Friday, 30 January 2015

The Politics of Lee Atwater.

It took some time, but I finally got around to watching Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008) by Stefan Forbes. It's well worth a watch if you're fascinated by the drama of American politics. In its focus on Lee Atwater the film individualises a serious problem, which is actually systematic, within the US political scene. This is both its weakness and strength.

It shouldn't be a surprise. After all, individualism has long been the dominant character of American politics. Personalities carry more significance than parties. Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan and Sarah Palin coexist in the same party, but represent very different ideas, constituencies and interests. But this can obscure ideological and economic problems.

Undoubtedly, Lee Atwater is a significant figure in American political history. He arose just as the civil rights struggle had defeated Jim Crow in the Southern States and the anti-war movement was challenging US hegemony. Out of this period the gay liberation and feminist movements emerged in the 1970s. The executive power of the presidency was put under strain with the fall of Nixon in the wake of Watergate. It looked as if the establishment was seriously threatened.

What came next has to be understood as a period of reconsolidation for the American ruling-class. Jimmy Carter came into office as a candidate to win over the counterculture and bring them back into mainstream liberal politics. Once in office, President Carter installed Paul Volcker in the Federal Reserve, where Volcker hiked interest rates to soak the poor, and in foreign affairs pledged CIA support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and the Contras in Nicaragua.

Once in office, Reagan inherited and expanded the Contras and the Mujahideen deepening the American commitment to devastating Nicaragua and Afghanistan. The Reaganites went as far as to sanction CIA drug trafficking to fund the illegal and immoral campaign of terrorism against the Sandinistas. This was the surrounding context of Atwater's rise.

The Reagan campaign recycled the planks of Goldwater conservatism: small government, individual freedom, and anti-communism. This is where Atwater entered. As one of Strom Thurmond's storm troopers he had mastered the Southern strategy, which had allowed the Republicans to seize the South after the Democrats conceded to civil rights reform. He was adept at tapping into the copious reservoirs of Southern anger, not just at the civil rights movement, but at the outcome of the American civil war.

Traditionally, the Democratic Party had been the representatives of white supremacy, as well as big business, and later the labour movement. The balance of this was first disrupted by the New Deal and then finally collapsed under the Great Society. This is the side of history that the documentary could have engaged. Instead, the film does little to critically engage with the Democrats, a flaw endemic to American liberals, which given their failures and complicity is pretty lax. The focus on Atwater allows the film to skip over the complicity of Democrats.

The film rightly focuses on the Bush campaign of '88 and highlighted the use of race as a mobilising force. Atwater engineered the notorious Willie Horton adverts, which sparked controversy, in a blatant appeal to white racial-consciousness. Atwater transformed George Bush, the wimp wasp, into the defender of the white race. However, the documentary omits that it was Al Gore who raised the case of Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis in the competition for the Democratic nomination.

In other words, the liberals played the race card first only for Atwater to wield it against them. Much like how Harry Truman initiated the red scare which would mutate into McCarthyism. The capacity of establishment liberalism to undermine itself should not be underestimated. I'm not sure if the omission of this convicts Stefan Forbes of anything particularly egregious. It could be down to ignorance, or a choice to keep the focus on Atwater. In any case, this omission folds into another problematic assumption.

Forbes attributes a diabolical brilliance to the likes of Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, and, by extension, Roger Ailes. Out of these figures Atwater may have been the most effective, but it's hard to judge as his rise and fall was so rapid. It shouldn't be forgotten that Bush I was flushed out of the White House thanks to a tax pledge he made on Atwater's watch. It's clear Karl Rove offered George W Bush highly damaging advice on more than one occasion. Alexander Cockburn pointed this out a long time ago:

Since 9/11 where has been the good news for the Administration? It’s been a sequence of catastrophe of unexampled protraction. Under Rove’s deft hand George Bush has been maneuvered into one catastrophe after another. Count the tombstones: “Bring it on”, “Mission Accomplished”, the sale of US port management to Arabs. It was Rove who single-handedly rescued the antiwar movement last July by advising Bush not to give Cindy Sheehan fifteen minutes of face time at his ranch in Crawford.

As for Roger Ailes, the emergence of Fox News has largely allowed the mainstream media to pretend it is really objective - at least with Fox News there is little such pretense - when in many ways the US press (even without Fox) is awful. The New York Times, a regular feature in the Fox demonology, has long been a custodian of the establishment and its consensus. The soi disant objective media has always been far from inclusive.

So the picture is incomplete for it lacks the ineffectuality and complicity of the Democrats. It's no coincidence that the culture wars were launched after the economic losses under Reagan were accepted as conventional wisdom. It's not all down to the Machiavellian ingenuity of a boy from South Carolina. The bicoastal elites were always vulnerable to cultural populism as class has long been a taboo subject in American politics. The assumed primacy of individuals leaves little room for systemic analysis, except for sectional interests.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Will Putin fall?

