Thursday, March 19, 2009

Not quite a smorgasbord

Let's start with some music. Rough Francis: Detroit City black punk rock from 1974 (h/t Jogo)

Eric Lee of LabourStart was recently in my manor to debate Israel/Palestine. Here he reflects on his "Shylock moment" at the debate.

Related: Stanley Fish on boycotting Israel (h/t Jogo). Norman Geras responds.

Unrelated: I don't agree with Alex Callinicos very often, but I quite liked this rebuke of Zizek and his celebrity "idea of communism" conference (h/t Perverse Egalitarianism). Also from PE, Alain Badiou and the word "Jew".

On the BNP, Glyn Ford in Tribune is good. Reading Gombeen Nation on a day out in London with Anti-Fascist Action (1, 2) brought back some memories for me. Meanwhile, a bizarre outbreak of agreement has occurred between the "bourgeois anti-fascists" of Harry's Place and Andy Newman of Socialist Unity, that hitting a BNP thug with a claw hammer is a squaddist own-goal. As an ex-squaddist (albeit a nervous one), I think the more pertinent point is that the BNP in Leigh physically attacked anti-racists. (I join the comment threads here and here.) My response if broadly that of Eric Lee: "At what point does it become appropriate to take them seriously, and to defeat them on every front - electoral, in the media, and in the streets?"

Updates on some issues we've been following here. A little more on Chas Freeman from David Adler. A little more on Seven Jewish Children and the BBC from David Hirsh and from David Adler. And I've also been updating the links from my Miners' Strike post.


Matt said...

I've been thinking about that Fish column, and Geras's response, and a certain analogy strike me. Fish's 'neoliberalism' to Manchester Capitalism and the attack on it to the Fascist critique of Manchester Capitalism.

Fish argues for the natural, unimpeded process of academic inquiry while the boycotters say academic behavior must be guided by a sense of the common good.

I think Geras misses a beat by not acknowledging the merit of Fish's view based on the general difficulty of defining the common good. In doing so, Geras sides with the boycotters in demanding that there is such a thing and how can Fish not see that.

Geras is right that it's appropriate to challenge the boycott on the grounds that it's an antisemitic policy, but Fish is more interesting.

The boycotters demand the right to define the common good and respond with frustration by lashing out at those who disagree on just what is good. Faced with the fact that not everyone agrees with them, how many of them respond by declaring their critics unfair and unfit to participate in the discussion.

There is something wrong with that that would remain wrong even if it didn't leverage antisemitism for support.


ross said...

"I think the more pertinent point is that the BNP in Leigh physically attacked anti-racists"

it's odd given the apparent tooled upness of the BNP (an odd thing to take seriously in itself at present given their current successful political trajectory and on the eve of the euro elections) with coshes, dogs, crowbars and other weapons and their supposed physical attacks on the protestors we have absolutely no reports of anyone injured from uaf/antifa

there's definately something that stinks in this whole episode and i think joe owens has called it correctly on what's going on in the liverpool BNP branch

and lets face it, the BNP are making themselves relevant to people in political terms and therefore the only effective counter strategy is a political one - so both the obama inspired tactical voting strategies to increase the total vote and lower the BNP share and the 80's throwback physical anti-fascism are impotent in the face of the actual threat as it manifests itself in the here & now

whatever the actual facts are relating to leigh, the point is that physical anti-fascism in 2009 is a one trick strategy that is destined to fail even on it's own terms - its clear that the actual capacity to increase the level of violence to a level that it could possible deter people from joining and therefore damaging the level of BNP political activity is just not there - and that's assuming it was a relevant strategy, which it's not

Waterloo Sunset said...

The agreement between Harry's Place and Andy Newman isn't that much of a surprise, surely? The trad left joining up with liberals to attack AFA was a common theme through the 90's. It's reasonably amusing that the usual suspects are now claiming that AFA were justified then but similar tactics are outrageous now. While attacking current militants in very similar terms used to attack AFA at the time.

