Sunday, February 27, 2011

Scott Walker and trickle-down-democracy

Like other commentators on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to destroy the hard-won collective bargaining rights of public-sector unions, The LA Times’ Mark Barabak missed the point when he wrote that the stakes were nothing less than “the practice of politics in this country, with enormous consequences in 2012 and beyond”.

It is true, as Barabak writes, that the Democratic Party would be much the weaker without financial and grassroots support from unions.  But what is really at stake are the rights of workers and the meaning of democracy.  A long history of anti-labour politics in the U.S. has already weakened the ability of workers to make demands on governments, something that over the long term has led to the ascendancy of corporate power (think of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which puts corporate rights on a par with those of citizens, and equates corporate money with free speech). 

Walker’s bill is a further attempt to wrest the ability to even participate meaningfully in politics away from workers (whether private or public sector, given the emasculation of the former).  Because although voting is important, today’s money-infused elections make it difficult for voters to separate the wheat from the chaff.  And the Republican Party’s message machine, backed by a huge influx of corporate cash, has been especially skilful at ensuring that blatant fearmongering, misrepresentation and even outright lies filter the information that trickles down to the public.

It is therefore important that labour, whether private or public sector, retains the ability to stick up for itself—because politicians who are bombarded by cash from interests who would like nothing better than to eliminate unions are certainly not going to stick up for workers of their own accord.  Unions should be able to strike not only for better wages (the one bone that Walker would leave in place on the carcass of organised labour by the time his corporate hyaenas are through with it), but for workplace safety, in solidarity with other unions, in defence of their members’ pension and healthcare plans, and in protest of corporate abuse.

Walker persists in lying to the public when he argues that his concern is solely for Wisconsin’s budget...that this is why he needs to erode collective bargaining rights.  This is patently untrue, because unions have acquiesced to demands that their health plans and retirements be cut.  Barabak also points out that Walker is lying when he claims to have warned Wisconsinites that his assault on labour was coming (he never mentioned his plans during the election cycle that led to his victory in November).

Barabak quotes “Phil Musser, a GOP consultant and former director of the Republican Governors Association” as saying “’You have [government workers] essentially enjoying an outmoded set of benefits that have no bearing on the macroeconomic situation, either in the states or nationally’”.

This is a shocking statement.  But it reaffirms the commitment of the GOP at large (because Walker’s success would encourage the party to take similar action in other states or even at the federal level) to bringing the rights and standards of public sector workers down to the level of those who have already been denied labour rights.  The logical thing to do in difficult economic times would be to ensure that all workers have strong and secure pension and health plans that would protect their welfare.  It would make sense to keep collective bargaining rights in the hands of both public and private sector workers, to ensure that the comparatively more vulnerable among us (because let’s be clear, the people on the other side are the wealthy who have been bailed out by the federal government time and again) have democratic rights in keeping with their numbers and their contributions to the creation of wealth in our country.

And their benefits have every bearing on the macroeconomic situation.  Unions were in a difficult situation, and so it is understandable that they were willing to agree to Walker’s cuts to their retirements and healthcare.  But the fact of the matter is, working class people should not have to give up a dime of their pay checks, retirements or health benefits until tax breaks for the wealthy are repealed, until corporate loopholes are slammed shut, and until every effort to equitably redistribute the pain of the recession that was caused by a corrupt financial sector has been made.

Because the potential outcome of the fight in Wisconsin has the potential to be oh so much more than a transformation of politics in the party-political vein that many commentators have suggested.  It could herald the transformation of our rights to participate meaningfully in politics, the right to make our voices heard, and the right to argue about the necessity of equality and socioeconomic justice.

What we will see, should Walker triumph is a move—by way of a return to trickle-down-economics—toward trickle-down-democracy.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Pentagon's enemies? The U.S. Congress and the Public, apparently

If you haven’t, you should pick up the latest edition of Rolling Stone, because once again they’ve beat the ‘real journalists’ to a story in Afghanistan.  Last time it was about the contempt of a general and his hangers-on for their civilian leaders.  This time, it’s in some respects more sinister.  Multiple figures in the military stand accused of using a psy-ops team to wage what amounted to psychological warfare, on visiting politicians to manoeuvre them into sending more money and soldiers (this is illegal, given bans on using psy-ops techniques on American citizens).  Not only does this move suggest that a wing of the military establishment risks becoming an appendage of the Republican Party, but that it is more committed to making policy than to carrying out orders. 

