Fighting terrorism after Paris

_86692951_86692950One expression of the dogmatic campaign that has followed the terrorist attacks in Paris is the near hysterical reaction of politicians and media in Britain to Jeremy Corbyn’s reply to a question on support for a police shoot-to-kill policy, that he ‘would not be happy with it’.

This has evoked an opportunist and cynical moral outrage that seeks to marginalise opposition to repressive measures by making everyone feel that, of course, the very idea of opposition to such an idea is crazy.  Yet when you look at the question asked, Jeremy Corbyn would have had to be crazy to answer it in any other way – ‘would you be happy to order the police to shot to kill.’

So a politician orders the police to adopt a shoot-to-kill policy, a licence-to-kill, that, if it were to mean anything other than incoherent frothing at the mouth, would mean rewriting the law by simply ignoring it.

All obviously in the course of defending our liberties and the rule of law.  Giving the police the prior authority to kill in advance ‘of split-second decisions’ (what a contradiction that is for a start) is held up as defence of western civilisation.

Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell station on CCTV........pic by Gavin Rodgers/Pixel 07917221968

Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell station on CCTV……..pic by Gavin Rodgers/Pixel 07917221968

Has the name of John Charles de Menezes slipped from everyone’s memory already?  Isn’t it revealing that the same BBC that only five months ago was reporting the tenth anniversary of his murder are demanding  that just such an approach to policing is made the benchmark of a rational response to terrorism. Have the police ever shown any reluctance before to do anything other than shoot-first-ask-questions-later?  How many are languishing in jail for having murdered innocent people?

The great British liberal establishment once again demonstrates every criticism made of its hypocritical self-righteous arrogance to be completely true.  These liberals will wrestle with their conscience and their conscience will lose.  They will defend democratic and civil rights, except when they are under attack.  And they will defend our freedom by ridding us of as much of it as they can get away with.

What has been staggering has been the sheer stupidity of some of the contributions to this ‘debate’, a debate in which no one is allowed to present a different opinion.  One can almost still hear the BBC Radio 4 presenter raise his voice to exasperated levels asking why Corbyn didn’t answer a different question from the one he was asked.

We have a Labour MP saying, and I paraphrase: ‘we have bombed Iraq why can’t we bomb Syria – it would be like bombing Hamburg and not Berlin in the Second World War.’

They’re different bloody countries you idiot!

When you bomb a country you are declaring war on it.  (This blog by Boffy explains.)  Not hard to understand but easily proclaimed by the politically hysterical in the safe and secure knowledge that as long as you bare your bloated chest in moral outrage and demand more repressive measures you will be saved the cross examination meted out to Corbyn or, last night, to Ken Livingstone.

So the Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme had some Tory MP and ex-Brit (as we put it in this part of the world) saying that, just like the Prime Minister, we ‘shouldn’t look back’, which was in response to another interviewee pointing out the disastrous consequences of western intervention in the Middle East in the past.  The latter of course is called learning from history, or ‘evidence based policy’ as it might also be called nowadays.

For the educated and discerning liberal, with the memory of a goldfish, there is this article in ‘The Guardian’ which says – yes the west has screwed up the Middle East but (and this is the bit where you need a goldfish memory) Corbyn’s argument is “mangled history without a conclusion, half an argument, the sound of one hand wringing.”

So we begin with this “mangled history”:-

“The charge sheet against western policy dating back a generation is easily drafted. It takes moments to weave a tale of counterproductive geopolitical vandalism, starting from US support for the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan, via the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq, pausing to condemn blind eyes turned and arms sold to Saudi Arabia, whence the theology of infidel-murder pullulates.”

Only for all this to be simply “selective history that adorns jihadi propaganda” at the end of the short article.

This is not unlike some commentary on the Left which, recognising the thoroughly reactionary nature of Islamic fundamentalism and the attacks in Paris, seeks to deny that these acts are at least partly the result of imperialist intervention; as if this rather obvious fact necessarily lends some little bit of legitimacy to the terrorists’ actions.

So they echo in left phraseology the claim that the Paris attacks were solely motivated by a barbaric and obscurantist religious fanaticism, which at the very most uses western actions as cynical justification.

That it was indeed inspired by the former does not exhaust its motivation or that of those who join it.

With a liberal understanding of politics, of moral absolutes that get applied relatively- depending on the circumstances, but rolled out as absolutes again when it suits, it is easy to see the logic.  (A good article pointing out the hypocrisy is here.)

With a Marxist approach it is not.  Those who seek the development of a working class movement don’t have to think twice about denying anything legitimate in, or any progressive impulse within, movements that would happily destroy any manifestation of socialism in societies they control.

The reason all this is important is not really that we must demand fair and balanced coverage from the BBC.  If you’re waiting, hoping or something like expecting that, you must also be expecting a new ten-part series on massive welfare sponging by a long-established German immigrant family in a palace called Buckingham.

The class bias of the BBC is part of its DNA.  While we can expose it and condemn it and even demand it stop, the answer does not lie in expecting this to happen.  Its blatantly biased treatment of Corbyn will become a vaccine to more and more people, and will prove to be the case when the British labour movement builds its own mass media to counter the BBC and the gutter press who manufacture many of the stories it regurgitates.

The real importance of this analysis is the fact that the state that is the author of  the ‘mangled history’ is now presented as our only protector against unmerciful violence.  And the working class movement is in no position to present an immediate and live means of defence as an alternative.

An armed mass labour movement does not exist and will not forseeably for some time so our alternative means of defence starts with political argument.  And prime among these is a fact already apparent to many, that western imperialist intervention in the Arab region has fertilised the soil of Islamic fundamentalism and must share responsibility for the monster it has both directly and indirectly created.

To expect this imperialist state to place the needs of working people above its own needs is a political innocence that needs to be shaken off and renounced.

To win an argument that working people cannot rely on the armed forces of the state never mind agree it be allowed vastly increased powers is a difficult one where we are under direct threat and direct attack.  We should therefore not accept its exculpation of its own sins on the basis that we must simply damn the reactionary terrorists.  The depths of this terrorist reaction is testified not only by the barbarity of the attacks on ordinary working people but by their objective of seeking to make all of us part of the undifferentiated ranks of western decadence and aggression.

This is not the West that really exists just as Islamic fundamentalism is not the Arab world that exists.  There is a unity between the peoples of both that stands separate and above the alliance of western imperialists and reactionary rulers of the Arab peoples.

However far away this might now seem there will be no justice for those murdered through surrendering our own freedoms and cheering the imperialist acts of violence that brought us to where we now seek to escape from.

 

John McDonnell’s IRA apology

Brent-Hosts-Question-Time-1If you relied on the mainstream media to know what was happening in the world you would be mightily confused.  Some bearded, deluded and dishevelled guy has just become leader of the Labour Party.  Even worse, the BBC Six O’clock news led its programme with the announcement that he had just named a guy called John McDonnell as shadow chancellor, someone, the voiceover immediately told us, who once supported the IRA.

Who he was, what he had previously done that made him qualified for the job, what his economic policies were, none of these were the foremost issue for the BBC.

Now, John McDonnell has apologised for saying “It’s about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table.”

He explained the remarks by saying that  “I accept it was a mistake to use those words, but actually if it contributed towards saving one life, or preventing someone else being maimed it was worth doing, because we did hold on to the peace process.  There was a real risk of the republican movement splitting and some of them continuing the armed process. If I gave offence, and I clearly have, from the bottom of my heart I apologise, I apologise.”

A number of things should be said about this.

Firstly, there’s little point complaining about the obvious bias that pervades not only the Tory press but also the BBC.

This is fuelled by the social background of those in the organisation and their political views.  Their commitment to a view of objectivity and balance embraces such a narrow conception of what is acceptable that Corbyn and his supporters are clearly beyond the pale and don’t fall within the normal rules.

