Thursday, 5 November 2015

Lizza Littlewort's 'We Live In The Past'

On Wednesday, Cape Town’s 99 Loop gallery opened its doors for the first day of Lizza Littlewort’s ‘We Live In The Past’ exhibition. The artist aims to draw out South Africa’s colonial past, as found in the ‘Golden Age’ of Dutch painting, but reinvents this work to convey the legacy to contemporary eyes.

As an illustrator, Ms. Littlewort previously produced educational works on such topics as healthcare and the environment. She helped set up a permaculture project called ‘Tyisa Nabanye’, a collective that aims to promote food security and sustainable living. She has degrees in architecture, fine art and English literature from the University of Cape Town (UCT), the city of her birth.

“The point of the show is really about the political background to ‘art treasures’ in general, using South Africa and my family as particular examples,” Ms. Littlewort told The World Weekly. “The same discussion would really cover where the Queen got the gold and diamonds in her crown and where anybody ever got so much money that they could develop such a sumptuous ‘high art’ culture.”

“Each painting in this body of work is a play upon an earlier painting by a Dutch Master painter,” explains Ms. Littlewort. “The less famous ones were chosen because they were painted by my ancestor, Jakob Willemzoon de Wet the Elder. I chose these works in order to make my comments about the continuities between past and present more personal, embedding them in my own family history.”

The reinterpretation of this body of work filters the original images through neon tones, thereby accentuating and distorting the subjects. In this way, the realism of the Dutch Masters is reimagined in a modernist trajectory: from the desolate landscapes of Max Ernst and Salvador Dali’s paranoiac-critical method to Neo Rauch of the New Leipzig School. The end result was described by academic Niklas Zimmer as “uncomfortably beautiful”.

Mr. Zimmer argues this effectively subverts the naturalist style, which was so conducive to the establishment’s version of history. The original purpose of the Dutch paintings was to “warn the viewer that we cannot take our riches with us when we die”. Now Ms. Littlewort wants to remind viewers that “the astonishing wealth Holland accrued at this time has fundamentally shaped global history”.

Not only does the project have a strong historical focus, it is informed by South African literature and particularly the work of JM Coetzee. “My honours dissertation was on Dusklands, which is an extremely violent story about the genocide of indigenous people at the Cape,” Ms. Littlewort told The World Weekly. She took this literary account alongside Dr. Nigel Penn’s work on the displacement and ethnic cleansing of the Khoi and San peoples by white settlers.

“I am examining here my complicity and predicament as one who benefits from Dutch merchants’ wealth and power,” Ms. Littlewort explained. “My mother was born a de Wet, and her mother was a Versveld. Both the de Wet and Versveld families owned large farms in the Robertson and Darling areas respectively.” She goes on to relate that the de Wets’ ancestor, Jakob Willemzoon, was a Haarlem-based painter and art dealer, whose son was given a powerful post in the Dutch East India Company’s outpost in the Cape.

A major point of the exhibition is the close proximity of the art world to colonialism. “Painting and art is conventionally seen as ‘innocent’ and outside of the overarching political condition,” said Ms. Littlewort. “To me it’s much the same as the first-world white person having ‘subjectivity’ and ‘individuality’, while the conquered are represented as non-human stereotypes.”

It’s all too convenient, in her view, for white South Africans to tell black South Africans to “get over the past”. Yet the call for the statue of Cecil Rhodes to be removed from UCT grounds drew opposition from the white community, as she sees it. In this case, white South Africans were afraid of their own historical and cultural heritage being erased. The fact that apartheid ended in 1994 and Cecil Rhodes died in 1902 is lost in all of this.

Appropriately, ‘We Live In The Past’ makes reference to the campaign to oust the Cecil Rhodes statue at UCT, but it also takes place against a backdrop of protest. Student campaigners brought 10 universities to a halt and forced the South African government to freeze tuition fees. Mass demonstrations have been organised throughout South Africa’s major cities. This may be an ideal time for a resurgence of political art.

