Wednesday, February 29, 2012

In Defence of Len McCluskey

Now there’s a post title I never thought I’d write. Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, has dared to say the unthinkable – that public sector workers are justified in striking during the Olympic Games. Speaking to the Guardian he said:
"The attacks that are being launched on public sector workers at the moment are so deep and ideological that the idea the world should arrive in London and have these wonderful Olympic Games as though everything is nice and rosy in the garden is unthinkable.”
And he’s right. Why should working people, under vicious attack, stop fighting their corner? If the government were that concerned then perhaps they’d like to spend some of the ever-increasing Olympics budget on the public sector pension pot. Rather predictably politicians went to town on poor old Len. David Cameron called the idea “unacceptable and unpatriotic” and Baroness Warsi used it as a stick with which to beat Ed Miliband. In response, Miliband retreated behind his now familiar cloak of anodyne anonymity and said, er, something, presumably. The great and the good all agreed that the Olympics were not a political football. Oh dear.

The Olympics have always been a site of political struggle, most obviously (though not exclusively) acting as a proxy for the rivalries between nation states. Those people who object most strongly to McCluskey’s statement and denounce the intrusion of the class struggle into the sporting arena are demonstrating a shocking lack of historical knowledge.

The political nature of Olympic sport can be traced all the way back to Baron Pierre de Coubertin who ‘renovated’ the games at the end of the nineteenth century. Coubertin ended his life an inveterate idealist, blissfully ignorant in his belief that sport would play the major role in transcending national barriers. But the early part of his aristocratic French upbringing - and his nationalism - came in the shadow of two historic events: France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and, of course, the Paris Commune. For Coubertin, a keen sportsman and admirer of the Tom Brown’s School Days style English ‘public’ school system, physical competitive games could help raise a generation of French children who would never again suffer military defeat.

But sports would also play another crucial role for Coubertin. They would help paper over the cracks of class society. The Commune may have ended in defeat but it had left its mark on the upper classes. The Baron described how Paris at that time was "then in the hands of a contemptible insurrection, formulated by cosmopolitan adventurers", which I think (I think) he meant as a criticism. Whereas others, such as the right wing sociologist Le Play, had argued that the role of religion and the family had to be strengthened if France were to avoid class confrontation, Coubertin stressed the importance of sports.

Still the mantra that politics should not interfere with sports is trotted out at every available opportunity. In reality this means governments clamping down on any dissent. In the 1968 Mexico games teargas clouds rolled across the stadium as the government sent in the troops to brutally crush student demonstrations. At the same Olympics organisers were powerless to stop the clenched fist salutes of Tommy Smith and John Carlos as they collected their medals. The image remains to this day one of the most powerful and recognisable acts of defiance. Demonstrations against the Olympics, or in conjunction with the event, have been part and parcel ever since. Whether it is the protests around the treatment of aboriginal people or the homeless in Sydney, the NO GAMES movement in Vancouver, or striking construction workers in Athens, each act of dissent is met with the same old refrain: sport and politics don’t mix.

Perhaps the greatest piece of hypocrisy came in 2004. Echoing the ancient tradition of halting hostilities between warring city-states for the duration of the games, the International Olympic Committee called for an Olympic Truce. As bombs rained down on Iraq and Afghanistan, Tony Blair showed no compunction in adding his name to the list of people calling for peace. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was another signatory.

In effect what the Coalition is doing today is appealing for its own Olympic Truce – but it is a ceasefire that applies only to our side. Nothing as trivial as the pensions of public sector workers should be allowed to interfere with the Olympic corporate machine. Yet their own programme of austerity will continue unabated and you can guarantee that they’ll use the two weeks of sporting hype as cover for yet more draconian policy proposals. If only the ruling class extended us the same courtesy and we could ask them not to cut jobs and services during the football season to give us more time to organise the resistance.
Unless there is a groundswell of pressure from below I doubt that Len McCluskey will follow through on his promise. On the evidence so far we’ll be lucky to see him lead any serious fightback over pensions, let alone one that can bring the 2012 games to a halt. But there should be no Olympic Truce in the class war from our side - otherwise all we are left with is bread and a five-ring circus.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Watching Workfare Unravel

