Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Nakba as punishment

Alan Dershowitz:

"If [the Holocaust] is a reality, we need to still question whether the Palestinian people should be paying for it or not. After all, it happened in Europe. The Palestinian people had no role to play in it. So why is it that the Palestinian people are paying the price of an event they had nothing to do with? ...The Palestinian people didn't commit any crime. They had no role to play in World War II. They were living with the Jewish communities and the Christian communities in peace at the time."

The conclusion that is supposed to follow from this "fact" is that the establishment of Israel in the wake of the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people was unfair to the Palestinians. Central to this claim is that neither the Palestinian people nor their leadership bore any responsibility for the Holocaust, and if any reparations are owed the Jewish people, it is from Germany and not from the Palestinians. The propounders of this historical argument suggest that the West created the Jewish state out of guilt over the Holocaust. It might have been understandable if a portion of Germany (or Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, France, Austria, or other collaborator nations) had been allocated for a Jewish homeland - but why Palestine? Palestine, according to this claim, was as much a "victim" as were the Jews.

I hear this argument on university campuses around the United States, and even more so in Europe.

The truth is that the Palestinian leadership, supported by the Palestinian masses, played a significant role in Hitler's Holocaust.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Vestas Victory(?)

From The Sauce:

The U.K. wind turbine manufacturing plant marked for closure by Vestas Wind Systems A/S (VWS.KO) has been awarded a GBP6 million grant from the government and a local development agency, the Department of Energy and Climate Change said in a statement Monday.

I have to say, there's an increasing and detectible tendency for these struggles to end in success, which raises the merest whisper of a straw in the wind that perhaps we might actually see a bit of working class insurrection in this country. But don't quote me on that. (A splash of cold water here).

Rwanda, the RPF, and the myth of non-intervention

Jamie reports on a recent UN conference on the doctrine of 'Responsibility to Protect', attended by Gareth Evans, Noam Chomsky, Jean Bricmont and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. In the course of the debate, an interesting one as these things go, the assertion is repeatedly made by Evans, and accepted by others, that the story of the Rwandan genocide was one of non-intervention. The 'West', or the Euro-American powers so designated, demonstrated 'indifference'. They considered it just another example of ancient tribal hatreds finding an outlet in a new blood-letting, failing to accept that what was taking place was a genocide that demanded urgent intervention to protect the innocent. (These racist spiels about ancient tribal hatreds are certainly culpable, but I wonder if the reactionary discourse of 'good-vs-evil' that imperialists are fond of is really any better?) The lesson drawn from this by those advocating 'humanitarian intervention' is that new norms of intervention, mandating the use of military force in emergency cases, have to be elaborated and embedded in international law. Now, even if it were true that the 'West' had not intervened, it would by no means follow that it should: you have to make another series of assumptions to justify that conclusion. But it isn't true, and the widespread acceptance of this idea cultivates the claim of US innocence, the obverse of 'indifference'. Jamie links to this blog, obviously looking for a post where I have dealt with the myth of non-intervention. I did write a bit about the background to the genocide, but the only occasion on which I discussed this particular issue was briefly in this interview. So, this post deals with two themes. The first is the nature and conduct of the RPF before and during the 1990 invasion of Rwanda, and the second is the nature of US support for the RPF. I won't have much to say about French intervention - a crucial part of the story, but one familiar enough to us, I hope.

Our narrative does not conveniently begin on the night of April 6-7, 1994, following the assassination of Habyarimana, when the first massacres were reported by observers. It doesn't begin with the invasion of Rwanda by armed Tutsi exiles from Uganda in 1990, either. As usual, a much wider historical perspective is called for. As the origin of the 'ethnic'* conflict in colonial rule has already been discussed here, though, we can confine ourselves to a number of simple points to start from. (And if you really want a good account of that history and its implications, see Mahmood Mamdani's When Victims Become Killers, Princeton, 2001). First, Belgian rule had created a sort of bipolar order of ethnicity, in which a minority of Tutsis were integrated into the elite, while most Hutus were subject to degrading forms of force labour, including corvée. Secondly, the Tutsi diaspora was created by the overthrow of a monarchical ruling caste after the defeat of Belgian rule, and the repressive policies pursued by the new Hutu rulers. Thirdly, institutional discrimination against the Tutsi minority was accompanied by several refugee waves in response to state repression: in 1959-1961 immediately after the overthrow of the Belgians; in 1963-64 after an attempted insurgency by Tutsis from Burundi and Uganda, which the government responded to with violent repression; and in 1972-1973, just before Habyarimana's coup d'etat, during the genocide against Hutus in Burundi. The latter was the result of an attempt by a failing regime to brand itself as a friend of Hutus, and was effectively aborted by the coup.

Tens of thousands of Tutsis had been killed in these waves of repression, and hundreds of thousands driven out. For approximately two decades, though, that violence more or less abated. Most of the repression under Habyarimana was class-based. Nonetheless, the forms of institutional discrimination mattered enough to maintain certain forms of separation, discouraging intermarriage for example - if a Hutu's daughter married into a Tutsi family, it was sure that she would suffer from lack of education, jobs and prospects. And Habyarimana did ban the return of refugees based in Uganda in 1986. (See Catherine Newbury, 'Background to Genocide: Rwanda', Issue: A Journal of Opinion, Vol. 23, No. 2, Rwanda, 1995; Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers, pp. 3-18; Mamdani, 'From Conquest to Consent as the Basic of State Formation: Reflections on Rwanda', New Left Review, March-April 1996).

The exiles in Uganda also faced repression and expulsions, particularly under Obote's two presidencies. For that reason a minority allied with the Idi Amin regime from 1971 to 1980, and then with Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Movement which overthrew the second Obote presidency in 1985. It was in this period that the Rwandese Alliance for National Unity (RANU) was formed as the precursor to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Representing a minority of the exiles, this movement initially tried to build a broad movement that could transform the Rwandan state. They articulated their goals in a quasi-marxist language, though this was later dropped, expressing what they believed were potentialyl popular, liberatory aims. By 1987, RANU was still trying to find a mass base, emphasising that it was 'non-political' and merely wanted to unite all Rwandans. It was in that spirit that it rebranded itself the Rwandan Patriotic Front and restricted its agenda to eight core aims, including democracy and national unity. But in private, it seems, the leadership had settled on a military option. And by 1988, Tutsis integrated into the Ugandan army were openly preparing to invade Rwanda. (Alan J Kuperman, 'Explaining the Ultimate Escalation in Rwanda: How and Why Tutsi Rebels Provoked a Retaliatory Genocide', delivered to the American Political Science Association in August 2003; 'Wm Cyrus Reed, 'The Rwandan Patriotic Front: Politics and Development in Rwanda', Issue: A Journal of Opinion, Vol. 23, No. 2, Rwanda, 1995; Mamdani, 2001, pp 159-185). Increasingly, the RPF had became a project for conquering Rwandan state power. The question is, how did this happen? Part of the explanation is that the victory of the NRM in Uganda had proven that a small, self-sustaining military force could defeat an internationally recognised government. But this could not have become a successful strategy had the RPF not became the proxy army of United States intervention in Rwanda.

Increasingly, Museveni was under pressure to expel Rwandans from senior positions in the national government, and the sabre-rattling of the RPF was becoming a liability. For that reason, he dismissed General Rwigenya from his position of army chief-of-staff in November 1989, and relieved General Kagame of his title of military intelligence chief in Kampala. Both of these were RPF leaders, but it was Kagame who then made his way to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to be trained by the US military. Having spent months in training by Special Forces, he departed to assist the invasion of Rwanda, already in progress. Kagame was not the only RPF member to be trained under the IMET programme, but as the effective leader of the invasion following Rwigenya's death on the battle field, his presence there has been widely noted. (According to journalist and former naval attache Wayne Madsen's testimony to Congress, in 1999, Kagame's subordinates were also given training at Luke Air Force base in Arizona, in such matters as the deployment of surface-to-air missiles.) As far as I can gather, however, the main way in which the US supported the RPF was through the application of its diplomatic muscle - with important consequences, as we will see. The RPF's martial adeptness and armaments mainly derived from the support it received from the Ugandan military (another US ally).

