A Wake-Up Call from Catalonia: Contrary to Kamikaze Puigdemont, The Majority of Catalans Don’t Want Independence


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Today hundreds of thousands of Catalans took to the streets of Barcelona in favour of maintaining unity with Spain and rejecting separatist leader Carles Puigdemont’s aim of declaring independence next week, in effect a coup d’état. The situation in Catalonia is much more complex than the narrative circulated by the independentistas – that the demand for secession expresses a mass uprising against an oppressive Francoist state – as editorials in the Washington Post and the New York Times cautioned earlier this week. The demonstrations for the union in Cataluña today and those for dialogue yesterday have shown beyond the shadow of a doubt that secession is not backed by a majority of Catalans.

The voices of unity are finally being heard above the cacophony of the separatist referendum and general strike. Until now those Catalans who do not support independence were actively intimidated by the separatists and their opinions suppressed in the Catalan media. Javier Pérez, a 36-year-old teacher, told reporters: “I joined the demonstration today because I believe there’s a problem between official Catalonia and those it silences, that doesn’t consider Spanish-speakers here as real Catalans. … I went because I want to stop being treated as a second-class citizen.”

According to the Guardian, the Societat Civil Catalana (SCC), who organized the rally, claimed as many as 930,000 people had taken part.  “I hope that nothing will happen,” said Juliana Prats, a Barcelona resident taking part in the protest. “[Catalonia] is going to lose more than [Spain] because businesses are fleeing from here already. I hope it will remain like it has been up until now: 40 years of peace.” Nobel-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa told the rally: “Besides Catalans, there are thousands of men and women from all corners of Spain who have come to tell their Catalan companions that they are not alone. We want Barcelona to once again be the capital of Spanish culture.”

The Observer reported Álex Ramos, president of the SCC, saying: “This is a revolution of the powerful, of Catalonia’s wealthiest classes, not the oppressed. It’s a selfish revolution. They mobilise, telling the world how hard done by they are, and then dismiss anyone who disagrees as a fascist.” One Barcelona native who didn’t wish to be named added: “No one talks about the state of siege brought on by the secessionists that has the rest of us watching what we say and what we do, or that we don’t post on Facebook just so that others don’t come down on us and call us fascist.”

The left in Britain and around the world has fallen uncritically for the secessionist line, ignoring a number of red flags, the most obvious being that the party leading the movement is the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCat), a center-right leaning party which represents Cataluña’s political and economic elite. Its history is worth noting. It began as Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC), characterized by a pro-independence article in Jacobin as the party that represents big capital. “The CDC came to power in 1980 under the leadership of Jordi Pujol, initiating a long phase of conservative nationalist hegemony and closing the previous period when Catalanism was mainly dominated by its progressive currents,” it stated. During the post-Franco transition, Pujol presented himself as a moderate nationalist, but moved to the right after the late 1990s and was succeeded by Artur Mas, who chose Puigdemont as his successor after the failure of the “consulta” (survey) vote in 2014.

Puigdemont’s and PDeCat’s coalition with the left parties (CUP and ERC) hinges on the political necessity of the separatist project and not on any shared vision for what would happen in Cataluña in the aftermath of its independence. Such cynical political expediency should give outsiders and Catalans of all persuasions serious pause. They have played upon the legitimate frustrations of Catalans with austerity which have been successfully channeled against the central Spanish government by the separatists, with the help of the ultra-left propaganda of the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular. The CUP “played an important role in social activism, but remained politically marginal until the 2000s, when radical left pro-independence candidates began to win seats on local councils… Over the past five years, CUP has combined its commitment to the independence process with an anti-capitalist program. However, it has largely operated from within the independence movement’s framework” reports Jacobin. 

The fact that the separatist leadership is part of a right-wing regional government which in the past called out the Catalan police to violently disperse anti-austerity demonstrations has not seemed to matter to leftist commentators in Britain and the United States, including public figures such as Susan Sarandon. Puigdemont, the leader of the separatist movement, is not above sacrificing those Catalans who disagree with his kamikaze politics—as he calmly told TV3, the Catalonian government-controlled television station, he intends to declare independence based on the results of the vote on October 1.

He claims for the secessionists a legitimacy that they clearly do not have: neither by virtue of the vote, which, aside from its legality, had no regular processes in place to guarantee the legitimacy of the vote itself – no international observers, no control of how many and who cast votes – nor by virtue of the numbers: only 40% of Catalans support independence. That means that 60% of Catalans reject independence. Mariana from Madrid questioned the validity of the referendum’s results, and added: “Catalonia is one of the wealthiest regions in Spain and its political elites have been involved in massive corruption cases in the last years. This is not a revolutionary process but a secessionist movement promoted by the elites.”

