Wednesday, 23 February 2011
While events in Libya are greeted with shock and indignation across the world, there are some who's instinctive reaction to such barbarism is not to condemn the perpetrators, nor to ask how those responsible can be brought to justice, but to add the massacre to their relativist soup, a repugnant dish served with an ample side-helping of condemnation of United States foreign policy - only United States foreign policy. Selecting an item on this menu that doesn't include a Michelin Star-like denunciation of the US (and I for one am no opponent of dining on this hearty dish from time to time,) is as good as an open admission of being a "lackey of imperialism" to what remains of the 20th-century Stalinist left.
84 year old Fidel Castro, the elderly parody of the vicious young hero of the unreconstructed left who ordered the makeshift boats of those fleeing his socialist paradise capsized, and the former leader who locked up independent journalists in the name of a Stalinist experiment that has proven time and again to have utterly failed the Cuban people, has made a timely intervention in his Reflections of Fidel column to say that it is "too early to criticise Gaddafi". Too early!
After 41 years in charge of a regime that brought down an American passenger plane, pitilessly exterminated an unknown number of political opponents, expelled tens of thousands of Palestinians for being insufficiently willing to immolate themselves for the cause, as well as plundered the Libyan economy for the benefit of Western corporations, many things can be said of Gaddafi's regime. Too early to be deserving of criticism is not one of them.
Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega sickeningly said he has telephoned the Libyan leader to express his "solidarity". The Sandinista leader says he has called several times this week because Gaddafi "is again waging a great battle" to defend the unity of his nation. Bizarrely, the main problem the former Marxist guerrilla has with the protesters appears to be that "there is looting of businesses now...that is terrible".
Perhaps along with Raul Castro he is looking admiringly at the Chinese model of bosses' communism.
Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, meanwhile, has stayed mute, his foreign policy spokesperson simply warning of the dangers of "imperialism". Chavez and Gaddafi have in the past had such warm ties that on Monday rumors swept the world that Gaddafi was fleeing to Venezuela. Gaddafi however appeared on television to deny such speculation. Bizarrely, Chavez has previously said that "what Simon Bolívar (the Great Liberator of South American independence against the Spanish) is to the Venezuelan people, Gaddafi is to the Libyan people." Chavez has also awarded Gaddafi the "Orden del Libertador," Venezuela's highest civilian decoration, and presented the Libyan leader with a replica of Simon Bolívar's sword.
In Libya, there is a football stadium in the city of Benghazi named after Chavez.
Bolivia came closest to criticizing the government in Tripoli, issuing a statement expressing concern over "the regrettable loss of many lives" and urging both sides to find a peaceful solution. Still no outright condemnation of Gaddafi however from the supposedly "revolutionary" government.
Gaddafi has in the past awarded the absurd Moammar al-Gaddafi International Human Rights Prize to Castro, Ortega, Chavez and Evo Morales.
Perhaps this proves you can get away with anything on the Stalinoid left, as long as you proclaim an opposition to United States foreign policy.
Tuesday, 15 February 2011
According to its website, Citizens UK is “the primary broad-based organising movement in Britain and Ireland", enabling "communities to work together for the common good.”
Inspired by Chicago thinker Saul Alinsky, the group has a solid achievement to its name in the form of the Living Wage Campaign, which has to-date pulled over 6,500 families out of working poverty. In the UK over 13 million people live in poverty - around one in five. The campaign calls for every worker in the country to earn enough to provide their family with the essentials of life. An important part of the campaign has been to highlight the fact that it's not simply those on benefits who are poor, but that there are hundreds of thousands of people in paid work languishing in poverty due to low wages. Such a campaign should be applauded by the left, not least for raising awareness of an issue ignored by successive governments in their reluctance to confront powerful employer's organisations.
Having recently had the pleasure of listening to a talk by an enthusiastic member of Citizens UK at City University, I came away feeling both encouraged and uneasy. Encouraged by the stories of people at the bottom of society getting involved in politics - they do care, they just feel alienated from the parliamentary process - but uneasy at what appeared to be yet another attempt at non-confrontational, no-content progressivism. Citizens UK's raison d'être is ostensibly the "common good" of the local community. While rhetorically music to the ears of most people, this style of politics shies away from asking the really difficult questions. Outside of 19th-century religious notions of welfare, nor do they propose any genuine solutions.
