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The future of the British anti-war movement

This article is quite long at 10,000 words. The future of the British anti-war movement is attached as a pdf for ease of reading.

Abstract

Starting from an analysis of what the BBC’s Evan Davis has recently suggested may be the British government’s “cock up of monumental proportions” in its approach to North Africa, the article first provides an analysis of why British and other governments intervene militarily in other states, contesting the assertion by many operating within the Marxian anti-war left that they do so primarily in order to retain or improve access to natural resources, and putting forward an alternative explanation focused on the elite tradition of ‘high politics’ and statesmanship.

The article then focuses on the reasons for the current empirical weakness in the anti-war movement’s argument, before setting out the rationale for a new Benthamite utilitarianism to underpin a new phase in the movement’s future. The article concludes by setting out this new principle might be put into operation through a different organisation model, which seeks to embed a new ‘peace movement’ agenda within a re-democratized mainstream labour movement.

The absurd circularity of Mali and Libya

As Simon Jenkins notes, the British government’s mission drift on Mali has begun and appears to be speeding up. First it was a broken transport plane, then a few advisors, and now hundreds of soldiers are on their way to a country about which the Defence Secretary is still struggling to learn the very basics.

At the same time, the Foreign Office may be starting to look back at Libya, to where it appears many of the jihadists might be headed as they retreat from French firepower; this development creates the very real possibility that the West’s intervention in Libya, leading to the exodus of arms and men to Mali and the outbreak of war there, will lead, via further Western intervention in this war the West created, to a new war in the country the West intervened in first so as to stop war.

Given the absurd though unpredictable inevitability of these developments, it seems timely to revisit and build on my previous post on western ‘liberal intervention’, in which I argued that the anti-war left needed to up its game seriously if is to be anything like effective.

The polar positioning on liberal intervention

That earlier post produced polar responses. On the one hand, I was accused by those who did Western intervention in Libya of being “incoherent” in my opposition, and on the other, by those against it, of being undoubtedly in favour of liberal intervention and of indulging “classic red-baiting”.

This polarity of responses to a post which didn’t set out to establish a full ‘position’ is, I suggest, simply reflective of the debate as a whole, which is largely restricted to one of two basic positions:

a) military intervention was good in Libya because Ghadaffi was murdering his own people and the West stopped that happening, and is good in Mali for the same reasons. Such a position rarely if ever condescends to take note of the reasonable ‘what if?’ questions (why not in Sri Lanka? why not in Rwanda? why not in Syria) because, underlying that position is an assumption that whatever your government tells you is right is right, that ‘strategic’ geopolitical matters are not for the likes of you and me to question, and that it’s not done to stir up trouble.

Paul Richards is the examplar of this position, not least as he ties it in with the now traditional straw man attack on the anti-war left, arguing that because we do not favour intervention, we must necessarily be on the side of tyranny:

Those voices on the left already calling it ‘colonialism’ or a war for Mali’s gold ore, should ask themselves what the country would be like if Islamist groups took control of Bamako. What would happen to legitimate political parties, to trade unionists, to women? Once again, as in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the anti-war left decries the democracies and favours the despots.

Needless to say, I think this position is both needlessly offensive and hopelessly weak-headed. Nevertheless, it is the powerful position and I will argue below that one element of the anti-war left’s strategy should be to challenge it on its own ‘liberal’ terms as well as in the left’s own terms.

b) the Libyan intervention, and now the Mali intervention, like all such interventions, are bad things because they are motivated, as are all interventions, by ‘strategic’ interest in natural resources and/or are neo-colonialist (colonialism’s driving force being the pursuit of these natural and cheap labour resources). Marxist economist Samir Amin sums up this position neatly (though see below for a twist from Amin):

Je suis de ceux qui condamnent par principe toute intervention militaire des puissances occidentales dans les pays du Sud, ces interventions étant par nature soumises aux exigences du déploiement du contrôle de la Planète par le capital des monopoles dominant le système {I’m one of those who condemns, as a point of principle, any military intervention by the Western power, these inteventions being by their very nature being subject to monopoly capitalism’s inevitable drive to control the resources of the planet].

I have a good deal more sympathy with this seemingly no-nonsense position of opposition to all Western intervention than I do with the Richards position, but I can’t help feeling that it is an uncomfortable default, or holding position for many on the Left, in the absence of anything more coherent. While it provides a veneer of moral certainty it is, I will suggest, not just empirically flawed, but also morally suspect. Just as the right-wing standpoint set out at a) provides for a false but convincing narrative of moral superiority with which to engage the opposition on the left, so too I think the absolutist position set out by Amin provides security in numbers for people on the left who, like me, actually feel quietly drawn to the opposite argument (and the left, in general, gives itself more leeway for such engagement with opposite arguments because it’s disdain for the authority of the state also makes it more critical of the more or less Marxian intellectual authority which tends to dominance within its own diverse ranks).

Before moving on, I should pause to define what I mean by the ‘anti-war left’ in this article, or rather what I don’t mean. What I don’t mean is the current organisational set-up now perhaps most commonly identified with the anti-war movement i.e. the Stop the War Coalition, linked to the Socialist Workers Party and/or Counterfire and maybe even parts of Respect. What I do mean is individuals or informal groups of individuals within these organisations (whom the SWP might describe as factions) who hold a position which is critical of Western military intervention, alongside the very much larger number of people active within/identifying in one way or another with the mainstream labour movement (and a smaller number self-identifying as green.

Of course this is a loose definition, open to inclusion of others who might wish to identify with it, and thus by its inclusive nature inimical to the democratic centralist structure of the SWP, which demands as a starting point allegiance to its whole institution. It is a definition used for the purposes of this article. It is not the basis of a call for the creation of a new organisation, not least as I will contend that the most productive activity the anti-war left can engage in will be within or directed at the mainstream labour movement. It is simply an assessment of the weakness of the current anti-war position, both in terms of principles and strategy, and some suggestions on how prospects might be improved.

