Brexit: A Disaster In Waiting

 By Daniel Margrain

With article 50 triggered, the clock is ticking: the UK government has less than two years to reach a settlement in what is going to be the ‘mother of all divorce cases’. With the Tory government having been, up until now, deliberately vague about what it seeks to achieve during the negotiations, the predicted outcome of Brexit is based on unwarranted optimism at best and catastrophe at worst.

This is not what the British people voted for. It’s not the job of politician’s to support a suicidal Brexit strategy predicated on a racist narrative and false promises written on the side of a bus, but to scrutinize claims and represent the best interests of their constituents by voting accordingly in parliament.

There was never any compulsion to follow- through on a referendum based on falsehoods or pandering to racists. In my view, the Labour opposition could and should have done more to defend the Remain campaign from the crass opportunism of their opponents. Labour missed an ideal opportunity to capitalize on Tory divisions over Europe exemplified by Theresa May’s lies and dramatic u-turns.

Richard Corbett nailed it when he said:

“Until recently, the argument that the UK would be able to thrive without any kind of trade deal with the European Union was only promoted by UKIP and the Eurosceptic fringe of the Conservative party. Now, it is apparently shared by UK Prime Minister Theresa May and her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, repeatedly saying that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”

Beneficiaries

The main beneficiaries of such complacency have been the Liberal Democrats who are stealing many of the 48 per cent of disenchanted English and Welsh voters who voted Remain from under Labour’s nose. What Corbyn seems to be banking on is that enough people will buy into his ‘island of socialism’ narrative.

This appears to involve his rejection of the notion that the EU, as an international institution, is synonymous with an internationalist conception of socialism. That’s not to say the EU is a perfect international institution – far from it. But its effectiveness in the progressive sense is dependent upon the nature of the governments who control it.

Rather than retreating into the concept of an inverted socialist vision, it’s my view that Corbyn would have been better served by maintaining a strategy of solidarity with other pro-EU socialist colleagues within Europe by helping to create a much more integrated and supranational form of political organisation at the European level and thus radically helping to change the direction of EU policy. Big capital can only be countered by big institutions.

Much of the Tory austerity drive has to do with the systemic and structural limitations associated with state power at the national level. The “pooling of national sovereignty” which implies greater European integration and federalization, goes some way to addressing these limitations, which is no bad thing.

Regardless, many of those who favour greater integration in principle, falsely believe that the lackluster performance of the Euro undermines it. In truth, the national schadenfruede that culminated in the British government’s reaction to the performance of the Euro, is a red-herring.

The problem, as Craig Murray recognized, is not currency union, but the lack of any fiscal union. The one is not feasible without the other. The economic argument for the alleged failure of the EU as an economic project, therefore, cannot be made on the basis of the relative weakness of the Euro, but rather on the lack of any implementation of a fiscal union.

Rolling back

Similar unjust criticisms are leveled at EU legislatures as the basis for arguing for UK withdrawal from the union. The anti-EU right have attempted to roll back the powers of both the EU Court of Justice (ECJ) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The Brexit establishment has objected to some of the humane rulings of the ECHR. In particular, this includes the protection of the human rights of immigrants at risk of being deported by the UK. The ECHR is itself outside the remit of the European Union.

But the ECJ is bound by the overarching decisions of the ECHR when ruling on matters of specifically EU law. The Tories want a “British” convention on human rights to replace the European convention which if achieved, would further seriously undermine civil liberties and human rights in Britain.

Given the numerous advantages of the EU described, it seems strange that Corbyn hasn’t come out more stridently in public to defend the notion that more, not less, European integration is needed. The labour leader’s calculated rejection of the Remain position is a risky strategy. It’s one in which he seems to be prepared to put all his eggs into one basket.

We will know closer to the next General Election whether the implications of a damaging Brexit predicated on the isolationist neoliberal approach by those who champion it, will be sufficient enough to engender a return to socialism among the body politic of British society.

However, if by 2020 Corbyn’s ambivalence to Brexit backfires on him and he loses the election, it will be the poorest and weakest in society who will pay the biggest price in terms of further cuts to welfare and the undermining of workers rights and protections.

Having left the EU, any post-2020 Labour opposition will have to win arguments on these and other key issues such as social legislation and human rights that are currently protected by the EU but which the Tories have long wanted to opt out of.

Scrapped

There can be no doubt that in a Brexit Britain under the Tories, many European regulations restricting working hours and other employment and social reforms will be scrapped and working class living standards diminished.

This will be achieved through the enactment of something as far reaching as the Great Repeal Act. Embodied in the Statute of Proclamations 1539, the Great Repeal Act will override the preservation of EU law by granting executive powers to enable legislation to be changed by order, rather than through parliament; a method of lawmaking wholly at odds with democracy and accountability.

To add salt to the wound, the Tories dream of extending a tax-haven for the super-rich will mean that the 99 per cent will be expected to fund the shortfall of a welfare state depleted of resources. Any future Labour government will be left to pick up the pieces of Brexit against a backdrop in which access to the Single Market both for manufacturing and financial services will of been severely hampered.

With the prospect of London losing its role as the world’s leading financial sector to New York, Frankfurt and Paris due to companies’ relocating resulting from lack of tariff-free access, these problems will be further compounded. Already German car manufacturer’s are bracing themselves for a new era of trade tariffs with the UK because Angela Merkel has warned that she is going to put the interests of the 27 remaining EU members first in the forthcoming Brexit talks.

The possibility of a country like Australia plugging the gap, has been torpedoed by the decision of that nations foreign minister to consider relocating Australian companies from Britain to Ireland in order to allow the country to keep its access to the Single Market. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Donald Trump’s trade chief, Wilbur Ross, has urged Britain’s rivals to exploit the “God-given opportunity” of Brexit to take business away from the UK.

Taking back control

These kinds of examples illustrate the nonsense behind the rhetoric of those who argue that Brexit will enable Britain to “take back control”. How does a country take back control of its trade relationships by giving complete control of these relationships to the union it has just left, arguably because its people felt it had too much control of their country?

Paradoxically, what the 52 per cent who voted for Brexit on the basis that the EU have too much control did, was to ensure that the EU have absolute control. In other words, “taking back control” is essentially coded language for saying that the remaining 27 EU members will exercise complete control over precisely what relationship the UK will be able to enjoy with the world’s largest trading bloc.

