Motion proposed to —insert Branch— Labour Party on agricultural policy:
This Branch notes that the EU’s common agricultural policy, a farm subsidy system that spends £44 billion a year, has promoted environmental destruction across Europe. Because payments are made for any land that is in ‘agricultural condition’, there is an incentive to clear wildlife habitats even in places that are unsuitable for farming. Because the more land you have, the more public subsidy you get, this system subsidises wealthy large landowners, even if they do not live in the EU. This has encouraged a form of benefit tourism by the international super-rich.
This branch/CLP notes the lack of an agricultural policy in the 2017 Labour Manifesto. The government proposes that after Brexit, farmers in the UK should be paid for protecting wildlife and ecosystems, including soil and water quality, rather than just for owning land, which would be some improvement on the present system, but this still is using subsidy as a substitute for regulation, paying out public money without achieving public ownership or any other form of democratic control of land.
The Branch calls for the development by the Labour Party of a coherent agricultural policy based on some basic principles:
Peter Fleming is professor of business studies at City University, London. His 2017 book, The Death of Homo Economicus, is full of stories of people destroyed, hurt, or marginalised by the current ‘corporate hellscape’ of vulture capitalism and the ‘wreckage economics’ that he describes with the metaphor of the destructive backwash that followed inevitably from the devastation of the 2007-8 economic tsunami. Homo Economicus is the mythical creature, the illegitimate offspring of Adam Smith, rationally making choices in a market that needs and tolerates little or no intervention from the state, a creature whose false foundations shattered when financial markets around the world had to rescued from impending collapse by state intervention.
Fleming illustrates the death-giving power of an already-dead extractive capitalism with the grim story of the suicide in 2013 of Aaron Schwarz. Schwarz was a US computer genius hounded by the hybrid power of big business and the state – a hybrid that in itself contradicts the myth – after he attempted to liberate to academic readers the knowledge that they had been forced to surrender as writers to corporate publishers and which they could only then access again by paying huge fees. This corporate extortion in collusion with the state betrays the promises that IT once made to liberate knowledge from the clutches of ownership, contrary to Paul Mason’s idea that technology can deliver freedom from work and production with zero marginal costs, and thus free us from domination by wealth. Instead we have the ironically named ‘sharing economy’ in which extraction thrives on desperation, collective bargaining is fettered, student debt and housing debt engender a new peonage, and millionaires are made through owning online prostitution sites, where there is no regulation and the consumer is king. Such sites are just one example of work extending into everyday life.
Characteristic of this ‘new Dark Age’ are investor vandalism (Carillion), debt financing, state engineered profiteering through corrupt underpricing of public assets for sale, as with Royal Mail, and the feeding frenzy of tax avoidance summed up neatly by the fact that 80% of global trade consists of transfer pricing, that is, corporations trading with themselves via subsidiaries and shell companies in a different tax zone. Innovation stumbles due to lack of investment in research and development, and workers focus on metrics rather than their tasks, as in the colonisation of universities by a business analogy; where, as in the NHS, the mythology of the customer is used to undermine public service, so that failings are blamed not on underfunding and excessive workload, but on individuals or understaffed institutions. Public institutions, from transport systems, to housing, health care systems, schools and universities, have been systematically financialised, whilst the concept of public service has been vilified.
Fleming equates the death of the mythic Homo Economicus – a persona the 1% never identified with themselves – with real deaths – those who die shortly after the DWP has declared that they are fit for work, suicides attributable to overwhelming student debt, the murderous revenge of people made redundant. Fleming mobilises Engel’s concept of social murder when the system of domination, the transformation of instrumental means, such as money, prices and the quantification of social behaviour, into ideological ends leads to early and preventable deaths; he wrote the book before the Grenfell fire provided such a harrowing and clear example of mass social murder. He cites David Graeber in condemning as inherently stupid the extra layers of bureaucracy required to police an increasingly unequal society, which stems from their deriving from state power that monopolises violence, a stupidity that can brazenly avoid interpretive labour in its dealings with the powerless and push that labour onto the victims; however, for Fleming, this does not go far enough in describing the institutionalised sadism that is being encouraged, taught, and measured – in the DWP for example – where the aim is not just to erase the subjectivity of the victim, but to occupy it.
Work is a cultural and ideological artefact, pushed to an individualistic limit where employed or unemployed are made to see themselves as a ‘Company of One’ (Carrie Lane, 2011) subscribing wholeheartedly to the system that has crushed them, seeking an alibi in pointless and demeaning work that in itself signifies waste, facilitated by state-sponsored over-employment. Fleming evokes the Auschwitz gate slogan Albeit Macht Frei for this militarised workforce in which Weber’s Protestant aim of divine redemption through work has been replaced by a huge absence, by a victimhood that both the dominators and the dominated can see as manufactured, that is, by sadism. Neoliberal economics, for Fleming, is a fascism of money, that he describes as ‘the unreal reality that emerges when economic theology tries to make its madness real’, when labour is considered simultaneously as essential and as superfluous, so that the capitalist aim is always to get something for nothing, to be independent of labour but to have it always on tap, with zero reproductive costs. Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct warehouse regime in Bolsover is one such (EU-funded) death camp. He reminds us that work does not exist in subsistence economies, it emerges as the state emerges, needing the latter to make people produce a surplus. To work is already to overwork.
