Monday, 21 May 2018

The Boy On The Tram.

The Story-Teller: Asked to pronounce upon the wisdom – or otherwise – of the proposed Light Rail Network for Auckland, Prebble predictably opted for the telling anecdote. Viewers discovered that Prebble was not a fan of light rail. As a boy, they learned, he had travelled up Dominion Road by tram to school and the memory was not a happy one. “If anyone thinks trams up Dominion Road are going to solve Auckland’s transport problems,” declared Prebble with his trademark certainty, ”they’re dreaming.”

RICHARD PREBBLE has always been the master of the telling anecdote. A born politician of prodigious talent, he needed little formal coaching in the dark arts of political persuasion. From his halcyon days in the Fourth Labour Government, to the years he spent keeping Act above the 5 percent MMP threshold, Prebble’s knack for illustrating the need for change with a telling anecdote was always on display. Facts and figures are easily forgotten, but a good story settles into the voters’ memory and is extremely hard to extract.

When the state-owned railways Prebble had pledged to save were being “corporatized” (i.e. readied for sale to private buyers) a story began doing the rounds which Labour insiders always insisted came from Prebble’s Office. It was “The Story of the Disappearing Bulldozer”.

According to this tale, New Zealand Railways and its staff were so incompetent (or was it corrupt and/or thieving?) that somewhere between its point of loading and its final destination an entire bulldozer had somehow been made to disappear into thin air. I lost count of the number of times the story was repeated. In Parliament; at Labour Party meetings; in the newspapers; on radio and television: The Story of the Disappearing Bulldozer very soon came to stand for everything that was inefficient – if not downright dodgy – about New Zealand’s nationalised industries.

I was reminded of The Story of the Disappearing Bulldozer only last Sunday when Richard Prebble popped-up on the panel of TVNZ’s Q+A current affairs show. Asked to pronounce upon the wisdom – or otherwise – of the proposed Light Rail Network for Auckland, Prebble predictably opted for the telling anecdote.

Viewers discovered that Prebble was not a fan of light rail. As a boy, they learned, he had travelled up Dominion Road by tram to school and the memory was not a happy one. “If anyone thinks trams up Dominion Road are going to solve Auckland’s transport problems,” declared Prebble with his trademark certainty, ”they’re dreaming.”

This was clever politics. The very idea that the snowy-haired Prebble could ever have been a tousled school-boy was itself preposterous. Surely, Prebble had emerged from his mother’s womb with a lawyer’s wig in one hand and a copy of Parliament’s Standing Orders in the other? Never mind. The image of this young chap making his way through the Auckland suburbs aboard something as quaintly retrograde as a tram was an arresting one. It spoke to the viewers of old technology and an Auckland that no longer existed. Effortlessly, Prebble’s telling anecdote had made the Auckland Light Rail project look like a costly and inefficient exercise in political nostalgia.

But was it true?

The problem with anecdotes is that they are notoriously difficult to verify. Though The Story of the Disappearing Bulldozer was repeated endlessly by right-wing talkback hosts and political commentators, I don’t recall ever reading even one honest-to-goodness news story detailing the events leading up to the bulldozer’s disappearance; whether or not the vehicle was ever found; and, if it had been recovered, who was ultimately deemed responsible for misplacing it?

With this journalistic deficiency in mind, I set out to discover whether or not The Boy on the Tram story was true or false.

Thanks to the prodigious memory of Professor Google, I soon discovered that if Richard Prebble had travelled up Dominion Road on a tram, then he would have been a very young school-boy indeed. In fact, the oldest he could possibly have been was five – which seems a very young age to be travelling alone on any sort of public transport!

For the record, Prebble was born in 1948 and the tramline along Dominion Road came into service in 1930 and was decommissioned twenty-three years later in 1953. The reason for the service’s demise lay in the Auckland Transport Board’s 1949 decision to replace all of the city’s trams with trolley-buses. Accordingly, in 1956, the last of the highly-efficient, non-polluting, electric-powered trams which had served Auckland magnificently since 1902 ceased running and the tramlines were torn-up.

