Category Archives: political violence

And find out what’s behind it

Cross-posted from ¡Vivan las Caenas!, where a series of retrospective posts is currently under way. This one is essentially ‘my life as a mature student’, and features what I didn’t realise then was the beginning of my interest in the law.

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails.”
– T. H. White, The Once and Future King

I was 30. After graduating I’d spent a year on the dole – you could do that back then – before getting a job as a computer programmer. (I’d been a member of the college Micro Society and spent many hours writing Atom BASIC.) Eight years after that, in my third job, I was getting rather bored and very demotivated: work just seemed to be a series of tasks to which I had no commitment, to be judged by standards I barely understood. (“Ennit all?”) I found interest elsewhere, as a member of the Socialist Society and the Socialist Movement, and as a writer for Tribune, New Statesman, Lobster and the SM’s short-lived paper socialist (grandparent of Red Pepper). In the pub one night, after a meeting of the Manchester Socialist Movement group, a guy I knew slightly mentioned that he’d signed up to do a part-time degree. It’s embarrassing to recall how transformative this tiny encounter was for me. It didn’t so much plant a seed as decontaminate the soil – suddenly, absurdly, there was no good reason why I shouldn’t do another degree. Or rather, suddenly there never had been. (So you can change the past!)

But what and how? I wanted to do something that I was passionate about, and that didn’t seem to be English any more. And was it an MA I was looking for? I considered going straight for an MPhil, or a doctorate at a pinch; I got as far as making a shortlist of two alternative thesis topics, one on the experience of UFO encounters and one on computing in business. (At least one dodged bullet there.) On reflection – and after taking advice from my former Director of Studies – I decided that an MA would be more straightforward and less lonely. It took a while to find the right course – it had to be part-time, for one thing – but eventually I embarked on an MA in Politics and Contemporary History at Salford. The course was modular, but in my case covered International Relations (which was awful), Nazi Germany, Resistance in Occupied Europe, Collaboration in Occupied Europe (which was fascinating) and Post-War Italy, with a dissertation on Guy Debord and The Society of the Spectacle. I graduated with a Distinction, and was encouraged by more than one of my tutors (finally!) to think about a doctorate. I made a second and more realistic shortlist of topics: resistance in Vichy France (with a particular focus on groups and individuals which (arguably) played both sides of the street, such as Emmanuel Mounier’s personnalisme movement); or radical movements in 1970s Italy (with a particular focus on those which (arguably) had a Situationist influence, such as Gianfranco Faina’s armed group Azione Rivoluzionaria). My tutors all agreed that, while both these topics were interesting and appropriately specific, one of them was pretty well mined out while the other was still honkingly obscure. So I set out to write a group biography of Azione Rivoluzionaria. Unfortunately they turned out to be just a bit too obscure, so I did this instead. (Looks pretty interesting, eh? Has your library got a copy?)

As for the law, consider a couple of themes I touched on in the previous paragraph: the challenges to political normality represented by the Nazis on one hand and the Situationists on the other. My fascination with the Nazi period (I can’t speak for anyone else’s) stems from the regime’s effort to normalise inherently destructive and corrosive values: to build an enduring system based on aggression, competition and brutality, in all areas of life and at all levels, undermining and corrupting cultural and institutional survivals from the old regime. (In little more than a decade they managed to build alternative forms of politics, an alternative (anti-semitic) form of Christianity and – of course – an alternative criminal justice system. There were cases of blatantly political prosecutions being dismissed by the judge, only for the suspect to be re-arrested as he left the court and taken into ‘protective’ custody by the Gestapo.) By looking at collaborationists, in particular – and respectable Nazi sympathisers such as Douglas Reed and Arnold Wilson – I thought we could think our way inside the genuine appeal of what is to us an obviously vile and unsustainable project. The Third Reich had a life span of less than a generation, so inevitably most Nazi supporters came to the Party as adults: did they all have 180-degree conversions, or were there areas of overlap between the National-Socialist project and other, legitimate political ideologies – and, if so, what could those overlaps tell us? In short, I was very interested in alternative normative systems, and in the idea of treating our own norms as just one set among others. At the other political extreme, the Situationists were a classic example of a radical group whose intellectual ability and self-confidence enabled them to develop and maintain a set of political norms quite distinct from those of the mainstream (to the end of his life Guy Debord was proud of a line of graffiti he’d written as a teenager: NE TRAVAILLEZ JAMAIS). The question here was less of overlap than of availability. May 1968 suggested that, given the swift kick of a general strike, entire towns and cities could jump the normative tracks and exist, at least temporarily, in a universe where spontaneous co-operation was the norm and wage labour was an aberration. I remembered Henri Lefebvre dismissing the Situationists as a band of dreamers: why, they even imagined that there could be a spontaneous general strike, in France, in the 1960s! The question of what makes a good normative system – one, potentially, better than our own – seemed to be a live one.

Those late-70s Italian movements, for their part, had it all: the dawning dreams of a world made new and the queasy horrors of political violence, plus a conflicted relationship with an uncomprehending official Left – which itself embodied an alternative system of values, in more or less compromised form. The law does start to show itself here as a field of contention: I was very struck by the legal amnesty achieved following the Hot Autumn of 1969, such that offences committed during the strike wave ceased to have been crimes. I also remember a debate in the Italian parliament as to precisely what happens when a Molotov cocktail goes off: if the explosion had been classed as a mechanical process rather than a chemical reaction, Molotovs would have been classified as weapons of war and their use would have carried much higher penalties. Politics, as Green Garside never said, is prior to the vagaries of the law – but those are some interesting vagaries.

Although I’d hit a dead end with Faina and Azione Rivoluzionaria, material on the broader topic of the radical movements of the 1970s (and their interaction with the Italian Communist Party) was surprisingly abundant. A couple of years earlier I’d taught myself Italian by brute force (reading a book about the Situationists with a dictionary next to me); I now took my Italian to the next level by much the same method, using Nanni Balestrini’s wonderful novels Gli invisibili and L’editore. (The first page of Gli invisibili took me most of a day: “the… the corridor was, was lined with… with what which whatly did what and made it look like a what?”. The entire book’s written without punctuation, which didn’t make it any easier. But I got there.) I discovered Primo Moroni a matter of months after his death (damn it), and corresponded more or less briefly with Steve Wright, Steve Hellman, Dave Moss, Donatella della Porta, Nanni Balestrini, Olivier Turquet and Gennaro Barbarisi (the writer of an opinion column in a 1976 edition of l’Unità). I carried out research in Colindale (Corriere della Sera on microfilm) and at the University of Reading (l’Unità in hard copy – the only place in the UK which held it) and presented my work in Edinburgh and Milton Keynes; I didn’t get to Italy, though (no budget).

Along the way I also discovered Alfred Schutz, read a lot of Rorty and a fair bit of Dewey, and sketched out a reconciliation of Bhaskar’s critical realism with Schutz’s social phenomenology; as well as blowing Rorty out of the water, this theoretical synthesis was going to give a definitive non-Foucauldian account of the relationship between power and truth. I should probably get back to it some time. Or maybe not. One of my first tutors on the MA had pointed out that I tended to take on too much and range too widely; clearly, I still had that problem. I began to realise how much of a problem it was a few years later, when a friend who was launching a new journal asked me for an 8,000-word paper and I turned in 16,000. (To his great credit, he spotted a way of turning it into two separate papers – and took both. Most editors wouldn’t be anywhere near so accommodating.) It’s a familiar pattern, recurring in a slightly less disabling form. The unique me-ness of me! All right, so I could play with ideas, but I wasn’t going to play with other people; I mean, I couldn’t, really. I’d do it over here, in my own way; it’d be brilliant, but nobody was going to see it till it was finished. I’d be uniquely brilliant! (Ta-da! Sixteen thousand words! How good is that?) Or, if necessary, I’d be uniquely useless; that would work, in its own way. (Eight thousand – eight, not sixteen! How can I be so stupid?)

While all this was going on, I was freelancing as a writer and researcher – I’d left IT for a job editing a computing magazine shortly after starting my MA, and left that job after three years to start work on my doctorate. Lots of writing to a deadline and editing to a word count, lots of instant research, lots of playing with sources and story-building – ask me anything about Wallis Simpson, or Jasper Maskelyne, or Helen Keller… What I didn’t do, while I was a postgraduate, was teach; I did sound out one of my tutors about the possibilities of teaching work, but I rapidly concluded that the day rate for technical journalism was better – I mean, much better. (Plus I could do it without leaving the house, or interacting with anyone except by email.) This was probably a mistake.

Chard Whitlow

Odd how it can work. I’m doing a lot of reading on the topic of the rule of law, considered as not only a liberal but potentially a radical ideal; this is in connection with the paper I outlined here (and mentioned I was stuck on here). So naturally I read Edward Thompson’s afterword to Whigs and Hunters (featuring the famous assertion that the rule of law can be called “an unqualified human good”) and Douglas Hay’s “Property, authority and the criminal law”, the opening chapter of Albion’s Fatal Tree.  Naturally I agreed with the first, finding the second equally challenging and confusing (I’m hoping I can make something productive out of my confusion). A quick Google found me a withering critique of Hay’s essay, John Langbein’s “Albion‘s Fatal Flaws” (you see what he did there); it seemed pretty convincing. I was curious as to how Hay’s thought had developed in the last 40 years – “Property” etc was excerpted from his doctoral dissertation, for which alone much respect is due – and got hold of the 2011 Verso reissue. Hay’s contribution to the 2011 Introduction led me to Peter Linebaugh’s superb response to Langbein, which left his critique in tatters (albeit on the basis of a fairly generous reading of Hay; Linebaugh’s Hay seemed more persuasive and more coherent than the original had done). Hay also cited work by Peter King, John Beattie and Alan Hyde, all of which I duly tracked down.

