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Wednesday 2 March 2011

Waking up is hard to do

I've hesitated for a couple of weeks about writing this. I'm reluctant to say much about a subject on which I'm not an expert and of which I have no first-hand experience. On the other hand, I do have a lot of first-hand experience of Western mass media propaganda techniques, having been subjected to them all my life, so that's what I'm mostly writing about. I finally decided to put something on virtual paper when my initial suspicions started turning out to be correct.

I was deeply suspicious from the start of the media coverage of the popular uprisings in North Africa. Western media are not well known for their sympathy for protest or support for Third World democracy - unless it suits their particular purposes. The liberal press in particular were overwhelmingly effusive in their support for the protests in Egypt and other North African nation-states. What is it about this phenomenon that leads the media to spin it in this particular way, rather than, for example, describing the protesters as rebels or insurgents, describing the violence as a morally intractable conflict rather than a clear case of one group being oppressed by another, or ignoring the protests and ensuing human rights abuses altogether? All of these tactics have been used in other situations which were broadly morally equivalent and of comparable importance.

It is also important to remember the medium-term historical background. Since the period of decolonisation, the Western powers have consistently supported violent repressive states and actively and violently undermined Third World democratic movements. The US in particular, as has frequently been stated by people like Chomsky, have consistently used proxy or direct violence to undermine any decolonising nation-state that tries to set up a welfare system or to keep the profits of resource exploitation. Despite this, we have seen in the past fortnight commentary in the liberal press explicitly expressing complete faith in the US government's commitment to grassroots democracy and ruminating about the benevolent superpower's options about how best to facilitate it in this case.

This is nauseating hypocrisy bordering on outright historical lying. But what is it all about? My interpretation right from the start has been that the media are building the propaganda foundations for a Western-corporate military occupation of the whole of North Africa based on the golden opportunity provided by the uprisings. The first stage has been to continually and prominently report and support the uprisings - and who could disagree with that? The sympathy created among the liberal readership can now be steered in the direction of military occupation.

The next step was taken last week when the UN called for a no-fly zone in Libya. Very well - who could question the benevolence of protecting the population from airborne violence? But no-fly zones have to be enforced. There was a curious silence about who would do this. At the same time NATO issued the predictably sinister (and self-contradictory) denial that it was considering military force - a way of introducing the possibility into the argument, in fact more or less equivalent to a statement that it does intend to use military force. Now the US government has announced that they are considering it, which was not much of a surprise.

Corporations like mercenary contractor Blackwater, arms dealers, Halliburton - who are siphoning off billions from the Iraq 'reconstruction' - and resource extraction interests must be salivating over the disorder in North Africa and the opportunities it presents them: arms sales, mercenary 'security' contracting, rebuilding of infrastructure once the military have destroyed it, multinational corporate control of resources, privatisation of public services... it is a historic moment of opportunity which they are unlikely to have overlooked.

Perhaps equally important, the alternative is too dangerous to contemplate - a politically moderate, integrated North African economic (and military?) region with nationalised industries and some kind of welfare state systems. Such an outcome would create an undesirable counterweight of stability to the US and their allies' apparent determination to reduce everything to the use of violent force - with which they have so far presumed they can conquer at will. Not only that, it would force Israel to do what is in the interests not only of Palestinians in the occupied territories but also of Israelis: retreat to its legally established borders and integrate peacefully into the region, thereby negating its strategic value to the US as a stick to stir up the Middle East.

It is utterly naive to think that these obvious conclusions have not occurred to the US strategic planners and military-industrial complex. The horrible example of the 20-year devastation of Iraq, one of the greatest and most cynical crimes in human history, should prove this beyond any doubt. But the question of whether the public in the UK will be lied and smarmed into supporting military occupation in North Africa depends on whether they are self-reliant enough to see how the propaganda system works and where it is currently leading. I still remember people expressing support for, or at least equivocation over, the invasion of Iraq on the grounds of 'human rights'. Unless they have selectively forgotten this, I hope they now realise that they were wrong, and how and why they were led to such a preposterous position.

