Friday, 7 April 2017

Tell me lies about Syria


We're told that the Syrian civil war is just a proxy conflict between various powers: Bashar al-Assad is the face of an axis of resistance forged by Iran and Russia, while the US and its allies are backing the Islamist rebels as they try to takeover Syria bit by bit. This wrongheaded narrative has become incredibly powerful. The Syrian revolution has been subsumed into a geopolitical analysis of regional players.

The agency of armed groups in Syria has been supplanted for the flows of arms from the Gulf states and the US, the role of Turkey, the militias organised by Iran and the air campaign of Russian fighter jets. The context of the Arab Spring is completely lost, and the left-nationalist character of the uprising is concealed from public view. Instead, the Syrian civil war is just another senseless event, or the proxy struggle between the West and its anti-imperialist foes.

Through this narrow lens the use of poison gas in Khan Sheikhoun is either a false flag operation or just the symptom of the spiralling chaos of war. It looks like the Assad regime and its Russian patrons have resorted to poison gas out of exhaustion. The target is primarily civilian because the basis of the revolution were the elected councils fostered in rebel-held territory. This democratic alternative had to be snuffed out.

At the same time, the Western powers - the US, Britain and France, in particular - have not done much at all to support the Syrian opposition and the cause of a democratic Syria. The political support for the rebels only meant limited supplies of arms and funds, while the US has been happy to collaborate with Russia in bombing Syria. France and Britain have too taken to bombing the country. Yet the West has failed to provide air drops of food aid and take responsibility for the humanitarian fallout.

Although I oppose the West bombing Syria, don't mistake me for a fool who thinks Assad is worth defending. The Syrian regime is responsible for the bulk of deaths and suffering in the country, and it has a long record of collusion with the United States. The Assads sided with the US against Iraq in 1991 and the 'rendition programme' of torturing terror suspects after 2003. There's a reason the Blair government considered bestowing an honorary knighthood on Bashar al-Assad.

Don't tell me the Syrian Ba'ath regime is "anti-imperialist". Hafez al-Assad seized power from Salah Jadid in late 1970 after dragging his heels over the Syrian intervention on the side of the PLO in Jordan. At the time, the PLO was fighting to bring down the Hashemite monarchy and takeover the country. Perhaps fearing a rival Arab nationalist regional power, Assad was not eager to support Yasser Arafat. This is also why Syria would invade and occupy Lebanon in 1976.

The Assad regime sought to clip the wings of the PLO and prevent the Lebanese Left from taking over Lebanon. The Syrian occupation would converge with American and Israeli interests in keeping the Christian Maronites in power and expelling the PLO from Lebanon. Later, Syria would support the US military response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. This would help bring the Lebanese civil war to an end, as the Iraqi regime would withdraw support for its allies in the war.

The Syrian Ba'ath regime was no more "anti-imperialist" than its rival in Iraq. Both Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad were Soviet clients for many years, before defecting to the American camp. Iraq invaded Iran with full US approval, whereas Syria was more than happy to side with the US when Iraq went off the reservation. Meanwhile Syria has not challenged Israel since it lost the Golan Heights in the Six Day War and failed to recapture the territory in the 1973 war.

As for the claim that the Ba'ath regime is a secular socialist government, Hafez al-Assad rewrote the Syrian constitution to ensure that the president would always be a Muslim and constructed an alliance between the Alawite military leadership and the Sunni capitalist class. The state acted as a means of economic organisation and established a patronage network to sustain itself. This may have meant that the Syrian regime was willing to nationalise industry, but it was also willing to privatise these assets later on.

People continue to claim that the mixed nature of the Assad dynasty means that the state is the only non-sectarian alternative to Islamist barbarism. This fails to take into account the extent of violence and discrimination by the state against the Sunni working-class. Not only has the economy depended upon the exclusion of the Sunni urban and rural poor, the state has routinely repressed non-violent protest and tortured activists. The armed uprising was made inevitable by the regime because the Syrian security forces thought they could win easily.

When faced with an armed resistance the Syrian regime opened its prisons and released thousands of Islamists. Saddam Hussein did the same when faced with the US invasion. The Islamists have played a dual role: providing a strong front line for the rebels, but also acting as a counter-revolutionary agent. These militants may have been the toughest fighters, however, their actions have undermined the support for the revolution. This is all true even without taking into account ISIS and its monstrous actions.

It's hard to see how the civil war could end on just terms. As long as the Assad regime stands its ground, the hope of democracy and freedom in Syria is blighted and the reasons why the uprising happened go unchanged. In many ways, the Syrian opposition has more reason to keep on fighting than to settle in negotiations. The immense suffering in the country is down to the Syrian regime and its allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. For this reason, I suspect and fear that the war may continue to rage for years to come.

Why is Trump bombing Syria


Well, there we have it. The liberal chickenhawks should be cheering Trump's airstrikes against the Syrian regime. They've finally got what they wanted. The Donald has just done what Obama wanted to do back in 2013, though the administration dropped the idea of 'punitive strikes' because it lacked a clear strategy and the support of major allies. By contrast, Trump has no such restraint and has gone ahead anyway. This is a senseless display of state violence and no good will come of it.

Not that this signals a major change in US policy, the Trump administration has made clear it does not support regime change in Syria and the US has been bombing Syria for three years now. What changed last night was the target of the bombing. It was the first time the bombing campaign directly targeted the regime as part of official policy. It may reflect a shift in the struggles over policy in the US government, but not a break with history.

In fact, it is a sign of continuity after Steve Bannon was kicked off of the National Security Council. This is the end result of Michael Flynn being booted out of the administration for not disclosing his meetings with the Russian ambassador. The deviation from the traditional leadership of the Pentagon was not meant to last. Intelligence leaks and a media hysteria have allowed the old order to reassert itself. These 'punitive strikes' are not a humanitarian intervention. Rather the strikes represent the consolidation of Pentagon aims.

