Tuesday, 20 December 2011


The British tax authorities were accused by MPs yesterday of conniving with big businesses to help them avoid paying their tax. The biggest culprit appears to be Vodaphone - there are claims they have had up to £8 billions in tax written off by Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs - they deny this, but whatever the truth, they have been given a whole 5 years to pay £1.25 billion in long overdue, unpaid tax - with no interest to pay!

The head of the HMRC meantime, has enjoyed on average of one meal per week with the owners of the very businesses he is meant to be chasing up to pay their tax. I'm sure it was always a very tense soup course. We should be thankful that the activist group UKuncut is pursuing legal action to make big business pay its taxes - though it looks like it will be in for a long haul.

In total, HMRC has written off around £27 billions of tax due but not paid by corporations in the UK. Worse still though it that when you take into account the tax lost through legal but highly unethical methods like moving money offshore, the loss to the Treasury rises to around £75 billions or even more. This includes the family trust fund of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, so no conflict of interest there.  To put into context, the Government annual deficit for the current year could be cut by nearly 60% if these grasping spivs were made to cough up their due. But somehow they are excused on the basis that it would be damaging to the nation if enforcing their tax payments drove them away - apparently we would no longer have the benefit of their presence.


Sunday, 18 December 2011

Taking Tea With Adolf - the Tories' Nazi Fetish

Aidan Burley MP (right) said he regretted the behaviour of the others in the party...
Just hours after the Prime Minister called for "Christian values" to save Britain from moral decay, a Tory MP, Aidan Burley, has been fired from his post as Private Parliamentary Secretary at the Department for  Transport. The Cannock Chase parliamentarian had been seen as a rising star until he was photographed at a stag party where the groom was dressed as a Nazi. Although initially claiming (after the photo was published in a Sunday newspaper) that he had felt uncomfortable and should have left the party sooner, it came to light that he had actually hired and paid for the fascist outfit and was more than a tad instrumental in setting the theme for the evening. At this point, Prime Minister Cameron decided he had to go, more it seems to avoid the bad publicity than through any real regret about the offence caused/

So far, so tasteless, but Burley is far from the first Conservative activist to have a more than passing fascination with things Nazi and a strange desire to dress up in the clobber Hugo Boss designed and supplied (latterly using slave labour) for the Hitler Gang back in the inter-war years.
Hugo Boss: by appointment to Hitler

Both in the UK and USA, the supposedly respectable right in the Tory Party and the Republicans appear to have a good number of people in their ranks who have a taste for SS-chique. Last year, for example, a Republican candidate for Senate in Ohio defended his regular dressing up as a Nazi Waffen-SS officer to re-enact the glories of the Hitler years. And a letter in Private Eye in 2007 alleged that, while at University in the 1970s, former Tory MP and now UKIP big wig Neil Hamilton joyfully paraded with henchmen dressed in Nazi-style brownshirts.

Anyone involved in student politics in the 1980s, the heyday of Thatcherite triumphalism, will recall the rumours and the real sightings of members of the Federation of Conservative Students enthusiastically sieg-heiling each other after a few beers and the (particularly) odd ones who seized any opportunity at all to don alleged "fancy dress" with some sort of Nazi theme. But this is hardly surprising when you look at the actual politics of these people.

Tory students, 1980s
The FCS in the 1980s was well known for its extreme positions on a range of policy fronts, with racism and a taste for authoritarianism ranking high in their pantheon. This, after all, was the group that, under the chairmanship of current Speaker of the Commons John Bercow MP, repeatedly called for Nelson Mandela to be hanged and very enthusiatically voiced its support of vicious military regimes in Chile and elsewhere. In at least one case, its members sought to make common cause with the British National Party, formed by John Tyndall, who also had a strong liking for donning Nazi outfits. It was disbanded by the main party only after its 1985 conference at Loughborough University deteriorated into a drunken riot.

The BNP's Tyndall (left)
But today, their successors are little better - just a few weeks ago, Conservative students at St Andrews University burned an effigy of Barack Obama and just a few days before that Oxford University Conservatives were put under investigation after claims of members singing Nazi songs celebrating killing Jews at one of their "Port & Policy" meetings - one committee member who resigned in protest said that this is a regular event among a group which counts the current Prime Minister and Chancellor among its alumni and which is seen as a nursery for future Tory leaders and PMs.

Many Conservative have been repeatedly found sympathising and actively engaging with the most odious far right groups - Cameron himself pushed the Tories out of their links with mainstream Christian Democrats in the European Parliament into an alliance with very extreme, homophobic and fascistic eastern European parties. This includes blatantly neo-Nazi sympathisers in the Baltic states and Polish politicians who derided the election of Obama as the end of white civilisation.

So in spite of David Cameron's claims to have transformed the Tories from the nasty party of the past to one that represents the allegedly Christian values of the country, it seems if you scratch the surface, the putrid odour of racism, violence and repression is not far away at all.

British values? Fighting moral decay? I hope not.

2010 General Election debate in Hammersmith - the Tory candidate defends Cameron's alliance with European neo-Nazis. In the election, Hammersmith was one of only two seats where there was a swing towards the Labour Party.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

I, Commodity

"Free Market" - free for whom? (Amnesty International)
Yesterday, the British National Union of Students highlighted cases where students in England are increasingly turning to prostitution to make ends meet as their course fees and living costs rocket. The Government suitably wrung its grasping hands, claiming all sorts of measures of support are in place, but the evidence seems pretty incontrovertible. And, regardless of your views on prostitution itself, how surprising is it? In any recession in history, desperate people have turned to desperate means to survive.

The evidence of this and other research on prostitution does show that it is rarely a voluntary choice and it is a dangerous field to work in for all manner of reasons - violent clients, health risks, persecution by the police, and exploitation by pimps.

