Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Diary - The Irish Times, settlements in the West Bank, and Zionist ideology

Further to my remarks about the Irish Times below, here's an example of its problematic coverage of the Middle East.  Mark Weiss reports on new settlement construction planned in the West Bank ('Reports of Israeli settler homes anger Palestinians', IT, 27/12/13).

A couple of things stand out in Weiss's report.  Firstly, the title: rhetorically, the formulation suggests that Palestinians are objecting to Israelis having homes.  How hard-hearted, one then presumably asks, can these Palestinians be?  Can't people be allowed to have homes like anyone else?  Secondly, and this is a problem that is repeated endlessly in the reportage in the Irish Times by Israeli correspondents or stringers like Weiss or David Horowitz, the context of this planned construction in international and international humanitarian law is never provided.  For the fact is, of course, that under the Geneva Conventions, the transfer to an occupied territory of members of the population of the occupying power is illegal, and therefore, technically, a war crime.  Israeli settlement construction is a war crime.  This is almost never mentioned in the seemingly pellucid pages of the Irish Times.

Thirdly, the context within which the coverage by the Irish Times (and most of the mainstream media) places such developments is the way that announcements of settlement plans or construction play in regard to the Obama-brokered 'peace talks': will the talks be scuppered or not?  Will Israel release prisoners (as agreed as part of the talks), or not?  Will the Palestinians complain at the UN or not?  Will Saeb Erekat appeal to the European Union or not?  The broad point to be made here is that most of this context is fluff, and of very little longer-term importance.  The most that can be said about the current talks is that they turn on modes by which the Palestinian Authority can perform its role as Israel's enforcer in the West Bank, while allowing Israel to get on with its real projects of settlement construction, resource theft, and incremental ethnic cleansing. 

Fourthly, the ideological context in which Israeli policy is formulated is almost never reported in the Irish Times.  This is in marked contrast to the case with much of the Israel press itself.  Here's an especially striking example from Ha'aretz, given the way that Israel has in recent years stridently promoted itself as the one country in the Middle East that is tolerant of gay practice and culture:

Gay Jews have 'higher souls' than gentiles, says deputy minister ...

When will Mark Weiss be reporting on the pronouncements of the Deputy Minister for Religious Services?   I am not holding my breath.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Mandela, Israel and the Irish Times

The Irish Times holds a significant position in the field of Irish media.  It is the 'national newspaper of record'.  This appellation is of doubtful value in itself, but it is rendered downright dangerous when the newspaper in question is over-burdened with such a sense of itself, with the sense of its own importance.  Such is the case with the Irish Times, a middlebrow journal of some vintage which has always sat at the conservative end of the liberal spectrum.  Unionist in the 19th and early 20th century, it negotiated independence carefully and with the greatest caution.  In my lifetime, it has been an organ for the 'liberal agenda', which unfortunately in Ireland has always been an agenda concerned principally with liberal freedoms in the personal arena, and with freedoms of business and capital in the public arena - two aspects of liberalism that hang together surprisingly well, and which were best embodied in the Progressive Democrats, Ireland's principal neoliberal political party.

Nowadays, the Irish Times struggles to find its way in a media jungle riven with the complications of electronica, collapsed advertising revenue, a somewhat more diverse public, and the apparent destruction of 'traditional' institutions of 'Irish life': the Roman Catholic Church, Fianna Fail, trust in politicians generally, and the Irish financial sector.  Its position remains one of caution, a conservative consensus bunched on the centre-right of the political field.  It takes its position seriously enough to attempt to maintain correspondents abroad, and policy analysts at home, though many of these are themselves minor institutions, valued in the paper as much for their cosy south Dublin familiarity and loyalty, as for any penetrating interpretative capacities, stunning erudition, or coruscating prose.

The paper's coverage of the Middle East is very much of a piece with this.  For every relatively clear-eyed and decent piece it publishes by Michael Jansen, veteran American Middle East correspondent  based in Beirut, it will 'balance' it with a piece laden with Zionist or Orientalist presuppositions by an Israeli 'liberal' such as Mark Weiss or David Horowitz.  For every honest and conscience-driven letter on the plight of the Palestinians, it frequently seems to publish multiple letters of the most astonishing mendacity and ignorance from the 'friends' of Israel.  Amidst this 'liberal' notion of 'balance', the reality of a rogue state choking an oppressed people often disappears, and an ethical sense nearly always does.

So, it was entirely to be expected, no matter how frustrating, that the Irish Times would fail to register any linkage or parallel between the death of Mandela and the question of Palestine.  Mandela's own statements on Palestine were forgotten, the useful and valid comparisons between Israel's ethnocratic apparatuses and the apartheid regime (both founded in 1948) ignored, and the deeply sordid collaborations of Israel and South Africa under the National Party carefully hidden.  Perhaps this is also why the paper did not publish the letter below, which I submitted last Tuesday:

December 10, 2013

In the context of global mourning for the passing of Nelson Mandela, I note 1) that Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided that travel to South Africa was too expensive for him to make the memorial service held in Mandela's honour today; 2) the Embassy of the State of Israel has not been flying its national flag at half-mast, unlike, for example, the Embassy of the United States, since Mandela's death last Thursday.

One is surely led to conclude that these offensive snubs are the product of guilt.  For it was the apartheid South African regime - with which Israel nursed corrupt relationships of military and technological collaboration, including nuclear weapons collaboration - which imprisoned Mandela for 27 years.  Presumably Mr Netanyahu and the Israeli diplomatic delegation in Dublin do not mourn the passing of Mr Mandela.  Perhaps they rather mourn the apartheid regime which he helped dismantle.  Indeed, how could they not, when they have created a comparable regime of ethnic domination and oppression in Israel and the West Bank?

yours sincerely

Conor McCarthy


My comrade and friend Raymond Deane has just published a characteristically insightful review of a signficant book on the Israel-South Africa relationship, Sasha Polakov-Suransky's The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, on his excellent blog:

The Deanery

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Mandela's Legacy

The death of Nelson Mandela is an extraordinary moment.  It marks the passing of the most admired politician in the world in the last 30 or 40 years.   It marks the end, arguably, of the great decolonizing wave that began in the Third World after 1945.  But the public and political reaction, at least in the West, is so powerful and striking as to invite, or require, a properly dialectical examination in its own right.   What one finds is that Mandela's symbolic stature and the overwhelming obsequies at his passing are in inverse but precise proportion to the redistributive and class content of the processes of dismantling apartheid and South African democratization.

