Issue 261 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
Italy and its discontents
Last year a lot more happened in Italy than demonstrations in Genoa. In May the Blairite DS party lost power to Berlusconi. The party then split over what to do about the Genoa protests. Then the leadership supported the war in Afghanistan and the party squabbled some more. In the party's brief life it has only suffered from 'exitism', not entrism.
Last month the DS held a rare public rally in central Rome. Some 4,000 people came--not many for a party which still has more popular roots than New Labour. The leadership thought they would end with a bang by inviting popular film director and DS supporter Nanni Moretti to give the final speech. He didn't disappoint them. 'The bureaucracy stood up here behind me hasn't understood a thing,' Moretti shouted. Pointing towards the Italian equivalent of Blair, he continued before storming off, 'We'll never win with these leaders.'
Paul Ginsborg's book has got to the bottom of this crisis. It is a massive work about the last 20 years of a country which has the fifth largest economy in the world and a rate of car ownership second only to the US. The detail is sometimes breathtaking. But there is more than this. Ginsborg wanted to 'write history not only from the top downwards, but also from the bottom upwards'.
The pivotal event of his whole account is the collapse of the Christian Democrat and Socialist 'regime' in the early 1990s. Ginsborg outlines the many 'warning signs' in the preceding years. People began demanding and voting for electoral reform, regional autonomy surfaced in the shape of the racist Northern League, a head of state continually discredited the institutions, voting in elections declined sharply, and the stream of sleaze was never-ending regardless of which party was in power.
One thing which emerged from this crisis was a kind of 'do it yourself reformism'. By 1994 nearly 5 million volunteers dedicated large amounts of their spare time to all sorts of causes--work with old people, immigrants, drug addicts, blood donations--bitterly aware that both the state and the market were failing to come up with the goods.
This is the background to the social forum movement which exploded just after Ginsborg finished his book. From these seeds a mass movement has grown. Many of these people were and are middle class. The main problem with the book is that Ginsborg believes the urban middle classes are now the majority of society and the key to changing it. He implies that white collar workers are not forced to work for a living, are not badly paid, do not feel humiliated at work and, crucially, don't come together as a powerful collective force.
But as this book was leaving the printers 90,000 bank workers took national strike action in Italy, shutting nine banks out of ten. The day I finished reading it rank and file groups had brought 150,000 striking workers, mainly teachers, onto the streets of Rome to protest against anti trade union laws and cutbacks in schools. The general strike of November 1994, the biggest in the country's history and one which broke the back of Berlusconi's first government, gets just one paragraph.
It seems that Italy is a few years or months ahead of Britain--in both countries huge demonstrations are now being called although not by unions 0r Labour-type parties. Ginsborg constantly draws comparisons with Britain, and it is true that the left is undergoing a profound realignment in both countries. In Italy in particular a mass movement from below is beginning to gain the initiative over traditional organisations. Criticisms aside, this book is an essential starting point to understanding one of the most politically interesting countries in the world today.
France: The dark years
Oxford University Press £25.00
From 1934 until 1944 France was engulfed by a civil war. Following the surrender of the French republic, a French state based in Vichy waged war against Jews, Communists and other 'undesirables'. Technically France was divided into zones of occupation, with the Vichy regime directly responsible for the southern third, and the Nazi occupiers for the rest of the country. But even in those zones French police and civil servants were largely responsible for sending Jews to their deaths in Auschwitz and the other death camps, and for waging war on the left. Pro-fascist French intellectuals vied to demonstrate their anti-Semitism and support for Hitler.
Julian Jackson's France: The Dark Years is the single best available history of Vichy France, the Nazi occupation and the Resistance.
