Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Phyllis Bennis replies to Cockburn

A movement alive and struggling for new strategies
A Response to Alexander Cockburn
Phyllis Bennis
Institute for Policy Studies, 27 July 2007

The US peace movement is alive and well, and has helped to ensure that 70 per cent of the US population is now against the Iraq war. This movement’s strength is in focusing on the human costs of war and occupation, writes Phyllis Bennis, but this does not mean it should follow Alexander Cockburn’s suggestion that it embrace the ‘Iraqi resistance’.

Alexander Cockburn (helped by Lawrence McGuire) makes three major points* in his Support Their Troops? column in The Nation. In my view one is right, one is wrong, one is preposterous, and linking the three of them only confuses the issue. His first point is that the U.S. peace movement doesn't embrace the Iraqi resistance. Right. The second is the U.S. peace movement is "pretty much dead." Wrong. And the third is that publicly sympathizing with the Iraqi resistance fighters will somehow create the still-missing "necessary critical mass to have a real movement."

Cockburn spends much of his article waxing eloquently - and rather nostalgically - about the days of earlier peace and solidarity movements, particularly Viet Nam and Central America. Although I seem to be his apparent poster girl for our movement's refusal to support the Iraqi resistance today, I share his nostalgia (I would have included the South African anti-apartheid movement as well). I was part of the sector of the Viet Nam anti-war movement whose favorite chant was "One side's right, one side's wrong. We're on the side of the Viet Cong!" During the Central America years my part of the movement didn't only oppose U.S. intervention, we also supported the FMLN in El Salvador and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. And throughout the anti-apartheid years, I supported the African National Congress.

But that was then. This is now. I have spent the last five years opposing the invasion and occupation of Iraq (and before that, a dozen years opposing an earlier war and genocidal U.S.-led economic sanctions against Iraq). I spent - and still spend - weeks and months on the road, speaking at huge demonstrations and in tiny church basements, writing articles and talking points and whatever to help build and strengthen our movement. But I never supported Saddam Hussein, who was "resisting" the U.S. during the sanctions years, and I didn't -and don't?support what is called "the Iraqi resistance" today.

What's the difference? It's not only about what will expand our movement. In retrospect, our principled support for Vietnamese independence forces strengthened the broader "troops out now" movement's understanding of imperialism, but probably did little to increase the critical mass of the peace forces. We supported the NLF in Viet Nam, and later its Central American and South African counterparts out of principle, because we supported the social program they were fighting for. We may not have agreed with every position or every tactic, but we shared not only what they were fighting against - U.S.-backed dictatorships or U.S.-paid contra guerrillas or the devastation of apartheid - but what they were fighting for as well. Independence and socialism in Viet Nam, self-determination and social justice in Central America, a non-racial South Africa.

Unfortunately that's not the case with Iraq. Certainly the Iraqi people have the right to resist an illegal occupation, including military resistance. And certainly there are Iraqi people, organizations, movements that many of us do support. (The work of U.S. Labor Against the War in supporting the Iraqi oil workers unions is one of our best examples.) But as a whole, what is understood to be "the Iraqi resistance" against the U.S. occupation is a disaggregated and diverse set of largely unconnected factions, in which the various often-antagonistic armed movements (including some who attack Iraqi civilians as much as they do occupation troops) hold pride of place. There is no unified leadership that can speak for "the resistance," there is no NLF or ANC or FMLN that can claim real leadership and is accountable to the Iraqi population as a whole. There is no unified program, either of what the fight is against or what it is for. We know virtually nothing of what most of the factions stand for beyond opposition to the U.S. occupation - and from my own personal vantage point, of the little beyond that that we do know, I don't like so much. Real internationalism means making good on our own obligations to end the U.S. war and occupation, and recognizing the Iraqis' international law-sanctioned right to resist. Internationalism does not require us to embrace any particular resistance forces that happen to be in motion today regardless of what they may stand for.

