The Labour flag is brightest white,

it’s raised without the slightest fight.
It says ‘We’ll beat the Tories yet
at scrapping all your benefits.’

(CHORUS): So wave the white flag without shame,
for we’re Tories in all but name.
See traitors sneer and cowards wince,
at this year’s Labour conference.

In their graves, Merthyr martyrs turn
so fast that half the Rhondda burns.
Tho’ plebs may rise and make a fuss,
that lot are nowt to do with us.


In Tottenham we’ll ne’er be seen
till gentrifiers wipe it clean.
The Scottish worker we’ll ignore
(those jocks are such a ruddy bore)


It waved above the PFI
when the NHS was left to die.
It draped the coffin of BR
and welcomes fracking near and far.


It well recalls betrayals past
and brings the hope of profits fast.
The flag of fright, a symbol plain
of endless, unremitting pain.


It suits today the sycophant
who only stands for parliament
to fill with drink the rich man’s cup
and raise our party banner up


We’ll fully claim ev’ry expense
whilst others work for zero pence.
They’ve only got themselves to blame,
for morals are a muppet’s game.

So wave the white flag without shame,
and soon they’ll call you Sir and Dame.
And should a whistleblower talk,
you needn’t ever fear the dock.


(To the tune of ‘Don’t They Know It’s Christmas’)

It’s Christmas time – just don’t turn on your TV.
At Christmas time, the shite they show’s no good for you or me.

If you just avoid the telly you can spread a smile of joy,
That’s how you keep your supper down at Christmas time.

But say a prayer, pray for the other ones
Stuck home watching Geldof and just yearning for a gun.

There are rich folks on the telly
wanting you to know they care,

come to beg you for your money,
so they can hold on to theirs.

And the Christmas songs they sing there are pure bourgeois wankery

So tonight thank god you’ve got a DVD.

And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time
(because most places there it’s summer, you gobshite)

Where nothing ever grows,
(‘cept the cash crops we all know).

Did you lot even research this at all?

Here’s to you
By now you must want a drink.

Every yuletide they’re here to pimp the poor,
in Africa – the poverty here they ignore.

Here’s to them,
With their exiled bank accounts.

Every year it’s the same old act –
Why don’t these bastards just pay their tax?

Don’t they know it’s bollocks, after all?

A sombre mood descended over Manchester today in the shadow of this year’s Labour Party conference. Faded reddish hoardings, apparently pre-distressed, adorned the area around the conference site of Manchester Central bearing the Labour Party emblem and the laconic message: SORRY. (more…)

In recent years, the Palestinian solidarity movement has made great progress towards ridding itself of the assorted antisemites and racists who had sought to exploit the Palestinian struggle for their own bigoted ends. Alas, whilst the Palestinian solidarity movement has been making these strides, it is hard not to notice that Israel’s apologists are scarcely willing to acknowledge that they have an antisemitism problem, let alone do anything about it. Because I know how daunting it can be to confront an issue like this, I would like to offer Israel’s supporters the following helpful hints on how to support Israel without being antisemitic.

Here are just a few examples of the terms Israel’s apologists should avoid if they do not want to subject themselves to the accusation of antisemitism.

AVOID: ‘A true and lasting peace will only be possible if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people’ 

You should avoid declaring Israel to be ‘the Jewish state’ or ‘the homeland of the Jewish people’ at all costs if you wish to avoid alienating Jews in your audience, many of whom resent the implication that they are any less at home in their respective countries than their non-Jewish neighbours. Terms like these pour salt on the poorly healed wounds left by centuries of accusations of Jewish ‘dual loyalty’.

Not only do statements like these promote antisemitic tropes that call the loyalty of Jews into question, they aren’t even true. The majority of the Jewish population in the world does not live in Israel, and has no intention of doing so in the future.

The same applies, incidentally, to how you name your organisation. Some pro-Israel advocacy groups, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Zionist Organization of America, and Americans for a Safe Israel, have wisely decided to give themselves names that make it clear that their real concern is Israel, rather than the interests of Jews. Others, such as the American Jewish Congress, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Jewish Committee, and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, however, have succumbed to the temptation to use Jews as a human shield for their Zionist advocacy. By using names such as the latter, you are contributing to antisemitic tropes about Jews as a political monolith, and we all know where that leads. In naming your organisation, ask yourself whether its purpose is to represent the views and interests of the Jewish community, or to advocate on behalf of a regime that sees a Palestinian hospital and says ‘Yay, Bonfire Night’s come early this year’. If the latter is your objective, acknowledge and respect that not all Jews will agree with you and name your group accordingly.

