Tuesday, 31 May 2011
When telling truth to power morphs into attributing blame for every event to one power in particular.
Judges today rejected an appeal by Ratko Mladic to prevent his extradition to a U.N. tribunal, paving the way after almost 20 years on the run for Mladic to face charges for the worst atrocities in Europe since the Second World War.
The political geeks among us (of which I include myself) are perhaps wondering what Noam Chomsky has to say on the subject, considering the content of much of what the man has previously said on the issue over the years. (One would of course be forgiven for not wondering, insomuch as one has the justifiable feeling that none of what Mr Chomsky says any longer matters all that much.)
For a long time there has been ample evidence detailing the massacre of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica during the summer of 1995. There is, in fact, more detailed evidence of this particular genocide than most other crimes against humanity that occurred during the 20th century. An international tribunal, established by the UN, has already convicted a Bosnian Serb general of aiding and abetting genocide in Srebrenica - and looks set to convict another.
Some works released in the years following the genocide attempted to play down Serb atrocities, one of which was Diana Johnstone’s revisionist tract Fools’ Crusade. The work itself has since been thoroughly discredited. Marko Attila Hoare described the book as “little more than a polemic in defence of the Serb-nationalist record during the wars of the 1990s – and an ill-informed one at that...In short, she is an armchair Balkan amateur-enthusiast, and her book is of the sort that could be written from any office in Western Europe with access to the internet.”
Chomsky, though, together with a clutch of others including Tariq Ali, signed an open letter to the Swedish magazine Ordfront defending Johnstone’s dubious works, after the magazine was hit with a flurry of complaints following their publication of an interview with Johnstone in which she again downplayed the genocide in Bosnia. The letter, signed by Chomsky, read: “We regard Johnstone’s Fools’ Crusade as an outstanding work, dissenting from the mainstream view but doing so by an appeal to fact and reason, in a great tradition.”
The behaviour of Chomsky in this instance should be put into the context of the wider reaction of certain sections of the left to all Western intervention – no matter that intervention in this case happened altogether too late. The method of Chomsky and his acolytes is straightforward: select an action taken by the West - whether in Kosovo, Rwanda, or Libya (or in this case belatedly in Bosnia and Herzegovina) – invert the role of perpetrator and victim, before forming a conclusion which lays the blame for every atrocity at the door of Western intervention or a Western ally in the region. If this means denying or downplaying genocide committed by those opposed to Western forces, then so be it.
Chomsky himself even went as far as to say of Johnstone’s book that she “...argues – and, in fact, clearly demonstrates – that a good deal of what has been charged [in Srebrenica] has no basis in fact, and much of it is pure fabrication.”
Asked later whether he regretted supporting those who said the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated, Chomsky said “My only regret is that I didn’t do it strongly enough.”
In this vein was the response of the American academic and other long-time Noam Chomsky associate Edward Herman. On Kosovo Herman, wrote John Feffer in Foreign Policy in Focus, "manages to construct an alternative universe in which Serbian military forces only acted in defence, Slobodan Milosevic was a benevolent Gorbachev figure, and the international legal community functioned as some kind of adjunct to NATO".
Chomsky, however, was as reluctant to distance himself from Herman as he had been from Johnstone. Instead, not only did he defend Herman’s right to deny genocide, but he consistently praised Herman’s body of work – including that which explicitly denied the Srebrenica massacre. It begins to appear then as if it is not Herman and Johnstone’s right to free speech that Chomsky is defending, but rather their dubious and disgusting views.
It is not only Chomsky's friends who implicate him however. Chomsky himself, when referring to the Srebrenica massacre, continues to place the word genocide in quotes, despite the fact that, as mentioned earlier, an international tribunal has convicted a Bosnian Serb general of aiding and abetting genocide.
Now that another of Slobodan Milosevic's murderous generals is about to face trial, it seems a good time to ask: Isn’t it time for an apology Mr Chomsky?
Credit to Marko Attila Hoare, whose blog material proved extremely helpful in putting together my modest contribution to the critique of the cult of Chomsky.
Monday, 30 May 2011
The Genuine Democracy Now movement began in Spain two weeks ago as a public outcry against political corruption and unemployment that has soared to unprecedented levels. Spain has a 21.3% unemployment rate - the highest in the EU - and many of the unemployed are young people. Some Spaniards who do have jobs are going months without pay due to their employees hanging the threat of unemployment over their heads. Protesters have come together against what they see as an outrageous carve-up between bankers and politicians, who are making ordinary people pay for the financial crisis of the rich.
