Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: Bleak

2012 was a grim year by any measure. In Britain, Tory austerity cut deeper, its "millstone of debt" fiscal alibi looking more and more threadbare, its ideological motivation - class war from above - more and more apparent. A new justificatory spin was rolled out, the cruel narrative of "strivers" and "skivers", a politics of contempt, to attempt to bring the squeezed middle back into the abandoned Coalition tent, while across the country hospitals were closed, redundancies spread, the unemployed and disabled forced on to demeaning workfare programmes and vital services reduced.

Particularly depressing in this context is that the movement against the cuts has failed to grow. We have failed to foster the spirit of solidarity that can overcome petty divisions between those in work and those out of it, between public sector and private sector, between migrant and native-born.

In America, the best that can be said is that the least bad presidential candidate won. A Republican Party in the grip of a deranged movement conservatism, espousing a nineteenth century sexual politics and an ethics of contempt for the less wealthy half of the American mainstream, was unable to win out over the cynical playing of the demographic game by a Democratic Party dominated by a movement liberalism out of touch with most citizens' concerns. The American left, entangled in identity politics and cultural battles, seems in even worse health than the British left.

The austerity in the UK was of course nothing compared to that enforced in much of Europe. The narrative of crisis posed European electorates the empty choice of anti-democratic technocrats managing the rolling back of the social state, or populist demagogues performing hollow gestures of rejection to the austerity consensus.

The upward curve of xenophobia and intolerance steepened across the continent, with hostility (and increasingly violence) towards various combinations of migrants, Muslims, Roma and Jews. The liberal consensus imagines crisis automatically breeds "extremism", but this assumption was refuted by the relatively low level of far right mobilisation in Italy, Spain and Portugal, contrasted to the peaking xenophobia of economically resilient Scandinavia  It takes political entrepreneurs among elites - far right political parties, or, as in the case of Britain, the mainstream media - to feed this sort of sentiment.

The drift to authoritarianism has been even stronger beyond Europe. 2012 saw the further rise and rise of the "democratators", elected heads of state whose executive power and disregard for the rule of law makes them effectively dictators, with Vladimir Putin as the archetype. Hugo Chavez's election is emblematic of the continued rise of the democratators. Their ranks were joined in June by Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, derailing an inspiring movement against authoritarianism there.

Despite the continuation of 2011's massive pro-democracy movements in many regions of the world, 2012 saw a retrenchment of executive state power, with rigged elections in Venezuela and Ukraine, assaults on freedom of the press in Turkey, erosion of academic freedom in Israel, criminalisation of social media dissent in India and the Gulf states, legal attacks on the NGO sector in Russia and Israel, mass imprisonment of dissidents in the Gulf states and Russia etc etc.

One of the disturbing trends was the use of "religious hatred" and blasphemy laws to criminalise free expression, as in Russia, the Gulf and Pakistan. Elsewhere, including Cuba, China and North Korea, as well as across Africa, but most grimly in Syria, party and personal dictatorship does not bother with the façade of electoralism.

Religious and ethnic intolerance has risen too. "Modernising" theocratic movements among the main winners from the turmoil of the fragile transition to democracy across the Middle East, under the banner of Turkish-style "moderate" Islamism that combines neo-liberal technocracy with religious authoritarianism. Elsewhere, more murderous varieties of Islamism - the Taliban and its analogues in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq - continue to slaughter fellow Muslims on a daily basis. Nationalism in all its forms - including its Hindu variety in India, its Buddhist variety in Sri Lanka - continues to be the only ideology able to compete on a mass scale with religious ultra-conservatism in the political market.

Thus the xenophobia and intolerance of Europe mirrored elsewhere, as in the violent anti-foreigner incidents in Israel. Elsewhere, with relatively little public attention, we have seen waves of violent ethnic cleansing, such as of Muslim Rohingyas in Burma, of Christians and Ahamadis in Pakistan.

