Out September 15th: “Syriza – Inside the Labyrinth”

syriza_ovendenBy Pluto Press (200 pages | 5 x 7 3/4 | © 2015).

With a Foreword by Paul Mason.

In January 2015, Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, became the largest party in the Hellenic Parliament, winning 149 out of 300 seats and badly defeating the then-ruling conservative New Democracy party. In Syriza, Kevin Ovenden presents an in-depth analysis of the political events leading up to this seemingly sudden reversal of political power in Greece, exploring the origins of the turbulent Greek political climate, from the beginnings of the Communist Party of Greece and the Greek workers’ movement following the First World War, to the brutal civil war that shook the country in the aftermath of the Second World War; the rise and fall of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement and the growth of radical politics in the 1970s; and finally the crushing austerity demands following the debt crisis of the 2010s.

Ovenden also examines the far-right movements in Greece as well, focusing in particular on the negative impact that the xenophobic and nationalistic Golden Dawn party has had and continues to have to this day.

Syriza’s victory in Greece is a central event of the twenty-first century, whose ramifications are sure to be felt for decades.

Go to Pluto Press to order your copy.

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No – Thatcher did not stop the fascist NF

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Margaret Thatcher, January 1978: “People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”

The book considered here by Kenan Malik doesn’t appear to offer much new to our understanding of British fascism or its successes and failures relative to European counterparts.

In fact, it appears to promote three well worn ideas that have been with us for at least 40 years. To its credit, however, it does seem to make the important distinction between fascism/neo-Nazism and other forms of far right reaction.

First is the claim that while European fascists in the 1970s were able skillfully to repackage as a form of national and racial identity politics masquerading as a defence of “indigenous culture”, hapless British fascism remained stuck in discredited inter-war ideologies of biological racism and Nazi racial superiority.

Second, that Britain’s second world war experience allowed space for a (uniquely) right wing politics and culture that was nationalist and pro-Empire but claiming an anti-Nazi mantle. Both sides of Churchill, if you will.

Third, the peculiar nature of British conservatism and the Tory party permitted it flexibility to absorb repeated – and failed – fascist breakthroughs. It could marginalise fascism while adapting to its racist agitation.

All three of these factors are one-sided and overstated. Even taken together they don’t account for the fate of British fascism or differential outcomes with counterparts in Europe, either in the 1970s or more recently.

The British National Party in the 1990s did try to reposition its propaganda and political initiatives around the identity claims of the New Right. The book acknowledges that. But in pointing out that that went hand in hand with a core commitment to cruder Nazi and biological racist ideas it gives the impression – on this account – that that was unique to British fascism.

But this was true also of the Front National in France. It was true of those strands of German fascism post-1991 that sought respectability by saying that they were just articulating a view of German history and culture that displaced responsibility for German fascism onto Russian Communism. That had been propounded by intellectuals of the conservative right.

All the while Jean-Marie Le Pen in France described the Holocaust as a minor detail of history, and neo-Nazi groups in Germany engaged in violent attacks.
More recently, the advance from 10 years ago of fascism in Greece was not in its eurofascist or alt-right intellectual form, but of an actual Nazi party – Golden Dawn.

If the claim is that Britain’s national story of WWII provides an inhibition upon fascism, then why not Greece’s – a country with a massive liberation movement and a resurgent mass left from the mid-1970s? Indeed, when activists formed an explicitly anti-fascist front a decade ago, many on the left thought it a waste of time. They pointed to the then marginalisation of fascist groups and to the “real problem” which was the incorporation into the political mainstream of authoritarian and racist ideas.

The conservative New Democracy party was no less adroit at absorbing far right strands than the British Tories. Indeed, like the Spanish Popular Party it institutionalised those forces to a greater extent than British conservatism ever has. The same could be said of the Austrian centre right and its state functionaries.

The book rehearses the well worn argument that instrumental to the decline of the National Front in Britain was Margaret Thatcher’s Granada interview on World in Action in January 1978. In it she said that “people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”.

The argument is that this took the wind out of the NF’s sails and its voters went Tory 15 months later.

But why should it not have encouraged the NF? Jean-Marie Le Pen was to say two decades later when mainstream politicians adopted Front National themes that “people prefer the genuine article”. And that is what happened.

I rarely see British commentators who foreground Thatcher’s “swamping” interview cite the equally infamous intervention by another major leader of conservatism. Jacques Chirac in 1991 made his “Le Bruit et l’odeur” speech. In it he said people were right to complain about the “noise and the smell” of Arab and African immigrants in France.

He contrasted them to decent European and white earlier immigrants from Germany, Italy, Poland and so on. It was a naked racist appeal into working class and poor communities divided by state and popular racism while crammed into overcrowded tenements. It went further than Thatcher ever did – and in the 1980s it was anti-communism rather than racist themes that was central to her ideological propaganda.

Notwithstanding the reactionary Thatcher governments and the historic defeats she inflicted on the organised working class, there was less popular racist and anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain in 1989 than there had been in 1979.

Surely Chirac’s speech would check the rise of the FN, gaining in strength the previous decade to reach four million votes? Not at all. Chirac went on to face Le Pen a decade later in the second round of the French presidential election.

You must conclude that whatever impact Thatcher’s interview had was only out of a mass movement already isolating and hurling back the NF – a fact attested to by its national organiser who said the Anti Nazi League and associated massive agitation broke the British NF.

There are all sorts of national particularities, and of course all movements take place in and try to bend in their direction the particular national circumstances, contradictions and “traditions” at each stage.

But by the looks of this book it doesn’t advance our understanding of that. Rather, it seems in its core just another outing for some tired, objectivist ideas.

There are, for example, interesting questions over why, despite all its conservatism and sectional, reactionary strands, there was a stronger anti-racist and anti-imperialist (as in British imperialism) sentiment in the British labour movement pre-1968 than in the French. That is despite the French being formally more left wing and with greater permeation of Marxism in French society.

The British labour movement was far from brilliant over Ireland, Empire and nuclear weapons. The French was just appalling on Algeria.

There are important questions today about the interaction of fascist forces and wider crises of national political systems. The German grand coalition, the Greek equivalent, and the collapse of French social democracy are surely central to accounting for the advances of fascist and far right forces. So is the unravelling of historic centre right party blocs in several countries.

Above all, there is how movements have been able (or not) to respond and to shape the outcome of those crises – at least on the vital question of throwing back fascist advance.

These questions cannot be addressed adequately with a cardboard cutout account of British conservatism and the British far right.

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Johnson’s opportunism and his divided cabinet

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Johnson and Cummings – arch opportunist and his Rasputin 

The Boris Johnson who proclaimed in a speech on 3 February that Britain would champion laissez-faire global trade against an “autarkic” coronavirus shutdown is the same Boris Johnson briefing today that he is against an early exit from the lockdown.

Similarly, the Dominic Cummings who lets it be known that he is now in favour of a longer lockdown is the same eugenicist fascinated by the crackpot “herd immunity” policy.

That and the reported divisions in the British government tell us several things:

1) Johnson is, as most Tory MPs have said, a serial opportunist. Remember his two columns for and against Brexit? What matters above all for Johnson is the future of Boris Johnson.

2) His elitist ideology probably does mean that he believes in the laissez-faire approach. That certainly informed the catastrophic response to the pandemic which amplified all the problems brought by austerity.

But he is not going to let that get in the way of his own political survival. Thus he stands on the opposite side of this split over the lockdown to Iain Duncan Smith, with whom he might be considered ideologically close.
The Thatcherite ultra Tory Brexiters had reason to worry about Johnson’s reliability from their point of view.

