Category Archives: anti-imperialist

The most cruel

Growing up in the 1970s, it’s hard to overstate how important the cause of Chile was. 11th September 1973 was, I suppose, a “naked lunch” moment – a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork; we knew who was on whose side, and what they were willing to do.

Joan Jara:

on the 18th of September … a young man came to my house, said, “Please, I need to talk to you. I’m a friend. I’ve been working in the city morgue. I’m afraid to tell you that Victor’s body has been recognized,” because it was a well-known — his was a well-known face. And he said, “You must come with me and claim his body; otherwise, they will put him in a common grave, and he will disappear.”

So then I accompanied this young man to the city morgue. We entered by a side entrance. I saw the hundreds of bodies, literally hundreds of bodies, that were high piled up in what was actually the parking place, I think, of the morgue. And I had to look for Victor’s body among a long line in the offices of the city morgue, recognized him. I saw what had happened to him. I saw the bullet wounds. I saw the state of his body.

And I consider myself one of the lucky ones, in the sense that I had to face at that moment what had happened to Victor, and I could give my testimony with all the force of what I felt in that moment, and not that horror, which is much worse, of never knowing what happened to your loved one, as what happened to so many families, so many women, who have spent these 40 years looking for their loved ones who were made to disappear.

But the real significance of 11th September wasn’t the treachery or the horrors of the coup itself, or the years of brutal misery that followed. The coup mattered because of what it destroyed: the beginnings of a radical social experiment, bringing millions of people a chance of a decent life, some power over their own lives, a bit of confidence in the future. The sheer joy of that period has never been captured better than in this song (which I’ve cited before but not linked). Listen to the middle eight – it’s as if Victor Jara’s saying, you get it now? being alive is good, being in love is great, but this – this is happiness! this is how we were meant to live!

Forty years after that hope was destroyed, let’s celebrate it. (Translation in comments.)

Maria,
abre la ventana
y deja que el sol alumbre
por todos los rincones
de tu casa.

Maria,
mira hacia fuera
nuestra vida no ha sido hecha
para rodearla de sombras
y tristezas.

Maria, ya ves
no basta nacer, crecer, amar,
para encontrar la felicidad.

Pasó lo mas cruel,
ahora tus ojos se llenan de luz
y tus manos de miel

Maria…

Tu risa brota como la mañana,
brota en el jardín
Maria…

Go! Goodbye!

“In the name of God the merciful, the compassionate, citizens, during these very difficult circumstances Egypt is going through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down from the office of president of the republic and has charged the high council of the armed forces to administer the affairs of the country. May God help everybody.”
- Omar Suleiman, 16:12 GMT, 11/2/2011

You can no longer depend on the land in which you were born.
You can no longer depend on any land in which you choose to place yourself.
You can no longer depend on the bed in which you lie by night, or the room in which you sit by day.
You can no longer depend on the pillow on which you lay your head.
You can no longer depend on your lover for anything.
You can no longer depend on the existence of silence in your mind when you close your eyes.
Go to England, baby-raper, false economist! Call yourself King Charles III.
Nobody will notice. Nobody will be alarmed. There is no constitution.
Go! Goodbye!
Goodbye.

They’ve done it; they’ve actually done it. It took eighteen days, but they’ve done it.

The significance of Mubarak stepping down as President today cannot be overstated. It marks the arrival onto the stage of history the Arab masses as an actor rather than the passive and infantilised observers they had been for generations. The stranglehold of dictatorship has been broken from below.

The Arab world shall never be the same. The remaining dictatorships and kleptocracies throughout the region have just moved closer to their end. In Washington, London, Paris, and Tel Aviv frantic efforts to adapt to a new reality will be taking place.
John Wight, Socialist Unity

You know something big has happened – or is starting to happen – when you get that sense that the power holders of the world are running to keep up. Something’s happening here, but they don’t know what it is…

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Of course, what comes next is anybody’s guess, and it certainly won’t be the triumph of a movement of generalised occupation and the establishment of workers’ councils (which some of us were hoping for). This is where the real struggle starts. But that’s precisely the victory that’s been won: after 30 years of imperialist-imposed stasis, the people of Egypt have won the right to fight their own battles. A clock that was stopped half a lifetime ago has started again. This, perhaps, is why the Eastern Bloc parallels seem so appropriate. Here’s another, from 1989.

Nagy Imre, 1896 – 1958

These are the hard times. Not the remembered days
Of tanks in the streets and firing in the square;
When today was torn off from yesterday, when
The light of the day was broken, swept aside,
Reduced to painful breaths in a doorway
As the achieved future rolls on past you;
Not hearing your ruler confess imaginary crimes,
Starved in tie and glasses; sentenced; shot;
Buried under earth and a number. Now,
Thirty-one, thirty-three years on – these are the hard times.

For their future is over, and you are still here.
All that we do is watch, but we have watched
While their history moved on, while the decades
Ground into place, slabs across our memories.
It wasn’t enough – thirty-one years, thirty-three -
And they are tired and their future is over,
And people whose children lie in the empty coffin
Are still here. The present begins again for you
As we still watch. And these are the hard times.

Husni Mubarak’s future is over – the future so many people wanted to prolong, from the government of Israel to Tony Blair. The people he oppressed are still here. These are the hard times, right enough – but now is a time for celebration.

A gift from the Queen

Drink to the men who protect you and I!
Drink! Drink! Drain your glass! Raise your glass high!

I’ve lived through several Remembrance Days, you may not be surprised to learn, and for most of those I’ve refused to wear a poppy. (And it did feel – and continues to feel – like a refusal, not a free choice.) Initially this was because I felt I was being asked to endorse Britain’s role in the Falklands conflict and the Irish war: both the British Legion and the government seemed actively to encourage a blurring of the line between the dead in the World Wars and the very different Fallen of the 1980s, which I thought was pernicious. Still, for a few years in the relatively peaceful 1990s I did wear a poppy on November 11th, with the Second World War and more particularly the defeat of Fascism in mind. But for several years now we’ve been back in a period of imperialist war, and I prefer not to celebrate it. I do mourn the dead – including the British dead – but for me they’re dead in a cause that’s pointless at best, barbaric at worst; and you can’t get a poppy with “End this slaughter now” written around the outside.

On the topic of poppies and neutrality Owen is impressively logical:

The red poppy, as the white poppy-producing Peace Pledge Union points out, occupies something of a privileged position among emblems of charitable causes. If you’re a police officer or a TV presenter for the BBC, you’re not allowed to wear a wristband, coloured ribbon or any other kind of symbol that shows your support for a charitable or political cause, and especially not a white poppy, but red poppies, and red poppies alone, are fine.

There are two possible justifications for this that I can see: one is that the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal is neutral in a way that other charitable causes aren’t; the other is that the Poppy Appeal is, out of all the charitable causes in the world, a uniquely commendable cause.

Neutral?

all charities are legally required to be politically neutral, but if you can’t wear an AIDS ribbon or a Livestrong wristband on the BBC then clearly that kind of neutrality isn’t sufficient. But the Royal British Legion clearly doesn’t meet this requirement; the Poppy Appeal is manifestly not even politically neutral; every year the RBL creates ‘Fields of Remembrance’ which are intended as a “tribute to the memory of ex-Service men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their country.” This year there will be one at Wootton Bassett, where the bodies of members of the armed forces killed in Afghanistan are brought. This implies that every British serviceman or woman killed in the line of duty, in every conflict the UK has been involved in between WWI and the present day, was a necessary price to pay to safeguard our national security. Regardless of whether you believe this to be true or not, it’s quite clearly not a politically neutral position.

And as for whether the Poppy Appeal is uniquely worthy of our support – well, why would it be?

I’m sure the justification most people would give, if asked, would be something about the fact that servicemen and women put themselves in the line of fire to make the rest of us safer

– but this brings us straight back to the assumption about “all conflicts which the UK has been involved in being justifiable on national security grounds”, which is awfully hard to demonstrate with regard to (say) Suez, or the Malayan insurgency (Britain was agin it, in quite a real and tangible way).

The logic is impressive, but I think Owen misses a couple of obvious counter-arguments – one which I’ve already touched on, and one which Will sums up:

Wearing a poppy is quite a unique thing. There aren’t many ways that the British are able to symbolise a positive relationship to nation without descending to nationalism, to recognise the honour of the military without veering into militarism. It also has a beautiful ambiguity. It may represent something very patriotic and proud, or a form of pacifism. It needn’t mourn the dead of any particular war or even any particular nation. It may even represent mourning for the horrors of the twentieth century more generally. It’s not irrelevant that most of those who have died in war over the last 100 years did not go into the military as a career, but were dragged into hellish territorial disputes. Some people might feel particularly moved by those conscripts, others won’t. These various ambiguities allow people to congregate symbolically without being defined symbolically.

