Casualties, Accusations on Both Sides as Warsaw Burns

The spiral of violence in the Warsaw Jewish quarter – called a ‘ghetto’ by critics – saw its deadliest day yet, with fierce fighting and heavy casualties on both sides. Amidst increasing concerns about disproportionate force in what the German authorities’ insist is merely a routine resettlement operation, supporters of the hardline Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa – considered a terrorist organisation by many – continue to allege atrocities against Jewish civilians, including women and children. The authorities, however, insist that ZOB militants routinely use women and children to carry out their military operations, and store weapons in civilian areas, against the laws of war.

Gruppenführer Stroop, the local police official in charge of the operations, reiterated that the German authorities have no desire to inflict unnecessary death and destruction, and will cease their military operations in the Jewish quarter if the ZOB hardliners lay down their arms and allow the residents of the area to join their friends, family, and neighbours, who have already been resettled. Although some claim that the resettlement is merely an elaborate plot to exterminate the Jews of Warsaw, the authorities reject this ‘atrocity propaganda’, and do not waver from their claim that they are merely offering the residents of the Jewish quarter the opportunity to find jobs rebuilding the east.

The German administration is no stranger to controversy, and this is not the first time that they have been confronted with tales of alleged atrocities against women and children. Reached for comment, a spokesman for the authorities explained: ‘The Jews gradually are having to depend more and more on themselves, and have recently found a new trick. They knew the good-natured German Michael in us, always ready to forget the injustice he has suffered at the sight of sentimental tears. One suddenly has the impression that the Jewish population consists only of little babies whose childish helplessness might move us, or else fragile old ladies. The Jews send out the Sympathy Brigade. They may confuse some harmless souls for a while, but not us. We know exactly who we’re dealing with.’

(To the tune of Elton John’s Candle in the Wind)

Good bye, Ariel,
Didn’t need to keep us waiting, though.
You had the front to say ‘Well done!’
When the blood began to flow.
They sought refuge in the darkness,
So you said: ‘Turn on the lights!’
And your signature was a cut throat
With two eyes that died of fright.

And it seems to me you met your end
Like a crap Arriva train,
When some light rain outside Pontypridd,
Makes it two hours late again.
And I cannot help but notice,
Now that you’ve pissed off at last,
That a quiet death in hospital,
Doesn’t suit your blood-soaked past.

Ariel, you’re in luck,
The media don’t care at all,
They’ve pre-ordered enough whitewash,
To put ten coats on Whitehall.
They’ll say ‘He was controversial,
But, in the end, a man of peace.’
That’s to say ‘He was a scumbag,
But he was our scumbag, at least.’

I wish I could say, now you’ve shot through,
Everything will surely change,
But we both know that you’re no one-off,
You’re part of the standard range.
Your death doesn’t end an era,
no new time does it begin,
but, on balance, it’s still nice to know
that you’ve gone off oxygen.

I just finished reading Glenn Greenwald’s With Liberty and Justice for Some.

On the positive side, Greenwald provides a highly detailed account of the degree to which political and media élites have, particularly in the past decade, openly embraced the idea that the powerful are above the law, discussing not only the crimes against humanity committed under Bush and Obama, but the crimes of the financial sector, and much more.

However, there are two weaknesses to Greenwald’s account, which are interrelated.

For one thing, he repeatedly claims that the élite embrace of lawlessness dates back to Watergate. Although it is certainly not unusual for liberals to list Watergate as the date of Washington’s fall from grace, it is patently false. Although he mentions the criminality of COINTELPRO, which was revealed at roughly the same time was Watergate (and led to markedly less élite outrage), he only does so in order to provide historical context to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

A true account of élite lawlessness in the US would go back much farther, and include the US slaughter in Vietnam, the refusal to prosecute various economic powerhouses for trading with the Nazis during World War II, the refusal to prosecute Texaco for violating the Neutrality Act during the Spanish Civil War, the US dirty war against Latin America, the fairly regular massacres of striking workers and other political dissidents throughout US history both by and with the approval of top US officials. Nor does he mention that the US has never taken seriously the treaties it has concluded with those less powerful, such as the indigenous population. Indeed, a true account of Greenwald’s thesis – that the powerful in the US are above the law – would require him to go back to the very foundation of the state.

And this is the second problem. In his quest to create an ‘innocence lost’ narrative, he gives the Founding Aristocrats an egalitarian makeover that most of them would have found deeply offensive. Whilst acknowledging, in a cursory nod to historical accuracy, that the system the founders created was based on profound inequalities, he insists that the founders’ ritualistic invocation of the concept of equality was ‘aspirational’ rather than ‘hypocritical’. How a ruling class that regularly opposed popular demands for equality with murderous violence could be said to be ‘aspiring’ to that which they were desperate to combat is a question Greenwald does not address. He mentions Abigail Adams’ statement in her letter to John Adams that ‘every man would be a tyrant if he could’, but only as a set-up for a more general point: he does not inform readers that this was a letter in which Abigail Adams was imploring her husband not to disenfranchise fully half of the population, nor does he mention her husband’s reply, which deserves pride of place in the annals of mansplaining.

Greenwald acknowledges slavery and the disenfranchisement of anyone who was not white and male, but does not mention the property requirements that served to disenfranchise the working class. He quotes James Madison at length, but never mentions Madison’s statement that the purpose of government was ‘to protect the minority of the opulent from the majority’, nor Madison’s distress at the ‘levelling’ tendency in the population, Madison’s term for the fact that the rabble who weren’t allowed a seat at the grand constitutional bargaining table mistakenly believed that all this talk of equality included them.

Indeed, there is not a single aspect of the élite lawlessness that Greenwald eloquently condemns that does not have a parallel in the founding period. Even the foreclosure scandal has its analogue in the founding period: many veterans of the War of Independence came home only to discover that the landlords who had urged them to go off and fight had evicted them and their families for not paying the rent whilst they were away. Popular rebellions demanded debt relief; the founders responded by enacting a constitution that prohibited it.