3) Cummings, though deeply ideological, represents the triumph of political technique over belief. We can be sure that his apparent U-turn is driven by intense focus grouping and private polling by the Tories’ Anglo-Australian gurus.

The estimate must be that being seen to champion national wellbeing (however far fetched) above “business” is crucial to securing the long term strategy of cementing the Johnsonite popular and electoral coalition. Thatcher was prepared to go through intense unpopularity and take huge risks to carry through her programme.

It looks like the Downing Street operation is much more nervous about its success in last year’s election blowing up. It has a big majority and a weak Labour opposition. But it is cautious – and incompetent. The image of a vainglorious prime minister in it for the jollies may come to stick.

4) The fact that two sheet anchors of the British administrative state – the Treasury and the Cabinet Secretary – are (with the ever ambitious Michael Gove) on the opposite side to Johnson and Cummings is doubly revealing.

First, it intensifies the strategic division by overlaying administrative schism and the deep question of how the government and state should function.
Second, it undermines the claim by British liberalism that the permanent state is a force for rational good and must be supported against crazies like Cummings. The Treasury and cabinet secretary are pushing the more reckless line – in the name of UK PLC.

5) Despite whatever superficial similarities, the government split in Britain shows the differences between Trump and Johnson.
Trump is trying to rally the anti-state right wing Republican base, and the far right, claiming that the lockdowns are a communist plot against liberty and coronavirus simultaneously an exaggerated threat and an act of Chinese aggression. (Again, Iain Duncan Smith and some other hard right Tories are saying likewise.)

There is no similar substantial base for Johnson. A key part of his election message was increased NHS funding and public spending. The dishonesty is not the point. It is rather that Tory voters, especially in the seats won from Labour, do not think that the NHS is a Marxist death machine, as US shock jocks maintain.

As for China, already before this crisis the Johnson government was seeking to balance as it looked to expanding trade beyond the EU. Thus Tory MPs were divided on the question of Huawei’s involvement in Britain’s 5G network and Johnson was in conflict with Trump. There was never any substantial division between Thatcher and Reagan over the Soviet Union.

These tensions may be obscured by state of official politics and the line Keir Starmer has been taking. But they are very real and important.
They mean that Johnson’s government is far from being a juggernaut. They are divisions the movement should take confidence in exploiting.

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Some socialist points on the Tory government’s anti-immigration offensive

abundance agriculture bananas batch

So who will pick the fruit and ve? 

The answer to the Tories’ planned nasty immigration restrictions cannot be: we need a continuing supply of cheap labour to keep the economy going and to staff social care on zero hours contracts and, in effect, less than minimum wage.

That is the argument of the privateers, the farmers and large sections of business. It cannot possibly be the argument of the labour movement.

Nor can it be in any way to give credence to the propaganda by the Home Office and government that their policy will lead to a high wage, high skill economy.
It is the level of investment that is much more important in achieving those things. Britain has had a chronically low level of investment for a very long time. And Home Secretary Priti Patel is clear that any shortfalls in supply of labour can be made up from the “economically inactive” population in Britain.

But this is eight million pensioners, carers and students. Many in those categories are already doing paid work. Driving them into a greater relationship with the labour market is going to mean more lowering of the social wage and attacks such as universal credit, the hounding of disabled people and further attacks on pensions and pensioners.

The government claims that a tightened labour market among so-called unskilled workers (they are skilled) will lead to employers investing and paying higher wages.

Unfortunately, some liberal and centre-left figures have backhandedly endorsed the government’s claim in the course of rightly opposing its new immigration restrictions. So economist Danny Blanchflower says the Tory policy will lead to higher wages, which will lead to higher prices and inflation driven by a wage-price spiral. That’s his argument against it.

Leave aside the mistaken 1970s-style theory about what causes inflation, the critical thing that drives up wages is the organisation of labour. This is a crucial difference between workers and other economic inputs – steel, electricity, oil, etc do not organise themselves.

Whatever the immigration regime, employers are still going to look to suppressing wages and limiting workplace rights, notwithstanding niche areas of employment.

Some of the largest pay cuts in the decade after the 2008 crash were in the public sector. Wages fell in local government not out of some arithmetic consequence of migration from outside of Britain. They fell because they were cut by political decision and unions did not fight the assault.

The public sector is more densely unionised than the private and it is here that unions can make a strong impact in exposing the lie that Johnson’s government is introducing immigration restriction to increase workers’ pay and standard of living.

The immediate way to do that would be a 10 percent pay rise across the public sector, a living wage, scrapping anti-union laws and using the government’s purchasing power to drive up investment and to favour employers with better worker wellbeing.

The Tories want none of that. Instead they deploy a false economic argument that by restricting the movement of working people they can get bosses to improve workers’ pay. If that were the true goal, why not make bosses do that directly The socialist answer is indeed to move directly against the bosses.

Of course the major impact of the Tory policy is to press a divide deep into the working class on the basis of immigration status. It is to create new categories of migrant workers on visas, lacking the same rights as other workers and thus vulnerable to greater exploitation. Then that greater exploitation with fewer effective rights becomes the new norm for all.

That is a critical argument – divide and rule – that can be understood at a mass level and that cuts right into the Tory policy.

The labour movement cannot give any credence to the Tories’ arguments and must ferociously oppose this anti-immigration clampdown.

But to be effective that has to be on a class basis, marshalling socialist and anti-capitalist arguments – of which working class unity against racism and similar divisions is central. It cannot be on the basis of the National Farmers Union, the social care cutthroat companies, the Federation of Small Businessmen, Starbucks, Amazon or what have you.

It has to be connected with real struggle and organisation that shows that union and worker organisation, in the workplace and outside, are what improves pay and living standards for working people. That means not just in words but in practice extending union and class organisation and fighting for newly arrived workers to have exactly the same employment and citizenship rights as everyone else.

The labour movement has faced a choice at various moments in history over alliance with the capitalist state or not in seeking to improve workers conditions. Alliance with the state, be it over colonial expansion or greater immigration restriction, has not brought advances for working people but has severely weakened the key force that can: an independent, internationalist and militant working class movement.

(Here – rhetoric about the privileges of “native” workers is wrong and counterproductive. It is telling millions of workers in Britain that the Johnson government is right and they will be better off by keeping other workers out.)

There are enormous contradictions and absurdities in the Tory policy. They will lead to all sorts of clashes – including between parts of business and the government, within the government and so on.

The radical left needs its own independent position in opposing the Tory policy and exploiting those contradictions in the months and years ahead.

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The myth of a ‘post-fascist’ present: contradictory trends on the European far and Nazi right

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Fascism is neither remotely in the past, nor remotely in the future. Sadly, we do not live in a “post-fascist” present

Several commonplaces, almost cliches, have emerged from a range of journalists and intellectuals in the face of the rise of the far or radical right in parts of Europe and North America over the last six years.

One is to talk little about the far right as a category at all, but instead about “populism” assailing the rational liberal centre. This “populism” then has a right and a left face, but they are just aspects of a general substrate of evil.

Thus the frequent interventions of the US-based Dutch academic Cas Mudde and his efforts to define a discipline of “populism studies”. Unsurprisingly, it is very popular with liberal ideologues, such as the Guardian newspaper in Britain, who want to throw back the radical left while voicing opposition to the far right. This theorisation allows them to consider the former the conjoined twin of the latter and to slur it accordingly.

