Saturday, 15 June 2013

The Boris Johnson Symptom.

In recent years there has not been a more significant symptom of disarray within the Conservative Party than the undiluted veneration of Boris Johnson. This is especially the case with the constant talk of Boris becoming Party Leader and maybe even Prime Minister one day. The Conservative Party must be aware of the fact that they haven’t won a majority government in more than 20 years. It’s hard to picture the traditionalists being massaged into ecstasy by a Prime Minister BJ, perhaps even less so than Prime Minister DC. So it must be about the desperation in the knowledge that the Party seriously needs popular appeal. The right-wing adoration for Boris ranks in high farce. There were those who claimed his re-election in 2012 was down to his strong conservative principles. Toby Young has bet £15,000 with Nigella Lawson that, by 2018, Boris will be Tory leader and, in the imagination of some, a prospective Prime Minister. Then in 2012, that custodian of the sacred foetus, Nadine Dorries came out in standard reactionary flair to berate David Cameron as a ‘sheep in wolf’s clothing’ before fawning over the imaginary prospect of a Boris Cabinet.
The prospect remains a realistic one in the minds of many. Yet we’d do better to examine the Boris phenomenon with more serious eyes. If we assume that Boris is sensible (a risk we may live to regret) then surely the Mayoral office is much more suited to his attributes. It’s not that he is an effective politician due to his strong conservative principles. The efficacy of the Johnson persona is his relatively detached relationship with power which lends great prowess to the anti-political role of a clown. As Mayor Boris enjoys the freedom to rail against the government and not commit to anything. In a higher office Boris would lose this non-committed freedom and be held to rigorous scrutiny within Parliament and in the press. No amount of bluster from foolish reactionaries and eejits will change this obvious flaw in the delusion. It was precisely the anti-political purity of Boris Johnson by comparison with Ken Livingstone that secured the glass testicle for the Conservatives. Boris doesn’t come across as a politician. He’s a combination of the Wodehousian aristo and a political tabula rasa. Behind the blank veneer you find, at best, the incoherence of market liberalism.
Last week Boris put forward a series of proposals for a ’2020 vision of London’ which he claims as his own. Apparently the future will be a ‘golden age’ in transport for Londoners. The programme is exactly what we would expect from the anti-political populist who has run City Hall for five years now. The prospect of 75% automation has the mouths of many commuters watering profusely. Smashing the last of the strong trade unions in this country is a cause endorsed by liberals as well as conservatives. It’s a broad based appeal to the urban poor who don’t want their lives disrupted regularly by strikes (and with good reason); as well as the suburban middle-classes who hope the roads may be less congested if the unwashed hordes are shuffling about underground. The regressive fare hikes are defended as necessary measures in austere times, yet it was Boris who closed the deal with Venezuela for cheap oil – a deal cut by Mr Livingstone to maintain low bus fares. There is no talk of necessity when it comes to slamming the breaks on the congestion charge to rake in petit-bourgeois votes. Simultaneously the £12 billion development of Crossrail 2 no doubt offers prospects for speculators, just as the extension of the Jubilee line cost £3.5 billion while it raised land values for speculators to rake in £13 billion.
Much has been made of the late date at which these proposals have been put forward. It is five years since Boris strode into City Hall on horseback leading a populist cavalry against ‘Red’ Ken and only three years until the next Mayoral election. It’s possible that the plan has been timed so that only a few of the proposals actually come into fruition. The safe bet would be that the transport reforms will pass, but the aim of building 400,000 new homes may not. After all this city is not for the poor, it’s for the wealth-creators in Canary Wharf. The London working-class find themselves battered by such regressive taxes as VAT and the exorbitant travel fares which absorb so much of the wage packet. Meanwhile the housing benefit reforms are likely to force many out of their homes as the question of extreme rents remains unanswered and even unacknowledged.
Take note, the so-called plan to build 400,000 new homes for the next decade amounts to releasing more publicly-owned land to be developed (probably by private companies) combined with greater borrowing for local government to boost building projects and a ‘use it or lose it’ measure to ensure private investment leads to development. The Mayor advocates the devolution of power – particularly over property taxes – to City Hall in order to further facilitate greater investment. All the while Boris Johnson argues that there is nothing to be gained from regulating the financial colossus in the City. It would seem this is more of a plan for profitability than anything else. It’s possible then that the houses may be built, but in what form we can only speculate. We can gauge as much from the fact that City Hall approved the construction of a block of luxury flats in Elephant & Castle as part of a billion-pound gentrification project. Just as we can expect similar efforts in Hammersmith around the Westfield centre where land values have risen. It’s plausible that the local working-class will be pushed out to make way for very nice houses for the more bourgeois.
With all this in mind, it seems there is an uncertain future for the Conservative Party with its shrunken talent pool. It seems probably that Cameron will hold onto his position simply because there isn’t a serious contender to unseat him. That goes for Ed Miliband, who poses little serious opposition to Cameron’s government in terms of policy. We can thank the Labour Party for helping to keep Margaret Thatcher in office for 11 years and we shouldn’t shirk to place the blame where’s its due come 2015. Not that we should really care that the Conservative Party seems a bit short of an effective leader, as it has been since the hag was slain, as what’s really lacking is opposition. The economy is still struggling to drag itself out of this slump, for the ruling-class there aren’t any clear answers at hand. Likewise, there aren’t any obvious ways for the Establishment to circumvent the problems incurred by economic crisis and electoral despair. In short, the signs of disarray within the Conservative Party are to be welcomed as much as the timidity of Labour and Lib Dem is to be despised.