So, two basic points have to be made.  First, that Mandela's personal qualities, and the allegorical power of his story, are not to be gainsaid.  Second, again, that the outpouring of official effusions, 'tributes', 'grief' may even be in inverse proportion to the radicalism of the actual content of Mandela's tenure.  For what Mandela and his accession to power represented was what Gramsci would have called a 'passive revolution' - a change in political power and popular sovereignty, which is nevertheless evacuated of social and economic change.  Mandela is credited with effecting change without bloodshed - in fact, though the situation might have been much worse, there was very considerable bloodshed during the process of democratization.  What was managed was political change with very little alteration in the distribution of wealth, in a country marked by enormous disparities between rich and poor.  During Mandela's presidency, and since, white wealth has been both joined and reinforced by a rapacious and corrupt black comprador bourgeoisie-bureaucracy, very much along the lines of Fanon's acid prognostications in his masterpiece The Wretched of the Earth - ANC senior worthies and serving politicians at the highest level, including Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa, are part of this ugly formation.

One can then say, 'Well, Mandela was not personally corrupt, and he was only one man, and he was in executive power for a short time'.  This all may be true, but the question then must be asked whether that immense personal charisma, political authority and moral capital could not have been deployed to greater effect during his tenure.  One can also note that the balance of power was firmly with the ANC in the early 1990s, even before Mandela's election, and that it could have stood up firmly to the National Party.  But what one finds is that in the run-in to his period in office, and then during it, a devil's compact was negotiated between the incoming ANC, white South African power and capital, and the international institutions of neoliberal capitalism, dominated by the United States - the IMF and the World Bank. 

This tragedy is set out in chilling and clear terms by Patrick Bond, Director of the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in Durban:

The Mandela Years in Power

Ronnie Kasrils, a former member of the ANC and government minister, suggests that the ANC has made a Faustian bargain in its accession to power, for which the poor of South Africa will pay a long and grim debt:  

How the ANC Sold Out South Africa’s Poor


Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Death by Embarrassment

Poor Nelson Mandela.  Not only is he undergoing canonization by flabby rhetoric spewed forth by mainstream politicians and leaders, many of whom would not so long ago have dubbed him a 'terrorist', but he has now suffered the final indignity of being eulogized, or rather appropriated, by the fool otherwise known as 'Bono': Paul David Hewson.

The Irish Times has today republished a spectacularly, though characteristically, self-aggrandizing article which appeared in Time magazine a few days ago: 'My friend Nelson Mandela, the man who could not cry'.  I am sure he is crying now, his legacy muffled and obscured by the wafflings of a little man with a big ego, whose primary function is campaigning for private corporate investment and theft in Africa.   Not that one could expect much better from Time magazine's idea of a 'rock band', which features a lead singer in his early fifties who still insists on being called 'Bono' (boner? bonehead?), and a bald guitarist (let us at last speak frankly) of the same age whose name is, apparently, The Edge - ludicrous and crass Peter Pan tax quasi-exiles and loudmouths who once planned the construction of twin skyscrapers on either side of the Liffey, like ugly international style Pillars of Hercules - hubris unbound.  With the scrapping of this plan, the collapse of the Celtic Tiger achieved at least one moment of creative destruction.

Read Harry Browne's The Showman: Bono (In the Name of Power), for a thorough demystification of this ridiculous and narcissistic upstart.


Friday, 29 November 2013

The Geneva Treaty on Iran's nuclear programmes

A preliminary treaty would seem to have been negotiated and signed, last weekend in Geneva, between Iran and the 'P5+1' i.e. the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (Russia, America, France, Britain and China) plus Germany (plus the EU represented by Caroline Ashton).  This is strikingly significant in itself, and also in what it reveals about cleavages and shifts in the international politics of the Middle East.

The treaty requires that Iran down-scale its uranium enrichment activities (highly enriched - and therefore highly fissile - uranium  being necessary for both reactor construction, and the creation of nuclear munitions).   It offers the lifting of various economic sanctions which have been imposed upon Iran, and crucially on its very large and very formidable oil industries, for the last number of years. This is important for Iran, as its economy has felt the pinch of these sanctions in very serious and damaging ways.

Negative reaction to the treaty has come most obviously from Israel, and, in tones rather less shrill, from Saudi Arabia.  Israel and Saudi Arabia have, to a limited degree, made common cause on this matter (yet another example of the willingness of Israel, 'the only democracy in the Middle East', to enter alliances with the most repulsive regimes for the purpose of political and strategic convenience).  Yet inevitably Israel and Saudi Arabia also have sharply divergent interests in many other respects, and most of the time.  This alliance is not likely to be long-lived.

Any stock-taking must begin with the deal itself. What does it entail?

1) Iran will cease enrichment of uranium above 5% - as compared to the 90% required for weapons-grade material;

2) Iran's stockpile of 20% enriched uranium will be wound down - that is, it will either be diluted to 5% or below, or it can be turned into fuel for Iran's reactor at Bushehr, effectively ending its potential for further enrichment;

3) Iran agrees to construct no new centrifuges (the key apparatus for the enrichment of uranium) for the next six months;

4) Iran suspends work on the Arak heavy-water reactor.  Arak would run on non-enriched uranium, were it to be brought into service. It also produces high-grade plutonium as a by-product, which can be used in the manufacture of weapons.  Agreeing to suspend work on the plant cuts directly into Iran's weapons programmes;

5) Iran has pledged to reconsider the matter of IAEA access to the Parchin military site.  Currently the IAEA is banned from this site, but wants to re-visit it, to assess whether it was used for nuclear tests of a kind directed towards the development of weapons.

