Sunday, November 30, 2008

The evolution of Britain: from Restoration to "Glorious Revolution", 1660-1690

More notes on the evolution of the political economy of Britain, again drawn from Simon Schama’s highly readable “A History of Britain 2: The British Wars, 1603 – 1776”.

The death of Oliver Cromwell destabilised the new gentry/merchant-dominated Republic, depriving it of an authority figure to hold the competing interests together. The Restoration of the monarchy was an attempt to place Charles II in this role, i.e. to pick up where Cromwell, not his father, had left off.
The Restoration saw the repeal of an act of the post-Cromwell parliament requiring triennial elections. Presbyterian Calvinism was stamped out, and there was a general crackdown on the press and public debate. Charles’ reign was, after an initial honeymoon period, beset by a series of crises; the plague (1665), the Great Fire of London (1666), and then upheaval of a political nature.
First, the Dutch conducted an audacious raid up the Medway, destroying the English fleet and humiliating Charles. Then Charles made a secret pact with Louis XIV of France which involved easing the restrictions on Catholicism in England (Charles had Catholic sympathies, and his mother and brother were confirmed Catholics) and collaborating militarily with the French. The pact led to an Anglo-French war on Holland, giving Charles the opportunity to avenge the humiliation of the Medway as both countries sought to destroy their Dutch rival. But after early successes, the war turned into a disastrous quagmire.
A weakened Charles was now forced to defer to his Parliament, led by Lord Danby. Danby clamped down yet harder on Catholicism in public life, but also, later on, in an effort to assert authority, appealed to the divine right of kings as providing legitimacy for his imposition of discipline on Parliament.
The restrictions on dissent in formal politics led, ironically, to an expansion of political debate and activity outside of it, in taverns and coffee houses, on the pages of newspapers and political pamphlets. Amidst this general flourishing, the beginnings of party politics became faintly discernable. On the one hand we have the “Whigs”, who favour what they see as a tradition of collaborative rule in England; a contract between church, aristocracy and the crown. On the other hand we have the “Tories”, asserting the divine rights of kings and the supremacy of the crown.
A wave of anti-Catholic hysteria and (metaphorical) witch-hunting brought a Whig parliament to the brink of confrontation with Charles. By 1681 the monarchy had prevailed, or at least survived the challenge, thanks largely to Charles being able to engage in the sort of pragmatic deal-making that was an anathema both to his father and later his brother, and which contributed to his keeping his crown where they had lost theirs.

While these events were unfolding, the idea espoused by John Locke of government as a contract with the governed took the opportunity to reemerge on the political scene. The thwarted Republican plotter Algernon Sidney [pictured] wrote, on the eve of his execution in 1683, that “God had left Nations to the Liberty of setting up such Governments as best pleas’d themselves” and that “Magistrates were set up for the good of Nations, not Nations for the honour of Magistrates”.

But back to the deal struck by Charles with the Whig parliament. Under its terms, Charles had secured the succession of his Catholic brother James who, in return, would accept limits to his powers in accordance with the fact that he would be ruling an decidedly Protestant nation. But in the event, the new King James II was having none of this, aggressively asserting his divine right to rule and working to advance the rights of Catholics in Britain. James had apparently learned nothing from the demise of his serenely, self-destructively self-righteous father, and whatever else they disagreed about, both Tories and Whigs were united in their fear of the damage the new king might do to the stability of the realm. The Dutch aristocrat William of Orange, husband of James’ daughter Mary, was called in first to pressure James into seeing sense and backing down, and then, when James fled London altogether, to rule in his place.
Thus the perennial political questions of he seventeenth century – the contract between the king and parliament versus the absolute rule of the sovereign, and the quandry of how a crypto-Catholic-sympathiser monarch could tenably rule over a staunchly Protestant country – were finally settled, as the avowedly Protestant William delivered the coup de grace over Catholic James at the Battle of the Boyne. The “Glorious Revolution” – part quiet and consensual conquest by a Dutch noble and his army, part contracting-out of the job of monarch by the ruling classes of England – was now complete.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

The English Civil Wars: democracy versus property and the rise of a new ruling class

One of the first tasks of my PhD research is to examine the evolution of Britain and its foreign policy. How did we get to where we are today, where an elite strata or loose governing class of socio-economic institutions and powerful individuals wields disproportionate influence over government in general and foreign policy in particular? What are the roots of the political economy of British foreign policy, and how can we describe its development up to this point?
The first thing to do is to identify a good place to begin. Obviously, no matter how far back you delve into the past, you can find an event or theme that has some kind of link to the present day. Broad elite power, as opposed to the absolute rule of a monarch or the democratic rule of the public, is not as recent a development as, say, the triumph of the new bourgeoisie that took place over the course of the nineteenth century. Magna Carta or the Provisions of Oxford might be worth a passing mention as early instances of a class, as opposed to a King, exerting or attempting to exert its authority on these islands. Even before the monarchy was sidelined altogether, the strata below the royal family – nobles, oligarchs, merchants and landowners, not to mention the chuch – had played an absolutely central role in British politics for a some considerable time. As far back as the eleventh and twelfth centuries, King John, Henry III and Richard II had been forced to deal with challenges from the lower orders; in the case of Richard, as low down as the peasantry itself. These were no mere inconveniances to be brushed aside. They were substantive, serious challenges to monarchical power and authority which, at least in the case of Magna Carta, were by no means easily dismissed.

But the starting place that I’ve provisionally chosen (albeit pending a lot more research) is the era of the English Civil Wars and the short-lived Cromwellian Republic in the mid-seventeenth century. The echoes of the future that can be heard at this point in history seem to me to be the earliest of those that really resonate in the modern era. It is at this point that, under Cromwell’s dictatorship, the propertied, wealthy class takes total effective control over the machinery and institutions of the state, with immediate implications for foreign policy. It is also during the upheaval of the Civil Wars and their aftermath that early notions of genuine democracy really catch on in Britain, and come into direct conflict with the demands of the men of property represented by Cromwell’s parliamentarians. That conflict is a central theme of British politics which carries right through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and plays a major part in the development of the nation over that time. And it is the conflict sits at the normative heart of my research.

Most of what follows, and all of the quotes, are taken from Simon Schama’s “A History of Britain 2: The British Wars, 1603 – 1776”, although I’m also writing here while heavily under the influence of the first chapter of Paul Foot’s magnificent book “The Vote”, which deals with the Putney Debates in some detail. I’ll write more on these topics when I’ve read a bit more widely, but its certainly worth getting some ideas down now, before progressing further.

The following is not a summary note of the relevant chapters of the Schama book. Rather it is an attempt to draw out those parts of the story that are relevant to my research and to develop my own analysis of the events in question. So while I don’t dwell on the religious aspect, that should certainly not be taken as a dismissal of its relevance. Plainly religion was key, but this is an attempt to focus on some of the other important themes.

I assume that most of you understand the basic narrative. King Charles I is becoming increasingly unpopular for a couple of key reasons. First, because he is allowing the clergy to impose a set of reforms on the church which appear to many in Protestant Britain to be an unconscionable form of crypto-Catholicism (popery!). Second, because as a firm believer in the absolute right of kings, Charles’ style of governance is openly dismissive of parliament, which he sees as little more than a tool of revenue collection for a series of failed foreign wars. Matters come to a head, parliament and the King lock horns, war ensues, the King is defeated and executed and, for just over a decade, Britain is ruled by a Protestant Republic-Dictatorship in which the merchant-landowning class holds sway.

Lets look more closely at these events, and identify some things that might be relevant to the evolution of socio-economic elite rule in Britain.


The parliamentary side in the English Civil wars should not necessarily be seen as representing the forces of democracy, even in the case of the radicals. Schama says:

“.. the Jacobean and Caroline parliaments were not yet thought of as the elected tribunes of the people. Most of the members of the Commons had taken their seats as a result of consensual and uncontested selection in the counties and boroughs. Some of the most radical of their number, like John Pym, owed their place to a not merely exiguous but virtually non-existent electorate in a pocket borough owned by the Earl of Bedford. By and large, members of parliament were the same kind of people who were the natural governors of the county community as magistrates, deputy lord-lieutenants and sheriffs, and whatever their misgivings about the misuse of Crown prerogatives they still had no problem accepting its offices”


The era of the British Wars effectively began in Scotland with the “Prayer Book riots” against the church reforms of William Laud, which were widely seen as backdoor Popery. It is also true that Charles I had upset the Scottish nobility by taking land they had gained during the Reformation and giving some of it back to the church. Further research on my part may identify this as a factor in their alliance with the Scottish church against Charles.

Antipathy towards the new religious establishment (specifically the perceived popery of the Laudinian reforms), taxation without parliamentary authority and Charles’ generally over-bearing and self-righteous style of government was relayed, expressed and whipped up further by the growing popular press, pamphleteering and petitioning industry which mobilised the public and engendered an atmosphere in which radical MPs were returned to parliament. As in modern politics, propaganda and the media played an important role. Not merely commentating but actively shaping events.

Loyalty to God increasingly preceded loyalty to King. A vanguard-like Puritan movement emerged, with the individuals involved bound together not just by religion but also by their common economic and business interests, including involvement in colonial ventures.

“Throughout the 1630s, for example, virtually all those who would shape the destinies of political Puritanism in parliament – John Pym, John Hampden, his lawyer Oliver St John, Sir Arthur Haselrig, Lord Brooke, Viscount Saye and Sele, the earls of Bedford and Essex and, ubiquitously, Robert Rich, the colossally important and powerful Earl of Warwick – were all involved in ventures to create settlements in the Caribbean and New England”.

In the process of sharing this economic and colonial experience, a broader common worldview was being created and reinforced within this emerging, proto-bourgeois/Puritan vanguard. The destruction in the Caribbean of the Providence Island Company by the Spanish helped confirm their view of being in the midst of a battle between Christ and the popish Antichrist, and their links to the Puritan colonists in Massachusetts encouraged dreams of building their own new Zion at home.

Back in Parliament, moves were being made to make government accountable to Parliament and increase the powers of the latter body in ways never before seen. “This was not, of course, the birth of Parliamentary democracy (not even the most Whiggish of the Victorian historians ever supposed so), but it was, unquestionably, the demolition of absolute monarchy in Britain”.

Charles could not accept this, and so began the Civil Wars.


As the war went on, Cromwell took the view that armies fought better when soldiers and generals shared a common moral purpose, and when the soldiers believed in the righteousness of the cause they fought for. The New Model Army – formed at a time, 1645, when the Parliamentarians were having difficulty landing the killer blow on the weakened Royalists – was defined as much by its ideological and moral cohesion as by its professionalism and discipline on the battlefield. Now more than ever, the soldiery felt that it had a stake in the war beyond mere service of its noble masters. But this new force that Cromwell had created was not one that could necessarily be controlled as he would have wished.

By 1646-7, with Charles defeated, the New Model Army constituted a major, perhaps the major force on the political scene. It was hungry, underpaid, and ready after years of fighting and dying to step up and demand its due. Its officers were drawn from lower down the social scale than those of previous English armies. They were literate, aware, mindful of their interests, and prepared to mutiny or otherwise challenge their parliamentary leaders in pursuit of their share of the spoils of victory – material and political. Increasingly they saw themselves as more representative of the people than was parliament, and thus felt it legitimate for them to present their own ideas regarding the new post-monarchical order that was to created.

These were fertile conditions for the politics of the Levellers, one of the earliest forces for genuine democracy in the history of Britain. Their “Agreement for the People” of 1647 envisaged a kingless, bishopless realm (but more of that later).

With the army dominant on the scene, Parliament was now subjected to a miliatary coup d’etat, with Cromwell and son-in-law Henry Ireton in the lead. A purge of dissenters left a “Rump Parliament”. On 4 January 1649, the Rump Parliament declared that “the people are, under God, the source of all just power”. Irrespective of the hypocrisy of these words coming from a body that took its form as the direct result of a military coup (and which, as we shall see, then moved to prevent genuine democracy taking hold), the importance of that statement, at this point in history, is undeniable. The idea was out, even if it was not honoured.

Charles’ ideological retort to this came on the scaffold in his valedictory speech before his execution. Charles insisted that government was “nothing pertaining to” the people, and that “a Subject and a Sovereign are clean different things”. The open airing of competing ideas about rights and sovereignty was central to these events.


Speaking of ideas, what was the role of opinion-formers and intellectuals? The production of knowledge by power and those sympathetic to power is a central part of power’s ability to legitimise and sustain itself. That’s not just true in the present day, and it was certainly true at this point in history.

Can we plausibly accuse Thomas Hobbes of intellectual subserviance to power? Having previously been a loyal and active Royalist, Hobbes went on to articulate the philosophical justification for Cromwell’s dictatorship in the form of his book "Leviathan", which argued that the proper role of government was one of patriarchal protector in an uncertain and dangerous world: a philosophical charter for despotism. But on the other hand, his attacks on religion will hardly have ingratiated him with the new Presbytarian order.

What about John Milton? Milton “thought of himself in the classical tradition of virtuous republicans such as Cicero who had laid aside ‘idle’ pursuits to place their eloquence at the service of the state”. During the first year of the republic, Charles was enjoying a wave of public sympathy (albeit posthumously). A book of his collected writings, including his speech from the scaffold, had become immesely popular. “So John Milton, already established as a dedicated propagandist for parliament, was mobilised to enlighten the deluded”. “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates” made the retrospective case for the King’s trial and punishment. “Eikonoklastes” (‘the image breaker’) was an attack on the arguments made in Charles book, written under instruction from the new government (Milton was now the government’s translator-in-chief).

In these books Milton advanced the idea that ultimate sovereignty rested with the people. A bad joke under the Rump Parliament but still, again, the idea, revolutionary in itself, was out there, albeit in practice to defend Parliament from a monarchical resurgence rather than to promote the rights of the public.

Then there was Marchamont Nedham “the most prolific and ingenious of the parliamentary journalists” who, like Hobbes, opined that powerful government was needed to protect its subjects. “Nedham’s argument, reinforced by Hobbes, replaced the question ‘is it proper?’ with the question ‘does it work?’ And with that apparently simple change in perspective, for better or for worse, modern political science was born”. So says Schama.

I tell you, there are times where I bloody love that man.

While on the subject of hypocrisy, we should note that the horrendeous atrocities and shedding of blood perpetrated by both sides in the Civil War was accompanied by the most pious of rhetorical flourishes from each. Given that dissonance, the rhetoric, while certainly relevant, should not be allowed to stand on its own, without reference to the contradictory action. Talk of rights was bountiful. Respect for them was rarely practiced.


After Charles execution, Presbyterian Scotland declared fealty to his son Charles II, and Catholic Ireland remained undefeated. Putting aside the military implications, the political implication of this was that “England remained an armed camp” in 1647-8, and the military was therefore a major political force.

The New Model Army was politically aware and literate at the level of the officer corps and below. 70 percent of artisans, the class from whom the rank and file were drawn, were able to read. Leveller writers and orators like John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn (while protesting that they were “moderates” who respected social rank) advocated something close to democracy: the vote all male householders, annual parliaments, a simplified and more accessible legal system (which, Schama observes, was offensive to a parliament stuffed with lawyers), and the abolition of the most onerous taxes levied on a population that was devastated by war and pillage. The Levellers organised mass petitions and distributed polemical pamphlets in their attempt to agitate amongst the soldiery.

Leveller ideas gained much support within the New Model Army, who now found themselves in conflict with their masters. The parliamentary generals, like Cromwell, had fought the civil war to liberate themselves from their social betters not to enslave themselves to their social inferiors. The two sides clased in the Putney Debates of 1647, where the age-old ideological battle between the rights of people and the rights of power was famously joined.

For the people, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough MP:
“The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he” and people should not therefore be subject to laws that they had not themselves consented to.

For the poweful, Henry Ireton:
“No person hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom...that hath not a permanent fixed interest [i.e. substantial property]...and those persons together are properly the represented of the kingdom”

Leveller “Honest John” Lilburne told the House of Lords in 1646:
“All you intended when you set us a-fighting was merely to unhorse and dismount our old riders and tyrants, that you might get up and ride in their stead”

Lilburne’s fearless advocacy of the democratic rights of the population and their right to government by consent contrasts sharply with the hypocritical, weasel words of Milton and Nedham. Lilburne was imprisoned and harshly treated for his political activism both under Charles and und
er the new regime. He fought in the Civil War on the Parliamentary side, but he and the Levellers soon came to the view that a monarchical tyranny had simply been replaced with an oligarchical tyranny.

Amongst the fine credentials of Lilburne and the Levellers was their view of women and the role women played in their struggle. In 1646, Lilburne opined that women “were by nature all equall and alike in power, dignity, authority and majesty” to men. Leveller women organised mass petitions when Lilburne and the other Leveller leaders were imprisoned by Cromwell. Their activism was genuinely shocking to Puritan sensibilities, which saw the woman’s place as one of domestic subserviance.

The Levellers were part of a general emergence of liberatory ideas in the political upheaval of the time. The Diggers, for example, led by Gerrard Winstanley, preached community of land and goods. More liberal strands of religion also developed, in the form of the Quakers, Baptists and Ranters.

With the Putney Debates having failed to result in a satisfactory conclusion, these ideas, and anger over outstanding pay, inspired mutinies in the New Model Army during the spring of 1649, which the new regime put down by force. By the autumn of that year, the Levellers' hopes were clearly dead. They were, Schama says, “bought off, intimidated or imprisoned, their officers dispersed”. The state would administer similar treatment to those campaigning for democracy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Lilburne himself was isolated, then finally exiled to Holland.


Schama argues that the Republic failed to survive because it didn’t attempt any cultural reprogramming , allegiance reinforcement or other means of establishing its legitimacy as a new order; at least not to anything like the extent required (Hobbes, Milton and Nedham notwithstanding). He speculates that this was perhaps partly due to Cromwell’s seeing politics as a base and unworthy pursuit, not firing his passion in the same way as religion and war.

In fact – save for the fact that the head (King, House of Lords and bishops) had been lopped off the English hierarchy (no small thing of course) – British continued much as before, albeit now run by the upper, middle and landowning classes of “the magistrates chair...county counting houses”.

These men “invested far more time and energy in preventing any sort of radical change than in promoting it”. They were “businessmen of state, mercantilists, money-managers. And in their swaggering, beady-eyed way, fierce patriots” whose ideology was “the aggressive prosecution of the national interest”. This governing class built an empire for itself, not only on the British archipelago through Cromwell’s brutal wars on the Irish and Scots, but also oveseas, in the North Sea, Baltic and Atlantic. “It was commercially rapacious and militarily brutal, beery chauvinism erected into a guiding principle of state”.

The Navigation Act of 1651 “prohibited any ships other than British or those of the country of origin from bringing cargoes to Britain, thus taking deadly aim at the shipping supremacy of the Dutch. It was a policy to maximise business which (another first) the state was prepared to back up with war if that’s what it took. Often it did”.

Britain was run, after hundreds of thousands had perished in ten years of war conducted to the sound of pious hymns to “rights” and “liberty”, “by a corporate alliance of county gentry and city merchants”. Cromwell’s replacement parliament of nominees (the Rump having been dissolved in 1653) was made up of two-thirds landowners, and 115 justices of the peace out of 140 MPs in total. This in spite of the dictator’s talk of replacing the men of venal ambition with a company of ‘saints’. This doesn’t necessarily support Schama’s view of a Cromwell too pious for politics. But perhaps, for Cromwell, piety just happened not to exist amongst the lower orders.

Cromwell’s readmission of Jews to Britain after three and a half centuries of exile was not purely connected with his Christian belief that their conversion was a necessary prelude to the final battle with the Antichrist. For him and the “pragmatic managers of state” it was also an attempt to plug into and draw on the Jewish community in its capacity as a “priceless source of commercial and military intelligence” in the “Hispanic and Netherlandish trading world”.

Those “pragmatic managers of state” who saw the readmission as being in the “national interest” held a “vision of the world (and of Britain’s place in it) [that] was essentially mechanical and commerical....[they were] technicians of power; data-gatherers; calculators of profit”. These years then “mark the true beginning of moden government in these islands. It was at this time that a commerical empire was being created” in New England and the slaving islands of the Atlantic, often with “unscrupulous military aggression and brutal inhumanity”.

In addition, an “empire of knowledge” was also being created by this new managerial class; knowledge “as the raw material of power” for those who called themselves “political arithmeticians”. William Petty, who coined the latter term, was the proto-bureaucrat who, by the time he had turned 30, had already completed the considerable task of cataloguing and dividing up conquered Ireland for the new empire.

Thus, even by the middle of the seventeenth century, some key themes of modern elite-government and their influence on national foreign policy that we are familiar with today, were already recognisable in their early forms. Cromwell's republic collapsed in short order after his death, but history's slate was by no means wiped clean by the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy under Charles II in 1660. The impact of what happened in those years was, in many ways, indelible. Absolute monarchy was off the agenda, as Charles I other son, James, would discover to his cost. The new elite had to relinquish its dictatorship, but its seat at the table of power was secured. All that was left was the story of how its place was to move to the head of the table over the next two hundred years.

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Blogging my PhD

I started my PhD studies this autumn. My provisional dissertation title is “How concentrations of socio-economic power shape British foreign policy”.

My research will aim to identify the concentrations of socio-economic power, domestic (e.g. the state, corporations) or external (the United States, international finance), that shape British foreign policy, and to explain how their influence is exerted in practice. My dissertation will describe the historical roots of British foreign policy as a tool of powerful interests, map networks of influence in current policymaking, analyse the social-construction of discourse relating to foreign policy, and provide case studies that illustrate and develop my findings.

Along the way I’m going to be collecting and analysing a vast amount of information, and producing articles, conference papers and research notes that may well be of interest to readers of this blog. So from now on, I’m going to be mixing some of that into my output on the Democrat’s Diary. Its a slight change of emphasis, but the comments and articles that you’re used to seeing here – on US foreign policy, events in the Middle East, etc - will certainly continue. Just that now they’ll be joined by some other material as well.

Hope you find it interesting. And comments, as always, are very welcome.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Michael Schwartz on the US-Iraq security pact

Michael Schwartz is Professor of Sociology and Founding Director of the Undergraduate College of Global Studies at Stony Brook University. He's written a series of wonderfully illuminating articles on the US occupation of Iraq for the Tomdispatch website, and now a book entitled "War Without End: The Iraq War in Context"
Here Schwartz and Pepe Escobar discuss the new "Status of Forces Agreement" (SOFA) between the Iraqi and US governments, which sets out the terms under which the US military will retain its presence in Iraq and the deadline for that presence to end. To what extent has Iraq exerted a modicum of independence through the negotiation process, and to what extent will the US continue to be able to promote its imperial ambitions?
Other good Michael Schwartz articles on Iraq include:
  • this, exploding the myth of recent US success in Iraq
  • this on the almost biblical tragedy of Iraq's massive refugee crisis
  • this on how the US occupation has been the primary destructive force in Iraq since 2003; and
  • this analysis of the role US-imposed "free-market" economic shock-therapy played in creating the conditions for the huge upsurge in violence post-invasion.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

That's President "That One" to you, Senator

Here's some quick thoughts on the Obama victory. I'll put together something meatier and more formal during the next week, when we've learnt a bit more.
In some ways, Obama's a hard one to pin down. Look at his background and he's left-liberal. I heard an radio interview with him the other day, recorded several years ago when he was teaching law at Chicago uni, where he gave a very thoughtful account of how black people had lost out in the original US constitutional settlement two hundred years ago, and assessed how that might be rectified going forward through the courts or through legislation. With his measured consideration of a serious social justice issue, the guy sounded really impressive. If I'd read a transcript of that without knowing who it was, I'd instantly want to hear more from this smart young academic.
At one level, that's Obama. But then as a politician he's clearly prepared to adopt some pretty right-wing positions, maybe because he feels he has to or maybe because his thinking is genuinely moving in that direction. Take foreign policy. His stance on the Palestinians, for example, is just as cruel as any adopted by Bush or Clinton. And he's surrounded by advisers from the Clinton era, during which time US foreign policy was far from enlightened. For the next 4-8 years the US is still going to be an imperial power with its policy-making dominated by elite interests. Obama would have trouble changing that even if he was a committed revolutionary, and he's definitely not one of those.
But then, nor is he of the McCain/Bush "give war a chance" mold. His approach will be less impetuous, less willfully ignorant, and less agressive. Yes its still imperialism, albeit with different tactics. And yes Arundhati Roy was basically right when she said that debating the pros and cons of imperialism is like debating the pros and cons of rape, because the coercion that's intrinisc to imperialism is immoral in its essence, not purely on the basis of outcomes. But a reduction in the amount of wars being fought or threatened is obviously a good thing, whatever the reasons for that happening, because more human beings will get to live.
The Republican party of McCain/Palin/Bush/Cheney was borderline demented on foreign affairs, as Tom Engelhardt expertly documents here. The world's a safer place with them gone, and that's not something that should be overlooked no matter how cautious we are about Obama.

Another positive thing is that the right-wing politics of race-baiting, militarism and extreme Reaganite economics have just been trounced at the polls. That's a big message to the political class. The question is the extent to which they choose to heed it, but its not something they'll be able to ignore.
Has anyone thought to mention that Obama is black?
In all seriousness, this is no small thing. Plainly we won't see racism eradicated overnight. There's been a black Secretary of State for the past eight years, during which time African-Americans gained precious little (and Katrina happened, of course). But Obama's victory is still an important step. Fifty years ago you could pretty much lynch black people with impunity in the southern states. Now a black man is President.
For the next 4-8 years, its going to be harder for those white Americans who harbour softer racial prejudices (always a bigger problem than the hardline racists) to cognitively maintain that mindset, at least so long as they perceive the Obama administration to be basically competant and decent. This will contribute to an erosion of American racism, and thus an expansion the life-chances of many African American people. There are black kids today who are going to have futures that their parents would have been denied. That this is not a trivial thing is well understood by those at the sharp end. Many of the survivors of the 60s civil rights struggle are visibly moved by last nights events and their feelings should not be belittled. Taking this aspect alone, anyone claiming to be of the left who dismisses Obama's election as meaningless is simply exposing themselves as an unthinking fraud.

Another point on prejudice. There was an attempt by sections of the right to draw on the racism that exists in the US against Arabs and Muslims - a bigotry which sees these people not as a large and disparate group of human beings but as a baying, bloodthirsty mob of neo-Nazis. This attempt was made using various devices to remind people of Obama's links to Islam through his father and through his middle name, Hussein - a part of a general strategy of 'othering' Obama which the increasingly odious McCain did precious little to stop.
Sadly for the GOP, there don't seem to be enough racists in America to make that one stick. And again, those that harbour softer prejudices are going to have 4-8 years to get to know, and possibly like, a man whose middle name is Hussein, whose father was a Muslim, and who spent some of his formative years growing up in a Muslim country, Indonesia. Bigotry depends on your ability not to see the people you're prejudiced against as human beings, which is harder to sustain when you get to know someone. And when soft bigotry against the people of the Middle East erodes, imperial aggression against that region becomes far harder to sustain and justify as well. Another non-trivial aspect to consider.

One could argue that McCain ended up betting everything on the 'othering' strategy. Remember that by the final few weeks he needed to win every safe Republican state, every toss-up state and at least one major safe Democrat state to pass the 270 electoral college vote milestone that gets you into the White House. Running short of cash he bet everything on Pennsylvania, probably on the assumption that blue-collar white Democrats would be fairly easy to scare off the black liberal with the funny name and the "questionable associations". McCain campaigned hard with the 'Joe the Plumbers' of Pennsylvania, and in the end Obama thumped him 54-44. McCain was campaigning in the wrong America - the one in his mind. That's another of many big messages sent to the political class last night. Again, the question is the extent to which they choose to heed it, but its not something they'll be able to ignore.
Obviously the power-structures of the United States, which are the real problem, remain firmly in place. As I say, Obama is no radical. Far from it. The endorsements he's received reveal him as very establishment-friendly, as does his stance on many issues. But at the level of the US Presidency, even small differences can make for big outcomes. Both the continuities and the differences, from Bush to Obama, are worthy of our attention.
Change? It'll probably be non-structural and therefore insufficient. But at the same time, it will be far from meaningless. If its turns out to be more than that, it'll be because people didn't go home and go to sleep on November 5th, but kept up the campaigning that began under Bush, as Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel points out in this excellent essay. If the public stays mobilised, changes really do become possible.
More soon.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

"They still call it the White House, but that's a temporary condition too.."

The GOP is toast and an African American is President. I say we're allowed to enjoy that. For today at least.



Critical faculties to be fully re-engaged in due course.

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Election day: nervous?

If John McCain wins today's election it will be nothing short of a miracle. Its a possibility only in the most technical of senses.

Its not just that Obama leads by an average of 7 percentage points across the opinion polls. That can seem close enough for some slight discomfort given, say, individual polls like the latest from CNN which gives Obama a lead of 7 per cent with a margin of error of 3.5. McCain could potentially turn around what is effectively a 3.5 percent lead in the last few hours, if complacent Obama voters stay at home or for whatever other reason. Perhaps. But then, that's not how this works.

The national polls are misleading because the President isn't elected by a simple majority of the total population. The US has a state-based electoral college system under which - put simply - the candidate who wins the most votes in an individual state wins a certain number of points (calculated on the basis of the state's population) and the candidate with the most of those points at the end of the night wins the presidency.
So win the vote in California and you get its 55 points (called electoral college votes), win Texas and you get 34, Indiana and you get 11, and so on. There are a total of 538 electoral college votes up for grabs. Win 270 and you're the President.

What's relevant therefore is not the national poll but the state polls. And if the outcome of the election is as it is currently predicted at state level then Obama wins enough states to take the Presidency by 338 electoral college votes to McCain's 200.

Of course, the polls in some states are closer than in others. California is solid Democrat, with Obama 24 per cent ahead. McCain can count on Texas where he has a 13 per cent lead. But ten states are too close to call, including Florida with its 27 electorial college votes to play for, and North Carolina with 15. In Florida, Obama is a mere 1.8 per cent ahead. In North Carolina, McCain is 0.4 per cent ahead.

But here's the thing. Even if you assume that McCain wins all those toss up states - a big assumption since Obama is narrowly ahead in most of them - Obama would still win enough states to gain 278 electoral college votes and the White House. There aren't enough close-run states to play for. To turn this around, McCain would have to win all the toss-up states and at least one fairly solid Obama state.
In the event, McCain has chosen to bet everything on Pennsylvania, and pour his campaigning resources in there. The rest of the Obama states are either not worth enough electoral college votes or just considered a lost cause by the McCain camp. But Obama has an average 7.3 per cent lead in Pennsylvania. Is McCain really going to turn that around in the next few hours, as well as his smaller deficits in 9 or so other states?

Put it this way. Throughout the last five months of this election race, state opinion polls have translated into a McCain win in the electoral college for a total of 4 days, between the 19th and the 23rd of August. For the other 4 months 3 and a half weeks, Obama has been in the lead. Under what circumstates does that change now?

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