Monday, November 30, 2009

The shade of Labourism posted by Richard Seymour

We on the Left are in a bad shape. We face massive spending cuts and job losses, and an accompanying war on the remaining strongholds of organised labour. We face a far right on the move, not just in this country but across Europe. A constant drumbeat of more or less explicit attacks on Europe's Muslim minority has now been punctuated by the small, cowardly decision by Swiss voters to ban the construction of minarets on the grounds that such buildings constitute a surreptitious Islamic 'colonisation' (this in a country with only four minarets). The far right are in ascendant, and they are abetted by a media and political class opportunistically using their language and validating their politics of resentment. More on that in a future post, but for the moment, consider John Denham's latest remarks. We have beatings, we have cemetery desecrations, we have attempts to march on local mosques. Our ability to meet such challenges is not negligible, but responses have proven to be patchy and fragmented. Organisationally, the left is atomised into some local strongholds in communities, unions, councils, etc. What is ailing us? I am not pedling any voluntarist illusions here - we can't just will mass resistance into being - but we do have to think about what our strategy is for overcoming our limitations.

For the last decade or so, much of the far left at any rate has shared a perspective that there needed to be a drastic realignment on the left, and that the window for this was provided by disaffection with New Labour's right-wing rule. This disaffection has been real enough. It is so severe that the Labour Party saw an unprecedented collapse in membership to below 1918 levels, and lost several heartland seats with previously mountainous majorities. The question would then be whether those former Labour Party members could be provided with a more radical home, and whether the party's angered ex-voters could be given a realistic alternative in the voting booths. It was not realistic to expect such a constituency to immediately break with reformism which, after all, is not a programme but a default disposition. Everyone feels its gravitational pull, especially during periods in which the left is weak. And while political disillusionment was manifest, and particularly evident in street politics, a sudden upsurge in labour militancy could not be counted on as a talisman.

There had been, and continues to be, a general decline in union density, as the working class has been reconstituted, and new sectors of the economy emerged that kept themselves more or less union-free. In addition, workers have become far more mobile. We hear a lot about immigration statistics, but rarely about the other aspects of this story: mass emigration from the UK, and mass migration within the UK's borders. For, in addition to the 427,000 workers who emigrated from the UK in 2008, over 100,000 workers migrated in and out of the North-West alone in 2005-6. 163,000 workers moved into London that year, but 243,000 moved out. This sort of turnover on an annual basis means that models of trade unionism elaborated on the basis of a relatively more static workforce are increasingly difficult to sustain. Days lost to strike action were at an all time low when New Labour were elected, and the number continued to decline for the remainder of the millenium. Traditions of militant trade unionism, 'DIY reformism', that enabled a powerful response to both Labour and Tory attacks in the late Sixties and early Seventies, no longer existed. And given New Labour's abject abasement before every passing millionaire with a friendly wink, it was necessary to fight for the most basic ideas, the class politics, that could articulate demands for a militant response to employers and the government. So, what was sought was a kind of organisation that could relate to the street campaigns (around Jubilee 2000 or the arms trade, for example), plant some feet gingerly in the unions, serenade disappointed Labour members and voters, and articulate popular grievances in socialist language. It was to meet that challenge that the SSP and the Socialist Alliance, and then Respect, were formed. The present remainders of those initiatives constitute most of the fragmentary footholds I mentioned earlier.

Those socialists who were sceptical of such a venture from the start, though, could appeal to a certain bowdlerised version of 20th Century politics. For over 100 years not a single other party has been able to seriously challenge the Labour Party for the loyalty and support of working class people either in terms of votes, members or union funding. No attempt to construct a mass socialist party to challenge Labour has been successful. Think of some of the attempts. The British Socialist Party, founded in 1911 as an explicitly marxist alternative to Labour, did contribute to the building of an initially strong Communist Party following the Russian Revolution. However, the Communist Party more or less abandoned the idea of an independent road to socialism in the early 1950s, with its British Road to Socialism programme, which stressed that socialism could be achieved through the existing parliamentary institutions. In practise, this meant supporting the Labour Party, and by the 1980s it meant supporting the Kinnockite right-wing and its attacks on the left, and adapting/capitulating to the 'New Times' brought about by Thatcherism. The ILP made gains in the 1930s as Ramsay MacDonald led Labour into the National Government, but was squeezed in the postwar period and eventually folded into a pressure group within Labour by the 1970s. A number of very small far left parties stood against Labour in the late 1970s, including the WRP and SWP, and got derisory votes. Arthur Scargill's SLP, launched when just about everyone in the labour movement was swinging behind Blair and Brown to get the Tories out, has rarely received more than derisory votes. Other challenges prior to the present decade are perhaps too recherche and nugatory to mention. Until the millenium, such challenges experienced diminishing returns.

They could go even further. Not only have socialists been unable to successfully challenge Labour for the support of the working class, but about a third of workers have always voted for the right - a higher proportion than in much of the continent. Perhaps, you might argue, the British working class is much too conservative to embrace anything other than a party of gradualist social reform, a party that has never seriously sought to challenge the capitalist framework within which it seeks to deliver such reforms. Given such a diagnosis, it would make sense for left-wing workers to embrace labourism not necessarily out of conviction, but from a belief that the only a broad front including reforming liberals and right-wing social democrats could provide the appropriate vehicle for advancing the interests of workers. Only, that is, a party like the Labour Party. At the very least, they could say, such efforts were premature, undertaken initially before there was the first sign of a real crisis in the Labour Party. It was all very well to attract Labour left-wingers like Liz Davies and Mike Marqusee (before rapidly losing them, ahem-hem, cough cough, moving along). But, so it was argued, that hardly amounted to a substantial split, certainly not enough to base a new party on.

The example of Respect did briefly answer those arguments to some extent. Its founders correctly anticipated that the antiwar movement would, despite the Labour leadership's ironclad grip on the party apparatus, feed into a crisis in the party. The self-defeating decision to expel George Galloway followed from that crisis. It was also obvious that a substantial segment of trade unionists were questioning their funding of and affiliation to a party that repeatedly treated them with contempt. In the same year that Respect was formed, the RMT was kicked out of the Labour Party for allowing its branches to affiliate to other political parties, notably the Scottish Socialist Party. There was, then, an opportunity to win the argument for democratising the political fund and opening it up to more radical competitors. An organisation with a parliamentary presence and some strong local performances under its belt could feasibly win the support of the most militant workers and gain enough funding to build a lasting political machine (though it was unlikely that such a party/coalition would have taken the form of Respect).

But it was a narrow window of opportunity. The coalition was still too small, unstable and ramshackle and ultimately fell apart over a mixture of substantial strategic disagreements and old-fashioned sectariana that has long dogged socialists who have for too long acted in relative isolation. We made utter prats of ourselves, and I exclude no one from that criticism. Part of the problem is that there was not enough of a crisis in Labour. The biggest mass movement in British politics had certainly caused the Blairites some real headaches, but it didn't register on the conference floor. This says a lot about the enervation of any resources of resistance that remained in Labour after years of top-down control and 'restructuring' by the party's Whigs. And the fact that only one MP defected - and then after being forced out - is a warning not to underestimate how seemingly natural the Labour Party has been, no matter how right-wing, as a vehicle for those wishing to deliver reforms.

We now have a left that is Beyond the Fragments, a 'plural' left that may have more organisations than individual members, certainly not capable for the time being of recomposing itself in a new organisation to challenge the Labour Party for its base. In fact, the current state of affairs makes it very difficult for us to resist the coming Tory onslaught. Moreover, absent a movement to relate to, it is not clear that such an organisation would fare even as well as its immediate predecessors. Even so, given that New Labour is not about to reconstitute itself as a party of even old-fashioned right-wing social democracy, given that the Blairites are not relinquishing control but steadily tightening it, it would be prudent not to bet on a revival of the Labour left, (and, if it needs to be said, an entryist strategy would simply be suicidal at this point). If anything, the crisis of Labourism has new chapters awaiting elaboration. And unity on the left, if not immediately achievable in the sense described above, is surely a state to aim for in the interim.

