Friday, 29 June 2007

Peace camp in Parliament Square

Last week-end I toddled up to London to participate in a peace camp in Parliament Square. The camp lasted from noon Saturday until noon Thursday, straddling the death throes of the Blair administration and the early wailings of the Brown era (“The King is dead! Long live the… errrm. No, actually, down with the next king too!”)

The camp was entitled “War is still the issue". The aim was to ensure that our focus remains very much on the tragedy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan despite the change of administration. Blair/ Bliar has been the central bogeyman in UK protests against Iraq and we need to ensure that now he’s gone we don’t let his successor off the hook.

The camp was also designed to support Brian Haw who has camped outside Parliament Square for more than 2200 days. His protest is an ongoing inspiration to peace activists, a high profile reminder to thousands of passing tourists and a significant irritant for establishment politicians.

There has been substantial coverage of the camp on IMC UK (as well as some in the mainstream media). I want to highlight two significant things that came out of the camp for me.

Firstly the fact that there was very little police interference. The camp was illegal as it contravened SOCPA. In particular all protests within 1km of Parliament Square require permission from the police – this permission was never sought by the campers. (The one possible exception to this is Brian Haw’s support camp. The legal battles continue but, because his camp predates SOCPA, he has been able to successfully argue that he is exempt from its provisions).

I for one fully expected the police to come and clear the camp way very quickly – they have been very heavy handed about enforcing SOCPA to this point. This did not happen and it suggests a sea change in the thinking of the police and the government. Indeed a recent article from The Times suggests that SOCPA may soon be repealed – a significant victory for freedom of speech.

Incidentally at one stage the police released a statement in which they stated that, as far as they were aware, permission had been sought for the camp. Don’t believe a word of it!

The second significant thing for me came out of a discussion amongst participants in the peace camp around the notion of “loving your enemies”. As I mentioned above the anti-war movement has (rightly) targeted Tony Blair as being personally responsible for the atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan. My feeling is however that the structure of mainstream politics in this country is such that any prime minister would have made decisions within parameters that are utterly unacceptable. Perhaps a different prime minister would not have gone to war against Iraq but it is almost certain that any other prime minister would have continued the policy of sanctions and would have reserved the right to use military force to defend the elite’s economic interests.

So my gripe is with the system and culture of mainstream British politics and this is something on which I want to remain very focussed. I do not want to be distracted by personality politics (a constant preoccupation of the mainstream media) when there are much deeper issues to consider.

Thinking around this also caused me to reflect on my fundamental opposition to the two wars, in particular to the war on Iraq. There have been many arguments put against the war – people have pointed out that it is illegal due to the lack of a Security Council resolution, that Blair et al lied to the parliament and the people on a number of significant issues, that strategic planning for war was ill conceived etc etc. I suppose those opposing the war are well advised to put across all the arguments at their disposal. Nonetheless were none of the above true I would still oppose the war!

My objection to the war on Iraq (and the war on Afghanistan) is on moral and humanist grounds – I believe that we have no right to kill people for pretty much any reason whatsoever. I don’t believe in dropping exploding lumps of metal from the sky.

Perhaps it is conceivable that a people may be so dreadfully oppressed they feel compelled to take matters into their own hands (and in this case who am I to condemn?) but this is clearly not the situation of the UK government. For them the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan have been, from the start, wars of aggression. And they are wars which continue to destroy lives with every passing day. We must oppose them in every way we can.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Victory: Reed-Elsevier gives in

The Morning Star published a version of this article a couple of weeks ago. It describes the successful campaign against publishing house Reed-Elsevier's involvement in the arms trade.

In March this paper ran a story about the publishing house Reed Elsevier and its connection to the arms trade. Reed is one of the biggest publishing groups in the world, publishing over two thousand scientific, medical, and educational journals. They also have a history of organising some of the biggest arms fairs in the world, including the biennial DSEi arms fair in London, Shot Show in America and a number of others.

