Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Why the Thatcher / Corbyn Comparisons Are Bullshit: A Crash-Course History Lesson

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living." -

Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

If Marx’s witty addendum to Hegel’s notion of the repetition of world-historical events – “first as tragedy, then as farce” holds true, then just where exactly does Jeremy Corbyn’s surprising ascension to the leadership of the Labour Party place us on the Tragifarcial Historical Continuum? Elements of both have been apparent – the tragic sense gained from a pessimism that can only come from an overview of the history of left-wing party leaders in a capitalist economic system (they always fail). The sense of farce comes from observing the reaction to Corbyn’s win among the chattering classes (it ranges from condescending to absurd). The dust has yet to settle, and in the smog many writers are left scrambling for an illuminating historical analogy that can give us an explanatory pathway towards understanding how history may yet again repeat itself. As with most ephemeral political writing, the trick towards generating an audience and, crucially, those all-important clicks is to say something counter-intuitive that everyone instinctively knows is a load of old cobblers, but to argue the point in a novel way that makes it look like you have something interesting to say. It’s through this that we get the most popular contrarian analogy of the past few months: Jeremy Corbyn is Margaret Thatcher.

The argument rests on two sacred cows of popular British political history; the Great-Man-meets-Revenge-of-the-Nerds theory popularised in Hollywood sensationalist garbage like the 2011 film The Iron Lady that Margaret Thatcher was a lone political radical who transformed the country via a whiplash-inducing shift from post-war consensus to free market neoliberalism, a shift realised by the strength of the leader’s character and clarity of her vision. The other, that Thatcher’s popularity with the general public, rather than her party, was an enduring factor which led to her electoral victories.

The Lady is Not For Turning (The Tide)

The first cow to the slaughter is the notion that there ever really was such a thing as consensus in British political discourse which Thatcher was able to “smash through” on the strength of a bold new exotic ideology of neoliberalism hitherto unknown to the British people. In reality, demand for less state control of the economy existed in post-war political discourse at least since 1946 with the formation of the Housewives’ League and would be a prominent (though by no means consensual) political solution to the increasingly costly yet popular welfare state. Nevertheless, the character of state intervention in the economy through public spending projects was something politically popular and preserved in spirit through both political parties in the immediate post-war period, but with strategic targeting of marginal groups designed to get each party more votes.

It was ironically a Labour Government which first broke with the notion of entirely state-managed industry and transformed it into an electoral strategy. In 1963, the then-Leader of the Opposition Harold Wilson proposed greater public-private collaboration to forge a “new Britain” in the “white heat of technology” to propel Britain to prosperity through scientific revolution. It was the Tories, led by Sir Edward Heath who in the 1970 Selsdon Park conference later forged the radical free-market ideology upon which the Conservatives won the 1970 election. The manifesto was shortly abandoned, however, in the face of trade union opposition. It was this victory of free-market ideology and subsequent U-Turn, rather than a booming voice or skill with a cutting jibe, which formed the basis for Thatcher’s ascent to the Premiership.

Heath’s U-Turn in the face of union opposition led to the formation of the Selsdon Group in 1973, which acted as a political pressure faction based on the certitude that Heath’s dramatic shift from a deregulatory right-wing agenda was a craven capitulation to organised labour and a betrayal of what had been seen as an endorsement of neoliberalism by the British public. Rumblings of the 1980s Thatcherite rule could be felt in the first year of Heath’s leadership, with tax cuts handed out for the wealthy and curtailments on union power realised through the Industrial Relations Act 1971. By this point, Thatcher was in Heath’s Cabinet as Minister for Education and eventually became known to the public chiefly as the minister responsible for the withdrawal of free milk in schools – “Thatcher, the milk snatcher”. The end of consensus and the introduction of austerity and market reforms were felt during the subsequent Callaghan Premiership, with the proclamation of the death of consensus in the 1976 Labour conference and the introduction of widespread public sector reforms signalling a cross-party move towards the free market. Even the Thatcherite casus belli of right-to-buy was first proposed by Labour in its 1959 election manifesto.

The comparison with Corbyn which therefore states that Thatcher was a lone ideological zealot despised by her parliamentary party, yet beloved by the public, is one that fails to stand up to scrutiny. Whilst Thatcher was on the right of the Tory party, she was a prominent figure in its leadership prior to her election (though due to her gender relegated to a minor role in Cabinet), and the policies she would introduce during her premiership were already beginning to present themselves in embryonic form in previous administrations. By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn has no real ideological base of support amongst his parliamentary party and his economic policies, whilst certainly not extreme in a purely academic sense (besides a dogged insistence on the viability of rent controls), are outside the mainstream of policy forming circles which aim at profitability over investment.

The Rise and Rise of Thatcher: A Convenient Bullshit Tale

The second sacred cow is the inevitability of Thatcher’s rise. The popular mythology is a lazy sort of Whig history which treats the Thatcher’s seizure of the premiership as an inevitable outcome based on the public’s faith in her radical deregulatory platform. Whilst we can be sure that the declining rates of profit in the 1970s would have made austerity, a growth in private debt and free-market reforms inevitable, that Thatcher was necessarily the person to do this, or that it was neoliberalism as endorsed wholeheartedly by the electorate which led to her victories is questionable.

