Category Archives: Me; running

So, was Trump a fascist?

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Back in September, I published a book Fascism: History and Theory, which tried to bring together in a single place my summary of the most revealing left-wing theories of fascism of the 1930s, and what I thought united them. I did not write it to reflect on the politics of the world crisis since 2016, or Trump. (I had only just published another book on that subject). I wanted to understand the past on its own terms.

But, last week’s autogolpe has changed the politics of the debate. Suddenly, it feels as if every historian of fascism is being asked their opinion as to whether Donald Trump is a fascist. Robert Paxton argues he is, Richard Evan insists he is not.  Without covering the same ground as either of them, I thought I would set out my own approach.

If all that was at stake in this argument was how much to be worried about Trump, then my sympathies would be with the people insisting on his threat, not those diminishing it. The effect of four years of Trump’s Presidency has been to increase the size and popularity of the right. Thousands of people who four years ago were mere isolated individuals without any meaningful audience, have been able to use Trump’s support so that now they have Youtube channels or twitter or facebook accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers. When those activists returned from the Capitol, they came home with the applause of their friends and relatives ringing in their ears. They are not chastened, they are eager for more.

All that acknowledged, I distrust the idea that we make sense of the present but attaching to it the labels of the past. After all, there was more than one way in which the model of the 1930s swept people behind Trump. In the most obvious example, people were fascinated by the evil of fascism, wanted themselves to appear large and cruel and monstrous, like Hitler’s followers. That’s why they wore tshirts saying “Camp Auschwitz” or saying 6 million wasn’t enough. But weren’t there also Trump followers role-playing their support for Churchill? I mean the people waving their Israeli flags, that part of the demonstrators who admire Trump because the outgoing American President Israel’s best friend. For 70 years, American has been telling itself a story in which the best thing that country ever did was join in with the war against Hitler. Repeating that narrative puts no barriers in the way of Trump’s ascendancy – it’s the same story that Trump himself tells.

More to the point, while this week it feels like the important use to which we can put the word “fascism” is as a measure against which to the hatefulness of Trump’s regime, the reality is that next month a different enemy will be checked against the same test, and the month after that it will be someone else’s turn. I’ve watched over the past 20 years as the following have been compared to fascism: Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gaddafi, the 9/11 hijackers, ISIS, the Israeli state, its Palestinian opponents, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, the Brexit-era Conservatives, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. If I asked whether any of them deserved the name, I’d be choosing between “very few, if any” and “actually none”.

In my book, I point out that the first generation of anti-fascists were principally concerned to distinguish fascism from two movements to which it was often compared. The first was ordinary conservatism. Compared to that, they argued, fascism was different. It was a counter-revolutionary threat, which gave itself the mission of smashing the existing state, and disturbing the balance of class forces which underpinned it.

A closer proximate were the many reactionary regimes which dominated in Europe once the revolutionary tide of 1917-23 had ebbed. By 1939, such states included Portugal and Spain and every state north and east of Italy – as far as Poland’s border with the USSR. Most of these had been formed from coups, but none (the likes of Gramsci, Zetkin or Trotsky argued) were fascist.

The difference, essentially, was this. Their military rulers had wanted to crush their insurgent opponents – trade unionists, anarchists and Communists – but they had not wanted to alter the composition of existing ruling elites (the Church, the army, business). Therefore, although their regimes began with spasms of violence, it petered out. After that, the regimes settled down into a military, authoritarian form of ordinary capitalist rule.

If you want to think of a single society which marks the border between “ordinary military” and “fascist” rule, it was Franco’s Spain. Formed out of a counter-revolutionary war, but characterise by a desire to maintain pre-fascist elites, the birth of the regime was marked by an extraordinary period of killings in which the state killed tens of thousands of people From that point onwards, however, Francoism ruled like a conventional military regime. Such genuine fascists as Ramón Serrano Suñer were marginalised and forced into a form of political retirement. A regime was established after 1945 which save for the absence of fair parliamentary elections was in many respects akin to the other Christian Democratic societies of postwar Europe.

The difference, I argue in my book, between fascism and these military regimes was that the former kept the reactionary and mass elements of right-wing politics in relative balance for much longer: there were still mass organisations, there were still mass realities, there was still an effort to disturb the balance of society and for the regime to be ever radicalised.

From this perspective, what sort of politician was Donald Trump? As President, he did not jail the majority of his opponents, he did not annul elections. If you were to come up with a single scale with “conservative” at 1, “non-fascist military dictatorship” at 5, and “open fascist rule” at 9 or 10, then on the things that matter you might give him a 2 or 3 out of ten.

If even Franco with his 100,000 deaths after the end of the Civil War is on the borderline of dictatorship and fascism, then Trump with his single extra-judicial killing, is so far below him that you have to start wondering, why are we even counting?

The answer to that is not just that Trump summoned an army into the street, but that he chafed at the limits of his politics, looked over the edge of ordinary electoralism, and was willing to consider the possibility of a future in which he was in power not as a result of winning an election but because of the armed support of his followers.

There’s a point to be grasped here about how fascist parties are formed. What is true of far-right activists is also true of the people who lead them. Think for example of Ashli Babbitt. At one point she was an Obama voter, next an anti-Clinton Republican, then a libertarian. Only in the last year does she appear to have taken Q seriously, and become the sort of person willing to put her life in the hands of her beloved President. We can see these as a series of incremental steps in one direction, with each seemingly making the next move inevitable.

Had the 2020 election been closer, had it been like Florida in 2000 the matter of a single state with a plausible argument that the results were genuinely unclear, Trump might have faced the much more serious possibility of staging a coup. Had he settled on that option as a serious possibility, rather than a desperate last-minute attempt to forestall an inevitable decision to accept the election result, we might be talking about a situation in which even more Republicans had supported him, and the armed forces might possibly have been split.

