Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Isles of Brexit

Four years ago Danny's Boyle's Isles of Wonder opened the 2012 London Olympics.

Everyone said the show would not be as extravagant or spectacular as Beijing in 2008. It wasn't.

The press also uniformly said it would be embarrassingly awful. It wasn't.

Instead the director of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire delivered a show that was quirky, creative, amusing, touching and progressive.

After Bradley Wiggins rang the great bell, the Industrial Revolution literally burst out of England's Green and Pleasant Land to the sound of a thousand drummers. It brought with it a new industrial working class, the Suffragettes, the horrors of  Great War and immigration on the Empire Windrush, until the fifth Olympic ring rose out of the smoke, seemingly forged in the sweat and blood of two hundred years of history. It was an immensely powerful moment.

James Bond and a stunt double made the arrival of the Her Majesty interesting, for a change, in a section that is worth watching again if only for the look on Daniel Craig's face when he appears to be wondering what the hell is going on. A choir of deaf children sung God Save the Queen, then, to the theme tune of The Exorcist and narration by J K Rowling, a host of villains from children's fiction appeared to threaten the staff and patients of the NHS. Mary Poppins drops in to rescue everyone, and then it was Mr Bean helping the London Philharmonic play Vangelis' theme tune to Chariots of Fire.

Next  we had a medley of pop and rock hits from the sixties to the noughties, complete with pogoing
punks, twisted firestarters and all, as a background to a story of multi-racial romance during a night out on the town, which in turn was just a prelude to introducing to the world Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the internet, and then gave it away for free.

There was more: a spectacular modern dance to an acappella version of Abide with Me, the Arctic Monkey's, flying bicycles, David Beckham and a starting attractive female footballer on a boat, Paul McCartney and the amazing 204 piece Olympic Torch. Somewhere along the way some athletes came in too, but I went to get some supper at that point.

London had welcomed the world to the biggest party of the year. With the help of 9000 volunteers we had celebrated being the nation that had given the world an industrial revolution, a musical revolution and an information revolution. We had shown we were at peace with our history, comfortable with diversity and proud of our health service, our popular music and our children's stories.

The lad from Lancashire had pulled it off. Giles Coren, who had filed a scathing review before the ceremony had even opened, quickly had to have it pulled as he loved the show so much. The press, who 24 hours before had been predicting disaster, where ecstatic.

Everyone was happy.

Or almost everyone. Conservative MP Aidan Burley, a man who likes to attend Nazi-themes parties, called it "leftie multicultural crap", but he was a lonely voice on Twitter that night.

Fast forward four years and though, and that summer evening seems like it took place in a different country.

Events like these move to a different rhythm to the electoral cycles. Just as New Labour inherited the Tory's Millennium Dome, an empty shed which they filled with an exhibition designed by a committee, so it was the ConDems that inherited the event that Labour had brought to London. They tried to remove the NHS section and replace it with fighting Hitler, but Boyle stood his ground. Boris's intervention gave the Olympics a White Elephant of a stadium and erased the affordable houses. Finally infamous private security company G4S cocked up big style and the army had to be brought in to provide security.

Corporate failure and gentrification affected the rest of the country too as and austerity began to bite. Twelve months earlier social decay had made a rare entry into the news as the country had been convulsed by riots. But the show still went on.

When it all ended, with an almost equally amazing steampunk and Druidic paralympic closing
ceremony, spending £9 billion pounds playing games in east London didn't seem quite as mad as it had done a month or so earlier.

But whatever the benefits to the nation were, they have been totally swallowed by the austerity that followed. At the top level English sport is doing well, but at the bottom our schools are home to some of the least fit, and least happy, children in the world. The NHS is in crisis.

Then there was Brexit. Outside of London, it appeared, a majority of people would prefer to wallow in hubris of lost imperial glory rather than have an immigrant for a neighbour.

Why the nation took collective leave of its senses and voted out is question that is still being debated, but as depressed newspeople went around the country recording the verbal diarrhoea of Brexiters one message came out crystal clear: this was a vote against 'leftie multicultural crap'.

Poor old Danny Boyle. He had pulled off a blinder, an artistic event that will be remembered when the sporting triumphs are forgotten, but alas neither art, nor sport, can really change the world.

Progress will continue, I hope, but England has left the party.

Watch the ceremony in full here.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

"All that is solid turns into air"

Rod Holt looking serious at Keep Corbyn rally, Manchester 1 July 2016
So wrote Marx in the Communist Manisfesto 166 years ago, and this seems a very good description of UK politics over the last two weeks.

UKIP, although only given a single MP by the UK's first-past-the-post electoral system (and not even an MP they actually like), have never-the-less managed to get their main policy adopted by a reluctant government.

The Tories themselves, the most resiliant of all political parties, are regrouping after the resignation of their leader, and the humbling of both his prospective heirs.

The Labour Party meanwhile, is either a farce of tragic proportions or a tragedy of farcial proportions, with the parliamentary party and its resurgent membership either on a collision course or heading in opposite directions.

So what on earth is going on?

The obvious answer is that politics as we know it has ceased to exist. The traditional left/right split has almost become meaningless.

Political compass of UK parties May 2015
Various alternatives have been proposed. The two dimensional model of the Political Compass, which grades parties on both their economic and social liberalism, being a popular alternative.