Reed has come under heavy attack from academics, authors, scientists and doctors who make use of the journals which Reed publishes, but who disapprove strongly of Reed’s involvement in the arms trade. It has taken some time but that disapproval has finally registered: On Friday Reed announced that they were withdrawing from the arms trade. Sir Crispin Davis, Reed CEO, said:

“[I]t has become increasingly clear that growing numbers of important customers and authors have very real concerns about our involvement in the defence exhibitions business. We have listened closely to these concerns and this has led us to conclude that the defence shows are no longer compatible with Reed Elsevier's position as a leading publisher of scientific, medical, legal and business content."

Reed’s announcement has been warmly received by the academic and medical community. In an email to The Scientist magazine, Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians said "This will safeguard the reputation of the Reed Elsevier publication The Lancet and no longer undermine its role in improving health and healthcare worldwide."

The group Campaign Against the Arms Trade which coordinated the campaign against Reed said that they “welcome the decision and applaud the board of Reed Elsevier for recognising the concerns of its stakeholders.”

The financial sector has been less delighted: Reed’s announcement halted a week-long surge in their share price. It is unlikely that this decline will last long however. Arms fairs represent just 0.5% of Reed’s turnover, as compared to medical and science publishing which is around 14%. It is precisely this arrangement which had given campaigners a sense that they could win the day.

From the start the strategy of the campaign was to use Reed’s primary dependency on the scientific and medical communities as a source of leverage on the issue of arms fairs. The aim was to convince Reed that they were in danger of alienating their primary market unless they withdrew from the arms industry.

In other words the campaign succeeded because it managed to effectively link ethics with economics. Reed stood unrepentant at repeated scandals regarding cluster bombs and torture equipment being promoted at their shows; they brushed off accusations that invitees to their shows included some of the most repressive regimes in the world (most recently it emerged that the defence minister of Sudan, the representative of a regime accuse of genocide in Darfur, was invited to the Reed organised Idex fair in February); but if Reed were unmoved by these revelations, their customers were not.

Indeed, with every scandal, the level of condemnation grew. A series of scathing editorials were written by major medical journals including “The Lancet” (which is Reed published). Letters were written by prominent authors, academics, scientists and physicians to journals and to national newspapers. An online petition attracted more than 1900 signatories from the scientific and medical communities; a smaller number also pledged to exercise a publication boycott of all Reed journals. A regular weekly vigil was maintained at Reed’s London offices to ensure the issue remained prominent in the minds of Reed employees.

All of these actions reinforced Reed’s fear that they were alienating their own market. The result is that, despite Crispin Davis stating that the Reed arms exhibitions are “a high quality business, with strong management and good growth”, Reed will withdraw from a business that last year turned over more than £20 million.

Unfortunately it is not all good news. Reed’s decision to withdraw is very unlikely to affect their organisation of this year’s DSEi arms fair in London in September. This will be one of the biggest arms fairs in the world and, if past DSEi’s are anything to go by, will play host to human rights abusers of the very worst kind. As in past years DSEi 2007 will be targeted by protestors seeking to disrupt this vital link in the industry of war.

Additionally there must be concern as to exactly how Reed are to effect their withdrawal from this industry. Were their decision an ethical one, Reed would be honour bound to close down their arms fair business for good. Presumably though their profit motive will ensure that they simply sell the business to the highest bidder.

Should this turn out to be the case, that bidder will have to contend with opposition which has tasted victory once, and which has great hope that it can win again.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Kebele, Compassion, Community, Revolution

I just published this on the Bristol IndyMedia newswire.

Two recent discussions on this newswire have got me to thinking. The first was in response to an (overpriced) lecture on “happiness” which readers tended to think was expensive middle-class wankery; the second was in response to a promotion of Kebele’s chess club which readers tended to think was an indication of Kebele’s hard core going soft.

