Category Archives: armed struggle

Something in the air

Apparently Mosul has fallen to ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-ShamsAl-Sham (Damascus); Al-Shams (literally ‘the sun’) translates here as ‘the Levant’ (thanks to Ankaralı Jan on Twitter for the correction)). This is not good news; ISIS is an al-Qaida affiliate, rumoured to be funded by Saudi Arabia, rumoured to have had any Saudi funding emphatically withdrawn, rumoured to be seen as ‘too extreme’ by al-Qaida. As for Mosul, it’s in the North. Iraq is the shape of a truncated triangle; it has six land borders, three long and three relatively short. In the south it borders Jordan (SW), Saudi Arabia (S, long) and Kuwait (SE); carrying on round, you get to Iran (NE, long), Turkey (N) and Syria (NW, long). (Historic Kurdistan straddles northern Iraq, southern Turkey, north-east Syria and north-west Iran; this is one reason why the Kurds have never got anywhere (or been allowed to get anywhere) with state-building.) Mosul, in the North, is more or less midway between the north-eastern regions, bordering Iran, which are held by the Kurdish Regional Government and the regions bordering Syria which are already effectively held by ISIS. (Another correction: got the geography completely scrambled in the first draft. Confession: I tend to get East and West confused on maps if I can’t see Wales or Russia.)

Meanwhile in Cheetham Hill:

I know this is basically anecdotal taxi driver journalism stuff but the shawarma joints run by Syrian Kurds on our part of Cheetham Hill Road were buzzing tonight. These are a fairly recent phenomenon here, and seem to have in large part replaced a wave of vaguely Iranian cafes that suddenly appeared around 2008.  Whatever. The thing is, a while back I noticed that one of these places had a collection box for medical aid for Rojava on the counter and when I asked about it I ended up having an interesting chat with the man behind the counter slinging the fatteyah dough, a job for which he seemed to be considerably overqualified.

Anyway, the idea was that Syrian Kurdistan – Rojava – would take the opportunity of the anti-Assad uprising to establish de facto autonomy, then come to terms with Iraqi Kurdistan and then, when the time was right, there would be a Kurdish state. We didn’t get into the PKK-Turkey situation.

Well, as of a couple of hours back there was a buzz all the way up the road, from Bakery and Company to the Cheetham Star, and there were bills and posters up with the red-yellow-green tricolour, also the Kurdish ‘sun’ flag. I didn’t have a conversation with anyone. It was obviously ‘our thing’, people huddled around some guy talking on a cellphone and repeating what he was hearing to the group. But I did get the impression that the schedule had moved forward.

Like I say, strictly anecdotal stuff, the view of a viewer of interested parties from faraway Manchester 8. But I’ve also seen pictures ISIS grubbing out the border posts between Syria and Iraq and it seems to me that no-one is in a position to put them back.  That has implications all over the region. Sykes-Picot, he dead.

Following up Jamie’s post, I read this article from yesterday (11th June) on the BBC Web site. The title is “Battle for Mosul: Critical test ahead for Iraq” – which says it all, unfortunately. Some extracts and comments:

Governor Atheel Nujaifi made a desperate appeal on the night of 9 June for citizens to use their personal weapons to form self-defence militias in their neighbourhoods in an effort to limit ISIS gains. The next step will be the regrouping of the disintegrated units, including those where policemen and soldiers stripped off their uniforms and abandoned vehicles, weapons and outposts.

Not sure what the thinking is here – people have taken off their uniforms, dropped their guns and run away, but now they’re going to be regrouped?

New armoured, artillery and aerial forces will be brought up to Mosul for the operation,

(“The operation” appears to refer to “regrouping”, above.)

though scraping together such forces is getting increasingly difficult due to the growing number of major ISIS assaults in the Baghdad suburbs and cities like Ramadi, Samarra, Tuz Khurmatu, Sharqat and Mosul. The only source of fresh forces available in Iraq is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga, an infantry force with some artillery and light armoured vehicles.

“See? We’ve got plenty of people in the region! No problem!

Peshmerga forces have recently moved forwards along the line of disputed territories claimed by both the federal government and the KRG, including securing the areas of Mosul city east of the Tigris River. Gaining the KRG’s active support to take part in the clearance of western Mosul may only be possible if Baghdad is willing to make concessions to the Kurds on issues such as the international marketing of KRG oil and revenue-sharing between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan.

And we’re back indoors (“Mr Al-Maliki? Your ten o’clock’s here…”) Not to make a virtue of the creation of ‘facts on the ground’ stuff or anything, but I think the way things are going, the making of concessions might be a bit more definite – & might be a done deal before ‘Baghdad’ has much to say about it.

For the Baghdad government of caretaker Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the recovery of Mosul is a test of leadership at a critical moment when he is seeking reappointment.

Could we lay off the “who’s up, who’s down” just for a moment? I mean, there’s this war…

Iraq’s Kurds need stability in Mosul, which is just one hour’s drive from the KRG capital of Irbil. Many Kurds live in or around eastern Mosul and ISIS control of the city could pose a grave security threat to the Iraqi Kurdish region, which prides itself on providing a safe environment for investors.

Unless either (a) KRG talk to ISIS and ISIS say “we’ll take this bit, you can have that bit and we’ll leave you to it”; (b) KRG don’t trust ISIS an inch but decide to capitalise on the partial power-vacuum created by the collapse of central government control anyway; or (c) both of the above. The KRG could take the view that they can look after the security of the Iraqi Kurdish region on their own more effectively than the Iraqi government – and that they can do the job better if they’re not also trying to fight the Iraqi government’s battles for it. Apart from anything else, they’re on the spot, and the Iraqi government is a long way away. (That ‘hour’s drive’ to Irbil is 60 miles, incidentally, so an hour may be optimistic – but Baghdad to Mosul is 250 miles by road. It is a major road, but I imagine there are a few hold-ups at the moment.)

Iraq’s Sunni political, tribal and religious leaders have the most to lose from ISIS’s growth … Taking an optimistic view, these overlapping interests could create the potential for political dialogue and speedier government formation, potentially lessening tensions between Baghdad and the KRG. Alternatively, ongoing discord between the Maliki government and its Kurdish and Arab opponents could disrupt the government’s counter-offensive, allowing ISIS to consolidate its hold on western Mosul.

Ooh, speedier government formation. Call me an incorrigible optimist, but I do like to take a few minutes out of a busy day to think about political dialogue and speedier government formation. They may say I’m a dreamer… Again, there’s this weird urge to turn the actual civil war into a sand-table exercise whose success or failure will have implications for real politics.

It strikes me that the ‘optimistic view’ isn’t looking very good at the moment – or even very realistic. More to the point, it only is the optimistic view if we put the interests of the al-Maliki government at the top of the list, rather than (say) the interests of all the people who live in Iraq. (Which might coincide, but I don’t think it’s been demonstrated.) For the KRG, in particular – and their sympathisers up Cheetham Hill Road – standing the Peshmerga down, and getting dragged back into endless horse-trading with an Iraqi government they don’t respect, might not be the ‘optimistic’ outcome at all.

Scaring the nation

Antonio Lo Muscio probably wasn’t a very nice guy. In 1976 he was involved in an armed attack on a senior anti-terrorist police officer, which left one of the officer’s bodyguard dead. Three months later he was sitting on a bus with a member of the same armed struggle group, who was identified by a policeman who chanced to be on the bus; Lo Muscio shot him and the two made their escape.

A bit of a scary individual, then, and rather seriously mistaken about the degree to which extreme violence could play a constructive role in revolutionary politics. But I don’t think he deserved to die (another three months on) like this:

Antonio Lo Muscio … was surprised by carabinieri while sitting on the steps outside a church in Rome having something to eat with two other members of the same group. He tried to run and was disarmed, but was hit by a burst of machine-gun fire. He was finished off by a pistol shot to the neck while he lay wounded on the ground.

The two militants who were with him, who were injured, were arrested.

(To judge from another account, the two women who were with Lo Muscio did not try to escape but were beaten up anyway, to the point where at least one of the two was taken away in an ambulance.)

The quotation above is from the invaluable collection La Mappa Perduta, which also records a statement by Lo Muscio’s sister:

a few days earlier he had said to me, “Prepare yourself for the worst – if they get me this time they won’t send me to prison, they’ll just do away with me. The police and the carabinieri travel with my picture on their dashboards.” And that’s just what happened. … The carabiniere fired at my brother with a machine gun while he was running away without a weapon in his hand; he was wounded and fell face down to the ground, defenceless. The carabiniere went over, emptied the magazine of his machine gun into him, then finished him off with a pistol shot to the head, behind his left ear.

What remains interesting about the Lo Muscio killing at this distance is the press reaction. The Corriere della Sera was in no doubt, hailing “the carabiniere who killed Antonio Lo Muscio, the most dangerous political killer on the loose in Italy” as a “man of courage”:

he did not shoot until Lo Muscio had opened fire on him and his colleague. Then he pursued the terrorist, loosing multiple bursts from his machine gun and defying the shots from his opponent’s Colt Special

The Communist-aligned l’Unità laid off the heroics but gave an even more unequivocal account:

Lo Muscio died instantly, struck full in the chest by a burst of machine-gun fire while he attempted to flee with pistol in hand, having already opened fire against the carabinieri

Did Lo Muscio fire his pistol at the carabinieri? L’Unità and the Corriere both say so; LMP doesn’t say either way. Was he holding a loaded weapon – or posing any immediate danger – at the moment he was shot? Here the papers are less believable: both try to imply that he was, but don’t assert it outright. LMP specifically says that he wasn’t. Was he killed by machine gun fire as he ran? L’Unità says he was; the Corriere suggests that he was; LMP specifically says that he wasn’t.

There are two different stories here. One is of the carabinieri taking a broad view of the concept of ‘self-defence’, shooting dead someone who had shot at them (and, on past evidence, would shoot at them again) but wasn’t posing any imminent threat at that precise moment. The other, more straightforward but bleaker, is of the summary execution of an unarmed man. Either one could be true; in theory, at least, which one we believe to be true depends on how we think the details of the story stack up. The problem is that people – including journalists – are always inclined to believe some kinds of story and not others – and that affects the way that the details of the story are perceived and presented. Details that are particularly hard to fit into a preferred narrative will, at best, tend to be reported reluctantly and with reservations; at worst, they will be distorted, caricatured and ignored.

Daily Mail:

Duggan, a known offender from London’s notorious Broadwater Farm Estate, became aware that he was being followed and opened fire on the officers. He shot the officer from Scotland Yard’s elite firearms squad CO19 in the side of his chest with a handgun. The bullet lodged in the police radio that the undercover officer was carrying in a side pocket. Armed officers shot the gunman dead seconds later.

Residents said at least three shots were fired when officers swooped during the evening rush hour at about 6.15pm.

Guardian:

Initial ballistics tests on the bullet that lodged in a police officer’s radio when Mark Duggan died on Thursday night show it was a police issue bullet, the Guardian understands.

The Guardian’s crime correspondent, Sandra Laville, reports:

The bullet which was found lodged in the radio of one of the officers at the scene is still undergoing forensic tests. But reliable sources have said the first ballistics examinations suggested it was a police issue bullet. These are very distinct as the Metropolitan Police uses dum dum type hollowed out bullets designed not to pass through an object.

The early suggestion from the IPCC was that the Met officers had returned fire after someone in the minicab opened fire. But the result of the ballistics early test suggests both shots fired came from the police.

Emphasis added.

Update Guardian, 8th August:

the C019 firearms officer has said that he never claimed Duggan had shot at him.

The firearms officer is understood to have told investigators that he opened fire because he believed he was in danger from a lethal weapon. Two shots were fired, it is understood; one hit Duggan and one missed, lodging in another officer’s radio.

Well, that didn’t last.

In the depths of some men’s minds

Ken:

Two things have to come out of this: first, the mainstream left and labour movements have to take seriously security and self-defence; second, the mainstream right must be made to pay a heavy political price for this atrocity.

As Gramsci wrote 90 years ago, in a world now lost: War is War.

Flying Rodent goes into more detail:

There are plenty of calls for calm around today, with reasonable people counselling against linking one man’s horrific crimes to the deranged views he espouses, those being a half-baked political analysis that has been festering on the internet and even in the pages of the mainstream right wing press such as the Mail and the Spectator for years.

I disagree. I think that now, more than ever, fingers need to be pointed squarely at those who have been disseminating this poisonous cack, and searching questions need to be asked. First up – What the fuck did you think you were doing?

I sympathise with both posts, and I certainly don’t think we need to devote too much time to the “reasonable people” who initially tried to depoliticise the crime for reasons which I don’t entirely follow. (Dan Hodges‘ argument seems to be that when a murderous neo-fascist nutter who believes in killing socialists succeeds in killing a large number of socialists, after devoting years of his life to plotting how to kill large numbers of socialists, this should be reported with the words “murderous nutter kills a lot of people”: anything more political would be, well, political. I think Hodges is in the minority on this one; even the BBC News, which this evening gave a startled world a few glimpses of “Andrew Berwick”‘s copy-and-paste meisterwerk, has started reporting the attack as an attack on the Norwegian Labour Party. (To judge from the URL of Hodges’ piece, even his own magazine is thinking along similar lines.)

