12 May 2018

Fight racists without trashing civil liberties

Fight racists and racism, but taking away their civil and human rights is no solution.

A number of instances have come to light in which people in private online conversations have had their comments used to justify public sanctions against them. The illicit remarks have become public because a bone fide recipient has betrayed the privacy - or in a few cases the user’s device or account has been hacked

The bulk of existing cases involve instances of racism.

I am in two minds about this. On the one hand, I don’t want racists in positions of power in society - and certainly not as members of the Labour Party and other progressive organisations. Yet, I feel that participants in private conversations have the right to privacy, however vile their opinions and comments, and that right is something that the Left would do well to protect, if only in its own interests. In addition, while we rightly struggle to prevent racists wielding social influence, I would not deny them the right to make a living merely on account of their private opinions (or ‘jokes’).

17 April 2018

State racism against the Windrush generation

What has been happening to the Windrush generation of elderly people from the Caribbean and some former British colonies elsewhere is the most appalling racism, propelled by xenophobic nationalism.

Until the 1971 Immigration Act came into force, British ‘colonial’ citizens (i.e. those British citizens without parents and grandparents born in the UK) could migrate to Britain. And many did so to take up mainly low paid jobs in the Post War boom. The 1971 Immigration Act closed the gate, but those already in the UK in 1973 were given indefinite leave to remain; they were British citizens and had no need to naturalise. They had no papers to prove their citizenship; they simply didn’t need them. They built up their lives in the UK and by now many are mostly grandparents.

Until the second decade of the twenty-first century, one generally didn’t need proof of citizenship to go about one’s life in the UK (to take up employment, rent a flat, etc). The Windrush generation were like everyone else, British citizens living in Britain where one did not have to prove one's citizenship. If a person were in the UK illegally, it was up to the authorities to prove that.

Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment for illegal immigrants’ changed all that. In Britain, there are no identity cards, so it is now hard to function in daily life without a passport, as proof of British citizenship. This expensive document, originally intended only for travelling abroad, has became a necessity of life, even if you don’t ever plan to use it for its original purpose.

Simply because they can’t prove their citizenship status (ie. when they took up permanent residence in the UK decades after the event), thousands of elderly black British citizens are actually or potentially denied health care, the ability of take up jobs, rent a flat or are detained and threatened with deportation (or actually deported) to countries which they last saw as young children. Why is the onus on them to prove anything? As British citizens they broke no law in being unable to prove their citizenship. And just to prove the racist intent of the Home Office, even a casual official interview could establish that these people have lived in the UK for decades.

The Windrush generation, many of them vulnerable, were targeted for persecution on racial grounds to serve the appetites of a racist nationalist-xenophobia. The fact that to this end British citizens have been denied medical treatment and sacked from their jobs - and even in some cases deported from the country - through no fault of their own is an outrageous violation of human rights.

Use Tutanota as well as Google

The Tutanota email service provides end-to-end encrypted email. Gmail is super efficient in what it does. Use both.

Today, post Snowden, the major email service providers, Google, Yahoo, Outlook, etc. all encrypt the content of our email between their servers and our browsers, even if some of the smaller providers don’t. But, despite that security, the Internet giants themselves still have access to everything passing through their servers, so they could potentially do anything they wished with our private data. Here are the main problems;

1. Advertising: the content of our mail can be trawled though, so that targeted advertising can directed at us. Discuss a death in the family and you will receive funeral related advertising. Or the information can be used for other commercial purposes (e.g. pricing car or medical insurance).

2. State snooping: The police and security services can obtain access to the content of an account. Worse still, there is periodic, if not perennial, mass surveillance: Recently, a copy of all email passing through Yahoo's servers was made available to the NSA. State surveillance is secret, so we cannot know its extent, nor how the acquired information is used. But the information can be used to prosecute us, discriminate against us, or interfere with the causes we support.

3. Mass hacking: the servers of the email providers, and also any organisation which receives copies of our emails, can be hacked, with the email content of millions of people stolen. Criminals can use the data for a variety of purposes (e.g. identity theft), or the content can be simply put up on the net for its embarrassment value.

The solution is end-to-end encryption, so that the encryption takes place on the sender's device and decryption on the recipient's. Anybody in between is shut out.

The Tutanota email provider, based in Hannover in Germany, has implemented end-to-end encryption, so email content flowing through Tutanota's servers is encrypted in transit and is inaccessible even to Tutanota itself. But end-to-end encryption can only take place if both parties use Tutanota. So with those contacts not using Tutanota, you might as well continue using your gmail account.