To accept the claims of Puigmont and the independentistas is to support a politician who would claim popular legitimacy to seize the apparatus of the state against the wishes of the majority of Catalans. This seizure could not be anything but violent, as it is going against the general will, and in its essence is an antidemocratic coup d’etat. All people of progressive conscience around the world rightly condemned the repressive maneuvers of the National Police on the October 1 vote, but it is baffling to read the same people uncritically supporting a man and a movement who would found a putative Catalan state on even greater repression.

For example, Red Pepper published an article describing the admittedly hard-line actions of the conservative Spanish government to defend the constitution as a “coup” against Catalonia, and the general strike as part of a popular uprising against a “brutal police occupation.” Images circulating on Facebook of demonstrations during the “general strike,” rather an employer-sanctioned work stoppage, involving some thousands of people, and those of the heavy-handed attacks by national police on citizens asserting their right to vote, seemed to support this interpretation.

To a great extent this binary narrative, people versus authoritarian state, has been manufactured by the left Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (the ‘Popular Unity Candidacy’) party who are in coalition with the extreme right. The Red Pepper article itself points out that the role of the CUP was crucial in creating the semblance of popular support for the referendum by encouraging supporters to form lines at the polling stations with their families in defiance of its illegality. “It is CUP, with its roots in the neighbourhoods, that initiated the coordinated defense of polling stations against the police,” it says. “It is CUP that was central to supporting the left trade unions and the community and social movement demands for the general strike today.”

The CUP makes the naïve claim that the events around the referendum have pushed independence organizing towards a popular democratic revolt; but, in reality, the rightwing leadership will dispense with the CUP and institute much worse austerity measures if they were ever to gain control.

The political context is vitally important. The situation in Catalonia is much more like that in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, rather than that of Scotland or Greece, the references used by Paul Mason in trying to understand the independence agitation. In those years, Northern Ireland also had a general strike called by the Ulster Workers Council against power-sharing which was solidly supported by sectarian loyalist workers. Republicans faced intimidation and suppression: a bus driver who continued working was shot by a paramilitary gunman. A leftist group (the Irish Communist Organization) in a similar way to the CUP argued that protestant Ulster was a separate nation with the right of self-determination, echoes of which continue to exist today in the contention that Ulster Scots is a separate language rather than a local dialect.

Elena Tavera, a Spanish national who lived in Northern Ireland and has now returned to Cadiz, opposes the separatists’ cultivation of enmity towards Spain and sees the parallels between Cataluña and Northern Ireland : “I have heard accounts of a secondary school student who reported that school staff asked students to raise their hands if their families were going to vote. I cannot help but wonder what would happen if teachers asked students if their families would support a Sinn Féin-orchestrated referendum about joining the Republic of Ireland. It would be called sectarianism. I have not read in the international press that on Sunday people in Catalonia could vote as many times as they wanted as reported by, for example, El País. I have not read either that the advice on the day of the referendum was to bring children and form big queues for the press to photograph, or that their regional police had instructions to watch from a distance.”

The popular support of any movement does not guarantee its progressive nature. More importantly, it is clear that the case for self-determination of Catalonia through popular sovereignty has been grossly abused by the secessionists, and much of the media in Britain and the United States has aided and abetted that fiction. Progressives who truly care about the peoples of Catalonia, Spain, and Europe should not enable the destructive fiction of an independent Cataluña, for in the hands of Puigdemont and his allies, it will be anything but free.

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The labour movement must carry out its own inquiry into the Grenfell fire disaster


The decision of the Metropolitan police to pursue charges of “corporate manslaughter” in the Grenfell tower fire is a victory for the survivors and their supporters. The Scotland Yard investigation has said there are “reasonable grounds” to suspect Kensington council and its tenants management organization (TMO) of guilt. This is a direct consequence of the survivors’ continuous struggle for answers and justice for the victims, but it is only a first step in achieving accountability.

The council has lost all credibility, and what the police and government fear is that the state as a whole will permanently lose legitimacy. All its agencies are therefore striving to restore some kind of confidence in the ruling elite. But even prosecutions for corporate manslaughter will not satisfy the demand for justice – only fines are allowable under the law – and while residents are calling for individuals to be jailed, the problem is much wider than the council’s responsibilities to its tenants.

According to the Guardian, “Anger among residents of North Kensington over the causes and consequences of the fire has been mounting in the past six weeks. Public meetings at which officials and politicians have attempted to respond to complaints and questions from members of the community have been conducted in an atmosphere of volatile fury and distress. Police representatives have been heckled and shouted down. Residents have demanded charges be laid against the council, the TMO and the suppliers of the cladding believed to be the cause of the fire’s rapid spread. They have repeatedly complained that the police are being too cautious in their investigation.”

