January blues

I wrote most of this post on the eve of the inauguration of President Donald Trump, anticipating a bleak dawn for America and humanity tomorrow. I didn't have time to tidy it up, so am doing that on the day Theresa May is in Washington to fawn before him. It's also Holocaust Memorial Day, and at no time in my memory does it feel like remembered the Holocaust has seemed so necessary. 

I started blogging around this time of year, over a decade ago, and used to always write a lot at in January. This bleak winter, I'm not finding time to write much, so I thought I'd share with you some snippets from my January archives.


One of my first ever posts quotes the American conservative writer Victor Davis Hanson praising George W Bush's international engagements. It seems such a long way now from that heroic age of neoconservatism, as we transition from Obama's global ineffectualism to Trump's realignment of America with Putin's authoritarianism, and as the movements for democracy that were sparking in 2005 in the Middle East and elsewhere barely flicker now.
This is the first time that an American president has committed the United States to side with democratic reformers worldwide. The end of the cold war has allowed us such parameters, but the American people also should be aware of the hard and necessary decisions entailed in such idealism that go way beyond the easy rhetoric of calling for change in Cuba, Syria, or Iran: distancing ourselves from the Saudi Royal Family, pressuring the Mubarak dynasty to hold real elections, hoping that Pakistan can liberalize without becoming a theocracy, and navigating with Putin in matters of the former Soviet republics; all the while pressuring nuclear China, swaggering with cash and confidence, to allow its citizens real liberty.
The day before, I quoted another expression of the neoconservative credo, from Condoleeza Rice:
"The world should apply what Natan Sharansky calls the 'town square test': if a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society. We cannot rest until every person living in a 'fear society' has finally won their freedom."
That day seems much further off in 2017 than it did in 2005.


January 2009 of course saw the inauguration of Barack Obama, and a key moment in the shift away from the historical period which shaped my blogging, a period which had been defined George W Bush, the neocons, the decent left and the war on terror, on one hand and the anti-war movement, "anti-imperialist" scene and Islamism on the other. My first post about the new president shows a bit of wariness about his hope/change show.
Barack Obama was absolutely correct to take steps to close down the Camps at Guantanamo as one of the first moves of his presidency. The Camps are a stain on America, a stain on humanity.

But it will be interesting to see the extent to which those European liberals who have clamoured so vocally for its closing are equally vocal in welcoming the released inmates to their shores.

And, as inmates are released but cannot be returned to their home states because they will be tortured or executed there - such as the ethnic Uyghurs, who cannot be returned to China because of the routine detentions and extra-judicial executions of those Uyghurs who call for the self-determination of their 8 million-strong people, or the Algerians, whose government imprisons its lawyers simply for calling attention to the impunity of its judiciary - it will also be interesting to see the extent to which the liberals' loathing of George W Bush for his war crimes is transferred to these other regimes, whose carceral systems make Camp X-Ray look like Sunday School.
Of course, Obama did not manage to close down the camps nice and quick, but the hope/change show did spread to some of these autocracies (most notably Egypt, Tunisia and Syria), and sadly, when it mattered most, neither Obama nor the anti-war left proved as supportive of that hope/change movement as they might have been.

Image result for jasmine revolution
2011 was the year that started to play out. One big link round-up themed around optimism and pessimism concluded with this:
Terry Glavin, Canadian social democrat, is blogging about Iran, from the perspective of working class solidarity, in a post entitled “Will you be a lousy scab or will you be a man?” While my location in inner South London gives me cause for pessimism, Terry's more global perspective gives him cause for optimism. He sees a coming convulsion led by the youththings getting better, and an "anti-totalitarian surge". Kellie Strom also highlights the same anti-totalitarian wave in the Mediterranean.

A choice phrase from Phil: "Saudia Arabia, long the Costa Brava of forcibly retired tyrants". The (over-optimistic?) conclusion: "With sustained struggle and determined action, the dictatorial obscenities of the Middle East could be entering their final days. Let despots everywhere tremble as the revolutionary gale howls about their ears."
The gale did howl. Some despots fell. Others have been clinging on, and we in the West have mostly just let them.

I also began 2011 with an attack on nationalism. This is an argument I have obviously been losing consistently since 2011, and in 2017 it seems to me more necessary than ever. If 2011 opened up a period of hope and resistance, it was perhaps nationalism that has killed that off; the new configuration which 2016 ushered in will be one dominated by nationalism and hopelessness.
I believe that nationalism is one of the greatest evils in the world. I distinguish nationalism from what Orwell calls patriotism or Rudolf Rocker calls “national feeling”. Patriotism or national feeling is a potentially benign affect, whereas nationalism is an ideology. Love of one’s homeland or one’s compatriots is common, healthy, perfectly compatible with sentiments of international solidarity, cosmopolitan justice, ethnic pride or class consciousness. It can be mobilised for good aims, such as resistance to tyranny or social solidarity within the nation.  
Orwell writes that: “Both words [nationalism and patriotism] are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.” 
The nation is a fairly recent invention, and the organisation of sovereignty on the basis of nations is so far but a fairly brief phase in human history. Organising sovereignty on the basis of nations is, in my view, inherently problematic, because it always excludes those who, while living within the state’s territory, are not “of” the nation – it excludes them from the right to participate fully in the affairs of the state. Historically, we know where this leads: to ethnic cleansing, to genocide. 
In the late twentieth century, there were signs that the deadly allure of the nation-state-territory trinity was weakening. The cosmopolitan project of the United Nations and the building of institutions of international law, the supra-national project of the European Union, the dissemination of the American model of “civic patriotism”, the number of countries who shifted from the principle of blood (jus sanguinis) to that of birth (jus soli) in their citizenship policies – these gave some grounds for optimism. 
Now, after the massacres in Sudan, Sri Lanka, Rwanda and Yugoslavia, after the renewal of communalism in the Indian subcontinent and its re-emergence in Iraq, after the flowering of infra-national conflicts in the former Soviet empire, after the Second Intifada, there is little space for hope. More than ever, I believe, we require the political imagination to relegate the deadly age of the nation-state to the past.
The cosmopolitan projects I invoked here are now lying in tatters. The principles of responsibility to protect and global justice were tarnished by the war on terror under Bush and Blair which used them as an alibi for self-interested but incompetent deadly military adventures, then made a joke by Obama who spoke fine words while abstaining from any action. The Brexit vote and Trump election, and similar trends globally, show that the nostalgic desire for national sovereignty ("control", "greatness", isolation,) carries far more weight than cross-border solidarity; even civic nationalism is suspect in a time when "citizen of the world" is an insult; more people want walls than bridges.