That is why I believe our movement's strength is in focusing on the costs of war and occupation - the cost first to ordinary Iraqis, then to ordinary Americans, including American troops, as well as to the Arab world, the environment, international law, the UN, and others around the world. Are Iraqi resistance fighters also victims of that war? Yes they are - but recognizing that is not the same as "support." And I don't think we gain strength by making sympathy with resistance fighters a demand of our movement.

I think we build the strongest movement by keeping our focus on the U.S. occupation, maintaining our demand to bring all the U.S. and "coalition" troops and mercenaries home, dismantle the U.S. bases and give up control of Iraq's oil industry. When I am asked who I think will then take power- often after I've described my view that the current U.S.-backed Iraqi government will likely not survive a U.S. troop withdrawal - my usual answer is "I don't know." Then I go on to say that the only thing I can anticipate with any confidence is that first, I probably won't like them very much because they're likely to have a far more religious orientation than I like but that second, it's not up to me to choose who governs Iraq. I'm not Iraqi. I don't get to choose.

As to our movement. Cockburn is wrong when he claims the peace movement is dead. How does he think that 70% anti-war opinion he notes was created? Certainly spontaneous opposition has played a part, based on rising casualty figures from Iraq (unfortunately only U.S. casualties seem to have this effect, not the enormously larger Iraqi casualties) and the lengthening litany of Bush administration outrages. But the peace movement's work has been critical as well. Not only the powerful global mobilizations of the pre-war period that culminated in the historic protests of February 15, 2003 and the large national mobilizations that followed, but the smaller, more local, less nationally visible work that has gone on since.

I'm not so sure if a Sister Cities program has taken off in occupied Iraq, but I do know that there are now 300 cities across the U.S. where local activists of what Cockburn would have us believe is a "dead" movement have forced city councils and mayors to pass resolutions demanding that troops and National Guard be brought home, that money funding the war and occupation be brought home and reallocated to education and infrastructure and health care. Many of those city councilmembers and mayors will be in Washington DC on July 31 for Cities for Peace Day to march to the White House, meet with congress, to make their demands heard. UFPJ is coordinating six regional mobilizations on October 27 and across the country counter-recruitment work is escalating. I don't think the bulk of the peace movement has become "subservient to the Democratic Party and to the agenda of its prime candidates for the presidency in 2008, with Hillary Clinton in the lead." I haven't gone anywhere in the last years, speaking at campuses, community centers, universities and churches, where peace activists have suggested accepting the Clinton agenda - or indeed the agenda of any candidate (except perhaps that of Dennis Kucinich).

Certainly some in our movement sometimes forget that Congress is not the peace movement. The sense of betrayal when congress again and again collapses and rejects the idea of simply refusing to put Bush's war-funding request to a vote at all, is often based on an idealized vision of what Congress is. But mostly our movement is more sophisticated than that - struggling to figure out the strategic answer to a situation our earlier movements against wars in Viet Nam or Central America never faced: how do we deal with the consequences of a strategic victory? The strategy of our movement from before the invasion was to win public opinion to oppose the war (remember only 22% opposed the war when it began). We have largely succeeded in helping that happen; now 70% of the population is against the war. Our movement is very much alive. It is nowhere near as strong as it should be, given that level of public support, and nowhere near as strong as it must be if it is to succeed in forcing an end to the U.S. occupation. But we are alive, searching for a clearer strategy, a strategy to transform that anti-war public opinion into real political power, and even further, to bring that 70% with us to support an entirely new U.S. foreign policy based on justice, not power.

We haven't figured out that new strategy yet. I certainly hope Alexander Cockburn has some better ideas to help us. Somehow I don't think that a public embrace of the Iraqi resistance is going to do the job.

* Cockburn's article is in the July 30 issue of The Nation. I am not going to address here some of the article's other claims, including that concern about global warming is nothing but "whining" and that Central America solidarity activists went to Nicaragua primarily for romantic liaisons with Sandinistas.


Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Patrice de Beer on Soarkozy's Gramscian strategy

The analysis is strong, the conclusions depressing and disconcerting - a challenge to the left.

