Posts Tagged ‘communism’

Are Cameron and Osborne Communists?

March 26, 2014

CAmeron Stalin

David Cameron: Stalin’s successor in the Tory Party?

‘If I was an Englishman, I would be a Conservative.’

– Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during his visit to Britain in the 1950s.

The Coalition’s attack on the poor by forcing down wages and cutting benefits conforms so closely to Marx’s theory of the ‘Iron Law of Wages’ and the programme the Russian Revolutionary, Nechaev, suggested for the way the true revolutionary should undermine capitalism from within that I ended up idly wondering if the Tories really were aware of how similar they were. In fact, so close are they to those parts of revolutionary socialist ideology that I even wondered if they similarities were deliberate, and Cameron, Osborne and Clegg were trying to see how far they could go in showing that Marx and Engels were right before the workers finally revolted and the Chipping Norton Set were ejected from government. In fact, they are following Marx so closely that I wondered if they weren’t actually following Nechaev’s advice and deliberately trying to undermine capitalism from within.

The Iron Law of Wages

The ‘Iron Law of Wages’ is one of the main doctrines of Marxist ideology. According to it, as capitalism develops, the bourgeoisie attempt to maintain higher profits by deliberating forcing down wage to ever lower levels. Eventually wages will become so poor, and the working classes so miserable, that they will revolt and overthrow the government.

Nechaev and the Revolutionary Catechism

The Russian Revolutionary Nechaev believed that this process should be assisted by revolutionary conspirators. The 19th century Russian revolutionaries had repeatedly failed in their attempts to spread Socialism and overthrow the tsar as the Russian people, on whose behalf the Revolutionaries believed they were fighting, remained largely opposed to their efforts. In his Revolutionary Catechism, Nechaev therefore argued that the true revolutionary should become absolutely ruthless, ready to sacrifice and betray anyone and everyone in order to further the revolution, even create chaos and misery in order to harden and radicalise people to the revolutionary cause. He argued that revolutionaries should deliberately enter the government and try to make conditions as worse as possible for the people. Eventually the people would become so miserable and desperate, that they would revolt, overthrow the tsar and create the new, Communist society.

Revisionism and Rejection of Iron Law of Wages

In the later 19th and 20th centuries many Socialists, such as the German revisionist, Eduard Bernstein, criticised and rejected the ‘Iron Law of Wages’ as it did not seem to be born out by contemporary events. Rather than the workers becoming increasingly impoverished, wages were actually rising. Some of this may have been due not just to expansion of the European economies as capitalism developed, but also through the actions of the various Socialist and working class movements, like trade unions, in forcing industrialists to pay better wages. The post-War economic consensus also stressed the need for higher wages and better conditions for the workers, as this would allow them to purchase consumer products and so stimulate the economy and raise profits.

Return of Iron Law under Tories and Tory Democrats

Now, through globalisation and Neo-Liberal economics, the Iron Law of Wages is back with a vengeance. It’s at the very heart of the Coalition’s policies. They are determined to hold down wages below the rate of inflation, so that in real terms the working and lower middle classes are actually taking a cut in wages. At the same time, they are destroying the education system, the NHS and the welfare state in order to maximise the profits of private industry still further, and so creating a level of poverty and misery that has not been seen in decades. We really are heading back to the 19th century world of ruthlessly predatory capitalism at a rate of knots. So closely do their policies conform to Marx’s prediction, that it strongly reminds me of the slogan on one of the T-shirts sold by Red Molotov. This is a company that specialises in selling such shirts with quirky, and often left-wing or radical slogans. One of their shirts has a portrait of Marx, underneath which is the slogan ‘I told you this would happen’.

Quite.

Coalition Conscious of Own Predatory Nature

I don’t, however, seriously believe for one single minute that they are revolutionaries trying to provoke an increasingly impoverished British public into overthrowing capitalism and the state. They are simply ruthless, predatory capitalists doing what Marx believed ruthless capitalists would always do: exploit the poor and drive them to ever increasing depths of despair, insecurity and poverty, all for greater profits.

And they know this. Osborne had the temerity to quote Marx, while Philip Blond, Cameron’s mentor, liked and quoted the Russian anarchist, Kropotkin, in his book, Red Tory. They simply don’t care that they conform to Marx’s description of capitalist ruthlessness. All that matters to them is that the ordinary man or woman in Britain doesn’t, and continues to swallow all that nonsense that ‘we’re all in it together’, and that the cuts and the austerity drive are the result of high-spending by the previous Labour administration, rather than an integral part of their own Neo-Liberal economic policies.

The Way to Stop Them: Voting, Not Revolution

There is an alternative. Unlike the masses of 19th century Europe, who were largely excluded from participation in the electoral process because of property qualifications that excluded the poor, people don’t have to riot or revolt simply to make their voices heard. They can force out iniquitous and unpopular governments by simply voting them out. And we need to do so now, at every opportunity before the Tories and Tory Democrats make the situation very much worse.

Jason Read Capitalist Parasites

The Nazis and Conservatives as Faux-Workers’ Parties

February 28, 2014

A few days ago I posted a piece pointing out the similarity between workfare and the commercial exploitation of poor souls the Nazis imprisoned in the concentration camps as ‘anti-social elements’. These included not only Jews, but also the voluntarily unemployed – called the arbeitscheu – and political dissidents, which were mainly Communists, Socialists and trade unionists. Now it seems the Tories are attempting copy the Nazis’ propaganda tactics still further: Grant Shapps, the Tory chairman, wants to rebrand them as the ‘Worker’s Party’.

There is an excellent post at Another Angry Voice attacking this rebranding. See The bizarre Tory effort to rebrand themselves as “The Workers Party” at http://anotherangryvoice.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/tories-rebrand-workers-party.html.

The Tories attempt to rebrand themselves as the ‘Worker’s Party’ is exactly what Hitler did with the Nazi party. And that ain’t an exaggeration.

There’s an attempt by the Conservatives to claim that Fascism is a form of Socialism, like Communism. Yesterday I reblogged a piece about the way this piece of Tory propaganda had been repeated yet again by Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph. Shapps’ proposed rebranding is an attempt to reverse the current images of the Tory and Labour parties by claiming that Tories somehow represent the workers, while Labour represent … well, it’s unclear who the Tories think they represent, but the clue was historically in Labour’s name: the working class. I expect the Tories will start attacking Labour by claiming they are the party of unelected bureaucrats, the feckless, unmarried mothers and skivers, as well as a condescending ‘liberal elite’ that secretly hates and despises the working class. This is, after all, the line they’ve been running for the past couple of years.

It’s also in line with the attempts of some prominent members of the Conservative party to appeal to trade unionists. I did hear of one, who had attended every one of his local trade union conferences, who was explicitly arguing that the Tories should attempt to win them over. According to the Fabian pamphlet, Labour and the Unions: Natural Allies about fifty per cent of trade unionists do in fact vote Conservative, basically because trade unionists tend to be better paid and have their own homes compared with non-unionised workers. It’s also not the first time the Tories have attempted to present themselves as a labour-oriented movement. In the 1970s there was a Conservative trade union movement. Any trade unionist, who seriously believes that the Tories have any sympathy with the working class would, however, be seriously mistaken. The Tories have consistently hated and opposed the unions, who have been one element in the formation of the Labour party. The origins of the Labour party go back to the late 19th century when some trade unionists entered parliament as ‘Lib-Labs’ as party of the Liberal party. These broke with the Liberals and, together with socialist societies like the Fabians, the Social Democratic Federation and others, formed the Labour party as they felt that the working class needed a party to represent them.

The Conservatives, however, have consistently attacked the unions, especially the ties they have to the Labour party. Thatcher’s ideology included as one of its fundamental elements an attack on trade union power. Witness the way she and the other Conservatives mobilised the police to destroy the miners. The Conservative trade unions were dissolved sometime in the 1980s or 1990s, if I remember correctly, leaving the movement’s leader feeling bitterly betrayed. He then denounced the Tories as the party of the bosses. Well, he had to wake up sometime.

Their cynical tactics in this are very much those of the Nazis. The Nazis started out as a fringe, socialist group calling itself the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. However, they don’t seem to have taken the ‘socialist’ elements of their ideology at all seriously. Of the 25 points of the original party programme, the only one that Hitler attempted to implement once they were in power – and that only half-heartedly – was the breaking up of the large department stores. Hitler was determined to try to win over the workers, and disappointed that the Nazis actually succeeded in gaining very few members from the working class. Much of the Nazis’ image as a ‘workers’ party’ was deliberately copied from the left-wing parties in order to steal their constituency. Joachim C. Fest, in his biography of Hitler, gives a statement by der Fuehrer, where he says that he consciously copied the red in the Nazi flag to stress the ‘socialist’ part of the party, in order to win the workers over from ‘Marxist’ socialism. He then analyses Hitler’s peculiar idea of the term ‘socialist’ to conclude that to Hitler, words like ‘socialism’ were simply counters being used to gain votes.

And once in power, the Nazis smashed genuine working class organisations like the trade unions, the SPD – the German Socialist party, the Communist party, as well as the various Anarchist and Syndicalist groups. These parties and groups were dissolved, and their members and leaders sent to concentration camps. They also destroyed the system of factory councils, which had been set up in Germany during the ‘Raeterevolution’ – the Soviet revolution – of 1919. These were replaced by the DAP – the Deutschearbeitsfront or German Labour Front. This attempted some alleviation of conditions in factories, and organised workers’ holidays and recreational activities following the Italian Fascist Doppolavoro. However, it was designed as a conduit for promoting the idea of the Fuehrerprinzip – the ‘Leader principle’ in the factories. The factory managers were the leaders, and the workers their followers with few rights. In theory, however, they had the right to appeal to the local Nazi leadership to replace a bad manager during a dispute. I can’t imagine the Tories tolerating something like that. It would be far too left-wing for them.

As for representing the workers, in 1933 Hitler gave a speech to a meeting of German industrialists stating that ‘Private property cannot survive an age of democracy’, declaring that it could only be preserved by his personal dictatorship. In another speech, Hitler declared that ‘the class conscious worker is as welcome in our party as the race conscious Jew’. When he was asked in the 1920s what action he would take against the German industrialists, he replied that he would do nothing. They had shown themselves to be naturally superior to other people, and so deserving of their position, through their efforts to rise to the top of society. it’s a social Darwinist attitude entirely in accord with the views of this administration on the right to rule of the middle and upper classes.

So let’s look at the similarities between Grant Shapps’ vision of the Tories as the Workers’ Party, and the Nazis.

Both are parties that deliberately appeal and represent the interests of the industrialists and upper classes.

Both are hostile to genuinely left-wing working class organisations, such as Socialists, trade unions, Communists, Anarchists, and Syndicalists.

Hitler smashed the German trade unions. The Tories wound up the Conservative trade union movement.

Both the Nazis and the Tories have imposed compulsory, forced labour on the unemployed, who were denounced by the Nazis as ‘arbeitscheu’ and the Tories as ‘skivers’, for the profit of private industry.

