Favourite blogs for Barnaby's blog

My favourites » All entries

February 03, 2010

What Keeps Mankind Not Alive?

by Ezgi Basak

The largest contemporary art event of Turkey took place in Istanbul under the name of “11th International Istanbul Biennial” for two months since its opening in September. This biennial distinguished itself from the previous Istanbul biennials, claiming to be “the most politically engaged” of all. The curator was a socialist-feminist artists’ collective from Croatia called ‘What, How & for Whom’ and they came up with a controversial title. They took the name of the song‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’ which closed the second act of the play The Threepenny Opera, written by Bertolt Brecht. The play was based on Brecht’s assertion that ‘a criminal is a bourgeois and a bourgeois is a criminal.’ In the conceptual framework, ‘What, How & for Whom’ proposed the urgency of the question posed by Brecht for us living under the neoliberal hegemony and investigated the role of art in instigating social change against global capitalism. It was a large-scale event. We could see the posters proclaiming “Socialism or Barbarism” and “What is robbing a bank compared with founding a bank?” everywhere in the Istanbul streets.

Despite its glory in the international arena, the entire biennial was a huge irony. First of all, they targeted solely the middle-class intellectuals. It’s very common in Istanbul biennials, but this time I would have expected from them to make an effort to engage the “others”, those who are outside of the bourgeoisie, in the biennial not just as art objects but as real audience. Wasn’t that supposed to be the point? They could at least have made some public performances or street exhibitions. But they did nothing other than putting those posters on the walls, calling people to rob banks, which clearly did not attract them at all. Moreover, the biennial was sponsored by Koc Holding, one of the biggest corporations in Turkey involved in arms dealing. And yet it was not the worst part. Somehow, nobody seemed to remember the letter written by the father of Koc Holding’s CEO to the generals of the 1980 military coup, in order to congratulate them and to give them advice. When confronted with this fact, the curators said: “A society that discusses Brecht is better than a society that doesn’t discuss Brecht at all.” For me it was nothing but a striking example of how opposition and resistance were appropriated by the neoliberal system and being marketed as art in closed spaces. Should we learn how to resist from the ones whom we should resist, and on top of all, pay them to teach us?

We, the anti-authoritarians who gathered together under the name of Resistanbul against the International Monetary Fund-World Bank visit to Istanbul, added another question: “What Keeps Mankind Not Alive?” Our conceptual framework said: “We acknowledge the urgency in these times when we do not get free healthcare and education, our right to our cities, our squares and streets are taken by corporations, our land, our seeds and water are stolen, we are driven into precarity and a life without security, when we are killed crossing their borders and left alone to live an uncertain future with their potential crises. But we fight. And we resist in the streets not in corporate spaces reserved for tolerated institutional critique so as to help them clear their conscience.”[1]

Since the curators claim to be radical, we should ask them whether they would ever dare to put that letter in the exhibition. The answer would probably be negative, because then they wouldn’t be sponsored. On the other hand, I’m sure they would again say that it is better to make this biennial without the letter than not making it at all. But doesn’t that amount to sheer cynicism if the limit of “the radical” is drawn by CEOs? I think we should give credit to Slavoj Zizek who says that “cynicism” is a form of ideology. He says: “Cynicism is the answer of the ruling culture to this kynical subversion: it recognizes, it takes into account, the particular interest behind the ideological universality, the distance between the ideological mask and the reality, but it still finds reasons to retain the mask. This cynicism is not a direct position of immorality; it is more like morality itself put in the service of immorality.”[2] And I believe that, above all, it is this cynical discourse that keeps mankind not alive.

[1] For more information on Resistanbul: http://resistanbul.wordpress.com/

[2] The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Zizek.


Emancipating Women Through Autonomous Education

by Sarah Reader

A year ago I wrote an article for Dissident about women in the Zapatista movement which provided an introduction to the issue and reflected how the Zapatistas are a movement which has always placed women as equal alongside men. However, it is easy to question the extent to which this remains at the rhetorical level and is reserved for Marcos’ communiqués or whether a growing respect for women is being manifested in practice. Although spending two months in Chiapas is far from sufficient to garner a deep understanding of the movement or build the relationships necessary to know how people truly feel and act, one thing that was made clear during our time there was how progressive the autonomous schools are and how far they had come since they first were set up in 1990. Although gender issues are far from resolved and the Zapatista schools are very much dealing with women’s rights as opposed to engaging with other sexualities and gender relations, the movement is constantly questioning itself and embracing new issues.

Given the neoliberalisation of higher education which is taking place across Europe, the Zapatista project of autonomous education should provide us with some inspiration and demonstrate the power of grassroots social movements to challenge an oppressive system and set up an inclusive and autonomous alternative. The schools are not defined by the demands of the labour market or the Mexican government’s neoliberal agenda, but rather determine their education in terms of the direct needs of the communities that are served by them. This has enabled them to challenge traditions and norms which are ingrained in the rest of the country and promote a newfound respect for women.

The general aim of the autonomous education system is to promote indigenous culture, history and language and to counteract the racism towards the indigenous population which characterises the state system. It also emphasises the importance of equality, community and collective learning and labour; something very much absent from our schools and colleges. One of the ways in which the successes of the autonomous alternative are made clear is by the way in which it is challenging gender relations and the machismo which dominates Mexico.

The Zapatistas are constructing a system in which education is based on mutual learning and respect. They are redefining the relationship between teachers and students and providing an alternative to the racist and inaccessible Mexican state system. They view education as a fundamental tool of resistance against the state and the capitalist system and as an important means of being able to defend their communities and reclaim their history, their culture and their lives. The importance given by the Zapatistas to inclusivity, dignity and respect is reflected in their autonomous education and this has had an impact on the way women are treated. The autonomous schools welcome children from all backgrounds regardless of their race, class or gender. In contrast to this, state schools are rife with racism and sexism. We heard first-hand accounts from students at the secondary school in Oventic about the ways in which they regularly suffered physical and verbal abuse from the mestizo teachers at the state schools and this abuse was disproportionately aimed at the girls. One girl spoke of how some girls had been forced to urinate in the classroom as they were denied permission to go to the toilet. These teachers have little to no understanding of, or concern for, indigenous communities, their culture or their needs and are directly perpetuating a racist and sexist culture.

The Zapatista schools, however, place great importance on gender equality, which partly explains why there is a growing respect for women’s rights and the challenging of traditional gender roles amongst younger generations. Unlike in the state system where girls had no choice in the subjects they studied and were excluded from many which were reserved for the boys, in the Zapatista schools boys and girls take part in the same classes and there are no restrictions according to gender. Whereas girls were previously forbidden from playing sports, in the Zapatista schools they can be seen alongside boys on the basketball courts and football fields. Furthermore, there is an effort to emphasise that household tasks and childrearing are not just women’s roles and boys are also being taught how to weave and make tortillas. The Zapatistas are even challenging Castilian grammar rules by using the feminine form of ‘we’ when there are more women in the group than men (as opposed to the masculine form which is the standard practice).

The autonomous schools are also beginning to engage and promote issues that are contextually radical such as abortion and the freedom to decide when to have children and how many to have. Although the continued influence of Catholicism amongst the indigenous population presents significant obstacles to surmount, the autonomous schools endeavour to ensure that girls are aware of their rights and have control over their bodies and choices.

Through their autonomous schools the Zapatistas are actively overcoming problems of marginalisation and prejudice with respect to race, class and gender. By providing a non-hierarchical and inclusive education which does not discriminate or position people above one another they are promoting the respect of women’s rights and challenging their traditional roles as housewives and child-bearers. Although there is still far to go, this provides us with an example of how alternatives can be constructed and these can be instrumental in combating inequalities and prejudice.


The Health of Democracy

by Chris Zacharia

For those who believed, back in late 2008, that the victory secured by Barack Obama in the Presidential elections signalled how far America had come as a nation in loosening their obstinate prejudices, the fierce rebellion against the President’s healthcare reform programme must have come as a nasty shock. Rarely can a single disagreement over welfare have uniquely displayed the huge dichotomy that forms the heart of American society and threatens to extinguish it as a functioning entity. Protestors against Obama’s welfare plan have rallied behind public figures such as Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter and Michele Bachman (a director’s cut version of Palin), rising up across the nation to defeat what these social conservatives consider to be a Draconian encroachment of their personal liberties. Bachman, a Republican congresswoman from Minnesota, demanded that all conservative activists who wanted to stop Obama’s dark intentions should descend upon the capital and make their voices heard. One Republican supporter at the protest in Washington D.C. held aloft a horrific photograph of Jewish corpses in Dachau concentration camp with the caption, “National Socialist Healthcare”[1]. Evidently, these pundits of the extreme right are a dab hand at rabble-rousing.