PREFER: The Homeland of the Zionist Movement, American Zionist Committee

AVOID:  ‘the Tricycle theatre have shown themselves unwilling to work with what is clearly an apolitical cultural festival is tremendously disappointing. They have chosen a boycott over meaningful engagement – to the great detriment of this celebration of Jewish culture, which is of course intrinsically connected to the state of Israel‘. 

This is an even more egregious example of the antisemitic ‘dual loyalty’ trope, which goes so far as to claim that Jewish culture, which is centuries old, is somehow ‘intrinsically connected’ to a state that is barely older than a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label. Although these aspects alone would be enough to justify avoiding claims like these if one wishes to avoid appearing antisemitic, it is also not hard to take sentiments like these as attempts to portray Jewish culture as stultifyingly homogenous and totalitarian, invisibilising the tradition of pluralism and open debate that many Jews are justly proud of.

If that were not enough, claims that Jewish culture is somehow intrinsically connected to the regime in Israel/Palestine practically invite those outraged by the behaviour of the Israeli state to blame Jews as a whole for it. Obviously, this creates a hostile environment for Jews, and opens you up to the accusation that you are using Jews as ‘human shields’ to protect Israeli policies from criticism.

PREFER: Avoiding the subject altogether. Stay on message: This isn’t about Jews, it’s about defending the behaviour of the State of Israel.

AVOID: The New Antisemitism (e.g.,

Given the state of pro-Israel advocacy, all you’ll get out of accusing other people of antisemitism is a raft of invitations to tidy up your front step before you go complaining to the council about your neighbour’s. Before you risk being jeered out of the room for your chutzpah, ask yourself: ‘Have I done everything in my power to disavow associations with antisemitic propaganda and organisations?’

At all costs, avoid yielding to the temptation to use facile, Jew-baiting arguments that refer to opposition to Zionism, the Israeli government, and/or its policies as ‘antisemitic’. Because such accusations are based on the underlying tropes of Jews as political monolith, Jewish dual loyalty, and stop just short of outright blood libel, such accusations are themselves an egregious example of antisemitism. If you feel the temptation to make such accusations, first stop and ask yourself whether you really think racism/killing defenceless people/territorial expansionism are inherent aspects of Jewish culture. If you do, then you’ve got a lot of work to do on yourself before you should even think of joining in this debate.

If you feel you must address the issue of antisemitism, keep it short, avoid throwing stones from glass houses, and win over your audience with your humility.

PREFER: ‘I know that antisemitic rhetoric has, unfortunately, been a mainstay of pro-Israel and Zionist advocacy from its inception. I am sure that I am hardly blameless in this regard, and all I can do is offer my heartfelt apologies to those in the Jewish community I have hurt and promise that I will do better in the future.’

AVOID: The Nazi Holocaust

It should go without saying that the Nazi holocaust is a big no-go area when you’re advocating on behalf of a state founded by the only segment of the European Jewish community that viewed Hitler as a potential ally, has maintained a track record of establishing strategic partnerships with murderous antisemites, (whether Neo-Nazis or fundamentalist Christians), and allows the holocaust survivors within its borders to eke out a meagre existence on inadequate pensions.

Unfortunately, many pro-Israel advocates can’t resist the temptation of using one of the most hideously traumatic moments in Jewish history as a political dog whistle to create a climate of fear amongst Jews. Even more alarming is the tendency amongst pro-Israel advocates to deny or trivialise the Nazi genocide by inappropriate comparisons and revisionist history.

For me, [Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad] is a second Hitler,

‘When it comes to Jewish genocide, capability is all that distinguishes Hamas and Nazi Germany. Not will, not desire, certainly not intent; only ability.’

What do these statements have in common? They are both based on the idea that Holocaust revisionism is acceptable as long as it paints Israel’s enemies in an unfavourable light. To accept that either claim is an accurate analogy, we must assume that Hitler was the leader of a poorly armed, besieged nation, subject to economic strangulation and threats of war from enemies much more powerful than himself, and that he did everything in his power to seek a peaceful resolution of conflicts, but was violently rebuffed at every turn.

In other words, the only way that these analogies can be accepted is if we agree with Ernst Zündel’s creative rewriting of the history of Nazi Germany.

It should go without saying (though clearly it does not) that denial and trivialisation of the Nazi holocaust are unacceptable in all circumstances. Those who trivialise Nazi atrocities in order to score political points for Israel open themselves up to the charge that – like their Zionist predecessors of the wartime years – they only care about of European Jews if they can somehow be of use to the Zionist project.

Similarly problematic are claims that Israel is a ‘sanctuary’ for Jews. Given the sordid history here, these will merely open you up to shouts from the gallery of ‘You lot weren’t much use last time we needed you, so why should we expect you to be any better now?’ from people who remember that the World Zionist Organisation wasted thousands of immigration certificates that could have been used to rescue European Jews bringing in Zionist cadres from North America, Australia, Turkey, and other places where Jews were under no such danger. Every time you bring this subject up, you’re picking at Jewish people’s scabs. Don’t do it.

As Dave Rich of the Zionist-orientated Community Security Trust recently reminded us, ‘[a]nother word’ for ‘false comparison[s]’ with the Nazi holocaust ‘that [play] on Jewish sensibilities in order to provoke a reaction’ is ‘Jew-baiting’.

Rich is quite right, and I only hope that this acknowledgement heralds a new day in which his and allied organisations carry out their activities without resorting to cheap Jew-baiting.

AVOID: Strategic alliances with Neo-Nazis and other antisemites

One of the lessons we in the Palestinian solidarity movement have learnt in the past few years – at the urging of our Palestinian comrades – has been to be very careful whom we take as our allies. This has meant taking a good look at the views espoused by would-be allies to see whether they are genuinely supporting freedom for the Palestinian people, or – like Gilad Atzmon, Alison Weir, Paul Findley, Jeff Blankfort, Greta Berlin, Paul Craig Roberts, and others – just using the Palestinians as human shields for their struggle against ‘world Jewish domination’. I hope that pro-Israel advocates will take heed of this elementary lesson, because I see them falling into the same trap that we in Palestinian solidarity have been at great pains to extricate ourselves from.

Pro-Israel advocates should ask themselves whether it helps or harms their credibility to be associated, say, with religious fundamentalists who view Israel as a holding pen in anticipation of the day when they can massacre the Jews of the world so that Jesus can return and give one of his trademark sermons on loving thy neighbour (which, one imagines, will be a bit overdue by that point), neo-fascists who have merely decided that, for the moment, they hate Arabs and Muslims more than they hate Jews, and sycophantic holocaust deniers. They should remember that they represent an ideology that – after the Plevhe scandal, the Kasztner affair, the Ha’avara Agreement, and so many other betrayals – only has one wicket in hand, if that. As such, even if basic human decency alone isn’t enough to reconsider alliances with genocidal antisemites, just remember how much it will open you to attack.

RECOMMENDED TALKING POINT: ‘This is not the Zionist movement of the 1900s, or the 1910s, or the 1930s and 1940s, or of the past couple of decades of sucking up to antisemitic Christian fundamentalists. We have turned over a new leaf, and will not associate ourselves with such unsavoury characters merely because they support racism against Palestinians, and promise from now on only to partner with people and groups whose racism is exclusively directed against Palestinians. And, of course, we sincerely apologise to the Jewish people for allying ourselves with their worst enemies in the world.’

To sum up, it is putting it mildly to say that pro-Israel advocates have their work cut out for them if they want to rid themselves of antisemitism. It will be a long, hard slog that requires breaking old habits and abandoning comfortable euphemisms. Believe it or not, I can almost sympathise with the great difficulties inherent in advocating a regime that not only brags about the cowardly murder of defenceless people, but claims it as a victory for all Jews everywhere. But I am confident that, with a little introspection and a lot of self-discipline, pro-Israel advocates will be able to rid themselves of the stain of antisemitism just as the Palestinian solidarity movement has done. Just remember: When you portray Jews as reflexively supporting everything Israel does to the Palestinian population, you are portraying us as a lot of complete arseholes. It’s one thing for you to portray yourself that way – you chose this path – but leave Jews out of it.

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)


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.

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