Saturday, 19 December 2015

Podemos: Party and Movement

The thing about Podemos is whatever they do, they face intractable difficulties. Podemos, whether it likes it or not, now personifies the set of contradictions that haunt the radical left's wavering voice in Europe. That voice is split between party and movement, personality and plurality, elections and protest, 'mediatic' leadership and grassroots activism. In a surprising twist, it has turned out that the bottom layer - the activists - are everywhere far more radical, demanding and expectant than the party leaders. So much for the Leninist avant garde! Iglesias, Podemos' general secretary, has staked everything on winning elections - to promptly, and with Keatonesque pathos, lose them. 

Around the time Syriza was failing to deliver any of its non-negotiable election promises, party officials were wont to moan about the absent masses. If only the people were on the streets, they said, we'd be winning. Then, with the referendum, the people overwhelmed the party with the some of the largest street demonstrations in Greek history. Shell-shocked by the show of popular force, Syriza promptly threw in the towel. 

However much Podemos may want to distance themselves from Syriza's initial defiance, these are the hopes they carry. It was not Syriza's failure that started Podemos's slippage in the polls, but their embrace of that failure. Iglesias hastily congratulated Tsipras on his capitulation to Europe. A new willingness followed, on Podemos' part, to publicly embrace army and state officials. Iglesias is convinced that winning an election will, by dispelling the myth of ultra-leftism, also win Podemos a hearing with the masses. But the masses have been listening all along. The failure is not with the people, but with the organised left's inability to properly articulate, in electoral terms, its desires.

This is not entirely the fault of Podemos - after all, theirs is an electoral strategy in a context that systematically denies effective power to elected governments. Syriza was the crest of a new left wave that had oriented itself towards elections at a time when election victories meant very little. People understood how little Syriza's January victory would mean. This much is evident from Paul Mason's documentary #ThisIsACoup. People had few illusions about Syriza's ability to beat the European powers. What was really missing was a dynamic link - a dialectical understanding - between the Party and the People. 

This is where Podemos too is failing. Since the beginning of the year Podemos' grassroots - organised into "circulos" - have attempted to reassert themselves in the power structures of the increasingly conventional Party central organs. Iglesias has resisted. Why? The conventional answer - the signs of an emergent megalomania - is too easy. Iglesias has a strategy based on a clear-sighted analysis of the Spanish state (one that, at least rhetorically, tends to neglect the distinction between state and civil society). The "Podemos hypothesis", as Iglesias called it in the New Left Review, was that a popular intervention in the crooked Spanish political system had been made possible since 2011. 

Iglesias was clear that a "regime crisis", not a conventional, far-teaching Gramscian "organic crisis" was gripping Spain. This separation is more than a syntactical expedient, but rather informs the whole response of Podemos to the crisis. In Iglesias' reading, the regime crisis is purely discursive, ripe for intervention at the level of political symbols rather than raw disruptive power. Podemos speaks of restoration rather than transformation; it stages spectacular media set pieces, with the perhaps unanticipated result of a relative decline in street activism. 

Insofar as the crisis has seen a widespread disgust in conventional politics reach a crescendo, Iglesias is right to emphasise the potential uses of the media. But of course the media - at first curious and baffled by the Podemos representatives who showed up on their talk shows - are channelling an anti-Podemos backlash. Without a deepening of Podemos' relationship to the popular movements it surely faces burnout. 

The easy answer to the question of party or movement - "yes to both" - is running into the tangled web of state, civil society, and media. There is no model answer as to how to manage the balance between the party and the movements. Podemos' and Spain's grappling with this problem is bound to be compelling. Whether it can produce victories is an open question. 

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The Radical Right and the Crisis in Europe

Throughout Europe the stakes could not be higher. In every corner of the continent - from its historic core to its long-suffering peripheries - underlying conflicts are resolving themselves into a full-blown political crisis.

What are the roots of this crisis? First, the European social model has withered beneath its leaders' feet. Second, the political consensus around integration has collapsed. To understand why this has happened, readers could do far worse than consult the ongoing debate between Germany's preeminent sociologists, Wolfgang Streeck and Jurgen Habermas. Here we only have space to simplify grossly: a kind of evolutionary institutional change has driven out once and for all the old idea of a social Europe, and its replacement - liberal, transnational, capital-favouring - has failed to produce a satisfactory social consensus which might compensate for the loss of the postwar settlement.

In terms of political forces, conventional wisdom has long held that there were clear winners and losers from this process: the old, nationalist left and right lost; the adaptable social and market liberals won. Yet as the social crisis impinges on high politics, that analysis is looking increasingly shallow.

First, social democracy - both in its traditional and in its Blairite forms - has been utterly eviscerated and defeated. In the early nineties the sociologist Michael Mann warned, "Unless socialists raise their eyes from the nation-state, they will have nothing to offer voters." Yet social democrats embraced a multi-national Europe and a transnational capitalism, and collapsed for precisely that reason. Secondly, the traditional centre-right is sharply divided between free market capitalism and national protectionism. This is true not only in eurosceptic Britain, but also - perhaps especially - in countries like Greece and Spain, which entered the European Monetary Union only to crash and burn after 2010.

Finally, the rise of the new radical right, which began in Europe's core countries of the Netherlands, Austria and France, has spread like wildfire into those peripheral states which staked most on EU accession and have often suffered most because of it. The speed of the radical right's electoral gains are unlike anything seen in Europe since the rise of fascism and the authoritarian right in the 1930s: Hungary is dominated by both a hard right and an extreme right party; Poland has elected a party of pronounced right-wing and authoritarian tendencies; Golden Dawn has consistently increased its vote share in Greece; the Front National is perhaps the second party in France after recent regional elections. The list of European municipalities with far-right, xenophobic governments goes on and on - from Austria to Denmark to Britain. Germany, the beating heart of Europe's bad conscience about fascism, has even seen the rise of a nationalist, anti-Islamic group, Pegida. Their stock in trade is anti-Islamic violence. Little can be said of its causes here, save that its pan-European character must originate in pan-European problems, most likely the demands for an enclosure of national sovereignty in the face of a system that has taken to punishing any display of autonomous decision taking by member states. The mechanisms of integration, the social dispensation, the interaction between national democracy and transnational regulation have all broken down. The breadth of these radical-right victories is unprecedented since the Second World War. The danger is not to be underestimated.

All traditional political forces in Europe have ignored this crisis, preferring to side with the rising right and blame our problems on incoming migrants and refugees. Only the radial left has shown any understanding of this crisis. Yet even on the left the strategy for fighting back has been pathetically weak. Some on what remains of the radical end of social democracy have understood that the crisis is not a result of refugees but of the breakdown of a social and political order that shows little evidence of producing anything new. Yet the response is dismal. "We must learn to speak the language of ordinary people again," we are told. It is not how politicians speak, but rather what they represent that is being rejected: an unresponsive, distant, detached elite. In short, the entire political system. 

Walter Benjamin wrote that behind every fascism is a failed revolution, but this is not quite true. Behind every fascism is a failed politics. The far right is offering Europeans a bleak, but so far the only, solution to the political and social void left by global disorder, economic turbulence, and the end of the postwar era.

In this sense, the collapse of the left and the rise of the right are indeed connected. But we massively underestimate the scale of the problem if we assume a direct cause. This is about more than the left's own, internal failure. The success of the Front National in working class regions in France is proof positive of the end of old school social democracy and the absence of any progressive alternative. Yet defeating the right will involve far more than a change of tone or an appeal to people's better nature made through the old political channels, as it is precisely these old political channels - republicanism, democracy, social welfarism, federal or intergovernmental Europeanism - which have ceased to function.

