Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 in first lines

Last year, I took a cue from the late Norman Geras, and summarised 2012 in first lines of each month's blogging. Here we go for 2013. Sad to see these lines marked by two losses, those of Norm himself and of Shaun Downey.

January: I was pretty young during the Falklands war, but it was my first uncomfortable experience of being out of step with prevailing opinions.

February: Hundreds of people gathered outside Lewisham Hospital last night in the aftermath of health secretary Jeremy Hunt's announcement in Parliament on the future of emergency and maternity services. 

March: As an early riser with a long commute, I cross London with twitter to accompany me. For non-tweeters, like I used to be, Twitter seems the reductio ad absurdum of social media: the most banal and superficial of platforms. For me, though, it is a window into hundreds of stories and worlds un-reported by the mainstream media. It satisfies an itch to reach out that also motivates my blogging, and is easier to squeeze into a cramped life than blogging.

April: I was shocked and saddened last night to hear, from my friend Francis, of the death of  Shaun Downey a couple of weeks ago. Shaun's blog, The Poor Mouth, was a year younger than mine, but I always thought he'd been blogging longer: he and his blog epitomise what blogging was once about for me, and should be about. Shaun (who blogged as Jams O'Donnell - more below on why) reached out on his blog, creating a large, dispersed and diverse community.

May: My run of bad blogging might come to an end soon, but in the meantime read this superb take-down by the Unrepentant Jacobin of the unspeakably awful Glenn Greenwald, who is inexplicably given a platform in the increasingly dishonourable virtual pages of the Guardian. 

June: ‘Forget “Islamism”:  Let’s Tackle Foreign Policy’ has been the subtext of a number of responses to Woolwich.  These have (rightly) been torn apart by many commentators.  Now Douglas Murray, in apiece entitled ‘Forget “Islamophobia”: Let’s Tackle Islamism’ appears to be deploying Greenwaldian logic in order to ‘explain’ anti-Muslim bigotry.

July: It's about the morality of killing fascists, basically, and the morality of even debating the morality of it

August: 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.

September: I am very familiar with the EUMC working definition of antisemitism. I have defended it on several occasions. This is not to say it is perfect, or that I could not give or take the odd clause. But I was extremely concerned by the way it was ditched by the UCU – by the terms used to dismiss it and the tone of the discussion around the issue.

October: On Wednesday night, I was reading my six-year-old his bed time story: The Strange Bird by Adele Geras. It's a story we both love, but it's had a poignant edge for me these last months, since Adele Geras' husband Norman has been ill. I realised I'd not heard from Norm on Twitter for a little while, and I wondered how he was doing. I was terribly sad to hear on Friday morning that he had passed.

November: Lots of the blogs I have followed for a long time seem to be slowly dying,  but there are new ones out there, and old healthy ones, and ones that are not so new but new to me.

December: I was sent the Goldsmiths UCU press release on strike action at Goldsmiths in New Cross today. I've never been treated as a respected news outlet before now, so it seems churlish not to reproduce it, so I do so below. Also below, student solidarity with the strike, and two items on other London strike actions: on the 3Cosas campaign at Senate House and on London's tube workers.

Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 at Bob From Brockley

Here were my top posts of 2013. Because blogger.com doesn't let you see stats for the last year, these are the posts published in 2013 that have had most traffic, rather than the BfB posts that have had most traffic in 2013, if you get the difference.

1. A lot of bullshit about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman
This is my fifth most read post ever, for some reason. A slightly contrarian take on liberal received opinion on the case. The "bullshit" of the title refers to that liberal received opinion.

2. The Woolwich killings and the Lewisham Islamic Centre
I have a somewhat heavy heart about this post, which was one of a series I wrote after the appalling slaying of Lee Rigby in Woolwich, Southeast London, in the summer. This one focuses on my local mosque, and asks if it is hosting hate preachers.

3. Socialism in An Age of Waiting II: Iraq
The second in a three-part series looking back at the golden age of left decentist blogging, and specifically at responding to the war in Iraq. Part 1 weighed in at no.7.

4. Weighing into the Tommy Robinson debate
My take on the defection of far right demogogue Stephen Yaxley-Lennon from the EDL, the hate movement he formed.

5. Brixton Maoist Sex Cult Slave Shocker
On Comrade Bala's peculiar sect, and why understanding Leninism helps us understand it. I had second thoughts later, which I set out here.

6. I sang for the birds, for the river, the trees and the flowers but not the mullahs: Goodbye Shaun
This is my farewell to fellow blogger, Shaun Downey, who sadly passed away in March.

7. Socialism in an Age of Waiting
See no.3 above.

8. Blood on the streets
This post, from June, is more typical of my blogging output, especially in the last year or so, than most of the others here: it's a compendium of links to other people's stuff. This post had two main sections before moving into the miscellany: "Everywhere is struggle, everywhere is #Taksim", on the democratic insurgency in Turkey, and "The sultans", on Erdogan as an example of electoral authoritarianism as the dominant mode of contemporary politics.

