the news is still encouraging — especially if one focuses on the even better showing of private enterprises, after stripping out the dead weight drag from the public sector. Private sector productivity climbed to an impressive peak last year of 3.6 per cent.

Public sector "dead weight drag" is a nonsense: the public sector overwhelmingly deals in services. Service productivity is both notoriously hard to measure and, when it can be measured, inclined to below-average growth, whether the service is in public or private hands. Services are often highly labour intensive, like nursing, and of such complexity that mechanisation is difficult to introduce. There's even a sound, orthodox case to be made that the public sector ought to cover only the lowest productivity services, leaving the rest to the market. To blame the public sector for slowing down productivity growth, as is done here, is to mistake cause and effect. Anyway.

The article's main contention, based on a Capital Economics report, is that we could finally be seeing the long-awaited productivity benefits of the "ICT revolution". You might remember, at the height of the bubble, much excitable talk about the "new economic paradigm", the "fourth industrial revolution", and even dry old Alan Greenspan becoming positively energetic about the miracles of telecommunications technology, not least in sluggardly service industries.

In practice, the internet has revolutionised office life only inasmuch as it has provided a thousand more ways for bored staff to avoid work, like blogging. The assumptions of a productivity overhaul were questioned at the time and the bubble's subsequent collapse appeared to confirm the analysis. The most significant increases in US labour productivity arose in the decade or so preceding the bubble, driven by the decidedly old-fashioned technique of making workers labour longer, and for less money.

The argument now is that, after a significant gestation period, the true productivity gains are emerging. Without having seen the original report (he says as a caveat), there are a number of reasons to be dubious about this judgement. First, sudden improvements in apparent productivity may reflect the market power of US firms, rather than true innovation. Much of the hysteria about the revolutionary impact of ICT depended on looking at components of productivity that aren't directly measurable. Because they aren't directly measurable, they are particularly unreliable. What one person claims as a huge improvement due to the mysterious effects of the internet, another could easily claim as measurement error, or the product of large firms able to dominate markets.

Second, the length of time for this gestation period is uncertain. If we allow that it takes a long time to install new technology, train everyone how to use it, and wait for others to catch up with you - a telephone is no use unless others have telephones, likewise with the internet. But there's no good indication as to how long this should take, and no real explanation as to why, after the networks are in place and training acquired, the gains should be so unevenly distributed, whether comparing across sectors or whole national economies.

The most likely explanation for any sudden upturn in UK productivity growth is exactly as the article admits: that it is cyclical, the side-effect of continued economic growth last year. When growth in the whole economy slows down, so too will productivity growth.

Shorter version, for them as can't be bothered: nah, Gordy's still stuffed.

A distinct creaking

Given the dependence of the Brown economy on property prices rising faster than incomes, this ought to cause concern:

HOUSE prices are rising more slowly than people’s wages, according to a survey of asking prices.

Rightmove, the property website, said that annual house-price inflation fell to just 2.4 per cent this month. This was down from 4.9 per cent in May, and well below the 4.6 per cent annual increase in people’s wages recorded by the Office for National Statistics last week.

If you sit quietly, you can just about hear the faint grinding and creaking behind Brown's swagger.

Brigstocke, contrite:

Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci could never have known when they made The Day Today that thousands of devotees would so carelessly, crappily copy their model and so many nice old people would be left wondering what the hell just happened as four big men and a camera strode away giggling.

Oh, but they did. They very much knew. The inevitability with which they would be aped by legions of slack-jawed producers clawing after irony was all part of their horrific black humour. Watching The Day Today now is simply pointless; ten minutes of any major news channel will cover the same material.

Bashing Bono (and Bob)

George Monbiot's on top form at the moment, here laying into a creeping cosiness about the G8:

Listen to these men - Bush, Blair and their two bards - and you could forget that the rich nations had played any role in Africa's accumulation of debt, or accumulation of weapons, or loss of resources, or collapse in public services, or concentration of wealth and power by unaccountable leaders. Listen to them and you would imagine that the G8 was conceived as a project to help the world's poor.

I have yet to read a statement by either rock star that suggests a critique of power. They appear to believe that a consensus can be achieved between the powerful and the powerless, that they can assemble a great global chorus of rich and poor to sing from the same sheet. They do not seem to understand that, while the G8 maintains its grip on the instruments of global governance, a shared anthem of peace and love is about as meaningful as the old Coca-Cola ad.

I can't fault him on the Bono. The whinnying one-trick pony appears to believe that sharing a "laugh" with Bush and schmoozing carpet-chewing fundamentalist spivs like Pat Robertson and Billy Graham is going to help Africa. Has he, as the nice NGO people say, "raised awareness"? Only amongst U2 fans; and for their own safety, these are people best left in total ignorance. So fuck Bono. ("Lennon and McCartney of global development": this alone would be unforgivable.)

Geldof, on the other hand, I raised a mild hurrah for earlier against a certain sneering amongst our more anarchistic comrades. It's his "awarness raising": there aren't any Boomtown Rats aficionados still alive, so Geldof must be communicating a little more widely. The successive media furores he's raised about the G8 have been impressive.

The devil is in the details. Geldof's big message is good. His actual proposals are less good. Saying George Bush has "done more for Africa" than any other US President is, given Bush's rampant support for free trade in Africa, laughable. Geldof counts aid spending, and then forgets what it comes attached to - in Bush's case, and in the case of the current G8 proposals, wholesale liberalisation: a continuation of the policies that have already brought so much devastation to Africa. As Monbiot says, there's no clear evidence of a critique here: instead, me, you, Geldof, Blair and Bush - oh, and maybe the odd African or two - are all on the same side together. If we follow Geldof here we are following him up the garden path.

The caution is needed, but Monbiot is perhaps becoming too worried: there is a sophistication within the global justice movement, a sophistication developed over successive mobilisations, and through a continuous critique, that has percolated down through layers and layers of NGOs, trade unions, churches and to hundreds of thousands of individuals. I do not believe that those who attend the protests in Scotland will be so easily led: not by Geldof; not, in more sophisticated form, by Oxfam. There is an experience in Britain, gained since 2001, of mass mobilisation; there has been a politicisation of all manner of civil society institutions since the "war on terror" was declared. The decisive issue in Scotland will be how the demonstrators against the G8 relate to that war.