But it is the ultimate and logical outcome of free market capitalism. An economy that commodifies, prices and profits from any resource at all is hardly likely to stop at the exploitation of the human body. It very happily harvests the brainpower and physical abilities of employees in every walk of working life - capitalism rests on creaming off as large a premium on the value of employee labour over the cost of paying for it. So, if you are ready to squeeze excess value from people's brains, why would you refrain when it comes to the sex organs?

Angela Merkel's Germany, which in spite of its EU-philia remains an example to all neoliberal right wingers around the world, has taken this view of profit before people a step further.

Germany has legalised prostitution - brothels are now legitimate businesses. To the schlock horror concern of the ultra-capitalist Daily Telegraph, this normalisation of the sex industry has included threatening to withdraw unemployment benefits from unemployed women under 55 years of age who turn down the offer of a job working as a prostitute.

Back in 2005, a woman sent for interview by the local Job Centre faceshas her unemployment benefit after she refused a job providing sexual services in what turned out to be a brothel - although German legislators originally considered exempting prostitution from the benefit rules, they apparently concluded that it would be too difficult to determine the difference between brothels and pubs. Similarly, women who have worked in call centres in the past are being pressured into working on sex chat lines as some twisted form of suitable alternative employment.

No kidding, here is the story.

More recently, the avowedly right wing government has even made an exception to its normal tax-phobic beliefs to introduce sex-tax meters in Bonn streets, a sort of pay-as-you-earn scheme for prostitutes - as long as they keep feeding the meter, they won't be arrested for touting for business. On top of that, there is a slew of evidence and testimony that since it has been legalised, the use of prostitutes has become a not infrequent form of staff benefit for higher paid management in many German companies. Corporate orgies for meeting sales targets and as an additional bonus for the guys at the top are, according to Der Spiegel, now a common place event, no different to the traditional company golf tournament or booze-trip to the races - prostitutes or ponies, either are bought up as disposable entertainment.

How far are we from this German scenario in the UK?

Not far really - as noted above, every other part of the body is used economically, so it is only the legal status and practices around prostitution that stops this scenario arising in Britain. But things often just short of or even a cover for prostitution, like the chance to be a pole dancer or an escort, are already used as evidence for people proving whether or not they are genuinely looking for work while on benefits.

Prostitution itself  remains in a legal tangle which frequently leads to already victimised women being victimised even further while their clients and pimps are ignored by the authorities. But the libertarian right wing are among the most ardent proponents of legalising prostitution - for precisely the argument that sex workers should be able to use their assets - their bodies - to earn profit. In their world, any resource, service or product should be able to be exchanged for money.

What it often means in practice with prostitution is that it legitimises a sector which remains one of coercion, both physical and economic. As many surveys have shown, it is at the heart of the modern slave trade and legalising it does little if anything to protect the workers - arguably it can make their lot even worse. After all, if the Government  is keen to deregulate safety laws for factories and shops, it is doubtful brothels will even get a look-in. Perhaps one answer might be some form of licencing through a body like the English Collective of Prostitutes, which would give sex workers more ability to have some small degree of control over their lives as well as safer working conditions.

The capitalist economy sees humans as just one other factor of production, bought and owned by the holders of capital, and exploited for every last copper of profit possible. Women especially, but often men too, are commodified and objectified in thousands of ways by the media and the advertising industry: whether from selling the right clothes, the right perfume, the right size, through to the blatant exploitation to be found in increasingly "hard porn" on the internet and elsewhere. So why, in capitalist thinking, would you eschew the opportunity to be had from selling sexual intercourse?

The sad tales from Germany, while shocking, are not in the least surprising. By one stream of capitalist thought, our unique personalities, our amazing skills and our hard labour make us nothing more than "Human capital" - just one other segment of the system, one more cog in the wheel. No job is too degrading, no work too demanding, no wage too low, when there's money to be made - and you, your flesh and blood, are just one more commodity to be bought and sold.

The apotheosis of the  free market.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Captain Pepper - the last refuge of the ruling class?

Western democracy in action - 84 year old woman pepper-sprayed by the police in Seattle protest.

Remember the London riots? A week of smashed glass and free shopping across the big cities of England (Scotland was notably free of any trouble), coupled with assaults on passersby and the looting of peoples flats and cars. The Guardian has just run a fascinating series of reports into the motives of the rioters, many of whom clearly saw themselves at least justified in their actions by a political environment that permits politicians to survive their great expenses swindle with a handful of token sacrificial lambs, and bankers to be rewarded for greed, failure and deceit. As an earlier blog asked, what separated our rulers and rioters beyond a few shards of broken glass?

Yet how did this all start? Well, you should remember the shooting dead of Mark Duggan. The police failure to inform his family of his death and subsequent refusal to talk to them led to a demonstration which many see as the trigger for the riots.

It is bizarre how this aspect of the riots has become so downplayed. Instead, the riots have passed into the myth that those taking part were all young people involved in gangs - when in truth very few were gang members; there was a wide range of age groups involved; and most who took part did not have previous convictions.

What the statistics do show is that most were from poor backgrounds, many unemployed or in low wage jobs. And as any historian will tell you, throughout history, deprive people of any hope of a genuine stake in society, add grossly excessive inequality, and while your riots will not be spearheaded by the Vanguard of the Revolution, they will be prompted and justified by the ruling class' exploitation of those around them.

We have heard a lot from the Occupy Movement about the 1% and the 99%. And it is very true that a tiny, tiny elite control the bulk of the world's wealth. But while going for the 1% is pretty attractive - after all, by default, hardly anyone is one of them! Hell, we are nearly all part of the 99%. The implication then is that it is all the fault of the 1% - everyone else is clear.

And yet- consider this: to be in the top 10% of the income bracket in the UK, you need to earn slightly over £54,000 p.a. And the top 10% - some six million people- now own twelve times more than the bottom six million, a huge disparity, and around double the ratios to be found in France and Germany, who have a more socially oriented political settlement. British inequality has doubled in the last generation. In the times of plenty under neoliberal New Labour, the rising prosperity of the average person meant that the exponential rise in the wealth of the richest went unnoticed - Peter Mandelson was able to trumpet that Labour were "supremely relaxed about people who get filthy rich" (to be fair to Mandy, he did add "..as long as they pay their taxes" - though of course, New Labour made certain they had fewer and fewer taxes to pay).