Two myths are rife about the experience of French society in those years. One was presented by the postwar de Gaulle regime and its main opponent, the French Communist Party. Both were eager, for different reasons, to portray a nation united in resisting the Germans and a few collaborators. The other is still trotted out by sources in Washington and Whitehall whenever France seems less keen to wage war at the US's call--that the French surrendered in a cowardly fashion in 1940 and this is connected to their lack of enthusiasm for war today. Within France these arguments found an echo in the 1980s and 1990s, when it became fashionable in intellectual circles to rubbish the Resistance.
The strength of Jackson's book is that it traces France's internal divisions in the years following 1934, when domestic fascism attempted to challenge for power. The spontaneous reaction of French workers culminated in the election of a left wing Popular Front government in 1936 and a mass strike in which workers took over the factories.
This upsurge was contained and defused by the Communist Party, keen at that time to promote unity between Stalin's Russia and the French state. But the French ruling class had suffered a terrible fright. In 1940 its fear of the left and the working class meant it was largely prepared to accept Hitler as a saviour.
A relatively junior general, de Gaulle fled to London as the French government surrendered. He found little support among the upper classes. The parliament elected in 1936, including a majority of the Socialist Party deputies, voted power to Marshal Pétain, who proceeded to demolish the institutions and laws of the French republic, dating in large part back to the 1789 revolution. The resistance to Vichy and Nazi rule began among small groups of intellectuals. It gathered strength in 1941 after Hitler invaded Russia and the Communist Party switched its position to promoting military resistance to Hitler.
Jackson's book spends a lot of time dealing with intellectual figures whose names will be known to few today. But it is clear, if sometimes understated, that the Resistance relied largely on the left and the working classes. In August 1944 de Gaulle was desperate to forestall the Communist-led Resistance from taking control of Paris in an insurrection which largely liberated the capital. In whole swathes of the south and centre the left effectively had power. Jackson plays down the possibility of revolution. The small but real contribution of the Trotskyists, the syndicalists and others to the left of the Communist Party is ignored.
In the late 1980s and 1990s a series of trials of French collaborators for crimes against humanity revealed the complicity of the French state in the deaths of Jews. Some were open fascists who were sheltered by the Catholic church, among others, in the postwar years. What made this more chilling was the complicity of bureaucrats prepared to sanction mass murder who went on to high office and honour under the Gaullist regime. The revelation that the Socialist President Mitterrand had served Pétain, was rewarded by the Vichy state and continued to honour Pétain's memory, and that one of his closest allies was the man responsible for rounding up the Jews of Bordeaux, revealed how deep sympathy with the Nazis went.
There are close links between today's fascists and Vichy. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the head of the National Front, has made little secret of his liking for Pétain and his dislike of Jews. In 1992 one of the National Front's candidates was a prewar fascist who had been involved in the massacre of Resistance fighters in 1944.
In a previous book on the Popular Front of 1936 Jackson was not prepared to attach the label fascist to the French far right of those years. There is still an ambivalence about doing so in this book, despite the overwhelming evidence of the right's keen complicity with Hitler.
But read this book to remember what happened in France in those years, and to understand that Le Pen and his cohorts are the spiritual heirs of Pétain and the French Hitlerites.
Ten Reasons to Abolish the IMF and World Bank
Seven Stories Press £4.99
Kevin Danaher personifies the most exciting features of the movement against capitalism--he's angry and he's optimistic. 'We abolished slavery, we abolished Jim Crow laws, we abolished child labour, we abolished the exclusion of women from voting, we abolished the 60-hour work week, and we can abolish international banking institutions that do more to prevent democracy than to promote it,' he declares in Ten Reasons to Abolish the IMF and World Bank. He then proceeds to drive the world's ruling elite from the moral high ground by wielding an array of facts about mounting poverty, falling corporate taxation and environmental destruction.
Danaher, who played a key role in the Seattle revolt, demolishes the claim that the IMF and World Bank are part of the solution to world poverty. Instead of focusing on the needs of the poor in the Third World they enforce the writ of western corporations. By imposing cuts in public services and forcing markets open in the Third World, the deadly duo of world capitalism have succeeded over the last 15 years in adding another 200 million people to the sorry list of those in poverty.
