Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Left's disarray over the Assange case.

Over the Assange case the Left has found itself once again divided, once again schismatic, sectarian and ultimately unable to articulate itself in the midst of a state-media consensus on the extradition of Assange to Sweden. The liberal commentariat has reacted with a cretinous apologetics for the government's hysterical threat to raid the Ecuadorian embassy to forcibly seize a whistleblower for allegations he isn't charged with yet. The BBC have set the agenda, the debate has been limited to just two positions: you either take the side of law and order to extradite Julian Assange to face the allegations in Sweden, or you believe that the allegations against Assange are illegitimate. It is the case that there are three main positions on the Left, but only one can be acknowledged by the mainstream media:
- It's about Justice: Assange needs to answer to these allegations given their serious nature, for the sake of a consistent commitment to transparency and accountability he should be extradited. The threat of extradition to the US has been greatly exaggerated by his supporters to justify his refusal to face these serious allegations.
- Bad Sexual Etiquette: The allegations of rape/molestation are illegitimate, possibly cooked up in order to vilify WikiLeaks and detain Assange for revealing secret information. It's purely a political matter, the allegations are a cover to extradite Assange to Sweden and then to the US. We have to stand beside Assange at this time.
- Don't underestimate the US: It isn't the definition, or even what constitutes, rape that we should be debating. The allegations are extremely serious. But it is a matter of the extradition purely. The Swedish government could question him in Britain, possibly by video link, and has the power to veto any extradition to the US that might come up. Yet the Swedish government refuses to do either. Surely then it makes sense for Assange to seek refuge in Ecuador to avoid a similar fate as Bradley Manning.
Of course the only line that the bourgeois media are interested in is that of 'bad sexual etiquette' - it was irresistable - given the hysteria WikiLeaks seems to have provoked even among liberal news outlets. And the Left has been in an almost perpetual state of crisis for a long time. There isn't much of a coherent Left left, though there never was a unified Left. It seems that this is a symptom of the decline and disarray of the Left.

Multiple Reagasms.

For a great number of self-proclaimed conservatives Ronald Reagan was a man of great moral integrity. Yet the facts tell a story of a washed up B-movie actor who, while in office, actively vandalised the American economy for the rich to pig-out on the eviscerated entrails of civil society. It wasn't the birth of laissez-faire capitalism out of the death of New Deal liberalism, rather it was accumulation by dispossession. Reaganism only represented a shift in fiscal policy: tax-cuts for the rich combined with greater subsidies for the rich. The covert war that the US had waged against Latin America was stepped up a knotch, leaving tens of thousands of civilians dead. This was at the same time that the US government refused to withdraw support from the Apartheid regime in South Africa and placed Nelson Mandela on the terrorist list where he sat until a couple of years ago. The casual criminality of the US government reached new heights under Ronald Reagan, not least with the convenient failure to impose basic laws to protect workers, which consequently led to a massive increase in illegal firings. It got to the point that the administration was condemned by the UN for the "unlawful use of force" - meaning international terrorism.

Now Seth Rosenfeld exposes Reagan's past as a stoole pigeon in the FBI's McCarthyite campaigns against Hollywood and later the counter-revolution against student radicals and the free-speech movement of the 1960s. As an actor Ronnie was an informer, he snooped on his fellow actors and infiltrated groups that the FBI suspected of "subversive activities". The Hollywood Independent Committee for the Arts, Sciences and Professions was one such group that the FBI had Reagan infiltrate. It was a very broad-based group with many people of different political views and when Reagan proposed a resolution to repudiate Communism it divided the Committee. At the behest of the FBI Reagan went on to drive a wedge in other groups through similar propositions. This included the American Veterans Committee. He also stole the minutes of group meetings, only for the minutes to find themselves in FBI archives. As President of the Screen Actors Guild Reagan acted to oppose a strike of set-builders for the reason that he believed the Communists were behind the strike.

Reagan even had the FBI open a file on an actress who questioned his position on blacklisting alleged leftist radicals. In 1966 Ronald Reagan railed against the Free-Speech movement in California. He began "There is a leadership gap in Sacramento, a morality and decency gap," before sliming against Berkeley as a home for 'beatniks', 'radicals' and what he described as 'filthy speech' advocates. Reagan went on to spew yet more disdain on "the so-called free-speech advocates," who for him "have no appreciation for freedom" instead he thought it more important to rein them in for 'violating' law and order. Apparently the Berkeley campus had become a rallying point for 'Communists' and 'sexual misconduct' by then. To stamp out the left-wing intellectuals Reagan went on to call for the investigation of academics and demanded that the professors sign a code of conduct. He was bashing the student movement and academic Left to undermine Democrat Pat Brown. As Governor of California Reagan maintained good relations with the FBI and procured secret briefings on protests.

The Governor's office was not just interested in information on left-wing students and academics, even liberal intellectuals and Berkeley's Chancellor Clark Kerr. The right-wing campaign eventually forced Kerr out of office, it was coincidental that Kerr had been a great administrator of public education. Under Clark Kerr the university had opened its doors to thousands of people who would have ordinarily not gone on to higher education. He crafted the master-plan for higher education for this purpose. The institution became one of the most successful public universities in history. It was a model that was emulated around the country and the world. Kerr lifted the ban against socialist speakers on the campus on the grounds that the students should be made 'safe' for ideas rather than making ideas 'safe' for students. Later Kerr was not so active in crushing the Free-Speech movement, yet he was not a supporter - he was attacked by the Left and the Right.

The student movement viewed Clark Kerr as an enemy because he refused to lift bans prohibiting  activists from handing out Civil Rights leaflets on campus. Yet at the same time J Edgar Hoover and Reagan were convinced Clark Kerr was a menace because he wasn't acting to break the back of the student radicals. The FBI used background investigations as a pretext to destroy Kerr and relied on false accusations to do so. It was only Pat Brown who protected Clark Kerr from this campaign. Once the FBI had a friend in office, it was easy to force Kerr out. Unsurprisingly Reagan launched a campaign to smash public education in California and imposed tuition fees on the University of California. This was only the beginning of the New Right's counter-revolution. Rosenfeld was most shocked that the FBI was so active in the use of the exceptional laws of wartime against civilians, particularly students and academia. But it should be remembered that the US has much worse incidents of repression in its history.

At the same time that the FBI was acting to destroy Clark Kerr and backing Reagan's bid for Governorship the Bureau was running COINTELPRO. The target of the operations included the Socialist Workers Party, Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. It went from surveillance and attempts at subversion to outright assassination. The Black Panther organiser Fred Hampton was murdered Gestapo style by the Chicago Police in collusion with the FBI. This was exposed around the same time as Watergate and yet it is virtually unkown by comparison. The mainstream liberal commentariat was far more concerned by the sight of Richard Nixon trying to destroy the Democratic Party than an active campaign by the Establishment against Civil Rights and the New Left. COINTELPRO went as far back as Eisenhower and ran right up until Nixon. This shouldn't really surprise anyone. The FBI was founded during Wilson's Red Scare, a shameful period in America's history, as a national political police force to crush dissent.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

On Suicide.