Auckland's Tramlines Network 1908-1956

My guess is that the young Richard Prebble who travelled up Dominion Road in the 1950s and 60s did not do so on a tram (a vehicle which runs on rails) but on an electric trolley-bus which drew down its motive power from overhead wires via long flexible poles. These vehicles were very prone to random stops and starts (as any Wellingtonian will tell you) on account of the fact that the conducting poles were forever becoming dislodged – forcing the driver to get out and very carefully reconnect them to the power source. [Trams also draw their motive power from overhead powerlines, but because the vehicle runs on tracks, allowing the conducting apparatus to be fixed to the tram’s roof, they are much less prone to breaking down.]

Now, it may be that Richard Prebble was simply confused about the modes of public transport he used in his youth. Then again, he may not have been confused at all. What isn’t in dispute is that the opponents of the plans for a light-rail-based public transport system in Auckland are forever using the word “tram”.

The reason for this is obvious. In the public’s mind trams are cumbersome, out-of-date vehicles from the days when men sported trilby hats and women wore ankle-length skirts. Prebble’s Boy on the Tram story plays directly into these negative public stereotypes. Regardless of whether or not his political anecdote is true, it is, as always, bloody clever.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 15 May 2018.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

How Should One Deal With A Psychopathic State?

A State Attached To An Army: Palestinian leaders must give up the tactic of launching tens-of-thousands of young people against the border-fence separating Gaza from Israel. The deepening psychopathology of the Israeli state makes its response to such tactics as predictable as it has been deadly.

THE TRAGEDY UNFOLDING in Gaza poses the question: How does one deal with a psychopathic state?

Israel was founded in violence and dispossession. Many of its founding fathers were active members of terrorist organisations with blood on their hands. A much larger number came to the British mandated territory of Palestine from Europe in the years immediately following World War II – the deeply traumatised survivors of Nazi Germany’s attempt to wipe the Jewish people from the face of the earth. It is difficult to imagine a less auspicious beginning for any nation state. That it would grow into a trusting, generous and peace-loving member of the family of nations was always a very long shot.

The problem confronting Israel’s neighbours has always been one of determining how best to deal with this extraordinarily vicious cuckoo in the Palestinian Arab’s nest. Unsurprisingly, the first response of the nation’s adjoining the State of Israel was to answer its violence and dispossession in kind. Unfortunately for the Egyptians, Syrians and Jordanians, the Israeli armed forces proved extremely difficult to overcome. Even worse, in repelling the Arab armies, the Israelis came to the unshakeable conclusion that they constituted an unappeasable and existential threat to the survival of their state.

The hatred bubbled away furiously on both sides of Israel’s disputed borders, poisoning the minds of every combatant. Even more tragically, however, it poisoned all hope of peace for the Palestinians who now found themselves cast as the wronged victims of Zionism; the people for whom the rest of the Arab world was pledged to drive the Jews into the sea. Not fighting the Israelis was unthinkable: honour demanded that the struggle for Palestine – by Palestinians – must not cease until, finally, they and their children were free to return to their olive groves and pastures and reoccupy the houses and shops of their stolen inheritance.

For Israel, a nation founded by terrorists, the emergence of armed Palestinian militias and terrorist cells came as absolutely no surprise. They had driven the British out of Palestine by employing all the techniques of terrorism: bombings, assassinations, kidnappings. Not only did they know what to expect, but they also knew how to resist it. Decency, fair-play, the traditional rules of war: these were what the British had at least paid lip-service to in their fight against Irgun and the Stern Gang. The Israelis, however, knew exactly what those who attempted to fight terrorism with a rule book were called – The Losers.

In the aftermath of the Munich Massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games, the Israeli Prime Minister gathered her military and intelligence advisers around her and ordered them to hunt down and kill every member of the Palestinian “Black September” organisation involved in planning the attack. Not one of the planners survived. When a Palestinian fighter was captured by the Israelis, he or she was by no means the only person to be punished. The perpetrator’s family’s house would be bulldozed flat by the Israeli army and their farms and businesses destroyed. The price paid by the Palestinian people for their unceasing war against the State of Israel climbed higher and higher. With deadly symmetry, the terrorist responses of the Palestinians became commensurately lethal and indiscriminate.