I therefore feel that if Grant Shapps genuinely feels that the Tories are the ‘worker’s party’, he should go all the way and make it explicit. I therefore recommend that the Conservatives rename themselves ‘The National Conservative British Workers’ Party’. This is, after all, a clear expression of their attitude towards the workers.

Is This the Real Reason for the Tories’ Gagging Laws?

February 17, 2014

Cameron Pic

Nick Clegg

David Cameron and Nick Clegg: have attempted to regulate and clamp down on free speech and democratic criticism.

The Coalition has shown itself to be consistently opposed to free speech. Mike over at Vox Political, the Void, Another Angry Voice, and Tom Pride at Pride’s Purge have blogged on the way the Conservatives are attempting to stifle dissent and criticism through the Gagging Laws and other legislation. The act regulating political lobbying would make political campaigning by groups, which are not political parties illegal, while allowing the big corporations that lobby MPs to carry on as usual.

They have attempted to censor the internet, with the full backing of the outraged, Middle class authoritarians of the Daily Mail, on the pretence of protecting children and the vulnerable from accessing pornography and the other horrors out on the Net. This frightened and outraged the Neo-Pagans, ritual magicians and other occultists, who found that one of the subjects the Coalition wanted to restrict access to was ‘the esoteric’. This is a term frequently used to describe the occult. Here it probably means something like ‘weird stuff we don’t like, but haven’t thought of yet’, though as the late Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickinson was utterly convinced that there were intergenerational groups of witches and Satanists abusing and sacrificing children, it may well indeed have been intended to attack contemporary occultism.

Tom Pride in particular has found himself the victim of such legislation, after his blog was censored by one internet provider because it contained ‘adult material’. Politics are adult business, and so this is an attack, not just on Mr Pride, but on the continued discussion of politics on the Net.

And a few days ago Mike over at Vox Political described how Britain had fallen from 29th to 33rd place in the index of international press freedom through the government’s persecution of the Guardian for publishing the revelations of mass surveillance by the British and American intelligence services by Edward Snowden.

Clearly, the Coalition is desperately afraid of free speech.

Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler: Private Industry needs dictatorship to defend it from democracy.

In his address to a group of 20 German industrialists on 20th February 1933, Hitler urged them to fund the Nazi party as a way of protecting private enterprise from the threat of democracy.

Private enterprise cannot be maintained in the age of democracy; it is conceivable only if the people have a sound idea of authority and personality. Everything positive, good and valuable, which has been achieved in the world in the field of economics and culture, is solely attributable to the importance of personality. When, however, the defence of the existing order, its political administration, is left to a majority, it will go under irretrievably. All the worldly goods which we possess we owe to the struggle of the chosen. Had we the present conditions in the Middle Ages, the foundations of our German Reich would never have been laid. The same mentality that was the basis for obtaining these values must be used to preserve these values… It is, however, not enough to say: We do not Communism in our economy. If we continue on our old political course, then we shall perish. We have fully experienced in the past years that economics and politics cannot be separated. The political conduct of the struggle is the primary, decisive factor. Therefore, politically clear conditions must be reached…

Cameron and Clegg also lead an elite government, composed of aristocrats, with the express purpose of defending private industry from state interference, and extending it into areas previous considered to be that of the state. Nazi Germany had a dirigiste, centrally-planned economy, though one which preserved and operated through private, rather than state-owned industry as in the Soviet Union. Cameron and Clegg have also showed themselves eager to suppress free speech and democratic political campaigning by groups outside the parties. Is this because they similarly share Hitler’s fear that

‘Private enterprise cannot be maintained in the age of democracy’, but only if the people are led by a strong, dictatorial personality, like a Right-wing, authoritarian Prime Minister and his deputy?

From Political Apathy to Dictatorship

February 17, 2014

Russell Brand

Russell Brand: Funny man and bête noir of the Right

A little while ago, Russell Brand caused controversy by declaring that politics and politicians was now so corrupt that people shouldn’t vote. He then went on to say that he wanted a revolution instead, though qualified this by saying it should be bloodless. Both statements were extremely controversial, with Webb, the other half of the comedy duo Mitchell and Webb, attacking him advocating revolution, which, in his view, led to violence, gulags and horrific atrocities by the state.

These are all indeed dangers of a revolution, and were certainly consequences of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia. They can also be the dangers of political apathy, of deliberately not voting, at least as used in the tactics of the extreme Right to bring down a democratic system they detest.

Hans Zehrer

Hans Zehrer: Extreme Right-wing Theoretician of apathy.

One of the leading neoconservative intellectual circles in Germany during the last years of the Weimar republic was based around the magazine Die Tat (‘The Deed’ in German), edited by Hans Zehrer. Zehrer was influenced by the sociological theories of Max and Alfred Weber, Karl Mannheim, and Vilfredo Pareto. The last was an Italian political theorist, who was particularly important in the rise of Fascism for his theories about the role of elites in shaping society. The early 1930s were a period of acute unemployment and frustration for young German graduates as the twice as many students graduated from university than there were suitable jobs for them. Zehrer was interested in the role of the intellectual in society, and shared their resentment at the lack of opportunities for them. He therefore urged them to abandon the Weimar republic, and drew on the experiences of the various youth leagues and Pareto and other political theorists to develop ideas about the new elite that would arise from these alienated intellectuals. He was so opposed to the Weimar republic and its democracy that he urged his readers to stand back from any political activity with the slogan ‘Achtung, junge Front! Draussenbleiben! (Attention, young front! Remain Uncommitted!)

There are parallels to today’s situation. Disenchantment with the political system is strong, with more and more people staying away from the voting booths. Employment prospects for graduates are similarly declining. Despite the massive expansion of Higher Education over the last twenty or thirty years, the number of careers open to graduates has not expanded, but sharply declined. As result, many students leaving university now find themselves performing menial, dead-end jobs saddled with tens of the thousands of pounds student debt. None of the political parties has shown themselves remotely sympathetic. It was Tony Blair, who introduced tuition fees. This was followed, however, by a massive increase under the Coalition. The Lib Dems are particularly resented for their complicity in this. Not only had Nick Clegg lied when he told the nation’s students that he would abolish them, but Vince Cable also declared that graduates should automatically pay more tax as they would inevitably become high earners. This is a fact that has escaped many former students, now waiting on tables or flipping burgers in McDonald’s. There is considerable alienation against the present situation and the three main parties, who are held to be responsible for it.

This hasn’t shown itself in a turn to extremist parties, however. Communism has more or less collapsed, and the BNP remains extremely unpopular. Other Right-wing groups and parties, however, have emerged, such as the English Defence League and UKIP. The latter deny they are racist, but are motivated by bitter resentment of the EU, to the point where they have been described as ‘BNP-lite’. They also claim to stand apart from the three main parties, Labour, Liberals and Conservatives, but are like them in that they share their Neo-Liberal economics. Indeed, they are more extreme in their enthusiasm for privatisation, free-trade and the destruction of the welfare state than the Tories.

In the Weimar republic, the alienation of the Conservative intellectuals contributed to the rise of the Nazi dictatorship. That probably won’t occur here, as truly Fascist movements are despised. What it is leading to is less voters turning out to oppose UKIP. And there is the danger that without an active engagement in politics by the British public, this will become the preserver of unelected, managerial elites. Those who would undoubtedly benefit from this are the multinational corporations to whom the government has handed so much of the administration of British public life and state. Atos as public servants are appalling. Atos as an unelected government would be unimaginably worse.

More on the Weird Psychology of Ian Duncan Smith

February 16, 2014

Ian Duncan Rimmer

Last week I put up a post showing how Ian Duncan Smith’s psychology conforms to the ‘drive to power’ identified by Nixon’s quondam psychiatrist, Dr Arnold Hutschnecker. As described in Alex de Jonge’s biography of Stalin, Hutschnecker

derives it from a painful sense of one’s own insignificance, a fear of death and the wish to have others die. It is associated with a low sexual drive and an inability to love. ‘It moves on the wings of aggression to overcome inferiority … Those whose power to love and consequently create has been broke will choose war inorder to experience an intoxicating sense of power and excitement’. (p. 510).

This seems to be a good diagnosis of a man, who has falsely claimed, amongst other things, to have a degree from an Italian institution that doesn’t issue them, and whose claim to have been an officer in the British army is also highly questionable.

laundry basket

A laundry basket, though not possibly the type IDS has been known to hide in.

Jaypot added a few more details to the discussion in her comment to the piece.

IDS is a narcissist and he enjoys the power he has over people’s lives. I truly believe that he enjoys hearing about the deaths of people as he can only feel enjoyment, and, perhaps a sexual release in his persecution of the poor.
Another emotion that IDS does feel is fear – he is absolutely terrified of everyone who is poor or beneath him, which has been seen on a number of occasions. One was hiding in a laundry basket in Edinburgh (PMSL) and one of the most famous ones is where he has the armed guards surrounding him when waiting to go into the committee about his “use of statistics and his waste of money on UC). Those armed police should NOT have had their guns pointed at anyone, least of all the small amount of people who had every right to also go into the committee hearing! I still think that should be dealt with by the police commissioner!
IDS is coming to the end of his failed “career”, just like his whole life has been one failure after another. Here’s hoping karma gets him and let’s hope it’s very soon.

Fear of the general public is another psychological trait IDS, and indeed Cameron and Georg Osborne, share with Stalin. None of them can be seen as ‘men of the people’ in the same sense of Hitler, Mussolini, or indeed, Oswald Mosely. While they like power, they seem to be definitely afraid of meeting the public except in highly organised and choreographed events. Until the 1930s, Stalin was very rarely photographed and granted very few interviews to the Soviet press. During the purges he was so terrified of the reactions of the Soviet people, that at the annual May Day parade in Moscow one year Red Square was empty of crowds, except for a group of children waving banner and slogans located a quarter of a mile away from Stalin and the other Communist leaders. All the cheering heard during that celebration of Communist power was recorded, and played over loudspeakers.

I similarly noticed that the Olympic Stadium was empty was David Cameron gave his speech imploring the Scots to stay in the United Kingdom. It was conspicuous that Cameron did not do the Scots the courtesy of addressing them directly in Scotland itself, but chose to make his statement in the London, the former metropolis of the British Empire. Furthermore, Alex Salmond has challenged him to a debate. Cameron has ducked this, saying that he will talk to the Scots people themselves later this year. This will, no doubt, be in a very carefully, micro-managed political walkabout, where hostile or dissenting voices can be side-lined or edited out to present an image of Cameron talking easily to an enthusiastic, or at least receptive, Scots public, rather than given the barrage of criticism and abuse he’s more likely to get north of the Border.

It also looks very much that Cameron knows that Salmond is the better debater, and is desperate not to lose face by being beaten in an argument with him in public. As for the general public south of the Border, it was very noticeable indeed that there was no-one except the media in the Olympic Stadium when he made the speech. If it had been Oswald Mosely, that stadium would have been full, along with heckling and mass fighting. This obviously wouldn’t look good for the leader of an ostensibly centre-right part, although Cameron shares Mosely contempt for the organised working class. And so Cameron stands to give a speech in an empty stadium.