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Third Reich in Jerusalem posted by Richard Seymour

The belief that we live in Enlightened times, that the prevailing cosmovision is scientific and rational, is itself a component of an irrational and violent ideology. We do not live in such a time, and the intelligentsia do not produce work reflecting such commitments. Rather, the great bulk of intellectual production is a labour of fabulation. Histories are aesthetic products, stimulating narratives for those bored with the novel, morality tales for those disenchanted with religion, improving sentiments and axioms for those who don't want to spend their tube journey deflecting anxiety about work with a copy of the Metro. The efficacy of these works as aesthetic productions, dealing in irony, allusion and juxtaposition, and using tragic, romantic or comedic modes of emplotment, is part of their proof, part of their ability to persuade.

So, in the interminable era of the 'war on terror', we have been fed a slurry of literature rehearsing the apocalyptic dramaturgy of Oswald Spengler and his epigones. The key actor, the hero, is the corporative entity known as 'The West'. It is locked in a mortal combat, a fight to the death, with the villain, a relentless and tyrannical opponent, known as 'radical Islam' or 'Islamo-fascism' or 'totalitarianism', tout court. The ideas of 'totalitarianism' constitute the deux ex machina, the animating spirit that subjectivates an otherwise inert substrata of humanity, and sends it rushing, ululating, en masse, toward Jerusalem or New York.

The latest installment of this narrative is provided by the American Eustonite, Jeffrey Herf (criticised by Richard Wolin here, resulting in a debate here). Disinterring, once again, the collusion between Haj Amin al-Husseini, the British-imposed Mufti of Jerusalem, and Adolf Hitler, Herf sets out make the case that 'radical Islam' constitutes the third wave of 'totalitarianism' in the world, following communism and fascism. Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Can a gripping narrative be concocted from such hackneyed materials? Not by Herf, it can't. His efforts to add panache and colour to an utterly forlorn parable revolve around the single narrative conceit of 'Hate Radio', in which pro-Nazi broadcasts in Arab countries during WWII, to some extent facilitated by al-Husseini, are 'hate radio with a vengeance'. The sparsity of evidence for the larger case he wants to make is compensated for with tenuous extrapolations and sensational quotations. The denouement involves one particularly bestial broadcast, inciting the massacre of the Jews in the Arab countries, just as the Nazis were embarking on the final solution. Such viciousness, Herf maintains, found a receptive audience. His evidence doesn't permit too much extrapolation - he can refer to 'elements' in the Egyptian officer corps and the Muslim Brothers whom Berlin thought might be willing to act on such ideas. Herf writes:

Two German historians, Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers, recently uncovered evidence that German intelligence agents were reporting back to Berlin that if Rommel succeeded in reaching Cairo and Palestine, the Axis powers could count on support from some elements in the Egyptian officer corps as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. Mallmann and Cüppers also show that an SS division was preparing to fly to Egypt to extend the Final Solution to the Middle East. The British and Australian defeat of Rommel at the Battle of El 'Alamein prevented that from happening.

I assume that Herf is referring to an article by Mallmann and Cüppers in the journal Yad Vashem Studies, vol 36, in which the two historians outline a plan to send a unit under SS-Obsturmbannfuhrer Walter Rauth to conquer Egypt, and then proceed to Palestine where, the authors write, "it undoubtedly would see action directed primarily against the Jewish population there". This 'undoubtedly' is not warranted by any evidence cited, but even if it were, I am not persuaded that this amounts to evidence of a plan to "extend the Final Solution to the Middle East". Nor is it obvious that the "elements" identified by the Nazis would have proven amenable to such a programme.

For, as Herf's case proceeds, the connections become all the more tenuous. He asks: "How was Nazi propaganda received by Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East?" He cites an evaluation from the OSS referring to 'apathy' in the Middle East regarding the trial of Nazis, and 'sympathy' for those who aided the Axis due to their hostility to the imperialists. This isn't particularly compelling as evidence, nor would it be surprising if it contained some truth, given the jackbooted behaviour of the colonial powers. It explains and demonstrates precious little. An interesting question would be, how did Arab public opinion receive the vicious exterminationist broadcast inciting genocide against the Jews, the one that Herf is at pains to quote at length? Did anyone actually carry out this genocide, or attempt to? Herf demonstrates no such conspiracy. Nor does he demonstrate that antisemitic ideas had much popular traction.

Instead, what he does is show that Hassan al-Banna of the Muslim Brothers celebrated al-Husseini as a "hero" who "challenged an empire and fought Zionism" through his alliance with the Nazis. Now, al-Banna was both an antisemite and and anti-Zionist. His analysis, in common with many variants of Islamism, was that Western imperialism had destroyed and dislocated Islamic forms of sociability, and that this was being driven by a disintegrative Jewish minority. This has to be registered. But in Herf's polemic, anti-Zionism is uncomplicatedly conflated with antisemitism. Obviously, the two are related, but Herf wants to assert a unidirectional causality: Islamists were anti-Zionist because they were antisemitic - not the other way around, and not because Zionism was itself a colonizing movement that posed a grave menace not just to Palestinians but to other Arab countries in their struggle against colonialism.

As Herf indicates in his debate with Wolin, he considers the 'totalitarian' ideas of 'radical Islam' to be responsible for the majority of problems in the Middle East, denying that it is in any sense a response to external aggression. Here, he relies on a red herring, pointing out that Western interventions since 1945 cannot have substantially caused the rise of Islamism, whose key doctrines were in place before that point. As if 'Western interventions' did not include the construction of the Suez canal, the subsequent colonization of Egypt, the scramble for Africa, the Mandates, etc etc. Might it not be of some interest that Mawdudi and al-Banna, two key figures in the founding of modern Islamism, operated in two countries (India and Egypt) which experienced a particularly savage form of colonial domination from quite early on? Does the doctrine of Islamic restoration espoused by Mawdudi have anything to do with the seige mentality created by British rule and its impact on traditional forms of life? Does his success in attracting post-Partition migrants to the Jamaat-e-Islami have anything to do with a cynical 'divide and quit' policy pursued by the British? If one wants to discuss and anatomise the ideas of these movements, it is not possible to do so without discussing the colonial labyrinth in which they fermented, not to mention the post-colonial systems of domination in which they expanded.

But that is not the kind of history that Herf is interested in. He wants to establish a precarious genealogy of ideas, no matter how tenuous and slender the interconnecting branches are. Thus, he notes that Qutb, an intellectual source for that brand of salafism purveyed by 'Al Qaeda', was an antisemite who claimed that Hitler had been sent by Allah to punish the Jews. This stands as one, utterly frail, limb connecting the Third Reich to the 9/11 attacks. He then recites the antisemitism of the Hamas 'charter', having also previously reminded readers of Ahmadinejad's Holocaust-denial, noting that these are forms of antisemitism which originate in Europe. This is, of course, true, but it does not establish a direct channel from the Third Reich to the Islamic Republic of Iran, or the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Yet this is how, through a series of metonymic substitutions, we get from Nazi broadcasts and al-Husseini to Qutb and Banna, to the Islamic revolution in Iran, to Hamas and, ultimately, to Al Qaeda - an extremely diverse range of groups, movements and individuals, who appear to share nothing more than that they have espoused antisemitism and that they want to establish some form of Islamic polity. This isn't so much a narrative as a montage of fragments, quotes, anecdotes, particles of forensic evidence, and extravagant claims.

In fact, this kind of allusion and juxtaposition is central to the case. As Wolin points out, the vectors of 'totalitarian' influence allegedly extend not just through 'radical Islamists', but also through the "Arab radicals" referred to in the original article. Thus, it is pointed out that Nasser recruited a former Nazi to work for his information ministry. This is, Wolin adds, not much of a case for anything given that the CIA recruited many, many Nazis for its global counterrevolutionary programmes. It isn't even particularly germane to the case. A secular anticolonial nationalist who tortured his Islamist opponents, Nasser can neither be considered a promulgator of Nazism or of any variant of 'political Islam'. But, as with previous incarnations of 'antitotalitarian' history, notably that vulgar treatise by Paul Berman written to justify the Iraq war, the point about 'totalitarianism' is that 'Arab radicals', 'Islamists', communists and fascists are all fungible. Or rather, in the puree of 'totalitarianism', they are indistinguishable. Thus, Berman had no scruple about describing Ba'athism as a variant of 'Muslim' or 'Islamic' 'totalitarianism'. Only through such pedestrian narrative devices is it possible to assert that there is at this time a movement against 'the West' that is comparable in its ideas, its coherency, scope and threat, to the Third Reich.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

This is a stick up posted by Richard Seymour

So, the banks have won again. They've expropriated billions from the public treasury to cover their dodgy dealings, insisted that the public have to pay for it, and now they've got the official benediction of the supreme court. They don't have to worry about the OFT ruling out their excessive charges, and millions of people who might have expected some refund from their banks will now be met with hard-faced refusal. This is not just a consumer issue (as if there is ever such a thing as 'just a consumer issue'). Unfair bank charges are a significant part of the means by which the banks extract a levy from workers' wages, as is interest on loans and mortgage repayments. These charges necessarily affect the poorest most, as it is they who are most likely to go into the red without being able to anticipate or prevent it. As to the scale of this overcharging, up to a billion pounds had already been repaid to a number of customers by UK banks, and some headlines suggest that they may have had to pay up to £20bn back to 8m customers, plus they would have lost £2.6bn a year they make in profits from the practise. Now they will be able to continue - in the short run at least - to appropriate this particular form of rent from working class wages.

