A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Tory MEPs are jest fooling

The Conservatives have lost power and influence in Europe since the creation of David Cameron's Eurosceptic ECR alliance. Politics in Brussels is very different from that in the UK, as David Cameron has found out the hard way. Back in 2005, when he stood for the Conservative leadership against the Europhile Ken Clarke, he undertook to lead Tory MEPs out of the centre-right European People's party (EPP) political alliance in the European parliament and set up their own Eurosceptic grouping. His rival for the leadership, David Davis, a former shadow Europe minister, opposed the idea. With Eurosceptical support in the bag, Cameron was duly elected. The original deadline for setting up the new group, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), in June 2006 was missed: it was finally established after the European elections in June this year. That was when their problems began. Brussels works on consensus. There is no government and opposition. Generally, the Labour MEPs' group, the Socialists and Democrats, will agree a compromise with the centre right EPP, which remains the largest group. Both sides know that without some compromise, issues that need international agreement, such as the environment or trade, could not move forwards.

As the new parliament settled in, the very popular longstanding Tory MEP Edward McMillan-Scott, like others outside the new Tory ECR group, described one of the Tories' new allies as "racist and homophobic" and lost the Tory whip. He then stood as a candidate for the vice-presidency of the parliament as an individual. In a shock to the Brussels consensus, he won a massive personal vote, aided – many would say – by his standing up to Tory anti-EU shenanigans. This meant that ECR candidate for the vice-presidency, the Polish MEP Michal Kaminski, lost out and instead became leader of the ECR. That sidelined the British Tory in the job, Timothy Kirkhope, who was left with the consolation prize of leading the (by then) 26 Tory MEPs, who are split down the middle on Europe. In September, McMillan-Scott was expelled from the Conservative party. While Tory MEP Daniel Hannan (NHS-hating middle-class tosser) entertains his bemused continental colleagues with his off-the-wall anti-EU tirades, my East Midlands colleague (and a close ally of Hannan), the Tory MEP Roger Helmer regularly entertains our serious-minded continental colleagues with his ostrich-like view of global warming: "The hysteria of the climate alarmists has gone from worrying, to pathetic, to richly comical," Helmer claims, without apparent irony.

The fact that British MEPs are reduced to court jesters in Brussels matters. We have been through the worst financial crisis of our lives, and most people can see that the new regulatory structures we will have to build to prevent a new crisis must be international, otherwise newly regulated financial services can simply up sticks and change their base. Yet, unlike their former centre-right EPP allies, the Tories are rather out of the running on the legislation representing Britain's national interests in the City. Labour MEPs are getting to write some of the crucial reports. In overall terms, Labour has one committee chair (with assorted vice chairs besides), while the Tories too hold one committee chair despite having double the number of MEPs. Labour MEPs are getting to write some of the crucial reports. In overall terms, Labour has one committee chair (with assorted vice chairs besides), while the Tories too hold one committee chair despite having double the number of MEPs. I can see why Cameron needs to keep this absurd alliance going until there is a general election in the UK – if it were to fail, his one constructive act since taking the leadership would reveal his poor judgment. But now that the European parliament's powers have increased under the Lisbon treaty, it is a pity that British influence will have to suffer so much as a result of his decision.

Did Darwin Kill God?

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions. So said Karl Marx, a great philosopher staunch opponent of religion centuries ago. But even before him there was another who stood up against the division that faith can bring to humanity; a man who possibly killed God in all his glory. In the beginning was the word, and the word was God. God is a very strange word. Unlike any other word it seems to be Ok to use it to mean just about anything you want. If I was to decide that from henceforth to me the word "turnip" means the sky and all that's in it, you would naturally think I was mad. If I was to decide that the word God means the one who answers my prayers, or the instigator of the big bang, or that statue over there, you might give me a daily morning slot on Radio 4. You might even make a sympathetic documentary about me.

God is an empty vessel into which human beings pour whatever they wish. In essence it is the idea of an entity that transcends the physical world and is sustained by faith. As an idea it can't be killed, but as a theory: as an explanation for the way things are, that is another question. For many people around 1859, the year of the publication of Darwin's 'Origin of Species', belief in God was based on the so-called 'argument from design.' The idea was popularised by an English theologian called William Paley. He posed the question: if you found a pocket watch on the ground how would you know it had been designed by someone with intelligence? You would know because of the intricacy of its parts and how they work together to fulfil its function. This is the feeling we have when we see life and nature, Paley argued, this is how we know it has a designer. For those whose belief rested on Paley's argument Darwin did kill God, if by this we mean that Darwin demonstrated how the complexity of life can arise naturally. Conor Cunningham's argument is that such people were never more than a minority. Paley's idea just happened to be strong in England in Darwin's day. It had taken hold in a very particular strand of English Protestantism.

The idea of seeing the beauty of God in his creation is probably as old as religion. What makes Paley's argument new is that it is an argument. It is a response to the rise of Science; an attempt to prove God's existence; an attempt to jump from the shaky ground of faith on to the safer ground of reason. Paley's argument survives today incidentally, rebranded as 'Intelligent design.'. That it caught on in England was no accident. England was, at the time, the powerhouse of Science. That the pocket watch analogy was popular in Darwin's time is also no accident. Victorian capitalism imagined itself ordered like clockwork according to God's design, carrying its engineering wonders along with its economic system, to the world. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is a God-free alternative. Darwinism and Religion got off to a bad start. Then things got worse. In Tennessee in 1925 teaching that humans had evolved from apes was illegal. A teacher called John Scopes defied the law and was prosecuted. A bizarre Court case was held that became centred around the argument between Creationists and Darwinians.

Creationism holds that the world and all the life that lives on it were made by God in six days, in the order described in the first few chapters of the Bible. The evidence for it is just that: that it is written in the Bible. Darwinism holds that the world is at least millions of years old and that life evolved on it by a process of random variation and natural selection. It has copious geological data, fossils, anatomical and speciation evidence in its favour. It had quite a lot even in 1925. It should have been an open and shut case. The big problem was that the case for the defence became associated with 'Social Darwinism', the reactionary ideology based on the slogan 'the survival of the fittest.' This is the theory that the capitalists are rich and powerful because they are the fittest and the workers are poor and oppressed because they are weak: and so it should always be. It is contentious whether the chief lawyer defending Scopes, Clarence Darrow, believed in this idea or not. What is clear is that he did not put up a strong case against it.

The prosecutor defending Creationism, William Jennings Bryant, was a Socialist, at least in so far as he hated Social Darwinism and wanted a society of equality. He was no fundamentalist and rejected literal interpretations of the Bible in favour of figurative and allegorical interpretations. His was a moral case: it was in defence of the poor and oppressed and it took place in the midst of the long interwar capitalist crisis characterised by ideological turmoil. The Creationists won the case. The result held back the teaching of evolution in American schools for decades. It gave confidence to the fundamentalists who played on the fears and prejudices of the large, rural middle class of the USA. It contributed to the solid backbone of support for US capitalism that held back the political development of the working class in the most powerful country in the world. Nevertheless, in many parts of the world, and even in the USA, religion is seen as a doctrine of resistance. It is clung to as a beacon of morality in a dark and frightening world. Capitalism is a world of corruption, conspiracy, violence, raw power, naked self-interest and the survival of the fittest.

Many people deny that Science and Religion are in conflict. What they really mean is that Science and Religion don't need to be in conflict: If they can be compatible in your mind why can't they be compatible in everyone's? Science and Religion are not compatible in the mind of Adnan Oktar (aka Harun Yahya) whose brand of fundamentalism threatens Turkey's tentative grip on secularism and civil rights. His campaign against evolutionary theory has exposed the weakness of career politicians who dance to the clerical tune. He boasts that he sent a copy of his 'Atlas of Creation' to Tony Blair, who he credits as a supporter. The position of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation isn't clear on the subject. The problem is the one we began with: God means different things to different people. For Oktar and others, God must have an intelligence, which is like, but much greater than, ours. If not how could he speak to us? God's word must be true, since if you doubt his word that he is the creator, how can you not doubt his laws too? If you doubt his laws where then is morality?

Religion thrives whenever it holds a moral torch to capitalism. In power, its morality, in the form of God's unquestionable law, becomes a stick to beat the masses. Its brutal imposition continues to blight the lives of millions of people in the world, for example in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and it now threatens millions more in Pakistan. In Somalia recently, a girl of twelve was stoned to death for defying God's law against sex outside of marriage; she had been raped by a gang of God fearing men. Denying the conflict between Science and Religion will not make it go away. It rages while moderates, like Conor Cunningham, with their different definition of God, look on bemused. Cunningham says:"For me God is the source of the gift of life, of all life. God is he in whom we live, move and have our very existence. And this is what traditional Christianity tells us: God is existence itself, he is the creator of time itself." I believe in existence and time. If I decided God meant these things then I would believe in God too. But I, like Oktar, can't help thinking that a true God would have intelligence and a sense of purpose, otherwise what would be the point? He might as well be dead. This definition of God is also shared by prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. They argue that Darwin effectively killed God by showing that all life could come about without intelligent design and without purpose.

Cunningham calls them Ultra-Darwinists, who have abused Darwin's idea. He is part of a strong current of thought that wants to redraw the line of division so that it falls not between Science and Religion, but between moderates, who see Science and Religion as compatibility, and militants, who are intent on a fight. To demonstrate this compatibility the moderates are always trying to find a place for God in the folds of scientific theory, for example, in the phenomenon of convergent evolution. Cunningham, in his documentary, talked about the recently discovered and barely explored fact that some birds have independently evolved common song patterns. In a telling throwback to the argument from design he took this example of what evolutionary theorist call ‘convergence’ as a hint of the divine mystery. Remember that William Paley did not simply stumble upon his idea. He put forward the argument from design in response to the challenge of rational Science. He was trying to rescue God from the increasingly shaky ground of faith. Whenever they step off this ground however, religious ideas are swept away. They seek the credibility of Science while looking for gaps to sneak God in. True Science however, not only accepts the facts but seeks only for the facts.  Judging by the ubiquity of religion there is little sign that God is dead. Why does it remain such a powerful and pervasive idea?