Rather than being merely a legacy of the past, he explains how poverty is cultivated to cow the poor across the Third World by client governments of the US. For instance, in 1984 Danaher visited Guatemala, where he came across a woman whose husband had been hacked to death by the army. The husband's only crime was teaching the peasants how to raise rabbits, leaving them less reliant on the big landowners who exported food to the US.
As well as personifying the best features of the movement against capitalism, Danaher represents its weakness--a tendency to slide into a utopian fantasy of a reformed and benevolent capitalism.
While this 100-page book is crystal clear about the crimes of the IMF and World Bank, and the horrors wrought by unfettered global capitalism, it stumbles into a dead end when talking about the alternatives. Unfortunately the working class barely gets a walk-on part. Instead Danaher gives star billing to socially responsible investing, co-operatives, the Tobin tax and the fair trade movement. It's as if you're reading The Communist Manifesto with half the pages ripped out. Any understanding of how capitalism creates its own gravedigger has been removed. Instead of 'Workers of the world unite,' Danaher's rallying cry appears to be 'Ethical investors of the world unite.' He says, 'Of course this sounds utopian. But utopian thinking, if linked to practical tactics, is a good thing, not a bad thing.'
Falun Gong's Challenge to China
Akashic Books £11.99
One of the unexpected side effects of China's economic reforms over the last 20 years has been a flowering of religious expression and organisation. Local temples and cults, 'folk religions', Confucianism and Taoism--all have gained millions of believers, as have Buddhism, Islam and many varieties of Christianity. The Chinese state has responded in many different ways, ranging from outright repression to official attempts at co-option. The city of Putian in Fujian province, for example, has promoted its mythical status as the birthplace of Mazu, a sea goddess much worshipped in Taiwan, to attract Taiwanese investors. And in the 1980s local authorities in Xinjiang province rebuilt mosques and funded pilgrimages to Mecca to win back support from the Muslim population.
Straightforward repression has been much more common, however. Tibet and underground Christian churches in central China have borne the brunt of this, but since 1999 the Falun Gong movement has been the target of one of the largest centrally directed waves of repression since Tiananmen Square. Thousands of the movement's followers have been jailed or thrown into psychiatric hospitals, and many have died from their treatment. One of the most shocking things about Danny Schechter's book is the detail it gives about the everyday brutality in China's jails.
Falun Gong is a religious/spiritual movement based on a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism and traditional qigong exercises (an exercise system which supposedly promotes mental and physical health). There are hundreds of similar movements in China--Falun Gong has been singled out for repression because of a peaceful mass demonstration it organised in 1999. After a number of local groups had been harassed by the police, the movement called a protest on 25 April 1999 in Tiananmen Square. Between 10,000 and 15,000 people turned up, making it the largest protest in Beijing since the uprising of 1989. The demonstration was entirely peaceful, but it scared the government rigid.
The government isn't so much scared of what the movement is as of what it could become. China's history is full of examples of similar religious movements that have become the focus of mass anger and peasant rebellion. The Taiping rebellion, which ravaged southern China from the 1840s to the 1860s, is the best known of these, but there have been many more. Schechter sketches many of the ways that people have lost out in the market reforms--growing unemployment, the collapse of social and health services, rising inflation, greater insecurity--and shows how Falun Gong has recruited not only among the most disaffected sections of Chinese society but also among Communist Party members and the elderly. In the absence of any left wing or working class focus, Falun Gong could well become a lightning rod for the anger of workers and peasants.
Falun Gong also scared the government by seeming to come out of nowhere. How did it gain 2 million adherents without the Communist Party realising? Part of the answer lies with its highly sophisticated use of the internet. One estimate is that 9 million Chinese people have direct access to the internet, and it's obvious that this is now much too widespread for the government to police--a factor that can help many other opposition movements to grow.
