Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Prospects for peace in the Israeli Palestinian conflict

A few weeks after Israel's brutal assault on the population of Gaza, in which appalling war crimes were committed in defiance of worldwide horror and protest, the formation of a new Israeli government of the hard right now appears close to an inevitability. Meanwhile, a recent study shows that Israeli public opinion is becoming increasingly extreme in respect of the conflict with the Palestinians, being "characterised by a sense of victimisation, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanisation of the Palestinians and insensitivity to their suffering" (quoting Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz's summary of the study). In these unpromising conditions, where Israel appears to have no interest in world opinion, international law, or commonly accepted standards of human decency in its relations with the Palestinian people, what are the prospects for peace? How do we get from a position of Israeli intransigence, rejectionism and extremism to the destination of a viable and sustainable peace settlement?

The Greek historian Thucydides famously said that "The strong do what they please while the weak suffer what they must." That remains as much a truism of politics and international relations today as it did at the time of the Peloponnesian War, of which Thucydides was writing.

Israel is able to do what it pleases because - as a regional power -
it is backed to a truly extraordinary extent by the greatest power on earth: the United States. Israel has received vast amounts of direct aid and military backing from the US for the better part of 4 decades, it gets an automatic veto against any UNSC resolutions against it, courtesy of Washington, and the "honest broker" in its "peace process" with Israeli-approved Palestinians is none other than its US patron (and, indeed, lawyer)

Because it is underwritten by the greatest military power of all time, Israel has almost no restraint on its actions, Talk of military threats to Israel - to its existence , no less - are palpably ludicrous. It can invade who it likes, kill who it likes, repress the Palestinians to its heart's content,
steal their land, starve their children and massacre them with total impunity. Other states attempting to indulge in such behaviour would soon meet the limits of their power. But because Israel's military, diplomatic and economic power is only limited by that of America, it is able to thumb its nose at the world, and do as it pleases.

The only threat Israel faces as the result of its 60 years of colonial aggression has been terrorist atrocities from Palestinian militants enraged by the theft of their homeland. But since Israel continues to behave in a way that all sane persons understand is guaranteed to create terrorists, we must conclude that it, and its US benefactor, have decided that terrorism is a price worth paying for strategic domination of the Levant, and the broader Middle East.

The answer to the question of 'what is to be done?' is therefore reasonably clear. It is for the US to make its support for Israel conditional on Israel's compliance with international law. For that to happen, a popular, grassroots political campaign will have to take place in the US to pressure Washington to alter its line. Recall that in the 1980s the US and UK were very reluctant to remove their backing from apartheid South Africa, which was playing a similar strategic role on behalf of the US in its own region. To the extent that this support was withdrawn or diluted, and to the extent that this in turn helped to precipitate the end of apartheid, this occured largely as the result of a political campaign got up by ordinary people.

The role of the concerned public in other countries is peripheral, but not insignificant. Britain should certainly end all military sales to Israel immediately, as
Amnesty International has urged, not least since complicity in Israeli war crimes has its own legal implications. Further action, beyond that minimal level will help raise the issue, globally, of how to restrain the rogue state Israel, and thus help those calling for a sane Israel policy in the United States.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, at root, not very complicated. It is a conflict between a nation built on ethnic cleansing - Israel - and a people - the Palestinians - who were ethnically cleansed from their homes when that nation was built and who are still denied their right to self determination by their tormentors. The solution is for Israel to hand back the land it illegally occupied in 1967 so that two states for the two peoples can be established, with any adjustments to those 1967 borders being mutual, very minor, and certainly not denying the Palestinians a capital in East Jerusalem, the essential component part of any new Palestinian state.

Last autumn in the UN General Assembly the world's nations 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. 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.

The likely basis for peace is therefore almost universally understood, and is available to be explored and built upon. Israeli rejectionism is underwritten and only made possible by US rejectionism. It is for the US public to try and change this, and for the rest of us to do what we can to help them.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Gaza: the aftermath

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Britain in the early 20th Century

Continuing my notes on the evolution of the British political economy and Britain's foreign policy. Again, I'm drawing on the third volume of Simon Schama's "History of Britain", all quotes being Schama unless otherwise stated. Page references are included 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 pertinent to my PhD research, skipping the less relevant bits.

While the following interpretation of events will inevitably be influenced by Schama's writing, it is an attempt to create my own analysis from that.


“Although, until the Liberals came to power in 1905, the majority of cabinet members were still drawn from the landed classes, their near monopoly of government was on its way out, shaken not so much by the advance of egalitarian democracy as by a long, steep agricultural depression. To all intents and purposes, between 1870 and 1910 Britain ceased to be a serious agricultural producer. Since it was unable to compete with colonial and American imports, 3 million acres were taken out of cultivation. By 1911 just 8 per cent of the 45 million people of Great Britain were earning their living from the land. Agricultural incomes in Britain over the same period fell by a full 25 per cent.....Almost a quarter of the privately owned land of Britain...went on the market between the 1870s and the 1830s. Many of the estates...were bought by the relatively recent rich whose fortunes had been made in industry, shipping mining, insurance or publishing: the Dominions. There were Australian and Canadian accents now at the point-to-points and grouse shoots, and the relics of the old nobility tried not to flinch. Churchill’s cousin, the 9th Duke of Marlborough...lamented that ‘the old order is doomed’” p308

