Archive | January, 2015

Greece will be obliterated

24 Jan

It will be very interesting to see the international financial and political reaction if Syriza – the left wing party – win the election in Greece. One of the lessons of the financial crisis that started in 2008 has been the incompatibility of democracy and hyper mobile late capitalism. As western governments and international financial institutions have attempted to ‘correct’ the economic crisis over the past few years we have seen repeated instances of the overriding of popular sovereignty by the sovereignty of capital.

Only in Iceland did people power work. In other places, democratically elected governments sided with international financial institutions rather than with their people. Any notion of responsibility to protect people from the predations of the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund or private banking corporations was ditched. The government of Cyprus raided the bank accounts of its citizens. Governments in Ireland, Portugal and Spain bowed to pressure from the ‘troika’ (IMF, ECB and European Commission). In Ireland, the troika insisted that the government lifted a ban on home repossessions. The troika approves budgets, tells governments how much they can spend on health care and education, and is not open to scrutiny itself. In no state has there been serious scrutiny of, let alone sanction against, banks – or the regulatory authorities and political parties that facilitated them running up unsustainable debts.

Instead, private debt has been nationalised, with the burden passed to the taxpayer and the strategy out of the economic crisis seems to be based on yet more borrowing. Popular and national sovereignty has been no match for the demands of banking corporations and the commitment of governments to maintaining an unsustainable capitalist system.

If, as expected, Greece does vote for Syriza, and if – as promised – Syriza tears up agreements with creditors – then all hell will break loose. Western powers (states and capitalist interests) simply do not tolerate dissent – even if it is democratic dissent. Look at the case of Gaza. The people there were repeatedly lectured on the need to embrace democracy. So they did – and promptly elected Hamas into government. The west reacted with fury, has refused to recognise the government, and has punished the people of Gaza with sanctions ever since. Greece can expect sanctions too. They will come in very many forms – threats, freezing and confiscation of assets, expulsion from a series of economic ‘clubs’, exclusion from sources of credit, and additional financial restrictions. That the actions its government takes are the result of democracy will be immaterial.

The people of Greece will be lectured repeatedly on the need to conform, to act ‘responsibly’. But they have been treated with utter contempt for the past five years. They have seen unemployment rocket, taxes increase, unemployment spiral and the state abandon any pretence of social responsibility to its citizens. Most people in Greece have little to lose. International capital has behaved disgracefully towards them and has been content to see them humiliated. Hopefully a new Greek government will treat the troika with equal contempt and inspire citizens in other economically beleaguered states to stand up to craven political parties that prioritise dancing to capitalism’s tune rather than to that of democracy.

There will be interesting days and weeks ahead should Syriza form a government, and should it pursue radical policies. Capitalism does not tolerate democracy or radicalism and so I really fear for the Greek people. They will be made to suffer even more.

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Blunt Sanctions

23 Jan

I have been on a very quick research trip to Khartoum. One of the things that was apparent was the utterly blunt nature of the sanctions imposed by the United States. Talk of ‘smart’ or ‘targeted’ sanctions is nonsense. The sanctions impact on a wide range of people who are not key figures in the Sudanese government. What is more, the sanctions are counterproductive in that they provide a useful mobilisation tool for the government around the message of the unfairness of the sanctions and the perfidy of the United States.

US sanctions against Sudan date from 1997 when it was accused of being a state sponsor of terrorism. These sanctions, which include an arms embargo and financial restrictions, have been modified (and somewhat eased) over the years. In 2004, amid the Darfur conflict, the UN introduced an arms embargo. It is the US financial restrictions that have the real bite beyond the Sudanese government. Because international finance houses (banks, credit card companies, travel companies) are afraid that they US will penalise them for trading with Sudan, they simply do not do business in or with Sudan. These sanctions are an irritant to many people who see them as unnecessarily punishing a broad section of people.

A few examples:

– Western credit cards do not work in Sudan. That means one must have an Arab bank account or use cash: difficult for travellers. It also means that a lot of online purchases are impossible.
– Many drop-down boxes on online menus do not include Sudan as a country of origin. This means that it is difficult to access the latest software for phones or tablets or make online purchases (e.g., air tickets).
– Sudanese students who wish to study in the UK have great difficulty opening a bank account. Because UK banks have extensive links with the US, they do not want to fall foul of US sanctions (and the hefty fine that accompanies this) and so it is easier to leave Sudanese students without any banking services.

Those Sudanese who are well-connected with the government are well-placed to circumvent the sanctions. Many have dual nationality and overseas bank accounts. They are OK. It is others, who hold a plurality of opinions that could be very useful for Sudan’s future political development, who suffer most. And because of the irritation factor they share the Sudanese government’s bitterness towards the US. If the sanctions made life utterly impossible then people might turn against the government. Instead, it is just an irritation that is easier to blame on the US than embark on widespread opposition to the Omar al-Bashir government.

The sanctions seem illogical or inconsistent. There are lots of US products around (from Hersheys chocolate to Caterpiller diggers). Western firms make sure that their products can be bought (for example, JCB – a digger maker and a large donor to the UK Conservative Party is a prominent advertiser across Khartoum). The US and Sudan do have diplomatic relations, although the US has not appointed an ambassador for many years.

Hersheys for sale in the Khartoum shop.

Hersheys for sale in the Khartoum shop.

We live in an era of very sophisticated financial instruments. Yet many Sudanese are subject to very blunt sanctions that are unproductive. They are a mobilisation gift to the government. One would be looking to the Sudanese middle class to engender diversity and a plurality of opinion that could be progressive for Sudan in term so of relations between peoples in the country. Yet, this constituency is clobbered by sanctions.

Are we really the pen?