That said, I think Ross makes a lot of pertinent points. I'd disagree however that there can be no role for physical confrontation at all currently. It's got potential when used carefully to make it hard for the BNP to mobilise (and the theory that the BNP were never going to return to the streets has been proved incorrect, on a small level at least). But there is also the whole issue about not wanting to see the best militants getting themselves nicked for actions which will have little effect.

We still don't know who this was, mind. It doesn't seem to have been antifa. There's a good chance it was locals from what I can tell.

ross said...

"It's got potential when used carefully to make it hard for the BNP to mobilise"

the rise of the BNP is but an expression of real substantive underlying issues in today's society, any attempts to artificially muffle that expression through physical violence does nothing to confront and address the underlying issues that give that expression life in the first place. the BNP are doing an expert job of filling a vacuum creating by the political abandonment of the working class, all surface/superficial type attempts like tactical voting or physical violence do nothing to confront the existence of that vacuum and as such are politically impotent - i don't for a minute see this episode as any kind of evidence of a return to the streets by the BNP (they'd be mad to for a start given the huge successes they've seen since turning their backs on that route)

and it is correct that AFA were justified then, but similar tactics are not now, there's nothing in itself contradictory about that statement, it's just a response to the changed conditions we find ourselves in

Graeme said...

Perhaps of interest to you, Bob:

Haven't given it a listen yet--haven't even downloaded it for that matter.

bob said...

Ross: the rise of the BNP is but an expression of real substantive underlying issues in today's society, any attempts to artificially muffle that expression through physical violence does nothing to confront and address the underlying issues that give that expression life in the first place.

Surely that was just as true in 1985-2001? AFA then had a two-track strategy. It never just pursued physical violence (unlike Antifa today). I don't think that what happened in Leigh was necessarily the right thing to do, but I think that we cannot rule out physical confrontation, so long as it is subordinate to a political strategy to defeat the BNP's ideas.

Graeme: Thanks, will check it out!

ross said...

well the key thing is the form that that expression takes, and any effective counter strategy needs to be appropriate to the form of the expression - applying a solution to a form of expression that no longer exists seems pointless and doomed to failure

and secondly, let's be honest physical anti-fascism at present is not subordinate to a political strategy, because - outwith various pockets up and down the country - there is no political strategy. so you have an orphan like last gasp throwback tactic whose method is totally inappropriate to the nature and the scale of the threat posed and whose only success (and a remarkable one at that) is to make the left look even more irrelevant/impotent/out of touch than it already is at present - no mean feat

also as i've mentioned many times before, combatting the BNP means combatting the conditions that give rise to the BNP - and that means an effective and credible attack on those who already have their hands on the levers of power and are directly (in the main) responsible for the fostering of those conditions - anti-fascism (of any stripe) that continues to focus on the expression rather than the substance of that expression is just putting off the inevitable

Waterloo Sunset said...

Ross: also as i've mentioned many times before, combatting the BNP means combatting the conditions that give rise to the BNP - and that means an effective and credible attack on those who already have their hands on the levers of power and are directly (in the main) responsible for the fostering of those conditions - anti-fascism (of any stripe) that continues to focus on the expression rather than the substance of that expression is just putting off the inevitable

Sure. But the two aren't mutually exclusive. Putting off the inevitable is precisely the role we need militant antifascism to play. It's a defensive strategy, aimed at giving us the breathing space needed for the primary political strategy to be developed.

Bob: It never just pursued physical violence (unlike Antifa today)

Yeah, I'd agree with that as a criticism of Antifa. I think that's partly a byproduct of Antifa being, in essence, just an anarchist organisation. Whereas AFA, at its best, was a broad front that united anti-fascist militants.

In particular, the tactic of attacking the fash at home has always struck me as entirely futile.

bob said...

One question Ross: was AFA right from 1985 to 2001? Because then, too, surely, combatting the BNP means combatting the conditions that give rise to the BNP - and that means an effective and credible attack on those who already have their hands on the levers of power and are directly (in the main) responsible for the fostering of those conditions - anti-fascism (of any stripe) that continues to focus on the expression rather than the substance of that expression is just putting off the inevitable.

