Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Nazi Filth

A while back I got a message from someone demanding to know why I was attacking the BNP, 'the only party standing up for the indigenous people of this country'. I decided not to post it, and I still won't, but reading a few reports in Socialist Worker this week has reminded me that it's important to keep highlighting what filth they are.

A leading trade unionist and anti-racist in Merseyside was almost blinded on Thursday of last week in a horrific knife attack. The attack took place at his home in front of his two young daughters.

Alec McFadden is president of the Merseyside Trades Council and a prominent local activist against racism and fascism. He has been targeted by Nazis for many years and believes they were responsible for the attack.

Add to this the stabbing of a 30 year old Afghan refugee in Barking (draped in a British flag for fuck's sake!) and it's pretty clear what happens when the Nazis are active in an area.

Alec is one of the most brilliant, committed campaigners I have ever met. His anti-fascist activity on Merseyside is tireless. Whoever did this to him is scum, just like the four men who stabbed an innocent man in Barking, and the 12 councillors who were sworn into Barking and Dagenham Council.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Student Unions, Lecturers and Tolerance

Last night CUSU Council voted down a motion that resolved not to support the action of the AUT in taking action short of a strike. I argued against the motion, and was pleased to see the extent to which it was defeated. However, there is an argument that crops up time and time again around this debate which needs to be challenged, along with the analysis of society of which it forms a part.

The argument essentially goes:
  1. The role of a student union is to protect Student Interests.
  2. The action taken by the AUT harms Student Interests, therefore
  3. Student Unions should oppose the action taken by the AUT.
Thus those who support their lecturers are shouted down as not acting in the interests of students, whilst those who denounce the AUT are the defenders of student rights. They are the ones acting in the tradition of Student Unionism, we are not.

Generally the way I've heard this position challenged is to deny Premise 2. It is contested that whilst exam boycotts harms students immediately, a victory for the AUT would ultimately benefit students in the long run, being better for the education system, a defeat for the government agenda, or whatever. I don't think there's anything wrong with this, but I think the argument would benefit from being criticised at a far more fundamental level. I want to challenge the first premise and the inference to the conclusion.

The claim that a role of a student union is to protect student interests is not enough to make this argument succeed. It is required that it is the sole role of a student union. The role of a student union is clearly a contested value, one for which different ideologies compete. The institution of a students union exists independent of ideologies, but every action taken by a union is the result of the victory of a certain ideological position, a certain interpretation of what its role is. It is not enough for either side to claim that 'this is what the union is for'. They must propose an argument and subject it to debate. Thus the belief that Students Unions ought to fight for a better society is firstly a legitimate one, and secondly one that must be fought for by those who believe it. It is important that we not allow debate to be closed down by accepting any prior definitions of what our unions are there for. This not to say that certain ideologies are more legitimate than others. There clearly is a way of arguing over the role of a union based on common ground of what is important, valued etc. In my experience arguments over the role of a union tend to come down to the right citing the law versus the left citing history. Both these are cases to be made, and if you value self-definition and history more than legal constraints you will come down on a specific side. However, no interpretation of the union's role ought to be dogma, and we ought not to concede premises like 1.

More broadly, however, this argument is based on a specific conception of society as divided into competing 'interest groups' which struggle to ensure their own interests are served. This is more than merely an account of society as it is, it is an ideologically driven account of the only way society can be. It is based on an assumption that grand projects are impossible, that human beings are all essentially very different and all want very different things, and that the best we can do is to balance everyone out and hope no-one treads on anyone elses toes too much. This Pluralism is something we absolutely have to reject. For Robert Wolff :
Pluralist democracy, with its virtue, tolerance, constitutes the highest stage in the political development of industrial capitalism. It transcends the crude 'limitations' of early individualistic liberalism and makes a place for the communitarian features of social life, as well as for the interest-group politics which emerged as a domesticated version of the class struggle. Pluralism is humane, benevolent, accomodating, and far more responsive to the evils of social injustice than either the egoistic liberalism or the traditionalistic conservatism from which it grew. But Pluralism is fatally blind to the evils which afflict the ebtire body politic, and as a theory of society it obstructs consideration of precisely the sorts of thoroughgoing social revisions which may be needed to remedy those evils. (Beyond Tolerance 1965)

The idea, then, that student unions ought simply to look after their members immediate interests, is based on a conception of society that is impotent to enact radical change. It is thus one which must be rejected. It is the expression of a particular nuance of essentially conservative ideology, which seeks to accommodate the discontents of capitalism essentially by playing them off against one another. It is a conception that must be challenged if we are to develop a radical critique, and ultimately radical change.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

What do we want? A-Levels! When do we want them? Next Year!