Moreover, May and Johnson’s populist mantra “no deal is better than a bad deal” means the exact opposite. As Richard Corbett points out:

“The National Institute for Economic and Social Research predicts that leaving without a deal, and thus falling under WTO rules and tariffs, would reduce real wages by between 4.6 per cent and seven per cent. A leaked Treasury report also warns that leaving the EU with no trade deal is the “alternative to membership with the most negative long-term impact” and would cause a “major economic shock”.

Corbett continued:

“Some studies estimate the increase in UK food prices alone could be as much as eight per cent, in addition to those already created by the devaluation of the pound following the referendum. Yet the impacts are not just financial or trade-related. A report from the UK House of Commons’ cross-party foreign affairs committee highlights the difficulties that UK citizens in other EU countries, and EU citizens in the UK, would face on issues such as residence rights, access to healthcare, employment rights, cross-border civil law disputes and pensions if we exit with no arrangements in place. It would also take our universities out of European research programmes, our police out of cross-border crime-fighting systems and our airlines out of EU skies.”

White Paper

Then there is the issue that the British people voted for Brexit on the basis that in so doing they would ensure parliamentary sovereignty would be reclaimed. But, as the government’s Brexit White Paper reveals, this is yet another false argument. Parliament has “remained sovereign throughout our membership to the EU”.

In a section titled “taking control of our own laws”, the White Paper states: “The sovereignty of Parliament is a fundamental principle of the UK constitution. Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that.”

Even the suggestion that the fishing industry has a glittering future as a result of Brexit falls apart given that 60 per cent of fish landed in British ports arrives in Scotland which voted to Remain.

Meanwhile, the DUP’s Nigel Dodds seems to be suggesting that Sein Fein are poised to head for full unification of Ireland which means the UK won’t exist anymore. Then there is the issue of Scottish independence. A few days ago the Scottish parliament voted for another referendum.

This puts Theresa May in a difficult position. On the one hand, the woman who argued that “we need more unity” while undertaking negotiations that guarantee disunity, can’t be seen to be granting Scotland a referendum. This is because if she loses she will be forced to resign. On the other hand, if May does grant Scotland a referendum and puts a date on it, she will send her negotiators to Brussels without knowing what her own country looks like.

Michael Howard’s jingoistic remarks over the British money laundering tax haven, Gibraltar – 96 per cent of whose residents voted Remain – will undermine Britain’s negotiating position no matter what approach May decides to take. It’s quite possible to envisage a situation in the near future in which the “country we got back” consists of nothing more than England and Wales.

In the comments section of a recent LabourList article, Richard Dean provides a neat “conservative” summary of the likely impacts resulting from the irrational Brexit position. He writes:

  • We are going to get control of our borders, but according to leading Brexiteers this is not going to change immigration much, because we actually benefit from immigration overall.
  • We are going to get control of our laws, but according to leading Brexiteers this does not mean that anything much will be changed. At most we might tweak a few little things here and there, but Brexiteers don’t know what things.
  • We are going to get control of our money, except that we are likely to end up losing money as a result of the loss of trade with the EU27. We will probably lose about the same as we gain from not paying the famous £350 million.
  • We are going to be able to strike trade deals with countries outside the EU, just like the trade deals that we currently benefit from by being inside the EU.
  • We are going to leave the ECJ, and then negotiate an identical arrangement to settle trade disputes. We will agree to be bound by whatever the independent new adjudicators adjudicate, just like being in the ECJ, because if we didn’t do that it wouldn’t be the independent arbiter of trade disputes that every trade deal needs.

David Jackson adds:

“Brexit is the equivalent of doing a parachute jump without checking the pack on your back actually has something in it. Still it’s not the falling that does the damage its the sudden stop at the bottom or in our EU exit case in 2 years time!”

 

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Justice for Alexander Blackman. But shouldn’t Fallon have been in the dock too?

Claire Blackman, the wife of Alexander Blackman, speaking outside the Royal Courts of Justice (Photo: PA)

 By Daniel Margrain

On March 28, 2017 justice was seen to have been done at the Court of Appeal in London where the murder case of Royal Marine, Alexander Blackman, was reduced to manslaughter. Back in September, 2015, the Daily Mail reported on a leaked dossier that contained crucial evidence withheld from Blackman’s court martial into the killing of a mortally wounded Taliban insurgent in Afghanistan.

Military chiefs solely blamed Blackman for the killing. However, the report into the incident says that his over-stretched unit was being pushed to be too aggressive; that his senior officer was not prepared for the demands of the war zone and that there were signs that Blackman’s unit was cracking up. All these things, the leaked report says, were missed by commander’s.

If not for the investigative work of the Daily Mail and the informant who unearthed these details, none of the MOD’s censoring of the admission of command failings in Helmand province would have come to light. What the paper revealed, is that the MOD conducted a report into their own actions and put a black line through anything that didn’t make them look good.

Warning signs

The MOD report said that the supervision of the commanding officer where Blackman and his men were based was insufficient to identify a number of warning signs that could have indicated that they were showing evidence of moral regression, psychological strain and fatigue. I think you and I would show evidence of moral regression if somebody was shooting at us while we were at work.

The Daily Mail says this shows that high-ranking officers were partly responsible for the extreme state that Blackman was in when he pulled the trigger. The report, which formed a major plank of his battle for justice, was debated in Parliament on September 16, 2015. The papers discovery of the full executive summary of the report was followed by minsters’ caving in to demands from Blackman’s lawyers to have confidential access to all its 50 pages. What was the MOD trying to protect?

It’s not for the benefit of the British public that this report was blacked out, but for the benefit of pen-pushers in the MOD. “Blackman and his troops were at breaking point”, says the Mail in their report after a “tour from hell in Hellmand province that had seen comrades tortured and killed.”

But the Daily Mail investigation discovered that Blackman’s court martial was blocked from hearing the truth about these mitigating circumstances. The executive summary of the Navy’s report into the shooting that was leaked to the Mail  was marked “official-sensitive”. It lays bare how commanders were blind to the psychological strain and fatigue endured by Blackman and his men.

Censored

The fact that the damning conclusion is blotted out with censors’ black ink illustrates how the UK government refuse to acknowledge that there are any systemic problems within the corridors of power. On the contrary, they have shifted criticism from attributing blame to those within the high chain of command towards the whistle blower and the journalists who exposed the scandal.