For these concessions, Iran wins benefits principally consisting in the unfreezing or unblocking of assets held abroad: $4.2 billion in oil sales revenues in accounts now to be unblocked; $1 billion in repatriated petrochemical sales; $500 million in sales and production in the Iranian motor industry, due to the unblocking of car parts imports; the unblocking of $400 million in Iranian assets used to pay for students abroad; and the lifting of bans on Iranian trade in precious metals.

Of course, no sooner has this deal been put in place, than the jockeying has begun for the ensuing discussions on the future of the Iranian nuclear programmes.  It's reckoned that the Parchin base and its history, much of it murky, may be a sticking point in the coming negotiations.

Meanwhile, the Geneva deal has ramifications right across the Middle East, and in America.  It's a substantial foreign-policy success for the Obama Administration and for Secretary Kerry.   That it's been prepared by secret contacts between the American and Iranian governments for the last several months only goes to reinforce the drama of very highlevel contact and negotiation between political elites which have been labelling each other 'the great Satan' (or its cognates) since 1979.  But it could yet be derailed, or produce knock-on effects as yet unexpected. An angry Israeli government reaction might produce even more intransigence on the Palestine issue (though that might be hard to imagine).   Iranian hardliners may try to rein in the negotiators who have struck the current deal, foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif chief among them.  The Saudis also feel the terrain of Middle East power shifting under their feet, seeing an American focus on rapprochement with the most powerful state in the Gulf, and are alarmed.

The deal is historic, however, not only in what it concretely tackles, but also in its dramatisation of the tectonic movements of power and influence in the Middle East.  In the years of the Cold War, American influence in the region was mediated principally through three 'pillar' countries: Israel, a useful if maverick Spartan military ally; Saudi Arabia, with which the United States has had a close alliance since the days of FDR; and Iran under the rule of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah. When the latter was overthrown in 1979, one of the pillars of American policy was shattered, and a powerful, rich and hostile Iran became in fact the United States' chief enemy in the Middle East.  The new Iran also propagated a radical ideology, represented in the work of its principal thinker, the brilliant sociologist Ali Shariati, an ideology composed not only from Shi'ism, but also from elements of Western Marxism and Third World anti-imperialist nationalism, and thus represented an extraordinary challenge to Western hegemony in the Gulf and beyond.  Iran was the sponsor and supporter of Shia movements in Lebanon, of various Palestinian factions, of the Iraqi majority as the Bush Administration found to its cost after the invasion of 2003, and of significant minorities in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.  Accordingly, a rapprochement between the United States and Iran, if that is indeed what we are seeing, is a policy/alliance shift of a kind one only sees every few decades.  Watch this space.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Culture and Ideas

It's about time this blog said a little about the net resources I use or admire in regard not merely to politics, but cultural/intellectual matters generally.  Some of what I am going to highlight here is dependent, or partly-dependent on subscription.

The New Left Review has been around as a journal since 1960, or thereabouts.  It remains, surely, the flagship intellectual journal of the Anglophone Marxist left.  It's been an essential forum for disputes and debates in Marxist philosophy, cultural and political theory, radical economics, both in the context of Britain, and globally.  In the Sixties and Seventies, it was a vital conduit for the translation and mediation into the English-speaking world of the work of newly-discovered or re-discovered 'Western Marxism' - the ideas of Georg Lukacs, Karl Korsch, Antonio Gramsci, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Sebastiano Timpanaro, Louis Althusser.  Important discussions take place in the pages of the Review - the quarrel between Nicos Poulantzas and Ralph Miliband (father to Ed and David, recently alleged to have 'hated' Britain) was fought out in its pagesö or more recently debates between Stefan Collini and Francis Mulhern about cultural criticism and intellectuals, or Franco Moretti and Christopher Prendergast about "world literature".  The famous and brilliant 'Nairn-Anderson Theses' on the nature of the British 'revolution', its compromises with the aristocracy and its legacies in the present, were first published in the NLR's pages.  And indeed though the journal was an crucial channel introducing radical continental thought to Britain and America, it also was the arena where a striking array of British, American, and indeed Irish talent was revealed: Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, Perry and Benedict Anderson, Robin Blackburn, Francis Mulhern, and many others.

I've had a subscription since 1990, and I can still remember the pleasure and excitement of coming to grips with it then. I was a MA student in UCD, and, under the guidance of Seamus Deane, Declan Kiberd and Thomas Docherty, in particular, and also Brian Cosgrove and Michael Paul Gallagher, I was finding my intellectual feet - an enormously exciting experience.  Suddenly, I found modes of thinking that allowed me to take culture seriously and as part of the social and political world: Marxisms, but also postcolonial thought - Edward Said pre-eminently - and some of the French thinkers so fashionable in the academy then and since: Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Jean-Francois Lyotard.  At the same time, I was discovering radical journalism - Alexander Cockburn and Christopher Hitchens, both of them at that time closely connected with the NLR - and getting agitated about the Gulf War.  Not only was I working with wonderful teachers and critics, but also, through those mentors, coming to an understanding of what Said famously called the 'worldiness' of ideas and writing - the sense that there is always a relationship between aesthetic ideas and experiences, and the apparently grubby world of politics and capital.  Becoming a devotee of the NLR was part of that very heady mix, and it has never ceased to be interesting and valuable.  Access to the full range of the NLR's articles and archives is by subscription:

New Left Review - NLR 83, September-October 2013

A few years later, I was studying in England, and began to read the London Review of Books.  The LRB is that thing which it's still hard to find in Ireland - a stylish, smart journal about books and ideas and politics, which is not 'academic', but which is a far cry from the standards of the Irish weekend 'arts' or 'literary' supplements, which are so often provincial and narcissistic (the capacity of the Irish Times to focus on the output of its own staff on its book pages is truly embarrassing) and overwhelmingly middlebrow.  The LRB reviews literature, but the essays are not slavishly attached to their topics (sometimes a frustrating trait, but not usually), and will use a book as the occasion for much wider speculation or discussion.  Much more than the New York Review of Books, of which it was originally an offshoot, the journal is flexible and frequent enough (fortnightly) to respond to current events - giving Edward Said the space to review books on the Lebanon War and the camp massacres at length in 1984, or publishing a wide array of responses to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 - and it generally feels rather more critically distant from a cultural or policy establishment than its Manhattan rival. The LRB, while broadly left-liberal in outlook, is not afraid either, to give space to writers from across the entire political spectrum, from Judith Butler to Edward Luttwak. It's attractively streetwise in tone, but rarely trivial. It's willing to publish slash-and-burn reviews - one remembers a witty but unfair review of Gayatri Spivak's Critique of Postcolonial Reason by Terry Eagleton - or controversial one-off essays or documents: it was in the pages of the LRB, after all, that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt first published the essay that would eventually lead to their book The Israel Lobby, after it'd been rejected by the Atlantic Monthly (which had commissioned the piece originally and then baulked at what it got).   My one qualm about the LRB is its inexplicable tendency to give enormous space in its coverage of Irish writing and culture to Colm Toibin, a moderately talented novelist and long-time journalist of no great investigative zeal or critical brio, who nevertheless seems to have attained to a powerful position in 'Irish Letters', buttressed by glamorous appointments at the NY Public Library and Columbia University.  Even with Toibin's lugubrious presence, however, the LRB remains a great newspaper.  It publishes a certain amount of material for free on its website.

London Review of Books · 21 November 2013

Readers of this blog will be aware of my admiration of Alexander Cockburn, whose last book, A Colossal Wreck, I managed to purchase last week.  A Colossal Wreck is a tremendous compendium of humour, insight and polemic, written, as often in the past, in diary form.  Hilarious and insightful reflections on cookery, vintage American cars, small-town life and politics, on Ireland at several points, combine with guerilla attacks on bloated imitators (Hitchens) and the Washington establishment,  and accounts of friends fondly remembered or praised (Edward Said, Ben Sonnenberg).  In contrast to Hitchens, who so obviously thirsted for insiderdom and friends in high places, Cockburn in the last 15 years of his life burned his connections with the centres of power, and removed himself to remote northern California.  Yet, in the age of the internet, this did not restrain his questing coverage of events and politics all over the world, and he also criss-crossed the United States, carrying writing accoutrements, cooking seafood in motel bedrooms, and endlessly meeting and learning about ordinary people.  From his California base, Petrolia, Cockburn also edited Counterpunch, with his comrades Ken Silverstein (who set up the paper and site in 1994) and Jeffrey StClair.  Cockburn died last year, but CP is still edited by StClair, and remains a wonderful source of edgy journalism, both polemical and analytical, 'muckraking with radical attitude'.  CP maintains a brilliant free website, and also publishes a hardcopy subscription newsheet, often with stories not otherwise available or more comprehensively elaborated.

CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names

I said above that the Irish literary-intellectual scene lacks a journal comparable to the London Review of Books.  In fact, this is no longer entirely true, due to the pioneering and splendid efforts of Maurice Earls and Enda O'Doherty at the Dublin Review of Books, an online publication.  That Maurice Earls might be involved in such an effort will not suprise those who are familiar with Books Upstairs, probably Dublin's finest and one of its most pleasant independent bookstores, located on College Green opposite the Front Arch of TCD.  Maurice is the proprietor (as well as the owner of several other bookstores around the city), but he's also a historian, and a real bibliophile.  For many years, Books Upstairs has been the best place in Dublin to find the 'little magazines' that are the backbone of literary activity in many countries - modest reviews, poetry magazines, leftwing or feminist or gay magazines (I'd reckon that Books Upstairs was the first bookshop in Dublin with a gay literature section).  The staff are uniformly pleasant and helpful - Ruth Kenny who used to manage the store is a star of knowledge, enthusiasm, and helpfulness.  Maurice, with Enda O'Doherty, set up the Dublin Review of Books in 2007, initially as a quarterly publication.  Now it's fortnightly, and it's a testament to the editors' focus and care that the standard has not dropped at all.  Here at last we find the extended review, where a book can be contextualised formally, historically, ideologically.  Here at last we can look, through the eyes of primarily Irish reviewers, but also international contributors (it's few Irish journals that can boast of having published an interview with Ryszard Kapuscinski) at a wide range of international writing, ideas and events.  The DRB now publishes essays as well as reviews, and also occasionally excerpts from new books or younger writers.  All of its content is free.

Dublin Review of Books

Monday, 18 November 2013

Diary - November 2013 - Ireland and the environment

A couple of points have come up recently, which bring me back to my argument as put forward in 'Ireland and the Enclosure of the Commons'. 

Firstly, the decision of the Supreme Court in Dublin on the case between Sligo County Council, and the owners of historic Lissadell House.   A badly conducted legal campaign, ostensibly to defend rights of way around the Lissadell estate, has wasted a sum of money that might originally have brought house and estate into public ownership some years ago, and has probably set arguments about public access to amenity lands back by some years. 

Second, last Tuesday, Fintan O'Toole in his Irish Times column, drew attention to the proliferation of ugly, obtrusive, and largely unnecessary barbed wire and high tensile fences on Ireland's mountains.

Why fencing in our high mountain pastures is really the height of folly

It would appear that the Department of Agriculture is offering farmers grants, related to the Single Farm Payment scheme, to construct fences.  This means that on terrain where even sheep are rarely seen, one encounters and struggles to pass fencing.  Another issue of access for walkers on our magnificent mountains.


Diary - November 2013 - the Middle East

Again, I have neglected my blog.  It's foolish.  What I hope to do today is to sketch in a few of the issues and concerns that have interested me lately, and which I should have commented upon.

