Universalism in an unfair world

7 May

Only connect – E. M. Forster, Howards End

For his well researched work on the British establishment, you couldn’t slide a cigarette paper between Owen Jones and me. The same goes for George Monbiot’s forensic but neatly penned linking of environmental vandalism to big money. Other of their writings, however – on Russia and Syria respectively – strike me as misconceived. In both cases the cause is the same. Each, in arguing sincerely held views on Putin or Assad, invokes the principle of universalism.

If you’re a socialist, you’re a universalist, not a relativist: you believe all people deserve the same economic and political rights. That can’t be achieved without democracy — not the limited democracy the West currently has, but a full democracy that we should aspire to. That means not lauding a regime which, despite its achievements, lacks the democratic rights a truly socialist society must enjoy as a bare minimum. Owen Jones, 29/11/2016

If we deny crimes against humanity, or deny the evidence pointing to the authorship of these crimes, we deny the humanity of the victims. Aren’t we supposed to be better than this? If we do not support the principle of universalism – human rights and justice for everyone, regardless of their identity or the identity of those who oppress them – what are we for? George Monbiot, Disavowal 27/04/2017

Jones writes four days after Fidel Castro’s death. Monbiot’s Disavowal comes three weeks after he’d tweeted his 99% certainty that Damascus had, three days earlier on April 4, used chemical weapons at Idlib. (More specifically, it’s one of a series of tweets and blog posts pouring scorn on the ‘denialists’ who won’t accept what he deems an open and shut case against Assad.) For both writers, universalism means condemning human rights abuse wherever it arises: be that in Ferguson Missouri or Aleppo, Abu Ghraib or Havana. On this the pair are in tune with an earlier writer, one whose hallowed status has obscured questionable deeds that to my mind arise from the logic of a universalism unexamined. I mean that other George, he who gave the world 1984 and MI5 lists of communist sympathisers.

As principle, who’d argue with the universality of human rights? Not me, though I have caveats. First, let’s not define human rights narrowly. That’s so we don’t get worked up – played even – over abuses real or alleged in countries our rulers have screwed for centuries, and in a different form still are screwing, while barely registering burgeoning infant mortality by humanitarian sanction or soaring cancer rates from depleted uranium in the wake of the latest humanitarian invasion. Since universalists seldom ignore the latter entirely, broadening ‘human rights’ to take in such as welfare provision, literacy and prosperity levels also makes it hard, if we’ve an ounce of intellectual rigour, to play an old get-out card. It gives less latitude for a lazy absolutism that cries ‘a plague on both houses’ while at best doing nothing, at worst giving de facto support to the America led aggression we piously deplore.

A wider definition of human rights obliges real-world assessments. One such is to discriminate between greater and lesser abuse, to shun specious moral equivalence. Suppose every word our media say about Assad to be true: a huge stretch, I know, but stay with me. Could he inflict a fraction of the death, misery and mayhem the US and its partners in crime have? (To answer this we need to acquaint ourselves with a little postwar history. It helps too to know something of the global balance of power, and financing and stupendous scale of America’s for-profit arms industry.) Here’s another question. Are any modern weapons not  chemical? The implicit mantra – Tomahawk GoodSarin Baad – shows, as does the barrel bomb brouhaha, just how easily red herringed we are by the spurious categorisations of a Washington dominated UN.

(Two years ago I visited a residential home for disabled men and women in Hoi Anh, Vietnam. Half the residents were disfigured, many in grotesque ways, by the Agent Orange the Pentagon used in its war on the Vietnamese people. Surprised by the youth of some, I was told the toxic effects are congenital. To this day children are born with severe defects as a result of chemical warfare Washington arm-twisted the UN out of describing as such. On what ground? That any harm to civilians was collateral and secondary to the aim of depriving Vietcong/NVA of ground cover. In fact millions of hectares of land remained uncultivable into the twenty-first century. This in a country on starvation rations for decades due to America’s embargo, and punishing of nations friendly to Hanoi. As with barrel bombs, too many liberals who consider themselves well informed are duped by arbitrary categorisations designed in Washington and relayed by ‘our’ media, a fraud of breathtaking cynicism rendered all the more effective by the naivity of leftist comment in the liberal media. And since I’m sure you were wondering, no; America has paid not one cent in compensation to Agent Orange victims. Not chemical warfare, you see.)