George Osborne similarly appears anxious around the British public. One of my colleagues on the unemployment course I’m on at the moment remarked on how uncomfortable Osborne looked when he met a group of workers at an engineering factory on a political walkabout a few months ago. And so he well might. Osborne, like Cameron, is another aristocrat, who has nothing in common with the majority of the British people, and who clearly fears the reception he might get for his economic and social policies that are intended to shift the tax burden onto them and deprive them of even more public services in order to generate tax cuts for the rich.

As for workfare, Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslav Communist leader and dissident describes why the Yugoslavs tried to abolish forced voluntary work after their break with Stalin. He also states that he objected to it, not just because of the hardship and suffering it inflicted on the ‘volunteers’, but also because of the psychology behind it. He writes

Soon after Stalin’s death, we abolished voluntary mass physical labor for youth and disbanded the collective farms. The initiative for the first came from the youth leadership at its congress of March 6 and was promoted by economists: youth labor was too costly and inefficient. I supported their initiative, though more for political than for economic reasons. I felt that voluntary mass labor was an outmoded form that encouraged quasi-military, monolithic thinking among our young people-thinking more akin to slogans than to freedom.

This does, I think, also go straight to the heart of the thinking behind workfare in the definitely anti-Communist, private enterprise supporting Conservative party. The Conservatives like the army, or at least, they did until the Coalition decided to cut their funding too, and have tried to impose a military solution to social problems. I remember how they called for the re-introduction of conscription back in the 1980s to solve the problems of youth crime and poor education. A decade or so later, and Michael Howard was recommending US-style ‘boot camps’ to straighten out young offenders. The same mindset seems to permeate IDS’ and Osborne’s workfare. The Nudge Unit has been involved in shaping the various unemployment forms and procedures to that the unemployed see themselves and their own personal failings as the cause of their inability to find a job, rather than the economy or government policy. And mindless drudgery stacking shelves for Tesco and turning burgers also seems deliberately designed, not just to supply cheap labour to their corporate paymasters, but also to break the spirit of the unemployed. We have seen just how hostile the system is to anyone, who manages to get a fulfilling voluntary job outside of the menial drudgery prescribed by the DWP or Jobcentre Plus. Remember the case of the geography graduate, who was told that she couldn’t do voluntary work in a museum, and that she had to work instead at one of the supermarkets?

Now the army states that its training is designed to mould the psychology of its soldiers. A friend of mine, a former army officer, once told me that the army tries to break you, in order to put you back together. As with all the rest of the government’s policies, the Coalition has adopted only the negative parts of this process: the breaking of the individual’s spirit. While they claim that workfare encourages a proper attitude to work, clearly the other qualities the army seeks to inculcate in its soldiers and officers – courage, self-reliance, initiative, are not required. If they were, there would be absolutely no problem with that graduate doing her voluntary work at the Museum. But all that is really wanted is demoralised, obedient drones for corporate exploitation.

The Coalition conform to the psychology of tyrants like Stalin, who fear their own people, and attempt to destroy them physically and mentally. Workfare, like the mass ‘voluntary’ labour of the totalitarian regimes, is another tool in this process.

The Coalition’s Secret Courts and Communist Yugoslavia’s Gulags

February 15, 2014

gulag_1

Inmates at a Soviet Gulag

Many bloggers, including myself, have raised the issue of the Coalition’s increasing intolerance, its attempts to close down freedom of speech and the press through legislation such as the anti-lobbying bill. Vox Political yesterday reblogged a piece showing that Britain had fallen from 29th to 33rd place in the world for press freedom following the government’s campaign against the Guardian for publishing the revelations of comprehensive British and American secret surveillance.

One of the most alarming developments in the Coalition’s creation of an increasingly authoritarian and dictatorial state are the secret courts, which have been set up with the full backing of those champions of freedom and democracy, the Lib Dems. Another Angry Voice has particularly blogged and commented on them. He gives this brief description of them:

For those of you that don’t know about what the Tory “Secret Courts” bill entails, here’s a brief description: As it now stands, defendants (or claimants in civil cases) can be excluded from the hearings where their fates are decided; they will not be allowed to know what the case against them is; they will not be allowed to enter the courtroom; they will not be allowed to know or challenge the details of the case; and they will not be allowed representation from their own lawyer, but will instead be represented (in their absence) by a security-cleared “special advocate”.

See his post ‘Secret Courts: The Very Illiberal Democrats’ at http://anotherangryvoice.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/secret-courts-very-illiberal-democrats.html

This legislation places Britain alongside the nightmarish perversions of justice described in fiction by Franz Kafka in his novels The Castle and The Trial, in which the hero has been arrested and repeatedly interrogated for an unknown crime. He does not know himself what he is supposed to have done, and the authorities never tell him. This grotesque injustice was the reality in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Under the Ba’ath legal code, there were a set of laws, knowledge of whose existence was also prohibited and for which individuals could be arrested and tried. I can remembering hearing about this through the BBC’s radio coverage of the arrest and eventual execution of Bazoft, a British journalist of Iranian origin, who was arrested for spying by Hussein’s regime. The passage last March of the Secret Courts bill, and the government’s attempt to prosecute the Guardian for Snowden and clamp down on other forms of dissent, raises the real possibility that such a grotesque miscarriage of justice will also occur in Britain.

Apart from Hussein’s Iraq, it is also very, very much like the totalitarian regimes of the Stalinist Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, where anyone considered to be a threat to the regime was subject to summary arrest and deportation into the concentration camps and gulags. Further communication with them was difficult, if not impossible. In both regimes those arrested simply disappeared. For the Nazis, such unexplained disappearances were a deliberate part of the system of arrest and imprisonment. It was called ‘Nacht und Nebel’, or ‘Night and Fog’, and was intended to cause even further terror of the Nazi dictatorship.

Djilas

Milovan Djilas, Yugoslav Communist leader and dissident

The Yugoslavian Communist regime of Marshal Tito also established a gulag after it’s split with Stalin in the late 1940s. The Yugoslavs were resisting Stalin’s attempt to turn their country into a satellite of the Soviet Union. Undercover of diplomatic missions, joint Yugoslav-Soviet companies and even a Soviet film of Tito’s victory in the Second World War and the rise of the Communist government in Yugoslavia, Stalin’s regime attempted to recruit spies against Tito’s government. The international Communist organisation, the Cominform, was also used to recruit agents and spread discontent in order to undermine Yugoslavia’s independence.

The regime responded with the summary arrest of anyone suspected of pro-Soviet sympathies and the establishment of a gulag for them on Goli Otok, or Bare Island. Milovan Djilas, a former Vice-President of Yugoslavia, President of the National Assembly and later leading dissident, describes the system of arrests and the brutal conditions under which the inmates were held in his autobiographical account of the regime and his part in it, Rise and Fall.

He notes the camp’s extra-legal basis, and the way it was established at the highest authority.

The camp for Cominformists on Goli Otok (“Bare Island”) in the northern Adriatic was organized without a legal basis. At first, Cominformists were simply taken into custody and shipped there. A law was passed later covering obligatory “socially useful labor,” as the camp activities were innocently designated for official purposes. Moreover, not even the Politburo, or its inner circle, the Secretariat, ever made any decision about the camp. It was made by Tito himself and implemented through Rankovic’s State Security apparatus. (p. 235).

After examining the motives behind those who joined the Cominform against the Yugoslavian regime, including personal rivalry and frustration at their lack of personal advancement, Djilas describes the harsh conditions in the camp.

Sentences to Goli Otok were imposed by the security organ. By law, no term could exceed two years, but there was no limit on its renewal. Inmates who languished there for ten years were not uncommon.

On his passage to the island the prisoner was shoved-in fact, hurled- to the bottom of the boat. Then, when he emerged on Goli Otok, he had to run the gauntlet. This was a double line of inmates, who vied with one another in hitting him. If gouged eyes were a rarity, broken teeth and ribs were not. There were also incorrigibles, who were subjected to lynching, sometimes spontaneous, sometimes not.

The inmates had no visitation rights. They received neither letters nor packages-at least not in the early period. Until word leaked out unofficially, their families had no idea where they were; letters were addressed to a number, as to soldiers in wartime. Their labor was not only hard and compulsory, but often meaningless as well. One of the punishments was carrying heavy stones back and forth. Work went on in all kinds of weather. What stuck in their tormented memories, as I can well understand, was labouring on rocky ground in scorching heat. State Security got carried away with making a productive enterprise out of Goli Otok, for this was the period when the Security bosses were tinkering with our economy and founding export firms; yet nothing came of this “production” but suffering and madness. Then, when finally released, inmates were sworn to silence about the camp and its methods. This could have been taken for granted, yet little by little the truth came out anyway, especially after the fall of Rankovic in 1966. (pp. 241-2).

Tito was intent on suppressing the Cominform in Yugoslavia with as little bloodshed as possible. The camp was intended on ‘re-educating’ the political prisoners, rather than murdering them, a process that was nevertheless carried out with extreme brutality.

This nuance of his-on the head but not off with it-explains why so few Cominformists were killed. But it also became the basis for unimagined, unheard-of coercion, pressure, and torture on the island. There, re-education, or “head-knocking”, was made the responsibility of certain inmates- the “reconstructed” ones-who in effect collaborated with Security. The latter involved itself as little as possible, leaving the re-education to “self-managing units” made up of reconstructed inmates, who went to inhuman extreme to ingratiate themselves and win their own release. They were inventive in driving their fellow victims similarly to “reconstruct” themselves. There is no limit to the hatred and meanness of the new convert toward yesterday’s coreligionists. (p. 241).

Djilas makes it clear that many of those interned in the camp would not have been imprisoned if they had instead been tried in an open court.

But regardless of any such factor, there is no question that the vast majority of Cominformists would never have been sent to Goli Otok had the proceedings been the least bit legal, reasonable and undogmatic. People were arrested and committed to the camp for failure to report intimate “cominformist” conversations or for reading leaflets and listening to the short-wave radio. Subsequent victims included those who at the time of the resolution said that we ought to have attended the Bucharest meeting at which our party was condemned.

Djilas recognised that Communist ideology played a part in the construction of the camp and the terror they inflicted in order to destroy Stalin’s influence in Yugoslavia. He also cautions, however, against viewing such human rights abuses as a purely Communist phenomenon.

But the way we dealt with those arrested and their families-that was something else again. There was no need to behave as we did. That conduct sprang from our ideological dogmatism, from our Leninist and Stalinist methods, and, of course, in part from our Balkan traditions of reprisal.

But analyses can be left to historians and philosophers. My business is to get on with the tale, a tale of defeat and disgrace, not only for Yugoslav Communism but also for our times and humankind. If the Yugoslav gulag, like the Soviet, is explained purely in terms of the “inhuman” or “antihuman” nature of Communism, that is an oversimplified judgment that in its way is just as ideological. Ideology, I think, was only a motivational expression, the appeal to an ideal, justifying the insane human yearning to be lord and master. Sending people off to camps is neither the invention nor the distinction of Communists. People like those of us at the top of the heap, with our ideals and absolute power,, are bound to throw our opponents into a camp. yet if the treatment of the inmates had come up for discussion-if discussion had not been precluded by Tito’s omnipotent will-different views would have emerged among us and more common-sense and human procedures would have been instituted. Some of us were aware of this paradox: a camp must be established, yet to do so was terrible. (pp. 236-7).

The Western press was also content not to report the existence of the forced labour camp.

Characteristic both of the time and of the relationships then unfolding was the attitude towards the press, Eastern as well as Western, toward the camp. The Western press by an large showed no interest in it, certainly no critical interest. The same could be said of the Western diplomatic corps. Whenever the persecution of Cominformists came up, as if by agreement these diplomats displayed a tacit understand: our independence and the state were threatened by a combination of external and internal pressure. But there was also a note of ambiguity, of malicious joy behind the Westerners’ façade of understanding: let the Communists exterminate each other and so reveal the very nature of Communism. (pp. 242-3).

All these elements are present in the policies the Coalition has adopted towards press freedom and the unemployed. The secret courts set up by the Coalition would allow those deemed to be a threat to be tried without the normal conventions to ensure justice and protect the accused until they are found guilty. This is important: in British law, you are innocent until the court is convinced of your guilt, and the onus is on the prosecution to prove their case.

The Coalition have also shown themselves more than willing to use psychological techniques to indoctrinate their policies’ victims. The unemployment courses and forms drawn up with the advice of the Nudge Unit are designed so that the unemployed will blame themselves for their joblessness, rather than the economy.

Elements within the Conservative party have also at times called for the establishment of camps for individuals they judged to be a threat to the British state. One of the reasons behind the assassination of Airey Neave, Margaret Thatcher’s political mentor, in the 1970s by the INLA was because Neave had called for the establishment of internment camps in northern Ireland. And as workfare shows, there is a strong impulse towards using compulsory ‘voluntary’ labour to support big business in Britain, just as it was used in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, and, for that matter, Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Nor can the British press be depended on to guard traditional British freedoms of speech and justice. AS Mike over at Vox Political has shown, part of the reason for the marked decline in press freedom in this country is due to the Right-wing press’ collusion with the authorities in attacking the Guardian and Edward Snowden. It’s has been alleged by Lobster that in the 1980s the Sunday Times under Andrew ‘Brillo Pad’ Neil was a conduit for disinformation from the British security services. Certainly Neil has shown no qualms about making unsupported claims about Allende’s democratically elected Marxist government in Chile in order to support the coup led by Thatcher’s friend, General Pinochet.

These secret courts, the gagging laws and workfare have to be stopped now, before they develop into something exactly like the forced labour camps of the Nazis and Communists. And that has to start by voting out the Coalition.

Cameron Pic

Nick Clegg

David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Together their reforms are laying the foundations for a police state and forced labour camps.

Forced ‘Voluntary’ Labour in Communist Yugoslavia and Coalition’s Workfare

February 14, 2014

Djilas

Milovan Djila, Yugoslavian Communist politician and leading dissident

I’ve posted a number of pieces attacking workfare and pointing out its similarity to the programmes of forced ‘voluntary’ work imposed in Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. A piece I’ve reblogged here from the website, Guy Debord’s Cat, has also reported on the government’s plans to use work camp labour in the construction of the HS2 rail link. This is another strong reason to oppose the link.

In addition to Stalin’s Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Yugoslavia also adopted a programme of forced ‘voluntary’ labour in the first years of the Communist regime after the Second World War. The Yugoslavian Communist leader and dissident, Milovan Djilas, describes the system in his book Rise and Fall (London: MacMillan 1985). Djilas was Vice-President of Yugoslavia and became President of the National Assembly in 1953. He was removed from office the following year for criticising the party’s abuses, arrested for ‘hostile propaganda’ and then sentenced to seven years in prison following the publication of his book, The New Class in 1957. This attacked the Communist party for becoming a new, exploitative class, which in its way was worse than the old bourgeoisie. Djilas considered that despite its corruption, the bourgeois capitalist classes had at least invested their own money in the businesses they ran. Its successor, the Communist party and its officials, were worse in that they did not do even that, just exploiting the state and its material advantages for themselves. Rise and Fall was Djilas’ account of his life and political career from his appointment as head of the Yugoslavian Communist’s agit-prop department in the new regime after the War, to his eventual fall from power, imprisonment and release.

He describes the Communist regime’s use of ostensibly voluntary labour in the following passages:

‘Reconstruction and renewal called for extraordinary measure. Arising out of wartime necessity, spontaneous workers’ efforts rapidly became important and even imperative for anything involving heavy, unmechanized work. Soon, renewal and reconstruction were no longer regulated by their own economic and human laws, but originated more and more with the state bureaucracy and its directors. As industrialization proceeded, labor shortages became the most critical problem. In propaganda and in official consciousness, therefore, renewal and reconstruction came to be understood as sacred, patriotic, socialist duty, in the wake of which came mobilization into “voluntary mass labor brigades” – a mobilization more and more forced. The police began to play a part of their own in the economy by supplying these brigades to agricultural co-operatives. They were composed mainly of peasants, though they also included convicts of all kinds. At that time convicts numbered in the tens of thousands. The whole system multiplied and spread, and who knows where it might have led had it not become more costly than it was worth-had we not found ourselves in a dead end of inefficiency and Soviet manipulation.’ (pp. 22-3).

Later on Djilas describes the wretched condition of the volunteers and the appalling conditions they were forced to endure.

‘Passing through Bosnia in the spring of 1946 or 1947, I reached the Romanija Mountains, to the east of Sarajevo, where I saw hundreds of people, half-starved and freezing, sitting idle in logging camps. Talking with them, I found that they were mostly from Serbia and that they had neither been sentenced to work nor had they truly volunteered. Although they were supposed to work for as long as two months, they got no pay, and their food consisted of soup without meat, plus half a kilo of corn. Such a listless, underfed force, unpaid into the bargain, could not possibly have been induced to work hard, even if the proper specialists had been on hand. I encountered similar “volunteers” elsewhere – in Yugoslavia they could be found all over. Upon return to Belgrade, I conveyed my impressions to leading comrades, most of all to Kidric. Everyone saw the disadvantage and unreasonableness of so-called voluntary labor, but no one knew how else our projected tasks could be carried out. Soon thereafter, Kidric and his staff figured out that the cost of it all, including transport, food, medical care, and so forth, exceeded the return. “Voluntary” labor was abolished. What remained was voluntary work for the young, as part of their ideological upbringing, and, on the local level, labor that was truly voluntary’. (pp. 143-4).

As Djilas’ book extensively show, the Yugoslavian Communist party was initially strongly influenced by Stalin and Soviet Communism, before breaking with them later on the in 1940s. Nevertheless, they recognised it was too uneconomic, as well as suffering it inflicted on those forced into it, and so ended it. Despite this, Ian Duncan Smith and the rest of the Coalition have backed its introduction as workfare in the UK, and George Osborne has proposed to expand it so that even those with no income through benefit sanctions will be forced to work for free. See the posts on this by The Void and Another Angry Voice. And like the Yugoslavian Communists’ use of such forced and voluntary work, there is an ideological dimension as well as commercial or economic one. IDS’ reforms are all to make signing on as humiliating for the unemployed as possible in order to save the state the expense of supporting them. They are also constructed with the deliberate intent of psychologically manipulating the unemployed into blaming themselves, rather than the government or wider economy, for their failure to find work.

In a recent article, Another Angry Voice has presented several arguments why Right-wingers should not support IDS’ workfare, and queried by the Tories still continue to back it.

IDS Stalin

He has also suggested a few answers to this, none of them pleasant. The question, however, remains a good one and should be taken seriously by anyone on the political right, who seriously cares about the sovereign rights of the individual.

Manufacturing Compliance: The Nudge Unit and its Privatisation

February 10, 2014

Blakes 7 weapon

Federation scientist Cozer and his companion, the freed slave Rashel, await galactic freedom fighter Blake in the Blake’s 7 episode, Weapon.

Last Friday and today, the I newspaper has run articles reporting the impending privatisation of the Government’s Behaviour Insights Team, or Nudge Unit. The article describes the unit as using

‘insights from the emerging field of behavioural economics and psychology to subtly change the processes, forms and language used by government – to achieve outcomes that are in the in the “public good” and save money.’

A boxed article at the side then goes on to explain it more fully, stating that

‘Nudge articulates the idea that people can be persuaded to make the right decisions by simple changes in how choices are presented to them.’

It goes on to explain that the theory was first proposed in a book of the same name, published in 2008 by the economics professor Richard Thaler and law professor Cass Sunstein. They acknowledged that people frequently make bad decisions in their lives, thus contradicting one of the central tenets of economics – that people will always act rationally for their own good. The two authors then argued that the way choices are phrased or presented – the ‘choice architecture’ can be framed so that it nudges ‘people towards the most beneficial outcome without restricting their personal freedom.’

Although the two authors stated that “‘the libertarian aspect of our strategies lies in the straightforward insistence that, in general, people should be free to do what they like.” They then qualified this with the statement that it was ‘legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people’s behaviour in order to make their lives longer, healthier and better.”

Today’s I carries an interview with one of the founders of the Nudge Unit, David Halpern. He states that the Unit was set up four years ago under Tony Blair as his Strategy Unit, at a time when ‘the Blair administration was expanding the size of the state – spending more and regulating more’, often according to Blair’s own personal inclination. It did not, however, catch on with the Labour government, and only came into its own with the arrival of the Coalition in 2010. Halpern states that ‘Their instincts were generally ‘we’ve got no money and we’re going to constrain the size of the state and deregulate’.

The Nudge Unit is now about to be part-privatised into a company partly owned by the government, partly owned by the social-enterprise charity, Nesta, and partly owned by Halpern and his fellow employees.

As it is presented in the I, the Nudge Unit sounds very jolly and entirely innocuous. The piece opens with Halpern describing the work of the American psychologist, Carol Dweck, and her work showing how well school children perform in tests can be boosted simply by telling them that they’ve made a good effort.

It then describes the way the Unit experimented with personalised text messages to encourage people, who were about to be hit by the bailiffs, to pay their bills on time.

In the concluding paragraphs, Halpern describes his goal to unlock ‘hidden entrepreneurs’ ‘who never get beyond garages’. He mentions the way the mountain bike arose simply through someone experimenting in their garage with bits of other bikes. ‘Studies’, according to Halpern, ‘suggest 6 per cent of Britons have come up with a significant adaptation in the last year. But most never diffuse.’

The only doubts raised about the Unit and its methods are whether they are effective. The boxed article states that it has its critics, who have argued, like Baroness Julia Neuberger in the House of Lords, that there is little evidence that it works on large scales. The main article, however, leaves the reader in little doubt: ‘A lot in government were nervous of Nudge but the theory did work in practice – and the services of the Nudge team were suddenly in demand’. Hence its privatisation three years down the line.

Now all this seems entirely benign. Few people would cavil at methods that get people to pay their bills on time, thus avoiding a visit from the bailiffs, or get children to do better at their exams, or, indeed, just to have ‘longer, healthier and better’ lives.

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In the 20th century, such departments like the Nudge Unit would have been the objects of considerable fear and suspicion, especially after the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century used propaganda and coercion to generate the mass obedience and approval they demanded from their captive populations. This found its expression in the various dystopian regimes portrayed in Science Fiction. One of the great Science Fiction series of the 1970s and ’80s was Blake’s 7. This was a space opera, whose heroes were a kind of ‘Dirty Dozen’ let loose in a strange, totalitarian far future. They were led, at least in the first two of their four TV seasons, by Roj Blake, a former dissident, who had been captured and then suffered psychiatric torture at the hands of the Federation. This was a future Fascist super-state, which governed through a mixture of military force, propaganda and advanced psychological techniques and drugs, that sapped the will to resist from its people. The Federation permitted no freedom of speech, belief or movement amongst its citizens. Dissidents were brutally murdered, and the survivors framed and re-educated. Heading its armed forces was the seductive Servalan, played by Jacqueline Pearce, and her henchman, the violent and psychotic Travis, played by Brian Croucher. Both Croucher and Pearce have appeared in Dr. Who; Pearce as a treacherous alien super-scientist, Jocini O’ the Franzine-Greeg in the Colin Baker/Patrick Troughton Story ‘The Two Doctors’, and Croucher in the early Tom Baker serial ‘The Robots of Death’. He has also appeared in Eastenders and as an East End hard man in the detective drama, New Tricks.

Blake’s 7 was influenced by Star Wars and Star Trek, though it’s characters and background were darker than either of those two SF classics. Blake’s second-in-command, Kerr Avon, was a ruthless embezzler with a cynical contempt for idealists. ‘Show me the man who believes something, and I will show you a fool’. Such attitudes were not a fictional exaggeration. Similar sentiments were expressed by the evolutionary biologist, Jacques Monod, who once said ‘Scratch an idealist, and an egotist will bleed’. It isn’t hard to feel that the show’s creator, Terry Nation, had modelled the cool, rational, scientific Avon on Monod and other scientists like him.

And the methods used by the Federation to keep its citizens enslaved were also chillingly real. The show several times covered conditioning and similar brainwashing techniques used by the Federation to break and then manipulate its victims’ psychologies. Blake himself had been conditioned by intensive psychological therapy after he was captured leading a revolutionary group. Under the influence of the therapists he betrayed the other members, confessed to his own guilt, and was then reprogrammed to forget all about the events, his arrest, trial and the mass executions of his friends and family.

This aspect of the Federation was based on the notorious brainwashing techniques associated with the Communist dictatorships, particularly Mao’s China and the brutal regime of ‘self-criticism’ for those who challenged the Great Leader’s precepts during the Cultural Revolution. It also bore more than a little resemblance to the Soviet abuse of psychiatry revealed by Solzhenitsyn in Cancer Ward. Soviet psychiatrists had invented a spurious form of ‘schizophrenia’, which was curiously amorphous, taking just about any form required by the doctors diagnosing it and their superiors. It was used to incarcerate in lunatic asylums any and all opponents of regime. These ranged from religious believers to Communist idealists, such as a general and Old Bolshevik, who vociferously felt that Brezhnev’s Soviet Union had betrayed the noble principles of the Revolution. It also harks back to Skinner’s experiments in conditioning in the 1960s, and his fictional description of a utopian system in which the citizens had perfected themselves through the use of such psychological techniques.

About a decade ago Adam Curtis described the way Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, had used Freudian theory to lay the foundations of modern PR in his landmark series, The Century of the Self. Curtis was similarly unimpressed by PR, and dissected the way such techniques were used by corporations, the government, and some of the more sinister self-improvement cults that sprang up in the 1960s to control people’s minds. He was particularly unimpressed by the way the self-realised people of the Hippy counterculture then went off and, from reasons of liberated self-interest, voted for Ronald Reagan. The existence of the Nudge Unit seems to suggest that Halpern and his fellows saw the theories, and instead of looking at the dangers and fallacies accompanying it like the rest of the viewing public, immediately thought it was all rather cool.

Blake Carnell Weapon

The psycho-social strategist Carnell and Supreme Commander of Federation forces, Servalan, contemplate the success of David Cameron’s ‘Nudge Unit’.

Apart from the use of conditioning and psycho-therapy, the Federation armed forces also included an elite corps of ‘pscho-social strategists’, nicknamed ‘puppeteers’ by the rest of the Federation’s Starship Troopers. These specialised in using advanced psychological techniques to predict and manipulate the behaviour of the regime’s opponents. For example, in the episode, ‘Weapon’, Servalan uses one such puppeteer, Carnell, played by Scott Fredericks, to predict the mental breakdown and then manipulate a scientist, Cozer, who has designed an unstoppable superweapon, IMIPAC. Her goal is to seize the weapon for herself, while at the same killing the Blake and his crew and taking over their spaceship, the Liberator. Of course it all fails, and the weapon is taken over instead by the former slave girl, Rashel, with whom Cozer had escaped, and the other weapon in Servalan’s plan, a clone of Blake. The two become guardians of the weapon, with Travis remarking wryly ‘The weapon protects itself’.

With fears of totalitarian states manipulating and abusing their victims’ minds in reality and SF, something like the Nudge Unit would have been enough to bring anyone with a distrust of authoritarian government out onto the streets, from old school Conservatives with a hatred of Communism and Fascism all the way across the political spectrum through Liberals, Socialists to members of the Hippy counterculture, who were extremely suspicious of what their own governments were doing about this through reading the reports about MKULTRA and the CIA LSD experiments in the underground press.

And there are real dangers to this. Who, for example, decides what project is going to make people happier, with longer, better lives? Cameron undoubtedly claims it’s the Tories, but with something like 38,000 people dying per year thanks to welfare cuts and benefit sanctions, we can safely discount his opinion. Mike has several times mentioned the Nudge Unit in posts on his blog over at Vox Political, pointing out that the forms and courses used by the Coalition as part of their welfare to work package have been set up by the Nudge Unit with the deliberate intention of getting the unemployed to blame themselves, rather than the government’s policies, for their inability to get a job. Like the children in Dweck’s experiment, they are being encouraged to do better in a situation that is not their fault. It tacitly reinforces the government’s values and the economic system which leaves the unemployed without a job, and frequently without hope. And this is most definitely malign.

This is quite apart from the dangers of ‘function creep’, in which an administrative technique or department gradually acquires more power and extends its scope, as more administrators see its potential for solving their problems. The Nudge Unit is perhaps only a minor part of British government at the moment, but it has the potential to become something far larger and much more sinister. If we don’t carefully monitor it and similar initiatives, it could easily expand into something every bit as totalitarian and manipulative as Blake’s 7 Federation and its psycho-strategists.

I found the opening titles to the first season of the Blake’s 7 on Youtube. They show some of the major themes of the Federation – the use of armed force, brainwashing and surveillance. I leave it to you to decide for yourself how much of this unfortunately is coming true, though there are surveillance cameras all over the streets and Boris Jonson has bought two water cannons to use on any more protesters in London. Here it is. Enjoy!

Bite the Ballot, The Coalition and Youth Voter Apathy

February 5, 2014

Bite the Ballot

This morning, the BBC’s breakfast TV show covered the activities of a new group, Bite the Ballot, which is attempting to combat voter apathy amongst young people and encourage them to vote. The programme showed one of their members explaining to a group of young people that unless they vote, they have no voice in determining important government issues and that somebody would be voting for them. They also interviewed one young woman, who gave the reasons she believed that young people didn’t have an interest in politics. She didn’t take much interest in it, because she felt she didn’t know enough about it. Politics, and the differences between the parties, for example, weren’t taught in schools. And without a proper grounding in these issues, young people simply had no interest in it or voting.

The programme also remarked on the influence of members of the older generation, like Russell Brand, and their cynical attitude to politics and politicians. Brand caused controversy a few months ago by telling people not to vote, because of the complete lack of interest in representing the public by politicians. I distinctly remember Billy Connolly saying much the same thing a few years ago. The Big Yin declared himself to be an anarchist, and urged his audience, ‘Don’t vote – it only encourages them!’

This cynicism and apathy is partly caused by the venality and mendacity of politicians themselves. The expenses scandal that broke out doubtless confirmed many people’s belief that politicians were all corrupt and just in it for themselves. Nor would recent revelations about Clegg and Cameron’s lies about the NHS and tuition fees contradict such opinions. Mike has blogged on the report on the Guardian, pointed out to him by one of the great commenters on his blog, that Cameron made his statement that he would not privatise the NHS, and Clegg declared that he would not raise tuition fees before the general election with the intention that they would not keep these promises once elected. The public was lied to by a pair of cynical media manipulators of whom Goebbels would have been proud.

George Sorel

Georges Sorel: Radical Syndicalist who believed all politicians were liars.

The radical anarchists of the 19th century attacked parliamentary democracy for the way they believed politicians lied to and exploited the expectations of the voting public. The revolutionary Syndicalist, Georges Sorel, declared in his work, les Illusions du Progres that

‘Democracy succeeds in confusing people’s minds, preventing many intelligent persons from seeing things as they are, because it is served by advocates skilled in the art of confusing issues, thanks to captious language, a supple sophistry, and a monstrous apparatus of scientific declamation. It is especially with respect to the democratic era that one may say that humanity is ruled by the magic power of big words rather than by ideas, by formulas rather than by reasons, by dogmas the origin of which no one ever dreams of seeking rather than by doctrines founded on observation’.

Cameron Pic

Nick Clegg

David Cameron and Nick Clegg: Two of the politicians trying to prove Sorel right.

This exactly describes the Coalition, which has indeed deceived – and continues to deceive – the British public, and whose doctrine are neither exhaustively scrutinised by the Fourth Estate, but simply repeated as obvious common sense, nor are founded on observation. In fact, IDS deliberately seeks to obstruct proper examination of his policies by dragging his feet over giving any information to the Work and Pensions Committee, and blocking release of the figures showing the number of people, who’ve died after being thrown off benefit by ATOS.

There are dangers to this cynicism. Sorel’s radical anti-parliamentarianism, and his cult of violence expressed in Reflexions sur la Violence, influenced both the Bolsheviks in Russia and Mussolini’s Fascists. When he died both countries sent delegations to pay their respects.

However, the atrocities committed by the great totalitarian regimes like the above in the 20th century have had an effect in turning many people off politics. Certainly very few now have any time for extremist political doctrines like Communism or Fascism. The result is that most of the population, rather than seek radical answers outside parliament, or the reform of politics itself to make it more representative and more responsive to the needs and desires of the electorate, simply turn away. Faced with dissimulation and corruption, people simply change channels on the TV, or turn to the celeb gossip or the sports pages in the newspapers. ‘How do you tell when a politician is lying? His lips move’, as the old joke went on the late, and very great Max Headroom show.

Which may be exactly what the politicos want. Political journalists noted that Blair’s government was highly suspicious of the general public, and was very careful to stage manage congresses and meetings with them to present Blair in the best possible light. Mass membership of the Labour party declined, as voters felt Blair was not interest in the views of the little people, only in rich donors. The same attitude pervades the Conservative and Liberal parties, which have also seen their membership decline for very much the same reasons.

Not that this bothers Cameron and Clegg. These are upper-class aristos, leading a government of upper-class aristos. I get the impression that their background and temperament makes them instinctively distrustful of modern, mass politics. They’d far prefer that of the 18th and early 19th century, when there was a proper property qualification to vote, which excluded all but 20 per cent of the population from having the vote. This left government in the hands of the aristocracy, like themselves. Mike has reported how the government’s reforms of the registration system for voting will leave many confused and so disenfranchised, which certainly seems in line with such an attitude. Possibly in dark corners of smoke-filled rooms in Whitehall or Chequers Cameron, Clegg and the rest of the old Etonians gather round to complain about how it all should have stopped with the Great Reform Act of 1833, or at least with Disraeli’s expansion of the franchise in the 1870s. After all, the rotten and pocket boroughs weren’t all bad, and at least guaranteed the right sort of people a place in parliament.

nixon

Richard Nixon: the corrupt politician’s corrupt politician. But at least he knew how he put young people off politics.

Richard Nixon had the self-awareness to recognise that his attempts to overthrow the American constitution had put the young and idealistic off politics. In his interview with the late David Frost, ‘King Richard’ said he’d like to apologise to the young kid, who now felt all politicians were liars and frauds. His apology wasn’t sincere. Rather than being spontaneous, he’d carefully prepared it in order to gain public sympathy and wrongfoot Frostie. But even if he said it for purely selfish reasons, he at least was honest about the effects of his actions. There has been no such honesty from Cameron and Clegg. Mind you, they’ve got away with it. Nobody’s impeached them. But we live in hope.

Bite the Ballot are doing an excellent job of encouraging young people to take an active interest in politics. Public turn out at elections is declining alarmingly, to the point where I feel there is a real danger of politics simply becoming the preserve of an elite managerial class, which is funded and co-opted – not elected -from their friends in industry, with the masses kept a very poor second, if at all. If politicians really want people to start turning out at elections and give them a mandate for their policies, then the tenor of much modern politics needs to be changed. The political parties need to turn their attention to recruiting and representing the public, not rich donors. We also need politicians and governors, who can speak simply, clearly and without the management jargon that has now got into modern politics. People with a more ordinary background, who know what it is like to be a member of the working and lower middle classes, who have worked 9 to 5 jobs worrying about take home pay, rents and mortgages, and the difficulties of getting the kids into a good school, rather than the ambitious young things straight out of politics, philosophy and economics courses, and who understand that world only from the statistics they’re given by think tanks, Special Advisors and whichever management consultants or financial firm is the current governments flavour of the month.

But most of all, they can start by actually telling the truth to the public, and not cynically lying just to get a few more votes.

An Anthropological View of Homelessness in America – With Lessons for Britain

February 3, 2014

Anthony Marcus, Where Have All The Homeless Gone? The Making and unmaking of a Crisis (New York: Berghahn 2006)

America Homeless

We got a thousand points of light for the homeless man.
We got a kinder, gentler kind of napalm

– Neil Young, ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’.

I’ve posted a couple of piece before on some of the points this book makes about homelessness in America, and its relevance to Britain. One of the most important was the way the massive debt crisis of New York City’s municipal government in 1975 formed the template for Mrs Thatcher’s destruction of the welfare state in Britain, and the Coalition’s further attempts to end it altogether in the second decade of the 21st century.

The End of the Welfare State in New York and the Beginning of the Homeless Crisis

New York did have something like Britain’s welfare state, even a form of the dole and affordable, rent controlled housing. In 1975 it overspent to the point where it was unable to pay off its debt. In return for giving the City the right to issue bonds allowing it to finance its debt, the City was placed under the fiscal management of a consortium of businessmen and bankers to ensure its fiscal good government. These made swingeing cuts in the City’s welfare provision, to the point where millions were thrown out of their jobs. Unable to pay their rent, many were forced to move away from New York, while others were forced onto the streets. The rent controls remained, but instead of keeping housing affordable, they resulted in many landlords being unable to afford to maintain their properties. As a result, many were left without basic services like electricity or water, others were abandoned completely as landlords went bankrupt. Some landlords even firebombed their tenements to collect on the insurance. The result was a massive increase in homelessness. At the same time, the location and visibility of New York’s rough sleepers changed. Instead of being confined to certain run down districts – the traditional Skid Row of urban American geography, the homeless moved out into the more upmarket residential districts and even into the city centre.

Racial Stereotypes of Homelessness

The Black community was particularly hard hit. Many of the homeless men interviewed by Marcus were well-educated, from reasonably affluent, middle class backgrounds. However, the Black community particularly relied upon the municipal government, either directly or indirectly for their jobs, and so were disproportionately hit when those jobs were shed. The result was that the stereotypical image of a homeless person in the period in which Marcus worked – the late 1980s and first years of the 1990s – was a poorly dressed, mentally ill Black person. Marcus takes particular care to counter this stereotype, as it formed the basis for the campaigns of several of City’s leaders, like Mayor Dinkins, to tackle homelessness. It ignored the vast numbers of homeless Whites and the homeless Blacks, who were articulate and dressed neatly. While much effort was directed at those groups that corresponded to the stereotype, these people were ignored as they simply didn’t match contemporary ideas of who the homeless were.

The book is based on the doctoral research Marcus did amongst a group of fifty homeless Black men working for one of the City’s homelessness projects from 1989 to 1993. It is his attempt to answer the question of what happened to public awareness of the issue of homelessness. He points out that from 1983 to 1993 homelessness was one of the biggest American political issues. There were rock songs about homeless people, and universities, charities, politicians, and activist groups attempted to study and tackle the issue.

This concern evaporated from 1993 onwards. The crisis continued and the availability of proper, affordable housing continued to fall, but increasingly less attention was paid to the issue. Funds for its study dried up, and the academics researching it moved away to fresher, and more lucrative areas of study. Marcus quotes one of his former research colleagues as laughing when Marcus told him he was writing up his Ph.D. research, declaring that homelessness was so last century.

Critiques of the ‘Cultures of Poverty’

Much of Marcus’ book is a critique of the narrow historiographical focus that determined that rather than tackle the root causes of the homeless crisis in lack of suitably paid jobs, affordable housing and welfare policies that would allow the unemployed to get and retain accommodation, saw the problem exclusively in terms of the supposed moral defects of the homeless themselves in a mirror-image of the ‘cultures of poverty’ view. This grew out of the previous studies of American homelessness centred around Skid Row, the decrepit section of American towns occupied by single-occupancy hotels for the homeless, and a population of homosexuals, transvestites, prostitutes and other marginal, transgressive or bohemian groups. The other major influence was Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America, which examined the squalor and poverty in urban Black ghettoes. As a result, when the American welfare state, under Richard Nixon, began to tackle unemployment and homelessness, it did so with the assumption that the homeless themselves were somehow responsible for their condition. They were supported, but that support was made as unpleasant as possible in order to force them to come off welfare whenever possible. Hence the penalisation of the unemployed through demeaning forms of state support such as food stamps, rather than a welfare cheque. Seen the similarity to the attitudes of Cameron, Clegg, IDS and McVie yet?

Cultures of Deviancy and Violence in Homeless Shelters

This attitude by the authorities that there is a ‘culture of poverty’, created by and defined by the idleness, drunkenness, profligacy and other inappropriate behaviour of the poor themselves is particularly attacked by Marcus. He found that there was no difference in morals and behaviour between the homeless people he studied, and those of the wider population. This included the ‘shelterisation’ debate surrounding the perceived culture of violence in the homeless shelters. These had been set up in New York in response to the finding of a judge that the City had failed in its legal duty to provide shelter and wholesome food for a homeless man that had been turned away from one. Marcus states that for most of the residents of these shelters, their greatest problem was finding a lead long enough to reach the wall socket so that they could do their ironing. Nevertheless, the violent criminals included in the shelters’ population meant that the developed a reputation for being dominated by ex-convict bodybuilders and their transvestite shelter ‘wives’. Marcus found that rather than being a gay space, homeless gay men were subjected to the same levels of abuse and intimidation they experienced in the outside world. Their attitude to the ex-cons was that they weren’t really gay. At the same time they had their transvestite lovers in the shelter, they also had heterosexual relationship with wives and girlfriends outside. One of Marcus’ gay informants told him that if you watched the ex-cons outside, they never held hands or socialised with their transvestite shelter partners. He concluded that they were really heterosexual men, who just wanted to have sex and weren’t concerned with whom they had it in the single sex environment of the homeless shelters.

Marcus concluded that the shelters developed their reputation for violence and bizarre behaviour, as few researchers actually interacted or examined the way their residents behaved outside of its environment. The methodological problems were too difficult, making it almost impossible. So instead the academics concentrated on their behaviour inside the shelter, and unconsciously assumed that their behaviour was formed by it. Marcus gradually came to the opposite conclusion – that the men in the homeless shelters acted as they did, not because of the environment of the homeless shelter, but because that was what they did anyway. So the various types of bizarre and slovenly behaviour, which normally remained hidden in the confines of a private home, such as one resident, who never got up on a Sunday morning but simply urinated into a glass by the side of his bed, was suddenly on public display.

Homeless Not Radically Different or Separate from Rest of Population

Linked to this was a wider problem in identifying just who exactly the homeless were. Many of the individuals studied only spent part of their time sleeping in public. Other nights they slept round a friends or girlfriends, or were given room in an airing cupboard or basement by a kindly janitor in return for doing cleaning work. There was also a wider population of young people sleeping on the floors of friends while they looked for an apartment after graduating from university. These middle class, educated Americans weren’t seen as homeless.

And many of the Black homeless men Marcus interviewed didn’t see themselves as homeless either. They compared their state to that of young Whites, who had just graduated. It was a similar stage of carefree abandon until they finally hit maturity and sorted themselves out, got a proper job and apartment. Marcus also notes that for many Black homeless men, their condition meant acting out a variety of roles. He called them The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The Good was the White man’s negro, who accepted mainstream, White American culture and values when it meant impressing White academics or employers in order to get a job or a place on an educational programme. The Bad was that of the angry, violent Black man. His informants told him they had to adopt this pose, as otherwise Whites would just see them as ‘niggers’ and disparage or exploit them. They had stories of an effeminate ‘White man’s Negro’, who tried to fit in with the culture of his White colleagues and bosses, only for him to be exploited and sacked. Interestingly, the models taken for this role of violent, rebellious Black masculinity were all race-natural. They included ‘Leatherface’, from Tobe Hooper’s class bit of grue, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Sean Connery’s James Bond. Indeed, many of Marcus’ Black informants identified by Connery so much that they felt sure that Scotland’s cinematic hard man was Black, at least partly. The Ugly was a term coined by Marcus himself, and referred to those homeless, who dressed badly and had lost both their sanity and dignity. It was a role the men studied by Marcus most disliked, because of its passivity, and lack of masculinity. Nevertheless, many homeless Black men adopted it in order to get some of the benefits that were only available through this role.

Disillusionment with Regime in ‘Not-for-Profit’ Housing

Eventually the scandal surrounding the violence and criminality within the municipal shelters became so great that the City authorities were forced to act. The system was privatised, so that instead or supplementing the vast municipal shelters were a system of ‘transient’ accommodation run by not-for-profit corporations. These were supposed to be smaller, and more responsive to their residents’ needs than the City homeless provision. Marcus examines these too, and demonstrates how many of the shelter residents became increasingly disillusioned with them, even to the point where they preferred moving back to the shelters or onto the streets.

What Marcus’ informants most objected to was the intense regimentation and supervision of almost every aspect of their lives. This was supposedly to help the homeless develop the right attitudes and habits that would allow them to move out of the transient housing and into a proper apartment with a proper job. In practice, this control was absolute and degrading. Security was tight, and the inmates were rigorously searched as they entered the building. The not-for-profits, like the shelters, also broke up heterosexual couples. Many of the homeless studied by Marcus had mental health problems of varying severity. Some were particularly ill, while others were less affected. Marcus says that in some the level of mental illness was so slight, he suspected that it may have been a pretence by the sufferer to get off the streets by feigning illness. Well, you can’t blame them for that. As part of the conditions of residence, these men were forced to take medication to combat their mental problems. They complained that it left them feeling like zombies, and deprived them of their sexual functions, a sense of emasculation, which, naturally, they particularly resented.

Lack of Economic Opportunities for Moving into Paid Work in Homeless Shelters

Coupled with this was the way the system knocked back any homeless person, who tried to get a proper job and move out of the hostel. I’ve already blogged on the experience of one homeless man, who hopefully moved to a Salvation Army home in the expectation that he would be given worthwhile work. He wasn’t, and spent his time there sweeping up, for which he was paid 17c an hour. Other homeless men in not-for-profits elsewhere found themselves unable to get work, that would pay sufficiently well for them to get a proper apartment, or a place on one of the few rent-controlled tenements held by the City. The amount of welfare paid to the homeless, which came down to a take home pay of $100 a month for those in the shelter, and $540 for those on the streets, simply wasn’t enough for them to get an apartment and support themselves. As a result, many of the most ambitious and enterprising homeless men got jobs, which they soon lost and so had to move back into the shelter. The social workers and shelter staff were aware of the problem and did their level best to try to dissuade them from trying to get proper jobs so that they would retain their SSI welfare payments. In the shelter, however, the only jobs these homeless men could do were ‘make work’ jobs, sweeping, cleaning and so on. Some of the homeless thus preferred to get jobs outside, as book keepers or security guards, or working off the books as labourers unpacking trucks for local grocery stores. These were better paid, and in the case of one homeless man, gave him status and power over the ex-con hard men working underneath him. They did not, however, pay well enough for them to get a home of their own. Marcus observes that the system seemed to have been set up in the expectation they would fail.

The Crisis in the Black Family: No Different from White Family

The book goes on to tackle the issue of the Black family, and its role in the lack of Black achievement compared to that of immigrant groups such as Asians and Latin Americans. Marcus notes that the Black family is seen as weaker, and more prone to breakdown, than the family structures of other ethnic groups. This lack of family support is seen as being the cause of the lack of social and economic advance in the Black community. Politicians, religious leaders and activists have compared the fragile Black family with the supposedly more robust structures of that of their immigrant counterparts. Instead of conflict and breakdown, these families have a high degree of mutual support and integration, so that immigrants groups like Koreans and Latinos are able to use the unpaid labour of other family members to set up prosperous businesses. Marcus shows how, as a result, Black American churches, community groups and the Nation of Islam exhort their members to take Maya Angelou’s ‘Black Family Pledge’ and emulate the family structure, solidarity and work ethic of their more prosperous immigrant counterparts.

This view of the dysfunctional character of the Black family is similarly permeated by the ‘cultures of poverty’ debate. The Black family is seen as having a uniquely dysfunctional structure and lack of values, that hinders Black Americans from achieving the same success as their White and immigrant compatriots. Marcus again takes issue with this, and demonstrates that the comparison between Black and immigrant families is false. Like is not being compared with like. Marcus states that the structure of the Black family, while different from that of recent immigrant groups, is actually no different from that of White America. He states

‘It will be my argument that, indeed, African-American families living in poverty are generally less suited to certain types of mutual aid in poverty than are their immigrant counterparts. however, this is not because of a defect in the black family or some failure to live up to American kinship norms. Rather, it is because the cultural templates of the black family, even among the poorest and least integrated into “the mainstream,” are fundamentally similar to those of other American families. Nuclear and neo-local in its norms, the African-American family, like its white counterpart, is built around voluntary companionate marriage; the shared values, identity markers, and consumption patterns of its members, and the right to seek individual accomplishment and emotional self-realization. Typically supported on a foundation of legally regulated wage labor, subsidized mortgages, individual savings, public education, state entitlement programs, and socio-legal protections by police and courts, this family type, which I will refer to as the “consumption family,” appears dysfuncational in the absence of such state provisioning and when compared to certain immigrant kinship structures, which I will refer to as the “accumulation family”.’

The “Accumulation Family” of Immigrants to America

Marcus then goes on to describe the “accumulation family” as ‘built around extended kin networks, intense group sacrifice, delayed or permanently postponed gratification, and large amounts of captive low-wage or unpaid family-based labor, particularly from women, children, new arrivals, and other dependents with less recourse to external labor options and social rights’. Marcus points out that while Black families are more likely to break down or experience real difficulties, this is not because Blacks somehow have a different set of family values from their White compatriots. They don’t. It’s simply because the Black family is generally under more acute social pressure than White families, due to the poor social and economic position of Black Americans.

As for the “accumulation family” of southern European, Latin American and Asian immigrants, this depends very much on the unpaid labour of its weaker members – women, children and new arrivals. As such, members of these ethnic groups may increasingly see it as exploitative and backward as they assimilate the values and social structures of their new home, and go from being people with one feet in America and the other in their country of origin, to more or less acculturated Americans.

Housing Panic and Social Solidarity with Squatters, Homeless and Anarchist Activists

Marcus also investigates the way the housing panic over increasingly rents and the threat of eviction created a strong sense of solidarity between ordinary citizens in New York’s slum districts, and the squatters, homeless and Anarchist activists sharing the neighbourhood. The world-wide economic depression of 1982-3 resulted in New York receiving hundreds of thousands of immigrants from eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia, as well as the yuppies graduating from the University. At the same time as the blue collar workers moved out, the white collar financial and IT workers moved in. Rents shot up, to the point where some of the buildings that were worth less than $2,000 in 1977 were worth half a million or more by 1990. Many landlords were, however, prevented from increasing their rents for long-standing tenants through the City’s stringent rent stabilisation laws. Some landlords attempted to circumvent these by putting in unnecessary renovations, as recently renovated premises were immune from the controls under the legislation. Other long-standing tenants, particularly the elderly, found themselves subjected to violence and intimidation, including being thrown down stairs, in order to force them to move out. The result was that slum and low-rent districts, like Hells Kitchen, Loisaida (the Lower East Side), the printing district, West Harlem, and the Bowery became gentrified, and relaunched under the names Clinton, the East Village, Tribeca, Morningside Heights and Noho.

The result of this was that ordinary working and lower middle class New Yorkers suffered increasing alarm at the prospect of being forced out onto the streets. This resulted in popular sympathy for the murderer and cannibal Daniel Rakowitz, who killed his girlfriend, a foreign dancer, after she tried to throw him out after their affair had ended. He was caught serving up her remains as soup to the local homeless. In the East Village, tensions between the municipal authorities and ordinary residents exploded into violence when the police tried to clear the homeless, who had occupied Tompkins Square Park to form a ‘tent city’. Local residents insisted that the violence was cause, not by the homeless, but by anarchists, squatters and youths looking for trouble from outside the area, as well as some local residents. Marcus was told by one waiter at a plush restaurant that ‘this is total war and we need to make the neighbourhood unlivable for yuppies’. In fact, Marcus does point that some of the homeless did fight back, but the fiercest fighting was done by the other groups identified in the riot. He also notes that when some of the yuppies renting properties in the area were questioned, many of them were in fact in the same boat as the rest of the residents, and spending more than half their income on rent.

Marcus believed that the solidarity between the anarchists, squatters, homeless and the area’s ordinary residents occurred because for nearly a decade these groups had created a local counterculture centred on homelessness. In 1990 a group of anarchists, squatters and homeless from Tent City took over the remains of Public School 105, located on Fourth Street between Avenues B and C, and turned it into an alternative community centre. They intended to turn it into permanent, semi-permanent and temporary housing for the homeless, as well as setting up remedial reading, GED-high school equivalency test preparation and plumbing, carpentry and electrical repair classes. It also became the focus for various other anti-gentrification and radical, anti-state groups. A local Communist group, the ‘Class War Tendency’, set up classes in political economy, while a radical priest, who was a housing activist, helped the homeless to set up a soup kitchen in the Community Centre. As a result, the cops moved in in force to retake the Community Centre and clear out its homeless and radical occupants. Marcus notes that the anarchists, squatters and Tent City homeless believed that they were defending everyone’s right to a home, and many people in the neighbourhood concurred.

The radicals lost the battle for Public School 105. In 1991 Mayor David Dinkins cleared them from Tent City in Tompkins Square Park. Four years later, in August 1995, his success, Giuliani, moved in to clear the squatters out from three large tenements on 13th Street between Avenues A and Avenue B. They were successful, and although some residents attacked Giuliani as ‘Mussolini on the Hudson’, this time there was a lot less sympathy for the radicals. There still was a housing problem, and many of the anarchists, squatters and homeless people from the Park remained in the area. However, the housing panic was over, and there was a sense of defeat about being able to beat the forces of authority and create an alternative community.

American Thatcherism, Clinton and the Rise and Fall of Homelessness as an Issue

The final chapter examines the political forces that shaped the housing crisis and ultimately led to it becoming a forgotten issue. Marcus states that while most writers consider that the problems were the result of the ‘Reagan Revolution’, the cuts in state expenditure and particularly welfare that eventually led to the crisis began with the Democrat, Jimmy Carter. It was Carter, who tried to overturn Nixon’s Keynsianism and Great Society/New Deal ideology. He did not, however, have any coherent ideology, and so his attempts to cut expenditure were modest. This was to change with the election of Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s PM in 1979. It was Thatcher, who took over and turned into a coherent ideology the Chicago School economic theories, tried to break the unions, privatise public services, cut welfare spending, transfer public sector housing to the private sector, and made ‘liberal use of the military at home and abroad’. He states that in her war against the Labour party, she attacked notions of social democracy, and corporatist or civic belonging. Although she was forced out by the poll tax riots, Thatcherism remained the dominant ideology.

Thatcher’s ideology was taken over and shared over the other side of the Atlantic by Ronald Reagan. Although, unlike Thatcher, Reagan could not produce a coherent ideology, nevertheless the values he espoused were so deeply embedded in American culture that ultimate his reach was deeper, and Reagan’s attack on the unions, the New Deal and the welfare state, such as it was, was far more thorough than Thatcher could achieve.