In those circumstances, the decision to take power primarily through a coup, would be the recognisable act of either a military dictator or a fascist. And, undoubtedly, it would have changed Trump. He would have given a pledge to his supporters, and would now have a debt to them. He would be the same person, with the same past history, the same personal style, but the logic of his decision to take power outside elections would have changed him.

We might still be talking about a “5” rather than a “9”, a civilian figure brought to power in a coup, rather than an ideological fascist. He would be something different however from what he was a year ago, or what he is now.

After all, at one point in history, even Hitler was not a fascist. He was merely an unemployed soldier and a gun to hire. The coming force in Bavarian politics was a local soviet led by Jewish anarchists, and Hitler was seriously considering siding with them. Hitler became a fascist through a series of choices, above all, through joining the forerunner of the Nazi Party.

Trump could have taken similar steps – choosing the armed path – if history had offered him a better hand. But it didn’t.

None of this is to argue that America is a healthy society, that the world is immune to fascism, or that the left needs to be standing down its online armies. That last’s a metaphor, of course. It is a good thing that millions of people are looking on in shock, that tens of thousands have been identifying and exposing the people that took part in the coup. We don’t need less outrage, we need more of it – we need people in the streets rather than watching mutely through their screens.

But the monster of our lifetimes belong to the future, not the past. Right now, all my instincts are to say that the people who need watching are the ones who marched on the Capitol – the Patriots, the Proud Boys – and not the people who sent them into battle.

As for Trump himself: he has had, and has wasted, his chance.

On the return of Luciana Berger

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[TW: antisemitism, harassment]

Looking over at Twitter, there seems to be a growing fear on the part of fellow socialists that Keir Starmer will invite back into the Labour Party people who left with Change UK. The name that keeps coming up in this context is that of Luciana Berger.

At a time when people who’ve been active on the Labour left for decades are being suspended for allowing their branch to discuss pro-Corbyn motions, I can understand why people feel that differential standards are at work (i.e. the Labour right is being tolerated even for breach of rules which are of decades long standing, the left driven out in the name of instructions with little basis in the rulebook). I get that.

But before anyone goes too far down that path, I’d encourage them to think about what actually happened to Berger in the Labour Party and whether any of us are really comfortable with it.

A quick recap. In 2014, the Daily Stormer website developed an obsession with Berger, and published about 40 articles about her, attacking her using the most open and blatant antisemitic language. One of the attacks ended “Tell her we do not want her in the UK, we do not want her or any other Jew anywhere in Europe.”

At one point Berger was receiving hate messages at the rate of 800 *a day*. Between 2014 and 2018 three supporters of the far right were jailed for threatening her. (A fourth case began with emails send by a fascist to her, although the sender was convicted and jailed for other, terrorism, offences).

If Diane Abbott is a unique target for sexist and racist use, then Berger has taken on a similar role in the antisemitic imagination. I cannot think of anyone in Britain who has received anti-Jewish hate in a similar volume to her.

Depressingly, an amount of this has come from the left. In 2013 (ie. before the Daily Stormer started stalking her) one socialist and anti-racist activist Philip Hayes the founder of Liverpool music venue The Picket approached Berger when drunk. He talked to her about Gaza and about Israel, and quite quickly about Jews. He said, “All Jewish people have money”. Hayes referred to the prime minister of Israel as “your Prime Minister,” and said, “I fucking hate Jewish people”. Hayes was convicted of a public order offence.

The other instance of criminal harassment of Berger from the left occurred in March 2018. A Labour activist Nick Nelson sent messages to two Jewish women MP, Luciana Berger, and Ruth Smeeth. He told Smeeth she was a “red Tory traitor” and Berger that she was a “vile useless Tory c**t” who was “using Judaism as a weapon”. He pleaded two guilty to two offences of harassment and was given a suspended prison sentence.

One thing worth noting about Nelson is that these tweets seems to have been sent in response to the single act for which people blame Berger the most – i.e. her decision in spring 2018 to share on her twitter feed an old news story about Jeremy Corbyn and an east end mural. This became the Mear One mural / Enough is Enough crisis – and probably did more than anything else to remove the moral sheen of Corbynism.

Analysed in “side” terms (the left v the right), you can understand why people were angry with Berger and blame her for Corbyn’s humiliation and defeat. I think they’re wrong. It seems to me that they are blaming someone visible on the far side of the party for a mistake made by us (i.e. Corbyn’s misreading of the mural, without which none of that would have happened).

But in anti-racist terms, Berger was a member of an ethnic minority complaining about racism at the head of her organisation. Criticising her, and abusing her, is what lawyers mean by “victimisation”, i.e. causing a person a detriment because they have made a complaint.

I could go on and on about the crap that was directed at Berger through 2018: stories that she had imagined a police escort purely to embarrass the leadership. Attempts to get her deselected, etc. Even the antisemitic tarring of the relatively few people on the Labour left who stood up for her, and opposed her deselection…

By autumn and winter 2018, on Corbyn-supporting social media pages there was a level of hate directed at Berger which was unforgiveable. She was called a traitor, an Israeli, a spy, and there was just an enormous amount of abuse directed at her, some sexist, some racist, some both.

The point I’m getting at isn’t about then, so much as now. Friends really, really, *really* need to let go of the idea that if Berger is allowed to rejoin the Labour Party then something terrible has happened. The bad things here are first Berger’s original treatment, and second the spurious exclusion of members for passing anodyne motions in support of Corbyn.

If Berger is allowed back, then it is not a failure on the scale of either of those two mistakes. If she is allowed back, you need to live with it.