The problem is, when you look at the UK, it turns out 90% of us voted for right wing, authoritarian parties. This might be true, but it's not very useful.

In my opinion, the extra dimension you really need to add at the moment, is whether the party is pro or anti-austerity.

UKIP, with their 'back to the 1950s/blame it all on the EU' views may not be a coherent anti-austerity party, indeed their billionaire backers and ex-banker leader (now ex-leader) rather suggest otherwise, but they did hoover up a huge chunk of disaffection with the status quo.  Anti-immigrant rather than anti-austerity perhaps, they are still different to the Tories.

In 2015 Labour offered up austerity-lite, and the Green Party were the only real anti-austerity party of the left. The SNP though were channelling the same disaffection north of the border as UKIP did in England, and mostly (if not entirely) sending it leftwards.

Today Labour is pretty much an anti-austerity party of the left, or rather it is a party whose members and leadership appear to be mostly anti-austerity, but whose MPs aren't. If Labour's current difficulties result in a split, then we will end up with an austerity-lite Blue Labour and anti-austerity Red Labour.

The Europeans

European Parliament as of June 2015
Looking out across Europe we see the same political mess as here. In the countries hardest hit by the Credit Crunch the fault lines are becoming clearly. Broadly speaking the people of Europe are up to 20% anti-immigrant right, 60% pro-austerity centre (usually split between two traditional parties) and about 20% anti-austerity left.

The error bars are at least 10% on those figures, and the results of individual elections are skewed by voters wanting to kick out corrupt or incompetent governemts and punish those seen as responsible for mess we're all in.

Hellenic Parliament as of September 2015
In Greece, for example, the pro-austerity left party PASOK has been almost completely wiped out, giving the anti-austerity parties of the left nearly 45% of the vote. However they also seem to have stolen support from the anti-austerity right as the Golden Dawn (the Greek BNP) and the Independent Greeks (the Greek UKIP) used to muster about 15% of the vote between them, whilst now they're down to about 10%.

Back in Blighty

In the UK in the last election the figures for the 2015 election (rounded to the nearest 5%) were:

UKIP (anti-austerity/immigrant right) 15%
Conservatives (pro-austerity right) 35%
Labour and LibDems (pro-austerity left) 40%
Green and SNP (anti-austerity left) 10%

Of course, in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn and his pals all voted Labour. If we pretend that Corbyn's election as leader immediately transformed Labour into an anti-austerity party of the left (which it obviously didn't), then the breakdown of the electorate after this years local government elections becomes:

Anti-austerity/immigrant right 15%
Pro-austerity right 30%
Pro-austerity left 15%
Anti-austerity left 50%

Clearly Labour did not become Syriza overnight, and 25% of the electorate have not become anti-capitalists since the general election. All we can say is that the true political views of UK voters are probably somewhere in the middle of these two sets of figures.

A 20/30/30/20 split is not impossible.

So what?

The obvious answer is chaos.

A progressive alliance?
Our first-past-the-post system, billionaire owned media and electorate that prefers to vote for confident idiots, gives an advantage to parties who are able to target marginal seats, reward the rich and present a confident front, which is the Tories.

However if we really do have 20/30/30/20 split in the vote, then no one politcial faction, even one prepared to play fast and loose with the rules for electoral expences, can guarantee victory on its own.

The question will be, what alliances will emerge? If Labour splits, will some of the austerity-lite middle of the party follow Corbyn and can an anti-austerity left 'progressive alliance' really work? These are very important questions.

Other deals are possible. Tory/UKIP is certainly on the cards. A Tory/Blue Labour/LibDem alliance of the pro-austerity middle is not impossible, and potentially unbeatable. Even a UKIP/Red Labour deal is not out of the question, as this is effectively the coalition that runs Greece.

To the barricades?

All of which is very frustrating to those of us who don't want to use politics as a game, but as a means of actually getting things done. Unless you really do think The Revolution is at hand, you have to
Occupy London, February 2012
vote for someone.

Even if you're sure you want to vote for an anti-austerity left party, unless you live in Chippenham, you can't actually vote for Corbyn yourself. We need some options, and they aren't easy right now.

The complete Marx quote is "All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober sense, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind."

Alas, I think in the second half here Marx is in error, or at least premature. Sober sense is the one thing I feel I can safely predict is going to be abscent from UK politics for a while yet.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Why fracking is a Red Line on Climate Change

 My speech to the Draw The Line on Fracking rally in Manchester 6th July 2016 

Well, we never said it would be easy.

When we all gathered by the Arch de Triumph in December last year, wondering just how the French riot police would react to the demonstration that had tried to ban actually happening, we knew it wasn't going to be easy.

The Paris Agreement had been signed the day before. The newspapers were reporting the planet had been saved.

The action was to highlight the five Red Lines that we would not compromise on in the defence of the climate.

They were:

COMPLIANCE. The world needed to do what it promised now. Not in 2020 when the agreement becomes law, or 2025 when it is first reviewed, but now.

JUSTICE. Those worst affected must be compensated by those that polluted most.

FINANCE. The rich countries must pay the poor countries so they can develop without fossil fuels.

EQUITY. We must all have the same right to emit, rich or poor.

And finally an immediate, drastic and urgent cut in EMISSIONS. That meant no new fossil fuels.

