Issue 256 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
Trident on Trial
Luath Press £9.99
In 1996 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at the Hague issued an 'advisory opinion' on 'the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons'. It ruled that, in general, the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be illegal under international law. In August 1998 Trident Ploughshares was officially launched. It believed that people had a responsibility to prevent nuclear genocide and to enforce the ICJ ruling.
It began with 49 'pledgers', people from across the world who had pledged themselves to disarming Trident. They had gone through a two-day course in non-violent direct action, and their names were published on the internet and sent to the authorities. They wrote to Tony Blair and the armed forces pointing out that they were breaching international law and to the police asking them to enforce the law. They got no response from any of them. So they began a campaign of 'people's disarmament'. This involved entering bases connected with the nuclear programme and beginning the process of nuclear disarmament.
This involved damaging submarines, research equipment, convoys and anything else connected with Britain's nuclear weapons programme. The actions were mainly focused around the military bases at Faslane and Coulport in Scotland, but actions have taken place all over Britain. The campaign has also included a number of mass blockades of the base at Faslane in conjunction with Scottish CND.
As Angie Zelter tells us, since 1998 'there have been over 1,220 arrests...110 trials completed and over 1,200 days spent in prison, not counting days in police custody. Although around £15,000 in fines have been imposed so far, only a small proportion have been paid as most disarmers are refusing to pay.' There are now 179 pledgers from 15 different countries.
One of Trident Ploughshares' most successful actions took place in 1999 when three women, Angie Zelter, Ulla Roder and Ellen Moxley, swam onto a naval research barge and proceeded to empty every piece of equipment on it into Loch Goil. After four months in prison and a 19-day trial the 'Trident Three', as they became known, were acquitted by the sheriff at the local court. The case was appealed by the crown to the High Court in Edinburgh. The Scottish High Court's ruling unsurprisingly dodged the main question of Trident's legality and supported the status quo, allowing the government to keep Trident.
During both hearings Angie Zelter represented herself so that she was 'able to state in plain language that murder is murder and is inexcusable'. Much of the book contains her submissions to the court and her responses to its ruling. She puts forward the humanitarian and legal case against nuclear weapons--that Britain's Trident warheads are eight to ten times more powerful than the ones used on Hiroshima, which by the end of 1945 had killed 140,000 people and devastated the city. Most are targeted on areas with huge civilian populations. As well as putting the case against Trident the book is interspersed with descriptions of Trident Ploughshares' actions and history. These are written by the individuals and affinity groups involved. These stories are inspirational and at times funny, as 'ordinary people' again and again enter supposedly secure military facilities to engage in people's disarmament. In one case, after using a hammer to smash up a lorry that was to be part of a nuclear convoy, the protesters had to find a guard to arrest them. After they had given the guard some flowers and chocolate he said they could go, so they had to encourage him to look at what they'd done before he would arrest them.
The book has been written not just to put the case against Trident and nuclear weapons, but also to inspire others to be part of the fight for a world where nuclear destruction does not threaten everyone on the planet. Every socialist, anti-capitalist and peace campaigner should read it. The royalties from the book are going to Trident Plougshares, and if you order from Bookmarks an additional £1 will go to the campaign.
Here are two short novels by one of Italy's greatest modern writers. Leonardo Sciascia was born in Sicily in 1921, and as well as writing he was a teacher, then a member of the Sicilian parliament. He died in 1989. The heat and dust of his native island add a natural background to its domination by a corrupt ruling class made up of state officials, aristocracy, church and criminals. These people bear down on the shoulders of the Sicilian workers and peasants, sucking them dry with taxes, terror and superstition. This coalition of reaction is captured in a prism that gives the reader a real insight into why Italy became, and remains, one of the most unstable of the major western powers.
In Sicily, it seems, one must always look for the crime behind the crime. In Equal Danger, written in 1971, there occurs a series of murders of top state officials. Inspector Rogas is put on the case. He is a cop in the best Inspector Morse tradition, relying on logical deduction to find the culprit. But this is Italy, so there is bound to be another agenda, and he finds himself pushed in a different direction--to pin it on the left.
The thriller then becomes a story of a ruthless state machine matched only by a lethargic and politically bankrupt opposition. Its ending is both blunt and thoroughly unsentimental (unlike Morse), and is prophetic in describing the direction Italian politics were to take over the coming decade.