This wasn’t just any old borderline-psychotic killing spree – it was an extreme-right borderline-psychotic killing spree, supported by arguments very similar to those used by right-wingers who fill daily papers and sell books. As far as that goes, I’m with Ken. But what conclusion do we draw? Three possibilities:

1. He’s one of theirs and they can lump it.
I can certainly see the appeal of this one. But what do we say when the Phillipses and Clarksons and Littlejohns claim that this wasn’t what they meant? Anyone who doesn’t wash their hands of this guy good and hard, hang ‘em out to dry; they’re not the problem. (Incidentally, is the leader of the EDL really called Stephen Yaxley Lennon? That’s some name.) But there are differences between peddling poisonous lies about Muslims and the Left, on one hand, and refusing to condemn mass murder on the basis of poisonous lies about Muslims and the Left, on the other; one difference is that I’m happy to accuse Melanie Phillips of one, but not the other. In fact the worst of which we could accuse Phillips and co on this basis is inconsistency – willing the end but not the means – and in this context that’s pretty much a compliment. If, on the other hand, we cut the knot by saying that the lies themselves are the problem – the ground in which mass murder grew – we’re taking a big step towards criminalising political expression. Another possibility:

2. Keep talking.
On psychotic murderous Islamists, my line has always been that the psychotic murderousness is the problem, the Islamism being something we can oppose by normal political means. (Which, of course, doesn’t mean “gently” or “by conciliation”. I didn’t think that Thatcherism, or even the openly reactionary Toryism of the Monday Club, should be fought by being banned – but I certainly didn’t think they should be appeased.) Sauce for the goose: if the nonsense of “Eurabia” now has an armed wing, that doesn’t mean that the people who came up with it have been – or should be – delegitimated as Preachers of Death. Apart from anything else, leftists have been known to do crazy and horrible things in the name of their beliefs: the Khmer Rouge stated, and some of them probably believed, that what was going on in Democratic Kampuchea was an extreme form of class struggle. I don’t believe that Communism was delegitimated by Pol Pot or Islamism by bin Laden. Should the racist fantasies of “Eurabia” be any different – should they be grounds for getting the Special Branch involved? I don’t believe so.

3. Yes, but this is different.
The third possibility is that there are specific reasons for labelling this particular set of political beliefs indelibly with the massacre carried out in their name. Can we say that the massacre was a logical extension of the beliefs, in a way that’s not true of Communism and Pol Pot or Islamism and bin Laden? I think there may be something in this. As Flying Rodent says, the endless drip-feed of anti-left and anti-Muslim propaganda may not be intended to incite violence, but it’s genuinely hard to see what else it was supposed to be doing: the negativity, the anti-political populism (those out-of-touch liberal political elites!) and the personalisation of the problem all point away from any form of political participation. And then there’s the dimension of power, as John commented at FR:

The Muslims whom Phillips etc have long accused of giving succour and support to extremists – even if we accept that there is a minority who do – differ in one very important respect from the Eurabia lobby: power. Who is it who has access to prominent media platforms in the UK, US, Canada and elsewhere? Who is it who can command rewarding publishing contracts for their latest shroud-waving volume? It’s not poor kids on the streets of Bradford, that’s for sure.

Another way of approaching the question of how this kind of propaganda differs from other ideologies which have been linked with atrocities is to look at the atrocity itself. It’s been noted that indiscriminate mass killing is, historically, the “terrorism” of the Right. As I wrote myself,

a sharp distinction must be drawn between [the left-wing armed groups'] actions and terrorist acts such as the Piazza Fontana bomb: indiscriminately lethal attacks on apolitical targets, calculated to produce maximum alarm. The actions of the ‘armed struggle’ groups were mainly directed against property rather than people; all violence against the person was directed against individuals, and most was non-lethal; and targets were invariably selected for political or strategic reasons, albeit with varying degrees of accuracy.

Left “terrorists” who kill people have generally known exactly who they were killing and exactly why, and been able to justify each killing individually; even particularly repugnant crimes, like the murder of Aldo Moro’s bodyguards or of the brother of an informer, could be given a specific tactical justification (if not necessarily a very convincing one). The Norway attack certainly didn’t follow that model. However, there’s a problem here, which is that it didn’t follow the Piazza Fontana model either: the killer specifically targeted those kids because of what they were in his eyes. It’s closer to the late C19/early C20 anarchist mad bomber tendency (for whom throwing a bomb in a theatre was OK, because anyone who was there was bound to be a bourgeois) – or, for that matter, to the jihadist “collective responsibility” argument, whereby anyone working in the Twin Towers (or travelling on the Tube) is ipso facto complicit in the crimes of imperialism.

What we’re looking at here, then, is a form of politics based on denouncing threats to “our way of life”, blaming them on an identifiable minority, and dismissing politicians as either complicit or powerless to resist. It’s preached by rich and powerful people whose wellbeing is under no threat at all, and finds an audience among people who think of themselves as having a stake in society but feel insecure and under threat. And, when it is taken up by a murderous lunatic, the form it takes is neither random terror nor targeted assassination, but hunting and killing members of a selected group – pogrom, in short.

This is not just a matter of hanging a lone nutter on the Right, or even on the racist extreme Right. It’s the other way round: if we take the massacre as the starting point, and look back from there at the writers the killer respected, we can see the outlines of something new emerging. Or rather, the outlines of something all too familiar, whose latest form has been developing in plain sight. This will, hopefully, be a defining moment – one in which the Littlejohns and Phillipses get a good look at the tiger they’re now riding. And so do we.

When your war is won

Quick announcement: I’m giving a paper at Taking Control, at SOAS this Saturday. It’s a conference on contemporary revolution, with some interesting speakers. It’s also free to register. And – if any more incentive were needed – I’ll be there with a stash of flyers for my book, which you’ll be able to order at the special conference rate (50% off). Roll up, roll up, and so forth. (And no, I do not recommend that you steal this book.)

Here’s the abstract. (Thanks for technical data to the B&T crowd.)

Terrible beauty seeks geometric potency: arms and the law in the anni di piombo

This paper looks at the relationship between broad movements and small groups using violent tactics. The starting point is the Italian experience of the late-1970s anni di piombo (‘years of lead’), when a sustained high level of protest and direct action, associated with the Autonomia Operaia movement, was accompanied by the growth of a distinct milieu of ‘armed struggle’ groups (the best-known being the Red Brigades).

From the point of view of a fluid and horizontally-organised movement, groups dedicated to clandestine violence are problematic in multiple ways: they are typically accused of lacking accountability to the movement, and substituting their own strategic and tactical goals for the movement’s, and of pursuing violence and militarisation for its own sake. Whether these problems are inherent in the relationship between any armed group and any mass movement is open to question. Some have argued that this type of disjuncture can and should be overcome, on the grounds that any revolutionary movement, facing the violence of the state, would need to develop or acquire the capacity to carry out violence of its own. Thus Autonomist theorist Franco Piperno called in 1979 for the ‘terrible beauty’ of large- scale spontaneous direct action to be united with the ‘geometric potency’ of well-directed firepower, exemplified by the Red Brigades’ kidnapping of Aldo Moro (and specifically the shooting of Moro’s five bodyguards).

Using evidence from the North of Ireland as well as from Italy, this paper argues that there is an inherent problem in the relationship between armed minorities and mass movements, but locates the problem not in the sphere of accountability but that of law. The rule of law is seen as prior to state power rather than flowing from it; any sustainable alternative to the state will respect its own law rather than simply imposing its own power. Rather than building the capacity to deliver violence, a radical movement should focus on developing an alternative legality.

Update 15/3 Courtesy of Backdoor Broadcasting, here‘s the audio of my presentation – and here‘s the main conference page. Most of the slides were text-only, but you’ll need the following graphic at around 15:00.

After listening to mine and Ben Whitham‘s papers, someone suggested that what my paper lacked was an illustration of the relative ranges of a P.38 and a fire extinguisher thrown off a roof. Happy to oblige! Here’s M-16 vs P.38 again:

And if we zoom right in, we can see P.38 vs fire extinguisher:

Kids, just say no.

Dreaming your eyes away

A recent exchange from CT.

John Quiggin:

The disastrous bloodbaths generated by revolutionary alternatives to democracy have by now provided sufficient warning that no such alternative can attract any genuine support.[3]
[...]
fn3. The turn to terrorist methods by groups like the Red Brigades has served to discredit revolutionary approaches even more, and thereby further stabilise representative democracy.

Me:

The footnote about the Red Brigades gives such a superficial and distorted image of a huge, important and genuinely challenging group of social movements that I’m struggling to formulate any reply to it. (Can I suggest you read the book?) You can, of course, argue that you’re not talking about the reality of what the Red Brigades (plus the other armed groups, the broader armed movement and the still broader movement which refused to disown the above) were but the effects of how the Red Brigades (etc etc) were represented, and that what was a superficial and distorted image at the time has in effect become the historical record; I’d have no answer to that, except to thank God that there’s more than one historical record.

Quiggin:

The standard version of history is always selective and often distorted. But the Red Brigades did the things for which they are now remembered, and the effects are as I said, even if they also did lots of other things that are now forgotten.

Me: Continue reading

No mention of girls

I’ve got a review! One in print, in a magazine people actually read! The August/September issue of Red Pepper, to be precise:

Continue reading

What happened once in Italy

I’ve written another paper, this one for presentation at the Alternative Futures and Popular Protest conference in Manchester at the end of the month. Here’s the abstract:

‘Just plain comrades’: Italian armed struggle groups and the mass movement, 1972-80

This paper will look at the difficult and contradictory relations between large-scale radical movements and ‘armed struggle’ groups in Italy in the 1970s. I shall argue, firstly, that the scale and duration of the ‘armed struggle’ phenomenon makes it impossible to dismiss as an nihilist aberration; this was in some senses a social movement in its own right. Secondly, I shall argue that the armed milieu was closely related to the broader radical movement, but that its evolution was conditioned by different social and political factors. I shall trace the different fortunes of the armed groups and the mass movements in three periods (1972-5, 1976-7, 1978 9), looking at the conditions under which armed groups formed and dissolved. Lastly, I shall look at the ways in which the political exclusion of the mass movements appears to have contributed to the growth of the armed groups, concluding by suggesting some parallels with the British government’s current anti-terrorist strategy.

And here are the references:

Balestrini, N. (1989), L’editore, Milan: Bompiani
Balestrini, N. and P. Moroni (1997), L’orda d’oro (revised edition), Milan: Feltrinelli
Del Bello, C. (a cura di) (1997), Una sparatoria tranquilla: per una storia orale del ’77, Rome: Odradek
Della Porta, D. (1995), Social movements, political violence and the state, Cambridge: CUP
Echaurren, P. and C. Salaris (1999), Controcultura in Italia 1967-1977, Boringhieri: Turin
Edwards, P. (2009), ‘More work! Less pay!’ Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972-77, Manchester: Manchester University Press
Jamieson, A. (1989), The Heart Attacked: Terrorism and conflict in the Italian state, London: Marion Boyars
Monicelli, M. (1978), L’ultrasinistra in Italia 1968-1978, Rome: Laterza
Moroni, P. (1994), “Origine dei centri sociali autogestiti a Milano”, in Francesco Adinolfi et al, Comunitá virtuali. I centri sociali in Italia, Rome:Manifestolibri
Moroni, P. (1996), “Un certo uso sociale dello spazio urbano”, in Consorzio Aaster et al, Centri sociali: geografie del desiderio, Milan: Shake
Moss, D. (1989), The politics of left-wing violence in Italy, 1969-85, London: Macmillan
Piazza, G. (1987), “Movimenti e sistema politico: il caso di Autonomia operaia” (unpublished thesis), Università degli studi di Catania
Progetto Memoria (1994), La mappa perduta, Milan: Sensibili alle foglie
Progetto Memoria (1996), Le parole scritte, Milan: Sensibili alle foglie
Tarrow, S. (1989), Democracy and disorder, Oxford: OUP
Tarrow, S. (1998), Power in movement, second edition, Cambridge: CUP
Vinciguerra, V. and M. Cipriani (1999), Oppressione, Repressione, Rivolte: Storia d’Italia dal 25 luglio 1943 ad oggi, online
Wright, S. (2002), Storming Heaven: Class composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, London: Pluto

What I really wanted to do was get into why particular armed groups formed at particular times – for instance, there was a flurry of group formation around 1978-9, which seems to be traceable to the contradiction between the vitality of the mass movement in that period and the closure of political opportunities. Having said that, the key period for the smaller groups was 1974-5, which was a period of growth and innovation rather than blockage. More research required!

Greetings to anyone arriving here from Socialist Unity, by the way. Have a look around – you’ll probably find something of interest behind this tag, this one or this one. (I think my favourite’s this one, though.)

Good evening or good morning

More news on my book. I handed over the corrected proofs this morning, together with an index. Compiling the index was easier than I’d thought it would be, but still not exactly fun; it was one of those tasks that leaves you looking round for the next chunk of mental hard labour for several days afterwards. My basic approach was to index every proper name I could see, plus a few key concepts. I then cut out most names with only one occurrence, although a few got left in for the benefit of anyone who picks up the book and starts by browsing the index (don’t tell me it’s just me).