What strikes me as most disappointing is the fundamental paradox that lies at the heart of every Republican assertion. They claim Obama will create a ‘big brother’ state – despite the fact that the Republicans seem solely interested in intensifying that very process, having organised the COINTELPRO operation in the 1960 and 1970s which gave the FBI extra-constitutional powers to criminalise non-mainstream groups, not to mention founding the Guantanamo Bay prison and initialising the micro-chip revolution, which saw the first American implanted with a sophisticated piece of technology which tracks each movement2. Republicans claim that the healthcare system will impinge on their freedom – despite the 35 million people who have no healthcare insurance and thus cannot be labelled as ‘free’ – for how can you be free if you cannot even afford the most basic healthcare procedures for you and your family? They claim to want small government and individual freedom – but refuse to accept the validity of personal choice in morally contetious issues such as abortion. They claim that a healthcare system would be too expensive – when various Republican governments have spent in excess of £300bn a year on military investment3.

Yet this is only the surface-level observation; it merely indicates the level to which right-wing media organisations have mastered the ‘doublethink’ propaganda that George Orwell frightfully foresaw before the mid-twentieth century. The healthcare ‘debate’ also tells us a great deal about the state of democracy in America, and the value of democracy as an agent of change. When Obama was elected President in November 2008, he summarised why people should vote for him in his manifesto – a manifesto which made his supporters several pledges, one of which was to reform the healthcare system in the United States to help the disadvantaged. The democratic system of elections relies on this ideal4. Rational voters examine each manifesto carefully, deciding which one they believe to be most advantageous to themselves and the nation and cast their vote correspondingly. If a voter’s preferred candidate does not succeed, and all procedures were followed correctly, then he or she must accept the defeat and wait until the next election; the democratic system relies on this principle.

What democracies ask us to do, in short, is to place our belief in our personal moralities and ethical judgements below a belief in democracy. We must hold the democratic ideal – rule by the majority as the only just method of government – above our ‘subjective’ moral views and face the consequences if our candidate is defeated. For instance, if I believe in the depths of my soul that going to war with Iran is morally wrong, but a candidate who wants such a war to go ahead is elected by my peers, I must accept this for the democratic system to function5. Unfortunately, people do not work in this way. You only have to have a discussion about religion, or politics, or war, even with just a small group of individuals to gain an understanding of how important these issues are to people. Asking a populace to submit these cherished beliefs that guide our souls and edify our minds to a managerialist practicality to favour democracy is wholly foolish.

What we see in America is not just a disagreement over healthcare policy, but a faltering of the democratic system. Upon the victory of Obama, the Republicans had to accept that although they did not (for whatever confused reason) believe in healthcare reform, the majority of American voters wanted not only Obama but his policies. Yet despite this, grassroots conservatives have if anything become even more emboldened against such a development, pressurising the ruling party to abandon a crucial portion of its election manifesto and thus let down the majority of voters, an outcome that would surely diminish belief in the democratic process itself. Now, I’m not claiming that civil disobedience or protest is wrong or counter-productive. Instead, it is the democratic system which relies on this fundamentally flawed conception of human nature which fails to engender a harmony that is conducive to good government6. Democracy, in its current representative guise, is flawed in its demands of human beings, and undermines itself as societal goods become more and more incommensurable. And as the democratic system chokes and slowly falls, the alliance of corporate unfreedom and vested interests, those dealers of war and suffering, seeps back into the public domain.

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/nov/15/michele-bachmann-president-sarah-palin

[2] http://www.icdc.com/%7Epaulwolf/cointelpro/churchfinalreportIIIa.htm

[4] Bhikhu Parekh, “Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity & Political Theory”, 2002

[5] Michael Freeden, “Liberal Languages”, 2005

[6] Herbert Marcuse, “One-Dimensional Man”, 1964


De te fabula narratur!

by Burc Kostem

“We have combined, by a freely adopted decision, for the purpose of fighting the enemy, and not of retreating into the neighbouring marsh, the inhabitants of which, from the very outset, have reproached us with having separated ourselves into an exclusive group and with having chosen the path of struggle instead of the path of conciliation…Oh, yes, gentlemen! You are free not only to invite us, but to go yourselves wherever you will, even into the marsh. In fact, we think that the marsh is your proper place, and we are prepared to render you every assistance to get there. Only let go of our hands, don’t clutch at us and don’t besmirch the grand word freedom, for we too are “free” to go where we please, free to fight not only against the marsh, but also against those who are turning towards the marsh!”1

This excerpt from Lenin’s “What is to be done?” is an excellent summary of the democratic centralism that dominated the early years of the revolution in Russia. Our current predicament is interestingly relevant to Lenin’s description: with the absence of a strong left, many parties have called for a “unity among the left” around the world. Indeed as Lenin has described, social democrats not only have “socialist ministers charm the whole bourgeois world by orations on class collaboration” but they also admit that their main aim is merely reform. The Left, especially in the developed world, not only supports the current political system but sees it vital for its existence. Again as Lenin expected most of these parties now are merely advocates of introducing a strand of bourgeois opportunism into the socialist movement. The best example in England has been New Labour, although most people would not even call them Social Democrats anymore. Be it in France where the moderate socialists are retreating to the leadership of the centre right party, UMP, or in Italy, where the centre-left Democratic Party, has dropped down by 6 points in the European elections, the political left in Europe and other parts of the developed world have spectacularly failed to gain support amidst one of the biggest economic crisis of capitalism.2

Going hand in hand with this political movement has also been the academic rejection of Marx’s theory of historical materialism. Revisionists from Bernstien to Hobsbawm have come to reject Marxist conceptions of class struggle and revolution (and sometimes with very convincing reasons too). Most academics and revolutionaries in Turkey have dismantled altogether after the 90’s. Those who were not assassinated, or are not in jail, have changed direction completely and are bosses in big corporations. The story is not that different in other parts of the world. Even the most popular scholars such as Chomsky have described Lenin as “the worst thing that has ever happened to socialism”3. Marxism is almost always seen as a premature or idealistic conception of the world while Leninism is a “no-no” everywhere. Many people around the world, feel that the emphasis on Marxism and the working class is much too narrow and therefore feel more sympathetic towards other strands of radical thought.

This shift has not been motivated by the complete collapse of Marxist analysis. For example Callinicos argues that “socialist revolution is an imperative in a world where 30 million rot on Western dole queues and 800 million people go hungry in the Third World.”4 Neither has wage-labour perished or class-war ended. Rather people have come to accept the well popularized view that capitalism somehow “works” while the failure of Soviet Russia has been largely promoted as the failure of Marxism altogether.

Is Marx, then, still relevant to our modern lives? Is there anything that can be preserved in Marxism and if so, how can we do this without falling in to dogmatism? To the likes of Tony Blair who have simply dismissed Marxism because it is somehow written too long ago, Mark Steel, a British comedian, asks this question: “Does Tony Blair then, after having eaten his dinner say: ‘No, no! Just throw the plates up in the air, why are you talking about Newton and gravity? That was ages ago. The plates won’t fly, they won’t fall, they’ll find a third way in to the washing machine.’?”

Although it is not a good argument to dismiss a political system simply because of its age, whether its analysis is futile or not remains another question. Yet to make sense of the answer, one first has to make sense of the question. Maybe as Zizek described in his speech at Marxism 2009 asking the question “So what is really still relevant in Marx?” assumes the position of a historical judge who can by himself determine what is new and what is old. Maybe this reduces the theory in to an abstract system of logic with a life of its own, completely isolated from the social reality that surrounds it so that we can compare this abstract theory with the reality of our world to determine what is relevant or not. Maybe as Zizek describes what is really universal and still relevant in Marxism, is the concrete way in which it recreates itself through its analysis of the real world at each historical moment. Therefore we must, to understand what is new in Marxism, ask the opposite question. We must recreate Marxism, look at the world through the eyes of Marxism and then ask, “So what is new with the world today from the lenses of Marx?” If we accept that ideologies are not abstract, isolated ideas, then this analysis is inevitable.

