Breaking the Frame gathering and discussion - May 2nd to 5th

By Rhian

16 April 2014

Are you concerned about:

 

 

 

 

 

The Breaking the Frame gathering (www.breakingtheframe.org.uk) on May 2nd to 5th, near Sheffield, is about these and other issues in the politics of technology. Many technologies bring genuine benefits, but at the moment the development of technology is almost entirely controlled by elites, so it tends to serve their interests and destroy the environment. What would democratic control of technology look like?

The gathering aims to bring together people interested in creating a network to campaign on the politics of technology. We want technology that serves real human needs not corporate profits. We think it’s time to get a grip on technology!

Come along in May for three days of workshops, discussions and campaign planning around the politics of technology in general and on specific technologies, such as nuclear energy, geoengineering, GM food, automation at work and data mining.

Key speakers include: Jerry Mander (International Forum on Globalisation), Simon Fairlie (The Land Magazine), Hilary Wainwright (Red Pepper), Theo Simon (Stop Hinkley), Danny Chivers (No Dash for Gas), Helena Paul, (Econexus).

There will be camping, art, music, poetry, food by Veggies, walks, demonstrations of crafts, tours of the organic garden and more.

Places are limited, so you’ll need to book in advance. We aim to ensure that no-one is excluded for reasons of cost. To book,visit www.breakingtheframe.org.uk. For more information: luddites200@yahoo.co.uk, @framebreaking, or call (020) 7426 0005.

Organised by Luddites200, Corporate Watch, Scientists for Global Responsibility and supported by many other organisations.

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Wanted: New New Left Project editors

By Alice

09 April 2014

New Left Project will be launching a re-design this Spring. As part of this, as well as an on-going commitment to broadening our editorial expertise, we are looking to recruit at least two new editors.

Please note this is not a paid post. We are all volunteers, so you would be doing this for other reasons. Current NLP editors enjoy the feeling of teamwork, the space to pursue ideas and write, and the chance to contribute to maintaining an area of the web for serious, non-commercial left media.

As editor, you would participate in all the activities of the collective: shaping editorial strategy, running the site, and contributing a few pieces a month (which you might write yourself or commission from others). It takes work, but we tend to find we can fit it easily around our lives.

We'd run a three month trial period, during which you'll be assigned a mentor from the current editorial team to help you learn the ropes, then we can all decide if it's been a good fit.

We are especially keen to hear from people with an interest in climate change, immigration, UK political economy, reporting activism, education, the EU or health.

If you are interested, email submissions@newleftproject.org before the end of April with links to:

(a) A piece of writing by you, which you are proud of.
(b) A piece of writing by someone else, which you enjoyed reading.
(c) An idea for a piece you'd like to see commissioned on NLP.

In each case, please give us a few sentences saying why you picked it, and also give us a few hundred words saying why you are interested in joining NLP.

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Corporates carve up the African cake

By Alice

03 April 2014

A guest post from Stanley Ellerby-English.

This week World Development Movement activists, dressed as representatives of some of the world's largest food and drink companies, delivered an Africa shaped thank-you cake to the Department for International Development (DfID). This tongue-in-cheek action highlights the support that DfID is giving to the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, the stated aim of which is to lift 50 million people out of poverty and improve food security.

"Sounds great", I hear you say. "WDM has clearly made some kind of mistake; these folks are just doing their best to tackle hunger". Well, if you're on WDM’s website you're probably not saying that, but many people might think so. So what’s this all about?

The New Alliance sees ten African countries making commitments to change their land, seed and trade policies to encourage greater agricultural investment, in return for aid money and commitments from major companies to expand their businesses. Unfortunately, this is likely to do little to support the small-scale farmers who feed the majority of the African population – and instead, looks set to exacerbate poverty and inequality.

Despite their supposed goals, policies being adopted by African governments that have joined the New Alliance have been largely aimed at integrating African farmers more directly to international markets. This is good for multinational companies which are set to sell more of their products, and can source raw materials from a larger number of producers. But it’s not a recipe for reducing hunger and poverty.

The New Alliance’s focus on profits rather than poverty reduction is apparent from the list of African countries that are currently being targeted by the scheme. Only one is ranked amongst the continent's worst affected by hunger, so this scheme certainly isn’t aimed at tackling hunger where it is most needed. However, most of the countries are coastal, which allows them to be easily incorporated into global trade routes, and this is exactly what is happening.

Investment – both from rich country governments and companies - is mainly focused on production for distant markets and improving the infrastructure that is needed to move agricultural products out of these African countries, rather than supplying local markets. So, instead of improving local road networks money is spent on railways and roads to new and improved ports.