Palestine in 2020

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I’ve seen a number of friends talking about Palestine on social media. I’ve also seen their friends asking some version of “what’s happening in the Occupied Territories?” (i.e. questions motivated by both an interest in what life is like there, and a lack of knowledge). I thought I’d share therefore something I wrote a few weeks back – a simple “explainer” setting out for people in the West how the occupation works and its impact on people’s lives

The Palestinians comprise a) nearly two million Arabs living within the pre-1967 borders of Israel, or a bit less than one in five of the Israeli population, where their average income is around a third lower than that of Jewish Israelis,[1] and they are more than twice as likely to have an income below the state poverty line.[2] They suffer discrimination in employment and housing, for example by rules offering employment only to those who have served in the Israeli army. Arab employment in the civil servant stands at just eleven percent, or around half of what it should be were it not for employment barriers.[3]

In theory, those living within the pre-1967 borders are permitted to vote in Israeli elections, and they elects members to the Knesset, enabling Israel to present itself to the world as a normal democracy. However Arab deputies are stigmatised, denounced by government ministers and subject to laws enabling other deputies to revoke their election at any time.[4] According to the Knesset’s Rules of Procedures, the Presidium “shall not approve a bill that in its opinion denies the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish People.” On the basis of those rules, between 2011 and 2019, four bills related to Palestinians’ rights, including their right to participate in public life, were disqualified before even reaching discussion in that parliament.[5]

There are then b) around 400,000 Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem which was annexed in 1967. They do not have Israeli citizenship, only a limited right to reside which can be taken away at any time (for example, if they marry a non-resident). They are not permitted to vote in Israeli elections. Laws prevent building in East Jerusalem and encourage the demolition of Palestinian homes, which the state does repeatedly, with 265 homes pulled down in 2019 alone.[6]

Then there are c) some four and a half million Palestinians living in occupied West Bank or Gaza. There, average wages are significantly lower than among Arab Israelis, at very roughly a half (the West Bank) or a quarter (Gaza) of what they are in Israel.[7] In spring 2020, the official unemployment in Gaza stood at 45 percent.[8] A small number of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories are employed in Israel or on settlements (around two percent of the population) there they suffer even worse discrimination than those living within Israel’s borders. Health and safety protections are minimal, workers are refused to switch employers, their work permits are routinely cancelled, and wages go repeatedly unpaid.[9] Although Palestinian literacy rates are among the highest in the world,[10] educational infrastructure is crumbling.[11] While, in autumn 2020, as Covid struck, health officials were warning of a lack of ventilators, PPE, and medicine.[12]

In Gaza, economic blockade has meant that fewer than one in ten households have access to fresh water.[13] Access to electricity is interrupted. The roads which join Palestinian towns are broken, every few hundred metres, with a fresh checkpoints, many of them created by Israel’s 400 mile long separation wall, more than four-fifths of which meanders within the Western Bank far inside the Green Line (the supposed border with Israel).[14]

Meanwhile, repeated incursions from Israeli troops, including by helicopter,[15] and in bulldozer raids and night-time bombings cause even during times of apparent peace repeated civilian deaths. Two hundred citizens from West Bank and Gaza were killed in 2019, according to the UN; while eight Israeli civilians also died.[16] Between 2018 and 2020, night-time raids on the occupied territories were taking place at the rate of 250 per month. No warrants were required to justify these raids. They left their victims feeling unsafe in their own homes and beds.[17]

Palestinians residents of the West Bank or Gaza are not citizens of Israel, have no right to travel there unless (exceptionally) for work, and have no rights or legal status within that country. By law even a Palestinian married to an Israeli is prohibited from being a citizen of Israel or residing there. As Prime Minister Sharon explained, when the law was introduced, “There is no need to hide behind security arrangements. There is a need for the existence of a Jewish state.”[18]

The West Bank and Gaza are not contiguous; it is a matter of extreme difficult to travel from one part of the occupied territories to the other. Citizens of the occupied territories are not citizens of Israel, are permitted only to vote in elections for the Palestinian Authority, which has no effective control over most of the matters which normally constitute statehood: people, goods, food, medicines and even water enter only by Israeli consent, which is repeatedly withdrawn.

The fourth and final element of the Palestinian population are d) the refugees of Israel’s wars, who live in exile (many in cramped conditions in refugee camps),[19] and their descendants. Some 4 million Palestinian refugees, including the survivors of the 800,000 people[20] displaced in the 1948 Arab-Israel war, and their families, are registered for humanitarian assistance with the United Nations.[21] Members of this group are excluded from Israel citizenship and deprived from returning to Israel. Their homes and land were part of historical Palestine and are now occupied by Israel. “Our dead are still in the cemeteries of others,” the Palestinian poet and author Mourid Barghouti has written, “our living are clinging to foreign borders.”[22]

When speaking of Palestinian refugees, it should be recalled that Israeli attacks on other countries in the region have destroyed some of the few places where Palestinians were allowed to live in relative peace; notably Beirut which prior to Israeli’s 1982 invasion and the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, had been “the birthplace for thousands of Palestinians who knew no other cradle … an island upon which Arab immigrants dreaming of a new world landed”.[23]

For all Palestinians, occupation is a constant and ongoing process:

[It] prevents you from managing your affairs in your own way. It interferes in every aspect of life and death; it interferes with longing and anger and desire and walking in the street. It interferes with going anywhere and coming back, with going to market, the emergency hospital, the beach, the bedroom, or a distant capital.[24]

None of these Palestinian groups have the same citizenship rights in Israel as the country’s seven million Jewish citizens[25] – nor indeed the same citizenship rights as Jews living in Britain, France, or the United States. Rather, a panoply of directly and indirectly discriminatory laws make them second class citizens or permanent exiles.[26]

Sources:


[1] ‘Wages of Jewish workers in Israel 35 percent higher than Arab counterparts,’ Middle East Monitor, 11 December 2019.

[2] Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, ‘Israel’s Annual Poverty Report: Decline in Arab Poverty Meets Increase in Depth and Severity’, 5 February 2019.

[3] N. Ahituv, ‘Could Netanyahu Actually Be Good for Israel’s Arabs?’ Haaretz, 31 October 2019.

[4] Y. Jabareen, ‘Silencing Arab members of the Knesset would be a new low for Israeli democracy,’ Guardian, 1 April 2016.

[5] ‘Israel Discriminatory measures undermine Palestinian representation in Knesset,’ Amnesty International, 4 September 2019.

[6] J. Magid, ‘2019 saw spike in Palestinian home demolitions by Israel, rights group finds,’ Times of Israel, 6 November 2020; for justification of previous waves of house demolition, E. Habiby, The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist (London: Arabia, 2010), p. 125.

[7] ‘The Working Conditions of Palestinian Wage Earners in Israel’, Center for Political Economics, February 2017.

[8] ‘Labour Force Survey Preliminary Results First quarter January – March 2020’, 31 May 2020.

[9] Kav LaOved, Worker’s Hotline, undated but accessed 20 August 2020.

[10] Around 4 percent of adult Palestinians, compared to 16 percent in Britain. ‘Literacy Rate of Persons (15 Years and Over) in Palestine by Age Groups and Sex, 1995, 1997, 2000-2013’, Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 2014; ‘Adult literacy’, National Literacy Trust, accessed 26 October 2020.

[11] In 2014, thirty percent of Gaza schools needed rebuilding as a result of that year’s Israeli military attacks. ‘Education,’ United Nations Development Programme (2015).

[12] W. Mahmoud, ‘Gaza declares COVID-19 disaster with health system near collapse,’ Al-Jazeera, 23 November 2020.

[13] G. von Medeazza, ‘Searching for clean water in Gaza,’ Unicef, 10 January 2019.

[14] ‘The Separation Barrier,’ B’tselem, 11 November 2017.

[15] “The helicopter hovering above the refugee camp / As though it were dusting a field,” A. Shabtai, ‘Mice of the World Unite,’ in T. Nitzan and R. T. Back, With an Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry (New York: Excelsior Editions, 2009), p. 19.

[16] ‘Data on Casualties’, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, accessed 20 August 2020.

[17] P. Beaumont, ‘Dehumanising: Israeli groups’ verdict on military invasions of Palestinian homes,’ Guardian, 29 November 2020.

[18] A. Abunimah, The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014), p. 25; U. Forat, ‘For an Israeli Married to a Palestinian, Family Unification Is Forbidden,’ Haaretz, 1 June 2020.

[19] Sahar Khalifeh writes of “Life in the refugee camp, in a tiny room the size of a chicken coop, amid the clamour of people and their secrets”. S. Khalifeh, The End of Spring (Northampton, Massachusetts: 2008), p. 9.

[20] David Gilmour writes that the exact number of refugees was never established. The UN Economic Survey Mission put the total at 726,000; the Refugee Office of the UN Palestine Coalition Commissions placed it at 900,000, and the true figure is probably somewhere in between. D. Gilmour, Dispossessed: The Ordeal of the Palestinians (London: Sphere Books, 1982), p. 74. The Jewish population of Palestine was at that time just 630,000 people. S. Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People (London: Verso, 2009), p. 281.

[21] ‘Palestine Refugees,’ United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees int the Near East. Accessed 1 August 2020.

[22] M. Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), p. 38.

[23] M. Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), p. xii.

[24] Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah, p. 48.

[25] ‘Monthly Bulletin of Statistics,’ October 2019.

[26] Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, has published a list of more than 60 Israeli laws which at discriminate directly or indirectly against Palestinian citizens in Israel or Palestinian residents of the occupied territories. ‘Discriminatory Laws in Israel’, Adalah, accessed 26 August 2020.

On not running at all

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calf pack

A couple of weeks ago I was thinking about not running a marathon, since then I’ve not been running at all. When  you see a physio, what they are usually looking for is evidence that you’ve been overworking your body, most often by running too far. If not, then by running too fast. The more memorable cases are ones where there has been some change of technique without increased effort. In runners, that might be something like a new pair of shoes subtly altering your “form”, ie your running technique.

The following (me at the start of this month) constitutes a kind of full house: new running shoes, increased mileage (60 miles in one week), two races in successive days, the second of which was a pb of sorts (10k on the road). In the same seven days which had seen all of these changes, I’d also been experimenting with running with music. Normally, that isn’t my thing at all but I was enjoying playing my phone on shuffle and seeking how even the dullest and most formulaic music (Fields of Athenry by the Dropkick Murphys, bless them) would give my tired muscles a jolt. Six kilometres into my last race, I could feel a soreness in the middle of my left calf. By the race’s final 100 metres my leg was a sniper’s victim taking bullet after bullet.

Three weeks with no running, the physio says. Three weeks at a minimum.

 

On not running marathons

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gurningLyon

There are so many good reasons for not running marathons. The training for a start. A standard marathon training plan will invite the runner to build up their distance until they are running 80 to 100 miles without difficulty every week. At the slow speed that I need to run those distance, in order to avoid injury, that’s around 10 hours running every week, on top of which you can add about half the same time again in the hot baths I take (again, to avoid injury) every time I have run further than two or three miles. That’s two hours you have to find every waking day, time you lose between being with the boys when they awake, taking them to school, cooking for them, their bed time story, their coding club, their swimming or their football teams. Ten hours a week for thirteen weeks: that’s the writing of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or The Remains of the Day .

Then there’s the pain. So far this year, I have run indoor track races at 400, 800, 1500 and 3000 metres. At every one of those distances I could feel my speed deteriorating the longer the race went on. The last of those races, a 3000 metres on the steep blue banked-track at Lee Valley, I ran the final kilometre a full thirty seconds slower than the first k. That’s what lactic acid does, it hurts. The bounce with which you set off: it departs. Your knees, which once lifted from the track in something like a bicycle motion, shuffle. Your feet lift so heavy from the ground. Friends tells me that they survive distance races by breathing in ever deeper mouthfuls of oxygen, in their own private approximation of a woman giving birth, “Gas and air. Gas and air.” “I want an epidural now.” I’m sorry, the marathon midwife says, you’ve got four hours thirty minutes of just air and air.

I’m not a long-distance runner; I weight too much. My bones are too big. Vestigial as those muscles may be, I did once have some fast-twitch muscle in my legs and its memory and its burden remains.  In the distance past I used this blog to sing the praises of a kind of running, middle-distance running, which suits a personality trait so deep – my preference for the sudden burst over the slow journey. I’ve run a lot since then, 100 miles a month for the last five years but never once have I managed 100 or even 80 miles a week.

“The party of home ownership”

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So how many properties do you own? “I own a house in North Kensington which you’ve been to and my house in the constituency in Oxfordshire and that is, as far as I know, all I have.”

A house in Cornwall? “No, that is, Samantha used to have a timeshare in South Devon but she doesn’t any more.” And there isn’t a fourth? “I don’t think so – not that I can think of.” Please don’t say, “Not that I can think of.” “You might be … Samantha owns a field in Scunthorpe but she doesn’t own a house…”

Source: Times [David Cameron forgetting how many houses he owns, May 2009]

“We’re not bothering you, we’re from the press”

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I have extracted the sound file of Jeremy Corbyn being harassed by the media on Sunday. They have already caused suffering by door-stepping several members of his extended family, people who never chose to be in the limelight, and are entitled to their privacy.

After a while you stop listening to the questions, and hear only the answer, the rhythm of Corbyn’s feet. He walks as a sometime runner might, with purpose. You can also hear his fatigue. This is a figure, after all, who has given more than 100 speeches to his supporters in three months, and addressed (in addition) so many joint debates that his rivals (20 years his junior) are exhausted. As her prepared himself for his victory he may well have thought, naively, that a holiday was in order.

So much of all our collective longing is invested in him. How heavy that burden must be.

Whatever scenario you might paint in your imagination as to how socialism “should” come about, do not kid yourself that the path would be any easier for an English Trotsky, a British Che, a North London Bakunin.

“Why do you keep walking”, he is asked, “and not answering the question?”

In the press reports, it is said that Corbyn is rescued by an aide, but I’m pretty sure it is in fact his son Tommy – good on him.

And then the journalist becomes conscious, for a moment, of where he is and what he is doing. “Jeremy, we’re not bothering you, we’re from the press.” Well, what do you think you are doing? It is not enough to say ‘our job’. Everyone, whatever they do, always has a choice.

On the Independent Greeks; and on Alliances

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kammenos

Six weeks ago, when Syriza formed a coalition with the Independent Greeks a common view among my friends was that this was Syriza’s first betrayal and that others would inevitably follow. The story was familiar; outside government, Syriza had promised to do politics differently, including granting 100,000 migrant children in Greece full citizenship, tearing down the refugee camps and rehousing the people in them. It would be the greatest challenge to Fortress Europe in a generation. But electoral parties are no different, the pressure of keeping in office always moderates reformists. And by joining with the racists of the Independent Greeks, Syriza was indicating its willingness to compromise on everything.

This pessimism was always unconvincing. After 40 years of left-wing parties exercising ever greater efforts to show how little they differ from the press-business neoliberal consensus, paling their flags an ever lighter pink as they went, Syriza is very clearly a different sort of project. And it was never going to be exhausted merely by its first, incomplete, compromise.

Being short of a majority in parliament, Syriza had no real option but to do a deal with someone. The KKE had already refused an alliance, foreshadowing its present position which is to vote with New Democracy and PASOK. The only other option, the River, was a party of neoliberal enthusiasts for cuts; on the central issue facing Greece –  austerity – the Independent Greeks were Syriza’s only possible allies.

And there are many different kinds of alliance. Such was the Parliamentary arithmetic (Syriza only needing two votes for a majority) that Tsipras had no need to water down on his commitments. This was reflected in his party’s deal with the Independent Greeks, where the two parties agreed to vote for migration policy along party lines (ie Syriza will get these measures through without needing the Independent Greeks’ support).

Far from dropping its promises, Syriza has renewed its commitments, on citizenship, and on the camps. The migration minister is Tasia Christodoulopoulou, doyenne of Greek migrants’ lawyers – the equivalent in England of giving our unreconstructed CLR James-ite Ian Macdonald the job. Indeed even the wretched four-month bailout deal has given Syriza additional reasons to maintain its promises to migrants. Precisely because its economic programme has become harder to implement, Syriza has needed to show that its social programme remains undiluted.

At this point, the voice of conscience intrudes. Isn’t the whole point about left-wing governments (or, at least, those worthy of the name) that they make no compromises, and in particular they do not, under any circumstances, make an alliance with conservatives or racists?