A second caveat is that we don’t take as truth incontrovertible every claim which, in an age of ‘humanitarian intervention’, will lend cover to aggression for profit. Not even when those claims are backed by sober voices packaged as impartial experts, and relayed by journalists not often mendacious but too often sharing the credulity of their audiences, topped up in their case by ‘career focus’. Journalists who know what’s good for them please editors. Editors who know what’s good for them please proprietors. Proprietors, by definition fully paid up members of the ruling class, crave honours and need advertisers.

A third is to do as E.M. Forster counsels, and only connect.  IMF bullying and covert ops, deadly sanction and deadlier missile strike put states dubbed ‘pariah’ (read, distasteful to Wall Street) on a war footing. We in the west enjoy freedom of expression and limited democracy, fruits of a prosperity based on exploiting the global south*. When progressive governments must fight for survival – as in Castro’s Cuba, Chavez’s Venezuela and Ba’athist Syria – those freedoms may jeopardise gains without which democracy and human rights are meaningless except as cover for their antithesis. I mean economic planning instead of casino capitalism. I mean healthcare and schooling for all, not just those who can afford it.

The jeopardising factor here comes not from freedom of expression per se but its abuse by vested interests. These may be comprador capitalists, like the Venezeulan elite who gained from the impoverishment of their compatriots, who stood to lose from nationalisations that helped reduce said impoverishment, and whose near monopoly control of the media is as big an affront to meaningful democracy in that country as is its equivalent in ours. Or they may be the jihadists backed for decades by ‘our’ governments while ‘our’ media decried Hafez al-Assad’s ruthless crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood: a suppression of human rights which for all its brutality enabled Syria’s extraordinary progress on the very factors – literacy, welfare, shared prosperity on the back of state ownership of key sectors, womens’ rights and secularism – I want included in the definition before I sign up for the breezy universalism of Jones and Monbiot. In the meantime I adopt a stance out of favour with much of the left; critical but unconditional defence. What I hear from self styled universalists is too much of the critical, too little of the defence.

On that last, two 2013 pieces by Fred Weston are worth reading. These In Defence of Marxism articles make fair points on Assad (mainly Hafez) failings. They also set out a sound statement, albeit dated in its implicit vanguardism, of the case against Stalinism, ‘stageism’ and ‘socialism in one country’. Given that Trotsky is favourably cited it’s striking Weston makes no mention of the critical-but-unconditional meme, central to postwar Trotskyism and to my mind one of the more useful legacies of the ill fated Fourth International. If that’s all too estoteric, my point is he’s too busy trashing – on grounds I share and with a cogency I’d welcome in other contexts – the anti-imperialist credentials of Ba’athism to grasp the biggest aspect of this mess. Assad may be insufficiently opposed to imperialism for Fred Weston’s tastes, but is sufficiently in the way of it to be on the receiving end of its wrath. Says Weston:

… [the idea of] the Assad regime as anti-imperialist … can only be sustained if one suffers selective historical amnesia and ignores what the regime has actually done to collaborate with imperialism. In 1976, Hafez Assad invaded refugee camps in Lebanon to suppress Palestinian resistance, coordinating its operations with Israel, and with the full backing of US imperialism. Syria had in fact been called on to intervene by the west (including Kissinger) to prevent the defeat of the right-wing Maronite Christian militias in the civil war that had started in 1975 between progressive secularists, Muslim militias and the PLO. Later, in 1990-91 the regime cooperated in the US attack on Iraq; in 2003 the regime did not lift a finger to defend Iraq against imperialist attack. It withdrew from Lebanon under US pressure.

