Issue 280 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
|The fight is on: students campaign against tuition fees|
Education minister Charles Clarke was forced to begin a climbdown over top-up fees within days of the Queen's Speech that announced their introduction. The level of dissent from backbenchers--136 of whom had signed an alternative motion--and from the public has led him to hint that he might raise the income level at which students would have to start repaying their fees from £15,000 to £20,000. Desperate to win over backbenchers by playing around with the edges of the bill, New Labour hopes to avert the biggest rebellion it has yet seen.
But fiddling with the small print of the bill doesn't change the fundamental problem with it. One of the first things New Labour did when it came to power in 1997 was scrap the last vestiges of maintenance grants and introduce upfront tuition fees. The legacy of this policy is clear--a recent survey of 1,000 women aged between 18 and 28 found every single one to be in debt, up from 72 percent in 2001. Sixty percent of students currently have to work to meet the shortfall in funding. The new plan will mean debts of at least £21,000.
The government's White Paper, The Future of Higher Education, outlines plans which Clarke claims make the system fairer. Students from low income families will get £1,125 paid towards their fees, and will get a grant of £1,000. This means that should they choose to go to, say, Cambridge to study law they would still have to find £875 towards their fees. And while government figures show that accommodation and other living costs come to an average of nearly £7,000 outside London, the maximum that can be borrowed in student loans is less than £4,000. Charles Clarke points out that universities will have to make bursaries available to award to students as a condition of charging a higher fee. So Cambridge University claims one in three of its students could be awarded up to £4,000 per year--just like the good old days of Victorian Britain and the deserving poor.
The real issue is whether we want an education system in which everyone has the chance to study and learn, or one driven by the destructive values of the market. New Labour wants to make students into consumers--so rather than deciding where and what to study on the basis of what interests or excites you, you must do a cost-benefit analysis and work out the 'potential rate of return' of a course. This will mean students from working class families 'choosing' to study cheap courses near where they live so they can stay with their parents. The market provides no more real choice here than it has done on the railways.
The language of the market pervades every area of higher education in New Labour's vision. Clarke talks about needing to introduce fees in order to pay lecturers, whose salaries have risen by just 20 percent since 1980 compared to an average of 60 percent. But the White Paper puts this in terms of 'rewards' for 'excellence' and 'good performance'--paying a few lecturers more and leaving the rest behind. Only in order to encourage them to work harder, of course.
We need to fight for an education system based on the same principles on which the NHS was founded--free at the point of service for all, and funded through a progressive income tax system. The White Paper talks about 'competing on an international market', 'selling higher education' overseas, only funding the 'strongest' departments, etc. Any concept that we may all benefit from research done in one country is missing--there is no purpose to intellectual enquiry unless it makes a profit.
The pressure already exerted on the government has given us more time to build a campaign to defeat these proposals. Another education is possible.
BETWEEN THE BATTLE LINES
Is New Labour illegally incarcerating 'enemy combatants'? That is the question Tam Dalyell MP put to the government after the Washington Post and Time magazine reported that the British island of Diego Garcia was being used by the US government to hold 'Al Qaida suspects' and Iraqi prisoners en route to Guantanamo Bay. Meanwhile the former inhabitants, evicted 30 years ago for the benefit of the US military, are still refused entry on 'security grounds'.
George Bush's much-vaunted love of freedom was in evidence once again when he held a pep rally in a giant aircraft hangar with troops from Fort Carson. The press guidelines were: 'No talking to the troops before the rally. No talking to the troops during the rally. No talking to the troops after the rally.' So, no problems with morale then?
The Ministry of Defence has applied to register the trademark 'British Army' for Xmas decorations. Presumably we can expect cluster bomb shaped baubles in the near future...
The resistance deepens
Contrary to Bush and Blair's familiar response to any attack on US or British forces as the work of 'Saddam loyalists' or 'foreign terrorists', it is clear that the resistance in Iraq has gained momentum, and that the Iraqi people have increasingly come to see themselves as subject to a colonial occupation.
At the end of September the US administrator, Paul Bremer, announced that the US-appointed governing council was planning sweeping reforms to enable foreign companies to take over Iraqi assets without prior approval. This move provided for 100 percent foreign ownership in all sectors except (for now) oil. As Kamil Mahdi wrote in the Guardian on 26 November, Iraqis were united in opposition to this law, since it confirmed their colonial status. Moreover, the funds provided for reconstruction will largely benefit US firms. In addition, foreign corporations are to be allowed to repatriate all profits, dividends, interest and royalties to the host country. Trade tariffs are to be slashed and corporate taxes capped at 15 percent.
The vast majority of Iraqis see the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) as a colonial government and the CPA-appointed governing council as its stooge. The scale of the resistance has forced Bush to expedite plans for elections but with the US army continuing to occupy the country indefintely. However, any government 'elected' by Iraqis under the tutelage of the US army will undoubtedly be similarly perceived.
Numerous reports have emphasised the degree to which the resistance has been gaining increasing popular support. It's not hard to see why. Stories abound of the heavy-handed tactics of occupiying troops, of the mindless violence on the part of nervous, trigger-happy soldiers, of the brutal collective punishments meted out to ordinary Iraqis who refuse to cooperate, of the insensitivity of the occupiers towards women and children.
Zaki Chehab, a Lebanese journalist, described in the Guardian on 13 October how a young Iraqi was shot dead in Ramadi, north of Baghdad, after failing to stop at a checkpoint, although no warning was given.
In the Observer of 9 November, Patrick Graham quoted a member of the Albueisi tribe in central Iraq lamenting the deaths of ten of its members at the hands of US troops, including a two year old girl: 'After the Americans are attacked, they shoot everywhere.' In nearby Fallujah, at least 40 civilians and police have been killed since April. Patrick Cockburn described in the Independent on 13 October how US soldiers drove bulldozers into ancient groves to uproot the fruit trees on which local tribespeople depend for their livelihood. Why? Because they failed to provide information about the local resistance.
Massive unemployment, insecurity, power cuts and petrol queues have also acted as efficient recruiting-sergeants for the resistance. In addition, the US army has recently launched a new, tough counterinsurgency campaign, attacking bomb-making factories, weapons warehouses, guerrilla meeting-places and insurgents' homes--causing considerable 'collateral damage'.
What emerges from the various reports is the variety of groups: while there are some Ba'athist elements, particularly in the 'Sunni triangle' north of Baghdad, the resistance is made up largely by nationalists and Islamic groups appalled at the occupation of their country. Other elements include disgruntled discharged army officers, street gangs, and ordinary people whose relatives have been killed by their 'liberators'.
However, according to the Observer on 2 November, a sharp dispute has emerged between the US and British intelligence services as to the character of the resistance. According to Pentagon officials, it consists of a unified, hierarchical organisation led by former Ba'athist officials, with Saddam Hussein at the head, and allied to groups of foreign 'holy warriors', including Al Qaida. But British intelligence has a different picture: 'many different groups with different agendas...locally organised...with loyalty focused on middle-ranking former commanders'. This picture is one of a loose network of partisan-type groups without a central command.
The US is now responding to the growth of the resistance movement with the strategy of 'Iraqification'. According to Sami Ramadani in The World Today, this means expanding the powers of those Iraqis selected by Paul Bremer, the US administrator. The 'occupation authorites have been recruiting Saddam's leading security men to suppress the rising tide of resistance'. As Sami Ramadani says elsewhere, this portends the reconstruction by the US of a new Saddamist regime, only this time without Saddam himself, recreating the alliance of the 1970s and 1980s, only now with the US in charge, even if indirectly through a puppet regime.
The shadow of Vietnam increasingly darkens the Iraqi landscape.
|Mikhail Khodorkovsky is used to more up-market bars|
On 25 October, Russian state security agents stormed a private plane and arrested at gunpoint the dapper 40 year old Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, worth £4.7 billion. Khodorkovsky headed the recently merged YukosSibneft, Russia's biggest private company and the world's fourth-largest oil producer with half-year profits in 2003 of £1.3 billion. His arrest marked the climax of a four-month, high-profile investigation. Three of his associates were already facing charges, one with ordering a murder, and a fourth had gone into exile.
The charges against Khodorkovsky include fraud and tax evasion totalling £600 million and carry a possible ten-year prison sentence. Since his arrest, prosecutors have frozen 40 percent of Yukos shares, and the business-friendly head of Putin's presidential administration suddenly resigned. Khodorkovsky stepped down as chief executive but was refused bail. His estimated 22 percent share had been taken over by prior arrangement by a mystery man, possibly through the key Menatep holding company based in Gibraltar.
Khodorkovsky is one of the robber barons who have given big business in Russia a very bad name. He and his fellow 'oligarchs', as they are known, became notorious in the scandalous 'loans for shares' deal of the mid-1990s. In return for bailing out Yeltsin, they were allowed to pick up huge natural resource companies at rock-bottom prices in a series of rigged privatisation auctions. In 1995 Khodorkovsky paid $159 million for a controlling share in Yukos which was really worth $353 million at the time and $5,689 million less than two years later. These changes were accompanied by a wave of intimidation and murder. A Siberian mayor who opposed Khodorkovsky's expansion plans in the area where 60 percent of Yukos's oil is extracted was shot dead on the oligarch's birthday in 1998.
Yet liberals east and west have seen Khodorkovsky's arrest as an attack on democracy. The nub of their argument is that it marks a crucial step in a 'creeping bureaucratic coup'.
Since becoming president in 2000, it is said, Putin has tamed the rebellious parliament, got the troublesome regional governors under control, centralised the legal system, clamped down on the independent media and practically renationalised Gazprom, the giant natural gas monopoly whose tentacles spread right across Europe. He has also seen off two of the seven oligarchs, three counting Khodorkovsky, while a fourth, Roman Abramovich of Chelsea fame, has been selling off his Russian assets. Recent research also indicates that the security apparatus, a major loser in the collapse of the Soviet Union, has staged a striking comeback under Putin, himself an unrepentant former secret policeman. Personnel from the security services accounted for nearly 60 percent of the top Russian leadership last year.
Like it or not, the liberals conclude, Khodorkovsky represented the last political force truly independent of the Kremlin.
He had been promoting liberal parties, had extended his political influence as far as the Communist Party (which joined in protests against his arrest) and made no secret of having personal political ambitions. By doing so, Khodorkovsky had broken the deal Putin had made with him and four of the other oligarchs after becoming president: they would keep out of politics and he would leave their privatised assets alone. That was why Putin had struck now--barely a month before parliamentary elections and only four months before the next presidential elections. The photograph of a glum-looking oligarch with a shaven head in a prison cell was not likely to do Putin's popularity ratings any harm at all. But the danger was that Russia was likely to end up as a kind of neo-Communist state, rather like China only with a much less dynamic economy and a lot less foreign investment.
There are a number of problems with this argument. One of them is that the same liberals who are now throwing their hands up in horror at the arrest of one man previously supported practically every major attempt to concentrate power at the top. They backed Boris Yeltsin when he suppressed the old Russian parliament by armed force back in 1993. And Tony Blair made a special point of going to Russia to give the secret police candidate his public blessing a few days before the 2000 presidential election. 'The Russia of Vladimir Putin', he declared, was 'a liberal democracy' and 'a strong power where law and order rule'. Blair made it clear that he was not going to allow good relations between the two countries to be spoiled by the fact that Putin had recently launched a second Chechen war. Putin's subsequent state visit to Britain was described in the Russian business magazine Ekspert as 'a miracle for his reputation', because 'it is in theory irregular for the queen to drink tea with murderers who appear before her with bloodstained hands'.
But much more important is what the argument leaves out. Since Putin became prime minister in 1999, the west has been on an imperial offensive: attacks on the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq have followed in quick succession. US troops are dotted all round Russia's borders and the White House is doing its best to ensure that the wealth of the Caspian Sea does not flow through Russian pipelines. Previously, the bosses of the former Soviet superpower had been weak and divided. But it would hardly be surprising if a significant proportion of the elites had now decided that the time had come to pull together. That proportion does not necessarily include all the oligarchs, who may in any case not be as important as the corporate bureaucracies they bestride. How successful the attempt to beef up the Russian state is likely to be is another matter. The point remains that the origin of any threat to Russian democracy lies not in Moscow but in Washington and London.
Tipped by the velvet
In scenes not seen in the former Soviet states for a decade, tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets to topple a corrupt regime. On live television Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze, favoured by the west but detested by his people, was interrupted mid-speech addressing parliament. Thousands poured into the building as he looked on helplessly. Within hours he was gone.
