On Writing and Silence

A loyal follower of this blog and Internet friend asked me last week why I haven’t blogged much recently, so I thought I should explain to those who are interested. There are three main reasons.  In the first place, I’ve been extraordinarily busy.  I’ve been writing two books, one of which required a lot of rewriting.  I’ve also been helping to organize the One Day Without Us campaign, which really has eaten into my working day, particularly in October, when it was almost impossible to do anything else.

Secondly, so many horrific,depressing – and complex things have happened this year that I have felt unable to keep up with them or say anything meaningful about them in the time that I have had.

My inability to speak out about Trump, Brexit, Syria, Yemen and so many other things is also related to an ongoing personal political crisis that I have yet to resolve.  In November last year, one of the people who criticized my ‘international brigades’ post asked me why I kept writing things.  I told him I wrote because there wasn’t any choice for me.  It’s what I do and what I’ve always done.   At the same time I’ve always asked myself what value writing has – not just mine – but any writing.  What does it do?  What does it achieve?

One of my favourite writers is the great Austrian satirist Karl Kraus ‘ the master of venomous ridicule’, as Stefan Zweig once called him.  Kraus’s venom and his ridicule sometimes bordered on the misanthropic – not a position I’ve ever wanted to find myself in – but he wrote with real brilliance about the nationalist insanity of World War II, in his essays and also in his sprawling play The Last Days of Humanity.   In an essay on the outbreak of World War I, Kraus said that essentially that the world had become so corrupt and debased to the point that language itself had not meaning and therefore the only thing writers could do was step forward and say nothing at all.

Of course he didn’t do that – he was a writer after all.   But one writer who did retreat into silence was Isaac Babel.  Estranged from Stalinist literary culture and from Stalin himself, he decided to write nothing and say nothing.  In Stalinist Russia that wasn’t good enough of course.  Silence was a political position, because it wasn’t support for the regime.  Because Babel didn’t loudly proclaim the revolution and its inane cult of socialist realism, he was objectively counter-revolutionary and that’s why he was eventually shot, in effect, for saying nothing.

My own temporary silence on this blog owes more to Kraus than to Babel.  It isn’t that I consider silence a statement, but lately I have just not been able to find the words with which to respond to the depraved lunacy and collective stupidity that is sweeping my country and the Western world lately.

And that isn’t all.   I’ve always thought of myself as on the left and of the left and I still do, but there’s so little I admire or respect about the British left right now it’s really hard to feel I ‘belong ‘ to it. On one level I never did . I didn’t call my blog ‘notes from the margins’ for nothing. If I had any use as a writer writing about politics, it was from that marginal critical position, which didn’t pin me to any established party or network or make the representative of anything.

That changed somewhat when Stop the War began posting my pieces – something that I was ok with until I found myself accused of ‘representing’ positions that I didn’t have.   But 2016 has been a kind of critical rupture for me, following the debacle of last November w/ the ‘international brigades’ fiasco and the almost complete abandonment of critical faculties by sections of the left back then – which still continues albeit in trickles – , not to mention Stop the War’s cowardly abandonment of myself and Chris Floyd.

Then there was Brexit,and it’s little wannabe sister Lexit, propagating the cynical/opportunist and downright foolish idea that a no vote was somehow ‘progressive’ – coupled with a refusal to recognise the racism unleashed and legitimised by it, and a willingness to effectively throw some three million EU citizens under the Brexit bus in the vague hope that something good might turn up out of the mess for the left, or the working class or the revolution.

Let me make it absolutely clear – a left that behaves like this and thinks like this, no matter how cleverly, is not a movement that I feel anything in common with or want to ‘belong’ to, or speak for or speak to.   There really aren’t any words to express how disgusted I am by this and how shameful I find it.

And now we have McDonnell, McCluskey and Lewis coming from the soft left promising to ‘listen to concerns’ about immigration, when they should be challenging them.

And then there is the left and Syria. It isn’t just the ‘revolutionary’ posturing by people who would never go anywhere near a Syrian battlefield, many of whom are busy picking up MAs and PhDs while spouting platitudes about armed struggle.Or the  vicious insults if you don’t accept their starry-eyed vision of the Syrian revolution. Fascist bag carrier. Truther. Ghouta denialist. Assad supporter. Piece of shit. ISIS lover – I’ve heard it all from these great humanitarians over the last few years.

