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Saturday, 23 August 2014

Scotland's Future.




In a matter of a few weeks Scotland will decide on its future. The Left seems to have lined up behind the Yes-side of the referendum on Scottish independence. We should be asking ourselves, what is the case for unionism here? Surely, there has to be a progressive case here. After all, the Union stood firm against the rising tide of Fascism in the early decades of the twentieth century.

First of all, it has to be affirmed that there is a fundamental principle – the right to self-determination – which is without question. If the Scottish people demand an independent sovereign Scotland then they are entitled to it. The English don’t have a right to impose a form of government not accepted by Scots over Scotland. This goes to the heart of democratic concerns.

What we might call ‘red patriotism’, or traditional revolutionary patriotism, as Hobsbawm called it, has its time and place. English nationalism was tapped into by both Winston Churchill and JB Priestley. The war against fascism coincided with forces vying for the future of the social order. The people who had seen the worst of the 1930s did not want to return to those days and wanted a better life. This is why in 1945 the national government under Churchill’s leadership helped to win the war, but the Labour Party won the election. It marked the beginning of three decades of social democracy.

It was in the Union that the Welsh and Scottish people found a voice in British political life, not through nationalist organisation, but through the opposition – the Liberals and Labour. It was only with the decline of the post-war establishment and rise of Thatcherism, coupled with the death of Empire, that the Labour Party pursued devolution. Then Scottish nationalism became a contender. This should not surprise us. So a vital part of the picture is the rise of neoliberalism.

The neoliberal context

The question of Scotland’s viability is not so uncertain. The country has a GDP per capita of over £24,000. No doubt Scotland would undergo economic reform in order to reorder the institutions which underlie its standing. The real issue is what exactly an independent Scotland will look like.

It seems plausible that an independent Scotland would be opened up to international forces and exposed to the full brunt of neoliberal reforms. This might even be the case if Scotland heads for greater integration into the European system. The power of monetary policy may still be held by Whitehall and this could constrain any government in its policies. Likewise it would be possible for corporations, and even small-scale businesses, to hold the state to ransom – threatening to disinvest the fledgling economy – to shift policy in their own favour. The English government could easily initiate a race to the bottom on fiscal policy with Scotland forcing down its rate of tax and expenditure.

The possibility of a flat-tax haven north of England shouldn’t be dismissed as we have seen the same thing happen in Ireland (where there always was a much stronger nationalist/republican case). Michael Portillo has described this as the Tory case for Scottish independence. He argues it would thrust Scotland into the cold winds of global competition and, by the looks of Brussels these days, we can see how independence may lead to greater neoliberal reform and not less.

This is a point that can’t be dismissed easily as the national takes shape within the international. Contrary to the claims of nationalists globalisation does not oppose nation-states, or even nationalism. Sovereignty of national bodies has long been embedded in a global economic context. Just as the freedom and sovereignty of the individual is not absolute, neither is that of the body national. Capital can easily exploit the proliferation of borders in a world already too bifurcated. This is the reason Scotland will remain within the EU and its currency will remain sterling after independence.

The prospects for distribution

We shouldn’t kid ourselves about the Barnett formula. It’s not the case that there is a ‘trickle-down’ of wealth from the financial colossus in the City of London; but there is a case for widespread redistribution within the Union. It may be said that the United Kingdom has a greater pool of tax revenues together and from the 1940s to the 70s there was a modicum of distributional change. This led to the workers’ share of GDP rising to a peak in the late 60s and early 70s. The battle to restore profitability to the system, firstly, by the Labour government of the late 70s and then by the Thatcher administration ultimately succeeded. Since then the workers’ share of GDP has stagnated while the bosses’ share has skyrocketed.