Another commonplace has been to collapse serious investigation of the range of forces and strategies on the radical right. Instead it has been to project a levelling generalisation in which there is a “new authoritarianism” or “authoritarian populism”. It is held to be a meeting point of traditional right wing forces dabbling in populist technique on the one hand, and once fascist forces moderating to the same convergence on the other.

That case was put a couple of years ago by the distinguished British historian of the Third Reich Richard Evans at a lecture in Athens.

There is not a fascist threat in Europe (at least west of the Danube), he said. That is due to radically different objective circumstances from the 1930s and to a profound shift in the nature of the far right compared with then and with as late as the 1970s and 1980s.

It has evolved into an essentially conventional and parliamentarist authoritarianism. Nasty, contaminating of politics, but not at all like the interwar insurgent threat to democracy. Parts of Eastern Europe may be different, he argued. His explanation was in essence the liberal theory that the Communist period had replaced one totalitarianism with another, thus preventing the post-war embedding of parliamentary democracy that happened in Western Europe (the Iberian peninsula and Greece have to be “non-western” here).

Even then, the threat in the East was from the governmental-authoritarian right of the likes of Viktor Orban, rather than from something closer to classical fascism. (Ukraine was not mentioned.)

Evans’ intellectual integrity is such that he readily conceded that Greece and the then very strong Nazi Golden Dawn did not quite fit his scheme. Others who have put cruder versions of his analysis have tended just to ignore the counter examples in posing a singular convergence of a new authoritarian right in which fascism is at most a fringe politics and strategy – a possible future threat, but not now.

There is a grain of truth in talk of a prominent “authoritarian right” model. But I think it is one-sided and overstated.

Fascism and a typology of the far right

The big problem is that it takes one trend, ignores others that are moving in a specifically fascist direction, over-generalises, and fails to grasp the contradictory dynamics and thus the complexity of the picture.

I tried to highlight some of that in this piece, which originally appeared in Jewish Socialist magazine in Britain. Though three years old, I think it is still of some use in how to approach a more integrated and dialectical analysis of the far right and its fascist components. It argues:

“There is a range of far right formations seeking to build out of the European crisis. The fact that they all consciously occupy a space to the right of the mainstream centre-right parties means they share a very general ‘radical right wing’ character.

“If you want to build in that political space you need constantly to demonstrate in word and in deed that you are ‘more radical’ than mainstream parties of the right. And those are increasingly turning to the politics of racism and scapegoating. The authoritarian centre-right governments of Poland and Hungary are but hardline variants of that wider phenomenon. Beneath the general character of the far right, there remain important differences of strategy and ideology.”

Among other examples in sketching a “typology of the far right” it looks at the AfD in Germany. Back in 2016 there was a widespread view in journalistic-political circles that in advancing electorally the AfD would evolve to a simple parliamentarist hard right force. It might be brutish, racist and with authoritarian tendencies, but not so substantially different from the Bavarian CSU, the profile of whose voter base it largely shares.

In fact what has happened is not a simple process of “domestication”. The AfD has simultaneously gathered electoral support and radicalised. There are two tendencies, not one. That has given rise to internal contradictions and schisms of various kinds.

But those have boiled up and produced actual splits only thanks to the pressure of the movements in Germany against fascism and racism. And at the heart of those movements is an analysis and related strategy that accurately capture the AfD as containing a big fascist cadre and having fascisising tendencies. It is not just another racist, neoliberal party with perhaps a dash more authoritarianism and a “populist” profile.

Further, it exists in a symbiotic, though contested, relationship with a significant, violent neo-Nazi, fascist scene. The German internal intelligence puts the number of “right wing extremists” at 24,000. The majority of them are relatively open in saying they are prepared to use armed violence for political ends.

Additionally – and this is a point also made very well in Ugo Palheta’s excellent book, The Possibility of Fascism – even fascist parties such as Marine Le Pen’s RN, which has publicly “domesticated” or “de-diabolised”, face a problem.

When they make big electoral advances they are still finding themselves locked out of wielding political and executive state power. For all Le Pen’s attempts to present herself as “everywoman” in 2017, and renaming her party, she got only a handful of MPs, fewer than each of the Communist Party and La France Insoumise on the radical left.

That feeds a potent argument from those who wish to promote more “militant”, directly fascist strategies – and those people exist at the heart of the RN. It is that conventional methods and seeking to hegemonise only the right can get you only so far. To break through you need additionally a much more combative street organisation in anticipation of further political breakdown and extreme polarisation. You need to demonstrate extra-parliamentary force if you are to crack open the old political system.

That means you have to harden a cadre in that direction, as Jean-Marie Le Pen used to do.

The immanence of fascism 

Similar dilemmas face the FPO, with its fascist roots, in Austria, or Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy. He did not succeed in forcing a new election by bringing down the previous government this summer. He has called on supporters across Italy to descend on the capital this month to protest against the new one, a kind of postmodern March on Rome.

That tactic is incubating of actual fascism and brings frustrated Lega supporters into a common space with the outright fascists of CasaPound and the Brothers of Italy.

A newly elected MP of Vox in Spain has resigned saying that what she thought was just a national conservative, Spanish integralist party turned out to have an “extremist, anti-systemic” core.

So there are both fascisising, radicalising dynamics and – in even the most hybrid “post-fascist” or “new authoritarian” formations – fascist cadres who want to push in that direction.

These are not future evolutionary potentials, but current objective and subjective actualities.

This entire aspect and the morphing affinities and networks on the fascist or fascistic right are flattened out of a picture painted as a simple convergence around a post-fascist, “new authoritarian” right that bundles together a range of phenomena in the manner of the theorists of populism.

Another aspect of that flattening is mainstream reception of Nazi terror atrocities such as in Halle, Christchurch, Pittsburgh, the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox…

There is commonly a three-fold separation from the fascisising or actual fascist forces of the far right.

First, the evident racism, misogyny, Islamophobia and anti-semitism are acknowledged (to varying degrees). But it is frequently put down just to bad ideas that are swirling around. The worst instance of this is how official politics in Britain treats the Nazi murder of Jo Cox as some simple extension of incivility in political discourse.

Second, where the wider far right is rightly put in the frame it is solely at the level of it emboldening through words, and thus legitimising, the “lone wolves” who then go “too far”. That is put in a way that everyone can safely condemn – even German interior minister Horst Seehofer, who says, “There is no place for Islam in Germany.” The actual material mechanisms between the Nazi violence and the fascising or fascist tendencies within the radical right as a whole are rarely investigated, unless there is something like the intervention into the Golden Dawn trial in Greece. We shall see if they are explored over the Halle terror attack, though the German state’s performance over the last 15 years suggests not.

Third is a frequent fixation upon the online mode of what the security state has termed “radicalisation”, coined at the start of the War on Terror. That this is a common factor from the Christchurch to the Halle Nazi terrorists posting livestream video of their murders is beyond dispute. It requires forensic examination, and I’m looking forward to Jeff Sparrow’s book this month that promises to do just that.

But we should be careful of exaggerating this novelty – which is but a product of technological development. The murderer of Jo Cox received through the post from US Nazis a copy of an infamous white supremacist tract, years before online chat rooms and the web.

The European neo-Nazi scene in the 1980s and 1990s networked through badly published pamphlets and books obtained from secretive PO Box numbers. Online communication accelerates enormously the speed of communication and dissemination.

But it is a simplistic picture to portray the outcome as just twisted, embittered young men getting radicalised online as isolated individuals in some grotty basement.

