Thursday, December 30, 2010

Books of the Year 2010

Carl nicked this off Paul who nicked it off Norm, and he tagged me along with about a hundred others, and as he obliged me I'll oblige him. I haven't read 10 in any category, at least not that I'd recommend, so my lists trail off.

Top 10 non-fiction
  1. Bertrand M Patenaude Stalin's Nemesis 
  2. James Horrox A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement [which I will review at Contested Terrain in the new year]
  3. Roger Hewitt White Backlash and the Politics of Multiculturalism [not finished it yet, but strongly recommend it]
  4. Benny Morris Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict
  5. Gillian Evans Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain [a lot better than it sounds from the title!]
Top 10 Fiction
  1. Javier Cercas Soldiers of Salamis [thanks Richard]
  2. Barbara Kingsolver The Lacuna [thanks Ruth]
  3. Jose Saramago Baltasar and Blimunda [thanks Francisco]
  4. Sebastian Barry A Long, Long Way
  5. Jonathan Wilson The Hiding Room
  6. George Pelecanos Drama City
Give it a miss
  1. Milan Kundera Immortality
  2. JG Ballard Millenium People
  3. Daniel Pennac The Scapegoat
There is no established rule about who to tag, and the year is fast drawing to a close, and Carl tagged millions of us, so I'll tag a whole lot of you and see what happens: Martin, Noga, Darren, Flesh, Kellie, Matt, Peter, George.  

Update: Noga's list (and other discussion points!) here.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Balkan notes

Modernity has published a guest post by David N Gibbs in which he defends himself against allegations made against him by Marko Attila Hoare here and here. I have commented on it here, and I also strongly recommend the comments by Sarah Correia. [UPDATE: Marko responds here, and the debate continues to rage at Mod's place.]

Marko also has a short piece on the Guardian once again flirting with Balkan atrocity denialism. The same Guardian article is picked up at CiFWatch, where the Guardian's use of the word "massacre" with or without scare quotes is compared when talking about Racak and Jenin. Incidentally, who is one of the key vectors of denialism about Racak? Diana Johnstone, on whom see below.

James Thomas Snyder has a really interesting book review at Dissent of two books published by Sarajevo's Connectum publishing house, Black Soul by Ahmet M. Rahmanovic and Sarajevo: Exodus of a City by Dzevad Karahasan.

Andrew Murphy has a powerful guest post at Harry's Place on Diana Johnstone's "Chomskyite" falsification of history in Counterpunch (the scandal rag that also publishes Israel Shamir, Gilad Atzmon, Alison Weir and, er, David N Gibbs). The comments thread has a number of comments by "Hasan Pristina" which, although I am not qualified to endorse, are well written and seem to deserve more than the automatic deletion that HP now consigns its comments to after awhile, so I reproduce some of them here below the fold:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"Influential left-wing ideas"

Some weeks ago, provoked by a poll in LFF, I posted on “influential leftists”, listing five good influences, five bad influences and five who I wished were more influential. Flesh is Grass rightly noted that it might be better to think of influential ideas. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and decided it’s an impossible task.

What are “ideas”? Inventive solutions to society’s problems (anathema to someone who sees the whole of capitalism as fundamentally flawed)? Big ideas, isms like socialism (or is that too abstract and utopian)? Something in between?

Well, having been mulling it over, I’ve come up with my lists, even though looking at them they seem a bit ridiculous. Some of them are meant to be provocative, some are heart-felt, but I’m not going to tell you which are which.


Social justice – This is probably the idea that I hold most dear, and which ultimately influences more or less the whole left, but as I write it down, it seems pathetic, a platitude rather than an idea, and one that has been bent and abused by everyone from Bill Ayers to Iain Duncan Smith. Still, surely worth defending?

Internationalism – Arguably another platitude, and one that most of the left lays claim to. But I wish it was a little more influential, that people who pay it lip service actually worked out how to put it into practice, actually applied it, say, to the Tamils languishing in refugee camps in Sri Lanka’s interior, to the Chinese workers who make all the plastic tat we put in our kids’ party bags, to the women who are stoned for adultery in western Asia.