Around 50 students demonstrated outside Cambridge Regional College today in protest at the cancellation of their A-level courses. If the college goes ahead with its plans it may mean that many students in the area will be unable to study A-levels whatsoever, since Long Road Sixth Form College has also cut its evening class provision. There was a mood of defiance as college authorities attempted to force unaffected students back into class. The teaching staff, who will also be facing redundancies if the plans go through, came out to show their support at noon, and the protest continued until 2pm. The students brought drums and banners, with Yusuf Martin, a student union activist at CRC organising the demo, saying he had been inspired by the Anti-War demonstrations in London. Students also attended the demonstration from Cambridge University, Anglia Ruskin, and Long Road Sixth Form College, as well as members of Cambridge NUT and TUC. The students ended by vowing to continue their fight, and to attend the NUT organised demonstration against Labour’s new Education Bill on Saturday.

Well done to all of them, it was a pleasure to attend. Hopefully this can be a springboard to forming links throughout Cambridge to resist attacks on all of our education.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Relativism and Revolution pt.1

A few ideas about Moral Relativism, probably the first of several. Comments welcome.

Moral Relativism is the denial of Moral Objectivity. It is a powerful tool for rejecting traditional morality, which is often rooted in superstition and conservatism. It also inspires a great deal of disquiet from all quarters. It is accused of leading to Nihilism, or to Cultural Relativism, leaving us impotent to criticise those acts that we wish to condemn and prevent. A standard criticism of Marx is that he formally accepts relativism, but in fact bases his critique of capitalism on deeply moral convictions about suffering and exploitation. The question follows, then, can Moral Relativism provide the necessary framework for a radical criticism of the status quo, and a promotion of radical social change? Relativism offers a compelling explanation of our moral behaviour, and a mechanism for critiquing absolutist moral claims, but can it help us offer a positive programme and, importantly, give us the motivation to enact it?

It seems the place to begin is with the most extreme claims entailed by Relativism. Gilbert Harman, a prominent defender of Relativism from a logical perspective, has (in)famously claimed that Hitler had no reason not to order the extermination of the Jews. What are we to make of this sort of claim? Harman believes that the only sort of judgements we can appropriately make are ‘inner judgements’, related to an individual agent’s beliefs and desires. We cannot claim that there were reasons for Hitler to act a certain way without reference to his motivations and desires, since those are the only reasons for action. Thus, on Harman’s reading, it is in fact not only true that Hitler had no reason to not order the extermination of the Jews; he had reasons to do so. This claim about reason statements is contestable, but plausible to some extent and has some notable supporters.

I think, however, that Marxists shouldn’t be overly concerned with this claim. Clearly we must oppose and prevent genocide, but accepting Harman’s claim doesn’t necessarily prevent us. Consider another example, the capitalist. Far fewer people would claim that there is anything troublesome about claiming that the capitalist has no reason not to employ wage labour at market price. I want to suggest that, despite the conviction that the alienation and exploitation that arise from capitalist productive relations are negative, things to be prevented and resisted, it does not make sense for a socialist to tell a factory owner that she has reason not to employ waged labour. By almost all standards, she has a reason to. It is certainly in her individual and class interests to do so. It is the rationale of capitalism that she does so. The entire logic of the system is driving her to do it. If there are any external reasons that affect her (remember if we accept Harman there are not), they surely are reasons to fit in with the system, not perversely reject it.

