On Solidarity

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. March 2015 - 9:23

The idea of solidarity has its roots in the history of the workers’ movement, and as this is usually excluded from conventional tales of human endeavour, it is seldom understood. 

Europe, the very idea is a series on the philosophical notion of Europe and what reflection upon it can lend to the sphere of concrete politics.

"Quarto Stato" di Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved. On the idea of solidarity many bien-pensant authors have written a great deal. Like ‘fraternity’ and unlike liberty and equality, it is considered soft and fuzzy, a matter of leading articles on national holidays and solemn anniversaries. As if it were not a concept.

But it is.

In a famous study, Jeremy Waldron has shown how the universalist notion of human dignity has its historical origin in the not very universalist – to wit, feudal – idea of ‘rank’, the dignity attached to status.

The idea of solidarity has its roots in the history of the workers’ movement, and as this is usually excluded from conventional tales of human endeavour, it is seldom understood.

What has ‘solidarity’ meant for the workers’ movement in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? 

Looked at from the outside, the workers’ movement was a set of organizations for and of an exploited, oppressed and politically unrepresented class which was trying to improve its lot.

It was, in particular, an attempt to introduce politics into an area from which it was legally banished. Modern, that is, bourgeois society is based on a series of separations. One of the most important separations – on which the social equilibrium, the balance of social forces depends – is the distinction between public and private. The public – the realm of the common good – is identified with the affairs of the state, the only realm in modern society where legal coercion is accepted and where obedience and deference to authority is obligatory.

In the sphere of the private, in ‘civil society’, it is contractual, that is, free and voluntary acts that are the rule (private citizens normally don’t have the right to coerce fellow citizens into obedience). Such is the case, according to official doctrine, of labour contracts and, in general, of labour that is seen legally and jurisprudentially as a private affair between two contracting parties, the employer and employee, where money will usually change hands, going from employer to employee, for the performance of voluntarily assumed duties prescribed by contract, custom, technology and the like.

The law is there only to ensure that the implied promise of performance is kept and that the agreed salary is faithfully paid. But the substantive and material content of the labour contract remains a private affair in which no ‘third party’ is allowed to interfere, as such an interference would hurt the freedom of contract, one of the fundamental prerequisites of any civilized, that is, commercial society.

It is good to remember that once upon a time strikes were considered illegal precisely because they constitute a breach of contract. Moreover, they use violence – by closing down machinery or other technological devices etc. – to force one of the contracting parties, the employers, under the threat of financial loss, to change the terms of contract previously accepted. This is, of course, a disloyal and unfaithful breach of promise, a promise that people are supposed to observe under penalty of law.

Why did the striking workers – apart from the wish to improve their economic and social position, e. g. to increase their wages, shorten their working day and improve their working conditions, including various social advantages, such as unemployment benefit, old-age pensions, paid holidays, social housing, free healthcare and the like – think that they were justified in changing the terms of a fundamental, perhaps constitutional arrangement essential for the inner peace and for the existing system of liberties? For it is undeniable that for secular bourgeois societies the system of separations is necessary for upholding individual autonomy, by making private life, private affairs and their framework, civil society, inviolable by political authority, in other words, by the state.

Why did the workers’ organizations believe that it was morally permissible to use coercion, sometimes physical violence to force the employers (or the employers in general, the ruling class) to give up some of their privileges and advantages guaranteed by another fundamental right, the right of property? (This is why socialism was and sometimes still is seen as an enemy of freedom, a tendency to make politics, that is, the state, absolute and one which is bent on destroying the autonomy of civil society and of the individual.)

Plainly, albeit discourteously formulated, they obviously thought that they were in some sense morally superior to their adversaries, which would justify coercive, sometimes violent, but in any case illegal tactics which have questioned the constitutional order, even one of its foundations, the customary distinction between public and private or, if you prefer, between politics and the economy (and the ‘social’).

Moral superiority

Let us examine this idea of moral superiority, which is of course alien to Marxism, but which has influenced the followers of Proudhon, Lassalle and Bakunin, in many respects more influential than Marx in the practical movements of the nineteenth century, and an idea revived in the anti-war movement after 1914, in the Russian revolution in October 1917, in the anti-colonial or ‘national liberation’ movements, and which has indeed coloured the Bolshevik version of Marxism for nearly a century.

This fight for seemingly humdrum and mundane goals may appear as a rather poor reason for the kind of sinful pride affirming moral superiority.

How could be such a feeling sustained?

Bourgeois society was regarded by olden-time proletarian revolutionaries as a régime of selfishness. After all, liberal capitalism, especially its early version, was constructed as a régime of self-representation. Built as a clash of wills, a clash of interests, regulated, tempered and moderated by an overarching constitutional order ensuring that conflicts of interests would be conducted in a peaceable manner, decided by elections and court trials, where everybody’s rights will be respected, but otherwise the (peaceful) battlefield is open for all.

Quite apart from the traditional advantages of the wealthy, of the well-educated and of the well-connected, this was held by the proletarians – even if it was not a sham or a fraud – to be quite contemptible, as it was governed by self-interest and decided by force, both damned by Christian morality. But what then was the difference? Were the workers not fighting for their own advantage or interest, just like the bourgeois?

But the proletarians – an identification that was tantamount to being called a socialist, a communist or an anarchist – did not regard the class struggle as a zero-sum game or merely the aspiration for the lowly material advancement of a group of people united by their similar economic and social condition. They did not believe that they represented only themselves and their narrowly defined interest. Their own authentic aspiration could be told apart from the aspirations of the rest by the principle of solidarity.


This had many features.

First, they did not recognize the uncoerced, voluntary character of the labour contract, the alternative of which, if you were unwilling to sign, was starvation. Hence, they did not recognize that labour was in the private realm and that as such it was not political. (This is the intuitive foundation of every version of anti-capitalism, even today.) So the fight for higher wages and for a shorter working day and working week had the dignity of politics, formerly the preserve of the upper classes, barring revolutions.

Second, they did not recognize the absoluteness or exclusiveness of property rights as, in accordance with natural right, they regarded wealth as a source of obligation for the promotion of the common good (or of public interest) and thus subordinated to the superior claims of the quest for a better human society. (This is obviously also the claim of the ecological movements.)

Third, in agreement with the young Marx, they believed that the working class heralded the dissolution of all classes, that it was the quintessential non-class, defined as an aspect of the human condition in which the self-interest of some would mean the end of all sectional interests and so, the emancipation of the human race. By opposing property and power, they did not want to acquire property and power for themselves, but to destroy property and power for ever and in all respects. This was not supposed to be reduced to a political interference in civil society, on the contrary: it was supposed to mean the obliteration of the duality civil society/state by putting an end to class/state coercion and to its law.

Hence, this was not self-representation (this would be a miscontrual of old social democracy, in a way that has become familiar from current historiography, which has always been so wary of ideas) but a battle fought on behalf of humankind as such.

And as this fight was always understood as unselfish, generous and heroic, as the fight of the weak against the strong, the virtues that went with it were similarly generous and heroic: they were essentially virtues of self-sacrifice. During and after strikes and rebellions, workers were laid off and thrown into jail: this was a badge of honour and a mark of the highest moral pride, always construed as suffering for a noble goal at the hands of the flunkeys of the ruling class – gendarmes, gaolers, professional soldiers, spies, scabs, snitches, prosecutors, judges, priests, bourgeois politicians, kings and journalists. Voluntary suffering for the noble goal is naturally also Christian in origin: it is the secular version of the idea of martyrdom. Also similar to Christian moral theology: this was the proof of the essential justice of the noble cause.

And the highest proof was solidarity with other workers, especially that which took the form of internationalism.

One of the main instruments of bourgeois society, then as now, is the cross-class solidarity of the nation – the main moral competitor to the workers’ movement. National interest was supposed (this is the bourgeois standpoint) to supersede ‘selfish’ and material class interest (the bourgeois interpretation of the proletarian stance) particularly in the way this supercession was demanded and expected in wartime. The proletariat had (or should have had) the effrontery to doubt the legitimacy of this claim, through three natural right-style principles, typically forgotten:

   • equality between nations,

   • friendship between peoples,

   • world peace.

In this, the workers’ movement was the true heir of Immanuel Kant, despised as an ‘idealist’ not only by the General Staff, but also by most political theorists, in the first place by Carl Schmitt, so much admired these days by the baddies. Kant’s assumption of ‘publicness’ as the sole guarantor of an international law conducive to perpetual peace is parallel to the demand of ‘publicness’ by socialists as regards labour and property. Perpetual world peace through ‘hospitality’ (not philanthropy, but right, says Kant) means the extension of regular democratic politics to a territory from which it was banished earlier. In exactly the same manner, socialism extends politics to civil society.

The end of peace

In his influential book about the crisis of the European Union, Jürgen Habermas acknowledges the changes in the official international doctrine of a universal rule of law after 1945 – in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the UN Charter and a number of national and regional constitutions, conspicuous among them that of the Free State of Saxony, which was accepted and enacted after 1989 – where it appears that the recognition of universal and equal dignity plays a role previously unknown. He does not spell this out in precisely these terms, but it is glaringly obvious that this development took place thanks to the influence of socialism, as it enjoyed its brief moment of international legitimacy immediately after the victory over the Third Reich.

One of the institutions dreamed up to ensure peace at least in Europe – which is of course unthinkable without the cognate principles of ‘equality between nations’ and ‘friendship between peoples’ – was the European Union, or ‘Europe’ for short.

There is no need for extraordinary acuity to discover that the most recent European crisis, not caused by but only made visible by the Syriza government in Greece, presents us not with a banal instance of the difference between theory and practice, principles and interests, but with a deeper and more worrying malfunction: this appears to be the renunciation of egalitarian principles on the international level, where once the idea of solidarity was injected into an exceptional historic moment. Now the ejection of solidarity heralds the end of international or, in this instance, European peace. Such a peace, already broken in the former Yugoslavia and now in the former Soviet Union (Ukraine/Russia) is nearing its conceptual and moral end, also within the narrower confines of the European Union.

The disappearance of socialism from the political mix – and with it, of solidarity, acted upon as a principle, and not merely an empty emotional phrase in May Day speechifying – demonstrates the close of an epoch. It is the first time in European history that capitalism is alone, unresisted by socialism or, for that matter, by Christianity. The international solidarity evinced in anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism seems also defunct.

There is no question, that the proud faith in the moral superiority of the solidary proletariat has become obsolete. Contemporary anti-capitalist protesters – sons and daughters of the middle class and of the intelligentsia or rootless bohemians of working-class ‘backgrounds’ kept alive by the bourgeois welfare system – do not advocate and practice self-representation, they are rebelling on other people’s behalf. But those people are strangely silent.

Solidarity is a social ideal that always tries to become a politics. Its chances are slim.


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Waiting for emancipation: the prospects for liberal revolution in Africa

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. March 2015 - 8:38

Clearly, trade and finance are not organized, in Africa or the world at large, with a view to liberating a popular movement.

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.


South Africa miners strike following the Marikana massacre, 2012. Demotix/Jonny White. All rights reserved.We live in a racist world. Despite the collapse of European empire and the formal adoption of a façade of international bureaucracy, the vast majority of black Africans are still waiting for meaningful emancipation from their perceived social inferiority.

Africans wait for emancipation in an unequal world

Now there is much talk of economic growth in Africa. In the present decade, 7 out of the 10 fastest-growing economies (as conventionally measured) are African. In 1900 Africa was the world’s least densely populated and urbanized continent with 7.5% of world population. Today it is double that, with an urban share fast approaching the global average. According to UN projections, Africa will be home to 25% of all the people alive in 2050, 40% in 2100 (when Asia will contribute 42% and the rest 18%). This is because Africa’s annual population growth rate is 2.5% while the rest of the world is ageing. The Asian manufacturing countries already recognize that Africa is the fastest-growing market in the world. This could provide an opportunity for Africans to play a stronger hand in international negotiations. If they succeed in standing up for themselves, it would be a world revolution, the end of the racist world order, no less.

The movement to abolish slavery was officially completed in the late nineteenth century. But emancipation is rarely as simple as that. In West Africa, abolition was a disaster. The internal drive to capture slaves continued apace and, despite a shift to their use in domestic production, supply soon exceeded demand. The price of slaves fell drastically, leading to their widespread abuse. Colonial empires were then justified by disorder in West Africa and by the drive to abolish the Arab slave trade in East Africa. Much later, when these regimes fell, Africans were offered emancipation once more, this time through national independence. Most African economies then regressed for a half-century. Apartheid was defeated in South Africa, but two decades later the country is more unequal and unemployment is rampant, while the government shoots its own people if they complain. Africans are still waiting for equal membership of world society. But they have never encountered more favourable conditions than now.

In the twentieth century, a population explosion was accompanied by a jump in Africa’s urban share from under 2% of the population to almost half. This urban revolution is not just a proliferation of cities, but also involves the installation of the whole package of pre-industrial class society: states, urban elites, intensification of agriculture and a political economy based on extraction of rural surpluses and the city bazaar.

The anti-colonial revolution unleashed hopes for the transformation of an unequal world. These have not yet been realized for most Africans. Africa’s new leaders thought they were building modern economies, but in reality they were erecting fragile states based on the same small-scale agriculture as before. Either machine production would be developed in some sectors of the economy or the state would devolve to a level compatible with its small-scale productive base. This structural weakness inevitably led them to exchange the democratic legitimacy of the independence struggle for dependence on foreign powers. Life support to Africa’s new ruling elites was switched off in the early 1980s. Many governments were made bankrupt and some countries collapsed into civil war.

The growth of cities should normally lead to rural-urban exchange, as farmers supply food to city-dwellers and in turn buy the latter’s manufactures and services. But this progressive division of labour requires a measure of protection from the world market and it was stifled at birth in post-colonial Africa by the dumping of subsidized food from the tax-rich West and later of cheap Asian manufactures. ‘Structural adjustment programmes’ imposed by the World Bank and IMF meant that Africa’s fledgling national economies had no protection. Tax collection in Africa was never as regular as in Eurasia; and governments still rely on whatever they can extract from mineral royalties and the import-export trade. Rents secured by political privilege are the chief source of wealth. This constitutes an Old Regime ripe for liberal revolution.

African development in the twenty-first century

‘Development’ refers first to humanity’s hectic dash from the countryside to the city since 1800. The engine driving this economic growth is assumed to be ‘capitalism’. Development then means trying to understand how capitalist growth is generated and how to make good the damage it causes in repeated cycles of creation and destruction. A third meaning refers to the developmental states of the mid-twentieth century, the idea that governments are best placed to engineer sustained economic growth with redistribution. The most common usage, however, refers to the commitment of rich countries to help poor countries become richer. This was at first real enough, even if the means chosen were often flawed. But after the 1970s, it has faded. If the rapid growth of the world economy encouraged a belief at first that poor countries could become rich, from the 1980s ‘development’ has meant freeing up global monetary flows and applying sticking plaster to the wounds inflicted. Development is the label for political relations between rich and poor countries after colonial empire.

There are two pressing features of our world: the unprecedented expansion of markets since the Second World War and massive economic inequality between (and within) nations. Becoming closer and more unequal at the same time is a recipe for disaster. Africa, with a seventh of the world’s population, had 2% of global purchasing power around the millennium. What could Africa’s new urban populations produce for the world economy? Apart from exporting raw materials, when they could, the world market for food and other agricultural products is skewed by western farm subsidies. Manufacturing as an alternative faces intense competition from Asia. African countries should argue collectively in the councils of world trade for some protection from international dumping, so that their farmers and infant industries might supply their own populations first.

Exchange between cities and their hinterlands has been frustrated for a post-colonial Africa whose international bargaining position is undermined by being fragmented into 54 states. The fastest-growing sector of world trade is the production of culture: entertainment, education, media, sports, software and information services. The terrain is less rigidly mapped out here than in agriculture and manufacture and Africans are well-placed to compete in this field because of the proven global preference for their music, films and plastic arts.

Classes for and against a liberal revolution

  Mineworkers and Construction Union members remember the Marikana victims, 2014. Demotix/Antonella Ragazzoni. All rights reservedThe classical liberal revolutions were sustained by three ideas: that freedom and economic progress require increased movement of people, goods and money in the market; that the political framework most compatible with this is democracy; and that social progress depends on science, the drive to know how things really work. The energies generated by Africa’s urban revolution are already manifested in economy, technology, religion and the arts; and they could be harnessed to radical change if freed from the Old Regime.

Rousseau’s condemnation of eighteenth century France rings as true for our world: “It is manifestly contrary to the law of nature, however defined… that a handful of people should gorge themselves with superfluities while the hungry multitude goes in want of necessities”. The institutions of agrarian civilization are alive and well, not just in post-colonial Africa. The greatest riches are no longer acquired through selling products cheaper than one’s competitors; rents secured by political privilege -- such as Big Pharma’s income from patents, monopoly revenues from DVDs and CDs or tax revenues, used to bail out the Wall Street banks – keep the superrich afloat today.

In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon provided a blueprint for a class analysis of decadent societies ripe for revolution. Political parties and unions were weak and conservative in late colonial Africa because they represented only a tiny part of the population: the industrial workers, civil servants, intellectuals and shopkeepers of the town, classes unwilling to jeopardize their own privileges. They were hostile to and suspicious of the mass of country people.

The latter had customary chiefs supervised by the military and administrative officials of the occupying power. A nationalist middle class of professionals and traders confronted the superstition and feudalism of traditional authorities. Landless peasants joined the urban lumpenproletariat. Eventually colonial repression forced the nationalists to flee the towns and take refuge with the peasantry. Only then, with the rural-urban split temporarily healed by crisis, did a mass movement take off. Fanon’s method might help us identify the potential for another African revolution.

Clearly, trade and finance are not organized, in Africa or the world at large, with a view to liberating a popular movement. A liberal revolution would need allies with significant wealth and power. Africans will have to develop their own transnational associations to combat the huge coalitions that would deny them self-expression. One of the strongest political movements today is the formation of large regional trading blocs in response to neoliberal globalization. A national framework for development never made sense in Africa and it makes even less sense today. The coming revolution could leapfrog many of the obstacles in its path, but not if African societies still wear the national straitjacket they inherited from colonial rule.

Freedom and protection in the early modern revolutions

The American, French and Italian revolutions all combined mass insurgency with an extended period of warfare focused on removing fragmented sovereignty, unfair taxes and restrictions placed on movement and trade; German unification had a similar focus, but followed a different political trajectory. The success of the British in establishing a global free trade regime in the nineteenth century and the revival of that regime as economic orthodoxy today have obscured the complex dialectic of freedom and protection whose imperatives were laid out by Sir James Steuart in Principles of Political Economy (1767).

Impediments to trade caused by divided sovereignty within and between states had to be overcome. Development under these circumstances depended on removing these barriers to trade. At the same time, these incipient free trade areas needed a measure of protection, so that their own agriculture and manufactures could benefit from supplying newly consolidated home populations. The French revolution is a striking case in point.