The one state solution – Many of my friends on the anti-anti-Zionist left think that the one state solution is essentially equivalent to the genocidal destruction of the Jewish nation. They argue that the Arabs (who have demography on their side, and formidable military allies in the form of the Saudis, Iran and so on) have proven themselves unable to share space with Jews. I reject this fatalistic view, and having recently been in Northern Ireland am more confident than ever that we can forge our own futures if we unshackle our imaginations. It feels to me that the idea of the one state solution is steadily gaining ground, not just among the hardcore advocates of a “free Palestine”, but among younger Jews in both Israel and the diaspora. This slow awakening comes with a growing sense that another Zionism is possible, and a recovery of the memory of pre-1948 Zionism, the Zionism of Ahad Ha’am, Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Joseph Trumpledor, AD Gordon and Judah Magnes, which called for a “national home” for the Jews and not necessarily a nation-state. By the way, I have at various other times in my life called for a one state solution also for South Africa, Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Ireland and Cyprus. 

Open source – I remember thinking it was one of the sillier elements of the Euston Manifesto that it filled a whole clause (no.14 if you're interested) with open source software: a complete distraction, I thought, from the real issues. But since then I’ve changed my mind as I’ve watched the rise of creative commons licensing, free and open source software, participatory media, citizen journalism and citizen scholarship. If you use Firefox or Wikipedia, for example, you will have experienced small-c communism in practice: voluntary co-operation and mutual aid on a massive scale, at the most sophisticated level possible, to achieve, well, not a common goal, but an endless multiplicity of projects, completely outside the logic of the market or the state.

Strangers into citizens – I think this idea is influential, as it has managed to mobilise thousands of church-goers, as well as both Red Ken and Mayor Boris. Although some of my comrades think it doesn’t go far enough, surely its influence is a good thing in itself?


National sovereignty – What is a nation? How can a nation have a “self”? How is that “self” supposed to determine itself? Why should that self-determination take the shape of a state? Why should we respect the systems of rule that history has randomly bestowed on other nations? Why should we go to war, for example, out of respect for some Kuwaiti hereditary monarch’s right to use his kingdom as a personal bank account? Equally, why should we “stop” a war out of respect for some national socialist or clerical-fascist’s right to use his country as a personal fiefdom?

Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions – It is now common sense in the liberal world to see Israel as a pariah state, the worst possible state in the world, as bad as apartheid South Africa, as bad as the Nazis already. The boycott, divestment, sanctions idea has zero chance of contributing positively to peace or justice in Palestine; its only role is to give liberals an outlet for their moral ejaculations and to engrave in indelible letters the idea that Israel is the last word in evil.

Blood for oil/the Israel lobby/the shock doctrine – These ideas are probably incompatible at some level, although that doesn’t stop them from being held equally true by the same people. They are examples of vulgar or arrested materialism. They are attempts to explain the world through its underlying material/economic forces, but fall short. They fall short because they have no way of explaining the link between material interests and political or geopolitical effects, so end up as versions of conspiracy theory

Foreigners are stealing our jobs – this sounds like a right-wing idea, but it has been repeated over and over again on the left by Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians, from Ed Balls to Phil Woolas to Ed MiIliband. And the left has so far failed to respond to this, except in the form of moralistic hand-wringing.

Second Campism – Imperialism was one of the great evils of the last few centuries, so it is to its credit that the left has historically opposed it. But nowadays, the power cartography of the world has been so re-calibrated that the whole notion of imperialism makes little or no sense, and the concept of anti-imperialism becomes more and more attenuated. It seems to me that most self-proclaimed anti-imperialism these days is better described as Second Campism – that is, supporting the other camp over one’s own. Thus leftists once flocked to Cuba and the Viet Cong as the enemies of Amerikkka; now they flock to “anti-imperialist” dictators who have even less connection to the left’s core values, simply because they are the enemies of Amerikkka.


