Friday, September 30, 2011


Back from a fascinating trip to that well-known centre of anarchist agitation - Tunbridge Wells. Well, in the late Nineteenth Century it was the place where the first British anarchist newspaper was produced. These days perhaps it isn't quite as lively. I am tired, so my thoughts turn to garlic ... seriously they do. Watch this:

How to Peel a Head of Garlic in Less Than 10 Seconds from on Vimeo.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

No alternatives?

Let’s get this straight. The Greek economy — and with it the Euro — is disintegrating because Greek politicians are implementing austerity, not because they are failing to.
Ann Pettifor
Despite all this, we should remember that Greece represents a mere 2% of the European economy. It is just not worth this huge polarising crisis or incredible psychodrama. The Germans and the European Central Bank are treating this not as a straightforward economic issue of indebtedness and default but as a morality play in which the Greeks must be punished.
Susan George 
 Greece's great economic crisis has been a gradual war of attrition. Massive job losses, tax increases and galloping inflation have sapped the nation's energy and, increasingly, Greeks no longer believe what their politicians say. With cuts instead being blamed for slashing consumption, deepening recession and missing deficit-reducing goals, austerity is seen as a pointless exercise that far from exiting the country from crisis has exacerbated its plight.
Helena Smith
Austerity is not the only option, it is a choice to make the poor pay for a crisis they did not cause.
Owen Tudor
The problem has been the unwillingness to refinance first Greece, then Ireland, then Portugal. Their share in the euro area public debt to GDP ratio is ridiculously low:  cancelling the debt would have been less painful.
Riccardo Bellofiore

There are choices, but they are not easy.

Friday, September 23, 2011


This is a revealing report about football's attempt to try and deal with homophobia.
The makers of an educational DVD that aims to raise awareness of homophobia in football have expressed their frustration at not being able to secure the support of a gay Premier League player they asked to take part in the film ... 

"We approached him thorough a third party and felt quite confident of getting him involved [in the DVD]. But he ultimately refused. There is a log jam in regards to this issue, a final taboo which, in the short term at least, does not appear close to breaking. We're certainly not going to out anyone against their will but, at the same time, getting gay footballers involved would make a big difference in tackling this issue."
The film makers couldn't even get a straight footballer to appear, whilst the Professional Footballer's Association indulged in the sort of sophistry that prevents change, blaming the crowds rather than taking any responsibility for giving a lead themselves.
... the PFA chief executive, Gordon Taylor, suggested that post-Fashanu, and despite its increasingly diverse nature, British football remains too hostile a territory for players to even associate themselves with homosexuality. "It would be unfair to ask an individual to back a campaign like this in case they got targeted by crowds," Taylor said. "It's a macho environment and we believe the time would be more appropriate when crowds are more civilised." 
 Now if football is macho, what about Rugby League? Footballers roll around on the floor for hours when they break a fingernail, whilst in last month's Rugby League Challenge Cup Final one player played most of the game with a badly broken finger where the bone was sticking out through the flesh (in a handling game!) and another came back on to finish the match after dislocating his shoulder. Tough - you bet.

So when Gareth Thomas, the openly gay Welsh Rugby player, switched to play League he got loads of stick in the dressing room - not for being gay, but for having played Union. And when Castleford fans gave him homophobic abuse, the club was instantly fined. It wasn't all plain sailing, Thomas was still prepared to be a pioneer and he talks about it superbly in this marvellous profile. But both he (and other players who have come out), together with the Rugby League were not prepared to hide and have taken a stand against prejudice.

And if that is admirable, then what about Sheffield Eagles? They had a float at the Manchester Gay Pride parade. They also backed the Rugby League's "Homophobia - Tackle it!" campaign by wearing a special shirt with the slogan on it in their home game against Widnes. Tonight they got their just reward, beating Leigh to win a place in the Championship Grand Final from fourth place.