The major beneficiaries are the New Alliance’s corporate partners. Not only are they gifted the infrastructure to reap greater profits from agriculture in Africa, but they are also provided with a regulatory environment that allows them even greater control over the industry – for example by restricting farmers ability to save and exchange seeds suited to the local environment and allowing companies to prevent others from reproducing seeds they have bred.

African farmers groups and campaigners have rejected the New Alliance. Instead they are calling for food sovereignty, a return of control over food production to the people who rely on it for their lives and livelihoods. African small-scale producers currently make 85 per cent of the investment of agriculture, and appropriate public investment would support this. But the set-up of the New Alliance means it can’t deliver this, so WDM will continue to put pressure on them withdraw their support and shift UK aid towards building food sovereignty.

The cake is just the start. Keep your eyes peeled for how the campaign develops.

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C Wright Mills on Capitalist Realism

By Tom

03 April 2014

The silent conservatives of corporation, army and state have benefited politically and economically and militarily by the antics of the petty right, who have become, often unwittingly, their political shocktroops. [....] [W]ith radicalism deflated and radical hope stoned to death by thirty years of defeat—the political intellectuals have been embraced by the conservative mood. Among them there is no demand and no dissent, and no opposition to the monstrous decisions that are being made without deep or widespread debate, in fact with no debate at all. There is no opposition to the undemocratically impudent manner in which policies of high military and civilian authority are simply turned out as facts accomplished. There is no opposition to public mindlessness in all its forms nor to all those forces and men that would further it.

[...]

[P]owerful decisions and important policies are not made in such a way as to be justified and attacked, in short, debated in any intellectual form. Moreover, the attempt to so justify them is often not even made. Public relations displace reasoned argument; manipulation and undebated decisions of power replace democratic authority. More and more, as administration has replaced politics, decisions of importance do not carry even the panoply of reasonable discussion in public...[1]

If that’s put you in the mood for a bit more Mills, why not have a read of our series The Power Elite Revisited



[1] Summers, John H., ed. The politics of truth: selected writings of C. Wright Mills. Oxford University Press, 2008, pp.127-128, 132.

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Drilling for fossil fuels at UCL

By Alice

02 April 2014

I spent yesterday evening listening to Christof Rühl, Group Chief Economist and Vice President of BP PLC give the first joint public lecture of UCL's Energy Institute and their Institute for Sustainable Resources.

He was outlining the BP Energy Outlook data. It is a useful briefing for energy researchers, and quite normal an event for institutes like that to hold. But they made a big deal about him, doing the crawling academic thing of saying how wonderful he was. And they didn't need to do that. And they held in the lecture theatre at the Institute of Child Health. Considering climate change is a pretty large threat to the health of any child, when he used that stage to say that he was an agnostic about climate change, I felt a bit sick. Or I at least expected the experts at UCL to give him a harder time.

But there were these banners outside. And this excellent question from the UCL Fossil Free group:

Professor Ekins said you were a “braver man than him” and I’d like to follow up on that. You come here, with a straight face, telling us that this is the future, when it isn’t some impersonal economic force making this climate crisis happen, it’s you, BP. You are telling us that we are facing climate catastrophe, which will hit the poorest hardest, and will hit those not yet living, with no responsibility for this hardest. At the same time, it is you who has major responsibility for this, producing a significant percentage of global carbon emissions. I have one, simple question for you: “how do you sleep at night?”

This question got a round of applause. Rühl's answer "I sleep very well" didn't. And that gave me some hope for the space for change.

If you are interested in the role of UK universities in helping sustain, supply and legitmize the oil and gas industry, I can reccomend the recent Platform/ People and Planet report, Knowledge and Power. There is also an excellent feature in London Student last month on the Institute for Sustainable Resources which co-hosted that event and, in particular, UCL staff's discomfort with their relationship with the mining company, BHP Billiton.

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Yes, plants like CO2. But the public need better coverage of climate change

By Alice

31 March 2014

"Plants like CO2" - a new high for the Today Programme's coverage of climate change was reached this morning.

Back in the real world, there's a new UN report out on the impacts of climate change. The short version is climate change is happening, it's not good and it is inexorably linked to global inequality, but it is not too late to take action.

You can read full coverage elsewhere on the BBC (the online report is very good) or the Guardian, Responding to Climate Change, Channel Four or a host of other places. The Greenpeace Energy Desk five minute guide is especially clear and there is an excellent 'top ten environmental injustices' briefing from Friends of the Earth. There was also a powerful editorial in the BMJ last week. At time of writing, global interest in the report seems to have crashed the IPCC site but, if you want to read the full summary for policy makers yourself, there is a copy here.

