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May 15, 2008

Labour's shameful Crewe populism

(Labour activists campaign dressed as ‘toffs’)

Excellent piece by John Harris in the Guardian on Labour’s shameful campaign in the Crewe and Nantwich byelection.

It’s wearying enough to see Labour activists trawling round Crewe dressed as ‘toffs’, but the nadir was reached with one particularly sinister campaign leaflet

titled “Tory candidate application form”, replete with questions and ticked boxes. Number one is, “Do you live in a big mansion house?” Question two is – and, really, the sense of humour on display is quite something – “Do you think that regeneration is adding a new wing to your mansion?” The third reads: “Have you and your Tory mates on the council been soft on yobs and failed to make our streets safer?” But the best is saved for question four, at which point pantomimic class hatred is suspended and we get something altogether more sinister. “Do you,” it asks, “oppose making foreign nationals carry an ID card?”

It’s disturbing to see Labour attack the Conservatives from the right but no longer surprising.

I was reminded of one of the closing passages of Tony Blair’s final speech to the party conference:

David Cameron’s Tories? My advice: get after them. His foreign policy. Pander to anti-Americanism by stepping back from America … His immigration policy. Says he’ll sort out illegal immigration, but opposes Identity Cards, the one thing essential to do it … He wants a Bill of Rights for Britain drafted by a Committee of Lawyers. Have you ever tried drafting anything with a Committee of Lawyers? And his policy for the old lady terrorised by the young thug is that she should put her arm round him and give him a nice, big hug.

Far from being rejected, such right-wing populism has been entrenched.

As for the byelection leaflet, such toff-bashing (a shame Labour would have been deprieved of the public-school educated Clement Attlee by that standard) is no substitute for principled egalitarianism and social democracy. Just as we judge Attlee and Tony Benn by their principles, not their class, so we should attack Edward Timpson for his ideology, not on his (actually quite complex) background.

The greatest irony though, is that many of those posturing in Crewe no doubt support the very neoliberal policies (minimal taxation of the super-rich, tax breaks for private schools) that have further entrenched class division in British society.

I’d also wager that they’re not too troubled by the persistence of our unelected, hereditary monarchy. Show you are and join the excellent Republic

P.S. Also see William Davies’s ‘The irrelevance of toff-bashing’ over at Prospect’s blog.


March 12, 2008

Warwick's heart beats on the left

‘Red Warwick’ is increasingly spoken of in the hallowed tones usually reserved for the theological. Well, after all it did have its own Bible (Warwick University Ltd.), it had its prophets (E.P.Thompson, Germaine Greer), it certainly had its devil (the Vice-Chancellor). And there doesn’t seem much chance of a second coming either. But the recent success of the Go Green and Palestine Solidarity weeks suggests that Warwick’s political heart still beats on the left. As does the emergence of the admirably plural Dissident Warwick, a journal mercifully free from the apologetics for Islamist terror offered by some quarters of the left. In this regard, the decline of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Respect has been just as gratifying.

One hopes that it marks an end to the most shameful period in the history of Warwick’s left, a period which saw George Galloway held up as a figure of socialist principle. Admittedly, taking Galloway apart is like harpooning a very large whale in a very small barrel, but since there remain those on campus that honour this man, it becomes not just a necessary duty, but a pleasurable one. I take no issue with the 2006 appearance of Galloway at a Stop the War event, a group dominated by the SWP and Respect, but rather with the fact that this invitation was designed to place him in a favourable light. A permatanned, creationist, carpetbagger, Galloway has many faults, but he will never better telling Saddam Hussein in 1994, ‘I thought the President would appreciate to know that even today, three years after the year, I still meet families who are calling their newborn sons Saddam’. He should have been greeted with, to annex Martin Amis’s description of the appropriate response to jihadist attacks, ‘an unvarying factory siren of unanimous disgust.’

It also remains more than perplexing that some of the most hysterical defenders of the No Platform policy lionise a man notorious for his ‘solidarity’ with the misogynistic and homophobic Hizbullah, currently listed as a banned racist and fascist group. But the most shaming moment for this pseudo-leftist nexus came when they handed out protest posters in advance of the death of the 100th British soldier in Iraq. What they didn’t tell students is that the SWP and Respect support the use of ‘all means necessary’ to attack British soldiers. The argument that all forms of ‘resistance’ are justified against the occupation has led these parties to fail to condemn, and by implication support, the use of children as decoys for chlorine bombs and most recently the strapping of explosives to Down’s syndrome sufferers unable to resist.