This article was originally published at The World Weekly on November 5, 2015.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Catastroika: Putin's Syria Policy

So Russia is now an active participant in the Syrian civil war. The pretext is standard: Islamic State must be defeated at any cost to the Syrian people. Yet the bombs are falling on other rebel targets - al-Qaeda's Jubhat al-Nusra, no doubt - and civilian targets are not out of bounds. Russian bombs have already hit hospitals and medical centres. These incidents will only increase as the bombing continues and the war continues to hurtle onward.
As I wrote before the Russian army began bombing Syria, Vladimir Putin has a more coherent strategy than the Western powers - which still cling to the hope that Islamic State and Assad can be defeated at once. Putin begins from a different premise: Assad's regime is the most legitimate force in the war. This may be a key strength, but it doesn't guarantee victory - nor does it justify itself. Four years of war have left 250,000 people dead, maybe more, and displaced millions.
No one power seems capable of destroying the other. But this could quickly change. Bashar al-Assad could be ousted by his generals. Islamic State could takeover a major city and declare a new capital, which would be a tremendous blow. That's why Assad has been so desperate to cling onto Aleppo. If the Alawite-Sunni alliance, on which the Syrian regime depends, collapses then there will be a strong power vacuum.
The endless war
In this case, Syria will fall into the abyss, as if the conflict wasn't already bad enough, imagine total chaos. It's plausible external powers would back whichever factions they can to try and regain control over the situation. There are a hand full of countries where this has happened: Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and now Syria possibly. It's not pretty, to put it mildly.
Russia has been here before. In December 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, first to topple Hafizullah Amin, who it found untrustworthy and unstable, then it set about trying to turn the Parcham wing of the People's Democratic Party into the centre of power in the country. Babral Karmal was its Menshevik front man. The Mujahideen, backed by the US and Pakistan, was its adversary. In the end, the Soviet Union was humiliated.
Today Russia cannot afford to reenact this catastrophe. Despite this historical lesson, the Putin government has not been deterred from de facto invading Syria on the side of the Assad regime. Up to now, Putin was playing the distant game. In early 2013 Putin made his stance clear at the UN Security Council and stood in unanimity with China. When it looked like the US was getting ready for 'punitive bombing' in August 2013 Putin was sending arms to Assad.
Now Putin has 'little green men' flying over Syria to dump explosives on the rebels. There has been a dramatic shift since 2013 and it may come down to one country: Ukraine. The Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea provoked outrage in the West and led the US and the EU to impose sanctions on the Russian Federation. As wrong as it was for Russian troops to march into a sovereign nation-state, the most outraged squeals came from war criminals.
As the Russian economy faces bleak prospects - thanks to the collapse of oil prices, never mind the sanctions - the Ukrainian crisis is being felt in the homes of ordinary Russians. If Putin cannot stabilise the economy he could face serious domestic opposition. The boost in popularity over Ukraine could easily disappear. The end of the Yeltsin years left Putin with a great deal of credibility. He appeared as a necessary force providing order and stability.
High-risk strategy
According to financial journalist Andrew Critchlow, Putin is playing a high-risk strategy to drive oil prices up. To undermine the Russian economy, the US and Saudi Arabia have repeatedly slashed oil prices. This has hit Russia hard, but it also threatens to destabilise the Saudi dictatorship. Rather than back down Putin has moved to confront his enemies via the Syrian civil war. He has moved to strengthen the Syrian regime and the Iranian government, which pose serious obstacles to Saudi Arabia.
By invading Syria, Russia can throttle the jihadi rebels mobilised by Saudi and Qatari petro-dollars. It might be the means to exhaust the Saudi royal family. King Salman can't afford to face chaos at home either. If the House of Saud feels its position threatened by the Syrian civil war it may back down. In this case, King Salman may cut oil production to allow prices to rise. This would help ease the strain of the Russian economy.
Along these lines, as Critchlow's theory goes, the Syrian civil war could threaten the ruling order in the Saudi Kingdom and the Russian Federation. If Putin's gamble leads all sides to push harder, then it's possible everyone would lose out. Even in that case, it's likely oil prices will have to stabilise in the end. In the meantime, as the civil war reaches new suicidal heights, the Syrian people are the real losers.