Around 70 survivors were able to force their way into the first full meeting of the council on July 19 by entering through a fire escape, and constantly heckled its new Tory leader, Elizabeth Campbell, with calls for her to stand down, while Labour councillors called for the authority to be taken over by independent commissioners.  The Independent reported: “Eve Wedderburn, who presented a petition with more than 1,500 signatures calling on the council to resign, said the new leader ‘is discredited before she even begins’ and said she had a record of ‘dismantling children’s services’ in her previous role. ‘This village no longer recognises the legitimacy of your estate’, Ms Wedderburn said, turning on its head a comment that councillor Rock Feilding Mellen allegedly made in the aftermath of the fire that: ‘The village cannot dictate to the estate’.” Feilding Mellen is the council’s former deputy leader, who resigned under intense public hostility to the council leadership.

Residents at an earlier consultation meeting attacked local and national officials, politicians, and the council’s “damage limitation” exercise. “We don’t sleep, we don’t eat, we want change, and we want you to engage with us,” said one woman. Another resident said: “Everyone in this room has probably attended 50 meetings in the past four weeks. Every time people say they’re listening to us. But what we want is for you to do your job, and do it properly.”

Successive governments in Britain systematically scaled back building safety regulations, letting cost concerns outweigh the risks and allowing builders to wrap residential apartment towers in highly flammable materials, a practice forbidden in the US and in Europe. The New York Times reported: “Business-friendly governments in Britain — first under Labor and then under the Conservatives — campaigned to pare back regulations. A 2005 law known as the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order ended a requirement for government inspectors to certify that buildings had met fire codes, and shifted instead to a system of self-policing. Governments adopted slogans calling for the elimination of at least one regulation for each new one that was imposed … ‘If you think more fire protection would be good for U.K. business, then you should be making the case to the business community, not the government,’ Brian Martin, the top civil servant in charge of drafting building-safety guidelines, told an industry conference in 2011, quoting the fire minister then, Bob Neill. (‘Should we be looking to regulate further? ‘No’ would be my answer,’ Mr. Neill added.)”

Even these pared-back regulations seem to have been ignored. A certificate issued by the building inspectors’ organization stating that on tall buildings the insulation used in the tower should only be used with fiber cement panels, which do not burn, was seen by The Guardian. Grenfell was fitted with cheaper combustible polyethylene-filled aluminium panels instead as part of a political drive to cut costs. “In June 2014, KCTMO [the tenants’ management organization] and Rydon [the contractor] reported: ‘We have been busy working with the council’s planning department on the type of cladding which will be used.’ The next month, samples of the cladding were erected ‘for the council’s planners to look at and approve’. But also in July, according to separate leaked internal emails, the council was looking for ‘good costs’ and cheaper cladding panels were substituted, saving almost £300,000.”

Council documents have revealed the contrast between the council’s wealth and its efforts to cut costs on the tower refurbishment. “The Conservative-controlled council raised £4.5m from the sale of two three-bedroom houses in affluent Chelsea. It spent just £3.5m on the whole of the cut-price cladding system for 120 homes, which burned with such ferocity last month … The two council houses on St Luke’s Street were close to the luxury shops of King’s Road in Chelsea and were originally priced at a combined £3.25m, but sold for £1.25m above that. One was bought by a multimillionaire property investor who has been granted permission to dig out a basement extension.”

The Kensington council is acting exclusively on behalf of its extremely affluent residents, which as well as billionaires include many government members and officials, and not on behalf of its poorer council tenants, who are treated as “subhuman”, in the words of one survivor. What was of more concern to the council officials was the aesthetic appearance of the cladding to the richer residents, not its fire-resistant properties.

The chair of the official government inquiry has not won any support from survivors and residents: he has made clear that his inquiry will be limited to the causes of the fire and why it spread so quickly, and will not investigate the wider issues. After an initial hearing, Jacqui Haynes, a resident, felt he was not responsive to the needs of the tenants. She said: “What a load of crap. We don’t want the [judge] who was handpicked by Theresa May.”

Jeremy Corbyn has called for a second inquiry into the national policy issues relating to the treatment of social housing residents. “It is vital that the voice of Grenfell residents and victims’ families are heard throughout the process and that they have full confidence,” he said. The survivors’ insistence on representation on the inquiry and exerting democratic pressure on its scope raises the issue of the state’s responsibility to all its citizens. But a wider inquiry means investigating not only the government’s successive cuts in social housing budgets, and its imperatives for privatization, but also the domination of all levels of the state by the interests of a narrow social elite.