The best evidence of this can be found in the careers of Europe's recent radical-left parties. Phenomenal success in Southern Europe - in Greece, Spain, and lately Portugal - has been followed by equally impressive retreat. This is because those parties have pursued electoral strategies which demand reforms from political systems incapable of permitting them. Even in Britain the assumption among Corbynistas is that the state will allow them to enact reforms if Labour is elected on a serious but modest platform. It doesn't enter anyone's head that the national state may currently be incapable of implementing their reforms. It is not that the nation state will not enact social democratic reforms, but that in the era of global capitalism it cannot. The various levels of official democracy - from the number of votes cast to the power of government itself - have crumpled in on themselves.

The great challenge will be to root radical movements deep in society, far beyond the state and its dependence on global finance. This could take a generation, certainly far more than an electoral victory alone. An intense degree of social mobilisation will be necessary for even the slightest social reforms to be implemented today. The weakness of Syriza, Podemos and Left Block is their lack of deep roots in organised social movements and their reluctance to call on those movements once in power. They have sought to gain legitimacy in the eyes of political systems which themselves lack any legitimacy in the eyes of voters. 

This may seem unrealistic, but it is a safer bet than the fantasies of so-called moderate social democrats. They now advocate tacking hard to the right, accepting anti-immigrant xenophobia, and proposing only the mildest curbs on the freedom of capital. The results will be the same as they have been across Europe: failure to win an audience on immigration; failure to regulate capital; collapse in the polls. France, the political heart of Europe, provides the best evidence of this doomed-to-fail moderation: Francois Hollande offered to soften austerity, yet under him it has only got worse. After five short years in power, the Socialist Party faces total wipeout. Its support has collapsed as the Front National's has risen. 

These pleas for moderation fail because they ignore the deep crisis of democracy across Europe. So far that crisis has fuelled the rise of the far right. Only the radical left can rebuild democracy from the grassroots up.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

How to Be a Conservative Intellectual, or: The Truth in Roger Scruton

The conservative English philosopher Roger Scruton is an engaging character. His public appearances reveal a likeable patrician charm. He is also very much a product of the academic age, as comfortable debating theology with Terry Eagleton as he is discussing moral degeneracy on right-wing cable news. 

Scruton is an avid, if polemical, reader and critic of the left. His great enemy is the perceived divisiveness and "ressentiment" of social and cultural "egalitarians", whose projects wreak havoc on the traditional values of the home. His book 'How to Be a Conservative' is structured as a series of short inquiries into the truth in various ideas - capitalism, socialism, environmentalism - which preoccupy the modern world but are, in his eyes, loaded with misconceptions. In his Socratic wisdom, a kernel of truth is excavated from each idea's accumulated follies. Not so much a rejection of the enlightenment, but a turning of its tools against itself. 

The very mannered, English climax is a defence of conservatism, defined by its love of the sacred things it finds in a flawed world. "Conservatism is the philosophy of attachment. We are attached to the things we love, and wish to protect them against decay. But we know that they cannot last forever." This pessimism, found throughout Anglo-Saxon philosophy, is pitched particularly high in its conservative politics. There is a hard-to-define accord between the scepticism of Anglo-Saxon philosophy and its rigidly conservative high politics. Conservative thinkers as varied as Burke, Michael Oakeshott and John Gray have built whole political philosophies out of this scepticism, attaching a deep moral pessimism to its epistemological tenets. 

Naturally this pessimism extends to the "deep psychology of the human person", which conservatism takes as its basis. The question of human nature, though, is not whether to be optimistic or pessimistic about it, but whether to elevate its obvious limitations into an ethical imperative not to engage in collective political action, as collectivism implies surrender to irrational impulses. It is not uncommon for conservatives to invoke the name of Immanuel Kant in this connection, though Scruton prefers Hegel when it comes to it. "The process whereby human beings acquire their freedom also builds their attachments," he says approvingly. We are limited in our loyalties - restricted to our immediate 'oikos' - and so political ambition should be similarly modest. 

Although Scruton may like Hegel, he owes more to David Hume. It was Hume who, while valuing reason, felt that "custom" was the "great guide of human life." Scruton also values reason, but feels most people are incapable of being guided by it most of the time. In Hume's case, scepticism regarding abstract rationality led to the conservative political conclusion that good sense was guided by experience and history. Against rationalists and utilitarians, the conservatives would argue that existing arrangements might be good or useful precisely because they had endured great lengths of historical time. Hume, satisfied with the utility of great institutions, was then put off by the conflictual stuff of party or "factional" politics. Tradition, custom, sentiment, and the build-up of good institutions could keep the civil balance. Democracy was, even at this early stage, an "enthusiastic" extravagance.

Scruton's adaptation of his various sources is endearingly personal, based as it is in the first person: "Common-law justice spoke to me of a community built from below, through the guarantee offered by the courts to all who came before them with clean hands. The vision stayed with me thereafter as a narrative of home." This feeling for individual rootedness makes no bones about its rejection of universalism."To be conservative ... is to prefer the familiar to the unknown," Oakeshott wrote. Political localism follows, as in Scruton's vision of how "we construct enduring associations, with their rules, offices, ceremonies and hierarchies", from the (state-run?) libraries to the inevitable cricket clubs. The equally civic, communitarian hierarchy of the madrasas does not get a look in. Oakeshott's opposition of universitas (enterprise association) to societas (civil association), the goal-oriented and the organic, quietly plays itself out across Scruton's book. Home - the oikos - is developed from below, spontaneously and organically, without an organising principle. Scruton finds in English common law the accumulated outcome of this spontaneous activity. As with all true conservatives, the best sort of society just happens to be Scruton's own. 

It is on these grounds of civic localism and community bonding that Scruton rejects the great contract theories of modern philosophy, insisting that some pre-political ur-we underwrite the social contract if it is to succeed: "Unless and until people identify themselves with the country, its territory and its cultural inheritance - in something like the way people identify themselves with a family - the politics will not emerge." Here he criticises multiculturalism on the grounds that it negates the majority culture in deference to that of the minority. "Political order, in short requires cultural unity, something that politics itself can never provide." There are multiple ironies here. Scruton cites Mill's phrase the "tyranny of the majority" whilst neglecting the fact that those most threatened by majorities are precisely the immigrants who, he alleges, refuse to adapt to "our ways". How could there be any defence of the majority culture from minority interests without broad state-backed coercion? His defence of some imagined, static majority culture would contradict his conservative love of the organic and the spontaneous results of civil association. In other words, civil association is great as long as it is his kind of civil association. 

Multiculturalism does not mandate the erasure of majority cultures but rather seeks the interaction of multiple cultures and, through that interaction, their mutual enrichment. How on Earth to define British majority culture without its historical minorities - from the Scots, to the Celts, to West Indian communities? Scruton rejects fascistic concepts of national purity; yet his forcible defence of a single, unified British identity would obliterate all that he loves in British culture.

Scruton's oikophilia throws up other problems as he elaborates on the content of the enlightened values we get from Western civilisation. The central problem is in his concept of cultural possession. What is western culture really and who is the "we" laying claim to it? He says, "It is not arbitrary cultural imperialism that leads us to value Greek philosophy and literature, the Hebrew Bible, Roman law, and the medieval epics and romances." No indeed, it is not. For western culture, insofar as such a thing has some internal unity, is decidedly mongrel. It is defined by cross-pollination of sub-cultures, each of which, in the bigger picture, belongs to a minority. He goes on: "[The classics] are ours, in just the way that the legal order and the political institutions are ours: they form part of what made us, and convey the message that it is right to be what we are." What would it mean, in effect, for Britain or even modern Greece to claim ownership of Classical Hellenic literature? More disturbingly, what would it mean for modern Germany to declare the Jewish Torah "ours", part of "our" heritage, proof of who "we" are? Who is this "we" Scruton seeks to construct (for it is, despite his claim to the contrary, plainly a political construction), and what are the implications for those who are not or are no longer part of this "we"?