In the Introduction and elsewhere, Hay engaged more extensively with some critics than others; Hyde in particular he dismissed rather breezily (“Hyde (in the face of daily evidence from his own government, as well as our historical sources) seemed to think legitimation appeals made by elites were figments of our imagination.”). Being a cross-grained sort, I was intrigued by this and tracked the paper down. Hyde’s paper – “The concept of legitimation in the sociology of law” – is a critique of the Weberian concept of legitimation, arguing that it’s not necessary to explain either law-compliant behaviour or law-making, and hence that explanations of these phenomena which rely on it should be re-examined. Whether Hay was working in a Weberian framework is a moot point; I’m inclined to infer from the references to ideology and ruling-class hegemony – and from Linebaugh’s characterisation of his and Hay’s shared project as “(Marxist) social history” – that his background assumptions were Marxist and specifically Gramscian. However, this may make little difference; Hyde doesn’t mention Gramsci, but he does suggest that the Marxist framework of material base and ideological superstructure is vulnerable to very similar criticisms. Which is to say, both answer variants of the same question – “why do people do things to which they’re not motivated by habit, goal-seeking self-interest or prudence?” – and, Hyde suggests, this may not be a question worth asking. To find law-compliant behaviour solely (and hence incontrovertibly) motivated by a belief in legitimacy, one would need to pass a new (and recognisably novel) law, with a direct effect on individual behaviour, but with no benefit in compliance, no social pressure for conformity and no sanction for non-compliance; it’s difficult to imagine what this might be, let alone to speculate on whether everyone (or anyone) would comply. Identifying behaviour solely motivated by investment in ruling-class ideology is even harder: laws can change overnight, but – outside the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four – ideologies generally change slowly, making it very difficult to disentangle the effects of habit and prudential conformity from those of the ideology itself.

I don’t go all the way with Hyde; I don’t think anyone with an interest in protest and political disorder can afford to discard the concept of legitimacy. David Friedrichs’ 1986 response to Hyde is a useful corrective, arguing that we can distinguish constructively between the belief in substantive legitimacy and its withdrawal (“they have no right to rule us”), the belief in procedural legitimacy and its withdrawal (“they had no right to pass that law/detain those people/kill that man”) and the fact of popular legitimacy and its loss (“they don’t speak for us”). Tracing interactions between the three is left as an exercise for the reader. But legitimacy in this sense is an attribute of subjects’ relationship with any particular regime or class, rather than a social fact in itself; if anything it’s a kind of meta-textual attribute of ideological beliefs, its absence serving as a signal that a certain ideology no longer holds sway or should hold sway. And, to the extent that we are materialists, we can’t really argue that ideological change and stability are autonomous phenomena operating on their own ideological plane, let alone that they’re produced through changes to the material basis of society carried out to perpetuate a given ideology. To say that a particular regime is legitimate – or that a particular class is hegemonic – is a sociological statement of fact. But hegemony and legitimacy are attributes of a state of affairs with material bases. To speak of a regime actively preserving its legitimacy, or even a class actively maintaining its hegemony, may be to put the superstructural cart before the material horse.

Hay put forward the case that “the criminal law, more than any other social institution, made it possible to govern eighteenth-century England without a police force and without a large army”. On inspection the word ‘govern’ is equivocal: granted all that AFT tells us about disputes over property rights and use rights, we are not talking about the governance of a rebellious people, the continual repression of myriad local revolts. The question Hay is answering is not how revolt was repressed, but why it didn’t occur: why people very largely obeyed the law, continued to believe in the law and continued to believe their government to be legitimate. And here, I think, a purely ideological answer, based on the introjection of ruling-class norms (including the norms of law and justice), cannot be satisfactory.

This materialist argument finds support from a surprising source – and one which itself draws support from a surprising quarter. Hyde:

Unlike the labor law of earlier eras, contemporary labor law is rarely the weapon of choice of a strong employer class against a weak worker class. Rather, labor legislation in contemporary capitalism is almost always a concession made to troublesome or insurgent workers’ movements. For example, following the wave of wildcat strikes in Western Europe between 1968 and 1971, every affected country made fundamental revisions in its system of labor law, all involving concessions to organized unions in an attempt to solidify the unions’ organizational positions in the plant, on work councils, on corporate boards, etc. In many cases the concessions merely adopted as public policy what had been true defacto. The precise content of the concession varied from country to country depending on union political demands, but the variation seems almost irrelevant next to the fact that there were such concessions to the unions.

If this explanation is correct, it is possible to conclude that labor law has enormous symbolic importance, that workers can achieve changes in labor law, but that employers and governments retain considerable choice over the range of possible concessions. What the above story does not permit one to conclude is that this post-1968 legislation had any particular effect on working people, and in particular did or did not “legitimate” the system for them or render disobedience or revolt more or less likely.

The argument here is that the state of labour law at any one time reflects the balance of power between the bosses and the workers (and their representatives). More generally, law is an outcome of class struggle, or the absence of class struggle; it conditions the way class conflict plays out, but it is also conditioned by it – and cannot itself repress it.

I found this argument particularly congenial because of something I was writing a few years ago, before I ever considered the law as a field of study. Take it away, Edwards (2009, p11, references omitted):

From 1969 onwards the increasing political salience of the new movements prompted a resurgence in activity by the unions. Wage levels across Italian industry were set through three-year contracts between unions and employers’ organisations, which were due for renewal in 1969. CGIL organisers worked to integrate the more innovative forms of industrial action into contractual campaigns. As Franco Berardi of Potere Operaio recalled, ‘again and again, autonomous organisations organised strikes in a single section of a factory, after which the union came in, asked all the workers what their demand was, and used it to regain control of a struggle which had completely got out of their hands’.

The contracts signed in December 1969 were highly favourable. Wage rises outstripped inflation; working hours were to be reduced in stages, with a 40-hour week promised within three years; parity between clerical and manual workers, a central workerist demand, was conceded in principle. December 1969 also saw the passage of the Statuto dei Lavoratori (‘Workers’ Statute’). This became law the following May, together with a general amnesty for those who had been charged with offences relating to industrial action: disorderly and violent acts committed by factory activists ceased to have been criminal offences. Feeling that the government and the employers had been forced to back down, some groups began campaigning on new or modified demands: abolition of piecework, mass regrading, an immediate 40-hour week. However, many workers saw the contracts as a result with which they could be content. This view was encouraged by the unions, whose own position within the workplace had been greatly enhanced; for instance, the Statute entitled them to hold meetings in work time.

I make it four parties rather than two – the unions, movements like Potere Operaio, the workers whose support was contested and the bosses – but it turns out that I was telling a similar story at this early point in my book. Although I was writing a work of political sociology set among the Italian social movements of the 1970s, I’d already recognised the law as a significant terrain of struggle, where norms and meanings could be made and unmade – note those fascinated italics (“ceased to have been criminal offences”). Law as “an arena for class struggle, within which alternative notions of law were fought out”, to quote Thompson again (this time from his anti-Althusserian polemic The Poverty of Theory); but notions worth fighting out, in the form of law.

Nice to realise I’ve been on the right lines (or at least the same lines!) all along. We shall not cease from exploring, eh? And this time last year I was fifty-three.

WIP 3: (Should we) counter radicalisation?

Lastly, here’s the abstract of a paper which has been published in the Routledge collection Counter-Radicalisation: Critical Perspectives (Heath-Kelly, Jarvis and Baker-Beall (eds)):

How (not) to create ex-terrorists: Prevent as ideological warfare

Phil Edwards

When the ‘Prevent’ programme was developed in 2003, and announced publicly three years later, it proffered the policy aim of ‘preventing terrorism by tackling the radicalisation of individuals’. Prevent has now become a permanent fixture on the counter terrorist scene, rearticulated across the manifestations of the CONTEST strategy. However this apparent continuity in policy and implementation may not only produce the impression of a single continuing Prevent project, but—more importantly—lead the integrity of the project to be read back into its conceptual basis. Key questions risk going unasked: whether there is a distinct experience of ‘radicalisation’; if so, how strong an association there is between radicalisation and subsequent terrorist involvement; and, if such an association exists, whether a concerted programme of state-driven de radicalisation measures is likely to be viable and productive. This chapter will review the current state of the Prevent programme. It will argue that the government’s approach to counter-terrorism has been characterised by two distinct models of radicalisation and de radicalisation, the key distinguishing factor being the salience given to ideological as distinct from social factors. The significance of ideological factors in the literature on desistance from crime will then be reviewed, focusing on the interaction between social and situational changes on one hand and subjective and ideological changes on the other, and on particular types of subjective change which do and do not promote desistance. Reference will then be made to a qualitative study of desistance from gang involvement, which will suggest some ways of conceptualising the belief factors which may be involved in desistance from political as well as non-political crime. These will provide a frame of reference for suggestions as to how government interventions to reduce organised political violence might best be organised, and a concluding discussion of the ideological focus of the Prevent programme.

And here’s one which has been reviewed and provisionally accepted for a special issue of Studies in Conflict and Terrorism next year:

Closure through resilience: the case of Prevent

This paper argues that resilience in the face of terrorism, at the level of a political system, is best conceptualised as a response to disruption of the political sphere leading to the destabilisation of political relationships; this disruption is triggered not by violence as such, but by the forceful incursion of a would-be political actor denied representation and legitimacy. The challenge posed by political disruption and destabilisation is related to a typology of political systems, suggesting that the most resilient political systems are also those exhibiting executive unity together with a high degree of democratic openness. The ideological negotiation required to deal with political disruption is related to the model of the social movement ‘cycle of contention’; it is argued that engagement with terrorist disruption may similarly take both inclusive and exclusive forms, with consequences for the openness and hence the future resilience of the system. The arguments and appeals used to support the British government’s ‘Prevent’ counter radicalisation initiative, launched in 2003 and reworked in 2009 and 2011, are analysed as a source of data on a process of engagement with a disruptive political incomer; the engagement is shown to be emphatically exclusive.

WIP 1: The rule of law – beyond or towards?

Sorry about the long silence. I’ve been reading a lot about strict liability, for reasons connected with the critique of regulatory justice which I’ve been playing with for the last several years: only another book and about a dozen papers to read, and then I can definitely start rewriting it, probably. I’m planning to read The Concept of Law for a third time, but accompany each chapter with the relevant chapter in the anthology Reading HLA Hart’s The Concept of Law; I’m sure that’ll make for some top blogging. And I’ve got a couple of papers to write, and a project to plan, and then there’s teaching, not to mention marking.