As far as I can see, it is only the monotheistic, that is to say Jewish, religions whose members regard self-destruction as a crime. This is all the more striking in that neither in the Old nor in the New Testament is there to be found any prohibition or even definite disapproval of it; so that religious teachers have to base their proscription of suicide on philosophical grounds of arguments lack in strength they have to try to make up for by the strength of the terms in which they express their abhorrence; that is to say, they resort to abuse. Thus we hear that suicide is the most cowardly of acts, that only a madman would commit it, and similar insipidities; or the senseless assertion that suicide is ‘wrong’, though it is obvious there is nothing in the world a man has a more incontestable right to than his own life and person. Let us for once allow moral feelings to decide this question, and compare the impression made on us by the news that an acquaintance of ours has committed a crime, for instance a murder, an act of cruelty, a betrayal, a theft, with that produced by the news that he has voluntarily ended his life. While the former will evoke a lively indignation, anger, the demand for punishment or revenge, the latter will excite pity and sorrow, which are more likely to be accompanied by admiration for his courage than by moral disapproval. Who has not had acquaintances, friends, relatives who have departed this world voluntarily? – and is one supposed to think of them with repugnance, as if they were criminals? In my opinion it ought rather to be demanded of the clergy that they tell us by what authority they go to their pulpits or their desks and brand as a crime an action which many people we honour and love have performed and deny an honourable burial to those who have departed this world voluntarily – since they cannot point to a single biblical authority, nor produce a single sound philosophical argument; it being made clear that what one wants are reasons and not empty phrases or abuse. If the criminal law proscribes suicide this is no valid reason for the Church to do so, and is moreover a decidedly ludicrous proceeding, for what punishment can deter him who is looking for death? If one punishes attempted suicide, it is the ineptitude of the attempt one punishes.

The only cogent moral argument against suicide is that it is opposed to the achievement of the highest moral goal, inasmuch as it substitutes for a true redemption from this world of misery a merely apparent one. But it is very long way from a mistake of this kind to a crime, which is what the Christian clergy want to call it.

Christianity carries in its innermost heart the truth that suffering (the Cross) is the true aim of life: that is why it repudiates suicide, which is opposed to this aim, while antiquity from a lower viewpoint approval of and indeed honoured it. This argument against suicide is however an ascetic one, and is therefore valid only from a far higher ethical standpoint than any which European moral philosophers have ever assumed. If we descend from this very high standpoint there no longer remains any tenable moral reason for damning suicide. It therefore seems that the extraordinary zeal in opposing it displayed by the clergy of monotheistic religions – a zeal which is not supported by the Bible or by any cogent reasons – must have some hidden reason behind it: may this not be that the voluntary surrender of life is an ill compliment to him who said that all things were very good? If so, it is another instance of the obligatory optimism of these religions, which denounces self-destruction so as not to be denounced by it.

But the terrors of death offer considerable resistance: they stand like a sentinel at the exit gate. Perhaps there is no one alive who would not already have put an end to his life if this end were something purely negative, a sudden cessation of existence. But there is something positive in it as well: the destruction of the body. This is a deterrent, because the body is the phenomenal form of the will to live.

The struggle with that sentinel is as a rule, however, not as hard as it may seem to us form a distance: the reason is the antagonism between spiritual and physical suffering. For when we are in great or chronic physical pain we are indifferent to all other troubles: all we are concerned about is recovering. In the same way, great spiritual suffering makes us insensible to physical pain: we despite it: indeed, if it should come to outweigh the other it becomes a beneficial distraction, an interval in spiritual suffering. It is this which makes suicide easier: for the physical pain associated with it loses all significance in the eyes of one afflicted by excessive spiritual suffering.

Arthur Schopenhauer

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Breivik's Living Space.

The trial and conviction, a conclusion foregone long ago, of Anders Behring Breivik has, of course, drawn the attention of the world media. Breivik has been given the maximum sentence of 21 years for the bombing of a government building before a shooting spree on Utøya island. This act of lone-wolf terrorism left 77 people dead and 319 people injured. He has to serve a minimum of 10 years before he can appeal, but this is unlikely. It's more likely that Breivik will remain inside for the rest of his life with a review every 5 years after the initial 21 year period. This seems especially likely given that Breivik fully intends to continue "the war" from his prison cell. It's obvious from what "the war" is meant to be when he writes "We, the free indigenous peoples of Europe, hereby declare a pre-emptive war on all cultural Marxist/multiculturalist elites of Western Europe." The car-bombing and subsequent spree targeted the liberal political class in Norway was just the beginning of a battle that fits into a fascist millenarianism in his thinking.

As The Guardian has observed it was an open trial in an open society, the social democratic principles of Norway have endured this assault. The Norwegians have rightly seen to it that the liberal foundations of their society will not be compromised for this monster. This was an impressive display given the appalling actrocities that took place. There are plenty of people who want to execute Breivik, but that would be to do his work for him. Breivik has much more in common with the Islamists than he likes to admit. The suicide-bombers of al-Qaeda want to destroy this world out of love for another world, just as Breivik wants to reconstruct a European Christendom the Jihadists want to establish a Caliphate. Effectively Breivik wants to destroy the liberal societies of Europe in order to deal with the threat, as he sees it, of Islam. The failure of many Western countries since 9/11 has been to abandon the liberal democratic commitment to civil liberties and human rights. Instead, we have seen the kidnapping and torture of 'terror suspects' time and time again.
It's scary just how the views Breivik holds of Muslims in particular are so widespread and mainstream. He repeatedly cites mainstream conservative sources such as Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes and Melanie Phillips as well as liberals like Sam Harris. It's not just Fox News, it's the BBC as well as liberal rags and even leftist outlets such as CounterPunch. It's also clear that Breivik's views are not alien to the particularly reactionary elements in the media in Britain. He railed against multiculturalism, mass-immigration and political correctness, these are the favourite targets of cultural conservatives and nationalists alike. It's no coincidence that the massacre was met, in some quarters, with the sentiment that this wouldn't have happened if it weren't for the multicultural experiment. The rightist Melanie Phillips made it clear that she won't go back on any criticism of multiculturalism, Islamic extremism and immigration because of Breivik's killing spree. In short, the real battle is outside of the courtroom and Breivik's prison cell.

