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How do we ‘survive politics’?

We can't win radical change just by electing "the right people", argues Milan Rai

Peace News is here to encourage grassroots movements for justice and peace, and to champion revolutionary nonviolence. In the face of all the turmoil in the world, what does the title of PN Summer Camp 2017 really mean? ‘Surviving Politics – self-care, skill-sharing and community-building when nothing seems to make sense.’

Nuclear boundaries

British governments have always rejected unilateral disarmament in favour of multilateral disarmament. Now that multilateral disarmament talks are finally happening, the government is refusing to attend.

Anti-nuclear town criers appeared in London at the end of March and in mid-May (and on the masthead of PN) ringing bells to let people know that more than 130 countries are taking part in UN negotiations aimed at a global ban on nuclear weapons. (The second and final round of talks was going on as PN went to press – the first draft of a treaty had just been published.)

Here’s encouragement. A cause that has been in the wilderness for decades is getting a big boost.

In this issue, we’ve given a lot of space to the snap general election that the Conservatives have called in Britain (after firm denials that they would do any such thing). Campaigning groups often advance their causes by asking questions of people standing for parliament.

In that tradition, here’s a question for candidates about the abolition conference:

‘In June, over 100 countries will sign a UN-sponsored treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Out of respect for their wishes, shouldn’t Britain keep its nuclear weapons out of their territorial waters?’

From Kashmir to Iraq

As this PN goes to press, it’s not even 24 hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena, and the death toll has just risen to 22 people.

The police have just said that the explosion was caused by a suicide bomber, and that this is being treated as a terrorist attack.

If this turns out to be an al-Qa’eda-type attack, we face a difficult challenge as a society. If we really want to stop this endless stream of appalling attacks, we need to understand why they keep happening.

Here is another question for candidates:

‘What do you think about the analysis by the home office and the foreign office in 2004 that British foreign policy is the major driver of “extremism” among young Muslims in Britain?’

Here’s the background. After the 7 July attacks in London, on 10 July 2005, the Sunday Times published a secret report ‘Young Muslims and Extremism’, drawn up in 2004 by the home office and the foreign office with input from the intelligence services.

The first motivation they listed was British foreign policy: ‘a particularly strong cause of disillusionment amongst Muslims including young Muslims is a perceived “double standard” in the foreign policy of western governments’.

The report went on: ‘The perception is that passive “oppression”, as demonstrated in British foreign policy, eg non-action on Kashmir and Chechnya, has given way to “active oppression” – the war on terror, and in Iraq and Afghanistan are all seen by a section of British Muslims as having been acts against Islam.’

Training sceptical eyes

Talking privately, the establishment can be honest with itself. When it talks to us, the public, there’s a totally different story – about a hatred for western freedom and democracy and ‘our way of life’.

The British media is fully aware of the ‘Young Muslims and Extremism’ report (and a whole string of similar leaks from inside the police-intelligence counterterrorism effort). We can predict, however, that there will be virtually no reference to the report in the coming days and weeks in the mainstream media.

Facts that undermine elite power tend to be edited out of history through journalistic self-censorship, as described in Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model of the mainstream media.

Assembling and hanging onto such facts, and onto the larger framework of the Propaganda Model, helps us to carry out what Chomsky calls ‘intellectual self-defence’. We are continually inundated with propaganda and distortion from the media, so we have to continually fight to retain a sane perspective and a solid base of evidence to stand on.

Chomsky and his co-author Edward Herman explained in 1988: ‘That the media provide some information about an issue... proves absolutely nothing about the adequacy or accuracy of media coverage. The media do in fact suppress a great deal of information, but even more important is the way they present a particular fact – its placement, tone, and frequency of repetition – and the framework of analysis in which it is placed.’

‘That a careful reader, looking for a fact can sometimes find it, with diligence and a skeptical eye, tells us nothing about whether that fact received the attention and context it deserved, whether it was intelligible to most readers, or whether it was effectively distorted or suppressed.’

These are among the skills we need to share and build.

Bases for resistance

We need skills to build strong movements. We can’t win radical change just by electing ‘the right people’ with ‘the right policies’. Radical changes will come when we have radical movements powerful enough to force the authorities to move in ‘the right direction’, whoever is in power.

Let’s fantasise for a moment, and wonder what would happen if the general election on 8 June produced the most transformational government possible right now, a Labour-Green coalition under Jeremy Corbyn and Caroline Lucas.

Let’s imagine that this coalition committed itself to the most radical policies each party was offering, the best of the best from the PN point of view.

On peace issues, that would mean: cancelling the replacement of the Trident nuclear weapon system, saving billions over the next 30 years (Greens); ending support for US wars of intervention (Greens); and a ban on arms sales to oppressive regimes (Greens) and to countries where there is concern that they will be used to violate international humanitarian law (Labour).

On the economy, this would include: extending freedom of information duties to private companies (Labour); having a maximum pay ratio of 20:1 in the public sector and in companies bidding for public contracts (Labour); a wealth tax on the top 1% of earners (Greens); a Universal Basic Income pilot scheme (Greens); raising the minimum wage to a Living Wage of £10 per hour (Greens and Labour); and re-nationalising the railways (Greens and Labour), water companies, Royal Mail and energy (Labour).

What would happen?

When the people of Chile elected leftist Salvador Allende as president in 1970, the US government began covert operations to overthrow him. As part of this, US president Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to ‘make the economy scream’.

If there were a government in Britain that was seriously trying to transfer power away from investors and managers and towards the general population, it’s inevitable that corporations inside and outside the country would take drastic action to prevent such a ‘nightmare scenario’.

The drop in sterling seen over Brexit would be a faint shadow of what would happen. There would be leaps in unemployment and inflation, employers would provoke strikes. It’s the easiest thing in the world for the owning classes to turn off the taps and ‘make the economy scream’. Labour MP Chris Mullins set out a possible scenario in his 1982 novel, A Very British Coup.

When we look at the best-of-the-best Labour-Green economic programme, it’s not very worrying in itself for corporate Britain. The problem for them is the direction that it points in, and the legitimacy it would give to the Labour left and the Greens.

It’s the foreign policy side of things that would be much more worrying for the establishment, which is why peace policies that Corbyn supports show up in the Green but not the Labour manifesto – and why the Greens will also be pressured to drop this side of their agenda if they get anywhere near power.

All this shows the limitations of electoral politics. An investors’ strike that withdrew money from the British economy would place unbearable pressures on a progressive British government.

When Venezuelan military officers (backed by the US) tried to overthrow their democratically-elected president, Hugo Chavez, in 2002, they were defeated by an uprising of the urban poor (and by the loyalty of the presidential guard).

We will need much more than this kind of Arab Spring rebellion to fend off economic warfare against a radical government.

We will need radical movements outside parliament that are solidly rooted in our workplaces and our neighbourhoods, that give us the education, the support and the practical assistance to be able to resist crisis and disaster, and still press on for the changes that the world is hungry for.

This is what we mean by community-building. Creating organisations controlled from below that can carry out nonviolent revolution.