Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A note to Labour delegates posted by Richard Seymour

Mandelson. Peter Mandelson. Lord Peter Mandelson. Seriously? This man told you only a few days ago that he was ready to work for the Tories. And you give him a standing ovation? No one could seriously believe that this applause was actually in response to what Mandelson actually said. Click on that link, watch his speech, and find a single thing in it that isn't pathetic and creepy. It wasn't even a competent delivery, what with the off-timing, wierdo expressions and sudden squeaking noises. What you admired, delegates, what you whooped and cheered about, was Mandelson's reputation as an electoral tough guy. You probably despise everything about him, but given a moribund leadership and a looming election that looks like a date with Pol Pot and his merry henchmen, you'll cower behind any charlatan selling a bit of psephological black magic. You even laughed at his revolting in-jokes about how much he'd reduced politics to spin. You laughed, and you clapped it up. 'At last,' you thought, 'the Prince of Darkness! We've hated him and his kind for so long, but he can save us!' But it's all a cruel hoax, I'm afraid. Not only can't Mandelson save you, but the second he sees his chance he'll drop the lot of you like a ton of hot shit. Face facts, delegates: you've had it. You're about to get trampled by a bunch of spivvy public schoolboys who by rights should be watching their venture capital firms sink, not preparing to lead the country. And the sad thing is that when that does happen, and you're all lying face down in the mud, you will collectively sigh with your last breath: "Mandelson was right - we should have privatised the Royal Mail!"

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Breakthrough for the German Left posted by Richard Seymour

The Left Party (Linke) is celebrating, for good reason. The German federal election results are projected to show the following: the CDI-CSU, the rightwing 'union' bloc, got a combined total of 33.8% (-1.5), the second lowest result since the Second World War; the SPD is down to 23% (-11), its lowest level since WWII; the 'free market' FDP gained 14.8% (+5); the Greens got 10.6%(+2.5); and the Linke got 12%(+4). Voter turnout was down by 6%. This follows disappointing results for the Linke in the European federal elections, and some very good results in Saarland and Thuringia, where the Christian Democrats were kicked out, and where the Linke polled 21.3% (+19.2) and 27.4% (+1.3%).

The media will tend to focus on the fact that Merkel can now run a right-wing tax-cutting administration in coalition with the FDP. This is hardly unimportant, but the biggest story that obtains here is the way in which the historic collapse of social democracy played out. This is a story that is coming to our shores soon, so it is one we had better pay attention to. It is not possible to protect the parties of the Second International from electoral oblivion, even if that were a desirable thing to do. The best that we can do is try to manage this process in a way that opens up a space for the radical left. It is by no means inevitable, as we have discovered to our cost, that the left will benefit from a slump in the social democratic vote. To be in that position, we have to have our shit together (which we, at the moment, do not).

So, the Linke increasing their vote by 50% on their previous turnout is a momentous development that no one should underestimate. It shows that for all the instabilities in the left-wing coalition, and for all the struggles over how much to compromise and whether to enter into coalition with the SPD in certain circumstances, it is not the flash-in-the-pan army of misfits that the bourgeois media would like to represent it as. It has a durable and growing base, apparently reaching well beyond its expected confines. It would be entirely understandable, given the history of the European left, for such a coalition to split at the first sign of stress, with each element retreating to safe territory, busying themselves rectifying sleights and constructing monuments to past glories. They didn't. If we could respond to the collapse of Labourism in Britain with the same sort of panache and willingness to overcome tribal divisions, we should be in a much better position to intervene in class disputes such as the Vestas occupation than we presently are.

Parenthetically, I spent a sunny little day in Brighton yesterday, which seaside resort is packed with soul-destroyed members of the Labour Party attending its annual conference. The nadir of social democracy was written all over the wan faces of delegates that I saw milling around. They didn't look like they even knew why they were there, the poor sods. I was just there to catch some rays, man, but then these protesters came along and it was all like 'Ant-anti-anticapitalista', and stuff like that. It was the annual lobby of the Labour Party conference, this one called 'Rage Against Labour'. It wasn't massive, not even very large to be honest, though it was a fuck sight more interesting than anything else Brighton had to offer. (Oh yeah, the beach. Pebbles and water in various thrilling combinations. Whoopee.) There was a sad little moment in my life when someone, inexplicably, chose to play Glenn Frey's "The Heat Is On" from a float, very loudly, twice. I half expected the whole scene to turn into the close of a 1980s shlock movie, where everyone starts partying down. (Was I always this much of a fucking miserable bastard, I wonder?) Other than that, what I came away with is just how few people are interesting in relating to New Labour as an object appropriate for lobbying. The 'Down with Brown' chants didn't really inspire, since Brown couldn't possibly be more down. The phrase 'dead man walking' has become a byword for his wretched career. No wonder Alasdair Darling is complaining that the leadership has lost the will to live. Lord Mandelson is now openly applying for a job under the incoming Tory administration. It is completely understandable that left-wing activists would rather do anything on a bright Sunday afternoon than address their years of accumulated contempt to the heavily policed facade of the Brighton Centre, one last time. You may as well petition a serial killer on death row.

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

G20 Protests posted by Richard Seymour

One of the better comments I've seen about the repression of the G20 protesters points out that when the 'Teabaggers' inspired by Glenn Beck turned out to protest over healthcare reform, they could bring a gun and cite the second amendment, without being harrassed. G20 protesters get beaten up and exposed to top notch military technology if they just cite the first amendment. Videos via Libertarias:

More here, here, and here.

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The very trite and vulgar picture of 'Dorian Gray' posted by Richard Seymour

A very brief and partial review. I did not, could not, sit through the entirety of the latest film version of Dorian Gray. Everything that could go wrong with such an adaptation did go wrong. Unbelievably, the makers have taken an already camp and melodramatic novel and turned it into an absurdly overblown bit of kitsch. They dispensed with most of Wilde's deathless aphorisms, stripped away vital scenes of dialogue, threw in unwieldy scenes that weren't in the original, including a backstory of abuse suffered by Gray that doesn't really seem necessary, degraded some of the already paper-thin characters so that they may as well have been played by mops with papier mache faces stuck on, sucked all the sexual tension from the relationship between Basil Hallward and Gray, and made the terror in the novel's later passages feel contrived. Ben Chaplin, as Hallward, doesn't seem so much enthralled with Gray as irked by him. The gory murder advertised from the first scene in the film feels so trivial that it reminds one of Wilde's quip that "One would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of little Nell". They have also thrown in some soft porn to make it a bit edgier, but to my mind that is far less sexy than suggestion and well-conceived innuendo.

In fact, the film makers seem to have been unsure as to how much to rely on suggestion. They decided, for example, that the original corruption of Dorian's boyish soul should be symbolised by him accepting a cigarette from Lord Henry Wotton. It is known that in Wilde's circles, the young 'Uranians' that he used to have it off with, the sharing of opium-tipped cigarettes was a preferred oral pleasure. And it is known that Wilde presented his young lovers with cigarette cases, as Wotton significantly does to Dorian in this film. But it still feels like a rather tame and tenuous symbol of sensual indulgence, particularly when the following scenes have the pair visiting an opium den and being descended upon by unrealistically glamorous prostitutes. The worst aspects of the novel, meanwhile, are preserved. Wilde's depiction of women, for example, is often deeply misogynistic, despite his feminist politics. The film does not make these shrill caricatures any more interesting.

The casting doesn't work either. Whoever the fuck this Ben Barnes is, he isn't Dorian. If anything, he is utterly nondescript, by no means the unconsciously beautiful ingenue that he is supposed to be channelling. Perhaps he missed his calling as a backing singer for a boy band, or as an ornate ironing board. Colin Firth looks as fat and slimy as a slug in his role as Lord Henry Wotton, not at all the dangerous and seductive quasi-Nietzschean mentor that he is striving to emulate. "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it," he intones. "Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself." This should be a memorable and subtle moment, but he just sounds like a bloated old lech trying to get his end away.

It is important to say that The Picture of Dorian Gray is, in its way, a deeply moralistic affair. Arthur Conan Doyle understood this much, and defended it from the philistines of the age who decried it as 'decadent'. Wilde may have wished to be Dorian "in another age, perhaps", but the novel clearly reviles his behaviour. This is perhaps a strange thing to say about a novel which opens with a series of epigrams that warn the reader not to expect an 'ethical sympathy' on the part of the artist, and which insist that "There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all." But then, for Wilde, concepts such as 'evil' and 'ugly' were almost interchangeable. The most damning indictment that Wilde could offer of anything was that it was "vulgar". It is not an accident that Dorian's evil expresses itself as the corruption of a beautiful work of art. In The Critic as Artist, Gilbert vocalises Wilde's contempt for England's vulgar intellectual culture by remarking that "There is no sin except stupidity". And nor was this a "sin" he looked upon lightly. While in Reading Gaol, Wilde responded to a query about the obscenely popular trash writer Marie Corelli by saying, not entirely in jest, that "from the way she writes, she ought to be in here". I know he would have recommended a similar punishment for the makers of Dorian Gray. Still, this humungous slice of cheese will probably become a cult classic one day, alongside Showgirls, just as Corelli's sentimental drivel enjoyed a subterranean audience in gay London for its sheer camp flamboyance. But goddamit, if you really must, hold back until the box office closes.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Tower Hamlets college strikers win posted by Richard Seymour

I'm hearing that the strike by lecturers to defend jobs at Tower Hamlets college has just won this morning, hands down. There will be no compulsory redundancies, and voluntary redundancy packages have been improved. The workers were cheered by a supportive crowd as they returned to work. A bad omen for any government intent on slashing the public sector.