Pictured: A memorial service for an apparently popular politician.
Thatcher herself was never personally popular as a politician. Whilst there was, and still is, a section of the public and the Conservative Party who found her uncompromising and dictatorial leadership style invigorating, to the majority of the electorate (and, ultimately, her party) she was seen as an unlikeable figure and difficult, if not impossible to work with. Whilst it is often said that Thatcher, in contrast to Tony Blair, never used focus groups, the reality is that she relied heavily on the PR firm Saatchi and Saatchi to reinforce her personal image and, crucially before her premiership, the image that Labour was mismanaging the economy – the famous “Labour isn’t Working” campaign. In terms of positive ideological arguments, there was very little. The 1979 Conservative Party manifesto on which she won her first election victory outlined the “five tasks” of the Tory Party in Government:

(1) To restore the health of our economic and social life, by controlling inflation and striking a fair balance between the rights and duties of the trade union movement.
(2) To restore incentives so that hard work pays, success is rewarded and genuine new jobs are created in an expanding economy.
(3) To uphold Parliament and the rule of law.
(4) To support family life, by helping people to become home-owners, raising the standards of their children's education, and concentrating welfare services on the effective support of the old, the sick, the disabled and those who are in real need.
(5) To strengthen Britain's defences and work with our allies to protect our interests in an increasingly threatening world.

This is a fairly bread-and-butter right-of-centre manifesto, as opposed to a battle standard for an insurgent, union-busting far-right government. Though Thatcher would in later interviews decry those who sought consensus and bridge-building as idiotic wimps, the image sold to the electorate in 1979 was a vague promise to restore greatness and fairly wooly pledges to curtail union power. Rising inflation and unemployment, the winter of discontent and voter malaise with 15 years of a Labour Government made divisive, ideological rhetoric unnecessary – the entire focus of the 1979 campaign was against Labour rather than for Thatcher. Even after the 1979 election, Thatcher was less personally popular than James Callaghan, and her disastrous handling of the economy in the years after the 1979 election saw her job approval rating reach as low as 16%. It was only her victory in the Falklands War (itself a consequence of her cuts to military spending) which revived her popularity in time for the 1983 General Election.

"It was the pun 'wot won it!"

None of the above suggests that a comparison between Thatcher and Corbyn, or between 1979 and 2015, is remotely relevant to enable us to envisage a path to victory for Labour in 2020, at least in the way which is typically argued. It shows us that the idea that Thatcher’s ascension provides a blueprint for an election victory won on strong ideological grounds is false, since Thatcher’s 1979 victory was by no means inevitable and was won by exploiting voter perceptions of the Callaghan Government. Much of what Thatcher put forth in Government was just a speeding-up of what would likely have happened anyway as a result of the declining rate of profit, and would likely have been implemented in some way, shape or form by a Labour administration, as well.

Labouring the Point

The argument put forth by Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters is that Labour lost the election in 2015 because it failed to provide a credible alternative to austerity. This is an attractive argument to those of us on the left who oppose austerity, but it is, unfortunately, false. Post-election polling shows that the three issues on which the Conservatives won the election (and Labour lost) in 2015 were 1) economic credibility, 2) immigration and 3) perceptions of party leaders.

The Tory sleight-of-hand on the issue of economic credibility is fairly remarkable when we consider that an economic crisis which was caused primarily by sub-prime mortgage lending in the US was portrayed to voters as a result of reckless Labour overspending. None of this supposed recklessness was opposed by the Tories during their time in opposition, of course, but the public tendency to view public spending as “too much of a good thing” resulting in economic crisis is easily exploited, as are asinine comparisons between household and national economies that necessitate austerity (which is not really about “living within our means” so much as increasing corporate profitability). What then resulted was a crisis caused by typical enemies of the left (speculative bankers, city fatcats) being blamed on the left itself!

This is what a tabloid reader has been told a Corbyn rally looks like.
Nothing, moreover, suggests that the public view Jeremy Corbyn as more Prime Ministerial than his likely opponent (should he survive as leader) in 2015, George Osbourne. The unique hostility from the press which he faces as party leader will only increase – even natural allies such at The Guardian remain patronising and dismissive of his leadership. The odd Owen Jones here or there is unlikely to be enough to change public perception, particularly when Corbyn’s laudable adherence to Republican principles can be sold to a jingoistic Middle England as a rabid hatred of the Royal Family.

What we are left with, then, is a leader with a commendable (though hardly extreme) economic platform which shifts the focus from profitability, which has increased in the past five years, to investment, which has not, and without any of the necessary political infrastructure to implement it. When elected as Leader of the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher had served as a minister, had in broad terms the support of her party and exploited public perceptions of Labour incompetence. Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, cannot command the loyalty of even his Shadow Cabinet due to a long history of rebellion against the party, and absent a disastrous economic crisis which can be pinned on the Tories, can very easily be painted as a reckless, overspending socialist. As leftists, we can of course be supportive of a genuine alternative to the austerian economic consensus, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that success through Parliament is likely, or that solace can be found in the mythologies of our enemies.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Yes, Corbyn Will Lose. Vote Corbyn.

Autosarcophagy, otherwise known as self-cannibalism, is a phenomenon observed particularly amongst cold-blooded reptiles exposed to high temperatures. If, say, an anaconda overheats, it can become disoriented, and as its metabolism enters into overdrive, this confusion is accompanied by ravenous hunger. This leads to the phenomenon portrayed in the ouroborus symbol, in which the animal turns towards itself as its primary food source. Of course both ouroborus and the snake fail to understand the fundamentals of the event; what is happening is neither eternal rebirth nor a much-needed food source, but agonising suicide.

The Labour Party lost in 2015, badly. And like the snake slow-cooking underneath the glow of the hot sun, it is looking for sustenance and turning inward. If you think that I’m going to employ this metaphor in an attempt towards the conclusion that Corbyn is Bad because he is forcing the Labour Party to devour itself through a throwback to the out-of-touch socialism of the 1980s you’ll have to read on. In this topsy-turvy scenario of modern-day Labour, it’s the supposedly level-headed, rational grown-ups of the party who have taken a couple of opinion polls to spell eternal doom for the party and are now biting the tail-end (that’s Corbyn et al, if you haven’t followed me) in order to derive sustenance for the party’s electoral future.

You would think that the existential undoing of opinion polling during the 2015 election might have given them pause for thought, not least because this is the first Labour election in which the one-member-one-vote system is employed, and so therefore any sort of opinion polling comes with the obvious caveat that we just don’t know who is voting yet. One might, therefore, feel that the party would be best-placed to urge caution on behalf of its right-wing, lest it cause more harm than good in driving up a civil war in the Labour Party between Corbynites and, well, everybody else. Before our much-disgraced ex-Prime Minister gave a speech in which he recommended the extermination of not just those on the left of the party, but their extended family, a la North Korea's "three generations of punishment" policy , there was no real fight. There was just a previous long-shot doing better than expected.

Employing the big guns before the voting has even begun has laid the grounds for an inter-factional dispute in the Labour Party for the entirety of this Parliament. Since the Blairites have framed this as a fight as opposed to a contest, whichever candidate wins will inevitably find themselves managing a war in which the first shots were fired by the side supposedly interested more in pragmatic electoralism than ideology. Of course, every leader of an opposition party has to do this to some extent, but the level of contempt shown by the Blairites for what is quite evidently a motivated section of Labour’s base will already have created an enormous amount of bad blood between the left and the right of the party which will prove difficult to clear up. For all his talk of being focused on “the world as it is and not as we want it to be”, Blair fails to apply that same logic towards his own party and recognise that if Corbyn is even half as competitive as some polling suggests, then the left should be listened to and brought into the discussion. At the moment, the party seems to treat its grassroots as an annoyance which distracts from allowing the grown-ups to talk. As others have pointed out, many of Corbyn’s policies are highly popular with the general public – why not consider that for a second?

The thinking within the Labour Party is understandable. They lost Scotland, badly, and whilst a guy like Corbyn is probably left-wing enough for Scotland, he is not Scottish enough for Scotland. The best Labour could hope to do there under a Corbyn leadership would be claw back a few of the more marginal seats gained by the SNP, but Labour knows it cannot rely on Scotland any more like it has done in the past. Its focus is turned more towards the “heartland” – towards seats it expected to win, in 2015, but failed to.

The solution, so the thinking goes, is to try and outfox the Tories in some of these marginal seats in the south of England. Conventional wisdom says that this means going further to the right – offering “tough talk” on issues like immigration and benefits. Corbyn, however, has the temerity to say that perhaps not all immigrants and benefit claimants are unworthy scroungers who should be uprooted from their homes, so he will never appeal to this part of the country. That’s probably true, but then who thinks that Burnham, Kendall or Cooper will do any better?

The Labour Party lost 2015 in large part because after its loss in 2010, it had a protracted leadership contest in which the Tories were able to successfully craft a narrative in which deficit spending on welfare allowed the economy to tank. It doesn’t matter that this supposed overspending was never opposed by the Conservative Party on matters of fiscal principle during the 13 years Labour were in office, what matters is who was in charge at the time the economy collapsed. Whomever won the leadership bid, therefore, was forced to argue the election on matters of fiscal belt-tightening – an issue on which Labour has never been strong, and never will be. Tony Blair is rightly seen as extremely skilled at winning elections (Cameron and Osbourne allegedly refer to him as “The Master”), but it’s worth remembering that the economy was not a front-and-centre issue during any of the times he was victorious – his landslide victory in 1997 was as much a spectacular Tory loss as it was Labour’s gain. Blair was seen as tough on terrorism – but we don’t know if he would have been able to square the circle and successfully defeat the Conservatives on matters of fiscal policy, where the public considers the Tories a safer pair of hands.

This is why Labour’s voting for the welfare cuts was such a catastrophic error of judgment. In aiming to “listen to the mood of the country” by essentially mimicking the Tories, Labour fails to answer the simple question as to why the south of England will be more likely to vote for a Labour party which dances to their tune. Unless Labour is willing to move extremely far to the right and break off all ties with its somewhat leftist heritage, it will continue to remain irrelevant in these parts of the country until there is a new economic crisis which can be blamed on the Conservatives. Labour won’t claim back credibility by having a leader who agreed with Cameron on all but the smallest details – unfortunately, the credibility is for the Conservatives to lose, not for Labour to gain.

The unfortunate truth is that barring another economic meltdown of global historic proportions for which the Conservatives can be blamed (whether rightly or wrongly), the Labour Party will be going into 2020 fighting another election in which political consensus amongst the English marginal lies with an area on which the public has never considered Labour particularly strong. What’s more, the Conservative Party’s popularity in personal terms is nowhere near the levels it was during Major’s term – Cameron does not provoke the ire of Thatcher – and the hunger for a “reinvented” Labour Party is not the same as it was in 1997.