Along with this there is an inability to fully comprehend their politics, partly as a result of their limited experience of political debate that doesn’t stretch back beyond the Thatcherite consensus imposed on society during the 1980s.This means for example that the idea that the leader doesn’t make all the decisions is not seen as an example of democracy but as a weakness, causing confusion and division. And of course, there is fear of the Tories who have put the squeeze on the BBC as an organisation.

Complaining about bias is not going to change any of these.

What would change the situation is the British labour movement building its own mass media which, given modern technology, does not need to immediately seek to replicate the scale of the capitalist media.  Within the hundreds of thousands who voted for Jeremy Corbyn and the many more millions who support him there is the basis to do this.

The second thing to note is that the media presentation on this issue is only one example of a barrage of attacks that reveal not only bias but the current weakness of the Corbyn led movement.  It is not a surprise that Jeremy Corbyn and his support have not been prepared for the tasks of leading the opposition to the Tories.  They will obviously for example have to build a team to deal with a hostile media.

The greatest weakness however is not in this lack of media preparedness but in the weakness of their support among the mass of careerist Labour MPs.  It is this that has allowed the media to present the new leadership as shambolic.

There’s nothing that can immediately be done about this either.  In one ironic sense it is to be hoped that this right wing shower are actually motivated by careerism and not ideological fidelity to their rotten right wing politics.  If they are simply careerists they might understand that if they attempt to destroy Corbyn they will in all likelihood so damage their party that they would scupper their own careers as well.

In contrast the great strength of the Corbyn phenomenon, which put him where he is, is invisible, or invisible to the mass media anyway.  While appearing to recognise his mandate the media presents the world from ‘the Westminster bubble’, the same bubble it claims everyone else is outside of, although not apparently themselves.

Even in the case of John McDonnell’s apology on ‘Question Time’, the reporter in the local BBC Northern Ireland news noted that his apology seemed to go down well with the audience.

This support will be tested and its cohesion and growth depends not so much on Jeremy Corbyn himself but on what these people do.  In order to resist and fight the media as part of rebuilding the labour movement they must organise for this objective.  The arguments and political activism of hundreds of thousands will be the only effective response to a hostile media.

What Corbyn and McDonnell’s are now in a position to do is deliver political leadership, with arguments that can effectively galvanise, educate and rally their supporters.  Organisation of their support is the number one objective because only this support can convince the millions who can be won to their cause.

When it comes to the question of Ireland their position needs to be better.  The original political position of McDonnell arose because he put solidarity with the political leadership of the resistance to British rule before opposition to his own country’s oppression of Ireland.  And he did this at a time when this political leadership was surrendering its opposition.

So McDonnell claimed that armed struggle forced the British state to the negotiating table.  So it did, but once it got there this armed struggle showed how useless it was at getting anything from it.  It also showed that there wasn’t going to be any real negotiations unless the armed struggle stopped.  This is always the demand of the British and they get their way.  In fact it is more accurate to say that armed struggle gets them to the table which only becomes a negotiating table when they stop it.

But even in the recent ‘peace process’ this is to overstate its importance.  The Provos had to make significant political concessions before the British would get into substantive political talks, including accepting the supposed neutrality of the British state.  This is before we even consider the capitulation required before unionists would talk to them.

The result of these negotiations and the so-called peace process is something that the British Labour Party should not support.  It should reject the argument that an end to political violence is predicated on a sectarian and increasingly corrupt political settlement.  The political deal, one that has been in crisis since it was born, appeared after the ceasefires.  Of course the rotten nature of this settlement will pass the vast majority of British people by, but then so did the North of Ireland for decades before 1968.

The primary role of a Labour party is to support the independent organisation of workers and this is true of the Labour Party in the imperialist country.  This can best be done by solidarising with Irish workers’ own attempts to do this and campaigning to remove the foreign state presence that frustrates this.

In the North of Ireland the British state does this in a number of ways, including the sponsorship of loyalist paramilitaries and political policing of republicanism, where it has found ‘good’ republicans in the form of the Provos, for whom it will attempt to cover up violence, and ‘bad’ republicans who are labelled dissidents. (See here )

But even if Jeremy Corbyn became prime minister he would be able to do little to prevent the British military continuing its criminal conspiracies.  It swears loyalty to the Queen not parliament and certainly not to the people and it does so for a reason.  Marxists make the distinction between being in Government and being in power, between sitting on the top of a state and controlling and directing it.  The example of the British state’s operations in Ireland is graphic proof of the difference.

And there is yet another problem, as a comrade of mine put it last weekend at a rally in support of the refugees: Corbyn is more left wing than anyone in Ireland.  Who would be his political allies here?  Even if he wanted a united Ireland there is no significant political force in Ireland demanding it never mind in a position to do anything about it.

And don’t give me a response of ‘what about Sinn Fein’.  We have been at the stage for some time that when Sinn Fein politicians appear on TV claiming that they’re ‘for a united Ireland’ the reaction is one of – what?  Really?

What Sinn Fein does, its support for sectarian partitionist institutions and its ideological capitulation to unionism, betrays what it sometimes says about being republican.

The truth is that today there is no significant political force fighting for an end to imperialist rule.  Sinn Fein ‘support’ for a united Ireland is on a spectrum of such support declared by every nationalist party in the country and just as empty as the rest.

The task for Irish socialists is therefore very like the one for British socialists – rebuild a working class movement committed to democracy and socialism independent of their respective capitalist states.  That these are essentially the same is why socialists are internationalists.

For British socialists a democratic policy on Ireland is nothing to apologise for and nothing to hide from the British people, but it does not involve hitching their banner to the failed organisations of Irish nationalism including Provisional republicanism.

 

 

Russell Brand and Revolution

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I was listening to BBC Radio 4 on the headphones on my way home from work last night when three Westminster politicians were asked about Russell Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman.  The link shows it has had nearly 9 million hits, just a few million more than this blog.  This is why Radio 4 was covering it and why it is important.

Is it another illustration of the celebrity culture that colonises everything?  This is the claim of some of the derisive dismissal of Brand’s rantings by the rest of the media who, at least the ones I’ve read, have slagged him off as a hypocrite.  An obvious example of ad hominem argument or shooting the messenger, not that it’s always wrong to shoot the messenger when the message is intolerable.  In this respect I’m reminded of the opening scene of Gladiator when the Germanic tribes respond to the demand to surrender by the Roman legions by throwing the severed head of the messenger on the ground in front of their massed ranks.

The problem of course is that shooting the messenger doesn’t deal with the message as the Germanic tribes discovered.  It might be claimed Brand doesn’t have an argument.  But read his New Statesman article and he does.

It might be dismissed as primitive or naïve but a better word is elemental and he does have more than a few good lines.  He makes a case.  It’s not the sort you will read on this blog but this blog doesn’t pretend to have the only or the best or the most effective voice for revolutionary change.  It aspires to encourage the recovery of Marxism and its application to the practical political programme of socialists.  It hopes that whoever thinks this is a reasonable objective to pursue will contribute to it and write their own posts.

So what if Brand’s surprising political commitment lights up the sky like a meteor and crashes and burns to earth?  What if he is a one-hit wonder?  When the rest of us are unable to get a gig a one-hit wonder is something to be.

Has his outburst reduced the credibility of our cause?  Or given it a little more light? Perhaps one more point of departure to argue for it and to advance it?