Rod Liddle as the Last Man

Via Lenin, K-Punk:

The ideology that speaks through Liddle has total disdain for faith because having faith means having a commitment, a fundamental project. Whereas Liddle, like Aaronovitch and most every other columnist in the British hack pack, demands the right to 'debate'. This is the vacuous non-faith to which Liddle and his ilk pledge allegiance; 'arguably,' he says, 'the most valuable thing we in the liberal West possess is a fervent disagreement about what is good for us as a society.' But there is an inevitable paradox about this that Nietzsche was perhaps the quickest to identify and analyse. How can you make a fundamental commitment of your lack of fundamental commitment? What is left in this situation is the blandly terrifying blankness of the Last Man, the armchair critic at the end of history, engorged on a surfeit of awareness of the past and of cultural difference, unable to commit and to believe even if he wanted to.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Crushing inner party democracy beneath the iron fist of etc

Roy Hattersley:

It was barely four years ago that grassroots Tories chose Iain Duncan Smith in preference to Kenneth Clarke. Then a walkover had to be arranged for Michael Howard in case he proved too liberal-minded for the local membership to stomach. He spent much of his time as leader - and most of the general election campaign - narrowing the gap between the Conservatives and the British National party. He clearly knew where his core vote lay.

A vague thought, inbetween Hattersley's chuckles, that alongside latter-day liberal capitalism, modern political parties are making a deliberate retreat from democracy: the ascension of Tony Blair was provided for by the crippling of breaking of attempts to democratise the Labour Party; the Tory leadership realises it must do the same thing if it is to retain any vestige of credibility. The parallels aren't exact, but there's something going on here.

Brown and the UK economy

Written for elsewhere, don't know if it'll get used:

Gordon Brown, Prime Minister-to be, is feted to the skies for his supposedly adroit management of the UK economy. Even his most hardened critics, like Tony Blair, grit their teeth and claim Brown is the “most successful Chancellor for 100 years”. For some of those in Labour circles disillusioned with Blair, Brown-nosing has become second-nature; but in flattering the man, they sign up to his mythology.

Once, the soft Left condemned the ascendancy of the City of London and its cosy relationship with the most patrician of all government departments, the Treasury. Now, under Brown, the dense network of contacts and contracts established between Whitehall, the major financial institutions, and ever-present management consultants is lauded to the skies. Where Will Hutton once condemned the “gentlemanly capitalists” controlling economic policy, he now praises Brown’s courting of the same City gentlemen. Ken Livingstone, who at the GLC ferociously attacked the “parasites” in the Square Mile, now relies on consultants PWC to oversee the London congestion charge.

Private Finance Initiative schemes have been transformed from a crazed last-gasp fantasy of a senile and dying Tory administration into a multi-billion pound industry, and a fundamental hinge of government economic policy. City suits become Whitehall mandarins with ever greater frequency, government spending on management consultants rising every year under Blair, to over £1bn in 2004. One-third of all consultancy income in the UK now comes from the public sector. The revolving door between lucrative consulting jobs and senior government posts was notoriously revealed in the transfer of Sir Michael Barber, Blair’s top advisor on policy “delivery”, to secretive management consultants McKinsey - just as former McKinsey consultant, David Bennett, stepped in as Blair’s top advisor on policy “reform”.

The flourishing offspring of intimate relations between the Treasury and the financial institutions, as chaperoned by the “politically independent” Bank of England, personal debt in the UK has soared to a record of over £1trillion, 80% of which is used to finance house-buying. With rising property prices underlined by easier access to credit and low interest rates, millions of Britons have been able to borrow and spend far beyond their earnings, fuelling a consumer boom. More recently, this private sector debt has been joined by a public deficit, Brown’s increases in public expenditure pushing government borrowing upwards. Both have enabled British capitalism to simultaneously squeeze take-home pay and yet maintain high levels of consumption expenditure, keeping inflation low whilst promoting a boom.

Gordon Brown’s economic policies have created a dangerous bubble that barely conceals the creaking economic gears beneath: the collapse of Rover was only the most visible point of a tremendous strain that has been placed on British manufacturing industry, with over 800,000 manufacturing jobs lost since 1997. The debt-fuelled boom in consumer spending has failed to boost manufacturing output: a high pound has meant cheap overseas goods can be bought with cheap domestic credit. Over £92.2bn flowed into the UK in 2004 to finance borrowing, a substantial increase on the previous year. From Tony Blair’s first election victory onwards, almost the entire rise in spending on consumption goods has gone on imports. Britain’s trade deficit now stands at 5.2% of GDP, nearly as high as under the worst years of the 1980s.

None of these deficits have produced a “miracle”. The huge flows of funds now rushing into the UK have not fundamentally resolved its longstanding economic problems. Disparities of wealth have grown as a direct result of the bubble economy, with the richest 1% of the country increasing their share of national wealth from 20% to 23% under Blair. The poorest 50%, by contrast, saw their holdings decline from 7% in 1996, to 5% today. Unemployment remains very high, and often concentrated in declining areas: in addition to the 2m on incapacity benefits, a recent study suggested some towns in Britain have as many as 40% of the population out of work. Stephen Machin, of the Centre for Economic Policy Research, found that Britain is now a significantly less economically mobile society than in the 1960s and 1970s, with the children of the poor more likely to remain poor throughout their lives.

Business investment has fallen since 1997 to just over 10% of GDP, close to the levels of the 1990s recession, and significantly below that of other developed countries. The government’s apparent commitment to “high-technology” is undermined by the slide in R&D investment from 1.5% of GDP in 1990 to just over 1% today, lower than any other G7 economy. Brown’s increases in public spending have only slightly increased public investment, which remains below the level under Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Each worker in the UK uses 25% less capital than their US counterpart, and 60% less than each German worker. This lack of capital, and the slide in investment, helps to explain Brown’s failure to significantly close the “productivity gap”: each worker in the UK is less productive than a worker in Germany, France or the US. This makes British capitalism less competitive than capitalism elsewhere, and has driven constant exhortations for greater effort on our part to compensate. Even in the context of a global capitalism that has been unable to sustain economic growth and maintain profits for the last three decades, British capitalism is a ramshackle edifice. Only the strenuous efforts of British workers, and the recklessly liberal application of debt finance, has maintained its recent, slightly quicker pace.