We have to stand by and build on the liberal ideals of Europe. Multiculturalism is certainly a flawed doctrine, but it is worth defending from these kinds of attacks. The only true friends of the Muslim community, at this time, will be the secularists keen to preserve Europe's atheist legacy with its religious freedoms and pluralism. It's clear why the Breiviks of this world see a 'cultural communism' lurking behind liberal multiculturalism. Leftists may criticise liberal promises of equality as a veneer over deeper forms of inequality, but it has to be acknowledged that the universality of human rights and freedoms was first advocated in liberal thought. It set the ground with the rights and freedoms limited to rich white men, but then the field of bourgeois individualism could be expanded to include women and so on. The egalitarian struggle has to be fought with liberalism as a starting-point. It's this that the likes of Breivik wants to destroy and that's exactly why we must defend it.

It could've been a shoe.

It is worth noting that the 1960s witnessed the so-called "democratisation" of art, as low-culture and high-culture were rendered relative and the distinction between the two became increasingly blurred. It was the birth of postmodernism, as well as the beginning of entrepreneurial art. Pop Art began as a satire on the burgeoning obsession with image, as soup tins worth pennies in the supermarkets were transformed into prints worth thousands. In a studio known as "the factory" Andy Warhol and his assistants churned out those famous prints, which epitomise the repetitive monotony of consumerism. The psychedelic prints of soup cans and bottles of Coca-Cola were ironic. There was no message, no point at all and it was intended as a joke. But it  was a satirical slant on the rampant consumer culture of Western capitalist societies. The prints later increased in value to obscene amounts of dough, and yet they were famously depictions of banal objects - the sort of thing you throw in the trolley in the supermarket. It was soon absorbed by what it was mocking, the burgeoning commercialism.

It was never the aim to undermine the Establishment and melt down consumer capitalism to unleash the creative capacities of the proletariat. Its satiric reflection of passive consumption and pop culture was sold to the same consumers ensnared in fashion trends. Rather the capitalist system had to exit in order for it be mimmicked cynically with a nudge and a wink. It was a part of the burgeoning commercialisation of cultural forms. Pop Art could be seen as conservative in this way, it would inevitably be subsumed into what it was mimmicking as it subverted the traditional standards of fine art. The radical relativisation of all standards leveled the art scene, but only to become the Establishment. Today it's Tracy Emin as well as Gilbert and George who are the conservatives. What about Warhol? He died a millionaire. Before doing so, he decorated his own home with antiques and fine art which he personally picked over the work he delivered to the world. Ultimately the trajectory is nihilistic, again this is something else capitalism has in common with it. As Warhol remarked when asked why he painted Elvis Presley "No, it could've been a shoe."

However, Warhol was not the first to get rich quick in the art world. It isn't particularly shocking to us today, as we now live in a world where the man who had a shark preserved in formaldehyde has amassed an estimated net worth of £235 million. In 2008 Damien Hirst sold an entire show for £111 million, if we want to know where this began we have Salvador Dalí to thank at a fundamental level. In a sense Dalí was the prototype for the postmodern artist now predominant. You know, the crass kind who revel in commercial success. He would sign his name to hundreds of blank pieces of paper sometimes at $100 a pop, which were then used to produce forgeries of his work and in turn undermined the value of his own paintings. It should be noted that all along Dalí was fixated on commercial success and courted it with great luck thanks to his business manager and wife Gala. A lot of the money went to funding an extravagant lifestyle, of multiple homes and multiple lovers. The commercialism in which Dalí indulged as a whore artiste inevitably drew the ire of his fellow surrealists even before Dalí's shameful complicity in Francoism.
In the later works we can detect a fundamental shift to the postmodern Dalí after the Second World War where the works increasingly began to degenerate into high kitsch - with only a few glimpses of exception. In these years Dalí was guilty of the reduction of art's value to an instrumental level, whether the end be the stated aim of reaching a higher plain of consciousness or filling his wallet. He never shirked from offending the aestheticism of the Establishment as well as his fellow surrealists. Ironically, he may have given greater ground in his work to the extreme formulation of aestheticism that "What is useful is ugly!" As the work of Duchamp and Picasso were formerly derided as "ugly" before becoming the Establishment, so too has Dalí and the process began in his lifetime.  The accusation that this particular brand of surrealism exemplifies bourgeois decadence is not entirely undeserved. It could be that the work of the surrealist school, in its bid to empty-out the subconscious onto the canvas, has been symptomatic rather than exemplary.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The Descent into Farce.