Details here and here.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

"Inside the Revolution" posted by Richard Seymour

What to make of the Bolivarian revolution? Despite its limitations, it has achieved real decreases in poverty, higher social spending per capita, elements of grassroots democracy, and a widespread radicalisation among Venezuela's working class. The revolution has thus far withstood various challenges from the right, including a coup, largely because of the solid backing the Chavez government receives from the poor. Unlike previous efforts at social transformation in Latin America, this one has not been drowned in rivers of blood. Is Venezuela therefore a model for others to follow, as well as an inspiration in its own right?

The new documentary Inside The Revolution (trailer here) deals with precisely this question. This sort of film could so easily just re-tread old ground. It could just as easily lapse into uncritical adulation. Or it could just be very cliched, with various pleasing sentiments structured around a 'story so far' narrative. Already, films about Venezuela are characterised by some very familiar vistas: the red t-shirts, the smiling Chavez supporters, the scandalously abusive corporate media footage, and the slums, all overlaid with cheery joropo music. And if these were to be the fixtures of a genre that ossified the exciting and conflict-ridden social processes of Venezuela into low budget entertainment for leftists, then the Bolivarian revolution would have been done a disservice. But Inside The Revolution takes the argument deeper than previous films, making an effort to gauge what kind of example Venezuela provides for the left. It has less glamour and polemical bite than Pilger's The War on Democracy, for example, but is intellectually more challenging.

The argument is more distinctive than the material, most of which can be found in useful texts such as Bart Jones' biography of Hugo Chavez - cryptically entitled ¡Hugo! - and Gregory Wilpert's Changing Venezuela By Taking Power (an excellent counterblast to the Holloway thesis). Thus, you get a very brief account of the history of Venezuelan politics, from the Jimenez dictatorship to the highly controlled liberal democracy during the oil boom of the post-war era, to the social collapse and soaring poverty from 1978 onward. You get a discussion of the radicalisation in 1989, a counterpoint to the general demoralisation on the Left as the Berlin Wall fell. There is footage of Chavez's attempted coup in 1992, and his 72 second speech to the nation upon surrendering in which he famously said that his goals could not be achieved "por ahora" (for now). This statement became a catchphrase for millions, as Chavez became a hero to the poor and, upon his release, he began to build up support for a presidential campaign. He wins, brings about constitutional changes, faces down the hysteria of the ruling class, defeats a coup, braves a referendum defeat, suffers electoral setbacks, but continues to make progress. So far, so familiar - and accurate too.

The issue, then, is does Venezuela stand on the precipice of lasting socialist transformation? Does it defy what might be seen as the linear, stageist conceptions of social change that have dominated some quarters on the left for a century? The main editorial voice of the documentary appears to be Michael Lebowitz, author of Build It Now, and a critical supporter of Chavez. He has long maintained that Chavez's reforms, such as the breaking up of the latifundia, the creation of communal councils and particularly the institutions of co-management in which workers are represented at the managerial level of firms, place Venezuela in a transitional state. It is not socialism, he acknowledges, but it is potentially a pathway to socialism. As it is, the argument is underdeveloped in the documentary because of the constraints of time and narration, but it does leave you with a clear sense of the unfinished character of the Venezuelan experiment, the left-right divisions within the PSUV, the arguments over how to relate to the legacy of Stalinism and the dangers of confusing socialism with statism, the persistence of corruption and conservatism within the Bolivarian state, the existence of a rump within Chavez's government who continue to obstruct real change, and so on. It is nonetheless optimistic that with the enabling reforms carried out by Chavez and continued pressure from below, something like socialism could be constructed.

There are, though, a few things missing from this picture. The first is that, had this process began in 1980, the Bolivarian revolution would most likely have been crushed by death squads and torturers trained by the CIA. Today's Venezuelan ruling class must feel terribly betrayed by the United States for its insufficient attention to its own back yard. So, a vital condition for the successes of Chavez has been that the most concentrated centres of capitalist power in the world did not make it a priority to destroy the revolution. How long would such a state of affairs persist, one wonders, if the reforms went too far? So far, capital has been regulated, nationalised and curbed by Chavez, all in a very improvised fashion and with considerable restraint bearing in mind the powers that he is up against. For example, take land reform. As a rule, the institutions created by the government to redistribute land to the peasants have taken a very softly-softly approach, and have had to be goaded by popular radicalism to take more controversial stances. Thus, when peasants occupied the El Charcote estate, challenging the claim to ownership of the land by the British cattle-ranching company of Lord Vestey, the land institute ruled that though the company couldn't prove ownership of the territory, they could keep the two-thirds of it as it was being made use of. The other third was distributed to peasants. Examples of this kind of very qualified expropriation, being carried out on a pragmatic basis and in a very negotiated fashion, are typical. Were peasants and rural workers to start occupying and socialising estates on a mass basis, though, this would place the Chavez government in a very difficult situation. They would either have to confront the established centres of power whom Chavez has said he prefers to negotiate with, or send the police or army in to shut down the militancy. So, there is in that sense a self-limiting quality to the Bolivarian revolution.

Another problem with the documentary is that its focus can be a little parochial. It discusses Chavez's efforts to carve out a space independent of imperialism through such initiatives as ALBA, and this is indeed an extremely important development. It is not exactly a pilot for 'socialism in one continent', but it frees a space for further democratic breakthroughs and is thus worthy of applause in its own right. But there are some less savoury global imperatives that Chavez has to pursue. For example, he has to do business with the Chinese dictatorship in order to keep selling the oil that produces the revenues that fund his reforms. I don't think this is so terrible, but there is a problem when Chavez openly praises the leaders of countries where Venezuela does business - China, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Russia, Belorussia, etc. You may say he has no choice in this respect, which is debatable. But what is indisputable is that Chavez is making it harder for those struggling for the same kind of social justice and human rights that he defends, in those countries. This limits any claim to internationalism by the Bolivarian state, and it does point to the limited, cautious nature of its objectives. That is not to say it deserves any special opprobrium, but I think it does enjoin a more restrained attitude than is evident in this documentary.

All of that said, it helps to see how the experience of change in Venezula - change you can believe in, though Obama may not - is driving a process of ideological radicalisation and intellectual enquiry within Venezuela. There is a very real sense from the footage of the communal councils of just how much the workers and poor believe the revolution to be theirs, not the property of Hugo Chavez or anyone else. And it is that very old-fashioned idea, of socialism from below, that gives the documentary its most hopeful and critical edge.

ps: more info here.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The very British values of John Enoch Powell posted by Richard Seymour

Enoch Powell is the subject of reactionary encomium wherever the issues of race, integration and post-colonial Britain arise. They say that he wasn't a racist, just a decent English patriot who was saddened by the dilution of national identity. They say that he was right. They say that the current multicultural situation is intolerable and perverse, and that this was foreseen by Powell. 'They' talk an incredible amount of rubbish.

What sort of Britishness, what sort of nationhood, did Enoch Powell defend? Before coming to his infamous Birmingham address from 20th April 1968, I want to mention a few things about Powell's formation as a politician. He was the off-spring of petit-bourgeois Black Country denizens and, as a child of the lower middle class, he was also a career-minded imperialist. He had risen through the ranks of the armed forces without seeing combat, and aspired to the highest position in the empire available. He wanted to be the Viceroy of India, the local proxy of the British crown and as close to royalty as someone of his class and rank could ever aspire to. He wanted to be a king. Powell, a classicist, was also a devotee of Britain's desert travellers, such as Wilfrid Thesiger, Richard Francis Burton, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and Charles Montagu Doughty. He admired their unworldliness, their readiness to escape from modernity, their self-imposed exile from life. He experienced the deserts himself as a Lieutenant-Colonel in Algiers and Cairo during World War II, though his experience was not particularly heroic. He couldn't boil water, or handle a simple tin of sausages, and he once burned his moustache when he tried to get a fire going for some cooking. Still, he thought he was the right stuff to rule over a few hundred million 'coolies'.

He was also of that shade of imperialist opinion that detested the rising influence of the United States, believing America to be hostile to the British empire. And he hated Chamberlain not because of any instinctive anti-fascism but for selling Britain out. Because of his disgust over Munich, he even voted Labour in 1945, though he joined the Conservative Party. His regal dreams, as it turned out, were shattered by Indian independence, but he remained committed to the same monarchical and racial principles. In fact, upon being elected as an MP in 1950, he drew up a plan to reconquer India, which even Churchill thought was insane. And he went on to espouse the most right-wing 'free market' economics in a period when it was extremely unpopular.

There is a peculiarity in British imperial practise which is important to take note of, however. Although Powell later made his name by attacking immigrants from the Commonwealth, the traditional stance of empire was that all citizens loyal to the British monarch could have free entry to Britain. This stance was not fundamentally adulterated in the immediate period following World War II. So, for example, in 1948, one year after Indian independence was formally conceded and in the same year that the vicious suppression of the Malayan rebellion began, the Labour government introduced the Nationality Act. The Act upheld the practice of allowing free entry to the UK of all citizens of 'dependent' Commonwealth countries, affirming continuity in the face of certain post-war changes. The Act was more symbolic in this respect than it was substantial, since it did not alter the principle of free entry, supported by both Labour and the Tories. It was later falsely cited by Powellites as the basis for 'uncontrolled' immigration. What it really did was define the basis upon which immigration would be controlled, since the apparatus of exclusion was maintained for citizens of 'foreign powers' and so on.

What changed after 1945 was not the law so much as the problems facing the British state, and British capital. These included how to keep the empire, or keep as much of it as possible; how to handle the arrival of the American behemoth; how to restore the health of capitalism, and divert the growing radicalism of the working class; how, in effect, to remain a competitive centre of capital accumulation with what had been astonishing global dominion. Much capital had been destroyed by the war, and the labour force had been depleted. There was money ready to enter circulation as capital, of course, but in a dirt poor society where consumption was rationed, how was it possible to realise any surplus? With a tight labout market and a militant working class, how much surplus would it be possible to extract in the first place? The social democratic policies that capitalists often objected to were functional in this respect, since socialised housing and health significantly reduced the cost of labour. Nationalisations in vulnerable and unprofitable parts of the economy helped support more dynamic parts of the economy. And if much of the colonial apparatus was to be lost to independence struggles, thus shutting off valuable sources of hyper-exploitation, the Commonwealth could still help solve the labour supply problem. So, in 1948, the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury with 500 Jamaican passengers, all of them British subjects and all of them responding to a newspaper advertisement requesting labourers to come and work in the UK. The public sector began to recruit extensively from Jamaica and Barbados, raising an extra labour army of about 170,000 people before the first restrictions were introduced in 1962.

Did Powell have a problem with this? If he did, he was careful to conceal it. He had spoken out against immigration controls in 1956 and, as the Tory health minister, he had continued to draft Carribean labour according to the system's needs. In 1964, he still said that he could not support "making any difference between one citizen of this country and another on grounds of his origin". But things were happening that would soon make racist demagoguery an excellent career move. There had already been racist riots in parts of Britain throughout the 1950s, and there were plenty of shops and landlords who would have no truck with black Britons. In 1962, the Tory government had decided to impose the first controls on Commonwealth immigration, with the Commonwealth Immigrants Act. The labour supply problem had been dealt with, so the British state no longer had an incentive to defend immigration. The Act said that no Commonwealth citizen could migrate to the UK without an employment voucher issued by the government. By implication, though they were subjects of the British crown and citizens, black workers were being treated as a problem and a threat to be carefully managed. After Powell lost the Tory leadership election in 1965, he settled into the shadow cabinet and, after a few years, emerged in a new guise. He first debuted this new get-up in an article for the Daily Telegraph in 1967, entitled 'Facing up to Britain's Race Problem', in which he described the presence of Commonwealth immigrants as an "invasion" a "rising flood" that was seeing white people "driven from their homes and property" as house prices dropped. He went on to test the waters again at a speech in Walsall in 1968, where he denounced Sikhs for striking over the right to wear a turban in the workplace. I'll come back to this example in a minute. The notoriety that he received for this stance must have inflamed his ambition. He could become popular by vocalising the racist sentiments that he had denounced only a few years before.

So, he began his speech in Birmingham in April 1968 by asserting that the mark of a good statesman was a willingness to face up to dangers. The main danger, as he saw it, was described by a "quite ordinary working man" that he had encountered, who told him he would leave Britain if he had the money because he feared that "In this country in fifteen or twenty years time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man". As if he was confirming the diagnosis of this "ordinary working man", Powell went on to say warn that in twenty years time there would be three and a half million Commonwealth migrants in England. He said that by 1985, the decendants of immigrants would be in a majority, and that by allowing the inflow of "raw material" for the future "immigrant-descended population", Britain was "heaping up its own funeral pyre". He quoted correspondence from a constituent, who complained about a neighbour, an elderly white woman, being harrassed by "grinning picanninies" as she went to the shops. The correspondent said they could not speak English, but did know how to shout "racialist" at her. And, therefore, if she was thus accused, might she not end up in prison under the terms of the Race Relations Act? Powell made no attempt to refute this obvious drivel, but instead used it to bolster his claim that the presence of black citizens was a national crisis, an imminent threat to white Britons, whose freedom to live and speak within their 'own' country was being repressed. He predicted "civil war" between white and black Britons, and urged repatriation ("voluntary", of course) as the urgent solution. In so doing, he knew full well that he was encouraging the most poisonous elements in British society. He may have hoped to place himself well for a future leadership challenge, but the main effect was to strengthen the appeal of the far right National Front (NF), which grew in leaps and bounds for a decade afterwards.

Subsequent governments chose to pander to the racism that he had encouraged. The Heath government introduced the 1971 Immigration Act, and the rate of migration slowed to near zero.
Labour politicians began to attack migrants, as when Bob Mellish MP stood in the commons in 1976 and said of Malawi Asians, "Enough is enough". He was followed by Powell, of course, who repeated the same demand. The NF gained more than 5% of the vote in the Greater London Council elections the following year. The Labour government responded by increasing deportations, while immigration officials imposed "virginity tests" on Asian women. If the NF was eventually defeated by a broad antifascist coalition, though, the Tory party adopted precisely the kind of new Right policies that Powell had long advocated, and its right flank represented by people like Norman Tebbitt defended his ideas, as indeed they still do. Pursuing a particular class project, known today as neoliberalism, the Tory right also articulated in different ways the reactionary discourses of nationality and race that Powell, a would-be Viceroy and failed imperial traveller, had propounded.

It is worth noting a few things in conclusion. Powellism's defenders have always said that his followers were largely not racists. The journalist Diana Spearman analysed his post-bag in 1968 and decided that only a minority could be classified as racist, with the majority of his support attributed to fears for British 'culture' and 'traditions'. It was pointed out by anti-racists at the time that this involved precisely the typical racist gesture of constructing a non-white minority as a threat and a legitimate object of abuse and repression. This was the ideological basis of Powellism. Its staple conviction was that more black people meant less harmonious race relations, and that relatively few black people meant peace. That such culturalist arguments are still used as a justification for racism today suggests that the debate has not advanced that far. Another familiar argument, made by the dockers who protested on Powell's behalf after he was dismissed from the shadow cabinet, was that they were only protesting about 'free speech'. An Englishman, they claimed, had no right to say what he felt in his own country. And one other echo of the present was when Powell denounced what he called "communalism" during his speech in Walsall in February 1968, and then again in Birmingham that April. He was referring to the desire of Sikhs to preserve customs that he referred to as "inappropriate to Britain", namely the right to wear their turban in work. This was what he called the "canker" of "communalism". In other words, "communalism" was a code for what would now be called multiculturalism. The current obsession with questions of 'integration', the pseudo-problems of 'tolerance' and its limits, and the ends of multiculturalism, have roots in the seedy and sad career of John Enoch Powell.

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Guess who's not coming to dinner? posted by Richard Seymour

Behold. The Daily Mail would like you to be irrationally terrified. Of refugees. More specifically, of refugees who, pleading for "shelter", "protection" and "peace", want to come to Britain. The bastards, coming over here with their hate-filled ideology of peace - don't they know anything about British values? What is even more sickening is that they come from Iraq and Afghanistan, where said values are being introduced to the locals on a daily basis. Obviously the pedagogy has had no effect on this uncivilized, peace-seeking horde.

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Alas, poor Trotsky posted by Richard Seymour

When neoconservatives perish, do they share the same circle of hell as Leon Trotsky, or that of Joseph de Maistre? Is their sin one of revolutionary hubris, or militant reaction? It is a staple of both liberal and right-wing critics of neoconservatism that it is a mutation of Trotskyism, a 'foreign' revolutionary doctrine overthrowing classically American conservative discourse. Justin Raimondo's informative and entertaining discussion of the late Irving Kristol is an example of such an attack from the libertarian right but, as his linkage makes clear, the analysis is broadly shared by liberals such as John Judis.

Raimondo's judgment is harsh, but unconvincing: "What the neocons did was simply switch allegiances from the old Soviet Union to the United States, taking their hotheaded Trotskyist temperament with them – and finally aspiring to lead a world revolution with the United States government at its head." This will not do, for a number of reasons. The first reason it will not do is that it implies that "the neocons" were, all of them, former Trotskyists. This happens not to be the case. The first generation of neoconservatives did include a number of people who had once been Trotskyists, including Irving Kristol, the subject of Raimondo's obituary. It also includes those who had never been anything of the sort, such as Midge Decter, Norman Podhoretz, James Q Wilson, Michael Novak, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. I am hardly being exhaustive here. The neoconservative pedigree includes centrist liberalism, as well as right-wing anti-communism. The idols of today's neoconservative movement are 'muscular' empire-builders such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR and Ronald Reagan. None of today's influential neoconservatives have any grounding in Trotskyism. Wolfowitz was trained by the conservative philosopher Leo Strauss, Feith was educated by the anticommunist historian Richard Pipes, Libby was a Dukakis Democrat, Perle was a Henry Jackson Democrat, the young Abrams was a liberal anticommunist who worked with Moynihan and Perle, Robert Kagan has always been a Republican while his daddy was never more radical than the Democratic Party mainstream, and David Frum at his left-most was a young member of Canada's New Democratic Party, hardly a Trotskyist trojan horse. Even those lesser figures such as Joshua Muravchik and Carl Gershman who were influenced by the Shachtmanites tend to have come in contact with the latter as members of the Socialist Party during a period in which the latter were aligned with the right-wing leadership and propounding little but hardline anticommunism.

The second difficulty is that of those neoconservatives who had experience in the Trotskyist movement, it may be questioned just how much "allegiance" they had to the USSR to "switch". The point about Trotskyism, even in its more eccentric variants, was that it was profoundly critical of the Soviet Union in a way that neoconservatives never have been about American society. Indeed, Raimondo concedes this and tacitly confutes his own point when he argues that: "The main goal of the neoconservatives during the Cold War era was the elimination, by military means, of their old nemeses, the Stalinists." So did they switch allegiances from Stalinism, or just find a new means of belabouring their long-standing Stalinist enemies? Did they even bother, at any point following their rejection of Trotskyism, to distinguish between Stalinism and communism as such?

The third problem is that the role of the early Trotskyism of some neoconservatives is in danger of being massively over-stated. Daniel Bell joined the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL) when he was thirteen, but was not a Trotskyist for more than a few months before siding with the right-wing of the Socialists. Irving Kristol and Philip Selznick were also YPSL members and Trotskyists during their college years but had left by the end of the 1930s, and had rejected marxism entirely. By the end of WWII, neither were socialists. Gertrude Himmelfarb had been a teenage Trotskyist in the 1930s, but no longer was when she graduated from Brooklyn College and married Kristol in 1942. Jeanne Kirkpatrick joined YPSL briefly as a college freshman, but it is not clear how much sympathy she had with Trotskyism. Her later political career unfolded in the right-wing of the Democratic Party, where she described herself as a supporter of Hubert Humphrey. In those prominent cases where an involvement with Trotskyism can be established, it was brief in light of their overall career, and did not follow them into full adulthood.

Raimondo is right to emphasise divisions over World War II, and particularly the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and what this revealed about the nature of the USSR, as one decisive factor in turning Trotskyists into ex-Trotskyists. Trotsky and his followers still maintained that the USSR was a degenerated workers' state. Others, such as Max Shachtman and his supporters, felt that the pact showed that the USSR was no kind of workers' state, but a new kind of class society that they called 'bureaucratic collectivism'. Those who went on to become neoconservatives, however, did not bother with such distinctions. The problem, Philip Selznick explained in his contribution to The Neoconservative Imagination, was that marxism and revolutionary politics itself was tainted at source. Their disillusionment did not, therefore, involve transferring 'utopianism' from one plane to another. Bell, meanwhile, rejected any form of revolutionary politics very early on, concluding from the actions of the USSR (and of Trotsky over Kronstadt) that revolution was both an impossible dream and an unliveable reality. Kristol and Selznick concluded that Stalinism was no aberration, but the result of an attempt to impose a utopian blueprint on a species unprepared for it. They went on to become Cold War liberals.

Indeed, most of the early neoconservatives had spent decades as Cold War liberals before moving to the hard right. They had learned from Reinhold Niebuhr about the propensities for evil that were present in the human make-up and the impossibility of eradicating domination and coercion from human affairs. They learned to "take evil seriously", as Selznick has it, perceiving it as a real moral force corrupting people and communities from within. This evil could not be abated by social engineering. Neoconservatism adopted this profound pessimism. Far from being hubristic or 'revolutionary', it is profoundly respectful of tradition and institutions with longevity. The neocons espoused a culturalist reading of social institutions, in which the good or bad within any society was the result of certain cultural practises acquired over centuries. They tend to invoke something they call "Judeo-Christian morality" as the name for those cultural practises. Capitalism itself has been the subject of a religious defence by the neoconservative theologian Michael Novak, though neoconservatives in general have tended to worry, just as their liberal imperialist forebears such as Tocqueville and Teddy Roosevelt did, that capitalism's onus on individualism is a potentially decadent force. Contrary to Raimondo's suggestion, it is this concern, rather than support for the "welfare-warfare state", that led Kristol to offer only Two Cheers for Capitalism (a collection of articles originally written for the Wall Street Journal). In fact, if one theme dominates Kristol's argument in the cited text, it is that he cannot abide the "welfare state".

Far from bringing a "hot-headed" "temperament" with them, the ex-Trotskyists among the neoconservatives became very traditionalist in the face of African American rebellion and student uprisings. Kristol in particular was deeply sceptical of radical challenges to American society, hated those who were "arrogant toward existing authority", and became a 'realist' as far as international relations was concerned. Influenced by Hans Morgenthau, he was open to criticisms of the war on Vietnam, but he preferred the cool power-balancing strictures of 'realism' to anti-imperialist denunciations of US power. Far from frothing about the potential for the US to democratise the world, he asserted that American domination was needed because some societies were unfit for 'decent self-government'. He asserted the need to face "the harsh and nasty imperatives of imperial power". He and his colleagues went on to defend class hierarchies, advocate traditional gender roles, and blame the poor lot of African Americans on their cultural inhibitions.

There are, to be sure, neoconservatives who speak of a "global democratic revolution", most notably Michael Ledeen. However, he has never been a Trotskyist. He was influenced by Italian fascism in his youth, which he considers to have been truly revolutionary before it took power, but he makes it clear that he considers the 'revolution' he speaks of to be a distinctly American affair, rooted in its "historic mission" and traditions of "creative destruction". And in light of America's actual history, he can hardly be called a liar. The mainstream of neoconservatism, however, has always styled itself as a counter-revolutionary movement. When they defended American support for death squads and dictatorships during the Cold War, for example, their rationale was that in supporting even imperfect authoritarian structures they would avoid the nightmare of revolutionary 'totalitarianism'.

It is, after all this, a rather surprising conclusion that militant defenders of capitalism, of religion, of 'Judeo-Christian values', and of the authority of the state, the police, the schools, and fathers, are really the unacknowledged offspring of a Russian revolutionary.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Ahmadinejad on the question of Zionism posted by Richard Seymour

The claim made by the hard right clique around Ahmadinejad has been that they are the most effective defenders of the nation's sovereignty, and that their opponents are either Western imperialist agents or being manipulated by Western imperialist agents. People have been arrested and tortured under this pretext. So, when Ahmadinejad has something to say about Zionism and its moral claims, he speaks with the assumed authority of the Republic, asserting it as an ally of Palestinians and an opponent of Western imperial power. His latest comments, made on Al Quds day when Iranians demonstrate on behalf of Palestine, appear to deny that the Holocaust took place and thereby claim that Israel's moral mandate is fabricated. I would be quite prepared to be sceptical of any negative claims made about the Iranian leadership in the media, since these have been wrong in the past (cf 'wiped off the map'). And, as Israel is blatantly itching to strike Iran in some fashion, one is justified in being wary of anything that could be used in the service of such an attack. However, the attempts thus far to provide a more 'balanced' interpretation of Ahmadinejad's remarks look tentative at best.

First of all, it is patently obvious that Ahmadinejad did mean to assert that the Holocaust never took place, that it is a "lie" and a "pretext" for the founding of Israel. He further asserts that no research is permitted on the topic of the judeocide by "Zionists and Westerners". There is no point in wasting time refuting Ahmadinejad's claims, but it is worth saying a few things about them. Setting aside questions of probity, Ahmadinejad's argument does not even amount to a particularly effective attack on Zionism. It concedes the wholly false idea that the legitimacy of the 'Jewish state' derives from the Nazi holocaust - the logical corollary of his point being that if the judeocide did take place, which it did, then Israel has legitimate grounds for existence. It concedes the lie that Zionism would be a natural and logical response to antisemitism, pogroms and extermination - it was and is nothing of the sort. It is as if the ideological bases for Zionism were not established well before WWII, as if the project was not already well under way under British tutelage, and as if its founders had nothing to be embarrassed about in terms of their relationship to the Third Reich (see Francis R Nicosia's The Third Reich and the Palestine Question). I would infer that the reason for Ahmadinejad's focus on the Nazi holocaust is that he thinks that Zionism is about Jews, not about colonialism or ethnic nationalism as such. He thinks that if he can undermine the claim that Jews have suffered horrendous oppression, he can undermine the moral basis for the "Jewish state". It is an antisemitic argument, precisely because it concedes so many of the intellectual underpinnings of Zionism.

The interesting thing about this is that anti-Zionism among Palestinians is far more historically sophisticated. The PLO never adopted "revisionism", as it is euphemistically called. Its official position was always that the Nazi holocaust did take place, that it was a tragedy, and that this did not remotely justify the oppression of the Palestinians. Even Hamas, who are often attacked on this question, have been increasingly distancing themselves from that idiotic 'charter' with its references to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Hamas leaders have been openly denouncing Holocaust-denial, because they understand that it is no alibi to their cause. So what Ahmadinejad is doing is retrograde even in the context in which he would prefer to have it understood, that of the Palestinian struggle.

There is, moreover, a critical context to Ahmadinejad's remarks. First of all, the government is proceeding rapidly with its privatization programme. It is similar in many respects to the programme visited on Russia under IMF control in the 1990s, and is generating a similar class of state-connected 'oligarchs'. In general, the Iranian hard right accentuates external threats just at the point when it is expropriating public goods far more quickly than even the 'Washington Consensus' would recommend. Secondly, as mentioned, Ahmadinejad's remarks were made on Al Quds day. The government obviously expected that some of the protests would turn into opposition rallies, because it explicitly warned the opposition not to make an appearance. The opposition, despite the risk of arrest, torture and forced 'confessions', did turn out as it happens. And Ahmadinejad's remarks were clearly a calculated intervention, an attempt to claim a particularly reactionary and nasty kind of 'anti-Zionism' (the scare quotes are necessary in this case) for the current government.

No doubt Israel's apologists would prefer to cite Ahmadinejad's nonsense as proof of some 'genocidal' intent toward Israel. This is rather cheeky given the frequency of explicit genocidal sentiments coming from authoritative sources in Israel. Consider the Israeli defence minister's threat of a 'Holocaust' in Gaza. Or the rabbis indoctrinating IDF soldiers with exterminationist doctrine and venerations of the racist murderer Baruch Goldstein during the assault on Gaza. Or the messages left by IDF troops and settlers in Gaza and the West Bank: “Arabs need 2 die”, “Die you all”, “Make war not peace”, “1 is down, 999,999 to go”, “Die Arab Sand-n****rs”, “Exterminate The Muslims” and “Arabs To The Gas Chambers”. Ahmadinejad has nothing on these guys. Moreover, his comments are not comprehensible as a geopolitical gesture, but rather as another manoeuvre in a domestic struggle - in a class struggle, to put it bluntly.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sabra and Shatila posted by Richard Seymour

To destroy the basis of Palestinian nationhood, Israel had to crush every manifestation of civil society, political and military development among the Palestinians living in border areas and miserable refugee camps, from 1949 onward. Repeated incursions into Jordan, including the bombing of Irbid, and the ethnic cleansing of one and a half million people from the Suez Canal area in 1970, was a logical corollary of this. The Hashemite kingdom of Jordan had been the Zionists' key ally in the originary purge of 700,000 Palestinians that enabled the Israeli state to come into being. It was a major host of refugee populations, tightly controlling their movements and environment on Israel's behalf. Israel foresaw, however, that if local populations sympathised with the refugees, they had a political problem on their hands. So, their repeated attacks were in part an endeavour to turn local populations against the Palestinians, frightening them enough to pressure the Jordanian government into acting against the refugees. After a series of massacres by the Jordanian state, refugees aligned to the PLO were driven into Lebanon, right into the middle of a brewing civil war between, loosely, left-wing and Islamic groups on the one hand, and right-wing Maronite groups on the other. The PLO sought to avoid being dragged into that war, but when Phalangists started, using Israeli-supplied weaponry, to attack Palestinians, the PLO joined with local leftist forces. Israel was intervening directly long before its invasion, its actions including the napalming of a refugee camp, killing 200 people. By 1982, under the Likudnik Prime Minister and veteran of 1948, Menachem Begin, Israel had opted for open conquest.

Israel had a number of interests in the war. They wanted to crush the PLO, to align themselves with the right-wing Maronite forces with whom they believed they had a natural alliance (and it would make sense geopolitically in terms of opposing both left-wing and Islamist movements), and to extend their border somewhat to the north. Just as was witnessed during Israel's assault on Lebanon in 2006, Zionism is ideologically committed to the idea that the territory at least up to the Litani river belongs to Israel. The attempted ethnic cleansing of southern Lebanon during the invasion took the form of dropping leaflets from 20 June 2006 on civilian areas, ordering all Lebanese to evacuate for their own safety - and then dropping bombs on them as they fled. On 23 June 2006, Israel explicitly acknowledged that it intended to set up a military administration in the entire area south of the Litani. Whether or not international opinion (ie, that of the US and its allies) would accept this, it would count as yet another 'fact on the ground' that Israel could defend on the grounds that retreat would only encourage the evil-doers. Well, the first invasion of Lebanon was even more ambitious in its aims. Israel believed that in alliance with the Phalangists, it could control up to two-thirds of Lebanese territory. Given Israel's long-standing obsession with the 'demographic problem', moreover, it would not be sensible for them to annexe the territory without being sure that they could control, deplete and expel the Palestinians in that territory.

As usual, Israel's aggression was prepared by various provocative actions designed to elicit a response from the PLO, including 'training exercises' in Lebanese territory, attacks on Lebanese fishing boats and violations of air and water space. No retort was forthcoming. So, following the attempted assassination of Israeli ambassador Shlomo Argov by the Abu Nidal group, Israel launched a series of bombing raids in Lebanese territory (where the Abu Nidal group did not have a presence). The PLO did respond this time, shelling northern colonies - or settlements, or villages, or 'Jewish residences', or whatever euphemism you prefer. Israel took the cue to invade, protestings its determination to crush terrorism and protect its civilians from shelling (does this sound vaguely familiar?). In reality it embarked on the attempted annihilation of the PLO as a physical force of resistance, and of the whole idea of independent Palestinian nationhood. And it is in this context that one must understand the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

The PLO was, Israel recognised, not merely a military or paramilitary outfit, but a popular political force well-rooted in the exiled Palestinian population. To attack the PLO was not just to attack their troops, but the whole civilian infrastructure which supported them. And it wasn't enough to attack them in Lebanon. It is forgotten, perhaps, that during the invasion Israel also quoshed a number of civic and elected institutions in the West Bank, imposing authoritarian rule by whatever proxies and quislings they could find (few in number as it happened). It set up, funded and armed Village Leagues to keep control of the territories, authorising them to carry out arrests and attacks on opponents. This is the role that, sadly, Fatah has come to embrace. In Lebanon, the annihilationist motif was evident from the beginning. Long before Sabra and Shatila, the earliest targets of the war included refugee camps such as Rashidiyeh, which was reduced to rubble. Its residents fled or were killed, and those who were caught were rounded up and taken to a nearby beach to watch the destruction. All males of teenage years and older were blindfolded, handcuffed, and taken away. And they were not heard from again. Again, the Ain el-Hilweh refugee camp was largely flattened by bombing, and its mosque bulldozed afterwards. Approximately 100 mangled bodies were found under the mosques ruins. Hospitals were destroyed, orphanages flattened by cluster and phosphorus bombs, a school in Sidon was destroyed with 300 inside killed and, with ruthless efficiency, the Israeli army blew housing blocks and apartments to craters, if they suspected that there might be PLO activists inside. Hundreds of thousands of refugees - mostly women and children, since males were more robustly dealt with - were wandering aimlessly through Lebanon's carnage, starving and out of their minds with terror, before Sabra and Shatila. And all the while, incidentally, liberal and left-wing figures from the United States were taking IDF tours of southern Lebanon, cheering on the bloodshed. Jane Fonda, who had funded the Viet Cong, found herself conscripted to Israel's army of overseas cheerleaders, as did Tom Hayden, the former Sixties radical. Michael Walzer's verdict can be summarised in the simple phrase: "just war".