Ironically perhaps, on the back of the protests it is the socialist party (PSOE), one of Europe’s more economically progressive governments, that has suffered one of its worst results in recent history. The PSOE lost around 2 million votes while the People's Party, an economically right-wing party, obtained unprecedented support from the electorate in many key provinces of the state.
While the protesters say they wish to see radical changes to the Spanish political model, their lack of concrete demands appear to be harming the movement as a whole. Ignacio Molina, associate professor in the department of politics and international relations at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, believes that the movement is too limited and narrow in focus.
"In other words, protesters are naive enough to think that changing the political model on institutional issues such as the republican form of government, participatory democracy or the proportional electoral system can help resolve the crisis and improve the life prospects of young people or the unemployed," he said.
This highlights the harm be-all-and-end-all adherence to “autonomy” and “spontaneity” is doing to mass-movements right across Europe. Because there is no alternative program to be argued for, movements are struggling to win the majority over to ideas different to that of the status quo. The manifesto of the protesters fails for example to make any concrete proposals regarding the Spanish economy - the root cause of much of the disenfranchisement felt by ordinary people.
When the protesters do return to their homes, whether in the next few days or several weeks from now, there are no organisational structures in place nor transitional demands for people to take home with them. As we saw with the British student movement, when this happens a movement can quickly lose much of its momentum and force. As one Spanish commentator remarked, “the saddest thing about the Spanish revolts is that, in the end, most of these youngster's parents and elders turned out to vote for the People’s Party instead of joining the protesters.”
That being said, with no end to the economic crisis in sight there is a chance this protest will not simply fizzle out – there is the potential for this to be the start of something much bigger. What is required, though, is a bridging of the gap between undirected discontent and ideas about a different sort of society, a society where people really would exercise democratic control over their economic lives.
Thursday, 26 May 2011
Where is Ed Miliband? In the House of Commons, through fear of being defined as the “Red Ed” caricature beloved by the tabloids, the Labour leader looks across the dispatch box at David Cameron like a schoolboy asking for the return of his appropriated dinner money. Meanwhile, genuine ideologues sat opposite cheer and wave order papers as the sick and disabled are thrown on the scrap heap.
Blairites will of course wave a finger at you if you mention Ed’s mediocre performance thus far as Labour leader, reminding you that this is what they said would happen if Labour failed to elect his brother David. The older Miliband would, they claim, have tackled his Tory opposite number far more robustly than Ed ever could.
There is some truth to this too; but it largely misses the real problem with Ed’s leadership, which is not dissimilar to the problem Labour had when it was in office: nobody knows quite what the party stands for anymore.
It’s very well talking of shared values and espousing no-content progressivism, but when people look at their incomes declining in real terms while the incomes of many of those responsible for the financial crash continue to soar into the stratosphere, they are more than justified in asking what the point of the Labour Party is at all these days.
An example of Labour’s timidity is the unwillingness of the leadership to even propose that the rich should pay higher taxes. The deficit can, after all, be paid-off by tax increases as much as it can by cuts. The wealthy of course will tell us their hard work and talent need to be generously rewarded. Fewer of them will be willing to admit that their profit-making is almost always reliant upon less-privileged workers being paid the minimum wage and spending a life pinching the pennies.
A case in point is the Chief Executive of Tesco, who was paid £5 million in 2005 (under a Labour government, I should add). In the same year the average Tesco employee was paid £12,713. Is it credible to assert that the Chief Executive is 430 times more industrious and productive than the average Tesco employee? If this really is the case the country needs only to put 85,000 of these super-industrious executives to work across the board on average wages – freeing the rest of us from ever having to work again!
The reality is that while tuition fees are rising, while the EMA is cut, while benefits are driven down and hundreds of thousands thrown out of work, the wealthy continue to pull away from the rest of us. The only encouragement for those who maintain that we are all in this together is that, according to the Times Rich List, the wealthiest 1,000 individuals in Britain increased their wealth by “only” £60 billion this year, down from £77 billion last year.
Perhaps the most damning indictment of Labour's performance is that a majority appear ready to believe it was the state, rather than the market, that was to blame for the economic crisis and its aftermath.
Two-and-a-half years on from the crash and it is the centre-left that is apologetically searching for its backbone, rather than the free-marketeers whose utopian doctrine was, after all, what got the country into this whole sorry mess in the first place. Ed Miliband must take his share of the blame for that.
Thursday, 19 May 2011
"This is a protest they will never understand" said one youth, as he, along with around 2000 other young people camped out in Puerta del Sol square in Madrid, defying a ban on pre-election demonstrations.
Despite the obvious differences between Spanish democracy and the deposed Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak, comparisons are already being made with Tahrir Square.
The protests began on Sunday. The police dispersed demonstrators initially, but since then sheer numbers have forced the authorities to take a softer approach. One chant heard reverberating around the square has been "violence is earning 600 euros", refreshingly counteracting predictable bourgeois sentimentality about broken windows whenever protests start to make an impact.
Spain has a 21.3% unemployment rate - the highest in the EU - and many of the unemployed are young people. As in Britain, the major Spanish political parties are attempting to make ordinary people pay for a financial crisis they played no part in. Some Spaniards who do have jobs are going months without pay due to their employees hanging the threat of unemployment over their heads. There are slim prospects for an improvement in the situation any time soon.
The protests, though, have not simply been about the economy. One of the most popular slogans has been “Genuine Democracy Now”; and stalls have been set-up urging people not to vote for the two major political parties.
Most politicians and political commentators simply do not understand this call for greater democracy. As in Britain the US and the rest of Europe, this is not supposed to happen any more, not since we arrived at the End of History. The establishment sees free-market capitalism as sitting at the end of a visible thread running through every epoch of human history. When a mass of people appear who do not share in this grand utopian project, the establishment's response is total bewilderment - what could these people possibly be rebelling against?
Even liberal organs such as the Guardian struggle to know what to make of it all - when the protest swelled to around 2000 people on Wednesday night their online headline story was instead about a man who had eaten 25,000 Big Macs!
Outside of the mainstream narrative that ordinary people should bear the burden of the follies of European financial and political elites, a section of the Spanish populace is demanding an altogether different course, even if the details are at present sketchy. That in itself is something.
Tuesday, 17 May 2011
The difficulty when involved in any kind of radical politics is getting the message to a wider audience. It is possible for the radical to come into contact with the student on campus or the worker on the picket-line, but getting ideas to the ordinary man (or woman) in the street can be more difficult. (By this I mean the sort of person who gets little out of the status quo but who rarely mixes in radical circles or goes on strike.)
Getting alternative ideas out there is becoming, paradoxically, both easier and more difficult – easier on the Internet but harder in the traditional media. There is an increasingly dominant group of media barons, most recognisably Rupert Murdoch, who are tightening their grip on both print and broadcast media. Most politicians tend to accept this and interpret any attempt to limit private ownership as a slide towards totalitarianism. It is at the same time increasingly difficult for a person of modest means to become a journalist. As well as an undergraduate degree, most of those going into the profession today have postgraduate qualifications and lengthy “internships” under their belts, affordable only to the wealthy.
Professional journalism has always been something of a middle and upper-class pursuit. The term “BBC accent” was coined during the 20th century to describe a recognisable Home Counties diction. Nowadays many of those behind similar accents are women and ethnic minorities; but as is so often the case, the issue of class is ignored when it comes to identity politics.
This may all seem terribly unimportant, but having nothing invested in the services being cut by the current Government has left an indelible mark on journalistic discourse, helping to foster a media narrative where Government cuts are almost always "inevitable". In interviews journalists ask opposition politicians what they would cut – never why they are cutting at all when billions in uncollected taxes are swilling around or being spent on NHS privatisation and “free” schools. They aggressively demand anti-cuts activists “condemn the violence” when a few shop windows are smashed, yet will never refer to the violence of the political class when privatisations and cuts destroy more than a few window panes.
Alternative messages can be found on the internet of course - to blog one needs only an ability to construct eligible sentences and something worthwhile to say - but the blogosphere is overrated as a popular medium, finding its audience mostly among fellow journalists and politicians rather than ordinary people, who do not have time to sift through endless opinion to find what is reliable.
You can, after all, simply turn on Sky News or read your mate’s copy of The Sun. Lots of other people do, so it must be reliable.
The entrenchment of the middle-classes in journalism has turned the profession into what could be aptly described as the political establishment talking to itself. Away from the news, most entertainment shows are today as much a variant of laughing at the poor and passing cold judgment on lower-class types as they ever were.
