Wednesday, 20 August 2014

What to do with British IS Fighters?

The execution of James Foley by a British-accented Islamic State fighter is utterly sickening. The murder of non-combatants is a war crime, but for ISIS, ISIL or whatever this bunch of barbaric thugs are calling themselves today, killing for mere propaganda underscores their nature as the world's most socially regressive movement. Historical parallels with the Nazis often obscure more than they highlight, which is why I avoid them as a rule. But I cannot help noting the similarity between IS and the brutality meted out in Russia by the Wehrmacht and the Einsatzgruppen following in their wake. The only real differences are IS are less efficient, and will spare "apostates" and "heathens" should they convert at gunpoint. Apart from that, an identity exists between the death squads of yesterday, and those running amok in Syria and Iraq now. Whether the black uniforms of the SS or the black flag of ISIL, this is humanity at its very worst, at its most appalling.

In the wake of Foley's murder, the Prime Minister said his government will redouble its efforts to dam the trickle of British IS sympathisers joining with them in their desert hell. Quite rightly, speaking for Labour Yvette Cooper points out how, like so many other things, the Tories slashed funding for anti-radicalism projects. Lax on security. Lax on the causes of insecurity, it would seem. Nevertheless, now the horse has bolted at least the government, in concert with France and the US, have belatedly woken up and are shipping arms to the Kurds. Yes, as I noted last week, the real reason might have more to do with UK geopolitical interests than ostensible humanitarian concerns. But acting in this instance, may well avert a blood-stained catastrophe. The struggle for socialism needs people, not dead people.

Tracking social media from the plains of Nineveh, British jihadis might take pride in being branded IS's "most brutal" - if pride wasn't a mortal sin, of course. Coming from a "decadent" nation and having led a "coddled" existence, at least compared with fighters from Middle Eastern states, these are men with something to prove. And should they be crushed militarily, some surviving units will find their way back home, understandably touching off another panic about Islamic terrorism and all the ugliness that entails. Hunting down and offing them might be popular among armchair generals and tabloid editors. It might even be unofficial policy already. But IS fighters aren't Pokémon. You're not gonna catch 'em all. Besides, summary execution is hardly an advert for British civilisation vs the IS barbarians anyway.

Similarly, the Tory right sentiment tending to the stripping of IS fighters of citizenship (demonstrated by this exchange) is stupid. It shows how far so-called libertarian sensibilities have colonised rightwing psyches. Just as they wish to divest business of any kind of responsibility to the very workforce that makes them their money, so they want to jettison any responsibility Britain has to citizens who fight and commit crimes under an enemy flag. Apparently, stripping IS Brits of their rights is entirely justifiable. Really. Declaring an IS fighter stateless isn't going to do anything but keep them in the field. Is that in anyone's interest but IS? Yes but no but. What they have in mind is the removal of due process for captured fighters because, apparently, it's really hard to prove who did what in a war zone. We don't want to run the risk of highly dangerous individuals running around our cities because a case couldn't be proven. This argument doesn't wash. At a time when celebrities are getting successfully prosecuted for sex offences committed decades ago on the basis of probabilities, I am quite sure a jury of peers is more than able to sit in judgement on cases of British IS war crimes. Not that that matters. What they want is a rerun of internment, of removing rights to allow for a UK Guantanamo Bay because this is being seen to be tough on British jihadis. That it wouldn't work is so much a minor point, as is the possibility our hypocrisy would add fuel to radical Islam's fire.

My favoured method is the standard method. The arrest and prosecution of suspected fighters, followed by lengthy prison sentences. I argue for this because British jurisdiction recognises that wherever in the world a UK citizen commits a crime, they are liable for it under the law. In other words, our legal system recognises that Britain has a responsibility to the rest of the world for its citizens. Dragging back British jihadis, giving them a fair trial, and locking them up is about the best way we have of removing them from circulation without generating more grievances and more radicalisation. When dealing with a barbarism that, unfortunately, was tempered on these shores, it's all the more important we keep clear heads and stick with sound principles.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Capitalism and Social Movement Theory

You don't have to be steeped in social theory to realise that the kind of society we live in is bound to have a huge impact on the things that happen in that society. And yet social movement scholarship these last 20 years has acted as if this law of sociological gravity does not apply. But when the theoretical perspective that consistently gives the weight of wider social relations due recognition is Marxism, you can understand why some scholars might prefer to fight shy of integrating capitalism into the analysis of movements. But it's not just a matter of political reticence. The kind of Marxism passed off as Marxism is mechanical, clunky, economically determinist and crudely reduces everything to narrow understandings of class. If that's Marxism then, how could it possibly make sense of social movements around women, race, sexuality, disability and nationality?