He is obviously very aware of the brickbats he would get for his ‘champagne socialist’ position and his trenchant, and in some ways reasonable, response to this is itself rather honest compared to the carefully constructed insincerity of politician’s continual hypocrisy.  It’s not as if he’s a champagne socialist in the way that that other celebrity in the new is – ‘Sir’ Alex Ferguson – with his Icumfigovan sign in his office, his hobnobbing with millionaires and his advice on man management to Tony Bliar. Nevertheless Brand has a brand problem – for example my partner thinks he’s a prat and she is very rarely wrong in such judgements.

russell brand revolution header

Brand can be criticised as anti-political, with his calls for people not to vote, but he is not stupid and he puts forward a case why we ‘should not encourage them’.  He also puts well the idea that apathy is more accessible than anger to all the shit that people have to put up with from politicians and the system they pimp.  Compared to many on the left, who claim there is a crisis of working class representation, that is we don’t have the right politicians in parliament to represent us, the radical critique of all politicians who do represent us is refreshing.

Not because we haven’t heard it before, in fact as Marxists we invented the revolutionary critique of bureaucratic ‘representation’ of the working class, but because we never see it on television.  We are extremists who never get heard but a little bit of a hearing for revolution makes us a little bit less extreme in the sense we are able to register in political debate a little bit more.

Listening to the feeble and self-serving helpings of cant from the Tory, Labour and Liberal politicians last night on the radio shows how even such a minor assault on their system from someone with a shred of credibility can so easily expose the defenders of the status quo.  Now Radio 4 reports the disillusionment of Paxman himself with the politics on offer in Britain. For Ireland multiply that lack of alternative by the number of Euros given to bailout the banks.

Above all, when pressed for what he wants as an alternative Brand calls for socialism and for revolution.  This is a darned sight more than some on the left do when faced with such a question.  The next question is that of the child – but how do we get a revolution?  You can ague all you like that Brand hasn’t much to say about this that seems practical but what is the message of the so-called revolutionary left?

As I have posted many times, the left that claims to be Marxist asks the state to extend its power through extra spending, taxation and through nationalisation while simultaneously believing, but not having the courage to say so in front of the workers, that this same state should be smashed in a revolution.

Let’s not pretend Brand is an advanced political thinker whose views we should instantly embrace.  He may be on a ‘messiah world tour’ but he’s still more a very naughty boy than a genuine Messiah.

Brandism is hardly going to succeed Marxism, Leninism and Trotskyism.  It’s not a practical guide but an emotional and reasoned outburst.  It’s not even an inarticulate expression of youth rebellion.  He’s 38 and very articulate.  We’re not obliged to defend his every word or even every tenth one but his avalanche of words creates an impression – there is something radically wrong with the world we inhabit.  Very, very wrong.

It would be easy to criticise what he says for all sorts of reasons, from his apparent attitude to women to his lack of political strategy.  But it is precisely his political limits that creates a focus on the key message that he is held to be delivering – opposition to the venality of the present system, the need for a revolution.

I’ve just finished reading a book – ‘A Marxist History of the World’, written by a member of a British left organisation.  It also makes the argument that what is needed is a socialist revolution.  The French revolution of 1789, the revolutions of 1830 and 1848; the 1917 revolution in Russia and revolutionary wave in Europe up to 1923, the Spanish revolution in 1936, the Hungarian revolution of 1956; the French general strike in 1968; the Iranian revolution of 1979; the overthrow of Stalinism after 1989 and the recent Arab revolutions, are all held up to show its possibility.  The last 100 years has been ‘pregnant with revolution’ readers are told.  We face Armageddon reminiscent of that foretold by the bible –with the appearance of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.  The stakes have never been higher with a crisis of capitalism the deepest and most intractable ever.

This to me is no more coherent than Russell Brand’s interview but without a few of the redeeming features of the latter.

The list of revolutions includes only one successful socialist one – 1917 – and it was strangled into Stalinism relatively quickly.  We will, rather shortly, be commemorating the 100th anniversary of this revolution.

The point is not that the objective of revolution should be abandoned.  Revolution is not required to achieve a certain state of affairs – socialism – revolution is that state of affairs, which is the ruling of society by its majority.

Revolution on the other hand is seen by many on the left as one strategy to achieve something as opposed to alternative reformist ones – such as voting and elections to parliament – which are said not to be realistic.  Revolution is therefore seen as a cataclysmic single event rather than as a process, one that begins and grows and that moves towards a qualitative rupture that destroys the old state and creates a new one based on the working majority of society.

The road to socialism is not growing state control but increasing workers’ control of every aspect of their lives through incrementally reducing the power of the capitalist class and its state in preparation for the final battle.  I have tried to explain this a little bit on this blog.

When a public intervention leads to Radio 4 interviewers pursuing their politician guests with the question “but why not revolution?” this intervention deserves some support.

BBC Spotlight and the Housing Executive – what sort of scandal? Part 2

Belfast Peace Wall (Belfast Telegraph)

Belfast Peace Wall (Belfast Telegraph)

By Belfast Plebian

Episode two commenced after the Assembly was recalled for a one-day public debate on the developing scandal on July 8th.Once more it was down to Jim Allister to make most of the running, alleging that Red Sky had carried out work on the homes and offices of DUP members and that they even had the gall to charge some of the costs to the Assembly.  He tried to arrange for a motion calling for McCausland’s to be put up for vote but was rebuffed by Sinn Fein who wanted a less severe motion to be voted on.

It was also alleged that Nelson McCausland had an improper relationship with Turkington Holdings, a Portadown based firm that specialises in windows, doors and conservatory installations. The allegation was that he had agreed to delay the ongoing work by other rival firms with a view to favouring Turkington on the grounds of cost.  Before making his suspension order it was alleged that he met with Turkington, the chair of witch is a DUP member. But the heart of the second episode came down to final the motion and vote.

The motion asked that Mr McCausland step aside while the inquiry into the matter by the DSD committee was being carried out.  It also noted that the Minister may have purposely misled both the Assembly and the committee. The motion drawn up by Sinn Fein was supported by the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Allaince  plus the Greens and the new Unionist Party NI21. The motion collapsed even though 54 members voted for it and 32 voted against. This outcome was possible due to a safeguard inserted into the Belfast Agreement known as the petition of concern. It allows any 30 members to effectively veto a motion or law they feel is discriminatory, the DUP with 38 MLAs is the only party that can do this without votes from others.   

The reaction to the petition of concern in the press was interesting because for the first time there was a feeling of genuine alarm about the Stormont settlement that had been strongly endorsed from day one of the ‘peace process’. The political analysis in ‘The Irish News’ was pessimistic; the headline banner on the day after the DUP move to block the censure motion read ‘It was a bad day for democracy.

The writer feared that the clause that was supposed to prevent sectarian majority rule was now being used to further it: ‘ Power sharing may be the concept the devolved institutions are built on but it seems power ultimately resides with the party that can consistently muster 30 signatures and lodge a petition of concern whenever it is unhappy with a particular assembly motion. The upshot is therefore not democracy but an inverted form of majoritarianism. It’s a system that leaves the majority party in a position where it can overrule the rest of the assembly even when outnumbered two-to-one.’

‘The Irish News’ editorial was a little less stark but still pessimistic, the final paragraph read ‘Many observers will have concluded that standards at Stormont have declined to a stage where basic democratic values have been largely abandoned in the interests of expediency. There will be little public confidence that the truth over Red Sky will ever be established property but it is the wider reputation of our key intuitions that is increasingly under the spotlight.’    

As for the ‘Belfast Telegraph’, their next day front page stated; ‘This was a bad day for democracy’ the three sub headings were ‘debate on Red Sky scandal ends with no action’, ‘parties in the pockets of big business-claim’and ‘Assembly rules misused by DUP to stifle debate.’ The editorial was less pessimistic making the argument that the petition of concern could be fixed: ‘Although the motion gained cross-party and cross-community support in the Assembly it was defeated by a petition of concern, a piece of political trickery which is meant to stop minorities being ridden roughshod over, which is increasingly is used by all parties if they find themselves in trouble. It is clear that thisparticular manoeuvre will have to be rethought as it is now being misused.’