It may be helpful to review at this point some of the compromises that the party most often cited as a comparison, the Lenin-era Bolsheviks, made with its enemies. Brest-Litovsk, the recruitment of Tsarist officers to senior positions in the Red Army, one-man management in industry, the NEP, the Rapallo peace treaty under which the German military hosted its research facilities in tanks and chemical weapons on Bolshevik soil. The pamphlet in which the Bolsheviks drew up a balance-sheet on their experiences drew the inevitable conclusions – “to reject compromises ‘on principle’, to reject the permissibility of compromises in general, no matter of what kind, is childishness, which it is difficult even to consider seriously. A political leader who desires to be useful to the revolutionary proletariat must be able to distinguish concrete cases of compromises that are inexcusable and are an expression of opportunism and treachery.”

Some of the Bolsheviks’ compromises went deep. As Isaac Babel pointed out, long ago in Red Cavalry (and as Brendan McGeever has shown again in research which, when it makes it into print, should be compulsory reading for anyone nostalgic for a time which never existed), these compromises included in 1918-1919 leaving local Soviet power in many areas in the hands of people who were murderously anti-Semitic. This approach proved temporary because the Civil War finished and there was then a struggle within the fragile Soviet regime to purge itself of these elements.

So, a compromise with conservatives or racists is always unwanted and undesirable (means and ends always interconnect), but may be necessary as a temporary device provided as a minimum that it is the right making the principal compromises and the direction of travel is towards liberation.

Panos Kammenos, the leader of the Independent Greeks is no outsider, having been an MP for New Democracy for 20 years and a former minister for the shipping industry. The majority of its MPs were recruited like Kammenos from the anti-bailout wing of New Democracy, although they have had at least one MP come over from PASOK. The party is fiercely nationalist, and enthusiastic about the Orthodox church. Its racism expresses itself in two ways, first, in a hostility to migrants, and second, in a tendency to explain the Greek debt crisis in terms of banks, and therefore Jews, who stand in familiar anti-Semitic trope as the imaginary, physical embodiment of all that is wrong with finance as opposed to industry.

Just as Syriza has profited from “pasofikation” (ie the dramatic collapse of the main party of the centre-left, in conditions where it ceased to offer its voters anything), the Independent Greeks seem to have their own plan to become over 5-10 years the main party of Greece’s political right. They act as if they believe that austerity will ultimately be cancelled, and that all the parties which attempted to enforce Greece’s debts will wither. One of the Independent Greeks’ key proposals is therefore to investigate the terms under which during the second half of the 2000s New Democracy agreed to a massive increase of Greece’s debts, and to prosecute the ministers responsible. A deal with Syriza, from this perspective, is merely the means to an end: the complete reconstruction of the Greek political system and the defeat of New Democracy, after which it will be left vs right politics as usual.

English writers tend to compare them to UKIP, but they are in other respects more akin to the kinds of far-right “independents” that became the third power in the House of Commons between 1918 and 1920, in a period of intense paranoia about German power. To understand their appeal you may recall the inventor and champion of middle-class life but serial debtor, Caractus Potts, in his war with the Vulgarian (i.e. German) Baron Bomburst. Beneath the castles of the Baron’s power are the children of the poor, held in debt bondage through the medium of the (Jewish) childcatcher. The secret of German power, it follows, is its hold over the debt. If only the Baron can be captured, the children will go free. But who will defeat the Baron? You could scour Ian Fleming’s books (or those of his predecessors Erskine Childers or John Buchan) for an answer but you will find none.

Kammenos’ thinking suffers from the same weakness: the Independent Greeks are furiously anti-austerity, and blame Troika, and behind them “Germany”. During the negotiations, they were if anything harder against compromise with the Eurozone than Syriza. In contrast to them, Syriza has an idea of how to renegotiate the balance of forces within Germany – by encouraging the election of anti-austerity parties in Spain, Portugal and Ireland, and by promoting anti-austerity leftists in Britain, German, etc. The Baron can be defeated in other words, by the German Left Party, or (beneath it) by the German working class. Short of switching Greece’s client status to some alternative backer wealthier than Germany, Kammenos has no equivalent plan. His racism, in other words, constantly limits the desire for national independence which is his party’s rationale.

Syriza’s strategic thinking in response to the Independent Greeks appears to be as follows. The tasks facing the left (which remains a minority) remain too large for the social forces available. Therefore, the left has to try to split the right into two parts, a first with which it is possible to work, and a second (New Democracy, Golden Dawn), who are or will be beyond the pale. The Independent Greeks are sufficiently robust allies, not merely because they are committed to anti-austerity politics but because their social base reflects above all the influence of the Orthodox church, which has a very wide but very shallow hold over large parts of the Greek people and even dispossessed classes. If the recomposition of the left happens on the terms that both Syriza and the Independent Greeks want, Syriza predicts, the destruction of both Pasok and New Democracy, will not just result in the replacement of one old left-right rivalry with a new one (Syriza versus the Independent Greeks), it will also lead to a shift between left and right, with the future balance of powers foreshadowed by Syriza’s present hegemony in the coalition (it has 12 times as many seats as the Independent Greeks). Syriza will win because it will prove to have been the better fighters against austerity – and the (limited) polling evidence to date appears to be that it, rather than Independent Greeks, has been winning the most voters from New Democracy since the election.

An obvious attraction of this thinking to those of us outside Greece is that is a strategy for dealing which the right which envisages a victory over it. As such, it has an advantage over our usual way of thinking in which the right represents a significant social layer (the petty bourgeoisie) which has a static position of utter hostility to the workers’ movement, and whose racism is permanent and unsatisfiable. We have an idea that if this class throws up outlier parties, they may become so unpopular that we might isolate and physically defeat them. But we have seemingly no conception at all of how to go beyond a situation where they are not outliers but more respectable, and we (rather than they) are the unpopular minority.

