Issue 251 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

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FOOD CRISIS

Greed, cronyism and incompetence

Market madness means a crisis for Britain's food and tourist industry
Market madness means a crisis for Britain's food and tourist industry...

With over 300,000 animals slaughtered, 80,000 carcasses currently lying in fields waiting to be burnt and half of Britain's livestock under threat, government scientists are only now admitting that the culling policy is so out of control they have no 'end prediction' in mind. In layman's terms this means that their policy of mass slaughter is finally beginning to crack under the pressure.

Hidden behind the hysteria is an attempt to protect the profits of Britain's food and farming industry. 'In a moment of sudden understanding Blair realised what he was being told,' reported the Observer recently. This sudden understanding was of the £400 million profits the industry makes, and that his personal intervention was now required to protect it.

This is a story of greed, cronyism and incompetence. Greed because at stake are the super-profits of a small group of multinational corporations that dominate food production and distribution. Cronyism because the government has refused to implement safety regulations in order to maximise profits. Incompetence because the deeper the crisis gets, the more Tony Blair and his ministers appear incapable of dealing with the crisis.

Last week Blair finally demanded some 'bloody direction' from his government departments, yet the advice from his own safety agencies was consciously rejected by him over three years ago. The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee recommended that the feeding of pigswill (catering waste) should be outlawed, just as it has been in Portugal and Luxembourg, due to fears that it led to the spread of disease. The Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (Maff) rejected this recommendation because it increased 'potential' costs to farmers, even though it is fed to only a tiny minority of herds.

The agencies responsible for food regulation and safety are now so dwarfed by Maff in terms of resources and influence that one expert described them as 'tearing at the seams' and incapable of responding to global trade, with the movement of livestock across continents.

Britain is the only country in Europe to have favoured mass slaughter for foot and mouth disease over vaccination. Ten years ago Maff persuaded the rest of Europe to abandon vaccination. It put about scare stories arguing that countries could not maintain disease-free status if antibodies from vaccines were found in blood samples, and that this would affect a county's ability to export. Now that the crisis has deepened the government has been forced into a u-turn to rethink its policy on vaccination.

Behind the fake concern for the welfare of animals are the real concerns of agribusiness--the reduced meat and milk yields from recovered animals. Britain is desperate to ensure its disease-free status because of global competition. Britain bans the import of herds from countries with a record of foot and mouth. So animal culling is in fact a grisly way of protecting British agribusiness.

This is what underpins the present political crisis facing the Blair government. Tony Blair is caught between public fear concerning another food scare and the effect this will have on profits. The deregulation of the meat industry has only added to the problems of mass culling. Due to the closure of two thirds of Britain's abattoirs, the transport of animals over long distances has spread the disease. Now there is a shortage of slaughterers to carry out the culling, and over 100 volunteer vets have had to be brought in from abroad to oversee the process.

If identifying the problem of the disease has been dealt with in such an incompetent way, then the method of dealing with the carcasses is worse still. Experts now believe burning carcasses actually spreads the disease into the air, and no evidence is available to disprove this. And as if to highlight the hysteria involved, there also exists no scientific justification for the closure of the countryside to walkers.

The real fear behind this whole affair is that Britain's rich farmers will lose out to international competition. Maff's policies, dominant for so long in Europe, have finally been exposed for what they really are--the legal justification for the accumulation of huge profits made by a small group of corporations.
Karen O'Toole
For more on the food crisis see pages 22-23 and 36


BETWEEN THE LINES

  • Conditions at the warehouse of Amazon.com in Milton Keynes are anything but high-tech. Staff at the warehouse work an 11-hour shift. Each worker has a strict quota which they have to meet--a picker must select three items a minute, and a packer is required to pack 2.5 items a minute. Workers walk up to 20 miles a night around the warehouse. No wonder that the GPMU has been able to triple union membership in the last few months.
    Waiting staff
  • Manhattan-based recruiting company Metroforce, which hires staff for restaurants, found that 15 percent of applications for waiting jobs are from people whose Silicon Valley companies have retrenched or closed.
  • Only 53 percent of young Caribbean origin men with qualifications are in employment in the 18-30 age group, compared with 81 percent of white men, according to a study by the Department for Education and Employment. The unemployment rate among black men as a whole was also significantly higher, at 32 percent compared to 8 percent for white men.