In the Middle East, we had the apparent will of the United States and its allies to assault the Al-Assad regime in Syria, after the use of chemical weapons in August.  This attack did not take place, partly due to political fudging and incompetence (writing here in their own terms) by the American and British governments, and also because of divisions and controversy in the American foreign policy establishment.  The Russian government - which wishes to enhance Russian international influence and power, of course, under the star of a resurgent 'Greater Russia' nationalism, and which is the Al-Assad regime's primary defender and armourer - ably stepped into the diplomatic  breach.  It put together an alternative plan, which allowed for the Syrian government admitting to possession of chemical munitions, and for a UN programme of their destruction.  The winners here were clearly the Russians - no more a joyous thing than an American diplomatic victory, it should be said.

The United States is meanwhile sponsoring new 'talks' between the Palestinian Authority and its Fatah staffers, and the Israeli government under the leadership of Bibi Netanyahu.  It should be clear that these talks are a waste of time, that they are most risky for the Palestinians, and that they largely function to offer political cover for the Americans (to seem to be doing something - otherwise someone's going soon to start asking Obama when he's going to give back his Nobel Prize), and diplomatic cover for the Israelis to go on with settlement construction.  The bottom line point here, that is never really spoken in mainstream Western circles, is that settlement construction by Israel in the West Bank is  a mode of making war.  If Clausewitz famously said that 'war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means', then we must here recognise the value of Michel Foucault's brilliant reversal of that dictum in his College de France lecture series 'Society Must Be Defended': 'politics [diplomacy in this case] is the continuation of war by other means'.  'Peace talks' which go ahead while settlement construction is underway are like peace talks conducted when combat has not yet ceased, peace talks conducted in the absence of a ceasefire.  The sooner these 'peace talks' grind to a halt, the better.

And most recently, we've had the discussions, involving various permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, but also Britain and France) over Iran's nuclear programmes.  A lot of optimism was generated by the most recent round of talks that a deal might be struck (accompanied by Israel squealing like an irate adolescent in the wings), but seems to have dissipated at the end of such talks, with recriminations on both sides.  A few points are worth making here.  Israel squeals whenever it doesn't get its way, and it squeals particularly loudly at the prospect of any kind of normalisation of Western relations with Iran.  Iran is Israel's main rival in the Middle East as a local great power, and helps back various Palestinian and Lebanese forces which offer resistance to Israel's will.  States are never purely benign agencies, and the Iranian state is certainly not one.  However, it's worth remembering that Iran (a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty) is not in breach of its obligations, and has no nuclear weapons, whereas Israel has a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons and viable delivery systems (and never signed the NPT, thus not being subject to international oversight in this regard).   Saudi Arabia (so long so charmingly labelled by the United States a 'moderate' Arab state) squeals about normalisation with Iran, because of a historical paranoia about 'the Persians'; and more pertinently because of its fear and guilt about its mistreatment of its own substantial Shia minority, which happens to live in the areas of its greatest oil wealth.  The Kingdom is also an aspiring regional hegemon, which fears Iran's backing for the last secular radical Arab nationalist regime (Syria), and what this represents for Sunni Islamism.   Patrick Cockburn, of the London Independent, has argued shrewdly that it is quite likely that the talks with Iran will fail, as they do not suit agencies putting pressure on the American government (Israel, the Israel lobby, Congress), and putting pressure on the Iranian government (radicals within the Iranian political establishment, who see negotiations on the nuclear programme as placing Iran in a position of weakness).

What can we surmise from all of these developments?  That American influence in the Middle East is slipping, that regional jostling and power-playing will continue, and that the Palestinians continue to lose.


Saturday, 17 August 2013

The Egyptian Winter

Months have elapsed since I have posted on this blog, regrettably.   Here I want briefly to highlight commentary on the coup in Egypt and the more recent crackdown on Islamist protest.

The situation in Egypt confuses Western liberals deeply.  On the one hand, Mohammed Morsi was elected a  year ago to the Presidency in elections largely deemed fair and democratic: a leader from the Muslim Brotherhood with a democratic mandate.  On the other hand, the final deposing of Morsi was not effected by popular street protestors, but by the Egyptian military: an apparently popular rising whose will was finally carried through by a military coup.  This struggle does not break down on handy, cliched Manichaean lines - it is not the case that the Islamist leadership was undemocratic in any simple sense, though  in its activity in office it managed to shed much of the legitimacy conferred on it by the elections; it is equally untrue that the ousting of Morsi was merely an expression of popular democracy.

The situation is complicated further, in regard to outside influence, in that the Egyptian military establishment is funded and equipped by the United States, and is locked into agreements and deals with the US government and military-industrial complex.  It's often noted that Israel is the greatest single beneficiary of American overseas aid (vastly more than any actually poor country).  But the second greatest single beneficiary is Egypt.  Egypt is, effectively, paid to maintain its peace treaty with Israel.  The great bulk of the aid to Egypt (a couple of billion dollars a year) is to the armed forces.  Juan Cole (see below) points out that Israel has requested that the United States NOT use its leverage by cutting off aid to the Egyptian military.  But on the other side, the Muslim Brotherhood has  been bankrolled by very conservative forces in the Persian Gulf: the state of Qatar (an American ally, to complicate things further) has supported and funded the Brotherhood and its religious agenda in Egypt.

So, in fact, what seems to be happening is an increasingly violent face-off between powerful conservative elements in Egyptian society - the country's oldest extant political party, on one side, and its authoritarian military apparatus, on the other side.  What is absent or crushed in the middle is the space of civil society, perhaps.   Such has been the longtime penetration of Egyptian society and economy by the army, via  a species of cronyism, that its influence spreads far wider and deeper than just in security and foreign policy.

I've already highlighted the work of Adam Shatz on this blog.  Shatz writes frequently for the London Review of Books on the Middle East, and he is well worth reading now, for an angle that cuts through the mainstream banalities:

Egypt’s Counter Revolution

Juan Cole is a distinguished and well-informed American scholar of the Middle East, who lived in Egypt for many years.  He teaches at the University of Michigan.