Now the fact that a party has a plan does not mean that it is guaranteed to succeed. The gamble (as it is best characterised) risks treating the “left” and the “right” as if they were objective political realities rather than temporary relationships. Precisely because Syriza has had some success in quarantining off the bad parts of the right, they risk over-using the tactic. You can see this danger when it comes to the pending  prosecution of the leaders of Golden Dawn, Greece’s neo-Nazi revivalists, with their base in the police and their 5% of the vote.

Critics of Syriza to its left have taken umbrage at Syriza’s suggestion that elected Golden Dawn MPs should be released from custody to attend votes in Parliament suggesting that Syriza is extending too much deference to the right, and warning that Syriza may be cooling as to the prosecution itself. At this distance, it is impossible to know whether they are right about the prosecution itself (which is necessarily in the hands of the judiciary rather than the politicians) or these are the exaggerated fears of people who have committed themselves in advance to the narrative that Syriza will betray its supporters. But Syriza’s friends should be watching closely and urging the government to take no steps which help the fascists.

There is a second area where the alliance with the Independent Greeks bears a risk; and it is in terms of Syriza’s analysis of its  problems with Europe. Because they are advocates of simple, conspiratorial thinking, the Independent Greeks tend to explain all of Greece’s difficulties simply in terms of “Germany”. Here they risk bolstering some in Syriza for whom neo-liberalism in Europe is a German  phenomenon, and all sorts of alliances (with the United States or Britain or with Italian or French technocrats) remain potentially open. The alternative tentatively emerging within Syriza, which gives the greatest weight to explaining the balance of forces honestly to the party’s supporters, is incompatible with that sort of fantastical thinking.

The alliance with the Independent Greeks remains a difficulty, then; even if it is not yet the fatal germ against which Syriza’s original critics warned.

Peter Sedgwick, The Unilateralist State

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[first published as anon, ‘Say no to Nato’, Rebel, September 1960]

After nuclear disarmament, then what? it would be good to think that we were anywhere near asking that question. Most of us in CND are too busy asking, “Before nuclear disarmament, what?” to bother about very long-term crystal-gazing. However, it is very necessary to have a general picture in one’s mind of the kind of Britain that could pursue a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, and the kind of foreign politics that such a Britain would follow.

If we limit our vision to what a single anti-nuclear government could do in NATO to influence its “partners” towards abandoning the Bomb we are not trying to see nearly enough possibilities. Of course Adenauer, De Gaulle and the American government won’t listen. But a British government which had abandoned nuclear arms would also, if it was consistent, have to abandon the use of the Bomb by other governments on her behalf; that is, simply to refuse to stay in an alliance dominated by an atomic strategy. This does not mean isolationism. On the contrary, Britain would have to appeal to the peoples, and particularly the working-class movements, of other NATO countries, to follow our lead.

A year or two ago there was a vast anti-Bomb movement in West Germany, an Aldermaston in every major town, which petered out largely because it didn’t seem to be acheiving any real change. But if the working people of the world were faced with an actual government which had given up the Bomb, the international consequences would be tremendous.

After all, the reason why the Stalinist brand of Marxism has had so much influence in the world over the last thirty years, as opposed to other, less influential varieties like Trotskyism or Austrian Marxism, is that there has always been at least one important Stalinist government actually existing in the word. An anti-nuclear Britain would have at least as shattering an influence, by-passing governments and disarmament conferences, as October 1917.

I would certainly agree that there is a risk, if we were to break out of the Cold War, of being squeezed between the rival politics of Russia, or China, and the USA. But we run that risk anyway by being in the Cold War. The Deterrent theory is in any cause the maddest gamble in the world, beside which even the most risky alternative of breakthrough seems as sure as a fixed roulette-wheel.

It is difficult to understand how members of CND can have any doubts about NATO. NATO and the Bomb are inseparable for Britain and if you reject one you must reject the other. General Gruenther stated as long ago as 1954 that the Western Powers had already “passed the point of no return” in the use of conventional weapons, and that he had “no choice except to use atomic weapons whether the enemy does so or not” (quotes from Alistair Cooke, Guardian, 1/3/55). It is quite unprincipled for people like Crossman and Wigg to talk of Britain giving up her own Bomb and contributing conventional forces to NATO. This only means that we will start or engage in the “limited” wars, a new Korea or Suez perhaps, that may develop into an “unlimited”, “unconventional” H-Bomb blitz.

The policy advocated here is probably best called “subversive neutrality”. A government which was seriously neutral and anti-Bomb would have to be subversive too about its domestic capitalism. It is inconceivable that the vested interests of British imperial capitalism would stand by quietly and watch their overseas alliances and nice fat arms-shares fade away into nothing.

A Britain which gave up the Bomb and the arms-race and stayed capitalist would in any case find itself in a serious economic crisis, since static military spending provides an essential boost to a private-enterprise economy.

That means the only sort of government that is capable of implementing CND policy is one which is revolutionary -Socialist and internationalist. A tall order you might say; but no taller than the facts of power demand.

[Thanks to John Rudge, for finding the article and confirming the attribution. More on Sedgwick here]

The debate in Syriza concerning Grexit

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Consider three people. First, Costas Lapavitsas is the recently-elected Syriza MP for Imathia and a lecturer in economics at SOAS. Four years ago, he was at the heart of an intense debate within Syriza as to whether the party should have a policy of leaving the Eurozone (“Grexit”). In an ebook ‘Against the Troika’ which Lapavitsas wrote with Heiner Flassbeck, and was published at the end of January 2015 by Verso, Lapavitsas and Flassbeck predict that a Syriza or Podemos government would be met by relentless hostility from within the Eurozone, and that its options would rapidly narrow:

“Without effective debt restructuring a left government would find it impossible to implement an alternative programme, even in the short run” … “There can be no conflict within the EU on [the debt restructuring] that would not also raise the spectre of EMU exit”.