This the government cannot do – it cannot investigate itself. The labour movement should therefore instigate its own inquiry, calling on tenants’ organizations, public sector unions, social activists, and all relevant experts on social policy and housing, to give a clear mandate for the next Labour government to tackle the housing problem on behalf of the many, not the few.

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Who’s to blame? Grenfell tower survivors clash with Theresa May


By insisting on new terms of reference and a new head of the inquiry into the tragic fire at Grenfell tower block in London, the residents and survivors are posing the question: is the state answerable to the people or to a small privileged elite?

Together with the election result, this marks a new stage in a growing revolt against economic hardship and the consequences of the parliamentary imposition of austerity.

The Tories are terrified that the wider implications of their ideology will be exposed, and so have limited the Grenfell inquiry to the technical reasons for the fire. But by fighting to widen the terms of the inquiry, the tenants are fighting for popular sovereignty and against the sovereignty of a parliamentary elite.

In a statement following a meeting in parliament last week, representatives of the residents said: “In order to have legitimacy, the Public Inquiry must undertake a full and proper consultation as to the terms of reference. The initial remarks by Sir Martin Moore-Bick on the first day of his appointment demonstrated an extremely narrow remit which may well have been imposed by him [sic] but which has been understood by many to demonstrate his approach. They also demonstrated a lack of awareness of the concerns of the Grenfell survivors, bereaved and the wider community. The Residents must be provided with a clear and unambiguous opportunity to contribute to setting the terms of references of the Public Inquiry and to remain involved in a meaningful manner.”

The Guardian reported that Ismet Rawat, the president of the Association of Muslim Lawyers, said it was clear to the entire community that the inquiry should address “the extremely important questions raised about our society as a whole and the manner in which those who hold power deal with discrimination and deprivation”.

The government is clearly concerned about the effect on state legitimacy of the Kensington and Chelsea council’s paralysis in the aftermath of the fire, and has forced out the leader and deputy leader of the council. But the issue goes beyond that. The Tories want a new leadership elected solely by the existing councillors – tenants are rightly furious that there will be no public vote on their representation.

The Kensington and Chelsea council is not just any local body. It encompasses the richest as well as the poorest part of London, and Tory council members are closely connected to the national Tory establishment. The details of what happened reflect directly on the elite. The deputy council leader and head of the housing department, who was in control of the refurbishment process, is Rock Feilding-Mellon, a property developer and a direct descendant of the Hapsburgs through the seventh Earl of Denbigh (he’s his great great great grandson) and his mother, the Countess of Wemyss and March, a scion of ancient Scottish aristocracy.

It’s not complicated. The refurbishment of the tower block was awarded to the lowest bidder, Rydon. Instead of conducting due diligence to establish why this company could do the same work for 22 percent less than Leadbitter, the original contractor, who said it could not do the work for less than £11.27 million – clearly, according to tenants, by skimping on the project – the council leadership put political pressure on Rydon to cut the cost even more. This changed the approved refurbishment design to use cheaper and more flammable materials.

According to the Guardian, an “urgent nudge email” was sent by the housing authority to Artelia, its cost consultant, about cladding prices. It said: “We need good costs for Cllr Feilding-Mellen and the planner tomorrow at 8.45am!” The cost cuts brought the refurbishment budget down from £9.25m to £8.65million.  It was the housing authority who requested prices for the cheaper cladding.

This is a transparent indication of the ideological nature of austerity. Kensington and Chelsea council had no reason to push the cost down yet further – it has £300 million socked away in its bank account – except for the political choice to drive the cost down to the lowest possible amount that could be spent on council tenants.

Theresa May has become a symbol of the arrogance of the entire political class which, since Thatcher, has pushed for the privatization of all public assets, especially public housing. Labour’s election programme, “For the many, not the few,” had particular resonance for voters in Kensington who faced the market push to oust poorer tenants and gentrify their homes – leading to the surprise election of a Labour MP in the richest borough in the country. May has avoided meeting with survivors and her vehicle was chased along the street by residents when she visited the scene of the tragedy.

Not counting the £1.5 billion bung to the DUP, nowhere is the magic money tree more obvious than the privatization of council housing management that has enriched various company CEOs and their directors at the cost to council tenants of staggering incompetence, arrogant disrespect, and now their lives.

