Look. If pressed, and if it will help anyone sleep better at night, I will condemn ISIS in the boldest and most strident terms. But I will do so with some weariness.
It has been a neo-McCarthyite mainstay of British politics for the last decade or so to demand condemnations of this or that from those who are in any way critical of war, of the state of Israel, or even of Islamophobic racism. You well know the type of question: "but do you condemn these atrocities?", "do you condemn Hamas terrorism?", "do you condemn the suicide bombings?", and so on.
The point of the question is to insinuate that there is a question. It is to imply that there is some whiff of sympathy on your part for, let's say, beheading charity workers, or enslaving and raping women. And there is no good way to respond. If you answer "yes, of course", the next demand will not be far off. "Ah, then do you condemn those who would not condemn...? Do you also condemn x? How about y?" You give the green light to derail the conversation, you show that the game works. If you don't give that answer, then of course you have condemned yourself. If you give a nuanced answer, you have prevaricated horribly when real people are dying this very second. If you say "fuck off, I'm not answering your weaselly little question", then clearly they've touched a nerve - bit jumpy are we? Something to hide? And of course, even if you do offer condemnation, it might not be condemnatory enough. Or it might just be ignored, your words misquoted or invented for you. The aim of the game is to attach a stigma to you, not to have an honest discussion.
You see the point. Now look at this
. The story related here, by a student tabloid which sees fit to retweet Tommy Robinson on this very subject, is untrue. It is not the case that the NUS 'refused to condemn ISIS'. It is a lie. Nonetheless, this untrue story, which has its origins in a post
written by Daniel Cooper of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (AWL), has been picked up by the press both in the UK and internationally. The result has been torrents of execration poured on the NUS Black Students' Campaign.
The actual story is a little bit less enthralling, and requires a lot more subtlety in parsing. Roughly one month ago at a NUS National Executive Committee meeting, Cooper proposed a motion
in solidarity with the Kurds, and condemning ISIS. Frankly, knowing the AWL, I think this statement could have been a hell of a lot worse. This is an organisation which cheerfully promotes and defends racist ideas about Muslims. I quote from its guru, Sean Matgamna:
"Like desert tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity and purity enviously eyeing a rich and decadent walled city and sharpening their knives […] so, now, much of the Islamic world looks with envy, covetousness, religious self-righteousness and active hostility on the rich, decadent, infidel-ridden, sexually sinful advanced capitalist societies."
In contrast with such high Victorian meanderings, and in light of the heavy intimations from the same author that the AWL would support an Israeli nuclear strike if necessary, Cooper's motion seems prime facie
quite reasonable to me. Support the Kurds, condemn ISIS: what could be bad? On the other hand, the response of the NUS Black Students' Campaign was not unreasonable either. They didn't disagree with supporting the Kurds. They didn't disagree with denouncing ISIS. But they did want parts of it altered. In a speech, the NUS Black Students Officer queried some of the formulations, suggesting that they could potentially feed into Islamophobia.
The major sticking point for the Campaign was that it called for students to 'boycott' any individual found to be supplying ISIS with weapons or training or funding. The objection here was not that it would be politically incorrect to deprive a struggling Muslim group of the weapons it needs to blah blah blah. The objection was that this phrasing would give the false impression that this was actually a major tendency among students - specifically Muslim students - and could feed into political pressure for added surveillance of this group, which of course takes place in quite destructive ways.
Even if you estimate this risk to be low, it's a relatively simple thing to resolve. Assuming that Cooper and the others who drafted the motion didn't intend such a construction, and that they weren't merely seeking controversy in order to depict themselves as the victims of a soft-on-totalitarianism left, the motion could just be moderately re-worded. It would just be a case of either amending the motion or taking it away and writing it again, so that any possible problematic implication was removed. Since amendments to the motion were not permitted, the Campaign promised to go back and write a new motion both expressing solidarity with the Kurdish struggle and denouncing ISIS. Before the motion could be submitted to the next NEC meeting, however, Cooper's article appeared in which he complained that the NUS didn't want to condemn ISIS because of 'identity politics'. It was after this article appeared, roughly a month after the meeting, that the press picked up the issue.