This, it seems, is entirely consistent with standard Marxist Theory and Practice, and indeed informs it. We challenge the logic that creates the reasons for the capitalist to behave in the way she does. We encourage those in whose interests the system is not to challenge those in whose it is. We do not futilely tell the capitalist that she has reasons to avoid it, and it is unclear how we could. To this extent Harman’s Relativism can be accepted. It rules out merely our ability to condemn on the basis of objective reasons for action. It, potentially at least, leaves room for us to condemn exploitation, oppression and war as states of affairs. However, how we might do this is as yet unclear.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Elections, Elections, Elections

Wow! What a night. Respect breakthrough in East London, Nazis gain in Barking through Hodge's self-fulfilling prophecy, Labour melt down almost everywhere. Having been been occupied with a funeral and a birthday party, this is the first chance to properly reflect on the results, so here goes.

The Respect result is definitely very good. We've opened up new areas, and turned what we knew was a base of support into concrete political gains. The Tower Hamlets results are really encouraging, we're the main opposition to New Labour on the council, and came very close to taking away their majority. Congrats to all our new councillors, and commiserations to all those who I know would have made excellent councillors who just missed out. This election, however, will rumble on, and on, and on, thanks to the allegations of fraud and abuse of power. If we can overturn the ruling in St. Katharine's ward and focus resources there we might yet wipe out Labour's majority.

I'm glad to see we got a decent showing in Newham. 3 councillors might sound like a poor return considering we stood throughout the ward, but when you breakdown the vote it's really encouraging. We clinched 26% of the vote, which gave us only 5% of the council. More an indictment of the first past the post system than a sign of our limited success. Our Mayoral candidate also clinched over 10,000 first preferences, which was impressive.

Add in Salma Yaqoob's storming victory in Birmingham and you have a net gain of 15 councillors. The BBC prefer, still, to highlight UKIP's 1, and relegate us to simply another 'other'.

Those are the Respect wins, but it's worth looking a bit deeper into the results round the country. There are a number of relative success stories: Jerry Hicks came a strong second in Bristol Lockleaze, beating Labour in what was largely a white working class area. We came within 7 votes of gaining another councillor in Preston Town Centre.

In Liverpool, in a campaign I wish i could have got more involved in, Paul Deeson polled 281 votes in Prince Park. This is the heart of Toxteth, an area that has suffered from years of neglect, and I'm proud that Respect chose it as an area to stand. Paul's result, beating the greens and the tories, is impressive, and at least potentially the start of something. Liverpool desperately needs a choice other than Yellow privatisation or Red Privatisation, and I don't see anyone else providing it but Respect.

Finally the Fascists. They did far too well. They'll probably embarass themselves like they always do, but you can hardly tell that to the victim of a racist attack on the streets of Barking. I think them doing well was predictable, but I fear Margaret Hodge's statements, no matter how intended, had the affect of making them seem like a legitimate protest vote, and they loved it. Depressingly one of the best comments I've heard about it was from Michael Portillo. Unlike the rest of the tories, who now love the fact they can claim immigration as a legitimate political issue, he made it clear that there is no excuse for voting for Nazis. He's right, there's not. We can try to explain it, and we will, but we can't excuse it.

Monday, May 01, 2006

May Day

Happy May Day one and all!

On Saturday we had a march through Cambridge to defend the Public Sector. Bizarrely, on our way into the market square we bumped into the Bishop of Jerusalem. Apparently he was on his way to speak somewhere, but offered to speak at the rally. He eloquently described the degradation and suffering of those under occupation in Iraq and Palestine, and called for the troops to leave. One of those moments that you have to see to believe.

I've been in and out of Tower Hamlets several times in the past few weeks helping with the Respect Campaign. As far as we're concerned we're fighting to win, and the mood is fantastic. Tom, now joined by Sam and Denise, is also doing well in Romsey. There's no doubt that Respect represents a real option for ever increasing numbers of people sick of the rotten politics of the main three parties.

It's exam term so I'm forcing myself to do philosophy, which means I'll probably be polluting the web with rantings and ramblings over the next few weeks. Keep your eyes peeled.

Hopefully this year will, once again, put a major left wing election breakthrough in the same week as both my birthday and the International Worker's Day. Go on, vote Respect.