Football's global reach gives it a unique possibility to act as an agent for change. It is able to reach into societies where rampant homophobia is supported by government legislation, yet is reluctant to take a stand on an issue that matters to millions of players and fans world-wide. Not for the first time, it has a lot to learn from Rugby League.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Milking blood

What is going to happen to Greece?  When austerity was embarked upon as a response to the horrendous deficit, critics didn't demur about the need for reform and the reduction of the Greek sovereign debt. However, they argued that austerity at a time of recession was not the way to do it and that the social and economic consequences of austerity programmes in a contracting economy could be dire. Without investment, measures to promote growth and with Greece lacking the ability to adjust their exchange rate, a policy of increasing competitiveness through 'internal devaluation' (reducing living standards) would shrink demand in a time of recession thereby, they argued, raising costs and lowering the income of the Greek state. The resulting sharp economic downturn would end up increasing the deficit. David Blanchflower has called this a "death spiral". Guess what has happened? Spot on. The response - more of the same? Yep, you got that right too.

Why should that be so?  Chris Dillow sees moral and political pressures preventing a number of perfectly feasible solutions, leading to the horrible indecision of European policy makers. I would highlight the extraordinary strength of the ideological belief in the economic consensus in the face of its failure. Larry Elliott, who had long predicted the implosion of both the banking system and the Euro from a social democratic perspective, echoing Vince Cable's war-time rhetoric, remembers Beveridge and calls for a rejection of the dominant model of political economy, something that Cable eschews:
Our political masters should look at the current benighted state of Britain and conclude that it is time to start planning for a post-crisis world. They need to accept that the model of the past quarter-century was unfit for purpose. That's what Beveridge concluded in 1942. He would come to the same conclusion today.
Across Europe, the mainstream left has conspicuously failed to construct and articulate alternatives, offering little hope for change. They have failed the most important political challenge presented to them for a generation. In the meantime, ordinary Greeks are in despair and social pressures mount.

I think back to the 80s. Then the debt crisis belonged to the developing world. It didn't seem to matter so much to the wealthy nations in those days and rarely found its way to the front pages or produced embarassing political rhetoric at party conference time. The solutions that the IMF imposed were the same as the ECB are insisting on today. The writer, Susan George, published a powerful book on it, A Fate Worse than Debt, and made a TV documentary of the same name. I remember the end of the film. It featured an interview with Julius Nyerere.* He concluded,
You know, there is a limit to the cow. The cow only has so much milk. You can't go on milking the blood, you'll be in trouble. And at present, they're really milking blood from the South. These countries can't pay it - so they'll collapse.
 Just how much milk is left in the Greek economy? 

*Transcript here

Friday, September 16, 2011

Decline and fall

When I was younger I remember reading the journalism of John Pilger with some admiration. His style was exemplary and I was particularly taken with his work on Cambodia. This was the time when the UN refused to recognise the government installed by Vietnam after the invasion that ended the genocide. Instead, they gave the Cambodian seat to the representatives of the Khmer Rouge, then busy mounting a terrorist campaign from the border with Thailand with covert support from the West and China. Pilger's exposure of the horrors of Pol Pot's regime and his support for the intervention that brought it down made an impression. Even if he was too uncritical of the Vietnamese, he was an eloquent advocate of a successful humanitarian intervention that was being opposed by powers locked into a cynical foreign policy. Then something began to go wrong.

It really started with the civil war in Yugoslavia and his opposition to Western action against Serbia.  Where now was his belief in humanitarian intervention? The only way he could maintain consistency was to distort the evidence in order to say that this intervention was somehow not the same as Vietnam's, not merely mistaken or inauthentic, but in some way duplicitous. Instead of exposing massacres and human rights abuses, as he had in Cambodia, he indulged in denying them in the teeth of overwhelming evidence. In doing so, he started down a dark path that leads away from evidence, truth and a commitment to expose the evils of the malign, to a place of mirrors where the crimes of those you are inclined to support are miraculously transformed to become all the fault of those that you oppose. It is the paranoia of partisanship. He was not alone on this journey and his descent continued through international crisis after crisis until we reach Libya. Even the UN decision to support the revolution against a gruesome dictatorship could not disturb this mindset and when I read a piece he published on the Stop the War Coalition's site, I knew he was lost. Even by the baleful standards of  that organisation, it slumps into the gutter.