Nevertheless, Reagan’s reforms were still hotly contested in the decade from 1982 to 1992. This changed with Bill Clinton’s election. Suddenly there was much less coverage of homeless issues in the media, and public concern about homelessness vanished. Homelessness remains, and there is still a homeless crisis with rising rents and a lack of affordable housing. However, although Hilary Clinton briefly touched on the issue during her senatorial campaign against Giuliani, few Democrats or Republicans seemed to wish to return to the issue. Marcus considers that public interest in homelessness disappeared due to the economic boom of the last years of Clinton’s presidency. This revitalised formerly moribund sectors of the American economy, unemployment was at its lowest for several decades and there was a general feeling of optimism. Amidst the boom and growth, there was little appreciation that poverty was still present and needed tackling. Marcus states that despite this optimism and the boost to the financial sector of the collapse of the Soviet Union, globalisation and information technology, the economy will inevitably contract to plunge millions into poverty and misery once more. The book was published in 2006. We only had to wait four more years before this happened.

Homelessness and Poverty Caused by Structure of Society, not Individual Failings

He believed that now, when the good times were still rolling, was the time to tackle poverty, rather than wait till after the next set of riots. He makes the point that although there was much discussion at the time about Reagan’s removal of the safety net and those who were ‘disappearing through its cracks’, no one ever raised the question about why the safety net should be necessary in the first place. The homeless crisis was just part of deteriorating social conditions across America, which saw ordinary citizens having to work harder for much less rewards. He writes

‘A safety net is only as important as the height of a jump and the distance that can be fallen. In a wildly productive society that has achieved exponential increases in productive capacity through technological and work process innovations, the last twenty years have seen housing costs increase dramatically, the average workweek grow by 20 to 30 percent, job security disappear, real wages drop, and the employment market tighten. In addition to all these problems facing all working Americans, the eight years under Clinton saw the United States imprison more people than during any period in the nation’s history. Only contemporary postcommunist Russia, with its dying industrial economy, imprisons as many people per capita.

Despite eight years of America’s greatest economic boom, none of these are signs of social health for the nearly two hundred and fifty million ordinary citizens who comprise the non-Other America. But these developments have been particularly severe for the fifty-plus million Americans at the lower ranges of the wage and skill hierarchy, who remain as poor and miserable as when Michael Harrington wrote his book about them. Though the declining safety net was a problem for most of my informants, it was only one of the aspect of the bigger problem: the rising bar that they were unable to successfully jump.’

Marcus states that the various solutions to America’s homeless problem failed because of the ‘cultures of poverty’ view of the problem: that poverty was created by particular individuals, who lacked the moral values and industrious attitudes of the rest of the population, and who therefore were profoundly Other, and the creators of their own misery. He sees this view of the origins of poverty as similar to Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that ‘there is no society, only people’. He states of this view, that began with Michael Harrington’s The Other America that

‘Harrington and those who came after allowed that social policy was ultimately the institution for fine-tuning problems in the distribution of resources. However, their unrelenting focus on problematic groups rather than the overall social concerns facing a modern citizenry represented, at best, a progressive era model of “the poor” as loss leaders for proactive social policy. In its more common pedestrian form, it represented a positivist particularism that completely failed to view the parts as a product of the whole, blaming the pinky finger for being small, rather than identifying the hand as determining the morphology and function of the pinky or blaming the Black family for being dysfunctional rather than American kinship for producing the Black family. Such functionalist and particularist logic has proven a distraction from discussions of how America is coping with the challenges of overall social life.

When social policy is based on this particularist individuated model for the obligations and entitlements of citizenship it inevitably fails. This is because it assumes exactly what needs to be demonstrated: that the challenges being faced by the individual or group of individuals are the result of individual differences of culture, history, temperament, and the like, and not the result of being an identifiable part of a social organism. Solutions, even generous ones like the McKinney Homeless Act [this was the act that voted a billion dollars to providing shelter for the homeless] that do not consider the nature of the organism that produced a sick part, but only focus on the section deemed pathological, inevitably involve a form of social excision that is at best provisional.’

As a result, rather than identifying the economic and social factors behind the housing crisis, asking what went wrong so that a prosperous city with a surplus of affordable housing suddenly experienced a massive increase in visible homelessness, scholars instead studied the homeless themselves as an ethnic group that somehow created the problem through its cultural difference. The homeless are homeless because society has become increasingly competitive. People are being forced to jump higher and higher simply to survive. And those at the bottom simply do not have the economic, social or psychological resources. He also states that in addition to the growth and optimism experienced during the Clinton boom years, when the party of the New Deal/ Great Society anti-poverty bureaucracy once again occupied the White House, another factor contributing to the massive lack of interest in homelessness is the War on Terror.

‘The optimism and complacency of the Clinton years that hid vast seas of unvocalized misery among overworked, underpaid working-class people in post-Reganite America has given way to the ultimate silencing: the endless war on terror. However, the bar remains high, the speciation of America is firmly embedded, and the extent of planning for a rainy day is massive growth in police forces and prisons throughout the United States. The crisis remains well managed, but the future is not bright.’

Marcus suggests that the poor and homeless are social barometers measuring the problems experienced in society by Americans generally

‘They measure the amount of competition, the level of functioning that is necessary to survive, the displacement of those who must labor to live, and the degree of comfort and security that we can claim for our own lives. If they are drowning from the high price of housing, declining real wages, rising costs for education, declining public health, and the revival of nineteenth century diseases, then the rest of us are probably “up to our necks in it”‘.

American Model Producing Global ‘Race to the Bottom’ for Workers and the Poor

He suggests that instead of using Durkheimian functionalism, scholars should instead adopt a Marxian approach to examine the growth of policies by nations around the world intended to make their economies more competitive by modelling them on that of America. The result is a race to the bottom for wages, standards of living, and the overall quality of life. With its advanced, massively productive economy, America could, however, become a global leader in the opposite direction and reverse this three-decade trend for worse wages and working conditions.

Conclusion: the Lessons for Britain

Although some of the issues Marcus tackles are unique to America, much of the book is immediately relevant over this side of the Atlantic as well. Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives took over Harrington’s ‘cultures of poverty’, and as The Void, Another Angry Voice, Mike over at Vox Political, and many, many other left-wing bloggers have shown, the Coalition’s unemployment policies are based on blaming the poor and jobless for their problems. Hence the pretext for workfare, the various courses the unemployed are placed on, and the sanctions system: they’re simply devices for inculcating the correct values of industriousness in the workforce, just as Victorian paternalists worried about raising the poor out of poverty through getting them to accept the same values. The same attitudes are screamed every day from right-wing rags like the Daily Mail and the Sunday Express, and TV documentaries on the unemployed like Benefits Street.

The British Black Family and Chavs

The chapter on the misinterpretation of the dysfunctional structure of the Black family in America in also relevant here. Black activists in Britain are also worried about the greater incidence of breakdowns amongst Black families on this side of the Atlantic. One explanation for the general poor performance of Black boys at school and their greater involvement in crime and gang culture is that, due to the breakdown of their families, many boys simply don’t see their fathers, and so don’t have positive role models in a caring dad.

This patterns also extends outside the Black community to the White lumpenproletariat, now demonised as ‘chavs’. There’s similarly a pattern of broken homes, poor educational attainment, violence and criminality amongst the boys here. And this is similarly ethnicised as the result of a distinct, ‘chav’ culture, rather than the result of a variety of social and economic pressures permeating society generally. And if we’re talking about cultures of recreational violence, then historically the upper classes have also enthusiastically taken their part. In 18th century France there was a group of aristocratic youths, who described themselves as ‘les Rosbifs’. They consciously modelled themselves on the boorish behaviour of the English country squires, and so swaggered around swearing a lot and sported cudgels, which they used to beat up members of the lower orders. Oh what fun! As sociologists and historians studying the history of such youth cultures have said, there really is no difference between these and the mods and rockers, who used regularly used to beat each other senseless down in Weston during Bank Holidays when I was a teenager. These days it’s all rather more genteel. They simply join the Assassin’s Club at Oxford, and wreck restaurants.

The Benefits Cap Blocking an Escape from Poverty and Homelessness

The description of the problems of the homeless in trying to get out of poverty and into accommodation, and failing due to the cap on their benefits, is also immediately recognisable over this side of the Atlantic. The Tories are capping Housing Benefit here as part of their scheme that people on benefits shouldn’t be wealthier than those in work. The result of this is similarly going to be increased homelessness and further geographical isolation, as people are forced to move away from high-rent areas, especially in London. Not that this’ll bother Cameron, Osborne and the rest of the Bullingdon thugs. As the architecture of the new apartment blocks shows, they really don’t want to have to look at the poor. These have a separate entrances for the rich Chinese at whom they’re aimed, and the rest of us plebs, who may well include working and lower middle class Chinese Brits, who’ve been here for generations but lack the massive spondoolicks of the new, global elite.

Solidarity between Squatters, the Radical Left and Ordinary Citizens in NYC and Bristol

As for the politics of squatting, and the need for anarchists and radical activists tackling this issue, there are also lessons for Britain here as well from the experience of New York in the 1980s and 1990s. Johnny Void over at his blog strongly supports squatting amongst other forms of anarchist activism. He has pointed out on his blog that despite the scare stories run by the press about ordinary people coming back from holiday to find their house or garden shed has been taken over by squatters, this in fact has been relatively rare. Most of the squatting has been the occupation of abandoned buildings. I’ve put up on this blog a video from Youtube of homeless activists in Bristol, including a group of homeless squatters, who’ve taken over a disused building in Stokes Croft. They too were facing eviction, despite the fact that the place has been abandoned for forty years.

The issue of gentrification and the eviction of poorer, particularly Black residents, in favour of far more affluent tenants is a very hot issue here as well. A few years ago there were riots in Stokes Croft against Tescos, which had just opened another branch in that ward. The people there feared that it would force out of business local shops, and so reacted to defend their community businesses from the commercial giant. The New York experience shows that it is possible to get ordinary residents to support squatters, anarchists and other left-wing radical groups simply through a common concern for the same issues – in this case homelessness – and by being good neighbours.

Poverty and Homelessness a Problem for Society Generally Across the Globe Thanks to the ‘American Model’

Like America also, many of the poor in Britain are actually those in work, who have also seen their wages decline in real terms, despite recent lies by the Coalition, and are finding themselves having to work longer hours. The European Round Table of Industrialists, at the heart of EU’s campaign for integration, is behind much of this on this side of the Atlantic. Regardless of our different political cultures, we Europeans, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, from the North Sea to the shores of the Baltic, have to work ourselves to death to compete with the Developing World. And as Greg Palast has shown in his book, Armed Madhouse, the result of this in the Developing World is that they have lowered their wages and raised working hours to truly horrific levels in response. Well, if nothing else, it shows that Marx was right in his view that working people across the globe have to unite to combat the problems of capitalism. ‘It was the bourgeoisie who shot down the Great Wall of China’, he says in the Communist Manifesto. Hence the slogan, ‘Workingmen of all countries, Unite!’ Globalisation had meant the increased exploitation of ordinary people across the world. It’s a global problem that needs to be stopped now. We can start by throwing out three decades of Thatcherism and the culture of Neo-Liberalism.