Alternative Media Sources


  1. Fighting in the left corner

    “We are an organization with one staff member, and a limited amount of energy because nobody in the political and activist left wants to talk about Brexit! “

    lead MIchael in thought in the market place for ideas, Team Syntegrity 2017, Barcelona.Rosemary Bechler (R): We are keeping track of the Team Syntegrity process and its impact, and participants seem quite happy to do this. In your case, Michael, I have an added reason for a catch-up, because I felt guilty as your host as well as a facilitator of the event – not something that one normally combines! – that I didn’t register the algorithm preventing you from participating in the ‘transforming and rebuilding the left’ discussion – which is where so much of your expertise in various fields lies.

    I should have done something about the fact that you weren’t really able to contribute as you would have wished.

    So, well, why don’t we give you the opportunity to talk through what you were thinking about, and update us on that as we approach the end of 2017. We can just feed it back into the post-event stream of consciousness that we are tracking! Does that make sense?

    Michael Chessum (M):  Sure! It wasn’t that big a deal. I had a great time!  I don’t normally think of myself as a dogmatist leftist but surrounded by pirate people, I found myself fighting in the left corner pretty well throughout.

    So what have I been up to? Well, I still work in ‘Another Europe is possible’.  Since the days of the radical Remain campaign, we have been grant-funded by the Joseph Rowntree Trust and I am fully-funded, working in Global Justice Now, just around the corner.

    For the last year our main priority has been the Progressive Deal for Europe, based on our six progressive reasons for EU membership which gives you a series of flashpoints to fight over: workers’ rights, environmental protection, free movement, human rights, science and research funding and Erasmus.

    Free movement and migration is the main controversy that engages us. But what we are doing now is pivoting towards the democratic process as such. So our remit is these six elements, plus democracy and the process. This is because of the Withdrawal Bill, but also because of the need to review strategy around a possible call for a new referendum on the terms of any final deal, including an option to remain.

    The question is how we do that? How do we communicate such options in a way that isn’t totally toxic.

    R: Why did the Withdrawal Bill elicit this change of tack?

    M: Well, the Bill as currently constituted is the biggest power grab by the political executive in modern British political history.  It takes hundreds of EU laws, claiming merely to be doing the admin for the Brexit transfer, but in the process in fact gives important powers to the executive to strip out major rights and protections, without going through a vote in parliament. The Bill as currently constituted is the biggest power grab by the political executive in modern British political history.

    R: Do we have a list now of what they are keenest to strip out?

    M: Sort of. A lot of them are very up front. What came up this week, for instance, was the Fundamental Charter of Human Rights, which they very forthrightly insist is ‘coming out’. We lost the vote on that one, including all the material on digital rights and privacy for example, in an extraordinary moment of spinelessness on the part of the Tory rebels.

    Labour forwarded an amendment to keep the Fundamental Charter on the books. Dominic Grieve, Tory backbencher, leading his band of rebels, puts forward an identical amendment.  The Tory Minister gets up and says, “ Well I have heard Dominic Grieve’s position and would like to assure him that I am producing a report on this and will be looking into this again”…  and so Grieve withdraws his amendment and then leads his Tory rebels to vote against Labour’s amendment which was lost by ten votes ! So Grieve took the whip. You have to hope there has been some sort of backstage deal because together we could have won on the Charter.

    It was one of those moments when as a leftist you can only rely on the House of Lords, like the civil rights campaigns of the Blair years, where the Lords were again the only recourse.  Because that’s where it all goes next. They will then kick it back. The thing that they will do is put the Charter back in, and the Government could give way then in that ping pong period. But what is not happening is any kind of ‘cross-party alliance’. Ken Clarke is the cross-party alliance. He is the only Tory who is consistent in voting with the opposition. The rest of them are totally solid.

    The Opposition is on the whole solidly united on this terrain, except for the bigger issues in the second and third readings when Frank Field and Kate Hoey, who are pro-Brexit, come out in favour of the Government, which makes things more difficult. Ken Clarke is the cross-party alliance.

    So we are forced to think about democratic process under these circumstances because this is the most important and dangerous piece of legislation that has faced the country in a long, long time.

    The political left, moreover, isn’t mobilized around this at all. This has been a huge missed opportunity for them. Because if we had managed to popularize this democratic cause against the power-grab, even with one of those boring old traditional rallies and marches in Central London, we could have brought popular pressure to bear and at least made the Government think twice about a lot of these things. Especially given the very weak parliamentary position the Government is in.

    We have missed a trick on this precisely because it is about process, and the left has never known how to talk about democratic process very well at all. This is why even in Corbyn’s platform and movement, despite it being very radical and popular, there is nothing in there about federalism, democratic electoral reform, the crisis of the British state as such. None of that is in there. For the same reason, the political left is not focused on this seminal power challenge. The left has never known how to talk about democratic process very well at all.

    R. Has Momentum and its very creative World Transformed festival which accompanies Labour party conferences nowadays made no difference in this area – because surely wherever ordinary people are invited to have a voice, that is where democratic process begins to matter!? I was disappointed to see Momentum close itself to non-members of the Labour party, for example. Doesn’t that constrain Momentum’s true potential?

    M. I don’t think Momentum has missed its chance. What you had in Momentum when I ended up ceasing to be on its steering committee in January this year, was two competing functions. There is the social movement, facing society, and engaged in community activism, and the disciplined party faction. The first function is quasi-democratic, but it is a very messy process and can be very unpleasant too. On the other hand, you have this very disciplined party machinery which is essentially top down.

    So that dual life played out in the initial leadership campaign for Corbyn which produced Momentum. Momentum changed into the second leadership campaign, and then changed back into being Momentum, and that dual life has always been there. But Jon Lansman’s understanding of the need for a very well run, top down effective campaign – very effective at what they do, winning the internal elections, mobilizing for general elections – has essentially won out for now.  What it isn’t any more is a pluralistic, bottom-up, grass roots organization. The local groups have no official say.

    Some people think that was what Momentum always should have been. For others, their position is determined by factional politics. So announcing that Momentum would henceforth be Labour members only was ensuring that whoever was expelled from the Labour party – at the time it was the organized far left who were internal opponents of Lansman and the current leadership  grouping who were getting expelled – would be prevented from taking it over. Moreover, Momentum at the time was also deciding to ‘seek affiliation to the Labour Party’, which was easier if you went down that road of ‘Labour members only’.

    But I agree, I do think the decision to exclude non-members was a mistake, because effectively it takes us backwards by several steps. The British Left has been through a collapse of British Labour Party membership, the near death of the official labour movement under Thatcher and then the hollowing out of what’s left of the Labour Party under Blair.

    Suddenly, almost from the outside, but relying on party activists who had been around for a long time – people like Lansman who did good work, together with Corbyn and McDonnell – formed a base from which the left on the outside could spring to life inside a transforming party. Unfortunately that is not the narrative which Momentum’s current leadership has of its own history. For them, this is labour values proving themselves and coming true again. So we are moving back, historically, in terms of where this surge has come from.

    R. But if Momentum can’t reach outwards, how will it build its movement? Isn’t this frustratingly self-defeating?

    M: It will begin to reach outwards more again. If you think about it, so far there has been the leadership campaign, setting up Momentum, and then from early 2016, in short order, waves of rebellion, the referendum, another leadership election, internal warfare, 2017 and the e-mail coup in which all the structures were abolished, and then an election called in May. So there has been no room to breathe thus far.

    But they are recruiting staff as I understand it, to campaign around issues, not just around elections. Even at the grassroots of the Labour left, though, people are more party oriented than they were a year ago, and a lot of that has to do with what they learned from the polarising second leadership election, which hardened everybody against the Parliamentary Labour Party and against the Labour right. Everybody knew who the enemy was all of a sudden and was going to make sure they beat them in their local CLP. That was it. Everybody knew who the enemy was all of a sudden and was going to make sure they beat them in their local CLP.

    But one way or another, those Momentum outreach campaigns are going to become essential. Either there will be a bit of let up, now, and we have to face all those cuts on a local level which are still under way, so we have to become active around that defence. Or there will be another general election… and Momentum will become crucial for reaching out.

    The big problem is that the strategy of that disciplined party faction is always going to be vesting control in the party leadership: ”what we need to do is get behind the party leadership and make sure we get a Labour Government.” There is very little intellectual engagement in that strategy – maybe taking a long hard look at Greece or Chile, or any example we have of a serious leftwing government  gaining power under contemporary global conditions, and what happens to them, either in terms of being forced out, or in terms of self-destructive compromises. So there are a lot of dangers in gathering all your agency at the top of these party mechanisms. There are a lot of dangers in gathering all your agency at the top of these party mechanisms.

    R: Very interesting. Do you mind my asking how you came to quit the steering group of Momentum last January?

    M: I didn’t quit. The steering group was abolished. A democratic conference was being planned for a few months after, which would have had delegates from all over the country. Lansman wrote an e-mail proposing a new constitution to the 12 people then on the steering group, which didn’t have a steering committee in it. People in the majority had already been lined up to agree. In my group, three refused to participate and one said no. But in an hour and a half, all of the democratic structures which had been evolved within Momentum were simply swept out. So was I, and I haven’t been back in the office since.

    There was a question about us setting up some new kind of process – a grassroots Momentum – since we totally agreed that what had happened, which we refer to as ‘the coup’, had no democratic legitimacy. But after that, there were a lot of disagreements: the debate was split between ‘delegates-based movements’ and one member one vote – I didn’t like either much and was looking for a compromise position.

    Then there were differences over whether we should split from Momentum or leave Momentum, or stay inside, and I was saying let’s fight on.  All the different opposition elements failed to get on with each other, and what with the disagreements and no funding, it wasn’t going to go anywhere very fast.

    R:  So where next for fighting for a better leftwing understanding of democratic process?

    M: I’m friends with a lot of the people involved in Momentum still. I just haven’t been actively involved or in the office. Lansman and I had a friendly but slightly tense conversation at party conference. But yes, I come from a background in the student movement and the labour movement and I do understand both democratic traditions. What I see inside Westminster and inside the Labour Party, is that these are systems where you do whatever you can get away with. Inside Westminster and inside the Labour Party, these are systems where you do whatever you can get away with.

    This isn’t just about opportunism. It is about the basic norms of our democracy. It strikes me as absurd, for example, and I only learned this recently. But there are four hundred amendments tabled to this incredibly important bit of legislation we were talking about. Who gets to choose which ones get selected for debate? The Deputy Speaker of the House, with no rights of appeal.  When are the chosen amendments announced? On the day of each amendment debate. So you don’t know what’s coming up until the day of the decision, so – how do you run a public campaign?

