Issue 209 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review

NOTES OF THE MONTH

Editorial, French elections, government, Congo, Deep Blue

Editorial

Even though the post-election euphoria has calmed down, the expectations vested in Tony Blair's government remain very high. Labour's new administration has done enough to convey the feeling that in every area of government change is just around the corner. The restoration of union rights at GCHQ, the promised release of council house sale receipts to build more houses, the pause on hospital closures in London and the extra £100 million for NHS spending, have all been greeted as evidence of radical change.

The fact that such change may be more apparent than real is still not obvious to millions of people. So although the closure of Edgware hospital has dismayed many who voted for the area's victorious Labour MPs, and although the funds for house building barely cover the sums already cut by the last government, there is a strong sense that more will become available.

This sense is in strong contrast to the declared intentions of Blair and Brown. The government's appointments, as both ministers and advisers, of a whole number of businessmen shows how it means to go on. Decisions over issues such as the minimum wage and welfare benefits will be heavily influenced by precisely those people who have the greatest interest in holding wages and benefits down.

Blair is clearly taking his election victory as a green light to continue and extend his pro-business policies despite the fact that this will cause tensions with most Labour supporters. There are already rumours of division between him and his chancellor, Gordon Brown, over how far to extend the windfall tax on the privatised companies.

There has also been outrage over Blair's meeting with Thatcher to ask her advice on diplomacy, and the decision to 'name and shame' supposedly 'failing' schools.

The tensions will continue to surface because of the contradictions which Blair's government faces. The businessmen are happy to be part of an administration which they believe can benefit British capitalism. More importantly they understand that they need Labour to impose their wishes over welfare and pension cuts and labour market flexibility. The traditional bosses' party, the Tories, has forfeited any electoral credibility for the time being.

However, the landslide has also boosted the hopes of many workers. Already that is beginning to filter through. The mood at the union conferences which have taken place since 1 May has not been one of waiting for Labour. At the post office workers' CWU conference, delegates voted unanimously to repeal the anti-union laws and defied the platform to vote for immediate industrial action if the government tries to limit strikes in Royal Mail.

There have been small but important victories, for example on the Jubilee Line in London. Trade union activists report increased attendance at union meetings, and more of a feeling of confidence in many workplaces. At the same time local bosses and managers have been thrown on the defensive by the size of Labour's majority and the expectations of change.

The Labour victory has lifted a burden from the shoulders of socialists everywhere. The sense that they are in a minority has gone, to be replaced with the belief that ideas are moving in a more left wing direction, and that ideas of equality are once more on the agenda.

In every workplace it is possible to find an audience of people who want change and are prepared to do something about it. Relating to these people and this mood is central in the months ahead. That requires two elements. The first is a rejection of the miserablism of much of the left. Before the election this took the form of believing that Labour would never win again, that the most we could hope for was a hung parliament. Now it tends to surface in the view that Tony Blair is all powerful, and that a vote for him was a vote for the political conservatism which he espouses.

These attitudes are a recipe for complete passivity, as is instanced by the lack of coherence and the weakness of much of the left today.

The second element is the importance of Marxist politics. Only by backing our activity with a high level of political understanding and analysis can we relate to the contradictions created by Blairism.


French elections: It's a knock-out

Peter Morgan

The attempt by France's right wing government to call an early election ­ to avoid future discontent over Maastricht ­ blew up in its face last month. Whatever the outcome of the final vote, the hated French prime minister, Alain Juppé, is out, and there is the strong likelihood of a Socialist government.

'Chirac is trapped,' said the French daily paper Le Parisien. 'The right is flattened, the left can win,' concluded Libération. These were the headlines following the left's spectacular showing in the first round of the French general election on 25 May.

In what must be one of the most remarkable about-turns in recent French electoral history the combined vote of the Socialist and the Communist parties reached nearly 40 percent, while that of the right wing conservative coalition slumped to 30 percent ­ the lowest ever vote for the right wing in the history of the Fifth Republic.

This was a clear vote against a hated conservative government ­ headed by Juppé, but also supported by President Chirac. The next round which determines the final composition of the National Assembly takes place after we go to press and the final outcome is not clear. But this is obviously a significant shift to the left.