The poppy is about “a positive relationship to nation” and “the honour of the military”. It celebrates membership of a nation state with armed forces, with all the ambiguities and differences of emphasis which that allows: for different people, the same symbol can commemorate an imperialist adventure carried out by professional soldiers and a continent-wide war to defeat Fascism waged by a mass army of conscripts. But these different forms of commemoration remain within the framework of the nation-state: my 1990s anti-Fascist poppies were, precisely, celebrating the role of the British Army in licking Hitler.

This is why it’s beside the point to point out that very few people actually believe that every British serviceman or woman killed in the line of duty, in every conflict the UK has been involved in between WWI and the present day, was a necessary price to pay to safeguard our national security – and that anyone putting forward this hyper-militarised view of the world would scarcely qualify as “politically neutral”. The implicit argument here is not that the nation-state is neutral with regard to politics, but that it’s prior to politics: the British state, and the armed forces which underwrite its monopoly of legitimate force, are the precondition of any kind of politics in Britain – and of any kind of public sphere. We are not saluting those who died for no good reason in Iraq or Afghanistan or the Falls Road, but the men who protect you and I. (What we are certainly not doing – and here I entirely agree with Will – is saying that we think being injured is bad and being killed is even worse: an even more pre-political appeal, and one which evacuates the actual poppy ritual of what little politics it still gives houseroom to.)

And it’s because the poppy is a salute to the armed forces – our armed forces – that (coming to my second argument) neither wearing a poppy nor refusing to wear one is a free choice, in the sense that it’s a free choice to wear or not to wear a pink “breast cancer” ribbon or a Help For Heroes wristband. To say that the nation-state is prior to politics – to say that we enjoy British democracy and British liberties – is to say that we, as members of that nation-state, bear allegiance to the ultimate authorities of the state, and the armed forces which are both symbol and last-ditch embodiment of their power over us. (I lived in a Forces town as a child; if nothing else, it leaves you with an abiding respect for the armed forces’ ability to get the job done – whatever the job might be.) And if we bear allegiance, then, once in a while, respect should be paid. Declining to wear a poppy is opting out of allegiance to the state: it’s either an explicit protest or rather distastefully eccentric – after all, why wouldn’t you? (I see this in my children’s reaction to my failure to wear a poppy; I really should make my protest more explicit.) (I’ve never worn a white poppy, incidentally. The white poppy still has an air more of eccentricity about it than protest, perhaps because it says that the wearer wants to join in the ritual of commemoration and yet withdraw from it – like joining a march but insisting on making up your own slogans.)

The danger in all this is that sometimes the most useful thing we can do is not to pay respect to authority – and the time of war may be one of those times. In January this year I was in a pub when a loud and emotional argument broke out between a drunk and a squaddie who was about to ship back out to Afghanistan, where he’d recently seen his best friend killed. He was holding his drink quite well, but he was obviously quite well gone himself. The argument consisted mainly of the squaddie taking exception to everything the drunk said, and trying to shut him up by the drunk man’s usual method of talking over him, very calmly, very loudly and at great length; the drunk responded with the even drunker man’s tactic of carrying on regardless, in the blithe confidence that if he went on talking for long enough everyone in the world would agree with him. It was a fun evening. (I wouldn’t have minded so much, but we were trying to have a singaround at the time.) Anyway, nothing the drunk said upset or offended the squaddie so much as his profession of support and sympathy – “We’re all behind you, mate, we want to get you out of there and get you home safe and sound.” Big mistake. They had a job to do, we were told, and they were going to get it done. Anyone who said different just didn’t understand. There was a job to do, the army had been sent out there to do it and they were going to stay there till the job was done. They had a job on hand, the job was going to get done and they were going to make sure it got done.

From within the armed forces, of course, this is very much how you’d expect the world to look: they’re an instrument of the state and they’re there to get the job done, provided the job involves either weaponry or boots on the ground. The danger of paying respect to our state and our armed forces is that we as citizens buy into this heads-down goal-oriented mindset: theirs not to reason why (why Iraq? why Malaya? why Ireland?), and ours neither. Support the troops, we’re urged – and we’re asked to support them in just the same dogged, unconditional way that they’re told to do their job. But that way, our sympathy for the poor bloody infantry leads us to echo their unquestioning support for the goals they’re asked to achieve – and that’s precisely what we as civilians shouldn’t be doing. They don’t have the luxury of asking whether they should be going where they’re sent, but we do – and we owe it to ourselves to use it.

So: because I don’t think the British nation-state is prior to the politics that matter, in a way that my working-class ancestry decidedly is; and because, while I mourn the loss of life in Britain’s current imperialist adventures, I can’t endorse them; and, above all, because there is a war on, and I believe this is precisely the moment when spaces for debate and dissent most need to be opened up: for all these reasons, I’m not wearing a poppy.

Update A song for today.

Fighting again

Andy draws our attention to this statement by Alex Callinicos (‘for the SWP Central Committee’):

as we put it in our ‘International Perspectives 2005’, ‘if the movements are most advanced in Latin America, the most important front in the struggle against US imperialism is in Iraq.’ It is the resistance in Iraq that is in the process of inflicting the most serious defeat American imperialism has suffered since the Vietnam War. By tying down the Pentagon’s military machine in Iraq, the resistance has made a decisive contribution to creating the space that has allowed the resistance in Latin America to develop and, in the cases of Venezuela and Bolivia, to develop a more explicitly anti-capitalist dynamic. Therefore we believe that the most important single internationalist task of revolutionaries today is to build the international movement against the ‘war on terrorism’. Defeating the Bush administration’s imperialist offensive is critical to the success of every struggle against neoliberalism and capitalism, including those in Venezuela and Bolivia. This is particularly important for revolutionaries in the advanced capitalist world since it gives a task that relates directly to the politics of our own societies rather than merely leave us to cheerlead for Latin American revolutions.

There are three propositions here. Firstly, US imperialism essentially rules the world and will quash any development in the direction of socialism or self-rule, unless it can be challenged by military force. For the anti-capitalist movements of Latin America to develop, they needed political space – and a decisive contribution to creating the space was made by the resistance to the invasion of Iraq, specifically by its success in tying down the Pentagon’s military machine. It follows (secondly) that setbacks to US imperialism – and, specifically, military setbacks – are more important and more worthy of support than any developments in the direction of socialism, since these are only possible on the condition that US imperialism is defeated (or at least tied down). Hence the resistance in Iraq matters more than the anti-capitalist movements of Latin America; they may be more advanced politically, but Iraq is the most important front in the struggle against US imperialism. It follows that building the international movement against the ‘war on terrorism’ is more important than solidarity work with Venezuela (or Bolivia, or anywhere else not currently in a state of war with the US). Thirdly, for us in the advanced capitalist world the anti-imperialist struggle of the Iraqi resistance is especially relevant, since the countries of the advanced capitalist world are, not to put too fine a point on it, doing the damage. This is therefore a task that relates directly to the politics of our own societies rather than mere ‘cheerleading’.

My problem with this analysis starts at the end. To start with, I’m not at all clear what the ‘task’ being proposed actually is. I don’t believe the SWP is advocating the formation of an International Brigade to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Iraqi resistance, or calling for the disruption of the British war effort; I don’t even believe they go so far as to cheerlead for the Iraqi resistance, at least not in material intended for public consumption. If revolutionaries in the advanced capitalist world have any role in the international movement against the ‘war on terrorism’, it seems to consist of a demonstrative withdrawal of support from that war – and we hardly need a revolutionary cadre to do that.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that expressing opposition to the war in Iraq is in fact a contribution to the struggle against US imperialism. Even if this were the case, I’d struggle to see how this would take priority over more positive developments towards socialism. This point relates to Callinicos’s other assertion, that mobilising against the war is a task that relates directly to the politics of our own societies. For that to be the case, this would surely have to be a campaign that resonated with broader social issues and found points of leverage within existing divisions in society. (If you remember the miners’ strike, think how that single issue ramified into areas from gender roles to welfare spending to nuclear power – all of them deeply contentious and all offering a terrain for further mobilisation.) By contrast, almost nobody outside Westminster actually supports the war; this is not in any obvious way a divisive issue, which severely limits its potential for broader mobilisation. (The SWP’s sotto voce endorsement of the Iraqi resistance has the opposite problem, as hardly anyone outside the party agrees with it.)

The point, for the depleted forces of the Left in the advanced capitalist world, has to be what we can actually achieve. The implicit assumption underlying Callinicos’s analysis seems to be that, in ourselves and for ourselves, we can achieve nothing. Globally, the precondition for any advance towards socialism is the military defeat of our own nation and its allies; in the absence of that, every struggle against neoliberalism and capitalism will be doomed. This is politics reimagined as a game of Risk: a nation can only be available for Socialism if it’s not occupied by Imperialism, or if Imperialism has had to send its armies elsewhere. The message for socialists in nations of the Imperialist heartland (such as this one) is simple: don’t you know there’s a war on? Any other demands can and should be suspended for the duration.