Dawkins and Dennett argue that ideas spread and are subject to selection just like genes. They call ideas 'memes': partly because it sounds a bit like genes (to stress the analogy) and partly because it looks a bit like 'me, me', which captures an important concept. A meme is like a 'copy-me' program that can spread like viruses do through the internet. The meme, like a program, only has to have the inclination and the means to copy itself. In short, its survival does not depend on any quality besides its self-copying power. Conor Cunningham is unhappy with this, particularly the way that it explains why religion is so widespread and successful. He says disdainfully: "All that matters is which memes survive, and their survival has nothing to do with their truth." This is a common misconception. Our minds are like the Islands of the Galapagos, each is an isolated environment in which ideas, like species, either thrive or go extinct. We harbour different memes because some minds select ideas based on truth, while others select ideas based on comfort or convenience.

The idea of memes helps us to understand how ideas propagate. It shows us how cultural phenomena, like fashions or beliefs for example, are selected, not by design but by stickability. It tells us nothing about what makes some ideas come and go while others stick. In this way it is the same as Darwinian evolution, which tells us, for example, that finches with long beaks evolved into a new species because they survived on a particular island. If we want to know why they survived on that island we would have to look at its environment. Think of your mind as if it was a living eco-system in which ideas live, die and interact as wild creatures do in a forest. Like islands that produce strange creatures in isolation, as Mauritius gave us the Dodo, so humans go mad when cut off from the company of others. Most of the time most of us are, whether we like it or not, stuck with each other. Our minds are in the midst of heavy traffic. We are less like tropical islands and more like Motorway service stations.

We are thrown together by our unique way of producing and reproducing ourselves. Only a few species of insects come close to the complex division of labour that makes us what we are. Our social environment is about getting a wage, making a home, staying healthy, raising children, enjoying leisure, etc. It is, above all, about economics. Ideas that serve our economic life; make it more productive, more cohesive, more tolerable, will be selected. The human mind is a good environment for the God meme, but if our experience of the social and physical environment shows anything it is that things do not stay the same. The future will bring changes, like the climatic changes that have driven on the evolution of species. Although he is sometimes portrayed as the Anti-Christ, Marx said very little about religion. His most famous lines are not nearly as vicious as his slanderous detractors would like them to be: "Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people."

This is the real reason why God is not yet dead. Belief in God does not rest on evidence but on faith, and this faith does not exist solely, or even primarily, to explain the world. It exists for other purposes: because of the impotence of being, the fear of death, comfort for the loss of loved ones, for the social support provided by a church, etc. Who would begrudge the poor and oppressed the little comforts belief in God brings? Sometimes people can look to religion in the fight against oppression and exploitation. In the absence of an alternative, people will accept ideas that are morally acceptable over those which have material evidence in their favour. This was the case in the Scopes trial. In Tennessee in the 1920's human minds were more open to memes of resistance than memes of truth: Creationism was preferable to 'social Darwinism.' The theory of 'Social Darwinism' incidentally, has no legs to stand on. It simply takes the status quo as indicative of fitness and imposes a distorted morality on to it. In short, it says: because we rule we ought to rule. The point of Darwinism however is to take purpose and morality out of the equation: whatever you think ought to be the case is a class perspective and is as unscientific as believing God made you on the Sixth day.

The problem with religion is that alongside its comforts, it can also give people a sense of belonging and identity, which can influence their politics. Religion often creates a false alliance between the millions who seek comfort and the few who seek power and privilege. Across the world capitalist states, from the Christian USA to Muslim Somalia, sanction and defend exploitation: they kill in the name of God: they exercise class morality disguised as God's morality. Marxism holds that society is divided into antagonistic classes. Moral clashes are an expression of this antagonism. By claiming a universal morality religion invariably imposes the morality of one class upon another. A trail of persecution, war and violence perpetrated in the name of God stretches way back into history. It can only finally be ended by a classless society through the final victory of the working class. The propagandists of Capital try to scare people into thinking Socialism would mean the suppression of religion. The opposite is the case. Most persecution of religions happens at the hands of other religions. Capitalism has a long history of fostering and profiting from it. A Socialist society would allow absolute freedom of thought, and the right to hold and practice any religion.

Marxism does not, as the so-called Ultra-Darwinists may be accused of, challenge religion without proposing something to be put in its place. A Socialist society would allow Science to flourish as never before. It would end the impotence, fear and the need for comforting illusions that characterises life under capitalism. It would set the mind free. Darwin did not kill God, just because God means different things to different people. His theory has helped to undermine faith. This is what animates theologians, whether moderates who want to find a place for God in the story, like Cunningham who sees God in the ‘mystery’ of convergent evolution, or militants, who run scared back to creation myths and the idea of ‘intelligent design’. Darwinism unleashed Social Darwinism: an ideology of raw class power. Likewise it has helped us shake off the illusions that stand between the working class and the realisation of its power. Freed from faith we can break the false alliances that help to maintain this system of exploitation. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels argued that capitalism itself, with its unrelenting rationalisation of human relations, eventually exposes class power in its raw form.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Muslims must not pay for Europe's identity crisis

It seems that the targeting of Muslims and Islam has become a kind of national theater in France. Unlike theater, however, the disturbing trend can, and will turn ugly – in fact to a degree it already has – if the French government doesn’t get a grip on reality. The world, including France, is a complex, multifaceted and fascinatingly diverse place; it cannot be co-opted to fit national specificities determined by a group of irritable far right racists with a distorted interpretation of themselves and others. Unfortunately, France is not alone; it merely highlights the most obvious manifestation of growing anti-Muslim sentiments throughout Europe. Unearthing the reasons behind the disturbing phenomena is hardly an easy task, for it arguably requires a greater examination of the political, economic and social woes of European states than it does of the ‘shortcomings’ of Islam. Islam is a great religion in many respects; it has endured for over 1400 years. Its membership is never confined by skin color, culture, political ideology or geographic boundaries. Its views of antiquity, on equality, women rights and peace are considered progressive even by today’s standards. The detractors of Islam fail to see all this. If Islam is dissected politically or ‘academically’, the investigation is done for the sake of destroying its repute, and discrediting or humiliating its followers.

The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) may claim that their commitment is to keep Switzerland secular, devoid of symbols of oppression (as in a mosque’s minaret), but this only sounds like incoherent blabber and reflects nothing but a growing tendency towards racism, intolerance and ethnocentrism. These trends are glaring violations of the liberal philosophies associated with European countries, which guarantee individual and collective rights, including those of self-expression and freedom of speech. In France, the phenomenon is protracted and more dangerous. Considering that France is the home of five million French Muslims, rightwing tendencies threaten future discord in the country. The Washington Post reported on December 19 that Bilal Mosque, in the tranquil French town of Castres was desecrated by unknown assailants. “Two pig's ears and a poster of the French flag stapled to the door; a pig's snout dangled from the doorknob. ‘White power’ and ‘Sieg heil’ were spray-painted on one side…and ‘France for the French’ on the other.”  Here, one must recall the alarming words of Britain’s first Muslim minister, Shahid Malik. Himself a victim of hate crimes, Malik lamented a year and a half ago that many Muslims feel targeted like the “Jews of Europe”, and that many British Muslims feel like “aliens in their own country”.

While Many Muslims share the same feeling of nationalism and patriotism in their homelands in Europe, rightwing racists - who are unfortunately becoming a dominant force in shaping public views in various European states – insist on a very narrow definition of what makes a French, a British, a German or a Swiss. There is indeed an identity crisis that is real and frightening. And it’s one that is not engulfing Europe alone, but also affects and in some instances has devastated many cultures all over the world. While it is a byproduct of misguided and unchecked globalization, in the case of Europe itself the issue is very national and very personal. The European Union, which started as a purely economic body has morphed into a political and pan-nationalist organization that is attempting, by accident or design, to define a united Europe and a prototypical European. This has raised fears of the loss of national identities or whatever remains of it. Expectedly, it is the politically underrepresented, socially marginalized and economically disadvantaged groups that often pay the price of this sort of national resurgence.

Targeting Muslims is a common denominator that now unifies a great proportion of European political elites and media. The reasons are numerous and obvious. Some European countries are at war (which they have chosen) in various Muslim countries; desperate and failed politicians are in need for constant distractions from their own failures and mishaps; associating Islam with terrorism is more than an acceptable intellectual diatribe, a topic of discussion that has occupied more radio and television airtime than any other; also, pushing Muslims around seems to have few political repercussions – unlike the subjugation of targeting of other groups with political or economic clout. But is their more to this? A 2007-08 Gallup poll asked the following question: does religion occupy an important place in your life? The vast majority in Western European countries answered with a resounding “no”. Only 9 percent of Turkish citizens – a country with a Muslim majority – shared the popular view. Most European Muslims strongly identify with their religion, which has preserved their sense of community, and helped maintain a degree of cultural cohesion and a semblance of collective identity at a time when many in Europe are losing theirs.

Muslims must not be blamed for this loss, and nor should they be punished, derided or targeted for daring to hold onto their beliefs. Returning again to France, what is most alarming about the anti-Muslim measures is that they are largely led by the government itself, rather than a fanatical group of disenchanted ideologues. Eric Besson, the country’s Immigration Minister, stated on December 16 that Muslim veils will be grounds of denying citizenships and long-term residence. Besson was only echoing the disquieting policies of conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy who has started a ‘national identity campaign’ for ensuring an exclusive identity of France - one that is occupied with the targeting of immigrants, particularly Muslims. Sarkozy, Besson, and Europe’s rightwing and far right politicians must understand the possible ramifications if they continue to press with their reckless and alienating policies. Radicalization is an unavoidable offshoot of group alienation, which is sadly being used to further fuel the anti-immigrant fervor throughout the continent. It is a vicious cycle, the blame for which lies squarely with the savvy politicians and their obvious agendas. As for those who insist on blaming Islam for Europe’s woes, they should really find another pastime; the self-indulgent game is too hazardous and must stop.