In a whole number of seats the conservatives faced a fate similar to that of the Tories in the recent election in Britain. In one of the biggest shocks Juppé himself, who stood in Bordeaux and is normally elected outright in the first round by getting more than 50 percent of the vote, achieved only 38 percent and faces the possibility that he may lose his seat. The justice minister Jacques Touban who stood in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, saw his vote slump to 35 percent. He has been associated with many of the financial scandals that characterised the Juppé government. The mayor of Paris, Jean Tibéri, also associated with widespread corruption, also saw his vote slump.

The vote of the smaller parties reached nearly 30 percent ­ a clear sign that people are looking around for some alternative. What is worrying is that half of this ­ 15 percent ­ went to the fascist National Front. In what is one of the Nazis' best showings in a national election, 133 of their candidates go through to the second round of the election. All candidates who achieve 12.5 percent or more of the total registered votes automatically go through to the next round. It could mean that the fascists will have three deputies elected to the National Assembly.

In Vitrolles near Marseilles, where his wife is NF mayor, the deputy leader of the NF, Bruno Mégret, achieved a worrying 35 percent, against the Socialists at 31 percent. And in the neighbouring seat the fascists achieved 24 percent and

were due to move into the next round to face the Communist mayor who managed 32 percent ­ a clear sign of the political polarisation that exists at the moment. But what is also clear is that where a movement has grown in opposition to the fascists they can take a hammering. For example in Strasbourg, the city in eastern France which saw the biggest mobilisation yet against the NF, the fascist candidate was soundly beaten, despite strong fascist showings in the surrounding region.

Mégret announced after the first round that 'no one can govern without the NF'. This is not true but it reflects the fact that the smaller parties may well hold the balance of power in the National Assembly.

But the real winners of the first round are the Socialists. They are now the ones in the driving seat and they have clearly tapped into the mood for change that exists in France. Early on in the campaign the Socialist leader, Lionel Jospin, made some left wing speeches, partly to get the Communists on board, but also recognising that many workers have been involved in struggle over the last two years and want some sort of change. The Socialist programme does offer reforms, for example towards the shorter working week, which are popular.

The departure of Juppé is a victory for French workers. It was workers' action in November and December 1995 against the hated austerity attacks of the Juppé Plan which led to the present radicalisation. Juppé called this election early because he and Chirac saw the need for further austerity in the coming months in order for France to meet the criteria for monetary union.

This gamble has failed abysmally. Even if the right is returned with a narrow majority, it will form an extremely weak and unstable government. But whoever wins, the attempt by French ruling class to make workers pay have received a setback. Coming shortly after Labour's landslide in Britain, the French election shows there is a growing mood for real change now in Europe. A government led by Jospin will, however, try to implement at lest some of the measures which the ruling class in France needs to meet the convergence criteria for the single currency. Workers who voted left cannot rely on such a government to defend its interests. The growing confidence by workers will be crucial for the battles that lie ahead.


Government

Gareth Jenkins

Always read the small print. It will tell you more about what's on offer than the big names at the top. Nothing could be truer of the lower levels of the new Labour government. These are some of Blair's favourites who have been appointed.

Department of Social Security, Frank Field. Job: 'thinking the unthinkable' about welfare. Quoted as saying that 'all single mothers with children aged over four should look for work or undertake training. If they refused they should be denied benefit.' Field's 'How to Pay for the Future' aims at a 'total reconstruction of welfare'. Field claims that reliance on the state and in particular the use of means tests, 'promote idleness, encourage dishonesty and penalise savings.'

Department of Education and Employment, Professor Michael Barber. Job: head of newly created Standards and Effectiveness Unit. Previous experience: pioneer of the 'fresh start' strategy of closing down 'failing' schools, Hackney Downs was one of his victims.

Solicitor General, Charles Falconer QC. Previous experience: defended British coal against the unions over pit closures in 1992 and advised British Nuclear Fuels against leukaemia victims and Greenpeace activists.

Treasury, junior minister Helen Liddell. Job: reform of financial regulation. Previous experience: head of corporate affairs for Robert Maxwell's Scottish newspaper empire or as one colleague recalls, 'Maxwell's hatchet woman in Scotland.'

Paymaster General, millionaire Geoffrey Robinson. Job: levy the windfall tax. Previous experience: managing director of Jaguar and owner of New Statesman.