Underpinning the individualisation of work is Human Capital Theory, the idea that a person is the carrier and developer of skills, knowledge, education and attributes that are their property from which they cannot be separated – the neoliberal argument for people investing in their own education and training, leading on to lifelong insecure self-employment, even if it then has to be subsidised by the state. This regime is in fact a form of divestment, with severe diminutions in the supply of talent, no career development paths, boredom and a new authoritarianism and gender-based workforce abuse, as laid bare at Shirebrook or in Amazon warehouses, but characteristic increasingly of workplaces everywhere.
Steven Slater in 2010 was an airline cabin crew member who exploded with rage when hit by luggage let fall by impatient and argumentative passengers, activated the emergency chute system and fled the scene. This story Fleming uses to typify the effects of an inclusive form of capitalism in which the economy is both more than us and part of our personalities and relationships, leading to self-harming behaviours and often a violent and drastic snapping. The depression and quietude that comes from being trapped by an all-encompassing ideology is interrupted because the current system insists on workers being aware of their own futility, making an empty ‘outside’ part of the totalisation, inculcating exit fantasies (moving to France is cited as one such, which I myself indulged in) that may involve doing something really desperate. As in the battered spouse syndrome, people become more and more dependent on, and even attracted to, institutions that inflict pain. As Deleuze observed, domination alienates people from their potential to act and do beautiful things, negative power separating us from our potential; Agamben sees further that it can also separate us from what we can not do, from our capacity to refuse, and this constitutes a further pressure to seek a means of escape. In the absence of collective strength, this escape turns us into a hunted quarry, the totally individualised subject of surveillance by the state and the police. Providing sanctuary for such escapees is the basis for a political community to emerge. Fleming makes an important parallel of such resistance with the recessional resistance, the withdrawal, of the natural world all around us…we experience in our minds and bodies qualities that can be identified in dying ecosystems. ‘Isn’t mimesis the basic code of life?’ Fleming asks, echoing my own conclusions about the relationship between people’s self-damaging health behaviours and their experiences of domination after three decades of working as an inner-city GP.
For Fleming the means/ends inversion that has always been a feature of capitalism is now deeply institutionalised. He writes that his own academic specialty – ‘economics’ – has the same vacuity at its heart. Fleming espouses a deep pessimism, but attempts to find the basis for a countervailing “optimism of the will” so that the book ends on a note of exhortation. ‘The growing winter of a wasted world, a vapid monoculture of nothingness, is encircling us as we speak, and it’s time to leave. That ticket isn’t going to be served on a paper plate. For the future to begin again and history to be made, one has to be correctly poised. Be ready. And therein lies the most important question: will we ever be worthy of that history, still yet to come, but certainly demanding a response from us very soon.’
After so many examples of victimisation, of the damage to more or less all of us, inflicted in the name of domination and the supposed necessity of accumulation this call to be worthy, which pointed by Fleming in the direction of solidarity and of providing sanctuary to our fellow victims, signals a cruel contradiction. How can we be ready or be worthy, be healthy or collectively strong, when we have already been so cruelly and damagingly subtracted from? When self-damaging behaviours and escape fantasies are so ingrained? Isn’t mimesis the basic code of life?
Those of us who are relatively undamaged have a heavy responsibility, which must be a political movement, a Mont Pelerin Society pushing in an entirely opposite direction, away from the market, away from commodities, away from production and exchange, and towards the cultural elevation of nurture, of basic social reproduction of our species and the environment of which it is a part – here mimesis of our childhood nurture, with the exception of the victims of child abuse (and the victims of so-called Public schools) makes us not into Homo Economicus but into carers. Whilst accepting the myriad forms of individuals’ experiences of abuse, and the many modes of domination that its victims experience, whether raw present or recent violence, or the traces of history that generate social class and other domination hierarchies – of nationality, citizenship, race, gender, and sexuality, we can strive to grasp the essential unity of negative power and its effects on the health of individuals, of communities, and of the environment, its negative effects on our own ecosystem. This involves articulating the mimetic potentiality of domination, that creates the link between the personal and the political – the relation of rape to gender, for example; articulating its clear distinction from positive modes of power, nurture and education, caring for the damaged and disabled, the culture of ourselves and of our environment – that is, attempts that aim for a positive effect upon the capacity of other beings and things to exist and to develop freely.
We make judgements all the time about our own behaviour but if we remain well enough we can condemn certain actions, regret them and avoid them without condemning ourselves, and our judgements about others should show the same tolerance, even of the 1% who are addicted to the crazy accumulation which has to be stopped if our societies are to survive. “Justice for Grenfell” does not mean locking up the perpetrators, as some of the marchers at the anniversary of the fire were demanding, but it means ending the control of housing provision by negative power. The habit of stigmatisation of victims must mutate into stigmatising the activities of the perpetrators; this means identifying, vilifying and suppressing (insofar as it is possible) all modes of domination; it means creating a society in which the positive power of nurture and community exemplified by the solidarity in adversity and loss displayed after that mass social murder in the Grenfell fire is generalised and multiplied. This involves placing social reproduction, on which capitalism and the market have always been parasites, on an ideological and practical footing above the production and exchange of commodities, that is, the end of survival – (Spinosa’s conatus) above the means of money and accumulation. We need an internationalism not of workers alone, but of all the nurturing, the educating, and the caring, and their advocacy for the stigmatised, the disabled, and the weak. We have to try to celebrate as resistance all resistances even when they are self-harming, show solidarity, provide sanctuary, and bring those resistances back into the fold of a collective and more effective resistance.