It is comforting to think that there was some period in which the values we are told this country was founded on were actually taken seriously by those in power. However, it is also bollocks, and as long as we are willing to buy into it, we will always be easy prey for hucksters who promise a return to former glory.

Chile, ¡la alegría ya viene!

Chile, the joy is coming!
- NO Vote campaign jingle

Nos prometieron que llegaría la alegría
pero mintieron, gobiernan pa una minoría.
Nos oprimieron con injusticias cada día,
pero siguieron naciendo hijos de la rebeldía.

They promised us that the joy was coming,
but they lied – they govern for a minority.
They oppressed us with injustices every day,
but the children of rebellions kept being born.

-Vamos, Conspirazión

In the official narrative, Pinochet’s handover of his office to Patricio Aylwin (himself an unabashed supporter of the Pinochet coup), is known as the retorno a la democracia (‘return to democracy’). Painted on walls throughout Chile, however, we find the words Aún vivimos en dictadura (‘We’re still living in a dictatorship’).

In the book discussed in Part I, Chilean social historian Gabriel Salazar explains:

 

Los partidos políticos, golpeados como estaban, flotaron agarrados al vértigo de nuestro movimiento (aunque algunos pretenden convencernos de lo contrario) hasta que llegamos a 1990. Y fue allí entonces, en 1990, cuando, olvidando nuestra laboriosa autonomía y nuestra fuerza, depositamos de nuevo nuestra confianza en la clase política civil…Como si ‘ella’ hubiera sido la ‘gran’ vencedora en la retirada de Pinochet.

Y hemos estado más de 20 años esperando que ‘ella’ mostrara su declamada vena democrática, su supuesta lealtad a la voluntad soberana del pueblo. O por lo menos su profesión de fe nacionalista.

The political parties, beaten as they were, were dragged along by the current of our movement (although some would have us believe otherwise) until we reached 1990. And it was then, in 1990, that, forgetting our hard-fought autonomy and our strength, we once again put our trust in the civilian political class…As if they had been the great victors in Pinochet’s departure.

And we have been waiting for more than 20 years now for them to show their oft-proclaimed democratic credentials, their alleged loyalty to the sovereign will of the people. Or at least their profession of nationalist faith.

(ellipses and emphasis in original)

(more…)

Si la presidenta no te cuenta la pulenta, lo hago yo
Chile está en venta desde que la Concerta ganó el NO
Aylwin, Lagos y también Frei dieron paso a Bachelet
Donde el mercado se hace rey y el subcontrato se hace ley
Mi canto no es de mala fe, tengo evidencia suficiente
Pa’ condenar a muerte a veinte dirigentes malolientes
Solamente basta con mirar las calles desde el Transantiago
4 millones de detalles cotidianos
Me confirman que la ciudadanía está pintada
Elección tras elección, la votación no cambia nada.

If President Bachelet won’t tell you what’s up, I’ll have a go:
Chile’s been for sale ever since the Concertación won one for NO.
Aylwin, Lagos, and then Frei made way for Bachelet,
where the market is king and outsourcing’s the big thing.
I’m not singing in bad faith. I’ve got sufficient evidence
to condemn to death twenty foul-smelling leaders.
All you need to do is look through the windows of Santiago’s buses,
4 million pieces of evidence every day,
confirming that the people are are the ones that always take hits,
we’ve had vote after vote, and the elections never change shit.
Infórmate, Subverso

 

The international coverage of the recent Chilean elections, particularly in the English-language media, has been in keeping with the standards of depth and quality that have consistently been observed by the English-language press in its reporting on the current cycle of mass popular mobilisations that began roughly in 2011. That is to say that it has not been very good.

Guardian readers, for example, were presented with the image of a democratic process leading to a popular, implicitly left, victory in the form of the first round re-election of ex-president Michelle Bachelet Jeria and the entry into the National Congress of former university student union leader Camila Vallejo Dowling. The groundwork for this superficial and misleading picture has been laid over the past two years by articles that equate Vallejo (and, occasionally, her fellow élite university students Giorgio Jackson and Camilo Ballesteros) to the student movement as a whole, as if they (or their organisations) had in fact initiated the student mobilisations (they didn’t) and were the undisputed leaders of the movement (they never were). The much larger contingent, the secondary students, grouped in the horizontally organised ACES (Asamblea Coordinadora de Estudiantes Secundarios – Secondary Students’ Coordinating Assembly), have been as thoroughly ignored by the foreign press as they have been by the Chilean government and the dominant media oligopoly there. Similarly, one would search in vain for any mention, let alone detailed reporting or analysis, on the other major popular movements that have mobilised in recent years, which all share with the majority of the student movement the desire to sweep away the repressive, neoliberal institutional legacy of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet Ugarte and refound Chilean society on a new, egalitarian basis. The Chilean political and economic system is in a profound crisis of legitimacy – one utterly unaffected by the recent election, which was boycotted by 51% of the electorate – but readers of English-language media won’t hear about it. (more…)

The most recent issue of Jacobin contains an interesting essay by Chase Madar, entitled Edward Snowden and the American Condition: Law and lawyers can’t save us from the creeping police state – but politics might. In it, Madar questions the tendency – both on the left and elsewhere – to couch opposition to the atrocities of the powerful in legalistic terms.

Overall, I share Madar’s views on the limitations of legalistic discourse, particularly his statement of what is wrong with making everything a matter of legality:

Our laws are not the miraculous embodiment of a transcendant morality. Legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, who died earlier this year, was a giant and a genius, but we would do well to take a long sabbatical from his high-minded work in favour of his positivist opponent, H.L.A. Hart, for whom laws are the rules of the state, nothing more and nothing less [...].