The job of expressing the fears and frustrations of the small group of reformers who had hoped for a gradual transformation out of a sectarian conflict was left to Robin Wilson the one time editor of Fortnight Magazine ; ‘The Red Sky  episode is a flashing red light that something is very rotten in the mini-state that is Northern Ireland. It encapsulates a toxic cocktail of conservatism, clientelism and corruption, which, if notaddressed, will further discredit the pursuit of democratic politics as the public service it should be.’

At least Robin Wilson acknowledged in his article that the outrageous behaviour had a lot more to do with sectarian partisanship than with corruption, the last paragraph of his article stated: ‘the minister intends to dismantle the Executive, rolling back that four-decades-old victory of the civil rights movement against the old unionist order. The new one looks dispiritingly similar.’  

We should not pass by the media reaction without mentioning one other perspective on the Red Sky affair; three days after the Stormont travesty the Belfast Telegraph carried an analysis by trade union socialist Eamonn McCann, presumably to get an alternative viewpoint. The banner of his article was ‘Red Sky, red faces and the nightmare of privatisation.’

Mr McCann stated the proposition he was out to prove in his opening paragraph ‘None of the issues which brought MLAs hotfoot back to Stormont on Monday would have arisen if the repair and maintenance of public sector housing hadn’t been privatised. No privatisation, no meeting with Red Sky representatives in Nelson McCausland,s office, no Stephen Brimstone/Jenny Palmer  phone call, no dubiety about the stop-start progress of a double contract, no reason for MLAs to be recalled just days into their nine week summer holiday

Little thought is required to refute Mr McCann’s proposition, having public control over a central Housing Authority is a good thing provided at least one condition is fulfilled, namely that those in control are socialists.  If those in charge are sectarians, racists or state capitalists then if anything it is a worse arrangement than having it in many private hands.  Unfortunately those taking charge in this case are not socialists and may even be sectarian.

Comment and Explanation

We can certainly say that the Red Sky scandal represents something more than a scandal and something less than a political crisis. It is a mini crisis of the peace process, something that is hard to disguise. The first instinct of all of those in thrall to the peace process was to disguise it as a corruption scandal, a case of one party, the DUP seeking to do financial favours for the owners of a couple of small firms that happen to back the party.  The pro-agreement media was therefore content to run behind Jim Allister for he seemed to have enough inside information to make the corruption charge stick. The sectarian substance was reduced to a secondary quality

What might have come out of this allegation was a routine resignation of a wayward politician in an otherwise stable Executive. One small problem was that another DUP minister would have replaced the sacked one and we would have merely carried on from the point we had left i.e. the programme of dismantling the Housing Executive. Then the realisation dawned on some people that the minister had no intention of resigning because his party had no intention of letting little things like democratic norms get in the way of staying in charge of the big spending departments of government. The DUP standpoint was No Surrender to our critics!

The pro-agreement media began to wonder if the current political arrangements might make it impossible to address wrongdoing not only by the odd maniacal politician but entire maniacal political parties. It was kind of expected that an exposed politico would be cut loose by his own party. One step behind the fear of unaccountable financial corruption lurks of course the longer and deeper fear of sectarian competition over the spoils of government

Pro-agreement nationalist political opinion now realised that the safeguards they had long thought they had secured against bad government were not as sound as they had believed. They now had to face up to the fact that it is an anti-power sharing sectarian party they have to deal with in government and not some reformed unionist party. On the other side, the pro-agreement unionists had to confront the fact that you only need 30 votes to carry on like the DUP does when in government and Sinn Fein have 29 votes and destined to get past the magic number in the near future.

Pro-agreement unionists, who are in fact a minority within unionism, have zero confidence in Sinn Fein not doing the same thing as the DUP. Sinn Fein have been less strident about the scandal over procurement contracts than others expected; the party refused to accept an amendment to their own weak motion of censure as phrased by Jim Allistar calling for the resignation of McCausland.  Knowing what one knows about the building trade in nationalist political constituencies it is easy to conclude that they would not be too keen on a thorough going inspection and clean up themselves. They are up for an inquiry all right so all as it is confined to Red Sky.

We predict the two big political parties will continue on much as before, jockeying for position and biting into sectarian patronage and running down the public purse to no good end. The Orange Order, to give one example, is now subsidised like it wasn’t in the halcyon days of one party Orange rule; it receives money for its decorous band uniforms, to buy musical instruments, to pay for music lessons and there are more bands than ever. The local government even funds the bonfires, which used to be stuck up by nothing-to-do summer youths – now they are professional affairs put together by men using heavy machinery,  The mural painting of walls is also funded.

The Orange Order is renovating itself and building up a heritage with European Peace money to the tune of £7 million.  As for the paymaster of sectarianism in London, the real government has so far kept shtum and if things come to a breakdown they will invite in a prominent American to recommend some institutional changes probably along the line suggestion by the Belfast Telegraph i.e. make it harder for the main political parties to draw on a petition of concern to block a cross community majority vote. 

There is a mini crisis of confidence facing many of those well-educated professionals currently staffing the Public Sector. These people like to think of themselves as untouched by low-down sectarian squabbles. The Spotlight programme threw up a number of side issues that point in this direction.

It was pointed out in the programme that the first people to come under pressure was not the Housing Executive Chairman but the housing inspectors who had refused to give a pass to Red Sky’s shoddy work . The group development manager of Red Sky, one Pauline Gazzard, felt confident enough to write a letter to a senior Housing Executive manager with the expectation that the inspectors’ reports against Red Sky, put together by a conscientious district officer Gary Ballentine, an elder in the Presbyterian church, would be brushed aside: ‘It is also considered necessary to re-iterate our deep concern in relation to certain personalities who remain working in the West Belfast District Office and we trust appropriate actions will be taken to address this in the near future.’

The letter is address to a senior Housing Executive manager but was never seen by the Board or the Chairman when they were investigating the matter; the three West Belfast inspectors were in fact removed and sent elsewhere. What is abundantly clear is that senior managers at the Housing Executive were depriving the Board and the chairman of very relevant information.

The report that the chairman commissioned and delivered in 2011 discovered that 80% of the charging made by Red Sky was questionable. The upshot was that 8 managers were disciplined and some others retired early for allowing the overcharging to go on. The question to be pondered – were they in receipt of bribes or were they making a calculation that it would not be wise to rock the sectarian boat

If we next move on to the police, they have been asked three times to investigate matters pertaining to Red Sky.  Once in 2006 when several lesser Housing Executive workers were found to be taking gifts from Red Sky, no charges were preferred then.  The second time when Chairman Rowntree provided them with the evidence of criminal wrong doing in 2011, the evidence that was used to terminate the £7 million annual contract, and again the police sat on their hands.  Finally the Spotlight team asked the police were they thinking of opening up a new investigation; they replied not without evidence.

But if there was no evidence how come the Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly says that ‘ a sample of 20 kitchen replacement schemes (out of a total of 242 schemes undertaken to date) found overpayments of £1.3 million out of a total cost for all schemes examined of £6.2 million. The potential total contractor overpayment since 2008 is estimated at around £18 million’

And there was other evidence; it came from Pauline Gazzard who no longer works for Red Sky/Totalis. When the administrator took over the running of Red Sky she wrote a 13-page letter to BDO explaining that she knew for a fact that the company she formerly worked for had bribed at least three procurement officers from the Housing Executive. The Spotlight reporter said ‘We asked the police ifthey had the letter now would they act on it now-they refused to comment.’