This goes hand in hand with Althusser’s analysis of Marx in his essay Marxism and Humanism. If Marxism is an ideology that can recreate itself in each historical moment, then it can’t, as its starting point accept an idealised universal “essence of man”. Neither can it, as most sciences do today, completely ignore all political influences and claim to practice an empiricism of man. (Indeed Althusser argues that empiricism of man and the idealism of the essence of mankind are practically the same. One curious example here, can be continuous empirical researches in biology, to somehow justify capitalism in an idealist way, saying it is a part of human nature.) Instead Marx based his theory on “the given historical period” and “the different levels of human practice articulated by these periods”. Because of this, historical and ideological movements are not separated from material ones in Marxism but they are seen as a result of each other.

As Marx himself puts it “The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism of the weapon, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But, for man, the root is man himself”. By holding this position Marx changes the way in which theory and practice relate to each other. For Marx the way in which we interpret history creates the potential to change it. Then to understand Marxism today, we must not look for its secret essence. Neither must we play at empiricism comparing the GDP figures of Soviet Russia with those of the United States, claiming this to be the ultimate failure of Marxism. We must instead understand the social and economic relations of our historical period, through a Marxist outlook.

A good demonstration of the application of such a theory is Marx’s view of equality. It appears to be one of the prejudices of liberal thought, that Marx assumes everyone is equal. This would lead to the idealism of an essence of mankind, which would completely go against the theory was just described. On the contrary Marx’s view is very different. In his “Critique of the Gotha Programme” Marx says that workers are born in to different material conditions and come from different backgrounds. Therefore the bourgeois equality given to them, which holds them to the single same identity merely as workers and nothing else, can only be an inequality. In a Hegelian way a pure conception of equality understood in this abstract bourgeois way leads only to its opposite: an unequal standard to which workers living in different conditions are held to. Instead Marx’s conception of equality is dedicated to the material conditions and political tendencies that create the current, so called, equality and how these can be employed to increase equality.

Therefore if there is anything to preserve in Marxism it is the legacy of dialectical materialism. It is not enough to focus on humanitarian issues and ignore the historical and ideological landscape that surrounds them. As a Turk, for example, it is not enough to appreciate the re-emergence of radical Islam, without understanding the systematic decline of the Turkish left. These two are impotent and blind without each other. When asked which deviation from Marx was better, to the left, or to the right Stalin answered: both are worse. On this rare example, I can agree with him. The curse of revisionism has once again shown its head, as there is a mood of despair for the left in Europe. In such moments of despair, revisionist movements have almost always lost sight of this core aspect of Marxism.5 Now as history repeats itself as a farce one can only look at how relevant Lenin’s answer remains and tell these people what Marx told the German workers who would dismiss the condition of the English working class as not being relevant: De te fabula narratur! (Of you the tale is told.)

1 http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/index.htm
2 http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/aug/17/left-politics-capitalism-recession
3 http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/rbr/noamrbr2.html
4 The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx – Alex Callinicos
5 Eric Hobsbawm’s most recent article in the Guardian is an interesting example of this:http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/apr/10/financial-crisis-capitalism-socialism-alternatives

All other quotes are taken from www.marxists.org


December 29, 2009

Sony Ericsson C905 Long Term Review

C905

I waited ages for the Sony Ericsson C905 in 2008. It was just what I needed, a phone that could handle many features, but is not a smart-phone. I still wanted a xenon flash to replace my trusty K800i that served well for 2 years. A xenon flash is undeniably useful. It allows you to be there to take something that only a regular camera could have. The K800i ran all the apps I wanted to: OperaMini to google maps to a trading platform. The addition of WiFi, HSDPA and GPS in the C905 was very welcome. Despite my previous abhorence to the 3 UK network I decided to return because it was the only network that had Skype available, and plus it is now managed by a reputable telecoms firm.

So after about a year how has it faired?

The camera with xenon flash has been brilliant - with red eye reduction on it is capable of three successive bursts. Only gripe is the colours on any daylight photos are a bit washed out. Everytime I take a picture it produces a 1MB file which I just right click and email or upload online. It has followed me around the world allowing me to capture important moments such as visiting the Acropolis and socialising with great people in Mexico.

Most days when I wake up, BBC's World Business Report show is unavailable on computer at 7am, so I just use the phone to stream the show over HSDPA to catch up on the news. One time I found myself on the train to London watching the Wimbledon final. The other commuters were hunched over my little screen.

I like how on the phone each java application can be set permissions for whether it is allowed to use mobile network and/or WiFi. This has been useful for ensuring the mobile network's Skype application continue to work whilst hooked on to WiFi. I have noticed a few issues (probably with earlier SW versions) where on WiFi emails can't be sent/received unless when your phone's on a non-home network. This can be solved by allowing connections to "Any Network." Not an issue for me, but might affect some people.

The GPS doesn't work too well in built up areas, even with assistance (where the local mobile basestation provides which satellites can be reached from the area). If you're in an empty field you can get lock without assistance but then you might be waiting anything between 30seconds or 30 minutes. I find googlemaps works better without GPS enabled. When the GPS does work, you can use it from log your running regieme to turn-by-turn road mapping with Wayfinder. Wayfinder (subscription needed) did work well on a quick drive to Wales and it even tracked my progress for reviewing later in Google Earth.

Battery life is ok. When I use it (with gmail, operamini and skype open all day), I use just over 50% each day which means a daily charge is needed. When I leave it alone on HSDPA network, it lasts 2-3 days on standby. Unfortunately my operator has locked out the 3G/2G switch for commercial reasons.

The phone reboots every now and then, but then again I am stressing it by running three java applications simultaneously all the time. I wanted the simplicity of the basic Sony Ericsson OS but I think I have now reached the limits of non-smartphones. So to conclude the phone has been very good for the past year. Great travel companion, WiFi allows hooking on to local cafes to send your emails and allowed me to capture moments I might otherwise have missed. Next phone may be an LTE Android though!



October 09, 2009

Dissident Warwick Issue 7

Welcome to issue 7 of Dissident Warwick. Here you’ll find all the articles from the paper version, alongside footnotes and sources. Feel free to comment on the articles, but please keep discussion relevant and respectful.

The Morality of Mercenaries – by Barnaby Pace

Warwick Activism – by Beth Smith, Sami Wannell and Megan Fortune

Review: The Whisperers – by Beth Smith

Fuck Batman – by Chris Rossdale

Bonkers for Bolivia – by Jehanzeb A Khan

Fast, Effective Relief from Pain – by Chris Zacharia

The Truth is Out There?: An Examination of Political Conspiracy Theories – by Duncan Tucker

Maize, Ministries, and Hunger: How the World Bank Starved Malawi – by Kat Hobbs

The Answer is Blowing in the Wind – by Aidan Barlow

Students and Capitalism – by Lev Lev Taylor


The Morality of Mercenaries

by Barnaby Pace

A part of my daily routine is now that I switch on my laptop in the morning and spend an hour or two reading stories on dodgy arms dealers, big bribing corporations and innumerable states with inferiority complexes that cause them to buy lots of phallic-shaped weapons. Despite the wealth of strange stories that sometimes seem more suited to the world of a John Le Carré novel than a trade magazine report (the Arctic Sea hijacking for example), the twitter updates of a US reporter called Jeremy Scahill regularly outdo them all. For many years now Scahill, along with a few others, have worked tirelessly to expose the insanity of the modern mercenary business.

Mercenaries, often referred to as Private Military Security Contractors (PSMCs) or sometimes just ‘contractors’ have become inseparable from many modern conflicts. The role of PSMCs varies from the Halliburton employees who do laundry and catering for many military bases to the construction companies like Jacobs (which Warwick uses) who build the military bases from which the US military garrisons the globe and fights its wars. PSMCs go as far as the Blackwater mercenaries who engage in front-line combat duties and sometimes command regular troops or contractors who perform intelligence work, even interrogations.

States can find many cosy advantages in using mercenaries; the public back home can be easily misinformed about the scale of the conflict, the death of a contractor isn’t big news whereas a soldier’s death is, the state does not take the risk of caring for injured veterans and the military can hire and fire mercenaries easily. As much as anything, the idea of mercenaries fitted neatly into the neoconservative wet dream of the well conducted, risk outsourced, privatised war.