In 1793, the Terror was unleashed and the Bretons raised a ‘Royal and Catholic Army’ against which the revolutionary Republic sent out an army of its own to fight in the War of Vendée. Nantes, France’s largest port, was heavily involved in slavery and trade with the Caribbean. It stood out for the Republic and was besieged by the Royalist army. The ensuing battle was decisive for the Revolution; the shippers financed the Republican army. Why did the Nantes bourgeoisie risk so much for the Revolution? France, although a central monarchy, was then a patchwork of local fief-holders, each of whom exacted what they could from people and goods moving through their territory. The Republic promised to end all that and establish a regulated home market. The Nantes shippers wanted to reduce the costs of moving their trade goods inland and so they allied themselves with the Republic.

In the United States, American and Dutch smugglers led resistance to the East India Company’s tea monopoly and to British taxes offsetting the crown’s military costs. The Italian Risorgimento too was backed financially by the industrialists of Milan and Turin who wanted a national home market freed of territorial fragments and unrestricted access to world trade. In all three cases, the power of merchant and manufacturing capital played a decisive part in the revolution.

Long before the European Common Market became the European Union, the Prussian Zollverein was launched in 1818 and culminated in the German Empire. In each case political unification was preceded by a customs union lasting half a century. The Zollverein was a piecemeal attempt to harmonise tariffs, measures and economic policy in scattered territories controlled by the Prussian ruling family. The Germans attributed their vulnerability to extreme political fragmentation (some 40 states in 1815). Prussia’s main aim was to expand a protected zone of internal free trade from which the Austrians were excluded. By the 1860s, most of what became Germany had joined the customs union. Their leading economist, Friedrich List, proposed a ‘national system’ of political economy. He emphasized the scope for innovation within an expanded free trade area protected from the world market. Similar proposals were espoused by Americans like Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay.

Towards greater integration of African trade

President Mbeki’s idea of an ‘African renaissance’ expressed the belief that a black majority government in South Africa might be a catalyst for an African economic revival based on greater political coordination between what had before been easy pickings for the world’s great powers. His initiative was aimed exclusively at the very political class that has failed Africa so often since independence. He did not factor civil society movements into his plans.

Africa currently consists of a labyrinthine confusion of regional associations which do little to strengthen their members’ bargaining power in world markets. On the ground, however, African peoples maintain patterns of long-distance movement and exchange developed over centuries despite their rulers’ attempts to force economy and society into national cages.

This is one major reason why so much of the African economy is held to be ‘informal’: state regulations are routinely ignored, with the result that half the population and most economic activity are criminalized and an absurd public effort is wasted on trying to apply unenforceable rules. Classical liberalism offers an answer to this chaos -- the widest area possible of free trade and movement, with minimal regulation by the authorities.  Neoliberal globalization has done much to discredit this recipe, since political initiatives, even in pursuit of free trade, are anathema. Yet the policy conclusion is inescapable: the boundaries of free commerce and of state intervention should be pushed beyond the limits of existing sovereignties.

China occupied a similar slot to Africa in western consciousness not so long ago. In the 1930s, people often spoke of the Chinese as they do of Africa today. China was then crippled by the violence of warlords, its peasants mired in the worst poverty imaginable. Today the country is an economic superpower. This profound shift in power from West to East does not guarantee that Africa will escape soon from the stigma of inferiority, but the structures of North Atlantic dominance that once seemed inevitable are perceptibly on the move; and that makes it easier to envisage change. Humanity is entering a new era of social possibility. Africans’ drive for emancipation from an unequal world society affects all of us. In that sense an African revolution would be a world revolution.

Topics:  Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government Economics Equality International politics
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Anti-trafficking campaigns, sex workers and the roots of damage

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. March 2015 - 5:00

Anti-trafficking campaigns have their roots in 19th-century efforts to ‘save’ white women from ‘white slavery.’ Contemporary strategies broaden the stigmatisation and criminalisation, impacting a range of vulnerable communities.

The adverse impact of anti-trafficking laws and policies on sex workers rights has been documented extensively for the last decade. Despite calls for change from sex workers, human rights activists, academics and a range of other actors, states around the world have been reluctant and slow to respond. Some analysts emphasise that the states’ use of anti-trafficking laws to limit immigration is largely responsible for this reluctance. I further add that the analysis of the historical development of contemporary anti-trafficking policies is crucial to understanding the escalating criminalisation and stigmatisation of sex workers, migrants and other vulnerable populations. I argue that any legal framework centred on ‘crime’, rather than on rights and the structural causes of social ills, is bound to disproportionately and systematically impact the poor and vulnerable.

Saving women from ‘white slavery’: the roots of the anti-trafficking

The roots of contemporary anti-trafficking laws can be firmly located in the prostitution-abolitionist ideology of the late 19th century; a period during which trafficking was also referred to as ‘white slavery’. The white slavery campaigns portrayed a world filled with sexual danger for young white women, seduced and exploited by sinister dark men. Thus these campaigns were driven by xenophobia, racism and classism at the peak of British imperialism.

By the mid-1800s anti-solicitation laws (targeting prostitutes) had become a staple of urban codes. Prostitution-abolitionists joined other anti-vice crusaders in the 1800s, introducing a new strategy. As a precursor to the legislative approach taken by Sweden and other countries today, the prostitution abolitionists held that women were forced into prostitution, and were therefore victims rather than criminals. They also opposed legal prostitution, objecting to[ “…the double standard of sexual morality reinforced by the policing and control of women's bodies [and] … fought to expand the definition of trafficking to include third party involvement]8, which they argued should be penalised or criminalised.” Then, as today, this legislative and campaign strategy was ostensibly offered in sympathy. However, the criminalisation of third parties drove commercial sex underground and resulted in extreme and dangerous isolation of sex workers, because third parties could include landlords, domestic help, family members, brothel owners and even support among sex workers themselves.

The closure of the brothels also coincided with a rise in property values. The legal status of prostitution was thus subject to the politics of land development, an on-going element of prostitution repression. In the US, marginalised urban populations from immigrants to newly emancipated African Americans were targeted under such statutes as the 1910 Mann Act or White Slave Traffic Act. This statute established a central database of ‘known prostitutes’ and led to the formation of the FBI, in a stark example of how anti-trafficking policies widen police powers. Such repression and criminalisation of most aspects of prostitution soon spread around the globe. This firmly re-located prostitution deep within the underground economy, exacerbating and causing vulnerability. The murder rate of sex workers has since  increased steadily, along with police abuse against adults and youth.

The criminalisation of third parties and the definition of prostitution as an inherent ‘evil’ was further cemented at the global level by the 1949 UN Convention on the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. As Kamala Kempadoo argued in her paper “Trafficking for the Global Market: State and Corporate Terror,” anxiety over the trafficking-prostitution nexus gained even more momentum following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc:

It would appear that the appearance of women from the former USSR countries in Western European sex industries, was a main reason for European governments to pay attention to the problem of trafficking. In many ways, this focus echoes the late nineteenth - early twentieth century crusade...It would seem yet again, that attention for the lives of white women … has propelled international action.

The fight for sex workers’ rights

In the late 70s, the sex workers’ rights movement radically suggested that sex workers were a class of workers wholly eligible for human, civil and labour rights. This led to the organisation of international conventions for sex workers and human rights activists, beginning with the International Committee for Prostitutes’ Rights in the 80s. The analysis offered by these groups reflected development, social justice and harm reduction theory. There was increasing recognition of the flaws of prostitution-abolitionist strategies at these conferences and within academia, as well as calls for the self-representation of sex workers as put forth by the Network of Sex Work Projects.

In the 90s, in response to the growing attention to migration issues, and informed by sex worker rights activism, a collaboration of rights-based groups created the Human Rights Standards for Treatment of Trafficked Persons. Their intention was to advocate for an anti-trafficking protocol that targeted the abuse of all workers—including sex workers—primarily in the context of migration. The disagreements between this collaborative group and the prostitution abolitionists were laid bare in the late 90s, when these diverse factions were invited to participate in drafting the new UN Trafficking Protocol. A battle ensued.

It was apparent that prostitution abolitionists had no interest in including forced labour in the UN Trafficking Protocol. Rather, they insisted that the Protocol be used as a tool to abolish prostitution. In the compromise reached at the end, the new UN Trafficking Protocol referred to labour abuses involving the use of force, fraud, coercion, etc. for the purpose of exploitation. More significantly, the Protocol specifically chose not to define ‘sexual exploitation’. This left individual states to define it as they saw fit, equating prostitution with sexual exploitation or defining sexual exploitation as abuse within prostitution. In this way the Protocol could be interpreted as supporting both proponents of legal prostitution and those seeking its abolishment.

These strategies within the UN Protocol have largely failed sex workers as well as migrants and trafficked persons. In addition, while the included human rights protections are optional, the criminalisation and border controls are mandatory. In consequence, the predominantly criminal justice response primarily aims to stop commercial sex through immigration raids and arrests, yet is coupled with limited support for a wide range of victims. Thus, as stated by Marjan Wijers, “This focus on the purity and victimhood of women, coupled with the protection of national borders, not only impedes any serious effort to address the true human rights abuses we are confronted with... but actually causes harm to real people.”

Under pressure from prostitution abolitionist coalitions, many countries have now enacted domestic anti-trafficking laws that focus exclusively on prostitution, retreating to strategies of the earlier centuries. In the United States, the prostitution abolitionist lobby, in alliance with religious fundamentalists, strenuously lobbied for all sex workers to be considered victims of trafficking to foreclose the option for legal prostitution and labour rights for those involved. These groups also recommended a bifurcated definition of trafficking, one that separates ‘sex trafficking’ from other forms of labour trafficking. The US Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which partially reflects this proposal, defines sex trafficking as “the recruitment, harbouring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.” No condition of force, fraud or abuse is stipulated. Although ‘sex trafficking’ is not included in US criminal codes, the TVPA certainly paves the way for that possibility.

The focus of enforcement in the United States has primarily been on suppressing commercial sex, rather than on addressing abuses within the sex trades. These repressive ideologies are also actively promoted and exported through channels such as the ‘Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath,’ which requires beneficiaries of US aid money to guarantee their opposition to legal prostitution. US domestic funding followed a similar direction, rendering sex worker organisations ineligible for funding. Sex workers were also excluded from further participation in policy making in both systematic and and informal ways.

State of play

The current neo-abolitionist movement has expanded its strategies to include the ‘Nordic model’ of prostitution repression. Clients are now included in the long list of targets of criminalisation, escalating the isolation of sex workers. Although abolitionist philosophy is ostensibly opposed to criminalisation of sex workers, internationally such campaigns have been launched where prostitution is legal, or as a means to further criminalise the sex industries, rather than as a means to decriminalise sex workers. It is this crime-based approach that also promotes tighter border controls, as well as the escalating punishment and targeting of migrants, youth and people of colour. These ‘solutions’ exacerbate violence and vulnerability in many populations, just as the criminalisation of brothels in the 1800s resulted in a century of isolation and increased violence against sex workers.

Sex workers have long explained that one of the many conditions needed to prevent the abuses often conflated as ‘trafficking’ is the decriminalisation of sex work. This principle is supported by Human Rights Watch the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, the United Nations Development Programme, UN Women and UNAIDS, among a growing list of international bodies.

Clearly, some results of anti-trafficking policies have been positive for those individuals found to qualify for protections, affording them specific visas and settlements among other humanitarian advances. At the same time, substantial evidence of adverse effects has been found following research carried out by the Global Alliance against Traffic in Women. From a rights based perspective, any legal framework that centres on ‘crime’ rather than on rights and the structural causes for social ills is bound to disproportionately and systematically impact the poor and vulnerable. Meanwhile, the double-edged sword of anti-trafficking places vulnerable populations in competition for justice, because those qualified as trafficked persons may obtain recourse from the same systems that punish other, equally vulnerable individuals.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Convenient conflations: modern slavery, trafficking, and prostitution Speaking of “dead prostitutes”: how CATW promotes survivors to silence sex workers The role of the state and law in trafficking and modern slavery
Categories: les flux rss

Lies, damn lies and hunting polls

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. March 2015 - 0:11

Whether the public support or oppose the hunting ban seems to depend very much on which question is asked, and who's asking the question.

Flickr/beaucon. Some rights reserved.

In December last year the anti-hunting charity the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) commissioned its seasonal poll from Ipsos MORI. The results were predictable to those of us who follow such 'research' and LACS subsequently produced its traditional Boxing Day press release claiming '80% of the British public are in favour of keeping the ban on fox hunting'. Those numbers looked a little odd beside the reports of hundreds of thousands of people supporting their local hunts, but surely showed that everyone else must hate those nasty foxhunters.

In January however, another polling company, YouGov, decided to ask a question about hunting in anticipation of the tenth anniversary of the Hunting Act on 18th February. That poll reported that 51% of people "support the ban on fox hunting with hounds". The research was not commissioned by anyone, but according to YouGov was asked "purely for the interest of our (website) readers".

We hear a lot about 'rogue' polls and statistical range these days, but a 29% polling difference on the same issue a month apart is some anomaly. How on earth can this have happened?

The story goes back into the 1990's and the increasing reliance of the anti-hunting movement on public opinion polling to make the case for a ban on hunting. LACS, with its partners IFAW and the RSPCA, found a willing helper in the form of Robert Worcester, founder and Chairman of the dominant market research company MORI. Worcester was happy to appear at LACS meetings, and LACS press releases invited interested parties to contact him directly about polling commissioned for anti-hunting groups. The message was simple: an overwhelming majority of the public supported a ban on hunting, and as the other arguments for prohibition fell away public opinion became more and more important to its advocates.

From the start MORI polling often showed significantly more support for a ban on hunting than research carried out by other companies and as a polling war developed around impending legislation that difference became potentially critical. When the Government introduced an 'Options Bill' including a 'middle way' proposal to license hunting, polls commissioned by the Countryside Alliance started to show well under half the population supporting a total ban on hunting. The Advertising Standards Authority were even dragged in and told us that on the basis of one poll we ran we could say that 59% of people did not want hunting banned, but not that 59% of people had said 'keep hunting'.

By 2003, however, MORI research was claiming that "69% of the public think fox hunting should not be legal". Eventually the absurd debate concluded with the passing of the Hunting Act, but the polling war was not over. Critically, in 2005, a few days before the Hunting Act came into force, MORI ran a poll for someone other than LACS. The research, for the BBC programme Countryfile, concluded that there was no overall majority of support for the ban with just 47% of people saying that they 'personally supported a ban on hunting with dogs'. MORI polling for LACS, however, continued to show ever greater support for a ban which by October 2009 had reached 75%.

At this point a cross party group of parliamentarians stepped in to raise the anomaly with the industry regulator, the Market Research Society (MRS), and in particular to challenge the extremely dubious preamble and question being used by MORI (now Ipsos MORI) when it polled for LACS, which they argued clearly breached the MRS Code of Conduct.

To the MPs and peers the reason that the polling for the BBC and the polling for LACS varied so widely was obvious. The Ipsos MORI poll for BBC Countryfile which found 47% of people supported a ban on hunting asked:

Now a question about hunting with dogs (that is, fox hunting, deer hunting, hare coursing, hare hunting and mink hunting)As you may know, a ban on hunting with dogs is due to come into force in England and Wales, subject to a legal challenge.

To what extent do you personally support or oppose a ban on hunting with dogs in England and Wales?

Whereas the MORI poll for LACS which found that 75% of people supported a ban on fox hunting asked:

Now a question about sports where animals are set on other animals to fight or kill them. These activities are currently illegal in the United Kingdom:

Dog Fighting, Badger Baiting, Fox Hunting, Deer Hunting, Hare Hunting & Coursing

For each one I read out, please tell me whether you think it should or should not be made legal again.

The parliamentarians argued that the description of hunting in this poll, and the inclusion of fighting and baiting activities unrelated to hunting were designed to prejudice the respondents' attitude towards hunting and to influence the subsequent answers. They further pointed out that the effect of the preamble and question were evidenced by the earlier MORI poll for the BBC which had not included such pejorative content and reported a very different response.

The MRS Standards Board initially rejected the complaint, which frankly was no surprise given that the founding Chairman and current 'ambassador' of the MRS is the architect of the very polling strategy being complained of. However, when the parliamentarians took their case to the MRS's 'Reviewer of Complaints', an independent lawyer, something extraordinary happened. The Reviewer savaged the initial response saying:

"I have considered carefully the Minutes and papers from the Investigations Committee and the Standards Board and the reasons given for the decision in respect of the involvement of alleged unrelated activities. In the form set out the line of reasoning is far from clear. No attempt seems to have been made to address the substance of the Complaint, namely that the nature of the activities of badger baiting and dog fighting were inherently different to hunting."


"The comparison of the 2003, 2005 and 2009 polls does seem to me to be a valid issue. The substance of what was being addressed was substantially the same and what was at variance was the format"

The MRS was unabashed, however, and rejected its own Reviewer's criticisms out of hand without any serious attempt to address them, or the substance of the original complaint.

The MRS's failure to act did not just effect that 2009 poll and what had come before. It also signalled a free-for-all in which LACS and Ipsos MORI have become ever more brazen. The current claims for support for the ban on hunting have grown ever higher, to 80%, but when the 'research' is making direct comparisons between hunting and dog fighting to 15 year olds and recording their opinion, as the December 2014 Ipsos MORI poll did, that is not really surprising.

Then in January YouGov asked a straight question 'Do you support or oppose the ban on fox hunting with hounds?' and got a straight answer, which has once again laid bare the strange results of polls commissioned by LACS with Ipsos MORI. However, with a cowering regulator and seemingly no concern from either the charity or the research company about their reputations it would seem nothing is likely to change.

You may think this does not matter: that it is only hunting, or that you don't like fox hunters, but I would suggest that this story sets a very dangerous precedent. With opinion polls exerting increasing influence on politicians over almost every issue the ability to trust the numbers presented by campaigners and politicians is critical. You might not care about hunting, but can you trust polling on issues that do matter to you?

Categories: les flux rss

Holding MPs to account: a Truro experiment

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. March 2015 - 0:11

To hold our MPs to account we need to know what they promised to do before they were elected. We also need to have a clearer sense of what we expect them to do. How can we achieve these aims?

I want to share with others one approach to re-imagining democracy which may or may not work. It is small scale, experimental  and with no certainty of success but even its shortcomings and failures  will, I hope, afford some useful learning lessons for all of us.

It attempts to tackle two issues relating to representative democracy. The first is the absence of any clear, independent record of what candidates actually say and commit to. Cast your mind back to the last election and try Googling an issue of concern – can you find anything?  There may be scattered references in local newspapers or on defunct blogs  but the most important content has likely been deleted or removed, probably soon after the 2010 election ended. What your MP said then might be a  source of some embarrassment now – or worse! But it is too late, the information has been deleted.

Nor can you look to manifestos or speeches by our political leaders kept on party websites dating back to 2010; as is all too clear from David Cameron’s early speeches and promises of ‘no top down reform of the NHS’, speeches are taken down if they later  prove to be too contentious and we are then left with quotes and extracts from second hand sources.

In an age of ‘information deluge’ that is an astonishing omission. With no clear independent record of what our local parliamentary candidates say, how can we effectively call our representatives to account?

The answer I suggest, is only if we take on that task ourselves. What we have tried to do in Truro is to create an election website which sets out some key issues and asks all parliamentary candidates for a detailed written response in their own words. That gets round the problem of hustings events where a candidate – now MP –  later claims that they have been misquoted, quoted out of context or that the record of the event is incomplete.