Anyway, here’s what I’m working on at the moment. I’m not sure if all the angles trailed in the original abstract will make it into the finished paper – the idea of gangs as sites of ‘wild’ regulation is one I keep meaning to get round to exploring – but I’ll do my best. This is for an anthology being put together for 2015 publication by the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control, for whose 2014 conference on abolitionism it was originally intended (I wasn’t able to attend due to illness).

Law after law? Abolitionism and the rule of law

According to Simmonds, the law has an inherent morality, making it an intrinsically valuable social project; Waldron argues that the institutions and practices making up the rule of law encapsulate, and may constitute, key virtues of the concept of law. However, this liberal vision of the rule of law is predicated on two concepts which are alien to anarchist and abolitionist perspectives – the state, its authority ultimately guaranteed by unchallengeable coercive power, and its antagonist the rights-bearing, self-interested individual. Can we think in terms of the rule of law without invoking state coercion or competitive individualism? Is the morality of law an ideological construct specific to the era of capitalist competition, or does it embody ideals which would remain valuable in a society not predicated on capitalist economics and state coercion? If we assume that such a society would have its own (rule of) law, how do we envisage transitional or prefigurative forms of law? This paper suggests some provisional answers to these questions, drawing on contemporary jurisprudential debates and on studies of the alternative legalities imposed by gangs and ‘armed struggle’ groups.

Logic, emotion and Twitter (in Gaza)

This article in the (leftish) Jewish Daily Forward is quite something. You can get the gist from the headline and standfirst:

Israel Has a New Worst Enemy — Twitter

The Medium’s Immediacy and Emotion Overwhelm All Logic

And the first paragraph:

Shortly after Israel began its ground invasion of Gaza, Anne Barnard, a New York Times reporter who has covered wars for over a decade, stood in the emergency room of the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City and watched a 9-year-old girl die.

The girl was alone, without family, nameless. And when the doctor finally pronounced her dead, Barnard and another reporter wept.

And then she tweeted

…and that’s what the story’s about: Twitter. Hold back for a moment your own reflection on the appalling human tragedy represented by that little girl’s lonely death; let’s think about the interesting and novel development represented by lots of other people reflecting on it. Because (the author suggests) a lot of those people might not take the same view of it that you and I would; in fact, the further that message travels, the less likely it is that anyone will take the same view that we do.

Israel’s wars are always fought on two fronts — the actual on-the-ground one and the battlefield of world opinion. The tricky part is that a victory on one front very often means a loss on the other: Say a house is bombed, killing a man in charge of a rocket launcher, but it also killed his family, including five children, whose lifeless bodies appear on television that night. It’s not clear what front should have priority — your perspective on this will depend largely on whether you yourself are cowering in a bomb shelter in a city targeted by that rocket launcher or have the benefit of viewing all this from a safe distance.

If anyone not directly involved would see the situation in a certain way, that does seem to suggest something about the two perspectives. (To say nothing of the possibility that ‘you yourself’ might ‘have the benefit of viewing all this’ from Gaza.)

But what’s absolutely certain now is that Twitter has been a game changer for the public perception front, demolishing much of the distance that allowed for attempts at objectivity and balance, the careful construction of stories that bow to the narratives of both sides.

So here’s a good story: “In this troubled region, the intransigence of one side all too often seems to bring out the worst in the other side. While Gaza is pounded by IDF artillery, there is still no sign of Hamas repudiating the anti-semitism of its founding Charter.”

And here’s a bad story: “I have just watched a nine-year-old girl die from injuries inflicted by IDF artillery.”

But why is the second example a bad story? Apparently it has to do with immediacy and the personal touch:

As Barnard herself put it in an interview recently on NPR, she writes things in tweets that would never go in an article or get past an editor. … Unlike in a news story, with a tweet like that, Barnard said, “people feel like they are getting a postcard from another human being who is experiencing something far away.”

To combat the impact of those postcards on people’s perception of the conflict, Israel has deployed logic — logic that often makes a great deal of sense. It is true that Hamas would kill many more Israeli civilians if it could, that a tallying of deaths doesn’t take into account “intended deaths.” It is true that Hamas bears responsibility for endangering its own population by shooting rockets from populated areas. And it is true that Israel has accepted unconditional cease-fires while Hamas hasn’t. Fair or not, this argumentation, so rational and reasonable, is powerless when put up against an image or description of a dead child.

This is the core argument of the article, and it’s an argument which, I think, needs to be rejected quite firmly. We pit logic against emotion all the time, and generally speaking logic wins. You pit logic against emotion when you have a pet put down or agree to turn off a loved one’s life support. In a broader sense, states pit logic against emotion every time they go to war, and armies do so with every act of war. Killing people is both morally wrong and viscerally repulsive: battlefield stress is a natural emotional response to being put in a situation nobody would choose to be in and doing things nobody would choose to do. (Of course, there are people who would choose to do those things – but we hope and trust they won’t be in the position to do so. I’m told that British army officer training reliably weeds out two types of people – those who, when push comes to shove, realise that they couldn’t kill another person, and those who realise that they would enjoy it.) We rely on logic to demonstrate rationally that the emotionally horrible things soldiers are being asked to do should still be done: to demonstrate, in other words, that military aggression was deployed for legitimate reasons – primarily self-defence – in the first place (jus ad bellum) and that lethal force is being used to achieve legitimate military objectives without disproportionate damage to civilian life and property (jus in bello).

Now, it’s true that “Hamas bears responsibility for endangering its own population by shooting rockets from populated areas”. To quote the Geneva conventions:

The presence or movements of the civilian population or individual civilians shall not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations, in particular in attempts to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield, favour or impede military operations. The parties to the conflict shall not direct the movement of the civilian population or individual civilians in order to attempt to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield military operations.

Using civilians and civilian properties to shield military objectives is a war crime. But read on:

Any violation of these prohibitions shall not release the parties to the conflict from their legal obligations with respect to the civilian population and civilians

Attacking civilians, even civilians being deliberately (and unlawfully) used as human shields, is still a war crime – unless the civilian casualties are unavoidable in attaining a valid military objective and proportionate to the value of that objective. And (needless to say) responsibility for it still lies with the attacker.

It’s also true that “a tallying of deaths doesn’t take into account ‘intended deaths.'” – and, frankly, quite right too. If you have an enemy who wants to kill anything up to 75% of your population, you have only two hopes, self-defence and diplomacy. You make sure that, in the short term, you’ll be strong enough and they’ll be weak enough to minimise the actual danger they pose; and you try to make sure that, in the longer term, they’ll change their minds. Killing (say) 2% of their population has very little to do with self-defence and nothing to do with diplomacy. Comparing actual Palestinian deaths to theoretically possible Israeli deaths – in a nightmare scenario in which the balance of power and weaponry between Israel and Gaza was somehow reversed – is bizarrely perverse: the point for Israel is surely to stop such a confrontation from happening, not to indulge in the consoling thought that in that case Israel would at least have the moral high ground. (As, right now, it doesn’t.)

As for unconditional ceasefires, the record here is disputed – but even if it is true that “Israel has accepted unconditional cease-fires while Hamas hasn’t”, I wonder how much this is to Israel’s credit. An unconditional ceasefire – with Gaza’s borders closed, with the port blockaded and with illegal building (and evictions) continuing on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem: how long could that be expected to last until Hamas (or a militia not under Hamas control) decided to lash out again? Ceasefires come and go, but only a comprehensive settlement in accordance with international law is going to create the conditions for peace in Gaza. And while both Israel and its key international partner prefer to ignore international law (“For many outside the United States, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank is considered illegal.” – New York Times), that settlement could be a long time coming.

One last thought from Forward:

in a battle involving asymmetric defense systems, in which the vast majority of the casualties are on the Palestinians’ side, Twitter punches you in the gut on behalf of those civilians in a way that overwhelms much else.

In a battle against an enemy which has killed very few of our people, in which we’re killing a lot of their people, mostly civilians, the thought of all those dead civilians makes you wonder if perhaps we might not be wholly in the right. Blame Twitter.

Something in the air

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

Meanwhile in Cheetham Hill:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No top and no bottom

1. I agree with Vladimir Putin, up to a point

From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.

It’s the way he tells ’em.

To be fair, Putin’s address to the American people did make some good points, in particular this one:

The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.

No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.

I liked his conclusion, too:

I would rather disagree with a case [Obama] made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy.

In passing, I was amused to see that this last glimpse of the blindingly obvious had annoyed Thomas Friedman. Who does this so-called President Putin think he is, making out that America isn’t the greatest goddamn country on earth?

2. Inter arma enim silent leges, only not just yet

But is the man from the KGB really standing up for international law – and what does it actually say about Syria? This is a bit less of a live issue, thankfully, than it was before the rush to war was stopped in its tracks (well done that weakling!). The UK government’s case for intervention, set out by Attorney General Dominic Grieve, rested on the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention”. The argument was that it would be permissible under international law for the UK (or, presumably, any other state) “to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime”. Such an intervention would be legal under three conditions:

That there is “convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief”; it is “objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved”; and the proposed use of force is “proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need”.

In response, Dapo Akande of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict pointed out that neither the second nor the third condition had been met. The third was particularly hard to get past:

“Even if there is a rule allowing intervention to avert a humanitarian catastrophe that rule would not simply permit action to deter and disrupt use of chemical weapons,” Akande said. “This standard is too lax. It would be a rule about preventing and about stopping. The UK is not proposing to take action which will actually prevent or stop further uses of chemical weapons.”

Unless, of course, what the UK government was planning was to carry on bombing until every last chemical weapon in Syria had been put beyond use; we’ll never know. It’s probably just as well.

