Critical Social Theory and Cultural Commentary

Monday, 31 January 2011

Egypt Update

Your Weapons are on Cairo's Streets, America, Spencer Ackerman, Wired Danger Room
The US taxpayer gave Mubarak's military $1.3 billion last year, joining the Shah of Iran, the Nicaraguan Contras and Afghan Mujahedeen on the list of colossal fuckups. Congress will do everything possible to avoid giving poor Americans health care, but signs off on this crap every year... there's oversight for you.

Mubarak's Survival Strategy and Looting as Counter-Insurgency, John Robb,
The Mubarak regime is attempting to use the fear of chaos to reassert its authority. Here's to hoping this fails!

Al-Jazeera Jounalists Arrested in Egypt, Josh Halliday, The Guardian
Al-Jazeera has probably played a far more important role in the events in Tunisia and Egypt than social media, but all the attention has been focused on the latter. Scared regimes in the region are starting to catch onto this. What's the betting on a satellite TV clampdown in Syria and Jordan?!

Egypt Protests: Israel Fears Unrest May Threaten Peace Treaty, Ian Black, The Guardian
Israel loves its Collaborator in Chief Hosni Mubarak. Perrish the thought that someone powerful may stand up to Israel one day!

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Viva La Revolución

One can't help but have a good degree of scepticism towards the unfolding events in the Middle East given the number of times that we have seen such movements co-opted by reactionary forces, or crushed by the military around the world. Commentary within the Western media has been a continuation of the realist grand narrative that has underpinned policy towards the region for such a long time; namely that the US and her European allies have a difficult balance to strike between the support of democratic forces and the need for regional peace and stability, something which can only be guaranteed by the likes of Mubarak and Ben Ali. Such policy has however always been weighted firmly in favour of the dictators/peace and stability argument, with only an occasional nod towards democracy and social justice in the region. The irony is that whilst the autocratic regimes have provided a degree of stability through the maintenance of peace with Israel and acquiescence to the US, the reality of such a policy has been to build popular hostility towards America, which is seen to be pulling the strings and keeping these people in power. There has always been the potential that such popular anger could reach a tipping point and endanger prospects for peace. Anyone who has studied the history of political Islam within the region, from the likes of Sayyid Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood to Bin Laden and Zawahiri, will recognise that these are movements essentially driven by domestic political grievances, that have always existed in the context of Western imperialisms, be they British, French or American. Anger that is extended towards the West is reflective of the extent to which Europeans and Americans have denied Arabs true self-determination, through direct interventions as well as the indirect support of corrupt and authoritarian regimes. Soumaya Ghannoushi has written an excellent article for the Guardian in which she highlights how the state system within the Middle East has been that which was inherited from colonial rule; designed to contain divisions and repress dissent, and hence has often lacked popular legitimacy and independence from Western or Soviet sponsors. Whilst early post-colonial Arab leaders enjoyed a degree of popular consent they were replaced by authoritarian rulers who increasingly relied upon external support. States within the region have thus been rotten to the core, and a brewing powder keg ready to explode, with fear the only thing holding people back - now that this has gone anything is possible. The movement in Egypt seems to be drawn from a fairly broad demographic with no particular centre of leadership. Although initially more Middle class and secular, with smaller numbers, the intervention of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Mosques appears to have transformed the momentum of the movement. Reaction within mainstream Western media has unsurprisingly been one of horror directed at the [currently remote] prospect of outright Islamic rule, and hostility towards American interests, repeating the aforementioned peace and stability narrative. Whilst my own personal preference would be for something akin to the Bolivarian Revolution in South America to sweep the Middle East, it would be wrong and unrealistic to project our own desires onto the Middle East, as this has been such a big part of the problem from the outset. It is important to recognise that just as in South America, any grass roots popular changes within the Arab Middle East would likely reflect that regions' own social and cultural traditions, with Islam likely to play a key role. A turn towards Islam and against the established American-led order of international relations does not imply an end to peace in the region. Egypt has been incredibly uncritical of Israel during the last thirty years, and when America remains so unwilling to pressure its ally, the urging of Israel's largest and likely most feared near neighbours, Egypt and Turkey, could play a vital role in forcing a permanent Middle East peace settlement. Of course it is crucial how the West and Israel react to any changes in the region, with hostility likely to be reciprocated. The onus is on the Obama Administration to listen and not impose.

