Archive for June, 2010

Obama and the continuity of war crimes

June 26, 2010

Change you can belive in, yes indeed! We are at the end of a week in which continuity, not change, was the name of the Obama game. Continuity in war and in war crimes, that is.

Firsdt, we had the high-profile quarrel about general McChristal, ending in his dismissal as commander of the Western troops in Afghanistan. The general and his aides had made a number of unflattering remarks about president Obama and high civilian officials in his administration. Rolling Stone magazine published them in a profile of the general, written with his cooperation. This was – so the liberal commentarocracy commented – insubordination, contempt for civilian elected leadership, and so on and on. The general had to go.

Of course,  this is hardly cause for relief. There goes the general, but the war remains. And the president insisted:  there will not be a change in strategy. “This is a change in personnel, not in policy. We will not miss a beat because of the change of command in the Afghan theatre.” Thus spoke the President of Change. The new Afghan commander? General Petraeus, (in)famous for his presumed ‘successes’ in the Iraq ‘theatre’, ‘successes’ on which Juan Cole has some interesting observations. By the way, you see, war is played out in ‘theatres’, these days. There is no bloodier busines than this bloody show business. 

Yes, much more can be said about the fall of the general. It says something about relationship between civilian and military authorities, about the way power is working in high circles, and about the impasse in which America’s war inm Afghanistan has landed. But that is for another place and time. For now, I’ll just quote Arthur Silber, from one of his perceptive pieces on his weblog: “I don’t give a glimmer of a shadow of the faintest damn about the outcome of incidents of this kind, because the major participants are all war criminals.” The whole article, in which he explains why he is saying this, is well worth reading.

The poor general had barely left the scene when another  highly symbolic announcement attracted some attention. Guantanamo Bay wil stay, for much longer than Obama promised. Remember the promise? He would close that concentration camp, that symbol of the horrors of the so-calles War on Terror, that place with cages for human beings, from which stories of mistreatment and outright torture dripped like blood from the bodies of its prisoners.

Within a few mothns after becoming president, Obama let go of his own deadline, after resistance from Congress. And now, we read in the New York Times: “Stymied by political opposition and focused on other priorities, the Obama administration has sidelined efforts to close the Guantanamo prison, making it unlikely that President Obama will fulfill his promise to close it before his term ends in 2013.” THe NY Times bases this conclusion on what priminent senators, presumably with inside knowledge, are saying.

Changing priorities, resistance age against policies, that is the story. Let’s just say this. Committing new and continuing crimes seems to be a much higher priority for Obama than ending earlier, but still ongoing, crimes. Where’s the change in that?

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Shock Doctrine: a review

June 19, 2010

This Saturday evening, I went to see “The Shock Doctrine”, here in the Filmfoyer in Tilburg (1), a documentary based on Naomi Klein’s book of the same title. It was a worthwhile experience. The move is a clear exposition of how the neoliberal version of capitalism came to dominate many parts of the world, the harm this capitalism is doing, and both the possibility and the necessity of resistance.

The story is built around a lecture Naomi Klein is giving. We see her speak clearly, for a short while. Then we are taken out of the lectuere hall, to be shown the realities that illustrate her story. These realities – footage of psychological experiments, coup détats, wars, enonomic disasters, with explanatory comments – take up the bulk of the film. But again and again we are taken back to the lecture hall, and in this way we are reminded of the the function of all the footage: illustrating the talk by Naomi Klein, the argument she is making.

The first episode is about medical-psychological experiments in the US, later taken over by the CIA: people are made into a kind of mental blank, which makes it possible fo fill the mind with an endlessly repeated message. We see one of the victims of this shock treatment, for this is literally what it is. This is, as it were, the metaphoric message of the whole movie: you shock people into accepting things they would not otherwise tolerate.

Then we get to the essence of the movie: neoliberal economics conquers the world. Enter Milton Friedman, economist, an outsider in the Fifties, with his strange message of privatisation, free markets, dismantling state protection. However, his kind of policies came to dominate many parts of the world. The way that happened is a road full of violence.

