Friday, 31 August 2012

Notes on Hypocrisy, Double Standards and Self Righteousness.

On the subject of double standards and hypocrisy, the current crisis in Syria is instructive. The trio of Western Powers ( the USA, France and UK ) explicitly demands that the Assad regime should go or, in actual fact, be overthrown when it comes down to it.

This demand is explicitly justified by claiming that they have the moral high ground as Syria is a dictatorship, we are democracies and Assad's forces are attacking their own people and civilians.

No mention is made of the fact that Saudi Arabia is the West's main ally in the Middle East, apart from Israel, and that the former is a theocratic dictatorship backing Sunni jihadists in Syria.

The problem is that international politics in the West since 1990 has become less about cautious diplomacy and far more about competing radical visions about reordering the world according to ideological precepts.

By comparison, Russia and China do not base their foreign policy on trying to overthrow regimes or demand adherence to human rights and to promote democracy but only its own power interests.

In that sense, powers that do not share the liberal internationalist stance of the USA and EU are not seen to be as hypocritical as they make no high standards they can be called to account on by internal critics. 

The accusation of double standards is harder to make if a Power does not flaunt its proclaimed standards of democracy and human rights as a means of what is often seen as rationalising the same Great Power interests.

The noble idea of human rights has become a tool of the USA to put forth a messianic vision in which it can do no fundamental wrong as it uses Great Power status to advance democracy.

If "regime change" brings about a new "free" country as in Afghanistan or Iraq that is seen as great or, at least, an improvement: if not then it must at least by pro-Western in its foreign policy.

The current mess in Syria shows that humanitarian concerns and rhetoric about the Assad regime is used by liberals such as Secretary of State Clinton to support regime change by stealth as only the USA has the right to intervene in Syria to support the Syrian opposition.

To do so by aiding "the Syrian opposition" to co-ordinate militias, many of which are Sunni fundamentalists backed by the Saudis is not considered important: as our foreign policy is conducted by democratically elected governments, they still must be better than those backed by Russia or China.

This conceit is a dangerous one as the choice in practice is often between a secular dictatorship and a dysfunctional democracy in which rival sectarian militias jockey for control. 

That was seen in Iraq in the aftermath of the US invasion of 2003 and still is as Sunni jihadists carry out fresh bomb attacks against the Shi'ite government. Again it is happening in Syria and the Western Powers have learnt nothing.

Realism is not cynicism. There are many on the left who fail to grasp that too. In fact foreign policy controversies are often about whether to back a foreign policy if it is an agent of progressive global change of not. And that often hinges around whether the USA can be that agent or not.

Now there are those who tend to assume it is an Empire an so never can be. Chomsky is that his belief in the fundamental malignity of US exceptionalism is itself based on an exceptional view that as a democracy "we" can change the world if "we" change our foreign policy first.

In reality, the other Great powers have their agendas and in practice there are limits to what the West can do and which it needs to learn. And one of those is to believe it can bring about a globe of liberal democracies using force as the midwife of history.

By comparison bringing up the role of China in Africa is often a large omission by leftists in the West who used to continually claim to be concerned with the fate of the continent, opposing South African apartheid and the Rhodesian government in the late 1970s.

The usual waffle about only being able to change "our" foreign policy ignores the obvious fact that those who profit from "anti-westernism" like Mugabe are part of a non aligned bloc which includes those such as Hugo Chavez who are supported by many Western leftists such as John Pilger.

China makes no claim to improve human rights there at all but operates on a "no strings attached" policy. This means corrupt dictatorships are supported with weapons if China gains the concession to mine precious minerals in return for infrastructure projects.

When the insurgents in Libya was supported by the USA, France and UK, Pilger wrote,

"Africa is China's success story. Where the Americans bring drones and destabilisation, the Chinese bring roads, bridges and dams. What they want is resources, especially fossil fuels. With Africa's greatest oil reserves, Libya under Muammar Gaddafi was one of China's most important sources of fuel"

This is curious. In what way is propping up dictatorships a "success story" ? Really ? In Zaire where African's are slave labourers ? Unless Pilger is suggesting that the West's foreign policy is so bad that China's seems better only by comparison, this comes close to rationalising dictatorship.

The best thing in the circumstances is to understand why this Great Game for resources is driving conflict, the better to try to avoid it. For  another source of hypocrisy is the one where people say "No War for Oil". Iraq and Libya were about oil, but what do people think powers the economy ?

If a lot more focus was put on finding alternatives to oil and stating clearly why these resource wars are happening, a sane alternative can be put forward. That should, in fact, be the starting point of any constructive solution to the reality of our time-wars for resources.

For isn't it hypocrisy to insist we deserve higher living standards and growth ( what many on the left and liberals regard as "Progress" when that necessarily means more oil must be forthcoming ?

Or would people prefer to give up their cars, learn to live with far less ? Is that something consumers in Western democracies want ? Have anti-war organisations posed that question to the public ?

Note, this does not mean endorsing wars for oil: just that people ought to heed what Tolstoy said "everybody thinks about changing the world: too few about changing themselves" . Rather than screaming self righteous slogans, espousing hysterical forms of anti-American vitriol and posing as though that can make the world better.

The TAPI Pipeline: How to use "Public Diplomacy" to dress up a Resource War as a "Regional Infrstructure Project"

It is curious the way that Washington's representatives often try to downplay the role of the TAPI pipeline as a central part of their geopolitical strategy for Afghanistan, as though it had arisen as a welcome initiative from the region only. As if that had nothing intentional in it as part of the USA's foreign policy.

It is true that all the states that stand to benefit from the TAPI pipeline have sought to develop 'energy independence' . What is seldom spelled out is that the independence is from Iran, one that costs far more than the dangers of building a pipeline through a war ravaged Afghanistan.

And that this has been the main strategic goal on the US and NATO in Afghanistan from the outset of war in 2001. Not women's rights. Not human rights. In so far as these were auxiliary humanitarian benefits of a successful war, they were spin offs from "nation building" and that could only be based upon recreating Afghanistan as an energy transit and transport hub.

