Friday, 30 November 2007

The Sky At Night

Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.

Apols for the silence in recent weeks, I have plenty of stuff to post, but I get distracted by Facebook too much! However, I will have a jolly hard slog at it this weekend!

However, just to keep you entertained a bit, I found this via Rachel North's blog, a guide to the night sky if you are in the Northern Hemisphere:

Happy stargazing!

Monday, 5 November 2007

A snapshot of Actual Existing Capitalism

I saw this a couple of weeks back. I've skimmed read Peter Oborne's The Triumph of the Political Class in a bookshop not so long back (waiting until it is out in paperback before buying it), which John Harris mentions at the end. Although he seems dimly aware that the current Political Class began to emerge big time during the Thatcher years, and glorifies a Golden Age that had more than a touch of Fool's Gold about it, I think that Oborne is spot on about the triangle of the Westminster Parties, Mainstream Media and Big Business strangling the life out of politics here. He is also the only Mail/Telegraph/Spectator political columnist I know to embrace the Noam Chomsky/Edward Herman "propaganda model" of the media as being a valid description of current events here now!

The slow death of the Real Job is pulling society apart: The government needs to look past middle England and address the harsh realities of an increasingly casualised workforce
John Harris, The Guardian, Friday October 19, 2007

This afternoon, 90 minutes of parliamentary time will probably be devoted to a doomed private member's bill. Around 100 Labour MPs would like to push it beyond a second reading, but the government is opposed, and other parties seem barely interested - so the temporary and agency workers (prevention of less favourable treatment) bill, proposed by Paul Farrelly, the Newcastle-under-Lyme MP, will die a quiet death. By way of cold comfort, the government has told the bill's supporters to focus attention on the possibility of regulation by the EU, knowing full well that the UK's coordinated blocking of past attempts has long made any European agreement a vain hope. On this evidence, Gordon Brown might be not so much a Stalinist as a fan of Kafka.

In proposing that temporary and agency workers should benefit from the same pay and basic conditions as their fully accredited counterparts, Farrelly's bill drills into an issue that barely intrudes on the political mainstream: the casualisation of thousands of workplaces, and the alleged slow death of the Real Job. Around 1.4 million people currently work in the temporary and agency sector, millions more feel its downward pull on their working lives - and at its current rate of growth, millions more soon will do. Unfortunately, the involvement of the trade unions serves to confirm that the issue lies as far from middle England as can be, and you thus arrive at yet another illustration of how contorted Westminster politics has become: the political class blithely yakking about "rising aspirations", while millions of people's hopes are plummeting at speed.

At the core of all this is a red-hot bundle of concerns around immigration, so those lobbying for change choose their words very carefully. No one is exactly sure how many migrant workers are employed in temporary and agency work - though foreign-born people increasingly form the sector's bedrock, and dominate its role in such areas as catering, private security and construction. This week's government report on immigration's economic impact might have told a rosy story, though one could just about discern these developments in some of its more unsettling passages - admissions that workers from the A8 and A2 countries (those eastern European states who joined the EU in 2004, as well as Romania and Bulgaria) "earn noticeably less than UK-born workers", and that migrant labour has effected a "modest" downward pull on wages at the economy's bottom end. Casualised work hovers behind both those points - though bizarrely, the report contains no mention of temporary and agency employment, nor any data about how migrants fare when it comes to holidays, pensions, sick pay and the like.

On the ground, however, alarming evidence is mounting up. A few months ago I spoke to a manufacturing employee from the West Midlands who works in a factory producing car parts. Three years ago, his bosses began the mass recruitment of a new kind of worker. A dwindling number of long-standing staff were on £11 an hour; the new arrivals - many of whom barely knew what they were doing - worked 12-hour days for £4 an hour less, had none of the usual entitlements to paid holidays or sick leave, and were seemingly arriving and leaving through a revolving door. Within 18 months, for every "core" worker, there were two supplied by agencies, many of whom were from Poland, Cameroon or Senegal. The walls were quickly smattered with racist graffiti and the level of scrap increased fast. Under union pressure, the company relented and proposed a scheme whereby long-standing agency workers could eventually join the accredited workforce, and, in its wake, the rancorous atmosphere began to improve.

Set against developments that are defining an ever-increasing share of the economy, these people were lucky. Trade unionists cite no end of altogether bleaker case studies: three-tier workplaces in which indigenous British employees sit precariously at the top, flimsily employed Poles come further down, and thoroughly casualised Hungarians and Slovakians are left right at the bottom; increasing numbers of people whose lack of sick pay forces them into working while ill. On the stories go: meat-processing workers in Monmouthshire threatened with redundancy unless they downgraded to agency terms, and then fired; agency street cleaners in Salford who must show up at dawn each day to see if they're required for work. The dereliction of formal employment applies to both private and public sectors, and the issue spreads way beyond the workplace: there is increasing evidence, for example, that casualisation is feeding into the burgeoning sub-prime mortgage market.

Seemingly frit when it comes to dealing with the economic nitty-gritty, the government's absence of answers is crystallised by that ugly and pretty much meaningless slogan "British jobs for British workers". Being on the centre-left should surely be less about appropriating the vernacular of the ultra-right than understanding the need for action at the sharp end: as Blair's old formulation would have it, being tough on social discord and tough on the causes of social discord. But no, give or take recent talk about increased enforcement of the minimum wage and timid plans for regulation that will swerve past the essential issues of unequal pay, the poisonous status quo remains.

When the election finally arrives, beware. Given its talent for issuing leaflets that read more like Socialist Worker than Mein Kampf, the British National Party is making hay with the issue of casual labour, as I was recently reminded while reading The Triumph of the Political Class, a new book by the Mail columnist Peter Oborne. An elegant tirade against a cross-party cabal either in thrall to vested interests or so lost in the woods of electoral arithmetic that the stuff of real lives scares them, one of its most sobering sections deals with the rise of the BNP "in Barking, Dagenham, Dewsbury, Leeds and Burnley" and its place in what he sees as an "insurgency against the political class".

"The estrangement between a tiny governing elite and mainstream British society is one of the overwhelming themes of our age, and will only get more desperate, and more dangerous," he says. At the top, an uneasy silence about one of our most urgent issues proves the point, but who's listening?

Oborne's identification of Westminster Parties, the Mainstream Media and Big Business locked in a triangle reminds me strongly of Michael Moore's identification in Sicko of a triple alliance between Congress, the Mainstream Media and the Medical Industry which prevents a universal healthcare system being established in the US. Different country, same type of vested interests in alliance against the people?

Yo Oil!

(hat tip to Beau D'Or)

I've been reading Yo Blair! (2007, London; published by Politicos), a scorching indcitment of our former PM by "right-wing" writer Geoffrey Wheatcroft. Going through its pages and recalling various "Blairisms", it came back to me what an embarrassment TB was. For instance, do you remember this in the aftermath of September 11th?

"My father's generation knew what it was like. They went through the Blitz...there was one country and one people that stood side by side with us then. That country was America, and the people were the American people." (YB!, p.84).

As Wheatcroft comments, this ignores the fact that, at the time of the Blitz, the countries that were actually standing with Britain against the Nazis included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Greece, as well as the exiled governments of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Holland, Denmark, Norway and Free France. The USA didn't join the war until December 1941, by which time the Blitz was over as the German war machine tried to defeat the Soviet Union. Looking back, you can see that only a political party fearing a fifth successive General Election defeat would embrace such a fraud and charlatan as Tony Blair.

While finishing off Yo Blair! Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who I think is an extremely good political writer, had an article in The Guardian about Iraq, pointing out that Blair's puppet-master Rupert Murdoch was saying the invasion would ensure cheap oil. Well, with petrol nearly $100 per barrel, it hasn't turned out like that has it, you passport-changing, tax-dodging, Red China-appeasing, war-mongering, armchair-general chickenhawk corporate parasite?

The calamity of Iraq has not even won us cheap oil: We knew the war was built on lies - but to have increased petrol prices as well as terror will surely seal history's verdict
Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The Guardian, Friday November 2, 2007

Although "the judgment of history" has a sonorous ring, it doesn't necessarily require the long gestation that phrase might imply: sometimes there's no need for the owl of Minerva to hang around waiting for the sun to go down. When one eminent historian, Sean Wilentz of Princeton, pronounces bluntly that George Bush the Younger is "the worst president in American history", and another, Tony Judt of New York University, calls the Iraq war "the worst foreign policy error in American history", not many of us will argue with them.

And yet history still doesn't know the half of it. It has long since ceased to be a matter for debate that the Iraq adventure began in mendacity and ended in calamity. Sir Richard Dearlove's public penitence this week merely confirmed what he had already said privately, and not only has every single one of the original official reasons for the invasion been falsified, they have all been stood on their heads. Now even what many suspected was the ulterior motive - a war for oil - has gone awry
Speaking at the LSE on Wednesday, Dearlove said the government had put "too much emphasis on intelligence" as a justification for the war in order to win parliamentary support. But even before the notorious specious dossiers were compiled - which is what he meant - he had already said with deadly candour in the July 2002 memo, written in greatest secrecy by Dearlove as head of MI6 for the eyes of Blair and his colleagues, that a decision for war had been taken, and that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy".

He might have added that, while there were no "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, there was a great deal of noxious weaponry, which went missing at the time of the invasion and has since been put to dreadful effect. Nor were there any fundamentalist terrorists in Iraq five years ago - Saddam Hussein was a secular tyrant, and had a very short way with Islamic zealots - but today the country is awash with jihadists. Many of them come from Saudi Arabia, whose monarch we have just greeted in such obsequious fashion so that we can continue corruptly to sell his country arms.

As to the idea, flourished after the event by the dreaded liberal hawks as well as neoconservatives, that an invasion would bring democracy to Iraq, it's tempting to say that comment is superfluous. In fact there is still something to be said - and it was said by Jacques Chirac at a meeting with Tony Blair that has been described by Sir Stephen Wall.

While reiterating his opposition to the war that was about to begin, Chirac made a number of specific points. He reminded Blair that he and his friend Bush knew nothing of the reality of war but that he did: 50 years ago, the young Chirac served as a conscript in the awful French war in Algeria, which Iraq resembles in all too many ways. Then he said that the Anglo-Saxons seemed to think that they would be welcomed with open arms, but they shouldn't count on it. In a very percipient point, Chirac added that a Shia majority shouldn't be confused with what we understand as democracy.

