Wednesday, July 29, 2009

How we all lost when Thatcher won - article by Billy Bragg

There is a bitter irony in the fact that the Bank of England chose the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the miners’ strike to fire off its weapon of last resort in an attempt to damp down the conflagration currently sweeping through global capitalism. The wry smile that passes across the lips of those who opposed the naked selfishness at the heart of the Thatcherite experiment will be mirrored by the disconcerted frowns of those who, having wholeheartedly embraced the free market, never thought that it would lead to this. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Thatcherism has turned on its creators.

Is there anybody out there willing to stand up – on this, of all days – and raise a toast to the wilful destruction of our manufacturing industry and its replacement by the financial services sector? Yes, there were unions who were resistant to change, but whoever came up with the idea that the solution to this problem was to import cars rather than make them ourselves sacrificed more than just the entire engineering skills base.

The forces that Margaret Thatcher unleashed in order to defeat the NUM destroyed whole communities before leeching into our society. Untamed by successive governments, these same forces now threaten to devour us all.

The housing bubble that has been source of so many of our recent difficulties, was kickstarted by Thatcher. Selling off council houses to their owners was a popular idea at the time, but by refusing to allow councils to build more stock, it ultimately forced up prices as demand rose. When the Tories slashed the state pension and people started looking around for a way of ensuring financial security in their old age, bricks and mortar seemed like a sound investment.

Without powerful unions to protect them, the wages of ordinary workers were held in check while the cost of housing began to spiral upwards. As it became increasingly difficult for first-time buyers to get on the property ladder, a newly deregulated banking sector began offering ever more “attractive” loans. And we all know where that led.

Would any of this have been different if Thatcher had lost that titanic struggle in 1984?

She would have still been in power for another three years, but she would not have tasted blood. A chastened Conservative party might have realised sooner, rather than later, that the ultimate price of Thatcherism would be the brutalisation of society.

This article was first published in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section, Thursday 5 March 2009.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Transformers - more than meets the eye?

nb: what follows is a post by Justin George - a supporter a 'Left Focus', Znet contributor, and Participatory Economics advocate... The contribution is a critique of the recent 'Transformers' movie...

For those familiar with the movie “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” - Optimus Prime and the US military appear to be allies in arms. That means they’re the good guys right? In reality, though, there’s more than meets the eye behind the new movie blockbuster: such that we might as well throw those assumptions out the window.

Along with racist stereotyping and sexism, the new Transformers film's glorification and sanitization of the US military is disturbing. This appears all the more so when the film is set to be one of the biggest earners of all time, earning half a billion dollars in its opening week, marketed to children and young adults through a range of merchandising to ensure maximum profits for the corporate studios.

One of the sequel's many flaws is the overt display of military power, specifically US military power. I would hazard a guess that a good portion of the film's budget was supplemented by the US military in exchange for the free commercial the film provides it.

Deals like this are common in Hollywood- the filmmakers get to film military hardware which would otherwise be expensive to hire privately or unavailable (or create it over 18 months or more via computer graphics) in exchange for military advisers input/approval of the script (to ensure it doesn't look bad) and (much like Hasbro) glossy looking shots that sell the 'toys' and 'adventure' of the military to a worldwide audience of millions.

As a recent Variety fluff piece states, "A film like "Transformers" gets much of the access, expertise and equipment for a fraction of what it would cost to arrange through private sources, with the production on the hook only for those expenses the government encounters as a direct consequence of supporting the film (such as transporting all that megabucks equipment to the set from the nearest military base)."

In the film the hardware is given numerous 'hero' shots, scored with rousing music as the
US military comes to the aid of the titular heroes. Throughout the second half of the movie it was hard to discern if the footage was military commercial stock or had actually been filmed by the director. The pervasiveness of the US military is on display- aircraft carriers and submarines patrol the oceans, surveillance and communication aircraft relay orders, satellites peer into happenings across the globe. The US military's own destructive 'robot' the Predator drone is also one display, along with tanks, guns, massive hovercrafts and other displays of might.