What the bourgeois economist John Maynard Keynes called the “liquidity trap” has reappeared: instead of risky investment in productive industry, capital is retreating into property and consumer debt, actively encouraged by the government. The risks in the system are thrown onto individual workers expected to compensate low wages through borrowing, but who cannot afford the consequences of a burst economic bubble.

The possibility of that bubble bursting grows daily: should property prices fall, banks will become uneasy about their mortgage liabilities and consumers consequently wary of spending. Either outcome could be disastrous, breaking the debt-consumption-debt cycle Brown has relied so heavily upon. A socialist alternative would promote the use of the public sector to democratise investment decisions, wresting control away from the City and the Treasury. The case for nationalising the pensions funds and the banks, removing them from shareholder diktat, is there to be made. Above all, there has to be a recognition that a sustainable and equitable economy cannot be built from debt-fuelled financial speculation.

ITV repeated the South Bank show interview with Iggy Pop last night. The guy's a legend: free of rock-star bullshit, and with a peculiarly critical view of the world. His dismissal of the hippies who sneered at his early years in The Stooges as "the corporate power-structure in waiting" was a highlight. Yes, it's been said before, but the fact that the children of the revolution (in the Marc Bolan sense) are to a very large extent responsible for seriously screwing up the world has never been phrased so succinctly.

All hail the conquering hero

The gravest danger in Scotland is not that protestors will be arrested, beaten, tear-gassed or shot at. It is the far more subtle threat that we will find ourselves sedulously rallied in the cause of Comrade Brown and his long march to Number 10. This right-winger sees it all too clearly:

...look at this in narrowly political terms, and the [debt relief] initiative is a triumph. In February, the Americans effectively kiboshed the proposals. Stories appeared that the Chancellor lacked the Prime Minister's silky negotiating skills and had "lectured" Condoleezza Rice. But two weeks ago it became clear that the Americans had shifted and, with them, most of Europe. Whatever the US Secretary of State thinks of Mr Brown, his relationships with the Treasury Secretary, John Snow, and with Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, were enough to win the day.

The result is that the Chancellor has shown himself to be as capable of diplomacy as Mr Blair. And it has to be said that Britain being in the lead on this issue has other benefits, too...

The best defence against this risk is the invasion of Iraq the Chancellor bankrolled: fight poverty, not war is a succinct statement and one that needs to be heard, over and over, in Edinburgh. As Christian Aid demonstrated yesterday, if we lose the political initiative before Brown and the G8, we are condemning millions of the world's poorest to the disastrous free trade policies the Chancellor (ably assisted by DFID) has pushed so assidiously.

Michael the Softy

Michael Portillo, Tory Party conference speech, 10 October 1995:

He also told delegates that 'around the world three letters send a chill down the spine of the enemy - SAS'. Those letters spelled out one clear message - don't mess with Britain.

He added: 'To the European Court of Human Rights, who criticised the SAS action in Gibraltar, we send another clear message - don't give comfort to terrorists.'

Turning to Conservative election chances, he said Tories should adopt the SAS's famous motto - Who Dares, Wins. 'We dare. We will win,' he declared.

(From the Daily Mail report. They liked it. The Tories didn't win.) Michael Portillo, Sunday Times column, 19 June 2005:

Whitehall thinks that possessing nuclear weapons helps to secure Britain’s position as one of the five permanent members of the United Nations security council. But if the ability to blow up the planet is the qualification for presiding over the world’s peacemaking body, then we should already have rewarded India, Pakistan and Israel with membership and we should be preparing to welcome Iran and North Korea.

It is a dangerous line of argument. We encourage developing countries to believe that we will take them more seriously and invite them to the top table if they acquire nuclear weapons. Indeed, since Pakistan joined the nuclear club and recklessly spread weapons technology to the world’s most terrifying states, General Musharraf, its leader, has been feted by President Bush...

In general the West’s approach to proliferation is desperately muddled. The US gives the impression that it might go to war to stop Iran getting the bomb. That cannot be because it is a Muslim country nor because it gives its secrets to rogue states, since those points apply to Pakistan. Is it because Iran is not a democracy? In the past week it has voted for its president. Musharraf is unelected.

Granted, Micahel Portillo has not turned into Michael Foot, whom Portillo, repeating a popular myth, alleges lost the 1983 general election for supporting unilateral nuclear disarmament. He does, however, conclude by comparing Britain's supposed "new-found generosity to Africa" with the colossal sums proposed for updating its nuclear weaponry; an appeal that places him somewhat to the left of the Make Poverty History leadership, for whom comparisons between arms and aid expenditure are politically abhorrent.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Fathers 4 Injustice II

Fathers 4 Justice look set on imploding. Good riddance. Antonia Bance has them nailed. Sample:

The "problem", if there is one, is far smaller than groups like F4J would have us believe. In 2003, 67,000 contact orders were granted and contact was refused in only 601 cases, less than 1% (source). As The Guardian points out, "in 1998, only 3 per cent of fathers' applications for contact orders were refused. By 2001 this had dropped to 1.3 per cent - that is 713, a figure which barely covers the number of men who murdered their wives and schedule one offenders (child abusers)". You have to ask, if so few cases were resolved with no contact granted, just what the parents in the cases where contact had been refused had done to deserve being refused contact...

Friday, June 17, 2005

As a follow up to Blood and Treasure on the miserably likely scenario that the US Democrats go for a "militant democracy everywhere" candidate against a peace-with-honour Republican in 2008, read this lengthy article by Peter Beinart. It is about as coherent, and as artfully-written, a defence of a pro-war left-liberal position as is likely to be found; that it is also unhesitatingly anachronistic, riddled with holes, and rests upon a highly tenuous analogy should be no surprise. (This, from, Eric Alterman, deals with its more questionable political assumptions. None of this is going to win me prizes for speedy blogging, but thanks to Dariush over in Lenin's comments boxes for pointing them in my direction.)

