The disaster of NATO’s legacy in Libya

Map_Libya_BBC_1There is almost an air of desperation in the recent unanimous adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2259 that seeks to bring together a critical mass of Libyan factions and actors  to support a new unity government of national accord that will oversee a peace process.

Libya’s new Presidency Council will form a government within 30 days of the UN resolution, and the resolution stipulates that this government will be the only authority recognized as sovereign by other states, but with no consequences for states that ignore that stipulation. Currently, in addition to the myriad militias and warlord factions in Libya, there are two rival “governments” in Libya, the House of Representatives based in Tobruk, and the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli.

The prospects of the new government of National Accord can be judged by the fact that on 15 December, Agila Saleh Essa Gwaider and Nouri Abusahmain, presidents of the House and the GNC respectively, met in Malta in an attempt to broker an alternative deal that excludes international actors, and they have both refused to endorse the UN deal; indeed many other politicians and militias still remain outside and opposed to the process. The alternative proposal intends to form a new temporary legislative body composed of GNC members and 100 tribal leaders from the eastern region. [Abdel Qader Huweili, a member of the GNC] told Middle East Eye that the latter would be selected through the sponsorship of the tribes “to maintain the Libya unity”.

The UN itself has been widely discredited following the revelation of emails proving that the UN’s special envoy to Libya until November, Bernadino Leon, had been effectively working as an agent of the UAE, and far from being an honest broker, was following the UAE’s agenda seeking to promote the House of Representatives and delegitimize the GNC. Since he left his UN post he has been appointed to a highly remunerated position in UAE.

The situation in Libya is beyond catastrophic. For example, Abdul Hakeam Al-Yamany reports how in the Eastern city of Benghazi the health service faces complete collapse, with 60% of the hospitals completely closed, and the remaining health centres unable to meet even the basic needs of the population. Benghazi Medical Center, with only 260 beds, is now the only hospital serving a metropolitan district of 1.1 million people.

“The security situation is now even worse than what we saw during the Libyan Revolution four years ago,” said Leon Tombo, a Philippine national and a nurse in the emergency room of the Benghazi Medical Center, in May 2015. He added, “I will resign at the end of this month, and many of my colleagues have already left. We are no longer safe inside the hospital; bombs and bullets are hitting the building, and a number of my colleagues have been injured in these attacks.”

In another report Al-Yamany, describes how the education sector has collapsed.

Over a year ago, on May 16, 2014, General Khalifa Haftar launched the so-called Operation Dignity against extremist militias in Benghazi. Since that time, the city has been engulfed in an armed battle that has ravaged its infrastructure, destroyed most of its institutions, and led to the displacement of entire neighborhoods of the city. The crisis has particularly affected the education sector in Benghazi. Only 60 of the 400 schools in the city escaped damage and are able to accept students. … …

Mohammed al-Barghathi, a 12-year-old from the [Banina neighborhood, which has largely been destroyed], added, “My friends and I tried to clean our school multiple times so that it could be used for education, but the random shelling continues to fall on our region. Three of my friends died when they stepped on an unexploded shell hidden in the school yard.”

Meanwhile, the schools in safer neighborhoods have mostly been transformed into shelters for internally displaced persons who have left their homes in nearby areas of conflict. The Benghazi Crisis Committee is trying hard to develop solutions to displaced persons using the schools as temporary housing until the war ends in the city. Essam al-Hamali, the official in charge of social affairs in the Benghazi Crisis Committee, said, “We have 13,000 displaced families in Benghazi. We have temporarily placed them in schools located in relatively safe areas, because we have no other place to house them.”

General Khalifa Hifter is a onetime confidante of Muammar el-Qaddafi, now turned warlord leader, who is waging war on the Jihadis in Benghazi. The conflict has taken on the aspect of a war economy typical of failed states, where armed conflict has “destroyed the local legitimate economy so that many people have no other source of income except through joining an armed group, and in which access to resources depends on violence”

As Frederic Wehrey recounts:

Many of the pro-Hifter forces — their leaders say anywhere from 40 to 80 percent — are in fact neighborhood militias. The struggle in some areas has taken on a vicious familial and even ethnic quality, marked by the settling of ancient scores, between the east’s Bedouin Arab tribes and families from western Libya, some of whom have distant ties to Turkey. “This is about fighting the Turks and Freemasons,” the leader of one tribal militia told me. Another described children as young as 14 or 15 fighting in his ranks. I heard stories of summary executions of prisoners, forcible eviction of families and destruction of property.

Ultraconservative Salafists are said to be among the most competent fighters in General Hifter’s ranks; they too fight out of local and sometimes tribal solidarity, confounding the notion that this is a purely ideological war between secularists and Islamists.

On the other side, the composition is equally murky. To be sure, the Islamic State is present and growing. But one military critic of General Hifter, who wishes to remain anonymous, estimates that many of the opposing fighters are not hardened jihadists, but youths from Benghazi’s marginalized families who got caught up with Islamist militias and are now looking for a way to stop fighting.

The UK government published a summary in July:

Armed groups on all sides of the conflict have disregarded civilians and committed violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, and violations and abuses of human rights, including abductions, extrajudicial executions, unlawful killings, torture and other ill-treatment. Armed groups have targeted Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) seeking to document and denounce such violations and abuses. Moderates who have supported the UN-facilitated efforts for a ceasefire and political dialogue have also been targeted by armed groups. … …

A series of savage attacks by extremists took place during the reporting period. In January at least 9 people, including 5 foreign nationals, were killed in a terrorist attack on an international hotel in Tripoli. In February, ISIL-affiliated terrorists claimed responsibility for the abduction and beheadings of 21 Coptic Christians, prompting retaliatory air strikes on Dernah by Egypt. In February, nine were killed in an attack at Mabruk oilfield southeast of Sirte, and three oil workers were kidnapped. On 6 March, terrorists killed eight oil workers and kidnapped nine workers at Al Ghani oilfield, south east of Tripoli. Car bomb attacks in public areas in Tripoli, Tobruk and Benghazi caused many casualties. In April 2015, two groups of Ethiopian Christians were executed by ISIL in Libya in two locations. … …

The UN, NGOs, and the media reported summary executions by a Sharia “court” in Dernah, and killings of security officials and current and former civil servants including judges, HRDs, media workers, and a female member of the General National Congress. …

Armed militias, mostly from Misrata, continued to prevent about 40,000 residents of Tawergha, Tomina, and Karareem from returning to their homes as a form of collective punishment for crimes allegedly committed by some Tawergha residents during the 2011 revolution. Those displaced continued to seek safety and shelter in makeshift camps and private housing in many areas, but they remained subject to attack, harassment, and arbitrary detention by the militias … …

The condition of prisons and treatment of prisoners under the jurisdiction of the different sides in the conflict remained a serious concern throughout this period. HRDs continued to report arbitrary detentions, mistreatment, torture and extrajudicial killings in detention centres on all sides.

Libya has, since 2011, suffered a collapse of civic infrastructure, with the health and education sectors decimated, with the productive, peacetime economy replaced by brigandage, and with a catastrophic collapse of womens’ rights. The rule of law has completely collapsed, with all parties in Libya refusing to cooperate with jurisdiction of tthe International Criminal Court: for example, the trial that resulted in the death sentence for Saif Islam Gaddafi was held in absentia as he himself is rotting in a extra-judicial militia run prison, and no prosecution evidence was presented, the court moved straight to judgement. Even by 2012 the UN was reporting

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay … raised concerns about detainees being held by revolutionary forces, saying there were some 8,500 prisoners in about 60 centres.

“The majority of detainees are accused of being Gaddafi loyalists and include a large number of sub-saharan, African nationals,” she said. “The lack of oversight by the central authority creates an environment conducive to torture and ill treatment”

What is therefore odd, is that supporters of the NATO intervention which destroyed the Libyan state don’t accept that the adventure was misjudged.

In October 2011, Seumus Milne described in the Guardian how the NATO intervention had been a disaster. I refer to Milne as he has become a bête noir of the pro-war lobby.

