Whited Tombs of Dead Men’s Bones

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones…

Matthew 23:27

Whenever people on the left criticise ‘the West,’ a customary response on social media and from Britain’s inky flock is to demand damnation of some other sinner. Condemn British connivance with Saudi atrocities in Yemen and it’s ‘whatabout Iran?’ Castigate Israel for grinding Palestinians to sand and it’s ‘whatabout about Assad?’ Demand the US closes its trespassing torture chamber at Guantanamo and it’s ‘whatabout about IS?’ The Stop the War Coalition (STWC) have borne these ‘yeah, buts’ for years, latterly from Peter Tatchell. Back in 2002-03, ‘Stoppers’ were routinely badgered to condemn Saddam Hussein’s well-documented and uncontroversial atrocities as part of a grimy ploy to daub anyone who opposed dropping explosives on children as a friend to tyranny. This scuttling rhetoric shrivels under the light of reason, of course. Indeed, I’m confident that seasoned practitioners of this swindle understand quite clearly the ruse they’re perpetrating. But I’ll sum up my objections, presuming Noam Chomsky’s maxim, that the duty of the intellectual (or blogger) is to tell the truth, about things that matter, to the right audience.

TatchellSTWCMy first objection is ethical: that the individual’s first concern should always be with their own misdeeds and those done by others with their help or acquiescence. Applying this to affairs between nations, their scrutiny should fall chiefly on the behaviour of their own government and of its allies. They can of course decry (and should not defend) the outrages of other states but if they support them with neither vote nor tax, they share no responsibility for them. Applied to the world today, this means my most pressing concern should always be with the actions of the UK government and its imperial master. Vassals and allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, are also my concern because their litany of crimes is committed with British arms, aid and advice. Indeed, as Prof. Bruce Reidel of the Brookings Institute said recently, ‘if the United States of America and the United Kingdom — tonight — told King Salman that this war [on Yemen] has to end, it would end tomorrow because the Royal Saudi Air force cannot operate without American and British Support.’ Israel is not nearly so dependent but has still benefited from arms, including sniper rifles, worth £320m since 2014.[1] Passing over these crimes to rail at others in which we have no part is cossetted posturing; ‘virtue signalling,’ to use a vogue expression. When our government is not terrorising the world, directly or indirectly, when we can plausibly claim to be ‘intervening’ out of something other than venal calculation, then we may concern ourselves with the crimes of other nations and hope for a spark of legitimacy.

My second objection concerns the practical responsibility to use one’s energy and opportunities to the greatest effect. Where can the British anti-war movement, a progressive journalist or an angry tweeter hope to leave even the most fleeting mark? Not on foreign governments, certainly. The thump of feet marching on British streets is barely heard in Whitehall, so why imagine it will rattle the walls of the Kremlin? I certainly don’t write in the expectation of being read by members the British Government, let alone those of North Korea. In any case, as Chomsky put it, ‘speaking truth to power’ is an overrated pursuit when power knows the truth. The most recent exception to this I can think of was the great anti-war march in February 2003. But even millions freezing in Hyde Park didn’t shake the Blair camarilla from their murderous fealty to the Bush Regime (though we perhaps came closer to averting that war than with any other).

No, the greatest effect the dissident can have is on her own community and, through that, the state. I write hoping to be read by my fellow citizens and hoping to affect, if only in some microscopic way, their thinking, their voting, and their organising. STWC march and hold street stalls to educate and inform the British people about our government’s crimes because they are something we share responsibility for and have the ability to affect. That should always be our priority, even were ‘their’ crimes to be large and ‘ours’ small (instead of the reverse). If we can do something about our crimes but can only shout about theirs, then our smaller crimes should still be our foremost occupation. Journalists would do better to keep this principle but, since they do not, it is up to citizens to shine light where it is needed and not waste time doing work that, honest or not, is already being done. Why should STWC run stalls denouncing Putin for the villain he undoubtedly is when the media does that daily with vastly greater volume? It’s like working one’s way to the front at a gig and humming the baseline for benefit of the crowd. What’s more, when it’s an official enemy and not an ally, it’s indulgent. My condemnation of Russian human rights abuses would have no material effect on that country’s leaders, would not educate a British public who are told of them weekly, and could not bring about any beneficial change in a British government that already considers Russia an enemy (though it might persuade the Tories to return their donations). Contrast that with the Chagos Islands scandal, where the media are usually silent, the public know little, and our government’s behaviour over fifty years has been contemptible.

Nor does the demand for balance go both ways: the domesticated journalist who spends his career reviling whichever of Eurasia or Eastasia is being liberated this year will never be asked to reserve any ink for Oceania. Well trained journalists care, cry, and condemn only when it is convenient to their governments; hearts bleed but eyes remain closed. They absorb this conditioning unconsciously through years of socialisation until they know instinctively when they ‘cannot stand idly by’ and when they must. Our ‘responsibility to protect’ the Kurds, for example, depended on who was attacking them (e. g. Saddam Hussein or the Turkish government). The real measure of the dishonesty of these calls for even-handedness is that they are never made of the dissidents who live in enemy states. The people who demand that STWC condemn Putin never demanded Pussy Riot call out Obama’s drone terror. Even if legitimate grounds for criticism were admitted, the idea that they should make those criticisms would rightly be seen as an absurd waste of their limited resources.

Everyone instinctively understands all of this when matters are confined to every day personal relationships. To borrow from Wilde, we know to respect the person who never says a moral thing and never does a wrong thing more than we do the whisky priest. Campaigning groups like Amnesty International aside, most who rail at the misdeeds of other nations are using their freedom merely to say moral things, knowing they’ll pay no price and the victim will gain no benefit. The trade of journalism needs this lesson most of all. The press bears the greatest responsibility for informing the public and theirs is the greatest failure. Until they learn this lesson, or rather carry it from their personal lives and put in on the page, newspapers will continue to be whited sepulchres: now gilded with print but still full of dead men’s bones.

Notes.

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Image: Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (James Tissot French, 1836-1902 )

[1] Senior fellow for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Video of his remarks is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2W55QaV8bWw For a report on British arms sales to Israel, see Jamie Merrill ‘Exclusive: UK sells $445m of arms to Israel, including sniper rifles,’ Middle East Eye, 24 April 2018, available at https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/exclusive-uk-sells-more-500m-arms-israel-including-sniper-rifles-718473139 (accessed 11/09/18).

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Beware the Few

The newspapers received the elevation of Perkins with unprecedented hysteria. “Go back to Moscow,” screamed the Sun, unable to come to terms with the fact that ‘Red Harry’ (as the papers insisted on calling him) had never actually set foot in Moscow… in the run-up to polling… newspapers published lists of ‘Communist-backed’ Labour candidates. By way of evidence they offered an article in the Morning Star or a platform shared by a Labour MP and a member of the Communist Party. A week before election day… newshounds ‘discovered’ documents purporting to show that four senior Labour leaders were paid-up members of a Trotskyist cell.

Not to be outdone, the Express took to publishing a picture of Perkins daubed with a Hitler moustache… Another paper splashed on its front page an internal Labour Party document outlining plans to abolish tax relief on mortgages and confiscate all personal wealth over £50,000. Enquiry revealed that the document was a forgery, but the retraction was tucked away at the bottom of an inside page.[i]

The passage above is from the novel, ‘A Very British Coup,’ by the former Labour MP, Chris Mullin. Though published in 1982 and dated, it’s a stingingly prescient work that, if Labour forms the next government, should become required reading for anyone who still harbours any affection for democracy. The novel was a success and, later, playwright Alan Plater wrote a (loose) adaptation for Channel Four.

CorbynPutinStoogeIn his opus, Mullin imagines the various phases of an establishment coup mounted in response to the election of a socialist government led by his protagonist, newly minted Labour PM Harry Perkins. Naturally, Mullin portrays the corporate media as one of the principal fronts in his imaginary battle between democracy and the state and, last month, I touched on this subject when I argued that it is foolish to believe that a genuinely socialist Labour Party could win over the corporate capitalist media. One has only to look at the batterings meted out to Labour under Foot, Kinnock, ‘Red Ed’ Miliband, and Corbyn to see the entirely understandable hostility of private power to anything other than the mildest social democracy.[ii] New Labour, which was substantially (though in fairness not totally) a capitulation to neoliberalism, received a much fairer wind; particularly from the Murdoch press.

The establishment campaign to destroy the Corbyn project, which is currently veiled as a furore over antisemitism, began before he was elected when, in July 2015, senior Labour MPs briefed the press that ‘Corbyn would never be allowed to remain in the job long enough to fight the 2020 general election’ and that ‘a coup could be launched within days of the result.’[iii] Three years later, for all its digging, the establishment has so far found very little to work with, as the paucity of the ‘scandals’ so far illustrate. When your enemy is cropping photos to make it CorbynJigMaillook like you’re dancing at the Cenotaph, you know their battery’s down to one bar. The insinuations and allegations concerning Corbyn’s associations with Sinn Fein and Hamas before the 2017 election fell flat, especially with younger voters, for whom the 80s are not even a memory. Indeed, such was the failure that many were tempted to see it as another portent of the collapse of redtop influence.[iv] This year, allegations that Corbyn was a Kremlin agent, a traitor, or a Czech spy proved so obviously absurd that even Andrew Neil bridled at them, demolishing the Brexit Minister, Steve Baker, in an interview so bloody it could have been directed by Eli Roth.

Inevitably, if Labour win the next election, the media will gain new material. Instead of rummaging through Corbyn’s bins, they’ll be able to blame everything that goes wrong in the country on Labour and on him (and sometimes they may actually be right to do so). As with Corbyn’s election as leader, the media will show scant regard for fairness, honesty or intellectual self-respect. And this will be only one front. In office, a Labour government will find itself having to fight on a much broader battlefield if it also wants to be in power.

LabourSpiesIt’s easy to forget how much any government relies on consent: not merely that of an electorate it has to win over every five years but rival power centres that it has to win over every day. It’s easy to confuse ‘the government’ with the wider apparatus of the state.  It’s worth us remembering exactly what a Labour Government would be in actual physical terms: approximately 120 people running twenty-five ministerial departments.[v] That would be the Labour Government: 120 people. Add to that a further 20 non-ministerial departments and 300+ executive agencies of one sort or another; all of which is staffed mostly by the 560,000 civil servants. Think of 120 people against that. And that of course is just the formal government. To this, we must add all the other centres of power in the country – the finance sector, large multinational corporations (and their media arms), and even the diminished but still influential trades unions. The Government for the Many against the (not so) Few.

And we live now in an incomparably more globalised world with far faster CorbynCollaboratorcommunication than that envisaged by Chris Mullin. Internationally, we are subject to the ‘virtual senate’ of investors and lenders, who ‘conduct moment-by-moment referendums’ on government policies;[vi] what the press refers to euphemistically as ‘the markets’. Capital is capable of ‘staging a general political strike’ against the policies of any nation, with even the US not immune from its ‘veto power.’[vii] A number of studies have shown that ‘the markets’ punish left wing governments and reward right wing administrations. The reason for this is obvious: ‘the probability of policies that are harmful for returns on investments increases under left governments, while right governments are more likely to choose policies that are beneficial for financial returns.’[viii] In other words, financial institutions punish any government that puts people over profit.

I’d argue that much of what is commonly portrayed as the competence of a government is, in reality, the degree to which other actors within the system play ball. Once Labour is in office, its enemies will have countless opportunities to jam the mechanisms of the state and frustrate Labour’s mandate. We’ve already seen the drama acted out on the smaller stage of the Labour Party itself, when Corbyn found himself in office but not in power; a predicament described by his political biographer, Alex Nunns:

The staff wore black for the day of the result… There was minimal help for the new leader — the campaign’s press officer James Mills had to organise an impromptu round of media interviews. There was no car arranged to transport Corbyn through the thronging streets… On member of staff approached Mills and said: “See those three files over there? That’s how the Labour Party works. See you Monday morning.”[ix]

CorbynLungeIndeed, we saw a foreshadowing of the likely problems ahead in September 2015, when an anonymous ‘senior general’ briefed that a Corbyn government would face a mutiny if it ‘tried to scrap Trident, pull out of NATO or announce “any plans to emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces.”’[x] It’s no secret that Labour are conducting strategy sessions to, as John McDonnell put it, ‘answer the question about what happens when, or if, they [the establishment] come for us.’ In the first instance, that will very likely take the form of a TimesRussiaSwingrun on the pound (currency traders selling the pound so that its value against other currencies drops) or sudden capital flight (people pulling their money out of the country).[xi] In the longer run, there will be a steady war of attrition between a Labour government and institutions that have a vested interest in obstructing even Corbyn’s comparatively mild programme of social democracy. Increased propaganda against the domestic (and foreign) population, non-cooperation, and active sabotage: power protects itself.

Finally, while I’ve concerned myself here with institutions, allow me to suggest that theseExistential Threat are not the fundamental enemy that the Corbyn project faces. That is the class identity, values, and interests shared by that tranche of society we call ‘the establishment’. The institutions are merely the semi-permanent expression of the establishment, accumulated over decades and centuries.  The substance is the people — they are the bricks that make up the buildings, bound by the cement of their common ideology. We might demolish the buildings but the bricks themselves scatter and slot themselves into new buildings (or parties). The longer struggle of socialism will always be to bring about a change in collective wisdom: a ‘battle for hearts and minds’ (but without the bombing). That will take time and the battle for the buildings is a necessary step in winning the war for the bricks. It’s vital that Labour and its supporters don’t under estimate this challenge. Getting elected is not the summit but a foothill on the journey. I’ll leave you with some words Chris Mullin gave to Harry Perkins, which could be as true the morning after the next election as they were in 1982:

All we have won tonight is political power… [b]y itself that is not enough. Real power in this country resides not in Parliament, but in the boardrooms of the City of London; in the darkest recesses of the Whitehall bureaucracy and in the editorial offices of our national newspapers. To win real power we have first to break the stranglehold exerted by the ruling class on all the important institutions of our country.[xii]

Notes

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[i] Chris Mullin (1982) ‘A Very British Coup,’ Hodder & Stoughton pp. 44-45.

[ii] The treatment of Tony Blair was far kinder, as I discussed in my previous article. John Smith was leader only two years before his untimely death at 55.

[iii] Tim Ross and Emily Gosden, ‘Jeremy Corbyn Faces Coup Plot if He Wins Labour Leadership,’ The Telegraph, 27th July 2015, available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/labour/11764159/Jeremy-Corbyn-faces-coup-plot-if-he-wins-Labour-leadership.html (accessed 03/09/18); The Guardian reports that ‘ [The] argument about antisemitism in the party threatens to turn into a battle over its future…’ neatly reversing the actual events, in which the battle by the Labour right to wrest control of the Party back from the membership has recently morphed into an antisemitism-flavoured souffle (Dan Sabbagh ‘Antisemitism row: Hodge and Brown pile pressure on Corbyn,’ The Guardian 2nd September 2018, available at https://amp.theguardian.com/news/2018/sep/02/margaret-hodge-jeremy-corbyn-problem-labour-antisemitism-crisis (accessed 03/09/18).

[iv] See, for example, Suzanne Moore ‘The Sun and Mail tried to crush Corbyn. But their power over politics is broken, The Guardian 9th of June 2017, available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/09/tabloids-crush-corbyn-power-politics-sun-mail-labour (accessed 03/09/18). Steven Barnett reports that ‘commentators, pollsters, politicians and voters alike, some media pundits were quick to pronounce the end of tabloid power. “This election proves that media bias no longer matters” announced Peter Preston, suggesting that while the printed press “has seldom seemed more overwhelming” in its pro-Tory bias, 2017 heralded the final supremacy of social media over the dinosaurs of the printed press. Veteran media commentator Ray Snoddy also proclaimed “the decline in power and influence of the right-wing tabloids”. Nonetheless, Barnett cautions that this judgement may be ‘simplistic’ (Steven Barnett ‘Is our national press a fading dinosaur? Don’t bank on it’ in Einar Thorsen, Daniel Jackson, Darren Lilleker (eds) (2017) UK Election Analysis 2017: Media, Voters and the Campaign, p. 55.

[v] I’m basing this on the assumption that a Labour government would be broadly the same size and configuration as the current one, which is described (in fairly ‘Janet & John’ terms) here: https://www.gov.uk/government/how-government-works

[vi] Two phrases from the economics literature used frequently by Noam Chomsky, for example in his ‘The high cost of neoliberalism,’ The Spectator 28th June 2010, available at  https://www.newstatesman.com/south-america/2010/06/chomsky-democracy-latin (accessed 02/09/18).

[vii] Timothy A. Canova, ‘The Transformation of U.S. Banking and Finance: From Regulated Competition to Free-Market Receivership,’ Brooklyn Law Review Vol. 60 No. 4 Winter 1995, pp. 1295-1354.

[viii] Thomas Sattler, ‘Do Markets Punish Left Governments?’ The Journal of Politics 75, no. 2 (2013): 343-56. In Sattler’s study, he qualifies this central assertion by demonstrating that the reaction of markets to left governments depends on their assessment of how otherwise constrained that government is. In other words, a left government that has little room to operate will not be punished so heavily as one with more latitude.

[ix] Alex Nunns (2016 [2018]) “The Candidate. Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power,” OR Books, London.

[x] Caroline Mortimer, ‘British Army ‘could stage mutiny under Corbyn’, says senior serving general,’ The Independent 20th September 2015, available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/british-army-could-stage-mutiny-under-corbyn-says-senior-serving-general-10509742.html#comments (accessed 02/09/18).

[xi] Jim Pickard, ‘Labour plans for capital flight or run on pound if elected,’ Financial Times 26th September 2017, available at https://www.ft.com/content/e06aa3a6-a2c5-11e7-b797-b61809486fe2 (accessed 02/09/18).

[xii] Mullin (1982) p. 10.