From back in January, flagging three items of interest to those concerned with the history of Anti-Fascist Action. The post generated a lot of heat on the Urban75 forum, where I came in for some harsh criticism. 

This is one of the posts I've been proud to host by Sarah AB, discussing some of the issues arising from monitoring anti-Muslim racism in the UK.

Most of this post is not by me, but by the late Shuan Downey, on Thatcher's role in allegedly defeating totalitarian Communism in Poland and Cambodia.

This is a more recent post, on Stop The War UK inviting a strange Lebanese nun, "Mother Agnes" to address a supposedly "anti-war" meeting in London. Agnes is a propagandist for the bloodthirsty Assad regime. The audience traffic came from social media, where there was a campaign, of which I was part, to inform the other speakers, including Owen Jones and Jeremy Scahill, of who Agnes is. As a result, Jones and Scahill were among those who said they wouldn't share a platform with her, after which she agreed not to speak. A very tiny victory for common sense and decency: one of the very few of 2013. 


Let me add a mention to another high traffic post: 2012, bleak. I published that right at the end of 2012, but its readership was all in 2013, and it sums up all the grimness of 2012 in Britain and the world, a grimness that has persisted into 2013 and looks likely to persist into 2014. The post occasioned my first Twitter argument of 2013, with Owen Jones about Hugo Chavez.  

In fact, Twitter has taken over from other blogs as a source of referrals. However, I'd like to mention some of the blogs still sending people here: Harry's Place, Shiraz Socialist, and Tendance Coates.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Mandela as mirror

Mandela and fellow Rivonia trial defendants
Source: ANC Archives
Since the death of Nelson Mandela, I have been increasingly fascinated with the way that, in both new social media and conventional mainstream media, eulogies to the great man always tell us more about those eulogising than about Mandela himself. In fact, it now seems to me, Mandela serves as a mirror, in whichever whatever we want to see is reflected back to us.

TNC emailed me – under the subject heading “not The Onion” – a superb tweet from a showbiz hack: “R.I.P. Nelson Mandela, subject of Weinstein Co’s Idris Elba-starrer 'Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom' which opened Nov 29 and has awards buzz.” But the comments of supposedly serious politicians and pundits have not been less absurd than that tweet.

Glenn Greenwald tweeted “Nelson Mandela: a noble reminder that those declared "criminals" by an unjust society are often the most just.” Apart from it doesn’t really make sense, most people read this as an attempt to glorify GG's own criminal behaviour.

But similarly, liberal and conservative mainstream politicians – “the official voices of commemoration” as Chris Bertram calls them – have seen Mandela as a saintly exemplification of their own mainstream apple pie values: peace, dialogue, reconciliation, the power of hope, overcoming adversity, being nice to each other.

Anti-Zionists have used Mandela’s death to milk their own obsession with “apartheid Israel” – despite Mandela’s real views on Zionism not really fitting the anti-Zionist mold. For example, UK commentator Mo Ansar greeted Madiba’s death with a slew of anti-Israel tweets, which actually had little to do with Mandela’s actual legacy but rather used the latter's glamour to promote his own preferred cause. (Specifically, Ansar tweeted a fake quote of Mandela’s about Israel, and a bizarre map which is supposed to make some obscure point about Israeli “apartheid”, and a fake photo of IDF soldiers being evil. He deleted the first on realising his mistake.)

Black nationalists have celebrated Mandela the black nationalist – “the Malcolm X in him”, as one particularly foolish commentary put it. Pacifists see his as an icon of peace. Even the tyrant Assad got in on the act, and claimed that Mandela holds out a lesson to tyrants everywhere, whatever that means. 

And leftists have celebrated Mandela the socialist. They have derided conservative politicians for hypocrisy in now sanctifying a man conservatives used to call a terrorist. And the leftists are not wrong on this (Mandela was a socialist of sorts, in fact more or less a Stalinist who believed in armed struggle), but they use Mandela’s death not to celebrate him as much as to berate the right. In fact, for some “progressives” the most salient things about Mandela seem to be that he was against “the war on terror” and allegedly hated Bush; for these people, the fact that Mandela refused to condemn dictators such as Gaddafi and Castro is a point in his favour not a reason to qualify the sanctification.

A second wave of commentary has sensibly argued that “we are witnessing the invention of a sanitized version of the man”. Some of the myth-busting is useful and important, yet generally the desire to reclaim ownership of an authentic Madiba is motivated by the same imperative that makes a Bullingdon Tory want to claim his mantle: the imperative to show that our side is the right side.