It’s called ‘More work! Less pay!’ Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972-7, and it’ll be published (initially in hardback) by Manchester University Press this autumn. And that index? Here’s a selection. (For each initial letter I’ve included the first entry and the one with the most references.)

A A/traverso; Autonomia
B Balestrini, Nanni; Brigate Rosse (BR)
C Cacciari, Massimo; Confederazione Generale Italiano del Lavoro (CGIL)
D d’Alema, Massimo; Democrazia Cristiana (DC)
E L’erba voglio; Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna (ETA)
F Faina, Gianfranco; Feltrinelli, Giangiacomo
G Gandalf the Violet; Gruppi d’Azione Partigiana (GAP)
H ‘Historic compromise’; Hot Autumn
I Ingrao, Pietro
L Lama, Luciano; Lotta Continua
M Maccari, Germano; Movement of 1977
N Napolitano, Giorgio; Negri, Antonio
O Operaismo
P Pajetta, Enrico; Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI)
Q Quaderni Rossi
R Radical Party; Resistance (Italian)
S Sayer, Andrew; Scalzone, Oreste
T Tarrow, Sidney
U Unità Comuniste Combattenti (UCC); l’Unità
V Via italiana al socialismo
W Wowdadaism

They say you can tell a lot about a book from its index; certainly I’m pretty pleased with what this one seems to be saying. It’s not Pale Fire – no “Berlinguer, idiocy of; idleness of; taste of, in shoes” sub-entries – but I think it tells you pretty much what the book’s about. It’s about Togliatti, Feltrinelli, Lotta Continua and the Red Brigades, and everything that connects them. One connection in particular:

Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) passim
see also Austerity; Berlinguer, Enrico; Confederazione Generale Italiano del Lavoro; Historic Compromise; Lama, Luciano; Togliatti, Palmiro; l’Unità

Give or take a few

My book: an announcement and a question.

I’m quite excited about my book. Or should I say, my book – for lo, that’s an actual link to a page where you can, apparently, pre-order it, with free UK delivery and everything. And here’s the publisher’s page about the book, and here’s what it says there:

‘More work! Less pay!’

Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972–77
Phil Edwards

In the mid-1970s, a wave of contentious radicalism swept through Italy. Groups and movements such as ‘Proletarian youth’, ‘metropolitan Indians’ and ‘the area of Autonomy’ practised new forms of activism, confrontational and often violent. Creative and brutal, intransigent and playful, the movements flourished briefly before being suppressed through heavy policing and political exclusion.

This is the first full-length study in English of these movements. Building on Sidney Tarrow’s ‘cycle of contention’ model and drawing on a wide range of Italian materials, Phil Edwards tells the story of a unique and fascinating group of political movements, and of their disastrous engagement with the mainstream Left. As well as shedding light on a neglected period of twentieth century history, this book offers lessons for understanding today’s contentious movements (‘No Global’, ‘Black Bloc’) and today’s ‘armed struggle’ groups.

This book will be of great interest to scholars in the fields of Italian politics and society; the sociology of social movements; and terrorism and political violence.

Contents
1. Introduction
2. The Hot Autumn and after: a cycle of contention reconsidered
3. From Resistance to Historic Compromise: the politics of the PCI
4. From Feltrinelli to Moro: a second cycle of contention
5. ‘Repudiate all forms of intolerance’: how the movements were framed
6. A cycle and its aftermath
7. Do you remember revolution?
8. Social movements and cycles of contention: theoretical appendix

The book itself is currently sitting on the floor of our front room in the form of proofs (proofs! actual proofs of my book!) – proofs which I’m going to have to check before too long, to say nothing of producing an index.

Setting aside my new-authorial giddiness (which mostly evaporated when I started thinking about indexing anyway), I honestly think this is a book that’s well worth publishing. It is the first full-length study in English of the Italian movements of the 1970s – the great archipelago of Autonomia, the ‘proletarian youth’, the indiani metropolitani, the movimento del ’77 and all – not to mention the vast and complex panorama of ‘armed struggle’ groups which flourished and declined alongside them. There’s some of this in Storming Heaven, Steve Wright’s excellent book on operaismo and Autonomia; there’s some about the movimento in one chapter of Robert Lumley’s States of Emergency; and there are a couple of very good books about the armed groups by David Moss and Donatella della Porta. But to get a proper overview of the scene, you’ve basically had to read Italian. Up to now!

All right, so it’s an academic specialism like any other, and I only think it’s fascinating and important because it’s my academic specialism – someone else could make an equally good case for a new atlas of French regional dialects or a groundbreaking study of variations in snail shell thickness. But I do think it’s fascinating and important – and since this is my blog, I’ll take the space to tell you why.

Italian politics often looks a bit weird, seen from the outside, and the mid- to late 1970s were a particularly weird period. It had two particularly striking features. Firstly, you had a political system that was becoming more and more ossified, heading for the final stasis of the ‘five party’ period (when every political party to the Left of the Fascists and to the Right of the Communists was locked into a permanent coalition around the ruling Christian Democrats). The Communists – who had been systematically excluded from power since 1948 – tried to challenge the Christian Democrats’ dominance of Italian politics, but they did so (this is the weird part) by asking to be allowed to share power; the word ‘begging’ also comes to mind. The Communists’ approach was politically abject; it was tactically inept (the Christian Democrats under Aldo Moro ran rings around them), and it was strategically disastrous (the party never recovered, and arguably still hasn’t). Whether ideologically or in terms of party self-interest, it made no sense at all. Why did they do it?

Well, you’ll have to read chapter 3, but a large part of what was going on had to do with the second oddity of the period. In the late 1960s there had been a huge amount of industrial militancy, beginning outside the unions and very largely escaping their control. The wave of activism culminated at the very end of the decade, with an official settlement agreed in December 1969; this got the workers most of what they’d wanted, while also giving the unions what they’d wanted by acknowledging their representative role in the workplace. So in 1970 everyone went back to work, to be greeted with a pay rise plus official union representation, and things went back to normal. What’s extraordinary is what happened next: over the next few years, things started kicking off again, in the name of direct action against inflation. Rent strikes, bus fare strikes, utility strikes, ‘proletarian shopping’ (à la Can’t pay? Won’t pay!)… it was all happening, facilitated in many cases by people who’d cut their teeth in the wildcat strikes of the 60s. It’s a period of extraordinarily active and widespread protest and agitation; it didn’t go anywhere near the official Left (represented by the poor old Communist Party); and, for the most part, it didn’t go near the workplace either.

So you had political stasis, a supine official Left and some fairly wild scenes in the streets, in the campuses and on the estates. And then you had the interaction between the movements and the Communist Party, which is the analytical heart of my book. Following news stories in the Communist Party’s paper l’Unità over a period of five years, I analyse the party’s dominant ‘framings’ of the movements – how the party leadership saw them, and how it wanted party members to see them. Hostility to the movements is not surprising – these were, after all, potential political rivals. What is surprising, and marks a sharp departure from the Party’s approach to the activism of the late 60s, is the hostility expressed towards the movements’ members, their demands and their culture. Instead of offering to take the movements under its wing, the Party essentially dismissed them in their entirety, after labelling them as breeding-grounds for nihilist hooligans and fascist provocateurs. This ‘scorched-earth’ policy made life extremely difficult for the movements, deprived of any kind of sponsor from within the political mainstream; from this point of view it could be said to have been a success. However, it also led inexorably to the Communist Party denying itself a major potential source of new members and new ideas, and alienating much of its existing support. And they never did get to share power with the Christian Democrats.

It’s a fascinating and in many ways a tragic period. More to the point, the scale and diffusion of activism makes it a very unusual period in European history. To think of another like it I think you’d need to go back to May ’68, if not to Barcelona ’36 – and both of those have had plenty written about them, even in English. Yes, Steve Wright’s book is good – and the chapter in Robert Lumley’s book – but I really think this is the first book in English to do the period justice. I don’t expect you’ll buy it, though, unless you’ve got an institutional budget. Here’s the problem: the initial edition is hardback only. The planned cover price is £60, or approximately 30p per page. There’s a possibility of a paperback edition, which I might be able to recommend people to buy with a straight face; there’s a possibility, if the hardback edition sells. It’s an edition of 400.

All giddiness spent, I know the topic of the radical left in Italy in the 1970s isn’t that fascinating to that many people; I know the book’s never going to sell a million. I think it’s got a definite readership, though, not all of whom frequent university libraries. With a fair wind I think it could sell a few thousand – if it was affordable.

So here’s the question, aimed particularly at anyone who’s been in a similar position or knows people who have (hi Daniel!): how can I sell (say) 300 academic hardbacks, knowing that they’re realistically only going to be bought by libraries and eccentric millionaires? Advertising? Journal papers (Phil Edwards is the author of…)? Word of mouth at conferences? Emails to everyone I’ve ever met who might be interested (Forgive the impersonal approach, NO STOP PLEASE DON’T DELETE THaaah, too late)? Blog posts like this one?

Any suggestions will be gratefully received. (And I really don’t expect you to buy the book yourself. Unless you’re a librarian and/or an eccentric millionaire, of course, in which case feel free.)

Not one of us

Nick Cohen in Standpoint (via):

a significant part of British Islam has been caught up in a theocratic version of the faith that is anti-feminist, anti-homosexual, anti-democratic and has difficulties with Jews, to put the case for the prosecution mildly. Needless to add, the first and foremost victims of the lure of conspiracy theory and the dismissal of Enlightenment values are British Muslims seeking assimilation and a better life, particularly Muslim women.

It’s the word ‘significant’ that leaps out at me – that, and Cohen’s evident enthusiasm to extend the War on Terror into a full-blown Kulturkampf. I think what’s wrong with Cohen’s writing here is a question of perspective, or more specifically of scale. You’ve got 1.6 million British Muslims, as of 2001. Then you’ve got the fraction who take their faith seriously & probably have a fairly socially conservative starting-point with regard to politics (call it fraction A). We don’t really know what this fraction is, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s biggish (60%? 70%?) – certainly bigger than the corresponding fraction of Catholics, let alone Anglicans. Then there’s fraction B, the fraction of the A group who sign up for the full anti-semitic theocratic blah; it’s pretty clear that fraction B is tiny, probably below 1% (i.e. a few thousand people). Finally, you’ve got fraction C, the proportion of the B group who are actually prepared to blow people up or help other people to do so – almost certainly 10% or less, i.e. a few hundred people, and most of them almost certainly known to Special Branch.

I think we can and should be fairly relaxed about fraction A; we should argue with the blighters when they come out with stuff that needs arguing with, but we shouldn’t be afraid to stand with them when they’re raising just demands. (Same as any other group, really.) Fraction B is not a good thing, and if it grows to the point of getting on the mainstream political agenda then it will need to be exposed and challenged. But it hasn’t reached that level yet, and I see no sign that it’s anywhere near doing so. (Nigel Farage gets on Question Time, for goodness’ sake. Compare and contrast.) The real counter-terrorist action, it seems to me, is or should be around fraction C. Let’s say there are 5,000 believers in armed jihad out there – 500 serious would-be jihadis and 4,500 armchair jihadis, who buy the whole caliphate programme but whose own political activism doesn’t go beyond watching the Martyrdom Channel. What’s more important – eroding the 5,000 or altering the balance of the 500/4,500 split? In terms of actually stopping people getting killed, the answer seems pretty obvious to me.

Nick Cohen and his co-thinkers, such as the Policy Exchange crowd, focus on fraction B rather than fraction A. In itself this is fair enough – I think it’s mistaken, but it’s a mistake a reasonable person can make. What isn’t so understandable is the urgency – and frequency – with which they raise the alarm against this tiny, insignificant group of people, despite the lack of evidence that they’re any sort of threat. “A small minority of British Muslims believe in the Caliphate” is on a par with “A small minority of British Conservatives would bring back the birch tomorrow” or “A small minority of British Greens believe in Social Credit”. It’s an advance warning of possible weird nastiness just over the horizon; it’s scary, but it’s not that scary.

What explains the tone of these articles, I think, is an additional and unacknowledged slippage, from fraction B back out to fraction A. What’s really worrying Cohen, in other words, isn’t the lure of conspiracy theory and the dismissal of Enlightenment values so much as the lure of Islam (in any form) and the dismissal of secularism. (What are these Enlightenment values, anyway? Nobody ever seems to specify which values they’re referring to. Somebody should make a list). Hence this sense of a rising tide of theocratic bigotry, and of the need for a proper battle of values to combat it. This seems alarmingly wrongheaded. Let’s say that there’s a correlation between religious devotion and socially conservative views (which isn’t always the case) – then what? A British Muslim who advocates banning homosexuality needs to be dealt with in exactly the same way as a British Catholic who advocates banning abortion – by arguing with their ideas. (Their ideas are rooted in their identities – but then, so are mine and yours.) And hence, too, that odd reference to British Muslims seeking assimilation and a better life, as if stepping out of the dark ages must mean abandoning your faith – or, at least, holding it lightly, in a proper spirit of worldly Anglican irony. Here, in fact, Cohen is a hop and a skip from forgetting about all the fractions and identifying the problem as Muslims tout court. Have a care, Nick – that way madness lies.

