Sunday, 1 May 2016

Will Britain leave the EU?

Will Britain leave the EU?

Britain's EU membership is divisive on the left and the right. In conversations recently, I have been told on separate occasions that there are no valid arguments for staying in or leaving the EU. I believe there is a case for both remaining in the EU and for leaving it. Leaving aside which way you should vote, can we predict what the result is likely to be?

The polls are currently predicting a narrow win for the remain camp, but after last year's surprise general election result, faith in polling is low. All polls should be taken with a pinch of salt at this point.

The majority of the electorate has not made up their mind. Very few people engage with politics outside of a general election, and the looming implications of the referendum are yet to dawn on most people. The majority of voters will decide 2 weeks or less beforehand, around the time they realise that their vote matters because referendum results are more proportional than a general election.

The way a voter makes up their mind is important when considering the outcome of any vote. In the EU referendum the argument for leaving is mainly an emotional one. It hinges on the belief that the EU is crushing British identity and pushing the country in a direction the people do not want to go in. If you on the right this is epitomised by uncontrolled migration; on the left it is a corporate assault on the NHS. Voters who make up their mind based on emotional arguments are more likely to do this immediately before the election itself. Emotional decisions are quick ones, they feel instantly right.

The remain argument is a more logical one. It is simply that Britain will be better off as a member of the EU than outside it. It comes down to jobs and money. It is not inspiring, it is cold and rational. Voters who make decisions based on logic tend to make them further in advance. This is why polls taken further out from an election will generally return a result that follows an argument based on logic. Polls taken nearer to an election will show a greater degree of voters influenced by their emotions.

With most voters likely to make up their minds only in the final few weeks, the emotional resonance of the leave argument is yet to have an impact. This makes it difficult to predict what the result will be this far in advance.

A case in point is the Scottish Independence referendum. Similarly, remain was a logical decision, based on jobs and money, and leave was an emotional decision, based on freedom and national identity. Polls taken far in advance showed a clear majority for remain, whereas polls taken immediately before the vote showed a majority in favour of leaving. Remain started strong and slowly declined as emotional voters moved from the undecided to the leave camp.

On the day, more voters were influenced by the logical arguments based around the money in their banks accounts than an emotional appeal to their national identity. However the emotional argument still resonated and that has translated into continuing success for the SNP.

There is clearly a lot of dissatisfaction with the EU. The left have found it hard to articulate their support in a concrete way. There are lots of problems with the EU - how undemocratic it is, how secretive it is, and how it pushes a neoliberal agenda on its members. I get the feeling that many on the left support the remain campaign because the leaders of the leave campaign are so repulsive. There is very little willingness to agree with Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Nigel Farage or George Galloway (regardless of how the latter sees himself as the saviour of the left).

I always thought of myself as intrinsically pro EU membership. But when I tried to articulate my reasons for this in a positive way, I found it hard to build a concrete argument. A lot of things I like about EU membership - visa free travel and the diversity of London - are unlikely to disappear if we leave. We currently do not need visas to visit Iceland, Norway, Switzerland or Israel, and London will always be a cultural melting pot.

The argument for remaining is mainly the frightening thought that if we leave, there will be job losses and the Tories will be free to do whatever they want to the people of Britain. This negative argument makes me doubt my own support for EU membership.

My own experience seems to be symptomatic. There is a lack of a positive pro-EU vision coming from the left, and without this, many of those who support EU membership do so grudgingly.

If this shortage of enthusiasm on Election Day results in low turnout from left wing voters then Brexit will become more likely - those who are passionately anti-EU will be guaranteed to vote. If the left cannot find a positive and inspiring argument for EU membership then Britain will leave the EU.

The polls may indicate that Britain is staying in the EU, but I think the question of whether Britain will leave is still wide open. This far out it is too difficult to take an accurate reading. If I had to make a prediction, it would be that whichever sides wins, it will be by the narrowest of margins.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

What should Greece do? Part 2

Aelxis Tsipras Prime Minister of Greece

In my last post I looked at political problems of Greece’s national debt and the argument against Greece paying the debt. Now I will address the implications of Greece leaving the Euro.

From the interviews with many Syriza supporters in Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason’s film #ThisIsACoup, I got the impression that this is what Syriza’s supporters want them to do. They feel that Greece has been humiliated by its creditors and they want Syriza to stand up for Greece. Whenever Syriza make a deal to with Greece’s creditors, Syriza supporters say they feel betrayed by the party they voted for.

