Splinters: September 2021 – sallies into the here & now
This month: Burning down the house...
When machines suck humanity out of the economy...
Norway's Sami people fight for their land as reconciliation commission delves into their past...
Spectacle of Terror II...
'No one saw this coming' – it's true, 'no-one' has seen a thing or two...
Whoever owns the youth: a Reader (Part Two)...
When saying No isn't enough: what should progressives do?
This month's splinters:
Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19
The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.
Burning down the house
by Christos Tombras
This is about a film again – this time Atom Egoyan’s 1991 feature, The Adjuster.
Noah, played by Elias Koteas, is an adjuster of insurance claims in the aftermath of residential fires. He helps customers restore their fire-destroyed lives. He asks them to bring him pictures of their homes before the fire as evidence.
Rose Sarkisyan plays Seta, the sister of Noah’s wife, a silent woman who stays with the couple. Seta is always at home. When she is not occupied with a young boy we assume is her son, she looks at photographs. These are black and white photos that she receives in big manila envelopes full of stamps. She studies them, spreads them on tables, sorts them out, organises them. From time to time she picks a specific one, studies it, and then, over an ashtray, sets it alight with a cigarette lighter.
The film takes place in Canada. Seta’s clothes are perfectly modern, perfectly Canadian. Noah’s house, in which she lives, is perfectly Canadian too; the furniture, albeit a bit scarce, is also Canadian, western.
The photos Seta is burning show nothing Canadian, though. We don’t know much about Seta’s connection to them. We can surmise a life somewhere far away; rural landscapes, dusty villages, distant smiley faces, friendly animals. We see fragmented evidence of someone else’s distant life. It burns holes in Seta’s soul.
Seta stands out. We never hear her utter a single word, not in English, nor in any other language. We see her whispering to the ears of her boy. The boy’s face, just like the faces in Seta’s photographs, has its roots elsewhere.
Atom Egoyan, a Canadian film maker, is, as his name suggests, of Armenian origin. I do not know the details – I choose to avoid Google search as I write this – but it is easy to imagine that he shares some of Seta’s pain. The lands of his ancestors in eastern Anatolia, now part of Turkey, are lands that he also cannot visit. They burn in his soul.
The pain of those who have lost or will lose access to their land and roots – call them evacuees, refugees, immigrants – is very difficult to picture. Near impossible.
Just try to imagine.
Imagine that it’s you who have to leave. You have to leave tomorrow. You can only take with you a small suitcase. It’s not that someone really forces you to leave everything behind. It just makes sense: the less you carry, the more flexible you are. What will you choose to salvage?
The room next to yours is your late grandfather’s. More like storage now, it’s all boxes and boxes full with whatever came his way and he chose to keep. It’s a room full of fragments of a whole life. A mess, really.
You enter this room. What will you keep?
Look around. Perhaps that picture of so long ago that showed him propping you up as a toddler, trying to make your first steps? Or that undated love letter? You would like to believe that it is from the woman who was to become your grandmother. Is it? Will you keep it? That book he got as a present when he was just fourteen years old and future was still possible? Or the ticket from that famous trip he took when he finished school? You have heard him talking about this trip so many times. Will you keep that? Will you keep anything else of the myriad of other things that are piled up there, in that room?
Will you keep anything at all?
Who are you? Who were you? Who have you been?
Were you an older villager, a peasant, living in your ancestors’ lands in eastern Anatolia? Were you uprooted and forced to march towards the Syrian desert by paramilitary Ottoman escorts with no food and water? Did you survive?
Was that not you? Then perhaps you were that young doctor from Aleppo? The one with the hobby in local history, about which you were writing on the internet? You too were forced to leave. Different times, different reasons. Am I confusing you with someone else? Was it not you who had to leave everything behind? In desperation you crossed Turkey towards the west. You were intercepted on entering Greece, was that not so? People shouted at you, exploited you. But those older women who knew better gave you bread and water to drink.