Lastly, I use the term ‘anti-war left’ and anti-war movement’ interchangeably, on the simple basis that it us unlikely people identifying themselves as right-wing have the capacity/willingness to engage with the arguments set out, although a British right-wing anti-war movement could probably be said to exist. The ‘anti-war left/movement is also used in preference to the ‘peace movement’ for reasons of obvious historical connotation and current terminology, though the latter term is no less accurate.

The challenge I set myself in this article, then, is to assess critically both of these ‘reference’ positions, and then to argue the case for another authentically left-wing approach to the question of military intervention in what have become known as failed states. This approach, if it is to be effective, will need to one that takes the anti-war left beyond its current abject weakness in the face of the power of states’ decision-making.  Currently, all the left seems capable of is a well-meaning but underwhelming media commentary from the Stop the War Coaltion and its supporters, easily cast aside as an irrelevance to the ‘serious’ decisions being taken by world leaders.

The politics of liberal interventionism

Perhaps the best place to start such an assessment exercise is at the very top, with a look at how the apex of British government explains itself.

Last weekend, in fact, there was a significant change in the British government’s assessment of the 2010/11 military intervention in Libya, and of how this relates to Mali. It is a change which should be of both encouragement and learning for the British anti-war left, if it is minded to take notice.

It started, I hasten to boast, on the Sunday morning (20th January), with William Hague’s appearance on the Murnaghan show on Sky. I was also on the show (well ok, via twtter), and took the opportunity to ask Hague:

Do you, Mr Hague, accept the view set up by Kofi Annan, that the Mali conflict is an unintended consequence of intervention in Libya?

Getting a clear answer from Hague on this was badly impeded by Murnaghan’s desperately ignorant interpretation of the question; he genuinely seemed to think it was about anti-Ghadaffi fighter, supported by the UK during that conflict, travelling to Northern Mali. When Hague did his best to focus on the actual question – whether the exit of Ghaddafi’s Tourag mercenaries and their arms had been a key cause of the upheaval in Mali – Hague sought to deny a relationship:

We have been increasing our focus on this [conflict in the Sahel] from before the Libyan crisis so there is no single intervention or crisis in one particular country that then produces these events though the whole mixture of economic problems, of political problems within different countries that have contributed to discontent in that area and on the Libyan crisis, I don’t believe it was our intervention in the Libyan crisis that produced problems that have arisen from it.

Clearly, though, Evan Davis had been doing his homework properly, and had seen from the Murnaghan programme that this was an area where Hague was open to question. The next morning, on the today programme, he was straight in there with Hague; after a correspondent report (listen from 2hrs 14mins) unequivocally setting out the leakage of arms from Libya as key a key cause of the war in Mali, Davis began to probe the Libya/Mali link, and the fact that the government clearly hadn’t thought through the consequences of intervention:

ED: Can we talk about mistakes that have perhaps been made in Mali over the last year, because you’ve outlined a model of what progress needs to made and what we need to do and clearly government is a huge help, isn’t it? You can’t….these rogue states, or rogue non-states are obviously a hopeless situation. But it’s interesting to ask, isn’t it? Mali wasn’t a fragile state a couple of years ago. Mali’s just become one. Literally in the last eighteen months, Mali’s gone from being a secure, poor state to becoming a mess. What do you think we, the West, the British, the French….what went wrong in Mali and do we have any part in that whatsoever?

WH: Well what has happened here, and by the way they haven’t just gone from no problems to dramatic problems, but I’m sure everybody understands that. For instance, there are very serious humanitarian problem in parts of the Sahel.

ED: Indeed, it’s one of the poorest countries in the world but it wasn’t a fragile state. It was a country and it isn’t anymore

WH: That’s right. That actually…there was a good description from your correspondent earlier. Certainly weapons and Tourag people coming out of Libya have contributed to this situation that then what we call AQIM Al Qaeida in the Maghreb, have been able to take advantage of, and now……

ED: I’m just wondering: what were you doing? I mean, this happened on your watch. You were invovled in overthrowing – the British were involved in overthrowing Ghadaffi, and this is a pretty big mess – that, post-Ghadaffi, we’ve allowed arms in that region to disrupt and destroy a state more or less.

WH: Well we were involved, if you recall, in saving lives in Libya, not in…Ghadaffi was overthrown by his own people, and I think actually if we hadn’t been doing that, because what we did. really. shortened the Libyan conflict, these problems would have been even greater. If the conflict had gone on for longer there would have been an even greater flow of weapons and an even greater opportunity for extremists to take hold in Libya. So while the Libyan situation may well have contributed to what’s happened in Mali, I think that the action that the Western world took in Libya, if anything, mitigated that.

ED: But what were you doing in Mali at the time because we have seen essentially, as a result of a war that we helped fight in Libya a country has been destroyed, and I’m wondering what you were doing to prevent that outcome in Mali while the war, or when the war in Libya came to an end.

WH: Well, what’s been happening in Mali since then is an effort by the world, really from the the United Nations Security Council down, to promote a successful political process in Mali that is between…there are many divisions between the North and the South in Mali….supported by a United Nations Secretary General special envoy, and of course, given the military problems, the mobilisation of a Western African force, which of course takes time, because of course to go without the necessary training and logistics into this region, the most inhospitable region in the world, could of course be a terrible military blunder. And so that’s what has been going on. The United Kingdom plays a part in that. We have a limited diplomatic presence in the francophone West African states. It’s not anything like as comparable to our presence and strong connections in East Africa for instance. So we work closely with France that is course the leading European power…..

ED: But you can see how people looking at it might say this is a cock-up of monumental proportions. We have what is now described as potentially what is a problem will be with us for decades that effectively has been created by a situation in which we were key players.

WH: Well no, I don’t think that’s an accurate description at all. If you just listen to what I was saying….

ED: But you described a political process but not a… but we didn’t stop weapons coming out of Libya and wrecking Mali.

[The whole of the interview transcript is set out as an Appendix to this paper.]

Hague, in this interview, is all at sea. His defence that more arms and men would have poured out of Libya if the war there had gone on longer is simply risible, given that nothing at all was done to prevent it happening, and he is reduced to arguing that the fall-out in Mali is not really a UK matter, because it was a French colony.

