Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A Capitalist Paradise

I saw a TV documentary about Dubai a few months ago. I remember it fairly well. It focused on the lives of some British expats 'working' there. They were living the life of Reily - a constant whirl of hedonistic society events, of hob-nobbing with millionaires, film stars and supermodels - all in a highly paid and, of course, tax free environment. Most of these people, it should go without saying, were deeply unpleasant and (it seems fair to add) almost entirely worthless people - but there was a certain seductiveness about the lifestyle they led. There was also a certain seductiveness about the self-image, the self-descriptive narrative of 'entrepreneurial' flair that these people articulated towards the camera. They were living it up because they had the 'get up and go' to secure a job in Dubai - because they worked hard as a 'party-planner' or property developer (or whatever) in an environment in which ambition and 'risk-taking' was very well rewarded. One couldn't help wondering towards the end of this hour long documentary in which we got to follow several 'self-made' and extremely wealthy ex-pats (beautiful people all of course) around the luxurious tax exempt shopping malls and around their huge pent house apartments and hotel rooms, whether there wasn't something to be said for this capitalist paradise - whether us lefties had got it all wrong. Doubt. Maybe, if we stopped moaning and developed some personal initiative, maybe if we dropped our tut-tutting ways and flew out to the UAE, we could have it all too. This lifestyle, after all, as ex-pat after ex-pat was eager to remind us, was just there for the taking - all you needed was the 'drive to succeed' and a 'can do attitude'.

At the end of the documentary, however, the second programme of the series was trailed. It indicated the conditions of the people on whom the wealth of Dubai is built - the masses of poorly paid and poorly protected 'guest workers' who toil in the oil fields and who work as servants in the houses and hotels of the rich. It was only a brief trailer, but it punctured the 'too good to be true' tone of the documentary quite violently - it was, indeed, too good to be true. This capitalist paradise turned out, precisely, to be a paradise for the capitalists - while for the rest (dare we call them the 'proletariat'?) things weren't quite so rosy.

In the latest NLR, Mike Davis has a wonderful (although deeply enraging) piece on Dubai. He describes the architecture of the place as 'Speer meets Disney on the shores of Araby' - an exotic playground for the rich which manages to be both kitschy utopian and deeply sinister at the same time. It's quite amazing what those disgusting fuckers - the rulers of Dubai - go in for. They are, apparently, building a series of islands in the sea in the shape of a map of the world - and the mega-rich are invited to buy a 'continent' for their own amusement. He provides us with a powerful description of the lives and working conditions of the 'invisible' inhanitants of this paradise, however - the faceless workers who build and maintain this unreal, nightmarish world:

The great mass of the population are South Asian contract labourers, legally bound to a single employer and subject to totalitarian social controls. Dubai’s luxury lifestyles are attended by vast numbers of Filipina, Sri Lankan and Indian maids, while the building boom (which employs fully one-quarter of the workforce) is carried on the shoulders of an army of poorly paid Pakistanis and Indians, the largest contingent from Kerala, working twelve-hour shifts, six and a half days a week, in the asphalt-melting desert heat.

Dubai, like its neighbours, flouts ilo labour regulations and refuses to adopt the international Migrant Workers Convention. Human Rights Watch in 2003 accused the Emirates of building prosperity on ‘forced labour’. Indeed, as the Independent recently emphasized, ‘the labour market closely resembles the old indentured labour system brought to Dubai by its former colonial master, the British.’ ‘Like their impoverished forefathers’, the London paper continued, ‘today’s Asian workers are forced to sign themselves into virtual slavery for years when they arrive in the United Arab Emirates. Their rights disappear at the airport where recruitment agents confiscate their passports and visas to control them.’

In addition to being super-exploited, Dubai’s helots—like the proletariat in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis—are also expected to be generally invisible. The local press (the uae ranks a dismal 137th on the global Press Freedom Index) is restrained from reporting on migrant workers, exploitative working conditions, and prostitution. Likewise, ‘Asian labourers are banned from the glitzy shopping malls, new golf courses and smart restaurants.’ Nor are the bleak work camps on the city’s outskirts—where labourers are crowded six, eight, even twelve to a room, often without air-conditioning or functioning toilets—part of the official tourist image of a city of luxury, without poverty or slums. In a recent visit, even the uae Minister of Labour was reported to be shocked by the squalid, almost unbearable conditions in a remote work camp maintained by a large construction contractor. Yet when the labourers attempted to form a union to win back pay and improve living conditions, they were promptly arrested. Dubai’s police may turn a blind eye to illicit diamond and gold imports, prostitution rings, and shady characters who buy 25 villas at a time in cash, but they are diligent in deporting Pakistani workers who complain about being cheated out of their wages by unscrupulous contractors, or jailing Filipina maids for ‘adultery’ when they report being raped by their employers. To avoid the simmering volcano of Shiite unrest that so worries Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Dubai and its uae neighbours have favoured a non-Arab workforce drawn from western India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Philippines. But as Asian workers have become an increasingly restive majority, the uae has reversed course and adopted a ‘cultural diversity policy’—‘we have been asked not to recruit any more Asians’, explained one contractor—to reinforce control over the workforce by diluting the existing national concentrations with more Arab workers.

