My travels in Cuba (3/3): Veradero & back to Havana

By Daniel Margrain

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In the final part of my ‘traveling experience in Cuba’ trilogy of articles, I will focus on the tourist holiday coastal resort of Veradero. I arrived in the town from Cienfuegos, the contrasts of which couldn’t be more striking. Just like Ancona near Trinidad, the raw and ragged coastal setting is picture-postcard beautiful. I arrived as the sun descended on the horizon, its orb the brightest of tangerine orange. As this gigantic ball of light melted into the Atlantic, a handful of tourists began frantically photographing the afterglow – a kaleidoscope of subtle hues that sank into the sillouette of nearby palms and wooden canopies of the restaurants that adorned the bay.

The pork steak and rice washed down with a bottle of Buckaneroo beer that I consumed at a beach-side restaurant that evening made a pleasant change from the rather predictable food of the Casa’s. Saturday night in Veradero was more subdued than I anticipated. The vast swathes of British package tourists that I thought would be filling the hotels and bars never materialized, having been usurped by their mainly French, Italian and Canadian counterparts.

Veradero, much like other places in Cuba where tourists spend much of their time and money in each others company, is a foreign tourist enclave where small businesses proliferate and operate semi-autonomously from the centralized arm of the Cuban state. This small coastal town is littered with restaurants, bars and numerous plush but sanitized all-inclusive hotels.

As of 2009, Veradero is the only place in the country where it’s illegal for Cuban’s to let out the rooms of their Casa’s, which was presumably intended as a means to avoid the eventuality of undercutting the income of the hotel chains. That’s not to say that these illegal private rooms for rent in shared houses don’t exist. They proliferate in the small back streets. I stayed in one.

In Veradero, hard currency in the form of the Cuban convertible, has replaced the Peso as the international monetary language. It is the place that many Cuban’s come to boost their state salaries. The domination of hard currency in the town has resulted in a distorted local economy altering the dynamic of the community, not necessarily in a good way. Veradero is actually a rather sad and uninspiring place – a kind of miniature version of how I imagine Miami to be without the gregarious trappings that one associates with the latter, but nevertheless is as equally as unsuited to the environment from which it has emerged.

Mass tourism and the tourist ghetto that has accompanied it, has created socioeconomic polarizing fractures within the community. Visible, and at times ostentatious displays of material wealth exist here alongside abject material deprivation – a situation that will almost certainly worsen as the relative trickle of tourists here inevitably turn into a flood in the years to come. The apparent irreconcilable forces that are pulling Veradero apart acts as a warning sign to the rest of the country in a future post-Fidel world.

Wherever large swaths of tourists converge who bring with them hard currency in a two-tier economy in which a dual currency operates, all notions of authenticity correspondingly disappear because without access to the Convertible Cubans are effectively excluded from the social circles, restaurants and bars that tourists engage in. Let me put this into some kind of context. A beer in a hard currency-only bar costs the equivalent of one-twentieth of the monthly salary of a skilled Cuban worker.

If you have access to the Peso (which tourists are able to acquire at any Cuban bank in exchange for the Cuban Convertible or other forms of hard currency like the Euro), a basic meal on the streets of Havana costs the equivalent of 25p. This kind of two-tier economy is not consistent with socialism but rather a highly political bureaucratic state. The revolution that overthrew U.S puppet, Fulgencio Batista in 1959, was in reality an anti-colonial rather than a socialist revolution in which Cuba’s workers were largely onlookers, however sympathetic.

State corruption is the inevitable consequence that flows from this set of relationships. Ordinary Cubans who are not connected to either the high echelons of the bureaucratic state or the tourist sector, today speak endlessly and angrily about the visible and growing gulf – economic, social and political – between this privileged layer and the majority, whose daily life is a struggle. Tourism exacerbates these divisions which explains why politically, socially and economically Cuba is being pulled in different directions.

For many visitors to Cuba, the ‘authentic’ Cuban experience normally means any combination of the following: reading Hemingway, salsa music, Che iconography, the Buena Vista Social Club, 1950s Cadillacs and bustling smoke-filled bars full of folks drinking Mohito’s and smoking Monte Cristo cigars. But for others – myself included – these aspects of Cuban life represent the fetishization of Cuba – a partial and largely superficial depiction perpetuated by of a divisive tourist sector that feeds off these characteristics of Cuban culture.

What capitalist relations does, is it distorts and exploits these aspects of culture for the benefit of the market as if the whole of Cuban society can be reduced to something akin to a composite painting. In this sense, potentially the most marketable aspects of culture are identified, repackaged and then sold for public consumption as the precursor for the expansion of the capital accumulation process.

The sad and ironic truth is that without the hard currency of the tourists, there would be little ‘authentic’ Cuba for whom those who deal in the hard Cuban Convertible currency, believe we, as visitors, want to experience. I’m specifically thinking not about merely the sterile atmosphere of Veradero, but many of the bars, cafes and restaurants in the regenerated Habana Vieja where only the Cuban Convertible is the accepted currency.

This disenfranchises ordinary Cubans from much of the social life of the city frequented by tourists. In this regard, I have a great deal of sympathy for all those visitors –  journalist and writer, Neil Clark included – who have expressed disillusionment with Cuba.

During my last day in Veradero, I met Karolina, a Polish woman who had been living and working in Cuba as a health professional. I asked her about the question of housing and freedom of movement for Cuban’s. She explained to me that the Cuban people are legally allowed to change houses through a kind of swap scheme similar to the principle of council house swaps in Britain. Although she was married to a Cuban and had been living in the country for many years, she claimed she had many unanswered questions about the nature of Cuban society.

