Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Gaza: Israel's war of aggression

In the Nuremberg trials after World War II, the launching of a war of aggression was labeled as "the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole".

With that established, lets note a few things.

According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry's own information, the truce between Hamas and Israel had held since June, with Hamas basically keeping its side of the bargain. See the graph below. Between January and June 2008 there was an average of 179 Gazan rocket attacks per month on Israel. Then, from the beginning of the truce until 5 November, there was an average of 3 rocket attacks per month (recall that these are rudimentary projectiles that have killed a few over 20 people in 8 years, though thousands have been fired, and none from June til last Saturday).
Hamas had therefore essentially proven its ability to control both its own armed wing and the other militant factions in the Gaza strip. In those terms, the ceasefire was a success. But note that under the terms of this truce, Israel was supposed to ease the crippling blockade on Gaza and let the required humanitarian supplies in. It did not.

Israel - not Hamas - then unilaterally broke the ceasefire on 5 November 2008, conducting a raid into Gaza and killing six Hamas gunmen. Israel claims this was in response to a threat of militants tunnelling under the border. I am inclined to take Israel's word for very little, myself. I do note however that under the Israeli blockade, tunnel-smuggling was one of the few routes by which food and other essentials got into the Gaza Strip. So the existence of a tunnel may prove the intent of Hamas to break a ceasefire that it had held for three solid months. Or it may prove that human beings need to eat food. I'm prepared to belive the former, but I don't discount the latter.

3. After the ensuing resumption of violence, it now transpires that, according to UN officials, there was a 48-hour "lull" or informal ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, and it was during that "lull" that Israel commenced its indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza on Saturday morning, killing by now close to 400 people.

4. So having already broken two truces,
Israel has now rejected calls for a ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to reach the victims of its attacks.

Bottom line: Israel is freely choosing violence - massive, overwhelming violence - when other options are (and always have been) available. As such, Israel is committing the crime of aggression; the supreme international crime.

See my posts of earlier this week (here and here) for more info on the conflict, links to details of demonstrations taking place in the UK, and aid agencies you can donate to to help with the emergency relief effort.
A closing comment on the news report at the top of this post. No reasonable and fair minded person, who has taken care to follow the events of the past few days, can now pretend that the Israeli government and its military hold some inherent, in-built moral superiority to Hamas and the other Palestinian terrorist groups. Though it may well be a case of a lack of means rather than a lack of intent, it remains a fact that the Palestinians have never inflicted anything remotely like the level of suffering on the Israeli public that is currently been experienced by 1,500,000 Gazans. Can we watch and listen to the family in the news report above and then characterise these events as essentially Israel defending itself against terrorism? No, I rather think we cannot.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gaza: 700,000 children with nowhere to run

Israel's destruction of Gaza continues. Civilians, including children, continue to die in large numbers.


While Israel blocks shipments of humanitarian aid.


The Gaza strip is one of the most densely populated places on Earth, with 1.5 million people living in an area of 360 square kilometers; roughly equivalent to the size of Sheffield in the UK or Atlanta, Georgia in the US (both of whose populations are around a third that of Gaza).

About 700,000 of Gaza's population are children under the age of 14. The median age in Gaza is 17.

Israel has been relentlessly pouring high-explosives into this area, from the sky, for three and a half days now, and preventing aid from reaching those affected. The pretence that these attacks were aimed only at military targets, and that they were a response to Palestinian aggression, has long since fallen away. Israel's is a war of choice, and it is being waged indiscriminately.

Amnesty International has issued two clear, concise and strong statements (here and here) criticising both sides for their conduct in the conflict, but reserving the large majority of its criticism, quite correctly, for Israel.

Although Israel has just rejected a truce to allow the provision of aid, it remains vital that as much aid as possible is available, in the event that some can be got through to the people who need it, if not soon then at least when the bombing finally stops. Please donate something, whatever you can afford, to Oxfam, Christian Aid, Save the Children, CAFOD, or any aid agency you prefer.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Gaza: the word you’re looking for is ‘massacre’


Let's clarify five key points about Israel’s attacks on Gaza this weekend.

First, “self-defence” isn’t a catch-all justification for any act of violence one cares to perpetrate. Violence is permitted in self-defence – both in common morality and international law – strictly on the basis of proportionality: i.e. the minimum necessary to repel the attack.

Israel claims its bombardment of the Gaza strip is aimed at defending itself from rocket attacks by Palestinian militant groups. In the past eight years, Palestinian rockets fired from Gaza have killed around 18 people in southern Israel. Between the start of the recent Hamas-Israel truce in June this year until the start of the Israeli bombing campaign on Saturday, no Israelis were killed by Hamas. Since Saturday, Israel has killed more than 300 Palestinians, including scores of civilians, and since those attacks began two Israelis have been killed by Palestinian rockets.

Overall, since the start of the second intifada in September 2000, around 1,000 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians and around 5,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel, including 1,000 minors. That is to say that in just over the past forty-eight hours, Israel has killed a third as many Palestinians as Palestinians have killed Israelis in eight years. In a single weekend, Israel has increased the number of people it has killed since September 2000 by 6 per cent.

Therefore, since its actions are so grossly disproportionate to the threat they are said to be aimed at, Israel’s justification of self-defence plainly does not stand.

Second, while Israel claims to be targeting Palestinian militants, it is plainly not possible to “target” individuals in one of the most densely populated areas on the planet with the use of bombs and missiles fired from F-16 fighter jets. In fact, attacking Palestinian cities at 11:30 on a Saturday morning, when the streets were full, shows – shall we say – the direct opposite of an effort to avoid civilian casualties.

Israel claims that, unlike its enemies, it does not deliberately attack civilians. The distinction between targeting civilians and taking action that is absolutely certain to kill civilians, and which is totally disproportionate to the claimed purpose of the action, is not just a fine distinction. It is, in moral terms, no distinction.

Watch the video above; a news report from one of Gaza’s hospitals, already desperately short of medical supplies as a result of Israel’s blockade. Look at the infant child who appears towards the end of the report, clearly suffering from serious head injuries and in what appears to be a state of total shock. It’s an unbearable sight. Well, Israel and its apologists are claiming that those injuries were inflicted on that infant child - by an Israeli piloting a multi-million dollar, US-supplied fighter jet - in “self-defence”.

It doesn’t stand up, does it?

Thirdly, this is in no sense an Israeli “response”. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Palestinian territories, Richard Falk, noted earlier this month:

"the situation [has] worsened [since] the breakdown of a truce between Hamas and Israel that had been observed for several months by both sides. The truce was maintained by Hamas despite the failure of Israel to fulfil its obligation under the agreement to improve the living conditions of the people of Gaza. The recent upsurge of violence occurred after an Israeli incursion that killed several alleged Palestinian militants within Gaza."

Israel has maintained a blockade on the Gaza strip since early 2006, when the Palestinians committed the crime of voting the wrong way in an election. In the words of Israeli Government adviser Dov Weisglass, “the idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet”, so as to encourage them to reconsider their choice of Hamas over the US/Israeli-backed Fatah. The blockade has been tightened in stages since then, most notably when Hamas foiled a US backed coup-attempt by Fatah in the summer of 2007 and seized control of Gaza.

As a result of the blockade, Gaza has been forced into appalling levels of deprivation. Even by September 2006, The Independent was reporting that some Palestinian mothers had been reduced to scouring rubbish dumps for just enough food to feed their children once a day, and the situation has deteriorated sharply since then, especially in recent weeks. The UN Special Rapporteur, along with all leading aid agencies and human rights organisations, has consistently condemned the blockade in the strongest terms, with Falk stating that “[s]uch a policy of collective punishment, initiated by Israel to punish Gazans for political developments within the Gaza strip, constitutes a continuing flagrant and massive violation of international humanitarian law as laid down in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention”.

Fourthly, a more fundamental point cannot pass without mention. The root cause of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is not Palestinian terrorism, however disgusting the attacks of Hamas and Islamic Jihad undoubtedly are. The state of Israel was created in 1948 by the violent ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, forcing them out into neighbouring states and territories, like Gaza, where they and their descendents continue to live – as stateless refugees – to this day. In the “Six Day War” of 1967, Israel seized further territories - Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank - which it then began to colonise, all in clear violation of international law which forbids both the acquisition of territory by force and the colonisation of such territories.

There is now a clear international consensus on the solution to this conflict: Israel should withdraw to its recognised borders, handing back the illegally occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, who would then build their own state there. Last month the UN General Assembly voted 164-7 in favour of a settlement based on this formula: i.e. on Israeli compliance with international law. In the rejectionist camp were Israel, the United States, Australia, and four South Pacific island nations. Iran was one of the 164 who voted in favour. The Arab states, including the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, have been pushing for a specific peace initiative on this formula for many years. And even Hamas, in May 2006, joined with the other Palestinian factions in signing up to a “National Conciliation Document” calling for a Palestinian state on the legal, 1967 borders, in accordance with the repeated statements of leading Hamas officials in recent years.

In other words, the conflict continues, to the extent that it does today, because Israel would sooner massacre innocent people in Gaza, if that’s what it takes, than hand back the land it has stolen and allow the Palestinians the right to have their own country and run their own affairs.

The fifth and final point is that Israel is able adopt this position because a few key states are prepared to provide strong backing for its rejectionist stance. As the leading international affairs scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have noted, Israel

“has been the largest annual recipient of direct economic and military assistance [from the US] since 1976 [receiving] roughly one-fifth of the foreign aid budget, and worth about $500 a year for every Israeli. [In addition] Washington also provides Israel with consistent diplomatic support. Since 1982, the US has vetoed 32 [UN] Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, more than the total number of vetoes cast by all the other Security Council members. It [also] played a key role in the negotiations that preceded and followed the 1993 Oslo Accords ... consistently support[ing] the Israeli position. One American participant at Camp David in 2000 later said: ‘Far too often, we functioned . . . as Israel’s lawyer.”