If the Russian air strikes can weaken the rebels, the Syrian regime can hold onto its gains and may be even expand its reach. This could force the Western powers to accept new terms of negotiation. In this scenario, Putin will have won and the US will have been humiliated. If Putin can do this and force the Saudis to raise oil prices this victory will be twofold. But the stakes are high and the war is far from cold.
This article was originally published at Souciant.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Catastroika: What's Syria in Russian?

In realpolitik minds, Vladimir Putin casts the shadow of a shrewd player on the world stage. He opposes ‘humanitarian interventions’, while he aggressively defends Russia’s national sovereignty. Even still, it’s true Putin understands power as well as he wields it. Putin’s primary interest is in the consolidation of the state and the maintenance of its power.
As recent events in Ukraine, and less recently in Georgia, demonstrate, Putin wants to secure the body national above all else. So why is there a Russian military presence in Syria?
For decades, the Assad regime maintained itself as a wedge between the Sunni elite and the Alawite military leadership. When the uprising began it had a popular, secular and democratic character (though these elements still exist) which was comprised by a diverse base. It was during the crackdown that it spiraled into a cycle of violence, into which hordes of Sunni Islamists flooded. As the uprising descended into a bloodbath, Putin may have began counting the miles between Syria and Chechnya.
The fact that the Chechen cause of independence from Russian hegemony has drawn Islamists from the Arab world must be unsettling. The prospect of Islamic State emerging from the chaos in Syria has sent shockwaves throughout the region. It could well embolden Islamic militants in the Caucasus, as it has elsewhere. After all, jihadi groups in Libya have declared allegiance to Islamic State, just as Boko Haram and al-Shabaab have done. The Assad regime may pose a bulwark, in Putin’s view, to the tide of Islamism.
So the Syrian regime does fit into Putin’s domestic agenda. However, it’s also the case that Syria fits into Russia’s regional interests. It’s a major nexus of fuel pipelines, and it has strategic value. Syria sits on NATO’s doorstep, alongside Iraq and Iran. It has a coastline with the Mediterranean, home to the US Sixth Fleet. Russia has long looked for counterweights to US proxies in the region. Consequently, Russia has been a major supplier of arms to the Syrian regime long before the civil war broke out.
Recently, it has come out that the Russian government offered a deal, in which Assad would step down. In February 2012, Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari held talks with the envoys of the UN Security Council. The Russian representative, Vitaly Churkin, laid out a three-point plan, which included a proposal for Bashar al-Assad to cede power. This would be after peace talks between the regime and the opposition had started. The US, UK and France were convinced Assad was about to fall, so they rejected the Russian offer.
Ironically, the US continues to demand that Assad step down, and this prevents any serious negotiations. This demand helps to keep Assad in power. Otherwise it might be possible for the regime and the opposition to engage in peace talks. As Patrick Cockburn writes, serious negotiations could lead to power-sharing arrangements. It’s plausible that the Syrian regime would be willing to dump Assad to hold on. Yet, even when it was within reach the US did not jump at the opportunity. The Russian plan to drop Assad is not without precedent.
In February 2003, Putin dispatched his envoy Yevgeny Primakov to Baghdad to deliver a stern message to Saddam Hussein. By this point, Vladimir Putin had joined Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder in opposing the US invasion of Iraq. Putin told Saddam that if he would step down from his post as President, voluntarily, to allow democratic elections to take place, then he could stay in the country. It was a last ditch attempt to stop the war. Perhaps fearing a coup d’etat by his generals, Saddam Hussein quietly rejected the idea.
Alas, the failure to prevent the Iraq war has now engulfed Syria in flames. The rhizome of Islamic militancy embedded itself deep into Iraqi society before reaching into Syria in the midst of civil war. The rise of Islamic State partly comes out of Saudi-Qatari ambitions to promote fundamentalism and combat secular nationalism and republicanism. It also comes out of the Iraq war, the experience of US occupation and the sectarian rule of the Maliki government. The new fundamentalist hive took shape because all political alternatives have been snuffed out.
The region is home to over four million soldiers divided between the different states. Yet Islamic State has been left to take shape and seize huge swathes of territory. The problem is clear: you can’t defeat Islamic State without working with Assad, and you can’t defeat Assad without empowering Islamic State. How can you pretend you stand for liberal values and take sides in this fight? The West has a problem. The liberal apologists for ‘humanitarian intervention’ have an even bigger problem. But it’s not the only one.
It looks like there is no coherent strategy. The US faces a myriad set of competing interests, among its proxies, and its foes. Turkey wants Assad to fall, and it’s been willing to lend support to Islamic State. Especially as this threatens the aspirations of Kurdish nationalists. To Erdogan, ISIS are the anti-PKK. Meanwhile Iran and Hezbollah share a common interest in defending the Assad regime. In a bid to destroy the Ba’athist regime, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have funneled arms and treasure to the Salafi jihadists. So Israel is happy to watch the corpses pile up, but it fears Islamic State reaching its borders.
It’s would be much more viable for Russia to back the Syrian regime. The Russian government has longstanding connections to Iran, which in turn needs Syria to help arm and fund Hezbollah. Without this alliance, Israel might still be occupying southern Lebanon. The Iranian government also wants to keep Iraq as a sovereign and democratic country because it can easily be dominated by the Shi’a under those conditions. So it’s obvious who has the potential to forge a coherent strategy. But it would likely leave the Syrian regime (possibly not Assad) in power.
However, the reasons why the Syrian people rose up against Bashar al-Assad have not been resolved. Human rights are still a far away dream, let alone democracy. Hundreds of thousands of people have been slaughtered and millions have been displaced. It’s clear that the Putin government does not have the best interests of Syrians at heart. Peace and stability in West Asia really just chimes well with the status quo. If the global order is redefined and reconstituted, Putin could easily lose out.
This article was first published at Souciant.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