“Those who did survive the shake-out of the estates belonged to an even more exclusive elite: by 1914, half the acreage of England and Wales belonged to just 4500 proprietors” p310

Poverty was still rife in the late Victorian era, with 10 per cent of the total urban working population living in festering slum conditions, families crowded into a single room or two at best. However, this was also the era where the recognisably modern home came into being for many ordinary people, including flushing lavatories and tap water. Public hygiene and diets improved. But the nation’s essential socio-economic character was largely unchanged. “On the eve of the First World War...10 per cent of Britain’s population owned 92 per cent of its wealth. As many as 90 per cent of the deceased, on the other hand, left no documented assets or property whatsoever” p313. Moreover, increased competition for Britain’s labour intensive, export-driven industries from rising economies like that of the USA made even the situation of the relatively well-off increasingly (albeit relatively) precarious.

The answer of the industrialists was rationalization, investment in labour-saving machinery, wage cuts and longer hours. They came up against a newly organised, unionised, assertive and mobilised workforce, leading to a string of hard-fought industrial disputes. The Labour Party was born as the political wing of that movement; a coalition of revolutionary Marxists, non-revolutionary Fabians, and the trade unionists themselves. Elements across the party, in their own way, cited the likes of Lilburne and Paine in their moral and ideological heritage.

“Fabianism committed itself to eschewing the half-baked, half-thought revolution in favour of a long campaign of re-educating both the political elite and the working class – the first to a new sense of their social responsibilities, the latter to a new sense of their legitimate social rights. Between them they were to make a modern, just and compassionate industrial society, without violence and without the sacrifice of freedom. There have been worse ideologies in the modern age” p316

The Fabian re-education programme included dinner-parties for the great and the good, attended by Liberals like Herbert Asquith, and even Tories like Arthur Balfour.

For the Fabians, it was economics that caused poverty, not the immorality of the poor. The Fabian argument for social justice was very similar to the nineteenth century Liberal/Whig argument for franchise extension. While not downplaying the genuine decency and compassion of the Fabians, it would be wrong, perhaps, to entirely rule out the role of pragmatic class interest in the thinking of these polite reformers. Indeed, the Fabians cited the health of empire – hardly a progressive institution – as requiring and resting on the domestic social reform that they advocated.

But who was going to pay? Not just for the social reforms, but for the maintenance of British Naval superiority and for the debts incurred during the Boer War? Not – at least not willingly – the mobilised and agitated working class, especially not during an economic slump. So the usual regressive taxes on commodities were eschewed as revenue raisers, in favour of progressive taxation on land, inheritance and incomes, in Lloyd George’s budget of 1909.

The “People’s Budget” had an unlikely champion: Winston Churchill, now President of the Board of Trade, who campaigned up and down the country against the obstructions of the House of Lords. “At the Victoria Opera House in Burnley in December, Churchill had a lot of fun with Curzon’s claim in nearby Oldham the that ‘superior class’ by blood and tradition had inherited the right to ‘rule over our children’. What did the noble lord say? That ‘ “all great civilisation has been the work of aristocracies”. They liked that in Oldham (laughter). ... Why, it would be much more true to say the upkeep of the aristocracy has been the hard work of all civilisations” (loud cheers and cries of “say it again”)’ p322.

Asquith forced an election, as a referendum on the Lords’ resistance to the budget. The Liberals’ overall majority was lost, but with Irish Home Rulers and Labour MPs support the Parliament Bill was passed and the upper house’s powers sharply curbed.

But if the reforms were conceived as the minimum necessary to forestall revolution, many of those it was intended to pacify were less than impressed. Riots and confrontations with the police began to occur, first with the miners, then with the increasingly militant suffragettes, some of whom had taken to direct physical action as a form of protest.


With Germany bolstering its military strength, and Britain keen to retain its naval advantage, Churchill took an active post in his new role as First Lord of the Admiralty. “Heavy guns were to be mounted on fast ships; and, most momentous of all, those ships would now be fuelled more cost effectively by oil, not coal. In retrospect this one decision, a commitment to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company – so apparently innocent, or at least so purely logistical (and so lightly glossed over in most Churchill biographies) – was to have more profound effects on the fate of the British Empire, not to mention the history of the world, than almost anything else Churchill did until the May days of 1940. It made the survival of the British Empire conditional on a Middle East presence, a halfway link between India and Egypt. That in turn would make Churchill, as colonial secretary in 1921, a strong supporter of a British mandate in Palestine and a protective role in Iraq (the former Mesopotamia) and Jordan. That would beget Suez. And Suez begat Islamic fundamentalism. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company, in which Churchill made sure to acquire a 51 per cent holding for the British government in 1914, would beget joint Anglo-American oil interests in Iran, which would beget the CIA overthrow of the Mossadeq democracy and the restoration of the Pahlavi dynasty, which would beget the Ayatollah Khomenei. And all the while the coal mines of Britain were relegated to terminal redundancy. But on the eve of the First World War, the battle fleet was well tanked and ready for action” p327-8.