Curiously, given my politics, I spent much of last week out of the country ‘away on business’. I arrived home to find that it had been an odd week in the news. Adele had her acceptance speech cut short at the Brits, Liverpool won the League cup, Murdoch launched a Sunday-only toilet paper – and apparently the Socialist Workers Party (a group of which I am a member) was dictating employment policy to the coalition government. I don’t know, you go away for a few days…

The right wing press and the Conservatives were in a state of apoplexy over the fact that protests had erupted over the workfare scheme that sees unemployed people forced to work for hugely profitable multinationals or lose their benefits. Papers and politicians simply couldn’t fathom why public opinion had reached such a level of anger and fell over themselves to denounce the demonstrators. Despite the fact that the actions that shut Tesco, McDonalds and HMV were called by Right to Work, a broad coalition of groups and trade unions, it was the revolutionaries who came in for stick. The Sun made the SWP their Villain of the Week (a badge of honour if ever there was one) before the Hate Mail and the Torygraph also waded in.

The press going to town on the red-scare angle is nothing new. I seem to remember similar stories around at the time of the Iraq war. The Stop the War Coalition was, we were told, nothing more than a cover for the subversive activity of dangerous Marxists. As more and more celebrities came out against the war it seemed only a matter of time before one of the tabloids claimed that George Michael was a front for the SWP. Yet it’s clear that the latest incarnation is more than simply an attack on any one party or organisation. Rather it is an assault, by proxy, on anyone who dares oppose the vicious cuts of the coalition.

The right are shaken by the fact there has been a large-scale public backlash against one of their flagship policies and are aware that more protests can bring it crashing down. Tesco, Waterstones, Maplin, Greggs, Poundland, Argos and TK Maxx have all said that they are reviewing their participation in the workfare fiasco. If they pull out then the remaining companies look even more like exploitative scumbags obscenely milking unemplyed people in the middle of a recession. Which of course they are. But I guess that’s not really the brand image they’re going for. The idea that the unemployed should work for free for some of the largest, most profitable corporations in the country is so obviously unjust, so obviously unfair, that people all over the country are outraged. Even those people that would only go so far as saying “A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” – hardly a revolutionary slogan – think that the government are taking the piss. To put it simply, the Tories have lost the argument.

But it’s more than this. The Right to Work protests are the latest in a series of successful direct actions. They follow hot on the heels of the brilliant demonstrations by the sparks who smashed the BESNA agreement, the demonstrations that greet every appearance by Andrew Lansley, and the continued presence of the Occupy movement. They come in the context of the November 30 strikes and the promise of more to come from the PCS, NUT and UCU unions. They are part of an increasingly militant working class fight back, and for the first time the right are obviously rattled. Good.

UPDATE: Only an hour after posting the police moved in and started to demolish the Occupy camp outside St Paul's Cathedral. As opposition to the Coalition grows, so argument is dispensed with and the forces of the state are instead deployed. But, as Occupier George Barda says, "It's not the beginning of the end, it's the end of the beginning."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

In Boxing Money Doesn't Talk - It Swears

The recent spat between David Haye and Dereck Chisora has grabbed all the sporting headlines so far this week. After Vitali Klitschko had beaten Chisora in their WBC heavyweight title bout, the two British boxers came to blows, first trading insults and then punches during the post fight press conference.

The British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC) have made noises about life bans, and promoter Frank Warren, that paragon of virtue, said he was “absolutely disgusted” by the brawl. What a crock. Both men are now on everybody’s lips, even in the United States (when was the last time two British boxers could claim that?), and their public profiles are sky-high. Boxing likes nothing more than a back story of personal enmity between two fighters – it puts bums on seats and sells pay-per-view – and Haye and Chisora appear to have that in spades. Stage-managed or not, these guys are now box office.