Economic turmoil: What needs to be done

Today the capitalist economies of the world are in deep trouble. Some economists have theorized that the linkages between the United States and the rest of the world had been weakened as other nations gained more economic autonomy. A decoupling thesis was presented claiming that a crisis in one part of the system (say, North America) would not affect other major parts (say, Europe and Asia). We now know this is not true. Toxic assets were sold around the world, and banks in Europe, Asia, and Japan are in trouble too. Housing bubbles have burst in Ireland, Spain, and many other countries. In Eastern Europe, homes were bought with loans from Swiss, Austrian, and other European banks, payable in European currencies. As the economies of Hungary and other nations in the region, which financed their explosive growth with heavy borrowing from Western banks, have gone into recession, their currencies have suffered a sharp deterioration in exchange rates. This means that mortgage payments have risen sharply, as it now takes many more units of local currency to buy the Swiss francs or euros needed to pay the loans. In some cases, mortgage payments have doubled.

Many countries embraced neoliberalism as fervently as the United States, and now they are paying the piper for years of deregulation. The most extreme case so far is Iceland, which actually went bankrupt and had to seek help from the International Monetary Fund. Countries that relied heavily on exports, such as Germany, Japan, and China, are facing seriously eroded economic conditions as U.S. consumers, once the world’s buyers, sharply cut their spending. International economic linkages are working to make the crisis intractable. When something bad happens in one place, it reverberates in many other places. Declining demand in the United States causes lower incomes elsewhere, and these cause incomes here to fall further—and on and on. If Hungarians default on their mortgages, Swiss and German banks might fail, and this will cause trouble for U.S. banks—and on and on. In the spring of 2009 the IMF, with newly infused funds from the European community, helped Eastern Europe to step “back from the brink of collapse” (according to the Wall Street Journal) by providing loans to Hungary, Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, Serbia, Romania, and Poland.

Such drastic actions are needed, even on capitalism’s own terms. There is no doubt that the most efficient and straightforward way to proceed would be for the federal government to nationalize some large banks, wipe out their shareholders, and put these banks on a firm footing. The U.S. auto industry must be both saved and transformed, lest millions more become unemployed. A national health care plan is mandatory, both to lower business costs and to keep workers healthy. Home owners must get some relief, and household debt must be reduced if demand is ever to be robust again. Ideally, the financial system should be strictly regulated if capitalism is to avoid future bubbles (though such strict regulation is probably impossible under the present system). The obscenely unequal distributions of income and wealth have to be dramatically changed if some sort of balanced growth is to take place. Wages have to rise for the same reason, as well as to reduce the debt burdens now choking so many working-class families.

The trouble, however, is that even though these changes might help develop a more robust capitalism, from the perspective of the capitalists themselves, most of these actions are not desirable—nor is it very likely that they can or will be made. Businesses find themselves inside a system based on vicious competition, a “beggar thy neighbor” enterprise writ large. What is more, every sector of business has a hold on some politicians and influence in every public agency. Washington is teeming with lobbyists, and these people often write the legislation that is supposed to be in the public interest. No matter what the government initiative, self-interested parties try, and often succeed, in bending the legislation and its implementation to suit their needs. We can’t have a true national health care system because the insurance and drug companies, plus their allies in medicine, won’t stand for it and have the power to prevent it. The government cannot get the financial system in order because politicians are much too cozy with the bankers they regulate. Private housing interests stand ready to stop public housing. The same is true for public transit and just about any other good thing you can name. If the new administration moves strongly to combat global warming and build a greener economy, we can be assured that no matter the gravity of the problem, the calculus of private interest will win out in the end. From society’s point of view, and certainly from the perspective of workers, capitalism is an irrational system.

And if all this is not problem enough, there remains the underlying tendency toward slow growth or stagnation. Even President Obama’s stimulus package will not come near to solving the fundamental stagnation problem, although it may help a large number of people. In addition, some help and comfort is being provided through extending unemployment benefits and increasing funds to programs such as food stamps and providing jobs through spending programs. The original Great Depression programs didn’t end the Depression, so is there any reason to suppose that more limited government spending programs will end this one? It is true that the Great Depression work programs were nowhere near large enough to bring back prosperity. But today, even with the insights of John Maynard Keynes and decades of economic research, the fiscal package of spending programs, tax cuts, and deficit-financing are, according to the best and brightest mainstream economists, woefully inadequate to the task at hand: replacing several trillion dollars’ worth of reduced spending by the private economy, as well as state and local governments. That the U.S. government is not going to do what would have to be done to end the Great Recession will not surprise readers who understand why the Great Depression did not end—until the “epoch-making” spending of the Second World War did the job. Profit-seeking private interests always stood in the way. And, unfortunately, the U.S. stimulus package is not much larger than that of the European Union or Japan.

The U.S. economy is in for a long period of anemic growth and high unemployment. There are no obvious sources of demand that will grow enough to overcome the many factors repressing demand. It is not clear what, if anything, can replace the huge growth of debt, speculation, and bubbles that propelled the economy for so many years. Hard times have come, and hard times are ahead. Certainly governments here and elsewhere have done and will continue to do things that spur some growth and alleviate some of the misery. And it may be that another bubble will develop, perhaps based on some sort of “greening” of capitalism, spurred by large government spending. Then the process will begin again, with who knows what conclusion. In this regard, it is deeply troubling to observe that economic policy appears to be subservient to the same financial interests that brought us to such a sorry state in the first place. The federal government seems unwilling to step too hard on the toes of finance, and has larded nearly every one of its programs with significant monetary incentives for the big banks and other financial firms. We are either giving them money outright or making loans available at bargain basement interest rates, but we are not making demands on them to change their ways. The idea seems to be to return the financial system to its pre-crisis structure. If this isn’t a recipe for a disastrous future reprise of what is happening now, we don’t know what is.

But let us ask ourselves an important question. Is the roller-coaster ride that is capitalism what we want? Suppose that, in a few years, somehow things got back to “normal,” with the GDP growing at between 2.5 and 3 percent, with official unemployment between 4 and 5 percent, with wages growing only enough to keep up with inflation. Suppose even that we have a better health care system than we have now. What then? The “health” of the U.S. economy now depends on increasing exploitation at work, supposedly compensated for through ever-rising private consumption. What have been the consequences of this? Longer, harder hours have compromised the health and quality of life of workers, reducing their best hours to meaningless drudgery. Rising consumption of more meaningless “stuff” has polluted our planet; it has filled our houses with junk we never use; it has forced us to think we need bigger and bigger houses, which in turn has compelled us to move into the suburbs and exurbs, wasting power and water, creating vast expanses of ugly developments, and destroying much of our natural habitat. Consumption by individuals, based on the amount of their wealth (purchasing power), increases the political power of the businesses that benefit most from a system based on private profit, and therefore always relegates collective needs to second place. The need for ever-growing private consumption also encourages an exploding sales effort, to convince us to keep up the buying that will keep the profits flowing and the economic ball rolling. Advertising and the products it promotes must always be “new” and “improved,” to entice us to buy, although in reality this means that goods and services must become even more quickly obsolete, or perceived to be so. The entire system becomes one of making things, throwing them away, and making new ones. Waste begetting waste, begetting still more waste.

It is impossible for ever-higher levels of consumption to make us happy. The logic of the system is that we must be perpetually unsatisfied, always wanting more. In a system that guarantees considerable inequality, we are bound to be envious of the consumption of those richer than we are. But every time we think we have reached a higher level of consumption, we see that there are still many richer people above us. And if those below catch up with us, we have to consume more to stay ahead. It could be argued that a consumption-based society would be more acceptable if there were a rough equality of spending power. But this is—and cannot be—the case; capital accumulation will not allow it. We are not and cannot be “slouching toward utopia,” to use the inapt phrase of economist J. Bradford DeLong—referring to a utopia of a worldwide majority “middle class” of happy consumers, all buying big-screen televisions and nice automobiles. And does DeLong imagine that the world could ecologically support billions of human beings consuming at a pace on par with middle-class U.S. households? It is estimated that it would take the resources of four worlds like ours to provide the equivalent to what is considered a modestly upscale U.S. consumption pattern for all of the planet’s 6.5 billion people. Now, we are certainly not arguing that everyone should be poor or that those currently at the bottom don’t need an adequate level of consumption, especially food, clothing, and shelter. But we are saying that the so-called consumer culture that characterizes the United States and a few other rich countries is not a model worth fighting for, nor is it ecologically sustainable.

What is worth fighting for? Perhaps this severe recession offers us an opportunity to ask this question. This crisis has revealed the rotten foundation of our economy and called into question the neoliberal policies and ideology that have deepened the rot. We cannot sustain ourselves with ever-larger doses of debt relative to the underlying economy. We cannot be happy in a world of rising insecurity: How will we pay the debts? Where will we find decent and secure employment? How will we cope with health problems? How will we survive in old age? Will our air, water, and food supply continue to be poisoned? We cannot be happy in a world in which the fruits of human labor are distributed in an obscenely unequal manner. Inequality itself causes a host of problems, from lower life expectancies of those further down the ladder to more people in prison, and it raises the level of insecurity. The rage of the poor and the fear of the rich are the legacies of the growing gap between them.