We cannot hope for a society free from violence, but we must before it is too late try to make one in which violence and bullying – negative power in all its forms – are identified and stigmatised, which means, amongst many challenges in the many fields of entrenched injustices, finding ways to make wealth worthless and borders meaningless. In terms of the ‘housing crisis’ this does not mean necessarily that we need to confiscate land and property, we just need to make the rights of occupiers and users of property greater than the rights of owners, then the owners would no longer want their surplus property that could no longer be used for extraction; for economic capital some parallel process could make funds available for all projects that were creating a public service and demonstrably not exploiting people – both at home and abroad; a global period of massive hyperinflation might result and shrink all those piles of accumulated claims upon future society, that hopefully the owners would no longer really want, down to a manageable size. A project of reparation for Africa and for all the other zones of abjection that we have created around the world, at the same time as we turn to really caring for and helping the sick and the disabled and the homeless, as well as cosseting the environment back into a stable sustainable state would certainly provide plenty of real work for the foreseeable future however much technology is brought to bear.
A healthy society is a materially equal society, in which having no power to control other people is positively celebrated and jealously guarded. For such a pre-Neolithic, pre-surplus social structure to work in complex and crowded societies we do need to embrace technology and we need to acknowledge that it, and the knowledge that it represents and bears, belongs to everybody. If all of us have a little property, we cannot be allowed to use it for purposes of domination without risking stigmatisation and sanction. This requires clarity, mass agreement and enforcement through the power of collective strength, not about what is morally right or wrong, not about our own or others rights, but broadly about what contributes to human and environmental flourishing and what, on the other hand, constrains and destroys it.
Before going on the recent delegation of the Greece Solidarity Campaign to Athens, the old Communard had tended to make a negative judgement about the capitulation of the majority sections of SYRIZA around Alexis Tsipras in 2015 to the demands of the Troika. Obviously this was a moment of triumph for the neoliberal hegemony institutionalised in the EU, but I now see that I was in effect blaming the victim as to the outcome of a grossly unequal struggle in which the international integrity of finance capital was pitted against the clearly expressed democratic mandate of a few million Greeks. It really was no contest. Victim-blaming is a neoliberal reflex, and I had succumbed to it.
Partly this change of view occurred because of hearing poor defences of their positions from the representatives whom we met from Left organisations that had dissented from the capitulation. Petros Konstantinos, the co-ordinator of the anti-fascist organisation KEERFA, explained something of the history and continuing strength of the left in Greece, related to the legacy of the struggles against the Nazi occupation and the 1967-1974 military dictatorship; but this emphasis, whilst it fitted with his involvement in the necessary struggle against Golden Dawn, did not seem to me to register the overwhelming domination of capital at a global level, the capacity of the beneficiaries of the neoliberal order to simply disregard elected governments and democratic mandates through their ‘ownership’ of the world as ‘it presents itself to us as a great pile of commodities’. Likewise Panagiotis Lafazanis, leader of Popular Unity, failed to say what should have been done differently during the years of opposition and at the height of the Greek government debt crisis, whilst they were still in SYRIZA, to forestall the capitulation, as if he were locked in to the mode of declamatory opposition.
It is not possible to know how many have died, or gone through terrible deprivations, or emigrated from Greece as a result of that ferocious application of austerity, much worse than the Tories have yet been able to achieve in the UK, but which Wolfgang Schäuble thought was necessary medicine for what Chancellor Merkel dubbed the “lazy Greeks”. To oppose and counter this suffering, SYRIZA in opposition was at least partly successful in creating a system of social solidarity, funded in part from the salaries of their own MPs, which sought to mitigate the suffering of the poor, co-ordinating the activity of thousands of volunteers. The crisis had meant that millions of Greeks were suddenly without access to health care as well as social security, facing destitution unless they could rely for food and shelter on members of their family who still had any income; it was in this situation that the clinics such as the one where we met Georgia Koumparouli in Peristeri, a northern suburb of Athens, were set up by ordinary people, mostly women, using their organising skills to co-ordinate a volunteer workforce to provide medical care, dental care and access to drugs. Georgia described proudly how she and her colleagues had been able to benefit the whole community with their administrative skills, actively replacing labour as a commodity with labour as commitment.
The inspiring women at the Solidarity for All offices who gathered to tell us about their work at different similar centres expressed a determination to carry on working in that environment, where decisions were taken collectively at regular meetings and where the results of their work were attested not only through peoples’ survival through times of great hardship, but through their participation in the practice of mutual aid, a system of distribution totally foreign to the market and to capitalism.
As the two ministers we met, Efi Achtsioglou and Theano Fotiou, explained to us when we met them in the Greek parliament building, despite the limitations under which they operate under the terms of the Memoranda with the Troika, the SYRIZA government re-elected in late 2015 has succeeded in setting up a system of access of the very poorest sections of society to health care and minimal social security. This has meant that the focus of the Solidarity Clinics work had changed to being about access to pharmaceuticals for those who could still not afford them, and increasingly towards work with refugees. Much needed and laudable reform, though it was far from complete or even adequate to the needs the mass of the unemployed, the partially employed or the disabled, has in this context been destructive of the practice of solidarity.