In response, Daniel Knowles wrote in the Telegraph:

In Milne’s view, without Nato’s support, Gaddafi would have entered Benghazi, murdered a few thousand people and order would have been restored. In actuality, without Western support, Libya either would have endured a much longer and more brutal civil war (with a much stronger chance that the most violent rebels would win out), or else it would have finished with Gaddafi still in power, only now forced to use far more repressive measures to maintain his grip. …

It is absolutely in the West’s interests to overthrow despotic, disgusting regimes like those of Gaddafi, and to encourage more pluralistic, liberal ones in their place. It is also good for those people, who now have a chance to build a better society.

Already when Knowles wrote this, the promise of a “better society”, was a macabre insult to the tens of thousands of lives broken by a society teetering on the abyss, as the state was destroyed and rival militias fought over the spoils. It has become a lazy caricature of those seeking to hold to account the folly of British military misadventures that this is due to knee jerk “anti-imperialism”, but perhaps as a Conservative Knowles might reflect on the wisdom of Edmund Burke in his reflections on the French Revolution.

The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please. We ought to see what it will please them to do before we risk congratulations, which may soon be turned into complaints. Prudence would dictate this in the case of separate insulated private men; but liberty when men act in bodies is power. Considerate people before they declare themselves will observe the use which is made of power; and particularly of so trying a thing as new  power in new persons, of whose principles, tempers and dispositions, they have little or no experience.

More extraordinary is that as recently as October 2015, the Labour Party’s own cheerleader for war, Kate Godfrey, wrote in the Telegraph that

I was in Libya as Colonel Gaddafi very deliberately fostered a refugee crisis in which thousands of people died on ghost transports, on buses and on trucks that couldn’t take the strain of their carriage. Gaddafi was opening up passes to Africa’s south in a great scheme to blackmail the EU. I was there as the migrants died of thirst. But really they died of a vindictive, bloody blackmailing policy. They died because of Gaddafi.

Seumas Milne says the Nato intervention in Libya is “a catastrophic failure”. He thinks that Gaddafi would never have enacted a brutal repression against the protesters of the Arab Spring. He thinks that “if there were global justice, Nato would be in the dock over Libya.” I was there, and Milne was not, and Milne is wrong.

He is wrong on Libya, and he will be wrong on Syria

Elsewhere, Godfrey wrote

The Gaddafi regime fell in weeks – as it were always going to fall. Within three days of the start of anti-government protests, the opposition were in charge of the country’s second capital, Benghazi. Six weeks and UN Security Council Resolution 1973 had been adopted, a no-fly zone was in place, and a coalition of 27 states from Europe and the Middle East sent in strikes against pro-government forces.

Six months after the start of protests and Tripoli fell. Gaddafi died, and Libya disintegrated into areas under control by separate more-or-less Islamist militias. And this is more-or-less where Libya remains.


Because Libya was never a cohesive country. It was, and is, barely a country at all but a scattering of six million people in a vast desert, with almost all of them concentrated in a thin coastal strip. The capital, Tripoli sits at the top left, the second city – and virtually the second capital – Benghazi, at the top right. With the exception of that coastal strip, the rest is sand, and one-Toyota towns.

During Gaddafi’s day the powerful kept an occasional politic presence in Tripoli and dwelt in their tribal areas and in loathing. The moment they had the opportunity to go after Gaddafi, they went after him. Given the intensity of feeling, the three days to take Benghazi looks restrained.

There was no depth to the Libyan state. The only question was, would the regime have the chance to use their control of the air? … …

People say Libya under Gaddafi worked. It was a police state. It was a wretched grey murder-state with basic dental. I spent a lot of time there, and I saw hunger, and fear, and Mukhabarat, and those on the good days.

At the best of times, Gaddafi’s regime was a stretched and grubby sticking plaster over a country that didn’t work.

There was no Save the Dictator option, and neither should there have been.

I lack Ms Godfrey’s talent for divining the opinions of the population of an entire country.

Nor can I speak for her experience of meeting people in Libya who were hungry, but according to the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI), in 2010 Libya had the highest HDI in the African continent, and in 2012 had a GDP of $US 14000 per capita, equating to a spending power per head of $11900; the highest standard of living in Africa. Libya under Gaddafi also had free health care and education, around a quarter of the population were university educated, and more than half of graduates were women.

As Hugh Roberts explained in the London Review of Books in 2012

The socio-economic achievements of the regime can be attributed essentially to the distributive state: that is, the success of the hydrocarbons sector and of the mechanisms put in place early on to distribute petrodollars.

The comic opera absurdity of the so-called Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyya, the puppet uniforms, and Gaddafi’s Bedouin chic did indeed provide a grotesque façade for a state that endorsed and encouraged terrorism, and brutal internal repression. It was a particularly absent state, lacking any political party or parties, and while it had a functioning bureaucracy with some degree of popular participation, it had neither the culture nor institutions for allowing political differences to be aired or resolved. We need to understand that the murder, torture and repression of political opponents is the attribute not of a strong state, but of a weak state.

The stronger state is one where there is sufficient culture of respect for the rule of law in civil society; political institutions that allow the resolution of disputes; and the willingness of governments to renounce power to their political opponents via constitutional means. Constitutionality is the hallmark of a state whose sovereignty rests upon popular consent.

Godfrey’s argument fails on a number of particulars. Firstly, she fails to distinguish between the stability of the Libyan state, and the particular expression of the government of that state. Governments and states are not the same thing, and governments can be changed by political process while still maintaining states. The military action by NATO in assistance of the rebels destroyed the state itself, and thereby destroyed the monopoly of armed force from the state and also the bureaucratic institutions which allowed the administrative and distributive economic functions of the Libyan state to function for its population. Even a repressive state plays a public safety role through excluding other actors from exercising war and brigandage on its territory.

Speaking in June 2015, the Tunisian Human Rights activist Amira Yahyaoui, emphasized the importance of public safety:

Security is a top priority. [Tunisia is] a very small country threatened by al Qaeda from Algeria and [the Islamic State] from Libya — that’s a huge mess, right? And more than that, one of the keys of success of Tunisia is that we don’t have Egypt’s military. Ben Ali was a dictator, and he made the choice to weaken the military, to avoid a military coup. But it’s now becoming a huge problem. Today the Tunisian military is really unequipped. The terrorists are very tech-y today, they use social media to organize, so this is one of the reasons I’m doing this.

But the second reason is that, for human rights activists, security is a taboo. Security means you are anti-human rights. But that gives space to those who are not very keen on human rights to take care of this topic. I think that people from a human rights background should be more involved in security issues, and stop thinking that security is a taboo. If we want to defend people’s rights, the first thing we need to defend is their right to live and not to die. That’s the first step.

Godfrey is blasé about the collapse of the Libyan state, saying that it was inevitable. It was only inevitable once NATO destroyed the armed forces defending that state. This created the security vacuum that was itself a human rights catastrophe greater than any furious dogs of war that Gaddafi could let slip.

She is also simply wrong that there was not a political alternative. Arguably the NATO intervention curtailed any prospect of a process in Libya leading to a stable resolution. It is worth quoting Roberts at length:

The claim that the ‘international community’ had no choice but to intervene militarily and that the alternative was to do nothing is false. An active, practical, non-violent alternative was proposed, and deliberately rejected. The argument for a no-fly zone and then for a military intervention employing ‘all necessary measures’ was that only this could stop the regime’s repression and protect civilians. Yet many argued that the way to protect civilians was not to intensify the conflict by intervening on one side or the other, but to end it by securing a ceasefire followed by political negotiations.

A number of proposals were put forward. The International Crisis Group, for instance, where I worked at the time, published a statement on 10 March arguing for a two-point initiative: (i) the formation of a contact group or committee drawn from Libya’s North African neighbours and other African states with a mandate to broker an immediate ceasefire; (ii) negotiations between the protagonists to be initiated by the contact group and aimed at replacing the current regime with a more accountable, representative and law-abiding government. This proposal was echoed by the African Union and was consistent with the views of many major non-African states – Russia, China, Brazil and India, not to mention Germany and Turkey. It was restated by the ICG in more detail (adding provision for the deployment under a UN mandate of an international peacekeeping force to secure the ceasefire) in an open letter to the UN Security Council on 16 March, the eve of the debate which concluded with the adoption of UNSC Resolution 1973.