He ended by asking whether Blair realised that, by invading Iraq, he might yet precipitate a civil war there. As the British left, Blair turned to his colleagues and said, doubtless with that boyish grin we happily see less of nowadays, "Poor old Jacques, he just doesn't get it." Well, who got it?

Even supposing that it had been possible to spread democracy at gunpoint, it's curious that anyone thought this would actually serve western interests. Reporting recently from Dubai under the droll headline "US promotes free elections, only to see allies lose", Hassan Fattah of the New York Times observed drily that "the paradox of American policy in the Middle East - promoting democracy on the assumption it will bring countries closer to the west - is that almost everywhere there are free elections, the American-backed side tends to lose". Well, yes.

Then there's Blair's apparently sincere belief that he had an obligation to follow Washington's lead, because "it would be more damaging to long-term world peace and security if the Americans alone defeated Saddam Hussein than if they had international support to do so", and that by offering such unconditional support he would "keep the United States in the international system". Absurd in any case as theory, this too has been drastically confuted by events.

As the hair-raising BBC programme No Plan No Peace has just confirmed beyond doubt, the British government had no influence whatsoever on American policy or conduct. Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary at the time of the invasion, has comically and humiliatingly contradicted himself as to whether he did or didn't oppose the crazy decisions to disband the Iraqi army - thereby setting loose large numbers of resentful armed fighters - and to dismiss all Ba'ath party members - thereby denuding the country of administrators. In any case, what is now quite clear is that his views didn't matter one way or the other. If London meekly agreed with Washington, the Americans went ahead; if London shyly expressed reservations, the Americans took no notice and still went right ahead.

Finally there is what has sometimes been dismissed as a conspiracy theory: that it was really a war for oil. This idea looks a little less cranky now that Alan Greenspan, the former head of the Federal Reserve Board, has acknowledged "what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil". But here again, there was no need to await his verdict. After all, the most powerful man in British politics had told us the same thing even before the war began. "The greatest thing to come out of this for the world economy," said Rupert Murdoch, "would be $20 a barrel for oil."

And so, on top of the whole list of false predictions and collapsed justifications, we have this final absurdity. As both Greenspan and Murdoch have very likely noticed, the price of oil hit a record $96 a barrel yesterday, and is still going up.

In April 2003, our previous prime minister confidently pronounced that "just as we had a strategy for war, so we have a strategy for peace". It is not pre-empting the judgment of history to say with even greater confidence that no good whatever has come out of this war, that no single good reason for it can any longer be adduced - and that "we" had never had any plan at all, not to say the faintest idea what "we" were doing.

As the oil price goes up, the tar sands of Canada are being developed. The other main source of tar sands is Venezuala. No wonder Hugo Chavez is such a bad man!

Mud, sweat and tears The vast tar sands of Alberta in Canada hold oil reserves six times the size of Saudi Arabia's. But this 'black gold' is proving a mixed blessing for the frontier town of Fort McMurray, fuelling both prosperity and misery. As the social and environmental toll mounts, Aida Edemariam reports on the dark side of a boom town
The Guardian Tuesday October 30 2007

You've only got to stroll down Hardin Street to the main drag, then hang a left and walk a couple more short blocks, to see what Fort McMurray is about. It wouldn't be the whole story, but you would catch the drift. You'd pass the Boomtown Casino, strip malls, and a club called Cowboys proudly advertising "naughty schoolgirl nights". Then the Royal Canadian Mounted Police station, the municipal offices, the Oil Sands Hotel, and Diggers bar, with its advertisement for exotic dancers. You would be passed by Humvees and countless pick-up trucks, each more souped up than the next, many covered in dried mud, many carrying further 4x4s - in winter, snowmobiles; in summer, all-terrain vehicles on which to go chasing through the bush, which is visible from the main street. And if the wind is from the north-west, you can smell oil on the air: heavy, slightly sour, unmistakable. Round here, they call it the smell of money.

As the Middle East has become more unstable, as Iraq has boiled into chaos, other, more unexpected places have flourished, and none more so than Fort McMurray. Five hours' drive north of Edmonton, in Alberta, it has always been a frontier town, and even before the first white explorers came fur-trapping, the Indians knew that this place sat on oil - they used it to waterproof their canoes. The trouble has always been that it's not conventional crude, easily liberated from the earth, but tar sands (also known as oil sands) - a mixture of sand, water and heavy crude which is much more difficult and expensive to extract. It can cost about Can$26 ($US27; £13) a barrel to do so - so when that was comparable to the price of oil, there was no point in trying; now that oil is close to breaking the $100-a-barrel barrier, there definitely is.

For years there were only two outfits mining the Athabasca oil sands, which occupies 141,000 square kilometres; now there are seven, including Shell, whose first plant became operational in 2003, the year the Iraq war started (the remaining four have not yet started production). Eventually, Shell alone intends to extract 500,000 barrels a day, and to do so for 50 years; in total 1.2 m barrels are extracted each day, a number projected to rise, when all the plants are operational, to 3.5m. The companies intend to invest $100bn in the area in the next 15 years; if oil prices stay as they are, or rise, and once the capital costs are paid off, they're playing for possible profits of tens of billions a year - much of which will come from America, gleeful at this sudden access to so much "safe" oil right next door.

Current technology means companies can reach only about 10% of deposits, but even that makes the Athabasca oil sands the second largest proven oil reserve in the world. Add in the so far unreachable 90%, and Alberta's oil reserves would be at least six times the size of Saudi Arabia's. Already Canada produces as much oil as Kuwait. Soon it'll be two Kuwaits. Canada is the biggest single supplier of crude oil to the US. Small wonder Canada is increasingly described as the world's next great energy superpower.

Ask anyone why they're in Fort McMurray and - apart from the occasional person who says they were born here - the answer is the same. A quick rub of forefingers and thumb, a knowing look. Or, in the case of irrepressible 11-year-old Ron Mfoafo-M'Carthy, here with his sister and mother to visit his father, a Ghanaian engineer: "Cha-ching!" Projects are going up so fast that there is a huge shortage of skilled labour, and the companies are paying way over the odds to get it. An engineer like Johnny Mfoafo-M'Carthy can make, including living allowances, up to Can $220,000 (£110,000) a year here, compared with $90,000 in Toronto; you only need a high-school education and a six-month certificate to qualify for a $100,000-a-year job driving heavy equipment. One cocky 26-year-old I meet claims he sometimes earns $1,000 a day driving a truck. He already owns two homes and two flash vehicles (or, as he puts it gloatingly, "nice rims").

School leavers share tales on internet message boards about being able to walk out of one job in Fort McMurray and, 10 minutes later, walk into another one. This is perhaps an exaggeration, but it explains why, every day, people come from across Canada, from across the world, to a town whose weather can be, even by Canadian standards, brutal: in winter temperatures hover below -40C, not counting windchill, for weeks. Most Canadian towns at this latitude, this far from the nearest metropolis, are white, sprinkled with the occasional aboriginal face; Fort McMurray's population - average age 31, average family income $135,000 (the highest in Canada; the national average is $67,600) - includes representatives from more than 70 different nations, from Fijians to Mauritanians, Venezuelans to refugees from the wild Somali-Ethiopian borderlands.

In my first 24 hours in Fort McMurray, every conversation I overhear involves cash. Hourly rates; possible hourly rates; hourly rates the other guy is getting. People talk ostentatiously about how much overtime they do because it means they're coining it, and that's what counts in terms of status. In the lift at my hotel, a Thai woman asks me, unsolicited: "So, you here to visit your husband, or to look for work?" - there being, it seems, no other categories to fit into.

It is possible to have a very good life in Fort McMurray. You can treble your salary, buy two homes, dig a swimming pool, pay off your mortgages 20 years earlier than anyone else and retire. You can go skiing, fishing, hunting and trapping in the vast outdoors you can see from any one of the sprawling new suburbs going up as fast as contractors can build them. You can play hockey at midnight, if that's when your shifts end; your children can join baseball, football or ringette (similar to hockey) leagues. Just as the California gold rush came to define the American dream, so Fort McMurray defines a particular kind of Canadian dream. Go west. Fort McMurray can change your life. But first, perhaps, consider what price you are willing to pay.

Apart from the smell, you get little sense of what the oil sands are like unless you drive 45 minutes up Highway 63 and take a site tour of, say, Syncrude, a consortium that includes Imperial Oil and Petro-Canada. You might know that it's the world's largest producer of synthetic crude, but it still takes a while to comprehend the awesome size of its operations here. After the boreal forest is cleared and the peat bog removed, what's left is dark, molasses-like, oil-saturated sand, which is then transported by trucks with tyres as high as two-storey houses. When full, they weigh more than two Boeing 747s; they can crush a pick-up truck without noticing it.

Mining this way is hard, boring, ugly work. A heavy-hauler can do up to 63 trips a day, trundling past mountains of pure yellow sulphur (a byproduct of oil purification once it has been extracted from the sand) 80 feet high. In winter there can be so much steam that bulldozer drivers have to inch around, hoping not to topple into tarry pits; in summer there's so much dust it has to be sprayed down. Workers get three 20-minute coffee-breaks in a 12-hour shift, which can, as in the case of Shell's Albian Sands, be bookended by two 90-minute commutes from Fort McMurray. Workers arrive in flotillas of buses and sometimes, in the case of the heavy-haulers, that can be the only time they see anyone else all day.

The extraction of the oil requires heat, and thus the burning of vast amounts of natural gas - effectively one barrel of gas to extract two of crude - and some estimate that Fort McMurray and the Athabasca oil sands will soon be Canada's biggest contributor to global warming; nearly as much as the whole of Denmark. This in an area that has already seen, according to David Schindler, professor of ecology at the University of Alberta, two degrees of warming in the past 40 years.

The oil sands excavations are changing the surface of the planet. The black mines can now be seen from space. In 10 years, estimates Schindler, they are "going to look like one huge open pit" the size of Florida. Acid rain is already killing trees and damaging foliage. The oil companies counter that they are replanting - grass for bison, 4.5m trees by Syncrude alone - but the muskeg (1,000-year-old peat bog and wooded fen, which traps snow melt and prevents flash floods, and is home to endangered woodland caribou) is irreplaceable.