Nicolas Sarkozy, rupture and ouverture
by Patrice de Beer

France’s rightwing president is pursuing a political strategy learned from an Italian Marxist, says Patrice de Beer.
Open Democracy 31 - 07 - 2007

Nicolas Sarkozy made a telling joke during one of his first foreign trips after his inauguration as France's president on 16 May 2007. Accompanied by his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner and his minister for Europe, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, "Sarko" commented that he was the only one in the French delegation who was not from the left. The point can be made even sharper if it is recalled that two of the other four ministers in the foreign-affairs department come from the Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party / PS): Jean-Marie Bockel, in charge of cooperation with Africa, and ); Rama Yade, the young, glamorous, arch-Sarkozian, Senegalese-born woman, with responsiblity for human rights.

In France, this is called ouverture.Nicolas Sarkozy, the first openly right wing president since 1945, has become a master in varying the rules of the sport: fishing for opponents to add them to his team. The strategy allows him to kill two birds with one stone: showing that, despite his conservative beliefs, he can extend the hand of friendship to former rivals while undermining a PS leadership unable to cope with a haemorrhage of senior, able figures that it cannot afford to lose.

More names can be added to those already mentioned:
* Fadela Amara, who led Ni putes ni soumises ("neither whores nor submissives"), an organisation of Muslim and black women from the banlieues challenging violence, abuse and discrimination), now in charge of urban improvement
* Martin Hirsch, former head of the acclaimed charity Emmaüs, charged with helping the non-working poor into the job market
* Jack Lang, the popular former education and culture minister, appointed vice-chair of a constitutional-reform commission
* Hubert Védrine, a former foreign minister, assigned to write a report on France in the age of globalisation
* Rachida Dati, who was born to immigrant parents from the Maghreb and raised in poor banlieue, now appointed justice minister

To all, "Sarko" has offered a small but visible share of power - but in areas where they are no threat to his power or ideas; where he is sure that his new allies are operating on his terms; and where he has not watered down his own policies in exchange.

Sarko's magpie politics
The cherry on the cake is obviously Bernard Kouchner, the emblematic French doctor who founded Médecins sans frontières, the most popular French public figure, a maverick socialist who saw there his last chance of playing a major political role (albeit foreign affairs remain the president's fiefdom). But Sarkozy, notwithstanding growing protests from MPs in his own camp about the distribution of portfolios they themselves had coveted as a reward for loyalty, is not stopping his ouverture there. He has personally invited many other leftist representatives; several have declined. His larger aim is to destabilise the PS even more before the next major electoral test, the local elections in 2008 (which will include the coveted mayoralty Paris, currently held by the left).

This is both innovatory and traditional politics in France - innovatory, because French voters are attracted to "Bonapartist" figure, strong men who pretend to rule outside of parties - even when they have one, like Sarkozy's own Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement / UMP) - "for the sake of the nation". But his strategy goes much further than that and has created a "rupture" - another word Sarko loves - in the French political system.

Like Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair in Britain, Sarkozy has stolen the momentum from the opposition and opened a new (yet-to-be-numbered) way. He shares with the "iron lady" a pride in being rightwing, a stingingly critical attitude towards ism the left's failures (but also of the spineless centre-right a la Jacques Chirac), and an emphasis on the role of the individual over that of society. He shares with Blair a clever use of his enemy's weaknesses to destroy them. His instinct for utilising others' ideas breaks in other ways with the French political tradition: he is not afraid to pick conservative ideas on the other side of the Atlantic, from Ronald Reagan to today's neo-conservatives.

At the same time, he is no liberal on economic matters (as opposed to social ones). Sarkozy favours (as did his presidential predecessors) "national champions" in business and industry, and a major role for the state in economy and finance; and he sees the market economy as a tool, not an end in itself (thus his readiness to advocate protectionism). Now this hyperactive figure wants to make the French political system even more presidential and recentralise power around himself.