A taxonomy of terror

I attended part of a very interesting conference on terrorism last week. The organisers intend to launch a network and a journal devoted to ‘critical terrorism studies’, a project which I strongly support. As the previous blog entry suggests, I’ve studied a bit of terrorism in my time – and I’m very much in favour of people being encouraged to approach the phenomenon critically, which is to say without necessarily endorsing the definitions and interpretive frameworks offered by official sources.

However, it seems to me that the nature of the object of study still needs to be defined – and defined at once more precisely and more loosely. In other words, I don’t believe there’s much common ground between someone who thinks of terrorism in terms of gathering intelligence on the IRA, and someone who maintains that George W. Bush is a bigger terrorist than Osama bin Laden; I don’t think it’s particularly productive to try to find common ground between those two images of terrorism, or to simply allow them to coexist without defining the differences between them. On the other hand, I don’t see much mileage in a ‘purist’ Terrorism Studies which would focus solely on groups akin to the IRA – or in an alternative purism which would concentrate on terror attacks by Western governments.

A third approach offers to resolve the gap between these two – although I should say straight away that I don’t believe it does so. This approach is that of terrorism as an object of discourse: what is under analysis is not so much an identifiable set of actions, or types of action, as the texts and utterances which purport to analyse and describe terrorism. The effect is to turn the analytical gaze back on the governmental discourse of terrorism, which in turn makes it possible to contrast the official image of the terrorist threat with data from other sources; an interesting example of this approach in practice is Richard Jackson’s paper Religion, Politics and Terrorism: A Critical Analysis of Narratives of “Islamic Terrorism” (DOC file available from here).

I think this is a powerful and constructive approach – my own thesis (as yet unpublished) includes some quite similar work on Italian left-wing armed groups of the 1970s, whose presentation in both the mainstream and the Communist press was heavily shaped by differing ideological assumptions. But I think it should be recognised that it’s an approach of a different order from the other two. To combine them would be to mix ontological and epistemological arguments – to say, in other words, That’s what is officially labelled terrorism, but this is real terrorism. (Or: That’s what they call terrorism, but this is what we know to be the reality of terrorism.) The problem with this is that it implies a commitment to a particular idea of real terrorism, without actually suggesting a candidate. At best, this formulation frees the analyst to retain his or her prior commitments, bolstered with added ontological certitude. At worst, it suggests that real terrorism is the inverse of officially labelled terrorism – or at least that there is no possible overlap between officially labelled terrorism and real terrorism. This is surely inadequate: a critical approach should be able to do more with the official version than simply reverse it.

I believe that the study of terrorism must include all of these elements, and recognise that they may overlap but don’t coincide. In other words, it must include the following:

  1. Organised political violence by non-state actors: ‘terrorism’ as a political intervention (call it T1)
  2. Indiscriminate large-scale attacks on civilians: terror as a tactic, in warfare or otherwise (T2)
  3. The constructed antagonist of the War on Terror: ‘Terrorism’ as object of discourse (T3)

We can think of it as a three-circle Venn diagram, with areas of intersection between each pair of circles and a triple intersection in the middle.

What is immediately apparent about this list is how little of the field of terrorism falls into all three categories. The (white) triple intersect – mass killing of civilians by a non-state political actor, officially labelled (and denounced) as terrorism – is represented by a relatively small number of horrific events, chief among them September 11th. By contrast, much of what students of terrorism – myself included – would like to be able to look at under that name falls into only two categories, or even one. The (red) intersect of T1 and T3, most obviously, is represented by those acts by armed groups which are officially denounced but don’t involve mass killing of civilians: the ‘execution’ of Aldo Moro and the IRA’s Brighton bomb, for example. The use of terror tactics by non-governmental death squads, such as the Nicaraguan Contras and the Salvadorean ORDEN militia, falls into the blue intersect of T1 and T2. The use of state terror by official enemies and ‘rogue states’ – such as the Syrian Hama massacre or Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the people of Halabja – falls into the green intersect of T2 and T3. And this is without considering all those activities which fall into only one category: T1 (magenta) alone, activities by armed groups which fall below the radar of the discourse of ‘terrorism’ (a large and interesting category); T2 (cyan) alone, terror tactics used by states and not denounced as terrorism; and T3 (yellow) alone, officially-denounced ‘terrorism’ which involves neither an organised armed group nor a mass attack on civilians.

I don’t, myself, see any problem with studying all three of these categories – or rather, all seven. I hope the remit of the new Critical Terrorism Studies is broad enough to encompass all of these without imposing an artificial unity on them. Paramilitary fundraising in Northern Ireland cannot be studied in the same way as the attack on Fallujah or press reporting of the ‘ricin plot'; each of these deserves to be studied, however, and the different approaches appropriate to studying them can only strengthen the field.

The people with the answers

Nick:

Larry Sanger, the controversial online encyclopedia’s cofounder and leading apostate, announced yesterday, at a conference in Berlin, that he is spearheading the launch of a competitor to Wikipedia called The Citizendium. Sanger describes it as “an experimental new wiki project that combines public participation with gentle expert guidance.”The Citizendium will begin as a “fork” of Wikipedia, taking all of Wikipedia’s current articles and then editing them under a new model that differs substantially from the model used by what Sanger calls the “arguably dysfunctional” Wikipedia community. “First,” says Sanger, in explaining the primary differences, “the project will invite experts to serve as editors, who will be able to make content decisions in their areas of specialization, but otherwise working shoulder-to-shoulder with ordinary authors. Second, the project will require that contributors be logged in under their own real names, and work according to a community charter. Third, the project will halt and actually reverse some of the ‘feature creep’ that has developed in Wikipedia.”

I’ve been thinking about Wikipedia, and about what makes a bad Wikipedia article so bad, for some time – this March 2005 post took off from some earlier remarks by Larry Sanger. I’m not attempting to pass judgment on Wikipedia as a whole – there are plenty of good Wikipedia articles out there, and some of them are very good indeed. But some of them are bad. Picking on an old favourite of mine, here’s the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article on the Red Brigades, with my comments.

The Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse in Italian, often abbreviated as BR) are

The word is ‘were’. The BR dissolved in 1981; its last successor group gave up the ghost in 1988. There’s a small and highly violent group out there somewhere which calls itself “Nuove Brigate Rosse” – the New Red Brigades – but its continuity with the original BR is zero. This is a significant disagreement, to put it mildly.

a militant leftist group located in Italy. Formed in 1970, the Marxist Red Brigades

‘Marxist’ is a bizarre choice of epithet. Most of the Italian radical left was Marxist, and almost all of it declined to follow the BR’s lead. Come to that, the Italian Communist Party (one of the BR’s staunchest enemies) was Marxist. Terry Eagleton’s a Marxist; Jeremy Hardy’s a Marxist; I’m a Marxist myself, pretty much. The BR had a highly unusual set of political beliefs, somewhere between Maoism, old-school Stalinism and pro-Tupamaro insurrectionism. ‘Maoist’ would do for a one-word summary. ‘Marxist’ is both over-broad and misleading.

sought to create a revolutionary state through armed struggle

Well, yes. And no. I mean, I don’t think it’s possible to make any sense of the BR without acknowledging that, while they did have a famous slogan about portare l’attacco al cuore dello stato (‘attacking at the heart of the state’), their anti-state actions were only a fairly small element of what they did. To begin with they were a factory-based group, who took action against foremen and personnel managers; in their later years – which were also their peak years – the BR, like other armed groups, got drawn into what was effectively a vendetta with the police, prioritising revenge attacks over any kind of ‘revolutionary’ programme. You could say that the BR were a revolutionary organisation & consequently had a revolutionary programme throughout, even if their actions didn’t always match it – but how useful would this be?

and to separate Italy from the Western Alliance

Whoa. I don’t think the BR were particularly in favour of Italy’s NATO membership, but the idea that this was one of their key goals is absurd. If the BR had been a catspaw for the KGB, intent on fomenting subversion so as to destabilise Italy, then this probably would have been high on their list. But they weren’t, and it wasn’t.

In 1978, they kidnapped and killed former Prime Minister Aldo Moro under obscure circumstances.

Remarkably well-documented circumstances, I’d have said.

After 1984’s scission

This is just wrong – following growing and unresolvable factionalism, the BR formally dissolved in October 1981.

Red Brigades managed with difficulty to survive the official end of the Cold War in 1989

This is both confused and wrong. Given that there was a split, how would the BR have survived beyond 1981 (or 1984), let alone 1989? As for the BR’s successor groups, the last one to pack it in was last heard from in 1988.

even though it is now a fragile group with no original members.

Or rather, even though the name is now used by a small group about which very little is know, but which is not believed to have any connection to the original group (whose members are after all knocking on a bit by now).

Throughout the 1970’s the Red Brigades were credited with 14,000 acts of violence.

Good grief. Credited by whom? According to the sources I’ve seen, between 1970 and 1981 Italian armed struggle groups were responsible for a total of 3,258 actions, including 110 killings; the BR’s share of the total came to 472 actions, including 58 killings. (Most ‘actions’ consisted of criminal damage and did not involve personal violence.) I’d be the first to admit that the precision of these figures is almost certainly spurious, but even if we doubled that figure of 472 we’d be an awful long way short of 14,000.

I’m not even going to look at the body of the article.

I think there are two main problems here; the good news is that Larry’s proposals for the neo-Wikipedia (Nupedia? maybe not) would address both of them.

Firstly, first mover advantage. The structure of Wikipedia creates an odd imbalance between writers and editors. Writing a new article is easy: the writer can use whatever framework he or she chooses, in terms both of categories used to structure the entry and of the overall argument of the piece. Making minor edits to an article is easy: mutter 1984? no way, it was 1981!, log on, a bit of typing and it’s done. But making major edits is hard – you can see from the comments above just how much work would be needed to make that BR article acceptable, starting from what’s there now. It would literally be easier to write a new article. What’s more, making edits stick is hard; I deleted one particularly ignorant falsehood from the BR article myself a few months ago, only to find my edit reverted the next day. (Of course, I re-reverted it. So there!)

Larry’s suggestion of getting experts on board is very much to the point here. Slap my face and call me a credentialled academic, but I don’t believe that everyone is equally qualified to write an encyclopedia article about their favourite topic – and I do think it matters who gets the first go.

Secondly, gaming the system. Wikipedia is a community as well as an encyclopedia. I’ll pass over Larry’s suggestion that Wikipedia is dysfunctional as a community, but I do think it’s arguable that some behaviours which work well for Wikipedia-the-community are dysfunctional for Wikipedia-the-resource. It’s been suggested, for instance, that what really makes Wikipedia special is the ‘history’ pages, which take the lid off the debate behind the encyclopedia and let us see knowledge in the process of formation. It follows from this that to show the world a single, ‘definitive’ version of an article on a subject would actually be a step backwards: The discussion tab on Wikipedia is a great place to point to your favorite version … Does the world need a Wikipedia for stick-in-the-muds? W. A. Gerrard objects:

Of what value is publicly documenting the change history of an encyclopedia entry? How can something that purports to be authoritative allow the creation of alternative versions which readers can adopt as favorites?If an attempt to craft a wiki that strives for accuracy, even via a flawed model, is considered something for “stick-in-the-muds”, then it’s apparent that many of Wikipedia’s supporters value the dynamics of its community more than the credibility of the product they deliver.

I think this is exactly right: the history pages are worth much more to members of the Wikipedia community than to Wikipedia users. People like to form communities and communities like to chat – and edits and votes are the currency of Wikipedia chat. And gaming the system is fun (hence the word ‘game’). Aaron Swartz quotes comments about Wikipedia regulars who delete your newly[-]create[d] article without hesitation, or revert your changes and accuse you of vandalis[m] without even checking the changes you made, or who “edited” thousands of articles … [mostly] to remove material that they found unsuitable. This clearly suggest the emergence of behaviours which are driven more by social expectations than by a concern for Wikipedia. The second writer quoted above continues: Indeed, some of the people-history pages contained little “awards” that people gave each other — for removing content from Wikipedia.

Now, all systems can be gamed, and all communities chat. The question is whether the chatting and the gaming can be harnessed for the good of the encyclopedia – or, failing that, minimised. I’m not optimistic about the first possibility, and I suspect Larry Sanger isn’t either. Larry does, however, suggest a very simple hack which would help with the second: get everyone to use their real name. This would, among other things, make it obvious when a writer had authority in a given area. I don’t entirely agree with Aaron’s conclusion:

Larry Sanger famously suggested that Wikipedia must jettison its anti-elitism so that experts could feel more comfortable contributing. I think the real solution is the opposite: Wikipedians must jettison their elitism and welcome the newbie masses as genuine contributors to the project, as people to respect, not filter out.

This is half right: Wikipedia-the-community has produced an elite of ‘regulars’, whose influence over Wikipedia-the-resource derives from their standing in the community rather than from any kind of claim to expertise. I agree with Aaron that this is an unhealthy situation, but I think Larry was right as well. The artificial elitism of the Wikipedia community doesn’t only marginalise the ‘masses’ who contribute most of the original content; it also sidelines the subject-area experts who, within certain limited domains, have a genuine claim to be regarded as an elite.

