Monday, April 20, 2015

From London to Yarmouk

A temporary break in the pre-election blogging...

Yarmouk: the Palestinian neighbourhood in Damascus where thousands have died, bombed by Assad, starved under seige by the Syrian regime, and more recently invaded by Islamic State fighters. Mostly ignored by the Western media until ISIS made it somehow news-worthy this month.

I first blogged about Yarmouk in 2012 and have been tweeting about it since the start of 2014. I have questioned why "pro-Palestinian" activists, who manage to mobilise thousands for Gaza, seem to have been relatively quiet about the Palestinian people of Yarmouk, where people have been dying in huge numbers for three years now.

When I saw that there was an emergency demonstration for Yarmouk, called by Palestinian solidarity activists, in London on Tuesday, I thought I should put my money where my mouth is, and go along.



There were dozens of protesters there - somewhere between 50 and 100; I'm no longer good at estimating that sort of thing. A significant proportion of those present were probably from the Palestinian diaspora. There were flags of the Syrian revolution and of Palestine. There was no presence from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign or any of the other groups which organised protests about Gaza. There were two SWP paper sellers, not managing to sell many papers but they did get some people to hold their placards. The comedian Jeremy Hardy was there. The Syrian Solidarity Movement had a banner saying "Syrian refugees welcome here." Jews for Justice for Palestinians had a large banner. There were several keffiyehs. One protester had a banner saying "Yarmouk - made in Israel", but otherwise Israel did not feature in much of the material.
After a short, powerful statement by the organisers, they read out some of the names of people who have died in Yarmouk: newborn babies, children, adults, elders. Died in airstrikes, killed by sniper fire, died from lack of medical care after suffering from treatable problems - but mostly starved to death. Listening to these names - of people who come to us through the media merely as numbers, if at all - was heart-breaking.

Six things I think I know about Yarmouk


1. The story of Yarmouk is the story of the Palestinian diaspora
Yarmouk was established in 1957, to house Palestinians squatting in and around Damascus, mainly families from the northern part of Palestine displaced in what Palestinians calls the Nakba, "catastrophe", the 1948 exodus in the wake of Israel's establishment as a state. Many came from Safad, scene of bitter conflict in 1948; others came from Haifa and Tiberius. Up to 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from Palestine in the conflict. This included up to 90,000 who went to Syria - rising to 127,000 by the 1960s, 400,00 by the end of the century. That multiplication of population was similar across the diaspora, and the descendants of the 1948 refugees now number 5 million, which is not much less than the current Jewish population of Israel, making the ideal of the right of return to Palestine increasingly hard to envisage without generating a new Nakba for the Jews. 

2. Calling Yarmouk a refugee camp is misleading


Damascus in 2011 had a population of 2.5 million - that's about the size of Birmingham or Chicago. Yarmouk had a population of over 130,000, possibly as large as 200,000 - so about the size of Oxford or Reading, or a London borough such as Hammersmith and Fulham. Yarmouk is well within the metropolitan area of Damascus and its municipal boundaries. Built on the edge of town, the city has grown up around it. Before the war, it had hospitals, theatres, businesses, beauty salons, internet cafes, a rich cultural life. Its cityscape is dominated by five-storey low-rises. According to the BBC, "It had its own mosques, schools and public buildings. Literacy and numeracy rates among Palestinians in the camp were among the highest not just in Syria, but across the Arab world."

Although it is not an "official" camp, it is known as a camp simply because most of its inhabitants are Palestinians, and therefore retain the technical status of refugees. Palestinian refugees are the only refugees whose status is passed on down through the family line. Their welfare is not administered to by the UN's normal refugee agency, UNHCR, but by a seperate specific agency, UNWRA. This means a kind of permanent homelessness and statelessness for Palestinians - which in many ways has been encouraged by their leadership and by Arab governments, as a weapon against Israel.

3. Assad is no friend of the Palestinians
Assad, like his father and other Arab tyrants, has posed as a friend of the Palestinians. However, Syria's government, while giving Palestinians resident in Syria many of the rights of other Syrians (although of course all Syrians have only limited civil rights in this totalitarian state), denies them citizenship and restricts their property and land ownership rights. Assad has made them dependent clients on the Ba'athist state, in a position of indefinite limbo, unable to return to Palestine, unable to become Syrian.

4. The Syrian regime's crimes in Yarmouk far outweigh those of ISIS
It is clearly true that Daesh are one of the worst things to happen to Syria or the world in the recent past. It is not surprising, then, that their presence in Yarmouk in recent weeks should have finally focused some attention in the West on the its suffering. But Yarmouk's suffering at the hands of Syria's own government was already unimaginably bad.

You may have seen this image, circulated by UNRWA, I think early in 2014. This was over a year into the Ba'athist regime's siege (which began 18 December 2012). The siege, which began with heavy shelling that destroyed much of the urban infrastructure, was Assad's response to the activities of the Syrian revolution in Yarmouk. Under the siege, the residents became largely dependent on UNRWA food distribution, along with occasional dangerous forays out of the district. By mid-2013, the food distribution was disrupted by fighting and only a fraction of the necessary food was getting in. Civilians were dying in the crossfire between the regime and other factions. The arrival of ISIS was simply adding an extra drop to an ocean of suffering long since flowing over.

Sections of the Palestinian leadership (the PFLP) have been in alliance with Assad; others (in the PA) have remained studiously neutral. These factions' allies in the Western Palestinian solidarity organisations have followed their lead. Western governments have uttered stern words about Assad, but done nothing to create a No Fly Zone or take other steps to stop his slaughter. Most of the left, from Ed Miliband leftwards, have actively opposed doing anything about it. We are all complicit in Yarmouk's suffering.