It is ironic that for entertainment we watch the US military rushing into the Middle East (in the film its Egypt) to stop an unreasoning evil from unleashing a weapon of mass destruction, while the horrible reality is largely absent from our screens and newspapers. Perhaps the film is an allegory on behalf of the writers but it's unlikely.

Another sad mockery in the film is that the secret military facility of the Transformers, alien refugees, in the film is located on Diego Garcia. This little island’s citizens were removed by the British in the 1960s, at the request of the
United States, so it could establish a military base on the tropical island. The Chagosians live like refugees in squalid conditions in Mauritius where they were dumped 40+ years ago, fighting to return to their homes on the archipelago.

The military base at Diego Garcia is reportedly used for flights as part of CIA kidnappings, the extraordinary renditions, of the 'War on Terror' - where people are taken from their home countries and flown to a range of bases before being sent off for torture in another country or to the hell of Guantanamo Bay. Author and Journalist John Pilger has covered the continued injustice suffered by the Chagos islanders-

The base is also used to support the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan where millions have suffered from violence or due to the destruction of essential facilities. Diego Garcia is just one of the many bases that form a network of military installations the
USA has covered the globe with-

But like much of mainstream media, whether its news or entertainment, the
United States and its allies- fiction and non fiction alike- are presented as a force for good.

Films like Transformers reinforce such narratives, using the military both in the story and behind the scenes to create such an image. What it does is hide the ugly truth of US foreign policy: of what the real machines, those powerful war machines, actually do. The military's true function is to inflict violence. When it comes to the US military and Hollywood there indeed is more than meets the eye.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Wages decision a ‘kick in the guts’ for the most vulnerable workers

above: Sharan Burrow - employer claims "nonsense and insulting"...

The other day – on July 7th – the final act of Australia’s so-called ‘Fair Pay Commission has left a bitter aftertaste for many.

The Commission has decided not to raise the minimum wage rate above its current level of just under $544 a week (an hourly rate at $14.31) : with a consequence that – with inflation – the value of wages has fallen in real terms.

According to the ACTU, “the average award worker will lose about $16 a week until the next wage decision is due in July 2010.”

ABC News has reported that “around 1.3 million” will be affected, and that both unions and the government were “disappointed”.

Employers had argued that a “$3-a-week increase in disposable incomes through… proposed tax cut[s]” would compensate workers for the wage freeze. ACTU President Sharan Burrow, responded by labelling such claims "nonsense and insulting" .

Continuing, Burrow argued that the shift would “certainly cost jobs if [we] see wage deflation in Australia.”

Burrow, here, is arguing on solid ground. Wage cuts which attack the disposable income of workers are bound to have a negative impact on aggregate demand and consumer confidence. This in turn would certainly cost jobs.

Meanwhile, Frank Quinlan of Catholic Services Australia's has identified the reasoning of the Fair Pay Commission as being inconsistent and hypocritical:

"On the one hand they have argued that when there is inflationary pressure, low paid workers wages need to be controlled," he said.

"On the other hand they have argued that when there is recessionary pressure, low paid workers wages need to be controlled.

"So it is very difficult for me to understand the circumstances under which this Fair Pay Commission would actually deem it fair to increase low paid workers wages."

Australia’s most vulnerable workers ought not be made to ‘bear the burden’ in responding to the recession. Here we refer to cleaners, child care workers, retail workers, hospitality workers, call centre workers and others.

Arguments for suppressing these peoples wages are just another take on the discredited idea that labour markets ought always be flexible downwards in order to ‘clear’.

While wages here are frozen, ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence has indicated that:

“The costs of rent, food, medicines, education and utilities have all risen in the past year and families need a pay rise to keep up."

Unions will be hoping that the new “Fair Work Australia” body will restore some measure of wage justice when it rules on minimum wages in 2010.

A ‘wait and hope for the best’ approach, though, is not sufficient in times such as these. Not only do unions need to campaign in earnest for a restoration in real wages: the times also demand immediate action from the government to support the disadvantaged.

In the interim period between now and the next decision on minimum wages, the Federal Government ought again provide stimulus in the form of cash supplements: only this time for the most vulnerable workers.

Such stimulus ought compensate these workers in full for the real wage losses that are flowing from this final act of bastardry by the Howard-era ‘Fair Work Commission’..

But for workers there remains the need to work – in some ways – independently of the Government.

Under pressure as a consequence of anti-union populism – beat up for years by the conservatives and their allies in the business establishment – Labor has failed to provide for the right of workers to withdraw their labour except under the strictest of conditions.

There is no recognised right for pattern bargaining: and there is no recognised right for political strike action. Further, from the Hawke era, there is no right to ‘secondary boycott’ industrial action in solidarity with workers who may not be as organised or positioned to enjoy bargaining power or leverage in their own right.

If the Australian Labor Party (especially the Federal Government) continually fails to respond sufficiently to the labour movement mobilisation that led to the defeat of the Howard regime, then clearly workers and their representatives need to ‘keep their options open’. If this means support for the Greens, and other progressive political forces who are less equivocal in their support for worker’s rights,then at least these might provide pressure on a Labor Party which takes the support of workers for granted.

But if Labor values its relationship with the union movement, immediate stimulus payments to compensate the 1.3 million who are suffering as a consequence of this cut in real wages – are a very good way to start. Such measures could further be enhanced by a restructuring of the broader tax system in favour of low-paid workers.

On these issues, the ACTU and organised labour more broadly, need to remain on the front foot. Workers must organise in the immediate term for compensation in regard to this cut in real wages. And over the longer-term we must all stand up for a rise in the real wages of vulnerable workers – not only as tied to productivity – but as a matter of distributive justice.

Tristan Ewins,

July 8th 2009

nb: Leonie at "En Passant" also discusses the issue of wage justice. You can find it here:

Thursday, July 2, 2009


above: Helene Demuth - servant and lover of Karl Marx

A play exploring a rarely discussed side of Karl Marx premieres in Brunswick (Melbourne) 21 July. Servant of the Revolution takes the point of view of Helene Demuth (Lenchen), the Marx family’s servant and mother of his illegitimate son, Freddy.

Marx’s collaborator Frederick Engels took responsibility for paternity so the truth was hidden during Marx’s life and long after his death, known only among inner circles.

Controversy surrounds his relationship with Lenchen, who lived with Marx after his wife, Jenny, died and outlived Marx. The three were buried in the same plot. Interpretations are complicated by Lenchen’s closeness to his wife and her proximity to Marx from adolescence.

Lenchen entered Jenny’s mother’s household as a servant when she was about 10 years old and Jenny more or less inherited her. The only time the three separated was for a couple of years after Marx and Jenny first married.

Jenny’s biographer HF Peters refers to Lenchen as Marx’s ‘second wife’. While volumes have been written by and about Marx and Engels, and his wife left us a modest autobiography, little is known about Lenchen.

At home Marx was affectionately called Moor, after Shakespeare’s Othello. He was charismatic, dominating and his intellect attracted people. But friend Wilhelm Liebknecht wrote that Lenchen was the domestic dictator.

It is a tantalizing state of affairs, inviting a work of creative non-fiction. Servant of the Revolution is written by Anitra Nelson, author of Marx’s Concept of Money: the god of commodities (Routledge 1999), an academic and occasional short-film maker.

Director Brenda Addie breathes a postmodern absurdist tone into this nineteenth century tale by drawing out the commedia dell’arte that lies in the characters Nelson has chosen to tell the story. Marx does not strut the stage, rather Lenchen (played by Julianne Donovan) and Engels (Ray Tiernan) dominate while the appearance of Marx’s youngest daughter Tussy (Clara Pagone) offers a clear insight into the Marx family neuroses.

Servant of the Revolution is a rare theatrical exploration of socialist and feminist contradictions. See it — you might not view Marx the same way again.

Servant of the Revolution plays at the Mechanics Institute Performing Arts Centre, Brunswick, 8pm Tuesday to Saturday 21–25 July and 28 July–1 August, and 6pm Sunday 26 July. Tickets: $25 (full), $15 (conc.), $20 (groups of 10+) Bookings: 0420 933 101 or

For more details, see —

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