A Gramscian lesson
The most masterly of Nicolas Sarkozy's triumphs, however, lies in the way he has succeeded in borrowing - or appropriating - the ideas of the Sardinia-born Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci; in particular, the latter's theoretical strategy for achieving power by establishing intellectual and cultural "hegemony" over political rivals.

Gramsci, imprisoned by Mussolini in 1926 for fear of the influence he might exert, became the icon of an intellectual left disenchanted with communism, Stalin-style. He believed that power had to be sought in the field of ideology and "values" rather than by sheer force (see Jérôme Sgard, Nicolas Sarkozy, lecteur de Gramsci: La tentation hégémonique du nouveau pouvoir" in Esprit, July 2007 ). Sarkozy himself told the daily newspaper Le Figaro (17 April 2007): "I have made Gramcsi's analysis mine: power is won by ideas. It is the first time a rightwing politician has fought on that ground".

Thus "Sarko" has positioned himself as a true-blue rightist, French-style (i.e. basing his power on an all-powerful state rather than on the law of the market). He has hijacked the territory long held by the leftist intelligentsia, building on his success in a long electoral campaign where he was able to impose his own radical values over those of the socialists. Indeed, even more, he was able to depict the socialists (far too preoccupied by internal rivalry and disloyalty towards their own candidate, Ségolène Royal) as trapped by anachronistic ideas values which were no longer relevant to a fast-changing, more individualistic society. In these circumstances, reinforced by the attraction of far-right voters to Sarkozy's nationalistic panache, no other leftwing candidate would have had a chance.

The new president had five years to cultivate his battleground, testing ideas, playing on fears, and gathering around him disgruntled blue- and white-collar voters who routinely choose the left or for the extreme-right Front Nationale (National Front / FN). His "talking true" slogan puts to work a subtle, manipulative series of counterpositions: the work ethic to the left's supposed irresponsible pampering in social policy; the working classes (appealed to via the magic slogan "more pay for more work") to the lazy or those who seek to cheat the system; law-and-order to "do-gooders" accused of stressing educative measures over repression; a tougher immigration policy based upon "national identity" to open borders and diluted national identity.
This is the handiwork of a man who is intimately close to big business; who has been mayor of one of the country's wealthiest cities (Neuilly-sur-Seine); who chaired the richest département (Hauts-de-Seine); whose first decisions have been to give to the richest sector of the population billions of euros in tax breaks; and who was also the first French politician for a long time who took pride in saying, "Myself, I am not an intellectual". All this posturing has paid, handsomely.

There is no alternative?
Today, the socialist opposition has lost both the moral-intellectual high ground and but most of the political ground, and can only hope for the end of Sarkozy's honeymoon when voters start to be shown the bill. This might take some time: the new president is still very popular as his ouverture receives endorsement from two-thirds of those questioned in opinion polls.
The PS leadership remains paralysed by the shock of the two-stage (presidential and parliamentary) election defeat in May-June 2007, and appears unable to react to Sarkozy's political earthquake. its two main "elephants" are out of the way - the bright, moderate Dominique Strauss-Kahn, craftily nominated as candidate to head the International Monetary Fund while the leftist Laurent Fabius wants to play the elder statesman - Ségolène Royal has to rebuild her support while the quadras, the younger generation in their 40s (and sometimes 30s) are struggling to take the place of those who failed in three successive presidential elections.
But can they win without starting to rebuild their links with the French people? The PS needs to engage the hard and painful work of elaborating a fresh ideological platform and clear goals for the next elections (in 2012) that could be at the same time credible, appealing and able to give a new cohesion to a party whose membership may have grown handsomely since early 2006 (thanks very largely to "Ségo") but which remains divided and demoralised.

The French left is now sociologically in a minority and will have to rethink its decades-old strategy of rallying "progressive forces" (including the far left) by shifting its gaze towards a centre whose leader, François Bayrou, has broken his old alliance with the right. If they do not, French socialists should examine the history of the Labour Party in Britain after Maggie Thatcher's victory of 1979 and start counting....for Nicolas Sarkozy has said he intends to serve for two consecutive five-year terms. Hegemony can last a long time.

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