Methane and tin-foil hats III

Oh, you all scoffed when I raised it earlier, but now it's Proper News (or, at least, in the Telegraph):

Winter fuel bills are likely to soar this year as future gas prices hit their highest-ever level yesterday...

Energy companies said domestic bills would rise again and World Gas Intelligence, an industry analyst, said factories may be forced to shut for "days, weeks or longer in order to cut gas use"...


"Red Oskar"

Ignore the Indy's typically obnoxious sneering about the politics. The revival of the Left continues:

The former German finance minister, once described by Britain's Sun newspaper as "The most dangerous man in Europe", appeared in pouring rain last week in front of a 40-ton, Soviet-made bronze head of Karl Marx that survives as a "souvenir of communist culture" in the east German city of Chemnitz...

His chin jutting towards the lead-grey heavens, "Red Oskar", the renegade former Social Democrat turned left-wing bogeyman, did his best to confirm the long-held convictions of those present with a withering assault on the near-criminal shortcomings of Mr Schröder's government.

Nothing was spared in his invective. Germany's "neo-liberal" political elite had allowed the nation's public morals to become "rotten and depraved". It had hoodwinked workers into believing that industry had to shed thousands of jobs if it were to remain profitable.

George Galloway, Laurent Fabius, and (perhaps) Oskar Lafontaine. Polls suggest a united left party led by him could win up to 18% of the vote. Fingers crossed; anything close to that would be fantastic.

Bastards, and petty bastards with it

Read on the government's plans to ban protests in Westminster, and sign the pledge.

Complete sap

Jean-Claude Juncker, Prime Minister of Luxemburg, is pathetic:

In remarks that will be seized on by Eurosceptics, Mr Juncker insisted that the treaty could not be renegotiated and he suggested that French and Dutch voters had not said no. "I really believe the French and Dutch did not vote no to the constitutional treaty," he said.

and, earlier:

Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg prime minister who holds the rotating EU presidency and who was said to have been on the verge of tears when he heard news of the Dutch vote, summoned Gerhard Schröder for emergency talks. which the Apostate Windbag had an appropriate response.

He'll be sucking up to Bono next, you mark my words.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

"Scotland in Sunday fabricates G8 blood transfusion scare story"

You may have seen this:

Health chiefs are asking Scots to donate an extra 20,000 pints of blood amid fears that next month's G8 summit could descend into violence.

Plans have also been drawn up to import blood supplies from south of the Border if rioting breaks out among the huge crowds expected to descend on Edinburgh.

The Scotland on Sunday laying it on with a trowel. "Scotland braced for chaos... If there is blood spilt during the G8 demonstrations then a good supply of blood will be essential..." and so on. Lenin wrote to the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service, and, gosh, this is complete nonsense. From their reply:

Contrary to the headline in the newspaper last weekend, SNBTS is not
expecting a "blood crisis" to coincide with the G8 Summit and is not expecting a blood shortage as a result of G8.

Unfortunately, we believe there was a misrepresentation of the conversation which our spokesperson had with the journalist.

Scare stories notwithstanding, my guess is that there will be something of a softly-softly approach throughout the G8. Perth and Kinross council, I suspect, will back down from their ban, just as the authorities in England backed down from bars on antiwar demonstrations. Comparisons with Genoa will not hold. Back then, Gianfranco Fini, of the "post-fascist" National Alliance, was placed in charge of a police operation. A concerted effort made by Berlusconi's government to beat protestors into submission. Serious evidence of collusion between police and fascists, both infiltrating demonstrations, has emerged, with the violent "Black Block" being used to justify repeated attacks on peaceful demonstrators. Later, sleeping demonstrators were beaten unconscious by riot police, dragged off to a holding centre, torutured and held incommunicado for a few days. Jonathan Neale, in You Are G8, We Are 6 Billion describes all this very well, putting it in the context of Berlusconi's domestic concern to secure his (otherwise weak) government. (The Globalise Resistance magazine, "Resist", Genoa special, provided some immediate coverage.)

This is quite a long way from Gordon Brown positively inviting people up to Edinburgh. The politics are quite different. As long as they cannot force a divide between "good" and "bad" protestors - and that's been made very difficult by Geldoff - they cannot and will not want to repeat the same tactics. So quit your panicking; I'm going to stick my neck out on this one: anybody who feels like it should get themselves up to Edinburgh and Gleneagles for early July.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Debt relief: suspicions

"Thepikie" asked, in a comments box a few posts ago, what sort of conditions lay behind the hullaballoo surrounding the G8 announcement on debt relief. Bang on cue, the Belgium-based Committee to Abolish Third World Debt deliver the goods:

(1) The financial burden of the operation on rich countries would amount to some 2 billion dollars a year, compared to 350 billion the G8 devote to farming subsidies or 700 billion they spend in military expenditure. Rich countries would thus be willing to spend every year for the announced cancellation half of the amount the US spend every month on their continued occupation of Iraq. Moreover, the US would finance their contribution through their meagre aid for development budget, so they would not even have to find any additional resources... [Emphasis added]

The G8 decision represents a continuation of the HIPC initiative, which means the imposition of heavily neoliberal policies: privatisation of natural resources and of strategic economic sectors to the benefit of transnational corporations; higher cost of health care and education; a rise in VAT; free flow of capital, which leads to capital leaving the country as shown by several UNCTAD reports; lower tariff protection, which leads to thousands of small and middle producers losing their livelihoods because they cannot compete with imported goods.

Mandelson: sudden unexpected admission

If you've ever struggled through, with gritted teeth, The Blair Revolution, you'll know why any airing of Peter Mandelson's more profound thoughts about politics is best avoided. Here, though, is sudden moment of clarity in his post mortem for the EU constitution:

It was a vote against the idea of European integration, [the British Eurosceptics] say. Well actually it wasn't. In France, many on the left voted against the treaty because for them it didn't integrate enough. It didn't in their view build the kind of protectionist social Europe that they imagine, falsely in my view, would be a strong shield against globalisation.

If Mandelson can admit that French left defeated the constitution, can the rest of the pro-constitution left in Britain please get the heads round the idea?