Clearly there is a lot of concern when people are seen to be “taking their eye off the ball” and indulging themselves. In the face of a relentlessly oppressive social system we must not lose any opportunity to work for revolution…

Fair enough, but clearly there are times when we should take a step back from non-stop action and campaigning in order to consider some of the implications of what we are trying to do. So, in no particular order, here are some of my recent thoughts:

1. One of the things I like about Kebele is that when I’m there I don’t feel guilty if I’m not doing anything. There is time and space there to enjoy myself with friends, without feeling obliged to join in every damn campaign. I don’t always have the head space for campaigning and it's good to meet activists who are happy just to hang out with no purpose but good company. The cultivation of good relationships is as vital to the revolution as any demonstration.

Criticism of people just hanging out in Kebele reminds me of George Orwell's characterisation of some of his Socialist comrades: "Sometimes I look at a Socialist... and wonder what the devil his motive really is. It is often difficult to believe that it is a love of anybody... [but rather] a hypertrophied sense of order. The present state of affairs offends them not because it causes misery... but because it is untidy." (p156, The Road to Wigan Pier)

If the world we're struggling for doesn't have time for a game of chess then I want no part of it. More power the chess club!

2. I recently read David Edwards’ “The Compassionate Revolution”. His preoccupation is with the generation of compassion. Edwards asserts that compassion is the phenomenon which drives a commitment to radical politics (when it's not a hypertrophied sense of order); more controversially though he suggests that compassion is a phenomenon which requires deliberate cultivation. People don’t just feel compassion out of the blue, instead it grows in them with nurturing. The absence of compassion often leaves people baffled and indifferent to the cries of the oppressed and to the arguments of those campaigners who would advocate for the oppressed.

I find this idea really interesting – and clearly it is an idea which activists should take some time to understand. As Bob Dylan said “How many ears must one man have, before he can hear people cry?” Well, perhaps the answer is more than two! We won’t convert people to our cause, we won’t persuade people to care about the poor and oppressed, if the seeds of compassion are not already inside them.

It is Edwards’ contention that Buddhism provides one key to unlocking this door of indifference. As a creed one of its defining characteristics is a commitment to the cultivation of compassion; the Buddhist canon contains a wealth of reflection, of discussion and of practical technique to enable this process to take place in the heart of the practitioner.

I suspect a fair number of people reading may instinctively recoil at the idea that religion can provide a source of insight into the revolutionary program. That recoil is a fine protective mechanism but don’t let it obscure the main issue! Clearly there is a question here which we need to answer, whether we turn to Buddhism or not. In seeking the source of compassion (as we must) it seems clear that we must examine concepts of community, spirituality, human relationships, beauty, art, happiness...

3. I’m half way though Paulo Freire’s “Cultural Action for Freedom” (borrowed from Kebele’s splendid library). Everything I’ve ever read by Freire has inspired me and this is no exception.

Freire is a Brazilian educator who worked for many years on the issue of adult literacy in the Bravilian favelas. Like Edwards, Freire is concerned with how the structure of a society is connected to the experience of the humans within it; in particular how the educational process affects that connection.

Freire’s “fundamental thesis is that there is no such thing as a neutral education. Education is either for domestication or for freedom.” His philosophy is that “man’s vocation [is] to be more – more, that is, that what he is at any given time or place.” (Both quotes are from Joao de Veiga Coutinho’s introduction; apologies for the patriarchal language.)

Freire denounces the existing social system (especially the educational system) as one of conditioning and domestication, designed to keep the masses in check. Anyone familiar with Chomsky’s propaganda model of the media will have no trouble in understanding exactly what he means. The counter to this domestication is an educational process which opens the participants’ eyes to the conditioning which they are experiencing. This process is a distinctively human one:

“… man, essentially a conditional being, is also essentially a being capable of knowing what conditions him… the key to “perception of perception” and hence to the recuperation of hidden or mystified reality, is problematization. Problematization… means both asking questions and calling into question and is therefore a challenging attitude.”(p9)

Clearly, in order for social change to take place, the humans within the society need to be awakened, to be challenged. Or, in Freire’s words, participants in change need to be “de-conditioned” before they can “be more”. This deconditioning is a process that happens in human gatherings that are open to a new way of being. Perhaps this new way is what we mean when we talk about community.