The BBC had Newsnight stage a debate over the Assange situation, which began with Gavin Esler asking "Is the case of Julian Assange turning into farce?" The answer is emphatic: yes! This was before Galloway's talk of 'bad sexual etiquette' were brought up and the whole discussion was framed over the question of whether the allegations are legitimate. It was written-off from the outset that there is anything political about these events. Even though the charges were originally dropped after the case was thrown out by prosecutors, only for the allegations to be reinstated after a political intervention from Claes Borgström. It has been quite a sight to see the stampede of the commentariat to condemn Julian Assange and support the ongoing attempts to extradite him to Sweden. David Allen Green led the way that The New Statesman with a clear list of reasons why we should hand over Julian Assange to the Swedes. The Guardian churned out an editorial claiming that the allegations are 'apolitical' and neither Sweden nor the UK would deport someone to be tortured.
Even the radical journos have copped out on this case, Owen Jones was blunt that the Ecuadorian government are wrong to view the rape allegations against Assange as "laughable". No one else would be given this protection, Assange is a rape suspect who skipped bail (he actually hasn't been charged) and he must be extradited as we wouldn't privilege others in this way. Of course, Jones had plenty of ink to pen trite about the lamentable attempts to brand the women who made the allegations as "liars" and as the willing participants of a CIA honeytrap. He even feels the necessity to indulge in the discussion over the definition of rape "Rape is having sex with someone without their consent. And Assange is clearly accused of rape." Someone really should point out that the legitimacy of the allegations isn't really up to debate in Britain. It's strictly a matter for the courtroom. The real debate ought to be whether or not Assange should be extradited to a country that has in the past handed over 'terror suspects' to the CIA.
As John Pilger has noted wisely "In December 2001, the Swedish government abruptly revoked the political refugee status of two Egyptians, Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed el-Zari, who were handed to a CIA kidnap squad at Stockholm airport" only for the two men to be flown to Egypt to be tortured in Mubarak's dungeon. And yet it has become commonplace for liberal journalists to claim that the Swedish government is much more trustworthy than the British government on matters of 'rendition'. In the debate on Newsnight Joan Smith completely dismissed talk of kidnapping and torture, the risk that Assange may be detained in the US as Bradley Manning has been, because it's "nonsensical" to imply that the allegations are false. The only discussion we've been having has been limited to the definition of rape, the legitimacy of the allegations and so on. Any suggestion that the founder of WikiLeaks may be extradited to Sweden only to be handed over to the US can be dismissed as a 'conspiracy theory'.
We shouldn't forget the clause of 'temporary surrender' in the extradition treaty between Sweden and the US. It could be argued, as Richard Seymour has, that this maes it much easier for Assange to be extradited from Sweden to the US than the press are letting on. This may even apply for a suspect to be transferred into American custody while the normal conditions and standards are suspended. It also seems significant that the European Court of Human Rights could not prevent the torture of the asylum seeker Ahmed Agiza. This was a transfer that took place from Sweden into US custody that violated a range of international treaties. Furthermore, as Seymour observes, "Law might be the terrain in which this battle is fought out, the language of its prosecution, but this will be a process of interpretation in which the immense resources of the United States will be brought to bear." The amassed power of the American hegemon translates into legal as well as military, political, economic and diplomatic strength that can be exerted at will.
Meanwhile, Laurie Penny made the case that to properly support the cause of WikiLeaks then one should support the extradition of Assange. There is some truth in what Penny claimed when she wrote that it is in the interests of the United States "to ensure that Assange’s army of supporters cannot defend Wikileaks without also being seen to defend his sexual conduct, whatever the truth of the case." Soon all room for subtlety was lost. She went on to note the various deplorable instances of WikiLeaks supporters describing the allegations of rape and sexual assault as "made up", "bad sexual etiquette" etc. It's a matter of consistency for her. Because WikiLeaks stands for a commitment to justice, transparency and accountability it should see to it that Julian Assange is tried for rape. In a more nuanced moment Penny acknowledges "It is not only possible to defend both women’s rights and freedom of speech. It is morally inconsistent to defend one without the other." Yet it is out of the question that it is possible to do so and not sell Assange down the river.
This is truly a moment where it's clear that the herd instinct is alive and well in the independent minds of British journalism. There's always been plenty of ink for penning cretinous claims and moralistic pablum. So we find WikiLeaks is not excluded from the vitriol of the intelligentsia, especially as it is in the interest of the US government to detain whistleblowers as it has imprisoned Bradley Manning. But just as there has always been the obedient herd of intellectuals there is a small pocket of dissent. There is good reason to support the founder of WikiLeaks, for its continued efforts to undermine the status quo by a relentless commitment to radical transparency as well as human rights and civil liberties. This isn't to say that the allegations are illegimate, or should be ignored, in fact, these allegations are extremely serious. But it is vital that we do not abandon whistleblowers - who are innocent until proven guilty - to the talons of rapacious power.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Punk Russia.


With Pussy Riot in the news we may read into the origins of this punk band and look to Voina. It seems somehow significant that this movement to shock cultural conservatism out of Russian society. The fall of the Berlin Wall affected a lot of people in a number of ways. Before the fall there was an entire underground scene of avant-garde art, music and literature, the work was defined by its opposition to the Soviet socialism as well as American capitalism. There has to be a new side to take, beyond left and right. It wasn’t just the emergence of democratic institutions, but the birth of a set of political options that were stunted in utero. We’ll get back to this later. Russia actually has a long history of avant-garde art and we should not mistake Pussy Riot for a deviancy of the post-Communist federation. As the Kremlin prefers to frame the Church as an anti-Stalinist institution it conveniently forgets the importance of the avant-garde in Russian history. Not just in the origins of the Soviet Union, but in the escapism from Brezhnevian repression.

By the early 1930s Stalin had solidified his position with the help of his appointed bureaucrats, the New Economic Policy could be abandoned in order to pursue the brutal collectivization of agriculture. It was at this time that Stalin heralded a new era in Russian art and architecture, it would be known as socialist realism. In the early years of the Revolution the aesthetic of Bolshevism became constructivism and, to a lesser extent, futurism. The Soviet artists were organised into Prolekult, at its peak the organisation had over 84,000 members active in studios and factory groups. The revolutionary avant-garde went back to the earlier uprisings against the Tsar in 1905 when they emerged as left-wing Bolsheviks and became enthralled with the idea of inspiring mass-revolts through art. After the long anticipated 1917 Revolution the avant-garde exploded in its activities even though it was never all that popular with the Orthodox Marxists in the ranks of Leninism.

This was not unique to Russia it has to be said as the surrealists climbed into bed with socialists to the extent that Leon Trotsky contributed to Breton's Surrealist Manifestos. In fact, Andre Breton once summed up the simplest surrealist act as "going into the street, revolver in hand, and firing at random into the crowd for as long as one can". Breton was keen to shape the surrealist movement to fit his own tastes, which carried the symptom of scorn for the novel (with a few exceptions). He also had no interest in music whatsoever. He went onto ostracise Antonin Artaud, Georges Bataille and Salvador Dalí from the group for a variety of reasons. Dalí is a notable exception, to this pattern of artistic radicalism, in his violent passivity at the rise of Franco in the 1930s. This was while Picasso conveyed the horrifying emergence of Fascist Spain over the corpses of a great number of leftists in his own painting. Naturally a mutual disdain burned between Picasso and Dalí.

The leading figures were either absorbed into socialist realism, died off or found themselves marginalised in later life. The avant-garde would only re-emerge in the 1970s and 80s as a negative opposition to state-socialism and liberal capitalism. This time it offered little in positive vision, only a mockery of what had been for so long. At best the artists reverted to the politics of anarchy, forever leftwards. The underground scene thrived in Leningrad and Moscow. There the youth (including the spawn of prominent bureaucrats and commissars) turned to cultural activities – especially music – to capture and mock the absurdity of the USSR. Politics had precious little to offer for the children of Brezhnev, it was not a means to reorganise society. The youth reached out to American Punk because only change seemed possible outside the political realm. It was a way of retreating from any engagement with the corrupt politics of the state that had no place for them to participate in the first place.

For the poet Eduard Limonov the new music scene embodied everything good about Russian maximalism – the tendency to take things to the extreme. The collision of bland bureaucracy and vapid optimism in Russia under Gorbachev could only be met with a militant anti-establishment fervour. Perhaps at some level this was an attempt to recapture the Russian tradition of nihilism. The hero of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons was Bazarov, an idealistic young radical, a devotee of universal freedom destined for tragedy. The novel reflected the Russian nihilism of the late 19th Century. This was when nihilism was of a generational rejection of the old traditional and cultural whole. It was better to profess a faith in ‘nothing’ than to buy into the conventions of traditional religion. The nihilists looked for a better understanding of this world as the future hope rather than living for the promise of salvation in the afterlife.