Mutualism, co-operatives, self-management – It is bizarre to see Conservatives talking about mutualism and workers’ co-ops, as these are historically very much a part of the heritage of the left, and especially the British left. The co-operative movement is intimately tied up with the history of the labour movement. Both express, if in different ways, human desire for autonomy and self-management. It is tragic that the left has vacated that territory and left it for the right to claim. In the year that Ken Coates and Colin Ward died, it is time for these ideas, the legacy of people like William Morris, Murray Bookchin and Daniel Guerin, to be influential again. (See also Will Davies on this.)

Small government – The Tory claiming of mutualism is a symptom of a bigger failure of the left: its abandonment of the larger ideal of liberty. For the last century, the century of the Bolsheviks and the Fabians, non-state socialism has been eclipsed, and the right has claimed the mantle of the party of the small state. Time to take it back.

No borders – The abolition of borders is, of course, an impossibilist demand, a utopian dream. There is no way a single country can abandon its borders: the call for no borders is immediately a call for a totally transformed world, a world with no borders. This is not something we can work towards in a practical way, but rather a way of imagining the world, and thus making our world different. 

Class analysis – This used to be one of the most influential ideas on the left. Far too influential, arguably, as the trad left was blind to anything other than class: blind to sex and sexuality, to culture and morality, to psychology, to the sacred, to other axes of identity like gender and race, to patriotism and kinship... But the post-1968, has gone too far the other way. Only the most tedious and dogmatic of leftists talk about class these days. But without that anchor, the value of social justice goes adrift, and the left just surfs every passing wave, from Third Worldism to identity politics, from Gaia to Wahhabism.

Agnosticism – I don't mean agnosticism about God (although that seems the only sensible option to me) but rather agnosticism about religion. The chattering classes seem increasingly encamped in the culture wars over evolution and God, the Eaglefish versus the Hitchkins, each equally narrow-minded and obsessive. It seems to me that religion has a track record of contributing an enormous amount of good to the world, and an enormous amount of evil – and the same can be said of atheism. Enough already; let’s just get on with it.

Despite the signal lack of success of my last memething, I am tagging, if they feel up to it, the following: Flesh, Modernity, Norm, Carl again, Darren (because of this) and Sarah. Any ideas? P.S. please don't feel obliged to stick with the 5-5-5 formula or to write overlong essays at each bullet point like I did.

UPDATE: A rejoinder from Eamonn on the one state solution, and a response from Norm on national sovereignty, class analysis and one state.

Update 2: Sarah serialises her responses: 1, 2, 3. Flesh responds here. And Waterloo Sunset on what's wrong with the liberal left.
Update 3: Carl's entry.

Monday, December 20, 2010

What is the trad left?

Maurice Brinton, 1969:
Here goes (briefly for shortage of space prevents full treatment of each proposition): 
a) Among the identifying features of the trad left (whether Fabian or Bolshevik) are an ingrained belief in man's incapacity to manage his own affairs without an elite or leadership of some kind (themselves!). In this, both reflect the typically bourgeois concept of "masters and men".

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Snow, stones, trains, cuts, bullocks, etc

Apologies for my long absence (not that you minded). Here are some jottings that don't quite add up to anything much, to hold the fort until I have more time.

Why I still read the Guardian
Simon Hoggart:
Many of the tabloids printed the dreadful pictures of the woman who was flogged in Sudan for wearing trousers under her outer clothes. You might have seen the film on TV. It is horrifying: the man with the whip following her looking for the most painful spot to hit, her screams of agony, the overseer laughing at her pain.
The same papers, on the same day, appeared to be equally outraged by the appearance of Christina Aguilera and dancers performing in their underwear during the X-Factor final. Thousands of people complained on the grounds that this came before the watershed. Maybe so, and I can understand why some parents were annoyed. But I know which society I would prefer to live in.
 I bet you wish your Big Society was a freak like mine

I was pleased my post on neo-liberalism and my “Kosovo-style social cleansing” post elicited a healthy blast of debate. I’ve been meaning to follow up with another post on the cuts and a post on the Big Society, but I’ve just not had time. I enjoyed Flesh is Grass on the Big Society, staking out what her Big Society would be like. My Big Society would be very like hers, except I would also emphasise that one area where citizens and communities should be given more control over their lives would be the economic sphere, and especially the world of work. My Big Society, that is, would include a little more economic democracy.

