April 29, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Two years back a post here highlighted the sorts of shenanigans that were going on in the aftermath of the Dutch privatisation of the postal service. The typical official position is that private ownership has increased efficiency and reduced costs, and if all we did to verify this was to look at those two broad accounting figures, we would have to agree that this is indeed the case.
We need to look deeper to find out exactly how, at a time when the internet has caused general paper mail to reach an all time low, private mail companies still manage to stay in operation, when none of these outfits are successfully making a profit (an argument constantly given in Britain in favour of privatising Royal Mail). The answer of course has been the casual/flexible work model: the practice of hiring people at arm’s length, without a proper contract, for day work, short-time seasonal work and as speciously designated ‘self-employed’ people to deliver the masses of corporate mail at the lowest possible price. This mail includes everything from routine business correspondence to the mountains of advertising ‘junk mail’ specifically handled in the Netherlands by companies like Selekt Mail.
There hasn’t really been much written in English about the situation in the Netherlands, which in fact serves as a useful case study of the effects of postal privatisation on employees. I’d like to point readers to an excellent essay in the London Review Of Books by James Meek which serves as a brilliant exposé of the shady goings-on in the privatised Dutch postal service.
The essay concerns an unnamed postwoman with a council flat filled to the point of intrusion with crates of undelivered mail. She is behind on her deliveries because of weather, illness, personal problems and fights a battle to make the crates disappear faster than the new crates can arrive.
‘I couldn’t cope and at Christmas 2006 I had about 90 of these boxes in the house. By New Year’s Day we had 97. There were even boxes in the toilet.’
Her story is really one of the common stories of people of all ages in the Netherlands employed in the massive casual work industry. Any high street in the Netherlands counts a myriad of casual work bureaus – most notably Randstad – that provide their ‘members’ with casual work that sometimes changes by the day (if it manages to be a full day of work). There is a mountain of unskilled work and warehouse work and this provision of short-term workers allows companies to dispense with the troublesome business of interviewing, hiring and maintaining properly employed staff. Meek’s essay captures the essence of how it works and what it means in terms of meaningful employment:
The postwoman is paid a few cents for each item of mail she delivers. The private mail firms control their delivery people’s daily post-bag to make sure they never earn more than €580 a month, the level at which the firms would be obliged to give them a fixed contract.
For the postal services it has led to the complete death of ‘The Postman’ in the Netherlands. As Meek points out, a Dutch household doesn’t have a ‘postman’ it has postmen/women all working for competing firms as casual labour, earning nearly half the legal minimum wage without any job security. In many cases these are just students taking work in-between classes, not as worried about job security, less fussy about the sort of living wage a person with a family might worry about.
The private postal arrangement is particular pernicious in the way it intrudes into lives. Meek mentions people sorting mail out on the sink and in bed. It is a classic extraction of surplus-value technique masquerading as self-regulated work, which is what really lies at the heart of the casual work scam. A pretence of increased freedom and responsibility about your own working life which actually manifests itself as the unpaid carrying of extra responsibility and the carrying out of work for the lowest remuneration possible.
Meek’s essay is but one highlighted part of a horrible jigsaw puzzle of fractured work in the face of privatisation and employment liberalisation in Europe. It’s worth reading to help get the message.
September 23, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Healthcare and its affordability has been an omnipresent issue in the United States and beyond since the ascension of Obama. To have reformed the system to a collectively funded one would probably have had implications far outside of America. In Europe, health services funded in-part or wholly by taxation have been constantly and gradually eroded and ‘reformed’ over a 30-year+ period; Obama’s hijacked plan is like a green light to the European privatisation lobby.
In England particularly, the previous and the current government have had to conjure a lot of PR to try to make it appear that the NHS is still more-or-less the same service that people rely on, whilst at the same time engineering as many budget cuts or part-privatisations as they can possible achieve.
In one sense, England is a lot better-off than many other places. America’s swathes of uninsured are a ubiquitous phenomenon, the internet is filled with forums requesting and offering medical advice for people with no insurance or people with bad insurance hoping to save a few dollars. Dentistry is notoriously expensive, and since regularity of care is a must in preventing problems, regular, comprehensive care simply stands outside the affordability of many families.