Solidarity, according to Wikipedia, is “unity (as of a group or class) which produces or is based on unities of interests, objectives, standards, and sympathies. It refers to the ties in a society that bind people together as one.” On the other hand, “Charitable giving is the act of giving money, goods or time to the unfortunate…”. Thus, where there is gross institutionalised inequality, such as in the situation of citizens trying to help refugee non-citizens, solidarity becomes less possible and to carry on with the same activity becomes imbued or overcome by charity, and loses its political momentum.
Workers in struggle have to rely on solidarity to improve or maintain their pay and conditions, but after a strike or industrial action has been won or lost, the solidarity falls away, though it remains dormant in class consciousness and identity. A burning anger also persists, which is easy to redirect towards proxy targets, through stigmatisation and victim-blaming. Solidarity retreats to its ineradicable base in the domestic sphere, the sphere of reproduction as opposed to that of production, where commodification has hitherto gained little traction. But to see solidarity as a gendered practice is a mistake – in a healthier society all of us, men, women and all genders in between would provide and benefit from solidarity work, which should be the basic paid employment of all. Then production of commodities and trade, much more susceptible to automation, would move to the periphery of the real economy.
For the moment, it is possible to build island structures of solidarity in one group or another, but in a sea of neoliberalism this demands extra effort and extra sacrifice, with constant tension at the boundaries, and these islands remain vulnerable to damage from failure, or, as I learned from the Greek Solidarity Clinics, from their goals being won and taken back from popular to institutional control. Solidarity practices foster a totally different kind of ownership, and it is how to keep them alive through good times and bad, to enable them to hold on and to spread, and thus to challenge the old kind of ownership, that we need to study and to develop. Here SYRIZA, if far ahead a few years ago from where we are on the left in the UK, seems to have fallen down, through a focus on achieving and holding on to state power, and losing sight of maintaining and fostering the power that comes from collective activity and responsibility, that is, from solidarity ownership. Yet an important legacy remains, and it was a privilege to meet some of the people who are agents and keepers of that legacy in its continuing struggle in Athens.
Private ‘property’: two opposed meanings in relation to housing:
Even Communards feel angry when they find that someone in the household has been wearing their clothes, or sleeping in their bed, feeling a ripple of the possessive rage of children about which toys are theirs. We all need some things that are definitely our own. This ’property’ is quite a different sense from that which is used in the phrase ‘property developer.’
Every person needs to have a home as a basic requirement for a healthy life, as acknowledged in the title of Labour 2017 election manifesto’s Housing section – “Secure Homes for All.” We need secure shelter for the changing group of people we belong to that chooses to live together or that we are born into, and within that space we need flexible zones that we both make our own and share. This ‘home’ is a sense of ‘property’ that is simply achieved by the secure occupation of a sufficient space. We do not need to fully own it as property in the second sense, and we can love and enjoy it even when we know that others have more.
Anna Minton is a journalist who has written a clear and readable account in her book, ‘Big Capital’ (Penguin, 2017) of the housing crisis in London. She makes it clear that the housing crisis is not just about not enough houses being built. Some 50,000 properties in London are owned by overseas companies, nearly all based in the web of tax havens, of which the spider at the centre is the City of London itself, and much of this buying is for the laundering of corruptly gained assets. This influx of global capital has a huge impact on London rents and house prices, and completely breaks the connection between the two types of ‘property’.
There are not many oligarchs or Ultra-High Net Worth Individuals yet where I live, in Hackney, but there are plenty of people with inherited wealth, very well paid jobs or both who have been as it were displaced from living in Kensington or Hampstead, and who are now changing the population mix and diversity of ethnicity and class. The Council stays just about afloat financially due to the increased economic activity and Council Tax receipts, and can keep the appearance of the streets and public spaces in order, but the social environment deteriorates as the relentless domination of the poorer communities, takes its toll as they lose their homes, their shops and their markets. Thanks to the combination of the Right to Buy with a prohibition on Councils’ building to replace homes lost, Councils are now unable to fulfil their obligations to homeless families except by forcing them to move to really poor overcrowded properties many miles away. Meanwhile the homeless in those outer boroughs are forced to move to yet more impoverished and jobless areas of the country. This social cleansing is being accelerated by plans to further reduce public housing by demolishing Council estates across London, even if they have architectural merit and low crime rates, in order for developers to cash in on building homes for sale, with as few as they can get away with being designated as ‘affordable’ – which still means far higher rents, so people cannot afford to come back even if they have been promised that option. London is a prime site of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ – savings whittled away in rents and mortgages, a process that becomes altogether more vicious when there is the inevitable next crash in house prices. In the context of falling wages and the growth of insecure employment, most people simply can no longer afford to live here, including such essential workers as teachers, junior doctors, nurses, street cleaners or fire fighters.