When the poet Eduard Limonov returned to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union he was appalled by the imposition of Western-style capitalism through ‘shock therapy’. It was a disaster and Limonov was convinced that the liberal societies of the West were no better than the old totalitarian model that had collapsed. Capitalism was just more sophisticated in its oppression. He decided to take drastic action and formed a new political party to take back Russian society from the rapacious forces of globalisation. Limonov set out to develop a new kind of politic out of the avant-garde scene that he had come out of it. He set out to take ideas and tendencies from within avant-garde art and music to redefine his oppositional politics. The aim would be to establish an alternative that would break through the bourgeois illusions of Western democracy to show the masses that the elites were greedily eviscerating Russia to feast on the entrails. 

It would be the National Bolshevik Party. It became the embodiment of the resurgent nationalism – through which the masses could be harnessed as a force – that has sought to quash the Russian process of modernisation since the 1990s. During the bombardment of Sarajevo, Limonov was present in solidarity with his Slavic brethren and there he was with Radovan Karadžić and was filmed taking a turn firing into the streets below them with a rifle. In the meantime, the drink-sodden Yeltsin and the gang of free-marketeers around him practically destroyed Russia only to give way for the rise of Putin. Some of the musicians from the Russian Punk even scene joined the National Bolshevik Party where they would aestheticise the political. As Walter Benjamin would remind us, with great wisdom, behind every Fascism you can find a failed revolution. The disillusionment that had carved out a comforting oppositional aesthetics to the Commissars found no way to define itself after the collapse of really existing socialism.

Once it was the Punk movement of New York City that had offered escapism to the Russian youth, only for it to boil over into a neo-fascism with Limonov's leap from a radical poet in exile to a full-blown reactionary. He had arrived in 1974 just in time to see the Punk scene kick-off in New York. Limonov became close to the likes of Richard Hell, Patti Smith and the Ramones. Limonov took the Punk vision fused it with the pervasive disillusionment of Soviet society. Now Pussy Riot blends Punk with a feminist politic in the post-Soviet Russia where the Kremlin seeks its authority in religiosity and jingoism. It still smacks of the comfortable resistance of artists in the 1970s and 80s. The anarchic form and subversion of any traditional standards without necessarily any positive vision to take the place of the dysfunctional institutions of really existing democracy in Russia. Nevertheless, it is clear that Pussy Riot embodies a valuable tendency in Russian music and art that should not be suppressed as it was under the Stalinists.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Pussy Riot's Challenge.

"Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, chase Putin out," they sang only to receive 2 years for less than 2 minutes of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. Out of the convicted Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich have participated in performances staged by Voina. In one such instance Samutsevich released Madagascan giant cockroaches into a courtroom and went on to kiss on duty female police officers. Tolokonnikova took part in an orgy staged in the Biology Museum in Moscow. Pussy Riot could be seen as an off-shoot of this movement in its devotion to shock and challenge the assumptions of conservative Russians. Predictably Pussy Riot has come up against the cursed spirit of Russian chauvinism in its personification of a pallid dwarfish man-beast. This hardline strain of intolerance ought to be a source of shame for a country that produced so many great artists - from Dostoevsky to Mayakovsky - and particularly great in literature with which the West can hardly compete to this day. Now art has become a battleground for the faithful and the political in present day Russia.

In defence of the trial and sentencing Alexander Nekrassov pointed to the cathedral as an anti-Stalinist monument. Except Nekrassov conveniently forgets that the parodic punk prayer was meant to strike at age old pillars of Russian authoritarianism. The first target was Putin's Kremlin, the secondary target was Russian Orthodoxy as a superstructural spectre of the conditions in Russian society. It has to be said that the Orthodox Church has long served to legitimise the status quo in Russia. This was true in the days when the Tsar stood as the semi-divine head of the Church and it's unfortunately true in the present Mafia state. It was the Russian Orthodox Church which fabricated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, blaming the evils of the world on the Jewish people, and in doing so contributed greatly to the Judeophobia rife in Europe at the time. Indeed, it became Hitler's "warrant" for genocide. Today it is the bedtime reading of neo-Nazis everywhere, it has been distributed by Henry Ford and Hamas while David Icke has cited it as a 'factual document'.
Even Nekrassov's claim that the Church can be taken as an anti-Stalinist symbol shouldn't be taken too seriously. Although the Church had flirtations with oppositional activity, the suicidal regime of Stalin's creation fell back on religiosity as well as nationalism to support the war effort. The campaigns against religion in the 1920s and 30s were put on hold until Khrushchev began to close churches once again in the 60s. Indeed, it made sense given that the war with Germany was a bloodbath for Russia – leaving in excess of 20 million dead. The breach left open after the fall of the Tsar was filled by Stalin as he took on the guise of a god-king complete with an era of heresy hunts, miracles and even an inquisition. It was the Orthodoxy that had worked to instil a cultural credulity among Russians to the benefit of the Tsars and later Stalinism. This isn't to say that the Soviet Union was a religious state, but the Church can hardly be taken as anti-Stalinist so totally. We should turn to the question of Russia's politics and the rudderlessness of organised religion.

The real test is whether or not the Orthodox Church will rise to its stated commitment to the principles by which Christ lived by. As Giles Fraser points out "The legal case against Jesus was that he violated the holy. He was criticised for allowing his disciples to eat without washing properly and for picking corn on the day set aside as holy. He said he was God yet he was born in a filthy stable and willingly laid hands on lepers. He had no problem with being touched by menstruating women or eating with those regarded as unwholesome." This constituted a thoroughgoing deconstruction of the holy, as Fraser notes, that had become an alibi for political injustice. The same challenge was made by the Hebrew prophets, being profane is precisely the point. This should be taken as an opportunity for Russia's progressive Christians to reassert themselves as an alternative to the Kremlin's mascot church. Right now, the Russian Orthodoxy is just another rod with which Putin can kosh dissidents. But the Church will survive as a weapon for future administrations. So it's vital that there be an alternative Christianity to the established Church.

Unwelcome in Putin's Russia.

The conviction of three members of the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot have drawn sympathy and solidarity from around the world. The crime was ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ though the performance lasted less than 2 minutes the three singers have received 2 years each. The sentence was excessive by any measure as the standard sentence for ‘hooliganism’ is 15 days. In his usual man-beast posturing Putin claimed that the Pussy Riot singers wouldn’t have survived if they had pulled a similar stunt in a mosque in the Caucasus. It should go without saying that even if this were the case would it mean that Christian countries should stoop to the same level? It has nothing to do with Christianity or offence. Putin has used the Russian Orthodoxy as a rod to beat this feminist punk band because it represents opposition. It demonstrates his ultimate impotence. The father who beats you is not stronger than the father who can instil silence just by looking at you. The obscenity of Putin is close to public view now. This scandal may be a welcome wedge to be driven into an anaemic political discourse.

