Archive | June 23rd, 2018

Google Says It Will Not Renew Project Maven—but Collaboration with Pentagon Will Continue

In early June, Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene announced at a meeting with employees that the company will not renew its contract with the Pentagon for Project Maven following its expiry in 2019. Under the program, which Google entered in September last year, the company has provided the military with artificial intelligence software to perform real-time analysis of drone surveillance footage. The technology allows the Pentagon to develop its illegal drone assassination program that has killed thousands across the Middle East and North Africa.

Yesterday’s announcement is a response to widespread and mounting opposition from Google employees and the public to its collaboration with the military. The program only came to light as a result of opposition by employees, of whom approximately 4,000 have signed an internal petition demanding that Google cancel the project contract and institute a formal policy against taking on future military work.

Around a dozen employees have also resigned in protest. A report published on Tuesday by the New York Times, based on interviews with current and former employees, claimed the program has “fractured Google’s workforce, fueled heated staff meetings and internal exchanges,” and “touched off an existential crisis.” Among the employees who have resigned, one engineer “petitioned to rename a conference room after Clara Immerwahr, a German chemist who killed herself in 1915 after protesting the use of science in warfare.”

The Huffington Post reported yesterday that there were discussions among employees this week for a physical demonstration. An engineer who was due to leave the company on Friday posted on its internal online forum—in a thread titled “Maven conscientious objectors” that includes hundreds of employees—describing Maven as “the greatest ethical crisis in technology of our generation,” and suggesting that employees go to an upcoming Google conference in July with the aim of “making some noise.”

In comments to the World Socialist Web Site, academics Lucy Suchman and Peter Asaro, two of the authors of a recent open letter signed by more than 1,000 academics demanding that Google end its participation in the illegal drone murder program, said they were “gratified to see Google take the decision not to renew its contract for Project Maven, and to make the decision public.” They demanded that Google take “a clear and consistent stand against the weaponization of its technologies.”

“I do think it’s significant, in other words, that there was sufficient resistance inside the company that Google has had to respond, and it’s posed a tangible obstacle to growing relations with the DoD,” said Dr. Suchman. “The fact that those who entered into this contract attempted to do so quietly, if not actually in secret, shows that they anticipated how contested it would be (and then of course went ahead with it anyway).”

While Google claims it will not renew the contract, it will be involved with the project for the rest of the year, and will continue to deepen its intimate collaboration with the Pentagon. The company will also keep bidding for other contracts with the military not directly involving the use of artificial intelligence. Dr. Suchman added,

“I suspect they’ll continue to look for ways of sustaining their Pentagon relations and spinning them as benign.”

It should be noted that Google’s previous statements in response to the revelations about Project Maven have been exposed as lies.

Internal emails between Google staff, portions of which were published by the New York TimesGizmodo and the Intercept over the past three days, show that Google conspired to conceal its role in Project Maven from the beginning.

An email chain including Scott Frohman and Aileen Black—both defense and intelligence sales leads—as well as Dr Fei-Fei Li, the chief scientist for artificial intelligence at Google Cloud, discussed how the company should present the project publicly. Writing under the subject line “Communications/PR Request—Urgent,” Frohman asked for direction on the “burning question” of how the collaboration should be reported.

Li replied on September 24 that Google was “already battling privacy issues when it comes to AI [artificial intelligence] and data; I don’t know what would happen if the media starts picking up a theme that Google is secretly building AI weapons or AI technologies to enable weapons for the Defense industry”—i.e., precisely what Google is doing. Li said the issues would be “red meat” to the media.

Google eventually decided to silence reporting on the collaboration altogether. It also reached a non-disclosure agreement with the Pentagon, requiring that public communications first be approved by Google. Black also noted that the contract was “not direct with Google but through a partner,” ECS Federal, in order to conceal Google’s role.

Greene, who pledged yesterday not to renew the project, has also absurdly claimed that the program cannot be used for “lethal purposes.” This is directly contradicted by an email published yesterday by Gizmodo from Frohman, in which he calls Maven a “large government program that will result in improved safety for citizens and nations through faster identification of evils such as violent extreme activities and human rights abuses”—code words used by the Pentagon for activities justifying drone strikes.

Greene also previously claimed that the project was “small” and only worth $9 million. Another internal email from Aileen Black and published by the Intercept, however, shows the project was expected to grow rapidly, and “as the program grows expect spend is budgeted at 250 M per year.”

The real significance of Project Maven for Google is to secure a foothold into the tens of billions of dollars available in the arms race between the world’s major powers to incorporate Silicon Valley’s technology to develop next-generation weaponry, and to gain a competitive advantage against the other technology giants. The other bidders for the contract included Amazon and IBM.

All three companies, along with Microsoft, are competing to secure a $10 billion contract to build and administer Pentagon Cloud’s computing network. The network has been described by military officials as a “global fabric” for its warfighters. Every submarine, jetfighter, missile launch station and special operations soldier will be connected via computer systems that will be directly administered by one of the giant technology corporations.

The website Defense One reported that unlike Amazon and Microsoft, Google has “kept its own interest” in the contract “out of the press,” and the company has “even hidden the pursuit from its own workers.” Participating in Project Maven allowed Google to receive government clearance to host secure government data on its servers, and to compete for further cloud military projects in the future. Another internal email from Aileen Black called the clearance “priceless” for the company.

Google, along with the other technology giants, is intimately integrated into the US military and intelligence apparatus. Google representatives such as vice president Mike Medin and former Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt sit on US military advisory boards and discuss the use of their technology for major wars and suppression of domestic political opposition. Google changed its search ranking algorithms in April last year to reduce traffic to and censor left-wing and anti-war websites, including the World Socialist Web Site.

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Militarization of the African Continent: The U.S. Is Building a Massive $110 Million Drone Base in the Sahara

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Right outside of Agadez, Niger, in the scrublands of the Sahara, the U.S. airforce is building a massive 2,200-acre drone base, costing $110 million according to the Associated Press. The base should be completed in the next couple of month but as you can imagine, building an airfield in the desert tends to be very complicated. The project already is over $22 million budget and delayed by one year. The new drone base will [allegedly] be used to target extremists deep into West and North Africa, regions that are currently hard to reach with drones.

The Drone Base Will Provide a Stronger US Presence in a Region  

[Combating Extremism is the stated objective. Terrorism is the Justification  for the Militarization of Africa, GR Editor

Back in 2013, President Obama had ordered a drone base to be built in the capital of Niger, Niamey, but even than military officials already indicated that ideally, they wanted the drone operation to be based outside of Agadez. The NY Times reported moving the drone base to Agadez had two main advantages. First, it is better positioned to launch drone operation throughout the southern regions of the Sahara that are turning into an alleged “terrorist hotbed”. Second, the drone operations are better shielded from prying eyes in isolated Agadez than in Niamey. A third reason, not mentioned by the NYT might well be that with the fall of Libyan leader Gaddafi, Agadez has turned into the smuggling capital of Africa, according to Politico Europe.

In the NYT, P.W. Singer, a strategist, and drone specialist at New America in Washington said that:

“The base, and the more frequent flights that its opening will allow, will give us far more situational awareness and intelligence on a region that has been a hub of illicit and extremist activity, but it will also further involve us in yet more operations and fights that few Americans are even aware our military is in.”

The quote highlights the shadowy character of the American drone operations. Many of the drone bases are situated in remote areas with questionable authorities and very little oversight, such as Yemen, Somalia and now Niger.

Building the drone base has proven to be quite the challenge. Dust storms hamper the work as well as temperatures that frequently sore to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, resulting in a lot of the work being done at night.

The drone base, costing $110 million, features a runway that is 6,800 feet long and 150 feet wide as it not only needs to accommodate drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper, but also the much heavier C-17 cargo planes.