Finally, and of the greatest importance, we cannot be happy with the nature of the work most of us are compelled to do. Millions of us are unemployed, and this is a bad thing. But for those working, the stress is rising, as fewer people are being forced to do more work, and employment becomes more precarious. Employers use periods like this to discover ways to reduce the size of their workforces permanently. They continue the strategy of lean production, using as little skilled labor as possible, constantly adding stress to the system so that work can be sped up, and then cutting benefits as much as possible. There is no way that the majority of people can do meaningful work in a system like this. Labor is simply a cost of production, to be minimized and on a par with a piece of equipment or fuel. What does it mean when “The only thing worse than being employed is being unemployed”?

It seems to us that there are many things worth fighting for. Here is a list for starters. Readers will, no doubt, think of others.

•Adequate food for everyone. For fifty years, Cuba has provided a minimum food basket for each person. Imagine what a rich nation like the United States could do here. Food production and distribution should be studied with an eye toward producing all food as ecologically sound (perhaps organically) as possible, and making sure that each and every person eats a varied and healthful diet.

•Decent housing. As we argued above, attractive and relatively inexpensive housing could be built by a public corporation, and workers could, at the same time, be trained to build and maintain houses. Energy efficiency could be incorporated not only into the design of the houses but also into the layout of neighborhoods and public spaces. Existing buildings could be rehabilitated, and, if some have to be demolished, all possible materials could be salvaged. Imagine how much housing could be built and rehabbed, just with the money the government has given to the notorious AIG company.

•Universal health care. The health care system of the United States is a disgrace—wasteful, costly, and unequally distributed to an extreme degree. Human health cannot be subjected to the profit motive without dire consequences, as anyone who is sick and without money knows.

•Full employment/good jobs. Work is a necessary and essential human enterprise. It is the way we transform the world and the fundamental way in which we use our capacity to think and to do. Therefore, employment that encourages the use of our full human capacities must be a right. The government must itself create as much socially useful employment as is necessary to achieve this goal. Good jobs must be those in which the hours of work are short enough to allow working people ample time for meaningful leisure. A shorter workweek and workday would have the added benefit of creating more jobs.

•Quality education for all. Education in the United States parallels health care, in terms of its inadequacies. Good schooling cannot be based upon such inane principles as the cynically named No Child Left Behind Act. Education must build from the experiences of the students outward, toward increasingly complex and abstract ideas. Creativity, independence of mind, and healthy bodies must take center stage—in buildings and surroundings that are conducive to learning

•Adequate income in old age. The current Social Security system is perhaps the best-managed enterprise in the federal government. It is a universal system that provides essential resources—retirement, disability income, health care, funds for minor survivors—to tens of millions of persons. It is a system that could and should be made much more generous, with less reliance on regressive payroll taxes.

•Enhanced public transportation. All manner of efficient, energy-conserving, cheap, and high-speed public transportation should be built, in as many places as possible.

•A commitment to a sustainable environment. Whatever increases the pollution of our water, land, and air must be rejected. Whatever raises the earth’s temperature must be rejected. We must stop thinking of our natural resources as private property, to be endlessly exploited and polluted, and begin thinking of them as the wealth of us all. We must make more careful use of renewable resources and the plan for reduction in use of non-renewable resources.

•Progressive taxation. We have seen, in this great recession, that we have been robbed and cheated by a tiny minority of very rich people. These thieves have contributed nothing to the social well-being, and in fact have greatly detracted from it. The incomes of the very rich should be punitively taxed, and a high degree of progressivity must be restored to the tax system. Whichever activities are aimed at merely short-term and socially unproductive gain must be heavily taxed.

•A non-imperialist government. There is every reason to believe that the foreign military operations of the United States are extraordinarily harmful, both to people in the rest of the world, and to those in the United States. We must demand peace and an end to state violence. Period.

•Labor- and environment-friendly trade. Trade among nations and movements of people from one country to another can be a wonderful thing. However, for this to be so, economic relationships among nations must be based on the fact that human beings and Mother Earth are the basis of all production and exchange. Concern for both must be central to all economic relationships, within and among nations.

Can these goals be achieved inside the present economic system? Perhaps some can in very limited ways, but most of them clearly cannot. The system simply will not allow it. Pragmatists say that these things are utopian, that we have to work within the system and achieve what we can, gradually and in a piecemeal fashion. It seems to us, however, that this “pragmatic” approach is utopian. We have to stick to our principles, come hell or high water. Only if we do, can we keep this economic system on trial, challenging it to do what its apologists say it does. We may even get a few crumbs from those who control the political economy, if only to subdue and pacify us. But, if we steadfastly continue to demand what should be ours by right, by virtue of the fact that we are human beings, we will push the system into a crisis of legitimacy. Then, as people begin to see that this system can never deliver what is needed for us to realize our capacities and enjoy our lives—and cannot function without causing severe environmental degradation—they will begin to consider and put into practice alternative mechanisms of production and distribution, those that are democratically controlled and have as their aim the achievement of maximum human happiness. Ours could be an economy and society whose purpose is not private gain, but to serve the needs of the people—because it is truly of the people. This can be achieved by providing (directly, if required) the necessities of life for all, while protecting the earth’s life support systems. People democratically deciding the direction and details of the economy—production, as well as consumption, with the purpose of meeting human needs. In other words, socialism.

Religion Vs. Sexuality?

Homosexuality is mysterious: we do not really know what it is. It is politically correct to see it as an innate genetic thing like skin colour, but this is untenable. For it is possible for a heterosexual to experience homosexual desire, or to have an active homosexual phase. Also, it is clear enough that nurture plays a huge role in the formation of sexuality, and that our very concept of homosexuality is culturally determined. Our idea of homosexuality is a rather recent invention. In our narrative, a young adult discovers that he or she is different, and announces his or her commitment to this different identity. Coming out is a bit like a pledge: this is not a phase, but who I am; I commit myself to this identity. Every previous culture to our own would have seen it as odd, this insistence that homosexuality is a fixed identity, which one discovers within one's soul, and sticks to. To the ancient Greek, homosexuality was something you might do for a while, like playing football, or seeing a shrink - this was indeed a freer idea of sexuality.

We like to think we are the most liberated imaginable culture, but actually our narrative of homosexuality suggests otherwise: we demand that homosexuality is penned in by this idea of either-or identity. We have opted to tolerate "identity homosexuality" instead of temporary homosexuality and bisexuality, which are potentially more threatening to the dominant sexual order (the '"straightus-quo"?). Because this development is so recent, it makes little sense to say that ancient Israelite culture was "anti-gay". It also makes little sense to say that ancient Greek culture was gay-friendly. For neither culture shared our idea of what homosexuality is. In fact these ancient cultures agreed more with each other than either does with us. For both saw homosexuality as a form of behaviour rather than an innate identity. To the ancient Jew, it was a disgustingly self-indulgent bit of behaviour, inextricable from hedonistic promiscuity, and a befouling of the sacred bond of marriage. To the Greek citizen, it was no big deal; just a facet of (male) human desire.

So the real question is: how should Christians respond to the fact that the Bible condemns homosexual behaviour? Is it legitimate simply to reassert this condemnation, to say that it still stands? No, for two reasons. First, the meaning of homosexuality has changed. In the new narrative of homosexuality, a gay person is just as inclined to seek stable monogamy as a straight person. The Bible's assumption that gay sex is a form of indulgence unrelated to marriage can no longer be shared. Secondly, Christians are not committed to following the rules laid down in the Bible. They reject the need for circumcision and food laws. And all moral laws. St Paul said that we have to break the link between God's will and religious laws. We have to make up morality as we go, putting love and freedom first. Ah, but didn't St Paul clearly condemn gay sex? Yes, but this is because he shared the general biblical view, that it was inextricable from hedonism. Christians who use Paul to condemn homosexuality have failed to grasp Paul's key message: that holy rules are dead. So the answer to this question has two parts. Yes, the Bible condemns homosexual behaviour, as a threat to moral order. But the New Testament condemns something else as well: holy moralism. It announces an anti-legalistic revolution. It tells us we have to keep our moral thinking mobile, open-ended. The Bible sows the seed of the deconstruction of its own sexual moralism.

The prejudice against gay people among conservative Christians is a cultural attitude not reflected in Jesus' teachings. As an atheist it probably isn't my place to comment; however, I went to church regularly for almost a decade, never finding any specific condemnation of homosexuality. You can spout quotes at me as much as you like - religious texts in general aren't a specific guide to how to live one's life. No, the bible is not anti-gay. Jesus never turned away anyone because of their sexuality and I try to live my life by the teachings of Jesus, I suppose. As Jesus said: "love your neighbour as you love yourself". Different traditions have interpreted the Bible in many different ways through the centuries. Africans have their own way of understanding the Bible which is not the same as many in the UK. That makes me wonder whether the African lack of understanding, and dare I say it, hatred of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, is informed by cultural differences. Why is it that LGBT people are often barely tolerated within the church and anywhere in society? Heterosexuals don't expect to be tolerated. We who are gay live alongside them before God, and I often wonder why can't they do the same and live happily alongside me. Supposing we lived in a world where LGBT people were the norm and being heterosexual was feared and hated. Are heterosexuals able to imagine how they would feel if they hid their sexual identity away in the closet for fear of being abused, bullied and even murdered?

Homosexuality existed before the arrival of the slave ships and Christian missionaries, despite the repeated claims that it is something introduced from the west. Both God and faith in the holy were present before the Christians came to introduce, and often impose Christianity on my ancestors and force them to change their culture, impose western moral and ethical values and introduce the idea that same-sex loving relationships are taboo. There are texts in the Bible that can be used to support slavery. Other texts demand outdated forms of punishment for activities that we no longer think of as taboo or criminal. Some conservative Christians are obsessed with reading the Bible literally, trying to reconcile conflicting texts which are against one another. They read Genesis, Leviticus and St Paul and claim that certain verses prove that God judges and condemns everyone who engages in any form of same-sex activity. On the basis of this reading, countries like Uganda propose introducing life imprisonment and the death penalty for gay people. Schism and heresy are nothing in comparison with somebody using the Good Book as such a terrifying weapon against us. That is the greatest blasphemy against God, if there is indeed one.