Well, in my opinion, it can. And so do social movement scholars Gabriel Holland and Jeff Goodwin. Given the history of social theory since the unlamented demise of the USSR, sometimes the basics of a Marxist approach need restating time and again. Their 'The Strange Disappearance of Capitalism from Social Movement Studies' article in the excellent (but ludicrously expensive) Marxism and Social Movements does just this. Here's a segment summing up why Marxian methodology is vital for getting to grips with all kinds of movements.
Capitalist institutions (factories, railroads, banks, and so on) or institutions that capitalists may come to control (such as legislatures, courts and police) are often the source or target of popular grievances, especially (but not only) during times of economic crisis; these institutions, moreover, shape collective identities and solidarities - not just class solidarities - in particular ways; they also distribute power and resources unevenly to different social classes and fractions of classes; they both facilitate and inhibit specific group alliances based on common or divergent interests; class divisions, furthermore, often penetrate and fracture political movements; and ideologies and cultural assumptions linked to capitalism powerfully shape movement strategies and demands. The effects of capitalism on collective action ... are both direct and indirect (that is, mediated by other processes) and are the result of both short- and long-term processes. 
Holland and Goodwin, in Barker et al (eds) 2013, p.85
Stated this way, it's common sense. For a case study on social movement history that operates with these principles, I recommend this book.

Monday, 18 August 2014

The Social Significance of Ian Botham's Penis

Ho, ho, ho, now we know why they call him "Beefy". Yes, regardless of all the horrors scarring the world there's nothing quite like a celebrity dick pic to set social media a-flapping. When Ian Botham tweeted a picture purportedly to be his "old man" this morning, Twitter had one of its periodic meltdowns. Botham himself denies all knowledge:
Sure you were hacked, Ian. The just-visible chin of said willy-wafter bears no resemblance to yours at all. No awkward questions from Lady Botham then.

Perhaps his 1994 autobiography was sub-titled Don't Tell Kath for a reason.

A couple of points of interest. First, the celeb angle. The internet groans under the weight of celebrities who've got their bits out. Whether freeze frames from mainstream film and TV, wardrobe malfunctions, long-lens shots, and the invasive upskirt picture, there's a ready trade in such fare. Some, okay, a lot of this is sexual. The celebrity system exploits sex appeal after all, whether consciously or not. Celeb nudity is the next logical step. It allows the aura of fantasy surrounding them to be pushed even further. Yes, believe it or not, there will be those who have enjoyed Botham's faux pas in an altogether different way. But this kind of aura is increasingly old hat. It belongs to a bygone age where celebrities were more distant, where there was a certain deference. Now we live with an everyday tabloid sensibility. Whereas the media once made celebrity sacred, reality television and social media have coloured them profane. While it is useful to be famous for a talent, it's no longer a prerequisite. The growth of celebrity culture, the websites, blogs, magazines and ents sections demands an infinite procession of famous people to build up and knock down. Celebrity nudity is just so much disposable fodder for the machine. Lucrative fodder, it has to be said. Even mainstream sites like The Huffington Post have top tens of full-frontal nudity. If a "leaked" sex tape, a scene, papped nakedness or whatever hits the internet it's clickbait for the few who get hold of it first. They also get to hog the search engines for the related keywords too. The greater the number of celebrities, the greater the likelihood someone else in the public eye will get their bits and bobs out.

From the perspective of the one-handed internet wanderer, the interchangeability of celebrity segues seamlessly into the disposability of porn. As some pour over drug issues, relationship problems, outrageous behaviour and the rest, so others skip from naked celeb to naked celeb. There is no difference between people who get their kicks from celebrities who parade their lives as opposed to those who get off on their bodies. For both, there is something about exposure that captures their imagination, be it erotic or otherwise. The laying bare of bodies and lives, the thrill of peering at things that shouldn't be seen or known, it removes what's left of a celebrity aura and repositions them as everyday people one may gossip or secretly/not-so-secretly fantasise about. It constitutes a simulacra of familiarity, and illusion of an easily-accessed personal and sexual closeness.

Also, Botham's tweet says something about sexuality in the media age. His is not the first celebrity John Thomas to be tweeted, nor will it be the last. It seems to be a cultural thing. I have heard women complain about getting cock shots from complete strangers on dating sites, yet none of my male friends have ever mentioned the appearance of a random vagina in their inbox. So why men (not all men)? Some of it comes from a dark place - of the tawdry, creepy thrill of harassing women knowing there's vanishingly little chance of a comeback. For others it's a case of masculine projection. Who needs a fancy sports car when all you require is a camera to show you've got a big dick? Conditioning both is a stunted sexuality focused almost entirely on genitalia. It's easy to blame porn for this, with its gratuitous crotch shots and close ups of the action. Yet I think this is more symptom than cause, and is rooted in the indissociable relationship between masculinity and sexuality. 