Theocratic and nationalist ideologies have also underwritten what seems almost a pandemic of violence against women in 2012. Rape has been a major weapon of war in Syria and in central Africa. The revulsion in India in the last few days against horrific and ultimately murderous cases of gang rape might signal that 2013 will see the tide turning, but the ingrained everyday sexism and trending postmodern rape culture in the heart of the "liberal" West gives little cause for optimism. Nor does the casual apologetics and denialism from the luminaries of the British and global left.

In the face of all this, there has been a catastrophic failure of international solidarity from the Western left. The left remains gripped by an anachronistic pseudo-"anti-imperialist" agenda which locates all evil in America and its allies, despite the evident decrease and increased benevolence of Western imperial power and the evident rise and increased malignancy of Russian and Chinese imperial power. Large sections of the left have sought coalitions with the theocrats and/or the authoritarians  or apologised for them and relativised them away, or even acted as cheerleaders for them.

This failure of solidarity is best exemplified by the fact that deaths caused by Israeli rockets on Gaza - a human tragedy no doubt - have been the only deaths to provoke demonstrations in Western capitals, while the 40,000 killed by the regime in Syria have been ignored and even approved. A rekindling of the spirit of solidarity is urgently needed - starting with grassroots solidarity with the trade union and women's movements in countries on the frontline, as the only reliable forces against the forces of repression.

I'd like to think we can do better in 2013, on all these fronts, but I'm not optimistic. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

More stuff to worry about

What I worry about
A beautiful post by Yoani Sanchez, the great Cuban dissident blogger.

Fellow travellers for dictatorship and authoritarianism

The acceptable face of English fascism
Francis Sedgemore neatly sums up Patrick Moore.

Antisemitism Watch
The Soupy One on London BDS and its promotion of Press TV Holocaust denialism. And here's a nice piece doing the rounds on Tumblr: How to criticise Israel without being antisemitic.

Kick the Tories out - or kick the Tories in?
David Osler reviews Ian Bone.

While Hugo Chavez dies...
Read this short post on Venezuelan fuel dependency on the Great Satan, by Greg Weeks.

Alternative futures past

We need to talk about Gaza

For the pointy heads

Deconstructing strivers versus shirkers

Friday, December 07, 2012

Luton, Lewisham, Cairo, Oslo and elsewhere

In Lewisham: SolFed's short report on the massive mobilisation to save Lewisham hospital, plus several articles from the AWL. From the bloggers, read ClareCrosswhatfieldsJos Bell, and Darryl. South East Londoners, as I write now, you have six days exactly to respond to the "consultation" and tell the TSA what you think about the closure of accident & emergency and maternity services. The consultation form is hard to fill in, but worth it. You can email comments directly to them, if it's easier. If you fill in the online form, the key questions are Q13 (although you have to read it twice to understand, the proposal here is closing the A&E in Lewisham - strongly disagree!) and Q15 (the two options are two versions of closing the maternity ward - click "I do not support either of these options").

Subcultural traces: Transpontine on the Turner Prize - a psychogeographical tour of alternative futures past from Luton to Claremont Road to a Nunhead nudist colony.

Middle East: Kissinger, Kant, and the Syrians in Lebanon by Shlomo Avineri; Egypt's Mubarak Mark II and Migrant worker rights in Qatar, by the ITUC; Where the Past Is Not Prologue by Fareed Zakaria; How Bahrain lost the propaganda war by John Lubbock; The voice of the academic left? Not in my name by Martin Robb; This short conflict has shone a light in Labour’s dark corners and Labour and Gaza: Hamas is not Palestine by Rob Marchant; Netanyahu’s triple escapism by Mark Leonard.

Antisemitism and Islamophobia: The Soupy One on Channel 4, Stephen Sizer and not answering the question; Julie Bindel on Norway's problem with Jews; HP and the JC on the anti-racists walking out of the antisemitism conference for its Islamophobia. On that last one, huge credit to Dave Rich, David Hirsh, Phillip Seymour, Mark Gardner and David Feldman - people of integrity.