There is a well-founded suspicion on the left that behind such rhetoric about consensual politics are the poor being told they should not demand too much in the way of help from the powerful. Unfortunately for the Citizens UK model there are groups in society who's interests are directly and irreconcilably opposed; and it is only through confrontation that such conflicts of interest may be resolved. It is simply not enough to say the wealthy can be persuaded their best interests lie in paying out higher wages or increased taxes - much of the time, they don't.
However good the intentions of Citizens UK may be they also unwittingly accept the proposal of the right that the state has somehow failed the poor, when in reality much of the state's inability to provide adequately for those at the bottom is due to the rich being increasingly permitted to contribute as little as possible in taxes. The state compels poor people to abide by laws protecting the property of the rich, but when the idea of compulsion is evoked to collect the taxes of the wealthy, the trend is increasingly moving towards a form of volunteerism. No mention of this on the Citizens UK website of course. Their approach seems to be to take Alinsky, strip out any radical Marxist content, add religion to the mix and repackage it as an antidote to the ills of the poor - an oxymoron of change at the bottom without threatening the interests of the top.
It comes as little surprise then to find on the Citizens UK website an endorsement of the big society. After all, they fit very nicely within the big society narrative - that of do it yourselves, because we don't care. Rather than challenge this outdated 19th-century dogma, Citizens UK are attempting to work within it. That should not sit comfortably with anybody opposed to the notion of consensual politics and the idea of community empowerment as detached from society as a whole.
Monday, 7 February 2011
On Tuesday 12 January 2010, Haiti was rocked by a tragic and terrible earthquake which killed 230,000 people. One year on, and in the capital Port-au-Prince between 1.3 and 1.7 million people continue to live in increasingly squalid tents with little hope of moving to transitional shelters.
Despite the huge sums of money charities and aid organisations received in a show of international solidarity following the earthquake, less than 30,000 of those displaced have since found permanent homes; a recent cholera outbreak has killed more than 3,300 people; and of the 20 million cubic metres of rubble created by the disaster, less than 5 per cent has been cleared. Already the poorest country in the Western hemisphere before the earthquake, Haiti has over the past year fallen five points in the world's poverty league from 140 to 145 out of 182.
While the ‘international community' jostled to send its humanitarian aid to Haiti in the aftermath of the quake, barely anybody thought it proper to acknowledge that it was the ‘international community' which was largely responsible for the squalor and suffering Haiti found itself languishing in. The United States first invaded and occupied the country in 1915; and every subsequent attempt by the Haitian people to move ‘from absolute misery to a dignified poverty’ (in the words of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide) has been stubbornly (and often violently) blocked by the US government and its allies. As the Guardian noted:
‘Aristide's own government (elected by some 75% of the electorate) was the latest victim of such interference, when it was overthrown by an internationally sponsored coup in 2004 that killed several thousand people and left much of the population smouldering in resentment. The UN has subsequently maintained a large and enormously expensive stabilisation and pacification force in the country... Proposals to divert some of this ‘investment' towards poverty reduction or agrarian development [however] have been blocked, in keeping with the long-term patterns that continue to shape the ¬distribution of international “aid”.’
In fact, Haiti's tragedy served as an opportunity to enrich corporate interests still further. Lewis Lucke, a 27-year veteran of the US Agency for International Development (US AID), was named US special coordinator for reconstruction in the aftermath of the earthquake. After a short period in the job he moved to the private sector, where he could sell his 'connections' to the highest bidder. He subsequently landed a $30,000-a-month contract with the Haiti Recovery Group (HRG). HRG is founded by AshBritt, Inc., a Miami-based contractor which received considerable bad press for its’ post-Hurricane Katrina contracting work. AshBritt's partner in HRG is Gilbert Bigio, a wealthy Haitian businessman. Bigio made his money during the tyrannical Duvalier regime and was a supporter of the coup against president Aristide. Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, also exposed evidence that, within 24 hours of the earthquake, the influential right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation was already making plans to use the disaster as a means to further privatise the Haitian economy.
