Sunday 30 September 2018

Book Review: New York 2140

Written by Richard Burke and first published at Green Social Thought

It has been said that science fiction is not about the future, but a way of commenting on the present. With that in mind contemplate a vision of New York City in 2140. The seas have risen, and downtown Manhattan is flooded like Venice. The streets have become canals, and boats have replaced cars and busses. Skywalks between buildings have replaced sidewalks.

The wealthy have fled uptown, living in “superscrapers” made possible by new building materials. In the “intertidal” zone of lower Manhattan former corporate headquarters, such as the Met Life building, have become housing units run by cooperatives. Here the less well to do live in cramped living spaces so small that meals are taken in communal dining halls. They are the comparatively lucky ones. Others, less fortunate, are squatters in crumbling buildings in danger of falling into the canals. This is the vision conjured up by Kim Stanley Robinson in his latest novel New York 2140.

In this dystopian future, it seems that every bad idea for dealing with climate change has already been tried. After the first Pulse, or meltdown of the Greenland and Antarctic ice fields, in the late 21st century geo-engineering was tried. This of course temporarily slows the meltdown, but does not prevent a second Pulse from occurring in the early 22nd century, raising sea levels further. “Vertical farming,” the conversion of floors of urban buildings into spaces for growing food, is widespread, but serves only to supplement the diet of the residents of those buildings. Most unbelievable of all, despite a major financial crisis in the wake of the first Pulse, capitalism thrives and continues to grow. The government has bailed out the banks and financial firms once more. Neoliberal austerity has been imposed on the people yet again.

Not for long though. Kim Stanley Robinson identifies himself politically as a democratic socialist, and the dystopian picture he creates sets the stage for a revolt against the capitalist world-system. The main characters in the novel are those who hatch a scheme for bringing the system down, and then nationalizing rather than bailing-out banks and financial firms.

The novel is largely structured around its’ characters, and in two cases pairs of characters. The novel is divided into 8 parts, with 8 chapters in each part. Each of the 8 chapters focuses on each of the 5 characters, and 2 pairs while a separate chapter has various titles such as ‘the citizen’ or ‘the city.’ In these separate chapters the narrator provides us with background information regarding the history of his imagined world.

Mutt and Jeff are the first characters introduced. They are unemployed “quants”-financial analysts- living in a “hotello”- an inflatable shelter- on the farm level of the Met Life building. Inspector Gen Octaviasdottir, an African-American policewoman with an impressively Scandinavian surname, is the second character we meet. A fellow inhabitant of the Met Life building she is assigned the case when Mutt and Jeff mysteriously disappear. Inspector Gen then interviews Charlotte Armstrong, who works for the Householders Union and is chairperson of the building co-op. Inspector Gen then interviews Vlade, a Ukrainian immigrant who is superintendent of the cooperative.

Also living in the Met Life building are: Franklin Garr, an upwardly mobile financial trader engaged in arbitrage who comes to be dissatisfied with his function in society; Stefan and Roberto, two ‘river rats,’ homeless orphans whom Vlade is concerned for (his own son having drowned years ago), and who spend their days diving in the canals and river trying to find the site of the wreck of the HMS Hussar which sank during the American Revolution; finally Amelia Black, the star of a “cloud show” in which she travels the world in her airship, the Assisted Migration, helping to move animal populations to more appropriate locations on the post-climate change planet. These are the characters who conspire to bring the world’s financial system to its’ knees.

The trigger for the revolt is a hurricane, a superstorm that wreaks havoc on New York City in 2143. Living a precarious existence in the intertidal zone thousands of people now find themselves homeless. They crowd into Central Park, where all the trees have been completely flattened by the storm. Facing a city government more sympathetic to corporate interests than the welfare of its’ citizens they become an enraged mob that heads uptown to storm the superscrapers of the wealthy. For there is surplus housing in New York, much of which belongs to absentee owners who purchased it primarily as an investment, or as a place to stay for the few times in the year they actually visit the city.

The angry masses confront the security personnel of the wealthy owners, and a bloodbath is narrowly avoided by the timely actions of Inspector Gen who takes the side of the protestors. Returning from upstate New York where the Assisted Migration has had to flee from the storm Amelia, viewing these events from above, issues a call to action to the audience of her show. The plan: a debtor’s strike in which all rents, mortgages and student loans will now go unpaid. The revolt spreads worldwide and the overleveraged financial system crashes.

New York 2140 is a brilliant novel, yet is not without flaws. That capitalism continues until 2143 without running into any ‘limits to growth’ strains credulity. So does the idea that a second financial crisis occurs in the 21st century without engendering any anti-systemic revolt.  Can we seriously believe that a second such event in this century involving a government bailout for banks, and financial firms, while further imposing austerity on the masses would be accepted with resignation?

We are told that in the wake of the first and second pulses global civilization has had to rebuild, but could all this actually happen in a political climate of greater austerity, without government intervention for the welfare of the citizens? While we are informed that a process for sequestering carbon from the air leads to the creation of new building materials allowing for the construction of superscrapers, little to nothing is said about the energy sources used for what is clearly a high tech society. While buildings have vertical farms, we are also told that large swathes of the Midwest have been depopulated to provide corridors for migrating animals. How does this society manage to feed itself? Some things Mr. Robinson relates here strain credulity.

Keeping in mind the maxim that science fiction is less about the future than a commentary on the present, it is possible, but just barely, to overlook these flaws. The strength of the book lies in Mr. Robinson’s abilities as a storyteller, in his creation of sympathetic characters that one can identify with, and in the way that the novel is structured. He is also skillful in writing dialogue. There is a wealth of obscure historical information regarding Herman Melville’s life in New York, or the facts relating to the HMS Hussar.