The media coverage has portrayed this as a 'velvet revolution'--the overthrow of a corrupt leader who defrauded an election to retain power. The fact that Shevardnadze had been a favourite of the west for two decades received somewhat less attention. He was the Soviet foreign minister who helped usher in 'mafia privatisation' in Russia and later in Georgia. In 1989 he was the second key figure in the Soviet regime that ordered protesters to be mowed down in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
Events in Georgia have a significance far beyond its borders. Georgia is a key link in the oil pipeline now being constructed from Azerbaijan through to Turkey's Mediterranean port Ceyhan. The Caspian oilfields are key to the US's strategy of breaking the dominance of the Gulf states.
Blair's friend, Russian president Putin, is also vying for influence over his neighbours. He and his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, played off nationalist divisions across the region in order to regain a foothold after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result, between 1990 and 1993 over 40,000 died in conflicts between Georgia and its secessionist states. Over 250,000 people were made refugees.
Russia and the US are vying for influence while at the same time uniting to defuse popular revolt, fostering a set of leaders they each hope they can do business with. The crucial question is whether the popular revolt in Georgia will send tremors across the region and foment another front of resistance to Bush and Blair's project of war and privatisation.
Neoliberals stirring up apathy
For the third time in just over a year, Serbia's presidential elections were declared null and void last month because of a disastrously low voter turnout. Only 39 percent of the population bothered to vote, instead of the necessary 50 percent or more. The result has since led to the chaotic splintering of the ruling 18-party Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) coalition which came to power after the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000.
This profound disillusionment with politics is an acute example of a trend increasingly familiar in the west, and for many of the same reasons. Since 2000, DOS has implemented a programme of mass privatisation that has increased unemployment, prices and poverty. The coalition has also become embroiled in a series of corruption scandals, and political infighting among Serbia's numerous political parties is endemic.
None of these political parties offers any real alternative to the free market. In the absence of any real political focus for their deep disaffection, the reaction of Serbs has been not only to spurn the polling booths on a mass scale. They have also reacted with a mixture of hopelessness (as manifested by a high suicide and family murder rate) and isolated explosions of social discontent, such as the near-storming of the town hall in Kragujevac earlier this year by angry workers of the giant Zastava car plant.
Given the depth of the political and economic crisis, and the absence of any political opposition to speak of from the left, the great danger is that the extreme right will benefit. Indeed, the winner of the aborted presidential election was the candidate of the extreme nationalist Radical Party, former allies of the Milosevic regime, who easily beat the official DOS candidate into second place.
The free market is not working wonders. Instead, its impoverishing effects are bringing back to power parties responsible for the bloody wars of the 1990s.
Count the cost
As the number of Iraqi casualties increases on an almost daily basis, mainstream news coverage on the web seems to be restricted to fairly simplistic reports, barely covering the real events of the war. So it's interesting that recently Yahoo! news has included in its related links a number of surprising websites.
First, the beautifully simple www. iraqometer. com--a site with a few graphics and some startling facts, including the number of bombs dropped on Iraq (39,600), the number of Iraqi soldiers killed (11,000) and the number of billions of dollars spent (98). Of course those figures increase regularly, but one statistic doesn't change--the number of sites of WMDs (0).
Still important is www. iraqbodycount. net which should be required viewing for anyone trying to document the effects of the Iraq war. As such, numerous anti-war sites display their counts.
A useful site, particularly related to the US, is www. costofwar. com, which opens with President Eisenhower's 1953 statement that 'Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.' The site's running tally of the cost of the war is contrasted with what could have been bought for the money--divided into sections such as health, education and housing.
Inspired by the Cost of War site, www. whereisthemoney. org documents documents missing money from the US budget used to balance the books of the Department of Defence and asks, 'Who is responsible?' and 'Where could the money be spent?' It may well be easier to find out such figures for the US, but it would be an interesting and useful project for any web designers out there to create similar sites for Britain.
The pro-war movement is also out in force on the web. Revealingly, they usually have fancier and better designed websites. It's worth checking out some of them--if only to see the rabid fanaticism alive and well in the right wing. www. studentsforwar. org is dedicated to supporting the war in Iraq, and calling for war against North Korea, with flash graphics depicting nuclear explosions in San Francisco. The most frightening thing about the site is that it doesn't appear to be a spoof.Martin Empson
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