But under the neoliberal austerity economics of the Con Dems in recessionary Britain, the excessive disparities in wealth are becoming more and more evident, especially as the richest continue to award themselves massive pay increases in spite of their telling everyone else to tighten their belts. In the USA, similarly with its full-on liberal capitalist ethic, the disparities are even worse - and the response, including the widespread deployment of vicious pepper spray against perfectly peaceful protesters (see the video below and the photo above), does not bear any explanation other than that the authorities are actively suppressing dissent of even the most mildly social democratic type.

And so, without a stake in society, what impulse is there to support and obey the rules of society? And what then is left to protect the rulers but the increasingly brutal force and more and more powers to intrude and intervene in people's lives - new laws, for example, will allow the authorities to enter peoples homes to remove political window posters deemed to be inappropriate if, for example, the leader of China is passing nearby and someone puts up a Free Tibet notice. We wouldn't want to threaten the terms of the trade, after all - the rich might be upset.

The recourse to increasingly militaristic crowd control tactics in pseudo-democratic capitalist states around the world is deeply unwelcome and a warping of good policing. More than that though, it is a real threat to democratic debate and freedom of speech.

The effects of pepper spray:

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Newt Gingrich and The Invention of America

Nothing invented - the real tears of a real Palestinian, under  Israeli fire.
The appalling Newt Gingrich, a hopeful for the Republican nomination for US President in next year's election, has described the Palestinians as an "invented" people with no right to a state of their own. Like many a US politician before him, Gingrich is parroting a line used frequently by Zionists to excuse the dreadful treatment of the Palestinians by the Israeli state.

Gingrich tries to redesignate the millions of people in Gaza and West Bank with the generic term Arab. This would be a bit like saying there is no such thing as English people or Greek people - but rather deciding they are all Europeans! To Gingrich's ignorantly blinkered eyes of course, Arabs are all just a homogenous bunch of bearded brown guys who spend their days chomping spicy food, shouting Allah-u-akbar, and plotting against America. In truth, Arabs are tens of millions of people across the Middle east. living in diverse countries with diverse cultures and diverse religions (there are millions of Christian Arabs, as well as other faiths like the Druze). The Palestinians are as distinctive as Jordanians are from Algerians, or Libyans from Iraqis.

Palestine itself is no more or less invented than any other state - all states are on some level invented when they are created: the creation of Britain was a union, to some degree forced, between at least four distinctive ethnic groups. Germany was forged by Prussian conquest of a myriad of German city states back in 1871, while a little later Garibaldi and Vittorio Emmanuel united the state of Italy from a number of different elements. Some states are ethnically based, others emerge as an amalgam - as Britain did.

By far the most invented nationality of all, complete with the most artificially created state of all, is of course the American identity claimed by the United States. Newt did not reflect on this before his bigoted tirade - but America was created through a combination of colonisation, bribery and bloody conquest in terms of its territories and though the gradual and far from easy or completed amalgamation of scores of different ethnicities, destroying the cultural distinctiveness of its component parts far more completely than any other empire in history. And all in the last two and a bit centuries - the Palestinians, by contrast, can better that history by over a thousand years.

So, if Palestine has no right to exist, why does America have any right to exist either?

The people who calls themselves Palestinians are the same people who have lived in the area of Palestine for over fourteen centuries. For much of that time, they did not have their own state because they were part of larger empires, latterly the Ottoman Turkish Empire which collapsed at the end of the First World War. Palestine was then transferred to be a mandate of the British Empire and it was at this stage that the Balfour Declaration decided that Palestine could provide a homeland for Jewish people from other parts of the world. Many Jews had of course lived in the area for centuries alongside their Muslim and Christian neighbours, mostly in peace. But driven by the dreadful victimisation of the Nazi Holocaust, anti-semitism among Europeans, and in many cases their own religious fervour, since 1945, millions of other Jews from elsewhere in the world have emigrated to Israel, driving out Palestinian people who had lived there for centuries. And this was done on the spurious basis that their Jewish ancestors had lived there even earlier.

Quite aside from the debate about how far back in history you can go to raise grievances, there is of course a lie peddled by the West, that the blood thirsty Muslim Arabs seized Israel and drove out the Jews and that the Christian Crusaders then made common cause with the Jews to retake the Holy Lands - and that their failure to do so was only put right by the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Many American evangelicals even send donations to Israel today in this belief.

But the truth could not be further away - the Jewish disapora from the Roman province of Palestina began in the second century, driven by both the persecution and the opportunities provided by the then pagan Roman Empire. When the Muslim Arabs arrived in the area five centuries later, they were welcomed by Jews and dissident Christians as liberators from the increasingly monotheistic totalitarianism of the Christian Byzantine Empire. A whole five hundred years later, when the Crusaders turned up and briefly captured Jerusalem, the Warriors of the Cross of Jesus indiscriminately slaughtered the Jews, "heretic" Christians and Muslims who had jointly defended the city. It was one of the greatest massacres in recorded history. (Notably, when the Muslims retook the city a century later, exiled Jews flocked back to live there in peace and prosperity.)

Understanding history is vital to understand why we are where we are, but it is today that matters. The bottom line is that millions live in the huge refugee camps that are the totality of Palestinian territory. They live in some of the most difficult conditions in the world - confined in small areas; shelled and bombed by a superior Israeli army and air force; deprived of many goods; deprived of life chances; and with the highest rate of depressive illness measured anywhere in the world. These people are not invented. They are not made up or artificial. They are real, flesh and blood, like you and me. And they are where they are because they lived in Palestine and the Israeli state pushed them out forcibly; and unlike Gingrich's weasel words, they had and have nowhere to go.