In Scruton's telling, the culture of the enlightenment is a shared inheritance: "This kaleidoscopic culture [of Europe] is still one thing, with a set of inviolable principles at its core" - a fixed thing, guaranteed in law, to which new arrivals must submit. Until actual European law is less alienating for those under it, we must remain agnostic about Europe's cultural unity (unless of course its unity consists in the shared barbarism of fascism and imperialism). 

Scruton recycles Isiah Berlin's distinction between positive and negative freedom in his opposition of  "freedom rights", which veto what one can do to another or take from them, to "claim rights," which demand actions be made by others or possessions relinquished by them. These "freedom rights" - the right to be left alone - are expressed in the type of laws which permit a free market. Conservatives, Scruton tells us, are in a position to favour the free market because markets are spontaneous achievements of uncoordinated action (no ink is spilled on the often violent making of markets by states). So freedom rights (which have a Bushian cadence, somewhat in the lyrical vein of "freedom fries") are the legal expression of an organic, accumulated order. This is not quite the market of simple, rational self-interest, of Homo oeconomicus, but that of Friedrich Hayek's "catallaxy": a spontaneous order of mutually interacting and self-adjusting markets; an gift from one generation to the next.

Among Scruton's freedom rights - those we preserve intact simply by minding our own business - is the apparently uncomplicated issue of going where one pleases, "my right to move freely from place to place." Except Scruton is ready to revoke such a right where it intrudes on the "cultural unity" of whatever territory a stranger wanders into. Scruton would, it seems, claim freedom of movement for his own, apparently benign purposes, whilst revoking it for others. In reality there are no such things as rights which do not make some kind of claim on others, and in practice any system of rights will require balancing the claims of different groups.

Scruton's straw men are omnipresent "egalitarians" who base their theory of justice on minority claims made against a supposedly privileged majority. He sees in their desire for redistribution a "zero-sum fallacy" in which the gains of the privileged are perceived as thefts from the disadvantaged which must be legislated against. Marxism, he argues, is the philosophical apex of this ressentiment, a political economy centred on the notion of "surplus value", the wealth stolen from workers by capitalists. The pursuit of equality is the abiding goal; the centralised, bureaucratic state the supposed mechanism for achieving it.

Yet, as analysed by Marxism, capitalism is more than a vast engine for generating inequalities. As Marx acknowledged capitalism is a great leveller of ancient social rank, in which "all that is solid melts into air." Surplus value is not simply the transfer of the value produced by the working masses to the possession of the owning class. Instead surplus value provides the key structural pivot in explaining how capitalism as a social system is reproduced without collapsing on itself. By reinvesting part of the accumulated capital in improvements and new techniques, the cycle of capital can proceed on an expanded basis. Some amount of this reinvested capital finds its way into society in the form of greater wages given over for consumption. Marx's theory of capital is not really about inequality but about the social and legal nature of ownership, power and control - it concerns questions of who exercises power in society. Despite the economic form, then, Marxism is a political theory of justice and democracy. It is as sharply critical of the state as the overarching coordinator of the power of capital as it is of the market. Socialism is not about redistribution via the state but about democratising both the market and the state. Today the state and the market elude popular controls - and nowhere do these two combine more systematically than in the European Union, which is rightly criticised by Scruton and other conservatives.

In a neat twist to all this, Hayekian conservatism's grand prize has been the neoliberal turn of international institutions since the 1980s. Despite conservative protests to the contrary, no market-oriented order in the world more closely resembles Hayek's daydreams of a constitutional order safely elevated above the whims of public choice, than the hated European Union. With the smallest bureaucracy in the world and practically no internal democratic initiative, the European Union presides over a coagulation of markets sapped of political life. That conservatives do not like the result hardly effaces the similarity.

The larger point is this: Scruton's political philosophy results in the erasure of politics proper from public life. His hatred of the state is not fully a hatred - after all, he would have it police sexuality and migrant populations. It is not the big state he dislikes but its intrusion on those like him - the famous "we" of his political imagination. Scruton celebrates Classical Greece but is quite uncomfortable with the agonism - the struggle or contest of ideas - characteristic of its democracy. The "we" he constructs results in a conformity every bit as dull as the Communism he despises. It is hard to escape the feeling he doesn't really like democracy because it involves people noisily disagreeing with his prejudices. In his utopia, the raw stuff of politics - disagreement, dissent, dissensus - is abolished in the name of good manners. To this suffocating primness a sharp retort is necessary: true politics depends on collective struggle.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Hilary, Tony and the "Family Row"

Tony Benn once said that arguments within the Labour Party were really "family rows." In the last week various accusations have been made about Tony Benn's son Hilary and the precise familial response his intervention in the Syria debate would have provoked in the old man. The likely answer is virtually none. Yet the elder Benn's remark, and indeed his attitude to Labour and reformist "rows" more generally, belong to an increasingly distant time. 

But that is, for the moment, beside the point. Hilary Benn's speech in the Commons in favour of air strikes in Syria - pointedly delivered to his Party's benches - was, however much you may disagree with it, in a very real Labour tradition. I disagree profoundly, for what it's worth, with his definition of internationalism and the uses he makes of it. Internationalism has a chequered history, its allegiance and its meaning shifting sides, at one time the preserve of "cosmopolitan" traders and artisans, later the watchword of otherwise national working class movements in the Second International, recently the intellectual blackmail of global capital against the nationalised welfare state. If it is to mean anything for socialists today, internationalism must be an argument for international peace and solidarity. 

Hilary Benn described internationalism as a moral commitment - "to never walk by on the other side" in the face of suffering. But to characterise an international bombing campaign in a primarily civilian area as an act of compassion is a gross distortion. To compare the campaign in Syria with the Red Brigades in Spain and the struggle against Nazism in Europe betrays the legacies of the many thousands of resistance fighters and the millions of innocent victims in those struggles. Of course, in the circumstances, the defence of the Spanish Republic from Fascism and later the fight against Hitler in Europe were the only right response. Syria is very different and to try to shrug off those historical differences is a form of emotional blackmail.

However, Benn's speech was not a betrayal of his father any more than it was a betrayal of the Labour Party. Labour has always been a militarist party. This is one fact about it that puts off many on the left. Its notion of internationalism has always been bound up with the right of the British state to pursue apparently noble ends via military means. It sees liberation where many see just the disastrous consequences of western militarism. Labour reformism can at times be peaceable but it clearly has a militarist and pro-imperialist aspect.

Tony Benn, who was a lifelong Labour member and an MP for most of his life after 1950 could not but have been aware, and even comfortable with, this militarism. He was a firebrand, fiercely anti-war, and yet devoted to Labour. He did not support Labour's imperial adventurism - especially under Tony Blair - but nor did he ever quit. Benn understood that Parties are complicated beasts, and that Labour contained multitudes. Moreover its deep commitment to the enduring ideology of reformism meant it could weather these storms. Benn may have been right that Labour could weather his own stormy protests. But it could not move structurally or permanently to the left. 

Hilary and Tony Benn were, by all accounts, very close. Tony Benn was surrounded his whole political life with colleagues - comrades - with whom he profoundly disagreed. He would not have been "ashamed" of his son any more than of colleagues he rebelled against in the past. The expectation that this would be the case tells us something about where Labour stands today.

There is nothing historically surprising about the differences that currently exist within the Labour Party. What is telling is how uncontainable these differences have become in the twilight of social democracy and the ideology of reformism. When this fight within the Labour Party is over, the Labour Party may no longer be recognisable as its old, reformist self, one way or the other.

Monday, 23 November 2015

The Blind Consensus of the Bomb

Until just last week escalating the bombing campaign in Syria was more or less out of the question for the British government. The reasons for this are manifold, but the key deciders were -and perhaps are still - military experts and Conservative sceptics. Not exactly renowned for their dovishness, well informed Tory grandees were putting a critical brake on the Prime Minister's ambitions. The Conservative Chair of the Defence Committee and the former British Ambassador to Syria warned this month against an "extremely dangerous" escalation of bombing in Syria sought by the Prime Minister. The complexity of the situation was creating a global political inertia around Syria. The Russian question, the question of Assad, the trajectory of the US's own intervention - all made an all-out intensification less doable. For much of the British - and probably much of the European - political establishment, the pieces simply weren't in the right place.

Among the many dreadful consequences of Paris may be a sharpening of political and military opinion on ISIS, at the immediate expense of the old stalemate. Russia has declared a rather instrumental and cynical solidarity with France against ISIS, shoving aside differences over Assad. Putin has made no break with Assad, however, and inevitably the differences that once brought about inertia will do precisely the opposite once the involvement of the West deepens. If France and then Britain continue to escalate strikes against ISIS, there may be some weakening and disorganisation of immediate targets. But the reckoning over Syria will come and it is not likely that the bombs will help.

The problem is not simply ISIS but the much more intractable one of the state vacuum between Syria and Iraq in which ISIS has thrived. In their own way this is what the more cautious elements of the British and European civil and military establishments were warning about until last week. Hollande and Cameron's stiffened resolve will now dispense with that caution.

This is likely to end badly because when Hollande declares "Nous sommes dans la guerre" other solutions become invisible or unmentionable. Hiding international and regional differences over Syria behind a storm of bombs will only buy so much time. Meanwhile, Da'esh will blame those western bombs for the loss of innocent Sunni Muslim life around the world, and especially within the caliphate. There can be no better recruitment propaganda for ISIS than images of kids killed by French bombs. And once the chaos reemerges, once the consensus of the bomb inevitably breaks down, ISIS will be there to cash in.

The only way to undermine ISIS is to attack their claim to represent Sunni Muslims in a stretch of land which is encircled by real and perceived enemies - Iraqi Shia militiamen, Alawite Assad loyalists, Kurdish revolutionaries or further afield the western powers and the menace of Russia. The ideology of western militarism offers neither the people of the Middle East not alienated European Muslims a feasible alternative to violence. As one ex-Jabhat al Nusra, now ISIS fighter told Patrick Cockburn: 

"‘At first we dreamed of having a revolution and gaining our liberty,’ he said, ‘but unfortunately the popular movement was not well organised and was manipulated by neighbouring countries such as the Gulf states, so revolution turned into jihad.’ He says that to fight back against the regime the rebels had no choice but to turn to a religious movement that appealed to the conservative people of eastern Syria. Another motive was revenge: for ‘the oppression and injustice of the regime over the last forty years that weighed down our souls’."

Revolution becomes Jihad - behind every fascism is a failed revolution. ISIS is a monster born of violence and hopelessness. The key to understanding it is not religious fanaticism but a globalised, very modern form of political reaction. ISIS is now undoubtedly the predominant fanatical political force in the area, with a taste for violent spectacle that endears it to the age of the smartphone. It has international appeal for alienated youth at the same time as it capitalises on local chaos. Indeed the more dangerous daily life in Syria and Iraq becomes, the more entrenched loyalty to ISIS will become.

The only way out of this trap is to apply pressure on all regional and international players to reach a peace deal. Turkey must accept Kurdish revolutionary advances, yet the Kurds alone can hardly solve the conflict nor reassure nervous devout Sunnis. The West and Russia should attempt to develop a civil coalition that would include Alawites and Sunnis and other groups. Could this result in the continued existence of the murderous Assad regime? This is a possibility, though in the long term of course Assad must go - through democratic change. But if representatives of all groups opposed to ISIS and willing to seek a settlement can be brought together in a ceasefire, progress may be possible. That might sound unlikely, but it is no more than what Sir David Richards, former chief of defence staff, recommends.

Muslims, often Sunnis, are by far the major victims of Da'esh's peculiar form of radicalism. If rumours are to be believed, ISIS have always benefited from some measure of support from various Sunni-led states. Meanwhile, Shia states and the likes of Iran and Hizbollah clearly view the Assad regime as an indispensable ally. A possible peace will require a careful balancing act, uniting and corralling all players into recognising the threat ISIS poses not only to Europe and to the Middle East, but to the very Sunni people they claim to represent. Bombing Raqqa and ending yet more innocent lives, along with those of perhaps a few fighters, will clearly not bring that distant peace any closer.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Why do Left-Wingers Criticise the USA?

Prominent left-wingers who criticise US foreign policy are often met with accusations that they are cosying up with dictators. Seumus Milne, Labour's communications director, author and a former Guardian Comment editor, is a case in point. 

Milne, for his part, is far from the Putin apologist the papers make out. The following, written by Milne at the Guardian in March 2015 on media hysteria about Putin, is characteristic: "Putin’s authoritarian conservatism may offer little for Russia’s future, but this anti-Russian incitement is dangerous folly. There certainly has been military expansionism. But it has overwhelmingly come from Nato, not Moscow. For 20 years, despite the commitments at the end of the cold war, Nato has marched relentlessly eastwards, taking in first former east European Warsaw Pact states, then republics of the former Soviet Union itself." The argument in no way endorses Putin's actions in Ukraine, it simply places the burden of responsibility for conflict-escalation on the US. 

The argument rests on a quite simple  premise, which is that the USA is the preeminent capitalist world power, and as such will go to great lengths to reproduce that power, often with disastrous results. The incentive the US has to buttress its global power is a major, though not the only, cause of global conflict. The expansion of US influence and power makes things worse, not better. Yet when this position is voiced by anyone of prominence, they are subjected to hysterical criticism for being "soft on tyrants."

Whilst implying that leftists have a simplistic, moralising worldview, the originators of these accusations reduce all criticism of the US to totalitarian pandering. Criticism of US imperialism is not incompatible with support for real democracy; indeed, given the USA's often violent role in the world, anti-imperialism is the only consistent, democratic way to approach US foreign policy.

This critique of the United States' role as global financial and military gendarme in a system that works overwhelmingly to its own benefit does not preclude criticism of other powers. Indeed, it implies similar criticism: the US has competitors, subordinate players in a US-led tune. A global system, based on US hegemony, requires the consent of other regimes, some more ardent than others. The US has won its global hegemony; inevitably other powers, fundamentally no different to the US, would like to command part of that power themselves.

Why, then, do so many left-wing writers choose to focus their fire on the US? Is it mere prejudice, a bias built into a certain kind of Guardian-contributing psychology? Predictably, no. 

The reasons left-wing writers focus their fire on the US are twofold. Firstly, in their critique of global capitalism, US imperial power plays a central, even over-determining role in world affairs for left-wingers. You may disagree with the premise of the argument, but it is theoretically coherent. Secondly, and more practically, left-wing writers are hopelessly outnumbered. They have limited space and few friendly outlets. Sometimes there simply isn't space, time or audience attention to burn on prefacing every criticism you make of the US with a balancing argument against Russia. 

This is in no way to condone the views of those who do simply and blindly support Putin in Ukraine or in fact to recommend Putinism as a moral superior of the US (see how boring that was?). But it is to point to a double-standard. When US conservatives and geopolitical "realists" defend America as the bastion of the free world, they are practically never required to qualify their arguments. Imagine David Horowitz prefacing one of his attacks on Islam with an apology for US intervention, which undoubtedly fuels violence and chaos, or a rebuke for decades of US support for the most entrenched and theologically extreme regime in the world, Suadi Arabia. The reality is that many American conservatives base their supposed "realism" in an absolute conviction about American exceptionalism.