The Dutch system operates on a private insurance system, much along the lines of the American system. The system is very lightly regulated, so that the ruthlessness of insurers is tempered somewhat, but not by much. Of course the succession of centre-right governments has never presented any real obstacle for the insurance companies. In 2005 a nationwide push tried to make sure everyone in the Netherlands was insured; not by increasing affordability or widening coverage capabilities, but by sending out ‘checkers’ to make sure people were buying insurance, and to fine them for not doing so. These people turned up at places like homeless hostels to find out who was insured. They enquired at a charity medical clinic I was supervising, asking how many were insured – an odd question for a place offering charity care for the uninsured.
Beginning this year the dental provision offered as part of the insurances packages will disappear. Previously insurers would pay ‘part’ of the costs, something which seemed to turn on its head the very point of having insurance. This latest move amplifies that absurdity. So now individuals will be expected to pay out-of-pocket for costly dental treatments; and it is costly. Molar removals, with added costs, easily amount to 250,- euros, and check-ups can be as much as 70-80 euros. Whomever can afford it gets treatment, those who can’t won’t – it’s another view of the tiered health system between the haves and the have-nots. Richer people have an emergency pot of money, the poor and the working poor generally live from month-to-month, with no emergency funds. They have two choices: bad teeth, or health debts, often eventually paid to a debt-recovery agency, with interest.
Health insurance is undoubtedly a racket. But if healthcare is to be a privately purchased commodity, and increasingly so since the coverage insurance offers is shrunk down further, then unaffordable insurance offering scant coverage ought to disappear, since it is poor financial investment. It is of course maintained through a mixture of politico-legal and economic ideology, maintained by corporate interests. Health is not really a purchasing choice in the same way electronics and other consumer durables are purchased. Like food and shelter it is a captive market that operates on fear or peace of mind. Just as the housing markets are dominated by neo-liberal swindling and financial speculation, so the health industry has its own money speculators, with a captive customer base, some bullied and cajoled or legislated into providing an endless supply of money for international money markets.
Their aim appears to be a situation where insurance premiums constantly rise as coverage constantly decreases in proportion. In 2010/2011 the Dutch will see another rise in insurance premiums that will leave tens of thousands either in healthcare debt or completely uninsured and in ill-health, facing unfair prosecutions as ‘wanbetalers‘ (people who don’t pay their bills), rather than people who simply can’t pay their bills.
Incomes are not rising, they are freezing or shrinking. So we reach a typical point of absurdity in neo-liberal economic policy: people actively lose spending power, but are asked or coerced into purchasing the ever more, and ever more expensive, commodities (including ‘services’) that keep the neo-liberal economic merry-go-round turning. Since the collapse of the banks and financial markets there has been a constant discussion about the levels of personal debt and the near-complete absence of a culture of saving money. The culture of ‘living on credit’ was initially wheeled-out as a contributing cause of mass indebtedness, yet health insurance is itself a contributor to indebtedness that cripples the very extra spending power the neo-liberal machine desires to keep it going. So at the bottom end it comes apart at the seams as the poorer sections of society live in a constant cycle of debt, credit-fuelled debt, forced payment of impossible living costs through the filter of debt-collection and all its resulting misery and poverty. The architects remain untouched.
Britain’s Con-Dem coalition have been talking big this week. Vince Cable has been dubbed “red” for his attack on the ruthlessness of capitalism left-to-its-own-devices. Danny Alexander talked about rectifying the enormous tax gap created by super-wealthy tax-dodgers. No matter how well-meant, the Lib-Dem critics are allied with a senior partner committed to preserving neo-liberalism by making the little taxpayer suffer for little in return.
They will privatize the Post Office and push through the budget-cuts, criticised by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, among others, as unfairly targeting the poorest sections of the society. And health will not go unscathed. The trajectory of the Post Office has not followed British ‘national’ policy, it has followed the policy of the European Union’s commitment to economic liberalisation, and within this the UK’s NHS is viewed as an obstacle. It doesn’t matter that it is funded without requiring a tax rate any higher than the Netherlands or France or Germany. It is simply a target because it does not fit in with economic ideology. An ideology where national well-being and even ‘customers’ come last in order of importance.