Tutanota does not rely on advertising. A free account is adequate for most purposes; a premium account, including a few more features, costs EUR 12 a year. I’m neither a technical specialist, nor a salesman for Tutanota, so please google “Tutanota” and find out more for yourself. Tutanota can accessed here.

There is no need to abandon your Google Account: but give yourself and your contacts the option of choosing between Gmail and Tutanota.

24 March 2018

Facebook: making ourselves vulnerable

Through Facebook with give our opponents the data they need to exploit and hang us.

I have been rather nonplussed about the whole Cambridge Analytica / Facebook affair. It always seemed obvious to me that Facebook compiled a massive database on its users, which constituted an asset of huge commercial and political value. And it is obvious that the state along with the rich and powerful would acquire that asset for their own political purposes, legally or otherwise. Facebook users, for their part, have quite literally donated hours of their free time to providing information for market research, advertising profiling, and of course filling in state security and police records to overflowing.

A couple of years ago, I developed the idea that the progressive left should not be doing this. After all, back in the day, the idea that a recording of every left-wing meeting would be systematically handed in at the police or Tory party offices would have horrified us. I sought out a number of open-source encryption tools and services that might be of interest to us. I can safely say that the interest in such things beyond a few techies was non-existent. I saw my left-wing friends blooming on Facebook and I reluctantly continued to follow suit.

Apart from the fact that through Facebook you can actually reach a lot of people with your messages, there are two further reasons why the left is addicted to the platform. The first is simple laziness. With a quickly written message you can in a single click make it available to many of the people whom you wish to see it. Facebook works. People are on Facebook, so we post there, so do others and that keeps Facebook as the place to be.

The second reason is that many of us use Facebook to project our personalities. We wish to radiate the trivia of our lives: that sweet poodle we saw with a pink ribbon, the stone we just fell over, etc. How much more jolly it is to have our political analysis and comments intermingled with all this. And, as so many argue, what does it matter if PC Plod and the Labour Party compliance unit knows our politics? The reality is that the left is both legal and weak. It seems not to matter that our enemies know everything about us: who we are and what we do and say. But I think it does matter.

15 March 2018

The Salisbury chemical attack: whatever the truth socialists should not support Putin

Russian society and politics should not be supported by socialists, irrespective of whether Putin is responsible for the Salisbury chemical attack.

I have little more than contempt for those so-called socialists who are using the Salisbury chemical attack to paint Russia as a paragon of virtue vis-a-vis the western capitalist states.

Russia under Putin is a politically corrupt kleptocracy which promotes a chauvinistic foreign policy. It seeks to undermine the western capitalist countries, not by promoting socialism, but by feeding the poison of the fascist right: support for Brexit and Trump, support for ultra-right wing parties in Europe, and hostility to lesbian and gay rights at home and abroad. Put simply everything that is wrong in North America and the EU is more wrong in Russia. Thus the argument for backing Putin rests on nothing more than the false argument that our enemy’s enemy is our friend.

Received wisdom says the Russian state was responsible for the Salisbury attack. And on the balance of probabilities that is true. Yet an element of doubt must remain: what reason did Russia have to mount a clumsy assassination attempt against a retired Russian spy in exile? And why was it done in such a way as to obviously implicate Russia?

Jeremy Corbyn is right in saying that this incident needs thorough independent investigation.There is nothing to be gained in unnecessary confrontation with Russia - even more so if it turns out that Russia is not responsible and has been set up.

9 March 2018

Brexit: the physics of political power

The Brexit negotiations demonstrate the physics of political power - simple facts the Brexiteers don't like.

Brexit is a catastrophe in the making: a human tragedy for the 3-4 million people caught on the wrong side of the Channel, and an economic disaster for Britain waiting to happen.

Yes, the British electorate voted to leave the EU, but it was the choice of the Tory government to go further and decide to exit the Single Market and the Customs Union. Instead, they want a trade deal on their terms, but they should first of all recognise two things.

First, they need to acknowledge that politics is in large part the physics of power. And here the simple fact is that the economy of the remaining EU27 is six times the size of Britain's. Future impediments to trade as a result of Brexit threaten a massive 15% of British GNP, the proportion earned from exporting to the the EU27. But for the EU27 only 3% of their GNP is derived from exports to Britain. Thus London needs a transitional deal in the short term and a trade agreement in the long run much more than Brussels does.