Nick Cohen: Cowardice and the liberal press (on Deeyah and her bravery); The Anti-Elitist Elite Versus the Underclass (in conversation with George Walden); The west's hypocrisies give succour to tyrants (on oligarchic libel tourism in Britain).

EDL: Laurie Penny, with an enjoyable (if politically thin) encounter with "Tommy Robinson" in Luton.

Working class history: A lovely obituary from Paul Stott for James May, who I never knew. Extract:
All political careers end in failure. We surprised many by producing Class War bang on time each year for May Day and the Anarchist Bookfair. It was more coherent than expected, still comfortably outsold every other Anarchist publication, but like others before us, we proved utterly incapable of building a large political organisation or movement. James probably sensed this earlier than most of his generation in CW – he was the only person to get involved in the Socialist Alliance, which I think he viewed as an attempt to get all the radical forces in particular towns or cities united under one banner against New Labour. In Luton he worked tirelessly to do this, but after a while the phone calls, usually complaining about the SWP, increased both in number and in volume. It didn’t work, but James tried the Socialist Alliance route and failed, whilst others did not try.
By the middle part of the last decade, James was part of a political generation on the revolutionary left that had been active for years, but had broadly known only political defeat, with the odd token victory on the way. Posting as ‘James Walsh’ on Meanwhile At The Bar (MATB), James found that generation in one place, all huddling together for warmth. Here people articulated where the left had gone wrong, usually because they had been there themselves, watching the SWP chewing up and spitting out young people, or relating their experiences of injustice when up against the party hierarchy.
James was comfortable and the odd flaming row excepted, in like minded company. Posters could agree that the left had so readily departed the battlefield of class conflict, to instead fight on grounds of race or spurious notions of ‘equality’ that all too often had no resonance outside of those who made the definitions in the first place. As the leadership of the anti-war movement (the CPB and SWP) decided that gay rights or abortion rights should not be seen as ‘shibboleths’ preventing work with Muslim communities, MATB members'  low expectations of the revolutionary left were met in full. Those who would once have denounced James as ‘sexist’ for saying forbidden words like ‘cunt’ in conversation over a pint in the Dog and Bucket, were now to be found stood outside mosques, working with the British versions of Jamaat-e-Islami or the Muslim Brotherhood. And you lectured James on sexism?
Hugo Chavez: This is the shocking story of judge María Lourdes Afiuni who was imprisoned for a ruling that angered Hugo Chavez, and her ordeal by rape while in a Venezuelan prison. Meanwhile, el presidente has returned home after his treatment in Cuba - presumably subsidised by the Cuban taxpayer.

High theory in low places: Alan Johnson, always value for money, demolishes Slavoj Zizek and his "savage madness" here.

Anti-fascist history: The Hajduks of Cotovschi.

Polemics: A reply to Stephan Grigat: On anti-Semitism and the Left on Iran by Yassamine Mather.

Anti-capitalism: Occupy, debt, crisis and class struggle. Extract:
Many participants of the [Occupy] movement, and of those playing leadership roles – and this is the case from Tunisia, Egypt, London, Israel, Quebec, and elsewhere – are the “graduates without a future” (Paul Mason). They are those masses of young people with college degrees and no chance of landing a job. In the U.S., this situation is intensified in a particular way because of student debt. The average student debtor owes $25,000. In 2010, 360,000 graduates were accepting public provisions. This is the dominant profile of the Occupier across the country and beyond.
If you look at the wide resonance the movement has beyond this group, you find victims of the mortgage crisis, who ask the Occupy Our Homes campaign to physically camp out in front of their homes to block their eviction. Yes, massive civil disobedience, though not so widespread as in Spain, nor in the U.S. during the Great Depression.
Also: On circumcision; On booze pricing as middle class puritanism.