For the same media of communication mean that forces organised or aiming to be networked in real life have sophisticated methods to help them do so. What French activists have named the “fascho-sphere” means that those in far right formations who are frustrated at the slow pace of “legal-conventional” methods can more easily connect with others seeking “militant” radicalisation.

Not simply a passive process, but an active mechanism – and one which means that there is within even avowedly “constitutional” radical right forces a much greater porosity and intermingling with actual neo-Nazism than might outwardly be apparent.

The Christchurch Nazi terrorist networked online but also met in real life in Europe with the leader of Generation Identitaire and other fascists.

The “actuality” of anti-fascism

That the racist and far right poses a serious threat is common ground on the left, and among sincere democratic liberals.

If one mistake in responding is to regard all forms of reactionary radicalisation as fascism, another is to lose the category of fascism altogether. Or, which in practical politics approximates the same thing, to regard it as remote – remotely in the past or remotely in the future.

Rather, I suggest, it is better to recognise the immanence of fascism. By that I don’t mean the prospect of waking up tomorrow literally to find a fascist seizure of power in the manner of a Mussolini or Hitler.

It is instead that the processes producing actual fascist, material mechanisms are neither in the past nor at some point in the future, with us inhabiting a world of the “post-fascist right”.

They are generated now within the ugly family of the radical or far right – either under their own flag as distinct fascist forces, or as outgrowths of an authoritarian right running up against severe limitations and political dilemmas.

Halle, Christchurch, Pittsburgh… none of them are aberrations brought by “gamification” or the dark web. They are horrific expressions of a contemporary fascist dynamic within a wider far right, and in turn of reactionary efforts of all kinds to buttress a failing capitalist system against radical left insurgency.

That all calls for an “actuality of antifascism” in the course of the radical left confronting reaction and racism of all kinds.

That requires an acute analysis, alert to the shifting and conflicting currents in the situation, and rising above the conventional (and often faddish) over-generalisations of so much journalistic and academic analysis.

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Trump’s Syria move, fossil fuels and growing crisis in Eastern Mediterranean

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Mike Pompeo signed a deal in Athens on Saturday to extend US military bases in Greece. On Sunday Donald Trump moved to facilitate Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria

A summit meeting between Greece, Cyprus and Israel is taking place in Cairo today.

It comes amid mounting tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean which may intensify sharply when the expected Turkish invasion of northern Syria takes place, and with it an intensification of the Syrian regime’s offensive in Idlib.

The tripartite pact of Greece and Cyprus acting alongside the Sisi dictatorship in Egypt with Israel is a continuation of a deep policy pursued under Syriza and is at the centre of the Greek state’s strategic ambition in the region.

There is already an escalating standoff with Turkey. Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades has recklessly broken off the semblance of a peace process with Turkish northern Cyprus and has unilaterally moved to begin exploiting the gas fields off the island.

Despite control over the maritime zone being disputed, Anastasiades’ right wing government has been parcelling up the area and selling off drilling licences to France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and other fossil fuel giants.

Observers in Nicosia say the Cypriot government and its big business backers are behaving as if they have discovered Eldorado. They have been intimating that the involvement of French, Italian and US multinationals means they can rely on those states to back Cyprus in the face of strident objections by the Turkish state.

But the months of provocation have produced a reaction from Turkish president Erdogan. A couple of days ago he sent two Turkish ships into the middle of the zone to begin his own drilling.

There’s now a very dangerous crisis. Greek foreign minister Nikos Dendias flew to Nicosia to make theatrical noises that gunboat diplomacy “belongs in another century”.

But Erdogan’s move has exposed something of the bluff in the Cypriot position. Neither France nor Italy show any inclination to deploy naval force to confront the Turkish presence or pose as deterenace.

The Greek military and diplomatic strategy in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean has been to try to exploit tensions and divergences between the US and its other major Nato ally in the region, Turkey.

That is a continuation of a settled Greek state policy going back decades. This, incidentally, gives the lie to “left-patriotic” claims that Greece’s outsized military machine is somehow progressive because in confronting Turkey it is “challenging US imperialism”.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo signed a new defence deal with Greece in Athens on Saturday extending the licence of the Souda naval base on Crete and expanding the number of bases for US forces.

Greece is the only country other than the US to have the highest level of military cooperation with Israel – a policy secured by Alexis Tsipras.

Since Saturday it is not only the Turkish naval deployment that has brought this Greece-Cyprus expansionism up against reality. Even more so is Trump’s decision to pull back US forces from northern Syria, facilitating Erdogan’s planned huge military operation to destroy the quasi-independent Kurdish entity there.

Trump is running into opposition from hawkish Republicans, progressive Democrats and the Pentagon. The last time he tried to do this it brought the resignation of his defence secretary. The US opposition is nothing to do with loyalty to the Kurds. It is everything to do with fear that a drawdown and pullout from Syria would signal the collapse of any pretence of US hegemony in the region, already seriously wounded from Iraq onwards.

It’s also a major blow to Greece and Cyprus – hence the emergency summit with Sisi and Binyamin Netanyahu, facing possibly a third general election in a year. The Greek gambit has depended on Washington constraining Turkish ambition and Greece benefitting from the unstable balance. If Trump gets away with shifting that balance it will strengthen Erdogan, but in a more chaotic situation.

There are the flashpoints off Cyprus and also in the Aegean.

Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria are meeting with the EU to come up with more emergency and brutal methods to prevent a major refugee flow anticipated from the Turkish offensive in Syria and Damascus’ advance into Idlib. Erdogan is also using the Syrian refugees as an instrument. He wants to remove large numbers from Turkey.

He’s used the “threat” of them crossing the Aegean to extract billions from the EU in the infamous deal with Angela Merkel. Now he wants to repopulate the zone in northern Syria, ethnically cleansed of Kurds, with Sunni Arab Syrians dependent on Turkish military overlordship.

The impacts cascade from the north Aegean to Cyprus – home, of course, to Britain’s sovereign military bases that give it some prestige in the region.

Trump is running up against the same problem Obama did and, despite the erratic current administration, there is a continuity with what went before. Obama wanted a lighter touch in the Middle East, a “pivot to Asia”, and leaving the regional powers to stabilise things in concert.

But the regional powers have their own interests, overlapping sometimes but also in conflict. That is seen from Yemen and the Gulf, through the disaster of Syria, to Cyprus and the Greek-Turkish conflict in the Aegean. It has been suppressed over the decades only by the Cold War and then continuing US power holding the ring between its two allies.

This is all breaking down. And the EU is not going to fill the gap, except on the anti-refugee front.

The need for vigorous anti-war movements guided by the internationalist principle of confronting your own imperialist war machine is growing. That includes Britain, where thanks to the hangover presence in Cyprus from the days of Empire British governments still feel their interference in the region is required.

As climate change protests continue, it is also a point not lost on many that a critical centre of this morphing crisis is the exploitation by fossil fuel companies and rival states of massive gas deposits. One estimate that those under the sea between Cyprus, Lebanon and Israel (Palestine) rival Algeria’s, a major gas producer.

The case for leaving it in the ground is not only about future impact on the climate. It is about currently stopping the spread of war.

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Brexit food crisis – a socialist approach

 

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If Britain’s capitalist food industry says it cannot guarantee supply in a disorderly Brexit, then shouldn’t socialists put a radical and effective policy forward that can?