In September 1982, a month after Israel's demolition of the PLO had been consecrated, the IDF sealed off the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp. On Thursday 16 September 1982, truckloads of Phalangist and Haddad troops entered the camp from behind IDF lines. The Phalangists selected for the attack were drawn from the most extreme elements of the militia, while the Haddad troops were more or less direct auxiliaries of the Israeli army. They killed and killed for days. At night, they killed by they light of flares, methodically massacring the inhabitants, scooping them up with bulldozers and burying them under the rubble. Those bodies which could not be buried were taken away in trucks. On Friday 17 September, the Israeli chief of staff and met with the Phalangist high command, commended their hard work, and offered them a truck with IDF markings so that they might better do their work. They were given another 12 hours in the camp to finish their work, which they duly completed by 5am on Saturday 18 September. After the massacre was completed, journalists began to arrive on the scene. Robert Fisk was one of them, and reported:

"What we found inside the Palestinian Chatila camp at ten o'clock on the morning of 18th September 1982 did not quite beggar description, although it would have been easier to re-tell in the cold prose of a medical examination ... there were women lying in houses with their skirts torn up to their waists and their legs wide apart, children with their throats cut, rows of young men shot in the back after being lined up at an execution wall. There were babies - blackened babies because they had been slaughtered more than 24 hours earlier and their small bodies were already in a state of decomposition - tossed into the rubbish heaps alongside discarded US army ration tins, Israeli army medical equipment and empty bottles of whisky ... Down a laneway to our right, no more than 50 yards from the entrance, there lay a pile of corpses. There were more than a dozen of them, young men whose arms and legs had been wrapped around each other in the agony of death. All had been shot at point-blank range through the cheek, the bullet tearing away a line of flesh up to the ear and entering the brain. Some had vivid crimson or black scars down the left side of their throats. One had been castrated, his trousers torn open and a settlement of flies throbbing over his torn intestines.

"The eyes of these young men were all open. The youngest was only 12 or 13 years old ... On the other side of the main road, up a track through the debris, we found the bodies of five women and several children. The women were middle-aged and their corpses lay draped over a pile of rubble. One lay on her back, her dress torn open and the head of a little girl emerging from behind her. The girl had short, dark curly hair, her eyes were staring at us and there was a frown on her face. She was dead ... One of the women also held a tiny baby to her body. The bullet that had passed through her breast had killed the baby too. Someone had slit open the woman's stomach, cutting sideways and then upwards, perhaps trying to kill her unborn child. Her eyes were wide open, her dark face frozen in horror." (Robert Fisk, Pity The Nation: Lebanon At War, Oxford University Press, 1992).

The UN General Assembly considered this an act of genocide. It is important to see this in light of the processes that led to the massacre. It was not an isolated incident, but the horrifying - from the IDF's perspective, apparently, glorious - culmination of Israel's war on the very idea of the Palestinian people. It has a genocidal logic which has been repeatedly expressed in the various massacres in Israel's wars, whether in Qana or in Gaza, where the IDF seemed to go out of its way to violate every last humanitarian norm - indeed, to prove that it absolutely did not consider the Palestinians worthy of even the most minimal human consideration. The incident in Gaza City, on 22 January this year, in which the IDF sealed off a neighbourhood, bombed and shelled it, blocked medical and humanitarian entry, and knowingly left children to slowly die next to their already deceased relatives, was a clear indication of this. Remembering Sabra and Shatila is not just about paying ritual tribute to the dead, for whom tributes are worthless. It is about knowing what it is that the Palestinians are up against, and understanding the urgent need for solidarity today. The TUC's support for the BDS campaign is long belated recognition of that.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

TUC general council rejects calls for a new workers' party posted by Richard Seymour

This is interesting. It is unsurprising that the TUC general council blocked this motion, calling for the TUC to look at the possibility of establishing a new workers' party. It is unclear whether the motion would have gained the support of the majority of delegates, but even a handsome minority would have been embarrassing enough. But the fact that trade unionists are pressing for it is significant, particularly as the consensus among union leaders appears to be that the unions must back New Labour in its pre-election hour of need. In particular, note that the main union pressing for this debate to happen was the postal workers' union, the CWU. The CWU is still affiliated with the Labour Party, but it is currently engaged in a serious struggle with the government over the very cuts to frontline public services that the government said it would not carry out. The CWU is balloting for national strike action, and I anticipate that they will get a big 'yes' result. The fact that there are a number of unions interested in a left-of-Labour challenge could well form the basis of some sort of electoral coalition for 2010, but I think the lesson here is that such moves will tend to come from the bottom-up and as a result of direct clashes with the Labour government. Speaking of which...

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"The continent proceeds towards savagery..." posted by Richard Seymour

Not to be divisive or anything, but I think it is important to at least notice that the ideological (I hesitate to say 'intellectual') motifs that the far right are currently utilising have been prepared over the last eight years by pro-war apologia. I say the far right have utilised these mythemes because it would be grossly misleading to imply that fascists and the belligerati share the same agenda, the same tactics, or the same ideology. Still, having written about the lib imps for some years now, the overlapping strategies for justifying racism cannot but be obvious to me and to many of you - so apologies to those who are already familiar with the material I am about to cite. And given the rise of fascism across Europe, now would surely be an excellent time for some of those who bought this Islamophobic scaremongering to consider how it has galvanised these barbaric political forces. For example, I see that the English Defence League's strategy of arguing about Islam comes straight from the 'war on terror' playbook. It starts with hostility to 'extremism' - we are not against Muslims as such, but 'Islamic extremism'. It proceeds to conjecture that Islam itself is 'extreme', and that there is no such thing as a 'moderate' Muslim believer. The next step is to denounce 'Islamic imperialism', worry about the Muslim birth rate, and tacitly disclose that one is, after all, against Muslims as such. This was necessary because warmongers had to deny that Muslims had any legitimate grievances against Euro-American states that might lead them to be hostile to, say, an American-led conquest of Afghanistan or Iraq.

The most ebullient of these Islam-baiters was initially Christopher Hitchens, who began by diagnosing an ancient psychic malady inherent in Islam, a "triumvirate of self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred". No policy could alleviate this, since "the gates of Vienna would have had to fall to the Ottoman jihad before any balm could begin to be applied to these psychic wounds". In other words, the grievance was that Islam had not conquered the world. Later, Hitchens complained bitterly of those apparently 'moderate' Muslims who were in fact "mainstreaming" what he called - in language borrowed directly from the Israeli right - "Islamic imperialism". This "Islamic imperialism" was deeply connected with the immigration of Muslims to Europe, resulting in 'Islamified' geographical spaces - hence, Hitchens' deployment of the term "Londonistan", a twin of Bat Ye'or's "Eurabia" and a not-very-distant descendant of "Jew York". He later concurred with the neoconservative author Mark Steyn that the Muslim birth rate in Europe was potentially disastrous.

But this trajectory was much more widespread than one contrarian author. Sam Harris, the respected atheist writer, commented that "‘Muslim extremism’ is not extreme among Muslims". He averred that the basic thrust of Islam was to "convert, subjugate, or kill unbelievers; kill apostates; and conquer the world", and that those "who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists." Again, starting from hostility to something called 'extremism', there is a rapid progression to denouncing Islam as such, to regarding it as an inherently imperialist ideology, and to then seeing it as a threat to Europe. Similarly, Martin Amis, beginning with an attack on Islamism as a "creedal wave that calls for our own elimination", went on to draw broad conclusions about Islam (citing Hitchens, Berman, Naipaul and others). He would later froth about his urge to make the whole "Muslim community" suffer: "What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan . . . Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children . . . They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs – well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people." If he later disavowed the practical recommendations as merely a confession of a temporary sentiment, he did not stop believing that Islam itself was a threat. Influenced by Mark Steyn's neoconservative polemic, he wondered if "feminism" had "cost us Europe" by permitting the European birth-rate to slow. The complaint was that women, by using contraceptives and having abortions, were not playing their part in the survival of the race - a very Old European idea, it must be stressed.

The belief that Islam itself contained the institutions and energies that produced 'extremism' was repeated by the social democratic columnist Will Hutton, who asserted that "many Muslims want to build mosques, schools, and adhere to Islamic dress codes with ever more energy. But that energy also derives from the same culture and accompanying institutions that produced British-born suicide bombers. The space in which to argue that Islam is an essentially benign religion seems to narrow with every passing day." I cite these examples, being intimately familiar with them, but am conscious of having been exposed to hundreds more like it - often in shrill polemics by American authors. Even oppressed groups themselves were not immune to this hysteria. Writing in the magazine of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, the organisation's secretary George Broadhead wrote: "What does a moderate Muslim do, other than excuse the real nutters by adhering to this barmy doctrine?" This was not, to be fair, tied to any expostulations about what should be 'done' to Muslims, or any programme demanding that Muslims be repressed in any way. But it did identify Muslims as a particularly threatening and dangerous out-group, and thus as an appropriate target for abuse and stigma.

This tendency is not marked by support for fascism. Indeed, its most volubly self-proclaimed attribute is its hostility to fascism - that is, its tendency to anathematise a bewildering variety of ideologies and movements as 'fascist'. Yet it has been deeply complacent about the impact of war not only on its immediate victims but on the societies whose governments are waging it. It has also been insensible as to the racist nature of its statements on Islam, and about the ways in which these helped normalise what have proven to be toxic ideas. That complacency might once have been comprehensible, if not defensible, but is now at the point of being culpable. If people don't break decisively with this Islamophobic rubbish, they make themselves alibis - witting or witless - of barbarism in Europe. As if having supported the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan wasn't already bad enough.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Unions vote for Israel boycott. posted by Richard Seymour

I am ready to stand corrected, but I think this is historic. The motion approved is particularly notable because a proffered soft-Zionist amendment attempting to introduce some spurious 'balance' and 'moderation' into the motion was defeated. The motion condemns the attack on Gaza, calls for TUC support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, and is harshly critical of the racist Israeli trade union federation Histradut for having backed the Gaza aggression. Given that previous efforts to raise the boycott issue within national trade unions have often been followed by retreat under sustained counterattacks and legal threats by Israel's apologists, it is significant that the support for a boycott among trade unionists would appear to have increased. This is undoubtedly a result of the criminal attack on Gaza earlier this year. If this is actually implemented, it means the BDS campaign has real social weight behind it. It also means that Zionists of all shades are about to throw a massive tantrum.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

By soundbite or ballot-box posted by Richard Seymour

There are a couple of developments today that are worth taking note of. First of all, the government has indicated that it will send a minister, either John Denham or Jack Straw, onto Question Time to 'debate' the BNP leader Nick Griffin. Secondly, the Home Office has refused to ban an EDL protest scheduled to take place in Manchester next month despite a request from the city council that it do so. Though the Home Secretary has rightly identified these people as being in the tradition of the British Union of Fascists, it is fair to say that New Labour's strategy when dealing with the far right has mainly been one of accomodation and normalisation. I think this follows directly from their psephological analysis. Leading figures in the party are convinced that in order to remain a viable electoral force, it has to woo the "white working class". To them, this means acknowleding supposed 'underlying grievances', 'legitimate concerns' which the far right merely exploit and which they can address much better. Such a logic is partially indicative of how ideologically vacuous New Labour is. It is entirely reactive, and always seeks to deal with challenges from the right, and even far right, by attempting to occupy their space. But even the better Labour MPs can get sucked into this logic if they see the struggle as being won or lost primarily in electoral terms.

Another mistake is to see the fight mainly in media terms. We have to take the media issue seriously, of course, since most people's experience of antifascism will be, er, mediated. I was quite surprised a while back to see that Sunny Hundal had used the Guardian's Comment Is Free site to dismantle the arguments in favour of allowing the BNP onto the BBC. Whether I should have been surprised is another matter, but I was less surprised to see that he objected to my account of the Harrow protest last Friday. His main objection was one that also appeared in my comments boxes, which is that the media images of "brawling" (or "rioting" or "mobs") are destructive, not helpful. I am unsure to what extent Hundal believes the media representation to be accurate. He appears at some points to credit it, and blames the rough stuff on al-Muhajiroun. Yet, he also acknowledges Tony McNulty's point that the majority of people there were perfectly peaceable, that the teenagers who did go after the EDL were venting frustration and fury about the fascists' threat to the local mosque rather than being members of some far out sect. Still, the main conclusion appears to be that: "The impact of the MSM cannot be ignored – the UAF and Muslim groups also need to be savvy about how they’ll be portrayed on screens."

And this is undoubtedly a real problem. The majority of the British media is instinctively hostile to Muslims. I see, for example, that the EDL's promotional material for its Manchester bash consists of a montage of the most alarmist and misleading news stories about Muslims from the mainstream press. The news industry that produced those stories is obviously disposed to look askance at any group of Muslims engaged in protests. It is inevitable that if there are a few who toss traffic cones at the police, that is the image that will become the news. A few frustrated teenagers becomes 'Muslim rioters'. But I think to conclude that a protest depicted in this way is not a success, not worth celebrating, a "pyrrhic victory" as Sunny would have it, is to approach the issue from the wrong direction.

First of all, I think it is inevitable, given the EDL's approach, that there would be some sort of response from local people. One can denounce such a response, declare it irresponsible, insist that it would be better just to ignore the fascists, and so on. This is a response that some politicians in Birmingham preferred. Or one can intervene in it, with the hope of making it as broad as possible, and make a political argument about, eg, the necessity of defeating the far right by mobilising the anti-racist majority. If protesters understand that argument, they will understand the need for self-discipline. As has happened in a number of protests I have attended, people engage in useless adventurism because they mistakenly think that this is what works, or because they are impatient, or because their political outlook stresses the initiative of minorities. In this case, though, the number of people who actually did waste their time tussling with the police was miraculously tiny. Most people wanted to defend the mosque, which was by way of being a proxy for the local Muslim community that day. And in that, they succeeded. The response could have been far worse. The turnout could have been low enough for the EDL to successfully stage their provocation, and even go on a bit of rioting. The turnout could have been exclusively Muslim, which wouldn't have been good either. The politics could have been narrow and sectarian. Actually, what happened was that a large multiracial crowd saw off the fascists.

Secondly, an alarmist media reaction to antifascist protesters is not automatically a success for the far right. Given what the EDL has sought to accomplish - the physical intimidation of Muslims in the UK - the constant experience of being penned in, resisted by counter-demonstrations larger than themselves, and then bussed home by the police, cannot be inspiring. Their turnout on Sunday was apparently so demoralising that one of their number complained on the EDL forum, with the eloquence characteristic of that tendency, that they had been left with their "dicks swinging in the breeze" by fellow race warriors. If this experience is repeated in Manchester and Leeds, therefore, fewer and fewer of them will turn out. The EDL will take little comfort from the fact that the media is so hostile to Muslims if they themselves have been frustrated in their aims. What they seek is a repeat of what the far right sects accomplished in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford in 2001. In these cases, they succeeded in generating a racially polarised chaos with some local white people fighting on their side. The BNP plainly needs further episodes like this to expand its membership base. So when the booted-up streetfighting bovver-boys find they can't deliver because they are resisted by a numerically larger multiracial crowd, it is bad news for them as well.

A last point is that, just as the political class tends to adapt to realities created on the ground, we also tend to see the media become a bit more friendly to protest movements after they've been successful. We need a politically sensitive and media intelligent strategy, but we will see the biggest gains on those fronts when we have stopped the far right on the streets.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Brown fudge posted by Richard Seymour

The Prime Minister's speech to the TUC today conceded the ground that everyone expected him to concede: there will be cuts in state spending and public services. This has been flagged relentlessly for weeks, and the announcement has allowed the shadow chancellor to claim that the Tories have won the debate on this issue. Phillip Hammond, the man the Tories have trusted with the spending axe, also welcomed the basic thrust of Brown's remarks, while lamenting that he did not go further.

Brown's attempt to square the circle of shoring up core support in the labour movement while moving toward cuts, privatization and asset sales, is to say that "frontline services" will be left unharmed. Even if this was good enough, even if cuts of any sort didn't clash with the commitment to support employment, this claim is disingenous. It is disingenuous in part because Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, has already announced that frontline services will not be spared. I doubt that he did this without backing from the rest of the cabinet. But the real reason it is disingenuous is that Labour aren't going to win the next election, and Brown knows this. This speech was always about how Labour would position itself in opposition. When Mandelson attacked the "big state" and called for "far-reaching" privatization, he affirmed that New Labour was committed to restoring the neoliberal status quo. And this will make them as useless in opposition as they have been nasty in government. Whatever the Tories do, the shadow cabinet will not be able to pretend that it has a principle opposition to very large cuts in the public sector, and it will thus not be able to claim any credit if (most likely, when) the cuts contribute to another economic plunge. With Vince Cable demanding even more cuts from the government, we now have a cross-party consensus that substantial cuts to the public sector are in order. One might add that Brown's mention of "realistic" pay settlements signals the intention to push through, or support from opposition, real terms pay cuts for public sector workers.

Now, note the reactions from the trade union bureaucracy. The current joint leader of Unite, Tony Woodley, says Gordon Brown has "got it absolutely right here". Derek Simpson, the other joint leader of Unite, said that Brown had "put clear water between Labour and the Tories". Paul Kenny of the GMB, Dave Prentis of Unison, and Brendan Barber, the head of the TUC, also welcomed the speech. The only sceptical reactions came from Mark Serwotka of the PCS, Matt Wrack of the FBU, and Bob Crow of the RMT. Now, the TUC has been predicting social mayhem if Cameron's proposed cuts, ostensibly to reduce the budget deficit, become policy. They may be right. But are they really confident that Brown's cuts and sell-offs won't increase unemployment, reduce demand, and increase the scale of social misery? Of course they aren't. They are not stupid or naive. But the majority of trade union leaders see New Labour as 'their' government, and they have evidently decided to defend it in advance of the next election. Notwithstanding the militancy that is breaking out in various, often unofficial, channels, the commitment to supporting New Labour at all costs remains a hugely conservative force in the labour movement.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Another washout for the English Defence League posted by Richard Seymour

I don't know what the news is saying about today's protests, because I have only recently arrived home. It was hardly as dramatic as Harrow on Friday, but it was a good deal more tense. To explain, the English Defence League decided to try to attack the 'Quds Day' demonstration today. After the epic fail on Friday, the EDL activists were determined to make today their big event. The 'Quds Day' march is a pro-Palestinian event organised by the Islamic Human Rights Commission, with the support of Stop the War and other groups. It happens every year, and ordinarily it would not be a very dramatic event. But because of the declared intention by the fascists to 'protest' against it, and given the likelihood that this would turn very nasty and violent, antifascists had to mobilise at rather short notice to counter them. The next point is that the Tory GLA had decided to cancel the IHRC's permission to hold their rally in Trafalgar Square, moving them to a spot on a road in Pall Mall at the last minute, while allowing the EDL to to stage their counter-rally in Trafalgar Square. The organisers believe the GLA simply caved in to the EDL, and indeed it does seem like a staggering decision. I get the impression that it is an effort to put some distance between the Tories and Livingstonite multiculturalism.

Still, with that in mind, a small number of antifascists (I counted 40 or so in total) responded to an emergency alert and gathered in Trafalgar Square from approximately midday. Meanwhile, the Quds protest gathered at Marble Arch and prepared to march toward their new destination. As we awaited developments, a number of people whom one assumes were EDL spotters took our photographs and monitored us. It did occasionally look as if they might actually stage a sort of 'flash mob' and try to attack us. I have to say, their easily identifiable cadres - identifiable because they swaggered about, smirking, right in front of us - did look like they were ready for what the football hooligans like to call 'mischief'. Their declared intention of stageing the rally in Trafalgar Square was, though, a ruse. Those who weren't drinking in nearby pubs were milling around Piccadilly Circus, near the 'Quds' march route. They were apparently trying, unsuccessfully, to blend into the crowd, so that they could descend on the rally when it passed. But they are a conspicuous bunch, many of them probably already well known to the police, and about twenty of them ended up being 'kettled' near the Statue of Eros. Others continued to wander around in groups of ones and twos, communicating by mobile phone. We considered marching to Piccadilly Circus, essentially to place ourselves between the fascists and the rally, but this brought police warnings that they would be 'unable' to guarantee our safety if we did that. The only realistic option was to gather where the rally was to take place and defend it in the event of an attempted attack. The issue was not really physical force, since the EDL's members are thugs who enjoy a spot of ultra-violence, and we are not. Besides which, the police can easily contain a few dozen violent fascists if they choose to. It was simply about showing solidarity.

The reception we received from the pro-Palestinian protesters when they arrived was amazing. They had passed the kettled EDL members who were shouting the usual racist slogans. And they looked extremely pleased to see us. They slapped hands, shook hands with us, bigged up 'the socialists' and so on. Very visibly, meanwhile, the unkettled fascists did start to emerge from the woodwork. However, if they were still intent on attacking the rally, they were certainly outnumbered, even if the police somehow failed to stop them. They may have been intending to pick off small groups of people to attack after the rally. But the Met obviously couldn't risk having such a situation take place in the middle of the West End: too many people to answer to. So, the fash were collared and moved on. They failed to make good on their debacle this Friday, and I think they failed in large part because they once again chose the wrong target in the wrong place. As dangerous and vile as these people are, one thing they obviously lack at the moment is organisation, cohesion and political clarity. They have tried to stir things up in Birmingham, twice, and were beaten back. They tried in Harrow, and didn't even get within a hundred yards of their target. They tried today, and got nothing for their trouble. This should keep happening until even the few dozen people they consistently draw to such events decide to call it a day.

Update: here's the 'Quds' protest arriving:

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Friday, September 11, 2009

English Defence League humiliated in Harrow posted by Richard Seymour

This is the story that the news should be telling you, but probably isn't. I was there, so I will tell you (photos and footage will be posted shortly). I have rarely been so heartened in my political life. The English Defence League, whose marches have been wreaking chaos in Luton and Birmingham, attempted to target a mosque in Harrow today. Their official aim was to demonstrate outside the mosque in opposition to 'Islamic extremism'. That this mosque has no connection with Islamic extremism tells you that any mosque would have sufficed for their purposes. As their organisers have explained, they believe that Islam itself is inherently extreme. I believe that only a few dozen of their activists actually made it to Harrow, but I can't say for certain, because I never laid eyes on a single one. Where these fascist provocateurs intended to 'protest' were thousands of antifascists attending the UAF's counter-demonstration. It was a very large, tremendously militant, multiracial gathering. But the leadership came from local Muslim kids. By contrast, the only signs of the organised left and labour movement that I saw were 'Unite' flags and Socialist Worker - which is a pity because this should have been a priority for the left, for reasons I will come to. On the other hand, it was encouraging to see that the government felt obliged to send the Minister for London, Tony McNulty along, to join the protest. He looked very uncomfortable, but the fact that he was there means that New Labour feels under pressure on this issue.

The EDL might have had reason to feel confident, despite the thrashing they received in Birmingham. They had the permission of the council to demonstrate, and the Metropolitan Police were determined - so we were told - to ensure that the protest went ahead. They had riot police ready to start smashing heads if they needed to, and the usual crowd control barriers erected. Yet, I swear, there was no way the police had any real control over this situation. I believe that if they had tried to march these few tens of fascists down that road and outside that mosque, the EDL members would have been torn to shreds. I am not talking metaphorically. Every time there was even a rumour that these scumbags were spotted heading toward the mosque, thousands of these kids bolted toward where the action was presumed to be. They moved like fucking Olympic athletes, vaulting over the barriers and fences, circumventing and breaking through lines of riot police with aplomb. I stress that these weren't big men, like the chunky thugs that the EDL brings along, or the big lads that riot squad retains (probably quite a few fascists among them as well, by the way). They were young men, in some cases not yet men, but they ran with courage and confidence toward a ruckus, risking a beating not only from the fascists but also from the police, because of their numbers and because of their absolute hatred of the fascists. And based on what I saw, I believe they would have prevailed easily, without question. They would have taken on those thugs and turned them into sausage meat. As someone said to me today (quoting the late David Widgery, I believe), if socialists like to think of themselves as the vanguard, this was the avant-garde.

Because of those kids, the EDL could not get anywhere near the place. Perhaps one or two observers managed to wander through the protest looking for faces to remember, but that was it. They otherwise stayed pent up in some pub, getting drunk and thinking about who was going to get their face smashed in on the way home. The EDL went home, frustrated, because the police could not guarantee their safety. They could not take control of the streets outside the mosque. Even to just open the road to move a few out of service buses, they had to persuade mosque leaders to plead with the crowd to vacate the road for a few moments. What did this show? It showed that fascists cannot go looking for trouble in Muslim communities, and if they do try it they risk getting a hiding. It showed that they can't attract enough of a periphery to back them up in their efforts.

This is crucial: what did the EDL want, and why would they come to an area with a big Muslim population and try to target a mosque? I think it's this. For years, the fascists haven't been able to engage in any meaningful street politics. In the 1970s, their Honour Guard terrorised black people, the left, trade unionists and Jewish people. If you were at a socialist meeting or even a trade union branch meeting, you might exit to find a few of those 'guardsmen' waiting for you with baseball bats. They had cadres of violent men who were able to control the streets, to an extent. They have been itching to get back into doing that. They have wanted to turn the BNP's electoral gains into street gains. They have wanted to use Islamophobia as a lever to achieve that. If the official aim was to protest "Islamic extremism", the unofficial aim was to incite a race riot. They hoped to attract young white racist street-fighters to come and fight on their side, beat up some Muslims and create headlines about 'racial tensions'. Some while back, the BNP's legal adviser made a speech explaining that as the BNP were unable to do street politics for a while, this role would have to be fulfilled by their some time rivals, the National Front. He said they could be 'very useful' in this respect. I think the division of labour thus becomes: NF activists and the usual array of thugs from C-18 and various football gangs try to instigate polarisation along racist lines in local communities; if they succeed, the BNP then go on television and radio, at the invitation of producers who evidently think they're the 'experts' on this kind of issue, and say that Muslims are causing racial tensions, and it's time to end the madness of multiculturalism and build 'peace walls' separating the 'comunities'. This is not really an optional extra for them. The BNP will not be able to grow unless large numbers of white people feel so threatened, so deranged with fear and loathing, that they don't just want to vote for the fascists but join them and become part of their activists base. Unless there is 'evidence' on the streets of racial polarisation, and of some putative threat to 'indigenous' people, they may hit a glass ceiling. So, they need violence and chaos to build.

This is why confronting the EDL directly is a priority for antifascists and the left. Moreover, if you're on the left and you don't want to talk to the people who were on that counter-demonstration, you might as well give up. The next time the fascists try to target a local community, the Left should be there in numbers, and visibly. They should be at the forefront of these struggles, repeatedly beating back the EDL until they get the message that is just not possible for fascists to take over the streets they way they used to.

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