Minister of Trade and Competitiveness, Sir David Simon. Previous experience: chairman of BP. Workers for the oil giant in Colombia know something of the effect of international competitiveness. Colombia's national workers' union, the Union Sindical Obrera, told the Guardian that 'workers have no rights to organise. About 100 union activists had been killed over the last ten years trying to organise and that, of the 20 foreign oil companies operating in Colombia, BP is the only one that refuses to allow workers to join a union.'

Whitehall Task Force on employment benefits (two days a month), Martin Taylor. Otherwise employed as chief executive of Barclays Bank on £450 an hour.


Congo

Clare Fermont

Another dictator has gone. This time it was Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire who was forced ignominiously to flee his country. The rottenness of his regime was wonderfully exposed by the speed with which it finally collapsed and by the widespread popular rejoicing.

As Mobutu fled, US government officials had the gall to speak of the importance of democracy, stability and human rights in the now renamed Democratic Republic of Congo. They condemned their erstwhile mate as a despot whose personal corruption has left the country destitute.

They should know. They instigated his rise to power. They helped him butcher his opponents. They collaborated in his ruthless plunder of Congo's wealth. He was not a 'creature of history', as White House spokesman Mike McCurry described him. He was a creature of the West.

In 1960, under the leadership of Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese people freed themselves of the brutal Belgian colonial regime. Within weeks the CIA engineered a coup against the democratically elected government to put its man, Mobutu, in charge. British and Belgian companies tried to dismember the country by separating off Shaba (Katanga) province, home to most of the country's mineral wealth. After five years of civil war, during which Lumumba was assassinated, Mobutu declared himself president and banned all opposition. For the next 32 years Western governments ignored his atrocities, courted him as a Cold War ally, and applauded the 'stability' he brought to Africa.

When the left wing MPLA became increasingly influential in Angola, Mobutu supported the right wing FNLA, led by the CIA agent Holden Roberto (Mobutu's brother-in-law). When the MPLA took control in Angola in 1975, Mobutu opened up a secure route for covert US aid to the right wing rebels of UNITA. When the French government needed to deploy forces into Chad and other countries to continue its economic robbery of Africa, Mobutu was always there to offer his support.

The alliance with Mobutu brought huge profits for Western companies, which plundered Zaire's vast mineral deposits ­ diamonds, coal, copper, cobalt, magnesium, tin, uranium and zinc. Never mind that the Congolese were starving. Share prices soared on Wall Street.

Mobutu was richly rewarded for his services. Five times the West stepped in with arms or troops to save his neck when challenged by revolts or pro-democracy movements. He even received arms when he instigated intercommunal bloodshed in Shaba province.

In fact, nothing Mobutu did to the Congolese people was too terrible for his supporters in the West. His routine torture of prisoners, his mass killings, his 'ethnic cleansing', even his Nazi-like concentration camps for his opponents ­ all were carried out without any meaningful criticism from the representatives of Western democracies.

Mobutu's barefaced robbery of the leftover profits from the mines provoked not a squeak from the West. Nor did his blatant squandering of Western 'aid' and loans to build palaces for his family and finance his cronies. Western banks, estate agents and suppliers of all things luxurious revelled in his bounty. In their vaults sits Mobutu's personal wealth, the wealth of a nation bled dry ­ between $4 billion and $10 billion.

Zaire's minerals should have made its people wealthy. Instead, Mobutu and the West ensured that by the early 1990s around 40 percent of the population of Kinshasa were suffering malnutrition, one child in ten was dying before they could walk and wages were a tenth of the 1960 level. Future generations were also saddled with a huge national debt.

Mobutu's robbery was not secret. Every banking centre in the world knew exactly what was happening. Every government in the West knew. If these governments were really concerned about 'democracy' and 'stability' in Congo, they could write off most of Congo's national debt by confiscating Mobutu's booty. Mobutu himself bragged on American television that he could pay off his country's debt, so why not force him to do it now?

For all the talk of democratic values, the West's support of dictators such as Mobutu is not unique, nor is it a thing of the past. The Shah of Iran, for example, was installed by the CIA and loyally backed by the West during his murderous reign. Today dictators such as Suharto in Indonesia and the sheikhs in the Gulf enjoy the West's backing as they terrorise all opposition and enrich themselves beyond belief.