The Guardian reports:

“Britain’s food and drinks industry has said companies may have to choose between working together to avert food shortages or paying large fines unless the government steps in to suspend competition law in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

“Collaboration between large companies is controlled to prevent cartels harming consumers. The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) told the BBC that the government had not yet confirmed that companies would be able to work together to direct food supplies if there were delays as a result of crashing out of the EU.”

Isn’t that enormously revealing?

First, it is recognition that market competition is anything but free. It is regulated in all sorts of ways. Some of that is due to accumulated gains by working people reflected in regulation that benefits us.

Other aspects are capitalist regulation, imposed in pursuit of a general capitalist interest, to make things “work”. That is because it is not in fact true that blind capitalist imperatives of profit maximisation lead to a perfectly functioning market. It is an artificial market, not arising out of human nature or “natural economy”.

That’s rather a major admission.

Second, when confronted with a potential major economic and supply shock, the food and attached supermarket giants say there needs to be cooperation, not managed competition, in order to meet it.

Of course, they would use such a relaxation of rules against anti-competitive, cartel price-fixing to engage exactly in some form of that at the expense of workers as consumers.

But that shouldn’t blind us to the admission of truth involved in this. Market competition cannot secure something as basic as affordable, guaranteed food supply.

Third, instead of going down the dead end of championing a false market solution against the food industry’s proposal, shouldn’t socialists take it as a point of departure for pressing a more radical solution?

That is: yes, there needs to be massive coordination – rather than an artificially sustained market – to secure food supply and at affordable prices.

But that can’t be done by agribusiness cartels. It can be done through public oversight telling them that if they admit they can’t provide food for people, then they’ll be forced to come together under democratic state authority to do so.

Such an authority and battery of legal measures would also be a mechanism to push anti-capitalist and environmental policies on food production in Britain. It would mean breaking agribusiness and large landowner interests, rescuing small, poor farmers, ensuring good cheap produce, and driving a shift in diet towards greater consumption of locally and sustainably produced food.

Put Brexit to one side. Climate chaos, soil depletion, anti-bacterial and pesticide resistance, and food uncertainty are already upon us.

They are going to hit increasingly even advanced economies such as Britain’s.

The capitalist food industry is admitting it can’t solve this. But it will use a crisis to move to greater cartelisation to preserve profits. They won’t solve the crisis, but they won’t let it go to waste.

Why should socialists “let the crisis go to waste” and permit a failed capitalist pseudo-solution of one kind or another?

Shouldn’t the left put forward its own, radical and real solutions?

Ultimately, that does mean socialisation and the issue of ownership. But we also have practical, immediate answers that point additionally in that direction.

And the food industry has inadvertently opened the door to the argument for them.

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The issue is reformism and anti-capitalism: a response to Wolfgang Streeck on the Euro-elections

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The quarter-million-strong Unteilbar demonstration in Berlin in October 2018

The German socialist economist Wolfgang Streeck tries to account for the poor results of almost all the radical left at the European elections last Sunday.

He makes a couple of good observations. Above all, that the political and ideological profile of most of the radical left forces in this election, from Podemos in the Spanish state to Die Linke’s national campaign in Germany, was barely distinguishable from the centre left and Greens.

There was much talk of a “social Europe” or a “more social Europe” or “another Europe” and not of a revolt against the elites on an anti-capitalist basis. That would mean confrontation with both national and European capitalist and establishment interests. It would mean insurgency not conventionalism.

One big exception was the Workers Party in Belgium. There, national parliamentary elections meant a very high turnout and the radical left positioning itself as both a representative of fundamental change and as an activist instrument that can strengthen the social movements, ranging from housing to the environment to throwing back the far right. All this was a conceivable proposition for many working people within a country where nearly 90 percent voted against a background of years of political fragmentation and chaos.

But Streeck’s overall analysis – and still more prescription – is woefully lacking.

His central argument is that the problem is the left’s adoption of “Europeanism”. By this he means the conventional, liberal (leftish) ideology that the EU has been brilliantly adept at veling itself in. That is despite the reality of Fortress Europe, hardwired neoliberalism and the nexus of giant corporate interests that ensnares the EU institutions.

Streeck says, echoing the 19th century Marxist Antonio Labriola, that ideas do not fall from the sky.

So where does this “Europeanism” come from? For Streeck it is not explained beyond a complaint that the left has given up on a radical politics of trying to use the levers of the nation state, and marshalling a popular bloc of forces within it, to effect change in a way that is not possible through the more remote, technocratic and far less democratic EU bureaucracies.

That’s not a sufficient analysis or historical account. In fact, left “Europeanism” – or more accurately euro-reformism – grew out of national reformism. It did so either directly from social democracy – France, Britain and Germany – or via a social democratic evolution from euro-communism: Italy and Synaspismos/Syriza in Greece most outstandingly. And that was from the abject failure of national-reformist governments in the early 1980s in France and in Greece.

The reason for this ubiquitous “Europeanism” today is that in every single one of the 28 EU countries the state and the national capitalist classes, in their great majority, are wholly committed to the EU project. While deep splits over that settled position may occur in places in another round of manifold crises, they haven’t done so yet. That is true even of Brexit Britain, where the bitter divisions are less within capital and the state, but more within its primary political instrument: the Tory party.

Those searching for a “patriotically minded” bourgeoisie of some significance have a wait ahead of them.

The adoption of an illusory euro-reformism flows from the prior adaptation of national reformism to its own nation state and capitalist class. For that is what reformism as an organised political force does. It does it to the extent of not only spurning and opposing a strategy of anti-capitalist rupture, but of abandoning even modest reform when it threatens to burst the envelope of what capital will allow. And capital is committed to its impeccably capitalist European arrangements, whatever the national spats within a bureaucratic hierarchy.

Streeck uses the word “anti-capitalism”. But his proposals are modest reformism. He’s then exasperated that reformist forces follow the logic of reformism – to reach what he calls Europeanism – rather than an anti-capitalist path, against which they defined themselves in the first place. Before Alexis Tsipras capitulated to Brussels, and before being elected, he already reassured Greek capital, the central bank, the army and the state bureaucracy that he was not going to take unilateral and adverse measures against them.

The chimera of national-sovereigntism

Further, Streeck’s antithesis of Europeanism is a highly idealised notion of national-sovereigntism. It has two huge problems.

First, while rightly highlighting the absence of democracy in the European Union, it flatters the extent of democracy in national parliamentary systems.

There is little here about the fight for meaningful democracy at a national level, a political revolution. And despite castigating the radical left for subordinating to middle class and capitalist interests and to their ideologies, there’s not much about fleshing out a popular democratic impulse with explicitly working class and anti-capitalist content.

Second, it is a notion of national-sovereignty where lack of class content after the hyphen is accompanied by huge concessions to nationalism, nativism and the right before it.

Streeck is, of course, opposed to the far right and to racism, as he makes clear in this piece. But he dangerously underplays the threat from far right and fascist forces. And he misconstrues how to meet it. He writes:

“Exaggerating the threat from the new right was certain to drive voters into the arms of liberal establishment parties who promised ‘stability’ in hard times. If fascism was something to be defeated by voting for ‘more Europe’, there was no need to go as far as vote for the radical left; voting for the new darlings of the middle class would suffice…

“One should have thought that a left worth its name and ambition should know that democracy may be under threat even if there are no ‘fascists’ around at all, alleged or real.

