Friday, February 29, 2008


...cheered one of the bogroll free newspapers this evening in reference to the ruddy-haired, hay-chewing, village-idiot Prince. Personally, I couldn't be happier that Harry has returned home from the war. I just wish the same could happen to every British and American soldier serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with equal speed.

It seems likely that troops will leave the two countries eventually. The UK and US are failing disastrously in every aspect of their ventures, from reconstruction and democracy-building to reducing attacks and boosting prosperity. British troops have been forced out of Basra (and let's be clear - the rhetoric of "handing over power" was as blinkered as the boy's own stories of Harry's adventures on the front-line today), and the US electorate may be veering away from the neocons (McCain and Clinton) towards a front-runner whose campaign has been boosted by the anti-war movement. The populations of Afghanistan and Iraq have resisted invasion, and they will almost certainly win. "Iraqi oil," as Hassan Juma, President of the Iraqi Oil Workers Federation said at a meeting last night, "will be the poison that kills the American Empire."

But we should not be complacent. Allied troops will not leave without a fight. Every month that troops continue to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan will be a month of increasing bloodshed and death. On 18 January 2008, the Washington Post reported that merican warplanes had dropped as much explosive on Baghdad in a day as they usually do in a month; and whereas in June 2006, John Reid said "we hope we will leave Afghanistan without firing a single shot," two million rounds of ammunition have in fact been fired in a war that has seen the Taleban retain control of much of the south. The Red Cross have stated that the war is creating a humanitarian disaster, as aid fails to materialise or fails to arrive at its destination. To claim that the Afghan war has been successful compared to the Iraqi war is to damn with faint praise.

15 March 2008 will mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Across the world, people will take to the streets and protest against these wars, call for the end of the siege in Gaza, and warn the US not to attack Iran. It will not be a symbolic march, or a futile one - just because world leaders have failed to listen to their people and continued these hopeless occupations does not mean those people should give in. The anti-war movement has been correct in almost every prediction it has ever made. And if waning empires won't go without a fight, we'd better carry on fighting.

Join the global protest - demonstrate 15 March

Troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan

Don’t attack Iran

End the siege of Gaza

Assemble 12 noon, Trafalgar Square, London

Saturday, February 23, 2008


This time last week, we were debating whether or not most men hate women (a piquant post-Valentine subject). I argued that most men do not hate women, though the gap between the sexes which we find so difficult to bridge must lead to catastrophic breakdowns in communication. My disputant argued that male contempt of women was ubiquitous, and that she and most of her female friends had been the victims of sexual harassment at least once in the last year or so.

Although I maintain that most men do not hate women, casual misogyny is indeed systemic. The headlines in today’s newspapers bear this out – the creepy fascination with “prostitute-killer” Steve Wright, the man who “raped and killed hookers” during a six-week killing spree in 2006, the man who exploited “vice girls” hooked on hard drugs. The language, as Joan Smith writes in today’s Guardian, is no different from the Yorkshire Ripper headlines 25 years ago. Even when our attention turns to the “monstrous” Wright, those five women cannot escape the tag – they cannot be daughters, or girlfriends, or mates – they can only be prostitutes.

So caught up are the press in the trials of Wright and Mark Dixon, the killer of Sally-Anne Bowman (forever, and somewhat cryptically, assigned the tag of “young model”), they have neglected to cover a story of much greater importance: the allegation that British troops tortured, killed and mutilated 20 Iraqi prisoners during 2004:

The lawyers, who are bringing a damages claim in the UK courts, say the five witnesses are labourers who have lived all their lives in Majar and had "absolutely nothing" to do with the Shia Mahdi army, who engaged British troops in the gun battle.

Solicitor Martyn Day said: "The nature of a number of the injuries of the Iraqis would seem to us to be highly unusual in a battlefield. For example, quite how so many of the Iraqis sustained single gunshots to the head and from seemingly at close quarter, how did two of them end with their eyes gouged out, how did one have his penis cut off (and) some have torture wounds?"

Solicitor Phil Shiner said: "There is the clearest evidence available of systematic abuse and systematic failings at the very highest levels of politicians, the civil service and the military." He added: "Until we as a nation face up to this evidence we cannot hope for the fundamental reforms required to ensure these things can never happen again. We do not want to be talked about in the same vein as the Japanese in the second world war or the Americans at My Lai , but unless we stand up and say as a nation that this cannot happen in our name, that is where we seem to be headed."

Violence can be magnetic or repulsive. The Iraq story was not covered in any depth by any of the newspapers because it alleges that the British military were engaged in acts of the most appalling and psychotic violence, and we cannot bear to consider it, especially when it is carried out against beings who we barely think of as human beings anyway.

The murders of these six young women, however, has an erotic pull similar to that of the car crash. They combine sex and death, and we appear to view with as much jouissance as disgust. The press slyly explains them away by reference to the prostitution or the modelling careers of the victims, and by the existence of irredeemable evil, and we all sleep easy in our beds. Alas, an explanation for the atrocities committed in our name, by our military, under the direction of our government, appears to be beyond them.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Returning home is now a strange and romantic experience. Suffolk has never felt more like home, yet the part of Suffolk I return to is more than twenty miles away from where I grew up, and the parent I visit is not the one who brought me up.

My bedroom in Wickham Market could not be less homely. My dad has filled it, floor to ceiling, with polystyrene boxes which he has used for packing fish. The few books I have there are hidden away in a cupboard. I sleep in a sleeping bag, on an inadequate pillow. How is such a place, a place in which I have never lived, home?

Perhaps because it delivers the promise of home, a promise which is elusive in the age of atomised capitalist industry. One should no more expect today to have an enduring home than an enduring job. The promise of home is a guileless thing: an ideal, without the duties and the routine that accompany the reality. “Not otherwise will the world appear, nearly unchanged, in the steady light of its day of celebration," wrote Adorno, "when it no longer stands under the law of labour, and the duties of those returning home are as light as vacation play.”

The ambiguity of the home recalls Freud’s enquiry into the uncanny, which we have touched on before. Perhaps Suffolk is uncanny because it both home and non-home. It is my home, yet I feel a stranger there. We know from psychoanalysis that something must be familiar – deeply so – to be uncanny. Suffolk has an asphyxiating association for me, both because it is where I lived when I was a teenager dreaming of escape, and because its enormous skies and wide, flat plains suffocate.

On returning to Suffolk last weekend, we took a trip to Alderton, a nondescript village near the coast, and from there walked across fields to Shingle Street, a streak of pebbled beach between Orford and Bawdsey. It is true that Shingle Street is a dourly perplexing place, though it is not due to the beaches littered with Nazi soldiers which Suffolk myth claims (you can read more about these claims, though they seem rather farcical to me, and certainly unsubstantiated). Rather, it is because of the questions which Shingle Street poses. What is the place for? Is it merely a semi-living ghost-town? Would anybody notice if it was swept quietly away to sea?

In the nineteenth century, Shingle Street was a busy fishing village, a subsidiary of the frenetic port of Lowestoft, a few miles up the coast. In the days before cod and chips, herring defined England and Scotland, so that even in southern counties such as Dorset, where herring catches were only seasonal, there are towns called Langport Herring and Chaldon Herring. It is an unlucky fish - those not caught by humans or nets usually end up inside the bellies of haddock, conger eel, rock eel or cod. In the late eighteenth century, an estimated sixty billion herring were caught, but the military demand for boats and able seamen during the two world wars moderated the industry. Yet, by the mid 1960s, herring fishing had gone berserk, and by the mid 1970s herrings had become an endangered species. The history of herring fishing is crucial to the history of Suffolk, and has a bearing on Shingle Street's place in the world today.

The boats in which the fishermen once put out from the shore have vanished, now that fishing no longer affords a living, and the fishermen themselves are dying out. No one is interested in their legacy. Here and there one comes across abandoned boats that are falling apart, and the cables with which they were once hauled ashore are rusting in the salt air...

