Saturday, September 27, 2014

Once more unto humanitarian intervention.

Hit the streets?  Did they really say 'hit the streets'?

For the time being, at any rate, Stop the War’s exhortation - though impossible to fault as a desideratum - is unlikely to be met with much vim.  

We face an absurd situation.  A war that is already, on its face, a sort of defeat.  Liberal and left intelligentsia once more carolling support for ‘humanitarian intervention’.  From the political class, the feast of reason and the flow of the soul, as always.  

And the anti-imperialist camp, if such a thing exists, divided over issues of principle.  Such as?  Well, don’t you think this nastiness could have been avoided had imperialism not weakened Assad in the first place?  This is a claim which, though it has a reassuring tincture of knowing realpolitik, is babyishly oblivious of the salient role of imperialism in shoring up the dictatorship these few years.  It is also exactly the claim that Peter Hain makes this morning in support of war, in which he invites Obama, Putin and Assad to form an alliance of convenience.  Far from ideal, then, as an anti-imperialist slogan.  What else?  Well, isn’t it about time - isn’t it always time? - to arm the rebels?  The bearers of this slogan are a living illustration of an old axiom about the proximity of liberalism and ultra-leftism, for they are ultimately as dependent upon the happenstance benign behaviour of imperialist states as those who call for direct military intervention.  And then, what else?  A solidarity campaign.  Fundraising, petitions, protests outside Downing Street, a workers’ convoy of aid to the Kurds.  If the Iraqi left is non-existent, its working class weak, let the imperishable British left substitute for it.  And behold the mortal dread, the fear of the risen proletariat, in the looks of ISIS.  

Look, I may sound frankly tired and cadaverously grim about the prospects, but don’t let that fool you: I very well am both tired and grim.  Actually, things are much, much better than this time thirteen years ago when, in a world of - give or take - twelve billion seeing eyes, some antiwarriors earnestly cuckooed that ‘an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind’.  Thank god we don’t have to listen to those fucking hippies any more.  Any old way, this is merely to gently advert to the divisions on the Left opened by the Arab Spring and its sequels, divisions accelerated by the Left’s wider crisis and fragmentation since the credit crunch, and divisions which I do not scruple in this case to piss upon from aloft.

Beyond the weakness of the Left, which has not inhibited mass movements from erupting over Gaza, the several reasons for the likely weakness of any antiwar response to this venture include the fact that this is a war of extraordinarily limited deployment from the point of view of the United States and its allies.  The call for ‘boots on the ground’ now issuing from Blair and the more psychopathic elements of the military (a distinction which I merely underline), is unlikely to be heeded.  Bombing from the air presents no danger to British and American soldiers, aerial assault being a typical case of ‘risk transfer’ war in which the probability of death is transferred to civilians in ‘enemy’ territory, and thus rendered almost invisible.  

Moreover, it is part of a reassuringly multilateral response to ISIS, with the US, Russia, the EU, Australia, Canada and Japan - in a word, the imperialist states - roughly acting in concord for the moment.  No adventurist stunt, this action is offered as a broad-based defence of the regional state system.  Nor is it an action taken in isolation from a wider strategic repertoire, centrally including the arming of Iraqi Kurds who had until lately depended upon military aid from Iran.

There is, as mentioned, the susceptibility to ‘humanitarian intervention' to consider.  As we have seen, this is an old impulse, as old as colonialism; and it is one that has always resonated powerfully in parts of the Left.  Now, it is without question that success for ISIS heralds the triumph of the most reactionary and sectarian tendencies in the region, which entails possible death for anyone identified as a Shi’ite or a Kurd in an area likely to be dominated by ISIS.  Any country that ISIS extends its reach into is in trouble.  This is a fact, and everyone can see it.  Additionally, to a lay person the situation seems rather urgent.  The most precious currency in the humanitarian purse is that of urgency - no one has time to think, to learn, to critique.  People are dying this immediate second.  We cannot stand by.  We must do something.  This immediate second.

