Archive for March, 2010

Obama, or: changes we can become sick of

March 31, 2010

Are there still left wing people around who can believe in Obama’s ‘Change you can believe in’? Decision after decision had been made by Obama and his White House crew that proves theat hs presidency is becoming more dangerous and – to left-wing hopes misplaced in him – dissappointing by the day.

A few examples. Obama spoke beautiful words about climate change, how big a problem that is, and how measures to stop it are urgenty needed. Yet, today we read that “Obama has announced proposals to expand offshore il and gas exploration in a bid to reduce foreign energy dependency.” The source of the fossile fuels – whose use contributes mightily to carbon dioxine in the atmosphere, and hence to the greenhouse effect which is a source of climate change – may change, from Middle East oil to Atlantic ocean oil. The addiction to these fossile fuels  remains, the monster destabilising the climate will be fed – with Obama’s explicit consent. n this way, he hopes to get Republican support for a law to  combat… climate change! In order to save the climate, we had to destroy it…

Talking about energy and the Middle East: the U.S. drive against oil state Iran is continuing. The U.S. president has pressed for tougher UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program to be passed in a matter of weeks.” Iran is building nuclear facilities. The US claims Iran is doing that because it  is making nuclear wapons. There is no evidence for that claim.

And even if it were true, that is no reason for any aggression towards Iran. An Iranian nuclear weapons capability wuld mean that the country becomes what Pakistan, Iran, India already are: nuclear powers. Rejecting  Iran’s step in that direction,while accepting those three powers als friends and allies – it is vile hypocracy. And let us not forget that the US – that same US that Obama is pushing towards aggression  against Iran – is the one and only country that has actually used nuclear weapns – against two cities of a defeated enemy.

But – Obama fans may retort – hasn’t he finally reformed health care? Yes, he did – in an atrocious way. Millions of Americans will remain uninsured. The rest will be forced to buy expensive insurance policies which don’t even cover all costs. People on lower incomes get government subsidies for buying insurance – but these subsidies cover only part of the costs of that policies. No full coverage, rising expenses for people, money going from government to insurnce companies through the subsidies people get for buying insurance….

It is a bad deal. If yo don’t take my word for it, maybe Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, one of the founders of Physicians for a National Health programme, can convince you. Or maybe the statement of that organisation itself, will.

If all this is not quite enough,  you might uesefully check out Chris FLoyd’s beautiful blog, Empire Burlesque. He write article after article attacking the Obama myth with facts, figures and quotes. Enlightening stuff.

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Netherlands: students and cleaning workers taking action

March 25, 2010

The Netherlands is experiencing significant social struggles. This is happening in a time when political campaigning is  beginning, after the fall of the government, and with elections looming. These are to be held on June 9.

Several groups are fighting for their rights. Today there wile be a student demonstration in The Hague (linked article is in Dutch). This is a next  step, after several student occupations of university buildings in February. Students are protesting against austerity measures in higher education. There is the threat of a 20 percent cut in the budget for higher education. There is the plan to raise college fees, and to dismantle the system of student grants. Higher education will become more expensive, quality and accessibility will suffer, if plans like these are implemented. That is why students are taking actions, and rightly so.

Meanwhile, an inspiring campaign of cleaning workers fighting for better wages and respect, is continuing. Hundreds of cleaners have been striking,  at railway stations and at Schiphol Airport (link found via Labourstart.org; there is much more information to be found, but mostly in Dutch). There has been a sit-in in the station hall of Utrecht Central Station which lasted five days and nights. Negotiations have failed. The actions will continue.

Actions like these deserve solidarity. They show that there is an alternative beyond the dismal electoral choices on offer. These choices basically come down to different ways, speeds and amounts of austerity. No inspiring solution is to be found there, even if some may still grudgingly accept the need for a tactical vote against the  right wing. The road of struggle leads somewhere, the road of electioneering leads to more disappointment and despair.

Reading about events in Greece

March 19, 2010

The Greek government, heavily pushed by other European governments, is imposing a package of severe austerity measures upon the population. Working class people are hit by higher taxes and by attacks on wages, pensions and employment. The government takes these measures to bring down the high state debt and budget deficit. Workers are resisting wth a series of big strikes and demonstrations.

The events in Greece are tremendously important for  people everywhere. If  the Greek government is succesful in its attacks, it will mean a big defeat for the working class. Other goernments will take this as a signal that they, too, can bring on even more pressure. If the workers succeed in eating back the capitalist offensive, this will show workers in other countries that they, too, can succesfully resist.

