Tag Archives: activism

Gulf countries need revolutionary climate action, not glossy mega-projects

Gulf countries need revolutionary climate action, not glossy mega-projects
by Ian Sinclair
The New Arab
20 December 2016

In May 2016 researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Cyprus Institute published a deeply concerning study for the Middle East. According to the academics, climate change could make large parts of the region uninhabitable. By the year 2100, midday temperatures on warm days could reach 50°C, with heat waves potentially occurring ten times more than today. The expected temperature rises could put “the very existence of its inhabitants in jeopardy”, noted Jos Lelieveld, the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry.

The future looks similarly bleak on the global level. In 2013 Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, explained that “We are already planning for a 4°C world because that is where we are heading. I do not know of any scientists who do not believe that.”

What would a 4°C world look like, I asked Professor Kevin Anderson, the Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, earlier this year? “Global chaos and collapse I think would be a fair assessment”, was his frightening reply. He went on to list a number of likely outcomes: Sea level rise of one metre by 2100; an increase in the frequency and severity of storms; a 40 percent reduction in staple crop yields; substantial changes in rainfall patterns and massive migration.

In the face of this crisis, Middle East governments have slowly started to turn their attention to the problem of climate change, largely presenting it as an uncontroversial topic that requires technical solutions – a perfect example of fatally flawed “techno-optimism” if ever there was one.

A number of large-scale, press-friendly projects are being built, including Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy and Masdar City near Abu Dhabi. “Designed to be zero-carbon and zero-waste, home to a population of 40,000 people, 50,000 commuters, in an area of six square kilometres” Masdar City is “playing a crucial role in the development of sustainable design and technology”, gushed Susan Lee from the University of Birmingham.

However, though it’s rarely said, these top-down mega projects are unlikely to help in addressing climate change. Take Masdar: in reality, as Grist noted earlier this year, it “is, essentially, the world’s most sustainable ghost town”, with only a small part of the planned city built and the completion date pushed back from 2016 to 2030.

According to Deutsche Welle, critics “see Masdar first and foremost as a clever project to improve Abu Dhabi’s image” when “it remains one of the world’s worst polluters”.

And it’s not just the United Arab Emirates. The World Wildlife Fund’s 2014 Living Planet report found Kuwait and Qatar have the world’s highest per capita ecological footprint. “If all people on the planet had the footprint of the average resident of Qatar, we would need 4.8 planets”, the report noted.

“The thing about a crisis this big, this all-encompassing, is that it changes everything”, Canadian author Naomi Klein argues in her seminal 2014 book on climate change. “It changes what we can do, what we can hope for, what we can demand from ourselves and our leaders. It means there is a whole lot of stuff that we have been told is inevitable that simply cannot stand.” Klein maintains the scale of the problem means radical transformations are required in the political, economic and cultural spheres. In the Middle East this will mean revolutionary change. For example, the Paris climate agreement pledged to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels”.

What does this mean for oil producing states? Using industry data, a recent report from US-based thinktank Oil Change International explained that “the potential carbon emissions from the oil, gas, and coal in the world’s currently operating fields and mines would take us beyond 2°C of warming”. Averting runaway climate change, according to the study, means no new fossil fuel extraction and some existing fields and mines closing before being fully exploited. Furthermore, Klein argues it is dangerous to consider environmental problems on their own. Rather they will only be solved together with other problems such as economic inequality, the corporate domination of the political and social world, consumerism and western imperialism. A classroom guide created to accompany Klein’s book even asks students to provide a “feminist ecological critique” of extractivism.

Many of the necessary changes will be difficult for rulers in the Middle East to contemplate. Analysing the Economic Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index and the World Energy Council’s Energy Trilemma Index, Professor Robert Looney from the Naval Postgraduate School in California explains that democratic governments are “more likely to comply with global agreements that set specific targets for carbon agreements” and “give environmental sustainability priority over either energy security or affordable energy supplies”. Concerned about their own survival, authoritarian regimes will invariably prioritise energy security and equity, Looney argues, since rising fuel prices risk social unrest.

A media free of government censorship and corporate influence is a key component of Looney’s findings, as it creates an informed citizenry. And once large numbers of people understand the dire threat of climate change, they will likely push for government action. An independent and critical media also engenders discussion and disagreement. The alternative – sadly commonin the Middle East – is hugely counterproductive and threatening to young people and future generations as it muzzles criticism and serious debate. For example, one critic of Masdar (who described it as a “green Disneyland”) said they wished to remain anonymous “Otherwise, you could get in trouble in Abu Dhabi”.