Dipping your wick, as it were, remains a key marker of straight manliness among men. It's the notches on the bedpost, a quantifying of desirability and being a lad that matters. Women are passive bodies, objects whose own agency has to be overcome for the all-important conquest. Women's sexual pleasure is secondary to their incorporation into a narcissistic project of self. If this is the sexual culture many men are socialised into, it conditions intimacy in particular ways. There is the (gendered) separation between love and sex, waxed over by relationship experts, agony aunts and uncles and Mars/Venus-style life coaches. More importantly for the cock shots, there is a failure of erotic imagination. Because genital heterosexuality is about gratifying and impressing other men, men are left ill-equipped to establish a rapport with women. So, instead, they go with what a woman has to do to turn them on, but reverses it. For example, if a woman sends them a message with a pic of her genitals and the line "come and get me" they know it would work for them. So why wouldn't sending a dick pic have the same effect? Especially as porn and your Lothario mates show women are gagging for it just as much. It projects one's sexual outlook onto others and makes assumptions about women's motivations, precisely because genital sexuality positions them without agency. Hence when these kinds of online advances are spurned, it's either because the woman is frigid or fussy. Not because sending a photo of your penis is entirely inappropriate.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Misogyny at the Morning Star?

Rory MacKinnon, a journalist at the Morning Star for the last three years has resigned from the paper. This comes after facing disciplinary action for pursuing the case of Caroline Leneghan. Readers and left-watchers may recall that Caroline went public with some very serious domestic violence allegations against her former partner, RMT assistant general secretary Steve Hedley. A full account of what has happened with Rory is available here and here. So what is going on? Why has the paper - one of the few to give domestic violence the seriousness it is due - attacked the messenger in an attempt to kill the message?

Before we go there, a few words about the case itself. Unlike the notorious SWP rape accusations, Steve Hedley was reported to the police and his union. As this took place six months after the attack and despite ample evidence, they declined to prosecute the case because of the time elapsed. When it went before the RMT they determined he had no case to answer, under the rules of the union. None of this amounts to an exoneration. It wasn't a matter of the evidence being put to him and being found wanting and, as such, Caroline's allegations will continue to dog him. My opinion? The evidence, both material and pertaining to the incident point to only one conclusion. Sadly, it also needs stating again that women who have survived physical and/or sexual assaults incur significant personal costs in making an allegation formal. When Caroline went public the whispers ran up and down the grapevine about her mental health, rumours designed to traduce her character and render her complaint illegitimate. For trade unionists and socialists to act in such a way is unpardonable but sadly, not without precedent.

The Morning Star then. Why? I think there are a few things going on.

1. The paper generally refrains from commenting on controversial issues internal to labour movement organisations. This is not always the case. For example, during last year's row between Unite and the Labour leadership over the Falkirk debacle, the Morning Star was supportive of Len McCluskey's position. There's more to it than not washing the labour movement's linen in public. Putting trade unions under a supportive but critical microscope is bound to offend senior figures somewhere down the line who might be less than keen to renew bulk orders in future.

2. It's election season in the RMT. The union has to fill the void left by the sad, premature passing of Bob Crow. It so happens one of the candidates contesting the general secretary's position is Steve Hedley. Again, in deference to trade union diplomacy the Morning Star would unlikely publish anything that may swing the contest one way or the other. Not being a RMT watcher, I have no idea what Steve's chances are, whether it will be closely run or a repeat of the kinds of results his TUSC comrades get. Regardless, I doubt many members would welcome what might be seen as outside interference, as serious as the issue is. Especially as the RMT's enemies in the mainstream media could pick it up.

3. According to Rory's account, he was sent to a RMT's delegate conference to report on proceedings - with the union's blessing. I don't know if it is routine at RMT lay gatherings for journalists to ask questions in session, let alone bring up a controversial issue with internal ramifications; or whether the Morning Star expects that from its employees. Following what Rory says, I'm guessing the answer to both is no. For the RMT, it was interference in an issue the union leadership regard closed. For the paper it was a matter of professional judgement. Hence when the RMT complained management initiated disciplinary action. I take this to be the Morning Star's position, even if it makes them look weak on domestic violence and Stalinist on the dissemination of an inconvenient story.

Does this make the Morning Star structurally misogynistic? I don't think it does. It is an accident of their diplomatic approach to trade union controversies. This becomes a structural problem if management doesn't seize the moment and carries on as if nothing has happened. You don't need to be au fait with tea leaves to see a situation like this might arise again. Perhaps too it's time trade union leaders also thought about a more grown up relationship with the "daily paper of the left". It's a poor friendship when the sole reason you're interested in someone is because they will tell you what you want to hear.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Republica - Ready To Go

Something a little different for tonight's disco.