As well as insisting on investigating the whole context of the fire, including the role of privatized housing management and cost-cutting, the Grenfell survivors’ demands also include:

  • Ensuring a properly diverse expert panel sits alongside the inquiry judge to advise on a variety of issues, including housing need, fire and safety construction.
  • Response team to be available to survivors 24 hours a day.
  • Withdraw Sir Martin Moore-Bick from heading up the inquiry.
  • Centralise all donations into one charity and produce a full record of monies collected.
  • The home secretary to confirm in writing within 28 days that undocumented survivors are given full UK citizenship forthwith.
  • Guarantee that the interim findings will be made public within four months.

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A feeling of persecution that runs deep


People and Nature

AL MIKEY writes about the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire

I wrote this on Friday after I visited North Kensington, and after residents stormed Kensington Town Hall. For those people not able, or who haven’t had time, to go down to the area to help or witness (witness is what I did), I hope it’s useful. Been an emotional few days like so many people in London that feel this.

FRIDAY JUNE 16th. A lot of really raw anger and hurt, it’s hard to convey the emotions. When I got out of the tube, every 10-15 metres there’s random groups discussing what happened, who they knew, latest updates, and audiences gather. The streets had around 300-400 locals there. An ice cream van was giving out free ice creams (compliments from a local estate agent apparently). All along the street were hundreds of photos of people missing (i counted around…

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The “Many” Shake Off Their Chains to Defy Britain’s Parliamentary Elites


The stunning result of the British elections last week heralds a sea-change in the country’s politics. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn energized a new layer of younger voters to enter into the political process, pushing up Labour’s vote to 40 percent of a greatly increased participation rate and winning 30 seats away from the Tories. He was visibly transformed in the course of his 90 election rallies, becoming more and more assured in his delivery as the response to his message snowballed.

Conventional political wisdom, expounded by the Labour rightwing and the media, had expected May to win with a 100-seat majority. The result showed that this narrative was completely disconnected from the social changes that had propelled youth and students into the election – the damning impact of the Brexit referendum and 10 years of tightening austerity policies that particularly impacted youth.

May is now limping into Brexit negotiations in an unholy alliance with the Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland. For American readers, this is like injecting a dose of fundamentalist Southern crazy into the staid corridors of Westminster: anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, evolution-denying and global warming-denying. The DUP will demand more money to spend on schools and hospitals in Northern Ireland – something the Tories have denied to England and Wales – and the neoimperialist Tory hardliners will no doubt balk at that.

But the endemic corruption of the DUP and their past association with Protestant terror groups make them an untrustworthy partner. Their leader, Arlene Foster, is closely connected with the “cash for ash” scandal, a scheme to pay applicants for using renewable energy like wood pellets. The rate paid was more than the cost of heating, meaning that users made profits simply by heating their properties – one farmer is in line to receive £1m of public money over the next 20 years for heating an empty shed. Foster’s refusal to take responsibility for the lack of cost controls led to the collapse of power-sharing in Northern Ireland (there is no government at all in the devolved Stormont parliament at the moment).

Corbyn is right to declare victory. He has consolidated his leadership of the Labour party and shattered the remnants of Blairite neoliberal philosophy with a dynamic campaign for an anti-austerity manifesto. Understandably, rightwing Labour MPs are angry. They had hoped for a massive Labour defeat they could have blamed on Corbyn and had plans to launch a new centrist party, now of course abandoned. While begrudgingly acknowledging his electoral success, they immediately began to badmouth his leadership, accusing him of missing an “open goal” by not winning an overall majority – even though the loss of Scottish seats to the SNP in 2015 made an outright Labour victory nearly impossible.

The result has also strengthened the hand of Momentum activists within the Labour party. While the Labour establishment channeled resources into defending the safe majorities of centrist MPs, Momentum mobilized its supporters for the hard work of campaigning in marginal constituencies, contributing to Labour wins in places like Bedford and Croydon. According to Skwawkbox, “Up in Bolton West, the Tories won the seat in 2015 by 801 votes. Labour’s Julie Hilling had an excellent chance of ousting Tory Chris Green. Ms Hilling received so little support that she had no funding even for Labour garden stakes. She did not even receive a campaign manager from Labour central – her campaign had to be run by volunteers with no experience. Ms Hilling fought a brave campaign but, on a night where Labour was making even astonishing gains like Canterbury, she lost by the narrow margin of 936 votes.”

Corbyn and Momentum have been vindicated, giving Momentum an advantage over Labour MPs who confined their election material to local issues and refused to even mention Corbyn or national Labour policies. However, the election was decided by the support generated around Labour’s manifesto, contrasting with Tory missteps over May’s “dementia tax” and her awkward U-turn. Even two terror attacks did not distract voters from the way austerity cuts had made citizens more vulnerable – Boris Johnson, former London mayor and bookies’ choice to replace May as Tory leader, famously removed barriers from London and Westminster bridges seven years ago because he didn’t like their aesthetic, which is why the terrorists were able to drive unhindered on the pavement to kill pedestrians.