The problem is real and the solution has to be found - a real one, not the dangerous fantasy with which Newt Gingrich, in his bizarre little brain, seeks to dismiss the existence of millions and so excuse the violence and degradation to which they are constantly subjected. If Americans vote for this man, with his very much invented artificial reality, they will do so at great peril to themselves and to the peace of the world.

The area of the current USA in 1830 - only the red part was American then; the rest was invented later.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

COP 17 Youth Plea for Action on Global Warming - "Get It Done!" (from The Ecosocialist Blog)


 In response to the failure of COP 17 the Bolivian Ambassador has said that "only a 
movement from below can save us now" and this speech brings that movement from 
below  (in the form of Occupy) into Durban and toward action on climate change. 

I've been struggling to find anything I wanted to post about COP 17 - The expectations 

were low, the outcome was in line with those expectations - But this speech 'got me', 
reminiscent perhaps of the young Canadian Severn Cullis-Suzuki speaking at the 
earth summit in Rio in 1992 -  Anjali Appadurai ends by mic-checking occupy style ' Get it Done, 
Get it Done ' and this is the moment that for me lifts the gloom.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Batting for the Bankers

So with great fanfare David Cameron claims he has stood up for Britain's national interests by opposing every single one of the other European Union member states as they attempt to claw their way out of the Euro-crisis. With everyone now acknowledging the arrival of a two-speed Europe - 26 states going at one speed and Britain at the other - the chances of a General Election in the New Year have to have increased. Hoping to ride a wave of mindless xenophobia, "Bulldog" Dave will be watching the polls closely for his hoped-for bigot-bounce over the next few months so that he can call a snap election, pose as John Bull reborn and free himself of the pro-EU Lib Dems, who face oblivion at any polls. Given the long-term economic prognosis, it could be his only-ever chance of forming a majority regime.

And yet, how tragically confused the public mood will be - because the supposed national interests he claims to have stood up for are nothing to do with the interests of ordinary people. What he has vetoed is not any of the daft (though in total relatively few) regulations that emanate from Brussels on standardised food weights or what constitutes Wensleydale cheese, or not. Nor have his efforts done anything the tackle the corruption to be found in the workings of much of the Union's institutions. He has done nothing to stop the EU's ludicrous and damaging pursuit of biofuels, nor anything to challenge the wasteful transportation of goods over huge distances of the Continent. And there is nothing to stop the  dislocation of local communities caused by the single European market (unsurprisingly, that last is the bit that the rich backers of the  Eurosceptics are very, very keen to keep as it is).

Indeed, for ordinary British people, his actions may make things much worse - as Europe faces financial disaster, any economic meltdown across the Channel will inevitably shaft Britain as much as anywhere else, creating unemployment, inflation and misery for millions. By vetoing the proposed international financial regulations, Cameron has at least delayed and probably damaged longer term the struggle to restore economic stability to our key trading partners. Why risk that?

Simple - because for Dave it is worth it.

What Cameron has done is make sure that the City of London remains free of any effective scrutiny. Yep, Bulldog Dave has been out fighting on behalf of the bankers. He has used Britain's veto on this historic occasion to strike a blow against proposed internationally binding regulation of the international finance trade that flows in and out of London banks and City brokers' accounts, fleecing hardworking people of billions in thieved commission and forcing public service cuts through their myriad means of tax avoidance and tax dodging.

He has also put paid to the so-called Robin Hood tax - a tiny levy on bankers transactions that could raise tens of billions of pounds a year to cut deficits and fund public services. Instead, Dave sees it in Britain's interests to let the leeches keep the cash. The rest of Europe may go ahead, but given the importance of the City of London in international finance - a trade with little more than peripheral, trickle-down benefits for Britain - our decision to opt-out will blunt the impact of any transactions tax. This in turn will seriously undermine wider attempts to get the international community to tackle the excesses of the banking and finance cartel that has done so much to bring our world to its knees.

And of course by isolating Britain from absolutely everyone else, he leaves a European Union which will inevitably be dominated by Germany and France - British influence will diminish rapidly in spite (and even because of) all the jingoistic flag waving.

So, I hope Dave is proud of himself. The challenge will be for progressives to expose his claims of fighting for our national interests as a lie and cover for protecting his party financiers and former school chums; yet at the same time to keep advocating for a better, social Europe. The new, more integrated arrangements that every other country seems to be signing up to may not be the right answer either, but at least at its core is an attempt to create some international public control over the currently pretty much unregulated international finance markets which play games with ordinary people's jobs, communities and life chances.

Bulldog Dave? Not likely. Just Bull**** Dave, batting for the bankers.

1946 - and the Eurosceptics mascot calls for a Union of Europe: Winston Churchill's Zurich Speech.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

It's a Wonderful World

Sister Earth? We may need Keppler 22b - if only we can develop warp travel (solar powered!)
Just broadcast this evening by the BBC, the final episode of the Frozen Planet looked at climate change in the Arctic and Antarctic. Cataloguing the break up of ice shelves the size of Greater London, a 3C increase in local temperatures over the last fifty years and the ever southwards migration of penguins in search of colder climes, the crime and danger of global warming is never more evident. And yet this very week, as oil rich Arctic state Canada has been rumoured to be on the verge of withdrawing its already lukewarm support for the Kyoto Protocol, the massively under-reported Durban conference on climate change has struggled to make any progress at all. Yet again, humanity seems as far as ever from taking any real action on carbon emissions - which have risen faster than ever over the last twelve months, with Britain as culpable as anyone else.