As I sat at an outdoor bar in Veradero across the street from one of the outwardly plush but sterile hotels listening to the resident salsa band work through their worn routine, I realized that the version of Cuba fetishized in guide books like Lonely Planet exemplified in a place like Veradero, no more resembles contemporary Cuba than red telephone boxes, city stockbrokers wearing bowler hats or the Houses of Parliament represent contemporary London.

Many of the young Cuban’s in Veradero, are more likely to aspire to what they perceive to be an archetypal capitalist lifestyle and the consumption that comes with it, then they are to keep faith with the ideals of Fidel. The popular musical genre known as reggaeton that is mainly enjoyed by the young, is more Miami then Havana and the majority of Veradero youth want to be seen sporting the latest designer clothes and sipping Red Bull rather then lingering on a Mohito wearing a Panama or propping up the bar puffing on a Cohiba.

Karolina explained to me that many young Cuban’s, when exchanging homes, are often prepared to ‘downgrade’ their places in terms of size and/or condition in order to obtain cash so as to be in a position to be able purchase elements of this Western ‘lifestyle’. In Veradero, I saw many young Cuban’s dressed in expensive designer clothes and trainers and driving new cars either paid for through tourism, the downsizing of accommodation or through the receipt of hard currency from the estimated one in four Cuban’s who live in exile.

Meanwhile, the majority of Cuban’s who live their lives outside of this bubble, and who have no access to the Cuban Convertible, must make do with their small state salaries. Thus, Cuban society is bound to become increasingly fractured and divisive in the years to come.

When I suggested to Karolina that this scenario would likely necessitate a political crackdown by the Cuban state which would probably lead to the likelihood of a counter-revolutionary struggle, she looked at me in a resigned knowing way: “Yes, sadly I think this outcome is almost inevitable”, she said….But then added positively, “We people in Cuba have to find a way of looking to the future, and we must believe we can succeed.”

With that positive message embedded in my head, I eagerly anticipated my return to the bustling city of dreamers and street hustlers amid the chaotic frenzy of the dusty, pot-holed strewn streets of downtown Havana where my journey began. Upon my return, I bumped into many familiar faces that I had met in the streets and bars of a city in which one ex-pat, in particular, had made his home.

Having spent a further two weeks here, my time in the country was drawing to an inevitable end. Of the towns and cities in Cuba I visited, Havana was the place I felt most comfortable and relaxed. After two months, my Cuban odyssey – which left me with as many questions as answers – was a mixed one. I certainly recognized many of the problems associated with the existence of a dual currency outlined by Neil Clark which echoed my trips to Eastern Europe prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Nevertheless, my memories of this beautiful country will linger for many years to come.

My travels in Cuba (2/3): Cienfuegos

By Daniel Margrain

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In this, the second of three ‘travel in Cuba’ installments as part of my ‘authenticity series’ of posts, I will discuss the events that followed my two hour bus journey from Trinidad to the French-influenced fortress port city of Cienfuegos. As I highlighted previously, many Cuban’s have a kind of resigned pragmatism regarding the countries likely future transition to capitalism.

The then recently-elected Obama was widely regarded to be the catalyst for change in the country. But these changes were envisaged as only being possible within the context of a transitional Cuban government of which the lifting of the embargo would be the first step in the cooling of US-Cuban relations.

Due to the 1996 US Helms-Burton Act, the tightening of the embargo was pulled up a notch not loosened. The hope – which has yet to materialize – was that under Obama, Helms-Burton would be repealed. But even if a radical shift in Cuban politics occurs following Fidel’s death, it is unlikely – given the perilous state of the US economy – that an effectively lame-duck president or either of his successors – Trump or Clinton – will make Cuba one of their main priorities in the immediate future.

During my time spent in the country, I stayed in a variety of different sized accommodations from the small apartment to the large family house and I wondered how this disparity could be explained given the nature of Cuban society. I also wondered how in practical terms, Cuban people managed to move home and set up new lives in new cities and towns within the context of a country where private property is non-existent.

I discussed these topics, as well as the comparative notions of democracy and human rights in Cuba, with some British travelers whilst on a boat trip around the crescent shaped coast of the ‘Jewel of the Caribbean’ on a cloudy and relatively cold night in December 2009. Like myself, my fellow travelers had been unable to get any answers to these questions. It was clear that I was not going to be able to satisfy my inquisitive mind in the charming laid back atmosphere of Cienfuegos where the notion of time had appeared to have come to a standstill.

What struck me most about this beautiful country, is that the things we in the West take for granted, like the notion of time, appear to have no real meaning or relevance in Cuban society. This apparent irrelevance of time, squares with Peter Linebaugh’s contention that the essence of time and the spaces it fills in the vacuum left over from unprofitable ‘surplus’ free time, are necessarily constrained by a capitalist economic logic that prioritizes the accumulation of profit above all other human activity.

As Linebaugh asserts, the emergence of the mass-produced time-piece during the 18th century, reflects this overriding obsession with time and its coersive affects in perpetuating and reproducing the disciplining of workers as part of the prevailing capitalist order.

The Cuban people’s disrespect for time was no more evident than in the streets of Cienfuegos – arguably the most authentic of all Cuban cities. The relatively well-maintained streets, squares and open spaces in the centre of the city, provide the backdrop for idle chatting, drinking, eating, the playing of dominoes, chess, baseball and general relaxation. Cuban’s of all ages embrace, kiss, talk and laze about – it’s an intrinsic part of the way Cuban folk spend their time together.

I witnessed joy and happiness, as well as sadness and despair on the faces of the people on the streets of Cienfuegos, much like anywhere else on the planet. But of all people in ‘third world’ countries, the Cuban’s are by a country mile, some of the most humble and dignified of any people that I met on my travels. This is despite the fact that they suffered terribly following the break-up of the Soviet Union during the three years 1991-94.