Friday, 15 August 2014

A Note on the TERF Wars

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the fire of radical politics burns fiercest when fuelled by the polemic of other radicals. Nowhere is this truer than the ruinous, ceaseless battle between transwomen and activists who've come to be known (pejoratively) as trans-exclusionary radical feminists. I'm not going to get too much into that fight. There's little point my mansplaining matters to readers, especially as there's plenty of stuff out there already. 

I agree with Caroline Criado-Perez, 'cis' is not a neutral term merely meaning "not-trans". Bound up in trans discourse with something called 'cis-privilege', Caroline is right to ask what this "privilege" means in practice for non-trans women. The privilege of being accepted as a woman means taking all the crap women deal with. She notes that some kind of rarefied gender identity is not core to her personal identity as a feeling, thinking human being, but we live in a society where her body emits signs that constitute her as a woman in the eyes of other women and men, and all that that entails. Likewise, me being 'a man' is not central to my sense of self either. Other things are. Yet the difference between Caroline and I is the fact my wiry, gawky frame has been coded male since birth and I am accepted as a man in all of my daily interactions. The fact gender identity doesn't impinge on my personal identity is a consequence of gender privilege, of being a member of the dominant gender. Caroline's contributions on the debate are especially useful because she places the materiality of the lived, social body at the centre of her approach to the relationship between feminism and transpolitics. It's a reminder that gender is not a free-roaming PoMo signifier that slips and slides all over the place.

Yet it's not transwomen who need reminding about the materiality of gender. As Juliet Jacques notes, transitioning and living as a woman is difficult precisely because of the weight hanging on gender. Harassment, violence, discrimination, the struggle to access medical services, these are the risks undertaken when changing gender. It is a fraught, stressful experience. Committing to the change takes guts.

Ultimately, it's this materiality that is the root of the so-called TERF wars. For radical feminists who have a problem with transwomen, allowing them to access women-only feminist spaces risks the dilution of bringing out cis women's experience of gendered oppression. It might make some women who've suffered at the hands of male violence feel uncomfortable. There is also the notion that transwomen are acting as agents of patriarchal social relations. For example, the hegemonic femininity radical feminism kicks against is an object the ideology of passing works towards. Radical feminism contests it. Transitioning valorises it. Far from contesting gender, transwomen confirm it and thereby strengthen the patriarchy. For transwomen, for a section of feminism to join in with all the avalanche of crap, to have ostensibly progressive people question their right to exist - and worse - is intolerable. Hence the violence of online exchanges, of the prevalence of 'TERF scum' as an insult, and its escalation into encompassing mainstream feminists, like Caroline, and Sarah Ditum, who do ask serious questions about gender.

The TERF wars are not about bloody-mindedness. It is a product of material experience, of how two sets of women live, theorise and politicise gender. The issues, however, are not insurmountable.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Iain Duncan Smith and the Race to the Bottom

Here we go again. In the topsy turvy Tory world of our beloved Department for Work and Pensions secretary, joblessness is not caused by a lack of jobs but instead "cultures of worklessness". To his mind, there are millions living it up on the taxpayer dollar - skivers being kept in e-cigs, iPads and Jeremy Kyle appearances. They do not work because they have no incentive to take a job. It's all bullshit and myth. When a million people queue up every week down the food bank, surely IBS and his chums at the Department would be more concerned about fixing that very real, very pressing, problem.

IBS is a stupid man. Fortunately for him these shortcomings failed to get showcased on Monday thanks to other, more pressing news items - not least a former Tory minister moaning about the lack of a spare room subsidy for MPs. Still, the speech was interesting for what it reveals about the Tories today, as well as the contradictions their inexorable decline are tying them up in. His claims the bedroom tax, tougher sanctions, work capability assessments and the like have responsibility for the "jobs miracle" Nothing to do with cutting up jobs and long-term self-employment depressing the jobless figures (and also wage packets), you understand.

The Tories know their strong suits are benefit-bashing and immigration. They can extend to depths other parties will not reach. In his speech, IBS notes that new arrivals to these shores have taken the lion share of new jobs created while resident Brits like like a Kardashian on the taxpayer dollar. This, for him, is proof enough that social security "creates" unemployment.

What passes for common sense in Conservative circles is that markets are good, and the state is a superbad. The value of a commodity, regardless of what it is, is determined by the market. That is the the millions of different sales and purchases constantly ongoing at any moment. Even front benchers know that a quid for four pints of milk is good, that three quid is steep. Sellers have learned from past transactions the optimum price for maximum sales and maximum profits. Consumers know what they regard as a reasonable price. As this happens spontaneously and reaches a certain equilibrium, sellers and buyers benefit around an optimum level for both. Replace enlightened anarchy with the state's well-meaning meddling and it all goes screwy. Equilibrium is knocked out of balance, things go wrong, businesses go bust, and the economy takes a dive out a 16th storey window.