The conclusion, then, is that whether Corbyn, Burnham or the reanimated corpse of Clement Atlee is made leader of the Party, in areas where they most need to compete, they are a spent force. We can also be sure that, despite the Blairites’ calls for unity and discipline, were Corbyn made leader they would do anything they can to hinder him and drive rightward concessions from him, possibly even stronger concessions than would be demanded of someone like Yvette Cooper (to show his “seriousness”).  

Let’s not delude ourselves – in terms of policy, Corbyn is a good candidate and a far more modest one than his “Chairman Corbyn” portrait in the media suggests. He is an outsider in an age where being seen as establishment is increasingly a hinderance, and his lack of sleaze (he claimed expenses for their intended purpose) has been heavily overlooked by his detractors. His policy messaging rests on increasing revenues, bringing a few runaway industries back into public control and modest overseas diplomacy. None of these are opposed by the public, but neither he nor any of his competition will be able to match the Conservative Party when it comes to spending cuts. On this issue, brand credibility matters more than the leader – and everyone knows the Tories will cut more than Labour. It’s only in the post-austerity world which values creditors first, economies second that Corbyn’s policies are seen as particularly radical. But Corbyn would lose, and lose badly. The thing is, so will everybody else.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Liberal Apologetics for Israel in the Huffington Post

As the daily death toll rises in the Gaza Strip, the liberal apologists for the crimes of the state of Israel on appear to be thinner ground. The scale of the tragedy of Operation Protective Edge looks set to not only exceed, but dwarf that of the last Israeli massacre of Operation Cast Lead, in which 1,400 Palestinians, including 300 children were killed, and some 5,300 injured – the majority of which were civilians. Those seeking to justify Israeli crimes in these instances usually fall back on the nonetheless benign intentions of the Israeli state, generally found in the expression of abstract principles about democracy. In doing so, they manage to perform impressive feats of intellectual acrobatics to ignore what representatives of the Israeli state actually say about their own intentions and goals.

I’ve already mentioned that IDF commanders have referred to Operation Protective Edge as a standard “shock and awe” tactic designed in part to erode Hamas' support and weaken Palestinian morale, and this is something which was very much at play in Operation Cast Lead, too. In Cast Lead, IDF soldiers were given specific instructions as to how much regard for the right to life of Palestinians the average soldier was to have in conducting warfare in a built-up occupied territory [emphasis added]:
“You don’t see a terrorist there [in the house]? Fire at the window. It was real urban
warfare. This is the difference between urban warfare and a limited confrontation. In
urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents. It was simply urban warfare in
every way. . . . They kept repeating to us that this is war and in war opening fire is not restricted. . . . our brigade commander at least once . . . went so far as to say this was war and in war as in war, no consideration of civilians was to be taken. You shoot anyone you see.”

That’s testimony from Breaking the Silence – an NGO which describes itself as “an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories”. On Operation Protective Edge, the founder of the organisation and former IDF soldier Yehuda Shaul had the following to say:

One of the biggest lies of this operation and Cast Lead is that we’re doing everything to avoid civilian casualties. When you use artillery in a place like Gaza you can’t say you are taking every precaution. It’s not the case that generals are looking to kill more civilians, far from that. But we are far away from the official line that everything is being done to avoid civilian casualties.”

I’m of the perhaps unfashionable opinion that it doesn’t matter a damn whether the general of an occupying force pours himself a whiskey at the end of an evening, wipes the sweat away from his brow, and wonders if that artillery which hit a UN-run school should have been fired. The point is that there was still an unjustifiable attack on civilians, rather than whether the general was upset at the end of it. What matters is level of predictability and scope, and it takes a great deal of mental acrobatics to see the sheer scale of the atrocities committed in Gaza and to arrive at the conclusion that the Israeli military, in anything besides interviews and PR, concerns itself greatly with the lives of Palestinian civilians. Statements like the ones above merely corroborate what the average cynic would have suspected all along.

Liberal apologetics in the Huffington Post

A rather silly bit of apologia on the Huffington Post has been doing the rounds by a writer called Ali A. Rizvi, which asks that we consider 7 things before we pick a side in the “Middle East Conflict” (I think he means the Israeli assault on Gaza). The writer begins by claiming he’s been “accused” of being pro-Palestinian, though I'm not sure where – presumably some ultra-rightist on Twitter. A quick look through his post history shows him to be a new atheist who has devoted column inches to the supposed “myth” of Islamophobia whilst writing profiles of Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, who has in the past described Islam, a religion of over one billion adherents, as a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death” and who has called for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the current assault on Gaza which has killed over 400 children at time of writing. I will leave the reader to decide upon the author’s professed neutrality, based on the intellectual company he keeps. Now, onto the substance, such that it is.

The first point made in the piece is a typical trope pulled out by IDF and Likud apologists, that it is wrong for the weight of international opinion to bear down so heavily on Israel, because there are more people dying in other conflicts. The big question mark placed at the end of this is the supposition of closet anti-semitism on the part of Israel’s critics. The author writes: “If I were Assad or ISIS right now, I'd be thanking God I'm not Jewish.” 

However, there was a great deal of international outcry about the conflict in Syria, and the UK even had a vote in Parliament on whether or not to go to war over it. With the Islamic State, condemnation and outrage at the actions of the group is there in droves. It’s really possible to be in two places at once on these things. What’s perhaps a more important distinction is that the conflicts in Iraq and Syria represent an internal armed conflict – otherwise known as a civil war. Israel’s acts against Gazan civilians represent the acts of an occupying power against a civilian population. Under the Geneva Conventions, Israel has a greater responsibility towards the Palestinians than Assad has towards the Free Syrian Army or the other thousands of resistance groups that have cropped up in the conflict. The outrage against Israel for its actions, therefore, can be defended as an expression of a consistent principle of international law..

Aha – the author says - the Israeli occupation of Gaza ended in 2005 with the unilateral withdrawal of troops! Israel is no longer occupying Gaza since its troops left and has not done so for nine years, so it cannot be said to be bound by the laws of occupation! This point is completely bogus, since the laws of occupation don’t refer simply to “boots on the ground”, but to the exercise of effective control over the area. The UN, which is the most relevant authority in this case, still considers Gaza to be occupied. The only people arguing that the 2005 troop withdrawal constitutes an end to the occupation (which Israel has argued isn't even an occupation, so how could it end?) is the Israli government itself and it's not for individual states to dictate principles of international law to the international community. Occupation doesn't refer merely to troop presence but to exercise of “effective control” over an area, which is quite a complex legal principle, but Opinio Juris has a pretty good post on it here as a useful primer. 

The Huffington Post piece, as of writing, has been shared nearly 50,000 times on Facebook, which suggests that some people are likely going to be persuaded by this sort of propaganda masquerading as moderated reason. Elsewhere, the author asserts that the conflict can be explained by the religious beliefs of the adherents, and points to a few quotes from Jewish and Islamic scripture to make his point, but it's an idealist point that should be rejected outright by anyone wanting anything besides a surface-level understanding of issues in the Middle East. Jews and Muslims live peacefully together just fine in other parts of the world. It's the interjection of Sykes-Picots and Balfour Declarations creating arbitrary borders in the Middle East that leads to conflict. It's true that the rhetoric used in these conflicts is often religious, but the overriding history of the Israel/Palestine conflict is one of politics, both local and geo-.

We are also told to ask ourselves exactly why Israel would deliberately want to kill civilians; the thrust of the point being that Israel should actually be commended rather than condemned for its conduct, because of the firepower it possesses and the capability for it to actually completely annihilate the population of Gaza if it wanted to means that the fact it hasn't demonstrates its high regard for civilian life. Of course, we could extend the very same point to a country like North Korea, which could, if it wanted to, simply shoot all of the 200,000 people it has in its concentration camps. The DPRK, then, should be commended for keeping its political prisoners alive. I just watched Vice's excellent documentary on ISIS – in which an ISIS fighter politely tells a man to get his wife to change the fabric on her veil. He could have beheaded her right there and then – so should he be praised for his exercise of restraint?

It's necessary to combat these sorts of predjdices, because they have a tendency to skew perspectives towards favouring a brutal occupying power at the expense of understanding of the issues. The election of Hamas as the dominant legislative power in the Occupied Territories was a goldmine for supporters of Israel – at last they could have confirmation that the Palestinians are inherently genocidal anti-semites. Let's ignore the fact that in the years before Hamas had far less popularity, or that Islamism was itself heavily fundedby Israel in the 80s to erode Fatah support. All that matters is that we're able to paint the Palestinians as a one-track minded, genocidal “other”, evidenced by the victory of Hamas.

Of course, there are some elements of the piece which pay lip service to the crimes of Israel, and at the end of the piece the author rather confusingly calls upon Israel to end the “occupation” which he'd earlier on argued didn't exist since 2005. That said, the overall tone is one of sympathy for and rationalisation of the occupiers and vilification of the Palestinians. Those of us, meanwhile, who value consistency and facts in our continued desire to understand these issues, would do well to leave this sort of thing well alone.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Why We Should Criticise Israel: A Response to Sam Harris

A new piece has emerged from Sam Harris, which represents his first piece of foreign policy commentary in a while now. It seems he's becoming rusty, because this one contains literally no references whatsoever, and exhibits such a horrendously biased interpretation of the current conflict that its prejudices are worth examining in some detail. 

What strikes me as a particularly odious part of Harris’ piece is that murderous intent expressed by Hamas is given front and centre of the piece’s focus, but equally offensive, racist, theocratic expressions by Zionists are ignored. I’m going to hazard a guess that Harris hasn’t actually read the accounts of Zionists describing the brutal Operation Cast Lead, in which over 1,400 Palestinians were killed as “mowing the lawn”, because if he had it would call into doubt his claim that Israel bombs civilians in sorrow rather than in anger.

If we kill their families, that will frighten them” -  not, as you would perhaps first guess, the brutal injunction of a jihadist death-cult leader, but a recent statement from reserve IDF general Oren Schachor. One doesn’t have to search far to find examples of Israeli justifications for Operation Protective Edge being couched in violent, retributive terms, such as the far-right Israelis revelling in there being “no school tomorrow” in Gaza after the IDF obliterated a UN-run school, killing 19 people and injuring nearly 100. Again, I'm sure Harris would condemn this, but make an aside that Israel is nonetheless pure in its intentions towards the Palestinians, because of reasons.

Even in apologising for its own citizens' crimes, the Israeli state seeks to demonise the oppressed population of the Palestinian Territories in any way it can. See, for instance, Prime Minister Bejnamin Netanyahu’s response to the brutal murder by a group of ultra-Zionists of Palestinian teenager Mohammad Abu Khdeir, beaten, then forced to drink gasoline before being set on fire and burning to death. The apology? That “…there is no place for such murderers in our society. In that we stand apart from our neighbours – In their society murderers are seen as heroes and have squares named after them” – one would be forgiven for forgetting, for a moment, that what was being decried were the actions of Israeli citizens. Even these can be attributed to being more closely aligned with the supposedly murderous Palestinian character, in the eyes of the Israeli state.

These injunctions to racism and demonisation of the populations of the Palestinian territories surely bely Harris’ claim that all Israel wants is to live peacefully with its neighbors and expand its technology sector. In any case, why the Israeli population would want to live peacefully besides people it considers to be members of a death cult is never explained, nor does Harris explain why the Israelis themselves should desire this. He points to the Hamas charter, a decades-old document generally ignored or denounced by the Hamas leadership, of evidence of the Palestinian’s murderous intent towards Jews. So if the charter is such a big deal, why bother making injunctions towards peaceful co-existence? There couldn’t be peaceful co-existence with the Nazis, after all, how can there be peaceful co-existence with a group of people who are, according to Harris, murderous anti-semites? It’s this kind of racist portrayal of the Palestinians as being a revenge cult that impedes progress towards a peace settlement and it’s exactly the kind of racism – yes, racism – that pervades Harris’ article.

The obvious retort to Harris’ invocation of the Hamas Charter is that the Hamas charter is in no way representative of the goals of the Palestinian population or even Hamas as an organisation. All it takes is one lazy Wikipedia search to find a quote from Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, stating that the Charter is “a piece of history and longer relevant.” Of course, none of that matters if your intent is to demonise the Palestinians and blame elements of their leadership for the massacring of civilian children. You can just refer to the Charter willy-nilly as if it weren’t written decades ago and rejected in modern times. This is not understanding a situation – it's simplistic grandstanding.

Harris says that all we need to do in order to understand the “moral difference” between Israel and Hamas is to “ask what each side would do if they had the power to do it”, but this is a silly thought experiment that is too abstract and hypothetical to be of any practical value in a conflict which is currently occurring. It’s a crude form of denialism which demands that rather than analyse the actions of the IDF as they are right now, we should instead envisage an entirely fictional conflict, in which dynamics, economics, politics, history and political support are completely reversed and judge the actions of Hamas in that, instead. Why we need to perform these mental acrobatics and imagine conflicts by which we should judge Hamas’ non-existent actions is beyond me, since we have a conflict currently unfolding before our very eyes in which over 1,300 civilians are dead, thousands more injured and nearly half a million displaced. “War crimes are war crimes”, Harris states. Indeed, they are – so why is the piece entitled “Why I Don’t Criticise Israel”? Surely war criminals are not beyond a bit of criticism?

Harris’ bizarre thought experiment is representative of a particular strain of Harris’ thought which posits religions as mere ideologies; as static things to which people arrive independent of outside influence and then become inspired to action. In Hegelian terms, this is called 'idealism', and it was kindly refuted by a couple of German philosophers over a century ago. To demand that religious extremists give up their religion, as Harris does (a goal I share, incidentally) is to demand the end to a condition which requires religious extremism, not a simplistic condemnation of the ideas themselves.

In Harris' world, all that matters is the ideology, therefore, if it were the Palestinians who had their own technologically advanced state which had illegally occupied two densely populated Israeli areas since 1967 and placed them under brutal occupation, the dynamics of the conflict and rhetoric of both sides would nonetheless remain the same. Thus we can use the Hamas charter as a useful indicator of how Hamas would actually behave if this thought experiment were a reality. As with Harris' approach to theology, all that matters is fundamental principles – nuance and development of the jihadist cause from its roots is irrelevant.

Incidentally, the extreme of Hamas, generally speaking, advocates for an outcome in which all of Israel becomes the state of Palestine. That's undoubtedly an unworkable position, but it's a far cry from Harris' claims that Hamas explicitly desires genocide. Genocide has a very specific legal definition, and throwing it around is ill-advised, because it cheapens the meaning of the term as one reserved for the highest international crime imaginable. The more moderate wing of Hamas, meanwhile, advocates for a two-state solution. Now, Harris does say in his piece that it's wrong to equate Hamas with the whole of the Palestinians, but I'll submit to the reader that really this is just another typical example of Harris trying to have his cake and eat it – trying to deflect criticism by claiming what he said is not what he actually meant. Later on in the article he says that the “Palestinians are trying to kill everyone. Killing women and children is part of the plan” and describes Israel as being “surrounded by people who have genocidal intentions towards them”. I'll leave the reader to decide what Harris' general opinion of the Palestinian population of over 4 million people is.

A far more odious claim in Harris' piece is to lay the blame for Israeli war crimes at the door of the Palestinians themselves. Israeli war crimes can be explained and understood because the Israelis have been “brutalized by this process – that is, made brutal by it. But it is largely due to the character of their enemies.” One is reminded of the old joke about the British soldier stabbing to death the Irishman, sobbing harder with each thrust of the bayonet. The Irishman, in his dying breath, incredulously asks the British soldier why he's crying. The soldier wipes a tear away - “we will never forgive you”, he says, “for what you've made us do to you”. If that seems too parodic, perhaps consider former Israeli PM Golda Meir's statement that “we cannot forgive [the Arabs] for forcing us to kill their children.” One was a joke, another was grandstanding from a colonialist – what's Harris' excuse?

Of course, his excuse is that he's simply making a point about the reality of fighting multiple wars. Only Israel is not fighting a war. It is conductingmilitary action in territories which it has illegally occuped fornearly 50 years. Furthermore, the injunction that Israel is engaging in self-defense would require acknowledgment that Palestine is a state, something explicitly denied by Israel and would also require a lack of effective control over the occupied areas, something which Israel does exercise. Since Israel under the laws of occupation has a greater duty to protect civilian life than it would in a genuine wartime situation, it should not garner praise for what Harris claims is its commendable restraint in this and other military action against the occupied territories – it should receive the utmost condemnation for not exercising enough. The Palestinian Territories are not a belligerent in an external armed conflict, and it serves us well to reiterate that Israel has illegally occupied the West Bank and Gaza since 1967, again something conveniently left out of Harris' piece.

In any case, it's true to the point of truism that war has a detrimental effect on the moral character of its participants. Picture Old Major from Fawlty Towers, whose only good word about the Germans is that their women are “good card players” or John McCain's occasional use of the word “gooks” to refer to the Vietnamese. It's entirely correct that Israeli brutality can be explained by the nature of the conflict. That said, I don't see why only Israel gets this sort of empathy, yet the people living in the Palestinian Territories, the majority of which are far more likely to have a family member who was killed or wounded than the average Israeli citizen is, are condemned for following an extreme ideology. Can we not expect some consistency in what was an otherwise fairly salient point?

Ultimately, Harris' piece demonstrates that he's once again on the wrong side of history with regards to the inherent rightness of the west and her allies. The day will hopefully one day come when the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank is behind us, the Palestinians have their own separate state, and we can see the occupation in the same way we see view the oppression of blacks in South Africa under apartheid. In the meantime, we will have to put up with a lot more ill-informed apologia like that present in Harris' piece. Hopefully the rest of us will have some good sense to exercise some empathy and that much-sought after but rarely exercised critical thought.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

A Poem for Michael Gove

So, farewell then
Michael Gove
Hated by educators
And public alike
How does it feel to know
You'll never again be the cause
Of a teacher's strike?

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Iraq 2014: Relight the Fire

Yes I know it's been a while. Maybe it's nostalgia that brought me back here. Seeing Iraq on the news again, hearing people talking about “cutting and running”, lots of people talking about scary jihadis, armchair theologians who probably don't know a single Muslim talking about what they imagine are the intricacies of Islamic doctrine. That sort of stuff gives someone a twinge of longing - “hey”, you think, “I used to write about shit like that.”

So you go switch on the news and do a bit of research. Though I have to say, one thing that's changed is I've totally given up on the BBC for my coverage of these sorts of events. Someone showed me a video the other day of a nightly news report in 2003 with the BBC's Chief Sycophant (they call it “Politics Editor” over there) Andrew Marr reporting on the fall of Baghdad. It's a glorious victory, he proclaims in the video. Ministers are walking around with smiles like “split watermelons”. Blair's critics need to shutup – they've been proven wrong and he's been proven right! Yeah, you idiots – who cares about terrorist attacks? They might happen, but everyone in Number 10 is having a good time right now, so don't harsh their buzz.

Friday, 31 May 2013

On Woolwich, Counter-Terrorism and Leaderless Terrorist Movements

Brutality or, at least, its coverage in the mainstream press, has the effect of revealing much more about its commentators than the act itself. Each writer has his or her own take and very few commentators really 'learn' from these types of events, except in the sense that one 'learns' that one has been correct all along. A right-wing pundit might see in the Woolwich murder a reiteration of the senseless barbarism of the Islamic faith's crudest elements, whilst a left-wing commentator might view the same event as a stark reminder of the marginalisation of Muslims in post-9/11 Britain. Opinions, therefore, remain largely unchanged, only held with more vigor; catharsis comes only in the form of the state proudly declaring its toughness in the face of such wanton destruction from "the other." Toughness, in this instance, being shorthand for overbearing, illiberal attacks on free expression, free association and privacy - supposedly bedrocks of the liberal democratic state - in reality, political bargaining chips to be traded and discarded at a moment's notice for the sake of appearing iron-willed and resolute.

It should, of course, go without saying that the murders in Woolwich were in no sense acts of politically serious individuals utilising strategic violence for political ends - 'terrorism', by another name. At least, not terrorism as has been commonly understood. Terrorism in its common form has an entrepreneurial, hierarchical command structure and a steadfast dedication to propaganda by deed. Discipline, therefore, is paramount, and what the Woolwich murders and, their US counterparts, the Boston bombers, certainly lack is the rigid militaristic discipline of Osama Bin Laden or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. What the Woolwich murderers and the Boston bombers instead represent is a new and deliberate kind of leaderless jihad which views itself as a temporary stopgap measure in the fact of traditional Islamic terrorism's defeat on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Leaderless jihad is terrorism for the iPod generation. Instead of getting your ragtag bunch of guys together to demonstrate your commitment to the cause in order to be shipped off to a jihadist training camp and be shown the ropes by ex-Mujaheddin fighters and other dedicated Islamist warriors, a would-be terrorist can simply download his or her professed ideology, pick and choose whichever radical clerics they wish and share their tough-talk on jihadist forums. If they're the Real Deal, they can then make a crude explosive device to be detonated in a crowded area, or simply drive into town with a meat cleaver and hack apart the first British army officer they see and proudly proclaim to be fighting for their brothers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. The fact that these leaderless jihadists have never set foot in any of these countries or that the majority of people suffering as a result of western policy in these areas would likely disapprove of this wanton destruction is irrelevant. Their pain and outrage is vicarious - they are fighting in the belly of the beast for those whose pain they've experienced through the influx of information coming from mainstream news outlets and jihadist conspiracy theory websites.

This isn't to say that leaderless jihad is an entirely grass-roots phenomenon. As a tactic, it borrows heavily from the white supremacist movement in the United States, who have in the past few decades articulated and relied on the tactic of leaderless resistance in the face of widespread surveillance from the US government. In essence - where hierarchical command structures fail, leaderless resistance thrives. A leaderless movement is virtually impervious to infiltration, since anything short of round-the-clock spying on every single citizen around the world leaves open cracks through which a lone wolf can slip. On the downside, leaderless resistance represents in many ways the death rattle of a terrorist movement - it's going out, but with guns blazing, and a sign that a group is utilising a leaderless strategy is in many ways a sign of a movement on the ropes.

The leaderless jihadi movement finds its origins in the writings of the Islamic militant Aby Mus'ab al-Suri, an al-Qaeda strategist credited with responsibility for the 2004 Madrid Bombings and the bombings in London in July 2005. In al-Suri's analysis, America has employed her "stunning technological superiority" to completely dominate the battlefield. In this sense, therefore, a "secret-regional-hierarchical" structure is a strategic impossibility, and al-Suri's solution to this conundrum is what he terms a "Global Resistance Call" - a sort of information warfare, in which ideology, military tactics, vulnerable targets, bomb-making instructions, etc. are disseminated to impressionable Islamist activists across the globe. All that is required for this strategy is an open means of communication and a sufficiently embittered, impressionable audience. It should give us pause for thought that neither the Woolwich attackers nor the Boston bombers had reached the age of 30 yet - terrorism is as much about impressionable, misguided youth as it is about fanatics flying aeroplanes into buildings.

The question, therefore, is what is the proper policy response towards this kind of structurally anarchic political resistance? It should go without saying (though frequently doesn't) that measures outlawing "extremist" speech or increased surveillance on "vulnerable communities" (read: spying on Muslims) are unlikely to do much to address the problem. As said above, anything short of total surveillance of information,  a technologically impossible policing of the internet (including restrictions on the online underworld of the deep web) and widespread bugging of all public places would still render our public spaces vulnerable in a tactical sense to the sorts of attacks which occurred in Woolwich and Boston. In terms of a law-enforcement response, there is very little that separates the attacks of a leaderless jihad from your average back-alley knife murder. Neither rely on much in the way of resources or hierarchical command, and planning can take place entirely inside the perpetrators head, rendering them potentially immune to traditional avenues of prevention. That both the Woolwich killers and the Boston bombers were aware to the intelligence authorities speaks directly to the inability for traditional means of infiltration to be anything approaching a perfect counter-terrorism policy.

Which brings us to the second source of sustenance for leaderless jihadists - the sense of vicarious (and sometimes directly influenced) outrage and marginalisation. A liberal democracy utilising harsh, draconian crackdowns on extremism which in effect amount to marginalisation of a religious minority is likely to run the risk of that deadly combination of freedom to act and minority repression on which terrorism thrives. Our counter-terrorism policy and the language of our coverage needs consistency in order to be seen as legitimate. The fact is that many Muslims, not unjustifiably, see counter-terrorism measures and commentary in the US and the UK as maximising the scale of violence emanating from Islamic communities and branding it as terrorism, whilst minimising the violence committed by white westerners as traditional "ordinary" violence. 

It shouldn't be necessary to say this (though it is), but none of this is to bring legitimacy to the kinds of violence experienced in the US and the UK over the past few months, only to understand its causes. The notion that minority discrimination causes politically motivated violence is well-established in the academic literature, and tub-thumping, grandstanding claims about the immorality of the evil-doers or apocalyptic calls to arms against the forces of barbarism do nothing to address the problem. In fact, they merely inflame already existing tensions and provide terrorists with the conceptual framework they desire - that this is, fundamentally, a war over ideology and religion rather than a law-enforcement phenomenon whose victims are few, yet visceral and wanton enough to warrant a serious response. 

It is in this, therefore, that we find the proper scope of our counter-terrorism response - one that needs to be explicitly focused on violence per se, rather than policing ideology (however repellent) or religious communities. It might come as a surprise to some that even many Salafists are turned off by the kinds of short-sighted calls to arms being expounded by Muslim youths, and yet find their position as ideological, though non-violent, extremists capable of dissuading young Islamists with something to prove increasingly threatened by the zero tolerance approach adopted by many elements of the more hardline counter-terrorist policies. 

Unless, therefore, western counter-terrorism policies begin to work in conjunction with and for the benefit of marginalised religious minorities, it is likely that we will see more violence of the kinds exhibited over the past few months. Looking 'tough' on terrorism and giving lofty speeches about the threats posed by radical clerics might be politically expedient, but as a means to combat the violence stemming from all sorts of politically disaffected individuals, it is deeply unserious and lacks any kind of true tactical rigor. In future, then, we might find that making more friends than enemies works out best for everyone in the long-term.