Well, we knew it wasn't going to be easy.

So were we surprised when, before the ink was dry, our government licensed huge chunks of England for fracking? No. We knew this was the next battle we would have to fight: in Lancashire, in Yorkshire and here in Manchester.

Fracking is a toxic nightmare, it will frack our countryside, it will frack our water and it will frack our health, but it will above all frack our climate.

It is a new fossil fuel. Fracking does not keep coal in the ground. The fracking did cause US coal use to drop, but US coal exports increased by even more.

Whats more, the fracking boom unleashed a cloud of methane that can be seen from space. Methane is a Greenhouse gas thirty times more potent than carbon dioxide. It leaks from fracking wells, from storage sites, from every part of the US natural gas system. The worst leak of all was in Porter Ranch, Los Angeles (which is nothing to do with my family by the way!) where 100,000 tons of methane escaped from an underground storage facility. For the climate, this was a worse disaster than the Deepwater Horizon.

But as well as being a new fossil fuel, and as well as the fugitive emissions, fracking will lock us into a new generation of fossil fuel power stations. A gas fired power station will last for thirty years, which means the infrastructure being planned now will  could still be polluting in 2050, long after the UK fracking boom will have ended even if the industry's most optimistic forecasts are right.

We know what the alternatives is. It's wind and wave and solar. It's jobs and clean air and energy security. It's public transport and warm houses and fewer private jets. It's a sane, humane and ecological future.

It will happen.

It must happen.

But it isn't going to be easy.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Why was the First World War so bloody?

'Battle Of The Somme, Attack of the Ulster Division', by artist J.P. Beadle.
One hundred years ago the Fourth Army was getting ready to go 'over the top'. Dawn tomorrow would be the start of the Battle of the Somme, the big push that would break through the German line and mark the beginning of the end of the First World War.

It didn't happen. Instead it was the bloodiest day in the bloodiest battle in the bloodiest war the British Army had ever fought.

By the end of the day over 19,000 British soldiers were dead, nearly 40,000 were wounded and the Germans had recaptured nearly all the ground they had lost. Amongst the units decimated were regiments of Kitchener's volunteers, including the 700 men from the Accrington Pals, who suffered 235 killed and 350 wounded in about half an hour.

The battle is regarded as the epitome of the pointlessness of the First World War. Brave men sent to their deaths by incompetent and uncaring leaders in an utterly pointless battle.

There is a lot of truth in this, but it isn't the whole story. General Haig made mistakes, but he knew his army wasn't ready. However he also knew that if he didn't attack, the French to the south may well crumble.

But there were also wider reasons for the disaster. This was just one day in a war that was to kill twelve million combatants, the most destructive war in European history to that point.


A different scale of slaughter

Looking back from 2016 ,the First World War can appear just a grim prequel to the even more bloody Second World War. However to the people who fought in it, it came after a century that became known as Pax Britannia. 'Peace' was a very relative concept, as this was actually a time of almost continuous fighting around the British Empire, but those were battles of a very different scale to the Somme.

Typical colonial wars involved no more than a handful of combat deaths for the Imperial Forces.When 1300 British and allied soldiers were killed by Zulus at the Battle of Isandhlwana, it was considered a major loss. When it took three years and 6000 combat deaths to bring the rebellious Boer farmers to heel it was considered an unprecedented disaster.

The sort of the battle the British public was used to was the Battle of Omdurman in 1897, where the army of the Islamic state of the Sudan was destroyed for the loss of only 47 British and Egyptian dead.

New defence, old offence

However the butcher's bill of 1st July 1916 would not have been such a shock to the Sudanese. At Omdurman their 52,000 man army had lost 12,000 dead in a few hours, a casualty rate twice as high as the Fourth Army's.

The Anglo-Egyptian Army that had defeated them had been armed with the latest weapons of industrial warfare.

These included;

  • Field artillery guns with recoil mechanisms. Previously guns had to be manually wheeled back into position every time they fired. As well as having greater range, the new guns could now fire as fast as the crew could load them.
  • The Maxim machine gun. Older machine guns, like the Gatling Gun were bigger, heavier, fired more slowly and tended to jam when most needed.
  • Infantry rifles with high velocity bullets. These were lethal at a mile, and were fed by magazines allowing a rate of fire of twenty rounds as minute. They also used smokeless ammunition, so you didn't give your position away when you fired.
Against this new weapons the Sudanese had only swords, spears and courage.

Technology had given the British Army the advantage at Omdurman, but on the Somme it was turned against them. The German Army they faced had the same weapons they'd used against the Sudanese, plus barbed wire and concrete bunkers.

The only new offensive weapon of the war was the hand grenade, then called the Mills Bomb. They were useful for attacking trenches, but when you're facing a Maxim gun with a range of 2000 yards, a weapon whose range is as far as you can throw it is not much use. Apart from that Haig's men had bayonets that were little more use than African swords.

Attacks in the First World War therefore usually consisted of trying to pulverise the enemy with heavy artillery before the infantry went 'over the top'.

However even if only enough Germans survived to crew a single machine gun, they could stop a battalion.

The morale of Kitchener's volunteer army that morning was sky high. The men advanced into the fire just as bravely as the Sudanese had done. However in an age of industrial warfare this made very little difference. Whether a soldier was brave was of little more relevance now than whether he was handsome.