There was something about Mandela – his charisma, but also his slipperiness – that makes him so effective as a mirror to reflect our own values. As Elleke Boehmer eloquently writes:
Mandela, both his fans and detractors acknowledge, was a leader who could be all things to all people: an African nationalist when among African nationalists, a socialist in his relations with his South African Communist Party colleagues, even a South African patriot when in dialogue with patriotic Afrikaners. A consummate performer, he was always an extremely able manipulator of his own image, yet this malleability could send out mixed messages.  He spoke the language of democracy, but was often authoritarian in his manner.  He signed up to the 1956 ANC Freedom Charter with its commitment to nationalization, but on assuming power he made serious and, some critics might say, fatal deals with free-market capitalism in order to secure South Africa’s post-apartheid economic future.

It is hard to deny the significance – and the greatness – of Mandela’s achievement. Overcoming apartheid is one of the most important historic achievements of any struggle in my lifetime, and Mandela’s role in that was central. His post-racial vision and his struggle, as he put it, for “a revolutionary democracy in which none will be held in slavery or servitude, and in which poverty, want and insecurity shall be no more”, these should inspire us to demand better of the world in which we live.

But in rushing to see our own values affirmed by Madiba’s auratic glow, we cannot forget the many things that tarnish his achievement.

As Robert Fine’s excellent piece* notes, Mandela’s movement, the Communist-dominated ANC, frequently put Moscow’s geopolitical priorities ahead of achieving justice in South Africa. (Fine argues that Mandela’s advocacy of the turn to armed struggle, the official line from Moscow, was disastrous for the movement, setting back its cause by some years.)

In opposition, the ANC suppressed dissent, often violently, even murderously. (See my previous post on this, which linked to material on the ANC’s secret prisons.) In power, it has presided over one of the most unequal and brutal societies in the world. As James Bloodworth has written, “Despite winning all four elections since 1994, in recent years the ANC has become little more than a vehicle for the personal enrichment of a small clique of politicians. In the process the party has become increasingly detached from the travails of the black working class.”

A few black people have found a place at the trough in post-racial South Africa; some black politicians and businessmen (the two categories blur) have become fabulously wealthy. But (just as there were always dirt poor white people under apartheid) the great mass of black South Africans remain impoverished and exploited despite the end of apartheid; the coming of racial justice has not brought the coming of social and economic justice.

In fact, the ANC’s embrace of neo-liberal economic policies (Mandela in 1994: “Privatization is the fundamental policy of our government. Call me a Thatcherite, if you will.”) has probably helped deepen inequality and poverty, although there have been a few winners.

Corruption has multiplied.  Xenophobic pogroms have been orchestrated against black African migrant workers. Social movementsthe independent miners’ unions, the shackdwellers in the townships – have been as violently suppressed under post-racial democracy as they were in the apartheid police state, but now black men as well as white men beat and shoot them. This is the South Africa made by the saintly Madiba.


Update: A fuller version of Robert Fine's critical obituary, very highly recommended, is here.
Previously: On Stalinism and dissent within the movement against apartheid; Mbeki and Mugabe; Marikana and the frontline of the class struggle; Indestructible beats

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Satire or smear? Islam-themed cartoons

This is a guest post by Sarah AB

Recently the Online Hate Prevention Institute (OHPI), which is based in Australia, published an interesting report on anti-Muslim bigotry within social media – you can download it here.  The author, Andre Oboler, has also published on antisemitism.  He and I have rather different perspectives on free speech issues – I'm wary of bans and censorship, whereas he’d like to see some tightening up of the law on hate speech.  I do not agree with the recommendation he makes on p. 7 of his report:
The Australian Government should pass laws to make vilification on the grounds of religious belief or practise unlawful and expand the remit of the Australian Human Rights Commission accordingly.
Criticism of anti-Muslim discourse is associated in many people’s minds with a threat to freedom of speech.  This is not unreasonable, given the murderous attacks on some critics and satirists of Islam, and the existence of illiberal and repressive blasphemy laws which have had a particularly chilling impact on dissident Muslim voices. So I’ll begin my stating that I certainly don’t want to ban any of the examples I refer to in this post, just to explore whether they are bigoted or whether they are making legitimate, even important, points. 

A number of posters and cartoons were reproduced in the report.  People concerned about free speech (rightly) assert that satirical criticism of Islam, or aspects of Islam, need not be bigoted.  But some of the material highlighted by Andre Oboler helps demonstrates that this can be a difficult border to police.  On page 14 of the report you can see a poster with the text:
The cult of Islam has no intention of fitting in.  Muslims will never become part of a civilised society.
Another example (p. 18) is a poster depicting a nuclear fireball and the caption:
Some cancers need to be treated with radiation: Islam is one of them.
It would be possible to argue that the second poster only criticizes an idea – that it targets Islam, not Muslims. But there’s an uncomfortable slippage here between the literal and the metaphorical, particularly if you have come across calls to bomb Mecca.

A very straightforward example of dehumanizing anti-Muslim rhetoric can be found on p.17 where a plane, labeled ‘humans’, is carrying a crate labeled ‘Muslims’.  There are valid reasons to avoid the term ‘Islamophobia’ – but surely any reasonable person would agree that cartoon is bigoted.