This article was originally posted on the Third Estate on June 15th 2013.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Claims of 'East' and 'West'.

It is an illusion of liberal society that the language we use can ever have a neutral application, in the strictest sense, for it carries all sorts of hidden cargo - some of it intentionally so, no doubt. You only have to look at the discourse around the Middle East for a demonstration of this and that’s before we even get to the details of the various crises. The very designation of the region as the ‘Middle East’ has a historical and political significance in itself. There is no longer commonly heard talk of a ‘Near East’ or even a ‘Far East’. The days when the Balkans and Greece are seen as otherly to the rest of Europe are hopefully gone. Of course, Turkey is the exceptional case, typically viewed as a middle-passage from the West to the East. Yet the example of Turkey ought to prompt serious questions about the widely accepted and most problematic division of ‘East’ from ‘West’. The assumptions built into such statements are in dire need of a vigorous unpicking.

It’s not the case that the difference boils down to a distinction between Islamic and Christian culture. If this were the case then not only would Turkey not be European, but neither would Bosnia be considered European. We would then be led to the suspect conclusion that the level of Muslim population determines the un-European nature of a society. In contrast, many would assume that Europe ends at the borders of Greece even without Islam in mind. And this in turn would lead us back to the old colonial signifier of a ‘Near East’ from which we must be on guard. It used to be that Greece was a part of the ‘Near East’ along with the Balkans, yet it has been confined as the ‘Middle East’ to the territory ruled by the Ottoman Empire in the last century or so. The terms ‘Near’ and ‘Middle’ imply that the region is defined in relation to the rest of Europe, though not as a part of the same region. Serbia may be more near than far as with Singapore, while Syria falls in the middle from where we sit. Yet no one would draw Indonesia as Eastern with the same connotations as Syria.

No one talks about the ‘Near East’ or the ‘Far East’ with any serious today, but the 'Middle East' remains in our vocabulary as stubborn as ever. Given the hybridity of European countries, the distinction can no longer be maintained on the contours of ‘race’ and instead the language of ‘culture’ fills the breach. This is where the talk of a clash of civilisations enters, with the West is defined as civilised only negatively against the barbarism of the East. For the nationalists, Christian identity is worth emphasising because it isn’t Islamic. In the conflicts erupting from Yugoslavia’s demise in the early 90s it was the claims to civilisation which prefigured the exclusion of an Other. So-called Christian civilisation was under threat in the Balkans, as people like Karadžić claim, and therefore it was necessary to resort to ultra-violence.[1] As ethnic identity became determined by religious affiliation Orthodox Christians became Serbs while Muslims remained Bosnian regardless of the heritage they may have shared.

In light of this we’d do best to note that human civilisation has never been homogenous, nor monolithic, and certainly not ahistorical. We may reiterate these points with regard to the variety of cultures in the world. If we then accept religion and culture as socially constructed, responding to a need in human society, as well as constitutive of identities, this ought to be obvious. In this sense culture is partially determined by its material basis, while culture retains its own capacity for productivity and not all of its development can be reduced to the material.[2] It should surprise no sensible person then that the economic formations in the region have been conducive to religiously infused forms of politics. Due to the transient condition of society the interdependence of the economy and its cultural effluvia may lead to serious contradictions. The unbridled forces of the market tend towards relativism, pluralism and pragmatism, are fettered by tradition, order, cohesion and moral realism.[3]