Meanwhile, in responding to a question in the House of Commons from Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon said the estimated number of ISIS fighters killed as a result of UK strikes from September 2014 to 31 August 2015 was around 330. “This figure is highly approximate,” he said, “not least given the absence of UK ground troops in a position to observe the effects of strike activity.” He added that he believed no civilians had been injured or killed by such strikes. “

Fallon effectively admits that the British government doesn’t have the faintest idea how many people had been killed by British airstrikes in the year up to 31 August 2015. If he doesn’t know how many had been killed, it follows that he doesn’t know who had been killed and in what circumstances. Therefore, he is unable to satisfactorily conclude, as he did, that it was his belief that “no civilians had been injured or killed by such strikes”.

Imminent threat

Fallon’s inconsistent line of argumentation followed the extrajudicial murder of two British citizens in Syria justified on absurd grounds that the alleged terrorists presented an imminent threat to the population in Britain thousands of miles away. The notion the government acted in self-defense in this case is preposterous. What Fallon’s comments, on the one hand, and the initial conviction of Blackman for murder on the other highlight, is the contradictory approaches the state takes towards the crime.

Logically, it’s only possible to claim you are under imminent threat from terrorists if you are able to identify the nature of the said threat. The only way to do that is if one is able to identify those who are allegedly threatening you. How then, can the government claim self defense under such vague circumstances? Dropping bombs from a great height in order to supposedly ‘target’ terrorists can never be precise despite the propaganda claims to the contrary. Killing in this way is necessarily indiscriminate.

How can it be the case that commanding officers who were partly responsible for the extreme state of mind of one of their underlings, and a foreign secretary who oversees them all, get a free pass for murder, while one of the men at the bottom of the chain of command who pulled the trigger on a foe in the battlefield while under enormous stress, was initially sentenced to life imprisonment for the crime?

It’s reasonable to assume that there are certain circumstances in which somebody on the battlefield who is showing evidence of moral regression, psychological strain and fatigue, and whose life would almost always be under imminent threat, could be justified in killing an enemy combatant. But it’s impossible to envisage the mitigating circumstances by which it could be justified for others higher up the chain of command who oversee or give orders to others who kill by pressing buttons on computer screens.

Telling

It’s perhaps telling that at the time of Blackman’s conviction for murder, not a single political establishment figure within the Cabinet came forward to publicly criticise the decision. On the contrary, the then PM David Cameron, prior to a visit to see the Afghan president, defended the decision of the court to imprison Blackman for life.

This is a classic example of the elite class closing ranks in order to deflect the massive crimes of the establishment onto soldiers on the ground. I, for one, am glad that justice was finally done at the Court of Appeal. The question is, when can we expect to see the likes of Michael Fallon stand in front of the judges to face justice?

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What Kind of A Society Are We Prepared to Fight For?

By Daniel Margrain

Pushing Earth of a cliff

In my February 21, 2017 article for Scisco Media I focused on the “conscious cruelty” inflicted by recent Labour and Tory governments’ on some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society. The piece proved to have been quite popular, reflecting a widespread hatred of a largely out-of-touch political class whose underlying set of principles are not much different to those that typified the rise of Nazism during the 1930s.

I pointed out that New Labour “feminist” ideologues like Harriet Harman and Yvette Cooper were complicit in ensuring that Tory attacks against the sick and disabled would be implemented. The notion that both the Tories and Right factions within the Labour party consider Britain’s “low-lying fruit” as a drain on society to be eliminated, is not as far-fetched as some might believe.

This was certainly the view of Pat Hibernian McQueenie who commented:

“Good piece, it is time for JC and JMCD to remove the linen glove and put on the Iron Fist. If these two Politicians are removed from their posts the British Working Class will cease to exist. A new Class will be born or I should say reborn The British Slave Class will be implemented by the Right Wing.

Queuing at Work Premises I would use gates but there are not that many Left anyway all you who voted for the Tory be afraid be very very afraid. Death Camps will spring up in isolated places and I think you know the rest. All of You Should Have Watched “THE NAZIS A WARNING FROM HISTORY”

I hope whatever God if any You Worship Forgives You because I a disabled Human Being who worked all his Life from 9 until being struck down at the age of 59 WILL NEVER FORGIVE YOU SELFISH SCUM SOCIETY You are the Worst Stupidest EVER.”

My piece also appeared to have struck a chord with Elizabeth Newport who wrote:

“Labour’s apathy since 2010 over the appalling benefit reforms upsets me more than the fact the tories have done it. I expect the tories to scapegoat and demean the vulnerable, that’s what they do, but I expected Labour to make their lives very difficult and for charities to be extremely vocal.

The truth is no one cares about the vulnerable, the electorate voted the tories in knowing what their plans were. Labour rolled over on the welfare reform bill. When we have all died from stress and poverty or killed ourselves they will find a new group to scapegoat. I can honestly say that as a mentally disabled person I have never felt so hopeless with regards to any political changes. I was a single parent in the early 1990’s when single parents were blamed and targeted. This is even worse.”

Elizabeth is partly right. The Tories did not mention who their intended target was for the cuts. Not one mainstream journalist leading up to the election pressed then DWP minister, Iain Duncan Smith, for clarification, and therefore, the Tories had no mandate with which to implement their stated programme of cuts.

Pathological

Although it could be reasonably argued that people rarely base their decision to vote for a party on a single issue, the notion that poor people vote in large numbers for the Tories who clearly have them in their sights, is only incomprehensible if one is of the opinion that such people are immune from directing similar forms of pathological hatred against those who are even poorer and weaker than they are.

Of course, the far-right tabloid media play a major part in fanning the flames of hate. But it’s insufficient to put the blame solely on them. Despite falling sales, Murdoch continues to shift millions of copies of the Sun on a daily basis and nobody is physically forcing working class people into the shops to buy it. It’s not just the Tories who pander to the whims of Murdoch either. New Labour under Blair and Brown, were only too eager to appease the racist demographic in the country.

Charity-industrial complex

A corrupt corporate media-political system dominated by power and money means that, literally, the government is getting away with murder. This injustice was articulated by Iam Klaatu in the comments section:

“I do not understand why this is allowed to continue? There are so many breaches of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, especially Articles 23 and 24, and even United Nations condemnation! And under Articles 2 & 4 of the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, we have EVERY RIGHT, to see not just politicians and Lords, but EVERY SINGLE INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBLE, from politicians, civil servants, job centre staff and managers, they can and WILL be made accountable for this crime against humanity!

The passive approach among what I refer to as the “charity-industrial complex” also play a complicit role. Klaatu continues:

“So why doesn’t Scope, MENCAP, MS, Cancer Research, etc etc etc , get off their backsides and unite, and stop this genocidal policy??? Or are they afraid of seeing their funding cut??? Their apathy is sickening!!! David Cameron, has even made patron of a charity, whose people are just one group of people that HIS government has hounded and starved to death!…It is an outrage!!!”