Another key feature of more democratic societies, is an active and independent civil society. As freed slave Frederick Douglass once said “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Progressive and lasting change almost always comes from below – something Klein implicitly understands when she calls for a “grassroots anti-extraction uprising”.

The blocking of the Dakota Access pipeline in the United States, the cancellation of Margaret Thatcher’s road expansion plans in Britain (“the biggest road-building programme since the Romans”), the introduction of the United Kingdom’s groundbreaking 2008 Climate Change Act – all of these environmental victories happened because of long campaigns by activist groups overcoming state-corporate power.

In short, far from being an uncontroversial, technical issue, climate change is actually a real threat to the status quo – in the Middle East and elsewhere. Because if we are serious about addressing climate change, then we need to successfully challenge established power – that is the extractive-enriched, growth-obsessed, profit-driven, largely unelected elites whose actions have led us to this existential crisis point.

With some of the region’s governments repeatedly trying to impede international agreements to combat climate change, this is especially true for the Middle East. With time running out, the future of the Middle East and the wellbeing of humanity depends on how quickly we win the revolutionary changes that are so desperately needed.

 

How we can win the Nordic model for the UK: an interview with George Lakey

How we can win the Nordic model for the UK: an interview with George Lakey
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
19 December 2016

Active in social movements since the 1960s, in 1971 American George Lakey co-founded the radical group Movement for a New Society, and in 1973 he wrote the influential book Strategy for a Living Revolution, a guide for achieving nonviolent revolution. More recently he was Visiting Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College in the United States and has been involved in the Earth Quaker Action Team campaign opposing mountain-top removal coal mining.

Now 79-years old, Lakey has just published Viking Economics: How The Scandinavians Got It Right – And How We Can, Too. Having married a Norwegian, lived in Norway for a year in 1959 and visited the region many times since, he argues the superior Nordic model is within reach of the neoliberal US and UK, although it will take large-scale struggle with the economic elite to achieve it.

I interviewed him about ‘the Nordics’, their history and how their social and economic policies could be won in the US and UK.

Ian Sinclair: What have the Nordic countries “got right”?

George Lakey: What economists call the Nordic economic model generates an extraordinary amount of both equality and individual freedom. We can see the synergy on both small and large levels in those countries.

All new parents, for example, are offered many months of paid family leave when they give birth or adopt. In a mixed-gender couple, part of the leave is reserved for the male. If he refuses to take his part of the leave, the couple loses his part of it. With parental paid leave each member of a couple experiences fuller opportunity to parent in the first year of a child’s life – or not, as that person chooses. In other societies that opportunity would be reserved for the better off. At the same time, the policy nudges the couple toward equality in roles and responsibilities.

This is one of a thousand features supporting both equality and freedom made possible by the Nordic design. A macro example is a typical large Norwegian corporation being owned largely by government but individuals invited to own shares as well up to a certain amount. Widespread public ownership, alongside the large cooperative sector, reduces the inequality that otherwise accompanies an economic market. Substantial individual wealth and inheritance taxes further reduce inequality.  Nevertheless, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well, and there are more start-ups in Norway per capita than in the US. Entrepreneurship can be seen as the application of creativity, and it gets public support just as does the thriving sector of performing arts.

While the countries I studied – Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden –may share an economic design with a half century track record of remarkable outcomes, they are not utopias. Norwegians admit to me, “We are a nation of complainers.” I’ve met many Nordics who see more problems that need to be solved.

IS: In your book you note that at the turn of the twentieth century the Nordic countries had very high levels of inequality and poverty, with many people emigrating to the United States and elsewhere. However, as you say, today the Nordic countries consistently top international measures for human development and well-being. How did this transformation occur?

GL: People organized themselves into mass direct action movements to force the economic elite out of dominance.  Of course the privileged defended themselves, suppressing the press, jailing organizers, hiring strikebreakers. The historic details vary for each country. In each case it required cross-class alliances.

In Norway the elite organized the Patriotic League in 1926 to wade into strikes and violently defend replacement workers. In the ‘30s [the government minister Vidkun] Quisling organized a Norwegian Nazi paramilitary force to march in the streets to provoke violent clashes with working class activists. Nonetheless, the nonviolent militancy in the workplace and rural areas made the country ungovernable, and the economic elite was forced to allow the workers’ and farmers’ movements to take leadership of the country.

For Sweden the turning point came in 1931 when, in Ådalen Valley, workers struck three lumber mills at once and four thousand workers picketed the owners and government officials. Troops fired into the workers’ march, killing five and injuring five more. The workers called a national general strike, forcing the conservative government out of power and replacing it with the Social Democrats who ruled almost without a break until 1976.