Saturday, 22 January 2011


'Staying Power: Mao and the Maoists', Pankaj Mishra and 'On Mao's Contradictions', Tariq Ali
Pankaj Mishra and Tariq Ali, writing for the New Yorker and New Left Review respectively have written interesting reviews of the recent literature on Mao, with much contention still surrounding the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Western academic discourse has been dominated by the legacy of Cold War anti-communist rhetoric in recent decades, painting a vision of Mao as a brutal tyrant and placing the horrors of his revolution on a par with those of the Holocaust and Stalin's Gulag, during the Twentieth Century. History is however usually more nuanced than this account can hope to be and Mishra and Ali succeed in highlighting the attention given to the complexities of Mao's rule in more recent work on the subject. In the context of European, American and Japanese imperialisms, Mishra notes that Mao's most enduring legacy remains the unification and mobilisation of the masses through a uniquely Chinese narrative of lost greatness and renewal, even if his egalitarian ideals may have been subsumed under the banner of mass consumerism. Likewise, for Ali, the historical functioning of Mao's leadership and ideology needs to be properly contextualised. The Chinese Communist Party inherited a legacy of Bolshevik thought that was crucial to its establishment, but proved - as was so often the case - unsuited to the realities of communist rule outside of the Soviet Union:

"The model that new Communists imbibed was the one they encountered in Moscow: a social dictatorship of the Party/bureaucracy that was master of all public life and sustained by institutionalized networks of repression. This was the system put in place when they came to power or even within parties active in the capitalist and colonial worlds. The stifling of debate weakened both Party and state".

In China, Stalinist style purges did not take place, and the Soviet dictum was inverted to become a sustained anti-bureaucratic mass revolution drawing its sustenance from the legitimacy of the collective will; but, Ali points out, Mao's China lacked the representative institutions required to transmit different interpretations of that collective will. What resulted was the failure of the Great Leap and famine in the countryside, with a leadership insulated from the reality of an unfolding human and ecological catastrophe.

The mass demagoguery of the Cultural Revolution likewise demonstrated the anti-bureaucratic currents of Maoist thought, but was rather instigated by Mao and his supporters in a power-grab after they had been sidelined. The effects, Ali notes however, were quite contradictory in many respects, unleashing new concepts of social mobility and patterns of thought, beyond what could have been intended. Mishra also, quotes Amartya Sen on the Great Leap. Sen argues that India has seen worse:

"...despite the gigantic size of excess mortality in the Chinese famine, the extra mortality in India from regular deprivation in normal times vastly overshadows the former".

Roderick MacFarquhar adds that: "what Mao accomplished between 1949 and 1956 was in fact the fastest, most extensive, and least damaging socialist revolution carried out in any communist state." Further, for Mishra a complex and often unfavourable geopolitical climate must be accounted for: "...the uprising in Tibet in 1959, anti-American riots in Taiwan, border clashes with India, the Sino-Soviet rift..."

What therefore are we to make of Mao? The enduring appeal of Maoist ideology no-doubt lies in its appeal to down-trodden populations and its possibilities for communism as a mass-movement as opposed to the Soviet model of top-down bureaucracy and oligarchy, and the inequalities of capitalism. Its failures lie in the demagoguery and dogma associated with a mass-movement that came to centralise power in the hands of a few, with the inability to transmit signals to the centre. We can learn a lot from this. Whilst I would not go so far as to say that Mao is in need of rehabilitation or emulation, the historical record certainly deserves an account that is not still driven by the vagaries of McCarthyism's rhetorical norms over half a century on.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Fück Christmas

Let us all join with Richard Dawkins at this festive time of year as he highlights the inherent violence of the Christian message. We are all stained with sin therefore god must send his son down to brutally sacrifice himself in order to forgive us. Yay. Humbug!

Image shamelessly lifted from B3ta.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Cablegate (lol)

The Vince Cable affair raises some interesting issues both in terms of the way today’s revelations emerged and more broadly the substance of the News Corp-BSkyB takeover deal, as well as Vince Cable’s place in government over the past few months. The Telegraph had clearly got no intention of publishing the complete record of Cables' comments with its' reporters, given its antipathy towards the afore mentioned deal, and so it therefore fell on the BBCs' Robert Peston, aided by a whistleblower, to swing the metaphorical axe. I imagine the BBC may live to regret this given the now near certainty of the deal being finalised. But, then again, maybe this is not all that surprising given recent comments by the BBC director general Mark Thompson, saying that Britain needs a channel like Fox News! And likewise, this stinks to high-heaven of Peston, a former Sunday Telegraph editor, 'getting one over' his old bosses. Whilst I'm certainly not in favour of secrecy in general I'd be very much inclined to side with the current Telegraph editors on this one. Given the moral outrage we've seen from the Murdoch Media Empire directed towards Wikileaks and Julian Assange in the past few weeks, it would certainly be difficult to have much if any sympathy if the Telegraph had manage to cover the story up. However, there is more to this story. Although Cable has survived with his job for the time being, the consensus is that this is unlikely to last much into the new year, with friend of the Tories, David Laws slated for a return. One can clearly see in the comments that Cable made to the Telegraph's reporters - whom he thought were constituency members - a clear moral unease and insecurity in the role he has played in the coalition. It has been no secret that Cable has never been the most trenchant supporter of government policy within the Cabinet, and he sought to justify his continued position there to the journalists, talking about 'picking his fights' and saying 'all we can do in opposition is protest'. He likewise talked about Cameron's secret plans to abolish winter fuel allowance, insinuating that he was fighting a valuable rearguard action behind enemy lines. Whilst this may have been the case to an extent one can't help but wonder whether any of this was really necessary in the first place for Mr Cable. He could have stopped this coalition government before it ever got off the ground, and that was definitely the opportune moment... before the juggernaut had started rolling. When he finally loses his job to the neo-liberal Laws, Cable, I imagine, will ask himself whether it was really worth compromising his principles in the first place (surely they're only good as long as they are adhered to, no?) Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end for the coalition, and he'll end up leading a backbench rebellion of Lib Dem MPs, but I think Cable may well have overestimated the influence he actually has. His own influence in government seems to have been increasingly marginalised, and its questionable whether he is really willing to lead a Lib Dem revolt, or even whether the Lib Dem backbenches have any stomach for the fight. Government patronage, with the prospect of a place on the front benches may be too much for many of them. As for the takeover deal itself I find it particularly galling how the European Commission can be so hostile towards Google yet see nothing wrong with Murdoch's dominance of news media in the UK. I think many people on the Left will likely echo my own position that its difficult to have a whole lot of sympathy with the position Cable has put himself in, having kept schtum during the past few months. Whilst I'd relish a 'war' on Murdoch this clearly isn't going to happen any time soon, and although I'd like some positive spin-off from this whole saga, unfortunately the position of the government seems like it may well have been strengthened here. We all know what a government united in its neo-liberal fervour and backed by a strengthened Murdoch Media Empire is likely to entail for the rest of us.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Follow the Money

'Covert Operations: The Billionaire Brothers Who Are Waging a War Against Obama', Jane Mayer
Writing for the New Yorker, Jane Mayer has written a fascinating article describing how funding by Charles and David Koch has been used to promote the Tea Party movement, and deny climate change whilst obstructing pollution control and public health measures in the United States. Mayer points out the irony of Tea Party rhetoric that is directed against 'special interests' in Washington whilst in reality being directed by the mother of all corporate 'special interest' lobbying/financing campaigns (read 'corruption'). Koch industries, controlled by two of the richest men in America, the Koch brothers Charles and David (they kicked their other brothers Freddie and William off the board), has funded numerous think tanks and foundations supposedly offering neutral and impartial policy advice. Rather conflicts of interest have been their modus of operandi writ large, advancing their companies' profit margins above all else. Koch industries has been prosecuted and fined for numerous pollution offences and the robbery of Indian oil - after which they set their private investigators on members of a Congressional Committee - whilst perhaps most worryingly of all, their money seems to have had a very real effect in undermining public confidence in climate change science. Thus, there should be no doubt in any persons' mind as to who is really behind and benefitting from the undermining of serious attention to problems of climate change and conservation; the rich and powerful! I struggle to understand how anyone can care so little about the natural environment of this planet, and its amazing diversity of life. No amount of money could ever make me not give a shit about this planet. It also gets me that the only proposal our planet has for tackling climate change is 'carbon trading' with the creation of another bullshit market. WTF?

Friday, 17 December 2010

Berlusconi and Media Asymmetry

Silvio Berlusconi... the man is a caricature of himself, a stereotype of the reactionary, robber-baron, arch-bastard villain of the left. His hero is Napoleon Bonaparte (yes, he even bought his bed), he's been involved in just about every scandal and gaffe possible, yet still managed to hold on to power thanks in no small part to his control of the country's media and judiciary, as well as 'allegedly' buying off the legislature in this weeks crucial vote, after his own followers had finally grown sick of his antics. His chosen tactic of survival at present involves picking off (some would dare say 'buying') members of opposition parties and attempting to co-opt them into his government, whilst appealing to the need for 'strong government' to remedy the economic instability that the PM and his cronies have helped create; benefitting as ever from the chaos that the Italian electoral system throws up. Whilst the outside world seems to have a morbid fascination in seeing just how long he can actually last in the face of mounting popular revulsion towards him, the reality for Italians (and 'others' living in Italy) is very different. Italian politics is portrayed by the rest of the world's media as a joke and decidedly inferior due to the inherent character flaws of the Italian male, exemplified by Berlusconi. Thankfully, they got some revenge when a twitter feed being displayed on giant TV screens at the EU summit in Brussels was hijacked today, with 'tweets' of abuse from Italian users labelling him a 'Mafioso' and a 'Paedophile'. In an environment when politicians and businessmen seem to be increasingly impervious to any kind of rational criticism it pays to remind them just how we really feel, and make their lives as uncomfortable as possible, something that established media are unable and unwilling to do given their corporate ties. It therefore falls to forms of new media to provide a tool with which an alternative political discourse can be disseminated. Of course what I have in mind hear is something a little more high-brow than simply throwing abuse at Berlusconi, as fun as that may be. The video below by David Harvey is the best example I've come across of a new media presentation that seeks to portray a complex political message (the financial crisis and Marxist critique of capitalism) in an accessible and easy to understand manner.