Even when their favourite dictators are toppled, the US and its allies do not give up. If they can't get their own monsters in place, they do everything in their power to bring the new forces to heel. So when Washington realised that Mobutu was on the way out, they spread their bets by channelling loans and arms to the governments in Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, who were supporting Mobutu's main opponent, Laurent Kabila. Western businesses courted Kabila directly. A Canadian firm, American Mineral Fields, even supplied a plane to ferry him around the country.

Now that Kabila's forces have won, the US government is laying down the conditions for its financial and political support. There must be no silly nationalisations. The usual euphemisms for profiteering by the West and the impoverishment of the masses ­ 'free market enterprise' and 'economic reform' ­ are bandied about as eternal truths. Financial aid (for a country which the West has helped to bankrupt) will be withheld unless Kabila 'behaves'.

Kabila appears to be trying to play the West's game. While using radical rhetoric to mobilise support from the Congolese, he has also assured Western companies that they can operate in Congo without interference. In Shaba province, mines have been handed over to American Mineral Fields. In other words, the wealth of Congo will continue to pour out of the country.

Such policies will do nothing to alleviate the desperate plight of Congo's 38 million people. Moreover, if the aspirations raised by the ousting of Mobutu remain unfulfilled, there is every chance that the disillusionment could turn into pointless and protracted civil war and intercommunal violence. The hope lies with the country's 5 million workers, who have already demonstrated their potential for action in the run up to Mobutu's departure. If they can become a political force in the coming months, there is some chance that the Congolese people can really escape from the Mobutu catastrophe.


Deep Blue

John Parrington

What are we to make of the news that a computer called Deep Blue has beaten Garry Kasparov, arguably the greatest chess player in history? Does this mean that computers are becoming more intelligent than people?

Most scientific experts strongly discount such a scenario. In fact a certain amount of hype has always followed new developments in computer technology. In 1958, experts in 'artificial intelligence' were predicting that we would soon have computers with problem solving powers 'co-extensive with the range of the human mind'. By 1970 nothing of the sort had materialised but this didn't stop new and bolder predictions of 'a machine that will be able to read Shakespeare, grease a car, play office politics, tell a joke, have a fight'. Needless to say we are still waiting.

A continuing source of confusion is the assumption that computers 'think' in the same way as ourselves. When computers were first invented it was assumed that if a computer could learn to play chess at grand master level it would also be able to think like a human being in every other respect. We now know that computers excel at chess not because they are 'intelligent' in the human sense but because they play the game in quite a different fashion from people. Where a human player uses skill and judgement to select the next move, a computer instead goes through every move out of the millions that are possible. We can marvel at Deep Blue's amazing number crunching abilities but not its 'mind'.

Paradoxically, it is our more everyday activities that continue to confound computers. So things that a three year old child does effortlessly ­ recognising patterns, learning, storytelling (and fibbing!) ­ are still beyond even the most powerful computers.

The confusion about the difference between ourselves and computers is not helped by the crude models of the human mind which still dominate psychology today. Until recently, the dominant theory was 'behaviourism', which saw our actions as nothing more than a set of conditioned responses. Rats pressing levers for food rewards became a model for human behaviour. Such crude ideas had real practical consequences. Solitary confinement and loss of remission for prisoners, the 'pin down' method used in some children's homes, even the idea that it is right to smack children, all come from behaviourism.

Fortunately, behaviourism is now largely discredited. Yet many of the theories of the human mind which have superseded it are only slightly more sophisticated. Despite the continuing failure of machines to simulate human behaviour, a view of the mind which sees it as merely 'the programme which runs your brain's computer' (as one philosopher recently put it) is now popular.

Yet comparing human behaviour to that of a machine is a gross underestimation of what it means to be human. Computers process information and so do our own minds but whereas that is all computers do, information processing represents only one small part of the way our minds work.

The information which passes through the human mind is also suffused with meaning. This is a consequence of our active, practical relationship with the world and with other human beings. It is this feature of the human mind that explains how people can modify and even completely overturn previously held ideas, such as the millions of workers who recently turned their backs on the Tories. The fact that human beings are also flesh and blood, with feelings and emotions, cannot be separated from the other factors that shape our minds.

It is the combination of these factors that is the source of human creativity and the reason why humankind continues to produce amazing new technologies like the computer. However, under capitalism, such technology is too often utilised for dubious ends.


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