American Radical - watch it here

By Jamie

01 February 2012

Al Jazeera has done us all a big favour and streamed the entire version of American Radical, the superb documentary on Norman Finkelstein. Highly recommended:

Part 1

Part 2

For more on Finkelstein, see my interviews with him on NLP: 'How to End the Israel-Palestine Conflict' | 'God helps those who help themselves': Parts 1 & 2

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Why It’s Kicking Off at the Southbank Centre, 2 Feb

By Jamie

30 January 2012

What was distinctive about the social movements that made 2011 the 'year of the protestor'? What links Occupy, the Arab revolts and the British student movement?  Was 2011 the year the Hierarchy was defeated by the Network? Will the revolution be retweeted?

If you're interested in any or all of these questions, you're in luck.

This Thursday, 2 Feb at the Southbank Centre in London, Verso, in association with New Left Project, will launch Paul Mason's new book on contemporary popular movements, Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere.

Paul, the author of Meltdown and the best thing about BBC Newsnight, spent much of the past two years reporting from Spain, Greece, Wisconsin, London and elsewhere on the surge in popular protest as the effects of the financial crisis, and of the bailouts and austerity measures that followed, made themselves felt. Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere brings that remarkable reportage together and interprets the geographically disparate struggles as locally variant, but in crucial respects similar, responses to a common crisis: the collapse of the pre-2007 model of economic globalisation. If you're interested in thinking further about last year's really quite remarkable developments - the speed at which Occupy spread and its success in changing the political agenda, for example, was surely unprecedented in recent history - this is an excellent place to start.

On Thursday we'll stage two panels, one on Paul's book and the other on the Arab revolts, featuring Paul Mason, Ewa Jasiewicz, Mark Fisher, Dan Hancox, and other assorted luminaries:

Panel  1, 7-8.15pm:

An evening with Paul Mason and guests will start in the Purcell Room with a conversation between Paul, economist Costas Lapavitsas, journalist and union organiser Ewa Jasiewicz and author and theorist Mark Fisher. Katharine Viner, deputy editor of the Guardian, will be chairing this discussion.

This part of the evening has sold out but can be screened into the foyer where Part 2 will take place.

Panel 2, 8.30-9.30pm: 

The second session will involve two conversations, one focusing on protest and the other on the Arab Spring and women. 

Talking about protest will be journalist Dan Hancox, author of Kettled Youth, writer James Butler and Mark Fisher. Chaired by writer and campaigner Eleanor Mae O'Hagan.

Meanwhile Paul Mason will be in conversation with academic Emma Dowling and journalist Rachel Shabi. Chaired by Bidisha, author of the forthcoming Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path Through Palestine

Note that the second panel is free, and while tickets for the first panel have sold out, you'll be able to watch it live via video link for free in the foyer next door. 

To accompany the launch we'll also be running a series of articles and interviews here on NLP that respond to Paul's book, or which expand on some of the issues it raises. We'll kick off this week with a review of the book by NLP co-editor David Wearing and an in-depth interview with Paul himself. So keep your eyes peeled, and follow us on twitter and Facebook for updates. 

Hope to see you Thursday.

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We are Nabi Saleh

By Jamie

27 January 2012

A new film documents the courageous resistance, in the face of often brutal repression, of the villagers of Nabi Saleh.

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Afghanistan: Rewriting History

By David

13 January 2012

A guest post by Ross Eventon, responding to this article on openDemocracy. 

“The Taliban regime” contend David Held and Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, scholars at the London School of Economics, “harboured Osama bin Laden while he planned and orchestrated the atrocities of 9/11.” The subsequent attack on Afghanistan began “with broad international support,” which “provided the campaign with initial legitimacy that was enshrined through United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1378, 1383, 1386, 1401.”  Here ends their “discussion of the legal aspect of the war.”  