Facing the defensive weapons of the new century whilst using the offensive weapons of the old is one reason why the butcher's bill was so high in the First World War, but it wasn't the only reason.

Communication Breakdown

Haig was also burdened with the communication systems of the last century.

Although radio had now been invented and was used by the ships of the Royal Navy, there were no portable sets. Instead then army had to rely on telephone lines, which could be cut by artillery, runners who could get killed and carrier pigeons who could not only be killed, but eaten afterwards.

These systems worked reasonably well when defending, but were completely useless when attacking. As a result the much maligned British Generals had to fight most of their battles blind. On the rare occasions that the British forces broke through the German lines, they were often unable to let their commanders know. The Germans by contrast knew exactly where the British were and could direct reinforcements to where they were most need.

And that was the next big problem: there were always lots and lots of reinforcements.

Industrial Warfare

But first let's go back a century or so.

On 18 June 1815 Napoleon met his Waterloo. Three and a half thousand men died in Wellington's army. The chance of being killed on that day was actually higher than on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, but there are two important caveats.

Firstly, at Waterloo, there wasn't a second day. The Battle of the Somme lasted more than four months.

Secondly, the battlefield of Waterloo was only three miles wide, which was about the size battlefields had always been.

Fast forward fifty five years and The Battle of Sedan, the climax of the Franco-Prussian War, was fought on a front seven miles long.

In 1916 Haig attacked on a front of 17 miles, which was just a small part of the 440 mile long Western Front which stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss border.

And the reason battlefields were getting bigger was because armies were getting bigger. In 1815 Wellington had faced 73,000 French. In 1870 the French faced 200,000 Prussians. By 1916 there were 2.85 million Germans soldiers on the Western Front. That's enough men for them all to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, four ranks deep, from the North Sea to the Swiss Alps, and that's not counting their Austro-Hungarian allies. 

There had been other times in history where commanders had come up against formidable defences. The solution then had always been you go round the flank. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution it was possible to feed and supply armies on a scale never before seen. As a result there simply were no more flanks.

Somehow these vast armies were fed and watered, supplied with bullets and shells, and the wounded and sick cared for. So well cared for, relatively speaking, that the First World War may actually be the first war in history in which more soldiers died from enemy action than from disease.

Even in the Boer War, only a decade and a half earlier, only a quarter of those that died did so in combat.

Conditions at the front were terrible, but somehow the men were kept alive long enough for the enemy to kill them.

This mass mobilisation of men into the trenches was unique to the Great War. Armies were just as large in the Second World War, but they were also more mechanised. This meant that for every fighting man there were at least two more working in a support roll servicing, repairing or refuelling the men and the vehicles. They were still soldiers and it was still dangerous, but nothing like as dangerous as going 'over the top' in 1916.

The rise of armoured fighting vehicles also brought back manoeuvre into warfare. Tank forces could be concentrated in a few miles of battlefront, and once the breakthrough had been made they could exploit the gap faster than a rifleman with a 50kg pack. Radios kept the front line in touch with HQ and the infantry would travel in lorries or, by the end of the Second World War, their own armoured vehicles. 
So it was historical changes in the nature of warfare which made the first day of the Battle of the Somme such a particularly horrible incident in a particularly horrible war. Brighter generals would not have made much difference.

The only way to avoid have avoided the slaughter would have been not to fight at all, but in 1916 there were few who were for that option.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

How Capitalism defeated the Left and then itself

Paul Mason and Kondratiev Long Cycles

Marx was wrong.

Not about everything. In fact, all told, not about very much. But he was wrong about something that has been at the very heart of Marxism for a century and a half: the prediction that capitalism will face a crisis which will see it destroyed, and then replaced by something better.

It hasn't happened, despite plenty of people wishing it. Why it hasn't happened is a very important question right now, as capitalism is undoubtedly in a very deep crisis yet is signally failing to die let alone be replaced by something better.

This essay isn't about how to make that happen. Instead it is about why this has not already happened.

Crisis, what crisis?

The first half of Marx's prediction was undoubtedly correct: capitalism always faces a crisis. Or rather crises, because there have been rather a lot of them. This is perhaps Marx's greatest insight, that capitalism is not stable and these problems come round regular as clockwork. What's more, every now and again they are not ordinary run-of-the-mill crises but huge, industrial strength crises that threaten its very existence.

Marx lived through only one of these, so he missed the pattern, but in 1922 the Russian academic Nikolai Dimitrievich Kondratiev spotted it.

Kondratiev was the son of a peasant who had never-the-less managed to get into St Petersberg University. In 1917 he served for a few days in the social democratic administration that followed the fall of the Csar. With the Bolshevik revolution he returned to academia.

What Kondratiev spotted in his numbers was a 50-60 year cycle in interest rates. Marx had shown how overproduction caused regular recessions, but those cycles were over a much shorter time scale than these cycles. This was something much bigger and more fundamental. When he looked at other economic indicators the cycle appeared to be repeated. He traced two of these since the dawn of industrialisation.

This suggested that Marx's theory was wrong, or at least incomplete. If capitalism had survived two major catastrophe's already, why should the next one prove fatal?

