On the assassination in Woolwich

Given the significant impact of the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich by two British converts to Islam, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, I’m moved to make a brief comment on what I consider its implications. The ethics of the attack itself can be debated until the cows come home; as ethics are essentially subjective and arbitrary, they cannot really be argued out, and nobody will convince anyone else of the ethical merits or demerits of such an action if they do not already share that view. I will therefore not say much about that, though this is not to say I have no ethical concerns about it. But the political and strategic consequences are real and should be debated widely. The first point is that an attack of this kind cannot simply be considered a blow against British imperialism, even if it is – as voiced by the assassins themselves – clearly a response to British foreign policy, not least the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Continue reading “On the assassination in Woolwich”

Massacre in Norway

“Half my friends are dead.
I will make you new ones, said earth.
No, give me them back, as they were, instead,
with faults and all, I cried.”
– Derek Walcott, Sea Canes

The massacre of scores of innocent and unsuspecting Norwegians by a right-wing extremist would normally leave little room for commentary or analysis. The actions of madmen are like natural disasters: they can evoke awe and terror, pity and fear, but since they are bereft of rationale they do not lend themselves to the normal processes of abstract reason, appealing to raw emotion only. But the actions of Anders Behring Breivik, in bombing a government headquarters in Oslo and simultaneously executing in cold blood a large number of young people gathered for the summer camp of the Norwegian social-democratic youth wing AUF, are not entirely of this kind. Firstly, because the man does not appear to be insane, but on the contrary very much in control of his faculties. His hastily cribbed manifesto in favor of a restoration of Europe against the perceived threat of Islam and immigration generally contains nothing that has not been done before, and does not rate him as a particularly intelligent man, unlike for example the terrorist Kaczynski. Its clichés are as dull as they are plagiarized. But the mode in which the terrorist attack was undertaken suggests it was the fruit of years of careful planning, as some of his statements on online accounts also seem to indicate, and he effected his plans with consummate skill and care. Unlike most madmen is also his decision not to commit suicide after his deeds, but to actually surrender to the police when they finally arrived. Presumably his motive was to publicize his political views further, and he seems to have succeeded in this as well.

Much has now been written about his ideas: his identification as a ‘conservative Christian’, his hatred for ‘multicultural’ Norway (such as it is), the paranoid fear of an all-encompassing Islamic conspiracy brought into Europe by means of the Trojan Horse of immigrants and refugees, and pulled happily into the gates by ‘cultural Marxist’ social-democratic politicians, who thereby are ipso facto traitors to Europe’s identity and survival. Much of this is the usual fare accompanying the revival of the European ultra-right in recent years, but that it actually inspired someone to go about not attacking some unsuspecting Afghan refugee in an alleyway, but systematically attempting to murder the next generation of social-democrats is a completely new (though not unpredictable) development. That the killer was so astoundingly efficient at his operation is thereby all the more frightening. While we, as the real ‘cultural Marxists’ (!), will continue to have our strong differences with the mainstay of continental social-democracy – itself trending ever rightward under the pressure of Europe’s fascistoid nouvelle vague in politics – this case of mistaken identity on the part of Breivik and his ‘peaceful’ fellow travellers hardly diminishes how serious the implications of this threat are. Not since the Gladio/P2 conspiracies in Italy in the 1970s and early 1980s has there been such a direct assault by what are essentially fascist elements (whatever romantic reactionary garb they may clothe themselves in, whether Knights Templar or Roman legions) on the organized left, broadly understood. With members of Italy’s Lega Nord already underlining their essential agreement with Breivik on his political outlook, and with the political fortunes of Hungarian fascists and immigrant-baiters such as Geert Wilders and Jean-Marie Le Pen waxing, this threat is considerably more serious in the longer run than the occasional islamist fanatic. The latter have no meaningful organisation and no power, and chances of them obtaining any are negligible; the same cannot be said for the former.