It's been apparent for some time now that the US has no coherent strategy in Syria. Obama may have pledged political support for the Syrian opposition. This support was translated into limited supplies of arms and funds. However, the US and its allies could have moved against Assad much earlier. If the Israelis had mobilied forces on the Syrian border, the armed forces would have been split and thus left vulnerable to a rebel offensive. But this never happened.

There is evidence that the Russians floated the idea of Assad stepping down in 2012, but the Americans threw cold water on the idea. The US government was waiting for the regime to cave to the rebel opposition, so it could control the outcome of the war. The problem may have been that the US wanted to see Assad go and keep the Ba'ath regime in place. This is quite similar to the US position on Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War.

Eventually the American ruling class decided it was better to invade and dismantle the entire regime and replace it with a new client state. Al Gore was calling for a US invasion of Iraq in 1998, and in 2003 the Bush administration finally toppled Saddam. It's possible to imagine that the Syrian civil war will conclude with the defeat of revolutionary forces and the emergence of a weak, broken state dominated by Assad and Islamist groups.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Western Hypocrisy Over St. Petersburg Attacks


It was a welcome change to hear the Western media acknowledge that the St. Petersburg bombing might have something to do with Russian foreign policy: the interventions in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria. Yet you will never hear such an angle raised when its an atrocity carried out in an American or a Western European city. In such cases any attempt to explain terrorism would be dismissed as making excuses for violence.

This moral blackmail was not deployed over St. Petersburg. What do we know about the attack? The main suspect Akbarzhon Jalilov, a Kyrgyz national, is accused of killing 14 people and injured 50 others in detonating a bomb in the St. Petersburg underground. Six people have now been arrested. They have been accused of recruiting for ISIS. The suspects are all from Central Asian states. This would fit with the analysis that the bombing was staged in reaction to Russian aggression.

Not only was Central Asia dominated by the Soviet Union, the region was on the frontline in the war in Afghanistan. Once the USSR had invaded Afghanistan, the war aims quickly changed to building a new society and occupying the country for the time being. The United States and its regional allies - particularly Saudi Arabia and Pakistan - established a network of jihadists to fuel the Afghan resistance to the Red Army.

The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan would come to a close by 1989. Gorbachev oversaw the withdrawal and warned the West that the forces they had mobilised in Afghanistan would come back to haunt them. Of course, the network behind Osama bin Laden and the attacks on the World Trade Centre had their origins in the Afghan struggle. The war itself would create a space for Eastern European dissidents to challenge regimes backed by the USSR. This combined with economic factors would bring down the Eastern bloc.

Events in Chechnya would be even more crucial for the terror factor in Russia. As the USSR was dismantled in 1991, Chechen Ichkeria declared independence under the nationalist leadership of Dzhokhar Dudayev. Growing instability and tension in the region would lead to the eruption of armed conflict in North Ossetia, the Chechens feared the presence of the Russian armed forces would be the first stage of mission creep. Dudayev imposed a state of emergency after Russia deployed troops to the border.

At the same time, Dudayev was facing a groundswell of opposition in the fledgling state. This opposition would turn to armed force in 1994. Boris Yeltsin pledged Russian support for the attempt to overthrow the Dudayev government. Yeltsin was desperate to bolster his domestic support in the midst of his disastrous economic reforms. The instability in the Chechen region offered an opportunity. The Russians backed the opposition in order to overthrow Dudayev and crush the example of independence.

However, Dudayev held his own from October to November against the forces Yeltsin had mobilised. Russian armed forces would play a clandestine role, but the Battle of Grozny left the Russian government humiliated after the Chechen independence forces captured a large number of military vehicles and personnel. It was meant to be a swift operation to topple the government. Faced with this, Yeltsin sanctioned the invasion of Ichkeria ostensibly to restore the territorial integrity of Russia.

The Russian army began bombing the Chechen air capabilities and within ten days the invasion was underway. Just as Brezhnev had mistakenly thought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would be successful within weeks the Russians now thought the Grozny government could be toppled. The war would rage for two years before a ceasefire was signed on Russian terms. Dudayev was assassinated in an 1996 airstrike.

With American help, Yeltsin would survive the Presidential elections of 1996. Estimates of the people killed in the first Chechen war range up to 100,000, along with 500,000 people displaced, in just two years of fighting. A new war would start in 1999 following the apartment bombings in Moscow and the rise of Vladimir Putin. The second war was waged by Russia and its Chechen allies to kill off independent Ichkeria and snuff out the emergent Islamist movement in the Northern Caucasus.

The first aim was secured, but an insurgency continues to this day. Russia has been struck by numerous bombings by Chechen Islamist fighters, and a key reason for the Russian intervention in Syria has been partly to extent the war against those same Chechens - now fighting in Syria alongside the mainstream rebels and an array of jihadist groups. Of course, the main reason has been to back the Assad regime - the only Russian ally in the region.

An honest look at the situation finds that the Russian government relies upon the Islamist threat to  justify its aggression in Syria. Even though Russia has been motivated partly by counter-insurgency in Chechnya, the main targets of Russian bombing have been the Syrian opposition and the civilians living in their territory, not Islamic State or al-Nusra. This in turn is a key factor in the continued threat of terrorism in Russia.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Ken Livingstone don't give a fuck


The furore over Ken Livingstone and his remarks about Hitler and Zionism last year has resurfaced. Finally the verdict is in: Livingstone has not been expelled from the Labour Party for his comments, but he has been suspended for another year. Before all this happened Ken was on the NEC and posed as a key ally to Jeremy Corbyn. Now he is out of the game until the summer of 2018.

The story has been covered as if the Labour Party should have stripped Livingstone of his membership and anything short of this makes them cowards. The Blairites and Brownites have been queuing around the block to hurl dog muck at the Labour leadership. One anonymous MP told the New Statesman: "Years from now, the foul stench of anti-Semitism will become one of the defining characteristics of the Jeremy Corbyn era in the Labour Party. A shameful and totally unforgivable chapter in our history."

Every wing of the British media establishment has taken part in the shit storm around Labour and anti-Semitism – from the BBC and The Guardian to The Telegraph and The Spectator. The Naz Shah scandal, and Ken Livingstone’s unhelpful intervention, is just the latest to be picked up. The British press has manufactured this scandal in a bid to create a crisis and, in turn, undermine the Labour leadership. But this hysteria also represents the high emotional stakes in Israel among the commentariat.