N.B: For anyone interested further in the Berlusconi phenomenon, here's a recording of an interesting lecture by Stephen Gundle called, 'Berlusconi in Historical Perspective'.

Monday, 29 November 2010


The unfolding wikileaks revelations detailing the 'frankness' of American diplomats are interesting beyond the immediately apparent scandalous front page stories and geopolitical fallout because they expose fundamental issues in the conduct of international diplomacy and political discourse, that mainstream media and government are not at all keen for us to talk about. Elite reaction to the revelations has unsurprisingly been to emphasise their criminality and the endangerment of international stability, as well as perceived American interests. However, we should leave aside issues of legality here because secrecy should never be a cover for illegal and immoral behaviour on the part of government. Revelations such as these should shatter the myth that the modern democratic state and its agents are some kind of dispassionate arbiter of the collective good (aka 'national security'/'the national interest'), producing rational, scientific policy. The use of language in these communiques should highlight to anyone who reads them, the broad sweeping assumptions our politicians and bureaucrats have of the world, that are far from being objective, but rather, advance specific ideological interests. The documents confirm the charge of hypocrisy that has so often been leveled at American foreign policy... America cannot live up to the image of benign moral righteousness it seeks to project to the rest of the world. The truth is that it wouldn't be a difficult thing for diplomats to use restrained language and provide policymakers with a more balanced range of opinions. And its not actually that difficult to not lie. Politicians could always practice what they preach, no? I don't think its unrealistic moralising to expect that people can and should behave in a more honest way. Diplomacy is meant to be a skilled, restrained way of conducting oneself... is this not what we mean when we say that such and such a person is being 'diplomatic'? It should not be an aggressive, corrupt, duplicitous 'game' that it is cloaked by unnecessary secrecy. If wikileaks has endangered the internal stability of Yemen by exposing the lies their government have told the population about the presence of the American military on its soil, then this is something they should have thought about in advance; especially the Americans, it seems obvious that there was a good chance of this getting out at some stage anyway. These kinds of repeated American military interventions in the region wouldn't be necessary if all the talk about democracy and human rights was lived up to. America has spent the entire post-1945 period doing its level best to support corrupt, autocratic regimes, impose itself on the region and generally piss everyone off. Chickens coming home to roost methinks.

N.B: Its also interesting to note how the whole Iran issue has been spun already. The Iranians themselves have latched onto this, accusing the US government of being behind the wikileaks releases, and trying to downplay them. Whilst I think this is a bit far fetched, the anti-Iranian consensus revealed by the leaked documents has certainly been leapt upon by Western media, and strengthens the hand of the American right and Israel, in their unending clamour for war.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Ed Miliband: 'I'm a Socialist'

This is hilarious. He says he is opposed to public ownership, but wants to bring about social justice. When asked about his backtracking over the student protests against tuition fees he responded with: "I said I was going to go and talk to them at some point. I was tempted to go out and talk to them", but: "I think I was doing something else at the time, actually". This may be down to a genuine fear of being 'kettled' by the police but is more than likely just him being spineless in the face of media criticism. Talking about the 'people's party' is complete nonesense if he doesn't even have the balls to 'talk to them at some point'. He also said his concern was for the 'squeezed middle classes', and said he wouldn't be attending any Trade Union protests... even more entertaining as he relied upon union votes to get elected as Labour leader. This all brings to mind a good article I read on the BBC website by Brian Wheeler yesterday, highlighting what has been a major bugbear of mine for some time now; namely the constant employment of the word 'progressive' by douchebag politicians. Language is very much reflective of the dominant power structures in society, so we shouldn't after all be too surprised to see someone like David Cameron using a word that has always had such leftist connotations. It reflects the dominance of neoliberal market ideology in Western politics, as evidenced in the whole New Labour project in the UK. It also demonstrates the de-politicisation of politics, with mass media, spin doctors and a culture of soundbites used to render political language banal and devoid of any intellectual merit, a la the 'newspeak' of George Orwells' 1984. Still, this annoys the hell out of me.