For Pilger, the Libyan revolution "is a coup by a gang of Muammar Gaddafi's ex cronies and spooks in collusion with Nato", who "told journalists what they needed to know: that Gaddafi was about to commit "genocide", of which there was no evidence" (apart from the thousands of unarmed demonstrators killed already, Gaddafi's direct threat, the aircraft bombing rebel areas indiscriminately and the tanks rolling into Beghazi, together with the impassioned pleas of those about to die - but then that's what happens when you abandon truth in favour of prejudice). But it gets worse. The revolution - oops, sorry - "revolution", was down to "Nicholas Sarkozy, a Napoleonic Islamophobe whose intelligence services almost certainly set up the coup against Gaddafi". Why? No prizes for guessing.
"Nato attacked Libya to counter and manipulate a general Arab uprising that took the rulers of the world by surprise. Unlike his neighbours, Gaddafi had come to power by denying western control of his country's natural wealth. For this, he was never forgiven, and the opportunity for his demise was seized in the usual manner, as history shows".
Of course, there are a few inconvenient facts glossed over here, like the fact that Gaddafi was gleefully handing control of his country's natural wealth to the West in return for rehabilitation and that the UN (it was a legal intervention led by NATO and mandated by a UN resolution) dithered for ages about whether to do what the increasingly desperate revolutionaries were asking for. Rather than manipulating the revolution, they saved it from certain defeat. For those of us with longer memories, this makes a refreshing change.

All this would be bad enough, yet there is something worse lurking underneath. Missing voices. The voices of ordinary Libyans. Certain that the reason why the UN provided air support for the Libyan revolution is counterfeit, the likes of Pilger have to dismiss the explosions of joy at the end of Gaddafi's regime. And, ironically, by doing so they are infantalising the people, seeing them as manipulable subjects of the imperial powers, incapable of expressing their own feelings and taking action for themselves. And it makes me wonder just who are the imperialists now.

It is a curious journey that Pilger has undertaken. But it is one that shows what happens when you abandon critical thought to allow a predetermined narrative to overcome any commitment to principle you might have once had and try to shoehorn a messy reality into a tidy explanation that suits your prejudices. Thinking back to my early admiration, I can only see it as a tragedy, not a farce.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I left Greece on the thirteenth, arriving back in Manchester the temperature was 13C. I am certain that those numbers should be the other way round. A cheery weather man on the TV said it would go up to 18C tomorrow. That was the temperature at night when I started to feel a bit chilly. I am cold.

Taking a charter flight from Skiathos to Manchester is an easy way to travel. I caught a tourist boat one-way to the island, with the captain's wife being very jolly and welcoming after she had phoned me the night before to say that a party had booked and that it would be running. There weren't many of them. A small group of Eastern Europeans were swaying in time to the Lady Ga Ga CD playing over the boat's loudspeakers on a blazingly hot day as we swayed past some gorgeous island scenery before pulling into the main town's harbour. Then to the airport.

As we sat on the tarmac with the cabin doors open, hot air flooding in, a fly buzzed into the aircraft and settled on a single hair of a balding man's head. The doors closed and the fly spent the journey going up and down the plane. There seemed to be something utterly tragic about it. Its short life, instead of being spent in heat and a surfeit of rapidly decaying organic material, perfect for a satisfactory insect existence, was going to end on a dismally cold runway in Manchester. At least I knew what I was doing.

Thirteen looks like a distant aspiration today as the drizzle falls and the skies lower. The forecast for tonight is for it to drop to five.  My liking for Greece is not solely based on the weather, though it doesn't half help. I just can't help wondering why, when the great human migration out of Africa took place, they didn't stop at the Mediterranean and think, 'this will do fine'.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Cat on windowsill

Here is a picture of a Greek cat on a windowsill.

