Moments of Candour

canibalism

‘If capitalism fails, we could always try cannibalism’

In times that appear indelibly marked by ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’, it’s hard not to feel some sense of gratitude towards figures in public life who are prepared to speak truthfully.

I’m referring to Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader in the United States House of Representatives. When asked by a participant in a televised ‘town hall’ meeting about the fact that a majority of young voters in the US, according to a Harvard University poll, no longer supported capitalism, she said, of the Democratic Party:

We’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is.

It’s hard, for me at least, not to appreciate the candour in the statement. It’s definitely much better than having someone equally committed to capitalism as the Democratic Party undoubtedly is, but preferring to mask this commitment by professing to be in favour of ‘freedom’ or ‘pragmatism’ or ‘pro-enterprise policies’, and leaving people with the vague impression that they might have some kind of inclination towards social justice.

What would happen if everyone like Nancy Pelosi, instead of preferring to hide behind euphemisms when not avoiding the matter of capitalism altogether, professed their belief in capitalism at every turn? What if they said, all the time: it is our highest calling to advance the cause of capitalism, and, therefore, we will not be bound by any commitment to anything by way of fundamental rights for human beings, be it in terms of health, education, safety, welfare, or work?

I’d like to think that this would be the beginning of the end for capitalism, since political institutions across the capitalist world would no longer be able to cope with the glaringly obvious gap between the interests of the representatives within and the interests of the class in whose interests they act on the one hand, and the public at large on the other. But that might not happen at all. For all I know, devotion to capitalism on the part of some might just lead to the ruthless and violent repression of all anti-capitalist feeling and action, and instead of capitalism garnished with democratic formalities, we would just have open tyranny instead.

If I weigh things up, an epidemic of such candour seems fairly unlikely. But then again, the head of state in the US at the minute is the archetypal capitalist pig. Whatever the lies that proliferate from his mouth and from his administration in general, there is something indelibly true about Trump, in how he embodies all that is rotten in capitalism: greed, self-obsession, arrogance, aggression, contempt for weakness, racism, patriarchy, ecological destruction, and so on. I should stress, the fact that a bad thing is true does not make that thing in any way good. But it is always better to have an accurate picture of what you are up against.

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RTÉ: United In Ignorance

rteunitedRTÉ, the state broadcaster, is running a story today on a trustee company linked to UNITE the Union applying for an exemption from social housing for a development at its former headquarters on Merrion Square.

What makes this newsworthy from the broadcaster’s point of view, is that the application was made at the same time as plans were underway for the occupation of Apollo House, with UNITE official Brendan Ogle in a prominent role.

The news report includes the detail that the property has toilet and shower facilities. The relevance of this detail to the story is that a group called ‘Hands Off The Homeless’, cited in the report, believes that the property ought to have been used instead of Apollo House, and that the fact it was not used made the Home Sweet Home initiative a ‘publicity stunt’.

Who are ‘Hands Off The Homeless’? No idea. But a commenter on this site yesterday made a relevant observation, before the news report and the group in question appeared on the scene:

‘Is it not time that those without a home are referred to as homeless people. The term ‘the homeless’ tends to depersonalise those who are already marginalised and treated with indifference by society at large.’

With this report we are back again in the territory staked out by Mannix Flynn on Liveline last week, but also in the territory staked out by a large degree of the coverage given to the Home Sweet Home occupation. To wit: the matter of homelessness is simply a technical matter, not a political one, and it is solved through charity and private initiative, not through political intervention. If you want to do something with regard to homelessness, you should be putting your hand in your own pocket, rather than expecting state agencies to do anything about it.

By staking out this territory, other areas are kept free of scrutiny. If all that is needed is charity, then there is no need for increased public funding for social housing. Nor is there any need to call into question how current public resources are being used to address homelessness.

What makes the UNITE detail particularly attractive to people who are sympathetic with the predicament of the powerful when their indifference to human need is highlighted is that it appears hypocritical, on the one hand, to support an action aimed at using public resources to tackle homelessness, and on the other, to engage in commercial activities that appear to narrow the scope for providing social housing. Few things whet the appetite of someone who hates trade unions more than the possibility of making them appear as bad as the political and economic elites they claim they are challenging.