The importance of this fight makes information on the Greek situation especially relevant. A few articles are helpful for understanding the background and following the events. “Greece in the eye of the storm”, written by Antonis Davenellos, explains how Greece developed its budget deficits. Corporations could evade taxes for years without much trouble. Then, when recession struck, the government spent 28 billioneuros in bailing out financial institutions . The article describes the expression of anger and the repercussions within the governing social-democratic PASOK party. Also, earlier confrontations between Greek governments and working class protest and resistance are briefly decribed.

Libcom.org , that beautiful libertarian-revolutinary website, has good coverage and background on the Greek events.  An important background piece is “There’s only one thing left to settle: our accounts withcapital and its state”, by TPTG, an autonomous communist group in Greece. This article contains an analysis of the economic crisis in Greece. It shows that the state debt in fact is a form of profit-making for capitalists. What the state has to pay in rent etcetera, is for the creditors a form of gain, won without much risk.

The article analyses the eruption of workers’ protests, the  strikes, riots and demonstrations. No cheerleading here, no simplistic enthousiasm for ever-bigger, ever-more-radical resistance. The events on strike day February 24 and March 11 are coolly described and analysed. According to this  text, the control that trade unions still have on the protests is still rather strong.  A truly big independent movement of resisting workers is not yet to be seen, though the protests have been growing, according to the article. This kind of sober analysis is what makes this text especially valuable.

But enthousiasm is, fortunately, not lacking on the pages of Libcom.org. Taxikipali has e number of vivid reports on the events, for instance “Battle Grount Athens: second general strike leads to pitched battles”, on the strike and street actions of March 11. Taxikipali has bright anarchist convictons, and combines critical factual reporting with level-headed analysis. Especially worthwhile is the Comment section underneath his reports: here, questions are put forward, discussions of the events takes place, and taxikipali addresses the ponts being made. Very valuable it all is.

More information on the austerity package of the Greek government can be found in “Greek trade unions close iranks behind PASOK austerity measures”, on the Trotskyist World Socialist Website (WSWS).  For instance, taxes n products, VAT, are in place from March15 onwards. VAT on food producs has gone from 9 to 10 percent, VAT on clothing and shoes from 19 to 21 percent. Pay for public sector workers will be reduced, pensions funded by the state frozen.

The article also shows the terrible behaviour of the big trade unions. For instance, they cancelled the  nationwide strike that had been announced for March 16. GSEE, the union federation organising private sector workers, has started a sad, chauvinistic ‘Buy Greek’ campaign which is diverting anger against the Greek government and bosses. The resistance of the workers will bein terrible trouble as long as the strangehold of official tade union structures does not give way.

A few remarks of my own. One ma get the impression that trade unions operate in a much more militant fashion tan their counterparts in, for instance, the netherlands. That does not impy a difference of principle. Rather, the pressure of Greek workers is stronger. In order to contain that pressure and remain on top of things, the union leadership has to make much more radical gestures. Dutch trade unions would do more or less the same if the pressure from workers would be comparably strong.

Workers will need to break the hold of the trade union structures in order truly to stp the austerity programme and the government enforcing it. Al-out class war will be needed, and trade unions are not the organisations that will organise that war. Whether it will come to that? We shall see. In the meantime, following and understanding events in Greece will help and inspire us, if and when similar workers’ protests roll closer and closer to home…

(slightly amended within minutes after first publishing)

Crisis, resistance and repression in Iceland

March 13, 2010

Big things sometimes happen in small countries. One small country in which quitimrtant events have occured is Iceland. That country was struck by economic recession, collapsing banks and hardship for many inhabitants. But inhabitants struck back, again and again.

People protested during the winter of 2008-2009, street demonstrations even helped bring about the collapse of the goverment. But tht was not all. Britain and the Netherlands tried to make a deal wit Iceland, to make that country pay money in saving accounts Dutch and Britisch peoaple had in the Icesave internet banking firm. Icesave collapsed in the financial crisis during autumn 2008. The deal would have meant more austerity for people in Iceland: they would have been forced to pay, throught taxes, for instance.

Government accepted, a parliamentary majority accepted – but street protests and a big petition showed strong opposition. The president, feeling the pressure, refused to sign the deal. A referendum was held on the issue: around 93 per cent of people who voted rejected the agreement! That was a slap in the face of established power, and a sign of anger and a most welcome recalcitrance of a big part of the population.

There was more positive fall-out from the rection to economic and financial collapse. parliamentarians have taken the initiative to makee press law which brings strong protection to press and especially internet freedom. Sources can be better protected, leaks cannot easily become a cause for juridical repressive procedures.