As a critic of the Israeli government, I have defended the Palestinian cause and its supporters against charges of anti-Semitism. And I have defended Ken Livingstone and his loose lips on more than one occasion. Still, I wish Ken had not brought up Hitler and Zionism in the middle of the Shah case. I do not think it was anti-Semitic, though I do think it was reckless and played into the hands of the Blairites.

Ken Livingstone ran into the Shah scandal like a bull into a china shop. Hopefully, we have just  heard the last vase smash against the floor. Plenty of leftists have pointed out the Haavara agreement, the Nazi plans to deport European Jews to Madagascar and elsewhere. However, the facts of Nazi Germany are not really relevant or helpful here. The real controversy is over Livingstone’s use of the term ‘Zionism’ to describe Nazi policy.

Laying out the historical record cannot dispel the outrage (even as much of it phony). The damage is done, sadly. Even before this, Livingstone was rated as an anti-Semite by certain people thanks to the media. Vilification campaigns are successful because it is virtually impossible to resist mudslinging. If you explain yourself, deny the claims or even apologise, you’re screwed. It’s too late. It’s never enough.

In this sense you can understand why Ken Livingstone has not apologise or concede ground, he just fires back against the press and his opponents in the party. Journalists kept asking him: "Do you recognise that you caused offence?" He does not, clearly. Much like the honey badger, Ken Livingstone don't give a fuck.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Marxists Are Not Social Justice Warriors

Everyone hates 'social justice warriors' (SJWs). It's become one of the favourite swearwords used by laptop reactionaries to categorise liberals and the wider left. If you're arguing for a redistribution of wealth and power, you could easily be pigeonholed as a social justice warrior. Anyone concerned with racism, homophobia or the inequality between men and women, can also be pinned with the same label.

It's a way of throwing some dirt over the fence with the hope that it lands on a leftist passing by. Yet the term itself reveals a paucity of understanding (maybe that's the point). Social justice comes out of the Catholic left and liberation theology. It's about compassion for the poor and social equity, basically distributing the goods we have amassed over time without necessarily changing the relations behind the distribution in the first place.

This is where social liberals, progressives and distributists differ to more radical socialists and Marxists. The economic and social problems we have cannot just be corrected by a quick reform, charity, different interpersonal conduct or a change of lifestyle. It's not just that the redistribution of wealth will solve exploitation, the relations of production and forms of ownership have to change too.

Believe it or not Marxism is not about social justice because it sees such a demand as impossible under capitalism. Justice is a moralistic demand in the first place, it presupposes that the system is capable of putting right its own iniquities. Not only is it impossible, the demand for justice fails to account for the fundamental problems of society. It implies that the question can be solved by a simple change.

Some Marxists are completely opposed to moralism and talk of justice. Others might view such demands as a tactical means of advancing a cause. For instance, I wouldn't say that the injustice inherent to capitalism is a reason for black activists to give up on the possibility of holding police accountable for their violence against the black community. It's just convicting police officers for murder is a step forward in a struggle.

Another example would be the labour movement. Some ultra-leftists would say that the attempts by trade unions to improve the wages and working conditions of their members are ultimately conservative, e.g. the unions just end up reinforcing the capitalism system with concessions for workers. So attempts to alleviate the pressures heaped upon working people just end up preventing revolutionary change. This is clearly wrongheaded.

Improvements to living standards can embolden people to push for more than what they've already got. Post-war social democracy in the West laid the basis for future struggles over gender, sexuality and race, thus the social movements of the Sixties and Seventies. The achievements of the counter-culture were later assimilated into the dominant culture, and even the struggles for racial and sexual equality have been co-opted by the neoliberals.

As a result, you can find words like 'intersectionality' and 'privilege' in Hillary Clinton's Twitter feed, but you will never see the word 'working class' (except to disparage the poor). If you remove class politics from the questions of race, gender and sexuality, you end up with neoliberalism with a left-wing face. The answer is to rediscover the importance of class and drop convenient illusions about 'social justice'.

Full Fat Politics


Conservative journalist Peter Hitchens once went on an epic rant against the rising popularity of skimmed milk in corporate coffee chains, but particularly the skinny cappuccinos sold by such franchises. Hitchens is right that the conflation of fat with weight gain has diverted attention away from sugar and its role in the obesity epidemic. He has done well to write about this subject in his column.

There is a great deal of confusion out there and advertising has taken full advantage. The trending support for healthy food - whether 'natural''organic' or even just 'low fat' - has been used to sell many of us barely edible garbage. Even 'low sugar' or 'zero sugar' is just a way of getting us to buy drinks loaded with vast doses of aspartame. Meanwhile the country gets fatter and suffers the results, as the collective anxiety about weight and diets intensifies.

Of course, the popular diets probably succeed in weight loss because they are effectively a form of self-imposed starvation. But this is also why so many people fail to eat well. They try to slim down by eating very little, and inevitably transgress later, only to feel awful about themselves. It's all about the super-ego. And I doubt many people are totally living healthy lifestyles (myself included) in terms of what they eat and how much exercise they ought to be doing (I write as the owner of a Fitbit watch).

Unfortunately, Blighty remains an island of ill-health and bad food. Yet British society continues to follow such celebrity chefs as Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. Cooking programmes are a staple of the viewing diet. One wonders the extent to which people just tune in and never try out the recipes. Perhaps the cooking programmes are just vicarious. I can only speculate about this.

On the one hand, we are bombarded with celebrity-endorsed diets and newly branded 'healthy' food in supermarket isles; while culinary luddites demand that we get on the 'slow food' train and rely on local produce, on the other. It's a rather farcical situation. The fast food culture is just as worrying - and certainly guilty of sugar peddling! - and it leaves us with a political question. If we can't fix our food by personal choice, what do we need to do about at the level of the polis.