Where are you now?
Who else could you have been?
Seta, perhaps? The sister of Noah’s wife in the film?
You see, if you are, indeed, Seta, we never learn your name. Nobody calls you by name. We only read it in the end-titles. You have a name but at the same time it is as if you don’t have one.
You burn the photographs they send you. Who sends them?
Why do you burn them?
Is it that you want to carve a space where you can be alone and make sense of your loss?
You want to mourn. You want to make sense of the loss. You need to make it your own. And that’s only possible when you can change it. A black and white photograph of a village in eastern Anatolia is evidence. It’s useful for an adjuster, perhaps, but you don’t need evidence. You are the evidence, silent in the comfy but a bit empty Canadian flat you live in.
You don’t need evidence. What you need is memories.
Memories of the house you can’t have.
That’s why you burn the photos. You are turning them into memories.
You are burning down the house.
When machines suck humanity out of the economy
by Chris Myant
Travaux par aspiration was the slogan on the lorry. Doing building work with a vacuum cleaner. The noise was colossal and the trench long as this vast machine sucked up rocks, slabs of concrete the size of a diner plate, along with all the sand and gravel under the pavement. It left a clean trench, a metre deep for some 30 metres under our kitchen window, done and dusted in the morning of the last working day in July and with only three people on site.
My first paid employment meant digging in the stone and clay of a Chiltern valley. The flints refused to give way under my pickaxe. The knack of swinging it so the point fell with the fullest force possible just where I intended, took several days of training by the lads from Connemara.
You could tell them a mile off by the cut of their hair, their tweed jackets and steady pace of bodies whose assigned function in the economy of the time was to dig into the earth, whether it was the peat of their homeland or the hoggin of the Thames Basin. Between themselves the talk was in a soft, lilting language that switched to English when instructing me in how to make, or rather craft their tea.
This was as strong as their arms. Two half-pound packets of loose Indian from the Co-op round the corner, two pounds of sugar and a pint of milk tossed into a tin bucket of water simmering on a gas ring their ganger had brought by the bus and boat from Galway. As they dipped their cups in, I kept the bucket full with water, extra sugar, milk and tea leaves so the taste never lost its bite.
We knew each other’s names before we had lifted our first shovelful. The camaraderie and generosity to each other and to me was as warm as the language directed against their employer. Their lives, though, were hard and short, their final years solitary ones with a pint of Guinness at the bar and no pension to talk of in the pocket. Britain moved on the roads they built and lived in the homes they erected, but gave back little by way of thanks.
In 1960, on the outskirts of London, as now outside builders’ merchants in Paris, they and their kind waited and wait at the roadside for someone needing a ready hand to do a good job for as little money as the market can enforce. Travaux par aspiration is as much a threat to their restricted livelihoods as the automation of engineering factories or of bureaucratic work is to those who thought their jobs would be careers for life.[i]
Where we stayed for part of this summer there was a book in praise of Yquem,[ii] about the most expensive wine money can buy. Naturally, it was a song of praise to Alexandre de Lur Saluces as the vineyard in the Sauternes region of Bordeaux had been in the hands of his aristocratic family for centuries. Now, it is majority-owned by the luxury goods empire of France’s richest business figure Bernard Arnault and his LVMH, the company that clothes Brigitte Macron for free.
By a unique happenstance of the soil around the chateau and how it is drained, Yquem apparently gains its unparalleled quality because the vineyard is especially welcoming to an infection that turns the grapes into a shrivelling, fungus-ridden mass. Generations of skilled workers, mostly living in tied accommodation, made of these grapes what the author declares to be “a symbol of perfection”. We learn about what they have done, the skills they developed, the equipment they used, the price the fruit of their labours could command, even the luxurious meals that it should accompany.
The right to a name is granted to only one of them, if spiced with sexist condescension:
“Though uninhabited, the chateau is kept up and the Count often receives. The meals are usually prepared by one of the chefs of Bordeaux. For the more simple occasions, a member of the staff, a woman who knows how to roast a joint of mutton to perfection, is in the kitchen (and) it is Thérèse, one of the ‘vigneronnes du domaine’ who also cleans the house, who serves the wine, always at a perfect temperature, discreetly, with style and a calm pride.”
On page 82, two horses are pictured and named: Popaul and Pompon. The human being leading them out of their stables is left unpersonned amid this glorification of a tipple for the privileged.
In the 1990s, the work of caring for the vines still used ancient technology: perhaps it does today. Bernard Arnault, however, has plenty of experience in outsourcing, delocalising or just automating away jobs. Travaux par aspiration is the name of his game. It helps one understand why, amid all the names that never got scratched on a tombstone as capitalism and its industrial revolution moved centre stage, that of Ned Ludd, the machine breaker, is the only one we ever seem to remember.
To recall why we do, go and taste the crackling anger and sardonic irony of Lord Byron’s prose and poetry from 1812 when the then parliament voted to hang machine breakers: “Stockings fetch better prices than lives— / Gibbets on Sherwood will heighten the scenery, / Shewing how Commerce, how Liberty thrives.”
[i] You can catch up with the machines on the website of their manufacturer, the French company Rivard at https://www.rivard-international.com/en/products/aspiratrice-excavatrice/. Rivard has been part of the US Alamo Group for over a decade.
[ii] Richard Olney, Yquem, Flammarion, second edition, 1997
Norway's Sami people fight for their land as reconciliation commission delves into their past
by Irene Peroni
Do you remember James Cameron’s hugely successful blockbuster movie Avatar, in which a blue-skinned tribe of peaceful, extra-terrestrial humanoids, the Na’vi, fight the destruction brought about by humans who invade their planet Pandora wreaking havoc in the most sacred parts of their forest to extract a precious mineral?
“If you have to go four and a half light years to another, made-up planet to appreciate this miracle of the world that we have right here, well (…), that's the wonder of cinema right there, that's the magic,” Cameron said at the Golden Globes awards.
He could not have been more right. Too bad the magic of cinema sometimes distracts us from an equally cynical and sometimes more hypocritical reality, which most of the time offers no catharsis, no happy ending.
The idea that natives are the true guardians of nature because they own, as a prominent UN representative put it, “the traditional knowledge of their ancestors”, is indeed a principle enshrined in documents such as the ILO Indigenous and tribal peoples’ convention (1989) and the UN Declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples (2007). Even the Paris Agreement (2015) “recognizes the need to strengthen knowledge, technologies, practices and efforts of local communities and indigenous peoples related to addressing and responding to climate change”.
The ILO convention states very clearly that “measures should be taken to safeguard their rights to use lands to which (they) have traditionally had access for their subsistence and traditional activities. Particular attention shall be paid to the situation of nomadic people and shifting cultivators in that respect”.
The Sami of Europe
So how come that mainland Europe’s only indigenous peoples, who also happen to be half-nomads, the Sámi of northern Scandinavia, are fighting like David versus Goliath against governments and multinational companies to save their traditional livelihood, namely reindeer husbandry?
Just two brief examples of what the outgoing president of Norway’s Sami Parliament, Aili Keskitalo, has often described as “green colonialism”:
– In the northernmost part of Norway, a Sámi community is fighting against a soon-to-be-opened “zero-emission” copper mine set to become one of the largest in Europe. The mine is to be dug on grazing land and will greatly affect Sámi families who have been using it for many centuries, possibly thousands of years.
– An international wind power consortium called “Fosen Vind” has set up 80 wind turbines in an area used as winter pastures by the southern Sámi. The consortium, founded by Credit Suisse, has appealed a Norwegian court’s ruling that sets at 90m NOK (10m USD) the compensation the Sámi are entitled to on losing that territory. The Norwegian government is siding with Fosen Vind in court.
What on Earth happened to article 108 of the Norwegian Constitution, saying that “the authorities of the State shall create conditions enabling the Sámi people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life”?
The Sámi have not given up their fight – rather the opposite. The new generations are proud of their identity: they keenly study the language they did not learn from their parents, whose own parents had concealed their origins and mingled with ethnic Norwegians after having been discriminated against for generations. Unsurprisingly, they wanted to give their children a better future, even though it meant living in self-denial.
In 1997, King Harald of Norway apologized in front of the Sami Parliament for the treatment they had been subjected to.
“The Norwegian state is founded on the territory of two peoples – Norwegians and Sami,” he said. “Sami history is closely intertwined with Norwegian history. Today we must apologize for the injustice the Norwegian state has previously inflicted on the Sami people through a harsh Norwegianisation policy.”
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission is currently investigating the past wrongs inflicted upon the natives, to lay the foundations for “greater equality between the majority and minority population”. A final report should be ready by the autumn of 2022.
But how palatable is the concept of reconciliation if the land of their ancestors, that territory King Harald mentioned in his speech, is quietly being taken away bit by bit under the green flag of meeting climate targets?
Spectacle of Terror II
by Samir Gandesha
What does Guy Debord have to teach us about terror? Debord’s lesson is exemplified by a play entitled The Invisible Hand, a play by Pakistani-American writer, Ayad Akhtar, in which a cunning US investment banker is kidnapped by a Pakistani political group led by an imam. The imam, who has been progressively radicalized by deepening corruption in Pakistani society, puts the banker to work to manipulate the markets to raise funds for the organization’s social welfare wing. Ultimately, he “shorts” or bets against the Pakistani dollar, and then proceeds to have an influential and powerful Pakistani politician, who controls numerous valuable assets, liquidated. His murder triggers a collapse in the currency that the organization profits from. The work suggests that global terror must be seen as inextricable from what Christian Marazzi (2009) calls the “violence of financial capitalism” – that their effects are parallel.
Today, of course, terroristic violence is dependent upon de-territorialized flows of money-capital; for example, from Western client state Saudi Arabia to ISIS in Syria and Iraq, from Tehran to Hezbollah in Lebanon, from Washington through its intermediaries in the Pakistani Intelligence Services to the Mujahideen.
At the same time, the material effect of finance is clearly exemplified in recent years in Greece, as increasing numbers of old age pensioners are pushed out onto the streets and as infant mortality rises in exact proportion to the extent to which basic medical supplies dwindle. These results of the actions of the EU Troika are not unlike a terror attack.
Both terror and finance are invisible, each in its own way. Kant argued in the Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics that “empty intuitions without concepts are blind.” “Terror” is an empty concept while “finance” is a blind intuition. In its utter concreteness, its historical and social embeddedness, its politically over-determined nature, it is not possible to provide a conceptual, which is to say universal and impartial, definition of “terrorism.” Hence the platitude “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
Conversely, while we know what we are speaking about when we use the word “finance,” namely: “money-capital,” yet because of its very algorithmic abstractness, it is impossible to intuit, apprehend or represent finance directly. When both Western authoritarian populists and Isis propagandists alike maintain that ‘while the West is a culture of life, radical Islam is a culture of death’, this is, of course, not an opposition that can be maintained.
Terrorism takes on the appearance of the theological negation of the worldly, while in fact it is the manifestation of the cold rationality of means and ends; finance takes on the appearance of the cold rationality of means and ends, while in fact embodying what Marx called the “theological subtleties and metaphysical niceties” of the commodity form which, as Walter Benjamin suggests, culminates not in the “reform of existence but its complete destruction.”
‘No one saw this coming’ – it’s true, ‘no one’ has seen a thing or two
by Iain Galbraith
In the face of the unfolding debacle in Kabul the British Foreign Secretary Domenic Raab blithely claimed that “no one saw this coming” (Sky News, 17.8.21). Viewers who had seen it coming for years (all called “No One”) will have scratched their heads in astonishment: what? You’ve spent some £40 billion of UK taxpayers’ money on this (more than £2,000 per household) but you couldn’t afford binoculars?
According to some commentators, the problem was a lack of intelligence. While Raab’s claim to nescience seems more suggestive of a somnambulistic vagueness, interventionary governments typically want us to believe they could not see what was coming because their intelligence agencies had failed to predict the rapidity of the Taliban’s resurgence and inevitable takeover.
Policymakers are wont to hide poor policy behind claims of false intelligence (as national security blogger David Priess explains on Lawfare, 21.8.21). They do so to distract from their own errors of judgement and to signal to allies that it’s time to make smoke screens. According to Bill Roggio, for example, a whizz at military strategy and senior fellow at the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the failure to predict the Taliban’s takeover was the “biggest intelligence failure” since the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam (CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia, 16 August).
Gosh! No wonder those poor policymakers have been kept in the dark! While the “intelligence failure” ruse almost always stretches credibility, its fragility is particularly acute when placed alongside what Richard Dannatt, the British Army’s General Chief of Staff between 2006-2009, had to say on the matter: “This issue has been on politicians’ desks for two to three years and, certainly, it’s been there during the course of this year … Back in July, 45 senior officers wrote to the government … saying there are people we are concerned about and if we don’t do the right thing, their blood will be on our hands. It is unfathomable why it would appear that the government was asleep on watch” (Guardian, 29.8.21).
If the “issue” has been on Raab’s desk for years but he hasn’t bothered to read it, that could explain why he didn’t see the juggernaut coming. If he had spent the taxpayers’ money wisely and got himself some binoculars (e.g. eyes on the ground, books on Afghan history, reliable counsel), Raab and other politicians pretending innocent surprise might have realized what they had coming. The intel has been accumulating for years, some of it contributed by members of previous Conservative governments, from the heart of the establishment.
Another type of Tory?
On November 6, 2014, under the title “Afghanistan: ‘A Shocking Indictment’”, the New York Review of Books published a lengthy review of Anand Gopal’s deeply researched and widely praised investigative account of America’s intervention: No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes. By 2014, according to the reviewer, a man with personal experience of Afghanistan, the failures of the intervention were “worse than even the most cynical believed”. By the time the review appeared, consensus saw two remaining options for the future of Afghanistan: the best case was “political accommodation with the Taliban”, the worst was “civil war”.
The reviewer proceeds to cite one mind-bogglingly shocking example after another of the kind of US incompetence and ignorance that had issued in the impasse described, as well as prosecuting the “uniformity, overconfidence, and rigidity of Western response” to the “startling differences within the countries in which we intervene”.
He also decries the Western jargon of “state-building, “capacity-building”, “civil society” and “sustainable livelihoods”, not only as resoundingly hollow, but as an indication that the opposite is actually true. “In truth, international statements about establishing ‘the rule of law, governance, and security’ became simply ways of saying that Afghanistan was unjust, corrupt, and violent. […] But policymakers never realized how far from the mark they were. This is partly because most of them were unaware of even a fraction of the reality described in Gopal’s book. But it was partly also that they couldn’t absorb the truth, and didn’t want to.”
When writing his review of Gopal’s book, Rory Stewart was not only a member of David Cameron’s Tory government, he was also Chair of the UK parliament’s Defence Select Committee, hardly the usual vantage point for an assault on imperialism’s “fashion of state-building”. He doesn’t sound like someone who cannot “absorb the truth” either. Under Theresa May’s premiership he was promoted to Secretary of State for International Development, but promptly resigned from the Conservative Party altogether when Boris Johnson took the helm.
It barely makes sense to speak of more or less right-wing Tory governments, but from Stewart’s perspicacity and integrity to Raab napping at the wheel is a distance that perhaps indicates where UK government stands now. It is a government that not only cannot absorb the truth and doesn’t want to, but one that is driving on the wrong side of the road with its eyes shut.
Whoever owns the youth: a Reader (Part Two)
by Leonie Rushforth
See A – J in Reader, Part One here.
K IS FOR KINGSTON UNIVERSITY
History UK reported on May 11, 2021 that staff at Kingston University had been informed on April 21 that the under-graduate and post-graduate History degrees were now closed and remaining History staff would be made redundant. Kingston is not alone – London South Bank, Aston and Sunderland are also cutting History provision. The University of Sunderland offered the justification that the discipline of History is not sufficiently ‘career-focused’. The Education Secretary called them ‘dead-end courses’.
L IS FOR LANGUAGE
In early May, ITV news investigated allegations of ‘extreme levels of discipline’ at an east London school, which included referring to pupils given detention as ‘detainees’.
M IS FOR MUSLIM ‘MOB’ (Update)
Writing in Middle East Eye, Peter Oborne reported that the independent enquiry into the use of an offensive image of the prophet Mohamed in a classroom at Batley Grammar (see May Splinter: Whoever Owns the Youth) has vindicated the concerns of parents who objected to its use. The suspension of the teacher has been lifted, but the BatleyMulti-Academy Trust accepted its own responsibility, vowing to “establish a more formal Trust-wide structured approach to quality assurance of individual teacher planning…” and the promotion of “an awareness and understanding of our local context and its rich and proud history and heritage”. Brendan O’Neill in the Spectator described the report as a victory for the “mob”, assisted by the “cowardice” of institutions that have “caved in to intolerance”.
NATIONAL INDIGENOUS PEOPLE’S DAY
From the early 19C until the 1990s indigenous children in Canada were required to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of an ‘assimilation’ programme. The aim was to obliterate indigenous culture. Children were forced to convert, forbidden to speak their language and were physically and sexually abused. Thousands died. In May the remains of 215 children were found in a mass grave at a school run by the Catholic church from 1890 to 1969. Four Catholic churches have since been destroyed by fire, the first two on National Indigenous People’s Day. Since May, more than 1000 unmarked graves near residential schools have been identified.
O IS FOR OFFICE OF STUDENTS AND FOR OPINIONS (MODERNISED)
According to a Department for Education press release, dated May 12, announcing a new bill to ‘protect freedom of speech on university campuses up and down the country’, ‘a new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom will sit on the board of the Office for Students, with responsibility for investigations of breaches of the new freedom of speech duties, including a new complaints scheme for students, staff and visiting speakers who have suffered loss due to a breach.’ Tory universities minister Michelle Donelan added: ‘After all how can we expect society to progress or for opinions to modernise unless we can challenge the status quo?’
P IS FOR PIMLICO PROTEST (AND MOB2)
Following protests in April by students and teachers, Daniel Smith, head of Pimlico Academy, agreed to take down the Union Jack flying outside the school. Tory MP Scott Benton condemned the protests: “My first impression is that this seems like the usual story of a woke mob making unreasonable demands and expecting the rest of us to bend the knee", he said. Mr Smith resigned from his post at the end of May.
Q IS FOR QUEASY
As MP for Beaconsfield Joy Morissey campaigned for every home, company and institution (including schools) to display a portrait of the queen, the Department for Education tweeted a message to all schools, ‘as a MUST please’, to celebrate self-declared One Britain, One Nation Day on June 25, by singing a specially written anthem Strong Britain, Great Nation and encouraging children to wear red, white and blue clothes for the day.
R IS FOR RECRUITMENT
In its 3 part investigation published in June last year Declassified UK reports on the activity of GCHQ in primary and secondary schools, where children are being taught in ‘fun’ lessons designed by GCHQ’s Cyber Schools Hub (CSH) how to operate in the world of cyber security. The CSH describes its purpose as enabling secondary school children to “experience new ways of learning in an innovative cyber environment”. It also aims to recruit children for jobs in the sector by helping to “educate on the opportunities that exist within the cyber security and computing industry”. Representatives of arms companies have also taken part in GCHQ ‘cyber days’ – BAE Systems, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin have all participated, some offering work experience to students. A GCHQ newsletter obtained by Declassified stated that these companies were interested in ‘forming’ the children’s ‘thought processes.’
See Reader (Part Three) in next month’s Splinters.
When saying No isn’t enough: what should progressives do? Pts. 3. & 4.
by Rosemary Bechler
The far right and conservatives who support them nowadays are interested in the appearance form of political change necessary to keep the status quo essentially as it is: with themselves among the first beneficiaries. The required style of leadership includes adopting a fundamentally anti-democratic posture against consultation, negotiation or debate and in favour of ’getting things done’ – easily achieved when there is a total split between what you say and what you do, since fundamentally, you have no intention of doing anything.
You have many powerful institutions on your side to help you to defend power as it operates now. None is more important than the media, especially what is left of mass media. You tell the people whose support you require what they wish to hear. This is what fake news is, that is when it isn’t involved in undermining the reputations and crushing the careers of Them.
As progressives, we have a completely different set of tasks ahead of us because we are committed to real systemic change on behalf of and in the interest of ‘the many’. Instead of the fantasy identification with the ‘strong man’ offered to humiliated individuals of a rightwing persuasion, the left need to persuade real people – a hugely diverse spectrum of people – that they can come together themselves and act effectively in their common interest. We have been hearing moving accounts of how our forebears, the Greenham Common women discovered organisational effectivity for themselves in last week-end’s joyous 40 years’ commemoration. They never pretend that ‘the journey’ was easy!
An early challenge for progressives is to know who we are. This is easy for the far right, such is their need to belong that it is immediately fulfilled by the fantasy monolith of the monocultural National Us. Once in place, it is just a matter of ‘winning’ against the existential foe, since ‘winner-takes-all’. So the only thing they do need to know is “Who We Are”. Compare the emergence of the Sardine movement. In the early months of 2020, people packed Italy’s squares in protest against Salvini’s lightning-speed construction of the Real Italian People whose interests he alone could defend against migrants, Roma and other existential enemies. They were united only in their opposition to Salvini’s definition of the Real People – after all weren’t they real too? So they shrugged, called themselves ‘The Sardines’ and got on with packing the squares.
Once the initial protest was over, however, it became apparent how difficult it was to convert a horizontal movement into an organisation that can move beyond just saying No, building on the different constituencies and capturing the various institutions that must be won over for progress in our complex political systems. For that what is needed is a two-prong exercise in extensive persuasion that happens to be the exact opposite in all respects to the structuring of the monocultural National Us. And that is no accident.
Just think of the fantastic work done by Theresa May’s oft-reiterated slogan, “Brexit means Brexit.” In one fell swoop it united their people into a monolithic phalanx without any need for debate and with any future debate ruled out of the question. The fact that no-one has known what Brexit means from 2016 to this day – as I write, the UK negotiates the unnegotiable re the borders and peace treaties of Northern Ireland – is immaterial. “Brexit means Brexit” told us “We know who we are and who our enemy is”.
Even better, in response, a thoroughly needled enemy closed ranks and refused to allow a single intelligent criticism of the EU – on its response to the financial crash, its treatment of Greece, its merciless ‘migrant problem’ or rising fascism in Hungary and other EU countries to which the EU has turned a blind eye – to cross its lips, immediately rendering itself unconvincing to any intelligent doubters, let alone skeptics whom they should have set out to persuade. Both sides played the same game – but only one benefited from saying No.
All the Brexiters who UKIPised the Conservative Party and then took over the helm of the British state had to do, was to polarise the country in the first place and make sure it stayed polarised. A binary referendum out of the blue was a good beginning, and the UK became considerably more polarised and fragmented once the Liberal Democrats (misleadingly named) proposed revoking the Article 50 that paved the way for it, thereby erasing it from history. Leavers of course responded by telling opinion pollsters that they would happily part with Scotland and Northern Ireland to boot, if they could just secure a No Deal that saw England turn its back on the EU and walk away.
What should progressives have done to avoid this dead-end? Any institution containing large numbers of passionately committed and articulate leavers and remainers such as the Labour Party in opposition at the time could have modelled itself on the excellent Brexit citizens assembly organised by academic experts in deliberative democracy in Manchester at the end of 2017. They debated six key issues regarding what kind of relationship between Britain and Europe (in all its variety), people in the UK really did want (in all their diversity). Sortition was used to select people from both tribes reflecting the demographic make-up of the UK. The results were impressive, but the process – the reconciliatory sense of citizenship resulting from considered judgment – was a political game-changer. (It is noticeable that in 2019, the threat of the Archbishop of Canterbury conducting a similar Brexit citizens assembly caused panic among leading Leavers in the Tory Government.)
Before I am accused of reducing politics to talking shops (a professional liability at openDemocracy) let me quickly add that this alchemy of deliberative democracy is not enough on its own. Enter the second prong.
Real change comes about thanks to the action of real activists, so what we also need is an empowering, horizontal movement engaged in open-ended, democratic, pluralist growth. This is a democratising movement that skills people in crossing the barriers and boundaries erected by the proliferating enemy images of the right wing; skills in non-violent communication, in empowering organisation, deep democracy and mutual pleasure. These qualities are particularly important when it comes to persuading far right supporters to part with their aggrandizing fantasies. Only a real experience of empowerment and community can oust these. Black Lives Matter leaders must be hugely encouraged by the waves of heartfelt support they have received from white supporters world-wide, not only for their own sake, but because this gives them a better chance to reach the millions of white supremacists in our midst. Which progressive, American or otherwise, can turn his or her back on the 73 million Trump supporters who still believe the election for president was stolen from them, and just say, ‘No!’ ? Luckily, Anthony Barnett reports on the interesting progressive left coalition that helped Biden win. Will this grow into such a movement for real change?
My favourite example remains the 15M movement (the indignados) and the role the PAH (anti-evictions platform) in particular played in the rise to fame of the great feminist municipalist and Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau. A decade later Carlos Delclos, a social movement expert living in Barcelona at the time summed up its vital features in my interview with him:
“ The PAH are in many ways the best migrant rights organisation in Spain, because they organise around a common need – housing – and say, “ I don’t care if you have got documents. If they try and evict you, I’m going to show up at your house to block it, if you will show up at mine when they try to evict us!...
That’s really the key to the success of the indignados and the situation in Spain right now, this ability to take hopelessness and make it about that vision! It’s not the vision of society that they propose ‘out there’, but the one that they put into practise which made the difference.
The key to the indignados was how they organised in the midst of the hopelessness dominant in Spain prior to their emergence, pushing developments in a virtuous, subversive, emancipatory direction, as opposed to this game of, “How can we play with xenophobia without being xenophobic? ” which was going on in the rest of Europe. They said, “We have to be the protagonists of our own change. We have to break down borders in our own practise.”
In conclusion, leftwing iconoclasm can be a wonderful thing. At its very best, however, it is equivalent to the consciousness-raising phase of feminism in which women realise that they share a legitimate interest and that it is theirs to fight for. Which is why, when I come across progressives or leftists saying No to speakers, books ancient or modern or art-works, or even toppling statues into the nearest river, I ask myself one question: What are you going to do next? Because it is the follow-up that really makes a difference, since this is where persuasion begins.
If no one has a clue or indeed much of an intention of working out who to persuade next, then I’m afraid I might suspect you of confusing progressive action with the winner-take-all competitive sport of neoliberal identity politics, whose forces bid against each other for jobs, department funding or the social recognition measured in Facebook likes and competing adoring tribes. This doesn’t lead to progressive change. It plays straight into the hands of the right and far right.
See When saying No is not enough in Splinter Part.1 here and Splinter Part 2. here
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