Like many statements, the recent joint announcement by Liverpool's church leaders condemning homophobia is incomplete without the actions to support it – but it is a good start, and as a gay man, I welcome it. No liberal-minded person, much less gays and lesbians, needs reminding of the church's shameful record on the treatment of homosexuals. At this moment, there is an unconscionable silence from Britain's leading clerics in on the situation in Uganda, where a parliamentary bill puts homosexuality on the verge of becoming punishable by death. In light of these failures, when Christian leaders in the west make a move to decry homophobia, I'm inclined at least to hear them out. It is easy to disassociate oneself from brute thuggery, of course, and glib condemnations of physical violence roll easily off the tongues of even the vilest of religious homophobes. But I don't detect such complacency in this latest statement from Liverpool. It comes in the midst of a real community that has experienced homophobia at its most vicious. In 2008, Liverpool witnessed the murder of gay teenager Michael Causer. Then in October, trainee police officer James Parkes was the victim of a gang assault, narrowly escaping the same tragic consequences.

There has since been a citywide, grassroots effort to stand together against homophobia. A vigil shortly after the attack on James Parkes saw over 1,500 people – gay, straight and everyone in-between – unite against hate. A cursory search of Facebook reveals just how much is going on to combat gay hate in Liverpool, not simply among leaders and politicians, but among ordinary Liverpudlians. So when Catholic Archbishop Patrick Kelly and Anglican Bishop James Jones join other ministers in the city to condemn homophobia, I don't believe they're speaking from a remote place of comfort. They're speaking from the centre of a community that has lived and dealt with the consequences of anti-gay prejudice. Two aspects of the statement struck me. First was the unapologetic placing of LGBT people alongside ethnic and religious minorities: "The leaders of the churches in Liverpool believe it is wrong for anyone in the community of which we are all part to be victimised, or threatened with victimisation, on account of their race, creed, colour or sexual orientation."

This is subtle, but significant. To put sexual orientation on a par with race and religion is anathema to the homophobe, who denies attempts to afford civil rights to gays and lesbians, and thinks of this as political correctness of the worst kind. I am surprised but heartened, therefore, that at Liverpool's Remembrance Day parade this year, Archbishop Kelly risked the ire of homophobes by praising the city's response to homophobia. At the vigil for James Parkes, "thousands said no to such hatred," the Archbishop told crowds. "We affirm our commitment to work with others to build a community where all can have their place of belonging, feel welcome and live in safety. These types of statement often appear begrudging, especially from religious leaders. Often, the impression left is that gays and lesbians should be grateful merely to be left alone to do their thing "in the privacy of their own bedrooms", as if it were enough not to be beaten up or arrested. But this statement goes beyond that. The language of "belonging", "welcome" and "safety" speak of more than begrudging tolerance. To me they suggest an invitation to be accepted, respected and valued. Church leaders may have a way to go, and I won't make excuses for the homophobia that still dominates religion, but nor am I ready to dismiss this one as just another sop to the PC crowd. Making excuses is not necessary to be able to acknowledge and support religious leaders when they make genuinely positive and conciliatory steps towards ending homophobia.

Will China Show Mercy?

Over the past several days, most of Britain has been feet-up-before-the-fire, enjoying the Christmas holiday. Not so for Akmal Shaikh's family, the British prisoner who is set to die in China at 2.30 tomorrow morning. His family were allowed an hour and a half with him this morning, and emerged despondent. Akmal had just been told he had 24 hours to live. "He was obviously very upset on hearing from us of the sentence that was passed. We strongly feel that he's not rational and needs medication," said Soohail. Yet as so often with the death penalty, especially when prisoners without wealth have lawyers without influence, the final flurry of publicity is often when potential witnesses hear about the case for the first time. His poverty in Poland and his mental illness has shown no reason to spare this man's life; even appeals from his family and campaigners are too late to save him now. Luis Belmonte, is a Spanish photojournalist who followed Akmal for months as he slid from homelessness deeper into mental illness. Belmonte's pictures of an unshaven Akmal, sitting on a bench in a crumpled white suit and staring despondently across a homeless shelter, tell the story more eloquently than any lawyer could.

Two others who knew him were British teachers living in Poland. Paul Newberry and Gareth Saunders befriended Akmal, and past his crazy ideas they saw the gentle optimist beneath. Akmal was convinced that he would record a hit song that would usher in world peace, and his persistence paid off when he talked his way into a free hour at a recording studio. One Saturday, Akmal's two newfound friends could not refuse his plea to help him make a first cut of the record. Saunders was a musician and agreed to do backup vocals, Newberry offered his amateur bass guitar. They both agreed that the result was deplorable, but Akmal was not to be dissuaded from his mission. These three witnesses provide compelling evidence of Akmal's mental problems. However,some less charitable people cottoned onto Akmal's vulnerability and made him their unwitting drug mule, hence the looming hour of his execution. Nobody should accept my view that Akmal is innocent of any criminal act, but it is becoming increasingly clear that Akmal did not have a fair trial. His case underlines the dangers of fallible humans assuming omnipotence. Death penalty is the ultimate exertion of the government's overwhelming power, flooding over the meagre capacity of the individual who is seated defenceless in his prison cell. Yet ultimately it betrays a national weakness as well, a government's failure to confront difficult issues which surround human rights. This is as true for China as it is for the US – whether in the context of the death penalty, or the excesses of the "war on terror". Let us hope that the Chinese authorities remember the quality of mercy in time to avoid a tragic mistake: "Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes the thronèd monarch better than his crown."

Death penalty is the ultimate exertion of the government's overwhelming power, flooding over the meagre capacity of the individual who is seated defenceless in his prison cell. Yet ultimately it betrays a national weakness as well, a government's failure to confront difficult issues which surround human rights. This is as true for China as it is for the US – whether in the context of the death penalty, or the excesses of the "war on terror". Let us hope that the Chinese authorities remember the quality of mercy in time to avoid a tragic mistake: "Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes the thronèd monarch better than his crown." It's ironic that whilst we are shuffling off to the new decade, we are being thrown back into the dark age by corrupt democracy & a broken international society. One mentally-ill, poor man tricked into smuggling drugs is due for a public execution. Another, who American authorities were warned of, is given a jail sentence. If the judicial system in both China and America are as iniquitous as this then who can be trusted for liberty, justice and fair democracy for all? When terrorism is allowed to run amock whilst the innocent are publicly humiliated and slaughtered, who do we turn to? This isn't about politics anymore; it is about human decency. And it seems the world has run out of it already - along with compassion for our fellow man.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

The crisis in Britain's housing

The lack of affordable housing has become a political crisis for the main parties. For over a quarter of a century, the policies of British government have been geared towards a single goal – encouraging private home ownership. The decade long surge in house prices is undermining the ideology of a “property owning democracy” - and now that ideology has been cracked, how will the working classes cope? Ever since Margaret Thatcher introduced the “right to buy” for council tenants in 1980, both Tory and Labour governments have promoted the idea of a “property owning democracy” where housing is decided by the market rather than the state. Sounds like a nifty idea doesn't it? That is until you realise the fallacies and plotholes of the system. Today this policy is in crisis. The past decade has seen house prices spiral upwards, while real wages have been held down. The result is that increasing numbers of people simply cannot afford to buy a house, and have little prospect of ever getting onto the “housing ladder”. Combine this with the chronic shortage of council housing and you can see why millions of people – especially young working class families – despair of ever having access to a secure and ­settled place that they can call home.

The average household now spends some 36 percent of their earnings on housing costs. The last time this figure was that high was 1990, just before a housing crash which saw tens of thousands of homes repossessed. Even right wing newspapers now acknowledge that there is a serious problem. “The future of house prices: ten times pay” ran a front page headline in the Times in March. It noted that in 1995 the average price of a house was around three times average yearly earnings; today it is six to seven times average earnings – and if current trends continue, this ratio is set to rise to ten by 2026. The fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to afford to buy a home is reflected in other figures. In 1993 some 55 percent of people buying a house were “first time buyers”. Ten years later this had dropped to 29 percent. Today some 4 million people in England believe they will never own their own home, and 74 percent believe that sky-high house prices in their local area are a “problem”.

These figures prompted the government earlier this year to launch an “advice unit”. But its proposed solutions involve little more than tweaking regulations in order to make the market “work” properly – rather than taking on corporate interests or offering an alternative to private home ownership. In particular, the government insists that ever-rising house prices are fundamentally caused by a “lack of supply” of new private homes for sale and by “obstacles” to the development of an even larger and more complex mortgage market. The solutions it offers are, on the one hand, to water down existing planning regulations in order to encourage the building of more private homes, and on the other, further deregulation of mortgages to encourage financial institutions to lend larger sums of money to people. But realistically these market oriented solutions are unlikely to have any serious effect. Private house building in Britain is dominated by a group of five or six companies, who are unwilling to dilute their revenues by building more houses. Many of these companies already own land with planning permission to build on – they choose not to, since they stand to make more money in an environment of ever rising prices.

Moreover, there are already hundreds and thousands of privately owned properties up and down the country that are currently lying empty – some 291,000 private homes in England have been empty for more than six months, on top of over 75,000 in Scotland. If you include second homes in the figures, then there are at least 680,000 empty properties in England alone. It is the irrationality of the housing market that is responsible for this state of affairs. The long running boom in housing prices has encouraged property speculators to buy up houses and then just sit on them, in the hope of making a killing by selling them off at a higher price at some point in the future. If “lack of supply” was the problem and “free markets” the solution, these empty properties would come onto the market – but they don’t. So what has caused house prices in Britain to spiral upwards to historically unprecedented levels? Ever since the Second World War, the ratio of house prices to annual earnings has hovered between three and five – it is only since the mid-1990s that they have climbed up to current record levels. The crucial reason for this relates to the relationship between housing and other aspects of the economy.