The NUS Black Students Campaign responded with this statement
. The statement has become a hostage to fortune, inasmuch as it was susceptible to selective quotation. This is the sentence and a half which appears as the lead quote in all the press:
"We recognise that condemnation of ISIS appears to have become a justification for war and blatant Islamophobia.
"This rhetoric exacerbates the issue at hand and in essence is a further attack on those we aim to defend."
It is usually misleadingly attributed to the NUS Black Students Officer's speech, and of course there is a reason why the quote starts mid-way through a sentence. It is to erase any trace of the part of the statement which says:
"We stand in complete solidarity with the Kurdish people against the recent attacks by ISIS and join many others in condemnation of their brutal actions."
Now, I do not think this statement at all well-phrased. It is quite a reasonable argument that the condemnation of ISIS, which takes place almost every day in the papers and on the television news and in political speeches, has become a ritual which has been linked to justifications for war and Islamophobia. In fact, given the Sun's recent shit-stirring front page
, we know for a fact that the connection is there. (Do I really have to say this?) But to make this argument in this
political and ideological context, one has to be extraordinarily precise in one's phrasing - and this point isn't precisely put in the statement. That is why it can be misrepresented as saying that the denunciation of ISIS is Islamophobic, despite its clear denunciation of ISIS
The NUS Black Students Officer, Malia Bouattia, has been subject to volleys of vicious and sometimes violently misogynistic Twitter abuse as a result of it. All of those 'lionhearts', 'crusaders' and 'defenders' calling her a "fuckwitted cunt" or wishing rape on her, would most likely find their withers decidedly unwrung if they realised that they had caused a young woman and her family to entertain serious and valid worries about their safety. Because, after all, ISIS aren't the only nutters out there. But they are just the rabid dogs, as it were, responding to the dog whistle. Those who sounded the dog-whistle, in order to have their own 21st Century version of the 'Baa Baa White Sheep'
, are as much to blame. I condemn them.
This would once have been an outre joke in The Thick of It:
I'll tell you what I think. I think this country is going to the dogs. I think it's being flooded, over-run, taken over. By thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of right-wing racist scum.
You can't even hear proper English spoken on a train any more. It's all "faaackin immigrants" this and "faaaackin immigrants" that. And they're not happy behind the privet-hedges any more. They're not comfortable in their cosy little ruts, their weekends of beer, barbecues and bigotry. They suddenly think they can run the country.
I wish I could say that this was the UKIPisation of politics. The answer then would be simple: send them back. Send them back to their provinces, their suburbs, their village Wetherspoon's, their urban overspill conurbations, their motorway service stations famed for dogging. But it's much, much worse than that.
You see, Nigel Farage said in his conference speech that UKIP was parking its tanks on Labour's lawn. He said that the party is not about left vs right, but about right vs wrong.
This morning, with the bye-election results in the bag and a very strong showing in Heywood and Middleton, he says that UKIP is now the only national party, the only party that extends its reach into all classes and across the left-right divide. This is UKIP's populist gambit, in part tactical, and in part strategic. The tactical element is the need to reassure Tory voters tempted by UKIP that they won't just let Labour in. The strategic element is that in order to seriously transform the Conservative Party, UKIP needs to assemble a force much larger than that comprising disaffected Tories and the fragments of the hard right.
How much of this is Farage blowing it out of his fudgehole, and how much is UKIP really a threat to Labour? The answer is that Labour are
threatened, but perhaps not in the way that many Labour-supporting pundits think. If you listen to Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, you would think that UKIP is actually becoming the party of the disenfranchised, old Labour voting working class. This can't be discounted entirely. Plainly, UKIP has mobilised thousands of older, whiter working class voters. And at least some of these voters are people who would once have voted Labour. This is how Labour's majority was cut dramatically in Heywood and Middleton
. Even taking into account the reduced turnout, Labour seems to have picked up disenchanted Liberal voters and lost some of its own base to UKIP. While there is a significant national swing to Labour, in this instance it was negligible due to the impact of UKIP, who cohered a range of disaffected voters. Undoubtedly, their core in Heywood and Middleton is working class Tories, but it seems unlikely that they would have come second without scooping up a few thousand ex-Labour voters. Of course UKIP doesn't transcend left and right. Of course its bedrock is the Thatcherite petty bourgeoisie. But its support has always crossed class lines, and now it's crossing party lines to an extent as well.