Doesn't look much like Hitler, or Stalin, nor even Pol Pot. Do you think it will catch on?


It is a glorious September here.  The skies are cloudless, the fruit trees are laden. Though the temperature is in the 30s there is an autumnal softness to the heat. Now the holidays are over, the crisis can resume.

There are threats that the next tranche of the bailout will not be paid (meaning that the government could run out of money in October), strikes and demonstrations are starting again, there have been riots in Thessaloniki - by both protesters and football hooligans - whilst the perversity of EU trade imbalances are shown by the strangest story of the week, Greece spent €1.5 million importing olive oil from Germany!

The Euro crisis has neither gone away, nor has it been solved. Policy makers' extraordinary faith in austerity is being challenged by those who are expected to be austere. And still the sums don't add up.

Looking out at the tranquillity of late summer in Pelion it is hard to see the economic storm brewing, but the dénouement is looming. The Cheshire Cat has posted a good analytical piece on the black comedy of orthodoxy. His conclusion?
The Euro is a badly built road on an impossible terrain. Flattening everything may succeed in forcing Euro economies to converge towards a desolate landscape of abandoned businesses.  The strength of Europe has been its rich diversity; its weakness its inability to accept diversity.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


So now we know what 'bringing Gaddafi in from the cold' really meant.  Not just nice profitable deals, the renouncing of weapons of mass destruction and the dubious enrichment of academic institutions, it also meant rendition, torture and chummy communications and collaboration with some of the worst criminals of the regime.

It is called 'realism' in the jargon, the pursuit of interests at the expense of principles. It used to be called appeasement and generally ended in things like the Second World War, but we don't use words like that any more for anything other than propaganda purposes. Nowadays it is seen in things like the attempt to talk with the Taliban as part of a strategy of withdrawal - I think 'reconciliation' is the preferred word here.

The opposition to this is principled internationalism, supporting people against oppression, even if there are short-term costs and considerable risks. In Libya, the popular revolution forced a choice between the two and, to the credit of the governments who enabled the UN resolution, the old policy of accommodation fell. The regime's defeat became inevitable, even if the future of Libya remains uncertain.

One of the things that this whole affair shows is just what is possible if you give a tyrant the gift of secure and supported tyranny. This raises questions about those who accuse Western interventions of bad intention, such as being 'all about oil'.  Compare the benefits of cosying up to amenable dictators with the risks you run trying to overthrow them. Even if naked self-interest is part of the mix of motivations when making the choice to intervene, so too is a sense of principle, without which governments would have let Gaddafi crush the revolution with public hand-wringing and the continuation of private deal-making. And when that principle is absent, all we are left with is the acceptance of cash and the awarding of degrees, played out to the distant echo of the screams of the tortured.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

A fine cause

Any support for my friends and former colleagues will be appreciated. My old, and much loved, adult education department is threatened with closure. The campaign has just begun. A brand new Facebook page is here.


And one of our former students has just posted this to the page, which says it all:
Please, please, PLEASE like this page to help save the fantastic Centre for Lifelong Learning. It's where I got my degree. It's where I learned to love learning. It's where I learned to be my own person and stop following the crowd. It changed my life and I often feel it's where my real life actually began. The knowledge and skills I learned there have not only helped me, I use them (probably on a daily basis) to help others too - family, 'real-life' friends and Facebook friends. This place means so much to me, I will be heartbroken if others are denied the same opportunity I had.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011


As us educators settle in the hollow, we scan the ridges of the hills all around us and we see the enemy on the horizon, gathering strength, adding new recruits by the minute, darkening the skies. Words. Jargon words. Thousands of them. All are waiting to swoop down and smother us with meaningless verbiage, each with their own bureaucratic tasks and performance indicators. We look up and know our fate.

In dank offices, chained bureaucrats craft and polish their latest phrases, garlanding them with ugliness, removing any connection to reality. They hand them to their superiors who trail obsequiously to the dark lords whose malicious eyes gleam with delight as they carefully select the ones that serve their fiendish purpose – the eradication of joy. A sinister smile plays on their lips and they croak with a scarcely concealed delight, "issue a policy statement".