Putin has long been perched at the apex of ultra-political populism and anti-political despair, it’s inevitable that he will fall rather than relinquish power. Yeltsin did not hold onto his dignity when he gave up the reins of power and neither shall Putin. The impotence of the Kremlin was further demonstrated by the security lockdown that had to be imposed across Moscow in anticipation of protest over the verdict. And there has been plenty of protest, and no doubt there's plenty to come. These events are symptomatic of the authoritarian brand of Russo-capitalism now not even concealed behind democratic institutions. The Kremlin might as well as revert to the old mantra of the Tsars: orthodoxy, authority, nationality. It’s certain that these are the pillars of the superstructure in the Putinian management of Russia's rapacious capitalism. Only in the midst of the chaos inflicted on Russian society by the breakdown of really existing socialism and the turmoil of really existing democracy could Putin take the reins as a self-styled Leviathan.
The exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky appeared on Newsnight in debate with Putin apologist Alexander Nekrassov over the trial and verdict. Nekrassov insisted that the band should’ve performed elsewhere, as the cathedral has a political resonance in Russia given that it was rebuilt to symbolise the end of Stalinism. He suggests that Pussy Riot should have sung at Lenin’s mausoleum for example. The idea that the band could make a devastating statement against Putin’s rule in this way is farcical.In response, Berezovsky made his standard soap box pose as an enlightened proponent of a people’s capitalism. He made a casual case for religious pluralism, that we all communicate to God in our own way and the particularly free creativity of Pussy Riot poses a threat to tyranny. Then came the usual spiel about Putin’s personal involvement in exiling Berezovsky and poisoning Alexander Litvinenko. No doubt these are major crimes, but Berezovsky’s only real complaint is that the Yeltsin years came to an end. All Berezovsky cares about is stuffing himself with the riches of a vast and beautiful nation.

This simply will not do. We may enjoy the antics of Russian oligarchs in Britain, but there’s a reason these people are over here taking advantage of loopholes in our tax system. The moralisations of Western liberals will not do with this kind of conduct. It's easy for any Russian to see. George Osborne and Peter Mandelson were caught out yachting it with Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch and suspected murderer. That's fine company for the guardians of freedom! And what of this talk of Russia 'immature' democracy? Again, it's a bit rich given that Britain itself is a deformed democracy and the same can be said of its republican neighbours. What about civil liberties and human rights? The former puppet-states of the Soviet Union have done their bit, Uzbekistan have taken prisoners 'renditioned' by Western intelligence agencies to boil them alive. The US government has recently rammed through an act which allows them to legally murder American citizens if they think they are part of the ‘associated forces of al-Qaeda’. Putin can always say "Well, you're no better!" and we walk right into that one on a regular basis.
The juxtaposition between the Kremlin’s whore Nekrassov and the kleptocrat Berezovsky serves as a reminder of the dilemma for the Russian people. The choice for many Russians seems to be a return to the rapacious ‘shock therapy’ after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which plunged over 70 million people into poverty while Moscow became a playground for billionaires and stray dogs. By comparison with the Chinese model the Russian brand of capitalism is particularly inefficient, dysfunctional, cronyistic and unproductive. The Russian state opted to sell-off state industries over night to boldly leap into the developed world. In actuality it just opened up a space for an oligarchy to spring up at the expense of the rest of society. The only major opposition comes from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. It is more like a far-right party than a socialist party in its bid to criminalise the lives of ‘foreigners’ and ethnic minorities. The choice is Putin or fascism. And all too often we in the West indulge in the illusions of self-love, "Aren't we better than these barbarians?" Meanwhile Russia is no better.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Syria's Islamic 'civil war'.

The Wrong brand of Islam.

As Robert Fisk observes, the coverage of this conflict is mired in hypocrisy and mendacity. No Western power is serious about a ‘humanitarian intervention’ in this instance. The political class was relieved (though it won’t admit it) at the Sino-Russian veto which provoked such criticism in the West. Not that there is ever any such concern about the four decades that the US has spent blocking a peaceful settlement over Israel-Palestine. This is highly relevant as the Israelis want to see Syria fall into the hands of people who will betray the Lebanese resistance and sell-out on the Palestinian question. Interestingly, Hezbollah in Lebanon have gone completely quiet as its Shi'ite comrade Bashar al-Assad struggles to hold down a democratic opposition in his own country. Fisk notes "For 30 years, Hezbollah has defended the oppressed Shias of southern Lebanon against Israeli aggression. They have presented themselves as the defenders of Palestinian rights in the West Bank and Gaza. But faced with the slow collapse of their ruthless ally in Syria, they have lost their tongue."

In The Evening Standard Philipp Bobbitt comments “Various Iranian officials have depicted the Syrian civil war as a clash of outside powers, with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey serving as proxies for the US and the UK [which they most certainly are!], trying to weaken the alliance of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah [to further empower Israel].” Note that Bobbitt emphasises that this is the line of the Iranian regime, probably with the intention of muddying it in the minds of his readers. Yet it’s soon clear that Bobbitt is sympathetic to an “extensive bombing campaign, and air strikes” to undermine Syria’s air defences and lay the way for a power-sharing arrangement. He stresses that he isn’t for ‘Western ground troops’ (and no one is) but then stresses that we can rely on Turkey (and NATO) for that. Bobbitt goes on to frame all of this as a ‘civil war’ within Islam, between the Sunni and the Shia manifested in the competing orders of the Saudi Kingdom and the Iranian Republic.

Of course, it seems more like a conflict between Western influence in the region and the only current independent of American-Israeli edict. The problem is not Iran's human rights record, the real problem is that the Iranians will not take orders from Washington between hanging homosexuals. If there really is a ‘civil war’ within Islam then it’s a portion of the Sunni lot that’s on our side, in this view the Shi’ites are the enemy because they inhabit the oiliest land in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Iran poses a threat to the unnatural order that has oil profits being wired to New York and London. So naturally Iranian influence is highlighted as part of the problem in Syria. It seems more plausible that there’s a conflict over the natural resources of that region and it has multifarious belligerents. This is how to take the Sino-Russian opposition to any UN sanctions against Syria. It is also plausible that the objectives of the Western support for rebels go as far as the subversion of any democratic currents in Syria. But it isn't clear if this aim will be achieved.

The Saudi-Qatari ruling-class would love to create another bulwark to Iranian influence in it's tacit alliance with Israel. The Syrian regime has to be destroyed because it's a decrepit Ba'athist model rooted in the Alawite sect of Shi'ite Islam, which makes it a conveniently placed ally of Iran and Hezbollah. It is in the interests of the US and Israel to dethrone Assad and destroy the Ba'ath Party for this reason. This is where the interests of Wahhabi Islamists converge with the interests of Western power and the rebel groups fighting to bring down the Syrian regime. At the same time it has to be said that the popular movement to free Syria from this regime does not subscribe to any religious edicts coming out of Saudi Arabia. The sectarian Wahhabi Islamists are a minority within the struggle, as Richard Seymour has noted. It may be more plausible that the Turkish-backed Muslim Brotherhood will come to power at the ballot box, as seen in Egypt, but it's not a predestined conclusion.