The sad occasion, as is often unfortunately the case, also presents an opportunity for socialism. Now is the chance to see the folly of the attempts by so many social-democratic and ‘left’ parties to attempt to appease the right-wing and the traditionalist currents in European politics. Now is the chance to stand by workers and taxpayers, no matter where they are from, and to reject the politics of xenophobia and division in clear terms. Now too is the chance to take the threat of the new fascism and its fellow travellers seriously, including the very real physical aspects of this threat. Now is also the chance to reject the failed politics of the incoherent ‘War on Terror’, which did nothing to prevent or even consider this massacre, one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Europe in decades. Now is the chance to reject the American-inspired policies of repressing the people’s civil liberties while engaging in one hopeless crusading adventure abroad after another, while the snake of fascism rears its ugly head at home. Whatever one may think of their political position in general then, all plaudits should go to the government of Norway, led by Jens Stoltenberg, and its admirable response to this event. In the best traditions of socialism, unexpected perhaps from the usually jelly-kneed social-democratic political class of today, Stoltenberg and his associates have immediately made clear that they will not respond with stricter laws, ad-hoc repression of liberties, or calls for executions; nor will they entertain the idea that the presence of migrants among them is in any way the ‘real cause’ of Breivik’s actions. They have singularly refused to change the peaceful and cooperative tone that usually characterizes Norwegian politics and have correctly identified Breivik’s own hatred as the real cause, not its victims. In rejecting both the temptation of the police state and the scapegoating of the migrants, Stoltenberg and his colleagues have shown themselves true statesmen and -women. All praise also for the people of Norway, who have immediately responded in kind to this appeal to their common social-democratic tradition: they have shown solidarity, rather than xenophobia, and pity, not hatred.

Surely one cannot pretend in too naive terms that all political issues let themselves be buried in the spirit of brotherhood without further ado, even in Norway. One can certainly ask pointed questions about the Norwegian contingent in Afghanistan, and one should not forget that it is mainly its position as an oil rentier state that allows Norwegian politics to be so peaceful and so close to ‘the administration of things’, as socialists used to see the ideal politics free from class conflict. But this in no way diminishes the impressive nature of the Norwegian response to this tragedy, compared to which the vengeful instincts of powerful groups of people in for example the United States or India, after similar events, stand out as shrill. Perhaps this moment of reflection then can give us a sign that European social-democracy, within which Norway certainly represents its more ‘old school’ wing, still has strength and potential for a real socialist stance that stands out among the warmongers and immigrant-hunters of today. It is a tragedy that such a moment had to be bought at such a terrible price.

Commentaries on the News (May 21, 2009)

A Bomb Plot in New York

News of today indicates that the FBI has proceeded to arrest in New York City a number of conspirators, prisoner converts to islam, who are alleged to have attempted to buy heavy weaponry to undertake terrorist attacks on various targets in the city.

The FBI arrested four men Wednesday in what authorities called a plot to detonate a bomb outside a Jewish temple and to shoot military planes with guided missiles.
Officials told The Associated Press the arrests came after a long-running undercover operation that began in Newburgh, N.Y., about 70 miles north of New York City.
James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen, all of Newburgh, were charged with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction within the United States and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles, the U.S. attorney’s office said.
The men had planned to detonate a car with plastic explosives outside a temple in the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale and to shoot military planes at the New York Air National Guard base at Stewart Airport in Newburgh with Stinger surface-to-air guided missiles, authorities said.
In their efforts to acquire weapons, the defendants dealt with an informant acting under law enforcement supervision, authorities said. The FBI and other agencies monitored the men and provided an inactive missile and inert explosives to the informant for the defendants, a federal complaint said.
The investigation had been under way for about a year.
In June 2008, the informant met Cromitie in Newburgh and Cromitie complained that his parents had lived in Afghanistan and he was upset about the war there and that many Muslim people were being killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan by U.S. military forces, officials said.
Cromitie also expressed an interest in doing “something to America,” they said in the complaint.
Rep. Peter King, the senior Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, was briefed on the case following the arrests.
“This was a long, well-planned investigation, and it shows how real the threat is from homegrown terrorists,” said King, of New York.
The defendants, all arrested in New York City, were expected to appear in federal court in suburban White Plains on Thursday. They were jailed Wednesday night and couldn’t be contacted for comment. The FBI didn’t immediately return a telephone message Wednesday night seeking information on whether the men had lawyers.

It may immediately be emphasized that regardless of our quarrel with American policy at home and abroad, and perhaps with the structure of American society as it is now, nobody can expect the American government or its people to let themselves be targeted by terrorist groups seeking to ‘make a point’. Indeed, such activities are under current circumstances useless, as they do nothing to seriously damage American imperialism, they are likely to provoke a reactionary shift in American politics as a response to a perceived level of threat from inside and outside, and they are additionally likely to increase the general hostility towards the followers of Islam within the United States. All of these results are undesirable.

What it however also proves is the inanity of the supposed policy of the United States and its allies in waging war in Afghanistan and elsewhere in an attempt to wage ‘war on terror’, or to ward off the threat of terror. As the quote from the arrested themselves shows, the war in Afghanistan has provoked many, even safely inside the United States itself, to see the United States as such a menace to world peace and the survival of numerous peoples in the wider world, that they are as a result concluding that it is a legitimate target for terrorist strategies. In this way, the terror of sudden death from the air in Afghanistan today is translated into terror of sudden death by explosion for the inhabitants of New York City. Those who would take the ‘war on terror’ to the wider world are warned that if you inflame popular resentment against the United States and its allies, those fires may come to burn you. Wiser was the author of the Gospel of Matthew when he wrote: Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.2


The Lament of the Dongria Kondh

In other news, the native rights organization Survival International reports that the government of India has given permission to the British mining company Vedanta International to expropriate a holy mountain of the small Dongria Kondh people.3 The Dongria Kondh, about 8000 strong, live of hunting and gathering in a remote region of India, in which Vedanta is planning to undertake mining for bauxite, the valuable ore that is used in the production of aluminium.

This case is representative for countless such cases all over the world. While it must be said that it is not likely that peoples such as the Dongria Kondh can maintain their lifestyle in isolation from the world market and capitalist modernity forever, there is little reason nonetheless to applaud this blatant case of ‘primitive accumulation’ on the part of British capital and Indian government alike. The Dongria Kondh will not benefit by the creation of a bauxite mine, as it is likely that the expropriation of their customary land will cast them into the ever-swelling ranks of the proletariat of the underdeveloped nations.

Possibly they shall be forced by sheer necessity of survival to work in the same factory which has is the cause of their expropriation; here as ever capital acts as a vampire, sucking the blood of the living and ever seeking fresh bodies to exsanguinate. The productive capacities of modern society appear to the Dongria Kondh as Faustian machinery, to which they are to be sacrificed as were they ever so many victims of the Aztec sun gods, sacrificed so the sun of capital may ever bestow its light upon the world. The alternative is the disappearance entirely of the Dongria Kondh as they are pulled from their ancient fixed ways and thrown onto the dustbin of history. Being suddenly thrown into circulation as yet a fresh source of ‘free’ labor will be no blessing to these people, as it has never been to natives so uprooted from their land. The loss of land and the cohesion of community offered by the ancient ways of living destroys the independence and dignity of the communities involved as well as their means of survival.4 Few will adapt in time to the relentless machinery of capitalism, and those are likely to become Indian proletarians indistinguishable from any other of that great mass in time; all others shall die out, lamented and remembered only by anthropologists. Capitalism, after all, leaves not even a permanent tombstone for those it crushes under its wheels, a stronger Juggernaut than any hitherto seen in India. Much may be said about the backwardness of the tribal peoples in this region of the world as well as others, and we must not idolize their ossified isolation and neglect the often brutal and immovable internal hierarchies within the tribe, but if they are to be taken up into the ‘competition of peoples’, it must be done upon terms that can achieve a true Aufhebung, not Enclosure or destruction.

Earlier, tribal peoples were succesful in resisting another plan in the state of Orissa to mine the Gandhamardan mountain range, thanks to the solidarity of the Dalits, who have no reason to be enthousiastic about the ‘progress’ brought by foreign investment.5 That their objections often wore the cloak of mysticism and spiritualist superstition is to be rejected, but he who cannot stand naked before his enemies must go in the most effective battle-dress, which in many parts of the world is still religion.


An End to the Civil War in Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan government has jubilantly announced to the world their victory over their long-standing enemies of the LTTE, the nationalist insurgency of the Tamils of the north of the island. Photographs have been shown of the dead body of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE (generally known as the Tamil Tigers).6 The Tamil Tigers had a poor reputation, based on their use of suicide bombing, assassinations as well as recruitment of young soldiers, but the successive Sri Lankan governments often responded with equal violence and terror, even during the last stages of their recent campaign indiscriminately bombing Tamil fugitives, killing hundreds.

The origins of the conflict lie as usual in the history of British colonialism in the area. The British took Ceylon in 1796 from the Dutch, and transformed it from merely a fortified trading post into a veritable plantation for tea and indigo. Since the indigenous Sinhalese were resistant and considered untrustworthy workers, the British imported scores of Tamil from the south of India as plantation workers, and educated a small number of them to fill lower administrative colonial posts. This served the double advantage of lowering the costs of administration (a British official in the colonies being endlessly more demanding than a local and therefore unsuited for rote clerical tasks) as well as dividing the population of the island into two camps, making one dependent on British protection against the indigenous majority. Divide et impera has ever been the motto of imperial rule, especially in the direct exercise of sovereignty over colonies. Much harm has come from it in postcolonial times, as the disappearance of the old colonial power has given governments and militants in many a newly independent nation free rein to settle old ethnic and economic scores. Much here is worsened by religious bigotry between the Buddhist Sinhalese and the Tamil, who are majority Hindu with a Christian minority. Both sides have treated the Muslims on Ceylon with contempt.

After the independence of the country in 1948, the Sinhalese majority increasingly sought to supplant the Tamil minority as rulers over the island, jealous of their privileged position relative to their numbers. Anti-colonial nationalism went hand in hand here, as often, with repression of minorities in the process of forging a strong national unity by the dominant ethnicity. The name of Ceylon was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972 as part of this, although it must be noted the British have continued to use the island for military purposes, as was officially enshrining the dominance of the Sinhalese language. The Tamil resisted, initially politically, but voting along ethnic lines did nothing to diminish the potential for strife. The LTTE formed as a result of this repression of the Tamil and a subsequent search for a separate national state in the north, facing the Tamil region of India. The violence of the hammer of Sinhalese nationalism upon the anvil of Sri Lanka was countered by the LTTE with an equally fierce hammering of Tamil politicians and officials inclined to reconcile themselves to the situation, mostly in the form of assassinations. LTTE jealousy of any alternative Tamil organization and anti-Tamil pogroms in Colombo and elsewhere led to a cycle of civil war that has lasted 26 years.

The main victims of this civil war have been the Sinhalese and Tamil populations of Sri Lanka both, neither of whom have gained much and both of whom have lost much in the endless strife. The civil war in Sri Lanka is but one example of the ways in which anti-colonialism has of necessity generally taken on nationalist forms, since only in the form of the nation-state can a people in the current political framework of capital claim and enforce their independence. Few indeed are inclined to federalism or power-sharing with any other group after centuries of oppression by outsiders, lack of self-determination and the dignity of independence, and purposeful policies of division by the colonial powers besides. Almost every ethnic-religious group in the underdeveloped world has followed the historical path of nationalist formation, with the advantage that the strength of the peoples in this vast majority of the world to resist imperialism and exploitation has greatly increased. But the price has been a steep one, and has been paid in the blood of many, especially by minority ethnic and religious groups in the respective newly minted states. These wars constitute the painful birth of the postcolonial world, and although lamentable cannot entirely be avoided. However, if the cycle of civil war, ethnic strife and militarist corruption is to end, the people of Sri Lanka as well as elsewhere must organize themselves on the basis of an internationalism that shows that they are no longer too insecure about their status as an independent people to extend a hand to their fellow exploited humans. Only when this is done and the workers of the world truly unite against exploitation, and fight for their emancipation not against each other but against capital, can the real development of their societies begin.

1. Associated Press (May 20, 2009).->
2. Matthew 26:52.->
3. Survival International, “Government approves controversial mine” (18 May 2009). http://www.survival-international.org/news/4561.->
4. There is much evidence on the negative impact of loss of native land claims on the peoples involved, in terms of survival as well as perception of well-being. See e.g. Survival International, “Progress Can Kill: How Imposed Development Destroys the Health of Tribal Peoples”. http://www.survival-international.org/lib/downloads/source/progresscankill/full_report.pdf->
5. Peter Foster, “Mining in Orissa threatens Dongria Kondh tribe”, in: The Daily Telegraph (21 April 2008).->
6. “Sri Lanka’s 26-year war ends as LTTE leader Prabhakaran killed”. Indo Asian News Service (May 18, 2009).->