I don’t know if the Citizendium is going to address these problems in practice; I don’t know if the Citizendium is going anywhere full stop. But I think Larry Sanger is asking the right questions. It’s increasingly clear that Wikipedia isn’t just facing in two directions at once, it’s actually two different things – and what’s good for Wikipedia-the-community isn’t necessarily good for Wikipedia-the-resource.

It happened before

I hate it when my doctoral thesis gets topical. Here are some figures:

1975 1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981
333 282 277 190 103 33 81
92 169 460 1110 802 258 141
3 8 5 28 21 25 15

Take a moment to read across the rows and get a feel for the shape of the series. Row one starts pretty high – almost one of these things per day – then declines year on year, plummets to almost nothing in 1980 and makes a weak recovery in 1981. Row two starts low-ish (about one every four days) then rises continuously and rapidly as the first series falls; it peaks in 1978 at the extraordinary value of 1110 (three of these things per day) then declines quite steeply, although the 1981 value is still higher than the 1975 starting point. As for the third row, it starts low, jumps to a higher value at the time of the 1978 peak, then stays close to that higher level for the next few years, even while the second series declines.

The figures all relate to Italy. Row one represents the number of mass radical protests (strikes, demos, occupations, mass shoplifts, rent strikes, etc). It’s an approximate figure in all sorts of ways, but everything I’ve read suggests that the trend is valid.

Row two is the number of actions by radical ‘armed struggle’ groups.

Row three is the number of people killed by those groups.

And here’s Anjem Choudray, self-described spokesman for the banned organisation Al-Ghurabaa:

We have been functioning here for the last 10 or 15 years and nobody has ever been arrested for any terrorism-related offences. What this will do is it will militarise many people, because if you stop people propagating their thoughts and ideas, then you will push them underground and after that you have no control over them.

Nice one, Dr Reid.

Into the fireplace

As a postscript to this, here’s Stephen Sedley from the current LRB:

When I read for the English Bar in the 1960s, the legal history lecturer stopped when he reached 1649 and explained that he was now moving directly to 1660, because everything that had happened between the trial of the king and the restoration of the monarchy was a nullity.

That’s some nullity.

Sedley’s reviewing Geoffrey Robertson’s The Tyrannicide Brief, a vindication of the regicides collectively and Charles’s prosecutor John Cooke in particular. Sedley’s conclusion demurs from some of Robertson’s larger claims, but leaves one significant claim intact. (‘Bradshawe’ is John Bradshawe, the president of the court which tried Charles.)

Robertson claims too much when he credits Cooke, first in his courtroom defence of John Lilburne, then on his own arrest, with introducing the right of silence into the common law. The supposed right, which developed in the early canon law, had by Cooke’s time acquired a mythological status: widely believed in, respected in the ordinary run of cases but ignored in favour of torture when anything serious was at stake. Cooke’s fate, however, was by the time of his arrest so firmly sealed that there was little point in pressing his interrogation. Nor, I think, could Robertson make good his suggestion that Bradshawe was breaking new ground, in anticipation of Locke and Rousseau, when he said to Charles: ‘There is a contract and bargain made between the king and his people … The one tie, the one bond, is the bond of protection that is due from the sovereign; the other is the bond of subjection that is due from the subject. Sir, if this bond be once broken, farewell sovereignty.’ This embryonic notion of constitutional monarchy, looking – through a reluctantly commercial metaphor – for middle ground between traditional liberties and government by divine right, was by 1649 a commonplace of political theory. What was novel was Bradshawe’s pointing out to a captive king the consequence when it was the monarch who broke the contract: ‘Farewell sovereignty.’

When it comes to justified rebellion against over-mighty rulers, in other words, the Americans have nothing to teach us. The English did it first – and ushered in a decade of legal nullity, a short-lived no man’s land in which the impossible could become possible. I’m not (solely, or necessarily) talking about Abiezer Coppe or Winstanley, or even about the Levellers. 1649 saw a permanent defeat at Burford as well as the brief nadir of the monarchists, but it wasn’t Thermidor: Cromwell himself was venturing into terra nullius.

It was not the Bill of Rights of 1688 but Cromwell’s Instrument of Government of 1653, still lost in the official void three and a half centuries later, that first set out some of the foundational principles of a modern democracy: triennial parliaments (for a united state of England, Scotland and Ireland), not to be prorogued except by their own will; a non-hereditary Protector, empowered to legislate, tax and govern only with the consent of Parliament and to make war only on its advice; abolition of the established church, and religious toleration (except of ‘Popery and Prelacy’). But not then, or after 1660, or after 1688, did it come true.

From what I know of him, I’ve got a lot of respect for Charles Stuart as a person – and I certainly don’t think Oliver was a nice guy. But it’s not hard to choose between the two. The constitutional ferment of the English Revolution remains a landmark in the country’s history: unsurpassed in many areas, in some still unattained.

That pretty soldier’s hat

Steve Bell (via) anticipated Blair’s reaction to the hundredth death of a British soldier in Iraq since 2003: the deskbound patriotism of Kipling’s jelly-bellied flag-flapper, in a low-key, robo-managerialist form. But Blair’s actual reaction was quite different:

Mr Blair said the country had to understand why it mattered that “we see this through”. It was important, he told the BBC, “because what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq is that the people of those countries want to leave behind terrorism and extremism, and they want to embrace democracy”.Asked earlier whether the government was worried by the 100th death of a British soldier in Iraq, Mr Blair’s spokesman replied: “I do not think we should do the terrorists’ job for them by in some way hyping this kind of incident”.

100 is just a number, it’s true, but it’s a number that suggests a pause for reflection, on those deaths and what caused them. That would still be true even if you ignored all the other deaths, and even if you were convinced that a hundred British soldiers had died in a good cause. Even then, those deaths and the loss they represent would deserve acknowledgment. As Chris argues, sunk (human) costs have their due. But:

I do not think we should do the terrorists’ job for them by in some way hyping this kind of incident

This is monstrous.

I think the key term here is ‘terrorist’. A terrorist is, essentially, a political opponent who attempts to influence you (a democratic government) through fear. Terrorists have, by definition, abandoned rational argument: there is nothing you can learn from a terrorist and nothing you can usefully say to a terrorist, except “No”. Terrorism cannot be engaged with, it can only be resisted. Moreover, since terrorists have no arguments to offer, it follows that any sympathy towards them – and any wavering from your firm opposition to them – can only be explained by confusion or fear. You can afford to disregard anything the terrorists say; if people believe the terrorists, that simply shows that the terrorists have frightened them into submission, or confused them with their lies:

After Amnesty International compared American treatment of Afghan and Iraqi prisoners to the Gulag, I heard the President say: ‘It’s an absurd allegation. The United States is a country that promotes freedom around the world. It seemed like to me they based some of their decisions on the word of, and the allegations by, people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people that had been trained in some instances to disassemble – that means not tell the truth.’

It follows that your duty is to downplay any information which might add to the confusion by encouraging people to believe the terrorists or sympathising with their cause. They’re bad (because they’re terrorists); you’re good (because you’re fighting terrorists); and the people you govern are weak and confused and liable to forget what the difference is, so you can’t afford to let in too many shades of grey when you’re talking to them.

Even if it means a British Prime Minister refusing to honour British war dead.

That shallow feeling

Light blogging ahead – life calls.

Very briefly: Ken Macleod asks, “if you are going to limit free speech at all, is it more illiberal to do so by making the proclamation of certain specific and narrowly defined doctrines illegal, or by making administrative decisions based on broad and vague provisions?” It’s an interesting dilemma, but what strikes me most forcibly is that both alternatives are counsels of weakness. A thriving political movement – and, by extension, a government confident in its ability to rally support – will not issue Clarkean all-purpose anathemata against anyone who might in future turn a bit dodgy; but neither will it spend time and effort coming up with a precise legal definition for the Men of Evil, their Evil Groups and their Evil Ideology.

I’m not even sure that this second approach is a real alternative to the first: in practice this type of definition would, I think, inevitably catch too much or too little, and end up so garlanded with interpretative codicils as to amount to an alternative approach to Clarkean constructive vagueness. The real alternative – the counsel of strength – is not narrowing the field of free speech. A thriving movement or a confident government would engage its opponents (or, more to the point, their sympathisers) in open debate, secure in the knowledge that its resources and its support were superior to theirs – so that anything good they had to offer could be quietly appropriated and re-framed within its own ideological and tactical vocabulary, bringing (most of) their supporters across into the bargain.

Of course, the idea of New Labour doing this with radical young British Muslims would make a cat laugh – but that’s a reflection of the weakness of New Labour in 2005, not a statement about the general conditions of political dialogue with disorderly social movements (or with British Muslims in particular). We are where we are – but the conditions of possibility imposed by our current situation aren’t absolute.

In another country, with another name

In a comment thread on his blog, Brian Barder writes:

You [meaning me - PJE] take a more generous view than I do … of the opinions, implied or explicit, of those many commentators who have been saying (and continue to say) that because Blair must have known that UK participation in the invasion and occupation of Iraq would be used by Muslim extremists to generate additional anger and resentment against Britain, and that this would increase the likelihood of a terrorist attack in Britain, therefore Blair has a share of responsibility for the London bombings. Attributing responsibility in this way has two unavoidable implications: (1) that Blair deserves a share of the blame for the bombings and (2) that the increased likelihood of a terrorist attack in Britain ought to have been a factor influencing Blair against his decision to join the Americans in invading Iraq, even if on other grounds he believed it right and necessary to do so.You come perilously close to adopting this view, it seems to me, when you write:

the Iraq invasion created new opportunities for terrorists, created anti-British feeling which was likely to make it easier to recruit new terrorists, and created disaffection among British Muslims which was likely to produce active or passive support for terrorists – and that all these consequences were probable, could have been predicted and should have been weighed in the balance when Blair & co were contemplating joining Bush’s invasion. To have overlooked predictable consequences like this in a good cause would be bad enough (pace Geras); when the cause in question is the Iraq war as we’ve known it, Blair’s responsibility is heavy.

Once you accept that the threat of terrorist attack in response to a specific act of policy is a factor legitimately to be taken into account in making decisions on that policy, you are handing over control of our foreign (and eventually our domestic) policy to terrorists. This is exactly comparable to yielding to the demands of a blackmailer. The only consequence of such surrender is that the demands of the terrorists (and of the blackmailer) will become yet more frequent and more exorbitant. In other words, the increased risk of terrorist attack in the UK should have been totally excluded from Blair’s calculations of the pros and cons of taking part in the Iraq war.

In response to Brian’s first point, I don’t think that Blair’s government can sensibly be blamed for the bombings, unless there’s an unusually long and obscure trail yet to be uncovered, leading from the Foreign Office back to the madrassas. What does fall to the government’s responsibility is protecting its citizens from arbitrary killings. The question is whether the government may bear a share of the blame for failure to protect us from the bombings – a failure which may include failure to avert the bombings altogether, by contributing to the development of conditions which made the bombings more likely. The second argument – that Blair would have been correct to leave the threat of terrorism out of his pre-Iraq calculations – is more substantial, but I have to say that I find it highly counter-intuitive. As Tony Hatfield said in comments here,

The State has an obligation to consider every effect flowing from its policy-especially its foreign policy and certainly a policy involving a declaration of war. That must include the effect of any “blowback” from terrorism. … If that is so, then there must be circumstances- the threat is so immediate, and disproportionate to the benefit you seek- that it tips the balance firmly against the policy.

Brian’s analogy with blackmail is suggestive, but I don’t see that it can entirely sustain his argument – after all, any concession to anyone may be interpreted as a sign of weakness and exploited accordingly. When one government makes demands of another, there is always the possibility that one of the two will end up paying Danegeld or conceding the Sudetenland; however, in practice these extreme cases can be disregarded, and demands can be considered on their merits (bearing in mind the foreseeable consequences of granting or refusing them). Certainly it would be absurd to say, as a matter of principle, that no government should change its policies based on demands made by another government. Should we exclude demands made by non-governmental actors? But that’s not right either – we would expect (and in some cases hope) that governments would be responsive to demands made by multi-national businesses, by the world’s major faiths, by trade union confederations, by charities and campaigning organisations.

There’s obviously something about terrorist organisations which makes it reasonable (from Brian’s perspective) for governments to refuse any demands outright and on principle: something which turns pressure into blackmail and recognition into capitulation. Intuition tells me that the difference is staring me in the face, in the word ‘terrorist’, but in this case I think intuition is wrong. The problem with terrorist groups, in other words, isn’t the fact that they back up their demands with arbitrary and random violence. Imagine an organisation which attempted to gain publicity for its demands by planting dummy bombs. At first the bombs would be taken for the real thing and there would be a certain amount of panic and alarm, even if nobody was actually injured by them. After a while, though, the ‘bombs’ are treated with contemptuous lack of interest, by police and public alike. At this point, has the group ceased to be terrorist – and should the government become willing to negotiate with it? Conversely, imagine a campaign for constitutional reform whose rallies, ignored by the government, grow larger and more unruly, to the point where violent clashes with the police are a predictable occurrence. The campaign’s activities have led directly to the wounding of police officers, in other words; does this mean that it has turned into a terrorist campaign, whose demands should be ignored on principle? In both cases, the reverse appears more likely.