However, I am wary of any tendency to overplay this, in part because of that wing of the Labour intelligentsia that essentially wants Labour to remodel itself according to the Blue Labour motto, 'faith, flag and family'. They who can think of nothing smarter than for the party of organised labour to tail a party whose colophon is a currency symbol. So let's be clear that any inroads UKIP makes into Labour territory are still very limited. Polling had shown before the bye-elections that six times more former Tory voters than former Labour voters backed UKIP. The only MPs to defect to UKIP thus far are Tory MPs. The major funder to defect to UKIP is a Tory funder. The former deputy mayor defecting to UKIP is a Tory. And with Allan Craig from the Christian Alliance joining, the evidence is that UKIP is also mopping up the other fragments of the extra-Tory Right. Insofar as UKIP parks its tanks in Labour seats, its biggest windfall is of former Tory voters. I suspect that, for all its racist dog-whistling about the child rape scandal, it is far too conventionally Tory to threaten Labour in the same way and to the same degree that it threatens the Conservatives.
Still, with those proportions guarded, the other danger is that it is underplayed in order to spare Miliband's Bean-like face. Liz MacInnes tried to say, after her victory, that the result was a ringing endorsement for Ed Miliband's leadership. This is laughable and, unfortunately for her, plenty of UKIP people were on hand to give the comment the jeer it deserved. Nor can we take consolation in the idea that this was just a protest vote by voters who feel excluded from the mainstream. Of course, there is an element of truth in this. UKIP's campaign posters tapped into this: "How many more times are they going to let you down?", and "Labour doesn't care" were big themes. As with all protest votes, however, there is a political and ideological content, and in this case it signified a further shift to the right in English politics.
Helen Pidd reports
for the Guardian that in Heywood and Middleton the single most prominent issue raised in the campaign was immigration. Immigration has come to stand for everything that is going wrong in people's lives. With the standard of living dropping for the longest period since the Depression, with wages stagnating, public services being cut, the poorest at each other's throats over the measliest of welfare crumbs, and no one - not the Left, certainly not Labour - able to articulate a viable opposition, UKIP are the ones canalising popular resentment. It's all the immigrants that Labour let in. You can't even hear an English voice on a train any more. You can't even live in a big city now, it's full of them. They work for pennies and shit in doorways. Labour's strategy was to ignore this as far as possible, and focus on the NHS - one of very few areas on which Labour has put clear distance between itself and the coalition.
This is the dilemma for the Labour leadership. Every ingrained instinct tells them to nod along to the anti-immigrant beat, to acknowledge the 'real concerns' behind this racism, to try to deck it in a progressive pallium. They want to protest that, after Scotland, they are the real party of Britain. They want to say that they are the party that put asylum seekers in detention centres and ratcheted up the 'integration' agenda. They want to say that they were beating up on immigrants before Nigel Farage was a They want to say that they understood the concerns of ordinary people and will take very tough decisions, very tough decisions indeed, to prevent abuses and protect working people. Indeed, they've more or less said all this before and will say it again. But they also know that this can't be their pitch to core Labour voters. And if they'd tried it in Heywood and Middleton they would have been laughed at. After all, UKIPers would simply have pointed out that it was under a Labour administration that waves of migrant labourers from eastern Europe were admitted to the UK, and added that the party obviously has no intention of withdrawing from the EU.