The second is to tackle head on an overcentralised party machine that positions candidates as outposts of Party HQ. Even those with genuine regard for constituents' concerns have little wriggle room to take an independent stance. They are foot soldiers answerable to the party whip, not our elected representatives. It will take time to break this stranglehold but I suggest a first step is for constituents to come together and start to develop their own pledge, set of proposals or even their own manifesto. That is a tall order and one that requires far more time than is available now. Instead, what we have tried to do is avoid open ended questions that invite a speech rather than an answer. We have set out our own manifesto proposal on – in this instance – Climate Change and the NHS. We have then invited candidates to either publicly commit to our pledges. Whether or not they do, they are invited to give  a detailed answer which stands as their definitive position on the issues.

Their answers will then be posted on the election website for  public scrutiny and comment and by doing so, we hope to encourage sustained informed conversations with candidates as well as between members of the public. This goes beyond ephemeral petition initiatives that fail to engage and are often quickly forgotten. We intend to forward comments to candidates on a regular basis and encourage them to reply to constituents concerns directly.

By taking this approach we are  also making the point to candidates that they are there to listen to their constituents, not we them; they are there to represent us, not their party. That may require some head scratching by party apparatchiks who seek to ‘sell’ a message rather than engage in dialogue. Yet the more we, as constituents, start to take charge and re-frame the election on our own terms, the less likely we will be treated as passive consumers of party manifestos written in Westminster by a political class who know little about the lives of those they claim to speak for, and care even less.

Whatever the outcome of this experiment, I firmly believe that  the first step towards  any re-invigorated democracy must be to break the stranglehold of an over-centralised party systems that conduct elections as marketing campaigns; in effect  tightly controlled spectacles, managed by rival teams of PR professionals who select and present a small range of issues deemed ‘safe’. That can only happen if there are thousands of ‘assemblies for democracy’, thousands of conversations happening at the grassroots level where local people start to shape their own manifesto, town charter or pledge campaign. In other words they become active participants in shaping the political agenda and by inference, their own future.

There are risks. If assemblies for democracy are adopted on a wide scale, expect chaos, confusion and much contradiction in the early stages,  not least because we will all have to relearn the political and democratic skills of active listening,  finding common ground, engaging with sometimes complex issues  and forging a consensus with those whose values and outlook we initially reject as ‘not ours’. For if we are to truly win back real democracy, we must first practise among ourselves.

A re-invigorated democracy from the grassroots up will  not replace the party system but it will act as a centrifugal force that pulls power away from Westminster and makes parties much more porous, open and democratic; that process will also mean dispensing with focus groups and marketing  professionals and instead returning to a grassroots party activism which interfaces with Assemblies for Democracy and other related initiatives and in doing so, captures the real voice of the people.

I will end with one other website I created – a mock election website called 'Anytown'. It is roughly the direction I would like to go in although others I am working with are understandably more sceptical;  it  is incomplete and rather simplistic, but it does sketch out some possibilities of how a town, a village, a city or a constituency might approach electioneering in the future, one that  moves beyond restricted party manifestos and widens to include the voice of the voluntary sector, freed from undemocratic gagging laws and bullying government ministers.

This article was first published at Assemblies for Democracy.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

The Great Charter Convention – an open, public debate on where arbitrary power lies in the UK today and how we should contest and contain it.


Gavin Barker is based in Truro and a participant in Assemblies for Democracy.

Related stories:  Re-imagining democracy - peoples' assemblies Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

Devolution in the North of England: time to bring the people into the debate?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. March 2015 - 0:11

The referendum in Scotland is creating impetus for a redistribution of power within England. But who will determine the shape of this - Westminster, local elites or local citizens?

In the wake of the Scottish independence referendum, the ‘English Question’ has gained new political traction, emerging as one of the most crucial issues underpinning the debate on the future of the Union. In spite of its result, the Scottish vote has certainly shed light, with a renewed emphasis, on the presence of a growing democratic deficit across and within the  nations of the UK, and in particular in England. This, in turn, has triggered a new interest both within political elites and the wider society on the role and place that England should have in the context of an increasingly decentralised UK.

For the for the first time, all the main traditional parties have overtly embraced the narrative of the English Question – putting it at the core of their political discourse, and offering alternative ways to address it. The Conservatives have proposed the introduction of ‘English Votes for English Laws’ as a means to tackle the West Lothian Question. At the same time, they have also sketched a ‘new regional agenda’ for England, advocating devolution to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ to boost economic development in the north of England and also proposing the introduction of directly elected mayors in northern cities such as Manchester (with others to follow) if the party wins the 2015 general election.

Meanwhile, the Labour party has argued that there is need for a ‘constitutional convention’ to consider the future governance of England within the context of the UK more widely. However, the party has also reiterated its belief in City Regions, a policy first mooted in the wake of the 2004 North-East regional assembly referendum defeat – stating that it will pass an ‘English Devolution Act’ if elected into government, giving more powers to City and also County regions, and replacing the House of Lords with an elected Senate of the Nations and regions to work as a forum for regional representation.

On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats are showing a commitment to devolve greater powers to the local level, as reflected in their support for a Cornish Assembly, and through the ‘Northern Futures’ project. And yet, the growing popularity of minority parties in England indicates the emergence of a more complex political landscape. The rapid rise of UKIP in the European elections as well as in by-elections across England shows how the party has the potential to become a de facto English nationalist force, likely to exploit any grievance within the devolution debate to present England as the ‘victim’ nation of the Union.

Interestingly, however, this time round mainstream parties are not the only actors trying to influence the agenda on English devolution – as shown by the recent growth of new regionalist parties, especially in the North of England. English regionalist parties may not be an entirety new phenomenon. The Wessex Regionalists have been around for a while; and, despite its claim that Cornwall is not a region but a nation, Mebyon Kernow is in practice ‘regionalist’ in its approach, as reflected in its support for a Cornish Assembly, rather than full independence. What is certainly new, though, is the emergence of regionalist parties in the North of England, i.e. Yorkshire First, the North East Party, and the Campaign for the North. These parties share common regional devolution claims, arguing for the establishment of a Yorkshire Parliament, a North East Assembly and a pan-Northern Assembly respectively. They also seek to politicise regional identities, taking inspiration from the example of Scotland. In spite of having been formed just over the past year and a half, they will all fight the May 2015 general election, fielding candidates across the North of England.

Although the public  long showed a lack of interest on issues of decentralisation for England, this trend too seems to be reversing. Sensing the strength and traction of devolutionist agendas in contemporary politics, and their growing resonance amongst the public, the BBC ran a series of programmes exploring the issues involved in the autumn of 2014. Similarly, regional newspapers have also focused on issues of regionalism and decentralisation, as illustrated for example by the Yorkshire Post’s recent publication of a ‘Yorkshire Manifesto’ in view of the 2015 general election.

All these points clearly illustrate the saliency not only of the English Question in general, but also of its regional permutations — pointing towards a form of ‘new regionalism’ which seems to be taking a particularly Northern flavour. The regions of the North, in fact, are at the forefront of the current debate on the future of territorial governance and decentralisation in England.

The key themes and questions underpinning the narrative of this nascent ‘Northern regionalism’ were unpacked and discussed at length in a symposium held at the University of Huddersfield (co-sponsored by the Centre for Research in the Social Sciences and the Political Studies Association and organised by the Britishness Specialist Group) on the 13th of February: ‘Decentralisation and the Future of Yorkshire’. Although, as its title suggests, the event focussed on the specific case of Yorkshire, the debate gave rise to a number of important reflections that apply to the whole North of England, and can also serve as a basis to put the wider English Question in perspective.

One of the key issues at stake concerns the need to extend discussion on English devolution beyond the ‘closed circle’ of Westminster and mainstream party politics – opening up to local and regional stakeholders, and giving voice to the grassroots. Put simply, none of the plans proposed by the mainstream parties can succeed if they are not accepted ‘from the bottom’. This links to another very important and yet often underestimated point, i.e. that regional devolution in the North of England should not just be about reviving economies, so as to address the North-South divide, but also about improving democracy. For the most part, the underlying message in the current regional and city regional agenda seems to be that devolution will lead to economic renewal for the regions ‘lagging behind’. And yet, this is only one side of the coin – because to really flourish regional economies need to be nurtured from the bottom, through a system of governance which is ultimately accountable to the people, and not only to Westminster.

From this angle, the regionalist parties that are emerging in the North of England have a great potential, especially if they succeed in joining forces with civil society organisation and movements, mobilising grassroots support and pushing for the creation of some form of ‘Northern Constitutional Convention’ capable of influencing decision and policy-making at the centre. In this sense, there is a great deal that can be learnt from Scotland, and in particular from the experience of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. The most obvious one is that effective regional devolution requires concerted efforts from the centre and from the bottom, so as to engage in a constructive dialogue on how to build a more democratic and accountable system of governance that can ultimately improve people’s life. In a social climate characterised by increasing levels of political disenfranchisement, the example of Scotland shows that accountable decentralisation can be an effective way to restore the relationship between the public and the wider political system – bringing decision and policy-making closer to people and, in this way, putting people back into politics.

But concerted discussion is also needed to establish the level(s) at which powers should be devolved, and to develop a constructive relationship between different layers of government. One of the most striking aspects in the current debate on devolution in the North of England is that the main actors (local governments, leaders’ boards, political parties, business organisations, etc.) seem to work in isolation – each devising their own plans, often irrespective (or wary) of the positions of the others. This climate of ‘mutual suspicion’ hinders decentralisation from within, and should be changed so as to transform the current competing discourses of city-regions, regions, elected mayors and local authorities into a ‘virtuous narrative’ able to inform a consistent and non-redundant new regional architecture.

Finally, looking north of the border offers also insights on the potential implicit in the politicisation of regional identities – especially in regions such as Yorkshire and the North East, with a long tradition of cultural, political and historical distinctiveness. After all regions, like nations, are imagined communities too (although ‘thinner’ and less bound to the concept of self-determination). Hence, they can be constructed, exploiting shared regional traits and values and forging a community that simulates the archetypical principle for political organisation, i.e. kinship. However, as Scotland shows us, such a process does not necessarily have to be founded on ethnic principles, which could lead to some form of ‘exclusive’ political identity/ community. On the contrary, regional identities in the North of England could be mobilised as part of an inclusive political project that seeks to nurture shared civic and democratic values and bonds – a plan that ‘speaks to the people’ and aims at actively involve them in the construction of a better future for their region. This could provide the foundations to build a notion of the North as a coherent and meaningful political space – and is perhaps one of the greatest challenges ahead.

Thus, whether regional devolution in the North of England will succeed or fall may well hinge on the ability to generate ‘democratic momentum’, creating a clear, bold, confident and concerted vision for the future. However, the story of the Scottish Constitutional Convention also tells us that such a process will take time, and cannot be rushed or accomplished overnight. In this sense, the following months and the results and effects of the imminent general election (as well as the way in which both regionalist and mainstream parties will react to these) will be crucial in shaping the path ahead.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

The Great Charter Convention – an open, public debate on where arbitrary power lies in the UK today and how we should contest and contain it.

Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

Heretical Europe: Jan Patočka as symbol of dissident contingency

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. March 2015 - 23:17

Post-Europe, for Patočka, must be acutely aware of its own contingency even when it proclaims (above all when it proclaims) the sanctity of universal principles.

Europe, the very idea is a series on the philosophical notion of Europe and what reflection upon it can lend to the sphere of concrete politics.

The term ‘euro-skepticism’, as it is usually deployed, creates a kind of idiocy in public debate by assimilating many diverse positions. We can sketch at least three possible positions (all of which would require further clarification).

One thing would be to be opposed to the European Union in principle – opposed to the very possibility of a Union between European peoples or countries. Nationalists we can assume would fall into this category, although there are nuances here (one could be nationalist and in favour of the United Nations, but not the European Union, for example, or opposed to all kinds of internationalism).

Another thing would be criticism of the current European Union and its policies, which we can assume is a very widely held view at the moment, but does not equate to denying the possibility of the EU as such – indeed, criticism of this kind could be taken to be an affirmation of the possibility and desirability of an alternative European Union.

A third thing again would be to adopt a skeptical approach in general to all politics, following diverse philosophical, religious and scientific traditions which all assert the importance of doubt and questioning in our search for truth or justice.

What is more, there is a further distinction between Europe and the European Union which gets lost both in public debate and in the European Union’s own narrative for ideological reasons. The European Union is a unique and difficult to define political institution (an ‘unidentified political object’ as former President Jose Barroso described it). Europe, on the other hand, is a mythical figure, a geographical signifier with no clear boundaries, perhaps a ‘civilisation’, a subject of history and an object of political, philosophical, ethical and poetic reflection and imagination for thousands of years.

The European Union often talks about itself as ‘Europe’ (something highly frustrating to all those people who consider themselves European but not yet part of the European Union, but also for all those who want to maintain some autonomy for the rich intellectual European tradition).

But it is one thing to be critical or skeptical of the European Union as a political institution; quite another thing to be critical of Europe as a civilization, historical figure or even literary motif. As is often the case in confused public debate, which smacks of ideological mystification, the distinction is currently exploited best by right-wing populists. The UKIP MEP Roger Helmer is very proud of his car-bumper sticker reading ‘Love Europe, hate the EU’ (no doubt benefiting from the lack of border controls in mainland Europe as he drives around showing it off).

Patočka shines a light

Amidst all this confusion and obfuscation, the person and symbol of Jan Patočka stands for me as a lightening rod. Heretical and skeptical in the best theological, philosophical and political senses, dying under political repression, Socrates-like for challenging the state’s claims to absolute truth and organizing resistance against it, Patočka’s thought and biography are sufficiently charged and grounded in European history and reflection to light up the insufficiency of our current European debate, and to provide some terms which can help us.

Patočka’s historiography of Europe-after-Europe, or Post-Europe, allows us to take a stance that is at once highly critical of Europe’s bloody and murderous history, and acknowledges that the consequences of history bestow upon us a particular responsibility as Europeans who inherit this past. This is all the more so when we in have many ways benefited from the violence that was inflicted on others. We can think that the European Union or some version of it is the most responsible political mechanism for addressing this conflicted and contradictory history, a history which goes well beyond questions of war and peace to include colonialism, the destructiveness of European technological and economic progress, and deep anti-human components of European thought.

Patočka’s thought helps us to see the European Union as a potential consequence of European history, without identifying Europe and the European Union, nor seeing the EU as the ultimate point in a historical teleology of progress or reconciliation. The EU – like any political construct – is fully open for political critique and contestation in Patočka’s thought, and it is justified not in terms of political progress, but rather in terms of ethical responsibility.

During these hard times for pro-Europeans, when the inadequacies of the Union and indeed the disastrous consequences of its current policies both outside and inside its borders seem all too apparent, Patočka’s position is sufficiently complex to acknowledge the ethical and moral contradictions of politics, whilst also asserting that it is our duty to keep on travelling towards a European ideal we know we can never totally reach.

Even more important, Patočka’s anti-totalitarianism, expressed politically in his insistence on human rights and democracy through the Charter 77 movement, and profoundly in his philosophical writing, belies all those who claim to have, or call for, ‘final’ answers to political problems. Patočka’s insistence on human rights – often seen to be in some kind of tension with his ‘asubjective’ phenomenological approach -  is at once an insistence on human contingency and radical liberty. The Charter states “The idea of human rights is nothing other than the conviction that even states, even society as a whole, are subject to the sovereignty of moral sentiment: that they recognize something unconditional that is higher than they are, something that is binding even on them, sacred, inviolable.”

Patočka relates this absolute character of human rights to the Greek idea of ‘care for the soul’, and his point seems to be that human rights are prior to our existence in the world and protect the humanity of human kind: they are the guarantee of the very possibility of our caring for our souls, because they guarantee the possibility of self-expression, the right to assembly, the right to a free press. These human rights protect the possibilities we have to pursue our self-care individually and collectively, which is something never totally achieved.

Here there is an important break with what Patočka takes to be the Platonic ideal of care-for-the-soul, in which it is possible for humans to become god-like in knowing what the ideal human life is. Patočka’s heretical Christianity, his analysis of the mysterium tremendum, that the truth of God cannot totally be revealed, means that no one, and no state, can have a definitive answer to moral, ethical or political questions, and thus must leave space for contestation, experimentation and alternatives to appear.

If we relate this to the current European Union, and its policies in many areas but most noticeably the ‘moralising’ that has gone on around the debt-crisis and austerity, we could draw many lessons about the risks of totalitarian tendencies in Europe and the vital importance of maintaining democratic and human rights. Post-Europe, for Patočka, must be acutely aware of its own contingency even when it proclaims (above all when it proclaims) the sanctity of universal principles.

The deeply Christian commitment of Patočka’s thought is its most problematic aspect for those of us who want to use his terms in a secular or atheistic way in the pursuit of Europe, something that seems ever more important in an age of renewed religious wars. But Patočka’s heretical approach to Christianity, as well as his engagement with other religions of the book, are also perhaps a reminder that in insisting on secularity in the public sphere, there is a risk that we become more dogmatic than ever before, each in our silos: heresy relies on the possibility of dissidence, and Patočka’s vision of solidarity is one where vibrant public debate--also on spiritual life--is the most authentic way of living together.

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Sideboxes Related stories:  How can Europe be shaped from a citizen's perspective? Europe after Europe: the other Europe in waiting Saving Europe: reformulating the rules Introducing three old ideas for a new Europe: flourishing, solidarity and care for the soul Country or region:  EU Czech Republic
Categories: les flux rss

Interview with a murderer

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. March 2015 - 16:04

There are currently 59,000 women in Russian penal establishments. For many of them prison is not so much a punishment, more a way of life.

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, there are currently 671,700 Russians serving sentences in penal establishments, of whom 59,000 are women. Only the USA and China have more female prisoners (over 200,000 and 100,000 respectively). According to human rights organisations, conditions in Russian prisons and prison camps are among the harshest in the world. The harsh climate is one obvious factor, but inadequate nutrition, physically demanding and low paid work, isolation in a punishment cell for the slightest misdemeanour, bullying, beatings, and other violence from prison staff are all also the norm.

Russia’s female prisoners

Women prisoners are usually too frightened to complain to the legal authorities or human rights groups, as this might trigger immediate and severe punishment. And it is not just the camp administration that exercises power over its population; there are also the ‘overseers’ – prisoners who take charge of the others in the same barracks. Some of these overseers work with the administration, but others refuse, preferring to observe their own ‘criminal code.’

A group of Russian female prisoners.

‘Overseers’ collect ‘tribute’ from their fellow prisoners and are responsible for ‘order’. But this ‘order’ has nothing in common with either the law of the land or the normal rules of human interaction. These are the rules of the criminal world, according to which it is shameful to work and honourable to thieve.

Women prisoners are usually too frightened to complain to the legal authorities or human rights groups

Female criminals usually live in ‘families’. Lesbian relationships are common, and young and attractive ‘new girls’ often become objects of sexual harassment from more hardened women prisoners. Most Russian prison camps are also breeding grounds for potentially fatal illnesses, with HIV/AIDS now added to the traditional TB. The prisoners most likely to contract HIV/AIDS are young women serving long sentences for drug-related crimes.

A women's workshop in a penal establishment.

Unlike male prisoners, who often receive visits from their wives and children or even manage to initiate relationships through lonely-hearts columns, women prisoners are often abandoned by everybody from their previous lives. Their husbands divorce them. Their lovers don’t want to wait for them. Their children are ashamed of them, and their friends forget them. These ‘outcasts’ are only ever visited by their mothers; and they find it very difficult to regain their previous job status after their release. Often they are unable to find any work at all.