On that note, I will defer to the writing of others. I recommend reading Rachel Laudan's article on 'culinary modernism' from last year for a start. Nick Srenicek and Alex Williams have a great section on 'slow' and local food in their book Inventing the Future. These are just starting points for the critically minded.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Four things Brexit means for the UK


When the EU referendum came around last year, I was conflicted over the vote if I'm honest. I could see the 'Lexit' case for voting to leave: the European Union is a neoliberal project with a serious democratic deficit. I have a great deal of time for the old Bennite arguments against the common market. However, it was also clear that the balance of forces were overwhelmingly right-wing, so any withdrawal from the EU would be shaped by the Conservatives and UKIP. In the end, I decided to vote Remain out of caution.

Many months later it's clear that the rupture was coming for some time. The problem was that the left was nowhere on the EU debate. You had a split between the Lexit camp, who were typically hard left, and the Remain camp, mostly left-liberals and reformist socialists. Both positions were reactive to the terms set by the right and its dominance over the question. The referendum itself was held by David Cameron for party political reasons. It was about the internal dynamics of the Conservative Party. Not about the future of the United Kingdom.

Without a clear position, the left could either side with the liberal wing of the establishment or the right-wing reaction to it. This was not a good place to be. I could have lived with Brexit if there was a strong left-wing government in place, or a chance that the right would lose power any time soon. Only under those conditions would the British government likely maintain an open immigration policy and pursue a radical programme to restructure the UK economy for working-class interests.

So where are we left now? As expected, I've been following the situation develop since the vote last summer and I've tried to consider the social and economic impact of Brexit carefully. Here are just a few thoughts on the unfolding crisis.

1. Brexit means the end of the UK

Despite the hopes of British nationalists, Brexit may mean the United Kingdom will cease to exist in the not-too-distant future. It was already possible that the UK would begin to fall apart over the next twenty years. The realignment of Scottish politics in 2015 shows that the conditions for a second referendum were already emerging, but the withdrawal from the EU has hastened calls for an independent Scotland.

Scottish independence is now a realistic possibility in the near future. If Scotland votes for independence in 2018 or 19, Theresa May will have to resign and the Conservative government will face serious questions over its credibility. They will go down in history as the party that literally broke the country in two. At least this could put the Labour Party on course to government (presuming the Blairites don't move to dislodge Corbyn). This is just one case.

Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, the republicans have gained a majority in Stormont for the first time. Ulster unionism is in crisis over corruption at the heart of government, and Brexit has stoked fears of a hard border arising between the North and the rest of Ireland. I wouldn't say Irish reunification is an imminent prospect, though it is clear that the UK cannot take Northern Ireland for granted. Even demographically, the Catholic community are likely to tip the balance towards Irish nationalism.

As for Wales, the situation is far more stable (for now) as the Welsh nationalists have yet to develop a strong constituency for independence. Unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales was very much for Brexit and the Welsh national question is not shaped in quite the same way. It's much more likely that the Welsh will remain tethered to the English, as the Scots and the Northern Irish break free. But this doesn't rule out Welsh independence in the long-term either.

2. Brexit is a disaster for the UK economy

As the pound continues to fall, the goods flowing into Britain will continue to rise in price and this is just after decades of wage stagnation and underemployment. Under these conditions inflation may well take a dreadful toll on working people, let alone people out of work. At the same time, the only way to generate growth would be to resort to an industrial strategy to bolster exports through state investment in the economy. This isn't going to happen. The Conservatives have spent 40 years dismantling industry and reorienting the economy towards finance.

For too long cheap labour has been a substitute for capital investment, as the British government has dropped its commitment to bolster the economy through Keynesian projects. Likewise, the Thatcher administration inflicted a historic defeat on the labour movement in the 1980s, from which organised labour has still not fully recovered. Without high levels of employment and high wages, the economy had a continuous need for demand and the only available means for this was to free up credit. This pattern looks set to continue.

The financial sector and the property market have become the core growth sectors, as services overtook manufacturing and old industry. Wealth became even more concentrated in even fewer hands than it has been historically. Yet it should be obvious that the debt bubble can't be inflated forever. Something will have to give. Another financial crisis or a property crash might do the trick. This is even with the European Union. Without the EU, Britain faces a situation where the strategy has already been ruled out by the political class.

3. Brexit is a disaster for migrants

Obviously, Brexit means that the British government will get to dictate the terms of inflows of EU migrant workers into the UK. Freedom of movement, as we know it, with the EU will change forever. The UK will still try to hold onto free movement with Ireland, possibly by introducing new mechanisms for regulating Irish migration onto the British mainland. This would be more sensible than sending British troops to the Irish border. Otherwise, the backdoor for EU nationals would be left wide open.

Many right-wing people voted leave because they wanted to close the borders. I suspect this will not happen due to simple economic factors: the UK relies on cheap labour. What is more likely is that the border controls will be adjusted to maintain a precarious workforce. The numbers may change, but not indefinitely. As the opening in the border narrows, the government would lose tax revenue from migrant labour and so would likely initiate greater austerity. Theresa May will have a new excuse for selling off the NHS, schools and pensions.

Expect more racist rhetoric. The calls for new pressures to be heaped upon migrant labour will only become more bold, and the Tories will pander to the xenophobes at every turn. VISA costs, repatriation and detention centres are just one front in this struggle. However, the aim will not be to reverse past immigration, but to shape future immigration to suit business interests. The divide and conquer strategy will continue to hammer the migrants already here and those who hope to settle here in the future. But this will help keep down British workers at the same time.

4. Brexit is a disaster for racists

Contrary to liberal hysterics, the threat of the far-right in Britain is marginal. UKIP has lost its raison d'etre, and Farage is off galavanting in the United States. The party's new leadership is incapable of seeing through the media's illusions of a white working-class thirst for fascism. As if UKIP ever had a chance of breaking through in Copeland or Stoke-on-Trent. The party's core support has always come from disaffected Tory voters, and even the former Labour voters it attracts passed through the Tories first. The real threat is that the Tory government is becoming UKIP to neutralise the threat of the party. This is far more serious than Paul Nuttall's antics.