  • Caption
    ...and electricity blackouts in California

    While millions of workers in California watched their life savings evaporating in March's colossal stock market slide, many were then subjected to further reminders of free market failure as their lights went out during a series of rolling blackouts.

    The blackouts were ordered by state officials to cope with alleged electrical power shortages caused by the 1996 deregulation of the state's energy market. They are now expected to continue periodically through the summer, but most likely beyond unless a solution is negotiated soon. Across the state businesses have sent thousands of workers home, often without pay, temporarily laying off part of their workforce. The most vulnerable--the sick, children and elderly--have been particularly exposed as they have been cut off from heat and other necessary services.

    The state's two big utility companies, Southern California Edison, and Pacific Gas and Electric, are claiming they need $12 billion just to keep the lights on this summer. They say they are being held hostage by low consumer rate caps and a massive increase in wholesale power prices. Edison and PG&E freed themselves from state regulation in 1996 after an intense lobbying effort and after finding themselves a very willing ally in the person of former Governor Pete Wilson.

    Wilson and a legislature firmly committed to the logic of the free market and deregulation allowed Edison and PG&E out of $28 billion in debt obligations from building and operating power plants. The utilities then instead became distributors of energy, which they purchase from an array of independent suppliers. The utilities sold off much of their power generating capacity and put their billions into unregulated assets worldwide. As usual the alleged benefit was that free market competition would lead to better service and lower prices.

    The reality today is the utilities are claiming bankruptcy, citing soaring wholesale prices. The operator of the state's power grid, the Independent System Operator, is now alleging suppliers have been overcharging by as much as $5.5 billion in the last ten months. The utilities' claims are bizarre in the extreme. PG&E for its part actually produces nearly half of the electricity it sells to consumers through its subsidiary, PG&E National Energy Group, which in turn sells power to PG&E's utility company at massively inflated rates. The utilities are paying ten times more for wholesale electricity than they paid before the deregulation.

    Of course, independent power generating companies which had purchased many of California's power plants, such as Duke Energy, Enron, and Dynegy, are raking in massive profits since entering into the California power market. Dynegy, for example, which owns three major power plants in California, saw its income triple last year to $500 million.

    Speculation has arisen that the energy companies were creating artificial shortages in an effort to raise prices after the agency responsible for overseeing the state's power grid reported on 28 January that 49 power plants had been turned off. The state has been paying $45 million a day to subsidise Edison and PG&E's energy purchases in an attempt to stabilise the situation, while Governor Gray Davis prepares a massive taxpayer funded bailout.

    There is an unquestioning line in the mainstream media and in the state capitol that the mess is a result of a real power shortage and that the utilities are in need of financial relief. This is a total lie. For example, Edison International, it has been demonstrated, has assets valued at $37.9 billion.

    The failure of the market and deregulation is obvious in California's power crisis. The only way out of this mess is public ownership of power. Activists have pointed out that the state could buy every power plant in California for $10 billion to $12 billion, the cost of the bailout. There have been demonstrations in the state's capital, Sacramento, and at many PG&E locations demanding public power. Several grassroots organisations have developed, such as the Campaign for Public Power NOW, which have been building links between labour, community activists, Greens and others outraged by the blatant robbery taking place. Crucially, there have been indications that the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers may weigh in to support public power. The fight for public power will necessarily throw up issues in which anti-capitalist ideas will likely develop and it is necessary that socialists are actively building a diverse, united movement with that at its centre.
    Michael Reilly
    reporting from Oakland, California


    ITALY

    Berlusconi bites back

    Berlusconi looks set to win in May
    Berlusconi looks set to win in May

    The prospect of a centre-right coalition governing Italy after the general election on 13 May is a very real one indeed. The so called 'casa della libertà' (house of freedom!) is made up of three groupings, with a motley crew of smaller ex Christan Democrats along for the ride.