8 Jan

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack the symbolism of the pen and the pencil has been used as a sign of protest and revulsion. People have been holding them aloft at rallies, and social media is full of images of the pen versus the Kalashnikov. The point is simple and well meant: the pen is mightier than the sword; reasoned argument is better than violence; culture and civilisation will triumph over barbarity.

It is worth asking though: Are we really the pen? Can we really look at our own societies and equate them with literate sophistication, reason and rationality? While comforting, I am certain that the simple binary of the pen versus the sword (the cartoonist’s pencil versus the Kalashnikov) is inaccurate. The message behind this is that ‘our’ societies are civilised and sophisticated and theirs is not. Are we really all about the arts, reasoned argument, back and forth, culture and witty repartee in the face of the ‘uncivilised savages’ that mount attacks in the west? Are they really completely without reason?

These binaries just do not work. All of our societies are much more complex. The us/them, pen/gun narrative gives us comfort but it also means that we do not have to look at ourselves too closely. Can we really overlook how our societies organise themselves? How they are armed? How violence by drone in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere has been normalised? This is not a matter of pens and swords. It is a matter of ‘pen-swords’, or implements that have a pen at one end and a sword at the other. It is just at the moment we prefer to look at the pen.

None of this is to justify, in any way, the gruesome attack on Charlie Hebdo nor give comfort to anyone who uses violence in the name of religion. The blame for these attacks lies squarely with the perpetrators. But we can also use these dreadful events to take a cold, hard look at ourselves.

Welcome to Britain in 2015. The Minister of the Environment denies that climate change is linked to human activity. The Minister for Health outlaws abortion. The Minister of Education decrees that creationism (that the world was made in seven days) is taught in all primary schools.

5 Jan

You might think that this is some sort of weird fantasy. But there is a possibility – after the May 2015 UK general election – that the Democratic Unionist Party (a Northern Ireland group of hard-line social conservatives) goes into coalition government with the Conservative Party.

There has been much commentary and speculation on the forthcoming UK General Election and the likelihood that either of the two main parties – Labour and the Conservatives – will be unable to form a majority. Much of the commentary has been on possible coalition partners and the deal they would extract in exchange for keeping a government in power. Commentators have mainly focused on two scenarios. In the first, the United Kingdom Independence Party – a Eurosceptic group of Britain-firsters – would form an alliance with the Conservatives. In return the Conservatives would hold a referendum on the UK’s exit from the EU. But since Prime Minister Cameron has already said he would hold such a referendum, he would have to give something more to appease UKIP – possibly just a straight exit.

The second scenario that has been mooted in the media has been the Scottish Nationalist Party holding the balance of power and extracting promises linked to their independent Scotland agenda. The SNP are on something of a roll, having marshalled an amazing 45 per cent of Scottish voters into voting to leave the UK in the September 2014 referendum. The SNP is widely expected to make serious gains in the Westminster election at the expense of a Labour Party that is seen as remote and London-orientated. So, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the SNP could hold the balance of power in the UK after the May 2015 general election.

But let me introduce a third scenario – one that is rarely discussed in the UK media: a Conservative-Democratic Unionist Party coalition. The DUP are Northern Ireland’s largest political party and currently have eight seats. They will probably gain a few more seats in the general election. If the election is as close as many commentators believe, then it could be that just a small number of additional seats are required to allow one of the main parties into power. The Conservatives are the natural bedfellows of the DUP: right wing, unionist, unsympathetic to the state as a provider of welfare, Eurosceptic …

So what would a Conservative-DUP coalition look like? Well, the Conservatives have been steadily shifting to the right over the past few years. In part, has been as part of an attempt to outflank UKIP. It is also a reflection of candidate selection of right-wingers – essentially Thatcher’s children who believe in rolling back the welfare state, killing off the National Health Service, and allowing their friends in the City of London to exploit a low-wage economy. So the Conservatives are a known quantity.

The DUP, however, deserve scrutiny. They are well known in Northern Ireland but with the peace process largely out of the headlines, many people in the UK know little about them. They were founded by the Reverend Ian Paisley, boycotted the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, and now their leader – Peter Robinson – is the First Minister of Northern Ireland’s powersharing Assembly.

Rather than give a political history of the DUP it is probably best just to highlight a few beliefs of their representatives. Then leave it to your imagination to think through the possibilities if these people were in power in the UK:

– The DUP Mayor of Ballymena said that Hurricane Katrina in the American South was an act by God to prevent a gay parade that was due to take place in New Orleans two days after the hurricane struck. He also blamed AIDS on the ‘filthy practice of sodomy’.

– A senior DUP member, Sammy Wilson, regards climate change debates as ‘a con’ and ‘uninformed hysteria’. He is sceptical that humans are responsible for climate change. Mr Wilson is an MP in the Westminster Parliament and a Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

– Iris Robinson, the wife of the DUP leader and herself a former MP, believes that homosexuality is worse than child abuse. She was quoted as saying: ‘There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children.”

– First Minister Peter Robinson was forced to make a bizarre apology when he defended a Belfast Pastor who called Islam ‘heathen’ and ‘satanic’. As part of his apology, Mr Robinson said that he would trust Muslims to ‘go to the shops for him’.

Presumably the real concessions that the DUP would seek to extract would be related to their Northern Ireland agenda. The vast majority of citizens in the UK would not care about this so the DUP would be able to extract a hefty price in terms of their agenda over parades, policing and the administration of justice. But the real fun would start when a Conservative-DUP coalition was faced with issues of conscience, sexuality, morality and medical ethics. Many DUP members are firmly rooted in the seventeenth century in terms of their social outlook. Would the Conservatives be prepared to enter into such a bargain to get their hands on power? The answer, I suspect, would be yes.