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Cyberunions: can new technology revitalise trade unions and save the world?

May 14, 2010

I’ve started a new project exploring the intersection of two subjects that interest me: trade unions, and the democratising potential of new technologies.

I first went online in 1999, and I was immediately impressed by the iconoclasm of the Internet, and the potential it created for organising horizontal networks. You will remember that was the year of the Battle of Seattle, and it seemed like a new politics (a real one, not a ConDemNation) was being born. It also seemed like new technologies would play a key part.

A decade later, I am a little less sanguine about the difference technology has made. Growing corporate control of the Internet, heavily handed legislation such as the Digital Economy Act, and the wholesale theft of our personal data by the likes of Facebook severely threaten the Internet as a global Commons where people can gather to organise and fight for a better world.

It’s also apparent that the War on Terror has brought an unprecedented assault on democracy, and the post-modern mediascape we inhabit means we are increasingly alienated from the real world of action and consequence, let alone action and solidarity.

And yet the Commons must be defended, and we need to come together if we want to build a world where we everyone can live in peace and dignity. What role does technology play?

Despite everything – despite being severely weakened by a generation of neoliberal attack, despite often being run by dinosaurs completely out of touch with the 21st century – I think trade unions have a vital role to play in defending society and fighting for a better world.

The reason is, crucially, that all the wealth in the world, everything that is traded on the stock exchange, hedged and derived, is ultimately created by working people. If we don’t take the gold out of the ground, pump the oil, grow the food, serve the coffee, maintain the networks and care for the children, the world grinds to a halt.

We are the economy: we can shut it down.

The fact that trade unions have the power to use the withdrawal of labour as a weapon puts them in a unique position to resist corporate domination. By linking more closely with social movements, and building a decentralised activist base with roots deep in the community, I think we have a real chance of building a better world.

Can technology help us with this task? Head on over to to find out.

Also, if you’re a union activist and you use new technology, please complete the cyberunion survey.


Help! I’ve immigrated to Scotland by mistake

May 11, 2010

I can’t believe I have been in this freezing hell for five years. Pour me another whisky – my thumbs have gone numb.

It all started in 2004, when my girlfriend decided she wanted to go travelling, and up and left to London. After mulling it over for a while, and raising money, I dragged myself off Danger Beach and joined her. I arrived at Gatwick on 29 March 2005, another bastard son of Empire come crawling home.

I am not sure what I was thinking.

I didn’t really have any plans. I think I imagined I’d do a bit of part time work and a bit of travelling, and head back to South Africa after a year or so. I never expected to be here this long, and I had no intention of leaving home for a long period of time.

So what happened?

She met me at the airport, but I didn’t want to live in London, so we went up to Scotland, and really liked it. We arrived in Edinburgh a couple of days before the Beltane Fire Festival, had a great summer, and then walked the West Highland Way, entered some deep rabbit holes and lucked out: I got a good, full time job in my field for the first time in my life.

As it turns out, I like Scotland, and particularly Glasgow. There’s a lot about Glasgow that’s great: charming natives, cheap whisky and a brilliant contemporary art scene, but the thing I like most is its egalitarianism.

Cape Town is paradise, but it’s also one of the most unequal cities in the world. Glasgow is working class, socialist and egalitarian. There are still big differences between rich and poor, but no one gets to pretend they are better than anyone else – they will swiftly get taken down a peg.

Glaswegian drunks like putting traffic cones on the heads of statues. I think that says all you need to know about their attitude to the great and the good.

And there’s a great radical history too, from the almost-revolution of 1919 to Red Clydeside and the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in.

I miss Cape Town, but I love this rain-lashed, consumptive, combative city too.

But the thought of imminent Torygeddon makes me think it might be time to head home.

Eugene Terreblanche rests in the white earth

April 4, 2010

So, last night via Twitter, the not very surprising news that Eugene Terreblanche has been murdered.

Instant karma has done for him.

My first thought: oh shit. Sure, no one deserves it more than Terreblanche, and I really have no human feeling for the man, but context is everything. A few days ago, ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema was in Zimbabwe, praising Mugabe, saying “in South Africa we are just beginning”, and singing “Kill the Boer”.

Last night, the most prominent “Boer” was murdered. Is that what we are reduced to? Murdering everyone we disagree with, until no one is left? Black fascists against white fascists?

What made me really angry was the knee jerk reaction of much of the British Left, celebrating the murder of an old man in his bed. Not a very edifying spectacle. Yes, he was our enemy, but we want to defeat our enemies politically, not have them hacked to death.