The ideal outcome would take the most progressive aspects of the legacy of Arab nationalism further within a democratic framework to set the ground for a new politics. We should note, as Seymour does, that the Assad regime has sought to harden its position by paying agents to shout sectarian slogans. This is reminiscent of attempts by the Egyptian regime to stir inter-religious violence between Coptic Christians and Muslims. Instead the Coptics and the Muslims stood together in Tahrir Square, "We are one!" they shouted defiantly. Similar methods of whipping up anti-Semitic fervour among the crowds failed. This is a struggle for democracy in the region and it has yet to flower. It is vital that the Left stands behind the democratic opposition and resistance to Bashar al-Assad and the Ba'ath Party for the sake of a shift in paradigm. The opportunity to wrench Syria from all spheres of influence can't be missed. This isn't the same as saying that we should support the liberal interventionists and NATO apologists for bombing a sovereign country.

Democracy Prevention.

Like many I have been trying to keep track of the Syrian conflict, which has gone from an uprising to a full blown civil war beyond anything seen in Libya. The conflict has raged for 18 months leaving over 20,000 dead and over 1.5 million people have fled their homes. It would seem the bat-eared Bashar is looking to outdo his father in this slaughter. I haven’t covered the conflict on my blog, until now, as I feel a tad under-informed to follow events consistently. With that in mind I have picked up on Saudi financial support (at least) for armed Islamist rebels in Syria. It seems the case that the US has ‘encouraged’ the Saudi bourgeoisie to fund and arm the rebels. No doubt the other Arab Gulf states are in on this too, given that the Saudi Kingdom leads the way in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Now the British have pledged £5 million to the rebels. There has hardly been a word about this until it became apparent that the money is probably going to Wahhabi fundamentalists in the opposition.

It was from the mouth of George Galloway that I first heard of Western support for al-Qaeda in Syria. Putting Galloway’s troublesome support for Assad aside, the case is that there are radical Islamist militants fighting in Syria with the backing of the Saudi bourgeoisie and, indirectly, the US government. Conveniently Galloway draws no distinction between the Muslim Brotherhood, radical Wahhabi elements and what's commonly called al-Qaeda - which really refers to a diffuse network of terrorists, ideologists and their financiers. It also should be emphasised that the Arab Spring has predominantly been a force for democratic reform in the region. Syria should be no exception. But there is indirect Western support for Islamic conservatism in the region at large. And it remains that Islam is a common means of association and identification in Middle Eastern politics. The alternative model of revolutionary nationalism died long ago.

Sami Ramadani has argued that the influence of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the US has been to pursue militarization of the conflict in order to block democracy in Syria. He argues that the non-violent resistance would have brought down Assad if it was not for the militarization of the conflict. There may be some truth in this given the contradictions in the Ba'ath Party and Syrian society that the army may have brushed aside Assad as the generals threw out Mubarak in Egypt. At the same time, it should be noted that the military establishment in Egypt has yet to be defeated. The systems which held these dictators in place have survived the revolt in many countries. It seems plausible that the peaceful movement for democracy in Syria may have dethroned the Assad family, but it seems less likely that the peaceful means could be used to bring down the Ba'athist regime. As inevitable as violence seems to be the only means to destroy the regime it is definitely the case that the US will do anything to prevent democracy from prevailing in the Middle East.

It should surprise no one that the Saudi Kingdom is promoting a particular version of political Islam in Syria to destroy a republican alternative. Its policy of petro-Islam has a long record of supporting Islamist militants, including the Taliban in its barbaric rule over Afghanistan. Many Syrian women are right to fear the impact of Saudi influence for this reason, just going on its appalling internal record on women's rights. But even comparatively progressive Turkey is seen as a regressive force. Remember the cries in the West that the fall of Mubarak would allow a Iranian style Islamist government to spring up and immediately go after the Jews? There are no such cries over Syria for the reason that the fall of Assad is perfectly compatible with American-Israeli strategic interests. Even if the GCC find a way to conjure a Sunni-Muslim despotism out of this chaos, it is totally within the contours of US interests. The problem is not Islamic politics, it is a particular Islamic politics.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Socialism as a secular faith.

In God is not Great Christopher Hitchens writes “When I was a Marxist, I did not hold my opinions as a matter of faith but I did have the conviction that a sort of unified field theory might have been discovered.” He goes onto note that there is no supernatural or absolutist element in dialectical materialism, but it did have a ‘messianic’ aspect in its faith in the coming revolution. There are also martyrs and saints in the figures of Che Guevara and Vladimir Lenin. With Stalinism there was the papacy complete with heresy hunts, miracles and inquisitions. He draws parallels between the leftist reverence for Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg and the elevation of particular figures in Christianity to the status of sainthood. No doubt Karl Marx is the founding Jewish prophet of this faith, while Luxemburg is a mixture of Cassandra and Jeremiah in Hitch’s mind.It has been acknowledged by Hitch’s former IS comrade Terry Eagleton that Karl Marx may have been an atheist there are Judaic themes in secular form to be found in his thinking.

This includes notions of justice, emancipation, the reign of peace and plenty, the day of reckoning, history as a narrative of liberation, the redemption not just of the individual but of a whole dispossessed people. You could draw a parallel between Marx’s avoidance of sketching out utopia of the future and the Jewish aversion to any speculation of the World to Come. Hitchens favours this side of the bearded dialectician because this is where we find the hostility to fetishism, idols and illusions. Again, all of this could be seen as Judaic. Yet it is the case that the tenets of dialectical materialism do not consistent of any set of claims about the cosmos. So the religious may subscribe to Marxist materialism, the curious blend of German philosophy, French politics and English economics. In fact Karl Marx once told his wife Jenny that if she wants to “satisfy” her metaphysical needs she’d do better to seek out the Jewish prophets than to attend the Secular Society. Perhaps if Marx is the founding prophet then Leninism serves as a Pauline ‘betrayal’ necessary for the establishment of a universal church.

Today it is no coincidence that the liberals have become increasingly obsessed with secularisation while the radicals have taken up theology as a pursuit. It’s nothing new. Nietzsche’s enmity for socialism came down to his view of the project as a radicalised kind of Christianity. There is an element of truth in this charge:just as the Christians live for the otherworldly the socialists seek to build, out of this world, the other world. It is no wonder then that the New Atheists fall back on liberal shibboleths as a presupposed Gnosticism – especially the notion of history as progress, to which any obstacle must be circumvented. It might be because liberalism really believes in nothing except that the individual should be free to believe that the last obstacle is totalitarian belief itself. The first step towards totalitarianism, in the liberal mind, is any attempt to reach beyond the confines of capitalist society. So for many it would seem the only political project, of any worth, is the fight to rid the world of faith.