Guardian columnist Owen Jones honourably made an admission that his assessment of Corbyn was wrong: “Labour is now permanently transformed. Its policy programme is unchallengeable. It is now the party’s consensus. It cannot and will not be taken away. Those who claimed it could not win the support of millions were simply wrong. No, Labour didn’t win, but from where it started, that was never going to happen. That policy programme enabled the party to achieve one of the biggest shifts in support in British history – yes, eclipsing Tony Blair’s swing in 1997. Social democracy is in crisis across the western world. British Labour is now one of the most successful centre-left parties, many of which have been reduced to pitiful rumps under rightwing leaderships. And indeed, other parties in Europe and the United States should learn lessons from this experience.”

The French Socialist party is a prime example. Once the ruling party, its turn to austerity policies under former leader Francois Hollande cut its vote share down to just 9.5% in Sunday’s elections, setting it on course to lose 200 seats. The Labour party would have followed it into oblivion if the Blairites had succeeded in ousting Corbyn and running the party their way. However, under Corbyn it gained 150,000 new members after the election, raising party membership to around 800,000.

As well as calling for free tuition for university students, building thousands of new homes, and a stronger National Health Service, Labour’s manifesto revives the idea of the democratization of the economy: “In government, Labour would give more people a stake – and a say – in our economy by doubling the size of the co-operative sector and introducing a ‘right to own,’ making employees the buyer of first refusal when the company they work for is up for sale. We will act to ‘insource’ our public and local council services as preferred providers,” the manifesto says.

The most significant part of the manifesto is its plan to finance these measures by increased taxes on the top five percent and corporations. This highlights the inequality created by the Tories through the entire period of austerity by tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the poorest. It showed that there was a “magic money tree” but only for the extremely wealthy; Labour called for this wealth to be used for the benefit of the rest of society.

Corbyn’s message of hope – “For the Many, Not the Few” – inspired popular comedian Steve Coogan at an election rally in Birmingham to support him with the words of  Romantic poet Percy Shelley, written after the Peterloo massacre in 1819:

“Rise, like lions from the slumber
“In unvanquishable number!
“Shake loose your chains like morning dew
“Which in sleep were placed on you:
“Ye are many – they are few!”

Like Bernie Sanders in the US, politics have been impacted by the rise of a social movement opposed to neoliberal austerity and fighting for jobs, healthcare and education. The lions are rising to challenge the plutocratic few.

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The United Airlines scandal reveals the hand of corporate authoritarianism


The confluence of corporate demands and police violence has made extremely visible the absolute lack of rights for citizens in planes, in shopping malls, and in allegedly public spaces. Corporations are riding roughshod over consumers because of their relentless drive for cost-cutting to boost profits, driven by equity capital and aggressive hedge funds.

By now, most people have seen the videos of the violent assault on a 69-year-old physician, Dr. David Gao, as three airport police dragged him from his seat on a United Airlines flight due to depart Chicago O’Hare. He was left with a broken nose and two missing teeth, and will need reconstructive facial surgery.

The police were acting on behalf of airline staff who had failed to convince Gao to give up his fully-paid seat for a United crew member. A police spokesman made a vain attempt to blame the victim for bringing his face in violent contact with an armrest: Gao, said the spokesman, “became ‘irate’ after he was asked to disembark and that he ‘fell’ when aviation officers ‘attempted to carry the individual off the flight… His head subsequently struck an armrest causing injuries to his face’.”

United’s chief executive, Oscar Muñoz, initially joined the blame game, calling Gao “disruptive and belligerent.” As the videos of the assault went viral, and the company’s share prices plunged, he changed his tune, saying “No one should ever be mistreated this way,” and committed to make sure it never happened again. But all this amounted to was to institute a rule that aircrew had to be allocated seats at least an hour before takeoff; flying aircraft at capacity with little room for maneuver will not change, because it’s central to the company’s strategy to maximize profits.

The flight was not overbooked, as most media have wrongly reported. It had been boarded and was completely full with passengers when, according to an eyewitness, Tyler Bridges, “an airline supervisor walked onto the plane and brusquely announced: “We have United employees that need to fly to Louisville tonight. … This flight’s not leaving until four people get off.”

After a young couple had left the plane, Gao was approached, but refused to move. “He says, ‘Nope. I’m not getting off the flight. I’m a doctor and have to see patients tomorrow morning,’” said Bridges. After staff attempted to argue with him, the airline called the Chicago Department of Aviation, which handles security at O’Hare International. Three officers then boarded. The videos show one of them reaching across two empty seats, yanking Gao up and pulling him into the aisle.