IS: You also discuss the key role played by trade unions in this transformation.

GL: To make a nonviolent power shift a mass of people whose cooperation is necessary to operate the system must be willing to force change by withholding that cooperation. A century ago, when nonviolent struggle appeared to have only a few tactics in its arsenal, the obvious means of noncooperation was the strike. Industrialization was generating the “nonviolent soldiers” who could do strikes: the workers. These days we know far more nonviolent tactics that can make a country ungovernable. Mass noncooperation can be precipitated in more ways than the Nordics did, so today’s revolutionary strategy is not so dependent on the workers and their unions.

Union organizations, of course, vary widely on their willingness to wage class struggle.  The Nordics give us a recent example.

The influence of Thatcherism in the 1980s became threatening to Scandinavians and the unions there lost confidence. The governments of Norway and Sweden relaxed some bank regulations, with nearly disastrous results. Observing this trend among their Viking cousins and knowing Thatcherism was also growing in Denmark, the Danish workers defied their own unions and launched a general strike in 1986, including barricading parliament in its building in Copenhagen. The workers frustrated the neo-liberals’ plans and prevented Danish bankers from running wild. Remembering the distinction between the union leadership and the members can matter for strategy.

IS: What is the current political situation in Scandinavia today? Are the gains made by the social movements in the twentieth century holding firm or being degraded?

GL: Forcing a power shift in the last century doesn’t mean the class struggle disappeared. Small countries are vulnerable not only to internal tensions but also to manipulation by global market forces. Knowing this, Norway refused to join the EU, even before it gained the security of its oil find. Norwegians could see that the EU was led by neo-liberals, and they wanted the freedom to continue on their left course. Sweden and Denmark did join the EU but stayed out of the Eurozone, maintaining maneuvering room for themselves.

In my book I present a mixed picture of today’s Nordic class struggles: both losses and wins.  Here are a few of the many on both sides. Inequality has risen, although they remain at the top of the heap for equality. Belts are tightening on services, although they are still far more generous than other countries. Sweden struggles with maintaining the Nordic full employment policy. The mighty cooperatives are not matched by achievements in worker democracy in the other workplaces.

On the other hand, Sweden took in per capita the most Middle Eastern refugees of any European nation. Norwegian citizens can challenge Norwegian corporations’ behavior in the Global South and force changes. Iceland only a few years ago jailed bankers and brought down their government in the “Pots and Pans Revolution.” All the Nordics are speeding ahead in addressing climate change.

The Nordics remain largely faithful to their trademark approach to benefits: not means-tested (“welfare”), but applied to all (universal). I don’t call those countries by the misleading term “welfare states.” They are actually “universal services states,” and that is key to their success in virtually abolishing absolute poverty.

IS: What strategies and tactics do you think activists in the US and UK should employ to move from our current neo-liberal, high inequality economies to something approximating the Nordic Model?

GL: First, we should learn from the example of the Danish 1986 general strike: “go on the offensive.” The Danish workers didn’t just try to defend previous gains – they fought for further gains for working people.

Gandhi and military generals agree on at least one point: nobody wins anything on the defensive!  The activist history of the UK and US since the Thatcher/Reagan counter-revolution sadly forgot this strategic necessity of staying on the offensive – and paid the price. In fact, the biggest UK/US activist win since 1980 has arguably been rights for lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans people. The LGBT struggle stayed vigorously on the offensive!

Remaining on the offensive requires a vision of what we truly want.  Vision is where our demands should come from rather than from our fear of what we might lose. The Scandinavians a century ago took the time to get out of their little activist groups to gain wide agreement on a positive vision.

This can put radicals in a dilemma. Many Nordic radicals who wanted to win understood that the movement’s vision couldn’t express the full extent of their personal yearnings and still gain broad agreement. The vision had to be seen as practical and achievable within the middle term, a horizon that could inspire all-out struggle.

A sufficient number of middle class intellectual radicals overcame their class training (to be superior, differentiating egos) so they could join the growing mass movement that could unseat the one per cent, thereby opening the space for all kinds of possibilities – even some radical ones.

We are in a fundamentally new political moment from that of the 1920s/30s. At that time, no one knew for sure if there was a variant of socialism that would actually work to achieve a high degree of equality, freedom and shared prosperity. Now, we know. There is a track record, an economy that consistently out-performs the Anglo-American economic model, despite the disadvantages of small countries in a fierce and globalized world. My book shows that the practical argument is now entirely on our side.