Not that I would say the far-right is no threat at all. I suspect if Brexit doesn't pay off (which it won't) that the new far-right narrative will be that the Tory government "sold out". If immigration isn't totally restricted, the far-right will claim the EU is still violating everything we've held most often. Farage might even make a comeback with a new party. As people are hit by rising food prices and a shrinking job market, they will naturally seek out someone to blame. The usual nihilists and misanthropes will provide the scapegoats: immigrants, Muslims and the left. A populist upsurge is still a possibility in the future.

Chomsky ponders Trump 'False Flag' Op


As you may know, I'm a big advocate of the work of Noam Chomsky. His writing and talks changed my political outlook. I discovered Chomsky when I was 17 and it quickly set me on the course to where I am today. Though I am no longer a left-wing libertarian, I am still a socialist and I think there are important lessons to be drawn from the anarchist tradition. Chomsky is a key figure in contemporary anarchism.

One of the main attractions of Chomsky's work is the level of moral clarity and intellectual honesty. He cuts through the bone to the marrow with precision. Going to the fundamentals of a political question is the cornerstone of radical thought. As an analytical critic Chomsky takes apart US foreign policy and unravels its claims before our eyes. It's a thankless task in many ways. Another side of this has been Chomsky's opposition to 9/11 conspiracism on the left.

Yet in a recent interview Noam Chomsky contradicts his past record on combating conspiracy theories. He suggests that the Trump administration may opt for a 'false flag' operation to save its right-wing agenda. When I first heard about this I didn't believe it until I read the Alter-Net interview. In his own words, Chomsky says: "I think that we shouldn't put aside the possibility that there would be some kind of staged or alleged terrorist act, which can change the country instantly."

I was very surprised to read these words and I even feared the old man may be losing his touch. If you want the full context, here it is for your judgement:

JF: Do you think there will ever be a moment of awakening, or a disconnect for Trump's supporters of his rhetoric and what he's been doing in Washington, or can this just keep going? 
NC: I think that sooner or later the white working-class constituency will recognize, and in fact, much of the rural population will come to recognize, that the promises are built on sand. There is nothing there.
And then what happens becomes significant. In order to maintain his popularity, the Trump administration will have to try to find some means of rallying the support and changing the discourse from the policies that they are carrying out, which are basically a wrecking ball to something else. Maybe scapegoating, saying, "Well, I'm sorry, I can't bring your jobs back because these bad people are preventing it." And the typical scapegoating goes to vulnerable people: immigrants, terrorists, Muslims and elitists, whoever it may be. And that can turn out to be very ugly. 
I think that we shouldn't put aside the possibility that there would be some kind of staged or alleged terrorist act, which can change the country instantly.
Now let's break this down. It's certainly true that the Trump administration is increasingly unpopular and isolated. President Trump's approval rating stands 35% - a historically low precedent for a new president. Even George W Bush only reached 25% at his lowest point, just as Nixon reached 36% after Watergate. In these conditions, it is plausible that the administration would want something, anything to shore up support for the government. But this is not the basis for a false flag operation.

I should add I'm not saying the US government has not been guilty of false flags in the past: the Gulf of Tonkin being the obvious example. It's now uncontroversial that the Johnson administration leapt on Tonkin to expand the war against Vietnam. It's also true that there are real conspiracies in history. Look up COINTELPRO or the Iran-Contra affair, if you want to see a real conspiracy in action. There are even questions around Pearl Harbour and the extent to which FDR provoked Japan.

So, what is the problem with Chomsky's points here? Professor Chomsky might be defended on the grounds that this was a throw-away remark - one line in a full interview, with little clarification. There are gradients of what a 'staged' or 'alleged' attack could mean. Many of the 9/11 conspiracy theorists accept the case that the Bush administration had "advance knowledge" and simply allowed the attacks to go ahead. A more plausible theory is that the administration was so incompetent that it failed to act on the information it had about the plot.

This is a long way from the Ickean dimension of reptilian lizards, the whackjob theory that the Twin Towers falling was CGI, or the blatant anti-Semitism behind the idea that it was all staged by Mossad. However, the view that the US government had some role in the 9/11 attacks still belongs to the conspiracists. Chomsky has dealt with these theories well in the past. He would point out that the 9/11 attackers were mostly Saudi citizens. If it was an 'inside job', it would make little sense to frame Saudi Arabia if the aim was to invade Iraq. This is still a major hole in the theories.

I have yet to hear an account of the 9/11 attacks which can account for this hole. Most conspiracy theorists don't even talk about it because it's outside the reach of their assumptions. The politics of conspiracism are uncritical of the surrounding world, in fact, the point of such theories is to reinforce passivity and provide excuses for inaction. Why try to change the world when the Illuminati run everything? They're all powerful. So any attempt to challenge them is doomed to failure. This is why there are no movements or parties based on these theories.

Serious political action and theory requires hard work. It requires commitment. Naturally the online 'truthers' have jumped on Chomsky's comments, while the remarks have left many of Chomsky's friends and fans perplexed. I am not alone in this regard. Israel-based journalist Jonathan Cook has criticised Chomsky's comments. Here's what Cook posted on his Facebook page:

One doesn't need to be convinced that Bush-Cheney or the US security services were implicated in 9/11 to see that there is a deep problem with Chomsky adopting his new position. He has previously suggested in different places both that a major false-flag operation in the US would be almost impossible to conceal and that it is a waste of the left's energies, and its credibility, to indulge in this kind of speculation. 
That was at least a plausible position for him to adopt. But it is entirely inconsistent with his new position that we should expect Trump to carry out a false-flag operation and even accuse him of intending to do so before it occurs.

