Thursday, September 30, 2010

Naive Impressions from a brief visit to Havana - by Nick Shimmin

above: an image from contemporary Cuba

Nick Shimmin gives a first-hand account of life in Cuba today

All travellers know the frisson of arrival in a mysteriously alien place and the seeking of famous images which one has heard about. The train to Tibet hauls itself on to the plateau and leans to one side as all the passengers rush to windows to exclaim at the tiny black dots in the distance which are the first glimpse of the iconic yaks. In Cuba, there are so many iconic images that the taxi ride from the airport demands eyes in the back of one’s head. The huge 1950s cars are everywhere, the propaganda billboards flash by. One of the reasons for our ongoing awareness of these icons here is that they’ve been unchanged for so long. A look at the opening sequence of Carol Reed’s OUR MAN IN HAVANA, from 1959, makes the recently departed visitor to Havana think the film was shot last week, so little has changed in the streets of the capital.

But first things first. One of the great amusements on arrival in Havana is seeing the battalion of petite green-clad customs officers emerging to occupy the immigration booths when an international flight arrives. This produces a happy flow-through of passengers in complete contrast to the kind of endless procedures now in place in US airports, for instance. If the comparison seems gratuitous, it shouldn’t. The fact is that Cuba’s bureaucracy is heavily staffed but with an emphasis on genuinely providing services to people rather than looking after itself.

The drive into town leaves the visitor in no doubt about the decay of the infrastructure in Cuba, though. Clearly, decisions have had to be made here about priorities. Oppressive US sanctions have meant Cuba has needed to be very resourceful in finding economic support, and the collapse of the Soviet Union left it even more chronically under-resourced through the ‘90s. Though Chavez’s Venezuela is a substantial supporter now, there is no doubt this is a place in need of investment and economic reform.

Thus the necessity of Fidel ensuring a smooth succession, and the appointment of his brother Raul when his health started to fail. We are led to believe that Raul is starting to make these small adjustments to the Cuban economy - it’s hard to imagine the place embracing a fully-fledged “communist capitalism” such as exists now in China, but who knows. The transition appears to have been accomplished well, with the “Viva Fidel” graffiti around the city being supplemented with “Viva Fidel y Raul”. One thing Fidel wanted to avoid was a factional succession squabble which might allow a vacuum which could undermine the government.

Graffiti seems to represent the bulk of the Fidel propaganda on the streets and in the shops. Though Che is quite ubiquitous, it is significant how Castro seems to have largely avoided the cult of personality which has destroyed the credibility of many other autocrats (and threatens Hugo Chavez, for instance).

Though the state press is full of Fidel’s writing and interviews, it’s relatively sophisticated stuff not designed to generate mindless loyalty a la Obama pins and T-shirts. One comes away from the media in Cuba with the impression that Fidel really does want people to THINK about the issues, perhaps because he knows that this is crucial for the survival of the revolutionary government in the long run.

So when you exit through the gift shop at museums in Havana, there is a dearth of Fidel paraphernalia. But visiting these museums, a visitor can feel some puzzlement about the funding priorities for institutions in Havana. The undeniable impressiveness of the two art museums is in stark contrast to the modesty of the Museum of the Revolution, for instance. This doesn’t seem in keeping with a propaganda-obsessed authoritarianism. The latter museum, though, does sink into the absurdity of communist nonsense after the rousing revolutionary rooms on the top floor when it turns to post-1970 politics and paranoia. Dengue fever outbreaks on the island are, apparently, the work of CIA-supplied mosquito squadrons. Sillinesses such as these provide an undermining disservice to the inspiring pre-1960 stories of revolution, which are lent a homespun authenticity by the shabby displays and poor English translations.

What the Museum of the Revolution does most successfully, though, is give some sense of how the government in Cuba has had to adapt to a whole range of global transformations beyond its control, from the Cold War to the US embargo to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Bolivarian South America. Reflecting on this, it seems that Fidel and his ministers have been intelligent enough in finding ways around the difficulties these situations have created, but ultimately it is the material prosperity of your people which generates popular support and this is what probably poses the greatest threat to the revolutionary government.

There are of course large numbers of Cubans in Havana who have always despised this government, and that number is likely to grow as the generations who are too young to remember the reasons for the revolution become predominant and are more seduced by images of Pan-American prosperity.