It would be tone dumb, as well as in factual error, to counter this by saying that military action is illegal.  No such axiom will do.  The answer to the ridiculously simple slogans of humanitarian intervention cannot be shibboleths of our own.  One could always spend hours detailing the ways in which the supposed rescuers have been implicated in barbarism of a greater magnitude than ISIS, but - as opposed to the immutable evil of the Islamic State - American brutality is always somehow judged aberrant, a lapse, and always in the past.  This might be Iraq, but it isn’t Iraq.  It is also the case that ‘we’ shall do nothing, that any sense ‘we’ have of doing something by virtue of the bombs hitting the streets of Mosul is purely vicarious.  It’s like saying ‘we won’ when your Manchester Bulldogs or your City Wanderers or whatever the fucking hell they’re called win a football match.  But then a vicarious sense of being and doing has always been at the heart of imperialist ideology: it is its peculiar charm. If people believe that a bombing campaign is a good answer to ISIS’s IRL trolling, it is above all because there is precious little known about ISIS or the wider geopolitics.  And the best answer to facile moralism is the concrete analysis of concrete situations - which, however, I do not pause to offer here.

In the longer run, at any rate, this war will lose support.  Obama has been knocked off his strategic course.  He had hitherto succeeded in extending the subtle net of US power through a range of secret programmes operating under the rubric of ‘counterterrorism’, from drone strikes and special forces incursions to an assassination programme so discourteous as to include juveniles in its list of targets.  Who needs a spectacle war, an expensive ground battle in a delimited territory for regime change and state-building, when it is possible to change the calculus of social and national struggles through the secretive and potentially limitless deployment of long-distance firepower?  Yes, yes, Libya - but the administration hardly dashed enthusiastically into that one.

The bombing is to that extent a win for ISIS, not because “that’s what they want” (as if everyone didn’t already know that), but because it’s what Obama doesn’t want.  Withal, it a) signals that the Iraqi security forces trained under Petraeus cannot retake the territory, b) proves that the Iraqi government cannot reorient itself to absorb Sunni grievances (Maliki's resignation will probably make no difference), and c) bolsters the fragile alliance between ISIS and Sunni Arab allies if the major forces fighting them are the Kurdish forces who have committed their own ethnic cleansing raids and whose land grabs will be hard to reverse (there is another incipient state), and the sectarian death squads affiliated to the Iraqi government.

It seems vaguely impossible that ISIS can succeed, and establish a permanent new state.  It, likewise doesn’t seem probable that they will be decisively defeated, by military means at least.  The prospect which the British government is shamelessly vaunting, that they can defeat ISIS in three years, is about as believable as any other ‘cakewalk’ scenario.  So the most likely future is a prolonged, interstitial state in which the phrase 'the Iraqi government’ is more of an aspiration than a reality, and not necessarily an aspiration shared by all ‘boots on the ground’.  Civil war, then, in both Iraq and Syria, for the foreseeable future.

As usual, I have no solutions.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Theses on Scotland after the referendum

Splendid guest post by Jamie Allinson:


Only two major urban centres in Scotland voted ‘Yes’ in the independence referendum and, tellingly, they were the most working class ones: Glasgow and Dundee, my home town. Or I thought it was, but upon visiting Dundee at the weekend I found that the dreich post-industrial city of my upbringing had been replaced by something else. The casual visitor to the city square last Saturday would have come across a spontaneous gathering of hundreds of Yes supporters barely twenty-four hours after their defeat. It was the most working class political gathering I have ever encountered. There were two main arguments visible which, although Dundee had an exceptionally high ‘Yes’ vote, are also present in the rest of the Yes movement as it discusses where to go. The SNP from the platform, telling people to join their party and work for the 2015 General Election and the 2016 Holyrood Election, to either make sure new powers are delivered or a mandate for a new referendum is gained, and angry folk getting up and saying the whole thing is rigged and they want a recount. In some ways the hashtag 'the 45' (hopefully provisional given its implication of permanent minority status) captures some of the mood that the referendum was a beginning rather than an end.  Here is my take:



I. There will not be a recount, but there will be a fair chunk of people who essentially do not accept the legitimacy of the state ruling them. This felt particularly the case in Dundee, but even if it's less than 5% of the Yes vote, that is still tens of thousands of people. Like previous instances where working-class people come face to face with the British state, they are now alienated from institutions that previously took their trust for granted: the BBC and the Labour Party, most noticeably. Where this mood goes after it becomes obvious there will be no recount and the promises of more powers are revealed as simply devolving austerity, I don't know. Some might wonder how anyone can believe that the result, with a 10% 'no' majority, can be questioned. I think it's obvious the vote was fair, and probably quite representative of politics in Scotland at the moment: but say you are a 17 year old in one of Dundee's larger schemes such as Charleston, Fintry, Kirkton or Whitfield. You belong to an age cohort that is about 72% Yes; your parents are from an age group 54% Yes; you live in an area 70-75% Yes within a town that was majority Yes. If you ever go to the 'pan-loafy' areas that voted No, people probably do not ask you about politics. Britain died in these parts of Dundee (and for that matter, Glasgow) in the 1980s. Once the hate-bombing from Westminster starts, the results will be even worse than that dismal decade. The notion that a majority of your compatriots would condemn you to such a fate because they were worried about interest rates is a bitter medicine to swallow: easier to believe that the 'No' majority simply does not exist. Unfortunately, the former seems to have been the case. A recount is not going to happen. In fact, if it were needed, why wouldn't they just rig that too?



II.  The alternative put forward by the SNP is to join the party and campaign for 2015 at Westminster and 2016 at Holyrood. Thousands are taking this advice, and you can see why: the SNP is already there, it has a party machine, and it is credible in the everyday sense that parties are seen to be in capitalist parliaments. Another option being put forward is a pan-Independence alliance with the SNP. I think this would be a step back to pre-referendum politics, and away from the kind of movement that raised support for Yes by twenty percentage points.  That support came from people who did not see Scottish independence as the be-all and end-all of politics, but something that expressed the desire for social justice. Was all that really just to have a Saltire flying over the food banks rather than a Union Jack? What would have been gained then? The SNP are not the 'Tartan Tories' of old - they have gained support by humane, mild, social democratic policies for which they deserve credit - but they are constrained by capitalist politics. When it comes to the crunch (and it will, see below) the pressure on them to remain 'credible' by enforcing cuts will be huge. Identifying a yes vote with them in that case would be likely to reduce it again from 45% to 25%.

III. The results, in so far as we can analyse them with only one exit poll, bear the above point out. The SNP made a number of concessions to conservatism with a small 'c' (keeping the monarchy, NATO, currency union and so on) that seem actually to have failed to bring their more conservative vote with them. The key divides in the referendum were age and class. Dundee and Glasgow voting 'yes' we know about, but at the counting station level the class divide was even starker. The age profile is telling: with the exception of a curious 'No' bump in the 18-24 range, if you had some of your adult life before Thatcher you were probably 'No'. If you didn't, you were probably 'Yes'. It seems reasonable to infer that neo-liberalism, rather than Scottish identity, is the underlying issue here. A local perspective clarifies matters further: why was Dundee 'Yes', and its hinterland of Angus 'No'? Dundee has become SNP in the past decade, but before that a lump of wood in a red rosette would win an election: indeed, one might quip, the experiment was carried out with repeated success in Dundee West. Angus is pure SNPshire. They have fourteen members on the local council: Labour has one. The Nationalists have had two decades to build hegemony there. Yet Angus was 'No'. Why? At a guess, the SNP council has looked after the farmers well, but not towns such as Forfar, Arbroath and Montrose. Yet those same farmers were solidly 'No', from the look of the signs in their fields. Angus council has imposed some niggling, petty cuts, especially in education: at an anecdotal level, those cuts were a reason for people to vote 'No', identifying the 'Yes' position with the SNP. Strengthening that identification would surely be unwise.