The initiative was at least partly an reaction to efforts to stop an internet leak containng information about dubious practices of a  bank in Iceland. That bank had tried to stop publication of the information. The new proposal tries to prevent such attacks on information freedom. Later this spring, the proposal will be put to a vote in parliament. If made into law, it will be a recognition of the strength of the desire for freedom against the economic, political and financial powers-that-be, a step forward. Stephen Soldz explains on Counterpunch.

Those powers that be, however, are not leaving the scene voluntarily. They try to strike back. An example is the trial of nine protesters who had entered the building of parliament during the street revolt that helped bring about the government’s deserved collapse early in 2009. They are being threatened with high jail sentences on the basis of rather absurd parts of the law. Libcom.org has the story. Popular anger has brought about change – but the rulers resist the resistance. The fight is continuing.

Strikes in Burma

March 7, 2010

A strike wave of workers in the garment factories of Rangoon  is beginning to shake the foundations of the military dictatorship of Burma (1). There was already strike action at the end of last year. In recent weeks there have been reports of several strikes. Yesterday, several thusand workes went on strike.

The Irrawaddy writes: “In the latest escalation of labor tension in Burma, around 4,000 factory workers at an industrial  estate on the outskirts of Rangoon staged a sit-in on Saturday to dmand betterpay, according to  sources in the area.” There were strikes in two factories. 

Wages – stagnant, with inflation eating them away – are at the center of  the discontent. With 30 – 50 dollar, they are even lower than in Cambodia and Vietnam, where wages for comarable work are 150 dallar, according to an official of the Chamber of Commerce in Burma. These are monthly wages.

These strikes – and earlier ones, as reported in Spero News – are important. They threaten the economic base – export industries with low-wage labour – of the military regime. The authorities react with reprssion: they usually send hundreds of police and soldiers. But they don’t simply smash the strikes. Negotiations usually take part, some concessions are made. It looks as if the rebellious workers are opening a space for further struggle. And does not look as if the regime is that powerful and that confident.

All this is happening while the regime has promised elections, while still continuing to hold opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in house arrest. Western support – hypocritical, in essence -has not helped the poor masses of Burma much in their struggle against the military junta. Workers rebelling angainst their atrocious wages and working conditions can open an road to freedom that may look hard. But it is a road much more trustworthy than all U.N. sanctions and all Western politicians’ promises combined.

I found the Irrawaddy article through Labourstart.org. The Spero News article is linked in an valuable report on workers’ struggles in Asia on Libcom.org. I wrote two articles on workers’ actions in Burma on my Dutch-language weblog, Rooieravotr, on Februari 11, and on Februari 17. While both these last articles are in Dutch, it is based on information found through English-language links.

(1) Yes, I know, the official name of that country is Myanmar. However, that is the name given by the miitary dictatorship, whose language I refuse to speak. . I stick to ‘Burma’ in this article.

Happy Birthday, Comrade Chopin

March 1, 2010

Frederic Chopin, Polish-French composer, had his 200th birthday today, and I wish him well:-)

I will not write a long piece about him here, I don’t have the expertise for that, and there is Wikipedia, after all. A few short remarks. As I understand it, the man and his music were very much connected to his Polish roots, and his longing for his homeland. He had gone in exile after the Polish revolt against Czarist oppression in 1830. I don’n have the impression tat Chopin was a rebel in a political sense of the world. He made his upper class music in the Paris  elite salons, he had his complicated and often tragic love life, and his health problems: tuberculosis killed him in 1849. Not much time and priority for revolution there. But he gave us his music!

Yet, his music and his life make him recognisable as an outsider, and in that sense he speaks to me. And I am not the only one. Ernest Mandel, on page 48 in his text on the Russian revolution, wtites that, o the frst anniversary of  that revolution,  names of  ‘freedom fighters’ were inscribed on alls of a military acadamy, as a kind of tribute. Names of the usual suspects were there: socialist leaders like August Bebel and Gracchus Baboef and the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, whose adherents were already repressed by the very regime that celebrated him as a hero; the hypocrisy was already growing together with gap between regime and the classes in which name it existed. But that is another story.

Many other names on the walls were artists. We fnd  Emile Zola end Victor Hugo. We find the famous punk artist, Ludwig van Beethoven. And yes, we find Frededic Chopin there. Listening  to his music one just feels the longing that goes deeper than just another love affair gone wrong. His music speeks of fredmo, however indirecty, and however domesticated the role his music became in upper-class salons. The beauty of it all survives even that.

My favorite  Chopin piece? Prelude no 15, opus 28, known as the Raindrop prelude. First the lyrical piano line,  relaxed but not without tension at the same time… then the dark, almost threatening sequence of chords in a minor key… and than back to the gentle melody… Ah…