So, here I am on this same old hobby horse again: nationalise the banks already. Take them over. They are public utilities. Debt is a public utility. It should be disbursed on the basis of need, and no one should make any profit from it. At the very least, the banks already partially nationalised should be converted into a socialised banking service (PostBank, The People's Bank, the Woolworths Comeback Tour, you pick the name). I am betting that the costs of running such a system would be so low, and the improvements to service sufficiently great, that millions of customers would switch to it immediately. It could be like the 'public option' of banking, forcing down costs in the short term, and leaving open the possibility of a Kenyan-born Islamofascist turning the country communist in the long run. In the meantime, if you'd like to continue lobbying your bank for some of your money back, check this site out.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

What does the ruling class do when it rules? posted by Richard Seymour

Justify FullOne doesn't want to collapse into an instrumentalist reading of the state as a mere 'executive' of the bourgeoisie. It is not as if state personnel canvas the capitalist class through referenda on every policy issue and then adopt the majority view. On the contrary, divisions among the owners give state planners more room for manouevre, for pioneering alternative strategies and for pursuing social goals not necessarily best suited for the purposes of capital accumulation. This is why there has been such intense ideological warfare against even moderate forms of social democracy, and why the capitulation represented by New Labour was so welcomed by the bosses. This is also why it is so important to capital that, according to one study (cited in Harman's Zombie Capitalism), 72% of economics students attend a university without one single economist dissenting from neoclassical and neoliberal orthodoxies.

However, the CBI is an executive body of the ruling class, and its views count for more than yours. All three party leaders are making their case before its annual conference, and listening out for signals as to what policy mix business is likely to prefer. If the keynote dissertation of the present head of the CBI, Richard Lambert, is any guide, then the age of full-blown neoliberalism focused on financial innovation, is considered to be at an end. Instead, an era of manufacturing revival headed by infrastructural investment is indicated. This is not a restoration of Keynesianism, before anyone gets too excited. (Though it can only be a matter of time before Socialist Unity has a post congratulating the CBI for its enlightened posture). Lambert, a former editor of the FT, also served on the Monetary Policy Committee for three years. He is a man of conventional persuasions as far as economic theory is concerned, a zealous advocate of 'globalisation' and 'free trade', and a supporter of the opposition's plans to slash spending sooner rather than later. Nonetheless, the speech does signal that the ruling class no longer has faith in the old strategies of accumulation.

Given the CBI boss's statements on the deficit and public spending, and his express wish that Osborne would be even more aggressive in his proposed spending cuts, the conference is likely to provide a genial experience for the Tory leader. But note the blackmail inherent in the Tory position, currently being expounded to the converted captains of British industry. The Tories aver that a failure to reduce the deficit will result in a collapse of sterling and a bond crisis, and a downgrading of Britain's credit rating. This could be true. The credit ratings are conferred by a major financial corporation, Fitch Ratings Ltd which is part of the Fitch Group. If the major financial corporations which have benefited from government largesse protest against the deficit which the bailout has produced, they may well downgrade Britain from its current AAA credit rating. If they downgrade, as they have been threatening, then currency traders will undoubtedly unload sterling faster than they can flush a bag of the devil's dandruff, and bonds will drop like [insert amusing simile here]. Not that speculators necessarily need Fitch's permission to carry out a run on the pound - this tactic has been a key lever over government policy possessed by finance capital for some time, creating a virtual parliament of investors who can vote instaneously and powerfully on any government policy they dislike. No, it's just that the threat of downgrading on the pretext of a totally fabricated fiscal crisis itself amounts to a form of blackmail by a sector of the ruling class.

On the other hand, the CBI position is not supported by the IMF, a body every bit as consequential for British policymakers. This is because the sudden collapse in credit available to households holding up consumption in the richer countries has to be met with countercyclical spending. Now, the IMF has a pathetic record on predicting world economic events. Its prescriptions for 'developing' and 'transitional' economies have been based on unsophisticated neoclassical precepts that have failed on their own indices (though they have not necessarily failed the interests of those dictating said solutions). It has long since ceased to be a creditor of choice for poor countries. It certainly didn't foresee any of the problems of the 'subprime' collapse, nor does its basic approach to development appear to have altered. Its most recent World Economic Outlook, for example, proposes macroeconomic stimulus for the advanced capitalist countries, but still proposes monetary tightening and fiscal austerity for the poorest countries. Thus, while Obama plies the Pakistani state with aid as a bonus for assisting with regional US geopolitical goals, another wing of Washington power insists that the state should cut spending and raise interest rates. So, there is no reason to think the IMF is defending a more progressive agenda (though it can surely only be a matter of time before...). It is not that this particular vector of US capital is at all concerned about the expropriation of the public treasury by finance capital. It is just that it has a different perspective on where the crisis is heading, and thus supports Brown's tactic of spend now, cut later.

But you see the pattern here: the debate is taking place more or less within the strategic and tactical coordinates of a split within the capitalist class, globally and nationally. What does the ruling class do when it rules? It, well, it rules.

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Tihur posted by Richard Seymour

"Of the more than 6,400 people surveyed, 53.2 said 'Transfer of Palestinians to another Arab country' when asked, 'What's the best solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict?'"

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Political correctness posted by Richard Seymour

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Historical Materialism conference posted by Richard Seymour

The sixth annual Historical Materialism conference takes place next weekend, 27th to 29th November.

Speakers include: Gilbert Achcar * Robert Albritton * Kevin Anderson * Jairus Banaji * Wendy Brown * Alex Callinicos * Vivek Chibber * Hester Eisenstein * Ben Fine * Ferruccio Gambino * Lindsey German * Peter Hallward * John Holloway * Fredric Jameson * Bob Jessop * David McNally * China Mieville * Kim Moody * Leo Panitch * Moishe Postone * Sheila Rowbotham * Julian Stallabrass * Hillel Ticktin * Kees Van Der Pijl * Hilary Wainright


Book here.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Eco-malthusianism posted by Richard Seymour

When the system fails people, the bourgeoisie instinctively responds by blaming those people for being inadequate and supernumerary to the system's requirements. During the 1980s, when there was a wave of anger and horror over the famines needlessly blighting parts of the African continent, it was a polemical commonplace to blame overpopulation. Today, a disaster known euphemistically as 'climate change' threatens the lives of millions, particularly the poorest millions. Predictably, there are those for whom the problem is too many people. In May this year, it was reported that a select coterie of billionaires - including Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and George Soros - was teaming up to combat overpopulation. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is already committing some of the immense wealth appropriated by Bill through his career in stolen software to tackling the problem. (Don't bother mulling over the quantity of CO2 emissions that were needlessly generated by the excess of production, retail and consumption entailed by Microsoft's practises of planned obsolescence. That's philanthropy for you.)

Now one is increasingly likely to hear from a British think-tank that has been getting in all the newspapers, called the Optimum Population Trust. Some of its leading members are also connected to the racist think-tank Migration Watch, whose bogus statistics are used in immigrant-bashing tabloid eristics. The OPT wants to return population levels in the UK to those pertaining in the Victorian era, before modern hygeine and medicine stopped wiping out the labouring classes. The optimum world population, it says, could be as low as 2.7bn. Its most vociferous champions, including such distinguished individuals as James Lovelock and Sir David Attenborough, assert that the ecological crisis is the flip-side to a population crisis.