At least that is how it seemed to me when I found out that an institution I know and like had renamed its reading week, employability week.

And right on cue comes this splendid defence of educational values from Alan Smith, not as an expression of the decadent pursuits of an elite of aesthetes, but for those outcasts at the bottom of our list of social priorities. Prisoners.
Why would they want a job at all? Most of us don't want the jobs we have; we wouldn't turn up for work were we not bribed to do so. People tend to live for the weekend, for holidays; most of us skive and take sickies when we can. Anything but work. It is simply not convincing to offer work to men in prison as if it were the answer to their ills. I have found work to be the source of most of my ills and when I look at the faces travelling to work in the morning I see that most of you feel the same way. On top of that, many prisoners expect that the jobs on offer to them on release will be unpleasant and badly paid. 

Not many people are tempted by work and yet education is fading away in favour of employability. Employability has a robust, commonsense vigour about it that is lacking in philosophy, art, history, literature, but it is a delusion. I don't think that it does any harm to put schemes of training in place, in fact for people like the vacuum cleaner guy they provide opportunities for harmless fun, but don't expect them to do much good. Education always does some good; it opens the way for curiosity, delight and self-esteem. Most people are in prison because of neglect, damage and abuse; they do not need to know how to do a bit of vacuuming, they need to know what it is to be human. 
Those of us who have worked in adult education know this only too well and see it as universally applicable. Mind you, it is wrong to sneer at vocational training, this can be brilliant for lots of people. So, for example, a good shop steward's training course can be as liberating as the history that I used to teach. Both are education in the broadest sense of the term. It is all down to the quality of the course and ultimately what the student wants to get out of it. The problem is a narrowing of education and its bureaucratisation, an attempt to turn it into a controllable process with pre-determined outcomes. My experience is that, like most human activities, education is unpredictable, open-ended and lifelong. It ails when it is not free.

Even so, in our beleaguered state, it is great to see people like Alan Smith handing us some powder so that we can prime our rusting muskets as we prepare to make our stand.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Triumph and tragedy



We are in for a week or so of tenth anniversary pieces about 9/11 (was it really ten years ago?).  There will be undoubtedly much sophistry and casuistry, whilst the conspiracy theorists will hang around, lurking in the shadows and still doing real harm. So it was nice to read Christopher Hitchens in praise of the obvious.  He concludes:
But, and against the tendencies of euphemism and evasion, some stout simplicities deservedly remain. Among them: Holocaust denial is in fact a surreptitious form of Holocaust affirmation. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie was a direct and lethal challenge to free expression, not a clash between traditional faith and "free speech fundamentalism." The mass murder in Bosnia-Herzegovina was not the random product of "ancient hatreds" but a deliberate plan to erase the Muslim population. The regimes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fully deserve to be called "evil." And, 10 years ago in Manhattan and Washington and Shanksville, Pa., there was a direct confrontation with the totalitarian idea, expressed in its most vicious and unvarnished form. Let this and other struggles temper and strengthen us for future battles where it will be necessary to repudiate the big lie.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Sporting news

As Swinton lift the Championship Division One trophy despite losing to Rochdale in their final game, it is pleasing to read that there is a worse run sport than Rugby League.  The Greek football season has kicked off. This is despite the fact that only thirteen of the sides that make up the sixteen-team top division are known.

The story goes like this. Volos, the nearest team to here, who sparked much celebration in the spring by winning Europa League qualification in their first season in the top division, lost their place and were relegated to the fourth division, together with Kavala, due to the failure to break ties with owners implicated in match fixing. This caused a little local rioting and a court case. The first led to some tear gas being let loose by the police, the second to an injunction preventing their replacement. So the two teams promoted to take their places, Doxa and Levadiakos, have not had their licences approved. In the meantime, Iraklis avoided relegation last season but were then relegated because they submitted a forged document. Now they have won their appeal and so will stay up. That means that Asteras Tripolis, who were relegated, but then allowed to stay up because Iraklis were relegated in their place, have now been told that they have been relegated after all. Needless to say, Asteras Tripolis are also appealing, so nothing has been resolved. With all this in the air, the season actually started.  Interesting.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Nearly gone ...