However, once independent, Scotland would not necessarily have access to capital if a programme of redistribution were secured. The Glasgow Media Group calculated that the top layer of income-earners in the UK – around 10% of the population – were sitting on around £4 trillion in wealth in 2010. The vast amounts of capital amassed over the generations and concentrated in southern English hands would largely remain in London. The potential for redistribution would be left stunted and Scotland would be on the receiving end of a self-imposed scarcity. Under such conditions it seems likely that the Scottish government would take the side of one class over another.

It can certainly be argued that the Union has done much to preserve inequality in Scotland, where the richest 10% now have 273 times as much wealth than the poorest 10%. The richest 100 men and women increased their wealth from £18 billion to £21 billion in 2012. Just in terms of land ownership there is immense inequality in Scotland. Out of the rural landscape, which makes up 94% of Scottish land, a little over 83% of it is privately owned. Out of a population of over 5.2 million people less than a 1,000 people control 60% of the country. It seems plausible that the social inequalities preserved in Scotland by the Union would remain and could potentially be deepened by independence. So the strongest case for Scottish independence has to be a socialist case and not a nationalist one.

Except the world situation seems to make a socialist Scotland unlikely. In the distributional struggle inside the EU the biggest sparks of resistance have been in Spain and Greece. The disenchantment elsewhere in Europe, including in the UK, has not translated into electoral change. This matters because Scottish independence could well open up a new distributional struggle in the country. In the absence of a mass movement capable of waging a fight for workers’ rights the conservative tendencies of the SNP may win in the end.

This article was originally written for The Third Estate on August 23 2014.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

On the Khmer Rouge trial.


I've written about Cambodia and the period of Angkar rule (1975-79) in the past. So I felt it necessary to cover the recent verdicts at the trial of Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea. It is an obscenity that the core of the leadership has gotten away with it all. Khieu Samphan may be the biggest prize here, but it would have been a great day to see Saloth Sar (a.k.a. "Pol Pot") in the dock. It would have been even better to have seen Henry Kissinger in the dock with him for his part in sanctioning the illegal bombing of Cambodia which precipitated the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Here's a snippet:

The Khmer Rouge got off easy. No act of genocide is as misunderstood as the murderous campaign that the Maoist revolutionaries undertook during the second half of the 1970s. Two million Cambodians were murdered in the space of four years. The scale of the killings, and the ruthlessness with which they were conducted, shocked the West, which was still struggling to get its head around the Holocaust, just three decades earlier.


The idea that an anti-colonial conflict, so soon afterwards, had turned so barbarous, was particularly difficult to digest, especially in the context of popular resentment against the war in Vietnam. The people, so to speak, had proven no better than the imperialists, first the French, and then the Americans, who had spent the better part of the post-war period trying to stamp out the threat of socialism in Southeast Asia, killing millions, themselves.

There are many inconvenient truths about the Khmer Rouge. Like the fact that Prince Sihanouk embraced Pol Pot as an ally, along with Ronald Reagan, and George HW Bush, against the Vietnamese forces which removed the Khmer Rouge in 1979. That the Western powers provided food and training as long as they were 'resisting' Vietnam's occupation. John Pilger and Peter Jennings have both covered this.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Haven't we heard enough liberal crap?


The sun scorched grass made for the stomping ground. Organisers estimate 150,000 turned out to express their solidarity with the people of Gaza. It was a great Saturday to march from Portland Place to Hyde Park. The usual suspects made an appearance - from George Galloway and Seamus Milne to Jeremy Corbyn and Tariq Ali - with the addition of impassioned speeches by Palestinian speakers. The day ended with Arabic singing, echoing out by speaker and microphone over a multitude of flags representing different countries. That was solidarity in force - a value all too trivialised today.

I met up with a good friend of mine on the march and we caught up and discussed the issue at hand. We talked about the mediocrity of the liberal consensus in the media. It would sound quite conservative, to an American ear at least, to dismiss liberals and the media as predominantly liberal. Except, as socialists we can't help but remember that the liberals turned their guns on the radicals in 1848 and ever since then they have never ceased to compromise at the expense of the common good. "Compromise is good" they proclaim, even in the face of slavery. Don't have any radical thoughts, you'll end up committing misdeeds if you hold such thoughts. Phil Ochs was right on.