All too often, the easiest road for these ‘criminals’ is straight back to prison. At least there everything is familiar, there is food to eat and somewhere to have a bath and sleep. A woman sent to a ‘penal colony’ for even a petty crime such as shoplifting or vandalism will most likely be unable to get back on the ‘straight and narrow’, and will become a hardened criminal – a ‘repeat offender’ as the courts call it. These women serve sentences of not just a year or two or even ten. They are prisoners for life.

The women’s zone

Even veteran guards prefer not to work in the women’s ‘zone’ – a term Russians often use for a penal colony.

'There’s no animal worse than a female!’ a member of the prison riot squad told me. ‘Today she’ll be making eyes at you and tomorrow she’ll stick a shank into you. You never know what to expect from these bitches!’  

'You never know what to expect from these bitches!’

I met one of these ‘bitches’ in a prison camp near the small town of Omutninsk in the Kirov Region, about 1000km east of Moscow. Her name was Valentina, Valya for short, and she had spent 36 out of her 53 years in similar places.

Valentina spent 36 out of her 53 years in Russian prisons.

‘I was a headstrong kid right from the start’, she happily told me after asking for a smoke. But she didn’t care for my menthol cigarettes, and after cheerfully cursing me she lit up one of her favourite rough, filterless ‘Belomor.’ Valya was a chain smoker, stopping only now and then to clear her throat, and was known throughout the camp as ‘Valya Fag-end’ – a good nickname for her as she was tiny (no taller than a child), skinny and fidgety. But she was also bent over like an old woman and appeared to be of indeterminate age and gender. A kind of human fag-end, chucked out of normal society but not yet burnt out. Her voice was hoarse and throaty, like a man’s. She was a thief of long-standing, and feared nothing.

A life in and out of crime

‘I started off in juvenile’, she told me. ‘I was 16. We lived in a village with a shop on the edge of it, and the lads and I robbed it – as a test, a dare. We found about 500 roubles in the till – old, Soviet roubles, and also made off with beer, vodka, tinned stuff, sweets, and a blouse with lace on it.

'It was the blouse that got me caught by the cops – one of the lads grassed on me. Bastard! But I know who it was and I’ll get the prick! Just give me time, Katyusha!’ (Valya had taken an instant liking to me, started calling me by a pet name, ‘Katyusha’, a diminutive of Ekaterina. I had no objection).

‘Have you ever been in a prison wagon, Katyusha?’ she went on. I shook my head in fright, shocked by the very idea. ‘You haven’t, have you? I remember travelling in one with a girlfriend who had 48 bodies on her conscience. She was an interesting woman, a real passionate type. She would sleep with a man and then bump him off in the morning – either strangle him or knife him right in the heart. But I wasn’t into that then.’

‘Did you ever love anybody, Valya?’ I asked cautiously.

‘I was married once. His name was Alikhan – he was a Chechen. There was an army base at the village, and he was doing his military service there. We met at a dance and I took a fancy to him – he was smitten, he fought for me. He would see me home and we would kiss and cuddle and then one evening I brought him in to meet my parents. My dad asked him if he wasn’t scared, and he said, “Vala and I (he called me Vala) are in love! I’ll take her back home to Grozny!” Dad chuckled: “If she doesn’t take you to Bystritsa first!” Bystritsa was where the local cemetery was …’

He went back to Grozny and I never saw him again.

‘So we got married and started living together, but as soon as we got in to bed together I felt like I was allergic to him … I didn’t need all that sex! And my Mum said, “At least have a kid with him, Valechka, then at least we’ll have a grandchild!” Then I realised my periods had stopped, my breasts were getting bigger, I felt sick and couldn’t even look at food. Mum said, “That’s it, you’re pregnant!”

'So I threw Alikhan out the same night. “What are you doing?” he asked, “I’m your husband! We’re going to have a baby!” But I got his stuff together and threw it out of the house. “Get lost, I don’t need you anymore! It’s my baby!” So he went back to Grozny and I never saw him again.

‘When I went into labour, they got me to the hospital and there I was, yelling and swearing! The doctor came running and said, ‘The baby’s too big; she’ll never push it out!’ So they took me off into surgery and I had a caesarean.  When I woke up in the morning I immediately said, “Show me what I gave birth to!” They brought me my baby girl, who weighed 5kg and was 54 centimetres long, with her head covered in black curls! I turned her over – she had arms, legs, a wee-wee – everything was where it was supposed to be.

‘I left my daughter with her grandparents and took off! I started hanging about, partying, thieving!’

'For four months I didn’t leave her once, and fed her every three hours. I had loads of milk, and she was really plump and red-cheeked. But then I just switched off – it was like the devil whispered to me! I left the house, left my daughter with her grandparents, and took off! I started hanging about, partying, thieving! I stole 70 roubles and got four years for it … Ah, it’s a pity we can’t have a drink together, Katyusha, but Mr Prison Governor doesn’t allow it! We could always sing, though!’

And Valya Fag-end began to sing a sad prison song. She sang in a throaty, cigarette-stoked voice, but with perfect pitch.

‘Let me tell you all a tale
Saw it with my own two eyes
A little girl was being tried
Though she only was a child ...
She asked the court if she could speak
The judge said yes, go on my dear!
As soon as she began her tale
The room began to fill with tears.
“I knew him since I was a child
I’d go with him to rob and thieve
And in my seventeen short years
He was the only one for me!”’

At the last line Valentina burst into tears herself, obviously remembering her own sad life, although it wasn’t a husband or boyfriend that she loved, but the free life of crime. 

From robbery to violence

‘Have you ever killed anyone, Valentina?’ I asked.

‘I did, Katyusha. I told you I was headstrong. One day I came home, and my dad was sitting crying and his eye was all bloody. My dad didn’t smoke or drink. He worked all his life and brought up six children; and I was the only jailbird, the black sheep of the family. “What happened, Dad?” I asked. And he said, “My brother got drunk and came to ask me for some money to buy vodka. But I wouldn’t give it to him, so he hit me.” I just flipped! How could someone hit my dad – the person who gave me life, showed me the world? So I went to sort it out with my uncle.'

‘When I got to his house my auntie was pounding potatoes for the pigs with a wooden mallet, and my uncle was sitting washing a snack down with vodka. I said, “Hair of the dog, eh? I’ll give you a real hangover!” And I grabbed the mallet from the table and brought it down on his head – once, twice! His wife was screaming, “You’ve killed him, you’ve killed him!” Then I went home. The next morning the cops turned up: “Did you kill your uncle?” And I was, “Yes! ‘Cause nobody hurts my dad!”'

The next morning the cops turned up: “Did you kill your uncle?” And I was, “Yes! ‘Cause nobody hurts my dad!”

‘I got six years for my uncle – he survived. Turns out I hadn’t killed him after all. I did the full six years, every day of them. When I got out my daughter was growing up, she was shy of me, didn’t recognise me, and my mum had turned into an old woman. And I didn’t get to see my dad again – he had died when I was in jail. I gave him a proper burial and got myself a job as a caretaker. And I worked, made enough to keep us, lived quietly; didn’t bother anybody.'

'But I could see that my mum had become very down; she was always wiping away tears when she thought I wasn’t looking. I asked her about it and she told me: “The cops have been hassling us, Valya! As soon as you got back they were round here – pay up, old girl, for your jailbird daughter! At first it was 1,000 roubles, then 3,000, and now they’re asking for 5,000! Where am I going to get that sort of money? I asked. I’ve only got my pension”. And they were like, “Pay up, or we’ll send her down again! We can always find a reason!” And they used such language as well! They said they’d be back and if the money wasn’t there they’d send you back to jail”. I said, “Don’t cry, Mum, I’ll sort it out!”'

'So I went into town and found some old friends of mine, and we sorted them. I finished one of them myself – a shank right in the heart! Why should my mother be living in fear? This time I got the full whack – 15 years. Why so long? ‘Cause I killed a cop, and ‘cause I was a repeat offender, in other words a hardened criminal!’

Valya laughed, revealing her half-toothless mouth; then her laugh turned into a cough. She cleared her throat and started singing another sad prison song ...

‘The sparks in the hearth burn up like rubies,
And disappear in wisps of blue.
Once I was a handsome lad,
Now I’m sick and lonely too.
What can I do, I’ve lost my youth,
What can I do, where can I roam?
I’ll follow an untrodden path,
Away from you and far from home ...’

‘That song was written by one of the friends that killed the cops with me, Katyusha. He’s dead now. He had TB. Well, what else can I tell you? I got released early – I have TB as well, and asthma too. I went home. My mother had died. My daughter was married; she lives a respectable life – her husband’s a cop. The last thing she needs is an old lag for a mother. And I wouldn’t have wanted to go there anyway – why should I ruin the girl’s life? I got another job as a caretaker in a warehouse. My rich little brother fixed me up with it; he didn’t forget his sister. So this is how I lived: I didn’t get paid much but then I don’t need a lot – just enough for bread, tea and smokes.

Pig farm on the grounds of the women's prison where Valentina was serving her sentence.

My daughter’s respectable – her husband’s a cop. The last thing she needs is an old lag for a mother.

'But I’m not used to being beholden to anyone! I’m used to being my own woman! My brother’s a good egg, but his wife’s a right bitch! One day she said to me, “You should pay us something – we cook for you! You live in our house!” And I was like, “I live in my own house; my dad left it to me! And you don’t have to cook for me; I’ll eat in a cafe! I never asked you to cook for me!”’ But she wouldn’t leave off – she was always on at me about something! She would shout and scream and tell my brother tales about me! I had it up to here with her! So I decided to get rid of her.'

'I hit her over the head, but it didn’t finish her off, just left her brain damaged. She lost her wits, turned into an idiot. So I got done for attempted murder with aggravating circumstances, plus GBH, plus I was a repeat offender – 10 years altogether! There you go, Katyusha! But I’ll get her some day!’

The end of the road

Valentina gave me a crafty look, obviously pleased with herself at having reduced this journalist to silence. As I was leaving she took my phone number and promised to get in touch when she got out. Many years later, I got an unexpected call.

We met at a centre for homeless and unemployed people on the outskirts of Kirov. Valya had just been released and had nowhere to go. Her parents were dead and her family wanted nothing to do with her. Her brother had refused to give her any more help after what she did to his wife, and her daughter was ashamed of her jailbird mother. When she left she was given a certificate of release and 700 roubles, which she had already spent on a train ticket to Kirov. She was delighted when I gave her a pack of her beloved Belomor and a packet of tea. We sat in a corner at the centre, made ourselves tea in grubby mugs and recalled old acquaintances.

 ‘How are you going to live now, Valya’, I asked. ‘As God wills,’ she answered, ‘if there is a God, that is! The priest always said there was, but I have my doubts.’

Two weeks later Valya was dead. She had been suffering through the final stages of TB, and died in the homeless people’s ward of a hospital on the outskirts of Kirov. She was of no use to anyone, like a cigarette end dropped on the ground. Someone will step on it, someone walk past; the wind will carry it who knows where, turning it to ash.

All images via Ekaterina Loushnikova. All rights reserved.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Comrade Stalin’s secret prison Vyatlag: the Gulag then and now The Zone Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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What you can do for your democracy

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. March 2015 - 14:45

Last week saw the launch of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee’s The UK Constitution – a pocket-sized, written constitution for the UK. Here's what you can do.

Our democracy is not fit for purpose and voter disengagement is at its highest with more people not voting at the last election than voted for the two main parties. A radical package of reform is essential, including letting electors know the Rule Book of our democracy. Last week saw the launch of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee’s The UK Constitution – a pocket-sized, written constitution for the UK.

The launch of the pocket UK constitution marks a further opportunity for you to tell Parliament about your views on our democracy and its future. The document briefly sets out our current democratic arrangements, and provides options for possible reform including devolution to independent local government in England, the election of the Second Chamber, and letting people vote directly for the Prime Minister.

This work follows on from our major project which examined whether or not the UK constitution should be codified and, if so, what it might contain. This inquiry ran for four years, and was informed by a unique collaboration with a team from King’s College London lead by Professor Robert Blackburn.

Our report A new Magna Carta? was published in June 2014. It set out three alternative blueprints for possible codification of our constitution: a constitutional code, a consolidation statute, and a written constitution.

A major consultation exercise followed publication of the report and during the six months between June 2014 and 1 January 2015 we received over 3,000 responses in a variety of forms ranging from traditional written submissions to the Committee, to survey responses, to social media. We recently published a summary of our consultation, which identifies the main themes emerging from the consultation.

The response to the consultation was impressive and a clear demonstration that the public care deeply about our current and future democratic arrangements, and A new Magna Carta? remains an invaluable tool for examining and discussing whether and how we might adopt a written constitution for the UK. But the conversation cannot stop there.

In the year of both the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and an unpredictable and uncertain general election, the launch of our pocket UK constitution marks an opportunity to tell Parliament what you think and to get your views on record.

There is now cross-party commitment to the establishment of a Constitutional Convention in the new Parliament. We don’t yet know what form that will take, or what its terms of reference may be. But we do know that these issues need to be discussed, and this is an opportunity to help shape the agenda for the future.

Constitutions are about power: where it is located, who can exercise it, and how it is controlled. We cannot be complacent about our democratic arrangements, and it’s vital that we think about and discuss where we are now and where we might be going.

Here’s how you can take part in this conversation:

If we are to continue to be a democracy we need to radically reshape our institutions so that power rests with a plurality of elected institutions not with an over centralised, unelected power elite in Whitehall, the media and the Prime ministership.

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Wanted: A Magna Carta for the 21st Century

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. March 2015 - 12:45

To protect and renew the rule of law we need to re-imagine our democracy. This Spring's Assemblies for Democracy have a vital role to play.

The attacks on the rule of law and access to justice – two key principles of the Magna Carta – by successive governments should lead us to rethink the existing relationship between the state and citizens and then to reimagine democracy.

Eventually, everyone came to enjoy the rights enshrined in the constitutional settlement between King John and powerful barons signed at Runnymede 800 years ago. This was no smooth process, however. The mass of the people had to struggle over many centuries for the rule of law – as opposed to the unbridled power of the state – to apply to them and their activities.

The Great Revolt of 1381 was as much against arbitrary power as privilege. In the English Revolution, the Levellers and Diggers fought for a constitutional settlement that would benefit the majority. The 1647 Agreement of the People put forward by the Levellers at the Putney Debates declared:

“That in all laws made or to be made, every person may be bound alike; and that no tenure, estate, charter, degree, birth, or place do confer any exemption from the ordinary course of legal proceedings whereunto others are subjected.”

The Levellers were saying that the wealthy were evading the law while other sections felt its full weight. At Putney, Colonel Rainsborough sided with the Levellers’ demand for the right to vote for all “free men”, saying: “…I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.”

Oliver Cromwell and the leadership of the New Model Army defeated the Levellers’ demands and agitators like John Lilburne were arrested for their views. He relied on sympathetic juries for his freedom, speaking for himself in the courts.

In the 18th century, radical reformers like Tom Paine resisted arbitrary arrest and censorship. He was driven into exile. In the 1830s, trade unionists were hanged or packed off to Australia for defending their right to organise collectively. It is worth noting that only in the 1830s were defence lawyers allowed to represent defendants in criminal cases.

As an insistence on the rule of law applied to all developed into the struggle for democracy and access to power itself, a long line of campaigns stepped up to the plate, like the Chartists, Suffragettes, political reformers, trade unionists and socialists and anti-colonial movements.

Underlying the eight centuries since Magna Carta is, therefore, an ebb and flow struggle between the state, its institutions and the “common people”.  As Conor Gearty Professor of Human Rights Law at LSE says:

Successive governments and the Tories in particular have long had a problem with the rule of law.  It seriously inhibits the security services in their desire to take national security wholly back – Cold War style – into the realm of the executive.  It also inconveniently stands against the populist manoeuvring favoured by the dark side of both main Parties.

In the previous parliament, plans were brought forward to detain alleged terror suspects for up to 90 days without charge. This was reduced to 28 days when New Labour’s plans were rejected. Though down to 14 days at present, this is still the longest period of pre-charge detention of any comparable state.

Control orders that amount to house arrest on foreign nationals against whom there is insufficient evidence to charge them with an offence, were introduced by New Labour and reintroduced in a new form by the ConDem home secretary in 2011.  Then there is the Special Immigration Appeals Commission that deals with appeals from persons deported by the Home Secretary under various powers. An appellant is represented to by a special advocate who is a person vetted by the Security Service. Evidence is heard in secret.

None of these state actions can be said to be compatible with the rule of law.

The present government has used austerity to justify draconian legal aid cuts and restrictions which undermine access to justice in a variety of ways for people without independent means, which is about most of society. One of the consequences is that judicial reviews of state decisions are much more difficult to launch.

One of Britain’s most senior judges launched a scathing attack on cuts to legal aid after a couple with learning disabilities were not provided with a lawyer to fight the forced adoption of their two-year-old son. Sir James Munby, the most senior family court judge in England and Wales, said it was “unthinkable” that the parents should have to face the local authority’s application without proper representation after they were denied legal aid because the father earned £34.64 too much.

He added that the state had “declined all responsibility for ensuring that the parents are able to participate effectively in the proceedings it has brought to the goodwill of the legal profession”. “This is, it might be thought, both unprincipled and unconscionable,” the judge concluded.

The Tories had planned to hold some anti-terror trials in total secrecy until their plans were struck down by the Court of Appeal. No doubt a future government will try again. A recent report for the European Parliament on the use of secret evidence in trials singled out the UK. Secret evidence was considered a threat to the “rule of EU law”.

Legality is secondary when it comes to mass surveillance. Senior security official Charles Farr says searches on Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, as well as emails to or from non-British citizens abroad, could be monitored legally by the security services without obtaining an individual warrant because they were deemed to be external communications.

In February, the Guardian reported that the regime that governs the sharing between Britain and the US of electronic communications intercepted in bulk was unlawful until last year. Ironically, the ruling was made by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal which deliberates in secret. Kafka, eat your heart out!

OpenDemocracy’s Anthony Barnett, last month joined a march from Runnymede in protest at the “Global Law Summit” conference taking place in London, ostensibly to mark Magna Carta’s anniversary. Barnett described it as “a monstrous jamboree of corporate law, tax avoidance, networking and global business”.

 He added: “The corporations have stolen our political parties, they are stealing our media, they are robbing us of our government, they are suborning the law and now they are stealing our history, making it a plaything for networking.”

Barnett is right. Actually,  the modern state could fairly be described as a market state. Many of its functions are outsourced or privatised. The state, always essentially capitalist but compelled in the post-war period to play a moderating role, has bared its teeth in the globalisation period. Now the state is openly partisan for the 1% and can count on the support of the mainstream parties to maintain the status quo.

Thus the centuries-long struggle for the rule of law and access to justice today poses a new kind of challenge. The erosion of Magna Carta gathers pace as the state places the “defence of the realm” top of its agenda in a kind of reflex action aimed at maintaining existing power relations.

The 800th anniversary of Britain’s first written constitutional settlement is as good a time as any to re-imagine democracy – not just in terms of government and state but also in relation to the economy, finance, land and the environment. The majority want to end austerity, tackle climate change, deal seriously with inequality, provide affordable housing and decent care for people in older age.