If you follow the logic of this argument through to the buying and selling of labour power, to labour markets, you might ask this question. If the majority of jobs being created are taken up by overseas workers, are the bulk of vacancies offered at market rates beneath the price resident Britons are prepared to work for? Anecdotally, yes. This is the more sophisticated reasoning to attacks on social security, even if it so much gloss for their tired punitive populism. Nevertheless, to follow the logic through, social security is distorting the market because dole and other support, like disability, housing, and child benefit, provides workers a means of subsistence outside of employment. Cut this back by tougher criteria and benefit caps, resident workers are forced into a buyer's market. Restricting access to the labour market for overseas workers ticks so many electoral boxes too. IBS's hopes are fewer workers coming here means more Brit-born workers working, and a lower benefit bill.

Labour often mention how the Tories propose to solve Britain's economic woes by a race to the bottom. They deny it, but here it is. IBS has announced it as official policy. Viewed through the prism of Britain's political economy, since Thatcher their approach to economics has been consistently 'vertical'. Rather than government take the strategic lead in investment, technological development, skills, their preference - beneath high falutin neoliberal nah-nah - is make the workers pay to restore profitability. It meant smashing the labour movement, gutting workplace legislation, letting bullying management run riot, and rooting out working class culture. Imagine a business that increases its profitability by paring back on contributions to its staff pension pot, forcing employees to work longer for less, and summarily dismissing anyone who complains. This is what the Tories have done and want to continue to do to Britain in the name of market fundamentalism. Invisible hand or mailed fist?

It won't work, either. It won't get the economy moving. Racing to the bottom won't put money in workers' pockets. But the Tories do not care. It marginally strengthens capital and their class further, they continue to coin it, though in the medium/long-term it will do nothing to arrest British capital's slow decline.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Chomsky on Boycotting Israel

From an interview with Amy Goodman published on the Democracy Now website. This segment of the interview focuses specifically on boycott, divestment and sanctions. There's a brief comment that follows:
AMY GOODMAN: Noam, I wanted to ask you about your recent piece for The Nation on Israel-Palestine and BDS. You were critical of the effectiveness of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. One of the many responses came from Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the Jerusalem Fund and its educational program, the Palestine Center. He wrote, quote, "Chomsky’s criticism of BDS seems to be that it hasn’t changed the power dynamic yet, and thus that it can’t. There is no doubt the road ahead is a long one for BDS, but there is also no doubt the movement is growing ... All other paths toward change, including diplomacy and armed struggle, have so far proved ineffective, and some have imposed significant costs on Palestinian life and livelihood." Could you respond?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, actually, I did respond. You can find it on The Nation website. But in brief, far from being critical of BDS, I was strongly supportive of it. One of the oddities of what’s called the BDS movement is that they can’t — many of the activists just can’t see support as support unless it becomes something like almost worship: repeat the catechism. If you take a look at that article, it very strongly supported these tactics. In fact, I was involved in them and supporting them before the BDS movement even existed. They’re the right tactics.

But it should be second nature to activists—and it usually is—that you have to ask yourself, when you conduct some tactic, when you pursue it, what the effect is going to be on the victims. You don’t pursue a tactic because it makes you feel good. You pursue it because it’s going—you estimate that it’ll help the victims. And you have to make choices. This goes way back. You know, say, back during the Vietnam War, there were debates about whether you should resort to violent tactics, say Weathermen-style tactics. You could understand the motivation—people were desperate—but the Vietnamese were strongly opposed. And many of us, me included, were also opposed, not because the horrors don’t justify some strong action, but because the consequences would be harm to the victims. The tactics would increase support for the violence, which in fact is what happened. Those questions arise all the time.

Unfortunately, the Palestinian solidarity movements have been unusual in their unwillingness to think these things through. That was pointed out recently again by Raja Shehadeh, the leading figure in—lives in Ramallah, a longtime supporter, the founder of Al-Haq, the legal organization, a very significant and powerful figure. He pointed out that the Palestinian leadership has tended to focus on what he called absolutes, absolute justice—this is the absolute justice that we want—and not to pay attention to pragmatic policies. That’s been very obvious for decades. It used to drive people like Eqbal Ahmad, the really committed and knowledgeable militant—used to drive him crazy. They just couldn’t listen to pragmatic questions, which are what matter for success in a popular movement, a nationalist movement. And the ones who understand that can succeed; the ones who don’t understand it can’t. If you talk about—

AMY GOODMAN: What choices do you feel that the BDS movement, that activists should make? 
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, they’re very simple, very clear. In fact, I discussed them in the article. Those actions that have been directed against the occupation have been quite successful, very successful. Most of them don’t have anything to do with the BDS movement. So take, say, one of the most extreme and most successful is the European Union decision, directive, to block any connection to any institution, governmental or private, that has anything to do with the Occupied Territories. That’s a pretty strong move. That’s the kind of move that was taken with regard to South Africa. Just a couple of months ago, the Presbyterian Church here called for divestment from any multinational corporation that’s involved in any way in the occupation. And there’s been case after case like that. That makes perfect sense.