Spotting the existence of the cycle though didn't explain it. Academics who followed Kondratiev thought changes in technology explained the cycles. These theories were plausible, but also contradictory. It's rare to find two that agree.

However of ex-journalist and fellow Lancastrian Paul Mason, looking at the problem anew from the present day, thinks there is more to it than this. Having witnesses recent events in Greece first hand, he knows a thing or two about crises. He also knows a thing or two about Marx, which is rare for a journalist.

This is his view of K Cycles and what they mean.

On your cycle

Capitalism requires growth. This is created by the capitalists using their unequal power over workers
to generate profits from the surplus value of their labour. In order to increase productivity they mechanise the workplace. That is Marx in a nutshell.

However, there are limits to this, and it is these limits that cause the periodic crises in capitalism. There is only so much work you can get out of a human being and, at any given level of technology, there is only so much labour you can save by investing in machines. There are other ways out of the conundrum too, such as new markets, new commodities and even new workers, but these have their limits too. At some point there is nowhere else for capitalism to go and capitalism faces an existential crisis.

According to the economists who explain it all with technology, the new machines then appear like magic to solve the problem. However according to Mason, the reality is a lot more messy.

But before we come to that, let's just sort out the time frames we're actually talking about.

The First Wave: 1780 to 1848

The first Kondratiev cycle started when capitalism started at the end of the eighteenth century. A lot of things happen one after the other, the first factories, the canals, better steam engines, railways, steel and so on. This is capitalism raw and primitive. Men, women and children exploited in Dark Satanic Mills. Labour was is unskilled, hours long and management is scary rather than skilful.

This cycle begins quietly but it's trajectory is evident from British, French and US data - the rest of the world is not yet affected much by capitalism - and that data points to it all coming to crashing end in about 1848, the Year of Revolutions and the year that Marx, along with his drinking buddy Engels, publishes The Communist Party Manifesto.

The Second Wave: 1848 to 1898

The second cycle follows on. This is capitalism as we know it. The bourgeoisie in their top hats and the workers in the flat caps. But this is different to what we had before. Labour is not monolithic. There are skilled and semi-skilled workers, there are trades, there are guilds and there is a financial system keeping the wheels turning. There are also Imperialists, seeking out new markets and new resources for exploitation.

But by the 1890s though the wheels are starting to come off the wagon. Economic crises are more frequent, labour unrest is more common and by Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee there is no part of the earth left which had not been brought into the global market. We are at the second crisis.

The Third Wave: 1898 to 1948

What rescues capitalism is the Second Industrial Revolution. New technologies arrive by the score.
The chemical industry produces artificial fertiliser, artificial dyes and petrol, which in turn powers cars, planes and motorbikes. Electricity lights us up and the telephone wires us up.

But perhaps more profound is the change in the nature of capitalism itself. The main actors are now no longer the rich capitalists, but the big corporations. These entities themselves appeared to fly in the face of everything Marx had written. Huge in scale, they ware protected by tariff barriers and operate state sponsored monopolies. Internally their organisation is based on function rather than competition. Writers as diverse as Rosa Luxembourg and James Burnham would eventually look at these big companies and wonder whether there really is much of a difference between capitalism and communism now.

The start of the downward curve of this wave is very easy to spot: the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which heralded the Great Depression. The final end came with the Second World War, a global crisis which, despite killing tens of million of people, never-the-less ushered in the next wave of global capitalism.

The Fourth Wave: 1948 to ?

The exact year this begins is a bit arbitrary, but 1948 is a good one, as it is the year of the Marshal Plan and the invention of the transistor. New technologies abound once again, but perhaps more significant is the change in the nature of society. This is the era of social democracy and the welfare state. 

No longer are the workers exposed to raw capitalism with no protection, they have health care, trade unions, unemployment benefits and representation in the political process. Over the next twenty five years almost everything the Left has fought for since the time of Marx comes to pass, and in return for these gifts from the capitalists the workers embraced consumerism, which in turn makes the wheels of the economy turn faster than ever before.

And then it all goes wrong.

Twenty five years into the cycle is 1973, and there, sure enough, is a huge crisis - the oil shock of 1973. Actually we could have picked other dates in that decade: the Nixon Shock in 1971 when the USA dropping off the Gold Standard or the second oil shock in 1979. Which ever one we go for though, it is clear that by 1980 the good times are over.

No Fifth Wave

If history had followed the deterministic course it appeared to be set on, the next cycle should have
started in 1998. Looking back to that year you can see some evidence for this. Bill Gates launched the second incarnation of his Windows software, and in the next few years Google, Youtube and all the architecture of the information revolution would be up and running.  At the same time we have the Kyoto Agreement of the previous year, potentially ushering in a new green industrial revolution.

But if this was the start of a brand new cycle, then we should not have had the biggest financial crash since the 1920s just ten years later. Instead of recovery the problems of the 1970s just carry on getting worse. Instead of a 25 year downward curve we have a forty year one, with no end in sight.

So what went wrong?

How Cycles End

To answer this question we need to look back at how each of the previous cycles ended.

But first a recap on what is going on here. After twenty five years of growth fuelled by increasing productivity from mechanisation, the economy starts to stagnate. Capital needs to look elsewhere for profits. With all the known markets all full there is only one source left, more exploitation of the workers.