So – what satirical treatment of Islam/Muslims is not bigoted? Both the Tell MAMA working definition of anti-Muslim prejudice and the EUMC working definition of antisemitism (I compared them here
emphasise the importance of context. When trying to answer my own question, I often found myself wondering who produced a particular cartoon, for whom, and why. 

Although it would be absurd to require that every satire on something Islamic comes accompanied by the kind of ultra cautious remarks which preface this clipa climate of anti-Muslim bigotry may make people look more closely at the context/provenance of Muslim-themed satire.  I think that’s why there has been some slightly anxious speculation as to whether Twitter’s favourite parody Sheikh, King of Dawah, is at least culturally Muslim.

Content as well as context, of course, also helps one determine whether bigotry lies behind satire.  Depicting the victim or antagonist of Muslim extremists as a Muslim

creates a completely different effect from images which project a ‘Clash of Civilisations’ subtext, as in cartoon B26 of OHPI’s report (p.70), a blonde woman kicking a Muslim pig off the map of Europe. But a complication may arise for the viewer deciding how to respond to images featuring Muslim women.


I believe I came across both these images on rather dubious sites. But many Muslim and ex-Muslim women (and their male and non-Muslim allies) bitterly resent those who insist that this kind of dress is desirable, even mandatory, for women.  Whereas this ‘joke’ about binbags seems dehumanizing  I’d hesitate to criticise the paper doll image, which presents the woman in a non-stereotyped way, and could certainly be seen as a legitimate satire on theocratic dress codes.

The same uncertain borderline between legitimate criticism and racist bigotry is a problem within discussions of antisemitism.  Recent examples by Steve Bell and Gerald Scarfe have generated much debate. Latuff is often accused (quite rightly in my opinion) of allowing criticism of Israel to be tainted by antisemitism – the use of Nazi imagery is a common problem in his work. But here is an example which, for a change, doesn’t seem too problematic. 

Returning to Islam – a recent example of censorship caused widespread indignation.  This was when atheist students were forced to cover up T shirts bearing this image. I’m a great fan of Jesus and Mo, and I supported those students.  But perhaps taken out of context that particular cartoon could make people think it was a reflection of bigotry against Muslims, not just satire against religion.  There is a reference to burning things – that could be seen as a comment on (Muslim) over-reaction to ‘offensive’ material, rather than, as is more clearly the case with this earlier Jesus and Mo, a satirical observation on religion.

Both the EUMC WD and the Tell MAMA definition emphasise the importance of context, and Tell MAMA specifically identifies an individual’s track record as a factor which should be taken into consideration when making a judgement.  When looking up cartoons about Islam, I found much that was aggressive and unfunny. But Jesus and Mo is neither, and, taking that wider context into full account, the T shirt that was banned from the LSE strikes me, not as incitement to hatred or bigotry, but as a legitimate comment on attempts to silence satire – softened by the resonances of the Jesus and Mo ‘brand’ which is so different from the images you will find on some counterjihad sites. See for example image D20 on page 89.  And shouldn’t one be able to use satire to show contempt for those who want to curtail freedoms with violence, whether or not they act in the name of Islam?  As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, it’s Muslims who bear the brunt of blasphemy taboos. 

Of course Jesus and Mo isn’t in the report.  But B24 (p. 69) is – should it be? It depicts a Muslim wearing a metaphorical suicide belt of ‘multiculturalism’ while anxious onlookers tiptoe around his supposed sensitivities. Andre Oboler offers no analysis of this.  I can understand why an image of a rather sinister looking Muslim deceiving non-Muslims might cause concern.  But, again, the underlying message of the cartoon is not something anyone who, for example, opposed Ken Livingstone’s embrace of Qaradawi, or is pleased Hope not Hate is tackling Muslim extremists as well as the traditional far right, can easily distance themselves from.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

The Leftist Review of Blogs

Cosmarxpolitan, Issue 13
Don’t fetishize commodities, fetishize THIS — pg 81
I know Samuel Johnson said that "none but a blockhead ever wrote except for money", but he was a twat. - Chris Dillow
This is a very blogospheric thing to write about, but John Rentoul a little while ago wrote a very incisive piece about the decline of blogging. He cited Paul EvansStephen Tall, Chris Dillow and mentions the rise of monetised mainstream platforms, the appearance of the "trollemic" and the crowding out of amateur voices. And we can add the rise of other forms of social media. But there are still new blogs appearing, and old ones revived or hanging on. Many of them, echoing Paul's comments on the much missed Norman Geras, are good places for rethinking our orthodoxies and stepping outside our boxes.

A month ago, I published a post entitled "Blog recommendations for homeless leftists", with links to some blogs that are either new or new to me or which I don't link to often enough. I'm going to try and do this as a monthly series. This edition is UK-centric and left-leaning, but I'll try and be more (topically, geographically and politically) eclectic in future, and also to feature some South East London blogs. Feel free to nominate or offer to do a guest edition.