“This is because the centre parties — on whose side the European left has fought its electoral phony war against rising fascism in Europe — are themselves doing quite enough to undermine democracy. They do precisely that as they submit their countries to a neoliberal political-economic order…”

This woefully underestimates the actual threat and conflates a mistaken response to it with making any specific anti-fascist political effort at all. Leave aside the exact classification of different radical right wing forces in Europe. Golden Dawn is a neonazi party. And in the eyes of it and of its state and business supporters it simply isn’t true that there has been “quite enough to undermine democracy” under conventional, neoliberal and increasingly authoritarian rule. When Greek shipyard bosses backed Golden Dawn and its attempted assassination of a communist trade union leader, they did not think that existing legal restrictions on working class organisation were “quite enough”.

The sharp rise of Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy is not an irrelevance. Nor can it be categorised as just another form of undemocratic neoliberalism. In fact, such a political approach will fall completely flat if the dispute between Brussels and Rome about Italy’s proposed modestly expansionist budget escalates into a major confrontation and crisis at the heart of the eurozone.

It is of course true that the “anti-fascism” or anti-populism of the liberal centre in Europe is essentially to wave the far right as a scarecrow. The extreme centre produces the far and fascist right. As it weakens and fractures it then points to the ugly result to say: the centre is collapsing, all back to the centre.

But it is one thing to insist that the radical left should not be subsumed under this liberal capitalist front. Quite another to suggest that combating the far right is a “phony-war” that can result only in subordination to a cycle of centrist assaults on working people fuelling further far right advance.

Streeck doesn’t mention, and has shown little time for, the efforts by parts of the radical left to construct mass, militant movements against the fascist right. Ones not only capable of in practice throwing it back (as a national-sovereigntist policy in the east of Germany has spectacularly failed to do), but also independent of the liberal centre and, thus, able to open a space on the left, and to hit the centrist parties from the flank.

The necessity of anti-capitalism

If the radical left does not provide its own mass movement answer to the far right, then Streeck and others can complain as much as they wish about the likes of Emmanuel Macron using Marine Le Pen as a scarecrow, which he did by choosing to debate her in 2017. It is futile. Because if the left isn’t on the field, the only players are the liberals and far right, both of whom want to use the game – though in different ways – to crush independent working class politics.

And sat on the bench, the left then faces all sorts of adaptations out of self-imposed passivity. Streeck sees keenly adaptation in one direction: to liberal Europeanism. He is blind in one eye to adaptation in the other. Indeed, his prescriptions advocate it. Thus he says the left must be more “critical” of migration and immigration. He complains:

“In particular, any critical discussion of the EU’s central social policy — the free movement of labour between the now economically extremely different member countries — is strictly avoided, combined with hints of sympathy for open borders generally, including those with the outside world.”

Put to one side the not insubstantial and principled questions of defence of migrants and opposition to the anti-immigration brigade. One practical point is that this accommodation has already happened – by the centre left. That is what the SPD in Germany has done. It is continuing to reap its reward through its collapse.

Further, former SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel – who embodies the capitalist centrism Streeck opposes – beat him to it. In Tagesspiegel on Monday he proposed exactly a remedy for the left’s electoral travails of moving in a “critical” direction over migration coupled with a limited return to postwar welfarism. Nowhere has this combination saved the centre left. Look at the presidency of Francois Hollande in France.

On the environmental crises, Streeck suggests that the left should counterpose a radical economic transformation to calls for individual action and a moral imperative that supposedly transcends class and capitalist reality:

“Rather than chiming in when the Greens and their bourgeois elders sing their siren songs, what should matter from the left’s point of view is that voluntary changes in lifestyles are vastly inadequate to stopping global warming or the long ongoing decline of biodiversity.”

That is true. But… dynamic parts of the radical left are in fact doing this: from Ireland to Germany. Additionally, they are doing so in good faith and urgency, under the impetus of the physical reality that climate catastrophe imposes a political horizon of fundamental anti-capitalist transformation, or civilisational collapse. But Streeck says:

“A left that limits itself to reciting the Greens’ scare stories about an impending end to life on the planet drives many of its potential voters into denial, and from there into the arms of the New Right. To leave behind the white lies of green environmentalism, the left needs a realistic program…”

So the avoidance of a debilitating catastrophism – one with little regard for class realities (or, we may add, life and death in the Global South) – in Streeck’s prescription becomes a call for “realistic policies”. It is not for an anti-capitalist insurgency around necessary policies. It is little wonder that “reformism” is a missing category in his analysis.

In a column for the Morning Star newspaper in Britain on Wednesday I offered my own brief overview of the European elections and of the dilemmas and challenges facing the radical left. It outlined three wrong answers to those:

1) adaptation to nativist welfarism, on an “old social democratic” basis
2) adaptation to left-liberalism, on a US culture war basis
3) adaptation to an unmoored national-populism

In rejecting 2), Streeck approximates 1) and 3). His complaint about the fate of Sahra Wagenknecht’s and Oskar Lafontaine’s national-sovereigntist project in Germany – that “the Die Linke majority forced Aufstehen leader Sahra Wagenknecht to resign from her post as parliamentary speaker” – will not do.

She in fact resigned before from the board of Aufstehen itself. That is before saying she would not restand as co-chair of Die Linke in parliament. The reason? Because Aufstehen failed, not least because a combination of forces in Die Linke, including its internationalist, anti-capitalist left, refused the strategy that it and Streeck advocate.

He might also look to the fate of the Five Star Movement in Italy. In some respects it approximates the national-sovereigntist approach he offers. It has fallen back not only behind the fascist-incubating Lega but also short of the discredited centre-left Democratic Party.

There is a major debate growing on the European radical and anti-capitalist left – spreading also to North America. It is inevitable following the disaster of Syriza in government, which all too few reference. While I believe it wrong, Streek represents a significant and legitimate pole in that debate.

I think, though, that it is best informed by looking in fine-grained detail at the variegated experiences of the left and social movements. That includes differentiation within countries: the stark regional variation of Die Linke in Streeck’s native Germany is a case in point.

The issue is not that rupturing with the EU is too radical. It’s that without a fundamental anti-capitalist strategy it is not radical enough, and thus sinks back.

Streeck mentions that “democracy begins at the bottom”. Fully appreciating that means a systematic viewpoint of anti-capitalism from below, based on the actually existing working class and social struggles, and on the left’s engagement in them.

After all, as Labriola put it arguing against mistaken, and rather national, interpretations of Marx in France: “Nothing comes to us in a dream.” Certainly not a national one.

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Macron’s gambit poses the urgent need for an anti-capitalist politics that is unafraid of power

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French president Emmanuel Macron seeks via a “national debate” to disrupt the gilets jaunes revolt and turn the average angry citizen against the unions and the organised working class. But the CGT union federation has called a general strike for 5 February, backed by gilets jaunes

This is a cunning political attempt by the Macron government to roll with the blows inflicted by the gilets jaunes movement. It means abandoning some regressive tax moves. At the same time it is to frame the revolt and dominate it ideologically as being at least compatible with liberalisation of the labour market and a smaller – or rather, more neoliberal – state.

Through its strategy of holding a “national debate” about the crisis brought to a head by the gilets jaunes the French government is casting the 11 week movement as simply an amorphous “tax revolt”.

A cry of pain from the “small people” of France against accumulated hardship, to which the government offers labour market deregulation and essentially Thatcherite solutions. That is a form of so-called populism in its own right. In all sorts of ways the movement has gone beyond the initial indignation at regressive taxation masquerading as an environmental measure.

That said, Macron’s gambit should not be discounted.

It is a demonstration of the threefold response of embattled elites and their political extensions: targeted repression, limited concession, and political intervention to divide movements, usurp sentiment and find new bases of support. They adapt and intervene on the political plane.