There may well be a contradiction involved. But so what? Such a contradiction would not alter one iota the principal issue brought to the fore by the Home Sweet Home occupation, which is that the government favours the interests of property speculators over the interests of people in need of a home. Moreover, we are not told what the ground rules are for such a trustee company, and what it is obliged to do with its investments. It is only when you wish to avoid the principal issue that a contradiction such as this takes on any relevance.

In fact, unions -and individuals- engage all the time in activities that can contradict their stated political positions and broader activities. This is a fact of operating in a capitalist system. The question is: how do you evaluate the contradiction?

The thick strain of right-wing anti-establishment sentiment in Irish political life, tapped into by RTÉ’s reporting here, does not evaluate it at all. It merely barks ‘hypocrisy!’. According to these quarters, the ‘vested interests’, in which the trade unions are always made to figure heavily, have things all sown up, at the expense of the little man. The purpose of such sentiment is to sow disenchantment with trade unions and, consequently, with the defence of workers’ rights, including social rights such as the right to a home.

RTÉ’s concern over UNITE’s role in Home Sweet Home is hardly matched by an ongoing concern with workers’ rights, or the provision of public goods, whether public housing, education, or healthcare.

For example: on January 6th, in the midst of a full-blown hospital trolley crisis, the Sean O’Rourke show, RTÉ’s daily news and current affairs morning programme, had what amounted to a feature length advertisement for private health services in general, and for the Beacon Hospital in particular.

The feature was presented in terms of ‘how the private sector can help’ with regard to the present health crisis. They had the CEO of the Beacon Hospital in studio, an emergency ward consultant in Cork University Hospital on the phone who said he was a ‘committed public sector man’ who ‘believed in’ the National Health Service and Ireland’s health service but who had come round to the idea that ‘some sort of hybrid model’ was “the way forward”, and a rep from the national association of GPs who said she and other GPs encouraged their patients with private health insurance to attend private hospitals whenever possible. In effect, such programming means that when you pay the licence fee, you are also contributing to the local PR fund for disaster capitalism. The feature did nothing to examine the role played by the so-called ‘two-tier’ health system -which allows private operators to profit from the poor condition of public provision- in producing the crisis in the first instance, and, as with the housing crisis, addressed the problem, as ever, in terms of technical solutions.

There is a continuity between this kind of coverage and the UNITE story: addressing social crises means ponying up out of your own pocket and leaving the powerful and their political institutions well alone.

The real story of hypocrisy here is a public broadcaster affecting concern over homelessness as a cover for anti-union attacks. In fact, unions do a great deal to prevent homelessness, primarily through maintaining minimum standards for workers.

Given that the drive of RTÉ’s reporting is to undermine support for collective institutions that serve to protect basic social rights, it is also a drive for increased homelessness, and heightened reactionary ignorance.

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Home Sweet Home and Democracy

homesweethome

via Home Sweet Home Eire Facebook page

It could have led to ‘an intolerable situation in a democratic state’, according to Judge Paul Gilligan, had the Apollo House residents been allowed an extension to the deadline laid down by the court for vacating the building.

A corollary to the judge’s argument, however, is that homelessness is a tolerable situation in a democratic state. Homelessness: tolerable. Preventing homelessness: intolerable.

One might also observe that if direct action to end homelessness is intolerable in a democratic state by the judge’s lights, then it must also be intolerable in other kinds of state: judges in a fascist state would also deem infringements of private or state property rights to be intolerable.

So it’s not clear yet why the judge makes reference to democracy at all.

Perhaps it would be intolerable for the judiciary to interfere with government decisions, since this would undo the separation of powers set forth in Article 15 of the Irish Constitution, and, since Ireland is ‘a democratic state’, it would therefore prove intolerable within the scope of the constitution.