5. Jabhat al-Nusra are not much better than Daesh
The Western media are obsessed with ISIS, but there are marginally less extreme military factions who aren't much better. Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, took control of large sections of Yarmouk early in 2014. They blocked the entry of aid and tightened rather than lifted the siege on the inhabitants. In December, they executed two Palestinian residents for blasphemy. There are several reports of co-operation with ISIS in Damascus (although they are at war elsewhere they have officially claimed to be neutral on Yarmouk) and there are growing numbers of reports that the two groups are increasingly co-operating in and around Yarmouk.

Significantly, there is considerable evidence suggesting that al-Nusra has been funded and supported by some of the West's allies in the region. The Obama administration has claimed that private individuals in Kuwait have heavily financed it, a claim made in more detail by other experts. Turkey actively supported al-Nusra from 2012 to 2014 and may continue to do so covertly, seeing it as a counterbalance to Kurdish forces. Joe Biden has also claimed that the Saudis and Emirates funded them too - later semi-retracting. And there is lots of evidence of Qatari support too. Crucially, all of these countries are intimately bound through trade and finance (including arms trade) to the US and UK.

And this support came in a period when the US and UK completely stood back from the conflict. Secular, democratic or moderate rebels (Syria's best hope), left without resources due to our lack of support, were rapidly depleted as al-Nusra grew. Once again, then, we are complicit in Yarmouk's suffering.

6. The silence on Yarmouk should shame the left
Given all of this, it is striking at the left has remained quiet about Yarmouk until recently. Electronic Intifada has occasionally mentioned Yarmouk (but often, as with this piece by Asa Winstanley, putting equal blame on "the rebels" and the regime, apparently because rebelling in Syria - unlike in Israel - is reckless provocation). A couple of powerful articles at MondoWeiss (by Talal Alyan and Mariam Barghouti) draw attention to the fact that the dominant mode was silence.
The demonstration last week was only endorsed by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign under pressure at the very last minute, and the PSC had no presence at the demo. The PSC finally posted something that was more than tangentially about Yarmouk on its website on 9 April - curiously avoiding mention of any blame for Assad (or indeed any other specific parties - apart from Israel). Mehdi Hasan has recently written powerfully about this silence, saying "Our selective outrage is morally unsustainable." It seems to me that those in the BDS/anti-Zionist movement who have been silent about Yarmouk are not pro-Palestinian but simply anti-Israel.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Not much has changed since 1969

The Spectator's archive recently republished something by Richard West from 1969 on the British left's drastic moral failure over Biafra. The left then supported the Nigerian state against the Ibo independence movement which Nigeria brutally crushed. I'd been aware of this before, but what struck me this time that the left trotted out the "blood for oil" trope back then:
If the Biafrans had been black and the Nigerians had been white, the rights and wrongs would have been much clearer... The British left resolved this problem with typically silly arguments. It was 'all about oil.'... Even the British left must now realise that the oil companies and other big business interests were on the side of Nigeria and that Biafra's fight was inspired, not by oil, but by the will to survive.
West was scathing about how the left sat back until it was too late, and then effectively said "well maybe you were right then but now it's too late." This struck me as exactly like Syria, where the left priotised "stopping the war" (i.e. stopping intervention that might prevent a war) while a war raged in which thousands died.
I have been surprised by the callousness of the British left. 'Of course Nigeria must remain united,' a socialist journalist yelled over the lunch table, 'even if two or three million people have to be killed.'
Sounds like the British left on Syria now or Yugoslavia in the 1990s...

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Exclusive: Interview with Chris Flood, TUSC candidate for Lewisham Deptford



This is an email interview conducted earlier this week with Chris Flood. Chris was formerly a Socialist Party councillor in Telegraph Hill in Lewisham Deptford and is now standing as the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidate in the parliamentary elections. 



What would be your first priority if elected as MP for Lewisham Deptford?
My first priority if elected would be to call a public assembly to oppose austerity & appeal to Lewisham council to stop implementing cuts & join us in fighting for the necessary extra funding from government to deliver health, education and other essential public services.

TUSC is standing over 100 candidates in 2015. Do you think TUSC will make any impact on the election debate?

We think it's crucial that we offer an alternative both locally, where we have had a record, as with Ian Page and myself campaigning against cuts in Lewisham council going back many years. But equally important is that we also start to offer something that has a national focus too, which TUSC does have now with 135 candidates standing in the general election. This is a significant achievement even if we get modest results. So therefore imagine if we get a weak coalition government and there is another election in a year or two? Having shown we can stand 130 plus candidates, what stops us in the next election standing say 200 plus? By this point the electorate may well have had a bellyful of any 'lesser evilism Labour administered cuts.' We will see of course. A lot of this will be determined by events.

Many thousands and thousands of individual trade unionists are supporting the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, who are not politically aligned at this stage. Of course we want all of these strands to be the back bone of a new workers party. TUSC is not just about elections, but part of a process towards developing that new party and to campaign. Straight after the May 7th election therefore, no matter what government is formed, TUSC will be calling public meetings across the country to bring together all those who want to campaign against austerity.

Can you tell us about your record, as a councillor and local activist?

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Bob's election priorities no.4: Keep some space open for the left




Without electorally credible political space to its left, the Labour Party blows rightward in the breeze, taking for granted that people like me will vote for them so it can play to the middle ground. In Scotland, it can no longer do that: the SNP, previously seen as the Tartan Tories, has pulled of a plausible performance of an anti-establishment, anti-Westminster, social democratic party and pushed Labour off to stage right.

As you'll see as I get through my election priorities posts, I would not vote for a left party if it meant the possibility of letting in a Tory (imagine having voted for Nader in 2000, when GW Bush narrowly stole the US presidential election from Gore - how could you live with that?).

However, if you live in a non-marginal seat, voting to the left of Labour might send out a signal to the party that it can't keep on taking us for granted.

But how appealing are the options?

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Bob From Brockley's election priorities no.5: Eliminate the far right

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As Hope Not Hate have recently said (and it's in their interest to say the opposite), the British far right is at its lowest ebb for two decades. It's fractious and fragmented, a laughing stock with no electoral hope.

It is well known that when there is a Tory government, British fascism doesn't fare well electorally but turns to street activity; it is under Labour governments that it gets traction at the polling booth. This is because the Conservatives are seen as more sympathetic to the anti-immigrant and hang em and flog em politics that the far right uses to build its vote. Now, of course, there's UKIP, which claims it has taken a third of the BNP's vote, its allure for far right voters squeezing the space for actual fascist parties. (Britain First, the most up and coming fascist group in the UK, is endorsing UKIP enthusiastically and won't stand candidates to keep Farage's way clear.)

But we should not be complacent. Far right parties are standing in a few places across the UK. These groups will use the elections to disseminate their propaganda. At a time when anti-migrant and anti-Muslim bigotry is being mainstreamed, we can ill afford for fascist parties' messages to be broadcast.

I will update this post nearer the election with some of the locations where far right parties will be putting in the most effort.

UPDATE 1: 

  • Tess Culnane, nicknamed "the Nazi granny", is standing for the BNP in Dagenham. Culnane, who sadly lives in the fair borough of Lewisham, is a veteran of almost very extreme right group in the UK,  and most recently the National Front. She has a long association with the openly neo-Nazi British People's Party. 
  • The British Democrats, an offshoot of the BNP, are standing in Hitler-loving ex-archaelogist Jim Lewthwaite in Bradford East, thinking that because UKIP have stood a Muslim candidate there they might soak up the racist vote.
  • The National Front, the most openly fascist of the far right parties who field candidates, are standing in Rochdale and a couple of other places.
  • Another veteran of several far right groups, Paul Weston has launched No to Terrorism, Yes to Britain, and is standing in Luton South, which has in the past had some associations with the EDL. His sidekick George Wale (once a Labour Party member) is standing in Lewisham West and Penge. Whale works at the University of Westminster (he was previously at Queen Mary) and was Weston's deputy in the British Freedom Party (BFP) and Liberty GB. The BFP was a BNP splinter group whose logo was based on that of Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. Whale's election pitch is that Britain's political class has "declared war" on the English, and cites as evidence of this "the relentless importation of wave upon wave of hostile immigrants" into the country.Here are some of his manifesto bullet points: deport all Muslims considered to be a threat, along with their families; segregate Muslim prisoners within the prison system to prevent conversion of non-Muslims to Islam; ban mosque-building, remove minarets from existing mosques, outlaw the Islamic call to prayer; ban ritual slaughter of animals and importation of ritually slaughtered meat; close all madrassas and Muslim faith schools.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Bob From Brockley's Election Priorities no.6: Get rid of David Ward

David Ward is the Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East, elected at the last election with a majority of just 365 votes. As the Liberal Democrats' collaboration with the Conservatives has probably killed off the Lib Dem vote, it seems pretty likely this will be a Labour gain. 

David Ward's Wikipedia page gives plenty of reasons why he is unfit to sit in parliament. Here's just one:

Bob From Brockley's Election Priorities

My plan for this blog between now and the UK general election is a series of posts on my hopes for the outcome. I've got six, and I'm going to publish them in reverse order. I'll update this post as I publish them, as a kind of table of contents. If, by any chance, I manage to write and publish all six, I might add more afterwards, but that's a long shot. All my election coverage will be collected under this category.

no.4: Leave some space for the left
no.5: Destroy the far right
no.6: Get rid of David Ward

Other posts:

Exclusive: Interview with Chris Flood, TUSC candidate for Lewisham Deptford
From the last elections:

The May 2014 UKIP earthquake was a relatively minor tremor
London is neither as exceptional nor as homogenous as the media tells us
The Tories are the main losers from UKIP, and the “left behind” narrative is flawed
The Lib Dems are nearly dead
The Greens are a viable force in the inner city
I now live in a one party state
The BNP is completely dead, but we shouldn’t relax too much
The left-of Labour-left is not electorally viable
Gallowayism is dead in Bradford but clings on in East London
The Jewish vote is returning to Labour
Is the Jewish vote leaving Labour again?

In May, when (hopefully) Britain has a new government, normal business will resume.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Who Is Milo Samuels?

Updated 15 March 11:48 a.m.

As an anonymous blogger, I recognise that there are lots of good reasons why someone might want to be anonymous online or to have multiple identities. From Luther Blissett to the Zapatistas to the Black Block, activists not using their given identities in their activism is nothing odd, and I don't usually have time for "gotcha" style unmaskings. But these tweets caught my eye:




Saturday, January 31, 2015

10th bloggiversary

I can't believe it's a decade this month that I've been blogging.

On my first day of blogging, I posted nine short posts. My first ever post was a picture of Prince Harry dressed as a Nazi. My second was a link to the Alliance for Workers Liberty attacking Stop the War's alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. My third post was extremely obscure, linking "left-wing clown Michael Moore" with poet John Sinclair and a right-winger called Gerald L Atkinson. My fourth post was on Israel/Palestine, linking to AWL again. The fifth was on the French ethnographer Loic Wacquant. The sixth was on another anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, and what he said about cultural relativism. The seventh was the story of a union organiser in Colombia, living in the shadow of assassination by the hired thugs of American mining corporations. The eighth appears to endorse Hugo Chavez's land reforms and links to the appalling website of the Stalinoid ex-Trotskyist International Marxist Tendency. Finally the ninth links to a superb attack by Joe Lockard against a dreadful leftist paean to Iraqi Islamist thugs.

A few themes there, obviously, that I settled on as the main topic for the Bob From Brockley project, especially in the second and ninth: the articulation from within the left of a critique of the kneejerk anti-American, borderline antisemitic bullshit that has become dominant on the left in current period. Here's Lockard:
It is one politics to demand an end to US violence in and neo-colonial occupation of Iraq; it is another matter entirely to call for solidarity with some of the most retrograde theocratic forces allied with equally retrograde ultra-nationalists and remaindered Ba’athists. They have nothing in common with any progressive politics; indeed, when in power in Iraq the latter forces were responsible for suppressing left-wing political movements and torturing their members. A secular call for solidarity with Shiite theocrats in Iraq is reminiscent of when members of the Western left trailed behind pro-Khomeini demonstrations during the 1970s, but were appalled when Iranian progressives followed immediately after the Shah’s supporters on post-revolution arrest and execution lists.
 But there are also a few discontinuities. I was still optimistic about Chavez, for example. The kind of short one-link/no comment posts would by ephemeral tweets now rather than recorded for posterity on the blog. And I was probably more eclectic in coverage than I became, not having fixed on a core purpose for the blog.

It's been a strange ride. I probably got too obsessive about the blog over the first four or five years, devoting too much time to it for not enough return, as I watched my readership grow from single figures to double figures to triple figures. The times I started getting four-figure readerships were generally later, when I invested in quality rather than quantity.

But I made some good friends, some of whom became in-the-flesh friends not just virtual, both in my neighbourhood and across the world (I won't name you all, but you know who you are!). I found a kind of community that provided some succour as I felt increasingly politically homeless. I'm proud of a handful of posts.

Below the fold, some of my greatest hits, but mainly I wanted to say thank you to my friends and readers and to all those who've been writing on their own blogs stuff that has provoked and inspired me, and those who have fought the good fight along with me.

My most-read posts:

Friday, January 16, 2015

The New Centrist explains why Michael Lerner is an ass

This is a passage from a recent, dreadful article by "Rabbi" Michael Lerner of Tikkun:
"That media was outraged at the attempt by some North Korean allied group to scare people away from watching a movie ridiculing and then planning to assassinate the current (immoral) ruler of Korea, never wondering how we'd respond if a similar movie had been made ridiculing and planning the assassination of an American president."
In an email, my buddy The New Centrist has an answer to Lerner's question:
They responded with awards.
Actually, there are plenty of reasons that Lerner is an ass, but that's a good one to start with.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Seymour on the Paris attacks

This is a guest post by Contested Terrain

There is a strange pattern of intellectual retardation on the Left, when otherwise sophisticated individuals are encountered with the nexus of topics relating to anti-Muslim racism, antisemitism, political Islam, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, etc.

Richard Seymour’s new article in Jacobin on the Paris attack on the office and journalists of the Charlie Hebdo is the latest example of this.

Seymour’s article portrays the attacks in an extremely general way, as if they are somehow a natural (though too violent) response to anti-Muslim racism in France and Europe, rather than being the specific strategic actions taken by specific actors. In his account, even pointing out the specific radical Islam linkages behind this, amounts to supporting state repression against Muslims in general.

While Seymour is absolutely right to warn against an anti-Muslim backlash -- already, multiple mosques have been attacked, and there is reason to fear an increase in an already hostile mood towards Muslims in Europe -- the article is so distorted, that it raises a mystery. This is because his approach here so drastically departs from his otherwise sophisticated analysis of actor groups and strategies.

Seymour’s strength is his deployment of a hegemony theory to understand the development, resilience, and remaking of power blocs. He treats these not as homogenous and undifferentiated objects, but as amalgams of different groups, group interests, and motivations, which sometimes purposefully, sometimes unintentionally join, or are joined together, by common projects.

But in his article on the Paris attacks, this sophisticated approach to social dynamics is entirely lost. It is replaced by mechanical movements between two homogenous forces, a racist French public and an anti-racist Muslim response. Of course, he does not say this so explicitly, but this is the general parameter of his argument that is so upsetting the magazine’s readership. At the root of these vocal objections to Seymour’s portrayal is his article’s silence on the radical Islamic motivations of the actors behind the killings.

In stark contrast to Seymour’s generalised and mechanical portrayal, Juan Cole presents an argument which one might expect of someone like Seymour, and what one can find in the latter’s writings, when dealing with the actor groups and the intentions of competing hegemonic forces. Cole argues that the perpetrators of yesterday’s shootings are linked to a specific group of actors with a specific political strategy.

He writes:
Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.
Here we have a specific focus on actor groups taking strategic action within a specific social context. You can usually find this kind of analysis in Seymour’s other writings, but not when it comes to this topic.

The interesting point here is not simply the stark contrast between portrayals, but the contradiction between Seymour and himself; between his portrayals in his better writings, on actor group plurality and strategic action on the one hand, and his generic and mechanical portrayal in the Jacobin article.

And it is not an uncommon reversion for otherwise intelligent people.Think of Judith Butler’s repeated defense of Hamas and Hezbollah as “left and progressive forces”. In both of these individuals, you cannot convincingly trace these political utterances back to a stable set of theoretical ideas which they hold. It is a disjuncture.

But are these just idiosyncrasies, or is there is a pattern at work, which drives otherwise sophisticated people to trip up, to stumble, to lose intellectual sophistication, and to begin spewing dogmatic cliches?

That’s the real puzzle. Why do otherwise intelligent people revert to vulgar representations and dogmas, when the topic turns to these issues? Why do these complex of issues retard the intellect of intelligent people? That is a mystery.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in first lines

I've done this every year for the last few years, recalling a habit of the late, great Norman Geras, to recall the year through the first line of every month's blogging.

January: 2014 will mostly be shit, more or less everywhere.

February: They said he was like Castro, they said he was like Mao, but he stuck up for the workin' man, don't even ask me how.

March: Yesterday was Budget Day, and our Tory government gave us a penny of a pint of beer and reduced tax on Bingo, claiming this was "to help hardworking people [note how "hardworking" has become a single word under the Tories, their austerity policy even extending to dashes and spaces] do more of the things they enjoy", the keyword being "they". Meanwhile, in London, Mayor Boris Johnson approved the use of watercannon against disorder in the capital, presumably for when us hardworkingpeople are no longer sufficiently distracted by beer and bingo.

April: Displaying our own liberal cleverness is always a worse strategy than sharing human stories; the left-liberal intelligentsia's masturbatory performances of smartness are bad politics in a human world, and such performances won't win people over even when the facts are on our side, as with welfare reform and migration.
May: The main reason not to vote for Duwayne Brooks is that he is a candidate of the Liberal Democrats.

June: There is a war of words going on in the West over Ukraine. A shocking number of people have been taken in by the narratives and outright lies circulating from the Kremlin and its propaganda outlets. The Kremlin's totally unreliable Russia Today (RT.com), which regularly gives airtime to antisemites, UKIP, Holocaust deniers, 9/11 truth cultists and Bilderberg conspiracy nutcases, is somehow seen as the fount of "truth" about Ukraine.

July: Auschwitz wasn’t any kind of positive learning experience, and the overwhelmingly majority of the Jews who had anything to do with the Holocaust learned nothing from it because they were killed by it.

August: Ray Woolford of Lewisham People Before Profit is a colourful character and prolific tweeter.

September: As a resident of England, on one level this is none of my business: Scotland has the right to self-determination without interference from South London.

October: Still seething at @martjacques' vacuous apologia for Chinese state capitalism & scorning of #OccupyCentral movement.

November: The enormity and complexity of what's going in Syria, in Iraq, in Israel/Palestine and in the wider region makes it hard for me to begin to take sides or recommend courses of action. Rather, I will say something about how all this is refracted here in the West: in the leftish scene I move among, in the South London neighbourhood I live in, in the newspapers I read.

December: Quite a few Western leftists still think Assad is some kind of anti-imperialist hero and that we need to "stop the war" against him. As it happens, fascist ex-leader Nick Griffin (who this week endorsed both UKIP and Putin's RT.com) is in Syria doing some PR for Assad, along with Polish far right MEP Korwin-Mikke (whose party is allied to UKIP in the European parliament).

Confession: I've been a little liberal in interpreting "first lines" in a few of the less interesting months. I didn't actually blog once in August so I've stolen the first line of the last post of July for that slot. I didn't blog in October either, so I used my first tweet of that month instead.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014 at Bob From Brockley: the most popular posts

Here are the posts you've been reading in 2014.

1. Gaza/Warsaw Ghetto
This is one of my most-read posts ever, thanks mainly, I think, to a link from an excellent HuffPo open letter to pro-Palestine protesters by Dave Rich, on antisemitism in the protests about Gaza. In that letter, Dave gave some pieces of advice on how to protest Israel without being racist. He said:
While you are at the demonstration, do not compare Israel to Nazi Germany. Gaza is not the Warsaw Ghetto. If you can't tell the difference, this post explains it. It's a totally false comparison that plays on Jewish sensibilities in order to provoke a reaction. Another word for that is Jew-baiting. Don't do it.
If you liked that post, you'll like this one.

2. The Killing of Bob Crow by the Coward Boris Johnson
This mock murder ballad by Rob Palk became unexpectedly topical when Bob Crow actually sadly died.

If you liked that post, you'll like this one.

3. Our Politics and Theirs
I'm pleased this placed so highly. It starts with a post by David Hirsh on Engage, "Opposing the campaign to exclude Israelis from the global academic community", but uses that to spell out some of the features of a rebooted radical politics. Riffing on some of David's points, I argued that we need to recover the tradition of the great cosmopolitan Third Camp left such as Orwell and Hal Draper, but re-purpose it in an age of retreat, of defeat, of resistance, of waiting. Marxists and ex-Marxists would recognise that the title is taken from a brilliant but highly problematic 1938 essay by Trotsky, "Our Morals and Theirs", dedicated to his son Leon Sedoff, who had recently been murdered by Stalin's agents. Here are some lines from that essay:
DURING AN EPOCH OF triumphant reaction, Messrs. democrats, social-democrats, anarchists, and other representatives of the “left” camp begin to exude double their usual amount of moral effluvia, similar to persons who perspire doubly in fear. Paraphrasing the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, these moralists address themselves not so much to triumphant reaction as to those revolutionists suffering under its persecution, who with their “excesses” and “amoral” principles “provoke” reaction and give it moral justification. Moreover they prescribe a simple but certain means of avoiding reaction: it is necessary only to strive and morally to regenerate oneself. Free samples of moral perfection for those desirous are furnished by all the interested editorial offices. 
The class basis of this false and pompous sermon is the intellectual petty bourgeoisie. The political basis – their impotence and confusion in the face of approaching reaction. Psychological basis – their effort at overcoming the feeling of their own inferiority through masquerading in the beard of a prophet.
If you like that post, you'll like these ones.

4.  Alison Weir: If Americans Knew
This was a guest post by my comrade Spencer Sunshine, taken from a recently published Political Research Associates report Constructing Campus Conflict. It is an anatomy of a right-wing antisemite, Alison Weir (not to be confused with the popular historian of that name) much circulated by allegedly "left-wing" self-defined "anti-Zionists".

If you like that post, you'll like these ones.

5. People Before Profit and the Jewish Lobby
This post was provoked by my friend Chimpman, who noticed that a colourful Lewisham political activist had (during the Gaza war) developed an obsession with Jewish power. Again, the activist in question is supposedly left-wing, although he has stood for election for the Conservative Party and is quite chummy with UKIP. His antisemitism, unlike Alison Weir's, is of the casual everyday kind, rather than ideological. More disturbing to me was the denial of any shades of racism from his party, People Before Profit, who also have some track record of dabbling in "anti-Zionist" antisemitism.

If you like that post, you'll like these ones.

6. Brandeis University and Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Moving from Israel to the other hot button I-word, Islam, this is a guest post from my friend Sarah AB, thoughtfully and carefully thinking through what issues around acceptable and unacceptable speech on campus.

If you like that post, you'll like these ones.

7. The House of Assad and the House of Rumour
This is a post of which I'm quite proud, about esoteric politics: the contemporary obsession with hidden "Truth", an obsession which manages to hide the more obvious truths, such as the dictator Assad's mass slaughter of Syrian civilians.

If you like that post, you'll like these ones.

8/9. #Lewisham2014: The mayorals and The council elections
I wrote these posts in April/May, in the lead-up to the UK elections then, focusing on two sets of local elections in Lewisham.

If you like that post, you'll like these ones.

10. Ukraine: The truth war
This is not the most finely crafted piece of written, but I'm glad it gets a little air play. It discusses some of the groups on the British "left" (from centre-left Scottish nationalists to nutty Stalinsts and Trots) who uncritically circulate propaganda for the far right authoritarian government in Kremlin, and its neo-Nazi puppet "People's Republics" in eastern Ukraine, pointing out that these leftists are on the same page as many British and European fascists on this topic. The post finishes with a few links to actual anti-fascists in Ukraine.

If you like that post, you'll like these ones.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Masha leans into a Dictaphone, talking softly about prisons

This, by Rob Palk, is a wonderful piece of political reportage. I'll paste the opening paragraphs here, but you should go read the whole thing.
Punks in Parliament: Pussy Riot in Portcullis House 
Here are some things that the Henry Jackson Society are interested in: A strong military, the “promotion” of liberal democracy if necessary by the use of said military, “two cheers” for capitalism. And here are some things they aren't: radical feminism, punk rock, grass-roots anarchism, Judith Butler, conceptual art. But the world of politics can sometimes resemble an especially tipsy game of spin-the-bottle and tonight the HJS pay host to Pussy Riot. 
To enter Portcullis House you have to put your belt and wallet in a tray and walk through a metal detecting doorway. The airport mood continues once you’re in. With its pot plants, beige walls and the air of bored expectancy that comes with being an adjunct to the action, it is a little like a duty free lounge with the ads for wristwatches replaced by portraits of Margaret Beckett. Up the stairs and inside one of the meeting rooms, the HJS event on Russia is about to begin. By now it is standing room only –it may be that this is always the way with the Society’s events but it might just be celebrity exerting its gravitational drag. Three chairs at the front have “reserved for Pussy Riot” notices placed on them. The audience do not, at first glance, look very punk rock. The floor is unspeckled with gob, faces are unpierced and no one seems to be taking amphetamine sulphate. Tweets from the event mention a coalition of leftists, dissidents, capitalists and MPs but if you had to guess you’d put the latter two in the majority. There are an awful lot of men in suits here, sleekly barbered, comfortable with proximity to power. Women wear unshowily expensive looking dresses. Scarily fresh faced HJS members welcome us with leaflets and smiles. They look like adolescent cult members except with realistic hopes of one day running cults of their very own. It is hard to imagine joining such a group at 22, but then some people save their infantile leftism for their actual infancy and hit ambitious maturity at sixteen. One day they will write op-eds calling for transformative violence –they may even order the violence themselves- but for now they smile winningly, usher and take photographs. Several people look like how you imagine a spad to look. You see someone you think you recognise but then realise you’re recalling a character from The Thick of It
[READ THE REST]

Friday, December 05, 2014

Half decents, internet warriors, black holes, media missionaries

First, a reminder of tomorrow's Half Decents gig. If you can't go, give some money anyway.

Also on Syria, this is important from Air Force Amazons: Over 23,000 civilians killed since the UK Parliament’s Syria vote. You should also spend time with the heart-breaking Syria's Forgotten Cities, documenting that "Syria is a country with many Kobanes".

Quite a few Western leftists still think Assad is some kind of anti-imperialist hero and that we need to "stop the war" against him. As it happens, fascist ex-leader Nick Griffin (who this week endorsed both UKIP and Putin's RT.com) is in Syria doing some PR for Assad, along with Polish far right MEP Korwin-Mikke (whose party is allied to UKIP in the European parliament). 

Soldiers of the internet: this by Max Dunbar is a brilliant review of Jeremy Duns' book on Edward Snowden and the new politics of (mis)information. 

Black holes and media missionaries: this excellent long read by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad also takes on the new politics of (mis)information specifically in relation to the Middle East, exposing the untruths and skewed narratives of Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, Seymour Hersh and others.

Also exposing untruths and social media propoganda, Sci-Lo Green has a long post on tweeter Mo Ansar, trying to get at what he actually believes on the basis of his tweets.

We don't need another hero: Darren Redstar has a post on celebrity radicalism, primarily on Russell Brand. I might ask him if I can cross-post it here and so I can put in some paragraph breaks, because it's quite hard to read in its current state, but worth the effort.The three other best reads on Russell Brand are by Peter Risdon (actually about Brand and the wider hard and soft left), Nick Cohen and Padraig Reidy.

The hierophants of an alternate capitalism: this is a long but very good post by Tom Owolade on Glenn Greenwald and other examples of Western-centric faux-anti-imperialism.

The only Sunday papers you need: If you're not getting enough of these link round-ups from me, tune in to my Paper every Friday evening for more. And the Lefty Tosser's Weekly ("radical but reasonable) has an algorithm that means the stuff I tweet is in the headlines.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Bob's timely election coverage 4: the "Jewish vote" and the "Jewish lobby"

This is the fourth and final post in my mini-series on British (and especially London) electoral politics. The first looked at UKIP, the second at a bunch of other parties, and the third at some left alternatives. The first half of this post, like the previous three, was written in May, in the wake of the European and local elections, but I didn't get around to posting it. The second half, however, was written today. We left off the story with George Galloway's "Respect" and Lutfur Rahman's "Tower Hamlets First" parties, which have both been alleged to have deployed ethnic machine politics (specifically those of British Muslim communities) in their electoral strategy.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bob's timely election coverage 3: the left

This is the third in a series of four posts I wrote in May after the European and local elections then, which I'm posting now as they seem to be still relevant after our spate of by-elections. The first looked at UKIP, the second at the rest of London's electoral landscape from the Lib Dems to the Greens. This post focuses on the left. I probably should have included the Greens in this post rather than the last one, as they are to the left of Labour on most issues even if not part of the historical tradition of the left; this was just the order in which I wrote the sections. Paragraphs in italics at the end of each section were written today, in November 2014. 

The results of the more explicitly left of Labour alternatives have been frankly embarrassing. Despite a couple of impressive exceptions (Southampton, Coventry), the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and the Eurosceptic dinosaurs of No2EU barely left the starting blocks, beaten even by a dead-on-its-feet BNP. The endlessly triumphalist reality-blind idiots of the Leninist sects behind these electoral parties might claim otherwise, but the sad fact is that explicitly socialist politics has almost zero electoral appeal.

The slight exceptions are instructive. In Lewisham, for example, People Before Profit performed respectably in Telegraph Hill and New Cross and the TUSC candidate (Chris Flood) who had previously served as a councillor performed respectably in Telegraph Hill. As I noted in comments, these were candidates with a local track record standing in local elections on very bread-and-butter local issues. Similarly, Keith Morrell in Southampton and Dave Nellist in Coventry had track records as councillors.

My inference from this is that, in the short to medium term at least, the left-of-Labour left is far better off investing its energy in campaigns on very specific bread-and-butter issues – especially around cuts to public services, such as hospital closures – than in electoral activity. This might mean sacrificing ideological purity for coalitions and alliances, in particular with Labour Party supporters. (This might mean that the People’s Assembly approach to re-building left politics (joining up existing struggles against austerity) is a far better bet than the Left Unity approach (the creation of a new party).

Since I wrote the above, People Before Profit got 69 votes in the Rochester and Strood by election - behind the Monster Raving Loony Party but thankfully ahead of any of the fascist parties. My patience with them had diminished in the summer when one of their figureheads tweeted stuff about a Jewish lobby controlling the media and more recently when they had a friendly social media exchange with a Hitler fan on the Bilderberg conspiracy. The fact that the group had no local roots in the constituency was presumably a bigger factor in their low vote than their dabbling with antisemitic memes. 

As for Left Unity, they have made uneven progress. They had their conference a week or so back. I like the strong commitment to transparency and democracy that characterises Left Unity, but it also opens them up to the various Trotskyite and Stalinist sects using it as a playroom, which is pretty off-putting for anyone else who might potentially be engaged by the left. Among endless motions using the arcane jargon of the Third International, one stood out: praising the murderous scum of ISIS as "having progressive potential" from an allegedly "anti-imperialist" perspective. Mercifully, only four people seem to have voted for the motion (and it's not clear that all of them realised which motion they were voting for), but the fact it could even be discussed shows how badly the left needs saving from itself

The one exception to the English far left’s electoral failure in the last decade or so has been Respect. But Respect is an exception in too many ways to make a difference to the argument I’ve just made. For a start, Respect’s apparent political radicalism is barely skin-deep and its electoral advances have been built partly on the now-dwindling personal celebrity of the Nigel Farage of the left George Galloway.

But the much more important factor has been mobilising (often mosque-based) machine politics in relatively ethnically homogeneous South Asian communities. As there are very few local authorities or constituencies in the UK were this kind of vote can make a difference numerically, the Respect strategy is not one that can be scaled up.

It is also a fragile strategy, because it promotes a Boardwalk Empire style political culture that is so cannibalistic that it consumes its activist base faster than it can regenerate, and this cycle has already played itself out in Bradford, where Respect’s councillors had all deserted by election time and a swing back to Labour has seen its remaining candidates' fortunes collapse.

However, it is depressing to see that the Respect model has clung on in Tower Hamlets, the UK’s equivalent of Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall, where the Muslim Brotherhood/Jamaat-e-Islam network around the East London Mosque and Islamic Forum Europe (not afraid to use polling station intimidation and other corrupt practices) was able to out-mobilise rival secular Awami League-linked  Bangladeshi networks loyal to Labour and keep Lutfur Rahman in power.

Since I wrote this, the mounting allegations against the ruling junta in Tower Hamlets led to the central government imposing commissioners to oversee the running of the council while a full investigation into various apparent malpractices unfold. The story is too complex for me to describe here,  and is best followed on Ted Jeory's excellent blog, starting here.

Depressingly, with the usual honourable exceptions, a lot of the left have been offering misplaced "solidarity" with Lutfur Rahman's rotten administration, claiming he is a victim of right-wing and possibly Islamophobic witch-hunting. Most notably, George Galloway, Ken Livingstone and Left Unity have been vocal in Lutfur's defence. When this sort of thing is the norm, I begin to think it's too late to save the left from itself. 

Or maybe it's time for a different approach....


Saturday, November 22, 2014

Bob's timely election coverage 2: all politics is local

This is the second in a series of blogposts I wrote back in May in the wake of the local and European elections, and failed to publish then. I posted the first last night, about UKIP. This looks at some of the other political parties: the Lib Dems, Greens, Labour and BNP. Tomorrow, finally, I will publish a post on the far left parties.



There is a part of me which takes some comfort from this outcome of the election: the Liberal Democrats have been more or less evacuated from the European parliament and lost control of several councils across the country. Their destruction in Lewisham is not surprising, but it is interesting to see that they were nearly wiped out in neighbouring Southwark, one of their London heartlands since Simon Hughes’ first (racist and homophobic) campaignagainst Peter Tatchell back in the 1980s.


Looking at who came second across London (see first map here, from the Newsshoper) in the council elections yields some interesting insights. Among other things, it shows that there is a swathe of what we could call “the outer inner city” where the Greens did fairly well. In the proportionately distributed Euro elections, the Green Party picked up one in ten votes. To use Lewisham as an example, the Greens received 16% of the vote in the local elections. This is despite almost no national or local media time (in contrast to the ubiquitous presence of UKIP).

This builds on fairly strong performances by Green politicians such as Darren Johnson and Jenny Jones in council chambers such as Lewisham, but more importantly the GLA and European Parliament. Interestingly, they have been less prominent on traditionally “green” issues than on social issues such as housing and immigration. This points to – in London at least – an important and welcome counterweight to UKIP, and one which confirms that Labour cannot be too complacent about some of its traditional voting fodder in thinking through its response to the Farage phenomenon


The surge to Labour in London’s “inner cross” (the capital’sless affluent areas stretching up to Enfield and down to Croydon as well aseast along the river and west towards Heathrow - see second map here, from All That's Left) has had a few dramatic effects.

Lewisham, where I live, now has just one single non-Labour councillor – a Green in Brockley ward. Lewisham also has a directly elected borough mayor from the same party, with very extensive executive powers. Unlike Labour's Michael Harris, I don’t think this is healthy for local democracy; it closes down opportunities for scrutiny and accountability and opens up opportunities for corruption and nepotism.


The most welcome news is the abysmal performance of the fascist British National Party. Its vote has been steadily plummeting since the mid-noughties: in 2006, it received a shocking 18% of the vote in the wards it contested; in 2007, its total vote peaked at 293,000 – but by 2013 it was already down to 5% of the vote share and 15,000 votes nationally.

However, anti-fascists should take little comfort from this. Typically, fascist electoral politics fades during right-wing Tory governments (while violent street movements, such as the English Defence League, tend to grow), and the BNP has been fairly hilariously tearing itself apart in the last couple of years.

But the real reason for its decimation is obviously the existence of UKIP, which matched the BNP vote for vote when it launched in 2007 and has been growing rapidly as the BNP declined since 2009. While it is ridiculous to call UKIP or its voters fascist, we have to accept that a very significant section of the English population feel the appeal of deeply xenophobic and anti-Muslim authoritarian populist politics if not tainted by the BNP’s toxic association with violence and Nazism.

[2014 has also been the year of the proliferation of oddball far right parties, such as Britain First, National Action, the South East Alliance and the Patriotic Socialists. These are unlikely to have the electoral impact the BNP achieved in its heyday, for the reasons already set out. But they do have the potential to intensify violence and division on our streets, and we need to keep up the fight against them.]

Next: the left

Friday, November 21, 2014

Bob's timely election coverage 1: On UKIP

In May, I wrote a series of blogposts in the aftermath of the European and local elections. I never actually posted them, because they needed some work and some added links. However, I noticed a lot of the issues circulating now in the wake of the Rochester and Strood by-election seem to resonate with the issues then, so I thought I'd just post them. First one today, then one a day for a couple of days. This one is the most "timely" in that it deals with UKIP, although events since May might show that I wasn't on the right lines on everything, though I think I was on many things. It makes three points, one about the significance of the UKIP results in May (about which I may have been overly optimistic), one about London, and one about the so-called "left behind". The third section is, I think, the most important and still most relevant, so if you don't have time for the whole post, skip to that bit.