Friday, September 30, 2011

Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism - Kieran Allen

Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism
By Kieran Allen
Pluto Press, 2011

Review by Ramona Wadi

This review was originally published in Irish Left Review. A link to the review may be accessed here

"It is true that labour produces wonderful things for the rich - but for the worker it produces privation … It produces beauty - but for the worker, deformity.” Karl Marx

Kieran Allen’s treatise dispels the conventional opinion that Marxism is obsolete - with clarity he amalgamates Marxist philosophy and the contemporary realm, flaunting the relevance of Marxism as an alternative to capitalism. The very fact that capitalism, through excessive greed, may capitulate to its own downfall, logically should serve to encourage society to change its perception of identity, status and rights.

Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism (Pluto Press, 2011) is an accessible rendition of Marxism, conveying theories to the reader in a significant manner which lays bare the multitude of contradictions in society. Stating that Marx will remain relevant as long as there is class division and social inequality remains, Allen points out that this discrepancy is the reason why society is constantly evolving, albeit spiralling into the decadence of the exploiters and the exploited.

The flaunting and justification of class conflict, as portrayed by Allen through the vicious cycle of opulence versus oppression in Dubai, is an example of how capitalism had rendered humanity subservient to its rule, through the promise of emancipation. Slave labour in Dubai has created material magnificence at the expense of environmental ruin and excessive use of natural resources. Lurking in the shadows are the migrants - the working class reduced to slavery in order to fulfil a patronising capitalist’s dream.

Capitalism has reduced the cry of injustice because its mark of oppression has coerced the workers into forfeiting their natural freedom. The manipulation of human rights - a resource which must be examined, pondered and finally made tangible by the highest echelons of society, has rendered the working class an impassive fragment of society.

The indifference of the oppressed in relation to the environment and social conditions stems from the fact that people are regarded as mere producers of commodities for capitalism. It is, therefore, pertinent to say that capitalism thrives upon the alienation of the slaves it has created. Allen points out that the constraint of capitalism creates divisions, with the individual pitted against society - a disconnection which turns people into ‘market targets’. The individual easily falls prey to the snare of marketing which, if one takes a moment to analyse, is replete with ludicrous statements which feed upon the cycle of necessity disfigured into consumerism.

Social class has marginalised the working class in various aspects of life. Health risks and lack of accessibility to treatment due to profit schemes beleaguer working class citizens. Protests are distorted in capitalist media, branding the action as agitation - secure in its belief that a workers’ revolution is improbable due to capitalist control.

Capitalist control and exploitation are entrenched within contemporary societies. Whilst it seems plausible that the rich individuals in society engage in philanthropy, alienation makes it simple to eliminate the fact that, had it not been for the exploitative system, there would be no need for philanthropists. It is capitalism that created the charity system which involves giving back a minimal portion of one’s billions to the slaves that helped build one’s empire.

Marx’s concept of freedom is more profound than a definition and quest for ‘individual liberty’. Society has transitioned from one system of oppression to another, from masters, to feudal lords, to capitalism, creating a system of dependence which is totally controlled by the concept of need, production and profits. The distribution of basic necessities such as food, water and health care carry an injustice against a bulk of the world’s population, from starving people in third world countries to the destitute in capitalist countries. An illusion of comfort versus poverty has been created - one which even separates and conceals poverty within different societies. Thanks to media manipulation and marketing, comfort is presented as a basic commodity which all member of society have access to when, in reality, capitalism betrays the fundamental civil liberties outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Capitalist violence in society constitutes an incalculable danger. The political merges into the social to create a realm of fear and vulnerability. The violence is concealed within a system that impounds a natural resource such as labour, presenting the end product as an achievement in order to divert attention from the abuse of power and voracity of the capitalists.
Society’s freedom has been compromised, as Marx states,
“In the imagination individuals seem freer under the domination of the bourgeoisie than before, because their conditions of life seem accidental; in reality, of course, they are less free, because they are subject to the violence of things.”
By contrast, Marxist philosophy encourages diversity, imagination and participation in society, thus reducing the repression of the state. The state undergoes the transition to emulate the aspirations of the people, thus becoming a more authentic representative of society.
If capitalism eliminates itself through usurping its own fallacy, a new concept of liberty may be possible, where the individual may flourish within his concept of self and a new concept of society in which class discrimination is a relic of history. But, for this to be truly attainable revolution must not be confined within a single country - it needs to be infiltrate through the borders fabricated by bureaucracy in order to transform into a worldwide revolution led by the proletariat.
“In proportion, as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.”