I have no doubt that Chomsky was right to argue that conspiracy theories are a dead-end for the left. So it's disappointing to read these comments, even in their full context. This isn't a reason to discard everything Chomsky has ever written. Demanding infallibility is unrealistic and ultimately puerile and rather conservative. Let's be mature about this. Furthermore, it is more in line with Chomsky's free thinking to disagree with him than it is to blindly follow him.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

How Martin McGuinness won in the end


When I heard the news that Martin McGuinness had died I thought of my granddad, who served in Northern Ireland as a British troop. He recalls the soldiers sticking razorblades into the rubber bullets they would fire on crowds of civilians. On one occasion a troop stuffed a large battery into his gun before firing it at a crowd. The shot killed a man, my grandfather claims.
He also remembers the sight of twin girls tarred and feathered for fraternising with British troops. This practice was allegedly supported by Martin McGuinness in the early years of his IRA involvement. McGuinness would later speak out against knee-capping – a brutal practice in which powerdrills were driven into people’s knees. The culture of violence was all pervasive at the height of the conflict. It brutalised and degraded its victims and its practitioners.
My grandfather’s experiences as a British soldier are complicated the fact that he came from an Irish Catholic family. His mother was from Donegal, and his uncle was a gunrunner for the IRA. Yet my granddad found himself as a soldier with a list of key targets, including the dearly departed. Whereas Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams was a spokesman, Martin McGuinness was regarded as a real menace in the early Seventies. Not that this stopped the British from negotiating with him at the time.
This was the same phase of the conflict that saw British soldiers shoot 26 people on Bloody Sunday, they left 14 people dead that day. It was a landmark event in the conflict, and a major reason why so many young Catholic men turned to the Provisional IRA. This was long before the British government came to understand it could not win in the Irish North. The same realisation would come to the IRA leadership as the Catholic community was exhausted by the years of violence.
Man of Violence
It’s important to view Martin McGuinness in historical terms. Otherwise you run the risk of losing sight of the man, and, more importantly, the times in which he lived. What we call euphemistically “the Troubles” began when Stormont and the RUC tried to repress the emergent Catholic civil rights movement in the Sixties. The popular demands for an end to the sectarian state, full voting rights and jobs went ignored. Instead the violence of loyalists would engender a violent response from Irish nationalists.
Fearing losing control of the situation, the British government deployed troops as a temporary measure to secure peaceful relations in the Six Counties. Of course, the reality was that the British establishment sided with Stormont and collaborated with loyalist death squads to this end. The status quo was predicated upon the electoral disenfranchisement of Catholics by way of property. But this settlement could not last forever. By the Sixties, it was rapidly approaching boiling point.
It was at this time that McGuinness came of age in Derry. At 18 Martin was turned to the civil rights cause by the sight of cops brutally beating protesters. It was the last straw when British soldiers fired upon a demonstrations with live rounds – killing Dessie Beattie and Seamus Cusack – in 1971. The non-violence of the civil rights marches had transitioned into the political violence of the Provos. Not much later McGuinness would become one of the leading IRA figures in Free Derry. The slain of Bloody Sunday would bolster the Republican cause.
The official narrative has it that McGuinness was a terrorist who came to his senses. This fits well with the way the conflict is framed, with IRA bombs as the sole cause. The truth is always more complex, for starters the Provisional IRA was founded as the Troubles began in 1969 in a break with the Official IRA over tactics. Originally focused on defensive actions the Provos soon graduated to offensive tactics. It was a question of means and ends for the nationalists.
Terrorism is the catch-all term used here. The most widely accepted definition of terrorism is violence perpetrated in the name of a political cause, usually against civilian targets though not exclusively. The last part is often used to absolve Western powers of such crimes, as if the intention defines the action and its impact. Noble motives are only assigned to the British and the Americans in these arguments. In reality, the British state used violence to try and quell the IRA into accepting the status quo.
The main assumption of Operation Banner was that the IRA was disrupting the harmony of Northern Ireland, when in actuality there was no such harmony except for the Orange state that had run the show since the war. Putting it bluntly, the British government were just as guilty of political violence as the IRA were. This fact does not justify, or excuse, the killing and brutalisation of civilians. Nor does it reinforce the pretext for occupying Northern Ireland in the first place. But it does throw the use of the phrase terrorism into doubt.
The Means and the End
After years of inter-communal violence, the peace process got off the ground as the armalite and ballot box strategy was clearly falling short of its ultimate aims. Yet negotiations became fruitful because all sides were exhausted by the violence, but also because the British public did not care enough about Northern Ireland to support the occupation indefinitely. At the time, the British government was increasingly unwilling to meet the costs. The idea of bombing your way to a united Ireland was always a fantasy.
It speaks rather well of McGuinness that he was able to see this opening for what it was and ended up in government with arch-loyalist Ian Paisley. The Good Friday agreement laid down the basis for power-sharing, but it also allowed the space for the most recent elections – triggered by McGuiness’s decision to resign – where the republicans gained the upper-hand for the first time. This situation combined with the potential for a referendum means Ireland may be closer to reunification than it has been for decades.
So we might say Martin McGuinness won more gains than he lost in the end. For the first time, the balance seems to be shifting in favour of nationalism, and the shift away from sectarian violence to democratic consent may have created the pre-conditions for Irish reunification. Not only do the demographics seem to favour it, but the conditions of peace allow the erosion of the strict Catholic-Protestant divide. If this continues, the dream of a united Ireland may well be fulfilled in our lifetimes.
This article was originally written for Spectre.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Chasing Dirty Sexy Russian Money!