No source is cited for the claim that Bin Laden orchestrated the September 11 attacks because, however reasonable such suspicions may be, no substantive evidence exists.  Held and Ulrichsen see no need to consider why conventional forms of justice – apprehension of the suspect – were shunned, and why Taliban offers to hand over Bin Laden if evidence could be produced were flatly rejected, other than as an, albeit over-zealous, attempt at retribution.  “The underpinnings of the ‘War on Terror’” can be explained solely through quotations of the then President Bush: ““we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism.” This is a useful method of ascertaining the underlying determinants of foreign policy decisions, negating the need for any actual research or scholarship; although, given the state of the political sciences, blind acceptance of the proclamations of leadership may be the most fundamental aspect of what is called scholarship.

They authors quote Hew Strachan, who “questioned whether freedom could ever be a strategy in itself,” and warned that “the conflation of words like ‘war’ and ‘terror,’ and of ‘strategy’ and ‘policy’…contributes to the incoherence of the response that followed 9/11.”  US foreign policy since 9/11 has been anything but incoherent, following conventional objectives thinly veiled in a familiar ideology.

The source for the claim of “broad international support” is not provided.  An International Gallup Poll taken at the end of September 2001 found that respondents “strongly favored diplomatic-judicial measures over military action.” (cited in Noam Chomsky; Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance.)  The dates of the Security Council resolutions are also important.  All are from at least a month after the initial bombing began on October 7th.  Lacking a resolution, the bombing was an act of state terrorism designed, according to British Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, to punish Afghans “until they get their leadership changed.”

The initial strikes involved the use of cluster bombs on one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. Cluster bombs are weapons that disproportionately affect children who tend to pick up the unexploded munitions.  In September this year, Afghanistan was applauded by Human Rights Watch for signing the Convention on Cluster Munitions, banning their use in the country, “despite heavy pressure from the US not to.”  A month later, the US failed in a bid to push a new protocol through the UN that would sanction the use of cluster munitions made after 1980. 

The attacks went ahead despite aid groups warning millions may die as a result of the restricted access for humanitarian supplies.  By May 2001, the Guardian reported, “As many as 20,000 Afghans may have lost their lives as an indirect consequence of the US intervention.”  None of this, of course, could even slightly tarnish the image of the “Right War,” that picture only being challenged now the US appears to be committing the greatest crime of all: losing. 

Curiously, “NATO continues to bomb Afghanistan even after the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.” (my emphasis)  This may suggest the "War on Terror" has a separate agenda.  Declassified documents recently revealed that on September 30 2001, the then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wrote to Bush advising that he attempt to install a new regime in Afghanistan.  Of the forthcoming attack, he wrote, "If the war does not significantly change the world's political map, the U.S. will not achieve its aim.”  A year earlier, Rumsfeld co-authored a report along with Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, arguing that, “[w]hile the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.”

It is a “terrible irony,” conclude Held and Ulrichsen that “attempts to resist terrorist violence in the decade after 9/11 have ended up weakening the very structures of law and constraints on the use of force that have formed the cornerstone of the international system and bedrock of global security since 1945.”   Aside from the act of international terrorism that laid the foundation for the invasion, “attempts to resist terrorist violence” also include the engagement in wars that, it was understood at the time, would increase the threat to domestic populations as well as the continuation of military aid that “encourages terrorist groups to attack Americans.”  Afghans, Palestinians, Iraqis, Colombians and others enduring US backed “use of force” in the decade after 9/11 can testify further to the extent of these terrible ironies.

Ross Eventon is a writer and researcher based in Bogota, Colombia.  He was previously the Samuel Rubin Young Fellow at the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam where he focused on Afghanistan

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Revenge of the Pawns

By Jamie

09 January 2012

Wonderful little film by Erik Olin Wright, made in 1968, about the dilemmas of revolution:

He explains:

"The key idea in this animated film was this: the pawns revolt against the 'ruling class' pieces, sweep them from the board and then dance an American square dance on the board. In the end, however, they start a new chess game, but this time the pawns are on the back row moving like Kings and bishops and the like, while the old aristocratic pieces occupy the pawn row and move like pawns. The message of the film was that the pawns failed to make a revolution because they thought it was sufficient to depose the old elite. They neglected to remove the board itself. The chessboard, then, was a metaphor for underlying social structure that generates 'the rules of the game'. A revolution, to be sustainable, has to transform that.