He creates an interesting tapestry of the life of the city and its’ inhabitants. That, along with the political message the author successfully transmits, certainly makes for a compelling story. The concept of a debtor’s strike is an interesting suggestion for future political action. Perhaps it is best to approach the novel as a warning for our time rather than as a picture of the 22nd century. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 is a brilliant, if flawed, masterpiece.

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson ISBN: 978-0-316-26231-6 Orbit Books, New York, 2017

Friday 28 September 2018

Why is the UK Establishment Warming to Labour?

Flicking through media reports of the Labour Party conference this week, it slowly dawned on me that the tone had changed, in some, if not all of the outlets that have been running an antisemitism smear campaign against the party all summer. The conference has been reported in mildly favourable terms, although it was largely harmonious for Labour, in contrast to the expected turmoil of the upcoming Tory party conference, I still thought this was strange.

The rancour has already begun at the Tory party conference which begins this weekend, with the first shots fired by Boris Johnson with his ‘better Brexit plan’ and grass roots activists calling the prime minister’s Chequers plan ‘a betrayal.’ There will no doubt be much plotting behind the scenes and critical fringe meetings, mostly about Brexit. So, this may be in part an explanation of the interest in Labour policies by some business leaders and the media.

In the liberal media, writers in the Guardian, who were completely opposed to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party, like Polly Toynbee, are now singing the praises of Labour. Uber Blairite, Martin Kettle, who boasted of playing tennis with Blair, and has been very critical of Labour’s shift to the left, has also come around, it seems.  

Further to the political right, The Times had a leader piece which concludes, “In the battle for ideas between the two main parties, the quality is low but Mr Corbyn is right that he is winning.” The Telegraph leader warns that Corbyn’s speech ended on “a triumphalist note that the Tories urgently need to silence with a plan of their own.”

The Evening Standard, edited by former Tory chancellor, George Osborne, included an editorial this week which looks very much like a softening of its hostility to Corbyn’s Labour. 

Take this for example:

‘You may think, as we do, that John McDonnell’s plans to give workers 10 per cent of the shares of private companies and renationalise the water industry will only deter investment and damage productivity. But they are concrete policies that deserve serious scrutiny. For all the talk from Downing Street about addressing the “burning injustices”, can anyone remember a single policy to address them — and does anyone think this will be the main topic of conversation when the Tories meet next week in Birmingham? No. It’s dangerous for a government when it’s the opposition that starts setting the policy agenda.’ 

In another editorial this week the paper suggests ‘Emily Thornberry could be the next female PM,’ although it reserves distain for Corbyn personally, more broadly Labour is attracting interest.

What is going on then? Yes, the Tory government’s Brexit handling has been an embarrassment, but I detect something deeper is happening with establishment thinking. This thought has been kicking around in my head all week, then yesterday I saw Adam Ramsay’s video from Labour’s conference on Open Democracy’s Facebook page, take a look if you haven’t already, it is well worth a viewing.

Ramsay perhaps has the answer to this strange turn of events. He thinks that the ‘British establishment, British state, British capital’ is trying to ‘re-inflate the ancient regime’ because it has lost legitimacy with a large swath of the public, and allowing a Labour government to do a few nice things, like raise taxes on the wealthy, introduce some green policies and renationalise the railways and utilities, will repair the damage. Then another financial crisis will occur, and the Tories will be back in, and it will be back to business as usual.

This was what happened with new Labour, although it didn’t attempt anything as radical as today’s Labour is promising, but did smooth off a few of the rough edges of neo-liberalism. There is no doubt that a Labour government would be better than the a Tory one, even Blair’s Labour was a bit, but will this momentum that has built up be co-opted by the establishment and so lose its way? I think that there a very good chance of that happening.

As Ramsay says, this is not inevitable though, and some in Labour are thinking these thoughts, but it is certainly a danger.

Brexit was a warning to the British establishment, that many people are not happy with their lot, although the EU is not central to this, the referendum gave the opportunity to voters to voice their dissatisfaction more generally. Some in the Tory party are trying to use this to push a small state with low regulation if any, as the answer. But this would make matters worse, not better. Some in the establishment recognise this.      

Wednesday 26 September 2018

Would a Canada-Style Deal with the EU lead to the Breakup of the UK?

Well, that’s what the prime minister, Theresa May, said as she arrived in New York for a United Nations summit, which take in trade talks with the US amongst others. The idea of pursuing a Canada style free trade deal has been gaining ground in the Tory party since the European Union (EU) pretty much rubbished May’s Chequers plan, for our exit from the bloc.

May, of course, is desperate for Chequers to be at least the basis for a withdrawal agreement, having put so much political capital into it, so she is trying to dig in ahead of the Tories conference next week. She argues that Chequers is better than no deal, in that it attempts to give us some kind of favourable arrangements with the EU, more than no deal anyway. She claims it offers a solution to keeping open the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic whereas a Canada style deal is worse than no deal, in that it would break up the UK.

May said the Brexiters’ plan would necessitate a hard Irish border and thus invoke the EU’s so-called backstop, which would keep Northern Ireland within elements of the customs union and single market, effectively drawing a border in the Irish Sea.
As she said: ‘I think a bad deal will be a deal, for example, that broke up the United Kingdom. We want to maintain the unity of the United Kingdom.’

It is true that the EU have said that any offer of a Canada style deal with the UK is contingent on the backstop agreement of last December, of Northern Ireland remaining in the customs union and single market. We know that the Democratic Unionist Party, who May relies for a governing majority are strongly opposed to this, so it probably wouldn’t get through Parliament anyway, and could collapse the government.