Just as Edwards connects compassion with revolution, so Freire connects education and community with revolution:

“the literacy process must relate speaking the word to transforming reality, and to man’s role in this transformation.” (p31)

4. Let’s problematize The Broadmead! Perhaps one practical way to engage with these notions is to consider the place of The Broadmead shopping centre in the average Bristolian’s experience. For me it looms large as a festering pustule draining the life out of our community. But this is clearly not how the average Saturday shopper sees it.

At the recent Kebele Info night on the oppression in Oaxaca I was struck by the call for communities to resist the invasion of power. The Broadmead is a clear manifestation of this invasion as corporate monoliths steal space from the heart of our community.

How can we challenge this theft? People are conditioned into thinking that mass consumption is the path to a happier life, how can we speak the word so that deconditioning can take place? How can we generate such compassion for the child labourer that people’s blind greed for cheap produce will be overpowered? I saw some graffiti on the side of the Broadmead a while ago, “Build community, not capitalism”; so then, let’s do it!

Friday, 1 June 2007

Arms trade developments

There have been two recent developments in the arms trade that will be of interest. The first is a stunning piece of good news. The publishing giant Reed Elsevier has recently received a huge amount of scathing criticism in relation to its continued participation in the arms trade.

But the tide has turned: In a communication released today from Sir Crispin Davis, Reed-Elsevier CEO, has announced Reed Elsevier’s withdrawal from the defence industry (sic). Here is the relevant paragraph:

Over the last year or so it has become increasingly clear that growing numbers of important customers and authors, particularly in the science and medical markets, have very real concerns with our involvement in this sector. They believe strongly that our presence here is incompatible with the aims of the science and medical communities. I am also very aware this is a view shared by a number of our employees. We have listened closely to these concerns and we have concluded that the long term interests of Reed Elsevier as a leading publisher of science, medical, legal and business content would be best served by withdrawing from defence exhibitions. We intend to complete the withdrawal during the second half of 2007.

Brilliant news! The final sentence suggests that Reed will continue with its organisation of this year’s DSEi arms fair in London, but nonetheless this is a significant and very welcome development.

The second development was the recent appearance of an article on the BBC website discussing Tony Blair’s current visit to South Africa. Apparently the last time Blair was in South Africa was in 1999, when he visited twice. The article suggests that the primary reason for those two visits was to help “a leading British arms supplier” (BAe Systems) to win a multi-million dollar arms contract; a contract that was signed that same year.

This contract has since become mired in controversy – with allegations of corruption at very high levels. Indeed the article states that “it has been reported that the UK's Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has asked its South African counterpart, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), to help it track down more than $139m in "commissions", allegedly paid by BAE to eight South African businesses and a political adviser.”

Now as you are probably aware the Serious Fraud Office has had quite a lot to do with BAe Systems recently – primarily focussing on a massive contract that the Saudi government signed with them.

Quite apart from the fact that it produces weapons designed to murder human beings, BAe Systems is once again exposed as being utterly corrupt. As for the prime minister the BBC has this to say: “While there is no suggestion that the prime minister knew of or participated in any wrongdoing, his role in supporting the BAE bid has never been fully explained.”

Let me be the first to make the suggestion! There is no possible way that the prime minister could have supported this bid and been ignorant of BAe’s standard mode of operation. Corruption at BAe is a matter of historical record. The payment of “commissions” has been standard practice for as long as BAe Systems has been in existence. Once again the mainstream press are letting Blair off far too lightly. Once again he has blood on his hands.