All entries for Monday 26 November 2007

November 26, 2007

The Compartmentalisation of Ethics

The Careers Service at our university argues that its policy of inviting all companies legal under UK law represents an “objective stance” that stands in contrast to any "ethical" policies that student activists might propose. Yet this stance is sadly indicative of an orientation towards ethics which permeates all areas of our culture and is central to many of the justifications of immorality that far too many propound. I’d call this the compartmentalization of ethics. Ethics is seen to be an autonomous domain within which people can choose to stand; it’s something divorced from the ‘realities’ of everyday life. Yet these assertions of an ‘objectivity’ that transcends ethics represent power plays and attempts to shutdown rational debate: in the case of the careers service, their ‘objective’ policy to only invite legal UK companies is an ethical decision to place range of choice and UK law above any other considerations when inviting companies onto the campus. Its subsequent claim of neutrality serves to preclude rational discussion about the relative merits of the excluded considerations.

Likewise on a national level, the claimed neutrality of the law when dealing with citizens serves as a cipher, obscuring the fact that laws are the products of the power-structures that exist within society. Much of British law was passed at a time when its politics were profoundly anti-democratic yet we are said to be “equal before the law”. In liberal democracy we have an equality that is merely formal. This formal equality is presented as curtailing unjustified interference by the state into the ends which citizen choose to pursue. Yet this pretension towards neutrality, this willingness to abstain from action, is itself an ethical choice in that it promotes the good of ‘neutrality’ over the various goods which could be enacted by taking action. It is impossible to come to a judgement and yet not take any sort of ethical stance. To act out of concern for ‘neutrality’ it is itself an ethical stance and often it’s not a particularly good one.

This compartmentalization of ethics extends into the thinking and practice of activists and campaigners. Many people do their jobs or go to university and then at the weekend go to a protest. This marginalises political activity in a way that effectively neutralises it as a critical activity. Capitalism can readily withstand people going on a demonstration every few months. It cannot however withstand people politicising their daily lives with all that entails in terms of changed and confrontational relationships to subordination, privilege and authority. I’m not advocating that people make politics their life. The all too common spectacle of anarcho-punks living in a squat, claiming benefits and taking ketamine while congratulating themselves for so successfully resisting ‘assimilation’ into the ‘system’ is in itself an effective means by which resistance to capitalism is neutralised. People shouldn’t ‘drop out’ but neither should politics be an ‘activity’. It shouldn’t be something people do. It should be a way they orientate themselves to the world. Political analysis should inform our way we conduct ourselves in our daily lives. Capitalism is not something that stands over and above us oppressing us. It’s a product of the social relationships that exists between us and on the micro-political level of our everyday lives it perpetually reproduces itself. Capitalism isn’t going to end because we organise ourselves, have a revolution and live happily ever after. It’s going to change (slowly or radically) because people critically interact with the world in their daily lives and work to try and make it better. Only then will ethics no longer be compartmentalised and only then will radical change start to come about.

By Mark Carrigan 


A Brief Refutation of Capitalism (in three easy steps)

This article is intended, not as a scientific or economic account of the failures of capitalism: Merely, it is a portrayal of largely rhetorical, loud-mouthed, acutely individual distaste. The purpose of this article is not to present a lengthy relation of academic facts and analysis, but to present personal arguments; arguments which will hopefully provoke retaliation, which will theoretically lead to an interesting discussion. It is not by any means a full account, nor does it pretend to be. It is a very brief rundown of very succinct forms of arguments.

Buy low, sell high.

Success in a capitalist economy, beyond a certain level inevitably involves a successful employment of this strategy in the marketplace. Thus the aim of a businessperson is to find an exclusive source of undervalued goods or services, buy as much as possible for as little as possible, and then sell as much as is feasible for as much as the consumer will tolerate. This is successful business and implicates a system wherein ‘success’ is the triumph of the economic man over his business adversaries, gaining the surplus value from their lack of skill or misfortune.

The successful businessperson will initially exploit his source of goods and labour (thus source of business) and then his source of resell (thus source of business); it is a system wherein the aim is to take as much as possible from others whilst giving back as little as possible in return. This inspired the common practise of slavery before the emancipation proclamation; but more recently has led to epidemics such as that in Ivory Coast (the world’s largest cocoa bean producing country, accounting for roughly 38% of the world’s cocoa at 1.3 million tonnes[1]) where slave labour runs rampant - cited as accounting for up to 90% of its cocoa production[2]. The average consumer does not know this, and thus cannot make an informed decision to avoid such unethical practices; the point is however, that the duty of responsibility should not be with the consumer to investigate products; the onus should be on traders to disengage with the practice of exploitation.