There is a corporate liberal establishment, it has a left-wing and a right-wing and a centreground for good measure. The glossy progressive crowd of liberals gravitate to outlets like The Guardian and The New Statesman. The top prizes go to Hadley Freeman and Eleanor Margolis. It was a tough choice. Freeman stammered about in her column for a while. She bemoaned the Tricycle Theatre story and, implicitly, the calls for a cultural boycott of Israel. She told us that she despised "being told what to think" (by whom?) and "lazy assumptions" (of what?).

It is infuriating that the liberal factions in both countries in which I have nationality insist on taking such a slanted, kneejerk view of Israel. Just as the pro-Israel sentiment in the US so often shades into prejudice against Muslims, so the anti-Israel one in Britain slips all too quickly into anti-Semitism. 
Jews are not Israel (something liberal Jews have been saying for years) but nobody – not a London theatre, not even Steven Spielberg – has the right to tell them what to think about it, or to ask them to prove their good Jewish credentials by either supporting or condemning it. Watch yourself, Europe. Some of your roots are showing.

For a whole month Hadley Freeman has written nothing about the Palestinians. She did find the time to write about Kim Kardashian's arse, George Clooney, the World Cup, Molly Ringwald, and unshaven armpits. One shouldn't have to speculate too hard about her priorities. Not a fucking word about Netanyahu's assault on Gaza. It has nothing to do with Jewishness. War crimes are not unique to particular 'races' or religious sects. The truth is that the liberal base of support for Israel is in a bad shape and has been for a while now. Jonathan Freedland has admitted as much. And Norman Finkelstein has been saying this for yonks.

It used to be easy to pretend that the Israeli government are a force of progress in the Middle East. A liberal democracy surrounded by backward and reactionary dictatorships. Israel is pictured as an encircled state in need of support and defence. Its enemies are too awful, and even more numerous. This narrative was easy to uphold until 1967 for a number of reasons: 1) there was a majority of Arab states opposed to Israel's existence and to any settlement until then; 2) the Palestinian case was unheard and subsumed into this sea of Arab 'barbarism'; 3) Israel was a social democratic country (except when it came to the Palestinians, of course) with a significant degree of equity.

Today, Israel is no longer social democratic and has become a hyper-nationalist state in terms of its internal discourse. Mainstream politicians stand up and label African refugees as a "cancer" without any whiff of self-consciousness. Ethiopian Jews have even been sterilised. That's before we get to foreign policy. At the international level, we find the UN Security Council is completely gerrymandered by the United States on the side of Israel and against any resolutions in favour of a two-state settlement. This began in January of 1976 when a resolution was proposed with the support of the PLO and most Arab countries, in fact, most countries in the world. The US vetoed it.

So now liberal Jews have a dilemma and many have just gone quiet, while others get defensive. On July 24, Eleanor Margolis churned out a blog called 'The left's insistence on Jews apologising for being Jewish is anti-Semitic'. Keep in mind, Ms Margolis had written not a word about Israel and Palestine, and the suffering of Palestinians, in her New Statesman column since she started out there in 2013. At this point, the IDF had launched its ground invasion of the Gaza Strip after the downing of the Malaysian airplane over Ukraine distracted the world media. She equated criticism of Israel and sympathy with the Palestinians with support for Hamas:

... throughout the most recent bout of violence between Israel and Palestine and all the others before it that I can remember, the problem of anti-Semitism on the Left has been illuminated. While you’d basically have to be a brick wall to fail to sympathise with the Palestinians, the Left (as usual) has gone very quiet when it comes to condemning Hamas. Either that, or they’ve actively condoned their actions. Although Lib Dem MP David Ward has since apologised for tweeting his support for Hamas’s rocket attacks, the fact remains that Hamas are often painted as the good guys. Hamas are not just anti-Israel, they’re anti-Jewish, which, can I just remind everyone, is racist. Their charter, which explicitly calls for the mass killing of Jews, makes this abundantly clear. I hate to break this to you but, if you refuse to condemn Hamas on this point, at least, you’re an anti-Semite. I don’t give a shit how much you love Curb Your Enthusiasm: you’re still an anti-Semite. Or at least an anti-Semite by-proxy.

Notice the total absence of evidence for the assertion that the Left has taken the side of Hamas and has an anti-Semitic agenda. She refers us to David Ward's tweet in which he stated "The big question is - if I lived in #Gaza would I fire a rocket? - probably yes." Not a particularly pro-terrorist statement, it was an empathetic statement, just as Ehud Barak was not making a pro-terrorist statement when he said "If I were a Palestinian at the right age, I would have joined one of the terrorist organizations at a certain stage." Of course, Barak was posturing as a great peacemaker and as Prime Minister he would terminate negotiations with Arafat rather than face the realistic chance of a peaceful settlement.

As a self-described "sapphic cynic" Margolis tends to blog about gay liberation and her own lived-experience as a Jewish lesbian. I wonder how much of this thinking applies to lesbians and gays living in the Arab world and living under Israeli blockade and occupation. Instead Margolis tells us that she struggles to dismiss the claims of Douglas Murray and Melanie Phillips: first, the claim that the anti-war movement is 'anti-Semitic' and, secondly, the bizarre claim that the critics of Israel deplore its actions as 'disproportionate' because they wish more Jews were dying. This is garbage. Total garbage.

For starters, more Israeli soldiers have died in this bloodbath than they did in Operation Cast Lead and that's largely a result of the strategy undertaken by Hamas (which they seem to have borrowed from Hezbollah). No one on the Left was cheering on Hamas, they wanted the killing to stop, and wished it had never begun. Actually criticising Israel for being 'disproportionate' is a pretty weak criticism. Israel was not responding to Hamas, they were initiating the attack in the first place. Netanyahu attacked the Gaza Strip after Hamas and Fatah forged a unity government - which agreed to renounce violence and recognise Israel - because he is opposed to a peaceful settlement. Margolis goes on to conclude:

This notion that Jews should be ashamed of themselves over Israel isn’t exclusive to publicity-hungry, aging rock stars. When I was at uni, the student union implemented a campus-wide boycott of Israeli produce, to wit, one slightly manky orange. During the campaign, I remember arguing with one pro-boycott activist who proudly announced that her grandmother, right after the creation of Israel in 1948, had renounced her Judaism out of disgust. It struck me as sad that someone would abandon their identity because of the actions of a select few that share it. This incident, which lodged itself firmly enough in my mind for me to remember it five years later, is a perfect example of the Left’s insistence on Jews apologising for being Jewish.
And, for the record, I’m about as willing to apologise for being Jewish as I am to renounce my homosexuality. In case you’re reading my column for the first time, that translates as “not especially willing.” 

No one on the Left is calling for Jews to apologise for being Jewish or to feel ashamed. The problem with Israel is not a Jewish problem, it's a state problem - the problem of nationalism. It is the same problem which has led to catastrophe after catastrophe in Europe and in a lot of other places too. The Palestinians are an occupied and besieged people and the Israeli state has no doubt been affected by its role as an occupying force. It's political discourse has degenerated.

As for anti-Semitism, the anti-war march was unanimous "Are we anti-Semitic?" asked a speaker. "NO!" shouted the crowd. "Are we anti-Zionist?" he added. The crowd responded, almost as unanimous, "YES!" And that's a distinction that has been lost in the whirlwind faux commentary. This line was heard on more than one demonstration. I saw no anti-Jewish banners or signs and heard no anti-Jewish chanting. I did see one or two Hezbollah flags, granted. I even saw an ISIS flag. But that's more of a rejection of Western foreign policy than anything else. The US has never ceased from interfering in the Middle East and for good reason - oil!