Schechter has at times quite a narrow, legalistic focus, and much of the book is taken up with Falun Gong writings and denunciations from the Chinese press which are of limited interest. But it's a good snapshot of one of the lesser known facets of China today, and is written with a powerful sense of justice. It's also well worth reading for the light it shines on US imperialism and its relationship with China. Though it's done in passing, Schechter illustrates the diverse and contradictory attitudes of different sections of US capitalism and the US state towards China's new-found economic power. If you've ever thought that US policy towards China faces both ways at once, this book will help to explain why.
Ahmed Rashid's book Taliban became a bestseller during the US-led bombardment against Afghanistan last year. Now he has rushed out this survey of 'the rise of militant Islam in Central Asia'.
His familiarity with the peoples of Central Asia and the tangle of political developments across the region shows. Rashid describes the social and economic crisis that has gripped the five former Soviet Central Asian states over the last decade. There is now a vast zone of instability across the southern belt of Russia, stretching from the Caucasus mountains in the west through to the outermost provinces of China in the east. To the south lie Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir. Each of the Central Asian states is ruled by figures who hail from the Stalinist era. Hoped-for economic development (through exploiting the region's resources, principally oil and gas) in the early 1990s has not taken place. Even the 'success stories' are failing.
Tajikistan, for example, was gripped by civil war between 1992 and 1997, and was then held up as a model for the future of the region. Rashid tells us that it 'rose from the ashes with a democratically elected coalition government that for the first time in Central Asia accommodated both religious and secular parties'. But today, 'as its economic crises worsen, militant extremists use its land as a refuge, and Uzbekistan's President Karimov stirs up unrest amongst its substantial Uzbek minority...Tajikistan also stands as a warning of how quickly poverty and repression...can undermine even the best intentions.'
What emerges throughout this book is the depth of the political and social tensions in Central Asia, which found a partial reflection in militant political Islamist movements such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Rashid shows convincingly that US state officials had become concerned at the growth of these groups as early as 1999, establishing a presence in Central Asia before the current war--and not only the US, but Russia and China too.
Several years ago Rashid popularised the term 'the new Great Game' to describe this scramble for control of the region. It is a reference to the competition between the British and Tsarist empires in Central Asia in the 19th century. In this book he argues that intervention by multinationals and the big powers could actually be a force for good, provided it is coordinated and freed from selfish motives.
So he can criticise the activities of some oil corporations in the 1990s but then write, 'It would be an exaggeration to compare today's mighty but more socially conscious US oil companies with the crass capitalism of the past.' 'Socially conscious' is not the phrase most people on every continent would associate with Exxon, Shell and the rest.
He adds, 'The present competition between the big powers--Russia, China and the United States' needs to be 'converted into cooperation'. Rashid's first book on Central Asia eight years ago made an overwhelming case that rival local nationalisms did not offer hope for the region. Now, where small nation- states are locked in local conflicts, he asks us to believe that big nation-states can overcome the greater regional and global tensions between them. This is a result of the book's central weakness. It details intricate diplomatic manoeuvres but gives no explanation of how these are rooted in the economic and political tensions of today. Instead they appear as hangovers from the past or the result of mistaken government policies.
The same is true in his account of the Islamist movements. They appear largely as the imports of alien dogmas (from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) rather than mainly the product of the societies they have grown in.
Rashid says that the defeat of these movements, through the extension of the 'war on terrorism' with the support of the repressive states of Central Asia, will open the way to 'democracy building, economic development and social responsibility'. That is a conclusion sharply at odds with what he has chronicled over the last 15 years. It is also one that is being refuted daily with the continuing agony of Afghanistan.
The Global Media Atlas
Mark Balnaves, James Donald and Stephanie Hemelryk Donald
BFI Publishing £14.99
I love maps, and this well presented paperback provides 50 maps with a difference--they break down the world into the haves and have-nots in the global communications revolution that has swept the world in the last ten years.