September 11, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Dahr Jamail (The Morning Star)
If someone broke into your house, pinned down your loved ones and began pouring poison down their throats, would you stop that person?
What if someone poured crude oil all over your crops and livestock? Would you try to stop them from doing it?
Pointed questions like these come from a man named Derrick Jensen. They provide a lens through which to view the havoc that corporate capitalism is wreaking on our planet. They are meant to jolt us into the awareness that we are watching life being annihilated and to challenge us into thinking about what form our resistance to this should take.
“I think what we need to do is to stop deluding ourselves into believing that those in power will do what they have not done and they’ve shown no inclination to do, which is to support life over production,” says Jensen, an author and environmental activist who lives in northern California.
Lewis Mumford, a US historian and philosopher of science and technology, writes: “The chief premise common to both technology and science is the notion that there are no desirable limits to the increase of knowledge, of material goods, of environmental control – that quantitative productivity is an end in itself and that every means should be used to further expansion.”
But how can unlimited growth and productivity be possible on a planet with finite resources? Simple answer – it cannot. Yet we are all being pushed at breakneck speed toward a future that promises catastrophic global climate change, depleted natural resources, environmental degradation and human chaos and suffering on an apocalyptic scale. One hundred and twenty species of life are erased from the planet each day. Ninety per cent of all the easily caught fish in the oceans are gone. The Arctic ice cap is vanishing before our eyes as global temperatures continue to rise.
This is happening not because any of us want it but because those in power, answerable only to their corporate sponsors, are playing out their mantra of “every means should be used to further expansion.”
Mumford says a change in this mindset of perpetual expansion is only likely to happen with “an all-out fatal shock treatment, close to catastrophe, to break the hold of civilised man’s chronic psychosis.”
We have already had many of these “fatal shock treatments” – the Exxon Valdez spill, the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, Chernobyl, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Agent Orange, Love Canal, Three Mile Island, the Seveso Italian dioxin crisis and the Baia Mare cyanide spill. These are just a few. The list is long. And now we can add the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
BP’s oilrig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded in April and for 36 hours its flames released immeasurable amounts of toxins into the atmosphere before the platform sunk.
We now know that the vast majority of the oil that gushed from the well was intentionally submerged by BP with heavy use of dispersants at the wellhead so most of the oil is floating around in giant undersea plumes – one of which is 10 miles long, three miles wide and 300 feet thick. They are like “oil-bergs” – what we see on top of the water is a mere fraction of what lies beneath.
If independent estimates of the amount of oil released into the Gulf are correct, as many as one Exxon Valdez-load of oil – 250,000 barrels – was released into the Gulf of Mexico every two-and-a-half days. That’s 8,700,000 barrels of oil or 34 Exxon Valdezes released into the Gulf of Mexico.
Conversely, what actions have been taken to bring BP to account? Will the CEO spend time in jail? Government officials and institutions that have colluded with BP – how about them being brought to justice?
When the Exxon Valdez struck a reef in Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989 the incident was considered to be among the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters in history.
Even after the surface oil is cleaned up in the Gulf of Mexico, scientific studies already show, as they have shown in Prince William Sound, that oil can remain trapped in the seabed for decades continuing to contaminate and kill fish, shrimp, crabs and bird life. To date a maximum of only 14 per cent of the oil spilled in that disaster has been recovered. As you read this, BP is scaling down the response efforts to the current Gulf disaster.
Meanwhile, as the so-called free market that allows unchecked corporate powers like BP to pollute and destroy our ecosystems with impunity continues, another oil platform has exploded in the Gulf, this time 80 miles south of Louisiana.
Jensen believes that expecting those in power to do what is right for human beings, much less the planet, “is delusional.
“Their function in a democracy is to give us the illusion of power, but the truth is that they do what they want,” Jensen explains. “Why is it that cops are always called in to break strikes but not help the strikers? When the function of the state is to support the privatisation of profits and the externalisation of costs, what kind of state is this?”
Jensen summarises the situation we face. “The point is that when a gold-mining corporation spreads cyanide all over the mine and this hits our groundwater and wells, and destroys ground waters in Montana, they are not called a terrorist, they are called a capitalist.”