Winding back to the 1810s, here we first see the staggering growth rates of the early industrial revolution start to falter. Capital has to call in the army to deal with the Luddites in 1812, and again in 1819 when 80,000 people gathered at Peterloo to demand reform. By 1832 though the Establishment is getting rattled, and agreed modest reforms. By the 1840s the Chartists are marching and, although an army of Special Constables is drafted in to meet them (including future Liberal PM Gladstone) the government effectively gives in.

Fast forward fifty years and the workers are marching again. Anarchists, communists, socialists
and most of all trade union are fighting back. In organised labour capitalism appears to have finally met its match. Many of the bourgeoisie really think the end is nigh.

So here we have it. The new cycles of capitalism are not created by the fortuitous arrival of new technology, nor by the enlightened insight of the capitalists. Capitalisms natural instinct is more repression, and only when that is stopped by the workers fighting back against does it try a different direction. It was not quite how Marx predicted, but not that far off.

Now let's look at the end of the third cycle in the 1930s. Once again the workers are mobilising, here and around the world. But lets ignore for a moment this country. Here we have austerity, but after the Royal Navy mutinies over pay cuts we dropped off the Gold Standard, listen to Keynes and start on the road to recovery. It is bad, but it could have been worse.

And in Europe it is.

The Death of Labour

When Hitler came to power in 1933 his first target is organised labour. When Dachau opens the first people to be enslaved there are 5000 communists and social democrats. Between 1933 and 1946 3.5 million Germans are interned for political reasons and 77,000 judicially executed.

The Left lost a civil war in Austria in 1934, resulting in the Social Democratic Party being outlawed, whilst between 1936 and 1939 Franco kills 350,000 anarchists, communists and republicans during the Spanish Civil War, and more in the repression that follows.

In Greece the dictator Metaxas bans all political parties (including his own, which was a somewhat unique move), arrests the communists and embarked on a war on Greek culture which sees even Plato put on a list of banned authors.There are other crackdowns in Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states.

In Russia the gulags have even more inmates than the German concentration camps, and a similarly terrifying death rate. For good measure the NKVD sends a team over to Mexico to put an ice axe through Trotsky's head.

What Orwell called "the flower of the European working class" is dying. Had Hitler stuck to exterminating his own people, and not had a go at the Poles as well, it may well have died completely. In the First World War many socialists became conscientious objectors, refusing to fight a war for capitalism. That does not happen in the Second World War. The survival of the Left depends on an allied victory.

Capital Wins

Fortunately the allies do win. Organised labour survives, but it is a close run thing.

For a while it prosperes too, but with the fourth cycle starting on its downward spiral this isn't going to last forever. The USA had thought it had been fighting communists since 1950, but really it was fighting nationalists. In 1973 though they have a real working class enemy in Salvador Allende of Chile.

Allende is deposed in a military coup and commits suicide. 3000 of his followers are killed and 27,000 are locked up, many being raped or tortured. Chile, meanwhile, is subject to a radical experiment to try to save capitalism. Now we call it free market reforms, or neo-liberalism, or austerity, but then it was known as the Chicago School model, as that is where its architects came from.

Taxes are be lowered, the state is shrunk, corporations are be given free reign, money is set free and organised labour is crushed. The capitalists ledgers are back in the black again, with the hit being taken by the working poor or the work-less even poorer. 

It works, sort of. Actually the free markets bits aren't that great a success, and Chile has capital controls in place for longer than Milton Friedman's fans like to admit, but crushing the trade unions proves to be a tremendous success. The model works, now it just needs to be rolled out.

The election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the USA allows this to happen. Reagan has striking air traffic controllers led away in chains whilst Maggie crushes the miners. Environmentalism, which for a while in the seventies had seems almost as big a problem as the oil price, is brushed aside, as Reagan tells us that most pollution is caused by trees.

Capitalism is back in business.

By the 1990s it appears that even the Left agrees. Clinton is elected to balance the budget and New Labour sweeps into power boasting that it doesn't mind if people get "stinking rich". The EU, which has been a bastion of social democracy for so long, goes with the flow.  

Then comes the credit crunch.

New exploitation, new technology and new financial products, it turns out, can't keep creating new money out of nowhere forever. The Left has been defeated, but still the problems of capitalism have not gone away.

Marx is suddenly being disinterred.

The Future

Kondratiev himself had paid a high price for his insight. His theory that capitalism wasn't inevitably doomed, but could reinvent itself with enough of a push, did not play well in Stalin's Russia. He was imprisoned in 1932 and then, on a cold September day in 1938, he is led out to the firing squad. He is the age I am now, 46.
His theory's status in economics is mixed. The Right had no interest in capitalism having a crisis, whilst the Left had no interest in capitalism surving a crisis. A handful of futurologists read him, but it took a journalist of the credit crunch to bring him into the twentifirst century.

Mason's view of what happens next is clear. We need to start the delayed fifth cycle. We need a new version of capitalism that will be based on information technology and a green industrial revolution. What's more, just like in the previous four cycles, we also need to redefine the nature of work. Mason believes that a new vision of intellectual property will set information free and a universal income will set people free.

He may be wrong on the details, but I do not believe he is wrong on the fundamental problem. The left's defeat was ultimately capitalism's defeat as well. The sooner we all, left and right, see this and move on, the better.  