SPECTRE - New Website!

So after six years of keeping this blog I've decided the time is right to move forward. I won't be taking down this blog, but I will be moving to a new website. The new project is a collaborative effort of myself and my friends Chris Horner and Mark Waller (hopefully others too). It's called Spectre as an ode to the Communist Manifesto, and not to the villainous James Bond organisation.

Spectre aims to channel radical perspectives and conversations on politics, philosophy, history and culture. The objective being to challenge the conventional wisdom of neoliberalism and build an online presence for ideas not heard in the mainstream. In its commentary on today’s political system Spectre hopes to recognise and record the possibilities of a better world.

So from now on, you can read my work here:

Saturday, 16 May 2015

The 2015 General Election.

I covered the election cycle for Souciant. My first article focused on Ed Miliband and what he represents for the centre-left and for the Labour Party.

The early signs of the Miliband leadership were not promising. He shirked from making promises early on, apparently to avoid commitments he couldn’t fulfil, probably to avert any infighting. Labour veterans will remember, with no nostalgia, the splits in the 1980s, which ruptured the party’s electoral chances, consigning it to the wilderness for the best part of two decades. So long as the party remains united, it can back neoliberal policies. 
In this regard, sectarianism has its virtues over unity. As Leo Panitch has emphasised, it might be necessary to divide ranks, and prompt a full-blown confrontation, in order to rescue the official social democratic party from its own rightward drift. Contestation can lead to progressive outcomes, but plenty of people prefer to play the safe game holding onto a scintilla of hope. The last battle for the life and soul of the Labour Party was fought in the 1980s. 
The post-war Labour Party has consistently sought to buttress the system and avoid the redistribution of wealth and power. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the plan was to secure ever-rising living standards through adjustments to income and jobs policy, as well as an inflationary monetary approach, to make the pie appear bigger for everyone. Then in the 1990s New Labour promised it could do this by further compromise and, ultimately, by heaping greater debt onto people. 
Likewise, Miliband promises to tweak the system just enough to placate the incorrigible masses. He tries to make the right noises about taxes, health care, jobs and housing, but ultimately falls short. We’re told he’s the official left candidate, and yet he talks about ‘responsible’ capitalism. The days of Bevan and Attlee are long gone. These may be the end times for the centre-left.