The reason why Greece cannot default on its debt is because its economy would collapse. As has been said before, the majority of the Greek national debt is propping up Greek banks. If Greece defaults on its debt it would have to leave the Euro, and if it left the Euro then the EU would stop lending to Greek banks. This will cause them to collapse. In today’s finance based neo-liberal economy no country can survive the collapse of its banking sector, people would lose all their savings and their homes. So defaulting on its debts would mean economic armageddon for the Greek people. Understandably this is something Syriza want to avoid.

One of the points that Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason’s film makes is that Syriza’s mistake was playing for time. They argue for an extension on Greece’s debt while they renegotiate their position. During this time Greek banks have become more dependent on EU lending. Syriza could have got out of the debt if they had defaulted earlier, perhaps as soon as they had taken power, but by the time the negotiations were concluded it was clear that defaulting on Greece’s debt was not an option.

Another reason for Greece to not default on its debt is that it would take around 12 months for Greece to set up a new national currency to replace the Euro. If Greece started to lay plans to leave the Euro in 12 months time, it would be discovered and would mean announcing that Greece planned to default on its debts. This would create a panic, all assets would be removed from Greece by investors and creditors and the economy would collapse sooner. Leaving the Euro and/or defaulting on its debt would ruin the Greek economy and is not an option.

If paying the debt, or defaulting, are not options then a compromise will have to be reached. A compromise where Greece pays some of its debt but not all of it. After watching the film I think this is the solution that Syriza want and is the most sensible.

The only problem with this approach is that the EU does not want to compromise. Throughout the film the EU refuse to allow any amount of Greece’s crippling debt to be written off. After Syriza’s first debt extension, the EU demands that Greece pass a law saying the EU could veto any future Greek laws, which only increases their power over Greece. Later Syriza wanted to give free food to the poor and the old, but the EU used their power veto this. Clearly the EU were only interested in putting as much pressure onto Greece as possible so that they would pay the debt back. However, as discussed above this debt was illegal and practically cannot be paid back.

In the absence of a compromise, and faced with two impossible options, the negotiations between Syriza and Greece’s creditors do not lead to a resolution. The film shows Greek Prime Minister and Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras looking increasingly tired as he tries to find a way out of this impossible bind, even resorting to calling a referendum and a snap election to give the Greek people as much say as possible in the future of their country.

The film ends after the second general election victory for Syriza in September 2015. Since then there has been no clear solution to the problem of Greece’s debt. The film ends with the gloomy implication that if Syriza fail to resolve the problem in a way that is satisfactory to the Greek people then we do not know where the anger that drove Syriza to power will go next. If it becomes support for neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, then the implications for the whole of Europe are terrifying.

From watching this film I initially thought that Greece should default on its debt because it was crippling its economy and the EU had no interest in compromising. After thinking about issues and listening to the Q&A with Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason, I realised that this was not possible. A compromise between the EU and Syriza is the only viable resolution to this situation, which has grown worse with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants and the possibility of a Nazi takeover in Greece. Surely the EU does not want to see a Nazi government in control of so many vulnerable immigrants, so they will have to compromise with Syriza. The Greek national debt is still a live issue and we need to remember the possibility of a fascist regime with a million non-White immigrants is a real possibility and should be avoided at all costs.

Syriza are up against forces much more powerful than themselves and they are hampered by the fact that their own supporters are not always in favour of what they do - although so far their electoral support remains strong. I have a lot of respect for Alexis Tsipras and the other leaders of Syriza who are faced with such a mammoth task. I believe they do have the best interests of the Greek people at heart and are trying to work towards a realistic and workable compromise. Hopefully they can succeed, because I am very frightened of the implications if they fail.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Safe Spaces? Censorship on Campus


‘Well I am just a student sir, and I only want to learn / but it’s hard to read through the rising smoke of the books that you like to burn’.

These lines from a mid-sixties protest song by Phil Ochs convey the same message as many of the era: cultural and political conservatives had, for years, tried and succeeded in policing what students could read, watch or listen to, but it was time to challenge old authorities.

More recently, there has been a trend which can be seen as an inversion of this model. Student campaigns, considered broadly left-wing, have been advocating, with some success, various forms of modern day censorship. The chances are you’ve heard of some of them – the removal of (often seemingly benign) texts from syllabuses, or the addition of misrepresentative ‘trigger warnings’, the cancellation of speakers, or the removal of items such as building names or statues from university campuses.

