Readers will have seen, I think, that 17 people were shot dead last week in Paris, by gunmen associating themselves with Daech and Al Qaeida Yemen, who were also killed.
These were brutal murders. Within a few hours, though, even before four people were killed at a supermarket, the actions were being seen less as murder, and more as terrorist attacks on freedom of expression. This was because some of the people killed were journalists at a satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The twitter hashtag #jesuischarlie, expressive of solidarity with the aims or ethos of the magazine, which takes some pride in its no-holds barred depiction of religion and religious figures, quickly became established, and remained at the top of twitter’s hashtag rankings until after enormous marches in France at the weekend. These marches also became gestures in support of freedom of expression. They were not primarily gestures against people being murdered.
This, I think, is a good example of the Garbage Can Model, as conceived by Cohen, March & Olsen, in action. According to the model, actors rummage around “in the garbage” for a solution which may or may not fit with the problem. In this case, the core problem – people murdered in cold blood and the possibility of more – is met with a ‘solution’ which not entirely coincidentally coincides with a media elite. As Fligstein and McAdam show, the courses of action that do get chosen are not chosen at random. They are chosen because those with material and institutional power are able to ensure that they are in the right place at the right time, unless others with less power coalesce and share resources with sufficient skill (or luck).
This reminds me a little of the debate on these pages several years ago about a thing called the Convention on Modern Liberty, in which I and my erstwhile colleague Dave took issue with purportedly radical resources being directed towards of a conference, featuring the great and the good, about the need to defend civil liberties:
For me and Dave, the liberal, metropolitan elite which soaks up human and financial resources in the name of civil liberties and ‘reform’ are, in part, responsible for the fact that since the second world war there have been no further major material advances for labour, and why over the last 30 years capital has got away with rolling back many of the concessions that labour had extracted.
Why, Dave and I would question, is it appropriate to join coalitionary force with them when they insist on seeking to undertake actions which history has proven provide for lesser material gain for labour than working class militancy?
But it also reminds me more directly of the Rotherham sex abuse scandal, in which those with sufficient influence imposed a narrative quite out of keeping with the findings of the Jay report, and insisted that the ways to stop children being sexually abused is to stop being ‘politically correct’ and start shouting at social workers. As I pointed out, in the real world what might help stop abuse is for a) social workers to be empowered to get on with their work with families, to ensure that young people feel safe at home; b) police to focus, in both their investigative and preventative roles, in a ‘race blind’ manner on what circumstances create opportunities for predators to prey on young people (takeaways, poorly regulated taxi firms, and young people who feel unsafe at home.
This, I suggested, would be a socialist response, in that it understands the dialectic of structure and agency, as well as the Overton window. It seeks to stop people being harmful agents, but it also seeks to change the structure so that being a harmful agent comes to be less and less a rational choice.
So too, a socialist response to the Paris attacks is little to do with marching for a solution to a non-problem* – does anyone really think that the two terrorists who killed journalists were motivated by insult to the prophet, rather than a desire for a dramatic display of new-found power? The real response is to look at the conditions that made these two men, angry failures, into brutal killers. The real response for socialists is to argue for the resources needed to improve the lives of all in the Parisian banlieue, so that the prospect of a good job and (male) self-respect starts to shove violent crime beyond what can be seen through the Overton window. This isn’t to deny their agency – they did what they did, while millions of French men in similar situations did not – but it is to address a problem with a solution that fits the problem.
* This is not to say the 3 million people were wrong to march, even in a march quickly co-opted by their states’ leaders for their own purpose. The march behind the leaders was one of genuine solidarity, but it is only a start, and it will be for naught if Europe’s leaders now return to type.
The most striking things about the commentary on the ongoing bloodshed in Gaza is the broad failure to ask why the Israeli government/military, backed by a large percentage of the Israeli population, is behaving like this.
Maybe the conflict has gone on so long that few people feel the need to ask this fairly basic question: what are the roots of Israel’s need to kill hundred of defenseless civilians in an act of “self-defence”, when any reasonably rational assessment of the actions suggests these actions a) constitute cold-blooded murder of children and other non-combatants, and b) feed an increasing hostility on the part of the Palestinian (and wider Middle-East) population, this decreasing the long-term chances of peace?