It also made me angry to see Brits – safe in a country that has never really seen massive social unrest – celebrating the escalation of violence in South Africa.

Look at it this way: imagine if Nick Griffin was murdered by a Muslim. We might be pleased that he was out of the way, we would acknowledge that he deserved it, but would it really make Britain a better place?

It would confirm all the EDL’s conspiracy theories, and then the Tories would start saying they’ve got a point, and before you know it he goes from odious toad to martyr.

Terreblanche was a spent force. He went to prison and was released and no one took him seriously. The fact that he was allowed to live unmolested was proof that the new South Africa was superior to the old one.

The white right has for years revelled in the fantasy that South Africa is turning into Zimbabwe. This is absolutely not true: populist demagogues aside, the majority of South Africans want to live in a social democracy where human rights are guaranteed. But for the white right, Terreblanche’s murder, in the context of Malema’s statements in support of Mugabe, are proof of their conspiracy theories.Their reaction will play into the hands of the black right, and further polarise a country that needs class unity instead of race war.

Context is everything. The ANC embraced neoliberalism and failed to bring economic and social justice to South Africa. People have been getting angry. Populists like the Malema have been blaming whites for the country’s problems, while having their own snouts deeply in the trough.

Over the past few years, around 1,000 other white farmers have been murdered. While the British Left claims this is their comeuppance for being racist scum, I think this is a very simplistic way of looking at things. For one thing, liberal farmers who participated in land reform have been murdered as much as others. For another, South Africa actually has much better human rights and labour laws than in the UK. For instance, we have the right to strike – which the UK doesn’t have – and the right to solidarity strikes too. In the first instance, we should be using these tools to right wrongs – not murdering people.

So: does killing Terreblanche really make things better? Do we just kill everyone we disagree with till there is no one left? Brits have no idea what it is like to live in a country where murder is an everyday reality, and I’d thank them not to celebrate any escalation of violence.

The only solution, I think, is to create a new homeland in South Africa, exclusively for those who are intent on race war. Julius Malema and the drunken, dissolute remnants of the AWB can live there, and live out their fantasies of murdering each other.

The rest of the country can get on with living in peace.

I hate car culture

February 23, 2010

I have just come back from a trip around the North East of Scotland for work. I drove 483.3 miles over three days. According to the trip computer in the car, my average speed was 33mph.

No wonder I was sick of driving by the time I got back.

Why so slow? Well, there’s being stuck behind slow moving lorries on the A9 up to Inverness. Then there’s the nightmarish roadworks – expect delays until September 2011 – on the M9 around Cumbernauld: it took me an hour and a half to travel 10 miles. This is the main road between Glasgow and the North, and it’s frequently impassable – why do people put up with it?

Worst of all was Friday’s traffic jam in Aberdeen, made worse by the snow – it took three hours to get out of the city.

In Glasgow, my average driving speed is worse. At busy times, it’s less than 10 mph. It goes up if I take the motorway, but then the journey’s longer, and the average seldom gets above 15 mph.

My average cycling speed is 14 mph. I am not particularly fit, and I don’t have a super bike, but cycling to work is substantially faster than driving or taking public transport. In fact, looking at my recent trip up North, it’s beginning to look like a viable option for long distance travel as well. Despite the lack of cycle lanes and the appalling state of Pollokshaws road, I’d still rather cycle than sit in a car travelling at walking speed.

I am not opposed to cars. I own one, and I like it, and I enjoy long drives on open roads, and getting away into the Highlands at weekends. It is also the only reliable way to do a journey like I did last week, where I had to visit a number of places that are not accessible by public transport.

But the fact that our culture embraces private cars as a mass transport option is crazy. The car is the most illogical way of travelling around the city, and commuting by car makes no sense – especially when you factor in the £20 per day that parking in the city can cost.

The official solution is just to build more roads, and the M74 extension is being constructed in Glasgow now, at a cost of untold millions. This will just compound the problem, and make the city less livable. In a few years, the M74 will be just as jammed as all the other roads.

Personally, I think that light rail, and proper cycle and walking routes, are the answer to urban travel, but I don’t make transport policy.

I don’t understand why people sit, like lemmings, in traffic every day of their lives. There are alternatives.