For that to become a reality, the limited, declining forms of democracy at present have to give way to a system where people themselves decide what’s best for their communities, towns and workplaces. In place of corporatocracy we want a real democracy, where the rule of law is absolute and access to justice is there for all.

Making the transition to a 21st century democracy founded on a 21st century Magna Carta is what Assemblies for Democracy are all about.

This article was first published at Assemblies for Democracy.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

The Great Charter Convention – an open, public debate on where arbitrary power lies in the UK today and how we should contest and contain it.

Related stories:  Re-imagining democracy - peoples' assemblies Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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Assembling for democracy: part 2, the Chartists and us

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. March 2015 - 12:43

Democracy arrived in the UK thanks to popular movements which pressured a reluctant Parliament into democratic change. Part 2 of this article picks up the story beginning with the Chartists.

The Reform Act was not met with universal acclaim in 1832. The majority of people were still excluded from the franchise, and indeed they were so dissatisfied with this situation that they soon mobilised the largest mass movement in British history in response. This was the Chartist movement, named after their 1838 People’s Charter, which was the most famous iteration of their many petitions. It demanded the “Six Points”, still taught in schools today:

  1. A vote for every man over 21 years of age.

  2. Secret ballot (instead of the system for voting in public).

  3. MPs do not have to own property.

  4. MPs will be paid.

  5. Equal voting constituencies.

  6. An election every year for Parliament.

Albeit that suffrage has now been extended to women as well as men, and over the age of 18 rather than 21, five out of six of these demands are foundational to British democracy. In the 1830s however, Parliament’s response was to accuse the Chartists of sedition, and they fought the People’s Charter every step of the way. Indeed the Chartists are conventionally understood to have failed, as they did not achieve their demands at the time.

Chartism was the logical direction for Victorian Radicals to take after the Great Reform Act. Radicals had coalesced around the cause of Parliamentary reform, taking their name from their collective desire that such reform be radical, and the Chartists’ aim remained securing meaningful representation for the people in Parliament via Universal Manhood Suffrage. The Chartist movement was also a response to a new criticism however: that under the existing system MPs could largely ignore their constituents. This was because once elected, MPs and governments were safely entrenched in office, and therefore free to pass whatever unpopular and unwanted legislation they liked (such as the hated Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834). Furthermore, with the the two-party system already in evidence (albeit being reformulated, as it sometimes is, from Whig vs. Tory to Liberal vs. Conservative), the Chartists also argued that the only viable option the system offered was to let the other lot in – whereupon the whole process of unaccountable law-making, let alone corruption, could simply be repeated.

 Given that these two problems remain with us (I am yet to be convinced that our system will no longer be dominated by two major parties), we could perhaps stand to learn something from Chartist views of democracy. Their alternative vision, proposed as a solution to these problems, was that MPs should be delegates rather than simply representatives. This would require that MPs could actually be held to account directly by the people who elected them. In short, it required that MPs could be recalled by their constituents. We should not underestimate how radical this idea was, and remains. In 1993, the historian Miles Taylor wrote that ‘Arguably, the greatest threat posed by the Chartists in constitutional terms, was not universal suffrage, but the mandatory theory of representation’.[1] This claim stacks up – given the power to compel Parliamentarians to submit to their instructions, and to relieve them of their positions if they failed to do so, people would undoubtedly exercise it.

This idea frightens most parliamentarians – only last October Parliament shot down an attempt to work towards creating genuine accountability of MPs by rejecting a proposal that the right to recall should be exercised by the constituents of the relevant MP. Instead, they plumped for a version of recall controlled by themselves. After all, if it makes perfect sense that the banks know their business best and must therefore regulate themselves (with such memorable results for the rest of us), this logic must surely also hold for Parliament also! The people couldn’t possibly be trusted with the role of judging the performance of their representatives outside of the election cycle! After all, as my MP wrote to me at the time, real recall might expose MPs to politically motivated attack! (What else would it be for?)

Mark this well, because it is the perennial cry of those who support the exclusion and disenfranchisement of the majority to argue that the people are too ignorant, too stupid, too lacking in reasoned maturity, to make decisions. It is the perennial cry of opponents of democracy that people cannot be trusted with power. Yet there is only one alternative to this – that the people must therefore have someone else to exercise power for them. But without meaningful power ourselves, all we can do is trust that those with power exercise it properly on our behalf – and, as we are increasingly aware these days, without meaningful mechanisms by which to hold our representatives to account, precisely because we lack meaningful power of our own, that trust is frequently broken.

The majority, it is said, should trust a minority class of representatives to exercise authority over them. Now, historically this was argued on the basis that only this elite had the wisdom, independence of mind and character, and removal from petty sectional interests, to both know and pursue the common good. This minority, furthermore, must supposedly be given inalienable power, power that cannot be taken away from them, lest the ignorant mob seize hold of it. We are never allowed to have the power we give those representatives back. We can only ever transfer it, at certain allotted times, to another minority – and when they get in we’re just supposed to trust them as well. The “tyranny of the majority” by contrast would apparently create endless dissension. The people don’t know what they want, and so they must be told. In other words, power should not reside with the people, but with only a subset of those people – and they’ll see us right, don’t worry.

This is the line that has been spun out to the disenfranchised in Britain since at least the Putney Debates in 1647, when Cromwell and his generals were contested by the Levellers, who represented the opinion of the ordinary soldiers in the New Model Army. The generals prevailed, and property requirements for voting remained. When the Diggers decided they had had enough of being led, and attempted to take matters into their own hands in an attempt to build a new egalitarian society, they were ruthlessly suppressed.

This was also the line spun out to those denied the vote before 1928; and since 1928 it has been the line spun out to us as to why we need to concentrate power – to vest it in hierarchies, leave it to the experts, and limit people’s participation to penning an occasional “X” in a box.

The argument that the people cannot be trusted was also the line spun out to the colonised peoples of Britain’s empire. The natives were supposedly too immature to be trusted to govern themselves; apparently needed the guidance of British elites to become civilized; and would supposedly be granted independence when they had “matured”. To that end the Empire claimed to be educating the natives to govern themselves – yet in Africa black people were excluded from joining the central colonial state, and until such a time as Britain could no longer sustain the effort required, rebellions were ruthlessly crushed.

Independence for the colonies was only gained in the aftermath of the Second World War, when maintaining the Empire became untenable. India and Pakistan for example broke away as soon as Britain lacked the material power and domestic political will to reassert control. Nationalist movements sprung up all over the Empire during the 1940s-50s. When the British government’s proposals to “democratise” Ghana in 1949 restricted the vote by including property qualifications for example, a People’s Assembly was founded in response with mass support, pushing for Universal Suffrage. The rejection of this movement led to the civil disobedience, boycotts, and strikes that resulted in independence. Though America’s role and the Cold War context can’t be ignored, decolonisation was in large part driven by pressure for change “from below”, exercised by nationalist movements – and whilst independence may not have turned out not to be all it seemed, the processes that achieved it remain testament to what people can achieve when they organise to demand democratic change.

But what about Britain? We all know how the people mobilised to defend democracy against foreign aggression in the Second World War, and, if the current government’s recent bout of propaganda is to be believed, the First as well. But if the First World War was a crusade for democracy then it was certainly a strange one. Legislation for Universal male Suffrage in Britain was only granted after the war (the legislation passed in 1917), and even then it was not extended to all women until 1928. In the rhetoric of the time, Parliament was quick to claim that Universal Suffrage was a reward for the sacrifice and ability displayed by the disenfranchised during the war – a coming of age demonstrating their newfound maturity. But this actually just gives the lie to Parliament’s longstanding position on the franchise before the war, which was that it should be limited precisely because the people could not be trusted with it. In reality, Universal male Suffrage was given lest the people demand something more, and it would not have been gained without the war. It is no coincidence that the vote was granted after the people had become empowered by their experience of mass organisation, and disillusioned by a system in which their predetermined role was to be used as cannon fodder. One only has to consider how quickly the Army was demobilised (in 1815 and 1945 as well) to see how wary the government was.

Yet last year, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, we were sold the story of how people willingly laid down their lives for democracy – in fact, a democracy that did not yet exist at the start of the war, and which was reluctantly conceded as its result. It also makes a curious crusade for democracy that ended up extending imperial authority, Britain gaining conquered territories in Iraq, Transjordan, Tanzania, Namibia, and a number of islands in the Pacific from Germany. Technically these were governed as “mandates”, but just as with Britain’s other colonies, the justification was that these areas required British rule until such a time as they could be trusted with independence – which, as we have seen, was only gained when power was reclaimed by organised movements. It was the same in Britain.

Before 1918 a common argument in favour of denying disenfranchised people the vote was that they lacked the maturity to be trusted with it. It was said that dependents such as women, children, servants, and men without independent property of their own, would be too easily swayed to vote by the people that they were dependent upon. This meant therefore that they could not be trusted to make impartial judgements, and so could not be entrusted with deciding the common good. Yet under this system dependents were claimed to have “virtual” representation – women and servants explicitly being said to be represented by the votes of their husbands/masters acting in their role as head of household (indeed this conceptualisation of the vote was why many women supported the Chartist demands for Manhood Suffrage). However, under this system of “virtual” representation, people were clearly being denied the vote on the basis that they would be too easily influenced by the people they depended on, at the same time that they were said to be represented by the vote of that very person!

Though naïvely optimistic to the point of utopianism, virtual representation has ever been used cynically as a smokescreen to obscure and excuse disenfranchisement. But the real intention seems clear enough – the far more numerous class of “dependents” in Britain were excluded, not only from exercising their own votes, but also by being folded into the single vote of their masters. It didn’t matter if you had one dependent or fifty, they were all subsumed into a single vote. Thus virtual representation was exclusive and disenfranchising.[2] This glaring absurdity was only put to an end, at least formally, in 1928.

But what glaring inconsistencies have persisted since then?

 I would argue that virtual representation is still in force – albeit via a different means – in that those who do not successfully elect an MP in their constituency give completely dead votes. Under our system of electing MPs, 49% of a given seat may vote for one candidate, but if 49.01% voted for another, then that group will win the seat. All of the votes except those for the winner of each seat count for absolutely nothing. In 2010, MPs were usually elected with around 30-50% of the vote in their constituency (47.7% mean average), and about 2/3rds won with less than 50% of votes. By this means the majority of the electorate is essentially disenfranchised. After factoring in turnout (65% in 2010), only 31% of the electorate actually chose our current MPs, who are supposed to represent everyone. The remainder of the electorate are apparently represented well enough by these candidates, presumably on the same basis as argued historically, that they have the ability to rise above petty interests and represent us all. But if this were really the case, why would it even matter who we voted for at all? Presumably anyone would do! By this means the majority of the electorate is essentially disenfranchised, because their vote for a local representative is statistically most likely to count for nothing at all in a Parliament that is organised at a national scale.

In these contexts, is it any wonder that they renege on their manifesto pledges? MPs of course claim that they need to be given latitude by their constituents in order that they can make up their own minds about the issues that face them, especially if the situation changes in the future. This  sounds plausible, except that in the vast majority of cases, MPs voting decisions are given to them by their leaderships via the Party whips – and going against the whip can have serious consequences for one’s political career. After all, the future of their career and job depends a lot more on the Party’s good will than that of the electorate. If such MPs displease their leaders, they can simply be deselected as candidates at the next election – a power which has shifted from local parties to central leaderships over the past two decades. Then there’s the carrot and stick of being offered or denied public office on the basis of voting behaviour. Thus the average backbenchers in the main parties “toe the party line”. Rather than subordinate themselves to the people they represent – rather than actually act as representatives – such MPs sell themselves the Party system of rewards and punishments.

Of course, the constituents of a deselected or hamstrung MP’s constituents could always return them to Parliament again, but how many people really vote on that basis? Most people vote along national lines of party or leader – Conservative or Labour, Cameron or Miliband - and indeed are encouraged to do so. There is a fundamental disconnect between the way many voters conceive their vote, and the reality of voting in Britain.

Historically, the rhetoric around the franchise – concomitant to denying it to “dependents” – revolved around notions of “manly independence”, which most people were said to lack. MPs, and the limited electorate were supposed to enshrine these qualities, which included the abilities to have reasoned impartiality, and to be able make one’s own mind up (which was, after all, why dependents were denied the vote). But have you ever seen such a timid lackey as an MP who slavishly “toes the party line”? Such MPs are dependents, but cannot be bound to what their constituents tell them to do, because they are already spoken for. This is the real objection to real recall: MPs must be free from having us tell them what to do, because they must remain free to be told what to do by their Party leaders! Whipped is a good word for it!

The people of this country have again been left facing the fact that they have no meaningful methods of exerting pressure on Parliament. But all this means is that we must therefore begin again the process of building such pressure. This is simply part of the cyclical history of British politics. The Blanketeers and the Chartists are often said to have been unsuccessful, but this is untrue. To see their success you have to know not only where to look, but how to look – without the context of the pressure created by organisations of people dedicated to achieving democracy in this country, one would be liable to believe that radical reform and meaningful democratic power was given to us out of the kindness of politicians’ hearts, or handed out as some kind of reward. It wasn’t, and at each step Parliament gave the least ground it could. It was only by assembling for democracy that changes were made to happen.

Today, we don’t even have a representative democracy. That is not what the system was originally constructed for, nor what it has become. Today we, like the Scottish martyrs, are faced with a government more interested in gagging acts than addressing corruption. Like the Blanketeers our role (at least between elections) is essentially limited to petitions. Like the Chartists, we are still unable to really hold MPs to account between elections, and our choice during them is severely limited by the realities of the system. Like the Suffragettes and Suffragists, we’re also still faced with a system based on virtual representation, whereby the choice of a minority whose votes matter are said to be good enough to represent everyone. Finally, like all of them, we’re asked simply to trust those with power, whilst being told that we ourselves cannot be trusted with power, lest we abuse it. In times such as these!

The time to organise has come again. It doesn’t matter if you have a lot of time and energy to contribute to such a movement, or a little. What matters is that we collectively commit to building a democratic movement, driven “from below” by people power. That we not only cast our vote as an “X” in a box, as we are allowed to do once every five years, but act in favour of a genuinely alternative politics – that we establish a different way of doing things that will place power in our hands.


[1] M. Taylor, ‘The Six Points’ in O. Ashton, et al. (eds.), The Chartist Legacy, (Merlin Press 1999), 2.

[2] A theory of virtual representation was also put forward as an argument against giving the Thirteen Colonies representation in Parliament, on the basis that MPs inherently represented their interests already.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

The Great Charter Convention – an open, public debate on where arbitrary power lies in the UK today and how we should contest and contain it.

Related stories:  Re-imagining democracy - peoples' assemblies Homo liber, homo idioticus Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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Are the Tories applying a scorched earth strategy to the NHS?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. March 2015 - 9:15

The Tories now seem not to care what we think of their NHS policies. Last election, it was all very different - a new book highlights how promises were made - then broken. 

Forty-two days til the election and worrying news about the NHS is arriving daily. It seems the Tories, fearful of losing in May, are determined to put their final mark on the NHS by hitting it with every bit of scorched earth policy they can think of.

The biggest surprise they’ve sprung in the last few weeks is ‘DevoManc’ - £6 billion worth of health and social care budgets signed over to 10 local councils in Greater Manchester. The move is viewed with suspicion and trepidation by most health commentators and campaigners – if for no other reason than that anything George Osborne is signing off with a big grin on his face is bound to be bad news.

And just weeks before the election the NHS signs a contract for £780m - the biggest-ever privatisation of its services - to help hospitals tackle the growing backlog of patients waiting for surgery and tests. The contract includes 3 companies – Circle, Vanguard and Care UK - who have already been heavily criticised for the poor care they delivered to NHS patients. Half of the private firms involved have links to the Tories.

And now OurNHS openDemocracy have leaked the details of the massive £1.2 billion contract lined up for cancer and end of life services in Staffs. The contents of the previously closely guarded plans have shocked health campaigners. It’s ‘no more than a blank cheque for whichever private firm is most ruthlessly willing to cut costs to shore up their own profits’, says John Lister of Health Emergency. No wonder there was no proper public consultation, only ‘weak engagements led by patient champions’. The public didn’t vote for a privatised NHS, doesn’t want it, and the politicians know it.

At this stage it looks as though the Coalition simply don’t care what we think about their shabby treatment of the NHS. But they were more careful when they came into power. Granted they broke promise after promise – infamously Cameron had promised no more top down reorganisations, and had featured on billboards above the slogan ‘We will cut the deficit not the NHS’.

But even while going back on their word they understood they had to persuade us that what they were doing – breaking up the NHS and paving the way for the private sector - was justified. So they created myths about the NHS and about Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act, and sold them to an uncritical media. These myths - and outright lies - have become part received wisdom for many. There is plenty of evidence to disprove them, but we need a positive and concerted effort to dislodge them from the public consciousness.

It was the persistence of these myths and lies – zombie claims that continue to stalk the land long after they should have been killed off – that drove us to write our new book ‘NHS For Sale – Myths, Lies and Deception’.

Our book tackles the big lie that was necessary to justify sweeping changes - that the NHS was a poor service and was letting patients down while costing too much money, hopelessly ‘inefficient and unaffordable’. In fact the NHS is one of the most cost effective health services in the world.

The book destroys the myth that the private sector delivers better and cheaper care than the public sector. And it evidences how, contrary to their increasingly strident claims, the government’s actions are resulting in the privatisation of the NHS.

It argues that far from giving GPs the power, the Act means they now have less money, more responsibility and all of the blame. Contrary to what Lansley promised, patients and communities now have less choice and voice, and indeed doctors and patients are all worse off as a result of the ‘reforms’. The Act has resulted in more bureaucracy, higher costs, more waste and less transparency in the NHS.

It dissects claims about government funding of the NHS and shows them to be a sham, detailing the cuts and closures that have taken place.

The market has no place in delivering health care, squandering scarce money and clinical time and destabilising those vital NHS services that the private sector has no interest in delivering.

It is time to abolish the ‘purchaser provider split’ which divides the NHS into those that hold the purse strings and those who provide the healthcare - and allows private firms to muscle in on both sides of the split. This split was introduced under Thatcher and labelled ‘a failed experiment’ by the Health Select Committee.

We hope that as many as possible will read it before they cast their vote on May 7th. After 5 years of lies and cover ups voters need the full facts to allow them to make up their minds about the Coalition record on the NHS. We intend that this book will come to their aid.

Like this piece? Please donate to OurNHS here to help keep us producing the NHS stories that matter. Thank you. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Leak reveals worrying truth behind the biggest NHS privatisation yet "Cameron lied to the country", says Clive Peedell How the BBC betrayed the NHS: an exclusive report on two years of censorship and distortion
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Ukraine’s European integration

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. March 2015 - 8:36

If the EU is serious about helping Ukraine, both parties should focus on the country’s most glaring problem, and the Maidan’s principal demands – justice and the rule of law.

Ukraine has long been at work building closer ties with the European Union and its member states. In a sense, Ukraine is already very well integrated into Europe. Beyond developing its own economic interests with the EU, Ukraine is a member of the Council of Europe (1995), the OSCE (1992), the Energy Community (2011) and has been subject to the European Human Rights Court’s rulings since it ratified the European Convention of Human Rights in 1997.

For all its ties to Russia ­– and indeed like Russia itself – Ukraine is highly integrated with the West, and with the EU in particular. This can be seen most clearly in its trade ties with the EU, Ukraine’s number one overall trading partner and source of foreign direct investment. Ukraine’s financial sector is deeply integrated with the West, its importance as a hub of energy transportation for the EU is undeniable, and its regional economic significance dwarfs that of any other country in the EU’s Eastern Partnership programme.

Privileging benefits

But there are different types and degrees of integration. The EU and its member states, to varying extents, have long been engaged in promoting closer economic ties with Ukraine. This policy of economic engagement has been the cornerstone of the EU’s appeal to many of its neighbours, often enticing them to appeal for even closer ties and even full membership.

But by privileging the economic benefits of doing business with Ukraine, the EU has consistently overlooked the quality of its democracy and institutions. It is precisely this policy that has led, in part, to the situation we see today. Since the 1990s, Ukraine’s wealthy elite has thrived off its ability to collect rents from the state budget, sell goods to Europe (and elsewhere) on the cheap, all the while squirreling away its wealth in European bank accounts and real estate without fear of reprisal. 

The Association Agreement signed in 2014 between Ukraine and the EU represents a significant shift in bilateral relations. These ties have grown even stronger as a result of German chancellor, Angela Merkel, taking the lead on EU policy for Ukraine following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and its role in supporting the self-proclaimed separatist republics in the east of the country. 

It was the previous government’s decision to indefinitely postpone the signing of the Association Agreement with Ukraine that prompted a handful of students and Kyiv’s intelligentsia to take to the Maidan in the beginning. Protestors on the Maidan were not fighting for the right to simply sign an Association Agreement with the EU. The EuroMaidan movement was always about something much bigger, a vague idea that commentators have begun to call a ‘civilisation choice’, or the difference between Russian practices and ways of doing business and those of the EU. 

President Petro Poroshenko’s vision of Ukraine applying for EU membership in 2020, alongside the Association Agreement itself, has taken a backseat lately as the conflict in the east simmers and the country’s economy hangs on by a thread. 

And while the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, has passed a number of sweeping reforms in the past year, a good portion of them have been aimed primarily at securing funds from the IMF and other donors in order to fill the state’s depleted coffers. Other laws, such as the so-called ‘lustration law’ and a package of anti-corruption laws that were passed last October have yet to really come into force almost half a year later.  

The absence of substantive reforms and persistently high levels of corruption has led to a number of local groups of highly-educated professionals, like the Reanimation Package of Reforms, to pressure the government to follow through on their reform promises. 

‘Civilisation choice’, or the difference between Russian practices and ways of doing business and those of the EU.

Prioritising once more the Association Agreement

At present, the prospects of Ukraine being ready to apply for EU membership in 2020, much less becoming a member in the near future, are grim. Despite the European Parliament and Verkhovna Rada ratifying the Association Agreement in 2014, it still needs to be ratified by all 28 EU member states. So far, only six have done so.

Ukraine's current chances of becoming an EU candidate in 2020 are very low.

Ukraine is already beginning to see a number of benefits from its closer ties with the EU. Talks between the EU and Ukraine on visa liberalisation are still underway, with Kyiv officially hoping to finalise the agreement at the Eastern Partnership Riga Summit this May. The EU recently extended its unilateral trade agreement with Ukraine until the end of 2015, which gives the latter’s battered economy one-way preferential access to EU markets without either the Association Agreement or Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement’s ratification by all EU member states.

Unresolved issues and unsecured borders

Still, the issue of security will undoubtedly play a large factor in whether or not the EU would consider granting Ukraine membership. At present, this seems highly unlikely. Crimea may well develop into a decades-long legal and political dispute, but whatever the outcome, it is unlikely to be resolved on the battlefield. To put it differently, discord that is both predictable and manageable thanks to the absence of potential armed conflict, would be more amenable to the EU.

With its hundreds of kilometres of unsecured borders, eastern and southeastern Ukraine presents a very different challenge. Its solution is, and has been, one that combines intense diplomatic pressure and armed defence. Following the events of the past year, the Kremlin has lost its ability to create a strong political lobby in Kyiv, likely forever. 

Following the events of the past year, the Kremlin has lost its ability to create a strong political lobby in Kyiv, likely forever. 

In the aftermath of Crimea’s annexation, and the now numerous falsehoods on public record emanating from its most senior officials, Russia has left itself with few means by which to advance its interests through established international institutions and conventions. Instead, it will continue to rely on using the conflict in eastern Ukraine, or the potential for further conflict, as one of its principle means of negotiating.

With no clear objective coming out of its support for separatist forces other than maintaining its role as an arbiter of the fate of Ukraine, Russia is not likely to so easily toss away its most convincing negotiation tool (the threat of full-scale war), and risk having the international community begin focusing on Crimea. 

Under the threat of further damage to Ukraine’s economy and infrastructure, and the absence of at least a frozen conflict like that in Transnistria, the considerable investment of resources, financial and otherwise that come with EU membership, it is hard to imagine Ukraine being offered membership under the threat of war from its neighbour to the east.

Rule of law

There is, however, one area where the EU could provide Ukraine with substantial support, one which could, in effect, fundamentally change the way the country functions and bring tangible results that its citizens would certainly take notice of  – the rule of law. 

The absence of strong, independent state institutions has plagued Ukraine since independence. The country’s highly politicised and corrupt judiciary and law enforcement agencies are at the root of many of the country’s woes, whether endemic corruption, low level of foreign investment or the absence of civil rights. 

By cleaning up the judicial system from top to bottom and radically reforming Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies, citizens would have a sense of confidence in the state and its institutions – many for the first time. 

By levelling the playing field, chronic abuses of power by national and local government officials and bureaucrats would lead to a substantially improved business environment, where courts would make their rulings based on the law, not on potential personal financial benefits or career consequences that one ruling might have over another. 

As is the case in many other former Soviet republics, Ukraine has struggled to attract foreign direct investment due to the risks of doing business. Until investors can feel truly confident that they will be granted equal protection under the law and have access to full legal recourse, investment will remain low, regardless of the conflict in the east. 

Ukraine has struggled to attract foreign direct investment due to the risks of doing business.

Establishing the rule of law would also take the teeth out of one the nation’s most pernicious informal institutions – its political-oligarchical clans. One of the main concerns about Kyiv’s push to decentralise the government and provide more power to the regions is that these clans will simply entrench their fiefdoms in regions where they will control the local courts, police and government. 

Properly functioning courts and law enforcement agencies at both the national and local level can go a long way towards dismantling this harmful aspect of Ukrainian politics and could serve as part of a system of checks and balances  — virtually non-existent at present. 

This would entail long-term concerted effort and a great deal of technical support from the EU to help Ukraine reconstruct its still heavily ‘sovietised’ judicial system and law enforcement agencies from scratch, a move that would also likely include some constitutional changes. 

This assistance could also help eliminate some of the more controversial moves to ‘clean up the government’ by bringing Ukraine closer to EU standards while depoliticising the reforms. Accordingly, a new generation of judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers would need to be trained and hired. 

Long-term planning

These changes would take years to prepare and implement, though the financial cost to both Ukraine and the EU would be minimal when compared to major infrastructure projects and future economic stabilisation packages. The dividends would reach all segments of society, help Ukraine attract foreign investment, and avoid touching on some of the more sensitive issues surrounding EU-Ukraine-Russia relations. 

And in order to entice the Ukrainian government to get on board, the EU could ensure that the reforms would meet some (though not all) key elements of the Copenhagen Criteria, an essential set of criteria that any country interested in being an EU member must meet. In time, if both parties are interested, EU membership prospects could be honestly assessed and the partnerships and trust needed to start down that long road would already be established. 

The gains to be made from such a comprehensive series of reforms, be they economic development or an effectively functioning democracy with strong institutions, could extend well beyond Ukraine, all the while realising one of the Maidan’s key demands: justice. 

Standfirst image. Wikimedia commons/Ivan Bandura. Some rights reserved.

Second image: Wikimedia commons/Ilya. Some rights reserved.

To read more about the challenges facing specific EU candidate countries, click here.

Sideboxes Related stories:  European integration: is it still the dream it once was? Moldova's ambiguous European integration And where do we go from here? Macedonia and the EU Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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Europe in a labyrinth and the material power of ideas

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. March 2015 - 7:59

The Greek government has the mandate to revive the idea of solidarity and social justice, but also the idea of the economy itself.

Europe, the very idea is a series on the philosophical notion of Europe and what reflection upon it can lend to the sphere of concrete politics.

At the beginning of the economic crisis, the European Commission revelled in optimism and an almost leftist rhetoric. In A European Economic Recovery Plan published in late 2008 we read:

‘The current economic crisis gives another opportunity to show that Europe serves its citizens best when it makes concrete action the touchstone. Europe can make the difference. In difficult times, the temptation is to feel powerless. But Europe is not powerless. The levers of government, the instruments of the European Union, the influence of intelligent coordination add up to a potent force to arrest the trend towards a deeper recession. A Europe ready to take swift, bold, ambitious and well-targeted action will be a Europe able to put the brakes on the downturn and begin to turn the tide. We sink or swim together. (…) The fundamental principle of this Plan is solidarity and social justice. In times of hardship, our action must be geared to help those most in need. To work to protect jobs through action on social charges.’

And what are the results?

Entangled situation

The total debt of all of the EU member countries combined was 78% of GDP in 2008, while in 2014 it amounted to 107.7% of GDP. The debt increased by 30%.

Since 2008 the GDP growth of the European Union has been oscillating around zero; in 2013 it was 0.1% rising only to 1.3% in 2014.

The unemployment rate in the EU fluctuated around 7% in 2007, while at the end of 2013 it was nearly 11%. Youth unemployment for the EU was 23% in the first half of 2014 with the extremes 57% in Greece and 55% in Spain. Eurostat estimates that 23.815 million men and women in the EU were unemployed in January 2015.

There is a decline of confidence in the EU and in the project of European integration. The share of people favouring the EU dropped from 68% in 2007 to 46% in 2013. Only 29% believe that European integration boosted the economy of their country. And only 17% believe that reducing public debt should be the government's priority.

The reduction of government spending became the only tool in fighting the economic crisis notwithstanding the fact that this impacts mostly on workers' rights and social welfare. European countries are advocating the reformation of labour rights with a goal of reducing the cost of labour and social spending. The reformation is based on a reduction of the minimum wage, increasing the state pension qualifying age, making layoffs easier and promoting part-time work and temporary employment.

Economic recovery has not happened: debt has accumulated and the Eurozone economy has stagnated. Even in the countries that have reduced government spending, most can hardly talk about recovery. Pro-austerity Finland has fallen into triple-dip recession, Great Britain had a narrow escape, Italy cannot stop a rise in debt ratios despite all its cuts. Germany is the only country showing some signs of recuperation, but here the spending cuts are compensated by incentives introduced by no other country, e.g. infrastructure investments or the introduction of childcare subsidies.

There is simply no evidence of the effectiveness of austerity in stimulating recovery. The Eurozone may have averted a triple-dip recession but remains stuck in a deep structural slump. Stefano Fassina, the former deputy Italian finance minister, said “Titanic Europe” is heading for a shipwreck without a radical change of course.

Almost all of the European politicians and economists admit these days that growth is more important than cuts in spending, but nobody has any idea how to induce growth. Nonetheless, following the election of Syriza in Greece and the government attempting to finally take seriously the proclamation of EU from the beginning of the crisis about “bold, ambitious and well-targeted action” aimed at accomplishing solidarity and social justice, the representatives of the EU don't see the party's program as a leading example of how to bring Europe out of this entangled situation. At best, they consider its program a controversial attempt to deal with issues of one country, at worst naïve and dangerous. And yet, the Greek finance minister Varoufakis and EU representatives reached a deal reminding Europe of its Keynesian past while referring to Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The Greek government has committed itself to following the Thessaloniki Programme, which clearly addresses the party’s aims of a balanced budget, improvement of the tax system, fighting against corruption and nepotism, among other things. Its goal lies in solidarity, social justice and a balanced budget. Compare this with a European Commission that has no new emergency plan after the failure of A European Economic Recovery Plan.

There is a new situation in Europe that could be described as multiplied entanglement. If we do nothing, the current economic tendency (increase of debt and unemployment, economic stagnation) will go on until it reaches some indeterminate limit. If we want to reverse this tendency, we have to take action in a way that might seem too risky or even doomed to failure. There is a weird new social and political space-time in Europe that ties together political passivity with political activity: both seem ineffective in the sense that the multiplied entanglement can be unravelled by neither passivity nor activity.

Ideas as an economic factor

In this situation of multiplied entanglement there is a new phenomenon gaining power. Let's call it internegativity. There is a fundamental negative tendency dominating Europe these days. It's a tendency of some of the indicators either to gradually worsen, e.g. rate of debt or unemployment, or to stagnate as GDP and growth have done. For some time now this negativity should have been empowering the alternatives in all of the countries suffering from crisis: legitimizing them while developing activities that strive for the implementation of these alternatives.

This negative tendency, however, keeps negating them. Therefore they seem at best to be mere theoretical constructs with no real possibility of political implementation. In return, the negation of alternatives then affects social and economic tendencies and makes the situation even more negative. It is not like the negativity in Hegel's dialectics where negativity juxtaposes its own antithesis in a dialectical process. In this case, negativity interconnects with other negativity and creates a relation of mutual reinforcement: internegativity.

Internegativity robs us of even the remains of the security provided by liberal capitalism under the pretension of a natural and effective system, while also preventing the search for and implementation of alternatives.

This internegativity has, however, one positive effect. A distance is being taken from what used to be assumed to be a ‘natural’ political and every-day world.  This distance means that we are losing something: we are losing the security provided by a seemingly natural world. After the loss of the security provided by an underlying confidence in the underlying political structures of our social world, there is necessarily a sense of emptiness and the prevailing attitude that there is nothing one can rely on any more. This attitude expresses, however, only one thing: the loss of support provided by the world order of the moment, which has begun to dissolve. It is precisely this emptiness that creates the space for the reappropriation of ideas like solidarity, justice and freedom, though in a different form. It's not an appropriation buttressed by a world order, but an appropriation that is deprived of a back-up. An idea isn't adopted on behalf of a world order, but for its own sake. This can be called the  decontextualization of ideas.

This change provokes the disintegration of our “natural” world. Ideas like solidarity, justice and freedom have always figured as words flexible, relative and even constrained in meaning. We might imagine the following type of realist statement being made about such an antiquated term as solidarity: ‘well, of course we are fond of solidarity, but you know we have to restrain any rise in debt so we should be very careful indeed about things like solidarity. If we yield to the temptation of solidarity, we soon find ourselves in a vortex dragging all of us down straight to the bottom. We ought to follow economic reality and rectify our sense of solidarity as needed.’

Solidarity can be a dangerous idea if we are not flexible enough to adjust it to the evaluation of rating agencies (for example). As long as solidarity, or other similar ideals are grasped this way, they will never be more than pretty words having no impact on the real course of things.

But the entangled crisis is the situation in which solidarity transmutes into idea and a change happens. Solidarity as an idea becomes incorporated into the psychosomatic tissue of human being as well as into political bodies.

In short, belief is created. In the entangled economic crisis, the economy itself becomes just such an idea. This idea was outlined for instance by the United Nations in Article 8 of the Declaration on Social Progress and Development: ‘Each Government has the primary role and ultimate responsibility of ensuring the social progress and well-being of its people.’ The economy-as-idea is a benchmark that can be used to evaluate and reshape the measures that are in place today (e.g. ratings). These contextual measures have been fetishized for some time now. Even though they evaluate only partial economic achievements, they pose as the goal itself, to which we are to subordinate the idea of everyone's material conditions. The economy-as-idea rectifies the relation between the measures and the goal of an economy: the measures and even ratings are subordinated to the goal of economy.[1]

Materialist ideas existing outside the established economic and political context provoke activities which can guide Europe out of the labyrinth. The ideas become economically productive. Who are the realists now? Those refusing ideas as mere pipe dreams do not have any answer to the economic conundrum, and at the same time they admit that the current state of affairs is unsustainable in the long run.

They are not genuine realists because they wait for a mysterious miracle that would break the vicious circle. Materialist ideas, on the other hand, could set off effects leading to the breaking of the vicious circle that the European Union and others have found themselves in. Under current conditions, the realists are those who have learned of the economic meaning of ideas.

From this point of view, the only realist government in the EU today is the Greek one – aspiring to make Greece the first European country to break the deadlock. The government appears determined to unravel the entangled situation that the EU finds itself in these days. Its politics may be something more than just an expression of the traumatic social situation in Greece and an unprecedented galvanization of Greek society. The Greek government has the mandate to revive the idea of solidarity and social justice, but also the idea of the economy itself. In the end, its fate rests on whether it will keep on incorporating these ideas into its politics or abandon them under the pressure of circumstances. The future of Greece, and ultimately also that of Europe, depends on whether these ideas become a real political and economic power.

[1] This redefining of measures was done, for example, by Mahbub Ul Haq and Amartya Sen in their Human Development Index, used currently by the United Nations


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The crisis of means without ends: two forms of rationality in the foundations of Europe

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. March 2015 - 7:51

Patočka calls for a renewed effort in Europe today to reestablish some kind of equilibrium between “the rationality of means” and “the rationality of ends”.

Europe, the very idea is a series on the philosophical notion of Europe and what reflection upon it can lend to the sphere of concrete politics.

In this reflection I would like to start from the inspiring distinction made by the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka in one of his late essays.[1] It is the distinction between two forms of rationality: “the rationality of means” and “the rationality of ends”. Patočka was convinced that the fruitful tension between the two, as long as there was equilibrium between them, was the defining feature of the European form of spiritual life from classical Antiquity till the end of the Middle Ages.

The equilibrium between these two forms of rationality was, in his opinion, the ultimate source of inner spiritual strength and the outward success of the European civilization. The loss of equilibrium caused the spiritual crisis of Modern Europe and, ultimately, the “physical self-destruction of Europe” in the two “great wars of the 20th century”. 

I will first try to explain this idea by using Patočka’s own difficult language. Patočka´s language is abstract, sometimes highly metaphorical, and full of expressions and terms borrowed from various German philosophers. Therefore, I will return after a while to an easier language, using examples to make the exposition less abstract. I hope that this will allow the reader to access Patočka’s remarkable insights into the spiritual roots of Europe.   

It is characteristic of Patočka´s style of philosophizing that he is anxious to develop his own philosophical ideas by interpreting the ideas of other philosophers. In this text, he starts from the famous idea of the late German philosopher Edmund Husserl. It is the idea that rationality is the “entelechial idea” of “European humanity”, i.e., that Europeans had and have a unique vocation to develop the idea of rationality. He contends that already in Husserl’s interpretation of the European principle in terms of rationality there is an anticipation of the thought that, in European history, rational reflection acquired two major tasks: “to make understandable the given and to form our very self”.

After crediting Husserl with hinting at these two basic forms of rationality, he goes on to describe their mutual relationship in the course of European spiritual history. He sees this relationship as a constant tension that threatens to break the unity of the European principle through the uncontrolled reinforcement of its one aspect at the expense of the other. There are, therefore, two imminent dangers lurking in the very foundations of European spiritual life: “the knowledge of the given without self-dominion”, and “striving for unity, universality, and eternity, at the expense of the knowledge of the given”. 

