by Alex Callinicos
The past few days may have seen the balance of forces tilt decisively against Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Paradoxically, a significant section of the Western left seems to have tilted as decisively in their favour.
Take, for example, a widely circulated interview with Tariq Ali, where he claims that the struggle in Syria is part of “a new process of recolonisation”. Although I have great respect and affection for Tariq, I think this is nonsense.
Undoubtedly, the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 did lead to the country’s temporary recolonisation, under a “Coalition Provisional Authority” headed by a Washington-appointed neoconservative.
But the resistance to the occupation meant this project badly rebounded on its authors. The new regime created by US military power ultimately forced it to withdraw its forces from Iraq.
The idea that Syria is being “recolonised” implies that it is a long-standing Western priority to remove the Assad regime. But there is no evidence of this. Under Bashar’s father Hafez, the Syrian state established itself as a brutal but reliable capitalist manager.
Undoubtedly the outbreak of the Syrian revolution has encouraged the regime’s regional opponents to seize on the opportunity to replace it with something more congenial.
This is particularly true of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, whose Sunni Muslim rulers dislike the Assads’ roots in what they regard as the heretical Alawi sect and Syria’s alliance with Shia Iran.
There is plenty of evidence that the Gulf states have been supplying arms to some of the forces fighting the regime. And the West has stepped in to call for Assad’s removal.
But the chances that the US and Britain will follow this up by sending troops to Syria, or even providing air cover to the rebels as they did in Libya, are remote.
This is partly because they are scared of repeating the Iraq debacle. But it is also because of the support Russia is giving the Assad regime, its last ally in the Middle East.
Elsewhere in the interview Tariq says that the Syrian people want neither the Western-backed Syrian National Council nor the Assad regime. I think this is probably true, at least of the majority.
But where is this majority? There is considerable evidence that very large numbers of people are demonstrating against the regime, and sometimes fighting it, but don’t call for Western intervention.
In recent weeks the revolution has spread to the two biggest cities, Aleppo and Damascus. Rebel fighters have tried unsuccessfully to seize the centres of both cities.
Are Tariq and those who agree with him sure that these are all puppets of the US and the Gulf reactionaries? If so, they are being betrayed by their masters, since the regime's forces have been able to beat them back because they lack tanks and heavy weapons.
Nevertheless, the evidence is that the regime is now taking heavy casualties—and not just thanks to spectaculars such as last week’s bomb that took out several of Assad’s top cronies.
The fighting bears all the hallmarks of an improvised and desperate armed rising. We can argue over whether it was wise politically for the rebels to militarise their struggle so quickly. We may regret the absence of the independent working class action that has been so important in the Egyptian revolution.
But the way that its Syrian counterpart has so rapidly developed into a civil war doesn’t alter the fact that its roots lie in popular revolt.
One thing the Arab revolutions have revealed is that much of the left in the region is politically dead. The best evidence is provided by those elements in the Egyptian Communist Party who backed the military candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, in the recent presidential elections.
Those in the Western left who allow a reflexive and unthinking “anti-imperialism” to set them against the Syrian revolution are simply confessing their own bankruptcy.
[This article first appeared in Socialist Worker UK]
Tuesday, 24 July 2012
Sunday, 22 July 2012
On Saturday, activists from across the Waiariki electorate attended a hui at the Linton Park Community Centre in Rotorua, entitled “Another World is Possible”. At its peak, around 60 people from as far afield as Minginui and Opotiki attended to hear speakers from across the North Island, and Hone Harawira made the trip up. The conference was organised by the Mana Party branches in Tauranga and Rotorua. The key aim of the hui was to build up activists’ knowledge, and it was an opportunity for left activists who have been involved in Mana from the beginning to share their views with the wider Mana Movement.
To that end, one of the first speakers was Bernie Hornfeck, a long-time socialist who spoke on “the whakapapa of socialism,” and explained how oppression and inequality went hand-in-hand with class society, and that socialism is about returning to a society not divided by class.
Other speakers shared their experiences from struggles in Aotearoa today. Kawarau school-teacher and long-time socialist George Jones spoke about his experiences as an educator and updated us on the struggles facing teachers, who face increasing hurdles to become qualified. Pat O’Dea from Action Against Climate Change, outlined a plan to tackle global warming in manageable steps – starting with stopping coal exports. Other speakers included Roger Fowler (Kia Ora Gaza), John Minto , and Rick Mansell.
Noticeably absent however, was any significant korero on the struggle in the unions. Awareness of the role workers have in building movements for change still has to be raised, although with all the speakers (and most of the audience) involved in their unions this should fit right in to future hui. And there certainly will be more! Unanimous support was voiced at the end of the day to turn the hui into a regular event, and the white-board was filled with potential topics in less than a minute – so watch this space!