The current crisis in the Cuban economy can be traced back to this period as a result of the ending of Soviet subsidies that had effectively sustained the economy for 30 years. By the end of the decade there was growth based on a rapidly expanding tourist industry. But this growth was fragile because it did not reflect any deep transformation of the economy.

However, despite this, I saw no evidence of the horrors which characterized that particular period of Cuban history. In Cuba, unlike for example,’democratic’ India, I did not see emaciated and starving people, neither did I see vast inequalities of economic wealth, or witness the social fabric of a country at the point of collapse. Civil society in Cuba – albeit limited by Western standards – functions relatively well when compared to many other countries that we prefer to call third world ‘democracies’.

Further, the perception of street safety and well-being was, in my experience, a reality in the towns and cities I visited throughout the country. Whilst widespread alcoholism, drug addiction, petty theft of property and other social misdemeanors, are a regular feature of everyday life in a modern country like Britain, in Cuba this is not the case. During the odd occasion that I had brought up this particular topic with Cuban people, the response was often one of total dismay and incomprehension.

Women can, and frequently do, walk the streets of Cuban cities alone and in safety. This may appear to some folks to be somewhat of a caricature, but in 2009 it happened to have been true. It is also true that Cuba places a high priority on education which is 100 per cent subsidized by the government, meaning that Cuban students at all levels can attend school for free. The government also operates a national health system and assumes monetary and administrative responsibility for the health care of all its citizens. In addition, housing and utility costs throughout the country are minimal to non-existent.

Cuba ranks as having among the world’s best patients per doctor ratios and has levels of infant mortality and life expectancy rates that compare favourably with many of the first world nations of the industrial world. As of 2012, infant mortality in Cuba had fallen to 4.83 deaths per 1,000 live births compared with 6.0 for the United States and just behind Canada with 4.8. I will remind readers, all this has been achieved within the context of an extremely damaging and punitive US-initiated trade embargo which has seen Cuba marginalized and isolated – both economically and politically – from much of the world.

It is also a nation that remains effectively at war with the most powerful country on earth. It is true that democracy as we have come to understand it in the West, has been ‘suspended’ in Cuba on the pretext that it is a country at war, in much the same way that democracy was suspended in Britain during WW2. The draconian embargo is a reflection of this war-footing, which goes a long way to explaining the queues and food stamps.

In keeping with tradition, my Cuban hosts in Cienfuegos were friendly, charming and hospitable. I would often eat dinner at the home of my hosts who occupied a rather grand house close to the centre of town. While staying there, I occasionally took the opportunity to watch some television. Cuban television output is not unlike most national media throughout the world in terms of its targeting of a specific demographic at different times of the day.

In London, I have the potential to be able to tune into approximately 100 virtually identical channels. In Cuba the number is a diverse four. During my stay, I managed to watch an episode of The Sopranos and the movie Goya’s Ghosts. News and current affairs output and debate in Cuba is clearly more incisive and truthful than its British state broadcasting counterpart, the BBC. For example, there appears to be none of the fake probing and bating in the interviewing style of Paxman, or any of the dubious claims of impartiality and objectivity that typify the BBC.

In terms of the Cuban news media more broadly, the emphasis appears to be focused on Latin American affairs as one might expect. Studio debates seem, by and large, to be genuinely heated, spontaneous and passionate which, at least as far as I was concerned, made for a refreshing change from the kind of bland European and North American-focused, and often contrived, output that passes for news in much of the West. My hosts allowed me to peruse the TV output late into the night while they were asleep.

The income generated by travelers like me was highly valued by my hosts who not only ensured that my every need was catered for but being a guest of theirs, also provided their young son and daughter with the opportunity to practice their English. As there was a big gap in my hosts future bookings they seemed reluctant to let me go. But this was not the only reason. I felt that a genuine mutual friendship had developed between us.

Nonetheless, as much as I enjoyed Cienfuegos, my time in Cuba was limited and I felt the time had now come for me to move on. I wanted to get a taste of the Cuban experience within a tourist package environment. This meant only one word – ‘Veradero’ – a relatively developed ‘package resort’ 184 kilometres from Cienfuegos on the Atlantic side of the island.

Final part to follow: Veradero and my trip back to Havana.

 

My travels in Cuba (1/3): Havana, Trinidad & Cienfuegos

By Daniel Margrain

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In my previous article, I discussed the egalitarian nature of politics and society on the Island of Cuba and its relationship to the authentic urban experience as played out within a sea of capitalism. In an attempt to contextualize the piece, I want to express some thoughts about my experiences after spending two months traveling independently throughout this beautiful Caribbean Island during late 2009 and early 2010.

I arrived in Havana from Madrid in the late evening on November 17, 2009 and settled in at the famous Plaza Hotel which had all of the grace and fading colonial splendour of similar hotels I had frequented in India many years previously. The wooden shutters in my room opened up to a small balcony that overlooked a dusty dimly lit street below whose initial appearance had a sense of serene calmness about it like I had stepped into a Edward Hopper painting. Except for the sound of the occasional taxi that passed in the street directly below me and the flickering echo of distant voices, the streets remained eerily quiet.

It wasn’t until the following morning from the rooftop of the hotel that the aromas of the city, bustling street life and clogged roads below – set against a backdrop of crumbling tenement buildings and colonial edifices – became evident in this unique metropolis. The vivaciousness, eclecticism and atmospheric energy of the Caribbean’s largest city has survived everything that has been thrown at it throughout its 500 year history and continues to stand as a beacon of resistance against U.S imperialism today.

For this writer, it was the visceral and abstract, as opposed to conventional notions of beauty, that was Havana’s main appeal. The overriding sense of a city that forms part of an Island of quasi-socialism within a sea of capitalism, and all of the contradictions and potential opportunities that this entails, is palpable for the first time visitor. Graham Greene was right when he said that Havana is a city where “anything is possible”.