It isn’t just the certainty about things that are not always certain. Or the jostling for a morally superior position, using Syria as an excuse to pursue old sectarian vendettas in a new form. There are also the  leftists who talk about Assad as if he were the good guy in this, and a representative of the ‘axis of resistance’ etc, and now t’s all Israel’s fault etc

To me the Syrian war is an unmitigated horror. Is that the ‘correct’ line? Is it enough? No. Do I know the ‘truth’ about Syria?  No.   But I find it astounding that Syria has suddenly become a test of how left or how moral or how revolutionary you are. I do not accept that we ‘have blood on our hands’ for Aleppo and not for Yemen, or South Sudan, or Mosul, or Gaza.

Why does the ‘left’ play games like this? Why, when faced with wars, do  so many leftists believe that you always have to support one side or the other? Suppose you don’t think any of the sides are ‘good’?

In the end I don’t know  why the left behaves like this, but like I said, I don’t admire or respect it (hey don’t worry, i know the feeling’s mutual), and it’s made it very difficult for me to write blog posts or even facebook posts – except on racism and migration.

The thing is, for much of my life I felt that the left were the good guys – regardless of the many historical crimes that some leftist regimes have carried out, and that the left, with all its contradictions, still offered answers to the various scourges of militarism, racism, war, poverty and social justice that it was incumbent on my generation to try and solve.

Now I’m not sure if that’s true. I’m not even sure the left, especially the ‘revolutionary’ left has any future at all except as a subculture – and a forum to attack anyone who isn’t Marxist enough for it or as revolutionary as they think they should be.

In fact I’m not really that sure about anything right now, and that’s why I haven’t written very much on this blog.   That doesn’t I’m going to retreat into silence or withdraw from the world. It doesn’t mean that I intend to follow the Nick Cohen route.

I have no intention of shutting down the Infernal Machine permanently.  After all,  I might have Karl Kraus whispering in one ear, but I also have Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s great poem Bol! [Speak} next to my desk, which declares quite rightly:

Speak, this brief hour is long enough
Before the death of body and tongue:
Speak, ‘Cause the truth is not dead yet,
Speak, speak, whatever you must speak.

So I wish you all a peaceful ending to this year of lunacy, and I look forward to seeing you all again  in 2017, ready to wage the many struggles that still have to be waged.

Talkin’ World War III Blues

I know that the British media and political class have had a lot of important things to think and talk about recently, and far be it from me to distract from the seriousness of the debate that  has been taking place about our latest headlong leap into the Middle Eastern unknown.   Nevertheless, there are certain alarming events which I feel might just be worthy a nanosecond of our attention – just a smidgen and then we can move on, because I know that our politicians and journalists are men and women of real gravitas who don’t like to waste their time on trivia.

The first thing I wanted to mention is the curious fact that yesterday Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a 34-member ‘Islamic anti-terrorism’ coalition  to fight Islamic State.    You in the back, stop laughing now.   Of course some cynics might think that a country that last year declared all atheists to be terrorists might not be the best state to be leading a coalition against Daesh.

It is true that Saudi Arabia has been mercilessly pulverising Yemen day after day in its war against Houthi rebels, regardless of the fact that its onslaught is pushing one of the poorest countries in the world towards the brink of total collapse – and all this with weaponry supplied by Britain, France and the United States.

But then we ought to remember that Saudi Arabia is the current president of the UN human rights council, thanks to a little support by the UK government, so I think you at the back should really stop that giggling and show a little respect.

Because today the Telegraph revealed that this coalition may send special forces into Syria in order to fight ISIS, with the approval of the British government.  According to the Telegraph:

‘British military sources told the Telegraph that while the UK would not provide boots on the ground, they were on standby to provide air support and ” command and control”.  But any Gulf or other forces would clearly add to or take the place of the 70,000 “moderate rebels” whom David Cameron, the Prime Minister, wants to be the “boots on the ground” to displace Isil in Syria but who say they already have their hands full fighting the Assad regime.’

And equally significant:

‘The Saudis and their Sunni Muslim allies would also be intent on preventing any vacuum being filled by the Bashar al-Assad regime, or its Shia Iranian allies, against whom the Gulf is facing off across the region.’

So in other words Saudis and their allies – some of whom have been instrumental in financing and supporting Daesh and other Salafi groups in a variety of ways, are now proposing to attack IS, and provide ground troops in Raqqa and other areas that have been bombed by the coalition..

This surely explains why Saudi Arabia  staged a conference of Syrian rebels – from which Syrian Kurds were naturally excluded – in Riyadh only last week in yet another attempt to forge the Syrian opposition into a unified front.  The Saudis are clearly intent on escalating the war no matter what the cost to Syrians or anyone else, and they aren’t alone in this. Because now the British government is proposing to provide air support and ‘command and control’ to a military offensive in Syria that will  almost certainly  pit the Saudi ‘anti-terrorism’ coalition – and the current bombing coalition that includes the United States, Britain, and France against Assad, Russia, and Iran.

A regional peacekeeping force in Syria that might safeguard a ceasefire and a political settlement is one thing, but there is nothing to suggest that Riyadh’s ‘Islamic antiterrorism coalition’ has any such intentions.  It is a Sunni coalition, not an ‘Islamic’ one – a carnival of reaction lumbering towards what even the Telegraph recognizes may ignite an all-out Shia/Sunni sectarian war – and our government appears to be disposed to go along with it and seems to regard it as a positive development.

So now we know where those 70,000 fighters came from, though none of this was mentioned when Cameron first made that claim.  Instead the Tory government, with the assistance of Hilary Benn and his conscience-stricken MPs, convinced themselves and the public that they were just planning a little recreational bombing, something to help us get our mojo back.

I don’t wish to be melodramatic or upset anyone, but this is how world wars start.    This is how entire regions as well as countries become battlegrounds. But all these possibilities were almost entirely absent  from the ‘mature’ debate that so many journalists congratulated our parliamentarians upon.

Instead we talked about Stop the War, and whether Jeremy Corbyn should go to their Xmas dinner, and what two bloggers did or didn’t say.

And now we are sleepwalking towards what threatens to become a global conflagration, and we don’t seem to be talking about it at all.


Corbyn’s rebels

Lyndon Johnson once said of F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover that ” It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”  Perhaps that was the rationale behind Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to pack his shadow cabinet with so many people who did  not  reflect the new political direction that so many party members voted for.  Or perhaps it was motivated by the desire to maintain as much of a broad church as possible, and try to prevent a destructive schism in the Labour Party between the PLP and the grassroots campaign that so triumphantly and unexpectedly brought Corbyn to power.

Either way, from where I’m standing I can’t help feeling that the strategy has failed on both counts, and that  Corbyn would have done better to remember the wisdom expressed by the O’Jays, when they sang ‘ they smile in your face, all the time they wanna take your place, the backstabbers.’

Because some members of the PLP are merely critical of some of Corbyn’s policies, which is normal, but others are clearly so viscerally opposed to his politics in general that they are prepared to take any opportunity to undermine Corbyn and make his position politically untenable, and I mean any.    At the beginning of the week it was McDonnell’s somewhat clunking attempt to ridicule Cameron/Osborne’s courting of China, with Mao’s Red Book.

Let’s face it, that wasn’t a smart move, but McDonnell’s intentions were obvious to anyone who wanted to look.   Not to  Chuka Umunna apparently, who declared ” I haven’t quoted from a communist before,  and I have no intention of doing so in the future.”  Well, it’s always good to come across a politician with principles, isn’t it?

But such fakery is nothing compared with Syria, which many of Corbyn’s enemies now appear ready to wield as an instrument for his political destruction.  Because unlike Corbyn, I cannot believe that the decision of so many Labour MPs to support Cameron’s back-of-a-fag-packet bombing campaign is driven by moral considerations.

Perhaps some of them really see bombing Syria as a matter of conscience, but I cannot believe that they seriously believe that the case Cameron presented to parliament on Friday was any more ‘compelling’ than the case that Blair made for the Iraq War.   Even the Daily Mail found it shallow and unconvincing, yet Hilary Benn and co. appear to have swallowed it whole, without even chewing first.

Do they really believe that a government that has yet to explain what a bombing campaign would achieve has ‘learned the lessons of Iraq’, as Cameron claimed?  I have heard at least one Labour MP suggest that Corbyn is ‘out of his depth’ in Syria, as if the party that took the country to war in Iraq had some deep understanding about the Middle East that is informing its current thinking.

To hear people like Tom Watson reciting the mantra ‘ we-must-keep-our-country-safe’ without even apparently having thought through whether or not bombing would bring about this outcome, suggests something more than naivete or ignorance. Watson is one of the Labour MPs who voted for the Iraq War, and the seeming inability of politicians like him to understand the extent to which that war helped form the same enemy they now want to bomb, suggests that  militarism and Great-Britain-must-be-greatism  are as ingrained in their  political DNA as they are on the Tory Party’s.

And for all the talk about morality, I can’t help feeling that there is nothing moral about this, and that what these rebels would really like to do is use Syria to humiliate Corbyn and make it impossible for him to remain as party leader.  And I have a horrible feeling they might succeed, because, no matter how the vote turns out, and regardless of how many times McDonnell says ‘democracy doesn’t mean division’ , I can’t see how Corbyn can  fight an election campaign with a party as divided as the Labour Party now is,  over so many crucial issues.  

And I can’t see how he can remain in the same party as his enemies – at least not as leader.  It’s one thing to have the occasional Corbynite on the backbenches to give the appearance of a broad church, when you know that the party leadership will ignore everything they say.   It’s quite another to have him in charge, with a mandate from outside the PLP.

Too many Labour MPs have made it clear that they have more in common with the Tory opposition than they do with Corbyn, and that they will plot, leak and brief, and do whatever is necessary in order to destroy him and the movement that created him,  so that things can go back to normal – their normal.    

Perhaps they see all that as ‘moral’ too, but I really doubt it.

We Bomb Therefore We Are

Many people who have never read a word of military history or strategy will have come across the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s famous dictum that ‘war is politics (policy) by other means.’    If wars are fought in pursuit of political goals, then it follows that governments will know what these goals are, and develop appropriate military strategies to achieve them.

The U.S. Department of Defense currently defines strategy of ‘ a prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronised and integrated fashion to achieve, theater, national, and/or multinational objectives.‘  This is what the Lincoln administration eventually managed to do in the American Civil War, and what successive American administrations failed to do in Vietnam.

Such notions have been conspicuously absent from the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and its various offshoots.    Some critics of the GWOT pointed out that the elimination of global terrorism was a goal that was impossible to achieve, and was certainly not achievable through war.

Others criticized the war in Iraq as a distraction from this central goal.  But these criticisms missed the point.  In our new era of permanent war, war is not a means to a single end; it is an end in itself, or rather an ongoing process that can ‘sweep up’ – as Donald Rumsfeld put it – many different aims and rationales as it goes along.

This was the case in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and it has also been the case in Syria..   Ever since the summer of 2011,  the US, France and Britain – with the support of Turkey and their Gulf allies – have been looking for reasons to bomb Syria – or rather to bomb something in Syria.  Initially the reasons were ostensibly humanitarian; to protect civilians from the Assad regime and stop a dictator from  repressing a democratic uprising and  attacking ‘his own people.’

In the last two years, the debate about bombing has shifted to national security, as Daesh/ISIS has now taken the place of al Qaeda as an existential enemy and a threat to the West’s safety and security.

These debates always begin from a position of absolute military superiority, which makes it possible for a handful of states to look down at any part of the world through a bomb sight and consider whether or not to open fire.  Such debates invariably take it for granted that bombing is a necessary solution for whatever particular threat or problem that presents itself, or at least  that bombing is better than doing nothing.   Often the debate about whether to bomb or not to bomb is infused with a note of desperate hopefulness;  just drop enough bombs for long enough and something will turn up – preferably without the need to put ‘boots on the ground’.

These debates generally pay little attention Clausewitz or conventional notions of military strategy.  On the contrary, strategy is often entirely absent from bombing campaigns whose aims are often vague and poorly-defined, and lack any serious attempt to weigh up whether these goals are achievable.

What will happen if ISIS fighters melt into the civilian population of the cities that are being bombed?   Should we continue to bomb them?   Will bombing campaigns actually increase the numbers of ISIS recruits by making them look like victims?   To what extent does bombing impede or increase the possibilities of a political solution to the Syrian war and the reconstruction of Syria and Iraq?

Even to ask some of these questions, as Jeremy Corbyn tried to do last week, and you are likely to be called a Stalinist, a useless peacenik, an appeaser or a crypto-fascist apologist for Assad, or a naive fool who doesn’t understand how evil ISIS is.     Since the Paris attacks this chorus has reached a crescendo of unanimity, rage and hysteria.   Some of this is understandable, given what happened, but some of its loudest voices are clearly seizing on the opportunity the attacks have provided.

David Cameron, for instance, has been desperate to bomb Syria for a long time, regardless of the consequences or the target, and so is a significant section of the British political establishment.  As in France, the government appears to take it for granted that we are ‘ at war’ and that we can only prevent further attacks by bombing, yet no one seems to know whether ‘bombing Raqqa’ will make us safer, or whether it will make ISIS weaker or stronger.

The only member of the ‘grand coalition’ against ISIS which appears to see bombing in strategic terms is Russia.  Russia’s bombing campaign is clearly intended to prop up Assad and enable his army to reclaim some of its lost territories.  Whether this campaign is intended to strengthen the Syrian government’s position in the event of a ceasefire,  or simply make it impossible for Assad’s external enemies to attack the government directly without also attacking Russia, there is evidence of an actual  strategy behind it.

The Russian bombing campaign is also being carried out in conjunction with the the Syrian Arab Army, which means that there are ‘boots on the ground’ – the essential corollary of any successful tactical bombing offensive.

To point this out doesn’t mean that what Russia is doing is good.  What Syria needs now is not bombs, but a return to politics.  It needs less foreign military intervention and more international attempts to bring about a ceasefire and a new political arrangement in which Daesh can have no place.

Personally, I have no problem with the notion that Daesh must be militarily  – and politically –  defeated, but that is primarily a task for Syrians and Iraqis, and I have no doubt that they can do it – when they have governments they want to fight for.  But  I have yet to hear any advocate of bombing Syria – whether these calls demand the bombing of Assad or the bombing of Daesh – explain how an escalation of bombing can contribute to this outcome.

In this country, neither the government nor the Labour rightwingers who have used the Paris attacks to bludgeon Corbyn, have defined the strategic goals of a bombing campaign, or attempted to consider whether bombing would create more destruction or less.    .

Tactical bombing, as opposed to strategic bombing, requires infantry forces on the ground, yet neither this government nor any other seems to know who these soldiers would be. Certainly not their own, nor Assad’s, nor even the Kurds, who the US is now backing away from under pressure from its Turkish ally.

Instead the Paris attacks are being used to terrify the public into ‘bombing Syria’ as part of an anti-ISIS alliance that includes some of the countries that have directly or indirectly supported ISIS.    Last year NBC News reported that the bulk of funding for ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusrah front came from  private donors  or ‘angel investors’ in the Gulf countries, particularly from Qatar, which is now nominally part of the anti-ISIS coalition.

According to a report compiled by Columbia University’s Program on Peace-building and Rights,  Turkey has provided direct and indirect support to ISIS, even though ISIS has carried out suicide attacks within Turkish borders.  This support includes military training to ISIS fighters and weapons transfers under the guise of humanitarian aid; turning a blind eye to the movement of ISIS fighters between Turkey and Syria; refusing to support Syrian Kurdish fighters who have successfully defended themselves against ISIS and driven it back from key areas; and  providing medical treatment to ISIS fighters in Turkish hospitals

No one will be surprised that Saudi Arabia may also have been complicit in the rise of ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria.   Ideologically, there is almost nothing to distinguish the Saudi leadership from the ‘caliphate’ it is supposedly fighting.

Yet these countries are part of the great coalition that the British political elite wants to join, in yet another pathetic attempt to punch above its weight and fight yet another war that it doesn’t know how to win, and with  no apparent idea of what victory would actually look like.

All of which suggests once again, that  in the twenty-first century war is no longer politics pursued by other means, or the prudent deployment of ‘instruments of national power’. Instead war has become the antithesis of politics,  and  a permanent necessity of powerful states that don’t seem to know or care what they are bombing or why, as long as they are bombing someone.