No words need be wasted on the stance adopted by the outgoing Bush administration, to the conflict in general or to these latest atrocities in particular. What is more noteworthy is the response from people we might have expected slightly better from. For President-elect Barack Obama, the “fierce urgency of now” appears to have been replaced over the weekend by the fierce urgency of “monitoring the situation”. One suspects that, if Hamas had butchered scores of Israelis in cold blood over the weekend, Obama would not be hiding behind the protocol of “one President at a time”. He would be falling over himself to make a strong moral statement, rightly, and just as he should be doing now.

Or take British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who called for “Gazan militants to cease all rocket attacks on Israel immediately”, but for Israel merely to “do everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties”. Why is it so hard for Britain to simply and unambiguously call for both sides to cease all fire immediately? Are we having a re-run of the summer of 2006, when Israel carried out weeks of indiscriminate bombing of Lebanon while Tony Blair’s government worked in the international diplomatic arena to block calls for a ceasefire? Why does Britain continue to sell arms to Israel, including key components for the fighter jets carrying out the current attacks? Is this what New Labour calls an enlightened, ethical foreign policy?

I’ll conclude by saying this. There is no law forcing people to just sit at home and shake their heads while their governments aid and abet Israel’s massacre of innocent civilians. Israel depends on international support or acquiescence for it to continue on this path, and our governments rely on our support or acquiescence to maintain their own wretched positions. You can change this equation. There are protests taking place all over Britain, today and later on this week, including one outside the Israeli embassy this afternoon. If you can attend one of these events, even for a short time, then please do. If not, it is the simplest thing to write a letter to your MP and MEPs. This website helps you to do it, via email, in a few minutes. Ask them what they personally are doing to end the Israeli atrocities. If you get a poor response, write again and demand a better one.

It was the accumulation of thousands of small individual acts like this that helped bring about an end to Apartheid. It was partly the strength of public revulsion at Blair’s role in the Israeli-Hezbollah war that hastened his own departure from office two years ago. When you see those horrific images on the news bulletins today remember, this is not something you have to accept.


Update - thanks to Jamie SW for pointing out an error in the overall death toll above, now corrected (its 1,000 rather than 600 Israeli deaths since September 2008). Jamie's blog has some excellent and very well researched coverage of these events, which I recommend you check out.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Britain, 1789-1867: In the Shadow of Revolution

Continuing my notes on the evolution of the British political economy and Britain's foreign policy. I've now moved on to the third in Simon Schama's "History of Britain" books, and the following is drawn from the first three chapters of that volume, all quotes being Schama's unless otherwise stated (this time, I've included page references in the text).
As before, rather than just summarising the chapters in question I'm pulling out and offering my own comments on those parts pertinient to my PhD research, skipping the less relevant bits. While the following interpretation of events will inevitably be influenced by Schama's writing, it remains my own, so any inaccuracies or misjudgements are my responsibility.

A final introductory point: these notes concentrate on the battle for political reform in Britain during the period in question, and what's striking is that a battle is just what it was. We are given the impression by politicians and opinion-makers today that liberty and democracy are serenely interwoven into the very nature of Britain and Britishness itself. That while other countries arrived at democracy through the painful processes of revolutionary bloodbath or colonial instruction, Britain's liberty simply blossomed into being in the natural, unflustered and unhurried course of things. This is very much not the case.

Britain's becoming a democracy was a long-drawn out and deeply contested affair. It was, essentially, a bitter and protracted struggle, lasting well over a hundred years, between a cruelly-treated and increasingly agitated and mobilised popular majority, on the one hand, and on the other, the vested interests of the governing elite, who fought tooth-and-nail to maintain their decidedly non-democratic hold on power. This struggle occasionally saw Britain under what we would today describe as something tantamount to martial law or even a military occupation, as the authorities stamped down hard on the pro-democracy movement with all the force they could muster. Battles were fought, dissidents imprisoned, traitors executed. It should be understood that, at this time, the elites felt a genuine fear of popular revolution, and that these fears were well founded. Above all, the history shows that British democracy was not a gift from the great and the good but a victory won by the dedicated efforts of millions of ordinary people.

Far from being an age of linear “progress”, the long nineteenth century saw a range of competing forces at work. The most noted of these forces, the industrial revolution and the birth of modern capitalist economics and associated modes of production and social relations, was but one of many narratives, though others could, to an extent, be seen as reactions to it.

The Romantics – comprising a number of poets, philosophers, writers, artists – were repelled by the mechanisation of the times, and pined for an uncorrupted arcadian life of moral purity and simplicity. Their leading light was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who saw childhood as the humanity’s prelapsarian state, to be cherished, encouraged, and referred back to throughout one’s life.

The romanticisation of rural life was a natural reaction to the upheaval that was taking place in the country, where traditional ways of life were being swept away by the new economics, and at serious human cost. Acts of Parliament were being passed to enforce land “enclosure”, i.e. the transformation of commonly held and worked land into private property to be exploited on a large scale business model. These Acts were voted for by MPs who, like the tiny electorate permitted to vote for them, were themselves landowners. Those who lost the smallholdings upon which their families had relied for countless generations had no say in the matter. To justify this, the classic colonial rationale for landgrabs around the world was employed in a domestic context: those unable to make best use of the land are to forfeit it (“best use” to be defined by the expropriators). p30

The new landowers set about raising rents, pushing many tenents off the land and towards the cities, into new forms of work, such as manufacturing. This resulted, not only in pauperisation for many, but also in the transformation and destabilisation of the existing social and political order. “The country came out of the fiery years of food riots, troop mobilizations and hangings [in the late eighteenth century] with its institutions intact but with its faith in the paternalism and even the moral legitimacy of the aristocracy, the judiciary, shaken”. p33. The English landowning oligarchy that was busy accumulating ever greater economic and political power was now viewed with widespread mistrust, as was the established political order.

“That Parliament needed reform [in the 1780s] was obvious. The electorate was actually 3 per cent smaller than it had been before the Civil War; there were rotton boroughs, like Old Sarum with an electorate of seven, which still returned a member. ‘Placemen’ bought their seats on the understanding that they would vote with the government; and the newly populous towns were grossly under-represented.” p35

Joining the Romantics in their concern over social and moral issues such as poverty and slavery were the non-conformist churches such as those of the Unitarians and the Methodists. These played a major part in a general political awakening which saw debating societies springing up all over the country, “including some in London expressly for women”. p36

The establishment was represented by the two-party system of Tories and Whigs. For the Tories, it was absolutely correct that the monarch, Church of England, and Parliament of property owners should govern the land, and that the people should obey their natural masters. For the marginally less illiberal Whigs, the toleration and regular elections instituted by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 were all the reform that was needed.

But the ideas of Thomas Paine and the American revolutionaries, of sovereignty resting ultimately with the people and of government as a task contracted out to those capable of performing it and only for as long as they were so capable, were finding a receptive audience amongst radical Whigs and yet more radical groups outside of Parliament. These sentiments were not marginal but widely popular – outside of the narrow governing class – and when the French Revolution came in 1789 it represented a profound and immediate new source of inspiration (and, for the elite, fear). There were now competing claims on the patriot-myth of England/Britain as history’s beacon of liberty, with the new democrats portraying the establishment as, essentially, traitors to the national spirit; less authentically “British” than the American and French revolutionaries.
In his “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, Edmund Burke poured scorn on the Romantic philosophy that had supported the overthrow of the ancien regime. Burke rejected the idea of universal rights born of nature. Nature, for Burke, was something quite different, represented by the established order, tried and trusted over centuries, which the Romantics would seen done away with and replaced with the tyranny of the baying mob. Burke pointed to the ugly turn events had taken in France to make his point that the “swinish multitude” neither had the right, nor were they fit, to govern. Burke declared:

“The occupation of the hairdresser or of a working tallow-chandler cannot be a matter of honour to any person...Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression if such as they ... are permitted to rule” [my emphasis] p43

The liberals responded to Burke with equal force. Mary Wollstonecraft in her “Vindication of the Rights of Man” wondered aloud where Burke’s attachment to hereditary monarchy had been when he had supported, with some haste and enthusiasm, George III’s being replaced by the Prince Regent, who also happened to be Burke’s patron’s patron. When Burke had claimed that God had hurled King George from his throne, had he not sounded a little, well, French? p45 Thomas Paine’s reply to Burke, “Rights of Man”, massively outsold “Reflections”, becoming the best-seller of the century. Part II of that book set forth a radical welfare state agenda, advocating resdistribution of wealth through progressive taxation.

There was now a real groundswell of radical politics, not just in London but in the ‘new Britain’ of Glasgow, Manchester, Sheffield, Derby, Nottingham and Newcastle. The 282-41 defeat in Parliament of a very mild reform bill in 1793 only served to strengthen the revolutionary strand within this movement against their more reformist comrades. The government responded with brutality to the new popular politics, banning “seditious” assemblies, arresting the movement’s leaders and shipping them off to Australia p51. Prime Minister William Pitt warned of “bloody revolution” if Paine’s ideas caught on p52. When war with France began in 1793, the opportunity was quickly grasped to brand the radicals as traitors.


Mary Wollstonecraft followed up her attack on Burke with “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, proposing a feminist element to the liberal revolution. “Many of [the book’s] insights – the conditioning of girls to correspond to male stereotypes – of the doll-playing, dress-loving minature coquette; the surrender of independence of mind and body for the slavery of idolization; the assumption that their anatomy disqualified them from serious thought – have since become commonplaces of the feminist critique of a male ordered world. But when Mary Wollstonecraft set them out they were still profoundly shocking, even to those who thought themselves on the side of Progress and Liberty” p59. The latter point was especially true since Wollstonecraft had attacked the Romantic’s patron saint, Rousseau, for his espousal of the notion of biologically-determined female subserviance.