Liberal Conspiracy
This is a goodbye rather than a recommendation.Sunny Hundal's Liberal Conspiracy is hanging up its boots. I was never a fan of it - too much BDS posturing, not enough thinking outside the box, a bit too oriented to mainstream Westminster politics. On the other hand, it had a good critique of multiculturalism, a good range of opinions, from centrist to more extra-curricular, and it made a better effort than many to be accessible and make a political difference. Among the contributors over the years have been several of my favourite UK political bloggers, including Adam Bienkov, BenSix, Carl Packman, Cath Elliott, Chris Dillow, Dave Osler, Paul Cotterill, Sarah Ditum, Jim Denham, and Sunder Katwala. Here are some sample posts: Darren Johnson on Boris' housing policiesColin Ethelson on Tommy Robinson's rebrand; Chris Dillow on why we should ignore the papers; Iram Ramzan on Indian rape culture; Paul Cotteril on the Mail's pro-fascism; and Sunny himself on "grooming" and on Sikhs and Muslims, on Indian rape culture, on immigration politics, on Western interventionism, and on George Galloway's brazen porkies.

Sunny notes the following:
Whether amateur (i.e. independent) multi-author publishing is dead wholly depends on how people approach it. Here’s my advice: don’t expect to start an opinion blog and get 100,000 readers a month. The market is over-saturated with opinions on the Guardian, New Statesman, HuffPo and IndyVoices (just on the left). Only the Guardian pays and yet the others have no problems attracting submissions because so many want to make a name for themselves. Worse, most opinion blogging only talks to the already-converted and changes minds only at the margins. It may be cathartic for some but that’s not enough to attract a lot of visitors regularly.
That sounds about right. And with that in mind, we move on.

Though Cowards Flinch
And this is less a recommendation than a very belated welcome back. Back in May, Paul Cotteril announced that the group blog Though Cowards Flinch  - pro-Labour Party, intellectually ambitious, thoughtful - would close its doors. Then, after just a month, he came back to intervene in some Labour Party politricks. Since then, he's warmed up to more frequent blogging again, and is almost back to the old volume. Particularly interesting, for instance, was one on why London schools do better. Fellow TCFists such as my friend Carl Packman have moved on. So, while I'm here, here's Carl on Russell Brand.

Jim Jepps
I haven't linked to Jim Jepps for a while, possibly not at all at his current online home. I don't really see eye-to-eye with Jim (a hard left socialist in the Green Party) on lots of issues either, but he has most of the same good points as the previous two blogs: a non-sectarian, accessible approach. I particularly wanted to flag up his post on what he learned when (some years ago) he left the SWP; it's very illuminating. For a while, Jim also had a nice online magazine for Londoners, Big Smoke, but it appears to be sleeping.


Disillusioned Marxist
I'm not sure why I've never noticed this excellent blog, from a former member of the Socialist Party. It's feminist, critical of identity politics, and genuinely rethinking all the assumptions of the trad left. Here are some sample posts, from over several months: on left-wing idols with feet of clay; on Jewsplaining and class politics; on David Icke's Nazism; on BDS as identity politics; on what's wrong with "trigger warnings" and "safe spaces"; on the oppression Olympics; and on disillusioned Marxism. Categories include "fuck you liberals", "cunts" and "austerity".

A Thousand Flowers
This blog is from a totally different place to me politically, so I won't endorse it the way I'd endorse Disillusioned Marxist. But it's one of the few genuinely enjoyable blogs on the left. It describes itself as "a Scottish blog launched on International Women’s Day 2013 by an unsavoury cabal of queers, feminists and trolls. Your new go-to gaiz for seditious gossip and druggy innuendo." Gratuitous attacks on George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan get extra points with me. Sample posts: on the capitalist pseudo-revolutionaries of the #Millionmaskmarch (by Leon Trollsky); on the Baking Industrial Complex (by Red Spex); on being failed by the left (Tarzan Girl); and a homophobic history of the left (Juan Mac). Categories include "Weekly Wanker". On the other hand, at first I thought this post on Hugo Chavez was a hilarious parody, but as I read on I realised it was deadly serious, and probably one of the worst blog posts I've ever read.

Finally, a credit for the image above. It's issue no.13 of Cosmarxpolitan.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The problem with cyber-libertarianism

Content warning: This post discusses people who defend rape and child abuse.

I read this post by Nick Nipclose about the support given by various cyber-libertarians and "hacktivists" for the "right" to engage in child pornography. Nick catalogues a whole load of key figures in that scene as examples, most of which come from summer 2012. I don't follow these kind of cyber-libertarian circles too closely, so I'm not familiar with all of the cast members in the post. But I think there are some interesting and important messages for those of interested in the nature of radical politics today.