It is right to question whether we were right then. Certainly, our publicity etc stressed our street-fighting abilities ("beating the fash, an old East End tradition", etc) rather than the political struggle. Certainly, there was lots of macho posturing, and some counter-productive actions (along with many successful ones).

But I think we were basically right. I also think AFA was right to change strategy after the Rights for Whites campaign - the Filling the Vacuum strategy. But that does not mean we must now renounce all physical confrontation.

Even more importantly, it seems to me that for today those decent anti-fascists who do not wholly subscribe to the IWCA for various good and bad reasons have no way of expressing and acting on their anti-fascism. In most places, they have the choice between the SWP-dominated UAF, the liberalism of Searchlight's Hope Not Hate, or the ultra-violence of Antifa. I think therefore it was a serious mistake for AFA to retreat from the field, even if it did so for good reasons. (Or, rather, I think it was a mistake for Red Action to withdraw AFA from the field...)

P.S. I'm offline for a while, so apologies for any slow reply to any on-going discussion!

Waterloo Sunset said...

It is the case that the criticism that AFA were fighting the causes rather than the symptoms were being made throughout our existence from groups like the ICC and the RCP. I'm not convinced that those criticisms of anti-fascism are any more valid now.

Particuary when we take into account that the Filling the Vacuum analysis was actually talking about the IWCA tactic as a twin track strategy to AFA, not as a replacement for it. And many of us who supported it did so on that basis. The folding up of AFA was not, to be blunt, done in a democratic way.

I think a lot of the problem was that we hadn't developed our own intelligence network. Which caused us real problems when we proscribed Searchlight. I absolutely support that proscription. We should have told them to fuck off sooner. But by time it happened we were far too reliant on them already. And the lion's share of the blame for that reliance lies squarely with Red Action. (Which made the fact that the proscription notice still allowed London AFA to work with Searchlight ridiculous). Don't get me wrong, I think Red Action were a vital part of AFA and I agreed with them on a hell of a lot of stuff. But they weren't as infallible as they liked to paint themselves an they were bloody awful at admitting when they'd fucked up.

Bob- I'd agree. I actually think the events in Leigh illustrate that point perfectly. An organisation is absolutely needed so good intentioned anti-fascists like those have some kind of structure and support.

The question is what those of us who do think there's a vaccum in anti-facism at the moment are going to do about it. This is the kind of discussion where theoreticals can only take us so far...

The Contentious Centrist said...

“The questioner will speak softly. Their face will show real concern, even pain. And what you’ll hear is not an accusation, but a real question, because the person is genuinely confused.
They will say something like this: “I’ve been watching the scenes from Gaza on TV. I’ve seen small children standing in front of the ruins of their homes. I’ve seen parents weeping over the loss of their children. And I can’t understand how you can see all this and still support Israel.”

This is what Eric Lee calls “the Shylock moment”. An impossibility to break through an impenetrable barrier.. A moment when he suddenly realizes that it’s not his politics that are being questioned but his very humanity. According to Lee, he succumbs to it. He pleads for recognition of his humanity.

From whom?

Shylock’s words are probably the most famous speech in the MoV. But we tend to overlook the situation in which it is made. In the play, Shylock addresses them to Salanio and Salarino, two very minor characters who were accessories to Jessica's elopement. They mock Shylock, ridiculing him for speaking of his daughter as his "flesh and blood". Jessica, they say, is no more like Shylock than ivory is to jet, or Rhenish wine is to red wine. Jessica had renounced her ancestral home, robbed her own father and married one of his enemy’s most loyal friends. That is what makes Jessica human in Salanio and Salarino’s eyes. Her only path to human respectability. Only by these acts of betrayal did she reinstate her claim to humanity, according to these two.

It’s a humiliating scene.

We should not allow people to abdicate their elementary responsibility to question their own premises, their own knowledge, and their own ethics. These people should be challenged as to why they think like they do, why their pity is so exclusive, lopsided, so uni-directional, so devoid of genuine understanding and human compassion.

These people must be forced to confront the question of why they are so impervious to the pro-Israel arguments and facts.