Perhaps the failure to ask that basic question, especially at times like this especially, is because the answer is at so obvious. Or perhaps – much worse for any possible resolution to the conflict in the long-term – it’s been forgotten by outside observers, and internalised by Israelis to such an extent that it is no longer utterable.
But I think the answer bears repeating: the root of the murder of Palestinian children today is simple: the holocaust.
The State of Israel came about because of the holocaust, and the national identity not just of Israeli Jews, but also – until relatively recently – the vast bulk of American Jews, is inextricably linked to it. After an initial period in which those creating the new, deeply militarized Israel built their identity around the Sabra, the very real threat to the new state’s existence in 1967, and the implied/inferred threat of a further genocide, led to very rapid formation a of national identity based on what Daniel Navon calls the “embracing of victimhood” and in consequence a “paradoxical perception of military superiority and existential anxiety” (p.10). Moreover, this national identity became shared not just in Israel but in the United States, to the extent that in many ways to be an American Jew was to be an Israeli living in America.
Ultimately, it is the fear of a new holocaust, however remote it might seem to outside observers but very real and very near in the days leading up to the 1967 war, which created the path-dependent institutions which we see in Israel and America (think Wall Street Journal) today, in which there is no escaping the internalised logic of “self-defence” born of victimhood.
It seems to be that until outside observers start to remember/learn all of this for the first time – perhaps starting by taking American Jewish and Israeli scholarship more seriously than it is “allowed” – then the chances of a long term resolution remain slight, since even the welcome generational shift amongst American Jews away from their parents and grandparents emotional link to Israel and to victimhood (and back towards the kind of relationship being developed in the 1947-67 period) may not have enough weight to counteract 50 years of institutional path dependency.
Of course none of this stops children being killed today, or tomorrow, or next year. But maybe it’s better to promulgate some kind of informed hope for the future, based on some kind of understanding of the past, than it is to simply regard the Israel/Palestine conflict as an elemental hatred between peoples.
Cameron’s at it again with the biblical references.
Last time it was an attempt to use Jesus’s “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” response to the Pharisees as a justification for the maintenance of the status quo, when in fact it means quite the opposite.
This time around, he’s laying claim to St Paul’s advice to the Galatians:
The Bible tells us to bear one another’s burdens. After the day I’ve had, I’m definitely looking for volunteers.
Indeed it does. Well Paul does, in his letter to Galatians.
But Galatians 6.1, immediately preceding what Cameron quotes t 6.2, makes it quite clear that Paul is referring not to material burdens, but the burden of sin:
My bothers and sisters, if someone is caught in any kind of wrongdoing, those of you who are spiritual should set him right; but you must do it in a gentle way, so that you will not be tempted too.
So either this was a mighty clever but gentle way of telling Maria Miller that she’s a right old sinner, or else it’s evidence he just googles the bits of the bible he needs and doesn’t bother with the context.
Since Friday, when white people started fighting there, it seems anyone who’s anyone in the mainstream media is an expert on Mali. Funny that.
I’m no expert, but back in April 2012, I wrote:
Meanwhile in Africa, a nascent democracy has fallen, a large part of the country is in the hands of a different number of armed groups with differing levels of affiliation to Al Qaeida, trouble is spilling over into neighbouring countries and refugees are on the move. All this is happening as a direct result of the UK’s last major military intervention.
I speak, of course, of Mali, and the vast desert area referred to as Azawad by those Tourags who seek its independence. Over the weekend the major town Timbuktu and Gao have fallen to Touareg rebels, taking strategic advantage of the recent coup d’etat. This coup d’etat was itself undertaken by a section of the army supposedly as a reaction to the civilian government’s inability to deal with armed rebellion in the North, and that armed rebellion was fuelled by the massive overspill of weaponry from Libya via Niger into the desert regions of Mali.
In the mix are various groups, with confused and confusing allegiance, and including the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the (Islamist) Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) , the (Islamist) Ansar al-Din and of course Al Qaeida Middle East (AQIM), present in one form or another (from bases in Southern Algeria).
More details are here, courtesy of the very excellent Kal at The Moor Next Door. There’s a handy map here. I don’t pretend to out-analyse Kal on the specifics of what are and what will be in the region, but simply ask the questions: do Cameron and Hague now accept that what seemed like a nice Boys’ Own Adventure is turning out to have very nasty consequences not just for the millions now directly affected (Mali’s population is 16 million to Libya’s 6 million) but potentially for the much of the Sahel and into the West African states?