Sicilian Uncles, which was written much earlier, in 1958, is a collection of four short stories spanning modern Italian history. 'The American Aunt' is set against the Allied liberation of Sicily during the Second World War. It describes the desperate day to day hardship of living through a war, but, best of all, it reveals how the Allies were only too ready to co-opt the fascist state machine to keep the Communist-led partisan movement out of power. If you've ever wondered why so many good socialists supported Stalin's Russia, 'The Death Of Stalin' is an excellent account of how the rise of Nazi Germany encouraged a similar rise in support for the USSR.
'Antimony' is the most surprising and perhaps touching story in the novel. It is the only one that takes place outside Italy. It is about a volunteer fighting for Mussolini's fascist militia in the Spanish Civil War. As the story develops the beliefs of the main character are changed, not by moral arguments, but as his direct experiences of the war force him to reflect on the wider issues of his life in Sicily and the job he left in the sulphur mine.
'Forty-Eight' is set against the revolutions led by Garibaldi that led to the modern Italian state. It is written through the eyes of a participant, and focuses on the oppression that the peasants faced every day of their lives. It is a grotesque and stultifying experience to be ruled over by wealthy landowners from the aristocracy and the Catholic church.
Despite the different events that are the settings for each story, they are all pervaded by the scent of betrayal. As each succeeding cast of leaders proclaims its intent to liberate Italy from its past, Sciascia reveals them as merely becoming its prisoner.
Zed Books £15.95
French prime minister Lionel Jospin sought to bolster his support on the left last month by coming out in favour of a tax on financial speculation. The Tobin Tax, as it is commonly known, has become a central demand for the anti-capitalist movement. The group Attac was formed in France in June 1998 after an article in the left wing monthly Le Monde Diplomatique called for a movement to campaign for the Tobin Tax in the wake of the crisis that began with a collapse in East Asian currencies the previous year.
The idea is simple yet powerful--to tax currency transactions at a low rate, say 0.1 percent of the value of the transaction, and use the proceeds to help developing countries. This would raise large amounts of money because about $1,600 billion worth of currencies are traded every day.
Yet it has met strong opposition. Only one third of this trade is made up of the straightforward currency deals that are necessary for international trade to take place. The other two thirds are a wide range of often complex contracts that are referred to as 'derivatives'. These often rely on very small margins on very large transactions to provide profits for the banks and investment houses that deal in them. The average value of a month's global currency deals is equal to a whole year's worth of the output of the world economy. This is the equivalent of the same money passing through many hands, except that in this case it is done electronically. A third of all global foreign exchange transactions take place in London, and if you add in New York this rises to a half, with Tokyo the next most important centre. It is not surprising then that successive British and US governments have opposed the demand for a tax on currency speculation, while Jospin's support is purely rhetorical since France is part of the euro, so will soon not have its own currency.
The first half of Democratising Globalisation attempts to both describe and explain the nature of the foreign exchange and capital markets. It contains many ideas and facts that are useful, even if it takes a bit of intellectual effort to follow. Patomaki points out, for example, that the decline in government budget deficits has been accompanied by growing levels of corporate debt--currently estimated at 150 percent of annual world economic output. Debt has effectively been privatised, giving the key players in the bond and currency markets greater power than ever before over the direction of government policy.
Though the Tobin Tax has become almost synonymous with the anti-capitalist movement, Jospin is not the first mainstream politician to take it up. James Tobin himself is a mainstream economist in the Keynesian tradition who wrote in the Financial Times recently that he 'had nothing to do with [the protest movements] and [is] not informed of their platforms'. It is true that the tax could be set at such a low level as to shave only a sliver off the profits of the speculators, and have little impact on the ever-growing volumes of currency trades.
Patomaki's case is that the tax will make speculative surges of currency across borders unprofitable, and help to stabilise the economy and protect countries from currency crises. He looks in turn at the technical and political obstacles in the way of a Tobin Tax. He seeks to strike a balance between a tax that will cut so much into profits that speculators will move elsewhere and one that is so low it has no impact.
Though the technical section is useful, these considerations seem to be aimed primarily at bolstering the political case. These are two basic approaches to tax evasion. Abolish the imperfect tax or close the loopholes and pursue the tax-dodgers. Sadly, this section of the book is the shortest and least convincing.