Counterproductive competition

In economic terms, everyone is a threat to me; everyone is my business enemy: other businesses, my boss, my coworkers, even my friends! Everyone out there has the potential to gain goods which I could be gaining and as such it is in my interest to make sure that does not happen, and I instead gain those goods or else I lose out. I compete with other businesses to gain market share and an established name, I compete with co-workers for raises, promotions and bonuses, I compete with my friends because I want to have the best paid job, the biggest bonus etc. Further to this, rewards for working are then distributed as such that individuals compete in terms of how much they have gained even after they have competed to gain their earnings in the first place, “Does my neighbour have a better car than me? Has he got a bigger television and a more luxurious sofa?” There is an endless cycle of individuals who have the capacity for gregarious and sociable existence competing at every level of their working lives.

Peter Kropotkin once proposed a theory of Darwinian evolution which suggested that the reason humans have become such a dominant species has been through our capacity to cooperate and work together for common goals. This cooperation has strengthened us a social unit, which can achieve much more than the sum of its individual parts. As such, the theory that a competitive economy will produce the best goods, the fastest production and the best result is highly contestable as it runs counterproductive to the principles of teamwork and mutual aid. For instance, if a collection of skilled individuals are all competing to complete the same project ahead of each other, then their efforts as single workers are not going to as productive as they would be if they were to cooperate and tackle the project together. In the first scenario, there is a collection of people working on their own accounting solely for their own expertise and weaknesses, whereas in the second there is a group who can accommodate one individual’s lack of expertise with another’s specialist knowledge, resulting in a team who have a combined knowledge and productivity far greater than any individual worker.

Enforced avarice

Businesses want your money. They need it to survive. Unfortunately, there are a lot of instances where you don’t really have any need, or even any want to hand it over. In 2000 General Motors spent a staggering $3billion on advertising[3], that’s just below the GDP of Barbados[4]. If a company really needs to spend the approximate wealth of a small Caribbean country to generate interest in its product, you have to question at what point it is necessary for the marketplace to have such an expensive, constant flux of new goods for Joe Public to piddle his expendable income on. Not only does this inspire a constant desire for new goods, it also has far reaching environmental and societal implications; endless production leads to massive wastes and the discarding of older goods before they have fulfilled their lifespan, great minds are set to the task of creating this excessive desire when they could be contributing something much more fulfilling and worthwhile, our society is left in a position where individuals are constantly wasting their energies on pursuing such fruitless goals and economic sustainability is rendered reliant on such futile goods. That is not to say that consumers are idiots, but that there seems to be a commitment to wanting and buying pervading every aspect of our society; shop windows, magazine adverts and all manner of other things scream "buy!" at you at every oppurtunity, suggesting that this is the 'normal' way to live.

What would happen to the world economy if advertising were to disappear? How long would things like celebrity fitness DVDs last? Take away the marketing generating desire, take away the desire; take away the superfluous and useless products.

By Douglas Linssen 


[1] Source: http://international-tariffs.suite101.com/article.cfm/top_cocoa_chocolate_exporters

[2] Source: Slavery: A global investigation (television documentary)

[3] Source: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/57/one.html

[4] GDP (official exchange rate): $3.142 billion (2006 est.)Source: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bb.html


Surveillance Society

“Merseyrail customers are reminded that putting your feet on the seats is offensive behaviour. As of the 5th of February anyone caught with their feet on the seats may be prosecuted” 

I laughed at first, but then began to tremble at the disastrous implications of this message. Its straight from the dictionary of totalitarianism;

1. The use of the passive voice; no one is reminding me, I just am reminded. Well, gee, thanks…who the fuck are you? 

2. “is offensive behaviour” So one of society’s institutions is telling the country what is and isn’t offensive. Frankly, I’d much prefer a world where people can openly make their own minds up about what they find offensive, but obviously that would entail a society with far too much of a genuine commitment to civil liberty.