I find this a bleak and, effectively, anti-political world view; I find it hard to imagine it being held seriously by anyone who’d recently been involved in a political campaign in this country. Because there is still class conflict in advanced capitalist nations; we may be aristocrats of labour on a world scale, but there are still divisions for socialists to open up, contradictions to exacerbate – and gains to be made. I don’t pretend to know the best or most fruitful approach to doing so, but I am pretty sure it won’t begin with a demand that’s embarrassingly uncontroversial (“Troops out of Iraq”) – or one that’s just plain embarrassing (“Victory to the Iraqi resistance!”).

And start again

From the ‘found while looking for something else’ file.

In May 2003 the Iraq invasion had just been declared complete; nobody knew quite how bad things were going to get. So the chances are that Danish academic Per Mouritsen wasn’t thinking about Iraq when he wrote this:

Peasants of Piemonte or Bretagne did not begin to accept their taxes or respect laws emanating from Rome or Paris before they could see themselves as belonging to a community stretching beyond the nearest villages and as a people with a state of their own. They would only do this when patriotic subjectivities were created by churches and armies – and when given material reasons for citizenship in the shape of schools, hospitals and the opportunity to channel grievances towards a recognisable political centre. The point was recently demonstrated in Eastern Europe. Civil society did not just need liberation from totalitarian states, but also something else and better instead. There must be reasonable and operative laws before people will learn to respect them, working institutions before national solidarity, and rights before anyone would wish to be a citizen. The first step towards civil society is a civil state – difficult as this is. In the absence of such a state or the relatively recent memory of one, instead of citizens there will be alienated individuals, fending for themselves, instead of market capitalism there will be mafia economies, and instead of velvet revolutions there will be more stolen ones

There must be reasonable and operative laws before people will learn to respect them, working institutions before national solidarity, and rights before anyone would wish to be a citizen. The first step towards civil society is a civil state. In other words, you can’t just blow the ‘totalitarian’ lid off a society and assume that peace and democracy will develop of their own accord. To be a citizen is to be a part of social institutions – and if those institutions aren’t there, calling yourself a citizen will mean about as much as calling yourself a constitutional monarchist in China, or a Communist in Cheltenham.

Neither Belgrade nor Sarajevo

Written for the Socialist Society, 1992-3.

At present everyone from Baroness Thatcher to Socialist Outlook seems to agree on the subject of Serbia. Serbia has caused the break-up of Yugoslavia; Serb forces are committing war crimes in Bosnia; Serbia must be punished. Some socialists have put forward a dissenting view. Serbia, the last remnant of Yugoslavia, is a socialist state; the Serbs have legitimate grievances; in any case, Serbia is not solely responsible for the carnage in Bosnia. Through analysis of current events and the history which lies behind them, I intend to show that the “dissenting” arguments are both factually and politically wrong. I shall also examine the main objections to the “consensus” perspective and propose some priorities for the current situation.

Prehistory: Yugoslavia before 1945

The first state called Yugoslavia was created in 1919: a unitary state with strong continuities with the pre-war state of Serbia. Serb domination was pronounced, especially after parliament was suspended in 1929. The Cyrillic alphabet, used by Serbs and not Croats, was imposed throughout the country; the people of Macedonia and Montenegro were renamed as “south Serbs” and “coastal Serbs” respectively. (Compare the Turkish government’s designation of the Kurds as “mountain Turks”).

In 1941 Yugoslavia was invaded by the Axis. A Serbian and a Croatian state were set up. The Independent State of Croatia or NDH, ruled by Ante Pavelic’s clerical-fascist Ustasha forces, is rightly notorious. The Ustashe, who numbered perhaps three hundred in total, were given charge of all the territory inhabited by Croats, including the whole of present-day Bosnia. This territory they undertook to cleanse of non-Croats – Serbs and, secondarily, Jews – by a systematic combination of forcible conversion to Catholicism, expulsion and murder. The extent and ferocity of the Ustasha’s anti-Serbian atrocities shocked observers from the SS; the massacres were halted by the Italian Fascists.

Serbs were the largest nationality among the Partisans, who were organised throughout Yugoslavia and on a multi-ethnic basis. The other main resistance force was a Serbian royalist organisation, the Chetniks; the name was taken from a military corps active before the First World War in the conquest of the province of Kosovo, who were noted for their savagery towards the area’s Albanian population. The Chetniks withdrew from anti-Nazi operations after a reprisals order was issued by Hitler; instead they concentrated their efforts on non-Serbian groups, whom they accused of betraying Serbia. Their targets included the Partisans, against whom they co-operated with the collaborationist State of Serbia and even, in 1942, the Ustasha. The war left a legacy of ethnic bitterness which has never dissipated.

Federal unity, 1945-1987

Post-1945 Yugoslavia was a federation of six republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia) plus the “autonomous provinces” of Vojvodina and Kosovo. The latter were a means of representing national minorities within Serbia. The majority population of Vojvodina is composed of Magyars and Romanians; the Albanians of Kosovo, for their part, were by 1990 the fourth most numerous nationality in the federation. The federal Presidency had eight members, one from each republic or province; the role of President (and hence the casting vote) was rotated annually between the eight.

The internal boundaries of post-war Yugoslavia were drawn so as to favour self-determination for national and sub-national, rather than supra-national (pan-Serb or pan-Croat) groups. State unity would complement national plurality: a double emphasis which served to legitimate both the republican governments and the Communist Party. However, the appeal to ethnicity brought its own problems. Apart from the Slovenes, none of the recognised national groups was confined to one republic, or formed a conclusive majority of the population within it. Both points apply with particular force to Serbia. Of all groups, Serbs were most widely spread through the federation; of all republics, Serbia had the largest number of different national minorities.

“Srbija je ustala”: 1987-1991

Throughout the 1980s Serbian national anxiety mounted, particularly with regard to Kosovo, historically regarded as the “cradle” of the Serbs. Demonstrations demanding republic status for Kosovo were violently suppressed. An open letter issued in 1986 accused Kosovar Albanians of deliberately outbreeding Serbs and alleged “genocide” of Serbs within Kosovo, a claim for which no evidence existed. The letter was signed by members of the Belgrade dissident milieu, including the writer Dobrica Cosic (who was president of the rump federation of Serbia and Montenegro until he was ousted by Milosevic supporters in 1993).

In 1987 Slobodan Milosevic took power within the Serbian Communist Party on an aggressive nationalist programme. The Party and the press were subjected to tight control. In 1989 Milosevic forced the resignation of the Communist Party leaderships of Vojvodina, Kosovo and Montenegro and their replacement by his allies. This manoeuvre represented a redefinition of Serbia along ethnic Serb lines; it also gave Serbia four of the eight votes on the federal presidency. A cult of personality developed around Milosevic, seen as the saviour of the Serbian people.

In 1990 Croatia’s first multi-party elections were won by the main right-wing nationalist force, Franjo Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ). Tudjman called for Croatia to have greater autonomy within the federation. In reaction Serb militias seized control of border areas and cut road links to the rest of Croatia. Croat nationalism had been dormant since a liberal nationalist movement was suppressed by the federal government in the 1970s; now it had revived in response to its Serb mirror image. Misha Glenny witnessed two crowds, one Serb, one Croat, chanting identical slogans. “Serbia has risen”: “Srbija je ustala”. “Croatia has risen”: “Hrvatska je ustala”.

The Milosevic regime had given Serbia a hegemonic position within Yugoslavia and imposed an ethnic Serb definition of Serbia. The rest of the federation was left in little doubt of Milosevic’s ultimate goal: a new Yugoslavia, remade along pan-Serb lines. Milosevic was supported by Serb nationalist forces in Bosnia and Croatia, which were being supplied with weaponry by the Yugoslav Army (JNA). In a vote on secession following Bosnia’s first multi-party elections Bosnian Serb representatives abstained en masse. Throughout the federation, Serb political leaders rejected the authority of any republic but Serbia, while at the same time proclaiming their loyalty to the federal government. It is against this background that the secessions of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and finally Bosnia can be understood.

Independence and war, 1991-

After Croatia’s secession, Croatian Serb militias rebelled once more. Their efforts were now directed less against the centre and more against Croats living in Serb-dominated areas. Local Croat forces responded in kind. At the same time, the Yugoslav Army (JNA) invaded Croatia and Slovenia, ostensibly to preserve the unity of the federation; the main effect was to give JNA firepower to Serb militias in Croatia. The (Croatian) President of Yugoslavia ordered the army to withdraw, to no effect. The four Serbian and Montenegrin members of the federal presidency subsequently expelled the members representing the republics which had seceded – without, however, recognising the secessions.

