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In recent weeks, two events that appeared on the surface to be unrelated have put the role of charity in tackling global and domestic problems into the public mind in Ireland and Britain in two starkly different ways.

On Monday morning, 43-year-old homeless man Jonathan Corrie was found dead in a doorway just yards away from the gates of Dáil Éireann after years of sleeping rough in Dublin. Jonathan’s death was the inevitable result of a severe housing crisis that has gripped Ireland, particularly in the capital city. Fostered by years of austerity, vampire landlords charging ruinous rents and the government’s refusal to properly invest in social housing, this crisis has seen more than 400 Irish families losing their homes in the past year alone. This is the everyday structural violence of capitalism, rarely discussed in the corridors of power.

Last month, Band Aid 30 released an updated version of its 1984 single, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ which, unsurprisingly, turned out to be equally as awful as the original. The release of the single prompted an unintended, though much needed, debate about the role of charity, particularly the type championed by graceless pop stars such as Bono and Bob Geldof.

Just like the original “Do They Know Its Christmas” single, the lyrics depict Africa as a single homogenous place blighted by poverty, starvation and disease. As many have already pointed out, Africans are portrayed in the song as helpless victims who have had only minimal experience of culture and who need to be “saved” by the good will of middle class Europeans. The song’s title ignorantly asks if anyone in Africa – a continent that is home to 500 million Christians – knows it’s Christmas in December.

To people like Bono and Geldof, it is the role of the West to “develop” the Third World, regardless if the people there asked for it or not. This vision of “development”, naturally, corresponds with the neoliberal vision of an emaciated welfare state, privatised services, low tax rates for the rich, rampant consumerism, weak trade unions and soaring wealth inequality. A modern incarnation of the White Man’s Burden, Rudyard Kipling’s infamous 19th Century poem justifying the European colonisation of Africa as a “civilising” mission, this worldview sees “the poor” as a faceless, nameless mass begging for scraps from their betters. They are mere objects of “our” generous charity; not human beings who can collectively fight on their own behalf, pursue their own struggles or improve their own societies without Western interference

Much of this was discussed in depth by a number of newspapers, websites and independent blogs. No such honest debate took place in Ireland following the death of Jonathan Corrie, however. The solution put forward by politicians, commentators and much of the general public has been to call for further donations to charities providing services to the homeless. Ignoring the structural reasons for the outrageous levels of homelessness in Ireland, such as rip-off rents, lack of social housing, lousy wages, cuts to public services and the rolling back of the welfare state, many believe that a basic human right such as housing can be obtained by relying on the good will of other, slightly better off, individuals.

Ireland’s long infatuation with charity has its roots in the Great Hunger, but the central role charity plays in Irish society in delivering vital public services stems from the theocratic domination the Catholic Church had over the country after independence. Charity was a means of power for the clergy and had the effect of limiting Irish citizens’ expectations of what social rights they viewed they were entitled to. Hence, many Irish people don’t view housing as an inherent human right and the current government clearly doesn’t consider a functioning public water service as one either. Ireland’s dependence on charity was clear to be seen when Tánaiste Joan Burton, the leader of the country’s ostensibly social-democratic party, opened a food bank in Cork just days before the death of Jonathan Corrie. That the citizens of one of the richest nations on earth should have to rely on food banks to eat is rarely perceived in political discourse as the disgrace that it so obviously is.

It’s notable that in western nations charity as an institution is often above criticism, while many activists in the Third World are scornful of it. Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano spoke for millions of people long patronised as weak and helpless by Westerners when he wrote: “I don’t believe in charity; I believe in solidarity. Charity is vertical, so it’s humiliating. It goes from top to bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.

Charity is seen as wholly acceptable and totally unquestionable. That’s why its seen as polite to fundraise for the homeless, research into various diseases and those caught up in war, but it’s not polite to question why a parasite class of landlords are allowed to destroy people’s lives by charging rip-off rents, it’s rude to point out the fact that David Cameron is privatizing the NHS and it’s utterly crazy to state that war and imperialism are inevitable outworkings of the capitalist system. Charity as a whole, excluding honourable exceptions such as War on Want, never challenges power. It fails to address the causes of poverty, war and disease and never mentions the political context in which these things occur. Therefore, Bono and Geldof never mention the role international capitalism has played since the 1970s in destroying public services and preventing progress in Third World countries. They never laud the achievements of great Third World leaders like Patrice Lumumba, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara or Salvador Allende. Their idols are the war criminals of Washington and London.