Two barrels of water are required to extract one barrel of oil; every day as much water is taken from the Athabasca river as would serve a city of a million people. Although the water is extensively recycled, it cannot be returned to the rivers, so it ends up in man-made "tailings ponds" (tailings is a catch-all term for the byproducts of mining), which are also visible from space. According to the US Department of the Interior, the dam holding back Syncrude's pond is the largest, by volume of construction material, in the world. Four of the projects haven't started production yet, so their tailings ponds haven't begun, but theirs, too, will soon be full of sand and what Schindler calls "dead water" because, he says, they're full of carcinogenic hydrocarbons and toxic trace metals such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic, all topped off, in Syncrude's case, with an oil slick.

The companies are aware than none of this looks good and come out fighting. When I ask Shell if I can speak to its senior vice-president, oil sands, it provides Rob Seeley, the general manager of sustainable development, instead. He explains Shell's commitment to reduce emissions by 50% by 2010 - though compared with conventional imported crude, that would only reduce overall emissions by 15%.

Politically, the oil companies have it all their own way. Alberta has always been more rightwing than the rest of Canada. The free market, oil revenues and the province's direct relationship to America - it has its own representative in Washington - trump all other considerations. Provincial government strategy has been to allow the companies to regulate themselves, overseen by "multi-stakeholder committees". Environmental and aboriginal groups are outnumbered and all decisions must be consensual, which militates against the making of environmentally useful decisions.

The federal government, led by a conservative Albertan, talks tough, but quietly approves more and more projects, even though the oil sands would have to be shut down altogether if Canada was to have a hope of meeting its commitment to the Kyoto agreement on reduction of emissions aggravating climate change. Everyone, as Canadian author William Marsden argues in a book unambiguously titled Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (and Doesn't Seem to Care), is turning a blind eye.

Leigh Wild drives a dozer for Syncrude. It's a good job and she is grateful for it, but there are things that trouble her. The sandhill cranes, for example. "When I'm at the end of a night shift, at dawn, or when the sun goes down, I see them walking out through the discharge from the coke line [which takes coke to a storage area], eating insects. I try to scare them away, because it's so sad to see them in such a place. Almost heartbreaking."

Mayor Melissa Blake, just back from honeymoon, has the unenviable job of running a town buckling under the demands of a population that has doubled in the past 10 years, from 32,000 to about 65,000 - not counting a shadow population of about 10,000 itinerant construction workers. It is projected to grow by another 40,000 in the next five years. Increasingly, she has been squaring up to the Alberta government and to the oil companies: with one, for more money (funds are allocated on the basis of the stable population, not the shadow population, who pay taxes elsewhere); with the others, to slow, even halt construction of the mining and processing sites until she can catch up. No one seems much inclined to listen, so she is firefighting madly. A new sewage treatment plant, begun before a credit agreement was even in place, will be finished in 2009 - and will be too small a year later. A school that took three years to build was too small a year before it opened. Medical services are almost overwhelmed. Blake estimates that she needs roughly $2bn; this year she has debts of $330m.

"We need more roads," says Fijian Amy Tabin, who, like many here, finds that the things she likes about a growing city are tempered by chronic road rage. She has to commute out to the site, but "there's only one road in and one road out. If something happens, where the hell are you gonna go?"

McMurrayites are also obsessed with housing. Prices have gone up by 40-50% in the past couple of years, and an unprepossessing three-bedroom bungalow now costs $600,000. Rents are among the highest in Canada - expensive cities such as Toronto or Vancouver notwithstanding - if there's anything available at all. Converted garages or spare rooms (no kitchen, no separate bathroom) can cost more than $1,000 a month.

Before she came to Fort McMurray looking for a better future for her three children, Inderjit Kaur, 40, taught computers and English in Mohali, in the Punjab. She began by nannying for her sister in exchange for minimum wage and board, and now has two jobs, nannying and taking telephone bookings at the big new recreation centre. She works 7.30am to 10.30pm, with few days off. After tax she earns $2,000 a month; a two-bedroom flat would cost $2,500 a month, so she can't ask her family to join her. She told them it would take a year, but she hasn't seen them for four.

There is a severe shortage of low-income housing in Fort McMurray, and since Kaur is effectively single, she keeps being bumped down the list in favour of families. "Have you been to the bushes?" she demands. In a place where earning $70,000 a year means you're effectively working poor, it is not uncommon for even the employed to resort to living in tents. The city enforces bylaws and moves them on, but people just set up their tents elsewhere.

At the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union office downtown, they get up to 10 people dropping by every day asking for work. "People walk in here broke and think money's going to fall off the trees or something," says union vice-president Tod Jackson. They'd rather people called before they boarded a Greyhound bus, because the message would be stark: don't come unless you have lined up work and accommodation; don't come unless you have savings; don't come unless you have a skill.

Jackson recently bumped into a woman reduced to living in a shed, even though she had three jobs. "She's 18 and doesn't know a soul. And she was so happy that I stopped to talk to her." Kaur, who used to work in a convenience store, has stories of people coming in for a muffin and a chat, and finding themselves in tears. "It's a boom town for people in the oilfields. But is it a boom town for everyone else? The people who are serving the oilfield people? Does anybody care about these people? The better are getting the best, and the lower people are getting nothing. That's the tragedy of this town."

Just down Franklin, at the Centre of Hope, Trina Rolsdon, 44, is having a smoke and cutting her nails. She lived with her partner and son and worked as a waitress until degenerative arthritis, the breakdown of her relationship and the lack of affordable housing put her on the streets last year. Originally from a tiny town in southern Alberta, she is probably one of the people of whom Tonia Enger, the officer in charge of Fort McMurray's Mountie detachment, would ask, "Why are you still here? Maybe you should go home." Rolsdon has no love for the place, but she is hanging on until her 16-year-old son graduates from school. Then she will gladly leave.

For many, purpose-built work camps provide the best solution, and are often the only option for the blue-collar workers needed to build the sites. The work camps are small towns in their own right - Suncor's Borealis camp, the largest such facility in North America, sleeps 7,500, as does CNRL's Horizon camp - but with few of a small town's compensations. The only plus is a negligible commute. It's a short walk from Syncrude's Mildred Lake camp to the refinery. The long, low trailers are surrounded by barbed wire and sandwiched between, on one side, belching silver towers and pipes, and on the other a highway and seas of mined-out sand. Inside the trailers, men in dressing gowns wander down interminable, hospital-bare hallways; the rooms are cells, maybe 7ft by 14ft, furnished with a small single bed. Men - it is usually men, though there are some women, in separate facilities - can spend anything from a few days to years living in these rooms. A Somali cab driver who worked as a security guard at one of the camps told me they all developed coughs. "And their faces started to look like they were made of rubber."

At weekends, they escape, either out of town altogether, taking the five-hour trip down Highway 63 to Edmonton (single-carriageway, and so busy and full of reckless drivers on Thursday nights that it's known as the "highway of death"), or into Fort McMurray. At the upscale bar attached to Moxie's Classic Grill, Guy Chiasson, 39, Marty Leblanc, 31, and Alain Evers, 44, French-Canadian ironworkers and scaffolders from New Brunswick, nurse mid-afternoon beers. Chiasson, mischievous and fast-talking, has just come off 24 straight days of 12-hour shifts, most spent 30 feet above ground, building a coker, a huge vessel in which bitumen is cracked into fractions to begin its transformation into crude oil. He has been working on an expandable scaffold called a swing stage - "the suicide stage", they call it; he once saw someone die. As for the camp where he and Evers are living, it gets "five black stars". The walls are so thin that nothing is private; the night-shifters are always waking up day-shifters, and vice versa. His first night in a camp, says Leblanc, was "scary. I've never been to prison, but I imagine that's what it feels like - the rooms, the cafeteria, the lineups."

What does Leblanc spend his earnings on? "My Hummer!" he says, with childlike joy. Evers, who has left a wife and 23-year-old daughter behind, was a village fishmonger until the fish started disappearing. Chiasson, a nurse, paramedic and carpenter, was divorced three and half years ago, and is trying to get back on his feet after losing his home to his ex-wife. First order of business was a Harley - "Finally, my dream's come true!"; next is building his own house; then his pension. At his current rate, clearing $8,000 in 24 days, he reckons it will take him 10 years of days that consist of "work, take shower, go to bed, work, take shower, go to bed" - and, at the moment, a daily dose of pure fear. "I try to like my job," he says. "But I can't."

None of them is in any doubt about the sacrifice they are making. "It's good money," says Leblanc, "but every time you come up here you lose everything." Younger than the others, he sees another 15 to 20 years of this stretching ahead. "Doesn't mean we're going to live that long," says Chiasson. It's not quite a joke - I've already heard stories of men working years of overtime in order to retire early, and dying six months later. "Oh well," he adds, with an air of having said or thought this more than a few times before. "Everything's gonna pass."

Camp workers carry the added burden of being the town's untouchables. Locals complain about "transients" giving the town that "bar-room brawl feeling", and attracting drugs and prostitutes. The one decision the mayor admits to having lost sleep (and probably votes) over was allowing a small camp to be built within the town limits. In reality the majority are probably hard workers like Chiasson, Leblanc and Evers, but it is true that there is little in the way of criminal checks, and work camps are ideal places for men running away from lives elsewhere to a town full of people whose hearts are elsewhere. "You don't begrudge them the money," says Donna McKeogh, originally from Nova Scotia, who runs the Multicultural Association downtown. "You begrudge them not wanting to be part of the community - they have no regard for this place as a home."

Fort McMurray may be full of opportunity, of quietly prosperous people, but "I think it can be very intimidating for somebody new coming in," says Angela Adams, a heavy equipment operator and union grievance officer. "It can be hard to find support systems." It's even worse if you're from, say, the South Sea Islands, or Bosnia, and you don't speak English. "The problem of isolation is huge," says McKeogh, who points immigrants to language classes for skilled workers, and helps find translators for driving licences and contracts. "There's a high incidence of depression." Adams makes confidential appointments for employees with mental health issues. Half the time, she says, hospital short-staffing means there is no one equipped to deal with them. Suicides may not often be reported, "but you hear about them through the grapevine".

Out in some of the camps, far from the town, another worrying story seems to be unfolding. Canada has a "temporary worker" immigration scheme, whereby people can work for two years, but must then return to their home countries. The oil companies have seized on this as a solution to their labour problems, bringing contingents from the Philippines, China, Mexico, flying them - according to rumour - in chartered 737s directly to site airstrips, bussing them into town maybe once a month to shop, then flying them home again.