This not only displays a total inability to self-analyse, it also leads to dangerous conclusions in practice. Take Thomas L.Friedman, world renowned New York Times Op-Ed writer and bleeding-heart imperialist. Obviously he's vehemently anti-Putin and thinks Russia has absolutely no place in Syria. "Putin's up a tree," he sagely concludes. "Putin stupidly went into Syria looking for a cheap sugar high to show his people that Russia is still a world power." It's as if to say, hey, only the US can bomb the Middle East on whatever flimsy pretext it likes. 

I am not saying that Putin's aims in Syria are any nobler or indeed more helpful than those of the US in Iraq. But I am saying they are morally equivalent. What Russia is doing in Syria is behaving - knuckle headed or otherwise - like a world power. This ultimately is what US commentators don't like. For them only the US has the right to intervene militarily whenever it likes in world affairs.

Friedman ends up posing a false dilemma: the US must either continue providing military training to a weak democratic opposition or invade. The power of "warped ideals" makes ISIS stronger than democracy. Once again, a hard-headed realist argument is based on a most idealist premise: jihadists just have warped ideas. The question he dodges is, however, why do such ideals exert such pull? The answer is glaringly obvious: decades of youth alienation and unemployment, a direct result of US imperial intervention and regional kowtowing to imperial demands. Even Tony Blair has today acknowledged the effect the invasion of Iraq had on the formation of ISIS. Friedman, however, cannot admit this. So he ends up advocating a strategy he knows is failing because the US is not ready to go all out and invade.

The obvious weaknesses of the argument are basically never countered because any criticism implies the necessary alternative - peaceful withdrawal of the US and the winding down of its hegemony. Writers like Friedman are never asked to account for their pro-US bias.

It falls to the few left voices in the media to attack these hypocrisies, to articulate a cogent critique of US imperialism, and to balance that view with similar arguments against other world powers. All in 800 words. Small wonder, then, that with so much imperialist apologetics already available, they choose to focus what slings they have on the US.

Monday, 19 October 2015

On Media Bias

Here's a simple way to make clear the type and quantity of media bias we have in Britain.

First, ask yourself who you consider more extreme: Nigel Farage's Ukip or Jeremy Corbyn's Labour?

If the answer is Corbyn, think about policy for a moment. Is it really the case that, say, returning the top rate of tax to 2010 levels or creating an investment bank is more extreme in terms of negative impact on the average person than Ukip's plans to increase private participation in the NHS, cut taxes for the wealthy, and reduce immigration? 

If you consider Ukip less palatable than Corbyn's Labour, you are probably in tune with the electorate as a whole. According to a ComRes poll about 13% of voters plan to vote Ukip at the next general election. Labour has 29%. That puts the party a long way off victory. On these scores Corbyn won't easily win a general election. Nevertheless it's clear even at this early stage and given the obvious fractiousness of the party, a sizeable minority of the population identifies with Corbyn. The Tories are well ahead with 41%. 

Just as the 13% of Ukip voters deserve to be treated with respect over their views (since shouting them down is hardly a way to convince them to change their minds), surely the much larger 29% of decided Labour voters deserve proportionate respect?

Yet the response to Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party has been aggressively negative by any standards. Here's Paul Myercough at the LRB:

"The media coverage of Corbyn’s first few days oscillated giddily between stories demonstrating his personal insufficiencies for the role of leader and wailing about what might happen were he ever to become prime minister: ‘Unions threaten chaos after Corbyn win’ (Telegraph); ‘Abolish the Army: New leader’s potty plan for world peace’ (Sun); ‘Comrade Corbyn’s access to security secrets’ (Daily Mail). There will, of course, be more, much more, of this from the right-wing press. In the Sun, ‘Court Jezter’; in the Telegraph, ‘Jeremy Corbyn must be stopped: The Labour Party and the country need rescuing from his dangerous campaign.’ The better Corbyn does, the worse it will get; the worse he does, the worse it will get. Fear and loathing on the one hand, derision on the other."

I realise of course that complaining about "media bias" sounds whiny, much in the manner of a Ukip voter. Which is why I included the reference to Ukip at the beginning. Obviously Labour has been through a fractious leadership election. This is a period of heightened attention for them. The only comparable period for Ukip was the period in the run up to the general election. 

For that period the University of Loughborough did content analysis of all the big media outlets. In terms of both appearance and speaking time, the Conservatives won by a landslide. Yet the Tories also bagged the prize for amount of positive coverage. Indeed, while the Tories had very positive media coverage overall, the aggregate score for all other parties was negative. In the case of Ukip, the margin of negativity was much smaller than for Labour, negative coverage of which dwarfed all others. Adjusted for circulation (the Sun sells 1.8 million; the Independent 58,000 copies), the gap was even more extreme. 

The only party besides the Conservatives which came close to achieving a net positive result was Ukip. This will surprise Ukip voters, who widely feel the media is biased against their party. But while some media coverage of Ukip is hostile - by the liberal sections, but also by Tory loyalists - Nigel Farage is mostly depicted as cheeky and risqué while it is Corbyn who is dangerous.

Given that in the months leading up to the election most polls put Labour and the Conservatives neck and neck, this shows the media was well out of step with (at least the perception of) public opinion. In the end the Conservatives won a majority in Parliament despite support from only around 25% of the electorate. 

So media scorn towards Labour can't be put down to the uncertainty of the Corbyn leadership or it being more gaffe-prone than other parties. Even before Corbyn much of big media was mounting a clearly identifiable daily attack on Labour, giving more space and more positive coverage to the Conservatives and proportionately more positive coverage to Ukip during the election.

More recently, while Labour has U-Turned on a Fiscal Charter vote, the Tories have done the same on funding for Saudi prisons. Not to mention the accusation that David Cameron dallied with a dead pig's head, made by a vengeful former non-dom ally. Meanwhile, Ukip has a history of racist outrage and has suffered a decidedly gaffe-prone post election period, including a string of stagy, pseudo and authentic resignations.

Not all polling data is reliable - especially in such an uncertain and volatile period for Labour - and not all of it is negative. The picture that is emerging is one of Corbyn firming up the traditional Labour vote, especially in areas where he makes clear left-of-centre pitches.

Why should this provoke such outraged reaction from the media? Like Corbyn or not, it appears he has the support of between 30 and 35% of voters. The unremitting negativity of the media shows it is not interested in representing the views of the public but in manufacturing them. The truth is that UKIP's anti-immigrant, free market xenophobia is more palatable to the media than Corbyn's social democracy.

The media plays a key role in deciding elections and electability. Its extreme hostility to the left - in practice an attempt to blot out the views of a sizeable chunk of the public - is grossly undemocratic. If you doubt media bias toward the left, just ask yourself why Corbyn's Labour - which, however you look at it, rivals the Tories in popularity - should not be permitted to make its case fairly to the electorate as a whole. 

Friday, 9 October 2015

Cameron's Conference Speech and The Tory Bubble

Nothing could better exemplify the narrowness of the prevailing politics than the Conservative conference. From a podium encased in miles of security fencing and police protection, the Tories basked in the glory bestowed upon them by barely a quarter of the electorate.

Here the public was treated to the ugly spectacle of a red-faced, wound-up Old Etonian hoarsely berating his enemies for being "terrorist-lovers" and "Britain-haters." This had all the elegance of a 2003 George Bush stump speech. 

If Cameron is not exactly scared of facing Corbyn, nor is he in any way chuffed. Rather he seems genuinely, passionately offended. It is almost impressive to watch because, while the party is screaming "centrism", a few ruffled feathers have sent the leader into a chest-beating froth. Cameron is supposed to be the slick Teflon coated future of the Tory party, yet his seething disdain for the popular-democratic challenge to his authority is all too apparent. Corbyn's affront to patrician good taste has brought out that buried but very much active strain of pure reactionary DNA in him.

Characteristic of the conference was the utter refusal to acknowledge the furious world massing outside. The left is often accused of inhabiting a hermetically sealed environment of self-righteousness. In the Tory case this quite literally true. Their conference was precisely this. Not long before Cameron addressed his scrubbed, dashingly clobbered delegates, tens of thousands marched outside in protest. Perhaps ten thousand joined Jeremy Corbyn and other community leaders at a rally at the Manchester cathedral. If only they had conjured an exorcism of this nasty, plastic menace.

Against Parliamentary Cretinism

According to one chronicler of Blairism, lifting his eyes to survey the "new politics," Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have a stubborn little plan: "to stay exactly where they are." That is, stranded at the heart of Labour, a curious island in a hostile storm.

Since Corbyn's election as leader most have focused their attention on if and how he can win over the top brass in his party. But that is not the real problem. Labour "moderates" have a point. If Corbyn hangs on for long enough, wasting his and his movement's energies on a doomed seduction of the Party's right, he might just contest a disastrous election. They know in advance that the top of Labour's hierarchy will never be won over to Corbynism. They know this because they make up the bulk of  this hierarchy and - get this! - they hate him.

Before the leadership election Corbyn supporters insisted Labour MPs would come round to the leader's point of view. They would queue up to respect his democratic mandate. So too would the Murdoch press for that matter. How wrong they were and how right the Blairites are proving.

Corbyn's failure has been pre-written far in advance. The establishment has an extremely well-drilled plan for how to deal with any such incursion on its power. What, if anything, can be done to reverse this star-cross'd script? Corbyn can do one thing, which is after all the principal role of a left-wing leader. This thirty-year veteran of extra-parliamentary protest must loudly insist, contradicting all of Labour leadership history, that parliament is not all of politics.

He must say that what goes on outside parliament in terms of popular campaigns, solidarity projects, protests and union activity is even more important than what happens in the staid Commons. He must embrace popular activism. Without it he is dead in the water. But this is a hard task indeed, since for its entire history the Labour leadership in parliament has existed to peacefully channel and neutralise extra-parliamentary energy into "reformism." Corbyn himself is almost certainly not immune to this disease.

Already the signs do not look good. He and McDonnell have distanced themselves from old socialist shibboleths about "insurrection." Fine. But the question is how they do so. Jeremy Corbyn, interviewed by Andrew Marr, said he supported only responsible opposition in parliament "because that's why we have a democratic system." He is of course under a great deal of pressure himself to act "responsibly." The press and the Tories and the rest of the establishment - including his own party - are backing him into a corner. He needs to look moderate to gain acceptance, they say.

Yet moderation is his most fundamental enemy. Moderation will make him look like a bearded Miliband. Another uninspiring Labour dogooder hounded by the press for being a bit awkward. If Corbyn looks moderate he also looks boring. If he looks radical he also looks dangerous. The establishment will screw him either way.

Corbyn cannot win if he plays by the rules. About this much the moderates are right. So he needs to start breaking rules. Only if he can communicate effectively with the nascent movement that elected him will that movement grow. It will fight for him, but only if he invites it to.  Mass movements need leadership in order to build their confidence. Corbyn must be that leadership. He needs to be bold, to refuse to sink into the humdrum of opposition, and call for action beyond parliament. Not only the Tories but the media and - perhaps most vociferously of all - the Labour right will insist that politics is and can only be Parliament, pressure groups, press halls and stuffy conferences.

It is only outside the regulated, sanitised and alienating environs of traditional politics - parliament and press hall alike - that Corbyn can win. If he does that the "new politics" will be worthy of its name.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The Complexity of Syria

Nobody seems to know who exactly Russia has just bombed in Syria or precisely why. But such brazen acts of imperialism are nothing new. Syria is the prefect storm of imperialist intervention, ethnic and religious separatism, and hopeless socio-economic crisis. Its complexities are constantly reduced to an emotive binary: "moderate" goodies against "extremist" baddies. Is Russia bombing our "moderate" allies, the people we want to win, or the "extremist" ISIS and other groups? The answer imposes itself as much on our own strategy in Syria as on Russia's. The main groups leading the war against Assad have never been nice "moderates" but are largely composed of jihadis.

Indeed US intelligence has been saying as much to politicians for years. Here's Patrick Cockburn at the Independent: "As long ago as August 2012 the Defence Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, said in a report first disclosed earlier this year that the “Salafists [Islamic fundamentalists], the Muslim Brotherhood and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq, later Isis] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.” " Cockburn proposes talking to all sides - including Assad. But this option has been consistently foreclosed by western politicians intent on imposing a narrative of good and evil over a complex and messy situation. We won't be able to understand Russia's aims in the conflict until we understand the conflict itself.

The chaotic and often impenetrable situation in Syria has its roots in the failure of the Baathist state. Baathism is a form of populist pan-Arabism that was secular and mostly socialist-nationalist in its goals. It could also be extremely and criminally brutal. n Syria Ba'athism eventually united around Hafiz al-Assad's Syrian "nationalism" at the expense of greater working class participation in the state. Although Baathism increased literacy and introduced land reforms, it also wiped out the space (sometimes with US support) for more radical movement to its left.

First under Hafiz and then his son Bashar, Syria underwent economic liberalisation and finance became an increasingly important part of Syria's national-economic model. Meanwhile, important realignments were taking place in Syria and in the Arab world as a whole. A revanchist Syrian bourgeoisie was militating against the government from its adopted home of Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, rural, largely Sunni poverty had shot up, a result of drought and, more generally, the shift of the state's attentions to nurturing an urban business class. This would combine with economic sanctions (first introduced by the US in 2003).

Internationally a clear alignment of interests was taking place among potential enemies of the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia, ally of the USA, had for years been spreading the most violent of politico-religious ideologies into Syria. Israel in particular objected to the Syrian state's support for Hezbollah. The US has been somewhat more inconsistent but is united with Israel in its goal of isolating Iran.

The upshot of much US imperialist policy in the Arab world and beyond has not been the hoped for strengthening of secular liberal democratic opposition, but rather the empowerment of those hyper-reactionary Salafist ideologies filtered into the region by the Saudi state. Al-Qaeda hardly existed in Iraq before the US and its allies forcibly collapsed Saddam's tottering Baathist state. Meanwhile, ISIS developed out of a group which once called itself al-Qaeda in Iraq. These extremist, violent sects are the mutant byproduct of imperialism, not its enemy.

The civil war in Syria bears the imprint of these wider developments, with secular forces breaking down into socio-communal ones. Instead of a pan-Syrian opposition, western governments who wanted to hasten Assad's downfall were met with a proliferation of contending forces. The US has embraced the ex-pat Syrian National Council and its supposed allies on the ground the Free Syrian Army, supplying them both with ample arms and funds. Indeed Syria has - like Afghanistan in the 1980s - been flooded with arms. Naturally, those like the Syrian Communist Party and the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, who argued against militarisation, were sidelined. 

Violence broke out in 2011 after harsh crackdowns on protesters by Assad. The account I offer here is largely adapted from Patrick Higgins's excellent account at Jacobin Mag. There he explains how the narrative of a "democratic opposition" fighting a violent "dictatorship" is a "cartoon":

"This narrative is, in other words, a cartoon. More than that, it is a cartoon that overshadows the central contradiction currently at play in the Syrian situation: one between imperialists and various resistance movements, as well as the states supporting them."

The reality is messy and western governments seeking a single organised opposition to Assad have been inadvertently dragged into that messy reality. To the dismay of all, support for any one grouping risks fuelling recriminations against another. Patrick Cockburn, describing the war-within-a-war now being waged between Syrian Kurds (under the PYD) and ISIS in the north-east of the country, says:

"Despite the PYD’s denials, and probably their best intentions, the conflict in north-east Syria has many aspects of an ethnic war: the Kurds are driving out Sunni Arabs, whom they accuse of being Islamic State supporters. Those Arabs who flee are seen as demonstrably in league with the enemy: those who stay are suspected of belonging to ‘sleeper cells’, waiting their moment to strike. The Kurds say that they and their ancestors have lived in the area around Tal Abyad for twenty thousand years; the Arabs, they maintain, are recently arrived settlers, beneficiaries of a Baath Party campaign in the 1970s to establish a nine-mile-wide Arab Belt along the border. Arabs who are now being evicted from their homes say the Kurds are telling them to ‘go back to the desert’."