This new line of aggressive questioning about the basic competence of the government is important, not least because it starts to bring to wider public attention what the experts have been saying for some time (and which I’ve been reflecting in my own pieces. It reflects, for example. the view of Hugh Roberts of the International Crisis Croup:

In its June 2011 report, the ICG cautioned further that the outcome of the west’s onslaught on Libya “could have grave political and security implications for its neighbours”. This is indeed what happened after the western-backed overthrow of Gaddafi was completed later that year. The action destroyed a bulwark of the anti-jihadi alliance in north Africa, encouraging a proliferation of Islamist militias, flooding the region with sophisticated weaponry and precipitating the return to northern Mali of heavily armed, disgruntled Tuareg, whose MNLA secessionist movement declared a breakaway state in the north. It was the Islamist Ansar Dine group that put paid to this, acting to preserve Mali’s territorial integrity, however repulsive its use of archaic Islamic punishments in the process.

If a think-tank could anticipate the effect of the intervention in Libya, surely the French government could have done so too. It is Paris, along with London and Washington, which bears responsibility for the chaos which has ensued in Mali.

The question, then, of the West competence, is now in full view. Evan Davis won’t forget this line of journalistic investigations, and it will increasingly be picked up by others. The growing media understanding of the government’s failure to assess the likely regional fallout from the Libya intervention, such that a population of 16 million suddenly became exposed to Islamic extremism, in turn suggests a way forward for the anti-war left. If the anti-war left wants to challenge Western governments on its intervention, it should do so not by arguing, as currently that those governments motives are suspect, but that they’re rubbish at intervening – that when they do intervene, they often simply make it worse for longer.

This, in effect, takes the proponents of liberal intervention on in their own terms. The liberal interventionist argument can be boiled down to the utilitarian notion, rooted in Jeremy Bentham’s enlightenment thought, that the Western powers have the right (or in some post-Bentham conceptions, the duty) to override state sovereignty if they come to the view that by doing so they will bring about the greatest possible happiness, or least possible pain to the group of people in question. This utilitarian principle has, to all intents and purposes, supplanted the positivist legalism set out in the UN Charter (the product of a nascent cold war), under which the state sovereignty is paramount and the suffering of populations provides no special legitimacy when it comes to the use of military force across borders (indeed article 2 (4) appears to forbid it). From the invasion of then East Pakistan by India to NATO action in Kosovo, the utilitarian concept of accepting the lesser evil of strict illegality as long as it meets the greater humanitarian good has come to be quietly recognised (indeed the failure to invoke the utilitarian principle in preference to the UN Charter has even been raised by the General Secretary of the UN, with reference to the Rwanda genocide).

But this utilitarian principle, now more freely applied to the exercise of military intervention in the post-coldwar era, inevitably leads to the key questions of a) how do we define the group of people whose happiness we seeks to maximise, and over what period of time?; and b) who gets to decide on this definition?

In the case of the former question, it’s all to easy to see how lack of clarity emerges e.g. was intervention justified in Libya (population 6 million, country relatively wealthy) even at the risk of the risk of upheaval to the people of Mali (population 16 million)? Or is the West actually seeking to maximise world happiness by removing a perceived global threat? When it comes to the latter, it is all too easy to see how the Western powers are happy to acknowledge the rights of certain population groups to ‘co-decide’ when it is politically convenient to do so e.g. people in Libya, but not people in Algeria concerned about the destabilisation of the South of their country or people in Mali concerned for the North of theirs, or when it is not politically convenient to do so e.g. Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Syria, Rwanda (of course in two of these cases, there was also the obvious calculation that interfering in a sphere of Russian influence creates some risk of great unhappiness/extinction for the whole planet). Moreover, the concept of gendered analysis – that military intervention might have different short and long term impacts on women from those on men, or even that women with a voice might adopt different reasoning even with utilitarian parameters – seems entirely absent from decision-making about what population groups might justifiably have a say.

It can be argued, given the way in which decisions are made, that the philosophical roots of early 21st century international utilitarianism are now rooted less in Jeremy Bentham than in JS Mill’s more elitist application, under which those with a level of authority get to decide more explicitly the type of human happiness which is appropriate to bestow – for Mills’ concept of contentment, a cynic might read ‘under Western patronage’, for example. It should be noted of course, that while Bentham was a fierce critic of early colonialism (alongside his French contemporary Diderot), JS Mill came to be the philosopher-poster boy for imperialist expansion in the mid-19th century, with his view that:

Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.

Despotic colonialism was then, for Mill, a utilitarian act, notwithstanding the reality that it might also be accompanied by primary resource and labour exploitation, in a way which turns out to have led to the long term active ‘underdeveloping’ of the South (I don’t buy Bauer’s argument, also taken up by some Marxists, that it can’t be colonialism that caused underdevelopment, because Nepal and Afghanistan were never official colonies, but are both very poor).

In the end, liberal interventionism in its current guise relies heavily, though implicitly on this Millsian conception that ‘West knows best’ (and then only the men), even though this flies in the face of the empirical evidence – reflected in the Hague interview above – that the clearly don’t; they are either incapable of making decisions which take proper accounts of the risk of unintended consequences or (see below) are institutionally constrained from doing so, now that they no especially now that they no longer have the comfortable constraints of the coldwar.

The politics of anti-interventionism

But if there is a distance between the post-legalistic, post-coldwar utilitarian rhetoric of Western governments and the empirical evidence of unintended consequence, so there is also a distance between the dominant anti-intervention theoretical stance and the actual evidence.

Reflected in the statement from Samir Amin above, the (Leninist?) argument that Western power decisions on whether or not to intervene military is based primarily on consideration of access to natural resources, is very influential, to the extent that when it comes to the Mali conflict there are attempts to pin the French decision to go intervene in Mali on the link between uranium deposits and its dependence on nuclear energy.

While it’s impossible to say that access to uranium deposits played no part in France’s considerations, I just don’t think the claim that it’s the main driver for intervention stands up to much scrutiny (indeed, the reverse may be true, with France having to send in more troops to neihbouring Niger to defend one if its company’s existing, five decade-old uranium mining operations precisely because of it intervention in Mali).