The Spotlight reporter then asked the Housing Executive Chairman, who had been keen to have the police involved, about the seeming lethargy of the police investigation and his reply was ‘I am absolutely gobsmacked’.   Then we have the administrators at BDO; Pauline Gazzard told Spotlight that she was surprised BDO showed no interest in her letter or her allegations. Not only that, BDO did not pass the information she gave them on to the Board of the Housing Executive or the police. When asked about the matter BDO claimed client confidentially meant they could not comment.

Here’s the rub. Did one small building firm have so much sway, over senior Housing Executive managers, over the police, over accountants and insolvency professionals, over politicians and then over the Head of the Government because of its economic weight, after all it was hardly BP or Shell Oil or is there another explanation?

The other explanation is a bit crude and may even sound offensive to some ears. The firm’s managers knew how to play the sectarian playbook to make other people quake a little.  The firm was quick to blame the Catholic residents for making false complaints, and then they said the inspectors were bigots even though this was patently untrue.  They then attacked the chairman of the Housing Executive indicating he was a dodgy nationalist, then they encouraged their work force to picket the offices of the Housing Executive, carrying banners with slogans like the Housing Executive is anti-Protestant, and finally they told the DUP that the firm had done no wrong and was being starved of work contracts because it was believed to be Protestant.

All those who stepped aside for Red Sky did so because they were conscious of the sectarian clouds that sit low and heavy over society. The politics is sectarian because the society is sectarian. What is more the sectarian cloud cover is thickening rather than dispersing due to the fact that sectarian politicians are taking over the basic departments of government. As for those working under the new dispensation, things are about to get a bit more complicated and choking.

In the more recent past, if you were a public sector professional you only had to contend with a subdued sectarianism, the police and the Northern Office of course was something different, now it is back and it is naked and outspoken.  What is even more disconcerting, the really green nationalists want you to bend in their direction too, overlook this misdemeanour, override a professional service protocol when instructed to do so by somebody with political connections.  How the hell do you bend in two sectarian directions at once?  Do you decide to bend with the Orange 60 per cent of the time and then bend with the Green the other 40 per cent?

The relationship between the relatively privileged professional classes who number a fair number and the sectarian society is about to get a bit more fraught. We can see clear evidence of this emerging from this case.  McCausland decided to wage a vendetta against the Chairman of the Housing Executive, so he asked for some evidence to get at his target.  Two senior DSD civil servants accompanied him to the infamous meeting with the Red Sky management at Stormont; the minutes of that meeting read like a party political conspiracy.  Is this what civil servants should be doing?

The DSD permanent secretary is busy trying to get Brian Rowntree removed from his other public service job with the civil service commissioners’ according to Spotlight he got his staff to trawl through thousands of e-mails hoping to find incriminating evidence against Rowntree.  What a truly poisonous atmosphere.

If a government department supervised by a political Orangeman hounds a career civil servant out of his post, will a department run by a Nationalist respond in kind, if you take out one of ours we will take out one of yours?  Legal threats are flying about left, right and centre.  No wonder the Spotlight programme began by saying that many people ‘we spoke to were scared to speak on the record.’ Most of these people were of the professional class. Welcome to the future sectarian society!  Mandy McAuley the girl that kicked the hornet’s nest.

BBC Spotlight and the Housing Executive – what sort of scandal?

Housing Executive 2.jpg

BY Bellfast Plebian 

A little while ago (Jan 2013) this blog singled out Nelson MaCausland, a Minister in the stored Northern Ireland Executive, as a target for criticism.  This was no random selection of a minister in an improbable regional government that we happen to have little respect for. Nelson was a bit of a special case because he was the minister most likely to cause a commotion.

It was asserted that this neo-conservative Orangeman is about the least preferable person you could hope for in charge of managing the socially damaging CON-DEM policy of comprehensive welfare reform. We were sure his approach would be to offer minimum resistance to the drastic changes being proposed.  We were especially worried that he had been given overarching control over the Northern Ireland Housing Executive: the publicly funded organisation specifically mandated to allocate social housing on the basis of objective need rather than community and religious patronage.  The Minister we said was so ardent an evangelic Protestant and a strident Orangeman that he would be inclined to put the interest of promoting his own religious community above the important non-sectarian consideration that pertains to the neutral role required of a housing minister. Well it didn’t take very long for our worries about Nelson to be confirmed – the bomb exploded earlier than we anticipated – and a few days after we posted our account he began his political assault on the very existence of the Housing Executive.

At first Nelson’s spat with the Housing Executive was carefully phrased in the all too familiar neo-liberal one of saving the taxpayer money. The Housing Executive is managed and funded on the model of a department of the British Civil Service and because it is not classified as belonging to the private sector economy it is therefore almost by definition deemed to be inefficient and wasteful of taxpayer money by the major accountancy firms that aspire to set the standards for every social service. The new Housing Executive will work all the better if it is broken up and placed in the hands of Housing Associations that know the realities of private sector finance, so claimed Nelson.

Hardly anyone of influence objected to Nelson’s declared programme of privatisation barring a few union leaders that voiced worries over potential redundancies. To most tender minded folk (folk is the favoured term used by Nelson) the reasoning if not impeccable was at least normative for our current economic condition. More tough-minded types wondered if Nelson’s impeccable reasoning was merely a convenient cover to pursue an old style Orange vendetta against the Housing Executive. In certain quarters the Housing Executive is still thought of as an anti-Orange institution, something that was imposed on Orange society against its interest, a concession made in the past by a nervous Labour government running scared of the Northern Ireland civil rights campaign.

There is a certain type of Orangeman who resents the very existence of the Housing Executive, who would like to see it done too death.  I am certainly one of those dwindling number of suspicious types who still believe that there are plenty of unreformed Orangeman around, dreaming of taking back the little victories of the civil rights movement.  I suspected that Nelson was one of those unreformed Orangeman who was bent on returning to a long standing sectarian battle over the political control of social housing and I was aroused by the fact that Nelson was only into the job a few weeks when he began asking for the religious make up of the workforce, right down to the numbers in individual offices. Was he of the viewpoint that the Housing Executive had a pinko-management and a Catholic majority work force representing an earlier victory for the sectarian enemy?  Was he out to knock it of its previously set course?  I felt that he was one government minister that needed watching.

Last week the BBC Spotlight programme (3/7/2013) provided us with an insight into what Nelson’s real agenda had been since he became the social development minister.  Before the Spotlight programme was broadcast you could see the aura of hubris already taking shape around Nelson’s head.  On June 10 he had given the management of the Housing Executive a real roasting on the floor of the Assembly; all sorts of charges were flung against the former chairman Brian Rowntree.  He accused the Housing Executive of overspending on repair contracts to the tune of £18 MILLION on four contracts. He also said that one contractor Red Sky had been singled out by the Chairman for retribution for overcharging solely because it was perceived to be a Protestant firm. The unionist benches erupted with shouts of shame on the sectarian Housing Executive. What was also striking about Nelson’s performance was the pleasure he took in laying into the management of the Housing Executive and the satisfaction he got from seeing that the non-unionist parties offering only palliative opposition to his new plan to break up and privatise the public housing body.

Just four weeks later Nelson’s confidence took a punishing blow at the hands of a BBC television expose on what he had been doing out of plain sight.  It turns out that almost everything he said in the Assembly that day was so false that it might rightly called the opposite of the truth. He and his political adviser backed by his party leader had it seems been running a hate campaign against the ousted Chairman of the Housing Executive that smacked of venomous sectarianism. The BBC reporters provided more than enough evidence to allow for other Assembly members to demand his immediate resignation.

The story begins in April 2011 and a building maintenance company situated in the constituency of Peter Robinson goes into administration after a Housing Executive investigation into allegations of low standard work and overpayments. The Board of the Housing Executive felt it had no other option but to cancel the contract with Red Sky due to the facts put before them by inspectors pertaining to the poor quality of the work undertaken by the firm and also by the firms fraudulent charging of tasks not undertaken at all, estimated to be about £1.5 million. The decision of the cross community board was unanimous.