On a related theme, from the centre-left, Paul Richards has written about the ways in which localism and small government are historically very much a part of the heritage of the labour movement.
This approach is true to Labour's own roots in working-class culture and organisations such as the chapel, co-op, union and friendly society. Working-class communities ran their own health insurance schemes, adult education, and social clubs. They didn't rely on the state. This is what inspired the Guild Socialists such as GDH Cole, who wanted political and industrial power to reside at the local level. The Guild Socialists wanted full-blown industrial democracy in the work-place, political democracy through local councils, and consumer democracy through cooperatives. The role of the state would be strategic, not all-encompassing. You could almost call it a ‘big society'.
 A local blog for local people

I have neglected Lewisham, Brockley and South London generally in my recent blog posts. It’s all been happening down here lately, with protests against the cuts in Lewisham reaching fever pitch, and on the other hand two bouts of intense snowfalls and travel nightmares that threaten to turn the revolutionary anger against Southeastern trains. On the former issue, see Hangbitch, Transpontine, Adam B and Darryl. On the latter, see Darryl and our local Twitterati. My neglect of Lewisham issues, incidentally, has included my neglect of Andrew Brown’s blog, Someday I Will Treat You Good, where I plan to start spending more time.

Local politics in a time of austerity

The Lewisham anti-cuts battles dramatise some of the political dilemmas of our moment. In this borough, we have a Labour government implementing the Tory cuts. While councillor Michael Harris suggests our cuts are left-wing ones not right-wing ones, others are not so sure. The various different anti-cuts groups locally, are taking different lines on Labour. In some ways, this is reminiscent of the poll tax moment 20 years ago, when Thatcher’s deeply unjust tax system also served the purpose of de-legitimating municipal government and forcing Labour councils into the role of the tangible face of the class enemy for the less well off who suffered as a result of the central government policy.

For my part, I want to participate in fighting the cuts, but, like most ordinary people, am not sure how to navigate through the Trots’ astroturf opportunists front organisations, and through the futile posturing and gesture politics. I found, from very different perspectives, posts by Phil Dickens and Andrew Coates useful in thinking about this. I liked Andrew’s point that “one thing we need now is a real ‘reformist strategy’, that is, a way of making things better now for ordinary people.” UPDATE: Whereas on my less reformist days I feel like Darren does here.


Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Commenter of the year

Note: I wrote most of this last week, but ran out of time. It is now a little overdue!

I've been meaning to post about this for ages (sorry, folks, about the long hiatus, if any of you noticed) and fortuitously, or not, the competition opened yesterday. Paul in Lancashire (not Lincolnshire, as my ignorant Southern fingers once typed) has opened a competition that not even he can boycott. It's about blog commenters.

This is a subject I've written about before, but has been on my mind with some of my recentish posts getting a fair amount of comment traffic, such as this one (still going on) on left antisemitism, this one on Vietnam, this one on the Propagandist, and this one on decentism. Though Cowards Flinch has always been a blog worth visiting for the discussion, and exemplary in the tone of the debate there. I'm less optimistic than I used to be about the potential of blogs to create genuine interactivity and dialogue, but I like to think that we have a bit of it here. Certainly, I feel like I have made friends in the comment boxes, and have gone on to meet some of them in the meat world. I think of myself as existing in an unusual political space, so it is nice to find other people occupying that space.

Paul writes:
Other blogs where you get this really good, respectful but not toadying author-commenter engagement include Bob from BrockleyHarpymarx (a little intermittently), 21st Century Fix (though sparsely), Duncan’s Economic Blog (often mind-bendingly), The Third Estate and Paul Sagar’s Bad Conscience, though Paul’s exponentially increasing popularity (well-deserved) may make that difficult to maintain.
That point about Paul's popularity is crucial. There is an optimum size for good commenting: too many readers means too many trolls and oddballs.Three blogs I visit and stay for the comments are Shiraz Socialist, where the tone is not always as polite as I (being overly decent) like but is always interesting; Engage, where comments are heavily moderated, but this allows for some, er, engagement among discussants (I particularly like Brian Goldfarb's intelligent thoughts); and Dave Osler's place, which should by law be too big for healthy discussion but isn't (despite the best, and often enjoyable disruptive efforts of Jimmy Glesga).

I'm going to nominate ten commenters from this blog, although I realise most are also bloggers, which mean they don't count. Use the comment thread to vote, and then I'll submit the results to the jury in Bickerstaffe.
  1. Waterloo Sunset: a heavy commenter at Osler's place, Socialist Unity and elswhere, WS went and spoiled it by finally getting a blog of his own. I feel, given the overlap between our political pasts (AFA, levitating the houses of parliament, etc), we might recognise each other on sight.
  2. Noga, the Contentious Centrist: more or less Waterloo's polar opposite tempermentalyl and politically, Noga is a fine blogger, but a far more prolific commenter, here, at Mick Hartley's, at TNR and elsewhere.
  3. Modernity: also a blogger (or should that be a Wordpresser?), but my best ally in my harshest battles in my comment threads, with the Elfs and Games and our other common enemies. I feel a certain kinship because we were both added to the Drink-Soaked Trot blogroll on the same day, but he was ex-communicated quicker.
  4. Entdinglichung: rarely actually comments in his comments, but provides fascinating links to things I'd never know about, in a very non-sectarian way. Which is also his MO as a blogger.
  5. Renegade Eye: Stylistically almost the exact opposite of Ent as a commenter. He tends not to actually argue anything out, but simply drops assertions and opinions in and leaves. But these assertions and opinions are generally fresh and unpredictable in a nice way. Jams once told me that Renegade Eye was one of the bloggers who really encouraged him in the early days, and I too have found him a generous presence in the blogosphere, despite obvious political differences. Renegade Eyet blogs here.
  6. Jams himself: who blogs here is also a generous presence in the 'sphere, and 
  7. Snoopy the Goon: funny and to the point. Blogs here.
  8. Migreli: our residentJabotinsky-ite, who I appreciate even more having just read a John Le Carre novel set in Migrelia.
  9. Morbid Symptoms: always says very concisely things I wish I'd thought to say myself.
  10. Will Rubbish: for old time's sake.
Honourable mentions for: Les Wade, James Bloodworth, Marko Attila and the Social Republican. And in the where are they now file: Ross from Catford and Courtney from the RCP. And an un-nomination for Jogo, who I wish would comment more.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Wikileaks And The Conspiracy Theory Of History

A post by me at Contested Terrain on whether Wikileaks proves that geopolitcs is driven by good old fashioned material forces (e.g. that it is the Arab oil lobby, not the neocon/Israel axis, pushing military aggression against Iran – small-imperialist power politics, not Jewish conspiracy) or in fact whether the leaks are a Soros/Mossad/CIA/neocon false flag operation as part of the ZOG world government.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Final Gnome Chomsky: For Christmas

Talk about flogging a dead horse. This is the last in the series.