Local Serb campaigns for ethnic purity and the JNA campaign for national unity rapidly became indistinguishable. Croat as well as Serb militias are active in Bosnia and Croatia, but the two are barely comparable. Unlike the independent republics, which remain subject to a UN arms embargo imposed on the former Yugoslavia, Serb forces have the weaponry of the former JNA at their disposal; the former JNA in Bosnia has even redesignated itself the army of the Bosnian Serbs. Croat forces control a sixth of Bosnia; Serb forces control two-thirds, and a third of Croatia. (It may be worth emphasising that no aggression has taken place within Serbia – at least, none against Serbs). Available evidence suggests that “ethnic cleansing” is being carried out more extensively and systematically by Serb forces than Croats, in Bosnia and Croatia.

Undeniably Croat forces have committed war crimes in Bosnia; undeniably, Serbs in Croatia suffer official and unofficial discrimination – as well as the activities of unofficial nationalist militias. However, the weight of the evidence is clear. Hundreds of thousands have been made homeless, tens of thousands killed, in the war in Bosnia and Croatia. The vast majority of these are accounted for by Serb forces. Pan-Serb nationalists, using the name of Communism, tried to control Yugoslavia and destroyed it in the attempt. In its place they are building a racially-pure Greater Serbia by force of arms and calling it Yugoslavia.

Objections

“But the Serbs are being demonised!”

This is true, but should come as no surprise: as we know, the West periodically sets up a former client as demon of the week. Last year’s “holocaust” allegations against Serb forces, coming after five years of untroubled co-operation with the Milosevic regime, fit this pattern all too well. The “demonisation” argument is politically irrelevant. The task for the Left is not to befriend whichever demon happens to be in the frame, but to analyse the situation on our own terms.

“But these people are fascists!”

Some analysts of the invasion of Croatia depict Croatia as a fascist state. This clearly mandates support for its (appropriate) antagonist, the Stalinist regime of Serbia: for Vukovar read Stalingrad. The picture dissolves on examination. Franjo Tudjman (who held a general’s rank with the Partisans) is an anti-semite and an apologist for the 1941 regime; he leads a clerical-nationalist government, which is unofficially defended by neo-fascist militias. It’s not a pleasant picture, but it’s not fascism.

It’s also not unique. Tudjman’s apologias for a Nazi-installed regime are repugnant, but even views like these are unpleasantly commonplace in the former Soviet states, from Latvia to Romania. Nor are neo-fascist elements on the fringes of government a Croatian speciality: Vojislav Seselj, a Serbian MP and head of a paramilitary force, has proposed solving the “Croatian problem” by cutting the throats of all the Croats. Belgrade routinely accuses the Tudjman government of planning a repeat of 1941, but there is no evidence of this. Discrimination against Serbs in Croatia exists, it is deplorable and it should be stopped. This, though – at a time when a third of Croatia is under armed Serb control – cannot be the only demand which is made.

The conflict in Bosnia has been analysed in similar terms, by tarring Bosnia’s elected government with the brush of Muslim fundamentalism. This story is even more at variance with reality. Although President Alija Izetbegovic advocated an Islamic state twenty years ago, an Islamic state is not what he proposed in 1991 or what the government which he led attempted to set up. Izetbegovic’s Cabinet contains – or contained – representatives of the Serb and Croat communities; his government was based on a parliamentary coalition with, of all groups, the main Serb party. A parliamentary party supported by 44% of the population could hardly do more in the cause of consensus; most parties in that position elsewhere in Europe would do much less. The argument that the Serb and Croat armed campaigns in Bosnia are a legitimate act of resistance to an oppressive government – implicitly endorsed by the Geneva talks, which set Izetbegovic on the same footing as the Bosnian Serb and Croat warlords – is entirely untenable.

As for Serbia’s credentials for representing the enlightened Left against the forces of Islamic and fascist reaction, it should be obvious from the above that these are fairly thin. The argument that state ownership and a one-party monopoly of power indicate a socialist state is dubious at best. The Milosevic programme, combining those elements with a leader cult, territorial expansionism and racial discrimination, has been aptly summed up in the phrase “national socialism”.

Proposals

Arguments against Western intervention of any kind are untenable. Non-intervention, in the current situation, would amount to intervening in support of the status quo. We saw Western “non-intervention” in action in 1991, when recognition of Croatia was being withheld on the grounds that it would “prolong the fighting” – better a quick defeat, presumably. The West is bound to affect the situation; we can at least argue for its influence to be exercised in pursuit of principled goals.

There are four immediate priorities. The most urgent is to restore the territorial integrity of Bosnia and the authority of the Bosnian government. This will entail securing the withdrawal or disarming of the “Bosnian Serb” JNA and any other external forces, Serbian or Croatian. Territorial gains made by force must be treated as illegitimate by the international community and reversed wherever possible – rather than, as in UN-administered Croatia, being effectively ratified. Secondly, Macedonia should be recognised immediately. Thirdly, the arms embargo currently in force against all the former Yugoslav republics should be lifted with regard to Slovenia, Bosnia and Macedonia. Lastly, it should be impressed on Croatia that Western democracies do not look kindly on apologists for fascism – a point which could have been made a bit more often in the past.

The “fragmentation” of the former Yugoslavia is not to be feared. After Tito some evolution of the political situation towards greater national and regional autonomy was inevitable; to the extent that this development takes place peacefully it should be welcomed, in predominantly Serb regions of Croatia as much as in predominantly Albanian regions of Serbia. However, this form of development should not be confused with the politics of armed irredentism and ethnic purity, which has been encouraged on all sides by the Milosevic programme. Self-government, for the former Yugoslav republics and the distinct regions within them, is a positive goal; armed conquest of territory, ethnic exclusivism and attempts to merge with existing nations are not. (The point would hardly be worth making, but for Vance and Owen’s attempt to ratify the latter under the guise of the former). All the nations of the former Yugoslavia should be judged on how far they deliver both regional autonomy and minority representation at national level: a criterion which Bosnia’s elected government meets adequately, Croatia’s poorly and Serbia’s not at all.

As for meeting the grievances of the Serbs, that should be one consequence of following these policies. We do the Serbs no favours by assuming that the only Serb interest is a Greater Serbia. However, any just settlement will inevitably aggrieve pan-Serb nationalists; the only settlement which would assuage their grievances would be a version of the 1919 Yugoslavia, a unitary state with a Serb ruling class. The attempt to restore that state is an enterprise with no political merits, which is doing nothing but harm to the nations of the former Yugoslavia.

List of sources omitted

The Wehrmacht never got in here

Chris has a point:

Whereas Britain pursues overseas expansion, England stays at home. The great statements asserting the rights and the dignity of the ordinary man – and it was the Englishman G.K. Chesterton who said there’s nothing ordinary about the ordinary man – are all English: Magna Carta, the Putney debates, Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard. England is about cultivation, improvement and the assertion of liberty. Britain is about conquest, albeit often in a good cause.England stands for freedom, Britain for conquest. England stands for quiet dignity, Britain for glory. England is grown and natural, Britain is imposed by the ruling class.

Britain, he might have added, is Great (originally to distinguish it from Brittany, the lesser Brétagne, but never mind). By contrast, England is Little.

But being a little Englander has never really been respectable. The spectre of the little Englander haunted last year’s debate over the EU Constitution, and doubtless would have got more of an airing if we’d had a chance to vote on the damn thing. Little England means isolation rather than co-operation, conservatism rather than progress, nationalism rather than federalism: to be a little Englander is to cling to the myth of autarchic national sovereignty in an interdependent world.

At least, it is now. For the original little Englanders – Chesterton among them – the connotations of the stance were quite different. As Patrick Wright wrote in 2005, referring to Chesterton and co-thinkers like Hilaire Belloc:

Their beleaguered “England” was on the side of the people against industrialism, monopoly capitalism and the rules and bureaucrats of what Belloc called “the servile state”. Chesterton and Belloc would join the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in seeking to preserve traditional “thatched” roofs against the big businesses that could spend fortunes pushing synthetic alternatives. Yet if theirs was emphatically a “little England”, this was also because it entailed a strong rejection of British imperialism. Chesterton elaborated on this aspect of his Englishness in an article entitled “On Rudyard Kipling and making the world small”, included in his book Heretics (1905). Here he took issue with the epigram in which Kipling asked “what can they know of England who only England know?” It was, contended Chesterton, “a far deeper and sharper question to ask, ‘What can they know of England who know only the world?’” As an imperial “globe trotter”, Kipling may certainly “know the world; he is a man of the world, with all the narrowness that belongs to those imprisoned in that planet. He knows England as an intelligent English gentleman knows Venice.” Insisting that Kipling’s devotion to England was the outcome not of love but of critical thought, Chesterton values it far less than the “real” (by which he means instinctive and unreflected) patriotism of the Irish or the Boers, whom Kipling had recently “hounded down in South Africa”.This attempt to dissociate “England” from the British empire may indeed sound attractive. Yet it remained a thoroughly defensive definition of Englishness – one that was formulated in bitter awareness that the world was actually moving in the opposite direction. Its anti-imperialism was less a critical engagement with the British empire, than an act of retreat and even denial.