But the fact remains that a million people turn up to hear Fidel not because they are compelled to do so, but because so many remember the reasons for the revolution and understand what the regime has done to create such things as a secure education and medical system, if not to alleviate poverty, in the face of oppressive sanctions imposed by the US.

It is likely that history will deem those sanctions to have backfired in two ways – firstly because the revolution was not communist to begin with (in fact Castro rejected communism, and the Communist Party in Cuba was one of the last groups supporting the old Batista government), but the US approach in the era of McCarthyism pushed Cuba towards Moscow as the best option for economic support, and secondly because the longer the sanctions remain in place now, the more likely it is that Cuban economic and cultural relations will be built with South America, Asia and Europe, and by the time the US comes to its senses Cuba will find little value there.

Of course one still hears so much about the repressive (some even say –preposterously - Stalinist) nature of the regime in the Western media, even though the CIA funding of misinformation campaigns about the place is public knowledge and ongoing. The CDR system (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution) is certainly supervisory of the individual’s behaviour, but as with most such networks it provides important social services, welfare and community support as well. Providing the latter while freeing itself of counter-revolutionary paranoia would certainly be a step forward.

But those in the West who condemn the CDR system conveniently forget the police state of the Batista regime overthrown by Castro, the McCarthyist repression consuming the US at the time(remember that in 1958 large numbers of US employees had to pass “loyalty reviews”!), and the extent of covert surveillance practiced in all Western democracies today. And one of the ironies of Cuba is that when one looks at the map of the island in the departure hall in Jose Marti Airport, one reflects on the fact that the only real gulag on the island is the American one in Guantanamo Bay.

About the Author:  Nick Shimmin was born in Liverpool UK, and moved with his family to Sydney in 1969. Educated at school and university in Sydney, he returned to England in 1985 to study for a doctorate in Manx Literature at the University of Lancaster, then returned to Sydney. Since that time he has worked in sales and marketing for Cambridge University Press in Sydney, and also as a subtitling editor for the television arm of the Special Broadcasting Service, where he met George Burchett, the son of the heroic radical Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett. Together they edited Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist: The Autobiography of Wilfred Burchett (2005), and Rebel Journalism: The Writings of Wilfred Burchett (2007).

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Book Review: The Life and Death of Percy Brookfield 1875 - 1921

above: Percy Brookfield; early Australian socialist MP and activist

What follows is a review of a book concerning Percy Brookfield; an early Australian socialist MP who fought against war and conscription; the review is by Chris White, a veteran labour movement activist and Labor Party member.

'The Best Hated Man in Australia - The Life and Death of Percy Brookfield 1875 - 1921 ' a book by Paul Robert Adams

Book review by Chris White

During our tweedledum-dee election I read the biography of Percy Brookfield - a conviction left labour politician.

Historian Dr Paul Robert Adams takes us through Brookfield’s exciting story – the events when a radical unionist becomes a politician and keeps and fights for left principles, ’the greatest champion that the people ever had.’

Nobody elected into the NSW Parliament today is like ‘Jack’ Brookfield MP from Broken Hill. At his funeral 15,000 marched and sang ‘The Red Flag’.

Brookfield’s militant stand and his unrelenting political radicalism is revealing and refreshing.

He was notorious for his combatative criticisms of ruling class employers and politicians. Today’s unionists and ALP MPs are just far too timid.

The media and right-wing politicians attacked him for his stances, such as, ‘not to fight for the British flag as long as they were making profits out of the war’.

He was hailed as the most extreme anti-politician ever to be elected.

He delivered reforms for workers. He became politically more popular nationally with radical speeches at mass meetings.

Adams takes us through Brookfield's story starting as a key organiser in the great strikes on working conditions and shorter hours for underground mining in Broken Hill. ‘If you want the 44 hour week, TAKE IT.’

Adams recounts Brookfield’s struggles to prevent ill-health in the mines and then for compensation for the industrial diseases. In Parliament Brookfield campaigned tirelessly winning Occupational Health and Safety and Workers Compensation reforms.

Before, during WW1 and the years that followed saw radical labour movement battles and unprecedented political turmoil.

Brookfield supported the 1917 NSW General Strike. We are taken through the 1919 Great Miners Strike/Lockout.

Brookfield was a supporter of the OBU, One Big Union.

