29 March 2011

New proposed restrictions on protest in Britain

Anarchist disorder and vandalism in London on 26 March 2011 has given cover to the government's proposal to ban named people from participating in political protest.

The Home Secretary Teresa May, says she is considering introducing a ban on “known troublemakers” attending political protests. Government propaganda is clearly attempting to equate political disorder with football hooliganism.

Such a law would be a gift from heaven for the police. No longer would they have to prove to a court that a particular person had committed an offence; it would enough to show that a banned person was present at a political protest.

Whatever one feels about anarchist hooligans having their political rights taken away, it surely would not be long before such bans were extended to practitioners of non-violent direct action (e.g. Uncut) and others attending political events of which the police disapproved.

While this pernicious provision may fail thanks to the Human Rights Act – or be stymied on practicalities; e.g. what counts as political protest? – it nonetheless needs to be opposed with everything we have got to oppose it.

28 March 2011

Contemporary Anarchism

Today’s anarchism is an infantile disorder; a pathology which manifests itself in the desire to destroy the symbols of state authority, property and social order as an end in itself. Anarchism offers nothing in terms of how society could be beneficially reformed, but takes refuge in an incoherent romanticism of returning people to some kind of state-of-nature without law or technology. To most people these ideas are as repugnant as they are ridiculous.

However, I would also borrow the term “primitive rebellion” in this context. Today capitalist market fundamentalism is hegemonic and many suffer under that system. That some youngsters could be bothered to get up and to do something politically is not to be condemned.

25 March 2011

TUC demonstration: Saturday 26 March 2011

On Saturday 26 March 2011 there will a TUC organised march through London to protest against the cuts in public services which are promoted by the coalition government.

The immediate aims of the demonstration are twofold. First, a large demonstration will send a message to the government, indicating the level of organised opposition to Tory/Lib Dem policy. This pressure will hopefully push the government into mitigating the effects of some of the measures. Second, the protest will provide an opportunity for ordinary working people to organise and through their organisation become stronger and more confident in their opposition to the government.

One issue of contention is the high level of TUC cooperation with the police, perhaps even to extent that the police are organising the march with the TUC as a junior partner. The merits of this are unclear. On the one hand, cooperation with the police may prevent the demonstration descending into mayhem. Chaos and widescale damage do little to advance the arguments of the left; and the acrimony resulting from such an outcome would deepen rifts in the left.

Yet full compliance with the police also carries dangers. There can be little doubt that the default position of the police is to oppose the demonstrators and to perceive themselves as serving the will of government, corporate power and authority. To that extent, everything that they do will be to frustrate and mitigate the purposes of the demonstrators. FIT officers will be collecting data on everyone, and the stage will be set for even more repressive policing in the future.

That be as it may, the main point is to have a large and successful demonstration on Saturday.

Police and anarchist strategy

The police do indeed face a dilemma with this march.

In the case of the student demonstrators the main aim of policing was to kettle and beat protesters with the purpose of intimidating people against protesting.

This cannot be the strategy tomorrow. The police will wish to keep their legitimacy in the eyes of the many ordinary trade unionists and working people, who will be demonstrating. Therefore, they will go to some lengths to avoid heavy repressive policing.

One strategy of the anarchists will be to provoke the police into heavy-handed behaviour with the very purpose of discrediting them. I think this strategy is mistaken: first because it will fail, and second because, in so far as it is successful, it will only deter ordinary people from taking to the streets in the future.

11 March 2011

Assumptions of super injunctions

A so-called super injunction has one aspect which is seldom spelled out: the role of obedience.

In essence a super injunction has two parts: one prevents the facts pertaining to an affair being stated; the other prevents disclosure of the fact that the courts are censoring the press on the matter. In other words if the media covers the topic in any way, they must not tell the whole truth and must not say that they are only telling part of the truth.