The MQ-9 Reaper is one of the most advanced drones available to the U.S. Airforce. The unmanned aerial device is built by General Atomics and has a range of 1,150 miles. It is able to gather intelligence and provide strike support with an impressive array of weapons, such as the laser-guided GBU-12 Paveway II bomb, up to four Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, the AIM-9 Sidewinder and more.

In this video you can see three hangars being built, each of which can house one or more drones. Citing security reasons, military officials have declined to say how many drones will be stationed at the drone base, as reported by Military.com.

Some people question the effectiveness of drone airstrikes across the African continent. For instance, E.J. Hogendoorn, the International Crisis Group’s deputy Africa program director in Washington reportedly said:

“The deployment of armed drones is not going to make a strategic difference and may even increase local hostility to the U.S. and the central government in distant Niamey.”

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The Diseased, Lying, Condition of America’s ‘News’ Media

Both President Trump and former President Obama are commonly said in America’s ‘news’ media to be or to have been “ceding Syria to Russia” or “ceding Syria to Russia and Iran,” or similar allegations. They imply that ‘we’ own (or have some right to control) Syria.

That’s not only a lie; it is a very evil and harmful one, dangerously goading the US President to go even more against Russia (and Iran) (and, of course, against Syria) than has yet been done — but the ‘news’media don’t care about that evil, and that falsehood, and that dangerousness — they do it anyway, and none of them attacks the others for perpetrating this vicious war-mongering lie, that lying provocation to yet more and worse war than already exists there. And the fact that none is exposing the fraudulence of the others on this important matter, is a yet-bigger additional scandal, beyond and amplifying the media’s common lying itself. Because they all function here like a mob, goading to more and worse invasions, and doing it on the the basis of dangerous lies — that America, and not the Syrians themselves, own Syria.

These lies simply assume that America (probably referring to the US Government, but whatever) somehow “has” or else “had” Syria (so that America can now ‘cede’ it, to anyone); and this assumption (that the US somehow owns Syria) is not only an imperialistic one (which is bad, and wrong, in itself), but it reduces to nothingness the rights (in the minds of the American public) of the Syrian people, to control their own land. That lie is what America’s ‘news’ media won’t expose, but instead they all cooperate with it, when they’re not actually participating, themselves, in spreading these lies.

What they are doing is also to slur Russia, and to slur Iran, for having accepted the request from Syria’s Government, for assistance in protecting Syria’s Government, against the tens of thousands of jihadists who had been recruited throughout the world by the Saudi-American alliance, to overthrow and replace Syria’s Government, to replace it with one that would be appointed by the Saud family (’America’s ally’), the fundamentalist-Sunni royal family who (as the absolute monarchy there) do actually own Saudi Arabia — a monarchical dictatorship, which the US Government calls an ‘ally’.

The evilness of this imperialistic assumption, which is being constantly spread by the US-and-allied ‘news’media, is as bad as is its falseness, because “America” (however one wishes to use that term) never had, never possessed, any right whatsoever to control Syria. Of course, neither does Russia possess such a right, nor does Iran, but neither Russia nor Iran is asserting any such right; both instead are there to protect Syria’s national sovereignty, against the invaders (including the US, and the Sauds’ regime). But the US-and-allied ‘news’media don’t present it that way — the honest way — not at all. Such truths are instead suppressed.

I was immediately struck by this false and evil assumption that the US owns Syria, when reading the June 15th issue of The Week magazine. It contained, under its “Best Columns” section, a piece by Matthew Continetti (“Obama Too Good for America”), which says, among other falsehoods, “Obama was wrong about a lot of other things, too, like… ceding Syria to Russia.” That phrase, “ceding Syria to Russia” rose straight out from the page to me as being remarkable, stunning, and not only because it suggests that America owns that sovereign nation, Syria. I was especially struck by it because the CIA has several times attempted Syrian coups and once did briefly, in 1949, overthrow and replace Syria’s democratically elected President. But is that really something which today’s America’s ‘news’media should encourage the American public to be demanding today’s American politicians to be demanding from today’s American President? How bizarre, even evil, an idea is that? But it is so normal that it’s a fair indication of how evil and untrustworthy today’s American ‘news’media actually are. I just hadn’t noticed it before.

Publishing such a false and evil idea, without any accompanying commentary that truthfully presents its context and that doesn’t simply let the false and evil allegation stand unchallenged — that instead lets it be unchallenged both factually and morally — is not acceptable either factually or morally, but then I checked and found that it’s the almost universal norm, in today’s US ‘news’media. For examples:

On 17 April 2018, CBS News headlined “Lindsey Graham ‘unnerved’ after Syria briefing: ‘Everything in that briefing made me more worried’” and presented that US Senator saying, “It seems to me we are willing to give Syria to Assad, Russia, and Iran.” He was criticizing President Trump as being “all tweet and no action.” He wanted more war, and more threat of war. But when President Obama had repeatedly denied in public that only the Syrian people should have any say-so over whom Syria’s leaders ought to be, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon repeatedly contradicted the US President’s viewpoint on this, and he said, “The future of Assad must be determined by the Syrian people.” If the American people have become so dismissive of international law as this, then is it because the US ‘news’media start with the ridiculously false presumption that “America” (whatever that refers to) is the arbiter of international law, and therefore has the right to dictate to the entire world what that law is, and what it means? Is America, as being the dictator over the whole planet, supposed to be something that Americans’ tax-dollars ought to be funding — that objective: global dictatorship? How does that viewpoint differ, then, from perpetual war for perpetual ‘peace’ — a dictum that’s enormously profitable for America’s big ‘Defense’ contractors, such as Lockheed Martin, but that impoverishes the general public, both in America, and especially in the countries (such as Syria) where ‘our’ Government drops bombs in order to enforce its own will and demand, that: “Assad must go!”

In fact, as any journalist who writes or speaks about the Syrian situation and who isn’t a complete ignoramus knows, Bashar al-Assad would easily win any free and fair Presidential election in Syria, against any contender. His public support, as shown not only in the 2014 Syrian Presidential election, but also in the many Western-sponsored opinion-polls in Syria (since the CIA is always eager to find potential candidates to support against him), show this.

On 17 December 2016, Eric Chenoweth, a typical neocon Democratic Party hack, headlined “Let Hamilton Speak: Recapturing American Democracy”, and he wrote:

“Trump’s statements and appointments make clear he intends to tilt American policy to serve Russian interests: ceding Syria to Russia by ending support to pro-Western rebels; possibly lifting economic sanctions and recognizing the annexation of Crimea; proposing an alliance with Russia in the war on terror while remaining uncommitted to the defense of NATO allies, in particular the Baltic countries vulnerable to Russian aggression. Restoring American Democracy When they meet on December 19, Republican Electors who reflect on their constitutional duty should not then affirm Trump’s election.”

Those “pro-Western rebels” in Syria were actually led by Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch. Without them, the US regime wouldn’t have had any “boots on the ground” forces to speak of there. In fact, the US regime has actually been fronting for the Saud family to take over control of Syria if and when Syria’s Government falls. The Saud family even selected the people who in the U.N. peace talks on Syria represent ‘the rebels’ — the Sauds, who have been Syria’s enemy ever since 1950, selected ‘Syria’s opposition’, who were now seeking to take over Syria if and when ‘America’s moderate rebels’ succeed. Both Al Qaeda and ISIS are actually fundamentalist-Sunnis, like the Saud family are, and Assad’s Government is resolutely non-sectarian. Assad himself is a non-Islamist Alawite Shiite secularist, which virtually all fundamentalist Sunnis (such as the Sauds are) are taught to despise and to hate — especially because he’s Shiite. The US regime knows that neither it, which is considered Christian, nor Israel, which is theocratically Jewish, could practically succeed at imposing rule in Syria, but that maybe the Sauds could — so, they are the actual leaders of the ‘pro-Western’ forces, seeking to replace Syria’s secularist Government. Overthrowing Syria’s Government would be their victory. It would be the Saud family’s victory. But this fact is kept a secret from the American public, by the US ‘news’media.

