Issue 271 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
Sight and sounds
After having just seen, and very much enjoyed, Gangs of New York, there are a number of things I'd like to add to Mike Davis's article ('Bloody streets of New York', January SR). This is a Hollywood movie on a grand scale, like a lurid Northern counterblast to Gone with the Wind. This accounts for some of its faults--for all the violence, the gangs' world often seems attractively bohemian. The battle with which the film opens has a choreographed quality and a thumping soundtrack which almost turns it into a rock video.
In claiming that 'America was born in the streets', though, Scorsese seeks to go beyond entertainment and stakes out a claim about US history. In acknowledging that change is the result of struggle, and in focusing on the lives of ordinary people, his account is vastly better than schoolbook legends of the founding fathers. But the real problem is how Scorsese portrays race and ethnicity.
The striking final image of the film is of the graves of the rival Irish and nativist gang leaders continuing to overlook New York as it changes from the city of the Civil War to that of today. Monk McGinn explains that Irish immigrants fled centuries of racism at home, only to find the same thing waiting for them in America. It's easy to take from this the idea that ethnic rivalries and racism are part of an eternal heritage of conflict.
In fact the history of the American Civil War shows the opposite, as James M McPherson documents in his excellent book Battle Cry of Freedom. The Northern rulers did not go to war in 1861 to free the slaves--in 1858 Lincoln had claimed that slavery would die out gradually, over at least the next 100 years. But they came to believe that emancipation was the only way they could win the war, and were forced to resort to increasingly radical measures which transformed their own society. As one New Yorker wrote in 1863, 'The change of opinion on this slavery question...is a great and historic fact... Who could have predicted...this great and blessed revolution?... God pardon our blindness of three years ago.' In 1865, when the US constitution was amended to outlaw slavery, congressmen wept with joy. 'I have felt, ever since the vote,' wrote one, 'as if I were living in a new country.'
Scorsese's film does nothing to show a society in the throes of these transformations. Great entertainment, but flawed history and pessimistic politics.
Joe Strummer's recent untimely death robs us of a true rebel, as John Rees explained (January SR). It's hard to believe that I and 500 others saw his last ever show in Liverpool last November. Joe and The Clash politicised thousands, from their Rock Against Racism gigs onwards. Joe helped to instil anti-war, anti-fascist and anti-imperialist values that have stayed with my generation. He also made some of the most powerful, exciting music there's been.
As a young London school kid standing up to the NF, The Clash and the Anti Nazi League (ANL) gave us the confidence to take them on. They aided black and white unity in a dynamic way. When the National Front tried to use The Clash's epic 'White Riot' as a theme, Strummer immediately denounced the rats.
Strummer put his money where his mouth was--headlining a Rock Against Racism 'Southall Kids Are Innocent' benefit gig in the aftermath of Blair Peach's murder in 1979. He eventually received some long overdue money from CBS--but many a music venue will testify to his finacial backing over the years. That support for the ANL also remained consistent--when the NF returned to Leicester in 2000 Strummer publicised the ANL's attempt to oppose them.
His politics were those of the underdog--the firefighters' fundraiser he did in November exemplifies that ethos of solidarity. The irony that the author of lines such as 'All the power's in the hands of the people rich enough to buy it' had a two-page obituary in the Sun wouldn't have been lost on him. No Murdoch poodle, he.
Joe's spirit of resistance obviously resonates with some of today's anti-capitalists. He was thrilled to hear that at the European Social Forum Clash and Mescalero songs constantly boomed out from one enormous sound system, 'Working for the Clampdown' and 'Revolution Rock' being particular favourites. There could be no better tribute.
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The article 'From final salary to final straw' (January SR) needs some additions, mainly because it does not examine the fundamental flaws of privatised pensions adequately--particularly final salary occupational pensions.
As the article says, pensions have led to mass mobilisations in France and other continental countries. This is because their trade union leaders, to their credit, have not spread the illusion that saving up and gambling on the stock market, rather than class struggle for adequate social insurance, is a route to decent pensions for the working class.
In contrast trade union leaders in Britain have engaged in gross class collaboration with both employers and the City over pensions for 50 years via the privatised occupational and other funded pensions systems.
Final salary occupational pensions (a form of pyramid selling based on stock market investments) would have collapsed years ago had it not been for the 'bubble' of the 1980s and 90s. Contrary to the hype that workers could expect pensions of around 50 percent of their final salary, the typical final salary pension has been less then 20 percent of average wages (and there is a huge gender gap to boot). This further concealed and delayed the crisis.
The privatisation of pension systems is a key aim of the World Bank, IMF and particularly the General Agreement on Trade and Services. We need to formulate and campaign for an exit strategy from privatised pensions, before things get much worse and workers and pensioners become more demoralised and misled by the government, the private pensions industry and the TUC.