What remains strategically is to sharpen the art of nonviolent direct action campaigning that meets people where they are and deepens their skills and knowledge while building ever more powerful movements. It may be time to drop the one-off protest and routine march and rally!  Campaigns with (a) specific grievances and (b) winnable demands and (c) a target that can be forced to grant the demand are the campaigns that empower. Empowered campaigners can then merge into mass movements that – when history opens the opportunity – become a “movement of movements” that can force a power shift.

The Nordic examples are included in an online, searchable database of over a thousand campaigns from nearly 200 countries: the Global Nonviolent Action Database. Campaigns range from those that have overthrown military dictatorships to those that forced local resolution of environmental dangers.

Campaigns are not sufficient to make a revolution, but their vitality, creativity, and escalating confrontation are central in making the power shift that gives us a chance to build the new society, as different from our present order as contemporary Scandinavia is different from that of a century ago.

IS: A common critique of your argument pushing for the US and UK to adopt Nordic-style economic and social policies is that it is unlikely to work as Nordic countries are very different to the US and UK – they are smaller, more homogenous and have very different political cultures. How do you respond to these challenges?

GL: The Nordic countries represent to me small laboratories in which experiments have been tried and conclusions reached. Through theory, trial and error they have achieved “best practices” in many areas, according to third party global measures.

Two attitudes are commonly held toward these practices. The first attitude was voiced by Hillary Clinton in an election debate with Bernie Sanders when he referenced a feature of Denmark’s political economy. “That’s Denmark,” Clinton said dismissively, certain it could have no relevance to the exceptionalist USA.

The second attitude was voiced by a delegation of Chinese economists and policy-makers who were sent by Beijing to investigate Norway.  I interviewed researchers in Oslo who had previously received the Chinese. They told me they were surprised by the Chinese government’s interest. I was as well, knowing that China makes the U.S. seem a small and homogeneous country compared with its own size and cultural complexity.

When asked, the Chinese said some economic questions are affected by scale and cultural diversity, and some are not. The Chinese were curious to learn what had been working “in the lab,” eager to identify the features that could scale up to provincial or even national size within China.

As a curious sociologist, who is strongly dissatisfied with the US economy, it is easy for me to be interested in the best practices of others.

IS: Doesn’t the election of Donald Trump as president suggest, if anything, the American population is moving further away from supporting the things that make up the Nordic Model? 

GL: The situation on the ground is the opposite from what you imagine. When we compare the votes for Trump and Clinton, we find that more supported Clinton than Trump, but the voters for the major candidates were far exceeded by those who didn’t vote for either Clinton or Trump – almost half the total electorate, most of whom didn’t bother to go to the polls at all.

The election reveals a deepening crisis of legitimacy for the American political class. In November the polls attracted the lowest percentage of eligible voters in 20 years – only 58%. Because of this, our next President was elected by roughly one in four of the eligible voters. And in exit polls, about one fifth of Trump’s voters said they don’t actually consider him to be competent to be President. To me, this does not sound like a mandate from the American people!

The story of voter participation is accompanied by the trend away from registering as Democrats or Republicans; more people are choosing “Independent.” Deep anger and alienation is felt by voters who feel abandoned by both of the major parties. Recent opinion polls asking about issues find majorities backing policies characteristic of the Nordic model, including aggressive anti-poverty measures, decreased rewards to the rich, the equality profile of Sweden rather than that of the US, and actively addressing the climate crisis.

For the history-minded, the combination of declining legitimacy of the established order with preference for an alternative is the recipe for system change.

The 1,000-year ago Viking spirit of expedition emerged in the twentieth century and inspired people to, economically-speaking, go where no one had gone before. We need not be so brave as the twentieth century Nordics were; we do not need to expedition. We can, more cautiously, learn from best practices already established, then take on the struggle with some confidence.

Book review: Viking Economics by George Lakey

Book review: Viking Economics by George Lakey
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2016-January 2017

Though it is written for a US audience, George Lakey’s new book Viking Economics: how the Scandinavians got it right – and how we can, too has much to offer progressive activists in the UK concerned about the ongoing imposition of austerity measures and the political settlement that will come out of Brexit.

According to Lakey, the economies of the descendants of the Vikings ‘have a sixty-year track record of delivering increased freedom and equality’ – a political reality he believes is within reaching distance for the US. A visiting professor for Issues of Social Change at Swarthmore College in the United States and Peace News regular, Lakey bases his thesis on a wealth of academic studies, interviews with experts and personal experience – he married a Norwegian, lived in Norway for a year in 1959 and has returned many times since.