Presumably, May thinks that a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is preferable to what is on offer in the form of a Canada style deal. There has been talk coming out of the government of leaving this decision to the Northern Ireland Assembly, although that is suspended at the moment. If reconvened, it would, as always, have a built in Unionist majority.

In a further twist, if the UK left the EU without a deal, an opinion poll in the Irish Times, conducted by Deltapoll puts support in Northern Ireland for unity with the Republic at 52%, hauntingly the same as percentage that voted for Brexit in the UK. Only 39 per cent said they would vote for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK.

The poll also found that more people would vote for a united Ireland in the event of a hard border being erected. In such circumstances, 56 per cent said they would vote for unity if a hard border is in place, while 40 per cent responded they would vote to remain in the UK. All of which would suggest the prime minister’s rationale has some foundation, but is not the whole picture. No deal is more likely to see the UK break with Northern Ireland.

In the event of no deal, might Scotland think again about independence? Because Scotland is landlocked to England and Wales, the border issue would be of a different order, but even so, might the Scottish be encouraged by a united Ireland? Perhaps Scots readers can give an opinion here?

A similar poll was held in Scotland, where 47 per cent said they would vote for Scottish independence in a future referendum if the UK left the EU as planned while 43 per cent said they would vote to stay in the UK. But if Brexit was stopped, 47 per cent said they would vote for Scotland to stay in the UK and 43 per cent said they would vote for independence.

May’s championing of her Chequers proposals also rather falls down on the fact the EU have already said it is not acceptable anyway, even if it could get support in Parliament, which looks extremely doubtful, to say the least. So as things stand, we are looking at no deal in any case.

It looks as though the only way to keep the country from breaking up, is to remain in the EU or a close approximate of it.

Sunday 23 September 2018

Ecosocialism’s Greatest Challenge: The Colour-Line and the Twenty-First Century Ecoleft

Written by Ted Franklin and first published at System Change Not Climate Change

Shortly before protesters gathered around the world on the eve of the Global Climate Action Summit, an ecosocialist friend commented on the pointlessness of engaging in more “feel good” marches. Something struck me as horribly wrong about this casual dismissal of mass actions in which we take to the streets to bear witness to the mounting opposition to global ecocide.

As an active participant in San Francisco Bay Area climate actions over the past five years, I can’t think of a single march or rally deserving of the trivializing “feel good” label. None has been a platform for Al Gore or Michael Bloomberg or Jerry Brown or Michael Shellenberger to peddle market solutions to climate change, fantasies of capitalism without fossil fuels, nuclear power, or geo-engineering.

Marches and rallies are important to the Left not only for their potential to topple governments, but also because the process of organizing street actions builds organizational capacity, strengthens ties among activists working on different fronts, creates opportunities to engage with the larger community, and sparks intense political struggle without which our movement will remain caged on the pages of theoretical journals. If building a more powerful movement also feels good, then we ought to feel good more often.

The Solidarity to Solutions Week of Actions that took place in San Francisco this past week exemplified these gains for the climate movement. They were not “feel good” exercises. In fact, they highlighted the growing strength of a militant anti-capitalist climate movement with significant leadership by and participation of people of colour, women, and indigenous activists greatly underrepresented in the self-identified ecosocialist Left.

Ecosocialists have much to learn from this movement that we do not lead, but that articulates a critique of green capitalism, the commodification of nature, and imperialist domination of the Global South that is deeply compelling and akin to our own.

Over recent months, the Climate Justice Alliance, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, Indigenous Environmental Network and Right to the City joined forces in the It Takes Roots Alliance to build a week of actions in San Francisco as counterpoint to the Global Climate Action Summit where “market-based schemes will be promoted as the only response to climate change.”

It Takes Roots vowed to “spotlight frontline community solutions to the interlinked economic, democratic and climate crises currently threatening humanity. Frontline community leaders from the Bay Area, across the U.S. and around the world will share and discuss place-based solutions that serve to simultaneously decarbonize, detoxify, demilitarize and democratize our economy through critical strategies such as Indigenous land rights, food sovereignty, zero waste, public transportation, ecosystem restoration, universal healthcare, worker rights, housing rights, racial and gender justice, and economic relocalization.”

The week kicked off with a 30,000-person march in conjunction with the People’s Climate Movement. The march ended without the usual rally orations, but instead featured painting of the world’s largest street mural and a vibrant street fair where groups actively fighting climate change in the Bay Area had an opportunity to engage one-on-one with participants.

The week continued with tours of local sites of environmental struggle, a day-long It Takes Roots member assembly, another day-long summit of workshops open to all, and two major direct actions confronting the invitation-only GCAS from which grassroots and radical activists were excluded.

The larger of the direct actions involved over a thousand demonstrators who linked arms to block entrance to the GCAS on the day Michael Bloomberg was scheduled to speak.

A major theme of this demonstration was “Rise Against Climate Capitalism.”  In the call to disrupt GCAS, Diablo Rising Tide posted, “We’ve known for a long time to not believe the false narrative that green capitalism can take care of us and the planet. The people that got us into the climate crisis are not going to be the ones to get us out of it.”

Challenging Governor Brown’s claim to leadership of the world’s fight against climate change, the call continued “Jerry Brown's record on offshore drilling, fracking and protecting the water and air of local refinery communities doesn’t match his rhetoric — so we’re skeptical to say the least.”