“Secure Homes for All”:
In the light of this intense London property confrontation, and the immense waste and suffering that are caused when untrammelled rights of property-as-asset are asserted, Labour’s specific housing pledges in its 2017 Manifesto look weak:
It said Labour will –
provide more support for hostels and supported housing for the homeless;
build 100,000 ‘affordable’ or Housing Association homes during the next parliament.
extend the Tory Help to Buy scheme (that inflates house prices).
ensure that local first time buyers can offer for new homes before overseas buyers.
ground rents in leasehold properties will be restricted,
private sector rents will be controlled to match inflation, with tenancies made for 3 year periods, and with letting fees banned.
Councils will be freed to build homes and to borrow to do so, and the bedroom tax will be scrapped, as will the right to buy until councils are in a position to replace each one sold.
Improving Labour Housing policy:
This is redolent of good intentions towards the less well-off and the homeless, but also of a refusal to subvert any of the supposed right to use private property for unearned income. ‘For the Many – Preparing Labour for Power’, OR books, 2017, edited by Mike Phipps, makes just this point in its housing chapter written by Stuart Hodkinson, a geographer at the University of Leeds. His additional recommendations to meet the radical ambition of secure homes for all are substantial and many:
1) A right to sell (to the Council) for owners who are not coping with payments or maintenance
2) 5 year private tenancies with automatic renewals and no no-fault evictions.
3) ‘Affordable’ to be linked to incomes not market price.
4) Housing benefit to correspond to actual rents
5) Reinstate right of homeless to a secure tenancy.
6). Make out of borough placements illegal.
7) Central government subsidy for Council house building.
8) Scrap all Council Estate regeneration schemes.
9) Restore financial regulation of Housing Associations
10). Communal tenant ownership of estates.
11) Abolish the Right to Buy
12) Compulsory Council tax premium on empty homes
13) Decriminalise squatting
14) Funding for Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations.
15) Create a National Housing Fitness and Safety inspectorate with direct access from users, funded by fines.
“The Right to the City”, what does it mean?
In her conclusions to her book, Anna Minton calls for the control of private landlords, and an end to the speculative model of housebuilding by big contractors, using Community Land Trusts, Self-build housing, and Council house building that is protected from the market: these proposals also seem disappointing in relation to the enormity of the problem for London that she identifies. She invokes a concept invented in the 1960s by the radical French marxist Henri Lefebvre, that the inhabitants of the space of a city could exercise a communal Right to the City. For Lefebvre, the city is a product of a particular mode of production of space, dependent on always contested social practices: this is an aspect of his view, (which both fed off and contributed to the 1968 revolt), that it is not just in the workplace that struggle takes place but in everyday life. Minton is sketchy about what the Right to the City means, though she does describe some great examples of resistance, such as the Focus E15 campaign in Newham. Meanwhile whilst Council housing deteriorates or is burned down, the marginalised are pushed right out of the city, and less dominated sectors of inhabitants are forced to move further out and into more overcrowding, depending on their means. In this intra-urban migration there are innumerable individual experiences of powerlessness and defeat, and the Right to the City is trodden underfoot.
Occupiers have rights that have to be won, owners have far too many, which have to be taken:
No political party manifesto can make a social movement, and Labour’s assertion that every inhabitant, including the most oppressed and dominated, should have a secure home is a good start, if it can be turned into a demand, supported by active mobilisations. The collective Right to the City is individuals’ or families’ or communities’ rights as occupiers of space. The way forward for a vibrant, thriving city is to make demands that put users’ of spaces rights above those of owners . Those who are allowed to take some of the land of the city (which never has value in itself but only as part of the fabric of what we, the occupiers, collectively provide) for private use should pay for the cost of this loss through a continuing community land contribution. Rents should be controlled so they cover only the real costs of maintaining houses, adjusted for inflation, and their community land contributions, maybe plus state borrowing costs of the capital used, with security of occupiers equal to that of owner-occupiers, and with no right of the owner to make any additional income. Occupiers should have the right to modify and improve their home if they want to, and employ people to do repairs at the owners’ expense. Meanwhile, home owners have to pay as now for their own house maintenance, and should also have to pay a community land contribution and when they sell, they should be expected to get back only the capital they put into the house, any other gains being subject to substantial taxation, to pay for more council homes. We should be aiming to make tenancy have hassle-free, inheritance-free equivalence to owner-occupier rights, rather than allowing it to be a plight that means you are merely disposable prey to extraction by rentiers. Those who want to use their wealth to make more wealth have plenty of other options, and they must be made to leave people’s homes out of their plans.
How can we own the city?