Blood and Treasure offers a depressingly plausible prospect:

What’s the betting that Bush’s successor runs on a peace with honour ticket in the next election? And what’s the betting that such a programme trounces a Democratic candidate who’s finally made his or her peace with national security, locked Michael Moore in a cupboard and decided to run on a “militant democratization everywhere” platform?

"Depressingly plausible": we've already had a Democratic presidential candidate all but committed to "militant democratisation everywhere". The insanity of the leadership of the US Left - Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein - demanding the anti-war movement support a pro-war candidate staggers me yet. Is there any guarrantee that this won't happen again in 2008?

Our Word is Our Weapon has a demolition job on a crude piece of anti-aid propagandising from the "International Policy Network". Worth a read, if you like seeing right-wing loons speedily despatched.

The link between these two is, of course, Paul Wolfowitz and the troubling Millennium Challenge Account

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Books what I have read

Via Shuggy, rather furtively, I've been handed a book "meme". (Can I, for the record, just say how much I despise the word "meme". It drives me half-mad with irritation.) I notice Len's been similarly threatened, and - to reassure the Bionic Octopus - I will eventually get round to her superhero challenge (made via Lenin), once I've worked out if 2000AD is allowed in place of the Marvel nonsense everyone else has gone in for.

Number of books I own - I've been packing them all into boxes; a depressing task, but necessary for moving out, and with the advantage that I can give a reasonably accurate answer to this question: about 800. (Hence "depressing".) I'm completely unable to either throw books out or give them away, and so the damn things accumulate.

Last book I bought - I get them in bulk, as you might have guessed: Debt Relief for Poor Countries, edited by Tony Addison, Henrik Hansen and Finn Tarp; Fundamental Methods of Mathematical Economics by Alpha C. Chang (embarrassing, that one - in my defence, I needed it for work due to creeping maths rust, it was cheap secondhand, and it's a very good textbook); and The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs ("foreword by Bono", god help us), slagged off at DML already - though he's strong on bashing the British Empire, something that cannot be done too often.

Last book I re-read - a much better question that "last book I read". I've just finished re-reading A Question of Europe, edited by Peter Gowan and Perry Anderson, and have just started re-reading Empire by Niall Ferguson, who entirely fails to bash the British Empire.

Five books that mean a lot to me - how do you answer that one? I think I'm being asked for contexts, rather than for favourite books, or good books, or whatever. (I also think five is probably too few.) Oh well... here are some thoughts:

Western Capitalism Since the War by Mike Kidron, first edition (the second, in paperback, has some extended chapters on the arms race which weaken it slightly): a book that convinced me it was possible to be 1. a marxist 2. an economist (in Kidron's case, an extremely good, insightful one) and still produce crystal-clear, digestible works that could explain pretty complex ideas with a minimum of headscratching and confusion. It's dated now, obviously, but Kidron got most of his descriptions - and, more impressively, his predicitons - spot on. (Mike Kidron, sometime editor of International Socialism, died last year; for bonus celeb trivia points, his daughter Beeban directed Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.)

Microeconomics by Gravelle and Rees (second edition - can't, I'm afraid, remember their first names): another sodding textbook, but in all honesty I am eternally grateful to these two for having produced an exceptionally thorough guide to neoclassical microeconomics that I over-revised furiously from in my final undergrad term, thus swinging a really stonking mark in "Microeconomic Principles", therefore blagging a first overall, and so meeting the ludicrously tight entry requirements for the masters' course. How could I not be grateful? (NB: this is my Johann Hari moment, don't spoil it for me. The first edition of G'n'R, incidentally, is a lot more critical of the neoclassical paradigm, but these sections have been dropped in later printings; a sad indicator of the tendency Ed talks about here.)

State Capitalism in Russia by Tony Cliff: lightbulb-above-head moment; it takes thirty seconds to grasp the concept of state capitalism, it takes this concise book to demonstrate its application.

Lenin and Philosophy by Louis Althusser: yes, him. Read it when I was 18 or so. Introduces, by way of discussion of Christianity, the theory of interpellation: the idea that social structures "hail" individuals (a policeman calling "Hey, you!" is the analogy Althusser uses) and thus forms them as individuals. (From memory, he says as an insurance.) This is flawed, for a number of reasons; but I'd never seen religion interrogated philosophically (rather than theologically or sociologically) like this before.

The Road to Serfdom by Freidrich von Hayek: even worse, him. Not, by some distance, the best of his work (Prices and Production and The Constitution of Liberty are) but one that forces you to think. (I did think; Hayek's argument is ridiculously flimsy.) Read it years ago. It convinced me not to be a libertarian, but a democrat.

I'd also be tempted to throw in E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, bought secondhand for £1.50 and re-read repeatedly; Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, which I notice Shuggy also went for and which, like Hayek, contains one argument, forcefully presented; England's Dreaming by John Savage, the sort of book I've always quite fancied writing and one which gave me a peculiarly apocalyptic interpretation of 1979 and all that; Keynes' General Theory because it is funny, woefully (deliberately) misinterpreted, and helped fill in all sorts of gaps when I first read it; Isaac Deutscher's Trotsky biography, because it makes a persuasive case to be a revolutionary without covering up or disguising what this commitment means. I could carry on, but I think I'd start drifting off into books I'd recommend, rather than meaningful books. (Of the initial five, I'm not sure I'd really "recommend" any, as such, for general reading; perhaps Cliff.)

(Novels? Pah! I don't think any fiction I've read has made as much of an impression as the stuff above. Utterly soul-less, I'm afraid. Note to self: read more novels.)

I'm sure you're supposed to pass these things on. I'd be interested to see what Laban Tall has been reading to get (politically) where he is today.

The guns of Brixton (minus guns)

Four hundred at the Brixton Respect meeting last night - standing room only, a good mix of people: it looked, as these things are supposed to, like a meeting in Brixton, and the atmosphere was electric. (Ask Kotaji; he was there, too.) It goes almost without saying that Galloway was the major draw, and he did a cracking turn; he really is an exceptionally good judge of an audience, and this accounts for much of his appeal. But in some ways more impressive were the various local Respect members we had called up to talk about what we were doing in the area - Steve on the housing campaigns, Hannah on ASBOs, Sarah on schools, Gordon on the pensioners' forum. The quality of their contributions was extremely high; not just because of what they said, and how it was received, but because of who they are.