There are also—so far, there haven’t been any sanctions, so BDS is a little misleading. It’s BD, really. But there could be sanctions. And there’s an obvious way to proceed. There has been for years, and has plenty of support. In fact, Amnesty International called for it during the Cast Lead operations. That’s an arms embargo. For the U.S. to impose an arms embargo, or even to discuss it, would be a major issue, major contribution. That’s the most important of the possible sanctions.

And there’s a basis for it. U.S. arms to Israel are in violation of U.S. law, direct violation of U.S. law. You look at U.S. foreign assistance law, it bars any military assistance to any one country, unit, whatever, engaged in consistent human rights violations. Well, you know, Israel’s violation of human rights violations is so extreme and consistent that you hardly have to argue about it. That means that U.S. aid to Israel is in—military aid, is in direct violation of U.S. law. And as Pillay pointed out before, the U.S. is a high-contracting party to the Geneva Conventions, so it’s violating its own extremely serious international commitments by not imposing—working to impose the Geneva Conventions. That’s an obligation for the high-contracting parties, like the U.S. And that means to impose—to prevent a violation of international humanitarian law, and certainly not to abet it. So the U.S. is both in violation of its commitments to international humanitarian law and also in violation of U.S. domestic law. And there’s some understanding of that.
I am in two minds about a BDS of Israel. Certainly, turning arms exports to Israel into a live political issue is entirely fruitful. Our government's weak criticisms of Israel's indiscriminate bombing of Gaza while letting armaments flow uninterrupted from Britain's munitions factories means some responsibility falls to them, and will continue to do so should the present three-day truce collapse into a resumption of butchery. This should, I think, be the most fruitful focus of the various Palestinian solidarity campaigns in the West. As we gear up to the general election, the Tories and LibDems are vulnerable on this. An arms embargo is a limited but entirely achievable aim under the present circumstances.

The problem with a boycott campaign more generally is it lacks focus. Rather than a single objective activists are running round establishing what digits on barcodes indicate their origin in Israel, and hunting through the web of company ownership to find what share holders own what, how much, and so on. And the problem is a boycott can run into absurdity too. How much energy was expended on the Tricycle Theatre debacle, for example? And, of course, with Israel and its supporters always happy to denounce its opponents as anti-semitic, how can a boycott campaign be stopped from growing over into a general boycott of non-Israeli Jewish businesses? With anti-semitic incidents on the rise, a broader boycott has to tread very carefully.

Lastly, while Chomsky is relatively positive about the efficacy of boycotts and divestment, I'm not so sure. Yes, a blacking of Israeli goods would certainly damage Israel. To see their economy fall through the floor as a direct consequence of their government's barbarism might prove heartening for some. But just what is a boycott trying to achieve? There's a question with a seemingly obvious answer - to force Israel to negotiate meaningfully with its neighbours, to lift the Gaza blockade, to stop bombing and threatening defenceless Arab populations. Would that be the outcome? I doubt it. The poisonous character of Israeli politics is fed partly by a perceived existential crisis, of a state hemmed in by hostile powers. Of course, it is absurd. 2014 is not 1948, 1967 or 1973. The homemade rockets of Hamas are but a flimsy pretext for Israel to continue using Gaza as a punch bag. However, absolutely crucial for a settlement and lasting peace - be it two states, or some kind of South African-style solution, is a political sea change in Israel itself. Would securing such a change, as remote it seems now, be aided by a boycott, or would it increase the popular sense of siege?

Sunday, 10 August 2014

We Must Look Back With Anger

My home village was built on coal. All the local mines had shut before 1984 and open casting was the name of the game. Up until I left home you could see great mountains of slag and earth crouching on the horizon, the engines and buzzers of diggers echoing across the landscape early every morning. There were plenty of current and ex-miners living locally and yet my memory of the time during the Miners' Strike draws a blank. As I was seven year at the time, there was only the dimmest of dim awarenesses that something called 'a strike' was happening with the miners. I can remember it as background noise in the nightly news, and an occasional mention on Spitting Image (when my parents let me watch it - because I thought the puppets were funny). But of the strike in the village, I don't recall a thing. I can't remember any collections. There were no coal not dole badges. None of my school mates appeared to be affected. This titanic struggle passed my childhood by. Some feat considering we lived a stone's throw from south Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire: the crucible of the strike.