Initiatives undertaken between Museveni and Habyarimana to prevent an invasion resulted in pledges of political liberalisation, the legalisation of opposition parties, and proposals for the staged return of refugees, but these were flatly ignored by the RPF. In fact, it was a trifle inconvenient for them that the Rwandan state was suddenly prepared to, cautiously, address the issues that supposedly motivated the insurgents, for they were no longer interested merely in reforms: they wanted a share of state power. Reportedly, the RPF even went to the extent of assassinating Tutsis who supported compromise deals. The steps taken by the Habyarimana regime could have something to do with the timing of the invasion, which was partially intended to thwart compromises of this kind. (Kuperman, 2003; Newbury, 1995). Three days before the invasion, Habyarimana declared before the UN that Rwanda would grant citizenship documents and travel rights to refugees, and that it would repatriarte those who did return. Again the RPF did not respond. (Mamdani, 2001, p 159). I suppose it's worth highlighting that at the time, the RPF were the 'good guys' as far as the British press were concerned. A report in the Independent claimed that "The rebel movement ... aims to overthrow President Habyarimana and his clique ... and replace it with a democratic, honest non-tribal regime." Ah, bless.

When the invasion was launched, the RPF discovered to their chagrin that Hutu peasants weren't altogether eager to 'liberated', and generally fled from guerilla zones. Habyarimana had responded to the invasion by locking up tens of thousands of political opponents, both Hutu and Tutsi, and launching a violent crackdown that killed hundreds of civilians. This didn't work to the RPF's advantage since they had no base and most, barring a section of the Hutu opposition, resented them for bringing this repression down on them. The RPF began to rely on coercion, driving thousands of refugees into Uganda (irony alert) to create free-fire zones, and engaging in forced recruitment. They could not, unlike Museveni's NRA, form alternative structures of government based on 'resistance councils' because they lacked a mass base. Most Rwandans suspected that the RPF was about to re-impose Tutsi domination, a fact that Hutu nationalists could use to their advantage in opposing Habyarimana's efforts at compromise. (Mamdani, pp 188-189).

It was often assumed in the early literature on the genocide that a lengthy and bloody battle with the Rwandan military was completely unanticipated by the RPF. Thus, Rene Lemerchand wrote: "On the eve of the October 1, 1990 invasion, no one within the RPF had the slightest idea of the scale of the cataclysm they were about to unleash." (Lemerchand, 'Rwanda: The Rationality of Genocide', Issue: A Journal of Opinion, Vol. 23, No. 2, Rwanda, 1995). In retrospect, this was false - perhaps it was an image that the RPF preferred to project at that time. However, since then Alan Kuperman of Johns Hopkins has interviewed a number of senior RPF members who participated in the invasion and subsequent war. He writes that, in fact: "Rwigyema and other senior rebel officials anticipated a protracted struggle against a more numerous and better equipped Rwandan army." (Kuperman, 2003). But just as the RPF was being forced into retreat and looked weakest, the US stepped in and told the Habyarimana government that it should treat the RPF not as an invading army but as a legitimate opposition. This wasn't just friendly advice: it came with America's immense clout, including its ability to disburse aid and loans. In response to Rwandan concessions, Bush's ambassador to Rwanda announced an increase of aid from $11.6m to $20m. (Barrie Collins, 'New Wars and Old Wars? The Lessons of Rwanda', in David Chandler, ed., Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, p. 161)

In stressing the concessions and negotiations available to the RPF, I will not imply that the Habyarimana regime was somehow the 'nice guy' of the conflict - far from it. The pogroms and massacres unleashed by the government even in the early years of the insurgency were part of a strategy of attempting to undermine the leverage of the invaders by punishing the Tutsi population. Their sole rationale for making any concessions at all was self-preservation. But the RPF believed they could gain more, and were determined to press for maximum advantage. During the negotiations they had improved their military capability, and they now found that the world's sole superpower was backing them. They launched a new offensive in March 1992 and continued with further attacks throughout the year. At the behest of the US, the Habyarimana government intensified negotiations at Arusha in July 1992. A seven month ceasefire ensued, broken by the RPF in February 1993. Claiming that they were responding to pogroms and massacres of Tutsi civilians by the Rwandan military and death squads (which certainly happened), they doubled the amount of territory under their control, and came within 20 miles of the capital, killing Hutu civilians as they did so and displacing about a million people.

At this point the Habyarimana regime was faced with an internal opposition that considered that he had conceded far too much to the RPF. This sentiment was galvanising the nationalists, increasing their standing among the general population. And after the RPF's attacks in Spring 1993, even those elements of the Hutu opposition that were sympathetic to the RPF expressed a feeling of betrayal, and were forced on the retreat. Faustin Twagiramungu, the leader the opposition MDR party, criticised the RPF for being exactly like Habyarimana's party, seeking total control rather than a negotiated settlement. Even so, the military successes of the RPF ensured further concessions, and the resulting agreement at Arusha was nothing short of a coup for the Front. If the accords had actually succeeded, the RPF would have been given a total of five cabinet seats out of a total of 21, and eleven seats in the transitional national assembly out of a total of 70, putting it on par with the ruling MNRD. This reflected military leverage, not popular support. During the Arusha negotiations, moreover, successful offensives by the RPF enabled to demand that their representation in the army by increased from 40% to 50%. (they gained 50% representation in the officer corps, but 40% in the proposed combined army). (Kuperman, 2003; Collins, p 166).

US negotiators were fully aware that such concessions were impossible for Habyarimana to defend, but insisted that he offer them or risk losing the support of the 'international community' (the US). If he lost the 'international community', he would lose aid, and potentially lose the war. This is a crucial point: the US knew that nothing was surer to drive hardline factions in the army and state into a paranoid abyss than forcing them to accept what amounted to an effective coup. The RPF's "unceasing demand that Habyarimana hand over to them effective political and military control of Rwanda" was hardly balanced by the few concessions on their part. If Habyarimana went through with it, he was sure to wind up dead: so he did the only thing that he could be counted on to do for the sake of his own political survival. He signed, but did everything he could to avoid implementation. He coopted all the Hutu nationalist currents behind his 'Hutu Power' alliance, and - in light of ongoing attacks - could make a resonant case that success for the RPF represented an existential threat to the country's Hutu population. (This can't be reduced to the propaganda of a dying regime - it was because people could easily believe that this was what was at stake that substantial layers of the Hutu population, well beyond the small circles that planned the genocide, later participated in its execution. ) At the same time, according to former RPF officer Jean-Paul Mugabe, the RPF were advising their soldiers not to take the Arusha accords seriously and to prepare for a 'final' conflict with the Rwandan government. (Kuperman, 2003; Collins, p 167-171).

The RPF at this point had a choice, as Kuperman puts it: "They could finally make concessions in their demands for power – for example, by letting the now dominant Hutu Power wings pick the opposition parties’ representatives in the transitional government – in the hope of averting massive retaliatory violence against Tutsi civilians. Or the rebels could maintain their hard line and prepare a final military offensive to conquer Rwanda. They chose the latter." Their escalation and the atrocities that they certainly committed (especially during their final sweep to power) only assisted the invocation of an existential peril faced by the Hutu population. Even as the genocide was promulgated, they treated "retaliation against Tutsi civilians as the price of achieving" their goals "even as the price climbed much higher than expected." The Front did make some belated efforts to win over those it had expelled or mistreated, and even to try and organise some self-defence for the anticipated victims of the genocide. But that was secondary. As Kuperman argues: "the battle plan was designed to conquer the country, rather than to protect Tutsi civilians from retaliatory violence". The insurgents avoided the areas where genocide was being perpetrated, or where people were at most risk, for fear of the military costs that they would bear. Instead, they swept through the eastern half of the country, bypassing most of the fighting army units, and took the capital as the Hutu military was disintegrating. They accomplished their goal, capturing state power - though, of course, at a tremendous price.

To state the obvious, again, in stressing the RPF's responsibility for its own decisions, there is no attempt to 'balance' their conduct with that of the Hutu Power faction that promulgated genocide. The responsibility for the annihilation of 80% of the Tutsi population of Rwanda lies first and foremost with those who planned it, and those who executed it. Nothing could mitigate that responsibility. But the RPF's role was destructive, and American intervention on its behalf made it far more destructive than it might have been. And the reason for their ruthless conduct was rooted in their nature as an elitist military outfit that sought, through alliances with local and international powers, to impose minority rule on Rwanda regardless of the consequences for the Tutsi population. In fact, this is exactly what it succeeded in doing. The resulting regime continued to benefit from US military training, has become one of the closest allies of the UK and US in the continent, has been party to genocidal violence in the Congo and has violently repressed opponents. If the Rwandan Patriotic Front had been a liberation movement of the kind sought in the early RANU, with popular interests at heart, it would have shown in their strategy, their tactics of war, their relationship to the masses, and their subsequent mode of rule. It did not: they were not. If there had been no 'Western' intervention, as is often asserted, the 'civil war' that resulted from the invasion would probably have resulted in far less bloodshed. But the actual intervention that took place, so far from proving an excellent antidote to genocide, as 'Western' intervention is supposed to be, helped bring it about.