International aid alone however will not solve Haiti's problems. Even the capitalist class acknowledge as much. Regine Barjon, a member of the Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce, a right-wing pro-business organisation based in Florida, called the billions of aid donated to Haiti ‘the equivalent of putting a band-aid on a cancer patient’. Aside from the fact that Haiti itself is a deeply unequal society (Haiti's richest 1% own nearly half of the country's wealth), the stability of world-markets depends on countries like Haiti remaining poor. The commitment of the US government is not to building a sustainable road to development for Haitians but is geared toward subsidies for US farmers, which, by their very nature, undermine the ability of Haitian farmers to themselves make a living. In Britain we would not allow our pets to live in the conditions currently endured by the Haitian people. The ‘international community’, however, believes a certain degree of misery and squalor to be acceptable for people in the developing world. The poverty of Haitians and many others is ‘a price worth paying’ for the profits of large multinationals, which undermine the economies of poorer nations by swamping their internal markets with cheap products. It is in the interests of these companies, rather than the interests of people, whom the capitalist world has in mind first and foremost when it deals with countries like Haiti – even in times of unimaginable disaster.
Friday, 4 February 2011
Tomorrow, Saturday 5 February, the English Defence League will march in Luton. The EDL claim to be demonstrating against Islamic extremism, yet as previous gatherings of the group have shown, their grievances appear to be with anyone simply 'Muslim-looking' - the last time they were in Luton they smashed up several Asian-owned shops and in Dudley they attacked a Hindu temple. Prominent members of the EDL have also been shown to have links to violent hooliganism and to the National Front and British National Party.
Luton itself is also a strange choice for a protest against Islamic extremism considering just 20 people turned out for an Islam4UK demo in March 2009. The town does have a Muslim population of around 30,000, however, which perhaps gives a clearer indication of precisely who it is the EDL have a problem with.
Characteristic of far-right groups in recent times has been the use of religion and culture as a proxy for race. Despite racism (and growing anti-Semitism) being a continuing problem in 21st-century Britain, we live within a post-racist national discourse - it is now overwhelmingly frowned upon to be racist or anti-Semitic in the public arena. Modern use of language will instead focus on asylum-seekers, Muslims, or a world Zionist conspiracy as suitable proxies. In terms of discourse the EDL are racists attempting to operate within a post-racist narrative.
The flip side is that the opportunism of racists such as the EDL and the BNP in scapegoating Muslims has poisoned the discourse in relation to Islam and religion itself. In almost any contemporary political debate there is now a fine line between criticism of a certain monotheism and the lazy and populist characterisation of one as a closeted-racist merely for voicing such criticism. For those of us who are deeply 'phobic' of all religions, to be labelled racist simply for the criticism of celestial dictatorship is deeply worrying; it also plays into the hands of both the genuine racists in the EDL as well as actual Islamists - both of whom thrive on division.
The idea of 'Islamophobia' is itself problematic. Should you be Jewish, a non-believer, gay, or simply a woman, there are phrases in the Koran which one need not be simply irrational to fear. It is now also commonplace to hear terms such as 'Islamophobic racism' glibly thrown around, equating the unalterable idea of 'race' with the sinister notion (and one that is again favoured by racists and Islamists) that a person is somehow a Muslim from the day they are born, rather than such ideas being passed on via the home, the school and the community. This panders to the idea that Muslims may never leave their religion, that it is somehow innate, while at the same time capitulating to the likes of the EDL who believe Islamic extremism to be a problem of people - Muslims - rather than of ideas and material conditions.
The correct definition for the bigotry of the EDL would it seems be 'Muslimophobia'. Accurate terminology however is perhaps less politically useful for those who use the 'Islamophobic' label to effectively silence secular and atheist critics of Islam and monotheism itself.
It is extremely important to stand up to the EDL in Luton tomorrow and to send a message to them that their brand of cynical racism is unwelcome on the streets of modern Britain. Away from the exhilaration of street confrontations with modern-day fascists however, it is important to remember that the use of language matters, and that its misuse can aid one's enemies as well as help to vanquish them.