Friday, 3 April 2015

The austerity of political debate

It's remarkable how easily elite-serving language gets popularised. And with it, the very terms of 'acceptable debate'.

All those voluble calls to 'end austerity' seem humane and noble. But the 'austerity' meme itself helps foster the notion that the poor once enjoyed some kind of 'pre-austere' existence. The very notion of 'austerity period' as some kind of measured dose of 'harsh-but-necessary' medicine is not only wicked, it helps sustain the fiction that there was already some kind of tolerable 'pre-cuts' society.

This allows the main neoliberal parties to engage in postured exchange about the relative effects of 'austerity cuts', their likely duration and, as election sweeteners, the possibility of their marginal easing.

The narrowly-prescribed terms of such 'policies' neatly evade the much more fundamental issue of mass inequality, multiple deprivation and misery of life under capitalism at large. But that kind of discussion, probing the actual mendacity and madness of the corporate order, is deemed laughably immature, naïvely abstract and off-limits. Such is the deeply-austere nature of political debate. 

Imagine one of the four main topic questions in the much-hailed Leaders' Debate having been:
Are parties willing or even capable of doing anything to deliver society from the pernicious rule and crisis effects of neoliberal capitalism? 
Or, instead of the political-media-hyped section devoted to 'the burning issue of immigration':
Climate change is the emergency issue of our time. What hope for a serious set of policies to control the corporate forces driving the destruction of our planet?
It was notable that in an entire two-hour mass-public debate, nothing remotely challenging of the dominant order could be deemed permissible for discussion, such as: 
Why have party politics and the prevailing parliamentary system failed to advance the compassionate society? 
While Sturgeon, Bennett and Wood made commendable efforts to refute the Cameron, Clegg, Miliband, Farage consensus on continued cuts, deficit reductions and controls on immigration, any case for a more progressive politics was always still subject to cautious conditioning on what can be 'reasonably' argued, 'sensibly' said and 'hopefully' expected.      

Thus, from Labour, the 'best hope', we're assured, for those struggling to survive and dependent on food banks is some supposed 'rescue' through promises of 'renewed growth', notional promises to end zero-hours contracts, and a few paltry tax inducements to all those 'hard-working families'.

And that's about the sum of it; the 'as-good-as-it-gets' limit of 'radical reform'. Decades of 'neoliberal realities' have conditioned politicians, the media and the wider public to the very idea of what's even mentionable, never mind politically doable.

Little wonder so many voters feel deeply alienated from the political system. We're expected to be passive, compliant consumers of supermarket politics and brand-name parties, all hard-selling 'extra-special' versions of the same old generic product. 

And the political fare on offer is all manufactured and presented to placate big business, to court corporate approval and to ensure that the ways in which we vent our dissatisfaction is safely-boundaried by QuestionTime-type 'participation'.   

So you will hear endless party gushings on the need to 'tackle poverty' and 'create prosperity', but never how to liberate people from the mentally-oppressing anguish, fear and distress of market life.

In welcome contrast, have a look at this honest, deep-searching Trews piece from Russell Brand on the dysfunctionality of corporate society, and ask the question: why is this kind of elementary subject matter, things that should constitute the very heart of political debate, not even remotely up for discussion? 

As David Edwards, Media Lens co-editor, sums up Brand's thoughts (ML message board, 31 March 2015):
Excellent. Isn't it amazing that such an obviously rational analysis of these issues is more or less unthinkable anywhere in the corporate media? I mean, that even ideas as straight forward and rational as this are simply not allowed. I think it's really difficult for any of us to appreciate just how much of reality is out of bounds.
What we end up with, instead, is sterile reportage of party claim and counterclaim over 'improving living standards', and relentless reminders of the need for 'prudent economics', such as 'tackling the deficit'.

The entire public-political discourse has been reduced and infantilised to keep minds focused on the narrowest possible spectrum of 'election issues', most of it appealing to selfish individualism and the 'threatening other' rather than how to advance real societal care and compassion.

Isn't it the most urgent time now for meaningful political debate over the meaningless nature of most party political debate?  Rather than being drawn into the facile narrative of 'electoral choices' and claims over 'who won the TV clash', shouldn't we be asking: what kind of true debate and engagement is needed to expose the whole media-framed charade in order to promote new political possibilities for real radical change? 


Monday, 30 March 2015

Clone politicians and electoral mugs

It's that great exercise in 'participatory democracy' again, the General Election. And, as dutiful BBC headlines boom with party claims of 'stark choice', just think, rather, 'easy interchangeability'.
 
As the coy Channel 4 drama, Coalition, unwittingly showed, you could have given any variation of the main parties the keys to Number 10 without remotely alarming the Establishment, City elite and corporate forces who really govern us.  
 
2010 or 2015, as ever, it's the same cosy consensus, the same conservative cabal, committed to corporate capitalism and the continuation of callous cuts.
 
And there's essentially little difference, either, when it comes to the 'big UKIP issue': immigration.

Just look what's selling for a fiver just now at the Labour Party's online checkout.
 
No need to posture like true-English-pint-of-ale-man Farage when you can sip like a quiet liberal xenophobe from your very own Milibranded 'control those migrants' Pledge 4 tea mug. 
 
As the Artist Taxi Driver, in his wonderfully convulsive voice, reminds us, this is no spoof.
 
After lauding his 'triumphant' performance with Paxman, Owen Jones tweeted in an apparent desperate 'appeal to Ed': 
 “Fancy a brew in my ‘Controls for immigration mug’?”. Seriously, Labour. Scrap your Farage wannabe mugs and give people some bloody hope
But what kind of real, radical hope is Jones and others among the 'keep with the People's Party' left-establishment asking us to hold on to here?  
 
Beyond the clone neoliberal parties, Westminster media babble and Polly Toynbee warning us of our 'responsibility to vote', just what qualitative political options do we have? In particular, what's on offer from New Improved Labour that could even remotely help initiate a transformative agenda?    

We also now learn that David Cameron won't seek a third term if the Tories win the Election.

Cue same excited media chatter over Cameron's motives. Is he a spent force? A liability? Does he really just want more family time? 

Hitchens: 'Finally, a snap that
shows the real Dave'
Well, here's a couple of clues as to his dominant influence, and what he might more readily have in mind.
 
As observed by Peter Hitchens, this is:

"David Cameron, who once called himself the ‘heir to Blair’, who speaks often to Mr Blair on the telephone and who has several times invited Mr Blair to Downing Street. My photograph shows an occasion in 2012 when ex-premiers gathered there to meet the Queen."

And as Peter Oborne, in a recent damning review of Blair's wealth-enhancing career, suggests:

"The Conservative Prime Minister – who once declared himself the “heir to Blair” – may be planning a similar exit route."

Blair has not only set the template for political criminality and brazen evasion, but how, most graspingly, to feather the financial nest on leaving office. A logical and likely model for Cameron to follow.

And all in keeping with the constant revolving-door relationship between politics and big business. 
 
From Thatcher to Blair, Brown to Cameron and Clegg, the neoliberal project continues unabated, while the contrivance of 'political choice' remains drearily familiar. And for all his Jones-approving efforts, nothing Miliband stands for remotely undermines that line of uniformity. They're all safely interchangeable. 

Aside from the political frisson of a likely SNP surge, hopefully driving-on the mood in Scotland and elsewhere for a radical, independent alternative, we're only delaying the day of realisation in rejecting this whole dead-end politics for a new mass-street, people-directed one, akin to that still being born in Greece and Spain. 

As we consider the true extent of the void, it's inspiring to have a vein of real human politics projected by compassionate street-thinking people like Russell Brand and the Artist Taxi Driver

And the one crucial thing they help remind us of is the stark absence of meaningful choice under this loaded, archaic and elite-serving system. It's not just a question of whether we should be voting. It's about the greater understanding of how we're being ideologically mugged.      

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Guardian gets new editor. Beyond the applause, key questions for Katharine Viner

There's been much congratulatory response to the announcement of Katharine Viner as new editor-in-chief at the Guardian.

On hearing the decision, Guardian columnist Owen Jones tweeted his almost euphoric approval:
Incredible news that @KathViner is new Guardian editor! Nearly whooped in the quiet carriage. That's how excited I am.
Jones also, in typical petulant tone, berates those who haven't so-readily deferred to Viner's appointment, dismissing reasonable questions as 'resentful' and 'sniping' responses.

As apparent testament to her progressive credentials, Jones and others, like Paul Mason, have pointed to Viner's part in writing the play My Name is Rachel Corrie for the stage. Like them, many will say this, at least, suggests a more assertive editorial support for the Palestinian cause.

We'll see. Viner's role in this is, of course, commendable. Yet, even participation in such a laudable human rights story indicates little certainty of her delivering any wider radical imprint at the Guardian.

Viner's recent CV has been more corporate-focused than humanitarian campaigning, concentrating on building the Guardian's US and Australian operations. Are we to believe that someone heading-up these kind of profit-centred assignments is now likely to turn on the very corporate forces that run the media, including the Guardian?    

Journalistic courtesies aside, shouldn't we be expecting writers worth their salt to be asking immediate questions about where the incoming Guardian editor will stand on key issues, from emergency climate change to war policy, Israel-Palestine to the propaganda-fest being waged against Russia?

And what might Viner have to say about the Guardian's own in-house part in suppressing damning evidence of HSBC's UK operation?

The way in which this key exposure by Nafeez Ahmed has been quietly ignored by the Guardian's 'best' parallels the glossing-over of its editors' cosy relationships with political power.

Here's an instructive little passage, in that regard, from Jones's book The Establishment:  
Andy Coulson, who had resigned as editor of the News of the World over allegations of phone-hacking in 2007, was appointed Cameron's communications director, at the particular insistence of George Osborne. Editors at The Guardian had privately warned Cameron's inner circle about Coulson's past: but for the Tories, the former News of the World editor was too much of a prize, a key means of keeping the Murdoch empire onside. (The Establishment, 2014, pp 115-116. My italics.)
Isn't it remarkable that a lengthy work supposedly probing the inner sanctums of the Establishment, and, in this particular chapter, power of the 'mediaocracy', could so smoothly glide-past the Guardian editor giving private counsel to Cameron and his inner cabal? Did Jones not even consider, in writing these thirteen sparse words, the implications of such 'advisory' contact? Is it fine to take-apart the intimate relationships around Murdoch/News International and the Chipping Norton set, but not Rusbridger's and the Guardian's dealings with the political elite?

As with his reaction over Viner, Jones's holds a special reverence for Rusbridger. Fittingly, in a book purporting to map  Britain's elite movers and shakers, Rusbridger isn't named once.  Here, in effect, we see how deflected dissent and prudent circumvention helps protect a vital section of the liberal establishment. 

As closely detailed by Media Lens, Jones's principal targets in The Establishment are the 'moguls', press barons and wealthy media proprietors. But "key issues of structural corporate media corruption are not even mentioned." And on the "crucial problem of media dependency on advertising - a non-mogul related problem that applies every bit as much to the Guardian as it does to the Tory and tabloid press - Jones has literally nothing to say."

Actually, much of which Jones identifies and dissects in his book is not really an anatomy of the Establishment at all, more a railing against the broader neoliberal order. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and there's plenty of informative and rallying detail on political deceit, police corruption, tax dodging and corporate scrounging to commend in the text. But it lacks any primary indictment of the structural corporate monolith driving it all.  

Again, this is nowhere more apparent than Jones's section on the media, which eagerly savages Murdoch, the Daily Mail and the usual Tory demons, but offers no appreciable analysis of the corporate forces directing the liberal media. Conveniently, there's a Grand Canyon-sized omission here regarding the Guardian, Independent and other liberal-establishment serving outlets. 

It's also notable that Viner continues the Oxbridge line at the Guardian helm. Not that an Oxbridge background in itself - either hers, Rusbridger's or even Jones's - should preclude radical thought. But it's also remarkable how many of that select ilk do, in fact, come to run, manage and dutifully defend the Guardian and its 'vanguard ethos'. All of which helps disguise its crucial establishment role, rather than, as Jones fails to do, place it decisively at the heart of the establishment network.

Rather than dismiss those who aren't rushing to laud Viner, Jones, his Guardian peers and others across the liberal media should be posing critical questions to her and the Guardian as a key section of the establishment media. Asking why they aren't doing so isn't an exercise in 'sniping' or negativity. It's part of legitimate enquiry and public debate.  

So, as Viner steps up to the job, here's some pertinent things people like Jones might more usefully be pushing her to answer.  

Will she reverse the Guardian's craven editorial line in consistently supporting and rationalising Western interventionism and talking-up Britain's imperialist role?

Will she exert any serious check on Jonathan Freedland as effective gatekeeper of the paper's lame, apologist editorial position on Israel-Palestine?

Will she halt the rehabilitation/cultivation of Tony Blair and his war circle, ending the protection and free platform they get to sanitise their actions?

Will she explain why the Guardian took a safe establishment position over the Scottish independence referendum?

Will she conduct an open investigation and state clearly why Nafeez Ahmed was sacked from the paper's environmental section after writing a 'contentious' piece on Gaza's offshore gas fields?

Will she pledge to end the Guardian's carbon/fossil fuel advertising?

Will she move to end the Guardian's corporate green-washing, as in its major partnership with Unilever

Will she show real transparency over the Guardian's relationship with HSBC?

Will she shine an honest, critical light on the Guardian's own corporate-based directorship, and cease pretending that the Scott Trust Limited is anything more than a corporate entity?

So many vital questions, so much quiescent silence. So much in-house deference. Such urgent need for a truly independent, challenging journalism.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Disapproval over honouring Saudi despot - don't mention West's own tyranny

The grovelling tributes of Western leaders over the death of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah seems to say it all about the special treatment reserved for our tyrant allies. 
 
You only have to read Glenn Greenwald's scathing piece, contrasting Obama's curt statement on the passing of Hugo Chavez, an elected leader much-loved by his people, who nationalised his country's oil to try and help the poor, with the deference reserved for Abdullah, a virulent dictator who held his subjects in a state of fear, while appropriating that state's vast oil wealth for a tiny elite. 

Predictably, no such commentary is remotely evident on the BBC, with its craven obituary, token references to Saudi human rights 'problems' and tame inference about Britain's 'difficult-but-strategic alliance' with the Kingdom.       
 
Alongside much of the liberal media's safely-measured output, some notable Tories have, seemingly, expressed more specific 'outrage' over the West's fawning of a despot whose country has committed every human rights offence in the book, including the beheading and degradation of women.  
 
Ex-Tory MP Louise Mensch was apoplectic over the issue, launching a tweet-stream of despairing invective: 
It is so unacceptable to offer deep condolences for a man who flogged women, didn't let them drive, saw guardian laws passed, & STARVES THEM
Her additional ire is, apparently, directed at the West's top men:
F--- you Saudi Arabia and shame on the supine male leaders of the West @David_Cameron @BarackObama
The Sun also proudly announced her as one of their columnists, amplifying the message of Britain's 'abandonment of decency': 
Cameron’s fawning over dead Saudi despot shames UK, says @LouiseMensch:
And here's Mensch again, now even more dispirited that even one our 'most respected' female world leaders could be associated with such a fiend: 
fawning: if you want to be really depressed, not only did Miliband, Cameron pay tribute, @ said "personal friend"
Later, reflecting on her own 'boldness', Mensch imagines what her fate might be if she had ever made high office:  
I guess if I ever had made it to minister, I would be being sacked today.
Mensch also rushed to commend Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, who had previously tweeted her apparent disgust.
Flying flags at half mast on gov buildings for the death of Saudi king is a steaming pile of nonsense. That is all.
Yes, all very noble. Yet, one might ask Mensch, Davidson and all those hailing their interventions: what primary moral honour are you actually assuming in those flags and government buildings, what kind of conduct are you expecting in all those leaders?  
 
In truth, ex-UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia Sir William Patey is the more 'useful' voice here. He, at least, is 'up-front' about the issue: look, they're our allies, and we don't really give a f### what they do, whether beheading women or exporting terrorism, so long as they keep our arms companies in business, the oil flowing and our geopolitical interests secure.
 
Mr Patey, seasoned diplomat, doesn't, of course, say that. But the essential message is contained in his nicely tempered language and intimations about 'continuity', 'pragmatic alliance' and 'patient reform'. Thus: "King Abdullah went as fast as he thought the population of Saudi Arabia would bear." A lovely turn of imperialist phrase, making it helpfully clear just how much Britain and the West have ever cared to make a fuss over human rights. 
 
UKInc is, in this elementary sense, precisely expected, indeed entitled, to lower its flags and have its political and royal retinue honour Mr Abdullah. That's because the Windsors, Cameron, Blair and the rest of Union-Jack-Britannica are all part of the very same terror-inflicting network. Why would they do anything else? More immediately, why would we remotely expect them not to be doing such things as lauding Abdullah? 
 
Why would a state that's helped wipe-out Iraqis in their hundreds of thousands, caused mass carnage in Afghanistan and Libya, supported Israel's slaughter in Gaza, been a leading party to rendition and torture, armed sundry warmongers to the teeth, and overseen multiple other mass miseries around the globe be acting any differently over Abdullah's death?
 
The problem is not denunciation of the Saudi despots. It's the base assumption that 'we', as some kind of 'paragon state', have any moral worth or 'authority' in the first place to tell 'them' how to behave.
 
Doesn't it say so much about the twisted propaganda that Mensch and Davidson can so readily show such disapproval, that so many approve their disapproval, and that none of this includes the same, or greater, disapproval of what our own terror state and despot leaders really stand for? 

Friday, 23 January 2015

Situation of urgency - time for standing outside systems of power

Not for the first time, I have to admit a certain reverential awe for what comes out of the propaganda lab, and how liberal 'insiders' give it vital, daily legitimacy.

A mere 80 people now hold more wealth than 3.5 billion of the world's population. The planet's ecology edges towards the danger zone of corporate-led annihilation. Millions are being murdered and more lands plundered as we spiral deeper into warmongering, neoliberal hedonism. And, all the while, our liberal classes, self-preening media and liberty-bell celebrities are urging us to get indignantly defensive about 'free speech'.

As France pursues a mass clampdown on those expressing 'contrary' views, UK Home Secretary Theresa May and Tory MP Eric Pickles demand that Muslims start showing 'true regard' for 'British identity', with mosques told to exercise 'greater responsibility' in helping to avert 'the rise of anti-Semitism'. All opportune hyperbole, of course, used to expedite more policies and funding for the imperative 'War on Terror'. And don't dare mention Israel's and the West's genocidal actions in the Middle East as obvious context for 'Islamic' radicalisation.

American Sniper certainly doesn't. Up for an Oscar, it's giving voice, rather, to its depraved subject, Chris Kyle, as well as the reactionary mindset of its director Clint Eastwood. Movie-goers are reportedly coming out of US film theatres snarling with patriotic hubris, amplifying the intended message that 'our' governments and military were right and noble, after all, in going in there to kill all those Muslim 'savages'. After so much slaughter and destruction, you've almost got to marvel that even Tinsel Town can still produce such clichéd tripe, never mind laud it as award-deserving 'entertainment'.

A more wry despair occurs in watching the 'intellectual angst' of the remaining Charlie Hebdo circle as they agonise over their 'response edition' and how to draw-out their very own little war on 'Islamic errorism'. Wasn't it amusing to see their 'anti-establishment' satire getting appropriated as 'free speech' propaganda by that very establishment and its parading world leaders? Beneath Hebdo's 'resolute iconoclasm', as sympathetically portrayed by the Guardian's Ed Vulliamy, lies a much more capricious mix of racist jibe and neoconservative subtext. None of which appears to be concerning the new 'liberty-seeking' effort to 're-situate' the old Hebdo 'situationists'. Are Hebdo now anarchic insiders or anarchic outsiders? Or might we just say to the residents of that deluded 'cartoon town', wherever it's now situated: all is forgiven?

Meanwhile, having done its own vital bit for truth and liberty, the BBC celebrates BBC Democracy Day. If only Orwell were really here to tear down their pious Orwellian front.

So much power-speak. So much corporate hegemony. So much liberal rationalisation of its systems of control. We are being lied to and deceived on a mega-industrial level. And there's no reasonable prospect of reversing any of it through conventional political means. That's the real situation.

So, if meaningful change cannot be realised from within the system, isn't the most rational and urgent recourse to stand outside it? Why do we accept so much of this dominant conditioning, while still believing it can be changed from the inside?

In Revolution, Russell Brand's joyous splash of anarcho-humanism, we get, if not a detailed manifesto, a much more valuable spiritual primer on mindfulness as a source of progressive resistance.

One of the many beauties of Brand's book is how it encourages a deep, radical consciousness from the true within, starting with nominally small but vital examples of how we might come to question our own deference to power. 

For Brand, the reclaiming of our political souls can begin with little displays of dissent, like the rejection of cringing, hierarchical titles, including 'Your Majesty' - as if "she's all majestic, like an eagle or a mountain", rather than a "little old lady in a shiny hat - that we paid for." Instead of 'Your Highness', imagine if we all just started calling her 'Mrs Windsor' (Revolution, pp 117-118).

Nothing deeply radical here, you might think, especially for already-convinced republicans. But it's a useful exercise in questioning the insignia of authority and calls to obedience that stultify our capacity for nonconformity and critical observation.    

In the same spirit, we might stop to reflect on the loaded lingua of consumer status. Just think, for example, about daily terms like 'VIP' (Very Important Person), as if everyone else were JUPs (Just Unimportant Persons), the social discrimination of 'First Class' travel, or the elevation of moneyed high-flyers implied by 'Business Class'. Isn't it just so good, this all tells us, to feel like an 'important insider'? 

Alongside the market-defined notions we absorb about class, inclusion and aspiration, the appeal to ego also makes it difficult to resist plaudits from authority. In the craving for high recognition, the fetishism of Honours can even supersede our supposedly egalitarian identities.

We seek economic, social and emotional comfort within market existence. Yet, nothing of real human value can come from a system dedicated to elite interests, class privilege and corporate ideologies intended to keep so many competing, struggling and desiring that version of 'security'.
 
And while we're all being tamed through mass propaganda, many 'more knowing' activists are being compromised by more insidious forms of patronage and incorporation.

Eco-campaigner (and confidante of Prince Charles) Jonathon Porritt has finally admitted after years of postulating on 'corporate responsibility' that the giant oil companies are now incapable of change. Alas, his belated acceptance comes with no new useful acknowledgement that the system of capitalism itself is essentially psychopathic, that insatiable corporations can do nothing other than pursue destructive profit.

The same delusional mitigations are evident across liberal-minded charities. Of the new findings on mass wealth inequality, Oxfam International executive director Winnie Byanyima says:
“The message is that rising inequality is dangerous. It’s bad for growth and it’s bad for governance. We see a concentration of wealth capturing power and leaving ordinary people voiceless and their interests uncared for.”
There's obvious concern here for the poor and voiceless. But it's all pitched as worry over the dangers of capitalist inefficiency ("bad for growth") and the body politic ("bad for governance"), a concern with correcting the prevailing capitalist order, rather than serious moral examination over how we overthrow it.

Channel 4 News took the same mechanical-economist view, with Jon Snow overseeing a truly anodyne discussion of the wealth issue with the Spectator's Fraser Nelson and (Blair-awarding) Save the Children's Head of Inequality [sic] Faiza Shaheen.

Neither was pushed to discuss the moral obscenity of mass wealth inequality, nor the futility of trying to achieve meaningful change via appeals to our political leaders.

Channel 4 News also quoted the 'crusading' Byanyima:
In the past 12 months we have seen world leaders from President Obama to Christine Lagarde talk more about tackling extreme inequality but we are still waiting for many of them to walk the walk. It is time our leaders took on the powerful vested interests that stand in the way of a fairer and more prosperous world. [Emphasis added.]
All spoken as if our leaders aren't really part of that same system of powerful, vested interests, even if they don't all hold the same higher levels of corporate wealth.

As reported by the Guardian, that same Davos elite have now, predictably, invited Byanyima to their cosy summit, a standard act of incorporation that she, in turn, predictably extols:
Byanyima said: “I was surprised to be invited to be a co-chair at Davos because we are a critical voice. We go there to challenge these powerful elites. It is an act of courage to invite me.” [...] Speaking to the Guardian, Byanyima added: “Extreme inequality is not just an accident or a natural rule of economics. It is the result of policies and with different policies it can be reduced. I am optimistic that there will be change. “A few years ago the idea that extreme poverty was harmful was on the fringes of the economic and political debate. But having made the case we are now seeing an emerging consensus among business leaders, economic leaders, political leaders and even faith leaders.”  [Emphasis added.]
Are we really? And what kind of consensus? Does her ego extend to the same summit heights in believing that their invite and her presence is all part of some courageous act and meaningful engagement?

Like so many liberal 'reformers', Byanyima exhibits an inability to stand much more usefully, and with real courage, outside the big power tent; to see, expose and do something radical about the dire situation of capitalist 'democracy'.

Alongside system apologists like Oxfam and Save the Children, key opinion-forming outlets like the Guardian and Independent play the same vital role in maintaining the great illusion of the 'critical insider'.

For example, George Monbiot has just delivered a searing indictment of the BBC from the pages of the Guardian. But what of the Guardian's own vital role as a power-protecting organ? Couldn't Monbiot's demolition of BBC bias be matched with similar criticism of the Guardian, Independent and other liberal-establishment outlets, all stated more effectively from outside the domain of compromised media?

Likewise, from the same Guardian pages, Seumas Milne has been dispensing damning truths on the Davos oligarchs, showing how, in the case of Latin America, it really is possible to achieve progressive advancements and checks on inequality by standing defiantly outside much of the neoliberal system. Yet, how more hitting might that message be if Milne, with Monbiot and others, were operating outside as a truly independent media of the commons?

The same problem of compromise and adherence is evident, too, in Owen Jones's continual effort to promote, trouble-shoot and save the Labour Party. Jones's Guardian column has been urging Labour to steal a lead on Green policies. But all this ultimately does is give sustenance to a bankrupt neoliberal party, a loaded parliamentary system and that same boundaried media, none of which can ever deliver meaningful change because they're all, essentially, part of the same corporate-serving network.

Indeed, political-corporate taming of the mainstream green lobby should be a landmark lesson here. 
 
As Media Lens lament:  
What about green groups, many of whom look to the Guardian for favourable coverage of their campaigning and concerns? Will they ever recognise the folly of working with so-called 'responsible' elements of state and corporate power? 
Just as it's painfully apparent that 'working with' or 'inside' the prevailing 'agenda' on climate change - accepting the delusional narrative of 'corporate social responsibility' - has been a disaster, so too are many 'critical' journalists hopelessly misguided in believing that working with, or inside, the corporate media can ever bring about radical solutions, most urgently, environmental ones.   
 
None of this should really take much deduction. As Brand, with humble clarity, puts it:
I'm not Noam Chomsky; I'm happy to be Norman Wisdom. All I'd like to do is dispel the idea that there are no alternatives to the systems we are currently using to organise society (Revolution, p191).
Wise and elementary words, even if the commendable Russell himself has a little way to go in questioning kindred, supportive voices like Monbiot and Jones on their participation within the prevailing system, and whether this - indeed, for Brand too - is the most effective way of realising serious alternatives.  

The key, if uncomfortable, question for many such figures proclaiming system change, thus, is how ready and willing are they to stand outside the interconnecting systems of power they themselves inhabit, showing real radical commitment to systemic change? 

The institutional pressures, career disincentives and self-regarding antipathies to this are, of course, huge. It's no coincidence that raising these issues with such figures can invoke the most hostile forms of response - or, more usually, non-response.    
 
This is the exquisite functionality of the system. Without any need for conspiratorial closure, it reproduces its own defensive armour.  

Which should only compel us to keep asking the central question: is it really worth being a 'campaigning' voice or fig-leaf 'dissident' within organisations that continually prop-up power, reinforce illusions and help sustain the dominant, corporate system we're supposedly striving to overcome?

Friday, 16 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo: real fight is over who controls the terms of debate

So, Charlie Hebdo releases its much-awaited 'edition of defiance', hailed by much of the political elite and liberal media.

Is this latest depiction of the Prophet - now shown weeping, and holding a "Je Suis Charlie" placard, below the Hebdo message "All is forgiven" - intended as a firm 'rebuke to terrorism', the telling of Muslims that 'these killers don't speak for Islam', or even, as suggested by some, a statement of 'forgiving outreach'?

Interpretations abound. But it's significant that we're expected to approach and answer these questions through a dominant filter of liberal understanding, most of which complies with a 'Voltarian' default-type idealism in support of Charlie.  

Yet, claims over the sacrosanct status of 'free speech' and its expression as 'satire' cannot elide the more elementary issue of human consideration and social responsibility. As cartoonist Joe Sacco observes, Hebdo's output is a "vapid way to use a pen." One might also add, pernicious, vulgar and racist.

Is this latest cover any less offensive, not only in proclaiming such caustic messages, but doing so now, apparently, 'on behalf' of Muslims? 

The argument that, content aside, they should still have the right to publish such material seems an even more diversionary trope. 

Besides Sacco, I'm with Will Self, who said that: 'If I were a satirist the people I would be attacking are the security state.'

Which, beyond liberal issues of 'satirical taste', suggests more substantive questions about the relative value of 'free speech' set against how that speech is used to explore more pressing, yet conveniently concealed, issues of power and powerlessness.

Here, as Self also reminds us, lurks the dark paradox that the much-proclaimed 'imperatives' of 'secular democracy' and 'free speech' are being stated in similar quasi-religious tones to that of those 'Islamic' fundamentalists.

And this brings us to the essence of what's so crucial in this debate: that the issue is not, essentially, about 'free and universal speech'. Rather, it's about the determined power to control popular narratives; to direct the very ideological-cultural terms of that debate.

It's what Edward Said wrote so incisively about in Culture and Imperialism; how the ability to conquer, control and render the 'other' subservient was achieved not only through the dominance of weaponry, but also through the messages, latent or overt, flowing through imperialist text and image.

It was, for Said, about the removal and marginalisation of that 'other' voice, the all-important negation of independent agency.

Simply stated, it was, and still is, about power getting to call the shots, both through imperialist violence and narrative-laden denigration.

Much of that same intent and subtext can be seen in the Charlie Hebdo case, both in this latest appropriation of the Prophet, and in how that choice depiction has been hailed as yet another instance of 'our' 'higher authority' and 'sacred' Western-liberal narrative of 'truly civilising free speech'.  

As Jonathan Cook concisely puts it:
For me the Charlie Hebdo cover precisely embodies the very problem it thinks it exposes: not of a clash of civilisations, but our desperation to control the narrative to our advantage. It is telling in my view that the cartoonist says he cried at the moment he came up with the idea. The cartoon is not cheeky or subversive, as Western critics would have us believe; it is hugely sentimental while being at the same time presumptuous and racist in the deepest sense of the word. What it does is to strip the Prophet, and by implication all Muslims, of any agency or voice. A white cartoonist gets not only to speak for them, but to impose on them – as Muslims – an apology. To implicate them all – through those three words – in a crime committed by two gunmen.

Yes, the cartoon is offensive, but not in the clash of civilisations sense – one that leaves us in the west feeling vindicated and self-righteous. It is offensive because it offends against history, offends against the self-determination of peoples long colonised by us, offends against the values we claim for ourselves as enlightened beings.
Backed by liberal outpouring on the War for Civilisation, and the barbaric Western crimes this helps disguise, that sense of 'superior enlightenment' permeates the political and cultural discussion. 

It ranges from approving Guardian reporting of Hebdo's latest cover, to George Clooney and other celebrities sporting Je Suis Charlie badges at the Golden Globe film awards. 

In serving to reaffirm cherished notions of 'unfettered expression', both are pertinent examples of what Said had in mind when he wrote about populist propaganda and cultural hegemony.

Indeed, would-be advocates of 'inviolable speech' like Clooney are actually the worst kind of apologists for power. As safe voices of boundaried 'dissent', they provide, unwittingly or otherwise, an easy 'standard' around which people often unsure of the issues will readily rally.

If Said were alive today, he'd likely be making this very point about how the establishment and its liberal-serving agencies greatly approve and promote such calls and shows of support; how such declarations work as reinforcement of dominant interests through the comforting illusion of 'hard-won freedoms'.

For, after all, don't we already, here in the West, live in an already benighted liberal democracy, where we get to vote for real choice parties twice a decade, and hear our most radical views aired on Question Time? Or are we really now slipping into satire?

As part of this 'great open debate', we also see much pandering to the sensibilities of 'the Muslim community', helping to instil the idea of 'tolerant,' 'dialogue-willing' liberal engagement. Yet this only further consecrates the notion of a 'freedom-defining us', bestowing noble legitimacy on liberal vanguards as the ultimate arbiter of 'how to best help them'.  

Much of that liberal-speak, of course, includes Islamic voices. And many liberal-minded Muslims have adopted the same agenda-setting narrative, feeling compelled to 'deny terrorism' and engage in foisted forms of 'self-examination'.
 
Others, however, appear to be denouncing the narrative, like left-liberal Muslim Mehdi Hasan, Political Director at the Huffington Post, who, "fed up" with their hypocrisy, has turned on the "Free Speech Fundamentalists":
Let's be clear: I agree there is no justification whatsoever for gunning down journalists or cartoonists. I disagree with your seeming view that the right to offend comes with no corresponding responsibility; and I do not believe that a right to offend automatically translates into a duty to offend. When you say "Je suis Charlie", is that an endorsement of Charlie Hebdo's depiction of the French justice minister, Christiane Taubira, who is black, drawn as a monkey? Of crude caricatures of bulbous-nosed Arabs that must make Edward Said turn in his grave? Lampooning racism by reproducing brazenly racist imagery is a pretty dubious satirical tactic. 
Hasan also includes here: 
the liberal-left pin-up Jon Snow, who crassly tweeted about a "clash of civilisations" and referred to "Europe's belief in freedom of expression".
All good comment. Yet, how ready is Hasan himself to criticise much more directly his HuffPost host, or other liberal media like Channel 4 News and the Guardian, as key purveyors of that dominant narrative? 

Consider this, also, from Huffington Post Assistant Editor Jessica Elgot, who tweeted on Hasan's piece: 
I don’t agree with ’s column. Isn’t that the great beauty of free speech?
Again the liberal conceit; another neatly-revealing example of how such voices view 'other' speech, even that of a journalist colleague, as though inclusion of Hasan's opinion as a liberal-left Muslim at the HuffPost is some major proof of the sacred liberal munificence which people like Elgot have the 'much higher responsibility' to uphold.

I wonder if Hasan can see the ways in which that dominant, 'assumed right' to the narrative is being played out, just as Said would have understood it.

It's also worth noting here that the Huffington Post recently called upon readers to 'unfollow' various Twitter sites like Wikileaks, Media Lens and George Galloway, a reminder of how many liberal-left figures and platforms are themselves so often hostile, protective of their status and closed to free, fair and critical engagement.

For all that, Hasan's key charges on the hypocrisy of 'free speech' fundamentalism, and objection to the Hebdo depictions, remain. And state intolerance of that dissent in France is helping to show just how efficiently that counter-narrative is being demonised and suppressed.  

There's deep resentment over the prosecuting of anti-Hebdo dissent, while French politicians and media defend the paper as a paragon of free speech. 
  
Though decrying the Paris killings, many French schoolchildren also feel deeply affronted at being compelled to partake in 'Je Suis Charlie' acts of 'unity'. Alongside the selective attention they see over the Hebdo deaths, compared with killings in, say, Palestine or Syria, many resent the social discrimination they're experiencing as 'equal' French citizens:  
 “You go to a nightclub, and they don’t let you in,” said Binakdan, a transit worker in Paris. “You go to a party, they look at your beard, and say, ‘Oh, when are you going to Syria to join the jihad?’ Charlie Hebdo is a part of that, too. Those who are stronger than us are mocking us. We have high unemployment, high poverty. Religion is all we have left. This is sacred to us. And yes, we have a hard time laughing about it.”
Again, it's all indicative of who is trying to drive the public narrative, and how the political class and its supportive media is using manipulative 'moral' argument to control that agenda. As the shameless stage gathering of leaders in Paris showed, this is the calculating opportunism of repressive state forces posing in liberal garb. 

And what ultimate purpose does public association with deep authority serve, other than gifting greater powers of state control? Why isn't this much more problematic incorporation of the populace and subversion of radical speech, in the 'land of liberté' and beyond, not being seriously discussed, exposed or satirised? Largely, because that more vital power narrative of 'liberal rights' is serving to draw an expedient voile de l'illusion around it.    

Yes, we may all have those notional 'liberal rights' to criticise and even offend. But how much does the idealisation of such really advance our true and realisable freedoms? And does it supersede serious empathy, social manners and compassionate concern for others' sensitivities, particularly the sensitivities of an already deeply marginalised community?
        
Beyond the standard liberal narratives and terms of debate, some writings and commentaries containing more critical observation, free thinking and human understanding: 

Nadine El-Enany and Sarah Keenan
“I am Charlie and I guard the Master’s house”
 
Media Lens
Charlie Hebdo and the War for Civilisation

Mehdi Hasan
As a Muslim, I'm Fed Up With the Hypocrisy of the Free Speech Fundamentalists

Glenn Greenwald
France arrests a comedian for his Facebook comments, showing the sham of the West's "free speech" celebration

Seumas Milne
Paris is a warning: there is no insulation from our wars

Ali Abunimah
Who’s a Charlie? France cracks down on free speech in order to defend it

Chris Hedges
A Message From the Dispossessed
 

Joe Sacco
On Satire – a response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks

Tariq Ali
Maximum Horror

Corey Oakley
Charlie Hebdo and the hypocrisy of pencils

Will Self
Speaking on 'Should satire only target people in power? - video'

Russell Brand
Charlie Hebdo: Whose Fault Is it?