Even if this isn't news to those who follow the issue, the report offers a summary of best scientific advice and acts as an important reminder that this is still happening, no matter how much we try to ignore it. It is a chance for people, globally, to collectively stop and think, and ask our leaders why they aren't doing more. It is worth remembering that this report was ordered by global governments and undertaken by their scientists. We should expect them to take ownership of it and act on its recommendations seriously. Heads of State have to make it a personal priority to solve the climate crisis.

As EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard put it: "When the alarm goes off, many just hit the snooze button. This does not work anymore when it comes to climate."

For me, a point that really comes out from the report is that people may well talk about the various "benefits" or business opportunities involved in a changing climate, but the overlap with global inequality and the severity of the threats means that anyone peddling that line just look like a massive cock. In some ways they are worse than the sceptics. I am haunted by talk from a scientist I saw a few years ago where he glumly outlined how climate change was happening, how it would get worse, and that as he saw it, poor people would suffer and rich people would just watch. I don't agree we should be that defeatist, but that's an expert projection of a possible future there for us to sleepwalk into if we choose it.

I also find it depressing that UK chief scientific advisor Mark Walport ends his statement on the report with a line about the "important opportunities for sustainable growth and prosperity" action on climate change offers. I think it says a lot about the sort of political context Walport finds himself in, where this is the sort of language he has to apply. Maybe one day scientists will be able to speak the language of compassion, not business, when briefing politicians will get the last word in scientific advice to policy, rather than business.

I think this latest report is an important step in the sort of action on climate change we need. Now we need politicians to listen and take real action and journalists to offer clear coverage which askes pertinent questions. And if our politicians and media don't speak the right language on this, we should demand they change.

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Want to Define Democracy? Let’s Start by Remembering the Remembrancer

By Chitra

27 March 2014

This is a guest post by Maya Goodfellow.

Democracy is the only system that persists in asking the powers that be whether they are the powers that ought to be’ - Sidney J Harris

On a cold, rainy Saturday at the start of this year, I spent my afternoon, along with forty strangers, learning about one of the most influential places in British politics. But before you are start conjuring up images of the grandiose Houses of Parliament, where MPs gather to ostensibly cast votes on behalf of their constituents, let me paint you an altogether different picture of our democracy.

In fact, I spent this grey January afternoon 1.9 miles away from Westminster, discovering an area many Londoners will have often walked through without realising its significance to our democratic system: the City of London.

Encompassing St Paul’s, Barbican and bordering Tower Hamlets, which has the highest rate of children poverty of all the London boroughs, it is a place of finance and big business. Courtesy of Occupy Tours, I explored the 1.2 square miles of this influential district. Beginning on the steps of St Paul's, we walked from the Bank of England to RBS, stopping by Deutsche Bank on the way, our tour guides took us to some of the world’s most famous financial institutions whose reckless actions were the impetus for the Occupy movement. And in this one afternoon I learnt that Britain isn’t the democratic country we believe it to be.

In the UK, our understanding of our democracy is a clearly defined one. Democracy is a word that’s often used to endorse our country as a ‘civilised’. When it’s uttered, many take its presence in the conversation as a cue to comfortably sit back and assume that the democratic process will solve all of society’s ills.

The reason for this lies in the meaning of the word itself. Tracing ‘democracy’ back to its linguistic roots we find that demos, meaning "people", paired with kratos "power” comes to literally mean power for the people. Ultimately this means that democracy, as Sidney J Harris’ understanding of the concept reminds us, is a form of government where we as the ‘ordinary’ people (as we’re so often called by the political ‘elite’) can hold power to account.

But, while we’ve spent so much time declaring ourselves a democratic society, by which we use language to metaphorically pat ourselves on the back, we have missed a key trick.

As I learnt on that grey Saturday afternoon, “power” in the UK doesn’t really belong to us, the people, at least not in the way Harris suggested. Instead, looking through a Gramscian lens, at election time, when an ever-declining percentage of the population goes to the ballot box, they’re taking part in an elaborate hegemonic rearticulation. Or for those who aren’t fans of Gramsci, we think that through the democratic process we’re exercising our right to choose but in many ways, we’re not.

Some would say this is old news. In recent months, talking about how to improve our democracy is all the rage. Labour’s internal  reforms have attempted to take on the exclusivity of party politics. The media has continuously lambasted trade ‘union barons’ as undemocratic, calling for them to be stripped of what power they have left. Meanwhile David Cameron, looking over his shoulder at Nigel ‘self-appointed man of the people’ Farage, has attempted to appeal to a broader support base, rebranding the Conservatives as the ‘workers’ party’.

Yet, my trip through London’s financial district reminded me that the shortcomings of British democratic system aren’t solely those of political parties or false characterisations of trade unions as unnecessary. While they are splashed across the tabloids, we are being distracted from one of the fundamental causes of democratic deficit in the UK. Bubbling underneath the surface of current debates is a world of corporate finance and shady back deals. We hear rumblings of this, at times merely glimpsing the seismic effect they have on our lives. But we rarely ever see the beast in the full light of day. If we want to talk about democracy, we need to talk about the Remembrancer.

The Remembrancer isn’t a character that has stepped out of an episode of Dr Who. Rather, it’s a political position that has been around since 1571. As I found out on the Occupy tour, he (and it has always been a man) is the only non-MP or civil servant who occupies a seat in the Houses of Parliament. Planted directly opposite the Speaker of the House, the Remembrancer, at the moment former barrister, Paul Double, defends the rights of an Orwellian-sounding City of London Corporation. His role is to lobby on behalf of the Corporation and ensure British politics works in its favour.  Yet, despite the staying power of this position, the significant influence the individual who occupies this post has in our democratic house, and commendable campaigns by Avaaz and the Green Party, this influential player in British democracy remains underreported.

Similarly, there’s little mainstream discussion about the Corporation that the Remembrancer gains his power from. The Corporation controls the geographical area I saw while on the Occupy tour. The Occupy guides explained that  Corporation is the only governing body in the UK that operate beyond the control of Parliament. Fiona Wolf, the Lord Mayor, sits at the top of the Corporation and is afforded the rank of a senior cabinet minister . The body lobbies for the big business and banks that fall within its bounds, offering them protection from public accountability. They are extremely effective at what they do. The Corporation has managed to ‘carve itself out of many of the laws and regulations that apply to the rest of the United Kingdom’. And although many organisations in its borders were heavily implicated in the 2008 financial crash, they have emerged from the rubble virtually unscathed. Meanwhile the Corporation’s power and ability to protect these institutions isn’t showing any signs of waning.

The Corporation and the financial organisations under its jurisdiction remain closely intertwined with one another. This is reflected in the Corporation’s structures, because although democratic in process, its reality is rather different. Residential inhabitants can only vote in elections in a mere four of the twenty five wards under its jurisdiction. In the rest, the vote falls to corporations. Their vote is weighted in terms of the number of employees they employ but ‘it's not the workers who decide how the votes are cast, but the bosses, who "appoint" the voters’. This means you have corporations like Goldman Sachs ‘voting in a British election’. The Corporation relies on an old-boys network to promote members through its labyrinthine form of government. We can only assume it is designed in this way to make it difficult for anyone outside its walls to understand its role and effect on ‘our’ democracy.

The mere existence of the Corporation is a perversion of the kind of equality Harris saw embodied in the democratic process. If we are to have true democracy in the UK, we need to have an honest and open debate about the Corporation’s significant role in politics. It is only by doing this can we, the people, begin making moves to regain the majority stake in our democratic system.

Maya Goodfellow is a researcher and writer, interested in identity politics, race and imperialism. You can follow her on twitter here.

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A Note to the City: a poem

By Eli

26 March 2014

A Note to the City
Demi Nandrha

I can’t help but feel sad for the way you used to hold me.
Not too tight just right. You were, as Bachelard said
‘my corner of the world’. If we must take a metaphor take three,
Like momma’s homemade pie, a hot tea or even the comfort to fart with complete ease.See
you was home to me. Though still so fucking wild you let me
gallop free.  As the beautiful horse i can be. I mapped my
mark into my soul and together I felt once, you the snowman
and me the boy,  we heroically explored.
My Love, I will wait for you to finally say 'Wait I must go
back for my purpose here is to connect''

Yours always,
A stranger

 

This poem is published as part of NLP's series The Contemporary City

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High Rise Uprise: a poem

By Eli

25 March 2014

High Rise Uprise

Peter Raynard

 

Arise, you high-rise, arise.
Take flight you Council Cathedrals. 

Storm the South Bank
Beat up Big Ben
Shatter the Shard
Eat the Gherkin
Divest of Natwest Tower.

Ring your bells of concrete from on high
Occupy, Occupy Royal Parks
From Richmond to Greenwich
Seat your castles atop
Highgate and Hampstead Heath.

