Archive for February, 2011

The Promise: Review

February 25, 2011

To make a TV series about the origins of the state of Israel is to walk into the lion’s den, so inevitable are the criticisms made by supporters, armchair and actual, of each ‘side’. It is then no small achievement that Peter Kosminsky’s The Promise (Channel 4) largely succeeds in drawing out the key themes of the conflict through a compelling drama which gives the conflict a human face.

 The four part series is split between two moments in history, the twilight years of the British mandate of Palestine in 1946 and the second Intifada of 2005. To tie the two the narrative is divided between Sergeant Len Matthews, part of the British occupying force, and his granddaughter Erin.

The opening shots reveal that Len, a paratrooper, took part in the Liberation of Bergan Belsen concentration camp, unflinchingly showing footage of the camps to highlight the huge role that the industrial slaughter of the Holocaust played on the collective memory of the Jewish people post-1945.

From Belsen Len is moved to Mandate Palestine, where he is forced to guard camps of Jewish refugees that are teeming off ships such as the Exodus, carrying refugees from Europe to their promised land. To say Len is pro-Jewish or pro-Zionist at this point would be too clear cut, but it is clear that after witnessing the horrors of Nazism he believes the survivors deserve something better.

From here Len is thrust into the developing Jewish insurgency, led by the underground Irgun. As the series develops he survives the bombing of the British HQ at the King David Hotel, an ambush by guerillas, and a betrayal by his Zionist girlfriend before he is finally held hostage while his friends are executed.

For Len the story arc is clear, his sympathies great as they were for the Zionist cause turn to hatred of the Irgun and leads to his own tragedy, which isn’t revealed until the final part.

As an example of storytelling The Promise falls to some of the predicable plot devices which beset many historical dramas. Characters inevitably fall in love, discover unknown historical connections and consistently find themselves at the centre of unfolding events.

From a historical perspective it also sidesteps some hugely significant aspects of the conflict. The central story arc throughout the Mandate section of the drama frames the conflict between the Zionist guerilla group, the Irgun and the British occupies. This ignores the fact the British army initially armed and trained the official Jewish defense force, the Hagganah and that the Jewish Agency of David Ben-Gurion operated as a semi-open shadow government, while it was the more extreme groups such as Irgun and the Stern Gang which carried out terror attacks, such as the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946.

The most important aspect of the conflict from this period which is missing is of course the Palestinian Arab population, portrayed by a single family. This not only ignores the fact that the Arab population formed the overwhelming majority of Palestine at this time, but similarly overlooks the role Arabic groups played in the struggle against both British occupiers and the Zionist movement. Indeed the British decision to limit Jewish immigration in 1946 was not, as the film implies, a decision taken in London alone, but was a concession to Arab rioting. The story also ignores the Arabic guerilla movement which carried out attacks on both British forces and the Jewish Agency, revealing that like their Jewish adversaries, the Arabs played the roles of victim and fighter both.

In the modern scenes the major flaw, beyond the contrived relationships and coincidences used to drive the plot, is the character of Erin, who seems at best indifferent to her environment and at worst willfully ignorant to its complexities as she shops in Tel Aviv and stomps around the West Bank.

Erin’s story begins with the discovery of her now ailing grandfather’s diary, days before she is to take a tenuous journey to Israel to spend her gap year living with the parents of her best friends, who has been called up for national service with the IDF.

From start to end Erin is intent to strop her way through cultural and political sensitivities; inviting a former Palestinian prisoner to dine with her host, who is a retired general; forcing an elderly Palestinian man to visit the home he left 60-years before and of course becoming romantically connected to both the former militant and an Ex-soldier.

She, perhaps inevitably, is also witness to the suicide bombing of a Tel Aviv cafe, making the not at all subtle, but important, demand for the viewer to consider the parallels between the Irgun terror campaign, and that of Hamas. Thankfully Kosminsky doesn’t use the parallel to justify the latter, but to condemn both.

The set up of Erin’s story, based around her discovery of Len’s diary, is quite a jarring cliché, already done in numerous novels and more successfully in Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom. In Land and Freedom the entire story of the International Brigader is told through the diary, which is being read by a granddaughter after he has died.

In Erin’s case however the diary is used more like a treasure map, making her travel throughout the West Bank to piece the story together, allowing the viewer to see the modern repercussions of the mandate era. The obvious flaw here is that you’d be forgiven for thinking Eric could simply read the entire diary or just call up and talk to Len, who we’re told has been making a fine recovery in her absence. Of course this wouldn’t allow for the slowly developing narrative.

These flaws however are forgivable, used as they are to help signpost key points or explain context. Indeed it would take a writer/director of some genius to explain the Arab-Israeli conflict to a new audience without them. Only the harshest critic would condemn the director for making a film which doesn’t pander to the purest political analysis, but is able to frame the conflict progressively, and more importantly, with a human face.

Throughout four episodes Kosminsky succeeds in drawing out the key themes of this unending modern tragedy; the post-war decline of Empire, the gradual transformation of a brutalised people from the role of victims to oppressor, and the fact that no matter the side or allegiance the people of each side play the roles of victim and fighter both.

People’s Supermarket: Right Problem, Wrong Solution

February 21, 2011

At first Channel Four’s latest crusading documentary The People’s Supermarket seemed to strike the right tones. A community unite to turn their collective backs on the big business supermarkets that dominate the food industry and set up their own shop – groceries for the people by the people. However, as David Cameron swiftly spotted, the idea has more in kin with his ‘Big Society’ then it does with collective ownership.

The series follows the efforts of unknown-celebrity chef Arthur Potts Dawson as he takes a defiant aim at the goliaths of the food industry, which dominate over 80% of the market, leaving independent stores with just 2.2 per cent of food sales in the UK.

In the first episode Potts Dawson meets a dairy farmer who is being forced out of business. His problem is that supermarkets will only pay him 15 pence per litre of milk, yet it costs 29 pence a litre to produce. Both farmer and host lament that the likes of Tesco buy cheap and sell cheap, while smaller shops cannot afford to compete or buy the produce at a fairer cost.

Here Potts Dawson hits upon the central problem, not only for the food industry but for capitalism at large. As a shop manager he cannot afford to pay the farmer the 29 pence a litre if he is to make a profit and pay his staff a decent wage, yet if he pays less for the milk it is the farmer who is out of pocket.

To solve this traditional problem of capitalism Potts Dawson turns to the traditional solution, if he wants to pay the farmer a fairer deal he’s going to have to cut his staff’s wages.

With an epiphany which would make Phillip Green proud he realises that if he can cut labour costs to sell the food cheaper and give the producers a fairer deal, what would happen if he just didn’t pay his staff anything at all?  

The result is for Potts Dawson to proclaim that any member who buys into the project must pay him a £25 entry fee and promise to work for free for at least four hours a month. In return they will get a discount to his – and it remains his – barren shelved corner shop and if they are lucky they may find themselves featured on TV.

Hoping for exactly that David Cameron visited the shop last week to explain that this is a prime example of his ‘Big Society’ idea made reality. Presumably he didn’t explicitly mean people working for nothing for little result to satisfy the crusade of one wealthy cost cutting zealot.

As the series unfolds our hosts decries the waste generated by big business and battles the bureaucracy of his local council, yet by the third episode he discovers that ‘people aren’t getting it’ and his store is failing to attract the membership, and money, it needs to survive.

The reality is that like the ‘Big Society’ people understand and  reject the suggestion that after a full working day they might like to run a supermarket, a care home, a fire station or any other service where the management have discovered Potts Dawson’s magical formula of abolishing pay and promoting volunteerism as a cover to cut costs.

As well intentioned as Potts Dawson may be to encourage community unity or to promote ethical food production his sole achievement, beyond enhancing his TV credentials, is to demonstrate that under capitalism the circle of production, profit and labour costs cannot be squared for a fair deal for all.  It remains to be seen how long the venture will continue and if the support of the Prime Minister will attract new converts. Perhaps if membership begins to nosedive Cameron might chip in his own four hours worth once a month?

Capitalism 2011: Space exploration takes place in sheds while libraries are closed

February 16, 2011

Writing about space once can safely be ruled a one-off, but writing about space twice – while the Middle East is in open revolt and our Irish comrades are entrenched on the electoral battlefields – well that almost makes it a hobby. Nether the less, the sight of six men pretending to explore Mars from inside a suburban Muscovite shed on a Monday morning should not be a moment which passes without judgement.

The experiment, if it can be called that, is entitled the Mars500 project and seeks to test the limits of human endurance – by forcing 6 strangers to spend 520 days living in a series of tunnels that may have been purchased from Pets at Home.

The results, filmed like a cross between Big Brother and Event Horizon for no one’s viewing pleasure, is being heralded as the first full-duration simulation of a manned flight to Mars. This ‘spectacle’ culminated at the half way point when Russia’s mission control centre, clearly not under the same pressure to appease budget constraints as their American counterparts, broadcast live footage of Russian Alexander Smoleyevsky and Italian-Colombian Diego Urbina bumbling around in a mock Martian sand pit wearing 70-pound spacesuits .

“Europe has for centuries explored Earth, led by people like Columbus and Magellan. Today, looking at this red landscape, I can feel how inspiring it will be to look through the eyes of the first human to step foot on Mars,” said Urbina with no detectable hint of irony. “I salute all the explorers of tomorrow and wish them godspeed.”

While this ultimately pointless experiment in Russian humour was going on another event came to pass without the blitz of media attention. In a quiet suburban neighbourhood of Strasberg a 74-year-old man named Sigmund Jahn celebrated his birthday.

While Herr Jahn’s thoughts on events in the Martian-Russian warehouse are unknown what is known is that on this particular school day his youngest grandchild had the best ‘show and tell’ of her class because her grandfather was a Cosmonaut and in 1978 he became the first German in space.

It is difficult to eulogise a cosmonaut without having to hastily add disclaimers about the societies which propelled them into space. The German Democratic Republic, like all the deformed workers states surrounding the USSR, suffered from the faults of its superpower patron – Stalinist bureaucracy, militarism, the secret police. Yet, as a walk down East Berlin’s Karl Marx Allee reveals, the GDR still represents what socialism, even in its most deformed state, could achieve, inevitably prompting the question: if this is what can be achieved in spite of these flaws, what could we achieve without them?This is why a 74-year-old retired Cosmonaut remains important; he is a symbol of what can be done. 

Yuri Gagarin became the first man into space in 1961 only four decades since his nation was little more than a feudal monarchy and only 16 years after it was devastated by the Second World War. If any more testimony were needed of the merits of a planned economy over the markets then consider that when the Soviets began looking to space the British, with their still mightily Empire, were enforcing post-war rationing.

If the example of the USSR can be a benchmark for economic transformation then East Germany’s is no less impressive, for the economy of the GDR had to be completely rebuilt after losing the most destructive war in human history, and it should be added, having its surviving assets stripped away by the Stalinists as post-war reparations.

Regardless of the numerous faults of the USSR and the GDR, and there were many, the achievements of Gagarin and Jahn are undeniably inspirational; yet it also begs the question: if Stalinism can do this following such devastation what has capitalism done in the decades of its unchallenged rule?

In this age of austerity when capitalist governments are cutting education budgets, closing libraries and making further education ever more unreachable, the likelihood of mankind progressing through the bold scientific feats typified by the achievements by Gagarin and Jahn are null to void. Yuri Gagarin was a son of a peasant family from the Urals. Jahn was the son of a working family from Vogtland. Following the cuts in education and scientific research could a child born in Stratford, Portsmouth or the Bronx even dream of following in their footsteps?

This is why the closest thing that capitalism can conjure to a manned mission to mars, the most ambitious voyage of exploration ever conceived by mankind, is to place 6 men in a hamster cage in a Russian warehouse.

As socialists, we should respect the achievements of men like Sigmund Jahn and we should not hesitate to proclaim that while capitalism is looking to save itself by crushing the living standards and life opportunities of working people; an alternative society with the values of progress, science and bold endeavour for the betterment of humanity at its heart is not only possible, but could allow us all to reach out into the stars.

As Tories, Lib Dems and Labour Vote to Cut: Portsmouth’s Anti- Cuts Campaign Present the Alternative

February 10, 2011

As Portsmouth City Council voted on Tuesday for a budget to make over £20 million worth of cuts the only voice of opposition came from Portsmouth Against Cuts Together (PACT), the community group supported by the city’s trade union movement, which presented an alternative budget to the council meeting.

PACT Press Conference: Jon Woods and Ben Norman

In the first wave of cuts the Lib Dem led council proposed over £15 million of cuts, including £3,210,800 from children’s services and £2,599,500 from the education budget. Over three years the proposed budget seeks to make £22 million of cuts.

This translates into 183 initial job losses, while the GMB union reported that over 400 workers are under threat, either from redundancy or attacks on their terms and conditions.

While the Conservatives, the city’s official opposition, refused to offer an alternative budget they did propose an amendment to abolish the right for council workers to appeal to councillors about their employment and sought to limit the rights of elected trade union reps to organise in the workplace.

The two Labour councillors were noted for their silence as they too refused to offer an alternative budget. However, in comparison PACT proposed a programme for a ‘needs budget’, calling for the council to take ‘the Liverpool Road’ as an alternative fighting strategy to defeat the cuts.

This alternative strategy called for the council to reject the proposed cuts in favour of using the reserve funds, some of the largest held by any council in the country, as well as the substantial profits made from assets such as the city’s port, to delay cuts in the short term.

The council was then invited to work alongside community groups and the trade union movement to draft a new budget for job creation and investment, before launching a mass campaign to demand the finance from central government.

This strategy, proven by history, is the path which won £60 million for Liverpool city council in the 1980s’ when a socialist council put the needs of working people before the demands of Thatcher.

Prior to Tuesday’s council meeting a copy of PACT’s alternative budget was emailed to each of the city councillors with an open letter calling for them to vote against the cuts and side with their community.

A press conference was then held in the City’s Guildhall before the council meeting where representatives from PACT and the Trades Council outlined the alternative strategy to the media.

This was followed by a lobby of over 100 people, including council workers, museum and library staff, pensioners groups, students and local trade unionists.

Lobby Outside Council Meeting

15 deputations where then made to the council meeting on behalf of these groups, including testimonies from Alzheimer’s suffers seeking to defend their vital support services and a former council worker who had just been made redundant.

On behalf of PACT, socialist party member Ben Norman presented the alternative strategy to the council meeting saying:

“Today you have a choice. You can vote for cuts and be on the side of the austerity agenda which seeks to make working people pay for the crisis of the financial sector, or you can take a principled stand for your community to defend jobs and vital services.”

“The question is what matters more to you, your careers or your community? Because you can be certain that if you vote against us today, we will be standing against you in May.”

Lib Dem Leader of the Council Gerald Vernon Jackson reacted to PACTs alternative strategy by claiming in his opening remarks: “‘We’re using £4m of our reserves but can’t keep spending them. Confrontation with the government would leave the city with enormous debts. It would be irresponsible.”

Yet the following day Jackson was signatory to a letter to The Times criticising the speed of government cuts.  The Lib Dems in Portsmouth cannot propose a savage cuts package and then offer false protest 24 hours later simply for electoral purposes. Similarly the Conservatives councillors cannot claim they have no responsibility for the cuts when it is their party leading the cuts coalition.

Now that the cuts budget has been passed it is clear to all in the city’s anti-cuts movement that a line has been drawn and that we cannot look to the parties in the council chamber to defend our jobs and services.

Instead PACT must be expanded by establishing localised campaigns across the city, emulating the model of the Anti-Poll tax campaign twenty years ago.

Simultaneously PACT will continue to work with the Trades Council, which passed a motion this week pledging to support any industrial action council workers may take, while supporting calls for coordinated action and promising to lobby the TUC to call a one day public sector general strike.

Finally, anti-cuts candidates will now be encouraged to stand on the programme that the PACT alternative budget represented.

“The lobby sent out a clear message to the councillors who think they can cut jobs and services while claiming to represent us that our movement is watching them,” said Andy Waterman, RMT activist and Socialist Party member. “If they remove our services we will remove them from office. The accountants and strategists of the ruling class claim there is no alternative to cuts, but the budget released by PACT proves that there is.”

The next PACT meeting is 21st February 2011 – 7:00 PM, Kingston Co-Op Club, Portsmouth

PACT: Gig Against the Cuts: 3rd March, 7.30pm, Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea

For more information contact Portsmouthagainstcuts@gmail.com