3. “may be prosecuted”...What!? Since when was it a criminal offence to offend other members of the public. Now, there may be grey areas, but I really can’t see it as just that the young man across the seat from me, who’d obviously had a long day on a building site, who was attempting to sleep, and had one of his feet up, could get prosecuted. Presumably the penalty being some kind of hefty fine. Forgive me if I think this is ridiculous.

This all might seem a little petty, and yes, it is. But I use this anecdote as a small example illustrating the dangerous political climate into which we are entering. Our society is becoming more and more comfortable with increasing state power; and more scarily, often in conjuction with private companies which hold monopolies over our public services, as well as the profit hungry private sector in general. From proposed ID schemes, police taking DNA samples from speeding motorists, penalty fares, ASBOs, house arrests without charge for “terror suspects” (which apparently is Newspeak for innocent Algerian taxi drivers),  and omnipresent CCTV and “dataveillance”. With 1% of the world's population, and 20% of the world's CCTV cameras, we are the most watched nation on earth. Living in London, an individual is likely to be viewed by CCTV 300 times a day! With statistics like these, I think its fair enough that I'm quaking in my boots.

Messages like the one at the train station in my home town are everywhere, and they carry in their content the vision of a world in which individuals cannot interact and behave in their own way, maintaning order through custom, courtesy and community spirit, but one in which we must instead be watched, identified, fined, detained, jailed and whatever else by central authority.

And don’t give me that nonsense about how if you follow the rules, then you’ve got nothing to worry about. First, its the principle. No elite group should have that much power. Its just WAY too dangerous. Plus, once the apparatus of social control is in place, then any subsequent more authoritarian or corrupt government inherits it. Finally, with the current state of affairs, there is plenty of reason why you might want to resist the government, even, start breaking the rules.

Think about it…

The NHS, Royal Mail and other public services are being slashed while the public sector coffers are bled dry through private finance initiatives; living costs rise, minimum wage (relative to inflation) falls, the environment is literally on the brink of destruction (and don’t forget that this is a class issue, for all this goes on in the interests of the ultra rich, as they enjoy fat bonuses, and a delightfully cosy tax envrionment). Meanwhile our tax money is spent on weapons that can wipe out populations, and launching and fighting criminal wars. 

And you wonder why they want more social control? It's not rocket science.

By Steven Forshaw 

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- The UK has 1% of the world’s population bu 20% of the world’s CCTV cameras
- 4.2 million cameras – 1 for every 14 people
- £500m spent in last decade on installing CCTV
- a person may be viewed 300 times a day on CCTV
- the police hold 3.6 million samples of DNA
- Oyster cards and store loyalty cards
- phonetapping and bugs

http://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/issues/3-privacy/32-cctv/index.shtml
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=444819&in_page_id=1770&in_page_id=1770&expand=true#StartComments


The Arguments of the Arms Trade

The very first thing to remember about the arms trade is that they make things for the purpose of killing, maiming and incapacitating other human beings. All the people that design, manufacture or assemble these weapons have in some way contributed to the death of the person on the opposite side of that weapon.


Arms companies are treated as being above the law, one of the best recent examples of this was the government terminating the Serious Fraud Office inquiry in December 2006 that was looking into corruption allegations against BAE Systems’ dealings in Saudi Arabia, by shutting down the SFO inquiry the government is in breach of the OECD agreements on tackling corruption that the UK is a signatory of. The government has set forward the classic three arguments for the arms trade. Those three arguments are; National security and defence needs, the economy and “If we didn’t do it somebody else would”.


National security was quoted as a major reason for ending the BAE system’s- Saudi Arabia SFO inquiry, the government contended that Saudi Arabia was a valuable ally in the “War on Terror” and threatened to stop sharing intelligence should the SFO inquiry be allowed to continue. However the Saudi Intelligence service is at best weak and at worst a bunch of torturers who the UK intelligence services should not cooperate with on principle. The more general case for the national security or “Defence” argument is that the world is a violent place and we need weapons in order to protect ourselves and our allies. Unfortunately “Our boys” do not receive adequate equipment, an MoD internal survey found that “nearly half our soldiers in Iraq had no confidence in their fighting kit”2 and there is a mountain of anecdotal evidence on UK military equipment to support this. The MoD is pressured into buying equipment from UK firms in order to persuade foreign buyers to buy the same equipment; this means that the UK taxpayer is paying more than they should for equipment that is not ideal costing the lives of soldiers and civilians in conflicts. Arms exports are put ahead of UK interests when it comes to the arms industry. BAE systems (strictly speaking a global company, not British except when it suits them) recently agreed to a new contract known as Salam (roughly translates as peace, BAE lack a sense of irony) with Saudi Arabia selling Eurofighter jets, the first 24 of these jets were intended to go to the RAF but instead are being shipped to Saudi Arabia3.