Gain a different view, an upper hand.
Bring others, break up into groups. 
Don't give in to rubble. Small-hold
Yourselves across the greens of London.
Sleep by ponds and lakes, rest under trees.

Let your children breathe properly.
Let them get proper muddy for once.

 

This poem is published as part of NLP's series The Contemporary City

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Benneconomics: a tribute to Tony Benn

By Eli

24 March 2014

This is a guest post by Andrew Fisher.

I got to know Tony Benn well when I worked as a researcher to the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs in the mid-2000s. I’d first met him when he was about to stand down from Parliament "to devote more time to politics", a promise which he fulfilled. He filled venues around the country with his "Audience with ..." one-man shows, and maintained his prominence as an anti-war campaigner through his presidency of the Stop the War Coalition.

But perhaps the most unexplored aspect of his life has been his contribution to economic thinking for democratic socialists. While no economic theorist or econometrist, Tony Benn emphasised the need for political theory to inform economic policy.

Like his politics, Benn's economic vision was rooted in democracy - "the most revolutionary idea", as he described it. Speaking at the conference of the Left Economics Advisory Panel (LEAP) in 2008, Benn developed that idea into the economic sphere:

Democracy transferred power from the wallet to the ballot, from the marketplace to the polling station. What people couldn't afford to buy, they could vote for.

When we see our rights being ripped up - to free education, to legal aid, to employment tribunals, to benefits, decent working conditions, and to council housing - it is clear that power is being transferred away from us in a reversal of the gains won by the working class in the twentieth century, mostly from Labour governments.

The Bennite vision is perhaps most clearly and articulately set out in Arguments for Socialism, Benn's 1979 book. As ever, Benn asks the pertinent question,

Do the British people really want a society in which industrialists and bankers have more power over Britain's economic future than the government they elect?

The answer today, as it was then, is 'no'. A poll last year commissioned by the thinktank Class found that two-thirds of the public want the railways, energy companies and Royal Mail in public ownership. The contradiction is that for the last thirty years, the political consensus of the major parties has been to privatise despite mass public opposition. That is the transfer of wealth from the many to the few.

In practice, as Industry minister, he supported workers' co-ops to save workplaces, as well as the Morrisonian model of nationalisation that dominated post-war Labour. These were not just the nominal co-ops that hit the headlines today, but co-ops with industrial democracy, worker participation, trade union planning. Critics point out that many of these failed, but they were failing to begin with. Benn's co-ops were rescue attempts, which were at best an adjunct to, and rather more often a thorn in the side of a rightwards moving Labour government  in the 1970s. As that other recently departed titan of the left, Bob Crow, once said: "we don't just want the lame ducks in public ownership, but the white swans too."

In Arguments for Socialism and Labour's programme (1982), Benn foresaw the damage that the neoliberal economy would do. Paying tribute to Tony in a parliamentary debate John McDonnell MP said of the 1982 programme:

Virtually all of it was written by Tony Benn… It was absolutely prophetic ... Tony’s ideas in that programme were straightforward: we would undertake a fundamental, irreversible shift in the redistribution of wealth and power. How would we do that? Through a fair and just tax system, tackling tax evasion and tax avoidance, taking control of the Bank of England, preventing speculation in the City and the banks because it could be dangerous to our long-term economic health, and creating full employment.

It reflects badly that the issues identified above by Benn in 1982 still face us today, over 30 years on. But it simply shows how broken our democracy is (even by the confines of liberal interpretations). People increasingly do not vote and the parties fail to represent public opinion - which is hardly surprising when even the Labour Party has hollowed out its internal democracy. The broader sense of democracy, which Benn advocated - including economic as well as political rights, and state intervention in the economy - is almost extinct as a concept within mainstream political discourse.

We should understand our ongoing economic crisis as a political crisis, a crisis of democracy. Throughout the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, successive governments gave away the economic levers they had possessed. They deregulated, privatised and liberalised. In short, they let the market rip. The results are clear: higher unemployment, greater inequality and poverty, repeated crises and recessions, and lower economic growth.

Benn's legacy continues because the issues facing us do too. It is visible in the work of tax justice campaigner and economist Richard Murphy. His book The Courageous State is Bennite both in its belief in the potential of the state to be a force for good, and in many of the proposed solutions to our economic problems. He castigates " government ... run by cowards who believe that there is nothing they can do but acquiesce to the demands of the market". The essence of Bennite economics is an economy in which people matter, an economy which serves the people, rather than the other way around.

Andrew Fisher is co-ordinator of the Left Economics Advisory Panel (LEAP) and is author of the forthcoming book The Failed Experiment and how to build an economy that works

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