The last point deserves making, just as it’s worth bearing in mind that Chesterton and Belloc were reactionary Conservatives of a fairly high order. But the main point remains: so far from resisting encroachments on British sovereignty from trans-national federalism, the original Little Englanders were against the imposition of British sovereignty on large tracts of the world. It’s almost a 180-degree reversal, with ‘little England’ counterposed to two different ‘Britain’s. What has remained constant is the fact that ‘Britain’ represents a long-term governmental project – and a project which may take precedence over mundane everyday concerns such as the welfare of the people who live here. This, I think, is the heart of Chris’s opposition between ‘England’ and ‘Britain’.

Oddly enough, the original form of the ‘little England’ slur has been making a comeback recently. Here’s Nick Cohen from 2004:

The beneficiary of the great left-wing revolt against Blair has turned out to be the right. The Tories are doing better than they have done for a decade. Voters disillusioned with established politicians are turning to the United Kingdom Independence Party rather than to the left. The reactionary shift should not be a surprise. The only unanswerable anti-war argument was the generally conservative, Little England case that it is no longer in Britain’s interests to tag along behind the United States.

And here’s Nick again from last week:

It is not at all clear that modern, middle-class, liberal-leftists are either liberal or left wing in the old senses of the words, although they will always be middle class to their bones. Many of them are becoming little Englanders, all for human rights and democracy at home but not abroad.

The argument in the first extract isn’t so much constructed as free-associated: to argue that Britain should not take a subordinate role to Bush’s USA is to be a ‘Little Englander’, to be a Little Englander is to be a conservative, ergo the anti-war movement was in some unspecific way stirring up conservatism. (Presumably CND were to blame for Thatcher.) The second extract is more straightforward: if you care about human rights and democracy then you should sign up to the Euston agenda, endorsing Bush and Blair’s strategy of promoting those causes by military force. If you don’t, you’re a little Englander.

The ‘ethical foreign policy’ of our period bears a distinct resemblance to the ‘enlightened imperialism’ of Chesterton’s; once again, we seem to find ourselves between England and Britain. Chris: England is about cultivation, improvement and the assertion of liberty. Britain is about conquest, albeit often in a good cause. On that basis, you can call me English. (And part-Welsh, but that’s another story.)

No sweat at all

I agree with Michel Houellebecq, up to a point.

Atomised became a bestseller at home and abroad. It won the Prix Novembre, though it missed out on the Goncourt. The publication of Platform saw him prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred, after describing Islam as ‘the most idiotic religion’ in a promotional interview. (His exact words were: ‘La religion le plus con, c’est quand même l’Islam.’) He argued that he was entitled to criticise Islam, and that he had never conflated Muslims with Arabs; he was cleared; the book sold 200,000 copies in two weeks.

In any case, Islam’s the shittiest religion of all. Now: consider Islam as a body of ideas about the source, meaning and ultimate purpose of human life, intertwined with a body of practice and ritual, both of which are incarnated in a community of believers. In short, consider Islam as a religion like Christianity. In that perspective, Houellebecq’s acquittal was well-deserved; indeed, in that perspective I don’t see that the remark raises any significant issues. We might disagree with it profoundly; we might see it as hostile and divisive; we might see it as counter-productive to broader political projects with which we sympathise. All of this is beside the point: religions – like other ideologies and bodies of community-based practice – cannot be protected against disrespect, and it’s no kind of radicalism to insist that they should be.

On the other hand: consider Islam as the body of practice and belief which defines a minority community, whose members are born into that community and can no more cease to be members than I can cease to be English (and part-Welsh). In short, consider Islam as a religion like Judaism. If it’s appropriate to consider the Muslim community as a minority ethnicity, then it’s equally appropriate for the state to protect that community’s identity against slurs like Houellebecq’s – and for radicals to protest against its failure to do so, in line with the ruling classes’ eternal divide-and-rule strategy.

I don’t think there’s a right answer to this question, although I do think that for conceptualisations of Islam to develop away from the ethnic perspective and towards the contemporary Christian model would be profoundly desirable. All of which means that we need to make things more complicated and qualified rather then less – even if it means our writing becomes less bracing:

There’s little point in denying that he has some profoundly fascistic tendencies (the biography reveals that he is, or at least was, a committed racist). Like Céline, he’s a right-wing misanthrope who has produced a genuinely perceptive and resonant picture of French society – obscenified and isolating. He’s also a careless writer (in his view the modern world doesn’t deserve anything better). His fiction is often crude and repetitive. His observations, bracing at first, seem specious and grating when repeated, in almost identical form, in novel after novel.

Theo Tait’s conceding too much here. I realise that Damn. braces, but is frankly-expressed racism and misanthropy really bracing? We’re dealing here, I think, with a kind of perverse inversion of the role Richard plays for his readers, and Tim for his: That stuff you read in the paper today? It’s all a load of rubbish. You know what’s really important… In Houellebecq’s case what comes under fire is not so much what you read in the paper as what you think, and the flattery of the reader is rather indirect, but the basic dynamic – a kind of antinomian evangelism – is very similar. Don’t believe them – you know what’s really going on… It’s agitprop, essentially, promoting simplification and blame. (The two go together: if the issues are so clear, why are we told they’re so complex and difficult? Because they‘re idiots, or liars, or idiots unwittingly serving liars, or…) As literature, this kind of thing is contemptible. As political writing it’s not much better.

So I agree with Martin Kettle (up to a point):

Too many haters of capitalism and the United States still cram everything into the frame of untruth and self-deception that says my enemy’s enemy is still my friend because, even if he blows up my family on the tube, murders my colleagues on the bus or threatens to behead me for publishing a drawing, he is still at war with Bush, Blair and Berlusconi.

The all-embracing anti-imperialist mindset is a reality on the Left today; it’s a distraction at best, at worst positively dangerous. Ironically, the alternative perspective Kettle appears to propose – one wiped clean of any allusion to socialism, which has supposedly been proved to be a utopian daydream – is not much of an improvement. Nothing in Kettle’s piece is more revealing than the point when, after discussing his Communist Party background, he refers briefly to ‘other’ socialist currents; these are immediately qualified as ‘democratic and moderate’, i.e. reformist. As a post-war Communist, Kettle comes from a group which identified the revolutionary hopes of socialism with Stalinism – that weird combination of great-power realpolitik, managerialist Gleichschaltung and Fabian gradualism – and systematically denied that any rival claimant to the ‘socialist’ name deserved it. Even now, Kettle seems genuinely unaware of the possibility of being left of Stalin.

There is, in other words, no alternative; faced with the collapse of actually-existing socialism, Leftists must either live a lie or abandon it and embrace the more progressive elements of liberal capitalism. And if the latter course involves finding a home from home on the non-socialist Left, so much the better. (An awful lot of old CPers have ended up with New Labour; I suppose one authoritarian, bureaucratic party that blots out the rest of the Left is as good as another.)

The problem with Michel Houellebecq is less that he’s a racist than that he thinks simplistically and encourages over-simplification in others, erasing qualifications and concealing viable alternatives. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one.

With no fear of attack

Thanks to Talk Politics, I’ve recently read – or at least glanced at – some remarks made by Hugo Chavez, Constitutional President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, on Christmas Eve 2005. Here’s the passage which has excited most comment (my translation).

I became a rebel and I dedicated myself to the true Christ – and this is the true Christ, I have no doubt about it. He is not that idiotic image with a stupid face that you can see in some churches, as if he were an idiot. No, Christ was and is one of the greatest revolutionaries in history and the first socialist of our era – the first socialist, and for that they crucified him.

There is enough water in the world for all of us to have water; there are enough lands, enough natural riches in the world to produce food for the whole population of the world; there is enough stone in the world and enough building materials to ensure that nobody is without a home. The world has enough for everyone, but now a few minorities, the descendants of the people who crucified Jesus, the descendants of the people who threw Bolivar out of here and crucified him in his turn, in Santa Marta over in Colombia… a minority has taken charge of the riches of the world, a minority has taken charge of the world’s gold, silver, minerals, water, good land, oil, all its wealth, and it has concentrated that wealth in a few hands. Less than ten per cent of the world’s population has charge of more than half of the wealth of the whole world. More than half of the world’s people are poor and every day there are more poor people in the world. We, here, are resolved to change history, and every day we are joined and will be joined by more heads of state, presidents and leaders. Look at how the Bolivian people… Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, one of the poorest countries in the world, that republic founded by Bolivar and Sucre, which took the name of our own Bolivar – Bolivia is very rich: minerals, gold, silver, tin, oil and gas, fertile land, great mountains. It’s certainly one of the poorest countries on earth, Bolivia, but the poor are waking up and they’ve just elected an Indian as President of Bolivia, for the first time in history. A true Indian – I’m half Indian, but Evo Morales is an Indian and a half.