For instance, violence in Chili. There, social protections became part of society during the sixties of the twentieth century. A left wing government was elected into office in 1970. The US government did not like it, a military coup ubnder Pinochet took over, torture an death were imposed upon people who resisted, trade unionists, leftists. What policies were imposed by the new gevernment? Naked neoliberalism, leading to more poverty and unemployment. Who advised the government? Milton Friedman and people who had been his students. A similar military victory for neoloberalism happened in Argentine. In Britain and the US, similar economic policies were imposed by right wing giocvernments under Thatcher and Reagan.  We see vivid pictures of the resistance Thatcher’s government provoked in Britain. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, especially Russia became the victom of a ferocious experiment in imposed l neoliberal free market fundamentalist policies.

Again and again we are made aware of how a shock – military couop, in Thatcher’s case a war with Argentine about the Falklands – waused to shock the popular tion, after which a new dose of neolobaralism follows. The same happened in 2001 after nine- eleven, the terror attacks. Wars against Afghanistan and Iraq followed. In Iraq, the US occupation impsed far-going privatisation, war profiteering through contractors, the dismantling of large parts of the state and the civil service. The shock of war was followed by the ‘therapy’ of neoliberalism. Then there was ther tsunami in Asia, and the hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, used in a similar way: Sri Lankan people preventing afterwards to return to their places of living on the coast, to make room for luctrative sale of coastal areas, for instance.

Ans so it went, again and again. But Klein leaves us with messages of hope. Near the end of the movie, the women hathat endured the shock experiments in the Fifties, was shown again. W She had forced the government to recogbnise the wrong that she had to suffer. A small but significant, of which she was righly proud.

The end of the movie was significant as well. Klein told an anecdote about president Roosevelt – whole New Deal was part of the trend to welfare capitalism which later was replaced by the neoliberal victories . She told how a progressive gropup once visited Roosevelt and made a proposal. The president listened, and then said, in essence: “Now go home, and force me to do it.” She mentioned how many strikes there were in the year 1937, under Roosevelts presidency: a good way to indeed forcefully bringing about change. The message: things change if we don’t wait for politicians, but move ourselves, take action, and  make things change. The movie ended with sounds of what must have been a large demonstration. The slogans were audible. I heard the familiar : “A-Anti-Anticapitalista!”

The move leaves a strong impression, and is well worth watching. This review does onluy mention parts of the threads Klein is weaving to make her argument. There are weaknesses in her analysis, however. I think Klein is a bit too positive about the welfare capitalism that went before neolaiberal capitalism, too positive for instance about Roosevelt and his New Deal, and maybe even under the illusion that we should return to something like that. I think we deserve better.

Her sketch of the dominance of neoliberalism is clear, but her explanation is not totally convincing. She makes it seem as if the victory of neoliberal doctrines, its march from a small currency in economic science to dominant ideology from Britain to Chile, is a product of clever peoplen in high places conspiring cvery affectively. There is, however, much more to in than that. At the root of it is the fact that the economic model of the Fifties – let’s call it welfare capitalism – suited the capitalist class very well in those years. Relatively high wages and a system of sopcial benefits meant hign consumtion, high sales and high profits. This was well worth the relatively high taxes and relatively strong trade unions that came along with it, as far as most capitalists were concerned .

However, this system entered into crisis of profitali bility, partly because of overproduction and unsaleable products, partly because the working class became to strong. Capitalist circles were in need for a restructuring of the economy that weakened the working class and restored profits. Neoliberalism offered a way to do it. That is why a doctrine that was marginal in 1951 became hegemonous from the seventies onwards. This is the kind of background that is needed to understand the shift that Klein sketches in the, otherwise very valuable, documentary “The Shock Doctrine”.

(1). Thanks, Riekie and Ardin, for taking me along 🙂

After the Dutch elections

June 13, 2010

Dutch elections on June 9 have resulted in a shocking victory of right wing parties. The political Right, however, will not find it easy to form a government. Divisions and conflicts between them hinders the quick formation for a coalition government between them. Meanwhile, the Left – divided as well, and battered by defeat – is clinging to the kind of parliamentary illusions that helped to bring that defeat. At the same time, the number of non-voters – a sign of deep disaffection with all the parties – has grown. An aggressive, triumphant but fragmented Right; a weakened Left; budget cuts from whatever government will ben formed; an economic crisis that is dragging on; and a workers’ movement showing signs of reviving miltancy (see earlier article on this blog); it is an explosive mix, with great dangers as well as small but significant opportunities for workers who want to fight back.

The right wing liberal VVD became the biggest party, with 31 seats in a 150-seat Second Chamber of Parliament (lower house, basically, or house of representatives if one prefers). The extreme right PVV, led by islamophobic racist Geert Wilders, grew from 9 to 24 seats, much more thatn opinion polls in recent weeks indicated. Another right wing party, the christian democrat CDA, lost badly. Their voters deserted this party to the other big right wing parties. Bad leadership by prime minister J.P. Balkenende played a part in this. At least as important was the fact that the CDA was part of a rather weak government, together with the social democratic PvdA. VVD and PVV were in opposition, and succeeded in drawing disaffected voters – to the right.

The PvdA social democrats lost, but not that much. Bigger losers were the somewhat more left wing Socialist Party, who lost 10 of its 25 seats. Eagerness to govern meant that they diluted their earlier radical posture. The difference with PvdA became less and less visible, voters – afraid of the VVD becoming the biggest party – were tactically drawn to the PvdA who became almost as big as the VVD. A third left wing party, the Green Left (GL), gained three seats, partly, no doubt, because they took a rather strongh anti-racist line aginst Wilders. On the whole, however, GL is drifting rightwards, accepting the need of  ‘flexible labour markets’, and not really opposing a probable raise in retirement years.

Formation of a government is going to be difficult. VVD, PVV and CDA – an open right wing coalition, a horror scenario – has a narrow parliamentary majority. But especially the CDA is not keen on PVV participation. They probably remember the party of Pim Fortuyn which participated in a government with CDA and VVD in 2002, after the murder of its leader. That government became a laughing stock, a permanet cabaret on tour, because of all the quarrels and little scandals, before collapsing withing eight months. CDA politicians want stability and harmony, not a repeat performance of this vaudeville.

Another problem is the First Chamber of Parliament, the upper house or senate, which constitutionally has to pass bills after the more important second chamber has passed them. That chamber is indirectly elected – but not at the same time as the second chamber. Senate elections will only come in 2011. Until that moment, the victorious PVV has no seats in the first chamber, and the VVD-CDA-PVV coalition lacks a majority there. Another factor opening the road to instability and uncertainty. Business circles are wary of PVV participation as well. They fear adverse reactions against Geert Wilders, who has a habit of insulting moslim people – including , for instance, the Turkish prime minister. That is bad for business, bosses’ boss Wientjes has sternly warned.

Other coalitions are not easy as well. VVD, PvdA, D66 and GL is a possibility. D66, by the way, is another neoliberal party, but more relaxed than the VVD on issues like immigration and Islam. What they have in common, all four of them, is the acceptance op neoliberal policies. However, on the issue of how big the coming budget cust should be, they are quite far apart. And on issues like immigration, VVD and especially GL are not close as well, although eagerness to govern may soften any principled attitude that GL still has. An unlikely coalition it certainly is. An impossible coalition it is not.

Is there anything to choose between them, from a left wing perspective? I don’t think so. First, both coalitions will go for very severe austerity policies. Capital, business forces, the financial markets will simply force  any government that might hesitate. Diofferent coalitions, almost same policies, in  this regard.

Yes, a right wing coalition whcih includes the PVV is a horrible prospect. It would legitimise Wilders’party – a party which expresses a form of fascism-in-the-making. One shudders if Geert Wilders or one of his clones becomes minister of Security or something like that. If, in such an event, riots break ouit in protest, I will not only understand and agree with the rioters. I might become one of them.

But a weak and divided coalition without the PVV is extremely dangerous as well. It will allow the PVV even more time and space to continue their right wing opposition. In case that government falls – as it might do quickly, considering the divisions within such a government – the PVV can look forward to an even biggen electoral victory, maybe encouraged by a beginning PVV street movement. One PVV member is already talking about creating a youth section of the PVV. We should be extremely careful.

There is reason for serious worry and concern. However, panic isn’t called for. Recent strikes show that there is a mood to fight among groups of workers. This mood can grow and translate itself in much bigger protests when the size and content of coming austerity policies of the next gevernments become clear. Dark times, indeed, but not hopeless times.

Reading more:

“The Netherlands shifts to the right”, NRC, 10 June (the NRC is one of the important Dutch mainstream newspapers, with an English-language section)

Peter Schwartz, “Right wing shift in Dutch elections”, World Socialist Website (WSWS), 12 June; WSWS is a  Trotsyist website that often contains ghood news summmaries with a bit of sensible analysis. In this case the comparison between Ducth and among others, Hungarian electons (also resulting in a shift to the right). The article warns of the danger of the extreme right. The last sentence, calling for the buiulding of a Trotskyite party and so on, can safely be ignored. The rest is worth taking reading.

Important strike action in the Netherlands in recent months

June 5, 2010

Class struggle, in the Netherlands? Yes, class struggle in the Netherlands, that is the subject for today – workers’ struggles in this country that is not especially known for its militant workers’ struggles. However, in recent months there have been a number of serious strikes, bringing serious results.

Two strike campaigns  are especially important. First, their was a long and succesful campaign of cleaning workers for a wage rise and better treatment. The campaign culminated in an nine-week-long strike – the longest strike the country has experienced since 1933. Cleaners stopped cleaning in train stations, at Schiphol airport and in several offices. In this way, they put pressure on the companies that buy cleaning services from cleaning companies. The cleaning sector works as follows: Schiphol, for instance, wants cleaning done. Several cleaning firms offer their services. Schiphol takes the cheapest offer. Wages and conditions suffer from this competition. When workers and trade union functionaries demanded a rise, cleaning services said: we can’t afford a rise, the companies buying our services force us to cut things to the bone. That is why it made sense for the campaigners to pressurize not just the cleaning companies, but the big companies and institutions contracting out cleaning services to those cleaning companies. Besides pressurizing the companies, the campaign raaised the profile of the lowly-paid cleaning workers with public action which helped rally broad sympathy to the struggling cleaners.

The strike was held in quite a militant fashion. Therer were demonstrative actions, there was a sit-in of cleaning workers and sympathizers in Utyrecht central station that lasted five days. The cleaning sector has a low trade union membership; one noticeable aspect of the strike is the use of trade union organisers, first listening to cleaners, encouraging their initiative and taking the struggle from there. The union machine needed a bit of militancy to get a foothold, in the form of new members.

The strategy worked: the union gained a lot of new members. Whether a stronger, stable union will encourage quite this form of militant action in the future is open to doubt. A strong, well-organised union tends to be a bureaucratic union as well, and that is not an accidental coincidence. That is one reason why cleaning workers will need to defend their struggle as their own struggle.

More important, for now at least: the militant insistancy of the core of cleaning workers on strike won the day. In the end, a wage rise close to the demand was won, and more concessions. The Commune has a good article on the campaign,  written by one of the trade union organisers, and containing an interview with one of the trade union organisers.

This strike ended in April. In the weeks after that,, another wage campaign grew to a climax. Municipal, provincial and other local authority personnel struggled for anew labour contract. Local authority refused any pay rise; the trade union demanded lifting of this ceiling, which would have meant lower buying power, because prices did not stop rising.

The campaign started with symbolic action, Near the end of April, municipal workers started strikes, especially the dustbin workers. First, the strikes were limited in duration. In May, however, workers in Utrecht and Amsterdam decided that they would continue strike action until there was a new contract. Rubbish took over the streets. Still, there was public sympathy for the strikes. After the second week of May, local authorities had enough: a wage rise was granted. The strikers were victorious, not completely – the rise was not especially big – but victorious nevertheless.

The repercussions of all this are serious, and positive. No doubt related to this: the civil servants’ union, ABVA KABO, has seen a leadership struggle in recent weeks, with a new leadership more to the left, more in sympathy with militant actions. How this translates in practice, remains to be seen, and even a trade union bureaucracy somwhat more to the left is still a trade union bureaucracy, whose profession is negotiation and containing struggles. I think the article in International Viewpoint on this development, useful as it is, exaggerates the positive news. Still, the shift is a symptom.

The main things are the strikes themselves. We have now seen two succesful and rather high-profile strike campaigns, following cosely behind eacht other.   This may well encourage other groups of workers demanding more and fighting for it. That would be a most welcome development, in these times when political parties are planning and annopuncing ferocious budget cuts. A workers’ movement flexing its muscles, a political establishment preparing for social war, elections coming next week  – tense times may be ahead in the usually oh-so-quite Netherlands. Revolutionary-minded people have reasons to be on the alert – but the succesful strikes give reasons to be in a good mood as well.