Coordinated by It Takes Roots, Indigenous Environmental Network, Idle No More SF Bay, the Ruckus Society, Brown’s Last Chance, and Diablo Rising Tide, the blockade of GCAS was at once one of the most diverse and one of the most explicitly anti-capitalist environmental actions ever held in the Bay Area. Led mostly by young people of colour, demonstrators held the street for about three hours before marching to a nearby park for a closing gathering around a large circular banner that proclaimed “End Climate Capitalism.”

What does this all mean for the future of ecosocialism?

First, it means we means we who belong to largely white ecosocialist groups have many allies with deep roots in communities of colour who share our understanding that capitalism is incompatible with a decent future for life on our planet.

Second, if ecosocialism is to go anywhere. ecosocialists must make common cause with these allies, building relationships through working together, just as they have worked together over recent years to build relationship among themselves. If the members of the more than 200 organizations aligned with It Takes Roots are not going to be part of our ecosocialist revolution, we need to reconsider our vision.

Third, to join in common cause will require respect for the vision and priorities these groups bring forward as we all struggle for the revolutionary change. Ecological Marxists like John Bellamy Foster, Chris Williams, Ian Angus, Andreas Malm, Fred Magdoff, Michael Löwy, Joel Kovel, and Richard Smith have made great contributions to our understanding of capitalism’s threat to life on the planet and socialism’s offer of a hopeful way out, but we will not find the path forward if we are only listening to the voices of white male academic Marxists, even those who have the happy gift of writing in a popular style.

Listening to other voices will sometimes require us to accept leadership from others outside our existing circles. The explicit embrace of socialism should not be a litmus test in determining whom we embrace. Twentieth century socialism led to tragic flaws and perversions that have made many sincere anti-capitalists reluctant to reclaim the word, even when garnished with the “eco” prefix.

Any notion that we who currently identify as ecosocialists are the bearers of a complete vision of post-revolutionary society, or a complete strategy to get there, is absurd. Our ecosocialist tendency is still much clearer in its diagnosis of the capitalist fever that grips the planet than it is in its practical grasp of how to build a movement that can replace capitalism. The socialist canon does not answer the perennial question, “What is to be done?”

An authentic movement for liberation and survival in our time will involve leadership from Indigenous activists like Kandi Mossett and Tom Goldtooth, guiding insights from African-American thinkers like Keeanga-Yamahhta Taylor, and inspiration from the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. We have much to offer in collaboration, not only our connection to a worldwide history of struggle against capitalism and a theory of how it can be overcome but also our curiosity, our determination, and, if we are really hoping to change the world, our humility.

The It Takes Roots alliance has glitches to iron out if it is to be a unifying ideological and practical center. Some Bay Area frontline activists who wanted to be part of the “official” Week of Actions could not figure out how to get on board. Mysteriously, It Takes Roots did not welcome efforts by grassroots activists who have been holding off siting of a coal terminal in frontline West Oakland for three-and-a-half years. No Coal in Oakland offered to organize an ecotour and demonstration on the Bay Bridge pedestrian walkway on the day set aside for ecotours.

Sunflower Alliance, a local group that led efforts to deny tar sands oil a path to market by imposing caps on local emissions from Northern California refineries, also found itself sidelined. The emphasis on Indigenous leadership, including prayer, reportedly left some Christian pastors wondering where they fit in. Although It Take Roots is sharply critical of capitalism, it has, as yet, few roots in Labor.

Despite these concerns, it would be a tragic mistake for activists who are not well-connected to It Takes Roots to assume ill will. Staging the Week of Actions was an enormous undertaking that, as anyone who has organized a big coalition event knows, required much internal struggle that detracted from the group’s ability to sort out some of its relations with those outside its ranks.

After No Coal in Oakland’s ecotour proposal got no response, No Coal in Oakland activists, a number of whom identify as ecosocialists, found other ways to participate successfully in Sol2Sol week. On the first day of Jerry Brown’s summit, NCIO staged a spirited picket line outside a nearby responsible investment conference to call out the bank seeking to finance the West Oakland coal terminal. 

Diablo Rising Tide, one of the organizations spearheading direct actions during Sol2Sol week, cosponsored the action along with Sunflower Alliance, and East Bay Democratic Socialists of America. A No Coal in Oakland affinity group also participated in the GCAS blockade. Relationships are built this way, by joining forces.

To be sure, bridging the gap between the currently small ranks of self-described ecosocialists—some 40 or so of whom marched in the DSA-sponsored ecosocialist contingent on September 8 in San Francisco--and the “movement of movements” prefigured by It Takes Roots is going to require ecosocialists to look outside our silo. Only by dedication to that task will we succeed in addressing the twenty-first century problem of the ecoleft’s own colour-line.

Ted Franklin is a co-coordinator of No Coal in Oakland and a member of System Change Not Climate Change and the Democratic Socialists of America Ecosocialist Working Group.

Friday 21 September 2018

EU Calls May’s Bluff – Time to start Stockpiling Tinned Food?

The European Union (EU) has been consistent in the two and a quarter years, although it seems like longer, since the UK referendum vote to leave the EU. They stated what their red lines were: a workable solution to keeping open the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and maintaining the ‘four freedoms’ of free movement of goods, services, capital and persons within the EU. Yes, the negotiations on Brexit, if we can call them that, have been couched in diplomatic language, but the EU’s position has not changed.

Indeed, on Northern Ireland, the UK agreed to the ‘backstop’ arrangement for the Irish border in December last year, but now wants to renege on this it seems. The EU summit in Saltzburg, Austria, appears to have displayed the utter frustration of EU nations with Britain’s delusions of grandeur, where prime minister, Theresa May was told in no uncertain terms that nothing the UK has come up with so far, is even close to addressing our Brexit relations with EU when we leave.