Nine months on, we know a few more details of those “nasty consequences”. There is open war in Mali. Ansaru in Nigeria are explicitly linking their activities to Mali. Senegal is scared of what may be coming. Mauritania, in its fragile state, is unable to restrict the movements of jihadists through its territories and prey to attack on its own towns, and Niger – already beset by major ecnonomic and environmental problems, will only suffer more from the growing regional instability.
Now if I, from a backroom in Lancashire, armed with nothing more than an internet connection and a keen sense of the unintended consequence, was able nine months ago to predict pretty well how things would pan out, then it must all have been pretty damn predictable. You’d have thought, in such circumstances, the anti-war left would have had something to say in the way of prevention.
Yet by and large, none of the people or organisations now so desperate to comment on what are, by any yardstick, serious, bloody events with huge consequences for the people of the Sahel region and beyond, had anything to say as, little by little over the summer months, the groups who had been fighting for territorial independence ceded ground and towns to those with more Jihadi aims, and it became clearer that the assault on human freedoms in Northern Malian desert towns would soon be in assaults in Central Mali.
In the end, I can’t help feeling that while what is happening now in Mali is actually quite welcome news for some on the left, who are happy to use it to reinforce their anti-imperial narrative or whatever, the energies and resources now devoted to commenting on the war, might have been better used more proactively few months ago.
Of course it’s a big ‘if’, but if leftie commentators, journos and politicos had been demanding answers from the government back in the summer about how it intended to deal with what was unfolding in Mali, then it might just have hit the Cabinet agenda, and it might just have kickstarted an international process of support for regional intervention. As it was, it was December by the time ECOWAS came to a tentative agreement on use of its regional forces to support the Malian government, and by that time it was too late; French military intelligence clearly saw both that the route South was open to the jihadists, and that the jihadists had the capability and desire to take that road, and that if it didn’t strike now Bamako itself would be under threat (of course it may still be, but in a different way).
Of course the anti-war left is not responsible for what’s going on now – Cameron and co must bear some responsibility for that given that we now know how well briefed they were, or at least should have been, on the likely consequences for its southern neighbours of a changed regime in Libya.
But if the anti-war left is going to get serious about anti-imperialism/promoting the long-term advisability of stopping these continued interventions – we can be sure enough there’ll be another one along in the non-too-distant future – it had better start by getting serious about its analysis.
The appalling gang rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi has created the usual, and somewhat predictable, divisions in the left commentariat.
On the one hand you have Owen Jones:
But, in the West, Damini’s death has triggered a different response: a sense that this is an Indian-specific problem. “The crime has highlighted the prevalence of sex attacks in India,” says the Daily Telegraph; “India tries to move beyond its rape culture,” says Reuters. Again, it’s comforting to think that this is someone else’s problem, a particular scandal that afflicts a supposedly backward nation. It is an assumption that is as wrong as it is dangerous.
On the other there’s Sunny Hundal:
I despair with well-meaning people who say India’s endemic violence against women doesn’t have cultural roots. Desperate attempt to be PC. The debate will go on into the night. Nothing will be resolved, mostly because both are (only) half-right.
Owen is right to state the obvious – that violence against women remains a massive, under-recognised problem in Western Europe, but Sunny’s argument – that to ‘dilute’ the issue by suggesting that India is no worse than the UK, does a disservice to Indian women – is also reasonable. (Like Sunny, I’ve spent plenty of time in Indian (and Bangladeshi) houses/shanties/huts and support his view that, quite simply, women have a lower status in many households). Sunny’s probably also right to suggest a reluctance to pin the blame on Indian ‘culture’ stems, at least in part, from a wariness on the part of lefties of being taken as making racist assumptions about the cultural norms of brown people.
The problem with Sunny’s argument, though, comes in his essentialist use of the word ‘culture’. For Sunny, culture appears to be a thing, which you have, or you don’t have. Such a conception leads almost inevitably to the conclusion that, if the position of women in India is to be improved, Indians must lose a bit of their culture. That, I suggest, doesn’t lead us very far. Indeed it creates the condition in which the PC-gone-mad lefties like me, and maybe Owen, are tempted to reach for the safety of the ‘violence is everywhere’ argument.
I have a different conception of culture, and one which I think helps us through the current analytical impasse.
For me, culture is the product of a historical process of power struggle. It is dynamic, and consistently evolving in response to those power struggles. The biggest power struggle in the history of modern India was British Imperial rule, and this colonial rule had a very large impact on the position of women in India today. The best analysis of this that I know of is in Varsha Chitnis and Danaya Wright, The Legacy of Colonialism: Law and Women’s Rights in India, 64 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 1315 (2007), in which the authors argue that the unequal status of women in India today has its roots in the power struggle between
the native elites and the colonialists [which] was fought on the backs of Indian women because it was the alleged degraded position of Indian women and the barbaric actions of Indian men that justified the colonial mission in the first place. This brings into the picture a third group, British feminists, who claimed a moral imperative to reclaim for Indian women the dignity and rights of Western women (p.1318).
As a consequence, argue the authors:
The condition of the Indian woman, particularly within the home, became the battleground on which the contests of power between Indian and British men and between British men and women were fought…… [O]ne of the post-independence legacies of this complex tussle for power is that even secular laws for women today are either protectionist and patriarchal, or else modem Indian women are not in a position to exercise their legal rights in meaningful ways. Victorian notions of womanhood (chastity, innocence, self-effacement, and passiveness) continue to pervade some laws, and certainly the traditional training of lawmakers and judges in the British legal system allows them to bring their often patriarchal understanding of the historical foundations of these laws to bear as precedents and jurisprudential principles, even when the laws are facially egalitarian (p.1319).
Of course, blaming the unequal position of women in India on colonialism doesn’t get us very far in itself. India has been independent for 70 years, and while the effects of colonialism are certainly longlasting and path-dependent, there are of course many other influences. My point is simply that, if people in Britain are to support in any way, shape or form, the liberation of women in India and elsewhere in South Asia, it will be important to engage in any such action not on the basis of judgment about the inadequacy of Indian culture when compared to Western freedoms for women – that would be, after all, neo-colonialism writ large – but on the basis that we’re doing what we can to help Indian women gain the power Britain arguably denied them in the first place.
There is a significant statement of intent by the Church of England in the Daily Telegraph letters page this morning.
Heading up a letter from more than a dozen other signficant investors from both religious organisations and secular charitable trusts, the First Church Estates Commissioner for the Church of England makes the following commitment:
The problem of excessive executive pay has become so serious that we have resolved to work with our investment managers to ensure that the remuneration policies of the companies we invest in are aligned with our interests, transparent, linked to performance, and appropriate in the context of each company.
Putting these letters together – agreeing the text and the subtext – doesn’t happen overnight. the term ‘resolved’ means that it has gone off to more than a dozen sets of trustees for review and comment*, and the text is carefully worded to ensure that it’s firm but flexible.
In particular, the phrase “the companies we invest in” leaves room for interpretation: that the Church and others will not just vote against excessive remuneration, but will disinvest in cases where such remuneration packages are voted through anyway.
The commitment to “work with our investment managers” is also important. The investment managers being used by these trusts and groups are also used by a huge range of other investors, meaning that the managers themselves will need to agitate not just on behalf of this core group, but in effect on behalf of a much wider group. The proof of this will, of course, come during the approaching AGM season.
So why is this happening now?
In part, I suspect that there is some genuine cooperation between this group of investors and some of the more ethical investment managers (yes, there are some), who have seen the opportunity to shift the balance of power between one bit of capitalism and another, and decided that now is the time to make the move.
But, while it’s not acknowledged in the letter, I think we should also recognise that this move – not massive in itself, but a step in the right direction – is down to the work done by the Occupy movement.
As a socialist, conscious of how the 1986 movement paved the way for neoliberalism, I think there are significant problems with the Occupy movement, however well-intended. But proto-comradely hats off to them on this one. It’s not exactly what I had in mind here, but it’s welcome nonetheless.
One last thing: my sources tell me this letter is only with the Daily Telegraph (who also accord it an article) because it was refused by the Financial Times. Why, I wonder, would the FT refuse a letter from a set of organisations with roughly £7 billion invested in the City of London?
* I bet the Baptists especially, with their tradition of removal from ‘wordly affairs’, met long into the night on this one.