Decades of neoliberal policies enforced on Africa, Latin America and Asia by the IMF, the World Bank and the US Treasury, have stripped countless millions of people of basic services such as food, healthcare and education and condemned them to debt slavery. Years of cozying up to George Bush and Tony Blair and providing justifications for neo-liberal capitalism may have clouded the judgment of Bono and Geldof. Or maybe the explanation is more innocent. Perhaps it’s just that ‘IMF’, ‘Structural Adjustment Programmes’ and ‘Washington Consensus’ don’t make for good lyrics in a Christmas song.

In short, charity deals with symptoms and ignores the causes. As Richard McAleavey rightly said on his blog, Cunning Hired Knaves: “Charity seldom requires conflict with the established order. In many cases, charitable organisations serve to reinforce the established order. They dignify the rich, and the way the rich make their money, whilst condemning those people who end up having to depend on charity to a subaltern status.”

Charity is not a solution. That is not to belittle the genuine work many charity volunteers do, especially in times of unpredictable natural disasters. However, charitable giving is no substitute for properly funded public services, a fair tax system, equality, decent wages, the repudiation of all illegitimate debt, the right to decent housing, and free heath care.

The problem is not that working class people don’t give away enough of whatever little money they may have to satisfy the insatiable egos of people like Bob Geldof. The problem is the entire, rotten system.

This article was published in the Morning Star

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David Cameron visits NuneatonWhen the British Conservative Party announced at its 2013 conference that it had the interests of “hard-working people” at heart, they invoked a mantra long propagated by an out of touch political class. “Hard-work”, we’re often told, is a positive thing in and of itself, regardless of its social effects or the impact it has on the individual actually carrying it out. The term, employed in the rhetoric of both the left and the right, is rarely challenged and forms much of what is viewed as “common sense”. Hard work is seen as a virtue, a service to the nation and an ideal to aspire to.

Yet, when we are honest with ourselves, most of us hate work. It’s why Mondays are grim and Fridays are awesome. It’s why we spend most of our week days watching the clock in eager anticipation of 5 o’clock, all the time wishing our lives away. The person who claims to enjoy “hard work” is either a liar or intensely boring. A recent Gallup poll found that, across the globe, only 13% of people actually like going to work. This is unsurprising, given that work for most people under capitalism is often low paid, unrewarding, stressful, degrading and tedious.

There is nothing noble about coming home from work mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. Neglecting your friends and family in favour of helping your boss make more profits is not virtuous. And restricting the time you spend on developing talents such as music, art or sports because of your excessive working hours is not only detrimental to you personally, but is also detrimental to wider society. How many people with the musical potential of Jimi Hendrix have been unable to develop their talents because they had to spend the majority of their life in a factory? How many potentially great writers have been unable to express themselves like George Orwell or Oscar Wilde because the bulk of their energies were channelled into working in a supermarket?

Since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, trade unions and the left have argued for the creation of more jobs to tackle unemployment. Yet, in doing so, they have failed to highlight one of the most absurd contradictions of capitalism; the fact that there are 200 million people unemployed across the globe, while those who are in employment are generally overworked. Rather than increasing the number of jobs, we should be arguing for existing jobs to be shared out while simultaneously reducing the length of the working week.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) recently outlined a strong economic, ecological and social case for reducing the standard working week to 21 hours – something that has the potential to resonate in the 21st century. Less work can assist in the fight against climate change and allow us to live more sustainable lives. The fast-pace of our working lives forces us into many environmentally and socially destructive habits. We drive cars because they are deemed to be more “convenient” instead of using less carbon-intensive public transport. And instead of growing our own food, many people consume nutritionless ready meals and packed vegetables which, as the NEF shows, are grossly more damaging to the eco-system.

Trips abroad can also become more ecologically friendly than the carbon-intensive short-term holidays of modern capitalist society. As it stands, most people can only avail of two or three weeks away from their jobs at any one time, meaning slower modes of transport, such as trains, are not a viable way of visiting a foreign country. If workers were given the opportunity to take a number of months off at one time, in exchange for working extended hours at another time of the year, what is to stop them getting a train to Beijing or a ship to New York? The mass use of airplanes merely emphasises the sheer rush and intensity of modern life, as people seek to maximize the amount of leisure they manage to squeeze into the meagre time they have away from work.