And somehow this is connected ideologically to the credit crunch. Labour's bungling. Labour's economic mismanagement. Labour's mass immigration and overspending. And Labour certainly can't challenge anti-immigration rhetoric in response to this, or make a positive case for migration, any more than they can persuasively state how they would do things differently in the economy. To do that, they'd have to be prepared to fight a long, difficult battle and reconcile themselves to press unpopularity and even major losses in the short term. It's just not in their political DNA; institutionalised defeat, self-loathing, the assumption that Thatcher was right about all big questions, is. So they had to run a bland, single issue campaign to barely scrape back in.
Now with growing calls from Labour's Right for Alan Johnson to challenge Miliband, the pressure will be on to start flooding the papers with 'tough' announcements, immigrant-baiting, and flag-waving. Whereas the swami of Blue Labour wanted the party to be a home for sad old street-fighting losers in the EDL, the goal now will be to channel the provincials of the east coast, the suburban white flight families, concerned cabbies, elderly racists, and so on. Ed Miliband will meet "Brian, a self-employed plumber from Clacton who told me a heartbreaking story. 'What abaaaht all these immigrants,' he asked as I gripped his shoulder and crooned sympathetically. 'There's fackin faaasands of the cahnts. When they're not dahn the dowl office, they're undercutting me. I'm tryna raise a fambly.'" Later on, to Miliband's complete surprise, Brian from Clacton will turn out to be a real person, a Tory voter, and a cause celebre akin to Joe the Plumber. He will end up on a platform next to 'White Dee' endorsing Iain Duncan Smith's plans to cut benefits for street urchins, drunken tearaways and Romanians. Meanwhile his son will be arrested for calling a celebrity crime-fighter a 'cock' on Twitter and locked up for five years. Labour will decry the breakdown in British values and call for the Tories to distance themselves from deadbeat dad Brian, while the same celebrity will end up standing for 'Common Sense Labour' or 'Tough on Latvians Labour' or 'Hovis Labour, just like your mam used to make' in Burnley, parroting whatever moronic patriotic spiel they've been given by the Ollie Readers of Brewer's Green. One Nation Labour, decidedly not under a groove.
Nor is it just that Labour will be pulled to the right alongside the Tories. I have argued that Farage's strategic prize is the leadership of the Tory party. He wants the Cameronites out, the Thatcherite Eurosceptics in. It's a middle class putsch. But he doesn't want this as an end in itself. So, you might argue that what he actually wants, his real objective, is to get Britain out of the EU. Yes, but he doesn't want that as an end in itself either. It is about the UK's growth strategy, its labour standards, its regulatory framework, its currency and its financial markets, its human rights laws, criminal justice, and so on. It is about reorienting business away from Europe and toward a more hyper-Atlanticist, 'free market' strategy. It is about liberating small investors, venture capitalists, lone 'entrepreneurs' and small-to-medium sized firms from onerous labour laws and Brussels regulations. It is about reorganising the state so that it is more 'libertarian' in matters of property rights, and more disciplinarian in matters of obedience to authority. The challenge to the 'metropolitan elite', the 'political class' - whatever you wish to call it - is ultimately an attempt to recompose the power bloc.
So this is UKIPisation. We may be far from this objective, but most of the dynamic forces in English politics currently tend in its direction.
One last thing. Nigel Farage's strategy is in some respects similar to that of Nick Griffin when he was leading the BNP. Griffin would soften the rhetoric prior to elections and then, bouyed by victory, come out with something like calling for immigrants' boats to be sunk in order to harden support. Before the election, Farage was going out of his way to play down the role of the far right in his party, to say that he didn't want BNP votes, and generally represent himself as a spokesperson for the silent majority of closet racists.
Now he has taken the opportunity afforded by this victory to say
that migrants with HIV shouldn't be allowed in the UK
, thus rehearsing an imagined connection between immigration, disease and sexuality, a theme that is as old as scientific racism. It is unlikely that this was a fuck up; more probably, it was a deliberate, punctual gesture. Because the fact that the leadership of UKIP is always having to explain away the latest bonkers statement or seig heil photo from a leading UKIPer, the party sees as an oppressive result of 'politically correct' tyranny. This isn't just bombast, they really do see the boundaries of what other people would call civility, decency, humanity, as a dictatorship of metropolitan values. They see 'political correctness' as a domesticating, timidifying set of controls. They blame this consensus for the Cameronites, for the betrayals of the political class, and they chafe under such limits. One of the things that Farage is doing is trying to open up a space in which all the stuff that you're not allowed to say about gays or the disabled
is more permissible.