Monday, 18 April 2016

Saturday, 26 March 2016

My Guide to the Top Five Irish Rebellion Sites

Michael Collins (1996) Can you see me?
Easter 1916 marks one hundred years since the uprising in Ireland that led, via a very torturous route, to the creation of an independent Irish state. It also marked the start of the disintegration of the British Empire. Nationalism and modern weapons would make the great European empires untenable, although it would be a while before most people realised this.

My own connection to these events is to have been an uncredited (and unpaid) extra in Neil Jordan's 1996 film Michael Collins. Twenty years ago I stood with four thousand other people to cheer Liam Neeson as Michael Collins, the late Alan Rickman as Eamon De Valera and Julia Roberts as Kitty Kiernan as they arrived at a replica of Dublin Castle and gave a victory speech in front of the ruins of a fake GPO. It was almost like being there.

Michael Collins is a film that managed to annoy just about everyone, crediting British forces with atrocities they didn't commit and omitting ones they really did, whilst sanitising the very messy business of the Civil War that followed semi-independence. Still, if it had been a Mel Gibson movie it would have been a lot worse. 

During my time living in the Emerald Isle I also got to march behind The Plough and the Stars, which was the flag that James Connolly's Citizen's Militia flew over the GPO in 1916, and which the Irish TUC brings out every year for its May Day march. I also lived in the former house of Joe Murphy, the Republican Mayor of Cork who died on hunger strike, which must look good on my police file.

I also got a chance to visit some of the other places around and about associated with the bloody struggle for Irish freedom.

Here are my top five.

1. The General Post Office, O'Connell Street, Dublin

It all started at Easter 1916. Or was that when it all ended?

W.B. Yeats wrote that "a terrible beauty is born", but a few years earlier though he'd written "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone. It's with O'Leary in the grave". Yeats jumped the gun by three years, but in essence he was right. The last stand at the GPO, in it's magnificent futility, represented the old tradition of previous failed uprisings. It was the moonlight charge of half-pike's that was a traditional subject of republican myth and song recreated with modern weaponry.

The real Michael Collins was there. But as he was led away into captivity he was not thinking about romantic poetry but of the futility of defending a vulnerable fixed position. On the prison ship that took him away he was already making plans for a very different kind of war next time.

There was fighting elsewhere in the city in 1916 including trench warfare in St Stephens Green, a spot well worth a vist, where the park warden still fed the ducks during lulls in the fighting.

The GPO building has been rebuilt and is still a post office. The only hint of its role in the fighting
one hundred years ago is the magnificent statue of the dying mythological hero Cuchulainn in the window, a wonderful symbol of courage and sacrifice.

O'Connell Street itself has changed in the last century. In 1916 it would have been dominated by a pillar with a statue of Nelson on top, the twin of the one in Trafalgar Square. That was removed in 1966, as IRA's contribution to the fiftieth anniversary celebrations, with a rather nifty bit of dynamiting that left the rest of the street untouched. Just to prove who the real professionals were in this regard, when the Irish Army came to blow up the remaining stump they took out every window on the street in the process.

The pillar was replaced first with a piece of modern art known to the Irish as "the floozy in the jacuzzi" and then by the Spire of Dublin, which was considered to be rather more in line with the new look of the street.

2. Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin

The battle at the GPO ended with the Republican prisoners being led from the building through jeering crowds. That was not the start of the uprising, but what happened next was. They were taken across the city to Kilmainham Gaol, and for fifteen of them it would be a one way trip.

The gaol was closed in the 1920s and is now a museum. It doesn't appear in many tourist guides to Dublin, but it's worth a visit. As well as being able to see where the Easters rebels were imprisoned, and where those fifteen were shot. You can also see the Asgard, the yacht that Eskine Childers used to bring the guns over for the uprising. Childers had made himself a British hero by writing a story about a different boat, the Dulcibella, which his square jawed hero uses to thwart a German invasion in his 1903 novel The Riddle of the Sands. Eleven years later it was from Germany that the Asgard brought the weapons.

Another former British hero who died in 1916, and who is often forgotten, is Roger Casement. He was hung for treason at the Pentonville Prison, three months after the executions in Dublin, for his part in trying to secure more German rifles. Casement had been instrumental in exposing the abuses in the Belgian Congo, and was the inspiration for the hero of Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Lord Roxton in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World.

Another gaol associated with the War of Independence is Cork. Here Countess Markievicz, the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons, and others were interred. However the museum there focuses on the less famous inmates who passed through, but on the ordinary prisoners there. It is worth seeing if only to remind us that for ever person locked up for being Irish and a rebel, a hundred were imprisoned for being Irish and poor.

3. Kilmichael Ambush site, County Cork

The events of 1916 were the spark that lit the fires of which broke out in rebellion in 1919. The war started with attacks on isolated Royal Irish Constabulary barracks. Once these had been abandoned the authorities were blind as to what was happening in most of the country.

The film has Michael Collins leading these attacks. In reality he certainly helped organise them, but volunteers in County Tipperary carried out the first attack on their own initiative. Soon though roving guerrilla bands controlled most of the Irish countryside.