The longer the civil war goes on, the deeper and more pervasive the sectarian and ethnic divisions become, until even secular revolutionary Kurds are declaring Sunnis the enemy.

ISIS is called Da'esh by Arabs. It declares, as everybody now knows, a caliphate based on the harshest form of religious fanaticism and reaction. The greatest crimes of this war belong mostly to it. It operates via standard insurgent and revolutionary-guerrilla tactics, both military and propagandistic. Yet the emotional desire to crush ISIS by any means simply furthers the proxy war that the west has been fighting in Syria for years. Support for bombs here in the west is fuel to the fire of further imperialist manoeuvres, which are themselves the great recruiters of terrorism.

ISIS cannot be beaten by bombs because bomb sites are its breeding ground, the very source of its strength. Syria itself - with its imperialist-fuelled descent into sectarian civil war - provides the perfect source of ISIS recruitment: angry or threatened Sunni men who exist in a state vacuum with no possibility of a peaceful future.

Imperial obsessions in the region are as much to blame for the distance from peace as anything. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the US's attempts to get guns and training to "moderate" Syrian fighters:

"Because U.S. officials concluded that the moderate opposition Free Syrian Army wasn’t able to safeguard U.S. supplies in Syria, the CIA decided to deliver weapons directly to the trusted commanders. Some military officials warned that the CIA risked creating warlords and undermining cohesion in the ranks of local fighters, but the CIA saw no credible alternative."

So it goes on. As more weapons arrive and bombs fall the possibility of a "credible alternative" grows ever more distant. Indeed what would such a "credible alternative" look like? Would it resemble the government of Iraq or Afghanistan? Can such a "credible alternative" ever really exist? 

Russia has bombed Syria. This in a way is unprecedented. But the lesson of it lies not in analysing Russian motives, but understanding that Russia is merely conforming to great power type. It is chasing the ghosts of enemies in the dark, and blindly awakening the emergence of newer and more deadly ghosts as it goes. Welcome to the club then. 

Friday, 25 September 2015

What Can Corbyn Do? What Can the Movement Do?

What should we - supporters of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party - want? The point of socialist politics is not to form governments on the basis that they will lead the majority of people towards some bright future, but to build confidence among working people, a confidence in the idea that they can really change things themselves, through institutions they participate in and with ideas they help develop. Of course, election victories are part of that and we should all work towards a socialist election victory. But our ends are much bigger and broader: we want to see a change across society, and to achieve this we want to help change how people think about both society and politics. We want it acknowledged by the broadest number of people possible that the present society is exploitative and, crucially, that it can and should change for the better.

Were Jeremy Corbyn to succeed in these aims, it would indeed spell the effective end of the Labour Party as we know it - not the Party as it has been since Blair or Kinnock but as it has been since its inception. For Labour is, in Cliff and Gluckstein's phrase, "the capitalist party of the working class." It is dedicated wholly to the pursuit of a few, albeit legitimate, desires of British workers via strictly electoral means, with an ideology of class "neutrality." This set up has persevered doggedly across conjunctures. But to follow such a critical position through fully we must also accept the obverse: as long as Corbyn and his followers remain fast-fixed within the confines of the old Party processes, they cannot succeed. For the very electoral logic they pursue must necessarily dismantle the broader program for systemic change that has propelled them this far. 

From this perspective the crux is neither to prioritise victory within the Labour Party (winning over MPs through compromising and inclusive measures) nor to win "the electorate" in the abstract, but to encourage the mobilisation of working people as a group with their own distinctive needs and powers, armed with alternative institutions to those of the ruling class. A movement conscious of its goals and challenges is always the priority. 

Corbyn's attempts to win over sections of the Labour Party are necessary for fostering a wider politicisation; they are also far from the whole story. Of course, convincing, radical policy platforms and parliamentary victories are necessary. However, the momentum can only continue if these "official" political events bounce dialectically off extra-parliamentary developments. Leadership must mean the power to drive social developments in a direction of political intensification. Meanwhile, working people must drive towards articulating socialist goals in the spaces cleared by the leadership. The two must drive each other forward. Without such an interaction between extra-parliamentary protest and the leadership (which means an ability to listen and react to new developments on both sides), this whole thing is doomed.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Tsipras' State: Greece between Mitterrand and Lula

Syriza has won elections again in Greece. Yet with each passing turn of the electoral screw access to real power is further restricted. Most international commentators are already blaming the record abstention at this weekend's elections (nearly fifty percent) on the failure of Greek parties to meet voters' aspirations. Yet in such a situation of imposed constraints on democracy by the European power structure - in which even the attempt to bring electricity to the poorest homes is vehemently opposed by external creditors - there is little wonder that so few bothered going to the polls.

Alexis Tsipras - for it is increasingly to the individual that the media refer, rather than the collective whole of the party - has two broad models on which to base his radical compromise with neoliberalism. 

The first - perhaps the "ideal-type" of contemporary socialist failure - is that of Francois Mitterrand in France. Against the tide of state bankruptcy in Europe, Mitterrand ran the 1981 election in France on the promise of a definitive break with German tight money policies and a defiantly Keynesian, pro-labour economic reflation. While becoming France's most successful ever Socialist leader, Mitterand - gradually and then rapidly - adjusted to neoliberal realities. Germany and the US stuck to deflationary policies in the crucial first years of the Mitterrand government, also those of a recession that was being used to end inflation in the capitalist heartlands. With France peculiarly economically vulnerable and uncompetitive, a position of temporary deferral of the electoral program was developed, to be substituted by "rigueur" (austerity) and the "franc fort" (strong franc) bound (via the EMS) to the German DM. 

The French government either would not or could not break decisively with Europe and the US, and piece by piece the ambitious Keynesian plans were dropped. The only alternative to this capitulation was perhaps direct control of newly nationalised banks and increasing state control over investment. These in the end were steps that went far beyond the left's Common Program (ironically shared by the Communist Party).

Tsipras and Syriza have never promised anything as extensive as France's Common Program. Nor have they flirted with so radical a break with orthodox monetary policy as running outright deficits. Yet the reversal of course has been equally deep, if sooner and more rapidly extracted. The latter reflects not only the size of the Greek economy but also the Greek state's sorely reduced power as a vassalised EU hinterland.

Mitterrand was, for all his reversals, the most successful of France's postwar Socialist politicians. Under his watch French "dirigisme" was done away with, as privatisation - in step with, and even ahead of, the global fashion - advanced in the name of restoring private investment levels and profitability. Mitterrand had once proclaimed the need for "revolutionary reforms" to French capitalism. In his later years he became obsessed with inflation, efficiency and productivity, which were restored via private means at enormous expense to French people in terms of employment and welfare. Such an ideological volte-face must surely await Tsipras, as the commitment to neoliberal structural reforms becomes a less reluctant one. 

Yet there are happier precedents for such integrations into the neoliberal world system. Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva ended his political career In Brazil on a high: his time as President from 2003 to 2011 had seen massive reductions in poverty via the famous Bolsa-Familia payment. This was a conditional cash transfer made to mothers in order to keep them out of poverty and to boost the consumption of the poorest. The Brazilian economy boomed under Lula, who had become the acceptable face of Latin American populism in the west. 

Lula was initially much more popular than his Party: a no-nonsense worker who had risen to the top of the Worker's Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) and become its presidential candidate. Later things would even out as this left-populist party of the social movements took office in the country at large. Once again, Lula was plagued by public debt and set about arranging for its control by the most orthodox means. In Lula's early years growth fell and unemployment rose as he cut his way to an IMF-pleasing surplus. Amid a commodities boom and a glut of cheap capital goods from a financially efflorescent US, Brazil entered a period of major growth. These funded Lula's welfare system and allowed the effects of fiscal restraint to be watered down. 

In reality, the Bolsa-Familia, despite its clearly measurable and extensive impact on poverty (it very cheaply helped families increase their independence and private consumption, and in combination with increases in the minimum wage, led to a drop in poverty from 50 to 30 million in just six years), did little to challenge the increasingly conditional character of social security. Instead of a human right, benefits have become means of imposing behavioural norms on citizens (asking mothers to prove their kids' school attendance). Though this hardly undermines the payment's significant achievements, it suggests the limits inherent to Lulaist reformism. 

The price of Lula's acceptance by US-dominated global capitalism - bought at the cost of strict fiscal limits and arm's length treatment of the private sector - was the perpetuation of a system riddled with corruption. In order to buy its place in the state, and to have its social policies effectively introduced, the PT had to sacrifice its plans to transform the state proper.

If the balance of forces was nudged in a direction broadly favourable to the poor and elderly in Lula's Brazil, limited social change was enabled by a peculiar maintenance of the status quo within the state. The results are a strong social legacy in the country at large, combined with political inertia and criminal deterioration of the PT as a governing force. The party under Lula's successor, Dilma Rousseff, has suffered greatly from the cost of this past success, in which corruption has become fully systematised as a governing way of life.

Tsipras returns to government in a country caught between these two extremes, a position which exaggerates the contradictions of neoliberal capitalism. His room for running an expansionary program is constrained by being at once a delinquent and discredited member of the advanced groups of countries and, at the same time, a grotesquely unequal and very poor country. Such, however, are the contradictions of societies situated at capitalism's "weakest link." Greece is politically and socially explosive not only because of its poverty, but because it is forced to act as if it was wealthy.

There are legal particularities that further proscribe Tsipras's room for manoeuvre. The EU treaty system and the euro itself act as a highly efficient muscular system of European neoliberalism. What took two years to do in France took less the six months in Greece: the total subordination of society to an extreme, even unprecedented, program of social cuts and privatisations.

Here, then, is the rub: Tsipras may aspire to either Mitterrand's or Lula's successes, that is, incorporating either left electoral victory or popular social reform into a neoliberal framework. However, he operates with deeper restrictions than either. In France the economy eventually became manageable as a result of successive devaluations, the latent potential for liberal reform in the economy, and the driver of eventual global recovery. The Greek economy lacks either possibility. Meanwhile, Lula could cheaply lift millions out of poverty due to the extremities of Brazilian inequality and his otherwise orthodox fiscal policies. By the middle of their careers neither Mitterrand nor Lula provoked much opposition abroad. Tsipras's fate may be one of equal mediocrity with none of the tangible successes - orthodox or otherwise. 

As with his predecessors constructive reform and alteration to the neoliberal model is blocked for Tsipras. Yet unlike them, a neoliberal style recovery - slow and immeasurably painful, with deflation and fiscal rectitude at its heart, accompanied by a return to profitability and enduring unemployment - may elude Greece. The likelihood is a return to the crucible of social destruction personified by the peak crisis years of 2008-2011. In this last, however, Greece's fate is probably not so unique.

For Mitterrand details I have used this:

For Lula this:

Thursday, 17 September 2015

A Letter to our MP on the Migrant Crisis

Last year the International Labour Organisation estimated that there are 20.9 million people who are victims of human trafficking globally. There are three quarters of a million in the EU alone. 

It's all very well blaming the traffickers, but like the thousands of crooked bankers who helped tank the global economy, there is a compelling case to be made that we have structural problems not just a few bad eggs. It is quite true that there must be a long-term, multilateral solution to this crisis, which has no doubt worsened this year. But particular governments must act alone first in order to encourage others to get round the table. We as citizens must also be bold enough to say, "Yes, if it is done safely, we will accept refugees and migrants into our towns and homes."

Of course, in formulating a response with the prospect of meaningful, long-term reform of the global labour market, we need to bear in mind the causes of this ongoing, disastrous crisis for so much of humanity. War has been a staple of North Africa and the Middle East for a long time. In 2011 Conservative Defence Secretary Philip Hammond celebrated the UK and its allies' bombing campaign of Libya by inviting British companies to prize open its economy and invest. Now as Foreign Secretary he talks of "marauding" North Africans at our borders, ignoring his own role in collapsing the Libyan state and driving people abroad. Similarly, much of our parliament supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which forcibly collapsed the tottering Ba'athist state, opening a vacuum for ISIS, who exploit more than a decade of instability, death and resentment.

Then there is the slow-burn economic crisis that has swept Africa since the 1970s. This is the crisis that has robbed states like D.R. Congo of their natural resources while pocketing the profits in off-shore, often British controlled tax havens. Even when the west is not there militarily it is there economically. We in the west often bear a direct responsibility for mass migration, driven either by war or economic catastrophe. 

How have western governments, left to themselves to devise a fitting solution to this homemade, exported crisis, responded? Last year they collectively cut the Mare Nostrum rescue operation in the Mediterranean, replacing it with a "nightwatchman" Italian gendarmerie. More than 16,000 people have died crossing that sea since the early 1990s. The number is over 2000 this year alone.

What about our domestic policies? We say we target traffickers, assess legitimate asylum claims, and send away those we don't want. Human trafficking and the forced labor it entails—including, but hardly limited to, sex work—follow not from the migration of vast “criminal” groups but from the increased vulnerability of migrants under punitive national immigration policies. By depriving immigrants of rights, governments create the space and help foster the demand for illegal trade in human lives.

The ILO has campaigned for a "rights-based approach", necessary for combatting the exploitation of migrant workers. Both criminal groups and legally recognized companies prey on migrants’ increased vulnerability, using it to coerce or mislead people into various kinds of modern servitude. However, the problem is not reducible to immigration. As Jakub Sobik, a spokesperson for the world’s oldest anti-slavery charity, told me: “Trafficking isn’t an immigration issue per se. It’s a crime where people use the vulnerability of other people to their advantage, so we should protect the vulnerable irrespective of their immigration status.” Sobik’s organization, Anti-Slavery International, has produced an impressive amount of research on the problems of identifying trafficking victims. “In the UK, a non-EU passport holder is four times less likely to be identified as a victim of trafficking, and often just deported,” Sobik said, precisely because of the “immigration lenses” through which authorities interpret cases.

Migrants need equal rights and safety, a bit of common decency and civility if the crisis is to end. Of course, this takes money and patience. But the cost of housing people is minuscule compared to bombing them. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the British taxpayer £30 billion. By contrast, last week Chancellor George Osbourne pledged £1 billion to "protect our national interest" in the refugee crisis over the coming five-year parliament. That's 30 times less than the aforementioned military campaigns, funded effectively by a cut to foreign aid. Still, it will house many and hopefully keep them safe. The cost of housing and keeping safe many more would still not bring the cost close to our disastrous military adventures. We could start saving by not bombing Syria, a mistake that will drive more ruined lives into the arms of terrorists.

People's lives are destroyed by military and economic disorder - often imposed or exploited by the west. As they are dragged into mass migratory flows, people easily become victims of human trafficking. These traffickers exploit a punitive legal system again enforced by our governments. Then, when they arrive in places like the UK, which has often spent billions destroying their homes, they are abandoned at borders, deported, robbed of their basic rights, or further exploited.

What is necessary for the safety of migrants as well as the "national interest" is not deregulation of the migration system, but re-regulation for opposite ends: that is, safe migration and a safer, more peaceful world. That is the real long-term solution to this great crisis. The question is whether our European governments will take responsibility and have the courage to accept that migration is not just going to go away.