Wollstonecraft, like Paine and others, moved to revolutionary France as a sort of political-philosophical pilgramage, but soon became horrified by the bloodletting and terror and disillusioned with what the revolution had become. Paine, though he had publically opposed to execution of Louis XIV, stuck with the revolution longer than Wollstonecraft. Indeed, he was even nominated by Napoleon Bonaparte to be head of the government in a post-invasion Britain. But as time went on and Bonapartist tyranny revealed itself, Paine renounced Napoleon in strong terms and left France.

Meanwhile in Britain, the authorities were clamping down hard on dissent. Advocating republicanism or even male suffrage were now classed as treason. Habeas corpus was suspended, and hundreds imprisoned. But the combination of a failing war effort, an economic slump and food shortages made Britain a difficult place to control. Mass protest meetings were held, riots broke out, and, in a near-echo of events in France, the King’s coach was attacked by a mob, with King George barely escaping with his life p67-8. Pitt responded by extending the sedition laws yet further.

“Not surprisingly, the combination of propaganda, gang intimidation, genuinely patriotic volunteer militias, censorship, political spying and summary arrests [deployed against the dissidents] succeeded in stopping the momentum of democratic agitation” p69.

How best to crush the threat of democracy was by no means Pitt’s only concern. Bonaparte’s France now controlled Europe, while Ireland - Britain’s swinging back-door - was becoming unstable. Concessions to the Catholics, aimed at forstalling the threat of their becoming a strategic asset of France, only succeeded in angering the Protestants; and when moves towards greater Irish autonomy were hastily withdawn, no-one was happy. There was enough discontent for a revolt to start but, even with France’s help, not enough to expel the British. Instead, a huge wave of violence erupted before Ireland was eventually absorbed fully into Britain in 1801.

The real threat of invasion in 1804-5 rallied the public to the cause of King and Country, but by 1807 the dissenters were back, ending the slave trade (though not slave ownership) in the Empire with a huge petitioning campaign.

At the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson had ended the threat of invasion, but not Napleon’s power in Europe. Britain was now shut out of European markets. Continental industruy thrived under this protection, but the British economy staggered and stumbled. Unemployment and food prices soared, “Luddites” expressed their outrage by smashing machinery and a ruined businessman assasinated Prime Minister Perceval.

By 1813 “[s]ome 12,000 regular troops – more than Wellington had to use against the French – were stationed at home to deal with the marches, riots and machine-wrecking that had become a regular feature of British life” p92.

When Napoleon was finally defeated altogether in 1815, the potential gains in terms of lower food prices were negated by the Corn Law protection granted to landowners, which allowed them to enrich themselves further while the poor – their ranks swelled by war-veterans – went hungry.

These social iniquities drew the ire of writers such as Williams Hazlitt and Cobbett, who attacked a governing class that claimed itself inheritor of England’s rural tradtion even as its enclosures and Corn Laws drove the people of the countryside into destitution. There was an audience for these views in both urban and rural areas, since “the industrial towns of Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Midlands were crammed with first-generation migrants from [the new] capital intensive, labour-extensive, commercialized countryside. Both [urban and rural dwellers] were now suffering” through lack of work and poverty wages p98. Cobbett noted the correlation between agrarian reform, private wealth and public squalor, since it was not in the north and north-west but in “the grain-belt of the Home Counties and East Anglia, where land had been most heavily exploited to maximise profit [that] the condition of the labourers was worst” p99.

Though no saint - and in fact a pretty vicious racist towards Blacks and, especially, Jews - Cobbett was also, through his ‘Weekly Political Register’ which sold in vast numbers, a major force behind mass political mobilization against (other) social and economic injustices in Britain. And when, in 1819, soldiers charged with swords drawn into a crowd of 50-60,000 in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, causing 11 deaths and 421 serious injuries (the latter number including 100 women and small children) in what became known as the “Peterloo massacre”, it was clear that this popular mobilization, and the backlash from the authorities, was to be no sideshow in British politics. Even a further round of state repression, and the imprisonment by the end of 1820 of most of the democratic movement’s leaders, could not mask that fact, at least not for long.

Political movements augmented by the non-conformist churches and now organised as pressure groups in the recognisably modern sense formed to take up the causes of civil rights for Irish Catholics and the abolition of slavery. It is now believed that one in five adult males signed an abolitionist petition in 1787, 1814 or 1833 p104. Elite claims that political dissatisfaction was confined to the margins and got up by extremists and foreigners – which Schama says were even echoed in the school textbooks of his childhood – were a self-serving fantasy. Dissidence of whatever colour was the political mainstream. It was Parliament that was at the margins.

In 1830, more high prices, unemployment and continued poverty wages brought the southern counties out into open revolt, which the authorities put down with force. 19 rebels were executed with a further 200 death sentences commuted to transportation to Australia.

The fear of revolution was now causing many in the ruling elite to think seriously about pre-emptive political reform. Tory Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington, ruled it out, despite having previously backed down on Irish Catholic emancipation, but he was soon gone, replaced by a Whig administration promising serious changes. Riots in Derbyshire, Nottingham and Bristol served to further concentrate their minds; the town of Merthyr Tydfil had even been briefly occupied by the rebels. Lords reform was effected to remove that barrier to franchise extention,and the Reform Act was finally passed in 1832.

The Act was one of establishment self-preservation, not democratic emancipation. The vote was only extended to men holding £10’s worth of property which, as the Whigs calculated correctly, was enough to split and weaken the democratic movement, albeit temporarily.

So Britain was still not a democracy, and nor would it be for the better part of a hundred years. But the efforts of this revolutionary generation had not been for nothing. In 1833 Britain outlawed slavery in all its colonies “at a time, notwithstanding recent historical writing, when the demand for slave-products was actually increasing and not diminishing” p108. The monopoly of the Church of England was weakened by the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act. And, most important of all, the voices and concerns of ordinary people had, through their own self-organised and sustained actions, become impossible for the ruling elite to ignore. Their struggle was far from over.


Though the Great Exhibition of 1851 was intended to showcase a nation singing in harmony – unifying the rural and the urban, religion and technological progress, the ‘quality’ and the great unwashed - fear of mass revolt was still never far away. The now octogenarian Duke of Wellington, as commander of the garrison of London, judged that the capital would only be secure at any one time with no less than 15,000 troops on stand-by, backing up a huge police presence p115.

The Duke was right to be nervous. The preceding decade had seen enormous political unrest, made even more threatening to the existing order when seen in the context of events on the continent, where revolutions were forever bubbling under or exploding through the surface. The 1832 Reform Act, predictably since it had not empowered the general population, had not resulted in an improvement in their conditions. Cities like Manchester, for example, were the scenes of appalling levels of squalor. In that city, the life-expectancy of ‘mechanics and labourers’ in 1842 was, statistically, 17. For ‘professional persons’ it was 38. Unemployment stood at between a quarter and a third. Disease and ill-health was rife. p133

The attitude of the Victorian ‘quality’ towards its inferiors was not one that we are entirely unfamiliar with today. There was a keenly perceived moral hazard to be avoided in allowing the poor any kind of social safety net. Poverty was, after all, clearly the result of some moral failing such as sloth; a view which, based as it was on the assumption that economic outcomes were a reflection of virtue, had the happy side-effect of casting the well-to-do in a semi-saintly glow. What measures were therefore taken to prevent the poor from simply dying altogether needed to be as harsh as possible, so as not to encourage idleness. The result was the workhouses, popularly known as the ‘Bastilles’ whose inmates were brutally shorn to make them instantly identifiable on the outside. A society which claimed to see the family as the first school of virtue saw fit, in the workhouses, to seperate husbands from their wives and parents from their children. The ‘Bastilles’ were designed to replicate prisons so closely that people would take any kind of legitimate work to avoid them. In this sense, they must have helped underwrite the most exploitative employment practices. Employers like the Manchester oligarchs saw profits, not the condition of their employees, as their primary concern. Low wages were simply an economic fact-of-life since higher wages would threaten business, and where would we all be then?

This was how the higher classes rationalized a status quo that they so happened to benefit enormously from. But their worldview did not go uncontested. In 1839, 1842 and 1848, millions signed petitions in favour of a People’s Charter demanding universal male suffrage with no property qualifications, equal votes, annual Parliaments, paid MPs and the secret ballot. The rationale was put succinctly by Bronterre O’Brien, editor of the ‘Poor Man’s Guardian’:

“Knaves tell you that it is because you have no property that you are unrepresented. I tell you, on the contrary, it is because you have no representation that you have no property” p135

With their demands ignored by Parliament, a distinction (though not a schism) became visible in the Chartist movement between reformers (favouring “moral force”) and revolutionaries (favouring “physical force”). In the autumn of 1839 armed uprisings in South Wales and Yorkshire resulted in “the largest loss of life inflicted by a British government on its own people at any time in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries” when 15 were killed and at least 50 seriously injured in a battle with Chartist rebels at Newport. The 1840s saw the Chartists develop into a well-organised, centrally co-ordinated pressure group, with individual active units answerable to a central office.

So when the massive Chartists demonstration on Kennington Common, south London coincided – in April 1848 – with the ‘springtime of the people’ in a Europe set ablaze by revolution, the governing class, for all its patronizing sniggering at the jumped up hoi polloi, was, in truth, plain scared. London had to be defended, lest the demonstrators decide that they would not be going home until they had got the democracy they came for.