The unions, understandably, are concerned about Albertan jobs being taken, but also that these workers might get paid less and trained less, have no rights or protections, and pay unreasonable fees to brokers and contractors simply for the privilege of working. Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, recently received an appeal from a group of Romanians who, on paper, were being paid $24 an hour for 60-hour weeks, but only pocketing $200 every two weeks. "We're using these people, often from third world countries, like Post-It notes to be used and discarded," he says. "That's contrary to Canadian values. That's not the way we should build our economy or our country."

That story, so far, is largely hidden. Far more obvious is the social impact of a single-industry economy experiencing exponential growth. Sudden windfalls of cash, especially for those used to straitened circumstances, can be a mixed blessing. Men coming off a long run of shifts can easily spend $800 in a night; some have been known to lose $20,000-$30,000 at the Boomtown Casino. Frugal living can set you up for life, but there are many who earn $100,000 and still find themselves living from pay cheque to pay cheque.

Dave Beaton, 56, has a simple diagnosis for what happened to him: "Too much money." He raised two children by himself in Vancouver, then, when they got jobs of their own, came to Fort McMurray, got a $35-an-hour job as an instrument mechanic, discovered hard drugs for the first time, and is now homeless. "I felt I deserved a little holiday. It hasn't stopped." It's difficult - a five-minute walk down Franklin Street, he claims, can net a dealer hundreds - but he's trying to get clean, because "my kids are mad at me", and because he misses them. Blue eyes, framed by wiry grey hair and a baseball cap, water. He sniffs and bows his head.

This is an overwhelmingly male place: lots of cash, lots of men. A few come with partners; many do not. The persistent urban myth is that this is the divorce capital of Canada: there are no figures, but plenty of stories - of women arriving to surprise husbands on anniversaries, only to find the marriage defunct; of one or both working such long hours that the marriage collapses out of sheer disuse, or the children tear out of control. "Family life takes a beating here - big time," says Dave Drummond, president of the Communications Union. At the Lion's Den, a dark, dingy boozer full of tired men downing Labatt Blues, Kim Pabrelko, 21, says women are always having to defend themselves. "That's a big reason why I like working behind the bar." But she is sympathetic, too. She sees a lot of loneliness. "Eighty per cent have families back home."

The town is up in arms about a recent article in the Canadian magazine Chatelaine, which noted that escorts make more here than anywhere in Canada, and described a dating atmosphere of rampant mistrust and betrayal. You can see why people are insulted, but it's not hard to understand how the piece came to be: there are 11 pages of escorts in the Yellow Pages (annotated, in my hotel room), and the subject often comes up with little prodding. Men complain that women just want them for their money, but, as one woman said tartly, if they will go out at night wearing a Syncrude badge (guaranteed $100,000 a year), what do they expect? In their defence, it's a way of standing out from the crowd; it probably also provides a kind of armour, though not against gold-digging.

There's a lot of bravado here. You see it in the different degrees of swagger, in briefly unguarded eyes. At Bailey's bar I watch a thick-set man in his 50s, with a neat white beard, pause in the doorway. He looks round the room, breathes in deeply, deliberately forces his shoulders back and down. Then he straightens the badge on his chest, and walks to the bar.

Wayne Bonham, 39, is getting out altogether, going back to Ontario. He has done well, running a fleet of hire cars, but has come to the conclusion that he will never meet a girl here. Even if he did, this is not a place in which he'd want to raise a family.

Fort McMurray is a small town becoming a major city, and a major economic hub, at stunning speed. As recently as the 1950s this town had one main street and boardwalks, and until six or seven years ago McMurrayites could count on recognising almost everyone they walked past on the street; now plans have been submitted that mean skyscrapers could be built within the next two years, and everyone seems a stranger. "I think 10 years from now we're going to be back to a real community," says Adams. "But it's going to take a lot of work."

The departure lounge at Fort McMurray airport is full of badly fitting jeans, stale-alcohol breath, sandy moustaches and physiques earned by long hours on site: paunches, tired eyes. The few women - one in 3in heels and riding-up-tight skirt, another with three children, a third with bags of bridal gear - have obviously just said goodbye to their men again. A craggy, tanned French-Canadian murmurs into his mobile phone: "Je t'aime." Ground crew smile indulgently at the young Newfoundlander just off the night shift who has to be nudged awake for his flight. When the plane takes off, it feels as though everyone is going home.

Kevin Carson on Naomi Klein

This is a superb piece. Kevin Carson critiques Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine from a free market anti-capitalist perspective. However, it is also a free market anti-capitalist attack on Actual Existing Capitalism. Apols for the lack of links: there were so many...please check Kevin's original article at his blog.

Friday, November 02, 2007
Naomi Klein: The Shock Doctrine

Naomi Klein, to a casual reader, might seem to hate the free market. Or at least she hates what most people think of as the free market, based on the conventional use of that term by mainstream politicians and journalists. And the usual vulgar libertarian suspects (see here and here and here) have reacted with exactly the kind of by-the-numbers polemics you'd expect. (She's met with a more open-minded reception from real libertarians. See, for example, Sheldon Richman, "Naomi Klein: Free Market Ally?" and Kehlkopfmikrofon, "Left-Libertarian Perspectives on Naomi Klein.")

If Klein hates what she mistakenly believes is the free market, the blame is pretty easy to assess: for the most part the very same folks at Cato, the Adam Smith Institute, and their ilk, that have their panties in such a wad over her book. As I've repeatedly said in the past, if I thought the free market actually meant what those people mean when they talk about "free markets," I'd hate it myself.

It's hard to spend any time at all in the allegedly "libertarian" parts of the Web without being deluged by commentary defending corporate globalization, CO2 emissions, Third World landed oligarchies, Nike's sweatshops, Wal-Mart, Big Pharma's profits, CEO salaries, and Microsoft's market share, all based on the principles of "the free market."

From Smith to Ricardo and Mill, classical liberalism was a revolutionary doctrine that attacked the privileges of the great landlords and the mercantile interests. Today, we see vulgar libertarians perverting "free market" rhetoric to defend the contemporary institution that most closely resembles, in terms of power and privilege, the landed oligarchies and mercantilists of the Old Regime: the giant corporation. When the "free market" is perverted to defend such odious interests, it's not hard to see why sane people view it with the same apprehension they normally reserve for the bubonic plague. Make no mistake: I hate such commentary, and the agenda behind it, with every fiber of my being. But it's not the free market.

If Germany had won the war, there would probably be a mushroom proliferation of Nazi "free market" think tanks (not inconceivably staffed by a considerable portion of the Austrian diaspora returned from America) defending the profits of Krupp and I.G. Farben in terms of "free market principles," along with the Nazi equivalent of Nike sweatshops in Eastern Europe and black Africa. All decent people would hate such intellectual vermin and their monstrous version of the "free market." The version of the "free market" defended by neoliberals and vulgar libertarians in our own world is only better in degree, and even that probably not by much.

Klein uses the term "disaster capitalism" to refer to the neoliberal modus operandi of "waiting for a major crisis, then selling off pieces of the state to private players while citizens [are] still reeling from the shock, then quickly making the 'reforms' permanent."

It's a very real phenomenon. As an account of the process of neoliberal "reform" as it occurred in country after country, and a chronicle of the corrupt collusion between government and corporate interests in formulating the "reforms," it is an outstanding reference work. The endnotes alone are immensely valuable.

My main objection, to repeat, is to her misuse of the term "free market" to describe such policies. Most of the examples of "free market reform" Klein describes could be more accurately described as "economic fascism." What passes for "free market reform," "deregulation," and "privatization" among the neoliberals is probably at least as statist as the various social democratic and mixed economy models to which neoliberalism is opposed. As Nicholas Hildyard argues in "The Myth of the Minimalist State,"

Far from doing away with state bureaucracy, free market [sic] policies have in fact reorganised it. While the privatisation of state industries and assets has certainly cut down the direct involvement of the state in the production and distribution of many goods and services, the process has been accompanied by new state regulations, subsidies and institutions aimed at introducing and entrenching a "favourable environment" for the newly-privatised industries.

The state has actually played a central role in implementing free market [sic] policies and, moreover, has a continued "intimate and ubiquitous" involvement in regulating the minutiae of the market economy -- a direct consequence of the hand-in-glove relationship that free market [sic] governments have fostered between "adjusted" state institutions and market interests....

A good example is the standard neoliberal model of "privatization," as carried out by Milton Friedman in Chile and Jeffrey Sachs in Russia. As Klein herself puts it in regard to New Orleans' massive post-Katrina conversion to charter schools (involving almost the entire school system), neoliberal "privatization" of public functions usually results in "publicly funded institutions run by private entities according to their own rules." [p. 5] Another variant of the same phenomenon is taxpayer-funded vouchers, a favorite of the folks at Cato, the ASI, and the Heritage Foundation. It was implemented in Pinochet's Chile, among other places.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this phenomenon is the fascist economy that has grown up around the national security state, including both the "private" firms that act as camp followers to the U.S. military in its wars abroad, and the "private" firms contracting with Homeland Security and other police state agencies at home. Klein, who aptly calls it the "disaster capitalism complex," considers it the booming sector of the economy in the same way as housing until recently, and the tech sector before that.

In my opinion the very term "private sector," in regard to such entities, is grossly misleading. Big business interests whose profits depend on direct subsidies and protections from the state are, in fact, a part of the state. If Marx was right in calling the state "the executive committee of the ruling class"--and I think he was--then the owners and managers of the corporate economy make up the lion's share of that ruling class. Corporate directors and senior management from the state capitalist sector constantly shuffle, in classic revolving door style, into political appointments in the state apparatus and then back to "private" employment.

Brad Spangler put it this way: robber (the literal apparatus of government) keeps you covered with a pistol while the second (representing State-allied corporations) just holds the bag that you have to drop your wristwatch, wallet and car keys in. To say that your interaction with the bagman was a “voluntary transaction” is an absurdity. Such nonsense should be condemned by all libertarians. Both gunman and bagman together are the true State.

Large corporations are neither passive victims nor passive beneficiaries of the state; they act through the state. Or rather, to a large extent they are the state. It makes about as much sense to separate them from the state, as it would have made to separate the landholding class from the state in Medieval times.

And here's how the Libertarian Alliance's Sean Gabb described the model of fake "privatization" promoted by the Adam Smith Institute:

As reconstructed in the 1980s - partly by the Adam Smith Institute - the new statism is different. It looks like private enterprise. It makes a profit. Those in charge of it are paid vast salaries, and smugly believe they are worth every penny....