The same can be said for BP, Exxon, Monsanto, Bayer, Dow and Lockheed Martin. It’s a long list.
“If it was space aliens coming down and systematically changing the planet would we appeal to them through lawsuits, take off our clothes and make peace symbols, petitions?” Jensen asks.
Jensen believes that we are at a point in history where the existence of the very planet upon which we live is at stake. If the perpetual growth, corporate capitalist industrial machine is allowed to continue, we will die. Thus, it must be stopped by any means necessary.
To illustrate what might be possible by taking a militant approach Jensen points to Johann Georg Elser, the man who attempted to assassinate Adolph Hitler in 1939.
“Everyone agrees that if Hitler was killed in 1939 the war doesn’t happen,” Jensen explains. “The point is that I want people to think like members of a resistance. The first thing that means is to start thinking away from being part of a capitalist industrial system and away from this government that we all acknowledge serves corporations better than us, and toward the land where we live.”
Many are concerned that the approach Jensen advocates will generate extreme government crackdowns on activists working on topics across the political spectrum, that the use of violence to promote change is a bankrupt strategy and one that is doomed to failure.
“We need a wide range of tactics, which can include fighting back and attacking the infrastructure. I don’t know what is so radical or incendiary about believing that living oceans are more important than a social structure. The culture as a whole suffers from insanity, one form of which is that this social structure is more important than the living planet.
“I don’t believe you can suffer the delusion that you can systematically dismantle a planet and live on it. It’s very simple to me. Life is more important than capitalism.”
Read more of Dahr Jamail’s journalism at dahrjamailiraq.com. His new book The Will To Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan is out now published by Haymarket books.
June 9, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Anyone who was hoping for a big shake-up in the Dutch elections will be feeling a little disappointed – it’s not a turn-out anything like the UK general election; although it has been much more efficiently carried out. In terms of who makes up the top of the usual political coalition there is no real change: the CDA, party of the prime minister Jan-Pieter Balkanende, has lost ten seats from the last election; the PvDA, the excuse for a labour party, has dropped a mere three. The Socialist Pary has not really performed as well as hoped, only retaining 16 of the 22 seats from 2005.
So who were the perceived ‘winners’? D66, a tedious neo-liberal party that has been in the wilderness for several years, GroenLinks, an opportunistic green party and Geert Wilders’ Partij Voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) which has more than doubled its seats in parliament. It will be difficult for the coalition government to ignore them now and it is a problem the government has been ignoring ever since Wilders stepped out of the ordinary conservative party and set-up his party with Thatcher-like economic ideals and the added obsession with Islam.
I do hope that the people who keep finding this blog by way of Googling ‘is the Netherlands socialist?‘ will take note – the Netherlands is and always has been a conservative country at heart. Don’t be fooled by the marijuana saga.
May 22, 2010 § Leave a Comment
The personality cults of the communist leaders are now viewed as (and always were) rather embarrassing moments from socialist history; except perhaps from the point of view of Hugo Chavez, president and crooner-in-chief, who does a great job of being his own greatest fan.
Stalin fancied himself as an amateur Marxist linguist, whereas Chairman Mao in-between sex with the nation’s village girls, eventually settled for the genteel occupation of ‘philosopher-poet’.
Throughout much of his life he composed verse, in a traditional Chinese style—many recounting, or written in honour of the struggles during the long, hard years before the People’s Republic was declared. Some twelve years had elapsed and it was only at that declaration that Mao seemed to find either the time or inclination, or more likely the boredom, to start writing poetry again, with a poem marking the victory of the People’s Army in Nanking.
Many of the later poems are reflective in nature, and it’s interesting that after 1965 his poet’s pen seemed to run somewhat dry; a year later the Cultural Revolution began.
Mao’s poetry is still interesting and very readable – it’s hard to imagine the author of these verses having a hard heart:
A rainstorm sweeps down on this northern land,
White breakers leap to the sky.
No fishing boats off Chinwangtao
Are seen on the boundless ocean.
Where are they gone?
Nearly two thousand years ago
Wielding his whip, the Emperor Wu of Wei
Rode eastward to Chiehshih; his poem survives.
Today the autumn wind still sighs,
But the world has changed!