However, despite the column inches devoted to Saturday night, it was far from being the most interesting story of the week. That accolade belonged to the revelations that Carl Froch had prolonged a fight so that family members could “benefit financially”. The one-time Super Middleweight world champion admitted that he could have beaten an opponent in the fourth round of a bout, but held out until the fifth because his brother had placed a bet on the outcome. With the BBBC again getting involved, and suggestions that Froch will have his licence revoked, the question is: did he in some way cheat?

The outcome of the contest was in no way altered. Froch’s statistics would still show a victory, by knockout, inside the distance if he had won in the fourth or fifth round. Indeed, Froch could have spent five rounds dodging punches and performing the Ricky Gervais dance from The Office before despatching his opponent and the outcome and career stats of both boxers would have remained the same.

This wasn’t the same as a fighter taking a dive, or a jockey giving a horse an easy ride. It was Froch’s superiority as a boxer that determined the outcome not the wishes of a seedy underground betting syndicate. It has more in common with the spot-fixing scandal that has engulfed cricket for the past couple of years. Yet a scheduled no-ball could have an impact on the outcome of a close game.

The only people who have a right to be miffed by the whole affair are those punters who put a few quid on Froch to win in four – but nobody is going to feel the pain of the bookies that were on the receiving end. And it's a damn sight more honest than many a fight. If there is a backlash against Froch from the boxing establishment then their moralising would sound distinctly less hollow were it not for the sport’s history of bribery and corruption, racism and exploitation. Or for that matter their own role of gullible stooge in the Haye/Froch pantomime. 

They can wish for a pure sporting contest devoid of commercial interest all they want but in truth money talks. Or, as Bob Dylan more aptly noted, “Money doesn’t talk, it swears”. The only real surprise is that this still surprises anybody. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Obituary: Jim Riordan, 1936-2012

 It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of Jim Riordan. Born in Portsmouth in 1936, he was, by the early 1960s, a member of the Communist Party and a student at the Moscow Communist Higher Party School. He was a contemporary of Donald Maclean, Kim Philby and Guy Burgess (Riordan was a pallbearer at Burgess’ funeral) and it was during his five-year stint in Russia that Riordan would twice play for Spartak Moscow – marking him out as the only Briton to play for a Soviet football team.

On his return to Britain, he enjoyed hugely successful careers as an academic and as the author of more than a hundred works of fiction for children. Eventually retiring and coming home to Portsmouth, Jim wrote a column for the local paper, The News. His eloquent weekly rants against privatisation, war or poverty were the only thing worth reading in the rag.

It was through his work as a sports historian that I came to know of Jim Riordan. His works on the history of physical culture in Soviet Russia – most notably Sport in Soviet Society – remain the starting point for any serious investigation into the subject. His small book Sports, Politics and Communism is eminently readable and The Story of Worker Sport (edited with Arnd Kruger) is simply fascinating. Anyone who has an interest in left wing politics and sport simply must get a look at this incredible book.

Yet Riordan’s impact was, for me, not simply reducible to his academic output. I had grown up a huge sports fan. How could I reconcile this with being a Marxist? Whenever I got a copy of Socialist Worker I’d always start reading from the back page – finding a lifetime of turning straight to the sports section of a paper impossible to stop, even when there was no sports section! To stumble across Riordan’s work meant feeling I could do a paper sale on Saturday lunchtime and still go to the football in the afternoon.

More than this, sport became a legitimate field of enquiry for a Marxist. As Riordan wrote in his PhD, “My general premise is that sports and recreations are among the most revealing mirrors of many societies, offering a distinctive insight into social patterns, cultural values and even economic conditions.” If sports were important to working class people, then socialists should have something to say on the matter. As such he proved, to me at least, that attempting a career as a Marxist sports historian and writer might not be as crazy as it sounded at first.

It would be remiss not to raise a comradely disagreement or two on the question of Riordan’s work, if only in a bid to encourage others to read or re-read his writings. For all the talk of sports mirroring society I always felt that his work failed to deal adequately with the relationship between the early days of Stalinism and the development of sports in Russia. During the twenties Hygienists and Proletkultists offered new visions for physical recreation, often deliberately veering away from the competitive, ‘bourgeois’ sports of the West. By the late twenties such thinking had largely disappeared. Why?