Psychopathic dictators, distanced from reality, totally convinced of their own historical necessity and by the adoration that is bestowed on them, even if such obeisance is practised at the end of a gun, suddenly discovering the inconvenient fact that they are hated can only explain such loathing in terms of the failings and disloyalty of their ungrateful people. So, by unerring logic, they assume that in such a case the people must die. And, even if their regime has to go down to defeat, they want to take the people with them. So, despite the clear outcome of the revolution in Libya, the rhetoric about victory or death (at this stage it just means death) comes spewing out of the fleeing family, condemning more people to suffer unnecessarily.  One can only hope for a swift end.

As the dust begins to settle where the revolution is secure and life resumes, with all the uncertainties of the post-revolutionary period, the stories spill out.  Here is the reason one rebel took up arms:
Before February, he was indifferent to the Gaddafi clan, happy enough to bank a decent salary as an oil engineer. He had studied in London for a master's in business administration. He had never even seen a machine gun, still less handled one.
All that changed on 21 February, when Gaddafi loyalists began cutting down demonstrators in the streets of Tripoli with anti-aircraft weapons.
Yep, a bit of a game changer that one. It would be hard to remain indifferent at that point. Scared, yes. Indifferent, no. And that is the moment when a regime enters the beginning of its end, when people take action instead of succumbing to fear.

Without the UN's air support the struggle would have been crushed for a generation. The regime faced a choice when a wave of popular demonstrations threatened its collapse and rumours spread that Gaddafi was on his way to a Venezuelan retirement home. Instead of admitting that it had lost all support and legitimacy, it decided to kill the people. Libyans begged for help as they took up arms and, at the very last minute, it came. As a result, James Kirchick can write in a thoughtful piece in Foreign Policy:
The other remarkable thing about Libya is that it is the only Arab country where America is not just liked, but loved. (Speaking with Libyans, I never feel I have to lie and say I am Canadian, as I sometimes do in other Arab countries to avoid potentially dodgy situations.) That its people love America precisely because their country has been bombed by it is all the more noteworthy.
Yet still the commentators witter on. In the latest off the production line, Andy Beckett picks up pertinently on the tendency of the British press to behave like a small child on a long car journey; 'Are we there yet'?  'No dear and we are not stuck in a quagmire or a stalemate, it is just a long way.' However, he then follows an old trope about the absence of military experience of political leaders, making it too easy for them to go to war too quickly (if they had left it any later in Libya there would have been no revolution left to support!). Then the cynical side swipes appear, "Bellicose British journalists who opine about such conflicts from a safe distance"; "A defeated British bogeyman such as Gaddafi"; all accompanied by a lament for the decline of the influence of the peace movement.

What this complaint about war in general does is to ignore the specific causes and consequences both of action and inaction. And one is back to the old point that systematic, brutal violence by a state against its citizens left unmolested is not peace. Quick and risky action, which is expensive and can be complained about at leisure, is a gift of life and of a future to oppressed peoples seeking to throw off their oppressors. The majority of the Libyan people will be grateful that such inhibitions and reservations did not prevent United Nations support coming their way in the nick of time.

It isn't necessary to share the nationalist triumphalism of the Sun, or to see war as a glorified football match, to understand that military action can be overwhelmingly moral, despite its undoubted horrors. It is as important a sense as our moral revulsion against the barbarities of an unjust war, such as the one that  Gaddafi chose to unleash on his people. Unless you are an absolute pacifist, you cannot escape judgement about the relative merits of specific wars, rather than reject war as an option in all circumstances.  And in making a judgement, especially now conflicts have been stripped of their Cold War contexts, the support for popular liberation against the dictatorial instinct for mass murder might just be a good guide.