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.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted 27 July 2011 at 12:58 | Permalink | Reply

    Is Gramsci really saying, in the final two paragraphs of ‘War is War’, that the answer to fascist violence is massive retaliation in kind?

    • Phil
      Posted 29 July 2011 at 23:43 | Permalink | Reply

      I don’t think he was and I don’t think I said he was. Could you restate that in a bit more detail?

      • Posted 30 July 2011 at 09:24 | Permalink

        Sorry, I didn’t mean to suggest that you were saying Gramsci was saying that. What I should have said was: Phil, you can read Italian, and I can’t, and you know the context a lot better than I do.

        Gramsci writes: ‘Mortal danger to whoever touches the Chamber of Labour, mortal danger to whoever encourages and promotes the work of destruction! A hundred for one. All the houses of the industrialists and businessmen cannot save the casa del popolo, [house of the people], because the people loses everything if it loses its house.
        […]
        A militant of the working class who has to pass into the next world, must have a first-class accompaniment on his journey. If fire dyes red the patch of sky over one street, the city must be provided with many braziers to warm the women and children of the workers who have gone to war.’

        The second-last sentence is coded but unambiguous, and the last sentence might seem to allude to the burning of one casa del popolo being answered by the burning of the villas of the industrialists who were backing the fascists.

        Or am I reading this wrong?

      • Posted 30 July 2011 at 11:01 | Permalink

        Much respect to Quintin Hoare, but the translation doesn’t touch the original – that’s some beautiful writing.

        Massive retaliation? Now I look at it, I think that *is* what he’s talking about – he’s certainly talking about taking the retaliation up the chain of command, to the bourgeoisie rather than the Fascists themselves. You could say that he was trying to make the workers battle-ready for deterrent purposes – as I was saying in the previous post, you don’t deter people by saying “We want to deter you”. But on the face of it he does seem to be, retrospectively, on the wrong side of arguments about squaddism & “1919ism”.

  2. Alex
    Posted 28 July 2011 at 04:15 | Permalink | Reply

    Hmm, I’m not sure I quite agree. I think what matters is firstly important people in society – politicians, journalists, other prominent individuals.

    Then, I don’t believe this should be narrowed down to “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”. That’s too specific. I think what matters is this:

    Do these individuals in society who have influence provide evidence for their political assertions? Do they make sincere attempts to base their voiced/written opinions on reality? Or are they simply making huge rhetorical, Unspeaky smears? Does all of this seem like a long term project for them, or have they written just 1/2 articles on the subject? Do they even seem to care what message readers may go away with?

    People with influence have a responsibility to make sure they get their facts right. Clearly no-one can be right 100% of the time, but they can be responsible for how they go about things. If they don’t, then the result could be “pogroms”, or assassinations, or suicides (I’m thinking gay teenagers here), or many other possibilities – the result doesn’t have to be violent or involve death, just that the result be *bad* from a reasonable perspective.

    So yes, influential people should mind their language (and here we can also link this sort of thing to the use of words like “slut” and people trying to get people to say them less/reclaim them) because of the consequences of what some idiot will do with them.

    But there’s another reason – people shouldn’t use the rhetorical tactics mentioned above simply because they are good standards for public debate. No-one should respond to a debate about, say race, and start bandying about terms like “political correctness”, or churn out reams of crap with no basis in reality. It’s simply good civic practice when you’re in the public sphere.

    (Also, wasn’t the “anarchist mad bomber tendency” exaggerated?)

  3. Alex
    Posted 28 July 2011 at 04:19 | Permalink | Reply

    I think I missed a few negatives:

    “they areN’T good standards for public debate”

    and:

    “It’s simply NOT good civic practice”

2 Trackbacks

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