Akande also made a broader point, which is that the idea of legality invoked by Grieve is rather a provisional thing. To the extent that it’s codified in any way, international law provides for military action in self-defence, in accordance with a UN Security Council resolution and, er, that’s it. What Grieve is referring to is the informal or ‘customary’ international law which is constituted from year to year by what states actually do.

when the attorney general’s advice says international law allows Britain to take measures to alleviate a humanitarian catastrophe without security council approval, this can only be in reference to customary international law which is based on the “views and practices of states”. [Akande] said there is “very little evidence of state support for this view. Indeed most states have explicitly rejected this view.”

3. Better not ask them to split the bill

The BBC canvassed opinions from Akande and four other lawyers (Geoffrey Robertson QC, Professor Sigrun Skogly, Professor Robert McCorquodale and Professor Dr Wolff Heintschel von Heinegg) as well as the political analysts Dmitry Babich and Sinan Ulgen. Their views stacked up as follows. There were five key issues: the role of the UN, including but not limited to the UN Security Council; the legality of “humanitarian” interventions; the legality of past interventions in Iraq and Kosovo; the “responsibility to protect” doctrine in the case of crimes against humanity; and the appropriate response to breaches of the ban on chemical weapons.

ROBERTSON: Intervention to prevent crimes against humanity – such as the use of banned chemical weapons – does not require UN Security Council approval; the legality of humanitarian intervention was established even before the UN was founded, in the context of actions against piracy and slavery. The intervention in Kosovo was not condemned by the UN Security Council, making it legitimate.

SKOGLY: Normally, any intervention needs to be approved by the UN Security Council. However, the legality of humanitarian intervention is a separate question. UN member states have a duty to promote human rights; consequently, if the regime has used chemical weapons, they have committed crimes against humanity. This means that UN member states are obliged to act on the basis of the responsibility to protect.

McCORQUODALE: Military action must be approved by the UN Security Council; failure to gain this approval means that the Iraq intervention is considered illegal. Intervention for humanitarian reasons, or on the basis of the responsibility to protect, is not lawful in terms of international law, although it may be in future.

AKANDE: The principle of responsibility to protect “does not create a legal right for intervention without Security Council approval”. The doctrine of humanitarian intervention rest on “a view of international law that has been rejected by most states”. (The humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, while not approved by the UN Security Council, was in pursuit of demands made by the UNSC.) A General Assembly resolution might be a possibility, but permanent members of the UNSC are unlikely to offer the GA that kind of authority.

HEINTSCHEL VON HEINEGG: In the absence of a UN Security Council resolution, intervention could only be justified on the basis of “customary international law”. The US and allies acted on this basis in their humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, although many states still regard this intervention as illegal. International treaties outlaw chemical weapons but do not provide for military intervention in response to their use. Some states currently turn a blind eye to limited action against chemical weapons, but this may change.

BABICH: Although the US might cite chemical weapons as a justification, UN Security Council approval is essential to make any intervention legal. Iraq and Kosovo didn’t have UN approval and were therefore illegal. And let’s not forget that they never found any chemical weapons in Iraq.

ULGEN: Only action approved by the UN Security Council would have “full legitimacy”. An alternative would be to try to get a resolution passed by the General Assembly. Other possibilities, outside the UN framework, include the responsibility to protect principle (invoked successfully in Kosovo) and international law banning chemical weapons, going back to the 1925 Geneva Convention.

4. At the shatterproof heart of the matter

So what does that lot add up to? For McCorquodale, Akande and Heintschel von Heinegg (three of the five lawyers), as well as Babich, the lack of UN approval makes intervention illegal. At the same time, all three lawyers acknowledge that international law changes over time and that customary international law may, arguably, give support to actions which are formally illegal. In this respect they contrast the Syrian situation unfavourably with Kosovo, although it’s a question of degree: none of them goes so far as to assert that the Kosovo intervention was legal. They also note, as does Babich, that customary international law is contested: one state’s customary international law may be another state’s illegal aggression.

Robertson dismisses the idea that UN approval is needed before military action can be taken. He argues that humanitarian intervention is legitimate, and that it’s legal under international law unless and until it’s ruled to have been illegal. Robertson’s invocation of piracy in this context is odd; action against piracy was justified historically on the basis that pirates were hostes humani generis, enemies of mankind and outside the protection of any nation. Robertson also refers to slavery, which seems more relevant: British actions in suppressing the slave trade – such as detaining slave ships and offering the slaves their freedom – could certainly be seen as outside the law, and did cause international incidents. However, these were at worst acts of unlawful expropriation, for which the slaveowners and their governments could (and did) ask for redress. Any parallel with the proposal to ‘free’ the people of Syria from the use of chemical weapons through outright acts of war is stretched in the extreme. Skogly and Ulgen both argue that the responsibility to protect could justify intervention, although Ulgen does acknowledge that this would be outside the UN framework. Skogly goes so far as to argue that “responsibility to protect” makes intervention obligatory, although she avoids stating outright that it would be legal.

Four of the experts refer to the “responsibility to protect” principle; only Akande notes, correctly, that it supplies a reason for intervention rather than a separate justification, and does not justify action by individual states outside the UN Security Council framework. (McCorquodale says that a state-level “responsibility to protect” would not make intervention lawful; Skogly and Ulgen both suggest that it would.) Another word worth watching is “legitimate”, a particularly slippery concept in this context (and only used by Robertson and Ulgen out of our experts). “Legitimate” doesn’t have a precise definition, but I’m taking it to mean “of uncertain legality, but unlikely to be challenged”. Of course, this is a fundamentally political judgment, as it depends on what you regard as a challenge: a nasty comment on Voice of Russia? a formal diplomatic rebuke? a referral to the International Court of Justice? (Or, if you’re a Republican President, none of the above?)

Having picked my way through all these different opinions, I think things ultimately are as simple as Babich makes them seem. The putative legal justification for an intervention has been variously rested on the 1925 Geneva Protocal banning chemical weapons (which doesn’t justify intervention), on the doctrine of preventing crimes against humanity (which is purely customary) or on the ‘responsibility to protect’ (which is codified, but doesn’t justify intervention outside the UN Security Council framework). In short, there’s nothing there, unless you define ‘international law’ as ‘what states do and then claim to be legal’ – and that’s not really satisfactory if the reason you’re invoking international law is to justify your state doing something and then claiming it to be legal. In this ‘customary’ perspective, international law (like reality) really is “what you can get away with“. This approach may work for a while if, like the USA, you’re one of those states that tends to get away with things (Britain historically isn’t, to its credit). But it’s not a principle that could ever coherently be generalised – which may be why, as Akande says, most states don’t want it to be. Remove this impossible option – of a kind of informal international legal order built on generalised lawlessness – and we’re left, as Putin effectively said, with a choice between international law and exceptionalism: either the law applies to everyone, or we maintain that it doesn’t apply to us because we say so.

This isn’t to say that there will never be an international mechanism for intervention in cases of humanitarian crisis, or that the ‘responsibility to protect’ will always be subject to agreement at the level of the UN Security Council. International law can and does change. But it hasn’t changed yet – not in the way that the interventionists would have liked.

5. Hark, now the drums they beat again

I think the failure (legal as well as political) of the arguments for intervention is significant – and very welcome, if that doesn’t go without saying. It should, hopefully, set an enduring precedent.

I have some sympathy for the people who say

it cannot be the case that [Security Council authorisation] is the only way to have a legal basis for action … We could have a situation where a country’s Government were literally annihilating half the people in that country, but because of one veto on the Security Council we would be hampered from taking any action. …That is why it is important that we have the doctrine of humanitarian intervention

or

a system of law that would countenance mass atrocity without any remedy simply because the interests of a veto-wielding power at the UN blocks remedial action is morally unacceptable, indeed intolerable; and so where the UN itself becomes delinquent by not upholding some of its own most fundamental principles, the UN not only may, it should, be defied by member states willing to give those principles more respect.

or, more succinctly,

Viewed from the angle of UN legality, military action against Assad cannot possibly be legal … If military action against Assad is morally justified then that must be the case regardless of whether or not it is ‘legal’.

(James Bloodworth, David Cameron, Norman Geras. Not necessarily in that order.)

I don’t agree with them, because I believe they’re missing two very important points. One is that legality – even the cobbled-together legality represented by international law – is a virtue in itself, and an extraordinarily important virtue. If the legal system of England and Wales governs 56 million individual actors, the international legal order governs 200 (give or take a few). If a handful out of 56 million actors defect from an agreement, they’re in trouble; if a handful out of 200 defect, the agreement is in trouble. An action in breach of international law isn’t simply an action with the quality of not being internationally legal  – it’s an action which breaches international law, leaves a (customary) breach in it. In other words, it’s an action which makes international law harder to invoke from then on, and harder to develop further. (Let’s say we hope to gain Russian and/or Chinese agreement to the principle of “responsibility to protect”. Would acting unilaterally now make gaining this agreement in future (a) easier or (b) harder?)

Pace James B, if military action against Assad (or anyone else) is illegal, that must be the case regardless of whether or not it’s morally justified – or, to put it another way, regardless of how much we may want it to be legal. And if you’re going to use your moral justification to knock a hole in the – already horribly imperfect – edifice of actually existing international law, it’s going to need to be a very good moral justification. Which brings me to the second point, touched on by Akande. Politically, the great merit of a rush to war is that it gets you into the war nice and quickly, without too much time to sit around debating the whys and wherefores. Conversely, one of the great merits of insisting on legality – at least, insisting on stopping for long enough to have the argument about legality – is that it creates a pause in the rush to war, in which there’s time to ask the awkward questions: in particular, what is the government trying to achieve, and has it chosen the best means to do it? Fortunately – and thanks to some excellent political footwork from Ed Miliband – there’s been a long enough pause for those questions to be asked; I think it’s fairly widely acknowledged now that the UK (and US) government’s goal was all too unclear, and the means chosen seemed likely to be horribly counter-productive. But it was a close thing.

Too often, when the drums start beating, the appropriateness of military force goes unquestioned, even by people who position themselves on the Left. But if all your solutions look like craters, I think you need to ask yourself why you believe that all your tools are missiles.