Back on 17 September 2016, shortly before the change in US Administrations, Obama bombed the Syrian Government’s garrison in Der Zor, or Deir Ezzor, which is the capital of Syria’s oil-producing region. He did it in order to enable ISIS forces, which surrounded the city, to rush in and conquer it. Obama did this only eight days after his Secretary of State, John Kerry, had conceded to the demand by Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Russia’s demand that in a cease fire, Russia be allowed to continue bombing not only ISIS there, which Kerry agreed should continue to be bombed by both the US and Russia, but also Al Qaeda’s forces — which until 9 September 2016, Obama refused to allow to be bombed during a cease-fire. But, finally, after a year of deadlock between Russia and the United States on that crucial issue, Kerry and Lavrov both signed a cease-fire agreement, and it allowed both ISIS and Al Qaeda-led forces to continue being bombed. (Russia had been bombing both, ever since 30 September 2015, when Russia began its bombing campaign in Syria.) That cease-fire went into effect on September 12th. Then Obama, unannounced — and a great disappointment to his Secretary of State, who wasn’t informed of this in advance — broke the agreement, by bombing the Syrian outpost in Deir Ezzor — and that’s the moment when Vladimir Putin quit his efforts to get agreements from Obama, because Putin now recognized that Obama was totally untrustworthy.

Already by late September of 2015, even prior to Russia’s having been requested by President Assad to enter the war in order to speed up the defeat of what Washington still calls ‘the rebels’, it was clear that Washington (actually Riyadh) wasn’t going to take over Syria; and Americans were — and are — being taught by the ‘news’media, that this was because Obama was ‘weak’ and didn’t care enough about ‘human rights’ in Syria, and about ‘democracy’ in Syria. So, on 28 September 2015, Matt Purple at the libertarian “Rare Politics” site, headlined “Pentagon admits that the Syrian rebels it trained handed over weapons to al Qaeda”, and he wrote “Neoconservatives wail that President Obama is ceding Syria to Russia — but the reason the Russians are taking the lead is precisely because America has sidelined itself.” But the US regime hadn’t at all “sidelined itself”; it continued — and it continues to this day — its invasion and occupation of that land. Trump’s policy on Syria is basically a continuation of Obama’s — and it’s not at all “ceding Syria to Russia,” or “ceding Syria to Russia and Iran.”

Because of America’s ‘news’media, it still isn’t “ceding Syria to the Syrians” — as Ban ki-Moon and international law would. That wouldn’t be profitable for Lockheed Martin etc. (whose biggest customers other than the US Government are the Sauds, and Trump alone sold $400 billion of US weapons to them); so, it’s not done.

Syria’s sovereignty is utterly denied by the US regime, but if the US regime were to succeed, the big winners would actually be the Saud family.

Do the American people have sovereignty, over ‘their’ (our) Government? US ‘news’media effectively ban that question. Perhaps what controls the US Government is the Saudi-Israeli alliance: the Sauds have the money, and the Israelis have the lobbyists. Of course, the US ‘news’media are obsessed whether Russia controls the US Government. That diversionary tactic is extremely profitable to companies such as General Dynamics, and America’s other weapons-manufacturers, which thrive on wars — especially by selling to the Sauds, and to their allies (and, obviously, not at all to Russia).

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Will the slaughter in Gaza finally prick the international conscience for firm action?

David Steel

By Stuart Littlewood

“We cannot allow the Israeli government to treat Palestinian lives as inferior to their own, which is what they consistently do,” David Steel tells the House of Lords.

I’d like to share with you the speech by Steel (aka Lord Steel of Aikwood) in a recent House of Lords debate, the motion being “That this House takes note of the situation in the Palestinian Territories”. Steel himself opened proceedings with as good a summing-up of the appalling situation as I have heard anywhere.

Here it is word for word from Hansard:

My Lords, I put in for the ballot for today’s debate just after the terrible slaughter of 62 Palestinians inside the Gaza fence, which included eight children. I should at the outset ​declare a former interest. I served for seven years as president of the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians— and I am delighted to see that the current president, the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, is to speak in this debate. During that time I visited Israel, the West Bank and Gaza several times, once touring Gaza just after the Cast Lead operation, when I saw for myself the wanton destruction of hospitals, schools and factories in what was described by David Cameron as one vast prison camp.

Before anyone accuses me of being one-sided, let me also say that I spent an afternoon with the local Israeli MP in the Ashkelon area in the south of that country and fully understand the intolerable life of citizens there threatened by rockets fired by Hamas from inside Gaza.

In fact, long before I got involved with MAP, back in 1981, I first met Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation], at a time when our government would not speak to him on the grounds that the PLO was a terrorist organisation refusing to recognise Israel, a mistake that we have repeated with Hamas. As I got to know Arafat over the years, I recognised that he was a brilliant liberation leader but a disappointing failure as head of the Palestinian administration. Indeed, it was the incompetence and even corruption of that administration which led to the success of Hamas in the election in Gaza. But those of us who pride ourselves in democracy cannot just give them the cold shoulder because we did not like the result, and yet that is what happened. The lesson of the successful peace process in Northern Ireland should surely have taught us that the only route to peace has to be through dialogue with those we may not like, rather than confrontation.

That brings me to the policy of the current Israeli government, backed by the United States of America and, sadly, by our own government. Israel’s great tragedy was the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, who had been relentless in his pursuit of an agreement with the Palestinians. The current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is very different. I met him once at a breakfast meeting in Tel Aviv. I admired his obvious ability and indeed swagger. He could, had he so wished, have gone down in history by heading an administration to pursue a legitimate settlement with the Palestinians based on the 2002 Arab peace initiative, when every member state of the Arab League had offered to recognise Israel and host her embassies in their countries in return for the establishment of a proper Palestinian state. Instead, he has allied himself to the most reactionary forces in the Knesset and come close to destroying any hopes of such an outcome with the growing illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land, the construction of the wall, routed in places condemned even by the Israeli courts, and the encouragement of Donald Trump’s opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem.

It was that last event that provoked the mass demonstration at the Gaza fence, dealt with not by water cannon but with live ammunition from the Israel Defence Forces. That resulted not only in the deaths that I mentioned but in over 3,600 people being injured. One Israeli soldier was wounded. According ​to the World Health Organization, 245 health personnel were injured and 40 ambulances were hit. Last week, Razan al-Najjar, a 21-year-old female volunteer first responder, was killed while carrying out her work with the Palestinian Medical Relief Society. She was clearly wearing first-responder clothing at the time. In the meantime, the Israeli defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, one of the reactionaries to whom I referred a moment ago, has declared that there are “no innocent people” in Gaza, while an UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency] report declares that the blockade situation is so bad that Gaza is becoming unlivable in.

I do not know whether the Israeli government know or care about how low they have sunk in world esteem. When I was a student in the 1950s, many of my friends, not just Jewish ones, spent their vacations doing voluntary work in a kibbutz, such was the idealism surrounding the birth of the Israeli state, but that is no longer the case.

The reason I joined the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel group was that I got fed up with being blamed, as Liberal leader, for the then government’s Balfour Declaration encouraging the establishment of that state, people forgetting that the famous letter included the words, “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

The conduct of its present government is a clear betrayal of the basis on which the Lloyd George government welcomed a state of Israel.

I spent some years active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Only much later did I realise one noted fact about those who had led the white population’s opposition to apartheid—my dear friend Helen Suzman, Zach de Beer, Harry Oppenheimer, Hilda Bernstein, Ronnie Kasrils, Helen Joseph, Joe Slovo and so many others were predominantly Jewish – which was that they knew where doctrines of racial superiority ultimately and tragically led. I rather hope that the recent slaughter in Gaza will awaken the international conscience to resolute action in the same way that the Sharpeville massacre led to the ultimately successful campaign by anti-apartheid forces worldwide.

The Israeli government hate that comparison, pointing to the Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship or sit in the Knesset, but on visits to that beautiful and successful country one cannot help noticing not just the wall but the roads in the West Bank which are usable only by Israelis, just as facilities in the old South Africa were reserved for whites only.

Recently some of us met a couple of Israeli professors in one of our committee rooms. They stressed to us the urgency of staying with UN Security Council Resolution 2334, passed as recently as December 2016, which roundly condemns all the illegal activities of the current Administration. It is worth reminding the House of just three of its 13 clauses, beginning with this one: “Condemning all measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, including, inter alia, the construction and expansion of settlements, transfer of ​Israeli settlers, confiscation of land, demolition of homes and displacement of Palestinian civilians, in violation of international humanitarian law”.

A second clause reads: “Underlines that it will not recognise any changes to the 4 June 1967 lines, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties through negotiations”.

A third reads: “Stresses that the cessation of all Israeli settlement activities is essential for salvaging the two-state solution, and calls for affirmative steps to be taken immediately to reverse the negative trends on the grounds that they are imperilling the two-state solution”.

Those are not my words: they are taken from the UN Security Council. My mind went back to 1967 when, as a young MP, I was present when our then UK representative at the United Nations, Lord Caradon, led the drafting of Resolution 242 which was supposed to be the building block for peace after the Arab-Israeli war. My complaint is that the international community, including successive British governments, have paid only lip service to that and allowed Israel to defy the United Nations and trample on the rights of the Palestinians.

But there are signs of hope. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, knows how high he is held in the opinion of the House and we cannot expect him as the minister of state to change United Kingdom policy, but when the Statement on Gaza was made in the other place, two senior and respected Conservative ex-ministers gave strong voice objecting to our current stance. Sir Nicholas Soames hoped that our Foreign Office would “indulge in a little less limp response to the wholly unacceptable and excessive use of force”, while Sir Hugo Swire said that “one reason it is a festering hellhole and a breeding ground for terrorists is that each and every time there has been an attempt to improve the livelihoods of the Gazans, by doing something about their water… or about their quality of life, Israel has blockaded it”.

We are entitled to ask the minister to convey to the prime minister that she needs to be more forceful, honest and frank when she next meets Mr Netanyahu. Yesterday’s Downing Street briefing said she had “been concerned about the loss of Palestinian lives”, which surely falls into the description of a continuing limp response.

We cannot allow the Israeli government to treat Palestinian lives as inferior to their own, which is what they consistently do. That is why our government should not only support the two-state solution, but register our determination and disapproval of their conduct by accepting the decisions of both Houses of our Parliament and indeed the European Parliament and recognise the state of Palestine without further delay.

David Steel, son of a Church of Scotland minister, was elected to the House of Commons as MP for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles in 1965 and, being only 23, was dubbed  the “Baby of the House”. He wasted no time making his mark and introduced, as a Private Member’s Bill, the Abortion Act 1967. Following the Jeremy Thorpe scandal he became Liberal Party leader until the merger with Labour renegades that formed the Liberal Democrats. He was elevated to the House of Lords in 2004 as Baron Steel of Aikwood.

As Steel mentions in his speech, he served for seven years as president of the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), a remarkable organisation that “works for the health and dignity of Palestinians living under occupation and as refugees”.

He lives in Aikwood Tower, a Borders fortified house built in 1535 which he painstakingly restored and modernised in the 1990s.

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Strategizing in the Wake of the Singapore Summit: The Kim-Xi Meeting in Beijing. Crisis in Beijing-Washington Relations

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Trip takes place just one week after historic summit in Singapore

Chairman Kim Jong un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and his wife Ri Sol Ju paid yet another visit to the People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping on June 19. 

This is the third time in as many months that the head of the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK) has held face-to-face talks with his counterpart Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in Beijing. 

The two Asian heads-of-state held discussions on the recent developments involving the ongoing dialogue between the Republic of Korea (south) and the DPRK over issues of normalizing relations and potential unification.  These important questions along with the summit meeting held with United States President Donald Trump on June 12 in Singapore have created tremendous interests throughout the international community. 

Just in a matter of months there have been momentous events which are reshaping the character of inter-Asian relations as well as exposing the fallacy of Washington’s decades-long foreign policy towards both the DPRK and the PRC. Trump’s statement in the aftermath of the Singapore Summit that the Pentagon would suspend the annual war games in South Korea during August, sent shock waves throughout the military-industrial-complex in the U.S.

In a statement issued by Noh Kyu-duk of the South Korean Foreign Ministry, the official said:

“The governments of South Korea and China share the same strategic goal of completely denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. Also, our government hopes China will play a constructive role in resolving this problem. We hope Chairman Kim Jong Un’s visit will contribute to that.” (Global China Television Network, June 19, article by Jessica Stone).

Whether or not the dominant imperialist state extends this suspension beyond 2018, it illustrates the futility of Washington’s posture toward the Korean Peninsula. Both China and the DPRK have been the principal focus of successive U.S. administrations as it relates to their attempts to maintain imperialist interests in the Asia-Pacific region.

A united approach from Beijing and Pyongyang will signal to Washington that their maneuvers in the region will not divide the major players as far as regional security and anti-imperialism is concerned. Nevertheless, the overall objectives of the U.S. and its allies remain the same: to further contain China and marginalize those interests which are steadfast in maintaining the national and regional independence of the various states.

DPRK leader and Chinese counterpart with their wives in Beijing on June 19, 2018

Both leaders pledged in the June 19 meeting to strengthen and deepen relations in the coming period to ensure the continuing forward progress towards peace and development in the region. Beijing has been acting as a mediator between Pyongyang and Washington after the escalation of tensions during 2017 brought the two states to the brink of a full-blown military conflict.

There has never been a comprehensive peace agreement since the armistice of June 1953 after three years of war which resulted in the deaths of millions of Korean and tens of thousands of imperialist troops led by the U.S. and Britain under the banner of the United Nations. Annual military exercises held jointly by Seoul and Washington in April and August involve 17,000 ROK troops along with over 50,000 Pentagon soldiers.   

In exchange the DPRK has agreed to suspend testing and upgrades in its nuclear weapons program. The socialist state has developed long-range Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) weaponized with nuclear technology. 

These military options created by the DPRK are for exclusively defensive purposes in light of the persistent decades-long threats from Washington and Tokyo. Japan had occupied the Korean Peninsula after a 1905 treaty which led to an occupation extending from 1910-1945. 

After the defeat of Japan in World War II, an alliance of patriotic forces led by the communist party founded the DPRK in 1948. The three year war and ongoing occupation of the south has hampered the unification of the Peninsula.

Significance of the Singapore Summit

The June 12 meeting which brought together Trump and Kim came on the heels of a contentious Group of 7 (G7) meeting in Quebec. Relations among the imperialist states have been strained due to the trade war initiated by the Trump administration which has imposed tariffs on Canada along with European Union (EU) nations.

These events have prompted a high degree of volatility in the U.S. and world financial markets where a precipitous decline occurred on June 19. Most economic analysts attribute the drop in values to the trade policies of Washington. 

China is also a major target of Trump’s efforts to mislead the public in the U.S. suggesting that the imposition of tariffs will result in job creation and salary increases for working families who are still suffering from the fallout of the Great Recession of 2007-2011. A large portion of employment growth in the U.S. is through low-wage labor in the service sectors. Income has remained stagnate while real wages have been on the decline for several decades.

There were four points of agreement which emerged from the Singapore Summit. A joint statement issued by the two leaders said:

1) The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity;

2) The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula;

3) Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; and 

4) The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.“

The suspension of war games and nuclear testing was not written down as a point of agreement although Trump’s post-summit press conference affirmed these decisions. Trump asserted that the joint Pentagon-ROK exercises are far too expensive and should be curtailed.

Underlying Crises in Beijing-Washington Relations

Nonetheless, these discussions cannot conceal the continuing provocations by Washington against the PRC. In addition to the trade war which is destabilizing markets around the world, the Pentagon is still seeking to militarily intimidate Beijing in the Asia-Pacific region.

China has responded to repeated military incursions by the Pentagon surrounding the South Seas which Washington contends are not the sovereign territory of Beijing. The U.S. is accusing China of militarizing the South China Sea which has prompted the Defense Department to withdraw an invitation for China to join an international naval exercise the U.S. is sponsoring over the next few weeks. 

The Pentagon claims that China has deployed anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missile systems and electronic jammers to areas in the Spratly Islands. Washington has demanded that China withdraw these defense systems. 

An article published during late May by the India Times emphasized that:

“China says it dispatched warships to identify and warn off a pair of U.S. Navy vessels sailing near one of its island claims in the South China Sea. A statement on the Chinese Defense Ministry’s website said the Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins and Ticonderoga class guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam entered waters China claims in the Paracel island group ‘without the permission of the Chinese government.’ It said the Chinese military ‘immediately dispatched warships to identify and inspect the American ships according to law, and warned them to depart.’”

These military efforts by the U.S. have continued through successive administrations. China’s growing economy and military capability are viewed as a major threat to the imperialist hegemony of Washington and Wall Street. 

Tensions could rise to the level of a direct military conflict whose outcome would be long term in its political and economic impact. The burgeoning trade war and military posturing will undoubtedly result in global uncertainty and instability throughout various continents.   

Posted in USA, North KoreaComments Off on Strategizing in the Wake of the Singapore Summit: The Kim-Xi Meeting in Beijing. Crisis in Beijing-Washington Relations

From “Yellow Ticket” to “Bourgeois Evil”, Prostitution in Russia 1900-1930

NOVANEWS

Image result for Prostitution in Russia CARTOON

This talk by Dr Siobhán Hearne is fifth in the series Prostitution, Pimping and Trafficking, curated by Deborah Lavin.

Prostitution flourished in Russia amidst the social, political and economic turbulence of the early twentieth century. Thousands of women sold sex in the Russian Empire’s rapidly expanding towns and cities in the early 1900s. Many registered their details with the police and attended regular gynaecological examinations in line with the Tsarist system for the regulation of prostitution, which remained in place from 1843 until the collapse of the autocracy in 1917. After their seizure of power in October 1917, the Bolsheviks made it their mission to eradicate prostitution. Early Soviet politicians categorised prostitution as a product of the undervaluation of female labour and the sexual double standard of the old capitalist regime. They claimed that socialism would bring about women’s equality and subsequently spell an end to commercial sex. However, the stigmatisation of women who sold sex continued across the revolutionary divide, which served to justify the repression of prostitutes as antisocial elements in the late 1920s. This talk examines the place of prostitution in Russian society both before and after the revolutions of 1917. In tracing continuity and change in the pre- and post-revolutionary periods, it will map state approaches to prostitution onto the turbulent landscape of revolutionary Russia.

Dr Siobhán Hearne is a historian currently based at the University of Latvia in Riga. She received her PhD in History from the University of Nottingham in 2017 for a thesis about the state regulation of prostitution in the late Russian Empire, which involved archival research in Russia, Ukraine, Latvia and Estonia. She is currently drafting her thesis as a monograph entitled Policing Prostitution: The Regulation of Lower-Class People in Late Imperial Russia. She has published several articles on gender and sexuality in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. She tweets from @siobhanhearne.

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Corporate India vs indigenous peoples

Dalit Indian people

By Graham Peebles

The commercialization of the land in India is shattering the lives of millions of the country’s poorest, hungriest and most malnourished people.

The state has more or less abandoned rural people (70 per cent of the population) and turned the countryside over to corporations. Mineral extraction, dam building, infrastructure projects, water appropriation and industrial farming make up their burgeoning business portfolios.

The acclaimed author and political activist Arundhati Roy says the land and everything inside it is now owned “by the corporations, every mountain, every river, every forest, every dam, every water supply system”. Add to this the telephone networks and the media, and some say the judiciary, and the world’s largest democracy looks rather less democratic. Indeed, to the persecuted people in the forests and the urban poor crying out for justice, democracy is a city fable of little significance and no reality.

Violence in the name of development

Land sympathetically and sustainably nurtured by the Adivasi people for generations is being violently taken from them in what Roy describes as “the biggest land grab since Christopher Columbus”. In varying degrees of intensity, conflict and resistance is taking place throughout the areas affected by the land appropriation.

Massive numbers of people are being displaced, villages destroyed and women raped. As Human Rights Watch (HRW) states, numerous people “have been arbitrarily arrested, tortured, and charged with politically motivated offences that include murder, conspiracy and sedition”.

Mira Kamdar, Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute, says India’s oldest and most marginalized people are “completely cut off from the economically vibrant, rapidly growing India of the country’s major cities”, and they are facing a major threat to their livelihood. They are sidelined, intimidated and labelled Maoist (or Naxalite) terrorists by the government and most of the media.

Clear off, we want our Bauxite

Within some of the poorest states of India, from West Bengal and Chattisgarh in the northeast to Karnataka in the southwest, sits a treasure trove of minerals worth trillions of dollars. The area affected is huge and incorporates large tracks of ancestral land where the Adivasi, numbering about 150 million, and Dalit peoples have lived for millennia. Rich in bauxite, iron ore and uranium, this area is an Aladdin’s cave of minerals, which India’s corporations, and the 1 per cent beneficiaries of a decade of economic growth, see as theirs by right.

To facilitate easy access to the bauxite, corporations need the land to be cleared of obstacles, i.e. the indigenous people and their homes. According to Ashish Kothari, author of Churning The Earth, in recent years India “has seen a massive transfer of land and natural resources from the rural poor to the wealthy. Around 60 million people have been displaced (although some put the figure much higher) in India by large-scale industrial developments.”

The millions of mainly Dalits and Adivasi, made homeless and destitute, are forced to relocate to the slums and shanty colonies of small towns and mega cities where they are also unwelcome, all in the name of an apparently greater good. But as Roy says in Capitalism: A Ghost Story, “by now, we know that the connection between GDP growth and jobs is a myth. After 20 years of ‘growth’, 60 per cent of India’s workforce is self-employed, 90 per cent of India’s labour force works in the unorganized [unprotected and unregulated] sector.”

India’s internally displaced persons fall into a bureaucratic chasm, with neither local nor national government taking responsibility for them. Moreover, although the government occasionally publishes figures of internally displaced persons in camps, there is no monitoring of the number of people in displacement outside camps, including in urban areas. Official figures are therefore likely to underestimate the scale of the actual situation.

…to the Adivasi the bauxite is an ecological keystone, its value resting in its being in the mountain because … it “makes the mountain a porous reservoir, which holds water, that irrigates the plains”, sustaining hundreds of thousands of people.

According to HRW, in the resource-rich areas of central and eastern India, where large-scale mining and infrastructure projects are taking place, fast economic growth has been accompanied by rapidly growing inequality and widespread displacement of forest-dwelling tribal communities. Furthermore, despite the fact that India is bound by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which places internally displaced persons under the protection of the state and entitles them to the same rights as everyone else, “the government has yet to enact comprehensive laws to protect, compensate and resettle displaced people”.

A violent, undemocratic river of greed and indifference is drowning the indigenous people of eastern and central India. The Adivasi and Dalit peoples are, according to Roy, being surrounded by government forces and cut off from their resources, so much so that they cannot come out of the forest and are dying of malnutrition, all of which constitutes genocide by attrition. To their great credit and indomitable will, these ancient peoples are fighting back, waging a tribal uprising against the range of security forces deployed against them.

As it attempts to clear tribal land of millions of people and extract the treasures sewn into the fabric of the earth, the Indian government is   trampling on a range of international treaties and vandalizing the constitution in support of Indian businesses. The prize for these businesses is a wealth of minerals. One of these, bauxite, runs through the mountains of Orissa and, when extracted, is estimated to be worth 4 trillion US dollars.

However, to the Adivasi the bauxite is an ecological keystone, its value resting in its being in the mountain because, as Roy tells us, it “makes the mountain a porous reservoir, which holds water that irrigates the plains”, sustaining hundreds of thousands of people. To the people who live on the land and in harmony with the environment, the bauxite outside the mountain is worthless – they will not benefit in any way from the minerals being extracted, nor indeed will the people of India generally. Corporations, which are exempted from all manner of taxes and offered a range of government incentives to rape the land, pay only a nominal “royalty” to the government of India.

Out of step with the time

Destructive government policies pursued for the last two decades are at the root of the intense suffering being caused to millions of Adivasi and Dalit people, not just in the Dandakaranya forest but also in towns and cities across India. They are seen as remnants of the past, to be swept aside and eradicated, lest India’s image as a financial destination of choice and a great shopping centre of Asia be tainted. These policies are condemning hundred of millions to extreme poverty, fuelling cataclysmic inequality, and feeding a system of injustice and division that is trapping the poor into ever greater poverty and destitution, while concentrating more wealth and power with the wealthy and powerful.

Under the banner of growth and development, international financial agencies are dictating the economic plans of governments, offering them support on condition that they keep to their diktats and, in effect, turning them into little more than agents of corporate power.

The outcome is a system that is destructive, divisive and often violent in its methods and impact. It promotes separation and inequality, and seeks to reduce mankind to think in limited and limiting material terms, with everything and everybody seen as a commodity to be exploited until utterly spent. Crude by any standards, its manifestations fuel the corporate political machinery that is violating the lives of millions of India’s most vulnerable people in the forests of central and eastern India.

Out of step with the new time that speaks of cooperation, unity and social justice, this neoclassical model has served its purpose and had its day. It does not meet the needs of the overwhelming majority of the people of India or the world. It restricts the possibilities for change to its own limited paradigm. It is a model that has quashed the imagination of the unimaginative who deny even the possibility of a fair and just alternative.

But there has to be an alternative. As Roy says, we “have to begin to formulate some kind of vision and that vision has to be the dismantling of this particular model, in which a few people can be allowed to have an unlimited amount of wealth and power, both political and corporate. That has to be dismantled” and “a new imagination” beyond the restricting ideologies of communism and capitalism explored.

A system that grows out of and perpetuates injustice and suffering, as market totalitarianism does, is one for which an alternative is not only required but is essential for the health of the planet and the wellbeing and survival of humanity.

What is required is a pragmatic alternative that is rooted in principles of sharing, justice and freedom.

Posted in IndiaComments Off on Corporate India vs indigenous peoples

India’s inequality and destructive development

Indian inequality

By Graham Peebles

The “new” India is racing towards the altar of materialism and market fundamentalism, abandoning its hallmark of spirituality, its philosophical treasures and any notion of unity, justice and service.

Under the careful guidance of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund the Indian government has for the last 20 years or so – during which time inequality has doubled – embraced market liberalization and the global market, garlanded corporations with all manner of subsidies and damned the poor to greater poverty, destitution, suffering and suicide.

In a country of 1.2 billion people and counting, all the numbers are mega. Seen through corporate-tinted spectacles, India is a marketplace unlike any other and, provided business doors stay open 24/7, the international community – meaning the USA and its bedmates – will allow India to occupy Kashmir, murder, rape and displace the needy, and further marginalize the already marginalized.

Have-nots and billionaires

There are, according to Arundhati Roy, around 450 million Indians living in direpoverty, the equivalent of the combined poor of all the countries of Africa. Dire poverty means surviving on just 12 rupees (30 US cents) a day or less and does not allow for anything other than bare survival.

Is it possible to be healthy on such a sum – to eat nutritiously or to eat at all, to drink clean water, sleep in clean clothes on a clean bed, brush your teeth with toothpaste, wear shoes while working or retain ones dignity? All “normal”, recognizable requirements of living are regarded as luxuries, the divine seen as a fresh loaf of bread, and men, women and children shrouded in anxiety and despair, condemned to a life of drudgery and exploitation.

But among the ugliness and agony of such widespread poverty there is “good” news – billions of it: the fabulous Forbes list of money-men places India fourth in the world league table of the largest number of billionaires – 61 at the last count with a combined wealth of 250 billion US dollars. These are, incidentally, “rich billionaires”, unlike the German or Japanese ones, who are “poor” by comparison. In addition to these billionaires, there are around 200,000 dollar-millionaires, and between them they run the massive Indian corporations that in turn run India.

Middlemen and women

While half a billion men, women and children crawl through life on their 30 cents a day, a river of rupees flows ceaselessly into the judiciary, the body politic and the corporate lakes. As Arandhati Roy says, wealth is concentrated “onto the tip of a shinning pin on which our billionaires pirouette”. Indeed, in a nation of 1.2 billion, India’s 100 richest people own assets equivalent to a quarter of the GDP.

Power and rupees move unceasingly into the pockets of the wealthy and mega rich, who are boosted by an “economic system that ensures the flow of wealth goes upwards via what academic David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession”. This flow feeds a new middle class, estimated to be between 30 and 50 million people – professionals and semi-professionals who have adapted to hallowed capitalist values.

To the delight of Western corporations, there is “a huge market being created for the white goods and automobile makers, [and] huge demand for the products”, Rajesh Shukla of the Centre for Macro Consumer Research excitedly proclaims. Mention of such “demand” sends tremors of excitement and anticipation through businesses small and large, while the people of Orissa and Kashmir, Jharkhand and West Bengal starve and are displaced, raped and persecuted.

In an economic world that sees everything through the simplistic prism of markets and profits, nation states are recognized as vast department stores, markets to be exploited until exhausted and returns maximized, the natural environment stripped of all that is of value. As for the ordinary people – the rural poor who make up 70 per cent of the population and those who crowd into the glowing, overcrowded filthy cities – it’s survival for the fittest

Growing inequality, deepening poverty

Hailed as an economic miracle, India is ranked by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 129th out of 146 countries on the Human Development Index. The number of poor people in the country has barely fallen over a 30-year period. According to India Today, the poor in rural India were better fed 30 years ago. By the government’s own figures, 50 per cent of the rural population (836 million people) live in poverty, surviving somehow on less than 50 US cents a day – that is, 20 cents more than those in “dire poverty” but still not what one would call comfortable. Furthermore, according to Indian government figures, child malnutrition stands at 46 per cent – the highest in the world. In fact, India comes 73rd out of 88 countries in the annual Global Hunger Index – six places lower than the previous year. The 2010 Multidimensional Poverty Index showed that Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal have 421 million poor people.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, India has the “the highest number of poor in the world”, with the top 10 per cent earning 12 times that of the bottom 10 per cent compared to six times 20 years ago, i.e. inequality under the economic miracle is growing apace. There are sub-divisions within the divisions as inequality stalks the land – for example, with the urban wealthy spending 221 per cent more than their rural rich cousins, a chasm between the city comfortable and the rural desperate that is approaching cosmic proportions.

Such are the contradictions – and we have barely scratched the surface – in a country where a mere 1-3 per cent, according to Palagummi Sainath, have enjoyed “unprecedented success due to economic reforms”. The big growth story, he maintains, is inequality, which has “grown faster than any time in the last 50 years”, promising to cause the eath of democracy.

Still it’s not all bad news: the richest billionaires in the world are Indian and the world’s most expensive “house” – Antilla, a 27-story residential abomination, is in Mumbai. It is built for India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, whose personal wealth is said to be 20 billion dollars. He holds a controlling share in Reliance Industries Ltd, which has interests in businesses ranging from oil to stem cell storage, supermarkets to schools and, of course, the media.

Everything, everyone, everywhere

Throughout India there is systematic movement towards the commercialization of the countryside, the raping of the land for its bounty and the commoditization of each and every part of human existence. All of this is impelled by the government, which is happy to channel corporate propaganda and instil it in every mind and in every village in India.

The inevitable and unfortunate consequence is the death and destitution of obstacles to market fundamentalism – mainly the Adivasi and Dalit people who are demonized as Maoist terrorists by a government waging war not on terror but on its own marginalized and disadvantaged citizens. In this situation, to talk of human rights, social justice or environmental concerns is to talk humbug in the face of a capitalist crusade that has might on its side.

To its advocates, this is a model that is unchallengeable and beyond alternatives ideas of sharing and justice. It is a model that is bathed in a misty glow of polished yet polluted uniformity, one where the individual is absorbed into the consumer collective and told where to shop, what to buy, how to love and in which colour, what to think and when to think it and, if in doubt, tune into your local multinational media outlet for an update on corporate global acceptability.

Posted in IndiaComments Off on India’s inequality and destructive development

Destructive austerity: Poverty and social hardship in the UK

Austerity in UK

By Graham Peebles

With Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at USD 2.94 trillion (2014), the UK has the fifth largest economy in the world after the United States, China, Japan and Germany. It also suffers from acute income and wealth inequality and, according to Oxfam, which knows all about poverty, “one in five [or 20 per cent] of the population live below our official poverty line, meaning that they experience life as a daily struggle”,

The Conservative government repeatedly proclaims that the bitter medicine of economic austerity, so badly needed to “balance the nation’s wobbly books”, is the “right thing to do” – yes, it’s painful, but “we’re all in this together”. Our economic plan is working, unemployment and inflation are low, and the economy is growing, faster in fact than any other industrialised nation, it says.

The poor get poorer

Given all this good news, one would expect the people of Britain to be doing rather well. This, however, is far from the case. After extensive investigation, the independent research project, Poverty and Social Exclusion in the United Kingdom (PSE), concluded that poverty in Britain is worse now “than it has been for the past 30 years”. Indeed, the number of people living in poverty “has doubled since 1983”.

The findings of PSE contradict the upbeat rhetoric of Prime Minister David Cameron and his colleagues but echo those of leading charities, including Oxfam and  the children’s charity Barnardo’s, which states that: “there are currently 3.7 million children living in poverty in the UK”. That’s over a quarter of all children.

Poverty is a slippery term to define, and severe poverty even more so. Governments around the world use various criteria to determine whether someone is poor or not, criteria which more often than not are shaped to serve the interests of the ruling party.

The UK government employs a simplistic, rather crude method: if a family is earning “60 per cent of median income [currently GBP 26,000 (USD 40,000)] they are in poverty”. This unimaginative, narrow approach, PSE explains, is “an arbitrary definition and has been much criticised”.

PSE defines poverty more broadly, based on the “consensual method”. This includes “multiple deprivation and income”, minimum “acceptable living standards” as well as social exclusion, and is to the objective observer a far more intelligent and just system.

The detailed PSE report is full of depressing details: chief among these are the findings that “a third of people in the UK suffer significant difficulties and about a quarter have an unacceptably low standard of living”; “4 million children and adults are not properly fed by today’s standards; around 1.5 million children live in households that cannot afford to heat their home; and up to 2.5 million children live in homes that are damp”.

The impact of poverty on children is acute and long lasting, perpetuating social injustice and inequality – a major problem in the UK.

Barnado’s studied the education and health effects of child poverty. It found that poor children do worse at school – a mere 5 per cent of the poorest achieve “a good level of development at the end of their reception year [aged 5 to 6 years]”, compared to almost 70 per cent of other pupils. The poorest teenagers pass fewer exams – if any, and consequently cannot go to university, making it extremely unlikely they will get a good, fulfilling and well paid job,  one that allows them to move out of the prison of poverty.

Health-wise it’s an even bleaker picture: infant mortality is 10 per cent higher for children in the lowest social groups than the average, and three-year-olds “living in households with incomes below about GPB 10,000 are 2.5 times more likely to suffer chronic illness than children from financially better off families”. These shocking facts reveal some of the consequences of the government’s ideological economic approach.

It is a neo-liberal strategy, set firmly in motion in the 1980s under Prime-minister Margaret Thatcher and  characterised, Oxfam explains, by “financial liberalisation, the erosion of social security and deregulation of the labour market”.

These ill-judged reforms were continued by “New Labour” under Tony Blair’s premiership and “led to a dramatic increase in the number of people living in poverty, which almost doubled, from 7.3 million people in 1979 to 13.5 million in 2008”. They fuelled the highest levels of income and wealth inequality of any industrialised country except the USA. It is estimated, the Guardian reports, that the richest 1 per cent in the country “have [now] accumulated as much wealth as the poorest 55 per cent of the population put together” and, under the government’s economic plan, such divisions will only increase.

Inequality is the inevitable consequence of the injustices inherent in neo-liberalism. Thus, the stronger an economy is wedded to neo-liberal principles, the greater the inequality. The idea of “trickle down” wealth is a failed fantasy promulgated by the rich to keep the poor impoverished. Wealth, opportunity and influence flow in one direction only – up.

Inequality fuels all manner of social ills, from teenage pregnancies to homicide, depression and distrust, drug and alcohol dependency, obesity and illiteracy. With the chief executives of major corporations earning up to 100 times the average UK wage (GBP 12, USD 18 per hour), it’s a miracle there aren’t violent mass protests taking place all the time. But then most people are far too exhausted from excessive working hours and the stress of economic hardship to have the strength for righteous rebellion and, of course, TV, poor diet, alcohol and associated distractions ensure that social conformity, material discontent and emotional passivity are pretty much maintained.

The fact that a chief executive earns 100 times more than anyone is totally immoral, unjust and unnecessary. Income within organisations and companies, large and small, should be shared much more equitably among the people who work there. Reducing high earners’ wages and redistributing funds among lower earners would be a positive step in this direction. To a degree, this takes place in some Scandinavian countries, where there are greater levels of equality, public services are excellent and the social problems flowing from inequality are greatly reduced.

Suffering by ideological design

After the financial calamity of 2008-09 a number of countries across Europe (e.g. Spain, Portugal and Greece  – all now in recession) introduced austerity policies, and since 2010 austerity has been the UK government’s strategy for tackling the impact of the economic crash. The stated aim of the Conservatives’ programme is “to reduce the deficit… give confidence to the markets and therefore deliver growth to the economy”.

Their one sided methodology involves extreme public sector cutbacks, including scrapping over 1 million jobs by 2018 and freezing wages; making severe reductions in welfare; and introducing nominal tax increases (“for every GBP 100 of deficit reduction, GBP 85 comes through spending cuts, while GBP 15 is achieved through increased taxes”, Oxfam states”). As administered by the Conservatives, austerity amounts to a war on the poor, and is the principal cause of the dramatic increase in poverty, including child poverty and homelessness.

The government proposes to cut GBP 12 billion (US USD 18.4 billion) from welfare spending by 2017/18, and has already made a devastating start. Tax credits have been slashed, all benefits will be frozen for four years, despite inflation, and the total amount of welfare someone can claim has been reduced.The most vulnerable members of society are taking the full hit of their aggressive, regressive policies, with women and children being affected most acutely – directly and indirectly. Despite having a statutory duty to end poverty by 2020, according to Oxfam an additional “one million children will be pushed into poverty as a result” of there socially divisive, unjust policies, and an extra “1.5 million working-age adults are expected to fall into poverty”.

We are constantly told that austerity is the uncomfortable route to sustained economic growth and the promised land of zero deficit. This is an ideological paradise which the Conservatives claim will more than make up for the hardships, destruction of public services and the personal pain caused along the way.

This is the kind of social suffering which the prime minister  and his millionaire cabinet chums know nothing about, and it is set to get worse. Meanwhile, the mythical land of zero deficit is no nearer: in fact the UK budget deficit is estimated to be 4.9 per cent of GDP, or GBP 88 billion (USD 134 billion) this year – an all time high – and government debt, at around GBP 1.5 trillion (USD 2.4 trillion), is almost double what it was in 2010, when the Conservative-led coalition came to power.