One day, when I was in my early twenties, I took acid and wondered around Table Mountain in Cape Town, feeling at one with nature. At the end of the day, I walked back, and had to cross the M3, the main road between Cape Town and the Southern Suburbs. The road was gridlocked with stressed people travelling back from work. The stark contrast between the tranquility and beauty of the mountain, and all the people trapped in their cars, making pointless journeys, made a deep impression on me: I swore to myself I would never become one of them.

Like cigarettes and fatty foods, car culture is an addiction. We need to break the habit.

Attacks on homeopathy miss the point

February 5, 2010

There’s a lot of anti-homeopathy stuff in the media at the moment. I totally understand why, but think that people who attack homeopathy are a little reductionist in their understanding of health.

From personal experience, homeopathy does work. I assume this is due to the placebo effect, which I think acts as a form of sympathetic magic. In other words, every time you take the pill, you are evoking the sense of well being that the homeopath created in the consultation. In my experience, homeopathic consultations are really good, as it is the only time some one listened to me talk about health, and made observations based on this. Normal doctors have usually been pretty dismissive about what I think is going on in my own body. They are the professionals, they’ll tell me what’s wrong with me. Generally, this has left me feeling disempowered, and still sick.

For me, taking a homeopathic pill is a ritual to remind your psyche that you are taking measures to address a problem. I think this triggers homeostasis – the tendency of your body to heal itself and return to a state of equilibrium. Since so much of ill health is tied up in our mental and psychological states, addressing this makes a real difference.

But I disagree with buying homeopathic remedies off the shelf and thinking they will work.

Rage against mediocrity

December 22, 2009
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I am very pleased that Rage Against the Machine’s song “Killing in the Name” is going to be the Christmas number one on the British pop charts. The alternative – second rate karaoke from an identikit crooner whose name I don’t recall – would have just added to the nausea induced by the airwaves at this time of year. For a lot of people, it’s not going to be a very happy Christmas, and it’s good to hear a song expressing anger.

Plenty of people who hate the mediocrity bred by reality TV like the X Factor nonetheless had reservations about the RATM campaign: both acts are signed to Sony, so in the end its the record company that gets rich. Shouldn’t we champion an underground artist on an independent label? More to the point, why a song from almost 20 years ago?

These are valid points, but for me it’s a question of political tactics. In any campaign, you need to go for the best position you can possibly win, even if it is not your ideal result. Personally, I would have been very pleased if A Las Barricadas or The Internationale made it to number one, with the whole country singing it from the smouldering ruins of the banks. However, we are were we are.

This is a mistake the Left makes too often – expending energy on unwinable campaigns because a refusal to compromise is ‘selling out’. Half a victory is better than total defeat, and people learn and are encouraged by victory.

For me, the victory is a cultural and aesthetic one, a mass refusal to allow media giants to force feed us mediocrity for profit. It’s not a rage against the machine so much as a cry for authenticity in a cultural landscape that is cannibalising itself. It’s a victory for a song sung with passion, anger and truth against cynically manufactured mediocrity.

Also, it’s recycling – taking a perfectly good old song and reusing it!

A Las Barricadas is, unfortunately, highly unlikely to win Christmas No. 1. However, RATM did, because enough people were mobilised to buy it. It’s a small victory, and it’s encouraging and hopefully symbolic of a bit of resistance from people.

The world is in crisis and there is no solution within capitalism. I hope this song is prescient.

I hope the new year ushers in a decade of “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me”.

It’s time for a fight back.

Why I will not wear a poppy

November 8, 2009
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This an an excellent article by Ian Bell, and one I wholeheartedly agree with.

When they marched the soldiers of France to the front after the slaughter at Verdun, country boys managed a country joke.

A slaughter beyond anything in Britain’s history had just taken place. Young men, rank upon rank, had been put to a wall of cauterising defensive fire, like so much daub stuck to a fracture in a theory.

And one young poilu, dragging his blue coat and his cheap boots through the sucking mud, said this: “Baaa!” Then all the yokels, with all their instinctual back-country meadow loyalty, began to say it, just for a last laugh. “Baaa!” they sang. Thousands then joined in, up and down the lines. The French troops knew, knew precisely, what their sacrifice really meant on the chopping board of policy and patriotism. Peasants are like that.

Remembrance Day started after the carnage and slaughter of World War One. The best way to honour the dead – including those dying today in Afghanistan – is to end wars and bring soldiers home.

The current poppy appeal fetishises martyrdom.

If you want to remember the dead, wear a white poppy.

in reference to: Why I will not wear a poppy – Herald Scotland | Comment | Ian Bell (view on Google Sidewiki)