Similarly, it is hard to ascribe previous decisions to intervene military to simple calculations about how much oil the West is going to need, and how cheaply. The facts simply don’t fit. bit more here]

Of course, not all Marxist analysts go down this path. ‘Bob from Brockley’, while broadly anti-interventionist, simply doesn’t accept the policy-based evidence that these “economic determinists” (like Mike Marqusee) need to bring to their anti-war argument:

Marqusee has a clichéd vulgar materialist explanation for the double standards: oil. But his own examples show the weakness of this explanation. “If liberal interventionists were consistent,” he says, “they would advocate similar Western military action in relation to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the Congo, Kashmir, Iran, Israel, Burma, etc. etc. etc.” But a glance at this list shows several oil-producing countries where the West is failing to intervene, as well as places with other resources of huge geopolitical and economic significance to the West – Congo is extremely mineral-rich, and our mobile phones would be useless without the coltan mined there. In fact, the last things the oil industry wants in Libya is war, disruption, or democracy; they were perfectly happy with Gaddafi, no less than they are with the autocratic regime in Bahrain.

Similarly ‘Boffy’, one of the best (and prolific) classical Marxist analysts around has remarked on these pages (the whole of this debate is worth reading):

I do not hold the orthodox Trot view of imperialist intervention, which is heavily economic determinist, and, therefore crude – Britain’s involvement in the North of ireland for example, was exceedingly costly, it would have benefitted economically if it could have simply cut the Protestants adrift. The role of Imperialist intervention is far more nuanced than that, and is about global strategic advantage, maintaining the system of states and so on.

Decisions on whether to go to war are, then, generally much more about “strategy” than they are about resources, though resource calculations. There is, of course, a tautology at work here: an area like the Sahel only become of strategically significant to Western countries’ interests because Western leaders announce to the world that it is of strategic significance, and of course as soon as strategic significance does become a recognised feature, the more likely it is actually to become so. In fact, there is no real reason for it to be considered such. Plans to carry out attacks on US, British or French cities are in fact much less likely to be developed in the Sahel than they are in other more comfortable bits of the world (those denying this may have forgotten that Osama Bin Laden wasn’t found in a cave, but in a comfortable suburban house with a sizeable DVD collection).

But why, if we accept that it’s got nothing or little to do with natural resources, if it’s got little or nothing to do with domestic interest, do Western leaders decide that certain area of the world are strategically important enough?

It would be unfair to discount totally the explicit rationale often given for intervention – that there’s a genuine humanitarian concern – and it may well be that this did play a part in the recent French decision on Mali. Few people likes the idea of 1 million people being forced to live under the extreme Shariah law that was being imposed, and the very real threat that the jihadist would push South towards the other 15 million Malians may have triggered the decision as much as anything else. Nevertheless, this acknowledgment doesn’t get past the fact that the same leaders are content to turn a blind eye to even greater atrocities elsewhere e.g. Sri Lanka.

In the end, the most likely explanation – especially when it comes to the British government – is quite simple: geopolitical strategy is what Western state leaders do, because they know they’re expected to do it. It’s in their blood.

Janan Ganesh in the FT puts this very well in respect of Cameron :

The two great traditions of foreign policy in the Conservative party claim him [Cameron] for themselves with equal certainty. Old-fashioned realists assume this English sceptic, with his aversion to grand projects in the name of an -ism or an -ology, is one of their prudent number.

Interventionists disagree. They point out that his generation of Tories felt ashamed of the UK’s reticence during the Bosnia war of the 1990s. They also read into his unusual choice of political hero, Giuseppe Garibaldi, a fighting sympathy for oppressed people.

It is customary at this point to say that the truth is somewhere in the middle, but it is not. The evidence of his actions is rather one-sided. In opposition, he took the side of Georgia more vociferously than many thought wise during its 2008 conflict with Russia. His intervention in Libya in 2011 was brief and relatively painless (for the British) but enthusiastic. And his interpretation of recent events in north Africa is hardly minimalist. The west, he says, faces a “global threat” in al-Qaeda that aims to “destroy our way of life” and will take “decades” to see off.

The way Cameron has been acting – and the way he continues to act as he swans around Algeria and Libya, now haughtily offering SAS services to an Algerian state already pretty adept at war, and telling the Libyans he’ll protect them from the Islamists (who as we’ve seen may well be a gift of his first intervention anyway) – is simply a reflection of Cameronian Conservatism’s operational code. As I set out at the time of the initial Libyan intervention:

[T]he explanation for Britain’s current gung-ho moves [in Libya] is somewhat more complex than an essentialist assumption about the ’British love affair with war’, and lies in the class-based institutional structure of government – not the British in general.

This is what the much-overlooked British political scientist Jim Bulpitt had to say on the way British government really works, in his should-be-seminal Territory and Power in the United Kingdom (1983): “Maintaining the external support system became the highest of ‘High Politics’. Successive Prime Ministers, even Baldwin and Attlee, found that defence foreign policy and the protection of sterling dominated their lives. Churchill and Eden discussed little else but defence and foreign policy….By the time MacMillan became Prime Minister, ‘Foreign Affairs was his vocation, economics his hobby’. Although these external preoccupations began as an essential instrument to achieve domestic tranquillity, ultimately they became and end in themselves. For most politicians at the Centre this arena was politics” (p. 138).

Where Bulpitt’s otherwise excellent analysis of what really drove central government right through to Thatcherism is lacking is that it doesn’t touch sufficiently on class. While Bulpitt assumes that the ‘high politics’ of defence and foreign policy becomes the focal point of central government because of external pressures, there is an equally valid argument that it is a political choice taken by upper-class government leaders who have little understanding of or penchant for the ‘low politics’ of social welfare, health, education and internal infrastructure – something that their background suggests can be left to their (es)state managers and other loyal staff content with their status.

Fast forward to 2011, and Cameron and his upper-class coterie find themselves drawn towards the ‘high politics’ of Libya. This is the territory in which they feel instinctively more comfortable, and it was noticeable that Osborne in particular suddenly looks all the more at ease in TV interviews. This is not the stuff of confrontational party politics, but an arena where consensus within the Westminster village can be assumed (largely because of the trajectory of the Parliamentary Labour Party), and where they get to look statesmanlike without also having to pander to the ‘ordinary bloke’ image the electoral history of the Tory party has forced them to espouse.

