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Why do Israelis do what they do?

July 22, 2014 3 comments

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.

 

 

Did Cameron tell Maria Miller she’s a sinner?

April 10, 2014 Leave a comment

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.

 

Categories: General Politics, Religion

On Habermas, Islamism and the great Left divide (part 1 of 2)

March 4, 2013 14 comments

The Secular Respectable Left

‘Why on earth do some left-wingers side with Islamists, when Islamists are so evil?’ is an on-going question-cum-accusation, levelled at people like Nick Cohen at people like…….well, people like me.

Thus Nick Cohen in the Spectator, suggests the way the ‘classic’ British left side with the Islamist establishment means they are simply racists:

Other speakers [at the launch of the Centre for Secular Space] were from Southall Black Sisters, Bengali secular campaigns against Tower Hamlets’ Islamist establishment and Iranian resistance groups – classic left wing figures, in other words. Yet they are ignored or in the case of Sahgal fired for speaking out.

All emphasized how many in the British state and British left were racists hiding behind liberal masks. On the left, the racism came in the constant postponement of campaigns to improve women’s lives whether they are immigrants or in the poor world. Their suffering must always be subordinated to the struggle against ‘American imperialism’. This would be bad enough if we did not see from the far Left way into the liberal mainstream supposed progressives allying with clerical reactionaries and clerical fascists. They ignore the victims of theocracy and accept their oppression.

Similarly, Carl Packman at Left Foot Forward, blames the far-left for mix of political immaturity and ‘paternalism':

And here is where the far-left and the British and American establishment can find harmony. While the latter needs the Muslim far-right in Saudi Arabia for cash, they keep quiet about human rights abuses. For the far-left the comradeship is just as dubious, if not slightly more immature.

Recently I was at the launch of a new book by Trotskyist writer and blogger Richard Seymour, who told a packed audience in Kings Cross that the Stop the War Coalition did not wish to pursue sectarianism, deciding who should and should not be marching against the war, but in any case those religious right-wingers might have had their minds changed through a union with the left……..

If this isn’t paternalist (Muslim beliefs, whatever they are, are only temporary, easily overturned), I don’t know what is.

In the end, goes the core argument of the Cohen/Packman/Harry’s Place nexus, the far left/lefties/liberals [1] are the real right-wingers here, and they either need to change their ways or shut up, while the Secular Responsible Left (my coinage, get used to it) get on with the real job in hand of promoting human rights.

For myself, I think this analysis is at least as ‘immature’ as the politics it professes to critique. The suggestion that someone like Richard Seymour (he being a useful cipher for the broad doctrine of the leftist groupings around the SWP/Stop the War), is some kind of closet racist/paternalist, and that he’s “in harmony” with the British and American establishment, is frankly just silly [2]. Such an analysis fundamentally confuses agency with structure, and in the absence of any coherent analysis of why some on the far left/liberal left do seem to get aligned with reactionary Islam, the Secular Responsible Left falls back on the idea that, ultimately, they’re all just bad, wrong people.

In this two part article, I argue that such an approach is not simply politically immature in terms of its failure to distinguish structure from agency. I argue that is also deeply unhelpful as a political strategy for anyone really, really interested in a progressive socialism inclusive of human rights guarantees and the emancipation of the oppressed (and there can be no progressive socialism without that). In the end, accusations levelled at Seymour by Packman look and feel like sectarian squabbling getting in the away of constructive organisation, largely because that is what they are: ‘my integrity is bigger than yours’ political willy-waving fests may fill small halls of the like-minded, but they are not going to change the lives of marginalised women anytime soon.

Indeed the Secular Respectable Left is, I will argue (following John Gray p.125-6), more reactionary, more unhelpful to the cause of emancipation that they profess to espouse than are the far/liberal/mainstream left at whom they throw this same accusation.

Habermas and value pluralism

So what is a more ‘mature’ analysis of how some on the Left come, apparently, to side with the anti-human rights baddies against the goodies?