It is difficult to overstate the impact the Miners' Strike has had on British political and social history. Everything about politics you know now has been heavily conditioned by the outcome of that battle. Had the strike turned out differently, had the Tory plan to close the pits been seen off there would have been no neoliberalism, no New Labour, no mass privatisations, no unbalanced economy, no race to the bottom. And no more Thatcher. The death of the so-called iron lady would have invited comparisons with Ted Heath, the Tory PM humbled by the miners. You might have had the likes of John Redwood and Norman Tebbit fondly recalling their days in the Downing Street bunker, and of them pouring over table-sized mock ups of how a free market Britain, strangled at birth by the mass pickets of the miners, might have looked like.

In his excellent book, Look Back In Anger, my friend Harry Paterson calls the Miners' Strike an "industrial Stalingrad" because of the ferocity of the fight, the resources it sucked in, and the history-defining stakes it raised. There is no more apt an analogy.

Harry's book concentrates on telling the story of the strike in Nottinghamshire where, throughout the year-long struggle, the majority of colliers crossed picket lines and carried on working. This takes in a brief overview of miners' organisations upto the eve of the strike. Interestingly, what was to happen later had local precedence. 'Spencerism', so-named after the Broxtowe Labour MP George Alfred Spencer conspired to and successfully led a Notts breakaway from the Miners' Federation during the 1926 General Strike. In short, the Area had previous. Yet that does not explain why thousands of miners carried on working while their comrades nearly everywhere else were solid in heeding the strike call.

Harry account of the unfolding battle in Nottinghamshire is socialist history writing at its best. The violence meted out by the police, the frame ups, intimidation, the home invasions of striking miners, Harry is as sparing of the police as they were of miners and their supporters 30 years ago. The press and politicians at the time praised the courage of working miners on the Notts coalfield. It's very easy to be brave when you have the full might of the government at your back. Quite another to stand up to that. Harry captures the solidarity and empowerment of the workers who took this on. Quite rightly the essential work of Women Against Pit Closures is afforded its central place. And the creeping realisation of doom creeps as the strike wears on into the winter, with opportunities for negotiated settlements, solidarity action, and a parallel dispute between the pit deputies' union NACODS and the Coal Board getting resolved (the presence of a deputy in the pit was a legal requirement for a mine to continue operating).

As the book works through the strike, the breakaway of the Notts-based Union of Democratic Mineworkers, the subsequent collapse of the industry, and the disgusting decision of Labour in power to award the UDM a monopoly on handling compensation claims arising from Vibration White Finger, Harry takes the scalpel to a few myths. First, 'there should have been a national ballot'. The book explains the NUM was not a unitary organisation but a federation in which each of its Areas had a large degree of autonomy. Each of the Areas came out after South Yorkshire according to local ballots that were fully constitutional. The dispute was latter ratified as national by a special delegates conference of the NUM's areas, and the motion for a national ballot was voted down. Not that a ballot ratifying strike action would have made a difference to the Nottinghamshire majority anyway. Nevertheless, what this clearly shows - and Harry is able to document throughout - is how a ballot was not in the gift of Arthur Scargill to grant. The 30 years of calumny shovelled his way is exactly that. While, of course, the leadership handled negotiations, the strike was very much run, driven and led by the rank-and-file. To make it a matter of NUM leadership, as Tories and Trots in their own way did at the time and have continued to do so since betrays a basic ignorance of the struggle.

The miners could have won the strike had the TUC delivered secondary action promised, had NACODS rejected a deal, had - perhaps - the leadership produced a slightly different negotiating strategy. But it was the Nottinghamshire majority, the scabs, Margaret's men, the blacklegs who could not see beyond the end of their nose that killed the strike. Notts area contained the most productive and modern of Britain's pits. They saved the government's bacon. Without Thatcher's fifth column breaking the miners and with it, Britain's labour movement, the government's task would have been far harder, if not impossible. That is where responsibility for the failure of the Miners' Strike, the smashing of an industry, the destruction of hundreds of communities, lies. These people are responsible for the dog-eat-dog society we have now. Not with NUM. And certainly not Scargill. They betrayed out future.

For a relatively short volume, Harry has produced the definitive overview. In his hands, the period, the class struggle comes alive. If you're in the labour movement, new to politics, new to socialism, Look Back In Anger is indispensable.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Saturday Interview: Lily Jayne Summers

Lily Jayne Summers is a founder and editor of The Columnist, a cross-party e-zine that blogs on current affairs and entertainment news. Lily is also a member of the Labour Party in Stoke-on-Trent North, and has been known to tweet compulsively.

- Why do you blog?

Because, it's a way for me to express my political views and to challenge other people's notions or assumptions about an opinion or a political debate. Quite frankly, blogging is the best way to express yourself and the best way to be engage in politics. The only way to engage properly is to put your opinions across vigorously and blogging can be a medium for this.

- What has been your best blogging experience?

Hmm. Although I have't been able to interview way more influential politicians than me, I think the best blogging experience is where late at night, I'm finally able to pen my thoughts on a particular subject or to think of something to write about is the best blogging experience I have. There is nothing better than finally finishing an article!