*The category of ethnicity almost always demands scare quotes. In this case it is particularly problematic since the terms 'Hutu', 'Tutsi' and 'Twa' were historically highly changeable in their meaning and tended, under colonial rule, to shade into 'racial' categories. This polysemy has had implications for the course of present history. Mahmood Mamdani recalls that: "one of the issues hotly debated in the Rwandese Alliance for National Unity (RANU), formed by refugees in Uganda in 1979, was whether the difference between Bahutu and Batutsi was one of class or ethnicity". (Mamdani, 'From Conquest to Consent as the Basic of State Formation: Reflections on Rwanda', New Left Review, March-April 1996)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The only way is down

Forget about green shoots, and don't be taken in by chipper 'investors'. The UK is tanking. In the year to June, UK GDP declined by 5.6%, a fall almost identical to that in the first years of the Depression. Unemployment made a record rise in the first quarter of this year, despite the fact that public sector employment rose. Corporate profits continue to tumble (only boosted a little by hypertrophic profits from 'continental shelf' companies). Unlike in the US where massive, centralised intervention and public spending higher than its peak in the 1930s may well have mitigated the crisis (and state spending has had to soar because consumer spending is not recovering), the UK is still in freefall.

So, why is it that the Tories are planning for 'deep' spending cuts in the event of their winning the next election? David Blanchflower, the sole 'dove' on the Monetary Policy Committee, pointed out a while ago that the experts who have called for such cuts also tended to be those who missed the recession in the first place, and are still basing their expectations on outlandishly optimistic assessments. Cutting public spending now or in the near future is a certain way to prolong and deepen the recession when major public investment is the indicated remedy. Even in the enormously unlikely circumstances of a rapid recovery, the regional impact of public spending cuts would be dire - Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in particular have tended to rely on a healthy public sector for growth in the past, and would lose ground massively.

On the one hand, it is all too easy to believe that the Tories don't give a damn about high unemployment and long-term stagnation provided it weakens the bargaining power of labour and restores profitability in the long term. But one also gets the sense that both New Labour and the Tories, and possibly those sectors of the ruling class that they represent, are still in deep denial about the scale of this crisis, its durability, and what it means for the neoliberal settlement of the last thirty years or so. They really are trying to restore the situation that prevailed prior to the 'credit crunch', based on debt-fuelled consumption, low corporation taxes, a 'flexible' labour market and so on. But people, quite sensibly, don't want to borrow money to spend at this time, so there isn't going to be a consumption-led recovery based on debt. The figures bear this out - despite a jump in new mortages, the main trend is for people to avoid using credit cards and save whatever money they have. Long-term high unemployment, expected to continue in most advanced economies, could only entrench this trend, unless the state decided to support consumption directly, bolster the bargaining position of labour and engage in job creation programmes that would bolster the state sector of the economy. But this would involve precisely the kind of programmatic re-ordering of public priorities that none of the mainstream parties are currently capable of.

How Many Leftists Are "United for Iran"?

"8,000 people at the [25 July 2009] event in Paris, 4,000 in Stockholm, 3,000 in Amsterdam, more than 2,500 in Washington DC, 2,500 in New York, 2,000 in London. . . ," says, the sponsor of the global day of action. The numbers suggest that few non-Iranian leftists showed up (when leftists join and mobilize for protests en masse, Paris, for instance, sees hundreds of thousands -- sometimes millions -- of protesters easily). While a number of leftists have made impassioned pleas for solidarity with Iran's Green Movement, (throwing themselves into an obligatory intra-left battle royal that has eclipsed any battle against the power of unelected clerics in Iran), most leftists appear to find it inadvisable to join the protests against the Iranian government (such as United4Iran's) that don't have an anti-imperialist point of unity emphasizing "Hands Off Iran" as much as criticism of the Iranian government's conduct in handling the Green protests.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Labour's crushing defeat

In 2005, Ian Gibson won Norwich North for Labour with over 21,000 votes. Today, in a bye-election resulting from Gibson's resignation over the expenses scandal, Chris Ostrowski lost it for Labour with a pathetic 6,000 votes, approx. That means Labour shed more than two-thirds of its vote. The Tories are down 2,000 votes on their 2005 level, but won the seat because the collapse of the left vote. The Greens put on two thousand votes, but one would have expected them to do much better - and UKIP outdid them, adding about three thousand votes to their previous tally. Craig Murray probably didn't expect much better, but at least he beat the BNP. On this basis, the 2010 general election will see a Tory landslide and surge for other right-wing parties, including possibly the fascists.

It's all too easy to blame this on Gordon Brown's outstanding inadequacy, the MPs expenses scandal, and Blairite plotting. These are all important factors, and the vapidity of challenges to Brown - James Purnell, of all people - can't inspire Labour voters with much hope of seeing a change in the future. But the collapse of social democracy is not a specifically British phenomenon, as the results from the recent Euro elections demonstrate. That was a continental cull that spared only a few forces to the left of social democracy. Nor is it recent. The decline in party identification is long-term, and the principle reason is that these parties have largely succumbed to neoliberal policies that accelerate inequality, undermine the unionised public sector from where many of their votes come, and erode the income and working conditions of their core supporters. The Labour Party has dealt with this by trying to construct a new electoral coalition that includes sectors of the middle class and the rich, and it was this coalition that once made New Labour seem so indomitable. Their ideological catchphrases were aspiration and enterprise. They courted a culture of conspicuous consumption. But this was based on unsustainable private sector borrowing, and soaring house prices. With the 'credit crunch' and ensuing recession, New Labour no longer looks as if it can meet the aspirations it has volubly acclaimed.

There is an obvious question, though: why don't left-wing voters turn out in greater number to back preferred alternatives? So far, disaffection with New Labour is producing passivity and disengagement rather than electoral insurgency. I can only think it is related to the absence of a general mobilisation against job losses in this recession. Despite very brave stands in particular localised settings against job losses, despite the militancy of the construction workers, these have not yet become part of a mass movement. This could change very quickly when the axe falls on the heavily unionised public sector, but neither the government nor the union leaders want a fight on this territory before the election. The left is right to assume that any one of the struggles going on now, over Vestas for example, could be a trigger for a much wider revolt. But institutional factors don't favour it at the moment.

Aside from this, there is a sort of cultural production of passivity. The reification of socially produced institutions is such that, in the news spectacle, we experience them as almost god-like forces controlling our lives without reason or accountability. There's a surge on the Dow Jones today - phew! - and then it collapses. Asian markets are up - fingers crossed - and then they're down again. GDP figures are falling less rapidly than before, then we learn that it's a false dawn. Investors are confident, then they're fleeing in droves. Our future seems to depend on forces beyond our ability to understand them, much less control them. One of the great challenges in trying to rouse resistance to the loss of jobs and livelihoods is that the very idea of ‘resisting the recession’ can seem incoherent in light of its spectacular autonomy. I assume that this is a powerful factor where working class organisation is weakest, although that ain't necessarily so.

Your diagnoses, correctives, complaints and grievances in the comments thread, please.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The racial politics of the Christian Right

During the 2008 US presidential campaign, liberals rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of attacking Reverend Wright while failing to take note of the nutcases that McCain was hanging around with. Pastor John Hagee didn't really have too much explaining to do over his rabid racism, homophobia, sexism, etc. Evidently, his flock had no trouble with his ideas: when it came to such matters, he was preaching to the converted. This moment occurred to me while reading up a bit on the way in which the Right responded to the defeat of segregation.

Joseph Crespino has done some of the best work on this, particularly in In Search of Another Country, in which he notes that the most effective segregationists, the ones who kept it going for longest and were most successful in countering the effects of desegregation, were those who advocated in a 'colour blind' fashion. (You know the drill - states rights, liberal elites, bureaucrats, federal dictatorship, etc.) This was not a novel strategy - Crespino points out that the Jim Crow legislation introduced in Mississippi in the 1890s made no explicit reference to race. And, as Ira Katznelson has shown, racism in the 'New Deal' operated through 'racially laden' provisions rather than exclusions explicitly aimed at African Americans. But it was effective and by 1980, the seeds of a counterrevolution were bearing fruit. In another essay, 'Civil Rights and the Religious Right', Crespino dealt with how the Christian Right emerged substantially in response to desegregation measures. It's an important story, because while the 'new atheists' grapple ineptly with the finer points of theology, surely the point about such movements is the social interests they express.

Richard Viguerie, one of the pioneers of the Christian Right's direct mailing strategy, observed of the movement that what really "kicked the sleeping dog" was the efforts by the IRS to remove tax exemptions from "segregation academies". These were the hundreds of Christian schools set up across the states of the old Confederacy in response to desegregation laws, to enable white people to send their kids to private schools from which black students were effectively excluded. They didn't always make their exclusion explicit. The Briarcrest Baptist schools system in Mississippi proclaimed that it accepted and encouraged black enrollment but, dang it, there just weren't any black students ready to give it a try. White enrollment in public schools collapsed in some areas in the first year of desegregation and by 1970, 400,000 children had been enrolled in "segregation academies". By 1976, Christian academies outnumber the old secular schools across the South. The Nixon administration couldn't offer much but promises and comfort to segregationists. Nixon was personally sympathetic: "Whites in Mississippi can't send their kids to schools that are 90% black; they've got to set up private schools." But there was sufficient pressure to ensure that the administration grudgingly obliged the IRS, initially with some latitude as to how to enforce the policy, to remove tax breaks from said 'academies' (usually low rent affairs with inexperienced teachers and rote learning from antiquated sources). The IRS initially accepted the school's own say-so that it didn't discriminate, but by 1978 had to draw up guidelines, based on demographic formulae, by which schools could be deemed 'reviewable' and subject to further investigation. If the number of black students was substantially below what it should be, the case for tax exemption could come under review.

And this was what decisively galvanised the Christian Right. They called it 'racial quotas', and 'reverse discrimination'. It was an attack by big gummint. That was when Bob Billings and Paul Weyrich founded the National Christian Action Coalition. Their stance was simple: they had nothing to do with those old reactionary zealots of the segregationist era, and certainly didn't advocate the state subsidising racial oppression. They simply objected to the federal government using its fiscal power to discourage legitimate cultural and political choices. They were supported in this stance by neoconservatives writing in The Public Interest. In the Senate, their cause was championed by Jesse Helms, who had used similar language in defence of southern segregation. By 1980, the GOP was pledging to "halt the unconstitutional regulatory vendetta" against the segregation academies. Bob Billings joined the Reagan campaign and became its advisor on religious matters. Reagan himself made a point of addressing students Bob Jones University, one of the most notoriously segregationist academies in the south, which had banned interracial dating and lost its tax exemptions. He recycled the mytheme of 'reverse discrimination', arguing that the IRS policy was tantamount to 'racial quotas' and that: "You do not alter the evil character of racial quotas simply by changing the colour of the beneficiary". No subtlety there: the blacks, he affirmed, had the run of the place - and he would do something about it. Which he did by 1982, when the University briefly regained its tax exempt status, before the Supreme Court slapped it down.

Of course, the channelling of the old segregationist spirit was a crucial part of the Reaganite campaign, and this wasn't just in the language of the Christian Right. At the Neshoba fair in Mississippi, in 1980, Reagan had championed "states' rights", while his local campaign director confirmed that they were reaching out to "George Wallace voters". Trent Lott, who headed Reagan’s Mississipi campaign, lauded Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrat presidential candidate in 1948: "If we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today". And the Christian Right had other concerns, bearing on the social and moral order - they had homophobia and misogyny to attend to, for example, and they generally disapproved of communists and troublemakers. But, the issues that were to so exercise the Christian Right in later years - school prayers, and so on - had done nothing to electrify them as the segregation academies had. It has been argued that the Republicans incorporated the Christian Right because it was the only potentially popular component of their coalition, when their main goals would only benefit a narrow sector of corporate power. This is probably true, but it is just important to notice that this was part of the broader 'southern strategy' adopted by the Right. It showed that counterrevolution was still on the table, that the gains of the Sixties open to challenge and subversion, and that the working class could still be powerfully divided by race. The furious race-baiting of the McCain campaign last year presumably worked on the assumption that this old spirit was still alive.

Vestas workers occupy

You may have been hearing of the Vestas workers' campaign. More than 500 workers were to be sacked from the wind turbine plant in the Isle of Wight, which is threatened with closure. It happens to be one of the few 'green' industries in the UK, and would be the sort of thing the government should be investing in as part of a 'green New Deal', as opposed to artificially expanding polluting industries. The news has just come through that the workers have decided to occupy the plant. I'll supply further links and updates as soon as they're available.

Update: contact information and protest details here.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Afghanistan - a few pessimistic notes

The war is escalating. The number of troops coming home dead is increasing. The rationalisations for the occupation of Afghanistan are coming apart. We are told that the troops are there at the behest of the democratically elected leader (an interesting procedure - groom the man you want, get him elected, offer him 'protection' he can't refuse, and then say you're there at his invitation). Yet, it has been obvious for some time that Karzai is deeply worried about what the bombings and raids are doing, and the government - even one protected by US power and bought off with US patronage - is constantly criticising the NATO attacks. Karzai has even, to the chagrin of the US, constantly favoured negotiations over escalation - a preference supported by most Afghans even in those polls that are unreliably weighted in favour of the West for reasons that Giustozzi has spelled out. We are told that the war is against 'Al Qaeda' or the 'Taliban' or something. But the experts tend to conclude, as General Sir Richard Dannatt did a few years ago, that: "The people the Americans and British are fighting in Afghanistan are mostly local tribesmen resisting foreign forces." (Dannatt now pretends to believe that the enemy is 'Al Qaeda', while defending the intervention on the grounds that if Britain left it would cause a split with America and potentially rupture the NATO coalition.) The war should be more unpopular than ever. And perhaps it really is.

However, at the beginning of this week, a poll found that British opinion was split more or less fifty-fifty on the war in Afghanistan (though a majority wants the troops out by the end of the year). This could just be a blip, as majorities have consistently opposed the war in previous polls. But if it proved to be part of a trend, it would mean that antiwar sentiment is declining, and we have a problem on our hands. My suspicion is that the popularity of the Obama administration could be behind some of this. The other thing is that, at my meeting at the Stop the War Coalition in Birmingham on Thursday, it was mentioned that army recruitment had increased for the first time in years. Given the efforts by returning soldiers and outfits such as Military Families Against the War to enlighten people as to the bloody realities of the war, this is alarming. Perhaps the recession and higher unemployment is pushing more young people into signing up. Whatever the reason, there's a problem.

One last thing. I note the popularity of comparisons with the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. People cite this as an instance of the kind of 'quagmire' that America might find itself in. The trouble is that when Russia fell in Afghanistan, it was already on its last legs. America is not on its last legs, nor does it have a rival superpower arming the enemy. It really is just facing down a mainly popular grassroots insurgency, and these - if lacking the kind of commitment, centralisation and coordination that successful insurgencies have had - can be either coopted or ruthlessly and fanatically crushed. America has far more firepower than its Russian nemesis had, and it isn't even limited by the prospect of serious accountability - there is no Lancet survey for Afghanistan, and attempts to gauge the impact of bombing have been haphazard and woefully inadequate. The US has also retained, despite the Bush years, a broad Euro-American coalition, which easily has the ability to destroy Afghanistan and the north-western frontier province in Pakistan, where hundreds of thousands of loyal Pakistani troops have been working on the empire's behalf. Further, the resistance this time is nowhere near as united or hegemonic. If the resistance is mainly local tribespeople, the only potential national leadership that has thus emerged is the 'neo-Taliban', but it is doubtful whether they have the capacity to unite across ethnic boundaries. The point is that, as much as we like to say how improbable it is that the US could win, the fact is that their overwhelming power and ability to outsource imperial violence to smaller countries should be enough to do it. It may take years, it may be brutal, it may actually get to genocidal levels of violence, but we shouldn't assume that the US can't win.

Such purificatory feats

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, biology experienced a 'golden age'. Claude Bernard pioneered physiology and experimental medicine. Louis Pasteur invented microbiology. Charles Darwin invented evolutionary biology. Of these three breakthroughs, only the latter had no immediate technological or scientific implications. Indeed, until complemented by the genetics of Weismann and especially Mendel, the scientific basis for Darwin's theory was far weaker than its widespread acceptance would have inclined one to believe. In fact, it was precisely because its immediate technological applications were non-existent that its social implications came rapidly to the fore: it had direct implications for the political order, which were rapidly expressed in various doctrines of 'social Darwinism'. Indeed, Darwin's account of his own theory was that it extended the theories of the economists to the natural sciences, and that he had been influenced by Malthus. Subsequent popular interpretations, from Bagehot to Ammon to Lapouge, saw in Darwinism the basis for interpretation and reformation of the social order.

But this should not obscure the fact that the other innovations so far mentioned also had profound ideological ramifications. If Bernardian physiology annihilated vitalism and expunged the 'spirit' from biology, Pasteurian principles introduced compulsory vaccination and quarantine, reinforcing a 'biologization' of politics and implying a 'herding' vision of society. This ought to remind us of how thoroughly ideological and normative the atomic assumptions of our scientific weltanschauung are. Such is theme of André Pichot's The Pure Society: From Darwin to Hitler.