In short, before the Security Council voted to approve the military intervention, a worked-out proposal had been put forward which addressed the need to protect civilians by seeking a rapid end to the fighting, and set out the main elements of an orderly transition to a more legitimate form of government, one that would avoid the danger of an abrupt collapse into anarchy, with all it might mean for Tunisia’s revolution, the security of Libya’s other neighbours and the wider region. The imposition of a no-fly zone would be an act of war: as the US defense secretary, Robert Gates, told Congress on 2 March, it required the disabling of Libya’s air defences as an indispensable preliminary. In authorising this and ‘all necessary measures’, the Security Council was choosing war when no other policy had even been tried.

The proposal for a cease fire and negotiations could not allow the absent state model of the jamahiriyya, to survive. The jamahiriyya lacked the civic institutions and political traditions to engage in negotiations, and so would have needed to generate them. There is evidence that the jamahiriyya was reformable, and the compelling impetus of a peace process would have accelerated support for the reforming current led by Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, who had been previously praised by among others Tony Blair, and was well placed to use the crisis to its advantage to create civic institutions. This option needed to be explored, and powerful voices within the African Union were urging Gaddafi to participate.

As Hugh Roberts explains:

It was the fashion some years ago in circles close to the Blair government – in the media, principally, and among academics – to talk up Saif al-Islam’s commitment to reform and it is the fashion now to heap opprobrium on him as his awful father’s son. Neither judgment is accurate, both are self-serving. Saif al-Islam had begun to play a significant and constructive role in Libyan affairs of state, persuading the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group to end its terrorist campaign in return for the release of LIFG prisoners in 2008, promoting a range of practical reforms and broaching the idea that the regime should formally recognise the country’s Berbers. While it was always unrealistic to suppose that he could have remade Libya into a liberal democracy had he succeeded his father, he certainly recognised the problems of the Jamahiriyya and the need for substantial reform. The prospect of a reformist path under Saif was ruled out by [NATO’s intervention].

Paradoxically, because the rebellion arose in the Libyan context without pre-existing civic and political institutions, the opposition also needed time to coalesce and develop. The military victory of NATO not only ruled out reform of the jamahiriyya, but it also ruled out the opposition going through the process of political evolution and clarification, the development of institutions, mechanisms of accountablity and self-discipline. The state was destroyed without anything else to fill the void.

Back in 2014, Thomas Friedman argued in the New York Times that the wave of global protests – what he calls the “square people” has broadly been contained at the level of protest.

Behind massive street demonstrations there is rarely a well-oiled and more-permanent organization capable of following up on protesters’ demands and undertaking the complex, face-to-face, and dull political work that produces real change in government. This is the important point made by Zeynep Tufekci, a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, who writes that ‘Before the Internet, the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest also helped build infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum. Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment.’

It is worth considering how Tunisia became an exception, again to quote Friedman:

Daniel Brumberg, a democracy expert at Georgetown University and the United States Institute of Peace, points out that the most successful Square People in the Arab world, who forged a whole new constitution, are in Tunisia, which is the Arab country that had “the most robust civil society institutions — especially a powerful labor union federation, as well as business, human rights and lawyers associations — that could arbitrate between the secular and religious factions,” who had come together in the square to oust Tunisia’s dictator. Tunisia also benefited from an army that stayed out of politics and the fact that the secular and Islamist forces had a balance of power, requiring them to be inclusive of one another.

The crucial feature in the development of stable political institutions is that they have legitimacy based upon popular engagement. Respect for the rule of law, especially constitutionality, cannot be imposed from outside; and even the successful German experience was domestically driven, in conjunction with protracted nation building support by the occupying powers. Conspicuous successes in conflict resolution, for example the end of South African Apartheid, or the process started by the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland, have involved long term commitment from the protagonists themselves to resolve their differences.

Kate Godfey is quite explicit that she believes that those like myself and Seumus Milne who argue that NATO’s intervention in Libya was a failure are wrong. She therefore presumably believes it was a success.

It is therefore worth comparing her views with those of Sir John Sawers, who was Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, for five years until November 2014.

“When crisis erupted in Libya, we didn’t feel it right to sit by as Gaddafi crushed decent Libyans demanding an end to dictatorship.

“But we didn’t want to get embroiled in Libya’s problems by sending in ground forces. After Gaddafi was ousted, no-one held the ring to help manage a transition to something better … …

“Libya had no institutions. Who or what would take over? The answer? Those with the weapons. Result? Growing chaos, exploited by fanatics.”

James Robbins, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent comments on Sir John’s views as follows:

Most foreign policy analysts seem to agree that the major Western powers, Britain included, are now caught in a sort of policy no-man’s land between intervention and non-intervention.

Politicians are trying to satisfy citizens who continue to expect security and protection, but who also seem increasingly unwilling to tolerate the sort of defence spending that protection might require, and, more importantly, the scale of sacrifice in soldiers’ lives which ground combat inevitably brings.

What Libya got was neither full intervention nor complete non-intervention, but a sort of limited intervention.

That limited intervention, sanctioned by the UN, led by David Cameron for Britain and President Nicolas Sarkozy for France, was based on the new-ish doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect”. … …

The huge difficulty with limited intervention, of course, is the unpredictability of outcomes.

That fickle and unfathomable “law of unintended consequences” delivered catastrophic results in Libya.

Western policy relied on maintaining the unity of anti-Gaddafi forces once they had dealt with their shared enemy.

Light-touch Western efforts to help Libyans put aside their tribal and factional differences forever and embrace power-sharing through representative government based on national unity, have comprehensively collapsed.

The doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” (RtP) is certainly not an unchallenged one, and it is viewed by – for example – India, China and Russia with some skepticism. At the heart of RtP is the concept that state sovereignty is constrained, and that it can be lawful for another state to intervene to avoid humanitarian disaster. Certainly, using examples of the Rwandan genocide, or Pol Pot’s Cambodia, it is clear that outside military intervention can be a necessity, though there should be a high threshold of violence to overcome, an emphasis on caution, the exploration and preference of non-military options, consensus and shared responsibility through the UNSC, the involvement and indeed primacy of regional actors, and follow through and civic and economic capacity building to ensure that the outcome is not a failed state.

The prime difficulty is that the type of military action advocated as a success in Libya by Kate Godfrey was one that would almost inevitably lead to disaster. Whatever the merits of the exercise of RtP in any particular instance, any resulting military action needs to be integrated in a workable political system that works towards stable outcomes.

Warfare is a brutal business. Von Clauswitz famously observed that war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means. Just contemplating the incongruity of this statement with the modern reality of wars involving warlord polities like ISIL, and the descent into anarchy, reveals an entire sea change from war as traditionally understood in Europe as the organized exercise of violence by states in pursuit of political aims.

The exclusion of non-state actors as legitimate participants in war derived in Europe from the widespread introduction of firearms, but in particular through the social codification of laws of war, derived from Huigh de Groot’s (Grotius) work “The Laws of War and Peace”, that became adopted across Europe by professional practitioners of war, seeing the mutual benefit of self restraint. Even from the outset, Grotius’s work was ignored during the expansion of European powers into the colonies, and was later challenged by the citizen armies of the Napoleonic era and increasing destructive power of armaments; but for some extensive period, the exercise of military power was regarded as deliberately conservative of social stability.

Whereas seventeenth Europe, particularly Germany, had endured war of the same brutal totality as consumes, for example, modern Syria, the military historian, Robert O’Connell observed that the codification of rules of war meant that “for two centuries these men succeeded in capturing and integrating the gun into a workable political system”.

What NATO’s intervention into Libya reveals is an exercise of military might where the means do not match the will; and that was socially regressive in destroying the institutions of social stability thus destroying the civic foundations of a peacetime economy. In so doing, it has allowed the creation of a war economy, where access to economic resources is directly dependent upon the exercise of violence. Such a breakdown of civil society and public safety are exactly the conditions into which a warlord polity like ISIL can advance. Indeed, while other Jihadi actors like Boko Haram are merely franchise holders of so-called Islamic State (ISIL), according to the UN, ISIL in Libya is integrated with their confederates in Iraq and Syria.

NATO’s action did not locate itself within a framework of seeking political stability, and indeed it undermined and forestalled a political peace process from the African Union. Indeed, contemporary with the Libyan war, the state of Bahrain unleashed a wave of repression not dissimilar to that which prompted NATO intervention in Libya. The British government took precisely the opposite view to that which they took in Libya, believing that political stability in Bahrain outweighed other considerations, and that reform could be encouraged through dialogue and engagement.

Military action should never be engaged in unless there are clear, realizable political objectives, that the risks are considered, where there are clear exit conditions, and where the consequences of failure as well as the consequences of success are factored into the decisions. What is more, embarking on war where the military means and will are insufficient, and are known to be insufficient at the outset, to ensure that the political objectives can be met guarantees failure. What is more, any exercise of RtP must ensure commitment to a political process that emphasizes social stability as an outcome – destroying states and letting anarchy reign may satisfy the liberal interventionists, but the left is right to oppose and hold such vanities to account.

Star Wars and the Death of American Cinema


‘Star Wars’ is a simple story, simply told, of good versus evil, light versus darkness, and freedom versus tyranny. In other words it is the story of America’s struggle to preserve democracy and civilization in a world beset by evil and ‘evildoers’.

Movies and political propaganda have long walked hand in hand. Indeed if ever a medium was suited to propaganda it is the medium of cinema. And if ever an industry could be credited with creating an alternate reality so pervasive it has managed to convince generations of Americans and others around the world that up is down, black is white, and left is right, that industry is Hollywood.

George Lucas, the creator of a Star Wars franchise which, including this latest installment, has churned out seven movies since the original appeared in 1977, is along with Steven Spielberg a child of the reaction to the American counter-culture of the sixties and early seventies.

Though both products of the sixties – a decade in which culture and the arts, particularly cinema, was at the forefront of resistance to the US military industrial complex – Lucas and Spielberg came to prominence in the mid 1970s with movies which rather than attack or question the establishment, instead embraced its role as both protector and arbiter of the nation’s morals. The curtain began to come down on the most culturally vital and exciting and cerebral period of American cinema – responsible for producing such classics as ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, ‘MASH’, ‘The Last Detail’, ‘The French Connection’, ‘The Wild Bunch’, ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘Apocalypse Now’ – with Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ in 1975, followed in 1977 by Lucas’s ‘Star Wars’. The former frightened America, while the latter made it feel good about itself again.

Both movies together spawned the high concept blockbuster, wherein audiences were invited to feel rather than to think, allowing them to suspend disbelief and escape reality instead of sharing the experience of confronting it via stories in which alienated characters expressed the angst, frustration, anger, and disaffection which they themselves were experiencing in their own lives, thus inducing a sense of solidarity.

It was the era of the anti-hero, main characters for whom the system and conformity was the enemy, and who ploughed their own furrow regardless of the consequences. The questioning of authority and its received truths reflected a country whose young and not so young were hungry for radical change. The war in Vietnam, Watergate, the black civil rights and nationalist movements had shaken up American society and, with it, its culture and cultural references.

But by the mid seventies, with the end of the Vietnam War, and with the counter culture running out of steam, the time had arrived to box up all that alienation, anger and rebelliousness and allow the mythology of the American dream and democracy to reassert its dominance.

In his peerless history of this vital period of American cinema – ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ – author and cultural critic Peter Biskind writes: “Beyond its impact on movie marketing and merchandising, Star Wars had a profound effect on the culture. It benefited from the retrenchment of the Carter years, the march to the center that followed the end of the Vietnam War.”

This march to the center became a march to the right under Reagan, which manifested in Hollywood as artistic and cultural stagnation, wherein directors such as Spielberg and Lucas became less concerned with story and character and more focused on spectacle. Bigger, louder and richer was the mantra as two dimensional characters and plotlines that your average ten year old with a set of crayons and an imagination could come up with predominated.

Biskind writes: “Lucas knew that genres and cinematic conventions depend on consensus, the web of shared assumptions that had been sundered in the ‘60s. He was recreating and reaffirming these values, and Star Wars, with its Manichean moral fundamentalism, its white hats and black hats, restored the luster to threadbare values like heroism and individualism.”

In this latest Star Wars movie, directed by J J Abrams, Lucas makes do with a writing credit after selling the franchise to Disney in 2012 for $4.05 billion. Yes you read that right; he sold it for $4.05 billion. That kind of money will buy you a lot of light sabres.

Disney and Abrams have reached back in time in order to refresh the franchise, returning it to its roots with the return of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and the old iconic favourites Chewbacca and R2D2. For Star Wars buffs there’s even the return of Han Solo’s iconic spaceship the Millennium Falcon. The movie’s antagonist, its Darth Vader, is named Kylo Ren, played by Vladimir Putin…sorry Adam Driver. With this character lies the one interesting twist in the plot. Mind, having said that, we’re talking ‘interesting’ relative to the rest of the plot. We’re not talking Roman Polanski and ‘Chinatown’ here.

There are also major roles in the movie for two relative unknowns, both British: Rey, through whose eyes the narrative unfolds, is played by Daisy Ridley, while Finn is played by John Boyega.

For all the hype surrounding its release, and the rave reviews it has garnered, the latest instalment of the long running and inordinately successful Star Wars franchise – ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ – is so embarrassingly and toe-curlingly clichéd it’s impossible to walk out afterwards without limping.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the movie is not the battle of good versus evil it portrays but the fact that Harrison Ford was reportedly paid 76 times more than newcomer Daisy Ridley to star in it. The 73 year old’s financial package comprised an upfront fee in the region of $20 million plus 0.5 percent of the movie’s gross earnings, which are projected to reach a whopping $1.9 billion.

It is proof that the story of America is not good versus evil or light versus darkness at all. It is instead the story of the super rich versus everybody else.

Afghanistan – a dismal tale of failure and folly

The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, where they recently mounted a major military operation in Helmand province in the south and where throughout the rest of the country they are increasingly active, is emphatic evidence that NATO’s prolonged military mission there has been a dismal failure. This failure is not however a measure of the failure to impose a liberal democracy in the country but in the lives destroyed in the attempt.

As is the case all across the UK in 2015, homeless people are a regular fixture on the high street close to where I live; to the point where you can’t walk for five minutes in either direction without coming across one sitting on the pavement begging for change.

One of the regulars – let’s call him David – is an ex-soldier. Until recently I would come across him sitting on the pavement outside the same mini-supermarket each early evening rush hour, trying to make enough money to pay for a night at a hostel. In front of him he would have a piece of cardboard with his army service number written across it, hoping it would garner a more positive response.

David’s story is an all too common one. In his early twenties, with a young wife and two kids to support, he was made redundant from his job after serving his apprenticeship as a vehicle mechanic. Unable to find work he decided to join the army. He signed up for the minimum term of four years and in that time served four six-month tours of duty in Afghanistan. The experience left him damaged and unable to cope emotionally and psychologically with normal life once he came out. His marriage collapsed and for want of support from the state and not enough help from the various hard-pressed charities that are set up to help ex-servicemen like him, he ended up on the street.

Recently he disappeared and I stopped seeing him. I subsequently learned that he was in prison after selling heroin – heroin that likely originated in Afghanistan – to a young girl who died from it.

This spiral of despair and tale of wasted young life describes the reality of Britain’s military interventions over recent years. In Afghanistan, as with Iraq, young men such as David were thrown into a country they had no business being in to fulfil a military operation that was ill conceived, planned, and organised, lacking resources, equipment, and anywhere near enough manpower.

Where Britain is concerned we are talking war on the cheap, which in the case of Afghanistan was unleashed by Tony Blair after 9/11 to help US president George W. Bush vent revenge for this terrorist atrocity on one of the poorest countries in the world. The results, fourteen years later, are all too predictable.

Make no mistake, the Taliban are destined to be part of Afghanistan’s future. They are Afghans who inarguably enjoy wide support among the majority Pashtun population in the south of the country and are considered by the communities in which they operate to be fighting for the country’s liberation and independence. Consequently, the most grievous indictment of British and US policy is not the resurgence of the Taliban; it is instead the recent emergence of ISIS in eastern Afghanistan. It comes as more proof that instead of making the situation better, the presence of British and American troops in the Arab and Muslim world has only made it worse.

At its peak the number of British troops and service personnel in Afghanistan reached 9,500, the bulk of which were deployed to Helmand. The number killed stands at 456 while over 7000 have been injured or maimed. As for Afghan deaths, according to a study published by the Watson Institute at Brown University in the US, 26,000 Afghan civilians were killed between 2001 and January 2015. As for the number injured or maimed, there are no reliable figures available but you can draw your own conclusions.

The only victors to emerge from this military and foreign policy debacle have been corruption and the heroin trade. In October the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime published its 2015 Afghanistan Opium Survey. It reveals that 66% of the country’s opium cultivation takes place in the south – i.e. Helmand. While overall there has been a decrease in overall poppy-cultivation compared to 2014, the number of poppy-free provinces in the country also decreased. In other words, Afghanistan and heroin are now two sides of the same coin.

Apologists for the US/British/NATO role in Afghanistan point to the achievement in leaving a country behind in which far more people have access to basic medical care and education than they did under the Taliban. While this may well be true the cost in wasted lives and corruption surely undermines it. This is without referencing the inescapable fact that the Taliban are stronger now, today, than they have been since 2001, prior to the invasion and occupation. Here Leo Tolstoy’s dictum that ‘The two most powerful warriors are patience and time’ receives ironclad validation.

Returning to the plight of David, a young man facing a bleak future of perennial despair, those who sent him and thousands like him over to Afghanistan to kill and be killed no doubt enjoyed their usual sumptuous Christmas this year. In a just society they would be the ones in prison and the Davids of this world would be where they rightly belong at Christmas – at home with their families looking forward to the future.

The left needs to stand back from civil war in UNISON

I am not a member of UNISON, and I am neither qualified nor inclined to comment on the respective merits of the various candidates who recently contested their election for General Secretary. However, I do think that there is cause for concern for the whole labour movement that such a large and important union may become distracted by internal disputes at such a critical juncture, when we face a determined assault on living standards and public services by a Conservative cabinet ideologically wedded to austerity. Furthermore, when the government’s trade union bill threatens not only some trade union rights, but also includes the very practical danger of check off (known in UNISON as DOCAS) – the deduction of trade union contributions from payroll – being outlawed in the public sector, which is designed to hobble the finances of public sector trade unions.

UNISON, along with the other unions, will need to show unity and determination to resist.

The result of the election was as follows:

Dave Prentis 66,155 votes (49.4%),
Heather Wakefield 35,433 (26.4%),
Roger Bannister 16,853 (12.6%)
John Burgess 15,573 (11.6%).

Prentis therefore won a convincing majority over all the other candidates, and won the support of nearly half of all those voting.

A relevant comparison is the 2000 election, when Prentis was first elected, where he received 55.9%, (125,584 votes on a higher turnout. In that election, Bannister – the Socialist Party candidate – received 31.65% (71,021 votes).

Controversy surrounds the recent election because of a recording that has emerged which appears to feature someone sounding like the London Regional Secretary, Linda Perks, encouraging full time regional officials to campaign on behalf of the incumbent General Secretary, Dave Prentis. If true, this would be against UNISON’s election rules. Perks has now been suspended while an internal UNISON investigation is conducted, and it would be improper to comment while that process is not yet concluded.

A number of complaints have apparently been referred over this matter to the Trade Union Certification officer, who is an independent official with the power to adjudicate, and could theoretically require the election to be rerun. A relevant question to ask, however, would be whether any potential breach of the union’s rules would have materially affected the outcome. Given the margin of Prentis’s victory, it would be reasonable to assume that his re-election does truly represent the views of the wider membership.

Nevertheless, Left wing member of UNISON’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Rogers reports that 23 members of the NEC have called for Prentis to be suspended. This follows a vote at an NEC meeting where 21 NEC members voted to discuss the alleged electoral malpractices, with 32 NEC members supporting a call for next business ( a procedural mechanism to halt discussion on a topic).

Whilst this might sound quite damning, the voting exactly mirrors the nominations by the same body before the election took place. 32 for Prentis, and 21 for lay member candidates. So it would again be reasonable to assume that the division on the NEC reflects established positions, rather than an escalating crisis.

The left therefore has a real responsibility to ponder its next move carefully. If individuals or branches seek to use the current controversy to undermine the existing leadership of UNISON, then that would be irresponsible if they cannot replace it with something better and stronger. It is incumbent upon all trade union activists to consider whether their actions leave organisation stronger or weaker.

On a note of terminology, I think it unfair and inaccurate to simply accept a framing of these contests as Dave Prentis being challenged by “the left”. In historical terms, in the context of British trade unionism, Prentis is himself a supporter of the left. However, for the sake of convenience let us refer to his lay member challengers as being “the left” in UNISON. I hope it is not unfair to quote again from Jon Rogers, because he puts the case clearly. Here he discusses not only Dave Prentis, but also one challenger, Heather Wakefield, who is also a senior official in the union.

There’s no point replacing a male General Secretary whom many of us feel has given inadequate leadership in the fight against the Tories with a female candidate in respect of whom there is no evidence that she would be any better.

Heather missed the boat five years ago when, having stuck her head briefly above the parapet, she ducked back down before the polls opened.‎ In the past five years Heather has not only failed to differentiate herself from the incumbent General Secretary but has been in the front rank for some of the most dismal outcomes to major industrial disputes in our history.

‎UNISON staff kept a final salary pension scheme – but not the membership. Whilst Dave Prentis led the retreat from united action to defend pensions after the single day of action in 2011, Heather Wakefield was an integral part of the leadership which led us away from unity.

Similarly, whilst it was Dave Prentis who, having smashed the now notorious ice sculpture could not lead a united fight to do similar (or any) damage to the Government’s pay freeze, Heather Wakefield was the Head of Local Government going in to the catastrophically mismanaged 2014 pay dispute.

There are a number of problems with this.

Firstly, if there is no reason to differentiate between Wakefield and Prentis (and to be fair, having read Heather wakefield’s campaign material she did not make a strong case that she would be a better or even a significantly different GS than Prentis), then their combined vote is 75.8% of those voting. This compares to the vote of 67.3% secured by Prentis alone in 2010, and 75.6% for Prentis in 2005. Meanwhile, the combined left challengers votes show a consistent minority in the union (24.2% in 2015, 32.7% in 2010, 24.4% in 2005). In broad terms the left does not have sufficient support to defeat Prentis, and the level of support is not growing.

Secondly, the arguments put forward by the left candidates assume that the 2011 pension dispute and 2014 pay dispute could have achieved significantly better outcomes. Let us examine this:

With regard to the pensions dispute, the result for the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) was as good as could be achieved as I argued at the time; and the reference to unity by Jon is misguided as UNISON did stand in unity with GMB and Unite who were involved in the LGPS dispute. The membership in these three unions in local government were not tin soldiers to be deployed in battle over the separate disputes over other, different and unfunded pension schemes that did not directly affect them. As I argued at the time

The difference in assessment of Monday’s pension talks between Mark Serwotka and Dave Prentis cannot be explained merely by the differing political outlooks of these two general secretaries. According to Mark the talks were “a farce”; whereas Dave Prentis said “there was a sense that today we were in real negotiations”.

The government seems to have made a substantive concession to the unions representing local government employees, whose pension arrangements are via the funded LPGS scheme; whereas no concessions seem to have been made to the unfunded schemes for teachers and civil servants.