“The man’s face smacked an arm rest as the officer pulled him, according to witnesses and police. ‘It looked like it knocked him out,’ Bridges said. ‘His nose was bloody.’ In any case, in the video, the man goes limp after hitting the floor. Blood trickling from his mouth, his glasses nearly knocked off his face, he clutches his cellphone an officer drags him by both arms down the aisle.”

Other passengers attempted to argue with the police. Another eyewitness, a Kentucky high school teacher, wrote to the Chicago Tribune that one of the officers laughed during the incident.  “Some passengers audibly protested to the officers, some stood and removed themselves from the plane rather than continue to witness the abuse, and one father, while trying to console his 8-year-old daughter, confronted the officer saying, among other things, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself!’ “

Yves Smith comments that United “is getting a virtual free pass [from the press] as far as its rights to remove a paying passenger with a confirmed seat who has been seated. This seems to reflect the deep internalization in America of deference to authority in the post 9/11 world … The excuse for United’s urgency was that if these crew members didn’t get to their flight, it would create cascading delays. … The FAA tracks flight status of planes by their tail numbers in real time. If the four crew members were in a fix due to a flight delay, United should have known well before they landed and alerted the gate personnel of whatever flight it wanted to put them on as soon as the gate opened. … This in turn reveals the lack of any slack whatsoever in United’s system. Clearly the urgency was due to the four crew members somehow being late; Plan A had failed and the last-minute boarding effort was Plan B or maybe even Plan C. As one experienced passenger said, ‘They can’t come up with four crew members in one of their biggest hubs?’ ”

Wired magazine reports: “The scandal is the predictable byproduct of a relentless obsession with filling planes to absolute maximum capacity coupled with open and invidious discrimination in the treatment of customers. It is a strategy that (along with those nasty baggage and change fees) yielded almost $10 billion in profit over the last two years. …

“United’s 2010 merger with Continental marks the turning point. Before then, United had been, variously, a regulated carrier; the world’s largest firm owned by its employees; and, from 2002 to 2006, in bankruptcy. All the while, it operated in a relatively normal, if not particularly profitable, way. The merger changed that. … Among the unstated goals of the merger was the systematic reduction of capacity, to ensure the major airlines’ flights would always be full, or, better yet, overfilled. … United and Continental had been competitors along many routes, especially out of New York. The merger let them decrease supply so that there would be fewer seats to sell, making possible higher prices and fewer money-losing empty spaces.”

Although over a billion dollars were wiped off its share value when the news broke, United regained its trading position the next day. The Washington Post explained: “The reason is the same for why any of our country’s other oligopolistic powerhouses can treat their fellow Americans with such crass indifference: Shareholders don’t really care about consumer opinion or even a company’s larger public image. They care about profits. If there is no competitor to whom consumers can turn, who really cares what they think? The 2013 merger of American Airlines and U.S. Airways — the biggest and last in a series of dramatic consolidations that federal regulators did little to stop — left the United States with only four major airlines.”

It’s this kind of aggressive industrial consolidation, driven by predatory finance and accompanied by outsourcing of jobs and attacks on pensions, that created the authoritarian social climate behind Trump’s administration – more obvious now that he has ditched the pseudo-populism that won him presidential votes.

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Filed under aggressive policing, donald trump, Homeland Security, Neoliberalism, Uncategorized, United Airlines

The Coming Fall of Humpty Trumpty: Republicans Can’t Put Him Back Together Again


Humpty_Trumpty

Trump’s disastrous presidency is not only undermining the legitimacy of the US government, but also fracturing the Republican political coalition. His second Muslim travel ban has been blocked by federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland, and while he is forging ahead with budget plans that increase military spending and slash the social safety net, he is provoking resistance at every level of civil society.

Congressional Republicans are in disarray over their pledge to repeal the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). Hardline tea-partiers in the House, with gerrymandered constituencies guaranteed to give them a comfortable reelection, have a visceral ideological opposition to any law offering subsidies to the low-paid. More moderate Republicans in the Senate, however, do not want to lose the expansion of Medicaid that House Speaker Paul Ryan wants so badly to cut.

Greg Sargent writes: “By embracing Paul Ryan’s plan, which would dramatically slash taxes on the richest Americans while massively rolling back coverage for the poorest Americans, [Trump] is losing touch with the ‘populist’ message and ideological heterodoxy that helped drive his appeal to working-class voters. … But we are now learning that to cover as many people as Obamacare does, you have to spend far more money than the priorities of congressional Republicans will permit. Indeed, as the CBO report showed, the GOP plan gets a big chunk of its savings by cutting Medicaid spending by over $800 billion, resulting in 14 million fewer people benefiting from it — thus allowing an enormous tax cut for the rich. These are the priorities that Trump has now fully embraced, and his conservative populist allies understand the political danger of it.”

