Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: Bleak


2012 was a grim year by any measure. In Britain, Tory austerity cut deeper, its "millstone of debt" fiscal alibi looking more and more threadbare, its ideological motivation - class war from above - more and more apparent. A new justificatory spin was rolled out, the cruel narrative of "strivers" and "skivers", a politics of contempt, to attempt to bring the squeezed middle back into the abandoned Coalition tent, while across the country hospitals were closed, redundancies spread, the unemployed and disabled forced on to demeaning workfare programmes and vital services reduced.

Particularly depressing in this context is that the movement against the cuts has failed to grow. We have failed to foster the spirit of solidarity that can overcome petty divisions between those in work and those out of it, between public sector and private sector, between migrant and native-born.

In America, the best that can be said is that the least bad presidential candidate won. A Republican Party in the grip of a deranged movement conservatism, espousing a nineteenth century sexual politics and an ethics of contempt for the less wealthy half of the American mainstream, was unable to win out over the cynical playing of the demographic game by a Democratic Party dominated by a movement liberalism out of touch with most citizens' concerns. The American left, entangled in identity politics and cultural battles, seems in even worse health than the British left.

The austerity in the UK was of course nothing compared to that enforced in much of Europe. The narrative of crisis posed European electorates the empty choice of anti-democratic technocrats managing the rolling back of the social state, or populist demagogues performing hollow gestures of rejection to the austerity consensus.

The upward curve of xenophobia and intolerance steepened across the continent, with hostility (and increasingly violence) towards various combinations of migrants, Muslims, Roma and Jews. The liberal consensus imagines crisis automatically breeds "extremism", but this assumption was refuted by the relatively low level of far right mobilisation in Italy, Spain and Portugal, contrasted to the peaking xenophobia of economically resilient Scandinavia  It takes political entrepreneurs among elites - far right political parties, or, as in the case of Britain, the mainstream media - to feed this sort of sentiment.

The drift to authoritarianism has been even stronger beyond Europe. 2012 saw the further rise and rise of the "democratators", elected heads of state whose executive power and disregard for the rule of law makes them effectively dictators, with Vladimir Putin as the archetype. Hugo Chavez's election is emblematic of the continued rise of the democratators. Their ranks were joined in June by Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, derailing an inspiring movement against authoritarianism there.

Despite the continuation of 2011's massive pro-democracy movements in many regions of the world, 2012 saw a retrenchment of executive state power, with rigged elections in Venezuela and Ukraine, assaults on freedom of the press in Turkey, erosion of academic freedom in Israel, criminalisation of social media dissent in India and the Gulf states, legal attacks on the NGO sector in Russia and Israel, mass imprisonment of dissidents in the Gulf states and Russia etc etc.

One of the disturbing trends was the use of "religious hatred" and blasphemy laws to criminalise free expression, as in Russia, the Gulf and Pakistan. Elsewhere, including Cuba, China and North Korea, as well as across Africa, but most grimly in Syria, party and personal dictatorship does not bother with the façade of electoralism.

Religious and ethnic intolerance has risen too. "Modernising" theocratic movements among the main winners from the turmoil of the fragile transition to democracy across the Middle East, under the banner of Turkish-style "moderate" Islamism that combines neo-liberal technocracy with religious authoritarianism. Elsewhere, more murderous varieties of Islamism - the Taliban and its analogues in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq - continue to slaughter fellow Muslims on a daily basis. Nationalism in all its forms - including its Hindu variety in India, its Buddhist variety in Sri Lanka - continues to be the only ideology able to compete on a mass scale with religious ultra-conservatism in the political market.

Thus the xenophobia and intolerance of Europe mirrored elsewhere, as in the violent anti-foreigner incidents in Israel. Elsewhere, with relatively little public attention, we have seen waves of violent ethnic cleansing, such as of Muslim Rohingyas in Burma, of Christians and Ahamadis in Pakistan.

Theocratic and nationalist ideologies have also underwritten what seems almost a pandemic of violence against women in 2012. Rape has been a major weapon of war in Syria and in central Africa. The revulsion in India in the last few days against horrific and ultimately murderous cases of gang rape might signal that 2013 will see the tide turning, but the ingrained everyday sexism and trending postmodern rape culture in the heart of the "liberal" West gives little cause for optimism. Nor does the casual apologetics and denialism from the luminaries of the British and global left.

In the face of all this, there has been a catastrophic failure of international solidarity from the Western left. The left remains gripped by an anachronistic pseudo-"anti-imperialist" agenda which locates all evil in America and its allies, despite the evident decrease and increased benevolence of Western imperial power and the evident rise and increased malignancy of Russian and Chinese imperial power. Large sections of the left have sought coalitions with the theocrats and/or the authoritarians  or apologised for them and relativised them away, or even acted as cheerleaders for them.

This failure of solidarity is best exemplified by the fact that deaths caused by Israeli rockets on Gaza - a human tragedy no doubt - have been the only deaths to provoke demonstrations in Western capitals, while the 40,000 killed by the regime in Syria have been ignored and even approved. A rekindling of the spirit of solidarity is urgently needed - starting with grassroots solidarity with the trade union and women's movements in countries on the frontline, as the only reliable forces against the forces of repression.

I'd like to think we can do better in 2013, on all these fronts, but I'm not optimistic. 

10 comments:

The Contentious Centrist said...

"A rekindling of the spirit of solidarity is urgently needed -"

This would suggest that there was or is a spirit of solidarity to re-kindle. Where was that solidarity? At what point in recent history has there been a mobilization of solidarity for the really oppressed and downdrodden, like the gypsies in Europe who have no one to speak for them? Or the Bahai in Iran? And shouldn't
there be by now some universal standard by which suffering is objectively measured so that those who truly need the solidarity of others are actually acknowledged and assisted? And shouldn't there be a world body that would actually undertake to alleviate the suffering of those who are genuinely neglected, left by wayside?

What's the point of wailing about lack of solidarity when the very essence and content and meaning of solidarity has been deformed beyond recognition?



jams o donnell said...

Here's hoping Bob. I hope that my inner pessimist is wrong

Aloevera said...


It seems to me that one problem standing in the way of any sort of global solidarity (apart from the problem of getting people to agree--universally--on what that would mean and entail, as Contentious Centrist notes in the previous comment)--is
a "knowledge" problem.

There is widespread apathy or indifference--or even lack of knowledge--regarding the doings of the world. Moreover--popular thinking does not usually conceptualize adequately the complexities that are always present in socio-cultural situations and conflicts. And however poor a background people may have (especially about other cultures)--the overload of information in today's varied media does not help--but probably hinders--the attainment of useful knowledge. There is some indication that many people only read or listen to those news and information outlets (when they do this at all) which tell them what they want to hear--and so echo chambers develop that don't stimulate thought and awareness of the doings of the world in all their complexity. While many people attend--for a while--to dramatic incidents (such as the Newtown shootings in America or the recent gang rape/murder in India)--the kind of sustained concern and development of knowledge about issues surrounding these events that would be necessary not only to forge solidarity but to effect change--usually fades away for most people except for activists, many of whom are ideological in a way that is reductionist-and selective. Such activists simplistically posit "good" and "bad" guys to respectively valorize or demonize--and to appropriate morality entirely to the side of the simplistically selected "good guys"--avoiding the complexities of reality entirely (we see this with the BDS movement against Israel, for example).

Solidarity, as it has "worked" in the past, was always relatively "small"--localized to some local arena or to some (usually beleaguered) social category or group in their struggles with some powerful other. Any useful and fair solidarity today, operating with a more global orientation, would have to have "conquered" the knowledge problem--and would have to be able to navigate the many complexities that actually exist in the world.--How to do that?

Aloevera said...

Sorry--I may have sounded too dismissive in my last post--I want to note that although I am posting here for the first time--and I am an American (and so somewhat apart from the particular problems of Europe usually referenced in this blog)--I am a frequent reader of this blog and I do greatly appreciate its sanity and fairness.

bob said...

Jams- Optimism of the spirit, pessimism of the intellect, as a great man once said!

CC/Aloevera - thanks for your thoughtful responses. (No need to apologise, Aloevera, and welcome!) I think you are both right, at least partly.

I don't see a really viable way in which any kind of consistent action of meaningful solidarity can be mobilised and sustained. The "cosmopolitan intent" towards a world body that Kant imagined has ultimately birthed the UN, which multiplies all the evils of the sovereign states of the world by the total number of sovereign states. A universal standard seems impossible to achieve. Attention is always drawn to the spectacular. It is probably natural that we all have particular elective affinities with particular distant sufferings and no rooms in our hearts for others.

CC- when you say that there hasn't been a mobilization of solidarity in recent history, and that the meaning of concept has been deformed, you imply that there was a time (in non-recent history?) when it was a meaningful concept or was meaningfully mobilised. Is that right?

bob said...

Corrections:

1. After some Twitter dialogue with Owen Jones, I concede I used a hyperbolic term in saying that the elections in Venezuela were "rigged". They were, in my view, not fair but probably reaonably free. But I maintain Chavez, while having a popular mandate and being by no means a dictator, is an authoritarian.

2. I don't know if it was true to say "across the country hospitals were closed". My own hospital, Lewisham, looks likely to part-close, although not immediately, and the sector clearly faces " a wave of mergers, acquisitions and reconfigurations" (Health Service Journal) that will see many wards close, if not necessarily too many hospitals.

The Contentious Centrist said...

"CC- when you say that there hasn't been a mobilization of solidarity in recent history, and that the meaning of concept has been deformed, you imply that there was a time (in non-recent history?) when it was a meaningful concept or was meaningfully mobilised. Is that right?"

It's a good question, and credits my comment with more nuance that I intended.

I think the concept of solidarity was formed by the thinkers of the enlightenment as one of the main principles of humanism/modernity/democracy. It has since been exhorted as a high value and a prescribed good, but I can't think of any example when it was mobilized in accordance with its primary meaning. When I said "recently" I meant the twentieth century.

Hannah Arendt placed much weight on this concept and put some considerable effort on differentiating it from compassion or pity (which most people take to be solidarity, mistakenly, and that's what I meant by "deformed").

In the nineteen century there was a mobilization across the Western world against the institution of slavery. It was not perfect, and it was not without its own forms of racism and bigotries but there was a massive acknowledgement of the wrongness of slavery and very real movement to abolish it. Can that serve as a good example?

modernity's ghost said...

Superb summary Bob,

I can't disagree with the overall thrust of your post.

It is a bleak time, where little causes politicians to change their minds, and when caught fiddling or stealing public money (or other semi-criminal activities) they merely blush, play a victim, hide away until people have forgotten their transgressions.

The redundant ideology of Leninism, along with the flea bitten remains of Trotskyism have impeded the development of anti-Tory alternatives and deliberately obstructed meaningful internationalism.

We face conservatives (of various shades) laden with ideology and the means to implement them and no significant opposition.

Wretched times indeed.

But I wish you a better New Year!

Anonymous said...

What a confusing and confused analysis. Solidarity seems to be the answer to all the world's problems in your view. This seems simplistic. You both criticise the state for being authoritarian and yet want it to be more powerful and interventionist. I used to think like you, but since I abandoned leftism, and came to the sun lit uplands where individual freedom, personal initiative and increased efficiency these bring have become core to my political thinking, I have abandoned pessimism. Paradoxically I now think we need more left wing policies, ie inefficient state spending, to provoke and bring the crisis to a head. The addict has to hit rock bottom, and we are a society addicted to debt and lazy ineffectual political interventions, which hurt the poor and the young most.

bob said...

Thanks (as ever) Mod

Anon,
I admit to being confused; sorry to be confusing. I also admit to having no answers to the world's problems. I don't see solidarity as an answer to these problems, just a starting point. I spoke about solidarity in two ways: 1. "at home" in the sense of solidarity between the relatively squeezed and the really tightly squeezed: it is only on the basis of this sort of solidarity (rather than, say, pity for the poor or guilt-tripping the rich) that we can build any hope of resistance, and ultimately alternatives, to the particularly severe form of austerity we are going through. 2. "abroad" in the sense of solidarity of those of us in relatively stable and free parts of the world for those under the heel of cruel and unjust regimes. In both cases, only the people on the receiving end can ultimately make the answers - but when the short-term pain is so acute (as in Syria) then perhaps intervention from above is required to stop the bleeding before we can start thinking about cures.

Is that the interventionism you refer to? Or do you see hospitals and libraries as a form of state power and intervention?

Personally, I don't see all "intervention" as being the same. The state has a right hand and a left hand, as Pierre Bourdieu put it. A parent smacking a baby and a parent hugging a baby are both "intervention", but they are not equivalent. I am a libertarian in that I prefer the state's use of coercive power to be less, but I don't want to eliminate the state altogether.