It seems that the judgment of whether a terrorist organisation is terrorist – meaning that its demands should be rejected unconsidered – is independent of what it does. The key is, perhaps, provided by Brian’s analogy with hostage-taking. A terrorist group, we could say, is criminal by nature: in order to achieve its aims, it needs to undermine the state and attack the rule of law. Criminal actions carried out by a constitutional political group are an anomaly which only have a limited effect on our willingness to recognise or deal with them. By contrast, criminal actions carried out by a terrorist group reaffirm the criminal nature of the group and vindicate our refusal to recognise them.

The trouble with this line of argument is that it brings the aims of the group into play as well as its tactics: if terrorist groups are defined by their fundamental opposition to the state and the rule of law, we need to be sure that the groups we describe as terrorist are fundamentally opposed to the state and the rule of law, rather than using criminal tactics to promote demands which could in principle be granted by the state (and legitimated by the law). Hence, perhaps, Blair’s bizarre argument that what sets Al Qaida apart from the British Army is that “They don’t regret the loss of innocent, civilian life. They rejoice in it, that is their purpose.” (Let’s hope for Blair’s sake that Al Qaida never takes lessons in PR from the IRA, who were past masters in regret for the consequences of their actions (we deeply regret the loss of innocent life, caused by a conflict which will inevitably continue…).) I’m not going to go into the question of whether the aims of Al Qaida are non-negotiable in this sense, beyond recommending some cogent arguments for and against the proposition. I think it bears stressing that the ‘blackmail’ analogy rests on an assumption that terrorist groups are different in kind from other political actors, and – most importantly – that this difference derives primarily from their goals rather than their actions (however criminal – however vile, come to that – those actions may be).

But let’s say that, in the case of Al Qaida, we are dealing with a criminal conspiracy with no political aims which could possibly conceded. Even in that case, I don’t think it follows that principled policy-making should take no account of them. Consider a less controversial criminal conspiracy, the Mafia. The Mafia certainly has no demands which any responsible government would grant; formulating policy in order to benefit the Mafia would be reprehensible. However, according to the ‘blackmail’ logic, allowing the government’s opposition to the Mafia to influence policy – perhaps by favouring policies which limited the Mafia’s opportunities to penetrate British society – would itself represent a tacit recognition of the Mafia as a force to be reckoned with, and should therefore be rejected. The responsible course of action would be to take whatever actions the government believed would benefit Britain, leaving the Mafia – and the possibility that government action or inaction might favour the Mafia – out of consideration.

This argument is clearly fallacious. Whether or not the government’s decision is influenced by the existence of the Mafia, the Mafia continues to exist and to have significant effects on the government, both at the time the decision is taken and at the time it is implemented. There is no possible decision which does not have a relationship to the Mafia, in other words; the choice is whether that relationship is favourable or unfavourable. A decision which limits the opportunities available to organised crime (perhaps by putting a lower limit on the number of casinos to be licensed) is unfavourable; a decision which does not limit those opportunities is favourable, whether it does so actively or by default. As with the Mafia, so with Al Qaida: if the government did, in fact, deliberately ignore the possibility that the Iraq invasion would expand the opportunities open to terrorists, it can fairly be charged – on those grounds alone – with making this outcome more likely.

Brian also argues that there is a fundamental and important discrepancy between the (wholly unacceptable) tactics of the bombers and the (potentially legitimate) political causes with which they have been associated.

The other implication of much bien-pensant comment has been that we need to ‘understand‘ what drove the suicide bombers (successful or failed) to commit such dreadful acts and to accept that we (or the Blair government, or western society, or whatever) are all partially to blame for the policies and actions that drove the bombers to do what they did. This seems to me an utterly unacceptable proposition, too, for the reasons eloquently expressed by Brownie in the passage that I quoted. The idea that the pursuit of policies with which others violently disagree is partly responsible for acts of criminal madness committed, apparently, as an expression of that political disapproval, is nonsense, and we shouldn’t hesitate to say so. You write that

people aren’t born terrorists. People have to become terrorists – even that subset of people who are also fundamentalist Muslims and believers in a restored Caliphate. Obviously the terrorists are to blame for their actions, but for those people to have become terrorists something must have gone wrong – something more than being exposed to an ‘evil ideology’.

but it’s a far cry from that to the assertion that the whatever ‘must have gone wrong’ is something for which our own society, or government, or culture, or original sin, must be to blame.

My point here was that successful terrorist actions require a continuing supply of recruits – all the more so in the case of suicide bombings, obviously – and that each of these individuals must go through a whole series of events and influences before they become a terrorist. Pace Brian, I’d say that it would be absurd to assume – on the grounds that terrorists have carried out ‘acts of criminal madness’ – that nothing about “our own society, or government, or culture” played a part in the formation of those terrorists. That is not to say that we can necessarily identify what those contributions are or how significant they were – in absolute terms or in comparison to other influences. But to say that no one other than the terrorists themselves bears any responsibility for their actions, and that we cannot – and should not – address the grievances which motivate terrorist sympathisers, seems to me to set up an absolute separation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ which is highly unhelpful. Something did go wrong for the eight bombers we know about; as far as we know it went wrong right here in Britain, some time in the last few years. In the circumstances, it seems to me, the burden of proof lies with anyone maintaining that the Iraq invasion was not a factor.

Postscript: at Veritatis Splendor, enigmatic NederlanderVlaming D says it all more succinctly than I’ve been able to:

The pro-war people will argue that the jihadists will always find some excuse to launch another terrorist attack on us, regardless of what “root causes” we take away. They’re confusing two things. It’s true that you can’t make deals with or give in to the jihadists. You can’t take the “root causes” of their hatred or extremism away. They will always hate us, for it is our very existence, our “way of life,” that is the root cause of their hatred. Their ideology is so diagonally opposed to our own, that peaceful co-existence with these people is not possible. And indeed, we shouldn’t try to appease them or adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards them. The only strategy against these people is confrontation: not only do we need to prevent them from attacking us, we need to attack them. Again, this is a matter of police and intelligence forces.We can however tackle the “root causes” of Muslim support for these people. As I’ve argued above, a radical minority is nothing without the support of the mainstream. This jihadist “radical minority” will cease to exist (or cease to be consequential in any case) without fresh recruits to carry out its suicide missions and without the silent, or vocal, approval of ordinary Muslim communities. The war in Iraq is a good example, because this is where the opinions of ordinary Muslims and jihadists “overlap”: they both think it stinks to high heaven. By stressing how much they have in common, the jihadist can persuade the average Muslim.

Conversely, jihadists are not that successful in gathering real, practical support for their ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam, or for their utopian “Caliphate.” We naturally oppose these ideas too, but why be so bothered with them when we know they have no real basis of support within the Islamic community itself? Does anyone seriously believe Europe will one day be overrun by massive hordes of Muslim warriors bent on establishing the Caliphate?

The average Muslim in Europe doesn’t want to kill homosexuals, or prevent women from driving a car, or stop us from eating pork, or burn every copy of Harry Potter. If we are to prevent his radical counterpart from convincing him he should do all these things, our job is to convince him of the contrary (“battle for the hearts and minds,” anyone?), stress what is clearly unacceptable and what is open to civilized debate (this as opposed to shutting down the debate in its entirety with the fallacious mantra “opposing the war = supporting terrorism”), and finally, do more to promote alternatives. In doing so, you take away the ordinary Muslim’s every reason to believe the jihadist.

It’s no real reason

Let us just take this issue of Iraq and expose it for a moment – frankly, the obscenity of these people saying it is concern for Iraq that drives them to terrorism. If it is concern for Iraq, why are they driving a car bomb into the middle of a group of children and killing them? Why are they every day in Iraq trying to kill people whose only desire is for their country to become a democracy? Why are they trying to kill people in Afghanistan? Why are they trying, every time Israel and Palestine look as if they could come together in some sort of settlement, they go and wreck it. … They will always have a reason and I am not saying that any of these things don’t affect their warped reasoning and warped logic as to what they do, or that they don’t use these things to try and recruit people. But I do say we shouldn’t compromise with it. I am not saying anyone says any of these things justify it, but we shouldn’t even allow them the vestige of an excuse for what they do.

What is happening in Iraq is that ordinary, decent Iraqis are being butchered by these people with the same terrorist ideology that is killing people in different parts of the world. … there is all the difference in the world in us taking action against these terrorists and as will happen when military action is taken innocent civilians get killed. We deeply regret every one of those lives. They don’t regret the loss of innocent, civilian life. They rejoice in it, that is their purpose. And all the instability in Iraq would stop tomorrow if these terrorists and insurgents stopped. … Until we get rid of this frankly complete nonsense in trying to build some equivalence between what we are doing helping Iraqis and Afghans get their democracy and these people going in deliberately killing wholly innocent people for the sake of it, until we eliminate that we are not going to confront this ideology in the way it needs to be confronted and my point to you is this, it is time we stopped saying OK we abhor their methods, but we kind of see something in their ideas or maybe they have got a sliver of excuse or justification. They have got no justification for it.

we will start to beat this when we stand up and confront the ideology of this evil. Not just the methods but the ideas. When we actually have people going into the communities here in this country and elsewhere and saying I am sorry, we are not having any of this nonsense about it is to do with what the British are doing in Iraq or Afghanistan, or support for Israel, or support for America, or any of the rest of it. It is nonsense, and we have got to confront it as that. And when we confront it as that, then we will start to beat it.- Blair, 26th July 2005.

If nothing else, Blair is commendably clear. The terrorist threat to Britain – “this evil” – is the work of a single identifiable group, operating in Palestine as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. Their programme is unclear and may be incomprehensible (“warped reasoning and warped logic”). Their “terrorist ideology” leads them to kill at random and “rejoice” in “the loss of innocent, civilian life”. Their claim of solidarity with the people of Iraq (or Afghanistan, or Palestine) is contradicted by their own actions, as they repeatedly undermine democratic progress in those countries; by implication, progress will now only be possible after they have been defeated. What they do has no justification: “it is time we stopped saying OK we abhor their methods, but … maybe they have got a sliver of excuse or justification. They have got no justification for it.” The Iraq war, in particular, is not a justification, because the war is right and what they are doing is wrong: there is no comparison “between what we are doing helping Iraqis and Afghans get their democracy and these people going in deliberately killing wholly innocent people for the sake of it”. In fact, the suggestion that the Iraq war is a justification is itself part of “the ideology of this evil”, and must be rejected if the terrorists are to be defeated: “It is nonsense, and we have got to confront it as that. And when we confront it as that, then we will start to beat it.”

In order to make sense of this stuff, I think we need some definitions. First of all, it would be correct to say that the Iraq war didn’t cause the London bombings, if only because actions don’t have causes: they aren’t precipitated by facts about the world. Actions have agents: people who make decisions and carry them out. Behind every action there’s a choice – and people who are responsible for making that choice and acting on it.

What actions do have is motives, which are closely related to beliefs: how you want the world to change cannot be divorced from how you believe the world currently is. Political actions, in particular, are generally capable of being justified (if not necessarily in ways you or I would accept). That is, their motive is a desire to change the world – to change the distribution of resources, of power over resources, of power wielded by some humans over others – and to change it in the direction of greater justice, as the agent sees it. In this sense, the motive of a political action is also the basis of its justification. It should perhaps be emphasised that saying that an action can be justified is not the same as saying that it can be justified in terms that I would accept. A justification which is framed in terms of beliefs and motives I don’t share won’t get my endorsement – but I can, and should, still recognise that it is a justification. You can learn why somebody thinks something is a good idea without being persuaded that it is a good idea.

Of course, actions also have intrinsic qualities; some actions, in particular, are intrinsically repugnant. Indeed, some actions – such as, for instance, the murder of random passers-by – are corrosive of any imaginable society; our sense of repugnance in these cases has a fairly good claim to universality. That said, we know that there are – and always have been – people willing to carry out repugnant actions; if this were not the case there would be no need for laws against them. Nor is it the case that any identifiable social group or political cause has a monopoly of ethically repugnant tactics; again, if this were the case we could simply legislate against the repugnant minority and dispense with the law among ourselves. As I argued back here, repugnance is not political; it only becomes a political stance when it is brought into dialogue with our own beliefs, our assessment of how the world is and how the world needs to be changed.

we have always to ask (we cannot help asking), unforgivable and… what? Was that particular act unforgivable and irredeemably vile, unforgivable and contemptibly cynical, or unforgivable and horribly mistaken? Might it even, in some circumstances, be unforgivable but tragically constructive?

(Am I saying I don’t oppose every imaginable suicide bombing? Yes, I am. More to the point, I’m saying that actual suicide bombings – repugnant as they unquestionably are – don’t invariably revolt me in exactly the same way and to exactly the same degree. I expect that this is also true of you.)