In 1930, British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advancement would allow people in the 21st century to enjoy a 15-hour work week. Leisure time, it was suggested, would become so plentiful that people would struggle to find enough activities to occupy themselves. Yet, despite a rise in productivity and the abundance of material goods, these predictions failed to materialise. Across Europe, the average working week stands at 41.6 hours, and that doesn’t include time spent commuting to and from work.

The ‘work ethic’

Negative aspects of any class society, such as inequality, ecological degradation and social deprivation, need to be justified or excused by widely propagated myths in order to be sustained. The excessive working hours endured by most people is justified by the work ethic, as exemplified in the Conservative Party’s condescending slogan lauding “hard-working” people (the inference being that those deemed not to be “hard-working” are less deserving and less eligible for political representation).

The worship of work is as old as capitalism itself, and it is under the unique characteristics of capitalism as a mode of production that the work ethic takes hold. Under slavery and feudalism, work was seen as a negative thing, something that was bestowed upon humans from God as punishment for ‘original sin’. Ancient societies in Greece and Rome saw human labour as something to be avoided at any cost. Work was for the slaves — the lowest rungs of society. Before capitalism, most labour was done out of necessity. In feudal Europe, for example, peasants produced their own food and the surplus was passed onto the lord who owned the land. Since the production of huge surpluses was not necessary, people enjoyed extended periods of leisure once they produced what was needed. Work did not define individuals, as is the case today; work was merely a means to an end.

The Protestant Reformation challenged the traditional idea of work, with Martin Luther arguing that God’s Will could be fulfilled by individuals working hard. Labour was seen as a service to God, an outlook which helped to normalise the long, gruelling working hours which defined the Industrial Revolution. These ideas proved useful for an economic system which was based on, as Marx wrote, production “for production’s sake”. Max Weber, who coined the term ‘the Protestant work ethic’, argued that the rise of these ideas ensured that capitalism would surface in Europe before it would in any other part of the planet.

The work ethic transformed over time, gradually becoming more secular to reflect societal values. Where people once served God, we now aim to be seen as “contributing” to society, a perverse form of social Darwinism under which humans beings must justify their existence through “hard work” before they can benefit from the fruits of civilisation. The unemployed, the elderly and the disabled are seen as a “burden” on society, living a life of luxury at the expense of the mythical “taxpayer”.

In the United States, the ‘American Dream’ played on the unrealistic aspirations held by many working people, who were conned into believing they could one day be millionaires, provided they put in the work. During the World Wars and the subsequent recovery, the population was called upon to work in the ‘national interest’, a term which has been resurrected by the right following the global financial collapse of 2008. Today, as Sharon Beder pointed out, “the work ethic is promoted primarily in terms of work being a responsibility both to the family and the nation”. She went on to explain:

“As we begin the twenty first century work and production has become ends in themselves. Employment has become such a priority that much environmental degradation is justified merely on the grounds that it provides jobs. And people are so concerned to keep their jobs that they are willing to do what their employers require of them even if they believe it is wrong or environmentally destructive.”

The capitalist work ethic is often used as a vicious weapon of class warfare. It dehumanises us and commodifies our very being. We are not seen as individuals with aspirations and interests; we are mere beasts of burden, with the sole life purpose of “working hard”. Our lives should not be defined merely by productivity nor should we have to justify our existence by proving to others our ability and willingness to “work hard”. Human progress is about overcoming the need for human toil as much as is practicable, and this is a case the left needs to make. As the great Scottish trade unionist Jimmy Reid once quipped: “A rat race is for rats. We are not rats. We are human beings.”

This article was published in the Morning Star

Scores Of Travelers Depart For Long Holiday Weekend

Like many other aspects of society under capitalism, the automobile appears to be a standard part of life; something that has been and always will be with us. Learning how to drive and acquiring a car are viewed as obligatory stages of our lives, through which we all must progress in the process of growing up. Almost everyone has a car. Many households even have two or three.

I hate cars, and I always have. However, due to the nature of my job, I am required to own a car, and I hate having to own one. I hate the impact mass car ownership has had on society: motorways clogged with oversized vehicles grinding by at a snail’s pace during “rush hour”; petrolheads driving at reckless speeds endangering their own and others’ safety; ever widening roads encroaching into the countryside; horrendous pollution caused by the expulsion of toxic fumes; countless road fatalities; wars started by great powers to secure extra resources for oil companies, such as the bloodbath in Iraq. I also detest the impact it has on individuals: people atomised into vehicles designed for five passengers but, more often than not, containing only a solitary occupant; the financial hit people are forced to take to fork out for fuel, insurance, vehicle testing and engine faults; the health effects of sitting inactive in a driver’s seat for several hours a day; the misery of navigating through heavy traffic and the hassle of finding a parking space in urban areas. Most of all, because of an expensive, underfunded and inefficient public transport system, I hate the fact that I have little choice but to own a car.