By the use of maps, graphs and colour charts, the three authors extrapolate trends on a wide variety of topics. We learn that Bill Gates is richer than half the US population put together, and that 50 percent of the world's population have never made a phone call. We can understand why banks are so keen to get us to do our own internet banking--we find that it costs $0.01 for an internet transaction compared to $1.07 if we go to the branch.
In the US and Britain over half of schools have access to the internet, but billions of people in other parts of the world are still excluded from this brave new information world by poverty and illiteracy. Without a telephone line, and unless you speak English, most of the information available on the internet is unavailable. Tiny Iceland, for example, has 20 times as many internet hosts as the world's 100 poorest countries combined.
One map on women and the media shows how women in the US, Europe and South East Asia are well provided with specialist magazines because they are valuable advertising targets, whereas in Africa and the Middle East such magazines hardly exist because of women's limited economic power and lack of literacy skills.
The question of who controls the internet is explored. The authors show that the internet has always been regulated--first by the US government and military, and then by an informal regime of commercial regulation, with companies like Lycos or Yahoo determining what information is available. Governments can impose their own restraints on internet access. In Burma failure to declare ownership of a computer incurs the penalty of a 15-year prison sentence. The internet is officially condemned in Saudi Arabia unless routed through centres which ban sites that provide 'information contrary to Islamic values'.
Not surprisingly, the US is the dominant force in the media revolution. For instance, US firms account for 86 percent of all cinema box office receipts in Britain and 83 percent in Latin America. The graphs show how the big Hollywood studios cling ferociously to their control of the distribution of films worldwide, with the result that 90 percent of films showing in Singapore, Shanghai or Scunthorpe will have originated in Hollywood.
Likewise US media companies dominate television export markets, accounting for 85 percent of light entertainment programmes sold worldwide. British television companies come second at a much slimmer 8 percent.
I do have a few quibbles with the book. A map is included showing the number of journalists killed from 1997 to 2000. Russia shows the most, at 18 for this period, but only two are shown for Turkey, which makes me wonder how these figures were arrived at--Turkey is notorious for its suppression of the pro-Kurdish press. This book gives a total of 134 journalists killed over this four-year period, yet my latest copy of the NUJ magazine tells me that more than 100 journalists were killed in 2001 alone.
There is also a rather bland and uncritical account of Rupert Murdoch's global media empire. The authors claim there is an 'epic quality to the buccaneering story of how Murdoch went on to build News Corporation'. I suppose I would describe this union-busting tax evader a bit differently, having been involved in the battle of Wapping in the 1980s.
This is a very useful guide to the global diffusion of old and new media, and its politics are in the right place. I just wish it was a little bit more punchy in some of its analysis.
Two Hours that Shook the World
Saqi Books £12.95
This seems at first sight a sober and often intelligent book--a useful antidote to post 11 September hysteria. For example, we learn that big governments like the US often commit terrorist acts, and that 'international terrorism' is a secondary phenomenon, certainly not a major threat to international order. In addition, the current 'discourse' between the 'west' and 'Islam' is meticulously picked apart.
There are in reality many 'wests' and many 'Islams', with far more overlap than either side is ready to admit. In the Balkans the 'west' defended 'Islam' against the (Christian) Serbs, albeit for cynical reasons. Similarly, Islamic movements have incorporated many western concepts or, rather, modern concepts with historical roots in the west, even if implicitly rather than explicitly. There is a robust defence of beleaguered Muslim communities around the world, which includes a particularly interesting account of the threat posed by the very powerful Hindu chauvinists in India. And there is at least a limited attempt to locate all of this in the context of the deepening globalisation crisis.
So far so good, but there is also intellectual slippage, especially when it comes to dealing with 'terrorism'. Professor Halliday denounces the IRA because it is illegitimate to use political violence in democratic societies.Yet the Orange state in Northern Ireland was by its very definition never democratic. For most of the 20th century the armed strength of the British (democratic) state propped up the colonial entity. Using Halliday's own logic, surely this made the British armed forces legitimate targets.