I don’t think this is as much of an open-and-shut case as Talk Politics suggests; it may not make much historical sense to blame the Jews for crucifying Jesus, but there are certainly those who do. (Russell Hoban riffs on this in Pilgermann, where his narrator visits an alternative reality in which, in 29 CE, a Roman prophet is executed in one province of a Jewish empire. The Jews still get the blame.) That said, Norm has this flat wrong. This isn’t “the socialism of fools” – just socialism.

(But oh, how convenient it would be for some people if Chavez could be labelled as an anti-semite – not only would it divert attention from the substance of his comments, it would delegitimate him for ever after. We may not have heard the last of this.)

A herd of independent minds

I read Francis Wheen warily, not knowing from paragraph to paragraph whether I’m going to agree or start swearing. I read young Oliver very warily indeed: most of what he writes is drivel and some of it’s repulsive. And I don’t read Aaro at all if I can possibly help it.

Wheen, Kamm, Aaronovitch: it’s an unpromising troika. They’ve come together to launch an attack on the Guardian over Emma Brockes’ silly and slapdash interview with Noam Chomsky (which has been taken down from the Guardian Web site but can still be read at Chomsky’s own site, apparently). More specifically, the trio object to the Guardian‘s apology for the interview; they argue that the apology goes too far in correcting the misleading impression given by the interview, painting Chomsky – and, incidentally, Diana Johnstone – in an unwarrantedly favourable light. They have argued this case in a letter of around 4,500 words to the Guardian‘s Reader’s Editor, who has – understandably – concluded that it raises issues outside his competence.

I haven’t seen the letter, but I believe I’ve read enough about this somewhat quixotic endeavour – primarily on Kamm’s blog – to form a judgment on it. My judgment is that it’s a really positive initiative, which I support wholeheartedly. Chomsky is a tendentious and untrustworthy polemicist, whose partisans react with outrage (and in numbers) to criticism of his arguments – and whose rhetorical skills make it extraordinarily difficult to construct a cogent critique. (For illustration, wade through this page, recommended recently by a Chomsky partisan.) On both counts, it is very much to the credit of Kamm & co that they are making the effort; it’s a lot more than I’d care to do just now.

A little background from 1995:
Milan Rai, Chomsky’s politics (Verso, £10.95)

Review printed in New Statesman and Society, 18/8/1995

Since 1969 Noam Chomsky has been one of the foremost radical critics of US foreign policy. Chomsky assiduously documents both the promotion of US interests around the world and the biases and omissions in subsequent media coverage. The resultant portrait of power, corruption and lies is presented as a rational deduction from objective study: the implication is that the government’s apologists cannot plead either difference of opinion or ignorance, but stand self-convicted of lying in the service of power. This is a serious matter: the mendacity of the “intelligentsia” entrenches the limitations of US political culture, foreclosing the prospects for any kind of political reform. Chomsky himself, by contrast, shoulders the responsibility of intellectuals, which is “to speak the truth and to expose lies”.

Milan Rai’s presentation of Chomsky’s politics is detailed, comprehensive and uncritical. Rai has even emulated Chomsky’s habitual contemptuous dismissals of his opponents: Auberon Waugh is characterised, not very accurately, as a “brainwashed intellectual”. (A larger problem is Rai’s treatment of French classicist Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s writings on Chomsky, who had – for reasons which remain obscure – written a relatively friendly preface to a work by Holocaust revisionist Robert Faurisson; Rai dismisses Vidal-Naquet’s criticisms undiscussed as “falsehoods”). This book is thus a missed opportunity. Notwithstanding the enormous value of Chomsky’s work in setting the record of US foreign policy straight, his political assumptions deserve a more thorough and more critical examination.

US society, for Chomsky, is dominated by the “elites”: a term which refers variously to the state apparatus, big business, journalists and academics. The relationship of the elites to the US population is that of an occupying power to a subject territory: the choice is between resistance to elite power and collaboration. Similar considerations apply to the US elites’ relationship with the rest of the world. Indeed, Chomsky denies any significance to the internal politics of nations affected by US foreign policy: “It’s just the same things in Washington playing themselves out in different parts of the world”. Prior to 1989 arguments of this sort even led Chomsky to disparage criticism of the Soviet Union: “the moral value of this work is at best very slight”.

Elite rule is sustained by the “propaganda system”, whereby intellectuals abjure their truth-telling responsibility in favour of manufacturing consent to the status quo. A nuanced analysis shows the “propaganda model” to be multi-faceted: conformity is produced by the economic interests of media businesses, government requirements, cultural resistance to unorthodox analyses and reluctance to put in the necessary work, as well as – what is more commonly cited in practice – the moral turpitude of journalists. (A more accurate term than “propaganda” might have been “received ideas within the capitalist media”). Chomsky even acknowledges the existence of journalists who “use whatever leeway they have”, without thereby modifying his judgment on the class as a whole. Given this level of over-determination and defence against counter-examples, Chomsky’s finding that the model is “one of the best-confirmed theories in the social sciences” is to be expected.

Unsurprisingly, Chomsky’s arguments are at their weakest with respect to the question of what is to be done. On one hand, intellectual self-defence against elite lies is easy (it only requires “ordinary common sense”); on the other, “it does require a degree of fanaticism”, which explains why so few have followed Chomsky’s lead. Chomsky approves non-participation in US presidential elections (“people are intelligent enough to understand that … they are voting for Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola”); he also advocates voting: “you’ve got to multiply those little differences in policy by the power of the United States.” Tactical considerations are a moral necessity (“if you write, you have a moral responsibility to consider the consequences of what you write”); then again, “you should do what you think is right and not what’s going to be tactically useful”.

This analysis is conducted, despite Chomsky’s stress on objectivity and rationality, in highly polemical terms. Fascism, Stalinism, terrorism are constant reference points: the US intelligentsia inhabits an “intellectual culture dedicated to terrorist values and policies”; “Fascism is deeply rooted in everyone’s mind in the United States”. While assertions like these are invariably backed up by meticulously syllogistic arguments, the terminology seems designed to raise the rhetorical stakes: analysis turns into name-calling.

These paradoxes rest on the two convictions which underpin Chomsky’s politics. There is a quasi-anarchist stress on the primacy of power relations: capitalism, Communism and fascism all hinge on the control of society by a bureaucratic or managerial elite (“Bolshevism and American liberalism are basically manifestations of the same thing”). This is a powerful vision which illuminates many real continuities; however, it needs to be qualified in the light of history if it is not to turn into a theory of the uniform and interchangeable evil of the elites. This kind of qualification can seem to elude Chomsky, who has argued that the Nazis were among the true victors of the Second World War.

Equally significant is the view – stated by Rai as an ethical truism – that “we must take responsibility for what our society does”. This stress on duty explains the persistent tone of outrage in Chomsky’s work: as a responsible US citizen and intellectual, Chomsky weighs the actions of the US government and the intellectual class and finds them wanting. If, as the “elite” model dictates, the US government is quasi-fascist and the intellectual class composed of power-worshippers, this only rouses Chomsky to greater moral indignation. The classical radical analysis of the state – as an illegitimate imposition on society for which nobody is responsible but the bastards themselves – is foreign to him.

The final paradox of Chomsky’s work is that, however ill-founded his convictions may be, his Herculean labours “to speak the truth and to expose lies” are inconceivable without them. Chomsky is perhaps best seen as a figure like Orwell or Ruskin, his virtues inseparable from his faults. Like those predecessors, when Chomsky goes wrong, he goes seriously wrong; but when he’s right he’s unsurpassable.
[ends]

The conclusion is kinder than I’d be now, obviously.

PS No, I know he didn’t write it as a preface. He wrote a statement solicited by Serge Thion, a (left-wing) associate of Faurisson, and gave it to Thion with instructions to use it as he saw fit. When he heard that Thion planned to use it as a preface to Faurisson’s work he objected, but too late to prevent it appearing; however, he has subsequently repented the objection. In short, he wrote “a relatively friendly [statement which appears as] a preface to a work by Holocaust revisionist Robert Faurisson [with Chomsky's consent, despite initial objections]“.

PPS On Chomsky, Johnstone and Srebrenica, see Lee Bryant’s comments here and this from Attila Hoare. (Personal to JM – I don’t know why Attila’s writing for them either. Because they asked him, probably.)