But for all its external appearance, the reality is statism. And because it makes a profit, it is more stable than the old. It is also more pervasive. Look at these privatised companies, with their boards full of retired politicians, their cosy relationships with the regulators, their quick and easy ways to get whatever privileges they want....

As with National Socialism in Germany, the new statism is leading to the abolition of the distinction between public and private. Security companies, for example, are being awarded contracts to ferry defendants between prison and court, and in some cases to build and operate prisons. This has been sold to us on the - perfectly correct - grounds that it ensures better value for money. But it also involves grants of state powers of coercion to private organisations. All over the country, private companies are being given powers of surveillance and control greater than the Police used to possess.

....There has been no diminution in the economic power of the State, only a change in its mode of operation....

Sometimes neoliberal "privatization" involves not just the contracting out of public functions with continued taxpayer funding, but the auctioning off of state assets. The process generally goes something like this: The World Bank cultivates technocratic elites within a Third World government, educating them in the neoliberal model of economic development and promoting their autonomy from democratic political pressure. The World Bank acts collusively with these elites to arrange loans for building the transportation and utility infrastructure needed for Western industry to build profitable facilities in the country. When the country incurs a crushing debt load, owing to the collusion between domestic technocratic elites and the World Bank, the World Bank and IMF use the debt as leverage to impose a "structural adjustment reforms," including "privatization" of the very infrastructure that was created at taxpayer expense to subsidize Western industry. Naturally, the infrastructure is bought up by Western capital--the same interests it was originally built at taxpayer expense to serve--for pennies on the dollar. During the privatization process, the Third World government may invest more money in the infrastructure, to make it salable, than it gets from the sale. And following "privatization," the new owners' first order of business will be systematic asset stripping, with the income from sale of capital assets exceeding what they paid for the infrastructure. Pretty neat, huh?

Sean Corrigan described the process in more colorful terms:

Does he [Treasury Secretary O'Neill] not know that the whole IMF-US Treasury carpet-bagging strategy of full-spectrum dominance is based on promoting unproductive government-led indebtedness abroad, at increasingly usurious rates of interest, and then – either before or, more often these days, after, the point of default – bailing out the Western banks who have been the agents provocateurs of this financial Operation Overlord, with newly-minted dollars, to the detriment of the citizenry at home?

Is he not aware that, subsequent to the collapse, these latter-day Reconstructionists must be allowed to swoop and to buy controlling ownership stakes in resources and productive capital made ludicrously cheap by devaluation, or outright monetary collapse?

Does he not understand that he must simultaneously coerce the target nation into sweating its people to churn out export goods in order to service the newly refinanced debt...?

Joseph Stromberg referred to such privatization of state assets as "funny auctions, that amounted to new expropriations by domestic and foreign investors."

Proposals to auction off Iraqi properties, with the state acting as effective owner, would likely lead, if implemented, to a massive alienation of resources into the hands of select foreign interests.

...and for Stromberg, a real free market libertarian, remember, this is a bad thing.

The textbook case of "funny auctions" was the looting carried out under the supervision of Yeltsin and Sachs. The Russian state ministers transferred enormous public funds into banks owned by the oligarchs--themselves major figures in the state and former Communist Party leadership. The oligarch's banks, in turn, conducted the privatization auctions of state industry--and they bid on it themselves, using the embezzled funds received from the government. [p. 233] Klein refers to it as "the strip mining of an industrialized state." [p. 242] This, by the way--and Yeltsin's suspension of parliament and rule by decree--went largely unremarked on by the same people currently squealing about Putin's authoritarianism. The difference is that Putin is using his muscle against the oligarchs and even Western capitalist interests.

Neoliberal "privatization" may leave a larger share of functions under nominally private direction, but the new "private" enterprises operate within a web of protections, advantages and subsidies defined by the state.

A much better model for privatization is that of Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess. As Hess argued in 1969, real free market libertarians don't reflexively defend anything that's called "property."

The truth, of course, is that libertarianism wants to advance principles of property but that it in no way wishes to defend, willy nilly, all property which now is called private.

Much of that property is stolen. Much is of dubious title. All of it is deeply intertwined with an immoral, coercive state system which has condoned, built on, and profited from slavery; has expanded through and exploited a brutal and aggressive imperial and colonial foreign policy, and continues to hold the people in a roughly serf-master relationship to political-economic power concentrations.

Hess called for creative libertarian analysis, confronting issues of "the revolutionary treatment of stolen "private" and "public" property in libertarian, radical, and revolutionary terms." For example, he asked, "What... should happen to General Motors in a liberated society?"--a question that's never been raised at the Cato Institute or the Heritage Foundation, I'll wager. ["The Student Revolution," The Libertarian (soon renamed The Libertarian Forum) May 1, 1969, p. 2.]

Rothbard attempted to provide some answers to the question Hess raised. He argued that state property should simply be treated as "unowned," and then homesteaded by those currently occupying and using it. In the case of utilities and other public services, this would mean turning them into consumer cooperatives. Universities would be turned either into consumer cooperatives, owned by student guilds, or into producer co-ops owned by the faculty. State-owned industry should be handed over to its workers. He even argued that private industry that got the majority of its profits from the state should be treated as state property and homesteaded by its workers. ["Confiscation and the Homestead Principle," The Libertarian Forum June 15, 1969 p. 3]

In the specific case of the post-Soviet economies and other state socialist countries attempting market reforms, he argued in "How and how not to desocialize" that state property should be privatized on the principle of "all land to the peasants, all factories to the workers!" ["How and How Not to Desocialize," The Review of Austrian Economics 6:1 (1992) 65-77]

That was, incidentally, the form of privatization actually envisioned by Solidarity at the fall of the pro-Soviet regime: the transformation of all state enterprises into workers' co-ops. But under the influence of the Chicagoids who infested Poland, with their dire threats of capital flight, the new Solidarity government was browbeaten into opening the country up to corporate looting. That was the model envisioned by Gorbachev (surely a more legitimate claim to the name of "free market reform" than what actually occurred), before a wrathful deity visited Russia with the triple calamity of Yeltsin, Sachs, and the oligarchs. I'll take emerods in my secret parts any day.

Neoliberal policies depart from genuine free market principles in numerous other ways.

For example, they tend to be adopted in contexts where corporate elites desire to roll back the bargaining power of labor. The governments that adopt Chicago School policies also tend to terrorize unions and other forms of poltical organization by workers in ways that no genuine believer in free markets could possibly support (any implied commentary on George Reisman is very much intentional).

A large part of he appeal of Chicago School economics was that, at a time when radical-left ideas about workers' power were gaining ground around the world, it provided a way to defend the interests of owners... [p. 52]

As the countries of the South American cone, one after another, fell under military dictatorships and played host to pestilential swarms of Chicago Boys, the first targets of their terror were the trade unions and their parties. And they were actively encouraged by Kissinger. [p. 97] The main purpose of the infamous Operation Condor was to organize mutual support among the intelligence operations of the South American military dictatorships, in identifying and assassinating the leaders of the left-wing opposition. In several countries of the region, military coups were followed immediately by raids on trade union headquarters, and by military raids on factories in which union organizers and radicals--helpfully pointed out by managers--were "disappeared." [p. 106]

Now, even by the avowed principles of the vulgar libertarians, labor and capital are supposedly coequal "factors of production." Imagine the reaction at Cato or the ASI if corporate headquarters were raided and terrorized in the way that union headquarters were, or if prominent and influential capitalists were tortured, murdered, and "disappeared," and later discovered in ditches with their faces hacked off, as a means of intimidating them and reducing the bargaining power of capital in the market. The difference, for the Catoids and Misoids, is that such treatment of labor is a regrettable necessity, or an aberration in the "political" realm that did not affect the fundamentally "free market" orientation of the regime; identical policies carried out against capital, on the otherhand, would be directly repugnant to their "free market" principles. The control of the state by the owners of one "factor of production" (capital), and the use of state power to terrorize the owners of another "factor of production" (labor-power) on behalf of capital, is just as repugnant to free market principles as the reverse case.

There's nothing inherent in free market principles, as such, that implies greater affinity for owners than workers. In fact, one can make a free market argument (as I repeatedly have) that the state's interventions in the market have served mainly the interests of the owning classes, to the great detriment of the bargaining power of labor. Taft-Hartley, for example, surely had that effect. So did the draconian police state regime imposed on the British working classes (e.g. the Laws of Settlement, the Riot Act, and the Combination Laws) during the early Industrial Revolution. The state's enforcement of artificial scarcity in land and capital, by maintaining entry barriers and other special privileges on behalf of landlords and capitalists, makes the means of production artificially scarce and expensive for workers so that they are forced to sell their labor in a buyer's market. Instead of jobs competing for workers and driving down the rate of profit until wages equal the full product of labor, which would be the case in a free market without such special privilege, we have instead a state of affairs in which workers are forced to compete for jobs and drive down wages, and pay a form of tribute for access to the means of production.

The neoliberal version of "free markets" tends to reflexively support any title to "private property" in land, with absolutely no regard to issues of just acquisition. In all the Latin American countries where the Chicago Boys were given free rein, land reforms were reversed and the peasants' land restored to the latifundistas and other feudal landed oligarchs. And every time a left-leaning Third World government nullifies the illegitimate titles of such feudal elites, and gives the land to its rightful owners--the peasants working it--the predictable squeals of outrage start among the Catoids.

The only form of property the Catoids and other vulgar libertarians don't respect is the property of ordinary working people. In Sri Lanka after the Tsunami, and in New Orleans after Katrina, one of the top items on the agenda, as a condition for disaster relief aid, was to eliminate legal barriers to expropriating and evicting poor people from land desired by commercial interests. In Sri Lanka, the reconstruction plan was drafted by a coalition of businesspeople, of whom the largest portion represented the tourist industry that coveted beachfront property. The plan they came up with included the eviction of entire beachfront villages so their land could be used for hotels, and the use of disaster relief funds to provide corporate welfare for superhighways and industrial port facilities.[pp. 292-293, 297] The same pattern was followed in India and Indonesia, with peasants forbidden to rebuild on their own land, driven into holding camps, and their land (and lots of aid) given to hotel companies. [p. 399] In Honduras after Hurricane Mitch, the mining laws were changed to make it easier to evict peasants from land the mining companies wanted. [p. 395]

But there is absolutely no legitimate basis in free market principle for the artificial property rights of feudal landlords. I admit I'm not a typical free market advocate in that regard. As an individualist anarchist, I tend to be hostile toward absentee landlords in principle; that sets me apart from the libertarian mainstream, which is predominantly Lockean (with a large minority of Georgists thrown in for good measure). But even the Lockean principles of Murray Rothbard and his followers are fundamentally hostile to the artificial property rights of quasi-feudal landlords like the latifundistas of Latin America. Rothbard denounced such feudal property titles in no uncertain terms.