The argument of the economy and jobs is one favoured particularly by MPs saying that stopping the arms trade would cause terrible unemployment and damage the national economy, however some statistics need to be considered. Arms exports are subsidised by the government by around £900 million per year. According to the MoD 65,000 jobs are sustained by military exports (approximate 0.2% of the UK workforce), with a bit of simple maths this tells us that each arms export job is subsidised by the UK taxpayer to the tune of £13,000 every year. The MoD estimated that halving the number of military exports over a two year period would lead to a loss of almost 49,000 jobs however within five years 67,400 jobs would be created in non-military sectors and in fact between 1995 and 2002 the number of jobs estimated to be reliant on military exports fell from 145,000 to 65,000 with no major effect on the economy1. The fact is that the majority of employees working in the arms industry are highly skilled and could be of incredible value in a worthwhile industry instead of one dedicated to destruction.  


"If we didn't do it somebody else would" is often used by arms dealers as a justification for their activities whether legal or illegal, however this argument is fundamentally flawed, you could not use in any other context and expect anybody to agree with you. Were anybody to argue in court that they had to commit a crime because if they did not do it then somebody else would then they would be reprimanded for wasting the court’s time, just because somebody else is willing to do something morally wrong, it does make it right for you to do it.


Only through understanding the reasons that are put across by the arms industry can the debate be won and these companies whose purpose is to cause destruction can be defeated.


By Barnaby Pace

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1 Jobs and Subsidies, Campaign Against Arms Trade, http://www.caat.org.uk/issues/jobs-subsidies.php, Accessed 25/10/07

2 House of Commons Debate, Colin Breed, South East Cornwall, Liberal Democrat, 20/01/2005 Column 999, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200405/cmhansrd/vo050120/debtext/50120-18.htm#50120-18_spnew4, Accessed 25/10/07

3 “BAE is poised for £5bn Saudi Eurofighter contract”, David Robertson, The Times, 14/6/2006, http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/engineering/article608183.ece, Accessed 25/10/07

Female Chauvinist Pigs

Ideas sparked off by...
Ariel Levy’s – Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture

“ “Show them your tits,” one yelled at the two girls splayed out on towels next to him. “What’s your problem? Just show them your tits.” Puck set up the shot and waited with his camera poised for the female response. “No way!” the girl in the black bikini said pouting…

…People started to circle around, like seagulls sensing a family about to abandon their lunch… a few more dozen dudes joined the massive amoeba of people hollering…

…The second girl rose up off her towel, listened to the cheers for a moment, and then spanked her friend to the rhythm of the hooting.”


The ability for women to publicly display their sexuality is touted by many as liberation. Here we have women, proud of their sexuality, showing it off to get the reaction they want. At last women are powerful. An examination of a situation like the one described above; women surrounded by baying men, desperately hanging on their every movement (if unfortunately not their every word), may lead to the conclusion that as far as power is concerned, here the women are on top. However, as an actor seeks a standing ovation or a flattering review, here power is not with the woman but with the beholder, the one who grants her validation, telling her that she has been successful in her attempts to be sexy. In addition to this it is only one ‘kind’ of woman who gets this sought after reaction. She is a woman who performs, appearing sexually available in the way she dresses and behaves. Emancipation can never be true if it can only take one form. Because of this emphasis on performance, the beholder has even more power than if sexuality was seen to be manifested in a different way. Here the beholder isn’t one person, with his or her own tastes and desires, but society as a whole. Therefore the form this expression of sexuality takes will necessarily tend towards generalisations and stereotypes, impeding the development of a diverse sexual emancipation.

The fact that this expression of women’s sexuality takes one form is proof in itself that this is not sexual emancipation. It seems highly improbable that all women and all men get turned on by exactly the same thing. What is perceived to be emancipation, is in fact simply pressure to conform to something new. On the flip-side is the idea that if you are a woman and do not behave in this way then you are sexless, a prude. Any criticism of raunch culture is seen as reactionary and conservative. Because of this, women are keen to be seen to ‘get it’, to be seen to understand that it’s just a laugh. They achieve equality by identifying with men, including their attitudes to sexual behaviour. This is the ultimate coup. To criticise what is seen as sexy is to sacrifice it for yourself in the eyes of others. By fighting for a true sexiness you are judged to have none and as such, discredited.

