Thursday, 16 February 2012

Update on Norman Finklestien

With reference to my previous post, read it now if you haven't already.

Well, he's since done another talk at Imperial college London and gone a lot further than he did in Belfast, including this interview where he gets stuck into the BDS movement in a way that he didn't in Belfast. He's saying the same thing but he's removing any ambiguity or nuance about tactics and strategy. 2-state solution is the only way to go and that way lies through the enforcement of international law.

I would go for a lengthy rebuttal now myself but Richard Seymour has actually done the job already. I can't help but get my 2 cents in now about one thing he said though.

I notice at the end how he mentions coming to Northern Ireland but not any of the things that were said to him by any of us. And for gods sake, this constant trotting out of the "peace process" / Good Friday Agreement as a model for Israel / Palestine. We're just as dysfunctional and messed up as we ever were, sectarianism has gotten worse since 1998, none of the paramilitary groups have ever actually gone away, some of them have just shifted gears into organised crime and are thriving. They don't go to war with each other but theres still plenty of violence and intimidation in their own communities (which was mostly the case in the troubles anyway) and the murder rate hasn't even really changed that much since the early 90s, or at least nothing to far out of line with the rest of the UK. Nothing is being done about poverty, in fact the neo-liberal line of the Assembly, which even Sinn Fein have colluded in, is just making things on the ground worse. Could people please stop making us the poster child of their descent into capitulation-ism? Even Chomsky's known to do it on occasion.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Are the Lannisters the real 'goodies' in A Song Of Ice And Fire?

Tonight I did an introduction for the branch meeting of the Socialist Workers Party on the subject of Mark Fishers book Capitalist realism. I had intended to use the talk as the basis for a blog post about extending Mark Fishers analysis of 21st century capitalist ideology, possibly extending the general thrust of the book by looking at the peculiarities of Capitalist Realism in the context of Northern Ireland. Unfortunately I got a bit over enthusiastic and lent my copy of the book out to someone after the meeting forgetting that i had this in mind to do so I no longer have a copy of the book to quote from and without it my loose notes don't make much sense. I will do this when I get the book back so for now I'm going to repost a note I posted to my facebook ages ago which should probably have been a blog entry anyway.

Are the Lannisters the real goodies in A Song Of Ice and Fire?

Yes, that might sound a bit strange. They are incestuous, they kill people and start wars and the fact that one of them is Charles Dance is a bit of a give-away, but hear me out. In the context of Westeros, the Lannisters are on the side of history and progress, which is supposed to be a good thing, isn't it?

According to all available sources and GRRM himself, the events of ASOIAF are the product of the years he spent researching the 'Early Modern' period (historians term meaning roughly 1500s to the late 18th century, late modernism being occasioned by industrialisation, the enlightenment etc.) and the Wars of the Roses in Britain in particular. Speaking as someone who has had the pleasure of studying the economic and social history of Britain at undergraduate level I can say that the research was time well spent. The world of Westeros is well thought out and feels real enough. As a social historian I get the same thrill from the series as a natural scientist must feel when she reads a good bit of well thought out hard sci-fi where the science element is real and no-one contradicts the laws of physics. Looking for a moment at this time period as a historian of the long dureƩ what is it that characterises this period in history of kings, Royal successions and wars just before the reformation and the first wave of European imperialism? It is the crisis of feudalism and the shift to a mercantile capitalist economy.

Essentially, Feudalism was the organising principle of societies across Europe since European civilisation re-emerged from the Dark ages (which weren’t actually that dark tbh, but that’s a discussion for another time). Under Feudalism wealth in society was expressed in terms of land and social status and class largely depended on how much land you had, the resources it could produce and the number of people on it you could compel to fight for you. Lords, Barons, knights, kings etc, these titles were all measures of what level you were at under this system. Co-existing within this system was the nascent form of Capitalism, i.e. wealth expressed as an abstract in terms of gold and coin. This wasn’t the whole of the economy, it started out small but as the years progressed this form of wealth holding would prove more productive and eventually it would draw more power towards the social classes that were associated with it, who at the time were called by some “the middling sort of people” . Eventually this class would come to surpass then absorb and replace the land-holding ruling classes of the previous epoch.

Historical change like this does not happen without a fight. The first stage of this fight was the transformation from early feudalism into Market feudalism. This change wasn’t necessarily a revolutionary change that would bring about an immediate improvement to peoples lives. Anyone who really studies history should know better than to see everything as a unstoppable chain of progress and improvement. What happened in practice was that the cannier lords and kings began to consolidate power into a centralised state with themselves at the top. It is in this period that many of the nation-states that we know today first began to take form, Britain, France and Spain being some of the more prominent examples. With this period of consolidation came political absolutism and repression. But it was also the period of the renaissance, the rise of humanism as an alternative to Christianity and it was a necessary stage that society would have to go through to get to where we are today.

Which brings us to Game of Thrones.

Game of thrones and the Song Of ice and fire series of books it’s based on are, I believe, the imaginative recreation of this historical process against a background of a different biosphere to the one we know. The Baratheon and Stark dynasties represent the early feudal order. They are land owner – War lords whose personal power is built on military prowess and whose moral code is based on the feudal notions of tradition and fealty. The Lannisters in the other hand represent the passage into Feudal Capitalism. They are known for their wealth and their outlook is distinctly more modern. They prefer realpolitik to airy notions of duty and honour. Tyrion Lannister, in his own way, represents the progressive intellectual revolution that was as much a part of that process as the political repression that came with it, this time period in our world gave us the foundations of modern philosophy and the beginnings of the sciences. As such, the Lannisters are the ones on the side of history. They aren’t exactly nice, Joeffry is obviously a little shit and there’s the whole incest thing, but George RR Martin seems to have the historians’ eye for these things. We may personally prefer the Starks or even the Baratheons but they were warriors, paternalistic savages who maybe aren’t the best people to be running Westeros. The point is made in the series and books, Robert was running the kingdom into the ground and the state would fall apart without the Lannisters money holding it together. They put a lot of their own capital into the state coffers, do they not in some sense deserve to run things, or are they not at least more deserving than those who are merely good at beating other people up?

Well, my answer is no. The other plot line in the concerning Dothraki is a mirror to the events that unfolded in our world around the Mongols. These Barbarian societies were the chaotic yin to the yang of civilisation. It’s also here that you get the strongest fantasy element in GOT, the dragons. Yes, there will be Dragons.

That is why I for one welcome our new Dothraki overlords and wish the one true ruler of Westeros, Daenerys Targaryen a long and fruitful reign as god-empress.

Unless a John Ball type leader emerges later in the series who decides to agitate for turning the War of 5 Kings into a revolutionary war. I haven’t read the books yet so here’s hoping.

Only two months in and already resorting to filler and reposts. Next time it should be something more interesting.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Report from the Norman Finklestein meeting at Queens University Belfast 6/2/12

For those of you reading this blog who don’t know who Norman Finklestein is exactly it is worth saying a few things by way of introduction.

The son of two Holocaust Survivors, a thorough academic debunker of the Zionist creation myths, someone who has been described by his enemies as a “self hating jew” and who lost his tenured position at a top American university because of his principled stance on the Palestinian issue, Prof. Norman Finklestien is one of the most important critics of Israel and the Zionist project working today. He is a fiery and fearless public speaker who doesn’t take any shit from his critics on the right (as you will see from this clip) who utterly hate him for his work against their favoured beat stick against their critics, the conflation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. When Alan Dershowitz lies about your mother being a Nazi collaborator, you must be doing something right.

So, when I heard he was speaking in Belfast I was naturally quite excited and managed to score a ticket to what was a packed event, the best attended political lecture I’ve seen since Chomsky spoke at the Belfast festival. You can imagine my surprise then when I left the lecture feeling somewhat disgruntled at what I’d just heard.

The subject of the talk was that of solving the conflict. This was somewhat off the topic of Prof. Finklestiens’ usual public speeches about the nature of Zionism and the Zionist state, assuming (quite correctly) that since the talk was co-hosted by the Queens PSC he would be speaking to a crowd of pro-Palestinian activists and therefore preaching the converted. So instead of that what he did was make a really hard argument for the tactical necessity of the international Palestinian solidarity movement adopting a two state solution as the stated aim and end goal of the Palestinian liberation struggle in order to win popular support from the masses.

He did this in two ways. The first was to make a legalist argument, that if you are going to argue against Israel based on the illegality of the settlements and their complete disregard for international law in their numerous military escapades one the one hand, then on the other hand you can’t deny the legitimacy of some sort of Israeli state on the other hand, which means that some sort of two-state solution is the only option. To support this he pointed out, quite correctly, that the two state solution is what has come out of the process of negotiations between the Palestinian leadership and the Israelis, that it is the solution officially supported by every country in the world except Israel and America when it gets put to the vote in the UN (including Iran and the other Arab states) and cited the very detailed and hard-fought land swap deal as the basis for an honourable settlement, which would mean that 63% the Israeli settlers could stay on the west bank, in exchange for the same amount of land in Israel to be given to the Palestinian Authority on the west bank and the settlement block system (i.e the way the roads and highways between the settlements are used to control the movements of Palestinians) would be dismantled.

Secondly, the way in which he did this, the theoretical justification for the specific arguments, was by evoking the spectre of Ghandi and using the parallels between the life and political practice of the Ghandi’s INC and the Palestinian liberation struggle to drive each of his points home. Again in all fairness to Prof. Finklestein he goes beyond the usual bourgeois liberal stock use of Ghandi to criticise proponents of armed liberation struggles and he does defend the right of an oppressed people to take up arms, as you’d expect from someone both of whose parents fought in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis, and he’s actually quite critical of that sort of nonsense.

In my opinion the main point of this was where he drew a distinction between the two lives of Ghandi, as a leader of the Indian national liberation movement and as the head of an Ashram. As the leader of the Ashram, Ghandi was a hard core ascetic, no drugs, no alcohol, no idle joking and no sex even between married couples. As the head of the national liberation movement on the other hand he was happy to work alongside Muslims, Sikhs, other Hindus who weren’t quite as hard core as himself etc. In doing so I think we reach the crux of the argument he was trying to make, that he is equating support for a one state solution, with personal morality, i.e. it may be a deeply held personal conviction and you may even be right, for whatever that’s worth, but since the legalistic argument against Israel seems to be making headway in the international community you need to put it aside and for tactical reasons go with what will appeal to the broadest mass of people as your stated end for the Palestinian struggle.

As I see it there are two major things wrong with the whole argument. One of these things he actually hit on himself at one point in the talk. When he was making the point about Ghandi he said that Ghandi was always against the partition of India, but he eventually came round to accepting the existence of Pakistan as a fact, even if he didn’t accept its legitimacy. The thing about that is, wasn’t Ghandi quite correct in not accepting partition. The partition of India was a catastrophe in human and political terms. Surely the fact that Ghandi, against his better judgement, was forced to accept the existence of the Pakistani state is something we should be mourning rather than replicating?

The other point is the unproblematized appeal to a legalistic argument. There is a very important question here about what the law actually is and how international law operates. China Mieville, when he’s not being a multi award winning Fantasy fiction author, is an expert on the subject of international law and in his book he makes the point that the reason why the law functions in the context of a bourgeois democratic state is that the state exists as the final arbiter of the law. It’s not necessarily a good arbiter or an unbiased one (far from it) but because it exists as a higher power to be appealed to between competing interests the law works to the extent to which it does. In the context of international law there exists no such final arbiter. What international law amounts to is, to put it as crudely as it actually is, “might makes right”.

There are few examples of this more blatant than the Israel Palestine conflict. Frankly, I think that this is where Finklesteins argument for the two state solution, even as a tactical position, falls down. Israel uses international law and uses these negotiations with whatever section of the Palestinian leadership it fancies talking to at any given time in a cynical way to prop up its own legitimacy. It’s a game that only one side are playing for real. It’s a game that the Palestinians are winning in its own limited terms, to the extent that all those votes going through the UN and being blocked only by Israel the US and whoever they can corral into their side count for anything. He seems to believe that this game can through international public pressure be transubstantiated into something real that the Israelis will have to abide by.

Contrary to this I would posit the old Marxist theoretical position on treaties and settlements (which I believe may come from Lenin but I’m happy to be corrected) that any negotiated settlement only represents the balance of forces as they exist on the day the treaty is signed and by extension that they only matter as long as the facts on the ground remain. Within the context of the current balance of forces between the Zionist project and its supporters and the Palestinians a two state solution may well be the limit of what is achievable in the immediate short term. But that doesn’t mean that the balance of forces will remain as they are forever or that we should abandon hope in a single secular democratic state.

Basically this is the old argument that has existed forever on the left between ‘Reform’ (i.e. achieving what is ostensibly theoretically possible through the current system) and ‘Revolution’ (i.e. realising that the current system is temporal and temporary and looking beyond it towards what should be rather than what is). Not out of some sense of moral or theoretical absolutism either, but because we know and we have seen countless times across a myriad of issues that the system of bourgeois parliamentary democracy relies on the myth of its own fairness in order to survive and in actuality many things that are theoretically achievable under this system are actually impossible for reasons that are deeply rooted in the nature of the system. Most of those involved in the Palestinian solidarity movement are various shades of radical Left and it is in our nature to look to what should be rather than to just go for whatever bad compromise can be extracted from the current system. It is for this reason that asking us to abandon the idea of the only good solution to the Palestinian issue is never going to work.

At the end of the talk I went up to Professor Finklestien and tried to put some of this to him in a nice way while I was getting my copy of his book signed. I made the point about international law that in Irish history we had a situation with regards to our national question where by the middle of the nineteenth century the case for an Irish home rule parliament had been won in Ireland and to a large extent in Britain too. It was a contentious issue among the imperial ruling class but the majority of polite society were on the side of what was called “home rule” with the first bill being put to the British parliament in 1886 and while it was narrowly defeated most people knew that some form of self government for Ireland was an inevitability. And yet Ireland did not achieve any form of self government until four decades later and that was after a revolution and the entire world being turned upside down by the First World War. I asked him that considering that we are living through a time when the entire edifice of American capitalism is hitting the wall to the extent that they may well no longer be able to afford to keep subsidising Israel and the middle east is being turned upside down by the Arab Spring, why accept a deal based on yesterdays realities when who knows where we’ll be in six months time?

He smiled sadly and said that he thought that even to get a two state solution would take a revolution.

Personally I’m not so hopeless for the situation in Palestine. I believe that there is a future where Israel goes the way of other racist imperialist colonies, from the first Crusader kingdom in the holy lands in the middle ages to the European colonies in Africa and be wiped off the map, its institutions dismantled and replaced with something not based on racism and the god given right of some of its citizens to the land. To paraphrase Haile Selasie (via Bob Marley), until that philosophy that holds one people superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned then everywhere is war. Until there are no longer first or second class citizens, until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed this is a war. And until that day, the dream of lasting peace, world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a dream, a fleeting illusion to be pursued but never achieved.

This isn’t an ideological shibboleth, it’s just a self evident fact. A state based on Zionist principles will never be a good home for its Muslim and Christian Arab populations and conflict will be inevitable. As an activist though, if ending Zionism means working alongside people who are for a two state solution either as a short term solution or a final settlement then I am happy enough to do so and organise on the basis of mutual respect. I will be prepared to argue the case for a one state solution with them but it should not be a pre condition for joint action. It is sad that in Palestine itself there are few looking towards that future but things are tough out there. That debate has to take place somewhere though and if it is here among the international solidarity movement that it has to happen then so be it, maybe that’s what our job is now, to be the imagination of the struggle and to hang onto the idea that another world is possible and maybe the road to it lies through Tahir Square, through the occupy movement and whatever may come out of that.