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.