The most effective leader of these units was Tom Barry from County Kerry. An unlikely rebel he was the son of an RIC constable and Easter 1916 saw him fighting the Turks with the British Army in Iraq. When he did eventually join the IRA he ended up in command of the West Cork Brigade and on 28 November 1920 they fought one of the most significant, and controversial, battles of the war.

The British authorities had tried to regain control of the countryside using units of Auxiliaries made up of veterans of the Great War. These 'Black and Tans' ended up being responsible for most of the war crimes committed by British troops.

Barry decided to do something about this. His unit of 36 men ambushed a Black and Tan patrol of 18 men near their base in Macroom. The IRA lost three dead whilst all but one of the Auxiliaries died, several after trying to surrender, or pretending to surrender, and others allegedly being dispatched after being wounded. Whatever the exact circumstances most Irish thought they deserved what they got. The loss of a decent sized force of veteran soldiers was deeply shocking to the authorities and Cork and the surrouonding areas were placed under martial law and a fair part of the City burnt in retaliation.

The Irish being the Irish there is a song about the battle. A (very) slightly fictionalised version also appears in Ken Loach's film The Wind That Shakes The Barley. There is a memorial by the side of the road at the scene of the ambush, whilst Cork Museum has a detailed map and plan of the battle, as well as some memorabilia. 

The spot itself is pleasant enough, but more the sort of place you pass through after fishing in Macroom or on the way to Gougane Barra. West Cork though is wonderful, and as well as the Irish it is now home to a population of formerly English Travellers, who relocated to Ireland after their own ambush at the Battle of the Beanfield.

4. Michael Collin's Cork, County Cork

Meanwhile in Dublin and other cities a different kind of war was being fought, one were the victims were usually killed in their beds. As director of Intelligence for the IRA Collins was responsible for the creation of a special execution squad that killed British spies and informers, shooting no less than twenty MI5 officers in one night exactly a week before the Kilmichael Ambush.

Despite Neil Jordan's film Michael Collins' legacy in Ireland is still mixed. On the one hand is the revolutionary urban guerrilla leader who won the War of Independence, and on the other he's the man who signed the Treaty and settled for a divided Free State rather than a whole independent one. He's the founder of the unarmed police force that replaced the hated Royal Irish Constabulary, but a person who, unlike the heroes of 1916, killed his enemies in their beds rather than in pitched battle.

Michae Collins armoured car, Curragh
The controversy stems from one simple fact, unlike almost every other Irish revolutionary, he was successful.

A Michael Collins tour of Ireland would start in Dublin. It would include the Stag's Head pub in Dublin where he used to drink, which was round the corner from his intelligence office at no. 3 Crow Street. It would take in the Imperial Hotel in Cork where he spent his last night, but it would end at the obscure village of  Béal na Bláth in his native County Cork.

Here he died after a confused ambush by anti-Treaty forces. His convoy included an armoured car, but its machine gun had jammed. Collins was the only fatality in the battle. The film plays fast and lose with the facts of this, but you can't get over the poynancy of the version of She Moved Through The Fair by Sinead O'Connor and The Chieftains that Jordan commissioned for the movie.

Béal na Bláth is not the sort of place that usually gets mentioned in tourist guides. There is a small monument there to the Big Fella, but little else.

In his home town of Clonakilty though there is now the Michael Collins Centre, where you can learn some more about his life.There is also more about Collins in the barracks that bears his name in the City of Cork, whilst the armoured car that failed to save him is at the main Irish Army Museum at Curragh.

Collins himself lies in the Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, where there is a visitors centre and memorial to other Republicans. The cemetery is also home to another legacy of Ireland's past, one that isn't remembered as well as Easter 1916, but which has at least had its own film made about it. This is the site of the mass grave of the 'fallen women' of the Magdalene laundries.

5. The Falls and Shankill Roads, Belfast

So when did Ireland's struggle for independence finally end? That is a difficult question.

One answer is 1921, when the British Empire threw in the towel and the Free State was formed. Another answer is 1923 when the Free Staters won the civil war or 1932 when the bulk of the anti-Treaty people gave up the gun and adopted democratic politics.

Another answer is that it never did.

Twenty years ago a walk down the two main streets of West Belfast would have endorsed that view. Soldiers in armoured Land Rovers, helicopters, fortified pubs, paramilitary murals and the occasional gun or bomb attack or bus being petrol bombed were the sights in offer to the rare tourist. It was like walking round a slow motion civil war.

You can still experience some of that side of Belfast, especially if you can find a black taxi driver
Women for Peace, Belfast 1976
prepared to give you an unofficial tour. Brits are certainly tolerated, unless (like me) they ask to view the Official IRA graveyard. However for the most part that Ireland has gone thanks to events of another Easter weekend, but this one only eighteen years ago.

The Good Friday Agreement is a good place to end the chain of events that started at Easter 1916. Tony Blair, David Trimble and Gerry Adams certainly deserve the praise they received for the agreement, but this was a peace created from the bottom as much as one imposed from the top. Countless community groups and peace campaigners of both communities had worked for twenty years to end the fighting. 

Unlike the rebels of Easter 1916, the heroes of the War of Independence and the fighters of The Troubles, these people have no memorials to their name, no museums about them and are not remembered in film or song or mural. But that Ireland today, north and south of the border, is at peace with both itself and it's former imperial master across the Irish Sea is thanks more to them than to the people with guns.

Lets remember that this weekend.