Such a waste of energy

Nick Cohen is getting careless. On the Guardian Web site, a recent Cohen column with the uncompromising headline “Face up to the truth” is now prefixed with the following health warning:

The comment piece below was wrong to say that the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was ‘delighted’ at the attack on the World Trade Centre, describing it as ‘a great work of art’. In fact, Stockhausen made a statement to the effect that he believed the devil was still an active force in the world and condemned the attack as ‘Lucifer’s greatest work of art’. Apologies.

And what are we to make of this?

In 1989, the number of sexual offences recorded by the police shot up. … The Home Office’s statisticians took a hard look at their data, and noticed a peculiar increase of 500 in the number of arrests for indecency. Odder still, 350 of the arrests had been made in Slough or, more specifically, in the public conveniences in Slough town centre.In 1988, there had been just six. Within a year, Slough had become the San Francisco of the south, the Sodom of suburbia. The Home Office dug deeper. Its researchers found that one of the local police commanders had firm views on the homosexual question and had ordered handsome PCs to go to the lavatories and arrest any man who tried to seduce them. The purge of Slough’s lavatories sent recorded indecency offences in Britain back towards the highs of the 1950s, when homosexuality was illegal. Until, that is, the policy changed and Thames Valley Police pulled its men out of the cottages.

Slough’s gays carried on cruising, but their assignations were no longer recorded. The crime figures depended on what the police were looking for and what the police counted.

The broader point, in this case, is reasonable – the last sentence is an essential caveat for anyone dealing with crime statistics – but the way Cohen gets there is distinctly questionable.

Here are the figures (from the Home Office Web site):

cohen

Well, yes, there was a spike in 1989, and the figure recorded had only been surpassed in 1954 and 1955. Beyond that, though, Cohen’s account of these figures is alarmingly slipshod. First, a minor but significant point: the figures didn’t go up by 500 between 1988 and 1989, but by over 700. This in itself suggests that Cohen’s story is a little too neat: if Slough’s extra 344 arrests had been added to the 1988 total, the result would have been a spike of 1,650, well above the levels of the mid-eighties but below the levels recorded in 1974, 1975 and 1978. (All together now: The British police are the best in the world…). Second, the law. Cohen’s reference to “the 1950s, when homosexuality was illegal” sounds plausible, but in fact it’s irrelevant twice over. On one hand, the Wolfenden reforms weren’t introduced until 1967; (male) homosexuality was just as illegal in 1965 (when arrests were in the low 800s) as it was in 1955 (2,322) – or, for that matter, in 1949 (852). On the other hand, these arrests were for ‘gross indecency’, an offence which stayed on the statute book until 2003. The police devoted considerable resources to ‘gross indecency’ during the ‘Great Purge’ of the mid-1950s, then gave it a lower priority in the run-up to Wolfenden. However, there was another period of high arrest rates in the mid-1970s, followed by another trough in the early 1980s. Against this background, the 1989 spike looks less like an aberration caused by an individual police force, and more like an abortive third peak. (Before 1989, it’s worth noting, arrest numbers had risen for three years in succession.) In other words, it looks as if the situation developing in 1986-9 parallelled 1950-3 and 1970-3 – the difference being that the Home Office reined in police forces (not only in Slough) earlier and more sharply than it had done on previous occasions. Taking the 1989 spike out of context, then blaming it on one off-message senior police officer, is hardly a shining example of intellectual honesty.

Intellectual honesty, however, is Nick Cohen’s stock in trade; we have it from the man himself. Cohen made a brief appearance on a Crooked Timber comment thread recently. Both the tone and the content of his intervention are interesting, so I’ll quote it in full:

Look, I’ve learned after the last few years not to appeal to basic principle or to imagine that those who say they’re leftists are within one thousand miles of the left. But after being sent to this thread by Harry I’m genuinely curious: didn’t you people take my reference to the best and the brightest to refer to the democrats, liberals, women—and, yes, for there are still a few—socialists who are being slaughtered in the Middle East?
Can one person here name one genuine secular democratic party in Iraq—or Iran, or Syria or Palestine—they support and which acknowledges their support?
If your answer is no, and you fully understand why it is no, you may at least, after all this time, be experiencing the novel thrill of intellectual honesty.

The argument is stark and simple, not to say simplistic. I am True Left, you are False Left. I am intellectually honest, you are congenital liars.

Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of this line of argument is its insulation against any possible rebuttal. It doesn’t greatly matter what Cohen’s opponents say in reply, because he already knows they’re liars. This, of course, is an appallingly dangerous train of thought, reminiscent of the mentality of commissars and heresy-hunters through the ages: if those who oppose you are also liars, you won’t accept new information unless it supports your existing position. We’re back with Caliph Omar, who (apocryphally) ordered the burning of the Library of Alexandria on the grounds that it contained works which conflicted with the teachings of the Qur’an; on being told that some of the works in the library were in conformance with the Qur’an, the Caliph replied that they could be burned as well, as they were clearly surplus to requirements.

Ironically, Cohen appears to be well aware of the shortcomings of his current position, although he associates it with his opponents:

The least attractive characteristic of the middle-class left – one shared with the Thatcherites – is its refusal to accept that its opponents are sincere. The legacy of Marx and Freud allows it to dismiss criticisms as masks which hide corruption, class interests, racism, sexism – any motive can be implied except fundamental differences of principle.

I think Cohen’s describing a real problem here, but I don’t know what Marx is doing in there (let alone Freud). I blame the rationalism which goes along with a certain kind of commitment to bodies of ideas. (As the anarchists used to say, ‘theory’ is when you have ideas, ‘ideology’ is when ideas have you.) The logic goes like this. You know that you’re a reasonable and well-intentioned person, in possession of the facts; and that you’re on the Left; and that you believe in policies X, Y and Z. I tell you that I don’t believe in X, Y and Z – perhaps even that I oppose those policies – but that I am also a reasonable, well-intentioned and well-informed Leftist. But your beliefs are underpinned by a rational assessment of the facts and a freely-chosen commitment to Leftist principles. My beliefs are therefore wrong. I am clearly mistaken in thinking of myself as a Leftist; if I persist in maintaining that I am, I should be resisted and denounced. Cue Caliph Omar: if I am trustworthy, I will agree with what you already believe; if I disagree with you, I am untrustworthy and can be ignored.

I agree with Cohen that this mentality is distressingly common on the Left: I’ve criticised Chomsky along these lines before now. What Cohen seems not to have registered is that the Leftists he prefers are not immune: witness Geras’ recent tirade against people who have recently written articles which he interprets as erring on the side of apologia for terrorism (or, as Geras puts it, against apologists). Nor, sadly, is Cohen himself.

Postscript: here’s Cohen, back in February :

Over the past year, I’ve been astonished and delighted by the quality of British political blogs. What’s happened reminds me of the punk explosion when I was a teenager. People are ignoring the established system and beating it at its own game. Obvioulsy, there’s a great deal of dross, but what is heartening is how much original and intelligent journalism is coming from people entirely outside the media class, whose only chance of talking to the world would once have been confined to a few paragraphs on a letters’ page or a few minutes on a radio phone-in.As I’m on the left I started out with Harry’s Place, Normblog and Socialism in an Age of Waiting. But as my confidence has grown I find myself zooming all over the net and listening to people I would have crossed the street to avoid in the past. I’ve also realised with a feeling close to despair that if I write a lot of nonsense, it will be exposed and dissected.

We try, Nick. We try.

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.

Concerned with decisiveness

I’d hate to disappoint Ros Taylor, so here are some thoughts about Peter Goldsmith and Iraq.

Following Brian Barder, I think we should drop the idea that Goldsmith changed his mind between the 7th and the 17th of March 2003. What Blair wanted from Goldsmith was never his own opinion about the legality of the invasion, but an authoritative judgment of the soundness of the case that could be made for its legality. The 7th March judgment was, essentially, “there is a legal argument in favour of an invasion without a second UN resolution, albeit with strictly defined and limited objectives; this argument is strong enough for the government to act on if it chooses, but may not be strong enough to protect it from every foreseeable legal challenge”. Take the first fifteen words of that summary and delete the other 35, and you’ve essentially got the 17th March opinion. I wouldn’t be surprised if Goldsmith was leant on in the mean time (the dialogue writes itself – “So you’re saying it is legal? Yes or no?”) but what resulted wasn’t a U-turn or a cave-in; you could even call it a clarification.

Thus far I’m with Paul Anderson, slightly to my surprise -

“Government lawyer points out possible problems with war then backs it when push comes to shove” is a lousy headline – except insofar as it’s a completely accurate summary of the story.