10. The Problem of Land Theft

...suppose that centuries ago, Smith was tilling the soil and therefore legitimately owning the land; and then that Jones came along and settled down near Smith, claiming by use of coercion the title to Smith’s land, and extracting payment or “rent” from Smith for the privilege of continuing to till the soil. Suppose that now, centuries later, Smith’s descendants (or, for that matter, other unrelated families) are now tilling the soil, while Jones’s descendants, or those who purchased their claims, still continue to exact tribute from the modern tillers. Where is the true property right in such a case? It should be clear that here, just as in the case of slavery, we have a case of continuing aggression against the true owners—the true possessors—of the land, the tillers, or peasants, by the illegitimate owner, the man whose original and continuing claim to the land and its fruits has come from coercion and violence.... In this case of what we might call “feudalism” or “land monopoly,” the feudal or monopolist landlords have no legitimate claim to the property. The current “tenants,” or peasants, should be the absolute owners of their property, and, as in the case of slavery, the land titles should be transferred to the peasants, without compensation to the monopoly landlords....

11. Land Monopoly, Past and Present

Land monopoly is far more widespread in the modern world than most people—especially most Americans—believe. In the undeveloped world, especially in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, feudal landholding is a crucial social and economic problem—with or without quasi-serf impositions on the persons of the peasantry.... [American "free market"] preachments naturally fall on deaf ears, because “free market” for American conservatives obviously does not encompass an end to feudalism and land monopoly and the transfer of title to these lands, without compensation, to the peasantry....

American conservatives... exhort the backward countries on the virtues and the importance of private foreign investment from the advanced countries, and of allowing a favorable climate for this investment, free from governmental harassment. This is all very true, but is again often unreal to the undeveloped peoples, because the conservatives persistently fail to distinguish between legitimate, free-market foreign investment, as against investment based upon monopoly concessions and vast land grants by the undeveloped states. To the extent that foreign investments are based on land monopoly and aggression against the peasantry, to that extent do foreign capitalists take on the aspects of feudal landlords, and must be dealt with in the same way....

Another divergence of neoliberal "market reform" from the real thing is its treatment of odious debt. In country after country, even as the neoliberals lauded the global "sweep of democracy," they refused any forgiveness of debts acquired by the previous military regimes--such debts acquired, by the way, largely to create the subsidized transportation and utility infrastructure necessary to render Western capital investments profitable (when not used, that is, to fund the repressive military and police apparatus). [pp. 156-157]

The neoliberal version of "market reform," as opposed to the real thing, tends to take a jaundiced view of tort liability law and its use to hold corporate interests accountable for the harm they do. We've seen this domestically, with "tort reform" being a top item on the corporate agenda during the past two decades. In Iraq, the CPA puppet regime indemnified American crony capitalists of liability for any actions taken in that country. [p. 358] In effect, Bremer resurrected the venerable principle of extraterritoriality. Real free market libertarians, on the other hand, view a vigorous tort law regime as the free market alternative to the regulatory state. Real free market libertarians consider the evisceration of traditional common law liability in the nineteenth century, by judges in the service of commerical interests, to be a bad thing. In a genuine free market order, corporations that dumped waste or polluted groundwater would be eaten alive by lawsuits.

Finally, although Klein devotes little attention to it, a central preoccupation of the Washington Consensus, and in the model of disaster capitalism imposed in the areas under its thumb, is "intellectual property" [sic]. Although I haven't managed to track it down, I still recall a statement by Paul Bremer in 2003 announcing that the goal of the Coalition Political Authority was to create a market democracy with "strong intellectual property rights." Now so-called "intellectual property" is an abomination to free market principles.

The main function of patents, domestically, was to enable the cartelization of industry through patent control. General Electric and Westinghouse, for example, cartelized the home appliance industry by an exchange of patents. The power of AT&T was rooted in the Bell Patent Association. Internationally, patents give transnational corporations a monopoly on the newest generation of production technology, effectively enabling them to lock host countries into supplying sweatshop labor for foreign-owned industry. "Intellectual property" is especially important to the new global economy. It's hardly coincidental that the sectors of the American corporate economy that flourish in the global economy are all heavily dependent either on direct subsidies, on patents and copyrights, or both: agribusiness and biotech, software, entertainment, electronics, and arms. If patents, copyrights, and excessive trademark rights disappeared, most of the global economy would vanish right along with them. The first order of business of any genuine free market regime would be to repudiate--totally--the IP accords of the Uruguay Round of GATT. The first order of business in Washington, of course, would be to declare it a terror state.

Klein herself admits at times that the neoliberal policies she rightly condemns are not consistent with genuine free market principles. For example:

Friedman framed his movement as an attempt to free the market from the state, but the real-world track record of what happens when his purist vision is realized is rather different. In every country where Chicago School policies have been applied over the past three decades, what has emerged is a powerful ruling alliance between a few very large corporations and a class of mostly wealthy politicians--with hazy and ever-shifting lines between the two groups. In Russia, the billionaire private players in the alliance are called "the oligarchs"; in China, "the princelings"; in Chile, "the piranhas"; in the U.S., the Bush-Cheney campaign "Pioneers." Far from freeing the market from the state, these political and corporate elites have simply merged, trading favors to secure the right to appropriate precious resources previously held in the public domain--from Russia's oil fields, to China's collective lands, to the no-bid reconstruction contracts for work in Iraq.

A more accurage term for a system that erases the boundaries between Big Government and Big Business is not liberal, conservative or capitalist but corporatist. Its main characteristics are huge transfers of public wealth to private hands, often accompanied by exploding debt, an ever-widening chasm between the dazzling rich and the disposable poor and an aggressive nationalism that justifies bottomless spending on security. For those inside the bubble of extreme wealth created by such an arrangement, there can be no more profitable way to organize a society. But because of the obvious drawbacks for the vast majority of the population left outside the bubble, other features of the corporatist state tend to include aggressive surveillance (once again, with government and large corporations trading favors and contracts), mass incarceration, shrinking civil liberties and often, though not always, torture. [p. 15]

It's clear that Chile was never the laboratory of "pure" free markets that is cheerleaders claimed. Instead, it was a country where a small elite leapt from wealthy to super-rich in extremely short order--a highly profitable formula bankrolled by debt and heavily subsidized (then bailed out) with public funds. When the hype and salesmanship behind the miracle are stripped away, Chile under Pinochet and the Chicago Boys was not a capitalist state featuring a liberated market but a corporatist one. Corporatism, or "corporativism," originally referred to Mussolini's model of a police state run as an alliance of the three major power sources in society--government, businesses and trade unions--all collaborating to guarantee order in the name of nationalism. What Chile pioneered under Pinochet was an evolution of corporatism: a mutually supporting alliance between a police state and large corporations, joining forces to wage all-out war on the third power sector--the workers--thereby drastically increasing the alliance's share of the national wealth....

...[P]erhaps shock treatment was never really about jolting the economy into health. Perhaps it was meant to do exactly what it did--hoover wealth up to the top and shock much of the middle class out of existence. [p. 86]

...[China] is a mirror of the corporatist state first pioneered in Chile under Pinochet: a revolving door between corporate and political elites who combine their power to eliminate workers as an organized political force. [p. 190]

But following every such burst of clarity, she immediately resumes identifying the neoliberal agenda with the "free market." For example, the passage on p. 15 block quoted above is followed directly, in the very next paragraph, by this sentence: "From Chile to China to Iraq, torture has been a silent partner in the global free-market crusade." By my count, she misuses "free market" in this way some times.

I think I understand why she does it. That is, after all, the conventional usage of "free market" in mainstream American politics and in the mainstream press. Just this past week, I heard a pinhead on some conservative talk radio show contrast the Canadian single payer healthcare system to "our free market system" of healthcare--the latter industry being, in fact, about as heavily subsidized, protected and cartelized as the aerospace industry.

Although she seems aware that what the neoliberal politicians and journalists call the "free market" agenda is in fact a highly statist form of corporatism, she does not seem to be aware that their use of the free market label is heavily contested by a genuine, philosophically consistent strand of free market thought. Although she often judges the neoliberal version of "free markets" by their corporatist reality, she neglects even to consider the possibility of an intellectually honest free market movement that judges such corporatism illegitimate in terms of genuine free market principles.

And in taking the neoliberal use of "free market" at face value, she also seems unaware of just what an enormous ideological victory she's handing the corporate ruling class.

As Sean Gabb argued, it's about as legitimate to identify the existing neoliberal model of corporate globalization with "free markets" and "free trade" as it would be to call the Soviet oligarchy under Stalin with "workers' power." The transnational corporations and financial elites, and the neoliberal court intellectuals who service them, have appropriated the language and symbolism of the classical liberal movement to legitimize their corrupt power interests. In much the same way, Stalin appropriated the libertarian and humanist symbolism of the nineteenth socialist movement to letitimize the exploitative class system under the Party apparat.

The neoliberals have no more right to the heritage of the classical liberal movement--to the thought of Thomas Hodgskin, Benjamin Tucker, Lysander Spooner, and Franz Oppenheimer--than Stalin had to the red banner and the Internationale. The language of free market liberalism ought to burn their filthy mouths; by their very use of the term, they set themselves up as an abomination of desolation in the holy place.

Most importantly, one of the most effective weapons we have against corporate power and its intellectual mouthpieces is to demonize the neoliberals in terms of their own professed "free market values," and show them up for the corporate welfare parasites they really are.

There is, in fact, a considerable degree of mirror imaging between the mainstream right and left, when it comes to this understanding of free markets. The corporate economy and its court intellectuals have a vested interest in promoting the belief that big business got that way because of superior efficiency and other competitive virtue in the "free market." Big government liberals, on the other hand, have a parallel vested interest in pretending that the concentration of wealth and corporate power is the inevitable result of the normal market process, and the only way to stop it is to create a centralized government bureaucracy run by them.