More importantly I hope that they will draw the necessary conclusion from their disastrous mistake - that the liberal media, far from being an objective source of information about reality, are an increasingly sophisticated propaganda machine that is playing a major role in taking the world in an extremely dangerous direction. And, finally, I hope that enough people are prepared this time to take the necessary (relatively minor) risks to themselves to engage in effective rather than merely symbolic resistance to another imperial war.

Tuesday 31 August 2010

Oh, I do like to Sieg beside the seaside...

I honestly never thought I'd see fascists marching through the streets of Brighton.

Because of my family background I was brought up with a strong awareness of the history of Nazism. Unlike some people from European Jewish backgrounds, including members of my family, my response to this was not to retreat into paranoid Jewish nationalism but to draw some more general conclusions about history, politics and especially the relationship of the individual to the state. That was the earliest motivation that eventually led me to become an anarchist - a political position that I believe results logically from a combination of the desire to attain personal integrity, the principle of non-harm, and a certain amount of historical and political knowledge. Though my political life has taken various turns, I have always had at the back of my mind a watchfulness for the return of far-right politics in the UK. As I have said in other posts, I have been concerned for many years about the increasing authoritarianism and conformism of mainstream politics. Recently, however, it appears that certain people - perhaps just a few cynical individuals - are trying to bring far-right politics back into the British political spectrum.

I came back early from visiting my family to oppose the so-called English Nationalist Alliance march in Brighton. As far as I can tell, they are the aspiring paramilitary English Defence League with a racist authoritarian political programme. They claim to have chosen Brighton because of what they call 'anti-English' activities in the area - an apparently nonsensical statement that actually refers to the relatively healthy radical political scene here. So essentially they had called a march against me and all my friends.

I got back to Brighton late on the night before the fascist march, so I didn't have much idea what was going on in opposition to it. I turned up in the general area of the fascist meeting point, Brighton station, and tried to wait inconspicuously, hoping that enough others would have the sense to do the same thing. I bumped into a couple of people but still had no idea how many were around. We waited in a small group. I didn't want to go anywhere near the station after a good friend of mine was arrested during the last nationalist march in Brighton just for showing up in the street.

After about an hour I saw a large crowd move down Queens Rd (leading south from the station) and turn east into North St. I wasn't quite sure what was going on at first but worked out this was the UAF-led main body of the anti-fascist demo, being compliantly herded away from the fascists by the police and led into a crowd pen they had set up in Victoria Gardens, which I'd had a look at earlier. One of my friends decided to join them and later sent us a message saying it was 'totally shit'. Useless bastards. There must have been hundreds of them. All they had to do was stand still in the right place and the fascist march would have been blocked.

Once they had passed, we carried on up Queens Rd. I was relieved to see that a group of perhaps 30-40 militant anti-fascists and Brighton anarchists were still on Queens Rd. It was reassuring to see that at least a small amount of solidarity still exists on this planet. I presumed at that point that the police would be herding the UAF crowd into their pen, and then do the same with the fascists.

Word came from two independent sources that the police were planning to redirect the fascist march down Trafalgar St, leading east immediately outside the station. Most of us moved down to Trafalgar St to try and block them, but I understand that another group separated from the anti-fascist bloc at this point and tried to block the fascists at other places. We assembled on Trafalgar St just in front of the tunnel and waited.

A line of police came down the tunnel and stood in front of us, followed by three dog handlers with snarling dogs. I went up and challenged one of the police with how utterly despicable it was to use dogs against the people of his own city to force a fascist demonstration through the streets. He looked quite shaken but didn't say anything, presumably having been briefed not to talk to us. Three or four police horses came up the road behind us, walked round us and lined up with the line of foot police. I'm quite scared of batons (and if you want to know why I'll show you the scars), very scared of horses and extremely scared of dogs. It was fairly obvious at this point that the police were going to try and push us down the road to get the fascist march through. After some more tense waiting, the police moved towards us and started pushing. I asked the policeman who was shoving me if he was aware that he had no legal power to assault me and was comitting a criminal offence. He didn't have much to say except 'You've been asked to get back.' The pushing became more aggressive as we passively resisted. They started going for the throat. I was grabbed and shoved several times by the throat.

Later I asked myself what it is that can make a human being grab and shove someone by the throat who is offering absolutely no physical threat to them.

Further down the road, as we continued to passively resist, they started pushing people onto the ground - including a woman of probably about 7 stone, pushed by a vicious sadist who must have been at least 16 stone and was clearly enjoying himself - and striking people in the legs and back with their knees. I got a painful bruise just above the tendon of my right biceps femoris. Police officers also attempted to use arm and neck locks to force me to comply. I didn't hear any batons coming out, but one woman showed me a bruise later that looked like a baton strike. Some of the militant anti-fascists tried to create barricades from large bins but didn't manage to block the road. The horses came forward to scatter us and we ended up at the bottom of Trafalgar St, on the pavement heading towards the pens in Victoria gardens. The last thing I wanted was to stand in a police pen all day, so I nipped across the road with a few others.

This was not the worst violence I've seen from Sussex police, but it was particularly frustrating that they were attacking us on behalf of Nazi skinheads.

Arriving at Victoria gardens I finally got a sight of some of the fascists. (Quote of the day: 'Have you seen the fascists?' 'I think they're behind that bus'). They truly are the dregs of humanity. 30 or so bleary-eyed skinheads were standing around in their oversized police pen, occasionally chanting football slogans, surrounded by a jeering crowd of Brighton residents. One prominent individual, who looked like a zombie that should have stopped taking amphetamines 20 years ago, was carrying an Israeli flag - apparently the far right have suddenly switched from antisemitism to pro-Zionism to try and make common cause against Islam, the enemy of the day. I asked corpse-face about this and he told me to 'fuck off'. More work needed on EDL public relations, perhaps. I was reminded once more that this is a political movement (or pseudo-movement) with practically no ideological basis, consisting of gutter kneejerk reactions and mindless nationalist slogans. The basic premise - that radical Islam is taking over the UK - is so preposterous that no-one could seriously believe it. Conclusion - there is something else behind it. The sight of a few fat, cynical veterans in the crowd confirmed this. They must have been there before Islam became the new official enemy. Do they have a strategy or do they just enjoy it?

Anyway, all good things must come to an end, and it came to time for the police to babysit the delicate little Nazis back to the station and home to bed. They were followed up the hill by the swelling crowd of Brightonians who, disgusted by the presence of these bigoted scum in our sophisticated laid-back town, gathered to give them a royal send-off, gleefully jeering as they were quick-marched back to whatever London overspill arsehole town they were recruited from.

Monday 7 June 2010

Killing with the Pen

Last week I attended an appeal hearing at the Immigration Tribunal in London. I have some experience of criminal courts and their strange inhabitants, but nothing had prepared me for this. A friend who was present described it as "Kafka's The Trial remade by David Lynch."

The interior design is somewhere between that of a magistrate's court and a dole office, the feeling of frazzled and routine desperation perhaps closer to the latter. After the usual token bag search, which I presume is done in order to make us believe that it is necessary, I take the lift together with two suited wonks whom I suspect are from the Home Office. They have the inane look about them of the yapping adolescent dogs of contemporary political power. Keen to take the opportunity to wind them up, I say loudly to my friend, "I hope they don't kill him. It's not very nice when they kill your friends." With hindsight I would like to have added, "especially on a nice day like this," which it was. I like to put things into perspective, particularly for the education of flabby, vacuous little murderers.

The second floor, where the tribunals are held, is full of stressed-out migrants and bustling lawyers from both sides. There are three queues in some incomprehensible system at the reception desk. I stand at the middle one, which seems to be labelled "Reception" and am told with an impatient sigh to move to the left one. I say I am here as a member of the public to watch the case of Mr _ _. The minor apparatchik rolls his eyes and says sarcastically, "Who's Mr _ _?" as if to point out how ridiculous it is for me to expect him to remember one foreign name from the long list of foreign names on whom the State would be making life or death judgements that day. I keep my temper and he tells me to look at the lists.