This advert for BBC Natural History programmes played at the end - a touchingly melancholic celebration of our home. In the week that NASA revealed it has discovered what may turn out to be our sister planet - 600 light years away - and a sci fi film is released about Another Earth, it is a tribute to the power of public broadcasting that a series as powerfully thought-provoking yet visually stunning as this can still be made to highlight the reality that we have only one planet, and we need to start looking after it a lot better, very, very quickly.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Socio-Economics of Del Boy: Myth & Reality in the Court of the Cleggeron

The last three years since the banking crisis began in earnest have seen a transformation of popular views about wealth and its deeply inequal distribution in Britain and globally. For the first time in two decades, many more people have challenged the huge payments made to senior executives across a wide range of industries, including the private sector.

This has been against a background where, while bosses and owners have frequently called for pay restraint from their frequently non-unionised workforces, they have carried on paying out huge increases to themselves - even in recessionary 2010/11,  Chief Executive pay in the FTSE100 top companies rose by 43%, with other senior executives doing even better on 49%. At the same time, average pay for everyone else fell by over £2,600 p.a.  And this is part of a long established pattern - in 2010, before much of this last year's huge hike, the ratio of top to lowest paid in the top 100 FTSE companies was an utterly obscene 232:1. 

It is no surprise that, as recession bites and ordinary people find their living standards squeezed and services cut, we see both rising political protest and the crime wave of the summer riots. As Wilkinson and Pickett demonstrated so powerfully, highly unequal societies are more personally unhappy, physically and psychologically unhealthy, socially disrupted and prone to higher levels of crime than societies - even poorer ones like Cuba - where the disparity in wealth is much lower.

And so today Nick Clegg, hapless Deputy PM, has announced with great flourish his anger at the wealthiest being rewarded so highly and that he has decided that it is time to do something about it! Unfortunately, he has been typically vague as the different components of our dysfunctional Coalition Government try to respond to the wave of public discontent. Neither Government party is in any way instinctively egalitarian and both are unashamedly pro-capitalist. So we needn't hold our breaths in the hope of any concrete action.

From what we can see, the proposals are likely to amount to little more than requiring the publication of the ratio of the top paid person in a company with the pay, not of the lowest, but of either the average or, conceivably even worse, the median paid worker. This of course massively reduces the ratio, ignoring the lack of value placed on the lowest paid and often hardest working (and most stressed) workers in our society. Otherwise limited to requiring more information for shareholders (when most shares are held by other large businesses anyway) and some pious hope of capitalism caking itself in enough greasepaint to present a half-acceptable face to the public, this proposal is just a load of window-dressing from a Government too scared to challenge its own paymasters (that's if it actually wanted to!).

But why on Earth, at a time when the capitalist system is on the ropes with the Last Chance Saloon clearly in sight, are we not tackling the rapaciousness of the rich, the very people who in so many ways are ruining our world? Why, in a reality of inevitably limited resources, are we not setting maximum pay as well as minimum pay? We cannot tackle the poverty of the poorest without also tackling the wealth of the richest. Full stop.

Capitalism is vicious and deceitful, but it is also very clever - it sells the myth that it rewards effort when in fact it mainly assists those who already have wealth to engorge themselves ever more: it holds out the naive lie that anyone can share in the fest if only they work harder just that bit longer, etc. It is the socio-economics of Del Boy; this time next year, we'll all be millionaires. And the real tragedy, like the brilliant pathos of the comedy of Only Fools, is that so many still buy into the myth.

And that must be Mr Clegg's hope - that his tilting at windmills might yet fantastically transmogrify into a belief that he has miraculously slain the dragon of excess without even lifting his lance. That is the trouble with myth - it is at its most appealing when it tells its biggest lies to the most desperate of people in the most desperate of times. It bends and outlives reality, becoming exposed as fake often only when its premise has destroyed all around it and it finally stands naked and exposed as the lie it is. So the Government may cloak its inaction on inequality with fiery rhetoric about damnable greed, but in doing so it will allow the carnival of destructive excess to carry on yet longer, causing more and more irreparable damage to our social fabric and the well being of our country and planet.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Jeremy Clarkson...in a Microwave

Carbon wagon champion Jeremy Clarkson has been rightly condemned today for his comment that public sector strikers should be shot dead - and, to boot, in front of their families.

Clarkson, who fronts BBC car programme Top Gear, which is as good an example as any of the close relationship between large vehicle engines and the priapically challenged male, has always been something of a bete noire for any self-respecting environmentalist, liberal and, indeed, human being. His pathetic column in the Sunday Times reeks of the attention-seeking adolescent arrogance of the Prefect's Room in a boys-only Sixth Form .

This odious character conveniently ignores the fact that, with a salary reportedly around £1 million coming from the BBC licence fee, he is actually one of the few public sector workers whose terms and conditions are indeed truly bloated and excessive. Yet writing these very words is probably self-defeating, because this pathetic petrolhead appears to thrive on coverage of any sort.

So, never mind any further analysis or ranting about how different the response of the authorities and the Prime Minister would have been had a trade union called for bankers or Tory MPs to be executed in front of their families. No more comparing the disparity in the jailing for several years of two youths for briefly setting up a Facebook riots page when they were drunk compared to the apparently sober Clarkson's supposedly satirical call for violence.

So, instead, here is a video to make us all feel better.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Strike, By Gove!

Education Secretary Michael Gove has today launched into a scathing attack on the beleaguered public sector workers who are due to go on strike on Wednesday across the UK. The strikes are to highlight plans to cut the pensions benefits and increase pension contributions of workers in schools, local authorities, and other public sector services. While the media and the Deputy Prime Minister have played up to myths about supposed "gold-plated" pensions in the public sector, the fact remains that the average pension paid out is around a paltry £5,600 p.a. - this is actually over £200 p.a. lower than the average private sector pension. The accrual rate is slightly better than the private sector, but it has long been a feature that lower pay in the public sector is compensated for by a slightly better set of pension arrangements than most private employers offer.

There is plenty of evidence the public sector pension pot is perfectly viable in the long run and stands to decline as a proportion of public spending. The Government however is determined to cut it and while claiming to still be negotiating, has essentially adopted a "take it or leave it" approach for some weeks now.