The French government aims to exploit ambiguities, unevenness and confusions in the revolt. The Financial Times here points to the strand of thinking among the gilets jaunes that is antagonistic to “the trade unions”, seeing them as just another vested interest that looks after only their own and not the millions not in a union or covered by collective bargaining.

That strand is there. It is reinforced every time union officials refuse to find points of convergence with the gilets jaunes or even, as some have, denounce the movement for violence or somehow being a plaything of the far right.

But that is just one side of the picture. The other is efforts, particularly by radical left activists and forces, to bring trade unionists into the protests, bring the protests into the organised working class and workplaces, and to fuse the revolt with the weapon of strike action. The CGT union federation has now called a 24-hour general strike for 5 February and many gilets jaunes protesters are endorsing it.

Both features are present. So it is by no means easy for the government to pull off this redirection of popular and working class anger diverting it against established union organisation and its expression over recent time in labour laws that the bosses want to rip up.

But there is going to be a battle on this – not just over the continuation of the movement’s actions, but a national political battle over their meaning and direction, and about the direction of France as a whole, its society, economy, politics and relations between the classes. A battle about national political alternatives.

The gilets jaunes started in provincial France, non-centralised and at the point of atomised suffering over the cost of living.

That was a source of great strength and vitality. And those continue.

It also led some anti-capitalists to take that initial snapshot and force the movement under a theory that spurns the formation of a generalised political response and construction of democratic means of centralisation of the struggle. There’s an element of paradox, because this general theory – Toni Negri is one of its best known and most sophisticated advocates – says it is eternally open and refuses to bring eruptions of revolt under general strategies.

The idea of an ever morphing multitude evading the questions of the state and therefore of politics also entails counterposing such multitudinous revolts to any strategic focus upon the workplace and the means of production as an especially critical site of struggle and of overthrowing the system.

In making that counterposition it also dismisses the “old communistic left” as less than radical in our time of neoliberalism permeating all areas of life. The left is seen as just as systemic as the right by being trapped in a never ending and contained game of domination.

The historic left is accused of being fixated on an outdated “productivism” that falsely privileges the working class and its capacity to organise at the point of production, as against the more general field of varied and autonomous resistance in the reproduction of everyday life dominated by market and oppressive relations of all kinds.

It is true that institutions of the working class and their bureaucracies can and do often have a sectional conservatism that rests upon worker organisation merely to ameliorate the terms of exploitation and domination, not to overturn them fundamentally.

But it is not true that the anti-capitalist and radical left that places strategic centrality upon the potential of the organised working class does so out of either dismissal of other sites of struggle or a supposed “productivist” obsession with the “traditional worker” that no longer fits in the capitalism of our time.

It does so because of the strategic centrality of wage labour to the system. Because of the potential power that can be brought to all movements of resistance by militant organisation at the point of production – the point of profit making – and if activated, its capacity to form a counter-power that can confront successfully and democratically the centralised force of the state and its political strategies.

It is a perspective that hails not only from the Paris Commune of 1871. It also draws from the development of, say, the Iranian revolution of 40 years ago. The multitudinous, massive street protests and clashes with the repressive Iranian state extended into the oil fields. There they created the level of disruption and organised power that both fused with the general upsurge and tipped the balance, forcing the end of the shah’s brutal regime.

In a sense, Macron and his advisers are backhandedly acknowledging this truth. They are prepared to duck and dive over indirect taxation and the cost of living experienced by most of France as atomised individuals.

But that is in order to carry through the central strategic aim – and the one that has defied French presidents for 25 years – of ruthlessly and decisively shifting the balance of power between wage labour and capital: at the point of production, in the office, logistics hub and on the shop floor. It is to weaken class organisation and to destroy its achievements in the legal system governing employee rights.

He and the multimillionaires he gathered in Versailles today are clear about this strategic imperative.

His government is also clear about politically aiming to exploit the weaknesses (despite all its strengths) of the gilets jaunes movement to achieve this. The strategic centrality of working class organisation that can disrupt and exert control over the means of production is not posed by tired old-fashioned Marxists. It is posed in the political counter-attack by the French state against a militant revolt that at points has raised insurrectionary questions.

Artificially and poetically claiming those weaknesses as strengths in order to fit a theoretical doctrine of decentred and autonomous struggles provides no answer.

It is not just about the theoretical debates in the movement these last 20 years. It is concrete and now. It is about how practically to respond to the French state’s gambit that relies precisely upon seizing on absences of overall political strategy and disjunctions between militant revolts and critical centres of working class power.

You may not be interested in grand strategy or you may see politics as de-radicalising and besmirching of the beauty of autonomous revolt. But strategy and politics are interested in you, especially when you refuse and revolt – joyously.

Macron and the French state understand this. Their precursor under greater strain in 1968 did as well. The movement, through its democratic engagement with itself and its extension to much wider layers, will have to do so also – and better this time.

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Targeting Iran is central to Trump’s deep global strategy

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Cairo. He told Arab and Israeli governments that Iran “is our common enemy”

The full text of US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s speech in Cairo last week is worth reading in full. This excerpt gives a sense of its intellectual basis (for yes, there is such a thing beneath the nightmarish reality show of the Trump presidency):

“Our [the US’s past] eagerness to address only Muslims and not nations ignored the rich diversity of the Middle East and frayed old bonds. It undermined the concept of the nation state, the building block of international stability. And our desire for peace at any cost led us to strike a deal with Iran, our common enemy.

“So today, what did we learn from all of this? We learned that when America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. And when we partner with enemies, they advance.”

He also pledged to “expel every last Iranian boot from Syria”.

It is the “anti-Obama” doctrine. Not in that Obama pursued some pacific policy in the Middle East (look at the number of drone strikes) or did not also have containing Iran as a central focus. That was a loadstone for Washington’s evolving and fraught policy of dealing with the “Arab Spring”, hence full-throated support for the Saudi suppression of the Bahraini uprising and for its war in Yemen.

And it is not only in asserting a more bellicose policy towards Iran than Obama’s carrot-and-stick approach, culminating in the nuclear deal.

It is that Obama’s own Cairo speech a decade ago tried to speak in sympathetic cultural terms to “the Muslim world” aiming for a fresh start in its relationship to the US. It reflected his underlying philosophy of the power of liberal capitalism to overcome sectional or “tribal” divisions which, absent a dominant liberal force and global order, would always assert themselves.

The globalisation of capitalism was to be the universal subject or solvent of history, overcoming all partialities. Obama privately contrasted the entrepreneurial prowess of south-east Asia with the torpor of the Middle East. He believed that if only places like Morocco could be more like Muslim-majority Malaysia, with its modern economic dynamism, then the Middle East/North Africa region would cast off the social and political problems that he saw as hangovers of the past.

Pompeo instead puts centrally the nation state, not the internationalisation of new technology, global supply chains and an educated middle class. Thus he also makes explicit what was pragmatically only implicit under Obama: that the Middle East is not merely a Muslim-majority region.

It comprises distinct nation states, blocs of national capital, their militaries, geostrategic interests and ambitions, and the conflicts they entail. Hard political realities not cultural abstractions or sweeping technological trends.

The targeting of Iran flows out of and is rationalised on that basis. Let’s not forget that under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s a similar realpolitik shaped Washington’s policy.

Anti-Muslim stereotyping – “Mad Mullahs” – was directed at shia Iran by the same administration that drew closer to the fundamentalist wahhabi regime in Saudi Arabia and armed the most reactionary elements of the Afghan Mujahideen. Reagan called those favoured Afghans “the moral equivalent of the founding fathers”.