Churchill’s failed plan, during WWI, to attack the German alliance at its weakest point – the Ottoman Empire – was in part aimed at securing the oil fields of Persia and Mesopotamia.


“At least 700,000 British servicemen had perished in the Great War, and a million and a half had been wounded. Another 150,000 were lost to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Some 300,000 children had lost at least one parent. One in ten of an entire generation of young men had been wiped out” p334.

Progressives like George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells saw the war’s terrible cost as an unanswerable case for the end of empire, to be replaced with enlightened global governance. The treaty of Versailles – pinning all the blame for and most of the cost of the war on Germany – and the League of Nations – diminished by its limited authority and its repudiation by the US Congress – were not what they had in mind.

The domestic political change that came in the war’s aftermath was more substantial: votes for all men aged over 21 and women over 30, 200,000 government built homes, the raising of the school leaving age to 14, nationwide standardization of wages and salaries, doubling of old-age pensions and near-universal unemployment insurance p333.

But the ‘war socialism’ of nationalised industries and state-controlled wages was quickly dismantled, despite pleas from the labour movement p336. And in addition, the overwhelming majority held by the Tory-Liberal coalition headed by Lloyd George meant that the government (and the Prime Minister) were free to rule almost as they pleased. “It was rule by dinner party; its weapons the artfully targeted rumour, the discreet business sweetener, the playfully or not so playfully threatening poke in the ribs. Honours were up for sale; insider commercial favours expected” p337.

Lloyd George did not preside over an empire of contented subjects. The failure of moves for Home Rule opened the way for the rise of the IRA and Sinn Fein, the former bringing the Easter Rising of 1916, the latter sweeping aside the Home Rulers in the 1918 elections. In Scotland, poverty, unemployment exacerbated by post-war demobilisation, and the disproportionate loss of Scottish life in the war (26 per cent of Scots to 12 per cent of the rest of the British troops had died) led to union demands for the retention of wage and rent controls, and a shorter working week. Refusal resulted in strikes, clashes with the police, and eventually the occupation of Red Glasgow by 12,000 troops and 6 tanks p338.

Further abroad, the war had tested the loyalty and acquiescence to empire of many colonial subjects. The Anglo-Saxon colonials believed their sacrifices earned them another step towards equal nation status with the UK. Non-Anglo-Saxon subjects simply became firmer in their demands for independence with the British now having to put down nationalist uprisings in Egypt and install puppet monarchs there and in Iraq.

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Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Empire of Good Intentions: Part II

Continuing my notes on the evolution of the British political economy and Britain's foreign policy. Again, I'm drawing on the third volume of Simon Schama's "History of Britain", all quotes being Schama unless otherwise stated. Page references are included 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 pertinent to my PhD research, skipping the less relevant bits.

While the following interpretation of events will inevitably be influenced by Schama's writing, it is an attempt to create my own analysis from that.


When the sepoys garrisoned at Meerat, northeast of Delhi, fired the first shots of the war of Indian independence (to the British, the ‘mutiny’) on 10 May 1857, it was through anger at far more than being ordered by their British officers to grease their rifle cartridges with beef tallow (taboo to Hindus) or pig fat (taboo to Muslims). These were merely the latest of a host of indignities, insults and injustices suffered under a British rule which they now resolved to tolerate no longer. Rallying to the Mughal court in Delhi, they declared the emperor the legitimate sovereign of India and the start of a national uprising.

The grievances of the rebels were religious, cultural, material and secular. The influx of Christian missionaries – including those that adopted children orphaned in the famines and then brought them up in their own religion – as well as the general imperial contempt for Indian tradition and customs gave the uprising the overt character of a holy war against infidels. But it was also a war against economic exploitation and tyranny. Schama cites a particularly notable example.

“One of the triumphs of British ‘engineering’ in India was the building of the ‘Great Hedge’, a staggering 1500-mile barrier of thorns and acacia designed to prevent Orissa salt from being smuggled into Bengal to compete with imported salt from Cheshire; any that did get through was subject to penal tariffs. As many as 13,000 men were employed by the customs police to enforce this discriminatory practice, even as the pieties of free trade were being trumpeted in London and Manchester” p240.

The gap between imperial rhetoric and reality was plainly visible all over the world. If a mutually beneficial exchange between colonial producers and British manufacturers did exist, it tended to involve the white colonials of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Southern Africa. Their darker skinned neighbours – like the indigenous peoples of Australia and Africa expelled from their lands or simply massacred in order to make room for livestock grazing – saw rather less of the material improvements promised by the empire.

Imperial grandees like Lord Palmerston, who served 15 years as Foreign secretary on and off before becoming Prime Minister, claimed that peace and prosperity went hand in hand under British rule, and that domination of the world economy had fallen into Britain’s lap as a just and natural reward for commercial skill, energy and ingenuity. The truth was rather less uplifting.

When the China attempted to resist British opium imports, it was met with demands for market access and extra-territorial rights for British traders in Chinese ports. Outrage at this denial of the laws of global economics was unconfined, and augmented wherever possible by laments about the more backward and repressive elements of Chinese culture, which were suddenly of great concern to those determined to turn millions of Chinese into drug addicts. The Opium Wars were, by this rationale, wars for economic freedom and the civilisation that was sure to follow in its wake. “But of course the British and the rest of the Europeans were not arresting, but accelerating, the destruction of imperial China; and then, as the century wore on, making the resulting ‘anarchy’ a pretext for further military and political intervention. It was as if the doctors who had brought the disease in the first place were decent enough to show up offering – at a price – the cure” p242.

British military expansionism in Asia was now in full cry. The northern territories of the subcontinent were invaded and annexed, their treasuries looted, all, naturally, in self-defence (this time against ‘potential’ aggression from Russia). With the increased confidence of power came increased heavy-handedness . After annexing the province of Awadh, the British swept aside the local ‘rajahs’ and inserted themselves as the new tax collectors. But the ‘rajahs’ had been more than simple exploiters of the peasantry whose removal would be welcomed as long as taxes were slightly reduced into the bargain. They were feudal lords and patrons whose paternal role was intimately woven into the fabric of local peasant society. So when the people rallied to their rajahs during the uprising, though it shocked the British it was, in reality, only to be expected.

The demeaning, sometimes sadistic treatment of sepoys by their British officers combined with each broader injustice to the extent that, even though the offending cartridges had been withdrawn before the uprising began, the total breakdown of trust engendered by the sheer arrogance of British rule had rendered the point moot. That particular straw had already broken the camel’s back.

The war threw up scenes of huge bloodshed, with atrocities committed by the sepoys answered by savage British reprisals. The rebellion was largely put down in about 12 months, contained as it was broadly within the Ganges valley, but pockets of resistance endured until as late as 1860.

Britain’s approach to the governance of India now changed markedly. EIC rule was replaced by that of a viceroy, council, and secretary of state. Ambitious plans of westernisation were set aside in favour of stable maintenance of the status quo. The problem, it seems, was that the British had been working with defective material. “The universalist assumption of the Enlightenment that all men, given the right education, could become much the same had been replaced by the harder, ‘scientific’ fact of incommensurable difference; it was put most brutally in the 1890s by one viceroy the Earl of Elgin, who jovially complained what ‘a terrible business [it is] this living among inferior races’” p256-7.

Some came to romanticise the rural, “real” India just as the likes of Coleridge and Wordsworth had romanticised rural Britain earlier in the century. Mixed in with this was the enduring racism through which the colonial subjects continued to be judged. “One of the worst things his enemy, [Liberal Party leader] William Gladstone, thought up to say about [Conservative leader Benjamin] Disraeli was to call him ‘Asiatic’, by which he meant constitutionally irresponsible, amoral and shamelessly devoted to pleasure, self-indulgence and dandyism” p259. But the othered image of an anachronistic Asia – be it as romanticised exoticism or denigrated semi-savagery – was at odds with the reality of the very modern India which the British themselves were involved in creating. “The reality of British power in India was coming to depend more, not less, on the world of the great port cities they had created; on the ruthless exploitation of plantation economies in Assam and Burma for teak, mahogany, tea and the always tempting though seldom reliable indigo (with chemical dyes it would fade altogether); on the mesh of connections that brought together Indian entrepreneurs with the British bankers, shippers and insurance men who made the export business tick along” p258.

“When in 1876, Disraeli, with the help of the Rothschilds, pulled off the huge coup of buying the Khedive of Egypt’s shares in the Suez Canal (and with it control of European access to India) he transformed the strategic and economic prospects of the British Raj” p263 and, in doing so, guaranteed the continuing, transformative march of imperial history. And yet, at the same time, liberal ‘progress’ was giving way to jingoism and the romanticisation of old orders. At home, Disraeli’s attempted to dazzle the newly enfranchised masses with the pomp and circumstance of the rejuvenated Victorian monarchy. A similar revival of old world pageantry was underway on the subcontinent, as the British co-opted the Indian aristocracy using ‘durbars’, or audiences with the viceroy to bestow favour, status and the trappings of empty power. The rationale was articulated by Lord Elgin who “unblushingly and cynically insisted that ‘all orientals are children, amused and gratified by external trappings and ceremonies and titles and ready to put up with the loss of real dignity if only they are permitted to enjoy the semblance of it” p263.

There was then to be a new, grounded and stable hierarchy. At the top, the newly declared (by Disraeli) Empress of India. Below her, the Raj, and its new viceroy, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, arriving in India in 1876. Below him were the pet rajahs and their semblances of dignity. And at the bottom, the Indian population. This was deemed preferable to the previous attempt to create a class of ‘brown Englishmen’ to administer the subcontinent on London’s behalf. “Politically speaking”, opined Lytton, “[India] is an inert mass – if it ever moves at all it will move in obedience, not to its British benefactors but to its native chiefs and princes however tyrannical they may be” p265.

But the oriental “children” had more pressing concerns than the manufactured pageantry of the Raj. The ‘prosperity’ and ‘welfare’ promised by Victoria in her message to the Grand Durbar of 1877 had not merely failed to materialise, their suggestion had become a bad joke. In the week of that ceremony alone “100, 000 were estimated to have died of starvation and cholera in Mysore and Madras” alone. “In 1860, 2 million had died in the Punjab. In 1866 nearly 27 per cent of the population of Orissa, some 800,000 had died; in 1868 a quarter of the population of Ajmere. In 1877-8, during Lytton’s administration, the famines have been responsibly calculated to have cost over 7 million lives” p268.

As had been the case in Ireland, British administrators saw the famines as “a ‘natural’ or ‘providential’ event that it was beyond the powers of government to ameliorate” p268. But there was nothing natural about, for example, the systematic destruction of salt production in Orissa, through tariffs and finally outright prohibition, which had robbed that region’s people of an income. Relief, in the form of grain imports or tax suspension, was rejected as interference in the market. “An Anti-Charitable Contributions Act (something that should modify our assumptions about the ubiquitous philanthropy of the Victorians) was passed expressly to prevent aid coming from Britain and the Indian cities, which was said to be, delaying the necessity of ‘soft’ Indians being made to stand on their own two feet” p269. Again, as in Ireland, what relief there was was only made available in labour camps, to few people and in tiny amounts.

“At the same time, grain depots in Madras and Bombay were full of imported rice, heavily guarded by troops and police to prevent thefts or riot. The famished...dropped dead in front of the fenced stockpiles. By a bitter irony, by the end of the century it was evident that it was those areas of India that had the most railway mileage and the most commercially developed economies that suffered most brutally in the famine years, because of the ease of transporting grain to markets where it could be hoarded to maximise the profits from price rises” p270 [emphasis in original].

“The problem...[was] one of income, not of gross food supply”. Imperial administrators insisted that the natural workings of the market would resolve the issue, ignoring “the hypocrisy of a policy that purported to be free trade but was in fact unscrupulously interventionist. Tariffs were nakedly manipulated to favour British imports and disadvantage Indian products; millions of tons of grain were shipped out in 1877-8 to stabilise British home prices, while Indian prices were allowed to soar in Bombay and Madras to levels that guaranteed starvation. Lytton had even enacted a cut in the tariffs on imported British cottons at the precise time when the Gujarati weavers were suffering more than most urban populations in India. And still could be heard the reiteration of the ancient, sanctimonious nostrums: let them stand on their own two feet” p217

Schama continues:

“What was in the process of utterly breaking down was the original liberal axiom of reciprocal prosperity. Prosperity at home in Britain seemed to be bought at the expense of the accumulation, of wealth in India. Only those in India who collaborated with this institutionalised and legislated economic inequality, such as grain shippers and textile importers, got their due rewards. Three particular circumstances in the 1870s and 1880s made this unlikely to change. First, Britain itself was in an economic downturn and very unlikely to feel charitable towards India at the expense of its own recovery, or to raise not just prices but the spectre of working-class unrest at home. Second, the home economy was feeling the pinch of competition from the United States and European rivals like Germany: exports were shrinking and once again Britain was unlikely to sacrifice its captive imperial markets for the sake of long-term economic maturity. (By the end of the century India was easily the biggest of all Britain’s export markets, taking fully 10 per cent of total exports – overwhelmingly cheap manufactured Lancashire cottons, the product that more than any other had destroyed the Indian textile industry.) Of all the facts to refute the ‘benevolent development’ thesis of British imperialism, this was perhaps the most irrefutably damning. Finally, revenues for investment in infrastructure that would actually benefit Indian peasant producers (rather than import-export merchants) had to compete with what, for viceroys like Lytton, was the supreme and over-riding interest – that of strategic military expansion on the northwest frontier lest the Cossack hordes come pouring through the Khyber Pass. The Indian taxpayer paid the full price for British strategic paranoia” p272.

Lytton even pillaged the famine relief fund to pay for his military campaigns in Afghanistan [p272] as well as gagging the increasingly dissident Indian press with the Vernacular Press Act of 1878 [p280].

In 1880, Gladstone came to power, replacing Disraeli, with some understanding of how Britain’s mistreatment of its imperial subjects was both wrong and counterproductive. Gladstone was no great progressive, believing in franchise extension only for those who, in his own assessment, merited it. But though his was a Victorian morality, it was also a genuine one, in so far as it went. So while he was prepared to imprison leaders of the Irish land league without charge, he was also prepared to listen to and to try and understand their grievances: extortionate rents, summary evictions (without compensation for improvements made to the smallholdings during tenancy), and so on. Gradually, Gladstone became convinced of the need for Home Rule (i.e. limited autonomy) for Ireland.

But elsewhere, Gladstone, for all the distrust of imperialism that he had expressed in opposition, did seem to take to empire’s task rather well. When the Khedive of Egypt was threatened by a military uprising (partly provoked by his economic mismanagement which had led France and Britain, Egypt's creditors, to seize control of the country’s revenues) Gladstone waded in with all guns blazing to restore the Khedive’s ‘legitimate’ rule, not to mention Britain’s revenue stream. This led to Egypt effectively becoming Britain’s colony, with a permanent military presence. Gladstone, like every imperial hypocrite before him, convinced himself that this was all merely in the name of ‘peace’ and ‘stability’ p280.

But in the case of Ireland, at least as far as Gladstone was concerned, pragmatism demanded a move towards autonomy since, given the growing antipathy towards British rule, the only alternative might soon be total severance. This assessment was by no means widely shared. The arguments put forward by the Tory Arthur Balfour, in his warnings to the Irish Unionists on the dangers of Home Rule, were the direct descendant of those expressed by Ireton 240 years earlier on the dangers of popular enfranchisement. The Unionists, said Balfour, would be “put under the heel of a majority which is greater than you in number [but which] is most undoubtedly inferior to you in political knowledge and experience – you the wealthy, the orderly, the industrious, the enterprising portion of Ireland, are to supply the money for that part of Ireland which is less orderly, less industrious and less” p284.

The defeat of Gladstone’s moves for Home Rule exposed, again, the fiction of Britain’s claim to be pursuing a liberal-paternalist mission that would one day, someday, lead to the colonial subjects running their own affairs. Indiginous movements for self-governance that did emerge in Ireland and India drew on their own traditions and histories, rather than the myth of Britain’s liberal progress through the ages. Britain made belated attempts to buy off those calling for self-determination – as had happened at home with the piecemeal extention of the franchise – introducing limited forms of elected government. “But it was very much a case of too little, too late” p291. The methods of ‘swadesh’ (boycott) and ‘hartal’ (non-cooperation) were making the Raj ungovernable. Gandhi’s concept of ‘satyagraha’ – truth, and love even for one’s oppressor, as a liberating force – was drawn from India’s own proud liberal tradtions. Moreover, Gandhi not only rejected the version of modernity imposed by British rule, but hoped to liberate both the oppressed and, perhaps, even the oppressor from the idols of profit and power. There was a civilising mission at work here, but it was being instigated not by Whitehall, but against it.

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The Empire of Good Intentions: Part I

Continuing my notes on the evolution of the British political economy and Britain's foreign policy. Again, I'm drawing on the third volume of Simon Schama's "History of Britain" books, all quotes being Schama unless otherwise stated. Page references are included 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 is an attempt to create my own analysis from that.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as had ever been the case, British Imperialism was characterised by the chasm between the lofty claims of its advocates and the gruesome depths of its reality.

Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, declared the Empire to be “the greatest force for good the world has ever seen”, later stating that “[t]he message is carved granite, it is hewn in the rock of doom, that our work is righteous and it shall endure” p195,197. Elsewhere, (now quoting Schama), “[p]uffers of empire, like J.R. Seeley, the Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, talked often and loudly of Britain’s civilising ‘destiny’” p195.

The Indian people’s experience of empire was a little different. “[T]he period [at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries] when [the empire’s] triumphalists were boasting most noisily of the material and medical benefits that the British had brought to the subcontinent happened also to be the decades when India experienced the most horrific death toll in its entire modern history”. The medical journal The Lancet estimated that excess deaths (above the norm) from famine and disease had been at least 19 million in the 1890s; equivalent to half the population of Britain. Estimates of the death toll of the 1899-1900 famine in western and central India ranged between 6.5 and 10 million. One quarter were claimed by the bubonic plague in 1991 alone. “An earlier famine in Orissa in 1865-6 had, according to government sources, killed fully a quarter of the population” p198-9. Schama says that the empire’s administrators “had - most of them – only the best of intentions” p194. Yes they saw a profit to be made, but also an altruistic mission to fulfil, namely the eradication of poverty disease and ignorance in its colonies. The vision was not one of imperial subjugation but of “trusteeship”. “India would one day rise and walk again on its own two feet and be judged (by the British) capable once more of governing itself” p199.

What a happy coincidence that the point where India suddenly and mysteriously mislaid its ability to govern itself (after centuries of producing a succession of the world’s leading civilisations) was the very same point in history that Britain appeared on the scene, ready to nurse the patient back to health and, again entirely coincidentally, make an enormous profit in doing so.

“There is no doubt that these ideals were sincerely held....There is equally no doubt that it seldom occurred to the governors of empire (although it certainly did to its adversaries) that their military and economic power had actually caused many, if not most, of the problems they claimed to be in India to correct” p199. Schama also notes that the “ignorance” and “arrogance” of those like Thomas Macaulay who, in the 1830s, declared the “indolent and superstitious” peoples of the Orient in need of a schooling in “European knowledge” so as to make them “capable of all the privileges of citizens” p200-1. Another word Schama might have used is ‘racist’, not least to describe Curzon’s statement, to an audience at Calcutta University, that “truth is a western concept”? p206

Macaulay’s vision, and that of his contemporaries, was of “taking ‘inert’ Asia (another favourite cliché) and injecting it with the dynamism of progress” p202. Under British paternal guidance, India would produce surpluses of cash crops for export and purchase manufactured British goods with the profits, in a cycle that would produce both economic and moral development for the colonial wards.

Though it cannot be said that Indian society was free of barbaric practices, the British never missed an opportunity, whether they understood these practices properly or otherwise, to use them as a justification for the civilising mission, not withstanding its own barbarous and far more lethal nature p210-1.

British rule over India in the early nineteenth century had, in some respects, been at its most enlightened. Administrators had shown an notable degree of sympathetic cultural engagement and thirst for knowledge, immersing themselves intellectually in their surroundings. But, alongside this, the familiar dynamics of imperialism were ever-present. Wars for ‘stability’ begat instability, which begat further wars, further militarization, and further taxation to pay for an East India Company (EIC) army that by the 1830s comprised nearly a quarter-million (mostly Indian sepoys), making it one of the biggest in the world p205.

Soon the sympathetic scholars of early imperial rule were pushed aside by the likes of James Mill, Macaulay, and Charles Trevelyan who, though they felt qualified to write about or actually govern India, evidently saw no need to engage with its culture and history in any serious way. Mill wrote his “History of British India” without ever having visited the country. What, after all, was there for the British to understand, outside of their own exalted perspectives? Macaulay proclaimed that he had “never found [anyone] distinguished by their proficiency in the eastern tongues who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” p212

The orientalists resisted the new chauvinism for a time. The Macaulays and Trevelyans envisaged effecting their civilising mission by co-opting an upper strata of Indian society, educating it in the finer points of the white man’s culture, and then allowing that knowledge to cascade down towards the lower orders. But in this “class of person, Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, opinions morals and intellect [p212 – it is not clear who Schama is quoting at this point. Macaulay or Trevelyan presumably] the orientalists saw only the prospect of “a clique detached from the rest of Indian society ... a cultural mongrel group, with a vested interest in telling the sahibs what they wanted or needed to hear” p212. But it was the chauvinists’ mode of imperial rule that was to prevail, and the orientalists - with their hookahs, their Sanskrit, their Indian mistresses (and sometimes wives) and mixed-race children – that were to be consigned to history, soon to be followed, it was hoped, by the corrupt and effeminizing culture that they had so foolishly embraced p215.

But far from raising its subjects up from their backward squalor, the new imperial model performed what Schama describes as a “rolling economic demolition job” on Indian society p218. The loss of the EIC’s monopoly on the indigo trade devastated exporters, while the mass import of Lancashire-produced textiles did the same to Indian manufacturing industry and the local economies built around it. No pain no gain, was the considered view of the British modernizers content to see the modern industrial economy do its work. But the gains proved sparse while the pain was deep and extensive. Emily Eden, sister of the Governor-General Lord Auckland, described her journey through famine-ravaged India northwest to the Sikh court of Ranjit Singh:

“You cannot conceive the horrible sights we see, particularly children; perfect skeletons in many cases, their bones through their skin; without a rag of clothing, and utterly unlike human creatures...The women look as though they had been buried, their skulls look so dreadful” p219-20 [ emphasis in original].

Between 1846 and 1850, Charles Trevelyan presided over another civilising famine, this time in Ireland which, in those short years, “lost a quarter of its population: 1 million died of starvation or famine-related diseases, and another million turned to emigration as their only chance of survival” p220. Trevelyan viewed this as “the judgement of God on an indolent and unself-reliant people, and as God has sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated: the selfish and indolent must learn their lesson so that a new and improved state of affairs must arise” p221. It was the luck of the Irish that Trevelyan should be the Treasury official in charge of the relief effort , as well as God’s spokesperson on Earth.

Part of the problem had been a failure to predict understand or know how to deal with the fungal infection attacking the potato crop. But the real problem was that of a population forced to live on a razor’s edge of high rents for the land they worked and very low wages. They had no capacity to deal with any further hardship, let alone the devastation of the very crop that was “the beginning and the end of their diet” p225.

However, as far as Trevelyan was concerned, if the Irish could not afford to eat then this was a natural outcome of market forces, and not something to be interfered with. Trevelyan therefore opposed any attempts to stop the export of oats from starving Ireland, on the grounds that this would cause “discouragement and feeling of insecurity” to business, and thus do more harm than good p226.

As was the case with the workhouses on the mainland, the fear of the great and the good that the poor and malnourished may try to exploit them resulted in relief provisions so brutally sparse as not to attract the no doubt ever-present shirkers and freeloaders. Harry David Jones, the chairman of the board of public works, warned Trevelyan, “I believe everyone considers the government fair game to pluck as much as they can” p226. Hard-labour in exchange for a pittance of sustenance kept hundreds of thousands teetering on the edge of starvation. In one workhouse at Skibbereen, 226 inmates died between October 1846 and January 1847 p227.

As the tragedy became increasingly hard to gloss over, wealthy benefactors (including the Queen and Prince Albert) began to fund charitable efforts such as soup kitchens. But the callousness of official policy remained stubbornly intact. The public works relief projects had been so inundated that they were wound up and replaced by a new generation of workhouses. But these would be available only to those holding a quarter of an acre or less, thereby excluding “the vast majority of even the poorest” peasant families p228. The choice was no choice, give up what little you have to the landlord so as to qualify for the workhouse, or keep it and starve. Thus was Trevelyan’s social revolution brought about. Smallholders migrated to the ports or the workhouses (or were simply evicted), the landlords then demolishing the cabins in their wake as the small plots were consolidated into tenant farms. So every cloud (for the starving poor) had a silver lining (for the landlord class).

His career untroubled by the role he played in these events, Trevelyan went on to preside over the creation of what we now recognise as Whitehall: a cluster of spacious buildings around London’s Houses of Parliament in which the main departments of government would have their offices. Trevelyan argued that this was far more than a practical, administrative exercise.

“[W]e are organising, Christianising and civilising large portions of two ancient continents, Africa and Asia; and it is not right when the inhabitants of those countries come to the metropolis they should see nothing worthy of its ancient renown. Now I conceive that a plan of the kind I have sketched... would give the honour due to the focus of our liberties, of that regulated freedom which we hope will overspread the world” p233.

This new citadel of imperial government - like the communal burial bits of Ireland, and the tiny infant graves marked with shapeless rocks, marked with no epitaphs, at Connemara on the Atlantic shore p227 – would stand as the monuments to the civilising mission of Charles Trevelyan and Britain’s empire of good intentions.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Israel's "right" to exist

A commenter on my last post draws attention to the political platform of the Israeli Likud party, likely winners of next week’s legislative elections. According to information on the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) website (which I assume reflects the current position), Likud still opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Recall that when the Palestinians in the occupied territories elected Hamas to power in January 2006, Israel and its Western allies instituted a boycott against the territories on the basis that, amongst other pretexts, one cannot enter into dialogue with a group – Hamas - that doesn’t recognise the “right” of Israel to exist. That boycott turned into a blockade, condemned by leading aid agencies, which created a humanitarian disaster in the Gaza strip, with children becoming malnourished and people dying from lack of medical treatment. All because Hamas’ alleged extremism rendered it persona non grata at the high table of international diplomacy.

Put aside the fact that Hamas has long accepted the reality of Israel’s existence, dismissing the idea of doing otherwise as “infantile”. Put aside the fact that for Palestinians to go further than merely accepting Israel’s existence - for them to say that Israel has the “right” to exist - would mean them accepting that it was “right” for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to have been subjected to the brutal ethnic cleansing operation that brought the creation of the Israeli state on the ashes of the former Palestinian homeland.

Put all that aside and just consider the sheer, rampant hypocrisy. Israeli leaders (not just Likud) have consistently denied Palestine's "right to exist" as an equal state alongside Israel, not just in word but - crucially, given the vast power-imbalance - in deed. Despite this, no supporter of Palestinian national rights would argue that the Palestinians should refuse to negotiate and agree a peaceful settlement with the elected Israeli government. This illustrates pretty clearly, I think, which side of this debate has a genuine interest in peace and which side clings to flimsy excuses to avoid it.

Its worth saying something else about the "right to exist". Israel does not have the right to exist, and neither does Palestine. Things do not have rights, people have rights. My laptop, my biro, my tea cup, do not have rights. They, like states, have uses which they either do or do not serve successfully.

Jews and Arabs have the equal right as human beings to live in peace and security and with full self-determination. Whatever set-up you have in former Mandate Palestine - a Jewish and an Arab state side by side, a single democratic state for both peoples – is only justified in so far as it serves the purpose of safeguarding those human rights. The current set-up – an Israeli state that confers racial privilege on its Jewish over its Arab inhabitants, with the rest of the Palestinians either locked into dungeon-like conditions in modern day Indian reservations, or exiled altogether – has no justification in terms of any recognisable concept of “rights”.

Those who talk about Israel’s “right” to exist have forgotten a principle – that states are entirely subordinate to human rights – which has been understood by democrats for centuries.

Over two hundred years ago, the American founding fathers, when articulating the fundamental principles of democracy, said that:

"We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying it's foundation on such principles and organising it's powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness." [my emphasis]

According to these principles, it is quite legitimate to consider the abolition of the state of Israel, if that is what “shall seem most likely to effect [the] safety and happiness” of the Jews and Arabs of the region. There is no “right” for a state to persist in circumstances where it presents an obstacle to the honouring of basic human rights. As it happens, I don’t support calls for the abolition of the state of Israel. But the principles at work here need to be understood.

The idea that a state has the "right to exist" directly contradicts the principles set forth by the early democrats in their struggles against the monarchical tyrannies of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The man who led the intellectual counter-charge against democracy, Edmund Burke, said:

"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" (Simon Schama's "History of Britain III", pg 43)

Consider the value-system set out here by Burke. The danger of the state oppressing the population must be balanced against the danger of the population oppressing the state.

Those who reject negotiations with Hamas to help end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on the basis that Hamas rejects Israel's "right" to exist, are - in moral terms - taking the same backward, anti-democratic position as Edmund Burke two-hundred years ago, when he defended the old monarchies of Europe against the threat of the “swinish multitude”. The rights of people are subordinated to the alleged "rights" of the state. The right of the Palestinians for their desperate situation to be resolved, so they can live decent lives free from hunger, poverty and violence, is subordinated to the "right" of the Israeli state to exist in whatever form it chooses, whatever the human cost, and to have that "right" affirmed by its victims. Until the Palestinians bow down before the fake "rights" of the Israeli state, their actual rights will continue to be denied to them.

Israel likes to present itself as a bulwark of enlightened Western democracy, resisting the advances of the swarthy Islamic hordes. In reality, the Israeli state, and those who would see Palestinian lives sacrificed on the alter of its “right” to exist, are the moral equivalent of the pre-Enlightenment reactionaries of monarchical 18th century Europe. The barbarism of Israel’s recent massacres in Gaza is partially an outcome of the perverse morality that subordinates the rights of human beings to the “rights” of a state.

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