In one of its efforts to frighten people into accepting its bizarre conclusions, the OPT says that if population continues to grow at its present rate, then by 2300 it will reach 134 trillion. This is an opportune moment to wheel out the old chestnut about insurmountable horseshit (cited here). It was a commonplace in the 19th Century that if horse-drawn traffic continued to increase at its then current rate, the ordure would eventually pile up several storeys high in New York, London and other major cities. (You can insert your own warmed over horseshit joke here). There are many lessons you can draw from the parable of the horse apples, but one is that just because a trend can be extrapolated from to reach an absurd conclusion doesn't mean that the extrapolation is trustworthy. There may be some important data that is excluded from the extrapolation. As George Monbiot has pointed out, the UN expects the world's population to stabilise at around 10bn by 2200, because the trend is for population growth to stop at a certain limit.

Today, the OPT was once more given television and newspaper spots to comment on a new United Nations report some of whose conclusions seem to abet its crazy eco-malthusianism. It would be ridiculous to blame the UN for the way debates over its reports are framed by the media (unless it courts such a reading). But, for example, C4 News tonight chose to focus on the claim that slower population growth would help slow climate change, citing statistics that claim a difference of a billion people is equal to a difference of 1-2bn tonnes of carbon per year. There followed an insultingly poor 'debate' in which Simon Ross of the OPT squared off against Caroline Boin of the International Policy Network, a corporate lobby group opposed to restrictions on profit-making activities (of course, the nature of neither group represented was explained to the viewer). The OPT is understandably cheered up by this report, with Ross glibly asserting that more people equals more mouths and a greater carbon footprint. The glaring flaw in this argument, which I'm sure immediately occurred to most LT readers, is that population is growing most where carbon emissions are least.

The highest population growth rates are in countries such as Liberia, Niger, Uganda, Eritrea, Afghanistan, etc etc - precisely the countries where carbon dioxide emissions per capita are very low and generally close to zero. Those countries which produce most carbon emissions per capita are a cluster of relatively rich Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar, which don't have especially high population growth rates, and the late capitalist economies of Europe and North America, where politicians tend to argue that there is inadequate population growth to sustain existing social security safety nets.

To quote Monbiot again:

Between 1980 and 2005, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5% of the world’s population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in CO2. North America turned out 4% of the extra people, but 14% of the extra emissions. Sixty-three per cent of the world’s population growth happened in places with very low emissions.
What is driving 'climate change' is a particular kind of economic activity, not population growth. Lifestyles are important too. Those sported by the richest tend to exploit and run down our environmental life support systems the hardest. The carbon footprint of a multi-billionaire philanthropist is certain to be dozens of times higher than that of an African labourer. To put it one way, Bill Gates will emit more CO2 jetting to conferences on population growth than a coltan miner in the DRC will in is entire lifespan. So maybe Bill and Melinda shouldn't have any fucking kids. And, by the way, Bill needs that coltan miner, and the genocidal armies who ensure that the ore is delivered to western corporations such as Microsoft, so he shouldn't really get lippy about population growth.

All of the above is perfectly obvious and could be worked out without the aid of a degree in one of the physical sciences. All that is required is a simple inference, based on well-known facts about the distribution of population growth and about the sources of carbon emissions. So, why are we still stuck with these kooky theories? There is obviously an element of ideological legerdemain, particularly when the rich start lecturing the poor on family planning. And corporate PR machines are very adept at muddying waters. But more fundamentally, I fear, it is that the capitalist media is constitutionally incapable of dealing with the issue of environmental disaster seriously, and of grappling with the profound issues raised by it. There is such a blind-spot about any issue that has systemic implications that it can only be approached through such contrived controversies, which are then furiously argued over for five minutes before the advertisements for cheap airlines.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Gaming war posted by Richard Seymour

This is an MoD demo programme showing soldiers how to handle roadblocks in Iraq:

And this is a video game showing people why they should join the army in the first place (cuz shooting people up is way cool):

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Here comes the flood posted by Richard Seymour

A BBC poll finds that the majority of Britons favour spending cuts. In particular, given a choice between tax hikes and cuts to benefits, 59% favour cuts to benefits. A poll is not holy writ, and respondents do not answer on oath, or in-depth. Posing the question differently - should we tax the rich instead?, etc. - would yield different answers. Nonetheless, such findings indicate that a substantial number of people are amenable to Tory arguments. And that the propaganda war being waged by capital is succeeding.

There is no deficit crisis. There is absolutely no reason to cut public spending, and every reason why it would be a disaster when demand likely to be weak in the coming years. Nonetheless, both major parties are committed to this underlying assumption that public spending must be cut at some point to pay for the bankers' bailouts. Necessarily, therefore, the public debate will continue to play out in a narrow spectrum of when, not whether, spending should be cut. And here, as the figures also show, the Tories are beginning to win the argument that it happen sooner rather than later. This ridiculously poor level of debate is one reason why the Conservatives are capable of not only maintaing a double digit lead over New Labour, but also of grooming their leader as a man of the people.

Some polyannas are citing a slight dip in the unemployment rate to suggest that the crisis may be over. This will undoubtedly be siezed on by Tory hawks to say that recovery is afoot, and we must at last address the fiscal gap. But the ubiquitous experts, whose advice will undoubtedly contribute to investment decisions by firms in the coming years, aren't entirely buying this, pointing to weak fundamentals. They expect years of high unemployment, which means years of weak demand. However, I expect that the Tories are as aware of this as the CBI and the FT are. The commitment to attacking public spending, specifically the welfare state, is simple class war.

The left needs to win this argument at a number of levels. Fundamentally, we have to persuade the organised working class that such cuts are unnecessary and that they can and should defeat any government that attempts to impose them. The recent postal strike could, if successful, have given wider layers of workers the confidence necessary to take on the government. And it would have hit in a timely fashion, a fitting warning shot to the Tories. But the executive unanimously approved a deal that demobilised the workforce in exchange for no significant concession other than that there would be further talks. That is a setback.

More broadly, however, we need to work to establish the most convivial political atmosphere in which resistance can take place. If people are demoralised by the overall political terrain, they are far less likely to risk industrial action. Labour is going to lose enormously, whatever the left does, and that will leave initially quite a strong Tory administration to take up the whip against the unions and anyone else they feel they need to discipline. And, regardless of any other consideration, any left-of-Labour vote would certainly be squeezed in such an election, absent a level of class struggle far more consequential than the current state of affairs. So it is unfortunate that the efforts to develop some sort of left electoral unity continue to stutter and start, so that the most likely scenario in 2010 is that a patchwork of different left groups run candidates under separate names and register little impact nationally.

On top of this, we have to fight a rearguard defence against the far right, with the EDL streetfighters trying to attack mosques, while the BNP parachutes their leader into Barking to try to capitalise on their previous gains in Barking and Dagenham council elections. Margaret Hodge is the last person you would trust to see off the BNP, given that it was her fumbling concessions to fascist propaganda that actually helped the BNP gain 13 seats in 2006. So, a considerable portion of the energies of grassroots activists will be devoted to seeing off that threat. The fact that the EDL continue to be frustrated and outnumbered in their efforts does it make further breakthroughs for the BNP more difficult, given that the latter rely on a contrived atmosphere of racial crisis and conflict to build. But the more votes they get, the more the mainstream media can justify giving them television spots and puff pieces, and the more bourgeois politicians will take it as a cue to move further to the right on issues to do with race and immigration.

I bet you almost wish it was May 2005. The antiwar movement was still a mass movement able to summon 100,000 to the streets at the drop of a hat. There was a youthful left-wing coalition which had grown out of that movement. It had got its first MP elected in a Labour heartland, and he was busy shredding the innards of a couple of Senators, and was celebrated in The Sun for it. Things looked sunny. A whole vista of possibilities opened up before us. Well, tough shit. It's November 2009, baby. And it sucks. And you'll just have to be patient.