    The leader of the coalition is businessman Silvio Berlusconi. One of the richest men in Europe, Berlusconi owns three national television channels, a football team, numerous insurance and advertising companies, one national newspaper and hundreds of other companies, as well as seven villas in Sardinia. Berlusconi was once a member of the secret (and banned) Masonic lodge known as P2, exposed in the 1980s, whose members vowed to control Italy through infiltrating democratic and information-based institutions. This power-crazy tycoon (he recently called himself 'the best in the world', and has previously claimed to be annointed with 'the oil of god'), is a rabid anti-Communist who entered politics primarily to protect his corrupt media and business interests from criminal investigation.

    Berlusconi was prime minister once before, in 1994. Then a similar coalition was brought crashing down by corruption scandals and massive protest against proposed pension reforms and the presence of 'post-fascists' in government, which led to the biggest demonstration in Italian history in November 1994 in Rome.

    Much has changed since then. Berlusconi has stuck around, ridden out the scandals and built a much more stable coalition. The left has split over economic and social reform, with the departure of the left party Rifondazione Comunista from the coalition which won the 1996 elections. The left in government has made tentative attempts at reform, but its greatest 'success' has been to squeeze the state sector to allow Italy to enter the euro.

    If the prospect of a Berlusconi government--big brother style--is not frightening enough, then you just need to look at his allies. On one side, in the north, there are the regionalist Northern Leagues, led by demagogue Umberto Bossi. This right wing social movement has mobilised northern Italians around anti-tax propaganda, regionalism and, increasingly, crude and violent racism against immigrants working in low paid jobs. The Leagues have branded all immigrants as criminals, and have marched against the construction of mosques and immigrant housing. Some League politicians have called for violence against immigrants, such as the odious Mario Borghezio, a racist who has symbolised the intolerance of the Leagues. The mayor of Treviso has called for immigrants to be dressed up as animals and hunted!

    The third member of this unholy alliance is known as Alleanza Nazionale. Many of AN's members and politicians come directly out of the MSI, a neo-fascist party active in Italy from 1946 onwards. The MSI was usually to be found on the margins of Italian politics and rarely gained more than 5 percent of the national vote. After the collapse of the main parties in 1992, following massive corruption scandals and the end of the Cold War, the MSI reinvented itself as AN and gained credibility, members and votes. Although they are outwardly moderate on a number of issues, you only have to scratch the surface of many AN politicians for the fascist to roar out.

    Earlier this year Francesco Storace, regional president of Lazio (Rome), attacked the versions of history available in what he called 'Communist' school textbooks and announced that he would be setting up a commission to vet future books before they were used in schools. Many AN politicians want to rewrite the history of Italy from a fascist point of view, playing down the Resistance (1943-45) and playing up the so-called crimes of Communism and the glorious reign of Mussolini. In certain towns run by AN, street names have been changed and monuments torn down. This dangerous revisionism would be given a free hand if Berlusconi were to win.

    With the bleak prospect of a victory of the centre-right, where is the left? The presidential candidate is Francesco Rutelli, a moderate Green with a nice smile and a good line in soundbites. He leads a hopelessly divided coalition whose policies resemble those of our own dear Tony Blair, even down to the direct translation of the famous phrase, 'Tough on crime...' Nonetheless, there are hopes that the centre-left could get enough votes to deny Berlusconi an outright victory and block his more extreme plans for reform. To the left of Rutelli lies Rifondazione Comunista, standing alone this time and campaigning on a traditional radical reformist ticket. The only proper opposition to the fascists on the streets has come from militants linked to the so-called Centri Sociali, youth social centres which organise frequent marches in favour of immigrants and in opposition to far right meetings.

    The real crux of the post-election scenario lies in the power of the unions. Although weakened, union organisation remains strong, especially in the public service sector. Frequent strikes bring the railway services to a complete halt. It remains to be seen whether Berlusconi has the will or the power to take on the unions head on. If he attempts such a road, we could be in for the sort of mass protest which exploded in 1994.