Something over 30 people joined Respect there and then, with many more taking forms, whilst the contact sheet runs to hundreds of names, addresses and phone numbers. After a slow start, Respect has arrived as a serious political force in Lambeth.

Kilroy's revenge

Remember Veritas? Complete bloody flop, of course, relative to Robert Kilroy-Silk's inflated fantasies of being carried back to Parliament on a rolling wave of xenophobia. But buried away amongst their refugee-bashing was their commitment to flat taxes; a lunatic idea, but for some reason one starting to gain a little
ground. Here's the esteemed Shadow Chancellor, voicing his interest:

A number of central and eastern European countries have introduced low flat taxes. Estonia, which I'm planning to visit in a couple of weeks' time, introduced a flat tax back in 1994. Others, like Poland, Slovakia and even Russia, have followed suit.

"Even Germany," he writes later ("even"?), " planning to cut its business tax rate by seven per cent." What Osborne mistakes as "the rest of the developed world trying to cut taxes" whilst Britain raises its own is, in fact, a slow convergence on taxation and government spending rates; which rather destroys his argument.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Tackling corruption (elsewhere)

Private Eye this week makes a good point, in passing: ratification of the UN's Convention Against Corruption has been demanded of African countries by the government's Commission for Africa (PDF). So far, 22 countries have ratified the convention. It needs thirty to come into force. Of the 22, precisely none are in the G8, with the UK government currently promising ratification "by the end of the year". As the Eye wonders, if the G8 countries are unprepared to ratify the convention, "how on Earth can the rich nations' club claim to be tackling the problems of corruption crippling developing world economies?"

It'll only encourage them: debt relief and corruption

Gavin Capps has an article forthcoming for the International Socialism Journal on Africa's debt. It'll be online in the next week or so, with a focus on the G8 and Make Poverty History. A common argument against debt relief and increases in aid is that African countries are simply too corrupt to deal with the extra cash; an echo of the White Man's Burden, frankly, but often repeated with best of intentions. Gavin tackles the issue head-on, and I reckon what he writes is worth reproducing:

...All of this would seem to support the claim of Blair’s Commission for Africa that corruption is the single biggest problem facing the continent. Certainly, the private appropriation and reinvestment of loan funds by senior state officials and politicians reached extraordinary heights. Best known is Mobutu Sese Seko, the then dictator of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), whose personal assets reportedly peaked at $4 billion in the mid-1980s. But simply attributing capital flight to the greed of African politicians hides more than it reveals.

First it was, of course, the great powers who propped up African dictators like Mobutu because they guaranteed Western strategic interests during the cold war. Mobutu was installed in mineral rich Zaire following the CIA-backed assignation of the popular, radical nationalist leader, Patrice Lumumba, and feted by Western governments, corporations and banks for much of his thirty two year reign . Mobutu and others like him were, then, the creatures of exactly the same people who now cry foul about the endemic corruption of Africa’s ‘political class’.

Secondly, the ‘corruption argument’ badly misunderstands the nature of the state in general, and that of Africa in particular. In all post-independence African ountries, the state quickly emerged as a site, if not the site, of capital ccumulation. Those groups in charge of the state were thus not simply ‘politicians’ and ‘bureaucrats’, they were also capitalists. In other words, they were also an economic class and, ultimately, one subject to the exactly same logics and forces as capitalists located in the private sector.

This point is well illustrated by the case of Apartheid South Africa. While the likes of Mobutu were shifting capital North in the early 1980s, so too was big South African business. Ben Fine and Zav Rustomjee have estimated that on average as much as 7 percent of GDP per annum left South Africa as capital flight between 1970 and 1988; an equivalent of 25% of non-gold imports . This was entirely due to the transfer activities of the major corporations like Anglo-American and the Rembrandt Group. And their behaviour was no less illicit than that of the dictators. Shifting private funds out of South Africa in the 1980s not only defied local capital controls but broke the international sanctions regime on Apartheid. As such, the neo-liberal pathologisation of the corrupt black African state, simply does not hold. The private ‘white’ capitalists of South Africa were busy engaging in capital flight as well.

Finally, the ‘corruption argument’ tells us nothing about the wider processes that were driving African capital flight. Fine and Rustomjee argue that the South African corporations shifted their resources in response to a combination of declining opportunities for local investment, particularly following the domestic economy’s descent into crisis, and the new opportunities for financial and other investment opening up in the North . This captures the greater truth. Whether Africa’s capital exporters were located in the public or private sectors, they too were reacting to the deepening crisis of their economies and the gravitational pull of increasingly liberalised money markets located in major financial centres like New York, London or Paris. As such, they were doing no more than chasing profits – the essence of the entire capitalist system.

Brown, Bono and the Washington Consensus

Despite Lenin, Gordon Brown is pleased with himself:

The chancellor said the significance of the package agreed by the finance ministers of the G7 - G8 countries minus Russia - in London on Saturday went far beyond the $1-2bn (£552m-£1.1bn) of debt relief offered to the world's poorest countries, and included promises of $25bn of extra aid, a timetable for dismantling protectionism and treatment for all HIV/Aids sufferers by 2010.

Emphasis added. "Dismantling protectionism" will do precisely nothing for the less developed world: first, because outside of a limited range of primary commodity exports - agricultural and mined goods - most less-developed countries (LDCs) simply cannot compete with the North on equal terms; second, this being the case, sheer market forces will push LDCs into concentration on those exports; third, these markets are notoriously volatile, and - for the last few decades - have seen terms of their trade swing heavily against them.

Countries attempting to develop infant industries, and develop economically in any meaningful sense, need "protectionism". That's how, almost without exception, the developed world got where it is today. That's how South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan developed; that's how China and India, currently heralded as models for the rest of the world, maintain their consistent economic growth. If we're also concerned about the environmental effects of economic activity - and we very much should be - the case for maintaining protectionism and controls over those activity is overwhelming.