And so on Wednesday there will be a one day strike. It is likely to cause significant disruption around the country, although the nation will not be paralysed - but aside from anything else, the inconvenience caused might highlight to people just how much of the work carried out by public sector workers is not noticed - until it isn't there, when its vital role becomes very apparent.

Mr Gove however has lambasted strike leaders: "I am deeply opposed to this action, and the damage it generates," he has said, claiming the leaders of Unite and other unions are simply spoiling for a fight and keen for confrontation.

Mr Gove hasn't always felt like this. Like many Tories, it always a different matter when its his own wallet he is worried about.

Here he is on strike, trying to shut down his employer when he was a journalist back in 1989.

Sauce for the goose...
A kick up the 80s: Striking Gove - kneeling, on the left! (1989)

Saturday, 26 November 2011


Mother Naure weeps as the ice melts.
There is a myth among the climate change denial industry that the climate of Antarctica is actually cooling rather than warming, and that this disproves the case for global warming. One theory is that the (man made) ozone hole has temporarily cooled the stratosphere and this makes for local cooling in spite of global warming; but needless to say, even this week, outright deniers claim that the thinning and breaking of huge swathes of glaciers is meaningless.

This surprising claim is in the face of the 1.2C average increase in Antarctic temperatures between 1959 and 1996. And it also ignores the plain fact that on a more front line level, there is clear warming taking place - for example, the Antarctic tourist industry (yes, there is such a thing, now) is rubbing its hands with glee at the profitable prospect of being able to take tourists deeper into Antarctica - one tour has been extended from 11 to 14 days because there are far more opportunities to disembark and sight see compared to a few years ago.

And study after study, including this year, has shown increasing thinning and melt of ice shelves, with massive icebergs resulting. while a plague of parasitic crabs moving south with warmer water is currently causing concern for local flora and fauna. By contrast, the supposed cooling evidence comes from data collected at just one location on the Continent - the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long-Term Ecological Research Station, along with rather a lot of extrapolation.

Antarctica has been described as the canary of the world - perhaps we should be listening harder to its faltering song.

The music and beauty of Antarctica - with film from the threatened south and north poles:

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

More Funny Weather

Today, with supremely smug irony, the British Parliament has been discussing slashing the feed-in tariff (originally designed to encourage the adoption of solar power by domestic consumers) as part of the Government's so-called "green deal". It is being cut by over a half on the spurious argument that it increases the cost of electricity to consumers and consequently pushes people into fuel poverty - I say spurious because the highest estimated increase caused by FITs is £6 per annum onto the average household bill, with some estimates as low as just 30p. This is zilch by most standards and even more so when set against the rise of several hundred pounds per annum that the Government has contentedly allowed profiteering energy companies to add to fuel costs in the last year or two.

This comes in the same week as a World Meteorological Organisation report has revealed that in 2010, in spite of all the talk and more talk by the IPCC and Governments, the rate of increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached its highest yet - an additional 2.3 parts per million, putting us firmly on course to exceed even the worst scenarios previously anticipated by climatologists. These figures endorse an earlier report by the International Energy Agency in May, which produced similarly stark findings. Even if magically all further increase was to stop, temperatures would rise by around 3C by 2050 - it may not sound much, but its impact would be on a level that would spell disaster for human societies in many parts of the world through the collapse of their agriculture and social systems. Less directly affected countries would find the cost of basic needs such as food and water rocketing well beyond the point of social crisis, and mass migrations would almost certainly trigger conflict on an unprecedented scale.

Don't believe it? It would be nice if it wasn't true and tempting to want to think that; and this week, the BBC announced that the global warming episode of its "Frozen Planet" series won't be shown in the USA so as not to disturb the willful ignorance of the US public, who are among the worst polluters on the planet. 

However, aside from the evidence of increasingly extreme weather events, like the fact that British temperatures this past week have been around double the seasonal average - a whopping 18C on Sunday compared to the 9.5C norm for mid-November - the plain science is this:

- the more carbon dioxide there is in the atmosphere, the more heat from the Sun is trapped in our atmosphere. Too little and we would freeze; too much, and we'd fry. The margins either way are surprisingly (and terrifyingly) small - humanity's hold on the planet is tenuous to say the least.

- through our massively increasing use of fossil fuels, such as gas, coal and wood due to the processes of the industrial age from the 1750s onwards, humans have pumped unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide and other gasses with even greater "greenhouse" effects, like methane and nitrous oxide (currently the fastest increasing gas), into the atmosphere. Indeed, in the last fifty years, we have used more carbon fuel than in the rest of history combined.

- Consequently, since 1750, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from 280 parts per million to 389 parts per million. At the same time, temperatures have climbed, sometimes exaggerated or cooled by natural variations like El Nino and El Nina, and even occasionally by sunspots, but overall, the ongoing, underlying trend is up, and has nothing to do with any natural phenomena. Rather, it is created and fanned by human activity for precisely the scientific reasons set out above: burning fossil fuels creates greenhouse gas emissions which trap more and more heat in our atmosphere.

The current rate of emissions is in spite of the downturn in economic activity through the global recession - and Britain is as much to blame as anywhere, with a 2.8% increase in emissions in 2010. And as the planet warms, we are already past the "feedback" thresholds for a number of phenomena which will start to cause an exponential increase in greenhouse gas levels. These include the diminishing of the albedo effect as Arctic ice melts and the "whiteout" of the northern hemisphere declines, reflecting less light and heat back into outer space. Similarly in the north, the melting of the Siberian tundra after millennia of permafrosting is releasing dangerous quantities of methane, which is around twenty times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Eventually, what has been triggered by human activity and could still be at least mitigated by human action, will take on a life and dynamic entirely of its own.

So, just as every long march begins with a single step, every piece of action taken now to reduce greenhouse gas is utterly vital, not to saving the planet - it will endure - but to saving our civilisation and even our species. To this end, the delay and trimming by the Con Dem Government is more than lamentable - it is a betrayal of our futures and a crass denial of reality.