Of course there is no such thing as a well conducted war. War brings to the surface all the worst in humankind’s behaviour; cruelty, suffering and death are always the outcome, with nearly everyone involved a victim of some kind. However, as obscene as it might sound to those at end of a gun, there are rules in war. Certain international treaties govern weapons that should not be used (such as landmines, biological and chemical weapons). The rules of engagement determine when force can be used and the Geneva Conventions govern the treatment of civilians and prisoners of war. Although these rules and laws are a fig leaf over the inherent violence of war, on a pragmatic level they make some difference to the end result with the worst extremes at least being publicly recognised as wrong. There are of course many examples in history where such rules are ignored, not least in recent years with the US and above all the Bush (Jr.) regime frequently violating rules, especially with regards to the Geneva Conventions. The breaking of these rules should clearly be addressed at the most powerful level; the Bushs, Cheneys and Rumsfelds of this world should not be above the law, but violations of such rules can also often occur at the whim of the lowest ranking soldier.

Within warfare the soldier is granted absolute authority through the potential to inflict violence; as the saying goes, power corrupts, and in the case of 18 year-old boys given this power, abuses are frequent. But possibly more dangerous than the power-fuelled abuses are those motivated by factors other than mere power: those motivated by ideology or greed. It is in the very nature of the mercenary that they are motivated by money, sometimes out of necessity rather than greed, but they also inherently lack the assumed motivation that an army acts in the interests of the state.

This summer there have been numerous sad stories of mercenaries in Iraq and Afghanistan. This brings us back to Jeremy Scahill and his fascinating twitter account. Scahill this summer has unveiled even more of the complex story of Blackwater (now rebranded Xe, pronounced ‘Zee’), probably the largest private military force of its kind in the world. Blackwater came into the public eye after the unprovoked Nisour Square killings of seventeen Iraqi civilians. In that case the US Department of Justice has alleged that Blackwater forces “fired at innocent Iraqis not because they actually believed that they were in imminent danger of serious bodily injury and actually believed that they had no alternative to the use of deadly force, but rather that they fired at innocent Iraqi civilians because of their hostility toward Iraqis and their grave indifference to the harm that their actions would cause,”. Blackwater has been accused of helping set up a secret CIA assassination programme, of smuggling arms into Iraq in sacks of dog food, and of setting up a wife-swapping ring within the company. Further to this the owner of Blackwater, Erik Prince, is accused of seeing himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe, and that the company “encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life.”; the company even went as far as using Knights of the Templar names as call signs for their operations. These allegations have been made under oath by former Blackwater employees. Contractors from other companies were involved in torture at Abu Ghraib and other atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the best attempts of the Iraqi government to ban Blackwater from the country they still operate with virtual immunity. Even whilst this article was being written, Pakistani police found stashes of illegal weapons in the offices of the mercenary company Inter-Risk. Meanwhile the UK (which has a sizeable mercenary market) is choosing to allow mercenary companies to regulate themselves.

The conclusions to draw from this sorry episode are many. Warfare is always going to cause pain, death and destruction, but where the use of force is no longer even wielded by a supposedly democratic state but on a for-profit basis as exemplified by arms companies and mercenaries, then even the fig leaf of the rules of war will continue to be blown away. There are two clear alternative paths to the current one being pursued. The first is that warfare is brought back under the full control of the state; arms companies are nationalised, mercenary activities banned and the privatisation of war reversed. The other alternative is simple; that violence is recognised as a negative force that will always lead to pain, death and destruction, just as power corrupts all in time, and that we recognise that peace is the only true answer.


Warwick Activism

by Megan Fortune, Sami Wannell and Beth Smith

Young

I didn’t know what to expect when I started uni last year. I had seen enough films and heard enough of my dad’s moans to assume that at University I would find a hotbed of political struggle from uneducated ‘lazy lefty students’, but this was not the case. I became aware of the anarchist group through chatting to a random guy at a RAG social who asked me to come along to a bring-and-share dinner the anarchists were holding. Having never met an anarchist before I had no idea what to expect from the evening, but I decided to be brave and went along. Never before had I been around people who cared and followed the same things as I did, and from then on I was hooked on activism.

Warwick activists are split into many groups and interest points and I won’t sit here and pretend to know them all. The main people I met through the year were the anarchists, People and Planet people, members of political parties from Tories to Socialists, and all sorts of groups with more specific focuses. Through these factions and individuals I got involved in a variety of actions. These ranged from handing out leaflets at a football match against the eco-vandalism committed by E.ON, to lying in the rain being trodden on by giant fruit in an attempt to highlight the plight of Honduran workers under Fruit of the Loom. It went on to the feat I am most proud of: our sit-in in solidarity with the victims of the Israel-Palestine conflict. This is, in my opinion, the act we should have most satisfaction in, as it not only brought many different campaigning groups together but also brought the problem to the attention of many who would not normally be involved in politics.

Medium

I arrived at Warwick on the look out for activism and was pleased to discover just how much was going on. I first got involved with the anarchist group, (having found out rather at random that such a group exists) but have since become involved in many other groups as well. There are many different and varied groups at Warwick – a big shout out in particular goes to WASS (Warwick Anti-Sexism Society) and Weapons out of Warwick (part of People and Planet) – but many people are in a number of groups and so there is a strong sense of an activist community. This helps us stay focused and enthusiastic, but also manifests in the form of many bring-and-share parties.

During my time at Warwick a couple of actions in particular have stood out. As mentioned by the other contributors, being a part of last year’s sit-in for Gaza was inspiring and invigorating. It felt amazing to claim a space in which to show solidarity and to educate ourselves. I also felt myself gain confidence through my involvement – for example by facilitating meetings, talking to the press etc. I was also involved in the action at Faslane nuclear submarine base a couple of years ago. It was very empowering for me to take direct action as part of a well-prepared and well-supported group. However, the bulk of activism at Warwick involves small and unglamorous actions such as leafleting each careers service event in which arms companies take part. These actions are just as important and can be really satisfying too.

It’s easy to get involved with activism at Warwick and societies are really open for whatever level of involvement you want to have.

Old

We used to be known as “Red Warwick” in the 60s and 70s, because us Warwick students used to go through protest after rent-strike after occupation. But I’ll be wholly honest. I got involved with “activism” (whatever that means) at Warwick when I arrived in 2005 because of pretty people. Two whole sexes of them! I mean, there had been definite political ideas in my mind before, but it’s something I’d always been discouraged from talking about. There were your standard “student” post-90s activist groups: socialists, anti-*badthing*ists, single-issue folk like environmentalists and human-rightistas, what have you. The people I ended up with first were all very lovely, very polite and very proper. Even when I found my home with our friendly neighbourhood anarchists, the group normally viewed as rabble-rousers, we were all pretty smiley and informal. This vision got shaken a teensy bit when someone decided that we go up to Faslane to blockade a road outside the military base. We decided to be very prepared, organising non-violent direct action workshops, numerous planning lists, and more “what if this went wrong” situations than you could shake a stick at. We even got trained by the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (I’m not joking). Many court cases and many many months later, the feeling really had changed amongst a few of us… if I weren’t me, I’d probably use the phrase “paradigm shift”. We were a lot less intimidated by authority for one – breaking the law and “getting away with it” gives you a bit of a new outlook.

The anti-arms trade campaign really kicked off after that, along with a shift more towards disrupting over passively informing. Trying to halt talks by the Atomic Weapons Establishment (triggering a love of doing everything “in waves”), dressing up as Death to go into careers fairs, that sorta thing. When we heard about how some other universities had started occupying lecture rooms in solidarity with those affected by the December/Jan escalation of violence towards Palestine, we had the confidence to do something. So we did.

Now I’m all old and establishment-y, so it’s up to all the new whippersnappers to rabble-rouse now. I may stand at the sidelines and make tea. Or teach you how to find your inner clown…

For more information -

On Student Union societies and campaigns – http://www.warwicksu.com/societies/and http://www.warwicksu.com/haveyoursay/campaigns/

On Warwick Anarchists – facebook search ‘Warwick Anarchists’ or email e.a.smith.2@warwick.ac.uk

On Dissident Warwick – facebook search ‘Dissident Warwick’ or email dissidentwarwick@googlemail.com


Review: The Whisperers

by Beth Smith

The Whisperers, Orlando Figes, (Penguin Books, 2007)

The Whisperers, by Orlando Figes, is a book about the lives of ordinary individuals and families in Soviet Russia, concentrating particularly on life under Stalin. What is striking about this book is its emphasis on individual stories rather than on using an abstract, top-down approach to history. Figes focuses how families and relationships were affected in the period. Children lied about their parents’ details on official forms, families were split due to arrests, husbands and wives kept their histories hidden from each other, and from their children. Whilst the book does contain a wealth of information about the policies of the Stalinist regime, its criteria for their evaluation is firmly tied to people’s experience, enabling it to put forward a grounded and human critique of the period.