What’s wrong here (on top of slyly conflating Hafez and Bashar into a single Assad) is the tacit demand that an imperialised state behave with anti imperialist consistency to ‘earn’ the support of the left in imperialist states. But unless he thinks the west attacks Syria because  of the sins he lists, and I’m sure he thinks no such thing, Weston makes the very confusion critical but unconditional defence  disentangles. Internationalism begins at home. A key tenet is that imperialised states be defended from our own imperialism, regardless of Stalinist, nationalist, theocratic or other defects in their worldviews, or failings real or cynically concocted in their leaders. Such defects and failings must be condemned where proven, but always in the context of – yet meticulously decoupled from – unwavering insistence that the prime villain is ‘our’ imperialism.

Why does this matter? Because the left in the global north has a sorry record of capitulation to ferocious dominant narratives. That’s why defence of the Provisional IRA was tougher for British socialists than defence of an ANC whose program and leaders were equally flawed. Conversely, it’s why white South Africans in the ANC were truly heroic – likewise Israeli Jews fighting their own apartheid state – and why it was easier to defend the IRA if you were French or American than British. But in their hostility to Damascus,  western media have set a climate as vicious as that created by British media at the height of the ‘troubles’ in the Six Counties. I’m sure Weston, like Jones and Monbiot, does not intend it but his attacks on ‘misguided’ leftists who back Damascus against Washington will  add to a narrative of vilification funded by the deepest pockets and driven by the most venal interests. Music to Wall Street ears, they’ll also give cover for those on the left more interested in an easy life than in challenging a criminally insane world order at the points of greatest criminality. In this respect Weston’s brand of marxism serves, objectively, the same ends as Monbiot’s and Jones’s universalism.

That need for widening our definition of human rights, and being sceptical when leaders and media take the moral high ground on nations they do so much to impoverish, applies not only to imperialised peoples but to weaker imperialisms. I refer to Russia and China, whose rise I welcome not as ‘good guys’ to the west’s ‘bad guys’ but as sorely needed counterbalance. A materialist, not an idealist, I don’t locate evil in the peculiarities of any national psyche. I think in terms of class not country, and see our rulers concealing – not from rival leaders but their own subjects – the interests they truly serve beneath a cloak of morality. That needn’t imply conspiracism. (On the whole I locate evil in the logic of capital; its dynamic accelerated by the fall of the Soviet Union.) Yes, history is rife with conspiracy – proven in the cases of Tonkin and Saddam’s WMDs; deservedly suspected at Idlib – but dark plots are more history’s catalysts than its primary drivers. What’s more they tend to be seen by their authors as For The Greater Good.

Hence my open letter to Jones; its subject Putin, its theme the flaws of a universalism detached from realpolitik. Hence too my saying Monbiot is astray on Syria. I don’t doubt the sincerity of his views, though they’ve led a usually critical man to errors of reason and lapses of evidential standards. His failing has moral aspects too. See the Media Lens response to his Disavowal. Driving the disingenuity and flagrant misrepresentations, calmly dissected by ML, of this on the whole honest broker are the vanity and blinkered credulity of a man who can’t admit error: one who boasts he can ‘handle more reality than most’, and by that boast opens a door on the very opposite.

Owen Jones’s very similar vanity has led him to very similar misrepresentations over Syria. He wouldn’t share a 2013 Stop the War platform with Mother Agnes, mother superior of St. James Monastery in Qara, Syria, who’d spoken out on the ‘civil war’ and western-backed terrorists. (He’s less fastidious about appearing on BBC Question Time alongside champions of the west’s wars on the middle east.) Jones blogged that Mother Agnes is

perhaps most infamous for publishing a 50-page report claiming that the video footage of the Ghoutta massacre was faked, that the children suffocating to death had been kidnapped by rebels and were actually sleeping or “under anaesthesia”’.