    You don’t. Parliament is not about running public debates. There may be scrutinizing committees, calling for submissions of evidence that then get circulated. We have a legal expert who has written a lot of these amendments, working on these. But this is not at all the same as a public information campaign. Parliament is not about running public debates.

    There is then one account of what happened in Momentum which is a single story running from that totally unaccountable feature of Westminster politics, into ripple effects on all surrounding processes. You have a Westminster elite that with processes and procedures like this is deliberately walling itself off from the outside world. In that system, MPs and your parliamentary representatives have the supra-rights that accrue to parliamentary sovereignty. That infects the Labour Party via the PLP. Because what MP’s essentially have is a sense of entitlement on the basis that they have been elected by the people, and as such have the right to tell the membership of the Labour Party to ‘sod off’.

    That means that the basic norms of democracy – that you should be able to select your candidates – that you should be able to give them a steer in close consultation – that the MPs are the voice of the Labour movement in parliament rather than being some kind of professional detached entity with their own rights – that is where all the trouble starts. That infects the whole culture of the Labour party, including, subconsciously, the old Labour left, who basically have an attitude which isn’t rigorously, procedurally democratic. They too are out to win, at any cost, and by the shortest route. Things will happen at local and national level to do with conferences which are basically about people who don’t technically have the right, somehow taking it upon themselves to throw their weight around because they can get away with it.

    It goes broader than the thinness of our representative democracy: it is about the lack of process. Ultimately, it is about a lack of respect for members and a lack of respect for their collective wisdom. Whereas, in a world which had a rational approach to movement-building, I like to think that we would put that argument for the organization that I want to see to the members as a whole and trust them to know what’s best. It goes broader than the thinness of our representative democracy: it is about the lack of process.

    R. So here are two issues that I think did come up in the Team Syntegrity in Barcelona. One was ‘rational approaches’ as such: and the question of what happens to these in the emotional times in which we seem to be living – your generation seems to know much more about this than say, mine did.

    The other question is about ‘collective wisdom’.  Under the individualizing pressures of neoliberalism, can one really rely on collective wisdom in the same ways we once did? I’m thinking of the proliferation of enemy images which is the way the right increasingly wield power. Don’t we need rich pluralist political cultures to overcome this – a commitment to much more empowering forms of self-organisation, and conscious, willed collaboration with others – not just a rubber-stamping chorus of approval ?

    M: Absolutely, but the need for pluralism doesn’t only correspond to the need to involve individual voices. Pluralism is the only force that enables a movement to redefine itself, adapt, to be an effective collective. Yes, people want agency and I think that getting people to think about their agency collectively is almost the first step in political consciousness, where a subculture becomes a politics. This challenge is not at all confined to working under neoliberal conditions. A sub-culture, ‘Corbynism’ for example, means that being into Labour politics suddenly becomes ‘cool’, with ‘grime nights for Corbyn’ and whatever. And this is the start.

    The leaders of ‘the Momentum coup’, by the way, are always talking about ‘the dynamism of the Sanders movement’. But ironically the Democratic Socialists, the Momentum-like movement in the US, are a delegate-based movement who run socialist education meetings, which actually I think may be a good idea. It’s really missing from Momentum and the Labour left, reading things and talking about politics and ideas….

    Yes political movements need pluralism more than ever I suppose, but I also remember the 2007 student movement with people coming out onto the streets who almost wanted agency just for themselves. And it was drawing them into that collective that made them political.  It was drawing them into that collective that made them political. 

    R. So in the absence of this basic democratic and democratizing culture, how will Another Europe is Possible make that pivot towards democracy?

    M:  The ‘referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal with an option to remain’ has always been our policy, but it’s hugely difficult! We refer to this as ‘the Rotdwor’ problem, which is an unpronounceable acronym using the first letters of that phrase to sum up rather well the communications challenge involved!

    Especially if it is accompanied by what we refer to as ‘the blue problem’ – that many people campaigning for Remain seem to think that waving EU flags and singing Ode to Joy at random passers by is enough to win over the swing voters – not true. (I couldn’t help thinking that if all the people marching on the March for Europe had thought to do this before the referendum, that might have been more useful!)

    And then there is the Establishment problem that Alistair Campbell believes he is a good face for the movement – also not true.

    So this is probably our main demand and how do we articulate it? Then there is the Establishment problem that Alistair Campbell believes he is a good face for the movement – also not true.

    ‘Free movement’ is the other big issue campaign, but that is very much a principled argument to be had within the labour movement and amongst progressives about migration and what we think about it.

    On the referendum, it is making a very reasonable democratic case to say, the British people decided by a small majority that they wanted to exit Europe. They didn’t know at the time what that meant. Now it means this. They should be allowed to decide whether that corresponds to what they wanted.

    That’s very rational: but you can’t just say that. I’m straw-manning one strand inside the Remain movement – but one strand of thinking is undoubtedly of the opinion that people were misled and stupid and therefore should vote again. We can’t give any traction in any way to that sort of idea.

    They are right that what would make the difference this time is that it would be a vote on a particular deal, and they are also right, in my opinion, to believe that we might win that vote overwhelmingly, and not just because the demographics would be more in our favour with those too young to vote last time coming of age and some of the older generation dying off.

    Even so, what we need is a narrative that can also bring in a more resurgent, anti-Establishment case. When people experience the downturn in the economy that’s going to result from Brexit, they won’t be saying, “Oh that’s bloody Brexit!” For most people it will just be the next chapter in a series of betrayals by the political elites. And so to have a narrative that opposes Brexit on the basis that it will cause yet more of what afflicts us, has to be an anti-Establishment argument. To have a narrative that opposes Brexit on the basis that it will cause yet more of what afflicts us, has to be an anti-Establishment argument.

    R. The right led by the far right will manage to make that case very well if we leave a vacuum there.

    M: Exactly.

    R. Isn’t that why we need a much more profound debate about what future we want for the UK?

    M: We do need some kind of nationwide deliberative process, to be sure, and one basic reason for calling for a referendum is that it is not democracy if you can’t change your mind. We don’t have just one election and then that’s it for all time ! 

    The flaw with a referendum however is precisely the lack of deliberation, and so the question arises, how could we inject some of that deliberative democracy into a debate leading up to the referendum?

    From the position we are in, at the end of the day, and I hesitate to call it a single movement – but this is the problem of the Remain people in general – the considerable resources are all in the wrong places. We, for example, are an organization with one staff member, and a limited amount of energy because nobody in the political and activist left wants to talk about Brexit!

    R: Really?

    M: Well, the decision not to have a Brexit debate at Labour Party conference was the result of the Momentum leadership not wanting to put the Labour leadership in a difficult position. Something similar is going on with the free movement issue, though most CLP’s would like to talk about free movement. But the Left doesn’t want to talk about Brexit because the orthodox position is, “Why do you want to talk about this. We need to get a Labour Government in and once we do that, then we can talk about what we want for our society and all this. Let’s just get behind the leadership and push it through.”

    That’s what I was referring to when I commented on the notion of investing all of your power in the leadership – the lack of ideas, the lack of a sense of history and what has happened to governments in the past… the lack of discussion.

    So that lack of energy and of resources makes it very difficult for us to turn our minds to how best to prompt a national debate. Instead, we have got to go into the Labour Party and the progressive spectrum of parties in the UK and try and persuade people who have some influence. I was at a Lib Dem conference running a fringe event, also the SNP conference and the Greens. We need to persuade these people across the broad left any way that we can, by just doing the basic nuts and bolts of a very basic politics, that this referendum idea is the right, progressive and democratic way to go.

    R: Aren’t you worried about the false binarism involved in another referendum, once again forcing apart what I see as natural allies: those who wish to stay in Europe to have a broad democratic alliance that can change it fundamentally in the interests of all the European peoples, and those who want to leave in the hope that they will have more democratic control over their lives and their prosperity as a result? Hasn’t the Labour Party been rather clever at not alienating either of those two important constituencies? What I’d like to see is a richer opportunity for debate between them… don’t you agree?

    M: It will be important the way the new referendum is framed: of course that’s true. It needs to be drawn up along very different lines. The good thing is that the Tories are making that possible. Because they are busy making themselves ‘the party of Brexit’, and that makes it much easier to talk about Brexit as a Conservative cause.

    At ‘Another Europe’ we talk about a ‘fresh’ rather than a ‘second’ referendum, precisely because this will be a discussion about a bad deal that is on the table. Taking it down will be relatively easy. But getting the opportunity in the first place is what is going to be very difficult, the critical thing. And that is why the national conversation is not our priority.

    R: But isn’t it the same issue that’s at stake? Don’t you need people leaping up all over the place and saying – you’re not pushing that through without giving me a chance to ask questions and say what I think! And doesn’t that come down to the expectation at least, if not the experience, of a deeper democracy in the UK, as well as across Europe? Isn’t this what we have to push for in the next two years of  ‘transition period’ – or longer maybe if Yanis Varoufakis is right about how long these transitions actually take?

    M: It is about mobilization. A lot of people are talking and thinking about this. But we need to know how we can put pressure on our political leaders to that end. Not another academic debate in the abstract about what we need. Do they want one? – that’s what we need to establish.

    R: So aren’t you getting pushed back into top down politics, because of the lack of time and capacity?

    M: Absolutely. Yes.

    Team Syntegrity, June 2017. Cameron Thibos, photographer. All rights reserved.R: One of your six demands is on ‘free movement’. How did you bring about that Labour campaign, seemingly overnight?

    M: I and others thought that we needed an organization that is specifically dedicated to intervening on this issue in the Labour Party. We set it up, wrote a statement, got a few MP’s on it and a few trade union leaders. I was surprised how well it went and we got a load of press coverage. So immediately it shot out of the cannon, around three thousand people signed up.

    We went to conference and Young Labour submitted a ‘contemporary motion’ which didn’t get debated because Brexit wasn’t debated, so you had this bizarre position where the ‘Single Market’ motion, predominantly from Labour’s rightwing, and our ‘Free Movement’ motion would have ended up being composited together, which would have been strange. But it was never prioritized.

    Now we have a few irons in the fire. We need to start building up constituency-level pressure and sending speakers all over the country. I’ve been talking this over today. We particularly want to start talking about migrant workers’ struggles, European and non-European, McDonalds and the like, so that we can start to kick back against a growing tendency on the Labour left to compromise with the right on ‘free movement’ while attempting to make it look as if you are taking a leftwing position. 