Friday, 13 May 2011
Not content with making working people pay for a crisis caused by “socially useless” bankers, George Osborne has announced plans to cut workplace “regulation” – the politician’s term for workers’ rights – in a speech to the Institute of Directors' annual convention in London. Osborne's proposals will in practice leave employees with even less protection against redundancy, dismissal and workplace discrimination.
London Mayor Boris Johnson has recently been mooting the idea of even tighter trade union laws – despite the fact that current Thatcher-era laws have left the UK in a position where it is perceived by international human rights agencies as failing to comply with minimum international standards.
All of these attacks on working people sit rather uncomfortably with the idea that we are “all in it together”, the phrase itself having been quietly dropped by Cameron himself of late - the grotesque and profligate spending of the Royal wedding perhaps finally burying the idea, despite the exultations and hysteria of our compliant mass-media.
To the British ruling class, the 21st-century was supposed to be about a flowering of liberal democracy and the spread of unfettered markets. Barely 10 years after the turn of the millennium, however, and this doctrine looks, to most ordinary people at least, increasingly discredited. Politicians, though, continue to act “as if” – as if the assumptions they grew up on are still the only show in town. “Communism”, Marx said, “is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution." Our current crop of politicians see liberal capitalism sitting similarly at the end of a visible thread running through every epoch of human history.
As we look back on the financial crisis of 2008, it may be the ideologues of neo-liberalism who eventually come to most regret not learning the lessons of the capitalist crisis; and if existing attacks on workers are anything to go by, they have not yet seen through the transparent racket of Thatcherism, with its workplace “flexibility” and unlimited excess for the rich.
These developments should make any person of the left despair; yet as long as our politicians remain trapped in a narrative that has dominated British politics ever since the late 1970s, there is an increasing risk that the crash of 2008 will be repeated. And next time, perhaps, a whole generation of politicians will fall along with their beloved markets, clearing the way for quite new ideas.
Tuesday, 10 May 2011
According to the BBC, “Universities in England may be allowed to make extra places available for wealthy UK students...”
On Radio 4’s Today programme, Universities Minister David Willetts spelled out the Government’s proposal, saying the changes would apply to "people who wish to go to university, but who sadly are being turned away just because there aren't enough places."
He went on to say that the changes would “allow companies or charities to sponsor additional places - without any cost to the taxpayer.”
What he failed to mention is that there is nothing to stop private individuals doing the same for their sprogs – paying for additional places, and with it access to a university degree.
It is of course possible that this policy of reverse social-engineering has been proposed as a straw man to appease angry Liberal Democrats after their loss of the Alternative Vote Referendum. If the policy is subsequently dropped it could be made to look like a Lib Dem “victory”.
It is also possible however that the austerity agenda has gone to the heads of some in the Conservative Party, and Dickensian notions of welfare provision are set to go hand-in-hand with a two-tier education system - for the benefit of the few, rather than the many.
Personally, I have always thought universities should distribute a finite number of places based solely upon the achievement of a specific set of grades. The policy being mooted however seems to suggest that if you have 10 students who narrowly miss out on a university place, the wealthy amongst them will perhaps still be able to go to university based on the financial position of their parents.
I think I’m just going to go and be sick.
Thursday, 5 May 2011
What immediately springs to mind when one thinks of the British left and its relationship with the state of Israel? Boycotts maybe, or rhetoric verging on the anti-Semitic? Or perhaps a veneration of reactionaries and clerical fascists, just so long as they see Israel as public enemy number one?
As Sean Matgamma points out:
“Most ‘Trotskyists’ today are, everywhere, agitators and propagandists against the Jewish state of Israel. Not agitators for the view that Israel should change its relationship with the Palestinians, or that it should help set up an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. No. The agitation and propaganda centres on the ‘demand’ that Israel should cease to exist...In war [these ‘Trotskyists’] have sided with the Arab states - Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan - in the hope and expectation that, victorious, they would put an end to Israel. At the start of the 21st-century they back the medieval-minded forces of Arab and Islamic clerical fascism - the Muslim Brotherhood and its off-shoots, and Hezbollah, Hamas and the jihadists in Iraq. Rejecting a two-state solution, these mystics of ‘anti-Imperialism’ back the Muslim mystics who would recreate the Caliphate - the pre-World War I Turkish Empire, against Israel.”
What is less well-known to some who see themselves as modern day carriers of the Trotskyist flame is that many of their ideas about Israel actually come from a Stalinist section of the Marxist movement in the 1920s. Most of the Trotskyist left at the time argued for Arab-Jewish reconciliation and solidarity in anti-imperialist struggle - along working class lines against the Zionist bourgeoisie as well as against reactionary Arab clerics; and together against US and UK imperialism.
One thing that stands out in the Statement of the Fourth International on the Jewish Question is the call for united Jewish and Arab trade unions. Contrast this with those today who wish to write-off Israeli trade unionists entirely in their clammer for boycotts. Interestingly, the Palestinian Federation of Trade Unionists continues to oppose boycotting its Israeli counterpart. Which Palestinians do the modern-day so-called “Trotskyists” listen to however? The pious clerical fascists who call for an immediate severing of all ties with the Jewish state.
While we see some on the left today who would consider themselves opposed to Stalinism embracing the likes of Hamas, in the past it was the Stalinists themselves who felt compelled to make every event occurring anywhere in the world fit into their “anti-imperialist” blueprint. In Palestine this meant refusing to distinguish between the genuine aspirations of the Arab working-class and the corrupt, anti-Semitic agenda of the Mufti. In response, American Trotskyists of the time put out an article entitled Pogrom or revolution?, highlighting the sordid compromises being made by the Stalinists in their support for reactionary Arab leaderships, at the expense of the Arab working classes: “The Arab leaders have curbed the genuine movement of the masses, they have stunted its growth and prevented the development of its natural courses of struggle; they have repeatedly misled and devitalised it. They are still the only spokesmen of the movement, and they speak for reactionary aims. They fight for an ‘Arab Empire’. They have compromised with imperialism and are willing to do it again. They are against all Jews as Jews...They promise the peasant no land and the worker no social improvement. They are vehement enemies not only of Bolshevism, but of the mildest kind of labour movement. In this respect, they far ‘excel’ their Zionist competitors...”
There is the same failure on the left today, seen most vividly in groups like the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP,) who fail to distinguish between the Arab working masses and their reactionary, clerical rulers. This is perhaps the symptom of a loss of faith in the emancipatory potential of the working class as a whole. Equally crass opportunism prevails at home in the UK, where the SWP play a game of crude identity politics, opportunistically supplanting any oppressed minority for the working class as a whole, even if in doing so they act against the interests of the workers’ movement.
In the 1920s and 1930s Trotskyists called for Jews and Arabs to transform the war between themselves, which served the ends of imperialism, into a war of both nations against imperialism. To oppose the reactionary rulers of both sides, whether right-wing Israeli Zionists, or Arab clerical fascists. It's worth remembering this the next time a person on the kitsch-left starts lazily proclaiming their "anti-imperialist" credentials.
Wednesday, 4 May 2011
Earlier this afternoon, a bill proposing the teaching of abstinence to girls in sex and relationship education lessons passed a first vote in the House of Commons.
Proposed by the moralising anti-abortion Tory MP Nadine Dorries, (the same Nadine Dorries who had an affair with her best friend’s husband) the motion reads:
"That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require schools to provide certain additional sex education to girls aged between 13 and 16; to provide that such education must include information and advice on the benefits of abstinence from sexual activity; and for connected purposes."
The motion talks only about girls, reflecting the conservative view that it’s female sexuality that is the real problem, while unknowingly insulting boys, who apparently know no better.
The American Academy of Paediatrics has this to say on abstinence related teaching:
“Abstinence-only programs are not only ineffective but may cause harm by providing inadequate and inaccurate information and resulting in participants’ failure to use safer sex practices once intercourse is initiated.”
Backing the motion is the Conservative Christian Fellowship, a group of Tory MPs dedicated to rolling back the right of women to control their own reproduction.
Thanks largely to our lazy MPs not bothering to turn up, the motion passed by 67-61 votes.
On the back of winning this vote Dorries will likely get the publicity she craves – the real objective of the motion, for a change in the law at this point is extremely unlikely.
Together with Frank Field and a grouping of socially conservative MPs, Dories has already been attempting to get Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Bill amended so as to give "independent information, advice and counselling services for women requesting termination of pregnancy to the extent that the consortium considers they will choose to use them."
"Independent" information in this instance means information given by bodies who do not themselves provide abortions. As pointed out at Liberal Conspiracy, the aim of the amendment is to "exclude some of the most knowledgeable providers of information to women on abortions."
Nadine Dorries' bill should be seen as part of a wider effort to push back women's rights and foister fundamentalist, crackpot beliefs on the rest of us.