Patočka contends that both the spiritual greatness and the crisis of Europe lie in the historical dynamism determined by this tension. Europe dominated the rest of the world because it was able to develop both sides of the European principle in a manner unmatched by other civilizations. It retained supremacy as long as it was able to keep both these sides of rational reflection in balance, i.e. as long as it was able to keep an equilibrium between the rationality-based dominion of humans over the world and over themselves. When this fragile balance was lost, Europe started to move towards the crisis, which, in its ultimate consequences, deprived it of its privileged status in world history.

On Patočka´s account, the equilibrium was lost at the beginning of Modernity, i.e. in the period when modern science, which focused almost exclusively on the rational penetration and domination of the world, asserted itself as the sole and unique model of rationality. This shift gave European humanity a (ratio-based) dominion over the world, but it deprived it of dominion over itself. The very cause of the European spiritual crisis is to be sought in this loss of balance. Political and economic crisis followed, resulting in the ultimate self-destruction of Europe in the two world wars of the twentieth century.

The remedy of the crisis corresponding to this diagnosis is the restitution of the ‘practical’ side of European rationality. Patočka expresses this point in the following passage using highly metaphorical language:

Europe has shown two paths leading to the opening of the earth: the exterior path of the conquest and subjugation of the world which brought about the extinction of Europe as a historical and unified formation; and the interior path of the opening of the earth in the sense of unlocking the world, the path of the transformation of the natural world as such. And it seems that this path, after all exterior catastrophes and inner confusions and mistakes, must be found again and walked to its end.

The passage shows how difficult Patočka’s language is. For this reason I will try from now on to put Patočka´s ideas in a simpler and more straightforward language.

Automobiles and profit

I will start with an example. Take the development of the automotive industry today. Imagine how much intellectual work is invested into the development of just one new car model, say, the new Skoda Octavia. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of engineers, developers, designers, i.e. technical experts, working for years day in and day out at the development of just this one new model. Now multiply the number of people and work by the number of all new models developed these days in the car industry all over the world. Consider now that this technical intelligentsia is just a “platoon” of the “army” of all those working in the industry today. Perhaps now you will be able to sense the immense intellectual work invested in the development of yet newer cars, mobile phones, TVs, medicines, etc.

What is the purpose of this immense intellectual labor? To start with the already mentioned example, we may ask: “For what purpose is a new car model developed?” “What is the raison d´être for making it?” The answer would go something like this: The new car model is developed in order to make a safer, more reliable, more comfortable, more fun-to-drive, more elegant, more spacious, in one word, “better” car. And what is the purpose of this improvement? It is to remain competitive with other companies in the automotive industry. And why that? You want to keep your share in the market. So the ultimate purpose of all this immense intellectual labor is profit.

This conclusion is in no way intended to condemn this intellectual labor, nor to praise it. My only purpose here is to put on display the basic pattern characteristic of this type of rationality. Scientific discoveries are driven by the need for technological innovation and these are demanded by commercial interests. It is this type of rationality that Patočka called “the rationality of means”. Why? Because it trains human intellect to work on the improvement of what, ultimately, are means of human existence. New cars, mobile phones, TVs, medicines – all of them are just means of transportation, communication, amusement, gaining health etc.

Although there is, obviously, a legitimate need for those means in our societies today, it is useful to remind ourselves of the fundamental distinction made in the first pages of Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics. It is the distinction between those goods that we desire because we desire something else first and those that we desire for their own sake. He calls the former “means” and the latter “ends”. He observes that ends are more important, than means. For the goodness of a mean depends on the goodness of its end. Thus the knife in the hand of a murderer is an evil because it serves a murder, while the same knife in the hand of a surgeon is a good because it serves the restoration of health.

In the light of this classical philosophical distinction it is easy to see that “the rationality of means” must be complemented by “the rationality of ends”, i.e. a rationality which trains human intellect to distinguish and to investigate the ends of human life. For it is only in the light of such rationality that good means can be distinguished from bad ones. “The rationality of means” allows you only to sort out which means are more efficient, not which are better. Even if you use the term “better” you mean “more efficient” as long as you evaluate things only from the perspective of “the rationality of means”.

But is someone trained in “the rationality of ends” in a similar way to that in which a scientist, technician, or marketing specialist is trained in “the rationality of means”? Without trying to answer this difficult question, I would like at least to point out that “the rationality of ends” was the “core business” of Greek classical philosophy, i.e. the philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. For each of them was convinced that the most important task for the human intellect is to investigate and to come to know the Good.

In fact, this conviction is the source of the fundamental anthropological claim made by these philosophers, namely that the rational part of humans (the human soul) is the highest, closest to the divine. And this claim, in its turn, is the source of the “intellectualist” interpretation of “happiness” (eudaimonia) as the central notion of their ethics. For eudaimonia did not mean for these philosophers an emotional state, a feeling of “bliss” or “blessedness”. Rather, it meant the best possible state in which the best part of a human finds her or himself. Therefore you cannot be eudaimón unless you are “wise”, i.e. unless you have fully actualized your rational capacities.

The disagreement among Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle regarding this issue concerned only a relatively minor point, namely the question whether to be wise is just a necessary or also the sufficient condition for being eudaimón, i.e., whether a virtuous man needs also some other “external” goods to be truly happy. The fundamental agreement of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle that the most important and sublime task for human intellect is to search for the good, is also not compromised by the considerable disagreement between the three concerning the nature of the good.

Patočka was fully aware of the fact that “the rationality of ends” was the “core business” of Greek classical philosophy.  Therefore, in some of his late works, he sought for the origin of the spiritual history of Europe in Greek classical philosophy, in particular in the Socratic and Platonic ideal of “the care for the soul”. In these writings, he pleaded repeatedly for the need to “return” to the care for the soul, or to “repeat it”, in our present situation. This pleading, I believe, remains a true challenge and inspiration, although it is difficult to see what exact form the care for the soul could or should take today.  

But if we read Patočka´s pleading for the “repetition” of the care for the soul in the light of the distinction between the two forms of rationality discussed here, we could interpret it thus: Patočka calls for a renewed effort in Europe today to reestablish some kind of equilibrium between “the rationality of means” and “the rationality of ends”. True, we do not need as many moral philosophers or theologians as we need representatives of the technical intelligentsia. But perhaps we need in our society today more clarity about the ends we pursue. Perhaps we need to reconsider the order in which we put our societal or personal priorities. Or perhaps there are some ends we should pursue which, as a matter of fact, we do not pursue yet.

It seems that in order to investigate these and other issues we must take seriously the effort to cultivate “the rationality of ends”.  In this sense, then, we might understand Patočka´s pleading for a “repetition” of the care for the soul in our situation today.

[1] Evropa a doba poevropská [Europe and the Post-European Period], in: Péče o duši II. Soubor statí a přednášek o postavení člověka ve světě a v dějinách [Care of the Soul II. Collected Writings Concerning the Human Condition and History], 1st ed. Chvatík – P. Kouba, Prague: Oikoymenh, 1999 (Sebrané spisy Jana Patočky, 2), p. 80-148.

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The dangerous appeal of the modern slavery paradigm

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. March 2015 - 5:00

Endorsing the modern slavery bill, even by seeking to include additional protections within it, supports rather than challenges the use of criminal justice frameworks to address ‘modern slavery.’ 

How can we explain the appeal of the campaign to end modern slavery? At the rhetorical and emotional level it is self-evident. Slavery conjures up images of cruelty and horrific violations of human rights. The term ‘modern slavery’ resonates with older forms of slavery such as chattel slavery in the United States, which was depicted so vividly in the celebrated 2013 movie Twelve Years a Slave. It also echoes with the campaigns against the ‘white slave trade’, the term used to describe forced prostitution at the turn of the 20th century in the United States, where the White-Slave Traffic Act was passed in 1910. This act, better known as the Mann Act, was the original anti-trafficking law since it made it a crime to transport any woman or girl in interstate commerce or foreign commerce for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery. Thus, modern slavery also evokes images of women and children who are victims of sexual exploitation.

The appeal of the term modern slavery is precisely its over-determination; it encompasses a broad range of exploitive practices from traditional understandings of slavery and forced labour to human trafficking and prostitution. As such, it is a cause around which disparate groups, individuals, and states can mobilise; Anti-Slavery International, Liberty, Walk Free, the Pope, the UK Coalition Government, and the Obama administration all support the eradication of modern slavery. No one is ‘for’ modern slavery.

Moreover, the goal of many groups is to stretch the meaning of modern slavery to include an even broader range of exploitative practices, especially those where employment and migration intersect. Increasingly, labour exploitation is a focus for anti-slavery advocates, fueled in part by the International Labour Organization’s work to publicise the extent of forced labour. The aim is also to expand the arsenal for combatting modern slavery to include criminal law, human rights, labour standards and business regulation approaches.

In light of the growing consensus around the modern slavery paradigm, it is crucial to raise a caution about the downside of this approach, which is most visible in the current debate over the Modern Slavery Bill. Introduced in the UK House of Parliament last year, the Bill is nearing the final stages to become law. It defines modern slavery to encompass slavery, servitude, forced and compulsory labour. The emphasis is on ‘traffickers and slave drivers’ who coerce, deceive and force individuals against their will into a life of abuse, servitude and inhumane treatment. An Anti-Slavery Commissioner has been appointed, and the strategy for combatting modern slavery builds upon the government’s approach to organised crime and counter terrorism. The government’s Modern Slavery Strategy, which it introduced to accompany its new legislation, makes it clear that the focus is primarily, although not exclusively, on people who are trafficked across borders.

Instead of objecting to an approach to combatting modern slavery that is deeply embedded in a criminal law and border control framework, critics of the government’s bill have sought to graft measures that would address the problem of tied-visas for migrant domestic workers and supply chains on to it. Thus, they hope to expand both the meaning of modern slavery and the ways of addressing it. The problem with this strategy is that it reinforces, rather than challenges, an approach that emphasises the criminal law and border controls at the expense of labour standards and business regulation. The human rights of exploited workers are brought under the gravitational sway of an agenda that strengthens the government’s powers to control and punish at the same time as it closes borders.

As the Modern Slavery Bill has gone through the legislative process, a concerted effort has been mounted to persuade the Coalition government to reintroduce the right of domestic workers who enter the UK on an Overseas Domestic Workers Visa—which permits them to reside within the UK for six months while working within the private household of a non-British resident admitted under another visa category or a returning UK expatriate—to change employers. The government revoked this right from migrant domestic workers in April 2012. Advocacy groups such as Kalayaan, supported by the Labour Party and the majority of members of the House of Lords, have argued—on this website on March 16 and March 24, as well as elsewhere—that the right to change employers be reinstated because the visa tying domestic workers to their employer creates conditions that are ripe for modern slavery to occur.

However, the UK government has been adamant in its refusal to allow migrant domestic workers to change employers. Its only concession, added on 17 March 2015, is to grant a migrant domestic worker who has been the victim of modern slavery six months’ leave to stay and work in the UK. Moreover, in announcing this concession, the minister responsible for modern slavery and organised Crime, Karen Bradley, spurned the suggestion made by Member of the Opposition that the UK government ratify the ILO convention on the rights of domestic workers. The minister’s reply perfectly captures the government’s approach to labour exploitation:

It is important to strike the right balance between protecting vulnerable workers and ensuring that aspects of employment law which can carry criminal sanction are not extended to private households. Ratifying the convention would require the imposition of unnecessarily onerous obligations on, for example, people employing home helps or personal carers, and would be neither practical nor proportionate.

Given that the government is quite willing to use criminal law to combat ‘slave drivers’ who employ domestic workers in conditions of domestic servitude within their homes, it appears that what it is opposed to is strengthening employment law and employment rights for the growing legions of workers whose place of work is someone else’s home.  

The government’s Modern Slavery Strategy also pulls other regulatory approaches into the criminal law orbit. In April 2014, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), which regulates and investigates labour exploitation in a limited range of sectors, was moved from the Department for Business Innovation & Skills to the Home Office. This change shifted the GLA’s orientation from enforcing labour standards to tackling irregular migration and combatting organised crime.  In that year the number of investigations and prosecutions under the GLA fell dramatically. The only gesture in the Modern Slavery Bill towards an approach to tackling business practices that cultivate labour exploitation is the imposition of annual duty of disclosure on businesses over the steps they have taken to ensure their supply chains are slavery free. The government prefers light touch regulation that takes the form of providing information that will enable customers, campaigners and shareholders to hold big businesses to account instead of imposing licensing requirements or enforcing labour legislation.

The problem with the modern slavery paradigm is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to dislodge it from the technologies of legal governance, criminal law and border controls, that are mobilised in its cause. These technologies tend to target marginal players rather than tackle the social processes that normalise exploitation.

Sideboxes Related stories:  The rhetoric and reality of ‘ending slavery in our lifetime’ Modern slavery bill: migrant domestic workers fall through the gaps Convenient conflations: modern slavery, trafficking, and prostitution The role of the state and law in trafficking and modern slavery
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Can the prison system be transformed? Shaka Senghor and #Cut50

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. March 2015 - 1:00

A new campaign to be launched on March 26 aims to cut the U.S. prison population in half by 2025.

Shaka Senghor. Credit:  http://www.ecotrust.org. All rights reserved.

Shaka Senghor spent seven out of his 19 years in prison in solitary confinement, known to other inmates asthe hole’ or ‘administrative segregation’ in the official language of the U.S. prison system - a term eerily designed to reduce the impact of its reality.

Convicted of the murder of a fellow drug dealer, Senghor was incarcerated in a bare six-foot by eight-foot excuse for human habitation. A concrete slab juts out of the wall, threatening impalement instead of offering sleep. The hole in the wall that’s intended for bodily functions gapes back at him as if to say, I will swallow you. The lockdowns run 23 hours a day on weekdays, and 24 hours on weekends.

Human contact, if it ever happens, is administered as if an animal is being handled, replete with leashes and five-point chains. The environment is steeped at a pitch of insanity - cell blocks rife with shouts and screams and the flinging of human feces. The walls seem to speak: ‘you cannot escape the incessant reminder that what you did is now who you are.’

Even after his release in 2010, Senghor, like most other former prison inmates, faced systematic discrimination as he attempted to step out of one bizarre reality into another that seemed intent on recycling his original punishment. A job and a supportive community are top priorities for those leaving prison if they are to avoid recidivism. But on employment applications, a box must be checked if the applicant has served time. In implicit and explicit ways, former prisoners are reminded of—and invisibly shackled by—their crime, long after their discharge.

Today however, Senghor is part of a new initiative in the United States that aims to transform the justice system by cutting the U.S. prison population in half by 2025. Called the “#Cut50 initiative” and launched on March 26th 2015, this effort has unusual bi-partisan support and leadership, and carries a powerful moral and political message: a culture of punishment run amuck is destroying the fabric of society; it’s time to end the warehousing and exploitation of human beings.

As someone who transformed his own life and discovered a love for writing while serving those 19 years in prison, Senghor will be a powerful and respected spokesperson for #Cut50. By sharing his story, he’s already helped mothers of murder victims to forgive, inspired young men in the streets to choose a college degree over a prison number, and shifted the thinking of ‘tough-on-crime’ advocates from the ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ mentality to believing that redemption is possible. His TED talk “Why Your Worst Deeds Don’t Define You” has received over one million views.

Senghor’s colleagues include Van Jones and an ongoing endorsement from Newt Gingrich, about the most unlikely political partnership imaginable in the USA. Jones is an attorney and co-host of CNN’s Crossfire program, as well as a former Obama Administration advisor on “green jobs” and the co-founder of organizations such as the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Green For All. Gingrich is known for his staunch conservatism. Yet both realize the high stakes involved in the transformation of the US justice system, and the common ground that exists underneath the surface of party politics.

#Cut50 aims to reduce the incarcerated population of the US by 50 percent over the next 10 years by convening ‘unlikely allies,’ communicating a powerful new narrative, and elevating proven solutions such as restorative justice and youth empowerment programs that provide jobs and skills. Recent successes in both ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states prove that it is possible to reduce incarceration rates successfully while achieving better outcomes, saving money, and protecting public safety.

These programs have already demonstrated a reduction of recidivism to eight per cent, compared to national averages of 65 per cent to 70 per cent. Fania Davis and the Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth program is a good example, with a proven track record of diverting young people from detention and the likelihood of entering the ‘school to prison pipeline.’ Gregory Ruprecht’s work in Colorado is another, showing how police officers with conventional views of justice—‘lock them up and throw away the key’—can change over time as a result of direct experience of the alternatives.

In Ruprecht’s case the turning point was his arrest of a group of 10 and 11-year old boys who had broken into a chemical plant. Instead of charging them with a felony, he agreed to take part in a series of “restorative justice circles” that were designed to bring the boys into direct contact with the people they had harmed, along with their parents and a trained facilitator. At the end of the process, the boys signed a legal agreement listing how they were going to set things right, ensuring accountability without having to process yet more people through the justice system and eventually into prison.

Given that the US warehouses 25 per cent of the world’s prison population while comprising a mere five per cent of the world’s total population, #Cut50 is long overdue. But regardless of where you live, the initiative provides a clarion call to reframe how we see ourselves and each other in the emerging landscape of justice.

In its Mission Statement, the initiative argues that there has never been a better time to mainstream the idea that prisons can be safely closed, and more effective alternatives pursued in their place. In terms of public opinion, Americans of all political stripes are questioning the failing prison system and searching for new ideas and alternatives. The moment is ripe to capture the imagination of the public with a bold vision and concrete efforts to mobilize people to hold their elected representatives accountable for seeing it through to completion.

Critics who aim to polarize the issue claim that approaches like restorative justice are ‘soft on crime,’ and may actually enhance the prospects of violence. A recent article published in The New York Post by Paul Sperry, for example, asserts that “liberal policies” are making schools “less safe” by placing too much attention on offenders. The #Cut50 movement aims to dissolve such criticism by providing statistical evidence that the alternatives are working, and by moving public and political opinion beyond worn-out stereotypes about crime, punishment and retribution.

These alternatives make sense far beyond any particular party line. At heart, very few people would deny the basic needs that exist inside everyone to be understood, heard, and seen; to be given a chance to redeem; to confront the impact of our actions and be given the opportunity to re-enter the collective endeavor of society.

The choice is clear: stand by and allow the rampant school-to-prison pipeline of the US to inflict yet more needless punishment on a population that produces no improvements in its stated goals of rehabilitation and public safety – or join #Cut50’s efforts to achieve a root and branch reform.

Ultimately, Senghor’s message of personal and political transformation provides all of us with an opportunity to contemplate the reality of that harsh solitary cell, and to question the enormous costs of caging the human spirit.

You can join #Cut50’s launch livestream from anywhere in the world on March 26.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Six boys, one cop, and the road to restorative justice Restoring justice to America There is no such thing as prison reform: an interview with CeCe McDonald The transformation of a warrior behind bars
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High-tech isn't enough: Britain needs to stop pricing its low-tech goods out of the world

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. March 2015 - 0:11

The new book Progressive Capitalism in Britain encourages a narrow focus on high-tech exports. Instead, Britain must allow its medium and low tech exports flourish too.