“Some 85,000 men were sworn in as special constables to supplement the 4,000 Peelers of Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police and 8,000 regular troops. Government offices were barricaded with crate-loads of official papers and copies of Hansard. Guns and cannon were posted at critical sites: the Bank of England and the Tower of London. The Stock Exchange volunteered some 300 of its own employees as ‘specials’ to defend the bastion of captitalism. Defenses, complete with light artillery, were set up on the Mall to prevent access to Buckingham Palace. (The royal family had in any case, on the advice of the government, taken themselves off to the Isle of Wight to avoid anything disagreeable.)” p140-1

In the end, determined to prove themselves emphatically not the bloodthirsty Jacobins of elitist scaremongering, and perhaps less than confident in their ability to successfully effect an armed revolution in any event, the Chartists’ demonstration passed off for the most part peacefully. This may have proved the high water mark of militant Chartism, but the energies generated by the movement did not fizzle out. Rather, they were channeled into trade unionism, cooperatives, friendly societies and other vehicles of working class empowerment and self-determination. Schama argues, plausibly, that it may have been this new, less confrontational manifestation of discontent amongst the masses that caused Parliament to allow household male suffrage in the second Reform Act of 1867, less fearful perhaps than it had been nineteen years earlier, of letting in the Jacobins by the backdoor. It is also possible that the improved economic conditions of the years between 1848 and 1867 drew some of the militancy out of the pro-democracy movement. In any event, the mobilised general public had won another victory from their masters and Britain had taken another small step towards democracy.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Letter to The Guardian on the legality of Israeli settlements

The British government has issued a statement reminding UK citizens of the illegality of Israeli settlements (more properly described as colonies) in the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The statement is intended as a note of caution for any Britons intending to buy land in and/or emigrate to those territories, but of course it also holds political significance since Israel's refusal to recognise the illegality of its behaviour, relinquish its hold on the territories and return to its own legal borders is the primary obstacle both to a peace settlement with the Palestinians and to Palestinian self-determination.

This is a welcome, if extremely mild rebuke from a British government which has otherwise backed Israel in the most cynical ways in recent years. It is also highly offensive to apologists for Israeli crimes, who appear unable to reconcile themselves with a fundamental tenent of common morality - that theft is wrong - and the related, fundamental tenent of international law: that the acquisition of territory by force is forbidden. Hence this letter to the Guardian from the Zionist Federation which sets out the argument that, well, theft is both right and legal, at least when Israel does it. My response is below. The Guardian didn't publish my letter, but they did publish some rather good ones making broadly the same points.


Jonathan Hoffman of the Zionist Federation asserts that the West Bank and East Jerusalem are not occupied territories under international law. Does he know something that the International Court of Justice does not?

In 2004, the court stated that, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, "territory is considered occupied when it is ... placed under the aurthority of [a] hostile army...The territories situated between the Green Line...and the former eastern boundary of Palestine under the Mandate were occupied by Israel in 1967 during the armed conflict between Israel and Jordan. Under customary international law, these were therefore occupied territories in which Israel had the status of occupying Power. Subsequent events in these territories...have done nothing to alter this situation." (pg67, para 78)

In respect of Israeli colonisation, Hoffman claims that the Geneva Convention only applies to forced population transfer and not to Israelis settling in the occupied territories of their own free will. In fact, the Court stated that the Fourth Geneva Convention "prohibits not only deportations or forced transfers of population such as those carried out during the Second World War, but also any measures taken by an occupying Power in order to organize or encourage transfers of parts of its own population into the occupied territory" and that Israeli colonisation of the occupied territories is also, therefore, illegal. (p99 para120)

Last month the UN General Assembly voted 164-7 in favour of a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on compliance with international law (in the rejectionist camp were Israel, the United States, Australia, and four South Pacific island nations). Yet Hoffman claims that "the UK government risks encouraging extremists" by taking a view of the status of the Israeli settlements that accords with the opinion of the highest judicial body on the planet and the overwhelming majority of the world's nation states. Aren't the real extremists those, like Hoffman, who attempt to formulate torturous, self-serving arguments in defence of armed conquest and straightforward theft?

David Wearing


Readers who want to get involved in the effort to end the conflict and the repression of the Palestinians please note: the International Court of Justice's opinion of 2004 is your friend. It is possibly the most important document on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today. It demolishes Israel's arguments in favour of continued colonisation and sets out the legal (as well as the moral) basis for a just solution to the conflict. Ultimately, Israel's reprehensible behaviour will only be ended in the same way that the South African Apartheid system was ended: through a popular effort by the repressed people themselves and their supporters worldwide to win the argument on the issues and the facts, thereby making the repressor's position politically untenable. In this moral, political and popular struggle, the ICJ opinion is possibly our greatest weapon. Read it, learn the arguments, and use it whenever possible.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Empire of Liberty

Continuing my notes on the evolution of the poltical economy of Britain, and of British foreign policy, drawn from Simon Schama's “A History of Britain 2: The British Wars, 1603 – 1776”. This time, its the Atlantic slave trade, worldwide war with France, the loss of the American colonies, and the conquest of India


British imperial expansion in the eighteenth century was accompanied by odes to liberty, progress and patriotism. Those who drove the expansion pictured themselves in a narrative of British history that told of the forward march of freedom; Alfred, Elizabeth I, even Cromwell, and now themselves. Magna Carta, the 1688 revolution and the 1689 Bill of Rights were all wheeled out and invoked as symbols of a Britain that had freed itself from European-style (and, of course, Catholic) despotism.

“The connection between the championship of liberty at home and the creation of a maritime, commercial empire overseas was at the heart of the new, the first truly British, patriotism”.

Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, had based his ‘Patriot King’, published in 1738 as vocational guidance for Frederick, Prince of Wales, on this same narrative. Alfred, ‘Guardian of liberty’ and originator of trial by jury (actually, he wasn’t) would be the model for the next king, though in the event, Frederick was to die before he reached the throne.

The cognitive dissonance required to maintain the oxymoronic concept of an Empire of Liberty was on full display in this quote from Bolingbroke:

“The Empire of the Seas is ours; we have been many Ages in Possession of it; we have had many Sea-Fights, at a vast effusion of Blood and Expense of Treasure to preserve it and preserve it we still must, at all Risks and Events if we have a Mind to preserve ourselves”

Offence is defence, theft justified by the sacrifices of the thief, and domination over others nothing more than self-preservation. This was the base metal of self-interest alchemised into golden noble virtue.

Like today’s right-wing ‘Libertarians’, many of the eighteenth century’s champions of freedom were thinking of their own liberty rather more than of liberty as a universal right and principle. The oligarchs who saw themselves as the ‘Heart Blood’ of the nation “believed themselves tyrannized by the arbitrary powers of Walpole’s excisemen, and ... looked to the promotion of blue-water empire to fulfil their partnership between trade and freedom. So when they spoke of liberty they meant, among other enterprises, the liberty to buy and sell slaves”.

Empire of slaves

The theory of the imperialists was that by eschewing direct territorial conquest, a British imperial despotism could be avoided. Britain would exert no more than the minimum level of power required to operate a global commercial concern wherein the colonies would provide the raw materials and the homeland manufactured goods in an “endlessly benevolent cycle of mutual self-improvement”. But by the end of the eighteenth century “[i]nstead of an empire of farmers and traders the British Empire was, overwhelmingly, an empire of soldiers” ruling over “a million Caribbean slaves and at least 50 million inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent”.

The Empire of Liberty’s “prosperity depended on the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Africans” who, when they fought for their own liberty, as did the Antiguan rebels of 1776, were “publicly burnt alive...broken on the wheel...gibbeted alive...mutilated”, castrated or flogged “til they are Raw, some put on their skins Pepper and salt to make them smart” says a contemporaneous source quoted by Schama.

“The irony that an empire so noisily advertised as an empire of free Britons should depend on the most brutal coercion of enslaved Africans is not just an academic paradox. It was the condition of the empire’s success, its original sin: a stain that no amount of righteous self-congratulation at its eventual abolition can altogether wash away”

The raw materials provided by the colonies were commodities such as tobacco, tea, chocolate, coffee and sugar, creating and satisfying new demands at home.

“As early as 1655, three years after [the] first coffee house opened in London, Barbados was shipping 7,787 tons of sugar back to England, and there were already 20,000 slaves on the island against 23,000 whites, well over half of whom were probably indentured servants” helping to make the plantation owners “by far the richest men in British America”. “It was precisely between 1640 and 1660, when the rhetoric of liberty was being most noisily shouted at home, that the slave economy was being created in the Caribbean”.

By 1700 there were 50,000 slaves on Barbados, with the white indentured labourers almost gone. By 1800 there were 70,000, and another 400,000 on Jamaica.

Excusing British slavery by pointing to the social mores of the time is by no means an adequate response. As has been noted, liberty was far from an alien concept; talk of it filled the political air. And the specific moral abhorrence of slavery was not a thought that had simply failed to occur to the backwardly innocent men of the time. The Puritan Richard Baxter asked, in 1673, “How cursed a crime is it to equal men to beasts. Is this not your practice? Do you not buy them and use them merely as you do horses to labour for your commodity...Do you not see how you reproach and condemn yourselves while you vilify them all as savages?”. A time-traveller from the early twenty-first century who encountered the slave-drivers of the era could scarcely have put it better. Such arguments were known, understood, and consciously rejected.

“In the century and a half of the slave trade, from the 1650s to 1807, between three and four million Africans were transported out of their homelands to the New World in British ships”, accounting for about a third of those abducted and sold by all European nations involved. A million and a half of the British slaves died en route across the Atlantic. While it is true that the Europeans did not invent West African slavery, the demand they provided certainly grew and expanded the practice, driving its horrors deep into the African interior.

The slaves were denied every last vestige of their humanity by traders, their private parts inspected closely for signs of yaws prior to purchase, their breast our shoulder then branded by the initial of the ship that would take them across the ocean. Many attempted suicide rather than face the hell of the plantation. One slave trader spoke of sharks following the ships all the way from West Africa to the Caribbean, feasting on the suicides and the corpses pitched over the side. Those who remained on board were crammed in cheek-by-jowl and chained together, malnourished, forced to fester in each other’s filth, driven slowly mad by dehydration and dysentery.

One might almost say that it was the unlucky ones who survived the “middle passage” and made it to the West Indies. One fifth of slave children born on the plantation were dead before their second birthday. If they lived to six or seven they were sent out to work. Eighty per cent of slaves worked seventy to eighty hour weeks. The work, especially in the mill and the boiling house, was not only back-breaking but highly dangerous. Simply being a slave was lethal in itself, but they cost sufficiently little to purchase for their deaths not to pose a serious economic problem. Women bore a particularly harsh burden, subjected as they were to the “habitual sexual aggression” of their owners. Pregnant women were forced to continue working right up til the point of delivery. In spite of all this, the slaves resisted whenever and however they could, either in outright rebellions as in Antigua in the 1720s and 1730s and Jamaica mid-century, or in simply preserving their own cultures against all the odds. But this is another story.

“By the middle of the eighteenth century, the mercantile ‘empire of liberty’ was critically dependent or its fortune on the economic universe made from slavery”. Britain’s single most valuable import was the sugar produced by three quarters of a million West Indian slaves, generating huge personal fortunes and general enrichment which was in turn to transform both the economy and British society. The ports of Bristol and Liverpool developed and expanded significantly as a direct result of the transatlantic trade. The great library at All Soul’s College, Oxford was built thanks to a donation from the Codmingtons of Barbados. The banking houses of Barclays and Lloyds grew rich, and reinvested in manufacturing. And the nouveaux riches of the trade were now throwing their weight around in Westminster and the City of London. Their liberty, at least, had been greatly enhanced.

World War

The greatest threat to the serene continuation of these happy arrangements came from – where else? – France. The plantation plutocrats may have aroused little sympathy with their complaints about the rising cost of slaves and the falling price of sugar, but when they complained about the French they were sure of an audience.

The dynastic links of the Bourbon royal houses meant that the French could operate in the Western Hemisphere free from harassment from the Spanish coastguard, whose attentions had been a source of consternation to British patriots for some years. The French made inroads into the markets of West Africa, provided tough competition for the British Caribbean plantations from their own colonies such as St Domingue (later Haiti) and began to interfere in the affairs of India, to which the British East India Company took principled exception, waging war to expel its new competitors.

In North America, the population of the British colonies now exceeded that of Britain itself, but the westward expansion seen by the colonists as their natural right was blocked by French territorial acquisitions, which also threatened their hold over trade in fish and furs.

Skirmishes in Ohio in which the French prevailed (involving, amongst others, one George Washington) were the prelude to worldwide war. Prussia was subsidised to pin the French down in Europe, starving it of men and resources that might otherwise have been deployed in the theatres of India, West Africa, the Caribbean or North America, while the Royal Navy guarded the British coast and harassed the French in the Mediterranean and Atlantic.

But while Robert Clive prevailed in Bengal (more of him presently), Britain initially floundered elsewhere. In 1757, William Pitt was brought in to run the government, and instantly set about turning the situation around. Money and resources were thrown into the war effort, particularly in North America, where complacent and overbearing generals were replaced with pragmatists who were more disposed to take a collaborative approach with the local militia. £200,000 was given annually to Frederick the Great to keep French forces in Europe occupied. The 1758 military budget was a hitherto inconceivable £12.5m; half-borrowed and half-taxed. This bought Britain 120-130,000 regular and irregular troops, a 70,000-man Navy and, ultimately, victory. The French lost imperial footholds in India, the Caribbean, West Africa, and finally Canada in 1760.

Benjamin Franklin was overjoyed by the conquest of Canada, believing that it cleared the way for a British-American Empire of Liberty to expand westward, making itself “broad and strong enough to support the greatest political structure human wisdom ever yet erected”. So how did Franklin get from there to signing the declaration of independence in 17 years?

Parting of the Ways

Peace with France was settled with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, leaving Britain the pre-eminent world power. But at a cost. The Treasury was in debt, credit was tight due to a Dutch banking crisis, and half the army was demobilised and in need of work just as labour-intensive industry was being scaled back to pre-war levels. The economic situation was already causing political instability, as harvests failed and prices rose, so more domestic taxation was not an attractive option.

It was in this context that the management of the American colonies was reappraised and a new approach decided upon. First, the colonies must not develop a manufacturing industry that might compete with Britain’s. Economic relations must remain dependent. Secondly, to limit the costs of defending the colonies, westward expansion must halt, thus securing the goodwill of the indigenous peoples, many of whom had sided with the French during the war. Third, the colonists, who had after all benefitted from Britain’s ‘vast effusion of Blood and Expense of Treasure’ in the war effort, would henceforth have to pay for their own defence. Through taxes.

The colonists did not take kindly at all to this. The traders resented the excise regime, while highly literate Boston, with its lively and intimate political culture, took the 1765 Stamp Act’s tax on paper as a personal affront. Rioting and general unrest ensued. The Act was repealed after fierce debate in the House of Commons, but by that stage Britain’s standing in the colonies was at an altogether new low.

The duties regime continued to grow - repeal of the Stamp Act notwithstanding – and now became increasingly militarised. The colonists reacted with import boycotts, violent unrest, and general disobedience and protest. Lord North’s incoming administration of 1770 repealed most of the objectionable duties but, fatefully, retained one, that on tea.

The international trading relationship envisaged by the founders of the East India Company (hereafter “EIC”) in 1600 had not developed according to plan. India’s own manufactured goods were quite sophisticated enough, a good deal more so that Britain’s in fact, and no inferior British imports were required. Instead, India exported its textiles to England, taking only silver in return. The dazzling ‘calicoes’ arrived in vast quantities (more on this later) causing English manufacturers to beg for protection from the competition. The company therefore switched to shipping tea, but was undercut in that market by Dutch traders. EIC stock began to collapse, with huge debts to the government piling up for unpaid customs and military protection. The solution was to eliminate tea duties in England, thus slashing the price and making the product more competitive. The duties would however remain in the colonies, as the assertion of London’s sovereign right to levy taxes in its Empire. It was a right not recognised in Boston. Once again, Americans were being taxed without the consent of their popular assemblies. It led to the “Boston Tea Party” where imported tea stocks were smashed and dumped in the harbour by a mob dressed, with notable lack of self-awareness, as native Americans, complete with blacked-up faces. But more than this, it was anger at Britain’s response to these events – the military occupation of Boston and the closing down of its port until losses were compensated – that lit the revolutionary spark.

Even during the war, demands for outright American independence were not inevitable. At least at first, the colonists sought autonomy within the empire in accordance with the patriotic myth of English-British history as a narrative of liberty unfolding. They found that the myth was just that. George III and his government rejected all demands, expecting nothing less than total surrender and obedience. It was Britain’s failure to live up to the patriotic mythology that resulted in its loss of the American colonies and with them much of the advantage gained in the Seven Years War with France.

Franklin took the view that a country’s fortunes depended on things like geography, population and social structure; a novel perspective in those times. For him, it was clear that America had far greater natural endowments than the homeland, and that London’s treating its American colonies as subjects rather than partners, and any divorce that ensued, would ultimately be its own loss. This view was, it must be said, nothing if not prescient.

Empire of Plunder

The claimed ideals of the Empire of Liberty were being betrayed on both side of the compass. The EIC was being reigned-in by a London establishment that was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with its violent, corrupt excesses. Edmund Burke accused the company of having pillaged a proud civilisation on the false pretext of securing free trade: “every rupee of profit made by an Englishman is lost forever to India”.

The EIC’s enterprise had originally been aimed at what is now Indonesia but, with its way blocked by the Dutch and Portuguese, it sought footholds in India instead, securing its first licenses to trade from the Mughal Emperor Jahangir at the port of Surat in 1608.

By the end of the seventeenth century, the company controlled Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, while at the same time, Mughal India was becoming increasingly vulnerable to external pressures. The subcontinent was run on a decentralised basis, with local ‘nawabs’ operating (and skimming off) a land tax system which sent money to the imperial court. But as Delhi was increasingly subjected to successful raids by Afghan and Persian armies, local rulers looked to build up their own independent means as insurance against the erosion of the central state’s credibility. It was at this point that the nawabs were coming to the attentions of European traders seeking advantages and ways into the Indian markets.

One of those traders was Robert Clive who, as a teenager, had made his name in his home town of Market Drayton running a protection racket as the head of the local gang. By the age of twenty-five, his adventurism as an EIC military officer had resulted in the installation of a friendly nawab in south eastern India, thwarting French attempts to do the same.

In 1757, Clive was sent north to deal with an attempt by the young nawab of Bengal to roll back European privileges. The Battle of Plassey was largely won through intrigue and bribery as the nawabs' lieutenants saw the writing on the wall and switched sides. A quarter of a million pounds was extorted from the Bengali coffers by Clive’s forces, and a personal revenue territory bestowed on Clive himself, making him one of Britain’s richest men.

But there was a bigger issue at stake here, even than the healthy state of Clive’s bank balance. In 1758, Clive told the EIC directors that “such an opportunity [as in Bengal] can never again be expected for the aggrandisement of the Company”. Britain became increasingly involved in the government of the region, installing and deposing nawabs at will, collecting and demanding immunity from taxes. A business empire was turning into a military empire, and now turning its gaze up the Ganges, into the weakening heart of Mughal India, towards Delhi.

While London fretted about the costs of defending these new acquisitions, the likes of Clive enjoyed the bounty. “[T]hey began to spend freely in Britain itself, buying country houses and sometimes, as at Sezincote in Gloucestershire, hiring architects to give them the air of an Indian palace. They began to throw their weight around in London and their money at Parliamentary seats. As the ‘nababs’, they displaced the West Indian planters as the most envied and detested plutocrats of the age”.

While they bathed in their new-found wealth, the nababs' means of enrichment was the source of misery for Bengalis. The tax regime had become so onerous that, when the monsoons failed in 1769 and 1770, the peasant farmers had neither savings nor productive capital to see them through. Famine was the result, and not for the last time in British India.

Clive’s huge personality sucked the popular understanding of events into orbit around him, thus obscuring less superficial interpretations of what had gone wrong. Schama’s next observation is directly analogous to the modern focus on the shortcomings of the George W Bush regime, as opposed to the deeper assumptions of the imperial tradition that produced his Presidency.

“Paradoxically, Clive’s personal notoriety spared the logic of his interventionist imperialism from the scepticism it deserved. For if, somehow, with the best will in the world, British government in Bengal had failed to bring about general peace and prosperity, it could only be because wicked men, selfish men, perhaps led astray by greedy opportunist natives, had abused their trust in order to line their pockets. The proper correction was not to examine the assumptions behind the proposition, but merely to find the right men and the right measures”.

Warren Hastings, the new Governor-General of Bengal, had much less autonomy than Clive. He ruled in tandem with a five man council on which he was but one voice, the other four being appointed by the crown and the company. It was Hastings that ushered in the era of the ‘White Mughals’, taking a greater interest in the native religions, cultures and languages. This was so as to effect a more sympathetic and benevolent, and thus a more effective rule. But it was also born of a degree of respect and admiration for Indian civilisation (albeit not as an equal to that of Britain).

Hastings however was recalled to London for impeachment proceedings (though subsequently acquitted). His replacement, Cornwalis, sought to run British India differently; now as a replica of the English rural hierarchy. The local Indian tax collectors were to become the local gentry: property owners extracting rents from tenant farmers and providing tax revenue to a state managed by British courts and military muscle.

But the stability on which this new order depended was hard to maintain. War with various Indian princes proved costly, though Tipu Sultan of Mysore, the greatest challenge to British rule in India at that time, was ultimately defeated. For plotting to free his domain of the British yoke, in collaboration with Bonaparte’s France, Tipu Sultan’s capital was sacked and his court looted. The armies of the new Governor-General, Wellesley, now dominated the scene. Britain prevailed over the entire subcontinent. By 1804, it ruled with an army of 192,000 – as large as many of those in Europe. Clive had only ever commanded 5,000.

All this was of course justified as defence against the aggression of others, be it France or, ludicrously, the Indians themselves. And every extension of British power, so justified, preceded a new extension, to be justified in the same way. The more Britain defended its interests, the bigger its interests became. So it was that the Empire of Liberty in the imagination of the patriots transformed itself into the empire of coercion and plunder of the historical record.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Liberated attention-seekers of the have nothing to lose but your shoes


Why did an Iraqi journalist, Muntazir al-Zaidi, throw his shoes at US President George Bush during a press conference on Sunday? Well, according to Bush, "that's what happens in free societies when people try to draw attention to themselves".

Now lets have a think. What other reasons might there be for an Iraqi to want to throw his shoes (a particularly grave insult in the Arab world) at George W Bush?

Could it be related to the fact that the US invasion and occupation may by now have resulted in the deaths of over a million Iraqis (or around one in every twenty-nine of the population) and well over 4 million being driven out of their homes (or around one in every six of the population) according to the best estimates available? Those refugees were often driven into poverty and marginalisation in neighbouring countries, their children into malnutrition, their daughters into prostitution, while those left behind fared little better, be they the maimed, the bereaved, the unemployed, the impoverished, the imprisoned or the tortured. What are the odds of the anger of this Iraqi journalist towards the US President having to do with any of those things?

What about the systematic sexual abuse and torture carried out by Bush's troops at Abu Ghraib? What about the recent outbreak of cholera, merely the latest example of the train-wreck society Iraq has become?

Or maybe it was because the war - an aggressive war of choice, instigated under a cloak of propaganda and straightforward lying - was, at root, aimed at no more lofty a goal than the acquisition of greater wealth and power, through control over Iraq's vast oil reserves?

For George Bush, the obvious reason an Iraqi would throw shoes at him is because George liberated the guy and because the guy is an attention seeker. Might any other thoughts have occurred to the President, if he had given himself a little more time to consider it?

I suppose maybe the shoe-thrower could be one of those "anti-Americans" you hear about. Probably he hates freedom and our way of life, or something. Or maybe he's just ungrateful.

McClatchy reports that "al-Zaidi covered the U.S. bombing of Baghdad's Sadr City area earlier this year and had been "emotionally influenced" by the destruction he'd seen". The fact that the US still bombs densely populated civilian areas in Iraq, 5 years after liberation, is one of the major untold stories of the conflict. It is, however, no secret to Iraqis.

This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!” al-Zaidi shouted as he threw his second shoe. The New York Times reports that al-Zaidi was then "beaten by members of the prime minister’s security detail, who hauled him out of the room in his white socks. Mr. Zaidi’s cries could be heard from a nearby room as the news conference continued", no doubt another egotisitcal attempt to draw attention to himself. According to al-Zaidi's fellow reporter Mohammed Taher, the guards kicked him and beat him until "he was crying like a woman" while President Bush joked and smirked his way through the remainder of the press conference.

Al-Zaidi is now in the hands of Iraq's criminal justice system where. According to a Human Rights Watch report released Sunday:

"Torture and other forms of abuse in Iraqi detention facilities, frequently to elicit confessions in early stages of detention, are well documented. The reliance on confessions in the court’s proceedings, coupled with the absence of physical or other corroborating evidence, raises the possibility of serious miscarriages of justice. In at least 10 investigative hearings and two trials that Human Rights Watch observed, defendants renounced confessions submitted as evidence. In most of those cases, the defendants said they had been physically abused or threatened by interrogators."

Sami Ramadani, a political exile from the regime of Saddam Hussein and now a senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University, has a good article in the Guardian today explaining what motivated al-Zaidi, and what his actions meant to many Iraqis.

"Muntadhar [al-Zaidi] is a secular socialist whose hero happens to be Che Guevara. He became a prominent leftwing student leader immediately after the occupation, while at Baghdad University's media college. He reported for al-Baghdadia on the poor and downtrodden victims of the US war. He was first on the scene in Sadr City and wherever people suffered violence or severe deprivation. He not only followed US Apache helicopters' trails of death and destruction, but he was also among the first to report every "sectarian" atrocity and the bombing of popular market places. He let the victims talk first.

It was effective journalism, reporting that the victims of violence themselves accused the US-led occupation of being behind all the carnage. He was a voice that could not be silenced, despite being kidnapped by a gang and arrested by US and regime forces.

His passion for the war's victims and his staunchly anti-occupation message endeared him to al-Baghdadia viewers. And after sending Bush out of Iraq in ignominy he has become a formidable national hero. The orphan who was brought up by his aunt, and whose name means the longed or awaited for, has become a powerful unifying symbol of defiance, and is being adopted by countless Iraqis as "our dearest son"."

If you're in London this Friday 19 December, you can join a protest for al-Zaidi's release at 1pm, the US Embassy, 24 Grosvenor Square. Nearest tube stops are Marble Arch and Bond Street. Stop the War Coalition asks that you bring shoes.


In other news, Prime Minister Gordon Brown today announced the withdrawal of British combat forces from Iraq, to be effected by 31 May 2009. You can read my Le Monde Diplomatique article on Britain's ignominious role in the occupation of Iraq here.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Arundhati Roy: Mumbai was not our 9/11

"We've forfeited the rights to our own tragedies. As the carnage in Mumbai raged on, day after horrible day, our 24-hour news channels informed us that we were watching "India's 9/11". Like actors in a Bollywood rip-off of an old Hollywood film, we're expected to play our parts and say our lines, even though we know it's all been said and done before.

As tension in the region builds, US Senator John McCain has warned Pakistan that if it didn't act fast to arrest the "Bad Guys" he had personal information that India would launch air strikes on "terrorist camps" in Pakistan and that Washington could do nothing because Mumbai was India's 9/11.

But November isn't September, 2008 isn't 2001, Pakistan isn't Afghanistan and India isn't America. So perhaps we should reclaim our tragedy and pick through the debris with our own brains and our own broken hearts so that we can arrive at our own conclusions."

Arundhati Roy on the equation of the Mumbai attacks with 9/11. Read the whole article here. And see also good articles by William Dalrymple and Juan Cole.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Obama, Iraq and Afghanistan

Here's a RealNews interview with Ray McGovern on the situation incoming-President Obama faces with regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on the dangers of what appears to be Obama's emerging approach. McGovern is a retired CIA officer who worked under seven US presidents for over 27 years, presenting the morning intelligence briefings at the White House for many of them.

I did promise a proper in-depth analysis of my own on the new President, but time hasn't allowed it yet. Will definitely try and get something together for the inaugration though.


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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Gaza: Silence is not an option

Israel, with Western backing, continues to maintain its blockade on the Gaza Strip, imposed in 2006 when the Palestinians committed the crime of voting the wrong way in an election. Here, and reproduced in full below, is the statement issued yesterday by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights on Palestinian territories, Richard Falk.


Gaza: Silence is not an option

9 December 2008

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights on Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, Richard Falk, issued the following statement:

GENEVA -- In recent days the desperate plight of the civilian population of Gaza has been acknowledged by such respected international figures as the Secretary General of the United Nations, the President of the General Assembly, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Last week, Karen AbyZayd, who heads the UN relief effort in Gaza, offered first-hand confirmation of the desperate urgency and unacceptable conditions facing the civilian population of Gaza. Although many leaders have commented on the cruelty and unlawfulness of the Gaza blockade imposed by Israel, such a flurry of denunciations by normally cautious UN officials has not occurred on a global level since the heyday of South African apartheid.

And still Israel maintains its Gaza siege in its full fury, allowing only barely enough food and fuel to enter to stave off mass famine and disease. Such a policy of collective punishment, initiated by Israel to punish Gazans for political developments within the Gaza strip, constitutes a continuing flagrant and massive violation of international humanitarian law as laid down in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

It is long past the time when talk suffices. As AbuZayd has written, "the chasm between word and deed" with respect to upholding human rights in occupied Palestine creates a situation where "radicalism and extremism easily take root." The UN is obligated to respond under these conditions. Some governments of the world are complicit by continuing their support politically and economically for Israel's punitive approach.

Protective action must be taken immediately to offset the persisting and wide-ranging violations of the fundamental human right to life, and in view of the emergency situation that is producing a humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding day by day. However difficult politically, it is time to act. At the very least, an urgent effort should be made at the United Nations to implement the agreed norm of a 'responsibility to protect' a civilian population being collectively punished by policies that amount to a Crime Against Humanity.

In a similar vein, it would seem mandatory for the International Criminal Court to investigate the situation, and determine whether the Israeli civilian leaders and military commanders responsible for the Gaza siege should be indicted and prosecuted for violations of international criminal law. As AbuZayd has declared, "This is a humanitarian crisis deliberately imposed by political actors."

It should be noted that the situation worsened in recent days due to the breakdown of a truce between Hamas and Israel that had been observed for several months by both sides. The truce was maintained by Hamas despite the failure of Israel to fulfill its obligation under the agreement to improve the living conditions of the people of Gaza.

The recent upsurge of violence occurred after an Israeli incursion that killed several alleged Palestinian militants within Gaza. It is a criminal violation of international law for elements of Hamas or anyone else to fire rockets at Israeli towns regardless of provocation, but such Palestinian behavior does not legalize Israel's imposition of a collective punishment of a life- and health-threatening character on the people of Gaza, and should not distract the UN or international society from discharging their fundamental moral and legal duty to render protection to the Palestinian people.


For further information on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and work and mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights on Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, visit this website.


Please write to or email your MP/Congressional representative, attaching the statement from the Special Rapporteur and ask them what they, personally, are doing to end this blockade. As individuals we can't just point the finger at Israel when our own governments are supporting its actions. That support places a responsibility on us to do something about this.

Yesterday, the Israeli ambassador to the UK, Ron Prosor, had this article published in the Guardian in response to the current renewed efforts to promote the Arab Peace Initiative for a lasting settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. The letter I sent to the Guardian in response is below. It didn't get published, but here's the letter they did publish instead.


One could almost pity the Israeli ambassador ("A gulf worth bridging", December 9, 2008). The Arab states plus the Palestinian authority are offering his country full peace and recognition, and demand only in return that Israel comply with international law by returning stolen land and negotiating a fair settlement for the thousands of Palestinians it has ethnically cleansed from their homes. Even Hamas, in May 2006, joined with the other Palestinian factions in signing up to a “National Conciliation Document” calling for a Palestinian state on the legal, 1967 borders, in accordance with the repeated statements of leading Hamas officials in recent years. Yet poor Mr Prosor has to maintain the fiction that the failure to negotiate an end to the conflict is the fault of everyone else. The results are predictable.

Prosor insists that any peace deal must recognise the “demographic realities” of Israeli colonisation, as though these were ordained by God, not imposed by illegal force. Prosor demands the end to popular Arab hostility towards his government, as though rejectionism and anti-Arab racism was not endemic in his own country’s political culture. And Prosor demands to know why the Arab states do not do more to fund Palestinian economic development, even as his government forces Gazan children into malnutrition to punish their parents for voting the wrong way in a free election. The excuses are increasingly absurd, but they are all the ambassador has left.

Last month the UN General Assembly voted 164-7 in favour of a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on compliance with international law. In the rejectionist camp were Israel, the United States, Australia, and four South Pacific island nations. Iran was one of the 164 who voted in favour. The way is open for Israel and its dwindling number of allies to accept international law, give back what has been stolen and choose the path of peace; if not for the sake of the Palestinians, then at least for the sake of the Israeli ambassador's dignity.

David Wearing

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Britannia Inc. 1688-1786

Continuing my notes on the evolution of the political economy of Britain, again drawn from Simon Schama’s “A History of Britain 2: The British Wars, 1603 – 1776”. Rather than summarising Schama, I'm highlighting here those elements of the book that pertain to the topic of my PhD research: how British politics in general and foreign policy in particular came to be dominated by concentrations of socio-economic power.
Let's pick up were we left off last time, where William of Orange effectively deposed and replaced the last of the Stuart kings, James II, in the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688.
So, are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

William III set about bringing the British Isles to heel, and ruthlessly. In less-than-pacified Scotland, the village of Glencoe was singled out to be made an example of, in a classic act of state terrorism. For the crime of pledging allegiance to the King a few days past the designated deadline, through no fault of the clan chief who had honestly endevoured to make the pledge on time, nearly eighty mostly unarmed men, together with women and children, were butchered by soldiers to whom they had unwittingly given 10 days of hospitality, in accordance with their traditions.

“[T]he dawn massacre in the heather floor of Glencoe, the ‘weeping valley’, anticipated the standard operating practices of the British Empire, to be repeated countless times over the next two centuries in America, Asia and Africa. ‘Backward peoples’ were to be given the opportunity to collaborate and, if they accepted, would be welcomed to a proper share of the spoils and to a partnership in the modernizing enterprise. Rejection – invariably characterised as unreasonable – would invite annihilation”


A conflict was occuring, not just between English and Scots but between the old Scotland of the Highlands and the new Scotland of the Lowlands, as economic development in the latter region began to seperate it from the traditionalism of the former. The ambition of the Lowlanders was characterised by the attempt to catapult Scotland to the status of international economic power with the building of a canal at the isthmus of Darien in Central America, joining the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and thus opening a superior trading route.

“Ships from China and Japan could sail east and at New Edinburgh exchange cargoes with ships sailing west from Europe. With freight costs slashed, the goods thus shipped would become more cheaply available in their respective domestic markets. Demand would soar correspondingly, and the volume of trade increase exponentially. And sitting on top of the world’s newest and most prosperous exchange and mart would be the Scots, taking portage, marketing and banking charges off the top.”

Amsterdam had enriched itself in a similar way over the centuries, but in a time of mercantilism this new Scottish notion of a free trade area was a kind of heresy. Not just heretical, but commercially threatening, as the prospect of the Darien venture coming off caused shares in the English East India Company to tumble in fright.
They needn't have worried. The venture that consumed fully one quarter of Scotland’s liquid capital was to become an unmitigated disaster. The “Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies” carried not just the nations hopes but much of its wealth, a plethora of institutions and individuals having invested in the scheme. But, expecting a fertile, gentle and hospitable land into which to sink their money pump, the colonists instead found themselves marooned in malaria-invested swampland. Food rotted, colonists died by the score, the project collapsed. Their neighbours and rivals were less than sympathetic. The Governor of Jamaica prevented any English colonists, merchants or seaman from going to the aide of the Darienites and saving them from their tropical hell. The Spanish were little more help.

Scotland not only paid a heavy financial cost, it also lost a chance for national regeneration and to move out of England’s shadow. The years between Glencoe and the Darien venture had seen famines and now, for many Scots, union with England became an inevitable alternative to the lost chance of meaningful national independence.

“A large section of the nobility, especially those with cross border economic interests and property, and many of the commercial and professional classes of the Lowlands” were in favour of the union. And the benefits were not all one way. England would gain from being able to keep Scotland on board during the growing crisis of succession following William’s death in 1702. Despite some popular opposition, union was established in 1707, though not without a little lubrication. As well as the quiet greasing of palms necessary to ensure that the Scottish Parliament voted the right way, the English Parliament also offered £398,085 and 10s to Scotland as an above-board sweetener: exactly the sum lost in the Darien venture.
Britain was becoming increasingly militarized during this period, during which it was involved in the Nine Years War and the War of Spanish Succession. Military spending almost doubled between 1660 and 1710, by which point it was consuming nearly 10 per cent of national income, adding £40m to the national debt and creating “another kind of army – which would not be demobilized once the fighting had stopped: bond-holders, tax-assessors and accountants; customs and excise men, thousands upon thousands of them...By the end of the wars, Britons were being taxed twice as heavily as their French counterparts, a burden that would only get heavier as the relentlessly martial eighteenth century rumbled on.”
The Whigs became closely aligned with this emerging military-commercial complex, while the Tories cast themselves as defenders of the overtaxed gentry. Political conflict, both between the two sides and more broadly, became increasingly bitter, with opposition to the replacement of the childless widow Queen Anne with George, Elector of Hanover, leading to a Jacobite rebellion in 1715 in Scotland and the North (which, absent serious backing from a war-weary France, was quelled with relative ease).

The political scene was fraught, and crying out for some kind of stability. Enter Sir Robert Walpole, the man who would do most at that time to help lead Britain away from factional stability and into a period of political calm. For Walpole, politics needed to move away from religious-moral antagonism and towards the happy equillibrium of a “healthy business environment” that would be conducive to the satisfaction of the mutual, material interests of all.

At a broader level, we can put it like this. The growing property-owning classes had a collective interest in putting the fratricidal violence of the seventeenth century behind them and getting on with the serious business of making money. Walpole was the personification of their willingness and capacity to do just that. The employment of William III as a preferred option over seeing the country thrown back into another round of civil strife on account of James II was an early sign that this new class was a serious force, able to influence the direction of the country in order to protect its interests. Now, under Walpole, they would cement their place at the top table, pending the final historic victory that was to come in the economic social and political revolutions of the nineteenth century.

A large proportion of the national debt had been traded for stock in the South Sea Company, which was to have a trading monopoly in the South Seas and West Indies; an ostensibly sure-fire money-spinner. A speculative bubble in the companies stock was inflated which enriched the few who sold at the right time, but wiped out many more when the bubble inevitably burst. It was Walpole who came riding in with a viable rescue plan for the company, thus calming the crisis and leaving the traumatised governing and wealthy classes very much in his debt. Walpole became ‘First Lord of the Treasury’, and set about building a web of connections and patronage across the new military-bureaucratic-commercial complex. With economic power consolidated and stabilised, all the right people, not least Walpole himself, settled into a life of getting very, very rich.

Laws were passed to protect the interests of the gentry. Most of the fifty new capital offences new to the statute book in 1723 dealt with poaching. Land taxes were kept low, and smallholdings were confiscated and re-sold for little or no compensation, with those who had relied on those plots for centuries forced to turn to wage-labour. The dark underbelly of the new Walpolean order was the crime, alcoholism and poverty that blighted the lives of many ordinary Britons, while Walpole and his friends basked in wealth that was astonishing even by today’s standards. This seedy popular decay was most famously depicted - with some exaggeration but far from untruthfully - by William Hogarth.

Gradually, a loose collection of Tories, independent Whigs and others began to form in opposition to the Walpole government. This included “lobbyists for colonial trade and the aggressive expansion of maritime power” who took particular exception firstly to Walpole’s “devotion to excise as a way of keeping the land taxes low” and their subjection to the extensive powers of his tax collectors, and secondly to Walpole’s perceived failure to protect British shipping from what they saw as an equally intrusive Spanish coastguard. On this second bone of contention, a jingoistic anti-Spanish fervour was whipped up by the opposition press, with petitions signed in large numbers, particularly in the port cities of Bristol and Liverpool. Walpole’s proposed compromise ‘Convention’ with Spain – his characteristic way of smoothing things over – was derided by the young William Pitt MP as “nothing but a stipulation for national ignominy...the complaints of your despairing merchants, the voice of England, has condemned it”.

Notice two things here. First, political debate breaks down according to which wealthy sector of the economy each political grouping is aligned to. In this case, those who make their money from tax collection are set against those who make their money from overseas trade. Propaganda, or 'public relations', is then used to mobilise the public behind one or the other sectional elite interest. Secondly, note the language used by Pitt, specifically the way he equates the special interests he was speaking for with the national interest as a whole. The merchants are not just speaking for themselves, they are elevated to the position of nothing less than the “voice of England”. A million business lobbyists down the ages would adopt the same technique, presenting their personal enrichment as something far loftier and noble than that, whenever political expediency demanded. This particular conception of the 'national interest' - i.e. as being the whatever serves the interests of the elites that dominate the nation - persists amongst policy makers to this day.

In 1742 Walpole was forced from office. By now, Britain’s main international enemy was France, and would continue to be so for the next several decades. And still cultivated by France were the exiled supporters of the Stuart dynasty, the Jacobites, led now by one Prince Charles Edward Louis John Cazymyr Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart, a.k.a Bonnie Prince Charlie, the grandson of James II.

A Jacobite rebellion led by Charles Edward took advantage of George II having taken much of Britain’s military strength with him to war in Germany. First Scotland fell, then, with Charles Edward having won the internal debate amongst the Jacobites over whether to stop there and consolidate or move on to England to claim the whole of the Stuart birthright, the rebels headed south, taking the north-west and reaching as far as Derby before a serious force could be mustered and despatched from London to defend the Hanoverian monarchy. At this point, losing confidence in their ability to gain and hold power in Britain, and as their French backers prevaricated over whether to step in and attempt to tip the balance, the Jacobites turned and retreated north. The British army was now being reinforced from Europe almost by the day, harassing the Jacobites as they went, and finally routing the rebels with extreme brutality at Culloden in 1746. Charles Edward declared every man for himself and fled to Europe, leaving Scotland to bear the brunt of the reprisals. Villages suspected of collaboration, however tenuously, were burnt to the ground, with land and property confiscated in “a systematic exercise in state terror”. And the fist of the British state punched deeper still than this. The hereditary authority of the clan chiefs was broken up, the speaking of Gaelic banned, and Highland culture in general put to the Hanoverian sword.
But while some Scots fell under the boot of imperial Britain, others wielded its bayonet, conducted its trade and counted its money. “In the second half of the eighteenth century tens of thousands of Highlanders were recruited into the British Army and saw action in its many theatres of war around the world from India to Canada.” Glasgow as a city, and many individual Scots, grew wealthy off the transatlantic trade, which monies were then re-invested in domestic manufacturing. The roads and bridges built for strategic power-projection in the post-Culloden crackdown became arteries of trade both within Scotland and accross the border. “By the end of the century, no country in the world was urbanizing or industrialising more swiftly than Scotland”. And it was in this context that the Scottish Enlightenment, a golden period of Western philosophy to rival that of ancient Greece, was born.

Principal within the Scottish Enlightenment pantheon were Adam Smith and David Hume. Hume rejected holy revelation as a source of knowledge, placing reason and human experience in its stead. Smith saw in man’s apparently natural drive for self-betterment, not a form of sin or a source of religious guilt, but the engine of collective well-being. In the eighteenth century, Scotland was not only beaten by the British empire, it also helped give birth to it. Because it was these Enlightenment values of material, moral and intellectual improvement that would be adopted (in however a dishonest and self-serving way) as the secular religion of the new imperial Britannia.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Juan Cole dissects Bush's record in the Middle East

Juan Cole is a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan. During the course of George Bush's "War on Terror", Cole has maintained a blog - Informed Comment - which provides a daily commentary on events in the Middle East and the effects of US policy there, as well as occasional pieces on the religious, political and cultural history of the region.

I started reading Informed Comment shortly after the US invasion of Iraq and have long regarded it as the best political blog on the internet. Cole knows the region, knows the history and knows the languages, so while directing you to the most important bits of news from the English language media he can also draw on local sources to give you the full picture, and placing these events into their proper overall context.

This morning, Cole responds to Bush's speech of yesterday on US Middle East policy of the last 8 years. He notes the pressures that have been exerted on him personally and professionally since 2001 by the US Republican-Zionist hard-right to shut up and stop challenging their simplistic, confrontational, Manichean view of the world. And then he goes through the speech more or less line by line, exposing the contradictions, the omissions and the falsehoods that make up Bush's account of what he has done to the Middle East during his disastrous reign. While its an informal blog post, its still as good a review of this episode of modern history as you're likely to find anywhere.

Here's Cole's response to Bush on Iraqi democracy:

"Bush boasts [that],
' When Saddam’s regime fell, we refused to take the easy option and install a friendly strongman in his place. Even though it required enormous sacrifice, we stood by the Iraqi people as they elected their own leaders and built a young democracy.'

Oh, give me a break. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith were, too, going to install a strongman, i.e. Ahmad Chalabi. They didn't only because they couldn't (an Iraqi insurgency started up and the religious Shiite parties flexed their muscles). Then Paul "Jerry" Bremer was going to hold phony 'caucus-based elections' that would restrict the electorate to pro-Bush elements on unelected provincial councils. That fell through because Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani shot it down and there were massive demonstrations in Baghdad and Basra in January, 2004, against it. Then Bush put in Ayad Allawi, an ex-Baathist strong man, as appointed prime minister in the lead-up to the elections, and tried to give him the advantages of incumbency in hopes of throwing the election to him. Bush and his cronies tried as hard as he could for a secular strong man, but they were just defeated by Sistani and the religious parties that had been in exile in Tehran.
Bush lauds the surge and the Status of Forces Agreement without seeming to realize that they are contradictory policies. The troop escalation was intended to allow the US to maintain bases in the long term in Iraq. But the SOFA expels US troops by 2011. So, again, Bush was defeated by Iraqi popular political forces."

After covering democratization, Israel-Palestine, Iran, Iraq and more, Cole's final summing up gets it right on the money:

"Bush turned the United States into an aggressor nation. He kicked off an orgy of violence in Iraq that has probably left a million dead. He destroyed entire cities. He left millions of widows and orphans, and millions more displaced. He lied, he destroyed habeas corpus at home and abroad, he tortured. It is too soon to know if American democracy will ever really recover from [his] lawless regime."

While Cole is aiming at the right-wing in his own country, what was particularly galling here in the UK was the Bush administration's ability to find de facto allies not just on our own right wing, but in the centre and even amongst some who claimed to be on the centre-left. Put aside the "liberal interventionists" who adopted without serious question the assumption that US power - US military power - was some uncomplicated force for good in the world which could be entrusted with the liberation and welfare of the Iraqi people. Put the intellectual cheerleaders aside and just take the Labour government. The history of Labour is a series of successes and betrayals, and you expect both. But the winter and spring of 2002-2003 was New Labour's single darkest hour; a chilling encapsulation of its self-serving moral drift. I recall at the time being reminded of Neil Kinnock's excoriating speech at the 1985 party conference denouncing what he saw as the betrayals of the Militant tendency. A paraphrasing of that speech emerged in my mind which seemed to sum up what had happened under Blair and what had brought us to that fateful juncture. Try this:

"You start with an abandonment of any principles that present a barrier to your career, and this is then dressed up in the virtuous finery of "what works", never minding who your policies work for: the privileged, you, or the people who rely on you. And you climb up the ladder sticking to that, attacking lone mothers, asylum seekers, all those you were supposed to defend. And you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour government, a Labour government, supporting a hard-right US administration as it resurrects old-style imperialism, and joining an illegal, aggressive war that goes on to claim hundreds of thousands of lives".

To prevent further betrayals in the future, and thereby perhaps prevent more imperial killing abroad, Britain needs a few more of its own Juan Coles in the academy (which is not to say that we don't already have some very fine examples) . With his blog, his column in Salon magazine, and his regular media appearances, Cole has probably done as much as any single US academic to provide an enlightened, intelligent and humanitarian challenge to the callous aggression of the Bush White House. He has dedicated himself to speaking truth to and about power, and as such has fulfilled the proper societal role of an academic, an intellectual and a liberal (if that last word is to retain its true meaning). One hopes that Cole's efforts continue long into the Obama presidency, since real scrutiny and popular pressure will likely be needed stop the new administration drifting into the realms of Clintonism.

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