A sign next to the lists informs us loudly that "this service is provided free of charge at point of delivery." They're doing you a favour by allowing you the chance to prove, according to their rules, that you deserve to live. A very civilised, British twist on the totalitarian gesture of sending someone a bill for the bullets that killed a member of their family.

In the court room I greet the "appellant", a young man, my friend and tui na patient. He is almost speechless with anxiety after months in a situation equivalent to death row. He has been tortured in his country of origin, both by the police and by a powerful, murderous political faction, because of his work in an organisation campaigning against human rights abuses. If he is forced to return, he is almost certain to be arrested and tortured, and likely to be killed. After the trauma of violent persecution and a gruelling journey to Europe and the UK, he is now being subjected to a bureaucratic process that keeps him in a state of constant tension and fear.

The court is small with a low ceiling, like a small lecture room. There is a raised desk for the judge at the other end from where we sit on a row of mix-and-match chairs. The royal coat of arms behind the judge's desk, unlike the large full-colour version in criminal courts, is small and metallic grey - hideously appropriate for the cruel bludgeoning of humanity that takes place in these rooms.

We have to wait nearly an hour for the judge to arrive. By the time the clerk comes in, the translator has got bored and wandered off. The clerk goes off to find the translator, the translator comes back in, sees that the clerk isn't there, wanders out again, the clerk comes back in, leaves again and finally returns with the judge, who sends him out again to find the translator.

The judge is blind. Of course I know that this does not disqualify someone from being a legal expert, but there is something bitterly surreal about seeing the judge led into the court one step at a time by the clerk. More disturbingly, there seem to be long gaps in his mental processes during which he apparently forgets where he is and what is going on. He interrupts people in mid-sentence with tangential questions. He appears not to listen to what people say. He cuts off an important witness before the witness has made his point, and the witness has to press on with a crucial explanation of why people from a particular organisation are at risk of being killed. He has a tantrum after some trivial mathematical confusion.

I am shocked by the perfunctory nature of this hearing. My experience has been of criminal courts with their priority on oral testimony, which is gone through in great detail, often for days or weeks. This hearing, with hundreds of pages of evidence, and with the stakes infinitely higher than in any criminal case, lasts no more than half an hour.

The judge asks, "What do you fear if you return to [country of origin]?" My friend, the "appellant", replies, "Death." The judge asks, "Is there anything else?"

Later I will imagine a literary continuation of this exchange: "Death? Isn't that a little metaphysical? You'll have to come up with something a bit more substantial than that. I mean, death, it's rather mysterious, isn't it? Are you really able to give a definition of this 'death'?"

Then suddenly the hearing is over. The judge moves straight into the next case. The "appellant" may hear the decision in about three weeks, maybe longer. He says, "In [country of origin] they kill you with bullets. Here they kill you with the pen."

Thursday 6 May 2010

Vote Capitalist!

I would like to say that it seems unnecessary to set out an anarchist position on voting, as the standard arguments are well rehearsed, but it often happens that the excitement of the spectacle overtakes even those who have taken care to maintain a position of thorough integrity. In spite of my own deep cynicism, I awoke this morning with a visceral feeling of excitement. I wasn't sure at first what it was, then I remembered the great national spectacle that was to take place today. The frantic atmosphere of ritual participation had affected me at a physiological level. Fortunately I have developed at least a rudimentary awareness of the connection between my bodily sensations and thoughts, so I did not become unreflectively involved in the thought-complex that could have been generated from the intrusive feeling in my abdomen.

Participation in the voting spectacle is one of the great shibboleths of bourgeois conformity. It involves a wilful vacuity and a vicious pigheaded bloodymindedness that remind me of the state of mind of people who make a point of giving to charity or voice their support for, or equivocation over, the latest imperial war in the name of universal values. I have found that expressing my refusal to participate often results in a look of shocked and hurt betrayal from electoral enthusiasts. It reminds me of the period of hypnotised mania leading up to the election of Obama. Someone asked me what I thought of him and I said I thought he was a politician. The response was a great onslaught of whining naivety in which I was accused of taking away her hope. I can only reflect that I was right, and that disillusionment from hope in politicians can only be beneficial.

It pleases me to believe that what the electoral spectacle enthusiasts call apathy is actually a healthy cynicism and a quite correct realisation that the whole thing is totally illusory. It's a filthy business and I will not disturb my mental balance by getting involved with the corrupt way of thinking that it entails - wouldn't it be just a little bit better if...? The act of voting is an acceptance of the entire pre-formed mindstate of the war machine. Conscious withdrawal of oneself from it, like withdrawal from the mental poisons of the television and newspapers, is a great step towards a self-sufficient engagement with reality and a step away from sacrificing one's independence of thought to the illusory and deadly security of the mass.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Minority Rights for Meat-eaters!

I believe it is time for the oppressed minority of meat-eaters to stand up for ourselves. Already in the forward-thinking USA, known worldwide for its protection of minorities (look what they've done for the Negroes and Indians), it is illegal to criticise the meat industry. Meat-eaters, as neither an ethnic nor a religious minority, find it difficult to gain recognition as the dietary minority that we are.

Being in perhaps a 1% minority in this country, the chances are that on average 99% of people a meat-eater meets will be raving, shouting, bomb-wielding vegans who snatch burgers out of their hands, hold them down and force-feed them organic beansprouts and curly kale. The overwhelming vegan majority, on the other hand, can largely take their lifestyle for granted as nearly everyone else is doing the same thing. To be a meat-eater in this country is to be forced to continually justify our way of life to nearly everyone we talk to.

Walking down any high street, the meat-eater is constantly bombarded by advertisements for the vegan lifestyle. Nearly every bus stop has a poster for Kentucky Fried Chickpeas or McTofu, while an endless series of pubs and restaurants parade their discriminatingly meat- and dairy-free menus. In this world where every high street has two or three independent wholefood shops selling organic fruit, veg, grains, beans, nuts and seeds, the meat-eater has to painstakingly seek out specialist supermarket suppliers to obtain a juicy piece of reconstituted factory-farmed carcass byproducts bound with synthetic fillers, laced with antibiotics, and sterilised with ammonia. The vegan lobby has overwhelming political power: the tempeh industry alone is worth hundreds of pounds a week, and contributed ten pounds last year to the Vegan Society.

We demand that meat-eaters be recognised as a dietary minority, and that acts of non-consumption of animal products, or incitement to non-consumption of animal products, should be recognised as hate crimes against us.

Friday 22 January 2010

John Zerzan at the Cowley

Last Sunday I attended a talk and discussion with the well-known anarcho-primitivist theorist, John Zerzan, at the Cowley Club. The event had been much talked about before and was well attended. I was expecting an interesting debate as he has many fans in the anarchist scene but there are also others who are strongly critical of anarcho-primitivism.

I ended up sitting with John over lunch before the talk. I had the impression of a relaxed, friendly, open-minded and down to earth character. Much of the table conversation was taken up by an episode of a long-running debate between me and another Brighton anarcho character who like many others is strangely defensive of the absolute superiority of corporate medicine, in the patronising scoffing manner that often accompanies naive materialist beliefs. During this exchange, which was enthusiastic, John seemed to observe us with amused interest.

The first part of the talk was somewhat rambling. There didn't seem to be much of a theme to it. John didn't really get going until the questions started. I found it admirable that in general he did not give the impression of defending a stereotyped position, which allowed him to disarm some of the questioners who were doing that. Some points he answered with anthropological or political arguments; at other times he answered, "Yes, that's a good point," or just, "I don't know." However, after the talk I still had a similar feeling about anarcho-primitivism to before: that there is much strength in its critique, but that it is weaker as a positive theoretical position - indeed I sometimes feel that way about anarchism in general. In his essays and in this talk, John is very clear and quite plausible in tracing the roots of oppression and hierarchy to very early specialisation of labour, and crucially agriculture, but when expressing a positive position he tends to resort to slogans like, "Get rid of the lot."