The opportunity to be mesmerized by the hustle and bustle of all that surrounds you whilst constantly reminding yourself of the historical significance of the city in both time and place, opens up a potential space in which you can lose yourself in the melee and embrace the cities earthly authenticity. No other city in the world that I have visited has quite the aesthetic seductiveness for the flaneur as Havana has.

Traditional sites aside, at no time did I feel that the city was some kind of trussed-up tourist resort or cynically concocted amusement park, although some of the bars in the renovated parts of Habana Vieja did tend to be frequented by some tourists enamored with a Hemingway fetish. This is perhaps understandable. In a city like Havana, it’s difficult to fully set aside the vibrant and colourful cultural preconceptions associated with the city from a life-time of images ingrained in the consciousness of visitors. Some of these images have an objective basis in reality, while others are mainly subjective or fantasies and caricatures. The Havana experience in its totality, though, is never less than alluring.

To what extent you allow yourself to be immersed within either aspect is largely dependent on the individual. “Habana is very much like a rose”, said Fico Fellove, in the movie The Lost City, “it has petals and it has thorns….so it depends on how you grab it. But in the end it always grabs you.” If you fail to be grabbed by Havana’s eclectic charms, then just like somebody who tires of London, it’s perhaps your life that needs to be questioned.

As culturally stimulating as Havana is, I made the decision to journey further afield in order to broaden my Cuban experience. After eight days in Havana (to which I was to return at the end of my Cuban trip), I decided to take a bus to the old Spanish colonial town of Trinidad (pop. 50,000) 375km to the south side of the island.

After an eye-opening bus journey along near-deserted ‘highways’ interspersed with lush green paddy fields and remote villages, I was in the end relieved to arrive at my destination, particularly as the bus driver insisted on playing a music video of what seemed like the entire works of Boney M on repeat throughout the entire length of the journey.

I was met at the local bus station in Trinidad by my host Dr Carlos, a dermatology specialist who made me feel very welcome at his ‘Casa Particulare’ (Hermanos Albalat) on nearby Frank Pais Street. During the day, I would spend my time relaxing on Playa Ancon, 12km south of the town, and during the evening I would stroll aimlessly around this quaint old town, drinking copious amounts of dark rum and listening to live music or people-watching at the Casa de la Musica situated at the top of a wide stairway just off the central plaza.

It was on the steps of the Casa dela Musica on my last night in Trinidad that my overriding lingering memories of the town remain. Nearby, a musician played solo flute and a small child flew a kite overhead as a quarter moon emerged flickering on the palm-fringed horizon in the distance below. For one brief moment I had thought I had gone to heaven.

My next destination was the two hour bus journey to the French-influenced fortress port city of Cienfuegos in the province of the same name, home of the ‘The Barbarian of Rhythm’, Benny More.

The city sits on a beautiful bay surrounded by the lush-green and fertile Las Villas Plain that opens into the Caribbean Sea. The legacy of French migrations to the city is evident both in terms of its neoclassical architecture and the wide grid-like street layout. Cienfuegos is an industrial city that appears to rely less on tourism then either Havana or Trinidad, largely because much of the region is devoted to the cultivation of sugarcane and the growing of coffee in the mountains to the southeast of the city.

Upon my arrival, I was struck by how the city reminded me of Penang or Bangalore. Its billing as ‘The Pearl of the South’ is one that has not been over-hyped. In fact the city lives up to its tourist brochure description as consisting of a “world compromised of a multiplicity of shapes, colors and aromas that seduces the visitor….” This is a city where one can enjoy local ‘crooners’ belting it out at the Cafe Cantante More well into the early hours, or witness the sight of young Cuban’s reveling at the Club Costa Sur and walking arm in arm by the Malecon.

A typical afternoon involved strolling about town where I would regularly see local people queuing, ration stamps in hand, for essentials like sugar, butter, milk and rice, before I would return ‘home’ to my fully equipped CFC-free refrigerated and energy-saving light generated ‘Casa’ for a siesta. Such are the contradictions of Cuban society.

But then I am reminded that Fidel is in a state of effective war with his neighbour 90 miles away. Under these circumstances, the normal functioning of society is an impossibility and the suspension of ‘formal’ democracy the norm. The US trade embargo with Cuba has hit the country hard. The US-imposed 1992 Torricelli Act prevents foreign subsidiaries of US companies trading with Cuba and prohibits ships that had called at Cuban ports from docking at US ports for six months.

The end result of this draconian attack on the country, is the effective banning of virtually the entirety of the rest of the world trading with Cuba. This explains why ninety per cent of banned goods consist of food, medicine and medical equipment which naturally is causing terrible suffering, even death, in Cuba.

Cuba has been left adrift by what are widely considered to be the major players within what is often euphemistically referred to as the ‘international community’, but nevertheless is a ‘modern miracle’ which had, as I was about to discover, emerged defiant and strong.

Within Cuba a two-tier economy appears to have emerged. Professional and skilled workers like doctors and engineers, whose monthly state salaries are barely enough to pay for a pair of trainers, look elsewhere – usually the tourism sector – for a means to supplement their small incomes. It would appear that the tourist dollar and the hefty taxes and supplements the Cuban government generate from visitors, is an insufficient source with which to pay the Cuban people a decent salary.

It was clear to me, that many Cuban professionals, particularly many of the young, are hungry for change. It was also clear to me that some, but by no means all, want out of Cuba, while many more wait patiently for Fidel to pass away. From my experience though, the majority of Cuban’s adore their leader and would do anything to defend the revolution. But there also exists a kind of resigned pragmatism regarding the countries likely future transition to capitalism.