Now, this idea is not a uniquely Marxist idea. In a sense it is the foundational idea of much structurally oriented sociology: people fill “locations” in social structures — sometimes called roles — which impose constraints and opportunities on what they can chose to do. This doesn’t mean that human practices or activities are rigidly determined by roles. Intentions and choices still really matter. Agency matters. But such choice occurs in a setting of systematic (rather than haphazard) constraints. 

The Marxist form of this general idea is to make a claim — a pretty bold one when you think about it — that the key to understanding this structural level of constraint is the nature of the economic structure in which people live, or even more precisely, the nature of the “mode of production”. In my little film there was no production, no economy. The chessboard was a completely open-ended metaphor for social structure. So it is in that sense that the film was not specifically based on a Marxist framework.

As for its inspiration, I think the film grew out of the concerns for radical, egalitarian social change that were part of the intellectual culture of the student movement, the American civil rights movement and Vietnam War era anti-war movement. I participated in various ways in these social movements of the 1960s and was very much caught up in the utopian aspirations of the times, but I also felt that the task of constructing emancipatory alternatives was more arduous than many people thought. It is not enough to attack the establishment and remove its players. Constructing an alternative is a task in its own right. And that is what the film tried to convey."

You can read my interview with Erik on the Occupy movement here.

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Diane Abbott and racism in a neoliberal age

By Tom

07 January 2012

There was a certain inevitability to the furore around Diane Abbot’s supposedly racist comment on Twitter – coming as it did in the wake of the conviction of Gary Dobson and David Norris for the murder of Stephen Lawrence.  The right has always resented that the concept of ‘institutionalised racism’ was mainstreamed by the Macpherson inquiry.  It destabilised the elite consensus that racism can be understood as nothing more than an individual pathology, stripped of any notion of social inequality and racial hierarchy.  The denunciations of Diane Abbot as a racist are a reactionary counter-attack seeking to disguise the reality of white privilege.

As Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley note in The Crisis of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age:

To criticize ‘white European culture’ as imperialist is not the same as claiming that all migrants are wife-beaters, or homophobes.  The first contention, however furiously it is debated, makes little impact on the everyday lives of whites occupying hegemonic and relatively privileged social positions.  The second... has cumulative political power, requiring everyone ascribed to those groups to negotiate it in some form, and leading to the further demonization of large groups of people already diminished in power vis-à-vis the majority in the societies in which they live.

Only in a public domain debased by decades of neoliberalism, where debate is divorced from any notion of social or historical realities, could the absurd claims made against Abbott be seen as having any intellectual coherence. 

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A New Year’s Wish

By Ed

31 December 2011

A guest post by Helena Hagglund*

There is no Christmas calm in Egypt. The protests and marches continue, as do the attacks and killings by the army. The second wave of revolution continues.

In less than a month, Egypt will celebrate the anniversary of the January 25th uprising. The Supreme Army Council is said to be planning its own festivities that day, something that the revolutionaries cannot accept. Many fear new controversies.

The scenes in Tahrir Square and its neighbouring streets are scary: people getting abused and killed, choking on tear gas, dying from gunshot wounds. The list of martyrs grows longer. It is easy to see pictures of this and wish for an end to the unrest.

And an end to the unrest is precisely what the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies are looking for. They exhort to calm and claim to be looking for a peaceful democratic electoral process. Calm is also what the ruling military council says it wants. In a time of crisis it is easy to play the stability card if you already have institutionalised power and influence.

But for those who dedicated their lives for the revolution, for those who quit their jobs, for those whose friends or sons or daughters have been killed, for those imprisoned - for all of them calm would be devastating. If they surrender their demands for the downfall of the military council in order to gain calm and stability, the struggle will be lost. Even Mubarak offered calm and stability.

"Stability" is something the powerful incessantly call for. Stability means an end to visible violence but nothing when it comes to ending the silent violations of human rights: the starvation of the poor, the murder of the unwanted in police cells, the daily abuse and exploitation. A calm and quiet people who do not collectively organize themselves in protests are a people easy to control. Hence every dictator this year has pointed out the stability and the calm that he  can provide as an opposite to the rowdiness of the revolutionaries. Calm and stability is good for business and rich and powerful nations needs calm to plan and guarantee business deals.

But stability is devastating. If this was the goal, no revolutions would have ever occurred, there would be no real political change. Chaos, unrest and instability is necessary in creating a new future. A subdued people know to expect the onward grind of oppression. But a people ruling themselves do not have a clue what the future will bring, the only thing they know is that they are taking power from the powerful.

That is why the revolutionaries of Egypt are continuing to fight. They know that a revolution is more than overthrowing a dictator. They know that it will probably take years of uncertainty and unrest to ensure that their demands of freedom, justice, social equality and bread are met. The Left in Europe needs to follow their lead and listen to their demands, and not fall for media narratives of "successful elections" or "a gradual transition to a new Egypt".

So this is why I hope for a 2012 that follows on from what the Arab Spring started. I hope for a boiling, unstable 2012 that continues to change the world.

*Helena Hagglund is a freelance journalist based in Cairo and Stockholm. The piece was first published in Swedish on

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Crying freedom

By Tom

20 December 2011

George Monbiot has written an article challenging the libertarian notion of freedom - ‘freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.’  He lifts a couple of good quotes from Isaiah Berlin’s influential essay, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’: ‘Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows’ and ‘If the liberty of myself or my class or nation depends on the misery of a number of other human beings, the system which promotes this is unjust and immoral’.

Corey Robin is particularly strong on this issue.  In The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, he writes:

Though it is often claimed that the left stands for equality while the right stands for freedom, this notion misstates the actual disagreement between right and left.  Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders.  What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension.  For in that extension, he sees a loss of his own freedom.[1]

Robin discussed this issue further in a recent interview with NLP:

Karl Mannheim makes the point that for the left these two things were originally one and the same.  Think about the kind of experiences that produced leftist arguments: feudalism, slavery, patriarchy, work place domination.  In all of these forms, slavery being the most obvious one, the lack of freedom and the lack of equality aren’t contradictory or different experiences, they are part and parcel of the same experience.  So for the left, historically, freedom and equality go together – I ought to be free because I am equal to you.

What I argue in the book is that if we take seriously this whole question of personal domination, not abstract domination, not commodity fetishism or the market place, but the control of other peoples’ bodies and minds in a very personal and intimate way, then what the left has always stood for is a politics of emancipation in which freedom is central.


[1] Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (Oxford University Press, 2011) p.8.


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Obama & Egypt

By David

19 December 2011

A shortened version of the letter below was published in the Evening Standard today. They don't seem to put their letters online, so I'm here's the original with some added links.


James Fenton is no doubt correct to say that Barack Obama will not "feel indifferent to the judgment of history". However, that judgement may depend on the perspective from which history is written.

Egyptian historians are likely to note that, when asked whether he considered Hosni Mubarak to be an authoritarian given the number of political prisoners held in his jails, Obama said “no, I prefer not to use labels for folks”. Only when it became clear that the dictator’s position had become untenable, as a result of ordinary Egyptians risking life and limb to challenge his regime, did the Obama administration belatedly decide to endorse Mubarak’s departure.

Since then, US support for Egypt’s new military rulers has been maintained even as the junta establishes a record of human rights abuses that rivals that of Mubarak, according to Amnesty International. As security forces murdered and brutalised hundreds of demonstrators in recent weeks, it emerged that shipments of tear gas licensed by the Hilary Clinton’s State Department were still arriving in Egyptian docks. So much for President Obama’s brand of enlightened liberalism.

Fenton notes the dangers of a statesperson’s over-enthusiasm for “the power and dignity of high office”. The point is well understood by the people of the Arab world, whose dignity has long been trampled upon by those occupying high office in Washington, as well as in their local capitals. Obama’s place in their history depends upon his willingness to end his government’s traditional support for authoritarianism in the Arab world.

David Wearing
Postgraduate researcher, Political Science
School of Public Policy
University College, London


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Obama hails Iraq “success” as US troops pull out

By David

15 December 2011

As US troops begin to pull out of Iraq after nearly 8 years of occupation, President Obama spoke of a "moment of success". He went on to say

"We know too well the heavy cost of this war. More than 1.5m Americans have served in Iraq. Over 30,000 Americans have been wounded and those are only the wounds that show. Nearly 4,500 Americans made the ultimate sacrifice. We also know that these numbers don't tell the full story of the Iraq war. Not even close."

Indeed. As Guardian reporter Chris McGreal notes.

Obama made no mention of Iraqi deaths. The cost in Iraqi lives is heavily disputed but is generally believed to run in to the hundreds of thousands.

At his blog "Informed Comment", Juan Cole sets out a few measures of US "success" in Iraq.

Population of Iraq: 30 million.

Number of Iraqis killed in attacks in November 2011: 187

Percentage of Iraqis who lived in slum conditions in 2000: 17

Percentage of Iraqis who live in slum conditions in 2011: 50

Number of the 30 million Iraqis living below the poverty line: 7 million.

Number of Iraqis who died of violence 2003-2011: 150,000 to 400,000.

Orphans in Iraq: 4.5 million.

Orphans living in the streets: 600,000.

Number of women, mainly widows, who are primary breadwinners in family: 2 million.

Iraqi refugees displaced by the American war to Syria: 1 million

Internally displaced persons in Iraq: 1.3 million

Proportion of displaced persons who have returned home since 2008: 1/8

Rank of Iraq on Corruption Index among 182 countries: 175

In the Iraqi city of Falluja, crowds marked Obama's "moment of success" by burning US flags, in the sort of act that tends to prompt right-wing American pundits to lament the ingratitude of the conquered. The celebrations are perhaps better understood by someone like Jonathan Steele, the Guardian's veteran foreign correspondent, who likened the US military's assault on the city in 2004 to Russia's destruction of Grozny. For Steele, "this decade's unforgettable monument to brutality and overkill is Falluja". And indeed for any honest person, Iraq must surely be recognised as one of the great humanitarian disasters, and the invasion itself one of the great crimes, of recent history.

Cole says:

the American public still for the most part has no idea what the United States did to that country, and until we Americans take responsibility for the harm we do others with our perpetual wars, we can never recover from our war sickness, which drives us to resort to violence in international affairs in a way no other democracy routinely does.

I would suggest that this is true of the British public as well. And lazy jingoism from people like Obama does not help in this regard.


Update: In the comments below, Ian Sinclair raises the issue of the death toll from the war.

In Juan Cole's original blogpost, which I quoted above, he links to this source for the number he gives of 150,000 to 400,000 deaths.

However, as Ian correctly points out, a study published in the medical journal The Lancet in October 2006 concluded that 655,000 excess deaths had occured as a result of the conflict. This, of course, was at the peak of the war, so if the estimate was broadly accurate then the true number by now will be far higher.

At the time, the British government sought to dismiss the report, against the advice of its own senior scientific advisors, who described its methodology as "robust" and "close to best practice".

The site Cole links to, "Iraq: The Human Cost", maintained by John Tirman at the MIT Center for International Studies, contains links to The Lancet report, other studies, and a good deal of discussion and analysis of what's proven to be a controversial topic. I wasn't aware of it before, but it looks like a very important resource.

David Wearing is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the School of Public Policy, University College London, where he is researching Britain's response to the Arab uprisings. He is a co-editor of New Left Project.

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