We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the conduct of our wars is characterised by insubordination, incompetence and mendacity, given some of the things we’ve learned recently: about McChrystal’s feelings about his civilian commanders (that they were weak); about a major source of Iraqi intelligence, Curveball (that he lied but that no one thought to look into it); about efforts to recruit Taliban leaders (that we got taken for a ride); and about our secret war in Pakistan (that no one’s willing to talk about it).

And I can already hear the Pentagon’s response to this latest revelation.  It will be noted that the officers concerned have been reprimanded.  Maybe there will even be a discharge.  But we will be assured that they were just a few bad apples, and that like Abu Ghraib, McChrystal’s indiscretions, the Pat Tillman and other cover-ups, the hiring of ex-Blackwater contractors as CIA agents, etc, this behaviour was aberrant. 

No matter that the fierce assault mounted by Lt. Gen. William Caldwell (the officer who ordered the illegal operation) on soldiers who questioned the morality and legality of his orders seems all-too typical of the military’s response to critical thinking.  Or that in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan too many politician have been prepared to sell their allegiance blindly to the military, embracing whatever strategy the generals propose (Diane Feinstein, for one) in return for the political capital that comes from wrapping themselves in the same flag that drapes the coffins of the soldiers who pay the price for their off-season and off-colour electioneering. 
Even California’s more progressive Senator, Barbara Boxer, though willing to use her opposition to the war in Iraq as a selling-point during election season, has been very unwilling to answer requests from this constituent and others for information about the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I’ve written to both Boxer and Feinstein (and the departments of State and Defense) on a number of occasions with detailed and specific questions about (among other things) the extent of their knowledge about operations in Pakistan, the levels of accountability they demand regarding such operations from the President and the military, the relationship between U.S. military efforts and national security threats, and their stance on protecting military whistleblowers.  And every response is a boilerplate e-mail, expressing the Senator’s solicitous concern for my views, and outlining some absurdly vague statement of principles.  The open contempt for constituents and the lack of respect for the duties they owe voters is truly breathtaking.

California should be particularly disappointed in the efforts of our representatives to hold the President and the military to account in where the waging of pointless, bloody and costly wars are concerned.  Feinstein (whose husband is helping to sell the University of California down the river) happily turned herself into a cheerleader for the surge in Afghanistan that has seen us supporting warlords (the next generation of U.S.-backed dictators, one wonders), increasing civilian deaths, employing ever-increasing numbers of private security companies with abysmal records, mounting destructive night raids, hiring drug lords, and botching air strikes on Pakistan.  She helped General McChrystal and congressional Republicans back Obama into a corner, and pressured him relentlessly to escalate operations in South Asia. 

And Boxer, while touting her desire to get the troops home as quickly as possible, has demurred from using her pulpit or her popularity amongst Democrats to raise the profile of one of the longest, sorriest, and most pointless wars that the U.S. has ever waged.   

Every twist and turn in Afghanistan suggests that the rot went beyond the Bush administration, that the culture of the military, the condition of our politics, and the flaws in our democracy have created the conditions that allow a President who was elected as a progressive to wind up waging wars in three countries, bullied by a military that wages its own psychological war on both Congress and the population at large, while all parties do their best to keep the public in the dark.  It is a sorry state of affairs, and though it shows no sign of changing, we should all do what we can to make it clear that it is a state of affairs which is unacceptable.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Oakland rallies for Wisconsin

The air grew cold as the sun made its descent in the early evening, and before the sky darkened, the soaring sides of Oakland’s downtown buildings took on a golden hue.  But however cold it got, it wasn’t, the small crowd that gathered at the corner of 15th and Clay could tell itself, anywhere near as cold as in Madison, Wisconsin.

Because that, of course, was why we were there.  To show solidarity, in however small a way, with beleaguered public sector workers in Wisconsin whose collective bargaining rights are being targeted by a Republican governor in an action that has become impossible to read as anything other than an all-out assault on organised labour in the United States.   

The scale of Republicans’ assault on rights that generations of workers fought to obtain can be gauged by the spending of national anti-labour organisations in attacking Wisconsin’s public sector unions, and the promise that’s come from other Republican governors eager to emulate Walker.  These people are engaged in that most sordid of practises—dividing the workforce, on which our economy depends and to which we owe our prosperity, against itself. 
Republicans, in waging class warfare on behalf of their affluent benefactors, are appealing to people’s basest instincts.  They are suggesting that, rather than working together to improve the condition of all workers—private and public sector alike—we should concentrate all our efforts on reducing all labour to the lowest common denominator.  Rather than ensuring that employers in the private sector should be bound to provide healthcare, retirement benefits, job security and working conditions of a certain elevated quality, they encourage private sector workers to simply aid them in destroying the benefits that public sector workers have accrued.

It has become common for people to suggest that the Republican Party is trying to drag the country take us back to an age in which people had but very little control over the work that they did and the compensation for which they did that work, however hard it proved, and in whatever strenuous conditions it was done.  But really they are doing something altogether more disturbing.  They are trying to destroy the very idea of social democracy, any viability of the mere notion of socialism, and to completely erase the gains made slowly and painfully over many lifetimes...gains which not only immeasurably improved the conditions in which people live, but fundamentally changed (I believe for the better) the way in which people think of themselves in relation to society as a whole.

But if Republicans achieve their truly frightening goals, it will be against the stiff opposition of people like those gathered in Oakland.  Long-time union members, community organisers, people with no union affiliation at all stood up and proclaimed their support for workers in Wisconsin.  Their voices were fired by something—it was hard to tell whether it was hope that labour is on the cusp of mobilising in a way that it hasn’t for many years in the U.S, or fear that what mobilisation comes will be too little, too late.
It must have looked, in some respect, a lonely little gathering, just a few hundred people on a street corner, their passionate calls for action just a small flicker, their voices in danger of being swallowed up in the bowels of the city, amidst the tumult of traffic and the din of daily life.  But it is our responsibility to think a bit longer and harder on what, at root, the attack on labour means for us all, in terms of our democracy, our society, and our livelihoods. 

Monday, February 21, 2011

Union-baiting: a Republican Party tradition

The political Right got a nasty surprise in both Britain and the United States last week.  In England, vociferous protests and lobbying against utterly pointless as well as costly efforts by a Tory-Liberal government to sell off Britain’s public forests forced a climb-down on the part of David Cameron and his ministers.  And in Wisconsin, public- and private-sector workers alike are having none of Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to balance his budget by assaulting both their livelihoods and political rights.

Walker’s move—to target public workers’ benefits, and their collective bargaining rights—is straight from the hymn-book of the new breed of Republican that has been emerging in recent years.  It demonises anything public, denies that members of society owe each other anything, and puts a balanced budget at the heart of policy—but crucially, pretends that the only way to solve any budget shortfalls is to go after the public sector: top earners, large businesses, major industries and corporations, and other key Republican Party constituents are off-limits from the outset.

Walker, like many of his ideological compatriots in the U.S. congress, evinces a deep contempt and disrespect for people who do essential work in our communities.  Poorly-paid in comparison to their counterparts in many other countries, teachers in the U.S. have relied on strong unions support to make gains.  And their lobbying, through entirely aboveboard and legitimate means is crucified Republicans (Meg Whitman went after CTA with a vengeance during California’s gubernatorial election last fall) who don’t blush defending the underhanded and much less democratic lobbying of corporate and industrial interests that (thanks to the Supreme Court’s rulings on the personification of corporations and the peculiar qualities of money) have a hammerlock on our politics.  It is extraordinary that public sector workers are vilified in this way by lawmakers who are themselves, ostensibly at least, public servants.  If anything, we should be promoting the extension of collective-bargaining rights, so that people across sectors have the right to make the case collectively for their economic needs. 

The story that the right seeks to tell is that working people who combine to argue for decent compensation are creating a budget deficit.  The other side of that story is that legislators who refuse to raise the kind of revenue that is necessary to pay the people who perform essential services in their state are shirking their duties and creating a budget deficit.  Or that lawmakers who are giving away tax breaks to businesses (as in Wisconsin) are generating a budget deficit through their subscription to trickle-down and flow-up economics. 

The attacks on unions are part of a larger story that Republicans are trying to tell about how our country should work.  A Budget, they tell us, is a neutral yet virtuous goal, which emerges from some process of Immaculate Conception involving the principles of Ronald Reagan, the brainpower of Rush Limbaugh, a blessing from the Tea Party Caucus, and possibly some kind of swift intervention on the part of Ron Paul.

But this is, of course, nonsense.  A budget is the product of any number of political decisions, and whether or not, as well as how, it addresses a deficit is the outcome of political decisions.  So when Governor Walker says that it is better that union employees should give up their bargaining rights and pay more into their pension and medical plans than that children should have their healthcare taken from them, he is being transparently dishonest about the process.  A budget is not an either-or, not a choice between a left-wing deficit and right-wing solvency, and doesn’t even have to be a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea.

It is, though you’d never guess this listening to the remorseless far-right, perfectly possible to generate a budget which cuts back on deficit spending while maintaining the rights of public employees (and no one aside from the Republican Party is arguing that private-sector workers shouldn’t unionise) and the welfare of a state or nation’s people.  That budget too would come as the result of political choices.  But they would be political choices that put the rights of workers ahead of large employers, and well-being writ large ahead of profit writ narrowly. 

And Walker’s most persistent refrain—“We’re broke!”—is another Republican sleight of hand.  Even a state like California, which is teetering on a financial chasm, isn’t broke.  There is plenty of money in the state to go around.  Plenty of wealth to provide for the well-being of its people.  What is lacking is goodwill on the part of the wealthy, and unwillingness on the part of state government, to ensure that wealth is more equitably distributed.  Blaming unions is simply a tactic to distract attention from the inequality of wealth which characterises our society.

It was refreshing to hear Obama come out in support of protestors in Wisconsin when he condemned Walker’s unhinged assault on labour.  Unhinged because so unnecessary, and so firmly in the grand tradition of scaremongering practised by a party that bases much of its appeal on rhetoric that grew out of a Cold War habit of tarring labour as an arm of Soviet Communism.

The Republican Party has, through a series of ideological contortions that have largely gone unquestioned, made itself the party of “average Americans” while removing the foremost political tool at the disposal of working people to hold the powers that be to account.  Because, far-right scaremongering aside, that is what unionisation is about.  It is about people pooling their interest in order to ensure that their voices are heard. 

Both political parties in the U.S. (albeit with the Republicans out-front in terms of both rhetoric and legislation) have a long history of union-baiting and of placing unconscionable constraints on the ability of people to organise and make demands of their government.

Perhaps most notorious is the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which openly maintained that the rights of employees did not supersede the profits of employers.  It sought to reduce the employee-employer relationship to the connection between an individual and his or her employer, removing collective action, as much as possible, from the equation.  It also made some curious distinctions: between labour and the general welfare, and between labour and the public.  Both ignore what one would assume to be the logical notion that the welfare of the public is nothing if not the welfare of the labour force, and that the general welfare is the welfare of the great majority of our society—namely, that part which labours!

The verbal wedges were accompanied by legislative ones.  By outlawing sympathy strikes, mass picketing, and all unofficial industrial action, Republicans (with the support of many Democrats) effectively disarmed labour, and removed a key platform on which people were able to find commonalities and raise their voices on behalf of their interests.  In the U.S. today, it has become a fashion to think of voting as the beginning and the end of the practise of politics by the public.  But it seems only right that a society will be more democratic if it offers more spheres and openings for people to give voice to desires and to pressure institutions which exercise power (particularly if this is a society that has already been corrupted by an unholy marriage of monied wealth and power). 

The political Right has been unaccountably successful at condemning anyone who questions their logic as ‘radical’ (aided, in some cases, by those on the ahistorical segment of the left who feel the need to fancy themselves militant radicals).  But as that Right gains political power, the contradictions upon which its ideology rests will become increasingly apparent for people to question—as indeed many people are doing in Wisconsin.

The politics of protest have historically been one of the precious few weapons of the weak.  And uneven fight though it may be, there is something powerful in seeing the scale of people’s outrage against blatant favouritism towards wealth.

Taft-Hartley was one of many moves against the working classes in the United States which we should repudiate today.  More than ever, under court- and legislature-backed assaults from corporate interest, and bludgeoned by foul economic winds, working people need the means to hold their political representatives to account.  Because Governor Walker, in common with members of his party in Washington, D.C. and across the country have forgotten something—they are people’s representatives, not their masters, charged with looking after our interests.  They are public servants—and their behaviour and ethics are a discredit to all those other public servants and workers (whether private or public sector) who are braving Wisconsin’s winter, fighting to keep hard-won rights.

The price of a criminal trade

David Cameron, like many Prime Ministers before him, is looking like the worst sort of hypocrite.  On his trip to the Middle East, he is accompanied by defence contractors, and his visit coincides with a massive arms fair in Abu Dhabi.  But in an embarrassed nod to events, he stopped by Egypt to pay the very faintest of lip-service to the pro-democracy forces that recently swept the country’s dictator from power.

This is but one small example of how state authority and legitimacy has an unsavoury relationship with the weapons industry—albeit an example highlighted by the fact that the regimes that British and other arms companies have long propped up appear to be falling like dominoes across the Middle East and North Africa.

There is nothing new in this relationship.  It has been suggested that Tony Blair lobbied as part of a potentially-bribe-ridden arms deal with South Africa in 1999.  Prince Andrew, who acts as the UK’s Special Representative for International Trade, was recently reported to have attacked the press’ irritating habit of investigating corrupt British businesses.  And the foundations of British state power rest on a centuries-old link between military power and arms of the economy that were purpose-built to ensure that the sovereign, and thereafter the government, would always have the capacity to wage war for the purpose of expanding trade and influence *

BAE Systems, a key player in the international arms trade, has been accused again and again of corrupt practises (and was fined £250 million in the U.S. and a paltry £30 million in Britain over corrupt deals in Saudi Arabia and Tanzania), but was let off the hook over the biggest accusation (over an arms deal in Saudi Arabia) by the Blair government.  The extraordinary move to halt a Serious Fraud Office investigation came when the British government related that it had been blackmailed by Saudi Arabia, which threatened to cut off intelligence sharing if the investigation went ahead.  Such a move, Britain regretfully informed a seething public, would have compromised national security.

It is incredible to me that we should tolerate an industry which, indiscriminately, arms governments with wildly varying degrees of commitment to democracy (think Egypt, apartheid-era South Africa, Russia, China, Tanzania) or which make a habit of undertaking military operations that kill people in their tens when not hundreds of thousands (the U.S., Israel, Saddam-era Iraq).  It beggars belief that we should seek to rationalise the existence of a trade which is based around increasing the capacity of people to kill each other around the world.

And if the existence of such a trade, which should be criminalised as speedily as possible (an unlikely proposition, on the face of its rank profitability), isn’t offensive enough, its ties to the upper echelons of governments around the world (which are charged with promoting the well-being of their people) is worse still.

*See John Brewer’s The Sinews of Power: war, money and the English state, 1688-1783 and David Edgerton’s Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970 for two historical examples.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Progressives United

Russ Feingold, the progressive senator from Wisconsin who was ousted in the November elections, has started up a PAC, Progressives United, in an effort to counter the increasing influence of money in our politics.  The organisation is targeting the likes of 'Citizens United', who won the landmark Supreme Court case last year (Money=Free Speech, Corporations=Individuals, so have at it and may the biggest wallet win!).

It will be interesting to see whether the PAC makes any headway, and whether it becomes the vehicle for something larger, whether a progressive primary or general election challenge to Obama (on issues like cuts to public services and the wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan) and the far-right that seems to dominate the Republican Party, or a significant grass-roots movement to push our politics back to the social democratic consensus that was emerging earlier in the century.

At the very least, take a look at the website (it's been down on and off today), and Feingold's interview on MSNBC.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Yo, O!

Yo, O!

It’s not often that I feel compelled to draw simultaneously on the deep rhetorical powers of the 43rd President of the United States and the literary efforts of John McCain’s campaign team, but there’s a chain of events that I’ve been troubled by, and I’d like to get President Obama’s attention.

Barack Obama was brought to national prominence by his attack on the “dumb wars” that characterised the Bush era.  Many of us assumed that “dumb wars” included those which were undertaken immorally, those which were based on the hood-winking of the public or on outright lies, those which jeopardised our national security, and all those which kill the innocent for sordid political purposes.  As a pacifist (though in its earlier historic sense), I would have liked him to go farther still. 

But no matter.  In November of 2008, we had elected a President who had declared his staunch opposition to needless wars.  We expected, perhaps naively, that this reasonableness would extend to other arenas of foreign policy.  And then in late-2009 Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  But something funny happened.  Those same months he was ramping up the U.S. war in Afghanistan and (though he didn’t publicise this and still hasn’t come clean about it) extending that war into Pakistan.  Obama now owns those wars as surely as Bush did Iraq, and I fear that they will prove to be but one among many capitulations that will cripple what started as the most promising presidency in decades.

And now we have Egypt.  A genuinely popular, spontaneous and democratic revolution...the sort that was supposed to break out in Baghdad after we’d bombed it.  But, having committed billions of dollars in military aid to the dictator Mubarak and his henchmen (the foremost of which, erstwhile head of the secret police, appears to be the Obama administration’s preferred successor), Obama has gone weak in the knees yet again. 

Obama and his administration have made ‘stability’ their watchword, apparently totally unaware that the U.S. version of stability in the Middle East—the imposition and support of dictators, the revolution of all policy around the needs of a dangerously militant Israeli leadership, the demonisation of Islam—is predicated on the creation of regimes whose life-cycles involve the explosion of a festering resentment that rightly ends up coming back to haunt the U.S.  Their failure to back a genuinely democratic revolution in Egypt will be remembered by people across the Middle East and the world—whether the brute force of the dictator or the passions of the people prevail.

So returning to my salutation...  I’ve no choice, at this point, but to call Obama the worst kind of hypocrite.  As someone who grew up in a political world dominated and defined by the post-9/11 world ruled by George W Bush and his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I could never bring myself to vote for a President who showed himself to be of that ilk.

So I have a promise for Obama.  If he continues to escalate wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, if he continues his obfuscation in the face of popular protest in the Middle East and elsewhere, I will spend my mornings, noons and nights during 2012 doing what I can for a progressive, anti-war, pro-democracy candidate who isn’t Obama.  I will knock on doors, I will stand on street-corners, I will shamelessly harangue everyone I know.  I will do so whether the candidate in question is a contender or a spoiler, because the massive violence perpetrated by wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, the more secretive interventions in Somali and Yemen, and the brutality that is allowed to pass by acquiescence to dictators in Egypt and elsewhere should not go un-rebuked.

Some people would point to this as a manifestation of the supposedly self-destructive nature of progressivism in the United States.  I’d just call it my “Don’t vote for liars and hypocrites” rule.  And I hope that other progressives, Democrats or otherwise, feel the same way and will act accordingly in 2012.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Empires and Governance

Like all good Americans, I have a venerable Superbowl tradition. In my case, it involves staying as far away as possible from a television showing that most insufferable of spectator sports. But today I wandered into the Great Hall at I-House and caught the first, unmemorable five minutes of the match, along with a demo for international students of the rules of football.

What stuck with me most, from those five minutes, was a particular face in the crowd as the cameras panned excited fans. Possessed of its characteristic simian look, it also wore its accustomed smirk, only marginally less out-of-place in the football stands than when proclaiming “Mission Accomplished!” from the deck of an aircraft carrier. I suspect that the mere sight of W will forever prompt a gag-reflex.

But it also prompted—since for a living I think about the British Empire and colonial governance—some musing on how, the immorality of the event aside, the United States managed to so badly botch its invasion and ‘democratisation’ of Iraq. A friend commented that he’d read that Rumsfeld, in his new memoir, wrote that the administration hadn’t wanted to do too much planning for the post-invasion period...because that would give people the [entirely accurate] impression that the invasion had been planned in advance!

But as I made my escape from the game showing, it occurred to me that there might be another reason why the Bush Administration and its flunkeys proved so spectacularly inept at managing Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the invasion; why post-war planning was so absurd.

The Neoconservatives who ran Bush’s foreign policy share with neoliberals an utter contempt for the institutions of governance. It is an extraordinary irony—which can’t have been lost on the neoconservative thugs in the White House—that a group of people whose outlook is premised on a contempt for representative democracy, the fetishisation of secrecy, the dismantling of checks and balances, and the utter disregard for the responsibility of government towards its people should find themselves nation-building.

Is it any wonder that a people accustomed to governing their own country with the utmost dismissiveness would evince a similar scorn for civil institutions in Iraq? How could we expect a group of people who think that collective responsibility and equality are symptoms of a weak and decadent people would treat Iraqis’ civil society with anything other than derision?

In this flagrant disdain for governance, neoconservative Republicans differ greatly from nineteenth and early twentieth century British practitioners of imperial rule. If an earlier generation of British imperialists expressed varying levels of unease with the idea of formal imperialism (they were much less squeamish about enforcing ‘free trade’ with gunboats and armed landing parties) as with government intervention in Britain, the later nineteenth century witnessed changes.

Rabid imperialist Joseph Chamberlain was a proponent of what is characterised as “municipal socialism”, a theory which influenced imperial reformers like Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The Liberals who presided over the expansion of the British Empire during the Great War were the same men who—under pressure from an impatient working class, the parliamentary Labour Party and visible material conditions—laid the foundations for one of the world’s first modern welfare states. Their number included that most intransigent of imperialists, Winston Churchill.

I wouldn’t make the claim that the British were somehow ‘better’ at governing their conquered territories—theirs was, after all, an often-brutal, frequently-bloody, and inherently exploitative rule. But a serious effort was made by a group of politicians and administrators who were committed to the idea of governance.

Neither the neoconservatives of the Bush White House (committed as they were to discrediting good governance in the United States) nor the current Republican defenders of Bush and Obama’s wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan (and equally committed to neglect as the most effective mode of governance) have the philosophical coherence to make the case for U.S. nation-building. Nor does Obama himself. For although he is clearly less hostile towards the idea of government as something that can and must be made to work for people, his has been singularly unsuccessful at making the case for the importance of public institutions in all our lives.

The deep cultural aversion to thinking about governance as it relates to democracy in positive terms must surely be a severe handicap to U.S. policymakers of most political stripes as they grapple with problems of their own making in the Middle East and South Asia.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Obama on Egypt

Dear President Obama,

I am writing in the hope that you and your administration will do whatever you can to support democracy protests in Egypt which are at this moment coming under what appears to be a coordinated attack by armed henchmen of the dictator who your administration has hitherto aided and abetted with moral and material support, and whose legitimacy was defended by your Vice-President mere days ago.

If there is anything more unconscionable than undemocratic governance, it is the maintenance of that political framework through the kind of naked force by which Mubarak today clings to power. It is brute intimidation, the persecution of the press and assaults on journalists, and reliance on the reticence of your government and others that sustain forces of oppression.

In your inaugural speech, you declared that “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent” should “know that [they] are on the wrong side of history”. Yesterday, Representative Kay Granger suggested that the U.S. should refrain from using its massive grant of military aid to a nation that count 20% of its inhabitants below the poverty line as a bargaining chip.

But if foreign policy is about protecting U.S. interests, and if, as you have suggested, those interests are tied to democratic governance, is it not the height of absurdity to abandon what powers of persuasion we might possess? This would be an abdication of both our responsibility as a people and our obligation as a nation notionally committed to ideals of human rights and democracy.

Yours is an administration that is waging three secretive and bloody wars—in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan—some more of our choosing than others. Yours is a promise riven by contradictions and caught in a turbulent mixture of promises fulfilled and others unkept or forgotten. But the profoundly moving events in Egypt offer you and our country an opportunity.

The people who are gathered, bloody and bruised, but still upright, in Tahrir Square are fired by the notion that they, like another people at the very cusp of political liberation many years ago, have a “tryst with destiny”. What Jawaharlal Nehru said of India is true of Egypt: “the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance” at the kind of moment that “comes but rarely in history”.

If the Egyptian military moves to crush pro-democracy forces in the coming days, or if a dictator’s militias are allowed to plunge bloodily into the square which will now be remembered across the world as a stage on which long-unvoiced aspirations rang loud and strong, it will not be forgotten that the United States stood quietly by. Nor will the same be forgotten if Egypt moves into a new, freer era, unsupported by a country which purports to count itself as a bastion of liberty.

Whether we like it or not, the President of the United States is in many ways the representation of our national moral conscience. You should not shy from doing what is right at this moment.


Jeff Schauer