Unless you’ve been in a cave, you will have heard the good news: George Osborne has found work at long last! The former Chancellor will soon be the editor of The Evening Standard, the only free London newspaper, distributed at tube stations across the city. Plenty of people have raised the issue of a conflict of interests, losing track of who has gone through the spinning door. The full picture is far more absurd than one politician’s decision.
The Evening Standard is owned by Alexander Lebedev and watched over by his son Evgeny. Former editor Sarah Sands is going to take up a new role at BBC Radio’s Today Programme – the bane of many progressive listeners! Clearly, Sands is no longer content with just presiding over a conservative newspaper. But wait there is still more to the spinning door of the mainstream media. The BBC media editor Amol Rajan, who oversaw the coverage of this story, was the editor of The Independent (another Lebedev publication).
So we have the former Chancellor joining the Lebedev payroll, with former Lebedev employees moving to prominent roles at the BBC. It’s almost as if it were not farcical enough for the former Chancellor to take a top job in the media. The line between the independent media and the political establishment appears to be increasingly blurred. In fact, it’s almost as if the presumed independence of the media is up for debate, the wall between the media and the establishment turns out to be nonexistent. The two turn out to be on the same side of one coin.
Should anyone be surprised by this? No, the mainstream media is the establishment. What we might call the commentariat has always existed. It has different sections of capital behind it, and different political factions within it. The vast bulk of the mainstream media is broadly right-wing and generally supports the Conservative Party, the left-liberal media is in the minority: you have The Guardian and its sister The Observer, along with The Daily Mirror (the only pro-Labour daily newspaper).
If people think the Russian factor makes this story unique, think again. London is awash with Russian money, including lots of dirty money. So the factor itself is not unique, though the details do matter. Fortunes amassed in the Yeltsin era of market-based chaos would be consolidated under the stewardship of Vladimir Putin. Former KGB man Alexander Lebedev emerged a wealthy man and soon began building a media portfolio and working with Gorbachev and others on political projects.
It’s not the first time Osborne has fraternised with Russian oligarchs. He was caught on a yacht in Corfu with Oleg Deripaska in 2008. It was alleged Osborne was looking to secure a £50,000 donation from the aluminium magnate. Also present was Peter Mandelson. It’s a great image, New Labour and the Conservative Party coming together aboard the yacht of a Russian oligarch. This isn’t to suggest anything improper was going on. Not at all, though it is interesting what goes on perfectly within the confines of law.
This article was originally published at Spectre.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

How welfare supports the 'gig economy'

Last Friday, I was sent to a jobs fair by my work coach. The fair was at another job centre a short bus ride away. There, the claimants waited patiently, and some impatiently, to speak with seated representatives of various companies and public bodies. I found long queues for the local council — offering admin jobs and other opportunities — and nonexistent queues for tutoring and personal training (I went for the former).
Apart from admin roles, tutoring and personal training, the fair had desks for construction work, retail, catering, even health and social care. Names of brands caught my eye: Westfield, Nando’s and Tesco. It got me wondering. How much of this is about what the employers want? Take a guess. Here we are, the reserve army of labour, queuing to sell our time and our skills to would-be employers. Is this really what the unemployed need?
Of course, there was a catch: if I failed to attend the jobs fair, I would face the possibility of my benefits being slashed to £10 a week for up to 90 days. This is what’s called a ‘sanction’. Once at the fair, you queue to talk to the reps, sign up in the hope of an interview and they sign you off for having applied for a job. It’s unclear how much of this is about paper-shuffling. A cynic would suspect quite a lot.
However, this is not a worry in itself. I suppose some people may find a job this way, and I might even be starting out in some temporary arrangement. But it is an example of something else. The work coaches are eager to get claimants to sign up for agency work, which will provide temporary employment and sometimes ‘self-employed’ or ‘free-lance’ contracts. I’ve worked these before. It can leave you at the beck and call of a company.
If you’re on Universal Credit and working you can keep 35p for every pound you make. That’s £35 for every £100 (in theory). I’ve yet to find out if this system works (in practice), but it sounds like it could serve as a transition back to full-time work. It’s meant to ‘wean’ the claimant off of the public teat. So you re-enter the labour market and never return. This may help reduce the official figures of unemployed too.
There is an industry in waiting for the jobless. The ‘gig economy’ — so-called for its offer of work on ‘self-employed’ contracts, such as Deliveroo andUber— is eager to gobble up cheap labour. These types of flexible contracts leave workers with their rights undermined, including the minimum wage, sick pay and holidays. It shows just how fragile these protections have become. And maybe this is why unemployment is officially falling.
At the time of writing, unemployment stands at 4.8% and, at least on paper, the UK has reached an employment level of 73%. This is the highest since records began in the early 1970s. Naturally, Tories like Toby Young love to play this up as an achievement for the right. Yet the lowest unemployment rate on record was at 3.4% in 1973. Those were the days when governments aimed for ‘full employment’.
Although employment is officially high, real wages have fallen by more than 10% in less than a decade. The TUC found that the wages have continued to stagnate, leading to a fall of 10.4% from 2007 to 2015. The UK is now alongside Greece in terms of shit pay for a hard day’s work. Even Poland has seen real wages increase by more than Britain. Meanwhile the super-rich continue to pig-out, with their salaries hitting £5.5 million.
It looks like the job centres are pushing claimants into short-term, low paid jobs — only for them to be kept on a lower rate of benefits. The government gets to say unemployment is falling, while the reasons for people falling out of work are worse than ever. As we’ve established, Universal Credit isn’t much of a cushion to land on, especially with the ‘sanctions’ regime of benefits. No wonder most people would rather be rinsed by the ‘gig economy’.
This article was originally published at Notes from the Underclass.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

What does Corbyn have to lose?


For a long time, I thought that the Conservative government was a weak regime depending on a slight majority in Parliament. This starting point was necessary to proceed on the assumption that the Labour Party stands a chance of winning in 2020. Particularly as Jeremy Corbyn and his left-wing supporters are trying to turn the party around from Blairism. However, the new terrain of Brexit shows 2020 is far from a certain defeat for the Tories.

What I failed to take into account: The Conservatives could well expand their majority by swallowing up the UKIP vote. The Tory majority, the smallest since 1974, counts on just 24.6% of the eligible electorate, which translates to 36% of the vote under our antiquated electoral system. Note UKIP counted for 12% of the vote in 2015 - that's 4 million votes. So Theresa May is going for a full-blooded Brexit because she thinks she can steal back these right-wing voters.

If the Corbynistas are to succeed, the Labour leadership needs to refocus its policy initiatives around a few key areas, adopt a permanent campaigning style to remobilise the base, a voter registration drive and, perhaps most importantly, reshape the media debate. This is vital if Labour is to answer the questions facing the country. In short, Labour's only hope is to increase voter turnout (which is easier said than done) to thwart Tory incursions and expand into enemy territory.