One of New Labour’s first acts on getting elected in 1997 was to hand control of interest rates to the City and to deregulate financial services. This further fuelled the explosion of cheap consumer credit, which in turn has kept the economy afloat for the past decade. The fact that interest rates on loans have been relatively low has encouraged people to borrow larger and larger sums, which in turn encourages those selling houses to put prices up - but this is a dangerous game to play. If interest rates were to rise by just a few percentage points, many people would find themselves unable to make ends meet. This could trigger a crash in the housing market – leading to homes being repossessed – which would in turn burst the consumer credit bubble that the economy relies upon. The ideology of home ownership also has a part to play in encouraging an unsustainable housing boom. Typically, papers like the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph present rising prices as a good thing, since it means their presumed readership of “middle class” home owners are getting richer – on paper at any rate.

The other factor driving house prices upwards is the buy-to-let craze. Just as the number of people who can afford to buy their first home has been dropping, the numbers of people who already own a home but now want to buy a second or third to rent out has been increasing. In 1999, financial institutions signed some 59,000 buy-to-let mortgages totalling £3.6 billion. Last year they signed 850,000 such deals totalling £94.8 billion. The number of people remortgaging their houses in order to get into the buy-to-let market, or to gain access to the value of their houses, has also shot up. The overall picture, then, is of a housing bubble fuelled by cheap credit and rising numbers of private landlords – and this is all happening in a context of widening inequality and a freeze on people’s real wages. New Labour’s dogmatic insistence on “market solutions” will do nothing to halt this vicious circle, since it is the market that is responsible for the mess in the first place. Instead of producing ever more complex schemes to encourage people into the private housing game, the government should be taking on the vested interests in the City and the property industry that have allowed this chaos to fester.

These measures could include punitive taxes on second homes to discourage buy-to-let speculators and racketeers. The government could also crack down on the tax loopholes and breaks that encourage the rich to snap up private properties and leave them empty. But ultimately we have to recognise that the whole notion of a “property owning democracy” is a mirage. It ­perfectly understandable why people want to own their own homes – we are relentlessly told that we should aspire to this status, and that it is the only means of gaining the security and personal space denied to us elsewhere in our lives. Nevertheless, the private housing market has never been able to provide affordable housing for the bulk of people in this country. The pro-market dogma currently embraced by all mainstream parties has been tried in the past – and it failed, leading to nothing but homelessness and exploitative private rents. That is why subsidised and council-owned housing was introduced in the first place. Subsidised housing is the only serious means of housing people fairly and rationally, and council housing – which is democratically controlled by tenants – is the best means of doing that. Until the government recognises that fact, the misery and insanity caused by a boom-and-bust market will only intensify.

Britain & America's special relationship

What if Hitler had won the war? Or Lee Harvey Oswald had missed? History is full of what-if questions, the stuff of fiction and almost-fact – and here are two more as we pound into 2010. What if Tony Blair hadn't dissembled about weapons of mass delusion? And – absolutely connected – what if Britain hadn't copped out at Suez? That final question is posed (in crisp counter-factual terms) by Robert Skidelsky at the end of his essay on 20th century Britain for A World By Itself, a chronicle of our small island's upheavals from Bede to Blair. What if the Brits and the French had told Eisenhower to go hang in 1956, he asks. What if they'd put the Suez Canal Company back in place, set up a joint garrison on the waterway – and become the empowered driving forces of a united Europe? magine a permanent and very cordiale entente, a new Third Force for planet Earth. And go on imagining. You saw Messrs Brown and Sarkozy playing natural best mates over bankers' bonuses the other day. Now head for the Westminster conference centre as a very ex-prime minister faces the genteel drip-drip of Iraqi water torture. We know already that there's something dodgier here than the odd dossier. We have heard a parade of the diplomatic great and good curl civilised lips over Downing Street's antics in March 2003. We have seen top lawyers furrow their brows at the illegality of it all. We have even endured Tony singing "Je ne regrette rien" as per usual. Yet the basic point – and harshest of truths – has barely been touched on.

George Bush and Dick Cheney had the intelligence they required. America's great secret sausage machine was sizzling with links to Saddam. It may all have been craven rubbish (as a few brave souls declared). But it was what the commander-in-chief deemed conclusive, with necessary action to follow. Mighty armies marched to the top of the hill with no chance of marching down again. And what could our PM do then, poor thing? Wimp out and order the fleet to sail away? Court derision amid a frenzy of knocking knees? Back John Scarlett's iffy-squiffy conclusions against the torrent of supposed certainties pouring in from Washington? Of course, millions marched for a different answer. Of course doves and hawks were at it again. But cast your mind back to Eden and Suez and ask, in reality, what other choice No 10 had. So 53 years ago, strapped for cash, short of too many troops fighting a US war in Korea, we let Ike ring down the curtain on empire. (Good job? But that's not the point). So Britain's bomb became America's bomb, lease-lent by default and impossible of independent operation. So MI5 and 6 became mere needy adjuncts of the CIA. So we couldn't fight a war of our own – see the Falklands – without US help, and permission. So our self-esteem and diplomatic status came to rest on a bit-part role as America's best friend over the water, the Oval Office's bridge to the heart of Europe.

Blair, being Blair, gave such spear-carrying a rhetorical ring. He talked up our influence. But why, after Clinton, put so much effort into getting cosy with George W? Because he thought – and surely still thinks – that it's the office that matters, not the name of who happens to be president. Don't worry whether it's an elephant in the room, or a donkey: just stick close to a relationship of extra special importance to Great Britain, because it haplessly defines us. But Wilson stayed out of Vietnam. Why couldn't Blair do the same for Baghdad? Because Europe in 1964 wasn't the Europe of 2003. Because the whole dependency culture of British political life had changed. Call Tony Blair a "sycophant" like the Daily Fail, if you wish. Call him a twister and a cheat, like many in his own party. Call him any of the names Chancellor Brown used to whisper behind his hand. But don't forget that PM Brown is first out of the traps when Obama wants more troops in Helmand, or that would-be PM Cameron, mending his White House fences fast, stands right behind him. Regime change when Mullah Omar departed; regime change again if Karzai doesn't perform. By all means dump on Blair if it makes you feel better. By all means cheer Chilcot on. But remember that this is by no means the whole of the story. Remember that we are impaled on a relationship none of our leaders – past or immediately present – will change, specially constrained by a truth that cannot be boldly told. For what would happen if they did? Then – no counter-factual needed – the emperor would run desperately short of clothes.

Rape: No Should Mean NO

A young woman walks into a bar, drinks too much and carelessly shows the man next to her that she is carrying a wad of notes in her handbag. He mugs her on her way home and the police arrest him. The jurors mutter that she has no one to blame but herself, but they don't mean it. However much of an idiot they think she has been, they still know that a mugging is the responsibility of a mugger and the guilty man must pay. A young woman walks into a bar, drinks too much and carelessly flirts with the man next to her. He follows her and rapes her. The jurors mutter that she has no one to blame but herself, but this time they mean it. She is more than just an idiot. The supposed provocation she offered absolves the alleged rapist of responsibility; now it is the victim who is at fault. Take the case of a young and previously confident woman I recently heard of who walked into a bar. A man she had been chatting to followed her into the lavatories. There was DNA evidence that he had sex with her and she emerged covered in bruises. CCTV cameras were not in the lavatories, but they were outside, and showed the man's friends dragging her out of the pub and dumping her on the street. The jury nevertheless acquitted after it heard the man say that she had consented and his lawyers add that she was drunk and had once committed a minor offence. She attempted suicide. Her parents saved her, but the combination of the confrontation in the bar and public humiliation in the courtroom has left her profoundly depressed.

A generation back, liberal-minded people blamed prejudiced officialdom for the law's double standards and I can see survivals of old misogyny today. You cannot say that the judiciary has learnt the lessons of feminism when it is so determined to pimp the English libel law to the world's rich that it allows Roman Polanski to sue via video link from Paris because the police would arrest him for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old if he set foot in a British court. A lord chief justice who announces that he wants to impose sharia on British women with brown skins, but not British women with white skins, also has much to discover about anti-sexism and, indeed, anti-racism. But it is no use pretending that today's judges are as prejudiced as the jowly monsters of the 1970s. No judge in the 21st century would dare say that a woman who goes out in a short skirt invites men to attack her, even if he thinks it. The police have transformed their behaviour, too. In 1982, the BBC provoked national outrage when it broadcast a gruesome fly-on-the-wall documentary showing detectives mocking and bullying a confused rape victim. Today, lawyers complain that police treat women too gently for their own good and do not prepare then for the tough cross examination defence barristers will inflict on them when they reach the witness box.

As for the government, Labour's women ministers have made it their business to reform the law. From the 2003 Sexual Offences Act that tightened up the definition of consent to Baroness Stern's announcement last week that she wanted to see drunken men who force themselves on their wives and girlfriends treated as rapists, they have tried to turn Britain into a country where "no" means "no" under any circumstances. All for nothing. Journalists usually trot out the statistic that only 6% of women who report a rape see their attacker convicted. Although shocking, the figure is misleading because most reports of crime don't lead to a sentence. Conviction rates are more telling. The Crown Prosecution Service only takes a case to court when it believes it has a fair chance of winning. Usually, its prosecutors call the odds right and last year won 86.6% of the cases they initiated. In rape trials, however, they secured guilty verdicts in just 58% of cases. Usually, I am happy to denounce the authorities for just about anything, but with rape I have to denounce the public. Julie Bindel, who can often seem the last principled feminist in England, has sat through dozens of rape cases and said: "I gaze into juries' eyes and see middle-aged women in particular wanting to blame the victim. They look at the man in the dock and think he's like their sons."

Women barristers, both prosecutors and defenders, told the same story. "If the defendant's of previously good character and there has been any kind of drunken flirtation before, they want to find reasons to acquit," said one. "Juries don't like branding a man a rapist," said a second. "If she knows him and led him on, juries appear to say, 'Yes, he had sex with you without your consent, but you should have known better.'" On the one hand, juries are doing the job they have been doing for centuries. Drink, drugs and flirtations produce enough mixed signals to cause reasonable doubt in a defendant's favour when he says that he thought she consented and she says he raped her. On the other, they are sending an unforgiving message. You shouldn't generalise about generations. There are as many shy, sensible or cautious young women now as there have always been. But today's dominant style is for women to be bawdy and empowered: to try to drink as much as the men around them, talk as dirty and boast about their control of their lives. They are not enjoying the liberation that the feminists of the 1970s imagined, but a kind of social equality. If men can behave badly, women can too. Then they provide a convincing account of rape backed up in a case with DNA evidence and bruises, and too often they find that, far from being empowered, they are publicly dishonoured. The jury, a representative sample of the people who pass them in the street, takes their account of themselves literally and says that, if the defendant is really so brassy and sassy and in control of her life, then rape isn't the responsibility of the rapist and the victim must pay.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Financial crisis is capitalism's legacy

How big a mess is capitalism in? In February when New York economist Nouriel Roubini suggested $1,000-2,000 billion in losses in the financial sector alone, mainstream commentators thought he was mad. Today these commentators are running to catch up with Roubini, and he, in turn, has revised his estimates upwards. So Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, reports: “Prof Roubini talks of a $5,600 billion (£2,773 billion) decline in the value of stocks and the possibility of additional trillions of dollars in losses on commercial property. Total losses might even equal annual GDP.” That is a loss of £6.4 trillion – enough for a 300-fold increase in the entire world aid budget. Such predictions reflect the panic in the ruling class. Why is capitalism facing a potentially very serious crisis? Capitalism is built on profit. The capitalist who makes a profit can invest and compete effectively. The capitalist who fails to make a profit goes to the wall. This is the ultimate law of competition.

But it is not simply the amount of profit that matters, the crucial figure for the capitalist is the “rate of profit” – how many pence do they get back for each pound invested. As Karl Marx pointed out, a fall in the rate of profit calls into question the viability of the whole system. In the 1950s and 1960s capitalism enjoyed a sustained boom based on high profit rates. But in the 1970s and 1980s the profit rate fell by about half in most major economies. In recent years it has recovered some of this fall in some countries, notably the US. This “recovery” came through a massive increase in the exploitation of workers. Our rulers have clawed back some of their losses by making us work longer and harder for less pay. Such is the legacy of 30 years of neoliberalism. But the system has not been fundamentally restructured, and profit rates have not recovered to levels seen in the 1950s. A number of factors have helped to mask the problems – until now. Because rates of profit are relatively low there is less scope for investment in production. Instead, pools of cash wash around the globe looking for a profitable outlet.

The cash comes from the substantial savings held by corporations in the US, from China where the system has boomed in recent years, and from exporters of oil and other basic commodities whose prices are soaring. This cash fuels “bubbles” that disguise the underlying problems. These include the dotcom boom in the US stockmarket in the 1990s, property bubbles seen in many countries in the past 20 years and the subprime mortgage boom since 2002. The cash also finances unprecedented levels of consumer debt in Britain, the US and elsewhere. This debt plays a vital role. For the capitalist system to function its output must be consumed. If the rate of profit was as high as in the 1950s companies could use their profits to purchase new machinery and expand production. Because profit rates have fallen, consumers have ­provided a crucial part of the demand required to keep the system moving forward. But because their wages were being held down this was paid for by debt. They lived beyond their means, and were encouraged to do so by the banks.

Governments have also helped absorb some of the output of the system, with the US and British governments taking on vast debts. Debt and bubbles in the economy can postpone the day of reckoning. It is possible that the defenders of the system will find another way to postpone this crisis. But it cannot be avoided indefinitely. The consequences of the unravelling of the economic system could be grave. It is not just the established economies, such as the US and Britain, that face trouble ahead. China, seen by some as the “saviour” of the system, depends on US consumers. If the US is removed from the equation China is a net importer of goods, many of them parts produced elsewhere in the region, which are assembled in China and re-exported to the US. Recession in the US will impact across this region. A global slowdown will make all the tensions in the system worse. Stronger states will be tempted to use their muscle to make weaker ones pay the price. Wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan could become more common as states try to grab what profit remains, and prevent their rivals from doing so. It will also increase the tension that exists within every economy – between workers and capitalists. Socialists will be in the forefront of the struggles that result. But as well as fighting our rulers’ attempts to make us pay for their crisis, we also have to point to the insanity of capitalism, and the need for a socialist alternative.

This crisis isn't our fault

As the winter nights draw in, many people will be worrying about whether they can afford to pay their gas and electricity bills. By the end of this year, an estimated 5.7 million households will be living in fuel poverty – spending more than 10 percent of their income on energy. And a recent report in the Independent newspaper warned that Britain is returning to Victorian levels of poverty, with 20 percent of the population living below the poverty line. With the savage cuts to public services due after the next general election regardless of which party wins, we can expect that figure to jump even higher. Providing decent jobs, homes and healthcare are three basic ways to alleviate poverty – yet none of them appear to be a priority for politicians. Instead we are told that cuts are “necessary” to get us out of the recession. As the BBC puts it, “with a deficit edging towards £200 billion, does any party have any real choices?” The assumption is that “we’re all in it together”, so everyone should pay to bail out the economy, whatever it may cost. But this assumption is seriously flawed.

The economic crisis was not caused by public sector workers, migrants or “excesses” in public spending. Nor was it caused by private sector workers or lone parents claiming benefits. Yet they are all being told they should bear the brunt of the recession. Pay rises are to be capped at 1 percent in the public sector and a million jobs are expected to be lost there – while unemployment continues to rise. The planned cuts will affect the public services we all use every day, from bus routes to school class sizes and hospital waiting times. The benefits system is one of those areas of public spending considered “excessive” and so benefits are set to be slashed. Yet unemployed people only get £64.30 per week, and that’s if they are over 25 – the under 25s receive just £50.95. The government also plans a fraud “crackdown”, saying that £900 million has been lost this year. Yet this number pales in comparison to the £10.5 billion of benefits that people are entitled to but don’t claim.

Migrants are another popular scapegoat for the right wing media. But it is a complete lie to say that they “come over here” to “sponge” our benefits system. Asylum seekers are segregated from others claiming benefits and dealt with by the UK Border Agency, not social services. They receive much less in benefits than other people. A single person aged 18 or over, excluding lone parents, gets just £35.13 a week. Many Eastern European migrants are also deliberately denied access to the benefits system here. Yet 1.5 million British people work in other European Union countries, where they do not face the harsh regulatory system that eastern European migrants do in Britain. And while councils close down nurseries, the government’s “back to work” approach to benefits is placing a double burden on women, who continue to be the primary carers for children. The part-time workforce, where job security and working conditions are worse, is mostly made up of women. Many of us don’t have the “option” of full-time work, but are not recognised as workers if we stay at home. Meanwhile, at the Royal Bank of Scotland – a bank owned by us – top bosses kicked up a fuss and threatened to leave if they were denied their bonuses. And so did many MPs when they were asked to pay back all the dirty cash they pocketed from their expenses. The poor may have debts – but they are symptoms, not the causes, of the crisis.

Right of the oppressed to organise their own defence

It is a movement from below that can change the world. They draw their power from their capacity to mobilise large numbers of people. Movements provide most of the energy and creativity involved in great challenges to our rulers. The overthrow of capitalism will involve an immense movement from below. It will engage the self transforming activity of millions of working people, struggling for economic, political and cultural power. Such a movement, developing its own democratic organisations from below, will provide the first bases for a new constitution of society. However there is a problem. Such movements are mixed and contradictory in their character. Great movements are not composed of people who all think and act the same way. How simple life would be if that were the case! In reality movements are full of all manner of opposed tendencies. While some voices urge more militancy, others urge moderation. Arguments for unity battle with arguments for division. Just as new forms of struggle emerge, some voices hark back to old ways of understanding and action.

That's why revolutionary socialists need to organise themselves into a party to argue their case within movements. If they don't, other tendencies or parties will prevail-and hold the movement back, or lead it to defeat. But what kind of party? The task determines the form. Most parties see social change occurring through parliament. They divide their membership into two unequal parts-MPs and councillors, and the rank and file. The first group does the politics, while the rest work to get them elected.  At best, such parties aim to make things slightly better on behalf of the working class. They have a top-down view of politics. They are hierarchical and undemocratic. The Labour Party is typical, with the leadership regularly ignoring their own party conferences. For socialists, only an organised workers' movement from below can change the world. That project requires a very different kind of party. Its job is to encourage movements to make their own advances, to win their own power.

Revolutionary socialism involves a different conception of what politics is about. The job of socialists is to intervene actively in movements and struggles, always seeking to advance working class strength and understanding. The socialist aim is to draw all the best fighters in the unions, in the anti-war, anti-fascist and other movements, into a shared socialist organisation. Most of the time-apart, that is, from genuinely revolutionary situations-socialist organisations draw in only a minority of those active in movements and struggles. For most people, the prospect of socialist transformation of society seems remote from the everyday world. Socialist activity demands a level of commitment which makes participation in socialist organisations a minority activity, involving a process of self selection among militants. That commitment only makes sense as part of a shared understanding of capitalism-as the key source of all human problems in the world, and as a form of society that will not last for ever.