The New Intifada
We have here a practical manual, packed with information and arguments for a confident defence of the intifada. There are mainly short articles and powerful photographs. Nearly half the writers are either Palestinian or from other Arab countries. This in itself is a welcome innovation for a book aimed at a western audience. And there are also the maps.
Maps, as anyone who heard Edward Said speak in London earlier this year will know, are an incredibly powerful way of demolishing Zionist mythology. In particular they show the swindle of the Oslo peace accords in drawings. Professor Said had the maps on stage with him. They reappear here in the opening essay, a reprint of arguably the best piece to appear on the intifada.
But a later piece in the book by Salman Abbu Sitta, president of the Palestine Land Society, also has maps. And here we have something completely original. These maps show the ease with which the unconditional right of return of the Palestinian refugees, driven out of Palestine in the Nakba (Catastrophe) by the Zionists in 1948 could be accomplished. This is the most controversial demand of the intifada, despite its legitimacy in international law, because the Zionists have always successfully coupled it to an alleged Arab desire to 'drive the Jews into the sea'. As another Palestinian writer, Omar Barghouti, points out, even the most progressive pro-Palestinian Israeli 'peace' activists like Uri Avnery collapse when confronted with it.
Edward Said's use of the maps is so important because they show the connection between Israeli domination of the Oslo negotiating process and the staggering incompetence of Arafat's team at those negotiations. Put simply, that team arrived without any of their own maps! Hence the ease with which the Israelis stitched the whole thing up. The Israelis imprisoned Palestinians into Bantustans through a network of bypass roads for Jews only. Meanwhile the number of settlements doubled and the water supply to Palestinian areas was reduced. Readers will also see how the 'map' argument gives the lie to Barak's claim that he offered Arafat 90 percent of the West Bank just before the intifada broke out.
Abbu Sitta's maps show just how much space there is in Israel for every single one of those 5 million refugees. Three quarters of Israelis live on just 15 percent of the land space. Furthermore, this is not the area where most of the refugees originally lived. This is in the relatively underpopulated north, especially Galilee, and south, especially Gaza. In other words, demographic analysis can literally identify the routes for the right of return.
The daily life of the vast majority of Israeli Jews would be undisturbed by it, (though, as the author says, this in itself is irrelevant to the Palestinians' moral and political claims, but of course it makes the political argument much easier). Even more remarkably, we have maps showing that a majority of the original Palestinian village sites are vacant. This must surely rank as exposure of one of Zionism's best kept secrets.
Arab women writers also have powerful pieces in this book. There is the reproduction of Egyptian novelist Adhaf Soueif's remarkable diary of the intifada, first published in the Guardian in December. A chilling interview with Dr Azmi Bishara, Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, is a searing indictment of Zionism's racist treatment of Israel's 1 million Palestinians who are Israeli citizens. Their solidarity with the intifada provoked Israeli mobs who went on the rampage, looting and burning Arab properties, wounding hundreds of Arabs and killing 13 of them.
The behaviour of Israel's Jewish left-liberal intellectuals disgusted Dr Bishara, leaving, he says, 'an inseparable moral gap' between themselves and 'liberal, progressive, democratic Arabs': 'I was receiving death threats on a daily basis and my house was attacked. Not one Zionist writer, intellectual or member of the Knesset (parliament) condemned any of this... I felt like a Jewish intellectual in Europe in the 1930s...whose neighbours can't recognise him any more.' Only the tiny number of anti-Zionist Jews 'behaved honourably'.
Noam Chomsky provides an excellent political introduction, once again assembling a wealth of detailed evidence from US documents illustrating Israel's role in protecting US interests in the Middle East in the post Cold War era. Particularly sickening is the secretive yet systematic tailoring of US military advice and hardware to assist the crushing of the intifada.
There is, however, one serious weakness with this book. Although one essay does attempt to explore the problems with the Palestinian strategy in the intifada, it fails to prioritise the fundamental problem the Palestinians face.
This is the frankly catastrophic way the Arab regimes have so far successfully isolated the intifada--despite the overwhelming feelings of fury and solidarity felt by the region's 200 million Arabs. The secular left has to drive home the argument that the Palestinians cannot win a decisive victory without the full-scale popular mobilisation of these sentiments.
