Unfamiliar terrain, new opportunities: some thoughts on future campaigning
I’d like to offer some thoughts on the direction of the anti-war movement in the immediate future. In summary, my view is that the current political situation provides unique and fleeting opportunities for the movement to grasp, but that new ways of working, and new ways of thinking about the movement, as mainstream rather than a political insurgency, are required if these opportunities are not to pass us by.
Most of us are familiar with Noam Chomsky's theory of the mass media and the idea that dissenting voices are generally marginalized or excluded from mainstream debate. I think this accounts for the fact that a genuinely anti-war point of view is rarely put across on TV news and in the print media, but only up to a point. Chomsky has also said that in times of crisis or failure the system can open up and new ideas can be put through before it slams shut again. A good example of this sort of opening is the fall of the Soviet empire in Europe.
The USSR didn't simply listen and learn from principled western liberalism, have a think about things, and then decide to surrender. It was forced by the total collapse of its economy, in absolute terms and relative to that of the Western alliance, to consider ideas and policies that would never have seen the light of day a decade previously. Its material inability to compete with globalised capitalism in a new hi tech arms race forced it to give up its challenge to US hegemony and completely re-imagine its place in the international system. Material reality forced a conceptual revolution.
Just as these principles applied in the case of Soviet policy makers in the 80s, so they apply today to the target audience for our ideas: the British public. Western power is currently facing a serious crisis - at a far smaller scale than for the USSR in the 80s, but serious nonetheless. The material reality of the diastrous state of Iraq, the brutal war on Lebanon, and the imperialist nature of government policy is now impossible for the public to miss. This provides an opening for new ideas that would not otherwise have received a hearing. Sadly, this is an opportunity that is more or less completely passing us by.
To expand, Western imperialism and so-called "liberal interventionism" is currently in the process of suffering a major defeat in the public mind. There are serious questions in the air now not just about how to deal with the crisis in Iraq but about how to conduct ourselves as a nation more generally. Recent polls show a widespread animosity towards (and indeed a recognition of the reality of) US imperialism. Opposition to the Iraq war joins revulsion at Israel's war on Lebanon and a popular understanding of the fact that these policies have sharply increased the terrorist threat to this country. The political class normally has answers to such questions but right now not only is its credibility shot in the court of public opinion but it itself has more questions than answers where these issues are concerned. It is floundering and disorientated, which means resistance to our ideas is as weak as its likely to get.
No one in mainstream politics either speaks for the public on these major issues or is able to offer a coherent, credible narrative describing the imperialist reality of UK Middle East policy and proposing moral and practical alternatives for the nation. In these conditions, the near total absence of the greater anti-war movement from prominent political debate can only be described – forgive me for speaking frankly - as a failure. This failure needs to be recognised and dealt with.
In the wider arena of public perception, the anti-war movement is most likely identified with the march of 15 February 2003 and little else. As subsequent marches have become smaller so the perception - perhaps the reality - is most likely to be of a movement that is fizzling out. Again, given the nature of public opinion as described above this is an extraordinary state of affairs.
An enormous amount of hard work is done at the grassroots level of the movement, which is invaluable in terms of building support, coordination, exchanging information and so on. But if the goal of the movement is to influence public opinion and then public policy - to "Stop the War" - then this hard work needs to translate into more than occasional marches and rallies when taken to the national stage. It needs to be translated into a strong, serious and consistent presence at the forefront of the battle of ideas, and that means new methods and new ways of working.
My suggestions are as follows:
1/ Come up with serious, detailed policy proposals. If responsibility for Britain's Iraq policy was handed to us now, what would we do with it? Saying, "get the troops out and Iraq will sort itself out" is not a policy; its a slogan. If our views are worth anything then they can be developed. See my "How to Withdraw From Iraq" for a tentative stab at what a moral, internationalist UK policy on Iraq might look like. People like Mark Curtis or Dan Plesch could be asked to assist in the production of an alternative report to that of the Iraq Study Group. James Baker should not be the person setting the agenda on what our government should be doing next.
2/ Get both this proposal and the views of the movement on individual events and smaller issues in the public eye day-by-day, news cycle by news cycle. There's a major Iraq story practically every week. There should be an IOF press release to go with it, promptly setting out a considered antiwar reaction to events. If possible, it should come out swiftly enough to be quoted in the following day's news coverage. In the morning paper, people reading of the latest car bombing or military fatalities should be able to see, alongside the usual ministerial platitudes, the movement’s views on the incident. At every point, on specific issues and events not just the occupation as a whole, the (anti-war majority of the) public should know the position of the anti-war movement, and see that their views are being articulated.
3/ Do the media know how many serious, articulate people there are in the movement who can put across the anti-war position on the issues of the day in a reasoned and intelligent manner (and who've never made idiots of themselves on Big Brother) e.g. Sami, Haifa, Milan (Mark Curtis, Dan Plesch)? If these people are willing to do interviews then the media should be reminded of this, and very frequently, perhaps via the 'Notes to Editors' section in press releases.
3/ Generally, in terms of the tone of the message, it seems to me that rhetoric should now be dispensed with almost entirely. What I'm trying to get across with all of this is that this movement is not a political insurgency; its the mainstream, and it needs to present itself as such. Maybe that's an unfamiliar position but adapting to it is imperative. The government is currently reduced to vacuous platitudes, absent the latest orders from Washington, and shrill attempts to portray us as apologists for Saddam. The contrast between this and our own serious, practical, moral solutions should be as marked as possible. Again, it needs people like Milan, Sami, Haifa etc to get this message across calmly and clearly . Rhetoric is no longer required.
Perhaps, as someone who's spent the last few years working on producing written material on our government’s policies rather than involving myself in campaigning, its a little impertinent of me to offer robust advice like this on a topic where I've very little experience. I'm aware that enormous amounts of hard work have been put in by a lot of people since 9/11 to organise opposition to Whitehall's involvement in US neo-imperialism. And I'm sure I'm not the first person to whom its occurred that more access to mainstream political debate might help the movement's cause.
Hopefully, what I've been able to do here is offer a useful assessment of the political situation, of the opportunities that situation presents to the movement, and some practical ideas for how those opportunities can be taken. As I say, this is a temporary opening for our ideas. Its a chance to provide answers to questions that much of the public must be asking now; answers that have to do with the nature of Western power, its real role in the world and, crucially, what practical alternatives there are for how to conduct ourselves as a nation. Take these opportunities, and not only will the political cost of war be raised to a decisively prohibitive level for a generation but other neo-imperialist policies will be vulnerable to effective criticism and campaigning. Fail, and Iraq will sooner or later, like Vietnam, be forgotten and then repeated in some other luckless part of the world.
Hope this helps. Best wishes
London, UK democratsdiary.co.uk