This is another aspect of UKIPisation: small, cumulative acts of decivilization, the barbarisation of discourse, and the revival of habits of speech and mind that had been pushed to the margins of society. It can't be long, on past form, before a Labour backbencher vocalises the same worries about HIV interlopers, and the Sun mounts one of its crusades.
John Pilger is hardly alone in saying this
The only effective opponents of ISIS are accredited demons of the west – Syria, Iran, Hezbollah. The obstacle is Turkey, an “ally” and a member of Nato, which has conspired with the CIA, MI6 and the Gulf medievalists to channel support to the Syrian “rebels”, including those now calling themselves ISIS. Supporting Turkey in its long-held ambition for regional dominance by overthrowing the Assad government beckons a major conventional war and the horrific dismemberment of the most ethnically diverse state in the Middle East.
A truce – however difficult to achieve – is the only way out of this imperial maze; otherwise, the beheadings will continue. That genuine negotiations with Syria should be seen as “morally questionable” (the Guardian) suggests that the assumptions of moral superiority among those who supported the war criminal Blair remain not only absurd, but dangerous.
In saying it, he merely echoes a range of figures from Peter Hain to Patrick Cockburn and George Galloway. Nor is he saying this for the first time. Yet there's a curious logic to the proposal which is odd for anyone professing to be of the radical, anti-imperialist left.
Of course he is correct that the dominant imperialist states are perfectly placed, morally and politically, to negotiate with Assad. The idea that such talks would taint their diplomats is laughable. But, however much he wishes it was, this isn't a dispute between the imperialist states and Assad. The 'truce' he seeks is between those whom he refers to as "'rebels'", with scare quotes, and the regime which he refers to as "Syria", without scare quotes; yet the deal he wants to see negotiated is between imperialist states and "Syria". And why? So that Assad can remain in power in order that 'the West' can team up with him to defeat ISIS.
It is only because Pilger et al tend to reduce the Syrian opposition to the machinations of the CIA, MI6 and so on, that the incongruity does not strike them. Because otherwise, how could one so willingly give the impression that the first duty of the anti-imperialist left is to suggest ways that the imperialist states can defeat a bunch of sectarian jihadis, by throwing their weight behind negotiations to protect and conserve the Assad regime?
The call to "arm the rebels" which I wearily dismissed
the other day has some traction in elements of the far left. Specifically, we are now hearing calls to "arm the Kurds".
I question this, not because it wouldn't be a good thing if those Kurdish forces defending themselves against ISIS could get their hands on more and better arms, but because the slogan has nothing to do with achieving that situation. I do not claim to know how to extend solidarity to those progressive forces fighting ISIS or to help defend the liberated zone in Kobane. I am not even sure the British Left can do much of use, other than perhaps support UK-based Kurds in their protests and direct actions. I simply want to argue that to move from the belief that, eg, the Kurds in Kobane should have more and better arms, to the 'demand' to "arm the Kurds" is a dangerous, sentiment-driven and consolatory position. It makes us feel better about our weakness and isolation, but offers no practical way forward.
First, who are "the Kurds" in this slogan? If it is taken to refer to all Kurdish forces currently fighting ISIS, then one is effectively calling for the arming of the PUK and KDP forces whose policy of 'Kurdification' is part of the sectarian dynamic unfolding in Iraq since the inception of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The ethnic cleansing of over a hundred thousand Sunni Arabs, not to mention Assyrians and Turkmen, is part of the reason why today many Sunnis living in Mosul and surrounding areas find ISIS and its allies to be less of an immediate threat than their rivals.