It’s an inescapable problem for modern societies. Some, like Britain, have become increasingly secular and that has actually solved the problem to a large extent. This secularisation of Britain seems to have come about with a displacement of religion to the state. Ironically, it may be the absence of a separation of church and state in Britain which maintains its secularity in everyday life. Meanwhile the US remains as fervent as ever in spite of its formal laicism. Yet there is nothing English about the Church of England, other than its peculiar head, no Christian value which can be monopolised by the British state. More and more British society is comfortable with its relativizing economy and its religious-state establishment. The problem for those who complain of the threat of immigration to British values is that there are no such values. There is nothing uniquely British about emotional restraint, even if it is a cultural value.[4] As Eagleton points out, the moral values of  the ‘natives’ and the ‘foreigner’ hold much common ground than we might first assume when customs and beliefs differ.[5]

There may be a probability of a cultural transformation, but there are no values under threat and culture was never a unified and ahistorical continuum to begin with. Likewise, if we take Islam and Christianity as sharing a common ancestor, namely Judaism, then we shouldn’t lose sight of the common ground either. As a monotheistic tradition it lays claim to universal truth, and this was a huge advance on polytheism with its multiple truths taken for granted. It was a necessary shift for culture and civilisation to undertake, moving from particularism to universalism.[6] This laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment to come many centuries later. In this way we may understand secular society as necessarily post-monotheist, its own universalist claims holding ancient precursors.[7] The predisposition of religion towards an aversion from Enlightenment values does not necessarily amount to an incompatibility between religious conviction and a liberal society.

The British Right has long maintained that the United Kingdom is separated from Europe not just by the seas, but by its culture, language and history. Strangely, we find this view of the Anglo-Saxons can be found among the dirigiste conservatives of France and has a history of its own going back to Charles de Gaulle if not further. It rears its head in odd ways every so often in French politics, yet it is a recurrent motif of British political discourse. The paucity and anaemia of our ‘national’ identity can easily be overlooked when there is an Other within reach. Thus we once raved about turbans and now it’s the much maligned niqab. Likewise, it doesn’t matter if we can’t define our so-called ‘Western’ values - that we must protect from the hordes about to swarm across our borders - as we can reassure ourselves that we are not like the Other. Not only is this danger of xenophobia underestimated, we have overlooked the role we could play in counteracting the very presuppositions of the debate to be had.

In this way we find that the conservatives may have succeeded in defining Britain as somewhat alien to Europe then we should undo the colonialist designation of ‘Middle East’. It seems not just necessary but preferable in countering the absurd narrative of permanently clashing civilisations. The region may be better designated as West Asia, that’s including everything from the Iranian plateau to Anatolia. It includes not just Israel but Palestine and the surrounding Arab petro-states, as well as the Kurdish land in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The Arab Spring should dispel all orientalist twaddle about the imperatives of the one-party state over the peoples beyond the Turkish middle-ground. If we are to take monotheism as running westward in its universal claims then we can’t pretend the claims made by the Enlightenment ends at the doorstep of Europe.

[2] Eagleton, T; Culture and Barbarism (2008):
[3] Eagleton, T; Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Kindle edition, 2010) p.142-143
[4] Eagleton, T; Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Kindle edition, 2010) p.150-152
[5] Ibid.
[6] Gray, J; Straw Dogs  (Granta, 2002) pg.125-126
[7] Ibid. pg.126-127

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Obama's Killing Machine.

Not even a week into his first term, President Obama sent a clear message to the world when it came to the ‘War on Terror’ re-declared by Bush in 2001. On January 23th 2009 Obama authorised the first of many military operations conducted within Pakistani territory to take place during his time in office. It was a double-strike carried out by a remotely piloted American aircraft – one of the so-called ‘drones’ – killing at least 15 people in western Pakistan.[1] As far as we know it was the first of more than 300 of these operations to be conducted by the CIA in Pakistan over the last four years. It was as much a sign of things to come as it was the first sign of what looks like continuity between Obama and Bush. Actually the truth is even worse than that.

The policy of drone strikes was initially launched under the shameful first term of President Bush only five months before the 2004 election. Under Bush the campaign of assassination was supplemented, at first, with the kidnapping and torture of ‘terror suspects’ only for this campaign to be upped under Obama. It was Bush who saw the Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, rammed through Congress after the attacks on the Twin Towers. Pentagon officials have claimed that the AUMF gives the President the power to wage an endless war anywhere on earth; with one official predicting that the operations against al-Qaeda could go on for 20 years.[2] Even so, the Bush administration only authorised around 50 strikes in Pakistan compared with the more than 300 strikes authorised by Obama.[3] With the passing of the National Defence Authorization act the US can now feel free to murder its own citizens at a whim if they are ‘associated’ with terror. The world remains the battlefield for these airborne death squads and no one appears to be safe.
Over the next four years Obama would extend the drone operations to a whole new precedent, past Pakistan across West Asia and even onwards to Africa. By the summer of 2011 the White House had given the ‘okay’ to bomb Somalia, the justification being to combat the Islamists in the country who had forged ties to Yemen’s al-Qaeda.[4] The US had been conducting operations against Yemen, where they would later assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki – the American and online face of radical Islamism – only to continue the strikes and kill (as of May 20th 2013) somewhere between 1,100 and 1,800 people.[5] Then the arms that had flowed readily into the hands of Berbers and Tuareg fighters in Libya’s civil war made it to Northern Mali in 2012. The Tuaregs, now rearmed, carved out Azawad from the African state only for the military junta in Bamako to request French assistance. The Islamist presence in North Africa provided yet another pretext to the ever extending bloodbath from above. Soon the US government had responded in its own way and American troops were deployed in 35 African countries.[6] By January 2013, Niger had agreed to let the US drones swarm into their sovereignty to kill yet more targets.[7]
The exact numbers of those killed in these operations are not so much disputed as the precise composition of the slain. At CounterPunch, Jeffrey St. Clair estimates the death toll as more than 3,000 with something like 900 civilian deaths including at least 176 children.[8] That’s if we assume that the muddy distinctions of ‘civilians’ from ‘terror suspects’ or even ‘associated forces’ (of al-Qaeda) can be sustained. At the Brookings Institution, in July of 2009, Daniel L Byman estimated that the body count from the drone strikes came to ten civilians for every militant killed.[9] It’s worth keeping in mind that the US government defines ‘suspected militant’ as all military-age males in a strike zone.[10] There are worthy victims and unworthy victims, those killed by the enemy and those we have killed. Such a distinction is to be maintained through whatever legal wrangling necessary in this bizarre age.
Come the second term, President Obama had resorted to using past precedents of American war crimes in Indochina to further legitimise the swarm of Predator drones.[11] Operation Menu was the name for the systematic bombing of selected targets (supposedly Viet Cong strongholds) within neutral Cambodia. This campaign was actually just a worse version than the less intense operations carried out under Lyndon Johnson.[12] It was called Menu because of the order of bombing: first breakfast, then lunch, snack, dinner, supper and dessert. With this flippancy the US effectively invaded Cambodia in 1970 and out of the inferno emerged the Khmer Rouge stronger than ever from the fallout. The example of Operation Menu is useful because international law would rule out extending conflict outside of the battlefield. At the time the State Department lawyer claimed legitimacy in extending the war in Vietnam to its neutral neighbour because there were Vietnamese forces in Cambodian territory.[13]
It is a befitting analogy for Obama’s drone wars, given the destabilising effect on Pakistan with the potential for civil war and even nuclear disaster in the country. With this in mind we may add that the assassination of Osama bin Laden, originally named Operation Geronimo, was carried out by US forces with the prior expectation that if the situation gets out of hand with nearby Pakistani soldiers they would have to fight their way out of the country. These unsanctioned actions against a supposedly sovereign country have provoked incredible anger in Pakistan. Let alone the authorised actions to repeatedly bomb villages and towns in Pakistan’s territory. Even if we accept the premises of the ‘War on Terror’ we cannot be blind to the sheer futility of these bloody operations. The latest drone strike in Pakistan was on May 29th of this year, left Walier ur-Rehman, second-in-command of the Taliban, dead among three others in North Waziristan.[14] The next day the Pakistani Taliban replaced this prominent commander with Khan Said. No doubt the Islamists of Pakistan have plenty of new recruits to hoover up in the wake of drone strikes.
The attempts by the White House to find a loophole around the criminal nature of this conduct are especially revealing. Obama is much less comfortable than his predecessor when it comes to disregarding international law. Where the Bush-Cheney gang couldn’t give a damn about international law this lawyer-cum-politician looks for the legal grounds to commit mass-murder. Bush had the audacity to pass the ‘Netherlands invasion act’ in 2002, which gave the US the right to invade to prevent any trial of an American citizen taking place in The Hague.[15] Obama is looking to find a more subtle way out of any possible allegations of crimes against humanity. In short, we find that the Democrats offer a better and more civilised George Bush with his finger on the button.
This article was written for the Third Estate and posted on June 4th 2013.

[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.