Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Making the imaginative leap

From Scotland to Palestine,
all change is possible

On May 8 2007, a smiling Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness stood together on the steps of Stormont, Northern Ireland’s imposing parliament, ready to enact a power-sharing agreement. Many an observer, worldwide, gawped at the actual, culminating reality. Here, after all, was the personal manifestation of two seemingly intractable forces, Unionism and Republicanism, preparing for the daily diet of parliamentary business.

None of this changes the ultimate aims of the main parties behind the rapprochement: for Paisley’s Democratic Unionists, the ‘safe-keeping’ of Ulster’s position within the UK; for Adams and Sinn Fein, the eventual realisation of a 32-county united Ireland. Who knows where all this will lead. The peace barriers across Northern Ireland remain as visible proof of the ongoing sectarian enmities. Yet, despite all those physical and ideological divisions, people have, somehow, managed to make bridges for the practical purposes of peace and co-operation.

More recently, Paisley and McGuinness received a courtesy visit from Scotland’s newly-elected First Minister, Alex Salmond. Again, watching the smiling handshakes, one could be forgiven for questioning the actuality of this event.

The Scottish National Party’s historic termination of Labour’s 50-year rein in Scotland did not, alas, end graciously. Outgoing-FM Jack McConnell initially refused to endorse the result or congratulate the new FM. Gordon Brown somehow managed to avoid making the same courtesy phone call for weeks after the election. And Tony Blair, now comfying into his new Jerusalem residence as the Quartet’s Middle East ‘peace envoy’, will likely never acknowledge the man who led the Westminster campaign for his impeachment over Iraq. As with the Quartet’s own refusal to engage Hamas – more of which, in a moment - the New Labour elite have shown an arrogant contempt for political outcomes they deem ‘unsuitable’. The actual process of ‘democracy’ really can be such a bothersome inconvenience.

Despite holding-out as a minority government (the true-to-form Lib Dems having rejected Salmond’s coalition offer), the SNP is pushing-on with a raft of nominally progressive policies, such as reversing hospital closures and enacting public-based alternatives to New Labour’s prized PFI policy. Salmond has also pledged every constitutional effort to remove Trident weapons of mass destruction from Faslane.

Needless to say – but I will, anyway - we shouldn’t be overawed by party leaders or place unrealistic hopes in their promises. But, we can, at least, enjoy the moment of New Labour’s ousting and the refreshing look of the SNP’s ‘leftish’ manifesto. Any more serious shift towards an independent socialistic Scotland will be incremental and stubbornly resisted by the usual forces of big business and the political establishment. Nor should we forget the SNP’s own pro-business inclinations and base-building as its seeks to court support for independence.

Yet, one also senses a more sanguine desire for change in Scotland, driven, largely, by an anti-Blairist mood comparable to the anti-Thatcherism that preceded it. If not quite a zeitgeist moment, the SNP mandate might, usefully, be read as a practical vocalisation of that shift. But, again, this all comes with the standard caveat that the willingness of parliamentarians to act radically will only show fruition through the radical mobilisation of people outside those seemingly select chambers.


The rejection of New Labourism here in Scotland may not be borne of revolutionary fervour. But it is a useful example of the anti-globalisation maxim that “another world is possible”. And not only possible, but, in a more fluid and dynamic set of contestations than the elite would have us believe, highly probable.

Consider, most obviously, the break-up of the Soviet system. The cold-bath of neoliberal ‘restructuring’ has seen severe social disaggregation and economic impoverishment for those new ‘non-entrepreneurial’ citizens. Washington’s embrace also includes US/NATO overtures to states like Poland, which now acts as host for CIA rendition flights and torture of detainees. It’s an object case of how the world changes, yet finds new opportunities and locations for capitalist exploitation and elite repression.

But, beyond the developmental hype, it also pushes the system towards new contradictions and hegemonic crises. One only has to consider the economic impoverishment in former East Germany, the spiralling suicide rate across Eastern Europe and Putin’s proxy war with his nouveau-riche adversaries as they carve-up, mob-like, the spoils of Russia’s privatised economy.

The predictable social crises across Russia and Eastern Europe has also fuelled the desire for serious alternatives from ‘market liberation’ around the globe. Thus, in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez is heading a popular economic, political and social revolution against all the usual odds of a CIA coup, inspiring new counter-hegemonic alliances and initiatives across Latin America.

But, of course, while Chavez was recently able to end Venezuela’s dependence on the IMF/World Bank mandarins, this and other regions, most notably Africa, remain locked-into such blackmail economics - or “Washington consensus”, as the neoliberal spinners like to call it. Again, it’s easy to succumb to the view that this all-powerful, all-consuming, monolith cannot be challenged. And yet, as John Pilger admirably documents in War on Democracy, the practical accomplishments of real people-led socialist democracy in the barrios of Venezuela and Bolivia have shown that it can, helping to lay down a practical template for other nations of the South to follow.

Which calls to mind South Africa’s ongoing enslavement. With its co-opted integration into the ‘new economic order’, the chains of inequality and international servitude still remain to be unlocked for the still massive black under-majority. As the enduring presence of De Beers and other corporate giants shows, Thabo Mbeki is the compliant face of a country still in thrall to global market forces. No new black middle classness can disguise the gross poverty, attacks on health care and political corruption that has marked Mbeki’s administration. Despite certain advances and infrastructural improvements, notes Pilger:
...some people in the black townships actually [speak] nostalgically of the last years of official apartheid. Then, they didn’t have to pay for their water, their electricity [The] new black elite--- known rather sardonically in South Africa as the “wabenzie”, because they prefer big silver Mercedes Benz to drive around in…are a cover for the continuation of white economic power in South Africa.

And yet, Mandela’s historic victory over the apartheid system remains a vital example of how to effect change through internal resistance and external pressure. In a perverse sense, Mbeki’s denialist stance on poverty, corruption and, of course, AIDS has also helped highlight the contradictions of the ANC project, thus intensifying the case, and demand, for a true post-apartheid society.

The mirrors of apartheid

The painful lessons of South Africa have, at the same time, become a kind of benchmark reference for other oppressive conflicts. Thus, South Africa’s ever-campaigning Desmond Tutu - who has also taken a close and practical interest in Northern Ireland’s fragile peace process and reconciliations - believes that Israel’s occupation and persecution of the Palestinian Territories is akin to apartheid South Africa. While the world witnessed an end to the bantustanisation of his country, Palestine becomes an evermore ugly reflection of that apartheid system. Indeed, Israeli apartheid is worse than South Africa’s, according to ex-US President Jimmy Carter:

And the word “apartheid” is exactly accurate. You know, this is an area that’s occupied by two powers. They are now completely separated. Palestinians can't even ride on the same roads that the Israelis have created or built in Palestinian territory. The Israelis never see a Palestinian, except the Israeli soldiers. The Palestinians never see an Israeli, except at a distance, except the Israeli soldiers. So within Palestinian territory, they are absolutely and totally separated, much worse than they were in South Africa, by the way. And the other thing is, the other definition of “apartheid” is, one side dominates the other. And the Israelis completely dominate the life of the Palestinian people.

We shouldn’t pass here without recalling Carter’s own dirty dealings with repressive regimes during his presidency, most notably his support for Indonesia as it sought to murder East Timor. Yet, it’s instructive to witness the organised criticism, mostly from the US Zionist-neo-con alliance, that has greeted Carter’s book and statements on Palestine.

As Israel expands the West Bank settlements, erects its ‘security’ wall through more Palestinian olive groves and wields its daily killing and humiliation of an impoverished people, one might despairingly ask if there’s a scintilla of hope for a comprehensive peace deal and just solution for the Palestinians? That question has taken on even greater resonance in the wake of the Hamas-Fatah conflict, a process which, as its siege/starvation tactics towards Gaza shows, Israel is doing its utmost to promote.

Where now, many ask, for the ‘peace process’ and any, already forlorn, hope of a two-state solution? Why, many increasingly wonder, do Olmert and Bush continue to pledge their ‘joint support’ for such an ‘option’? Could it be that their continuing ‘commitment’ to such an ‘ideal’ is really a convenient posture serving to effect their already-determined ‘solution’: the ongoing encirclement of Gaza and pocketisation of the West Bank territory.

Lofty proclamations about a two-state settlement, with ultimate Palestinian sovereignty, are, of course, a good hint of Israeli/US malfeasance, in itself. But what more particular reasons can we have for doubting such a commonly-asserted ‘aim’?

The core arguments for a one solution have been broadly set-out by Ilan Pappe and Omar Barghouti, who has this blunt reminder that the “demise of the two-state solution should not be mourned”:

Besides having passed its expiry date, it was never a moral solution to start with…It is now clearer than ever that the two-state solution -- other than being only a disguise for continued Israeli occupation and a mechanism to permanently divide the people of Palestine into three disconnected segments -- was primarily intended to induce Palestinians to give up the inalienable right of their refugees to return to their homes and lands from which they were ethnically cleansed by Zionists during the 1948 Nakba.
Electronic Intifada Editor/founder Ali Abunimah is also among a growing set of key Palestinian academics and activists who now see the futility of any two state ‘option’.

Three basic reasons for this conclusion can be noted. Firstly, it is abundantly evident that Israel, firmly backed by the US – and, indirectly, by the EU – has no actual intention of relinquishing its West Bank settlements, dismantling the wall or offering the Palestinians any serious form of sovereign nationhood.

Secondly, any peace deal premised on Israel’s hypothetical withdrawal from the West Bank (and ending the siege of Gaza) – a kind of ‘Oslo plus’ – would still leave the Palestinians with a disjointed 22 per cent set of their geographical entities.

Thirdly, and perhaps more fundamentally, there remains the problem of Israel as an apartheid state in itself. Endorsing the one-state view, Jonathan Cook has noted, in a number of fine commentaries the centrality of Israel’s deep dilemma over what to do about its Palestinian/Arab ‘citizens’, a scenario which Cook sees as, in many way, a more difficult and threatening problem for the Israeli state to resolve.

Such perceptions of the internal Palestinian ‘problem’ are not exclusive to the Israeli political elite. They run deep within Israeli society, a mood racism which ultra right-wing politicians have been all-too-willing to exploit in their calls for “transfers”, expulsions and other ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

As Cook reminds us, Uri Avnery and Peace Now can only fall-back on the same redundant two state arguments. Cook traces this to the base Zionist principles underlying Peace Now’s view of Israel and the right to a Jewish homeland. In contrast, one state advocates point out that no peaceable and just solution can evolve without the transformation of Israel itself into a fully democratic and secular – that is, non-Zionist - state.

And here we return to those seemingly impossible scenarios of radical political change. Precisely how, sceptics of the one-state case might reasonably ask, could such an entity ever come to supplant the status quo. One thinks depressingly here of the vanguard belief in the Zionist ‘cause’, the bloody history of that ‘project’ and its sheer ‘righteousness’ in Israeli consciousness.

Yet, it’s worth reiterating that there is no essential interface between Judaism and Zionism. Many Jews, orthodox and otherwise, have consistently opposed what the Israeli state has done in the name of Judaism. Indeed, Jews for Justice in Palestine and the orthodox Neturei Karta recently marched in the ‘Enough’ demonstration in London alongside thousands of Palestinian supporters to mark the 40th anniversary of Israel’s 1967 war of expansion.

Amid the Palestinians’ despair, we see small and significant victories, as in the recent Israeli Supreme Court decision in favour of Bil’in village. This, of course, has to be tempered by the reality that while parts of the Israeli state may give way here and there, it has multiple other ways of maintaining its oppressive control. For example, the same court also ruled against the removal of Israeli settlement houses around Bil’in. As with the illegality and immorality of the wall itself, let’s not lose sight of Israel’s larger agenda of oppression. Yet, the decision over the wall’s route, after years of weekly demonstrating, is testament to the power of sustained dissent, part of the often hidden, yet gathering, solidarity serving to pressurise the Israeli state.

Again, the principal lesson here is that actual change is more likely than we might sometimes believe. The combination of collective consideration and individual concern for oppressed peoples is a more powerful force than even we might often realise. And, despite what power and a servile media want us to believe, the push and desire for those alternatives - a more kind and equitable society, an end to corporate-driven wars, the removal of mass weaponry, the dismantling of neoliberal policies, privatised services and market rules – is a worryingly constant for the elite. Indeed, the extent of that concern is inversely related to the sheer weight of propaganda used to maintain the illusion that there is no alternative.

On the anniversary of 9/11, a day that supposedly “changed the world”, it’s worth remembering, in tribute to all the people who have lost their lives to state terrorists, corporate warmongers and other political fanatics, that we inhabit an ever-changing world, where all actions have consequences. Thus, an important part of the resistance to such greed, hate and violence lies in our own ability to cultivate an inner political mindfulness of rational dissent, human engagement and care for others. A politics of justice, love and compassion? Now, there’s an uncomfortable set of ideals for Bush, Blair, Olmert and their fellow war criminals to contemplate.


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