    The totally disingenuous position we come across a lot is, “No, I’ll vote against your motion to defend ‘free movement’, because why can’t we have free movement globally?” Our motion always has talked about us defending and extending free movement. But let’s defend what we have got! That’s our argument. While these guys are really covering themselves as they resort to the age-old proud tradition of throwing migrants under the bus for reasons of electoral credibility!

    The UK labour movement has a long history of this: the TUC after all lobbied for the Aliens Act, didn’t it! What you find now is people who have come out of Bennism and also around the old Communist Party who can convince themselves that free movement is just a tool to drive down wages. What you find now is people… who can convince themselves that free movement is just a tool to drive down wages.

    So we are going to try and kick back against all of that. We would like to get Momentum on board, because it has a huge base of young people who are internationalists. It’s not going to be easy, thanks to that new constitution, but if we can get 10% of all Momentum signatures and a referendum call and win that vote, they will be bound to help us at the next Labour party conference.

    Once again, however, we have to be careful to balance reaching out to our metropolitan, millennial choir on the one hand, and at the same time trying to reach out to a much broader layer of people, for whom migration is not an exchange of advantages but something that happens to them, without it being at all obvious that this guarantees their rights as well – people who would never consider living, studying or working in Europe, for example.

    R: I wonder if you felt at the Team Syntegrity in Barcelona that there was only a limited understanding among European progressives of those sorts of profound political challenges in Brexit Britain today?

    M: There definitely is. I was at the European Alternatives meeting, the Transeuropa festival in Madrid, and it was a very good conference. But although Britain is often referred to by leftwing Europeans as the great hope for Europe – there is not a profound understanding of Brexit or Brexit Britain, and the different deepseated ways in which neoliberalism and the Thatcher period have affected our political culture in the UK.

    And at the same time, many of them will cheer on the European Commission in the negotiations… So there is a lot to talk through!

    R: Well, thank you so much for this conversation, Michael, and very good luck!

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  2. Not a Saudi ‘Arab spring’: Mohammad Bin Salman, a threat not a reformer [Part 2]

    Mohammad bin Salman is now MENA’s main threat to peace, stability, and hope for democratization in the Arab world.

    A boy walks on rubble of a house destroyed by recent airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition in Sanaa, Yemen, on Dec. 29, 2017. Picture by Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved. While Thomas Friedman was taking Mohammad bin Salman’s claims about fighting corruption at face value, many were seeing extortion, and an abuse of power. Consider what follows, all of which also mysteriously escaped Friedman’s journalistic acumen:

    In the summer of 2015, while vacationing in Southern France, MBS purchased, on a whim, one of the biggest and most expensive yachts in the world from Russian billionaire Yuri Shefler (who incidentally made his fortune selling vodka), after spotting it once in the bay. The deal was finalized right there without further waiting, for a staggering $500 million (twice the cost of the most expensive house in the United States, itself already the ultimate billionaires’ dreamland.) While indulging himself with such lavish luxury purchases, His Highness was pushing for and implementing economic reforms of the IMF type, meaning, drastic austerity measures, budget cuts, salary cuts, freezes of government contracts and so on and so forth, following the drop in oil prices which has since resulted in the KSA losing a stunning one third of its currency reserves in less than three years since 2014.

    This itself would be enough to prove that MBS, supposedly a paragon of morality, moderation and integrity, a “wise king”, is one of those morally and politically corrupt rulers and “wealthiest 1%” (0.0001% in his case) for whom austerity, “necessary sacrifices”, and belt-tightening measures apply to others but never to oneself.

    But there is worse.

    In less than 2 years, our wise ruler bought for himself two luxury yachts for over $600 million

    The Serene was actually the second yacht MBS bought (at least the second that we know of). Less known is the fact that in 2014, namely not even a year before that July 2015 half billion “impulse purchase” of the Serene, MBS had already bought a yacht, the Pegasus (now Pegasus VII) for $120 million, at a time when he was special advisor to the royal court and state minister.

    So, in less than 2 years, our wise ruler bought for himself two luxury yachts for over $600 million, while making his Saudi subjects tighten their belts. It is also to be noted that the KSA currency reserves were already at that time being depleted faster than the speed of light, yet that did not seem to matter either for MBS. It would be interesting to know what else he bought and how much of the Kingdom’s shrinking oil money he has spent on himself during his shopping binge.

    Furthermore, let us remember that by the time he bought this second yacht, MBS was the head of the Royal Court as well as Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister (he was appointed to that crucial position by his father on January 23, 2015). He had also already started his bombing campaign in Yemen (“Operation Decisive Storm” was launched in March 2015), to devastating consequences for the civilian population, who quickly ran out of food and medicine and started dying en masse from a lethal mix of hunger and disease, provided they were not killed by the Houthi rebels or MBS’s own indiscriminate air strikes.

    So, what we have here is a Defense Minister who shortly after initiating a murderous bombing campaign in one of the poorest countries on earth, quietly goes on vacation in Southern France, indulges himself for weeks there, and on a whim buys a second yacht to the tune of half a billion, while imposing austerity on his own Saudi people and killing thousands of civilians in Yemen.

    Which Defense Minister just leaves the country for weeks on end (MBS even extended his French Riviera stay by 10 days just so he could finalize the contract) to vacation in France (or anywhere else) shortly after launching a major military intervention in a neighboring country? That incredibly casual, reckless, and criminally irresponsible behavior is highly reminiscent of Bush spending weeks on his Texas ranch after being warned by his own intelligence agencies that an Al Qaeda commando had managed to infiltrate the U.S. and was preparing a major attack on American soil (this was 9-11); or Trump, another buddy and ally of our Crown Prince, spending half his time as president of the United States on golf courses. MBS, evidently belongs to that category of heads of states.

    And there’s even more that keeps coming if one digs a little.

    As revealed by France’s top daily Le Monde and the Paradise Papers / International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (this remarkable ongoing investigation on a global scale involving a network of nearly 400 journalists and financial experts who have coordinated their efforts to track down how the rich and famous hide their money and other assets to escape tax evasion through legal and illegal means), MBS and Yuri Shefler hired the British Appleby law firm (the same one at the center of the Paradise Papers scandal itself) to organize for them a complex and opaque financial montage of fake off-shore companies in the Isle of Man (one of the world’s Top 10 tax havens) whose sole purpose was to allow His Majesty to escape paying the 84 million euros in taxes he should have paid to France, where he saw and purchased the boat (Le Monde, which is part of the Paradise Papers consortium, was able to get a leaked copy of the actual yacht contract signed by the two men.) Though the English-language press does not seem to have kept up with this, MBS’s deal with the Russian owner of the yacht is actually one of the thousands that has been exposed by the Paradise Papers investigation.

    Meanwhile, MBS does not seem particularly keen on helping the world, and his fellow Muslims, deal with that mammoth refugee crisis: “As Amnesty International recently pointed out, the ‘six Gulf countries — Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees.’ This claim was echoed by Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.” What a shame for a regime who brags about being the “guardian of Mecca”.

    A clear and present danger

    On foreign policy, MBS is the worst thing that could have happened to the Middle East at this particular, already volatile moment. In a mere few months, he has proven to be the main threat to stability and peace in the region, and with Assad and groups like ISIS, a major agent of destabilization and violence. As if the Middle East needed more of that.

    Like with all powerful men, when he fails, it’s others who pay the price

    There are at least four reasons why MBS is both a danger for the region and the Saudi people. First, he has acted as the most hubristic Saudi supremacist in the kingdom’s history. Second, there is his paranoia about, and against, Iran, KSA’s regional rival. Third, his character, which has a lot of common with Trump’s: behind his misleadingly mild manners there is a toxic mix of recklessness, extremism, amateurishness, lack of experience, absence of good and wise advisors around him, substandard education (a B.A. in law when the standard at the Saudi royal court is often a Ph.D. in one of the world’s top elite institutions), greed (for power, money, luxury etc.), indifference to the suffering he is causing around him, and brutality—including against members of his own family if he thinks they could one day become rivals. His good connection to some of the Saudi youth and his populist appeal to them will not be enough to redeem that. And fourth, largely due to that character, unfit for a head of state especially that of a major world power, his quasi systematic failures in pretty much all his enterprises. The problem is that like with all powerful men, when he fails, it’s others who pay the price.

    When it comes to failure, our Prince of Mayhem fails a lot, as we have seen these past several months. Here is a non-exhaustive list:

    His blockade of Qatar and attempt to bully that nation, even to bring it to its knees (for reasons evidently different from those he stated, the usual “fight against terrorism” invoked by all of the region’s despots) failed miserably, and actually backfired by pushing Qatar in the arms of Iran, Turkey and other regional powers. MBS’s poorly-conceived anti-Qatari “policy” actually resulted in the creation of a strong tactical Iran-Qatar-Turkey axis likely to undermine his own supremacist regional ambitions.

    His laughable yet dangerous Lebanese /Hariri operation (also initially meant to counter Iran and Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon) failed equally miserably. Prime Minister Hariri has now rescinded the resignation that MBS forced upon him, and even received a true hero’s welcome when he returned. Again, the bullying backfired.

    The Hariri adventure shows the reckless and dangerous nature of MBS: had he succeeded, Lebanon may have been profoundly destabilized with risks of civil wars and additional violence on its soil. The crown prince also revealed that he would not hesitate to trigger yet another war on Lebanese soil by using Israel as his attack dog against Hezbollah and Iran. Israel, was wiser and more cautious than to play into the Saudi bullying.

    In Iraq, he has also failed to counter the ever-growing influence of Iran at all levels of government and society.

    For many analysts, MBS has fallen into the Yemen trap set up for him by the much smarter and subtle Iranian regime, thus shooting himself, and his country with him, in the foot, as researcher Elizabeth Kendall explains here.

    But it is Yemen that remains his worst, bloodiest adventure and most atrocious failure so far.

    Launched in March 2015, operation “decisive storm”, now mockingly referred to as Operation indecisive storm, has turned out to be a quagmire in which the KSA and its coalition have been stranded for almost three years now. And again, it is the civilian population who is paying the very heavy price of MBS’ adventurist, violent and criminal policies. He, on the other hand, as mentioned earlier, went on vacation in Southern France buying luxury yachts shortly after pushing the KSA in this new and amateurishly-conceived military operation.

    The most concrete consequence of MBS’s actions in Yemen has been to throw fuel on the fire of what was essentially a domestic civil war (not an Iranian foreign operation as he is led to believe), and to push 7 million Yemenis to the brink of death by starvation and disease.