Jones provides no link to said report. My guess, and that’s all it can be, is he didn’t read beyond its introduction. And it is  a difficult read; lengthy and detailed, with erratic ‘signposting’ of the significance of every factor it documents. The difficulties are compounded for a lay westerner by technical terms, Arab names and the misspellings and unorthodox syntax of a writer whose first language is not English. Moreover, the report was rushed out to counter jihadist accounts lapped up by western media bent on damning Assad in ways that, intended or not, prime us for further aggression in our name on the middle east.

Be that as it may, an hour or two studying Mother Agnes’s report throws up serious questions Jones fails to address. How come a photo shown on page 20, offered by ‘rebels’ as evidence of atrocity by Assad, had been used a week earlier in Egypt after Muslim Brotherhood violence? What does Jones say to relatives claiming to have seen, in other ‘rebel’ supplied footage, their own children abducted earlier that month from Alawite villages, almost certainly by Al Nusra terrorists? Is it so far fetchedly incredible – as Jones’s airy refusal to trouble himself with the details would suggest – that these zealots, famous for both unspeakable cruelty and crude but effective propaganda, would act with such cynicism?

Related are two questions I’ve raised in other posts. What does Jones believe Damascus could gain from such an attack? Conversely, what is it that stops him seeing that the terrorists, with or without the complicity of western or Saudi intelligence services, had everything to gain from yet another false flag operation to justify further and more direct western intervention against the state they  loathe for its multi-faith secularism, Washington for its “Arab communism”?

Crucially, in a foreshadowing of Monbiot’s misrepresentation of Media Lens over Idlib, Jones neglects to say that Mother Agnes is not offering an alternative narrative for Ghouta. Rather, she is pointing out flaws in the case for Damascus having used sarin there.

Blogger Phil Greaves echoes my views, albeit in terms I would not use, of Jones on Syria:

Since the onset of the Syrian conflict, Mother Agnes has made efforts to combat the skewed narratives emerging from corrupt western, Israeli, and Gulf Oil and Gas media – not least regarding the alleged chemical weapons attacks in Ghouta. Contrary to the smears, Agnes doesn’t deny people died, nor offer a complete alternative narrative. Her questions are focused on the many inconsistencies and inaccuracies within the “official narrative” and dubious YouTube videos touted as impartial evidence. It seems the CIA were also less than convinced of the US governments “assessment”; so much so that a mass resignation was threatened if their name was attached to John Kerry’s dodgy dossier. Furthermore, a considerable open source collaborative effort to determine the perpetrator has drawn the logical conclusion that only the rebels could have been responsible. In addition, the much politicised UN report that attempted to point the finger at the Syrian army has also come under scrutiny from highly qualified avenues for its poor methodologies and misleading conclusions. Regardless of all the above, the fact Mother Agnes actually resides in Syria, is the head of an organisation that has mediated between warring factions and enabled the safe evacuation of civilians, and consistently calls for peaceful reconciliation and dialogue, doesn’t count for much in the eyes of rabid western pundits eager to demonize anyone that dare question, or offer a counter narrative to their fabrication-laden fantasies on Syria.

Owen Jones has written virtually nothing on the Syrian conflict. His understanding of events is largely based on the dominant narratives portrayed in western media. No doubt, like any self-respecting petty bourgeois leftist of London, Jones gets his information from the west’s supposed liberal establishment newspapers, who in recent years have stood proudly alongside right-wing media in cheerleading for disastrous western-led wars of aggression. The conflict in Syria has been no exception, the Guardian’s totally skewed coverage, that lends [sic] more from Whitehall/CIA/Mossad talking points than reality, has been well documented and debunked. Accordingly, Jones’ ideas on Syria fall in line with this narrative: yes, the “Islamist rebels” are BAD guys (meaning there are some GOOD moderate guys that nobody can find yet, or, in Owen’s case even name), but Assad is a dictator, a war criminal, “barbarous”, “he needs to go”. Any reflection on cause and effect; the long and relevant historical context of US-led subversion and instigation of terrorist insurgencies in the name of “revolution”; or the underlying geopolitical dynamics that helped to create and exacerbate the extremist-led insurgency is far too much nuance for Jones’ simplistic binary narratives: Assad is BAD, and anyone that supports the Syrian government or refuses to support its ouster through coercion or violence is also BAD, by definition. What then, do Jones’ simplistic definitions mean for the millions of Syrians that still support their President and government? Well, like the nun, they are obviously evil and severely misguided. I mean, what would they know, Living in Syria and all? This stance of vulgar superiority is indicative of the vast undercurrent of western bourgeois Orientalism which still oozes from the pores of western media and its decrepit “journalists” when their stance on “others” threatens to detriment their self-imposed “credibility”.