IV. Austerity Max is coming. David Cameron is almost certainly sincere when he promises more powers. One can always be sure that a Tory will serve the interests of his party, and the super-rich: Cameron will do this with 'English votes for English laws', and a large measure of fiscal devolution. However, with his braying backwoodsmen and UKIP adding Scotland to the bestiary of parasites on the true-born Englishman, this will be accompanied by the end of the Barnett formula and not a penny of the oil revenues. Until 2016, and probably after, the SNP will be the ones administering the hugely reduced public spending that results. The SNP had enough wriggle-room to defy the bedroom tax: that will be very unlikely with what's coming. It will be extremely difficult to mobilise the energy of the Yes movement to fight those cuts if it is in, or allied to, a party that is carrying them out even under duress.

V. Scottish Labour do not realise the magnitude of what they have done. Working class people in Dundee, and surely elsewhere, are filled with hot, spitting fury for them. Nothing can shake them from their complacency: somehow they see the result as a victory, when 51% of Glasgow – Glasgow for God’s sake - voted against their position. They think their voters have no memories. This illusion will be robustly dispelled when they canvass the streets of Possil, Menzieshill and Easterhouse next year. Yet nothing says that those people must necessarily swing instead to the SNP. Why not have a serious, pro-independence left party as is already being suggested at the grass-roots? There are precedents, such as Podemos in Spain, for the establishment of such a force.

VI. But, some may object, the Westminster election is in a few months and the important thing is to punish the sinners, and elect pro-independence candidates whose vote could be split by a Left pro-independence party. The thing is, the only way that makes sense for such a strategy would be if SNP (or 'Scottish Alliance') MPs won a majority on an abstentionist ticket, in the manner of old school Sinn Fein. Surely no-one envisages that actually happening: even to make it SNP policy would require entering and taking over the party, when that energy that could be used to make something new. It also seems unlikely that people who have just voted 55% ‘No’ would swing to support such a radical position in eight months. Holyrood 2016 is a different matter, but the Scottish Parliament has proportional representation that allows smaller parties to grow without the 'don't split the vote argument'.

To the switherers, who are thinking of throwing their energies into the SNP, I would simply suggest this - give it a week, go along to one of the RIC or other meetings about the way forward. You might find, or find yourself able to make, something better.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Union of fear and loathing

The Unionist side won, decisively, on a big turnout. 

However, it did not win because it prevailed in the 'battle of ideas', such as it was.  The utter cluelessness of the Unionists was apparent from day one.  It was evident in the futile insistence of Scottish Labourites that "we are as Scottish as anyone else", as if anyone had ever queried it or - frankly - given much of a shit.  It was evident in the little brainstorm Ed Miliband experienced toward the end of the campaign, whereupon he invited the English to wave the saltire, thus proving to the Scots that they are far better off in the company of UKIP-voting Clacton than living under the regime of that man off the television.  And is still clear today when Scottish Labourites such as Douglas Alexander murmur with faux innocence about how dangerous it is that politicians - the Westminster elite, let us call them - are obviously held in such contempt.  They have no ideas, and no idea.

The Unionist side won due to a combination of Project Fear and imperial nationalism.  Neoliberal subjectivity, most aptly summarised in Thatcher's phrase "there is no alternative", is predicated on a particular computation of risk.  If you try to buck the market, this calculus says, the market will punish you.  Interest rates, house prices, jobs, all will go loopily out of sync.  Stick with the unjust, perilous, insecure, savage and worsening regime you're stuck with, grin and bear austerity, hope for the best.  This was the subtext of the 'risk' talk coming from the Bank of England, the business press, EU austerians, and the Westminster elite.  Even the risible defence of the British welfare state, after decades of decimating it, contained the implicit codicil, "stick with the neoliberalised British version, because the Scandinavian welfare system you want is just a pipe dream".