One recurring theme in the book is, inevitably, fear. Figes gives an excellent account of the culture of fear experienced by many Soviet citizens. At the same time, Figes acknowledges that not all waves of oppression affected all families. He cites a joke popular during the Terror in which, when officials knock at the door of a flat to arrest an inhabitant, the inhabitant replies that ‘You’ve got the wrong door, the Communists live upstairs’. This joke suggests that some saw this wave of oppression in terms of Party infighting.

The book also gives an impression of the often arbitrary nature of oppression. Figes describes the pressure that officials felt to fill ‘kulak’ quotas, regardless of the objective situation. He cites the explanation of one official to a ‘kulak’ family; ‘I have received an order… to find 17 kulak families for deportation. I formed a Committee of the Poor and we sat through the night to choose the families. There is no one in the village who is rich enough to qualify, and not many old people, so we simply chose the 17 families. You were chosen… Please don’t take it personally. What else could I do?’

Some may question why such a book is important. Many of the horrors of Stalin’s regime are widely known and well-documented and to criticise his practices is hardly radical or particularly controversial. However, it is important to read this book, and others like it, for a number of reasons. Firstly, strangely perhaps, I believe such an account of history shows that change is possible. Many people feel apathetic or sceptical about the possibility of changing the ideals upon which the world is run and this is often due to their assumptions about human nature. However, whilst human nature is too complex a topic to engage with here, the fervour with which many believed the Soviet ideology suggests that people’s behaviours and ideas can change; they were just changed in the wrong way, and to the wrong thing.

Secondly, for myself at least, to read the stories of individuals oppressed by Stalin’s totalitarian regime motivates me to act in a way that facts and figures often do not. The reason for this emotional reaction is (at least in part) due to the third, and most important, reason for this book: its reinforcement of anti-authoritarian ideas. Whilst an anti-authoritarian conclusion will seem obvious to many, it has broader implications than may be expected. The messages of this book suggest the dangers of holding to predetermined – almost holy – ends, to the disregard of all else; particularly an awareness of the corrupting effects of power. What strikes me as I read is the insanity and danger of societies in which individuals wield so much power over others. We should be suspicious therefore, of power-relations based in hierarchy and unaccountability. Whilst such relations of course vary in extremity, they include the practices of patriarchy, racism, and homophobia, employer-employee workplace relations and dictatorships (elected or not) across the globe. This principle must also extend to those on the left who believe that socialism/ communism can be created by a minority, and using hierarchical structures. The horrors of totalitarianism and the effects they have on human life should motivate us to fight for a world in which people can control their own lives and cannot control the lives of others. In such a world, but also in our world today, collective action is necessary to prevent elite groups from taking this control from others.

………………………………………………………………………………………………

See also:

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitsyn

A novella which describes the experiences of an ordinary man on one day in a labour camp. The book was influenced by Solzhenitsyn’s own experience in the labour camps. This book was published during the ‘thaw’ under Khrushchev.

Life and Fate – Vasily Grossman

An epic novel about life during the battle of Stalingrad. The novel tells the stories of many individuals and families, giving a broad impression of life at the time and for this style it has been compared to War and Peace. Grossman was told in 1962 by the Politburo chief of ideology that the novel could not be published for two-hundred years. It was published in Russia in 1988.

Into the Whirlwind – Evgenia Ginzburg

The first volume of Ginzburg’s account of her experiences in Soviet prisons and camps. Ginzburg was arrested in 1937 and not released until 1955. Her account was widely circulated in Russia before it’s official publication and many amateur survivor accounts contain (false) claims that they witnessed scenes from the book, incorporating Ginzburg’s memories into their own.


Bonkers for Bolivia

by Jehanzeb A Khan

The ‘New Left’ of Latin America receives considerable public attention, and rightfully so; it reflects a breaking away from the ideological stranglehold of the age old regional nexus of big business, church and military (for further information watch Zorro).But too often the complexities of this movement are overshadowed and simplified under the grand antics of certain leaders in the movement. I am of course speaking of the big red himself ; Chavez. With public attention focused on him little homage is given to the complex differences of his allies in the continent, in particular; Bolivia.

On a surface level there are many similarities between Chavez and Morales’s governments. They both brandish a ‘21st century socialism’ involved with heavy social expenditure, limited nationalisation of key industries and calls for Latin American sovereignty, consolidated through constitutional amendments. In fact they both even have distinctive styles of dressing; Chavez with his bright red shirt (forming an easy bulls eye for US aerial raids) and Morales with his grandmum sweater. But there are core differences that result in very different political landscapes in the two countries.

Political life in Venezuela has never had sufficient community level organization with the two main parties the AD and COPEI having played catch with political power for twenty years. Hence Chavez managed to develop and maintain a tight hold on the reins of the peoples movement when he set up the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) and absorbed many of the other fractionalized groups of the left. Bolivia though is a very different case where there is widespread grass roots organization across all sections of the working population, providing several vehicles for the peoples movement. Such groups were especially active in the lead up to Morales presidency, starting with the famous Cochabamba protests of 2000 where workers, indigenous peasants and students united to bite bullets for four months of successful resistance to the privatization of water resources in the province. Similar struggles took place in the attempted exploitation of natural gas reserves by MNCs and attempted eradication of the coca crop(which plays an important role in the culture of indigenous communities) as part of the US led ‘War on Drugs’.

It is these groups that continue to play a pivotal role in Morales’s power base and his consideration of this is reflected in areas of his domestic policy. For instance his constitutional reform package establishes the economy as a mix between market, state and communitarian; with cooperatives widespread in some key industries such as mining. Furthermore it contains provisions for giving indigenous Amymara groups(the majority ethnicity) autonomous regions where they can write their own statutes, allowing them to manage resources and commence their traditional forms of community justice. This is also reflected, albeit symbolically, by the fact that he continues to retain presidency of the coca growers union; the Cocalero. A contrast is present here with Chavezs extensions of the states powers, such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) condemned monitoring of union elections.

While it is true that worker-employer relations have still not been altered in any fundamental way, credit must still be given to Morales for having moved forward the peoples movement in the face of a national bourgeoisie attempting to virtually secede in Santa Cruz, rapidly dropping prices for key exports and Washington huffing and puffing at the back door. And as new areas of class conflict rise to prominence in the public consciousness prospects of progress down this path in time to come do seem sunny, given the resilience and unity displayed by the working people of Bolivia. Leaving Morales to either ride the tiger or…get eaten by it?


Fast, Effective Relief from Pain?

by Chris Zacharia

One day I happened to be studying for a particular essay for my course here at Warwick when the familiar dull pangs of a headache began thumping at my temples. Trying to think when you have a headache is painful and self-defeating, like digging a hole with your bare hands. So, I did what everyone does, will do and will tell others to do – I reached up to my shelf and plucked out a packet of aspirin. In a few moments the pills had popped out of their foil, like apples falling from a tree, and I had quickly prepared the obligatory glass of water beside them. I swallowed both tablets at once and, just to be consistent, gulped down the glass of water whole. Since science has not yet developed pills that work instantly, I took a break from my assignment until the paracetamol kicked in, and during this barren spell I sat contemplating my actions. Why did I reach so mechanically for the pharmaceuticals when I first felt the headache?

Scientific developments usually mean big business, and medicine is no exception. The cost of developing a new drug and launching it to the market costs an average of $1.7bn (£1.04bn); private firms would never risk such large sums unless they knew that there was some serious money to be made. And, as the case of U.S. pharmaceuticals giant Monsanto shows, there’s no limit to potential profit if you’re willing to be unscrupulous about your methods. In the U.S., drug companies spend $19bn a year on promotions. Advertisements for drugs such as Ibuprofen litter our television screens, bathroom shelves brim with a veritable rainbow of medicines, and corporations such as Pfizer, Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline have revenues stretching into the tens of billions. Most importantly, the citizens of most developed nations are impeccably trained when it comes to taking their medicines – they know their Nurofen from their Nytol, their Benylin from their Beechams.

There’s no doubt that modern medicine offers huge benefits to societies worldwide, and that the rise in average life expectancy is in no small part due to these developments. What I want to attack here specifically is the mindset behind the taking of the aspirin. Take the situation I described earlier – my contracting of a headache, which was most probably down to too many hours spent staring at the laptop screen. My headache was my brain telling me that it couldn’t handle the strain of concentrating on the screen, and that it was doing me harm. But instead of actually taking this into account, I fulfilled instead the well-drilled action of mindlessly taking some aspirin. Rather than cease an activity that was doing me harm, I quashed my body’s ineffective complaints so that I could continue the harmful action. After all, when we are ill, we are told – often by concerned members of our families and friendship circles – to ‘take some medicine’. The implicit message here is that the origin of discomfort lies with the human, not with the lifestyle. What is implicitly admitted is that the lifestyle is too powerful to change, and in its place the body must yield instead. In fact, the truth is that the lifestyle is the cause of the headache, and yet we are discouraged from protecting ourselves from such harmful ways and instead given a quick, easy and convenient solution in the form of the tablet. Why are our lifestyles being put behind, instead of before, productivity & convenience?

As people base their lives around wealth accumulation for faceless profiteers, their complex emotional needs are rarely satisfied and are more often than not entirely ignored. These needs are left out of important agendas entirely and those who do attempt to delve into their subconscious are depicted as New Age spiritual types or religious fools. The system of wealth accumulation, by squeezing every ounce of productivity from every worker, like battery-farm hens, essentially leaves the individual no choice but to resort to quick-fix convenience solutions that often harm the protagonist in the long-term and benefit the deceivers who propagate such problems. Few of those who work 40 hours or more a week for minimum wage or thereabouts will have the energy or time to cook a nutritious and fulfilling meal; often, profitable ready-meals and frozen foods are necessary to free up precious leisure time, at the expense of personal wellbeing. It is the same with the aspirin example I gave earlier. It is just one of many that shows just how far convenience is embedded within our thoughts and everyday actions. The capitalist world sells us, through the national con-game of advertising, a hollow lifestyle of shortcuts and vice, which we are loath to reject since we need all the free time we can get. Convenience, I believe, is the trusty sword by the side of capitalism, invaluable whenever the system faces challenges. Changing the system must involve forcing production to fall in line with the needs of human beings, rather than the other way around – and only then can the insipid culture of convenience, and the resulting mega-profits, be put to rest.


The Truth is Out There? An Examination of Political Conspiracy Theories

by Duncan Tucker

Amid the furore about healthcare this summer, Barack Obama faced wild accusations from right-wing “birthers” claiming that he is a Kenyan-born Muslim, sent to bring socialism to the United States. These unsubstantiated allegations demonstrate not only the growing desperation of the conservative right, but also America’s age-old love for conspiracy theories. Conspiracies have become increasingly popular in the internet age; Google lists over ten million results for conspiracy theories, while in 2006 a national survey revealed that a remarkable 36% of Americans believe that their own government was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks.[1] The popularity of such theories may be attributed in part to human nature. It is only natural for people to question authority and invent narratives in order to make sense of complex or distressing events. Additionally, conspiracy theories play a sensationalist role. They have become just another form of entertainment, capable of selling newspapers and satisfying the public’s appetite for gossip and scandal. Yet there is a risk that such theories trivialise and over-simplify important political issues. An examination of the historical circumstances behind major political conspiracy theories can reveal why they remain so persistent, and whether they deserve such attention.

Conspiracy theories crop up routinely throughout history, but it was not until the 1960s that they began to gain widespread popularity and media attention. The US public was losing faith in the government after Lyndon Johnson’s lies over the Vietnam War were exposed, and this distrust was intensified when the Watergate scandal revealed the extent of Richard Nixon’s illegal activities and his inept attempts at a cover-up. Amid the growing sense of disillusionment there developed a political climate ripe for conspiracy theories.

Perhaps the best known of conspiracy theories arose after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. Rumours persist to this day of CIA/Soviet/Cuban/Mafia involvement; additional shooters on the infamous grassy knoll; and Lee Harvey Oswald’s tantalising claim that he was “just a patsy”, moments before he too was gunned down. The huge weight of evidence against the Warren Commission’s official account – that Oswald was a deranged lone assassin – led to an official reinvestigation in 1979, which ruled that there was ‘a probable conspiracy’, but failed to identify any specifics of the plot.[2] The Kennedy assassination also helped to popularise conspiracy theories for a new generation, thanks to the release of Oliver Stone’s controversial thriller ‘JFK’ in 1991. The film reignited public interest in the case, led to the declassification of thousands of documents, and helped to firmly establish conspiracy theories in contemporary popular culture.

Such theories have maintained popularity and a degree of credibility in part because the US government was behind operations as sinister and unlikely as those detailed in many alleged conspiracies. Under the guidance of director J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI ran a secret and illegal counter-intelligence programme (COINTELPRO) to repress political dissent, from the 1950s through to the 70s. Hoover targeted high-profile African-American leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X through means such as blackmail, infiltration, violent intimidation and murder. The CIA was involved in even more bizarre operations, such as the mysterious “MKULTRA” programme, which seems as absurd and far-fetched as even the wildest conspiracy theory. During the 1950s and 60s the CIA spent years experimenting with mind-control through hypnosis and the administration of drugs such as LSD. They sought to create a “Manchurian candidate” who could “perform an involuntarily act of attempted assassination against a prominent foreign politician or if necessary, against an American official.”[3] However, in 1973 all files related to the project were conveniently destroyed before they could be made public to an official investigation.

Many conspiracy theorists have asserted that 9/11 was an inside job, or “False Flag” operation, to create a pretext for the War on Terror and justify the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. While most people refuse to believe that the US government would sanction the murder of its own citizens, this would not be an entirely unprecedented action. In 1962 the CIA proposed “Operation Northwoods”, a plan that involved clandestine operatives carrying out terrorist attacks against the American public, including bombings in Florida and Washington. Cuba’s communist government would then be blamed, providing a convenient pretext for another US invasion and the removal of Fidel Castro. Although Kennedy ultimately abandoned the plan, Northwoods remains an intriguing precedent, revealing that False Flag operations were not necessarily beyond the realms of government policy. With government agencies actively working against progressive social movements, and contemplating the murder of their own citizens and politicians, it is no surprise that conspiracy theories were met with increasing public acceptance in America during the Cold War.

Yet in regard to 9/11, it seems unlikely that the US government could have flawlessly planned and carried out attacks of such magnitude in complete secrecy. It is more plausible that the government may have known about the attacks in advance, but failed to prevent them either deliberately or through sheer criminal negligence. Indeed, there is ample evidence of a government conspiracy after 9/11, to cover up the mistakes of the Bush administration and the security agencies who ignored numerous warnings in the months prior to the attacks.[4] The 9/11 Truth Movement has campaigned tirelessly for a reinvestigation of the attacks, yet could their efforts be misguided? Although the official accounts of events such as 9/11 may often be misleading, Noam Chomsky argues that inordinate focus on conspiracy theories distracts attention from more serious state crimes: “One of the major consequences of the 9/11 movement has been to draw enormous amounts of energy and effort away from activism directed to real and ongoing crimes of state, and their institutional background, crimes that are far more serious than blowing up the WTC would be, if there were any credibility to that thesis.”[5] Instead of poring over every aspect of the tragedy, the Truth Movement would perhaps have been more constructive in redirecting its attention towards Bush’s exploitation of the attacks; highlighting and campaigning against his repression of civil liberties, abuses of executive power, and imperialist foreign policy.

Conspiracy theories now emerge after almost every high profile news event, and it is unsurprising that they have flourished online. The internet provides a cheap and easy means of reaching a potentially huge worldwide audience, and can be an excellent resource for independent research. Yet most conspiracy sites are notoriously unreliable, frequently taking quotes out of context and making tenuous connections between half-truths and lies to create new interpretations. Internet films like ‘Loose Change’ and ‘Zeitgeist’ are riddled with errors, omissions and distorted or even invented facts. It is essential for conspiracy theorists to treat such sources with caution. Those truly dedicated to uncovering the truth must be willing to consider alternative perspectives and read debunking arguments as well. Unequivocally accepting such theories is just as naive and close-minded as refusing to consider them in the first place.