A good place to start is with the work Jurgen Habermas, who has devoted a large part of his career, from the early 1990s onwards, to resolving the tension that lies at the heart of the current debate: how do modern constitutional democracies best promote respect both for individual human rights and for the rights of groups of people to live by different cultural values (what has been termed the “struggle for recognition“), when such cultural values sometimes are so opposed to a liberal conception of human rights (and vice versa)? It is a resolution to this dilemma – itself a result of the multi-ethnic world that has developed through the 20th century – which forms Habermas’ whole ‘constitutional patriotism’ project, seeking to replace the comfortable majoritarian certainties of ethno-nationalist value consensus (comfortable for those who are included) with a newer commitment to a political culture which accommodates (and in time are, through discourse, adaptable to) different cultures and their value sets [3].

In Remarks on Legitimation through Human Rights (ch, 5 in Postnational Constellations: Political Essays) Habermas gets to the core:

The human rights discourse that has been argued on normative terms is plagued by the fundamental doubt about whether the form of legitimation that has arisen in the West can also hold up as plausible within the framework of other cultures. The most radical critics are Western intellectuals themselves. They maintain that the universal validity claimed for human rights merely hides a perfidious claim to power on the part of the West.

This is no accident. To gain some distance from one’s traditions and limited perspectives in one of the advantages of occidental rationalism. The European history of the interpretation of human rights is the history of such a decentring of out way of viewing things. So-called equal rights may have only been gradually extended to oppressed, marginalized, and excluded groups. Only after tough political struggles have workers, women, Jews, Romanies, gays and political refugees been recognized as “human beings” with a claim to fully equal treatment. The important thing now is that the individual advances in emancipation reveal in hindsight the ideological function that human rights had also fulfilled up to that time. That is, the egalitarian claim to universal validity and inclusion had also served to mask the de facto unequal treatment of those who were silently excluded. This observation has aroused the suspicion that human rights might be reducible to this ideological unction. Have they not always served to shield a false universality – an imaginary humanity, behind which an imperialist West could conceal its own way and interests (p.119-120).

It is this disjuncture between the rhetoric of universality and the practice of exclusion as the key means to establish and expand empire which is so meticulously detailed in Domenico Losurdo’s recent Liberalism: A Counter-History. And it is Habermas’ understanding of this ‘dialectic between subjugation and emancipation’ which provides for his key insight; this is to pick out both the negative and positive features of “occidental rationalism”: a tendency to ascribe any form of enduring inequality and exploitation to imperialism, which can hinder empirical analysis, balanced by a genuine openness other value sets.

The less respectable Left’s (Althusserian) engagement with value pluralism

This is precisely the situation in which some on the British left do now find themselves.

On the one hand, because the left positions itself primarily in opposition to the logic of imperialism (rooted, as Losurdo has set out so clearly, in the exclusionary tendencies of liberalism), it tends to see all events through this lens. Thus, as I set out in my recent anti-war left essay, the empirical evidence that some Western military intervention is not in fact motivated by a rapacious need for natural resources is discounted in favour of a narrative of post-colonial imperialism. In this narrative, the maxim that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ takes strong hold, and the tendency is simply to take the side of any group which also sets itself in opposition to the forces of Western imperialism [4]

On the other hand, there is the ‘positive’ dynamic, reflecting the other side of the coin of Habermas’ insight. This is that left-wing intellectuals of the Richard Seymour type appear to be genuinely motivated by their (Marxist) occidental rationalism to recognise that there are other ways of looking at rights than through the prism of liberalism.

In this reading, what the Secular Respectable Left see as a betrayal of liberal values and human rights can be seen simply as an acknowledgment by some on the left that there are other worldviews, which do not depend on the primacy of the individual, which are potentially as valid.