The most interesting thing about nationalism in this debate is that the most belligerent nationalism of all was simply invisible to some.  Unionists could stand in front of a sea of red, white and blue, and decry 'narrow Scottish nationalism', with no apparent sense of irony.  They can drop the "two world wars" meme one minute, and deride national chauvinism the next.  This, of course, is itself a record of the peculiar power of British nationalism.  Whenever an ideology is so pervasive that it one inhabits it, lives in it, such that it is simply taken for granted - when it is, in a word, naturalised - that is when it has achieved the peak of its success.  But there's something else.  British nationalism is 'global', precisely because it is imperial.  To have a British identity is, for many, to have access to the world.  This is the sense in which Scottish nationalism is, by contrast, 'narrow'.

What is perhaps most contemptible and laughable in all of this is that a section of the Left is convinced that something precious and progressive was saved by the votes of Scotland's older and richer electorate.  That precious something, apparently inconceivable across borders, is class solidarity.  But in making this case, they have been compelled to play a remarkable game of forgetting.  George Galloway forgets that his job is to expose and oppose Tory austerity rather than to pretend it's over.  Gordon Brown forgets that he began the privatisation of the NHS, and poses as its stalwart defender.  They will do all they can to forget about the bigoted, authoritarian and reactionary forces that have been prepared over a decade of 'Britishness' pedagogy, unleashed in the course of this campaign, and victoriously rioting in George Square yesterday - though they have no right to deny the role of such anti-democratic nationalism in securing their victory.  And if they can, they will forget that the English chauvinism and ressentiment now vocalised by Farage and pandered to by Cameron, is the heart and soul of 'Britishness'.

It is fitting and appropriate, then, that in Gordon Brown, the 'No' lefties have found their ideal nemesis of narrow Scottish nationalism.  For here is the famous champion of 'British vawl-yews', of 'British jobs for British workers', of pride in the empire.  Here is a man who never shirked the bloody deeds necessary to Britain's continued global pertinence.  Here is the chancellor who did more than any other to unleash the City of London, as the apex of 21st Century Britannia.  Here, condensed in one man, is the central vice of Labourism: achieving everything one's apparent enemies would wish to achieve, only better.  How right that Labour Unionists are creaming themselves with adoration over this tragic figure.  

But to see him extolled as a champion of the welfare state, public services and social solidarity!  Even I, with my perverse predilection for the darkest ironies, find that a bit much.  He is capable and might well be able to win Scotland for Labour, particularly now that Salmond has stepped down.  But if he does so, it will be in the name of austerity, privatization and decades of social wreckage that will make Thatcherism seem like a dewy-eyed dream.

Still.  At least it can never be said of the British Left that it is inhibited by vulgar sentimentality.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Two nations, two nationalisms

Short question: why is nationalism in Essex such a paranoid, conspiracy-minded, UKIP-voting, weeping sore of bitterness, while nationalism in Glasgow is, faults admitted and proportions guarded, relatively progressive and democratic?  Why is Scottish independence largely a cause of the left, while UK independence is a cause of the ‘fruitcakes’?  

Short answer: I think it’s symptomatic of deep trends, which started to become visible in 2011 during the riots.  People asked, why are we having these riots in England and not in other parts of the UK.  The glib answer was, we have a Tory government, whereas they have devolution.  But that was only itself a surface manifestation of something else.  I think what is happening is that the national question is refracting the pathologies brought about by the secular decline of both Toryism and social democracy, the fatal weakening of consent of the governed as the state becomes less democratic, and the decline experienced by the social classes traditionally supporting them.  

What seems to have happened is that some of the lower middle class and skilled workers who have been on a downward trajectory for some decades have turned toward an authoritarian, resentful nationalism.  They believe that their fate is due to a sell-out of the country by a distant, cosmopolitan political class, and their losses and class injuries are compensated for by assertions of ‘Britishness’, and by identification with a pristine Britannia whose global omnipotence can be restored.  Thus UKIP.  