Although frequently ridiculed and labeled as “conspiracy nuts” by the mainstream media, conspiracy theorists can still play an important role in investigating stories that the corporate media often ignores. Conspiracy theories should not be immediately dismissed out of hand, and despite their flaws can often reveal lies or inconsistencies in official accounts which might otherwise go unnoticed. Events such as Watergate illustrated the importance of holding official sources of information to account, and not blindly accepting what we are told by anyone. While the whole truth is often elusive, an objective examination of major news events can help create a conscious, critical discourse and prevent an Orwellian rewriting of history.

[1] Scripps Howard poll (2006) http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_1475.cfm

[2] James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease, ‘The Assassinations: Probe Magazine on JFK, MLK, RFK and Malcolm X’ (2003) p.51

[3] CIA memorandum (1954) http://ww.tenntimes.org/stories/mind-control/mind-00f-05.htm

[4] 9/11: The Conspiracy Files (BBC Documentary, 2007)

[5] Noam Chomsky (2006) http://www.radicalreaction.com/blog/chomsky/index.html


Maize, Ministries, and Hunger: How the World Bank Starved Malawi

by Kat Hobbs

“The City man cometh to no pain

When rural grounds receive no rain”

Dambudzo Marechera, ‘Throne of Bayonets’[1]

It is February 2002. Across southern Africa, droughts and floods have ripped apart the maize fields, destroying farmland and crops. In Malawi, locked in the South-East between Mozambique and Tanzania, more than seven million people are starving2; two thirds of the people are without food, eating pumpkin leaves, maize husks and the bark of banana trees to survive. The government grain stocks are empty, and the Famine Early Warning Systems have failed to predict the 400,000 tonne deficit. The international community is dragging its feet, spatting with the government over corruption allegations and policy advice; aid was suspended in November 2001, with the US diverting $6 million and the EU not only suspending aid but demanding a refund of 15 million euros. The government warehouses are empty, and the question which is held over the heads of the hungry is: where did the grain go?

The argument between the internationals and the government is a roll-call of power in the developing world. The EU, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank are but a few involved in the creation of this disaster. The World Food Programme and other NGOs are issuing a call to arms while the diplomatic finger-pointing continues; meanwhile parents are selling their children to feed the rest of the family3. To find the roots of the crisis, you have to rewind- back to the beginning of Malawi’s ‘development’ programme, when the World Bank and IMF began their roadmap to create prosperity. The grand plans rested on one key move, the darling of neo-liberal economists; the euphemistic ‘Structural Adjustment’ programmes.

When colonialism ended in Malawi in 1964, the country was enormously underdeveloped. Given the unstable climate (droughts are frequent, although one third of the country is covered by a freshwater lake, so irrigation is far from impossible) and endemic poverty- even now the UN Development Programme lists them 164th of 177 countries on the Human Development Index4- Malawi seemed desperately in need. The IMF and World Bank offered the Malawian government (at the time, an out-and-out dictatorship under “His Excellency the Life President Ngwazi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda”) enormous loans. And as the country progressed in fits and starts, the need for money remained; the cyclic nature of debt in the developing world is well recorded. Malawi was soon aid dependant- and the banks could attach whatever conditions they wanted to the loans, effectively using them to set government policy.

Money hadn’t always come with conditions attached. During the Cold War, America and the USSR poured money into Africa, to win allegiance in their respective fights against the scourge of communism and the scourge of capitalism. Malawi, bordering on Mozambique which in 1977 took up Marxist-Leninist doctrine5, was flooded with unconditional aid, propping up the vicious Banda regime. The aim was to ensure they avoided becoming a link in the feared ‘Domino effect’: American money would flow as long as the free market and not the socialists ruled in Malawi. By 1992, the people were rioting and Banda’s regime was looking increasingly shaky; accused of murdering cabinet colleagues among other unsavoury acts, Western aid was suspended until good governance conditions could be implemented. Malawi became a multi-party democracy in 1994, but the real power still lay elsewhere; by 1995, 97% of Malawi’s government expenditure was supplied by US aid6. And it came with rules.

The IMF and World Bank ‘advised’ the government to privatise everything it could lay hands on, keeping faith in the saving grace of the markets. Privatisation, removal of trade tariffs, no minimum pricing for farmers; in order to develop, Malawi was to be opened up to foreign markets and private investors. The aid money which ran the country depended on it. The crowning glory was the ‘commercialisation’ of ADMARC, the government department which bought up grain and kept it in reserve, and the scrapping of the fertilizer subsidies and ‘starter packs’ of seeds which the government had been distributing to the poorest of the poor. In 1998, a loan was agreed to ‘help’ the government privatise not only ADMARC, but the telecommunications networks and the energy sector7. But ADMARC, ignoring the advice, continued to buy grain, keeping the maize price stable for farmers. Clearly they needed to be reminded of their priorities. So in 2000, the World Bank doled out another $28.9 million to the Malawian government to push through the “Privatisation and Utility Reform Project”[8]. This involved the closure of 400 of the 530 country-wide ADMARC markets which had given people not only the agricultural inputs they needed to grow food, but the access to markets that rural sellers needed in order to then sell their maize. It also resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs; the gaping hole in the economy it left was supposed to be filled by private investors and companies. The seeds of the famine had been sown. Private investors failed to appear, put off by the lack of infrastructure- roads, communication, power, all were lacking; the very sectors the Bank had instructed the government to pull out of. As agriculture collapsed, the hunger increased.

Meanwhile, the IMF had been keeping a strict eye on the macroeconomics of the country. When the first loan was arranged in 1998, the government agreed to eliminate price support operations for maize by ADMARC and prepare it to operate on a strictly commercial basis. In case of a harvest failure, it instead created a National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA) to handle the strategic grain reserve in place of ADMARC. But the NFRA began to behave just as ADMARC had done, stabilising prices for poor farmers by buying up grain. The IMF was stern; in their own words, “NFRA was likely to become a burden on the budget, as with ADMARC before it”[9]. There was also, they pointed out, the small matter of a $300 million loan the IMF had advised the government to take out from a South African bank that needed to be paid back. By the end of 1999, NFRA had 167,00 metric tons of grain stored. The Banks demanded its sale, waving the loan papers; the government obeyed. The grain reserve was sold to neighbouring states such as Kenya, or released onto the domestic market, causing the price to begin to fluctuate dangerously.

And then disaster struck: the rains failed. The government, having been told to sell off the grain reserve, had nothing to offer; international donors, including the World Bank and the IMF, expressed shock and horror at the unfolding crisis. Where, they asked, was the grain reserve? They turned on the government that they had funded and advised, accusing it of corruption and irresponsibility. Aid would be withheld until the grain could be accounted for. Between October 2001 and March 2002 the price of maize shot up by 400%. At the same time, in spring 2002 and even when the resulting famine led to the death of approximately one thousand people, the IMF suspended $47 million in assistance on the grounds of ‘inadequate implementation of its reform programs’. As the famine set in and worsened into 2002, Malawi was still spending 20% of its national budget on debt repayment to Western creditors: more than was spent on health, education and agriculture combined10. Crippled by famine and debt, the country was sliding into destitution.

And then Malawi dared to do something which has been virtually unheard of in sub-Saharan Africa, dependant as that region is on the goodwill of powerful development companies. In 2005 the government decided to defy the World Bank and the free market advice that had brought them to the brink of ruin. They re-introduced fertilizer subsidies and starter packs, and began supporting the farmers that comprise 70% of the population. In the words of Celia Dugger in the New York Times, “Over the past 20 years, the World Bank and some rich nations Malawi depends on for aid have pressed this small, landlocked country to adhere to free market policies and cut back or eliminate fertilizer subsidies, even as the United States and Europe extensively subsidized their own farmers. But after the 2005 harvest, the worst in a decade, Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s newly elected president, decided to follow what the West practiced, not what it preached.”[11]

Malawi still has a long way to go before it will be food secure; the unstable climate of the region, combined with a lack of diversity in farming practice, leave it vulnerable to sudden shocks. However, in the two years following the re-introduction of the subsidy, Malawi went from a beggar nation reliant on foreign aid to a net producer: by 2007 it was selling more food to the World Food Programme than any other southern African country, and exporting thousands of tons of grain to neighbours such as Zimbabwe.[12] Refusing to bow before the power of the free market, Malawi has begun a long, slow road to independance.

But across the rest of Africa, the patterns are repeating themselves; Nigeria, for example, is once again on the brink of food riots. Except this time the problem is not a lack of food; the country has plenty. The culprit is the 19% value added tax which the IMF pressured Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja to implement, with foodstuffs included. The tax was added even though food costs rose more then 75 per cent in the previous five years13. The Niger government, under instruction from the IMF and European Union, at first refused to distribute free food to those most in need; such actions would “depress the market prices” that benefited wholesalers and speculators14. Meanwhile thousands are starving while sitting in front of stocked shops; they simply cannot afford the food. The World Bank and the other international institutions and governments whose protectionist policies at home effectively bar Africa from competing in world markets continue their hypocrisy in insisting on African trade liberalisation, opening the continent to the powerful multinational corporations who benefit from the cheap labour and rich natural resources. The ideology of free market economics recognises no value in the life, liberty and dignity of thousands; only the dancing numbers that mark profit and loss hold power. As the climate hots up and the weather across the globe grows more and more unpredictable, droughts and famine will only become more common. If we do not act now to place people before ideology, and life before profit, then countless more will stand where thousands of Nigerians are standing today, on the wrong side of fatly stocked shop windows with empty pockets and empty stomachs. No matter the theoretical elegance of free markets; they can create only inequality, and one outcome. In the eloquent call to arms of the Zimbabwean poet Dambudzo Marechera:

“Huger in the belly

Rose to the Brain.

Its bright eyes clenched

In anger to smite with white-hot steel

The reinforced glass between my want

And your plenty.”[15]

[1] ‘Throne of Bayonets’, Mindblast, Dambudzo Marechera, Harare Modern Writers, 1984

[2] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/1985765.stm

[3] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/1844748.stm

[4] http://hdrstats.undp.org/countries/country_fact_sheets/cty_fs_MWI.html

[5] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/country_profiles/2120437.stm

[6] http://www.americanforeignrelations.com/E-N/Foreign-Aid-The-post-cold-war-world.html

[7] http://www.worldbankcampaigneurope.org/IMG/pdf/Testimony_Collins_Magalasi.pdf

[8] http://www.worldbankcampaigneurope.org/IMG/pdf/Testimony_Collins_Magalasi.pdf

[9] http://www.imf.org/external/np/exr/facts/malawi.htm

[10] http://www.justfocus.org.nz/tag/privatisation/

[11] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/02/world/africa/02malawi.html?_r=1&th&emc=th

[12] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/02/world/africa/02malawi.html?_r=1&th&emc=th

[13] http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/other_comments/268756/market_famines.html

[14] http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/other_comments/268756/market_famines.html

[15] From ‘The Coin of Moonshine’, Mindblast, Dambudzo Marechera, Harare Modern Writers, 1984


The Answer is Blowing in the Wind

by Aidan Barlow

It was a warm and blissful summer’s day on the Isle of Wight, and workers at the Vestas factory, which specialises in wind turbine production, arrive to work. They had, on the face of it, every reason to be happy and contented workers. Vestas boasts ‘it is important all our employees… enjoy a high level of well being’. Vestas also claims to be ‘the world’s leading supplier of wind power solutions’ [i].So the benevolent capitalist employer not only cared for well being, but could surely bestow ‘plenty of work’[ii] for its truly happy workers to engage in. What could possibly go wrong to shatter this harmonious illusion?

The bliss was shattered by Vestas, who planned to sack 625 workers at the Isle of Wight plant, describing how there was ‘no market’ for the products being made. This absurdity, at a time when demand for green energy is essential, exposes the capitalist system and its inherent contradictions. The environmental imperative to construct wind turbines and the desperate need to save the planet mean nothing when short-term profits of the capitalists are threatened.

The reaction of the workers was not to sit back and accept the reasons for redundancies. They clearly understood the importance of keeping their jobs, as Vestas is one of the largest single employers on the island. They were not prepared to tolerate the harsh reality of unemployment, which has spread throughout the world, leaving millions of workers in desperation. Instead, the workers called upon the government to nationalise the plant, and to do so, employed the tactic of occupation.

Occupation has a colourful history within workers struggle, and once more today, workers are learning the lessons of its effectiveness. They are seeing the power of their direct action, as workers in Russia did during 1917, Italy in 1920, and also in America by the CIO union in the car industry during the 1930s.[iii] It proved the potential of occupation as a method for workers’ demonstrating their own collective power. In more modern times, there was a spate of occupations which emanated from France and Belgium following from the events of 1968.[iv] In Britain, there was a spate of industrial sit ins through the 1970s.[v]

The occupations are all the more relevant when we see the increase in the use of this tactic recently. By no means is Vestas an isolated incident. At the end of 2008, workers at the Prisme factory in Dundee were made redundant, and chose to take direct action to fight back. Consequent to their action, they were able to establish a worker’s co-operative at the plant. Similarly, Visteon workers occupied their workplaces, winning major concessions from their former employers with increased redundancy pay. It certainly shows how direct action gets results. However a question remains as to whether the current examples during recession truly represent workers becoming radicalised.

I feel the radicalism of workers has been and is being demonstrated by the fact that these struggles are taking place independent of recognised trade unions. Workers themselves are taking the direct action initiative. Furthermore, radicalism of workers was also demonstrated at Vestas where Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes was jeered for not supporting the workers action. This is no surprise, as workers are not interested in hearing spurious liberal rhetoric. Liberals do not understand the shaking impulse of our time, or how the heart beat quickens with the bravery and courage of direct action. One Vestas worker described how the ‘occupation made me feel alive’.[vi] It is this legacy of struggle that is bequeathed to us from Spartacus; it is a spirit that resides within us from struggles such as the peasants’ revolt, the French Revolution and Peterloo.

The Vestas workers are showing how radicalised people can become amidst a capitalist crisis. Prior to the event, little prospect of such militant action seemed imagineable, but workers united together, and brought together the whole community to support the direct action. They faced tough battles against the capitalist legal system, scurrilous police tactics [vii] and manipulative Vestas media relations. Their action presents us all with a stark choice, to accept the path of neo-liberal capitalism as it meanders through the desolate wasteland it has created, or to resist.

Resistance is spreading, and the action at Vestas demonstrates that workers’ hearts can be moved to stand up to resist capitalist desolation, and instead move into a future based on human need. Indeed, this year saw occupations across university campuses following Israeli aggression against Gaza, and universities such as SOAS have also seen occupations against redundancy and deportations. Furthermore, it is not just universities that have used occupations; there are countless other examples of people using the method. For example, people have taken the action to defend much-loved primary schools from closure, such as at Wyndford[viii] and also at Lewisham, and workers at Thomas Cook have also taken similar measures in Dublin. People are employing the method to resist capitalist cuts to services, at a time when they are most needed.

Therefore in conclusion, the struggle at Vestas very much proves that the neo-liberal agenda can be resisted and challenged. Vestas can be a revitalising beacon to inspire many future struggles. The action has united workers, and acts as a light to future struggles. It teaches us a valuable lesson, that when there are problems in the world; we must be prepared to engage with them, and not leave the problems to those who have failed. History is within our hands, and from the collective thoughts, words and actions, we can create a better world to bequeath to future generations.

[i] www.vestas.com

[ii] Robert Tressell: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, quoting the conservatives pledge for ‘plenty of work’.

[iii] (http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2009/07/20/british-factory-occupations-1970s).

[iv] (http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1968/france/1-students.htm)

[v] http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2009/07/20/british-factory-occupations-1970s

[vi] http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=18635

[vii] Green party position. http://www.greenparty.org.uk/news/22-07-2009-police-tactics-at-Vestas-occupation.html

[viii] http://glasgowanarchists.wordpress.com/2009/06/30/wyndford-primary-school-reoccupied/


September 30, 2009

Drive Blur

Drive Blur


September 29, 2009

Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle


September 28, 2009

Eton College

Eton College


September 27, 2009

Ferris Wheel

Ferris Wheel


September 26, 2009

Ethereal Plane

Ethereal Plane


September 25, 2009

Lisa

Lisa


September 24, 2009

Westfield Shopping Centre

Westfield Shopping Centre


September 23, 2009

Sam

Sam

Sam did history at Warwick, 2002-2005


September 22, 2009

Sam B&W

Sam B&W


September 21, 2009

Kenilworth Wins

Kenilworth Wins

No Leamington Spa or Coventry on this map!


September 20, 2009

Girl in Park with eeePC

Girl in Park with eeePC