The combination of economic sanctions and oil prices have led to the currency crisis in Russia mutating into the greatest crisis for Putin to face. The question which observers should be pondering is whether or not Putin will survive this storm. This is why I felt it necessary to write on the new crisis in Russia:

Putin’s brand of national capitalism, not to be confused with a neoliberal market economy, faces the greatest challenges in its short history. Economic nationalism meant the combination of a flat tax regime, land privatisation, state management of resources and protectionist measures to maintain industry. Oil revenue allowed Russia to secure growth and pay off its Soviet-era debt. But the nationalist push against international capital inevitably comes up against the limits of its own barriers.

Russia has a strategic interest in keeping Ukraine out of the EU-NATO orbit, but this doesn’t mean it produces results for its economy. On the contrary, the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea led to diplomatic and economic pressures being brought against Russian institutions. The sanctions converged with the collapse of oil prices, as OPEC maintains output, confident that it will break even sooner rather than later. The rouble is unstable, sanctions are beginning to cripple international trade, and the economy is logically contracting.

The full article can be read at Souciant.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The real substance.

The real substance of Obama's state of the union address was in the positions he has already taken and merely reaffirmed yesterday. The truth of his government can be read in these statements. Below, I've included excerpts here and underlined particularly important sentences:

First, we stand united with people around the world who have been targeted by terrorists -- from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris. (Applause.) We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we have done relentlessly since I took office to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies. (Applause.)  
At the same time, we’ve learned some costly lessons over the last 13 years. Instead of Americans patrolling the valleys of Afghanistan, we’ve trained their security forces, who have now taken the lead, and we’ve honored our troops’ sacrifice by supporting that country’s first democratic transition. Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we’re partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America.  
In Iraq and Syria, American leadership -- including our military power -- is stopping ISIL’s advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group. (Applause.) We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.  
Now, this effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed. And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL. We need that authority. (Applause.)

Of course, it goes without saying that the Islamic State emerged out of an array of conditions which the US helped to create - not only in its destabilisation of the whole region, but in its encouragement of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to back Syria's Islamist rebels. The fact that the President has done this and reserves the right to act unilaterally against such 'terrorists' would have been noted by any serious observer. Instead the media was largely silent on these points and preferred to focus on 'middle-class economics'. But wait, it gets better.

Second, we’re demonstrating the power of American strength and diplomacy. We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small -- by opposing Russian aggression, and supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies. (Applause.)  
Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, as we were reinforcing our presence with frontline states, Mr. Putin’s aggression it was suggested was a masterful display of strategy and strength. That’s what I heard from some folks. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads -- not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve. (Applause.)

What's missing from this picture? Well, the coup which threw out Viktor Yanukovych was supported by NATO and the EU to bring Ukraine within the US-EU orbit of influence. The US opposes Russian aggression, but only as a response to its own unilateralism. Don't just take my word for it. Here's what Mikhail Gorbachev said in a recent interview with Der Spiegel.

NATO's eastward expansion has destroyed the European security architecture as it was defined in the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. The eastern expansion was a 180-degree reversal, a departure from the decision of the Paris Charter in 1990 taken together by all the European states to put the Cold War behind us for good. Russian proposals, like the one by former President Dmitri Medvedev that we should sit down together to work on a new security architecture, were arrogantly ignored by the West. We are now seeing the results.

NATO was founded to counter Soviet aggression. It makes little sense, if we accept its initial claims, why it would continue to exist after the fall of the Soviet Union. Not only does it exist, but it has been expanded. Now Obama brags about the economic sanctions he has imposed on Russia as a punishment. It's a clear message: the US will not accept the standards it applies to others.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

In defence of obscenity.

Whenever you hear the prattle of 'Western values' you should recall Gandhi's words when asked what he thinks to Western civilisation: "I think it would be a good idea".

It's undeniable, Charlie Hebdo spewed a lot of filthy racist trash. However, free-speech should extend to precisely those people with despicable viewpoints; but it's odd that the West pretends it does so. If the French establishment did believe in free-speech then it wouldn't have criminalised Holocaust denial. The same can be said of other countries, if the UK government gives a damn about free-speech then it should ditch its crazy libel laws.

"If you believe in free-speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you dislike," said Noam Chomsky. It's clear much of Europe does not believe in freedom of speech for despicable views. In spite of the fact that the French Republic has long laid claim to the foundations of human rights and civil liberties, it does not act as if it is. It was only in July 2014 that the Hollande government banned the protests over the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip. So much for freedom of speech.

Many liberals have been calling for the cartoons to be shown on the BBC and CNN as a kind of anti-clerical defiance. As Arthur Goldhammer argues, the satirists at Charlie Hebdo represented a provocative corner of mass-media in the tradition of gouaille. It's meant to be obscene, offensive and on the edges of acceptable opinion. Of course, this is less true of the Muhammad cartoons, which unites much of liberal Europe, than it is of the racist cartoons of the Chibok girls.