Riordan argues that this was essentially a kind of sporting real politik, with Stalin and his bureaucracy using sports to further their own ends. There is much truth to this and it is certainly an advance on the kind of nonsense one reads suggesting that football, for instance, was just too beautiful a game for the Russian people to let go. However it always seemed to me that the re-establishment of sports such as football and hockey mirrored, both ideologically and chronologically, the development of Russia as a state capitalist society. It is a political conclusion that Riordan would have rejected.

Like many Marxists who write on the subject of sport, Riordan never offered an explanation of the relationship between play, games and sport. While writers such as Richard Gruneau or Allen Guttmann have looked to combine a theory of play and sports with historical analysis, Riordan rarely ventured outside of the historical. His attempt at a philosophical discussion on the subject can be found in his essay Marx, Lenin and Physical Culture, although I would take issue with his reading of Marx and the assumed “fusion of work-like activities with play” in a socialist society. But these criticisms pale into insignificance against the enormous inspiration I found in his books and articles.

I saw Jim for the first - and last - time when he gave an impassioned speech on the steps of Portsmouth Guildhall during a PACT demonstration in January 2011. Despite being in his early seventies he was as imposing as a public speaker as one suspects he must have been as a centre half some fifty years previous. When someone asked whether his appearance at a political rally might upset his bosses at The News he replied, “Fuck ‘em! They only pay me £50 a column anyway.”

Once or twice I emailed Jim asking if he fancied a beer, just so I could pick his brains on sports history. Once I sent him my work hoping he might comment.  All to no avail, by that time he was already quite ill. It is always sad when someone from our side of the struggle passes, it is especially so when that person, albeit without knowing, has had such an impact on one’s own life. Farewell, Comrade Jim.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Hurry Up Harry!

Part of the purpose of this blog was to stop me from shouting at the news. Anger is a fairly legitimate response considering the horrendous state of the world, as capitalism lurches from banker driven crisis to the austere promise of politicians forcing us to foot the bill, and there is much to shout about. Yet sometimes it’s the faintly ridiculous that gets to you. And so it is that we turn to Harry Redknapp.

Given the furore that has surrounded the departure of Fabio Capello from the job of England football manager, and the search for his successor, good old ‘Arry being summoned before the courts, charged with a bit of tax dodging, seems like an age ago. Essentially the case revolved around payments of £189,000 that Redknapp had received whilst manger of Portsmouth from the then club chairman and owner Milan Mandaric. Revenue and Customs argued that the pair had failed to pay any tax on the cash, while Mandaric insisted that the payment was only ever intended as a gift and should, definitely, absolutely, in no way whatsoever be considered a bonus – which would, of course, have been liable for income tax.

The courts in their infinite wisdom found the pair not guilty. Yeah, right. Not guilty like Topshop, Boots, Tesco, RBS, Vodafone and all of the rest of them who manage to escape tax on a whim, a technicality or a word in the right ear. Just like the MPs expenses row (bar one or two cases), no one can point to any rules Redknapp has transgressed and yet everyone knows something exceedingly dodgy has gone on.

If a working class person had tried that sort of thing they’d be hung out to dry as scrounging scum by the right wing press. But of course they would never get the chance – loopholes never make themselves available for the poor. Try asking your boss to stop giving you a wage and instead operate a monthly "present scheme" and see how quickly all hell breaks loose. Harry can make the case for the defence all he wants, but for my money he owes us a fat wodge of tax cash that could have paid for three extra nurses at North Middlesex hospital. If he wants to deposit the sum in used notes in a brown envelope at the Treasury then that would be just fine.

Once again sport acts as a microcosm of society. Greed, one rule for the rich, and institutionalised getting away with it are all there to behold. To paraphrase a Sham 69 anthem, Hurry up Harry! And pay your fucking tax.