    His cruel and indiscriminate bombing campaign has turned Yemen’s civilian infrastructures including apartment buildings, schools and hospitals into dust while killing civilians by the thousands, leading even his E.U. allies to call for an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia. There is no doubt left at this point that this prince has been committing war crimes on a large scale, helped in that by western powers like France and the U.S. who keep selling him billions worth of weaponry, in full knowledge of how he uses them. Which incidentally makes heads of states like Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump themselves war criminals and major sponsors of Saudi (and Egyptian) state terrorism, if words still have meaning.

    The cruelty and extremism of MBS became even more apparent when on November 4, he implemented a complete blockade of Yemen well after that population had reached a critical stage and was already being decimated by famine coupled with the world’s worst epidemics of cholera (here, here, here, here, and here). Yet, unfazed, uncaring, solely motivated by his blind hatred of Iran, he did not hesitate for a second to make it even worse. Saudi Arabia has since partially lifted that murderous blockade but it is not nearly enough, and that decision was mostly due to the considerable international pressure and global outrage—even Trump asked the KSA to end its blockade!

    Let us remember here that MBS’ blockade of a population that already was in critical condition and dying from a mix of military operations, famine, and disease, even included humanitarian aid, food and medicine.

    What kind of leader does this to a defenseless civilian population before giving himself a little luxury vacation on the Riviera, wasting billions of his kingdom’s money on luxury goods bought from offshore fiscal paradises?

    The young Saudis, who naively believe his propaganda or put their hopes in that sordid, despotic character with already so much blood on his hands and a long record of abject failures, may want to reconsider.

    Let’s also notice how, in that particular context of a mass famine largely, though not solely, of MBS’s own making, it was particularly disgusting for Friedman to gleefully evoke all the rich meals of lamb, “several dishes of them!”, he was served by his autocrat in his " ornate adobe-walled palace in Ouja". This little boy here was not served Saudi lamb for dinner, though.

    Failure, abject strategies, and bad luck

    He has already started to sabotage his own economic plan

    When it comes to murderous policies, MBS has been second only to Assad. Even el-Sisi looks like a cautious, wise and reasoned strategist by comparison, and it is no small feat! Despite his attempt at creating a cult of personality around him through individuals like Friedman, MBS should be renamed Prince Shoot Himself in the Foot or The Reverse Midas Touch. He will probably manage to wreck by himself his one good, smart, much-needed and timely project: his grandiose Vision 2030 economic plan aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy for a post-oil future, which he essentially cut-and-pasted from Abu Dhabi’s own…Vision 2030 whose name he did not even bother to change.

    And as a matter of fact, he has already started to sabotage his own economic plan: apparently, no one in his “young” entourage explained to him that it is bad for business to scare potential investors away by arresting, kidnapping, robbing then ransoming hundreds of them including the most globally known ones like billionaire and international businessman Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. This may fare well among some Saudi youth, providing them with a populist outlet, but in the world of business investors and high finance that the KSA now increasingly depend on for its future, such a behavior is unacceptable especially at a time when the kingdom is badly in need of hundreds of billions of foreign investment while there’s growing skepticism around Vision 2030 (here, here, here).

    In that context, the spectacle of MBS locking businessmen and forcing them through blackmail, threat and actual violence to spit their assets is yet another mark, this time a domestic one, of his recklessness (his brutality, too) as a head of state. Whatever billions he may have obtained that way have probably been offset by the many more he must have already lost right there.

    One also observes that, to make things worse, MBS is also a very unlucky man. For example, just when he thought that former Yemen president Saleh reaching out to him would finally help the KSA extract itself from that nightmare of his own making, the man gets killed almost instantly! On Saturday December 2, Saleh makes his overture to Saudi Arabia and everyone thinks this could be the breakthrough that may help end the war. On Monday December 4, the man is dead, the hope for an exit from that quagmire is no more, and Saudi Arabia has to reengage itself even further in Yemen through stepped-up bombings.

    Similarly, MBS strikes an alliance with Israel (hoping to instrumentalise that country too through a war-by-proxy against Iran), but a mere few weeks later, his other ally Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, provoking outrage throughout the Middle East and beyond and putting our prince in an even more delicate and frankly impossible situation regarding this unholy alliance with Israel, whose regime is hated throughout the whole Arab world including the KSA.

    It recently came out that while hypocritically opposing the decision, MBS gave Trump the green light and behind the scenes has been helping Israel and some American zionists grab Jerusalem and the West Bank. Multiple sources including Israeli, Arabic, European and American ones reported that despite his criticism of Trump (for PR to his Arab public), MBS was allegedly from the start  in bed with the Israelis and with characters like Trump's son in law Jared Kushner to help them get Jerusalem and more including the West Bank. MBS is probably hoping to put Israel further on his side in his war against Iran. He allegedly also tried to convince Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas offering him money in exchange for his acceptance of the pro-Israel deal. In particular, the New York Times, reporting its own version of the meeting on December 3, confirmed through multiple insider sources that MBS offered Abbas “vastly increased financial support for the Palestinians, and even dangled the possibility of a direct payment to Mr. Abbas, which they said he refused.” All this is perfectly congruent with the rest of MBS foreign policy. It is therefore not just with Israel that MBS is fully in bed for cynical anti-Iranian reasons and goals, but with the most right-wing Israeli government and Trump’s White House.

    Such a deadly mix of incompetence, inexperience, brutality, adventurist recklessness, and indifference to the suffering caused by one’s ill-conceived policies would already represent a major threat to any country with such a head of state. But coupled as it is with regional supremacism and great power and outreach, it can only mean disaster for the whole region, the KSA included. And it is therefore no surprise that in a few short months since he rose to prominence, Bin Salman has already hurt the region badly (Yemen, support to Egypt’s brutal regime, etc.) or tried to do so (Qatar, Iran, Lebanon). Although he has not killed as many people as Assad, MENA’s worst mass murderer, MBS’ capacity and potential for nuisance is a lot greater than the Syrian president’s.

    Contrary to MBS, Assad has no imperialist ambitions and is merely content with staying in power and controlling his little western corner of “useful” Syria. But our prince wants to drag, push and suck the whole region, and the west, U.S. included, in an all-out war without end against Iran, or a series of hot and cold wars, no matter the cost. He has shown he was even willing to use Israel as his attack dog and have it start a war in Lebanon against Hezbollah and Iran. Let’s just imagine the result had he succeeded.

    Friedman describes bin Salman as the right person at the right time. Instead, he is the wrong—the worst, actually—person at the wrong time at the wrong place. His belly filled with those “many dishes of lamb” served to him by a despot while 7 million poor people were dying of hunger next door starved by his own princely guest, Friedman, happy like a child and proud of himself at how “important” he felt, had probably stopped thinking at that time. But this remark should have given him cause for concern, as that is the kind of bellicose rhetoric we heard before, for example during Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq:

    “Iran’s ‘supreme leader is the new Hitler of the Middle East,’ said M.B.S. ‘But we learned from Europe that appeasement doesn’t work. We don’t want the new Hitler in Iran to repeat what happened in Europe in the Middle East.’”

    When a world leader starts comparing his public enemy number one to Hitler, calling him “the New Hitler”, the “Hitler of the Middle East” and that sort of thing, you know it is not good news for the future.

    Besides his important and timely attempt to modernize the Saudi economy, Bin Salman has two essential goals, which help understand each and every one of his domestic and regional policies including his aggression against Qatar, his alliance-building activity with the UAE and Egypt, his war in Yemen, his efforts to secure western support by talking a little “liberal Islam”, and more: the first goal is to prevent a resumption of the ‘Arab Spring’. Those autocrats have all felt the heat in 2011, they feel a bit better now, but they also know that the ashes of that historic revolution are still burning under the snow and ice of the ‘Arab winter’. The second goal is, as mentioned earlier, regional Saudi supremacism and, if he could, the destruction of the KSA’s arch enemy and rival, Iran.

    There is nothing this crown prince and future king will not do or push others (Israel, Trump, etc.) to do to accomplish those two goals. If this dangerous character has his ways, it will mean the end of hope for Arab democracy, and wars without end throughout the whole region.

    That is why Mohammad bin Salman is now MENA’s main threat to peace, stability, and hope for democratization in the Arab world.

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  3. The crowds and the individual: why we should rethink how we debate complex issues on social media

    This is not an attempt to relitigate this episode, but to critically reflect on the underlying dynamics of social networks that contribute to such outcomes.

    Picture by Zoé Carle, with permission. Last November, an online discussion between two prominent Syrian writers triggered waves of recriminations across and against both. The accusations and counter-accusations between Razan Ghazzawi, a political dissident and feminist activist, and Yassin Haj Saleh, a leftist political dissident, reignited earlier discussions on the role of feminist struggle in the Syrian uprising and the patriarchal nature of its elites. The focus was on the balance, legitimacy and place of the different intersecting struggles within the uprising: specifically (and most of all) those concerned with gender and class.

    The original conflagration was started by an outrageous Facebook post by a young opposition Syrian activist and writer that carried a call for the rape of a pro-regime woman in Gaziantep, Turkey. This was as blatant an example as there could be of the pervasive patriarchy in the so-called secular Syrian oppositional sphere and the ubiquity of symbolic (as well as physical) violence against women in Syria in general.

    The comment itself, as well as the cultural strains it represents, is unacceptable and should be condemned, and the failure to unequivocally and immediately condemn it constitutes in itself an issue to be discussed.

    At the same time, to view this violence solely from the lenses of gender collapses the complexity of the issue and its intractable link to class, culture and the broader context of violence in the country. Indeed, there are serious, pertinent, and difficult, debates to be had about the intersection of these struggles in Syrian context. This complexity must be taken into consideration if the aim is to bring about a serious cultural transformation in this domain.

    Unfortunately, what could have been a significant opportunity for a fruitful (if conflictual) debate gave way to a series of recriminations, personal accusations and counter-accusations that mainly furthered the polarisation. Of course, to ignore the issue was indeed not an option. Moreover, we hope that there is still a chance that what appears now as a poisoned, divisive, and polarized battleground will be translated at some point into a discussion in which different positions can be articulated and some common ground over the issue of women in Syria and specifically in opposition circles can be found.

    Our chosen focus on communication processes may seem trivial to some given what is at stake

    This is not an attempt to relitigate this episode, but to critically reflect on the underlying dynamics of social networks that contribute to such outcomes. In the hope, perhaps, that in the future similar problems can be contained or partially avoided. Indeed, this is only the latest of many cases on Syrian social media spheres that followed a largely similar pattern.