At the turn of the twentieth century the Nordic countries had very high levels of inequality and poverty, with many people emigrating to the US and elsewhere. However, as Lakey notes above, today the Nordic countries have been transformed, consistently topping international measures for human development and well-being. Focusing on Norway but also covering Denmark, Sweden and Iceland, Lakey highlights how the relatively high-tax ‘Nordics’ have achieved close to full, largely well-paid employment, universal healthcare, free higher education, a healthy work/life balance, and generous welfare states, while significantly reducing poverty and building modern and efficient infrastructure.

Lakey does a good job of highlighting how this differs from the neoliberal, business-friendly US and UK, citing Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s seminal work The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better to explain how high inequality has a detrimental effect on a range of social factors, from trust among the population to levels of crime.

How the Norwegians and other Nordics achieved all this comprises the heart of the book, with Lakey telling a fascinating history of struggle that is largely unknown to progressive activists in the UK.

Following the fight to gain union recognition in the 1880s, the infant union movement set up its own party, the Norwegian Labour Party, and national trade union. Influenced by the advanced labour movements in the US, a vibrant leftist political culture emerged, with supportive middle-class intellectuals setting up Mot Dag in 1921, arguably the most influential periodical in Scandinavia at the time. After the Great Crash of 1929, strike activity – including a general strike – significantly increased despite harsh repression from the government and employers, with the defence minister Vidkun Quisling sending in the army to quell a strike in the town of Skien. During this period, labour increased its representation in parliament until it eventually became the dominant party. ‘Norwegians created a small, visionary social movement that grew, engaged in struggle, attracted allies, and won’, Lakey summarises. Victory led to a fundamental power shift in the country, forcing a political settlement that led to the ‘Nordic Model’ being established in the 1930s.

More recently, noting how the defeat of organised labour during the Miners’ Strike in 1980s Britain allowed Thatcherism to run rampant, Lakey compares it to the industrial struggle that occurred at the same time in Denmark. With a centre-right government seeking to impose austerity measures, the Danish unions went on the offensive, pushing for a pay increase, shorter working week and more taxes on corporations. When the government tried to impose its will and ban strike action, workers gathered outside parliament and wildcat strikes erupted around the country. The government was forced to compromise, and their neoliberal agenda was largely shelved.

In short, it was union-led, nonviolent struggle that led to the transformation of Norway and the other Nordics. And, importantly, with electoral channels often blocked, it was extra-parliamentary direct action that was the initial engine of change. Furthermore, Lakey is keen to highlight the fact that the social democratic consensus that has largely held firm in Nordic politics for decades is itself the product of ‘harsh polarisation and open struggle’ in the first half of the twentieth century. Only later, he notes, ‘did most Norwegians who resisted change realise that the change actually was a big improvement on the bad old days’.

Using an accessible Q&A format, in the final section Lakey addresses questions and criticisms about applying the Nordic Model to the US. It’s directed at people in the US but, like his thesis on what lies behind Norway’s political transformation, his answers and strategising generalise to the UK and our contemporary political strife.

He believes activists need to remember their own nation’s long history of people-powered change – from the civil rights movement to social security, LGBT rights and beyond. Moreover, he maintains it is important for movements to remember the well-known adage ‘The best defence is a good offence’.

For example, he criticises the post-financial-crash campaigns in the US for trying to protect previous gains instead of going on the offensive as people in the US did after the 1929 crash. With the US oligarchic electoral system rigged against progressive change, Lakey argues that people taking to the streets in large numbers could create the political space for real change, pointing to how people-power brought Iceland back from the brink after its 2008 crash. Finally he argues for the importance of a strong vision for a new society, ‘to project the contours of what a political economy could look like’ – of which his book is the perfect example.

Accessible and hopeful, Viking Economics is essential reading, providing ideas and inspiration for how the UK Left can maximise its power, moving forward to kick out the emboldened Tory government, boost Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral chances and win a progressive ‘People’s Brexit’. ‘Change requires hard work’, Lakey notes at the end. Or as the freed slave Frederick Douglass once said ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’

Viking Economics: how the Scandinavians got it right – and how we can, too is published by Melville House, priced £19.99.

 

Do you have to gain power to make change?

Do you have to gain power to make change?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 November 2016 

“The greatest lesson that we can take from our history is that we can only implement our vision and apply our values when we win power and form a government”, Labour MP Owen Smith repeated ad nauseam during the recent Labour leadership contest. Owen Jones, generally considered to be on the left of the Labour Party, seemed to echo Smith on the issue of power and influence on his Youtube channel in August 2016. “Instead of sticking our fingers in our ears and going ‘lalalala it’s all fine’ there just needs to be strategy to improve those ratings”, the Guardian columnist argued about Labour’s poor poll ratings. “Otherwise we are finished, and the Conservatives will run the country for years. I’ll just keep doing my videos whinging about things, coming up with ideas. Waste of time. Just words, isn’t it? Just words.”