Eugenics

It’s my view that what we are witnessing in Britain today, is an early manifestation of a policy of eugenics which will become increasingly more obvious in the years ahead, particularly as robots begin to create a growing pool of idle ‘useless eaters’ among the existing white collar and blue collar workforce. Eventually, a critical-mass point will be reached in which the government of the day will be forced into making binary political choices.

Future governments will be faced with either funding a Universal Basic Income system or resist the necessity for change and, therefore, be prepared for mass civil disobedience on the streets of our towns and cities. As successive governments over the last 40 years have preferred the punitive ‘stick’ rather than the incentivising ‘carrot’ approach, the introduction of a UBI system is far from being a formality.

Of course, none of these potential policy proposals can be announced publicly by the government of the day, or by their media mouthpieces. Rather, the aim is to introduce them incrementally. It’s clear that the eugenics policy is one that is already well under way in Britain in 2017.

The latest in a series of appalling stories to have emerged, concerns Nicola Jeffery, a single parent from south east London. Nicola has fibromyalgia which causes chronic pain across the body. She is one of thousands of people with “invisible disabilities” whose benefits have been axed by the Tories as a result of new “reforms” to the personal independence payment (Pip) benefits system.

The “reforms” are part of a wider long-term strategy of welfare retrenchment, austerity and cuts to those most in need. The aim is the destruction of civilized society. All associated notions of civilization that people have come to take for granted – NHS, social care, fire service, education, public child care provision etc – are being whittled away and sold off for the benefit of private capital and shareholder’s, many of whom are working class people.

So we have to ask the question, what kind of a society do we want?

It’s no longer acceptable to solely blame the Tories for the problems we face. Many ordinary people who vote for right wing parties, including a corporate-corrupted Labour party dominated by a neoliberal core of war-monger’s, Friends of Israeli ethnic cleansing and austerity apologists, have to start looking in the mirror and begin educating themselves about what’s going on in their own communities; their own country; their own world.

Taking responsibility

Many of the problems stem from the fact that for far too long, too many people have not been prepared to take responsibility for their own actions, nor to evaluate how the individual decisions they make on a daily basis impact on society in general. The easy option in which people are prepared to look the other way for perceived short-term gain, can no longer be tolerated.

People who litter and fly-tip on our streets and fields, drive aggressively and at speed in built-up areas, in addition to engaging in other forms of anti-social behaviour, need to be politely confronted. We also need to minimize our individual carbon footprints the best we can, buy locally sourced and organic produce and reduce our consumption of meat.

The attitude for many seems to be that as long as they, as individuals, are not directly being affected by the travails going on around them, then they would sooner prefer to be oblivious to them, irrespective of their adverse impacts.

This lack of awareness and compassion for others, rooted in selfishness and crass individualism, is the bane of society and civilization. Although it might not be the case that the individual or close family member is seemingly unaffected, the nature of the direction of travel in society is such that in the absence of viable alternatives, it will nevertheless become the case further down the line.

Finite planet

Although it might not be the situation today, tomorrow or the day after that, the fragile nature of the planet humanity inhabits, means that the infinite grabbing of finite resources will eventually result in insurmountable negative repercussions in which even the super-rich will not be immune. After all, environmental degradation affects everybody and air pollution is democratic.

Never has Pastor Niemoller’s famous aphorism been more relevant. Climate change is altering the very fabric upon which the functioning of civilized society rests. What use can a depleted planet wrought by a system that prioritizes the accumulation of wealth for wealth’s sake, serve for an elite that continuously craves it? The answer, of course, is that such a planet is of no use to any living thing.

The time to save humanity from itself is fast running out which is why we need to act. However, political shifts at the ballot box alone won’t be enough. We need collectively to go beyond naval-gazing towards positive action. We need to start getting informed about the real issues that humanity faces going forward and start to begin to look for radical solutions.

But we can only do this if an informed public is in a position to be able to correctly identify the cause of our collective malaise. Instead of devoting our energies on attacking the Other for the problems we face, we need to identify and target the source of our oppression. This means we have to think Big.

The local-global nexus, has arguably never been as relevant as it is now. This is because unlike previous epochs, we are the potential authors of our own destruction. In the past, as we moved from one socioeconomic and political form of organisation to another, we confronted, head on, the challenges we faced.

From hunter-gatherer societies through to feudalism, humans were master’s of their own destiny and they survived and prospered along the way. But during the latest capitalist phase, we have seemingly failed to acknowledge our limits as a species.

We cannot reason that lack of knowledge is the cause for our downfall. At the crossroad point along the metaphorical super highway, we made the informed choice to turn rapidly right in the certain knowledge that at the end of the road was a cliff whose precipice we were fast approaching but decided to continue along it’s fatal path regardless. For a species that claims to be at the top of the intellectual food chain, we sure are dumb.

Falling off a cliff

The truth is, we’ve not only sped to the cliff’s edge akin to being passengers of an out-of-control juggernaut, but we are plunging, free fall, towards a giant burning cauldron. We possess parachutes that are, in theory, capable of saving us from the affects of free-fall, but are fast reaching the point where the only eventuality will be hitting the ground with a thud.

Currently, we are at a critical stage between an insurmountable fate and a precarious survival. One of the things that can save us from our mass hypnosis and passivity in the face of a self-inflicted untimely death, is mass collective action. But collective activity in the strict political sense of the term is not enough either.

We also have to start radically changing our behaviour as consumers. This means a dramatic shift in expectations. It’s no longer reasonable for people to expect to spend £2 on a tee-shirt that has been produced by sweated labour in Pakistan, or to feign ignorance in order to justify other forms of immoral decision-making. Crucially, we need to stop buying ‘things’ we don’t need with money we haven’t got.

Because consumption is effectively the oil that lubricates the capitalist system, alternative forms of collective action on a massive scale will naturally correspondingly alter the way the current set of consumption-production relations function. This can only be beneficial for humanity and the planet.

Like the impact of a stone that lands in a pond whose ripples gradually spread further afield, the individual choices we as consumers make, in conjunction with our political choices, can eventually begin to set us free. But we need to hurry up because time is fast running out.

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Kind To Be Cruel: Female Judge Blames Women For Rape

By Daniel Margrain

Image result for judges hammer

As recently as fifty years ago, the courts in Britain didn’t recognize marital rape. In other words, during that time it was legal for married men to have sex with their wives without their consent. A recent rape case  in Manchester presided over by a female judge appeared to suggest there is still a long way to go before attitudes to the crime of rape perpetuated against women are satisfactorily addressed.

