Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Layer 484 . . . The Olympic Family, Fuckwits, Gridlock, Protests, St Paul's, Fundamental Change and Putting Down Roots

The Olympic Family

What an unfortunate expression. What can it possibly mean? At last night's meeting/briefing for 'the Hackney community' (ugh) presenter after presenter kept talking about The Olympic Family. What they actually mean is - all of those entitled to drive or be driven along the "Olympics Only" vehicle lanes leading to and from the various Olympic sites: competitors, officials, bureaucrats, etc. It'll be interesting to see whether people like the Royal Family will become honorary members of The Olympic Family. These road appropriations will be in force from 6.00am to midnight every single day for more than three weeks. And if millions of regular road users can't be persuaded to either a) go away or b) just stay put at home during those weeks, then gridlock is guaranteed. And that's not speculation - that's official.

The highlight of the meeting was a woman in the audience who stood up to make the following contribution:

"A few years ago I was in Australia with my son at the time of the Olympics, and I went to spit on the floor. My son said, 'Don't do that - you'll get a £1,000 fine - and you can also get fined £1,000 for dropping litter'. And now I think this is a REALLY GOOD IDEA and we should DO IT HERE. This could really make the Olympics better for EVERYBODY."


It turned out there was gridlock in the car park of the community centre where the meeting was taking place. There was a classic moment when it was announced that a car was blocking the entrance to the car park - and a description of the car and its registration number was duly read out. Nobody moved. We all know what happens in this situation - out of sheer embarrassment for being humiliated and for being shown up as a fuckwit you let the meeting move on, and after a decent interval you quietly get up and move your car, or whatever. "Don't worry", said the oragniser, "We'll all look to the front so nobody's going to turn round and look at you!" And then a guy stood up on the front row - and went out to move his car.

Doesn't bode well for the London Olympics.


Will the anti-capitalist movement have grown stronger by the time the Olympics begin, and if so - with what consequences? Or will the protesters simply get hoovered up from the streets and detained for the duration?

I've just heard an item on the radio saying that the Bishop of London has said it's time for the anti-capitalist protesters camped outside St Paul's Cathedral to leave. In response to this, the Canon of St Paul's, Dr Giles Fraser, has apparently threatened to resign if the protest camp is forcibly closed down. Previously he said this -

"I remain firmly supportive of the right of people peacefully to protest. But given the strong advice that we have received that the camp is making the cathedral and its occupants unsafe then this right has to be balanced against other rights and responsibilities too. The Christian gospel is profoundly committed to the needs of the poor and the dispossessed. Financial justice is a gospel imperative. Those who are claiming the decision to close the cathedral has been made for commercial reasons are talking complete nonsense."


This is from last Wednesday's Guardian:

The Occupy movement has lit a fire for real change

Establishment praise for the Occupy protests reflects anxiety at public anger – which needs to be turned into political pressure

by Seumas Milne

It's not hard to see why the Occupy Wall Street protests have gone global. What kicked off a month ago in relative obscurity – drawing inspiration from this year's Spanish indignados occupations and the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia – has now spawned protests in more than 900 cities around the world. The only surprise is it didn't happen sooner.

Three years after the banks that brought the west's economies to their knees were bailed out with vast public funds, nothing has fundamentally changed. Profits and bonuses are booming for financial oligarchs and corporate giants, while most people are paying the price of their reckless speculation with falling living standards, cuts in public services and mounting unemployment.

Coming as this crisis has done – at the end of an era of rampant deregulation that has created huge disparities of income and wealth, concentrated in the hands of the top 1% and secured by politicians bought by corporate interests – a backlash against those actually responsible was well overdue.

While the protesters were originally ridiculed as unfocused, or denounced by leading Republicans as "mobs", they are now championed by the media establishment – including the New York Times and Financial Times – on both sides of the Atlantic. Obama has made friendly noises, while his officials say they now plan to "run against Wall Street" in next year's presidential campaign.

In a climate where plutocrats like Warren Buffett are meanwhile begging to pay higher taxes, it's a clear sign of elite anxiety at the extent of popular anger and an attempt to co-opt the movement before demands for more fundamental change get traction.

Something similar seems to be going on in Britain where – against a steady drumbeat of lobbying scandal and escalating unemployment – police and the conservative Daily Mail have so far both given the City occupation outside St Paul's Cathedral a notably easy ride.

There's no doubt that these occupations echo both the spirit and organisation of the anti-corporate movement that erupted in Seattle in 1999. The tactic of occupying a symbolic public space (as opposed to strikes, sit-ins and marches) can be traced back to Greenham Common in the 1980s through a string of often dubious "colour revolutions" over the past decade.

But it's this year's drama in Tahrir Square (acknowledged with an Egyptian flag at the London camp) that has given it such evocative power. And while the 1990s anti-capitalist globalisation protests took place at a time of boom and speculative frenzy, today's occupations are targeting a global capitalism in the deepest crisis.

Which is why they have such a clear sense of reflecting the common sense of the age. What both movements now and then also share is an intense commitment to direct democracy and the influence of an "autonomist" opposition to engagement with mainstream politics – seen as a central part of the problem, rather than any solution.