Indeed, in an earlier life Fred Halliday had no problem encouraging political violence against those states shaped by western imperialism. His book Arabia Without Sultans, written 30 years ago, was and remains a rousing call to armed revolutionary violence against the Gulf states, in particular Saudi Arabia, and their western backers. Alas, this life fell to pieces along with the Berlin Wall in 1989. What a shame Fred hadn't joined some of us 20 years earlier, and paid more attention to Trotsky and rather less to Stalin and Mao. That may have immunised his Communism against disintegration into a rather timid leftish liberalism.
For today Professor Halliday adopts the Enlightenment tradition which stops with Kant rather than Marx. In this book Halliday resurrects the old philosopher as a beacon to guide us from the emergence of liberal democratic nation-states several centuries ago to the goal of universal 'global governance' for the new century. In that earlier life Fred Halliday would never have anchored the Enlightenment ideals of universalism and democracy to the social class that gave us the new world order of nation-states. He knew that this was a class of super-exploiters, extracting surplus value from labour at home as it organised the trans-Atlantic slave trade abroad, massacring millions of native people everywhere it went as it imposed its bloody system of colonialism and imperialism.
Now he shies away from these ideas. They receive little mention in this book. When they appear they are shrouded in ambiguity. Yes, a damaging US imperialism persists, but sometimes its intervention around the world can be 'positive'. It seems we'll have to learn to live with capitalism, although it must certainly reverse the dynamic which is deepening global inequality. Otherwise four 'demons' from the 20th century--like the four horsemen of the apocalypse--will return to haunt us. Three of the demons are war, ethnic purging and mass starvation. And the fourth one is...revolution... Excuse me? This is the fourth demon? Sorry, Fred, what on earth did happen to you towards the end of the last century?
That They May Face the Rising Sun
I first encountered John McGahern's novels when, in my early teens, I made my first foray into the adult section of the local library and came across The Dark--a nice, short, approachable novel, so I thought. And it had the word 'fuck' on the first page. I didn't know then that the novel, first published in 1965, had been banned in the Republic of Ireland, and that subsequently McGahern had lost his job as a teacher. It takes us through a childhood where guilt, fear and repression are the Catholic framework of life, and masturbation and thoughts of sex are impossible weights hung round every maturing child's neck.
His new novel is That They May Face the Rising Sun. Here the claustrophobia of the family with its potential for violence and frustration is replaced by adults as free agents--but fixed in the ways of the world they find themselves in. McGahern is highly sensitive to talk and patterns of talk. What often emerges, as in the earlier novels, is an unevenness arising from gender and the problems of sex, swept under so many carpets for so long. Traditional attitudes and patterns of behaviour run along awkward and unstable faultlines.
We are again in a border country. Through the experiences of the Ruttledges, returning to live at the side of a lake in Ireland after many years in London, we encounter an odd and disparate community. There is Jamesie and his wife Mary, whose brother Johnny works in Ford Dagenham and is then made redundant; John Quinn, a local man who is desperate for love, and who whisks his new wife away (to everyone's horror, including hers) for sex during their wedding reception; Jimmy Joe McKiernan, the ex IRA chief of staff who is now a publican, and always has two Special Branch men constantly watching him.
Seamus Deane (author himself of the splendid Derry-set novel Reading in the Dark) makes big claims for this novel. He suggests that McGahern has 'awakened from the nightmare of history' and 'given a sense of liberation which is not dependent on flight or emigration or escape'. And, indeed, here the characters do come back to Ireland. However, this is not an imaginary mythical golden age but a real place with real history and people who lived though its best and worst times--the civil war and independence, the poverty of countryside and the city, the religious bigotry as well as growing expression of culture and literature.