Judge Lindsey Kushner’s claim that women are at greater risk of being raped if they get drunk, was rightly condemned by Police and Crime Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird. In her final line in her final criminal trial, Kushner said:

“I don’t think it’s wrong for a judge to beg women to take actions to protect themselves. That must not put responsibility on them rather than the perpetrator. How I see it is burglars are out there and nobody says burglars are OK but we do say: Please don’t leave your back door open at night, take steps to protect yourselves.”

However, this analogy falls apart because it fails to recognize there is a history in Britain of blaming women for sexual assaults committed against them rather than putting the blame where it belongs – on the attackers. The same line of reasoning is not applicable to drunk men who, for instance, happen to get mugged in the street. In such cases, judges will rarely place the onus for such attacks on the male victim.

In jailing the rapist in Manchester, Kushner said there was “absolutely no excuse” for sex attacks. But she contradicted herself moments later after adding the caveat, “Men gravitate towards vulnerable women.” She insisted that while women were entitled to “drink themselves into the ground”, their “disinhibited behaviour” could put them in danger and they were “less likely to be believed” than a sober victim.

The implication that women can do as they please with their own bodies by drinking themselves silly, but that this scenario means they are more likely to get raped, effectively shifts the onus for the crime from the perpetrator to the victim and will almost certainly prevent the latter from coming forward in the future.

Despite judge Kushner’s contradictory comments that appear to be more suited to 1967 than 2017, there have been no shortage of men and women who have come to her defence. Others, that include a victim of rape, seem at best confused about the issue, perhaps understandably given the trauma involved. Nevertheless, it’s inexcusable how anybody else in the sober light of day (excuse the pun) could regard the judge’s comments as anything other than outrageous.

The fact that the controversy was not regarded as being worthy of prominent coverage on mainstream TV news channels is indicative of how societal attitudes regarding such matters seem to be in reverse. Thankfully, the issue was covered in some length by LBC broadcaster, Maajid Nawaz, whose clarity of thought was a welcome counterbalance to the illogical and contradictory points made by some of the callers to his show.

Nawaz’s opening salvo was lucid and convincing. Exposing Kushner’s false burglary-rape analogy, the LBC presenter remarked:

“There isn’t a history of hundreds and perhaps thousands of years of homeowners being blamed for burglary. But there is a history of hundreds and perhaps thousands of years of women being blamed for rape.”

Nawaz continued:

“The problems I have with the kind of remarks uttered by the judge in public, is that victim-blaming is part of a slippery slope. Where do we draw the line? Do we say if a woman’s skirt is too short, should she also bear a level of responsibility for a man (or woman) sexually abusing her? Where does this stop? Where is behaviour ever acceptable for somebody to say, ‘well you shouldn’t of done that'”?

The LBC presenter added:

“For me, this comes down to the following question: What sort of country do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a country where women have to take increasing measures to stop being sexually attacked, or do we want to live in the kind of country that encourages women to wear, eat and drink what they like, and don’t expect to be attacked for doing so?

The alternative is the slippery slope [towards fascism and religious extremism]. In other words, why stop with being drunk? Should women be prevented from wearing short skirts and, if they resist and are subsequently raped, are they to be held responsible? Why stop there?

Why not insist that women wear their hair in a bun or be prevented from wearing make-up and lipstick on some spurious basis that rapists might find it attractive? Why stop there? Isn’t it possible that rapists will justify their predatory actions on the basis they find women’s faces to be attractive and therefore they should be forced to cover them up with a veil like the women who are under the control of the Taliban? “

In other words, the corollary of the illogical line of reasoning of judge Kushner is that the right of women to be able to go about their everyday business should be restricted in order to prevent them from being raped. The attitudes of judges, both male and female, to sexual assaults on women, continue in 2017 to belong in the dark ages.

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Cuba: Dreams, Beauty & Disillusionment

 

By Daniel Margrain

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In a previous article, I discussed the egalitarian nature of politics and society on the Island of Cuba and its relationship to the authentic urban experience. In an attempt to contextualize the piece, I would like to take this opportunity to express some thoughts about the two months I spent traveling independently throughout this beautiful Caribbean Island during late 2009 and early 2010.

I arrived in Havana from Madrid in the late evening of November 17, 2009 and settled in at the famous Plaza Hotel which has all of the grace and fading colonial splendour I had anticipated. The wooden shutters in my room opened up to a small balcony that overlooked a dusty and dimly lit street below whose initial appearance had a sense of serene calmness about it as if 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.

Bustling

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 in the distance below – set against a backdrop of crumbling tenement buildings, colonial edifices and pot-holed roads – 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.

Although some of the bars in the renovated parts of Habana Vieja did tend to be frequented by tourists enamored with a Hemingway fetish, 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.

It’s along the kilometre-length stretch in the nearby Calle Obispo that the city really bursts into life. A rag-bag collection of hustlers, drunks, artists and musicians throng the street from dawn until dusk after which time the cramped drinking dens come into their own. Musically accomplished and professional-sounding resident bands who can be heard for free playing everything from jazz and the traditional son through to calypso, folk and salsa way into the early hours, throng the bars.

Beating heart

The beating heart of the city metaphorically pulses to the sound of live music in much the same way as New Orleans does. Whether it emanates from somebody’s balcony or from the bars and streets, the eclecticism of a city where music and architecture seemingly fuse into one, means that visitors and residents alike are rarely far from either.

The latter, is one of Havana’s main draws. Some of the buildings and squares which are shaped by a colourful colonial history and embellished by a myriad of foreign influences that gracefully combine baroque, neoclassical, art nouveau, art deco and modernist styles, are visually stunning. Unfortunately, much of it has been left to fester in an advanced state of dilapidation, largely as a result of the turmoil of three separate revolutionary wars.

Thankfully, though, the cities well-preserved historical core has survived into the 21st century relatively unscathed. One of the most impressive of these ‘survivors’ is the magnificent 18th century baroque Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana. This graceful-looking edifice was once described by the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier as “music set in stone”. This, if anything, is an understatement. Words cannot describe the emotional impact this building and the beauty of its tranquil surroundings had on this writer.

It’s difficult to fully set aside the vibrant and colourful cultural preconceptions associated with Havana from a life-time of images ingrained in ones consciousness. Some of these images have an objective basis in reality, while others are mainly subjective 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 one fails to be grabbed by Havana’s eclectic charms, then just like somebody who might happened to have become jaded of London in the 1980s, it’s perhaps ones own life that needs to be questioned.