The 2017 election slogan, “Secure Homes for all”, as a manifesto pledge, seemed popular. In the situation now where those with wealth need increasingly to see it grow not through production of commodities but through extraction based on ownership, the pledge cannot be realised without a confrontation with that ownership. Stuart Hodkinson’s proposals to beef up the specifics of a future manifesto seem to be pushing in the right direction, but they will not make it into a future manifesto unless there is a surge of action and campaigning which needs to be strong enough to counter the wealth and media access of the likes, for example, of the developers and estate agents who sponsored Sadiq Khan’s bid to become Mayor of London. We need democratic action within Labour, such as the campaign to get Haringey to pull back from its massive social cleansing and loss of social housing plans, which begins to look as if it may succeed. We need, as George Monbiot puts it, to reinvent local government through practice, by experiencing collective control of public spaces, without which our private spaces, our homes, have no true value. if we are to give hope to the millions of Londoners in insecure tenancies, or in unsafe buildings, or being rendered impoverished by excessive rents, and if we are to give the oligarchs and the speculators, the developers or the private landlords any concern at all, then we must do more to actively ‘own’ public space whilst articulating and demanding rights for occupiers of properties within that space… participatory budgeting, street parties, festivals, all sorts of local communal initiatives to improve lives, acting collectively. The ‘public luxury’ which the Paris Commune sought to establish is a demand, perhaps, but it is essentially a practice, one which we can start to do. “Ownership” rights have never been total, we already have leaseholds, compulsory purchases, and planning laws., they can be challenged and reduced through collective struggle. Asserting the rights of occupiers, as in Catalonia with mobilisations to stop evictions (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH)), involves actions that are focussed on supporting the stigmatised and demoralised victims of the housing crisis, whether those who have bought but cannot pay their mortgages, private renters subjected to excess rents and foul, damp or unsafe conditions, or social housing occupiers being evicted. After Grenfell and what we know of the tenants’ warnings about what was to come that fell on deaf ears, Londoners and Labour should be raising the demand for the rights and empowerment of all occupiers of property, which must mean a reduction of the powers of owners.
In 2007, Picturehouse staff at The Ritzy cinema in Brixton began a campaign for a Living Wage.
In 2014, following 13 high-profile strikes through their union, BECTU, the Ritzy staff gained a 26% pay rise and an agreement with Picturehouse Cinemas (owned by Cineworld) to re-negotiate towards the London Living Wage in June 2016. The company back-tracked on this and have refused to negotiate in any way. In 2017 they sacked all but one of the union reps at the Ritzy.
Since then workers at Hackney and Crouch End Picturehouse, Picturehouse Central, and the Duke Of York’s Picturehouse in Brighton have joined the campaign. At these cinemas the company has repeatedly refused to acknowledge BECTU – now a sector of the larger union, Prospect. Instead, Picturehouse recognise the Staff Forum, a pseudo-union set up and funded by Picturehouse themselves. Seeing no other option, workers have united with the Ritzy in taking industrial action.
In February 2017, after many months of campaigning and over 20 strike days, BECTU officially called for a boycott of all Picturehouse and Cineworld Cinemas until they agree to meaningfully discuss –
This struggle takes place in the UK context of rampant growth in inequality, attributable in part to the effective crushing and stigmatisation of trades unionism during the neoliberal era. Cinema ownership as a source of unearned wealth, and cinema work as desperate poverty have followed the trend analysed by Thomas Piketty in ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, the ill-health effects of which have been explored in Wilkinson and Pickett’s ‘The Spirit Level’.
Cineworld Group plc is the second largest cinema operator in Europe with 2,217 screens – 800 of which are in the UK. It is listed on the London Stock Exchange and the FTSE 250 Index, but the Greidinger family hold a controlling bloc as the largest shareholders. The Guardian reported in 2014 that Cineworld employed 80% of its 4,300 staff on zero hour contracts. That same year Cineworld completed the takeover of Cinema City International N.V., in which the Greidingers already owned a controlling stake. Just this month, Cineworld bought the US cinema chain Regal for $3.6 (£2.7) billion dollars, which will create the world’s second largest cinema group.
Cineworld made £82million profit in 2016 on a revenue of £797.8 million. Chief executive Mooky Greidinger was paid over £2.5 million. Picturehouse pitch themselves as an ethical business hosting independent films and selling Fairtrade goods, but their treatment of their workforce exposes this as mere marketing to the social conscience of a particular kind of audience. An effective social conscience always has to be well-informed. Do not be fooled, and until fair employment practices are set up at Picturehouse and indeed more widely across Cineworld cinemas, support the boycott, and seek out a cinema to go to where staff are respected.
This is relatively easy if you live or work in Hackney, or somewhere near – go to the Dalston Rio, where genuine efforts are made to work with staff to improve their pay and conditions, though this is no easy task in the present climate, as the cinema also has to survive economically. Elsewhere, the claim that a cinema is “independent” is clearly not sufficient, for example the Everyman chain, which includes the Screen on the Green, was reported by The Guardian in 2013 to have the entire non-management staff employed on zero-hour contracts, earning just above the minimum wage. The company has since re-structured its pay system, and is currently in the early stages of the process of introducing 10 hour minimum contracts. When you go to a cinema, ask to speak to the manager about their employment practices and union recognition, and make your views known if you don’t want to be a party to inflicted poverty: then go to the cinema that is practical to get to, that gives the best answers.
On the first day of Christmas my love did not buy me, an Amazon delivery;
On the second day of Christmas my love did not buy me…… a Samsung smart phone:
On the third day of Christmas my love did not buy me …..…trainers from Sports Direct:
On the fourth day of Christmas my love not buy me…..….a computer from HP:
On the fifth day of Christmas my love did not buy me………..an Apple i-pad:
On the sixth day of Christmas my love did not buy me..……a shirt from Primark:
On the seventh day of Christmas my love did not buy me … any cosmetics from Boots UK:
On the eighth day of Christmas my love did not buy me……… clothes from H&M:
On the ninth day of Christmas my love did not buy me…. jumpers from Uniqlo:
On the tenth day of Christmas my love did not buy me….. anything from Argos:
On the eleventh day of Christmas my love did not buy me…. any cosmetics by L’Oreal:
On the twelfth day of Christmas my love did not buy me……. a Dyson vacuum cleaner.