It’s not about Democracy: Top Ten Reasons Washington is Reluctant to cut off Egypt Aid


Monday, 22 April 2013

More on 'Primitive Accumulation'

Some years ago, I found a wonderful book by Michael Perelman entitled The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation (Duke University Press, 2000).  Now I see that Perelman has a splendid article on Counterpunch, giving a whistle-stop tour of his arguments.  He bears out David Harvey's suggestion that 'primitive' accumulation is here with us now, and works via many means - from versions of 'enclosure' as I wrote here on April 6 in regard to Coillte, to the failure to regulate the banking and financial sectors of the economy - to transfer wealth from the many to the few.

Part of the pleasure, or grimness, to be derived from reading Perelman lies in being reminded of how in the mid-nineteenth century, Ireland, with its clachan settlements and rundale mode of land-use, and the potato economy, was the target of neo-classical economic reformers like David Ricardo.  In the lead-up to the Great Famine, Ricardo advocated not only the re-organisation of the rural economy, but also the disciplining of the Irish peasant workforce to the rigours of wage-labour.  The brilliant Irish critic David Lloyd, in his most recent book Irish Culture and Colonial Modernity: The Transformation of Oral Space 1800-2000 (Cambridge UP, 2011) gives a searing account of the transformations advocated by the likes of Ricardo, and by contemporary administrators such as Trevelyan, which while they certainly did not 'cause' the Famine considerably worsened its effects.

Here's a link to Michael Perelman's article:

 A Short History of Primitive Accumulation


Tuesday, 16 April 2013

For the Boy with a Stone facing the Tank: Amira Hass, Palestinian Resistance, and the Critique of Israel

Amira Hass is one of Israel's most distinguished and radical journalists.  She's a columnist for Ha'aretz, and is one of the very few Israeli or Western journalists who has lived for prolonged periods of time both in the Gaza Strip, and on the West Bank.  Her book Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege (2000) is a wonderful, and wrenching, account of life in the Strip.

On April 3 last, she published an article with Ha'aretz entitled 'The Inner Syntax of Palestinian Stone-Throwing', in which she defended the Palestinian right to resist occupation by stone-throwing - indeed it must be noted that the right to resist occupation  by violent means is recognised in the Geneva Conventions.

Unsurprisingly, her article was greeted with an avalanche of criticism in Israel.  On the splendid leftwing website Counterpunch started by the late great Alexander Cockburn, and still run by Jeffrey St Clair, Lawrence Davidson has an excellent article explaining Hass's piece, analyzing her critics, and showing the wider implications of such debate. 

In Defense of Amira Hass

Amira Hass's writing and courage put her in front of the tank with the boy with a stone, whose image is captured and honoured at the head of this blog.  Would that there were more like her.


Saturday, 6 April 2013

Noam Chomsky on Violence and Dignity in the Middle East

Noam Chomsky, retired MIT University Professor of Linguistics and lifelong libertarian socialist, needs no introduction as a famous leftwing American public intellectual.  Since the 1960s, when he was active in protests against the invasion and occupation of Vietnam, Chomsky has maintained a relentless critique of American foreign policy, as tending to 'deter democracy' and to promote corporate profit over people.

One of his greatest books is The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians, first published in 1984 - an extraordinary catalogue of Israel's violence in its catastrophic invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982, and an even more extraordinary expose of the malfeasance of the mainstream American media in covering up or failing to acknowledge that violence.  Chomsky has, in fact, for a very long time been a severe critic of Israel and of American support of the 'Jewish state' - as Christopher Hitchens once noted, 'seldom a prudent course for those who seeking the contemplative life'.

Chomsky continues, in his mid-eighties, to keep up a level of activity and work that would break the strength of people half his age. He was recently in Dublin giving the inaugural Frontline Defenders' Annual Lecture (and was awarded the Ulysses Medal by UCD), and in London, giving the Edward Said Memorial Lecture.  The London Review of Books has put up a podcast of that talk, which is free for anyone to listen to.

The annual Edward W Said London Lecture is part of a series of cultural events and exhibitions programmed in association with The Mosaic Rooms (mosaicrooms.org) and the A M Qattan Foundation (qattanfoundation.org) to improve cultural and intellectual understanding of the Arabic world, and provide a platform for discourse and debate. The lecture is sponsored by The London Review of Books (lrb.co.uk).

Violence and Dignity on the Middle East · 18 March 2013

Ireland and the enclosure of the commons

It's high time that this blog tackled an issue in addition to the travails of Israel/Palestine, which it does not cover half as much as it should.  Starting this blog last April - nearly a year ago! - I said that I'd write about political and cultural issues as they took my attention, not only pertaining to the Middle East but also to Ireland in the Bad New Days.

Last January I climbed Djouce Mountain, in Co. Wicklow, with my old friend and comrade Andrew.  We went up by the Barr and White Hill, and on to Djouce summit.  It was a beautiful day of hard frost, and the hills retained a dusting of snow.  It's a magnificent, easy hike.  Cresting the Barr, where we passed the memorial to JB Malone, the view down to Lough Tay and Luggala, over to Fancy and Knocknaclohoge, and beyond to Lough Dan and Scarr, was superb.  Snows fringed the rim of the great cliffs above the lake, backed by pale azure skies.  Every blade of grass bore its own banner of hoarfrost.

The walk is deceptively easy, as much of it is now 'boardwalked'.  By this I mean that the path had been becoming severely eroded, and some combination of agencies - the Wicklow National Park, perhaps, and Coillte, and Mountain Meitheal - came together to lay a pathway over the soft heather and bog, made of old CIE railway sleepers bound together, and laid in pairs end to end, in steps or stretching out over the moors.  For once, a decent and environmentally-sound intrusion has been made into the over-pressured Wicklow hills.