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…

Just another country

1. The obligatory Italian parallel

The true intentions of certain groups of young people, who had arrived at Parco Lambro with their ski-masks in their rucksacks alongside their spanners and bottles of petrol, became clear yesterday afternoon … there was the sense of an organised manoeuvre, in the true sense of the word, and police intervention became inevitable: stones were thrown from one side, tear-gas grenades from the other
– l’Unità, 29th June 1976

Last night was an extreme situation. We haven’t dealt with such co-ordinated looting before. People set out to steal. This is a type of organised crime we’ve never seen before. This was organised: I was out last night and people were asking for directions to our town centre in order to attack it. … Businesses are angry, but people are calm. They understand this wasn’t social unrest, it was something different.
– Stella Creasy MP, 8th August 2011

I understand what has led many young people to break shop windows, but I don’t consider it to be the next step in the Italian revolution.
– Rossana Rossanda, 1977

2. Three tweets about looting

@jamesrbuk James Ball
Hard to see anything overly political in the looting of an electrical store (Curry’s) on other side of town (>10miles) to #Tottenham

@kpunk99 Mark Fisher
The right wing line on #tottenham makes no sense: if it’s all down to ‘criminals’, why the sudden upsurge in ‘criminality’ last night?

@sunny_hundal sunny hundal
Seems to me, what encourages looting isn’t poverty but the expectation you can get away with it. Same applies to the banks


3. Why Cynthia Jarrett is less relevant than the Martians

This is a peculiarly unsatisfactory piece: Jonathan Jones observes that images of the Tottenham riot and its aftermath make him feel weird (they are “uncanny and reminiscent of late Victorian science fiction”), then suggests that evoking apocalyptic imagery might be “a corrective to the mis-application of history”, i.e. the temptation to draw parallels with the rioting of the early 80s. But why shouldn’t we draw parallels with the 80s – why would that be a mis-application of history? Jones’s answer, in total, is: the rioters themselves are too young to remember the 80s; Marx warned against misapplying historical parallels in the 18th Brumaire; and…

It is worth looking at images of London’s violent weekend and asking how they make you feel. Far from fitting into any historical model, they seem to me to come from an imagined London, a horror scenario of the city as a blazing wilderness

…in other words, images of the Tottenham riot and its aftermath make him feel weird. What Jones is resisting here becomes a bit clearer in an afterword:

Walking out in my neighbourhood after writing this, I found that Gay’s the Word bookshop on Marchmont Street, one of central London’s best-known gay landmarks, had its window smashed last night. A substance seems to have been thrown at the window before it was broken. This was the only business attacked on the street. So much for any attempt to see radicalism (at least of a cuddly leftwing variety) in these events.

I’ve got to say, I’m gutted to hear that Gay’s the Word has been attacked & hope they get back to normal before too long. (That said, I’m not aware of any trouble in Bloomsbury on Sunday night – this could just be a nasty coincidence.) But there’s a more important point, which is that – as far as I can tell – nobody anywhere is reading a “cuddly leftwing radicalism” into the riots; certainly nobody is saying that looting Curry’s in Brixton was a political gesture. The “Robin Hood” interpretation of the rioting is a strawman, just as much as it was when Rossanda dismissed it in 1977: Jones (and James Ball) can trample it all they like, but it won’t dispose of the real question posed by the riots.

4. Where are we going, and why are we all in this handcart?
What people are saying (self included) is that politics doesn’t stop when crime starts. There are reasons why people steal and smash windows; more importantly, there are reasons why most people don’t steal and smash windows, most of the time. (Sunny was more or less on the right track here – but I don’t think the calculation that you wouldn’t get away with it is the only reason why people tend to obey the law, or the most important one.) One or two people whose behaviour isn’t governed by our usual reasons to obey the law is a problem for the police, the social services and politicians, in that order. The problem becomes political first and foremost when lots of people start acting differently – when all those reasons suddenly stop working in a particular place and time. And then, as Mark says, the question why can’t be avoided. More to the point, the question why is an interesting question – and it’s one that politics is much better equipped to answer than evocations of Wells or fantasies of manoeuvres organised by lurking criminal networks, vast and cool and unsympathetic.

What do I think it’s all about? A couple of quotes, lifted from comments on Guardian posts:

Even if the rioting is just an opportunity to lob stuff at the police and loot local mobile phone and shoe shops (as it appears to be in Enfield) it’s obvious something has been brewing for a while. It may be disorganised and opportunistic but still speaks of a disatisfaction with things as they are.

There’s a widespread myth that law and order is preserved by police, politicians and other forces of authority. Not true. Never has been. If we all decide to go out and chuck a dustbin through Argos’s window and help ourselves, it would take about 15 million coppers to contain it. We actually have about 150,000.

Law and order is kept by a collective acceptance of mutual goals. If, as a society, we look after each other, offer everyone a share and a stake in the common weal, maintain some semblance of a Rousseauian Social Contract, then the vast majority of people will mostly stick to the rules without ever needing to see a police officer. When people lose that sense of being looked after, no longer feel part of society, no longer feel like they have any kind of share in any kind of collective, the ties that bind begin to be broken.

Rioting, especially the type of vandalism and looting we’ve seen in London, is a sure sign that the social contract is unravelling around the edges. In the days and weeks and months to come, we shall see how far it has frayed.

A Socialist Worker friend of mine once explained to me in some detail how every Prime Minister since Attlee had been to the Right of the one before; I’m not sure how he got over Macmillan/Wilson, but he made quite a good case for Heath/Wilson. (This was before Thatcher/Major). I wouldn’t go that far, but it does seem pretty clear that certain trends that were set in motion during Thatcher’s first term have never really been reversed. Over the last 30 years, work at every level has been steadily proletarianised: employment is nothing but a contract providing money in return for a working day, and a contract that is ever easier for the employer to revoke. Business values permeate all areas of society. The overriding goal, at all times, is to turn a profit: anything that contributes to that goal is good, anything that doesn’t is dispensable at best. The service ethic – the idea of taking pride in a job well done, at whatever level; the idea that the job you do is a way of contributing to a society where ‘we look after each other’ – is little more than a nostalgic fantasy. The institutions that used to nurture it, and whose daily workings made it into a lived reality, have been asset-stripped and hollowed out by ideologues with MBAs. Social life has been radically privatised, and deinstitutionalised in the process – party membership, union membership, local authority employment have dwindled away, without anything taking their place. One of the things that gets eroded in the process is deference to authority – because who are these authority figures anyway? Just ordinary people, just interchangeable employees doing an interchangeable job – even if the job involves chasing people with sticks. (And then they start talking about a Big Society!)

What’s it like to grow up in this world – a world where your only consistent role is to ‘consume’, because nobody, at any level, has any interest in you as a worker? What’s it like to be told that you’ve got to take whatever job you can get, on whatever pay you’re offered, and not to depend on the job still being there for you next year or next week? What’s it like to be told that you’ve got to prove you’re actively looking for work before you can sign on as unemployed – or that you’ve got to prove that you’re incapable of work before you can claim disability benefit – and you’ve got to prove these things to someone who won’t get paid if they believe you? And what’s it like to have grown up in a world like this, and then to be told by a government of unprepossessing Old Etonians that you’ve had it far too easy up to now? And then, what’s it like to read that those same politicians, and the people who write the papers you buy, and the police who keep everything under control, are all involved in a network of corruption and deceit?

What we’ve got at the moment isn’t a protest movement, or even a wave of riots; if anything, it’s a particularly long and broad wave of looting. And looting isn’t a political act – but it sends a definite political message. It says, I’m not going to wait any longer; I’m not going to wait for next month or next year when I could have what I want now. It says, I’m not going to play by the rules of your system; I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but right now I’m having it. It says, I’m not going to live in your world any longer; I don’t know where I’m going to be next week, but right now I’m just going to do what I want.

5. A concluding unscientific postscript
Paul:

while people may have come together to riot and loot, they are likely to be doing so for different reasons. Some may be angry that they have no job.  Some may be keen to have a free mobile handset. Still more may be there because they fear their friends would call them a “pussy” if they did not attend.  Others may be there because they want to be able to talk about it with their mates in the days and weeks to come. For most indeed the reasons will not be fixed, and may change during the evening. I am sure some will have gone down for a look, and found the temptation of a broken-into off-licence a little too great.

We can, ultimately, establish no single motivation, and it is useless to try.  It just makes you sound like Theresa May. What we can say, though, is something about comparative incentives.

Most people from richer areas, who have jobs or who have a good chance of getting a good job, will not riot in the next day or few because their retaining their job or job chance through not getting a criminal record is greater than any of the other incentives I have listed above. … People from poorer, more deprived areas and backgrounds are rioting for different, shifting motivations, but they are doing so because they do not have enough invested in what the state can offer them to outweigh the benefits of that rioting. That is, the state has temporarily failed, because a significant group of people in London have decided it is just not worth living within its jurisdiction.

And Laurie:

People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all.

To end on the ghost of a positive note, that sense of collective power – that if you get a few people together, suddenly the rules don’t have to apply any more – is at the heart of a lot of radical mobilisation, although intellectual honesty compels me to note that it’s also at the heart of counter-revolutionary mobilisations and pogroms. Either way, a lot of the kids who were out last night are going to remember that feeling – is it ridiculously optimistic to hope that some of them will draw the right lesson (“don’t forget, we can also build”)? But that’s some way off. For now, I’m afraid things are going to get worse before they get better – I don’t see why the looting shouldn’t kick off again tonight (or any other night, for that matter), and the crackdown when it comes is going to be no fun at all.

Scaring the nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daily Mail:

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

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

Guardian:

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

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

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

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

Emphasis added.

Update Guardian, 8th August:

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

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

Well, that didn’t last.

In the depths of some men’s minds

Ken:

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

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

Flying Rodent goes into more detail:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They really are a treat

On a not particularly amusing day, I was amused by the news that the LGBT section of the EDL had planned a leafleting session on Canal Street in Manchester, but had bottled ithad a change of plan.