In short, Cameron acts the way he does because he’s desperate to play the part he feels he was born to. If this includes the kind of dramatic, and counterproductive, simplification of complex political situations down to quasi-Churchillian statements of good vs. evil that Riazat Butt and Christina Hellmich rightly bring to our attention, then that for Cameron is a price worth paying.

Such an explanation for Cameron’s and other Western leaders’ decision-making may be difficult to stomach for an anti-war left seemingly dominated, as I’ve noted by an absolutist economic determinism. It is an interpretation dependent on the acceptance that, while the modern liberal democratic state and the forces of capitalism may have common interests, the state does have an autonomous life of its own – a life in which the traditions that have grown up within that state’s formation (some of which actually predate modern capitalism) may even lead states to act against the interests of capital (as, arguably, with Boffy’s Northern Ireland analysis above, and as with the threat to France’s private sector uranium operations, also above). In the end, though, it is to be hoped that we will start to hear the voices of those, within the anti-war movement, who are open to the primacy of evidence-based theory (and a theory based on an intelligent fusion of Marxist insight and more modern interpretative sociology/political science over the current din of selective, dogma-focused evidence gathering.

However, moving beyond the current narrow economic determinism is an important ideological step for the anti-war left not just because it is empirically the right thing to do. It is also important because it opens up a potentially effective strategy for opposition to the vainglorious, counterproductive intervention of the type we saw in Libya. It allows for a shift of focus not on empirically unsound complicity theorising about the West’s “real” intention towards the more obviously honest accusation that Cameron and Hague are rubbish at their jobs. As set out above, it takes them on on their own territory.

Moreover, it allows the space for the argument that they’re rubbish at their jobs because they are upper-class twits stuck in a world of their own make believe. Importantly, this has a resonance with what, in the last eighteen months has become the main thrust of the attack on the Tories’ domestic polity: their policies are rubbish because they are out-of-touch toffs. As I’ll set out further below, my contention is that the British anti-war left stands to progess best if it deliberately highlights this discursive linkage between Cameronian inbred incompetence in both his ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics, and if it does this alongside an increasingly organised demand that the Labour party leadership should consciously eschew the post-war tendency to exclude ‘high’ politics from its in-party democracy, as and when Labour comes to power in 2015.

But before me move on to how the anti-war left might best organise itself (and I will argue unashamedly that this will best be done within the Labour party rather than in opposition to it), we need to tackle a key feature of the current anti-war left ideological base – the feature that in the liberal public mind currently marks it out as not worth listening to.

This feature is best expressed in terms of the accusation most often thrown at the anti-war left by those in favour of military intervention (or at least the military interventions that their ‘superiors’ support. It’s the accusation that we, from our leftie ivory towers, simply don’t care about people who are being driven from their homes, raped, tortured, murdered. In the face of such accusations, the standard response – that the motives of the Western powers for saving the lives that are saved (and some are saved) are suspect, can look ludicrously weak and hypocritical. Looking weak and hypocritical is not a good way to attract wide support, however solid your Marxist-Leninist analysis is. It’s easy, in these circumstances, for the right to take the moral high ground: as Hague argues over Mali (see above): it’s not perfect, but at least we’re trying. at least we save lives.

The problem for the anti-war left is, at base, that there is a kernel of truth in the accusation that we don’t care what happens to black people a long way away. In fact, it’s not that we don’t care, but that the ideological strait-jacket we’ve decided to wear doesn’t allow us the flexibility to care.

To recap somewhat, the current core Marxian anti-war argument goes something like this:

1) All interventions by Western powers are about their own resource interests, though they may masquerade as humanitarian, “strategic” or both.

2) No intervention by Western powers is therefore acceptable, whatever the current consequences for local populations, for in the long term matters will only be made worse by the Western powers further reinforcing their positions of dominance.

3) Solidarity between international working class movements is to be welcomed in situation where the lives of the working class in the south are under attack.

4) However, in countries where there is no organised working class, such solidarity is clearly not possible.

Once you’re past the empirical flaw at 1), critiqued above, the logic is inescapable: if you’re in a country that has not developed from feudalism to capitalism, and in which therefore there is no proletariat, there is nothing than can be done. Determinism becomes fatalism. Even for Boffy, who’s not prey to the economic determinism delusion, though, the result is the same:

Without the necessary investment to create industrialised economies, these countries like Libya, Syria, Somalia, will remain at best sources of important raw materials, and as such rent-based economies, the appropriate political regime remains that of the feudal state, or at best bourgeois Bonapartism.  As a consequence, any intervention by imperialism is incapable of bringing about a progressive transformation of the material conditions, and without that, all any such intervention can bring about is the replacement of one brutal regime by another.

If you’re on the left, is the message, harden your heart, work for the revolution.

For me – a non-revolutionary, average punter when it comes to assessing the anti-war left – the abandonment of a large percentage of the world’s population just seems too much to bear morally. To bear it, it seems to me, requires the support of a group of comrades willing to support you or shout at you through any periods of doubt, and in turn this creates the kind of epistemic isolation which fosters the strategically counterproductive, empirically false, narrow economic determinism in the first place. In short, the anti-war left’s stuck in a vicious ideological-institutional circle of its own making.

And for most of the world’s poor, under this framework they find themselves at double bind. The main reason they do not live in countries with organised working classes is that their countries were subject to a colonialism which impeded likely historical progress from feudalism/subsistence, through a process of relatively equal power struggle, compromise and legal settlement, towards the modern capitalist state form (seen as progress by Marxists as it creates a proletariat). Yet because their countries were colonised by imperialist, and this don’t have a working class, they are not eligible for support from the Western working class (who actually did pretty well out of them being colonised in the first place).

And we thought the Tories were good at blaming the victim!

Fortunately, there is a way past this impasse for the anti-war left – a way which I contend creates both moral and strategic forward momentum for the movement in the 2010s. It commences with a refreshment of the movement’s principles, and then moves in a revised organisational direction.