Austerity, according to Nobel Prize-Winner Joseph Stieglitz, “has failed”, and “is contributing to inequality that will make economic weakness longer-lived, and needlessly contributes to the suffering of the jobless and the poor for many years”. He goes on to say that “there is no instance of a large economy getting to growth through austerity”. If policies based on austerity are allowed to continue in Britain and elsewhere across Europe, Oxfam warns, inequality will rise, the continent’s hard fought social gains will be undermined and a generation will be consigned to a life of hopeless poverty.

The need for real alternatives

The devotees of neo-liberalism are often heard chanting that there is no alternative to their peculiar economic belief system. It is a model that has served them well, and to which, perhaps understandably, they are deeply attached. Austerity, it appears, is being used to increase the concentration of wealth and further disempower the majority. A well rehearsed party rhetoric is constantly churned out:  “it’s either increased debt or austerity”, they sing, and we must, “live within our means” – easy when you’re means run into the millions, difficult when your benefit is cut and you can’t afford to buy any food, or heat your home.

If we are to create a just society throughout the world, we need a totally new approach to the way the economy is managed. What we need is an approach that transcends ideologies and places the principle of sharing at its heart, an approach which meets the needs and rights of the many – not just the basic needs of food and shelter, but the right to grow as a human being.

As Oxfam states, “the economic, ethical and financial argument for change could not be stronger”. It is not simply policy change that is needed – urgent as this is – but systemic change that allows a shift away from the divisive materialistic values that encourage selfishness and feed desire, to a just new way that promotes more humane values, unites people and engenders trust.

Posted in UKComments Off on Destructive austerity: Poverty and social hardship in the UK

Inequality, social dysfunction and misery

By Graham Peebles

Year on year the world’s economic divisions and sub-divisions deepen and the associated social ills increase: the rich, comfortable, and the very extremely rich keep getting richer, and the rest, well, while some may be raised up out of crippling poverty into relative poverty, the majority of people continue to live under a blanket of economic insecurity and largely remain where they are. 

Straddling the global ladder of economic and social division sit the multi-billionaires (there are now 2,208 billionaires), 42 of whom (down from 61 in 2016), according to a recent report by Oxfam, own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of humanity combined. Together with their lesser cohorts, this coterie of billionaire sucked up “82 per cent of the wealth generated [in the world] last year… while the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world saw no increase in their wealth”.

Defining challenge of our time

Income and wealth inequality is not simply a monetary issue; it is a complex social crisis that supports and strengthens notions of superiority and inferiority, and was described by President Barak Obama in 2013 as “the defining challenge of our time”. 

Today’s obscene levels of inequality are the result of the neoliberal economic system. This extreme form of capitalism took hold first in America and Britain in the early 1980s when Reagan and Thatcher ruled, workers’ rights were trampled on, “society” became a dirty word and community responsibility was abandoned to selfishness and greed. With the aid of the World Bank and the IMF, neoliberalism swiftly spread throughout the world, polluting life in every city, town and village with its divisive, cruel ideology. Commercialisation and competition are key principles and have infiltrated every area of contemporary life; everything and everyone is seen as a commodity, and the size of ones bank account determines the level of health care, education and housing available, as well as one’s access to culture and freedom to travel. 

Social injustice is inherent in the system, as is inequality, which is itself a major form of injustice. Inequality strengthens deep-seated social imbalances based on class and social standing, and in a world where everything is classified, commercialised and priced, i.e. attributed a value, external wealth and position have become the common criteria for determining the internal worth of a human being. Comparison and imitation follow, individuality is perverted and fear fostered – fear of inadequacy, fear of failure, fear of not being loved, because not “deserving” love, not being able to “afford” love. Resentment, anger and self-loathing are fed, leading to a range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and drug and alcohol addiction.

Happiness and inequality

The impact of financial inequality on the health and wellbeing of society has been extensively studied by Richard Wilkinson, British co-author of Spirit Level,Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham. In order to establish national levels of inequality Wilkinson and his team used a benchmark based on how much richer the top 20 per cent is than the bottom 20 per cent. Japan and Scandinavia (Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark) came out most equal, and now, Slovenia and the Czech Republic have moved towards this group. Israel, New Zealand, Australia, Britain, Portugal and the USA were found to have the greatest levels of inequality, and by some margin. Recent data suggests that Russia, South Africa and Turkey should now be added to the most unequal pile. Germany, Spain and Switzerland sit somewhere in the middle.

Data relating to a range of social issues was examined: The most unequal countries were found to have lower life expectancy than more equal societies, higher infant mortality, many more homicides, larger prison populations (by 10-15 times), applied longer prison sentences, higher teenage pregnancies, lower mathematic/literacy levels, more obesity, less social mobility and, according to The World Value Survey, a great deal less trust. In more equal countries, like Sweden and Norway, around 65 per cent of people trust others, whereas in unequal societies like America a mere 15 per cent admitted to trusting their fellow citizens.

In all areas, countries with high levels of inequality did worse, in many cases much worse, than more equal nations. In Japan around 8 per cent of the population suffers from some form of mental health issue, compared to 30 per cent in America. Children are considerably healthier in more equal countries, according to UNICEF’s Index of Child Well-Being, and feel a good deal happier. Wilkinson concludes by saying: “What we’re looking at is general social dysfunction related to inequality. It’s not just one or two things that go wrong, it’s most things.”

Look to Scandinavia

If one of the primary purposes of any socio-economic system is to create environments in which human beings can grow and live happily together, then the nations suffering under the shadow of inequality need to learn from Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, which are not just the least unequal, they are also the happiest countries in the world. Throughout Scandinavia public services – education (which is probably the best in the world), health care and housing – are valued, and taxes levied in order to fund them properly. There are greater levels of social justice, allowing for trust to develop and trust relationships flower. The extremes of staggering wealth and stifling poverty don’t exist as they do in the more unequal parts of the world; social mobility is greater and the dream of betterment more realistic. As Richard Wilkinson says, “if Americans want to live the ‘American dream’ they should go and live in Denmark”.

The first duty of government is to protect the people. This involves not only dealing with terrorism and the like, but requires the development of socio-economic policies that contribute to the creation of a healthy, harmonious environment. By supporting extreme inequality (which has been shown to fuel a range of social issues), governments in the more unequal countries are totally failing in this fundamental duty. Politicians, who in many cases rely on big business and wealthy benefactors for their funding, are either blind to, or negligent of, the inherent faults of the current system, and the unhealthy, negative way of life it supports.

The case for fundamental change in the economic order, and a shift away from the destructive values it promotes, is becoming irrefutable. However, change occurs only gradually and resistance is great. In the meantime, governments (particularly in the most unequal states) need to acknowledge the connection between the dysfunction and disease within society and their socio-economic methodology, which is literally making people ill, as well and poisoning the natural world. They need to invest properly in public services, address wage differences, ban bonuses, introduce progressive tax reform and, unlike America and France which are taking retrograde steps by designing tax codes which will fuel inequality, look to the Scandinavian countries and learn from their example.

For too long socio-economic systems have been designed and maintained to cater to the desires and interests of a privileged few, while the majority live inhibited lives under the shadow of financial uncertainty. For harmonious societies to evolve this longstanding injustice needs to be addressed and a degree of balance found. This requires that those whose table is full to overflowing share some of their bounty, so that all may have enough, not excess, enough. 

As a wise man has said, “The rich must give up what they want, so that the poor can have what they need.” What the rich and comfortable must give up is greed (another car, another house, more designer clothes, etc.); what the rest need is freedom from economic insecurity and the fear of destitution, freedom from exploitation and dependency, secure, comfortable and well-designed accommodation, and access to good education, health care and culture. Such essential needs are the rights of all; when made manifest they go a long way towards establishing social justice, and where there is social justice, functional, compassionate communities do evolve, conflict is reduced and collective harmony is cultivated.

Posted in Europe, WorldComments Off on Inequality, social dysfunction and misery

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