In Scotland, however, nationalism has taken on a ‘national-popular’ character (see this Paul Mason article for a compelling example of what the 'national-popular' in this sense looks like).  It is not just that centre-left nationalism offers an alternative to a decomposing social democracy predicated on Unionism; it is that it forms part of a popular/populist rejection of the entire political establishment as represented by the British state.  That is why the real factor in uncertainty in the referendum is the turnout from the council estates, for that is where the ‘Yes’ vote is highest - the generations of workers and unemployed who have voted Labour since the Fifties, but are no longer represented.  

And ever since the credit crunch, these processes have been accelerating, so that now all the unfolding problems of democracy, political representation and the class system are concentrated in the national question.



Tony Blair of the year

During the festive heyday of the antiwar movement, I stood with a noisy Stop the War contingent in a wanly sunlit south London street, with a Tony Blair mask on.  For some reason, the mere appearance of this grinning visage angered people.  More than one person came close to smashing my/his face in.  If you hadn't been there, it would be hard to convey how visceral the popular hatred of Blair was.  But don't take my word for it.  Look at him.  Look at that face.  Stare into those eyes, and see if you don't end up smashing something.

There was always, though, a minority - usually well-placed, well-heeled, and well-connected - that was doggedly loyal to Blair, and sought to shield him against the views of the ignorant public.  I imagine they were hugging themselves with glee when Blair was named 'philanthropist of the year' by GQ.

Now, the editor of GQ, Dylan Jones, is a metro-conservative who writes for the Daily Mail, and is responsible for the appearance of a book called 'Cameron on Cameron', in which the author fawns, simpers and throws softball questions.  In writing about Cameron, he described him as "strong" "steely" and "a lot tougher" than people think, in addition to being - what else? - "a doting husband and father".  He was also, it should be said, down with the New Labour project back in its glory days of Britpop and Peter Mandelson and domes.  (You remember all this, right?)  So, there is absolutely nothing incongruous about GQ giving an award to Tony Blair for his philanthropic work in its 'man of the year' awards, or about the website hosting a glowing tribute to Blair in connection with this.  It is expected, and will be as long as the levers of cultural power are held by tedious sycophants - and, which is almost a tautology, as long as we have 'man of the year' awards.

Nonetheless, the reaction of the twitterati, its collective jaw-drop, is impressive.  That Blair is a war criminal has remained embedded deep in the popular common sense.  That he did not scruple to defend Mubarak at the height of the Egyptian revolution, or that he was cheered when the young democracy was drowned in blood, is less well-known but it's on the record.  Likewise, the recent discovery that he made some of his wedge by smoothing over the murder of 14 protesters by the Kazakhstan dictatorship would seem to any civilised person to taint him permanently.  Finally, those who followed Pillar of Defence closely will know that Blair, far from being negligent in the battle as some accused him of being, intervened early on to produce the fraudulent 'ceasefire deal' whose failure was used by Israel to legitimise its ground invasion.  So he isn't just a perfect scumbag, but is still deeply imbricated in the administration of imperialist violence.

GQ's defence of the award is of the order of "he does a lotta good work for charidee, mate".  (Though even they would blush to add that he doesn't like to talk about it.)  They cite his faith foundation, and above all his Africa governance initiative.  Assume for the sake of argument that their eulogy is entirely and rigorously accurate as to the details of Blair's foundation activities, and that there is no murkiness to be discovered in his activities.  What is the point here?  Are we supposed to fall onto our knees every time someone with wealth and power uses some of that accumulated lolly to advance their own political and moral goals?  This is a prerogative of power, an aspect of wielding power and being productive in the world.  This is true as much for Bill Gates today as it was for Andrew Carnegie back in the day.  And Blair's foundations in particular are a manifestation of soft power - the velvet glove - entirely coherent and consistent extensions of the doctrines he implemented as Prime Minister and continues to pursue as a global power-broker.  The money he deploys and administers comes from the US Treasury or from friendly oligarchs.

It isn't, therefore, that Blair is a bad example of philanthropy and didn't deserve the award.  The problem is that he's a perfect example of philanthropy in action, and is fully entitled to this piece of shit award, and that we should stop revering philanthropy.