    Our chosen focus on communication processes may seem trivial to some given what is at stake. However, we believe that how, where, and by whom these discussions are conducted can have a huge impact on the outcomes and, therefore, on the creation of a larger consensus or, as in this case, the recognition of what Syrian women have to struggle with on a daily basis.

    This last case, among many others, highlights a significant paradox in how we use social media networks and the effect it has on concrete social struggles. On the one hand, the episode highlights a monumental shift in the discursive power enjoyed by Syrian intellectuals before and after the 2011 uprising. This is, in no small part, due to the status that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter acquired as the main sites of discursive struggle in the sphere of Syrian revolutionaries and the site to express contentious politics. Social media networks equipped activists and intellectuals, like Ghazzawi and Haj Saleh, with unprecedented avenues to raise issues of importance for their primary constituencies and their connected networks. In a context of a brutal military conflict, fragmentation and exile of Syrian activists and intellectuals, these nascent spaces could arguably play a significant role in the shaping of new political blocs, opportunities and subjectivities.

    On the other hand, engaging with these discussions on social media has a price and presents us with many issues:

    One is the inherent individualism embedded in these forms of communication. Social media inevitably place the emphasis on personal authenticity and individuality, rather than collectives and groups. Thus, debates become very emotional and person-centered. Such a mode of communication foregrounds the actor above the issue, and erases the necessary distance between the person of a political actor and the (collective) ideas s/he represents. And thus, it quickly degenerates into the level of quarrel between single individuals, with the underlying political disagreement languishing in the background.

    Engaging with these discussions on social media has a price

    In the example above, this is translated into the activation of the relevant networks of both actors (respective circles of friends and like-minded people) into a defense based largely on personal loyalty and affinity. It is not relevant whether it is a conscious strategy or not as it is an almost automatic process. But it was clear that many people were not expressing solidarity or attacking on the basis of the ideas that were supposed to be at the core of the debate, but rather because of their personal relation with the two main actors of the discussion.

    The brevity and the immediacy of a Facebook post or a tweet facilitate misinterpretations and misunderstandings, so that many people are pushed even further to take position on the basis of their sympathies rather than on their knowledge about the topic at discussion. When some longer and less emotional clarifications came, it was already too late, as the machine of comments and insults was already at its peak and the debate was framed only along a “with” or “against” dynamic.

    This tendency towards a polarisation of the debate is further reinforced by the clustering dynamics of social networks creating echo-chambers of like-minded individuals largely isolated from other groups. Networks can give us the illusion that we can reach anyone, but we almost always end up reaching the same people with the same convictions. Networks almost never converge into a more heterogeneous movement, because the investment to articulate this process needs other forms of dialogue and organization. It is quite relevant, for example, that the debate around the specific case we are considering here was often divided into two different spheres: one in Arabic, and one in English.

    In other words, pro-feminist networks on Facebook or Twitter will meet many difficulties in reaching (and convincing) people who think in a different way. Worse still, when one always frequents people who have the same cultural background, one forgets what is needed to communicate with people who do not share crucial elements of that background.

    Another problem is the evasiveness and immediacy of the responses and tools at the disposal of such networks: likes, comments, shares, expressions of solidarity etc. can only sustain attacks on opponents or express solidarity but for a brief moment. After which the actor at the center of the storm is left isolated to deal with the aftermath of what could only be a traumatic episode. The brevity and immediacy with which these tools are used privilege again the emotional short-term response and leaves no room for reflection or organising. It solidifies the in-group but without the mechanisms to produce viable alternative discourses, and cross sectional collaborations and solidarities; it thus leaves both groups even more vulnerable to future challenges.

    The political scientist Jodi Dean in her book “Crowds and Party” makes this point very clearly: being part of a collective (like a party or any other structured organization) is also an affective matter. Having a collective around provides one with a shield when crowds (virtual or not) dissipate and disappear. Expressions of solidarity (likes, tweets, etc.) on social media do not provide this shield and leave the individual activist alone to fight the consequences (accusations, insults, acts of “betrayal”). In this context, the psychological pressure and feeling of isolation may be very difficult to bear. Solidarity on social media can alleviate it, but not resolve it.

    All these factors should be considered when we engage in complex and relevant debates relying on social media as a privileged medium. To be aware of such consequences is particularly relevant for Syrians, given the prominence that these platforms acquired to discuss and connect people geographically dispersed and often still lacking stronger forms of collective organizations.

    Other strategies must be experimented and this case should serve us as a lesson

    Alternatives are always available, but they require another, often less visible, collective labour: collective statements and organized media campaigns; engaging of existing actors to negotiate with them before going public; more centralized and stable networks; and, of course, the establishment of more structured organization. In all these cases, the use of social media comes after a patient collective organizing, and should not be the first step.

    Changing the ways we communicate with each other is of utmost importance if we consider the weak and fragmented character of Syrian secular opposition circles nowadays. Such a reflection inevitably involves the leading voices articulating these important issues (gender, class, among others) to take their responsibility in elaborating their positions and points of difference and to seek viable alliances and wider solidarity networks.

    These issues, if debated and articulated collectively, offer invaluable opportunities to articulate new subjectivities and political blocs. The patriarchal culture, often hidden and denied, among many Syrian opposition circles is a reality. In order to change that reality, among many others, other strategies must be experimented and this case should serve us as a lesson.

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  4. Shame on you, Sadiq Khan – London deserves better than more ‘stop and search’

    The London Mayor's plan to increase stop and search won’t stop knife crime in London – but will further damage community policing already hit by cuts.

    Image: London Mayor Sadiq Khan with police officers in Southwark. Stefan Rousseau/PA Images. All rights reserved.

    Sadiq Khan’s pledge last week to combat knife crime in the capital by increasing stop and search won’t work. It will only leave Londoners over-policed and under-protected. The tactic typically targets black and minority communities, damaging relations that are vital to intelligence gathering and fuelling the kind of frustration that leads to unrest.

    By promising more “intelligence-led” searches, Khan has reversed his pre-election commitment to decrease the practice. This is a knee-jerk reaction to a week of political criticism following a spike in stabbings and four New Year’s Eve deaths in the capital.

    The evidence shows stop and search is not effective. A 2016 Home Office study evaluating the increase of weapon stop-searches in London under Operational Blunt II in 2008/09, found that “there was no discernible crime-reducing effect from a large surge in stop and search activity at the borough level during the operation.”

    In New York City, use of stop-frisk has fallen by 98 per cent, to 12,000 searches in 2016. And the murder rate is at an all-time low. Police there have praised advanced analytics for helping them control violent crime and admitted that the department had previously “overused and sometimes misused” stop-frisk.

    Even the UK College of Policing have conceded that extremely large increases in stop and search would, at best, deliver modest reductions in crime. In relation to violent crime, they found that weapon searches had a negligible impact, estimating that, “if weapon searches were 10 per cent higher in week one, violent crime would have been 0.01 per cent lower in week two”.

    It’s true that in recent years there has been a welcome decline in the overall number of stop-searches. Yet there is no evidence to prove this is related to the increase in stabbings. There are many factors at play here. In London, local police stations are closing and there are fewer visible local police officers. Those that remain are stretched too thin to spend time gaining the trust and confidence of the local community – which is key to gathering the intelligence required to fight violent crime.

    In both 2016 and 2017, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) warned that neighbourhood policing was being undermined and that this would likely negatively affect police forces’ ability to undertake the vital proactive and preventative aspects of fighting crime.

    So while Khan caveats his promise with the guarantee that stop-searches need to be “intelligence-led,” without local police officers, where will this intelligence come from? Not only have reductions in neighbourhood policing harmed community-police relations, years of over-policing of black and minority communities have already obliterated their trust and confidence in police officers.

    Kwabena Oduro-Ayim, a young black accountancy student from Tottenham, perfectly illustrated the counterproductive nature of stop-search when I interviewed him for a 2013 report.

    “If you’re a child and you go to play football and the police officer stops and searches you… if you experience that from age 8, all through your secondary school career, you’re not going to have a positive view of the police. You will not invest faith in the police if something happens to you. You feel you have to take the law into your own hands. Being stopped three times in a day, that’s criminalising people who are already in an environment where it is extremely easy to slip into crime anyway. You don’t want to give them a motive to engage in crime.”

    Unlike the effectiveness of stop and search, the costs of the practice are significant and well documented. Stop-search, particularly when done badly, damages police/community relations, reduces public trust and confidence, discourages cooperation, and, ultimately, undermines the legitimacy of the police.

    A supposed panacea to all these problems, body-worn video cameras, do little to address concerns. Beyond the increasing concerns about the limited or one-sided images that are captured and limited evidence that it changes police officer behaviour, body worn cameras only capture attitudes and behaviour in isolated search instances. They do nothing to address proportionality and unequal impact on different communities. 

    Stop and search imposes a double burden on black communities, criminalising already marginalised communities, while doing little – if anything – to protect them. For Khan and senior police officers to maintain that stop and search is effective, despite the evidence, offers a false sense of security and does a disservice to the communities they serve. Increasing stop search activity will focus considerable resources that could be better used on other activities, while hurting those most in need.

    Shame on you Sadiq Khan, London deserves better.

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  5. Imagination and will in the Anthropocene

    How can we face up to the enormity of environmental collapse? How can we collectively build a politics for the Anthropocene? An interview with activist and former climate diplomat John Ashton CBE.