What do we know about Canal Street? Three things. Firstly, it is mad busy these days; the top end of the street, especially, is basically paved with little round tables, and if you pass through after work on a weekday you’ll find a good half of them occupied. (I should say before I go much further that Canal St makes a particularly good short cut from the station to a bus stop that I use; I’ve passed through quite a few times over the years.) Some of the venues are bar/clubs, some are restaurant/bars; some are ‘mixed’ (i.e. straight-friendly), some are gay but tolerant of the hen-night trade, several are gay with a capital G. It doesn’t make much difference: walk down Canal Street at 5.00 on a Thursday and they’ll all be buzzing. What a sunny Saturday afternoon is like I don’t know, but I can guess. If we assume that the Canal St clientele has a similar political makeup to the population as a whole, that would mean that 60-70% of those people were positively hostile to the EDL. Tough crowd.

Secondly, it’s been the place to go for a gay venue from way back. Back in the 80s – before any of the joints I’ve just referred to existed – there used to be more of a (heterosexual) ‘red light’ vibe to Canal St; once when I was heading for my bus a young & cheerful woman actually fell into step with me and walked along next to me describing her services. (Wonder where she is now. Hope she’s OK.) Even then, pubs like the Rembrandt and the New Union were spoken of in hushed tones, as if to say no really some of the people who go in those places actually are gay, some of them even look gay… Then came Manto, a ‘mixed’ bar at the bottom of Canal St where I used to go quite a lot on Saturday afternoons in the mid-90s; at the time I don’t think there was anywhere else in Manchester where you could drink beer while sitting on hard chairs at little round tables on a terracotta pavement, and the novelty was quite appealing for a while. There also weren’t many places where nobody would care whether you were gay or straight. Compulsory heterosexuality has never really cramped my style, but I still quite liked the atmosphere created by a bit of discreet outness. Manto was the first of many, and not the most assertive by any means. (It’s still there now, under different management, although it’s looking a bit sad; it’s been rather left behind by the development of the area.) The point is, Canal Street was gay-friendly at a time when being gay-friendly was deeply unfashionable, culturally and politically – and the nationalist right were the most hostile of all.

Thirdly, the hostility was reciprocated. Digressing a bit, here’s something I wrote in response to Michael Walzer a few years ago:

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”.

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.

The bridge was over the canal, beside Canal St. Happy leafleting, lads.

Forgive and forget it

From today’s news:

In his speech to the state department on Thursday, Mr Obama stated overtly for the first time that the peace talks should be based on a future Palestinian state within the borders in place before the 1967 Middle East War. “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognised borders are established for both states,” he said.

But speaking in the Oval Office after their meeting, Mr Netanyahu flatly rejected this proposal, saying Israel wanted “a peace that will be genuine”.

Israel was “prepared to make generous compromises for peace”, he said, but could not go back to the 1967 borders “because these lines are indefensible”. He said the old borders did not take into account the “demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years”.

Quoth Wikipedia:

Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish defines chutzpah as “gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible ‘guts,’ presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to.” In this sense, chutzpah expresses both strong disapproval and a grudging admiration. In the same work, Rosten also defined the term as “that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.”

Or the man who, having kicked his neighbours out of their house and moved his brother in, admits to stealing the house but explains that he can’t possibly give it back, because then his brother would have nowhere to live.

This, also from the BBC story, struck me as a particularly resonant one-liner:

The settlements are illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

PS I will get back to Norm and bin Laden, if anyone’s wondering. I’ll admit that I was under a slight misapprehension, inasmuch as I assumed that the reference to the September 11th attacks as “an act of war” wasn’t intended literally; I still don’t believe that the literal interpretation can be sustained without a great deal of effort, or that trying to sustain it is a good idea. However, that clearly is how Norm has been thinking, so I’ll have to give it some consideration.

He’ll drop you where you stand

I can’t help wondering where, exactly, Norm is going with this one (quote reordered but not reworded).

Israel’s killing of Ahmed Yassin:

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan: “I condemn the targeted assassination of Ahmed Yassin. Such actions are not only contrary to international law but they do not help the search for a peaceful solution.”

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, described the assassination as “very, very bad news”.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said: “Israel is not entitled to go in for this kind of unlawful killing and we condemn it. It is unacceptable, it is unjustified and it is very unlikely to achieve its objectives.”

Killing Bin Laden:

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed Osama bin Laden’s death as a key turning point in the struggle against terrorism.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said: “I would like to congratulate the U.S., pay tribute to its determination and efficiency in reducing the threat posed by terrorists and underline the close cooperation between the EU and U.S. in the fight against terrorism.”

Prime Minister David Cameron said that bin Laden’s death would “bring great relief” around the world.

And so on (the page linked also cites reactions from France, Norway, Brazil, Japan and the Vatican).

We could consider explanations for this apparent disparity that Norm and his source overlook. Most obviously, bin Laden was an effectively stateless individual who was waging (or perhaps had waged) a transnational campaign of political violence against multiple states. There was no obvious single cause around which negotiations or a peace process might have been initiated; no internationally recognised grievance on which bin Laden was recognised as a spokesman; no mass movement to demand negotations with bin Laden; and no actual or aspiring state-level actor in whose name bin Laden could have negotiated. The contrast with Ahmed Yassin is glaring. Whatever else he did, Yassin was an actor in the struggle for Palestinian statehood – a cause that most of the world recognises as worthy, and which most of the world hopes can be resolved peacefully. Some enemies, in other words, are better qualified to be shot down like dogs than others. Moreover, sometimes shooting down your enemies like dogs is just bad politics, exacerbating a situation that wiser tactics could ameliorate (“It is unacceptable, it is unjustified and it is very unlikely to achieve its objectives.”) There’s also a third explanation, which I’m afraid is probably just as significant as the other two: the world is wearily accustomed to the US going pretty much where it wants and doing pretty much what it wants, and doesn’t even bother to protest about it. However, this licence seems only to extend to one nation at a time. We could call that inconsistency, or we could just be thankful for small mercies.

But let’s, for the sake of argument, scrub out all those objections to the equivalence Norm is proposing here; let’s just say that in 2004 one country rubbed out an evil terrorist mastermind, in 2011 another country bumped off another evil terrorist mastermind, and the world’s reactions were strikingly different. What’s the implication? When we heard about the assassination of Yassin, should we have rejoiced at that news? And what’s the implication of that? Norm has always denounced the use of double standards where Israel is concerned, so presumably the lesson of Abbottabad is that it should be open season for evil terrorist masterminds wherever they may be. State see terrorist, state kill terrorist. No man, no problem. And if people say it’s unjust, or it’s not lawful, or it’s just bad politics… oh, please

Terrorism is scary stuff – the clue’s in the name – but it’s never worried me as much as counter-terrorism, and this argument of Norm’s reminds me of why that is. As it happens, I do draw a lesson from the Abbottabad execution, if that’s what it was (if it’s true that four people were killed, only one of whom had drawn a weapon, a better word might be ‘massacre’). I haven’t bothered blogging about it before now, partly because it seemed pretty obvious but mainly because Dave had said it already. But maybe it could do with saying again: state-sponsored assassination is wrong. State lawlessness is not a protection against individual lawlessness: rather, it’s far more dangerous, partly because of the vastly greater resources that the state has at its disposal and partly because a law-governed society depends on the state itself being governed by law (as Jeremy Waldron has argued, the rule of law is prior to the concept of law).

If you subscribe to a kind of extreme Hobbesian view of the state, in which the sovereign has both the power to make law and the power of life and death, so that a correctly targeted state killing must be legal – it’s his state, his rules – then you shouldn’t have any problem with the death of Sheikh Yassin, or Osama bin Laden, or for that matter Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage and Danny McCann. I didn’t think Norm held that view, though, and – more to the point – I can’t see any good reason why anyone would. So where is that argument going?

Cheers then mate

The second point I want to make about the debate over last Saturday’s violence (following on from the previous post) is about the representation of violence in the media.

There’s a widespread view that the black bloc’s approach was wrong because of how it looked – specifically, because of how it looked on TV. Thus Christopher Phelps on Sunday:

Here is what the story for yesterday’s demonstration should have been: half a million marchers, in the largest show of labour union strength in decades, turn out to oppose the government’s draconian cuts.

Here is what the story became: a few hundred anarchists, many dressed in black, trashed businesses and clashed with police on Oxford Street and in Trafalgar Square.

The anarchists, calling themselves the black bloc, stole the headlines from the 500,000 other protesters who’d travelled from all over the UK to express the refusal of millions to accept austerity as the consequence of a crisis they did not create.

and commenter Andrew on CT:

Demonstrations matter only insofar as they impact public perception. You have x minutes on the news, y column inches, and z number of reported salient facts to make that impact.

It makes very little difference whether those actually at the demonstration saw a mostly peaceful gathering; what matters is x, y, and z – at least if you’re interested in effecting change.

A small group of anarchists can switch over any number of those z salient facts, x TV minutes, and y column inches to negative.

Call me an old pro-situ, but I get very twitchy when I see it argued that what matters about a demonstration is how it looks on TV. It reminds me of something Joe Strummer (and a few friends) said in 1977, in the middle of a rendering of “What’s My Name” that was being shown on Revolver. Sang, rather – he inserted an extra verse, which went like this:

JOE: Here we are on TV!
What does it mean to me?

[looks at crowd]
What does it mean to you?
JOE AND CROWD: F*** ALL!

I remember that feeling: what mattered was to do it yourself, and if you couldn’t do that what mattered was to be there. And if you couldn’t do that, well, you could read about it in the NME, and read the letters the following week saying the first writer got it all wrong, and try to get along next time. Punk could disrupt TV, but it couldn’t work within TV any more than it could work within the marketplace – what would be the point? (Punk didn’t last.)

Radical politics, same same. As a general thing I think we all pay far too much attention to rally-as-spectacle as distinct from rally-as-collective-event. I’ve been on marches and demos, and I can confirm what Simon and Edd say:

A great thing about protests is the transformations in political consciousness that take place: people no longer feel alone, they feel empowered and part of something big; they are prompted to think about the issues that moved them to protest; they form political friendships.

There are moments, on huge demonstrations, where you can see and feel the ocean of people surrounding you, the jokes being cracked, the songs being sung, the drums beating. You lose a friend in the crowd, swap an anecdote with a stranger, and you think, “How can this possibly not make any difference?”