If Trump supports Ryan’s plan he will have openly betrayed those who voted for him believing his promises for bigger and better healthcare. If he doesn’t, he faces losing the legislative support of the tea-partiers. Either way, his administration’s first major piece of legislation is breaking apart on the ideological divisions in his party. Trump shows little ability or inclination to use his position to force the two sides together, and his disdain for mastering the details of complex legislation hobbles his desire for a quick and easy legislative win.

The Washington Post reports that the possibility Trump will sell out his base by going along with congressional Republicans has opened up a split among Trump advisers. “Some of them appear to be balking at such a course of action — and it’s telling that one of them is Stephen Bannon, because he is the keeper of the eternal flame of Trump ‘populism’,” it said. Republican strategists are also influenced by the vociferous protests at town hall meetings that have impacted the terms of political discourse. While Republicans have dismissed them as the work of paid liberal activists, they know that their core constituencies will punish them if they support legislation that will take away benefits the public depends on.

Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, for example, was unprepared for the depth of anger from his town hall attendees. According to the Huffington Post: “a 25-year-old constituent pressed the senator on whether he intends to preserve the Affordable Care Act’s treatment protections for people with preexisting conditions. She then explained she suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a condition that affects the body’s connective tissues and blood vessels. ‘Without coverage for preexisting conditions, I will die,’ she said. ‘Will you commit today to replacement protections for those Arkansans like me who will die or lose their quality of life or otherwise be unable to be participating citizens, trying to get their part of the American dream? Will you commit to replacement in the same way that you’ve committed to repeal?’ The auditorium erupted in cheers as the crowd gave her a standing ovation.”

This may be why Cotton suggested last week that the push by his fellow Republicans to pass a healthcare reform bill was risking the GOP’s House majority. Don’t “walk the plank and vote for a bill that cannot pass the Senate,” he warned.

The healthcare issue would seem to offer a perfect opportunity for the Democratic party to make political gains. But while party activists were involved in organizing protests at Republican town halls, the Democratic establishment is hanging on tightly to the control of leadership positions. Obama personally intervened to persuade Tom Perez to run for DNC chair in order to prevent Keith Ellison, who is associated with the populist surge within the party, from gaining the position. However, as the Washington Post pointed out: “In 2016, Sanders won the support of just 39 of the DNC’s 447 voting members — all of whom, infamously, were superdelegates to the party’s convention. Nine months after Sanders’s defeat, Ellison won the votes of 200 DNC members. Some, like the AFT’s Randi Weingarten, had been Clinton supporters, but plenty had been brought into the party by Sanders. … But in states where Sanders performed strongly in 2016, just as many activists were already in the middle of a takeover. It just didn’t happen in time for Ellison.”

Although Perez had to acknowledge this change by making Ellison his deputy, the Democratic party’s ability to head a grassroots movement is hindered by its corporate character. Struggles outside the party structure, such as the fight for union recognition at Nissan in Mississippi, are creating new coalitions of protest groups that are the main basis of changing the political climate.

Alternet reports that organizers across the country are working to build large popular assemblies to empower and connect communities targeted by Trump’s assaults. “With roots in the U.S. Black Freedom movement, Latin American encuentro and left formations across the globe, such forums appear to be gaining steam, as growing crowds cram into packed community meetings to plot out strategies for resistance. … While some popular assemblies are connected to regional organizations like the Atlanta-based Project South, others are springing up independently. ‘People are building new mechanisms of community power,’ David Abud, regional organizer from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told AlterNet.”

“Ayako Maruyama and Kenneth Bailey work with the Design Studio for Social Intervention in Boston. Since November, their organization has created a ‘Social Emergency Response Center,’ modeled after natural disaster emergency response centers, but designed to respond to the current political crisis. … Akuno underscored that ‘it is a constant struggle to build popular assemblies, keep them functioning, keep them vibrant, keep them responsive to the issues of the day and keep them from being sectarian vehicles. When done right, when done at its best, I think assemblies are the most profound tools of bottom-up, participatory democracy that holds the interests of the communities, unlike any other vehicle I have ever worked with’.”

Naturally not much of this reaches the mainstream media, obsessed as it is with Trump’s twisted tweets. However, the resurgence of civic activism is creating a new politics that will overcome the divisions within the 99 percent and bring together coalitions that will carry out a vital defense of pluralist democracy.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, Black Lives Matter, Democratic Party, donald trump, political analysis, Trump, Uncategorized, white working class