The right to free-speech, which may be limited at the point where violence is explicitly advocated, should be stretched as far as it can be. The right may not be the reason to say disgusting and offensive things, but it can't be policed on such grounds. Nevertheless, it is more in line with the Hebdo spirit to excoriate the magazine for its virulent caricatures than it is to embrace them as 'martyrs'. It's suspect that the magazine is celebrated in this way, and I think that the cartoonists would be suspicious of this process too.

What it seems to confirm is that the provocation of European Muslims really isn't that edgy and isn't repressed at all. The question we should be asking ourselves is: should this be the case? In Goldhammer's words: "To transform the shock of Charlie's obscenities into veneration of its martyrdom is to turn the magazine into the kind of icon against which its irrepressible iconoclasm was directed".

This is a separate observation to saying such views don't deserve protection. Free-speech never meant omnipresence, people have the right to express their viewpoint, no matter how vulgar, but we're not obliged to republish it (though I have here, so you can see what I mean). Just as if a neo-Nazi came into your home and put up a poster denying the Holocaust it's not a violation of free-speech for you to tear it down. Publications and public speech is another matter. The people advocating the Muhammad cartoons be shown on the BBC and CNN are looking for a fight. They want to normalise Charlie Hebdo rather than defend it as the filthy rag it is.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Notes on Charlie Hebdo.

As my friend Chris Horner posted on Facebook:

1. The Hebdo murders were despicable, disgusting, awful. The people who did it must be caught and dealt with - preferably in a courtroom. It seems now very likely they've been killed: I've no sympathy for them.
2. The killings prove nothing about Islam, religion, immigration, France etc. Anything you know now, you knew 48 hours ago.
3. The nature of the magazine is irrelevant to the points above. Whether its cartoons were nasty and racist all, some or none of the time is a completely separate point. The writers didn't deserve this. No one does.
4. It's not disloyal to their memory, nor is it to condone the killings to raise issues about the kinds of things our governments have done, and still do, that helped to contribute to the situation in which those murders occurred. And the question of Islamophobia is an entirely legitimate one in that context.
5. A lot of nasty racists on the right as well as a distinct group of nasty, extremist 'Islamists' have the shared goal of promoting a 'war of civilisations'. An assortment of miscellaneous commentators and opportunists are also sounding off in the usual manner, in ways that don't help us to avoid this. Don't pass on their virus of fear and hate.
6. Try to think rationally. Remember it's possible to hold more than one thought at the same time. Don't conflate things that are distinct, but don't deny the way things are connected either.
7. Remember that the vast majority of people are decent, and that the killers and the fanatics of all stripes are an amplified minority, and a tiny one at that. Stand up, not for 'our side' but for the universal that struggles to be visible in all this: help make it visible.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Why UKIP needs defectors.

I’ve already articulated my view that the ‘successes’ of UKIP have been overstated by the press. Perhaps this is out of boredom with the mediocrity of conventional politics and not out of a closeted sympathy with right-wing populism. Time will tell, I suppose.

The results of new research support my claim. It seems that the UK Independence Party will struggle come election time to capitalise on the small gains it has achieved. I say ‘small gains’ because it still controls no councils and none of its candidates have won a seat in Parliament. Many of you will be shocked to read this because Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell now represent UKIP in Parliament. But it’s still the case because these men defected. The rank and file of UKIP remains outside Westminster and in Brussels.

You might wonder why we shouldn’t take Reckless and Carswell seriously? Well, it’s a lot easier for establishment candidates to jump ship than for outsiders to break into the mainstream. It wasn’t so long ago that Roger Helmer lost his bid for a seat in the House of Commons. The truth is that they need more defectors. As my fellow blogger Josh Catto put it on Facebook:

I think of all post-war defections that led to by-elections, only Bruce Douglas-Mann lost his seat. But his case is instructive. He defected from the SDP to Labour, called a by-election for 1982 in Mitcham and Morden (my own constituency), and lost to the Tories in the middle of the Falklands. Otherwise, it is a pretty fail safe strategy.
So Carswell and Reckless are called opportunistic by their opponents for doing it. But that's the job of politicians not in your party - to oppose what you do. They would get far more flack if they hadn't stood down for re-election. But they're also looking at the SDP example. Douglas-Mann probably would have won if it hadn't been during the Falklands. And standing down for re-election allows them to have a bit more of a base for the general election. Certainly it gives them time to prepare and re-jig their database and phone banks etc.
But already Ashcroft polling shows Reckless would probably just miss out on keeping Rochester. Carswell will probably hang on to Clacton. Maybe Farage in Thanet, and I can see them picking up Grimsby from Labour. Perhaps Rotherham as well. I will also be very interested to see if Carswell takes over after 2015. If so, expect to see him target Lib Dem libertarians like Laws and Browne.

The feat of securing a seat for an outsider candidate was achieved in 2010 when Caroline Lucas won Brighton for the Green Party. The Greens are growing rapidly, procuring many supporters from the long-suffering ranks of the Labour Party. The EU elections demonstrated that there is serious disaffection out there. The Conservatives and Lib Dems lost 10% between themselves, while the BNP lost 7% of its vote. UKIP boosted its vote by 10%, while the Greens came in at 8%. What we need is left-wing populism.