My husband calls it “the coffee machine syndrome'”. It has to do with the story of an automatic coffee machine which he had bought for me a few years ago. It suddenly stopped working, the display instructing me to: “check water level”. As if there was not enough water in the water tank. The only problem was, the tank was full to brim. It was the sensor that failed. And the malfunctioning sensor prevented the machine from producing my espresso. The faulty sensor acted as the ultimate arbiter in this matter and the machine, quite healthy in all other respects, obeyed its decree. There was no built-in manual alternative to the sensor. So the ruling of the sensor could not be circumvented. I could see the water level, and knew the problem was in the sensor, but I could not communicate this to the machine. So the damn machine refused to prepare the coffee.

Presumably, the person who asked Lee a question that seemed to distrust Lee’s very humanity is in the same spot as my coffee-making machine. His trust in the sensor to relay the information is so complete, that he never so much as considers the possibility that the problem might not lie with the actual level of the water. In other words, the asker completely forgets his own responsibility, independently- thinking agency and, yes, his own humanity, implicit in which are vulnerability, proneness to misjudge, and a keenness to believe the worst about others, that is, to believe sensors even when they are so obviously malfunctioning.

ross said...

bob/waterloo sunset - just to make clear, i am not opposed in any way to the concept of physical confrontation with fash/far right, and i'm not ruling it out as an available tactic - my point is however than at this moment in time, it's a tactic that doesn't seem to reap any benefit for the cause whose name it's been done under and probably offers more benefit to those involved in it on a personal & psychological level (i.e. what bob alluded to as people needing an expression for their anti-fascism) than actually doing anything of substance in terms of actual anti fascism.

I presume there would be no disagreement that the BNP, in it's current guise, is the main (and only credible) threat in terms of a resurgence of far right/euro nationalist politics in the UK - all the other floatjam kicking around (NF, BPP etc..) are an irrelevance and to the extent that they remain an irrelevance there presence should be pretty much ignored in looking at ways in which to confront the threat from the far right.

In the mid 90's the BNP abandoned the battle for the streets, largely because of the successful twin track tactic of physical & ideological confrontation of AFA. The former seems to always get more attention than the later, but clearly both played a part and both parts were clearly needed. At around the same time labour abandoned clause 4 and the combination and implications of these two things clearly meant a re-evaluation of the content & activity of anti fascism - as regards to the soul searching in regards the manner in which that happened, i'm not sure it's got too much relevance now. events since then have proved the general direction to be the correct one. probably because the BNP were so roundly beaten as to street politics, it gave them a head start in their new direction and one in which the left and anti-fasicm in general is still struggling to catch up with

I am a bit sceptical of the notion pushed above that an organisation is required to provide good intentioned anti-fascists some kind of structure and support for them to express that anti-fascism - isn't this a bit arse about face - anti fascism in whatever form, doesn't exist just to provide individuals with a form of expression, it exists to do the job it says on the tin (although i'd argue that anti-fascism in itself, devoid of a wider objective, is somewhat contradictory), and surely that must be first & foremost and the dominating factor in any deliberation about it, and from that basis it comes back to the requirement to develop a political solution to what's going on at present - this does not necassirly rule out physical confrontation if required and as a response to conditions that warrant that as a tactic, but as bob says it has to be a physical confrontation that is subordinate to, and but a tool in the box, of a wider political assualt

i think at present any push to increase the level of physical confrontation with the BNP (not that there really is much capacity to actually do this) is misguided for a couple of reasons - given the current political situation, orphaned physical confrontation, seems to be completely reductionist and substitutionist, but more importantly things have changed so much in the last decade and a half - when the right were playing out their strategy on the streets then physical confrontation was fair game and it was generally fair to lump their members and supporters all in the same camp, now however we have near on a million people happy to vote bnp. we can't categorise all of them in the same way and right them off as knuckle dragging fash racists who need a good kicking - the situation is much more nuanced now, and a clear political solution to the issues that lead to this million oddd people (and countless others) to even consider lending their support to them is the only way that is capable of making a dent on this accumulation of support. If instead all they see from 'anti-fascism' is isolated theatrical physical attacks on the one group that is seen to be attempting to politically address the issues being faced by a disillusioned and political abandoned white working class then it's not too hard to see whose side said people would place the perpatrators of physical attacks on - something that would only further serve to alientate the left and make them even more irrelevant than they are at present in communities up and down the country today. anti-fascism has to be more succesful as a by product of militant and unrepentant pro working class political organisation - success at this naturally combats and defuses the conditions that give rise to support for the far right in the first place

ps even searchlight are now pushing (probably through gritted teeth) the political solution approach and the bankruptcy of everything that we have so far seen to date from them and liberal anti-fascism

Anonymous said...

