Monday, January 07, 2013

Ignant and shit



Stick it up your junta
I was pretty young during the Falklands war, but it was my first uncomfortable experience of being out of step with prevailing opinions. My school friends were swept up in the tub-thumping, bloodthirsty jingoism of the time. It was the golden age of working class Toryism, boys will be boys, and Kelvin MacKenzie's Argie-bashing set the tone of the debate among my peers, whereas I had a pacifist gut reaction to the horrors of war. Over time, meeting relatives of left-wing activists disappeared by the junta, re-evaluating my conception of "anti-imperialism", and reading Hitchens, I have come to suspect that my friends were more right than I realised and my righteous might have been misplaced. Anyway, this letter to President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner by James Hallwood makes the point well.

Let's bomb Texas
Closely allied to the type of "anti-imperialism" that, at its most benign, puts Argentine territorial claims over the self-determination of the Falklands islanders, even in a period of semi-fascist dictatorship in Argentina, simply because the Argentines are not us, is pathology of anti-Americanism. Rob Marchant and Peter Ryley both wrote sharp accounts of how anti-Americanism has deformed the UK left's moral compass, in looking at the responses of Stop the War and George Monbiot respectively to the Sandy Hook massacre.

Ignorant white folks
Peter's post lists some of the atrocities against Pakistanis committed by the Pakistani Taliban, which Monbiot seems to have less time for than atrocities against Pakistanis committed by Americans. The white western left, of which Monbiot is exemplary in this regard, too often refuses to judge crimes against humanity (in particular crimes inflicted on the bodies of women) when those crimes are committed by non-Westerners, a kind of racism and ethnocentrism disguised as radicalism. We saw this more recently in some of the responses to the Delhi rape case, which tried to point the finger away from the brutality of everyday sexism in India and towards the West. Sunny Hundal labelled this sort of commentary "ignorant and factually misleading" in a post passing on some of the rather more illuminating commentary from Indian women, and also attacked the condescension of Western writers who try and airbrush the cultural specificity of Indian misogyny, a move he calls patronising and borderline racist. This is not to say that there is not also endemic and often violent sexism in the West, of course, but simply that we cannot ignore the cultural dimension. (Although we also need to be careful about imagining "Indian culture" as some homogeneous whole, any more than "Western culture" is.)

Fail
TNC sent me, with very critical comments, a piece by Eva Illouz in Haaretz (£) on the "left" and the "right" in Israeli politics. TNC mentions, for example, that the text is riddled with historical inaccuracies and displays a misunderstanding of basic political concepts like liberalism. Norm also picks up on the article's poorly thought out response to "the issue of war and peace". Reading it, I had exactly the same sensation as I do when I read cultural conservative rants about "the Frankfurt School" and "cultural Marxism", which dress up partisan polemics and  basic ignorance of other political traditions with sheen of semantic sophistication. For example, the notion that Marx gave birth to working class agitation and socialist movements (when he obviously learnt about socialism from working class movements that existed before he started his thinking), that Marx was somehow the parent of the ILO (part of the UN bureaucratic machinery) or that the right to work is a Marxist principle. The central argument of the piece is that "the left" should be prouder of the principles - human rights, labour rights, pacifism, secularism - that its has given modernity. But all of these principles have had a healthy life beyond the left (except perhaps labour rights) on one hand, and have been violated by significant political formations on the left (most obviously the Soviet regime) on the other.

Ignant and shit
The video at the top is Screamin Jay Hawkins, with a song from his brilliant record Black Music for White People, which seems appropriate for all the forms of stupidity that have been irritating me lately.

14 comments:

The Contentious Centrist said...

Bob is upset.

kellie said...

Blogger seems to have let you down on the embedding - and it's such a good song too.

modernity's ghost said...

The stuff at Shiraz isn't terribly new.

If memory serves the Secretary of State at the time, Haig, did a lot of shuffling around, which was unusual and suggested that America wanted to placate the Fascist dictators in Buenos Aires.

After all, American regimes from Teddy Roosevelt (and probably before) have considered South America to be their garden, and any intrusion by the old colonial power, Britain, is seen as treading on toes, whatever nonsense is spoken about "the special relationship".

The US had its Cold War clients and wanted to keep them happy, thus the ambivalence with Britain.

I think we'll find that Thatcher made a political calculation, that winning a war, or at least participating one, would enhance her reputation and conceivably win the election.

Up until that point I think the Falklands was actually owned by the Coalite company, and not the British government.

There is always that residual desire amongst the British to hark back to a golden age of when, "Britannia ruled the waves" and I saw how it animated people at the time.

The naked nationalism of the period was tedious, wall-to-wall, it certainly resurrected an increasingly unpopular Thatcher government.

Bloody annoying all round, to say the least!

PS: And I shall regret saying this, but Monbiot did make an effort to break with genocide-denying friends, which is an improvement on the usual middle-class anti-american types (and I can't stand him either).

bob said...

