Issue 266 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
|Protesters demand an alternative|
With a 10 million square mile, 3 kilometre thick mass of soot and carbon monoxide hovering over South Asia, central Europe still recovering from some of the most devastating floods of its history, and sub-Saharan Africa facing a catastrophic famine, the need for radical action against poverty and environmental destruction could not be clearer. Yet the opulent £30 million Earth Summit which began in Johannesburg at the end of August had only neoliberal 'solutions' on the table.
Seven hundred corporations are expected to be represented in the negotiations. Not finding a voice inside the jamboree will be grassroots campaigners. Stun grenades have been fired at candle-holding protesters, and 90 leading members of the Landless People's Movement and the National Land Committee have been detained for planning what the South African government has compared to the Seattle protests which shut down the World Trade Organisation in 1999. Nearby, 20,000 activists from 120 countries have organised an alternative event, the Global People's Forum.
An ideological world away from this is the official summit, where the stated social and environmental aims are merely a figleaf for an agenda of public-private 'partnerships', 192 of which have been proposed at the time of writing. Tony Blair is at the forefront of this project. Britain is involved in 20 of the schemes, and has a delegation that barely found room for the environment minister, Michael Meacher, but made sure famed conservationists such as Thames Water, Rio Tinto and Anglo-American all had a seat. The spearhead of this drive is a grouping of international chambers of commerce, Business Action for Sustainable Development (BASD), which helped to ensure that large sections of the world trade agreement have simply been pasted into the draft negotiating text. It is chaired by Phillip Watts of Shell, with the deputy chief of BP also on the board.
The proposals are thus an intensification of policies that have caused such misery since the last Earth Summit, in Rio, in 1992. Since then overseas aid from the richest countries has fallen from 0.35 to 0.22 percent of economic output. Up to 13 million Africans are at risk of starvation. Many of these are from Malawi, where the International Monetary Fund demanded that grain reserves be sold to pay off international bankers. The debt burden, which kills 19,000 children every day through lack of adequate food and sanitation, has increased by a third to £1.7 trillion since Rio. Where aid is offered it is tied to structural adjustment programmes like the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), which claims to promote 'good governance and democracy' but whose primary aim is the privatisation of utilities. South African activists have found popular support by responding to the resultant electricity cut-offs with illegal reconnections.
It would be easy to mistake the Bush administrations hostility to the summit as some sort of endorsement. Many multinationals based in the US, which is responsible for a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, were eager for Bush not to bestow the conference with the dubious honour of his attendance. When he declined to come, 31 political groups, seven of them funded to the tune of more than $1 million by Exxon Mobil, wrote to congratulate him on not giving credibility to 'various anti-freedom, anti-people, anti-globalisation and anti-westem agendas'. They also asserted that 'the least important global environmental issue is potential global warming, and we hope your negotiators can keep it off the table and out of the spotlight.' This will be no easy task.
The ten hottest years on record have all been in the last two decades and sea levels are rising. In the face of increasingly extreme weather patterns the White House scepticism about fossil fuel emissions causing the greenhouse effect is about as scientifically credible as the Flat Earth Society.
Bush would rather be in Texas championing logging firms than saving the rainforest. But it was the Clinton administration that drained the Kyoto climate change protocols of any potency.
South African President Thabo Mbeki opened the summit declaring, 'A global human society based on poverty for many and prosperity for a few, characterised by islands of wealth, surrounded by a sea of poverty, is unsustainable.' The Earth Summit's commitment to the very measures of privatisation, debt and rampant unregulated capital that cause such misery makes the outlining of an alternative vision all the more vital. In Florence between 6 and 10 November tens of thousands of activists will debate that alternative at the European Social Forum. George Bush need not attend.
BETWEEN THE LINES
Beware when you next visit a Starbucks for a cup of coffee. If you look at the menu board the smallest cup advertised is 'tall'--a 340ml cup of coffee. In fact they do have a smaller 227ml cup which isn't on the board. But ask for a 'small' or 'regular' cup and you'll be given a 'tall' one. You must use the magic word 'short' to get the cheaper 227ml size.
Is easing traffic congestion the only motivation for the £5 congestion charge to be introduced in London? According to one study a £10 charge was rejected because it would have driven too many people onto public transport, which would not
have been able to cope with the numbers. This would have also hit total income raised, hence the lower charge was adopted.
One in three Lords are directors of companies according to a Labour Research report. Overall 217 peers out of a total of 666 (excluding 26 bishops) register 618 directorships between them. The busiest Labour lord is Viscount Chandos who is on the board of 17 different companies.
LESBIANS AND GAYS
Put the politics back into Pride
The future of London's annual gay and lesbian Mardi Gras is in doubt. Organisers claim it lost nearly £450,000. They are now talking about selling the Mardi Gras to another company. This should come as no surprise--they did consider the idea of copyrighting the word 'Pride' a number of years ago.
This year's gay and lesbian Pride demonstration was one of the smallest for many years. Ten thousand marched in central London in July while 27,000 attended the Mardi Gras festival at Hackney Marshes. It was only five years ago that 50,000 marched and over a quarter of a million attended a free festival at Clapham Common.
The blame for this year's debacle lies squarely with the organisers. This is the fourth Mardi Gras since the Pride demonstration was cancelled in 1999. Then a group of gay businessmen set up a consortium which took over the event and turned it into an expensive corporate sponsored day out. Since then each year it has got progressively smaller. The day has become increasingly depoliticised--the demonstration is now called a parade and is only seen as secondary to what is a money making enterprise.
There were also problems with Manchester Mardi Gras in August. Just four days before the event was due to take place the Village Business Association (VBA), which organises the event, called it off. This was because police refused to extend the city's alcohol tolerance zone. They also imposed a fence around the Village--the gay area in Manchester--with checkpoints where people were searched when they entered. The Mardi Gras eventually went ahead when organisers reached a compromise, but the event was significantly smaller this year than in the past.
There is now a fight on to put the politics back into Pride. Following his election Blair pledged a more tolerant and equal society. His promise was read out at that year's Pride festival. Yet Section 28 still remains on the statute book in England and Wales and gays and lesbians continue to face discrimination. This is despite the fact that there are greater levels of tolerance within society towards gays and lesbians than previously. Over 50,000 turned up to the Brighton Pride demonstration in August and the city was brought to a standstill as thousands lined the route of the march.
There is now a deep divide opening up between gay bosses and 'gay friendly' businesses who have been happy to make huge profits from Mardi Gras, and working class gays and lesbians who continue to face discrimination and want to do something about it. The strategy of quietly lobbying MPs and having respectable, corporate sponsored festivals has failed to achieve any significant results. Next year's Mardi Gras in Sydney, the largest in the world and the model for the one in London, has collapsed as so called 'gay friendly' corporations hit by the economic crisis have cut back on their advertising budgets. There is now a real danger the same could happen in London.
The 'Pride not Profit' campaign has launched an Open Letter which calls on the organisers of Pride to restore the demonstration as the central focus for the annual day in London, and to arrange a huge festival which is free and open to all. The campaign has received the support of thousands of individuals, gay and lesbian groups and trade unionists. This gives some indication as to how deep the anger is. It also reflects a mood to save the annual Pride demonstration and make it a political event which can force the government to take the issue of gay and lesbian equality seriously.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone Dan on 01625 583 662
|All together now?|
Germany's 22 September general election, widely predicted as the deathknell for the ruling Red-Green coalition, has suddenly become a result that is too close to call. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has narrowed the gap with a campaign that focuses on opposing war on Iraq.
The result will have a profound impact on the political make-up of Europe. Schröder's 'new middle' policies, closely modelled on the Blairite 'third way', were an integral part of the 'pink wave' of electoral successes for social democratic parties in the 1990s. With deep disillusionment in that project the wave has receded, the French Socialist Party being the most significant victim of the backlash. The German economic crisis which has seen growth flatline in the past year, leading to unemployment of over 4 million (one in ten of the workforce), remains Schröder's biggest obstacle to hanging on to office. It is the issue that the Tory Christian Democrats led by Edmund Stoiber have made most political capital out of, sometimes linked to anti-immigrant racism.
Schröder's central response to this has been the Hartz Report, a document encouraging labour market flexibility. Its key proposals are to relax regulations controlling temporary work and to increase the pressure on the unemployed. This dogmatically neoliberal response is easily ridiculed by Stoiber, who pointed out in their first televised debate that in eastern Germany there are only 7,000 vacancies and 1.5 million jobless.
Although still on the right of social democracy, Schröder has been forced to appeal to the left in the face of electoral meltdown. So he used the floods to postpone a planned cut in the top rate of income tax. He also took up the bosses' federation (BDI) on their highly qualified suggestion that companies could contribute towards post-flood reconstruction. They instantly received howls of outrage from their members, but Schröder used the opportunity to increase corporation tax by 1.5 percent for next year. It is unlikely that he would otherwise have had the courage to initiate proposals which Stoiber described as 'poison for the economy', and they are of a very limited nature. But they indicate the pressure the government is under from the left.
If the decline in support for the Social Democrats has been sharp since they were elected in 1998, then that of their Green coalition partners has been even more so. They were previously at the heart of the protest movement, but most of their leadership backed the Balkan and Afghan wars. Their share of the youth vote slumped from 23 to 9 percent. The extent of disillusionment with mainstream politics is such that only a few weeks before the election 46 percent of people were undecided who to vote for.
The Greens' rediscovery of their pacifist roots is a tribute primarily to the May anti-war mobilisation against George Bush, which was very young. The movement is being geared towards 14 September, the date of a demonstration 'against capital and war', and to the European Social Forum in Florence. A weakness in the German peace movement has been the failure to counter Islamophobic politics through practical mobilisation. This will be a key battle for socialists in Germany, whatever the election result.
The pressure for strikes is rising and could lead to major confrontations with the government this autumn. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU), with 55,000 members, is in the middle of a deadly serious pay fight, which is set to lead to the first national strikes in the service for 25 years. A series of big FBU demonstrations in the summer--12,000 in London, over 5,000 in Glasgow, over 1,000 in Swansea, 2,000 in Belfast--were marked by a spirit of confidence and determination. A special FBU conference on 12 September was due to agree a ballot for national strike action.
The government has drawn up contingency plans to use 30,000 troops to scab on any action. Union officials and activists alike are convinced there will be strikes, possibly by late October. It's not only firefighters who are pressing for action.
College lecturers took two days national strike action earlier this year and are looking for further action over pay this term. Unions representing council workers are talking about strikes over London allowance payments. Postal workers were due to start balloting this month over strikes against privatisation. Tube workers were also set to vote for strikes over pay. Other groups, such as university and college support staff, are also involved in pay disputes. A lot rests on the firefighters' campaign. A breakthrough there would speed up the recovery in confidence to take action elsewhere. It would also put pressure on leaders of other unions to act.
There are other signs of how union activists are generalising. Strikes by journalists on local papers in the north of England have spread from one title to another. The successful strike at Glasgow Royal Infirmary last month led to an unofficial walkout at the nearby Inverclyde Hospitals Trust. Over the last 12 months rail workers have won important gains in a series of disputes with different companies.
All these strikes have revealed immense anger with New Labour. That has fed the debate over democratising the unions' political funds. There is still a long way to go. The succession of victories for left wing candidates in union elections is a reflection of the growing mood for resistance, but it does not guarantee that it will lead to successful strikes. The counter-pull from the mainstream of the TUC and from 'traditional' Labour leaders is very strong.
One thing is guaranteed. There is a chance for trade union activists to rebuild traditions of solidarity and rank and file initiative just as Tony Blair becomes increasingly isolated over the war and privatisation.
|Immaculate in dress if not in deed--Venezuela's military generals|
'There Was No Rebellion' screamed the banner headline of Venezuela's biggest newspaper after the country's supreme court threw out charges against the generals who briefly overthrew president Hugo Chavez on 11 and 12 April.
The verdict was the clearest evidence yet of the hold which those who staged the coup still have on important sections of the state machine. It came alongside relentless hysteria against the government in every one of the country's newspapers and all but one of its TV channels.
The real worry of the two or three companies that control the media is that Chavez has taken minor steps which have damaged the interests of the country's ruling class and the country's traditional, highly corrupt political establishment. He pushed through a law which enabled the landless to take over some uncultivated land last year. He also upset the US by selling oil to Cuba and encouraging other Opec countries to take measures aimed at forcing up international oil prices (Venezuela is the third biggest supplier of oil to the US). Other than that, however, he has done very little indeed to damage capitalist interests. He has even overseen the privatisation of the national telephone network, and his government's recent economic policies have been very 'orthodox', despite Chavez's public diatribes against neo-liberalism. Venezuela is suffering from the backlash right across South America from the Argentinian crisis. Unemployment is up by over half a million, overall consumption down 10 percent on last year, and food consumption down 6 percent.
The opposition are trying to exploit the bitterness for their own ends. They have followed a strategy of using the media to mobilise a large section of the middle class on the streets in order to try to 'turn' units of the armed forces against Chavez. They have been helped by their control, through the mayor of Caracas, of the heavily armed Caracas Metropolitan Police. Clashes--and even shootouts--between the police and Chavez supporters have become almost a weekly feature of the streets round the presidential palace and the congress building.
Chavez's initial base was among a thin layer of middle ranking officers in the army and air force who aspired to reform Venezuelan society from the top down.
The government's mass support is concentrated among the poorest sections of the population--those who live in the vast slums that reach right down towards the centre of Caracas from the surrounding hillsides, and whose livelihood comes from precarious casual work or self employment in the 'informal' sector of the economy (on which half the population of Caracas depends). It was the swarming of hundreds of thousands of them into the city that ended the coup in April. Army officers who had accepted the coup were not prepared to risk civil war by mowing down the poor by the thousands, and brought back Chavez as an alternative.
He has much less backing among those workers enjoying stable employment in the factories, offices and public sector. The unions have long been dominated by a corrupt bureaucracy, put in place with US backing at the height of the Cold War and associated with one of the old ruling parties, the Acción Democratica. Its leadership has long followed a strategy of collaboration with private capital while leading limited mobilisations to demand a share of its oil revenues from the state.
Chavez attempted to overthrow this bureaucracy through a national referendum 18 months ago. The tactic backfired completely. The old bureaucrats swept the board in union elections last year by putting the blame on Chavez for the government cuts which were affecting their members.
The reformist left is split. Groups like the union-based Causa R and the former guerrillas of the Venezuelan MAS, who climbed on Chavez's bandwagon more or less uncritically during his first couple of years, are now just as uncritically and just as enthusiastically part of the opposition, as is the armed, once pro-Albanian group Red Flag.
The Communist Party still does give him uncritical support, as does a group called Tupamaro. They have played a role in the mobilisation backing Chavez alongside the Bolivar Circles, groups formed by his supporters--and which the opposition claim are armed. What is completely lacking is any substantial organisation which tries to organise the workers and the poor in their own interests, independently of Chavez and critical of his policies, while taking part in the mobilisations against the right.
Through much of Latin America and among the Latino diaspora in Europe, Chavez is still seen as representing a way forward. In fact, however, his government is in an impasse. It could not see off the coup in April without the backing of the commanders of key military units, particularly of Raul Baduel of the base at Maracay, about 100 kilometres from Caracas.
But this makes commanders like Baduel increasingly the arbiters of national politics. In late July the Venezuelan press was full of rumours that he was pressurising Chavez to take into the government another former military figure, Arias, who was the opposition candidate for president two years ago. Such a development would certainly suit the US, which after giving a nod and a wink to the abortive coup in April, now seems worried about the opposition provoking civil war and cutting off its supply of oil just as it prepares to attack Iraq.
Once a regime becomes dependent on the generals, it only requires quite small shifts in the military chain of command for its political stance to shift from centre left to hard right. Much of the opposition still want a bloody coup. But they may get their way without it.
LETTER FROM ISRAEL
A cell is still a cell
Israeli defence minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer recently reached an agreement with Palestinian interior minister Abdel Razak Yehiyah called the 'Gaza, Bethlehem First' plan. Israeli forces will evacuate Bethlehem and Palestinian-populated areas in the Gaza Strip while the Palestinian Authority will take on the responsibility of policing the inhabitants. Accordingly, Israeli soldiers and tanks have moved to the outskirts of Bethlehem, allowing the residents who have been under curfew for nine weeks to leave their homes. The tight military blockade around the city continues, however, Bethlehem has been transformed into an island.
But even this small gesture, initiated by Ben-Eliezer, has little to do with the minister's concern for the Palestinians, 2 million of whom have been imprisoned in their homes for quite some time. Rather, the appearance of Amiram Mitzna on the political scene--as a competitor for leading the Labour Party in the next national elections--seems to have induced Ben-Eliezer to finally hold negotiations with the Palestinians. Mitzna, who is part of Labour's dovish wing, has, according to the polls, a 60 percent lead over Ben-Eliezer. While prime minister Sharon has not opposed Ben-Eliezer's initiative, he has a few ideas of his own. On 20 August, he authorised the arrest of Mohammed Sa'adat, the brother of Ahmed Sa'adat, who is the current leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The elite military unit that was sent to do the job killed the young brother. As the news of Mohammed Sa'adat's death spread, violence once again flared in the occupied territories, following almost two weeks of relative quiet. The PFLP also vowed to avenge the assassination.
Sharon, though, is not a man to make arbitrary decisions. Killing Sa'adat is just part of his ongoing attempt to subjugate the Palestinians. The closures and curfews have not worked, nor have the extrajudicial executions, the demolition of homes and the deportation of family members, so perhaps arresting and killing brothers of political leaders--'as a potential deterrent'--will. But what is Sharon's goal?
The reader may recall that after the F-16 jet dropped a one-ton bomb on a crowded residential area in Gaza, killing 17 people--nine of them children--and wounding over 140 more, Sharon exclaimed that the attack had been one of Israel's 'biggest successes'. Despite harsh international criticism, Sharon remained unrepentant. At the time the Israeli Hebrew press suggested that his triumphant cry had less to do with the operations formal objective--the extrajudicial execution of Hamas leader Salah Shahada--than with the successful annihilation of a unilateral ceasefire agreement formally finalised by the different Palestinian military factions a day before the massacre. Predictably, the ceasefire was annulled and a series of Hamas attacks followed, killing almost 30 people and injuring many more. Not unlike the bombing of Gaza, killing Sa'adat on the eve of the implementation of the Gaza, Bethlehem First plan is meant to add fuel to the fire of violence. It is still too soon to tell how many Israelis will die this time around.
Again and again Sharon has chosen the battleground as the arena of action, because he does not believe in a diplomatic solution to the bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His overall objective, though, is not to wipe out the Palestinian Authority, as some commentators seem to suggest, but rather to forcibly change its role. Regardless of whether or not Yasser Arafat remains in charge, if Sharon gets his way, the 'reformed' Palestinian Authority will no longer serve as the political representative of an independent state. Rather, it will operate as a subcontractor for the Israeli government. The strategy is clear: confer on the Palestinians the costly role of managing civil life, but eliminate their political freedoms, while controlling them from afar. South Africans called such areas Bantustans.
To accomplish this vision Sharon needs to break the spirit of the Palestinian people, hoping that at a certain point they will bow down. The Gaza, Bethlehem First plan prolongs the strangulation and humiliation of the Palestinians, even while it allows them to leave their homes. 'It's like expanding the elephant cell at the city zoo from 30 square yards to 50,' a friend from Bethlehem told me over the phone. 'The new cell offers a bit more space, but it is nonetheless a cell.'
A tale of two logos
With the Johannesburg summit on sustainable development happening at the beginning of September, there are a number of websites giving alternative views to an event which will see large amounts of hot air coming from politicians as they clamour to show their green credentials.
There are many sites dedicated to exposing the real issues behind the summit and climate change in general. Greenpeace have been having fun with their Stop Esso campaign. The website was originally hosted in France. Esso mannaged to get an injunction to stop Greenpeace using their spoof E$$O logo on the Stop Esso website www.stopesso.org. But things are not always that simple in cyberspace--Greenpeace moved the website to a host based in the oil rich state of Texas--where the injunction isn't valid. Several weeks later another French judge ruled that Greenpeace had a right to parody the logo of French nuclear fuel company Areva.
The full story 'A tale of two logos' can be found at www.stopesso.org /static/ logos.html
With the availability of cheap and decent graphic design, it's increasingly easy for activists to design and create logos and websites. There are many spoof websites which pretend to be the real thing. www.whitehouse.org is a hilarious spoof website of the White House. Have a look at their 'readers' e-mail' to see just how many people are taken in, and believe they are contacting the real President Bush.
These parodies aren't simply created for entertainment. Compare the World Bank's website www.worldbank.org ('Our Dream is a World Free of Poverty') with the parody site at www.whirledbank.org which contains huge amounts of information on the real effects of the World Bank's policies, with a near perfect copy of the real World Bank's website design style. It's been done by the Institute of Equity, Ecology, Humor and Art which 'creates innovative multimedia materials such as websites, video, computer games, music and educational material to promote social justice and environmental equity'. More information can be found at www.IEEHA.org