From Deedtheinky:

While I'm here... There is a fascinating interview with Chomsky (whose 82nd birthday it will be on Tuesday) in Jewish mag the Tablet. Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic extracts an interesting bit, about when he was a Zionist youth. But it is worth reading the whole thing. First, he talks of the influence of Ahad Ha'am in his household; in my view, Ha'am is a really neglected figure in the history of Jewish political thought.
Ahad Ha’am was an early advocate of the idea that later became famous with [the Marxist political scientist] Ben Anderson, when he wrote his books about how nations are imagined communities. He said there’s an imagined—I don’t think he used the term—but there’s an imagined Jewish community, in which Moses plays a central role, and it really doesn’t matter if there was a historical Moses or not. That’s part of the national myth, which is a sophisticated version of what Shlomo Sand was trying to get at. Sand debunks the historical Moses, but from Ha’am’s point of view, it makes no difference.
Then comes a really cringey bit:

Did you read Nivi’im, the prophets, with your father in Hebrew?
The word “prophet” is a very bad translation of an obscure Hebrew word, navi. Nobody knows what it means. But today they’d be called dissident intellectuals. They were giving geopolitical analysis, arguing that the acts of the rulers were going to destroy society. And they condemned the acts of evil kings. They called for justice and mercy to orphans and widows and so on.
Is it just me, or is that Chomsky (who is constantly called a "dissident intellectual" by stupid pseudo-intellectuals) likening himself to the Nivi'im? Anyway, Chomsky is famous for "speaking truth to power", but a little later we get a bit of economy with the truth:
Remember that Hezbollah happens to be the majority party.
Hezbollah is not the majority party in Lebanon.
It’s part of a coalition. They won the last election with 53 percent of the vote. Because of the method of distributing seats, they don’t get the majority of parliament. So we’re talking about basically a majority coalition, which runs the south almost entirely. You can like it or not like it.
Now, a less well-informed interviewer than David Samuels would have let the claim that Hezbollah is the majority party go by. The fact of the matter is that Chomsky is right that the electoral system in Lebanon is complicated, so (as in the UK or US) share of the popular vote does not translate into seats, and the March 8 Alliance coalition of which Hezbollah is a part did get 55% of the popular vote, but Hezbollah is in fact the second largest of nine parties in that coalition. Samuels continues to challenge him:
Hezbollah is a highly militarized organization that runs South Lebanon in a way that is hardly reflective of secular democratic ideals.
It’s interesting that secular Lebanese would not take that attitude.
Most of them see Hezbollah as an extension of Iran.
No, they don’t.
­They believe that the Iranians are trying to rip up their state.
Ultra-right-wing Lebanese think that.

Again, Chomsky is being uneconomical with the truth. For Chomsky, a couple of "dissident" (lefty) intellectuals speak for secular society. I am sure, for example, you wouldn't find many secular Armenians sharing Chomsky's views, or the members of the Democratic Left Movement, probably the only party in Lebanon that can genuinely be classed as on the secular left.

I also feel Chomsky is less than honest about the Faurisson affair. This was, of course, the 1979 controversy when Chomsky signed a petition circulated by the ex-leftist Serge Thion defending the "respected" Robert Faurisson and his "findings" about the Holocaust, which "fearful officials" allegedly tried to suppress. Chomsky claims the key word ("findings") "is absolutely neutral" - an absurd claim.

Moving on to more contemporary issues, Chomsky reiterates his (in my view correct) critique of the "Israel lobby" theory of right-wing foreign policy wonks Mearsheimer and Walt:
Realists have a doctrine that says that states are the actors in international affairs and follow something called the “national interest,” which is some abstract ideal which is independent of the interests of the corporate sector. What they see from that point of view is that the United States is supposed to be pursuing its national interest, and they know what the national interest is. The fact that Intel and Lockheed Martin and Goldman Sachs don’t agree with them is irrelevant.
However, I think what continues from there is bizarre: the notion that realists like Walt and Mearsheimer exhibit the desire to salvage the Wilsonian idea of American innocence. I'm not sure I get this, as I understand them to be directly criticising Wilsonian idealism in favour of a realpolitik of state interests, and "American innocence" is neither here nor there in their account.

Finally, how comes I've only just discovered that there is a band called Gnome Chomsky? An punky indie band from Houston with a cool logo and Mexican roots.