Trinidad

As culturally stimulating Havana is for the visitor, I nevertheless 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 coach 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.

Upon my arrival at the local bus station in Trinidad, I was met 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.

Cienfuegos

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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 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 Cuba 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 the country.

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.

Two-tier economy

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 apparent that some, but by no means all, want out of Cuba. From my experience though, the majority of Cuban’s adore their country 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.

During my trip there was much discussion about the impact Obama, who had recently been elected as U.S president, would have on Cuba. The consensus appeared to be that he would be the catalyst for positive 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 by the U.S, not loosened. The hope for many was that under Obama, Helms-Burton would be repealed. However, Obama’s impotent legacy resulted in these hopes being dashed. Given the perilous state of the U.S economy under his successor, Trump, any radical shift in Cuban politics, post-Fidel, seems equally unlikely.

Disparity

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 was also curious 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 December evening. 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 time appeared to have stood still.

Peter Linebaugh

What struck me most about this beautiful city, 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 Cuba. This concept 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 negative 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, Cuban’s are by a country mile, some of the most humble and dignified of any 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.

Crisis

The current crisis in the Cuban economy can be traced back to this period in the nations history. The ending of Soviet subsidies that had effectively sustained the Cuban economy for 30 years had, by the end of the decade, become reliant for its growth on a rapidly expanding tourist industry. But this growth was fragile because it did not reflect any deep transformation of the economy.

Nevertheless, I saw no evidence of the horrors of that period. 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 ‘developing 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 occasions I had brought up this particular topic with Cuban people, the response was often one of total dismay and incomprehension.

Safety

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.

At war

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.

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 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.

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.

Varadero

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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 – ‘Varadero’ – a relatively developed ‘package resort’ 184 kilometres from Cienfuegos on the Atlantic side of the island.

The contrast with Cienfuegos could hardly have been more striking. Just like Ancona near Trinidad, the raw and ragged coastal setting was 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 Varadero 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.

Varadero, 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, Varadero was 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.

Hard currency

In Varadero, 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. Varadero 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 Varadero apart acts as a warning sign to the rest of the country in a post-Fidel world.

Inauthentic

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. This is because without access to the Convertible, Cubans are effectively excluded from the social circles, restaurants and bars that tourists frequent. 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.

Corruption

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, 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 of Cuban culture.

What capitalist relations do, is they distort and exploit 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, 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 visitors to experience. I’m specifically thinking not about merely the sterile atmosphere of Varadero, 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.

Last day

During my last day in Varadero, I met Karolina, a Polish woman who had, for many years, 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 a long time, she claimed she had many unanswered questions about the nature of Cuban society.

As I sat at an outdoor bar in Varadero 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 Varadero, 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 Varadero, 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 Varadero 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 Varadero, 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.

Political crackdown

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.

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No Man Is An Island: Why UBI Would Benefit Society

By Daniel Margrain

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Last year the Dutch government introduced an experimental universal basic income (UBI) system which is paid to the residents of Utrecht and 19 other Dutch municipalities. Unemployed people receive the equivalent of about £150 a week. If successful, the pilot will include payments to all citizens whether working or not. The aim is not to penalize the unemployed for finding work because they will receive their employment income in addition to the universal income payment. The Finnish government is planning to roll out the latter comprehensive model later this year.

Chris Dillow has done rough sums for the UK and comes up with £130 a week (around $200). Charles Murray had a look at it for the US and went for $10,000 a year, a remarkably similar sum. These are the sorts of amounts that could be paid within our current societies and wouldn’t act as a disincentive to employment because, as Tim Harford argues, people would want to supplement it.

Writer and blogger Tim Worstall has posited that traditional welfare schemes create a disincentive to work, because they typically cause people to lose benefits at around the same rate that their income rises (a form of welfare trap where the marginal tax rate is 100 percent). He has asserted that this particular disincentive is not a property shared by basic income as the rate of increase is positive at all incomes.

Money-saving

In an era when intelligent machines will soon replace human workers in all sectors of the economy, the hope is that a UBI scheme will prevent the government having to spend extra money on the vast array of related services connected to the bureaucratic elements of the state that are dependent on the unemployed for their existence.

This covers everything from unemployed benefit snoopers to the administering of homeless shelters. Then there are the knock-on affects that stem from inequality such as health, poverty and crime. Writing in the Guardian, John O’Farrell astutely points out the benefits of such a system to the UK:

“Since the decline of the unions, workers have been increasingly powerless to refuse longer hours and less money with only the food bank to fall back on if they walk away from an exploitative job. With a guaranteed state income to keep the wolf from the door, employees would be given the bargaining power to demand civilized working conditions and reasonable rates of pay….Our labyrinthine system of benefits and tax credits would disappear and all the stigma of signing on with its degrading culture of blame and humiliation for those at the bottom of the pile.”

The benefit system currently in use in the UK is punitive. Humiliation is cast on those at the bottom of the pile enabling the majority in the middle, to feel better about themselves. O’Farrell  concludes:

“For all the apparent expense of the UBI, we would save the small fortune that the state currently spends mopping up the mess of social problems caused overwhelmingly by chronic poverty. Of course, there are complex reasons for increasing homelessness, for bulging prisons, for growing mental health problems – but desperate financial pressure is a major factor in all of them. Every decade sees us spending increasing billions trying to tighten the lid of the boiling cauldron. It might be so much cheaper just to turn down the temperature a bit.”

Nurturing talent

The long-term socioeconomic and health benefits related to the kind of progressive and enlightened policy adopted by the Dutch and Finns is palpable, not only to the poorest in society but it also has some benefits to those at the top. As Richard Wilkinson put it: “There seems to be some truth in John Donne’s “No man is an island.”

Rather than the punitive strategy of coercion adopted by the British and other governments by which the ‘stick’ is preferred to the ‘carrot’, the introduction of the UBI – based on economic pragmatism rather than state vindictiveness – will almost certainly result in the nurturing of talents and creativity that otherwise wouldn’t necessarily come to fruition.

It’s almost certainly no coincidence that what was arguably the peak of working class creativity in the arts occurred during the 1960s when, underpinned by a universal system of welfare provision, the class in question was at its most confident – a confidence that has been in decline from the mid 1970s onward marked by the ending of the post-war settlement between capital and labour.