Amazon UK is a world leader in tax avoidance – in 2016 it paid £7.4 million in tax on sales of £1.5 billion. Amazon has resisted unionisation both in the USA and in the UK, to enable it to continue to abuse workers, deploying GPS tagging, harsh and exhausting working conditions, and zero-hour contracts. Amazon van delivery drivers have to do 200 deliveries a day, and after deductions (such as van hire and insurance) drivers can be paid less than half the UK minimum wage. Please note Amazon now includes the anti-union Whole Foods Markets, so don’t go there for your xmas treats….
Samsung is a family-controlled conglomerate or chaebol, a complex web of circular investments involving many companies, the very structure of which is inherently corrupt, to maintain family control despite predominantly institutional ownership. Samsung’s billionaire chief, Lee Jae-Yong, was heavily involved in the embezzlement scandal that toppled South Korean President Park Geun-hye last year. Lee gave bribes worth $36 million to Park and her confidante to help win government support for a smooth leadership transfer from Lee’s ailing father to Lee, hid assets overseas, concealed proceeds from criminal activities and committed perjury.
Samsung has a reputation for modern technology, but this conceals 19th century working conditions for the estimated 1,500,000 workers in its web of subcontractors and subsidiaries that blankets South-east Asia. Samsung’s “no-union” policy affects the entire Asian electronics industry. In leaked material, management decrees specific “countermeasures” to be used to “dominate employees,” aiming to “isolate employees”, “punish leaders” and “induce internal conflicts.” Samsung taps workers’ phones, follows them, and approaches their families with threats. With a precariously-employed workforce, inhumane conditions are rife. According to China Labor Watch, employees at Samsung factories, some under-aged, suffer through 100 hours of forced overtime per month, unpaid work, standing for 11 to 12 hours, verbal and physical abuse, severe age and gender discrimination, and lack of worker safety.
Sports Direct is the largest sporting retailer in the United Kingdom, with around 465 stores. At its Shirebrook headquarters it has 200 permanent employees, and over 3,000 agency workers who are mainly east Europeans working at just above the minimum wage, facilitated by EU rules. These agency workers are effectively on zero-hour contracts for most of the year – they have to be available for work even when none is offered and so cannot take other jobs. If they raise any grievance or go off sick, they will be laid off – there is neither security nor justice, with management having unreasonable powers to discipline them or dismiss them at will. Workers being forced to come to work whatever their health has led to multiple ambulance call outs for emergencies, including to a woman giving birth in the toilets – all this insecurity despite the fact that the flow of work is more or less predictable. Because workers had to wait in a queue to be searched before they could leave, many actually were paid below the minimum wage. They are prey to recurrent bullying including sexual harassment. Workers without a bank account were offered a pre-paid debit card onto which their wage was paid, but they were charged extortionately and some of these profits were paid back to the employing agency, and many were charged for insurance products that they neither needed nor understood. Lateness of clocking in by just one minute resulted in a deduction of 15 minutes’ pay. After a Parliamentary committee issued a damning report, and after the owner had eventually agreed to be interviewed by them and had had to admit to some of the abuses, conditions may have marginally improved, but the basic employment model is of course unchanged, and serving as a model for future employment in the UK generally.
HP provides and manages contracts worth millions with Israeli authorities involving systems of surveillance and identification that are directly used in the domination of Palestinians. One subsidiary EDS Israel is the main contractor of the Basel system of automated access control, that uses magnetic cards and biometric information at checkpoints in the Occupied Territories, declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004. HP are also involved in the ID card system which reinforces Israel’s ethnically tiered citizenship structure widely equated with apartheid, as well as supplying equipment used in the Israeli navy blockade of Gaza. HP uses a technology service provider that is based in an illegal West Bank settlement.
Unfortunately, you can’t get away from the crimes of Samsung by buying an Apple product because some components come from Samsung and because the fierce anti-union and anti-workers’ rights methods used by Samsung have affected the whole South-East Asia electronics industry, promoting a culture of exploiting unpaid internships, forced and unpaid overtime, child labour, and long working hours.
For example at one Apple supplier, Pegatron, systems of exploitation included in 2013 under-age labour, contract violations, insufficient wages, abuse by management, poor working conditions and excessive working hours, with an average working week of 67 hours in three factories under investigation by Chinese Labour Watch.
In 2014 they reported that another company called Catcher, employing 20,000 people, making iPhone and iPad parts was found to have a number of serious health and safety, environmental, and human rights violations: these included – Significant amounts of combustible aluminium-magnesium alloy shreddings on the floor and dust particles in the air, inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for handling toxic materials, such as metal cutting fluids, locked safety exits, a lack of safety training or fire drills for workers, dumping of industrial fluids and waste into groundwater and nearby rivers, as well as excessive hours for all workers.
Primark’s parent company is Associated British Foods, a heavy user of tax havens, using subsidiary companies in Guernsey, Jersey, Hong Kong, and Luxembourg.