    How can we face up to the enormity of environmental collapse? How can we collectively build a politics for the Anthropocene? Laurie Laybourn-Langton interviews activist and former climate diplomat John Ashton. Laurie Laybourn-Langton (LL-L): You’ve been at the forefront of combatting climate change through your role at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and by founding E3G, the climate change thinktank, among others. The concept of the ‘Anthropocene’ goes beyond climate, to bring in the wider picture of environmental degradation and its causes. Is the word a useful addition to the vernacular to provide focus in a way that climate change or the environment, arguably, did in the past? John Ashton (JA): I would argue that the idea of the Anthropocene goes further. It’s about the relationship between human beings and nature, but it’s also about the relationship between human beings and each other. The ecological fabric and the social fabric are inseparable. You can’t address a problem unless you can talk about it, and you can’t talk about it unless you can name it. But my gut feeling is that the word ‘Anthropocene’ is never really going to be part of anybody’s vernacular, but at least it plants a flag in the ground. I think it will be much easier to build a politics of the Anthropocene from the left because of its focus on collective responsibility and justice. For me there is nothing more fundamental to the Anthropocene than trying to address the enormous injustice which is inherent in the way we collectively conduct ourselves at the moment. We have built a political and economic system which is based on plunder, and the most heinous example of that plunder is that which is being and has been carried out by my generation – I am 60 years old. We’re not wrecking our futures nearly as much as we’re wrecking the future of your generation. Your generation can no longer take it for granted that you have a prospect of a better life than mine, whatever that means. This is an extraordinary conclusion to be reaching because it would represent a collapse of everything we thought we had built, particularly with and since the Enlightenment. If I were your age, I would probably be fearful of the future rather than looking forward to it. LL-L: There is a view that, in an era of potentially exponential environmental change, exponentially accelerating technical ability will enable us to address it. Therefore, we will be fine because we will invent our way out of the problem. Do you agree? JA: I think that’s nonsense. It’s based on an impulse to respond to the problem through blind faith rather than through serious attempts to understand the problem. Also, it has within it an implicit assertion that this is a future problem, not a current problem. It represents a colossal failure of imagination, maybe in some cases a deliberate failure. Just to take one example, we have had for the last few years an average of something like an average of 10 people a day drowning in the Mediterranean in the attempt to reach the shores of Europe from Africa or the Middle East. This is part of a crisis which is unfolding now. It may not be unfolding for the people who are at the top of the big decision-making institutions in Britain, but it’s unfolding for an awful lot of other people. These events come from a complex interplay of social and environmental factors. Although those of us who live in cities in industrialised countries have built a certain amount of insulation from it, it’s not permanent insulation. We need to find ways of bringing the problem closer to the centre of our consciousness, not ways of holding it away from the centre. Our current language on the environment has become an obstacle. Natural systems are complex adaptive systems that have a tendency to self-regulate, but only when they remain within thresholds. Social systems are the same. Even neoliberalism asserts that the economy is self-correcting. In the neoclassical economics that lies at the heart of neoliberal politics, the condition of the ecological foundation is not a fundamental concern. If you notice the occasional problem opening up, you just price it into the market and the price signal helps you correct. That doesn’t help you when you’re dealing with irreversible change. It doesn’t help you when you’re dealing with non-linear change. It doesn’t help you when you’re dealing with thresholds of resilience. If you cross the threshold, a system that was once resilient suddenly becomes non-resilient. For heaven’s sake, we ought to have learned that lesson from the [2008 financial] crash, because that applies to the financial system as well. This is a theory which has no longer any useful application in terms of the practical challenges that politics faces and that societies face, but it remains far too embedded – and both explicitly and implicitly – in the way people in positions of leadership behave, all the time. LL-L: Britain is ostensibly seeking to work out what its role in the world is. Do you think it could have a positive role on the world stage by helping people understand the scale of breakdown, and in mobilising action? JA: It would have been much easier to say “yes” in response to that question a few years ago, even seven or eight years ago, than it is to say “yes” now. For a number of years, British climate diplomacy was my life. We didn’t do it from scratch; we stood on the shoulders of previous generations of politicians, officials, activists. But by 2010, or so, we had a sense that no country was being more influential around the world in building the foundation for a successful diplomacy of climate change than Britain was. This included the soft power that we’d inherited generation from generation, the fact that our climate scientists were contributing to the scientific debate disproportionately and were respected around the world. But our diplomacy was making a difference too, for example when we took climate security for the first time to the UN Security Council. For a while, we had a disproportionate impact. Small and medium-size countries can have a big influence on the world if the right conditions prevail and they use their diplomacy wisely. You have to have a culture and disposition towards cooperation. In the last few years, it seems to me British discourse has moved away from the idea of cooperation. Brexit, and the way the conversation is being conducted, illustrates that. It’s moved away from the idea that we need to be rooted in reality rather than points of view that have their roots in blind faith. That means at the moment, I fear, it would be very difficult for Britain to play a significant, certainly a disproportionate, role in constructing a diplomacy of shared interest in sustainable development fit for the Anthropocene. It’s a tragedy because it’s a mindless squandering of diplomatic assets; you can lose in a few minutes what it takes years to rebuild. I’m afraid that’s where we are. But diplomacy isn’t just about what diplomats do; it’s about the entirety of the conversations that we’re having in our society with each other, and with people outside our society and what they see of the conversations we’re having with each other. It may be that the most effective piece of Anthropocene diplomacy that we can do is to try and work out how to build a politics of the Anthropocene which can be scalable and which can start to influence others, which could be a reference point for others who are trying to do the same thing in their societies. LL-L: At the moment, are there any narratives that could be particularly useful at drawing people into this debate? One example could be around health. Take air pollution – dealing with traffic and transport in cities has shot to the top of the agenda because people can comprehend the health effects. Are there any of these narratives that could draw people in, health potentially being at the top? JA: The first question is: what do people care about? Not, how do you make them care about the Anthropocene? People care about their health and the health of their children. They care about what they eat. Look at the awful things that we keep learning about the way in which what we thought was a healthy and trustworthy food chain keeps being corrupted by people who are cheating and manipulating their freedom in the market in order to get away, potentially and almost literally, with murder. I think in both of those areas there is scope for collective action, for bottom up building of projects that can help to take us in the right direction – in some cases very community based, where you go street to street. If you asked me, “How would I start if I were of your generation, if I wanted to play a role in building this?” I think I would say, “organise a group of you, wherever you happen to be. Start knocking on doors and finding ways in which you can help to solve problems for people who are in difficulty, people who are vulnerable, that aren’t being solved by the way the system is working.” With roughly a million people now resorting to food banks every winter, there are plenty of people who I think might be interested in a serious kind of street-by-street engagement. All successful political movements start like that. That’s the ground that our ‘mainstream’ politics has vacated. Is the emergence of Momentum a sign that this might be about to change, at least on the left? It depends in the end on whether it can make people up and down our country feel that politics can after all be something that is done with them, not something that is done to them. A society which is coming to grips with the challenge of the Anthropocene is also going to be a society in which we care for each other when we need care. This is how we become part of a society in which humans are more than just a collection of atomistic, utility-maximising agents in an economic model. If we’re not caring for each other, we’re not going to be dealing with climate change; we’re not going to be dealing with ecosystem degradation; we’re not going to be addressing the drivers of mass migration at their roots. This is a comprehensive reshaping of politics. LL-L: What kind of narratives would you like to bequeath to a younger generation to make sure we basically keep up our morale as we try to sort this out? What should get us up in the morning? JA: The belief that together you have agency and the capacity to use your voices to repair the damage which is currently being done, and to start the healing and the building of the better future. This requires boldness and action. There’s room for lots of different projects, and activities, and types of mobilisation in different areas of society, but it’s just about coming together and doing that – having conversations that lead to action. The more you build in those conversations, the more inspiring they become and the more you believe that collectively you can build a critical mass. One asset that young people have more so than my generation is moral authority; you can point out that the mistakes that my generation have made and make are going to shape much more of your future because you’ve got more of your future ahead of you. That’s the reason why we need to listen to you, and make it as easy as possible for you to draw on our accumulated experience. Your generation would be justified in being angry, but actually that’s not going to get us very far. I think a more fertile conversation is to say to us, “we would like to enlist your help in building something very different from what you built, because that’s what we now need.” My generation don’t want to be thought of as not caring about our children’s futures – because we do – and so appealing to that would be quite a smart thing to do. You need our knowledge of how the system works and how the institutions can rapidly evolve into better institutions, because not everything is bad in our institutional framework. LL-L: My generation might be, in many respects, terrified. It’s also got to be determined and it’s got to be hopeful. Do you think it should also be excited? JA: Yes, hugely. But I don’t think terror is a helpful response, although I can understand why some people feel it. I don’t think we know enough to be sure that we will fail. I think there are grounds for at least entertaining the possibility that we can succeed. That means that there is no alternative but to invest in that success; this is the most exciting project. It’s a cultural project, a social project, an economic project, a political project. It seems to me that this is the most exciting project that humanity will ever have embarked upon, no less significant for example than what we now call the Enlightenment. This is about building, for the first time in history, a capacity for collective self-awareness, a sense of shared identity, and a political expression of our common will in pursuit of our common interest – not only as nations, tribes and social groups but as the species whose ancestors first ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. That’s what would get me up in the morning if I were your age. That’s what still gets me up in the morning now. This is an abridged version of an interview published in IPPR Progressive Review.

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  6. Mexico before the election storm

    Mexico's federal elections will be held on July 1, 2018, and the following federally elected offices will be renewed: the President of the Republic, 128 members of the Senate and 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies. Español

    A follower of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) holding a flag with the image of AMLO, September 9, 2012 at the Zocalo in Mexico city, Mexico. Photo: Susana Gonzalez/dpa/ef PA Image. All rights reserved.Although the electoral campaign officially opens in March, the main candidates for the presidency of Mexico are already defined and take advantage of the pre-candidacy period within their parties and coalitions to proselytize and position themselves in the race.

    Thus begins a marathon campaign: six months of wasteful spending of public resources, showers of promises, spots, adverts, posters, slogans, chants, debates, discrediting, accusations, rumors, intrigues and, given the country’s context and the actors who inhabit it, also some episodes of violence whose magnitude and scope are difficult to foresee.

    Progressive candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO for short) got into the pre-election struggle early, as is his custom, and has been intensifying his touring of the country since last year and working on the design of the program and his campaign team - both, by the way, noticeably more conservative than in his previous two runs for the presidency.

    AMLO has chosen a rather less leftist and more popular-national and plebeian profile, with a hint of anti-neoliberalism and democratization calls in an anti-oligarchic sense.

    AMLO is currently leading the polls, to a large extent because of his early start, because this is his third try, because of the visibility and the media exposure he gets for his charisma and the attacks of his opponents, and because he has created a national party fashioned in his image and likeness. The Movement of National Renewal (Morena) has displaced the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and taken its place in the center-left of the political spectrum.

    Within the available range of progressive options, AMLO has chosen a rather less leftist and more popular-national and plebeian profile, with a hint of anti-neoliberalism and democratization calls in an anti-oligarchic sense. Within his party, however, political practices are still tinged with autocratism, centralism, and a lack of open debate and participation. And party patriotism, to some degree, is hindering alliances and non-instrumental approaches to other actors of organized and mobilized civil society.

    Heterogeneity of origin and political leanings is the main characteristic of AMLO’s party leaders, who owe their position to their avowed allegiance to the former mayor of Mexico City. Over a background in all shades of grey, their sensibilities range from conservative to progressive, as former members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) coexist with former members of the PRD, and leaders of organized popular sectors with businessmen and leftist intellectuals.