An article from the Hindustan Times ( TAPI will support energy independence of regional countries: US, August 16 2012 ) that Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake commented recently on a trip to Central Asia, 

"We see that the TAPI gas pipeline is particularly important because it's going to join two of the most important end-points in this regional connectivity that we talk about, Turkmenistan and India."

It is important, of course, because it runs through Afghanistan. To use plain English to spell that out, instead of using opaque power jargon about "end points" and "connectivity" , would mean coming to close to the taboo truth: the war in Afghanistan has the completion of the pipeline as a key strategic goal.

Instead of dwelling on the Afghan part of the geopolitical jigsaw, Blake talked up the benefits to the neighbouring state,

"India, of course, has gigantic energy needs because of its fast-growing economy. They need lots of gas. I think that is what really helped drive this project. There is now a real market in India and they can afford to pay for the gas. Turkmenistan has sufficient gas to fuel this pipeline" .

Public Diplomacy requires that when Afghanistan is mentioned in relation to the TAPI pipeline, it is only as an "infrastructure project" or as part of "nation building" or, more poetically, as a "New Silk Route".

"That is also quite important to this vision that I talked earlier about for Afghanistan. So, in terms of the pipeline I think there has been good progress on what they call gas sale-purchase agreements between these countries" .

Again the disinterested tone conceals the extent to which the USA has threatened Pakistan with the dangers of sanctions and reductions in aid if it dares to go against the TAPI pipeline and plump for the cheaper and easier option of Iran's IPI Pipeline. The TAPI Pipeline is a vital interest dressed up as an infrastructure project.

"The next milestone is that there will be a road show that will take place sometime in September, at which they will begin to have concrete discussions about who is going to form and lead this consortium to actually build this pipeline. This is a crucial series of discussions that will take place," he said, adding that the American companies would also be participating in the road show.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Annual Exam Jamboree Falls Flat in 2012.

News that GSCE results have been downgraded in 2012, apparently on the instruction of Education Secretary Michael Gove,  has led to widespread condemnation from all those upset that exams have seemingly got "harder" for no legitimate reason other than posing as being "tough" and upgrading the status of the exams.

Critics have accused Gove of playing politics and ruining students employment prospects ( though with mass youth unemployment at present that might be one way of "managing expectations" ). Then again this follows years of using educational grades as a form not of educational attainment but social engineering.

There have been years of grade inflation in a way that effectively politicised what were once a routine examination into a principle under the Blair regime of being ever more "dizzy with success" and the notion of "education, education, education" and to get more students into "higher education".

That happened in the 1990s as old polytechnics were converted under John Major's government in the 1990s into universities and the freeing up of "higher education" establishments into offering more consumer choice in degrees from golf course management to other ones less practical and derided as "Mickey Mouse" degrees.

The stupidity of downgrading the grades before the exam results were released by Michael Gove, rather than setting out to make them harder from the beginning of the academic year is just one decision among many which as stupid as inflating them in the first place.

The next form of stupidity that ought to have stopped some years ago is the annual kitschfest of televising students leaping for joy when they "get those grades". That's good for them, perhaps, but it just does not deserve the amount of hype heaped up on it every year as though it were the X Factor or any other banal talent show.

Exams have been watered down. It is only necessary to compare an O Level paper from the 1970s with a GCSE one from the past two decades to see that. Exams have actually become far more a test of just passing an exam than they were before. No doubt in the name of being "inclusive".

A Levels are a case of that too. Take history. When perusing an A Level history paper from the 1970s one would confront austere 25 mark essay titles with challenging statements such as "The Restoration failed . Discuss " or "In the end Cromwell was sitting on bayonets and nothing else"

By the 1990s any A Level question on the Stuart period would be broken down into easier 3 part stages starting off with a picture and asking the student to comment on what he saw in it and to evaluate a few sources in which the point of using knowledge recall to answer a provoking question was entirely excluded

Far from being "parroting" information ( as the new A Levels require ) the old A Levels required the student to do what he would be expected to do at university which is to stake out his own case and answer the question as concisely and directly as possible with recourse to facts and analysis.

This was a test of mental stamina and time management as well as testing to see whether the student could stick to answering the question set directly and not waffling about anything that did not argue a case. That principle was no doubt regarded as too unpleasant and so ditched.

Trendy educationalists espousing supposedly "left wing" concepts of education have actually contributed far more to downgrading the status of both the old O and A Levels to to mere knowledge reproduction and the actual teaching of history to merely spotting what questions are going to come up.

More emphasis in the past was given to the teaching of history as a subject for two years after which there was an exam that would test the students breadth of knowledge and how he had, in conjunction with the teacher's lessons, read on the subject and was encouraged to do so.

I remember my A Level years with fondness. I had to learn how to read entire books on the Stuarts, such as those of Christopher Hill, Conrad Russell and the discussions different historians had on the English Civil Wars or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms so I could genuinely form my own opinion on them.

The idea now of parroting information reduced subjects to a meaningless task and the fact the subject on the exam happens to be about history seems irrelevant as it might just as well be an exam on flat pack furniture assembly or the corporate policy of McDonald's restaurants.

Even if that last idea was intended to be satirical, I have heard that McDonald's are indeed seeking to offer  equivalents to the old exam qualifications and that Pearson education is going to enter "the market" by providing degrees. Maybe the crude utilitarian view of education is the future.

It doesn't bode well for the idea of independent critical thinking but more towards the idea that education is their to discipline minds in a very narrow sense. Exams are about that, of course, but it seems to me that they used to be part of a broader attempt at providing a true education.

Why Orwell is Relevant: Part Three.

One of the useful aspects of debating George Orwell's legacy is that whenever he is discussed online, it is almost always inevitable that two things will happen:

1) That certain left wingers or "leftists" or those who still cling to the idea that Russian Communism was a noble idea will deride Orwell and make unfounded claims as to what "political trajectory" he would have taken had he lived beyond 1950 and with little foundation.

2) That certain precepts Orwell stood for such as clarity of language and freethinking will be derided by those who defend that with regards certain trends of thought today.

One example is the way those who peddle the term "Islamophobia" ( a meaningless word when used like "reactionary" without precisely defining what it actually is ) or will seize on that with glee to suggest questioning the validity of that term exactly implies a use of Orwell to further a "right wing" agenda.