I wrote these words for an article, the Death of the Centre-Left, published on March 31. For the election I looked at almost every major party, with the exceptions of Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems, with particular attention paid to the Green Party, Labour, UKIP and the Conservatives. Here's my take on the 2015 election:
The Anti-Cameron - On the significance of the SNP as an alternative to the Whitehall consensus and what it means for those of us on the left-of-centre.
The New Ted Heath - A historical look at Cameron's Conservative Party and how it reached this peculiarly modern manifestation of right-wing politics.
These Greens Are Different - A critical, yet sympathetic, look at the Green Party, their social programme and what has gone wrong for them on the campaign trail.
White Identity Politics - A comparison of UKIP and the DUP in historical terms of colonial and racial oppression, specifically how the oppression of the Irish helped to constitute the white identity to which UKIP now appeals.
Small was Beautiful - A look at the strangely reactionary history of the Green Party, how they came to be and why they are left-wing today.
Dead Labour - Again, a critical look at Labour and precisely the history of its infighting and how it produced the current political impasse.
Early 90s Flashback - Looking back to the 'surprise' victory of 1992 in terms of the Conservative majority won and secured by David Cameron. What lessons can we draw from this?

The trouble with cultural appropriation.

In recent years, I’ve heard a lot of talk about cultural appropriation in the music industry. Not least about Miley Cyrus and the spectacle of ‘twerking’, but also Macklemore and Iggy Azalea (bog-standard targets). The charge of cultural appropriation alleges that these artists have stolen their style from black performers, and it seems clear that there is more than a hint of truth to this claim. But it shouldn’t be implied that this is just a cultural question.

The more serious cases being the fact that there is a Blues root to almost all music today. Black talent has been rinsed by the music industry for a very long time. It’s a great historical irony that the classical music of the United States, a profoundly racist society, is Jazz music – the rhythms of the oppressed – which emerged out of the Reconstruction period following the civil war. The end of this period came in the form of segregation and the rise of the Klan. As much as culture has always represented the heart of a heartless world the Jazz scene was the vivacity of a world devoid of hope.

All of this confirms the Janus-faced nature of history. So if we’re going to make a distinction it’s worth making one here: there’s the point that the music industry has rinsed Black America for a long time, and then there’s the concept of cultural appropriation and what it brings to this debate. This kind of cultural criticism is worth unpacking. The charge of cultural appropriation can only be asserted on the basis of certain presuppositions. First of all, it takes cultures as homogenous, self-enclosed, static entities; secondly, it implicitly advocates that this should be the case.

Not only is this presupposition wrong, it shouldn’t be the case either. Cultures don’t have borders and never have had borders. Nor should cultures have them. To take an example within a dominant culture: Beowulf, the oldest piece of English literature, was produced in Scandinavia. The English language is composed of many influences, famously so, from Latin, Greek, French, and even Irish; its homogeneity can only arise out of heterogeneous origins. The numerical system employed in the West is Arabic. What we might call cultural transmission can’t be avoided.

We seem to have reached a point where cultural appropriation now extends to criticism of individual conduct. This is especially ironic as the phrase was coined by George Lipsitz, who defined it as a form of strategic anti-essentialism (this was long before the momentous days of Tumblr). He warned against wanton appropriation which could be insensitive. This implies that there is a sensitive way to do so, and that has been lost to the whirlwind of social media. No one seems to have the time of day to look into the terms of debate, which obscures the issue further.

This is the crux of the matter. To suggest white guys with dreadlocks are ‘acting black’ implies a certain amount of identity essentialism (e.g. that there are social attributes belonging inherently to black and white people) which takes essence to precede existence. The contemporary Left can see this problem when it comes to transgenderism and rightly chides the radical feminists who question it. At the same time, it ought to be kept in mind that the gender roles shouldn’t be maintained as a binary in the first place and this also applies to the question at hand.

In its worst moments, the contemporary Left seems to have become preoccupied on interpersonal conduct. The response to every issue comes in the form of regulation, which seems to extend a kind of consumer ethics (in this case at least) and make it business ethics. So it’s at once moralistic, reformist and puritanical. It would be a mistake to characterise this as ‘identity politics’. It’s almost a kind of ‘lifestyle politics’ – it’s about who has the most responsible newsfeed – which is a retreat from organised politics. It belongs to the same family as ‘privilege-checking’ and ‘trigger warnings’.

As if what we need today is a new set of ethics and we can remake the world without power. This criticism shouldn’t be confused with not being a committed anti-racist. Exploitation in the music industry is a political and economic question, it’s not a moral and cultural one, we should respond accordingly without de-politicisation. When we’re talking about race we’re dealing with formations of social control and we shouldn’t forget that the scars and wounds are very deep. Ultimately, we should be looking to move beyond diversity and aim for greater hybridity and immixing – not less.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Cuba's Lung Cancer Vaccine

The sudden shift in US-Cuba relations presents the world with a tremendous opportunity in the field of medical research, not least in developing a promising vaccine for lung cancer.
CimaVax is a vaccine treatment for non-small cell lung cancer, targeting a particular protein, epidermal growth factor (EGF), that attaches itself to receptor proteins on the surface of cells causing them to grow and divide. Cancers can cause the body to produce excess EGF to enhance the pace of cell growth. CimaVax is designed to stimulate the body’s immune system, prompting it to produce antibodies in response to the increase in EGF, preventing the protein from attaching to cancer cell receptors.
In theory, this will stop the signal that tells cancer cells to grow, slowing the cancer's likely growth. After 25 years of work at the Centre for Molecular Immunology in Havana, the drug was made available in 2011, free of charge, to patients at clinics and hospitals across the island while it underwent a third set of trials. Researchers looked for signs of an immune response among lung cancer patients and have so far found patients who have taken CimaVax do better.
The patients tested lived slightly longer - on average, between 4 to 6 months - while symptoms, like coughing and breathlessness, were reduced. The trial results also suggest younger patients fare better. Twelve people under the age of 60, who had strong immune responses, lived 15 months longer than previously expected. Any conclusions drawn should come with the caveat that only a small sample of patients were tested.

The politics of CimaVax 
CimaVax’s importance to Cuba is underscored by the fact that lung cancer is the fourth leading cause of death in the country. It is also the leading cause of cancer death in the US.
The results of the first trials in Cuba has triggered follow-ups by researchers in Japan and some European countries, but until now it has been politically impossible for the United States to undertake such trials. In December 2014, however, President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro announced their move towards normalising relations. Since then, US delegates have visited Cuba for the first time in over 50 years and, last month, Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo visited Havana in a landmark event for the two countries.

At the same time, the Roswell Park Cancer Institute at the State University of New York closed a historic deal with Cuba’s Centre for Molecular Immunology which will allow Roswell Park’s researchers to bring CimaVax to the US, where it can be put before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The drug can then be put through trials later this year before potentially entering the US health market. With Roswell Park’s financial resources, collaboration may prove beneficial to cancer sufferers around the world as alternative applications of the vaccine are explored.
“The chance to evaluate a vaccine like this is a very exciting prospect,” Roswell Park CEO Candace Johnson told WIRED. The company’s research team plan to explore the vaccine’s potential as a preventative measure in line with a standard vaccine that focuses on preempting conditions rather than minimising their symptoms. It may even be used to treat prostate, colon, breast, pancreatic and other cancers.
The Obama administration has so far relied on executive power to remove restrictions against the importation of medical and research equipment from Cuba. Congress are yet to decide whether or not the US will ultimately lift the trade embargo. If it is lifted, this could a groundbreaking opportunity for scientific and medical collaboration between the countries.

Doing more with less
Notwithstanding five decades of economic sanctions, Fidel Castro gave priority to medical research and biotechnology. “They’ve had to do more with less,” Dr. Johnson told WIRED. “So they’ve had to be even more innovative with how they approach things. For over 40 years, they have had a preeminent immunology community.”
Following a 1981 dengue fever outbreak which infected 350,000 Cuban citizens, Fidel Castro set up a Biological Front to focus the research efforts of different agencies. Mr. Castro dispatched Cuban scientists to Finland where they learned how to synthesise interferon, a virus-fighting protein, bankrolling their lab. By 1991, Cuba had become a major exporter of pharmaceutical products, at first to the USSR, then across Latin America and the developing world.
Today Cuba exports healthcare globally. Cuban health workers recently flew to West Africa to provide support in the multinational efforts to contain Ebola. The Cuban government also ensures the prices of the drugs the country's doctors offer are far below others on the market, in order to give developing countries a preferential option. As part of “south-to-south technology transfers” Cuba has provided support for China, Malaysia, India and Iran to set up pharmaceutical factories.

NOTE: In 2004, Cuba's biotech capacity was noted by American critics, such as UN ambassador John Bolton, as a potential basis for developing "biological weapons". The Cuban government strongly denied these accusations and invited US scientists to observe the laboratories.

As a result of these efforts, Cuba receives $8 billion a year in foreign exchange and financial support from the World Health Organisation. Export of medical services has not just brought in revenue - it has led the Castro brothers to grant over 100 patents to scientists and, in effect, open up the country to intellectual property rights. The prospect of normalised relations between Cuba and the United States thus holds enormous potential for the scientific community.

This article was originally written for The World Weekly on May 14, 2015.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Murder in Moscow.

As soon as Nemtsov was reported dead I knew the news would take it up as a fresh charge against the Putin regime. People are right to be suspicious given the circumstances, the background and the record of assassination in Vladimir's motherland:

Imagine if armed thugs assassinated John Boehner, the Republican speaker of America’s House of representatives, in front of the White House. Though nowhere near as sympathetic a character as Nemtsov, few would have difficulty pointing their fingers at the White House. That Putin is responsible should thus not be subject to question. But, Russia being what it is, no one can be 100% sure. The authoritarian consensus is that strong. 
It’s probably the most significant killing in the former USSR since Anna Politkovskaya was shot on Putin’s birthday almost a decade ago. Five men have since been convicted of Politkovskaya’s murder, but the questions around who ordered her death predictably remain. It is plausible Politkovskaya was murdered on orders from Ramzan Kadyrov, the thug who keeps Chechnya under Putin’s thumb, especially as three of the convicted are Chechen men. Whether or not Putin had any foreknowledge of the killing has yet to be confirmed or disconfirmed. Undoubtedly, it was convenient for a critic of Russia’s aggression towards Chechnya to be silenced. 
Following Nemtsov’s demise, the Russian government moved quickly to condemn his muder. The authorities have since suggested that the killing was a ‘provocation’ timed to undermine Putin, and are even investigating the possible role of Islamists, as Nemtsov was ethnically Jewish. Never mind that he was a convert to Russian Orthodoxy. The fact that Nemtsov was a critic of Putin has been rightly emphasised by Russian opposition figures, and Western media. Meanwhile RT has been predictably attacking Western media for its coverage of the killing. This is far from over.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

What does an honourable Tory look like?

I've always enjoyed the work of columnist and commentator Peter Oborne since first discovering his tirades against the oleaginous Tony Blair. So I was somewhat surprised to hear that he had resigned his position at the Telegraph, itself the flagship of media Toryism, where as its chief political commentator he had provided mild-mannered and sober reflections for many years.

Not so much a fulminating reactionary, Peter Oborne is an honourable conservative fellow and embodies the best of moralism. You know he means it when he's indignant with rage at political corruption, cronyism and opportunism, the three characteristics of our trilateral consensus, precisely because he's polite by nature. Compare this to Peter Hitchens, the chief fulminator, who does adhere to difficult principles and abhors the party system as it is. What's the difference? The little Hitch is a drama queen, who smells rot everywhere, whereas Oborne assumes the best of people (which isn't always an advantage).

Unlike the Daily Mail herd of scabrous journos, Oborne has kept his distance from the racist narratives around Muslims, their faith and terrorism. Instead of partaking in slanders against the Muslim community, Oborne embraces multiculturalism and tolerance, while at the same time, he condemns homophobia and other forms of bigotry. He's been willing to share platforms with Leftists on these very issues standing with the prickly George Galloway, whom he defended against a ghastly assault, as well as Charlie Brooker and Mehdi Hasan. He was one of the few commentators to argue that the London riots were a sign of a society increasingly polarised by a wealth gap. But this isn't the only instance.

On more than one occasion, Peter Oborne has eloquently raised the question of Palestinian statehood and the rights of its dispossessed people. He has not been afraid to criticise Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories, and he has done so at the leading conservative newspaper. He's even dared to slam the pro-Israel lobby and its dealings with British politicians, particularly the Conservatives. Oborne may assume the best, but he's not going to pretend he doesn't see wrongdoing by his side. This is a great public service on his part.

Not enough liberals, let alone conservatives, have the brains or the guts to take a stand on the issue of Palestine. So the decision to resign can only be seen as another instance of this integrity. It only reaffirms and consolidates his record.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Trade versus democracy.

The debate on the European Union is largely framed in terms of immigration policy and outrage around vague legislation drawn up in Brussels and imposed on the rest of us. In actuality, the worst aspects of the EU project can't even be discussed - namely the free trade agreement to integrate European and American markets. It puts the welfare states of Europe directly in the firing line of corporate power. Here's an excerpt from my article at Souciant:

The most heavily-criticized part of TTIP is what is referred ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) which empowers companies to sue national governments when their profit-making is threatened by legislation. As its critics have argued, such a mechanism would specifically discourage regulatory practices, and guard against shifts towards progressive tax rates.  It would also further entrench the economic reforms of the last four decades, and raise international obstacles to any government looking to change course. The reason why it isn’t critically discussed in debates like that which took place between Clegg and Farage, is that TTIP is considered to be a fait accompli amongst Britain’s main political parties. Fiscal neoliberals, they all agree on the necessity of economic union with the United States. 
Tellingly, another side of this consensus is support for American-style health care privatization. The Health and Social Care act (2012) allows 70% of NHS contracts to be farmed out to private companies. TTIP will extend this, not just to British companies, which is bad enough, but to US companies seeking to enter the UK healthcare market. At the same time, the Cameron government has underfunded the NHS by increasing funding at 1%, while the costs of the health system rise at a much higher rate. Of course, the current coalition has spent £3 billion on a bureaucratic overhaul to ‘devolve’ power to the doctors.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

William F Buckley was a Nazi!

My fellow Vidalophiles will have seen the famous clip of the Gentleman-Bitch crossing swords with the reactionary William F Buckley, Jr. back in 1968. Here's the juicy bit, and here it is in context. It must've been clear to anyone who followed Buckley closely in those days that he was a racist. Here's an excerpt from his editorial in a 1957 issue of National Review entitled 'Why The South Must Win' which I found in an old CounterPunch article:

The central question that emerges is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes–the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage. The British believe they do, and acted accordingly, in Kenya, where the choice was dramatically one between civilization and barbarism, and elsewhere; the South, where the conflict is by no means dramatic, as in Kenya, nevertheless perceives important qualitative differences between its culture and the Negroes’, and intends to assert its own. National Review believes that the South’s premises are correctThe great majority of the Negroes of the South who do not vote do not care to vote, and would not know for what to vote if they could.Universal suffrage is not the beginning of wisdom or the beginning of freedom. The South confronts one grave moral challenge. It must not exploit the fact of Negro backwardness to preserve the Negro as a servile class. It is tempting and convenient to block the progress of a minority whose services, as menials, are economically useful. Let the South never permit itself to do this. So long as it is merely asserting the right to impose superior mores for whatever period it takes to effect a genuine cultural equality between the races, and so long as it does so by humane and charitable means, the South is in step with civilization, as is the Congress that permits it to function.

As he was about so many things, Gore Vidal was right about Bill Buckley.

Friday, 30 January 2015

The Politics of Lee Atwater.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Will Putin fall?

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

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

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

The full article can be read at Souciant.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The real substance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 11 January 2015

In defence of obscenity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 9 January 2015

Notes on Charlie Hebdo.

As my friend Chris Horner posted on Facebook:

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

Friday, 2 January 2015

Why UKIP needs defectors.

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

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

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

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

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