    But despite this great sociological and ideological diversity assembled under AMLO’s leadership, Morena is seen by a large proportion of Mexico’s subordinate classes as the only real option in the current context. So, many of those who feel the need and the urgency to participate politically in the face of the country’s dramatic situation, be they critical, resigned or enthusiastic about this political instrument and its leader, end up gathering behind the candidacy of the Tabasco leader and the great electoral machinery which Morena is turning into.

    For AMLO himself and the left wing of his party, their one and only purpose is to finally beat what they call the "Mafia in power"

    While for sympathizers and rank-and-file militants, as for AMLO himself and the left wing of his party, their one and only purpose is to finally beat what they call the "Mafia in power", many Morena leaders, particularly those who have joined the party recently and have recycled themselves looking for a post, would be quite happy to just keep their jobs in public institutions, to enlarge Morena’s benches so that they can secure a federal parliamentary seat, and to conquer enough states and city halls so that they can access a significant portion of public resources.

    In particular, the results of the election of the President, the Chamber of Deputies and Mexico City’s delegational mayors will give a measure of the relation between Morena's growth and settling and the PRD’s terminal crisis - or its capacity for survival. For the last 20 years – ever since the election of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas in 1997 -, Mexico City has been a showcase for both the outreach and the limits of the center-left opposition not only in electoral terms – that is, the outreach and the limits of the continuing influence of progressivism in Mexico’s capital city, in contrast with its historical difficulty to obtain substantial support in other parts of the country -, but also in terms of its political project and its ability to translate it into policies.

    In fact, the mandates of the four consecutive progressive mayors - Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Marcelo Ebrard and Miguel Ángel Mancera – have not beeninfactvery different, both in form and content, from the PRI's traditional combination of social handouts, patronage and neoliberalism, except for some praiseworthy but isolated redistributive initiatives in the shape of public works and expansion of rights, particularly during AMLO’s tenure (2000-2006).

    Morena shows its best face in Mexico City, where it fields Claudia Sheinbaum, an academic from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) who combines leftist credentials, personal virtues and a political career always close and loyal to López Obrador. Even more than AMLO’s, her profile should attract important sectors of young and enlightened progressive middle class people, whose weight is important not only in terms of votes, but for the conformation of public opinion.

    However, maintaining administrative control of the City is of vital importance for the PRD, which has been bled by an exodus of cadres and members towards Morena, has lost its ideological contour by accepting President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Pact for Mexico, and has been subsumed under the logic and practices of the Mexican political system - the "PRI way" of doing politics.

    To the PRD, Obradorismo has been and will be the enemy.

    With its support down to some clientelist bases in Mexico’s capital city and a handful of other states, the PRD badly needs the oxygen that access to local government posts and public financing can provide, since the former center-left opposition party is rapidly becoming a small party destined, by the workings of the majority voting system, to sell itself to the highest bidder so as to ensure electoral registration and public financing.

    To the PRD, Obradorismo has been and will be the enemy, for it is competing in the same geographic and political territory - which is quite an interesting fact for the regime, for both the PRI and the right-wing National Action Party (PAN), as it can erode and subtract votes from Morena. And the PRD, desperately needing to remain parasitically embedded in the institutions, has culminated its drift with an ideological "slip" by entering - as a minority partner - into an alliance with the PAN, called Mexico up Front.

    Prospects are not very promising either for the PAN, after its two presidential terms which disappointed insiders and outsiders alike, although the party enjoys strong local electoral support in the center-north of the country. Their presidential candidate, young national leader Ricardo Anaya, has generated some resistance within the party and even a split with former president Felipe Calderón, who has decided to promote the independent candidacy of his wife, Margarita Zavala. Another independent candidate, Jaime Rodríguez, known as El Bronco, is a former PRI member who combines a demagogic discourse against party politics and very traditional pragmatism as governor of the state of Nuevo León.

    Today's adverse atmosphere and the loss of Zapatista influence mean that even collecting the necessary 800.000 signatures for registering as an independent candidate is proving difficult.

    To the left of the party spectrum, native Zapatista candidate Marichuy  seeks to take advantage of the situation to revitalize, give consistency and broaden the visibility of the struggles which, particularly in the native territories and communities, are currently resisting the dispossession of common goods in rural and urban environments through devastating megaprojects.

    Marichuy's anti-capitalist discourse for organizing resistance is aimed primarily at the subordinate classes, which are being aggrieved by the dismantling of social rights, by educational and energy reforms, and by the recently passed Internal Security Law. Unlike its Other Campaign of 2006, which Zapatismo organized in a more favourable context both in terms of opportunities and correlation of forces, the tone of Marichuy's pre-campaign is markedly defensive. Today's adverse atmosphere and the loss of Zapatista influence mean that even collecting the necessary 800.000 signatures for registering as an independent candidate is proving difficult.

    The PRI does not have much to offer and bears, to a large extent, the historical and political responsibility for the degradation of the citizens' living conditions and of coexistence in Mexican society.

    This multi-coloured pleiad of candidates foretells a dispersion of the opposition vote that will inevitably favour the PRI, which is the only true national party, given that the PAN traditionally fails to gather much support in some central-southern-western states, and the PRD and Morena do not have significant strength in several northern areas.

    As Peña Nieto's term is nearing its end, however, the PRI does not have much to offer and bears, to a large extent, the historical and political responsibility for the degradation of the citizens' living conditions and of coexistence in Mexican society. Neither the PRI of bygone years nor the current one enjoy much prestige, but small and big interests take refuge in it.

    Despite the fact that the support of the elites and the bureaucracy can be taken for granted, it will not be easy to build a national-popular image of their "citizen" candidate, José Antonio Meade, not a party member, a technocrat with an Anglo-Saxon surname who has been Secretary of Finance in the Peña Nieto cabinet but served also under the previous PAN administrations.

    Notwithstanding, the PRI's manifold resources and the forceful support of the mainstream media could end up producing a nice and friendly Pepe Toño Meade, a candidate capable of taking a walk among the crowd and offering bread and circus in the morning and then, in the afternoon, going on to reassure the markets and collude with the employers' confederations, the banks and the US government. We should remember how an uncharismatic candidate like Peña Nieto was manufactured six years ago, and how not even a powerful movement against him by the mobilized youth of #YoSoy132 was able to dismantle that sham.

    Ultimately, if the campaign operations were to fail - media manipulation, the networked alliance with the powers that be, the massive use of resources and patronage control of the vote - there is always, as a last resort, the traditional and effective recourse to electoral fraud. That is,unless a democratic overflow prevents it.

    In fact, recent history shows that, in the heat of the sexennial struggle, unpredictable extra-institutional phenomena often do happen. Blatant frauds in the face of the emergence of massive democratic movements, the fear vote against the Zapatista uprising, the murder of a PRI candidate: these are some of the repertoires chosen in the past. So, there is only one predictable thing: given what is at stake, the dispute is unlikely to stay within the narrow and flimsy frame of the rules of the electoral game.

    Mexico's federal elections will be held on July 1, 2018, and the following federally elected offices will be renewed: the President of the Republic, 128 members of the Senate and 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies.

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  7. Frontpage 16th January
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    Why Colombia is still living in the shadows of war - free thinking for the world
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    The Colombian flag. <a href="">Flickr/Carlos Castro Ruge</a>. CC BY-NC 4.0. Some rights reserved.
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    One of Rome's very few shelters for women is now under threat too
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    We need to talk about gender-violence against poorer, non-white women too
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    The police is crushing peaceful resistance from refugees in Greece

    At the edge of Fortress Europe, violence, arbitrary raids and arrests, racist profiling and exaggerated criminal charges have become an everyday occurence

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    How Barcelona is doing radical politics, differently
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  8. A second referendum on the deal with the EU: a multi-option poll

    More than anything else, perhaps, the UK now needs something which is not just accurate but also inclusive.

    lead Ramon Llull/Raimundus Lullus (1232? - 1316. Wikicommons/ from the collection of Friderici Roth-Scholtzii Noriberg. Some rights reserved.To identify the nation’s collective will, we need to collate the voters’ individual wills. This cannot be done in a ‘yes-or-no?’ (‘remain-or-leave?’) vote in which some people say only what they do not  want. So, logically, the 2016 referendum did not and could not identify “the will of the people.” This is confirmed by the fact that, today, nobody knows what the collective will actually is, and hence all the arguments about whether Brexit is to be ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ or whatever? Nobody knows what the collective will actually is, and hence all the arguments about whether Brexit is to be ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ or whatever...

    If that ballot had been multi-optional – something like ‘the UK in the EU, the EEA, the Customs Union or the WTO?’ – each voter could have voted for what they actually wanted, and, if people had voted ‘sincerely’ rather than ‘tactically’ – to use the terms from social choice science – the most popular option could have been identified.

    The correct procedure would have been to set up an independent commission, so to determine which options best represented the national debate; this was done in New Zealand in 1992, before they had their five-option referendum on their electoral system.

    Multi-option polling

    Consider the theory. When the House of Lords debated Lords reform in 2003, they took five majority votes on five options, but lost all of them.

    If Brexit had been four majority votes on the above four-options, and if, as in the Lords, voters had cast a preference only once, then ‘in the EU’ could have got 48% and each of the other three a part of 52%.  In other words, the 2016 referendum should probably have been a victory for ‘remain in the EU’. The 2016 referendum should probably have been a victory for ‘remain in the EU’.

    So what should happen now?  At the very least, academia and the media, not least the BBC, should begin talking about multi-option decision-making. (It has been in the public domain for over 800 years, after Ramón Llull first raised the subject. And he, of course, was a Catalan!)  It must further be recognised that some jurisdictions have actually used multi-option referendums, like Westminster.  Ha!  The precedent was set in 1949, when after protests in Halifax, Newfoundland was eventually allowed a plebiscite of three-options. Later, in 1982 in Guam, six options were presented to the electorate; not only that, a further option was left blank, so anyone(s) who wanted to (campaign and) vote for a seventh option could do exactly that.

    In summary, a pluralist democracy is possible; and ideally, as Ramón Llull implied, the appropriate voting procedures should be preferential.

    Preferential polling

    In multi-candidate elections or multi-option decisions, a voter cannot express his/her opinion accurately if, á la George Orwell, he is able to say, in effect, only “This one ‘good’ and those ones ‘bad’.”  Furthermore, any calculation of the collective based on such inaccurate data will obviously also be inaccurate.  Therefore, individuals should indeed be allowed to cast their preferences. Individuals should indeed be allowed to cast their preferences. 