Sexual desires and preferences are deeply rooted and, as can be seen by fetishists of different varieties, range widely. This suggests that, if sexual diversity was celebrated, only some women would desire the constant publicity and performance that is deemed appropriate for all women today. Perhaps the women throwing themselves at the ‘Girls Gone Wild’ camera crew are seeking something other than sexual gratification when they do so. It seems likely that many of the women involved are seeking something else; attention from men as validation of their sexiness, to behave as other women do, or even straight forward fun. Showing off for fun is not a new phenomenon but it is qualitatively different from becoming sexually excited by showing off. There is a gap here. ‘Sexy’ behaviour is seen as the incarnation of the sexuality of women but if it becomes conformist performance then this behaviour actually creates a division, within each woman, between how she acts and her actual sexual desires and fantasies. Pressure to act this way will alienate those women not interested in performance from their own sexuality.

In fact this divisive and alienating process begins early on in life. Young girls come into contact with an image of what girls and women should be, this pressure to act in a certain way, before they develop sexual feelings of their own. Girls learn to seem sexually available before they desire sex at all. Young girls are surrounded by images of women as sex objects. With Hello Kitty thongs on sale and the appeal of the sexy school girl outfit, behaviour that is sexual in appearance is very much tied up with conceptions of youth. If girls feel they have to perform or have sex to fit in then this can only alienate and distance them from their true sexual desires.

Sexual emancipation is a challenge for our appearance centred culture. It is tempting to see an increase in the prominence of ‘sexy’ women as evidence for an increase in sexual emancipation, but because of the pressure to fit physical and behavioural stereotypes, appearance can tell us nothing of how sexually emancipated a individual woman is. It is a mistake to think that the length of someone’s skirt matches how in control they are in bed. This is not a reactionary argument, but is instead looking forward to a realisation of sexual choice and diversity. A solely performance-based view of sexuality will therefore never adequately represent or satisfy the sexual desires of all women or men.

By Beth Smith 


The Free Software Revolution

I’m not an anarchist, but I do live with one, so I’m regularly confronted with implausible sounding ideas about people freely cooperating to produce things, not because they want to make money but because they *gasp* actually want to help the community. I’ve always been sceptical about the idea that people will act out of anything other than self-interest, but there is one case where voluntary, autonomous production actually works: free software.

Free software is free in both senses of the word: in the ‘free beer’ sense, in that it doesn’t cost anything, but also in the ‘free speech’ sense, in that anyone can freely use, copy, modify, and distribute the software, the only restriction being that these same freedoms must be guaranteed to whoever the software is passed on to.

Free software has now matured to the point where for almost every commercial product, there is a quality, free alternative that can do the same thing. Need to write an essay, or do some spreadsheet work? Try Openoffice. Surf the web? Firefox outclasses Internet Explorer in every way. Need to work with images? Forget photoshop, try the GIMP. If anything it’s a much cooler name.

So if free software is so powerful, how come everybody at Warwick is still writing essays in Microsoft Word, on a computer with Microsoft Windows, and giving Bill Gates lots of money for the privilege? Surely no rational actor would spend money on a commercial product if there is a free alternative that does the exact same thing? The reason for this is that free software is made by volunteers, who don’t have the billions of dollars that Micro$oft has to spend on maintaining its monopoly. These volunteers can’t afford to advertise their work beyond their own online communities, so the word doesn’t spread to the average non-geek. So, to publicise the movement, I have selected the cream of the free software crop for you to try. None of these require any computer skills beyond the capability of the average student (I do politics and I could figure them out).

Ready to take the plunge? Here are some good places to start:

Firefox
www.mozilla.com/firefox

The ultimate free web browser.

OpenOffice
www.openoffice.org

A complete, free alternative to M$ Office: anything Word, Excel and Powerpoint can do, Openoffice can too.

The GIMP
www.gimp.org

A powerful image editing tool. Photoshop is better, but the difference isn’t worth the £500 price tag.

Paint.net
www.getpaint.net

Another image programme, easier to use than the GIMP. Windows only.

SMPlayer
smplayer.sourceforge.net

I hate iTunes. I hate it with a passion. Windows media player is equally shit. SMPlayer is a great little media monster that can play ANYTHING you throw at it without the need for any codecs or fannying about.

Miro
www.getmiro.com

Formerly known as Democracy Player, this is an excellent free video player, that can access hundreds of free internet tv channels, video blogs, and other independent media. Run by the Participatory Culture Foundation.

Pidgin
pidgin.im

A good replacement for MSN. Pidgin can handle just about every instant messaging network on the planet.


Want to go further? Get rid of Windows completely! Linux isn’t just for nerds anymore, it’s actually quite easy. Here’s the deal: first, download one of the many distributions available. As Linux isn’t controlled by one company, there are hundreds of different community-built distributions available, some for specialised purposes such as multimedia production or live music performance. For most people, ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com) or PCLinuxOS (www.pclinuxos.com) are good choices. And there's no need to worry about anti-virus software, as Linux is inherently much more secure than Windows. Once you’ve downloaded it, burn it onto a CD, pop it in the drive and restart the computer. You can then try it out without having to install anything. If you don’t like it, just take the CD out and reboot, no strings attached.

By Omar Khan 


Venezuela Behind the Smokescreen

Demonised on the one side by Western governments and corporate media, uncritically acclaimed on the other by certain left-wing organizations, an adequate account of Chavez and Venezuela’s current political situation is difficult to find. Accusations alleging a "Communist dictatorship" should simply be dismissed as misinformed, sensationalist and ideological devices. Chavez’s claims of leading a democratic and progressive transition towards an egalitarian society however, are deceptive. Using a few examples, I will try to illustrate the intricate Venezuelan map, a combination of some positive social reforms and worrying tendencies of centralization of power, cult to personality and corruption.

Social reforms and the economy

Venezuela has historically been an extremely unequal society and the social programmes initiated by the Bolivarian Revolution (named after the anti-Spanish liberator Simon Bolivar) have been better news for the poor. These include literacy programmes for millions of children and adults, the creation of thousands of primary medical units in the poorest neighbourhoods, subsidies for basic foodstuffs, programmes of substituting slum huts for houses, the widespread availability of micro-credits... As a result of these and many others, between 1999 and 2005 severe poverty was reduced from 42,8% to 33,9%[i].

These programmes are largely financed through oil money, which has finally started to slowly trickle down to the poor especially after the “nationalisation” of the oil industry. I say “nationalisation” but in reality I am talking about mixed business ventures with multinationals, of which the government has a slightly larger cut. Both parties are satisfied with the deal. The multinationals are guaranteed profits, albeit smaller than before, whilst Chavez can claim that now the oil belongs to the people. These manoeuvres are just one example illustrating the centrality of populism above real results. After all, as Business Week points out, Chavez is “not so bad for business.[ii]

Redistributing the profits from Venezuela’s vast natural resources and taking advantage of the latest boom in oil prices has a great potential.  Under Chavez however, despite all the grandiloquent speeches, this potential is not being fully realized. Why? Mismanagement and corruption are rampant at all levels. Venezuela is one of the poorest performers in Latin America in all corruption indices and is way down at #138 in the 2006 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index together with Niger, one point under Ethiopia and one point above Sierra Leone. I find it hard to believe that corruption is revolutionary. With 500 billion dollars of petrol income, general public hospitals are in a precarious state whilst military spending has skyrocketed. Even though Chavez has displaced the traditional crooked elites from power, a new class is starting to settle in at the top, what some people are already starting to call the Boli-bourgeoisie.

The issue of democracy

Despite leading a failed coup in 1992, Chavez has won a succession of democratic elections since 1998. Attempting to close the divide between the rich and the poor is also a democratic plus (a notion that is unfortunately being forgotten in the West). In spite of the international media distortions, no TV channel has been closed. RCTV, a TV station linked to the 2002 coup, has not had its license renewed to broadcast through the limited number of public wavelengths, it is however fully functional through cable TV (the complexity of the issue deserves a separate article). Much of Venezuela´s media; newspapers, radios and TV channels (only 1 channel on free, public wavelengths though) continue to have a critical stance against Chavez.