The management of Red Sky decided not to go quietly. In the middle of the April 2011 Assembly Election campaign they approached the leader of the DUP and First Minister Peter Robinson and informed him that the Housing Executive held a sectarian i.e. anti-Protestant bias against the company. Peter was furious about what he had been told about the Housing Executive decision and nine days later led a delegation to meet with its chairman Brian Rowntree to lobby on behalf of the firm. The minutes of that meeting record the First Minister stating that the decision to terminate the contract ‘reflected a sectarian bias on behalf of the Housing Executive.’ He also warned the Chairman that he could expect an enquiry into the Housing Executive after the election of May 2011.

After the Assembly election he appointed his own sectarian attack dog Nelson MaCausland to the post of minister in charge of Social Development, which covers supervision over social housing. A strategy meeting was held in Stormont building on 27 June to find out what could be done to get Red Sky back in the contract game. In attendance where the First Minister Peter Robinson, the Minister of DSD Nelson MaCausland, his political adviser Stephen Brimstone and the DUP MLA Robert Newton.  Crucially, neither the Housing Executive nor the Administrator for Red Sky was invited to the meeting. Three days later Nelson McCausland met with the Chairman of the Housing Executive to insist that the termination of the Red Sky contract be suspended for at least six months.

A letter from Housing Executive chairman Mr Rowntree to DSD Permanent Secretary Will Haire dated July 1, expressed ‘serious concerns and misgivings’ about the way Mr McCausland and his department were attempting to overturn the Board’s decision. Expressing the thought that both Mr Robinson and Mr McCausland may have broken the ministerial code of office by lobbying in support of Red Sky, Mr Rowntree added ‘We understand that meetings have taken place with the senior management of Red Sky in administration and the minister, first minister and other DUP representatives…. This raises the question of did these meetings constitute canvassing and lobbying for government contracts and in breach, not only of public procurement principles but basic codes of conduct in public life.’

Nelson McCausland later said that he took the letter to be like a declaration of war. Having failed to pressure the Chairman of the Housing Executive into overturning the Red Sky decision once, the DUP turned to one of its own councillors who sat on the board of the Housing Executive for a second go. The minister’s special political adviser, one Stephen Brimstone, made an eight-minute phone call to DUP councillor Jenny Palmer and more or less commanded her to change her vote at the next Board meeting called in July 2011 to re-examine the Red Sky decision.

Just ahead of the board meeting Jenny Palmer told the Chairman of the Housing Board about the DUP attempt to make her change her vote and he advised her to declare an interest and absent herself from the vote, which she did. When he failed to get the vote overturned Nelson McCausland carried out Peter Robinson’s original threat and ordered a comprehensive review into how the Housing Executive awards contracts to be carried out by chartered accountants ASM Howarth.  Four days before the ASM report is due to be delivered the Chairman of the Housing Executive resigned citing personal stress and a challenging relationship with the DSD and the minister.  At this point Nelson sensed a retreat, and then went on the offensive accusing the Housing Executive of failing its tenants across many fronts. In January 2013 he announced he intended breaking up the Housing Executive and passing on the ownership of the housing stock to privately run Housing Associations.

Public Reaction:

We will cover this in two episodes. In the first episode we got a party political reaction and a media assessment of a similar temper. Sinn Fein was in the best position to drive the questioning of the credibility of Nelson McCausland and his party boss. Their leader at Stormont is Martin McGuiness the joint first minister with Peter Robinson and their senior policy maker Alex Maskey just happens to be the chairman of the Social Development committee that is supposed to make the Minister accountable.  The first thing to note about Sinn Fein is the party did not call for any immediate resignations from the DUP led government. Some starry-eyed pundits in the media praised this restraint as showing their newfound political maturity.

Martin McGuiness made just two points; that the ‘statutory inquiry led by the DSD under Alex Maskey needs to begiven full support in its work’ and that it was necessary for the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner ‘to investigate the relevant matters raised in the programme as a matter of urgency, these allegationshave the potential to undermine public confidence in the public institutions.’ Two days after the Spotlight programme was broadcast Alex Maskey convened his investigative committee and Nelson duly appeared to face the music. It was the failure of the DSD committee to pursue Nelson that provoked the first episode of widespread negative media reaction.

‘The Irish News’, the main morning newspaper read by nationalists, headlined the report on the committee meeting as; Minister shrugged off Teletubbie Mauling. The chief reporter wrote ‘Chairman Alex Maskey seemed at pains to highlight the good relationship the Minister enjoyed with his scrutiny committee and beyond asserting that the public would be demanding answers said little to cause the DUP rep any concern.’ He concluded the report by stating that ‘all round it was an opportunity missed not so much a grilling as a friendly invitation to the minister to come and warm his toes by the fire.’ 

The Belfast Telegraph, a newspaper traditionally supportive of Unionism, was equally dismissive of the DSD questioning of the DUP minister.  The headline it ran on the 5/7/2013 was ‘Watchdog lets McCausland off the hook.’  The Telegraph reporter was struck by the deference shown to McCausland – ‘He spoke for 54 minutes without one interruption’, something that rarely happens in the equivalent British committees.  He suggested the members were discouraged by Nelson’s verbal dexterity in comparison to their own lack of education. Nelson walked away from the committee asserting that the BBC Spotlight broadcast was just a ‘hotchpotch of speculation, insinuation andinnuendo.’ He threatened the BBC with legal action, as did his boss Peter Robinson, and it should be said that we referred to Nelson’s animus against the local BBC news reporting in our previous blog – Nelson reckons it is moved by a strong anti-British bias.

Because of the general negative media reaction, Sinn Fein decided to take another step and asked for a summer recall of the Stormont Assembly for a one day debate.  It looked as if they felt they needed to perform a bit better than they did at the DSD committee meeting.  However there was still no demand for resignations, only for an investigation about standards of conduct.

It is important to note at this stage what the press and assorted pundits were saying was potentially wrong with what the DUP had been doing. One view was that there was a potential ‘corruption charge’ being levelled at the minister.  What this actually amounted to was difficult to pin down, there was no suggestion that Nelson had sought to make any personal financial gain from the Red Sky advocacy.  Then there was the Sinn Fein procedural charge of breaching the ministerial code of office by lobbying on behalf of a private firm for business contracts.  Peter Robinson felt able to dodge the ministerial code charge by a nimble use of procedural semantics.

On the 5th July he gave an interview to the Irish News claiming that he had attended the strategy meeting with Red Sky in his capacity as elected MP for East Belfast and not in his capacity as the First Minister ; ‘Could anybody expect that the elected representative of east Belfast would do anything other than get exercised about the loss of jobs andseek to do something about it’.  He also declared his annoyance at the BBC saying ‘ I’m no longer going to tolerate this kind of accusations that Spotlight throw out in the hope that nobody takes any action against them for it.’

So within two days of the programme the BBC Spotlight team were facing four legal threats, one from the First Minister, one from Social Development minister Nelson McCausland, one from the management of Red Sky and one from special adviser Stephen Brimstone. A couple of media pundits pointed out that the Executive had recently rejected British Government proposals to change the libel and defamation laws to lessen restrictions and now we know why.

The third area for media concern was about bullying – the attempted bullying of Jenny Palmer by male thugs.  Jenny Palmer was talked about in terms of being a whistleblower, a heroine in the making and she became the must have interviewee.  This was the theme of  ‘The Irish News’ political column by Fionnuala O’Connor – ‘DUP’s whistleblower gives cause for cheer’. The opposition Unionist party in particular made the bullying charge the big issue and their Ross Hussey appeared on the original Spotlight programme to decry the bullying.  Then in the DSD committee meeting Michael Copeland, another Unionist Party member, made the terrible treatment of Jenny Palmer the core of the issue.    