Funny weather indeed. But no laughing matter.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Spirit of Free Enterprise

The Guardian newspaper is reporting that the Business Secretary, the foot-in-mouth ballroom dancer Vince Cable, is likely to exempt small businesses from most employment law protection for staff. It isn't clear yet, but the exemptions seem set to reduce further the rights of millions of ordinary people, potentially allowing their employers to bully them, treat them unfairly and dismiss them with some ease. Although the Con Dem Government already accepts that Britain has one of the most "flexible" work forces in the world, apparently some folk are not tugging forelocks far or flexibly enough not to traumatise our nascent entrepreneurs. So what little practical protection exists for swathes of low paid, temporary, part-time, often female staff, will be taken away.

All to help unleash the spirit of free, but evidently not fair, enterprise.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

They Came In the Night In the Land of the Free

New York police have cleared the Occupy Wall Street camp in the dead of night. Arriving at 1 am, they gave demonstrators 20 minutes to pack up and leave, arresting 70. The authorities told the demonstrators they were to remove all "private property" (like tents!) and could return presumably to stand all night in the open, in November. Allegedly, the camp in Zuccotti Park, was a health and safety hazard (sounds familiar to St Paul's protest in London?) and followed the clearing of a similar Occupy camp in Oakland in California a few hours earlier.

So much for freedom of speech and assembly in what is meant to be the land of freedom. If Egyptian police had done this in Tahrir Square, they would rightly have been condemned for squashing freedom of expression. Likewise, in many other countries, like Ukraine during the neoliberal "Orange Revolution", the USA squarely backed and even funded demonstrators as they brought down the mildly socialist government.

Different then when it is in their own backyard. Different when it is protest against the greed and excess of the 1,000 corporations and their political puppets who run our planet and rip us all off. These demonstrators have got it all wrong, it seems.

Freedom has its limits, it seems, if you are opposed to the Establishment. And so, as well as all the powers of surveillance and detention built into laws like the ludicrously named Patriot Act, they authorities will use by-laws to ensure that, in effect, prevent the protest continuing - as winter deepens, who on Earth will be able to stand in the streets of New York in the middle of the night, night after night?

Health and safety risk, the Powers-that-be claim. Yeah? Who's exactly?

Chilling, in more ways than one.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Your Employment May Be At Risk

The Guardian reports (10 November) that Home Secretary Theresa May has been told by Government lawyers that the head of the Borders Agency, Brodie Clark, is highly likely to win his claim of constructive dismissal followingher very public intemperate outbursts about his alleged handling of passport checks over the summer and apparent background briefings at her behest that he was a “rogue” civil servant. She gave him no right to defend himself although he had been suspended and she pre-empted the outcome of any investigation and hearing into his conduct. She may not have been his immediate boss, but was part of his senior management line and so this breach of both civil service procedure and good practice, coupled with her damning comments about him, put him in a strong position to claims around £135,000 of public money in compensation.

It is far from reassuring to know that someone as closely connected with the workings of government so readily dispenses with (or perhaps simply does not recognise to begin with) the most basic premises of natural justice – that someone alleged to have done something wrong should have a chance to defend themselves through some sort of fair process and be presumed innocent until found guilty (even under the lesser test of “reasonable belief on the balance of probabilities” applied to employers dealing with their staff as opposed to “proof beyond reasonable doubt” required for court cases). Yet here we have May, who does appears on most levels to be a rather "rogue" operator herself, supported by the Prime Minister in her frankly dysfunctional, blame-shifting behaviour.

But at least Brodie Clarke will be able to defend himself by taking a claim to an employment tribunal. Unlike a growing number of British workers, he had employment protection against unfair treatment by his employer, a right that used to kick in after twelve months service.

Lib Dem Employment Minister, Ed Davey, has now decided to increase this qualifying period to 24 months – so, if you or anyone else has less than two years service, your employer will shortly be able to treat you just as badly or even worse than Brodie Clark experienced at the hands of Theresa May, and you will have absolutely no redress.

Likewise, while ruling out supporting recent proposals by David Cameron’s adviser (and also funder and holder of various seven-figure public contracts), Adrian Beecroft  to allow employers to dismiss staff without any explanation by giving them a payment equivalent to state redundancy pay (capped at less than £600 for each year of service), Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has repeated his own wish to introduce a right for employers to have “protected conversations” with staff that cannot be used in any subsequent tribunal proceedings.

Such a right already exists where there is a dispute such as a performance management, disciplinary or grievance case ongoing – employers can have a “without prejudice” discussion, usually linked to agreeing some sort of compromise payment with the member of staff. However, Clegg wants this right to exist even where there is no active dispute. Basically, he wants an employer to have the right to talk to an employee off the record, regardless of the issue. So, your boss could say to you “I think you are useless, you should leave your job as fast as possible or I will make your life hell” and, if he or she has declared it a protected conversation, you could do nothing about it even after two years’ service.

Clegg’s words make clear that he is pretty well signed up to the belief that employers should have much stronger powers to discipline and sack staff than even Margaret Thatcher allowed; he forgets that 85% of workers are employees and, although there is a striking blindness among many that such arbitrary powers won’t affect them, I have come across all too many people from all walks of life who have been astonished when it has been their turn to be on the receiving end of pernicious behaviour by their employer.

Deregulation did nothing for the banking industry; why should anyone think for a moment that it will help the employment relationship which, at its deregulated core is still founded on the centuries old laws of Master and Servant?

Clegg and his allies are proposing nothing less than a bullies’ charter.

Theresa May must be licking her lips.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

OCCUPY CONSTANTINOPLE – Back to the future with Byzantine Economics

“The more powerful should not injure the less powerful, but that everything should be weighed by a just measure...”                        
                                   Prologue to the Byzantine “Book of the Prefect”, 912 AD.