Nick starts with Richard Falkvinge, who in 2012 called on us to fight for the legalisation of child porn. He goes on to talk about some of the people who have endorsed that call, including open source guru Eric Raymond, who argued that "Child porn must be de-criminalized - otherwise, the censorship that child porn laws legitimize will have worse effects than the porn." This about sums up the whole thing. Think what is involved in making child porn, and then imagine how someone can think that some minor civil liberties infringements are "worse" than that. But this twisted sense of priorities, in which "liberty" is turned into the categorical imperative, regardless of who is harmed, is characteristic of a whole breed of politics that seems to be gaining ground today. 

Nick concludes:
Support for child pornography is a natural result of an ideology that places all state authority in the category of evil; if the state can do no right then laws against child porn have no legitimacy. Cyber-libertarians see authoritarian plots behind any tepid legal action, under that train wreck of thought anti-CP laws can only be a step toward Oceania.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

STRIKE! Goldsmiths staff, 3Cosas, London tube workers

I was sent the Goldsmiths UCU press release on strike action at Goldsmiths in New Cross today. I've never been treated as a respected news outlet before now, so it seems churlish not to reproduce it, so I do so below. Also below, student solidarity with the strike, and two items on other London strike actions: on the 3Cosas campaign at Senate House and on London's tube workers.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Maoist slave cult footnotes

Following my post this week on the Brixton Maoist cult, I have had some second thoughts about how helpful the word "slave" is in the case. "Modern-day slavery" has become one of the moral panics of the contemporary liberal imagination, a moral panic so apolitical the Tories buy into it. Clearly, in this case there is control, manipulation, domination, maybe also exploitation - but (as with the difference between "normal" sects and cults), the line crossed before we should be talking about "slavery" is rather blurry, and I'm not sure there are enough facts in the public domain to judge this case. I think Transpontine gets it exactly right here:
Unless and until this case comes to court and all the evidence is out there, it's probably best not to speculate too much about the details. It is pretty clear though that this would be a unique situation arising from very particular circumstances - and certainly no basis on which to generalise about slavery in modern Britain. Clearly there are disparate cases of extreme exploitation, abuse and servitude but maybe Frank Furedi has a point about the inadequacy of the term 'slavery' to describe them. 
Tempting too to draw general political conclusions about Marxist-Leninism as Bob from Brockley does. I have some sympathy with this approach, but again we probably can't deduce too much from this pathological case study. Once a political organisation is small enough to fit in one household we are really talking about small group interpersonal dynamics rather than political ideology, even if ideology can justify all kinds of behaviour that most people would find appalling.
But anyway, I just wanted to signal a few other internet posts worth reading on this topic.

Monday, November 25, 2013


So, it turns out that the group involved in the extraordinary Brixton slave case are a weird Maoist cult. You'll have read by now that Aravindan Balakrishnan, 73 (known as "Comrade Bala"), and his wife Chanda broke with the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) in 1974, to form the spectacularly named Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. Despite the comedic name of the cult - and my comedic title - the case is unbelievably horrible, and raises important and disturbing issues.

There are many questions still open - what contact Lambeth Council had with the sect, how a very locally based group under very heavy state surveillance in the late 1970s managed to keep a woman a slave for the last thirty years, etc - which I can't hope to address here.

And in some ways the Maoism of the group is irrelevant: their key features are those of a cult rather than those of a Leninist party. (As Lurdan writes in the Libcom discussion thread: "Looking at their writings now they seem to exhibit all the indicators of a classic millenarian sect based on an apparently literal belief in the immanence of global revolution.")

However, there are features of Leninist parties that encourage cult-like activity. Comrade Bala's group is among a very small number of Leninist parties to degenerate into pure cults (NATLFED on the US West Coast is the classic example and the LaRouche network is the most successful) but many more Leninist groups are on a cult continuum.

Being at war with the "bourgeois" (or "fascist") state is an exemplary control technique for forcing members into absolute loyalty and trust of insiders and absolute break with mainstream society. But more specifically there are two features of Leninist doctrine that lead to cult-like behaviour. The first of these is the notion of the vanguard party; the second is that of democratic centralism. Both are sketched out in Lenin's What is To Be Done?, written at the turn of the last century in the context of an ultra-authoritarian police state where open, democratic political organisation was impossible.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Crap Marxism 1: Base/superstructure

This post was inspired by a post by some Oxbridge Telegraph blogger criticising Owen Jones for something he said about Marxism. Marx's view, the Telegraph blogger writes, was "that all human relations are shaped by economics and that everything we do is measured in purely material terms reduced the individual to a pawn in a historic war between competing classes. You're not a person – you're either an exploiter or an alienated peasant." This is an ignorant stereotype of Marx's thought. But the Telegraph blogger claims he himself was once a Marxist. And that got me to thinking how the Marxism of many self-described Marxists is based on ignorant stereotypes of Marx's thought akin to those propagated by anti-Marxists.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"Mother Agnes" and "Stop the War"

The Syrian revolution speaks on "Mother Agnes"
Source: Occupied Kafr Anbel
Stop The War UK invited Fadia Laham (known as Mother Agnes-Mariam de la Croix) to speak at its London event on 30 November. "Mother Agnes" is a Lebanese-born, French-educated nun, who started her own order in Syria.