Quite. Laws – from municipal by-laws to the Geneva Conventions – are nothing but a product of the array of forces in a given society at a given time. Those who have the most power can make whatever laws they want, though countervailing forces may occasionally force them to make the odd concession. Because of this, they are constantly subject to change with little or no input from us. A notion of justice built on a foundation of law will be forever a moving target.

This point Madar supports by noting, with Martin Luther King, that many of the worst atrocities of our time are perfectly legal. And here, he goes awry. Madar is so quick to declare atrocities legal that he gets a number of them wrong, and, in so doing, weakens his own point:

‘Were the sanctions against Iraq, which killed hundreds of thousands, okay’, Madar asks, ‘because they were in conformance [sic] with the UN charter [sic]?’ Later on, he remarks that ‘Most of the horrors disclosed by WikiLeaks – like the slaughter in the Apache helicopter video – are also legally permissible according to the laws of war as they actually exist.’

It is indeed, as Madar says, ‘an ugly tribute to the power of law and lawyers how many atrocities are legal’, but the atrocities he specifically mentions were not legal.

Let us first turn to the ‘sanctions’ against Iraq. At the outset, it is important to keep in mind that the UN Charter is just one source of law that is applicable to the sort of economic warfare the US and UK visited on Iraq for twelve years. Examining the other relevant sources of law, we find that the deliberate denial of food and medicine to an entire civilian population for a period of years falls – at a minimum – under the headings of ‘wilful killing’ and ‘wilfully causing great suffering’, both of which fall under the heading of ‘grave breaches’ of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, also known as crimes against humanity. They also fall within the definition of genocide set forth in art. 2(c) of the Genocide Convention: ‘Deliberately inflicting on the [national, ethnical, racial, or religious group] conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.’  The UN Charter does not give the Security Council or, indeed, any UN body the authority to carry out crimes against humanity or acts of genocide. Indeed, this is the sort of conduct that will land you in the Hague, at least if you’re a dictator who has fallen into disfavour with Washington and Brussels.

Much the same can be said of Madar’s other example: the ‘Collateral Murder’ slaughter of a group of Iraqi civilians, including two journalists, and several other Iraqi civilians who came to their rescue. Indeed, this massacre was doubly illegal. For one thing, it is illegal because it was committed in furtherance of a war of aggression, the ‘supreme international crime’, as it was called at Nuremberg. Under the UN Charter, which bans the use or threat of force in all but the limited, exceptional cases it enumerates itself, the US had no right to fire a single shot at anyone in Iraq, civilian or military. For another, it was an armed attack on noncombatants in a heavily populated civilian area of an (illegally) occupied country, in breach of multiple provisions of the Geneva Conventions.

It is certainly true, as Martin Luther King stated (and Madar quoted him as stating), that ‘everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’. Making it illegal was one of the central purposes of the changes to international law, and specifically international humanitarian law, following the Second World War.

Errors like these weaken Madar’s argument not so much because they’re wrong as a matter of law, but because they cause him to miss the opportunity to point out the true limitation on legalistic discourse, and legality itself, as a weapon in the struggle for global justice: The law only ever matters as and when it does not run counter to the interests of those who exercise real power in a society. Politicians and the capitalists they work for may flog the discourse of Law and Order to the rest of us, but to them, the law only matters as long as it doesn’t get in the way. It is real, material power, and not some abstract notion of legality, that determines what is permitted and what is proscribed.

The US government has regularly committed crimes strikingly similar to those for which they executed people at Tokyo and Nuremberg. Were any of the perpetrators of what Noam Chomsky has called ‘the crucifixion of Indochina’ particularly concerned that they might get done for crimes against humanity? Do Bush and Cheney act like men who think that, any day now, they might be arrested and charged with several thousand counts of torture, including torture resulting in death (a capital offence under US federal law)? No, they not only confessed, but boasted of these crimes on national television. How many generals have been nicked for the Fallujah massacre, or the 2008-2009 US-Israeli massacre in Gaza, which was modelled on it?

Drug offences are serious business, as most of the record-breaking US prison population can tell you. But the executives at HSBC, which has been massively involved in money laundering to facilitate the illegal drug trade, won’t be joining them anytime soon. One of the various mini-scandals to erupt around in the context of the subprime mortgage debacle was the practice of ‘robo-signing’, in which banks systematically forged quarryloads of documents in order to obtain foreclosures to which they were not legally entitled. We’re talking about probably hundreds of thousands of counts of forgery, perjury, fraud, and racketeering (forging the document is an offence, submitting it to a court is an additional offence, using it to obtain a thing of value is a separate offence, and setting up an organised scheme with a purpose of doing all of the above is yet another offence – for each document). And yet the only Wall Street criminal to go to jail in this entire debacle is Bernie Madoff, and only because he went on national television and confessed to the whole thing.

Moving away from criminality, the picture becomes even clearer. The First Amendment to the US Constitution has been on the books for over two centuries, but it took until the mid-20th century for freedom of speech to become the law of the land (and, thanks to Holder v HLP and Obama’s war on whistleblowers, it’s already on its way out again). The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments – which were supposedly going to abolish slavery and racial discrimination – didn’t get in the way of lynching and Jim Crow. The Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause was polite enough not to get in the way of the Roosevelt administration’s decision to herd Japanese-Americans into squalid concentration camps.

It is a federal offence under US law to threaten a plant closure in order to intimidate workers out of forming a union. Employers do it all the time with no consequences. It’s illegal under the National Labor Relations Act to prevent employees discussing their pay and benefits with one another, and yet every employer I’ve ever worked with has had an explicit gag rule to prevent such discussions. Not one of them ever seemed particularly worried about legal consequences; most likely, they didn’t even know it was against the law because no one’s enforcing those laws.