He on principle campaigned successfully over many years to free the ‘IWW Twelve’ from their trumped up police convictions to burn down Sydney. He supported many left activists persecuted by the government’s ‘anti-terrorist’ laws of those days.

Governments prosecuted him. He was jailed for his principled anti-war speeches against the viper - PM Hughes.

His powerful leadership against conscription contributed to the success of the NO referendums.

A socialist not a communist, he learnt about and supported the new Bolshevik revolution and their supporters.

He always spoke the truth as he saw it. ‘Ironically, while he was an extremist, he was able to put his opinions in a way that drew people to him rather than driving them away.’

Adams recounts the left labour movement struggles with the colorful leaders like Brookfield and their battles with right-wing enemies, the NSW ALP. In Parliament Brookfield was tenacious and outspoken for his left causes.

Brookfield later joined the split from the NSW Right ALP to form the Industrial Socialist Labor Party and was re-elected and held the balance of power in the NSW hung parliament.

The reader knows in advance that Brookfield was then fatally shot at Riverton in South Australia.

Was his shooting an assassination? Adams takes us through the events.

Although these are different times, our unstable capitalist contradictions and the environmental crisis invite militant left convictions and organising. Left activists struggling against powerful corporations, right-wing forces and their political representatives are invigorated by this history.

I agree with Humphrey McQueen’s comments and other reviews.

‘In life, as in the manner of death, Brookfield made personal sacrifice the measure of his political commitment. Morally and physically fearless, his probity withstood parliament. Paul Adams has given us a biography as thoroughly gripping as it is thoroughly researched. Inspiration floods from its pages’.

From Frank Bongiorno

‘Both the radical life and untimely death of Percy Brookfield are the stuff of Australian labour legend. Finally, we have a biography that, while stating the case for Brookfield, richly contextualises and analyses his brief but turbulent career in trade unionism and radical politics. In this fine book, Paul Robert Adams has created a vivid portrait of a militant working-class leader who inspired both great hatred and deep affection. The author creates a richly detailed portrait of an extraordinary place, the great mining town of Broken Hill, during extraordinary times, the First World War, the gravest crisis the world had ever known’.

From Erik Eklund

‘It is an extraordinary oversight that this man, with such a crucial role in state, labour and local politics, should have been overlooked for so long’.

From David Day

‘This is a book that should be read by all Australians interested in their nation’s history’.

Please inform bookshops and libraries and union resources.

Dr Paul Robert Adams was born in Broken Hill. He holds a PhD from The University of Sydney and currently teaches media at The University of New England. (Puncher & Wattmann 2010)

Chris White, former union leader, posts on his blog

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Monday, September 6, 2010

Ill Fares the Land - Book Review

above: the author of 'Ill Fares the Land', Tony Judt

a review by Tim Watson

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.

Tony Judt died on August 6, and wrote Ill Fares the Land during the advanced stages of his two-year battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. The time of writing the book was not an optimistic time, and as its title suggests, the book does not paint a glowing picture of the present condition of many Western democracies. It contains a stern message to the generations that follow: the United States, United Kingdom, and other predominantly Anglo-Saxon nations including Ireland, Australia and New Zealand have spent 30 years deconstructing various components of the welfare state in pursuit of greater economic efficiency and the accumulation of private wealth at the expense of the public good. Something must change. We can do better than this.

Drawing heavily on the research of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level, Judt notes that inequality has grown in the last 30 years. In 2005 21.2 per cent of US national income accrued to the top 1 per cent of income earners, and between 1977 and 2007 the majority of jobs in Great Britain were created at either the very high or very low ends of the pay scale. Intergenerational mobility has collapsed, the poor increasingly stay poor and economic disadvantage translates into ill health, missed educational opportunities, mental illness, and minor criminality. As inequality increases mistrust grows. Thirty years of growing inequality have made chronic disadvantage appear “natural conditions of life”.

At a time when some economists call for austerity packages and inhibiting fiscal rules in the United States and Great Britain Judt reminds us that fiscal conservatives “take pride in being tough enough to inflict pain on others”. The days where toughness consisted of an ability to endure pain rather than inflict it upon others appear long gone. The arguments for fiscal consolidation in the United States and United Kingdom have largely been based on unsubstantiated fears that bond markets will punish governments that provide added discretionary stimulus to economies functioning well below capacity.

In the United States in particular bond yields at the long end of the spectrum do not indicate that stimulus spending has raised inflationary expectations. I am also yet to hear a convincing argument on economic or moral grounds that the deleterious effects of slightly higher levels of inflation (that in any event are yet to materialise) are comparable to double digit unemployment.

Although Judt’s essay is tinged with sentimentality and nostalgia for the post World War II era, there is the lingering recognition that the “past was neither as good nor as bad as we suppose: it was just different”. This does not mean we should immediately discount prior experience. Perhaps the only thing worse than succumbing to a sentimental view of history, is after all forgetting it. Perhaps worse than forgetting history is wishfully believing that progress is a naturally occurring thing, or that all change brings progress. Judt’s motivation for revisiting the post-war era is not to repeat it - rather we must revisit this period because legislators, business people and other authority figures have stopped talking about the collective “good” in the way that generation did.

Judt contends that following the horrors of war and depression there was a general consensus that if governments could convert whole countries to the task of total war, then they could also mobilise the people to achieve full employment and alleviate various social ills. This take is not particularly original. Most advanced economies took steps towards the universal provisioning of social services such as health, education, transport, housing, old-age pensions and unemployment insurance during this period. Social democrats managed to sustain full employment for nearly 30 years, while maintaining higher growth rates and lower levels of economic volatility than the pre-war free market epoch could achieve. They were motivated to achieve a more civilised global order and beneficent state so that the great upheavals and avoidable suffering of the recent past could be avoided.

These collective achievements could not have taken place without high degrees of mutual trust. Homogeneity and size of communities positively impact upon levels of co-operation and trust, whereas “cultural or economic heterogeneity can have the opposite effect”. In more recent decades increases in immigration to many developed nations have corresponded with declines in the reported degrees of social cohesion and trust that are so crucial for social democracy to thrive. What worked 65 years ago will not necessarily work today, and the essential work of the contemporary social democrat is to build trust in institutions, and among disparate peoples. This poses an interesting challenge for Julia Gillard, suggesting as it does that a political dialogue that gives oxygen to racial mistrust, whether intentionally or not, will undermine the preconditions necessary to pursue a Bevanite reform agenda.

Judt accuses the new Left of rejecting the collective ideal of their predecessors, and clearing the path for today’s ascendant individualism. Private objectives, “doing your own thing” and Carol Hanisch’s famous bon mot “the personal is political” have taken precedence over genuine concern for the other, the universal provision of public goods and a true sense of collective purpose. According to Judt during the 60s “the Left fragmented and lost all sense of shared purpose”. To be a radical in the 60s was to be “self regarding, self-promoting and curiously parochial in one’s concerns”. These are strong criticisms indeed, and in my view broadly applicable to today’s post-modern liberal elite also.

Judt draws attention to one of the chief fallacies raised in favour of privatising essential services - that associated with the benefit of transferring operational and other assorted financial risks onto the private sector. Drawing an analogy with “too big to fail” banks during the crash of 2008 he reminds us that government’s simply cannot allow transport, electric or gas utilities to grind to a halt. Governments always bear the electoral and financial risk of these essential services either operating poorly or failing entirely, whether in public or private hands. In the public mind, the operational failures of the private sector operator rest largely with the government.  The new owners know this and it represents a massive risk of moral hazard.

Judt also reminds us that privatisation can sometimes be accompanied with allowing the State to relinquish moral obligations to care for the elderly, sick and the poor. Value for money should not be the only criteria considered when outsourcing essential services. We should be asking what impact privatisation will have on the fabric of communities, and broader government outcomes. Transport for instance is never just a “fee for service” arrangement. It is a means of connecting people with employment opportunities, education, health services, loved ones and friends. We also mustn’t neglect the reasons why certain essential services such as aged care and prisons were left to the State in the first place: services such as these invariably require a large degree of regulation and cannot be left to the market alone.

I do not advocate wholesale opposition to public private partnerships as some commentators do, largely on ideological grounds. I believe in a mixed economy, and simply say that if the private sector can do a demonstrably better job and deliver better outcomes to the broader community, then all well and good. As Keynes rightly put it:

The important thing for Government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all.

However we need to be careful about how we assess the benefits of privatisation. A more sensible and holistic appraisal of the costs and benefits of privatisation must be undertaken. We should more carefully consider who really bears the risk associated with these projects if they fail, or are poorly run. We should also be more sceptical about how the risk analysis surrounding these projects feeds into the management fees charged by private operators. I think more and more these things are happening, and the public private partnerships of the future will be better than those of the 80s and 90s thanks largely to experience.

Judt’s analysis of the growing trend towards privatisation paves the way for one of the most telling passages in the book:  If public goods, public services, public spaces, public facilities - are devalued, diminished in the eyes of citizens and replaced by private services available against cash, then we lose the sense that common interests and common needs ought to trump private preferences and individual advantage. And once we cease to value the public over the private, surely we shall come in time to have difficulty seeing just why we should value law (the public good par excellence) over force.

The case in point being of course the preemptive war in Iraq, but this is just one colossal example of the daily victory of realpolitik, and might against right that takes place in the every day lives of ordinary people. Idealism and altruism are suffering under the foot of self-advancement and self-interest in all walks of life. Numbers wishing to attain a business or legal education are increasing, whereas those seeking to enter the public service or obtain a liberal education have declined. Indeed business schools didn’t really exist anywhere until 20 years ago. No doubt this is aided and abetted by the growing requirement for students to privately finance their own tertiary education. These trends bread cynicism and undermine civic engagement and democracy itself.

Overseas, cynicism concerning politicians and political institutions has been manifested in low voter turnouts and political demobilisation. In Australia it has been manifested in growing claims that neither side of politics can be differentiated from the other, declining civic participation and membership of the traditional conservative and Labor parties. Alarmingly many of the baby boomers that currently dominate political debate “do not seem to believe very firmly in any coherent set of principles or policies … They convey neither conviction nor authority.” We seem trapped in a descending cycle of cynicism, suspicion and mistrust. Convinced that there is little they can achieve, today’s politicians do little and thus the cycle continues unabated. Need we look any further than the current Australian election which appears to be descending into a battle over who can promise least.

According to Judt our current Leaders are “beneficiaries of the welfare states whose institutions they call into question, they are all Thatcher’s children: politicians who have overseen a retreat from the ambitions of their predecessors.” As a young person I can viscerally relate to this criticism. The baby-boomers benefited from full employment, free university education, and high quality public services and now they try to unwind many of these rights for their own private benefit. These are decisions that would have been unthinkable to the great post war generation of liberal statesmen. We seem to have lost touch with that Burkean, yet strangely mutualistic conception of the social contract as a partnership between the living, the dead and those yet to be born.

Judt bemoans the fact that following the fall of communism and the “end of History” politics has lost its idealism. Politics devoid of idealism is reduced to a form of social accounting, management speak and the day to day administration of men and things. While this probably warms the hearts of many conservatives it is toxic to the Left. Need we look any further than Gillard’s election slogan echoing that most managerial and meaningless of phrases “going forward”. I imagine this slogan is profoundly alienating to the base of the Labor Party. How sadly it compares to Ben Chifley’s rousing “light on the hill” speech in which he defined the role of the Labor movement "not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people”.

If I had to level a criticism against the book it is that economic growth, or growth in nominal income terms appears to be a bit of straw man. Economic growth does not by itself imply the unsustainable exploitation of real resources or the environment, however perhaps as the mantra of free market ideologues it may appear thus. In the developing world kick-starting economic growth will be crucial to reducing global inequality in the coming years. However economic growth without addressing the externalities of climate change and environmental degradation will be disastrous. We can have sustainable economic growth that creates opportunities for future generations and lifts billions out of poverty so long as there are mechanisms within this system that ensure that the real limitations to growth are fully taken into account. Although I concede that this may very well be easier said than done and by no means assured, this is a possibility that Judt may not have grasped.

Overwhelmingly I am sympathetic with Judt’s thesis that much of what is wrong with contemporary politics can be addressed by the classical political language of injustice, unfairness, imprudence, immoderation, inequality and immorality, and to a certain degree social democrats have forgotten how to talk about these issues. However, the current malaise of social democratic politics goes beyond a simple failure of prosecuting the age old arguments forcefully enough.

Ultimately the failure of the speech act has revealed a wavering of belief or confidence in social democracy as a universal “good” in itself. What is needed is a renewed sense of confidence that peace, full employment, and the universal provision of social services are achievable and worth fighting for.

Judt has provided an inspiration for defending the gains of the past, and prosecuting the case for the “incremental improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances” urgently required. I heartily commend this book to those who share his concern about 30 years of neo-liberal dominance of the public policy landscape.

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