What was remarkable at this point was the fact that the elephant in the room of the evidently sectarian inspired onslaught on the Housing Executive went largely unspoken. This was so much the case that the critics of the media elevated the ultra right wing TUV leader Jim Allister to the role of champion of public morals.  Every time the media wanted a quote about the ‘scandal’ they looked first for one from Jim Allister.

‘The Irish News’ ran the next big story on the Red Sky affair on the 9th July under the front-page banner ‘Allister rounds on the DUP’ accompanied with a picture of him.  On the same day the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ ran their lead with ‘Corruption claims rock Assembly.’  Jim Allister had framed the criticism solely in terms of financial corruption and party political favouritism, and for now most of the political class and media were happy to let it all rest at that.  Jim Allister was afforded a guest column in the Telegraph on July 11th to present us with the heart of the matter: ‘while the party ‘s treatment of Jenny Palmer  is shocking, the most  damning portion of the programme was that which dealt with the glazing contracts after representations from a DUP-friendly contractor, Mr McCausland put on hold the glazing contracts.’

He also argued for a judge led inquiry under the 2005 Inquires Act because 10 of the 11 members of the DSD committee belonged to parties of the Executive.  Another media pundit Alec Kane actually found some comfort in the scandal writing in the Telegraph; ‘This is also the first major political story which hasn’t centred on a spat between unionism and republicanism or between the DUP/Sinn Fein and the smaller Executive parties. And again that is what makes it interesting, because it’s as close as we have come to a normal so called scandal.’ (5/7/2013)

to be continued.

BBC ‘Masters of Money’ considers Karl Marx (Part 2)

The BBC programme was called ‘Masters of Money’ and was ostensibly all about money but there was nothing said about Marx’s theory of money, which is fundamental to explaining the current economic crisis.

For mainstream economics money is essentially just paper that can be used to exchange commodities.  Provided it is not issued in too high a quantity it will maintain its value and is useful for this purpose.  Already we can see a problem.  What is the intrinsic value of pieces of paper or metal coins?  If it had an intrinsic value its issue would hardly be a problem. It becomes a problem because paper money cannot fulfil all the functions of money precisely because it does not have an intrinsic value.

The massive expansion of credit makes credit too look like money in that it is used to exchange commodities.  However at a certain point people want paid with money and not yet more credit.  When this happens credit stops being given to some people and we have a ‘credit crunch’ such as developed in the latest financial crisis when banks refused to lend to each other and Governments had to step in.

For Marx money is itself a commodity with an intrinsic value because it too is the product of human labour.  Historically it has taken the form of gold.  This is why commodity exchange is an exchange of equals because when money is exchanged for a commodity the money is either gold directly or indirectly if it is convertible into gold.  The end of such convertibility does not abolish exchange being one of equivalents.  Just as credit cannot become real money and this is proved during a credit crunch so paper money is exposed when it is over-issued and creates inflation and when in a crisis capitalist investors look to put their money into something that will preserve the real value of their wealth.

In fact this occurs during booms when speculation on one type of asset after another leads to bubbles – in high-tech company stocks, houses, commodities and now certain government bonds. The price of oil is one barometer of this activity.

Thus just as the massive expansion of credit is not a solution to the problem of capitalist crisis and the contradiction between a limited market and profitable production so also is the printing of money through quantitative easing not a solution.  Yet according to mainstream economics there is no reason why printing money should not be a solution.  The proof of the pudding is that while quantitative easing  has prevented collapse it has not abolished the crisis.

Many companies are sitting on piles of cash including US multinationals holding money outside the US and so evading US taxes.  There is an ‘investment strike’ because of the recession which has created unemployment, falling incomes, debt crises for many countries and austerity which promises not a recovery but continued recession.  All this is worse in Ireland because it is not mainly the policy of austerity which is the problem but a massive overhang of debt, which must otherwise be repaid, and shrinkage in demand due to lower wages, unemployment and emigration.

We are back to ‘solutions’ that are based on more investment and higher wagers but which ignore that it is the system based on profit which is the cause of the problems.

Two other issues occupied the last part of the BBC programme.  The first was whether capitalism would last more or less forever or would be temporary and replaced by something else. The programme accepted that Marx’s analysis of capitalism had a lot of sense to it but it did not, to no one’s surprise I am sure, think that he had any alternative.  In fact the very scarcity of his views on this was held up a number of times while recognising that no one else had much of a clue either.

This was more than a little disingenuous.  The programme started off with shots of the Berlin Wall being demolished and of pictures of Red Square in Moscow and of Stalin.  The presenter recalled that she was at university at the time the Berlin Wall came down and one thing she was aware of was that ‘communism’ had definitively failed. The programme she said would therefore not look at what Marx had to say about communism.  To return at the end of the programme and say that Marx had no alternative while excluding what he did say about an alternative is, well, not exactly fair.

Also unreasonable was the nonsense that Marx, although he had been poor, had towards the latter years of his life become a bit bourgeois.  This seemed to consist of such things as worrying over the future of his children and taking walks in the park in quite nice areas of London.  What a traitor!  He hadn’t even been down a coal mine, unlike the presenter who went down one for the programme.

That leaves me a bit conflicted as I worry over my children, like nice walks in the park (sometimes) but have been down a coal mine (once).

More importantly the programme argued that Marx had no alternative and implied that this explains the otherwise puzzling phenomenon, gleefully expressed by ex-Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson, that many people were not flocking to the banner of Marxism.  The latter is a fact, so is it the result of the former?

In an earlier post on the defeat of the opposition to the austerity referendum I asserted that the Left and the working class generally did not have a real alternative, as opposed to some theoretical one, and that this was fundamentally why many workers had voted for something that was against their interests and which some knew to be the case.  The programme actually expressed very well what is meant by an alternative, if I recall more or less accurately, it said that this would be when ‘a compelling alternative would appear.’  What is this ‘compelling alternative’?  If we are talking about the replacement of the political economy of capitalism we are also talking about its replacement by the political economy of the working class.  What is this?

Marx described the alternative to capitalism this way:

“But there was in store a still greater victory of the political economy of labour over the political economy of property. We speak of the co-operative movement, especially the co-operative factories raised by the unassisted efforts of a few bold “hands”. The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labour need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the labouring man himself; and that, like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart. In England, the seeds of the co-operative system were sown by Robert Owen; the workingmen’s experiments tried on the Continent were, in fact, the practical upshot of the theories, not invented, but loudly proclaimed, in 1848.”

(http://www.Marxists.org/archive/Marx/works/1864/10/27.htm)

The beginning of an alternative to capitalism arises only when the working class takes action, however small, and is not limited to creation of worker owned and controlled production.  The creation of its own organisations to defend itself against capitalism also foreshadows its future control over the whole of society.  The creation of its own workers party is the pinnacle of it being conscious of its tasks.  Many of the political organisations claiming the banner of the working class and the mantle of Marx replace the centrality of the working class itself with calls upon the state, the capitalist state, to take the action only the working class can take and only which if it does take, can it be considered any step towards socialism.

So the BBC programme on the alternative of Karl Marx got his essential teachings wrong but unfortunately, through empirical impressions, got the current weakness of the socialist alternative right.  The programme itself however is an indication that this alternative is as necessary as it ever was.

BBC ‘Masters of Money’ considers Karl Marx (Part 1)

BBC Karl MarxAs part of its ‘Masters of Money’ series the BBC 2 programme, which looked at the ideas of John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek, finished by looking at the economic ideas of Karl Marx.  The overall verdict?  It could have been a lot worse.

There were of course huge simplifications that erased exactly what Marx was saying.  These could have been avoided, and the dismissal of communism and what Marx had to say about it was on a par with cold war contempt, but despite this there was a coherent argument through the programme.