- What would be your main blogging advice to a novice blogger?

Just have fun. Quite simple. Don't worry about being perfect in writing your thoughts, or worry about whether you're particularly good. When I started I was awful and I'm sure many people think I'm still awful now. But having fun is the only thing you need to blog. Everything else is irrelevant.

- Is blogging different now from when you first started following blogs?

Not really. Beside the growth of smaller political websites and magazines i.e. The website I co-edit, not much has really changed since November 2012 when I penned my first blog post.

- Why do you tweet?

I actually love engaging with Tories and Lib Dems. It's amazing to be able to argue, discuss and express your opinion with someone with a different opinion. Especially when I know quite a few amazingly intelligent, lovely Tories for instance and libertarians where I can have a convivial chat on why Ed Miliband is awful, or why David Cameron has a long nose, etc, etc.

- Who are your intellectual heroes?

John Maynard Keynes. John Stuart Mill. Karl Marx. Friedrich Hayek. Christopher Hitchens.

- What are you reading at the moment?

God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens.

- What was the last film you saw?

Apollo 13.

- Do you have a favourite novel?

1984 by George Orwell.

- Can you name an idea or an issue on which you've changed your mind?

Votes for 16 and 17 year olds. Before I was opposed or ambivalent on the issue.

- How many political organisations have you been a member of?

The Labour Party, Republic and the Fabian society. Also hopefully CND in the near future!

- What set of ideas do you think it most important to disseminate?

The case for nuclear disarmament. Drugs legalisation. LGBTQI* equality. An elected head of state. And finally, an economy that works for everyone, that doesn't lead to rising inequality and inexorable unsustainable growth. One that isn't subjected to the kind of neo-liberal economic thinking we've seen since Callaghan.

- What set of ideas do you think it most important to combat?

Free-market economic thinking. Not because it's immoral, like advocating the death penalty for instance. But it touches on the basic argument on what kind of economy do we want to enjoy. An economy that only works for the most opulent, that sees rising inequality, unsustainable growth or an economy that fit for generations that can work for everyone and allows prosperty for all.

- Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major influence on how you think about the world?

John Stuart Mill - On Liberty

> Who are your political heroes?

Clement Attlee. Willy Brandt. John F Kennedy. FDR.

But the one who always stands out is Tony Benn. There has been no greater man of intellectual capacity, personality, honesty and conviction than Tony Benn. If I ever have the unique opportunity of fully going into politics, it would be an honour to follow the same model Tony Benn displayed in honesty, fighting for what you believe in and sticking up for the most vulnerable in society.

- How about political villains?

Margaret Thatcher. Ronald Reagan. Any politician who advocates social conservatism, the war on drugs, and free-marketeer is a villain to me!

- What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

At the moment the economy. We have an economy where the working class are not feeling the effects of growth. We have an economy which has a housing boom. We have an economy which is £500bn more in debt than compared to May 2010. We have an economy which is growing more unbalanced and a balance of payments deficit which is increasing. We need a new model for our economy and hopefully Ed Miliband can be the nucleus of that.

- If you could affect a major policy change, what would it be?

Only one?! You're a very cruel interviewer. To remove the UK's nuclear weapons. The end of the monarchy. The end to war on drugs. Hmmmmm. Probably the end of the monarchy and an elected head of state. Simply because it's so difficult to do. (The Queen won't sign Royal Assent to her being sacked)

- What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?

The growth of artificial intelligence. See this, for instance.

- What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

Always live life to the full. Be happy. Fight for what you truly believe in.

- What is your favourite song?

Two Steps From Hell

- What do you consider the most important personal quality?

Honesty. It doesn't matter if you disagree, but if you can honest about what you fight for an believe in, then you have my respect.

- What personal fault do you most dislike?


- What, if anything, do you worry about?

The Tories winning the next General Election in 2015.

- What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

Fight for the person you truly are. Avoid self-harming. Be confident in yourself.

- What do you like doing in your spare time?

Chess. I'm slightly addicted to that game at the moment!

- What is your most treasured possession?

My cat, Mr Whiskers.

- Do you have any guilty pleasures?

If I had pleasures that were guilty, why would I reveal them?!

- What talent would you most like to have?

To fly!

- If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true, what would you wish for?

To not be trans.

- How, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money?

Nothing. :)

- If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be?

Hayek, Marx and Keynes. That would rather ... interesting.

- Socialism. Will you live to see it?

Possibly. It depends on capitalism's response to the challenges of inequality, global warming, poverty and the end of inexorable economic growth across the world. If they can change capitalism again like they did away with the type of capitalism in Marx's day, then I doubt it. But if they cannot offer a new model then socialism could be the new, sustainable, renewable economic model of the future.