In this sense the New Atheists are post-political in their anti-theism. It is apt then that Christopher Hitchens took on this projectafter he lost his ‘faith’ in socialism. Despite Hitch’s tirades against God, conveniently framed to provide a defence of the ‘War on Terror’, he admitted that if he could he would not rid the world of religious conviction. Apparently there is no third camp between Athens and Jerusalem, rationality in one corner and religiosity in another. Yet in his newfound ‘free-thinking’ Hitchens severed any responsible commitments he had before to take on the convictions needed to support the invasion of Iraq.The liberal tradition (which certainly includes the New Atheists) does not have the monopoly over democracy, civil liberties, human rights and notions of equality. The same goes for its claim to science, reason and unbelief. The Marxist project was originally pitched as scientific in its critique of capitalism, which went as far as to take the church as a superstructural institution that serves to legitimatise the economic system.

There is no contradiction here. The New Atheists may adhere to a strenuous conception of secularity, but it was the Catholic tradition which spawned secularism as an irreligious realm where there is space for religious conviction, influence and practice. John Gray traces absolutism and atheism to the advent of monotheism, in its fundamental claim to universal truth. Unbelief is just an extension of the Abrahamic passion for truth.Gray stresses that “Only with Christianity did the belief take root that one way of life could be lived by everyone.” Before monotheism it was taken for granted that the rejection of one god merely meant the embrace of another god and another cult. It was the first time that there was strictly one way to live and believe, which had to be taken above all others. He claims that “If the world had remained polytheist, it could not have produced communism or ‘global democratic capitalism’.”For polytheism is too ‘delicate’ for modern thinking Gray concludes “If we live in a world without gods, we have Christianity to thank for it.”

The Perils of Depoliticization.

Religious anti-Politics.

It’s often overlooked that the encroachment on public space and stultification of mass-politics has damned us to an anaemic existence in political terms. The inability to participate in a meaningful fashion in the realm of organised politics has left people without any means of identification, participation and association at the political level. Religious fundamentalism fills the breach when there are no meaningful forms of political organisation and participation to involve oneself.It seems significant that the politics of fear came to the forefront of American foreign policy in the early 21st Century. The space which was once filled by Communism was now a slot occupied by Islamism. It became the new enemy we must vanquish in the name of freedom. This closed down the End of History narrative which began with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The old question of whether the future will be socialist, fascist or capitalist could be put aside. It was the triumph of liberal democratic capitalism, the only system left and the world was now beyond politics.

As Slavoj Žižek notes Kansas was once the bedrock of American leftism, after the triumphs of Reaganomics and the subsequent stultification of US politics Kansas has become another centre of Christian fundamentalism. The same can be said of Afghanistan, which was once a moderate Westward looking monarchy before the Communist coup and subsequent Russian invasion to which the primary resistance came from radicalised Muslim groups supported by the US. It was the US that founded the Mujahideen in 1978 and later financed the Taliban to secure plans for an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea through Afghanistan to Pakistan. In Pakistan the US supported the military dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq which carried out an extensive radicalisation of Pakistani society in the 1980s. The military junta was conceived in a coup that unseated the comparatively liberal Bhutto government. The US actually went as far as to produce Jihadist manuals, printed at the University of Nebraska, to be distributed in Pakistan.

It is no coincidence that the rise of radical Islamism in the Middle East coincides with the failures and decline of Arab nationalism combined with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In part this came down to the deliberate destruction of nationalist alternative to secure the hold on the oil spigot through the theocracies on the Arab peninsula. The involuntary euthanasia of Arab nationalism also served to defend Israeli expansionism and insulate rejectionists from meaningful negotiations for a peaceful settlement and the international consensus which supports it. The radical Islamists were empowered by this decline as the Arabs turned from one identity-marker to another. The only form of association and identification became religious rather than national in what was left of the political realm. In the Middle East it has been the major form of the politics of resistance to American and Israeli military power in the region for far too long. It took the place of left-wing and nationalist movements often with the blessing of Washington.

Hope in Democracy.

Everywhere you look in the Middle East there were currents of secular nationalism that have been destroyed. In Iran the nationalist government of Mossadegh was overthrown in 1953 to install the Shah which acted as a bulwark to the various forces in the country until 1979 when radical Shi’ite Islamists seized the state in the midst of revolution.Hezbollah came out of the Amal movement on the other side of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which disarmed the Lebanese Left and the PLO. The Amal movement was a Shi’ite communalist movement, not fundamentalist, until it underwent radicalisation with Hezbollah as a splintered off-shoot with the sponsorship of the Iranian state. The Israeli government even supported Hamas in its early years to undermine the secular Left and particularly Arafat. Similarly in Egypt Sadat supported the emergence of radical Islamic groups to undermine the more left-wing Nasserites. It backfired and Sadat was killed by Islamists in 1981 for the peace treaty he signed with the Israelis.

After 30 years of Mubarak the Egyptian brand of nationalism has discredited itself fully and the halcyon days of Nasser remains a distant memory. Mubarak stuffed his family’s accounts with an estimated $70 billion while the majority of Egyptians have had to survive on less than $2 a day.The lowest moment came at the height of the Tahrir protests Mubarak got down on his knees and begged Netanyahu to invade Egypt so that he could hold onto his position as a ‘heroic Arab leader’. What he didn’t know was that the generals were listening in on his phone calls and Mubarak was soon dethroned. Ultimately the democratic uprising of 2011 that dethroned Mubarak gave birth to a neutered Islamic administration with a coterie of generals around it. It seems significant that the democratic nationalist Sabahi was knocked out of the race quickly, leaving the Egyptian people to choose between a felool and a fanatic. The nationalist alternative was dirtied far too much to be revived even in a dissident form.

The Arab Spring is an opportunity for the people of the Middle East to re-politicize. This does not mean a return to 'proper politics'. In the original Greek sense polis means more than a community as Mike Marqusee notes "It was a self-conscious unit of self-administration (independent of empires) and from the start was made up of separate, contending social classes." He goes further to note that Athenian democracy was itself the product of a class struggle and class compromise between aristocrats and artisants who had become 'free citizens'.  Politics emerged as a distinct activity concerned with the affairs of the polis in separation from any tribal loyalties. The polis was not to be conflated with the oikos, the economy was a private realm from the radical democratic polis. Depoliticization can open up greater space for capital's rule. The future of the Middle East is not in the anti-politics of theoconservatism, rather it is in the democratic opening which will give room for greater organisation at the grass-roots. This is only the beginning of a long process.