Actions, in any case, don’t have causes: every action is the product of a free choice, taken within the context of a framework of beliefs and motives. It is not precipitated by the facts of the situation within which it is taken. It is bound up with those facts, however, in two ways. Firstly, some choices are freer than others: for some agents, the effective range of choices for which they can take responsibility is very narrow indeed. If we were to watch a hundred vagrants in temporary accommodation and a hundred Eton schoolchildren for a month, it’s a safe bet that more thefts would be committed by the vagrants than the toffs, despite the fact that each individual had free will throughout the period. Nor is this a question of justification or extenuation. I’m more likely to steal if my family is starving; I’m also more likely to steal if I don’t know where my next fix is coming from, or if I’ve committed murder and gone on the run. In any of these cases, the facts of the situation constrain my exercise of free choice. The situation – and the chain of causality which brought it about – does not produce my behaviour, but it does make certain choices more likely than others. As somebody once said, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” (It’s since been established that women do something similar.)

Secondly, if freely-chosen actions do not have causes, they do have consequences: typically, consequences which ramify in multiple directions, not all of which can be identified beforehand. If agents are responsible for their actions, they must surely also be responsible for the consequences of those actions – including the constraints which are placed, as a result, on other individuals’ freedom to choose. We might make an exception for consequences which, in principle, could not be foreseen by the agent, however well-informed and reflective they were – but it is difficult to imagine how the consequences of an action could meet this criterion and still be identifiable as consequences.

Circumstances do not cause actions – but they can make certain actions more likely, by validating some beliefs and motives (e.g. “you’ve got to be hard if you’re going to survive”) while undercutting others (e.g. “it’s wrong to steal”). By extension, every action also makes other actions more and less likely. And, of course, circumstances – and hence the consequences of actions – can also affect beliefs and motives more directly, by appearing to demonstrate what the world is like and how it needs to be changed. The changed balance of opportunities and constraints which an action produces, as well as the sets of beliefs which it is likely to confirm or challenge, must play into how we perceive that action.

In the case of the Iraq war, the invasion clearly created opportunities for terrorist activity and removed constraints against it. It also tended to confirm beliefs according to which Western nations – the US and Britain in particular – are engaged in a lawless and predatory ‘crusade’ against the Islamic world. Regardless of whether these beliefs are sustainable or fallacious, they are widely held. The perception that the Iraq war bore out these beliefs – irrespective of whether that is sustainable – is also widespread. As such, it seems beyond question that the foreseeable consequences of the war – as well as the deposition of Saddam Hussein – include an aggravated sense of grievance among Muslims against the British and US governments, and the exposure of Britain to a higher risk of terrorism.

There are three main answers to this line of argument. The first and weakest appears in Geras’s polemic against ‘apologists’:

If Mabel borrows Zack’s bicycle without permission and Zack, being embittered about this, burns down Mabel’s house, Mabel doesn’t share the blame for her house being burned down. Though she may have behaved wrongly and her doing so is part of the causal chain leading to the conflagration, neither her act nor the wrongness of it justifies Zack in burning down her house.

This simply begs the question. Retaliatory violence cannot be justified because it is disproportionate – but it is disproportionate because that’s how the example has been set up. Assuming that we’re still talking about Iraq, compare London and Falluja, or the career prospects of a Republican Guard with those of a British intelligence officer: it’s not immediately clear to me that we are the ones whose house has been burned down. In any case, if Mabel were a friend of mine, I’d tell her to be careful not to cross Zack again and ask her what the hell she was doing stealing the bike in the first place.

The second and third arguments, which also appear in Geras’s piece, are fuzzily invoked by Blair. One is that, while the Iraq war may have created grievances, those grievances are wrong (only the enemies of democracy can oppose the new democratic Iraq). The other is that those grievances are irrelevant (even without the war, “this evil” would still have existed and Britain would have been one of its targets). Geras offers handy thought-experiments for these as well. Firstly, the grievance which can be disregarded because it is wrong:

In circumstances he judges not too risky, Bob, an occasional but serial rapist, is drawn to women dressed in some particular way. One morning Elaine dresses in that particular way and she crosses Bob’s path in circumstances he judges not too risky. He rapes her. Elaine’s mode of dress is part of the causal chain which leads to her rape. But she is not at all to blame for being raped.

Once again, this is a heavily-loaded example: rape is one of the few crimes which (within the cultural context shared by Geras and myself) cannot be justified under any circumstances whatsoever, so there is no imaginable scenario in which Elaine would be culpable. A better example might be the socially-conservative Muslim areas – such as present-day Basra – where women who walk the streets with their hair uncovered risk abuse or assault. This treatment appals me, and I side unreservedly with the women who suffer it against the evil sexist scumbags who perpetrate it – but, as with my light-fingered friend Mabel, I can easily imagine asking someone who persistently defied the scumbags whether she wasn’t, to some extent, bringing hostile attention down on herself.

Geras’s use of the word ‘blame’ here is both significant and misleading, I think. Elsewhere in the same piece he argues that, if the Iraq war was ‘right’, then

no blame attaches to those who led, prosecuted and supported that war, even if it has entered the causal chain leading to the bombings, by way of the motivating grievances of the ‘militants’ and ‘activists’

This, it seems to me, imposes an artificial distinction between the war and its consequences, assuming that the war is justified whatever its consequences may ultimately be. It seems far more appropriate to assess the consequences of the war and judge its ‘rightness’ or not accordingly. Similarly, if we cause outrage and offence by challenging a world view which we regard as deeply unjust, it is hard not to say that we are in the right – and, by extension, it is hard to say that we can be ‘blamed’ for causing offence. Nevertheless, we might prefer – if only for the sake of a quiet life – not to outrage and offend those people any more than we have to. Of course, we could – and Blair sometimes seems to think that we should – make a virtue of offence and tackle “the ideology of this evil” head-on, wherever it can be found. However, this is a rather more ambitious – not to say open-ended – version of ‘ethical foreign policy’ than we have been accustomed to; never mind Iran, we’d be lucky to escape without declaring war on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The other argument, also invoked by Blair, is that any grievances roused by the war are irrelevant. Geras again:

Me, David and Sam are chatting. I make a remark to David, David gets cross because of the remark and he punches me in the mouth. Sam says ‘You had it coming’. In this story it is uncontroversially true – I can tell you this, being the story’s one and only author – that my remark to David and Sam is the cause of David’s anger. Is Sam, then, right to tell me in effect that I either share the blame for David’s punching me in the mouth or am entirely to blame for it myself? Well, the content of my remark was ‘I love the music of Bob Dylan’. David for his part doesn’t like the music of Bob Dylan. I think most people will recognize without the need of further urging on my part that, contrary to what Sam says, I didn’t have it coming, David is entirely to blame for punching me in the mouth and I, accordingly, am not to blame in any way at all. If, on the other hand, my remark was not about Bob Dylan’s music, but was a deeply offensive comment about David’s mother, then without troubling to weight the respective shares of blame here, I’d say it would have been reasonable for Sam to tell me that I must bear some of it.

What this tells me is, primarily, how difficult it is to construct a really good thought-experiment. I have never been punched in the mouth, I’m happy to say. I did, however, once go to Spain with a friend; after travelling together for a week or so we split up in Madrid one morning, both agreeing it was best, and returned home separately. We hadn’t come to blows, but we parted on very bad terms. The immediate cause of our separation was an acrimonious argument about the lyrics of the songs “Tangled up in blue” and “If you see her, say hello”. (Twenty years later, I’m absurdly gratified to find, courtesy of bobdylan.com, that I was right! Ha!)

So it seems to me that, in the right circumstances, “I love the music of Bob Dylan” could be a grossly provocative statement. Moving away from one-line utterances, to think in terms of actions and their consequences, makes it harder to come up with a definitively ‘innocent’ intervention. Confining ourselves to political interventions – attempts to alter the balance of power or the distribution of resources, favouring one group or another – makes it harder still. (And confining ourselves to the category of political interventions known as ‘wars of invasion’… but enough already.) True, jihadist terrorism didn’t start with Iraq; its motivations range from the religious deficiencies of the house of Saud to the existence of Spanish rule over Andalusia. But the war has created – and continues to create – grievances which can be channelled into support for the jihadist world-view.

To borrow a bit of sociological jargon, it’s a question of frame-bridging: gaining adherents to one set of beliefs (or ‘frames’) by stressing how much they have in common with another set. Blair seems to realise that some such process is going on, although he doesn’t seem to realise (or admit) that taking Britain into the Iraq war made it eminently foreseeable. More to the point, he doesn’t show much sign of realising that the best way to counter frame-bridging is to do it yourself. You certainly don’t deal with it by telling everyone responsible to stop it at once (“I am sorry, we are not having any of this nonsense”). If there is anything that people need to be “going into the communities” and saying, it’s more along the lines of “Yeah, sure, Britain needs to get out of Iraq – but restore the Caliphate, are you crazy? And blowing people up – that’s just sick.”

I don’t know if anything like that is happening right now, but I hope it is. I think it’s our best hope for peace and reconciliation. If it’s not happening – if the government and its friends are succeeding in their attempt to equate opposition to the war with support for terrorism, opposition to the jihadists with support for New Labour – then I’m afraid that things can only get even worse.

Where are they hiding?

[Some edits and additions in response to Robert's comments, 26/6 and 27/6]

In 1997 Francesco Cossiga was interviewed for a book called Una sparatoria tranquilla (mentioned back here). Cossiga was one of the leading figures of Italy’s old establishment – a former President of the Republic, a former Minister of the Interior, an unapologetic defender of the covert anti-Communist Gladio network. The interesting thing about this interview was the identity of the interviewer: Francesco Piccioni, a former member of the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades).

The BR were a left-wing ‘armed struggle’ group – one of 40 or 50 groups which flourished in Italy in the 1970s. The BR were the largest and longest-lived of all the groups. Between 1970 and the mid-eighties, over 900 people were arrested and charged with BR membership; more conservative estimates suggest that around 400 people were members of the group at some point, half of them joining in the group’s peak years of 1978 and 1979. The armed struggle ‘scene’ as a whole was much bigger than the BR – groups other than the BR carried out around 3,000 actions in total, as compared with the BR’s total of 500. But the BR were much bigger than any other single group: few of the others lasted as long as five years, or had as many as a hundred members. Discounting a penumbra of sympathisers and supporters, the people directly responsible for the Italian left-wing ‘terrorism’ of the 1970s numbered, in all probability, no more than 2,000. And that was a huge scene by contemporary standards: far beyond anything dreamed of by the RAF in West Germany, the Weather Underground in the USA or our very own Angries.

Bearing in mind the actions carried out by the BR over the years – notably 58 murders, including the ‘execution’ of the kidnapped Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro and the slaughter of his bodyguards – it’s interesting to read what Francesco (Cossiga) said to Francesco (Piccioni).

“The great semantic trick which we all carried out was calling you ‘terrorists’ – I thought about this later – because calling you ‘terrorists’ kept us from realising what you were. I understood this later, because I was trying to understand Moro’s attitude. What led me to think of you, historically and ideologically, as a subversive phenomenon rather than as terrorist, was the interest and curiosity which Moro demonstrated in his letters [from captivity] – a curiosity which he wouldn’t have shown for a gang of people who planted bombs and that was that. And, in fact, you didn’t plant bombs.”
[Piccioni: "Never."]
“Terrorists plant bombs in cinemas. This was something else. Your operating methods were precisely those of partisan warfare. If I’d said something like this at the time… Who taught you those things?”
[Piccioni: "Books, and a few veterans."]

Cossiga’s argument suggests that ‘terrorism’ has – or at least can have – a specific meaning. We can start by defining ‘terror’ tactics as the use of personal violence against non-specific targets, with the immediate goal of causing panic and alarm. If one person mounts a ‘terror’ attack, they’re going on a rampage, going berserk or wendigo. If a mob uses terror, it’s a pogrom. If armed forces use terror, it’s either warfare or a war crime, depending on who the targets are. Finally, if an organised group of non-state actors uses terror, it’s terrorism. Whether a group, rather than its individual actions, can be described as ‘terrorist’ depends on how consistently it uses terror. Neo-fascist groups in Italy and Spain can reasonably be described as ‘terrorist'; the record of the IRA, for example, is more mixed.

On the other hand, if an armed struggle group targets buildings rather than people, or if personal violence targets selected individual enemies, linguistic precision alone suggests that something other than ‘terrorism’ is going on. This is where I part company with Robert’s proposed definition of terrorism as “the extension of the rules of battle beyond what is normally thought to be a battlefield … expanding the spaces of violence, so that we are combatants in places we had never thought we would be, something which would obviously be terrifying”. Irregular and guerrilla warfare has precisely these characteristics; indeed, Robert’s formulation recalls the words of Senza Tregua (“No Quarter”), a hagiographic history of an early Partisan group which was very popular in certain circles in the early 1970s:

[these were] groups of patriots who never gave quarter to the enemy: they struck him at all times, in all circumstances, day and night, in the streets of the city and in the heart of his fortresses

But I’d argue that these attacks (unlike the German reprisals which often followed) were too precisely focused to qualify as terror.