Thursday, 12 July 2012
Included in the cost-cutting measures the government announced in their May budget were measures designed to cut the cost of primary and secondary education – at the expense of teachers and students. Included in the budget were cuts to teacher numbers by way of “natural attrition”, “performance-based pay” for teachers and alterations to funding ratios that would have seen larger class sizes – especially in intermediate and middle schools where funding for technology subjects was to be seriously reduced.
The reaction from the education sector was swift and damning. Some schools, especially intermediate schools, stood to lose as many as seven teachers. Most public schools would lose at least one or two. Teachers’ unions from across the sector united along with principals’ and parents’ organisations in a series of sector-wide meetings to organise opposition to the assault on education. They succeeded in squeezing a concession from the government almost immediately. Only a two days after the budget was released, Education Minister Hekia Parata quickly back-tracked, claiming the government didn’t realise the extent of the damage the cuts would cause and announced measures to limit teacher losses to no more than two per school.
But simply limiting the losses wasn’t enough for teachers, whose jobs were still under threat. They stuck to their guns and threatened industrial action. Faced with an educators’ revolt and the threat of strike action, the government was forced to back down. On June 7 – barely two weeks after the budget – the government announced that it was abandoning its plans to increase teacher-student funding ratios.
Conceding on the issue of class sizes is a blow to the government and their big business backers because it shows up their weakness. The economic crisis has weakened them considerably but they don’t want to do the one thing that could actually solve the crisis – writing off the debt. Their only solution is more cutbacks, and when they’re met with staunch resistance – whether at the Ports of Auckland, AFFCO or in the schools – they can be forced to back down.
Market reforms in education
The government’s attempts to cut education spending are part of a set of pro-business ‘neoliberal’ policies that have a long history in the education sector. Neoliberal reforms in education began after the Labour Party was re-elected in 1987. Using the language of “parental and community involvement” and “improved learning opportunities”, the Lange government set about extracting what Treasury called “value and efficiency” from the education sector.
The wealthy businessman Brian Picot was appointed to chair a commission tasked with reviewing the management structures and the “cost-effectiveness” of the education system. Following the Picot commission’s report, subsequent governments restructured the education system. School zoning was softened and then abolished, a move which in practice allowed wealthiest schools to cherry-pick the highest achievers. Much of school management was ‘devolved’ to a Board of Trustees for each school, creating competition between schools and encouraging the movement of resources and experienced staff away from rural and low-decile schools.
More recent reforms have also emphasised the degree to which education is supposed to be preparation for entrance to the workforce. NCEA, while a welcome move away from the old system of norm-referenced testing, was introduced into schools in 2002 with an emphasis on how it would enable potential employers to asses a student’s capabilities. A new regime of testing primary school children against ‘National Standards’ in the core areas of reading, writing and arithmetic were introduced by the National government in 2010. Along with limiting the cost of education, this has been the real thrust of education reform, designed to a mass of young workers ready for an increasingly basic, low-wage economy. Gone are the experimental schools and exploratory learning of the 1960s and in is the “core curriculum”, individual excellence and more and more testing.
Teachers fight back
But none of this has occurred without resistance. Teachers are one of the best organised sections of the workforce and curriculum changes have added hours to their workload, while budget cuts have put pressure on their pay. The Post-Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) has led the way in fighting back. With the introduction of NCEA in 2002 and the increased workload it represented, the PPTA demanded a pay rise and NCEA allowance for teachers in 2001 negotiations for their collective agreement.
When they were rebuffed by the government, the PPTA initiated a series of one-day strikes that started a national movement. Stoppages occurred throughout 2002, teachers at several schools took their own initiative in embarking on unauthorised ‘wildcat’ strikes when it became clear that one-day, national actions were not enough. Dissatisfaction with the haphazard introduction of the new qualification led many students to join their teachers on the picket line and culminated in a series of high-school walkouts that spread like wildfires up and down the country. Such was the disruption that when the negotiations collapsed again in 2007, the very threat of strike action was enough to bring the government back to the table.
The PPTA struck again in 2010, seeking a 4 % pay increase, measures to increase teacher recruitment and – importantly – a maximum class size of 30. Thousands of teachers around the country rallied, engaging in a one-day strike followed by rolling stoppages. Foreshadowing the arguments to be used in the 2012 budget, the government cited studies purporting to prove that the relationship between teachers and their students not class size, was the determining factor in student success; and reprimanded teachers for seeking a pay rise greater than other public servants had been able to win.