I will take two examples that have arisen in relation to my defence of why Orwell is relevant in 2012.

One blogger on the Guardian's Comment is Free website called "Champaklal" opines,

"Leftwingers often attack political systems they depend on. So what? It is in the hope of improving them. How DID they improve in the past anyway? Do you think the foundation events of our freedom like the French and Bolshevik Revolutions came without contradictions? Would you have preferred Hitler?"

How on earth was the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia a "foundation event of our freedom" ?

Again there is this residual inability to face facts. The Bolshevik model of Revolution was the twentieth century blueprint for totalitarian rule from the outset and took from the French Revolution the Jacobin-Blanquist model of a tightly knit elite who would force humanity to freedom by force and terror.

That was certainly a "contradiction" but one inherent in what Robespierre termed the "despotism of liberty".

This was precisely what Orwell meant by doublethink. The crude either-or choice between either Soviet Communism and Hitler's Nazi totalitarian regime which  presupposes that Soviet totalitarianism was the only effective alternative to Hitler which it certainly was not ( though those who see Stalin's victory in Eastern Europe as mandating Soviet occupation).

Here is assumed that states such as interwar Czechoslovakia and Poland somehow needed to have Communism and a One Party State imposed on them and the democracy that Czechoslovakia had between 1918 and 1938 was somehow inferior to the fictional "People's Republic" after 1948.

The logic behind the "so do you prefer Hitler" pose when faced with those who sought to rationalise Soviet totalitarianism was indeed satirised by Orwell in Animal Farm when the Pigs offer false alternatives when the animals complain about the erosion of promised freedoms thus,

"but you wouldn't want Jones back would you ?"

To which Jim Nolan responds, as self righteously as he can manage,

You're quite sure that "Jones" was Hitler? I thought that was "Frederick"? I thought that "Jones" was the Czar, the regime you're busy defending against the Bolsheviks. Am I wrong?

When you read it again more carefully, ask yourself - where is Lenin? Is he a composite part of the character "Snowball" - or a composite part of the character "Old Major"? If you can make a very good case for one or the other, then you can use "Animal Farm" as a stick to beat the Russian Revolution.

Note here that whilst Nolan is not writing Orwell off as others who apologise for Soviet Communism do, he still sees any attempt to portray Orwell as having had doubts about the Bolshevik Revolution as necessarily meaning that this is a de facto defence somehow of Tsarism ( ie "reactionary" ).

No, because I did not state that Jones was Hitler as he clearly was not. Jones represents the old regime of the Tsar before the Russian Revolution. I was talking of the logic behind the Pigs attempt to present their continued authority in terms of binary logic.

The point being that the Pigs offer either-or choices in the manner that certain apologists for totalitarianism do when they chastise people for questioning the authority of the Pigs to define the present in relation to the past and that those who even question it are, indeed, thoughtcriminals..

Next, the logic of the Pigs clearly represents the degeneration of the Revolution from its early stages into the regime of Stalin, a criticism which was far more clear and expounded at length in 1984 when Orwell did satirise the logic of the oligarchical collectivism implicit from the outset on the Bolshevik Revolution.

It has to be remembered that Orwell himself was wrestling with the notion that there may well have been something wrong with the way the Bolsheviks hijacked the Russian Revolution to serve their own ideological ends ( which he touched on elsewhere in one of his essays ).

It seems clear that Old Major was an amalgam of Marx and Lenin, which suggests that the main thrust of Animal Farm is the way the Revolution was perverted. There was nothing in it dealing explicitly with any original sin in the Russian Revolution as such when he wrote it in 1945.

Orwell's view of the Revolution had indeed darkened by the time he wrote 1984 shortly before his death in 1950 when Eastern Europe had fallen under Stalinist "model" dictatorships and the Cold War was in full swing across the globe and the spectre of thermonuclear annihilation posing a new threat to the survival of the human race.

Yet those who berated 1984, such as Isaac Deutscher ( who wrote Trotsky's hagiography in his Prophet Trilogy ), still clung to the notion that Lenin's Revolution had been perverted by Stalin and failed because Trotsky, a.k.a Snowball in Animal Farm had been expelled from the Soviet Union.

With hindsight it is now known that this was a myth and it seems Orwell had grappled with this as he was writing 1984. One of the messages of his last work seems to have been that if force, fraud and terror are used to overthrow a regime, then the resulting Revolutionary regime may well be as bad or worse.

On Politics and the English Language.

Mr Nolan also was unhappy about this claim I made,

'Orwell defended literature against politics and what is know known as "political correctness".

Perhaps that should have been more precisely expressed and Mr Nolan then went on to quote Orwell by arguing,

"Political correctness" like this?

    Is there anything that one can do about this? One can at least remember that the colour problem exists. And there is one small precaution which is not much trouble, and which can perhaps do a little to mitigate the horrors of the colour war. That is to avoid using insulting nicknames. It is an astonishing thing that few journalists, even in the left-wing press, bother to find out which names are and which are not resented by members of other races. The word 'native', which makes any Asiatic boil with rage, and which has been dropped even by British officials in India these ten years past, is flung all over the place. 'Negro' is habitually printed with a small n, a thing most Negroes resent. One's information about these matters needs to be kept up to date. I have just been carefully going through the proofs of a reprinted book of mine, cutting out the word 'Chinaman' wherever it occurred and substituting 'Chinese'. The book was written less than a dozen years ago, but in the intervening time 'Chinaman' has become a deadly insult. Even 'Mahomedan' is now beginning to be resented: one should say 'Muslim'.

- George Orwell, "scourge of political correctness" for those who control the past.

"I think Orwell wouldn't have recognised "political correctness" as a phenomenon requiring its own name. He'd have considered it to be part of decency".

Now I understand that but that is why I put "political correctness" in inverted commas. It has become one of those words bandied around by some to mean that decency is a form of "thought control", which it clearly is not, though some might like to pretend otherwise.

However, one point about Orwell's defence of free speech is that 'erroneous thought is the stuff of freedom' in the words of his biographer Ben Pimlott. There are those who would define "political correctness" as a form changing mentalities or thoughts by redefining language ( that's why the term is used after all ).

American universities are full of such ideologues who would like to proscribe thoughts by what they term "policing the literature" . There are terms such as "Islamophobe" which are used to delegitimise criticism of Islamism or even certain aspects of Islam by wrongly conflating it with criticism of Muslims as people ( i.e individuals ).

Those who question what is meant exactly by "multiculturalism" too, as opposed to, say ,cosmopolitanism, can be mechanically written off and denigrated as "racists" or "bigoted" simply because the far right use the term 'multicultural' as a blanket term of derogatory abuse for a society with immigrants in it.

My own view is that even if decent people should not use offensive terms for other people as mark of civilised behaviour, those who do not hold to such opinions should not be arrested or prevented from speaking as otherwise we have no means of clearly understanding how they think.

It is through questioning the meaning of terms that we can understand better the world around us and avoid hatred and bigotry. Obviously, that was too much for Mr Nolan who snarled,

"Conflating" my foot, the conflation is inescapable. You might believe gossip about Samir up the road or listen to rumours about Samir up the road, but all prejudice against Samir the Muslim is prejudice against what he has in common with all "Muslims as people".

It is often the case that when people are losing an argument, that they resort to malicious insinuations. Orwell referred to it as the attitude of "sniff, sniff are you a good anti-fascist", a sort of search for guilt and thoughtcrime as opposed to actually listening or following carefully what a person has actually written

Without realising, Mr Nolan  seems, in his view, to have detected a "prejudice" He writes the "conflation is inescapable" only because he has already decided upon the catch all validity of the term "Islamophobe" to mean just anybody who is critical of any of the precepts of the religion as a religion ( which I did not offer )

Now that could apply also to the Orwellian use of the word "Islamophobe" to describe those who criticise a political ideology supposedly based on Islam and who do not have any dislike of classical Islam as a religion ( as I do not because it's a multi-vocal religion no less than Christianity is and not some unified monolithic belief system ).

The use of the word "Islamophobe" is a vague blanket term. It does not distinguish between criticism of the precepts of a religion or of a political ideology which happens to present itself as representing all Muslims ( which it certainly does not ) . In which case the term is mendacious and, yes, Orwellian.

There are those who are anti-Muslim and that would mean the far right who often hide behind the idea of "criticising a religion" when they really want to peddle hatred of Muslims. In which case "anti-Muslim" sentiment would be the fitting term. Not "Islamophobia" which implies some mindless irrational fear of something defined by those who fling it about.

In which case criticism or dislike of the religion of Islam could be considered "anti-Islamic" in the same way as critics of the Catholic Church are "anti-Catholic" without necessarily hating or having some visceral dislike of Poles or Irish people, though that might be present and would be wrong. 

It depends on looking at what exactly has been written by a person on its own merits or lack of it. That, I think, was one of the lessons of Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language. It is one that needs to be constantly learnt again and again to preserve civilised standards of public discourse.

If a person is against Islamism ( as many Muslims are ) then he could be "anti-Islamist" or anti-Wahhabi or merely a critic of Islamist ideology, though which kind of Islamism would need to be outlined carefully in order to carry critical weight and precision. The danger comes when people start allowing ideological concepts to do the thinking for them.

Politics and The English Language Revisited.

Mr Nolan clearly was not satisfied with the comparison between the terms anti-Islamic and anti-Catholic. Again, what is being discussed here is not how to rationalise intolerance at all but to make distinctions between different forms of opposition to a creed as opposed to an ethnic group for the purposes of accurate classification of certain strands of opinion.

  The "religion of Islam" is not equivalent to "the Catholic Church". The "religion of Islam" might be in the same category as "Latin Christianity" (or as "Reformed Christianity" or "Orthodox Christianity" or "Judaism" and so forth). You are conflating an organized entity, with office-holders and bank accounts and property portfolios and landholdings on the one hand with a religio-ethnic identity on the other.

This is more Orwellian style evasion. I have criticised the blanket use of the word "Islamophobia" as Orwellian because it acts as what Orwell termed a meaningless word in Politics and the English Language, just as "reactionary" became a term of abuse in Communist circles for anybody who was opposed to Communism.

I did not say the "religion of Islam" is "equivalent" to "the Catholic Church". How can it be ? Now by this stage anyone who reads this ( which I doubt ) might be bored senseless by all this apparent pedantry. However, it still seems important to be objective in trying to distinguish criticism of a religion from some form of atavistic ethnic hatred.

For unless we are going to get into the absurdity of calling those who criticise Islam as a religion as "anti-Mosqueovites", those who are hostile to Islam as a religion have to be called something to differentiate them from those who are hostile to Muslims because they are from Arab countries or Asia e.g the BNP.

If Mr Nolan's logic is followed no distinction between criticism of the religious precepts and criticism of Muslims as individuals is possible and so anti-Judaism would be exactly the same to anti-Zionism. And by extension when anybody who criticises the actions of Israel they must, in some sense, be "anti-semitic".

Therefore, criticism of Islamism, which is a political ideology that many Muslims would not necessarily agree with in the same way Jews are often opposed to Zionism, would not be different from criticism of Islam as a religion and somehow an intolerant hatred of Muslims. Meaning that sensible and reasoned discussion becomes impossible.

So I'm not "conflating" criticism of an institution with a religio-ethnic identity in the way Mr Nolan clearly is attempting. This would be "anti-Muslimism" ( an ugly word I know ). And Islam is not exactly a religio-ethnic identity in the same way Judaism is often held to be as there are different branches and sects within Islam ( Shia, Sunni, Druze etc ).

If that were the case we are faced with the absurdity of assuming that an atheist who regards himself as anti-Christian, therefore, despises "white Christian civilisation" , an assumption that many Christian fundamentalists in the Bible Belt of the southern states of the USA might see as "anti-American", Godless Communism or both.

So Shia Islam would be equivalent to Catholicism and we can talk of anti-Shi'ism in the same way as anti-Catholicism if I can refine my previous point a bit more. Even so, we would surely not call those who consider themselves "anti-Christian" as racist or xenophobic and nor should we necessarily consider those who are "anti-Islamic" as such.

Naturally, followers of Al Qaida are certainly "anti-Christian" no less than an atheist but hardly in the same manner. In which case Christian fundamentalists who despise all other religions and atheists could retort that criticism of them is "Christianiophobia". And to my knowledge this is not a word ( yet ).

If anything being precise about this terminology is part of a case for tolerance which means that even if a person dislikes a religion it does not mean he has a hatred of an ethnic group. This is what is problematic about "Islamophobia" because if we accept than word we would then have to accept "Christianiophobia" or "Judeophobia" as meaningful terms.

Wny Orwell is Relevant: Part Two

I have found myself reflecting on Orwell's relevance more when confronted with certain people who regard themselves as socialists and who thought Orwell somehow was not a "real" socialist. Such are the tedious "debates" some want on Orwell who is seen as, in some way, "reactionary" for having challenged the idea of Communist Revolution.

Whatever one actually thinks of socialism, no matter how various individuals insist on defining it as something other than that which Orwell did because of his opposition to the Soviet Union and scepticism towards the Russian Revolution from the outset, at least under the leadership of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Orwell remained a democratic socialist.

There are always those willing to rationalise away why the Revolution is perverted into what Orwell defined as Oligarchical Collectivism in 1984, that necessity had to trump freedom in the short term emergency situation created by the Revolution so as to create "genuine freedom" later.

One blogger stated,

'This may help you understand what Orwell failed to grasp, a society that is surrounded by hostile countries does not behave in a rational manner and is prone to dictate as a consequence of it's insecurity, rather than the explicit expression of genuine freedom'.

Orwell obviously did grasp that problem which is why in 1984 there are three power blocs-Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania which prefer to use their societies resources in a total war drive in a way that benefits the Inner Party functionaries of each power bloc as opposed to the ordinary civilians who lead lives of privation.

That is why Oceania, and Airstrip One ( Britain ) is such a dreary run down place with constant shortages, leaking pipes, crumbling buildings and poor food ( the smell of cabbage boiling in the corridors of Winston Smith's Victory Mansions.
The present world crisis is being dictated by US gun boat diplomacy as has been seen with the Aircraft carriers being stationed off Iran, and numerous wars that have been fought in the name of democracy; only later to discover it was all about oil..

Likewise, in 1984 Oceania could in 2012 be relevant in explaining the US military-industrial complex. Even so, it is quite obvious that the US alone does not actually dictate world politics: it may well be an aspiration to control the resources of the Middle East and Central Asia but not a reality.

It should be remembered that Orwell was opposed to imperialism but saw how the Soviet Union-the supposed new shiny productive modernist Utopian global power-was in fact a vast Land based Empire ( a Red Empire )  stretching from Eastern Europe into Far East Asia.

...there are a few multi billionaires that use their wealth and power to create a system of disinformation in order to maintain and grow their riches beyond what normal people can comprehend

Whilst that is true of the global super rich in 2012, Orwell was writing in the 1930s and 1940s when he believed that capitalism and the old capitalist empires were crumbling and would in fact disintegrate. It is unfair to accuse Orwell of not having seen what would happen from the 1980s onwards. He was dead.

However, to pretend that the global super rich are wholly responsible for the present resource wars-a fact that is both routinely accepted by establishment "think tanks" and politicians and hence denied publicly as a rationale for war in accordance with doublethink-is a myth.

What has happened, arguably ,since the 1980s is that discontent with capitalism has been bought off by a regime of frantic consumerism which is now clearly running up against environmental constraints and diminishing supplies of oil and gas. This seems to be the new potential source of conflict creating a new "post modern" dystopia.

It is simply a fact that the energy intensive "Great Car Economy" that was pioneered by the USA necessarily means wars to secure oil and to control diverse supplies in various regions where the competition is fierce between the West ( NATO ) and Russia, China and India.

The majority of consumers in the West are promised ever higher living standards based on the continued high octane principles of consumerism as a way of staving off domestic discontent and reduced liberties: Orwell was less perceptive in that sense than Aldous Huxley in Brave New World ( 1932 ).

Far from being in solidarity with those suffering elsewhere, the majority of consumers only think of their immediate pleasures, the prolefeed of the X Factor, Talent Shows and showbiz gossip in the way criticised by Neil Postgate in Amusing Ourselves to Death, a work written in the year of Orwell's imagined dystopia 1984.

This is, of course, dangerous because when the people cannot be told their human right to consumerism could be curtailed by the failure to secure the oil supplies upon which perpetual economic growth and excessive consumerism is based ( apart from the underclass who do not matter ) they will revolt.

The Communist Party of China, for example, knows that only the promise of infinite consumerism and satisfying the hunger for material goods can stave off the challenge to The Party from the newly rich middle classes. Any revolt from those at the bottom is catered for with police measures.

What is depressing for those who regard themselves as socialist in the Western nations is that a substantial number of citizens regard themselves as only consumers: they have voluntarily surrendered many freedoms and not challenged power and a reduction of liberties if they get their consumer goods.

This is one reason the Soviet Union failed. The ideal was to reduce its citizens to pliant and obedient ones with an increase in consumerism and material goods only in so far as the power of The Party would retain its prestige, power and dominance. It failed due to the inadequacy of the command economy.

China, on the other hand, learnt the lesson that by introducing its own form of capitalism aligned directly to state power and nationalism could generate the economic power to spend more on asserting its global role through military expansion and imperialism in Africa to control oil and minerals.

In many ways although the Chinese model is denigrated by Western nations, it offers a blend of capitalism and authoritarianism that could prove attractive to the West. The erosion of freedoms and liberties, a frantic regime dedicated to The Corporation ( little Mini Inner Parties ) and consumerism seems effective.

The notion that the workers of the world have been repressed by 'capitalist state power' is merely simplistic: the New Economic Order in the West ( developed in the USA ) depends on a willing degree of compliance in its activities as opposed to the old crude repression of Soviet style state.

Orwell understood that people could be "motivated" not by their own "real interests" or realising their "genuine freedom" but by those who define what that "freedom" will mean in such a way as to benefit the New Power Elites.

One of the problems socialists have always had is the question of what happens if "the people" refuse to grasp what their true interests should be. One reason "New Labour" promised infinite consumerism and practiced mass manipulation was that its members had become cynical about the British electorate.

For years "the people" had rejected the Labour Party for a Conservative Party that promised and -key jargon term-"delivered" a higher standard of consumerism which had destroyed the old working class along with Thatcher's de-industrialisation policy and attack on trade union power.

In accordance with doublethink it had to reconcile gaining power and keeping it whilst effectively pursuing economic policies that would continue to enrich the vested interests of the new deregulated City and corporations whilst being inclusive to the new burgeoning lower middle class that had arisen.

As the old working class in Britain fractured into either a middle class of white collar workers or a permanent underclass, the carrot of debt fuelled consumerism was combined with the stick of a new workfare regime and an entertainment economy to keep the discontented mostly docile and pliant.

The US model imported by Tony Blair was successful on its own terms until 2008. The economic instability aside, it showed how to reduce politics to an obfuscating media driven agenda in which adversarial political debate was pointless and that "the people" only "really wanted" bread and circuses.

Orwell knew how the power hungry sought to flatter "the people" whilst having utter disregard for them ( as in the case of "New Labour" ) and dividing and ruling over a confused and disorientated population through the "war on terror" and using the spectre of terrorism to erode old liberties for the illusion of permanent "security".

The fact that many of these threats were connected to the blowback from having colluded with terrorists used as proxies from Afghanistan to Azerbaijan Bosnia, Kosovo could be spun away as a hideous threat that came from nowhere on 9/11. A consequence of shoddy realpolitik and messianic fantasies of global power.

Orwell's writing shows us how The Party can achieve that level of manipulation, indoctrination and control. We can see in 2012 exactly how sporting and showbiz spectacles, CCTV surveillance, easy money, and dumbing down society to elementary platitudes can make the assertion of free thought and action obsolete.

On the Doublethink of the New Power Elites.

Commenting on the Orwell discussion Fridah writes,

The closest we have to Orwell today in pointing to the contradiction between the language and postures of political ideologues and their actual conditions of existence is VS Naipaul, who is paritcularly acute on those who align themselves with third world causes, whose status derives from a security predicated on the very political histories and structures they otherwise condemn, i.e. their own.

Consider the "anti-capitalists" and so-called "anti-racists" who post here. What does it mean to be a revolutionary Marxist "anti-capitalist" while in the pay of Guardian Media Group or the University of Cambridge, for example? What could be more absurd? But they don't even recognise it and that is what constitutes their "unassailability", as Naipaul puts it

This is from a review of VS Naipaul's Guerillas by Paul Theroux:

    Jane, who uses the lingo of sympathy easily ("words that she might shed at any time, as easily as she had picked them up, and forget that she had ever spoken them") -- Naipaul describes her best: "She was without memory. . . She was without consistency or even without coherence. She knew only what she was and what she had been born to; to this knowledge she was tethered; it was her stability, enabling her to adventure in security. Adventuring, she was indifferent, perhaps blind, to the contradiction between what she said and what she was so secure of being; and this indifference or blindness, this absence of the sense of the absurd, was part of her unassailability."

This ties in with the legitimising ideology of the New Power Elites and their form of what the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci termed the power of "hegemony" through controlling and revolutionising the culture of a state away from the old "bourgeois" norms.

"Hegemonising" is a career open to talent. With the demise of the revolutionary left of 1968 a number of absurdities have abounded in what can be broadly called "the liberal-left". The "New Labour" project in Britain is an amalgamation of the "cultural left" and neoliberal capitalism.

For those comfortable with the hollowing out of the sovereign nation state and devoted to a global assertion of Western power through a "post imperial" ethos of a world of universalist liberal democracies, such absurdities as "humanitarian intervention" through war is the new form of Orwellian "war is peace".

Think of Daniel Cohn Bendit who, as a supposed "Green" politician, supports "humanitarian intervention" and is quite candid in his concern for the extension of military power to protect Western Europe's pipeline projects ( he wrote an article for the Guardian on this-I can't locate it at present ).

Ultimately, the 1968ers were about a Utopian project that dates back to the technocratic and consumerist dreams of the French writer Charles Fourier. By eradicating the old barriers to total consumer satisfaction and the assertion of the egotistic individual over all, they brought about the dystopia we now inhabit.

That can be seen in the so called "Colour Revolutions" which replace the older and authentic tradition of dissenting and telling truth to power in favour of staged multi media "People Power" uprisings that are designed to extend NATO's power eastwards and control energy routes.

This new form of hypocrisy is peddled by those who denigrated the old Western Civilisation as based on Imperialism and the consumer comforts enjoyed by the post war 1945 working classes as something that diverted them from challenging the hegemony of the elites.

In many ways, the hypocrisy of the new liberal left establishment is seldom recognised as such, though some recent writers such as Michel Houellebecq have begun to do just that which is why he is excoriated in his native France as some sort of mere "reactionary" or "bigot" and so on.

On the other hand, those "anti-imperialists" and "anti-racists" who are not reconciled to the new Establishment are equally as deluded in thinking that it is only the West that is to blame for the world's ills. Yet the ideological paradigm they inhabit is curiously similar even if their response is not.

Ironically, such ideologues as Tariq Ali seem intent on thinking "we" are wholly to blame for Islamist militancy or propping up dictatorships ignore the fact that the Western powers really do want to overthrow the legacy of the old imperialist realpolitik. ( supported by those such as Christopher Hitchens ).

In fact, the reality is a world of competing power blocs determined on buttressing their wasteful economic regimes based on the infinite growth Utopia. The difference with China, for example, is that it does not attempt to prate about creating liberal democracies and human rights.

The notion that there are severe limits to what can be achieved in world politics is derided as "cynical" when it is actually a form of realism that is far more ethical and not based on apocalyptic visions of bringing about a global revolution that still have something in common with Trotsky's ideas.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Why Orwell is Relevant

With news that outgoing BBC Director General Mark Thompson turned down the idea of having a statue of George Orwell outside its new HQ, it has been occasion for some journalists such as Geoffrey Wheatcroft in The Guardian to remind us of 'Why Orwell is Relevant Today'.

In my opinion Orwell matters due to the clarity of his thought and his belief that political language and unquestioned conformity could corrupt thought. As such he is bound to matter in 2012 when the techniques of organised political lying are routine and commonplace and known as "spin".

The problem is that many have taken Orwell out of context and tried to claim his mantle by posing as fearless enemies of totalitarianism. Nick Cohen fails miserably in that pose as did Christopher Hitchens in the run up to the Iraq War in 2003.

By crudely lumping all their opponents who opposed the Iraq War as some new fangled version of the old apologists for Stalin in the 1930s ( this time it was Saddam Hussein ) they were fighting polemical wars against obsolete enemies. Saddam's totalitarian state was simply not bent on an expansionist agenda

It was fairly obvious that the so called "anti-war" left comprised of those such as Galloway who fawned on Castro's Cuba and Respect was a sinister Islamo-Bolshevik party that rationalised terrorism and authoritarian regimes if they happened to be against the USA.

But the point was that the "anti-war" groups were hardly as important as the level of mendacious lying and spin that was used as a pretext to invade Iraq and the use of the 9/11 terror attacks to launch wars as part of a geopolitical plan to control global energy supplies.

Orwell was brilliant on the perversions, lies and distortions used by the power hungry no less that the cowardice and hypocrisy of those who did not posses the "power of facing". In 2012 that would include those who bleat "No War for Oil" whilst demanding higher living standards.

In The Road to Wigan Pier ( 1937 ), Orwell wrote a passage that could apply to all those self styled "anti-imperialist" sorts of sloganeering poseurs who fail to grasp that it is precisely continued over dependence upon access to oil that underpins their consumer comforts.

    For in the last resort, the only important question is. Do you want the British Empire to hold together or do you want it to disintegrate? And at the bottom of his heart no Englishman, least of all the kind of person who is witty about Anglo-Indian colonels, does want it to disintegrate. For, apart from any other consideration, the high standard of life we enjoy in England depends upon our keeping a tight hold on the Empire, particularly the tropical portions of it such as India and Africa. Under the capitalist system, in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation — an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream. The alternative is to throw the Empire overboard and reduce England to a cold and unimportant little island where we should all have to work very hard and live mainly on herrings and potatoes. That is the very last thing that any left-winger wants. Yet the left-winger continues to feel that he has no moral responsibility for imperialism. He is perfectly ready to accept the products of Empire and to save his soul by sneering at the people who hold the Empire together.

Likewise, every time you turn on the ignition in your car you acquiesce in a future of resource wars such as Iraq. And every time you buy cheap goods made in sweatshops in the developing world you acquiesce in that. To that extent it is worth asking whether we really oppose our leaders as much as we pretend.

It is a useful exercise to pin down several reason why Orwell matters in 2012 so that the discussion of his intellectual legacy does not become a sort of sensational exercise in why we have a 1984 style totalitarian state in Britain at the moment as some bizarrely claim ( we do not ).

1984 was a predictive political essay in many ways and a satire on the trend towards the power hungry everywhere. As such it has relevance now only as a whole to North Korea as a fully developed totalitarian state. As a whole from his essays and fiction I would say in 2012 they are:

1) The Power of Facing' unpleasant facts against Wish Thinking

This would apply to all those who completely deny that wars are about resources or who assume wars can only ever be about resources organised by an elite to enrich themselves and in which "we" are not in any sense part of or benefit from. In extreme form, this leads to conspiracy theories of the sort offered by David Icke.

2) The Concept of Transferred Nationalism.

That because wars such as Iraq are crucially concerned with control of oil that any Great Power that opposes the USA are to be lauded. In that relation one need only think of the jargon of ex-CPGB ideologue Martin Jacques in presenting the rise of Chinese global power as a "systemic alternative" .

3) The Perversions of Doublethink.

That those who lambast the double standards of the USA by default then tend to fall into the mental trap of tending to support without reserve, or else rationalise without further thought, any organisation or power blocs which do not make an express proclamation of demanding any moral standard in global politics at all are somehow better.

A recent example is John Pilger who wrote in relation to the intervention to support those wanting to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi and elsewhere in Africa,

    ..the main reason the US is invading Africa is no different from that which ignited the Vietnam war. It is China....Africa is China's success story. Where the Americans bring drones and destabilisation, the Chinese bring roads, bridges and dams. What they want is resources, especially fossil fuels. With Africa's greatest oil reserves, Libya under Muammar Gaddafi was one of China's most important sources of fuel.

It would be hard to think how Chinese intervention in Africa on a policy of propping up dictatorships with weapons in order to gain access to natural resources and benefiting from slave labour in certain African states such as Zaire means that this is somehow a "success" story.

The consequence of such blind fury is that any moral criticism of the USA is cancelled out by the fact that it is only the hypocrisy of the USA prating about exporting democracy and freedom whilst really pursuing its interests in securing oil supplies that grates. In which case it would be better pursuing realpolitik in the Chinese "no strings attached" manner

Yet any criticism of the appointed cult guru is seen as bad thinking because fans of Pilger's investigative journalism-much of which is truly valuable-means that any person criticising Pilger can only be doing so through the worst possible motives.

The cheap propaganda trope that one is bound to criticise one's own government first because it is something one can actually do something about, ignores the fact that global diplomacy does not take place in some kind of universe where only the USA dictates and plots events to order.

4) Freedom of Thought against "Political Correctness" and Truth by Authority.

This is connected closely to wish thinking. As certain people have a craving for security, they tend to accept only those ideas which make them feel either superior, self righteous or omniscient. So all global disasters occur because "our" governments are the root cause as opposed to one among many.

Orwell though that it was his duty to stand out as a conscientious individual against any unquestioned orthodoxy. Today that would mean that just because one is critical of British government's foreign policy, that should not mean one has to agree with all those who espouse "anti-war" credos.

Such a position is always met by intolerant hostile derision by those who believe that all anti-war positions are correct but some are more correct than others. In other words, that to criticise the British government for Iraq but to criticise Respect and Galloway is to be 'objectively' pro-war.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

China Counters the NATO Pipeline Plan in Afghanistan.

After 11 years of conflict the futile US led invasion of Afghanistan may fail even to secure the consolation prize of the TAPI pipeline, a major interest for NATO "staying the course" as China moves in to propose an alternative that looks far more realistic than "The New Silk Route".

That could stymie the attempt to start TAPI's construction and revive the rival IPI Pipeline, a key interest for Tehran,  and that accounts for  the continued occupation of Afghanistan by NATO as part of the strategy of encircling and containing Iranian economic interests by curtailing its gas exports.

As Indian energy expert Shebonti Ray Dadwal makes clear here in IDSA Comment ( Now China may play spoiler to TAPI July 31 2012 ),

'Recent reports of a rival pipeline project being negotiated between China, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan have emerged. This project proposes to carry Turkmen gas to China through northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan, raising concerns that it may render TAPI a non-starter, akin to the manner in which TAPI played spoiler to the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline project

On June 6 and 8, 2012, on the sidelines of the SCO summit meeting in Beijing, Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with Chinese President Hu Jintao and China National Petroleum Corporation’s (CNPC) head Jiang Jiemin and discussed the proposal along with other issues. According to reports in the Chinese media, CNPC offered to conduct a technical and economic feasibility study for the proposed project on Afghan and Tajik territories. That the route for the proposed pipeline seeks to avoid the troubled Pashtun-dominated areas in Afghanistan—seen as one of the biggest hurdles for the TAPI project —would make it more attractive for the financiers'

It is not just China who is standing to benefit. As regards the revival of Russian influence in Central Asia, Dadwal comments,

'...TAPI’s demise could revive IPI. Pakistan, which is facing a severe energy crunch and is therefore reluctant to succumb to US pressure to abandon the Iranian pipeline, is now talking to the Russians as potential financiers of the IPI—now truncated to IP—project. Recently, a minister-level Russian working group was reported to have participated in meetings in Pakistan, with discussions focusing on Russia’s willingness to finance IPI.'

Syria and the Lessons of 1914.

A brilliant analysis of the stakes in Syria has been written by historian Mark Almond ( East and West on a Collision Course on Syria  Daily Mail July 22nd 2012 )

'Hillary Clinton threatens Russia and China ‘will pay a price’ for their vetoes over sanctions against Syria. But how does Washington intend to punish these nuclear-armed states? Tough talk requires a follow-through, otherwise it is a sign of weakness. Tying Washington’s prestige to who controls Damascus risks subordinating America’s interests to one faction in a civil war....

The West’s support for humanitarian intervention in civil wars cuts no ice in the East. Russia and China see human rights and democracy as threats to their regimes and regard such rhetoric as a cover for grabbing resources while the West still can.

This puts East and West on a  collision course. Our leaders are talking past each other. 

This distrust is made worse by the fact America’s power is declining. Instability follows because regional players are not pawns  as they were in the Cold War, and sometimes they set the pace. 

In 1914, the really big powers let their smaller allies make the running. During the Cold War, Washington and Moscow reined in their reckless allies. Now, however, East and West are squaring off over Syria today, and Iran probably tomorrow. 

Moscow and Beijing don’t really control the Assad regime, let alone Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Washington knows Israel will make its own decisions and has limited influence over the Saudi-Qatar axis which is pouring money, weapons and even special forces into Syria....'

A Brief Note on the Syrian Conflict

Language matters. The BBC have constantly called the Syrian insurgents "rebels" instead of insurgents which is, at least a neutral term for those trying to overthrow the Assad regime. However, the insurgents in Iraq-some associated with Al Qaida and Sunni militias-were not termed rebels in fighting against the US backed government there. It is about time this Orwellian doublethink was challenged.
Sunni fundamentalists have tended to be backed by the UK and US where their geopolitical interests are at stake. The policy of using Sunni militias as proxies dates back to the 1980s in Afghanistan and continued in the 1990s to remove regimes opposed to Western interests in Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Kosovo and then Afghanistan ( again in 2001 ) and Libya.
US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is on record as stating that the USA was giving help with communications equipment and "humanitarian aid" of $25 million, a token gesture that can achieve nothing as it is the ratcheting up of the civil war through backing one side and not a ceasefire that is causing the violence to be increased and not diminished
Backing Sunni fundamentalist militias is simply a means to an end as it is here again in Syria as it was elsewhere. The fact these militias are using terrorism and ethnic cleansing against Syrian Christians seems not to be a consideration. 
True, it is primarily the Saudis who are funding the Sunni insurgents and the West would not go against that as Saudi Arabia is a key ally in the region, as well as a large oil supplier and client for billions of dollars of arms exports from the USA and UK.
By comparison, China and Russia, though primarily concerned with their Great Power interests in the Middle East no less than the West,  at least actually seem concerned with security as opposed to yet another attempt to engineer the outcome of unpredictable violent events.  
The trio of Western states on the Permanent UN Security Council-the USA, France and the UK are led by inept politicians who are incapable of learning from history-unless, of course, they either do not care or lack any wise diplomatic awareness of the stakes involved. 
The reality is that Saudi Arabia is the lynchpin of  the Western Trio's diplomacy in the Middle East: that is, to shore up this state and its interests as a counter to Iranian influence. If the Assad regime falls, the Trio hope that they can cut off the aid given to Hizbollah in Lebanon in alliance with Iran: that will cut off Iranian influence to the West no less than the hemming of it's influence to the East via control over Afganistan will curtail it there. 
With Iran encircled and surrounded, the Trio can then start to work to get rid of the regime in Tehran and, it is assumed, destroy the power of Hizbollah. 
Unfortunately, it could have the opposite effect: it will lead to regime collapse in Syria, ethnic cleansing and sectarian conflict and the unleashing of ethnic and religious struggles across the borders from Lebanon and Iraq. Not least as the government in Baghdad is Shia dominated.
As Mark Almond foresaw in August 2011
“The real danger is that we could see a very large-scale civil war in Syria,” he said. “Because some of the minorities, like the Christians, for instance, fear that if Assad falls, they’ll suffer the fate of the Christians of Iraq. And at the same time, they are seen by some of the opponents of Assad as collaborators with his regime. So there’s been interethnic, inter-communal violence. And it’s a very, very dangerous situation, but it could also explode outwardly, joining in Israel, joining in Turkey and Iran.”