Most charitably, it is intended specifically as a request for help for those Kurdish forces in Kobane, fending off an ISIS attack and defending an autonomous zone that is radically democratic by any standard. Of course, one could argue in favour of arming all the Syrian revolutionaries, holding up in liberated zones against Assad's bombardment and the depredations of ISIS. But in practice this means arming forces such as the al-Nusra front who, talking down their sectarian politics and avoiding the gratuitous conduct of ISIS, have a leading role in the Syrian opposition. The bombing of al-Nusra fighters is one of the reasons why the Assad regime is happy with Washington's bombing campaign, while there have been angry protests by revolutionaries against the bombing. And there is, let us say, an understandable reluctance to get involved in supporting al-Nusra. So, we are left with a call to arm "the Kurds" which means arming a group of Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.
Second, who should "arm the Kurds"? Barring some decidedly clapped out Provos, no leftist group in the UK has arms to sell or donate. The demand to "arm the Kurds" could therefore only be aimed either at regional states, or imperialist states. Both have already been arming at least some Kurdish forces, inasmuch as first Iran and then much later the US started sending arms to Iraqi Kurds after the ISIS insurgency took Mosul. Realistically, this demand is aimed at ruling classes in imperialist democracies, since no Middle Eastern state has to listen to anything we, the British left, say. And whether these ruling classes send more arms to more Kurds, or less, is simply not something we have any control over. Our influence on the situation is in the highest degree negligible, and our leverage over the states bringing arms (or not) is similarly infinitesimal. It requires a mass movement to even restrain imperialist states, as the Stop the War movement did to a degree. The idea that we could attain such influence as to direct these states to revolutionary ends is so implausible, short of actually taking control of them, as to be laughable.
So if we have no way to make the slogan effective, what is it for? If it is genuinely intended to pressure imperialist states to "arm the Kurds", then it is at best unthinking sentimentality. At its most sophisticated, though, the idea could be to 'intervene' in an argument taking place in imperialist countries around the region's uprisings and military intervention, to attack the weak points in the dominant ideology and open a space in which a leftist argument can be made to a popular audience. In this view, Kobane represents both the most progressive front of struggle in the region at the moment, and the weakest point ideologically for imperialist ruling classes who have no desire to see the PYD/PKK prevail. In this sense, the demand to "arm the Kurds" is a sort of feint, akin to a 'transitional demand' in that it is both seemingly 'reasonable' in light of the dominant ideology and also impossible for the ruling class to deliver.
If this is the idea, though, it reads the ideological terrain very badly. The major issue of principle for imperialist ruling classes is not whether they should intervene here or there, but that they should have the unquestioned and implicit right
to do so. They benefit far more from the moral rearmament of imperialism as a project driven by the sorts of considerations that matter to popular constituencies and at least potentially on the side of justice, than they lose from any potential embarrassment over Kobane (which I think will be slight). After all, what would a government minister have to say to brush off a leftist challenge about why they aren't "arming the Kurds"? Apart from saying "we are arming some Kurds", they might say specifically about Kobane that
, "yes, it's very unfortunate and we're doing all we can to help by impeding ISIS, but it's far more important to hit their 'command and control centres' etc etc". That might not convince everyone, but it might even be a strategic gain if this sort of response is regarded as pusillanimous, because then the entire argument has been framed - by the Left - as one about why 'our' governments aren't 'doing more'. A short-term tactical loss, in other words, can also be a long-term strategic gain.
Third, any genuine and unfeigned demand that imperialist states "arm the Kurds" arises chiefly because of our weakness and incoherence. Those raising it hope to at least verbally short-cut through the mountain of work and struggle that is necessary to get to a stage where we are relevant to such situations. And this is the problem. The British Left has always tended to assume that what it says and does about what should happen Over There is of tremendous significance. Those former leftists who rallied behind Bush's 'war on terror', on the assumption that it was their war fought in their interests, stood in this tradition. This is a kind of chauvinism, an ideological artefact of imperialism. In this situation, the role of a small, divided and weak Left is pedagogy. The role of any slogan should be to stake out the discursive space in which a leftist, anti-imperialist analysis can be popularised - not just now but ongoingly. The slogan, "arm the Kurds" is an own-goal.