One can of course draw distinctions between student societies and national parties. But as one Respect member once put it in the Boar, ‘Don’t join a party unless you’re aware of all their ideologies, policies, and beliefs. You have to know that you will defend those ideas’. Well, quite.

If the Warwick left is to continue its recent progress it will need a greater reckoning with these past disgraces. Those who continue to apologise for them should be declared persona non grata in all progressive circles.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 04/03/08


February 20, 2008

On the Archbishop of Canterbury and sharia law: We need less religious privilege not more

The Church of England is commonly regarded as one of the most mild-mannered and innocuous of modern religious institutions. But its representatives seem to be making something of a habit of betraying this reputation. The latest wave of absurdity began with the Bishop of Carlisle, who following last summer’s floods explained that, “We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation.” Elaborating further, the bishop cited the recent ban on businesses discriminating against homosexuals. If so, one rather wonders why the divine being aimed the deluge at gruff Yorkshire. Why not fabulous Brighton? Why not mincing Soho?

But it was the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who ultimately severed the Church’s already tenuous relationship with liberalism and reason. The incorporation of aspects of sharia law into British law was, he declared last week, “unavoidable”. Dispelling the possibility that this might have been a slip of the tongue, he declared that the idea that “there’s one law for everybody” was dangerous. Inevitably, Williams balked at “the kind of inhumanity” that sees women and homosexuals stoned in theocratic Iran and Saudi Arabia. But effectively he maintained that Muslims, and implicitly other religious groups, should be privileged with separate laws in areas such as financial and family matters. It was the fatalistic tone as much as the content that grated, and the short shrift that the major parties have given to Williams’ proposal reminds us that separate laws are by all means avoidable. Wrong in principle and unworkable in practice, this proposal deserves to be greeted with contempt.

The social cohesion that Williams apparently aspires to would be best served not by segregated laws but by a fully secular state. He is right to point out that English law allows individuals to reach their own settlement in front of an agreed third party, as existing sharia and Jewish rabbinical courts do, but he is wrong to argue that any formalisation of this is either possible or desirable. Islamic scholarship contains no fewer than five major interpretations of sharia law. Which is to be adopted? And on whose authority? Williams conspicuously ducked this issue. A secular state, which privileges no religion and protects all, is the most reliable means to integration. Believers who wish to change the law should democratically campaign to do so, as all free citizens can.

Secularists have long dreaded the persecution and bloodletting that the religious have historically inflicted on each other. But juxtaposed with this is a lingering fear that the faithful, notably those who regard Abraham as a common father, will eventually pool their resources in a common front against the secular. It is in this context that the Archbishop’s favourable attitude to what is, after all, a rival faith must be understood. One is reminded of Prince Charles, who upon his mother’s death will become Supreme Governor of the Church, and his professed wish once King to be known as ‘Defender of Faith’ not ‘Defender of the Faith’. Watch as House of Lords reform comes round once more and the Church, desperate to hold on to its coterie of unelected bishops, proposes that each faith should be awarded a quota of ‘representatives’.

At a time when a few courageous individuals have been brave enough to publicly form the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, (the Hadith prescribes death for apostates), Williams has given succour to Islamist patriarchs who may well cherish state legitimation for the right, maintained under all interpretations, to remarry while refusing their first wife a divorce. He has simultaneously pandered to the essentialist doctrine of the nationalist far right, who think British law only fit for white Anglo-Saxons, and that of the Islamist right, who seek outright sharia law. He should be removed from office as a prelude to the removal of his Church from the state.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 12/02/08


February 07, 2008

No to No Platform

It’s now forty years since 1968. It was a year that began with the Tet Offensive pinning down US imperialism in Vietnam, and went on to see the French May shake the Gaullist state and the Prague Spring chip away at the Soviet edifice. The international solidarity of that era marked the zenith of student radicalism. But the deferred victories and outright defeats that ’68 was also witness to, led some to regress to a muddle-headed pseudo-liberalism. The radical demand for absolute free speech on campus mutated into a censorious mentality that cared more for avoiding ‘offence’ than taking up the arguments and winning them. The cowardly No Platform policy, that bans speakers from racist and fascist groups such as the BNP and the National Front from appearing on campus, is a product of this historic shift.

Granting a group freedom of expression does not lead to an obligation to give them a platform. But the absolute restriction on anyone doing so is wrong in principle and counterproductive in practice. Defenders of the policy often begin by reeling off the litany of violent acts committed by racists and fascists. Well, one could hardly have failed to notice that far-right groups contain more than their fair share of ex-cons, small-time gangsters and accredited psychopaths. But the laws against violence and physical intimidation could still be applied without the No Platform policy, that’s not the issue here.

I’ve heard many defenders of the policy condescendingly argue that figures like David Irving and Nick Griffin are just too ‘articulate’ and ‘persuasive’ to be allowed access to a large audience. Yet to leave such figures to just preach unchallenged in dank Dagenham basements is to dispense with one of the most powerful tools in the anti-fascist arsenal. For when given a platform far-right speakers very often expose and embarrass themselves. I remember Nick Griffin’s 4am shaming at the hands of David Dimbleby as one of the rare highlights of the mediocre 2005 election. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier and anti-semite, provided another fitting example of this recently when he appeared at Columbia University. Rather overlooking the long tradition of homoerotic Persian literature, Iran, he claimed, doesn’t have gays. These anecdotes shouldn’t be surprising; those with ridiculous views will make fools of themselves.

‘Know your enemy’ the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wisely encouraged. The failure to follow this became clearer to me at a debate on this subject during Rise Against Racism week. Nick Griffin, one of my opponents claimed, would turn up steaming and baldly declare that white people were better than black people. Come on, I countered, he doesn’t give the game away that easily. The caricature of the slobbering monster is as unhelpful as that of the extraordinarily persuasive debater. Only by challenging fascists and racists as they actually are, not as we imagine them to be, can we hope to shame and refute them.

But it is John Stuart Mill’s imperishable On Liberty that best distils the indispensability of unrestrained argument. It is only in conflict with opposing views, the great liberal argued, that we fully understand and refine what we ourselves believe. It keeps our principles alive and dynamic. Without this open conflict the reasoned views of one generation can ossify into the prejudice and dogma of the next. Anti-racist and anti-fascist views become held not because they have been forged in the heat of dialectical exchange, but merely because they represent the received wisdom of the age. Thus, I need not make the outlandish claim that racists and fascists will be argued out of their views for the purpose of argument to hold. A leftist supporter of the policy does not presumably expect to convert, say, their Thatcherite opponent when they argue and debate with them, but they still do just that.

Throughout human thought from the secular to the sacred, the necessity of free exchange has been recognised. When asked to name his favourite dictum, Karl Marx, a master of the dialectical method, replied ‘Doubt everything’. Even the authoritarian Catholic Church always heard from the devil’s advocate at canonization hearings, an office they are now all the poorer for abolishing. When confronted by racism today far too many liberals lapse into platitude, ‘We’re a tolerant, multicultural society now’, or tautology, ‘Why is racism bad? Because it’s racism.’ Very few can offer clinching rational or scientific arguments against it, because they haven’t have had to make the arguments often enough.

Most of the points for the No Platform policy, the claim that we can never tolerate the intolerant for instance, also apply to wider society. Do the policy’s supporters aspire to the historically disastrous strategy of banning fascist groups outright? We should be told.

The Students’ Union claims to be worried about apathy. In combating it the union might want to begin by revoking this policy; the great protest and scorn that would track any fascists would do much to override apathy. For now, we are hamstrung by an approach that does much to pander to the far-right claim of a ‘liberal conspiracy’. It’s time to replace a policy of bureaucratic motions with one of open argument.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 07/02/08


January 31, 2008

The Future of Capitalism

Addressing Nicolas Sarkozy’s Gaullist rally recently, Tony Blair called time on the notions of left and right. In Blair’s view, politics, an art defined by division and argument, is to be replaced by a dash for the amorphous centre, represented by ‘the future or the past…strength or weakness’. That he had the gall to declare as much in France, the country that invented left and right in 1789, only compounded this original error. Nye Bevan, the great founder of the NHS currently celebrating its 60th birthday, surely had it right when he argued we know what happens to those who stand in the middle of the road. They get run down.

Yet Blair’s remarks were indicative of a profound shift in the scope of political argument. Where once socialists and social democrats heralded texts such as Lenin’s The State and Revolution, or Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, which pointed towards the transcendence of capitalism, they are now drawn to those that dramatically detail the destructive power of the boundless free-market. Strikingly modern in their style and stark in their analysis, such works are also characterised by their penchant for neologism, ‘turbo-capitalism’, ‘hyper-capitalism’, ‘disaster-capitalism’, or in the case of Oliver James’s The Selfish Capitalist- Origins of Affluenza, wry pun. Far from tumbling into the early grave that Karl Marx claimed it was digging, capitalism has proven adept at officiating over the successive funerals of its ideological rivals.

The best of the bunch has been Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, the work that originated the aforementioned ‘disaster capitalism’. It centres on the phenomena of societies traumatised by disaster, both natural and man-made, being seized upon by governments and companies to further market ends unachievable under normal circumstances. Her case is most compelling in the cases of post-Katrina New Orleans (privatisation of the education system), post-tsunami Sri Lanka (business’s appropriation of the coastline), and Iraq (15 per cent flat tax and unrestricted free trade). With citizens preoccupied with day-to-day 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.”

Ambitious to a fault, The Shock Doctrine comes undone when it attempts to integrate post-Tiananmen China, where the market actually entered a prolonged period of hibernation, and post-Falklands Britain, where Thatcher’s appeal to a residual jingoism had little concrete effect on an economic revolution already unleashed. Amid this relentlessly melancholic landscape the final chapter ‘Shock Wears Off: The Rise of People’s Reconstruction’ can’t help but feel tacked on, and one has the sense of both people and author running to stand still. Implicitly, Klein calls for a return to the consensual Keynesianism of the Golden Age, but the route-map there is left to chance.

However, given the durability of the unhinged free market, is powerful critique twinned with improvised and sporadic resistance the best we can hope for? I don’t mean to sound unduly pessimistic; contrary to New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman’s latest, globalisation has not rendered the world flat and governments, as the relatively egalitarian Nordic states have demonstrated, retain extensive room for social-democratic manoeuvre. Persistent talk of a neoliberal ‘race to the bottom’ is designed to grant the right the same aura of inevitability that the left once traded on. Yet too often the centre-left portray any retention or even advance as only achieved in the teeth of all-consuming globalisation. A European social democratic revival could at least begin by acknowledging that globalisation imposes few genuine constraints, thus ending the irrational paranoia that leaves citizens bewildered and the prejudices of the right confirmed. Italy, where the crooked narcissist Silvio Berlusconi now seems likely to return to government, is a desperate example of this failure.

But what of the wider international level that Klein focuses on? With economists now more likely to differ on the severity than the probability of global economic decline, capitalism, warts and all, will be under the spotlight once more. With its inherent tendency to monopoly, to maldistribute wealth and to market failure all in tact, capitalism may have jettisoned its competitors but it has not, and cannot, cast aside these rogue characteristics.

These persistent faults at least provide openings but harnessing them proves a more weighty task. Some hail the so-called ‘pink tide’ of leftish Latin American governments as the bright spot in this regard. Governments in Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador have ensured that the poor majority can no longer be sidelined as passive spectators and have brought about a long overdue reckoning with bloated elites. But restricted by regional circumstance and over-dependent on charismatic individuals and resource populism, they fail to offer a globally transferable model.

Others alight upon China’s Market Leninism as a vital counterbalance to US hegemony. As Pinochet’s Chile demonstrated, democracy is neither a necessary precondition for, nor an inevitable consequence of, capitalist development but the defects that China is visibly tainted by are such that a political implosion cannot be ruled out. The informational difficulties and lack of accountability that flow from the absence of a free media and an independent judiciary are inherently defective and
can prove decisive.

It was vital, therefore, that after his shamefully sycophantic visit to the Chinese government, Gordon Brown renewed the UK pledge to campaign for a security council seat for India, the world’s largest liberal democracy and one equipped with an admirably secular system. In the form of the governing Congress party there remains a serviceable, if diminished, centre-left tradition and the outlines of a more sustainable and equitable rise.

In some ways it is symptomatic of the narrowing of economic horizons that the major capitalist power should find itself at war with a jihadist foe that, excepting opportunistic propaganda, has absolutely nothing to say on economics. First hubris and then fear have marked the left’s relationship with capitalism over the last fifty years, a cool dose of scepticism and an affirmation of human agency are the necessary preliminaries to engagement in this tattered arena.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 29/01/08


January 15, 2008

A great President who will never be: John Edwards

One of the most visible indicators of George Bush’s disastrous presidency has been a dramatic rise in global anti-US sentiment. In western Europe, (the east remains more amenable largely owing to memories of the Soviet yoke), French anti-Americanism was once seen as sui generis but over time this view has become less and less tenable. Eight years ago, 83 per cent of British citizens had a favourable view of the US, by last year this had fallen to 51 per cent. Though much of this can be put down to the calamitous invasion of Iraq, it also reflects a view of America as a corporate playground; a land dedicated to vulgar self-gratification while 47 million Americans lack health insurance and Democrat and Republican alike genuflect to big business. Its dismaying therefore, that the one presidential candidate who has said as much has been crowded out by the razzmatazz of Barack Obama and the stoicism (now with added tears) of Hillary Clinton.

“The system in Washington is rigged and our government is broken.” Not the words of a Noam Chomsky op-ed, but those of John Edwards, running mate in 2004 to the lacklustre John Kerry and a challenger for the Democratic nomination. Edwards wasn’t simply playing to the leftist gallery on this occasion. Radicalised by the 2004 defeat, the dysfunctions and social fractures that flow from overweening corporate power have been the defining theme of his campaign. As one Edwards ad put it, “We can say as long as we get Democrats in, everything’s gonna be ok. It’s a lie- do you really believe if we replace a crowd of corporate Republicans with a crowd of corporate Democrats that anything meaningful’s gonna change?”

Nor has Edwards ducked funding issues, promising to break a Democratic taboo-maintained since Walter Mondale’s 1984 run-on raising taxes. His emphasis on tackling inequality has helped bind together a cross-class coalition of progressive liberals, farmers and blue-collar unionised workers. And given that the Democrats have run rather too many Massachusetts liberals in the past, Edwards’ Southern roots are all to the good. After coming home a distant third in New Hampshire, the former North Carolina Senator won’t be elected President but the reasons why do much to affirm his essential message.

With a past as both a robust anti-poverty campaigner and as a well remunerated personal injury lawyer, he has necessarily fallen foul of the right-wing cry of ‘hypocrite!’, with opponents homing in on his $6 million home and his $400 haircut. I think we can all agree that, yes, $400 is rather too much to spend on a rug-rethink, but Edwards wouldn’t begrudge others the same indulgence, nor the appropriate taxation that follows. Where’s the hypocrisy? In any case, under this perverse logic reactionaries like the vile Ann Coulter, who among other things has labelled Edwards a ‘faggot’ and claimed he ‘enjoyed’ the road death of his teenage son, are hypocrites should they ever donate to charity.

Instead, the reality of Edwards’ defeat is that despite getting through more shoe leather than any other candidate, by taking aim at the stranglehold of big money on both parties, he has been left trailing Obama and Clinton in the financial stakes. Despite being just as electable as either, with voters ranking him further ahead of the Republican field when show clips of all candidates, this disparity in resources has proved decisive.

Nor is this just a technical issue; greater freedom from corporate interests has allowed Edwards the space to develop the most progressive policies of any candidate. Moreover, the corollary has held; Obama’s and Clinton’s policies have been visibly tainted by their corporate links.

The failure of Edwards’ campaign to receive the attention it deserves has robbed many of an illuminating vantage point on US politics. As Michael Moore’s Sicko devastatingly documented, the vested interests of the health insurance firms and drug companies, twinned with campaign contributions to this end, have blocked the development of an adequate health system. Clinton has largely matched Edwards’ health care plan, but the suspicion remains that as the second-largest Senate recipient of health-industry contributions, she will be forced to capitulate in practice.

By contrast, Edwards has recognised that euphemism about, or compromise with, corporate forces is neither possible nor desirable. As he wryly notes, “The lesson Senator Clinton seems to have learned from her experience with health care is, ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.’ I learned a very different lesson from decades of fighting powerful interests—you can never join ‘em, you just have to beat ‘em.” Moreover, Edwards’ plan contains an inbuilt reciprocity; if a universal healthcare plan has not been passed by mid 2009, care for the President, Congress and political appointees will be cut off.

Most of all, he has grasped that clearing out the Aegean stables of corporate excess is a necessary preliminary to policy progress on issues from climate change to foreign policy. In 2005 State Department papers thanked ExxonMobil for the company’s “active involvement” in determining climate change policy and briefing papers encouraged acceptable alternatives to Kyoto to be formed in tandem with the company and others. Naomi Klein’s mordant The Shock Doctrine has most recently documented the extent to which corporate force drove the neoliberal order imposed on Iraq under former US viceroy Paul Bremer.

Edwards isn’t without fault; I can’t forgive his rather saccharine piety, “I think that Jesus would be disappointed in our ignoring the plight of those around us who are suffering”, a defect shared by his Democratic rivals. This is after all a religion that inaugurated the concept of eternal punishment long before Guantanamo Bay, or anything like it, came on the scene. His campaign hasn’t devoted enough attention to the consistent curtailment of civil liberties by the Bush administration, and his vote in favour of the Patriot Act is a stain on his record. But he still offered the Democrats their most progressive opportunity for decades.

The failure of John Edwards says much about the preference of American liberals for the fuzzy bed of identity-politics-a refuge for the sinister and mediocre-rather than principled civic liberalism. Yet Edwards’ failure also holds uncomfortable truths for the European left. The lack of interest in his campaign suggests at least some have become so disillusioned with US politics that they are unable to recognise a candidate who stands against the very roots of this disillusion. This mixture of complacency and fatalism must change-and soon.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 15/01/08


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