They turn to the practicalities of Grexit. They suggest that a left government should start by insisting on the independence of its bank from the Eurozone, including alternative currency (i.e. short-terms paper loans, or “scrip”) denominated in Euro. This paper currency could become the first step towards re-establishing a national currency. A left government should also have capital controls to prevent money leaving the country on exit.

Lapavitsas and Flassbeck call for social mobilisation and negotiations towards a voluntary exit from the EMU. If consensual exit was not possible, Grexit could take place by first declaring a default on the country’s debts and ceasing to pay them, then redenominating the balance sheets of the central bank, commercial banks, private enterprises and households. The government would have to increase its circulation of money and should expect a sharp devaluation of its currency. Medicine, food and fuel would need to be administered (i.e. rationed) to get basic goods to those in need.

While they paint in some ways a brutal picture of a government necessarily operating in temporary conditions of extreme scarcity, they do also emphasise that the countries of the European periphery have vast unused capacity, to produce goods, medicines, even such basic needs as electricity, so that an economy which was allowed to grow back even if only to its 2010 state would be growing rapidly.

Second, Yanis Varoufakis the Syriza finance minister, writes regularly in English, chiefly on his own blog. In 2012, he was interviewed by a website on Grexit. In Varoufakis’ now-familiar, paradoxical style, he argued that Grexit was impossible not because it would have negative connotations for Greece but because it would be self-defeating for the other European economies.

The whole point of creating the common currency was to impress the markets that it is a permanent union that will guarantee huge losses to anyone bold enough to bet against its solidity. A single exit suffices to punch a hole through this perceived solidity. Like a tiny fault line on a mighty dam, a Greek exit will inevitably lead to the edifice’s collapse under the unstoppable forces of disintegration that will gain a toehold within that fault line. The moment Greece is pushed out two things will happen: a massive capital flight from Dublin, Lisbon, Madrid etc., followed by a reluctance of the ECB and Berlin to authorise unlimited liquidity to banks and states.

As for the risks to Greece:

Exiting the euro is not the same as cutting a peg (as Argentina did a decade ago) or exiting the Gold Standard (as Britain did in 1931, followed by the US a year later). The profound difference is that Argentina and Britain had their own currency and they simply severed its link to some exogenous hard currency – allowing it wisely to drift ‘south’ in order to restore competitiveness etc. Greece, Spain et al do not have a currency to devalue. We must do something that has never happened in history: Create a currency in order to devalue it! And since it takes months to create a currency, we are talking about driving countries that are already savaged by recession into an un-monetised state for months on end … One only needs to state this to realise the immensity of the hardship it will create.

A further interview in 2013 again emphasised the practical difficulties:

As for an ‘orderly’ exit, there can be no such thing. One only needs to think a little bit about what that ‘orderly exit’ might entail to realise that it is an impossibility. For the moment it is announced, all hell will break loose. Greek ATMs will run out, immigration officers in airports and ports (not to mention land crossings into Bulgaria and Turkey) will have to search people for cash, the banks will be closed indefinitely.

Although these articles do not make the link explicit, it would not be fanciful to see behind the fear of devaluation (and inflation) the fear that a lasting run on the Greek banks would permanently set the Greek middle classes against Syriza, in the same way that 1923 turned a generation of Germans permanently against Weimar.

Finally, Giorgos Gogos is a dockworker and trade unionist in the port of Piraeus; and a supporter of the Anasa (“breathe”) faction within Syriza, i.e. at a point somewhere between the leadership (Tsipras) bloc and its critics in the Left Platform.  Both PASOK and New Democracy have loyal party-run trade unions, he complains, which they ran like their pet businesses (or, in his word, “clients”); in a recent interview with Katy Fox-Hodess he insists that the Communist Party’s operation was fundamentally the same, “the Communist Party is part of this clientelism and has especially non-democratic ways of holding power within the unions.”

Syriza received one of its highest votes in the Piraeus B district, he notes, where the electorate includes many dockers and their families. He is proud of the part that he and other activists have played in winning the workers to Syriza – a process which took place largely outside the workplace, including through initiatives such as Solidarity for All in Piraeus, which provides food kitchens for workers without ever (unlike the food kitchens run by Golden Dawn) asking about their immigration status.

In 2011 and 2012 Gogos was following the debate within Syriza concerning Grexit. “I was following [Lapavitsas] during 2011 and 2012, for two years, I was following his speeches.” But ultimately Gogos decided that he agreed more with the Syriza leadership than with Lapavitsas or the Left Platform:

I was quite open to hearing such opinions but I was not persuaded that they have a clear answer especially for the first period of a transfer from the euro to a local currency. They didn’t convince me that they have something concrete to propose to the people for those first critical six months of transition. And you know, our society is not trained or educated to suffer under such terms. For example, if you leave the euro, the iPhone will be three or four times more expensive. I don’t care. I don’t give a damn. But many people give a damn about some items that they don’t even have the power to buy in euros. So I’m ready to wait for gasoline and to do my part and not to demand more but I know many guys around me that would be happy to simply take their share and their family’s share for the month. So I think we’re not trained well enough to confront such a danger.

There is not yet a “Greek revolution”, what we have rather is a left government trying to do what it can where the level of strikes has been falling for two years, where the strikes have been largely limited to the public sector, and where millions of ordinary Greeks – not merely the rich – have been removing their savings from the banks.

Whether Grexit will become a reality or not is likely to depend not only on the terms demanded by Berlin, nor only on the attempts by Syriza leadership to find a breathing space, but whether the likes of Giorgos Gogos reconsider and conclude that Lapavitsas or Varoufakis is in the right.

 

[em Português]