Monday, 28 November 2016

Trump's Cardinal

Unlikely recount changes notwithstanding, Donald Trump will take office as President of the United
Steve Bannon in 2010
States at the end of January. In the days since the election, his team has been taking shape almost as chaotically as his ducking and diving on some of his policy announcements during the campaign. His narcissism is unbound as he poses in front of his golden elevator and sits on the thone-like chairs that adorn his Trump Tower apartment and many people seem genuinely afraid of where his narrow, uninformed world view and his sheer temperament ("Why do we have nuclear weapons if we can't use them?") might take our planet.

But behind the bluster and bigotry, we shouldn't think the emerging narrative will be chaos. For Trump is neither a fool nor does he stand alone. He represents a strain of thinking, not founded on the people who voted for his cod- "movement" but rather on the small group of rightwing populists who use a valid anti-liberal establishment narrative to push extreme capitalist solutions. These are the people who bemoan the ineffectiveness of welfare and who promote the idea that it needs to be abolished rather than revolutionised. They talk of crony capitalism while advocating for the outsourcing of government to private corporations.

A key figure in this is Steve K Bannon. Originally the TV Director of the successful Seinfeld show, Bannon became the chair of the rightwing Breitbart "news" organisation and Trump's election campaign CEO. He has now been named Chief Strategist for the Trump Presidency. His intellectual rigour and planning strengths will be deployed on behalf of and through one of the most ill-prepared Presidents in history and will be all the stronger because of it. Bannon will almost certainly be the deciding influence in how the next four or, as he had claimed, forty years of American policy and politics are shaped.

There have been some rather hysterical and amateurish attempts to trash him as anti-Semitic in parts of the media, although his revisionist take on Islamic history has been largely ignored - but in truth the threat from Bannon is at once more explicit and more subtle. For his is a logical philosophy, individualistic, radical and utterly stone-hearted, and one that chattering, compromised liberals are singularly unsuited to challenge.

The video below shows Bannon speaking in 2011 to a small group of fellow right radicals. His tone is measured, informed and all the more terrifying because of it. He regrets the challenge of the Occupy Movement as targeting, in his view, the wrong culprits of what he rightly characterises as America's fourth existential crisis and harps back to Lincoln's limited cannon of Shakespeare, Plutarch and the King James Bible as "all you needed" in simpler times. But crisis brings opportunity and "We will be different on each side (of the crisis)," he warns hopefully.

Yet he is not some uniquely evil individual. He is simply playing his part in the defence of and extension of the real elite he and Trump represent: the elite beyond the public establishment; the disciples of Ayn Rand and the Breitbartists who are now set to manipulate the narrative in the French elections in an attempt to install the neo-fascist FN candidate Marine Le Pen into office next year.

The outlook is chilling, but it is not illogical and it is riding the curve of history. However perplexing to liberals, it will be defeated neither by apocalyptic indignation, nor with hand-wringing, gut-wrenching appeals to restore the failed status quo nor through the machinations of mechanistic legalism. Court cases and constitutional pleadings will hasten rather than halt what has begun. As Bannon himself has remarked, "The liberals don't know what is going on."

Only a far more robust, collectivist response will have any chance of countering the radical right - for, unlike the vacillating showman Trump, Bannon is driven by conviction and belief. His agenda, his revolution, will only be defeated by those whose own convictions and beliefs run as deeply and radically as his do, but course in a very, very different direction. Radical rightism can only be met by radical leftism. There is no compromise, no common ground and those who seek it in some soggy centre condemn society to the predations of Bannon, Trump and their backers, and betray a future that could yet be better for all.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Nigel Farage Goes to Washington

President-Elect of the USA, Donald Trump, has tweeted that he thinks his friend and fellow-traveller, UKIP acting leader Nigel Farage, should be UK Ambassador to Washington. They have certainly admired each other from afar for sometime, with Trump promising his victory would be like "Brexit-plus-plus" and Farage excusing Trump's references to groping women as just how men talk. Apparently.

It seems highly unlikely, and Downing Street has already ruled out any use of Nigel and Donald's special relationship to shore up the tattered pseudo-special relationship between the US and Britain.

Yet, it might somehow be so very apposite an illustration it might be of our twisted, corrupted politics if it were indeed to happen.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

The Free Trade Delusion

Since the UK Brexit referendum result and Trump's win in the US Presidential election, the liberal polity on both sides of the Atlantic have been wringing their hands and pronouncing on the surprise (to them) of both results. The cause, they have repeatedly declared, was the anger and ignorance of the "left behind", the detritus of society they hadn't noticed from the confines of their comfy, evidence-based neoliberal bubble until the ingrates turned up and spoilt their party.

Liberal democracy, of course, is about little more than the unwashed turning up every four or five years to confirm the Great and Good's right to rule via very flawed ballot box processes. Democracy should validate the status quo, maybe with a little nudge leftwards here and rightwards there, especially under the mind-numbing post-ideological consensus in place since the fall of the Communist bloc.

So, when the electorate goes off-script, we soon see just how thin-skinned liberalism truly is: the voters were misled, didn't know what they were voting for, are bigotted racists/sexists/homophobes, etc. They have voted against their own interests as well as wider society because of their moronic stupidity and so in Britain we should rerun the Euroreferendum, or find some variant that will ultimately let us stay in the EU, while in the USA, liberals are fantastically speculating about California seceding or joining up with Canada.

Yes, Trump will do nothing to help most of the people who, disillusioned with the US capitalist system, voted for him in response to his divide and conquer tactics of blaming foreigners and migrants for their lost jobs and deep poverty. And Brexit may well mean that British workers lose some of the meagre employment protections conferred by the EU. But neither a Clinton Presidency nor a so-called soft Brexit would do anything to resolve the deep-seated inequality and accompanying alienation that has led us to this pass.

At the heart of western economics in the post-war era and codified in the institutions created by the 1944 Bretton Woods conference, the rich nations have pursued an aggressive commitment to so-called free trade and movement of capital. As globalisation has take grip over the last two and a half decades, this ideology, often called neoliberalism, has been applied as the orthodox economics across virtually all the planet. The G20 summit in 2009 explicitly stated that it remained committed to these principles and to rooting out all forms of protectionism wherever these are found. Indeed, in recognition of this dubious aspiration, many free trade agreements, including the recently passed CETA between Canada and Europe, have included Investor-States Dispute Settlement mechanisms. Under this, multinationals could sue national governments and their taxpayers for any measures that reduce or deny them profits, from health and safety rules or environmental legislation through to any refusal to privatise public services.

Proponents of free trade repeatedly argue that its advantages can be seen by a rise in wealth around the world and claim that removal of trade barriers, quotas and tariffs creates a virtuous circle of economic growth and prosperity. The International Monetary Fund has put this central to its rescue packages to developing nations when they have needed financial assistance - in return for loans, they have had to remove any protections on or subsidies to domestic industries. This has been done while ignoring the fact that the rich economies all have long histories of protectionism when they were growing their own early industrial infrastructure. Indeed, many rich nations still run a range of protectionist measures - and trade blocs such as the European Union do a fine job of keeping any manufactured goods from poorer states out of their domestic markets, but they of course are far less likely to be in thrall to the IMF or World Bank.

Yet even within rich states, free trade has had massively damaging effects, especially where the ideology has been adopted as part of an international trading system such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (and more recently the Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty aggressively pursued by the Obama administration) and within the European single market. Removal of trade barriers and tariffs certainly makes international trade more profitable for companies and being able to relocate their manufacturing and service bases to poorer areas with a lower paid workforce makes their products cheaper (and their profit margins bigger).

However, this has come at a huge cost to the workforces laid off in developed economies as part of  corporates' pursuit of competitive advantage via cheap labour abroad, while in developing states it has favoured big business at the cost of the destruction of small scale local enterprises. As a self-employed textile trader in Lima told the BBC World Service this week, "They talk about Peru growing, but it is just the rich growing richer." Economists such as Paul Krugman cite the obsession with trade liberalisation as central to this.

The deceit of rightwing populists like Trump and UKIP of course is to blame foreigners and migrants, attacking one of the symptoms rather than the true cause - something these buddies of big business will never honestly do - and very much designed to buttress rather than challenge the elite. At most, they are "Opposition by Appointment to the Establishment" -  a tool to neuter the anger of the public and incorporate it into the continuing narrative of a hierarchical, globalised economics. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has railed at Trump and UKIP's Nigel Farage as voicing nothing more than "the fake anti-elitism of rich white men".  Like in the old Czarist Empire, pogroms will come long before any genuine reforms.

All the more reason then for the Left to articulate genuine change, to advance a vision of a very different world and the economics needed to achieve it. And yet, on this, quite the opposite seems to be happening.

While Labour's Chancellor John McDonnell called Brexit an opportunity for Britain rather than a threat this week, he neither developed what  opportunities he foresees, nor was he speaking to the prevailing mood among British socialists and progressives. Corbyn himself has set continued access to the European single market as a priority for Brexit negotiations, and Green co-leader Caroline Lucas echoed this sentiment when she attacked McDonnell for apparently giving succour to hard Brexiteers.

Yet, rather than blindly clinging to some sort of soft Brexit which continues to focus on free trade arrangements, isn't this precisely the time for greens and socialists to challenge the status quo? Why would we want to cling onto a single market, removing as it does the ability of a democratic government to protect its industries and the well-being of its people where and when it chooses? Why cling to something that removes the revenue from tariffs on imports, reduces the public purse and bans the ability to subsidise enterprises which may be commercially unprofitable but socially or environmentally beneficial? How can we build a fairer, sustainable world on a template carved out to enable the very worst of capitalism?

Given the racism that has accompanied both Trump and Brexit, there is clearly a need to counter the nationalism and xenophobia of their faux revolts. But we can have freedom of movement and culture without embracing free trade: indeed, perhaps ending free trade would be the best way to ensure continuing cultural diversity around the world, given multnationals' drive to commodify and homogenise the entire planet.

Lucas and Corbyn have both said they accept the UK is leaving the EU. Yet, while the silent secrecy from the Tory Bexiteers is clearly frustrating and undemocratic, their insistence on making such a totemic issue of access to the single market is baffling and a major strategic error. For if there was ever a time to be forging a path to a more sustainable world founded on a fairer, co-operative and localised economics, it is now. That inevitably means a rejection of free trade and embracing instead economic intervention by the state, new forms of community and mutual ownership, regulation and, yes, protectionism.

The vast majority in our rampantly unequal societies across our troubled planet face ever greater difficulties to make ends meet and live their lives as they might have hoped in a world of great abundance. If the Left does not rise to the challenge to show how we can create a different paradigm and instead leaps to knee-jerk reactions to populists' lies, only tragedy awaits us. To quote Gramsci, writing of a similar age of chaos in the 1920s, "The old world is dying, but the new one struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters."

Sunday, 6 November 2016

The Eternal Dark Heart of Empire

"Pygmy hunter-gatherers in Cameroon have been beaten, tortured and forced off their ancestral lands to clear vast tracts of forest for a trophy-hunting company owned by the banker Benjamin de Rothschild, activsts claimed yesterday. At least three forest camps have been burnt to the ground by guards, according to survivors, while Baka pygmies caught hunting bush animals to eat said they were tortured by police guarding the forest on behalf of game hunters." (The Times, 3/11/16)

It must be noted that the Rothschilds strenuously deny any involvement in the incidents and insist they have good relations with the Baka; but according to Survival International there seems evidence that they happened, whoever was responsible.

For much of Africa, such occurrences are nothing new and indeed the happenings in Cameroon pale in comparison with the imperialist destruction of the Continent that has been airbrushed from western histories, which increasingly recast the Age of Empires as a time of progress and glory as opposed to the squalid exploitation that, in the end, is common to all empires of whatever origin.

Joseph Conrad's best known novel is the comparatively short "Heart of Darkness", published in 1902 and originally serialised in Blackwood's Magazine. Telling the tale of a steamboat captain, Charles Marlow, sailing upriver in an unnamed European colony, whose purpose is to reach a trading station run by a  well-regarded Company Agent by the name of Kurtz, it documents in chilling and graphic narrative the appalling conditions of the indigenous people: chained together as they carry great loads, reduced to bipedal beasts of burden, left to die under trees and by track sides. And, when the clearly psychopathic Kurtz is finally encountered, his hut is decorated by the decapitated skulls of Africans mounted on stakes. Filmed most powerfully as "Apocalypse Now" and transposed to the Vietnamese conflict, what many don't realise is that it is, in fact, founded on the truth.

Conrad, born in Poland as Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski spent several months as a steamboat captain in the Congo in 1889 and Marlow is in fact the author himself. What he encountered was enough for him to quit his job and return to his adopted England to write and campaign against the growing horrors of imperialism throughout the colonial world, but especially in the Congo. In this, he worked closely with the great Irish campaigner Roger Casement and the largely forgotten but perhaps most effective human rights campaigner in history, Edmund Morel. Like Conrad, Morel had originally worked on Congo trade, but left his job when he realised that serious abuses were taking place and it was to campaigning against them that he was to devote much of his life.

Their real-life stories and those of many others, not least the previously silent African voices of the Congo basin, are assembled and recounted in Adam Hochschild's powerful history, "King Leopold's Ghost", originally published in 1998 after years of painstaking and often blocked research. It is essential reading for anyone concerned with the dynamics of imperialism, especially that of a commercial type - for, unlike every other European colony, the Congo was not held in the name of a country, but the personal property of Leopold, King of Belgium, who acquired his private fiefdom nearly eighty times the size of his native country via subterfuge, deceit, propaganda and immense, bloody violence.

Hochschild traces the rise of the ironically titled "Congo Free State" from its pre-colonial days when the verdant rainforest basin was home to millions of Africans organised into several states, some of them highly sophisticated with advanced systems of justice, semi-democratic consultative assemblies and an high level of material culture. Their way of life was much attuned to respecting and living within the environmental capacity of what, along with the Amazon basin, has been described as one of the lungs of the world. The only things the indigenous societies lacked were the guile and powerful weaponry of the Europeans.

As France, Britain, Portugal and latterly newly-unified Germany began the imperialist "Scramble for Africa" in the 1870s and 1880s, Hochschild examines how the vain and arrogant Leopold felt Belgium was far too small for a man of his ambition. Under cover of Christian philanthropy, he hired the narcissistic explorer Henry Morton Stanley to open up the one area of Africa at that point unclaimed by any colonial powers: the great basin of the Congo river, which cuts across central Africa from its mouth on the Atlantic coast through to just south of the headwaters of the Nile.

Supposedly carrying the "white man's burden" of improving the lot of the primitive native races and freeing them from the tyranny of Arab slave traders from the eastern coast, Stanley tore a path through the rainforest, his expedition consisting of African porters and several hundred well-armed mercenary troops. He slaughtered thousands who got in their way or did not hand over their food stocks on demand, torched scores of villages and forced African kings and chiefs to acknowledge Leopold's pseudo-charity, the International Association of the Congo, as their overlord. Stanley travelled through the area several times and is remembered in the region today as a white-hatted harbinger of death. But back in London, where he published several tomes on his liberation of the lesser races, even today he is celebrated as the man who found fellow colonialist entrepreneur Dr David Livingstone. He was knighted in 1899 as a member of the Order of the Bath (if he ever took one, the water must have run deep red) and served as a Liberal Unionist MP for Lambeth North before dying in 1904.

Victims of Leopold's "civilising mission".
After Stanley established Leopold's presence in the area, the King, who never travelled to the territory himself, used mercenaries and free booting "entrepreneurs" to open up the area, first to slaughter hundreds of thousands of elephants for ivory and later tap forest trees for rubber. Local men were impressed into brutal service, sometimes by violence, sometimes by the kidnapping of their wives and children, often by both means. Failure to meet quotas often led to the rape and mutilation, or worse, of the hostages. The colonial police, the Force Publique, was renowned for its brutality and its liberal use of a whip called the chicotte claimed the lives of many of their victims, men, women and children. Leopold even established state orphanages run by Catholic clergy for the children of his victims - the boys were raised to be soldiers in the FP; the girls to be servants and in a handful of cases to join the nuns.

The casual nature of the brutality was endemic: Conrad's Kurtz character was based potentially on several officials of the Free State, the most likely being Leon Rom, who edged his lawn with the severed heads of Africans. Paradoxically, Rom also busied himself sending home his landscape paintings of the rainforest, collecting butterflies and publishing a book on African customs. Another inspiration for Kurtz may have been Guillaume Van Kerckoven, who paid the equivalent of half a shilling for each African head brought to him during a military operation.

As well as body-breaking forced labour on ivory and rubber collection and on constructing dams and railways, Africans were indentured simply to serve the bloated white colonials who arrived in the area. Hothschild recovered one Free State official's diary of a journey where African porters hauled his luggage over inhospitable territory: "A file of poor devils, chained by the neck, carried my trunks and boxes... There were about a hundred of them, trembling and fearful of the overseer, who strolled by whirling a whip. For each stocky and broad-backed fellow, how many were skeletons dried up like mummies, their skin worn out... seamed with deep scars, covered with suppurating wounds... No matter! They were all up for the job."
Nsala of Wala with the remains of his butchered 5 year old daughter, her hand and foot.
To portay this as a great civilising mission, Leopold permitted various Christian missions to be established. Most were content to go along with the "necessary" violence and validate the propaganda of the chicotte being necessary to rouse "lazy" natives to work. Initially at any rate, his efforts paid off with humanitarian awards showered on Leopold. Even Mark Twain was moved to write in defence of the King's great works.

But some opened their eyes and began to challenge. Notably, the first two incomers to do so were African Americans. George Washington Williams, a remarkable man who fought in the civil war, studied law, served in the Ohio state legislature and became an author, all before the age of thirty. In his historical work, he became one of the first to use the oral history and memories of ordinary people to find the truth of the past, and it was with this mindset that he travelled to the Congo. There, Willaims soon realised that the Free State was far from the philanthropic paradise portrayed by Leopold and his associates and began to write on the abuses to a disbelieving public back in the USA and Europe.

He was followed by a fellow African American, the Rev William Sheppard, who was sponsored by the Presbyterian church to work in the Congo. He similarly, began to expose the brutality of the regime, leading to Leopold having him arrested and put on trial - though he was ultimately acquitted. Other dissidents, like Hezekiah Andrew Shamu, were less fortunate - executed, murdered or hounded to death by the Free State.

Edmund Morel
But, no matter how powerful their testimony, black voices were little heard in 19th century Europe or America and it was not until the British activist Edmund Morel came along that the campaign against the Congo became the true cause celebre of the liberals and socialists of Europe.  After realising that the ships he was auditing carried troops and weapons to the Congo but returned empty, Morel quit his job for a shipping firm, founded the Congo Reform Association and began an international campaign to highlight and end the abuse. At great loss and some risk to himself and his family, he almost single-handedly built a coalition that in 1908 forced Leopold to surrender his private state to the Belgian Government, which was at least slightly more accountable for its actions. The King was of course handsomely compensated for his losses. By this time, however, as many as ten million Congolese Africans had died from the brutality of the free state or the starvation and diseases that followed in its wake - around half of the entire population; a genocide unsurpassed even in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

Hochschild highlights the inconsistency of many of those liberals who campaigned vigorously again the horrors of Leopold's Congo but turned a blind eye to similar, if less blatant, abuses by other colonial powers (Stanley's violence was neither the worst nor an isolated example of contemporary practice). He challenges the narrative of "improvement" that imperial powers allegedly brought to the so-called Dark Continent - the narrative not of truth, but of the victors. This, as he explores, is at least in part because few African voices from the time have been recorded. He was himself able to recover a few second hand, but the thousands of records he unearthed for this erudite and well-written piece of work are nearly exclusively those of white imperialists or paternalistic if sometimes sympathetic missionaries and visitors.

This is a striking contrast to what could be almost be a companion volume - Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee", an account of the final destruction of the Native Americans which does draw on scores of first hand accounts set down by survivors at the turn of the 20th century. It too portrays richly diverse cultures deceived and violently destroyed by descendants of European settlers whose concept of the white man's burden was couched in the equally arrogant and racist notion of their god-given "Manifest Destiny" to overcome indigenous peoples. A combination of imperialist historians and Hollywood populism subsequently crafted a very similar narrative to the Victorian tale of philanthropic imperialism kindly bringing civilisation to ingrates. (Notably, in his lengthy genocidal career, Stanley, as well as serving on both sides in the American Civil War, briefly worked as a journalist in frontier country to assist the US Cavalry with its anti-Native American
Henry Morton Stanley


And it is in this spirit, as much of the rich world reinvents its history to look back ever more nostalgically at empire, that "King Leopold's Ghost" should be read as a warning of the here and now as much as an account of the past. The overt imperialism of European powers ruling African and other states is of course long gone. But, in our globalised, neoliberal world, the truth is that private corporations are buying up huge swathes of poorer Latin American, African and Asian countries.

Perhaps even more thoroughly than the Victorians' great Scramble, the Rothschild hunting estates in Cameroon are far from an isolated example: in a new African land grab, European, American and Chinese "investors" now own massive estates with the blessing and naked power of the political elites of the host states. Local people are excluded, alienated from their lands and rights removed and force used to ensure it stays that way. As resource scarcity gathers pace, including food and water supplies, this neocolonial pattern is set to spread ever further and its pathology is ultimately unlikely to deviate fundamentally from the template of exploitation set by Leopold and his contemporaries.

The phrase "those who do not learn from history are destined to relive it" may be well overused, but is often true nevertheless. First of all, however, history has to be written and set straight. In this remarkable dissection of privatised imperialism, Adam Hochschild does a great service not only to the past and the millions slaughtered in the forgotten holocaust in Leopold's sadistic state; he reminds us too that no imperialism, of whatever type or origin, is ever benign.