The Resistible Rise of Saint Tommy

It’s been a strange year for Tommy Robinson, aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the founder of the English Defense League. In February, he was cited as a key influence on the Finsbury Mosque attacker, Darren Osbourne. At the end of March, he was banned from Twitter. In April, he led a ‘free speech’ demonstration in London that was attended by a few thousand people, mostly from the Football Lads Alliance. Now, in the space of two weeks, this anti-Muslim ideologue, hatemonger and self-promoting grifter has become a hero-martyr and the focus of an international cult following.

This improbable transformation began two weeks ago, on  27 May, when Robinson was arrested outside Leeds Crown Court, during one of three separate trials involving the same group of mostly Pakistani-heritage men in northern cities accused of the sexual exploitation of mostly white women and young girls.

Robinson’s appearance was part of an ongoing attempt to monetize himself as an independent ‘reporter’ – a vocation that has often focused on the issue of sexual grooming cases. For Robinson, these revolting and deeply disturbing crimes are only of interest insofar as their perpetrators are Muslims and their victims are white.

Like his ideological peers, Robinson has presented these crimes as a product of Islam, and another sign that British society is in thrall to a barbaric and alien Islamic culture/religion, supported by a politically-correct liberal establishment. To promote this agenda, this ‘citizen-journalist’ has taken to hanging around outside ongoing trials of grooming cases, in order to frame them for his audiences as ‘Muslim’ crimes…

My piece for Ceasefire Magazine.  You can read the rest here

Corbyn’s Migrant Failure

Jeremy Corbyn’s speech to the Scottish Labour Party conference last week has drawn a lot of criticism from the SNP and others, for appearing to attack and blame migrants for the UK’s economic woes.  Corbyn’s defenders have naturally rejected these charges.  Paul Mason has dismissed the criticisms of Corbyn to the ‘pro-SNP media’,  whatever that is, while other Corbynistas have attributed them to the media in general, the Blairite right etc, etc

This furore was due to a single sentence – a phrase in fact – in Corbyn’s discussion of the May government’s Brexit policy.  Corbyn’s criticism, as usual, revolved around the incoherence and incompetence of May’s negotiatiating strategy, rather than its substance.  After trashing her record – not hard –  he reiterated Labour’s own ‘jobs first’ Brexit as the only credible alternative..  He talked about possibly staying in ‘a’ customs union, hinted at possibly staying in the single market, or at least seeking an agreement that would secure its benefits and advantages.  Corbyn then laid out various caveats that might prevent such an outcome, including the following:

We cannot be held back inside or outside the EU from taking the steps we need to develop and invest in cutting edge industries and local business stop the tide of privatisation and outsourcing, or from preventing employers being able to import cheap agency labour to undercut existing pay and conditions in the name of free market orthodoxy.

To his critics, this was blatant populist dog whistling, which echoes the UKIP and Tory framing of ‘mass immigration’ as a cause of low wages and poor working conditions.  To his defenders, Corbyn was criticizing employers rather than migrants themselves.   These criticisms are too strong, which doesn’t mean that the defence holds up either.

Corbyn’s ‘undercutting’ argument was on one hand an expression of his Lexit-tinged ‘euroscepticism’, with its implicit suggestion that the EU’s commitment to free movement is merely an expression of its commitment to ‘free market othodoxy’.  The use of ‘import’ is not a great word to describe the process by which people move from one country to another.  It’s a dehumanising term which reduces any sense of choice or agency on the part of migrants themselves and makes them sound a lot like sheep or cattle.  It also ignores persistent evidence that  migration does not undercut local pay and conditions – at least not on the scale that Corbyn and so many others have implied.

This does not mean that such ‘undercutting’ doesn’t happen at all.  But by mentioning it only in the context of a discussion about Brexit, and leaving it there, Corbyn leaves out a great deal, just as so many others have done before him from a very different perspective.

Firstly it suggests that the EU is complicit in this ‘undercutting’ – a variant on a UKIP theme.    Corbyn has also made this argument before and used the same kind of language, for example last year, when he talked of the ‘wholesale importation of workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry.’  This was reckless and inflammatory language then, and it still is.   Then, as now, Corbyn’s comments were partly a veiled criticism of the EU’s ‘Posted Workers Directive’ – a directive that brought 54,000 workers to the UK in 2015 – out of a total workforce of 31.million.

The extent to which the PWD has resulted in the ‘undercutting’ that Corbyn describes is debatable, to say the least.  Only 17 percent of these workers came from low-waged countries, and the majority of PWD workers came from Ireland.  The UK government’s own instructions to posted workers state clearly that ‘ If the country you’re posted to has a higher minimum wage, your employer must give you that rate or higher.’

So if this isn’t happening, then that is clearly a problem of national and local enforcement, rather than another EU ‘bosses club’ trick.  In addition the European Union itself is seeking to reform the PWD to reduce the possibility of ‘undercutting’, as Corbyn admits in the same speech, when he acknowledges that:‘The European Union is set to make changes of its own in the coming period especially in relation to the rules governing Eurozone economies and the rights of temporary migrant workers.’

So does the EU’s commitment to ‘free market orthodoxy’ have its limitations then?  Corbyn won’t admit anything of the kind.  Instead he merely concludes that ‘It would therefore be wrong to sign up to a single market deal without agreement that our final relationship with the EU would be fully compatible with our radical plans to change Britain’s economy.’

Let’s leave aside the fact that Corbyn’s own proposals are no less nebulous and impossible to realize as May’s, and look at what else his ‘undercutting’ references to migrants ignore.  Corbyn delivered his speech at a time when 3.4 million EU citizens in this country and 1.2 million Brits abroad remain ‘in limbo’ after more than eighteen months.

All of them are being forced to accept a new ‘settled status’ that will put many of them under huge emotional pressure, that amounts to a dimunition of the rights that they enjoyed  when they came to the UK, and which will leave them at the mercy of the most brutal arm of the UK government: the Home Office.   All EU nationals in the UK, are in the widest sense of the term ‘migrants’.  Yet none of them have complained that they were ‘imported’ to the UK.

Corbyn, like so many members of the Labour left, ignores the free choices that they made.  He ignores the fact that free movement is a far better way  of preventing the exploitation and undercutting that he describes – when coupled with stricter local and national wage enforcement – than the kind of ‘control’ and restrictions that are likely to emerge post-Brext.

Corbyn could have made the argument that freedom of movement is one of the great progressive achievements of the European Union, compared with the closed borders of the 20th century and the gastarbeiter-type labour programmes that once left migrant workers far more unprotected than they are now. He could have discuss how trade unions might organise amongst migrants and non-migrant workers, and explained what a Labour government might do to enforce the minimum wage and prevent the kind of ‘undercutting’ that he describes.

He could have drawn attention to some of the recent successes achieved by smaller trade unions like United Voices of the World and the IWGB, which do organize amongst precarious migrant workers in various sectors.  He could have pointed out that immigration has been broadly positive for the UK, that migrants create jobs and pay taxes. He could have pointed out that demographics, skill shortages, and an aging population mean that the UK will remain a country of migration for decades to come regardless of whether or not we stay in the European Union.

If politicians are not prepared to make these arguments, then they are conceding ground to the right no matter how progressive they wish to be.  It’s no good saying that ‘ Migrants should not be scapegoated’ on one hand, and talking about ‘importing’ migrants and ‘undercutting’ on the other.  If you do that you’re merely suggesting that immigration is bad but migrants shouldn’t be blamed for its essential badness.

But when it comes to migration, Corbyn’s Labour Party is just as cowardly as its predecessors have been, just as calculating in its willingness to harvest the anti-immigrant vote in marginal constituencies, just as as unwilling to challenge evidence-free assumptions.

And that may not mean that Corbyn has gone UKIP, let alone that he is blowing a dog whistle, but if he wishes to chart out a genuine progressive alternative then he will need to do a lot better than this.

ISIS, Trolls, and the Language of Hate

In a powerful New Year’s video for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Kemal Pervanic, a Bosnian Muslim,  remembers how he ended up being interrogated and tortured in a concentration camp by his favourite teacher during the Yugoslav Wars.    He  asks his viewers to learn the lessons of history, and bear in mind the possibility that such things are not unique to any particular time period:  ‘If you speak to anyone out there right now, they’ll tell you that they’re crazy if you tell them that something like that may happen. But now after I lived through such events, I know that it can happen to anyone.’

It certainly can, especially when the hateful thoughts and fantasies that people carry around in their heads individually are weaponised or become social currency. Consider the New Year’s message from ISIS claiming responsibility for the atrocious Reina nightclub massacre in Istanbul:

‘In continuation of the blessed operations that Islamic State is conducting against the protector of the cross, Turkey, a heroic soldier of the caliphate struck one of the most famous nightclubs where the Christians celebrate their apostate holiday.’

In some translations, ‘apostate holiday’ has been translated as ‘pagan feast’, but it doesn’t actually matter much because these are words that debase those who utter them, and debase humanity itself.  It’s tempting to treat such words with the same appalled disgust that you might give to a serial killer who boasts of his crimes to the media to enhance his profile and mystique.

Morally-speaking this statement is on the same level of gibberish. No one ‘blessed’ the mass murder of random 39 nightclubbers – at least no one with any credibility beyond ISIS’s nightmare netherworld.   Murdering men and women in a nightclub is no more ‘heroic’ than John Wayne  Gacy murdering young boys.

A man who has abandoned all known religious and secular traditions of mercy accumulated over centuries of war and conflict can never be a hero – unless he inhabits a moral universe in which all moral codes are inverted and turned upside down.  Going to a nightclub does not constitute an ‘apostate holiday’ or a ‘ pagan feast’ and no one has any moral right to kill people who go to one, whether they are Christians or members of any other group.

This should be obvious, and it is, even to ISIS.  Because ISIS is not mad.  There is always a strategic purpose behind its seemingly barking rantings and its most vile acts. In this case Erdogan is probably right that ISIS wants to destabilise Turkey and demonstrate to the Turkish people that the state that is now making war on ISIS in Syria can no longer protect its own citizens within their own borders.

So on one level the act and the justifying statement is a demonstration of ‘power’.  But the ISIS message is also designed to disguise the disgusting and repellent reality of the acts they purport to describe.  They are maledicta – words of hate – intended to render entire categories of people worthy of extermination.

This is what language can do, when it is used for such purposes, and it has always been thus, whether it was Spanish clerics describing seventeenth century Moriscos as vermin or Hutu radio stations in Rwanda denouncing Tutsi ‘cockroaches.’

Such dehumanising language is not limited to one ‘side’ in the 21st century’s media-drenched conflicts.  Consider these responses to a Channel 4 News report on refugees forced to sleeping in a Croatian cemetery near the Serbian border:

Hey rag head, no we hate Muslims they are cockroach’s (sic). They are evil vile and are the spawn of Satan himself. There will be no peace on earth till these savages are exterminated, just like a cockroach

Animals !! Burn theme (sic) alive , look in the eyes of this people , they animals (sic)

Some of those who posted these comments are Serbs, but others have joined from the English-speaking world:

No respect for the dead even less for the living Muslim scum

Men men Mrs Isis terrorists coming to rape the women of Europe

Disrespectful Muslim zombies

There is no doubt that the massacres carried out by ISIS in Europe over the last two years are intended to invite exactly this kind of response.  ISIS documents have clearly identified whipping up hatred towards Muslims who inhabit ‘the grey zone’ as a strategic goal.  They dream of a global ‘civilisational’ conflict that will leave Muslims nowhere else to turn to but them, and they have many people on the opposite ‘side’ who are only too willing to oblige them.

We like to use the word ‘trolls’ to describe the men and women who make below-the-line comments like the ones I’ve quoted, and there are many more where they came from, and in the last few years they have also been appearing above the line.  One of them has just been elected president of the United States.  Another has just been awarded a $250,000 book contract by Simon & Schuster.

Over here we have women like Katie Hopkins, who calls refugees ‘cockroaches’ in a national newspaper, and has now retweeted  a neo-Nazi Twitter account  in support of her claim that she is not ‘racist’.   Hopkins has said ‘ I genuinely believe “racist” as a word has been used so much.  I’m sorry for the word racist in a way. I love language.

Nothing I have ever read of Hopkin’s self-aggrandizing trolling suggests that she loves language – or anything at all for that matter.  She would be one more of the sick jokes that the 21st century keeps playing on us, were it not for the fact that she echoes and repeats in a marginally more acceptable from what trolls below the line are also saying.

That is why the mainstream media has fallen over itself to court her, not because she has anything coherent, intelligent or thoughtful to say about anything, but nowadays it seems to matter less and less what people actually saying as long as it attracts enough clicks or produces a minute or two of ‘good television’ or ‘good radio. ‘

Hopkins might think that she is ‘standing up to Islam’ or whatever it is she thinks she’s standing up to, but people like her are the gift to ISIS that keeps on giving, and so are the wretched hatemongers foaming at the mouth about Muslim invasions and ‘rapefugees.’

Perhaps the single most important lesson that we can draw from history is that very few people listen to the lessons of history.  And now, in 2017, it’s incumbent upon all of us, whatever background we come from to try harder, and reach back into our best traditions, not simply in order to ‘tolerate’ each other, but to find our way towards a coexistence that keep marginalise the murderers, the trolls and the haters.

Because if we don’t do this, we will never get out of the mess we’re in, and we will be laying the foundations for a future of endless war and endless violence that will make any kind of coexistence impossible.

 

 

2016: The Year of Living Fearfully

There was a time – it seems many years ago now – when governments in the Western world told their populations that things were getting better, and that they were helping them to get better.   In those days voters by and large believed them, and made their political choices from amongst a cluster of political parties who they were familiar with and who mostly sounded and looked the same.

Voters may not have liked or trusted politicians individually but they recognized the parameters they were operating in.  They knew that they were right-of-centre or left-of-centre or somewhere in between. Anything further out than that and the majority of voters would usually say no.

For some time now these assumptions have been crumbling in different countries and at different speeds.  It’s difficult to put a particular date on when this disintegration started.  Some might trace it to the 2008/09 financial crisis and the grotesque fraud known as ‘austerity’ which followed.

But you could go further back, to the rampant ‘end of history’ arrogance that provided accompanied the shift towards globalisation at the end of the Cold War; when a capitalism that believed itself to be victorious and unchallenged believed that it could do anything it wanted; when even liberal governments adopted conservative nostrums and regarded the whole notion of an enabling state as a historical anachronism.

Or perhaps we could see the origins of our current predicament in the Reagan/Thatcher years, when the exaltation of ‘the market’ and the glorification of wealth came to trump (pardon the pun) any other  social considerations.

Whatever the timetable,  2016 will go down in history as a watershed year when the old political establishment that had largely accepted this consensus was rejected by an  unprecedented electoral insurgency that was dominated by the right and extreme right. This was the year in which millions of people in the UK voted for perhaps the greatest  assembly of snake oil salesmen in the history of British politics, largely on the basis of post-imperial fantasies and pipe-dreams.

Given the positions taken by Tony Blair and George Bush over Iraq – to name but two examples – we can all take the notion of ‘post-truth politics’ with more than a pinch of salt.   Lying didn’t begin in 2016, after all.  But what is alarming about 2016 was the fact that politicians could lie through their teeth, and people would often know or sense that they were lying, and they would still vote for them if only because they weren’t the liars they were used to.

This was a year when emotion and magical thinking triumphed over rationality, common sense and even material self-interest; when millionaires and billionaires presented themselves as the voice of the common people and anti-establishment rebels; when millions of people voted for giant walls, imaginary jobs, ‘control’ and other things that were difficult if not impossible to achieve, and which the ‘rebels’ who were offering them never really intended to achieve.

It was also a year in which you could be a racist, sexist, misogynist braggart and people were still prepared to make you president of the United States; when voters in the UK opted to leave the European Union largely because of ‘concerns’ about immigration that were steeped in misinformation, and xenophobic and racist assumptions that Leave politicians cynically manipulated and played on.

All this should be deeply alarming to anyone on the left/liberal spectrum who doesn’t believe that these developments were some kind anti-establishment rebellion or a revolt against neoliberalism.  Revolts they may have been, but electoral insurgencies against the ‘establishment’ don’t necessarily benefit the left and may in fact contribute to its destruction – or at the very least, its irrelevance.

Many factors contributed to making 2016 such a weirdly morbid and demoralising political year, but its consequences are now glaringly clear to anyone who wants to look: that the Western world is now in the throes of a reactionary nativist/hyper-nationalist ‘counter-revolution’ with a distinctly rank odour of white privilege and white supremacism wafting into the mainstream from its fringes.

To point this out doesn’t mean that all the voters who voted for the grotesque political monster that is Donald Trump were racists, bigots or white supremacists, but millions of voters were prepared to ignore the racist and bigoted sentiments that Trump mobilised so brazenly,  because they didn’t care about them or because other things mattered to them more.

The same in the UK.  It’s rather pointless – and tedious – to have to refute the Leave argument that ‘not everyone who voted for Brexit is racist or a xenophobe.’ Obviously not, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that the Leave vote would have triumphed without the barrage of dog whistle messages about immigration that accompanied the campaign.

These alarming and disturbing tendencies are not likely to abate anytime soon, and further shocks may follow in the coming year, so it is incumbent upon us to face up to them and not take refuge in ‘the revolution is just around the corner’ or ‘first the liberals then us’ utopianism – or is it just opportunism?

One of the main reasons why the right triumphed in 2016 is because it was able to mobilise fears and anxieties that the old political order has not bothered to address or has not known how to address.   For some years now fear has become the dominant political emotion of the 21st century, which politicians of various persuasions have sought to mobilise.   The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has coined the term ‘liquid fear’  to describe the anxieties that he believes underpin the current ‘crisis of humanity’ in the Western world.

For Bauman, the crisis is driven by a ‘tangible feeling of anxiety that has only vague contours but is still acutely present everywhere.’  These fears are manifold.  Fear of terrorism – often translated into fear of Muslims or simply fear of ‘the Other’.   Fear of immigrants and refugees. Fear of war, violence and political instability.  Fear of open borders.

Today, as Adam Curtis has often pointed out, politicians have largely abandoned the notion of a better future, and like to present themselves as managers of risk, preventing the bad from becoming even worse and promising to  ‘keep you safe’ even when their decisions are clearly not making anyone safe.

On the contrary we live in an age of persistent and constant insecurity, which our rulers often seem determined to encourage.  Whether we are beneficiaries or victims of globalisation, we all inhabit an economic system that is inherently unstable, chaotic and prone to shocks and tremors such as the 2008 crisis, that can capsize the futures of millions of people in an instant.

Having largely abandoned the notion of an enabling state, governments and political and financial institutions from the IMF to the EU have adopted and accepted policies that appear to be intent on reducing more and more people to a state of permanent insecurity and precariousness.  Since 2008 austerity has pushed more and more people – except the rich and powerful – towards a common precipice where they are told that they will have to work longer, for less, or try and find some tenuous foothold in an economy based on ‘flexibility’ while the struts and safety nets that still pay lip service to the common good are systematically pared back and dismantled.

In these circumstances, no one should be surprised that millions of people have rejected what they see as the politicians who have presided over these developments – or at least been unable to prevent them.

The tragedy is that they have chosen politicians who are unlikely to bring them anything better and are more likely to make things even worse.  There are many things that will have to happen to turn back the nativist tide, but one of them must surely be to reduce the fear and insecurity that has led so many people to turn to the pseudo-solutions offered by this dangerous new generation of chancers, demagogues and charlatans.

This shouldn’t mean emollient talk of ‘hope’ – let alone fantasy revolutions and utopias. Utopia is not a solution to the dystopian present that is now unfolding before our eyes. To my mind the left needs to think outside the usual channels if it is not to vanish into irrelevance.   We need practical and viable polices and solutions; a new notion of the common good; broader coalitions, alliances and discussions that do not simply involve the left talking to itself.

This doesn’t mean aping the right.  You don’t have to fight reaction by becoming reactionary yourselves.  You don’t right racism and anti-immigrant scapegoating by pandering to it.

Nationally, and internationally, the crises and problems that confront us in the 21st century require collective solutions, not walls and even harder borders – whether mental or physical.

Trump, Farage, Johnson and so many  of the  ‘populists’ who have made 2016 such a grim year are offering a kind of certainty and security.  They won’t succeed, even on their own terms, because they are liars, frauds and demagogues, and because their ‘solutions’ are unrealisable.

But already they have made the world a nastier and more evil place.  ‘Their world is crumbling, ours is being built, ‘ crowed the Front National in celebration of Trump’s victory in November.

That is one possibility, and you would have to be naive and cynical to discount it.   To prevent this outcome, it must surely be our task in 2017 to combat the forces they have helped unleash,  and reduce the toxic political emotions that are leading us towards a disaster that we may not recover from.