"...These people must be forced to confront the question of why they are so impervious to the pro-Israel arguments and facts..."

You misunderestimate them.

They are not innocent naifs, or obtuse simpletons. They are skilled baiters and propagandists, who taunt their prey imaginatively and with considerable guile. And they have no interest in the truth.

nwo said...

The simple answer to disarm the BNP is to address those people's concerns and to value their groups as you do other groups. The English are people too. The Scots are people too. Why is it anathema for them to organize into special interest groups like everybody else? Why are they not allowed to participate in the political syste? Positively discriminatory and oppressive, and your answer is to provoke violence in the street and then point fingers at them. Its like the Palestinian Gambit.

Good Lord!

When will the Left be satiated in their attacks on Western Cultures, Peoples, and Civilization?

nwo said...

Dont indigenous populations have rights? Or is that only when they are non Western?

nwo said...

Decades of Leftwing villification, paying off....Caucasians - the new Jews.

Good news: Brazilian prez Lula blames financial crisis on “white people with blue eyes”

President Lula said it was completely unfair that the poorest people in the world were suffering most for the mistakes of wealthy, Western financiers…

President Lula, head of Brazil’s main left-wing party, said that ‘no black man or woman, no indigenous person, no poor person’ had been in any way culpable for the global banking crisis.

‘I’m not acquainted with any black banker,’ he said. ‘The part of humanity that’s responsible should pay for the crisis.’

nwo said...

Hey, I know, lets attack any subset of Caucasians, who are advocating their interests politically in public with violence.....then blame those Caucs on the violence.

The utter insanity of it. Mindboggling.

bob said...

Matt - Good comment. Will give me thoughts shortly.

Ross - Don't know if you and WS are still around. We're basically in agreement in our analysis in most ways. You are right to draw attention to a very bad formulation of mine: "expressing their anti-fascism. Anti-fascism can be a badge of moral purity, an identity politics, and real politics should not be about "giving expression" to such identities.

I am also completely against any push towards more physical confrontation: it would be utterly the wrong strategy for the current period. We need to address the BNP politically.

However, how to do this? It seems to me that the IWCA may be working OK in some of the localities where it has taken root. But it has failed, so far, to take off on much scale. Its core of activists are very hard-working, but are too small to spread the organisation geographically. Many decent people were alienated it from it by the un-democratic decision to simply wind up AFA, and this has limited the activist base. While AFA was a very strong and attractive "brand", the IWCA has not been able to capitalise on that.

There are also many people with political positions close to the IWCA's, but who do not sign up to all its positions. They are also put off by the political party like aura it sometimes has.

I think there is a need for a broader-based, looser coalition or network of those anti-fascists who share a similar analysis about political confrontation. AFA would have been the perfect body to pull this together, but that cannot happen now, because of the un-democratic way Red Action acted. (I say this in sadness, not in spite, because I always had the utmost respect for Red Action.)

I would love to be able to point towards practical steps we could take in this direction, but as someone who was never more than a footsoldier, to use Martin Lux's phrase, and who has very limited time, I am not well-placed to do that. Which, I know, undermines what I am saying...

bob said...


I think that Fish is right that there is something important about the academic community that makes boycotts a bad thing, but I don't agree with him that it is always wrong. There comes a point at which academia is utterly compromised by its relationship with a regime, and it would be right to boycott it. For instance, he is wrong to say it would have been wrong to boycott the Third Reich's universities, and I think it wrong to say South African academia should not have been boycotted.

I think I'm with Norm.