After 70 years, the question must surely be asked: can Israel be defeated by force? Protected as it is by the most powerful nation on earth, is Israel even the most appropriate object of the Palestinian people’s quest for nationhood and freedom? If the withdrawal of United States support is the absolutely unavoidable precondition for Israel negotiating a viable “two-state solution” to the conflict, then the place where Palestinian statehood will ultimately be won is in the living-rooms of ordinary, decent Americans. But to win there, the Palestinians must first reinvent themselves entirely: forsaking forever the techniques of terrorism in favour of a political narrative stressing peaceful co-operation and mutual respect.

As part of that process, Palestinian leaders must give up the tactic of launching tens-of-thousands of young people against the border-fence separating Gaza from Israel. The deepening psychopathology of the Israeli state makes its response to such tactics as predictable as it has been deadly. In persisting with its campaign to send the inhabitants of Gaza “home”, the Palestinian leadership is displaying either the most reckless ignorance, or, the most chilling cynicism. If it is the former, then the first incoming live rounds from the Israeli Defence Force’s snipers should have wised them up. If it’s the latter, then these demonstrations are nothing more than invitations to martyrdom. The watching world recoils in horror from the actions of both antagonists.

On one side of the border fence stands the army of a psychopathic state which regards the pitiless murder of teenagers as the only viable means of guaranteeing Israel’s national security. On the other, a national liberation movement utterly convinced that the only hope of healing the broken body of Palestine is by nourishing it constantly with the blood of its children.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 17 May 2018.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Times Out Of Joint.

The Inaugural Professorial Address
Professor Wayne Hope
Professor of Communication Studies
Faculty of Design & Creative Technologies
AUT Auckland University of Technology

TIMES OUT OF JOINT explores the ways in which human-being's lives have been shaped and reshaped by the methodologies they have devised to describe and measure Time, and how Capitalism, by constantly revolutionising the technology of time measurement, is re-defining the nature of Time itself.

WHEN: Tuesday, 15 May 2018 4:30-5:30pm
WHERE: WA Conference Centre, AUT City Campus, Level 2, WA Building, 55 Wellesley Street East, Auckland 1010.

Wayne's colleagues and friends are also cordially invited to attend the "post-match function" which kicks off at 7:00pm at The Munster Inn (downstairs opposite the Civic Theatre) where live Celtic music will be provided by the combined talents of Sean Kelly, Gerry O'Neill, Pascal Roggin and Shimna Higgins.

A not-to-be-missed evening of intellectual and aural stimulation!

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

America's Bitter Legacy In The Middle East.

Bitter Lake, Bitter Legacy: The Saudi King, Abdul Aziz, guarantees the United States access to Arabia's almost limitless oil reserves and, in return, President Franklin Roosevelt guarantees the Saudi monarchy's security. The photograph was taken aboard the USS Quincy, moored in the Great Bitter Lake, on 14 February 1945. The so-called "Quincy Agreement" set the course of US policy in the Middle East for the next 70 years.

THE QUESTION CONFRONTING the Democratic Party when it next takes control of the White House will, simply, be: “What now?” The next Democratic President will likely enter office with the two most powerful Islamic nations in the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia, locked in a nuclear arms race. Faced with the prospect of two bitter foes acquiring the means to wipe it off the face of the earth, Israel (which already possesses its own nuclear arsenal) will be screaming at the new Democratic administration to: “Do something – or we will!” Doing something will be unavoidable – but what is it that the United States should do?

On his way home from the Yalta Conference aboard the USS Quincy, in February 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt paused briefly in the Great Bitter Lake (half-way along the Suez Canal) to meet with Abdul Aziz, King of Saudi Arabia. In many respects this meeting on Great Bitter Lake was as important to the world’s future as Roosevelt’s meeting at Yalta with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Arising out of the secret conclave between President and King was the so-called “Quincy Agreement”, by which the United States guaranteed the security of the Saudi monarchy, and the Saudi monarchy guaranteed the United States access to its almost limitless oil reserves.

The tragedy of the Quincy Agreement is that it simply wasn’t necessary. In 1945 the US was the most powerful nation on earth and just a few months away from producing the world’s first nuclear weapons. Under Roosevelt, the Americans had already set in motion the dismantling of the British Empire: a process which would, in the space of two years, force Great Britain to relinquish the “jewel” in its imperial crown – India. That Roosevelt, the Roosevelt of 1940, would not have vouchsafed US protection to the deeply reactionary Saudi dynasty; not when he could have had it swept away by forces dedicated to establishing a modern, secular, democratic republic with just a flick of Uncle Sam’s finger. Unfortunately, that Roosevelt no longer existed. In his place was the gaunt, exhausted figure of the Yalta newsreels: a man barely two months away from death.

It was this dying Roosevelt who resigned himself to preserving not only the Saudi king (and his oil) but also the King of Egypt and the Emperor of Ethiopia. Churchill and the British had convinced him that US strategic interests would be best served by keeping in place every one of the petty kings and potentates that Britain had installed across the Middle East in the aftermath of World War I.

It was a fatal error. For the next seventy years the Americans (aided and abetted at every turn by the British) found themselves obliged to prop-up a corrupt collection of quasi-medieval reactionaries who had set their faces against all the emancipatory forces of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and who were doing everything in their power to advance the most extreme and retrograde interpretations of the Prophet Mohammed’s religious teachings.

The alternative course of action: the road not taken; would have seen the full weight of the US thrown behind the secular forces of Middle Eastern nationalism and their quest for cultural and economic independence. Yes, many of these nationalist leaders may have been mildly socialist, like Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran, but no more so that the leaders of Sweden or India. With the encouragement and support of the United States, the Arab and Iranian peoples could have constructed modern, open societies to match the magnificent civilisations of their past. Moderate Islamic democracies, forever beholden to the United States for underwriting their freedom, prosperity and independence.

What actually happened, of course, was that when the aforementioned Mosaddegh attempted to establish just such a government in Iran, the CIA (represented, ironically, by Roosevelt’s son, Kermit) and the British secret service, MI6, colluded in mobilising the reactionary Muslim clergy against him and restored to the Peacock Throne the craven and vicious Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – Iran’s hereditary (and now absolute) ruler.

That this anti-democratic behaviour has remained a constant of US policy in the Middle East is due in no small part to the State of Israel. Born out of the acquisition and, later, the expropriation of Arab properties in the former British mandate of Palestine, Israel’s existence has always constituted a major obstacle to the peaceful evolution of a modern and moderate Middle East.

Had the US and Britain been willing to stand behind secular Arab nationalism and the establishment of democratic governments in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Arabia, the Gulf States and Iran, it is possible that Israel may have felt sufficiently secure to negotiate a lasting modus vivendi between the Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews. From 1956 onwards, however, Britain and America were happy to use Israel as a battering ram against Arab nationalism and, at need, the entire Muslim world. A strategy which has positioned Israel as a nuclear-armed obstacle squarely athwart every path to Middle Eastern peace.

How to respond when the next Democratic President of the United States asks: “What now?” Tell her to reverse every policy the United States has followed in the Middle East since the USS Quincy hove-to in the Great Bitter Lake in February 1945. Yes, it’s a little late for such a radical realignment of US policy – but better late than never.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 11 May 2018.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Religious Instructors Of What?

That Old Time Religion: It is probable that many parents are entirely unaware that every week their local school is formally closed so that God-Knows-Who can spend 60 minutes filling their children’s heads with God-Knows-What.

THAT NEW ZEALAND’S primary schools are permitted by law to close for the purposes of religious instruction is outrageous. With fewer than half of the New Zealand population now identifying themselves as Christian, the whole concept should long ago have been relegated to the educational scrap-heap, along with the strap and the cane. That New Zealand children continue to provide untrained religious enthusiasts with captive audiences for ideas that foster judgemental and intolerant behaviour is a state-of-affairs that should be brought to an end immediately.

It is probable that many parents are entirely unaware of what is being conveyed to their children during the hour that the school is formally closed. They may not even realise that the religious instruction which the school’s Board of Trustees has authorised is not being delivered to their offspring by the qualified teaching professional who usually stands in front of them.

Under the Education Act, teaching staff are forbidden from imparting religious dogma to their pupils. Why? Because New Zealand’s primary education system is legally required to be “free, compulsory and secular” – and has been ever since 1877. Hence the need for the legal workaround of the school being closed while God-Knows-Who spends 60 minutes filling their children’s heads with God-Knows-What.

But, surely, the information being imparted about the moral teachings of Jesus and his disciples is unlikely to do these young ones any harm. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Does that sound so bad? Christianity is supposed to be a religion of love and forgiveness. What’s not to like?

If the moral precepts of Jesus and his disciples – as generally understood – were all New Zealand’s children were being taught by their religious instructors, then there would, indeed, be little to complain about. Unfortunately, the sort of Christians who feel sufficiently motivated to spend an hour every week instructing the children of complete strangers, have slightly more than “love thy neighbour as thyself” on their minds.

Even in 1964, when the present arrangements for religious instruction in schools were originally set in place, the liberal Christianity which took its marching orders from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount was in rapid retreat before the fire and brimstone of Christian fundamentalism. Fifty-four years later, liberal Christian congregations are few and far between and most of their members would shy away from instructing other people’s children in the very adult choices of religious faith. Overwhelmingly, the protestant Christian churches of Aotearoa New Zealand (the Catholics have their own, separate, system of religious education) are evangelical in their intent and profoundly conservative in their theology.

The religious instructors sallying forth from these churches are minded to save the tender souls of young New Zealanders from the temptations of a sinful and ultimately doomed world. Children have returned home from these encounters convinced that if they fail to accept Jesus into their heart as Lord and Saviour, then they are bound to burn in Hell for all eternity.

Parents have the right to take their children out of these emotionally fraught situations. There is, however, no guarantee that the child will not then be stigmatised for her subsequent non-attendance. After permitting such potentially dangerous instruction to take place in its classrooms, the school’s Board of Trustees may be reluctant to acknowledge that it is guilty of inflicting psychological harm on youngsters to whom it owes a duty of care. Such an unfortunate outcome is much more likely if a percentage of the board are themselves evangelical and/or fundamentalist Christians: men and women who have stood for election to ensure that God’s word reaches the children of “godless” parents at least once a week.

Though they would almost certainly inflict less harm than some Christian instructors, it is easy to imagine the outcry that would follow the revelation that a group of Wiccans had taken over the Board of Trustees of the local school and for one hour every week were allowing witches and warlocks to instruct its pupils in the beliefs and practices of the “Old Religion”.

That New Zealand’s parents have not objected with equal force to the intolerant and dangerously judgemental version of Christianity currently being imparted to their impressionable sons and daughters in our supposedly secular education system is a sin of omission difficult to forgive.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 May 2018.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

What Has Trump Just Done?

The Rogue President Of A Rogue State: The world cannot allow itself to be dictated to by a single state or a single individual. This is especially so if that single individual and the nation state he speaks for have stepped outside all the recognised boundaries of reasonable international conduct.

WHAT HAPPENED YESTERDAY morning (9/5/18) has yet to be fully understood by the peoples of the world. Upon learning of President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, the temptation to simply roll one’s eyes and shake one’s head was hard to resist. Many would have recalled Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and assumed his latest move was in a similar vein.

It is not.

Not only has Trump pulled the US out of the Iran Nuclear Deal (known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA) but he has also announced his intention to impose the most stringent sanctions on what he calls “the Iranian regime”. Now, one might assume that this unilateral decision (while serious for those American companies who have, in good faith, recommenced trading with Iran) will leave the rest of the world’s traders unaffected.

It does not.

The world’s trading enterprises, large and small, have been given between 90 and 180 days to extricate themselves from any contracts they may have entered into with Iranian citizens and/or organisations, or face the full wrath of the American government. In other words, the US is telling the rest of the world who it can, and, more importantly, who it cannot, trade with on Planet Earth.

One has to go quite a long way back in history to find a precedent for this sort of behaviour. All the way back, in fact, to Napoleon Bonaparte’s attempt to prevent the imperial and national entities of Europe from trading with Great Britain. It was, to borrow Barack Obama’s phrase, “a serious mistake”. Not only did Napoleon’s “Continental System” fail to inflict serious damage on the British economy, but it also set in motion the diplomatic and military stratagems that, in just a few years, would bring the French Empire – and its Emperor – crashing down.

The rest of the world then – and now – cannot allow itself to be dictated to by a single state or a single individual. This is especially so if that single individual and the nation state he speaks for have stepped outside all the recognised boundaries of reasonable international conduct.

It is important to state clearly and repeatedly that the JCPOA was signed by the United States, the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, Russia, France, the UK) and Germany. The agreement was then endorsed unanimously by the Security Council – giving it the force of international law. Repeated inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have confirmed that Iran is adhering strictly to its undertaking to halt its nuclear programme. President Trump’s unilateral abrogation of the agreement is, therefore, a breach of faith; a breach of trust; and a breach of international law.

Kaiser Wilhelm II is said to have described the 1839 treaty guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium as a mere “scrap of paper”. It was his decision to ignore this “scrap” that pushed the British (and her dominions across the seas) into World War I. By tearing up the JCPOA, Trump has not only spat in the faces of the Russians, the Chinese and his closest allies, but also in the faces of every other member of the United Nations. Like the Kaiser, he is convinced that his contempt for the rest of the world will provoke no response of which he need be afraid. The rest of the world, he has been assured, will not jeopardise its relationship with the United States for the sake of Iran.

Maybe not.

World leaders will look at the people around Trump: Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State; John Bolton, Trump’s National Security Advisor; and Rudi Giuliani, the President’s friend and lawyer; and they will see a neo-conservative cabal which is not only unafraid of unleashing war, but in whose estimation the unleashing of war represents the most expeditious and effective means of “making America great again”.

Trump’s tearing-up of the JCPOA will, therefore, be interpreted by the rest of the world as the first step along the road to bringing about “regime change” in Tehran. The probable sequence is tried and tested. Impose an economic blockade to “make the economy scream”. Launch a bombing campaign to degrade Iran’s vital infrastructure. Organise an “uprising” by internal enemies of the Iranian government. (An uprising not unlike the CIA-MI6-sponsored coup that toppled Iran’s only democratically-elected government in 1953.)

The rest of the world, however, will pay a very high price if it opts to appease the United States and its President. Global capitalism cannot operate in a world where goods and services cannot flow freely across borders. If it allows the US to impose economic sanctions (a power formerly reserved to the UN Security Council) upon any nation state it deems to be an enemy and enforces those sanctions in defiance of international trade agreements (not to mention international law!) then the globalised capitalist economic order will fall apart.

China cannot afford to let that happen. Its economy (and the politically vital prosperity it generates) depends upon a world across which goods, capital and labour are able to move freely. Russia, too, cannot afford to remain inert in the face of an economic blockade and/or a military assault upon its Iranian allies. The governments of Germany, France and the UK will similarly have to weigh up the costs and benefits of permitting the United States to control their trade and overthrow governments at will.

Trump’s announcement that he is tearing up the JCPOA and imposing the most stringent economic sanctions upon Iran will either go down in history (assuming there is anyone left to write it!) as the move which set the US on course to becoming an unabashed global tyrant; or, as the actions which precipitated the creation of a global coalition of nations dedicated to the containment of the United States.

Perhaps America’s erstwhile allies should take a leaf out of Benjamin Netanyahu’s book and produce for Trump’s exclusive viewing a short YouTube video explaining Halford Mackinder’s famous formula for global hegemony: “He who controls Eastern Europe controls the Heartland; he who controls the Heartland controls the World Island; he who controls the World Island controls the World.” It could show, using simple but exciting graphics, exactly how the European Union, the Russian Federation and the Peoples Republic of China, when brought together in a self-defensive alliance with Iran, Iraq and Syria (and quite possibly the nations of Africa and South America) would fulfil completely the components of Mackinder’s geopolitical prescription.

Far from making America great again, Donald Trump’s reckless tearing-up of the Iran Nuclear Deal may actually signal the beginning of the end of the United States’ global supremacy.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 9 May 2018.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

“Convergence Des Luttes” – A Convergence Of Struggles

Is History About To Rhyme? Fifty years ago, exactly, Paris erupted in what looked like (and, by all accounts, felt like) a revolution. Fifty years on, the same groups that convulsed France in May-June 1968 are again occupying universities and participating in mass strikes.

EMMANUEL MACRON will be hoping that Mark Twain was wrong about history. In the French President’s ears, the celebrated American novelist’s famous observation that although history does not repeat itself, it sometimes rhymes, can hardly be reassuring.

Fifty years ago, exactly, Paris erupted in what looked like (and, by all accounts, felt like) a revolution. Fifty years on, the same groups that convulsed France in May-June 1968 are again occupying universities and participating in mass strikes.

There is, however, one feature of the 2018 situation that differs very greatly from 1968. Fifty years ago, the key strategic priority was to extend the political struggle into all sectors of French society. Today, the priority is to draw the divergent campaigns of students and workers closer together. Or, as the French Left put it: convergence des luttes – a convergence of struggles.

That the Left is required to reiterate the most fundamental tenet of collective action: unity is strength; is in many ways symbolic of what was won and lost in the upheavals of May-June 1968.

Crucial to achieving a proper understanding of “68” is accepting that politically it was a colossal failure. Convulsed France may have been by a succession of running street battles between university students and the feared French riot police, mass protest demonstrations, factory occupations and a wave of crippling strikes, but the overwhelming majority of French voters were not persuaded that revolutionary change was necessary. In the snap legislative elections of June 1968, called in response to the tumult in the streets, the government of the day won 353 of 486 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

But, if “68” was not a political revolution, it most certainly heralded revolutionary changes in French society and culture and, thanks to France’s enormous influence on the world’s intellectual and artistic life, our own.

It was in 1968 that the great “metanarratives” of the 20th Century – socialism and communism in particular – began their long, slow fade into the cultural twilight. In the years that followed, the entire modernist project underwent a similar dissolution.

In its place arose a new project – “post-modernism”. The failure of the grand metanarratives to deliver on their promises had encouraged the growth of an all-encompassing scepticism towards any person or party claiming to have a lock on “The Truth”. Indeed, the whole notion that “The Truth” could even be unlocked was subjected to unrelenting challenge. The idea that there might be as many truths as there were people to identify them won widespread philosophical acceptance. That there was just one universal and unchallengeable definition of reality was derided as the thinking of dead, white, males.

With the 1989-91 collapse of “actually existing socialism” in Eastern Europe and Russia, the forces of intellectual and cultural divergence gathered even more momentum. Questions of individual identity in a world where all kinds of boundaries were becoming blurred, or dissolving altogether, became increasingly important, and the prospect of maintaining, let alone forging, collective political unity was rendered increasingly problematic.

In what the French situationist philosopher, Guy Debord, dubbed the “society of the spectacle”, however, one crucial feature of the post-modernist condition had become harder and harder to discern. Capitalism, in the absence of its rival metanarratives – socialism and communism – had grown immeasurably stronger in a fast-changing world where, in Karl Marx’s famous phrase, “all that is solid melts into air”.

Capitalist technology’s frightening capacity to re-define humanity’s self-perceptions hid effortlessly in plain sight: its universal presence making it all the more difficult to see. Not without cause did the American literary critic and political philosopher, Fredric Jameson, describe post-modernism as “the cultural logic of late capitalism”. If everything can be true, then it becomes increasingly difficult to describe anything as false. If late capitalism’s cultural logic gave us post-modernism, then Donald Trump and his “fake news” can only be its logical outcome.

Except, of course, the social and economic consequences of late capitalism are not fake news – they are only too real. No matter how high capitalism’s apologists turn up the static, the blunt facts of joblessness and/or precarious employment; chronic indebtedness; unaffordable housing; rising poverty and in-your-face social inequality continue to constitute the lived experience of a growing percentage of the world’s citizens – even in its wealthiest nations. The society of the spectacle may constantly be driving them apart, but the inescapable reality of their daily lives is, with equal constancy, generating what the old Soviet communists used to call “the objective conditions” for their coming together.

One of the most memorable slogans of the 1968 “revolution that never happened” was the surrealist graffiti Sous les pav├ęs, la plage! (Under the paving stones, the beach.) It captured perfectly the widespread feeling, especially among the young, that for all its materialistic “success”, the post-war world was one from which everything sensual and life-affirming had been bled out. The attributes that made them human, made life worth living, had been drained of colour; buried beneath tons of grey concrete; reduced to an unbearable sameness. In order to find the beach, they had first to tear up the paving-stones – and hurl them at the police.

Divergence, in 1968, made perfect psychic sense. But, politically, it made no sense at all. Emancipation, if it is to endure, must be a collective enterprise. The students and workers of 1968 only railed against the capitalism of their time in various – albeit highly imaginative – ways: the point was to change it.

Fifty years later, convergence des luttes – a convergence of struggles – is the only slogan that offers any hope of sparking a genuine and enduring revolution.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 8 May 2018.