Steve Greenfield and Guy Osborn
Pluto Press £14.99
In 1960 George Eastham, formerly of Newcastle United and recently transferred to Arsenal, took his old club to court. He was challenging the situation whereby professional players were registered with a club, so even when their original contracts expired their registration remained with that club, which would not always release them. It was a form of bonded labour. The court case brought about the creation of the modern transfer system.
This was itself undermined by another court case, this time at the European court, which came down in favour of a little known Belgian footballer, Jean Marc Bosman, granting footballers freedom of contract (and banning any limitations on the number of EU passport holders in one team).
Legal interventions in sport have traditionally been so rare that such cases have taken on landmark proportions. But for how much longer? The commercialisation of the game and its globalisation grow ever greater daily.
The amount of money involved in the game is now staggering. The top five premiership clubs have a combined turnover greater than the 72 football league clubs. On a single match day Manchester United generates more income, excluding television coverage, than at least 22 football clubs.
But it is a fine line between financial success and failure. Despite its success on the field, Real Madrid stood on the verge of bankruptcy until a very dodgy property deal involving its stadium and training pitches bailed it out. In its attempt to become part of the European football elite, thereby ensuring it would be part of any future European elite, Chelsea took a conscious decision to 'invest' in players and pay the resulting wage bill. The result is that this season Chelsea will not be in the Champions' League and has accumulated a massive debt.
By April 2000 the basic pay (not including money taken in sponsorship and endorsement deals) for premiership players over 20 was £409,000 per year. A hundred players earned over £1 million a year. But we should remember only a tiny number ever make their way into this wage bracket. Others are simply dumped by clubs after their childhood has been distorted, and they have been left with no training other than to be a footballer.
League football was a product of the second half of the 19th century. In 1885, 25 out of the 122 soccer teams in Liverpool were linked to churches. Businessmen then saw the value in creating football and cricket teams as a means of creating loyalty to the firm and keeping their workforce fit. After the ravages of the industrial revolution, industrialists realised they needed a settled, skilled and, hopefully, 'respectable' working class. In its origins football was a middle and upper class game, with the first winners of the FA Cup representing old boys from a string of public schools, plus clubs drawn from the armed forces. As working class teams entered the fray there was a middle class flight from the game. The Rugby Football Union was founded in 1871 as a middle class reaction to the 'unsporting' practice of hacking. The emphasis in the early days of soccer had been on dribbling. Now it tended to be a more direct game.
For over a century football was played on Saturday afternoons in Protestant countries or on Sunday afternoons in Catholic ones. It was a game played from autumn to spring. It was not so long ago that players like Dennis Compton or, to a lesser extent, Ian Botham could play both cricket and football professionally. This pattern has now gone out of the window.
Now Fifa, as part of the globalisation of the game, is arguing for a fixed season from February to November, with July and August reserved for international or continental contests. Commercial pressures can force through other changes. Prior to the 1994 World Cup held in the US, broadcasters feared 0-0 draws would turn off domestic viewers. In order to increase the number of goals they tried to have the physical size of the goal increased. Another refrain is that two halves of 45 minutes are too long for the needs of advertisers. The suggestion was for a game of four quarters.
In 1974 American football introduced 'sudden death' to decide drawn games. The impetus for this did not come from spectators but from the TV companies. Television audiences increase when there are penalty shootouts in cup or international games. No leap of imagination is needed to see drawn games becoming a thing of the past at the insistence of the broadcasters.
The whole fanbase of the game is changing too. Greenfield and Osborn point out, 'Now supporters have become consumers, and the way in which football can be consumed and, therefore, how a team can be supported, has changed'. Legal intervention into football will be a product of the commercialisation of the game. Yet reading this book I can't help thinking, and hoping, that it could all very easily go belly up.
UNSW Press £11.95
A concentration camp in the middle of the desert is not an image likely to find favour with the Australian tourism industry. However, following the recent fiasco off the coast of Christmas Island, it should not come as a surprise that this is the reality of Australia's policy towards refugees.
Peter Mares, an Australian Broadcasting Commission journalist, has written a compelling attack on mandatory detention and Australian asylum policy. Australia's annual refugee intake is limited to 12,000 people. This includes an off-shore programme heavily favouring those who speak English and an in-shore programme for those who apply on arrival. Those who arrive legally (eg as students or tourists) can usually live in the community and work. Those who arrive illegally (eg without a visa or passport) and are often the most desperate, are subject to mandatory detention in privately run camps in some of the remotest parts of the country.
This barbaric policy is unique amongst developed countries and means asylum seekers are often hundreds of miles from the nearest competent lawyer or support network. Nearly 4,000 refugees (including several hundred children) were detained in the 1999-2000 financial year. Most had survived hazardous boat journeys from countries like Afghanistan. Mares describes the 'sub-human' conditions at the Curtin detention centre in North Western Australia where 1,100 were detained in February 2000: 'People complained about finding snakes in the camp, about the shower facilities being inadequate, about queuing for hours in the hot sun to wait for meals. Above all...there was no telephone, no access to the media and no ability to send or receive mail.' As a result, over 300 detainees went on hunger strike, including 20 who sewed up their lips!
At Woomera in central Australia detainees describe being raped and assaulted. This led to attempted breakouts in April and June 2000, a 'riot' in August suppressed by the first use of water cannon, and a hunger strike in November resulting in the hospitalisation of 11 people. Protests and strikes continue in all the immigration detention centres. One asylum seeker recently committed suicide at the Villawood centre near Sydney and 46 people escaped.
Since 1997 these camps have been run by Australasian Correctional Management (ACM), a joint venture controlled by the Wackenhut Corporation (which runs the Tinsley House detention centre near Gatwick and has a notorious record of abusing prisoners in the US).
Mares details how its activities are protected by commercial confidentiality and raises concerns about the limited independent scrutiny of its operations. He describes how, instead of paying for clothing, ACM cons charities into providing it for nothing while employing detainees at prison labour rates.
Disgracefully, it was a Labour government which introduced mandatory detention as 'a deterrent' in 1992. Mares outlines how this simply encouraged the racist One Nation party to set the tone for any discussion on Australian immigration policy. He also criticises Jack Straw who, like his Australian counterpart, has called for the 'revision' of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.
However, Mares also rejects 'radical international socialist dreams of a borderless world', arguing that Straw's suggestions of an agreed list of safe countries and an international quota system should not be rejected summarily simply because they are motivated by a desire to escape Britain's current obligations.
Mares's argument for a more humanitarian quota system is undermined by his own descriptions of Australia's quota policy and the evident desire of the Australian and British governments to force refugees to apply for asylum at agreed UN posts on the borders of countries like Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Mares clearly sides with the refugees and the growing campaign against mandatory detention which recently won the support of the Australian TUC.
To make the jump from being someone who writes poetry to being a poet takes guts. As someone who writes poetry I know this. Patrick Jones had the guts, the drive and the passion to make sure his words were heard. This comes across in the words on the page, and more importantly in the words, images and voices that appear in your head when you read this anthology. Poetry at its best is a beautiful medium. It comes flowing out of the page and is able to play with every emotion you can feel. When poetry feels effortless, when the words seem natural and unforced, the layout and structure help rather than hinder the flow of the words, and poetry can reach this effect. This anthology of Jones's works, both poetry and drama, holds examples of this. It is all the more impressive that Jones uses this talent to express his anger against the capitalist system and to put the eloquent voice of the alienated masses to paper.
With this work Jones manages to achieve something that his brother, Manic Street Preachers lyricist Nicky Wire, has never quite managed to do--produce a poetic political rant. That is to say, put all your political beliefs and feelings into a coherent work of art. At some points Jones fails in this. Poems like 'philosophy (father)' and 'dysunitednation' both feel awkward. The words fail to flow where the politics gleam, but on the whole he succeeds. In poems like 'the guerilla tapestry' you can feel the anger and emotion effortlessly being transferred onto the page. The tale of the miners is told in 'demonstrations for existence', with a voice that has seen what devastation the conditions and closures caused, and poems like 'the unsaid' and 'there is no one t(here)' blend technique and wordplay to paint the despair, but still the words flow naturally in a way begging to be read.
What makes the poetry stand out is what makes the first play in the anthology fail. Everything Must Go starts off with a fantastic rant from the narrator that makes you sit up and take notice, and a deep breath. He is screaming at the audience, exploding the myths about Welsh life, telling how it is to live without hope in a land without jobs. Then comes the dialogue. Unfortunately this just doesn't sound right. The beauty of the poetry somehow doesn't transfer to gritty realism. The ideas are there--you will feel empathy with the character 'A', who thought 'we'd be better off under Labour' and tries to talk politics with his friends, but as the conversation lurches from going joyriding to Aneurin Bevan and alienation the words clunk and feel written by Patrick Jones rather than spoken by the youths. To a similar extent Unprotected Sex, the other play in fuse, falls into the same trap, but it does hold together better as the characters are grounded around a situation and therefore feel more real.
Neither of the plays lives up to the standard set by the poetry. Then again, little would. This is, without doubt, some of the best poetry written in the last three decades. The standard may not always stay at the peak and the politics may not always be perfect ('democratis' strangely starts with the line 'you sinn fein fascists'), but all in all there is very little poetry that poses as many questions and gives as many answers as Patrick Jones's does.
Ed: Brian Tokar
Zed Books £15.95
Biotechnology companies claim that genetically engineered foods and medicines will usher in a new era of peace and plenty for everyone. But not everyone is convinced. Opposition to genetically modified crops has been an important factor in the developing anti-capitalist movement. The contributors to this collection of essays are not just opposed to GM crops but to genetic engineering itself, which they see as inherently flawed and dangerous.
I found the section on GM crops particularly informative. One of the most recent debates has been about so called 'golden rice'. This is rice that has been engineered to contain high levels of carotenoids (which make carrots yellow), a precursor of vitamin A. Golden rice is being promoted as a cure for vitamin A deficiency, a condition that causes vision impairment and even blindness in 2 million malnourished children in the Third World. But there are a number of problems with this apparently benevolent plan, which two of the contributors here point out. First, golden rice is being used as a smokescreen to deflect attention from the ecological and health hazards posed by the herbicide--resistant or insecticide--producing plants being produced by companies like Monsanto. Second, it is quite possible that the artificially high levels of vitamin A in golden rice will make it toxic. Finally, and most importantly, this technological fix fails to address the real reason for vitamin A deficiency, which is the lack of a balanced diet.
The other section of this book I found most informative was that dealing with property rights. Ever since the great Soviet biologist Nikolai Vavilov first drew attention to them, it has been recognised that there are 'hotspots' of genetic diversity in certain areas of the tropics, like the Amazon rainforest, where the majority of plant and animal species are concentrated. These hotspots have become an important focus for the armies of 'bioprospectors' employed by drug companies and other multinationals seeking to use such resources to develop new medicines and the like. These resources should be the property of humanity, yet the products developed from them, protected by patents, are then marketed at such high prices that the majority of the world's poor are unable to afford them.
Yet despite agreeing with many of the arguments in this book, I found it impossible to agree with its primary one--the blanket rejection of all aspects of genetic engineering and its applications. So non-reproductive cloning is rejected, despite the fact that it could lead to breakthroughs in organ transplants. So is test tube baby technology, which has allowed millions of infertile couples to have children. Some of the arguments voiced here, such as that abortion should only be allowed for life-threatening disorders to protect the rights of the disabled, seem dangerously close to those used by 'pro-life' bigots.
A useful distinction can be made between those areas of biotechnology where potentially dangerous life forms like GM crops are being released into the environment, which we should reject, and those areas where genetic engineering is being employed to design useful products like new medicines. In the latter case, one could argue that there is not enough research and development going into, for instance, vaccines that do not generate much profit. The answer in both cases would be to take control of food production and medicine away from the multinationals. Failure to make this distinction and seeing the technology itself as the problem unfortunately let capitalism off the hook.
Rock Til You Drop
For millions of young people who came of age in the 1960s, the decade was one in which anything and everything appeared possible. More specifically for those with some political commitment, the decade from the mid-1960s onwards was a time when revolution seemed possible and indeed imminent. Music seemed to provide a soundtrack to that revolution. A wave of great bands were formed and, alongside a number of solo artists, had their heyday in the 1960s. Prominent among them were the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Who, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Dancing in the Streets, the title of the great Martha Reeves and the Vandellas hit, took on a whole new meaning as protesters besieged the Democratic Party's National Convention in 1968. Similarly, the Stones' Street Fighting Man seemed to capture the mood of the times.
Or did it? John Strausbaugh's new book dismisses as 'silly fantasies' the idea that rock artists provided the 'rhythm section' of the revolution. Most, he argues, were only ever interested in making lucrative careers for themselves. He reserves particular contempt for those performers who are still dragging their 'old butts' up on stage: 'Rock should simply not be played by 55 year old men with triple chins wearing bad wighats, pretending to still be excited about playing songs they wrote 30 or 35 years ago and have played a thousand times since.'
The two halves of that quotation are central to Strausbaugh's argument. The very nature of rock makes it young people's music. Rock music is about youthful rebellion, energy and experimentation. That is why it is an absurdity that bands like The Who continue to trundle onto the platform and crow about their 'generation'. Strausbaugh is quick to point out that his argument is not against people ageing. Rather, he is, in his words, in favour of performers ageing gracefully.
It is for this reason that he is especially disparaging towards the Rolling Stones and Mick Jagger in particular. For Strausbaugh, the 1960s Stones epitomised rock music. The Rolling Stones continued to record and tour at the turn of the millennium were, however, a pale and cynical shadow of that great band. Moreover, the heavily sponsored stadium tours expose the fact that the Stones always were a business concern. Jagger, a frequent critic of the 1960s student occupations, never was a street fighting man.
Rock Til You Drop offers a lively, passionate and at times hilarious account of rock history, but it has a number of major weaknesses. In terms of its content, there are two amusing but essentially trivial chapters about Rolling Stone magazine and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. More importantly, the book exposes the author's own political cynicism.
Ultimately, the 1960s did not usher in a revolution and many of the activists made their peace with the system. However, the growth of a new anti-capitalist movement has shown that the system has not triumphed. Many of those 1960s activists have been rejuvenated by this resurgence of struggle. Music will never be the motor of change, but Strausbaugh is too dismissive of groups such as Rage Against the Machine, movements like Rock Against Racism and the role that music can play in stirring the consciousness of young--and not so young--people.
The beginning of this book reads like a science fiction story. An innocent woman is imprisoned for reasons she doesn't understand, and the world is dominated by electronics, a repressive state and multinational forces beyond people's control. It is only when we are told that legislation is introduced which increases the exploitation of workers and also lengthens the sentences served by prisoners, and that this legislation has been carried out at the behest of the World Trade Organisation, that we realise that this Orwellian nightmare is set in present day Mauritius.
The villains of this story encompass imperialism, poverty and a secretive and undemocratic police state. All of these factors are brought out through the conversations of three women sharing a cell built for two in the women's prison in Mauritius.
The women are not political activists. Juna, the narrator, repeatedly bemoans her lack of knowledge of, and participation in, what she terms 'the movement', when she was free. All three women were turned into semi-conscious political actors by what was done to them in their ordinary lives.
Juna became a trade union rep because no one else volunteered. She is given a warning by Boni--who is an absent figure linking the three women in the cell with the movement outside. 'Ride carefully now you're secretary,' says Boni. Yet Juna is arrested on a drugs charge--her new position has turned her into a threat. Mama Gracienne is the oldest cellmate, whose life has been defined by a single catastrophic event. Born on Diego Garcia, an island near and formerly owned by Mauritius, she lost her family, her husband, her home and everyone she knew when, after a trip to the mainland, she was unable to return home. With no warning, the island was declared 'closed' and turned into a military base.
Leila, the youngest in the cell, was imprisoned for attacking police officers. She was raging against the state's attempts to clear her father's home as well as others, in accordance with a policy of clearing the land of shacks.
The women's stories are ones of state repression against a population. Juna is arrested, not for political activity but on drugs charges, a crime no lawyer will defend, which makes her unpopular in prison. The extremes of poverty and disorientation experienced by Mama Gracienne detach her from society. She feels powerless. It is the connection of the women inside the cell with the movement outside, known through messages from Boni, that gives the prisoners the strength to think of mutiny. This makes the prison guards, known as the blue ladies, fear their captives.
Juna is an expert in computers. She knows the codes which control the prison's electrics, which in turn control the door-locking mechanism. Through mutiny, the women become aware of their power. The point is made that, however sophisticated the means of control and repression become, they still have to be produced by us, and they can still be controlled by us.
As Juna begins unlocking the door mechanism, she wonders how 'we, we who made these electronic creations up, ever handed them over'. This novel is an excellent fictionalised account of the author's own experiences as a human rights activist. It gives hope that struggle is possible everywhere.