In that, of course, they're in tune with millions. But when it gets to the point of resisting making direct political demands at all – an issue of controversy this week among US protesters, with some arguing "the process is the message" – that would surely limit the protests' impact.

The Occupy movement has already changed the political climate in the US. Some commentators argue that's enough – and it's up to politicians and wonks to turn the theme of economic justice into policy. But that would be to hand the initiative to the very system the protesters reject – and limit the scope for making common cause with others resisting austerity and corporate greed.

Not only that, but any demands need to be a good deal more radical than "independent regulation" if they're to make sense of the call for fundamental change and action to tackle the crisis: democratic ownership and control of banks and utilities, say, and wealth and transactions taxes for a start.

And as Naomi Klein argued to protesters in New York, the movement will also need democratic structures and institutions if it's to put down roots rather than fizzle and burn out. 

The form and focus of these protests already varies widely from country to country: in Chile, they originally concentrated on free education, but now the target has expanded to include banks and GM crops. Across Latin America, where the revolt against neoliberalism first began more than a decade ago, it has been alliances of social movements and political organisations that have proved most successful in turning protest into economic and social change.

But there is of course no automatic link between large-scale protest and any radical political breakthrough: Spain has been convulsed with occupations and strikes – and is expected to elect a rightwing neoliberal government in reaction to the socialist government's austerity. The populist right can take advantage of mass disaffection as well as the left.

But in just a few weeks the Occupy movement has helped bust open the political class veto on the scale of change demanded by the crisis – and now that opportunity needs to be seized.


Major meetings are taking place today concerning the Euro crisis.

Seumas Milne wrote this excellent piece a couple of weeks ago:

The class interests at the heart of David Cameron's plan

The Conservative party is effectively the political wing of the City of London. No wonder it can't lead Britain out of this crisis

"Our plan will work", was all the prime minister offered by way of reassurance yesterday. But that judgment already looks flaky. And most people in Britain aren't reassured. Nor are Cameron and Osborne's old friends at the IMF, which yesterday called on countries able to borrow at low interest rates, such as Britain and Germany, to "consider delaying" their cuts programmes.

The IMF has argued Britain could afford to raise its debt by 50% of GDP without triggering a crisis. But the Tory leaders show no signs of budging. Osborne's "credit-easing" plan to boost bank lending to businesses simply reflects the failure of his Project Merlin to achieve the same thing.

Not even its most enthusiastic advocates imagine such an intervention will turn round the collapse in investment or demand. But still the government shrinks from using its control of two of the biggest banks to boost investment and lending directly.

Osborne instead came up with a new growth plan: make it easier to sack workers, while requiring them to pay £1,000 for an unfair dismissal hearing in an employment tribunal – refundable only if they win the case. There's no serious evidence that extending the qualifying period to claim unfair dismissal from one to two years will create jobs. 

Signed off by Vince Cable, it also reveals the limits of Liberal Democrat restraints on Thatcherite recidivism. But more than that, it casts some light on the class interests at the heart of this government's response to the crisis.

Cameron and Osborne's refusal to change course is partly driven by ideology, of course, and a determination not to weaken in any way the private grip on the major levers of economic life. But there's something else, more quintessentially Tory, about it.

"If this party is anything, it's the party of small business and enterprise", Osborne told the Conservative faithful in Manchester this week. But that's not the whole picture. As the figures published at the weekend by the Guardian underline, the Tories are first and foremost the party of the City of London and financial engineering. More than half the party's £12m donations in the last year came from the City and banking. Its most lavish donors were hedge funds, financiers and private equity firms: the very interests which drove the financial sector over a cliff in 2007-8.

Now, the Tories' intimate links to banking are hardly new – even if the funding grip has tightened. But a government in the hands of what is effectively the political wing of the City of London takes on a more dangerous significance when bankers and financiers are almost universally recognised to have both played the central role in creating this crisis – and in perpetuating it.

It's not just slashing the rate of corporation tax for banks, or delaying the milk-and-water Vickers bank ringfencing proposals till 2019, or refusing to clamp down on bank bonuses in the teeth of public hostility or vetoing a financial transactions Tobin tax. It's the refusal to intervene directly in banking and finance to drive recovery that most starkly reveals whose interests the government puts first.

None of this, of course, has stopped Cameron talking earnestly about being "completely dissatisfied with the banking industry's behaviour", or the need to "encourage good business practices", or his determination to "crack down on tax evasion". In fact, despite the Tory leaders' withering dismissal of Ed Miliband's call last week for a new "economic system", it's striking how much they have echoed some of his language.

No doubt they've registered the polling that shows most people agree Britain is dominated by "fast-buck capitalists" and "predators, not producers". The problem for the Tories is that those are also their most enthusiastic supporters and paymasters.

If Miliband really intends to break with the 30-year-old "Thatcher settlement", one Conservative cabinet minister told me this week, it would be a highly significant political shift. "But I don't think that's where the British people are," he added, "they just want us to sort out the mess of the last five years". As the crisis deepens, however, it's becoming ever clearer you can't do one without the other.


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