Klein buys into the liberal side of this matrix reality when she regurgitates Art Schlesinger's goo-goo myth of the New Deal, referring to the Great Depression as a "market-created disaster" and the New Deal as "the end of laissez-faire." [p. 54]

A genuine laissez-faire economy would have produced something about as far from the state of affairs in 1929 as you could get. Absent the role of the state-promoted national railroad system in creating a centralized national market for firms operating on a national scale, absent the cartelizing effects of patents and tariffs, and absent the cartelizing effects of "Progressive" Era regulation, I would expect the American pattern of industrialization to have looked a lot more like something envisioned by Kropotkin and Lewis Mumford, and a lot less like something out of Schumpeter and Chandler.

Klein also buys into the Schlesingerite idea that American big business "grudgingly accepted" the New Deal. [p. 251] Big business didn't grudgingly accept the New Deal; it designed the New Deal. I strongly recommend G. William Domhoff's work (especially The Power Elite and the State and The Higher Circles) on the role of GE's Gerard Swope and the Business Advisory Council in formulating FDR's economic agenda. The blueprint they originally came out with, the NIRA, was a classic example of the kind of corporatist economy that Klein refers to elsewhere. It might have come from the desk of Hjalmar Schacht in Nazi Germany: it essentially organized every major industry into a state-authorized and state-protected cartel, with the avowed purpose of restricting production and keeping up prices. In other words, had it been allowed to stand it would have done, successfully, exactly what the great trusts at the turn of the century had tried and failed to do, by private means.

While acknowledging a legitimate role for markets, Klein calls for tempering "market fundamentalism" by such expedients as

requir[ing] corporations to pay decent wages, to respect the right of workers to form unions, and for governments to tax and redistribute wealth so that the sharp inequalities that mark the corporate state are reduced. [p. 20]

This implies that such "sharp inequalities" actually result from the unregulated market, and not from active state intervention on behalf of privileged capitalist elites. In fact our billionaire plutocracy and CEOs like Welch and Nardelli are not the products of a free market. They're turtles on fenceposts. In a genuine free market, organized around the principle of equal exchange and free from special privilege, the natural tendency is for prices to fall to production cost and for short-term entrepreneurial profits for innovative behavior to fall to zero as competitors enter the market and adopt new techniques. The only way to draw perpetual profits from innovation is to erect market barriers. R.A. Wilson made essentially this argument in The Illuminatus! Trilogy:

If you and I exchange equal goods, that is trade: neither of us profits and neither of us loses. But if we exchange unequal goods, one of us profits and the other loses. Mathematically. Certainly. Now, such mathematically unequal exchanges will always occur because some traders will be shrewder than others. But in total freedom—in anarchy— such unequal exchanges will be sporadic and irregular. A phenomenon of unpredictable periodicity, mathematically speaking. Now look about you, professor— raise your nose from your great books and survey the actual world as it is— and you will not observe such unpredictable functions. You will observe, instead, a mathematically smooth function, a steady profit accruing to one group and an equally steady loss accumulating for all others. Why is this, professor? Because the system is not free or random, any mathematician would tell you a priori. Well, then, where is the determining function, the factor that controls the other variables? You have named it yourself, or Mr. Adler has: the Great Tradition. Privilege, I prefer to call it. When A meets B in the marketplace, they do not bargain as equals. A bargains from a position of privilege; hence, he always profits and B always loses. There is no more Free Market here than there is on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Interestingly, an article in New Scientist observed that wealth among the richest 3% of the population followed a power law distribution described by Pareto: in layman's terms, "to him that hath, much shall be given." The distribution of wealth for everyone else, on the other hand, corresponded to the law that describes the spread of energies of atoms in a gas.

Klein also takes at face value the corporate liberal rhetoric used to sell the IMF and World Bank in the 1940s [p. 162]--when, as pointed out by Gabriel Kolko in The Politics of War, their actual purpose was to subsidize the disposal of surplus American goods and capital in foreign markets. The World Bank and IMF were created as an adjunct of William Appleman Williams' "Open Door Imperialism," a safety valve for the chronic overproduction and overaccumulation under state capitalism.

Klein sees the spread of anti-Washington and anti-neoliberal regimes, especially in Latin America, as a sign of hope; this is the subject of her conclusion, appropriately titled "Shock Wears Off." The usual suspects at Cato, predictably, have turned Chavez and Morales as whipping boys. But the economic model pursued by the "Bolivarian revolution" is arguably no more statist than that of the Washington consensus. The land policy of Chavez and Morales, and of the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, is far more legitimate from a free market standpoint than the Catoids' instinctive sympathy for the latifundistas. And Chavez's nationalizations and his subsidies to the cooperatives are no more statist than the policies pursued under the Washington consensus; they're just statist in a different direction. Frankly, when a former ruling class starts tasting a bit of the repressive medicine it was formerly accustomed to spooning out, it's hard for me to work up too much moral outrage.

The Catoid reaction to Chavez is fairly typical of vulgar libertarianism: corporate welfare and special protections for the rich are kinda sorta bad, in principle, maybe, I guess, and we oughta possibly, maybe, get around to writing a position paper on it someday... But welfare and protections for the poor and for aid to cooperative enterprise, now--they're flaming red ruin on wheels! A Pinochet who terrorizes unions and transfers land from the peasants to the oligarchy, well, that's too bad, I guess, but you've gotta break a few eggs, and yada yada yada.... But a Chavez who uses a bit of muscle on Western-owned corporations--why that's an outrage!

The reaction among American elite circles to the authoritarianism of Yeltsin and that of Chavez, respectively, speaks volumes. Nothing Chavez has done yet has remotely approached the openly avowed "Pinochet option" taken by Yeltsin, and his use of tanks to shut down the Russian parliament. None of Chavez's nationalizations remotely approaches the sheer scale of looting that transferred state assets directly into the bank accounts of the oligarchs.

Like Klein, I also see Chavez and allied regimes as a net positive force. Until about a decade ago, the Washington Consensus was almost universally regarded as "the only game in town." Now these new regimes, as statist in many ways as they admittedly are, are presenting a fundamental challenge to the statist global order that corporate capital depends on. The Washington Consensus is no longer the only game in town. If we're going to have one superpower, it's better that it be restrained by another one.

I've argued in the past that one of the best things we could hope for would be a concerted repudiation of neoliberalism, by a large enough number of Third World countries that they couldn't be crushed by American invasion or covert action. I can imagine a substantial agenda of "libertarian socialist" policies to be pursued by such a coalition, that would be closer to genuine free market principles than anything festering in the bowels of the Heritage Foundation. For starters, genuine land reform: nullifying the feudal titles of the landed oligarchies, granting full and permanent title to those cultivating, and restoring the land stolen in recent decades to those evicted from it (or their descendants). For another, a model of privatization that turns state services into consumer cooperatives, and state industry into worker cooperatives. For yet another, absolute and total repudiation of so-called "intellectual property" [sic] accords. Such a Third World coalition might wield, as its doomsday weapon, the threat of a coordinated repudiation of debt and/or of the dollar as reserve currency, and call on a coalition of Eurasian nuclear powers to protect them from military attack.

I am no social democrat. I'm under no illusions about the central role of big business in formulating the New Deal. I don't like statism of any kind. In my opinion, New Deal liberalism and the Reagan-Thatcher model of neoliberalism are like two farmers. The first farmer thinks he can get more work out of his livestock, in the long run, if he feeds them well and gives them comfortable shelter and sufficient rest. The second farmer thinks he can get more work out of them if he works them to death and then replaces them. There's no question that both "farmers" view us as "livestock," and that their prime concern is with their own profit. But I know which farm I'd rather live on.

Quite frankly, if my only choices are corporate liberalism and social democracy, and a banana republic on the neoliberal model, I'll take the former any day. If I get to choose between the paternalism of Brave New World and the jackboot in my face of 1984, it won't take me long to decide. I'm not ashamed to say that if my only choices are the welfare statist and neoliberal versions of statism, I'll take the kind of statism whose yoke weighs less heavily on my own back.

But my hope is that the social democratic statism of the Chavez-Morales bloc in the Third World, aligned with the European variant of mixed capitalism, will serve as an effective counterbalance against the neoliberal world order, and provide enough breathing room that both systems will be open to genuine libertarian change. My hope is that Chavez's aid to cooperatives and the solidarity economy, when all is said and done, will even out the previous statism in the other direction, and leave in place a decentralized and cooperative economy that will be able to survive on a stable basis when the oil subsidies are withdrawn and Chavez is long gone. My hope, above all, is that, as the two world power blocs fight each other to a standstill, we--the working people in both blocs--can build a genuine alternative from the ground up, in the interstices of both systems. We can build an economic order based on self-governing neighborhoods, cooperatives, LETS systems, peer production, mutual aid associations, human-scale technology, community-supported agriculture, and the informal and household economies, linking all those facets together into a coherent counter-system, that will be ready to replace the corporate economy in the one sphere and the bureaucratic state in the other when the two systems of power reach their limits. We can, in short, build the foundation of the new society within the shell of the old.

Finally: I must stipulate that I regard Klein's symbolic identification of economic shock treatment with the literal electroshocks used by CIA interrogators and Third World secret police as quite forced. Nevertheless, her chapter on the history of the American role in refining and promoting torture, from the development of the techniques in MK Ultra, through their promotion by the Green Berets and SOA in an endless series of atrocities, to the use of the very same techniques against Jose Padilla and the detainees at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, is a brilliant work of research in its own right. For any serious student of the subject, the chapter alone is worth the price of the book.

Piece on the IWCA

As Respect implodes into civil war between its pro-George Galloway and pro-SWP factions (one needs a heart of stone not to laugh), other more deserving of success currents on "the left" will, hopefully, get their chance. One I would like to see get somewhere is the Independent Working Class Association, who I've mentioned before in this blog. The article below I found on their website. I was encouraged that they are prepared to work with the Greens, as I see both parties having a role to play when (not if!) a new realignment of progressive political forces takes place here in the next years. I also noted the quote from a member of Oxford Trades Council on the IWCA:

‘They are not very visible. They don’t come to any trades council meetings. They have a crappy newsletter and haven’t stood up for normal socialist things.’

Perhaps that's the reason the IWCA might get somewhere!

However, with no further ado...

‘Take note of the IWCA’, 2 November 2007
An interesting analysis of the IWCA from independent radical left magazine Red Pepper.

