In this week’s New Statesman: The intervention trap

Olivier Roy asks: "As France and Britain are lured into Africa, what is al-Qaeda planning?" PLUS: Bryan Appleyard on the entitlement of the super-rich.

Olivier Roy: The intervention trap

In our cover story this week Olivier Roy – head of the Mediterranean Programme at the European University Institute in Florence – writes in an exclusive essay on al-Qaeda in Africa. The French and British military action in Mali misunderstands the nature of terrorism and the ambitions of al-Qaeda. The complexities of al-Qaeda across Africa, and France’s multilayered reasons for intervening in the Malian conflict, leave few clear answers. He writes:

It is clear that we are still stuck in the kind of semantic and political confusion introduced by the Bush administration when it launched its “war on terror” after the 11 September 2001 attacks . . .

There is nothing new or distinctive about the activities of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) or any of the other small bands of international jihadists operating in the Sahel. The groups linked to al-Qaeda are nomadic, almost by definition – they are not anchored in the societies in which they operate.

The composition of the group that attacked the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria is a case in point: its members were from several different countries and of various races, and also included converts . . .

It would be absurd for the French to think that they could evict al-Qaeda from the Maghreb by occupying territory: al-Qaeda would simply regroup a little further away. And if the aim is the destruction of these groups, that is also absurd. Given the small numbers of fighters involved (a few hundred) and given that al-Qaeda recruits internationally, it would be easy for them to take flight, to cross borders or to return to London or Toronto in jeans and without beards . . .

Facts are stubborn things, as Lenin said. In spite of the moralising, the ideological posturing, the junk geopolitical strategising (the west against Islamic terrorism) which has held politicians, journalists and the military captive for a decade, though it has been continually disproved by events, the old problems will return . . .

Bryan Appleyeard: The age of entitlement.

The new super-rich have no allegiance, obligation or connection to wider society, says the award-winning journalist Bryan Appleyard in the NS Essay this week. In an impassioned piece on the “rising narcissism” and impunity of those who made their wealth in rogue finance, Appleyard argues that we have entered a new “age of entitlement”, where the super-rich live in a “mirror-lined” and “legally protected” bubble.

Perhaps it was ever thus: the rich have always been different. But that’s not true. Some­thing big, something moral, has changed . . .

“Shocking” is too soft a word to describe the crimes of the financial sector. They are almost thrilling in their creative abundance . . . loading the world economywith ever greater levels of risk and throwing millions of people out of work. And so on. All the time, they were enriching nobody but themselves. The banks and their buddies have been on a crime spree that would have glazed over the eyes of Al Capone . . .

I witnessed the cult’s apotheosis at the World Economic Forum in Davos in the early 1990s – I sat in on a meeting at which sharky young businessmen more or less said they would trample on their grandmothers for the sake of the bottom line. Viciousness had been validated. That is the enduring view in the financial sector. “There is no incentive in the financial world,” a very prominent insider told me, “to be moral . . .”

The new entitled live in a mirror-lined bubble. Also a legally protected one. I was told of a hedge-fund boss so vile that investors withdrew their money but did not sue, because other hedge funds would then refuse to do business with them. On top of that, they are protected in Britain by libel laws and a tax system that, as John Lanchester [the author of Capital] points out, not only shields our own entitled from scrutiny but also encourages equally entitled foreigners to come here . . .

“You might as well say, ‘Bond villains, come and live here,’ ” he [Lanchester] says. “Our libel laws don’t help. There are a lot of zillionaires about whom we are going to read the truth uncensored only when they are dead. It’s an astonishing situation, when we have such a proliferation of incredibly rich criminals.”

Kathleen Jamie: The spirit of Bannockburn

Next year, a referendum on independence will determine Scotland’s future, but the country’s artists have already launched their own fight for freedom. With the vote timed for the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn, the battle that “secured [Scotland’s] independence and confirmed its national identity”, the poet Kathleen Jamie – who was invited to compose words to be inscribed on the new Bannockburn memorial – writes, in a Letter from Stirling:

Bannockburn was an unlikely triumph for the Scots. The English forces were vastly superior in number, but the Scots knew their own land. The Bruce had chosen well and trained hard; he made use of the forests, bogs and waterways around him. Driven into soft ground, the English horses floundered and so did the men . . .

It’s a potent site. The weight of history, the sobriety of the monuments, the weather and the light, the slaughter, resistance, the subsequent union, devolution, turns of fate, a refusal to submit, “freedom”, whatever that means – the whole Bannockburn thing was ours in a small way to redirect.

The thing is, many Scots, myself included, have no problem distinguishing independence from nationalism, and will probably vote Yes in a referendum, not because of a Bannockburn sentiment, but in the knowledge that any Holyrood government need not necessarily be “nationalist”.

The Battle of Bannockburn was a colossal, defining event. The move towards independence, on the other hand, is a process long and slow.

PLUS:

 

Rafael Behr: The Tories are blinded by rage against the Lib Dems, while Labour’s cold fury is thawing

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr says the Conservatives are “fantasising about governing beyond 2015, without the shackles of coalition”, but notes that at the same time Labour’s post-election fury towards the Liberal Democrats is thawing. Read his piece in full on our website here.

Craig Raine: On Manet’s subtle sexuality

It would be impossible to paint ‘modern life’ without touching on the touchy subject of sex. Manet’s Olympia (1863) tried the direct address – the barely defiant ‘so what?’ of the courtesan, the sack artist, the cool professional – and ran into even more trouble.

Laurie Penny: Can Rihanna videos really turn a girl into a knicker-dropping strumpet?

The language of ‘sexualisation’ as employed by professional pearl-clutchers such as the Tory MP Claire Perry, implicitly assumes that sex is always something done to a woman rather than something we do… By this measure, a young girl merely has to leaf through a copy of Cosmo or stumble upon a Rihanna video on YouTube and wham, that’s it: sexualized. Ruined forever. Nothing to be done.

In the Critics:

  • Jonathan Derbyshire reviews The Scientists: a Family Romance by Marco Roth
  • Kate Mossman reviews A Prince Among the Stones: That Business With the Rolling Stones and Other Adventures by Prince Rupert Loewenstein
  • Alexandra Harris reviews Paul Kildea’s major new biography of Benjamin Britten
  • Novelist Toby Litt reviews Tracey Thorn’s memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen
  • Ryan Gilbey is not wholly convinced by Robert Zemeckis’s new film, Flight.
  • Rachel Cooke sings the praises of Jonathan Meades’s new documentary for BBC4, The Joy of Essex
  • Will Self's Real Meals column

And much more.

Read further in our “In the Critics this Week” blog here.

All this and more in this week's New Statesman, on newsstands and online available for purchase here.

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.