This would suggest that democracy exists only in so far as it inheres in a constitution, and that the Irish constitution is what defines democracy in the first instance. The Irish constitution emphasises that a democratic state is one in which the people have the right to ‘designate the rulers of the State’.

Even though ‘in final appeal’ it is the right of the people to ‘decide all questions of national policy’, the rulers rule and the people are expected to comply, regardless of whether or not or how much they took part in making the rules.

In actual fact, the vast majority of people have no role in the formulation of rules, and their everyday compliance is taken as proof of both their consent and the legitimacy of the rules. So when it comes to homelessness, or to any other social outrage arising through the application of the rules and by the actions of the rulers, the only acceptable course of action is to petition the rulers, or elect different ones.

All this amounts to a very narrow conception of democracy. In practice it means the rule of a minority over a majority. In no sense is it ‘government by the people’, which is commonly cited as a defining characteristic of democracy.

In fact, when people take action that amounts to ‘government by the people’, which is to say, deciding for themselves how life in common should be lived, this is bitterly denounced by the ruling powers, and by those who live by upholding the rules.

For example, on Friday’s Liveline, the organisers of the Home Sweet Home campaign came in for unrelentingly bitter criticism from Dublin City Councillor Mannix Flynn. According to him, those who had supported the campaign were ‘dupes’, and he took particular umbrage at the fact that Home Sweet Home might be breaking the law. He voiced his own experience in working with homelessness, and called into question the political credentials of ‘Mattress’ Mick Flynn, who was speaking in favour of the campaign and who believed that the occupation of Apollo House ought to continue in defiance of court rulings. In contrast to those involved in the campaign, Mannix Flynn said that he had been elected. Though charged with a venom rarely encountered in airwave debate, there was nothing particularly unusual about his perspective: breaking the law is wrong, leave things to the experts, and if you want to do something about the matter of homelessness yourself, you should either take your own private initiative in accordance with the law, or help charities who operate in this domain. And if you want to take part in politics, you should be standing for election.

Mannix Flynn pressed Mattress Mick to accommodate the occupiers of Apollo House himself. This was no different in approach to Fine Gael TD Catherine Byrne, who in the Dáil suggested that families ought to accommodate their homeless members. Thus private solutions -ones that do not disturb the rules that produce homelessness in the first instance- are the order of the day.

The overall effect of this is to de-politicise homelessness, and to confine it as far as possible to the private realm. In so doing, it strengthens the underlying relations of power that sustain homelessness. First, by refusing to interrupt the legal order, the speculative activities, and the housing policies that favour speculation and private enrichment over the right to a home, and secondly, by making individuals bear the cost of homelessness.

In the latter case, this means that not only are people enjoined to engage in charity rather than challenge the legal and political order, but it shapes the sense that those who do end up without a home are primarily responsible for their predicament. Moreover, it shifts the discussion away from the underlying causes of homelessness and its status as a political issue towards the question of whether proper order is maintained and how to get rid of the malcontents undermining proper order.

Flynn’s intervention also condemned Mattress Mick and the Home Sweet Home participants more broadly for encroaching on an area in which they had no expertise. That is, to intervene in public matters such as homelessness, one must be endowed with the necessary know-how and experience. But the know-how and experience that comes with attending to the needs of homeless people day-in day-out is an entirely different thing to identifying homelessness as a human scandal and a political matter.

Whatever the necessary work carried out by homeless charities in providing day-to-day vital supports, there is no reason to expect that these entities will challenge the overall order in which homelessness emerges, and a great deal of reason to expect that they will be at best subdued in their criticisms, reliant as they are on government contributions and private donations.

The most widely-heard voices, whenever a social crisis comes into public view, be it unemployment or homelessness or mental health or any other issue you care to name, are never the voices of those affected, but the voices instead of experts: politicians, economists, charity CEOs and psychologists. This does not mean there is anything wrong with expertise, or with a deep understanding of a particular area, but what it shows is that the only acceptable solutions to such crises, under the current order, will come by disregarding radical responses, by leaving it to the experts, by protecting the regime of property and by suppressing expressions of democracy deemed to threaten the status quo.