While neither the 2002 nor the 2010 strikes were successful in obtaining all their aims, they did succeed in making a number of gains. They forced the government to grant a small NCEA allowance in 2002 when the government intended not to give one. Significantly, the PPTA also succeeded in driving government claw backs around class sizes from the table in 2010. Perhaps most importantly however, their combativeness has enabled teachers’ unions to maintain their organisation and cohesiveness during a period in which most of the union movement has been in decline. And it was this strength of teachers’ unions that was instrumental in defending class sizes after this years’ budget.
The fight doesn’t end with class sizes, however. The National government remains committed to cutting costs in education, saying that schools will have to find other ways to save money. National also remains committed to introducing “performance pay” – something teachers have long resisted. As anyone who has ever been subject to performance pay knows, it is a measure designed to increase workloads at the expense of job security. But teachers have signalled a willingness to fight – and as the victory over class sizes has shown, if they stick to their guns it’s possible to win.
[This article is from the latest issue of our magazine, Socialist Review]
Friday, 6 July 2012
John Key is engaging in a bout of populist moralising, describing killing whales as ‘abhorrent’ in response to South Korea’s indication that they may resume whaling. The hypocrisy is staggering - this same week National has announced further concessions to New Zealand’s dirty and polluting farming industry. If the concept of killing whales is ‘abhorrent’, what about farming practices that contribute to the loss of ecosystems that threaten endangered species in New Zealand? Since it is largely Pakeha capitalists in New Zealand that reap the profits farming they do not criticise.
Furthermore, Japan and now Korea at least have the courtesy to try and hide their commercial whaling operations behind the guise of ‘scientific research’. There are no damning condemnations from New Zealand of the two northern European countries, Norway and Iceland, who flaunt the international treaty and issue their own quotas for commercial whaling. It shouldn’t have to be said that these countries are populated almost entirely by white people – not Asians – so they don’t get as much criticism. Their European culture is not used as an excuse to demonise them.
While it is true that many species of whale are under threat and the population this does not mean however that killing and eating of whales is some kind of eternal sin. There are many indigenous peoples around the world that have to go begging for quotas to continue traditional hunting.
Matiu Rei, chairman of Te Ohu Kaimoana, which advocates for Maori fisheries rights, is quoted in the New Zealand Herald as saying "It is ironic that countries that have grossly exploited whales for uses other than food and utensils are now imposing their newly acquired 'values' on cultures that continue to suffer the effects and symptoms of colonial exploitation."
He goes on to say that indigenous peoples were reduced to "groups that must seek permission to continue these traditions - from those whose tastes have changed with the wind - [it] is quite simply degrading”.
Finally he identifies the International Whaling Commission itself as a tool of colonialism "This commission is already a tool for limiting indigenous traditions through its quotas. Please ... let them [indigenous peoples] continue to practice their traditions and exercise their customary rights."
It is clear to me John Key’s comment that the “concept of killing whales [is] abhorrent” is deeply racist. The politics of the anti-whaling campaigns in New Zealand - in particular Sea Shepherd’s recent ‘OperationWaltzing Matilda’ draw on long-standing anti-Japanese histories in Australasia.
[Sea Shepherd's Operation Waltzing Matilda made explicit appeals to the anti-Japanese traditions of Australian militarism]
Are socialists opposed to eating whale meat?
While this seems like a strange question at first but it is an important one. Humans have been hunting and killing whales all over the world for ages. There is nothing unnatural or abhorrent about it. The racist criticism of other cultures’ diets is common in New Zealand. Whether it is sensationalized media coverage of a Pacific Islander eating a dog, or Maori making a hangi, the John Keys of the world will find a way to hate it.
Whale meat is no different. Singling out Japanese and Korean culture as being disgusting for eating whale meat is just as racist as demonising Pacific cultures for eating dog meat or Maori culture for eating food ‘cooked in the ground’. Eating pigs, sheep, and cows – the mainstay of New Zealand agriculture – is not fundamentally different to eating dog, horse, or whale. The environmental questions of sustainability and endangered species are quite unconnected to the question of culture.
War of the Whales
There have been calls, including from within the Green Party, to use the Navy to stop Japanese whaling. This imperialist stance must be exposed for the nonsense it is. The New Zealand military has been involved in wars for resources for years, starting with stealing Maori land in the Land Wars between 1845 and 1872.
The support for wars in the Middle East over oil, and the sending of troops to Pacific countries - like propping up the Tongan monarchy - are the latest incarnation of its colonial and imperial legacy. The military has been used to gain and protect sources of cheap labour, forestry, minerals, and fisheries for New Zealand capitalists for the better part of two centuries. New Zealand (and Australian and American) capitalists have been competing with Japan over these resources in the South Pacific for a long time. In reality this was the cause of the military conflict over the Pacific in WWII.
Before WWII Japan and Germany had large whaling fleets, however they were hunting for oil not meat. This was because most of the world’s oil reserves were controlled by the United States, France, and England. It took Japan’s invasion of Manchuria and Germany’s control over Romania before whaling for oil became less important. These historic land grabs for oil are similar to the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Under capitalism whales are an economic resource like tuna, oil, beef, iron ore, or timber. These so-called resources are exploited for profit. Blue Fin Tuna are being hunted into extinction by New Zealand capitalists, but if another country threatened to send its Navy to stop it most people would be horrified. We must reject the calls for military intervention to ‘protect’ whales like we must reject military intervention to secure oil reserves (or Tuna fish).
How can we really save the whales?
Many species of whale are in decline, some are endangered, some are extinct. This is mainly because they have been over-hunted. However we must identify two types of whaling. There is the sustainable whaling, for food and tools, which has been carried out by indigenous peoples for centuries. We should have no problem with this even if it uses modern industrial methods like speed boats and harpoon guns.
However the type of whaling in dispute is ‘commercial whaling’ – the hunting of whales for profit. The thirst for oil capitalism has produced is why most of New Zealand’s whales were killed in the 1800s, for their blubber. It was used to heat homes and provide light etc. It was a highly profitable business. This is the reason why we should worry about Iceland’s, Norway’s, Japan’s, and now Korea’s whaling fleets. They aren’t out to hunt down meat, blubber, or bone – they are out to hunt down profits. They will hunt them into extinction for profits.
The worlds whale populations won’t be safe until we live in a society that puts the needs of people and the planet before profits. This struggle, the struggle for socialism, must be a world wide struggle against the capitalist system in all countries from Korea to New Zealand. It is the working class – not the military – which we must look too as the social force that can change society for the better. If we want to save the whales, or the rainforests, fisheries, and rivers we must strike down the capitalist system that has turned them all (and us) into commodities to be exploited for profit.
Tuesday, 3 July 2012
Egypt and the Arab Revolutions
Egypt’s recent election – and the defeat of the SCAF-backed counter-revolutionary candidate – marks a new stage in the Arab revolutions. Hossam El-Hamalawy in ‘Morsi, SCAF and the Revolutionary Left’ outlines the position of Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists, and responds to their critics. Workers’ revolts will play a crucial part in the coming months – Anne Alexander’s ‘The growing social soul of Egypt’s democratic revolution’ is useful background reading. Phil Marfleet’s ‘Under Pressure’ considers the role of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Struggle continues throughout the region. Jonathan Maunder tries to ‘understand the nature of the Assad regime in Syria, the social and economic roots of the uprising, and assess the prospects for a workers’ movement to emerge which can provide an alternative to the regime and imperialist intervention’ in his article ‘The Syrian Crucible’ in the latest International Socialism journal, while Simon Assaf’s ‘A region transformed’ provides an overview of the revolutionary process.
Japan’s anti-nuclear movement
Japan’s ruling class is experiencing a political crisis, with the governing Democratic Party just this week having split over the question of raising a GST-style tax. The decision to re-start Japan’s nuclear power plants has inspired the biggest protest movement in a generation. These photos from the Wall Street Journal give a sense of the movement’s size and passion. Piers Williamson in Japan Focus reports on the largest demonstrations in half a century, while ISO member Dougal McNeill has analysed the movement in Japan for Overland Literary Journal. Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Diary’ from Fukushima for the London Review of Books details activist efforts on the ground.
Two important articles for arming ourselves with arguments as National pushes charter schools, league tables and further attacks on public education: David A. Love’s ‘Profiteering and Union Busting Repackaged as School Reform’ rips up right-wing claims advanced in the United States (thanks to the PPTA twitter feed for that one!) and Giovanni Tiso’s ‘The Wedge’ critiques a recent Metro article promoting league tables and middle-class panic over public schools.
Be sure to bookmark Michael Roberts’ blog The Next Recession, a great source of sober Marxist economic analysis. Joseph Choonara and David McNally’s recent debate in the pages of International Socialism over the economics of the last few decades – and of their relevance for politics today – is essential reading for all activists, and repays careful study. Follow the debate here, here, and here.
Reproductive Rights and Sex Education
Dr Miriam Grossman’s recent bizarre claims on Close Up that oral sex causes cancer has put Family First’s reactionary and misogynist agenda back in the spot-light. For a very witty – and very thorough – take-down of the ‘family values’ hypocrites, see these posts at Ideologically Impure. ALRANZ – the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand – offers measured and reasoned commentary on reproductive rights in NZ, something you won’t find from Family First.