It was very much the creature of a mainstream bourgeois economist albeit one who thought there were important insights to be found in Marx, particularly his perspective on the inequality of capitalism and its instability.  It avoided some cheap shots and pointed out that Marx appreciated the revolutionising of production achieved by capitalism and its dynamic development across the world.  The presenter Stephanie Flanders repeated the often made observation that Marx’s description of capitalism is more true now than when it was first made.  She also correctly observed that profit is the soul of capitalism and made some correct remarks about the compulsive nature of the drive for profit within the system.

There were some strange observations which tried to tie the relevance of Marx’s views to particular periods which excluded the post war boom and included the 19th century but excluded the great depression of the thirties.  The whole point of the programme however was to assert the relevance of his views today and if it did no more than this then it must be judged positively.

There were some problems that, had they been addressed, would have made for a much better exposition of Marx’s ideas.  The first is that the programme avoided what Marx thought was his greatest economic discovery – the nature of surplus value.  This is the discovery that the economic value created by capitalism is the result of human labour and can be measured by the labour time necessary for its production.  The source of capitalist profit is the result of the difference between what the capitalist pays for this capacity to labour and what this labour actually produces.  This explains how a surplus can be produced and a profit arise when the exchange of commodities, including labour power, is the exchange of equivalents. It is not a question of workers being cheated when they receive a wage in return for their labour power or of unequal exchange of commodities.

This is not a particularly difficult concept to explain but it does very clearly reveal the exploitation of the working class and exposes all the hypocritical justifications of the system.

The second problem is not what was left out but what was included, that Marx held that the absolute level of wages would be held down under capitalism.  This doesn’t sit well with the programme’s acknowledgment of Marx’s view that capitalism develops the forces of production.  Who did Marx believe would buy the goods created by the development of these productive forces?  This of course was the central tenet of the programme: that for Marx this was precisely the problem.

Marx’s argument was held to be that the tendency to lower wages reduced the ability of workers to buy the goods they produced.  Increasing wages would only reduce profits, the objective of the system, so this is not a solution.  As a temporary ‘fix’ the system expanded credit to make up the shortfall in wages and allow all the goods produced to be purchased.  The explosion of credit therefore explains the current economic crisis emanating within the financial services industry.  The programme was actually quite good when it cut to the right-wing talking heads who pooh-poohed the idea that low wages contributed in any way to the crisis.  They looked neither comfortable nor convincing, or maybe that was just me.

The programme argued that Marx’s criticism went much deeper than any other but actually the programme didn’t go deep enough.  Not altogether its fault since there is widespread debate among Marxists about the causes of the current crisis and even about the fundamental mechanisms of what might be called ‘classic’ capitalist crises.

What can be said however is that the description of the crisis given in the programme and the role of credit and wages is only how the crisis manifests itself, not how it is caused.  To explain the latter would require one to start with the idea ignored – surplus value.

If low wages restricting the market were merely the problem the question would not be so acute.  The capitalists who had diddled the workers could simply purchase what the workers did not.  Everything would then be sold.  The problem is worse because the workers create added value over and above what they are paid, over and above what is required to maintain production and also above the conspicuous consumption of the capitalists, and this additional value produced must find a market.  Why can’t this too be solved by the capitalists buying the difference?

The answer is that it can but the question then is what is the result of this?  Additional value appropriated by capitalists can expand their luxurious lifestyles but the driving force of the system is not this but profit.  To increase this means expanding production both to garner extra profit and destroy competitors.  This means the capitalist must employ the additional value produced by the workers to further invest in more workers and also machinery, raw materials etc to expand output.  The problem is intensified as production increases, new markets are sought for the things that are produced and the amount of surplus value (unpaid labour) created is expanded.

In the longer term the rate of profit comes under pressure as the capitalists replace workers with machines in order to produce more cheaply or even to produce some goods at all (some high-tech ones for example).  However because profit comes from workers the value of production comprised of workers labour declines and so does the proportion made up of surplus value, from which profit comes.  Fewer workers will create proportionately less surplus value while the cost of machines and raw materials etc increases relatively, so reducing the rate of profit.  The capitalists with the lowest productivity and lowest profitability can be forced into bankruptcy.  Of course to some extent this too can be offset by lower wages but the increasing sophistication of production means that paying peanuts will not allow the ‘monkeys’ to engage in the skilled labour required.  This is a long term tendency but one we can see in operation through the economic history of the west and in the rapid economic development of Asia.  It implies that profit plays a smaller and smaller relative role in production which calls into question a system in which this is the whole purpose of its existence.

The regular periodic crisis, including the current crisis, is the route by which this longer term tendency operates.  The compulsion to produce more and more surplus value also produces these more regular booms and busts.  The drive to expand the creation of surplus value means increased accumulation of workers, machines and materials and the expansion of markets to purchase the additional production.  In an economy dedicated to the needs of the population such increased production can be consciously planned and coordinated and its limits set by society as a whole.  Under capitalism no such limits are acceptable.

The limits on production of surplus value are therefore not set by the needs of society or by the limits of the purchasing capacity of workers and capitalists.  To break from these limits credit is expanded to bridge the limitations on consumption that are the result of the limits of production.  Through credit capitalism seeks to satisfy the capitalist desire to expand production through the accumulation of more and more surplus value.  Credit expands the market for increased surplus value production.

This can produce fantastic economic booms of the sort we have seen in the last decade or so in Ireland and across much of the globe, from China to Brazil.  The attempt to expand real production and to create an even larger market for it must at some point necessarily collapse for the same reason that credit is originally introduced.  Just as increased credit is an attempt to increase profit so the collapse of credit is the result of credit no longer being able to expand profitable production.

Workers must pay back debt at some level and beyond a certain point this becomes impossible because of the limits to their real incomes determined by real production.  The same is true of the capitalists.  Ever more convoluted attempts to expand credit beyond the capacity to pay it back – through creation of yet more credit – is doomed to collapse as the ever expanding amount of debt requires greater and greater repayments to keep it going.  The fantastic expansion of the financial services industry is testament to how big such an exercise can become. A glance at the size of the balance sheets of the Irish banks in comparison to the size of the whole economy reveals the scale of the overproduction and credit expansion that can arise.

In Ireland and the US the limits were reached when workers could no longer pay for inflated housing or capitalists pay for inflated office and other building construction.  A surplus of such properties is eventually created, overproduction appears, prices collapse, capitalists cannot sell except at a loss and those who built the houses and offices go bankrupt, workers in construction are made unemployed and the banks which financed it all go bust.  At such points it can appear that the problem is that workers wages are not big enough to buy all that has been produced and that this is the problem.  Solutions are proffered by Keynesians who say that what is need is yet more investment to take the place of that which has just collapsed.  But as we see, these solutions do not address the underlying problem and provide a ‘solution’ only by postponing the collapse and stoking up a bigger tsunami when the boom busts later.

In these circumstances blame is also placed on the institutions which created the massive credit explosion – the banks – especially since such booms inevitably involve hugely speculative, criminal and stupid behaviour during a time when everyone thinks they should be getting rich quick.   No one needs regulation during a boom when money is being made and afterwards the call is made that we have to have stricter regulation when again, but for opposite reasons, no one needs regulation.  Regulation becomes the alibi for the systematic failures of the system.  Left wing critiques which focus on the banks play into the hands of those who want to ignore or are simply ignorant of the system itself being responsible for the bust.  That the bust is so spectacular is simply a result of earlier failure to burst the bubble.  For a longer and bigger boom the price paid has been a longer and bigger bust but either way capitalismproduces booms and crashes.  Keynesian solutions to extend the boom can simply create bigger crashes.

Forward to Part 2