Because the issues are so complicated, and resistant to easy answers, then there is scope for negotiation between the unions and government, even this government. However, we should recognise that the funded LGPS does give unions representing local authority workers more leverage than the unions representing workers in the unfunded schemes.

Talk of coordinated union action over pensions may be unachievable therefore, if the government makes concessions to the unions in the local authority scheme, but not to teachers, civil servants or the NHS.

On the face of it public sector pensions is an issue that should unite workers; but the detailed differences in outcome may undermine that unity. A Teaching Assistant earning about £7 per hour, working part time and being paid for just 30 weeks per year, typically only pays into the LGPS for less than seven years; whereas a male teacher on retirement may have 30 years of contributions behind him. Does anyone really expect the school support staff to strike to support teachers if the government makes concessions on the LGPS?

Turning to the 2014 pay dispute, this was sufficiently well enough observed on the first day of action to make the action effective, in conjunction with the press and media operation of the national unions. It did reveal the difficulties of organizing national action in the public sector, and the move by the teaching unions to not support a follow up day posed a challenge to both GMB and UNISON organizing school support staff. There was a Quixotic decision from UNISON not to ballot their members in academies for the first day’s strike, though GMB did successfully strike in these employers; but the most chaotic aspect was the subsequent holding of a special conference by UNISON where lay member delegates repudiated a deal already agreed with the employer jointly with GMB and Unite.

What is noteworthy about this argument is that those who believe that the result was a “sell out”, did not themselves secure a better turnout or participation in their own workplaces in the action than allegedly more moderate parts of UNISON. The challenge from the left would therefore seem to be stronger in words than in action.

I am sure that there are many ways that UNISON could be improved, and it is not my place to comment on them. However, there is a very real danger that the current controversies over the GS election may destabilise the union. It is incumbent not only on the left to consider their next move, but also for supporters of Prentis to consider how these divisions can be resolved.

Understanding nations – the legacy of Benedict Anderson

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The recent death of Benedict Anderson is worth noting, as he was one of the key thinkers who shaped modern understanding of the phenomena of nations and nationalism.

Tom Nairn has famously quipped that inability to understand nationalism is Marxism’s greatest failure. In a sense he is correct, that not only Marxists but the broader political left have often tended towards an instrumental and unreflective relationship with nationalism, as if the consciousness and political dynamics unleashed by nations are somehow less authentic and fundamental than those based upon class and economic exploitation.

This is dangerous because it underestimates the degree to which the passions of nationalism are rational and derive from actually existing social relationships, but of course we also need to understand that nations are not unchanging, they are the product of a particular stage of human development.

As Hobsbawm argued in his work, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780

the ‘nation’ [is not a] primary nor … an unchanging social entity. It belongs exclusively to a particular, and historically recent, period. It is a social entity only insofar as it relates to a certain kind of modern territorial state, the ‘nation-state’, and it is pointless to discuss nation and nationality except insofar as both relate to it. Moreover, with Gellner I would stress the element of artifact, invention and social engineering which enters into the making of nations. ‘Nations as a natural, God-given way of classifying men, as an inherent … political destiny, are a myth; nationalism, which sometimes takes preexisting cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates preexisting cultures: that is a reality.’ In short, for the purposes of analysis nationalism comes before nations. Nations do not make states and nationalisms but the other way round.

An important insight from both Benedict Anderson, in his book “Imagined Communities” and Ernest Gellner in his work “Nations and Nationalism” is that industrial society created a new form of collective consciousness, whereby modes of face to face relationships were replaced by economic relationships with strangers.

Gellner stresses how the horizontal class loyalties that crossed national boundaries in European feudal society became fractured, and replaced with national traditions; and he points out how state sponsored education, and standardised languages developed segregation between nations. Anderson points out that printing accelerated the linguistic standardisation, trade standardised the legal system, and modern cartography created a new mental conception of borders.

Industrial societies require that the population should be socially mobile, and atomised, so that no job becomes restricted to a particular caste or family, and individuals owe their primary loyalties to wider society, rather than to family, faith group or tribe. Gellner attributes the growth of national consciousness to the state sponsored universal education system of industrialised societies, and with a complimentary insight Benedict Anderson describes the role of mass produced printing as creating an imagined national community of shared culture. It is worth also praising the insight of Neil Davidson of how this relates to the psychological theories of consciousness from Voloshinov, that national consciousness is collectively developed, and individuals interact with the forms of collective social consciousness that are available to them.

National consciousness is therefore by necessity participatory, and this supports the argument from the Austro-Marxist Otto Bauer, that shared communities of fate develop shared communities of character (or consciousness). Bauer argued that people who share a common community of experience, develop a common community of culture. Even where there is a contested class struggle within a nation, the specificity of that class struggle provides a common frame of reference to the contending classes. The French revolution was a bourgeois overthrow of monarchical absolutism, but it was also specifically French. That is, unique and nationally specific forms of consciousness develop, whereby people share collectively developed signifiers and social performances which mark themselves as belonging.

Therefore we can see how the development of the early industrial societies, the eclipsing of feudalism led to a new form of consciousness, where people felt themselves as belonging to a nation, in a way they previously had not.

It is no surprise that this process was accelerated among colonists, in fresh lands where feudal legacies were weak, and where the colonising mission gave a sense of new identity and collective purpose; Benedict Anderson drew attention to the fact that the explicit political projects of modern nationalism arose mainly in the new world of the Americas.

To take a lesser known example, on 16th September 1810, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Roman Catholic priest from the small town of Dolores, near Guanajuato in Mexico, issued the famous Grito de Dolores (“Cry of Dolores”):

My children: a new dispensation comes to us today. Will you receive it? Will you free yourselves? Will you recover the lands stolen by three hundred years ago from your forefathers by the hated Spaniards? We must act at once… Will you defend your religion and your rights as true patriots? Long live our Lady of Guadalupe! Death to bad government! Death to the gachupines!

It is worth looking at this, because Hidalgo himself was a creole (born in the Americas but of European descent), a similar background to Simon Bolivar and George Washington. This was more than a coincidence, it was a pattern.

As Anderson explained, the creole populations of the Americas suffered a social and political disadvantage compared to citizens born in Britain, France or Spain; this was highlighted by the slogan of the American Revolution, “No taxation without representation”.

In Hidalgo’s proclamation, he calls for death to the gachupines , another name for peninsulares born in metropolitan Spain; this reflects the social and political clash between the creoles and the colonial elite. However, he also explicitly identifies the creole revolt of Mexicans of Spanish heritage with the historical plight of the indiginous population. Hidalgo was a political visionary who saw mestizos and indigenous peoples as fellow Mexicans, he was not seeking to replace an elite of peninsulares with an elite of creoles, rather he was seeking to unite a nation around their common history and specific mix of cultural peculiarities.

However, the arising of national consciousness was not itself sufficient to lead to political nationalism. It was also necessary for the idea of nations to establish itself at the ideological level, to bind the concept of nation to the realities of state power. The extraordinary book by Hans Kohn “The idea of Nationalism”, written by an academic historian and Zionist theoretician, details the development of a new ideology which matched the developing new form of collective consciousness in Europe, and how the old intellectual classes vigorously opposed what they saw as a vulgar patriotism that was undermining their pan-European outlook. Gradually national identity became the dominant ideology, and national consciousness became the dominant form of collective awareness, as a necessary corrolary of the growth of industrial society. Anderson argued that the advocacy of the form of a nation state as a political project in the rest of the world was shaped by the prototype nations that arose in the Americas.

Ernest Gellner explains the phenomenon very well of how in pre-industrial societies, populations are neither culturally homogenous, nor socially or geographically mobile. They have laterally isolated face-to-face communities of direct agricultural producers, and only the clerical, administrative and economically dominant classes communicate on a national basis and develop a high culture.

We can see how this works by looking at the example of the historical Czech populations of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. In the Middle Ages Bohemia and Moravia were among the most economically developed areas of Europe, with a prospering Czech nobility, chivalry and burgher classes, but they were struck by a number of catastrophes. Their defeat in the fifteenth century Hussite wars led to the nobility being deposed and replaced by the mercenaries of different nationalities who had fought for the Kaiser, and who adopted the German language and culture; the loss of Constantinople changed irrevocably the patterns of European trade, leading to a disastrous decline in prosperity, and the counter-reformation meant that the remaining protestant burghers migrated north.

The result was the eradication of Czech as a written and cultural language, and it became the preserve only of peasants living in a German state. Under early feudalism there was no requirement for the peasantry to speak the same language as their rulers, and as Gellner observes such a cultural/linguistic underpinning of social inequality promoted rather than impeded stability in pre-industrial societies.

But later feudalism, in the eighteenth century saw the arrival of a new phenomenon of the Absolutist state, which in both France and Austria developed a mass army directly employed by the state, and therefore required taxation to pay for it. So even though these absolutist states were run exclusively by the nobility, they consciously adopted mercantilist policies to develop capitalism, in order to increase national wealth. They also sought to eliminate the mediating feudal classes, and deal with their subjects direct.

In Austria, this meant the deliberate policy by the Kaiserin Maria Theresa of reviving the Czech language in the state bureaucracy, in order that the state could deal with the peasantry without intermediaries. Growing prosperity also created professional classes, such as schoolteachers and doctors who need to speak Czech, and a revival of interest in Czech folklore (originally writing about Czech culture in German, in the same ways that the early meetings of the revivalist Finnish folklore society spoke only in Swedish), this led over quite a short period of decades to the revival of Czech as literary language, firstly with the publication of a translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The growing Czech speaking middle classes became increasingly confident.

In the democratic revolution of 1848, the Czechs sided with the Monarchy against the democracy movement because the democracy movement expressed the economic interests of the German speaking bourgeoisie. The decision of the Reichstag to only allow speeches in German was a class measure designed to exclude the peasantry and small businessmen. Big manufacturing in the Czech lands was in German hands, (Bohemia had a 40% German population) and the economic interest of these Germans was closer integration and creation of an Empire wide market that eliminated local protectionism, whereas the economic interests of the agrarian areas in the Czech lands, and the smaller Czech manufacturers was to have federal provinces in the Empire, that protected and developed local production.
The emergence of a national Czech culture changed the nature of the Austrian part of the dual Monarchy from being a German state into a multinational state, because developing capitalism empowered the Czechs to participate in national life. Interestingly, the only socialists who aspired to nationalist secession from the Empire were from the most economically under-developed areas, and which bordered parts of the Czarist empire where there were bourgeois national movements of their co-nationals, the Poles and Ruthenians (Gallician Ukranians)

As one famous Russian accurately described it: “A very peculiar situation was thus created—a striving on the part of the Hungarians and then of the Czechs, not for separation from Austria, but, on the contrary, for the preservation of Austria’s integrity, precisely in order to preserve national independence, which might have been completely crushed by more rapacious and powerful neighbours! Owing to this peculiar situation, Austria assumed the form of a dual state, and she is now being transformed into a triple state (Germans, Hungarians, Slays).

But more specifically, following Otto Bauer we can observe that whereas the illiterate and isolated Czech peasantry had not been part of the nation, but merely its tenants, the development of capitalism created a national culture, and with the event of universal male suffrage in 1867, the political parties strived to draw every individual man into national life, because it wanted their votes. The growth of national life drew people out of the perspective of their own village or workshop, and introduced them to high culture and politics.

Anderson describes the process where industrialism promoted growing literacy, and the invention of the concept of the modern novel coincides with the growth of the concept of the “everyman” figure, and identification with the interest of strangers based upon shared nationhood.

The feeling of identity and belonging are powerful ones, and the left ignores them at its peril. Indeed, there is an argument, following Bauer, that the growth of nations has been an emancipatory project bringing the benefits of democracy and participation in cultural life to the whole population, rather that the nation being the property of the privileged dominant classes. What is more, whereas historical nations were based upon shared ethnic and cultural legacy, the growth of civic nationalism has allowed modern nation states to be porous and multi-cultural, open to newcomers.

The controversy surrounding Tyson Fury

With the annual BBC Sports Personality of the Year event upon us, the focus of the media is on recently crowned British heavyweight world champion, Tyson Fury, who is up for the award this year. After taking the belts from Wladimir Klitschko in Germany, on the back of an impressive unanimous points victory, Fury soon found himself embroiled in controversy over remarks he made to the Daily Mail’s Oliver Holt during a sit down interview.

Fury, citing the bible, claimed, “There are only three things that need to be accomplished before the Devil comes home. One of them is homosexuality being legal in countries, one of them is abortion and the other is paedophilia.” He also, in another interview, declaimed that a “woman belongs in the kitchen and on her back.”

Inevitably, and rightly, the 27 year self-styled ‘Gypsy Warrior’ has been the subject of fierce criticism across the media as a result. A petition was organised to force the BBC to revoke his entry for sports personality of the year, garnering over 80,000 signatures. In addition Labour’s Chris Bryant made a statement in the Commons denouncing Fury’s homophobic views, inviting him to come to Parliament to explain them in person.

In the face of the criticism that’s been leveled at him, Fury has sought to make a distinction between what he believes and what’s contained in scripture. He maintains that he doesn’t believe homosexuals are bad people or that there is any connection between homosexuality and paedophilia; that all he was doing was quoting the bible.

This though is clearly not good enough. Either he believes such nonsense or he doesn’t. Citing the bible or hiding behind religion to justify bigotry doesn’t give him a get out of jail card.

In 2015 there is no justification for either homophobia or sexism. However, as I wrote recently in my Morning Star boxing column on the subject, Fury’s ignorance on these issues is more a product of cultural impoverishment than mendacity. A proud member of the much maligned Traveller Community, the primitive nature of his views are a reflection of the primitive culture to which Travellers are devoted. Within it a rigid masculine code prevails, wherein physical toughness and masculinity are considered two sides of the same coin. It is a culture within a culture, one which brooks no dalliance with liberal values and enlightened views on issues of gender or sexuality.

Regardless of the fact he is a product of his environment and background, Tyson Fury’s view are still unacceptable and should be opposed. Ironically, due to the petition and campaign to have him dropped from this year’s BBC SPOTY, there is a strong chance he may win, as many who normally never vote on the award will inevitably do so this year for Fury out of a misguided motive of giving a two finger salute to political correctness. Here the defence mounted on Fury’s behalf by people within boxing has been extremely disappointing. Just consider the teenagers who may be struggling with their sexuality right now. Some could well be fans of boxing, and indeed even be considering taking up the sport. To hear the heavyweight world champion associate their sexual preference with something evil and bad could play havoc with a self esteem that is already under assault.

Anyone reading Donald McCrae’s excellent biography of the legendary fighter Emile Griffith, A Man’s World, will know that being gay is no debarment to becoming a professional fighter, even a world champion. Griffith was gay at a time in US history, in the fifties and sixties, when it was a criminal offence. Despite being a world champion, he was forced to hide his sexuality and lead a double life. The fact he was also black didn’t exactly help matters.

Griffith is renowned for the fight he had against Cuba’s Benny Paret in 1962. At the weigh in prior to the fight, Paret patted Griffith on the bum and called him a “maricon” (faggot). Griffith entered the ring determined to make him pay for the insult. Tragically, the punishment he dished out resulted in the Cuban going into a coma from which he never emerged. He died a few days after the fight, prompting Griffith to say many years later: “I kill a man and most people forgive me. However, I love a man and many say this makes me an evil person.”

Since Griffiths’ era society has come a long way in ensuring that rather than the victims of homophobia being forced to exist in the shadows of society, it is increasingly the homophobes and bigots that feel the need to.

Fury would do well to read something more challenging than the bible from time to time. I recommend he study the history of the Holocaust. Then he will see that Hitler sent to the gas chambers not only Jews, and not only Gypsies, but also gays. Such a history of shared oppression is the basis for solidarity rather than prejudice.