    If, however, Berlusconi is content to pursue his own private business interests as the head of a major European power, then democracy will be in danger of collapse. With the whole media sector in Berlusconi's hands, George Orwell will have been proved correct, at least for Italy and for Berlusconi. After Haider's victory in Austria, the world expressed outrage. In Italy things are much worse, potentially, and anti-fascists and socialists everywhere should be preparing their placards and their slogans for serious agitation after 13 May.
    John Foot


    FRENCH ELECTIONS

    Left right, left right

    Betrand Delanöe is elected mayor of Paris
    Betrand Delanöe is elected mayor of Paris

    'A Political Earthquake' was how the French daily Libération greeted the election of the Socialist Party's Betrand Delanöe as mayor of Paris. It ended 24 years of uninterrupted rule of the city by President Chirac's Gaullist party. Chirac is a former mayor of Paris, and the result is a major blow for his hopes of retaining the presidency. Much has been made of the fact that this was the first time that the left has controlled the capital since 1871 and the Paris Commune. For many this might seem strange, but the city of Paris lies within the Périphérique ring road, excluding the vast working class estates on the city's fringe.

    The plural left, bringing together the Socialist Party, the Greens and the Communist Party, also took control of France's second city, Lyons. But the election marked a shift within the left coalition that forms France's government. The Communist Party lost control of Nimes and Montluçon, the last two major cities the party controlled. The main gainers were the Greens, who ran on a radical platform. In Paris they took 23 seats to the Communists' 11. One of the Communist ministers in the Jospin government admitted it was 'a very bad result'.

    The right wing has tried to gain comfort from the fact that the left did not make the widespread gains that had been predicted. Yet talk of the elections representing a right wing blue tide fall short of the mark. One reason why the mainstream right made gains was a collapse in support for the divided fascists. The left also suffered from abstentions among working class voters.

    Yet the crucial thing is the emergence of a radical left which is prepared to challenge the free market policies championed by Jospin, though without the fanaticism of Tony Blair. In the first round of the municipal elections the far left notched up real gains. In Toulouse the radical grassroots Motivé(e)s, formed by the Arab rap singer Zebda, polled 12.4 percent despite a racist campaign by the right, which asked voters if they wanted an Arab in the city hall. Altogether the far left won nearly 17 percent in Toulouse and nearly 19 percent in Rennes in Brittany. Lutte Ouvrire won over 10 percent of the vote in ten towns--including 19.44 percent and three council seats in Lievin in the former northern mining area, and 12.24 percent and three seats in the Lille suburb of Villeneuve-d'Ascq. The other main far left party, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, scored well, winning a number of council seats.

    This raises the likelihood that in the forthcoming presidential elections the far left candidate, Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvrire, could outpoll the Communist Party leader, Robert Hue. This is one part of an exciting development which has seen the emergence of vibrant anti-capitalist groupings like Attac, the Peasants' Confederation, whose leading figure is José Bové, and a growing confidence among workers who recently beat back attempts to raise the retirement age.
    Chris Bambery


    ANTI-CAPITALISM

    All aboard for Genoa

    Anti-capitalist demonstration in Naples
    Anti-capitalist demonstration in Naples

    The anti-capitalist movement continues to grow across the world. There was a massive international response to the Zapatistas' march on Mexico City in March. But closer to home and in some ways more significant was the demonstration against the Third Global Forum in Naples, Italy, last month. This 20,000-strong demonstration was very young and very militant. A radical priest commented that 'it was easier for Sub-comandante Marcos to reach Mexico City than for these kids to reach Piazza Plebiscito'.

    These signs point to the potential for a huge demonstration against the G8 meeting in Genoa, Italy, in July. Drop the Debt is mobilising people, and Globalise Resistance has already booked its first train. The train will carry 540 people and tickets are £120 including the ferry crossing and two nights on board with couchettes.

    This G8 demonstration looks set to be brilliant. It will be a powerful expression of the unity that has been built by activists against all aspects of neoliberalism, debt, GATS, etc. We can get hundreds of campaigners and activists to Genoa and make our leaders hear our opposition. But you don't have to wait till July. Globalise Resistance will be picketing the Balfour Beatty HQ to mark the beginning of the London tube strike, joining the CND demo at Downing Street on Easter Saturday, and organising solidarity protests with José Bové's day of action against GM foods on 17 April in Glasgow, where Globalise Resistance will be picketing McDonald's with a giant cow. There's never been a better time to get involved. For details of the train to Genoa and all other Globalise Resistance activities, visit www.resist.org.uk or phone 020 8980 3005.
    Judy Cox


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