Her invitation provoked outrage from Syrians and supporters of the Syrian revolution, as "Mother Agnes" has been a widely disseminated mouthpiece for the Assad regime's propaganda, including vigorously denying some of Assad's war crimes. (Of pictures of dead children in Ghouta, for example, she claims they are only sleeping.) Her lies are widely promoted by Russian media sources, by Christian news agencies, and by the LaRouche network. There are also live allegations about her own involvement in war crimes, and in the regime murder of journalists. Below the fold, I have pasted some information about her, but some good starting points are Linux Beach, Democratic Revolution, and Pulse.

Some of the more intelligent and honourable invited speakers at the Stop The War event had doubts when informed about sharing a platform with her. (Film-maker Jeremy Scahill and commentator/activist Owen Jones said they wouldn't speak alongside her, and writer Rachel Shabi appeared to be considering this.)

Now, Stop the War have announced that "Mother Agnes" has withdrawn. [UPDATE: Mother Agnes' statement here (pdf).]  However, it remains a scandal that they should ever have invited her, that they should have thought she was a legitimate voice from Syria at an "anti-war" conference. Who at Stop the War invited her? Who agreed to it? Through what channels did they invite her? What were they thinking?

While this is not true of all the speakers at the event, it is clear that the main organisers of Stop the War are not anti-war at all. They are just opposed to the US getting involved in wars. The opening words of the conference publicity are these:
In a historic setback for the organisers of the War on Terror, protest and public opinion helped stop a new war on Syria.
Do they not realise that war has been going on in Syria for well over two years, that over 120,000 people have been killed, that 5 million people are displaced in Syria, that hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been forced to flee the country? How can "anti-war" people claim that as any sort of achievement?


Friday, November 15, 2013

Weighing into the Tommy Robinson debate

Although I’ve been thinking about it for five or six weeks , this post is still only half-digested (at best). It’s a response to the October announcement (facilitated by the anti-Islamist thinktank Quiliam) from the founders of the English Defence League (EDL), Stephen Yaxley-Lennon and Kevin Carroll, that they were leaving it. It is also an attempt to respond to some of the responses to the announcement, including on Harry’s Place and from the blogger Jacobinism (and Paul Stott’s footnote to Jacobin).

It doesn’t have a central argument, but is instead a series of provisional assertions.

1. Anti-Muslim racism is a serious danger for Britain and for Europe. As I wrote in my post which set the scene for this one, anti-Muslim racism is a stark reality of Britain today, spiking in the months since the brutal slaughter by Islamists of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich. The existence of the EDL was never responsible for pandemic anti-Muslim racism. But their provocative marches increased the fear for British Muslims. The EDL’s articulate leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (known by one of his pseudonyms, Tommy Robinson) gave voice to and disseminated a particularly vicious strain of anti-Muslim racism. The tag #EDL, like the daubed slogans PJ (Perish Judah) in Mosley’s day, KBW (Keep Britain White) in Powell’s day, or NF in my youth, served as watchwords for racists, giving them confidence while spreading fear among Muslims. Any discussion of the EDL and its founder that ignores this reality is worthless.

2. Any blow to the EDL is a good thing. Given the poisonous role of the EDL in Britain’s body politic, anything which does it harm should be celebrated. Its rejection as spoiled goods by its own founder will hopefully be the first nail in its coffin, and we should be grateful to Yaxley-Lennon if he ends up helping to kill the beast he birthed.

3. The EDL were never fascist, but that’s not saying much. Since it emerged, I argued that the EDL should not be seen as fascists. At most, I said, they should be seen as proto-fascists. But Yaxley-Lennon had passed through the BNP on his way to founding the EDL, and lots of openly Nazi activists were at large in the movement, including in local leadership positions, helping to intensify its poisonousness. Many anti-fascists, forever replaying the Battleof Cable Street, dearly wanted the EDL to be fascist. Any picture of an EDL member raising his arm looked like a Nazi salute to them – when only some of them were. But the fact the EDL wasn’t fascist doesn’t make it alright. Whether it was fascist or not, it was poisonous.

4. Tommy Robinson was never stupid. As Jacobin points out, many liberals who now claim Yaxley-Lennon is cleverly re-branding himself were not so long ago happy to claim he was an ignorant redneck. Anyone who thought he was “an ignorant, racist ex-con and brainless neo-fascist ideologue” is an idiot (although he was an ex-con, but then so are lots of good people). Yaxley-Lennon might not have known much about Islamic theology or Muslim cultures, but he was a slick orator and a brilliant political operator.