CC- yes indeed

Kellie- thanks for the tip; have amended.

Mod- I basically agree.

I should be clear that, although my anti-war position on the Falklands in 1982 was probably wrong (especially given the Argentine defeat helped bring about the fall of the junta), the Kelvin MacKenzie war-mongering was not right. As Mod says, it was an expression of Britain failing to mourn and let go of its empire, nostalgia turned toxic.

And, as Mod says, it revived the Thatcher government and, rather than expressing an already ascendant working class Toryism, laid the foundations for her populist cross-class coalition, of which the Sun played a key part. (Roy Greenslade's article, the link from "Kelvin MacKenzie" in the post, captures well how the Sun exemplified the new political mood.)

bob said...

On Monbiot-
I have a fair bit of time for him, and his attacks on Chomskyism and the RCP over Bosnia etc have been extremely useful. In other ways, I find him irritating.

On Coalite-
I don't know enough about all of that. The Falklands Islands Company, bought by Charringtons-Coalite at the time of the OPEC oil crisis, owned about half of the land on the island. Many (most?) islanders worked for them, and many lived in their tied cottages. But I don't think that there is any sense in which Thatcher went to war for Coalite, who were not the most powerful of British business interests.

bob said...

Here is an article from the Spectator of April 1982 on the Falklands by Ferdinand Mount, who is a most interesting Tory. He nicely punctures some of the postcolonial jingoism of the time.

modernity's ghost said...

Concerning Coalite, thank you, but I would never be reduced to some economic determinism so beloved by latter-day "anti-imperialists"!

My point was, that such was the detachment from the Falkland Islands, it wasn't even owned by the British government, but an out of date company (anyone still use coalite?) with little discernible link to Britain.

The Falklands was a political war, the dictators used it to garner popularity (as does the current president of Argentina) and Thatcher did much the same.

A pox on both their houses.

Anonymous said...

"I was pretty young during the Falklands war, but it was my first uncomfortable experience of being out of step with prevailing opinions." So was I, barely 10 years old. My feeling of contrairianism was the same. I lived in a very left wing commune but I took the british stance and argued fiercly for the right to the islands. Not very popular in the enviroment. People who usally derided the military junta suddenly embraced them in the name of de-colonialism. Very strange.

TNC said...

This is from the Eva Illouz piece:

"The left is a large family with many siblings. It ranges from anarchism to social democracy, via Marxism. Still, this broad, cacophonous family has two main branches: liberalism ‏(defending the basic rights and freedoms of human beings‏) and socialism ‏(creating mechanisms to insure distributive justice‏). Most differences between the various factions of the left revolve around the respective emphasis each places on freedom or on equality ‏(in the United States leftists are mostly liberal; Europe has historically mixed liberalism with socialism‏). Yet despite its differences, the left has one single and powerful moral core, summarized in one word: universalism − the belief that beneath the social uniform of their religion or social class, human beings are equal and should enjoy similar freedoms and resources."

Please bear with me through a close reading of this paragraph:

1) The left is a large family with many siblings.

The first sentence is fine, no argument.

2) It ranges from anarchism to social democracy, via Marxism.

Totally fine, if one views the left in a limited fashion, not in the broader sense she is using it here. What I mean by limited is restricting the label "left" to those groups that are critical of capitalism. She contradicts this in the third sentence:

3) Still, this broad, cacophonous family has two main branches: liberalism ‏(defending the basic rights and freedoms of human beings‏) and socialism ‏(creating mechanisms to insure distributive justice‏)

If the range of acceptable leftism is from social democracy to anarchism, than liberalism has no place on the left. Liberalism does not fit on this continuum. This is a very important point to emphasize.

Liberalism opposed conservatism, because conservatism represented the interests of landed elites and of corporations (collective bodies). The liberals were the revolutionary class that wanted to abolish the monopoly of corporations (including the workers' corporations, known as guilds) and replace them with a society of competing individuals. Which brings me to:

4) Yet despite its differences, the left has one single and powerful moral core, summarized in one word: universalism − the belief that beneath the social uniform of their religion or social class, human beings are equal and should enjoy similar freedoms and resources."

Again, this is correct if the left is used in the limited sense of (2) above. But not if one includes liberalism. It was individualism that was at the center of liberalism, not universalism. Nor was there ever, to the best of my knowledge, anything about “human beings” being equal and entitled to enjoying "similar resources” in eighteenth century liberal texts.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence states “all men are created equal” but this did not mean all men had the same abilities or came from the same station in life. Instead, we were equal in the eyes of the Creator and therefore “endowed…with certain unalienable Rights” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Notice the pursuit of happiness is mentioned as a God-given right, but not the guarantee of attaining it.

The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen starts similarly stating: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights” the same point continues “social distinctions may be based only upon general usefulness.” This is a reference to the old social distinctions based on membership in an estate or social class as being superseded by distinctions based on the deeds of individuals. It is not about equality regarding resources. The second and seventeenth points, which both explicitly mention the protection of property, also run against the notion of people having a right to similar resources.

Alex Ross said...

TNC,

Agree it's a largely a poor piece...but I think you are doing what many Marxists (quite frustratingly!!) do and employ a very archaic definition of liberalism. Like Domenico lo Surdo, you seem to suggest that the development of liberal thought stops at the end of the 18th century and can only be understood vis-a-vis the various “bourgeois revolutions”.

I don’t think that corresponds with where liberalism is at now. E.g. let’s look at (arguably) the two most influential liberal thinkers of the 20th C – John Rawls and Isaiah Berlin.

John Rawls, whilst certainly not an “anti-capitalist”, would have agreed that “human beings are equal and should enjoy similar freedoms and resources”. He recognised that the formal liberties of classical liberalism are meaningless by themselves and that significant changes to the basic structure of society (e.g. large scale redistributive justice) are required in order to guarantee meaningful opportunity for all. The only caveat is the “difference principle” which allows for **limited** social inequalities only if it can be **proven** that the worst off would be worse off without them. Later liberal egalitarians (e.g. Brian Barry) ditch this last principle.

Now, given that Social Democrats are usually seen as being “on the left”, and that Social Democrats are not “anti-capitalist” either, there seems no reason to exclude Liberals of an egalitarian bent. There is certainly a difference in emphasis in the latter (an adamant and unshakeable commitment to free expression, free association, democratic pluralism etc.) but very little difference in substance.

Also thought I’d bring up old Isaiah Berlin, as I think that he highlights two of the key features of modern liberal thought. Whereas, arguably, you could say that the liberalism of the 17th/18th centuries did have a strong **ontological** commitment to **individualism** (whether through Kantian notions of autonomy or Lockean notions of Self-Ownership), I think that Berlin's liberalism is more defined by pluralism and scepticism. Pluralism is simply an acknowledgement of growing social, religious and cultural diversity. Liberalism (i.e. free expression, free association, multi-party democracy etc.), is claimed to be best equipped to deal with this fact of pluralism. Scepticism (in 20th Century Liberalism) can generally be understood as a response to the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany - both of which claimed to have *all* the answers to the problems facing humanity. They did so with such confidence that the consent of the ruled was not even required. Again, a sceptical attitude towards authority, bolstered by Liberal political freedoms, is seen as best placed to protect us from those sorts of totalitarian horrors.

Now, there are parts of the left for whom such political freedoms are dismissed as “bourgeois” (although thankfully they mostly seem to be dying off!!). But there are also significant sections of the left that embrace them, and, again, I don’t think it is helpful to see this strain of liberalism as entirely alien to the project of “the left”…

Anonymous said...

"Closely allied to the type of "anti-imperialism" that, at its most benign, puts Argentine territorial claims over the self-determination of the Falklands islanders"

These anti-imperialists are better than your lot.

However, neither of these things really matter. I couldn't give a toss about a few thousand people who for some unknown reason want to live on a rock in the South Atlantic. Frankly, it doesn't matter what they want. The question is, is it in the UK's interests to keep the Falklands? If not, give them to Argentina.

TNC said...

Hi Alex,

Thanks for your comments. I agree that liberalism is diverse and has changed over time. Certainly what it means to a liberal today in the U.S. bears very little resemblance to what I wrote. However, I focused on early liberalism because that is what the author referred to. She refers to the historical development of the left, not contemporary liberal theory. But perhaps I missed something. Can you point me to the place in her essay where she discusses contemporary liberalism?

--TNC

TNC said...

"Also thought I’d bring up old Isaiah Berlin, as I think that he highlights two of the key features of modern liberal thought. Whereas, arguably, you could say that the liberalism of the 17th/18th centuries did have a strong **ontological** commitment to **individualism**..."

As did 19th century liberalism. And the 19th century is crucial to this discussion because that is when Marxism and anarchism emerged. Not as tendencies within liberalism but as opponents to liberalism. Even social democracy, in the 19th century, was anti-capitalist. It was an evolutionary (not revolutionary) critique but still a critique. They still wrote about and believed in a transition away from capitalism and towards socialism. The sort of "third way" social democrats who set all that aside came much later. Right?

Alex Ross said...

OK yes, fair point TNC. I was thinking purely in terms of the way in which people use the concept today - and am only working of excerpts of article from Norm, yourself, and the preview...

On the 19th century left, I'd argue that (often) it didn't think of itself in **opposition** to liberalism but rather saw itself as **extending** liberal principles beyond the privileged social classes...e.g. the Chartists used a very liberal rights based framework to articulate their demands but extended such rights universally and gave them more social and economic beef. I also think that Marx himself was something of a Kantian (at least in the Paris Manuscripts)...but that is another story.

I guess that my underlying point is that the "boundary" between the left and liberalism is pretty messy...and that those who attempt to rigidify it are (more often than not) from the skull cracking wing of the left (cf most discussions on SU).