To be fair, Greaves is wide of the mark in saying that for Jones ‘anyone that .. refuses to support [Assad’s] ouster through coercion or violence is BAD’.  Jones the universalist does indeed condemn regime change in the middle east but Jonathan Cook’s response, below, to Monbiot’s empty denunciation of the warmongers is equally applicable here. FWIW I don’t see either man as fundamentally dishonest. I do see them as complacent: a consequence on the one hand of their revered status on the liberal left; on the other their employment by a Guardian on a decidedly rightward drift. The first can turn the steadiest head, the second exert a groupthink effect whose dynamics need not depend on censorship or other forms of editorial conspiracy.

But vanity, complacency and any ethical consequences thereof are secondary. My focus is on flaws intrinsic to uncritical universalism. I’ll give the last – OK, penultimate – word to Jonathan Cook, familiar to all who are up to speed on the Palestine travesty, and in my opinion the best informed middle east commentator on the block.

Monbiot has repeatedly denied he wants a military attack on Syria. But if he weakly accepts whatever narratives are crafted by those who do – and refuses to subject them to meaningful scrutiny – he is decisively helping to promote such an attack.

Noam Chomsky made this point in a different context in Understanding Power:

“So when American dissidents criticize the atrocities of some enemy state like Cuba or Vietnam, it’s no secret what the effects of that criticism are going to be: it’s not going to have any effect whatsoever on the Cuban regime, for example, but certainly will help the torturers in Washington and Miami to keep inflicting their campaign of suffering on the Cuban population [i.e. through the US-led embargo]. Well, that is something I do not think a moral person would want to contribute to.”

* * *

* ‘We in the west enjoy freedom of expression and limited democracy, fruits of a prosperity itself based on exploiting the global south.’
There’s a two step logical chain here. One, it’s no accident that Popper’s ‘open societies’ exist only in prosperous countries. When the masses subsist in deep poverty, rule by consent – even the constipated forms manufactured by corporate and state media – is not possible. Direct repression is required. Two, underpinning the prosperity we enjoy in the global north is the extraction of huge surplus value in the global south. That cheating of the south cannot be opted out of by ‘ethical consumers’ in the north. A huge slice of the expropriated surplus value goes in taxes to governments, as I aim to show in a future post on the economics of imperialism.
Failure to reckon with that two step connection – human rights premised on prosperity; prosperity premised on imperialism – is at the heart of what’s wrong with the universalism of Jones and Monbiot. As my friend Mark put it in a recent email:
[many on] the ‘left’  … have a tendency to focus on specifics they feel comfortable with while not dealing with the big picture. I do get the impression they’d describe someone set upon by a psychotic mob who throws a punch in defence as a savage, and equally culpable!

5 Replies to “Universalism in an unfair world

  1. This is an excellent cogent and well conceived and executed article which really does walk through all the steps necessary to arrive at a sound, well founded critical analysis of the shortcomings of the biased and glib “self endorsing” small minded and sanctimonious numpties who consider them selves well informed. This article is something they should read and if possible, understand, but that is rather unlikely, such is their egotistical self righteousness.
    A real gem and fine source of reference! Many thanks writer Roddis?

    • Susan you’re too kind. But thanks. This was one of the hardest posts I’ve written. I’ve never been fully satisfied with it, and have returned over and over, tweaking and rephrasing in an effort to clarifiy; to simplify without becoming simplistic. That I’ve spent so much time on this piece, over so many months, reflects my belief in the importance of its subject.

      So your words are much appreciated!

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