Over the last 40 years, ordinary people have found it increasingly difficult to focus on doing things they really like because they tend to spend most of the productive part of their lives working at something they hate often for no other a reason than to maintain the necessities of life – namely securing a roof over their head and ensuring they have access to enough food.

Since the Callaghan government, punishment has been the overriding factor that has guided the social policy of successive UK administrations’ – both Conservative and Labour. The purpose has been to foster a lack of any sense of entitlement. This has involved the gradual removal of a social security safety net to enable the government of the day to maintain a level of social stratification in order that the demands set by unfettered capital be established.

The Dutch and Finnish models, intended to be correctives to the lack of universal provision, is in principle similar to that adopted by the Green Party as outlined in their previous General Election Manifesto. The rationale underpinning the introduction of a system of UBI is that it would not only end the kinds of state bureaucracy and inefficiencies described, but would also be cheaper to administer and hence save the tax payer money. Third, it would boost local economies because poor people would have greater income at their disposal with which to spend on goods and services.

Reduction in inequality

But arguably the greatest benefit is that such a policy would lead to a reduction in inequality whose affects, as Richard Wilkinson has shown, are divisive, harmful and socially corrosive. Research indicates that the world’s richest 1 percent of people own the same amount of wealth as the rest. As Oxfam shows this kind of extreme wealth confers political power that can be used to influence rules and systems in favour of an elite at the expense of everyone else.

However, the more equitable and egalitarian the society, the greater the control people have over their lives. More equal and fair societies provide the conditions by which a system of equality of opportunity can be put into place. Workers, as participants in a scheme of cooperation that contribute toward national income, would then have a claim to a fair share of what they have helped to produce.

Richard Wilkinson shows that a correlation exists between income inequality within countries (not between them) and social gradients in terms of a multitude of indicators. These include health, life expectancy, literacy/numeracy, infant mortality rates, homicide rates, proportion of the population in prison, teenage birthrates, levels of trust, obesity, mental illness – which in standard diagnostic classification includes drug and alcohol addiction – and social mobility.

What the data shows is that in the more equal countries – Japan, Finland, Norway, Sweden – the top 20 percent are about three and a half to four times as rich as the bottom 20 percent. But on the more unequal end – U.K., Portugal, USA, Singapore – the differences are twice as big. On that measure, the UK is twice as unequal as some of the other successful market democracies.

According to research measured by the Gini coefficient, which is widely regarded as the best measurement of income inequality, Holland is the fourth most equal society within the EU while the UK is ranked way down at twenty-one. What impacts on society does this level of inequality point to?

Wilkinson collected internationally comparable data on problems with social gradients – the kind of problems that are more common at the bottom of the social ladder of the kind outlined above – and weighted them equally by putting them all in one index. The data shows an extraordinarily close correlation between inequality and the kinds of social problems described. The same correlation equally applies to children who also perform worse in the more unequal societies.

Data, in its totality

What the data in its totality indicates, is that the average well-being of our societies is not dependent any longer on national income and economic growth. Wilkinson elaborates further:

“That’s very important in poorer countries, but not in the rich developed world. But the differences between us and where we are in relation to each other now matter very much. I’m going to show you some of the separate bits of our index. Here, for instance, is trust. It’s simply the proportion of the population who agree most people can be trusted. It comes from the World Values Survey. You see, at the more unequal end, it’s about 15 percent of the population who feel they can trust others. But in the more equal societies, it rises to 60 or 65 percent. And if you look at measures of involvement in community life or social capital, very similar relationships closely related to inequality.”

In terms of mental illness:

WHO put together figures using the same diagnostic interviews on random samples of the population to allow us to compare rates of mental illness in each society. This is the percent of the population with any mental illness in the preceding year. And it goes from about eight percent up to three times that — whole societies with three times the level of mental illness of others. And again, closely related to inequality.”

The overriding factor that emerges from Wilkinson’s research into inequality are it’s psycho-social effects and how this relates to the kinds of values inherent to a capitalist system in which society is driven by consumerism and competition that leads to status insecurity. The potential for the onset of chronic stress and depression from social sources in turn:

“affect the immune system, the cardiovascular system. Or for instance, the reason why violence becomes more common in more unequal societies is because people are sensitive to being looked down on….I should say that to deal with this we’ve got to…constrain income, the bonus culture incomes at the top. I think we must make our bosses accountable to their employees in any way we can. I think the take-home message though is that we can improve the real quality of human life by reducing the differences in incomes between us.”

With regards to social mobility, Wilkinson states bluntly that “if Americans want to live the American dream, they should go to Denmark.”

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The Office For Budget Irresponsibility

By Daniel Margrain

 Philip HammondBudget giveaway: Philip Hammond’s National Insurance rises have provoked a furious reaction in the Tory grassroots CREDIT: AP

The economic growth model is like a cult that is fetishized by governments’ as if it were a religion. With the aid of mass advertising campaigns, the latest consumption-profit driven craze involves attempts by giant corporations to persuade the British people to purchase new cars, on credit, at ever increasing rates.

The moment these cars leave the showroom they depreciate in value by at least a third. This means that the buyer is in a position where he/she has to service the debt of a rapidly depreciating commodity. In other words, advertisers in a deregulated market, overseen by a Tory government, are encouraging people to spend on depreciating luxury goods like cars they don’t need with money they haven’t got.

As a consequence people whose incomes have largely remained static for a decade or more, are being saddled with unsustainable debts similar in principle to conditions that led to a housing bubble which crashed and caused the 2008 financial crisis. More cars on the roads is also bad for the environment. Pollution levels in London, have breached annual limits just five days into 2017 and often exceed the regulatory amounts recommended by the European Union.

Dystopia

Meanwhile, the elderly are shoved in hospital corridors for hours on end because of government under funding in the NHS and when they are due to leave hospital, there is increasingly unlikely to be any social care provision in place for them to go to. But that’s alright, just as as long as the growth the rich disproportionately benefit from continues to increase, the ‘low-lying fruit’ can wither away and die because there are too many ‘useless mouths’ to feed anyway. The notion that a government strategy of cheque book euthanasia in a society where robots will soon replace the few remaining blue collar jobs that exist, is far from a dystopian fantasy.

The kind of nightmarish scenarios described above are symptoms of an irrational profit-driven system predicated on the Tory governments obsession with a neoliberal economic growth model focused primarily on banking. Chancellor Philip Hammond’s first budget which George Galloway described on twitter as “the most complacent out of touch other-worldly I’ve heard in nearly 50 years”, will result in more preventable deaths. The lie in which the masses were encouraged to believe that wealth trickles down, as opposed to gushing upwards, should finally be laid to rest by Hammond’s budget.