No press organisation can be restricted by an injunction unless it is informed of its existence. And for any injunction to make sense to those who are required to act as censors, at least the key facts of what is to be censored need to be communicated. For instance, the recent Goodwin injunction would have to be a little more specific than ordering, “Don’t publish anything on Fred Goodwin.”

If then the recent Fred Goodwin injunction (and at the time of writing I don’t know what it covers exactly) was communicated to all the main media outlets, it means that there are tens of people who know the key facts of the matter, but are sufficiently law abiding to keep stumm. For once information spills onto the web – and particularly on sites hosted in free speech jurisdictions – it is secret no longer.

Nonetheless, information does seep onto the web and increasingly we read The Guardian in combination with Google.

9 March 2011

Get rid of the royal family

The very existence of the British royal family contradicts everything that a liberal democracy is supposed to be about. At its most benign the family serves as entertainment akin to a soap opera; but they also pollute governance with their nepotistic corruption, as is amply demonstrated by the current revelations concerning Prince Andrew’s trade promotion role with dictators.

Ridding ourselves of these royal parasites will not be easy. New Labour brown-nosed to them as much as the current coalition. But simply ignoring the upcoming royal wedding would be a start.

Don't write a premature obituary for Marxism

I wouldn’t write the obituary of Marxism too soon. The thoughts of the old man and his successors have a stubborn habit of re-appearing. In our age when class inequality is soaring and the future of the young has been trashed in education and employment, the allure of Marxian analysis should not be underestimated.

The peak sales of Eric Hobsbawm’s recent offering “How to Change the World, Marx and Marxism, 1840-2011” plus the recent gobbling up of re-issued Marxist tracts in Germany must at least demonstrate a growing interest outside a sclerotic academia.

Of course the younger generation will adapt Marxism in new ways. In the 60s and 70s Freudianism, libertarianism and linguistic structuralism was interweaved into historical materialism to embed the theory into academia. The young today will make new syntheses – and all the older generation can do is watch and perhaps try to prevent the repetition of old mistakes.

8 March 2011

Girl Rioters

The Daily Mail has branded female protesters in Britain as “Girl Rioters.”

If on 26 March 2011 fifty percent of the people demonstrating against the current economic onslaught on ordinary working people are women, we should welcome the fact. We should also insist that fifty percent of the organisers are women.

The Daily Mail - in deploying language like Girl Rioters - is disparaging protest; they will always try to divide working people along ethnic and gender lines. The hope of these reactionaries is to appeal to sexist working class men and to encourage them to keep “their” women at home. They will not succeed.

George Lichtheim on Imperialism

Imperialism subordinates one set of people to another by economic, political or ideological means.

Last week I took down another dusty Penguin paperback from my bookshelf, George Lichtheim’s slender volume “Imperialism” published in 1971. I must have bought it in the early 1980s, though I don’t remember doing so.

As its name suggests, the book is an attempt to define the concept of imperialism and Lichtheim does so historically from an independent Marxist perspective. His main thesis is that imperialism has had different features in different epochs: antiquity, medieval Europe, the mercantile age, industrial capitalism and the new imperialisms following the Second World War. With independent insight, he weaves his way through the claims of Kautsky, Hilferding, Luxemburg, Lenin, Mao, etc.

Lichtheim writes in a clear accessible English and displays encyclopaedic erudition in his writing. His is a style and approach much lacking in the current era. The only drawback to the book is that the initial chapters deal with his topic in antiquity and medieval Europe which are not matters of gripping interest to many.

Lichtheim himself committed suicide in 1973.

LICHTHEIM, George - Imperialism, Penguin 1971

Many people have sought out this entry for an in-depth analysis of the book. I am sorry to disappoint them with this brief comment.


4 March 2011

Assange and interrogation dates in Sweden

The Assange legal case shows bias and imbalance.

The Swedish Association of Lawyers is enquiring into the conduct of Julian Assange's Swedish lawyer, Björn Hurtig, after London magistrate, Howard Riddle, condemned Hurtig as an unreliable witness for giving false testimony during Assange's extradition hearings.

Hurtig falsely claimed in the hearing that Swedish prosecutor, Marianne Ny, had made no attempt to interview Assange before he left Sweden on 15 September 2010. She had in fact given Hurtig one proposed date.

Not content with attacking Hurtig, Riddle went on to say:

"It would be a reasonable assumption from the facts that Mr Assange was deliberately avoiding interrogation before he left Sweden."

Hurtig’s “mistake” has indeed been very damaging to Julian Assange, but Riddle’s assertion that Assange was “avoiding interrogation” seems unproved on the facts.

First, Hurtig had made several previous attempts to arrange an interview for Assange with Ny; and it was Ny who had turned down the earlier opportunities.

Second, it is unclear whether Hurtig passed on Ny’s proposed date to Assange.

The disingenuous behaviour of Ny is apparent. Hurtig, in a letter to Assange’s London solicitors dated 14 November 2010, claims that on 14 September Ny told him that Assange was free to leave Sweden. If that is so, and there is no reason to disbelieve it, Ny seems to have facilitated Assange leaving Sweden prior to her questioning him. Why?

There is another aspect to the undermining of the credibility of Hurtig. He is the only person outside the Swedish state to have seen the text messages between Anna Ardin and Sofia Wilen, messages which apparently undermine their allegations against Assange.

More generally, there is a total imbalance in the case. Any fault or oversight on the Assange side is picked on and the worst inferences are drawn from it, while a myriad of irregularities from the prosecution are passed over.

3 March 2011

Disproving Marxism: is it possible?

If I had to pose the hardest question to Marxist theory it would be this rather simple one: What events could take place in the future which would refute Marxism?

If Marxists don’t come up with an answer, but say instead that anything that happens is compatible with Marxist theory, then surely Marxist theory cannot explain anything at all. It would be as meaningful as a weather forecast that said it would either rain or not rain within the next twenty-four hours.

To say the same thing in philosophical terms, Marxism must surely give rise to potentially falsifiable synthetic a postiori propositions and not simply consist of a priori ones.

The microscope conception of Marxism

Some have argued that Marxism cannot the refuted by events in the world for the following reason. Propositions, it is argued, are of two kinds: empirical ones which can be refuted by testing against reality and philosophical ones which cannot. The latter would include propositions of mathematics, formal logic and Marxism. One way of illustrating Marxism when seen like this is to compare it with a microscope. A microscope enables us to see an object which otherwise would remain unknown to us, but nothing that we see “invalidates” the working of the microscope.

This view, though, seems to lead to an uncomfortable conclusion. Social sciences (sociology, politics, economics, etc) do give rise to falsifiable hypotheses. Marxism can’t give us any statements on these matters because if it did they would be refutable, and if they were refutable then the Marxism that gave rise to them would also be refutable.

This kind of formulation, if left here, seems to imprison Marxism into a closed metaphysical system.

Marxism conceived only as history

Some argue that Marxism is only about history, so the theory cannot be refuted by events in the future. Many people do in fact see Marxism as primarily a tool for understanding the past, as a theory of “postdiction” as opposed to prediction. And indeed, Marxism conceived as a narrative on human history is easy to understand. It’s not necessary to comprehend what caused what, but merely what happened. And what did happen was written down by Marx, Engels and later Marxist writers.

This kind of historicism is extremely flexible. If we discover new information about the past, we simply slot it in somehow with what we have already been told in the Marxist narrative. If we find something that is false in that narrative, we take it out without our conception of history collapsing. Such an approach is not wholly without merit, but I would contend that it too easily lends itself to propaganda and can neither verify nor falsify Marxism.

How Marxism is done

How does Marxism work? It is about selecting phenomena from the gamut available, expressing those facts in Marxian concepts and then integrating the facts into the Marxian meta-narrative.

Marxism could be contradicted not by facts in the world – because after all we make history even if not in conditions of our making, so anything is possible in the future – but by finding that the facts that underpin the Marxist paradigm are wrong.

Some discoveries would seriously undermine the Marxian paradigm. Three examples:

The existence of God

Human social behaviour was changing because of developments in the brain independent of social conditions.

Any area of society (e.g. politics,) was explicable without reference to the whole of society.

Marxists can and do come up with specific theories which can be falsified without damaging Marxism. (E.g. the immiseration thesis)

2 March 2011

The Alternative Vote: a minor reform

In May 2011 a referendum will be held on the replacement of Britain’s First-Past-The-Post electoral system with the Alternative Vote.

The Alternative Vote (AV) allows voters to rank their choices 1,2,3, etc, instead of placing a simple cross against only one candidate. In the first round of counting, votes are awarded to candidates according to each voter’s first preference. If no candidate has 50% of the votes, the lowest placed candidate is eliminated and the candidate’s votes are re-allocated according to the eliminated candidate’s second preferences. In each successive round, the lowest placed candidate is eliminated and the votes for that candidate are transferred until one candidate exceeds 50% of the votes.

AV does indeed mean that the successful candidate in the single member constituency is more representative than under First-Past-The-Post, but AV is not proportional representation. The Greens, for instance, could chalk up a double digit percentage of the vote across the country, but still fail to win a single seat.

According to current opinion polls, in the majority of British parliamentary constituencies the first and second candidates will be Tory or Labour. Thus the only voting decision of any importance would be whether the voter ranked higher the Labour or Tory candidate. The two-party system would be mostly preserved.

In a minority of constituencies the Liberal Democrats could expect to occupy the first or second position after the first count. Since they could expect to receive Tory or Labour transfer votes, their chance of winning these seats would be boosted.

AV is still capable of leading to perverse results; e.g. Labour pushing the Liberal Democrats into third place in the penultimate count and then losing to a Tory, whereas had Labour tactical voters got the LibDem into second place the LibDem would have defeated the Tory in the final count.

In fact, this voting reform is so minor, so easy to introduce and is so obviously a fairer way of voting in single member constituencies, a referendum to introduce it seems unnecessary.

Facts and Opinions: some basic points

It is worth making a simple basic distinction between facts and opinions.

A fact is a proposition which is constituted by socially agreed terms (i.e. the words in the sentence)and verified by socially agreed means: e.g. Sweden is seeking Julian Assange’s extradition.

Opinion is of two kinds.

First, opinion can pertain to a proposition asserted by someone which cannot be either verified or falsified: e.g. Julian Assange has engaged only in consenting sexual acts. The weight of an opinion which alleges a fact is dependent on the likelihood of the alleged fact being true.

Second, opinion can consist of an “ought premise” e.g. All those who engage only in consenting sexual acts ought not be punished. Ought premises cannot be deemed true or false; they can only be judged consistent or inconsistent with other ought premises.

Ought premises, if universal, can be combined with facts or “opinion facts” to produce new ought premises. For example:

All those who engage only in consenting sexual acts ought not be punished.
Julian Assange has engaged only in consenting sexual acts
Therefore, Julian Assange ought not be punished

All this is very formalistic, but it does provide a means for decoding texts which mix, fact, alleged fact and opinion.

1 March 2011

Why Britain's conservatives oppose the Alternative Vote

In opposing the alternative vote, Britain’s Conservatives are trying to cheat history.

If you look at the start of every period of Tory-dominated government (i.e. 1931, 1951, 1970, 1979, 2010.), the percentage of the electorate voting Tory is always lower than on the previous occasion.

Today, the Tories can only hope to form a majority government by being the single largest party under a simple majoritarian electoral system. Under AV in most of those constituencies where the Liberal Democrats can get into the second place the Tory would be doomed. Parliaments are more likely to be hung.

AV is not about proportional representation (one person, one vote, one value) but merely a step to make the individual MP more representative of the voters in his or her constituency. But that is not to Tory advantage.