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Close to the Edge - In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation

Close to the Edge - In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation
By Sujatha Fernandes
Verso Books, 2011

A review I had published in Toward Freedom
The original article may be accessed here

Through a journey spanning Sydney, Havana, Caracas and Chicago, sociologist and author Sujatha Fernandes explores the narrations of hip hop culture across the globe in her new book, Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. This search for international solidarity seems both possible and elusive. Despite its global impact, hip hop also remains isolated within experience and the definition of experience, through history, identity, culture as well as societal and class struggle.

Fernandes commences her search with a foray into the history of hip hop. This includes a look at Afrika Bombaataa, the movement aimed to regenerate itself into a global movement which expounded upon solidarity with black communities and the transformation of song into a language of social consciousness.

The character of hip hop ensures that the message transmission reaches, first and foremost, the community which embraces the artists divulging a collective social commentary. The hip hop movement enabled communities to organize themselves; gaining and imparting knowledge about their immediate environment. The reason for the performance enhanced marketing the music within the community as a unified expression of what needed to be changed.

A divergence occurs here between the hip hop artist and the commercial scene. While artists realized that the social issues they faced were the triggers which necessitated a performance, commercial music outlets and record labels presented hip hop as an alternative form of musical innovation. By negating the socio-political scene, the hip hop artists were divided between those rapping for a more political cause and those rapping for monetary gain and fame. This divide was evident between US and non-US singers.

The global hip hop scene is also fraught with a contradiction between global unity and cross cultural awareness. While international issues may unite artists around the world in a vociferous chant for recognition of oppression, each community has its own unique characteristics, its own problems, and its own manifestation of solidarity. Some communities may criticize capitalism through memory and theory, while others have had to contend with the reality of low wages, poverty and marginalization. The export of hip hop has not necessarily meant the export of experience; rather the music has served as an inspiration for communities around the world to narrate their own biography.

A look at hip hop in the four cities mentioned in this book gives the reader an integral overview of how the movement became a meaningful interlocutor. Growing up in an era which had no tangible recollection of the literacy campaign, or the achievement of free education and healthcare following Fidel Castro’s revolution, Cuban hip hop artists have negotiated their abhorrence of capitalism through a theoretical approach. Having come of age during the special period when the fall of the Soviet Union forced Cuba into austerity measures, hip hop artists in Cuba relied on revolutionary slogans to justify their stance against racism on the island which, Fernandes states, was more conspicuous in areas such as Alamar, which was harshly effected due to supply shortages.

In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush stepped up the political propaganda against Cuba, labeling it a terrorist state and culminating in the imprisonment of the Cuban Five, as well as closing the airspace for planes traveling to Cuba. Cuban hip hop artists amalgamated this political aggression and the war in Afghanistan in their lyrics, pondering the next victims of the US’s War on Terror and contrasting the war propaganda with Fidel Castro’s speech of solidarity broadcast on TV.

By contrast, Chicago’s hip hop scene was inspired by a split society which segregated black neighborhoods from the white middle class. The antagonism against capitalism stemmed not through theory, but through the direct experience of poverty.

Venezuela’s hip hop scene negotiates some similarities with the US. The hip hop movement evolved and referred to Hugo Chavez’s political discourse for reform. Both the Caracas and Chicago rappers’ songs focus on the social environment, with street gangs and the sense of belonging or exclusion being the norm in these communities. As with US hip hop, the music is both commercial and underground. The yearning for stability in the barrios, as expressed in the rap lyrics clashes with the commercial lyrics of other groups who perceive record sales as an achievement. By diminishing the call for improvement in social conditions of the poor, the commercial hip hop artists disassociated themselves from the social reality.

Hip hop in Sydney became a vocal expression for the Aboriginal community and a manifestation of multicultural experiences for migrants. The Aborigines’ deprivation of land rights and immigrants displaced by wars in Lebanon and Middle Eastern countries brought a unity within hip hop artists, each group invoking words in their native language to assert their cultural identity. However, for migrants, the border crossing and the ensuing racism and rejection of identity were far more resonant than ancestry, which was a significant theme for the Aborigines.