To be continued

 

Is authenticity possible under capitalism?

By Daniel Margrain

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The anti-capitalist slogans ‘The World Is Not A Commodity’ and ‘Our World Is Not For Sale’ which emerged out of the great anti-capitalist demonstrations from Seattle and which many of us take for granted, are tremendously powerful statements about the world. One of Karl Marx’s most profound insights was his understanding of how the workings of the capitalist system is bound up with the process of turning ‘things’ from the ‘productive sphere’ to a ‘consumptive sphere’ realized as commodity value.

For Marx, the notion of turning ‘use values’ into ‘exchange values’ is an inherent feature of capitalism’s drive for the accumulation of capital. Capitalism does not create commodities or markets and, similarly, it does not create money. The problems, as Marx sees them, is not that capitalism brings these things into being, but brings them into being in a particular way that expands and extends the process of capital accumulation through the extraction of surplus value realized as profit.

Over a century and a half ago, Marx grasped the existence of an inherently competitive struggle between rival units of capital to turn increasing spheres of life over to private production and therefore to extend the sphere of commodities which have come to dominate the people that produce them. Formally, capitalists and workers are independent of each other, but in reality inextricably connected.

From the 19th century, production no longer took place in the home but in factories where new systems of discipline operated. For the first time in history, humans came to be defined by how and what they consumed. By turning society and production over to the production of ‘things’ that the direct producers have little or no control over, means that capitalism is an alienating system.

The devaluation of public life increases in direct relation to the increase in the value of the world of things. Real social relationships are governed by an external power which attains control over the individual. In The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx asserts:

“The alienation of the worker means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as hostile and alien.”

Although we make and buy ‘things’, the antagonistic nature of the capitalist market means we are detached and alienated from them and each other. The system produces a world of isolated and egoistic individuals, bound together by calculation and crude monetary terms rather than the establishment of community life. The capitalist system of generalized commodity production is so pervasive that it seems an inevitable and natural condition of humanity.

Commodities acquire social characteristics because individuals enter the productive process only as the owners of commodities. As Marx succinctly put it“the impact of society on the individual is carried out through the social form of things.” This adds another dimension to alienated relationships because “the characters who appear on the economic stage are merely personifications of economic relations. It is as the bearers of these economic relations that they come into contact with each other.”

The notion that human will is separated from the social organization that overrides it and where powers are conferred to inanimate objects, is what Marx meant by ‘commodity fetishism’. It is a process in which “the capitalist mode of production takes over the totality of the individual, family, social needs and, in subordinating them to the market, also reshapes them to serve the needs of capital.” In this way culture is packaged within what appears to be an era of all-pervasive globalization where:

“The local and exotic are torn out of place to be repackaged for the world bazaar. So-called world culture may reflect a new valuation of difference and particularity, but is also very much about making a profit from it.”

Commodities also take on a mystical character. As writer, Kitty S Jones has shown, under capitalism the world has become devalued and society debased. Under these conditions, rather than the state providing services directly, it’s role is to act as a purchaser of public services which are then farmed out to the private sector. Working conditions are unilaterally altered as a result, and the path of individual redress begins and often ends with automated answering services of the great bureaucracies.

The frustration has reached such epic proportions that in those services where staff have to confront the public, they either have to be physically protected by screens or notices have to be posted warning the public of the dire consequences of assaulting staff, as now happens on London buses and tubes. All this is compounded by market-inspired jargon that seems to promise the opposite of this frustration.

The dominance of the cash nexus and privatization within public life is such that trains now carry customers not passengers and nurses tend clients not patients. Bewildering consumer choice is offered by the same few large corporations. The near universal mechanisms supposedly designed to provide accountability and increase public trust through regulation, inspection, target-setting and audit are, in reality, making things worse.

Ira Katznelson outlines the all-pervasive and distorting power of capitalism in relation to cities:

“Capitalism creates the city; the city creates a consciousness that reflects its varied reality; yet that unconsciousness deflects attention away from the primal forces of the capitalist mode of production that underlie the production and functioning of cities. This is the great secret of the capitalist order. Not only does the city give the accumulation process the capacity to secure a spatial fix, it also misshapes class struggle by deflecting it into fetishistic dimensions.”

The result of the direct subordination of cultural production to the priorities of profitable accumulation can be witnessed daily on television. In Britain today – the European vanguard of neoliberalism – government ministers refer to the ‘cultural industries’ without any sense of paradox or discomfort, and the Financial Times has a regular supplement called ‘Creative Business’.

This understanding of culture as part of the profitable accumulation process, is very different from the understanding of cultural theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. When, for example, they coined the expression ‘the culture industry’, they intended it as an ironical and critical concept. Nothing seemed to them to be more absurd or contradictory than to reduce the creative process to an industry governed by the same logic of rationalization as any other.

Throughout the public realm, what appears to be the hegemonic subjugation to the market of communities and societies, means that many people are oblivious to alternative narratives which challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of neoliberalism. Postmodernism helps reinforce this consensus view because it seeks to prohibit a discourse of social criticism to the experience of neoliberalism. The high priest of the deconstruction of authenticity, Jean Baudrillard, for example, writes:

“All our problems today as civilized beings originate not in an excess of alienation, but a disappearance of alienation in favour of a maximum transparency between subjects.”

For Baudrillard, critical thought and political struggle have been rendered obsolete in society, not of the spectacle but of simulation where images no longer represent but now constitute reality. Marx’s concepts of alienation and commodity fetishism, however, infer a contrast between an authentic subject and existing social relations that deny it self-realization.

This contrast is implicit in the critique developed during the 1960s by the Situationists of ‘the society of the spectacle’. Situationist Guy Debord writes of “the global social praxis that is split into reality and image” and says that “within a world really on its head, the true is a movement of the false.” The tradition in which the Situationists built on Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism is one, therefore, that’s committed to the idea of pursuing the critique of existing reality as part of the struggle of what Marx called ‘human emancipation’.