New Labour, however, is maintaining a line on development it established very early on. The former Development Secretary, the unlamented Clare Short, put it very explicitly when speaking to business leaders in the City of London's Guildhall, back in 1999:

The assumption that our moral duties and business interests are in conflict is now demonstrably false… I am very keen that we maximise the impact of our shared interest in business and development by working together in partnership… We being access to other governments and influence in the multilateral system – such as the World Bank and IMF… You are well aware of the constraints business faces in the regulatory environment for investment in any country… Your ideas on overcoming these constraints can be invaluable when we develop our country strategies. We can use this understanding to inform our dialogue with governments and the multilateral institutions on the reform agenda.

Similarly, Blair told the World Economic Forum in January 2000 that:

The right conclusion is that we have an enormous job to do to convince the sincere and well-motivated opponents of the WTO agenda that the WTO can be, indeed is, a friend of development, and that far from impoverishing the world's poorer countries, trade liberalisation is the only sure route to the kind of economic growth needed to bring their prosperity closer to that of the major developed economies.

There has been no change in that philosophy in the last five years. When I suggested previously that Brown was offering us only "happy-face neoliberalism", Jim, who runs the excellent blog, Our Word is Our Weapon, was quite irate:

Labour's development policy is not 'neoliberalism', happy-face or not. They have advocated much higher aid and debt relief, argued against imposing liberalisation on poor countries (either through the WTO or through bilateral treaties), and recently announced an end to conditionality on aid.

This, I think, misses the shift that has taken place in recent years in the regulation of the global economy. Joe Stiglitz was amongst the early "insider" voices condemning the Washington Consensus: a one-size-fits-all prescription for free trade, deregulation and privatisation as the route to economic success, importantly overseen by transnational institutions like the IMF and its notorious "structural adjustment programmes". It is to the global justice movement's great credit that this form of neoliberalism has received a hammering. It does not mean, however, that neoliberalism has been abandoned in toto by either the New Labour government or any other Northern ruling class.

What seems to be emerging is a new neoliberal consensus; the Seattle WTO demonstrations in 1999 opened up what had been previously somewhat hidden tensions amongst WTO member states, most especially between the North and sections of the global South. The WTO has been beset by problems since, whilst the formation of functioning blocs of middle-income nations has presented an awkward problem for the richer economies' assumed global leadership. The G8, representatives of the ruling classes of the leading economies, are faced with the task of healing the wounds opened up by the lashes of the Washington Consensus, and of reasserting themselves politically - within, of course, a basic framework of liberalisation that works to principally to their advantage. (If not, equally obviously, to ours.) Brown and Blair's current jet-setting is a critical part of that; with Washington itself ill-placed to promote a new consensus, the task has fallen to its most loyal servant.

It would be a mistake, then, to see Brown's grandstanding on Africa as simply part of a future leadership bid. This is an important element, but we cannot explain the frenetic efforts by that alone. Brown has a far more pressing task. The "new consensus" requires a less abrasive management. Certain sacrifices, through aid and debt relief, have to be made to re-establish the damaged legitimacy of the G8 nations and the global institutional framework. But the kind of far-reaching reforms to that framework an abandonment of neoliberalism would require are lacking.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Methane and tin-foil hats II

Jim Bliss' post on peak oil deserves a proper commment, though John has got suitably worked up about it. For the time being, however, I wanted to suggest that - instead of converting your car to ethanol, hoarding barrels of Brent crude in your garage, and so on - you start breaking up your furniture for firewood, because National Grid-Transco (NGT - the UK gas supply people) have printed their forecasts for Winter 2005/2006 (PDF).

Have a look at Figure 25. It shows last winter's demand for gas over the 100 coldest days, an expected "average" demand for gas, and the expected UK gas supply (at 90% reliability) for each day - that's everything pumped out of the North Sea, plus everything that can be transported from Europe. For several of those days, expected demand is significantly larger than expected supply. If this winter is as cold as that of 1985/86, expected demand will be higher than expected supply for every single winters' day. With a 1/50 probability, we will have an exceptionally cold winter, at which point the system will be entirely unable to cope. Of course, there are some storage facilites, but as NGT note, "If storage withdrawal nominations imply that one or more [safety] monitor would be breached, NGT would expect to take action to preserve storage stocks at or above the monitor level. This could involve invoking emergency procedures, including emergency interruption of daily metered customers."

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Vapid technocrat inspired by trite prattle: official

Schiller be damned:

Mr Barroso told Bono a lyric from U2 song Zooropa had inspired an article he wrote about the future of Europe.

To applause from Bono, he recited the lyric: "Don't worry baby, it's going to be all right. Uncertainty can be a guiding light."

(I like "to applause from Bono". It hints at "...and no-one else".) Between this and Jean-Claude Juncker's anguished sobs, it would seem Europe is led by a troupe of histrionic adolescents.

"So long, so green/We love you, District Line"

Justin has been using public transport:

Perhaps that's what we do, the sick people of London: we travel round on buses, picking fights with one another.

Shortly after moving to London, I was on the District Line at Bow Road when a powerfully-built, unkempt man carrying a bin-bag got on, and, after shouting to no-one in particular, started hitting the plexiglass compartment divider - with his fists, then with his head, both hard enough to hurt. Tiring of this, he decided to strike up a conversation with me.

"They've just let me out," is, I reckon, a bad way to break the ice.

Cheap French philosophy

I've got a spare ticket to see Alain Badiou speaking on "The Passion for Inexistence" at the Jacques Derrida commemoration lecture Birkbeck College is hosting tomorrow. (Can't make it myself; events, dear boy, events.) Anyone who thinks sitting through an hour of postanalytical ultra-left French philosophy is a pleasant way to spend a Friday evening, email me and I'll devise a cunning plan to get the ticket to you.

Apostate Bolivian Windbag

Apostate Windbag has a "quick and dirty alternative primer on events in Bolivia". Example:

The short version of events is that the poor, working class and indigenous of Bolivia - the country's majority - angered with their natural-resource-rich country having been plundered for hundreds of years refused to see their patrimony plundered one more time. Incensed at the minimal royalties and taxes foreign companies would return to Bolivia in return for the theft of the country's considerable natural gas reserves and inspired by the transformation that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has shown is possible if resource revenues are invested in social programmes and development, protestors have essentially shut the country down...