Discrimination against Asians, however, has failed to recruit enough Arabs willing to work at the lowly wages ($100 to $150 per month) paid to construction labourers to meet the insatiable demands of the exploding skyline and half-built mega-projects. Indeed the building boom, with its appalling safety record and negligence of workers’ most basic needs, has incubated Dubai’s first labour rebellion. In 2004 alone, Human Rights Watch estimated that as many as 880 construction workers were killed on the job, with most of the fatal accidents unreported by employers or covered up by the government. At the same time, the giant construction companies and their subcontractors have failed to guarantee minimum facilities for sanitation or adequate supplies of potable water at remote desert labour camps. Workers also have been exasperated by longer commutes to worksites, the petty tyranny (often with a racial or religious bias) of their supervisors, the spies and company guards in their camps, the debt-bondage of their labour contracts, and the government’s failure to prosecute fly-by-night contractors who leave Dubai or declare bankruptcy without paying back wages. As one embittered labourer from Kerala told the New York Times, ‘I wish the rich people would realize who is building these towers. I wish they could come and see how sad this life is.’

As Davis comments, 'the deep thinkers at the American Enterprise and Cato Institutes must salivate when they contemplate the system of classes and entitlements in Dubai.' Dubai is the 'free market' at its purest. It is distilled capitalism.

Friday, October 27, 2006

A Gratuitous Attack on the Decents

Daniel Davies gives the hapless, disintegrating pro-war Left a swift kick in the nadgers. It's not big and it's not clever - but it is quite amusing.

This was always about saying "me too" to neo-conservative adventures, in the wholly quixotic belief that it would be possible to subvert them for progressive ends at a later date. It's the central organising delusion of the Henry "Scoop" Jackson Society at Cambridge University; the belief that the wise old owls of the British liberal establishment are capable of leading their energetic Yank counterparts through sheer force of intelligence. If Blair's relationship to Bush is that of a sparrow on top of an elephant pretending to be giving directions, then the pro-war British Left is a flea on top of the sparrow.


More along the same kind of lines from Crooked Timber.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Eagleton on Richard Dawkins and Jesus

I think I've said before that Terry Eagleton is, by far, my favourite cultural theorist. I've yet to read an Eagleton piece which isn't immensely entertaining and with which I significantly disagree. His recent piece, in the London Review of Books, is an absolute stonker. I command you to read it! The purpose of the article is rip into the 'fundamentalist atheist', Richard Dawkins - and he leaves blood on the walls.

I can't help reproducing this part of the article - in which Eagleton provides us with a rather more sophisticated description of the activities and values of Christ, than the caricature imagined by Dawkins.

Jesus hung out with whores and social outcasts, was remarkably casual about sex, disapproved of the family (the suburban Dawkins is a trifle queasy about this), urged us to be laid-back about property and possessions, warned his followers that they too would die violently, and insisted that the truth kills and divides as well as liberates. He also cursed self-righteous prigs and deeply alarmed the ruling class.

The Christian faith holds that those who are able to look on the crucifixion and live, to accept that the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body, might just have a chance of new life – but only by virtue of an unimaginable transformation in our currently dire condition. This is known as the resurrection. Those who don’t see this dreadful image of a mutilated innocent as the truth of history are likely to be devotees of that bright-eyed superstition known as infinite human progress, for which Dawkins is a full-blooded apologist. Or they might be well-intentioned reformers or social democrats, which from a Christian standpoint simply isn’t radical enough.

The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you. Here, then, is your pie in the sky and opium of the people. It was, of course, Marx who coined that last phrase; but Marx, who in the same passage describes religion as the ‘heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions’, was rather more judicious and dialectical in his judgment on it than the lunging, flailing, mispunching Dawkins.

Funny, Eagleton makes him sound a lot like a proto-socialist radical. The point, here, I suppose is that Christ is not necessarily best interpreted in the way that crude anti-religious zealots tend to. Neither, it should be added is he best understood as the bloodless, de-radicalised, passive, resigned and, above all, politically safe figure that most Christians would be comfortable with - especially those Christina Odones amongst the faithful.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Jehovah's Witnesses

It was just as I had finished wrestling with the front door today, trying to get the damn thing to lock, when I saw them coming down the front drive. They were, unmistakably, evangelists of some kind or another - a pair of smartly dressed disciples, each with a black leather carry case tucked sensibly under the arm. I was trapped. I braced myself for the inevitable spiel - the salesman's doorstopping technique, where the seller keeps talking, playing on the victim's ingrained politeness and fear of appearing to be rude by telling the talker that s/he should just go away. Actually they were quite nice. They weren't coming for me you see, but for my housemate who had been stupid or hungover enough to engage them in interested conversation a few days before. They handed me a few magazines. Jehovah's Witnesses. You've seen one of these magazines and you've seen them all - a photograph of a sunrise/sunset on the front cover, pictures inside of happy nuclear families playing with tamed, vegetarian lions in some millenarian, heavenly future, an article on 'relativism'. I said thankyou very much and I would certainly give them to my friend when I saw him.

Of course, they were interested in me, too - inasfar as one can really be interested in just one more miserable heathen wretch amongst a whole city - country - world of the fallen, amongst whom one must fish for souls from time to time in order to appease one's terrible, inscrutable master. I told them I was an atheist (I lie actually - I'm agnostic). I wasn't sure if it was a good idea or not, because, surely, they had their 'I'm an atheist' retort off by heart and lined up ready to go. Luckily, they didn't launch into anything and I managed to get away with a quick introduction to some of the topics in the magazines I was holding. Foolishly, I gave them my first name. Perhaps they'll come knocking for me next.

Still, I must say that there was something about these two that I quite liked. The talker was a woman in her forties - quite self-depreciating (a little joke about not understanding the science in the magazines - science??) and softly spoken. The young man with her was clearly a traineee, learning the holy ropes - he didn't say much, but he seemed fairly pleasant. There was none of the explicit fanaticism I often seem to encounter amongst these types - that penetrating gaze, that clear, excited drive to bludgeon one's opponent/potential convert into polite agreement.

Quite clearly, creationist religion is nonsense. I'm sure that the 'science' in the magazines is very firmly of the 'pseudo' variety. Evangelist Christianity is an escape, a cop out, a crutch - for people who want to know (or, more specifically, who want to be told) the Truth, who want a ready-made, all encompassing, doctrine of absolute certainties with which to comfort themselves, who want to avoid having to think very hard, who must have a world in which everything happens for a reason and in which everything is imbued with some some immanent meaning - a bit like orthodox Trotskyists (ffnerk). However, I can't help feeling some admiration for those people who actually go out and knock on doors, or stop people in the street. OK, you might respond that they're only doing it for their own salvation - that they're selfish bastards really. I'm not sure that's completely true, actually - it's certainly not all there is to it. I have a feeling that such arguments tend to rest implicitly on a crude 'rational choice' kind of schema in which people only act out of self-interest. People on the Left surely have reason to avoid such crudities. Yes, they are annoying and silly - but (and this is why I have some sneaking admiration for them) it's not easy to do what they do - it takes some bravery to go out and attempt to engage complete strangers in religious conversation. I have, on occasion, handed out various kinds of political leaflets in the city centre. I always find it excruciatingly embarrassing. I felt like I was laying myself bare, in a way. It's difficult to deal with the inevitable 'fuck offs' and incomprehending stares - although these are actually quite unusual. I imagine it's quite a lot harder for evangelists - so hats off to them.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Bad Timing

I like Clare Short. Her timing, though, is dreadful. She didn't resign from the front bench before the Iraq war, along with Robin Cook, when she could have. I'm not so sure of this myself, but it's often commented that her resignation could have prevented the war. Perhaps. She managed to delay her resignation, however, until it would have minimal political impact.

It appears that, today, Short has resigned the Labour whip. The Guardian reports:

In a letter to the party's chief whip obtained by Guardian Unlimited, the outspoken ex-cabinet minister said that she wished to become an "independent Labour MP" and remained "a convinced social democrat".

Why now? Why not join the McDonnell campaign for goodness sake? McDonnell needs all the Labour socialists and social democrats - a radical thing to be in the Labour PLP these days - he can get. He's not going to win - we all know that, but he can push the case for social democracy/socialism - make it just visible again on the mainstream political agenda. Imagine the boost McDonnell would have got amongst the LP membership from a Short endorsement. She would have made much more of a political splash this way than by wandering off to become an independent. If and when the McDonnell campaign is defeated - that would be the time to go. The timing is all wrong. She just can't seem to do anything right.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


I have been known to complain an awful lot, from time to time, about the extremely hard life I have to lead. I was watching a documentary about Brazilian street kids the other week and, I tell you, I was muttering to myself 'oh yeah, you think you've got it hard, begging for food and dodging police bullets, but you just try writing a doctoral thesis - oho yes, then you'll know hardship my little friends'. Every once and a while, though, I realise how just privileged this lifestyle (yuck) can be. I was at a little gathering (yuck) last night at which 15 people were present and amongst those 15 there were people from 11 different nationalities - British, Italian, French, Chinese, Greek, Polish, Mexican, Nigerian, Korean, Pakistani and a (rather tipsy) Turkish Cypriot. You just wouldn't get that anywhere else but at a university. Or at airport customs.