Even at a small demo of a couple of hundred people, the atmosphere changes; life feels different. Collective action seems like a reality, a possible way of living – in fact, for the duration of the demo collective action is a reality, and you’re living it. This change in the air is only temporary, and it has built-in limits. To continue the quote from Edd:

and you think, “How can this possibly not make any difference?”

Then you walk past Parliament and Downing Street, and you remember that just marching never makes any difference.

But it’s a temporary experience that can be returned to and built on. Back to Simon:

Uplifting mass protests, though, come with a danger attached. Unless they become the beginning of something sustained, with the capacity to keep a large number of ordinary people engaged, they can serve to simply defuse anger at the expense of political change. … This must be the first mass demonstration against this government, but not the last. There have to be regional events, industrial action, and occupations.

If it becomes the beginning of that sort of process – or, more precisely, another step in the development of that process, which (future historians may judge) began last autumn with the university occupations – the march will have done its job. What it looked like on TV is neither here nor there.

I’ve been particularly bemused by Harry’s argument on CT, seconding Christopher Phelps’s piece and comparing the march with the (huge and inspiring) mobilisation in Wisconsin. Harry:

We’ve lost in the short term (but so have the Brits), and yes, now, the issue is reversing some of the damage (as in the UK case). But we were not, according to the opinion polls, smeared as extremists or as having done $m of damage. That is, the party in power attempted to smear us as such, but failed … People are upbeat and optimistic, which enables them to do the dreary footwork of going to meetings, taking petitions door to door, making the arguments to their recalcitrant neighbors and workmates … 150 anarchists (or whatever they are) would have had a good shot at making the smears successful.

I think CP’s original piece was a bit of a vent, partly probably because the Brits seem so inured (as lots of you do) to this kind of thing and its effects, accepting that it will happening and discounting the effects of good press, or of negative press that can’t actually get a grip on the public because there is nothing to back it up. He doesn’t have a solution, nor do I, but it sounds as if nobody here thinks these folks can be more marginalised than they already are. Maybe that’s right, but its hard to believe.

Here’s why I’m bemused:

good press

I remember being at a union meeting, about 25 years ago, discussing possible strike action (it was a bit easier in those days; the first time I went on strike the decision was taken at a mass meeting, would you believe). A senior manager who had come along spoke at some length about how striking just now couldn’t achieve anything, there was this going on and that just round the corner, so really it was the wrong time to strike. Someone asked – either very naively or not naively at all – whether, in that case, he would support us if we called a strike in three months’ time. The manager actually laughed at this – No, of course not! I’m management!

I feel very similar about the possibility of demonstrations ever getting ‘good press’ in this country – and about the related question of the policing of demonstrations ever getting a bad press. There is a narrative of the events of last Saturday which assumes that the overall outcome was negative and locates all the responsibility for this in the black bloc: something like

1. Mass peaceful demo
2. Violence by anarchists
3. Police are forced to attack anarchists to prevent violence
4. Media are bound to cover anarchist violence, because it’s more newsworthy than the peaceful demo
5. Demonstrators smeared as vandals and hooligans, lose popular support

(More radical commenters may substitute “are forced to” at 3. with “take the opportunity to”.) By contrast, in Wisconsin there was

1. Mass peaceful direct action
2. No violence by anarchists
3. Police not forced to take on anarchists
4. Media cover peaceful demo
5. Demonstrators not smeared as vandals and hooligans, retain popular support

Which sounds great, and I’m glad the mobilisation is going so well in Wisconsin. But I’m also slightly baffled, for three reasons. Firstly, I’ve never believed that the police reaction to a demonstration is something that can be controlled by the demonstrators – any demonstrators. The relationship between political activity, heavy policing and arrests for public order offences is very well established in this country; it goes back to Duncan v Jones 1936, in which the court effectively endorsed the right of a police officer to prevent a public meeting taking place if the officer anticipated that disorder would result. The police, the logic runs, are there to prevent disorder, which may involve restraints on political activity; if the form taken by these necessary restraints involves physical force (or the denial of freedom of movement), too bad. This way of thinking gives limitless discretion to the police in deciding when a forceful response is needed: it does nothing to prevent them from escalating the level of confrontation unnecessarily, or even from provoking a level of violence which will justify the use of superior force on their part. The first of these certainly happened in and around Trafalgar Square on Saturday, and from what I saw (on TV!) I wouldn’t rule out the second.

Secondly, I’ve never believed that demonstrators have any influence over the media coverage of the demonstration, either. Where there is violence – any violence – it will be focused on, and the narrative of the Violent Minority who Spoil Everything will get trotted out. (Interestingly enough, where there is mass violence, as at Millbank, the narrative of the Violent Minority will still get trotted out.) In the unlikely event that a demo passes off completely peacefully, they’ll find another stick to beat it with – I remember coming home from a huge Anti-Nazi League demo with my mother (who had gone along with the Christians Against Racism And Fascism contingent) and hearing the BBC newsreader explain that the size of the demo was all down to “the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party, which has been recruiting in schools”. I still watch the news – let’s not get all this out of proportion; I still call the police if I get burgled, too – but, when it comes to reporting protest, the media are not on our side and never have been. In the case of last Saturday, I don’t believe the day would ever have ended without a few breakages and some graffiti – or, for that matter, without the Met getting some kettling action; consequently I don’t believe the media coverage would ever have been positive or unbiased or balanced or respectful. Everything would always have been Spoilt.

Thirdly, and to end on a positive note: after all that, I don’t believe the anti-cuts movement has lost any popular support. Or rather, I don’t believe it’s lost any of the popular support that it had. Like Simon, I started the day following Twitter (#march26, #26march or #march26march?), and like him I was struck by the level of hostility displayed by a few people. And this was while the coaches were still on their way – people were denouncing the march before it had even set off, much less been ‘hijacked’ or ‘eclipsed’. Some people really hate trade unionists; some people really hate workers in the public sector generally. Some people are convinced (at least for as long as it takes to compose a one-line message) that real workers – good, honest, British workers – cross picket-lines, work Saturdays and don’t get a pension, and that the worst injustice being done to these hardy souls is the extraction of income tax from their pay. And, needless to say, some people hate the whole idea of collective action. We didn’t lose the support of any of those people, and it’s hard to see how we could have gained it. So who did we lose? Are there a lot of people out there who didn’t go on the march and don’t know anyone who might have gone, and who might have supported it but for the intervention of the violent anarchists? Even if there are, can we be sure that taking the anarchists out of the picture would have resulted in media coverage that was entirely supportive, or police reactions that were entirely proportionate and restrained?

I don’t think we should be too quick to heap blame on the violent minority: partly because they aren’t entirely to blame for the impression that’s been created around them, and partly because that impression may not have done all that much damage. But there’s also a third reason, which is that the demand to identify, isolate and denounce ‘violent extremists’ is a very old one, and one which rarely does the Left any good – or is meant to. I’ll get on to that in the next post.

An extremist scrape

Our Margit declares if hoo’d cloas to put on,
Hoo d go up to Lundun an’ see the young Queen,
An if things didn’t alter when hoo had been,
Hoo swears hoo would fight, blood up to th’een.
Hoo’s nought agen t’queen, but hoo likes a fair thing,
An’ hoo says hoo can tell when hoo’s hurt.
– “The Four Loom Weaver” (trad., 1830s)

Well, I didn’t go – partly influenced, I confess, by dystopian fantasies of mass kettling – and it went off brilliantly:

a wonderful, spirited, and conviction-driven multitude of ordinary people, representative of the British population in their diversity, marched in their hundreds of thousands.In doing so, they made it clear – we made it clear – that we simply will not accept the dismantling of our welfare state and public services

And I’m not going to qualify that. The march went off brilliantly. Half a million people, give or take, assembled in the middle of the capital to protest against the government’s attack on public services. Activists, burnt-out veterans and absolute beginners, they came from all over the country – from the post-industrial northwest to the Tory shires – and they marched together. It was a truly remarkable march and it went off brilliantly.

Shall we look at that picture again?

I was right the first time: that was what last Saturday looked like. Cheerful, united, determined and very, very large.

If you stop here you won’t miss much. Continue reading

When your war is won

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kids, just say no.

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.

Dreaming your eyes away

A recent exchange from CT.

John Quiggin:

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

Me:

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

Quiggin:

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

Me: Continue reading

Hang your freedom higher

The situationists … don’t talk of a real utopia but an abstract utopia. Do they really think that, one fine morning or one decisive evening, people will turn to one another and say “That’s enough! Enough work and boredom! Let’s make an end of it!” and that they’ll embark on an endless festival, on creating situations? Maybe it did happen once, at daybreak on the 18th of March 1871, but that conjuncture won’t come round again.
– Henri Lefebvre, October 1967

Although I’ve written about activism, I’m not an activist; I tried it for a few years, in my late 20s and early 30s, but after a while I wanted my evenings and weekends back. I joined the 24th November demo in Manchester, although I legged it when it looked as if we were going to get kettled; I missed yesterday’s altogether (I was at a seminar on student activism, ironically enough) and I haven’t been to the Roscoe occupation.

So I’m seeing the current movement from a distance, and I may be getting it wrong in any number of ways. But, from what I’ve read, it seems like this could be the start of something big. This, from OxfordCambridge, is absolutely exemplary in terms of tactical, organisational and ideological innovation:

On Sunday, occupying students will host a General Assembly for all those who have been inspired by their action against the cuts and the ConDem government. “It is clear that the cuts we are facing go far beyond the student movement and so should the resistance. This large general meeting aims to address the question: “what next?” By bringing together school, sixth form, and university students, academics, workers, trade unionists, pensioners, anti-cuts and community groups we will help to build the movement in Cambridge and beyond.”

The Cambridge occupation has now ended, but occupations continue at Bristol, Leeds, Nottingham, Newcastle and of course Manchester; in London there are occupations at KCL, UCL, the LSE and SOAS. (This is not an exhaustive list.) There are thousands of angry, inspired and well-informed people out there, who have made a serious commitment to this movement; for a lot of them the occupations are providing some great experiences, enabling them to get to know themselves and what they’re capable of.