Take, for example two interpretations of this Harry’s Place article. ‘Lucy Lips’ attacks those she descibes the far left “anti-racists” (her inverted commas) for working with the East London Mosque, who in turn have hosted “Islamist preacher” Khaild Al-Fikri. As evidence, of the far left’s wrongness in its engagement, she quotes Al-Fikri from a previous conference:

Don’t be misleaded [sic] and misguided with those kaffir people who says it is freedom and you are a free man. They are kuffar. And when they say, and poison your mind with the word freedom, they mean there is no God. “Do whatever you want.” Because they are kuffar. … You need to protect your deen [religion] and iman [faith] because there are many things which will affect you, will come against you. Somebody will say to you “democracy, socialism, freedom”………And again for my sisters. Don’t be misguided. Don’t be misleaded [sic] by the kaffir theories and attitudes. You are very free when you are home with your husband and your kids. … Don’t say “I am a free woman, I want to run house, I want to work, I want to get money”. No! This is the duty of your husband.

Now, to my eyes, and to the eyes of most people reading this piece, this is pretty unpleasant reactionary stuff, at least at first reading. But stand back for a minute, strip away the insulting ‘kuffar’ term, and what you’re left with is little more than an expression of what Habermas has suggested: that the concept of ‘freedom’ is some kind of trap; that it is a Western invention aimed at diverting people from the true path of the divine; that Muslims should retain their own core ethical standards, even if they have to defend them against corrupt Western ones. Certainly, it’s arguable that the guidance on the role of women expressed here is, as Saeeda Shah has noted, an expression, of Islamic philosophy “misappropriated by those who have traditionally occupied the spaces of religious interpretation” (p.245), but notwithstanding the question of who, within a community, gets to establish community’s values and notms (and this is something I come back to in part 2), it still possible to recognise it as a valid expression of a particular ethical standpoint. And this, remember, is from someone widely considered so “extremist” that even to meet with a group which has previously invited him to speak under their roof is an indication of betrayal of all decency.

By way of comparison, here’s self-confessed American liberal Jonathan Haidt, talking about the period spent in Orissa (albeit a period I suspect is conveniently reconstructed for his arguments) during which he realised that the concept of freedom and rights might not have singular validity:

I had read about Shewder’s ethic of community and had understood it intellectually. But now, for the first time in my life, I began to feel it. I could feel beauty in a moral code that emphasizes beauty, respect for one’s elders, service to the group, and negation of the self’s desires. I could still see its ugly side: I could see that power sometimes leads to pomposity and abuse. And I could see that subordinates – particularly women – were often blocked from doing what they wanted to do by the whims of their elders (male and female). but for the first time in my life, i was able to step outside my home morality, the ethic of autonomy. I had a place to stand, and from the vantages point of the ethic of community, the ethic of autonomy now seemed overly individualistic and self-focused (p.102).

Haidt’s recognition that different societies might have equally valid moral bases for the way in which their members lives their lives (whilst also recognising that who holds power is a key determinant) is not new. Indeed, Haidt quotes anthropologist Clifford Geertz approvingly:

The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively against other such wholes and against is social and natural background, is, however incorrigible it may seem to us. a rather peculiar idea within the contexts of the world’s cultures (p.126, quoted at p.14 in Haidt)

The challenge that Haidt and Geertz set themselves [5], as academics raised within the Western liberal tradition, is to put aside their preconception about what is morally correct, and embrace ‘value pluralism’. And this, it seems to me, is what those on the Left now prepared to engage with radical Islam are also trying to do. True, they don’t articulate it very well, preferring to explain any such engagement as anti-imperialist agitation rather than as a recognition that different worldviews, however alien to our own, have a validity for the simple reason that people have them [6]. Perhaps I even overestimate here the intelligence of some on the far left, though perhaps such a reliance on ‘tried and tested’ anti-imperialism narrative is understandable in the context of a media (including Harry’s Place) keen to misrepresent a call for the understanding of Islamic values as direct support for extremism.

Whatever the motivations, articulated or otherwise, of those on the Left prepared to deal with value pluralism, the important point is that only those on the (far) Left are prepared to engage with probably the most serious question of our times. That question is:

How, in a world in which capitalism has become the almost universal economic modus vivendi, and liberal values have underpinned the rise of capitalism, do we now best deal with the ‘struggle for recognition’ of a very different value set, in a way which both respects value pluralism but also pay proper heed to the emancipatory ideal that lies at the heart of what it is to be left-wing (whether this be Marxist or rooted in earlier Enlightenment thinking)?

Answering that question, again with reference to Habermas, is the task of part 2 of this article (coming soon). In the meantime, it’s worth noting (h/t @sunny_hundal) that attempts to reach out across the value-divide towards some form of long-term political/constiutional settlement, are not necessarily taking place in one direction only. No doubt the Islamic Society of Denmark are getting their version of Harry’s Place-style accusations of treachery from the Unsecular Respectable Islamists, but I applaud them as I applaud the efforts of those on the Left who are seeking some way forward, even while hampered by their Althusserian (see [4]) anti-imperialist ritual.

Notes

[1] Cohen in particular seems to use these terms interchangeably.

[2] In the accusation that the far/liberal left are operating in ‘harmony’ with the Western establishment, Packman finds himself in interesting company. Here’s revolutionary Marxist Samir Amin, the consternation of Alex Callinicos of the SWP, coming out in support of French intervetion in Mali, on the basis of an interesting argument that “reactionary political Islam” is in reality a support, rather than a threat, to Western imperialism, because its presence allows the imperialist 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’.

Telle est la raison fondamentale pour laquelle les puissances de la triade – telles qu’elles sont et demeurent – y voient un allié stratégique. Le soutien systématique apporté par ces puissances à l’Islam politique réactionnaire a été et demeure l’une des raisons majeures des « succès » qu’il a enregistrés : les Talibans d’Afghanistan, le FIS en Algérie, les « Islamistes » en Somalie et au Soudan, ceux de Turquie, d’Egypte, de Tunisie et d’ailleurs ont tous bénéficié de ce soutien à un moment décisif pour leur saisie du pouvoir local. Aucune des composantes dites modérés de l’Islam politique ne s’est jamais dissociée véritablement des auteurs d’actes terroristes de leurs composantes dites « salafistes ». Ils ont tous bénéficié et continuent à bénéficier de « l’exil » dans les pays du Golfe, lorsque nécessaire. 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.

For myself, I don’t buy the argument that, just because one political or ideological grouping does or says something than can be argued to be favourable to the interests of another grouping, that both these groupings must therefore have a common purpose.

[3] Casting Habermas’ sophisticated argument as simply as possible, constitutional patriotism acknowledges that in modern culturally plural societies the ethno-nationalism that used to bind people to a shared identity and thereby create the conditions for the legitimacy of the democratic state. That is, the two key underpinnings of the modern state form as developed in the 18th century – a national identity allied with a republican ideal of individual citizen operating in voluntary contract with each other to abide by the laws of the state – have become less firmly connected. Habermas’ believes that the 21st century state must find a new “functional equivalent for the fusion of the nation of citizens with the ethnic nation”, and that to do this we need to create a patriotic commitment to a legal and political constitution, however abstract, while allowing diverse cultures to flourish in their own terms. I’ll come back to this in part 2. For more, see Andrea Baumeister’s essay Diversity and Unity: The Problem with ‘Constitutional Patriotism’ for an intelligent critique.

[4] It strikes me that this tendency on the part of the Left to push aside any evidence that does not fit with the narrative of resource-hungry imperialism is, ironically, a good example of Althusserian interpellation. As Althusser says:

The individual in question behaves in such and such a way, adopts such and such a practical attitude, and, what is more, participates in certain regular practices which are those of the ideological apparatus on which ‘depend’ the ideas which he has in all consciousness freely chosen as a subject. If he believes in God, he goes to Church to attend Mass, kneels, prays, confesses, does penance (once it was material in the ordinary sense of the term) and naturally repents and so on. If he believes in Duty, he will have the corresponding attitudes, inscribed in ritual practices ‘according to the correct principles’. If he believes in Justice, he will submit unconditionally to the rules of the Law, and may even protest when they are violated, sign petitions, take part in a demonstration, etc.

To this set of beliefs, we might perhaps add ‘Marxism’, in which name a large number of ritual practices have also been established. I would argue that, for many Marxists, who enter into that doctrine of their own free will, the act of interpellation is a strong one, with Marx(ism) maintaining all the key features of the (capital S) Subject. I wonder, indeed, whether it is this process of interpellation, and the commitment to ritual, which lies at the heart of the troubles both the SWP and the Catholic Church now face:

Were not men made in the image of God? As all theological reflection proves, whereas He ‘could’ perfectly well have done without men, God needs them, the Subject needs the subjects, just as men need God, the subjects need the Subject. Better: God needs men, the great Subject needs subjects, even in the terrible inversion of his image in them (when the subjects wallow in debauchery, i.e. sin).

[5] It’s worth noting here that openness to value pluralism is not a particular new concept at all. An awareness of the tension between universality and pluralism can be traced back at least as far as Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith, as an early liberal not caught up by the imperative felt by later liberals like JS Mill to justify imperialist expansion (on which see Jennifer Pitts), was not able to resolve these tensions, but the very fact that he – two centuries before Habermas was aware of them suggests that it continues to be an area still worthy of consideration. As Samuel Fleischacker has noted, in an interesting essay which argues that modern political philosophy might benefit from Smith’s implicitly anthropological approach:

Smith is unlikely to offer us any straightforward meta-ethical reconciliation between relativism and absolutism, and his promising hints about how, in ethics proper, to bring together pluralism and universalism, are undermined, to some degree, by his meta-ethical dilemma. But the problems he faces in these regards are our problems too, and thinking with Smith may help nudge us toward a solution to them, even if that solution is not explicitly to be found in Smith’s own work.

[6] Again, this is an ‘anthropological’ formulation, of the type which informs Adam Smith’s work

The British anti-war left and Mali

January 16, 2013 3 comments

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.

Rape and Indian culture

December 31, 2012 13 comments

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.

 

The Church of England launches its attack on executive pay

April 19, 2012 Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Religion

#occupylsx needs to read the bible

October 27, 2011 7 comments

I just hope this photograph does not become widely identified with the #occupylsx movement, or in a very short space of time the protestors will become very unpopular amongst a signficant section of the population.

So, also, may Kevin Maguire in the Mirror, who opines on twitter:

Jesus drove moneylenders from the temple but Bishop of London wants anti-capitalists away from St Paul’s. Christianity turns full circle?

Clearly both Kevin and the pictured protestor missed a lot of Sunday school, because Jesus did not drive moneylenders from the temple.

What Jesus did in the temple is recorded in all four gospels:

Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves (Matthew 21:12);

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves (Mark 11:15);

So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables (John 2:15);

Then he entered the temple area and began driving out those who were selling [translated in other versions as 'merchants'] (Luke 19:45).

 This isn’t a Bible Studies blog, but the difference between money changers and money lenders is an important one,  rooted in the obligation of the time for temple goers to pay their devotions in temple money. 

Jesus is expressing anger, not at the concept of lending money,  but at people using their position of power in the temple hierarchy to exchange money at exorbitant rates, especially with those coming from afar. 

This is not Jesus acting against the whole concept of credit and debt, but against racism in the temple.

As such, there may be a fairly oblique reference to Deuteronomy (23: 19-20), which appears to authorise different repayment schedules, depending on race.

Do not charge your brother interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest.  You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a brother Israelite, so that the LORD your God may bless you in everything you put your hand to in the land you are entering to possess.

 The protest movement, I suggest, should steer clear of a campaign against the fundamentals of credit and debt as a way of making the world work.  As David Graeber has shown, such concepts may well be hardwired into human existence, and what we really should be campaigning for is some form of democratic control of banking institutions and the power to create money, rather than an end to the whole idea of banking itself.  Debt can be a social good, and the new protest movement should be wary of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Over the centuries, religion has torn society apart over the concept of what is and what is not usury, and who should be allowed/forced to engage in it.  There is a strong argument that attempts by organised religion to resolve this dilemma – between the desire for religious righteousness and the need for some kind of lending system – have been the key longterm cause of the oppression of Jewish people.

And that’s really not somewhere I want to see #occuplylsx go for the sake of a snappy poster.

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