The reason for the continued upward flow of wealth is due to the fact that the public sector is being continually squeezed to the point that it can be squeezed no more, meaning that the road to serfdom will become an increasing reality for many. All the baloney from May about the Tories being the party of the people and the so-called ‘just about managing’ (jams), has, over the last few days, been finally blown into the dustbin of history. If ever proof were needed that the primary function of tax revenue collection is the syphoning of large amounts of cash into the already bulging pockets of those who don’t need it, while the poorest are left on the shelf, then Hammond’s budget was it.

Tax giveaway

The Chancellor’s £70bn tax giveaway to those on the top of the pyramid is contrasted with the £2bn national insurance hike he has lumbered low and middle income earners with. What the Independent described as “Hammond’s tax-raid on the gig economy,” not only cements the Tories reputation as the ‘nasty party’, but what can only be described as the Chancellor’s sociopathic behaviour towards the poor, even outdoes the callousness of his predecessor who, in May 2015, reduced the top rate of tax on the same day as introducing the pernicious bedroom tax which resulted in the widespread social cleansing of working class communities.

It’s almost hard to keep up with Tory shenanigans – from the largely unreported election fraud scandal and Hammond’s unwillingness to reveal his tax returns, through to May’s repeated lies to parliament – it seems that barely a day goes by without some scandal or other entering the public domain. Many of the people Hammond is targeting are the increasing amount of workers on zero hours contracts who have no in-work protections of any kind.

Hammond is not planning to include in his “spreadsheet” an increase in spending in order to address any of these issues, nor to raise spending on social care and the NHS comparable to other major European economies despite the fact that both are in a state of emergency. Instead, the Tories have once again demonstrated that what motivates them is their preoccupation with augmenting the interests of their class. The Tories are clear where their priorities lie. The question is, will a sufficient amount of working class Tory voters shift their support towards a Labour leader who has their best interests at heart at the next General Election?

The rigging of the economy by the Tories that has resulted in six million people earning less than the living wage, and where nearly four million children are in poverty, will get worse as long as this bunch of lying crooks remain in power. Much of the media present the economic policies of the Tories as being somehow inevitable. But of course they are predicated on choice. Their priority is not for a fairer and more inclusive society, but one ridden with hate and division. The poor are to be kept firmly in their place while the rich, including the banking cartels, continue getting richer on the backs of them.

Transfer of wealth

Tory economic policies are geared specifically towards facilitating this transfer of wealth which was what QE was all about. In recent years this has probably been no more evident than under the leadership of Cameron and his Chancellor, Osborne. One of the biggest controversies to have arisen during the Cameron-Osborne era was the former’s offer to China of generous tax breaks to encourage their firms to re-locate to a new property development in Manchester. The same incentives are not, of course, applicable to small British businesses as Hammond’s budget confirms.

Meanwhile, Willem Buiter, chief economist at CitiBank, predicts a hard landing for the global economy that looks set to push the world back into crisis. In the summer of 2015, the Shanghai stock market crashed by 40 per cent within two months, erasing $7 trillion dollars in company valuations in China. The risk is that the countries slow down will drag the rest of the emerging world with it.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has estimated that every one percentage point drop in Chinese GDP growth, will wipe 0.3 percentage points from states’ in south east Asia. As emerging markets power 70 per cent of global growth, if China sneezes the rest of the world will almost certainly catch a cold. The problems do little to ally the lack of public confidence in the ability of the UK banking sector to self-regulate itself in order to ameliorate any unease.

Banking cartel

A Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) report found that the market in the UK lacked dynamism, with the four big banks – Lloyds, RBS, Barclays and HSBC – controlling an incredible 80 per cent of personal current accounts and nearly 90 per cent of business accounts. The existence of a private banking cartel and consolidation of power among both the giant banking players and the government, illustrates the inability of the Tories to punish this sector. To paraphrase Mark J Doran, “Just try and imagine a government of multi-millionaires devoted to serving billionaire tax-dodging bankers, challenging these bankers.”

Alasdair Smith the head of the CMA said the body was “reluctant to pursue heavy handed remedies to deal with bankers.” Clearly, this “reluctance” is predicated on May and Hammond’s eagerness to succumb to the power of the banking lobbyists and others. This runs contrary to any notion that the government acts in the public interest. Brexiter’s would be wise to keep this in mind before they next complain about the alleged lack of sovereignty of the UK remaining in the European Union. The problem is, the power the corporate lobbyists command is such that they are able to usurp the democratic and legislative process. In relation to the banks, the Daily Mail of all papers, said this:

“After years of scandals in which the public were mercilessly ripped off, the CMA promised a radical shake up of Britain’s bloated, often money grabbing, high street banks. Yet after an 18 month inquiry, all it produced yesterday was some minor tinkering which consumer groups warned doesn’t go anywhere near far enough to inject genuine competition.”

As inferred above, this is all part of a mutually reciprocal corrupt culture in which highly controversial big business practices and government policy have become increasingly intertwined. Finding bankers guilty of misdeeds in Britain is particularly difficult given the labyrinthine nature of banking in this country. Rather like the structure of the Mafia, the trail of criminality is almost impossible to pin down to specific individuals. This has been exacerbated by the Tory government which back-tracked on its ‘guilty until proven innocent’ rule – regulations that were supposedly intended to bring unscrupulous bankers to account.

Lobbying power

This stipulation was to be the financial regulators most powerful tool in putting senior bankers on the hook for serious wrongdoing, and was a response to the public’s fury that almost no individuals within the banking sector have been seriously punished for a crisis ordinary working people are paying for by way of austerity. The shift in government policy was prompted by concerted lobbying by some of the top foreign banks who threatened to withdraw from Britain if their demands were not attended to. But instead of calling their bluff, the government caved in.

Iceland is one country where a rather different and radical approach has been undertaken in response to the criminality of their bankers. In two separate rulings, the Supreme Court of Iceland, sentenced twenty six top bankers and CEOs to prison for a total of 74 years in relation to financial crimes committed in the lead up to the banking crisis of 2008.

Meanwhile, in Britain not a single banker has been arrested, charged or sentenced. Instead, they are given untold amounts of public money which they use to award themselves with huge bonuses. If you happen to be a criminal British banker, then crime really does pay. The scandal is that it’s the 99 per cent who have to pick up the pieces resulting from this criminality. The message that emerged from Hammond’s budget was that corporate criminality can be tolerated just as long as it’s the poor who continue to suffer.

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