It was always likely that push was going to come to shove this autumn, as substantive agreement really needs to reached by the EU summit on 18 October, less than a month away, for the EU to deem it is worth holding a special summit in November, to finally make an agreement.

After farting around for over two years the British government, wasting everyone’s time with ludicrous plans, has now been put on the spot. Do we want a deal or not, appears to be the exasperated message from Europe?

Maybe we don’t want a deal, and should fess up and tell the EU this, because even a Canada style free trade agreement (no tariffs on trade) is not on offer unless the no border in Ireland issue is resolved. Certainly some people prefer the World Trade Organisation default position on the right of the Tory party and perhaps elsewhere.

This scenario would almost certainly cause a recession in the UK in the short term, eventually the UK may recover, but this will take several years, maybe ten, before we get back to anything like the situation we have inside the EU.

Some Brexiters even agree with analysis, Jacob Rees-Mogg thinks it might take fifty years for Britain to see the benefit of leaving the EU, so why is this so desirable? The rather vague slogan of ‘taking back control’ is the only justification that they can come up with. But what does this mean in practice?

Allowing US businesses to run the NHS? Eating fluoridated chicken and hormone pumped beef from the US? Allowing Genetically Modified crops to be grown in the UK? Reduced employment rights for workers? Reduced protection for our environment? Some freedom that.

It is not as though immigration will stop, or even reduce to the fabled tens of thousands when we do leave the EU. Britain is apparently trying to recruit Jamaican nurses to work in the NHS, and other sectors will need to do similarly, if the country is to function properly. After the Windrush scandal, why anyone would want to come to Britain is an open question, perhaps we will have to bribe them handsomely?    

Anything could still happen, we might crash out, we might compromise enough to get some kind of deal with EU, we might have another referendum and vote to stay in the EU, we might have a general election which if the Tories lose, could be a game changer.

But the way the Tory government is riven with division, but still clinging onto power, I now think that the most likely scenario is crashing out of the EU, which I didn’t think would happen. I thought sense in the end would prevail, and some sort of compromise would be reached. It looks like I was wrong.

So, start stocking up on tinned food and lock all doors and windows on 29 March next year. We are in for a bumpy ride.

Thursday 20 September 2018

Labour is Right to Propose Curbs on Gambling

The Labour party is set to publish plans for curbs on the gambling industry, ahead of its conference, which starts on Sunday in Liverpool. The policies are intended to reduce the number of problem gamblers in the UK, estimated to be 430,000. According to the Guardian, Labour will ban the use of credit cards, place limits on gambling adverts attached to live sporting events and ban gambling companies from advertising on players’ football shirts.

Research by the Guardian during this summer’s football World Cup found that viewers were exposed to almost 90 minutes of betting adverts during the tournament, prompting concern about the impact on children. The Gambling Commission said earlier this year that it was weighing up the merits of a ban on credit card betting, while the UK’s leading gambling charity, GambleAware, has previously backed the measure.

In my youth, gambling for the mass of people was restricted to horse racing, and to a lesser extent greyhound racing. Betting shops used to be very drab places, with no televisions or refreshments allowed, and hours of opening tightly controlled. The laws around gambling have been liberalized over the years by both Tory and Labour governments, but I think it has now gone too far.

Gambling has grown into many other sports now, especially football and cricket, and there are a host of online gambling websites, featuring poker and other casino games. People can gamble on these sites at any time of the day or night, and could well be the worse for alcohol or drugs. Fortunes can be lost at the click of a mouse. 

I don’t have any interest in gambling myself, which I think is because I hate losing money. I might have a bet on the Grand National horse race once a year, but not always. I don’t even do the National Lottery.

But I’ve also seen what it can do to compulsive gamblers. I have known people who liked to bet their rent money on a horse or greyhound race, they said because of the extra adrenaline rush induced from not being able to afford to lose the money. Having said all that, I wouldn’t ban gambling altogether, it can be harmless fun to many people, but the industry needs tightening up.

Something that has always occurred to me about people who gamble regularly, is that they never admit that they have lost money. They say they are breaking even, or just about up, or winning a lot. This doesn’t make sense when compared to the multi-million pound gambling industry, someone must be losing, but it never seems to be the people I talk to. It is other people who are ‘mugs’ who are losing, they say. I am always reminded of the old saying, ‘you never see a poor bookie.’   

The football on Talk Sport Radio, even has betting embedded in the commentary of the match itself, while the game is going on. The commentator will be describing the action, and then suddenly will inform you that such a player is 2/1 to score the next goal etc with Betfred or whoever. This not only spoils the commentary but always makes me feel uneasy about the intrusion. Commentators should be describing the game, not slipping in adverts for gambling companies. This type of advertising should be stopped.

So, Labour is right to call for regulation of the gambling industry, and not before time. Gambling addiction in the UK is becoming a big problem. It can lead not only to impoverishment for people, but family break ups, homes lost and even suicides. It is time to end this exploitation of people by huge corporate gambling firms who are profiting at the expense of people’s health and well-being.

Tuesday 18 September 2018

Freedom of Speech on Facebook – But Only at a Price?

A few weeks back I was banned by Facebook for thirty six hours for posting too much. A twenty four hour total ban, even on comments and an extra twelve hours from posting links etc. Most of my posts are links to this blog, which I post into several Facebook political groups. I’ve seen comments on Facebook from others who have had bans on posting of varying length, one person got banned for a whole month.