The government has also embarked on various projects to increase citizen’s participation in state decisions. For example, the Communal Councils, which are democratic neighbourhood community organizations that can administer public funds to improve services, infrastructure and cultural spaces in their local areas. Also, by collecting the signatures of 20% of the number of people who voted in the last election you can trigger a referendum on whether or not to recall the president.

These policies however, are often contradicted by contravening policy tendencies. The increased strength and importance of the presidency undermines the idea of the participatory policies. For example, the Communal Councils funds are handed out from government institutions whose directors are handpicked by Chavez. Consequently, these Councils, which are meant to be part of civil society, become dependent on and conditioned by a paternal state. Chavez often uses the ideas of the iconic Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci to explain his policies. Conversely though, Gramsci’s ideas about civil society absorbing the state seem to have been inverted by Chavez to be about civil society being absorbed by the state! The idea of the recall referendum has also suffered a blow. It so happens that one of Chavez’s ministers got a hold of the list of people that had signed for the recall referendum that took place in 2004. What are the now the famous “Tascón Lists”, were placed on a website for all to see, violating the right of secrecy. Moreover, the list has been used, amongst other things, to obstruct the signatories from accessing jobs as civil servants.  

The lack of pluralism on the left

The “you are either with me or against me” paradigm has been imposed. What started as a coalition of progressive military men and left-wing parties is now being united in a single party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, under the nascent personality cult of Chavez. Dissidence and criticism from other sectors of the left has been discredited and dismissed as treason or sell-out to the oligarchs. For example, the Anarchist and Libertarian Socialist groups in Venezuela have been accused of complicity with the C.I.A! Consequently, healthy debate and the circulation of different ideas and opinions has been severely damaged. This phenomenon is largely a result of the polarization in the Venezuelan political scene. It is a reaction to the intense criticism and attack by the Venezuelan elites and multinational companies that culminated in economic sabotage and an attempted coup in 2002. However, there is no justification for this persistent, closed and authoritarian stance.

Although most of Chavez’s supporters come from the poor, by no means is he the “leader” of the working classes. The purpose of the state in the last instance is to protect a status-quo accorded in the upper echelons of the political pyramid. It will always be a step behind grassroots social and working-class movements, no matter what its representatives claim. For example, sticking to the available statistics, from the 1st of July to the 30th of November of 2006, 26 demonstrations were obstructed and repressed. 71 cases of injuries from beatings, asphyxiation, rubber bullets or live ammunition were consequently reported. These included demonstrations of miners of El Callao against the Chinese multinational company Jin Yan, citizens protesting because of the lack of drinkable water in a neighbourhood of the city of Barinas, the eviction of a hundred poor peasant families that had squatted land in a new neighbourhood called Bolivarian Paradise in Guanare,[iii] etc. In the words of the anarchist thinker Mikhail Bakunin, “when the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called “the People’s Stick.” ”

What then?

Despite the issues raised above, current events in Venezuela should not be dismissed or ignored. For the first time, Venezuelan peasants and working-classes are becoming actively involved in the public and political life they were traditionally apathetic towards and marginalized from. Consciousness about the illegitimacy of capitalism’s unequal property relations and class system is growing and being acted upon. However, going around shouting “Viva La Revolución!” without knowing the facts, is a mistake. History has taught us that when politicians claim to be in favour of socialism it does not mean they are necessarily pursuing socialist policies. Instead, we should stay informed and keep a critical outlook. We should be against US imperialist involvement and the Venezuelan elites undemocratic tendencies. We should applaud positive social reforms and support those that are attempting to democratise the participatory mechanisms that have been put in place. We should also show solidarity to left wing and democratic dissidents that are challenging the revolution’s greatest enemy within. That is no-more than the bureaucratic and autocratic instincts of the Bolivarian political class and Chavez himself.

For a decent alternative coverage of Venezuela (in English):

www.nodo50.org/ellibertario/

El Libertario – a local newsletter presenting a libertarian critique of Venezuela’s current events. Mostly in Spanish but has an English section.

www.venezuelanalysis.com

A website giving a favourable view of the Bolivarian process, albeit not blinded by ideological rhetoric.

By Lorenzo Vidal-Folch Duch


[i] Poverty Rates in Venezuela. Getting the Numbers Right, Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington DC, May 2006.

[ii] Dossier “Chavez, not so bad for business”, Business Week, New York, 21/06/2007

[iii] Uzcátegui, Rafael,“Repression against popular protests increases in 2006”,El Libertario #49, February-March 07.


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