But there’s a bit more to it than that. For one thing, obviously, the government’s refusal to publicise Goldsmith’s caveats is a story in itself, and a highly discreditable story at that. More importantly, Goldsmith’s 7th March opinion doesn’t just “point out possible problems”. The opinion repeatedly stresses the differences in interpretation between the US and other governments, particularly on the question of whether UN member states could take action against Iraq without waiting for a Security Council resolution (or even a Security Council discussion). It also notes:

Force may be used in self-defence if there is an actual or imminent threat of an armed attack; the use of force must be necessary, ie the only means of averting an attack; and the force used must be a proportionate response. [...] in my opinion there must be some degree of imminence. I am aware that the USA has been arguing for recognition of a broad doctrine of a right to use force to pre-empt danger in the future. If this means more than a right to respond proportionately to an imminent attack (and I understand that the doctrine is intended to carry that connotation) this is not a doctrine which, in my opinion, exists or is recognised in international law.

If it were recognised as legal, the doctrine of ‘pre-emptive self-defence’ – essentially a dolled-up version of the Clausewitzian dictum “the best form of defence is attack” – would enable states to take action in their own right, bypassing the whole rigmarole of collective security. It would also bypass the UN and render most of the international law of war moot. Goldsmith duly notes that the doctrine has no standing in international law – but he also notes that the US has been pushing for it.

The significance of this is, of course, that the British government didn’t launch the Iraq invasion, even if it sometimes appears that Blair thinks it did (“I took the decision to remove him”, indeed). Thanks to another well-timed leak, we now know that, as early as July 2002, the British government – Blair, Straw, Goldsmith and all – recognised that Bush intended to depose Saddam Hussein by military means, and intended to “work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action”. In this light, Goldsmith’s March 2003 legal opinion takes on the character of a face-saving (or hand-washing) operation, designed to enable the British government to commit itself to the invasion while dissociating itself from some of the underlying lunacy.

Firstly, the weird and implausible compromise position which the Security Council eventually endorsed is explored at length, in some of the most impenetrable passages of the document. (The US government held, predictably enough, that the Security Council didn’t need to rule on whether Iraq had breached its ceasefire obligations; Goldsmith points out that UN resolutions required the Security Council to consider the issue, but argues that this doesn’t necessarily involve actually reaching an agreed position, let alone passing a second resolution.) The effect is to present the British government as at least a half-hearted friend of the UN, dissociating it from the increasingly unapologetic unilateralism of the Bush government.

Secondly – and, I think, crucially – Goldsmith emphatically rules out military action against Iraq except to enforce UN resolutions: “regime change cannot be the objective of military action”. However, in doing so he tosses Blair a legal figleaf. The relevant paragraph – the last one in the advice – reads, in full:

Finally, I must stress that the lawfulness of military action depends not only on the existence of a legal basis, but also on the question of proportionality. Any force used pursuant to the authorisation in resolution 678 (whether or not there is a second resolution):

– must have as its objective the enforcement the terms of the cease-fire contained in resolution 687 (1990) and subsequent relevant resolutions;

– [must] be limited to what is necessary to achieve that objective; and

– must be a proportionate response to that objective, ie securing compliance with Iraq’s disarmament obligations.

That is not to say that action may not be taken to remove Saddam Hussein from power if it can be demonstrated that such action is a necessary and proportionate measure to secure the disarmament of Iraq. But regime change cannot be the objective of military action. This should be borne in mind in considering the list of military targets and in making public statements about any campaign.

The really important sentence here is the last but two. Goldsmith is advising Blair that a military campaign to depose Saddam Hussein – which both Blair and Goldsmith already know to be the objective under consideration – could, given certain tightly-defined circumstances and some ingenious legal arguments, be construed as legal. But this advantage would be forfeited if the true objective of the war – and its genesis in the ‘pre-emptive self-defence’ of the War on Terror – was openly acknowledged.

What’s really interesting about this word to the wise is the use that Blair made of it: none. In the July 2002 minutes, Goldsmith sets out the arguments he would develop at greater length eight months later. War could only be waged under three conditions: in self-defence; to stave off a humanitarian disaster; or in compliance with UN resolutions. The last of these was the only condition which could be taken to apply, and even that was highly debatable. Blair’s response was:

The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors. Regime change and WMD were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD. [...] If the political context were right, people would support regime change.

Blair slides immediately from using WMD as a pretext for regime change to using WMD to justify regime change – even though Goldsmith has just ruled this out. You almost feel sorry for the guy. (If I can feel sorry for a Dalek…) Goldsmithian weaselling is genuinely repugnant to Blair: he never wanted to present the fall of Saddam Hussein as an unexpected by-product of an operation to enforce international law, knowing as he did that it was the object of the exercise (international law or no international law). But the neo-conservative unilateralism which appeals to him isn’t quite available either, if only because it’s a supremely unrewarding doctrine for anyone but the US (there can be only one Top Nation). So we’re left with a government constitutionally committed to saying one thing and doing another, and with a Prime Minister whose response to criticism is to repeat endlessly that we can disagree with him if we like, but that in his job he has to make decisions (with the implication that he had to make those specific decisions).

And we’re left with an illegal war.

Stupido! Chicken-brain!

I don’t think much of Johann Hari; I doubt that statement will surprise many people, and I’m not going to spend good blogging time on an anti-Hari rant. But I am going to say a few words about Johann’s column in today’s Independent – which you can read over at Hari’s Place – and its conclusion in particular, which is… striking, let’s say.

Johann takes the view – and he’s supported by polling by YouGov, no less – that the people of Iraq, by and large, are quite glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein, and don’t really give a damn whether he had weapons of mass destruction or not. But he’s aware that the invasion was transparently illegal (you know this one: “Any force used pursuant to the authorisation in resolution 678 (whether or not there is a second resolution) must have as its objective the enforcement of the terms of the cease-fire contained in resolution 687 … regime change cannot be the objective of military action.” – Peter Goldsmith, 7/3/03). So he tries to reconcile these two positions. Take it away, Johann:

when it comes to legality, you have to answer a basic question: who is sovereign in Iraq? If you believe the Iraqi people are sovereign, then there was no crime, because Iraqis and now their elected government say they wanted the invasion to proceed. You can’t invade the willing. The problem is that currently international law does not recognise peoples as sovereign. Incredible though it seems, right up until the moment he was forced from power, international law regarded Saddam Hussein’s government as sovereign.

That cannot be right, and that cannot be a law worth defending. I support the idea of international law; but protecting the sovereignty of tyrants – against the will of their people – is a perversion of the benevolent instincts that lead people to seek lawfare not warfare.

(Incidentally – “lawfare not warfare”? Do what?)

This is nonsense on stilts, and dangerous nonsense at that (“currently international law does not recognise peoples as sovereign” – somebody should take a look at that…) To quote a comment I left on Hari’s site:

Of course
Saddam Hussein’s government was recognised as sovereign – that’s the meaning of the word ‘sovereignty’. International law works on the basis of a world made up of national governments, each of which is sovereign within its own territory; that sovereignty cannot be challenged without very, very good reason. A moment’s thought will tell you why this is, on balance, a Good Idea. It’s certainly better than the alternative, which is allowing any national government to remove any other national government it takes a dislike to, subject only to having the power to do so.
[endquote]

International law is based on a fiction – the fiction of ‘International Society’, a kind of virtual assembly of nation states, each equal before the bar of international law and each according one another the same rights and the same respect. It’s a crude fiction: as well as the obvious imbalances of power between actually-existing nation states, the model is blind to the existence of non-national agencies exerting power within and across nation states, such as trans-national corporations. Nevertheless, it’s powerful; a huge (and ever-growing) body of conventional forms of interaction between governments has grown up on the basis of that fiction. These conventions now have a real power to influence and constrain individual nation states – or, at least, to give an orderly and acceptable form to collective attempts at constraint by other states. (See the discussion here, particularly in the comments.)

Above all, international law is generalisable: it lays down (or aspires to lay down) how any state can and can’t act towards any other. What Hari’s suggesting (or rather, gesturing vaguely towards) is some kind of New World Moral Order, where powerful democratic nation states are free to overthrow undemocratic states so as to liberate the sovereign “people” – who will then be free to invite their liberators in.

Needless to say, this model isn’t generalisable – or rather, generalising it would rip up international law by the roots. For Bush Republicans – who work on the basis that the US is Number One Nation and thus shouldn’t be bound by the same laws as everyone else – this is a feature, not a bug. What Hari’s doing endorsing this stupid and dangerous line of thinking, I really don’t know.

They’re only dropping peppermints and daisy-chains

To whom it may concern:

  1. What the Attorney General said (see also the full documents linked here and Brian Barder’s two prescient commentaries)
  2. “…at the stinking heart of what remains of the British body politic”
  3. A catechism for the unconvinced
  4. Adrian Mitchell told you so
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