Saturday, August 31, 2013

From Bob's archive: Cosmopolitanism or nationalism?

We are nearing the end of this sequence. This is from December 2007.

I've been reading David Hirsh's excellent working paper on left antisemitism (pdf here). At some point, a proper post about it. For the moment, just one thing.

Hirsh, drawing on thinkers like Robert FineHannah ArendtHal Draper and Isaac Deutscher, talks of his analysis as a cosmopolitan one, "a framework for doing social theory which disrupts a methodologically nationalist tendency to view the division of the world into nations as being rather more fixed than it is."Fine, he writes, describes the appeal of cosmopolitanism as having to do with the idea that "human beings can belong anywhere, humanity has shared predicaments and … we find our community with others in exploring how these predicaments can be faced in common."

That's certainly a position I would endorse.

Jogo sent me this extaordinary piece on that paranoid delusional megalomaniac George Galloway, calling the police because two journalists who went to see him turned out to be agents of ZOG, the Zionist Entity (that's how he saw it). Listen to the audio clip.

Gorgeous George sets out his vision for what counts as just and understandable suicide bombing (settlers, soldiers) and what counts as unjust (pizza joints). He sees Hamas as a perfectly legitimate national liberation movement. Etc etc.

The thing I want to draw your attention to is in these passages:

Galloway explained Osama bin Laden is a terrorist since the al-Qaida chieftain, whom Galloway claimed was "armed and financed by the U.S." in the 1970s and 1980s, is a "pan-Islamic, nihilistic leader leading a nihilistic organization which seeks to bring about the collapse of national states and re-emergence of the caliphate." 
Galloway stated Hamas, by contrast, is not a terror group: 
"[Hamas] wants to liberate their country, which has been illegally occupied, and to reassemble their nation, which has been scattered to the four winds. That's an entirely legitimate goal," he said.
I have commented before on Galloway's racial nationalist worldview: a vision of a world divided into nation-states, each ruled by a fuhrer figure like, say, Hugo Chavez or George Galloway. This illustrates it perfectly: national(ist) movements good/global movements bad.

Galloway's nationalist methodology is of course just a slightly more extreme version of the nationally-minded "anti-imperialism" of much of the post-Cold War left: an internationalism which is not cosmopolitan but rather "inter-nationalist".

Within the Marxist left, this sort of "inter-nationalism" gets its authority from Lenin's belief in national self-determination as a fundamental right of nation-states (against Rosa Luxembourg's cosmopolitan view). There were a couple of steps from Lenin's views to Stalin's dogmatic, simplistic version of it, and then another couple of steps to Stalin's WWII embrace of Greater Russian nationalism and increasingly paranoid post-WWII obsession with the scourge of rootless cosmopolitanism. Increasingly, since the end of the Cold War, the "anti-imperialist" worldview has become even more theoretically impoverished, and able to embrace all and any reactionary movement that manages to portray itself as anti-imperialist, whether that is Milosovic's Serbian nationalism, Chavez's authoritarian nationalism or, as in this case, the theocratic-fascist Hamas.

This embrace of the nation-state as the ground for "resistance" to globalized capital, and the consequent demonisation of the figure of the cosmopolitan, serves as a common rallying point for the rococco left, Third Worldists, conservative European anti-Americans (like Jacques Chirac and Rowan Williams), and the far right . Galloway, in all the incoherence of his politics, exemplifies this convergence.


A critical comment from Jogo in the comment thread:

Thursday, August 22, 2013

From Bob's archive: Rowan Williams on good and bad imperialism

Still on Bob's archive. This is from November 2007, when we had a different head of the Church of England...

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has managed to get himself into the headlines again with another inane comment on foreign policy. Here are the controversial comments:
America seems so intrinsically involved in everything. The Archbishop recognises that: “We have only one global hegemonic power at the moment.” But, he propounds, “It is not accumulating territory; it is trying to accumulate influence and control. That’s not working.” Far from seeing this positively, he describes it as “the worst of all worlds,” saying, “it is one thing to take over a territory and then pour energy and resources into administering it and normalising it. Rightly or wrongly that’s what the British Empire did – in India for example. It is another thing to go in on the assumption that a quick burst of violent action will somehow clear the decks and that you can move on and other people will put things back together –Iraq for example.”
His whole interview (in the glossy Muslim "lifestyle" magazine Emel) is worth reading in full (here it is, found via Ekklesia), because the comment on American power and British imperialism is only one small part in an actually fairly far-ranging and thoughtful discussion.

Not surprisingly, though, I am going to focus on the controversial bit.

In particular, the positive depiction of British imperialism is outrageous. The balance sheet of the British empire is incredibly poor. Starting with the plantations in Ireland and mass appropriations of land from Irish farmers, condemning them to generations of poverty, moving on to the role of the Empire in the slave trade (3.5 million African slaves to the Americas, a third of all slaves transported across the Atlantic).

And in India, Williams' model, there was the privatised and unaccountable system of plundering India's wealth under the East India Company, which makes Halliburton and Blackwater and the private contractors in Iraq look like charities. The East India Company habitually used torture against Indian people and forced farmers to convert from subsistence crops to cash crops for export, resulting in horrific starvation. They destroted Indian industry by flooding the market with cheap goods, the market being rigged by a system of duties and subsidies. And this was nothing compared to the thirty or forty million peasants who died in the British-induced famines that Mike Davis describes in his grim highly recommended Late Victorian Holocausts.

As for the British Empire and Iraq...Well, it was off course the British who, rather than diligently and thoughtfully "pouring energy and resources into administering it and normalising it", Britain invented it out of thin air, combining three Ottoman provinces that had little in common with each other culturally or linguistically. Britain proceded to pump oil and wealth out of the country, through the Turkish Petroleum Company. More seriously, Britain bombed Kurdish and Arab uprisings. (Churchill famously advocated using chemical weapons against the "uncivilised" Kurdish tribes.) [More here.]

So what allows someone of Williams' intellectual stature to be so stupid? I don't have enough knowledge of or interest in the Archbishop to comment (Martin's very good post here gives some explanations). The fact is, Williams is not alone. An insanity has gripped Western elite opinion, rendering it unable to see with any proportion, unable to make moral judgements. America, Israel and Blair are magnified into the worst possible monsters; all other crimes are relatavised away; all good things America does are literally invisible and unthinkable for these people. As Martin points out,
Needless to say, the archbishop had little to say about America's role in liberating Kuwait from Saddam, protecting the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo, or rescuing Afghanistan from the repressive grip of the Taliban.

Williams is blind to the inter-imperialist rivalries that mean that America as a "global hegemon" is in active competition with other powers, not least China, Russia and Europe, who severely curtail America's ability to act on the global stage.

This worldview speaks a radical language ("global hegemon"). It is endemic amongst people who like to think of themselves as liberal or even radical. But it is essentially conservative. The Archbishop's idiotic nostalgia for the terrorist regime that was the British Empire is intimately related to his anti-Americanism. As with the likes of Chirac, this is the politics of reaction, not the politics of emancipation. Hence its easy alliances with Islamic theocrats and other reactionary forces.


The comment thread was interesting too. I reproduce it here, below the fold:

Sunday, August 18, 2013

From Bob's archive: "Folk music", folk music, trad jazz, and the trad left

I'm away, so posting from the archive. This one, from October 2007, follows the last couple I posted.

Further to the "folk music" issue from last week (here - read thecomments too), Jogo sends a link to this nice article at MRZine by Sophie Guthrie. Extract:
Woody (who didn't listen much to his own records) played the song totally differently, adding new chords, changing beats, and even improvising a few new verses. Unlike highly disciplined and organized dancers, folksingers are known to veer. Woody would simply state, "If you're the same, the weather's different, and if the weather is the same, and even you're the same, you breathe different, and if you breathe the same, you rest or pause different." Later he would explain, "if I want to take a breath between verses, I play a few extra chords. And if I forget the lines and want to remember them, I play a few extra chords. And if I want to get up and leave town, I get up and leave town."
I was working on a second installment of my "Lexicon for our times", which would have had an entry for "Trad Left", but I'm going to bring it forward as it relates directly to this quote from Woody.

The phrase "Trad Left" comes to me from the 60s/70s libertarian communist group Solidarity, for example in this article "Third Worldism or Socialism" (the funkily hirsute guy in the photo is Sri Lankan "anti-imperialist" Rohana Wijeweera, not a Solidarity member!). For me, the phrase works by analogy with"Trad jazz", meaning traditional (as opposed to modern) jazz: the British movement of the 50s+.

Pre-modern jazz was full of innovation and change and creativity and genius (see, for example, Willie The Lion SmithSidney BechetWild Bill Davison). But when modern jazz came along, playing the old style became formulaic and repetitive. Fun for a Sunday drinking real ale in a pub, but you wouldn't want to buy the records.

That's kind of what folk music became once it was codified and frozen and ripped out of its folk context, i.e. when it started getting called "folk music", and started having folk music fans ("folkies").

Now, there's nothing really wrong with music being formulaic and repetitive. Capitalism likes innovation, but that doesn't mean innovation in art is necessarily good. Playing far-out jazz like Gilad Atzmon or Don Byron is not intrinsically better than reworking old New Orleans style riffs or Appalachian songs.

But in political analysis you need to constantly change - because the world constantly changes. To use the word "imperialism" as if it is still 1916, for example, doesn't work in today's world.

So, getting back to Trad Left. Like pre-modern jazz, the Old Left was full of innovation and change and creativity and genius - Paul MattickHenryk GrossmanKarl KorschAnton Pannekoek, Rosa Luxembourg, Alexandra Kollontai, Sylvia Pankhurst, etc. But to use the analysis these people developed, without taking acount of the way the world has since changed, is not OK. Sometimes you need to play a few extra chords. And sometimes you need to get up and leave town.


Jogo also sent me the above image of Woody, saying:

It would be fun to photoshop Woody's guitar so it said "this machine kills Fascists but not Stalinists."Boy, would that piss off the old Commies.

And isn't he setting a bad example for kids? (cigarette in mouth)


In the comments thread, we got this:

Jim Denham said...
Sidney Bechet, Wild Bill, and The Lion... anyone who singles those guys has got to have taste and knowledge... they epitomise the so-called "trad" players who took their music to the extremes: Bechet, in paricular, was simply a force of nature. It pisses me off, that these guys are now all but forgotten, whilst the likes of Gilad Atzmon, playing his good, but not particularly exciting post-bop, is hailed as some sort of genius. he isn't; he's a competent sax player - that's all.
I've worked with a *great* jazz player (Wild Bill Davison), and I know greatness when I see and hear it.
bob said...
Jim, I thought you'd be offended about what I said about trad jazz!
Jim Denham said...
Not at all Bob: just good to see my heroes given a name-check. My only dispute would be with the term "trad": to my ears guys like Bechet, Wild Bill and The Lion are forever modern, regardless of the vaguaries of fashion. Charlie Parker rated Bechet.
for a much more learned piece on the relationship between jazz and the left, I recommend my comrade Bruce Robinson's piece 'The Freedom Principle' on the Workers Liberty website at:
bob said...
I'm not sure I made myself clear in this piece. When Sidney Bechet was first recording in 1923, he was not playing "traditional" jazz; he was right at the cutting edge, as they'd say today. (And he was still at the cutting edge when he recorded Shiekh of Araby in 1941.)
Likewise, when Paul Mattick, say, was writing in the 1930s, he was not of the trad left; he was cutting edge.
When bebop came along, repeating the chops Bechet played in the 1920s became increasingly un-cutting edge. When modern jazz comes along, jazz played as if time had stopped before the war was called "trad" jazz. Similarly, people who regurgitate today what Mattick wrote in the 1930s are rightly called the "trad" left.
Now, there's nothing wrong with playing music Bechet-style in 2008. But there is something wrong with thinking Mattick-style in 2008, because the world has changed so much.
So, sometimes you have to play a few extra chords. Sometimes you have to get up and leave the room.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

From Bob's archive: Jogo on the left's old neighbourhood... or a new neighbourhood

This is from September 2007, and was a guest post by Jogo.

This wonderful photograph is a perfect accompaniment to the very strong article [by the New Centrist] you linked to.

I've seen it before on, which you should visit sometime. For fun, click now on this.*

Today, in front of my local Trader Joe, there was a table and a big sign that said "Impeach Cheney." There was literature being given away, and I suppose there was a petition to sign. But the outreach had nothing to do with Cheney (impeachment is ridiculous), but rather with Lyndon LaRouche*. And the poor stupid SUV liberals of Encinitas were gathered round, thinking only of Cheney and how awful he is, not realizing that the magnet that drew them there was worse than Cheney.


The New Centrist, yourself, the Eustonites, the bloggers-after-your-own heart, all these fellows, are waging an important struggle to reconfigure or shift the center of gravity of the Left. The battle needs to be fought, but it may have already been lost. I and my friend John Seward have taken another approach -- perhaps not the best one -- and simply abandoned "the Left" as our home, while not completely abandoning, even cherishing, certain emotional, ethical and philosophical currents that continue to connect us to the Left. It is as if a bunch of terrible people have moved into the neighborhood, rendering it unfit for (our) habitation. And yet the old neighborhood is ... well ... it's still the old neighborhood and the pickle man's stall is still there with its wonderful, evocative smells. It's hard to resist that smell. And mmm, those pickles are crunchy and delicious, and you can't find pickles like that anywhere else.

However, at a certain point, the conflicts that divide the Left will have (or perhaps already have had) the effect of tearing the Left into pieces: /this Left/ and /that Left/. At that point, I ask: why continue to identify yourself as Left? Why not do as The New Centrist has done and move your community to a new place? When Hell's Angels, winos, whores and crackheads have taken over the neighborhood one can find oneself huddled in one's apartment, reading books and making nice dinners for a few friends, reluctant to take the kind of evening walks one used to do. And I won't put up with that. But I LIKE my evening walks in the neighborhood. Perhaps, think I, if I help create a new neighborhood I might have new neighbors: people who would not have lived in that old neighborhood: people I might not have met if I, and they, had remained in our old neighborhoods. And if the new neighhorhood is a nice one ... well, others might move in.

And here's a thought: perhaps that new neighborhood already exists, though it has no name. Perhaps that's the neighborhood where millions of people actually do live, but they don't quite realize it yet.

*If the link doesn't work, it's Zombietime image of Iraq war protestors. 

Friday, August 09, 2013

From Bob's archive: A lexicon for our times (2007)

I'm out of the country, so as is my habit I bring you stuff from the archive. This is from August 2007, an exercise in lexicography that I have meant to expand on and never gotten around to.

1. Rococco Left
Rococo Left is a term coined by a friend of by Noga of Contentious Centrist to talk about what has also been referred to as the "Indecent Left", the part of the far left that allies itself with far right forces abroad like Ba'athism and Islamism, while converging with the far right in the West in basing its analysis on anti-american and often anti-semitic conspiracy theories, instead of an ethical concern with social justice or a materialist critique of global injustice.

Rococco Left is a good term - for those of you who don't know what Rococo means, the first image google throws up is this one of a cock and balls, which is pretty apt - basically it's overblown, decorative, baroque. The word comes from the French rocaille, or shell, and the Italian barocco, or Baroque. The Rococco Left, like a decorative shell, is empty of substance, full of bombast, devoting time to the pointless frills and forgetting the important core.

2. Arrested radicalization
This is a term which Jogo drew my attention to, used on the 9/11 Cult Watch page linked to. I think the term was coined by Chuck Munson of Infoshop. As Jogo puts it, "the term describes an intellectual process that has not been carried far enough, and that merely mimes true radicalism." A useful term!

See also: De-bunking the 9/11 movementChuck Munson on the sad decline of Indymedia.

3. Dove with claws
I take this from a post on Shagya Blog, linking to a piece in In These Times that I linked to a while back. It comes from the great Johnny Cash, talking about the Vietnam war:
This past January we took our entire show, along with my wife June, we went to Long Bien Air Force Base near Saigon.
And a reporter friend of mine asked, said, "That makes you a hawk, doesn't it?"
And I said, "No, that don't make me a hawk. No. No, that don't make me a hawk."
But I said, "If you watch the helicopters bring in the wounded boys, then you go into the wards and sing for 'em and try to do your best to cheer them up so that they can get back home, it might make you a dove with claws."
Wade Tatangelo characterises Cash's position as "anti-war/pro-soldier", which is not a bad place to be.

4. Untamed hawk
Merle Haggard takes it one step further. Asked "Do you feel like a dove with claws these days?" He replied:
How about an untamed hawk? I’m not going to be a part of the mainstream ever. I’m an American, and I think America is about differences of opinion, and it’s also about integrity and honesty and all those things. We need to gain that respect and that reputation around the world again, as well as in the middle of this country. I think the average American is in a state of confusion as to what to do or who to turn to for help.
By strange coincidence, Haggard's wonderful "I wonder if they ever think of me" has just come on my shuffle. The opening line is "There's not much a man can do inside a prison", pretty raw for the time. After lamenting the prisoner's loneliness for a couple of verses, you suddenly get this:
I wonder if they know that I'm still living
And still proud to be a part of Uncle Sam
I wonder if they think I died of hunger
In this rotten prison camp in VietNam.