Pichot is an historian of science based in Strasbourg, and I think this may be his first book translated into English. Some of the research I did for Liberal Defence involved considering the impact of social Darwinism on left-wing and liberal discourses about war and empire. As such, I had encountered Georges Vacher de Lapouge of the French Socialist Party before and was familiar with some of the extent to which such ideas percolated in 'progressive' and socialist opinion (Shaw's fondness for the gas chamber, for example). What Pichot does is to demonstrate how much mainstream scientific theory was implicated in racist and eugenicist ideas, and his thesis is that the suppression of this fact has disguised how much contemporary biology is indebted to those same ideas.

Social Darwinism maintained that human behaviour could be explained by the same evolutionary pressures of struggle, competition and selection as exerted . This meant that there was a constant struggle between different biological entities, whether individuals or groups, for survival and supremacy. Both the defenders and opponents of social Darwinism discerned in it a defence of bourgeois economic interests, even if it stripped away some forms of bourgeois idealism. It also had powerful martial, colonial and racial inflections. Thus, Bagehot (a moderate by the standards of his age): "In every particular state of the world, those nations which are strongest tend to prevail over the others; and in certain marked peculiarities the strongest tend to be the best." And again: "Each nation tried constantly to be the stronger, and so made or copied the best weapons ... Conquest improved mankind by the intermixture of strengths; the armed truce, which was then called peace, improved them by the competition of training and the consequent creation of new power."

And Lapouge (the starkest defender of social Darwinism): "The most ancient songs of the poets and the oldest historic documents show the constant war of all against all. Homer’s blonde warriors, like the Gallic and Scandinavian heroes later on, most often died a violent death. Each tribe was at war with its neighbours, and the main occupation seems to have been that of destroying those nearby. Rereading the heroic songs of the early Aryans, we may ask ourselves in amazement how female fertility was sufficient to make up for the ceaseless destruction of the adult population. There was nothing but massacre and butchery..." And again: "I am convinced that in the next century, millions will be slaughtered for one or two degrees more or less in the cephalic index; this is the sign that is replacing the biblical shibboleth and the linguistic affinities by which people recognise one another ... The last sentimental individuals will witness copious exterminations of peoples". Even non-Darwinists couldn't resist its bleak allure: the Lamarckian biologist Felix La Dantec adopted the Darwinian principles of struggle, competition and selection when he wrote that "To be is to struggle, to live is to conquer."

Eugenics, based on the precepts of social Darwinism, proposed a fable that seemed to resonate with the racist and imperialist culture of the era: the human species was degenerating because of the wrong kind of breeding. The process of selection had somehow gone awry, and the wrong genetic entities were winning the survival game. The solution was to bolster the genetic stock by removing those elements deemed dysfunctional to evolutionary progress, and by the proper regulation of breeding habits. Despite the appalling political consequences of such doctrines, the opponents of eugenics were few and far between. The Catholic church opposed eugenics: though it was complicit with Nazi crimes, it didn't accept the scientistic basis for them. The Soviet Union adopted its own quack science in response to low crop yields, and the urgent drive to industrialise the society and build up its military capacities - but even before that low comedy and high tragedy, it had come to reject eugenics as a bourgeois deviation in genetics. Beyond these two countervailing pressures, there was some suspicion from liberals who saw eugenics as a statist project. Jacques Novicow, the liberal French sociologist, was perhaps the most vociferous opponent of the doctrine, arguing that: "Social Darwinism may be defined as a doctrine that views collective homicide as the cause of the human race’s progress". But social Darwinism, and the eugenicist policies that generally followed from it, was mainstream.

For Pichot, the scientific basis of Darwinism was so weak that its enthusiastic uptake as a potential basis for social engineering is suspicious. This is not, I hasten to add, an invitation to dismiss the theory of evolution. But why did such threadbare assumptions and the social theories extrapolated from them become so widely accepted and so well-funded? Why did the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Institute, for instance, throw millions of dollars at institutions and scientists promoting eugenic theories based on social Darwinism across America and Europe in the early twentieth century, right until the Holocaust? Pichot notes that their own explanations adverted to social crises, crime, poverty and so on, as well as the general confusion and turmoil of the interwar period that seemed to demand a 'new Man'. The idea of refashioning human beings to meet the demands of the society, rather than contrariwise, apparently appealed to the philanthropists of capital.

Now, Pichot is less concerned with the material basis for such ideas than with tracing their lineage, from a scientifically barren but ideologically potent set of texts, to a widespread set of state practises, to the supreme barbarism of the Nazi regime. And he generally offers intellectual explanations for ideational ruptures. Thus, according to Pichot, and contrary to conventional wisdom, eugenics was not decisively broken by WWII and the defeat of the Nazi regime. Rather, advances in molecular genetics gave the theory of evolution the kind of basis that it required to make advances as a science, and leave its "ideological buttress" behind. There is a sort of negative proof offered, namely that no one went on the offensive against eugenics - even erstwhile opponents such as pro-Soviet communist parties or the Catholic church said little about it. Eugenic legislation remained in force in some countries, and very prominent eugenicists such as the social democrat and humanist Julian Huxley were, so far from discredited, actually promoted. Huxley, who had favoured 'voluntary' sterilisation to stop the lower classes breeding too fast and degenerating the race, became the head of UNESCO in 1948, despite his continuing support for eugenics. He would go on to become president of the Eugenics Association from 1959 to 1962, before becoming the first president of the British Humanist Association in 1963. In fact, Pichot notes, had eugenics been targeted after the war, or outlawed, quite a few prominent personages would have found themselves standing in the dock. I am not sure how persuasive I find Pichot's argument here. More advanced molecular genetics did not stop Crick and Watson from espousing eugenicist views, as Pichot himself points out. The fact that it gradually became less popular to do so explicitly, or to ground scientific arguments on such dogma, surely has something to do with the association of 'scientific racism' and similar ideas with a defeated and hated regime. Still, it is important to be reminded that there was nothing inevitable about the (temporary) retreat of eugenics.

What is also useful is to note how eugenic activism was able to re-orient itself in a Malthusian way toward population control in the post war setting. The American ecologist William Vogt outlined the basis for this new turn. The advances made by Pasteur et al had removed a vital check on the control of the world's population, he said, and placed an insupportable burden on the earth's resources. Rather than sustaining the incompetent, the senile, the incurables, the insane, the paupers etc. as "public charges", Vogt advocated treating such people as "ecological Typhoid Marys". America, as the richest country in the world, should use its position to force the recipients of aid to adopt population stabilization programmes. "The greatest tragedy that China could suffer," he argued (this was in 1948), "would be a reduction in her death rate." But increasingly, the kinds of eugenics that has come to the fore was associated with 'euthanasia' and abortion: the killing of those whose lives are deemed no longer worth living, or the termination of pregnancies where a genetic deficiency is expected. This reflects the shift from the phenomenalist and mathematical approach to eugenics, 'population' eugenics, to molecular approaches that focus on the individual. Much of the contemporary material is drawn from French examples: Daniel Cohen, founder of the charity, Telethon, endorsing eugenic programmes, or P.-A. Taguieffe boosting eugenics as a form of progress against Catholic obscurantism. But then Edwin Black has dealt prolifically with the rise of eugenics on the other side of the Atlantic. Pichot argues that part of what is happening is that geneticists, with connections to pharmaceutical businesses, are massively amping up the scariness of genetic diseases - supposedly some 5,000 of them - which don't actually appear to contribute substantially to the death rate. The over-estimation of genetics as a potential medical resource has little to do with the rate of advance in genetics and must therefore result from a combination of material interests and ideological shifts.

The contemporary part of the story does have its share of fun. Pichot is pleasurably intolerant of drivel, and he really lays into E O Wilson and Richard Dawkins, the latter particularly for his "idiotic hawking" and anthropomorphism. Given that Dawkins is being represented as an avatar of reason and enlightenment against those of too much faith, and given that the 'new atheists' are all too often susceptible to reductionist and sociobiological platitudes, this would seem to be a good moment to consider the merits of selfish-gene theory. The actual theories of sociobiology, Pichot says, are ephemeral, which is why their progenitors barely take them seriously enough to give them a proper exposition (he notes that actual biological theory only takes up a small part of Wilson's magnum opus). The attempt, as with previous 'bio-sociology', is to explain social behaviours in 'Darwinian' terms. Thus, altruistic behaviour is explained by relegating the egoism of individuals to the level of the gene. The gene acts in each body in such a way as to programme it to maximise its reproduction in all bodies, and can thus programme the body to be altruistic in certain circumstances. For Wilson, this process is governed by the limbic system: the reason why this programming is attributed to the limbic system is because it supports emotion, which is the only plausible source of altruism, whereas rationality is the domain solely of egoism. In this way, altruism is just a ruse by the selfish gene to perpetuate itself through geological time. In theory the mechanics of this process should be mathematically calculable. Dawkins postulates that a gene "for suicidally saving five cousins would not become more numerous in the population" because it wouldn't result in the gene becoming more numerous in the gene pool. The "minimum requirement for a suicidal altruistic gene to be successful is that it should save more than two siblings (or children or parents)..." etc.

