Sunday, 17 May 2015

SPECTRE - New Website!

So after six years of keeping this blog I've decided the time is right to move forward. I won't be taking down this blog, but I will be moving to a new website. The new project is a collaborative effort of myself and my friends Chris Horner and Mark Waller (hopefully others too). It's called Spectre as an ode to the Communist Manifesto, and not to the villainous James Bond organisation.

Spectre aims to channel radical perspectives and conversations on politics, philosophy, history and culture. The objective being to challenge the conventional wisdom of neoliberalism and build an online presence for ideas not heard in the mainstream. In its commentary on today’s political system Spectre hopes to recognise and record the possibilities of a better world.

So from now on, you can read my work here:

Saturday, 16 May 2015

The 2015 General Election.

I covered the election cycle for Souciant. My first article focused on Ed Miliband and what he represents for the centre-left and for the Labour Party.

The early signs of the Miliband leadership were not promising. He shirked from making promises early on, apparently to avoid commitments he couldn’t fulfil, probably to avert any infighting. Labour veterans will remember, with no nostalgia, the splits in the 1980s, which ruptured the party’s electoral chances, consigning it to the wilderness for the best part of two decades. So long as the party remains united, it can back neoliberal policies. 
In this regard, sectarianism has its virtues over unity. As Leo Panitch has emphasised, it might be necessary to divide ranks, and prompt a full-blown confrontation, in order to rescue the official social democratic party from its own rightward drift. Contestation can lead to progressive outcomes, but plenty of people prefer to play the safe game holding onto a scintilla of hope. The last battle for the life and soul of the Labour Party was fought in the 1980s. 
The post-war Labour Party has consistently sought to buttress the system and avoid the redistribution of wealth and power. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the plan was to secure ever-rising living standards through adjustments to income and jobs policy, as well as an inflationary monetary approach, to make the pie appear bigger for everyone. Then in the 1990s New Labour promised it could do this by further compromise and, ultimately, by heaping greater debt onto people. 
Likewise, Miliband promises to tweak the system just enough to placate the incorrigible masses. He tries to make the right noises about taxes, health care, jobs and housing, but ultimately falls short. We’re told he’s the official left candidate, and yet he talks about ‘responsible’ capitalism. The days of Bevan and Attlee are long gone. These may be the end times for the centre-left.

I wrote these words for an article, the Death of the Centre-Left, published on March 31. For the election I looked at almost every major party, with the exceptions of Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems, with particular attention paid to the Green Party, Labour, UKIP and the Conservatives. Here's my take on the 2015 election:
The Anti-Cameron - On the significance of the SNP as an alternative to the Whitehall consensus and what it means for those of us on the left-of-centre.
The New Ted Heath - A historical look at Cameron's Conservative Party and how it reached this peculiarly modern manifestation of right-wing politics.
These Greens Are Different - A critical, yet sympathetic, look at the Green Party, their social programme and what has gone wrong for them on the campaign trail.
White Identity Politics - A comparison of UKIP and the DUP in historical terms of colonial and racial oppression, specifically how the oppression of the Irish helped to constitute the white identity to which UKIP now appeals.
Small was Beautiful - A look at the strangely reactionary history of the Green Party, how they came to be and why they are left-wing today.
Dead Labour - Again, a critical look at Labour and precisely the history of its infighting and how it produced the current political impasse.
Early 90s Flashback - Looking back to the 'surprise' victory of 1992 in terms of the Conservative majority won and secured by David Cameron. What lessons can we draw from this?

The trouble with cultural appropriation.

In recent years, I’ve heard a lot of talk about cultural appropriation in the music industry. Not least about Miley Cyrus and the spectacle of ‘twerking’, but also Macklemore and Iggy Azalea (bog-standard targets). The charge of cultural appropriation alleges that these artists have stolen their style from black performers, and it seems clear that there is more than a hint of truth to this claim. But it shouldn’t be implied that this is just a cultural question.

The more serious cases being the fact that there is a Blues root to almost all music today. Black talent has been rinsed by the music industry for a very long time. It’s a great historical irony that the classical music of the United States, a profoundly racist society, is Jazz music – the rhythms of the oppressed – which emerged out of the Reconstruction period following the civil war. The end of this period came in the form of segregation and the rise of the Klan. As much as culture has always represented the heart of a heartless world the Jazz scene was the vivacity of a world devoid of hope.

All of this confirms the Janus-faced nature of history. So if we’re going to make a distinction it’s worth making one here: there’s the point that the music industry has rinsed Black America for a long time, and then there’s the concept of cultural appropriation and what it brings to this debate. This kind of cultural criticism is worth unpacking. The charge of cultural appropriation can only be asserted on the basis of certain presuppositions. First of all, it takes cultures as homogenous, self-enclosed, static entities; secondly, it implicitly advocates that this should be the case.

Not only is this presupposition wrong, it shouldn’t be the case either. Cultures don’t have borders and never have had borders. Nor should cultures have them. To take an example within a dominant culture: Beowulf, the oldest piece of English literature, was produced in Scandinavia. The English language is composed of many influences, famously so, from Latin, Greek, French, and even Irish; its homogeneity can only arise out of heterogeneous origins. The numerical system employed in the West is Arabic. What we might call cultural transmission can’t be avoided.

We seem to have reached a point where cultural appropriation now extends to criticism of individual conduct. This is especially ironic as the phrase was coined by George Lipsitz, who defined it as a form of strategic anti-essentialism (this was long before the momentous days of Tumblr). He warned against wanton appropriation which could be insensitive. This implies that there is a sensitive way to do so, and that has been lost to the whirlwind of social media. No one seems to have the time of day to look into the terms of debate, which obscures the issue further.

This is the crux of the matter. To suggest white guys with dreadlocks are ‘acting black’ implies a certain amount of identity essentialism (e.g. that there are social attributes belonging inherently to black and white people) which takes essence to precede existence. The contemporary Left can see this problem when it comes to transgenderism and rightly chides the radical feminists who question it. At the same time, it ought to be kept in mind that the gender roles shouldn’t be maintained as a binary in the first place and this also applies to the question at hand.

In its worst moments, the contemporary Left seems to have become preoccupied on interpersonal conduct. The response to every issue comes in the form of regulation, which seems to extend a kind of consumer ethics (in this case at least) and make it business ethics. So it’s at once moralistic, reformist and puritanical. It would be a mistake to characterise this as ‘identity politics’. It’s almost a kind of ‘lifestyle politics’ – it’s about who has the most responsible newsfeed – which is a retreat from organised politics. It belongs to the same family as ‘privilege-checking’ and ‘trigger warnings’.

As if what we need today is a new set of ethics and we can remake the world without power. This criticism shouldn’t be confused with not being a committed anti-racist. Exploitation in the music industry is a political and economic question, it’s not a moral and cultural one, we should respond accordingly without de-politicisation. When we’re talking about race we’re dealing with formations of social control and we shouldn’t forget that the scars and wounds are very deep. Ultimately, we should be looking to move beyond diversity and aim for greater hybridity and immixing – not less.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Cuba's Lung Cancer Vaccine

The sudden shift in US-Cuba relations presents the world with a tremendous opportunity in the field of medical research, not least in developing a promising vaccine for lung cancer.
CimaVax is a vaccine treatment for non-small cell lung cancer, targeting a particular protein, epidermal growth factor (EGF), that attaches itself to receptor proteins on the surface of cells causing them to grow and divide. Cancers can cause the body to produce excess EGF to enhance the pace of cell growth. CimaVax is designed to stimulate the body’s immune system, prompting it to produce antibodies in response to the increase in EGF, preventing the protein from attaching to cancer cell receptors.
In theory, this will stop the signal that tells cancer cells to grow, slowing the cancer's likely growth. After 25 years of work at the Centre for Molecular Immunology in Havana, the drug was made available in 2011, free of charge, to patients at clinics and hospitals across the island while it underwent a third set of trials. Researchers looked for signs of an immune response among lung cancer patients and have so far found patients who have taken CimaVax do better.
The patients tested lived slightly longer - on average, between 4 to 6 months - while symptoms, like coughing and breathlessness, were reduced. The trial results also suggest younger patients fare better. Twelve people under the age of 60, who had strong immune responses, lived 15 months longer than previously expected. Any conclusions drawn should come with the caveat that only a small sample of patients were tested.

The politics of CimaVax 
CimaVax’s importance to Cuba is underscored by the fact that lung cancer is the fourth leading cause of death in the country. It is also the leading cause of cancer death in the US.
The results of the first trials in Cuba has triggered follow-ups by researchers in Japan and some European countries, but until now it has been politically impossible for the United States to undertake such trials. In December 2014, however, President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro announced their move towards normalising relations. Since then, US delegates have visited Cuba for the first time in over 50 years and, last month, Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo visited Havana in a landmark event for the two countries.

At the same time, the Roswell Park Cancer Institute at the State University of New York closed a historic deal with Cuba’s Centre for Molecular Immunology which will allow Roswell Park’s researchers to bring CimaVax to the US, where it can be put before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The drug can then be put through trials later this year before potentially entering the US health market. With Roswell Park’s financial resources, collaboration may prove beneficial to cancer sufferers around the world as alternative applications of the vaccine are explored.
“The chance to evaluate a vaccine like this is a very exciting prospect,” Roswell Park CEO Candace Johnson told WIRED. The company’s research team plan to explore the vaccine’s potential as a preventative measure in line with a standard vaccine that focuses on preempting conditions rather than minimising their symptoms. It may even be used to treat prostate, colon, breast, pancreatic and other cancers.
The Obama administration has so far relied on executive power to remove restrictions against the importation of medical and research equipment from Cuba. Congress are yet to decide whether or not the US will ultimately lift the trade embargo. If it is lifted, this could a groundbreaking opportunity for scientific and medical collaboration between the countries.

Doing more with less
Notwithstanding five decades of economic sanctions, Fidel Castro gave priority to medical research and biotechnology. “They’ve had to do more with less,” Dr. Johnson told WIRED. “So they’ve had to be even more innovative with how they approach things. For over 40 years, they have had a preeminent immunology community.”
Following a 1981 dengue fever outbreak which infected 350,000 Cuban citizens, Fidel Castro set up a Biological Front to focus the research efforts of different agencies. Mr. Castro dispatched Cuban scientists to Finland where they learned how to synthesise interferon, a virus-fighting protein, bankrolling their lab. By 1991, Cuba had become a major exporter of pharmaceutical products, at first to the USSR, then across Latin America and the developing world.
Today Cuba exports healthcare globally. Cuban health workers recently flew to West Africa to provide support in the multinational efforts to contain Ebola. The Cuban government also ensures the prices of the drugs the country's doctors offer are far below others on the market, in order to give developing countries a preferential option. As part of “south-to-south technology transfers” Cuba has provided support for China, Malaysia, India and Iran to set up pharmaceutical factories.

NOTE: In 2004, Cuba's biotech capacity was noted by American critics, such as UN ambassador John Bolton, as a potential basis for developing "biological weapons". The Cuban government strongly denied these accusations and invited US scientists to observe the laboratories.

As a result of these efforts, Cuba receives $8 billion a year in foreign exchange and financial support from the World Health Organisation. Export of medical services has not just brought in revenue - it has led the Castro brothers to grant over 100 patents to scientists and, in effect, open up the country to intellectual property rights. The prospect of normalised relations between Cuba and the United States thus holds enormous potential for the scientific community.

This article was originally written for The World Weekly on May 14, 2015.