Second, the EU27 are not going to do Britain any favours. In the first instance, they are acting to protect their interests as their declaration makes clear:

“European integration has brought peace and prosperity to Europe and allowed for an unprecedented level and scope of cooperation on matters of common interest in a rapidly changing world. Therefore, the Union’s overall objective in these negotiations will be to preserve its interests, those of its citizens, its businesses and its Member States.”

But it is not just that Britain is weaker than the EU27 and that the states remaining in the EU will not sacrifice their economic advantages for Britain's sake. There is another underlying asymmetry in the negotiations. The British government is desperate to show that Brexit will be a success and that leaving the EU does not carry huge economic costs. The EU, on the other hand, even if it doesn't admit it, wants to demonstrate that withdrawal confers no advantage on the leaving state.

The Brexiteers can say what they wish and pretend that the negotiations are between two equal teams: team UK and team EU27. They can convince themselves of anything for the right-wing populist press, but nothing changes the underlying structure of the power situation.

And to add to that, Mssrs. Davis, Johnson and Fox can hardly complain of the EU27 serving their own self-interest (acting as gang in their terms) as their own reasons for supporting Brexit, however miscalculated, are based on making a virtue of selfishness. So when Minister Liam Fox complains of ‘blackmail’ by the EU27, he has no moral case; all he is doing is recognising that the UK, as the weaker party, is losing out.

Brexit: Britain humbled

Far from ‘taking back control,’ Brexit has humbled Britain.

From an establishment point of view, Brexit has diminished Britain. Before the referendum, the UK, in equal standing with Germany and France, was one of the three hard-hitters in the EU. The UK had a tailor-made EU membership, with exemptions, dispensations and a budget rebate. It was the ‘respected’ representative of US interests inside the EU; and the UK was a vehicle for the City and International firms passporting into Europe. All of that is now going or has already gone.

Today, the British elite, along with the electorate, is severely divided about what to do with referendum result. Very few are still holding out hope for retention of full EU membership. Most of business, the trade unions and a majority of popular opinion want to cling to the European Union through a ‘soft Brexit.’ That means retaining membership of the Customs Union and the Single Market. But while this option is to be much preferred to to any hard withdrawal, it would inevitably mean Britain becoming a mere rule-taker; i.e. accepting EU law without having a say in its creation.

But a soft Brexit is an anathema to the Tory Brexit elite, who have the whip hand in the May Government. They want the UK to spurn the European social-market model all together and fall into step with the US economy. After the shocks of a hard withdrawal, they desire the creation of a society of low taxes, minimal rights for workers and consumers, with little or no social welfare - a European America or a Singapore on the Thames.

Nevertheless, such a long-term ‘pro-capitalist’ project is a shaky policy for the Tory Party to adopt, because it commands little electoral support and is the mirror opposite of what most working-class Leave voters want. In addition, such a strategy is of little immediate benefit to a great deal of business, which today is struggling not to be impeded in European markets.

But to understand the Brexit elite, we have to realise that for these Tories economic calculation is not everything. The Tory Brexiters are also driven by a Europhobic nationalism, which has always balked at the idea of the UK being an equal partner of other European states, let alone being subject to pan-European law. They cling to a delusional sense of their own ‘Anglo-Saxon’ superiority come what may.

One thing is clear, Brexit entails a loss of power and influence for Britain. The UK is no longer a leading partner in the EU but an isolated medium-sized country being forced to chose to which economic superpower it subordinates itself - the EU27 or the US. For the country’s institutions it's not about taking back control but about national humiliation.

1 March 2018

The diminution of community

Decades of privatisation and its rhetoric have left us with a community that struggles to conceptualise its real collectivity.

It is correct to point out that the role of geographical community has been significantly weakened in the three decades of market fundamentalism. The last of the great working-class struggles, the miners strike 1984-85, grew out of an identification with community. Those communities are now fractured.

I will list here without comment what I regard as the major reasons for the diminution of geographical community in the age of market fundamentalism:

1. Geographical mobility (people moving from one location to another with little commitment to where they live)

2. Economic inequality (financial segregation of the working class with minimal shared existence.)

3. Stress through insecurity (flexible insecure work, with little time left to devote to the clubs and societies that comprise community.)