© Copyright Hugh Venables and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Progressive Capitalism in Britain summarises much of the progressive thinking which is currently taking place in the UK on how we should try to shape our economy over the coming years. How should we get it to perform both better and more fairly? How is an economy which suffers particularly from both static productivity and a large structural balance of payments deficit to be galvanised into delivering higher living standards not just for those who are already well off but across the board?

The answers provided are familiar. We need to reform our financial and governmental institutions to make them better at supporting high tech industry. There needs to be much more of a focus on our vocational educational system. Companies need to take a longer term view. Financial services need to be better geared to supporting industry rather than the housing market. The crucial issue, however, is whether changes along these lines, however desirable they may be in themselves, will make any real difference to our economic prospects.

First, does it really make sense to see the future in high rather than medium and low tech manufacturing? It is true that a lot of our industry which sells abroad is high tech but this is largely because its output is both not generally very price sensitive and – partly for this reason – difficult but not impossible to attack from much lower cost base economies. This is why it has survived while industries which are more vulnerable have all gone under as the proportion of our GDP coming from manufacturing has gone down from about a third as late as 1970 to barely 10% now. The problem with relying on high tech is then twofold. First there will never be enough of it even in the best of circumstances and second, just because it is more difficult to attack, it does not mean that it is not vulnerable to lower cost competition. Relying on high tech thus poses both a short and a longer term problem of vulnerability.

If this is true, however, it leads to a very awkward conclusion. We are never going to be able to pay our way in the world unless we can also compete - at least on import substitution if not always on exports – with enough low and medium tech manufacturing, so that we can get the proportion of GDP coming from manufacturing as a whole up to about 15% of GDP. Without this, we will never stop the balance of payments being a heavy disinflationary burden. For this rebalancing to be achieved, we will, however, need to be competitive across a much wider range of manufacturing output than we have at the moment. For this to happen, we need a far lower exchange rate – a factor not mentioned anywhere in Progressive Capitalism in Britain.

The fact that the cost base in the UK – all the components of cost in sterling that are charged out to the rest of the world via the exchange rate – is so high also bears very heavily on another of the issues raised in the booklet. The main reason why we have so many people on low wages is that, via our over-valued currency, we try to charge out our labour costs at a higher price than the rest of the world is prepared to pay. This and the extreme difficulty of making any money out of manufacturing for export means that investment in the potentially most productive part of our economy is exceptionally low, making it impossible to price ourselves back into the market by increasing output per head.  This is why we are currently locked into a vicious spiral of pitifully low levels of investment, static productivity and low wages.

The solution advanced in Progressive Capitalism in Britain is to concentrate resources on increasing the education and skill levels in the UK labour force. Other things being equal, of course the higher the qualifications that the workforce has, the better, but many jobs which are well worth doing – especially outside high tech industries - do not require either high levels of education or training. More important are workforces which are punctual and reliable - qualities available across all socio-economic groups. Higher productivity can then come from investment in labour saving machinery rather than enhanced brainpower.  The danger in concentrating on higher and higher skill levels, which are actually only appropriate for quite a narrow range of jobs especially outside high tech industries, is that far too many people get left out because there are too few employment opportunities in the sorts of activities where very high skill levels count.

This analysis suggests that – leaving aside whatever else is done on the supply side to improve the competitiveness of the UK economy - concentrating resources on high tech and better education and training is going to be much less effective at getting the UK to pay its way in the world than making the whole economy more competitive by going for a much lower exchange rate. This is not a perception which is widely shared, but as long as all the available intellectual horse-power is deployed into advocating plying resources into too narrow and vulnerable a sector of our economy, we will go on losing ground in world markets, the balance of payments will be a constraint on expanding the economy and living standards and job opportunities will stagnate. This is surely not what the authors of Progressive Capitalism in Britain want to see happening.

John Mills is a funder of openDemocracy.

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An irresistible force? Arab citizens of Israel after the elections

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. March 2015 - 18:25

Binyamin Netanyahu may have returned to power by disowning the two-state solution and scaremongering about Arab voters pre-election. But Palestinians in Israel have become a force to be reckoned with.

Ayman Odeh: conciliatory tone. Demotix / Mahmoud Illean. All rights reserved.

Despite much pre-election euphoria among those hoping to bring down the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, a democratic political upheaval towards a new progressive era in Israel remains a receding horizon. And yet one political novelty stands out:  the increasing visibility of its Palestinian citizens.

For decades, they had to cope with a life at the margins of both Palestine and Israel, were largely excluded from the ‘peace process’ and were ascribed an ‘identity crisis’ as a people hopelessly stuck in political limbo. For the first time in Israel’s history, this month they voted collectively as Arab-Palestinians for a Joint List, reaching 13 out of 122 seats. Under the widely-respected leadership of Ayman Odeh, this now comprises the third-largest faction in the parliament. With increasing visibility of their grievances amid rising international recognition, their cause stands on solid ground.

Meanwhile, the paradigm of a two-state solution, to be negotiated between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government, is crumbling between an increasingly uncompromising Israel and a disappearing Palestine. With a new government, the Israeli polity will return to ‘business as usual’: the occupation of Palestinian territories, deepening control over the Palestinian population there and further growth of Jewish settlements, despite their disastrous humanitarian impact.

These ‘facts on the ground’ seem to undermine the viability of an independent Palestinian state created through negotiations and Netanyahu’s declaration that he would not allow the creation of a Palestinian state if re-elected only deepened the abyss. His promise may have been “written on ice on a very hot day”. But despite his subsequent efforts to play it down, the US president, Barack Obama, “took him by his word”, saying the US would “evaluate what other options are available”. Yet the most prominent alternative, a so-called one-state scenario of Israel absorbing the West Bank permanently, is considered extremely unlikely, according to Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, while “huge” numbers of Israelis favour the status quo, because its costs are experienced as minor.

Strong solidarity

The initial emergence of a unified ‘Arab’ camp in Israel’s election was stimulated by a government-led change to the electoral threshold for representation in the Knesset, from 2% to 3.25% of the national vote, which would have threatened the survival of the three main Arab parties and the intercommunal, left-wing Hadash. Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, said: “The law reflected the imposition of the political will of the Israeli Jewish majority in the Knesset against the political participation rights of the Arab minority.” writes. This ‘forced unity’ exemplified the mounting anti-Arab pressure and Jewish-Arab polarisation which reached a tipping-point with the 2014 Gaza war, during which Arabs in Israel displayed strong solidarity with their brethren in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian citizens make up roughly 17% of Israel’s population of 8m. Most are descendants of the 160,000 Palestinian Arabs who did not become refugees in 1948 but remained within the newly-created state. They share however the Palestinian catastrophe of displacement as ‘exiles at home’, demanding an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and thus an independent Palestinian state, while calling for full equality as Israeli citizens. They face socio-economic inequality, legal discrimination and frequent provocations from Israeli officials.

In a last-minute effort to mobilise favourable voters on election day, Netanyahu warned of Arabs turning out “in droves” and said Arab parties benefited from funding by foreigners who sought to topple him. The outgoing minister for foreign affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, said at an election conference that disloyal “Israeli Arabs” should be beheaded. He is not alone in calling Arab citizens who oppose the government’s policies a “fifth column”, thereby to mobilise those who want to ‘rescue’ this state project. Yet such polarising statements have only strengthened the political claim of the Palestinian-Arab minority and made questions of equality and the nature of the Israeli state more visible.

International concern

What Israeli officials like to call ‘internal matters’ are quickly becoming an international concern. Obama warned that Israeli democracy may “start to erode” if everybody is not “treated equally and fairly”. As Israel’s credibility as a party to a realistic peace process is quickly disappearing, recognition of its sovereignty will decline too. The absence of a viable process strengthens the role of, and draws more attention to, its Palestinian citizens.

A wide array of local and international projects seek to address their grievances, in employment and specific sectors such as high-tech, supporting university graduates and work-seeking women. Yet most initiatives emphasise the welfare of Israel and its economy, while these projects’ aims and wording remain suspiciously depoliticised.

Politically marginalised and economically underprivileged they may be, but Palestinian citizens are ever more unwilling to accept systemic inequality and ever more willing to confront the status quo, according to the International Crisis Group. In the context of increased attention and visibility, and inspired by the prospect of stronger collective representation, an unusually large number cast their ballots in the recent elections in an atmosphere of hope.

The Joint List was a problematic reaction to systematic marginalisation in a flawed democracy, because it forced 17% of Israel’s citizens into a camp united merely on the basis of their status as Palestinian-Arabs, pouring a diversity of political trajectories into a single, ‘besieged’ mould. Such strategic essentialism is a common political tactic employed by members of minority groups, acting on the basis of a shared identity in the public arena in the interests of unity during a struggle for equal rights. The Palestinian citizens of Israel temporarily put aside internal differences to band together to survive.

The outgoing minister for foreign affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, said at an election conference that disloyal “Israeli Arabs” should be beheaded.

This further increased their visibility and, in a sort of boomerang effect, the pressure that forced them to unite was further increased to de-legitimise their vehicle—precisely because they had united: “The unification proves that [the Jewish communist politician] Dov Khenin is exactly like [the Arab nationalist] Haneen Zoabi,” Lieberman declared in January, seeking to ban the unified Arab list from running in the elections. This dynamic may well be a warning of the possible dangers of unification and underlines that the move is a symptom of Arab citizens’ marginalised and increasingly besieged status.

But for the first time in Israel’s history, its Arab citizens could vote collectively for one list as Palestinians in Israel without having to sub-divide into supporters of communist, nationalist or Islamist tendencies. Although the diversity will remain, it now comes under a shared roof.

After decades of internal divisions and anaemic voter turn-out, and state-led efforts to mark them as ‘Israeli Arabs’ separate from Palestinians elsewhere, did they vote as Palestinians or as Israeli citizens? The answer, increasingly, is both.

‘Good Arabs’

The notion of an ‘identity crisis’ is flawed. But the incitement of right-wing politicians and the homogenising, ‘all-or-nothing’ tendency of the Israeli state press Palestinians to compromise on their identity for inclusion and success. Job seekers often face pressures to prove they are ‘good Arabs’. Yet to most, no matter how hard they try, they remain ‘citizen strangers’ hitting many glass ceilings. The ‘good Arab’ is invisible as a Palestinian, as Gideon Levy suggested in response to the Arab TV-presenter Lucy Aharish accepting an invitation to light a torch on Israeli Independence Day.

Recognition, identity and self-determination have many facets and there are many ways of dealing with everyday demands pragmatically. The oft-cited exceptions to the essentialist Palestinian-nationalist ethos, like Aharish, Mira Awad or Sayed Kashua, are as much part of the spectrum as are nationalist politicians like Hanin Zoabi, Israel’s ‘bad Arab’.

In an al-Jazeera interview, Zoabi made clear that the three main political streams among Arab citizens of Israel had come together without giving up their distinct ideologies or political platforms: the nationalists (Balad) still believe in a state for all its citizens, the communists still believe in two nation states (for Jews and Arabs) and “the Islamists still do not believe in gender equality”. It is in this confluence of diversity and unity that the real  strength of the Palestinian citizens of Israel emerges, with a growing ability to straddle the extremes of a complicated political arena, integrating issues of class struggle and social inequality, national self-determination and gender equality while remaining firmly grounded in shared grievances and history.

The ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Arab may thus work well together. The polarising discourse of Israeli governments and public media has certainly helped. As Zoabi explained, “the more right-wing the state becomes, the less relevant our own ideological differences become”.

In the face of official Israeli provocations, Odeh, head of the Joint List, has struck a conciliatory tone. He described the party union as an alternative “democratic camp where Arabs and Jews are equal partners, not enemies” and he spoke of equality and democracy for “all the weak and oppressed populations, regardless of race, religion or sex”.

Certainly coloured by Odeh’s communist background, this baseline of moderation does not contradict the parallel aspirations for Palestinian self-determination and full equality in a state for all citizens (as opposed to a ‘Jewish state’). He also said that “there can be no real and substantial democracy as long as the 1967 occupation of Palestinian territories continues”, for “only by respecting the right of the Palestinians to self-determination and independence can Israeli society be freed from this ethical, economic and social burden”.

Novel visibility

Acknowledging the repeated collapse of the ‘peace process’, one may go as far as to say that ‘Netanyahu’s win is good for Palestine’, because it will increase external and internal pressure. The Palestinian citizens of Israel may be about to emerge as an internationally recognised party to the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a novel visibility underpinned by their willingness to confront systematic inequality as Israeli citizens, alongside their demands for historical justice in alignment with Palestinians living under occupation. Yet can they demand equal rights as citizens of the Israeli state while at the same time emphasising their affiliation with other Palestinians in conflict with that state?

The newly achieved ‘diverse unity’ may be one step towards resolving this dilemma, for it allows the various political factions to push some of their agenda individually, as communists, nationalists or Islamists, while still being able to act collectively on most issues they share as Palestinians and marginalised Arab citizens. Certainly the successful unification of Arab parties raised some hope among Israel’s Palestinians, who had lost it during last year’s war-torn summer. In ‘After the war: Jewish-Arab relations in Israel’, I cited a young Arab student at Tel Aviv University who had written an emotional letter to Kashua, a prominent Israeli-Palestinian writer: “You were supposed to be optimistic, you were supposed to give us hope. Instead you are only proposing despair.”

This was a reaction to Kashua’s earlier announcement that co-existence had “failed”. Yet, ahead of the elections he wrote: “I saw Odeh and understood for the first time in many long months that there is still something to fight for, that a regime of segregation and fearmongering can be beaten, that it’s still possible to overthrow the government that silences the people, that it’s still possible to prevent a descent into the abyss of apartheid.”

Although a Netanyahu government appears to have returned, the fight for a more just future may not be over. As Odeh said in an interview, “We hope to become an unavoidable political force … We wish to put our weight in the political sphere, so as to exert influence, advance towards national and civil equality in Israel, and strive towards ending the Israeli occupation and achieving a just peace.”

Sideboxes Related stories:  After the war: Jewish-Arab relations in Israel Country or region:  Israel Topics:  Conflict Democracy and government Equality
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Elections in Argentina

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. March 2015 - 13:04

For the first time in more than a decade, Argentina faces a political future without a Kirchner in the presidential office. And that is already news… Español

Cristina Fernández,who enjoys an approval rating of around 50%, may not run for re-election.

With more than 40 million inhabitants Argentina is South America’s second biggest economy. For many years, the country operated as a virtual laboratory for the implementation of explicit neoliberal policies, a process interrupted only at the beginning of the present century by widespread public protest. Now, after 12 uninterrupted years of progressive governments, it faces the challenge of either pursuing the current trajectory or returning to the policies advocated by the powerful.

We Argentines have a reputation for speaking our minds even about things of which we know nothing. It may not be entirely undeserved, partly because we are a society of immigrants with strong, often highly subjective opinions (in the 20th century Argentina received the largest number of Italian and Spanish immigrants), but also because for many years it was unwise “to say what you wanted."

Of course, Politics is no exception. Notably during the last ten years, debates on current events in the country take place in almost every social context: from the street to the media, from public networks to institutions.

In October, Argentina is to elect a President who will govern until the end of 2019; and so far the only certainties are that, for the very first time in 12 years, the new incumbent will not be a Kirchner, and there will be a great deal of debate.

The Kirchners

Néstor Kirchner became president in 2003 during the worst economic crisis in the country’s history; a crisis brought about by the neoliberal policies of successive governments which, between 1989 and 2001, adhered to the strictures of the so-called “Washington Consensus”.

When Kirchner took office, a quarter of the working population was unemployed, half were living below the line of poverty, and a climate of social violence prevailed that left no room for further austerity.

The economic recovery plan initiated by the Kirchner Government was based on two pillars: foreign debt reduction, and strengthening of the domestic market. Both policies were accompanied by measures to broaden civil and social rights that were further strengthened after 2007, when the Presidency was taken by Kirchner’s wife, Cristina Fernandez, who was elected twice (2007 and 2011) with more than 50% of the votes.

The Kirchner administration also launched a gradual process of re-nationalisation of some formerly state-owned companies that had been privatised during the Presidency of Carlos Menem (1989-99), among them Aguas Argentinas (drinking water) and the Argentine Post Office. The process was expanded during Fernandez´s mandate to include Aerolíneas Argentinas, YPF (oil), Railways, and the pensions system which between 1993 and 2008 had been under the control of private companies contracted to manage the funds generated by workers’ pension contributions.

Of course, none of these policies came without political controversy. Every measure adopted by the Kirchners that damaged the interests of those who had benefited from neoliberalism was at once depicted as “radical”, and the government began making the same enemies as other Latin American administrations of progressive orientation like those of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Lula Da Silva and Dilma Roussef in Brazil, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Jose Mujica in Uruguay. Collectively, these gave the impression that a left-wing hegemony had established itself in the region.

If this were not enough, the decision to tax the extraordinary incomes of agricultural exporters, the most powerful sector of the Argentine elite which also owns the most important companies as well as the main media, became a parting of the ways between those who supported the Kirchners (the working class, part of the middle class, and the masses who had traditionally supported Peronism) and those who, despite their failure to offer a political alternative, began working to evict the Kirchners from power,.

The succession

Since the Argentine constitution only allows two consecutive presidential terms, Cristina Fernández, whose Government enjoys an approval rating of around 50% according to all the pollsters, may not run for re-election. Allied to the fact that her role as leader of the Peronist movement is unchallenged, she finds herself effectively in the position of “great elector”. Whoever she proposes as the candidate of the ruling party will probably receive the significant block of votes that Kirchnerism continues to command.

Nevertheless, the governing party has not yet settled on a candidate. Seeking the nomination are two Governors , Daniel Scioli and Sergio Uribarri, three Ministers, Florencio Randazzo, Anibal Fernández and Agustín Rossi, and the Chairman of the Lower House, Julian Domínguez.

The opposition

The Radical Civic Union (UCR), a centrist political party and the oldest in Argentina, with a historical record of opposition to Peronism, underwent a crisis similar to that experienced by a majority of the region's middle-class parties after the rise of the populist governments that shook the representative system in South America from 1999 onwards.

Recently, the UCR has decided to contest the coming elections through an electoral coalition with one of the two candidates of the right: the Mayor of the Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, a businessman who is the favourite candidate of employers and of the main media.

Macri's party, Republican Proposition (Propuesta Republicana in Spanish), includes among its most important members business entrepreneurs who have become politicians, neoliberal technocrats and heads of NGO’s. Because Propuesta Republicana lacks a national structure, the UCR’s support is critical, since the powers of finance and media acting in concert have proved ineffective in toppling the government despite their best efforts to see off Cristina Fernández. And alone, they would be equally ineffectual in attempting to secure a victory at the urns.

The other strong opposition candidate is Congressman Sergio Massa, head of a minority of conservative leaders from the Justicialist Party (Partido Justicialista) who have felt uncomfortable all through the years in which the Kirchners have led the Peronist movement.

Massa, who was an official of the Kirchner governments until to 2009 and is now a member of congress for the right-wing Renewal Front (Frente Renovador in Spanish), enjoys significant voter support in some provinces, although some of his opponents have voiced suspicions about his funding sources, and his alleged links to drug trafficking.

Seven months before the presidential elections, the electoral scenario in Argentina is fluid, and wide open, something that hasn’t happened in the country for at least a decade. And that single fact is already news.

Image: CC: Presidencia de N. Argentina

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