    In let’s say a five-option debate, he who casts one preference (and says nothing about the other options) gives his favourite 1 point (and zero to the other options). She who casts two preferences gives her favourite 2 points (her 2nd choice 1 point, and zero to the other three options). And so on. So he who casts all five preferences gives his favourite 5 points, (his 2nd choice 4 points, his 3rd 3, etc.). The difference is always 1 point; there is no especial weighting.

    Wanting to win, the protagonist will ask her supporters to give her option the maximum 5 points, that is, to cast full ballots. In all, she will need lots of high preferences, a few middle ones perhaps, but very few low ones; accordingly, she should try to persuade any opponents to give her option not a 5th but a higher preference. 

    This points-system of voting – the Modified Borda Count, MBC – was considered by Ramón Llull in 1199, formally proposed by Jean-Charles de Borda in 1774, and then adopted in the French Academy of Sciences ten years later.  (Alas it was replaced in 1800 by majority voting, on the orders of one not best known for his democratic ideals, Napoléon Bonaparte.)  The MBC identifies the option with the highest average preference… and an average, of course, involves every voter, not just a majority of them.  The methodology, therefore, is inclusive.  And more than anything else, perhaps, the UK now needs something which is not just accurate but also inclusive.

    Any second (or fresh) referendum

    Accordingly, the government should task an independent commission to receive submissions and then draw up a multi-option referendum of between 4 – 6 options. The subsequent ballot should allow the voters to cast their preferences; the count should be conducted according to the rules laid down for an MBC; and the option with the highest points total should be declared the winner. 

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  9. Union-busting, Russian style

    The Russian authorities are using "foreign agent" legislation against MPRA, the closest thing Russia has to an independent trade union. 

    1 May 2016: Russian labour activist Alexei Etmanov leads a demonstration of autoworkers through St Petersburg. Source: MPRA / Facebook.On 10 January, St Petersburg City Court issued a ruling to dissolve the Interregional Trade Union (MPRA), known for its high-profile strikes at a Ford plant. This is the first time Russia’s 2012 law on non-governmental organisations acting as "foreign agents" has been applied to a workers' organisation. Unions were previously untouched by it.

    An independent union

    While not the largest Russian trade union (its official membership numbers approximately 4,000), MPRA is perhaps the most renowned. It emerged in the midst of a high-profile series of strikes at the Ford plant in Vsevolozhsk outside of St Petersburg, the most well-known of which took place in winter 2007. Bringing production to a halt and blocking the entrance to the factory, the Ford workers won the majority of their demands from the plant's administration. Wages grew by 11%, and yearly pay raises were indexed to one percent above the rate of inflation. For several years afterward, the Vsevolozhsk factory's contract, which determined working conditions and benefits, was considered a model in union circles.

    The leader of the strikers, welder Alexei Etmanov, became famous overnight and, in 2011, was elected to the Leningrad Region Legislative Assembly, where he showed his worth in the opposition. In 2014, his antiwar position on Ukraine cost him the support of the center-left party A Just Russia and his mandate. In 2016, Etmanov ran on the liberal Yabloko ballot line and lost.

    By the end of the 2000s, the Ford factory's example had spread: workers at Volkswagen, AvtoVAZ, Omsktransmash, and dozens of lesser-known companies both foreign- and Russian-owned joined the ranks of MPRA.

    Unlike the old trade unions, which serve mostly to distribute favours, MPRA has placed its bets on collective action, arousing the anger of the state

    Over the past 10 years, only a few have managed to replicate the Ford workers' success, which was surpassed only by the workers of the Volkswagen factory in Kaluga. There, the staff of the plant was able to avoid the massive layoffs that swept through the auto industry in 2015. According to the contract that the union won, autoworkers in Kaluga would be sent not back onto the job market, but on paid vacation and training at the auto group's European branches.

    In the pre-crisis years [before the collapse of the Russian rouble in 2014], MPRA made a name for itself through several strikes and protests. Unlike the old trade unions, which serve mostly to distribute favours, MPRA has placed its bets on collective action, arousing the anger of the state, not to mention employers. In 2016, a Kaluga TV channel produced “Anatomy of a Union”, a "whistleblowing" film that accused MPRA of ties to the west and orchestrating a “Maidan”. Further attacks followed.

    Last year, on 19 May, a complaint about the union was filed with the prosecutor for the Krasnogvardeysky district of St Petersburg. The man behind the complaint, Ivan Remeslo, calls himself a lawyer and investigator, but he is better known as a propagandist who specialises in criticising the Russian opposition. The prosecutor's office took the cue right away, beginning an audit that resulted in a lawsuit for the union's dissolution.

    "The first question the prosecutor’s representative asked when they visited our office was: ‘So what do unions do?’ These are completely ignorant people. But these days, the brood of snitches who use state prosecutors as a tool for their own political gain keeps growing,” declared Alexei Etmanov as he left the courtroom.

    The judge needed no more than five minutes in chambers to dissolve the union.

    “Do you have any relatives abroad?”

    MPRA was charged with “egregious violations of the law and systematic actions counter to the rules.” All of the items in the indictment can be sorted into three groups: formal complaints about the union's founding documents (for example, the use of the phrase “social association” instead of “social organisation” in the rules), involvement in political activity disguised as union activity, and receiving funding from abroad.

    The decision of the St Petersburg court is unprecedented for two reasons. For the first time, an organisation not included in the state register of foreign agents was dissolved by a court for “performing the functions of a foreign agent” (the court opined that MPRA should have registered as a foreign agent voluntarily), and, for the first time, a trade union has fallen within the purview of the law on foreign agents.

    Until now, Russian unions had felt themselves to be relatively safe; they were protected by International Labour Organization conventions, which Russia has ratified, and by the federal law on trade unions, which distinguishes them from other civil society organizations.

    “This court decision throws the entire existence of trade unions in Russia into doubt. It hasn't come into legal force yet, and I sincerely hope that the Supreme Court will reconsider it”

    “We all understand perfectly well that Russian trade unions are a part of the international labour movement,” says Oleg Babich, the director of the legal department of the Confederation of Labor of Russia (the KTR, of which MPRA is a part), who represented the union in court.

    In MPRA’s case, this means the global union IndustriALL, which brings together unions of metalworkers and chemical workers in more than a hundred countries of the world. In Russia, its members even include several perfectly state-approved unions, which, according to this logic, should also now be dissolved.

    The accusation of foreign financial support for MPRA is based on its receiving one-time grants of 150,000 and 180,000 roubles ($2,500 and $3,000) over the course of two years to organise trainings and workshops. However, in Alexey Etmanov's words, MPRA gives IndustriALL more than 200,000 roubles ($3,300) each year, and has a right to some compensation.

    “Basically all unions do some kind of back-and-forth funding,” Oleg Babich explains. “It turns out that, using these kinds of lawsuits, without any warning or other, more gentle measures, they can now destroy large organisations that unite thousands of people.”

    Solidarity outside of the law vs. unions outside of politics

    The most unusual accusations brought by the city prosecutor against MPRA are that it gave moral support to the 2015 protest of long-distance truck drivers, as expressed in an article titled “PLATON is no friend of ours” and that union activists participated in a protest of fast-food workers from Carl’s Jr. and a protest of doctors against cuts to hospital staff. According to the agency's logic, MPRA only had the right to defend the interests of its own members, but not the members of other organisations, even those with which it was affiliated.

    Further “proof” of how Alexei Etmanov’s union “was actually involved in politics” was provided by the union’s online petition to change Article 134 of Russia's Labour Code. These corrections were aimed at eliminating a loophole allowing private companies not to index their workers’ pay to the level of inflation.

    “This court decision throws the entire existence of trade unions in Russia into doubt. It hasn't come into legal force yet, and I sincerely hope that the Supreme Court will reconsider it,” Oleg Babich commented. Alexei Etmanov is not planning to lay down his arms, either. If the higher court leaves the decision to dissolve the union in effect, MPRA may be resurrected under a new name.


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    This article was originally published at Proved, and translated at Socialist Worker

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  10. Operations Manager

    We are looking for an experienced Operations Manager to ensure the smooth running of the openDemocracy office and play a key role in developing our systems and processes at a pivotal moment.

    Hours: 28-35 hours a week
    Pay: Up to £30,000 per annum (pro-rata)
    Contract: Permanent
    Location: London office
    Application deadline: Sunday 21st January 2018

    About openDemocracy

    openDemocracy (established in 2001) is a global, non-profit media platform that seeks to challenge power and inspire change through tenacious reporting, thoughtful analysis and democratic debate. We run deep investigations; we partner with NGOs, think tanks, activists and academics across the world; and we have an open submissions policy committed to diversity of voice and perspective. We publish in Russian, Arabic, Spanish and Portuguese as well as English, with an ambition to bring on more languages. We also partner on major global conferences, and occasionally run specialist on-the-ground events ourselves, bringing together innovative activists and thinkers from across the globe to try and solve some of the world’s most entrenched problems.

    The role

    We are a small, dynamic and growing organisation with big ambitions and the Operations Manager role, which sits at the heart of openDemocracy’s operations team, will be key in ensuring the smooth running of the openDemocracy office and building the foundations for the future.

    Supporting the Head of Operations & Finance, Managing Editor and Finance Manager you will be responsible for developing and maintaining systems and processes that will enable our brilliant journalists and editors to focus on openDemocracy’s mission. You will have proven experience in operations / administrative / project support roles and be highly organised with the ability to maintain a detailed overview of all aspects of a varied workload.

    This is a challenging and exciting time to be here, and we are looking for someone who will share our excitement, and will approach the role with confidence, spirit and enthusiasm. 

    The key responsibilities of the role are:

    • Office management & administration – ensuring the smooth running of the openDemocracy office by establishing and maintaining effective systems and processes.
    • HR & Training – supporting oD’s brilliant staff by developing and managing HR systems and processes including recruitment and induction; organising staff training and reviewing and updating training guides.
    • Project support – supporting the Managing Editor in the development of project management systems and processes and the administration of main site projects and grants.
    • Financial administration – supporting the Finance Manager in maintaining and updating financial systems and processing payments. 

    For more details, click here to see the job description and person specification. 

    How to apply

    Candidates must be able to demonstrate the skills, knowledge and experience detailed in the person specification section of the job description.

    To apply please click here to submit your CV and a letter outlining how you fit the criteria for the role as detailed in the job description. Please also include details of two referees (we will request permission before contacting any referees) and whether you are applying for the role on full-time, part-time or flexible basis.

    Application deadline: Sunday 21st January 2018 with interviews likely to be the week commencing 29th January 2018.

    We particularly encourage those from groups who tend to be under-represented in the media to apply. We are also open to family-friendly working hours, and/or to accommodating other caring responsibilities.

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