The general aim has been to create and protect ‘Safe Spaces’ for those often marginalised or discriminated against. No doubt well-intentioned, the trend is nonetheless disconcerting.

It’s an emotive topic, and it seems wise first of all to explain what this article is not. It is not an argument against the concept of Safe Spaces, the idea that universities should take into account the sensibilities of an increasingly diverse student population.

I will not be arguing that white, male, straight people are the real victims of discrimination nowadays. They aren’t. Neither is it an argument in favour of untrammelled free speech. There have always been laws and customs limiting free speech, and rightly so. I will, instead, argue in favour of open, honest, challenging academic debate. This cannot always, or perhaps shouldn’t always, be comfortable. To use a word well-worn by the advocates of Safe Space, censoring things that might offend is, in the least, problematic.

There is a precedent of left-wing censorship at universities, including for less-than-honourable ends, as any reader of Malcolm Bradbury’s satirical campus novel, The History Man, can attest. But in general, forces of the Right were the ones (usually not literally) burning the books. On the Left, the obvious antecedent is the longstanding NUS No Platform policy on racist parties like the BNP. As a student, I supported this, but now, I’m not so sure.

What were we afraid of – that impressionable students would be converted into fascists by one of Nick Griffin’s half-wits? No, we don’t want them goose-stepping all over campus beating up ethnic minorities, but letting them have their say is a different matter. Racism is easy to defeat in open debate, and we shouldn’t have been afraid to do so.

No Platform has now been extended, on different campuses, to all sorts of speakers from feminists to UKIPers. But whatever their views, is it justifiable? In a university of all places? It makes us look frightened, like we don’t trust people with certain arguments. Let’s treat people as rational adults who can make up their own minds. I don’t like Germaine Greer’s views on transsexual people (or her views on men for that matter) but I don’t see any inherent harm, as students at Cardiff evidently did, in letting her have her say.

The now well-known Rhodes Must Fall campaign to remove colonialist Cecil Rhodes’s statue from Oriel College, Oxford, is symptomatic of the movement. It seems like a good idea at first glance, proposed by people whose motivations are understandable. But Britain’s troubling colonial history is surely addressed best head-on, not swept under the carpet.

Contextualisation, not deletion, might help: a plaque describing, in soberly factual terms, what Rhodes actually did. This view is hardly tantamount to colonial apologism, as some would have it.

The problem with censorship, or even the perception that it is being pushed for, is that it encourages taboos. Taboos become cool and subversive to defy, giving rise to a narrative of ‘political correctness gone mad’ and ‘snowflake’ (i.e. hypersensitive) students.

I instinctively dislike the tendency to pile-on, mob-like, to decry an individual or book as racist or misogynistic; there’s something of the witch hunt about it. It looks closed-minded and reactionary, and it feeds this narrative. The Left shouldn’t end up as a mirror image of the Right’s moralising censorship, setting itself up for challenge by daring convention-breakers.

There’s another problem inherent to this type of identity politics: it can lead to competitive, sometimes directly contradictory, grievance raising. One group’s affirmation of safe space may be the violation of another’s, as was the case in the odd events involving the ex-Muslim Iranian human-rights activist Maryam Namazie at Warwick and Goldsmiths universities, recounted here.

The criticism of those arguing against censorship is often that it’s easy for privileged people (white, male, straight etc) to denigrate Safe Space; we’re not the ones who need it. For people like me, they say, the presence of a particular speaker is merely a philosophical issue, whereas for minority groups, it’s an act of aggression.

I don’t agree. I’m not telling any less privileged group what they’re allowed to be offended by, although I appreciate it may sound worryingly close to that. If words hurt, then the best way to counter is to argue back. Education should thicken the skin and broaden the mind. This ought to apply to those demanding Rhodes’s removal, as well as those who cannot countenance any questioning of his existence without crying ‘political correctness gone mad’.

Universities must, first and foremost, be centres of febrile and fearless discussion. So, by all means, protest, counter-argue and demonstrate. Campaign for syllabuses to recognise different perspectives or be less Eurocentric. But censorship of academic work or political speakers is an apparently easy fix that’s more likely to foment opposition than solve structural prejudice.

