Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Gaza Freedom March


I've heard of few activist projects more inspiring and worthwhile than the Gaza Freedom March; a coming non-violent attempt to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza strip and relieve the appalling humanitarian situation there. Israel has deliberately created a scene of abject misery and destitution for the innocent civilians of Gaza in recent times, while cynically trying to present itself as a civilised democratic nation seeking only to defend itself against ruthless extremists. But make no mistake, this is as clear a situation of oppressor and oppressed as Apartheid South Africa twenty years ago. And now, as then, something needs to be done.

We can help by participating in the march itself or by assisting in the equally crucial task of publicising the effort. There's plenty more information on the official website here, on Youtube and on Facebook. Here's Noam Chomksy giving his usual informed and perceptive analysis of the issue, and here's a rather more modest effort from me: one of my blog posts from during the Israeli assault of January this year which hopefully conveys some sense of the sheer cruelty with which Israel continues to treat the Palestinians, with the connivance of its allies in London and Washington.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

A thought on ideology

To describe someones politics or scholarly work as "ideological" has become to describe their thoughts as biased, rigid and impervious to reality. Politicians seeking to present themselves as all things to all people strive to affect a post-ideological worldview, keen to stress that the old definitions of left and right are outdated and that all they are now interested in is "what works" (as opposed, presumably, to former generations of politicians with their blithe disinterest in outcomes).
Many political scientists also claim to have put aside ideology, focusing purely on cause and effect and leaving the more grubby normative questions to politicians. By contrast, those scholars who reject the scientific approach claim that the inevitable existence of ideology in our minds renders all attempts to explain the social world biased and subjective, often producing what is little more than fiction.
We can cut through all this with seven words: ideology is not the same as dogma. 'Ideology' needs urgently to be rescued from its current status as a swearword of intellectual discourse. The reality is that ideology, unlike dogma, is a vital component of our capacity for rational thought.
Ideology is the organising framework whereby we use our existing knowledge and understanding, together, crucially, with our moral values and priorities, to help make sense of the world around us. As a tool of rationality it can and ought to be responsive to the facts, adapting as new information comes to light. The more conscious we are of the existence of our ideology (or worldview) the more likely it is to evolve in a useful manner. Dogma, by contrast, will remain rigid and inflexible in spite of contradictory evidence or countervailing argument. This is the central difference between the two.
To speak of ideology as though it were dogma, and to make the unlikely claim to have dispensed with ideology in one’s own political views or scholarly work, may serve to obscure the fact that ideological assumptions - intellectual or moral - will always underlie our analysis. This does not mean that the presence of ideology renders all points of view subjective and of equal value. Some are right, some are wrong; all exist on a scale somewhere between those two poles and most, to a greater or lesser extent, are contestable under rational enquiry. The point is that we cannot ignore the presence of the ideological framework through which those views are constructed, or excuse ourselves from the task of defending it.
It is preferable, in my view, to accept, indeed to embrace our inner ideologue (as distinct from our inner dogmatist), acknowledging the presence of all the rational and moral elements at work in our attempts to understand the world. To do so will be to keep these intellectual endeavours honest and to enhance their quality by making full use of the cognitive tools at our disposal.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Boycotting the Israeli occupation


Here's a report from The Real News Network on the boycott campaign against Israel's illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories, and here's an article by Naomi Klein on the same subject.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

James Bond and the corporate view of human nature

Someone on a discussion forum I contribute to asked how the commercial entertainment industry serves or subverts corporate power. This (with a couple of subsequent tweaks) was my answer.


The mass entertainment industry rarely offers much in the way of political subversion (though bits and pieces do get smuggled through, if you look closely), but it can provide us with insights into how the corporate world sees the views and values of ordinary people. Here's an example.

The last James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, involved MI6 agent Bond and a CIA counterpart rebelling against their respective spy agencies to counter a coup against the Bolivian government. The coup was aimed at the eventual privatisation of that country's water resources. This is closely related to real life events, as the University of Michigan’s Juan Cole points out in an excellent piece here. The current left-wing administration in Bolivia is the latest in a long line of progressive South American governments to have been covertly undermined and plotted against by local business and military elites, often with the connivance of Washington. Its a story being played out right now in Honduras. The QoS scriptwriter is obviously familiar with recent South American politics, including the Cochabamba protests against water privatisation in Bolivia, which are alluded to in the plot.

Now James Bond, for all his ostensible devil-may-care individualism is probably the least subversive of all movie characters. So why choose a cause celebre of the international left for his latest mission, and play it in such an eyebrow-raisingly sympathetic way?

The Bond film franchise is a major one, geared to making big bucks on the basis of judging its audience correctly. I would suggest that plenty of people in the entertainment industry understand that there is an awareness amongst the general public - and, more importantly, a disapproval of the fact - that western governments, corporations and intelligence agencies engage in this sort of behaviour in places like Latin America. (Quantum of Solace is far from the only film/tv show in which the state, the CIA etc are the bad guys. Even our own Dr Who and Torchwood have occasional elements of that). The producers of the Bond film calculated that a plot which played to these views would find favour with audiences and make money at the box office.

Film producers take such assessments of the mood of the masses seriously, because getting those calculations right is how they make themselves rich. Active support for the likes of Evo Morales may be in short supply in the West, but the plot selection of the Bond producers suggests that those who make their fortunes understanding the moods of mass audiences know that there is a widespread passive sympathy for causes of this kind: people are aware that right wing US governments try to overthrow or subvert progressive third world governments; and they don‘t like it.

If this assessment of the public mood is correct, then that's very encouraging news for people on the left. It suggests that if we go out there and make the case against US imperialism to the average apolitical person on the street, we may well find a surprisingly receptive audience.

You can take a similar, broader message from advertising. Very rarely does an advert simply tell you the features of the product and the price. Instead, elaborate attempts are made to associate the product in your mind with things like freedom, happiness, fulfilment, love/sex etc etc. The material product itself isn't something we're that interested in, so the advertisers have to hitch it on to something we really value. I don't care particularly which broadband/telephone package I use, but if I'm encouraged to associate BT's product with a happy home and love life then its understood that this will appeal to me far more than the material item itself. Thus are natural human needs and energies diverted down the dead end of consumerism.

Corporate bosses - when in the realms of political debate - never miss a chance to tell us that human beings are driven by greed and self-interest, requiring ever greater rewards to motivate us. See the recent justifications for the return of massive bonuses for the incompetant leaders of the discredited banking industry. But the real corporate assessment of human nature is revealed in the way that profit-making institutions try and sell their products to us. Those communications give us good reason to believe that corporations understand human beings to value freedom, love, empathy for our fellow people and other loftier concerns above shallow material enrichment.

Mass entertainment and other corporate forms of communication may not be subversive in and of themselves, but they can unwittingly provide glimpses into how our own natures contradict, and are capable of subverting, the values of the corporate system.

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A Manifesto

Me and a few others are involved at the moment in putting together a new political website to take over where the late lamented UKWatch left off. Here's something I've drafted for the 'about' section of that website to explain what we're....well.....about.
'New Left Project' is a working title that we may or may not stick with. The site should come online in the autumn.
About the New Left Project
The New Left Project takes as its starting points:
  • First, a belief in the value and equality of human life;
  • Secondly, an endorsement of the fundamental rights that flow from this (as set out for example in the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights); and
  • Thirdly, the view that those rights are best honoured by cohesive, co-operative societies based primarily on collective and democratic social organisation and run on the principle of economic and ecological sustainability.
The New Left Project takes the view that the political economy of Britain is - in common with much of the rest of the world - characterised by the undue influence of various concentrations of socio-economic power. The disproportionate influence that these institutions, corporations and elite groups of individuals wield over how our societies are governed elevates the goals of power and profit over the principles of human equality and freedom. Wars, poverty, inequality, potentially catastrophic damage to the Earth's climate, and other unacceptable constraints and denials of human freedom, rights and welfare are largely caused by these fundamental imbalances in the distribution of political, social and economic power, both in individual societies and across the globe.
We are conscious of the fact that, to the extent that progress has been made over the course of history in addressing power imbalances and challenging injustice, these successes have been won by popular political action, rather than being handed down by the powerful as gifts. The end of the Atlantic slave trade, voting rights, women's suffrage and the defeat of Apartheid all came for the most part as the result of individuals organising together, campaigning and articulating the case for progressive change.
With this in mind, the New Left Project seeks - via this website - to contribute to and facilitate broad-based campaigning for progressive political change, in line with the values, beliefs and opinions set out above. We will engage with as wide a range of issues as our knowledge and resources will allow; from climate change, to economics, foreign affairs, and many others. Our focus will reflect the fact that we are UK-based, but also that we recognise and value the long-standing internationalist tradition in progressive politics.
We will produce original analysis and comment pieces. We will work to spread useful information and ideas by drawing attention to books, articles, video and events that we believe will inform and interest our readership. We will facilitate debate and conversation between people who broadly share our views and beliefs, with the aim of aiding the development and improvement of progressive politics. In all these activities our goal will be to achieve and maintain a high standard of productive, thought-provoking and informative discussion at all times.

In this way, the New Left Project hopes to make its own contribution to the efforts that are being made by millions of activists in countries across the world to challenge economic injustice, environmental damage, war, imperialism and human rights abuses.