The BBC has made a mistake in not responding to the campaign to have Tyson Fury dropped from the event. Gay people and women pay the license fee also. Why then should they be required to help fund an event promoting someone who considers them second class citizens?

In Defence of the Stop the War Coalition

I was very disappointed to see a rather shoddy hatchet job against the Stop the War Coalition recently, not from the usual “decent” suspects, but from Phil Burton-Cartledge, on the usually pro-Corbyn and pro-left website, Left Futures.

Let us be clear, over the issue of war in Afghanistan, the British establishment has been proven wrong, and the arguments made by the Stop the War Coalition at the time have been vindicated by events.

Over the question of the invasion of Iraq, the British establishment has been proven wrong, and the arguments made by the Stop the War Coalition at the time have been vindicated by events.

Over the question of the overthrow of the Libyan state, the British establishment has been proven wrong, and the arguments made by the Stop the War Coalition at the time have been vindicated by events.

The Stop the War Coalition is indeed a coalition of people with different views united around the single aim of opposing those particular British military adventures that have arisen from the so-called war on terror. It therefore includes pacifists, it also includes those who believe that the British state does have a legitimate role in using armed force to protect and promote British territory, citizens and interests, but are not convinced that the particular military actions proposed do represent Britain’s best interests. It includes some who believe that the British state should be overthrown in a socialist revolution, and it includes some people who profoundly disagree with that point of view and even find it distasteful.

Naturally, as the specific issues have changed and evolved then the nature of the coalition has also adapted. For example, some who opposed the war on Iraq now distance themselves from Stop the War because they are more sympathetic to some of the rebels in Syria. What is more, as the intensity of public opinion has subsided since the high point of 2003, then the numbers actively involved have declined. Nevertheless, the Stop the War Coalition has been an indispensible part of British democratic life, and has played a constructive role in seeking to question and hold to account the government and the military.

This last point is important. In Britain there is a deep pride in the armed forces, and respect for the ideal of service that they represent. Every family and every community has links to the forces. The military covenant requires that soldiers do not involve themselves in politics, but do whatever duty is required of them, at whatever personal cost it requires. There is therefore a civic duty for those of us outside the military to exercise diligence and scrutiny on their behalf, to ensure that British service men and women are not exposed to danger, or required to involve themselves in questionable actions. It is up to us to hold the government to account.

The Stop the War Coalition are the good guys. What is more, the particular individuals involved in the leadership have generally done well to maintain its plurality, and have worked successfully together despite not always agreeing on secondary matters.

Recently, the Stop the War website has published a couple of silly articles, clumsily worded or crudely expressed. Compared to what they have been right about over the last several years, this is clearly chiff chaff.

Yet Stop the War has been exposed to relentless criticism, almost becoming a moral panic.

Even the concept of pacifism has become exposed to ridicule. I personally am not a pacifist, but pacifists count amongst their number some of the bravest people imaginable, for example, those who believe that whatever the danger or provocation, they must show witness to God by refusing to use physical violence, even in their own self defence. Pacifists have been imprisoned, tortured and even executed without renouncing this principle. Whether or not we agree with them, they are worthy of respect.

Phil takes a different tack, with a poorly argued and ramshackle argument that Stop the War has the politics of the SWP, and then Phil takes issue not with the contemporary arguments of Stop the War, but with a man who has been dead for nearly a hundred years … Lenin.

Firstly, it is not in fact true that Stop the War ever derived its politics from the SWP. What did happen is that in many parts of the country the organizational impetus and backbone of the STW in its early days came from the SWP, but the politics were always coalitional, and given the short attention span of most SWP activists the most long enduring STW groups genuinely included a wide variety of views, priorities and opinions.

Phil offers us a caricature of “anti-imperialist” politics, for example:

To understand the politics of Stop the War, one must delve a little into political history.
Lenin published his little pamphlet, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism back in 1916 when the world has been carved up by the big powers and they were locked in a deathly grip over a redivision of its spoils. The role of revolutionaries everywhere was to turn inter-imperialist war into revolutionary civil war, to prevent soldiers from turning their bayonets outwards against other workers of other nationalities to the real enemy within – the owners of capital on whose behest the Great War was fought.

Revolutionary defeatism was its name, overthrowing capitalism its game. And then, with mass parties of workers who’d traditionally been locked out of the political system, and were familiar with socialist and, in some cases, Marxist rhetoric, it actually made sense. Whether one disagrees with revolutionary socialist politics or not, it was a real possibility in several European countries as a wave of uprisings and revolts swept the continent as decayed and weakened empires collapsed.

Phil has a PhD and is a clever cookie, so his sleight of hand in introducing the concept of imperialism via Lenin, and by implication with the small groups who still adhere to his thought is a cheap trick. Yes, Lenin did write a pamphlet in 1916 popularising the work of the Austrian social demococrat and mainstream social theorist Hilferding.

But more to the point, the British Empire really did exist, and has had an enduring effect on British culture, economic life and politics. Indeed, a contemporary with Lenin, was the British Labour Party thinker, H.N. Brailsford, the author of the 1914 work War of Steel and Gold who exercised widespread influence in both the UK and America, influencing the foreign policy positions of the Labour Party. Brailsford also argued that the driver for war was the growing power of finance capital, and that what he called “vast aggregations of modern capital” were engaged in struggle to partition the world. A follower of Brailsford was future Labour Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald.

Arguably, Brailsford (and Lenin’s) argument was demonstrably refuted by events. The main imperial threats to British trade interests came from France and Russia, not Germany. Siding with the Entente against the central powers was more a continuation of traditional English policy to intervene to avoid any continental power becoming predominant. While the increasing role of finance capital did go hand in hand with the growth of militarism, it did not play a determining role over specific foreign policy.

Neverthless, what Phil, has done is seek to associate what are actually rather mainstream concerns about Britain’s imperial legacy and military misadventures and over concerns about US militarism, with small groups on the edges of the political spectrum, as a mechanism for not dealing with the actual arguments, and instead seeking to imply that these are odd people with funny beliefs. This is of course a technique perfected by Nick Cohen, and Phil should take a look at the direction he is taking.

Let us again be clear. The terminology of imperialism may sound oddly old fashioned, but Britain really did have a global Empire, built upon military conquest, plunder, rapine and murder. The powerhouse of the British economy was indeed built upon the crimes of Atlantic slavery, upon the transfer of vast amounts of capital to the UK from the colonies, and destroying indigenous economic capacity in order to create mass markets for British manufacturing.

This is not only of historical interest, because Britain’s current economic endowment as a capital rich, high skilled economy has arisen from that legacy. And the prestige and influence of the British state is still bound up with the post-colonial network of military, commercial and diplomatic alliances that arose with the rise of the USA as a global superpower. And yes, British foreign policy is still shaped by those interests, and habits; and there is still a mindset of entitlement, nowadays wrapped up in rather selective concerns about human rights, that has over recent years led to some misplaced military interventions.

The Stop the War Coalition is criticized by Phil as follows:

Yet, as per the pick ‘n’ mix, the SWP ensured Stop the War had nothing to say about the Iraqi regime, the theocracy in Iran, the repugnant character of the Taliban and so on. The patronising logic was the coalition needed to be kept broad around stopping war, anything else would threaten unity.

In fact there has hardly been any shortage of those offering decontextualised, liberal platitudes about all those complex issues, so this was no gap that STW had to fill. What Stop the War has done instead is focus on the inadequacy of UK military action as a solution. Particularly given the fact that the actual lived experience of the military campaigns has been disastrous, and indeed the disastrous outcomes have been made all the worse by the ideologues in Washington who have not respected state sovereignty, and indeed seen the actual destruction of states as a beneficial outcomes – in both Libya and Iraq, and now in Syria.

For sure, anyone discussing the reality of modern international relations using Lenin as an infallible yardstick maybe a fool, but what do we make of someone seeking to use the boogyman of “Leninism” to delegitimise the main anti war campaign that has sought to hold the government to account for the mountains of bodies and ruined lives in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria.