Originally published in Counterpunch magazine, 2021
The first article in this series looked at the ‘domestic’ role of the British monarchy, suggesting that they served as a ‘counter-revolutionary backstop’, a feudal remnant kept artificially alive in order to prop up bourgeois rule through the bypassing of parliament and the establishment of rule by decree in the event of serious popular unrest and revolt. In a nation as deeply saturated with colonial wealth and outlook as Britain, however, this is more of an ‘insurance policy’ than an active and ongoing role. In the realm of foreign policy, however – where the revolutionary overthrow of Britain’s colonial proxies is a real and ever-present danger – their role is much more active and visible. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Arab world.
Following the taxonomy deployed by the legendary Ghanaian revolutionary, Kwame Nkrumah, the Arab states can be divided into two main camps: those which are under the effective control of the former colonial powers and their allies (which he termed ‘neocolonial’ states), and those which are not. In the former camp are states such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE, all of them creations of the British empire and to this day still controlled by the ruling families handpicked by Britain at the height of empire. The consolidation and reinforcement of the relationships between Britain and these families, and the shoring up of their power, is a core part of the role of the British royal family, and much of their time is taken up with hosting and visiting these families. This is especially important at times when their rule is under threat, providing an expression of solidarity at the highest level, an assurance that the British state will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with whatever repression is deemed necessary to hold onto power.
Whilst this symbolic royal solidarity is offered to leaders of Britain’s neocolonial proxy states the world over, it is the relationships with the ruling families of the Arab world specifically that are considered to be paramount. To understand why this is so, it is essential to appreciate the fundamental importance of Arabia both to the neocolonial system – the channelling of wealth generated in the global South to the western states – in general, and to British economic and political power in particular.
The Gulf region’s importance to the neocolonial world system derives primarily from its strategic location and its energy resources. Even before the discovery of oil, the region was particularly coveted by the British state due to its proximity to India. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 sent British officials scurrying for control of the Arabian peninsula in order to close the Gulf to the French navy; to this end, the first Anglo-Arabian treaty was signed that year, with the Sultan of Muscat. Others followed soon after, such that the British were virtual hegemons in the region by the middle of the nineteenth century. The thrust of these treaties was always the same – British security guarantees for the ruling families in exchange for British control of their foreign policy, with securing the trade and military route to India the fundamental objective. Urgency was added to this aim in 1911, when Winston Churchill decreed that the navy would switch from coal to oil, meaning that not only British economic strength, but British naval power too, was now dependent on imports from the East (which, since the opening of the Suez canal in 1882, could now make their journey to Europe purely by way of cargo ship through the Red Sea).
This geostrategic imperative for British control of the Gulf region remains operational today. Three of the world’s eight ‘transit chokepoints’ – narrow waterways through which a large proportion of global trade passes daily – surround the Arabian peninsula – the Suez canal to the Northwest, the Strait of Hormuz to the east, between Arabia and Iran, and the Bab el-Mandab Strait to the west, linking Yemen, Eritrea and Djibouti. Control of these chokepoints is considered crucial, therefore, not so much to British energy security (as the Gulf region supplies less than 4% of Britain’s oil and only 13% of its gas), but to Anglo-America’s ability to control the flow of energy to other countries – in other words, to the leverage provided by such control. The ability to cut off energy supply to whoever it chooses is a key element of western global power. As Bush advisor Zalmay Khalilzad put it back in 1995, “the US position in the Gulf…helps the United States to prevent the rise of another global rival. And should one arise, Washington’s position in the Gulf would be a great advantage.” With East Asia, in particular, increasingly dependent on energy imports from the Middle East, it is easy to see how control of these chokepoints could be used as another weapon in the West’s escalating economic war against China.
Yet the strategic location of the Arab world is only part of the story. The other key element is oil, and in particular, the link between oil, currency and global power. In his book The City, Tony Norfield identifies the international status of a country’s currency as one of four factors essential to global power, with the status of sterling thus crucial to Britain’s continued imperial role. And the value of sterling fundamentally depends on Gulf oil wealth.
This was already true in the immediate postwar era when “maintaining the strength of the pound sterling was an absolute strategic priority for British policymakers… and Britain’s interests in Gulf oil were crucial to London’s success in this regard.” (David Wearing, paraphrasing Steven Galpern.) Back then, taxes paid by British-owned oil companies like BP and Shell in Iran and Kuwait helped finance the government’s domestic spending, whilst the foreign currency they earnt allowed Britain to finance imports without building up a trade deficit, as well as building up reserves which could be used to defend the pound when necessary. They also, of course, allowed Britain to import oil without using up precious foreign reserves; all of which helped keep sterling’s value from collapse.
Following the oil crisis of 1973, when oil producing states turned to western banks to house their newly acquired petrodollars, however, a new role began to emerge for Gulf wealth. Says Wearing, “As well as direct investment in the British economy and investment opportunities for British industry in the Gulf, Whitehall sought a wider influx of surplus oil revenues into the financial system, whereby recycled petrodollars would play a similar stabilising function to the recently expired Bretton Woods system of managed exchange rates.” By the end of the decade, those banks were the repositories for $154billion of petrodollars. This new source of capital allowed for a fundamental transformation in the structure of the British economy, and a new type of imperialism – neoliberalism. Whereas the imperialism of Lenin’s day had been predicated on the export of capital by imperial states based on a manufacturing economy, this new type came to rely on the import of capital, in turn facilitating the ‘offshoring’ of production to the global South.
In an excellent article on the blog paradigmchange.net, neoliberalism is described as an economic model that is predicated on a shift “from production to finance” and “based on consumption not accompanied by an adequate level of production…The resulting shortfall in income needed to sustain consumption is then replaced with debt, and the trade deficits are paid for by attracting capital into the City.” Imperialism has always been parasitic, but neoliberalism, based on the influx of consumer goods without any corresponding production of exports, is openly and brazenly so – and Arab wealth is essential to the financing of this parasitism. Whilst the capital imports which finance the debt on which neoliberal consumerism is based comes from all over the world, a significant amount comes from the Gulf. In 2012, UK Foreign Office minister Lord Howell claimed that the (Qatari owned) Shard was “the tip…of a very large iceberg” with “ a significant proportion” of GCC capital inflows “channeled into financial assets.” Kuwait and Saudi Arabia each have around £100billion invested through the City of London, with another £30billion from Qatar. It recently emerged that Gulf wealth is considered so important for Britain’s financial health that the UK government had established a secret Whitehall unit – Project Falcon – to attract investment from the UAE alone. Tony Blair was a lobbyist for the group. Says David Wearing, “on the status of the pound sterling, it is clear that Gulf capital inflows make an important indirect contribution by helping to maintain the strength of the pound, and thus its attractiveness as an international currency. This is because, on the balance of payments, the GCC region plays a very significant role indeed… on these key measures, the Gulf region is not merely important to the UK compared to other leading economies (such as the BRICS) but important even compared to major economies in the global North.” Put simply, Gulf capital shores up the pound enough to offset the potentially destabilising impact of ever growing mountains of household debt. Keeping Gulf wealth flowing into the counting houses of the City of London, then, is an essential prop for Britain’s ailing imperial economy. It is also a key mechanism by which the wealth and labour of the global South continues to be extorted by the West, both through the horrifically exploited and abused South Asian migrant workforce on which all the Gulf economies depend, and through the money paid for Gulf oil from the world’s – and particularly Asia’s – heavily import-dependent energy infrastructure. In other words, the US and Britain’s ability to consume more than they produce is dependent on the threefold process of, firstly, the super-exploitation of Asian migrant labour in the Gulf economies; secondly, the channelling of global South wealth into the Gulf states through oil sales in western denominated currencies; and thirdly, the investment of the income thus gathered into US and British banks.
Ensuring this wealth continues to flow depends on two things: firstly, ensuring that the ruling families of the Gulf states continue to direct their Sovereign Wealth Funds to invest in the US and Britain, and, secondly, and more fundamentally, ensuring that those families are not overthrown. These two tasks are linked, for, alongside the economic incentives for Gulf investment in London (the Treasury and Bank of England’s commitment to guaranteeing ever rising asset prices through QE and house price manipulation) are the political incentives: bolstering the political and military alliance with the UK to ensure regime survival. And when the economic incentives are waning, as they seem to be daily, it becomes ever more imperative for the UK to ensure that those political incentives – securing the family dictatorships – are made very clear. This is where the Windsors come in.
One of the problems of the neocolonial era is that those charged with securing British interests abroad – the rulers of comprador global South states – must become masters at decoding the contradictory diktats of the western powers. One day, these gentlemen will proclaim themselves champions of liberal freedoms, willing to slaughter millions of people and burn trillions of dollars at its altar; the next, they will declare themselves as standing shoulder-to-shoulder against terrorism with the most illiberal states the mind can concievably imagine. How is an Arab ruler to know, the next time he feels the need to crush an emerging dissident movement, whether to expect a shower of hellfire missiles for his troubles, or a hearty slap on the back?
This is when a red carpet at Windsor Palace can be very reassuring, and it is no coincidence that the most frenetic hosting of high level state visits seems to occur at precisely those moments when Gulf autocracies are facing the most resistance from their own people. Over the past ten years, for example, when the Arab monarchies have confronted perhaps the biggest popular threat to their rule since the height of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 60s (when British-created monarchs were overthrown in Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Libya), they have met with leading members of the British royal family over two hundred times, with Charles alone undertaking ninety-five such visits. Bahrain, home to the most important British and US naval bases in the region, is a case in point.
The al-Khalifas, the ruling clan in Bahrain for the past 200 years, originally hailed from Iraq, but were expelled by the Ottomans due to the disruption to trade caused by their frequent banditry. They briefly seized control of Bahrain in 1783 as Persian control began to crumble, but their falling out with the Wahhabi sect, on whom their power had relied, ended their rule twenty years later. It was only the treaty they signed with the British in 1820 – in which Britain guaranteed the family’s reign in return for their obedience to imperial designs – which restored them to power, and has kept them there – latterly with the addition of US support – until this day. Only gaining formal independence from Britain in 1971, the director-general of its state security directorate was a Brit – Ian Henderson, a former colonial official in Kenya – right up until 1998. Like the other Gulf states, their military and security apparatuses remain utterly dependent on US and British support.
Yet the al-Khalifas’ position has been permanently unstable, due to both their obvious role as a facilitator of subordination to foreign domination and their persecution of the majority Shia population. A major workers’ revolt was crushed by the British in 1965, whilst the newly-elected national assembly was closed down by the Emir after just two years in operation in 1975 due to its demands for women’s votes, the nationalisation of oil resources, and the expulsion of foreign bases. “Since then”, says the author of a recent academic piece on the country, “the rule of the Khalifa family has become increasingly authoritarian.” This growing anti-democratic trend has coincided with an increase in the visible support of the British royal family. In 1979, there was particular anxiety in Britain that the revolutionary wave sweeping Iran would extend to the Gulf Arab states. Thus, within weeks of the Shah’s departure, the Queen was duly dispatched on her first official tour of the region in a clear expression of British solidarity with the Gulf rulers against their people. Bahrain was a particular concern, but the schedule of cosy engagements with the Emir, including horse racing, a banquet at the palace, and a return dinner on the royal Yacht Britannia, would have done much to reassure the Emir that British support for his “increasingly authoritarian” regime was unwavering. In 1984, a “glittering banquet” was organised by the Lord Mayor of the City of London in honour of the Emir of Bahrain, attended by the Duke and Duchess of Kent on the Queen’s behalf; whilst Prince Charles and his wife visited Bahrain two years later to attend a banquet in the Emir’s royal palace in Manama. Here they presented the Emir with the Order of St Michael and St George, the highest honour that can be bestowed for services to British imperialism, neatly symbolised by its insignia of a white child standing on the head of a prostrate Black man.
But it was in 2011, when mass protests against the Khalifa dictatorship threatened to overwhelm the regime, that British royal support really went into overdrive. The mass movement that had been bubbling away since the mid-eighties broke out onto the streets in an unprecedented show of strength, involving at its height an estimated one third of the population, demanding the most basic political freedoms. The Khalifas brutally crushed the demonstrations, their weakness demonstrated by their dependence on Saudi armed forces to do so. The British government’s response was not only to step up the arms exports needed to shore up the regime, and to invite the country’s interior minister to the British foreign office to gather “lessons learnt from our experience in Northern Ireland,” but also to use the royal family to consolidate the Anglo-Bahraini alliance. In May 2012, King Hamad was a guest of honour at the Queen’s jubilee dinner at Windsor castle, and institutional links between the two families have been cemented by the Windsor and Khalifas’ joint sponsorship of the Windsor Horse Show. This event has become an occasion for an annual hobnobbing between the two heads of state, sharing the royal box and jointly hosting the awards ceremony. Commented the human rights group Reprieve during the 2017 event, shortly after the Khalifas began executing dissidents following a six-month hiatus, “Make no mistake, visits like [the Windsor Horse Show] gift the Bahraini government a royal cloak of acceptability, while the Kingdom mercilessly executes political prisoners and uses torture to extract ‘confessions.” It is a gift which is intentional, and clearly appreciated by the Khalifas; indeed, Hamad skipped a meeting with US President Obama in order to attend the show in 2015. In 2016, Hamad was given the most prestigious seat possible at the Queen’s ninetieth birthday dinner, right by her side. Yet even with the full might of British and US imperialism behind them, the Khalifas have still not been able to stop the Bahrainis’ courageous struggle.
Bahrain is not an exception; the wheeling out of the royals to bolster British-sponsored regimes threatened by popular movements has a long history. In 1952, as the ousting of the British-imposed King Farouk by Colonel Nasser in Egypt ignited republican sentiment across the region, King Faisal of Iraq was invited to Balmoral, the Queen’s private estate in Scotland, in a demonstration that Britain would stand shoulder to shoulder against these anti-monarchical currents wherever they emerged. It wasn’t enough to shore up Faisal’s rule, however; he too was ousted six years later. 1987 saw the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada, the biggest uprising in the West Bank and Gaza since they were first occupied thirty years earlier, lasting until 1993. The Israelis responded with massive violence, including a policy of breaking the bones of child protesters; the royals showed their support for the repression with an official state visit for the Israeli President Chaim Herzog that same year. In 2007, when the Saudi criminal justice system was under unprecedented international scrutiny following the sentencing of two gang rape victims to imprisonment and 90 lashes the previous year, British approval for the regime was signalled by the King Abdullah’s invitation to a state banquet with the queen. “Contacts between our two families have been regular and close,” noted Elizabeth Windsor in her speech welcoming the king, adding that “Many British people have benefited from Saudi hospitality over the years as traders, experts and advisors,” a reference to the British military officers, arms traders, oil men and bureaucrats with whom the Saudi state is riddled. As the Arab Spring began to get under way in late 2010 – and with it, Britain’s twofold policy of using the protests as cover to launch wars against the region’s republican socialist states (Libya and Syria) whilst drowning in blood the peninsula’s anti-monarchical movements, all the region’s Arab collaborators were treated to the royal red carpet treatment: the Al Thanis of Qatar at Windsor castle in October 2010; the Queen in Abu Dhabi the following month; the Emir of Kuwait at Windsor castle in November 2012 and of the Emirates the following year, to name just the visits made by the Queen herself. The relationship with the al-Sauds was and is especially important given the Saudis leading role in facilitating Britain’s genocidal war against the Yemeni revolution.
What I am not saying here, it should be made clear, is that the British royals are somehow sullying themselves by association with these Arab ‘dictators.’ This is all-too-often the implicit line of the British colonial left when, for example, it protests such visits as those outlined above. If anything, the criticism is the other way round – that the real crime of the al-Khalifas, the al-Thanis and the Al-Sauds is their willingness to prostitute themselves and their countrymen to the diktat of the genocidal British state, to do the dirty work of empire. As for the British royal family, they are no different from their counterparts in the Gulf: an artificial creation of the imperialist bourgeoisie, made up of reactionary feudal remnants on life support whose role is the suppression of democratic freedoms wherever the masses threaten property relations. And yet, as the Yemenis, Bahrainis and Palestinians are proving daily, and as the Iraqis, Egyptians, Libyans and Iranians have long since shown, their days are numbered, all of them, and these childish institutional fantasies will soon reveal themselves as but castles in the sand. Godspeed the day.
Russia has been baited into a repeat of the Afghan Trap: first time as tragedy, second time as sickening farce.
The term ‘bait and bleed’ was defined by International Relations theorist John Mearsheimer in 2001 as a military strategy that “involves causing two rivals to engage in a protracted war, so that they bleed each other white, while the baiter remains on the sideline, its military strength intact.”
The current National Defence Strategy (NDS) of the USA explicitly endorses such a strategy, and it makes no bones about who it is aimed at. The NDS, authored by then Secretary of Defence James Mattis in 2018, describes itself as “a clear road map for the Department of Defense to meet the challenges posed by a re-emergence of long-term strategic competition with China and Russia,” adding that “interstate strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security.” On p.5 of the summary document, under the heading “strategic approach,” the NDS vows that “with our allies and partners, we will challenge competitors by maneuvering them into unfavorable positions, frustrating their efforts, precluding their options while expanding our own, and forcing them to confront conflict under adverse conditions.” There it is, in black and white: it is official US policy to bait Russia into conflict.
The US certainly has form in this regard. Until 1998, the mainstream view of US support for the anti-communist insurgency in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s was that it had been a response to the Russian invasion of December 1979. But in an interview in 1998, Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to US President Jimmy Carter, admitted that the truth was the exact opposite. In fact “it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention…The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: ‘We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.’ Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war that was unsustainable for the regime, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.” Asked whether he regretted the move, which plunged Afghanistan into a conflict which is now into its fifth decade, he replied “Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it?” Plunging the Afghan people into a half century of devastating war was of no consequence for the likes of Brzezinski. His successors clearly have the same attitude towards Ukraine.
In a widely viewed 2015 lecture on Ukraine, Mearsheimer noted that “If you really want to wreck Russia, what you really want to do is encourage Russia to conquer Ukraine.” The US and the UK – the latter in particular – appear to have been taking this advice very seriously.
NATO’s expansion into the former Soviet ‘sphere of influence,’ beginning with Bill Clinton in 1997, has always been recklessly provocative, as widely noted even way back then. A widely circulated letter by fifty leading academics, diplomats and retired military officers called the move a “policy error of historic proportions” which will “unsettle European stability” and “ultimately diminish the sense of security of those countries which are not included.” Even George Kennan, whose ‘long telegram’ in 1946 is viewed as a founding document of the post-WW2 strategy of Soviet containment, warned that NATO expansion eastwards would result in “a new Cold War, probably ending in a hot one.” Each round of NATO enlargement deepened Russia’s suspicions, but it was the Bucharest agreement of 2008 that really ratcheted up the tension. The US and UK had been pushing for Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO as soon as possible, but France and Germany resisted the move, viewing it as gratuitously provocative. Russia had, after all, been invaded three times via its western border during the previous century, the most recent, well within living memory, costing it an unfathomable 27 million lives. The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO – that is, becoming a giant military base for Britain, Germany and the US, the very countries that had built up and unleashed the fascist war machine in the 1930s – was understandably considered a red line, given Ukraine’s 2000km land border with Russia, penetrating deep into its territory. The compromise, if you can call it that, was an agreement that Ukraine (along with Georgia) would not join NATO immediately but definitely would do so in the future. Georgia’s government took this as a green light to make moves against Russian interests there, and got a shock when NATO support was not, after all, forthcoming against Putin’s predictable response. Following that episode, wrote Richard Sakwa, “British foreign secretary David Miliband visited Kiev and pledged Britain’s support, dooming the country to become the next epicentre of the artificially constructed struggle for mastery in Europe.”
Russia’s concerns were allayed for a time during the period 2010-14, during the presidency of Yanokovych, whose mandate was to keep Ukraine neutral – militarily allied to neither Russia nor the west, but with good diplomatic and trade relations with both. Unfortunately this policy was thrown into reverse following the 2014 coup, egged on (and immediately recognised) by the US and UK, and carried out with neo-Nazi paramilitaries as the vanguard force. Following an unsuccessful attempt to impose the writ of the coup regime on the Russian-speaking east of the country, those paramilitaries were, under US prodding, integrated into a new ‘National Guard’ which has been the spearhead of the war effort ever since, at the cost of 14,000 lives. Following the coup, noted Professor Sakwa, and “as if to rub salt into the wounds, NATO staged the Rapid Trident military exercise on Ukrainian territory on 15-16 September” of that year, a war gaming exercise involving fifteen countries “designed to enhance interoperability with allied and partner nations.” Since then, plans for NATO incorporation have proceeded apace. A British government document listing British support for the Ukrainian military outlines these plans in detail. In 2016, NATO outlined its Comprehensive Assistance Package of 16 “capacity building programmes and several trust funds” for military modernisation, whilst “NATO allies also participate in a wide range of military exercises with Ukrainian armed forces through the Military Committee with Ukraine Work Plan.”
But it was in June 2020 that this process was really ramped up, when Ukraine was offered “Enhanced Opportunity Partner status” with NATO. Notes the British document, “this status provides Ukraine with preferential access to NATO’s exercises, training and exchange of information and situational awareness, in order to increase interoperability. In September 2020 Ukraine hosted Exercise Joint Endeavour, with British, US and Canadian troops.” This was “the first exercise conducted under Ukraine’s new enhanced status,” but far from the last, with another ten planned, involving tens of thousands of NATO troops, for 2022 alone.
If Russia was going to enforce its red line, time was fast running out. From spring 2021, it began a counter-provocation of its own, building up a huge armed presence on the Ukrainian border, in what was widely interpreted as a show of strength to scare Ukraine into backing down from this suicidal course. Mearsheimer’s warning in 2015 that “the West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path and Ukraine is going to get wrecked” looked ever more ominous.
This cycle of provocation and counter-provocation continued throughout the year. In June 2021, Britain sent HMS Defender, part of its Carrier Strike Group’s Indo-Pacific mission, into the Black Sea “in a show of solidarity with Ukraine and regional NATO allies.” This sabre-rattling agitprop was presumably intended to fool Ukraine into thinking this equipment might actually be used in the event of a showdown with Russia, and that they should therefore press on with NATO membership safe in the knowledge that Britain would bring its full force to bear should it trigger a reaction. It was an intentionally misleading and irresponsible message; but, for years now, and as Mearsheimer had noted, “What we’re doing is encouraging the Ukrainians to play tough with the Russians.”
Even the EU, which, notes the British document, has traditionally left “military reform” as an issue for “NATO and bilateral cooperation,” joined in the Russia-baiting. In December 2021 it announced a new militarist turn, with “a package of measures to help strengthen the capacity of the Ukrainian armed forces,” worth €31million. US, UK and the EU were united, it seemed, in sending a clear message to the Russians: ‘we’re gonna build up a massive military force on your doorstep, you losers, and there’s nothing you can do about it’. Such wilful humiliation can only be aimed at one thing: triggering a response.
But the militarisation of Ukraine was only one part of the ‘bait and bleed’ strategy. Alongside the goading to invade came, in November 2021, a more or less open invitation to do so. In a sharp reversal of the message sent by the HMS Defender visit in June – that Britain would ‘have Ukraine’s back’ in the event of war – came the opposite signal – that NATO would not defend their plucky new partner should Russia choose to invade. Reported Bloomberg on the 30th November 2021, “President Vladimir Putin warned the West not to cross the Kremlin’s security “red line” as the U.S. and the U.K. said any Russian incursion into Ukraine would trigger serious diplomatic and economic responses.” Serious diplomatic and economic responses means, of course, zero military consequences. Moscow was being told openly that, should they choose to settle the issue by force, the only response from the west would be “diplomatic and economic,” that is to say – not military. At a stroke, US and UK statements had undermined NATO chief Jans Stolzenberg’s attempts to leave a military option on the table. Whilst NATO had no Article Five obligation to militarily defend Ukraine, Stolzenberg had been attempting to deter a Russian invasion by leaving its potential response ambiguous; when asked by reporters whether he ruled out a military intervention by NATO in the event of Russian incursions, his reply was “We have different options,” referring to “the fact that we have increased our presence here, in the region, both in the Black Sea region and in the Baltic region, in the air, on land and at sea.” That ambiguity was ended by the USUK guarantee that they would not militarily oppose a Russian invasion. Russia was being simultaneously goaded into conducting an invasion and openly invited to do so. The trap was set.
From the moment that invitation was issued, the character of the Russian troop buildup began to change. What started off in spring as a show of strength, designed to coerce Ukraine into respecting its security needs, began to look like something very different. Noted Gustav Gressel at the time, “Compared to the situation in March and April 2021, when it last moved troops close to the Ukrainian border, Russia seems to be making much less effort to ensure the current assembly is visible. This may hint towards a significantly more serious intention than simply a wish to appear threatening.”
Nevertheless, noted strategic analyst and former Ukrainian Defence Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk, “The fact that they’re getting ready [for an invasion] does not mean that they will start it.” Rather, he suggested, the objective might still have been to apply pressure for a negotiated settlement that meets Russia’s security needs. Indeed, concurrent with its buildup, Russia continued to push hard on the diplomatic front. Putin began by reminding the world that, as far as the expansion of western military infrastructure into Ukraine goes, “This creation of such threats for us is the red line,” before on 17th December, laying his demands for de-escalating tensions with NATO: the ruling out of NATO membership for Ukraine, NATO forces to return to their 1997 positions, no new NATO members and an end to NATO drills in countries bordering Russia. These were simply dismissed and derided by the US. Putin’s basic error was to attempt to use as leverage the threat of the very thing US planners were attempting to goad him to do in the first place – invading Ukraine.
From that point on, it was a simple matter of calling his bluff. USUK ‘intelligence’ and media playing up of the co-called ‘planned invasion’ only added to the pressure on Putin to follow through, ensuring the world’s attention would be entirely focused on the humiliation of any ‘climbdown.’
Right up to the last minute, despite the west’s ‘warnings’, many were convinced that such a climbdown was on the cards, myself included. The danger it held, of course, was that USUK and the Ukrainian National Guard would take full advantage of this moment of Russian ‘weakness’ to launch a major military escalation in the Donbass, attempting to finally impose the military solution they had been denied for the past eight years, before moving to finalise Ukraine’s integration into NATO in short order. Literally hours before Putin’s announcement of a ‘special military operation’ on February 21st, I posted the following message on a political discussion forum, in a response to a question about whether Russia would invade: “Putin is not gonna do it. He blinked and now NATO and their fascist mercenaries are taking full advantage. This is the beginning of the end for Putin and the start of a devastating war to retake the Donbass.” in hindsight, however, that was simply not an option Putin was willing to accept. He would risk everything – and everybody – rather than accept humiliation and defeat. As Patrick Cockburn put it, “For Putin, having gone as far as he had, the choice was starkly posed between escalation and capitulation. It was at this point that method turned into madness, and the murderous, strategically disastrous Russian land invasion of Ukraine began.” And madness it was – as Richard Sakwa had pointed out in 2016, Putin “was well aware that the US had lured the Soviet Union into the Afghan quagmire, precipitating its collapse” and was “well aware of the dangers of being sucked into a war over Ukraine, which would be unwinnable and disastrous.” The US and UK had achieved what once had seemed impossible – goading Russia into a battlefield on which they could be crucified. They had been baited. Now they would be bled.
The UK, in particular, had been preparing for this war for years. Even whilst Obama had banned lethal military aid to Ukraine (a ban overturned by Trump in 2018), Britain was running a military training programme for Ukraine called “Operation Orbital.” Beginning in 2015 with 75 UK military trainers focussed on “medical, logistics, general infantry skills and intelligence capacity building,” since then it has “been expanded and extended several times.” By 2018, it also involved “training for defensive operations in an urban environment, operational planning, engineering [and] countering attacks from snipers, armoured vehicles and mortars,” and had been expanded to cover “all branches of Ukraine’s armed forces,” including the Ukrainian navy. In October 2020, the UK and Ukraine agreed to proceed with a new Naval Capabilities Enhancement Programme, which would involve, amongst other things, “Ukraine’s purchase of two refurbished Royal Navy Sandown-class minehunters…the sale and integration of missiles on new and in-service Ukrainian Navy patrol and airborne platforms, including a training and engineering support package, assistance in building new naval bases in the Black Sea and Azov Sea, the development and joint production of eight fast missile warships, and participation in the Ukrainian project to deliver a modern frigate capability.” In November 2021, the UK released £1.7billion of financing for the project, and had, according to a Downing Street press release, trained a total of 22,000 Ukrainian military personnel by January 2022. The Naval initiative already seems to be paying dividends, with evidence emerging that a Russian warship was destroyed by the Ukrainian navy in early March.
The trick for the US and UK now is to make sure the war lasts as long as possible, to maximise Russian casualties and trigger economic collapse. In other words, having goaded the Russians into starting the war, the aim is now to goad the Ukrainians to keep it going, resisting the temptation to come to terms with the Russians and make peace. This part of the operation was termed by Mearsheimer ‘bloodletting,’ in which “the aim is to make sure that any war between one’s rivals turns into a long and costly conflict that saps their strength.” Senator, later President, Harry Truman had this strategy in mind, Mearsheimer noted, in his infamous reaction to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941: “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.”
Countering a perceived wobble from Ukrainian President Zelensky, who seemed to imply he would, now he finally understood the Russians were serious, consider returning Ukraine to a non-aligned position, the British government made clear there was to be no such compromise. On the first day of the invasion, February 24th, Foreign Office minister Lord Ahmed told parliament that “we remain committed to the 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration in which all NATO allies agreed that Ukraine will become a member of the alliance.” A negotiated settlement is, it seems, unacceptable to the UK, who are willing to fight Russia, as the saying goes, down to the last Ukrainian; their vision was spelt out by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who told Sky News that the conflict could last ‘years’ and the UK needs to be ‘prepared for a very long haul’. Western media, meanwhile, have clearly been instructed to play up the supposed successes of the “Ukrainian resistance” and the chance, therefore, of a total military victory against Russia, to stave off the chances of serious negotiations.
The Ukraine trap is being modelled on the Afghan trap right down to the weapons being sent. Stinger surface-to-air missiles played a crucial role in the CIA-MI6 backed anti-Soviet insurgency in the 1980s; the Times reported on 9th March that Ukraine has now received 17,000 anti-tank and 2000 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, most from Germany, Belgium and Britain, with huge US and British cargo planes full of them being sent every 90 minutes, day and night, from an undisclosed airfield. The US Department of Defence has, since September 2021, provided Ukraine with “Stinger missiles, Javelin missiles, anti-tank rocket systems, grenade launchers, more than 2,000 tons of ammunition, including mortar and artillery rounds, small arms, machine guns,” according to the assistant secretary of Defence, Mara Karlin, with a total of $1billion in military equipment provided over the past year and $2billion over the previous seven. “Taken together, thevariety, volume and potency of firepower being rushed into the war zone illustrate the extent to which the United States [and the UK] sought to prepare the Ukrainian military to wage a hybrid war against Russia,” suggests the Washington Post article. An additional $13.6 billion of supplies was approved by Congress, on March 9th, with Britain announcing it will send state-of-the-art laser-guided “Starstreak” anti-missile systems to Ukraine on the same day.
On top of the weapons deliveries, Buzzfeed has reported that a small group of NATO special operations forces have been sent into Ukraine:
“The group, composed of six US citizens, three Brits, and a German, are NATO-trained and experienced in close combat and counterterrorism. Two former American infantry officers are also making plans to come to Ukraine to provide “leadership” for the group.” They are hoped to be the first of many volunteers who will arrive in the country to fight the Russians, in a replay of the ‘international jihad’ that was fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Indeed, NATO member Turkey is already thought to be sending Syrian militants, with combat experience against Russia, to the frontlines in Syria, whilst “groups like the Georgian National Legion,” through whose ranks which “more than 300 Western foreigners have passed” since its formation in 2014, many “from NATO countries and with prior military experience… help pave the way for people to sign official contracts with the Ukrainian military.” The Ukraine war thus already appears to be becoming a magnet for both far right and ‘radical Islamist’ fighters to join the war against Russia, providing the double benefit for US and Britain of bleeding Russia and removing potentially destabilising elements from their territory.
Should the Zelensky government collapse, and be replaced by a pro-Russian administration – presumably propped up by the Russian military – the plan is for a long insurgency, again modelled on 1980s Afghanistan. UK Armed Forces Minister James Heappey told Forces News that the MoD had been asked by Boris Johnson to “look at and plan for” British assistance to any future resistance movement if Ukraine was captured, whilst according to the Washington Post, “Ukraine’s allies are planning how to help establish and support a government-in-exile, which could direct guerrilla operations against Russian occupiers, according to several U.S. and European officials… As early as last December, some U.S. officials saw signs that the Ukrainian military was preparing for an eventual resistance, even as Zelensky downplayed the threat of invasion. During an official visit, a Ukrainian special operations commander told Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and other lawmakers that they were shifting training and planning to focus on maintaining an armed opposition, relying on insurgent-like tactics.” But key to this outcome is scuppering any moves towards a peaceful settlement: “The number one thing you have to have is people on the ground who want to fight,” said Jack Devine, a retired senior CIA officer who ran the agency’s successful covert campaign to arm Afghan fighters who drove out the Soviet military in the 1980s…. If Russian and Ukrainian negotiators who have been meeting near the border in Belarus reach some settlement, that will likely diminish the momentum for an insurgency and support for it, Devine predicted.”
Again, Washington has form here. The Bosnian war could have been prevented altogether, saving tens
of thousands of lives, had the Carrington–Cutileiro peace plan ever been implemented. The plan had been signed by the leaders of all three sides in the conflict, but fell apart after Bosnian leader Izetbegovic withdrew his signature immediately after a meeting with US ambassador Warren Zimmerman. It is thought Zimmerman had pushed him to fight for a better deal with the promise of lavish US military support. We are likely to see much of this in the months and years to come; watch in particular for announcements of increased military or economic escalations around the time of peace talks taking place. Already, the announcement of $13.6billion additional US aid and UK delivery of the “Starstreak” anti-aircraft system on the very day of the first talks between the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers was unlikely to be a coincidence.
The benefits of this prolonged war to the USUK bourgeois establishment are clear. But this is not only about the ‘bleeding’ of a strategic competitor, whose hampering of regime change in Syria and alliances with Iran and China had made it an increasing thorn in the side of western hegemony. It is aimed not only at Russia, but at Europe, at China, and at Ukraine itself.
The driving of a wedge between Russia and Europe, in order to weaken both, and heighten European dependence on the US, has long been a goal of US foreign policy. Yet Germany and France, in particular, have, for obvious reasons, been unwilling to play ball. That is why, throughout the Russian troop buildup, those countries consistently advocated talks and compromise in direct contrast to the belligerent sabre-rattling of their Atlantic partners. Germany has always had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the economic war against Russia, for the simple reason that that war constitutes an act of serious self-harm for Germany, which, unlike the US, is deeply dependent on Russian energy and markets. It took the downing of the MH17 aircraft to arm-twist them into joining the first round of USUK-led sanctions following the 2014 coup, and it took the Russian invasion of Ukraine for Germany to finally accede to US demands to cancel the NordStream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, which had been completed and ready to begin operations since September 2021. As Immanuel Wallerstein wrote back in 2014, “What haunts the Nulands of this world [a reference to the then US ambassador to Ukraine, Victoria Nuland] is not a putative “absorption” of Ukraine by Russia – an eventuality with which she could live. What haunts her and those who share her views is a geopolitical alliance of Germany/France and Russia.” The Ukraine trap has certainly put paid to that prospect – and the collateral damage to Europe from the economic war on Russia is only a benefit to US hegemony. NATO’s raison d’etre in Europe, as described by its first Secretary General Lord Ismay, was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” and the war in Ukraine is already well on the way to achieving all three.
Then, of course, there is China. China has condemned the sanctions on Russia as economic warfare against the population, but as the bloodshed mounts, so too will the pressure on China to join in with them, or risk being treated in the same way itself; this war is increasingly being portrayed as a Manichean struggle of good versus evil in which bystanders are not allowed. Of course, the US economy is far more entangled with that of China than it is with that of Russia, making an all out boycott a trickier prospect – but there is little to stop the US simply freezing Chinese dollar assets in the same way as they have done with Russian. The Russian central bank’s $630billion in foreign reserves were frozen almost immediately after the invasion, eliminating at a stroke Russia’s painstakingly built up insurance policy to protect the ruble. Its value has fallen continuously since then and is now worth barely half of what it was a month ago. What is to stop the US doing the same to China, eliminating a quarter of its foreign debt, and greatly pumping up the value of the dollar, into the bargain? This will be the real worry for Beijing right now, and there is every reason to believe that this is the direction in which we are headed. The Ukraine trap has been designed ultimately to ensnare China as well; we may very well be witnessing the start of the ‘final showdown’ aimed at extending US dominance for another fifty years by ending the Russia-China challenge once and for all.
As for Ukraine itself, its ruined economy and infrastructure will leave it utterly dependent on foreign support for reconstruction. If this does turn out to be Russia, the costs to the Russian economy will be crippling, and ongoing with an insurgency to deal with; if the West, Ukrainian policy will be completely under their control, with reparations likely to be forced out of Russia to pay for reconstruction anyway. Either way, the Russian economy and Ukrainian sovereignty are both finished.
Finally, quite apart from all the geopolitical machinations, are the straightforward capitalist economic interests. In times of economic crisis and stagnation, war becomes an ever more tempting prospect for capitalist powers, providing opportunities to capture state markets (eg for weapons), rather than having to rely on stagnating private consumer markets, organise political boycotts of rival producers in areas where you cannot compete economically, and gain from inflated commodity prices affected by the war (eg oil and gas, of which the USA is a net exporter). Michael Hudson has analysed how the three key economic sectors in the USA – that is, the military-industrial complex; the oil, gas and mining industry and the banking and real estate, which between them control the purse strings of virtually every member of Congress – have all had their strategic goals served very well by this war.
If anything, then, the Ukraine trap looks set to be even more beneficial for the US than the Afghan trap – and even more devastating, not only to Ukraine and Russia, but to China and even the EU as well.
But, as Marx told us long ago, when history repeats itself it does so “first time as tragedy, second time as farce.” In Afghanistan, Soviet forces were fighting to defend a genuine popular socialist revolution, which had liberated women and ended feudal oppression, against a vicious sectarian obscurantism that was utterly dependent on MI6, CIA, Pakistani and Saudi largesse. The popularity of Najibullah’s communist government was revealed by the fact that it hung on against this combined terror operation for a further three years after being abandoned by the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
This time around, there is no such emancipatory project to defend, quite the opposite. Putin’s war is a grotesque caricature of the Soviet intervention, little more in fact than a mirror image of the western warmongering he claims to oppose, replete with obviously fraudulent claims put forward to justify the unjustifiable. His ‘denazification’ programme amounts to the replacement of ‘pro-Ukrainian’ fascists with ‘pro-Russian’ fascists, his vision of Ukraine essentially another Syria – a patchwork of dysfunctional ethno-nationalist statelets, each to be used and abused by their own regional power patron, the whole mess overseen by Grand Master [sic] Putin.
The tragedy of Putin’s Russia has been its crippling desperation to be accepted by ‘the west’. Like Israel, Russia is offended that its right to dehumanise and exterminate – the very essence of whiteness – seems to be constantly called into question, as if their very identity as white nations is being denied. Why are you allowed to shit on international law, to invade sovereign states, to starve and beseige, to use thermobarbaric weapons, to bomb hospitals, and we are not? What is this Russophobia, this anti-Semitism? Am I not a white man and a white brother?
Little noticed amongst all the Syria coverage, peace has been breaking out across Ukraine. After a faltering start, the so-called ‘Minsk II’ agreement – signed in February by the so-called ‘Normandy Four’ – now seems to be making serious headway.
A new ceasefire, which began on September 1, has been largely adhered to by all sides, paving the way for the withdrawal of weaponry from the frontline which was a key demand of the Minsk agreements.
On the political front, there have also been breakthroughs. One of the key sticking points was resolved two weeks ago when representatives of the self-declared People’s Republics in Lugansk and Donbass agreed to postpone elections to ensure they are held in line with Ukrainian law and international electoral standards. Meanwhile, in August the Ukrainian parliament – after a heated and tumultuous session – approved a law on decentralization that grants significant autonomy to the Eastern regions; another key demand of the Minsk agreements.
That the so-called ‘Normandy Four’ (Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine) are keen for the peace to hold no surprises. For, ultimately, the US-UK destabilization strategy in Ukraine aims at weakening all of them.
It is worth recalling the key US and UK role in fomenting the war in the East of Ukraine. Whilst both powers openly supported the fascist-led coup in February 2014 – British EU commissioner Catherine Ashton, for example, giving immediate recognition and finance to the new coup government – they have also been instrumental in stoking the war in the East of the country. When resistance to the coup began in the Donbass region in April, CIA Director John Brennan was immediately flown to Kiev. By the time he left, the Ukrainian coup government’s bloody crackdown on the Eastern regions was well under way; it was pretty obvious he had been sent to push for precisely this response.
However, the crackdown did not go as hoped. Ukrainian tanks were met by angry crowds demanding the soldiers refuse to fire on their compatriots and give up their weapons. Many did precisely this, expressing sympathy for the resistance and fraternizing with the crowds; within days, a full scale mutiny appeared to be underway, with 21 armored vehicles turned over to the resistance. The futility of a military solution became increasingly clear, and even the coup-installed Prime Minister Yatsenyuk began making noises about federalism and the need to respect the rights of ethnic Russians for the first time since coming to power. The door appeared to be opening for negotiations and some kind of peaceful compromise.
It was at this point that no less a figure than US Vice President Joe Biden was sent over – and, once again, the offensive was renewed the day he left. But this time the reliance was less on the regular army, and more on the ‘National Guard’, a new paramilitary formation created the month before by Andriy Parubiy. Parubiy, from the extreme Russophobic ‘Fatherland’ party, had been the ‘head of security’ of the Maidan protests (and therefore directly implicated in the sniper shootings of February 20) before being made National Security Chief of the new government following the coup. The National Guard was a crude means of putting ultra-nationalist militias on the government payroll – and following visits by Biden and Brennan these militias became the spearhead of the US policy of war on Ukraine’s ethnic Russian population.
Within weeks, new militia such as the Azov, Donbas and Dnipro battalions were created, incorporated into the National Guard and thrown into battle. Azov’s founder, Biletsky, explained that: “The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment is to lead the white races of the world in a final crusade for their survival: a crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen.” The US has subsequently poured hundreds of millions into the training and equipping of such militias.
The result of this fascistic war has been to weaken Russia, Europe and Ukraine itself. On the one hand, it has been a willful provocation of Russia, whose very modest attempts to defend the eastern regions (allowing Russian volunteers to join the resistance, for example) have been characterized as aggression and used by the US as means of maneuvering Europe into supporting self-destructive sanctions against Russia. At the same time, Ukraine – which had higher per-capita industrial output than Germany during Soviet times – has become an economic basket case, facing massive inflation and economic contraction. Just last week, Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko requested a doubling of the $40 billion IMF rescue package just to stay afloat.
All of this suits the US very well. On the one hand, it is fully in line with veteran cold warrior (and Obama advisor) Zbigniew Brzezinski’s strategy to maintain US supremacy by keeping Europe and Russia divided. On the other, the sinking of the Ukrainian economy leaves the country utterly dependent on foreign loans and at the mercy of its Western creditors in the IMF, making the return of a genuinely non-aligned foreign policy along the lines of those followed by Yanukovich ever more unlikely. That is why the US has been at the forefront of pushing for this war.
It is also why not only Putin, but Hollande, Merkel and even Poroshenko are so keen for the war to end. So long as the ceasefire holds, European sanctions on Russia are due to expire at the end of the year. And as EU President Jean-Claude Juncker – well aware of the damage sanctions are doing to the European economy – said last week, “We must make efforts towards a practical relationship with Russia … we can’t go on like this… We can’t let our relationship with Russia be dictated by Washington.” Likewise, even Poroshenko – despite all his tub-thumping at the UN – knows that simple geographical reality dictates he needs to have a constructive relationship with Russia, and that continuation of the war will make economic recovery impossible.
For the US, however, the surest route to maintaining economic war against Russia, keeping Europe and Russia divided, and keeping Ukraine dependent, is for the war in the Ukraine to continue. This is why the US policy of directly supplying and training the fascist militias is so worrying. For these militias will be the wild card in the months to come. They have already shown their willingness to violently challenge Ukrainian government authority, and have made no bones about their willingness to subvert any peace agreement that is not to their liking.
Three people were killed, for example, during ultra-nationalist demonstrations against the decentralization law, and in July Right Sector militias were involved in a firefight with Ukrainian police, leaving four dead. Following that incident, the Right Sector’s press spokesman commented that: “In the event of a new revolution, Ukrainian president Poroshenko and his associates will not be able to flee the country as the former president did. They can expect nothing but execution in some dark cellar, conducted by young Ukrainian military men or members of the National Guard.” A fascinating article by Nicolai Petro argued that, in the event of a full scale showdown between the paramilitaries and the official government forces, it is far from clear that the government would win.
The fascist militias, then, are the wild card who may threaten the peace that Russia, Europe and even the Ukrainian government are seemingly so committed. Could it be that the US has been developing its relationship with these forces for this very reason? The fact that the immediate US response to the success of the recent ceasefire has been to promise an additional $300 million worth of training and equipment to military “and other security forces” in Ukraine is a worrying step indeed.
Originally published in Counterpunch magazine, 2021
The death of Elizabeth Windsor’s husband Philip Mountbatten earlier this year prompted an establishment-led frenzy of monarchism across Britain, with wall-to-wall sycophantic TV and radio coverage and Covid public information boards replaced with Philip’s portrait. The standard view of the British monarchy is that they are no more than symbolic figureheads lacking any real power; mere ornaments adorning the British political system. But the truth is that Philip and his family were and are crucial pillars in the maintenance of the class power of the British imperialist bourgeoisie, both domestically and globally.
To begin with, the Sovereign still has a significant place in the British political system. The government is still known as ‘her majesty’s government,’ there to govern on her behalf. It is she who appoints the prime minister, not just in the UK, but in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and twelve other countries. And it is only by convention that she appoints the leader of the winning party following an election – as Gough Whitlam discovered in 1975 when the monarch’s representative in Australia dismissed him from office, despite his party having won the previous year’s elections, and appointed in his place the leader of the losing party, deeming the winners too radical. In the UK, she has weekly meetings with the prime minister to discuss government business, and her approval is required before any legislation passed by parliament can become law. Whilst it is true that this approval – known as Royal Assent – has been granted to all Acts of Parliament since 1707, what is more commonly withheld is the lesser known ‘Queen’s Consent.’ For bills affecting the Queen’s private interests, as well as those impinging on the royal prerogative powers (executive powers which can be used without consulting parliament), the Queen’s permission must be granted before it can be put to parliament. Such ‘Queen’s Consent’ (or ‘Prince’s Consent’ in the case of bills affecting the Prince of Wales’ private interests) was sought 146 times between 1970 and 2013 according to former government minister Norman Baker. Any bill that might affect the income from the monarch and her son’s private estates, for example (the Duchy of Cornwall and the Duchy of Lancaster, comprising some of the most lucrative real estate in the London, the Strand, as well as Balmoral and Sandringham) is subject to veto by the Crown. And here, unlike for Royal Assent, the Queen is neither obliged by convention to give her consent, nor to act in accordance with advice from her ministers – she is free to use her discretion. All laws affecting income or land tax, for example, or employment rights, require Queen’s Consent, as did the 2006 Animal Welfare Act, because it granted inspectors the right to go onto private estates to investigate claims of animal abuse. To prevent the bill being vetoed by the Crown, the Labour government agreed that the Windsors’ private estates would be exempt from the legislation – literally putting them above the law. Queen’s Consent even had to be sought for the 2008 Child Maintenance Act as it affected payments to the Queen’s private staff. And the Queen is uniquely exempt from a 1973 Act of Parliament requiring shareholders to identify themselves, allowing her to anonymously hold shares in companies of dubious repute. This exemption may well have been a condition for giving consent to the bill in the first place – we cannot know for sure, because no record is kept of when and how Queen’s Consent is used, and the negotiations go on behind closed doors before the first draft of the bill is ever published.
‘Queen’s Consent’ is not only a tool for the personal enrichment of the Windsors, however. Bills which affect the Royal Prerogative powers (powers exercised on behalf of the monarch by government ministers) also require Queen’s Consent, and in this case, unlike in the case of bills where her personal interests are involved, the Queen will simply give or withhold consent according to advice from her ministers. This allows the government to use the Queen to prevent certain private members’ bills, for example, from even being discussed in parliament. Norman Baker’s excellent book on royal powers, “And What Do You Do?”, from which much of the material for this article was garnered, notes that the Military Action Against Iraq (Parliamentary Approval) Bill in 1999 was blocked after the Queen withheld her consent, as was the 1964 Titles (Abolition) Bill and the 1969 Rhodesia Independence Bill, amongst others.
But this use of Queen’s Consent is just one way in which the residual powers of the monarch are used by the government to avoid public or parliamentary debate and scrutiny. The Royal Prerogative powers, exercised by government ministers on behalf of the monarch, mainly pertain to foreign relations, and can be exercised without the consultation of parliament. This allows the prime minister to deploy troops and agree treaties without even informing, let alone consulting, parliament. The use of the Royal Prerogative occurs through the Privy Council, a group of current and former members of the government, senior members of the opposition, and senior members of the royal family, including the Queen. Members are sworn to secrecy, and the body has the power to secretly create legislation, known as ‘Orders of Council’. In the first half of 2000, over 250 such Orders were issued, around ten per week – including, says Baker (who was made a Privy Councillor by virtue of his position a junior minister in the Conservative-Liberal Coalition government) “an Order relating to the Saint Helena Act 1833, an amendment to a naval pension scheme, an Order relating to sanctions on Yemen – the sort of thing thing that the Commons ought to have had the chance to debate – and an amendment to the misuse of drugs act 1971, which I knew nothing about despite having been the drugs minister for a year until shortly before.” And these were just those passed in one meeting. Baker broke his oath to reveal this information, but such revelations are highly unusual, and the passage of such laws willo rarely reach the public domain.
Yet the most important aspect of monarchical power in British politics is not the Windsors’ role in day-to-day government so much as their function as a kind of ‘counter-revolutionary backstop’. Globally, this is an ongoing and active role, as will be explored in part two of this series. In the domestic arena, however, it is more as a potential, a ‘force of last resort,’ should popular unrest ever get seriously out of hand.
Of fundamental importance here is the oath of loyalty sworn by members of the armed forces. This oath commits them to the defence, not of the constitution or the elected parliament, but of the monarch and her successors, and to do so “against all enemies,” including, therefore, domestic enemies – such as, for example, any future parliament that attempted to abolish them. It also commits them to “obey all orders of her majesty, her heirs and successors.” Were, for example, a genuinely radical parliament to be elected in Britain, the armed forces would be a priori committed to support an armed overthrow of such a parliament should the monarch command them to do so. Baker suggests that we “suppose Hitler had invaded England, and suppose Edward the Eighth, with his Nazi sympathies, were restored to the throne as a sort of puppet, a scenario that certainly existed in Hitler’s mind. If the restored Edward the Eighth had called on the armed forces to lay down their weapons and accept a sort of Vichy Britain with him at the head, they may well have done so, whatever the elected government may have thought. I know members of the armed forces who take their oath to the Queen very seriously, and for them this allegiance trumps any democratic considerations. The fact that members of the royal family occupy senior positions right across the military only reinforces this.”
Nor is it only the armed forces who are made to swear such an oath – it is also a condition of entry into the British police force, judiciary, and parliament, as well as (since 2003) British citizenship itself, for those applying for it. This means that when (and it is indeed a matter of when, not if) the proverbial shit hits the fan in the UK, should the ruling class feel the need to impose military rule and rule by diktat, this oath ensures the army, the police and the entire criminal justice system, will be committed in advance to support such a measure, so long as the Windsors are on board. As Baker has noted, “the Queen herself on her accession took an oath to govern the country and uphold the rights of bishops. Parliamentarians take an oath to the Queen. Nobody takes an oath to uphold democracy.”
The key to understanding the role of the monarchy in a bourgeois society like Britain is to go back to its origins, which lie, not deep in antiquity, but in the tumultuous events of the seventeenth century. There has not been seamless continuity or evolution when it comes to royal power, but rather three distinct major monarchical epochs, separated by violent upheavals. First was the feudal monarchy that existed prior to 1485, in which the monarchy was the head of an aristocratic-ruled state. Second was the monarchy that was established under Henry the Seventh in 1485, at the head of an alliance between the aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie, an era that was decisively ended with the execution of Charles I and the creation of the English republic in 1649. Our current monarchy, under bourgeois domination, took shape between 1660 and 1689, and though it was ushered in with the so-called ‘Restoration’ of Stuart power, when the deposed Charles’ son, Charles II, was invited to take the throne, it was in reality an entirely new institution (as Charles’ brother James II learnt to his cost when he attempted to challenge the new dispensation and was swiftly replaced). The question is – why did this third epoch of monarchism even come about? When the bourgeoisie had so decisively defeated the aristocratic power that the monarchy represents, why did they then re-create the institution? And the answer is – the fear of popular revolution.
Cromwell had mobilised the masses in his war against Charles I, but their demands – as exploited, land hungry, peasants, and even as small traders and artisans – went far beyond his as a merchant landowner. What Cromwell sought was not the abolition of exploitation, but the extension of the absolute right to exploit, from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, via an end to the aristocratic monopolies on foreign trade and land ownership. Radical trends within the republican movement, however – including, crucially, within Cromwell’s army itself, such as the Levellers – sought genuine social equality – equal access to land, political participation, and a toppling of the very hierarchical pyramid that Cromwell had been fighting for the right to ascend. Cromwell had their leaders executed but the fear of a resurgence remained – and in the late 1650s, when rising prices were leading to growing unrest and agitation, the bourgeoisie reasoned that, though their power seemed secure for now, the time may yet come when they would need to call on the defeated aristocracy to help suppress a renewed popular uprising. And this is what the current British monarchy is: the artificial keeping alive of feudal remnants (along with their symbolic counterpart in the human psyche) as a potential counter-revolutionary ally of an insecure bourgeoisie.
That this is so can be seen clearly in the waxing and waning of royal privilege over the years. Here, a clear pattern emerges whereby, in periods where the bourgeoisie feel more secure, and less in need of their feudal allies, royal privileges are limited or revoked; whilst in periods of real or potential unrest, they are extended. If the army are loyal to the monarch, the ruling class need to be sure that the monarch is willing to do its bidding. And that costs money.
In the years following the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution,’ however – when, in 1688, Parliament called on the Dutch King William of Orange to depose King James II and take the crown for himself, on the strict understanding that his position would be subordinate to Parliament – bourgeois rule seemed impregnable. The 1690s saw the formation of the Bank of England, the tearing up of the Royal trading monopolies – heralding a commercial frenzy, especially in the trafficking of kidnapped Africans – and the dispossession of Ireland. With the English merchant class triumphant, they had little need to make concessions to a monarchy that, after all, they themselves had placed into position, and was effectively their mouthpiece. Thus, in 1697, did the Crown agree to surrender even the income it gained from the Duchy of Cornwall.
This era of untrammelled security did not last long, however. The failure of William and Mary, as well as her sister Anne, to produce any surviving offspring, had led Parliament to pass the Act of Settlement in 1701, decreeing that the Crown would pass to the (Protestant) Hanoverians. Their claim to the throne by virtue of royal bloodline was shaky to say the least – but the newly empowered merchant class were determined to prevent a Catholic restoration, with all the resultant continental political realignments and reversals that would entail. This seemingly arbitrary passing around of the Crown for political convenience was a step too far for many, however, and the Jacobite movement – which called for the continuation of the Stuart monarchy, in line with established hereditary principles – was born. Thus it was in 1721, two years after the third major Jacobite rising, at a time when the schemes of the government were under serious threat from inter-ruling class rivalry, that the mechanism of ‘King’s Consent’ – whereby the monarch gets veto power on any bill affecting his private interests – was introduced.
Once the threat dissipated, however, the monarch’s fortunes were reversed. In 1745, the Jacobite movement was decisively defeated, and the bourgeois ascendancy seemed, once again, triumphant – and in no need of feudal backup. Thus, in 1760, did the entirety of the Crown estates (with the supposed exception of the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster) pass into the hands of the state, finally stripping the king of his position as ‘landowner-in-chief,’ the basic tenet of monarchical power since 1066. It was not without some benefit for the monarch, as, along with the estates, he also gave up responsibility for funding the growing costs of the state, which would now be taken on by the government directly. The king also negotiated a hefty annual subsidy from the state coffers, set initially at £800,000 per year and still in operation today, known as the ‘civil list.’ Yet the ban on the monarch’s ownership of private property that accompanied the deal was, by any standards, a reduction in power. It was not to last.
The earth shattering events of the 1790s – in France and Haiti primarily, but with planet-wide reverberations that continue to this day – struck terror once again into the hearts of the English ruling class, and over the decades that followed, various forms of emergency rule and suspension of liberties became the norm. Lacking the legitimising cloak of liberal niceties, the legitimising cloak of regal bullshit took on a new importance for government. The monarch’s value to the imperilled bureaucracy grew, and the ban on his ownership of private property was lifted. And not only that – an argument was made that the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall were already private estates of the monarch, exempt from the 1760 agreement that surrendered the rest of the Crown estates. The reasoning? They had not been explicitly mentioned in that agreement, and were therefore not covered by them. The compelling legal argument that this was so precisely because, since 1697, the Duchies were already understood to be public assets (their income streams having been handed over at that date) was trampled underfoot by the cavalry charge of the counter-revolutionary war and its need for maximum unity against the Jacobins. Two hundred years later, the income streams from this desperate act of political expediency remain exceptionally lucrative: the holdings of the Duchy of Lancaster alone amount to over half a billion pounds, with annual profits reaching £20 million in 2018, and the Duchy of Cornwall not far behind, including a particular bonanza in 2012 from the auctioning of tungsten and iridium mining rights on Duchy land.
The pattern continued throughout the nineteenth century. As tumult grew in Ireland, Jamaica and both rural and urban Britain between 1829 and 1831 – resulting in major concessions on all three islands – the Duchy of Lancaster was, in 1830, again exempted from a bill formalising the government takeover of royal income streams. As Baker noted, “with the great reform bill on the stocks, the government did not want to alienate the king unnecessarily.” The same year, the two Duchies also secured an exemption – alone in the country – from the abolition of the feudal practice of landowners taking over the estates of anyone who dies on their land without relatives. This would prove particularly lucrative for George VI, who got a bonanza from all those killed on Duchy land during World War Two, and continues to bring in additional income for the Windsors to this day.
The Great Reform Act was eventually passed in 1832, successfully breaking the middle class-working class alliance that had shaken the country in previous years. The wealthier middle classes had been enfranchised by the Act, and now happily supported the repression of their erstwhile proletarian comrades. Bourgeois rule was secure, and again the need to buy royal favour declined. In 1842, income tax was introduced for the first time, and the monarch was not exempt. From now on, taxes would be paid not only on royal income – including on the civil list subsidy, and on Duchy profits – but on royal land and property also. This was confirmed in the Crown Private Estates Act of 1862 (during another period when the British ruling class were feeling secure, when the country’s industrial monopoly had birthed a labour aristocracy following the defeat of the Chartists). The Act was unambiguous: “The private estates of her majesty,her heirs or successors, shall be subject to all such rates, duties, assessments, and other impositions, parliamentary and parochial, as the same would have been subject to if the same had been the property of any subject of the realm.”
Yet even during this period, royal privileges ebbed and flowed in line with the degree of feared unrest. In 1848, proletarian revolution broke out across the continent, and the Chartists planned a march on London. Although the demonstration was ultimately outnumbered by pro-government volunteers, the state took no chances, and shored up its favour with the King through the establishment of ‘Prince’s consent’, extending the existing veto rights over legislation affecting the King’s private interests to his eldest son. No legal justification for this anti-democratic provision was even attempted; threat of revolt demanded royal concessions, the practice was established, and that was that. Again, it is a practice that continues until today.
In the period 1865-7, near-simultaneous risings again broke out again across Jamaica, England and Ireland. Then, In 1873, the great economic boom which had begun in the 1850s ground decisively to a halt, just when Britain had lost its industrial monopoly to Germany and the USA. The depression lasted until 1896, and a new wave of militant trade unionism amongst the lowest paid broke out. Foreseeing a time when the monarch’s collaboration in the suspension of civil government might be required, the government during this period ramped up the civil list payments, on the flimsiest of pretexts. Writes Baker, “As a result of Albert’s pleadings of poverty they [Victoria and Albert] were given more than they needed to enable Victoria to carry our her constitutional duties, but then hung onto the cash which had been obtained under false pretences and invested it in property.” In 1889, a parliamentary select committee noted that Victoria had siphoned off almost £1 million from her civil list ‘expenses,’ which had been used to purchase the private estates of Balmoral, Sandringham and Osborne (in the Isle of Wight). Philip Hall, in his book Royal Fortune, estimates that a total of £67million has been saved by the monarch from civil list payments over the last five reigns, making the MPs’ expenses scandal look like a parking violation. But the point is, this subsidy has been willingly granted by an insecure ruling class as an insurance policy against (so-called) democracy.
In the years before the First World War, this insecurity went into overdrive – and so too did the ‘insurance payments’ to the royals. Revolutionary trade unionism was spreading like wildfire across Britain, with major strikes taking place in key industries such as minings, docking, building and transport, many of them successful. The ruling class were terrified: Conservative cabinet minister Leo Amery recorded in his diary at the time that he went to purchase a revolver to arm himself against the revolutionary threat, but found they had all sold out. The value – and so the price – of royal backup thus increased again; already by 1903, Edward VII had wrangled his way out of paying income tax on his civil list payments (despite the existence of very clear laws on the matter), and in 1910 prime minister Lloyd George agreed to exempt the monarch from paying income tax at all. In 1913, this tax exemption was extended to the Duchy of Cornwall. Says Baker, “Despite the fact that the inland revenue had gone into the matter of the Duchy’s status quite exhaustively and concluded there was no case for its exemption from taxes, the government’s law officers, in a very short ruling, and one without any explanatory arguments, disagreed, and that was that.” In 1911, another unprecedented – and legally indefensible – ruling exempted royal wills from public scrutiny. To this day, royal wills are the only wills that can be kept private, enabling the extent of royal wealth to remain forever secret. This means that the amount of wealth stolen from civil list payments can be kept hidden, as can the extent of ‘gifts’ – which must, by law, be turned over to the state when given in connection with public duties – amassed by the monarch and her family. Says Baker, “if it became publicly known how much had been bequeathed, the public might begin to question afresh the level of taxpayers’ support the royal family benefits from, or indeed begin asking how it was possible to accumulate such wealth in their lifetimes without seemingly having any external means to do so.” The 1911 ruling thus effectively sanctioned the siphoning off of civil list payments for private gain, giving legal cover to what had already become standard practice. Thus, by the time of Elizabeth Windsor’s sister Margaret’s death in 2002, she was believed to have amassed a fortune of £20 million. “Where did Princess Margaret get £20 million from?,” asks Norman Baker, “Even the generous largesses provided by taxpayers through the civil list cannot explain that.” Elizabeth’s mother, meanwhile, is believed to have left a fortune of £70 million, well beyond what she is believed to have inherited herself. And yet her spending far exceeded the £634,000 per year she received from the civil list, her private staff wage bill alone coming to £1.5 million per year. Comments Baker, “What is certain is that the sealing of royal wills does not allow the proper checks to be made to ensure that what properly belongs to the state has not slipped across into private property [of the Windsors].”
Popular unrest did not cease in the years after the war, and there was genuine fear of Bolshevism spreading throughout Europe following the epic events in Russia. 1919 saw a police strike in Liverpool, the growth of the militant ‘tripartite’ alliance between the dockers, railwaymen and miners’ unions, and the establishment of a workers’ Soviet in Glasgow, prompting Lloyd George to send in the tanks. The price of royal backup appreciated further. In 1921, just as the ‘Geddes Axe’ fell, decimating public services, the Prince of Wales was granted further tax concessions, enabling him to stash away £1million by the time he became King Edward VIII in 1936. In the 1930s, too, as the Great Depression took hold, King George V stopped paying tax on Duchy of Lancaster profits, with his entire tax levy dropped in 1937. Writes Baker, “Overall in the interwar period, royal taxes dropped while those for everyone else rose. This dichotomy became even more pronounced during World War Two.”
The end of the Second World War saw Soviet prestige at an all time high, a powerful workers’ movement (with military experience) across Europe, and anti-colonial insurgencies across the globe, a situation that largely pertained until well into the 1960s. In 1952, when Elizabeth Windsor took the throne, the civil list payments were extended from the monarch and her spouse to their entire extended family, today covering over 40 people. At the same time, the monarch was no longer required to pay tax on her investments. Up until George VI, monarchs had always paid such taxes, although George began the dubious practice of reclaiming it. In 2001, it was calculated that the Treasury had lost out an estimated £1 billion revenue in lost payments on the £200million stock market investment made by the Queen in 1952 alone. Also in 1952, it was agreed that the wages of workers employed on the upkeep of the palaces should be transferred from the monarch to the Ministry of Works, as well as further tax exemptions such as taxes on agricultural profits, a major windfall for the Duchies.
The era of neoliberalism, however, saw a reversal of workers’ power, and, especially after the defeat of the miners in 1985 and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, bourgeois supremacy once again seemed guaranteed. The need for a royal coup seemed far off, and the period saw a corresponding limitation of handouts to the monarchy. In 1992, following a major fire at Windsor castle, the royals were left to fork out their own cash for the repairs, and a year later, Charles and Elizabeth actually started to pay income tax, including on their investment income. The Memorandum of Understanding that initiated this spelt out that this was a purely voluntary arrangement that the could rescind whenever they chose, but nevertheless, the fact it was agreed at all suggested that the royals had become aware that their financial privileges were now at risk. In 2000, the civil list payments were frozen for a period of ten years, with some expenditure previously paid for by government departments now to come out of those payments. This amounted to a real-terms cut, the closest the list had ever come to an actual cut.
The ‘neoliberal (domestic) peace’ did not last. The buildup to the war on Iraq would ultimately lead to the biggest ever demonstrations in British history, and the biggest backbench rebellion for 150 years. Luckily for the Blair government, the colonial left leadership of the Stop the War movement prevented this anger from being channelled into effective resistance, but such resistance had been a real possibility. Had even a fraction of the crowds that amassed in 2003 stayed for ongoing protest outside parliament, or heeded the anarchists’ calls for direct action at airbases, the situation could have quickly got out of hand. Thus in 2002, the era of containment of royal finances came to an end, and the convention banning the public from viewing royal wills was secretly – and without legal precedent or justification – made into law. Also during this period, some very dubious accounting practices – such as including the wages of 28 members of Charles’ personal staff, along with the jewellery, clothes, horses and bodyguards of his mistress Camilla, as tax deductible – were discretely ‘overlooked’ by the inland revenue. The result was that, by 2012, Charles was paying less than half a million pounds tax on £18 million of Duchy profits; the 1993 Memorandum of Understanding had now been virtually revoked in all but name.
The 2007-8 financial crisis was the biggest financial crash since the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and triggered a global slump from which the world has still not recovered. The danger of mass unrest suddenly became very real. To add to the fears, the election of 2010 was indecisive, threatening political stability just as economic and social stability was already on a knife-edge. The coalition government that emerged took the opportunity to restore owning-class fortunes through a massive attack on public spending through their flagship policy of ‘austerity.’ Cuts led to riots in 2010 and in 2011 following the police execution of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, at the same time as uprisings across the Gulf threatened the ruling families placed in power by the British. The threat to bourgeois order was as high as it had been at any time since the miners’ strike. Emergency powers suddenly did not seem so unthinkable.
Thus in 2011 was royal collaboration with such a path ensured by the biggest hike in royal finances since at least 1952. The Sovereign Grant Act finally overturned the 1760 deal with George III entirely, ushering in a massive and ongoing hike in taxpayer payments to the royals. For the first time since that deal, the link between royal fortunes and the Crown Estates was reestablished, with the civil list payments no longer based on an estimate (however fraudulent) of the legitimate expenses of the royals, but instead calculated as a proportion (15%, later increased to 25%) of the income from the (former) ‘Crown Estates’ that had been in effective public ownership since 1760, a massively retrograde step at a time of deepening mass poverty. In the first year – a time of severe wage cuts for the population at large – the civil list payments rose by well over 50% from just under £8million to almost £14 million. Similar rises followed year on year, taking the payment to a staggering £82.8 million by 2019, a more than tenfold increase from the pre-austerity amount. Furthermore, it was written into the Act that these payments could never be reduced, making permanent any temporary good fortune in the value of their estates, and immunising the royals against any collapse in the value of British real estate. The forthcoming auction of windfarm sites on Crown Estate land (which covers hundreds of miles of coastline) alone is likely to produce a windfall of hundreds of millions for the royals.
Since the bourgeois monarchy was first established in 1660, then, the pattern has been clear: when the capitalist order is under threat, the stock of the royals – as the ultimate counter-revolutionary backstop and ‘legitimising’ force for the imposition of rule by decree – increases. When the order is secure, it declines. The fact that royal handouts have increased tenfold in recent years, then, should be seen as a sign not so much of a ruling class so powerful it can plunder public funds with impunity, but of one with a desperate fear of the future, and of the masses, and with a total lack of faith in its own ability to rule by consent. Either way, the case for republicanism has never been clearer.
(Prologue to Supremacy Unravelling: Crumbling Western Dominance and the Slide to Fascism)
27th May 2020
Many of the chapters in this book were originally published on RT.com, the website of the Russian state’s English-language news channel RT (formerly Russia Today). Back in 2011, when the war on Libya was raging, RT’s coverage was a breath of fresh air. The major western news channels have never been much more than state propaganda outfits during times of war, and the NATO bombardment of Libya was no exception. Even Al Jazeera, the Qatari-owned channel that made its name with its no-holds barred coverage of the 2003 attack on Iraq, had seemingly cashed in its hard-won credibility as a voice speaking truth to power to become an unashamed mouthpiece of NATO. This should, perhaps, have been no surprise, given how deeply invested Qatar was in the NATO aggression, providing the foot soldiers and much of the training for the operation to kill Gaddafi and destroy the state he had built. But RT – despite Russian support for the UN Security Council resolution that paved the way for NATO’s attack – stepped into the vacuum created by Al-Jazeera’s conversion to the war party. Their uncompromising output combined reports on the brutal reality of NATO’s actions and allies with critical, forthright anti-war analysis of a type formerly relegated to the very margins of the internet.
I had been recommended to the channel by my old friend and comrade Sukant Chandan, who had spent much of 2011 in Libya in solidarity with those resisting NATO’s criminal bombardment. My first interview with them seemed to go well, and received 39,000 views on youtube. Having until that point been the author of articles and leaflets that rarely went beyond the confines of the anti-war meetings and demos in which they were distributed, this was by far the biggest platform I had ever had. A few weeks later I was asked to appear again, and soon I was appearing every month or so. Later it was suggested to me that I pitch some articles for their website. I did, and they were accepted. I started writing regularly for them, and my broadcast appearances increased in frequency also. By 2013, my output had drawn the attention of Middle East Eye, who started to commission pieces from me as well. This writing work became regular – and relatively lucrative – enough that I was able to reduce my teaching workload, and focus one or two days per week on writing. This was, in many ways, my dream job, allowing me to dedicate serious time to researching and writing about the things I considered important, helping (as I saw it) to produce analysis that would inform and equip the anti-war movement to really understand the machinations of a crisis-ridden western capitalism. For the first time in my working life I felt like I had real freedom: my pitches were almost always accepted, and they were never edited or tinkered with in any way.
RT had always hosted some dodgy characters, however. That was no surprise; I knew it was a not a left-wing operation per se – it was funded and run by the oligarchic-capitalist Russian state, after all – but if they were prepared to give a platform to socialists, I thought, in amongst all the conservatives and nationalists, that was surely a good thing. Wasn’t it?
But over the years, I started to notice more and more coverage being given to the hardcore far right and neofascists. Representatives of France’s Front Nationale, Austria’s Freedom Party, Germany’s Pegida and AfD seemed to be getting slots almost every day, giving their ‘interpretation’ of the day’s events. Tommy Robinson even got an entire half hour slot. Sukant pointed out that, disturbingly, much of the far right seemed to be saying very similar things to us about Syria, and that if we did not make a clear distinction between our analysis and theirs, we were effectively legitimising them.
For a while I kept my head in the sand, and even justified it – ‘oh well, they have lots of different viewpoints, of course they are going to have some right-wingers as well as left-wingers – they want a diversity of opinion’ blah blah blah. And anyway, I managed to convince myself that nothing would be improved by me cutting my ties, which would merely be cutting off my nose to spite my face. My position was – I will speak on any platform that lets me state my piece uncensored. That’s it.
But the dirty role RT was playing just became too blatant to ignore. Even more insidious than the guests being invited were the increasingly frequent ‘news items’ that whipped up a barely-veiled hatred of migrants. It seemed that every half-hour news slot would contain at least one piece on a ‘migrant crimewave’, ‘migrant stabbing’, ‘migrant rape’ etc etc – always inevitably followed up with an interview by some fascist or other telling us what to think about it. On the website, too, I noticed some really toxic pieces going up, consisting of base migrant-baiting, or pushing the ‘death of Europe’ fantasies about European civilisation being swamped by alien cultures. The comments on these articles – my own included – were, it is no exagerration to say, pretty much wall-to-wall antisemitic conspiracies.
By this time, Sukant had become persona non grata with the channel for his candid denunciation of the new fascism and forthright defence of immigration on their flagship panel show Cross Talk. But still my line was – I’m not being compromised: I stand by what I publish, and as long as they are giving me a platform to say what I like and get it out there, I will take it. I’m not endorsing any of these fascists.
But what I was doing, I came to realise, was helping to bring these fascists an audience.
What I eventually had to admit was that the presence on RT of people like me and others on the left was giving the channel a credibility and reach amongst a large section of people that would not have touched an out-and-out far right platform with a bargepole. Myself and others like me were being used to pull in people from the anti-war movement and the anti-austerity movement, and draw them in to an anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, antisemitic mileau, which rendered them harmless to capital but deeply harmful to the global proletariat. And I am not talking about small numbers of people; RT was the first youtube channel to reach a billion views, and RTUK has more viewers than Al Jazeera; it is, I would argue, the most powerful ‘alternative’ news channel/ site in the world. And it is a gateway drug to fascism.
But it was only when I started really researching into some of these neofascist currents and people that I realised that this is a very carefully crafted strategy. Up until around the new millenium, most of the fascist movements in the west had always been about bashing the left, the ‘reds’ and the ‘commies’. But around the year 2000, some of them underwent a shift in strategy. Witnessing events like the ‘Battle of Seattle’ – when anarchists fought cops in an attempt to close down the World Trade Organisation – they thought, ‘here are angry kids, ready to take militant action in the streets against [what they saw as] the ‘Jewish power structure’. We shouldn’t be fighting these kids. We should be recruiting them’.
Fast forward to today, and this strategy has made serious headway. The boundaries between militant left and militant right have become more porous, to the benefit of the right, and RT has played a major part in facilitating this phenomenon. Fascists like Alexander Dugin in Russia and Steve Bannon in the US – with deep ties to the Russian and US bourgeois state leadership – are leading this new type of fascist recruitment drive which aims to unite far left and far right under the leadership of the far right. Leftwingers like George Galloway are now defending Steve Bannon and people who consider themselves leftists are reposting fascist websites and talking points without even realising it. The new fascist strategy – of reaching out to the left and slowly, subtly, bringing them round to neo-fascist positions – has been very effective. One example of how successful this strategy has been is on the issue of migration. There is a theory very popular amongst the RT crowd, that Muslim immigration is a Jewish plot to weaken Europe by diluting its cultural identity and virility, and ultimately wiping out its white population. Even prominent figures like Julian Assange have given credence to these theories, which have gone on to inspire massacres such as those in Christchurch New Zealand in March 2019.
I am not saying RT is a ‘fascist channel’ per se; it is more subtle than that. Rather, it is doing the spadework for fascism. Alain de Benoist (see the chapter in this book on politically correct fascism) came to the view back in the 1960s that, for fascism to become acceptable again, a long-term battle of ideas would need to be fought, to slowly shift the contours of debates on race, identity and ethnicity such that a reformulated fascism could be cast as a legitimate response to these debates. The mainstream has already been doing this for decades of course, but RT is taking it to the next level, through its steady drip-drip dehumanisation of migrants and refugees and the normalisation of fascist parties. It is working hard to create what Hitler called “a people ready for” fascism.
So, finally, the nature of the project I had been involved in dawned on me. I had been extending the reach of fascism, for money. I had a vested interest in not seeing what was going on.
The way I squared it with my conscience was to call them out on air. Every time I did an interview, I would criticise RT or the Russian state (or both) for their facilitation of fascism. The first time I did it, I assumed I would not get called back. But I did. It became a running joke with the guy at the studio – ‘I don’t think you’ll be seeing me again’ I would tell him, again and again. But eventually, on maybe the 6th or 7th time, my final interview did come. I think the interviewer was a bit of a novice; she didn’t cut me off like the others had as soon as I started going ‘off piste,’ so I just carried on, calling out Russia for selling out Iran, collaborating with Trump, facilitating fascism in a totally self-defeating manner, and on and on. I haven’t heard from them since, nor have I pitched to them.
Unfortunately, others have not taken the same view. Leftwingers still contribute regularly, and RT have now added big names like John Pilger, George Galloway and Slavoj Zizek to their writers’ roster. A brief glance at the site shows their work nestling in amongst a piece painting Nigel Farage as a courageous truthteller unfairly victimised by the powers-that-be, a flattering interview with Hungary’s far right foreign minister, and an article bemoaning “record numbers of non-EU migrants” arriving in the UK. The normalisation of anti-migrant fascism continues – and sections of the left continue to facilitate it.
Originally published in Counterpunch magazine, May 2020
Amongst all its glistening commodities, one product has defined capitalism above all else: human waste. Superfluous people, not necessary for production, not able to participate in the market, and an ever-present threat to the stability of the system, are – and have always been – the main output of the bourgeois epoch; managing, containing, expelling and eliminating this waste has always been its prime, if hidden, concern. In the nineteenth century, surplus Europeans were exiled, in their millions, to the colonies – to Australia, Canada, the US, Algeria etc – to continue the process of exterminating surplus non-Europeans. In the twentieth century, two world wars functioned not only to destroy surplus capital, but surplus humanity too, in unprecedented numbers.
But today, for the first time in history, it is a majority of humanity who face redundancy. In 2004, Zygmunt Bauman published Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts. In this short book, he argues that “the production of ‘human waste’, or more correctly wasted humans… is an inevitable outcome of modernisation, an inseparable accompaniment of modernity.” Indeed, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he wrote, “the disposal of human waste produced in the ‘modernised’ and still ‘modernising’ parts of the globe was the deepest meaning of colonisation and imperialist conquests,” as these conquests produced outlets for the export of surplus human beings. As Europe ‘modernised’ itself, throwing people off the land and replacing them with, first, sheep, and then threshing machines, these ‘surplus’ humans were shipped off to the colonies. Thus did the modern European states “seek, and find, global solutions to locally produced ‘overpopulation’ problems.” But this situation, he noted, could only last “as long as modernity (that is, a perpetual, compulsive, obsessive and addictive modernisation) remained a privilege. Once modernity turned, as it was intended and bound to, into the universal condition of humankind, the effects of its planetary domination have come home to roost. As the triumphant progress of modernisation has reached the furthest lands of the planet and practically the totality of human production and consumption has become money and market mediated, and the processes of the commodification, commercialisation and monetarisation of human livelihoods have penetrated every nook and cranny of the globe, global solutions to locally produced problems, or global outlets for local excesses, are no longer available…the volume of human waste [is] outgrowing the extant managerial capacity.” As a result, the world now faces “an acute crisis of the human waste disposal industry”. This issue – what to do with those growing number of souls superfluous to the requirements of modern capitalist production – is “simultaneously a most harrowing problem and a most closely guarded secretof our times.”
The year before Bauman’s book was published, in 2003, the UN published a report entitled “The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements.” This paper noted that almost a billion people – one third of all city dwellers globally – now lived in slums, with this number projected to double by 2020. The causes were straightforward: “The collapse of formal urban employment in the developing world and the rise of the informal sector is seen as a direct function of liberalization. . . . Urban poverty has been increasing in most countries subject to structural adjustment programs,” imposed on the global South throughout the 1980s and 90s by Western-controlled financial institutions. Fragile national economies were forced to open up to heavily-subsidised, high-tech imports against which they had no chance of competing, with entire industries and farming communities devastated as a result. Life in the slums produced by these policies consisted of “the most intolerable of urban housing conditions” whose residents “suffer inordinately from water-borne diseases such as typhoid and cholera, as well as more opportunistic ones that accompany HIV/AIDS.” By the year 2030, the report’s authors predicted, the world’s city dwelling population will consist of three sections, summarised by Mike Davis as follows: “1: .1 billion urbanites—owners, managers, technicians, and skilled information-sector workers—will provide the principal demand for branded international production.2: . 1.5 to 2 billion workers—ranging from Mexican American nurses’ aides in Los Angeles to Chinese teenagers in Guangdong sweatshops—will provide the metropolitan labor-power for the global economy.3: 2 to 3 billion informal workers—at least 2 billion of whom live in classic slums or peripheral shantytowns—will exist outside the formal relations of production, in Dickensian conditions or worse, ravaged by emergent diseases and subject to a menu of megadisasters following in the wake of global warming and the exhaustion of urban water supplies.”In other words – consumers; producers; and those superfluous to the reproduction of capital; the latter by far the biggest group. Of them, Davis wrote that “this outcast proletariat… is the fastest-growing and most novel social class on the planet. By and large, the urban informal working class is not a labor reserve army in the nineteenth-century sense: a backlog of strikebreakers during booms; to be expelled during busts; then reabsorbed again in the next expansion. On the contrary, this is a mass of humanity structurally and biologically redundant to global accumulation and the corporate matrix.” Superfluous to the needs of capitalism, and with “little vested interest in the reproduction of private property,” this class does nevertheless possess “yet unmeasured powers of subverting urban order… the contemporary megaslum poses unique problems of imperial order and social control that conventional geopolitics has barely begun to register.” Fast forward sixteen years to today and it has certainly registered. Frase warns us that “A world where the ruling class no longer depends on the exploitation of working class labor is a world where the poor are merely a danger and an inconvenience. Policing and repressing them ultimately seem more trouble than can be justified. This is where the thrust toward “the extermination of multitudes” originates. Its ultimate endpoint is literally the extermination of the poor, so that the rabble can finally be brushed aside once and for all, leaving the rich to live in peace and quiet in their Elysium.” In the “dystopic robo-feudalism” that is our near future, Ian Shaw writes, “a policy of ‘neo-exterminism’ might be enacted.” *** On December 31st 2019, China alerted the World Health Organisation to the existence of several cases of an unusual pneumonia in the town of Wuhan. Eleven days later, Chinese scientists published the genetic sequence of the virus causing it, identifying it as a new strain of coronavirus. That it was deadly was confirmed by Wuhan’s first death from the virus, reported the same day. On 24th January, a study published in the UK’s leading medical journal, the Lancet showed that a third of China’s Covid-19 patients required admission to intensive care, with 29% worsening to the point where they needed ventilation. The authors made clear the lethal potential of the virus, making comparisons to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic which killed up to 50 million people, and recommended measures be taken to suppress the virus.
Understanding the seriousness of the coming pandemic, the British government convened its first COBRA emergency planning meeting on the outbreak. But underscoring their determination not to fight it, the prime minister refused to attend, as he would fail to attend the next four COBRA meetings that followed; as one senior government advisor told the Sunday Times, “There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there.” A week later, on January 31st, the Lancet published another study on the new virus, concluding that “On the present trajectory, 2019-nCoV could be about to become a global epidemic…for health protection within China and internationally…preparedness plans should be readied for deployment at short notice, including securing supply chains of pharmaceuticals, personal protective equipment, hospital supplies, and the necessary human resources to deal with the consequences of a global outbreak of this magnitude.” The same day, the Covid-19 outbreak was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation. Since long before humanity even knew about viruses, the time-honoured method of dealing with them has been to identify those with symptoms, isolate them, and follow up everyone they have been in contact with, today known as “test, track and trace”. These were the measures public health experts had been advocating since the new coronavirus was first identified, and have been used by all countries (such as South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam) that have managed to keep a lid on the spread of the virus and death rates low. As Mike Buckley has pointed out, “WHO advice is abundantly clear, based on existing guidelines and the experience of countries which have successfully contained and turned back COVID-19 and previous pandemics. The essential elements for success are mass testing, the isolation of the sick and those carrying the virus, contacting and testing people who may have been exposed to it, and social isolation to prevent its spreading by people yet to show symptoms. This is not theory, it is fact.” Yet, in the UK, noted the Lancet in a scathing editorial in March, “they didn’t isolate and quarantine. They didn’t contact trace. These basic principles of public health and infectious disease control were ignored, for reasons that remain opaque… February should have been used to expand coronavirus testing capacity, ensure the distribution of WHO-approved PPE, and establish training programmes and guidelines to protect NHS staff. They didn’t take any of those actions.” Indeed, when the government’s SAGE committee – an ad-hoc subgroup of COBRA tasked with providing scientific advice during an emergency – first commissioned a study on the impact of possible Covid-19 interventions in January, it specifically requested that test, track and trace was not included in the modelling. It was later claimed that this decision was taken because “not enough tests were available”. Yet they had eight weeks to prepare; Vietnam had been able to produce its entire supply of Covid tests domestically in far less time. As Anthony Costello noted in the Guardian, “The UK had been among the first countries to develop a Covid-19 test in mid-January, approved by the WHO, and has an exceptional national research infrastructure,” including a sophisticated pharmaceutical industry, and 130 NHS labs which were never utilised. The idea that it was beyond Britain’s physical capacity to produce the tests it required is utter nonsense; what was lacking was the political will.
Clearly, a decision had been taken very early on that the only tried-and-tested measures of disease control were not to be implemented in the UK. Instead, the UK government seemed determined to follow a policy of what could only be termed ‘let it rip’. As the government’s chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance explained, the aim was “to reduce the peak [of infection], not suppress it completely”. Graham Medley, the government’s chief modeller, elaborated: “We’re going to have to generate what we call herd immunity … and the only way of developing that in the absence of a vaccine, is for the majority of people to get infected”. Robert Peston summarised it as follows: “The strategy of the British government in minimising the impact of Covid-19 is to allow the virus to pass through the entire population so that we acquire herd immunity”. This strategy went into overdrive on March 12th, when the limited testing that had been occurring was stopped, and the advice to travellers coming into Britain from hotspots such as Wuhan and Northern Italy to self-isolate for fourteen days was withdrawn. At this point, noted the Financial Times, “there were fewer than 1,500 confirmed cases in the UK, while in contrast infection rates were soaring in Italy and Spain.” The result, said the government’s Chief Scientific advisor Patrick Vallance, was that a wave of infections were “seeded right across the country.”
Advocates of the so-called ‘herd immunity’ (aka Let It Rip) strategy proposed that the most vulnerable should be shielded whilst the virus was allowed to flow through the population. Yet in practice, far from being shielded, those most susceptible to the disease appear to have been deliberately targeted. The particular vulnerability of the elderly to Covid-19 had been understood since the study of its first victims was published on January 23rd. Yet the government ordered that elderly patients be removed from hospitals, where they may well have contracted the virus, and sent back to their care homes, where they would inevitably spread it. As one NHS cardiologist told the Telegraph newspaper, “Our policy was to let the virus rip and then ‘cocoon the elderly’. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry when you contrast that with what we actually did. We discharged known, suspected, and unknown cases into care homes which were unprepared, with no formal warning that the patients were infected, no testing available, and no PPE to prevent transmission. We actively seeded this into the very population that was most vulnerable.” When discussing the policy of wilfully spreading the virus, Boris Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings was reported to have said that “if a few pensioners die, so be it.” The cardiologist continued, “We let these people die without palliation. The official policy was not to visit care homes – and they didn’t (and still don’t). So, after infecting them with a disease that causes an unpleasant ending, we denied our elders access to a doctor – denied GP visits – and denied admission to hospital. Simple things like fluids, withheld. Effective palliation like syringe drivers, withheld.” By the start of May, 12,500 care home residents were recorded to have died from Covid-19. Meanwhile, no effort was made to increase the population’s ability to survive the disease by boosting their immune systems. In the 1940s and 50s, cod liver oil was provided free to children, pregnant mums and nurses due to its immunity-enhancing properties; yet in 2020, government ministers made no effort even to promote immune-boosting vitamins or foods, let alone provide them. On the contrary, the government’s lockdown guidelines actively prevented people receiving their daily dose of vitamin D by barring those without gardens from the sun, despite growing evidence of the vitamin’s importance in fighting the disease.
That people would die, in their tens of thousands, from the government’s policy of ‘wilful neglect’ was painfully obvious, and indeed, was admitted at the time. As countries across Europe were announcing bans on mass gatherings and school closures, Johnson resisted such measures, and instead told the nation to brace themselves for mass death. On March 12th, the day the government formally announced its intention to roll the virus out across the population, Boris Johnson told a press conference that “It is going to spread further and I must level with you, I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” This was at a time when Vietnam – which shares a border with China – had suffered zero Covid deaths, due to their timely implementation of WHO advice. At the time of writing (17th May) they have still not suffered a single fatality. Yet, far from being a cause for concern, the coming cull was positively welcomed in some quarters. Toby Young, old friend and fellow Etonian of Boris Johnson, and an advocate of what he calls ‘progressive eugenics’, said in his column on 31st March that “prolong[ing] the lives of a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people is an irresponsible use of taxpayers’ money.” Earlier that month, financial writer Jeremy Warner in the Telegraph had written that “from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long-term by disproportionately culling elderly dependants.” BBC radio broadcast ‘moral philosophy’ programmes debating which patients were more deserving of access to ventilators, the young or the old; the fit and healthy or those with obesity or diabetes. The idea that the sick and elderly should be denied medical care was being pushed further than ever before.
As the ‘herd immunity’ strategy was greeted with universal horror by public health experts, the government performed an apparent (but only apparent) volte face and pretended it had never existed. Eventually, with infections doubling every three days, and a steadily mounting death toll, calls for action became irresistible. Yet the nationwide ‘lockdown’ imposed on March 24th – with all but ‘essential’ businesses ordered closed and the rights to assembly and association suspended – has been widely misinterpreted. Far from being a belated recognition and reversal of the reckless negligence that had characterised their initial response, it served as a cover for continuing that response but in a way that preserved the integrity of British state institutions such as the NHS. Once the virus had spun out of control, a lockdown could have served the useful purpose of buying time to establish the basic disease control procedures that should have been implemented from the outset – mass testing, contact tracing and quarantining. But, even during lockdown, the government’s stubborn refusal to take these measures continued. Travellers remained free to enter the country from known hotspots, without testing or quarantining, and no test-and-trace system was put in place. Whilst a symbolic target of 100,000 tests per day by the end of April was announced to placate the media, testing remained at a far lower level until right up to the 31 April, when the target was magically reached by testing tens of thousands of people twice on the same day, a horrific waste of resources when care homes were crying out to be allowed access to testing. The following day, the numbers slumped back down again. Meanwhile the British company delivering test kits for use in Germany told the Telegraph, on April 16th, that it was ready to provide one million tests per week to the British government, but their calls had been unanswered. Those tests that were carried out were not done as part of an integrated programme of virus suppression; they were simply a standalone distraction for the media. To the extent they had any purpose beyond pure symbolism, it was to maximise staff turnout at hospitals (by preventing suspected cases from needing to self isolate) and nothing more. Care homes, who needed these tests the most, remained barred from them right up until the end of April. No system of contact tracing was established. And test results – carried out not by the 130 world-class NHS labs ideal for the purpose, but by the accountancy firm Deloittes – were not shared with local Directors of Public Health or GPs; the entire infrastructure of public health was still being barred from the information which would have enabled them to identify and tackle local outbreaks. A successful contact tracing apparatus could have been set up in three days using the existing infrastructure based around Environmental Health Officers alongside retraining those furloughed in other lines of work, explained public health expert Allyson Pollock, if the political will was there. But it wasn’t. The government only started advertising for contact tracers – via outsourcing giant Serco, to whom it awarded the contract – on May 10th, six weeks into the lockdown. Even now, it remains far from clear whether this is part of a genuine attempt to keep track of the virus or simply an excuse to award a lucrative monopoly to a major government-backed private company in order to help build up its global brand; once again, the existing public health infrastructure necessary for a holistic, integrated response has been cut out of the process.
Meanwhile the government hammered out a message of “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”. Yet this was more than simply a benign injunction to ensure people avoided picking up or transmitting the disease; it also carried the more subtle message that you should not bother the NHS at this crucial time. People were being made to feel guilty for seeking treatment, especially if they were old. How dare they distract the NHS from its essential Covid work? Old people were told they would almost certainly not get emergency treatment and were pressured to sign ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ orders en masse, whilst the NHS was effectively shut down for all but Covid patients (and, in the case of elderly care home residents, even them). Hospitals were cleared, ‘elective operations’ cancelled and treatments stopped. The emptying of sick elderly patients led to an increase in care home deaths from an April average of 8000 to a staggering 26,000, only 8000 of which were attributed to Covid; the rest very likely a result of the abrupt termination of their treatment. Oncologist Dr Karel Sikora noted that cancer diagnoses were around 5000 in April, down from what would normally be around 30,000. All these missed diagnoses, along with the cancelled treatment for known cases, could, he estimates, lead to an additional 60,000 cancer deaths this year. Thus, both the ‘let it rip’ strategy and the measures supposedly taken in response to it, such as the clearing out of hospitals, have had unnecessary mass death as their result rather, it seems, than their target. That same day the government finally started recruiting contact tracers – four months and 30,000 deaths after it had been recommended by the Lancet – Boris Johnson ordered low-paid manual workers back to work, to be followed by the reopening of primary schools three weeks later. This was in breach of WHO advice, and public health experts were united in their view that this easing of the lockdown without having put in place any system to trace and isolate the virus in was reckless and threatened a second wave of infection and death. As Oxford University professor of epidemiology David Hunter wrote in the Guardian, “the countries that have succeeded in taming their coronavirus epidemics – such as South Korea, Taiwan, China, Australia and New Zealand – … all have in common “test, trace, isolate” as the centrepiece of their strategy.” In Johnson’s speech, however, “what we did not get was any list of the actions in place to pursue and contain the virus….If we take the prime minister’s advice and return to work in large numbers now – and without the ability to test, trace and isolate – then virus spread will increase.” Yet this seems to be precisely the point; as Hunter notes, “emerging antibody data from hard-hit cities such as New York show that, with less than a quarter of the population affected, it would take at least another wave of devastation to get close to the herd immunity threshold.” Far from using the lockdown to buy time to establish disease-control structures, the government appears to be using it as a ‘tap’, not to reduce infections, but to ensure their flow across the population in a timely manner. It is a tap they are now slowly turning back on, and will have predictable, and fatal, results.
Covid’s results in the Southern hemisphere, however, are likely to be catastrophic. Here, noted World Food Programme’s chief economist Arif Husain recently, “is where the winter is coming, where the flu season is coming. I’m really, really concerned about Southern Africa. Why? Because there’s extreme poverty, extreme malnourishment, to begin with, and poor, poor, poor health infrastructure. There’s already a history of H.I.V., aids, and TB, and they’ve gone through multiple climate disasters. Now you get covid-19 on top of that —what do you think is going to happen?” The WFP’s executive director David Beasley, in a disturbing address to the UN Security Council in April, noted that the Covid crisis had already sparked “the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two”.
Yet Covid itself is only half the story; the lockdown imposed by Western societies is also ravaging the global South. Siegfried Kracauer has written that “the measures provoked by existential fear are themselves a threat to existence,” and this is certainly true of the ‘lockdown’ prompted by the fear of the government’s refusal to tackle Covid. Remittances, which last year overtook foreign investment as the largest source of capital inflows to low and middle income countries, are expected to drop by $100billion this year, as migrant workers find themselves unable to earn money to send home, money on which millions of families depend to meet their nutritional needs. And the wiping out of demand consequent to the lockdowns is likely to prove equally devastating. As Beasley noted, there is “a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of Covid-19 than from the virus itself,” warning that famines could break out in 55 countries in the worst case scenario, with 300,000 starving to death every day and 260 million ultimately at risk of starvation. “If we don’t prepare and act now,” he concluded, “we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.” “In all,” the Guardian concluded, “shortages are likely to affect a fifth of the world’s population,” some 1.6 billion people.
And yet there is no shortage. “The world is not running out of food,” one humanitarian worker told the Telegraph. “Global food prices have been coming down for several years and we’ve had good harvests over the last few years. The main problem is access.” This is capitalism being pushed to its depraved logical conclusions. People will be wiped out by a lack of food not because there is a lack of food, but simply because their labour is not needed to meet the demands of wealthy countries.
We are living through the early stages of a massive extermination event. To deliberately and wilfully allow a deadly virus to rip through the population, fully aware of the consequences for the elderly and vulnerable is beyond negligent; it is the rebirth of colonial eugenics in the heartlands of empire, unprecedented since the foundation of the welfare state. As Bauman noted, with the universalisation of modernity, and the consequent drying up of ‘non-modern’ areas for the export of surplus population, “societies increasingly turn the sharp edge of exclusionary practices against themselves”. The demonisation of the elderly and sick, the ideological war against their right to life, tentatively floated with Cameron’s proposition that obese people should be denied access to the NHS, appears now to have passed a major milestone. Our reactions are being tested; Covid is being utilised as a canary in the mine for our willingness to be abandoned by any pretence of state protection in the face of the coming economic chaos and climate misery. The 1% and their state planners must be very pleased with the results. Meanwhile, famines “of biblical proportions” threaten the global South, provoked by the gratuitous – because, had public health advice been followed, unnecessary – lockdowns which have strangled global supply chains. Saskia Sassen, in her 2014 book “Expulsions: brutality and complexity in the global economy”, notes that “the move from Keynesianism to the global era of privatisations, deregulation, and open borders for some, entailed a switch from dynamics that brought people in [to global capitalism] to dynamics that push people out”. We appear now to have reached such an extremity of that process, however, that there is a new switch under way – from the containment of those pushed out, to their outright elimination. Already the humanitarian agencies, tasked with keeping a lid on surplus humanity, are warning that their calls for an emergency $4.7 billion to feed those “pushed out” by the Covid response are nowhere near being met. With nativists like Trump in charge of the richest economies already terminating contributions to the World Health Organisation, what are the chances of a newfound love for the World Food Programme emerging anytime soon?
Order, Bauman reminds us, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the condition in which everything is in its proper place and performs its proper function.“ Yet in the capitalist order of the near future, there is no proper place or proper function for the majority of humanity, neither as producers nor as consumers. Asked how he obtained the beautiful harmony of his sculptures, Michaelangelo reputedly answered: ‘Simple. You just take a slab of marble and cut out all the superfluous bits’. Comments Bauman, “In the heyday of the Renaissance, Michaelangelo proclaimed the precept that was to guide modern creation… through cutting out and throwing away the superfluous, the needless and the useless, the beautiful, the harmonious, the pleasing and the gratifying was to be divined.” Today, the ‘harmony’ of the capitalist order can be preserved only by a massive intensification of this “cutting out and throwing away” of the superfluous who, quite apart from being a threat to stability, are an abhorrent reminder of the defects of the system. “As modern times went by,” says Bauman, “an ever larger part of the designing zeal and design-drawing efforts was prompted by the urge to detoxicate, neutralise or remove from sight the ‘collateral damage’ done by past designing.”
And yet, we must always remember, none of this is inevitable. The technical capability to provide the housing and nutritional needs of everyone on the planet has never been greater. Charity has never been more than a sticking plaster, nor intended to be more; what is needed is the realisation of article 25 of the universal declaration of human rights – the right to subsistence. All are capable of making a dignified contribution to the global provision of subsistence, regardless of their economic circumstances, and none should be denied food or shelter simply because their labour is superfluous to the requirements of capital accumulation. A new global movement with this principle at its heart is needed – and needed urgently.
Corbyn’s election as leader of British Labour party in 2015 was seen by much of the British left as their best chance to reverse the neoliberal imperialist trajectory of the British state for at least a generation. With a solid track record of opposition to war, nuclear weapons and privatisation, he was able to capture the imagination of a disenfranchised youth sick of corporate-sponsored politicians, quickly turning the Labour party into the biggest mass membership party in Europe, with over half a million members. Two years later, defying all predictions, Corbyn’s Labour managed to overturn the ruling Conservatives’ parliamentary majority in a snap election which was supposed to deliver them a landslide. The prospect of a Corbyn government, with a genuine commitment to reversing the inequality and militarism that had become the hallmark of the western world, seemed to be a real prospect – perhaps even an inevitability.
Yet the general election of 2019 saw the entire project come crashing down in flames. Boris Johnson’s revitalised Tory party, united around a Brexit deal which had escaped his predecessor, stormed back to power with the party’s biggest majority since 1983, stripping Labour of dozens of working class constituencies it had held for generations. Corbyn was replaced by Sir Kier Starmer QC, heralding a purge of Corbynites from the frontbenches. Within a few months, Corbyn himself had been expelled from the parliamentary party.
Explanations for the 2019 result came thick and fast, and their apparent variety obscured the basic argument which tended to run throughout all of them: “Corbyn lost because he didn’t do what I said”. For the party’s right wing, he lost because he was too left; for the left, he lost because he had not moved decisively against the right. For Brexiteers, he lost because of his support for a second Brexit referendum; for Remainers, because this support came too late. For many Corbynites, the result was simply down to contingent tactical mistakes and the hostility of the media; and for Tories, of course, it simply demonstrated, once again, the British people’s instinctive, and correct, abhorrence for socialism.
For socialists, the temptation is to forget the whole sorry saga and ‘move on’. But a serious postmortem is essential if we are to have any hope of learning from the mistakes (as well as the successes) of the movement.
At the outset of this process, it is essential to recognise some basic political realities.
Firstly, the UK is an imperial entity. The relinquishing of formal political rule over most of its colonies between the 1940s and 1970s (with the crucial exception of a string of strategically-positioned island territories such as Diego Garcia, the Caymans, the Falklands, the Virgin islands and around a dozen others) has not changed this simple reality. The basic contours of the world economy created by colonialism – a system of wealth transference from Asia, Africa and Latin America to North America and Western Europe – remain intact, and have indeed been strengthened and perfected in the era of neo-colonialism, to the extent that net resource transfers from the global South to the North today amount to roughly $3trillion per year – triple the value of goods and services flowing the other way, and twenty-four times the total value of North-South foreign aid. Much of this uncompensated wealth transfer is via ‘capital flight’, often illicit, and mostly facilitated through the network of tax havens located in Britain’s remaining island colonies.
Secondly, and contrary to the claims of the colonial left, this wealth does not only benefit a tiny minority. From the 1840s onwards, writes historian Eric Hobsbawm, a ‘labour aristocracy’ began to emerge in Britain – a privileged section of the working class paid above the value of their labour power out of the profits generated by empire. Since 1945, this labour aristocracy, argues Zak Cope, has come to encompass the entire citizenry of countries such as Britain. The domestic accomplishments of Clement Attlee’s Labour government – the NHS, social housing, the welfare state – were largely paid for by the intensified exploitation of the colonies, and colonialism has underwritten social democracy ever since. Even in the era of neoliberalism, which has seen welfare states decimated, the British population (at least up until the 2008 crash) has seen the value of its real wages increase, as intensified exploitation of the global proletariat has led to cheapening consumer goods.
Thirdly, Britain has consistently used its military might to protect and defend this colonial wealth transfer whenever it has been under threat. From the opium wars of the mid-nineteenth century, to the destruction of Libya in 2011, any and every country which has refused to collaborate with the precepts of the colonial global economy has met the wrath of the UK military, either overtly or covertly (with the exception of some Latin American countries, the war against whom has been largely been subcontracted to the US). It is largely for this reason that Britain has invaded no less than 90% of the current member states of the UN at some point.
Social democracy in Britain has always reflected this colonial reality; it has always been a fight over the spoils of colonialism, rather than a challenge to it. The need to uphold and defend the colonial wealth transfer at the heart of world capitalism has always been the singular point of agreement between governments of left and right in the UK. It was, after all, the Attlee government that initiated both Britain’s nuclear weapons programme and NATO, as well as sending troops to Greece, Malaya and Korea to drown their revolutions in blood and restore the rule of more pliant local aristocrats; and it was Tony Blair’s New Labour who spearheaded illegal Anglo-American aggression against Serbia and Iraq as well as sending troops to Sierra Leone and invading Afghanistan, for the fourth time in Britain’s modern history. All of these interventions, from Attlee to Blair, can best be understood as wars to contain threats to colonial ‘global capitalism’ in general (as Christopher Dolan has comprehensively shown in the case of Iraq) and British corporate interests in particular (as documented by Mark Curtis). Social democracy in Britain has, in reality, always been social imperialism – the provision of social gains for the British on the backs of millions of superexpoited workers in the global South, backed up by military force where necessary – and the Labour party has, for over one hundred years, been at its vanguard.
This is the historical movement which, in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn suddenly found himself heading. At first, he seemed to be offering something very different. A tireless supporter of indigenous struggles against settler colonial dispossession and discrimination the world over, from Ireland to Palestine, Chagos to South Africa, he had also, for his entire political career, been a CND activist and advocate of unilateral nuclear disarmament. His consistent opposition to war – not only the Iraq war, which 139 Labour MPs had voted against, in the biggest backbench rebellion for 150 years, but even the war on Libya, opposed by only 13 MPs out of 650 – had not only made him a pariah in the Blair years, but set him apart from the entire trajectory of Labour party history. It was this, as much as his opposition to neoliberal austerity and privatisation, that made him such a breath of fresh air to millions disgusted by the ongoing brutality of British policy. And it was precisely this that made him so completely unacceptable to the British ruling class, including the Labour party elite.
It soon became clear, however, that Corbyn was, however grudgingly, coming round to the social imperialist bargain. Perceiving his anti-militarism as an achilles’ heel in a nation with a deep-rooted colonial mentality, the Conservatives tabled parliamentary votes on the bombing of Syria and the renewal of Trident immediately after his election; the aim was to force his hand and, they hoped, damage his standing with the electorate in the process. Would he stay true to his lifelong principles and whip his party into opposing the measures, setting the stage for his portrayal as a limp-wristed, unpatriotic, coward? Or would he support them, pigeonholing himself instead as a feeble-minded, opportunistic, turncoat?
In the end, he attempted to have his cake and eat it – by offering Labour MPs a free vote on both issues, he allowed the Blairite majority to continue to direct the party’s foreign policy, whilst maintaining his anti-war credentials – and salving his own conscience – by making a symbolic one-man protest against it, just as he always had done as a backbencher. This was the Stop The War Coalition’s ‘Not In My Name’ policy all over again, the point being to demonstrate your personal unease with the nation’s warmongering, rather than actively trying to prevent it – not so much ‘Any Means Necessary’ as ‘Nowt to Do With Me, Mate’. When a vote on bombing Syria had come before parliament two years earlier, Corbyn’s predecessor Ed Miliband had whipped Labour MPs to vote against it, resulting in the motion being defeated and military action being called off. Yet the chair of the Stop the War Coalition could not bring himself to do the same, and so, on his watch, the motion was passed. The Typhoons began flying out the next day.
The basic contours of the de facto agreement with his, unremittingly hostile, parliamentary colleagues were now becoming clear: they would be allowed to continue to control Labour’s foreign policy, so long as they joined forces with Corbyn when it came to opposing austerity; an uneasy compromise which would, in other words, combine domestic radicalism with a militaristic foreign policy – the very definition of social imperialism. It wasn’t necessarily intended to be a permanent platform, but the precedent had been set. The next major showdown was Yemen.
Saudi Arabia had begun bombing Yemen in March 2015 in an unsuccessful attempt to restore their hated stooge President Hadi to power following his ouster in a popular rebellion that had quickly gained control of 80% of the country. The official UK position, in the words of foreign secretary Philip Hammond was to “support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat,” support that quickly came to involve training, targeting, diplomatic support and the pouring of billions of pounds worth of weapons into the conflict. By the autumn of the following year, an estimated 10,000 people had been killed in the war. On 26th October 2016, Corbyn and his shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry put forward a motion in the House of Commons calling on the British government to end its support for the Saudi war until an independent investigation into civilian casualties had been conducted.
Yemen perhaps seemed, to Corbyn, more cut and dried. Nuclear weapons, after all, have always been portrayed as a peaceful deterrent rather than a battleground weapon; whilst the bombing of Syria was ostensibly about halting the rise of ISIS, an avowedly genocidal death cult. Making the case against either was always going to be an uphill struggle. But in Yemen, children were being starved to death at the rate of one every ten minutes as part of a war against an entire population, a war which was being conducted in the name of restoring a President too unpopular to set foot in his own country, who had never won a competitive election, and whose supposed mandate, such as it was, had expired years ago. A report the previous month had shown that a third of airstrikes were against civilian targets, and 140 people had been killed in one single attack during the deliberate targeting of a funeral just a fortnight earlier. And all this was being carried out by a monarchical dictatorship who had spent $87 billion on promoting the viciously sectarian ideology behind Al Qaeda and ISIS. Opposing British support for this war – without which, it could not take place – was surely an argument Corbyn could win?
Apparently not. Whether because they were genuinely committed to genocide taking place, or simply willing to exploit it as a means of humiliating Corbyn, around 100 Labour MPs refused to support the motion, even after Thornberry had suggested, under pressure from trade unions representing workers in the weapons industry, that it did not require the suspension of arms exports to the Saudis. It would be the biggest backbench rebellion against their leader during his entire five years in office. To support a genocide. That’s the reality of the British Labour party.
Even Corbyn’s well-wishers told him he needed to ‘shut up’ about foreign policy. Corbyn’s opposition to austerity, plans to crack down on tax avoidance, and raising taxes on the rich, wrote Michael Chessum in the New Statesman, were very popular. But criticising foreign policy could blow it all. The media understood this, he argued, focussing “all of their attacks on [Corbyn’s] links to Irish republicanism, controversies around the national anthem, rumours that Corbyn wants to “abolish the army”.
Paul Mason, meanwhile, one of the most high-profile Corbyn supporters, wrote that “Labour’s number one objective has to be to form a government radical in social and economic policy. For that, I think it should be prepared – as I saw [Greek prime minister] Alexis Tsipras do in January 2015 – to put radicalism in foreign policy on the back burner”- that is, to continue with the imperialist status quo, a much more terrifying proposition when it comes to the UK, with its track record of ongoing colonial extortion and butchery, than Greece, which has not been an imperial power for over 2000 years. By 2019, he had gone further, arguing that Labour “needs to sideline all voices who believe having a strong national security policy is somehow ‘imperialist’. It needs to forget scrapping Trident.” In Mason’s case, this was not solely pragmatic; he was a true believer in the NATO-imposed colonial world order, bemoaning the West’s (supposed) declining military influence and openly arguing that Labour should aim to procure the West an even greater cut of global wealth at the expense of the global South, advocating a “strategy designed to allow the populations of the developed world to capture more of the growth projected over the next 5-15 years, if necessary at the cost of China, India and Brazil … It is a programme to deliver growth and prosperity in Wigan, Newport and Kirkcaldy – if necessary at the price of not delivering them to Shenzhen, Bombay and Dubai,” and to do this “by reversing the 30-year policy of enriching the bottom 60%” of the world’s population. That there has been never such a policy is apparently by the by when it comes to such appeals to western ‘victimhood’.
As well as being denied access to global wealth at home, foreigners should obviously, Mason argued, be prevented from seeking it within Britain’s borders. Rather than seeking to extend freedom of movement to those beyond Europe’s borders as a basic right of the international working class, Mason sought to abolish it altogether, arguing after the Brexit vote in June 2016 that “the Labour front bench must commit to staying inside the single market, while seeking a deal on free movement that gives Britain time and space to restructure its labour market.” This formula – of maintaining the capitalist free market but ending freedom of movement for European workers – was exactly the same as that sought by the Tory Brexiteers, and had long been ruled out by the EU itself. He went on to bemoan the fact that John McDonnell’s ‘red lines’ on Brexit had not included the demand to end free movement. For Labour’s Brexit plans to “embody the spirit of the referendum,” he argued, the party needed to push for a “significant… retreat from freedom of movement. That means – and my colleagues on the left indeed to accept this – that the British people, in effect, will have changed Labour’s position on immigration from below, by plebiscite.” Only an anti-immigration policy, he argued, would avoid electoral disaster.
One time pro-Corbyn economist and leading tax reform campaigner Richard Murphy agreed. His post-Brexit broadside against the leadership suggested that migrants should only be allowed into the hallowed heartland of whiteness if their home country had taken on the entirety of the expense of training them for the purpose: “Learning English, offering a skill and being willing to work where work is needed can be and should be the conditions of seeking to live in this country. Migration would be a contract, not a right,” he insisted, adding that “Norway has done this; so should we.” This was the logic of apartheid influx control – “ministering to the needs of the white man” – writ global. Like Mason’s position, this was and is no different from the policy of the Tory right.
Mason and Murphy’s blows clearly landed. When the Immigration Bill – which cranked up the ‘hostile environment’ for irregular migrants by effectively turning landlords, banks and universities into extensions of border patrol – had passed through parliament the month before the Brexit referendum, Corbyn had led the parliamentary opposition, with 245 MPs ultimately voting against it. Whilst not enough to prevent the bill becoming law, this was still major progress compared to the 6 Labour MPs (including Corbyn himself) who had voted against its 2014 predecessor which had formally ushered in the ‘hostile environment’. Yet this principled position would not last. Whilst Mason was correct that MacDonnell’s initial red lines, formulated in the days after the referendum, had not included immigration controls, a week later, on 1st July 2016, MacDonnell clarified his position: “Let’s be absolutely clear on the immigration issue. When Britain leaves the European Union, free movement of labour and people will then come to an end.” In March 2017, Corbyn’s shadow Brexit secretary Kier Starmer formalised this as an official condition that would have to be met for Labour to support any Brexit deal in parliament (‘Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?”). Later that year, Corbyn himself appeared to have been won over to the benefits of blaming migrants for wage cuts and working conditions, arguing on the Andrew Marr show against the “wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions in the construction industry”. Commented Zak Cope: “By feeding the grossly one-sided view that globalisation has been disastrous for British workers, by blaming high immigration levels for stagnant wages, and by studiously ignoring Britain’s role as a parasitic drain on the countries of the Third World, Corbyn’s social democratic nationalism has inadvertently (?) legitimised and promoted a self-pitying, white nationalism that has seen a rise in racist hate crime in the UK. In purporting to oppose this upsurge in popular xenophobia and racism, however, the British left (and its European and US counterparts) is indulging in rank hypocrisy.”
The Labour manifesto of the following year, drafted by privately-educated Cambridge graduate Andrew Fisher, would again state that “freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union” committing the party instead to supporting the “management of migration”. As Fisher later explained, “Taxing the rich, public ownership of the railways and core utilities, and ending austerity had majority public support. Increasing benefit levels and more humane migration policies did not.”
The 2017 manifesto, in fact, was a fully-fledged return to the heyday of social imperialism. Corbynism had now been shorn of any remnants of anti-imperialism (a concept mocked by leading lights of the campaign such as Paul Mason), and was now fully committed to the military apparatus required for the enforcement of colonial wealth transfer. The document committed Labour to meeting NATO’s requirement to spend 2% of GDP on the military, and praised Tony Blair’s government for consistently spending above this benchmark, whilst criticising the conservatives for cuts to the number of aircraft carriers and jump jets in the British arsenal. It committed itself to not only retaining, but renewing, the Trident nuclear defence system (estimated costs of which vary from £39 to £205billion), and to ensuring “our conventional forces are versatile and able to deploy in a range of roles.” Why they should be “deployed” at all, rather than simply maintained as a defensive force to protect against invasion, was never explained; nor was there any mention of the seven wars in which British troops were deployed at that very moment.
The electorate appeared to like it; Labour did far better than expected in the 2017 election, increasing their vote share to 40%, up 10% from the 30% they had achieved under Ed Miliband’s leadership just two years earlier, the biggest swing for any party since 1945. This gave them a net gain of thirty seats, enough to wipe out the Conservative’s majority, and a clear electoral vindication for the party’s social imperialist platform. There was euphoria in the Corbyn camp – and gloom amongst the Blairites, who had hoped to use a disastrous showing for the party to finally rid themselves of their upstart leader. Yet the results obscured some serious warning signs. Across 41 seats in Labour’s former industrial heartlands of the North and the MIdlands – seats that later became known as the ‘Red Wall’ – the Conservative’s vote share increased to 42%, higher than Labour’s national average. Although Labour managed to hang on to most of these seats, six of them fell to the Conservatives. These were constituencies that had been Labour strongholds for, on average, over fifty years, yet now they had done the inconceivable and returned Tory MPs. The taboo had been broken.
Focus groups run by the Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft in the aftermath of the 2017 election revealed that, whilst Labour’s anti-austerity message was popular, many voters remained suspicious of Corbyn’s commitment to the defence of British supremacy abroad. Commented Ashcroft, “Lifelong Labour voters would often say that Jeremy Corbyn was the single biggest reason they were reluctant to stay with the party.” The first set of reasons for this all related to his colonial credentials, with voters making comments like “He’s anti-military. He wants nuclear submarines without the nuclear missiles. How stupid can that be?”; “It’s disastrous, his stance on defence, potentially catastrophic;” “He had links with the IRA. I didn’t like that at all;” “‘He was supporting the IRA. He was turning up at gunmen’s funerals.”
Yet “more often,” wrote Ashcroft, “people simply did not think he was up to the job of leading the country.” Voters explained that they found Corbyn “wet,” “weak,” “too principled,” too lacking in “balls”, and, revealingly, “the most humanitarian of all our politicians…But that could be our problem with Corbyn. He’s just going to give it all away.” What both sets of reasons have in common is that they all relate to the fear that Corbyn, however much he attempted to distance himself from his former principles, simply could not be trusted to “stand up for British interests”. When it came to the bottom line, Corbyn’s willingness to defend the flow of wealth to Britain from the global South, and maintain exclusive native British access to it, was seriously in doubt. The media, and the Conservatives, had found the crack in Corbyn’s armour and were determined to explode it.
Labour has for some time been a fragile electoral coalition of two main constituencies – an older, more ‘culturally conservative’ and nationalist constituency in the former industrial towns of the North and Midlands, forming the core of the Leave vote; and a younger, more socially liberal and multiethnic constituency based in the big cities, forming the core of the Remain vote. The claim of ‘anti-semitism’, which dominated coverage of the Labour leader for the next two years, was particularly well chosen to undermine Labour’s support amongst both. On the one hand, it was clearly an accusation with which the socially liberal metropolitans did not wish to be associated with, demoralising them and undermining their belief in the Corbyn project. But on the other, the Israel-Palestine conflict served as a neat proxy for the growing fears of ‘white decline’ rapidly gaining currency on the anti-immigrant right. By drawing attention to Corbyn’s support for Palestine, the media were able to successfully associate him with the Muslim Other in the great battle for civilisation. The realisation of the ‘right to return’ which he (along with longstanding international law) supported, so the fear went, would lead to the ‘swamping’ of white Israeli civilisation by brown-skinned Arabs. Was this Corbyn’s vision for Europe as well? The implication did not need to be spelt out – the visuals of the conflict said it all – but it is revealing that one of the most vociferous purveyors of the anti-semitism smear, Lord Sacks, was also a strong supporter of Douglas Murray, the acceptable face of white decline/ great replacement catosrophism. For those who already suspected Corbyn of being an Arab-lover, the anti-semitism crusade, by keeping the focus on Corbyn’s position on Palestine, was a constant reminder of his reluctance to stand up for white supremacy, defeating all the Corbyn camp’s attempts to keep foreign policy off the agenda and out of voters’ minds. Corbyn himself – much to the despair of an increasingly exasperated John MacDonnell – also helped to keep the issue alive, by refusing to budge from the Palestinian position of wariness towards the two most controversial ‘examples’ of anti-Semitism that the Labour party was being pressured to adopt, both of which were seen as potentially being abused to delegitmise criticism of Israel. In the end, Corbyn capitulated and adopted them anyway – but not until, argue Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick MacGuire, all the political capital achieved by the election result had been used up in the failed attempt to resist doing so.
Nevertheless, at the start of 2018, Corbyn’s poll ratings remained significantly above those of Theresa May. What would change this, permanently, was Corbyn’s response to another test of his ‘patriotism’ – the poisoning of the Skripals. In March 2018, Julia and Sergei Skripal, visiting the UK from Russia, were rushed to hospital having been discovered unconscious and foaming at the mouth on a bench in Salisbury, apparent victims of a nerve agent attack. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was quick to blame Putin, and used the incident to intensify the ongoing war of attrition against the Russian state, cajoling other countries to embark on a worldwide expulsion of Russian diplomats unprecedented even at the height of the Cold War. Rather than close ranks behind the government’s sabre-rattling, however, as ‘loyal oppositions’ are clearly expected to at such times of ‘national crisis’, Corbyn dug his heels in and suggested that blame and retaliation should await the production of convincing evidence and that internationally agreed procedures should be adhered to. It was a position of political suicide in a country used to throwing its weight around. “That’s fucking going to cost us the election!” fumed John MacDonnell’s media advisor James Mills following a press conference in which Corbyn’s press secretary Seamus Milne questioned the undisclosed intelligence reports that the government was using to justify its actions; “Who the fuck does stuff like that?” (Pogrund and MacGuire, p.80). Certainly not Corbyn’s social democratic forebears – as Pogrund and MacGuire have pointed out, “as much as the left had lionised Attlee and Foot, both had supported military action by their Conservative opposite numbers” when it came to the crunch.
The incident was a tipping point, not only in terms of Corbyn’s public standing and the already corrosive, division between his team and the parliamentary party – but also for relations within the Corbyn camp itself. Not only Emily Thornberry – always a fairweather friend of the project – but more significantly, Dianne Abbott and John MacDonnell, Corbyn’s only longstanding comrades in the parliamentary party, began to go consistently off-message when it came to Russia. The defence of Putin – even against accusations which appeared, at least at first, to be unfounded – was not the hill MacDonnell had been working thanklessly for decades to die on. His relations with Corbyn’s office were irreparably damaged.
Corbyn would try to make amends and demonstrate his (white) nationalist credentials a year later when the next instalment of the ‘hostile environment’ came before parliament, in the form of the government’s new Immigration Bill. This bill established Britain’s new post-Brexit migration policy, creating a new income qualification for migrants, introducing a ‘cap’ on migration, and barring all new migrants from accessing public funds or settling permanently. The aim was to end freedom of movement for low-paid workers whilst maintaining it for middle class professionals, and to ensure that any migrants who did make it into the country were in a position of permanent precarity. It was clearly a ferociously anti-working class piece of legislation (except for the most myopic and nationalist definitions of ‘working class’). This was, in fact, recognised by Dianne Abbott, Corbyn’s shadow Home Secretary, who wrote that, under the new legislation, “many migrant workers who come to Britain will in effect have no rights” and called it “one of the most serious threats to all workers for decades…The risk of super-exploitation will be built into the legal system.” Yet when it came to the first parliamentary vote on the bill, the position of the ‘worker’s party’, under its ‘pro-migrant’ leader, Corbyn, was, right up until three hours before the vote, to abstain; as Abbott herself noted, defence of Freedom of Movement was incompatible with the party’s 2017 manifesto, to which she declared herself a “slavish devotee” and therefore duty-bound to let the bill pass at its second reading. This official position of abstention was, at the very last minute, changed to advice to vote against the bill – but only after many MPs had already left parliament for the day. Yet even this about-turn was half-hearted, backed only by a ‘one-line whip’, the very weakest type of enforcement, with no consequences for insubordination. As a result, 78 Labour MPs were absent when the vote was called, and the bill passed by a margin of 63. Corbyn had helped the Tories deliver, in Abbott’s words, “one of the most serious threats to all workers for decades”. Yet there was no popularity dividend amongst the Leave-voting anti-migrant constituencies he was presumably trying to woo, and his ratings remaining as stubbornly low as ever.
The problem for Corbyn was that he never quite managed to convince people that he had left his old anti-imperialist and pro-immigrant views behind; and his reluctance to ditch the Palestinians or jump on the Russia-baiting bandwagon buried any chance he might have had of doing so. By the time the 2019 election came around, this was clearer than ever. As Luke Pagarani wrote after 100 hours of canvassing, “the key charge against Corbyn is that he fundamentally believes British lives are of equal value to the lives of others,” an unacceptable position for the bulk of the British electorate. His continued: “His opponents wouldn’t put it so bluntly, but this is what it has always been about. Hence the series of confected outrages – from not bowing deeply enough at the Cenotaph to ruling out pushing the nuclear button – that built a treasonous charge sheet as absurd as it was banal. Smears such as Corbyn “siding with Putin” over the Salisbury poisoning, when caution about trusting the judgment of British intelligence agencies was cast as support for the Russian version of events, or “supporting” the IRA, gained more traction as time went on. Even Corbyn’s commendable record of campaigning against the geopolitical grain, such as for dispossessed Tamils, Chagossians and Palestinians, came to be seen as evidence that he didn’t know which side he was supposed to be on. A symbolic moment of the campaign was the first leaders’ debate, when Corbyn highlighted the impact that the climate crisis would have on the poorest people in the world and a section of the audience responded with groans and someone shouted, “Here we go again!” When people talk about having paid into the system all their lives, as I heard repeatedly at the doorstep, they’re not just talking about national insurance payments and the benefits they’re entitled to. They’re talking about loyalty to a state they expected to be their exclusive patron …A small hoard has been salvaged from the UK’s long post-imperial decline, and only those whose fealty is proven can claim their share…Taxing the rich was unpersuasive, as many people just thought it impossible. These voters wanted the patronage of the powerful, not to challenge their power.”
The Conservatives, meanwhile, had learnt their lessons from the 2017 election very well. The first was that austerity was not a votewinner. The public sector pay cap – Labour’s opposition to which, according to Ashcroft’s research, had been “one of [their] biggest attractions, which our respondents raised spontaneously throughout the campaign” in 2017 (Ashcroft, p.26) – had been ended by the Conservatives a few months before the election (only to be reimposed again less than a year after), removing one of the major grievances against them of the previous election. And in sharp contrast to Theresa May’s unremittingly grim spending propositions in 2017, Boris Johnson went to the electorate with a promise of more nurses, more police and more hospitals.
The second lesson was that, in 2017, the electorate had not been quite ready to buy Theresa May’s claim that parliament, and Labour in particular, was obstructing Brexit. But two years of Brexit quagmire in a hung parliament now meant the argument had far more traction; that Johnson himself had led the opposition to getting May’s Brexit deal passed was apparently a nuance with which the electorate were not concerned.
Combined with Labour’s eleventh hour conversion to a rerun of the Brexit referendum, the proposition in 2019 was now fundamentally different to that of 2017. Back then, an electorate seeking to move past Brexit and end austerity faced two Brexit-supporting parties, only one of whom was offering to end austerity; now, they seemingly faced two parties seeking to end austerity, only one of whom was offering to ‘get Brexit done’. More fundamentally, however, they also faced a Labour party whose commitment to upholding the colonial balance of power on which their globally-privileged living standards depended was in doubt as never before. Because, as in 2017, former Labour voters consistently gave not Brexit but Corbyn as the main reason for changing their vote – ”usually justified,” noted Jeremy Gilbert, “with reference to Corbyn’s supposed historic sympathy for the IRA or his ‘excessive’ sympathy with Muslims.”
In the end, all post-mortems of the Corbyn project must answer two questions. The first – could any policy platform or leader have won the 2019 election for Labour in the circumstances? The fact that Labour’s two main electoral constituencies – the culturally conservative former industrial towns of the North and Midlands, and the socially liberal multiethnic communities of the large cities – had by this point hardened into seemingly irreconcilable identities based on ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ makes it hard to be positive on this front. This is especially so given that Labour seem to have lost around a million voters on the Leave side, and 1.7million on the Remain side, suggesting that more decisive movement in either direction would only ever have traded lost votes rather than saved them.
But the more important question for socialists is could Corbyn – or anyone with the politics he represents – have won in any circumstances?
Ultimately, the fate of Corbynism was defined by a series of tragic realities, three of which were beyond the project’s control, and the last of which resulted from a stubborn unwillingness to recognise the first three.
The first reality is that the vast majority of the British population are, at least on an immediate material level, beneficiaries of the global system of racialised capitalism with, therefore, no class interest in upending the neocolonial status quo. The electoral base necessary to deliver a parliamentary victory for any kind of anti-imperialist programme in this country, then, simply does not exist. As Zak Cope has argued, “Britain and all of the classes and class fractions therein (albeit to varying degrees) are net consumers of value created elsewhere [and this] fundamentally bourgeois class structure of Britain means that there is no mass basis for British people to act as agents of change.” The country has “a right-wing electorate that fears above all the dissolution of [global] white supremacy as a condition of its caste-class status.” Capitalism is a system of global exploitation of which the entire populations of Western nations are net beneficiaries, and, in the main, they know it; the citizens of the imperial states areaware not only that their living standards are relatively privileged by global standards, but are also on some level aware, I would contend, that this privilege is dependent on the continued impoverishment of the global South. As Cope has written, “It is obvious that the wage in Guatemala or China is only a fraction of the wage in first world countries. It is equally clear that there is a connection between low prices for bananas, coffee and electronics and the low wages paid to the workers that produce them…No doubt the average person is unaware of the theory of unequal exchange as such, but a great many people in the first world are aware that they buy goods cheap relative to the labour that goes into their production.” Western citizens, in other words, know which way their bread is buttered.
This need not have been a fatal blow for the Corbynite project, however – which, as we have seen, quickly defined itself as an overtly social imperialist programme. Says Cope, Corbyn “promotes a national chauvinist version of socialism that aims to share among the British people more of the wealth accumulated through Britain’s imperialist exploitation of dependent countries…[Whilst] he has been a fairly consistent long-term critic of neoliberal restructuring of Britain’s welfare state… neither he nor his supporters have concerned themselves with stopping the flow of surplus value from the Third World. Doing so would require an end to British economic and military imperialism, that is, the radical restructuring of British society as we know it,” something the 2017 manifesto made clear it was not prepared to countenance. A party which had been more immediately and convincingly willing to toe the line of the imperialist bourgeoisie on Palestine and Russia may well have been able to garner support for a more equitable national distribution of imperial loot. Whether they could do this under a leader with a track record such as Corbyn’s, however, is far less likely. The second tragedy for the Corbynites, then, was that, despite the project’s capitulations, the colonial credentials of Corbyn himself, thanks to his track record of involvement in the anti-war, anti-nuclear, and international solidarity movements, were so much in doubt that he would never be trusted, by either the electorate or the elite, to be allowed into office. As Cope put it, “Corbyn is neither sufficiently xenophobic nor racist enough to appeal to the white working class electorate, and he is neither militarist enough nor neoliberal enough to gain the backing of the financial elite.” It is not only commitment to the basic principles of imperialism (if not necessarily their every manifestation) that is a necessary condition of electoral success in imperialist countries; that commitment must be seen to be sincere. This was not something Corbyn could ever have achieved.
Even a hypothetical scenario in which a 2017-style social imperialist programme achieved electoral victory under a leader with an unimpeachable track record of disdain for Third World struggles, however, would not necessarily result in the realisation of that programme. For the third tragedy of the Corbyn project is that whilst there may still be an electoral base for a social democratic programme in Britain (so long as it does not challenge neo-colonialism), what does not exist are the class forces required to enact it once in office.
Quite apart from the colonial credentials he established during his five years service as Churchill’s deputy in the War Cabinet, overseeing, amongst other atrocities, the Bengal famine and the bombing of Dresden, Attlee was allowed to deliver his left-economic programme due to a quite unique constellation of circumstances in 1945. First of all, capitalism was under threat as never before, primarily due to the existence of the Soviet Union, which emerged from the Second World War with its prestige at an all time high. Not only was it universally acknowledged to have been by far the major force in the defeat of Nazi Germany, but it seemed to have been the only industrialised nation to have got through the 1930s without being plunged into an economic depression. It suffered many other problems during this time, of course, to put it mildly; but the worst of them were not yet known to the rest of the world, much of which viewed Soviet socialism as a far superior system to the global capitalism that had failed so miserably in the 30s, ushered in fascism and led to two world wars. Capitalism, in other words, had an existential need to prove itself, as, unlike today, it faced a seemingly viable – and powerful – alternative.
In addition to these favourable geopolitical circumstances, British capitalism faced a domestic working class movement that was heavily unionised, politicised and militarily experienced – a powerful combination, with no equivalent today. In addition, the mass destruction of the war meant that there was a high demand for labour, giving the unions major leverage they do not have today, as well as a need for government investment in bankrupted industry. And finally, British capital was far less footloose than it is today; had it opposed the new settlement, it would have had nowhere else to go anyhow. In sum, in 1945, the capitalist class themselves were pushing for a new dispensation that would simultaneously get industry back on its feet, underwrite a more quiescent working class and deal with capitalism’s image problem.
None of this pertains today. In our hypothetical scenario, the most likely outcome of any attempt to deliver a social-democratic programme such as that promised by Labour under Corbyn would be that the financial markets would simply strangle the economy into submission. In this regard, the voters’ oft-repeated scepticism towards Labour’s ability to deliver on its manifesto promises must be seen not only as a reflection of cynicism towards ‘lying politicians’ but a rather savvy understanding of the class forces ranged against such an undertaking. Voters were essentially correct that Labour’s economic economic programme was unachievable – not because the ‘money was unavailable’ – the country is awash with cash, which was the main cause of the 2008 crisis – but rather because of the inevitable resistance of the bourgeois financiers.
Given the structural impossibility of challenging neo-colonialism at the ballot box and the virtual impossibility of delivering even social democracy in contemporary conditions, the real tragedy of Corbynism is that its commitment to delivering these undeliverables blinded the project from realising what could have been achieved. Corbyn’s election to the leadership in 2015 and the upsurge of enthusiasm it ignited presented a unique opportunity to use the organisational capacity of the Labour party to create cadres of community activists committed to meaningful and effective grassroots mobilisation. With 600,000 members, Labour was the biggest political party in Europe by membership, and even the internal left pressure group Momentum had 50,000 members, opening up the possibility of creating a real and lasting counterforce of working class power. Imagine what could have been achieved had these enthusiastic members been put to work in the most alienated and neglected communities, running breakfast clubs, youth programmes, political education and grassroots campaigns on local issues. Of course, there is a danger that such work would have been perceived as patronising or condescending – especially if it were to involve young middle class city folk (who seem to have been the core of the new Labour membership) descending on areas with which they have no organic connection. They would have had to have been organised by locally-rooted, experienced activists, and would have had to have serious training in the culture and ethos of the local communities they would be serving – and, even then they would have had to have worked hard to overcome much entrenched (and justified) suspicion. But none of this would have been beyond the organisational capacity of the Labour party; indeed, Labour, with its deep roots in the unions and working class movement, was and is uniquely positioned to organise such an endeavour. Yet the chance to use that position to actually build working class power in the communities was squandered. Such power would not have been enough to have won the election, for all the reasons outlined in this piece. But that is not the point; the point is to build – both through organisational practice and political consciousness raising – the power of the working class movement, as a detachment of the international proletariat. In the end, all attempts at grassroots mobilisation, political education, community programmes, and anti-militarism were ultimately subordinated, it not completely sacrificed, to the priority of winning the election. This was the real tragedy of Corbynism.
Rebels burn down Minneapolis police station following the murder of George Floyd, May 2020
In late 2012, Peter Turchin, a professor at the University of Connecticut, made a startling claim, based on an analysis of revolutionary upheavals across history.
He found there are three social conditions in place shortly before all major outbreaks of social violence: an increase in the elite population; a decrease in the living standards of the masses; and huge levels of government indebtedness.
The statistical model his team developed suggested that, on this basis, a major wave of social upheaval and revolutionary violence is set to take place in the US in 2020. His model had no way to predict who would lead the charge; but this week’s election gives an indication of how it is likely to unfold.
Let’s take the first condition, which Turchin calls “elite overproduction,” defined as “an increased number of aspirants for the limited supply of elite positions.” The US has clearly been heading in this direction for some time, with the number of billionaires increasing more than tenfold from 1987 (41 billionaires) to 2012 (425 billionaires). But the ruling class split between, for example, industrialists and financiers, has apparently reached fever pitch with Trump vs. Clinton.
As Turchin explains, “increased intra-elite competition leads to the formation of rival patronage networks vying for state rewards. As a result, elites become riven by increasing rivalry and factionalism.” Indeed, based on analysis of thousands of incidents of civil violence across world history, Turchin concluded that “the most reliable predictor of state collapse and high political instability was elite overproduction.”
The second condition, popular immiseration, is also well advanced. 46 million US citizens live in poverty (defined as receiving an income less than is required to cover their basic needs), while over 12 million US households are now considered food insecure. While this figure has been coming down consistently since 2011 (when it reached over 15 million), it remains above its pre-recession (per-2007) levels.
Trump’s policies are likely to sharply reverse this decrease. Trump’s second promise in his ‘contract with voters’ is a “hiring freeze on all federal employees,” amounting to a new onslaught on public sector jobs. This is in addition to what seems to be a promise to end the direct funding of state education (to, in his words, “redirect education dollars to…parents”), and to end all federal funding to so-called ‘sanctuary cities’, that is cities which do not order the state harassment of immigrants or force employers to reveal the nationalities of their workers. These cities are some of the most populated in the country, including NYC, LA, Dallas, Minneapolis and over two dozen others.
In concert with his avowed intention to lower taxes on the wealthy, including slashing business tax from 35 to 15 percent; to smash hard fought workers’ rights (under the mantra of ‘deregulation’); and to scrap what little access to healthcare was made available to the poor through Obamacare – not to mention his threat to start a trade war with China – poverty looks set to skyrocket. It is not hard to see how social unrest will follow.
As for the third condition – government indebtedness – it is hard to see how the massive tax breaks Trump has proposed can lead to anything else.
Turchin writes that “As all these trends intensify, the end result is state fiscal crisis and bankruptcy and consequent loss of military control; elite movements of regional and national rebellion; and a combination of elite-mobilized and popular uprisings that manifest the breakdown of central authority.”
But Trump is also preparing for that. Exempt from his public spending cuts, of course, are police and military budgets, both of which he promises to increase. And when questioned on the issue of police brutality last year, Trump said he wanted to see the police be given more powers. In other words, the tacit impunity which currently exists for police violence looks set to be legalized. And history shows that there is nothing like police impunity to spark a riot.
Meanwhile, as his policies fail to deliver the land of milk and honey he has promised, the demonization of scapegoats will continue. Having already vowed to round up and deport two million immigrants, and to ban Muslims from entering the US, it is already clear who these scapegoats will be. However, as well as migrants, popular anger will also be directed toward whatever namby-pamby liberals have blocked him from waging his promised war against them: be it Congressmen, judges, trade unions, pressure groups, or whoever. A combination of increased executive powers plus the use of his newly mobilized mass constituency will be directed toward purging these ‘enemies within’.
“My model suggests that the next [peak in violence] will be worse than the one in 1970” says Turchin, “because demographic variables such as wages, standards of living and a number of measures of intra-elite confrontation are all much worse this time”. All that remains to be seen is – who will win.
The world needs to “move on” from slavery and colonialism, David Cameron declared during his visit to Jamaica earlier this year. He went on to casually dismiss demands for either reparations or even an apology for the systematic kidnapping and enslavement of Africans which laid the basis of both of the wealth of his own country (and indeed his own family) and the poverty of the nation hosting his visit. What he meant by “move on”, of course, was simple: forget it ever happened and ignore its continuing legacy.
Last week, in Oxford, a demonstration of around 200 students were also demanding that Britain ‘move on’ from its colonial past – not by forgetting about it, but precisely the opposite – by acknowledging the damage done (and still being done) and atoning for it.
The Rhodes Must Fall movement began in South Africa this year, demanding an end to the veneration of ‘colonial murderers’ like Cecil Rhodes, but has since spread to Oxford, where Rhodes’ alma mater, Oriel College, still displays a huge statue in his honor. Rhodes’ statue at Cape Town University was eventually removed after protests, and the Oxford campaign hopes to repeat the success here.
Cecil Rhodes was the archetypal British imperialist – a tyrannical stealer of land, ruthless exploiter of labor and rabid butcher of men, women and children. By the 1890s, he had conquered around one million square miles of territory (including modern day Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia) and laid waste to its inhabitants, using the newly invented Maxim gun to massacre all those who stood in his way and forcing many of the rest into the living graves that were his company’s diamond mines.
As Prime Minister of Britain’s Cape Colony, his policies laid the basis for what became the apartheid system, as he forced Africans onto reserves, introduced segregation and forced labor, and systematically excluded Africans from voting, explaining to the Cape Assembly in 1887 that “the native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism in our relations with the barbarians of South Africa.”
What exactly this meant was spelt out in one of his more prosaic pronouncements: “one should kill as many n*ggers as possible.” The question is not so much why there is a campaign to have his statue removed as why on earth it is still there. It says a lot about just how little Britain has ‘moved on’ from its imperial past when the leader of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle, Robert Mugabe, is one of the most demonized figures in the British media – whilst the architect of that country’s subjugation, Cecil Rhodes, remains a ubiquitous and venerated presence in Britain’s most hallowed academic institution.
But the campaign is about much more than statues; as the press release for the event noted, “Our call for the statue to fall is but the first step. What we stand for is something much greater: the transformation of the university in its physical and intellectual spaces, its colleges and its curricula.” Indeed, Rhodes Must Fall is part of a much broader global movement that has emerged in recent years, based around the demand to decolonize academia.
As Maori anthropologist and activist Linda Tuhiwai Smith has put it, “decolonization, once viewed as the formal process of handing over the instruments of government, is now recognized as a long term process involving the bureaucratic, cultural, linguistic and psychological divesting of colonial power.”
Western academia is in particular and urgent need of such a decolonizing process as it so clearly continues to reproduce Eurocentric fallacies and omissions in manifold ways.
One way is through its erasure of the crime of colonialism; that is, its tendency to overlook – or, worse, deem as irrelevant – the sheer scale of human suffering caused by European colonialism.
Surinamese scholar Sandew Hira, for example, notes how the typical figure given for enslaved Africans in Western histories is around 12 million. But this figure neglects both those killed in the process of capture in Africa, and those enslaved at birth in the Americas. Once these two groups are added, the true figure rises to between 236 and 432 million – that is at least twenty times higher than the standard Western statistic.
Hira has also made a calculation of the reparations owed by European colonial powers to those they colonized based on the value of goods stolen, unpaid rent and labor, and compensation for human suffering, plus a very reasonable three percent compound interest on the debt (half the rate charged to Haiti on the ‘reparations’ imposed by France for the crime of abolishing slavery). The estimated total comes to $321 quadrillion, demonstrating “the inconceivable damage that colonization has caused upon the colonized and the unimaginable debt that rests of the shoulders of the colonizer.”
Little of this is recognized in mainstream Western historical accounts of the rise of Europe, which still tend to treat colonialism either as a mixed blessing for the colonized or a net drain – that is, effectively an act of benevolence – for the colonizing powers. This ‘weighing up’ of supposed ‘positive and negative’ aspects of colonialism would never be accepted for other acts of mass murder, such as the Hitlerite atrocities – yet are apparently perfectly valid for colonialism.
As Rhodes Must Fall activist Chi Chi put it at the Oxford event – “You cannot reconcile ‘but what about the railways?’ with genocide.” Except that, apparently, you can, and those who do, such as empire cheerleader Niall Ferguson, are handsomely rewarded with research grants, media accolades and seemingly endless commissions by the BBC.
But it is not only the crimes of empire that are erased in Western academia – so too is the non-European contribution to European civilization itself. As JM Blaut has analyzed in depth in The Colonizers’ Model of the World, ‘Greater Europe’ is still depicted by the majority of European historians as “the perpetual fountainhead of history” based on what he calls the ‘diffusionist’ notion that “the world as a whole has one permanent center from which culture-changing ideas tend to originate, and a vast periphery that changes as a result.” This unique capacity for progress, in this view, is based on Europe’s supposedly superior and self-generated ‘value system’.
Hand in hand with the notion that all that is good in the world flows from ‘Inside’ (Europe) to ‘Outside’ is its inevitable corollary of a “counter-diffusion of evil and savagery and disease from outside to Inside.” The supposed knowledge about the non-European world, on which such ideas are based, was, of course, produced in the process of colonialism, reflecting the biases – and interests – of the colonizer.
As Blaut writes, “the plain fact is that theories constructed from this information – and this includes the great bulk of nineteenth century anthropological, geographic, and politico-economic theories about non-Europeans – are systematically distorted” as not only were they based on information reflecting the bias of the colonialists who collected it, but also involved “shaping knowledge into theories that would prove useful for colonialism.”
It hardly needs stating that the ‘diffusionist’ theories produced by such methods are completely false. As John M Hobson has outlined in great detail in his magisterial The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization, far from being the passive recipient of Western innovation, Africa and Asia largely provided the technological and institutional ‘portfolios’ (not to mention the labor power and resources) that enabled both the European industrial revolution and the ‘voyages of discovery’ that preceded it Vasco Da Gama’s travel round the Cape, for example, was not the unprecedented triumph it is still depicted as in Eurocentric history; in fact the voyage had already been accomplished 20-50 years earlier by the Islamic navigator Ahmad ibn-Majid, whilst “the Javanese, Indians and Chinese had all made it across to the Cape many decades, if not centuries, before Da Gama” (who, incidentally, relied on a Gujarati Muslim pilot as his guide).
Similarly, Hobson shows how non-European societies had a major influence on all the major turning points in European history, with, for example, Chinese technological innovations and ideas underpinning both the industrial revolution and the European Enlightenment, and Afro-Asian trading circuits originating a millennia and a half ago laying the foundation of the global trading system of today.
But it is not only history that continues to reproduce colonial theories; as Hobson has argued elsewhere, Eurocentrism thoroughly permeates fields such as international relations as well: “international theory does not so much explain international politics in an objective, positivist and universalist manner but seeks, rather, to parochially celebrate and defend or promote the West as the proactive subject of, and as the highest or ideal normative referent in world politics.”
In philosophy, too, only European philosophy is typically taught, with non-European philosophy consigned to anthropology – to be studied as the quaint beliefs of irrational societies. At the same time, the racism of the European philosophers under discussion are buried or ignored. As Charles W. Mills points out in The Racial Contract, there is a “uniformity of opinion” on the inferiority of non-Europeans amongst pretty much all major European thinkers from the Enlightenment onwards: he cites, for example, “Hume, who denies that any race other than the white one has produced a civilization; the utilitarian Mill, who denies the applicability of the anti-paternalist ‘harm principle’ to ‘barbarians’ and maintains that they need European colonial despotism; [and] the historicist GWF Hegel, who denies that Africa has any history and suggests that blacks were morally improved through being enslaved.” None of this will typically be mentioned on undergraduate philosophy courses.
Underlying all of this is what decolonial scholar Ramon Grosfoguel calls “epistemic racism”. Seventeenth century Europe saw a revolution in epistemology, epitomized by Rene Descartes’ idea of mind-body dualism. By separating the mind from the body, Descartes was able to posit the idea of a completely objective system of knowledge, unbounded by the limitations of societal specificity. This afforded the subject – the privileged male Western subject, that is – a ‘God’s eye’ universal view of the world, superior to all other epistemologies. Such a claim to perfect, godlike, knowledge, would have been treated as idolatry in other cosmologies; and for decolonial scholars, all knowledge is “bio-graphically and geo-historically located,” to use Walter Mignolo’s terminology.
But Western epistemology has, by sheer force of arms, been able to impose itself on the rest of the world, presenting itself as the one true and valid system of knowledge production; it is no coincidence that the epistemological revolution overlaps with the era of colonialism. As Enrique Dussel argues, it is not so much that “I think, therefore I am” as “I conquer, therefore I am.”
And academia still bears the birthmarks of its colonial genesis. Grosfoguel points out that this is the case to such an extent that supposedly “universal knowledge” is still based on “the socio-historical experience of just five countries” – Italy, Germany, Britain, France and the USA, comprising between them a mere 12 percent of the world’s population, but virtually 100 percent of the reading material of almost every academic social science course in the western world. Knowledge produced in all other parts of the world is interiorized.
Oxford was, and is, central to both this inferiorization of non-European knowledge, and the conquests and exterminations that allowed this process to develop. I asked Ciaran Walsh, radical Labor historian at Ruskin College, who runs the excellent Radical Oxford walking tour, about the university’s role in colonialism: “The ideologues who justified the creation of first the English and then the British Empire came from Oxford, and generations of imperial administrators were educated at Oxford under the banner of the civilizing mission. But this mission was a cover for the expansion of European political forms, structures, property relations and all the oppression, dislocation and death that flowed with that. Imperialism and capital accumulation have been co-emergent in the modern era and Oxford’s played a key role in this whole process in Britain and globally.”
Places like Oxford’s Indian Institute – founded after the first war of Indian independence in 1857 had shaken the foundations of the British Empire – were created as what Walsh calls “centers of orientalism,” designed to study non-European cosmologies, legal systems, institutions and social structures the better to dominate them. Walsh explains that William Jones, the first European to study Sanskrit, was a product of Oxford, who went on to study Indian law in order to allow “a more workable system of European property relations to be imposed. This is the instrumental nature of orientalism.”
And still today, as Mignolo notes, “seldom, if ever, are intellectual debates in the regions being reported taken into account…very much like natural resources, Third World ideas are processed in European intellectual factories.” Thus, as Kiran Benipal put it on the demonstration, “Rhodes legacy is alive and well, and runs through the blood of this institution.”
And Oxford continues to produce the modern-day Rhodes’ who are his worthy successors in British colonial barbarism in Africa and beyond. Oxford graduate, Tony Blair, was involved in plans to follow directly in Rhodes’ footsteps and invade Zimbabwe; it was only the steadfastness of Mbeki’s ANC government in South Africa that prevented this from taking place and subsequently exposed the plot. Likewise, David Cameron, a graduate of Brasenose College, did his bit to stymie African development; his blitzkrieg destruction of Libya paved the way for a bloodbath that has already enveloped Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria and continues to grow.
So Rhodes’ legacy continues not only through the manifold monuments, buildings and institutions that bear his name, not only through the European supremacist foundations of academia, but also through British policies that continue to brutalize and subjugate Africa, Asia and South America. The British state cannot bear to see anti-colonial resistance movements in power anywhere, and have still not reconciled themselves to the reality that the movements that led the fight for independence remain in government across much of Southern Africa. Rhodes will fall. But it will require constant vigilance – and we must never forget that the enemy today is the same as it was then – British imperialism.
The killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray triggered protests not just in their home states but worldwide, with the campaign group Black Lives Matter emerging to protest the ongoing deaths at the hands of US police. The Oxford Union hosted a packed debate on whether the US is “institutionally racist”earlier this year, and the deaths, protests and trials resulting from the killings have all made regular headline news.
What has received far less attention has been the continued deaths at the hands of UK state officials. In March, the Institute for Race Relations published an in-depth report on 509 people of color who died in suspicious circumstances between 1991 and 2014 whilst in the custody of police, prison or immigration officers. Their analysis of these deaths – which averaged almost one per fortnight over the period covered – showed that a large number occurred after excessive use of force by the authorities, and an even larger number involved a culpable lack of care. Perhaps even more damning, the report concluded that “lessons are not being learnt; people die in similar ways year on year.”
But the big difference that emerges from the US is the handling of the officers involved. Officers stood trial following all three of the big recent cases from the US – even if, infamously, they have all so far been found not guilty. In the 509 cases examine by the IRR, however, a mere five cases – less than 1 percent – led to prosecutions – with not a single conviction. This is despite inquests recording verdicts of unlawful killing in over a dozen cases. Indeed, of the thousands of deaths in custody that have occurred since the late 1960s (current levels are around 600 per year), only one single case, that of David Oluwale in 1969, has resulted in the conviction of an officer.
One case which clearly illustrates the difficulties faced by families of the victims in their struggle for justice is that of Habib “Paps” Ullah.
Habib and two of his friends were pulled over by police in High Wycombe, near London, on July 3, 2008. Habib was peaceful and compliant with the police, who he allowed to search him. However, when he was asked to open his mouth, he turned his back on them. That was the trigger for a vicious assault. Without warning, one officer, DS Liles, punched him in the back with maximum force, at which point four officers set upon him. Over the course of the next 10 minutes, Habib was subjected to further blows, knee strikes, a finger in his eye socket, the squeezing of his throat, and the full bodyweight of an officer on top of him whilst face down on the ground, along with a variety of “pain compliance” techniques. At one stage, DS Liles shouted to his colleagues: “Break his arm.”
Witnesses were screaming at the officers that they were strangling him, with another witness describing it as like something from a horror film. By the end of the assault, Habib had lost consciousness, with officers noting that his arm dropped to the floor when released, and that his eyes were motionless when his eyelids pulled back. Nevertheless, the police waited a further 10 minutes before calling an ambulance. Witnesses spoke of the police “standing around”; no CPR or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was given to Habib, he was not put into a full recovery position, and his pulse was not taken: the officers all claimed that they believed Habib had been “faking it.” When an ambulance was finally called, the police gave the code B1, for a non-life threatening situation; by the time it arrived, witnesses – including the officers themselves – had confirmed Habib had been making very strange coughing sounds with his face turning first blue and then grey. Those sounds, it now seems clear, were almost certainly his death rattle. The small wrap of drugs which Habib had in his mouth had got lodged in his throat during the attack which, combined with likely “positional asphyxia” caused by the restraint, had caused him to suffocate.
The family have had to wait seven years until the inquest was finally held in February this year for this account of Habib’s death to finally emerge. Yet the initial police statements, written by the five officers involved immediately after Habib’s death, had pretty much admitted the full story. So what happened in the intervening seven years?
Following Habib’s death being confirmed in the hospital, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) was brought in to conduct an investigation, as is the usual practice following a death in custody. But those initial statements made by the officers were not the ones that were handed to the IPCC.
Rather, what happened is that senior police officers, members of the Police Federation, and a police solicitor oversaw a process in which the officers were instructed to rewrite their statements. References to the compliance of Habib and his friends; to the amount of force used by the police; to Habib’s condition (including his going limp and his strange breathing); to warnings from witnesses that Habib was being strangled and even to the presence of some of the witnesses were all removed from the final statements. It is entirely clear that senior officers, the Police Federation and the police solicitor were actively instigating a cover-up, in which the IPCC was being deliberately misled as to what was done to Habib, the warning signs about his condition, and even as to who witnessed the event.
At first, the cover-up worked. The IPCC investigation exonerated all the officers involved and concluded that no wrongdoing had taken place (none that is except for failing to inform Habib’s family of his death promptly enough, exhibiting a disregard for the family’s welfare that seems to be disgracefully common in such cases). Two years later, however, when the inquest began, the truth about the redacting of the statements began to emerge. Under cross-examination – when asked why so many relevant details now coming out were not included in the initial statements – one of the officers gave the game away. The inquest was suspended whilst the IPCC re-opened their investigation. The new investigation was to look into not only whether the original findings were affected by the new evidence, but also into whether the rewriting of the statements itself constituted wrongdoing.
This new investigation, amazingly, took the IPCC a full three years. The final report – which has still not been published – concluded that the case should be referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (the CPS) for criminal prosecution of the officers involved; charges to be considered included misconduct in public office, assault, intention to pervert the course of justice and perjury. Months passed – until, in August 2014, the CPS announced that it did not intend to prosecute a single one of the officers involved.
But that was not the end of the matter. An inquest had still to take place, and it was announced that this would be held in February 2015. If this inquest resulted in a verdict of unlawful killing, the potential for a criminal prosecution would be reopened.
As the inquest unfolded, the likelihood of this outcome seemed to grow. One expert witness after another concluded that the officers’ “restraint” significantly contributed to Habib’s death. Under cross-examination, even the police’s own preferred specialist – the appropriately named Dr Bleetman – eventually had to accept this (a finding he had denied in his initial report). Police trainers testified that many of the strikes and “compliance techniques” used by the officers were not approved, and even those that were should not have been administered in those circumstances – that is, without warning against a passive victim. It was revealed that, despite officers’ claims to be trying to open Habib’s mouth, some of the techniques used are actually deigned to close the mouth. The evidence of the inquest revealed, overwhelmingly, that the assault had been unlawful and had, in part at the very least, led to Habib’s death.
After a month taking evidence, the jury deliberated. Their highly critical narrative concluded: “Several officers recognised some signs associated with abnormal breathing but no practical assistance was offered. Valuable time was lost due to the fact that the officers believed him to be feigning unconsciousness. Once Mr Ullah was unconscious rigorous monitoring should have been undertaken. The jury believes that the level of monitoring was inadequate. Furthermore the jury considered that the incident was poorly managed. In particular the lack of communication and clear commands by a leading officer resulted in an uncoordinated and ineffective restraint.” Yet they did not reach a verdict of unlawful killing; rather they recorded “death by misadventure.” The last chance for a criminal prosecution was over; the officers who had just been shown to have launched an unprovoked attack on Habib and then left him to die would walk free.
These are the battles which families of victims face in case after case in this country: uphill struggles even just to find out what happened, endless delays, and then total lack of accountability or justice at the end of it all. The whole labyrinthine system is a masterclass in obfuscation and the perversion of justice under the guise of bureaucratic procedures. And every step of the way, the institutions involved emerge complicit in protecting the impunity of the police.
Firstly, the police themselves and the Police Federation. It was senior police officers and Police Federation members who stepped in to ensure that the original police statements were doctored to protect the officers. Yet they have never been called to account for their actions.
Secondly, the IPCC. Established in 2004 to replace the entirely discredited Police Complaints Commission, the IPCC was supposed to be an independent body which could be relied on to impartially investigate the police. Paps’ case shows how far this is from the truth. The senior officers and Police Federation members who instigated the cover-up were never the subject of the IPCC’s investigations, which focused solely on the officers involved in the death – despite the fact that the second investigation had a remit to specifically investigate that cover-up.
Furthermore, the fact that the scene was not treated as a crime scene, and that the officers were interviewed not as suspects but as witnesses is indicative of the bias that is at the very heart of the IPCC. These decisions – which are standard practice when investigating custody deaths – reveal that, from the very outset, the IPCC’s assumption is that no crime has been committed, and the idea that the officers involved might be responsible for the death is not even a possibility. Deaths in custody are treated not as crimes, but, at worst, as tragic accidents. This goes beyond the concept of “innocent until proven guilty”; the IPCC, begins by assuming there is not even anything to be guilty of. And inasmuch as there is any case to answer, it is only ever for the officers on the ground to answer – never their superiors.
None of this should be surprising, however, given the composition of the IPCC: eight out of its nine most senior members are themselves former police officers. Some independence. In 2012, the IPCC was even threatened with contempt of court proceedings by a coroner following its refusal to hand over key evidence during the Mark Duggan case. The IPCC is clearly unable to act as the independent watchdog it proclaims to be; indeed, in 2013 a parliamentary inquiry concluded that the IPCC “has neither the powers nor the resources that it needs to get to the truth when the integrity of the police is in doubt.”
Thirdly, the CPS. The decision not to prosecute the officers – after the IPCC had handed them detailed evidence of assault, perjury, and intent to pervert the course of justice – can only be understood in terms of an institutional determination to protect the police from prosecution at all costs. The evidence to mount a prosecution clearly was there. Even the police officers themselves admitted that the passages they removed from their statements were relevant and should have been included. Yet, as one officer noted at the inquest: “The Crown Prosecution Service concluded we were looking to make the evidence more accurate and not wishing to mislead people.” Given what was removed – details of the assault, details about Habib’s condition, details of other witnesses – even the IPCC concluded there was no way that making these omissions could have made the evidence ‘more accurate’.
But again, the CPS have form in this regard. In 1999, a government inquiry conducted by Gerald Butler was highly critical of the CPS’s reluctance to prosecute police officers involved in custody deaths. Since then, little has changed. In 2011, Janet Alder made history as the first person ever to take the CPS to court. Janet’s brother had died in police custody in Hull in 1998 and, as ever, the CPS refused to prosecute the officers involved. Four years later, after massive campaigning and evidence-gathering by the family, the CPS did eventually bring a case against five of the officers – but, it seems, deliberately bungled the case. Key pieces of evidence were not submitted, and others were conflated and thrown out. As Janet Alder said: “I don’t think it’s incompetence, because they’ve been prosecuting cases for hundreds of years… I think the CPS from the beginning had absolutely no intention whatsoever of prosecuting these officers. They’d proved that for four years. ”
Between them, these institutions – the Police Federation, the IPCC (and its predecessor) and the CPS – have shielded the police from justice for decades. This shielding has allowed a culture of impunity to persist and grow where officers believe they will never be held to account for their actions. What was particularly revealing about Habib’s inquest was that the more senior the officers involved, the more brazen and vicious were their actions.
The most senior officer, DS Liles, with eighteen years experience, was the one who initiated and led the attack itself, but also who showed the least remorse and the most arrogance subsequently, telling the jurors he would act in just the same way again. His younger colleagues, in contrast, were clearly worried about what had happened: one, PC Pomery, confessed to a colleague that he was worried he had gripped Habib’s throat too hard, for example. Liles clearly knew, however, that they had nothing to worry about. He knew they would be protected.
Their victim was well chosen. Many of the suspicious deaths in custody involve members of vulnerable groups who are already treated with contempt by society. Victims often have mental health problems; in Habib’s case, he was a drug user (a point which the officers never failed to mention in their testimonies at the inquest). The officers knew, it seems, that such a character – and a Muslim to boot – could hope for little sympathy from the jury. They may not have expected him to die from the attack – but the point is, they knew they could attack him with impunity, breaking every rule in the book. And those who had been there the longest, knew this the most clearly.
But for the family of Habib “Paps” Ullah – and for many others – the struggle for justice continues. The police’s internal gross misconduct case is due to take place in June; it will be one of the first ever to be held in public. In addition, the family have instigated a civil claim against Thames Valley Police on the basis of assault and breaches of the Human Rights Act Article 2, the Right to Life.
Over the past year, Prime Minister David Cameron has constantly declared his undying commitment to the “rule of law.” Yet while his own police force retain the level of impunity they currently enjoy, the notion remains a total fiction.