Perhaps the trend is just a side effect of the marketization of higher education; students, paying exorbitant tuition fees, see themselves as customers and therefore entitled to complain. This may well be true, but as a society that aims, however falteringly, towards multicultural integration, we need to find ways of balancing respecting the sensibilities of others with free and open debate.

Universities, often a microcosm of, and trendsetters to, the wider world, are the perfect place to work out how.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

What should Greece do? Part 1

Aelxis Tsipras Prime Minister of Greece

What should Greece do? It is a complicated question with a complicated answer. The ruling party, Syriza, has been in power since January 2015 and the pressure is on to solve the problem of the enormous amount of debt that Greece owes, which is 320 billions Euros or 177% of Greece’s GDP (figures as of 10 July 2015, source).

Recently I went to see a film by Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason called #ThisIsACoup, which covers the period between Syriza’s first and second electoral victory. I highly recommend this film, made as events unfolded, as I felt much more informed about the Greek debt crisis after watching now it. Based on this film, a Q&A with its makers and my wider reading around the topic, I am going to see if I can answer the question of what Greece should do.

The simplest answer that has been put forward is that Greece should just pay off its national debt. This is the argument favoured by middle class British columnists, writing from the comfort of their cottages in Surrey. This is the argument favoured by people who believes that politics begins and ends with personal responsibility. This is the argument that assumes that the Greek debt is exactly the same as the credit card debt of a student who partied a bit too hard during freshers week. Cut back on the craft larger and pulled pork. Show some self-control.

As you can tell I do not have much for time argument, but I will give it a fair hearing. The argument for Greece paying its debts, is that Greece is spending too much on welfare, pensions, its military (which is massive) and propping up stated owned enterprises. The solution is for Greece to embrace austerity as well as reforming its economy to make to make it more competitive; the process that Britain went through during the 1980s. This will allow the Greek economy to reduce its debt and return to growth.

The main flaw with this argument is that it is clearly not what the Greek people want and democracy means that people get what they want, for better or worse. Greece's main creditors are other EU nations and the people of these countries do want Greece to pay the debt, which is a thorny issue. Whose democracy is more important, the debtor or the creditor? EU law does say that Greece should pay the debt. However, I find it strange that people in Britain argue that Greece should be subject to EU law no matter what its people want, but the cries the British people to be liberated from crushing yoke of EU technocrats must be answer.

Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason’s film makes the point that only 11% of Greek it went directly to the Greek people, i.e. for spending on Greece's apparently lavish welfare state and overstuffed state owned enterprises. The majority of the money went into propping up Greek banks hit by the global financial crisis, which certainly was not caused by Greece (or the Labour Party) spending too much on welfare or pensions or public health.

If the Greek government does embrace austerity, then the debt will be repaid over the next 50 years. Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason raise the question of whether the Euro, the EU or the current global financial system still be here in 50 years? The odds are stacked against it. The wider EU financial crisis and refugee crisis mean that it is very unlikely that the EU and the Euro in its current form will be around in 50 years. Perhaps a plan based on Euro longevity is a bad idea.

Austerity is not simply a case of make do with less; even when less is healthcare, support for the poorest in society and pensions. Austerity has other effects, as well as closing Sure Start Centres and raising child poverty. It creates Financial Melancholia, which is a sense that the future is only about paying for the past. This saps the creativity from the present because it is consumed by one thing: passing for decisions taken in the past.

Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason said that young people are leaving Greece in huge numbers because they believe there is no future. The youth unemployment rate is at 50%, which is encouraging them to leave. This will have long term economic consequences. Who will look after the old people? Who will do all the low level work? Who will start new businesses? Austerity does not create economic dynamism; it stifles it through Financial Melancholia.

The main problem with the Greece paying its debts is the question of how the economy returns to growth after going through an austerity regime that is more severe than anything else that has been seen in Europe. The debt repayment ideas requires that economic liberalisation also take place at the same time. Greece is different to most other European countries in that large global brands (McDonald's and Superdrug where the two examples that Paul Mason cited during the Q&A after the film) are not present in Greece. Greece is not a socialist utopia, they have their own large brands owned by ultra-wealthy oligarchs just like every other capitalist country, and these oligarchs have enormous political and social power. They also stand to lose the most if the Greek economy is opened up to international competition.