4. Altered consumer consumption patterns (from the public market to the private shopping mall, where trespass laws prevent any non-authorised meeting)

5. Break-down in family structures (Isolated individuals spending more time with self-maintenance than reaching out to others in the community)

6. De-homogenisation of culture (Immigration can enrich a local community, but it can also divide it)

New Labour in government (1997-2010) in its spin recognised the loss of community by creating the post of community secretary in the government. The main thrust, though, was to try to re-invent artificial, illiberal and undemocratic religious “communities” by co-opting right-wing clerics. Segregated education became the main tool of bringing this about. Of course, all this served to further break up secular geographical communities (e.g. the loss of local comprehensive school)

26 February 2018

Brexit: Blair paved the way

The policies of Tony Blair and New Labour paved the way for Brexit.

Tony Blair is rightly loathed. For the left, Blair takes pride of place among the Judas Iscariots, Vidkun Quislings and Ramsey MacDonalds. But should we re-evaluate him in light of his opposition to Brexit? Can the progressive left share a platform with this war criminal? The answer is a resounding no on multiple grounds. But one basic reason, often not singled out, is that Blair did more than anyone else to pave the way for the disastrous referendum result of June 2016. How is that so?

The New Labour government took steps to make sure that the UK became a Mecca for central and east European casual workers. In 2004, ten states, mostly former ‘socialist’ countries, joined the EU. Britain was one of only three (the other two were Ireland and Sweden) that immediately permitted workers from the new member states to take up employment in Britain’s weakly regulated employment market. Blair’s reasons were seemingly simple: to provide labour in Britain’s credit boom economy, keep wages down and see xenophobia prevent a united working class response to growing inequality.

As New Labour embraced marketisation, praised wealthy oligarchs, ciritised and privatised the public sector and marginalised trade unions, economic inequality continued to grow. Blair did not give birth to the ‘left behind’ in the post-industrial wastelands; Thatcher had already done that. But he did take away hope that Labour could make a difference to the lives of ordinary working people. As hope evaporated, especially following the financial crisis of 2008, anomic anger exploded and the 2016 referendum provided an outlet for that anger for the Barnsleys, Stokes and Hartlepools.

But even so why did so many in Britain think the UK was different and better, so that it could profitably stand alone, while the rest of Europe needed the EU? After all, economic analysis suggests the exact opposite. Post imperial illusions played a part, but the single biggest injection of national arrogance were Blair’s wars around the globe. With the exception of France, Britain is the only military power in the EU. And Blair, locked in an alliance with the US, loved military might. With Gordon Brown in tow, he promoted militarism, relished it, thereby bolstering the myth of British difference, superiority and strength.

And Blair’s was also responsible for Brexit for what he didn’t do. In 2002 he could have overcome Brown’s opposition and taken the UK into the Euro. Yes, had other things been the same, Britain would have had a worse recession in 2008, but Brexit would have been just too difficult to contemplate in 2016.

So when Blair gets up to put the case for reversing Brexit - and he does so rather eloquently - we should remember his role in bringing it about. In this, as in everything else, Blair is the consummate hypocrite.

4 February 2018

Brexit: a affront to progressive values

The ideology behind Brexit is an affront to the values of progressive the left.

We often tend to think of Brexit only in terms of its adverse legal and economic consequences. Yet, the meaning of Brexit is more than just junking a set of legal arrangements between the UK and twenty-seven other European states. Brexitism, if I can coin that term, and the whole set of discourses which sustain it, are based on a frontal assault on the core values of the political left. These values inter alia are:

1. Universalism: the idea that people, irrespective of nation, religion or ethnicity, are of equal worth and should have the same rights and responsibilities.

2. Cosmopolitanism: the idea that the mixing of cultures has the potential to enrich, rather than undermine.

3. Liberalism: the idea that it not, in the first instance, up to society or the state to tell people how to live, but people should be able to do their own thing, providing they do not undermine the same right for others.

Brexit is an affront to each of those values. It addresses itself to the particularism of one people, not to people as people. It accredits value to one culture, a supposed Britishness and seeks to shut out others from its space. And it undermines the right of choice: the locking in or locking out of people at British borders - and by implication the persecution of those who straddle them.

Ukipery circulated the virus of Brexitism, which took hold - principly among England's non-metropolitan middle class and in its post-industrial wastelands and rotting seaside resorts - to such an extent that it won a majority of the voting electorate in June 2016. But today that virus has spread to take hold of the Conservative Party and government. It is present in what we might call National Labour, too (e.g. Frank Field, Kate Hoey, et al.) and casts a long shadow over Labour as a whole. In short, it is a pollutant across British society.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 was the biggest victory for the Left in Britain in a generation, but we need to make sure sure that Corbynism promotes universalism, cosmopolitanism and liberalism at the heart of its political thinking.