The re-emergence of Marx’s concepts of alienation and commodity fetishism in recent years marks the breakdown of the hegemony that postmodernism has exerted over much academic thinking during the last few decades. For Alex Callinicos, postmodernism is predicated on a neoliberal ideological discourse that dovetails in with urban corporate spatial strategies designed to extract value by dissolving the aspiration to authenticity and community through identity politics.

According to Rosalyn Deutsche, corporate planning strategies frequently cast homogeneity and unanimity in the shape of ‘community’ with the goals of consolidating communities and soothing conflicts. The aim is to dissociate democracy from conflict. Conflict is “simultaneously acknowledged and disavowed, a ‘fetishistic’ process whose repercussions generate certitudes about the meaning of public space.” Thus the struggle for authenticity through recognition of identity and differentiation, and the effort to disembody ownership from representation in urban spaces, is the struggle for community and democracy itself.

The community in this sense appear as negative images embroiled within a discursive economy that both masks and legitimizes socioeconomic domination by obliterating difference, inequality and oppression. The merging of ownership and representation as a tool of statement production only serves to extend these operations of power and to further undermine the possibility of resistance.

In this way, corporate structures are able to appropriate representative claims for authenticity and embody them within a framework of ownership that privilege an integrated concept of space distanced from a discourse of threat and conflict. Thus urban spaces can appear to be abstract and neutral allowing urban planners to divorce the urban fabric from class content. So, for instance, the dominant response to the English inner city riots of the 1980s was for better ‘design solutions’ to control social problems rather than on focusing attempts to challenge entrenched socioeconomic relations that gave rise to them.

An inclusive Marxist vision of democracy is one in which, the ‘subject’ as opposed to the ‘commodity’ becomes the universal category. Marx, therefore, is able to transcend the capitalist totality by providing a theoretical basis by which authenticity can be realized without the need to turn to market-based objectified concepts.

In my next article I will examine how misplaced notions of authenticity have influenced the way many of us perceive the Cuban experience

Black Friday & the Red Scare

By Daniel Margrain

The decision last Friday (August 12) by three Appeal Court judges to overturn High Court judge Hickinbottom’s determination four days earlier, ostensibly to prevent the right of 130,000 members to vote in the forthcoming Labour leadership election, is arguably among the most strangest of decisions to have been made in an English court. The five Labour members – Christine Evangelou, Edward Leir, Hannah Fordham, Chris Granger and an unnamed minor – who initially brought the case and whose legal fees were crowdfunded, had claimed that Labour’s rulebook made no provision for treating them differently and none had ever been made in any of the party’s previous leadership elections.

They also argued that when they joined, the Labour website and other communications said they would be ‘a key part of the team’, and thus eligible to vote in any leadership election as the graphic below illustrates:

Mr Justice Hickinbottom agreed. In last Monday’s initial written judgment on the six-month cut-off point, Hickinbottom said:

“At the time each of the claimants joined the party, it was the common understanding as reflected in the rule book that, if they joined the party prior to the election process commencing, as new members they would be entitled to vote in any leadership contest. That was the basis upon which each claimant joined the party; and the basis upon which they entered into the contract between members. For those reasons, the claimants’ claim succeeds.”

Hickinbottom said that a refusal to allow the 130,000 a vote was an unlawful breach of contract, adding that any attempt to reverse the decision “would have no chance of success at appeal”. And yet four days later after Labour’s general secretary, Iain McNicol had used Labour members’ money to fund the appeal to challenge the right of members to vote, the anti-Corbyn plotters were celebrating the reinstatement of a six-month cut-off point.

The bizarre nature of the judgement that is widely acknowledged to disadvantage Corbyn and to vindicate McNicol – at least temporarily – effectively endorses ballot rigging and gerrymandering as well as setting a precedent in terms of allowing the retrospective altering of contracts. Announcing the appeal court’s decision last Friday, Lord Justice Beatson said:

“On the correct interpretation of the party rules, the national executive committee has the power to set the criteria for members to be eligible to vote in the leadership election in the way that it did.”

This announcement came on the back of revelations by Wikileaks that the second of the three Appeal Court judges, Sir Philip Sales QC, who overruled the previous High Court decision, had been a Blair insider for years, having been recruited as Junior Counsel to the Crown in 1997.

The literature cited by WikiLeaks  reveals that Sales used to be a practising barrister at law chambers 11KBW, of which Tony Blair was a founder member and, as a key part of Blair’s legal team, he defended the Government’s decision against holding a public inquiry into the Iraq War in the High Court in 2005.

The conflict of interest issue that is raised by Sales’ close connection to Blair is bound to raise eyebrows given the nature of what clearly amounted to a breach of contract which was nevertheless overruled in favour of the NEC of which the Blairite establishment is embedded.

It has since come to light that the Labour machine broke the Advertising Standards Association (ASA) code after having advertised that a promise to vote for a leader was a condition of membership. There are also serious questions to be answered in terms of the basis in which the appeal which was instigated by the ‘NEC Procedures Committee’ was brought. But, as Eoin has highlighted, no such Committee is mentioned on the official list of NEC Committees.

The wider context to all these shenanigans stems from the moment Corbyn was elected leader of the party. From the outset, the intention of the Labour Party establishment has been to depose Corbyn through a sustained strategy of subversion and attrition. The latest wave of attacks began following the failed attempt – instigated by multi-millionaire donor, Michael Foster – to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper.

This was followed by ballot rigging in which 130,000 members who joined the party after Corbyn’s election victory were prevented from voting. The Labour machine did this by invoking a back-dated retrospective six month rule. Members were then informed that there was a legal problem with that because these members were told when they joined they had a right to vote in leadership elections.