However, despite what the two Owens assert about the futility of opposition, the historical record suggests a far more hopeful conclusion.

“Power is not the only factor instrumental in creating change”, Salim Lone, a former Communications Director at the United Nations, noted in a letter to The Guardian in May 2016. “In fact it’s what one does in ‘opposition’ that has historically paved the way for real change. Humanity’s progress has resulted primarily from the struggles of those who fought for change against entrenched power.” US author Rebecca Solnit agrees, noting just before the US presidential election that “election seasons erase the memory of movements that worked for years or decades, outside and around, below and above electoral politics.” She describes these as “the histories that matter.”

Producing change while not in power can broadly be separated into two camps: transformation that is forced on an unwilling ruling elite, and government policies that are stopped or modified by strong opposition. And let’s not forget that any change from below almost always involves an extra-parliamentary direct action struggle, from the setting up of trade unions and women winning the vote to the success of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s – all forced on an initially resistant ruling class. In the 1990s direct action played a key role in stopping the “biggest road building programme since the Romans” planned by the then Tory government and the attempt to introduce GM food to the UK.

Indeed, a close reading of the news demonstrates that successfully making change while not in power happens all the time. Last month The Guardian headline was “Poland’s abortion ban proposal near collapse after mass protests”. Back in the UK, Corbyn’s Labour Party has inflicted a number of defeats on the government – on planned cuts to tax credits and housing benefit, and the proposed prison contract with Saudi Arabia. It was a Tory-led Government, let’s not forget, that introduced gay marriage – 25 years after they introduced the anti-gay Section 28. And responding to the Chancellor’s recent announcement about investing in the economy, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell quipped “It’s clear Philip Hammond is now borrowing from Labour to invest in his own speech”.

Unsurprisingly governments will try to take the credit for any popular changes – former Prime Minister David Cameron making it known he had personally intervened in favour of legalising same-sex marriage, for example. But rather than taking the powerful at their (retrospective and self-justifying) word, a more accurate explanation of the process of positive change is highlighted by Tony Benn’s famous dictum: “It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

Of course, being in power is preferable to not being in power. Far more change is obviously possible when one is in control, when it can be planned, coordinated and sustained. Those attempting to force change from the outside do not have control of the process, the timing or the details. However, it is important not to underestimate the power of social movements and activism – the power of ‘ordinary’ people to create real, long-lasting change.

Indeed, with Donald Trump likely to be in the White House for the next four years it is essential this hopeful understanding of political change is widely understood and acted upon. The signs are promising: with Trump reviled and distrusted by a large section of the American public, it is likely there will be a much needed resurgence of progressive activism following the unjustified lull during the Obama Administration. Trump is dangerously unpredictable, so making predictions about his foreign policy is difficult, US dissident Noam Chomsky noted in a recent interview. However, he ended on a note of optimism: “What we can say is that popular mobilization and activism, properly organized and conducted, can make a large difference.”

Jeremy Corbyn and the peace movement

Jeremy Corbyn and the peace movement
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
October-November 2015

As the Guardian noted, Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide victory in the Labour leadership contest on 12 September contest was ‘one of the most stunning electoral upsets of postwar politics.’ Billed at 200/1 by bookmakers when he entered the race in June, the Islington North MP won 59 percent of the vote, giving him ‘the biggest party mandate for any political leader in UK political history’, according to the Guardian’s Chief Political Correspondent.

What makes Corbyn’s victory so extraordinary is he trounced the three other candidates despite the whole of the media and political establishment – including the Guardian, which backed Yvette Cooper MP – mobilizing in opposition to his growing popularity.

Importantly, many of Corbyn’s political positions and interests are closely aligned with Peace News and its readers. He has been a passionate supporter of nonviolent protest and nonviolent solutions to conflict. As a Vice-Chair of CND he opposes Trident nuclear weapons and NATO. Currently the Chair of Stop the War Coalition, he has opposed all Britain’s recent major wars – the Falklands, the 1991 Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq in 2003, Libya and Syria in 2013. A patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign he is a long-time critic of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. He has opposed the Government’s austerity programme that has been battering the poorest and most vulnerable members of society since 2010. He is a long-term supporter of anti-racism campaigns and the environmental movement – he opposes the expansion of Heathrow – and animal rights (he is a vegetarian).

It is likely that even in opposition a Corbyn-led Labour Party will open up space for many of these issues to be debated on the national stage – something peace activists will be able to take advantage of. Indeed, even before he was elected leader, Corbyn’s meteoric campaign was already influencing government policy, with the Guardian reporting that Prime Minister David Cameron would abandon plans to extend UK airstrikes to Syria if Corbyn was elected as leader.

Though many media commentators have dismissed Corbyn as a hard-left 1980s throwback who has no chance of winning a general election, some senior political figures are taking his rise more seriously. In an overlooked interview with the Huffington Post former Conservative Party Chancellor Ken Clarke warned: ‘Don’t underestimate Jeremy Corbyn… It’s not certain he will lose an election… If you have another recession or if the Conservative government becomes very unpopular, he could win.’ Likewise, the media onslaught against Corbyn itself strongly suggests significant sections of the establishment see him as a real threat to their interests.

This anti-Corbyn campaign will escalate sharply now he has been elected leader. Concerted opposition to Corbyn will not only come from the media and the Tories, but also from large numbers of Labour MPs who do not share Corbyn’s politics. And if Corbyn cannot be brought to heel by the British establishment, then it is likely international finance, multinational corporations and US-UK ‘defence’ interests keen to protect the so-called Special Relationship will work to undermine his leadership.

Considering this hostile political landscape, if Corbyn’s leadership is to achieve any significant progressive change it will require what former US presidential hopeful John Edwards called an ‘epic fight’ with the entrenched ruling class. It is therefore essential the movement the Corbyn leadership campaign has engendered – the Morning Star reported that 50,000 people attended his campaign events, with 16,000 volunteering – is massively expanded and activated to become the largest mass mobilisation in British history. Activist and Journalist Owen Jones has argued for a mass registration drive to reach the 33 percent of adults who didn’t vote in the last General Election to greatly expand the electorate.

Peace activists should mobilise in support of Corbyn for a number of reasons.

First, a mass grassroots movement is the best – arguably only – defence against the unrelenting attacks that will be made against Corybn.

Second, Corbyn’s leadership is opposed by large sections of the parliamentary Labour Party, some of which will likely try to overthrow him. Popular pressure on Labour MPs will reduce the space they have to operate and discourage any attempts to plot against Corbyn.

Third, a mass movement is essential to apply pressure on Corbyn’s leadership team itself – to make sure it implements the policies that Corbyn campaigned and won on. For example, during his campaign he seemed to backtrack on his previous calls for Britain to leave NATO. Likewise, in early September the Telegraph quoted Corbyn’s closest advisors as saying they planned to put the issue of Trident renewal on the “back-burner” to avoid a fatal split in the party.

Finally, a mass movement is needed to apply pressure to push Corbyn’s Labour Party to support more radical, necessary policies. On climate change Corbyn’s pledge to create one million new climate jobs is welcome (see PN 2584-2585). Less welcome was his announcement, reported by the Newcastle-based Chronicle, that he wanted to re-open coal mines to burn so-called clean coal (an idea derided by most environmentalists). More broadly the Green Party’s Rupert Read recently noted that a Corbyn-led Labour Party is still ‘an unreconstructed pro-growth party.’ This will need to change if the UK is going to play its part in combatting catastrophic climate change. Ideas popular among radical activists such as a Land Value Tax, Citizen’s Income and drug policy reform should all be raised during the policy debate that will happen under Corbyn’s leadership.

The writer Dan Hind and broad-based organizations including Compass, the Green Party and Open Democracy are also calling for Corbyn to support a Constitutional Convention that could consider reforming the UK’s archaic voting system (to introduce proportional representation?), the House of Lords and look at the future of the monarchy and further devolution. Corbyn himself will gain considerable strength if he makes alliances, including electoral alliances, with the SNP, Greens, Plaid Cmyru, NGOs and grassroots activists, coalescing around the Constitutional Convention and issues such as those mentioned above.

The size, power and tactical intelligence of this mass movement will likely be the deciding factor in whether Corbyn survives as leader, the extent to which he holds firm on his political positions, his Labour Party’s level of influence on British politics in opposition, and his chances of being elected as Prime Minister. As the US historian Howard Zinn wrote during the 2008 US Presidential Election ‘Even when there is a “better” candidate, that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore.’

Corbyn’s election as Labour leader is a huge opportunity for the peace movement. And a huge responsibility too. His leadership likely represents what Peace News’s Gabriel Carlyle calls ‘a special time in British politics: a brief window of opportunity’ – a short period of time when temporarily discombobulated power relations mean significant victories can be won. The establishment, of course, will try to shut down or curb Corbyn’s relatively radical agenda as quickly as possible. If they succeed they will do everything they can to make sure such a surge of democracy never happens again. These extraordinary times, then, could be the only chance to push for and win significant change for the foreseeable future. Is the peace movement up to the challenge?

Book review. Rebel Footprints: A Guide To Uncovering London’s Radical History by David Rosenberg

Book review. Rebel Footprints: A Guide To Uncovering London’s Radical History by David Rosenberg
by Ian Sinclair
Red Pepper
August-September 2015

Rebel Footprints is effectively two books woven into one. First, in response to the statues celebrating imperialist and ruling class men that dominate the streets of London David Rosenberg has written an exciting radical history of the capital. In addition, interspersed throughout the lively prose are delightful practical walking guides that the reader can use to explore the rousing accounts of resistance and rebellion Rosenberg has unearthed.

Focussing on the hundred year following the widespread disappointment of 1832’s so-called Great Reform Act, the book honours those who refused to accept the poverty-ridden, undemocratic status quo and who, as one newspaper said of Labour MP George Lansbury, were “impatient to put the world right.”

Refreshingly, Rosenberg balances familiar names, organisations and protests with lesser known history. Who knew that in response to the huge Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common in 1848 the Queen was evacuated to the Isle of Wight and 3,000 soldiers were sent to London? The dissidents of Clerkenwell and Bloomsbury gets a chapter each – but so does the relatively unknown socialist agitation in Battersea which led to the election of London’s first Black mayor and first Communist MP. Turning to the women’s vote, Rosenberg skirts past Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union to highlight the work of her pacifist, class-conscious daughter Sylvia and the East London Federation of Suffragettes.

Rosenberg is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide who is particularly good at showing the myriad of links between different campaigns. For example, as well as agitating for votes for women with the Women’s Freedom League, the vegetarian activist Charlotte Despard also set up a community centre, campaigning for socialist causes and Irish Home Rule.

“London remains a vibrant and rebellious city”, Rosenberg concludes, pointing to the Occupy camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral and “the uprisings” in Tottenham in the 1980s and 2011. With a Tory majority Government elected in May, Radical Footprints will hopefully inspire people to fight back against the next five years of austerity-driven class warfare.

Review: We Are Many documentary

Review: We Are Many. Directed by Amir Amirani
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 May 2015

Four stars

15 February 2003 “was the single largest mobilisation of people in the history of humanity – bar none”, notes US analyst Phyllis Bennis in We Are Many, Amir Amirani’s brilliant new documentary about the global anti-war movement against the Iraq War.

Beginning with the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Amirani uses tons of stirring archive news footage and original interviews with key figures like Tony Benn, Clare Short, Jesse Jackson and Noam Chomsky to tell the story of that momentous day. Around 30 million people marched in 789 major cities in over 72 countries across the world. A small rally even took place at the McMurdo research station in Antarctica.

With over a million people marching through London in the biggest protest in British history, in one sense the story will be familiar to many Morning Star readers. However, the film includes many important and interesting snippets of information.

US Air Force veteran Tim Goodrich blows apart the fiction that war was a last resort, noting that the US bombing of Iraq increased by over 500 percent in autumn 2002 “with the purpose of trying to goad Saddam Hussein into retaliating to give us a reason to go to war.” Elsewhere, Hans Blix, the Chief UN weapons inspector from 2000-3, amusingly explains the US and UK “were 100 percent sure that there were weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq though “they had zero percent of knowledge where they were.” And who knew Virgin boss Richard Branson had made an unsuccessful attempt to stop the war by flying Nelson Mandela to Baghdad on the eve of the invasion?

The film ends by exploring the long-lasting impact of 15 February 2003, including its role in shifting British public opinion so much that it made it impossible for the Coalition Government to go to war against Syria in August 2013. Amirani also tells the unknown story of how the global movement against the Iraq War inspired Egyptians to start protesting against President Hosni Mubarak. “That’s exactly when I was thinking, and others, that if we were triple that number, or four times that number, we could take down Mubarak”, notes one Egyptian activist about the 20 March 2003 protest that occurred in Tahrir Square against the war.

Writing in the New York Times, journalist Patrick Tyler commented that the global demonstrations were “reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” Taking its name from the last line of Shelley’s 1819 poem Mask of Anarchy, We Are Many is itself a moving and timely reminder of the power of activism and protest – the perfect antidote to the despair created by the new Tory majority government.