I learned a couple of interesting things from the French guy by the way, which I insist on sharing with you. I had always assumed that the French nickname for the English - 'le ros bif' - was an English fabrication. I thought that it was just rather too polite and affectionate for a real derogatory term. I thought that it was probably just what the English told each other about what the French called them - the real term being too horrid to admit. It turns out, however, that it is true - that's really what the French call the English when they are being rude. Secondly - and this is the biggie - according to my French chum the stereotypical view of the English character amongst the French is not, as we imagine, one of a cold, aloof, sexually repressed lot, avoiding each others' eyes and saying 'sorry' a lot. Apparently, the French regard the English as much more sexually liberated than the French themselves. I was pretty surprised by this. Maybe he was just being nice or something. It's true about the French thinking we have crap food, though.

Right, I'm off for a burger and chips and a quick sashay down the highstreet in my leather hotpants.

Friday, October 13, 2006

End Game

A few days ago the media was full of reports that around 600,000 Iraqis have died as a consequence of the war. As I'm sure you'll have seen, that's about 2.5% of the population. Most of the dead are (were) young men - a generation of Iraqi males, then, has been pulverised, shot up, incinerated and ripped apart.

Today, the headlines consists of reports that the head of the British Army thinks that British forces should be withdrawn from Iraq, and news that a coroner has concluded that an ITN reporter was murdered by US forces. Terry Lloyd, his interpreter and his cameraman were executed, it seems, for the crime of refusing to take their places as tame journalists, 'embedded' within the Coalition propaganda machine.

It is impossible to ignore the sense that the flood barriers have been breached. It's the end of the road. There's no where left to go, now, for the makers of this appalling conflict - or, indeed, its supporters.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Massive Haul of Books

I went book crazy yesterday and came home with 12 additions for my home library (or 'the bookcase' as I sometimes refer to it). I was given a free book for some reason at the train station (a surprisingly OK collection of short stories for 'the train traveller' - some sort of promotion) and I finally bought a copy of Fine's and Saad-Fihlo's Marx's Capital at Waterstones with a ten pound book voucher I found in a pile of old papers at home (must have been there for years). When I got back to York I stumbled across a second hand book sale (a Church fund-raiser I think) in the town hall and decided to have a quick look. I didn't expect very much from it, but amongst the Andy McNabs, there was a wonderful hoard of old cloth bound and hard back books in there - many of them priced at 50p. I could easily have spent 40 quid in there, but I limited myself to a fiver - R--- discipline. I got the full set of Trevelyan's Illustrated English Social History for £2, a biography of Kier Hardie (ILP Press, 1925), An Everyman edition of Hume's Treatise, a leather bound copy of Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White (not sure of the date) and a 1920s edition of Hornung's Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman. I'm particularly pleased with the Raffles book for some reason - there's something oddly attractive about all that Victorian/Edwardian upper class gentleman adventurer stuff. I don't quite know what it is. I like GK Chesterton's Father Brown too, and I'm also fond of MR James' ghost stories which are founded in the same kind of leisured-class adventurer context.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Myth of Free Trade Development

There's a wealth of material on the Post-Autistic Economics website if you poke around the site a little. Many of these are quite pithy and are written in a fairly accessible style (eschewing the pseudo-scientific jargonese, and obfuscatory mathematical pretentions of neo-classical discourse).

I'd recommend two in particular. The first, is 'The Strange History of Economics', in which the quite obviously ludicrous axioms of neo-classical theory are laid bare and criticised and in which the story of the rise, fall and rise again of neo-classical theory - and its recent ascent to the status of only game in town (self-declared) - is given in brief.

The other one is Ha-Joon Chang's essay, 'Kicking Away the Ladder: How the Economic and Intellectual Histories of Capitalism Have Been Re-Written to Justify Neo-Liberal Capitalism'. The title is fairly self-explanatory. Chang provides a remarkably accessible account of the myth of free trade development - the idea that the developed world (particularly Britain and the US) rose to industrial and economic pre-eminence on account of their commitment to the 'open market' and the principles of 'free trade'. They didn't of course - but the myth is a useful one to foster and is used, as Chang suggests, to ensure the continued relative underdevelopment of the West's potential future economic rivals.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Unleash the Alligators!

I've always wanted to say that in public. Now I have. [Ticks it off on list. Puts list away].

If you're feeling a bit bored and restless at the moment you might like to have a go on this interwebs game on the BBC ancient history site - Death in Sakkara. Remember when the aubergines made me ill? Well, while I was recovering, I played this game to pass the time between vomiting. It's really good. If you like 1920s style Boy's Own type adventures, Egyptology light and mystery and stuff then give it a go.

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