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Immanence posted by Richard Seymour

Just a thought. In Zombie Capitalism, Chris Harman points out that the 2,000 largest companies control half of the world's wealth. Harman figures that if a board of directors has about ten people on it, that's 20,000 people (or, by my calculation, 0.0003% of the world's population) who have decisive control over the world's production, output and surplus. There's another way to look at it, of course. The workers of those companies exert decisive leverage over the future of production. They don't constitute a multitude, admittedly, but if they formed communist associations - workers' councils, soviets, whatever - that would surely establish a new hegemonic paradigm of work that could increasingly become the norm. Admittedly, they would then have to wrest control of the means of production from the employers and then eventually take on the state (who seem to get uppity when workers decide to take control of the means of production). But such a process seems altogether more probable than, say, a sphere of cooperative value production gradually eroding the boundaries of capitalist production until the latter withers away. Doesn't it?

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

American Insurgents posted by Richard Seymour

Review of Gerald Horne, The End of Empires: African Americans and India.

“The Vanguard of Anti-Imperialism...”
Gerald Horne is an historian who has been revealing neglected aspects of African American history for several decades, particularly those relating to class struggle, communism, and what W E B Du Bois referred to as the global ‘colour line’.

In The Deepest South, he disclosed the efforts by Deep South slavers to form a pact with Brazil and build a southern empire that would protect white supremacy. At the same time, he revealed, Lincoln and the northern establishment looked toward schemes that would result in the removal of former slaves from the United States, perhaps to indentured plantations in the British Empire. Again, in The White Pacific, he followed the trail of former slave-owners as they set out across the Pacific, to Australasia and the Pacific Islands, where they engaged in a form of slavery known as ‘blackbirding’. In Cold War in a Hot Zone, he demonstrated the links between African American struggles during the Cold War and militancy in the Caribbean as the British empire was replaced by American dominance. And in Black and Red, he anatomised the African American response to the Cold War, noting that “US Blacks have been among the vanguard of anti-imperialism”.

In this, his penultimate volume, African American anti-imperialism is at the fore again, as Horne assesses the relationship between the Indian struggle for independence from the British empire and the African American struggle against Jim Crow. It is reasonably well known that Martin Luther King was influenced by Gandhi’s doctrine of satyagraha (non-violent resistance), and perhaps less so that Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, Pauli Murray and others also drew on Gandhi’s doctrines. Nehru’s speech at the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement of Third World states paid moving tribute to the struggle of Africans, and particularly of African Americans, whose liberation he pledged India would support. A more recondite affinity drawn out by Horne is the influence of the Ahmadiyya movement of Indian Muslims on African Americans in the early 20th Century – an influence that would later be felt through the Nation of Islam.

Horne traces these connections, from prehistorical origins to the twentieth century, with the overwhelming focus on the decades leading up to Indian independence and the culmination of the civil rights struggle. The shared historical destinies of black America and India arguably began with the American revolution, when some revolutionaries looked to India as a potential anti-colonial ally. Their fate was subsequently bound together through the production of cotton and the circulation of slaves between south Asia, Africa and the United States. Opposing antebellum slavery in the United States, abolitionists in England deplored the country’s manufacture of cloths from slave-produced cotton when it might just as well have been obtained using free labour from the banks of the Indus, at less cost. The Indian rebellion of 1857 carried grave race warnings for the United States. For some, it showed the madness of trying to permanently rule over non-white people. Andrew Carnegie, visiting Lucknow in 1879, fretted that “these bronzed figures which surrounded us by millions” may once again “in some mad moment catch the fever of revolt”. It showed what a “dangerous game” it was for the US to try to conquer neighbouring islands populated by black majorities. Carnegie would go on to become a generous benefactor of the Anti-Imperialist League when it was founded in opposition to the Spanish-American war of 1898. Similarly, the Civil War of 1861-65 which was to end in the abolition of slavery (quite against the original intentions of the North) was closely determined by the availability of cotton from India, not least because it dissuaded English capitalists from throwing their weight behind the Confederacy to defend their cotton access.

Interwoven destiny
African American activists, cognisant of such an interwoven destiny, sympathised with the plight of Asia. Booker T Washington and Jawaharlal Nehru both sympathised with Japan in its 1905 war with Russia, hoping that victory for the former would boost Asian chances of independence from would-be racial oppressors. African American journals considered that a victory for the Tsarist empire would be a “triumph for color prejudice”. The grounds for direct solidarity with Indians were enhanced by the treatment of Indian labourers who migrated to the United States and were treated by racist politicians, including the presidential contender William Jennings Bryan, as a great “peril” to the American way of life.

As a result of this oppression, Indian labourers tend to live among and associate with African Americans. But the first sign of a direct political connection between India and black America was the emergence in 1889 of the Ahmadiyya movement by Mirza Ghulam Ahmed. Early on, the movement despatched a mission to the United States, just as African American Christian missionaries had – with less success – visited the Indian subcontinent to find converts. The movement hinted at a new racial synthesis that was also increasingly emerging in the thoughts of Islamic modernists such as Jamāl-al-dīn al-Afghani: a pan-Islamic alliance that would unite Indian anti-colonialism with Pan-Africanism.

Marcus Garvey had direct links with the Ahmadiyya movement, which would go on to win up to 10,000 African American converts by 1940. Certainly, the critique of Christianity as a primary motive force in racial oppression had a profound influence on Garvey’s movement, though Garvey himself remained a Christian. The movement’s influence was not uncomplicatedly positive, for its leadership forbade revolt against London, and was seen by many in India as a British tool – and there is some evidence for the idea that Britain, as part of its traditional divide-and-rule strategy, promoted the Ahmadiyya movement among Indian Muslims. Nonetheless, Islam gripped the imagination of a minority of African Americans in part because it added to the political struggle a spiritual dimension, a war against Christian ideas, which were seen as the ideas of the slave masters. African Americans who were forming the most exploited layer of the working classes, and experiencing racism not just from their bosses but from white workers as well, were offered the option of a spiritual alliance with an East that, Ahmad said, had never seen the kinds of racial evils that were practised in America because “Islam knows nothing of segregation and discrimination”.

Revolution and anti-colonialism
However, more militant and leftist forms of international solidarity arose through the early decades of the twentieth century. Ideological sympathies were given some expression in, for example, the comradeship between the Indian socialist intellectual L L Rai and W E B Du Bois, himself a member of the National Council of Friends of Freedom for India. And as migration from south Asia to the United States increased in the 1910s, Indian migrants expressed astonishment at the severity of white supremacy as practised in the United States, particularly the treatment of African Americans. Rai himself, comparing India and the United States, considered the forms of oppression in both countries to be remarkably similar, arguing that America was “doubly caste-ridden”.

The combined experience of racial oppression in the United States and British colonialism led to the formation of the California-based movement, Ghadar. It was a revolutionary movement for Indian independence which proclaimed socialism as its ideology and supported military actions against the British, which the latter invariably described as ‘terrorism’. It was influenced in part by the anti-racist leftism of the International Workers of the World, and among its founders was the anarchist Indian intellectual Har Dayal. The organisation was implicated early on in its existence in an alleged Kaiser-funded plot to time an Indian rebellion against British rule with Germany’s campaign in Europe. That such allegations touched on American anxieties about its own developing imperial role was indicated by Secretary of State Robert Lansing’s complaint that German Americans and British Indians intent on stirring revolt in India had arrived in the Philippines, the base of US colonialism in the region.

The Ghadar case aroused sympathy among African American journals, such as the NAACP’s The Crisis and A Philip Randolph’s The Messenger, especially as the suspects were convicted and deported to their fate at the hands of the British authorities. The Messenger also noted, with approval, the refusal of West Indians called on by the British to help quell growing Indian revolt, to raise arms against “the Hindu people in their struggle for freedom”, and referred to Haiti as “America’s India”. India and its emerging generation of Marxist intellectuals exerted a profound influence on African American militants such as Alain Locke. And while Tokyo had once been the lodestar of resistance to white world supremacy, the emergence of an anti-imperialist, socialist Russia came to unite south Asians and African Americans in opposition to racial oppression of all kinds.

The new anti-imperialist pole of opinion was given expression at the 1927 International Congress against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism. Nehru, in attendance, was impressed by the presence of both black and white Americans at the congress. The NAACP, surveying the new world situation created by the Russian revolution and the growing anticolonial revolts, exulted that the African American struggle now had two major allies in Russia and India. An African-American publication known as The Crusader, allied with the nascent communist movement, foresaw an “Afro-Asiatic League” which would oversee a coordinated response to imperialism. The forces of white domination could win, the publication argued, when rebellions broke out separately. But with “coordination and simultaneity of revolution”, “not all the might of Europe or the League of Damnations will be able to stop the onslaught for Freedom”. It urged African Americans to show solidarity with the Indians, where it saw soviets developing in opposition to an increasingly desperate imperial power. The same sense of the importance of global solidarity had led to the formation of the International Council of Women of the Darker Races, in Chicago in 1920, with Indian delegates in attendance.

It was not just the left that was inspired by the new era of militancy. Garvey’s pan-Africanism drew on the example of Ghadar and its anti-sectarian approach to resisting white domination. “If it is possible for Hindus and Mohammedans to come together in India,” he averred, “it is possible for Negros to come together everywhere”. In general, the Garveyites focused considerably more attention on the fate of the British Empire and its consequences for African Americans, than most others. They also expressed profound admiration for Gandhi whom they, in the greatest compliment they could offer, compared to Garvey himself.

However, it was Du Bois and the NAACP that led the campaign to forge solidarity between African Americans and India. These relations were sometimes strained by the red-baiting of prominent members such as the Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes, who supported Indian independence but was deeply hostile to all communist influence in a way that was not true of the mainstream Indian anti-colonial movement. Nonetheless, the inspiration was reciprocated. Reading Du Bois’ work from London, the Indian activist A K Das wrote to ask why it was not possible to unite “what is called the coloured races”. A R Malik, writing from Punjab, saw Du Bois’ struggle to liberate “the Negroes from the bondage aristocrats and capitalists” as analogous to India’s struggle, declaring that Indians “naturally view the struggle of the Negros with great sympathy”. The NAACP provided information for Indians seeking to rebut myths of their racial inferiority, and Du Bois’ journal, The Crisis, became a sought after source of polemical nourishment in Punjab and elsewhere. Throughout the 1930s, a growing number of African Americans travelled to India to study its difficulties and draw lessons from its intricate race and caste order, and found an audience interested in the struggles of African Americans. And when India was traduced by the American writer Katherine Mayo, in a number of popular books rationalising British colonialism, Indian writers responded by pointing out the barbarism of the American racial order. America, they noted, claimed the right to independence from Britain despite maintaining a gruelling system of oppression – why should India, which did not have this flaw, be denied the same right?

A free and independent nation “of dark people”...
The perspective enjoining the unity of ‘coloured’ peoples faced a particular challenge during World War II. The African American left had largely been critical of Japan in the years prior to 1941, while Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist movement extolled a pro-Tokyo line, noting the implications of Japan’s rise for European control of China and India. Yet, much of the left, including Langston Hughes who had criticised Japan’s policies in China, sympathised with Japan’s unique status as a free and independent nation “of dark people”. Similarly, Indian journals such as The People and The Independent had covered Japan sympathetically, as part of the broader resistance to white world supremacy.

As Horne has previously covered in his Race War!, London and Washington were deeply concerned to counter this sympathy, and particularly the charge that a ‘war for democracy’ was hypocritical when India was not allowed to be free. Powerful voices in both capitals thought the best way to do this was to make some concessions to African Americans and to consider independence for India, but they were ranged against entrenched lobbies. At the very least, though, statesmen had to attenuate the force of any public sermons on behalf of white supremacy. Sensing the possibilities opened up by the war, African American leaders such as Walter White of the NAACP lobbied for Indian independence. White met personally with Lord Halifax to request a commission be set up for the purposes of determining the future of India, a proposal that did not amuse Halifax. He also urged the United States to support independence for India, noting that racial inequality was driving sympathy for Japanese propaganda and would potentially lead to Japan acquiring the Indian subcontinent. White also gave London headaches with his visit to India, and his expressed desire to see Nehru and Gandhi, at a time when Britain was jailing the Indian leadership. Throughout the war, African Americans and Indians pressed their demands in growing coordination. Thousands of African Americans applauded Paul Robeson and Kumar Goshal in the Manhattan Center in 1942 when they demanded a free India as the best condition for defending India against Japan. Goshal went on to write regularly for the Negro Quarterly, a journal for which Ralph Ellison was the managing editor, advising readers in the indissoluble link between the fate of African Americans and Indians, especially as the former defended the latter from Japanese conquest.

The US was sometimes capable of responding pragmatically to this situation, as when military top brass noticed that African American soldiers fighting in India demonstrated an ability to relate to Indian civilians that surpassed that of white soldiers, and were thus an asset – despite the generally racist perception of black soldiers as incompetent, lazy, and so on. Nonetheless, with a segregated army and a war in the name of a ‘freedom’ most African Americans did not receive, such understandings were of limited use. The situation of both India and African Americans would have to change if the dominant position of the US was to be secured. According to Horne, whatever the reality of Japanese policy, the perception that it was waging a ‘race war’ against the white world made conditions more favourable for Indian independence and improvements for African Americans.

From race war to Cold War
While the Cold War that followed WWII proved unfavourable for the African American Left, the NAACP emerged the strongest African American organisation in the US. The NAACP has often been belaboured for aligning with Cold War ideology, its leadership arguing that race reform was an integral part of the struggle against communism. Some historians, such as Penny Von Eschen, have argued that the NAACP’s decision shut down possibilities for raising more radical conceptions of social and economic justice that would later come to the fore, and limited the scope for international anticolonial solidarity. Manning Marable argued that the NAACP effectively acted as the “left-wing of McCarthyism” in the early Cold War period.

Horne has been known to share this broad line of argument, and here he acknowledges the limits placed on the NAACP by Cold War ideology, lamenting the decreasing internationalism in the African American movement at just the time that the Indian anti-colonial movement was denouncing apartheid, launching the Bandung Conference to give Africa and Asia a global voice, and founding the Non-Aligned Movement, to escape the restrictive embrace of anticommunism. The anticommunist leadership not only refused to show solidarity with those being put on trial by the state for communist activity, which included many African Americans. Its stance also meant that it had to depart from any idea of an independent foreign policy which would challenge the very global order that Washington was seeking to conserve and reform in its own image. The leadership rarely deigned to express a view that differed from established Washington opinion, and Walter White ended up effectively counselling President Truman on India, steering the NAACP toward a position of trying to influence India in favour of anticommunism. The old internationalism reached a nadir when W E B Du Bois was expelled from the NAACP for attempting to persuade an Indian delegation to the UN to raise the plight of African Americans before the body’s general assembly, a move that would have reflected poorly on Washington’s new stance as a global protector of human rights.

Still, the relationship to India did not vanish overnight. In the year preceding Indian independence, the NAACP was capable of a vigorous campaign on India. Outside the NAACP, African American missionaries to India tried to use their experiences to help overcome the communal divisions that ripped through the subcontinent at a cost of millions of lives as the British opted to ‘divide and quit’. The African American left was profoundly critical of the British division of India, and Congress militants themselves pointed to the evil of racial hierarchy in the US to warn against any attempt to exclude or subordinate Muslims in an independent India. Some worked through YMCAs to develop contacts with Indian militants. Bayard Rustin made contact with local capitalists the better to forge allies among India’s newly independent ruling class.

And there was still a profound awareness of the fact that thousands of Indians lived in the US and suffered racial oppression alongside African Americans. But even here, potential problems arose. A minority of Indian residents of the US chose to argue that their legal rights should be respected on the grounds that they were properly categorised as Aryans, which raised the question of whether anti-racist organisations should campaign for people of South Asian origin to be respect as ‘white’. The major barrier to sustained solidarity, though, was the atmosphere of anticommunism, a political perspective that did not bode well for relations with a country that had pioneered non-alignment, and which had two mass, influential communist parties. The fear of being charged with being communist sympathisers drove many internationally oriented African Americans away from even discussing global affairs. The era of internationalism would return with the next upsurge of the civil rights struggle, but it would come with the breakdown of the liberal Cold War consensus.

The fact that the African American struggle for liberation was compromised in the way that it was by Cold War repression does not mean that it was no longer dependent on global struggles. The very fact that millions of newly free Indians (and Asians of all backgrounds, and Africans) were open to the idea of a systemic alternative to Washington-dominated capitalism was, as Horne’s narrative makes clear, one of the main reasons that the destruction of Jim Crow became a political goal of the liberal wing of US power. America’s global standing became far more important to its long-term advantage than the preservation of its peculiar institution of white supremacy.

In keeping with his long-standing efforts to revive the forgotten international contours of African American history, Horne has done an enormous service in illuminating the anti-imperialism at the heart of black America’s struggle. He has also, in the course of this, brought to light a myriad of class, gender, national and caste issues that intersected with this story. There are times when one would wish for a more critical appraisal of the role of the USSR, whose conduct gave much succour to the anticommunists Horne berates, and whose international stance was often profoundly conservative – its long support for French colonialism in Algeria and Zionism in Palestine, for instance, suggests that it could hardly be depended on as an ally of the victims of white supremacy. At other times in the narrative, it is more evident that African Americans and Indians had a shared destiny, than that substantial political forces among either understood this. And it would have been useful to have an engagement with critics, such as Manfred Berg, who have mounted a defence of the NAACP’s position in the Cold War period. Nevertheless, these are minor criticisms. Horne has written another powerful ‘history from below’, as it were, in which the main agents of liberation are the oppressed themselves. Their stories, and their ideas, are so infrequently told that one can only welcome the fact that such a gifted historian as Horne has chosen to relate them.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The graveyard of the Russian empire posted by Richard Seymour

On the evening of 27 December 1979, Hafizullah Amin was incapacitated in his presidential palace. He had been poisoned earlier in the day by KGB agents, while 5,000 Russian soldiers who had been arriving at Kabul international airport over the previous three days made their way to the palace. They took over the television stations, the radio stations, and the police force of the Interior Ministry. Russian military advisers had, in a repeat of a tactic used in the invasion of Czechoslavakia, instructed Afghan soldiers loyal to Amin to turn in their live ammunition and use blank rounds in the days before the invasion - it was sold as a 'training' operation.

The communication lines to the palace were cut, so Amin had no way of knowing what was happening. When the horrendous noise of the bombing campaign reverberated through the city, he asked Jahandad, the commander of his presidential guards, what was happening. Jahandad reported that the Soviet Union was invading. Amin did not believe that the USSR would let him down in that fashion, and rebuked his subordinate. Within hours he was dead, and Jahandad's troops were being annihilated by napalm bombs and other incendiary weapons as they attempted to fight off the invaders. (Underscoring the fragility of Amin's support, his officers across the country largely did not resist the Soviet invasion.) The USSR would later claim that they had been 'invited' by the prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan to send troops into the country to defend socialism. As a matter of fact, Amin had pleaded with Russia to send forces to defend his narrow regime, based as it was upon the support of a fractious military cadre (mainly the officer corps rather than the rank and file), a layer of urban intellectuals, and practically no one else. He had not pleaded with them to overthrow his government and impose their preferred client regime.

What did the USSR want with Afghanistan? Even some of their supporters had difficulty working it out. Alexander Cockburn ironically extolled the virtues of the invasion as a civilising mission: "I yield to none in my sympathy to those prostrate beneath the Russian jackboot, but if ever a country deserved rape it's Afghanistan. Nothing but mountains filled with barbarous ethnics with views as medieval as their muskets, and unspeakably cruel too..." Others insisted that Russia was there to defend the gains of the 'Saur revolution', support womens' rights, build schools for the people, overthrow the khans, etc. There is no doubt that this is what the Afghan communists wanted, and had sought to achieve through the disastrous strategy of military dictatorship.

But the idea that an exploitative and oppressive bureaucratic state like the USSR approached Afghanistan as modernising revolutionaries is tweaking the nose of credulity. The USSR valued a loyal Afghan state, from which it had been able to extract energy on its own imposed price schedules. In 1968, it had constructed a hugely successful gas pipeline from the country, so that only 3% of 2.4bn cubic meters of gas produced in the country by 1985 went to serving Afghan needs - all the rest went to Russia. The USSR also did not want that state to fall to a Muslim uprising, adding to the example of Iran and potentially setting a new example for the largely Muslim populations of the energy rich central Asian Soviet republics. Already in March 1979, inspired by the Iranian revolution, a bloody uprising had taken place in Herat against the Khalki government. Russian 'advisers' were tracked down and killed by the insurgents, before Russian bombers dropped their payloads over the city, crushing the revolt. 25,000 people were killed during that single uprising. During this revolt, a major rift emerged in the administration.

The USSR was concerned that Amin, who belonged to the 'Khalk' (People) faction of the communists, was too radical. In his place, therefore, they installed Babrak Karmal of the moderate 'Parcham' (Flag) faction. They imagined that it would be possible, through a more conservative client-state, to forge a rapprochement with the existing ruling class. Such, after all, had been their strategy in the "people's democracies" - in Romania, they rallied to the King, in Bulgaria they pledged to protect private property, in Poland and Czechoslovakia, they took already nationalised economies and preserved more or less the same personnel running them - so why should they come over all revolutionary in Afghanistan? Just to make the break with any radicalism dramatically clear, Amin's bullet-ridden body was displayed to the selected leadership of the new client regime.

The Russians, eager to scotch rumours that they had overthrown a 'socialist' ally, put it about that Amin had been making deals with the Ikhwanis (Muslim Brothers) and the CIA, and was intent on turning Afghanistan into another Chile. This claim had initially been made by Amin's rival, Taraki, and Soviet diplomats who saw Amin as a rough-hewn 'extreme Pushtu nationalist' among other things, were inclined to believe it. Amin's independent tendencies, his attempts to keep Soviet 'advisers' in their place, and pleading that the USSR revise its gas price schedule (since gas was the state's single biggest source of revenue), surely added to the suspicion. The claim would later feature in the official documentary record of the Brehznev administration recording the reasons for invasion. But it was patently false, and unsupported by any evidence. If anything, it was the USSR that would shortly be applying the methods of Pinochet against the Solidarity movement in Poland.

Of course, the CIA along with ultra-reactionary Wahabbis trained in Pakistan did have their say in Afghanistan. The US had been anxious to overthrow the Amin administration and was also, if Brzezinski is to be believed, desperate to goad the Soviet Union into invading, the better to dissipate increasingly scarce resources in an unwinnable war. From 1978, the US had been training insurgents in Pakistan, and CIA aid was being sent to Afghan insurgents six months before the USSR invaded. The division of labour that emerged was that the CIA would manage the overall project, Special Forces would train managers, and Pakistani ISI would train mujahideen. Money and support was later raised from Saudi Arabia, and logisitical cooperation developed with China. US involvement in stimulating revolt was part of the rationale offered by Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko for having voted in favour of invasion. The realpolitik analysis was the US intended to replace its lost ally in Iran with anti-Soviet bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which could then become the basis for destabilising Russia's Muslim republics. There is some truth in this. It would be utterly foolish and misleading, though, to pretend that the tribal rebellions that had been breaking out could be credited exclusively to American shit-stirring. The truth is that the Amin regime had made itself unpopular by attempting to impose dramatic change from above, without ever attempting to engage the popular majority.

As Jonathan Neale has pointed out, the rebellion against the Soviet occupation began with public protests and strikes, sometimes from those who would have been expected to support the communists. The civil servants, whom the Afghan communists had looked to as a base, went on strike. The students at a girls high school in Kabul, who had led the struggle for womens' rights, now demanded that the men fight the occupiers. In Herat, protesters gathered on the rooftops in imitation of the Iranian revolutionaries, chanting 'God is great'. More importantly, ttens of housands of ordinary Afghans outside of the cities which the Russians successfully controlled, sought out parties and organisations that could supply weapons and organisation. Many were not interested in following the line of an established party, such as the Jamiat or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb, so what emerged was a number of loose party structures based on coalitions between potentially rivalrous factions, generally pursuing the same right-wing Islamist politics with Saudi money. Given that the left, the secularists and the feminists were overwhelmingly backing the Russian invaders, the growth and appeal of such fronts was a logical - though tragic - development.

In response to this, and to the growing cost of an invasion that was supposed to be a cakewalk, the USSR sought to 'Afghanise' the war. They proposed to gradually transfer military responsibility to a well-trained Afghan army that could hold off the terrorists and defend Russian security interests. It was a complete failure. The Afghan military was well-armed, and well-trained, but it was consistently defeated by the popular resistance. In the Spring of 1988, the USSR began its withdrawal, leaving their beleaguered Afghan allies to their fate.

The war killed half a million people, wounded millions, forced millions more into fleeing as refugees. It cost Russia a total of 60 billion rubles, purely in operational terms. A Stiglitz-style report on its total costs might put the figure much higher, and it certainly kept military investment artificially high when the imperative was to reduce such spending as growth slowed down throughout the 1980s. In combination with a crippling economic crisis, (which shouldn't have affected the 'socialist countries', shurely?), the war was one of the major reasons why the USSR collapsed when it did. The defeat of Russian imperialism created a space for dissidents in the "people's republics". How could an army exhausted from defeat at the hands of Afghan peasants be expected come to the rescue of Stalinist elites in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia etc? And with what? Moscow's rulers were staring into an empty treasury. For the Berlin Wall to fall, the Alpha antiterrorist squad of the KGB had to fall.

But the fact that the resistance had been monopolised by the right also strengthened the landlords, the mullahs, the narco-capitalists, the warlords. The sources of oppression and exploitation that the Afghan communists had sought to defeat were left victorious to fight over the scraps of a wrecked Afghanistan. The communists lost because their understanding of socialism was that it was something that had to be imposed from above - their models were Castro, Nasser, Sukarno, developmentalist states resting on a coalition between the officer corps and the intelligentsia. And if it could be imposed by Amin, it could just as well be imposed by Brehznev. The result is that today, US imperialism can offer a nepotistic coalition of khans, drug-dealers and right-wing ruling class thieves as if it were some kind of progress. And, oh yes, they're building schools and supporting womens' rights, and...

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Monday, November 09, 2009

It started with free speech posted by Richard Seymour

It began with some young fellows expressing themselves freely, delivering themselves of their honestly held views, using their entitlement to free speech, as is their perfect right, this being a democratic society and all that. They said things like "P*ki" and "Get those Muslims". Which is their perfect democratic right, what with free speech and one thing and another. And then, in an apparently unrelated sequence of events, a Muslim student had his head fractured. Then, some nights later, approximately thirty of said young fellows set upon a number of Muslim students with bricks, poles and sticks, stabbing two of them. They also stabbed a bypasser who tried to intervene. And all of this has no connection to anything anyone might have said - about Muslims, about Asians, about 'British values', or indeed about anything else. And it certainly doesn't have anything to do with the promotion of far right racist politics in the mainstream media.

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Benediction for the natives posted by Richard Seymour

Auntie's thumbnail sketch of the Mahometan character:

"Despite their fierce reputation, Afghans are mostly gentle, thoughtful people - deeply courteous, with warm humanity that radiates from luminous eyes.

"They are also tolerant and very patient..."

I am only disappointed to note the absence of that imperishable observation, "and from a nearby minaret, the high-pitched wailing of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer...".

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A few points about that 'age of austerity' posted by Richard Seymour

This is interesting. After ten years in office, during which inequality has consistently risen, New Labour now proposes to do something about it. Higher taxes on the rich are among the measures mooted, but this is unlikely to be accepted by Brown, Mandelson et al. If this sudden concern with income and wealth inequality looks like a desperate attempt to guard Labour's left-flank in anticipation of electoral wipe-out, that is probably because it is. Mind you, there are worse ways to respond to potential electoral annihilation. They could just put Peter Mandelson in charge, and let him lead the party into a mighty progressive coalition with David Cameron and George Osbourne. The flyweight Liberals would then be the, er, 'left' opposition.

The social realities referred to by the equalities minister, Harriet Harman, are certainly compelling. That a fifth of all marketable wealth is owned by a tiny 1% of the population (probably an underestimate, given the amount of wealth that is successfully concealed, offshored, laundered, etc.) is an obscenity. And inequality kills. A report last year found that babies born to poorer families stand a 17% higher chance of dying than those born to richer families. But it isn't just inequality with regard to income and wealth that kills. Inequality in job status and conditions also reduces life expectancy for those not in professional jobs. (See Richard Wilkinson's detailed discussion here). The aggregate effects of inequality, from degraded life conditions to early mortality, amount to a grave abuse of human rights, though it happens to be one that is structural to capitalism. It would be a relief if the Labour Party really felt obliged to mitigate its impact, though it is hard to believe that much will come of it. At the very least, though, the fact that this idea has been raised is symptomatic of the divisions that are increasingly arising within the party in response to meltdown on the economic and psephological fronts.

The wholesale enervation of the New Labour project, after years of ostentatious dynamism, results essentially from the failure of its growth model. I am not dismissing other causes, notably the 'war on terror' and the alignment with unpopular right-wing administrations in America and Europe. But what New Labour promised, what it seemed so certain it could deliver, was a model of growth that would maintain the relatively prosperity of middle class voters, keep capital internationally competitive, and provide enough tax base to keep the working class base loyal with public spending, comparatively high employment, tax benefits and so on. Growth would be maintained through a combination of financial success and an increasingly skilled and educated workforce - the 'knowledge economy', as they used to call it when New Labour's soothsayers were Charles Leadbeater and Anthony Giddens. That emphasis on education would also serve the cause of equality, in a very limited sense, since Brown was committed to reducing 'endowment inequality' by enhancing the ability of the 'socially excluded' to compete effectively in the labour market. The institutional and intellectual underpinnings established by Thatcherism were to be preserved, with flexible labour markets, low business taxes and scaled back welfare systems thoroughly entrenched. Thus, New Labour's victory in 1997 was treated as a success for the New Right, in which the Labour Party played a game of catch-up, finally adopting the electorally successful policies of its Conservative opponents. The task was simply to hitch those policies to the modified ends of social democracy. Whatever the misgivings of Labour's core supporters, this approach consolidated the ideological hegemony of a particularly nasty variant of capitalism. So far, so drearily familiar.

The economic crisis has thrown that ideological hegemony into disarray. In a recent poll, only 11% of people questioned in 27 countries approved of the way that free market capitalism is working. While the majority of people feel that the system can still be saved and made to work with adequate reforms and redistribution of wealth, sizeable minorities say it is totally unworkable and "a different economic system is needed". That minority is 20% in the UK - smaller than many others, but still a massive number of people questioning the basic running of society. That is the basis for a social movement. If that questioning, and the anger that underlies it, is not articulated by the left then it will be appropriated by the far right. Actually, forget 'will' - it is being appropriated by the far right.

If the diagnosis of marxists is correct, moreover, this crisis has not run its course. We are in for a prolonged period of stagnation, with worsening conditions for labour. The crisis has already been successfully used by capital to drive down wages and recoup profits by increasing productivity. Look at the latest statistics from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. They say that in the non-farm sector of the economy during the last quarter of production, productivity rose by 9.5%, with unit labour costs decreasing by 5.2% (and by 7.1% in manufacturing. I expect you'll find the same trends in the UK. So, while things are particularly bad for the swelling numbers of unemployed, those in work are having to labour harder for less. In response to this, none of the main parties can even pretend to have an attractive social vision. They are all committed to ensuring that the working class pays the price of this crisis, with privatization, attacks on public sector unions, and spending cuts across the board. The major differences are in emphasis and pitch. That is why the Tories are, in a throwback to their old 'if it isn't hurting, it isn't working' mantra, pledging an 'age of austerity'.

In this context, the decade-old project of trying to construct a left-wing alternative to Labour becomes all the more urgent, though it acquires new dimensions. Electorally, non-aggression pacts and broad coalitions are the order of the day. But I wonder if it isn't long past time for some sort of anticapitalist alliance, not quite like the NPA but certainly drawing inspiration from it, to be forged.

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Saturday, November 07, 2009

Chris Harman RIP posted by Richard Seymour

I am saddened to hear the news that Chris Harman, revolutionary socialist and leading theoretician of the International Socialist tradition, died following a cardiac arrest in Cairo last night. Before his death, he edited the International Socialism journal, and had written an accessible critique of mainstream economic theory, Zombie Capitalism. I personally owe a considerable portion of my Bildung to the man, as it was trawling his back catalogue - Explaining the Crisis, Economics of the Madhouse, etc., plus innumerable articles for International Socialism, (sophisticated polemics against high theorists such as Ernest Mandel and Alec Nove among them) - that enabled me to first get a basic grip of some economic theory. In addition, his historical work, culminating in the magisterial A People's History of the World, provided an invaluable introduction to the topics I would later have to deal with in my degree. Generations of socialists will owe a similar debt, I expect. He is also one of the few such writers to have his work recommended in an album sleeve.

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