In order to get around this, the machine introduced a 48 hour window in which anybody at all could join if they paid £25. Then they discovered that an enormous amount of people had paid the £25 and so began to ‘weed out’ anybody who they discovered had used the word ‘Blairite’ on social media sites. This was regarded as sufficient enough reason to debar members from voting.

Finally, the 130,000 members got justice in the High Court last Monday only to be confounded four days later. The attempt by Labour members of parliament to overthrow their democratically elected leader using this kind of war of attrition strategy will start all over again the day after Corbyn is re-elected next month.

We know this because Blair apologist John Rentoul – who is himself heavily implicated in the propaganda offensive against Corbyn – conceded as much on George Galloway’s Talk Radio Show last Friday evening when he insisted that Corbyn will continue to be subjected to a war of attrition including yearly elections that “will result in his eventual defeat.”

Rentoul tripped up on his own propaganda after admitting to Galloway that there are no more than 4,000 Trotskyite entryists out of a total of 600,000 members who have joined the party under Corbyn. He then contradicted himself by claiming that the small minority of ‘dormant’ Trotskyist members had ‘flooded back’ into the party having “taken advantage of naive and idealistic new members.” This is classic ‘reds under the bed’ scare politics.

The notion that hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised, social media savvy members are having their arms twisted by a relatively tiny handful of ‘shady individuals’ influenced by a revolutionary political figure who died more than a century ago, is clearly ludicrous.

Nevertheless, this is all part and parcel of a far reaching ‘scorched earth’ media propaganda offensive against Corbyn and his supporters, the latest and arguably the most repugnant of which was the recent Mail on-line edition in which anti-Corbyn Labour donor, Michael Foster, was quoted as describing Corbyn’s team as ‘Nazi Stormtroopers’. Clearly the irony is lost on Foster that during the 1930s, the Daily Mail supported Hitler and campaigned against the admission of Jewish refugees into the UK.

The establishments demonization of the left is not new. It fits into a wider media narrative that depicts all those who oppose the neoliberal hegemony of the state as subversive, dangerous and an inherent threat to civilization  As Craig Murray argues:

“A key weapon of the neo-liberal establishment in delegitimising the emergence of popular organisation to the left, is to portray all thinkers outside the Overton window as dangerous; actively violent, misogynist and racist.”

Murray illustrates, by recourse to various evidence-based case studies, “the obvious and glaring disparity” between what the media purports are the kinds of violent actions activists supposedly engage in, and the actual peaceful protests they collectively involve themselves in.

George Galloway emphasized that the kind of biased anti-Corbyn propaganda, which he claims is an integral part of a coup that has been coordinated by Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandleson is:

“unremitting, it is Goebbelian; it is a shame and a disgrace on anyone who calls themselves a journalist or a broadcaster. All rules have been thrown to the wind; all journalistic norms have been abandoned. It is open season on a good and honest man. It fills me with disgust.”

The abandonment of journalistic rules outlined by Galloway is not restricted to what is considered by many to be the tabloid end of the spectrum. On the contrary, it often includes the ‘respectable’ and ‘liberal’ journalism of which Channel 4 News, for example, is part. The analysis of the Cathy Newman interview below is an excellent dissection and exposition of the propaganda system as it operates as part of the latter:

Whether, the media will wear Corbyn down leading to his eventual removal as Rentoul suggests, or whether the former wins the war is an open question. The fact that Corbyn has recently secured a majority of his supporters on the NEC is a massive boost to his leadership and would seem to indicate that Corbyn’s arch enemy, Iain McNicol’s days are numbered. Nevertheless, it’s clear to me that the time has now come for Corbyn to come down much harder than he has done thus far on the traitors who are unremitting in their determination to undermine his authority.

 

 

Socialism for the rich: the systemic corruption of the British state

By Daniel Margrain

Screenshot 2015-08-01 21.41.18

At the beginning of each new year my resolution is to earn enough money to be in a position to pay off my credit cards on time and therefore to ensure my household budget is managed properly. Living strictly within my means on a month-to-month basis is, in other words, something I aspire to. The problem is I, and millions of others, rarely achieve it.

Many of us are only able to scrape by month-to-month because we pay the minimum amount on credit cards we have exhausted. The rules of the capitalist system are such that the availability of unlimited credit for the masses is not inexhaustible. There are limits to which the financial system will bail us out.

Ultimately, in the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’, the fight for survival by any means necessary becomes the guiding principle in order that the necessities of life can be sustained. The mantra often repeated by elite establishment politicians and their corporate overseers, is the need for the masses to ‘stand on their own two feet’.

The derision by the elites of ‘big government’ and the favouring of the ‘invisible hand’ is matched by the supposed need to strip the state to a residual government limited to maintaining law and order and contract enforcement. And yet in the periods when the capitalist system, and those who disproportionately benefit from it, fail – as it did in 2008 – the state will intervene to save the system from itself.

Following the 2008 crash, over £1tn of public money – with almost no conditions attached – was poured into the banking system  In 2012, the stated intention was that this windfall, by way of quantitative easing (QE), was to be pumped into the local economy. But between 2011 and 2013, bank lending fell dramatically, helping to stifle economic recovery.

Rather than being used for production and consumption, the money went into speculation and share buy-backs in order to re-boot the profits of banks and hence the ‘bonuses’ of bankers. Consequently, in 2012, 2714 British bankers were paid more than 1m euros of our money – 12 times as much as any other EU country, ostensibly to alleviate a crisis that they helped cause.