Download: Mao Zedong: Poems
May 15, 2010 § Leave a Comment
For just over two weeks now the bins have been overflowing onto the usually rather spotless streets of Amsterdam and Utrecht. The city council had failed to reach any sort of agreement with refuse collectors and both central city bins and household rubbish has piled up in the streets.
Strike action began on the back of demands for job security and a minuscule salary raise which amounts to about 20 cents an hour extra. Local government has hoped that the state of the streets and any associated public opinion would force the refuse collectors back to work. The unions and strikers have been present in the train and bus stations and have answered the public’s questions and concerns about why the strike action has been taking place. Many travellers have expressed support and solidarity.
The city refuse collectors have seen themselves parted into two groups with one group striking and another — consisting of mostly workers hired from work agencies, but also some full-timers — not joining the strike and waiting to go back to work. A striker interviewed for RTV-U local radio expressed dismay that the non-striking full timers would benefit from the action whilst at the same time they were offering no support and actively endangering it.
Local businesses have been regularly appearing on news bulletins to complain about the mountains of rubbish they produce not being taken away, with one wheeling out the complaint that
“it’s a shame that a historic city like Utrecht has to suffer by looking so untidy”
Businesses have attempted to overcome the problem by hiring containers and removing the piles of rubbish themselves, a move that has largely been unsuccessful as tons of plastic and paper and general refuse produced by businesses and consumers continues to line the streets.
A major Cub Scouts event taking place in Utrecht this afternoon saw many travellers from around the Netherlands arriving into the Central Station this morning with surprised expressions. One traveller with the scouts remarked that the city looked more like “the Streets of Lagos”.
As of today the report from both the FNV and the city council representatives is that an agreement has been reached, including both job security and a pay rise from next year, which will effectively put an end to the strike, although no-one is sure when the collecters and street sweepers will be back to work to remove the accumulated rubbish.
Just last month saw a similar successful strike action amongst cleaners active inside Utrecht’s central station which revolved around another tiny pay demand which both the city council and private hire firms had refused.
(foto: JMV, ossp media)
May 15, 2010 § Leave a Comment
There is a lot of frivolous talk going on in the UK media about the amazing new ‘fair centrism’ of the Tory-Lib coalition. The official consensus dripping from many lips is that it’s all about stability in the face of difficult financial decisions, and all the other similar talk we’ve been hearing for the last six months.
It’s astonishing though to see who is coming up to pat the Tories on the back for their little policy sweeteners.
Billy Bragg, the left-wing activist/musician appeared on This Week expressing pleasure at the idea that I.D. cards would be dropped, and of course the demise (?) of the plan for a third runway at Heathrow Airport. Andrew Rawnsley declared that the coalition had placed the Tories “back to the centre”. The centre of what exactly?
Leaving aside issues like I.D. cards, to pretend that “new” Tory economic policy is somehow a magic wand of ‘freeing up free-enterprise’ for the good of all is a sign of having no sense of history and an even weaker sense of Tory economic policy, including the economic plans of this weighted coalition.
Labour had its Peter Mandelson, and the Tories have Oliver Letwin, precisely that sort of right-wing, rabid privatising lunatic, obsessed with cutting everything and who thinks a government of more than four people and a dog is ‘big government’.
I suppose he’s the sort of arch Tory the LibDem presence is supposed to be taming…which makes one ask why he’s been installed as as ‘policy developer’, sitting round that crowded cabinet meeting table? Read his book Privatising the World to get a better handle on his beliefs. The only difference is that this time, unlike 2001, Letwin doesn’t need to go into hiding when he says he wants to slash spending into oblivion and privatise the world. For Letwin this is a dream come true because now he has the perfect vehicle for offering up all his cherished privatisation and public service budget-cutting fantasies.
Let us make no mistake about this: it is the public sector, and thus finally the public, which is going to be forced to pay for the private sector’s money-circus meltdown. It will happen because no government will touch the sacred cow of the private sector – that so-called “engine of wealth creation” which runs and operates on taxpayer handouts whilst protecting its private wealth stores.
It is a re-run of the 80s in spirit, no use in fooling ourselves that it’s new just because the dates are different (although many of the faces are actually the same).