Our reliance on these bulky, awkward, impractical, expensive, dirty and exceptionally dangerous machines is rarely brought into question.  According to the World Health Organisation, cars cause the deaths of at least 1.3 million people a year, a major health crisis by any standards. It is one, however, which goes largely unmentioned. Even without counting the hundreds of thousands of people killed every year as a result of traffic pollution, the automobile is still the ninth largest cause of death worldwide. What an indictment of a supposed symbol of “success” and “progress”.

It was no mere accident that the rise of mass car ownership in the second half of the twentieth century coincided with the demise of public transport. Huge profits for auto companies and oil cartels were there to be made, and cheap, clean public transport stood in the way of that. This is clear to be seen in the United States, among other places. Before 1945, Los Angeles had an efficient system of streetcars, which was later scrapped to make way for cars and busses – all at the behest of General Motors. Since citizens were forced into switching over to private cars, the city now has the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted in the United States and one of the most congested in the world. Similar processes took place around the world with the aim of adopting cities to the needs of the automobile.  Decades of under-investment in public transport have led to trains and busses becoming more infrequent and notorious for their steep prices.  Car use was increasingly, and still is, seen as a more affordable and practical method of transport. On a planet that is warming every year, this is a perilous state of affairs.

In 1986, Margaret Thatcher revealed her attitude to public transport when she said, “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure”. This was an outgrowth of an ideological dogma which preached that all things private are good and all things public are bad, a dogma which still influences political decisions today.

The automobile is a symbol of everything that is rotten about an ever increasingly nihilistic capitalism. Rabid individualism takes precedence over the common good. Advertising companies manipulate people into believing that consumerism is the path to fulfillment. The planet is destroyed so a few people can make astronomical amounts of money. Wars are waged to ensure our fuel guzzling engines stay full. Through the construction of roads, motorways, traffic lights, car parks, and road signs the auto industry enjoys continuous subsidies courtesy of the public purse – a parasitism that has become endemic under neo-liberalism.

It can be argued that car ownership has, in part, helped to politically shift large swathes of the population to the right. As Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote: “I believe that while there are many reasons for the growth of individualism in the UK, the extreme libertarianism now beginning to take hold here begins on the road. When you drive, society becomes an obstacle. Pedestrians, bicycles, traffic calming, speed limits, the law: all become a nuisance to be wished away. The more you drive, the more bloody-minded and individualistic you become. The car is slowly turning us, like the Americans and the Australians, into a nation which recognises only the freedom to act, and not the freedom from the consequences of other people’s actions.”

There is nothing inevitable about road deaths, congestion, pollution and all the other nasty side effects that come with mass car ownership. Political choices were made which got us into this predicament. Political choices can get us out of it. Enormous investment is required to boost public transport. That almost goes without saying. Train and bus fares have to radically drop to incentivize people to use these much cleaner, more comfortable and safer modes of transport. Cars should be seen as a last resort, not as an essential to everyday life. They should only be used when travelling to a more remote place not serviced by a much expanded rail and bus system. Cars could be rented from state owned depots when required. City centres should be off-limits to private cars, with exceptions made only for those with disabilities. Priority in urban areas should be given to busses, trams, cyclists and pedestrians. Cities need to be designed for people rather than clumsy machines. Instead of using public money to widen motorways and arterial routes, funds should instead be directed to expanding the rail network. These are just a few steps we can take with the view to eventually phasing out use of the car.

Cheap, safe and clean public transit should not be seen as a leafy aspiration. With rising global temperatures, planetary contamination and carnage on our roads, it should be viewed as nothing less than a social necessity.

This article was published in the Morning Star

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Next month, the leaders of the world’s eight richest countries will convene in County Fermanagh to hammer out how meddlesome foreign policies and a destructive economic doctrine known as austerity will be implemented over the next twelve months.  The G8 summit has been accompanied by an imposing mixture of merriment, glee and propaganda, revealing much about the state of Northern Ireland’s obedient local media.

The propaganda takes both a positive and a negative form.  On one hand, “business leaders” hail the summit as an enormous boost for the local economy, the silver bullet needed to rejuvenate a rural county long forgotten by policy makers. Absurd claims of a tourism boost go largely uncontested in a buttering-up process intended to encourage the population to notice only the pleasant side of deficit hawks, war criminals and a mafia gangster.