Fernandes also ponders the difference between hip hop and political activism – marking a divergence between the narration of an experience and the rhetoric expounding an experience. Hip hop delved within its immediate realm, which include the social injustices faced daily in the local community. While political activism was a factor unifying people for a cause, a global hip hop society was harder to sustain due to its dependence on the social structure of its immediate community.

The necessity of belonging to a community created a pattern of interdependence within the same social structure, while at the same time redefined social and political circumstances through experience. Hip hop music has navigated a unique space, stirring a global movement which is connected through the music yet derives its strength from its identity within a particular community and environment.

Ramona Wadi is a freelance writer living in Malta. Visit her blog here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Revolutionary Doctors - How Venezuela and Cuba are Changing the World's Conception of Health Care

Book Review - Revolutionary Doctors: How Venezuela and Cuba Are Changing the World’s Conception of Health Care

  “Often we need to change our concepts, not only the general concepts, the social or philosophical ones, but also sometimes our medical concepts.” - Ernesto Che Guevara.  

Modelled on Che Guevara's principles and keeping in line with the Cuban revolution, Steve Browuer's assessment of Cuba's health care system in his book Revolutionary Doctors: How Venezuela and Cuba Are Changing the World's Conception of Health Care (Monthly Review Press, July, 2011) stands as a testimony to anyone claiming that socialism cannot function. Cuban doctors have regaled people in Latin America and around the world with medical opportunities which, in capitalist ideology and implementation, remain remote. While Cubans are provided free health care provided by medics who are dedicated to science and society, the United States has created a scheme based on profits, which marginalizes a major segment of the population who cannot afford costly treatment. 

Che Guevara, himself a doctor, always reiterated the responsibility of helping the oppressed. Having observed the effects of poverty and social class during his travels in Latin America, his revolutionary consciousness stemmed from the concept of restoring dignity to the poor who were oppressed and neglected by dictatorships. Reaffirming Che’s philosophy, at the ELAM (Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina) medical school in Cuba, an inscription of Fidel Castro’s words greets the students. “This will be a battle of solidarity against selfishness.” Striving against the reluctance of the minority who view a career medicine as an opportunity to achieve higher social status, ELAM’s philosophy is “transforming the doctor’s privilege into a doctor’s responsibility.”

Immediately after the triumph of the revolution, the health care system in Cuba underwent major changes. Despite a shortage of doctors, many of them having left to practice in the US and thereby retain prestige and social status, Cuba invested heavily in social welfare. Health care services were nationalized, medicine prices were reduced and treatment fees were gradually eliminated. By the end of 1960, Cuban doctors were employed in a system that provided free health care to all Cubans.

Aspiring doctors in Cuba were able to study medicine for free. In return for free education, doctors were required to relinquish the notion of medicine as an elitist career and work in close contact with the people, travel to rural areas, conduct home visits, and research in rural communities. In 1970, the Ministry of Health pointed out the mistake of valuing specialization over primary health care, given that many medical problems could have been solved by paying special attention to the environment. The study of primary health care and environmental problems proved successful when in Venezuela, it was discovered that apart from the effects of damp weather during rainy seasons, the wood fires which women lighted in their houses were causing lung congestion. The problem was lack of proper ventilation in houses. In 1984, a program of comprehensive general medicine was formulated, enabling medical students to study different areas of medicine in a continuous sequence, rather than separate subjects. The new curriculum was discussed with medics from Canada, Venezuela, Australia and the Philippines, with the director of ELAM stating that comprehensive general medicine allowed students to progress in scientific training whilst at the same time providing the opportunity for students to 'understand the patient as a whole'.

Cuba has become a key player in responding to humanitarian aid around the world. Medical help was provided for countries ravaged by natural disasters such as Haiti, where Cuban doctors performed 6449 surgeries and stayed on long after the seven weeks of humanitarian aid offered to the Haitians by the US were over. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the US, Cuban doctors were forbidden by then- President Bush to assist in humanitarian aid. While Bush dismissed the Cuban offer as ‘propaganda’ by Fidel Castro, the brigade of doctors proved otherwise as they were dispatched to Pakistan, where an earthquake had left thousands of people in dire need of medical and humanitarian assistance. Indeed, the disposition and ethics of Cuban doctors is a source of pride to Fidel Castro who, in his column Reflections of Fidel, contrasted Cuba’s contribution to that of the US. “We are sending doctors, not soldiers!”

Combining medical care, research and ethics, Cuban doctors continue to export the revolutionary struggle on an international level. Cuba provided medical and humanitarian aid to countries whose politics were hostile to the Cuban revolution, such as the Nicaragua under the Somoza dictatorship. South Africa was aided by Cuban doctors in developing health care programs for combating HIV. Tanzania now boasts a medical school set up by Cuban doctors. And in Venezuela, the successful Barrio Adentro mission, as well as the free health care system has been modelled after the Cuban project, with doctors assisting and training Venezuelan medics in revolutionizing health care as a model of social responsibility.

The reluctance of Venezuela doctors to work and live in rural areas made it necessary for President Hugo Chavez to call in the expertise of Cuban doctors. The constitution drawn up by Chavez in 1999 granted all Venezuelans the right to accessible health care. Social missions were set up to monitor and ensure health care improvement in working class and poverty stricken areas. Cuban doctors made up for the lack of Venezuelan doctors willing to live in rural areas, reporting health problems that would have been common in countries with a very low GDP, such as Ethiopia and Angola.

The first phase of Barrio Adentro created over six thousand facilities throughout Venezuela which dealt with primary healthcare. The project was furthered to include diagnostic clinics and intensive care for people who were unable to be transferred to larger hospitals. Later the public hospital system was improved by technology updates, as well as improving communication with other health networks. Chavez’s government also ordered the construction of research laboratories and specialized hospitals offering advanced forms of treatment. By the end of August 2010, 83% of Venezuelans had benefited from Barrio Adentro – a far cry from the situation in the 1980’s where 17 million out of 24 million Venezuelans had no access to medical care.

Brouwer points out the benefits of health care as social responsibility. Apart from educating students and offering free courses to aspiring doctors, Cuba has also strived to educate and encourage Venezuelan people to assume responsibility for safeguarding the free health care system. Poor people were offered two meals a day prepared by volunteers, thus combating the effects of malnutrition. In order to avoid street crimes, Venezuelans volunteered as bodyguards for Cuban doctors. Committees of volunteers were set up, supplying Cuban doctors with food, housing and help in data collection, research and public health campaigns.
Financed by Venezuela, Cuban doctors in Bolivia treated over 300,000 Bolivians for eye surgery between 2006 and 2008. In an echo of history, it later became known that one of the patients treated for eye surgery was Mario Teran, the soldier singled out as Che Guevara’s executioner. Cuban doctors in Bolivia are perceived as emulating Che’s internationalist example.

Despite the obvious positive impact and social transformation which Cuban and Venezuelan health care had in Latin America, the US State Department and the CIA expressed concerns that Cuba and Venezuela were having a negative effect on Latin America. Counter-revolutionary efforts to thwart the socialist mission were staged, with a group of Cuban and Venezuelan exiles in Miami stating that doctors were exploited and coerced into servitude by the Cuban government. The only doctor to take part in this conspiracy was later found to be part of an anti-government group. President Bush also offered Cuban and Venezuelan doctors a safe and quick entry to the US, with the hope of disrupting the medical progress achieved in the continent. The US alternative was USAID, a program which promised financial aid in return for US approved “democratic” transition in Latin American socialist countries.

However, the sabotage program failed, highlighting instead capitalism’s failure to deliver what socialist revolutions are achieving in Latin America. Cuban doctors prided themselves on their role as teachers, imparting the necessity of education and community awareness to rural areas which would have otherwise been marginalized by unjust political systems. Within two years of adapting Cuba’s literacy program in Bolivia, UNESCO declared Bolivia free of illiteracy.

Almost every chapter in Revolutionary Doctors starts, befittingly, with a quote from Che Guevara. However, greater prominence might have been given to Fidel Castro's continuous exhortation, even after Che's death, that the West acknowledges and acts upon the injustices riddling Third World countries. In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 1979, Castro denounced the inequalities which triggered poverty and ill health:

"There is often talk of human rights, but it is also necessary to speak of the rights of humanity. Why should some people walk around barefoot so that others can travel in luxurious automobiles? Why should some live for 35 years so that others can live for 70? Why should some be miserably poor so that others can be overly rich? I speak in the name of the children in the world who do not have a piece of bread. I speak in the name of the sick who do not have medicine. I speak on behalf of those whose right to life and human dignity have been denied... Of what use, then, is civilization? What is the use of man's conscience? Of what use is the United Nations? [applause] Of what use is the world? It is not possible to speak of peace in the name of tens of millions of human beings who die yearly of hunger, of curable disease throughout the world."

By implementing education on a national level and ensuring its distribution to all echelons of society, Cuba and Venezuela have managed to create a system which embraces and values humanity, and revolutionized medical practice as an ethical and moral responsibility, thus restoring dignity to the people by creating a new social consciousness. The 'conscientious internationalist' embodied by Che Guevara has been transformed into a regenerating reality and, far from the distorted spectrum ranging from prestigious career to saviors, Cuba and Venezuela have managed to transform socialism from an ideology into a humanitarian practice.

Ramona Wadi is a freelance writer living in Malta. Visit her blog at

Monday, September 19, 2011

Citizenship and Immigration - Christian Joppke

Citizenship and Immigration
By Christian Joppke
Polity Press, 2010

Review by Ramona Wadi

Joppke constructs a detailed account of the various factors and underlying circumstances in order to define the various concepts of citizenship. By delving into early political thought, philosophy and societal norms, Joppke portrays the quest by political power to inventing a social norm which constitutes a semblance of social order, therefore attempting to establish the interwoven concepts of rights, status and identity.

Marx's perception of citizenship serves as a warning for citizens in any particular society based on capitalist politics. A perceived equality in citizenship only served to alienate citizens further, binding them to servitude under the interdependence of capitalism and citizenship. According to Marx, citizenship was a formality which sought to conceal inequalities within social classes in capitalist societies under the assumption of creating the conditions for equality.

Weber's argument is that citizenship also authorises the possibility of use of force, by creating discourse that the government needs to protect its citizens from a state of war. Thus, violence may be used as a weapon against violence under the assumption of the state protecting its citizens. The various definitions of citizenship fragments citizens' involvement in society, essentially contrasting one aspect of citizenship against the other, creating the need to formulate laws which seek to regulate the divisions foisted on society by a single, yet diverse concept.

The concept of citizenship has evolved through the years, defined by global and social upheavals - revolutions, migration, war, ethnic conflicts have all created the conditions necessitating a redefinition of citizenship. Various studies have fragmented the study of citizenship and rights, especially with regard to minorities in society. Although various states have allowed dual nationality or naturalisation, the restriction of migrants' participation in society led to multiculturalism discourse flanked by anti-discrimination laws, suggesting that society and governments exhibit a reluctance towards a form of citizenship based on equal rights. Despite the accessibility of citizenship, the loss of identity has become evident in society, as multiculturalism blends into assimilation, with migrants having to choose and forfeit slivers of cultural identity in order to claim status and rights.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Join The Club - Tina Rosenberg

Join The Club - How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World
by Tina Rosenberg
Icon Books, 2011

Review by Ramona Wadi

A book which will remain relevant for as long as communities are stifled or marginalised, Join The Club delves into various societal conflicts in order to impart a detailed account and structure of social responsibility.

From HIV awareness in South Africa, the law of castes in India to an overview of military dictatorships and an account of Slobodan Milosevic's fall from power, Rosenberg affirms that underestimating positive peer pressure results in eliminating the appreciation of a partial societal dynamic.

While far from guaranteeing a solution, peer pressure may create inroads where media publicity and speeches from governmental organisations fail to register any substantial awareness. Society relates to experience - the experience of like-minded people in an adverse situation and a tangible course of action.

Activism is a collective effort which should be constructed as an efficient tool for society, which is far removed from the consciousness of local governance and politics. Society's evolution through the years has been marked with defiance, passiveness, acquiescence and open revolt. All too often, individual efforts at communicating a philosophy or ideology remains cloistered within a specific realm to be embraced by a few like-minded individuals. The structure of activism ensures that any particular message is directed to the segment of society which constructs a necessary course of action to combat any harmful hegemony.

Rosenberg's account of positive peer pressure and activism is as much historical as contemporary. As injustice and suffering in the world continues to accumulate, so must activists embrace and devise new methods of combating adversities in a manner that is accessible and prominent in order to ensure a continuous, functional safeguard for the marginalised people in society.