A class act in Oxford: A small left party, pro-working class and anti-multiculturalism, has been winning council seats on Britain’s largest council estate. Zoe Jewell reports.

A giant cheque for £15,000 is proudly propped up against the wall of the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) councillors’ office at the Oxford City Council town hall. It is a prized libel payment from the Oxford East Labour Party after Labour posted defamatory leaflets to residents in last year’s election campaign. Under the headline ‘Watch out for extremist group’, Bill Baker – Labour’s deputy city council leader – claimed that the IWCA had links to Irish Republicans and violent extremists.

In the otherwise bare office, Stuart Craft and Clare Kent, two of the four IWCA councillors on Oxford City Council, still talk about it now with disbelief. ‘We’ve been called vigilantes, racists, fascists, communist boot boys, everything you could think of,’ says Craft.

The IWCA is a political party that mixes community campaigning with traditional class politics – an interesting combination of far-left ideology and Liberal Focus Team pavement pounding. The white working class, ridiculed as ‘chavs’ by a self-satisfied, middle-class media and whose voice has been largely lost from mainstream politics, need representation – and on a council estate in Oxford, they are getting it.

The IWCA work on the issues that concern local people most –particularly drugs, anti-social behaviour, housing and youth provision. Their innovative answer to anti-social behaviour is community restorative justice, a programme that uses local volunteers to resolve conflict and prevent low-level crime, particularly in areas where the police have lost trust.

They believe youth provision is key to preventing anti-social behaviour. In Oxford, the IWCA councillors have campaigned especially hard against budget cuts to children’s play areas and had motions passed to ensure that money saved from cuts in youth provision is still channelled into the most socially deprived areas.


Stuart Craft describes the IWCA as ‘a national party with just four local councillors’. But these four Oxford councillors have had considerable impact and illustrate the potential for a leftist version of community politics with an electoral expression. Craft, the leader of the IWCA councillors, was the first to be elected in 2002, [and] was joined two years later by Clare Kent and Lee Cole, and in 2006 by Jane Lacey.

They all represent wards in Blackbird Leys, one of the largest and most socially
depressed council estates in Europe, and the neighbouring estate, Churchill. It is an impressive breakthrough for a party that had no candidates in Oxford before the 2002 election.

According to Craft, what changed in 2002 was merely that ‘a genuine pro-working class party stood. People had the choice. There was nobody representing the working class anymore. If you’re in an area like Blackbird Leys and you see the whole place going to rack and ruin and it’s a result of the action of the political parties, then either you can sit back and be an armchair critic or you can try to do something about it.’ And that’s just what Craft did. He insists that he is merely the leader of a collective party, but his undiluted class politics clearly bolstered the IWCA when he won his seat in 2002.

Craft came to the IWCA from Anti-Fascist Action, but the other three councillors have no organised political background – left or right – whatsoever. The softly spoken Clare Kent explains what inspired her to get involved.

‘I was always a Labour voter up until my children started haranguing me in 2000 about them having nothing to do. So we did a petition. I was invited by the local MP, Andrew Smith, to join the tenants’ association and the area committees. I could not believe how our local Labour councillor would say one thing to the committee and then go and say another thing in the council. Anyway, I phoned up the MP, Andrew Smith, and said, “You’ve got to get rid of this councillor,” and he said, “Oh no, he’s a wonderful councillor.” That finished me with the Labour Party.

At the time, I didn’t know anything about the IWCA, but a friend of mine in Blackbird Leys said I should get in touch with Stuart Craft.’ After a short period of involvement, Kent stood as an IWCA council candidate and was elected. Highly localised and practical politics is what makes the IWCA so effective. ‘We do a lot more ward time on our estates than the other parties, because that’s our reason for existing. Attending council meetings is just the necessary evil really,’ explains Craft. Success in the wards is vital because, in the end, that is what will get them re-elected.

Yet the IWCA are highly principled. Their aim is securing a decent future for the people of their wards and it matters more than anything else to them. Clare Kent describes what she has achieved since 2004. ‘We’ve got play schemes running, the return of the youth club to the estate, and a sports centre is being built.’ But she is also well aware that there is still plenty to do.

Tackling drugs Stuart Craft talks earnestly about the continuing need to tackle drug
dealing on Blackbird Leys. ‘We’ve done everything from community patrols to picketing drug dealers’ doors alongside the residents. The local community centre bar was run by a couple who were harbouring drug dealers. Within months of us campaigning, we forced the closure of the bar and the crack house closed down.

Today, of course, there’s still drug dealing. We haven’t the power to affect national policies, and the drugs are going to be there until the government change their drugs strategy. All we can do is manage the problem.’

‘Recently, the police put out a press release stating that people in Blackbird Leys have said that the quality of life has gone up and they don’t perceive crime as a big problem anymore,’ Craft continues. ‘We attribute that to being directly linked to our efforts.’ The isolation of drug dealers by the community is one of the IWCA policy objectives on drugs.

The IWCA supports the decriminalisation of cannabis, but says that managing the problems of drug use is also of paramount importance. Its manifesto lists among its policy objectives ‘the proper provision of locally based detox centres, the establishment of a social contract with users for the proper disposal of needles, and GPs to be allowed to prescribe heroin in order to administer dosages safely’.

But the IWCA has no real national profile. They aren’t seen on London demos carrying banners and placards – something that most left parties regard as important. Instead they concentrate on their successes in Oxford, seeking to turn them into successes elsewhere.

There have been the signs of a breakthrough in other areas. In Bunhill, a socially deprived ward in Islington, the IWCA claimed 22 per cent of the vote. In May, they contested an election in Thurrock, where the BNP is also looking to win protest votes. Dave Amis, who stood in Thurrock, is upbeat about the vote they achieved, although they only contested one out of the 16 wards and gained 7 per cent. ‘It was the first time round, so quite hard work, but we got a very good base.’

Stuart Craft believes that ‘with a standing start, the IWCA could beat the BNP in working-class areas every time.’ If they could, this would be a significant reversal for the BNP, but as yet neither the IWCA nor the other larger parties to the left of Labour are seriously competing against the BNP at the ballot box.

Against multiculturalism

In defeating the BNP in council elections, Craft identifies the issue of multiculturalism as central. In diverse communities like Thurrock and Blackbird Leys, this would appear the obvious alternative and positive policy. But the IWCA controversially does not take the traditional left position. Instead it argues that any initiatives that privilege one religious or ethnic group over another are unfair and divide the working class.

In Oxford, Labour has branded the IWCA as racist. Craft vehemently denies this and instead claims, ‘I think we’re the only anti-racist organisation on this council.’ This notion is evident in the IWCA manifesto too, which argues that ‘the state funding of social projects purely on the grounds of race can only foster an ‘us and them’ scenario, with the result that instead of being united by anti-racism, the working class can just as easily be divided by it.’

When Craft first became a councillor, he proposed a motion against multicultural youth facility programmes, which he claimed benefited one group above another. ‘The limited resources we’ve got should be spent on facilities that are open to all and nobody should be barred for the colour of their skin. The council didn’t even debate the motion. It’s amazing. Everybody was against it, but nobody could actually explain why.’

Clare Kent adds, ‘On my estate all the young people are talking about this issue and people wonder why we’ve got a British National Party! Nobody’s willing to address this issue.’ Craft is equally incredulous. ‘It’s hardly rocket science, but in the council chamber when we raise this it’s like we’ve come from another planet.

The IWCA and the left

Craft is convinced that the ICWA’s approach will win it votes over the BNP. And he is scathing about other left parties. ‘We see the white working class as our constituency, though not just the white working class. The rest of the left see the white working class as the BNP’s constituency. I think the left drive working-class people into the arms of the fascists, whereas we’re there to coax people the other way.’

For a party that has recorded such a success in Oxford, with the same number of councillors as the far larger Socialist Party and not so many less than George Galloway’s Respect, the rest of the left does seem to wilfully ignore the IWCA.

Pete McClaren, of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, admits he knows very little about the IWCA. ‘We have worked with them a bit, but they’re not forthcoming and don’t tend to advertise themselves. They are a bit of a mystery to me.’ Sue Tibbles, a member of the Oxford trades council, is similarly dismissive. ‘They are not very visible. They don’t come to any trades council meetings. They have a crappy newsletter and haven’t stood up for normal socialist things.’

The Oxford IWCA and the local Green Party have had a prickly relationship during their five years on the council together, with the Greens holding eight seats in wards very different demographically to the council estates of Blackbird Leys and Churchill. Matt Sellwood, Oxford Green councillor, admits their tensions were ‘mostly around class. The IWCA assumed that all Greens were middle class and therefore untrustworthy, but now they have come to understand that when we take a progressive stand, we tend to mean it.’

Stuart Craft agrees. ‘The Greens are the only party that are motivated for the right reasons. I’d say, whether we agree with them or not on a policy, they are genuine people and they’re in it because they want to change things.’ The two parties worked together recently on a council motion supporting striking postal workers, but they have nothing like a coalition.

It’s not so much that the IWCA are localists. What really marks them out is that they have given up on the rest of the left. The IWCA was originally founded in 1995 by Red Action, a splinter group from the SWP, but after ten years they have founded their own political positions and style of organisation largely divorced from this background. Craft describes the journey:

‘The Left might turn up on a demonstration, go home and then do nothing for six months. We don’t dance to that leftist tune anymore. We set our own agenda and if we decide that a demonstration we’re holding that day against a prolific drug dealer on the estate is more important than turning up on some march organised in London then that’s our business, isn’t it? I’ve never apologised for that.

‘We don’t really recognise the term left anymore, because looking around I don’t see any of the people that profess to be left or socialist as actually pro-working class. I think it wouldn’t be very clever to hitch up in the short term with a load of groups that don’t actually stand for the working class just to boost our numbers. We’d rather grow slowly, picking up decent members, genuine people.’

It’s a politics of the long haul, which will only work if they can turn small successes into bigger ones. There’s a fierce pride among IWCA members in what they’ve achieved so far on Blackbird Leys, with meagre
resources and absolute commitment.

The terrain of British politics isn’t about to be shaken by an IWCA earthquake, but the IWCA’s success in Oxford at least deserves serious comparison with the relative lack of success by much bigger left challenges to Labour from Respect and the Socialist Party. As the Westminster parties cluster ever closer together, there’s a rumble in the margins from left and right, which has all the signs of getting louder and more troublesome. Take note of the IWCA – it is as good a place as any to start thinking about possible outcomes.

Original article at: