Monday, July 1, 2024

How to beat the far right

There are elections which can define the course of history. The second round of the French election on Sunday is one of these.

Faced with the prospect of a far right government in France, the logical choice for all democratic forces is to withdraw third placed candidates which could stand in the way of a victory over the far right.

In the short term this is the only possible way to stop the far right from winning. The 'popular front' including Melenchon have already declared that they are withdrawing in constituencies where centrists are in a better place to beat the far right. Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, who distinguishes between the enemy (RN) and the adversary (the left ) has hinted doing in those constituencies where the left is in a better place to beat the far right. But regrettably some in the president's camp take exception with France Insoumise candidates in a false equivalence which betrays the legacy of the second world war.

Even during the cold war centre right republicans used to vote for communists (and vice versa) when facing Jean Marie Le Pen's FN.

But while commendable this strategy worked in a context where the far right was more of a nuisance than a real threat.

To beat the far right as a project of government, the centre and the left have to converge around a synthesis which remains elusive but has become a necessity not just in France but even in the US.

The reality is that as things stand neither the centre nor the left can beat the far right on their own. But a sheer sum of the parts is also likely to be dismissed as a marriage of convenience by voters (this reminds me of Prodi's alliance in Italy which stretched from the centre-right to the far left but which imploded after a few months in power). Moreover voters across the world tend to vote for something they can believe in and not simply to block the path of others.

One mistake committed by the centrists is that they can keep on embracing the same policies while hoping that left wing voters have no alternative but to back them against the far right. Macron failed miserably in this with the Popular Front emerging as the main contender against the far right. In next Sunday's election the first line of defence against the far right is the left.

But the left often makes the mistaken assumption that by going back to its roots (whatever that means) it can become the natural choice of those who vote fascists cause they have been left behind. In reality it was under Jeremy Corbyn that Labour lost the so-called 'red wall' in its northern heartlands.

It is time to take a look back at history. Cause what is happening now comes with a sense of deja vu.

Some dismiss the urgency of stopping the far right simply because it bears little resemblance to the brown or black shirts.

But while expecting the Nazi zombies to creep back from their sordid graves is far fetched and unrealistic, let's not forget that it was moderate voters and mainstream conservatives who put in Hitler, Mussolini and Pinochet in power. The Nazis were not alien predators who descended on the planet. They were crafty politicians who plotted alliances with conservative forces to win power, often by respecting (and bending) the constitutional rules. Mussolini retained the monarchy and Hitler won power in coalition with conservative parties while serving under President Hindenburg. They also kept power through mixture of fear and consent. Secondly they did so incrementally moving the goalposts as they consolidated their power.

Neither i am not comparing Bardella, Le Pen or Trump to Hitler. None of them advocate the elimination of entire ethnic groups and in a reflection of our times they are more islamophobic than anti semitic. Today you can be fascist who supports Israel for all the wrong reasons. But they have also invested a lot in a climate against immigrants and have contributed to a climate of intolerance.

Moreover talk of about ' the national preference', a roll back of climate policies and taking away citizenship rights of children represent a real threat to our way of life and our existence.

Another mistake committed by some analysts is to view the modern far right as some kind of populist anti elitist movement legitimised by democratic elections.  The reality is that Nazism and fascism were also an expression of a similar sentiment. The railed against jewish elites and ranted against intellectuals.  Of course in power they not only eliminated inconvenient trade unions but provided capitalism with slave labour. But right to the end they projected themselves as tribunes of the masses.  And just as today, their rise in the 1920s and 1930s seemed unstoppable.  They managed to shape popular common sense.  The far right project today is also incremental, weakening Europe and democratic institutions from within.

Yet they were stopped and beaten.  And we also owe that to the rise of mass democratic movements (namely christian democracy, social democracy and euro-communism).  Our Europe was born out of a compromise which saw most of the left accepting liberal democratic norms and the centre endorsing active state intervention and the welfare state.  It was an imperfect compromise but one which emancipated millions of people.

The historic lesson is that the far right can be beaten by popular mobilisation and a counter hegemony which shifts the political centre to the left.

So to get serious about the far right threat, the left has to push the centre to ditch its love affair with neo-liberalism and austerity. But to get there the left must ditch its hobby of denigrating the 'west' even when facing authoritarian powers like Russia, China and Iran... The left also has to reclaim the sort of civic patriotism rooted in the jacobin tradition and the partisan resistance. It must reclaim its historic role in the front lines of defending the legacy of 1789 and 1848.

It is time for an inclusive and assertive republicanism which takes pride in the conquests of the past but is ready to address the challenges of the future. A bold left which does not shun public ownership in the energy and transport sectors, which aggressively demands a global tax on corporations and crucially embark on a project of renewal which offers a better and more prosperous life by investing in job creation and saving the planet. It should also stand for the defence of democracy from its detractors, including aggressive imperialists like Putin.

It has to offer hope in a future where people have greater control over their daily existence, where poverty is abolished and where technology and AI are socialised with the aim of shortening the working week. But ultimately all this depends on protecting humanity from the ravages of climate catastrophe. It would be simply irresponsible for democratic forces to wage war against each other while the planet is burning. The stakes have never been higher.

Saturday, January 6, 2024

In between times: From dissonance to hubris

The brutal war in Gaza carried out with impunity has exposed the limits of humanitarian interventionism, often a pretext for empire building (remember the Iraq war and the chaos it unleashed) but also a discourse based on the idea that human rights are universal.  This was never the case but the dissonance has reached epic proportions in the killing fields of Gaza.  For while initially the west's poster boys and girls could invoke this discourse against Hamas, it was clear from before October 7 that the forceful displacement of Palestinians was and remains the objective of Israel's far right.  What is happening in Gaza is a repeat of Srebrenica and Gorazde carried out with US made ammunition.  And while a lot can be said about the role of the west in the dismemberment of Yugoslavia,  the intervention in Kosovo and to some extent Bosnia, at least sent a sign that war criminals can be held accountable for acts of genocide. This affront to any pretension of universal values has definitively weakened the edifice of the western liberal establishment.   The contradiction between supporting Ukraine with weapons to resist invasion  and occupation (as it should be) and supporting Israel with weapons to bombard, kill, maim and occupy has become so gargantuan, that  if Biden does not have an epiphany we could be assisting to a veritable melt down. The risk now is that the west itself will be taken over by an assortment of  ethno nationalists who unashamedly support allies on the basis of race, religion and national interest without bothering for any pretext based on international law and justice.  And while Biden is ideologically bankrupt and his administration is fast imploding (with staffers resigning en masse) , this is no reason to celebrate the hubris of a neo-fascist taking over the White House by next year. Ironically in this bizarre brave new world the Houthis have emerged as the last standard bearers of  humanitarian interventionism and Putin, the Iranian mullahs and Erdogan the advocates a (hypocritical) rule based world.  In this sense the South African legal case against Israel, is one of the few glimmers of hope.  For if the world highest judicial authority recognises that what is happening in Gaza amounts to genocide (as the massacre of 23,000 people suggests) , the west will have to choose between supporting genocide and opposing it.  Moreover it will be a reminder that multilateral global institutions can deliver justice and even hold western allies accountable for their actions.  But the consequences of hubris could be even more catastrophic especially  if it derails global commitments on climate change and if it emboldens all regional (and global) bullies to do the same as Israel. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Palestine and our moral bankruptcy

The tragedy in the 'siege of the hospitals' in Gaza is that the Israeli state is proving by its own actions  that it is structurally racist, thus legitimising claims by the likes of Hamas and Hizbollah.

Moreover, the conduct of the EU and the US lends credibility to those like Putin, who question the west's double standards and hypocrisy. 

The reality is that oppressed people deserve the consolation of being internationally vindicated.  The question facing the 'west' (which includes me and us) is why is Netanyahu not treated in the same way as  Milosevic and Putin?  The tragedy is that the only ones doing so (Turkey Hizbollah and Iran) are also of the same ilk.  Erdogan's treatment of the Kurds and Hizbollah's support for the murderous Assad regime come to mind immediately when sultan Erdogan and nasrallah  lambast Israel and hail Hamas as freedom fighters.  

I do not detest the west.  I am part of it. It is also shaped by our struggles for equality, democracy and freedom.  But it is also shaped by a legacy of colonialism, brutality and nationalisms, those zombies which never die and animate an assertive far right.   That is why this moral failure hurts.  

But there is another disturbing aspect of our moral bankruptcy.  We expect Palestinians to warm up to our hallow promises of a two state solution and our calls for restrain on Israel, while they are being butchered.  Our governments expect Palestinians to accept their humiliation and to distance themselves from those resisting the occupation. Since October 7, the world (myself included) had been throwing the burden of moral correctness on a vanquished and brutalised people, thus giving their oppressor a license to maim and kill. Some did worse by literally offering their unconditional support.

And while i recoil at anti semitism, even posting this comment would probably be shot down as anti semitism by some.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

The burden of history

This bloody conflict in Palestine and Israel is deeply distressing, a constant rollercoaster of emotions, with events unfolding rapidly, leaving little time for reflection and processing. For me, it's not a matter of lacking understanding; in fact, it's painful because there's an overwhelming amount of information to process, which can cloud clear thinking. 

The scale and nature of Hamas's actions hit a personal chord, considering the historical context of blood libels, pogroms and the Holocaust.   No one should be targeted based solely on their identity.

I'm repulsed by an organization whose charter still references the Protocols of Zion, a 19th-century anti-Semitic forgery. However, I remind myself that there's a complex context of colonial occupation, humiliation, and dehumanization. The subsequent days characterised by the medieval siege of Gaza served as a stark reminder of this complex and terrible reality. It is also reminded me about the brutality of a rationalised bureaucratic machine.  The kind of brutality which starves, humiliates and kills while still presenting itself as civilised, democratic and sane.  

I recoil at those who simply side with Israelis because they look and live like them, while they perceive Palestinians in their reality as less than human.  There is an underlying racism among those who identify with Israel on the basis of this premise.  They are exactly the kind of people who would have hated the dirty starving jew in the ghettoes.  No wonder some on the far right feel so comfortable supporting Israel. 

As the days go by, I'm becoming increasingly exhausted by the weight of history, both past and present. History can serve as a tool for understanding, but it can also become a heavy burden, even a justification for violence and genocide.

For instance, one can argue that Israel's formation is linked to colonialism and an ethnocentric ideology, marginalizing Palestinians as a 'people without history,' similar to the treatment of other indigenous groups worldwide. Yet, many years after the Nakba, there are Israelis living in a society they created, who should not be under the constant threat of elimination and genocide. Israel is here to stay, and part of its identity is that of a 'homeland for the Jews', but hopefully not at the exclusion of Israeli Arabs and surely not as an occupying power.   

But while Israelis have their reasons to be be scared, their government's policies have turned Gaza into a  prison camp, where an entire society is confined and regularly subjected to punishment. In this sense, Gaza evokes memories of the Warsaw Ghetto. And the forced evacuation of Palestinians evokes older memories not just of the nakba but of jews expelled from their homeland in Spain. We must remember and never forget. Yes history can be odious. Yet it can serve as both an antidote and a lesson, helping us remain sensitive to the darkness that can affect both the oppressed and the oppressor.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Heinous crimes happen in a context not in your favourite narrative

The death of Pelin Kaya is a reminder of the risks posed by recklessness and machismo on our roads, something with which i am very familiar as a pedestrian who walks on a daily basis. The behaviour of the driver after hitting his victim (throwing stones at her and people in the vicinity) also comes across as another case of toxic masculinity. But while few focused on these aspects many conveniently tried to fit this case in their favourited narrative. 

For example some have blamed the driver's actions on the legalisation of weed, even if media reports suggested that he was under the influence of cocaine which is a harder and much more dangerous drug. Still it would be non sensical to blame this behaviour on cocaine, a substance which is used by thousands of recreational users who pose no risk to others. In fact the legalisation of both weed and cocaine would facilitate  information campaigns against driving under influence.  Moreover driving under the influence is symptomatic of  recklessness and complete disregard for others by a significant amount of drivers.  But the point made by those blaming weed is  political and reactionary.  It is both an attempt to blame the permissive Labour government for anything going wrong in society and to frame such events in to a discourse of conservative moral panic in the face of demands for bodily autonomy. Clerics making such arguments should be reminded that although domestic violence is often associated with alcohol abuse, wine is still a central motif of Catholic rituals.  What is wrong here is not the substance but the context and the actions of the person abusing it. 

Inevitably although the accused was brought up in Malta and has a Maltese surname, some latched at his French Arab descent. This mostly suggests a sense of frustration felt by the usual suspects who could not blame this crime on foreigners. In fact this case simply shows that heinous crimes are often committed by Maltese against foreigners. 

Even on the left some cannot resist the temptation of blaming such incident on rampant cut throat individualism characteristic of capitalist societies. In this aspect some leftists seem to share the romantic notion of a lost innocence with conservative counterparts. But socialists should be the first to recognise that we live in much more humane societies than ever before. Traditional societies were far more brutal, cruel and intolerant than the society in which we live nowadays. I am happy to live in a western liberal democratic society where there is greater equality, sexual freedom and autonomy than ever before. Socialism for me is all about ensuring that everyone can enjoy and afford these freedoms. 

But while too many people are busy using cases like this to prove preconceived prejudices,  there is always a social context in which random crimes happen. And while sheer coincidence, existential factors and irrationalities play a major part in explaining crime, even irrational thoughts and actions are grounded in wider social norms. For example our society does have a problem with a growing number of troubled and insecure males whose bullish actions pose a threat to others.  But rather than being understood as the embodiment of permissive liberalism their aggression may well be a reaction against it. In this sense toxic masculinity should be seen as being more of an attempt to reassert traditional authority than as a challenge to it.  Pornographers and pimps like Andrew Tate are perfect examples of this phenomenon.   In such a culture cars like guns are often perceived as an extension of the penis.  One may say that I am also falling in to the same trap of fitting this case in to a narrative. But this  is just one observation which probably does not explain the dynamics of the case in question.  Moreover, tradition, modernity and liberalism are also abstractions full of contradictions. So let's talk about context and possible causes but avoid fitting everything in our favourite narrative.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Ukraine and 'neutrality'-Rewiring rusty hardware

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is one of those epochal events which require a paradigm shift, a rewiring of our rusty mental hardware. Of course this process is prone to contradictions and a clash between two fundamental values which shape many of us on the left; namely our aversion to war and militarism and our equal aversion to bullies and support for resistance. So here are some reflections on this difficult topic. 

Active Neutrality: Malta’s active neutrality does not preclude us from taking sides when basic norms of international law are trampled upon by bullies like Putin. What it precludes is hosting a military base and joining a military alliance like NATO. Yet contrary to the impression given in parliament earlier this week Malta is not a distant observer of some remote 'conflict', but part of an organisation (the EU) which is an active party in a war which represents a threat to our collective security as European and global citizens. And while there are still valid arguments against hosting a military base in Malta, it is also time to define our active neutrality by adding an over riding commitment to upholding international law and human rights. And while human rights may be used as a pretext for other interests, at the same time speaking of neutrality when people are being butchered is profoundly disturbing and stomach churning.  The problem with the west is not that it upholds principles but that it does so selectively.   Palestine immediately comes to mind.  But it is equally revolting to invoke inaction over Palestine as justification for inaction over Ukraine. Foreign policy has to be based on values which shape the kind of societies we want to live in. That is why I am very wary of those who dismiss human rights as a western construct. 

The new fascists: I also recoil at 'westerners' sitting in the comfort of their coach consuming and spreading misinformation making a mockery of the freedoms they claim to cherish, by serving either as useful idiots or willing accomplices of Putin's troll factory. In fact there is a danger lurking in the shadows; that of a new fascism which thrives on conspiracy theories and fake news and which ultimately erodes our democracy.   Not surprisingly those who sowed doubts on climate change and the vaccine, who spread fake news on immigration also harbor sympathies for Putin.  Ironically these rejectionists of the 'west' are often the first to protest against censorship and cancel culture when the state steps in to defend us from hate mongers and the dissemination of lies.  As a Marxist I have always considered socialism as the natural progression and deepening of liberal democratic norms.  That is why when liberal democracy is threatened we are duty bound to stand in its defense.

Europe or Nato? In this instance Nato is on the right side of history. Without Nato’s support Ukraine is doomed. No wonder that many Ukranians are calling on NATO to close the skies and the only alternative to that is arming Ukraine. So do I like NATO? No and mainly because its commitment to democracy and human rights is often selective. It includes members like Turkey which has waged a criminal war against the Kurds. It is led by the USA which has a dirty history of supporting unsavory and even criminal regimes, particularly in Latin America and the Middle East. I would rather have a closer defense union of EU member states which is at least accountable to parliament and the council. This would also add substance to the security clause in the Lisbon treaty, which promises assistance in the case of any EU member being attacked. This would also make sense for a small country like Malta, which actively participates in the EU’s common foreign policy and is therefore potentially exposed to retaliation. That said this poses important questions like; should the EU have an army of its own and how far should Malta participate in this? And since most EU member states are also in NATO is it even possible to draw a line? That said if the EU is really committed to human rights, it can't turn itself in to a fortress which discriminates between different flows of refugees. One risk of having an EU army would be that of using it to 'police' borders. But the answer to that is introducing democratic and human rights safeguards and scrutiny. In short rather then re-trench themselves to defend an ineffective and reactionary national sovereignity, progressives should lead the battle for more Europe and more world governance. 

War and militarism: Lets never forget that war brutalizes not just the aggressors but also those defending themselves, their homes and their families. It also creates a demands for weapons which enriches the merchants of death. And increased military spending comes at a cost; mostly paid by the poor and vulnerable in the shape of reduced public expenditure in public services. And one should always beware of generals who tend to evade or dismiss democratic scrutiny. As I see it the answer to these problems is more Europe, in the shape of governance and democratic scrutiny. And by Europe am not referring to fortress Europe, but a civic commitment for the values which shape us, values which do not belong to us but to humanity in general. That is the only antidote to Russophobia and the emergence of new nationalisms thriving on a war between ‘civilisations’. And while war is corrosive, weapons are often needed by those defending themselves from aggression. Lets not forget that in the second world war communist partisans in Italy and France actively collaborated with Anglo American forces. That was a just war which is part of our collective heritage. That is also a chapter in Maltese history which we should cherish. And that is why I would never replace the George Cross with the eight pointed cross. So should pacifists become warmongers? Depends on what we understand by pacifism. The kind of pacifism I identify with was shaped by the social movements of the 1970s and was also intimately tied with the idea of universal human rights and support for democratic movements the world over including Eastern Europe. It is therefore no surprise that the same German Greens who were rooted in the pacifist movements of the 1970s are backing sending more weapons to Ukraine. We need to stand for our values whenever threatened by strongmen and caudillos. In the absence of that it will be other strongmen and caudillos who will stand up to aggression probably by committing similar crimes.

The risk of a long war: Syria is a reminder of how a decade of war against a criminal regime can breed monsters.  But perhaps these monsters only grew because of a reluctance to act decisively against the criminal Assad regime, which crucially was allowed to win thanks to Putin’s support. Those who lose family and loved ones will inevitable seek redress and in the absence of that revenge. There is a risk that Putin's war will actually strengthen the russophobic far right in Ukraine and in Eastern Europe.   Ensuring redress through international law is the only way to avoid this from happening. Yet just as much I fear war and the dynamics it sets in motion, I also understand the moral obligation to defy and resist. So stopping Putin from winning (which means stopping him from dismembering Ukraine) is just as crucial as ending the war in the shortest time possible. In fact the two aims sound contradictory. While capitulation is not an option as this would embolden bullies the world over, diplomacy has to play a part at some stage. But we must make sure that Ukraine gets to the negotiation table from a position of strength. That is why arming Ukraine is not just the right thing to do morally but also the most effective way to force Russia to the negotiation table.

A federal Europe: But lets see this as an opportunity for a paradigm shift; What about the US signing up to the International Criminal Court as a starting point? Is it not ironical that the US is not party to the only organization which can (and should) prosecute Vladimir Putin for crimes against humanity? And what about a massive renewable energy program to accelerate the ban on gas imports from Russia? And should not the oligarchs’ wealth be used to finance Ukraine’s resistance? And is this not the perfect moment for more Europe? Perhaps it is time to rediscover the prophetic wisdom of  Altiero Spinelli’s Ventotene Manifesto written during the darkest days of the word war II in which the great Italian intellectual presented his socialist and federalist vision for a united Europe (and world).

Thursday, August 26, 2021

That first drag

There is something about the drag from a factory made cigarette. It is like sucking life from something which gives you death. But that first drag with the morning espresso gives you a shot of life albeit a contaminated one. Still it is only that first one which gives you that sensation, the rest may have their own value when matched to the moment, some insight, a view, pleasure or even an apathetic moment need to be accompanied with a drag... sort of it always accenuates feelings be they of awe or pain...still on those rare occasions when i surpass the 10 cigs limit, they start to taste just as they really are: toxic and unpleasant especially with too much booze. Probably at that stage you start smelling like an ash tray. And worse after years of smoking you could end up smelling like one of those old bars which have absorbed decades of tobacco smoke. Still they form part of the chain which makes that singular sensation of each morning's drag possible. It is that drag which makes it so difficult to stop the habit which gets in to a routine. Surely there are other ingredients which add to the allure. The smoke itself envelopes you in a kind of intimacy and a smoke filled room is always pregnant with great ideas and hopes. It is hard to imagine a revolution being planned in a smoke free room. Yet you don't need a cig for that...vaping was a good substitute in that sense except for that damn first drag and the hard texture of the thing. Guess it is always a good time to quit. But what can substitute the feeling of that first drag? Perhaps it is just one thing one has to simply give up.