But a more pressing reason for Shingle Street's obscurity is the decision, taken in June 1940, to evacuate the residents of the village to nearby Alderton and Hollesley. In 1943, a 500 pound bomb of explosives and oil of wintergreen was tested there, and destroyed local houses and the pub. But when people were permitted to return to their village in 1946, most dwellings were uninhabitable simply because of decay and neglect.

A walk along the promenade today, such that it is, offers a nonsensical array of houses and abandoned buildings. There are sun-bleached huts ; old coastguards' cottages with faded coastal maps and diagrams of sea fish ; there is a weekend pad with enormous windows for walkers to admire its owner's impeccable taste; there are up-turned boats, and winches, and Union Jacks aloft rusting flagpoles ; there are three Napoleonic Martello towers in various states of disuse and domestication ; and there is the sea and the beach and, perched in a buoy some yards out to sea, a tragic, calamitous bell whose peals chill the village.

Soon after the village, one reaches the mouth of the River Alde, the most haunting of Suffolk's coastal rivers, and one which will get the post it richly deserves when I find the words to justify it. As the Alde reaches the North Sea, a spuming rush of white foam covers the surface of the water and attracts scores of squawling gulls. At this point, we looked back at the village

turned inland and walked back across the farmlands towards Alderton. What struck me as I followed my dad back to the village, is how ununcanny Shingle Street had been. In part, this was no doubt due to the weather, which was springlike rather than Februarylike. But, pleasant as the walk had been, it had not chilled me to the marrow as I hoped it might (that bell notwithstanding). As the sun set, I looked back over the fields to the coastguards' cottages and the German Mansion

and there it was.

A photo does not do justice to the confluence of big skies, unknowable undergrowth and unoccupied buildings which give Suffolk its freakishness. It can only be experienced towards the end of an afternoon, in the hinterland between coast and county, when you are caught between the emptiness of the sea and the insurance of the land. Only Suffolk can do this to me ; only Suffolk delineates life and death so starkly.

Monday, February 11, 2008


Good stuff from Lenin, whose Tomb I have carelessly neglected for a while. He directs our attention towards the flowchart below, which charts the chronology of "the military idealists known as neocons", and asks us to spot a very prominent person missing from that chart. Lenin's clue - three syllables. Can you spot the omission? The future of the civilised world may hang on your answer...

Click here for a bigger version.

Saturday, February 09, 2008


The images of people queuing round the block for an NHS dentist a couple of years ago could be seen again before too long - this time for GP surgeries. The very multinational companies which Michael Moore described cashing in on people's ill health in Sicko are making in-roads into the UK healthcare market.


Last week, Camden Primary Care Trust announced that it had awarded a contract to manage three large GP practices in central London, covering nearly 5,000 patients, to UnitedHealth, an American company with links to the Republican Party and a history of high-profile fraud cases. This week, the Camden New Journal learned that UnitedHealth were successful largely because of low unit costs, not proven quality of service. It is anticipated that UnitedHealth will manage the practices at a loss, enhance their client base, then combine them to form "super-practices". Unless the public fights back, it seems inevitable that UnitedHealthcare will achieve a monopoly for healthcare provision in Camden.

How has it come to this? How have the principles of the welfare state fallen victim to the market? How has the NHS been so systematically sold off to the private sector? There are two reasons: (1) the inherent contradiction of a welfare state within a capitalist economy and (2) the neoliberal policies pursued by British governments since the early 1980s. It is also worth noting that the very criticisms which the right-wing press level at the NHS - inefficiency, bureaucracy, poor health and safety, insensitivity - are a direct result of right-wing politics.


Despite the commitment to free, universal healthcare "from cradle to grave" laid down by the architects of the NHS, doctors and policy-makers have always had to muddle through an imperfect system. The vision of nationalising every tier of healthcare in the aftermath of the Second World War proved impossibly ambitious. Many consultants demanded the retention of private practice alongside their NHS activities, and there has always been private practice within the NHS. GPs, dentists and opticians have worked as (state-funded) small businesses, and community health, preventative services, child health and public health remained the responsibility of Local Authorities. There has always been a distinction between healthcare, which is free, and personal "social" care, which is means-tested. But despite a rather messy mixed economy, the postwar consensus of the welfare state remained until 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister.


Thatcher and her American counterpart, Ronald Reagan, had been elected in the wake of a classic crisis period in the capitalist cycle. The politics of the early 1980s challenged the welfare state consensus by proposing free-market, monetarist adjustments which would rectify spiralling inflation, and stabilise the economy. The Griffiths Report of 1983 proposed that the only way to run the NHS was via private sector-style management and outsourcing of non-core activity. Soon after Thatcher's landslide re-election, a layer of senior, non-clinical management was applied to the NHS, so that between 1986 and 1995, the proportion of NHS spend consumed by administration rose from 5% to 12%.

Around the same time, NHS hospitals were required to find ongoing efficiency savings of 3% per year, which in practice meant cuts to staff and services. Between 1980 and 1993, almost all non-clinical services were outsourced. Routine eye examinations became chargeable in 1989, resulting in a 67% drop in uptake. Dentists had always been "independent contractors," but from the late 80s onwards the government capped public spending until dentists decided that going private was the only way to be profitable - by 1999, more than half of all dentistry was paid for by patients, and now only basic dentistry is free. Thatcher's approach to transferring long-term care out of the NHS was even more cavalier. Her government provided Social Security funding to long-term care placements on the condition that they were placed privately. A private care home industry was quickly born, and accounted for 69% of all placements by 2003.


Towards the end of her premiership, Thatcher disdained the advice of healthcare experts by proposing that the NHS be opened up to the market. The US healthcare industry was in the doldrums and needed a European market to tap into. The Conservative goverments of both Thatcher and Major were only too happy to oblige, and the notorious "internal market" was created.

The internal market split the NHS down the middle. On the one side was its purchasing arm (health authorities and some fundholding GPs), and on the other was its provider arm (hospitals, community services and other GPs). Although the effects of marketisation had been completely unresearched, the vision of the internal market was to embed the General Management doctrine and make the NHS more efficient. It encouraged hospitals to compete against each other to provide services, but in reality it was a false market - after all, while an unprofitable private business will go under, every town needs a hospital. Failing hospitals were bailed out, and by 1996-7 one third of hospitals were failing to meet financial targets and waiting-lists for "elective" (non-critical) treatments had gone up.

The internal market also pushed administrative costs up further. Because provider bodies were now commissioning services from a number of providers, complex invoicing, contracting and pricing arrangements had to be designed and maintained. The introduction of contracting in hospitals nearly doubled admin costs, and NHS funding became increasingly diverted from services into bureaucracy. The market also quickly became led by providers, many of whom decided to provide only services which were profitable. For the first time in the NHS's history, services were now planned according to financial pragmatism, not local need.


In 1997, Labour came to power with a commitment to abolish the internal market, which they had criticised sharply when in opposition. But when Frank Dobson was selected as Labour's doomed candidate for the Mayoralty of London in 1999, the Blairite moderniser Alan Milburn took over as Health Secretary. Milburn was an ardent free marketeer who advocated for greater private sector involvement in the NHS. It was under his tenure that the mechanisms for the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) were set up.


Among the many follies of Labour's health policy, PFI is perhaps the greatest. It had been conceived during the Major years, when the building industry, which had close ties to the Tory government, was in recession. But Labour had links to the private sector too, and quickly became as enthusiastic about PFI as the Conservatives. When he resigned as Secretary of State in 2003, Milburn took up a post as advisor to Bridgepoint Capital, a private equity investor responsible for financing private companies entering the healthcare market (he now advises Pepsi). Before she became an MP in 1997, one of Milburn's successors, Patricia Hewitt, had been director of research at Arthur Anderson. She was involved in setting up several lucrative PFI contracts with them as Minister.

It is clear, then, that one of the catalysts for PFI was the career development of Labour Ministers. But what were the wider reasons for the policy? And how has it failed so dismally?

In short, PFI is symptomatic of the Government's dogmatic passion for opening up the welfare state to the market, whatever the financial and service costs. The rhetoric of reform has been centred on the idea that the state is inherently inefficient, and can only be reinvigorated by the leanness of the private sector.

PFI encourages the private sector to invest capital funding into rebuilding the NHS's infrastructure, which had been chronically under-funded for years. It works by consortia of private-sector operators and builders raising money on behalf of the NHS to build and run buildings (e.g. hospitals). The public-sector must pay back the money (including interest and shareholder profits) from its patient care budget.

However, private sector borrowing rates are far higher than for the public sector ; the consortium must raise profits and pay shareholder dividends over very long contract periods (often well over 15 years) ; and the service costs which the public sector body must pay back include bureaucracy incurred by complex contracting and funding arrangement. The Government's wild exaggerations of public sector inefficiency came back to bite them as the PFI scheme went hugely over-budget.

Costs spiralled out of control - the Dartford and Gravesham PFI hospital cost £94m to build, but service costs and fees increased the cost by a further £21m. But, having embarked on a spree of capital projects funded by PFI all over the country, the government couldn't very well bail all these overspending hospitals out. The increased costs were thus paid for by cuts in beds, salaries and staff (the average for the first wave of PFI hospitals was a 30% cut in beds and a 25% cut in nursing salaries).

The PFI hospital-building programme was paid for by cuts in services and clinical budgets. Yet, Labour would not back down. Despite every possible indication that their policy was a dud which would cause a long-term financial migraine for the NHS, they doggedly went ahead with new PFI schemes. Partly this was to prepare British companies for global competition, partly due to the inability of the government to perceive the failures of marketisation.


I said at the beginning of this post that the Right criticises the NHS for the very structural flaws implemented by governments which they supported. In a way, however, they are right. An increase in public spending has not, on the whole, led to improvements in the NHS. One could go further - high public spending probably does suggest inefficiency. Yet the highest proportion of GDP spent on healthcare is in countries with no state healthcare system.

In the last 50 years, per capita spending in the US has been three times higher than in the UK, yet the US has always had a lower life expectancy and a higher infant mortality rate. NHS spending rocketed in the 1970s, and has on averaged doubled every ten years since. But is there a correlation with quality and outcomes? On the contrary - health inequalities have barely shifted, people are living much longer but not much healthier, and the NHS is slowly (or not so slowly) been eroded by market forces. Such wanton spending increases might be better explained by the "Stalinesque" inefficiencies* of the free market, a path down which the NHS has been inexorably led, and from which only real democracy (as opposed to centralised reform) can save it.

Sign up to the "Keep our NHS public" campaign here. Find out more by reading Allyson Pollock's NHS PLC. Protest against the selling off of your NHS wherever you can.

* the description of the NHS used by the Adam Smith Institute, which wished to privatise it altogether.

Saturday, February 02, 2008


A fruit was ripening in the shape of the collaboration between Viking Eggeling and myself. Our friendship had led my parents to invite him to our country house at Klein-Kolzig. There, for three years, we marched side by side, although we fought on separate fronts. In 1919, on the basis of what Eggeling called Generalbass der Malerei, we produced our first scroll-pictures: variations on formal themes, drawn in pencil on long rolls of paper. Eggeling's was called Horizontal-Vertikal-Messe and mine Praludium. In 1920, we began our first film experiments, based on the implications of motion contained in these rolls. Eggeling finally made a film of his second roll, Diagonal Symphonie

and I made one called Rhythmus 21.

Both were abstract films, but very different in spirit and in their approach to artistic problems. Eggeling started out from the line and I from the surface. Eggeling orchestrated and developed forms, while I renounced form altogether and restricted myself to trying to articulate time in various tempi and rhythms. We had both turned to the film for the solution of a problem we had encountered in painting. I had no intention whatsoever of continuing to make films, but the new dimension t, and the possibility of orchestrating time as I had orchestrated form, drew me to the film more and more.

- Hans Richter, dada - art and anti-art