Last week came the news that, at the same time as they have been urging wage restraint by their workers and insisting that the “bloated” public sector needs to be slashed, Britain’s bosses have dug their snouts even deeper into the trough. In the last recessionary year, the Chief Executives of the Top 100 Listed Companies in the UK have been awarded 43% increases in their pay packages, while the next level down of Directors has gained even more – 49% increases on average.

There was much awkward wringing of hands by Government Ministers, embarrassed by the extreme extent and blatant arrogance of these people, many of them funders and supporters of the same Tory regime that has assured the suffering public that “we are all in it together” in facing the economic downturn. But none of them undertook to implement any hard and fast action that might change this utter fest of rapacious greed.

Finally breaking the Church of England’s silence over the demands of the Occupy London protesters, the Archbishop of Canterbury last weekend asked “Are economics too important to be left to economists?”, positing the need for some ethical underpinning of the economic framework – including supporting the so-called Robin Hood tax on financial transactions. And yet, is capitalism capable of delivering such a benign outcome at all? So how do we deal with these people? If not capitalism, then what?

Given that the entire raison d’etre of capitalism – the maximising of profit – inevitably drives this grasping process of exploitation of resources to exhaustion coupled with the excessive accumulation of wealth, the long-term answer can only be through adopting a new economic ideology – one embracing sustainable stewardship of resources and a genuine redistribution of both power and wealth. It is a measure of the success of the capitalist media’s propaganda that socialism remains a dirty word even among many progressives, but that makes the need for new solutions and the potential for a new society no less possible, nor any less imperative.

All economic systems have to accommodate choice and exchange in some way – the central question has to be whether this is determined by wealth measured and expressed by monetary power or by human need identified and agreed by a wider social construct. In this, market mechanisms may have a greater or smaller role to play according to the culture of the society in question – and this has as often as not in human history depended on ethics or morality as much as on cash in hand.

For example, ninth century Byzantium, the eastern successor of the Romans and the most successful state of its time, purposefully adopted an economic ideology based on self-sufficiency and just distribution. The Emperors, driven in part by Orthodox Christian theology and in part by political considerations, adopted a series of laws which held “just exchange” to be at the centre of any market transactions. In particular, policy focused on tackling the rapacious excesses of the dynamoi, the powerful nobility, over the poorer citizenry and especially the peasantry.

And so, in a society that was significantly monetised in its exchange process (as opposed to barter which remained a significant component in other contemporary economies), we find a series of edicts which, among other things, forced the free return of land bought from famine-struck peasants by their exploitative lords for less than half the assessed “just value”. We find laws rendering void any contract where the workman had agreed a rate lower than the “just wage” and in the realm of lending, the rich were forced to charge lower rates of interest than less prosperous lenders. In the capital, Constantinople, craft guilds were established to licence producers in such a way that, while competition was permitted within a particular sector, even the most successful producers in one field could not diversify into others and come to dominate the supply of goods to the consumer. The Prefect of the City regulated the production of key goods to ensure sufficiency of supply to the population, with the Government intervening where this was threatened (especially in terms of staple foods like bread and fish), and to prevent “unreasonable profit” – an established principle in Byzantine law.

The Byzantine Economy  - putting the Just into Justinian?
 Perhaps of greatest contemporary relevance, it was the Byzantines establishment of the practice that, while supply and demand might inevitably affect the costs of producing goods and that Government might be limited in its long-term ability to temper this, it was both possible and indeed a moral imperative that there should be a legal limit on profit margins. Consequently, Patriarch Nicephoros in the ninth century set this as no more than 10% of cost, a figure so low that it would have many a modern venture capitalist choking on his swill.

And yet, in the precarious Medieval world, Byzantium’s adoption of an ethical, redistributive economics worked highly effectively. With a million inhabitants by 1100, Constantinople flourished as the wealthiest city in Europe and the Near East, inevitably incurring the envy and desire of predatory neighbours.

Briefly, it is of note that the effective end of the Byzantine Empire did not come through economic ruin. Rather, the death blows fell through a combination of the violent reassertion of power by the military aristocracy, who rolled back many of the laws during the turbulent late eleventh and twelfth centuries, and then through the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 by the Fourth Crusade, led by the avowedly mercantilist Venetian Republic. Although the Empire lingered on in various forms for a further quarter of a millennium, these two forces – the propertied and the moneyed – between them destroyed what had been one of the most successful and long lived civilisations in the Mediterranean world.

Sustainable and ethical economics, and equitable distribution of wealth, were not new even at the height of Byzantium. Aristotle had written of justice in exchange in 360 BC, Roman law incorporated the concept and the 4th century Church Fathers advocated justice as including material equity. And all accepted the role of the State as the “judge” (Aristotle’s concept) in “restoring equality between those who have much and those who have little, by giving to one what he takes from the other”.

Indeed, for most of humanity’s existence, societies have functioned on the basis of a “steady state economy”, where output expanded slowly and in tiny increments, if at all. Consequently, how resources and material wealth were shared inevitably became a central policy issue. It has only been since the early Renaissance that first long distance trade and then the technological and productive potential of the Industrial Revolution led to the fairly recent capitalist construct that wealth can be skewed horrendously disproportionately, yet everyone can be better off.

Plainly, with so many key raw materials near or past peak production while demand rises inexorably, if this nostrum ever contained any truth at all, it no longer holds. With growth rates now facing long term decline, the capitalist system is morally bankrupt and in the coming decades will be practically bust. Even beyond the current recessionary cycle, resource scarcity looms and the need for an Aristotelian Judge has never been greater – we need to re-embrace an economics where, once again, as one economic history has described tenth century Byzantium, “...individual economic action is limited by the needs of society as a whole.”(as succinct a definition of contemporary ecosocialism as I have seen).

The question for our society and our world is whether we wait for our system of economics to collapse in pain, blood and violence, or whether we take control of our contemporary dynamoi now and begin the transition to a happier, more egalitarian, and sustainable future.