This Trotskyite Tintin wannabe is on a roll at the moment.

Rehabilitating the Third Way

I've not got my grubby paws on the IPPR's latest wonkfest, The British Road to Social Justice, but a quick scan over the press release suggests:

1. Why does the title parody the Communist Party's revisionist classic, The British Road to Socialism?

2. The "Anglo-social" model: yes, we've tried that for the last eight years. Expecting free markets to produce social justice is an absurdity. The Third Way does not work, even in its own terms; calls for more redistributive taxes and increasing basic pensions are all very well, but without also challenging the institutional framework they operate in, and without challenging the fundamental biases of the free market towards greater inequality, they won't amount to very much.

What the IPPR appear to have produced is a slightly more rigorous formulation of the programme New Labour has always worked to - it is firmer about needing social justice, but unclear as to how the forces that produce inequality should be curtailed. This is a Brownite manifesto [*] and nothing more. It is inadequate to the task of dealing with either the pronounced weaknesses and failings of the "Anglo-Saxon model" and the Third Way; and insufficient to deal with the wholesale rejection of the whole neoliberal project like that delivered by the French referendum. (Having duly pronounced judgement, I'll have to go and read the thing.)

[*] Update: "...unclear as to how the forces that produce inequality should be curtailed. This is a Brownite manifesto...": it's not just "unclear", it attempts to embrace them. As for "Brownite manifesto", on reflection I am not too sure whether - beyond a few rhetorical quirks - there is sufficient difference between Brown and Blair to impose this distinction. Relative to the Third Way as a whole, "Brownism" slightly stresses social justice beyond that "Blairism" is comfortable with. Yet on this weak rhetorical ground, an entire cottage industry of Brown-nosing hackery has been assembled.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Bad debt

Not good:

Royal Bank of Scotland, Britain's second biggest bank, today reported an increase in provisions to cover bad debt as economic conditions for customers become tougher.

The Edinburgh-based bank has followed rivals, including Barclays, in revealing that credit arrears had grown. However, it insisted there was no cause for alarm and said the figures were "within normal parameters".

Under abnormal conditions. Private borrowing is now somewhat over £1 trillion in the UK. What Will Hutton praises as "boosting personal spending via easy credit and mortgages collateralised against property" has seen the British economy through an extraordinary period of government and trade deficits alongside huge private dissaving. That situation can rest for as long as "easy credit and mortgages" can be provided by the financial sector; but the more they are asked to provide, the more unstable this uneasy balancing act becomes.

Each new loan advanced exposes a bank to an increased risk of default. To insure against default, they can demand collateral. But the value of that collateral - house prices - is itself determined within this financial circuit. The insoluble problem is that the point at which property prices turn sour and banks become less willing to provide debt is precisely the point at which further loans are needed by consumers. One indicator here is repossesions, which are already rising significantly.

This doesn't mean a return to the breadlines, nor even that a recession is inevitable. It does mean that New Labour's claims to have transformed the UK economy through their economic reforms will be put to the test. Significant structural weaknesses have been covered over by the consumer borrowing boom. The lopsided dependence on the service sector to deliver growth, for example, is fine until the service sector stops growing (or, at least, stops growing so fast). For those in "flexibilised" labour markets, and carrying huge levels of personal debt, those economic weaknesses translate too quickly into direct personal hardship.

Further evidence that the devil has all the best tunes

Don't let this put you off going:

Travis, Texas and Dido are among the artists heading the line-up of an anti-poverty concert in Scotland next month, just days after the Live8 shows...

The concert is being seen as the final element of the three- stage campaign to persuade the G8 summit to act on the Make Poverty History campaign.

Midge Ure foolishly thinks this will discourage people from "smashing windows". There is nothing more likely to turn a peaceful crowd into a frenzied mob than subjecting them to "Travis, Texas and Dido". Rrrr. Just thinking about them makes me want to hurl brickbats.

(See also. Hungbunny's new site is here. He now seems to think he's a DJ of some sort, poor soul.)

Monday, June 06, 2005

In agreement with Vince Cable

Well, more-or-less:

"It's because of the politics of identity that I can't see the Conservative Party reverting back to the role it had in the Fifties, Sixties and even under Margaret Thatcher as a broad church appealing to people on the middle ground. I cannot see that happening any more. There will have to be realignment.

"I can see a world where there is an authentic party of the nationalist right, an authentic socialist party and several in the centre."

The good thing about privileging "identity" is that you, as a Liberal Democrat, can rehabilitate a classical form of liberalism, shoving economic questions still further from political discourse whilst presenting yourself as terribly cosmopolitan and vaguely of the left. It ignores the ferocity with which those economic questions can suddenly re-emerge: it's difficult to comprehend the French "no" otherwise, liberal-left interpretations notwithstanding. So Cable's right about the possibility of a multiparty system in Britain, but for the wrong reasons.

[I'm particularly embittered about the Lib Dems at the moment as I've just realised, a month after the election, that my university contemporaries are now becoming MPs. This is far worse than discovering half of them are pregnant, getting married, etc. Jo's very personable and all that, but she's too young (though admittedly slightly older than me) and it's just not right. See also BionOc on her podling, with pics.]

A plug for Pablo

He's been bashing away at The Human Tide for a few weeks now. It deserves at least checking out, particularly for this, this and even this on Israel/Palestine.

The State He's In

Maybe I'm being a little unfair. Perhaps, between the 1995 publication of The State We're In, damning all that was British in economic policy before all that was European, and his 2005 cheerleading for precisely the opposite view, Will Hutton had a Damascene moment. But I haven't seen it, and the contrast jars. Where once he would have condemned the British "economic and social model", he now praises it to the skies. Where once he held Germany up as an example for us all, he now condemns its lack of "honesty" when facing its failings.

It is all a little hard to fathom; the substantive recommendations of The State... have been studiously ignored by Blair and Brown: the Treasury is more centralised and domineering than ever; millions have been exposed to great financial risks through the staggering expansion of personal debt; and the City, the real villain of Hutton's earlier drama, is feted, courted and mollycoddled by this government whilst manufacturing industry is squeezed ruthlessly.