Socialist activity can be understood as a mixture of two kinds of work- "propaganda" and "agitation". Propaganda means, in essence, explaining and discussing every kind of social and political question in socialist terms. It involves putting across quite complex ideas, and winning people to a shared socialist vision. For socialists, questions of "theory" are immensely important, for two reasons. First, most movements focus on "single issues"-pay and conditions, war, anti-racism, the environment, gay rights, and so on. They deal with symptoms rather than causes. Socialists need to show the interconnections between these issues and the capitalist system that breeds the problems. Second, the history of the workers' movement and other movements is full of important lessons about defeats and victories. How do we know that racism or imperialism damage working class organisation? How do we know the rank and file must organise independently of the union bureaucracy? How do we know that the best way to oppose fascists is to build a united front? The short answer is, from the experience of past movements.

If those lessons are forgotten, it is easy to repeat the mistakes of the past. One job of socialist organisation is to act like a "memory bank" for working class struggle. But propaganda alone is not enough. In the end, what counts are ordinary workers' practical experiences of organising themselves effectively, building movements, winning practical victories. The everyday struggle involves immediate, tactical questions. It involves organising, whether for strikes or anti-fascist leafleting or mobilising an anti-war demonstration. "Agitation" is all of these things and more. Propaganda and agitation alike involve active socialist intervention in and around movements. Doing that effectively requires a high level of democratic debate among socialists. The class struggle proceeds by way of twists and turns. Real movements go up and down. There are constant debates and arguments about the best way forward. Often it's not immediately clear how we should respond to new situations that the struggle constantly throws up.

To be effective, socialists need to constantly evaluate the changing conditions, to work out how best to organise and act. For that, ongoing democratic debate, where we exchange our views and experiences, and decide together is vital. In "normal" political parties, decisions about strategy and tactics are left to a few leaders. Socialist organisation needs to involve every member in debate and decision. A socialist organisation is not divided into "leaders" and "rank and file", but is made up of people who work to give a lead in their own situation-in their anti-war group, in their workplace or union branch. Constant democratic debate is a practical necessity. But there is also the need for direction and coordination, which is what the mainstream parties miserably lacking in. In the 1840s famine struck Britain's colony in Ireland; the British government enforced the export of food from Ireland. One and a half million people died from starvation, and a million and a half emigrated. Small wonder that the question of national independence dominated Irish politics. Only after a long struggle did Ireland win independence, and then only in the South. Struggles for national independence became more important from the later 19th century.

That was when the British and other European states consolidated their empires. Across Asia, Africa and Latin America, colonial regimes subordinated local people's needs to the power of the imperialist centres. The colonisers claimed their mission was "civilising". In reality they held back development and impoverished many colonial economies. India in the late 19th century suffered famines many times worse than that in Ireland. Belgium's colony in the Congo was a byword for brutality. In the 20th century anti-colonial movements really took off. Despite the brutal repression often meted out to them, the demand for independent states grew. To their immense discredit, the Labour Party backed imperialism. The first Labour minister for the colonies sent aircraft to bomb Iraqi villages. Between the wars, only the Communist Party and the Labour left supported the growing national liberation movements. The left repeated what Karl Marx said about the Irish question-no nation that oppresses another can itself be free. Lenin, writing during the First World War, fought hard for communists to support the right of nations to self determination. Such struggles, he insisted, could help to crack imperialist power.

Not until after the Second World War did national liberation movements really gain major victories. The British Empire in India ended ingloriously in 1948. In 1949 Mao's Chinese Communist Party drove out Chiang Kai-Shek's Western-backed regime - the Dutch lost Indonesia. In the 1950s many African and West Indian colonies won independence. Sometimes the struggle was fairly straightforward. Sometimes it was long lasting and bloody. In Algeria significant numbers of European colonists had taken control. It took a savage civil war to break out of the French Empire. Such "settlers" were often the worst and most racist opponents of national liberation-not just in Algeria, but in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) and of course in South Africa. One reason the old empires did crumble was the changing balance of forces in world imperialism. After 1945 the US was dominant. US capital did not rely on direct colonial control to secure profits. Indeed, it wanted access to what had been Europe's colonies. In the later part of the 20th century the motive for imperialist control, and the methods used, changed.

In numbers of Latin American countries US Marines invaded to secure governments pliant to Washington's global interests (they have just been doing the same in Haiti). Vietnam had no fabulous wealth. Cold War rivalries, more than immediate economic interests, led the US to wage a bloody struggle against the national liberation movement. In two places in the world today, above all, national liberation struggles are still vital. One is Palestine, the other is Iraq. Israel has all the classic hallmarks of a settler state, dominated by the reactionary ideology of Zionism. Israel takes the largest amount of US aid. The Palestinians' liberation struggle, the intifada, has understandably become an international symbol of resistance. In Iraq, the US-led invasion and occupation are provoking a new national liberation struggle directed at freeing the country from foreign rule. These cases apart, the classic era of national liberation struggles has largely ended. The face of modern imperialism has changed. No longer do the most powerful states seek direct colonial control, with their own governors and officers in charge. Now it is the imperialism of finance that rules-through the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and the "Washington Consensus".

Socialists always supported genuine national liberation movements. The workers' movement had nothing to gain from colonial oppression of others, and everything to gain from solidarity with movements against oppression across the globe. Sometimes the left made the mistake of treating national liberation movements as if they were socialist. They weren't-nor was that the reason for socialists in the imperial heartlands to support them. Those who led national liberation movements aimed to establish a state not directly controlled by a colonising power. In itself, that was a democratic advance. However, it did not make those leaders socialist. Winning national independence only cleared the decks, in a sense, for the direct class struggle. The clearest position was advanced by the early Communist International, the international organisation of socialists founded in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Socialists, it argued, following Lenin, should unconditionally support movements for national liberation. But they should not make the mistake of giving them a "communist coloration". The workers' movement must maintain its political independence from these movements' middle class leaderships. Nationalism today has less and less progressive content across the world. What's most prominent now are the common problems facing working people in "rich" and "poor" countries. In the new "globalised" world, the World Social Forums in Porto Alegre and Mumbai symbolise a new internationalist struggle against the destructive power of world capitalism. Under capitalism the working class has a great political advantage compared with all previous exploited classes. The very people whose lives are currently dominated by the fact that they produce the wealth and power of capitalism are the key to its transformation.

Capitalism, for its own purposes, has concentrated workers together in great cities and towns. It has forced them together into factories and offices. And it has educated workers far beyond the average level of culture even of previous ruling classes. As a result, it has made the modern working class a force that can organise itself quite easily into unions, parties, co-operatives, and other bodies and networks. Never has any exploited class in history had such a capacity to take over and run society. The very people whose lives are currently dominated by the fact that they produce the wealth and power of capitalism are the key to its transformation. Socialism involves the great majority seizing back, under their own control, the wealth they already produce. No vision of "socialism" is worth a bean if it leaves out the working class, actively organising itself, taking control of the means of production from the capitalist class and setting out to remake society on the basis of real human need.

The road to socialism and the goal of socialism are inextricably linked. We utterly oppose all those "top-down" accounts of the way to achieve socialism that suppose that some small group of clever people-intellectuals, party leaders, MPs, guerrilla army leaders, etc-can emancipate humanity from capitalism. Socialism cannot be achieved by acts of parliament or any kind of dictatorship or minority action. For this reason the Socialist Workers Party has always opposed the traditions of social democracy (embodied in Britain by those who talked of the Labour Party bringing socialism through parliament) and Stalinism alike. Both involve the politics of "socialism from above". Socialism is only possible when millions upon millions of ordinary working people - women and men, black and white, gay and straight - organise themselves democratically "from below" and set out to take all forms of decision-making power away from the minorities who rule us today, and to impose their own collective power over every aspect of social and productive life.

The founding principle of a socialist society is the most extensive democracy, going far beyond the limited principles of "parliamentary democracy" today. In order to secure and extend its rule the working class needs the active involvement of the masses of people who are currently excluded from decisions about the matters that shape their own lives. Capitalism has a combination of two drives, both of which are direct obstacles to democratic popular control over social, economic and political life. The first is exploitation. The second is competition. Exploitation - the extraction of surpluses from the labour of the majority by a minority - necessarily rests on hierarchy and lack of democracy. To maintain the flow of profits to a few, the social power of private and state property over us is upheld by whole armies of supervisors, foremen, managers, police, jailers and (ultimately) soldiers. Replacing production for profit with production aimed directly at satisfying human need means breaking these hierarchies and substituting direct democratic control over society's means of production.

Capitalism, though, is not only marked by class exploitation. Its other core feature is "the market" and the necessity of competition between rival companies and states. Indeed, that competition compels the capitalist class to seek, constantly, to step up the rate of exploitation and to devise ever new methods of keeping control over labour. Competition drives capitalists to accumulate, to exploit. Competition and the market also produce a world that nobody controls that develops through convulsive crises. Private profit dominates, and general interests take a back seat - as a result the capitalist class has no effective answer to ecological threats like global warming. Capitalist production, driven by competitive accumulation, rips the heart out of established communities, and today threatens the very existence of life on the planet. It prevents the rational collective harbouring and development of resources. The sole practical alternative to the anarchy and destructiveness of capitalist competition and exploitation is the development and extension of cooperative and democratic planning.

How, in the end, can human needs and wants be decided unless human beings themselves choose - democratically - what their needs and wants are and where their priorities lie? How else can plans be sensibly evaluated and changed unless the majority can engage in debate and decide how to alter things? Such a world only becomes possible when workers organise themselves to take that world back from their ruling exploiters and place it under their own collective power. Workers create all the wealth, but none of the power and certainly not the wealth big business bosses - it's time to change that for the better. At the heart of capitalism is an ongoing class struggle between capital and labour. That is the ABC of Marxism. But the alphabet has more than three letters. Class domination in capitalism is interwoven with many other sorts of human oppression. These provide a basis for divisions among the exploited. Disadvantaged groups have been held down on the grounds of being "different", and they in turn have fought back. There is no difference in principle here with the debates we have in unions about how best to fight the bosses. In both cases we start with solidarity, and participate in debates about strategy and tactics.