Boots is a part of Alliance Boots, itself half of the conglomerate Walgreen Boots Alliance Inc, mired in controversy over use of conflict minerals and palm oil from unsustainable sources. MedAct has calculated that Boots avoided £1.21 billion in tax between 2007 and 2016, enough to fund a lot of health care; meanwhile it is still fighting to keep its pharmacists from joining a proper Union, and subjecting them to undue pressure to meet targets and low pay.
H&M opened its second Israel store in a village in Jerusalem that was brutally ethnically cleansed in the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1946. This year the Guardian reported that children as young as 14 in Myanmar factories were being employed to make clothes for H&M at below-minimum wages, the lowest wage just 13p an hour.
According to War on Want, Uniqlo “leaves a trail of serious labour violations wherever they go” – one recent example the closure of the PT Jaba Garmindo factory in Indonesia, leaving 4000 workers unemployed, and with four month unpaid wages.
Argos is now owned by Sainsburys, which itself is owned 25% by Qatar Holding LLC, which needs no further explication when it comes to migrant labour abuse that amounts to slavery. Sainsbury have no cotton sourcing policy, which means further acquiescence in child labour and slavery, and have a low ethical rating on the Ethical Consumer site for toxics in clothes and cosmetics. One of the Sainsbury dynasty gave a huge donation to the Tory party in the run-up to the last election, a crime against the NHS, against the sick and disabled across the country, and against all of us who want a society based on solidarity, not domination.
This huge French cosmetics company was founded by a Nazi sympathiser who funded and actively participated in a group responsible for numerous racist atrocities, including the firebombing of six synagogues. His daughter Liliane Bettencourt died this year, still owning one third of the company, with Nestle owning another large chunk; she was the richest woman in the world, notorious for tax avoidance and for leaving envelopes full of cash for Nicholas Sarkozy and other right-wing politicians to avoid limits on election spending. L’Oreal was fined in 2016 for price-fixing.
Hopefully you wouldn’t be thinking of buying any of your loved ones a household appliance for xmas anyway, but if you do, try to avoid further enriching the hypocritical xenophobic Brexiteer, James Dyson. Dyson was one of the most prominent UK business leaders to publicly support Brexit before the referendum, saying he would be voting to leave the European Union to avoid being “dominated and bullied by the Germans”. and since then saying that Britain leaving the EU Single Market would “liberate” the economy and allow Britain to strike its own trade deals around the world, recently commenting on the ongoing negotiations, “we should just walk away and they will come to us”. All this despite his having campaigned in 1998 for Britain to join the eurozone… and despite his having transferred most of his production workforce to Malaysia in 2002, helping the decline of UK manufacturing.
The Communard has long since given up enthusiastically turning on the news when they get home from another demonstration. The point of going on a demonstration cannot be that it should be noted in the mainstream media; nor can it be that it should necessarily have any effect on the powers-that-be, even the minor irritant effect of being noticed. Why go at all? …especially why go to stand in front of the long, tall monumentally unresponsive facade of the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, London on a bitterly cold evening to protest against Trump’s announcement that the US would recognise Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel?
The answer lay in the experience itself. It was heartening to see a large crowd, which spilled out awkwardly beyond the space where the police tried to corral it, notable for its diversity – children shouting for Palestine, people shouting ‘Allah Akbar’, mothers and fathers, young women with and without headscarves, young men with and without keffiyehs, sellers of Socialist Worker and Counterfire…but not much other overt evidence of the wider labour movement. The sense of fringe elements of the labour movement standing in for its absent core mirrored the international political isolation of the Palestinians. A demonstration is street theatre, in which you perform a small part as well as making up the audience. Here, standing bottled in for a freezing 90 minutes between the closed-off gardens of Grosvenor Square and the metal fence erected to keep the crowd away from the embassy, a few metres from the much-higher iron fence surrounding the building itself, we all briefly re-enacted the plight of the Palestinians in the occupied Territories under military domination. The police surrounding us reprised the role of the Israeli Defence Force, keeping the demonstrators packed in to the tight space and filming us with a camera on a pole. We could do nothing but shout and chant, and even this it was impossible to co-ordinate, so stretched and squashed and ragged was the space. On the other side of the massive railings, motionless behind a bullet-proof shield, his hand clutching his automatic weapon bare so as to able to use the trigger, despite the cold, a single dark-clad soldier stood in for the military might of the Colonial power. Whether or not his fingers were too cold, he could not have pulled that trigger without killing nearly as many police officers as protestors – he was performing a purely symbolic menace. Towering over the massive concrete and glass set behind him, the huge metal bald eagle in the centre echoed his sinister pose, a reminder of the murderous drones hovering over the oppressed across the globe.
So why demonstrate? The answer has to recognise that demonstrating is a performance of solidarity, so that a taste of futility and powerlessness is inherent to it in times like ours. You explore and develop your own solidarity with the victims of domination whose cause you are upholding; this helps in terms of experiencing your identification with the oppressed, even if there is only a vague hope or no hope that those victims will get to appreciate your gesture, let alone the perpetrators realising or caring. You go to help to build a collective historical narrative of solidarity, even if at first it is only shared within small networks. You drag yourself out of complicit passivity and become a participant, however small, in the resistance.
To find out about upcoming actions, join the mailing list of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign here: https://www.palestinecampaign.org/about/sign-up/