Second Cold War rhetoric against the Soviet “evil empire” went hand in hand with a sharp turn to support Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which had been in the orbit of Russian influence in the region, in his war against Iran launched in 1980.

Iraqi efforts to win Arab support for that war entailed national chauvinism: Iranians are a historic threat to Arabs, are racially inferior and secretly try to divide and conquer the Arab nation; and religious sectarianism: sunni Muslim majority against the blasphemous shia minority.

But underlying it was an appeal to the national self-interest of the oil-producing Gulf monarchies and of Egypt.

This is the kind of turn the Pompeo speech – a rationalisation of Trump’s meandering Tweets – has outlined.

Historic failure in Iraq

The 2003 war on Iraq saw an alliance between the neoconservatives and the liberal imperialists. Both converged on the idea that Western military intervention, above all the demonstration effect of the occupation of Iraq, would force historical development in the Middle East into the kind of liberal-capitalist modernisation that the region had proved incapable of generating internally.

That would include domestic reform by the West’s allies in the region. Little-remembered now, but George W Bush warned Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt that they would have to reform. There were even criticisms of Saudi Arabia, with the most fervent neocons chiding the US state for having tolerated its ally’s excesses for far too long.

When the anti-war movement pointed to the West’s double standards in the Middle East, the smarter advocates of the war – neocon and liberal – said: “Yes. The West’s big mistake has been that. We are not cynics like Henry Kissinger. Now we are going to push for far reaching progressive change through the whole region. Why aren’t you with that? Why are you siding with the old conservatives?”

As we know, it didn’t work out anything like that. And when a genuinely revolutionary upsurge did grip the region in 2011 the West worked to suborn it, usurp it or repress it – in varying combination and allying with different forces in different places.

The resulting devastation – Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, counter-revolutionary Egypt… – meant that the grand, hubristic schemes of Bush, Blair, the Clintons et al were well off the table by the time of the second Obama presidency.

They were replaced with a pragmatic attempt to deal with the loss of hegemony brought by the Iraq defeat. It meant trying to concert, with the US holding the ring, some kind of equilibrium among the regional powers: Israel, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia – with Iran brought in on probation under the constraints of the nuclear deal.

Pompeo’s speech is not a return to the “military-revolutionism” of the Bush-Blair years. It is an especially bellicose extension of later efforts to deal with the catastrophe for US and Western policy of those years.

Doubtless, some liberal-imperialists of the Clinton-Blair persuasion may rally to a more aggressive line on Iran, citing human rights, the position of women, democracy and so on.

But this is more a meeting of minds of neoconservatives closely aligned to Netanyahu and the Israeli hard right with “paleoconservatives” of the Reagan-Kissinger mould.

It is to try to restore the US role in the region: not as a messianic force for liberal modernisation, but as a hard-headed ally of one grouping of nation states forged through a determination to destroy another – Iran and its allies.

As in the 1980s, what Egypt does to prisoners in its jails and Saudi Arabia does to its are entirely their business.

Growing threat of major war

There are and will be disputes in the US administration and wider state about how recklessly to proceed, about when or if actually to take military action, and about secondary aspects of a policy of escalating confrontation.

A report in the New York Times points to recent Pentagon unease over a push by some in the White House to respond to a minor mortar attack on an empty parking lot in the US embassy compound in Baghdad by launching an airstrike on a target in Iran. There was defence establishment unease in the runup to the Iraq war also.

But unlike the wall on the Mexico border, the broad thrust of this Iran policy has support beyond the purged Trump White House: from hardline supporters of the Israeli government in Congress, through neocon hangovers to paleocon Republicans and to the more trigger-happy liberal-imperialist Democrats.

It also brings the closest alignment with the dominant forces in both the Israeli and Saudi regimes. Both are determined to break Iranian influence even to the point of war and to shore up their positions at home by painting Iran as an “existential threat”.

As for Russia: both it and Iran rallied to prevent the fall of Bashar al Assad in Syria. But that shared interest did not resolve antagonisms between the two over which would be the principal power behind the presidential throne in Damascus.

Those tensions have increased as the Syrian regime has re-established control over more territory and is looking to formal readmission into the system of Arab states. They also go back a long way. Syria has an historic alliance with both the old Soviet Union and with the Iranian Islamic republic, dating from 1980. That has previously led to contradictory pulls on the state even when it was a stronger, more independent actor.

In an era now of renewed, raw realpolitik, it would be a mistake to regard Russia and Iran as brothers in arms, tied deeply by some bond of principle or ideology.

Amid the apparent chaos of the Trump administration the Iran policy, and its pivotal role in the US’s Middle East doctrine, is brilliantly clear. Pompeo summed it up addressing Arab states, allied and not, in Cairo: Iran is “our common enemy”.

China is the US’s grand strategic enemy, the target of trade war and increased militarism. Iran is the target for “regime change” in order to recover on a new bloody basis the weakened US position in the Middle East. Similarly, rising calls in Washington for regime change in Venezuela are part of restoring US hegemony in Latin America with regional allies such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

There will be twists and turns, and the Trump administration faces all sorts of contradictions in carrying this through. So we have had both the introduction of new sanctions on Iran and time-limited exemptions to allow various historic US allies to buy oil and keep the price down. But oil prices are now on the slide and global economic activity slowing.

Military action, sill more outright war, brings huge risks. But the recent revelations in the US media show just how much these are actively under consideration by the Trump White House – and that’s before some major event or diplomatic crisis.

The direction of travel is clear. Far from some retreat from US military engagement in the Middle East, Trump has – like a slash-and-burn consultant brought in to restructure a failing enterprise – simply decided to pare its Middle East operation to focusing on a core, central mission and to reorganise the business around that.

And it has a logic. It sits with the China policy and the Latin American policy. It sits also with a transactional relationship to the EU and European powers, reminded of their place as subordinate to the US not “freeloaders” playing at equal billing.

In the year that marks the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution that toppled the Western-backed Shah and humiliated a US still reeling from defeat in Vietnam, it does something else:

It holds out for the former reality-show host Trump the enticing prospect of humbling, breaking or even regime-changing Iran, providing an image of a triumphant US president who is truly making America great again (in the runup to the presidential election in November next year).

The anti-war, anti-Trump and progressive movements internationally will have to prepare now to meet this threat.

If it were just a Trump Tweet, it would be one of many deranged interventions. But in the warped logic of capitalist and imperialist competition this is, frighteningly, a plan that threatens a major war but is no less “rational” from the point of view of US capitalist interests for doing so.

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Farewell to “Kazik” – the last of the ghetto fighters

Please do read.

rebel notes

IMG_5916 Rapoport monument

In Warsaw there is a very moving trail of memorials to the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. It starts at the huge monument, designed by Nathan Rapoport and erected in 1948, and ends at the umschlagplatz  where the inmates of the ghetto – hundreds of thousands of Jews, and between 1,000-2,000 Romany Gypsies – were deported to the death camp of Treblinka, mainly in 1942.

Along this trail, individual memorial stones  recall individuals among the resistance led by the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa  (ZOB – Jewish fighting Organisation). Formed in 1942, it was an alliance of competing left-wing political organisations in the ghetto – Bundists, Communists, Zionists – united in a common struggle for freedom and dignity, or as one of their leaders put it, “to choose our way of death”. When the Uprising started on 19 April, just a few hundred fighters were…

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