It is because of this that the liberalisation phase of the pay your debts plan will never happen. What will happen is heavy austerity (which punishes the poor for being poor) and the liberalisation will never actually occurs. This will continue until either the debt is repaid (which will not happen because growth will not return and tax revenue will not grow) or the Euro collapses for some other reason. This means that even if Greece tries to pay its debt, it will eventually be forced to take its other option: default and leave the Euro.

In my next post I will look at the problems with Greece leaving the Euro.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

The rise of Trump shows the failings of American politics


I will refer you to all the moderate conservatives who said that Donald Trump will never be the Republican candidate for president. At the time of writing Trump is the frontrunner in the Republican race; it is still mathematically possible for Ted Cruz to win the nomination but it would require an unusual reversal of fortune.

Trump's campaign has been characterised by the rhetoric of the extreme right and has horrified both liberals and moderate conservatives. We were told that he would never get this far. We were told wrong. The success of Trump requires everyone to rethink how they see American politics. The reasons for Trump's success are complicated, but I believe that the rise of Trump shows a failure of American politics to tackle two critical issues: the decline in living standards of white working class Americans and the Islamophobia of American politics.

Trump’s rise as a political force is a result of his ability to exploit the rhetoric of Islamophobia. He is not the first politician to be Islamophobic, but his popularity is a result of the collective failure to stand up to Islamophobia. What was once a dog-whistle of Islamophobic political rhetoric has become just a whistle. We have had 14 years of blaming every Muslim for the actions of the few that have committed acts of terrorism and this has brought us to a point where a politician can be openly hostile to all Muslims. Trump is not new in being an openly Islamophobic, he is just better at it than everyone else.

It was inevitable that we would reach a point where a politician can call for a complete ban on Muslim immigration and imply that all Muslims should be made to identify wear badges that public identify them. It was inevitable when liberals and moderate conservatives failed to stand up to Islamophobia. We all act surprised when Trump says these awful things but he is only following an established narrative.

Liberals are to blame for the rise of Trump as much as moderate conservatives. Liberals in America have failed to stand up to Islamophobia and have been paying lip service to it whenever we talk about "criticising Islam". This is the dog whistle for being hostile to people who follow a minority religion and (usually) belong to a minority ethnic group. By not standing up to the dog whistle, or using it themselves, liberal Americans have aided Trump in turning it into an actual whistle.

Lack of moderate conservative opposition to Islamophobia, as well as exploiting this view, has allowed the conversation to be dictated by the far right. In many ways the the different candidates in the primary stage of the American presidential race are the different parties that would exist in any other country. Like in France, America has rounds of elections to narrow the field to two candidates who represent two political ideologies. Usually this ends up as being the moderate left and the moderate right, but occasionally (as in 2002 in France) a candidate from the far right makes it to the final round.

Trump represented the far right in this race and currently he is winning. Anyone who is a moderate conservative needs to think about how they have allowed this climate of Islamophobia to grow and how they have exploited it for their own ends until it was used by Trump to make moderate conservative voices irrelevant in this election. Moderates have no decent response to Trump's Islamophobia so they have been swept away by it.

A climate of Islamophobia has helped Trump get as far as he has, but this is not the only thing contributing to his success. Trump's followers are mainly white and working class, a demographic with problems that American politics has failed to tackle.

Liberal middle class Americans do not care about the loss of living standards of poor white people. Liberal Americans have other political objectives, such as defending Obama's healthcare program and tackling the massive racism in America. These are noble aims, but there is a real lack of interest in dealing with the problems of the white working class.

This failure to engage with the white working class is because the left does not want to ignore problems of race at this critical time for race relations and there are concerns about undercurrents of racism in poor white people’s politics. If liberal middle class America were willing to engage with the problems of white working class America then they might find that their political complaints are not rooted in racism but in the way they have been marginalised.

The moderate conservatives are also to blame for ignoring the problems faced by white class Americans. The moderate right has not tackled the problem of poor white people because it involves criticising capitalism, which they are not prepared to do. Conservative support for neo-liberalism on both sides of the Atlantic has created a ticking time bomb of ground down white working class people whose lives have been destroyed by prevailing economic thought. Poor white people were hit hard by the financial crash, de-industrialisation and globalisation. They have lost jobs and income. In Britain, poor white people are the lowest performing ethnic group in educational attainment. Now the white working class want answers that the moderate right do not have for them.

