All entries for September 2007

September 21, 2007

Political Misquotations: Healey, Callaghan, Voltaire and Ahmadinejad

Misquotations are the only quotations that are never misquoted.
– Hesketh Pearson

With the Lib Dems announcing new tax plans this week, no doubt the right will soon lament (regardless of the detail) that we’re returning to the days of taxing the rich till the pips squeak. Some will probably think they’re quoting former Labour chancellor Denis Healey to whom those words have been long attributed. In fact, Healey never did say that he would “tax the rich till the pips squeak”, though he did declare at the party conference, “I warn you that there are going to be howls of anguish from those rich enough to pay over 75% on their last slice of earnings”. Similarly, Healey’s prime minister, Jim Callaghan, never said, “Crisis? What crisis?” (that was a Sun headline writer), but he did try to cool the Winter of Discontent by arguing, “I don’t think that other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.”

The anti-clerical philosophe Voltaire, is regularly invoked in defence of free speech, but the imperishable line, “I disapprove of what you say, but i will defend to the death your right to say it”, never left his lips. The line, taken from Beatrice Hall’s Friends of Voltaire, was instead designed to bottle the spirit of his liberalism, reflected in aphorisms such as, “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too”.

A potent example of a recent misquotation is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s apparent call for Israel to be “wiped off the map”. In fact thorough research found that he declared, “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time”. Thus expressing his hope that Zionism will fade away in a manner akin to Soviet communism, rather than the threat of a pre-emptive strike.

Anyone have more?


Tatchell Shows Up Pilger On Iran

Writing about web page http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/peter_tatchell/2007/09/iran_executes_more_arabs.html

In the above link, the courageous Peter Tatchell brilliantly exemplifies the point i made in my recent post on Iran. The point being, that the only principled position is one that says no to war and no to theocracy with the same voice.

As Tatchell writes,

I have supported the Iranian people’s struggle for democracy and human rights for four decades – first against the western-backed imperial fascist Shah and, since 1979, against the clerical fascism of the ayatollahs. Some anti-war leftists refuse to condemn the Tehran dictatorship and refuse to support the Iranian resistance; arguing that to do so would play into the hands of the US neocons and militarists. I disagree. Opposing imperialism and defending human rights are complementary, not contradictory.

Such a position would seem patrionising were it not for the evasions made by significant leftists. John Pilger is perhaps the most egregious offender. The same man who ludicrously said of pre-war Iraq, “I have seldom felt as safe in any country.”, who described the recent failed terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow as “Brown’s bombs”, and who said of the murderous Iraqi ‘resistance’, “We cannot afford to be choosy.”, also allows the west and it’s proxies a virtual monopoly on his critical faculties. The argument that given the global distribution of power and influence it is vital to focus on western abuses is a fair one, but taken to an extreme it leads to a pernicious moral relativism.

In his most recent piece on Iran, Pilger offers not a word of criticism for the reactionary Iranian regime. Citing an Amnesty report, he usefully reminds us of the atrocities committed by the western-backed Shah, “the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture” that was “beyond belief”, but apparently views present-day Iranian atrocities as mostly irrelevant.

Admittedly, in an earlier piece on the same subject, Pilger at least made some critical reference to the regime, though he described it rather mildly as “repressive”. I say mildly because Pilger is not the kind to shy away from bold rhetoric, he has described the “American elite” as the “Third Reich of our time”, and compared Tony Blair to Benito Mussolini. The fact that Pilger makes almost no use of the powerful argument that any military strike would likely boost the theocratic regime is particularly revealing. It underlines my suspicion that were it to come to war, his sympathies would lie with the forces of reaction in that country.

While Pilger was filling column inches in February declaring “Iran: The War Begins”, he failed to document the actually existing abuse of the Iranian people. As Tatchell points out, those Arabs executed in Iran are short of defenders, “There have been no protests from Britain, the EU or the UN.”

Here surely, was a moment for radical leftists to declare their outrage in the face of western indifference and apathy. But no, as Tatchell puts it, “The anti-imperialist left is also mute. Why the double standards? Palestinian Arabs get the support of progressives and radicals everywhere; Iranian Arabs get no support at all. They swing from nooses in public squares like cattle hanging in an abattoir. Does anyone care?”

Earlier in the piece, Tatchell refers to Hugo Chavez’s warm embrace of President Ahmadinejad. Indeed, so grateful is Ahmadinejad that he awarded Chavez the highest state honour last summer. Pressed on this point in a recent Guardian question session, Pilger affirmed that, “Venezuela’s alliance with Iran is entirely rational; it’s based on the fact that they are two of the world’s leading oil producers. All states seek alliances of convenience, and survival.”

Yet isn’t this an example of precisely the sort of debased realism Pilger impugns the west for? He followed up those remarks by once again detailing the abuses of the western-backed Shah in a critical tone not extended to the current regime. There are two consistent positions; one is to declare that morality cannot be imposed on the interest-dominated realm of international relations, the other is to argue for universal human rights without qualification. Pilger represents neither; instead weighing human rights according to the degree of western involvement. He ended his answer, without apparent irony, “Two standards, alas.” Ever focused on the shameful double standards of the west, he is blind to his own.


September 17, 2007

Freedom of Speech: A common misconception

Writing about web page http://comment.independent.co.uk/columnists_a_l/yasmin_alibhai_brown/article2970801.ece

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s piece in today’s Independent falls into a common mistake in the debate on free expression. She writes, “If I say there is no absolute freedom of expression, that there are always limits – otherwise the BBC would run propaganda tapes made by Osama Bin Laden, and pro-Hitler views would be given air time on French broadcast channels – does that make me a “censor”?”

A right to broadcast all views does not equate to an obligation to do so. If absolute freedom of expression were legislated for today, we need not wake up to Natasha Kaplinsky introducing neo-Nazis tomorrow. What it would mean is that if BBC producers, or some crank internet channel, chose to give air time to extreme opinion, the government would have no right to stop them. In any case, to take up her specific example, are not Bin Laden’s latest videos, shown on the BBC, a form of propaganda?

Finally, one of the highlights of the morose 2005 election for me was the rare shaming of BNP leader Nick Griffin by David Dimbleby. If so many see such views as absurd, why are so many also scared of the media turning their critical eye on them?


Naomi Klein and Disaster Capitalism

Writing about web page http://books.guardian.co.uk/shockdoctrine/0,,2159184,00.html

Naomi Klein

Disaster Capitalism is the neat neologism coined by Naomi Klein for her new book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. It refers to the phenomena of societies traumatised by disaster, natural and man-made, being seized upon by governments and companies to further neoliberal ends unachievable under normal circumstances. Where most see a crisis, neoliberal actors spy new market opportunities. With citizens focused on daily survival, the usual resistant forces are weakened for just long enough. As Klein sardonically remarks, “some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters; Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas.”

The accompanying ‘Shock Doctrine’ represents the thesis that for market economies to mutate into something like hyper-capitalism, some crisis is necessary. Klein cites the prophetic words of the high priest of free markets, the now departed Milton Friedman, “only a crisis- actual or perceived- produces real change.” The transformation of Chile into a capitalist laboratory (full of monsters, one feels the need to add), amidst the shock of Pinochet’s coup d’etat, is identified early on as an exemplar.

Dazzling in its intellectual scope and impecabble in its timing, The Shock Doctrine may well replicate the success of Klein’s zeitgeist defining No Logo. Collected here is the melancholy tale of the privatisation of New Orleans’ public school system in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The revelation of the economic “shock therapy” that paired up with the “shock and awe” bombardment of Iraq, to impose a 15 per cent flat tax, mass privatisation and unrestricted free trade on the country. As well as the rapid handover of the Sri Lankan coastline to business interests following the 2004 tsunami, blocking hundreds of thousands of citizens from their old fishing lands. In more ambitious and contentious sections Klein seeks to integrate the Falklands War and the Tiananmen Square atrocities into her thesis.

The Shock Doctrine isn’t actually released in the UK until Tuesday, and the Guardian extracts i’m going on aren’t specific enough to assess the criticisms of her take on China and Russia A few broader observations can be examined though.

Some such as Chatham House’s Diane Coyle on the Today programme, (scroll right down to hear her debate Klein) point out in a critical tone, that it’s not only capitalist forces which have exploited crises and disaster. Indeed, one thinks of the October Revolution, with Lenin returning in the famous sealed train (“like a plague bacillus” in Churchill’s memorable phrase) during The Great War of that time. Klein actually goes on to note the similar strategies of communists and fascists in the book, and the point in and of itself doesn’t invalidate her thesis. Additionally, given the present distribution of wealth and power it’s entirely appropriate to focus on neoliberal forces.

A more challenging criticism put forward by Will Hutton and Madeleine Bunting is that free-markets have not always advanced on the back of shock. Klein’s reply to this charge usefully makes a distinction between those periods when neoliberalism advanced incrementally and those when it “leapt forward”. Long-term political and economic factors are necessary to explain the hegemony of the market, but they are not alone sufficient. Conversely, one point which no contributor seems to have mentioned is that the rise of neoliberalism cannot be decoupled from its twin, neoconservatism. Particularly with regard to Thatcher and Reagan, it was often their social conservatism
on issues such as crime and the family, that motivated low-income, working-class voters to vote against their apparent economic interests.

Returning to some of the responses so far, Alexander Cockburn’s surprisingly critical review is littered with misrepresentation and false argument. For starters, Salvador Allende was overthrown not in 1971 but 1973 (poor form for any leftist), and Klein speaks not of “shock capitalism” but disaster capitalism. The latter may seem pedantic, but it is the title after all, and as is so often the case, a small mistake precedes a big one.

For Cockburn seems to understand Klein’s shock doctrine purely in terms of capitalism using shock tactics to advance its goals, from bombing to regime change. This reductionist interpretation leads him to place Friedman’s economic “shock treatment” alongside the overthrow of Allende and the bombing of Baghdad. But Friedman’s “shock treatment” is not merely another weapon in the armoury of capitalism. As Klein shows, it is a specific ideological doctrine which takes on a life of its own only after a critical event such as a coup or military invasion. Thus, Cockburn erroneously conflates cause with effect. That this original error is so, is further highlighted by his failure to even mention in passing the section of Klein’s analysis which looks at natural disasters.

The rest of the review is largely taken up with detailing centuries-old precedents for “shock capitalism”, in short; you’re onto nothing new Naomi. This seems cheap; Klein’s specific objective is to document how disaster capitalism relates directly to the neoliberal counter-revolution that culminated in the 1980s. This is another blow to Cockburn’s standing following his recent denial of man-made climate change (as demonstrated in this extensive debate with George Monbiot) and one hopes Klein rebuts her Nation colleague soon.

As for the implicit question, ‘Well what would you do then?’, that attaches itself to much criticism, Klein largely seems to favour solutions along the lines of the more egalitarian days of mixed-market Keynesianism. Klein is neither anarchist nor socialist revolutionary, as she writes, “It is eminently possible to have a market-based economy that demands no such brutality or ideological purity. A free market in consumer products can coexist with free public health care, with public schools, with a large segment of the economy – such as a national oil company – held in state hands.”

Klein’s work is a mordant reminder that the forward march of capitalism has rarely been peaceful, and that the tendency to monopoly far outweighs any individually empowering force. That so many ignore or ridicule these elementary economic lessons is apt proof of such work’s necessity.


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