I’d say about 80% of people who visit this blog come from Facebook referrals, so to get a ban is pretty devastating for traffic to the blog, so I try not to post too much, and avoid getting banned. I know others who do the same. Why are Facebook so strict on people harmlessly posting into groups that they are members of? Well, I suspect it is a commercial decision.

Facebook doesn’t seem to like you getting something for nothing. While serving a ban from posting, you are still allowed to ‘boost’ previous posts, for a fee, of course.  It is not as though I make any money from this blog, it is not a commercial site, so I don’t see why I should spend money on Facebook. If it was, then I would have to weigh up whether it was worth investing in Facebook to bring in a greater amount of revenue. But it isn’t, and I’ve never spent a penny on the blog.

I suppose because I use Facebook so much, it has become, in effect, my publisher, although I only thought about that recently. I am trying to increase traffic from other sources, other than Facebook, but with only modest gains so far. Facebook unfortunately is the easiest and most effective medium for attracting readers. Readers are important to me, there seems little point in writing if hardly anyone reads it. More important though, one of the main aims of this blog, is to spread ideas.

This blog, like most blogs, has an email feed facility, but not many have taken it up. I suspect this is because people want to discuss the posts with others in their Facebook groups, which is great, but it does tie me to Facebook.

Groups are the hardest feature of Facebook to replace, since they serve a wide range of purposes for different people. There aren’t really any other platforms that that offer the group type facility, although some claim to. Have a google and check it out yourself.

The latest platform for writers is called Civil, apparently run by the New York Times. As their site says:

‘Civil is a blockchain-based economy that involves the direct, peer-to-peer exchange of value between journalists who report articles, make videos, record podcasts, and the people who read, watch, listen and support their work.’

In practice you have to buy ‘tokens’ which are a kind of crypto-currency, to be able to take part. I don’t think I really fancy the sound of that.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party leader has said that if Labour gets into government it will consider making a publicly owned rival to Facebook, which is a good idea.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who is widely credited as being the inventor of the world wide web, is said to be developing an alternative to Facebook, called Solid. But the motivation appears to be protecting users data from being misused, as happened with the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal. It is not clear to me whether it will seek to replace the groups function on Facebook.

Some bloggers get most of their links from Twitter, and although I have been building my following on Twitter, it has only increased a little. So, at the moment at least, it looks as though I’m stuck with Facebook, for all the problems that it gives me. Which reminds me, a few of us small left media outlets and bloggers have set up a Facebook group specifically to spread our work.

You can find the group here Real Independent Media UK, please do join.       

Sunday 16 September 2018

No, Capitalism Will Not Save the Climate

Written by Karin Nansen and first published at Common Dreams

We are facing deep-rooted climate, social, and environmental crises. The current dominant economic system cannot provide solutions. It is time for system change.

For Friends of the Earth International this means creating societies based on peoples’ sovereignty and environmental, social, economic, and gender justice. We must question and deconstruct the capitalist logic of accumulation.

The climate catastrophe is interwoven with many social and environmental crises, including oppression, corporate power, hunger, water depletion, biodiversity loss and deforestation.

Equality and reciprocity

At its heart sits an unsustainable economic system, the sole aim of which is endless growth and profit. This system concentrates wealth, power, and obscene privilege with the few.

Corporations and national elites are empowered by that very system to exploit people and their livelihoods with impunity.

We must tackle climate change and the associated social and environmental crises by taking rapid and bold action to address the common root causes; privatization, financialization and commodification of nature and societies, and unsustainable production and consumption systems.

The magnitude of the crises we face demands system change.

That system change will result in the creation of sustainable societies and new relations between human beings, and between human beings and nature, based on equality and reciprocity.

Expansion of capital

But we cannot create these societies and assert people’s rights without increasing people’s power. We need to reclaim politics.

This means creating genuine, radical, and just democracies centered around people’s sovereignty and participation.

International law must put people above corporate profit, ensuring binding rules for business and mechanisms that guarantee access to justice for victims of transnational corporations.

System change calls for an articulation of the struggles against oppression; that is, patriarchy, racism, colonialism, and class and capitalist exploitation.

It demands commitment to the struggle against the exploitation of women’s bodies and work. We are witnessing how the expansion of capital over the territories leads to increased violence against women alongside the violation of their rights.

Economic justice

Gender justice will only be possible when we recognize women as political subjects, stop violence against women, strengthen women’s autonomy, advance the principles of feminist economy, deconstruct the sexual division of labor, and reorganize care work.

A transformation of the energy system is fundamental to system change. It entails democratic answers to the fundamental questions: for whom and what is energy produced? And a total departure from fossil fuel reliance and corporate control.

This must be a just transition, founded on workers’ and community rights. It is not only about changing technologies and renewable energy, but about public and community ownership and control, therefore addressing the root problems of a system that turns energy into a commodity and denies the right to energy for all.

It requires equity and justice, especially for those already impacted by the changing climate in the global South.

Genuine system change would radically transform the food system toward food sovereignty and agroecology: valuing local knowledge, promoting social and economic justice and people’s control over their territories, guaranteeing the right to land, water and seeds, nurturing social relations founded on justice and solidarity, and recognizing the fundamental role of women in food production, to provide an effective way to feed the world, and a counter to destructive industrial agriculture.

Biodiversity and forests are best protected by the communities who live in them. Protecting forests can address climate change by maintaining natural carbon stores and reducing the amount of carbon released through deforestation, while providing communities with food, fibers, shelter, medicines, and water. Just eight per cent of the world’s forests are managed by communities; it is vital we secure community rights over forests and livelihoods.

Popular mobilization

System change must address people’s individual and collective needs and promote reciprocity, redistribution, and sharing.

Solutions include public services achieved through tax justice, social ownership and co-operativism, local markets and fair trade, community forest management, and valuing the wellbeing of people and the planet.

People all over the world are already living or implementing thousands of initiatives which embody justice and challenge the capitalist logic. Now we must expand them.

And that requires commensurate international and national public policies that empower people to fight for a democratic state that ensures rights and provides environmentally and socially just public services, and active popular participation; a state that guarantees peoples’ rights to water, land and the territories, food, health, education, housing, and decent jobs.

We all need to support local and international resistance, engage in popular mobilization, strive for policy change and upscale the real solutions, the solutions of the people. This is system change.

Thursday 13 September 2018

The Tories Upcoming Autumn of Discontent over Brexit

Tory MPs are back from their summer holidays, where no doubt they managed to fit in a good deal of plotting, over Brexit and the immediate future of the prime minister Theresa May. Now they are back though, the in-fighting has already gone up several notches, with the European Research Group (ERG) of hard Brexit Tory MPs finally launching their alternative plan. Much of it has already been ruled out by the European Union (EU) though, but the intention is to kill off the prime minister’s Chequers Brexit plan, as much as anything else.

Members of the Cabinet are some of the few Tory MPs who support the Chequers plan, and indeed party members overwhelmingly reject it too, but the government insists it is the only plan being pursued. Dominic Raab, Brexit secretary, said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

‘there will be the choice between the deal that I’m confident we can strike with the EU and the no deal scenario.’

Take it or leave it, in other words. But this won’t phase the ERG MPs, who would rather have a no deal Brexit than the Chequers deal. Meanwhile, Tory MP Nick Boles, from the pro-soft Brexit wing of the party, has outlined his alternative to the Chequers plan, which is joining the European Economic Area (EEA), ‘at least on the way to some kind of Canada style deal.’ More broadly, pro-soft Brexit Tory MPs are beginning to get organised, for the expected punch up in the party over the next few months. 

Boles writes on Conservative Home website: ‘So the questions that every Conservative MP needs to ask themselves are these. If the Prime Minister’s plan does not get through the Commons, what then? If MPs also can’t stomach a “No Deal” Brexit, what’s the alternative?’

There is certainly a good chance that the Chequers plan will not get through Parliament, with Labour saying it will vote against the deal, even before the EU has wrought some expected concessions out of the British government. So, Boles has a point, Chequers looks to please no one, and as there is no majority in Parliament for no deal, what then?

George Trefgarne, makes the case for joining the EEA also on Conservative Home:

‘The EEA not only delivers Brexit by being outside the jurisdiction of the ECJ and, for that matter, the Common Fisheries Policy and the Common Agricultural Policy. Norway and co also have input to single market legislation via the decision shaping process. They have rights of adaptation. And, in extremis, right of veto.

…George Yarrow, an Oxford University economist (and intellectual father of Better Brexit), estimates Britain’s net payments to the EU would fall from £9 billion to around £1.5 billion (per year).

I’ve written before that joining the EEA is the most sensible thing to do, other than remaining in the EU. It may be the only viable option if Chequers and no deal are ruled out by Parliament. The only other option is to extend our stay in the EU, which worries some pro-Brexit members of the Cabinet, like Michael Gove.

There has been talk of toppling Theresa May from elements of the ERG, but even if they managed to do this, and replace her with a hard Brexit MP, like Boris Johnson, the make up of Parliament would remain the same, unless a general election is called to change this composition in the House of Commons. Even then, the Tories might lose the election, and so be in an even weaker position than they are now.

As the temperature rises in Parliament, the previously Eurosceptic Daily Mail, has accused those hard Brexiters plotting against the prime minister, as being ‘traitors.’ The piece goes on to say:

‘It is not as if they have the numbers to bring her down. Let alone do they have a coherent alternative plan for Brexit – nor, indeed, an obvious candidate to replace her, capable of uniting a divided party.’

And there you have it. The Tories are a (deeply) divided party over the terms of Brexit, with no easy way that I can see of resolving their differences. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, while they indulge themselves in this carnival of self-destruction, the country faces the possibility of chaos.       

Tuesday 11 September 2018

Electoral Boundary Changes – A Fair System for All?

The government has revealed its proposals for re-drawing the Parliamentary boundaries and so reduce the number of constituencies (and therefore MPs) from the current 650 down to 600. The new boundaries will favour the Tories, in terms of net MPs gained or lost.

The reduction in seats impacts on all parties but Labour most of all. While the Conservatives are set to lose 10 seats overall (down from 318 won last June, a figure that includes the Speaker) the re-distribution means that Labour falls by 30 seats, and the Lib Dems 5. The Scottish National Party will likely have a net loss of 6 seats and Plaid Cymru in Wales a net loss of 2. The Green party would remain unchanged with one MP.

The Electoral Reform Society said changes to equalise constituencies were just tinkering, when the first-past-the-post electoral system meant the number of votes per MP elected in 2017 varied from just under 28,000 for the Democratic Unionist party to more than 500,000 for the Green party.

It all looks suspiciously like gerrymandering in favour of the ruling Tory party, although the government says that the current boundaries favour the Labour party, and so reform is necessary. They say that the new boundaries will just be an exercise in ‘fairness’ as most constituencies will be equalised to 71,000 to 78,000 registered voters rather than the 55,000 to 110,000 range currently.

The new boundaries do not equalise all constituencies though, for example, the Isle of Wight will go from one constituency of 110,000 to two of 55,000, both likely to be won by the Tories.

The government is keen to stress that the proposed changes are the recommendations of the boundary commissions for England, Scotland, Wales (and Northern Ireland), but the government did set the parameters of their remit, particularly the equalisation of registered voters. Inevitably this would favour the Tories, with Labour voters less likely to make sure they are registered to vote.

One study by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, academics at the University of Plymouth, calculated that the new boundaries would have given the Conservatives an overall majority of 16 in last year’s election, which resulted in a hung Parliament, under the existing boundaries.

The proposals will need to be approved by both Houses of Parliament, which may be no easy feat given the numbers in both Houses, but is likely to be introduced next year. Some prominent Tory MPs are at risk, like Boris Johnson and David Davis, so getting this through Parliament may not be straightforward. The Tories tried to get similar proposals adopted in 2013, but had to withdraw the plan when the Lib Dems refused to support it.

Whichever way you look at it, our present First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system is unfair, wherever the boundaries are drawn. The fairest electoral systems have at least some element of proportional voting, with top lists for those under represented by the FPTP system. It also avoids arguments about gerrymandering.

The Tories and Labour are reasonably happy with FPTP, because no other system would be likely to give them majorities in Parliament, big majorities sometimes, so they get carte blanche to do pretty much what they want, on about 40% of the vote. How can this be fair?

I know we had a referendum on the replacing FPTP with the Alternative Vote (AV) system in 2011, which resulted in a heavy vote to reject AV, but AV is not really a proportional system, and little better than what we have in terms of fairness. But if we are to try make the system fairer, then proportional voting is the best way to achieve this.  

Something like the Additional Member System used for electing the Scottish Parliament, could be used for Westminster elections, giving a much fairer reflection in Parliament of the wishes of voters. But then, in the end, this proposal is not really about fairness, but party political advantage.

Sunday 9 September 2018

Book Review – Red Green Revolution - On the Precipice

Written by Victor Wallis and first published at Political Animal

Like many others (unless they are in a state of simple denial), I sometimes feel paralyzed by the enormity of the environmental challenge.

How to break through this?

We must begin with the certainties.

First is the science. Not every aspect of it, of course, but the basic contours. The most in-depth, up-to-date, and accessible account is Ian Angus’s 2016 Monthly Review Press book, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (see my review at Climate and Capitalism). When you read this book, you will see how in some respects the point of no return has already been reached. But even if full collapse is only a matter of time, many life-and-death choices will still confront us along the way – over what we may hope will be more than a single lifetime.

The second certainty is that we are being systematically lied to by the most powerful interests in this society. It is now known that the big oil companies, by their own research in the 1970s, confirmed what would later become common knowledge about the climate-impact of greenhouse gases, but they then undertook a deliberate campaign of obfuscation which continues to this day (see updates at

The third certainty is an outcome of the second: hundreds of millions of people who should – and could – be waging the battle of and for their lives, are instead propelled by a structured inertia, part “practical” and part ideological, to continue with their daily routines – of heating or cooling, driving, flying, over-indulging in one or another addiction, and acquiescing in wars of domination – as though nothing had changed.

And yet things have changed! This is the fourth certainty, although it is less obvious than the first three because its manifestations don’t appear with equal severity everywhere at once. Here I am thinking not of the underlying trends but of the countless unusual phenomena that are evident to even the most casual observer – or TV watcher – but whose cumulative message we mostly ignore in our day-to-day lives. We see TV images of fire, flood, and war – what started as a war for oil – but yet our highways become ever more congested and continue to be widened. We hear of water shortages, new viruses, crop blights, and species extinctions, but we have yet to do away with even the least needed and most harmful lines of production.

Where collapse is most tangible is where environmental extremes intersect with the extremes of social polarization. Texas prisoners are now frequently dying in the torrid summers as the indoor heat index climbs as high as 130 (F). Most of the state prisons lack air conditioning,[1] and political leaders refuse to remedy the situation, even as the state generates millions of dollars from the prisoners’ unpaid labor. The conditions are not new, but global warming is taking them past the tipping point. The example of the prisons is replicated in the growing incidence, globally, of people being deprived of water, food, or dry land.

It is not surprising that the most inveterate opposition to addressing this crisis stems from the very interests that have profited the most from bringing it on. The problem is that whereas those interests – the corporations along with the technocrats and politicians who speak for them – are tightly organized, the rest of us are not. The immediately felt disasters (our fourth “certainty”) are scattered, and so are their victims, giving credence to the contention that people will not take action until some future threshold is reached.

Out of the resulting uncertainty must be forged a proactive response. Does this bring us back to our anxious starting-point? Not quite, because in pinpointing the systemic culprit for the impending disaster, we discover the necessary focal point for our own unity. The fight to preserve our species-life is a political struggle par excellence. 

Having identified who the enemy is, we know who our potential allies are – the other “99%.” All the differences within this vast agglomeration pale next to the overwhelming urgency of our common task.

But the blending of people’s more immediate preoccupations into the common agenda does not come automatically. The priorities of each constituency need to be addressed on their own merits (as I discuss in the last three chapters of my newly released book, Red-Green Revolution). But the capacity to do this without losing sight of the common thread will depend on the building of a political organization in which all our constituencies are represented.

Adapted from an article in And Then #20 (2018)

Victor Wallis is a professor of Liberal Arts at the Berklee College of Music. He was for twenty years the managing editor of Socialism and Democracy and has been writing on ecological issues since the early 1990s. His writings have appeared in journals such as Monthly Review and New Political Science, and have been translated into thirteen languages.

He is the author of the book Red-Green Revolution, published by this magazine’s parent company, Political Animal Press.