Bernie Sanders does appeal to some of the white working class in America, but the Hillary Clinton campaign does not fully appreciate how bad the fall in living standards of poor whites is. In many ways Clinton's politics is as bad as the moderate conservatives, she is not willing to criticise neo-liberalism and prefers platitudes about making America whole again. The left is generally focused on Clinton and their hopes that she will be the figure that unites America. She maybe that person that can span the growing left/right divide to win the presidential election, but she will not help poor white people. A vote for Clinton is a vote to kick this can down the road and hope that the problem will be dealt with in the future. It is a vote for the vague hope that the far right cannot mobilise this anger for electoral success.

Let me be clear here: I do not think that Trump cares about or will help white working class Americans. However he is willing to engage with these victims, which liberals and moderate conservatives are ignoring. Trump is a used car salesman, he will tell you everything you want to hear until he has his hand in your wallet and you drive off his lot with an overpriced, terrible car that you cannot claim a refund on. To help white working class America we must first stop Trump and to stop Trump we must understand his success, even if it involves asking painful question about how the American left has conducted itself.

It is very hard to say that would happen if Trump were actually elected president, partly because Trump has not mentioned many actual policies he intends to intact. I can imagine that it will be worse than George W. Bush's time in office, which is frightening enough. Liberals and moderate conservatives need to act together to defeat Trump, but as I said, this can only be done by understanding what has brought us to this juncture.

Trump will probably lose to Clinton because he frightens people too much, which is the only hope to cling to right now. Although we were told that he would never win the nomination and that looks likely. America needs to tackle the problems of Islamophobia and the loss of living standards by the white working class before someone comes along who is even more awful than Trump. If you think this will never happen then, I will refer you to all the moderate conservatives who said that Donald Trump will never be the Republican candidate for president.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Fuck for Forests

fuck for forest marczak


Now that I have your attention, here is a dry blog post about politics.

That was a joke with a grain of truth in it: sex sells. From shampoo ads to music videos, specific parts of our bodies (usually womens’ bodies) are being used to make us part with pieces of paper with an old women on them. Put like this, it all sounds silly, but a person’s views on the relationship between sex and politics is an important part of their beliefs.

Fuck for Forest is a film about people who sell sex, literally. Michal Marczak’s documentary follows a Berlin based group of filmmakers and activists who are trying save the world with sex. Specifically the natural world. Fuck for Forests itself, is a group of people who make ethical pornographic films and upload them to their website, where they sell membership (like most porn sites). The money goes towards saving the rainforest.

Marczak’s film is a candid fly on the wall documentary following Fuck for Forests as they raise their money, run their strange social enterprise and then try to use the money to help a group of poor Brazilians living in the rain forest. The film does not pass judgement on its subjects, but it does raise a lot of complicated political questions. It caused me to examine my own politics and my thoughts on the merits of what Fuck for Forests are doing. What follows here is my attempt to relay these thoughts in roughly the order they occurred to me as I watched the film. If you really want to watch this documentary then see it before you read further, as there will be spoilers.

The first thing to note is that Fuck for Forests are a group that are hard to take seriously. It was not the way they dress or act that made me doubt their seriousness, although Fuck for Forests do conform to the stereotype of new age hippies. Personally, I do not see how the way that anyone presents themselves affects the validity of their arguments. What I found hard to take seriously is their belief that non-monogamous relationships and public nudity are the most important political battleground of this age.

Fuck for Forests are about as obsessed with sex as the conservative Christian right are, although with diametrically opposite views. Sex is at the centre of their politics, their spiritual views and their belief in how to make the world a better place. I agree that we should be more relaxed about sex and non-conventional relationships. It seems to me a bit silly that public nudity is illegal; why are we so frightened of naked flesh? However next to the huge political, social and economic inequalities in the world, the cruelties of war, and the slow crushing of everything that is not of financial value, the right to have sex in public is not a priority.

I also feel that an intense focus on sex (either liberally or conservatively) is not the best way to go about political change. Our attitudes to sex is a reflection of the state of gender politics, not the cause of it. To achieve equality between the genders, different sexualities and people who do not easily fit into these groups, we need to examine all of society's attitudes to gender and sexuality, not just what happens when genitals are stimulated. As feminist writer and equality campaigner Laurie Penny wrote: "we cannot fuck our way to freedom".

Generally I find that those whose politics revolve entirely around changing attitudes to sexual intercourse are usually privileged enough not to have to worry about other forms of discrimination; the members of Fuck for Forests exemplify this. In one scene, a Fuck for Forests member talks to a group of Palestinian refugees and argues that public nudity should be legal. It is painful to watch the lack of comprehension on the faces of the refugees. Eventually one tells him that they do not have a home and he is only interested in being naked in public.

Any so called "sensible" people will dismiss Fuck for Forests almost straight away, because of their long hair, tattoos, piercings, constant nudity, vague spirituality and liberal attitude to drugs. They are a stereotype that the political mainstream likes to colour anyone with radical views with. I find it tiresome that people with usually the most boring and conformist political opinions enjoy looking down on and easily dismissing the views of anyone who does not conform to their own narrow range of opinions. Usually this dismissal is based on the way someone looks or acts and not their arguments. The sense of superiority that is used by the political mainstream to easily ignore Fuck for Forests is also used to dismiss anyone who challenges the accepted free market orthodoxy. Try questioning capitalism for yourself and see how long it is before someone dismisses you as a “hippy”.

However there is serious point to be made about the best way to convince others of your views. Their appearance and attitudes will alienate most people, which makes it difficult for Fuck for Forests to achieve their core goals, ie the protection of our natural environmental. There is a degree to which you have to conform to what "sensible" people look for in a political movement to achieve change. This unwillingness to conform aesthetically to what is expected is partly what holds back the environmental movement.

After first finding Fuck for Forests and their hyper-sexual politics faintly ridiculous, my view shifted overtime to having more respect to them. The main reason for this is that their commitment to what they believe is inspiring. The members of Fuck for Forests live an incredibly frugal lifestyle to put all the money they make from their sex videos into the cause of saving the rainforest. This includes eating food from the bins of shops and restaurants to save money. This living off what most people consider waste, is partly done to minimise the impact of their lives on the natural environment but it is also because their first and greatest priority is raising money to protect the environment.

Whatever your political views, you have to respect someone who has over 400,000 euros in savings but chooses not to spend it and instead scavenges for thrown away food so that more money can go towards your cause. This level of commitment has to be respected. It is difficult to live an ethical lifestyle, to never use the products or service of a company that dodges tax, exploits workers or damages the natural environment. There are lot of people on the left and right who talk a lot and do very little. Anyone has to respect someone from any political background with the level of commitment to what they believe in that Fuck for Forests have.

They have used their funds to set up an NGO which plans to protect the Amazon rainforest and its indigenous people. The specific means of achieving this is buying rainforest land and giving to the people who live there so that their way of life is protected from companies wanting to exploit the environment. During the film, a group of rainforest residents put out an open call for NGOs to support them in doing just that. Fuck for Forests were the only NGO to reply and the members travel to Brazil to meet the community their money will go towards helping.

This is where the politics of the film get complicated (if they were not already). Fuck for Forests clearly have a, frankly, slightly racist view of the rainforest residents living a harmonious existence with nature, which in their minds includes a relaxed attitude to public nudity. To me, this harmonious existence with nature looks a lot like poverty. Living off the rainforest is a result of the lack of jobs, education and infrastructure in this part of Brazil. Does the world view of the Fuck for Forests require these people to live in poverty so that it can offset their guilt about Western materialism?

Quickly it becomes apparent that these people do not want Fuck for Forests’ money to protect their current way of life. They want it to build roads and start businesses, to create jobs and bring in the material goods that people in the West take for granted. Fuck for Forests are not interested in this, although they do say they want no say in how the rainforest residents manage their land after they use Fuck for Forests' money to buy it.

Fuck for Forests clearly know nothing about the people they want to help, what these people want and what is in their best interests. Their view of an ultra-green existence, epitomised by a pre-industrial society, is in reality poverty. The people in poverty want to escape from it to attain everything that Fuck for Forests believe is destroying the world.

Clearly Fuck for Forests has the wrong priorities. In a selfish way this made me feel better about owning an iPhone and occasionally spending money in Starbucks. Then I thought, what if Fuck for Forests are right? What if taking this money is in the best interest of these people?

Indigenous people's views are rarely consulted when natural resources are exploited. If, in the future, valuable minerals or chemicals are found in this area of the Amazon then the people who live there are more likely to be thrown off it as mining or chemical companies swoop in to grab as much for themselves as possible.

Purchasing their land for their own protection might be the best long term strategy for the rainforest residents. I understand completely that they want roads and industry, but if their land is taken away from them because it is found to be valuable they will be left with nothing. Free money with no strings attached does not come along very often, even if the motivation behind the gift is somewhat dubious.

I was left confused about whether Fuck for Forests were brilliant or crushingly naive. Were they crusaders for equality and defenders of the natural environment? Or just more smug Westerners with slightly racist views of people in other countries?

There are a few things that are problematic about Fuck for Forests’ hyper-liberal take on sexuality. Mainly that they are still a patriarchal group. I get the strong sense that most of the decisions are made by the men in the group and it clearly has a patriarchal power structure that makes all women sexually available to men at all times.

Also a scene where Fuck for Forests co-opt a Copenhagen Slut March to attempt to promote themselves and their public nudity agenda, which is not one of the goals of Slut March, made me angry. Slut March is a feminist political movement against victim blaming and not related to public nudity or sexual liberalism. This was just an opportunistic attempt for Fuck for Forests to promote themselves and shows clear lack of respect for the work of other activists.

Fuck for Forests is not a movement I am keen to sign up with or endorse in anyway, however their commitment to what they believe in has to be respected. The film of the same name asks some interesting questions about politics in a subtle way and led to a lot of introspection on my part. If we all took more time to think about the relationship between sex, politics and the environment then we might be able to build a better world.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Why Corbyn needs to be a positive defender of Britain in the EU

There are plenty of papers covering the "he said, she said" of the EU referendum. I want to take a step back and look at the campaign as a whole. As well the referendum being an important decision for the future of the country, it is an important political opportunity for Labour. As such, it is important that Labour shows a united front and that they take advantage of Tory divisions over Britain’s EU membership.

So far the Tories have kept their disagreements over the EU private because the Labour poll ratings have been so dire. Parties facing defeat show much less unity, for example the Tories in early 90s. There is currently a strong incentive for Tory MPs to stay in the good books of the leadership, i.e. being rewarded with government jobs in the 2020s.

However the mask of Tory unity is slipping. Boris Johnson is dividing the party by giving some credibility and popularity to the No campaign. This a careerist move from Boris, who views this as his last chance to become Tory leader and thus Prime Minister. Barbed words have already been exchanged between Boris and David Cameron, and the rift will only grow as Boris and George Osborn battle it out to be the heir apparent when Cameron steps down.

Labour's own divisions make it difficult to take advantage of the Tory split. This is why it is important for Labour to show a united front in the EU referendum. However, this is made harder by the fact that Labour's leader is not convinced of the benefit of EU membership. There are a lot of problems with the EU from a left wing perspective (TTIP is the tip of the iceberg) but the only way that the Labour Party can achieve socialist goals is through working with other left wing parties in a united Europe. Labour need to get behind the EU.

The left wing vote is needed for Britain to stay in the EU. This is why Alan Johnson is leading the passionately pro EU Labour In campaign. It is this positive approach to Europe that the country needs, not a scare campaign based on jobs and security that Britain Stronger in Europe will offer. Labour In is needed because if the left stay home on referendum day, the leave vote will win. Labour In is a great chance for the party to be the decisive element in British politics.

Corbyn and the Labour left need to take the upper hand if they want to stay in control of the party. There have been too many headlines about in-fighting and arguments between the Labour leadership and the PLP. The Tories are trying to maximise the divisions in Labour by moving forward the vote on renewing Trident. Labour need to do likewise, by making Tory divisions over Europe as big as possible, while putting on a well organised and united campaign to stay. If Corbyn can organise a united Labour Party, on the side of what most people want, against a divided and unpopular mid-term government, then he can turn the tide of bad headlines around.

This is a huge opportunity for Labour and Corbyn. A passionate, positive defence of the EU against a divided Tory party will show the public that Labour under Corbyn can be an effective opposition. People will believe Corbyn if he campaigns to stay in the EU. It plays to his strengths, namely that people think he is honest and believe what he has to say, which is unlike most politicians or his PLP rivals. He can even present his earlier wavering to his advantage - he considered both options sensibly, like the rest of us, before making an informed, balanced decision. Corbyn needs to take this opportunity to do what only he can do, show the county how Labour are different from the Tories.

Labour must be well disciplined, on the side of the voters and against a divided government. Above all, they must be positive, avoiding a mirror image of Farage’s knee-jerk rhetoric or the scare tactics of Cameron's stay in campaign. This will not only win the EU referendum for remain, but will also win back control of the headlines. Corbyn needs to seize this opportunity to start winning.