Having said all of which, the invocation of ‘terrorism’ is also a value judgment and hence a rhetorical move: ‘guerrillas’ may be people engaged in politics by other means, but ‘terrorists’ are evil people dedicated to causing destruction. An ‘armed struggle’ militant can, in theory, be negotiated with; a ‘terrorist’ must be defeated. Treating the BR as terrorists made it easier for the Italian state to crush them, but – Cossiga suggests – at the cost of failing to understand them. What was obscured by the ‘terrorist’ labelling is suggested by Cossiga’s reference to partisan warfare – a live reference point in Italy in the 1970s, as we have seen. Cossiga’s contrast between the BR and a mere ‘gang of people who planted bombs’ also suggests a question of scale: a nihilist gang of terrorist bombers could not have had the roots the BR drew on, or drawn in so many people, or lasted so long. This isn’t to say that the BR was engaged in Partisan warfare in any real sense – although a large part of the appeal which enabled the group to enlist so many people and survive so long did derive from its orchestration of Partisan themes and memories. But Cossiga, in 1997, was right: the term ‘terrorist’ alone wasn’t adequate. Something was going on there, and he didn’t know what it was.

In the ghastly American Enterprise (via Alex), I’ve just read this:

Contrary to the impression given by most newspaper headlines, the United States has won the day in Iraq. In 2004, our military fought fierce battles in Najaf, Fallujah, and Sadr City. Many thousands of terrorists were killed, with comparatively little collateral damage. As examples of the very hardest sorts of urban combat, these will go down in history as smashing U.S. victories.

Yes, that is what he said:

Many thousands of terrorists were killed

I don’t know what it does to the enemy, but by God the American Enterprise frightens me. My first thought, on reading that passage, was that something had gone very, very wrong for those words to be put together at all: I’m not sure there have ever been “many thousands” of non-state political actors devoted to creating panic through indiscriminate killing. Then I wondered if ‘terrorist’ was becoming a working public synonym for Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer (discussed recently by Slavoj Zizek in the LRB). On this reading the definition of ‘terrorist’ would be functional: the point is not that a ‘terrorist’ is someone who carries out certain acts, but that anyone who is a ‘terrorist’ is excluded from society and can be killed with impunity. But many thousands of them…

Something is going on there, and they don’t know what it is. But they’re prepared to go on killing people until it stops.

Just us

The idea of a ‘just war’ has been around for a long time – since the fifth century, in fact, when it was formulated by St Augustine. One of the key criteria in judging whether a particular conflict can be considered ‘just’ is that war is not waged lightly: it has to be a ‘last resort’. It can be tricky to tell when you’ve reached the ‘last resort’, or the last of anything; you could easily jump too soon, or else wait too long and miss it altogether. Think of Father Ted, urging himself to confront the odious Father Fintan Stack and simultaneously rationalising his failure to do so before: “No, this is definitely the last straw. I thought that was the last straw, but obviously I was mistaken. This now, this is positively the last… bit of straw… left… in the thing, what I’m saying is there is no more straw!”

Of course, problems like this are what we have philosophers for. Michael Walzer is an international authority on ‘just war’ theory; a collection of his writings was recently reviewed by Corey Robin in the LRB. Here’s a slice:

Walzer wrestles with terrorists who claim that they are using violence as a last resort and antiwar activists who claim that governments should go to war only as a last resort. Walzer is equally dubious about both claims. But far from revealing a dogged consistency, his scepticism about the ‘last resort’ suggests a double standard. … Walzer refuses to accept the terrorist’s ‘last resort’ while he is ready to lend credence to the government’s, or at least is ready to challenge critics of the government who insist that war truly be a last resort.

Here’s Walzer, at greater length, on terrorists and the last resort; the essay, reprinted in the collection Robin reviewed, can also be found in a 2001 issue of the American Prospect.

In parts of the European and American left, there has long existed a political culture of excuses focused defensively on one or another of the older terrorist organizations: the IRA, FLN, PLO, and so on.
[...]
The first excuse is that terror is a last resort. The image is of oppressed and embittered people who have run out of options. They have tried every legitimate form of political action, exhausted every possibility, failed everywhere, until no alternative remains but the evil of terrorism. They must be terrorists or do nothing at all. The easy response is that, given this description, they should do nothing at all. But that doesn’t engage the excuse.It is not so easy to reach the last resort. To get there, one must indeed try everything (which is a lot of things) – and not just once, as if a political party or movement might organize a single demonstration, fail to win immediate victory, and claim that it is now justified in moving on to murder. Politics is an art of repetition. Activists learn by doing the same thing over and over again. It is by no means clear when they run out of options.
[...]
“Last resort” has only a notional finality. The resort to terror is not last in an actual series of actions; it is last only for the sake of the excuse. Actually, most terrorists recommend terror as a first resort; they are for it from the beginning.

And here’s Walzer on ‘just war’, adopting a very different position – although, oddly, the rhetoric doesn’t change that much. He wrote in 2003:

We say of war that it is the “last resort” because of the unpredictable, unexpected, unintended, and unavoidable horrors that it regularly brings. In fact, war isn’t the last resort, for “lastness” is a metaphysical condition, which is never actually reached in real life: it is always possible to do something else, or to do it again, before doing whatever it is that comes last. The notion of lastness is cautionary – but this is a necessary caution: look hard for alternatives before you “let loose the dogs of war.”

The distortions and elisions in Walzer’s arguments are striking, and sometimes strikingly obvious. Take that (unchallenged) ‘easy response’ in the first paragraph quoted: even if we have tried every legitimate form of political action, exhausted every possibility, failed everywhere, it is better to do nothing at all than to take up arms. This is an extraordinary failure of imaginative engagement on Walzer’s part, which must put us on our guard relative to the arguments that follows.

Walzer also plays fast and loose with the key word ‘last’. When he’s dealing with terrorists, his argument is rigid and mechanistic: by implication, each individual group must try everything … and not just once before non-violent forms of action can be discarded. This seems counter-intuitive, to put it mildly. Let’s say that we’re in El Salvador in the early 1980s, and a local trade union organiser has just been murdered by a right-wing death squad. What’s our advice to other trade unionists – learn by doing the same thing over and over again?

When Walzer is dealing with regular armies, ‘last’ means something quite different. In fact [sic], war isn’t the last resort … The notion of lastness is cautionary. ‘Last’, in other words, means… what? ‘Worst’? But if starting a war is not merely an undesirable course of action but the worst option (which seems like a reasonable position), the distinction Walzer is trying to make dissolves. To say that something is the worst option is precisely to say – if you’ll excuse the pedantry – that it’s the last course of action one should resort to. Presumably ‘last’ here means no more than ‘quite bad’.

These two opposed redefinitions of ‘last’ meet oddly in a formulation from that 1992 essay:

we can never reach lastness, or we can never know when we have reached it. There is always something else to do: another diplomatic note, another United Nations resolution, another meeting.

One must indeed try everything … and not just once. One must go to the UN Security Council, and not just once; one must sit through yet another meeting. Or rather, one mustn’t: just because it’s called the last resort, that doesn’t mean you’ve actually got to try it last.

Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, Walzer slips all too easily from discussing an argument from principle to challenging the good faith of those who invoke it: Actually, most terrorists recommend terror as a first resort. Well, one activist’s lifetime of experience is another’s starting point (unless every one of us needs to try everything … and not just once); it’s not hard to imagine situations in which a ‘last resort’ is the only resort. Besides – ‘most terrorists’? Has Walzer run a survey among veterans of armed struggle groups or analysed the copious literature these groups tend to produce? I suspect that this is a starting point rather than a conclusion: what purports to be a critique of ‘most terrorists’ is actually a statement about how Walzer imagines these groups to be, based on his antipathy to them. (Tellingly, Walzer describes the positions he’s attacking not as arguments but as excuses.)

Walzer detects bad faith in peaceniks as well as terrorists – always with another diplomatic note, another United Nations resolution… He made the point more bluntly in 2004, in his contribution to a Radio 4 discussion programme:

Last resort is a metaphysical term. You never reach lastness, there’s always something you could do. If there is a massacre going on in Rwanda, the crucial thing is to stop it. As we saw, there were lots of things to do — or to pretend to do — in the face of the Rwandan massacre, but the use of force was, I think, the just response; and just because if we were interested in stopping the murders, there was no alternative.

there were lots of things to do — or to pretend to do. Terrorists lie – they talk about principle, but they just want to be violent. Peaceniks lie – they talk about principle, but they just want governments to be non-violent. The fact of it is, Walzer says – the philosophical fact of it is – that governments can cut ethical corners and may use violence, whereas citizens must act ethically and must not use violence. Because… because that’s how it is.

Comments made on the same Radio 4 programme by Vaughan Lowe, a professor of international law, show just how dangerous this idea is.

I think the general population is quite rightly concerned not simply with the question whether it’s lawful or not, but whether it’s right. And it’s certainly not the case that every lawful action is morally defensible. And I think that’s what they’re trying to get at when they talk about just war. They’re saying more than that it’s technically lawful. They’re saying it’s a good idea. And I think that people think that answering the legal question excuses them from answering the moral question and that they think it’s enough to concentrate on that. And I absolutely agree—the ultimately critical issue is the moral one: is it justified to use force or not?

Both Walzer’s readings of ‘just war’ theory are concerned with this three-way connection between legality, justice and violence, but they articulate it in very different ways. For Walzer I – Walzer on terrorism – a course of action can only be just if it is also legal, which necessarily precludes violence. Activists learn by doing the same thing over and over again. It is by no means clear when they run out of options. If armed struggle is unjust unless it is the ‘last resort’, armed struggle can never realistically be just. (Even if activists do run out of options for legal activity, they should react to this setback by doing nothing at all.)

For Walzer II – Walzer on war – “lastness” is a metaphysical condition, which is never actually reached in real life. If war is unjust unless it is the ‘last resort’, war can never realistically be just; in a 1992 essay Walzer wrote that the upshot of the ‘last resort’ argument was to make war “morally impossible”. But Walzer is convinced that ‘just war’ is possible, which means that war cannot literally be the ‘last resort’. The circle is squared by divorcing justice from legality (which, in the case of international law, can only finally be determined by doing the same thing over and over again up at the UN). For Walzer II, the justice of a just war is an intrinsic property – and if there is a conflict between justice and the procedural minutiae of legality, justice takes precedence, in principle just as it does in practice.

As Lowe hints, Goldsmith’s legal advice on the Iraq war was, in effect, “It may not be a just war but it’s technically legal.” Under criticism, Blair has opted decisively for the opposite position – “It may not be technically legal, but it’s a just war.” Walzer I wouldn’t tolerate this type of argument for a second; Walzer II endorses it wholeheartedly. The result is that his arguments cease to be intolerable to the advocates of actually existing ‘just war’, at the cost of becoming dispensable. As David Gordon comments: “Walzer mocked overly rigid just-war thinkers: if one makes the standards for resort to war too demanding, those in power will not listen. … But the upshot of Walzer’s slippery standards is that policymakers will pay him no heed either.”

The yawning inconsistency between Walzer I and Walzer II – and, I would argue, the equal and opposite dodginess of both positions – highlights the limitations of the terms involved (what does last mean, after all?) A more nuanced – and hopefully more consistent – position might start from one of Roy Bhaskar’s more lucid observations. We live in a complex, enduringly structured and meaningful social world, Bhaskar argues; wherever we go and whatever we do, there will always be a lot of other people out there, whose actions and words will influence us. Consequently, we can never hope to achieve absolute liberation, a leap “into a realm free of determination”; what we can hope to do is move “from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”.

Which brings us, indirectly, back to the ‘last resort’. Suppose that people and nations determine one another’s actions; suppose that some of these ‘determinations’ are acceptable and others not. The ‘last resort’ is then the point at which ‘unneeded, unwanted and oppressive’ determinations cannot be removed or alleviated, other than by force or the threat of force.

Where individuals are concerned, the question is whether there are groups whose ‘determinations’ I regard as malign; whose freedom to infringe on my freedom of action I would therefore like to see restricted; and to whom I don’t have any reasonable means of communicating this preference, short of the use or threat of force. I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a street-fighting man, but I can think of several candidates without pausing for breath. A bridge in Manchester which I used to pass regularly bore the graffiti “KILL NAZI SCUM”. As I say, I’m not a violent type, and death to me is quite a big deal, but I found it very hard to see that message as anything other than a public service. The message I would like to get across doesn’t involve death – it’s more along the lines of “SEVERELY DEMORALISE NAZI SCUM” or “NAZI SCUM ARE UNWELCOME VISITORS TO THIS AREA” – but I can’t help feeling that these messages were conveyed more effectively by the graffiti as it stood.

In the semi-imaginary land of international relations, on the other hand, it is not clear to me that the last resort is ever reached, unless the offending nation is either initiating a war or attempting to provoke the other into doing so. This suggests that the ‘last resort’ is always a defence against aggression – for otherwise it would always [be] possible to do something else, or to do it again – and hence that there is no such thing as a just war of aggression.

But in that case the Iraq war would not have been a just war. And we know in advance that that conclusion is intolerable (if one makes the standards for resort to war too demanding, those in power will not listen). And if Iraq was right, the model must be wrong. Simple.

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