In 2012, after the EU unveiled proposals to limit bonuses to either one or two years’ salary with the say-so of shareholders, the Treasury – at British taxpayers expense – challenged the proposals at the European Court. The entire British government demonstrated, not for the first time, that it was one giant lobbying operation for the City of London. Instead of the prospect of facing jail as was the case with bankers in Iceland, British bankers enjoy state aid on an unprecedented scale.

The Governor of the Bank Of England, Mark Carney’s announcement last week that the BOE intends to expand its QE by £60bn in order to ‘stimulate the economy’ is a deception. The truth is, the socialization of private banking debt that contributed to the 2008 crisis is being repeated with all the terrible consequences that this entails. Limiting the ability of the state to boost investment to the local economy, will do nothing to stimulate growth.

It’s clear that the principal objective of the UK tax system, in which the poor pay a higher proportion of tax than the rich, is not to improve the collective well-being of society, but to funnel cash to the wealthy and gamble it on the roulette tables in the City.

In terms of the former, for example, previous Conservative Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan-Smith received 1.5m euros in income support during the last decade by way of farm subsidies from taxpayers, while the estate of Tory MP Richard Drax, received £13,830 housing benefit in 2013. Both Duncan-Smith and Drax are wealthy benefit claimants who advocate slashing state support for the poor.

In terms of the latter, the Tories introduced £12 billion of cuts – the pain of which is being felt by the most vulnerable – and rushed through the sale of £2 billion worth of the 79 per cent stake the government has in RBS. As a result, it was the taxpayers who lost out on a potential £14 billion return.

Taxpayers also lose out when the rich fail to pay their fair share of tax. Tory aristocrat, Gideon Osborne, who at one stage was widely tipped to take over the reins of PM from his friend, David Cameron, had, unsurprisingly, failed to fulfill his promise to take action on tax avoidance. The fact that his family business routinely avoids tax, probably played a part in the decision.

The real benefit-spongers are not those who feature on low-brow documentary programmes, but rather they are the elites who occupy the corridors of power. If the richest 1,000 people in Britain that have seen their wealth increase by a massive £155bn since the economic crisis began in 2008, were to actually pay their fair share of tax, the deficit the government assures us needs reducing, would be wiped out at a stroke.

But there is no priority within government to insist that corporations cough up. Asda, Google, Apple, eBay, Ikea, Starbucks, Vodafone and others, all pay minimal tax on massive UK revenues, mostly by diverting profits earned in Britain to their parent companies, or lower tax jurisdictions via royalty and service payments or transfer pricing.

The £1 billion that Gideon gave away to his pals in the city on August 4 last year in the RBS share giveaway would have gone a long way to fund the deficit in the NHS, whose trusts claim are ‘unaffordable’. In addition, the Panama Papers revelation that 9,670 UK companies are implicated in a global web of corruption and tax avoidance, would have resulted in a huge surplus. According to Tax Research UK the amount of UK tax that is either avoided, evaded or uncollected currently stands at a staggering £114.4bn and rising.

Many of the corporations of the kind outlined above who evade or avoid tax, benefit greatly from public money invested in, for example, railway and road infrastructure. This infrastructure helps ensure that the labour force, who do pay their taxes in full and who the corporations exploit, are able to arrive at their workplaces in order to produce the profits for these corporations.

The problems associated with the corporate underpayment or non-payment of tax in terms of the reduced revenues accrued to the exchequer, is compounded by the state underwriting of the portfolios of a multitude of other corporations, many of whom deliver ‘public’ services.

The railways are a case in point. State spending on privatized railways are six times higher than they were during the last years of nationalized British Rail. This is despite the fact that under the privatized system, rolling stock is replaced less frequently, there is inadequate carriage space to accommodate rising numbers of rail passengers and ticket prices are the highest in Europe.

The ‘gushing up’ of redistributed wealth from the bottom to the top of the socioeconomic pyramid doesn’t end there. Big business is also dependent on the state in terms of the underwriting of low pay by way of tax credits which cost the tax payer £29bn in 2015/16. The same principle applies to the £24bn spent on housing benefit which goes straight into the pockets of landlords.

With tenants driven into the expensive private rented sector, largely as a result of the inability of successive governments to built adequate levels of affordable council housing, housing benefit impacts in three key ways. Firstly, it acts as a subsidy for low wages. Second, it contributes towards higher rents for private landlords, many of whom, unsurprisingly, are MPs.

In fact, almost a third of MPs let out houses or flats, an amount that is rising. This compares to just 2 per cent of the general adult population who rent out properties. Finally, the third way housing benefit impacts on housing, is the way it distorts house prices. Crucially, the notion that it benefits poor people in the way that the media often depict, is false.

 As Craig Murray puts it:

“….The brilliance of the trick is that, as it is labeled a benefit, the left fight to keep housing benefit as though it benefited poor people. In fact this is a great illusion. It does nothing of the sort. What would truly benefit poor people is lower rent or affordable homes…

Murray continues:

“The landlord class benefit not only from the taxpayer giving them enormous rents, but from the possession of artificially inflated property on which they can raise further money for more speculation…. The reason that [the governing political elite] has not made a serious assault on housing benefit is that it puts money straight into the pockets of most of [their] Tory chums.

The largest benefit recipients in the UK are the great landlords….[P]umping in 18 billion pounds of state money a year to rents adds 288 billion pounds to property values.That explains how you reach the apparently impossible situation of median property at twelve times median income.”

Our elected representatives who ought to be working for the public good, are instead frittering away public money into their own pockets and those of their corporate benefactors. This is not only unjust but is not sustainable. Big business decision-making has become largely risk free, underwritten by the state.

This isn’t free-market capitalism in the formal sense, but socialism for the rich – a form of state capitalism – no different in principle to the old statist economies of the former Soviet Union. In other words, the elites are immune from the rules of capitalism the rest of us are forced to abide by.