Borrowing a phrase from the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, Pichot describes this as "genetic capitalism", redefining life as "the maximization of genetic inheritance, on the economic model of the maximization of capital". But once these assumptions are asserted and accepted, which they can be given a revival of the ideological traditions of which they are a part, the underlying 'science' becomes superfluous. But it's even worse than that. The underlying scientific arguments, says Pichot, echo those of Nazi biologists such as Otmar von Verschuer, for whom genetic inheritance is also preeminent in much the same way. They resonate with the far right, because they share assumptions about how evolutionary altruism works. Predictably, a certain mysticism comes with this vulgar, reductionist materialism, with the sacralization of the genome and the immortal gene taking the place of the immortal soul.

One curious aspect of the book is Pichot's arguments about racism and taxonomy. He is by no means happy with how the category of race has been used, nor does he think it particularly robust. He makes a good argument that the influence of Gobineau has been over-stated, while the influence of Darwin and his students has been under-stated, in the development of race 'science'. He undermines the myths that have helped insulate biology and the sciences from the kinds of criticism levelled at those whom he thinks of as scapegoats. Yet, in reacting against the bad faith of those eugenicists such as Julian Huxley who tried to overcome their association with racism by referring to 'ethnic group' or 'people' or some synonym, he concedes the idea that the category of race has some validity on the question-begging grounds that people can perceive race. Far better, he says, just to accept that the category has some applicability and just refuse to accept that society or morality can be based on some loose biological characteristics. Yet I know of people who perceive the mother of Christ in a wafer, but I don't assume that their fancy corresponds to a coherent and existing entity. It is easy enough to concede that the key point is not to conflate two separate orders: the political is not the biological, and vice versa. The attempt to base one in the other yields a series of arbitrary 'therefores' at the level of polemic, and a monstrosity at the level of politics. But if racists do operate on the assumption that there is a taxonomical category with a set of socially relevant properties, then it does make sense to challenge and interrogate that category. And it does actually turn out to be pseudoscientific cant, as much of the material in The Pure Society suggests.

Notwithstanding such caveats, there is something very interesting and radical going on in Pichot's book. As a revisionist reading of the legacy of Darwin, it is clearly a punctual intervention into a debate that is relapsing into pre-war classifications, with corporate 'progressivism' on the one hand, and religious 'regression' on the other. In the ethical debates about 'designer babies' and so on, we are encouraged to concentrate on the dilemmas of technology versus morality - in so doing, we lose sight of the fact that genetics actually doesn't explain anywhere near as much as we would like to think, and that the excessive attention to genetic inputs is part and parcel of the revival of particularly savage variety of capitalist ideology.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Statement against the new wave of repression in Iran

The Revolutionary Flowerpot Society has a translated statement (original here) from Iranian leftists and former political prisoners against the state's latest crackdown:

The act of millions of demonstrators who took to the streets recently in most cities in Iran was a huge show of power by a people challenging the injustice, deceit and the constant oppression of this regime. A challenge that was answered by the exercise of violence by the anti-democratic system of the Islamic Republic and its security forces. Up to now, we have had definite reports of tens of deaths and hundreds of injured. Available reports tell of thousands of detained or disappeared among the activists and dissidents against the regime. Meanwhile, the university dormitories have been among the first targets of the forces of oppression, leading to tens of deaths and innumerable arrests of students. The widespread wave of nightly raids of and arrests in the homes of the youth, journalists and students, and the disappearance of others remind us of the fear and the terror during the 1980s. The masses of the detained, in addition to being sent to known prisons such as Evin or Gohardasht or ... are being sent to military bases, Basij offices and unknown locations...

Also appearing

I will be giving a talk on my book, The Liberal Defence of Murder, tonight. It is hosted by the Stop the War Coalition, and will take place at the Carr's Lane church centre, Birmingham, from 7.30pm. I will be doing an extra long talk, because I know for a fact that there's nothing else going on in Brum. (Kidding.)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

That Honduras coup

In the past, if a Central American military deposed a left-wing government, Bush would have declared that he was happy to see democracy prevail. These days, the State Department bristles that it is shocked - shocked - by the affront to a sovereign country's constitution. One way to determine whether the US ruling class actually approves of the coup, though, is to consult its media. Here's one index of the corporate media's view of the coup:

Did a CID-Gallup poll last week indicate that a plurality of Hondurans support the military coup against democratically elected President Zelaya? Yes, according to the Washington Post [July 9], the Wall Street Journal [July 10], the Christian Science Monitor [July 11], and Reuters [July 9], which all reported that the poll showed 41% in favor of the coup, with only 28% opposed.

But in fact the poll showed that 46% -- a plurality -- were *opposed* to the coup, according to the New York Times [July 10], the Associated Press [July 11] and the president of CID-Gallup, in an interview with Voice of America on July 9.

As of this writing -- Sunday evening, 5:30 pm Eastern time -- none of the outlets which reported the poll incorrectly had corrected their earlier, inaccurate, reports.

Another way to study this is to determine whether the US government actually approved of the coup, despite its disavowals. Eva Golinger has some thoughts:

• The Department of State had prior knowledge of the coup.

• The Department of State and the US Congress funded and advised the actors and organizations in Honduras that participated in the coup.

• The Pentagon trained, schooled, commanded, funded and armed the Honduran armed forces that perpetrated the coup and that continue to repress the people of Honduras by force.

• The US military presence in Honduras, that occupies the Soto Cano (Palmerola) military base, authorized the coup d’etat through its tacit complicity and refusal to withdraw its support of the Honduran military involved in the coup.

• The US Ambassador in Tegucigalpa, Hugo Llorens, coordinated the removal from power of President Manuel Zelaya, together with Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon y John Negroponte, who presently works as an advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

• From the first day the coup occurred, Washington has referred to “both parties” involved and the necessity for “dialogue” to restore constitutional order, legitimizing the coup leaders by regarding them as equal players instead of criminal violators of human rights and democratic principles.

• The Department of State has refused to legally classify the events in Honduras as a “coup d’etat”, nor has it suspended or frozen its economic aid or commerce to Honduras, and has taken no measures to effectively pressure the de facto regime.

• Washington manipulated the Organization of American States (OAS) in order to buy time, therefore allowing the coup regime to consolidate and weaken the possibility of President Zelaya’s immediate return to power, as part of a strategy still in place that simply seeks to legitimate the de facto regime and wear down the Honduran people that still resist the coup.

• Secretary of State Clinton and her spokesmen stopped speaking of President Zelaya’s return to power after they designated Costa Rican president Oscar Arias as the “mediator” between the coup regime and the constitutional government; and now the State Department refers to the dictator that illegally took power during the coup, Roberto Micheletti, as the “interim caretaker president”.

• The strategy of “negotiating” with the coup regime was imposed by the Obama administration as a way of discrediting President Zelaya – blaming him for provoking the coup – and legitimizing the coup leaders.

• Members of the US Congress – democrats and republicans – organized a visit of representatives from the coup regime in Honduras to Washington, receiving them with honors in different arenas in the US capital.

• Despite the fact that originally it was Republican Senator John McCain who coordinated the visit of the coup regime representatives to Washington through a lobby firm connected to his office, The Cormac Group, now, the illegal regime is being representated by top notch lobbyist and Clinton attorney Lanny Davis, who is using his pull and influence in Washington to achieve overall acceptance – cross party lines – of the coup regime in Honduras.

• Otto Reich and a Venezuelan named Robert Carmona-Borjas, known for his role as attorney for the dictator Pedro Carmona during the April 2002 coup d’etat in Venezuela, aided in preparing the groundwork for the coup against President Zelaya in Honduras.

• The team designated from Washigton to design and help prepare the coup in Honduras also included a group of US ambassadors recently named in Central America, experts in destabilizing efforts against the Cuban revolution, and Adolfo Franco, ex administrator for USAID’s Cuba “transition to democracy” program.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Proposal for the refoundation of the Committee of Public Safety

How fitting, on Bastille day, to find oneself moved to astonishment and laughter at a particularly puerile BBC docu-drama on Robespierre and the French revolutionary terror. I was actually planning on writing a brief historical post on the topic of the French Revolution, but it will take a while for this drivel to wash out of my system so that I can keep a level head. Simon Schama - The Utterly Preposterous Simon Schama, to give him his full title - is evidently the éminence grise of the programme, the authoritative defender of Anglo-Saxon liberty. He relentlessly vulgarises every single important argument, hammers away with his trivial psychologisms and thoughtless moralising. I find him absolutely detestable. A few other passable writers are allowed to talk, but Schama usually gets a right of reply if they do not agree with him (which they usually do anyway). The only other vaguely authoritative voices are those of the revisionist historian David Andress, and Slavoj Zizek.

Zizek is the only person on the show who makes, or is allowed to make, any effort to explicitly defend the revolution on political grounds. But he is not an historian, just someone who has read and written an introduction to some of Robespierre's writings, and he is obviously there to be lampooned as just the sort of trendy intellectual whose dangerous abstractions could lead to the gulag. Between the talking heads, there is plenty of opportunity for caricature as various old-hand jobbing actors play out the roles of Robespierre, Saint Just, Carnot, Collot, etc. (They actually get 'Spider' from Coronation Street to play Collot, I think). And beyond that, there are scenes from twentieth century revolutions from Russia 1917 to Iran 1979, all of them apparently chilling events, overlaid with this abysmal musical refrain that I think is taken from Hans Zimmer's sountrack to The Thin Red Line. All of which banality is intended to corroborate the bare thesis that the revolution was the result of an excess of idealism that could not but lead to tyranny. The alternative explanations of the Terror - a complex, multi-faceted, and multi-agent response to external and internal threats - are glancingly dealt with. How many more times do we have to be subjected to this mediocre soap plot?

Schama himself is of course one of the primary authors of that narrative, having delivered himself of the verdict some two decades ago that the Revolution was nothing other than tyranny and collective terror: "violence was the Revolution itself". Like Pierre Chaunu, Stephane Courteois and François Furet, he insistently holds the French revolutionaries responsible for the gulag, supposedly anticipated in the 'genocide' in the Vendée (actually, as Arno Mayer has argued, the majority of those killed in the Vendée were effectively soldiers engaged in a military reaction against the Revolution). Like Furet, Popper and Talmon, it is to the excess of Rousseauian idealism and its application that he attributes the Terror, particularly to his idea of a 'General Will'. But the 'General Will', however problematic the idea may be, is hardly the blueprint for 'totalitarianism' that paranoid liberals would have you believe. In essence, it is nothing more than the idea that people should be bound by the collectively agreed laws that they have participated in making, even if they didn't agree with them, and that this is essential to prevent them from being subject to someone else's 'individual will'. Just because it doesn't affirm liberal atomism doesn't make it the basis for the evils of Stalinism, Nazism, the Khmer Rouge, etc. As Enzo Traverso has pointed out, such an ideocratic approach to the revolution both restores counterrevolutionary doctrine to mainstream wisdom in the guise of 'antitotalitarianism', and allows the Right to avoid historical analysis of the circumstances of the revolution.

All of this raises a question. The French Revolution was supposedly a heroic bourgeois revolution: the most complete, the most conscious, the most thoroughgoing attempt to destroy feudalism and create a modern, bourgeois society - or 'an independent centre of capital accumulation', as one might more drily and accurately put it. Yet, the bourgeoisie of today seems to loathe it. They want nothing to do with it. Their reasons for doing so are not really plausible. Oh yes, the Terror, the Terror... I don't see these people denouncing the American Revolution, (in fact, Schama praises it as the most fitting alternative) for all that many of the revolutionaries were authentic genocidaires and slave masters. Or is it only terror if white reactionaries are its subjects? And might we not also say a word or two about the terror of the Directory, practised on behalf of property, beyond the cliched 'irony' that the revolution was eaten by its own children? Or the terror of the counterrevolutionaries who, as Mayer points out, were not slackers in the business of indiscriminate murder and rape? No. I can't help feeling that what they despise, ostentatiously, is democracy. It is above all the very idea of such direct democracy, of the iruption of the masses and the sans-culottes (the real villains of the docu-drama) into the political sphere, that is scandalous.

Exploding the system


Workers at collapsed French car parts maker New Fabris threatened on Sunday to blow up their factory if they did not receive payouts by July 31 from auto groups Renault and Peugeot to compensate for their lost jobs.

New Fabris was declared in liquidation in April, so the workers stand to get no redundancy money, although they are entitled to draw state unemployment benefit.

They want Renault SA (RENA.PA) and PSA Peugeot Citroen (PEUP.PA) to pay 30,000 euros ($41,800) for each of the 336 staff at the factory, or some 10 million euros in total, in return for its remaining stocks of equipment and machinery.

"The bottles of gas have already been placed at various parts of the factory and are connected with each other," CGT trades union official Guy Eyermann told France Info radio.

"If Renault and PSA refuse to give us that money it could blow up before the end of the month," he added.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Unionising call centres

I spent about six years working in call centres, and I just say a bit about what it is like, for those of you who have avoided it. All of the call centres I worked in employed people on a casual, part-time and temporary basis. All of them had their share of bullying, vindictive and harrassing supervisors. Supervisors were empowered to sack one at a moment's notice, and didn't require a particularly good excuse. Actually, they could just stop booking you for shifts if they didn't like you for some reason. Pay was always low, about as close to minimum wage as they could get away with. Lunch or dinner breaks were usually unpaid. Toilet breaks are timed, and more than five minutes away from one's computer might be penalised. And it's miserable. Most call centres are situated in relatively inexpensive office space out in the sticks - bleak looking industrial wastelands with few amenities nearby.

The literature from 'work and psychology' journals characterises call centre work as 'emotional labour', which is accurate. After eight hours on the phone, pretending to listen to and sympathise with members of the public, while at the same time conforming closely to a pre-scripted routine, you will feel drained. Despite the way management tend to treat staff as expendable, it is actually a highly skilled and demanding kind of labour. In my experience, this would come out when experienced staff members were consulted for their suggestions as to how a particular project might work: there was a wealth of accumulated wisdom and experience that management simply wouldn't have access to otherwise. But partly because workers are so lightly hired and fired, the work is also heavily micro-managed by supervisors, who listen in to about 12% of calls on average. Among the various points a worker is likely to be assessed for is fidelity to a script that is quite often stupidly worded and unworkable, written as it usually is by people who spend no time on the 'phones. Since your job is to get people to stay on the phone and either do a survey, or divulge some information, or buy something, the natural temptation is to chuck the script - people hate it when they think you're just reading a script at them. But persistent failure to read the lines out is a disciplinary issue. Lots of people who can't stand this idiocy just walk out mid-shift, and never show their faces again.

It isn't easy to unionise call centres. To get recognition, you need a vote of all employees. But there's a high turnover of staff, and a large number of people who remain formally on the books long after they have ceased to work shifts. On top of that, staff are disproportionately young, and are perhaps not as assertive as they need to be. And most people have other things they're moving on to - they don't see it as a permanent job, and thus may be reluctant to get involved in lengthy battles with management, especially if it's so easy to fire them. That said, however, I am encouraged by this series of articles which suggests that things are changing. It would be an enormously important development if this happened, because the those most exploited in the private sector have tended to be those least able to respond to their situation. It would potentially drive up incomes the lowest paid jobs and improve the bargaining power of an undervalued layer of workers.

Thursday, July 09, 2009


You know how we've been told that the constant vilification of the hijab and women who wear it has something to do with liberating women? Yeah:

It was while Marwa el-Sherbini was in the dock recalling how the accused had insulted her for wearing the hijab after she asked him to let her son sit on a swing last summer, that the very same man strode across the Dresden courtroom and plunged a knife into her 18 times.

Her three-year-old son Mustafa was forced to watch as his mother slumped to the courtroom floor.

Even her husband Elvi Ali Okaz could do nothing as the 28-year-old Russian stock controller who was being sued for insult and abuse took the life of his pregnant wife. As Okaz ran to save her, he too was brought down, shot by a police officer who mistook him for the attacker. He is now in intensive care in a Dresden hospital.


Unemployed Alex W. from Perm in Russia was found guilty last November of insulting and abusing Sherbini, screaming "terrorist" and "Islamist whore" at her, during the Dresden park encounter. He was fined ¤780 but had appealed the verdict, which is why he and Sherbini appeared face to face in court again.

Even though he had made his anti-Muslim sentiments clear, there was no heightened security and questions remain as to why he was allowed to bring a knife into the courtroom.

Monday, July 06, 2009

David Harvey on 'The Enigma of Capital'

Well, since you ask, my own talk was 'okay', though I fear David Edgar did a better job of plugging my book than I did. In fact, he plugged it about three times and quoted extensively from it, and I was very flattered. I'll post a 'version' of my speech another time. Anyway, since Harvey's talk hasn't been posted online yet, I thought I'd do a quick report.

What are the limits to capital, and how does it overcome those limits? This is a pressing issue given the global crisis. We need, at the very least, to understand the he prospects for getting any half-way decent settlement out of it for the working class. Capitalism is a perpetual expansion machine and, as Marx noted, it cannot abide limits. It has to conquer all social and spatial barriers, and "annihilate space with time". A simple way to see this is to describe the capitalist transaction: one starts the day with some value (money), purchases labour power and some means of production and - if one has a good day - generates a surplus which is realised in the market. What then happens at the other end of the transaction? A reasonable person would spend the money on a good time, but a capitalist is coerced by competition to reinvest some of the surplus in expanding and generating even more surplus. Expansion is a structural imperative of the system: capitalism requires compound growth.

Angus Maddison has provided some figures which give a sense of the scale of this. In 1820, $694bn circulated through world markets (on 1990 dollar values). In 1913, it had risen to $2.7tn dollars. By 1950, it was $5.3tn. By 1973, it was $16tn. By 2003, it was $41tn. The current World Bank report puts total world output in current dollar values at $56.2tn. The average compound growth rate has been around 2.2% per annum since 1770. The current position of Gordon Brown and Barack Obama is that they want to restore the world economy to a growth rate of roughly 3%. But while 3% growth may seem feasible when you're talking about a productive system thriving in a few industrial centres of the UK and a few places beyond in 1750, it looks like a different bargain altogether when you have a capitalist system operative in the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, Africa, North America, and all of Europe. Three per cent growth on current output means that the system needs to find profitable investment opportunities for $1.5tn. In twenty years time, the system will have to find profitable investment opportunities for $3tn. This leads to the "capital surplus absorption problem". Where will all this capital go?

In order to circumvent existing barriers and find new avenues for investment, financial innovation is necessary. The savings and investments of capitalists have to be deployed in a new way to perform specific functions, and the history of capitalism is a history of such innovations. If capital is unable to adapt in this way, a new barrier is erected, the circulatory system of capital is obstructed, and investment dries up. Another barrier might be that the inputs necessary for the means of production to produce your desired outputs are not available. This is a point discussed in Capital Volume II. Another problem that might freeze circulation could be excessively well-organised labour, so driving up wages that there is insufficient profit to be had in any major investment. There is also the question of whether capitalists will find the right organisational form and the right disciplinary structure for managing labour, both of which can provide blockages to the system of accumulation. Then there is the problem of effective demand: will there be enough need backed by purchasing power to absorbe your product? If not, yet another blockage is created. Perhaps the largest barrier is that provided by nature, and its inability to sustain the kinds of growth that capitalism requires, both in terms of the shortage of necessary raw materials and in terms of the threat of ecological collapse as the natural system reaches the limits of its tolerance for capitalist production. If these blockage points are not successfully negotiated, the system slows down and capital is de-valued. Reviewing this, we might conclude that the theory of crisis needs to be updated. Any one of these single points can produce a blockage and a crisis in the ability of capitalism to reproduce itself.

The neoliberal strategy of accumulation arose from several crises in the system in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Strong unions and social democratic parties enhanced labour's bargaining power. One way to transcend this limit was initially to encourage immigration. The French relied on Maghrebian labour, the British drew on its empire, the US threw out anti-immigrant legislation in 1965. This strategy didn't work. The other idea was to off-shore, but to achieve this it was necessary to restructure capital accumulation, so that parts production and so on could be moved offshore, which meant reshaping spatial relations with containerisation and new transport technologies. This didn't really take off until the late 1970s. Another idea was to 'invent' Reagan, Thatcher, and Pinochet, people who would really bust up organised labour, destroy its bargaining power and depress wages.

The last solution was to turn to technological innovation, producing technologically induced unemployment. This could only come about effectively if the monopoly capital that characterised the fifties and sixties was broken down to some extent and exposed to competition. Monopoly capital - big auto companies, for example - had been able to meet labour demands and offset it somewhat by raising prices. That was part of the social compromise between capital and labour. This had to be broken for capitalism to repair itself. But to introduce competition, one could no more rely on start-up firms than one could expect a small internet venture capitalist to destroy the Bill Gates oligopoly. It meant opening up the US to foreign competition from rising German and Japanese firms. Detroit has experienced several crises, each worse than the last, as a result of this. But because American capital has preferential access to the American state, each crisis has resulted in a bail-out for US firms, but not their overseas competitors. Heightened competition had another interesting effect - it reduced the profitability of investment in productive industry. It also reduced prices, so that price growth stabilised in the 1980s. Overall, then, low wages, low prices and technological dynamism looked like a satisfactory way for the system to survive. But then, at the other end of the capital cycle, a new problem arose. The US economy and culture was dependent on conspicuous consumption. Consumption accounted for 70% of the dynamism of the US economy (I don't know how Harvey measured this), but where would consumerism come from if wages stagnated? The society became dependent on speculation and debt. A new set of financial innovations had to be developed to resolve not only the problem of allocating capital efficiently, but also ensuring that at the other end, the problem of effective demand was dealt with. Thus, financial institutions would lend money to developers at the same time as they lent money to house-buyers, therefore controlling both the demand for and the supply of housing. But even if buyers' credit-ratings were poor, the financial institutions still had to lend to them in order to realise the investment they'd made in the developers. This partially accounts for the drive toward deregulation and the subsequent 'subprime crisis'.

There is also the question of upper class income. Wages are depressed, but this means that more wealth is accumulated by the rich. Not only that, but successive governments from Reagan to Bush II engaged in a sort of ruling class Keynesianism, slashing taxes for the rich and financing it through debt. The question, then, is what do the rich do with their money. They invest it, of course, but increasingly not in productive industry which, as mentioned before, yields poorer profits these days. Instead they invest it in 'asset values', which are ponzi-like in the sense that any investment automatically raises the value of of the asset being invested in, and thus they have a propensity to produce stock market bubbles. These investment strategies require yet more financial innovation. This has naturally produced several financial crises, variously annotated as 'Black Monday', 'Oh Shit Tuesday' and 'Dead Bankers Wednesday'. It has led to the collapse of major financial institutions long before 2008, notably the Savings and Loans crisis in the 1980s. Between 1987 and 2002, over 1000 banks went under in the US, and the total bailout cost $2bn. Noticeably the worst crises over the last few decades have been property-led, as capitalists have preferred to invest in property rather than productive capital as such, and this has certainly been true of the latest crash and recession. The one thing that is different this time is that the crisis started in the US and went global this time.

This leaves the question of what the ruling class can do now to save its position. One option is to hang in there, defend their assets, and hope to restore something like their previous condition of profitability with the same basic structures of accumulation. Those who have preserved themselves and kept enough money are now in a position to buy up assets very cheap, and this new, narrower class is in formation, a 'bankocracy' based on a set of boutique investment banks which will take the place of Lehman Brothers et al. The assets being given to the banks by various states are not by and large being used to restore lending, but to shore up the existing banks, enable them to buy up others, and consolidate existing class power. They will try to come out of the current crisis with a slicker and more careful mode of control, and are increasingly centralising credit, integrated into the state, but under the control of central bankers. Politically, this class will have tremendous power. They can, if they want, push for the clobbering of labour and the evisceration of remaining social democratic protections, especially if this is necessary to restore the position of financial institutions. There is one serious difficulty for this solution. If there is going to be high unemployment - currently 10% in the US, probably 15% by the year end - then where will effective demand come from? The credit system can no longer back it up. This leads to other forces coming to the fore, arguing for a real Keynesian programme of deficit-financing that is not the same as bailing out the banks, a stimulus programme intended to create full employment and redistribute wealth and incomes. But if this is the only way out of the problem, the US has a problem - they have an enormous debt problem before they start, and politically it is very difficult to defend the redistribution of wealth, even the modest kind that Obama supports. Moreover, for the new phase of accumulation to be viable, it has to involve a total re-design of urban structures so that city life is commensurate with ecological survival. But neither capital nor its political leadership has the foresight and imagination to engage in such a plan. Instead, politicians look for technological fixes to the environmental problem. Interestingly, those who can afford the Keynesian solution are states like China and nearby south-east Asian economies. So, China could potentially lead the system out of the mess.

There are thus two prospects facing the working class. If there is to be a neo-neoliberal solution, then it will so immiserate most workers that some sort of popular uprising is surely indicated. Such a concentration and centralisation of wealth and power is full of peril for us. If there is to be a Keynesian solution, then we have to intervene to see what we can get out of it, and how far it can be radicalised. Keynes supported full employment, a shortening of the working day, the redistribution of income, and it may well be that the adoption of a Keynesian solution will open up opportunities for us to demand these things. There don't appear to be any other options for capital at the moment.