5. The EDL is a toxic brand. Ex-BNP member Yaxley-Lennon shaped the EDL in his image. Because of all the stuff I’ve outlined above – the Nazi salutes, the street violence, the coke-headed thugs posting racist stuff on Facebook EDL pages – the EDL he created is seen as toxic by many people who might share its views. Matthew Goodwin’s YouGov polling data confirms this: there is a sizeable constituency of people who like its beliefs but not its violent methods. It could never grow beyond its hooligan support base, and even lots of its supporters were embarrassed at some of their comrades’ antics.

6. Tommy Robinson is a better brand. Most of the prestige of the EDL brand among its supporters was bound up in the charisma and rhetoric of its leader. The Tommy Robinson brand became more powerful than the EDL brand. Most of its supporters would follow its leader whether in the EDL or not. So it made a lot of sense for Yaxley-Lennon to dump the toxicity and polish off his own brand. Quilliam’s endorsement worked brilliantly to that effect.

We know fascists try to re-brand. Marine Le Pen is working hard to give the FN a better image. For a while, the BNP tried to present itself as a respectable besuited UKIP-style party – although constant incidents of financial dodgyness, criminality and thuggery, and the sheer incompetence of its would-be politicians stymied that plan. And for a while the BNP tried to fish in the EDL’s counter-Jihadi waters by publicly presenting itself as philosemitic and pro-Israel, although in private it called the EDL a Zionist plot. (The only people fooled were a few gullible anti-Zionists, so deranged by their Israel-hatred that they were prepared to believe anything that reflected badly on it.)

But, people do change. As Paul Stott notes, liberal anti-fascist organisations like Searchlight/HnH make considerable capital out of their turned assets such as Ray Hill and Matthew Collins. And some of the most impressive genuine, militant anti-fascists I have known had been fascists when younger. Today, many people I trust are willing to give Yaxley-Lennon the benefit of the doubt about his conversion. He’s made some positive gestures. Quilliam have a good track record helping people exit the jihadi death cult, so perhaps they can help Yaxley-Lennon make a genuine recovery.

Personally, though, I don’t see much evidence of any actual change in Yaxley-Lennon’s views yet. He was (incompetently) stalking and threatening anti-fascists weeks before his U-turn; he continues to fraternise with and compliment out-and-out fascists on his social media pages; he carries on linking to YouTube videos of his most racist speeches. At the very least, we should be very sceptical of him.

7. The real question is, what is Tommy going to do with his re-branding. If Yaxley-Lennon has read Matthew Goodwin’s polling analysis (and I’m sure he has), he’ll know there is a sizeable constituency in the UK for an organisation which shares the views of the EDL but not its violence. Yaxley-Lennon has a big ego, big ambition, charisma and political nous. If the mainstream media rehabilitates him, what can he do with his fame?

With Farage and UKIP given disproportionate access to the public by the BBC and the print media, Yaxley-Lennon knows he will get a hearing. (The media class has been taken in by private school bankster Farage’s self-presentation as Ordinary Bloke; how much better former football hooligan tanning machine businessman “Tommy Robinson” can play that role.)  So, when we say good luck to Yaxley-Lennon, well, yes, good luck in his private life and journey of self-discovery – but, no, not good luck in his political ambitions. 


Those are the main points I wanted to get out. The following are more specific, in response to particular claims made in the Tommy Robinson debate.

Endemic Islamophobia?

Anti-Muslim graffiti in Mitcham, South London, after Woolwich attack
Source: This is Local London
I don’t like the word “Islamophobia” for several reasons – the idea that it is a phobia makes it both natural and pathological; the “Islam” bit creates a blur between dislike of Islam (which can be T perfectly legitimate) and dislike of Muslims (which is racist). But the anti-Muslim racism which it is used to name is nonetheless a stark reality. Just as a man who walks the streets of Britain wearing a Jewish kippah will soon discover that antisemitism is far from dead, a woman who walks the streets of Britain in a hijab will receive torrents of verbal abuse.

In the wake of the horrific slaughter of Lee Rigby in Woolwich in the summer, there was a huge spike in abuse.* Some of this was violent. Mosques were fire-bombed; people attacked; an elderly man in the Midlands was murdered by a Ukrainian fascist just for being Muslim. Not all of the abuse was violent: there was graffiti, shouting of taunts, and huge amounts of obscenity on-line. It came from every section of British society; Guardian reading liberals are more careful in the way they express revulsion at Muslims than Mail reading Tories, but I don’t think it’s much less common among them.

Some Muslim community leaders and professional anti-racists played up the recent spike – just as Jewish community leaders sometimes overemphasise the danger of antisemitism. Some commentators, such as Andrew Gilligan (cited and re-cited by Jacobin), have sought to diminish the seriousness of the abuse by pointing out only a small proportion of it is actually violent, just as many leftists downplay the threat of antisemitism with similar arguments. But anyone who has experienced racial harassment (or indeed other kinds of bullying) will know that words can leave deep scars. Most British Muslims today live in fear.