I found it wryly amusing to observe people asking questions from their entrenched positions, especially the leftist ones and the anarcho-primitivists who were more attached to John's position than he was, and being effectively disarmed by his more open, questioning attitude. But there was some ambivalence about this, perhaps because of his need to maintain a political stance against the risk of degenerating from an activist to an intellectual: it seems inconsistent to express a flexible, exploratory position at one moment and then to define oneself as anarcho-primitivist, taking on the whole baggage of dogmas and sub-sub-cultural shibboleths. He seems to be caught between these two conflicting postures.

I was struck by the question of the value of taking up theoretical positions in general. What exactly does it mean to give one's assent to a particular theoretical proposition, especially when with these theoretical questions we are taking a certain critical perspective on discursive thought? To me, it's a bit like ticking an imaginary box in front of some sentence or other. From a certain perspective there is a self-contained circularity to discursive thought and the formation of theoretical positions, and some people do seem to get over-excited about it, as we saw at this event. Unfortunately in political activist culture there is a certain taboo around discussion - or, more importantly, around realisation - of mental faculties other than discursive thought, perhaps due to an assumed historical association of discursive thought with liberation from religious dogma. I suspect that the aggressive and surprising defence of corporate medicine I mentioned above is also in part connected with this questionable historical accident, and the equally questionable exclusive equation of corporate science with reason.

While I'm here, I might as well record something that struck me after that pre-lecture argument. Medical knowledge based on statistics (ignoring for now the essential corruption of the system that produces the knowledge) treats the body-mind relationship as a black box. What's going on inside the box is taboo. Subjectivity is regarded as meaningless. The variety of medicine that I practice, on the other hand, requires one to look inside the box. And what one finds inside the box is the truth of one's own subjective being. Facing one's own subjective reality may be a daunting experience - we see all our faults, our weakness and falsehood. It's not surprising that some people will go to almost any effort to avoid looking inside the box, even denying their own self-consciousness. Perseverance, however, yields a type of certainty which cannot be proved or disproved or explained intersubjectively but to which the piecemeal adolescent sneering of corporate statistical knowledge is pathetically illusory. There's no point in trying to argue about what's in the box with someone who refuses to look inside, but it does little harm to state my case here. The corporate medicine hardliners can sneer as much as they like.

Thursday 7 January 2010

Sledging on the Town Moor

There is a curious feature in the middle of Newcastle - a very large, open, rough field of about 3x3km called the Town Moor. I believe that it has been protected from development because the Freemen of the City have the right to graze cattle on it. Nelson Mandela, incidentally, is an honorary Freeman of Newcastle, though I'm not sure that he grazes any cattle on the Moor. The Town Moor hosts the famous annual gathering of travelling fairs called the Hoppings. It is augmented with some trees planted in the 1970s and a couple of artificial hills made from colliery spoil. The hills give reasonable views over the city, which is otherwise fairly flat. Satellite map.

Throughout my years in the city, I often used the Moor as a running and cycle track and as a pleasant and direct route to visit friends in Fenham. The most exciting activity was in snowy winters, when the larger of the two hills makes a long, fast sledging run. The view below is the gentle side slope, not the steeper face used for sledging:

This is a good view, from the Chronicle:

Sledging on the Moor is a vigorously enjoyable and quite unique experience. The run is exciting enough to attract a contingent of adults as well as children and their families. There's always a fun and friendly atmosphere at this spontaneous gathering, with accents from all parts of the city and beyond, and vehicles ranging from plastic bags to traditional wooden sleds. After the first day's use, the snow tends to be well packed down and frozen over, making it very fast. At night the hill is sufficiently lit from the city's lights for the fun to continue. I recommend sledging belly-down, head-first, steering with the hands, on the second night of freezing. Using the feet for steering creates too much friction and, if going feet-first, a blinding spray of snow. It's quite a thrill skimming down at high speed, steering with subtle hand pressure, marginally avoiding the trail of people who inexplicably walk right up the middle of the fastest sledge run. You need intense concentration to steer around them, and to stop before the rocks and fence at the bottom. Despite all the hazards and the usual trail of wrecked sledges, I have only heard of one serious injury, a broken leg many years ago.

Newcastle Council information.
Interesting pictures of the Hoppings, 1938.