But a much bigger problem is in the making, and has been for some time.  Andrew and I parked the car at the entrance and carpark of a state forest on the east side of the Sally Gap-Luggala road, a Coillte forest that drapes the southern flanks of Djouce and White Hill.   These forests, which litter Wicklow, and are present all over Ireland, are mostly composed of fast-growing lodgepole pine and sitka spruce and other unprepossessing conifers, that can cope with rugged or boggy or otherwise marginal land.  They are planted very densely, and in ugly boxed formations that lap up the mountainsides.  They are planted so closely, in fact, that in the resultant darkness there is no undergrowth, and much the ground beneath them becomes sterile.  Very little wildlife can survive in these forests once they are mature, though some species like the plantations when the trees are young.   The pine needles and other detritus from these trees, which are grown mostly for pulp, not  for quality timber, cause acidification of the soils, such as they are.  When Coillte decides to fell a certain crop of trees, the procedures used are extraordinarily destructive and ugly.  'Clearfelling' involves simply smashing down all the trees in a designated area.   They may be felled by axe and chainsaw, or they may be pulled down by some kind of pulley machinery.  Either way, the result is a blasted landscape of grey deadwood, resembling some dismal blend of Flanders in 1916 and Tunguska in 1908.

Be all of this as it may, Coillte has maintained amenity access to these forests for the Irish public, except when felling is taking place.  Coillte forests cover 7% of the land area of Ireland.  Many of them, as in Wicklow, guard the routes onto some of the most dramatic and superb mountain landscapes in Ireland - Glendalough in Wicklow, or Glen Inagh on the eastern rim of the Twelve Bens are two areas I know well, but there are many others.

As part of its suite of 'austerity' policies to re-balance the state finances, but also to pay back stupendous debts, under the aegis of the 'troika' of the EU, the IMF, and the ECB, the current Fine Gael/Labour coalition government proposes to sell the harvesting rights to these forests.  Not, they say, the land itself, not the forests themselves, but the right to cut trees and sell timber. This idea, which is of questionable constitutionality, has extraordinary implications.

It seems highly unlikely that any corporation that would seriously wish to invest in such 'harvesting rights' would not wish also to obtain a large degree of control over the landscapes where those rights would be exercised.  This would mean that any such investor, such as IFS Asset Managers, which the ludicrous and disgraceful Bertie Ahern joined as an executive in 2011, would eventually wish to control access to these forests, would wish to push new roads into the forests, would likely seek to cut off or restrict public amenity access to the forests at certain times, might baulk at issues pertaining to insurance liability, might wish to change species planted, might change the routine of felling, might change methods of felling, might wish to put certain kinds of permanent installations on forest land (buildings, carparks, machinery), might use chemicals or other materials hitherto unused.   Doubtless other problems of this kind would arise, should such a sale go ahead.

The sale is being contemplated under the terms of the bail-out programme organised by the EU, ESB and IMF.  However, it's important to note that the 'troika' does not specify that forestry - as a 'non-strategic' state asset - be sold off, in part or in its entirety.  The move towards a  break-up and sale of Coillte comes from our own government and politicians.

The sale of harvesting rights may turn out to  be highly unwise, in market-capitalist terms.  Economist Peter Bacon - he of the famous reports on the coming crisis in the Irish housing market of 1998 and 1999 which were ignored - has argued that the sale of Coillte harvesting rights 'cannot be justified'  in economic terms.  In a report commissioned by the Coillte branch of IMPACT and published  on January 28, 2013, Bacon and his colleagues have declared that the sale of harvesting rights as currently planned would leave the state with costs of up to 1.3 billion euros, or, to put it otherwise, the sale of harvesting assets would have to be made at prices very substantially higher than can be supported by the market.   Bacon says that the current proposals would effectively destroy Coillte as a viable commercial entity, stripping it of its valuable features, and leaving it to maintain and run assets of lower value - the classic risk of privatisation of state assets.  Bacon's report also deals with the risks to amenity access and thereby to the tourist economy - such risks are hard to quantify,  but very real nevertheless.

The Assistant Secretary-General of IMPACT, Johnny Fox responded to the release of the Bacon report thus: 'IMPACT and many other organisations have expressed concerns that the sale of Coillte harvesting rights would drastically limit public access to the countryside, undermine the quality and character of our woods, and damage our world-class forestry and environmental standards.  In response we were told that the policy is necessary on economic grounds. Peter Bacon’s report has now fundamentally undermined the only rationale the Government has put forward for this reckless and damaging policy'.

The reader of this blog might then ask, Is there any connection between this argument about public forestry in Ireland, and the Israel/Palestine question?  Well, in fact there is a strong connection.  To understand it, we need to go back to Marx.

At the conclusion of the first volume of Capital, Marx discusses the point of initiation of capitalism.  For capital to be accumulated, a pool must be created of workers that lack capital, that lack control of the means of production, and that can only sell their labour-power.  So he describes how, in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance era, the process of enclosure  began, whereby small peasant proprietors were flung - frequently with violence - off their land, and the great estates of modern England began to appear.  The former small farmers were now available as a rural proletariat, and the process of capital accumulation could move ahead.   The great Welsh cultural and literary critic Raymond Williams wrote about this process - which went on for hundreds of years - and its literary representations, even in writers as apparently apolitical as Jane Austen, in his masterpiece The Country and the City (1973).

The privatisation of state assets represents but the latest stage of this long and grim story.   The geographer David Harvey summarises Marx's arguments on this as follows:  the process requires the commodification and privatisation of land and the expulsion by force of peasant populations; the conversion into exclusive private property rights of various ownership rights (common, state, collective); the suppression of rights to the commons; the commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative modes of production and consumption; colonial, neo-colonial and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources); the monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; the slave trade; and usury, the national debt and ultimately the credit system as radical means of primitive accumulation.  The state, with its monopoly of legitimate violence and of legality has a crucial role in backing and promoting this process.

Harvey's treatment of this issue comes as part of his argument in The New Imperialism (2003) that the term 'primitive accumulation' is, in fact, a misnomer, in that it suggests that what Marx calls the 'original sin' of capitalism only took place deep in the historical past, and has nothing to do with the processes of neoliberal capitalism today.  But the American war in Iraq suggests otherwise, suggests that we should really refer to 'accumulation by dispossession', and that the American interventions in the Middle East, which are concerned principally with influencing the control, regulation and monetization of oil resources, should be seen as part of the wider history of the privatisation of the commons.  The Israeli occupation of the West Bank can be seen as part of the same process.  Over the last 46 years, the occupation has shifted from  being primarily a military operation, justified in strategic terms, to something broader, involving a substantial part of the Israeli economy, the state-sponsored theft and control of crucial resources (land and water), and the proletarianisation of the Palestinian population.  The threatened privatisation of Irish forestry, of a major national material and cultural asset, held by the state in trust for the Irish people, is a seemingly undramatic outrider of the same process.

Arundhati Roy tells us, in her Power Politics (2001), that privatisation is essentially 'the transfer of productive public assets from the state to private companies.  Productive assets include natural resources.  Earth, forest, water, air.  These are the assets that the state holds in trust for the people it represents ... To snatch these away and sell them as stock to private companies is a process of barbaric dispossession on a scale that has no parallel in history'.


Thursday, 4 April 2013

Significant victory for the BDS campaign in Ireland

Teachers Union of Ireland calls for Academic Boycott of Israel in unanimous vote; first academic union in Europe to do so

Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign – Press Release, Thursday 4th April 2013, 2.30pm

At its Annual Congress, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) became the first academic union in Europe to endorse the Palestinian call for an academic boycott of Israel. The motion, which refers to Israel as an “apartheid state”, calls for “all members to cease all cultural and academic collaboration with Israel, including the exchange of scientists, students and academic personalities, as well as all cooperation in research programmes” was passed by a unanimous vote during today’s morning session.

The motion further calls on the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to “step up its campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against the apartheid state of Israel until it lifts its illegal siege of Gaza and its illegal occupation of the West Bank, and agrees to abide by International law and all UN Resolutions against it”, and on the TUI to conduct an awareness campaign amongst members on the need for BDS. The motion was a composite motion proposed by the TUI Executive Committee and TUI Dublin Colleges Branch. It was presented by Jim Roche, a lecturer in the DIT School of Architecture and member of the TUI Dublin Colleges Union branch, and seconded by Gerry Quinn, Vice President of the TUI.

Speaking after the successful passage of the motion, Jim Roche said: “I am very pleased that this motion was passed with such support by TUI members, especially coming the day after Israeli occupation forces shot and killed two Palestinian teenagers in the West Bank yesterday. BDS is a noble non-violent method of resisting Israeli militarism, occupation and apartheid, and there is no question that Israel is implementing apartheid policies against the Palestinians. Indeed, many veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa have said that it’s worse than what was experienced there.”

Mr. Roche pointed to the desperate situation of Palestinian education under occupation saying that: “Palestinians are struggling for the right to education under extremely difficult conditions. They are eager for it, as shown by the large numbers of students in third level education inside and outside the occupied Palestinian territories. Education has always been a target of the Israeli occupation, seeing forced closures of universities, disruption under checkpoint, closure and curfew regimes, and arrests, beatings and killing of both students and teachers. Sometimes, such as during the 2008-09 attack on Gaza, educational institutions have been militarily attacked. In fact I have just returned from a solidarity visit to Gaza where I had the opportunity to hear first-hand from Palestinian educators and students about their difficulties. The unanimous passage of this motion that shows that the Palestinian struggle for freedom, of which academic freedom is a key part, resonates with TUI members and sends a strong message of solidarity to their counterparts in Palestine".

Mr. Roche concluded: “We proposed this motion as we believe that, as with South Africa, the trade union movement has a vital role to play in helping apply pressure to end Israeli apartheid and occupation. I am proud that the TUI has taken a clear stand, and now support a full academic boycott of Israel in line with the Palestinian call for BDS”.

Dr. David Landy, a member of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign and founder member of Academics for Palestine welcomed the motion saying: “This is an historic precedent, being the first such motion in Europe to explicitly call for an academic boycott of Israel. We congratulate the TUI and call on all Irish, British and European academic unions to move similar motions. Undoubtedly apologists for Israeli apartheid will complain that such motions stifle academic freedom, but this is nonsense. The Palestinian call for an academic boycott of Israel is an institutional boycott, not a boycott of individuals. Ironically, those that will jump to complain about this motion will have no words of condemnation for the de facto boycott imposed on Palestinian education by Israel, nor for its continuing attacks on Palestinian education, students and educators”.


The TUI Motion in full reads:

241. Executive Committee/Dublin Colleges(x4)
TUI demand that ICTU step up its campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against the apartheid state of Israel until it lifts its illegal siege of Gaza and its illegal occupation of the West Bank, and agrees to abide by International law and all UN Resolutions against it.
Congress instructs the Executive Committee to:
(a) Conduct an awareness campaign amongst TUI members on the need for BDS
(b) Request all members to cease all cultural and academic collaboration with Israel, including the exchange of scientists, students and academic personalities, as well as all cooperation in research programmes. (ENDS)
The Palestinian Call for a Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel can be read here: http://pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=869

Monday, 11 February 2013

Brooklyn College, BDS and Freedom of Speech

Brooklyn College is part of the City University of New York, one of the largest public universities in the United States, and one underpinned historically by an admirable stress on access, and on serving the diverse communities of New York City.   Ethnic minority students and women have particularly high representation amongst the student body.  CUNY has been associated, therefore, with the immigrant and working-class communities of the city, and with providing high-class third-level education to people who could not afford access to private university education, let alone the Ivy League universities. At one point, indeed, City College was regarded as 'the Harvard of the proletariat'.

This radical and honourable history has been besmirched recently by efforts to quash freedom of discussion at one of CUNY's constituent colleges, Brooklyn College.  The College Director has been threatened by New York City Council with a withdrawal of funding if she permitted talks by Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti about the BDS campaign against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to go ahead.

Here is a link to an excellent article in the American leftwing newspaper The Nation exposing some of the NYC political manoeuvering behind the story:

The Former Terror Suspect Leading the Attack on the ... - The Nation

And here is the speech given by Judith Butler (definitely the heroine of this blog!) when the event went ahead:

Judith Butler's Remarks to Brooklyn College on BDS