Stoke and Copeland

This is why the by-elections are not simply reflective of future prospects. For starters, the victory in Stoke was partly based on a low turnout and yet Labour came out on top: the Tory-UKIP vote fell by 4,000 votes, but remained split in the end. So the first-past-the-post system favoured Gareth Snell's Blue Labour campaign to rescue English nationalism from the racists. In other words, this win was not an unambiguous one. Though it is possible to rebuild the party's Stoke base over time, it just depends on what happens over the next three years.

That being said, it was great to see Paul Nuttall knocked back on his ass. It wasn't just because Nuttall lied about Hillsborough though, more importantly UKIP has lost its raison d'etre since Leave won the referendum. Still, Paul Nuttall was thick enough to believe the bogus media narrative that the Northern working class vote was more UKIP than Labour. The UKIP base has always been a strange right-wing coalition: one part Tory lite, one part fascist, one part libertarian fruitcake. This is a multi-class bloc, but the working class element are unlikely to come from the Labour base.

At the same time, the real triumph of Nigel Farage may be that the Conservatives are taking up UKIP's nationalist agenda. The May government has made it clear it is going for a hard Brexit and that it is open to restricting immigration, even at the detriment to economic growth and stability. Farage has already won without ever coming close to real power. The electioneers around May will have calculated that the party can survive the social fallout, while Labour remains divided and weak.

By opting for a hard Brexit, Theresa May has successfully neutered the UKIP threat to her party. UKIP was only gaining in Labour seats because it was subsuming the right-wing opposition vote under one umbrella. If the Tories had been more focused on Stoke they might have eaten through Nuttall's base and squeezed Labour's majority even further. But the Conservative leadership decided to focus on the easy target. This brings us to Copeland.

There's no doubt about it, the loss of Copeland was a serious blow. It revealed three factors: 1) the Conservatives were able to swallow up UKIP, while the Labour vote was squeezed on two fronts by 2) the Tories over Sellafield and 3) the Lib Dems over Brexit. The lack of a clear message on nuclear power cost Labour the jobs vote, whereas Corbyn's three line whip on Article 50 cost the party support among Remain voters. The latter factor may be far more important in the end, compared to the more localised nuclear issue.

None of this takes place in a vacuum, the Labour Party is in historic decline because the Blair years cost the party 5 million voters. The New Labour strategy of taking the working class vote for granted, as it chased after middle class families, has cost the party dearly. This is why the 2010 and 2015 elections were lost. It's partly why Scotland was lost. Despite the flaws of the Corbyn leadership, the Blairites and Brownites lack an alternative. A return to New Labour is not possible in a world where the combined Tory-UKIP vote stands at 48%. But a nationalist turn won't cut it either.

Corbyn's Promise

The promise of Corbynism to reverse this trend has not yet been realised. I put this down to a lack of political strategy and coherence on policy and message, as well as the overwhelmingly hostility of the media and the efforts of Blairites to undermine Corbyn. The illusion is that Corbyn is the fundamental problem for Labour, when it was clear that the Brown government lost power and Ed Miliband lost Scotland. Putting a David Miliband or a Dan Jarvis in Corbyn's place will not change the reasons why Labour is in a losing streak.

It's not about your jawline or what suit you wear. The bid to transform Labour is still real for as long as there is no alternative to the radical left in the party. But it takes work to repair 40 years of damage. Some pessimists would argue it is hopeless. If Labour is unsalvageable, then Corbyn may go down with the ship - taking the blame for decades of rot. Even still, I think it would only ensure the collapse of the party to turn back now. It's not about Corbyn, it's about what kind of country we want to live in. The old phrase "socialism or barbarism" is more than rhetorical now.

Bizarrely, Conservative Lord Finkelstein has offered some recommendations in his Times column. Far from arguing for retreat in the hope of saving face (as Owen Jones has done), Danny Finkelstein suggests the only hope for Corbyn is to instigate a new antagonism within the Labour Party to change it forever:
"[Corbyn's] only hope must be as a subversive challenger, relentlessly organising to take over the party and talking about his efforts to do so. He should come out with huge, earth-shaking radical left-wing policies and not care that Yvette Cooper and I both think that they are bonkers. He should skip prime minister's questions in order to attend protest rallies. He should organise to deselect critics and win selection contests for his people."
Finkelstein is not alone, but it's interesting to hear this from a prominent right-wing journalist. Another writer, Benjamin Mercer, has taken to the pages of The National Student to make the case for far-reaching democratic reform within the Labour Party. This is surely the best case for Corbynism, and the best hope of the Labour left:
"Much as the franchise has been expanded for the leadership elections, so it must be expanded at the level of the CLPs. power should be transferred downwards from the General and Executive Committees to the grassroots. Participation should be made easier and the decisions should be made by a committee of the whole membership, not merely a clique of the same. Every member of the CLP must have the right to become its MP, and the membership should be ballotted before every election - or by-election - in order to choose the party's candidate. This should end the practice of 'parachuting' supposedly orthodox candidates into allegedly safe seats. No more Hunts in Stoke. labour Party MPs will be accountable, first and foremost, to their constituencies and not to the leadership, the PLP or the NEC. Re-selection at every election will ensure that this remains the case."
Up until now Jeremy Corbyn has stuck to a centrist style of leadership. However, the Labour coalition of liberals, social democrats and socialists, may just be too broad for the new situation. The broad church approach has been a recipe for incoherence on policy and a lack of strategy on the media. If Corbynism is to succeed, the party has to be transformed in the long-term and that requires thinking beyond 2020. A surrender or a retreat would just offset this process of democratic reform.

If the experiment ends with Corbyn stepping down in 2020, the opening for transforming Labour into a mass democratic party would be lost. This would close the space for a radical leadership. Not only would it mean that the left would not be able to contest the elections in 2025 and 2030, it would mean Labour would fall back into the hands of the extreme centre. Contrary to Blairite illusions, the party would resume its lacklustre performance under Ed Miliband, or, worse, try to stake out a position as the party for English nationalism under the guise of Blue Labour. Either way, Labour is dead meat.

This article was originally written for Souciant on March 3, 2017.