Put simply, the anti-war left needs to recapture from the interventionist right the true spirit of utilitarianism. By this, I mean the pre-Marx Benthamesque conception of maximum happiness extended to “all sentient beings”, rather than the more jaded version brought to us by JS Mill as a philosophical bulwark of early imperial expansion. Reaching back to a period pre-dating Marx’s analysis in search of earlier, proto-socialist moral principles about the intrinsic equality of the human right to happiness (in terms defined by each human for her/himself), and then for an unsullied framework y which the actions of others might help them to achieve that happiness opens the way for a decision-making process on cross-border intervention which is inherently democratic and inclusive, by nature of the demand that the happiness of all must be maximised.

What might this mean in practice? Well, it might mean that, with the pseudo-Marxian shackles off, the anti-war left (now as part of a renewed left consensus on humanitarian intervention) may support some episodes of military intervention, in cases where it can be satisfied that the happiness (or lack of pain) of an agreed and agreeing population group (inclsuive of its gender make up) will be maximised over a sustainable time frame. To be more concrete, it might mean enthusiastic and pro=active support for rapid military intervention in a situation where a Rwanda-like genocide, or a Sri Lanka-style atrocity, is on the cards.

Of course, in many ways, we have just seen precisely that process take place with reference to Mali, though not from the British anti-war left (which has responded in now customary fashion). In France, there has been wide popular support for the decision to send in the troops to Mali, but of greater interest has been the response of the French far left. To the utter bemusment and consternation of Alex Callinicos of the British SWP, fellow revolutionary Marxist and economist Samir Amin has come out in support of the intervention. He does so on the basis of his now well-established argument – which can be a little hard to follow for non-Marxists – that “reactionary political Islam” is in reality a support, rather than a threat, to Western imperialism because its presence allows the imperalist powers to maintain their control over the people of the ‘triad’ (the US, Europe and Japan) in the name of a ‘war of the civilisations’.

En Libye hier, en Syrie encore aujourd’hui ils continuent à être soutenus par ces mêmes puissances de la triade. En même temps les exactions et les crimes qu’ils commettent sont parfaitement intégrés dans le discours d’accompagnement de la stratégie fondée sur leur soutien : ils permettent de donner de la crédibilité à la thèse d’une « guerre des civilisations » qui facilite le ralliement « consensuel » des peuples de la triade au projet global du capital des monopoles. Les deux discours – la démocratie et la guerre au terrorisme – se complètent mutuellement dans cette stratégie.

Looked at closely though, this seemingly slightly bonkers argument – that Al Qaieda and its affiliates are in league with David Cameron and co. to create the appearance of a war so dangerous that only monopoly capitalism and its fire power can keep them safe, and that President Hollande deserves credit for spotting what’s going on – can be seen as not much more than a utilitarian judgment on the situation in the Sahel: it’s better for the working class overall if political Islam is combatted by French military power because this will help break/stop the strengthening the political Islam/imperialism strategic alliance.

Amin cannot, of course, be said to be part of the French left; he is based in Senegal. Nevertheless, the fact that his article is carried on the website of the Ligue Des Droits Humains, a (smallish though previously influential) leftists organisation which is rooted both in Marxism and in the older spirit of the French revolution (via the Dreyfus affair), may be significant. It suggests that the French left is already more open to the call of Diderot and Rousseau, and the idea that we have a moral responsibility for all our fellow human beings, whether or not they are organised as a working class, than the British left is open to the similar appeal of Bentham.

The argument that the anti-war left should adopt an explicitly utilitarian set of principles alongside a more refined Marxist/interpretative analysis, is not, I stress, an argument that the anti-war left should become the pro-war left. I raise the Ligue des Droits Humains decision to support intervention not because I agree with it – my own utilitarian analysis is, as I’ve set out above, that the French intervention may well end up creating less happiness overall . I simply seek to show how a new flexibility of judgment can be opened up. In most cases, as with Mali, a considered, gender analysed, consensus on the ‘utility’ of intervention will find in favour of non-intervention, or will at least show that the perceived need to intervene this time around comes as a result of previous intervention. But most importantly, in terms of the strategy for growth of the anti-war movement is that the utilitarian principle, seized back from the Right and used properly, creates the conditions in which the movement can start to draw in popular support for its analysis and positioning.

Organising for an effective anti-war movement

It should go without saying that developing a new model for decision-making and campaigning within the anti-war movement does not, of itself, make that movement either relevant to a wider public or effective in bringing about the change it wants – at the moment it is neither.

It may be that the adoption of a new line of attack on Cameron and his coterie (the focus in this section is specifically on the British political context), namely that they’re just playing at being statesmen, and that their approach to this ‘high’ politics creates is incompetent, will of itself create some organisational momentum as some of the attacks start to resonate with a public in the same way as the ‘out-of-touch’ narrative is starting to resonate in relation to the Conservatives’ domestic polity. Nevertheless, such messages will always be competing for attention with more established and popular ones, and only a change in organisational focus has the potential to bring the newly styled anti-war message to the places it really counts. After all, at domestic polity level, the anti-austerity/anti-cuts message has been well articulated for some time now, but the austerity and the cuts keep coming.

Realistically, nothing the anti-war movement does now will stop Cameron in his tracks. It is wishful thinking to think so. If hundreds of thousands of people marching through London in 2003 couldn’t stop war in Iraq, it is hardly likely that a lot less people operating according to much the same strategy will have any effect on conflicts which will be, by and large, much less in the public eye.

Given this, and given the reality that for the foreseeable future it is the British government operating under the terms of a liberal democracy, not the British working class. which will decide when and how to deploy its armed forces, the most obvious place for the anti-war left to be trying to make its presence felt is to and within the Labour party.

Of course, I recognise that for many anti-war activists the idea of engagement with the party of Tony Blair, who continues to sing uninterrupted of the virtues of intervention, may be anathema, and there is no doubt that the legacy of Iraq does hold back the development of a coherent anti-war movement which is inclusive of the labour movement, and thereby potentially effects. Nevertheless, the decision to invade Iraq is now 10 years ago, and despite Blair’s personal showmanship there is really no serious argument that any other Prime Minister, operating in the same elite traditions as Blair was would have made any different decision. Furthermore, there has as yet been no structural change within the Labour party/labour movement sufficient to ensure that Ed Miliband, as and when they becomes Prime Minister, will do anything other than accommodate the high/low politics split which has characterised, in the way Jim Bulpitt set out, the premierships of all his post-war predecessors; he will be just as prey to the idea that foreign policy is a matter for the elite, not something which can be trusted to the rank and file.

Nevertheless, there is potential for this situation to change.  Those leading the Labour party in 2013 are making at least some attempt to escape the the legacy of 2003 in relation to its putative foreign policy in respect of the South. As Owen Tudor has set out at the TUC’s Touchstone blog, there seems to be an emerging alignment between domestic policy on jobs and inequality and long term policy on foreign aid, which may create favourable conditions in which the anti-war left can argue that unstable states are best assisted via support for the development of civil administration and poverty reduction than via the military advisor and security industry. In the case of Mali, for example, Labour might have been more willing to take on board the advice in the Sunday Times from Michael Burleigh, who actually knows something about terrorism, about some of the root causes of trouble in the Sahel, and how British money might better be sent

The Sahel is a troubled region. Large swathes of it suffer from chronic drought, forcing internal migration to where cereals or herds can provide a meagre living. Separatist insurgencies and Islamist terror have caused a refugee crisis and internal flight. The remittance men can no longer work in Libya, where all blacks are mistrusted indiscriminately.

In a country such as Mali, where half the people survive on less than $1.25 (79p) a day, Aqim pays parents $600 (£378) for “surplus” sons to use as child soldiers, with a $400 a month top-up, too. Fixing that should be as much of a priority as the $620m American pan-Sahelian counter-terrorism initiative to train Sahelian army officers.

Nevertheless, simply having a Labour party leadership apparently open to more sensible foreign policy won’t in itself be sufficient to ensure the success of the anti-war movement; the pressures on Miliband to act the statesman will be greater than the pressures to act in a duly utilitarian manner. After all, 1997 heralded the beginning of Labour new ‘ethical foreign policy, and that was blow to dust by realpolitik and elite tradition by 2003.

Real change in the Labour party and labour movement will only take place if the left, inclusive of the anti-war left makes it. I have written copiously about how this can happen – not by the kind of ‘one last push’ strategy so beloved (by default), and rightly criticised by Alex Callinicos for its repeated failure – but through the intelligent use of the tools at the Left’s and the labour movements disposal.

The desired, and achievable outcome of such a strategy will be a Labour party in which financial and therefore power structures are reversed, and the Parliamentary Labour Party is brought, kicking and screaming if necessary, under more democratic control, with MPs selected and retained/got rid of on the basis of capacity to act as delegates to their constituencies, rather than, as is currently the case, unaccountable party overlords with a tendency to believe the media hype about their very special abilities.

It is in these changed circumstances, which of course will bring a leftwards shift to all Labour party policy, in which a ‘new utilitarian’ approach to military intervention might finally be embedded within party and government, with foreign policy decision-making as much a feature of internal party democracy as, say, welfare and industrial policy.

That is not to say that, for some time at least, foreign policy would not remain something of a minority interest within the party, although one of the greatly liberating features of the internet and social media is that, more than ever before, ordinary members and activists – like me from my backroom in Lancashire – has access to a wide range of informed information about what is going on ‘on the ground’ in countries thousands of miles away that we’ll never visit, but with whose citizens we will increasingly be able to engage directly.

Perhaps, as those communications become increasingly direct, the whole utilitarian principle that governments, led by democratic parties, must act in the long term interests of those we can actually hear and see, rather than in interest of oversized public schoolboys, like Cameron and Hague, playing at ‘strategy’ in their Cobra war gaming rooms.

 

Appendix                           Transcript of William Hague (WH) interview with Evan Davies (ED), Radio 4 Today programme, 21 January 2013

ED: Yesterday you said there’s no all military solution to the problem [Hague had said to Murnaghan "there is no military only solution to all of this"], and I think the important question is whether there is any solution, whether you have a strategy for these ungoverned spaces where extremist roam. Maybe you can summarize what the strategy is.

WH: Well, there is no perfect answer to these things as can easily be gathered from listening to the very good description of the situation that we’ve just heard. A good model here to think about, though we mustn’t generalise too much from one country to another, is what we’ve been doing in Somalia over on the East of Africa for the last year, where we have managed – and we’ve been playing a leading role in this, with the London conference that we had last February – to bring about, with strong Somali support, a legitimate government in Somalia, which then enjoys a greater degree of support among the local people, strong African forces engaged in fighting terrorist organisations, funded by the European Union, but it’s the African forces that do the actual fighting and manoeuvring there, and strong humanitarian and diplomatic support from the rest of the world, the region and the world, including the United Nations Security Council. Now that has led – it’s still fragile, it’s too early to say if it’s been successful – but that let’s led to a lot of progress in Somali in the last year. What we don’t want, in these countries like Mali, is the twenty years of being a failed state that preceded all that in Somalia.

ED: So what….It was the bringing in of African forces, supported by the West, by the Europeans, that was the answer, was it, in Somalia? That suddenly turned this round?

WH: Well in the military aspect of it , yes, it is African forces, but it’s very important…a crucial part of what we did in Somalia was insist on a legitimate government rather than a transitional government imposed from outside. And this is one of the complications in Mali as well. You’ve just heard a description of the coup that took place there. What is needed here is not just our strong international support in many ways, but constitutional government in Mali and a readiness among leaders in Mali to negotiate about a way forward, not with Al Qaieda, but with other people who are discontented. We mustn’t always lump them together with Al Qaeida

ED: Can we talk about mistakes that have perhaps been made in Mali over the last year, because you’ve outlined a model of what progress needs to made and what we need to do and clearly government is a huge help, isn’t it? You can’t….these rogue states, or rogue non-states are obviously a hopeless situation. But it’s interesting to ask, isn’t it? Mali wasn’t a fragile state a couple of years ago. Mali’s just become one. Literally in the last eighteen months, Mali’s gone from being a secure, poor state to becoming a mess. What do you think we, the West, the British, the French….what went wrong in Mali and do we have any part in that whatsoever?

WH: Well what has happened here, and by the way they haven’t just gone from no problems to dramatic problems, but i’m sure everybody understands that. For instance, there are very serious humanitarian problem in parts of the Sahel

Indeed, it’s one of the poorest countries in the world but it wasn’t a fragile state. It was a country and it isn’t anymore

WH: That’s right. That actually…there was a good description from your correspondent earlier. Certainly weapons and Tourag people coming out of Libya have contributed to this situation that then what we call AQIM Al Qaeida in the Maghreb, have been able to take advantage of, and now……

ED: I’m just wondering: what were you doing? I mean, this happened on your watch. You were involved in overthrowing – the British were involved in overthrowing Ghadaffi, and this is a pretty big mess – that, post-Ghadaffi, we’ve allowed arms in that region to disrupt and destroy a state more or less.

Well we were involved, if you recall, in saving lives in Libya, not in…Ghadaffi was overthrown by his own people, and I think actually if we hadn’t been doing that, because what we did. really. shortened the Libyan conflict, these problems would have been even greater. If the conflict had gone on for longer there would have been an even greater flow of weapons and an even greater opportunity for extremists to take hold in Libya. So while the Libyan situation may well have contributed to what’s happened in Mali, I think that the action that the Western world took in Libya, if anything, mitigated that.

ED: But what were you doing in Mali at the time because we have seen essentially, as a result of a war that we helped fight in Libya a country has been destroyed, and I’m wondering what you were doing to prevent that outcome in Mali while the war, or when the war in Libya came to an end.

WH: Well, what’s been happening in Mali since then is an effort by the world, really from the United Nations Security Council down, to promote a successful political process in Mali that is between…there are many divisions between the North and the South in Mali….supported by a United Nations Secretary General special envoy, and of course, given the military problems, the mobilisation of a Western African force, which of course takes time, because of course to go without the necessary training and logistics into this region, the most inhospitable region in the world, could of course be a terrible military blunder. And so that’s what has been going on. The United Kingdom plays a part in that. We have a limited diplomatic presence in the francophone West African states. It’s not us anything like as comparable to our presence and strong connections in East Africa for instance. So we work closely with France that is course the leading European power…..

ED: But you can see how people looking at it one might say this is a cock-up of monumental proportions. We have what is now described as potentially what is a problem will be with us for decades, that effectively has been created by a situation in which we were key players.

WH: Well no, I don’t think that’s an accurate description at all. If you just listen to what I was saying….

ED: But you described a political process but not a… but we didn’t stop weapons coming out of Libya and wrecking Mali.

WH: It is a complete illusion to think we are omnipotent in all of these respects. Of course there are many, many different factors at play. I’ve just been describing t you what the United Nations has been doing, what western countries have been doing. We’ve also been increasing out counter-terrorism with Western African countries, such as Nigeria and Mauritania and so on. But of course, and I stress this again, there is no perfect policy prescription….it has the characteristics that I’ve just described in relation to Somali and we need to use a whole variety of political and economic instruments as well as, where necessary that, for instance, France had deployed but that most importantly must come from African countries in order to resolve these problems.

ED: Just one last one. Do you think the West regards Africa in a perhaps curiously colonial way? The tendency is, in the way that you have said in this interview, that, you know, Mali is the French, we do Kenya, and that whole region, as far as British foreign policy, has been a bit neglected and perhpas Western foreign policy, perhaps all the countries need to sit down together and work out what the best policy and what level of resourcing is needed for different parts of the continent in Africa rather than a sort of assumption that the former colonial power runs their patch

WH; Well, that is true. Of course the picture is more complex than that. As you know we’ve just agreed an EU military training mission to Mali, we have our own……the Prime Minister has appointed our own special envoy for the Sahel, so, not to give the impression that we’re not involved in those regions. We have an embassy there now and so on. Nevertheless it is true that Britain is much more heavily represented, because of the myriad of connection of individuals, families, businesses as well as the history, in countries like Somali, Kenya and so on than in francophone West Africa. That is inevitable. And so we do have to work together. France supports so much of what we do in Somalia. We will work very closely in support of in support of France in West Africa.

ED: William Hague, Foreign Secretary, thank you very much.

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Categories: General Politics
  1. February 4, 2013 at 10:41 am

    Your opening with a link to right-wing isolationist Simon Jenkins drained me of any will to read further.

    In a column a year ago he lamented the loss of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, and of Pakistan’s domination of Afghanistan via the Taliban, because these regimes helped contain Iran, a greater enemy in his view. His anti-war views are not about global justice, but are rooted in a bigoted nationalism along the lines of ‘damn all foreigners to Hell rather than spill a drop of precious English blood’.

    http://airforceamazons.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/checking-my-prejudices-2.html

  2. Herbie Destroys the Environment
    February 5, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    Firstly, the left (I don’t call it the anti war left as anyone who is pro war is no leftist to my mind) have given concrete reasons why we should not support imperialist intervention. One reason being that the old state building of the genocidal British empire does not exist under imperialism. The imperialists today do not build railways or infrastructure, they just siphon off contract money to the companies they have a vested interest in. So your first attack was a straw man. You really should bother to actually read the arguments of the anti war left and not resort to lazy baiting. How common this is among the ‘decent’ community.

    Next, anyone who says economics does not play the primary role is quite frankly deluded beyond all help. As Marx said, when quoting Franklin, “Commerce is greed, war is robbery”.

    It is no surprise that Africa is becoming a theatre for the old colonialists, Marxists will tell you that Africa is where the next period of growth will come from. The imperialist vultures are looking to gain the strategic advantages. Marking their territories. You cannot divorce strategic considerations from economic ones incidentally.

    Finally, i am sick to the fucking teeth of the pro war pro imperialist ‘decents’ claiming that they are not pro war and not pro imperialist. YES YOU FUCKING ARE!

    • paulinlancs
      February 5, 2013 at 8:42 pm

      Not sure you read the article

  1. February 12, 2013 at 1:35 pm
  2. February 13, 2013 at 9:18 pm
  3. March 4, 2013 at 11:22 am

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