Ever since the CIA-instigated coup in 1973, Chile has lived in a state of permanent illegality. First came an illegal, violent overthrow of an elected government by sworn officers of the Chilean military (in collusion with a hostile foreign power, no less). Then, the perpetrators of the coup unilaterally revoked the existing constitution, wrote a constitution of their own, and then imposed that constitution by means of a ‘plebiscite’ in which no opposition was permitted. In the meantime, they sorted out their political opponents by torturing tens of thousands and murdering thousands. The popular uprisings of the 1980s got rid of Pinochet, but his illegal constitution and many of the ‘laws’ that he enacted with no legal authority (including his ‘Terrorism Act’, designed to deny fair trials to political opponents) remain in force, and have routinely been applied by successive ‘democratic’ governments. There is literally not a single thing about the political structures of contemporary Chile that isn’t flagrantly illegal, not that that bothers those in charge much.

To say that law is of limited utility in the struggle for social justice would be a monumental understatement.

In Chile, there is more popular awareness of systemic illegality than in many places. One of the demands that has crystallised through the mass popular mobilisations for free education, indigenous rights, and against centralism is the demand for an asamblea constituyente, a constitutional assembly in which ordinary people would get together and work out what sort of constitution they want to live under, and replace the existing constitution with it. There have been two previous attempts to do this in Chile, both crushed by a mixture of force and guile that resulted in the constitutions that have actually been enacted in Chile. It has gained so much currency that, with the exception of the explicitly fascist parties, the candidates in the upcoming Chilean presidential election have been forced at least to provide lip service to the idea.

Let’s assume for a moment that people in the US (or anywhere else) were to do the same thing. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that the vast majority of the population of the United States got together both locally and nationally, and hammered out a new constitution in accordance with their own interests and priorities. From the polling data of the past thirty years, it would likely be radically different to the existing constitution, and would probably include a right to free, public health care and education (occasional polls have shown a majority of the population actually thinks those things are in the current constitution), and at the very least a severe curtailment of the power of corporations and those who own them. Hell, let’s assume – why not – that the product of these deliberations was a determination that workers and communities should have at least as much say in how corporations are run as shareholders and managers (there’s more support for this than one might think).

Let’s assume that a majority of the people got together, deliberated, drafted this brilliant new constitution, and voted to enact it. And let’s further assume that that is all they had done up to that point, that the natural resources and means of production were in the same hands they’ve always been in, and that the military and police remained in possession of their weapons and had in no way repudiated their oath to serve the current regime.

Now, this hypothetical constitution, it bears remembering, would have a great deal more democratic legitimacy than the current one, which was imposed by force by a small, self-appointed clique of ‘men of better quality’. From a legal standpoint, too, it would be no less legitimate than the current US Constitution. After all, no Act of Parliament authorised the southern half of British North America to enact its own constitution, much less declare independence from the realm. Under the laws in force at the time, these acts were just as illegal as our hypothetical constitution would be.

So the people have spoken, and written their own constitution. Does anyone think that that will resolve the issue? That the owners of the natural resources and means of production will happily turn them over to the people, or submit to whatever means of democratic accountability the hypothetical constitution prescribes? Does anyone think that the military and the police, both sworn to uphold the current regime, would simply lay down their arms or switch sides? Does anyone think, in short, that any part of the state-capitalist apparatus would willingly hand over power just because a bunch of ordinary people got together and put some nice ideas on paper?

Of course not, and so, the hypothetical constitution will not rise to the level of a bad joke as long as the people who enacted it don’t take their ideas out of the realm of legal abstraction and put them into practice by deposing those currently in power and physically wresting the weapons, factories, and means of production from their control. Actual power is decided in the material realm – who has what, and how much of it? – and not in the legal realm.

Now, the remarks above – and Madar’s article – concern the efficacy of the legal system as a means of realising social justice and holding the powerful to account. There is, however, another aspect of the matter to consider, not mentioned by Madar, namely the legitimacy of that legal system itself.

When I speak of legitimacy, the issues I refer to are roughly the following: Who decides what the law is? Who has input into the decision? Whose consent is sought before law becomes law? Whose views matter, and whose are disregarded? It is worth noting that, unlike the question of efficacy, which applies as much to law as we know it as it does to some hypothetical legal system not currently in existence, I am concerned here with the legal system as we know it.

And in the legal system as we know it, the law is nothing more nor less than a compendium of deals made by the powerful. This is just as true of international law (and speaking of legal atrocities, all those horrific ‘free trade agreements’ are part of international law, too) as it is of most constitutions, as well as everything else all the way down to the regulations of the local planning authorities.

As for who has substantive input into the content of the law, the answer is: Very few people indeed. Even if we leave aside, for the moment, that vast majority of the law that was in existence before we were born, and thus was enacted before we could even theoretically have an opinion on the subject, the fact remains that most people are not asked for their views on what the law should be, and (as the polls consistently show), even when they express an opinion, that opinion is usually ignored. Liberal democratic ideology would tell us that laws and state power rely on ‘the consent of the governed’, which, in the real world, amounts to saying that we consent by our very existence. The more sophisticated version is that we consent to the laws that are made by electing politicians, who then proceed to do whatever they (or their paymasters) want, in which case we are said to have consented to the laws by virtue of the fact that we put people in office who either told us nothing of their policies, or promise one thing, only to deliver something else. Even most campus police departments would consider this definition of consent a bit too broad.

The US Constitution, for example, is one of the most flagrantly illegitimate legal documents currently in force. It came into being when a self-appointed group of wealthy white men appointed themselves to draft a constitution in secret. The public wasn’t even allowed to hear what was being debated, let alone offer suggestions. Most of the population was excluded even from that threadbare excuse for political participation that is the vote. Women, making up roughly half of the population, were barred from voting. African-American slaves certainly didn’t have a say in the matter, and the indigenous population, of course, was excluded as well, as were even those white men who were insufficiently wealthy to share the founders’ interest in protecting ‘the minority of the opulent’. In short, virtually no one had a say in the matter.

International law is made by an equally small and unrepresentative group: heads of state, legislators, and diplomatic representatives of states. They get together in places where the public has no access, and certainly no opportunity to participate, and hammer out deals that reflect the interests of the most powerful segments of the society of the most powerful state at the table. True, there are exceptions, such as the requirements that amendments and addenda to the EU treaties be subject to referendum in Ireland and Portugal, but even there, popular participation is limited to deciding whether to ratify a fait accompli that most will have had no chance to read.

In short, none of this has the slightest legitimacy. As such, the notion that one can base one’s concept of social justice on existing law is just as nonsensical as the idea that we have a moral obligation to abide by the law simply because it is the law.

To some, these statements may seem at odds with many other things I have written, in which I have gone into great detail about the legalities – under international and national law – of all manner of atrocities. Why, indeed, would I have dedicated a substantial part of my life to the study of something I consider varying degrees of useless and illegitimate? Surely, it would be more consistent to utterly reject the use of questions of legality in political advocacy altogether.

Surveying the ex post facto legal framework by which the Nazi leadership were tried at Nuremberg, the chief prosecutor, US Justice Robert Jackson, remarked:

If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. And we are not prepared to lay down the rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us. We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.

In the ensuing decades, the US, together with the other states that stood in judgment at Nuremberg, have committed countless violations of the Nuremberg Principles. Indeed, there is no real indication that they ever intended to live by them.

Law is certainly useless as an agent of social change, and there is scarcely a legal system in existence that meets elementary criteria of democratic legitimacy, but that does not make it entirely useless. In the loftier areas of law, the constitutions and the various human rights conventions, the powerful have laid down very clear standards to demonstrate that they are driven by great humanitarian ideals. Never mind that they never had any real intention of abiding by these principles: They pulled the pint, and it is only right and proper that they be made to drink it as well.

The constitutions and human rights conventions of the world allow us to show the present power structure as lacking not only by our standards, but by the standards the powerful themselves claim to hold dear. If those existing legal standards that are substantively just are not, and indeed cannot and will not be adhered to under the current state-capitalist system, it is certainly worthwhile to point that out.

Occasionally, one hears that it is improper to ‘cherry-pick international law’ in advocating for justice and against oppression. Nonsense. We didn’t enact these standards, and we are under no obligation to accept any of them. There is nothing remotely illegitimate about pointing out that, say, the various ‘free-trade agreements’ that abolish basic human rights and environmental protections and take power from nominally accountable governments, putting it in the hands of utterly unaccountable organisations, are unjust and should be disregarded, but that the Fourth Geneva Convention’s ban on establishing settlements in occupied territory should be upheld. The former promotes oppression, the latter purports to outlaw it. That distinction is not trivial, nor is it illegitimate.

In short, I think that the left needs to take a much more sophisticated, critical approach to questions of law, both in our analysis and in our advocacy. We need to be conscious of how we are using the law, and what the true standards are that underlie our determination that one legal principle should not be violated, and another should be abolished. There is nothing wrong with being selective, indeed, I would submit that we should be selective, but in being selective, we must not allow ourselves or others to believe that our position is legality for legality’s sake. We must call things by their true names: When we criticise illegality, what we are really criticising is injustice, oppression, violence, racism, imperialism, exploitation, or any number of other evils. Many on the left have long treated legality as a means rather than an end without necessarily being entirely conscious that they’re doing it, which often leads to sloppy analysis and easily countered advocacy. We must be fully conscious that legality is one tool or tactic, and learn to be deliberate in our deployment of it. In so doing, we will be much better able to articulate our own moral and ethical principles, rather than selectively applying principles announced, and subsequently ignored, by the very power structures we’re fighting against.

ADDENDUM (31.10.2013)

The perfect example of the uselessness of law against those with real power is the UN Security Council, which is essentially a private club for the richest states with the deadliest militaries.

The Security Council was created by the UN Charter, and it has no authority going beyond the very specific provisions set forth in the Charter. For example, nothing in the Charter allows the Security Council to amend the Charter itself, or, indeed, to void or amend any provision of any other treaty (a Security Council resolution ‘repealing’ the Geneva Conventions, for example, would be invalid).

When it comes to the authorisation of the use of force, the Security Council does not have legal authority to authorise force as and when it wants, and for whatever purpose it wants. The purposes for which the Security Council may authorise military force are listed in the Charter itself. If the Security Council were, say, to authorise military force for the purpose of overthrowing a government and gaining access to natural resources, that would be completely illegal. The Security Council can only authorise force if force is only illegal for lack of Security Council authorisation. It cannot change the law to make illegal things legal; it is only authorised to enforce existing law

In other words, existing law does not give the Security Council a blank cheque to do whatever it wants; if its actions violate existing law, including the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, or some other source of law, they are illegal.

However, international law provides absolutely no means to hold the Security Council accountable. The General Assembly has no real authority at all, and certainly has no authority to sanction or remove Security Council members, or the Council as a whole, for violating the law. The international courts have no jurisdiction over the Security Council; indeed, existing law gives the Security Council a substantial degree of control over the courts within the UN system, particularly the International Criminal Court. As such, it is legally impossible to enforce international law against the Security Council, no matter how flagrantly they violate it. The law makes clear that the Security Council has limited authority, and is entirely capable of acting illegally (because it cannot make new law), but it provides no means of enforcement. 

Thus, the limits on Security Council authority turn out to be illusory (as does the Security Council’s authority the minute they refuse to authorise something the US really wants to do). In practice, the powerful states, particularly the most powerful states, acting through the Security Council, have carte blanche to violate the law as they see fit, and no one has the legal authority to do anything about it.

‘Revolution’ (at least the idea of revolution at ‘home’, rather than in Egypt or some other suitably distant part of the world) has probably received more mainstream attention in the past few days than in the past five years, starting with alleged comedian and serial sexual harasser Russell Brand’s remarks in a recent – and fulsomely praised – interview with Jeremy Paxman.

There, and in a subsequent article in the New Statesman, Brand spoke from the hearts of millions (judging from the response he’s received) with statements like:

I don’t vote because to me it seems like a tacit act of compliance; I know, I know my grandparents fought in two world wars (and one World Cup) so that I’d have the right to vote. Well, they were conned. As far as I’m concerned there is nothing to vote for. I feel it is a far more potent political act to completely renounce the current paradigm than to participate in even the most trivial and tokenistic manner, by obediently X-ing a little box.

Total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system is what interests me, but that’s not on the ballot. Is utopian revolution possible? The freethinking social architect Buckminster Fuller said humanity now faces a choice: oblivion or utopia. We’re inertly ambling towards oblivion, is utopia really an option?

[…]

young people, poor people, not-rich people, most people do not give a fuck about politics.

They see no difference between Cameron, Clegg, Boris, either of the Milibands or anyone else. To them these names are as obsolete as Lord Palmerston or Denis Healey. The London riots in 2011, which were condemned as nihilistic and materialistic by Boris and Cameron (when they eventually returned from their holidays), were by that very definition political.

Further on in the article, Brand recounts his glee at participating in a riot at the turn of the century. The ideas, aspirations, demands, and anger at oppression that make riots like the one he claims to have been involved in, apparently do not merit a mention. Of the people doing the rioting, we only find Brand’s lament that, being a corporate media figure, he was not immediately trusted and embraced as a comrade by people who have every reason to distrust media outlets that routinely lie about them:

“The right seeks converts and the left seeks traitors.” This moral superiority that is peculiar to the left is a great impediment to momentum. It is also a right drag when you’re trying to enjoy a riot.

Much – probably substantially more than Brand’s ideas really deserve – has been said about the vacuous notion of ‘revolution’ that Brand has lately been flogging. Saswat Pattanayak, in Red Monthly, points out that Brand’s actual proposals, to the extent that they are coherent at all, amount to ‘Obama clichés’ such as:

“Heavy taxation of corporations and massive responsibility for energy companies and any companies exploiting the environment…I think the very concept of profit should be hugely reduced.”

As Pattanayak points out, Brand readily concedes interviewer Jeremy Paxman’s false dichotomy of ‘democracy vs revolution’, and adds his own conflation of revolution (a practical matter of overthrowing one power structure and replacing it with a different one) with utopia (literally ‘a place that does not exist’).

This, then, is the quality of thought we are dealing with: An aesthetic enjoyment of ‘disruption’ and ‘chaos’, whatever the cause, and outright contempt for the idea of having principles (which he dismisses as the left’s ‘moral superiority’). An acknowledgement of popular disaffection with a hollowed-out ‘democracy’ that offers at best the illusion of control, harmoniously combined with the ever-present sense that he thinks the whole thing is there for his amusement.

As I noted in a piece I posted yesterday, the only really worthwhile thing about Brand’s intervention is that it allows those of us who have been discussing and working towards actual revolution (not the romanticised chaos that Brand seems to be talking about) to use him as an excuse to talk to a wider audience about what an actual revolutionary project for a decent society would look like. Brand himself is not even a worthy distraction.

Not to be outdone, the New Statesman today published a response that is truly worthy of Brand’s contributions to the debate, a whiff of Scotch-egg flatulence penned by fellow celebrity Robert Webb under the title Russell, choosing to vote is the most British kind of revolution there is.

That title is as good a place to start with as any. First of all, Webb never actually defines what he means by ‘revolution’ anywhere in the piece, except to say that it’s something to do with lopping King Charles I’s head off and that it’s a bad thing that ‘ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder.’

Because I would probably be accused of being too flippant if I were to say that, by his own terms, Webb is saying that voting is the most British way of initiating a bad thing that ends in repression and a diverse tapestry of different ways of murdering large numbers of people in short order, I will note that Webb, like Brand, seems to assume that ‘revolution’ inherently refers to war, such as the Civil War that Webb adduces as proof that ‘the English invented’ revolution in the modern era. It goes without saying that Webb doesn’t notice another equally obvious problem with his reasoning: the idea that the selection of one or another political party that exists within (and supports) the current system, in a manner compliant with the rules of that system, is a sort of revolution (i.e., overthrowing the existing system and putting something else in its place).

If one were feeling pedantic, one might also note that Webb uses ‘British’ and ‘English’ interchangeably, though the error is excusable: What is Britishness if not the combination of Parliamentary Power and the Anglicisation of the Whole Country? One need only ask around in Cardiff, Edinburgh, and Penzance (but it would be best not to do it in Welsh, Gaelic, or Cornish, since the heroic efforts of the Westminster regime over the centuries to eradicate non-Anglo-Saxon languages have largely paid off). Indeed, if the trend towards devolution continues and the popular Scottish independence movement is successful, ‘From Land’s End to John o’ Groats’ may soon enough have to be changed to: ‘From the Isle of Wight to Berwick-upon-Tweed’.

In a similar vein, who gives a toss whether revolution is ‘un-British’? Surely, the question is whether it’s a good idea or not, not whether it fits in with the notion of Britishness we find in the ‘Life in the UK’ test.

But I fear I have already made the mistake of donning SCUBA gear to examine the bottom of a mud puddle.

What substance there is to Webb’s piece is dedicated to announcing and explaining his decision – in response to Brand’s remarks – to re-join the Labour party, because ‘if you want to be a nuisance to the people whom you most detest in public life, vote. And vote Labour.’

And here, alas, yet another problem arises. What if the people I most detest in public life are not David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith, who are at least open and honest about their contempt for the overwhelming majority of the population and their intention to rob them of every bit of hard-fought socioeconomic security they have left, but the likes of Tony Blair and Eds Miliband and Balls, who lead a party that calls itself ‘Labour’ and wraps itself in a long and honourable tradition of workers’ struggles, only to take the wrecking ball to whatever the Tories haven’t destroyed yet?

But these questions probably don’t arise with quite the same urgency for someone who lives on giros with six figures before the decimal rather than three.

The case Webb seeks to make, then, is not just that voting is the supreme expression of people’s power (‘election day is when we really are the masters’), but that voting Labour will benefit ordinary people.

This case he makes as well as anyone could given the available evidence, which is to say, badly.

Webb has harsh words for those who have trouble distinguishing between a beating administered by the Tories and one administered by Labourites:

They are not all the same. “They’re all the same” is what reactionaries love to hear. It leaves the status quo serenely untroubled, it cedes the floor to the easy answers of Ukip and the Daily Mail.

(That would be the Daily Mail that is no more chuffed about Brand’s remarks than Webb is.)

Tellingly, Webb’s evidence for the proposition that the Labourites are clearly different to the Tories is not Aneurin Bevan or Clem Atlee, but Tony Blair. The NHS, trade union rights, and the British social safety net (such as it is) – laurels so old that they have long since petrified – may be the best available evidence that Labour has ever cared about ordinary people, but it seems even Webb knows that none of that would have been enacted if the current mob had been around after the war.

He’s gracious enough to acknowledge that ‘The last Labour government didn’t do enough and bitterly disappointed many voters’, but doesn’t elaborate on the reasons for that disappointment, wisely sensing that it would not help his case to note that the current coalition government did not have to invent their murderous welfare ‘reforms’ from scratch, but were able to build on the destruction already wrought by Blair and Brown. The murderous invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which bear Labour’s stamp of approval, are not mentioned even as an aside.

Even the Daily Mail had to admit that the current lot are so right wing that only way to red-bait today’s ‘Labour’ party is to smear Ed Miliband’s dead father. 

Also absent from Webb’s defence of the Labour party is any reference to the policies the Labour leadership have proposed for their next government (a matter to which we will shortly return). Instead, Webb tells us what a Labour government wouldn’t have done:

You specifically object to George Osborne’s challenge to the EU’s proposed cap on bankers’ bonuses. Labour simply wouldn’t be doing that right now.

So, you see, readers, the Labour Party is subjunctively different to the Tories. Webb doesn’t bother us with any further explanation on the matter, though one can certainly be excused for wondering why he is so confident that the party that rewarded the banks that were responsible for the ongoing economic crisis with £500 billion would draw the line at bonuses. In any case, the idea that banks, and not individual bankers, should be rewarded for destroying the economy seems an unlikely rallying cry to say the least.

‘Why’, Webb asks:

do pensioners (many of whom are not poor old grannies huddled round a kerosene lamp for warmth but bloated ex-hippie baby boomers who did very well out of the Thatcher/Lawson years) get so much attention from politicians? Because they vote.

It is true that the over 65s have the highest rate of electoral participation in the UK. According to AgeUK, they also have a 16 % poverty rate (1.8m living below 60 % of the median income after housing costs), and are ‘the biggest group of people on the brink of poverty with 1.2 million on the edge’. Clearly, voting pays – the rent or the electrical bill, but not both at the same time.

And what sort of attention are pensioners getting from Labour, you might ask? Ed Balls has promised to cut pensions as part of an overall intensification of the coalition government’s attack on the welfare state. Webb’s ‘bloated ex-hippie baby boomers who did very well out of the Thatcher/Lawson years’ probably don’t have to worry, but, then, when have they ever had to worry?

But voting Labour will show them. For example, it will show Iain Duncan Smith that he’s been too soft on working people to give them a proper beating such as the one as Shadow DWP Secretary Rachel Reeves has promised.

Hell, these days, Labour can’t even be counted on to stand for the admittedly radical notion that doing a day’s work gives a person the right to get paid.

In short, voting Labour will do bugger-all for the disaffected poor and working class people Brand co-opts in his piece, and Webb dismisses in his.

And so, Webb moves on:

What were the chances, in the course of human history, that you and I should be born into an advanced liberal democracy? […] That we can say what we like, read what we like, love whom we want; that nobody is going to kick the door down in the middle of the night and take us or our children away to be tortured? The odds were vanishingly small.

‘Vanishing’ is a very apt term for the current state of democratic liberties. Let’s have a look at what this paean to advanced (neo-)liberal ‘democracy’ leaves out. We could start with the fact that, whilst saying what we like, reading what we like, and loving whom we want, the NSA and GCHQ are taking copious notes (leading many to remark that they’re about the only government agencies that still listen to ordinary people), and that those copious notes may indeed be used in order to ‘kick the door down in the middle of the night and take us or our children away to be tortured’, perhaps in that bastion of advanced liberal democracy that is the Guantánamo Bay concentration camp. We might further note that, the minute we leave the privacy of our homes (such as it is, see above) to ‘say what we like’, there’s a fairly strong likelihood that agents of the state will show up to exercise their freedom to truncheon, kettle, arrest, and occasionally beat to death whomever they like. And those who make the mistake of being politically active with the wrong name, religion, or skin colour can experience the ultimate in advanced liberal democracy: the control order, which allows the Home Office to put anyone they want in a ‘prison without bars’ without even accusing (let alone convicting) them of a crime, and with little recourse for the person in question (courtesy of the last Labour government, in case anyone’s keeping track).

In closing, Webb writes:

I understand your ache for the luminous, for a connection beyond yourself. Russell, we all feel like that. Some find it in music or literature, some in the wonders of science and others in religion. But it isn’t available any more in revolution.

Leaving aside the fact that revolution is often about things rather less fuzzy than ‘the luminous’, such as food, clothing, and fucking shelter, Webb does not explain why ‘the luminous’, whatever it is, is no longer available in revolution, except to say that

We [sic] tried that again and again, and we know that it ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder.

This was, of course, just as true of the civil war that leads Webb to remark that the English invented revolution, and of the ‘advanced liberal democracy’ he praises, but Webb does not seem to notice. Instead, he enjoins Brand to ‘read some fucking Orwell’, by which he presumably does not mean to suggest that Brand read the censored foreword to Animal Farm, in which Orwell describes the structurally undemocratic realities underlying Britain’s ‘advanced liberal democracy’.

Brand may not have ‘started the revolution’, as some enthused after the Newsnight interview, but he certainly has unleashed an epic clash of vapidities.

Thinking about the discussions on the Russell Brand/Jeremy Paxman exchange that have taken place over the past few days, I’ve come to the following tentative conclusions:

The fundamental question, to me, is how we on the left use the moment that has been generated by that exchange, by Brand’s remarks and the resonance that some of them had with quite a few people.

Too much of what I’ve seen focusses on Brand himself, often with uncritical adulation because he’s ‘started a conversation’ and admonitions that we should be so grateful to him for starting the conversation that we shouldn’t actually so much participate in whatever conversation that is, but nod reverently and keep our criticisms to ourselves.

This, to me, is fundamentally missing the point, and, more importantly, the opportunity.

We owe Brand nothing. Brand isn’t some member of popular movements who was able to fight his way onto the Beeb to get heard: he’s a celebrity who is in the public eye specifically because of that, and who happened to say a few things that strongly, and validly resonated with a lot of people who are disgusted with the hollowed-out shell that passes for official politics in the age of neoliberalism.

So we’re not beholden to him, and there’s no reason for these discussions to revolve around the underlying idea that he is somehow a (potential) movement leader when, to my knowledge, he’s never really shown any interest in getting involved in grass-roots organising to begin with.

What he is is a walking opportunity to talk to more people about the things that need to be talked about. If there is to be any point to the conversation his remarks to Paxman have started, then it really needs to start with a critical appraisal of the issues raised both by his words and proposals (such as they have been) and his behaviour.

There’s much to discuss: Are his proposals, to the extent that they’re concrete enough to comprehend on this level, really revolutionary? What is missing from that that must be included in order to have some hope of building a decent society? How can we best overcome the impulse to declare certain people ‘movement royalty’? What do the discussions that have arisen over Brand’s repulsively misogynist behaviour tell us about sexism on the left and how best to combat it?

To me, in the end, the left ought to approach the openings and resonances generated by the Brand/Paxman exchange the same way we would approach it if Iain Duncan Smith were to show up pissed at the next question period and drunkenly acknowledge that the government was fully aware that the disability benefit ‘reforms’ were probably going to be murderous, and that there were no actual jobs to be forcing benefit claimants into, and these policies had been pursued specifically with a view to lowering working-class living standards:

AS AN OPENING TO TALK ABOUT WHAT MATTERS.

To the tune of Gangsta Paradise by Coolio

As I look through the forums that I troll on the net
I take a look at my likes and realize there’s nothin’ left
Cause I’ve been crapping on about the Rothschilds so long,
that even Scott Rickard thinks that my mind is gone.
But I ain’t never spread propaganda that didn’t deserve it
A few Rothschilds, couple reptiles, ‘End the Fed’, and it’s perfect!
You better watch how you’re talking and where you’re walking
or it might be your wall that I choose to stalk.
Got a hundred different socks to keep you in your place
and each one likes my comments a lot – just in case, fool
Cause I’m the CT with the super-short shelf-life,
My punctuation’s the ellipsis, my words are randomly capitalised.

Refrain:
I sell outrageous lies, in my racist wanker’s paradise
No bullshit story’s too contrived, in my racist wanker’s paradise,
Only the strong of gut survive, in my racist wanker’s paradise
My socks eat my critics alive, in my racist wanker’s paradise

You know this shit’s my life, I’ve got it in my bones:
I pledged my heart to David Icke and my soul to Alex Jones.
So every day I just do my very best,
to represent the NS and the WS.
You lot reckon I’m a fool, but I’ve a mission on my mind:
infiltrate, dominate, or at least waste your time.
I’m in deep with the fash, and I’m the last to know it,
‘Cos my thinking is brown, and my comments show it, fool:
If you piss me off, or if I’m just pissed,
your name goes on my list of Secret Zionists.
Am I a sock or is my surname really Afterglo?
Ha, ha, ha, wouldn’t you like to know?

Refrain

Power and the money, money and the power
Naughty little lizards dropped the Twin Towers.
I’m sellin’ and I’m sellin’, but half of them ain’t buyin’
when I link to Makow, Duke or the Protocols of Zion.
They’re arguing with me, but I’m not here to listen,
A debate with me’s just a gale-force wind to piss in.
I guess they can’t; I guess they won’t
I guess I’m blocked; so now they’re gonna feel the wrath of twenty socks, fool!

Refrain

One of the methods I have come to rely on quite heavily in language learning is the use of translated editions: Basically, I look for a translation of a book I know well (John Grisham’s The Firm and The Shining and Misery by Stephen King are old standbys) in the language I am trying to learn. The underlying idea is that, since I already know what is happening in the story (and sometimes have much of the dialogue memorised), I already know what the book says, and can direct my attention to how - with what words, arranged in what way – it is being said.

My first conscious use of this technique dates back, as it happens, to the first time I took an interest in learning Hungarian. (more…)

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