On the other hand, a malicious smear campaign has been orchestrated, lumping entirely peaceful protesters together with dissident republicans and fictional “anarchists”, who are said to exist in their thousands. The purpose of this is obvious. People are being intimidated with the threat of arrest and imprisonment if they take part in any counter demonstrations. The ‘liberal’ local Justice Minister, David Ford, has set aside an entire wing of the maximum security Maghaberry prison for “rioters” while the PSNI have employed the use of surveillance drones, remarkable by the fact that no main party in Stormont has so far voiced any concerns.

Press releases issued by the PSNI and local government have, predictably, been regurgitated by a local press eager for an easy news story. In a bizarre front page article earlier this month, the Irish News reported that “thousands of anarchists” were intending to take over buildings in Belfast during the summit. The scaremongering is blatant. Yet, any analysis explaining why many people feel the need to protest against the G8 is glaringly absent in the vast majority of news reports. Of course, little of this is surprising.

Since the end of the conflict in the north fifteen years ago, a new “common sense” has taken hold. The public sector is said to be “bloated” and the only remedy for our weak economy is to lure foreign investment by radically slashing taxes for the rich. The politics of green and orange is overlapped by an economic consensus which contends that “the markets” know best, taxes should be minimal and the role of the state is merely to facilitate the successful operation of private business.  Dublin academic Conor McCabe, author of Sins of the Father, describes this as the “double transition” – a transition towards both peace and neo-liberalism. “Eastern Europe, South Africa and Northern Ireland,” he wrote, “are all unique in terms of the dynamics of their history and geography. What they have in common is that they found themselves as societies in transition at a time when economic thought had solidified around neo-liberal principles.” To oppose an administration which has overseen a doubling of unemployment in six years is to oppose the ‘peace process’. “Sure it’s better than the Troubles,” is the popular reaction.  

The adherence to neo-liberalism is clear to be seen in the approach of politicians and mainstream commentators. “I think this will be a brilliant advertisement for Northern Ireland,” gloated David Cameron when the announcement about the summit was first made. “I want the world to see just what a fantastic place Northern Ireland is – a great place for business, a great place for investment, a place with an incredibly educated and trained workforce ready to work for international business”. Northern Ireland is no longer a country (not that I ever accepted that it was); it’s a business and should be run as such. The economy should be, above all else, “competitive” – a euphemism for low wages and high profits. So goes the conventional narrative.

Despite this apparent negativity, the G8 summit is an opportunity to challenge this tedious narrative. On Saturday, June 15, thousands will pack the streets of Belfast to demonstrate their opposition to the policies of those attending the summit. On the following Monday, another rally will make its way from Enniskillen towards the Lough Erne Hotel where the summit is being held. The smears and intimidation shouldn’t discourage anyone from attending either protest.

As well as these demonstrations a four-day festival of political discussion, comedy and music will take place in Belfast. Organised by activists from ICTU Youth and the Belfast Trades Council, the ‘Another World is Possible Festival’ is an opportunity for discussion, debate and activism. Highlight speakers include George Galloway and Tariq Ali, as well as trade union leaders from Nipsa, UNISON and Unite. I feel honoured to have taken part in the organising of this festival, particularly since we have received solidarity greetings from John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Richard Wolf and others. The potential is there to inspire people to become involved in trade unionism and socialist politics who wouldn’t otherwise do so. The festival can begin to challenge the trite politics of Stormont, confront the dogma of “the markets” and build a movement for change. Ignore what is claimed in the media. This is not about damaging property or throwing bricks at the police. This is about the age old working-class principles of action; education, agitation and organisation.

We deserve a better kind of politics – and a better media, for that matter. If you’re angry at unemployment, cuts, bank bailouts, austerity, emigration, the divide-and-rule tactics of conservatives, racism, war, imperialism, inequality, the destruction of the environment, lousy wages, over work, immoral corporations, poverty, hunger or unrepresentative politicians, this festival is for you. No one’s political activity should be confined to sitting on an armchair screaming at the evening news. Everyone has the ability to change society. We don’t need to wait on odious sycophants such as Bono and Bob Geldof to raise the issues which affect the bulk of humanity. We have the ability to empower ourselves.

Another world is possible.

For a full listing of events, visit www.anotherworldispossiblebelfast.org or follow the festival on Twitter @AntiG8Protest

This article was published in the Morning Star