There is depth of feeling and attention to detail, along with the inevitable earnestness; reasoned debates take place over coffee – they’d bought a machine since continual café runs had eaten into the kitty – and stale sandwiches donated from a staff meeting. They look cleanish though tired and cold – the heating got turned off on Sunday night and today is Wednesday – but they’ve learned to get round things: a shower and a night at home every few days, a few hours’ work on their essays before bed, a break for a lecture and to pass out flyers. It’s like a ‘really big sleepover’, one student tells me; another says that it’s almost become a way of life. They talk of the dance-off they’d had with the Oxford Radcliffe Camera occupation via Skype, of the ‘fun’ they’re having. They didn’t know each other before and now they’re a community.

If the fees bill gets passed today, I think we can be confident that a lot of them will fight on. And in the unlikely event that it falls… I think we can be confident that a lot of them will fight on.

One outcome which I think we can rule out is quick and effective repression of the movement. This is largely because the government is unpopular and disunited; the kind of tactically heavy-handed and legally ingenious treatment the miners got in 1984-5 was only feasible because the government was united in the belief that it was cracking down on the Enemy Within, and an awful lot of ordinary people backed them in that. But we should also give the movement some credit for the way it’s responded to the police attention it has received. There’s a learning experience going on out there:

The Metropolitan Police seems to be on a mission to prove to everyone under the age of 25 that the Marxists are right and the bourgeois state is fundamentally repressive. Last week they gave a bunch of fifteen year olds mild hypothermia and severe anxiety as part of this project.

As we all know a big turning point in every revolutionary’s life is that moment when they learn to really hate cops. The youth are learning. Watch this little video of the student protests on November 30th from The Gabber to see how they dodge the cops’ kettling tactic.

(Do watch it – it’s inspiring and sometimes hilarious.)

Did I mention my book? It’s been fascinating – and heartening – to see the tactical creativity, the ideological openness and the defiant playfulness of the 1970s movements which I wrote about reappearing in this one. Another interesting parallel is the sense that the established revolutionary groups are being sidelined – or, at least, are having to learn how to follow as well as lead:

Here is an expletive riddled account by someone who was at a recent student organised event.

“We were invited guests of the most radical activists in town. They had a very good structure worked out, announced at the start of the meeting. 1 hour of ‘open mic’ on what cuts are affecting your workplace, community, sector or whatever, and what fightback is occurring (if any). 20 mins tea break. 2 hours of strategizing about where next – first in relation to education and then the wider cuts.

|Of course, it only works if people respect the agenda set. And then the f**king deatheaters started with their boring set speeches. Do they not get it? This is not a rabble that needs rousing – they are already more f**king aroused than the constitutional revolutionaries, whose main objective is to win this vote, or that position. Egomaniacs sucking the air and life out of the room.

“The students were too f**king civil – very good at reclaiming space from the establishment but haven’t figured out how to defend their space from sectarians. All they could do was politely remind people to stay on topic.”

You can see why she is furious. If ever there was a moment when the vanguard is running behind the popular mood insisting on its right to lead it is now. Pretending that your small group is the only leaders a movement needs is downright delusional. This could just be one of those occasions when the best thing to do is to let the movement run free and develop its own momentum.

Wise words mate. (“Deatheaters”!)

The other sure sign that the movement is starting to get somewhere is that attempts are being made to separate the “extremists” (those who are revolutionary, violent, criminal, beyond the pale of civilised politics) from the “moderates” (those who are willing to denounce the extremists). Sayeeda Warsi’s attempt to hang the ‘extremist’ label on John McDonnell deserved to be laughed out of court, but sadly – and only too predictably – wasn’t:

While it would be great if Ed Miliband came out explicitly for the occupations, in much the same way the NUS leadership has been shamed into doing, he is unlikely to do so because of the gravitational pull received practice and Labour’s contradictory location exerts on him. Given the choice of supporting students, winning tens of thousands of radical new adherents to Labour, and placing the party firmly on the side of opposition to the cuts; and the prevarication of politics as usual, he will plump for the latter every time.

I would argue that Labour’s “contradictory position” isn’t just that of the party of organised labour within a capitalist democracy, which is what Phil has in mind here. Labour is also, like the Italian Communist Party in the 1970s, occupying the role of “gatekeeper” in a relatively closed political system. The party is the arbiter of the leftward limit of what’s politically thinkable, and maintains that position by either denouncing or appropriating innovations from the broader Left. The fact that under Ed Miliband the ratio of appropriation to denunciation is likely to rise above zero doesn’t change that context, or its constraining effects: placing the party firmly on the side of opposition to the cuts would simply be politically impossible.

Rather more disappointing was the failure of a leading Green to get it:

The Green Party’s Jenny Jones who is also a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority … opted to issue a scabbing statement saying:

“In my 40 year experience of going to protests, the violent people aren’t real protestors at all. They are criminals who use the cover of a demo to do as much damage as they can. Real protestors want to make their point and get good headlines for their cause.”

a fault line is going to start running through every trade union, students’ union, political party, Christmas party and football team as the struggle heats up. It’ll be around trivial stuff like vandalism but underneath it will be a choice about whether you’re on the side of the fighters or the capitulators. Jenny Jones won’t be the last to jump the wrong way.

I think this is exactly right, except that it won’t be – at least, it won’t purport to be – about trivial stuff like vandalism: it’ll be done through accusations that protestors were being violent, or threatening to be violent… or tolerating other people’s violence… or tolerating other people’s threats of violence… or failing to denounce other people’s violence… or failing to denounce other people’s tolerance of threats of violence… and on it will go, if the protestors let it. I wasn’t entirely enamoured of Clare Solomon’s tactics when she was grilled on Newsnight, but she clearly recognised the importance of not walking into a trap when it’s been laid for you – which, sadly, is more than you can say for Aaron Porter. When people get angry they often damage property and break laws. Damaging property and breaking the law is generally a bad thing, but getting angry is sometimes entirely appropriate: an angry demonstration does not turn into a criminal demonstration if some of its participants commit offences, and nor is the movement behind the demo tainted by those individuals’ actions. (Nor should it necessarily back them to the hilt, on the other hand. I agree with Mary Beard, up to a point – being punished for breaking a law which you set out to break cannot reasonably be called unjust. That said, I think what she misses is that no law is ever applied with absolute uniformity. There is always a broader context which determines whether the law will be applied in particular cases; in this case the protests against the law, and the claim that the law was broken in a just cause, are part of that context.)

A couple of quotes from my book seem relevant here. (SPOILERS: they’re the last sentences of the last chapter proper and the methodological appendix, respectively. But it’s even better if you read the whole thing.) My book, incidentally, has sold 248 copies in the UK; considering that it has an rrp of £60, and is presumably only being bought by libraries and the odd eccentric millionaire, I think this is pretty good going. The hardback edition is only 400, and if we can sell that out a paperback should be on the cards; so if it’s not in a library near you, why not request that they buy a copy? It’s starting to acquire a certain amount of contemporary relevance.

In Britain, where the electoral system excludes social movements from the national political system, the Labour Party remains the principal Left gatekeeper. Faced with a disorderly and uncontainable rival to its left, Labour would have the same options as the PCI. An inclusive engagement would require the party quietly to appropriate and absorb the demands and tactics of the new movement, while publicly denouncing its leadership as irresponsible extremists. An exclusive engagement, in contrast, would involve denunciations of violence, escalating demands for dissociation and emphatic assertions of the party’s own commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Thirty years on, the Italian political system and the remains of the Italian Left still demonstrate how disastrous the effects of this approach could be.

in political systems which remain relatively impermeable, we should be alert to the power of the labelling mechanisms deployed by gatekeeper parties, in particular in the conditions of a negative engagement. We should be particularly wary of attempts to draw an authoritative dividing line between the ‘moderate’ and the ‘extremist’ elements of a social movement. A resolution passed by a national meeting of the ‘movement of 1977’ in April of that year concluded: ‘The movement does not carry out excommunications and does not accept the criminalisation of any of its elements.’ Neither should we.

One puzzle about this movement is where it came from: nationwide university occupations don’t come out of a blue sky, do they? One answer would be to refer back to poor old Lefebvre and say that sometimes they do just that. I think also there’s a combative mood that’s been building for a while, smouldering just below the surface. Ironically, it’s been fostered – or at least permitted to continue – by the fact that Labour were in office for so long. New Labour were certainly an authoritarian and pro-business government, but the two elements weren’t combined (as they had been under Thatcher) in a war on “militant left-wingers” and “union bully-boys”. New Labour’s authoritarianism mostly took aim at much softer targets – Islamism and “anti-social behaviour” – in a kind of punitive reinforcement of the social exclusion already suffered by marginalised groups. The result was that a generation forgot the lessons that were drummed into us under Thatcher: “pickets” meant “thugs”, “militants” meant “loonies”, “mass meeting” meant “mob rule”. In short, the taboos against collective action quietly faded away. Lindsey was an early – and impressive – sign of the kind of action that had become thinkable again. At the same time, and for similar reasons, radical ideas began to have a bit more purchase: the language isn’t always the same, but the ideas still work. A speaker at yesterday’s seminar suggested that “neo-liberalism” is becoming a master-frame for the current wave of activists: neo-liberalism gave us Iraq and Afghanistan, neo-liberalism gives us public spending cuts and now neo-liberalism wants to give us massively increased tuition fees. Neo-liberalism, nein danke. Those two taboos – against leftist thinking and against collective action – were the product of years of Thatcherite Kulturkampf, beginning in the mid-70s; it would take years to reinstate them, and it would take a stronger and more united government than this one to do it.

The other question is, of course, where it goes next. If precedent is anything to go by – and if that statement from Cambridge is at all typical – the next step will be to link up with workers in struggle; the next but one, to link up with workers who aren’t in struggle yet. We shall see. I don’t think today’s vote in Parliament will be the end, or even the beginning of the end – but it may be the end of the beginning.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 311 other followers

%d bloggers like this: