The Samovar

Help the Left!
January 11, 2008, 1:18 am
Filed under: Activism, Politics | Tags: , ,

For many years, the ZNet website has been one of the best if not the best web site for the left. They’ve just finished a major upgrade to their site which could make it even better. The idea is to create a left wing community rather than just a site with lots of articles to read. Members can create their own blogs, join groups, discuss on the forums, etc. And many more things are coming. So, go check it out now! But, the upgrade has been a costly one, and ZNet needs more sustainers (people who make a periodic donation) to keep their operation running, and more importantly to expand it. So, take a look at the site, and if you like it take a look at this and think about joining.

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Il y avait un manifestation

There are lots of interesting political things going on at the moment that I don’t have time to write about. In the UK, the government has lost, and probably had stolen, a copy of the records of 25m people (everyone in a family with a child aged 16 or under). There was also a very interesting looking report into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes that I may yet write about if I get the chance.

Here in Paris meanwhile, the transport unions and the students of many universities (not mine) are on strike. The issue for the transport workers is the regimes speciaux whereby transport workers have to work 2.5 years less than other workers before they can retire (37.5 instead of 40).


Much of the discussion seems to revolve around the fact that this measure was introduced because the labour involved used to be much more onerous, but is no longer thanks to mechanisation. Personally, I think that’s not really the point. Sure, if society were organised along rational lines in the public interest, there would be no justification for it. But, that’s not the society we live in. We live in a capitalist, class based society in which different groups fight to keep what they have. The wealthier classes fight a quieter battle, by appealing directly to governments and media, or by moving their capital overseas. The poorer classes don’t have this access or any capital to move, so they use strikes. To be against strike actions to retain or gain privileges is in effect just siding with the wealthy.

It might be said though that the competition here is between the transport workers and other workers, not between transport workers and the rich. But, that’s where the principle of solidarity comes in. The idea is that other workers support the transport workers when they are fighting their battle, and in turn the transport workers support those workers when they fight theirs.


The rail strike is apparently costing €400m /day, and the regimes speciaux cost €5bn/year (government figures), so 12.5 strike days is equivalent to 1 year of regimes speciaux. A reasonable compromise suggests itself. Why does the government not offer a pay rise of a total amount say €2-3bn/year. They would then be saving €2-3bn/year (which means losing the equivalent of 5-7.5 strike days compared to the situation if they could get rid of the regimes speciaux completely), and the transport workers would probably go for it, because for most people earnings now count for much more than earnings some 20 years down the line. I suspect the answer is that this isn’t really about saving €5bn/year at all, but really a strategy to weaken and divide the unions.

The pictures are of the manifestation that was going down my road today (some 300-700,000 people apparently).


Question about protest
August 10, 2007, 11:38 pm
Filed under: Activism, Politics

A question I wrote to myself. Any ideas?

Forms of protest that were effective in the past are not effective now because they are expected, dealt with and integrated into standard procedures. In the past, it might have been enough to point out how many people were being killed or hurt because it wasn’t expected. Now this tactic fails – a newspaper won’t print that sort of news. This is justified on the basis that news has to be ‘new’ and this sort of thing isn’t new. The real dynamic underlying it is that news media is run in the interests of the wealthy and powerful (through direct and indirect influences), and they are better resourced to modify their tactics than protestors. Public relations companies specialise in exactly this sort of thing. An example is the global warming debate – the tactic of the oil companies etc. is to get across the idea that there is reasonable doubt by continually promoting new deniers heavily. Each one gets shot down but the overall impression is of a debate when in fact there is none. The question is: can we design new forms of protest that get around this? (A new tactic.) Or, can we address the fundamental dynamic that stops the long term effectiveness of protest?

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Destroy All Adverts!
January 30, 2007, 11:15 pm
Filed under: Activism, Business, Economics, Internet, Manifesto, Media, Politics

I don’t know if the nature of advertising has changed fairly recently, or if my view of it has just undergone a phase change, but over the last year my anger at the all-pervasiveness of advertising has dramatically increased. I wonder if the time has come for a campaign against advertising? So here is a tentative manifesto for such a campaign:

The case against advertising

  1. Adverts are crass and invasive – every surface is covered in adverts, they are broadcast louder than the programmes on TV, etc.
  2. The reliance on income derived from advertising distorts culture, news, and consequently politics
  3. Advertising distorts the market and encourages monopolies and oligarchies: big companies can afford to spend so much more on it than small companies
  4. It drains resources away from society without producing anything of value. Just think of the talented and creative people that could be producing something valuable who are instead thinking of ever new ways to bias our judgements.

What can we do?

  1. Prefer to buy products which you have not seen advertised.
  2. Get your news, television and so forth from advertising-free sources. For example, The New Standard and the BBC for news. Download TV programmes and films from the internet rather than watching them on TV.
  3. Use pop-up blockers and advert blockers on your web browser.
  4. If you suspect that you are the subject of a viral marketing campaign, absolutely refuse to buy anything from the company involved. This most insidious form of advertising has to be dealt with in the strongest manner possible.
  5. Mute the adverts when you watch the TV

I’m doing all of these. Any other suggestions?

Five questions
December 21, 2006, 4:00 am
Filed under: Activism, Anarchism, Manifesto, Politics

Have been busy with work stuff recently which is why there have been so few posts on this blog. This will probably have to be the last one until the new year.

A group of mainly – but not wholly – US political activists have recently created a new organisation, The International Project for a Participatory Society. I highly encourage everyone to look into what they have to say. Their shared idea of what is wrong with society, how it could be better, and how to achieve this feels to me like the best prospect for the left. They do not have a grand philosophical structure like Marxism, but they do have some extremely powerful and insightful ideas (the concept of a participatory economy being probably the most important). Their way of looking at things is instead practical, but still idealistic (a good thing in my opinion).

In this entry, I’m just going to indulge in a little ‘meme’ inspired by something on their site. They asked each of the members to submit responses to five questions – you can see some of them on the site already – and even though I’m not a member and not as yet involved in the IPPS, I thought I’d write my own answers to their questions. Please do write your own too, and don’t feel constrained by writing it in the same way or at such length as I have.

And so, without further ado…

(1) Could you please identify what you think are the core defining features and institutions of society that need to be changed i.e. economic, political, cultural, gender/sexual, ecological, etc.?

First and foremost is capitalism, loosely defined. Certain things about capitalism seem quite unambiguously wrong, and it underlies many of our other problems. This shouldn’t be a surprise – a capitalist society prioritises the pursuit of profit and wealth over everything else. This is not an obscure point. In a capitalist society, anyone who pursues a different goal – a social good for example – in preference to profit and wealth, simply fails. Competition ensures this. This is a basic structural problem with capitalism, but there are also secondary problems. The enormous inequality that is unavoidable in a capitalist society creates class divisions, and these class divisions in turn create political inequalities, and so on.

So for example, I don’t believe it is possible to satisfactorily address climate change within capitalism. The things we could do to stop climate change impact directly on profits and wealth, and so the wealthy and powerful classes, and the corporations, will do everything they can to stop this from happening. If they didn’t, someone else would. That said, we have to try to address climate change within capitalism because realistically the prospects for a global change of economic system within the time frame in which climate change becomes irreversible are remote, and that’s being generous. As another example, I recently wrote about how our society is becoming – or has become – a surveillance society. Government surveillance isn’t a consequence of capitalism directly, but corporate surveillance and the problems of inequality it causes is.

So capitalism is in some the problem, and participatory economics is a practical and radical alternative. The other aspects of the society mentioned are of course hugely important too.

(2) What are your goals for this change, do you seek to reform them, if so with what changes, broadly? Do you seek to fundamentally replace these institutions with some others? If so what do the replacement structures look like, what are their defining features, of course in brief?

As I said, replacing capitalist economics with participatory economics – or at least something very like it – should be our ultimate goal. This is of course a very long term goal, and in the short and medium term we should seek to make reforms, especially those that are consistent with the long term goal. The other major institution that needs to change is our various forms of representative democracy. At the moment, levels of participation are low, barriers to participation are high, and obscure forces act to cause our democracies to favour outcomes which are not in the public interest. Think about the effect of a two-party system in which both parties rely on donations from the wealthy to survive, how could they do anything but support their class interests?

(3) Who do you think the strategic actors are in achieving these goals i.e. political parties, workers, women, queers, immigrants, particular countries or regions, etc?

Very difficult to predict.

(4) What tactics do you see being centrally used in achieving these changes i.e. voting, direct action, media action, strikes, demonstrations, etc.?

Again, this is not something I feel I have a clear grasp of. Rather than talking about tactics, I want to say a quick word about strategy first. The problem – it seems to me – is that we cannot achieve significant changes without addressing fundamental problems such as capitalism. We can’t do this until there is an enormous change in the way people think about society. The best prospect in achieving this sort of mass ‘consciousness raising’ would seem to be engaging in political activities that can make a difference, however small, on issues that people do care about now, but doing so in a way that is (a) informed by a deeper analysis of society, and (b) spreads the word about this sort of analysis. The idea being that we build a critical mass of people who are aware of this sort of thing.

Actually, I think this point of view is fairly well established and most political groups are doing something like this already. The problem is that we don’t seem to be getting anywhere, which is precisely a tactical rather than a strategic problem. The left is looking more and more irrelevant as time goes on, but the need for a left-wing analysis gets ever more pressing (climate change and conflict in the Middle East for example).

Perhaps the problem is after all that the political activities that people are engaging in are not being connected with the sort of radical analysis of society that the IPPS and others offer. The Green Party in the UK for example, perhaps ought to make more of a point of connecting environmental issues with basic problems associated to capitalism. This is something an organisation like IPPS can potentially address. People are done with Marxism and other such ideas, and the ideas of people in the IPPS have the potential to step into this space.

(5) How do other perspectives, which have different ideas about societal change, fit into your strategy and vision?

Assuming they have a similar analysis of the problems, there is very little problem. We shouldn’t assume that our way of doing things is the best, we just have to do what we can in the way that seems best. The best ideas will – if we are not dogmatic and authoritarian – hopefully win out.

Merry Christmas and a happy New Year and all that!

Goldsmith speaks
November 20, 2006, 2:45 am
Filed under: Activism, Civil Liberties, Politics, Terrorism

Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general, has said that he thinks there is no evidence in favour of changing the law to allow terrorist suspects to be detained for 90 days without trial rather than the current 28 days. Well great, after all that’s what the government’s own Home Affairs Select Committee report said, although bizarrely it was widely misreported as saying the exact opposite. This is good news because it makes it slightly more likely that when the government tries to introduce 90 day detentions again, it will fail again.


We shouldn’t get too excited about this. He accepts that the extension to 28 days from 14 days was necessary (recent investigations used 27 days of the 28 days, which isn’t something we should accept uncritically as the police had an awfully big incentive for keeping them that long that has nothing to do with their investigation). He also accepts the principle behind the 28 day extension.

In opposing this measure when it comes up again, we should reject the idea that 90 days is necessary because the police claim they need it. We should reject also the idea that 28 days is acceptable because the police have used 28 days. We should reject the idea that it is acceptable to detain people without charge for any longer than a minimal few days based on the exaggerated threat of terrorism. In fact we should reject this idea of detention without trial outright. The state does not and should not manage or control us, it acts on our sufferance.

Alliance of Civilisations
November 19, 2006, 5:11 am
Filed under: Activism, Politics, Religion

The UN recently created a new initiative, the Alliance of Civilisations. This initiative rejects the idea that there is a “clash of civilisations”, that the West is fundamentally incapable of peacefully co-existing with Muslim nations, etc. I was really looking forward to reading their report, but it was slightly disappointing. Unsurprisingly, it said lots of things that I agree with and would like to believe are true, but it didn’t argue its case coherently or persuasively. For example,

4.14 In some cases, self-proclaimed religious figures have capitalized on a popular desire for religious guidance to advocate narrow, distorted interpretations of Islamic teachings. Such figures mis-portray certain practices, such as honor killings, corporal punishment, and oppression of women as religious requirements. These practices are not only in contravention of internationally-agreed human rights standards, but, in the eyes of respected Muslim scholars, have no religious foundation. Such scholars have demonstrated that a sound reading of Islamic scriptures and history would lead to the eradication and not the perpetuation of these practices.

4.15 Many of these practices relate directly to the status of women. In some Muslim societies, ill-informed religious figures, in some cases allied with unenlightened conservative political regimes, have succeeded in greatly restricting women’s access to public and professional life, thereby hampering their prospects and potential for self-fulfillment. The effect on those women, on society at large, and on future generations, has been to inhibit economic and social development as well as democratic pluralism. This problem can only be overcome through laws that ensure full gender equality in accordance with internationally-agreed human rights standards. Such measures are most likely to succeed if supported by religious education that is based upon a sound interpretation of religious teachings. It must be noted, however, that in many parts of the world, including Western countries, much progress is still needed with regard to the status of women.

4.17 Among the intra-Muslim debates that most directly affect relations with Western societies is that over the concept of “jihad”. The notion of jihad is a rich one with many shades of meaning, ranging from the struggle between good and evil that is internal to every individual (often referred to as the “greater” jihad in Islam) to the taking up of arms in defense of one’s community (the “lesser” jihad). Increasingly, this term is used by extremists to justify violence with little consideration for the historical context and the related religious exigencies that most Muslim scholars agree should inform its application. When such exhortations to violence by radical factions are picked up and amplified by media and Western political leaders, the notion of “jihad” loses the multiple meanings and positive connotations it has for Muslims and becomes associated with only violent and negative meanings which have been wrongly attributed to the term.

Yep, I reckon that’s probably all true, but why?

This sort of thing comes in the first third of the report, the rest is practical suggestions for how to bring about an alliance of civilisations. For some reason, they fail to excite me. This is probably my fault. I feel like, if we need to find an idea to rally around in bringing about an alliance of civilisations, then this isn’t it. I’m sure the ideas are good ones, but are they enough and are they convincing? Personally, I’m not sure.

Perhaps if someone else has read this report you could explain to me that I’m missing something?

Rally against Islamophobia
November 18, 2006, 3:49 am
Filed under: Activism, Civil Liberties, Politics, Religion

The British Muslim Initiative and Liberty have organised a rally on the 20th November to defend freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Seems like a good idea.

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ID card petition – sign now
November 18, 2006, 3:44 am
Filed under: Activism, Civil Liberties, Politics

The government has recently introduced something called e-petitions. Currently, the second most popular petition is

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to scrap the proposed introduction of ID cards

If we can keep this petition in the top few, preferably get it to the number one spot, this could conceivably have some impact. So if you are a UK citizen, go sign it now!

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The left is “amorphous and ineffectual”
November 17, 2006, 7:32 pm
Filed under: Activism, Politics

Jeremy Seabrook argues in the Guardian that the left has become “amorphous and ineffectual”. I think he’s right that the left is not doing very well at the moment, but it is it for the reason he says?

He says that the “global elevation of civil society” (that is, things like NGOs, faith groups) is connected with the idea that “governments must everywhere retreat, not only from economic activity, but equally, from the provision of basic services”. Those on the left who work within civil society are being tricked into supporting a view of government that they don’t believe in. Or to put it another way, it’s a form of champagne socialism, a middle class hobby that seems to be in favour of good things but actually supports a system that works against the poor.

No wonder civil society is now an essential part of developmentalism: it sets up a strident competitive clamour between groups of the privileged. This creates an agreeable impression of diversity and democratic pluralism; but is designed to ensure that nothing challenges the destructive system of which civil society is both ornament and agent of control.

Is he right? If so, what should we be doing?