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Homelessness crisis, property crisis

via @soundmigration

The bottom line is that property rights, including the right of rentiers and speculators to make a profit, must at all times take precedence over the right of people without a home to have their basic human needs met. In effect this means the law does not recognise the latter right at all. It is the right to profit from property speculation that produced the homeless crisis in the first instance, and measures taken by Fine Gael in government have done nothing to interfere with this right, and a great deal to strengthen it.
None of the outpourings of admiration for the deceased TK Whitaker I encountered yesterday were in any way diluted by considerations of how among the prime beneficiaries of the economy he is credited with bringing forth were bankers, builders and property speculators.

Instead, Whitaker was lauded as a figure whose free market inclinations and technocratic paternalism had brought prosperity to the country. It is no coincidence that Whitaker is remembered as rising above the fray of petty politics -he was never elected to public office himself, of course- and fostering a sense of order in the name of ‘public service’, ‘the national interest’, and the ‘common good’ that suppressed political conflict, particularly where trade unions were concerned. As trade unions are one of the most effective instruments for guaranteeing the rights of the working class to a decent standard of life -including decent accommodation- the ‘common good’ exalted by Whitaker’s admirers can only mean the suppression of the claims of working class people to a greater share of the wealth they produce. ‘Patriotism’ in this regard means making working class people get back in their box.

A quote from Whitaker doing the rounds, outlining the aims of his public policies, contains the word ‘eventually’: that once all these ‘free market’ measures are implemented, then everyone born on the island will be entitled to their share. This is of course a first cousin of the ‘trickle-down’ argument rehearsed ad nauseam by ruling elites across the globe, bent on their own enrichment on the backs of others, over the past four decades. The matter of precisely when this share will be apportioned must, of course, be left to the designs of the same ruling elites, and what their financial instruments tell them.

What the Home Sweet Home campaign centred at Apollo House in recent weeks has achieved is to undermine this prevailing notion that it is all a matter of waiting a bit longer, of depending on established institutions and their appointed experts to do as they profess. What is more, it has undermined the prevailing notion that the ‘common good’ is synonymous with property rights. It can hardly be expected to overturn such things altogether, or even conclusively resolve Ireland’s homelessness crisis, since the latter is a product of the property relations that the government, the courts and the press are concerned with upholding. But it has cast into sharp relief how spaces of mutual aid, solidarity and collective resistance amount to enemy territory for the ruling powers, and how recognising basic human needs, from the perspective of these powers is a “recipe for anarchy”, as lawyers pressing for the evacuation of Apollo House put it. That is, it cannot but produce fears of a crisis in property relations, in the prospects for making a killing off the misery and fears of others. Good: the greater the fears of such a crisis on the part of these powers, the greater the prospects of a decent and humane existence for all.

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Notes on last night’s Claire Byrne Live

"Public opinion, c'est moi!"

“Public opinion, c’est moi!”

On last night’s show a debate on Europe’s refugee crisis was preceded by a standing ovation from the studio audience for members of the Irish Navy, who stood in line in full uniform.

The panellists for the debate were actor Liam Cunningham, government minister Paul Kehoe, and Irish Independent columnist Ian O’Doherty. I had started watching the programme out of curiosity after seeing tweets objecting to Ian O’Doherty’s presence on the show.

Ian O’Doherty -a dull-minded figure who poses as a Christopher Hitchens-style contrarian but without the allure of the turncoat, the ostentatious learning, or the mental dexterity that Hitchens had on offer – served up a farrago of racist talking points that originate with the far right. It was O’Doherty’s views that were allowed to frame the discussion, and Cunningham, and to a lesser extent Kehoe, were called upon to respond.

Of those who spoke from the studio audience, only the member of the far right National Party and the member of Christians Concerned for Ireland (who voiced the concern that hundreds of refugees had been arrested in Britain for crimes of “rape, etc”) were, as far as I can recall, afforded an on-screen caption detailing who they were.

If you were to press the programme-makers on their decision to afford Ian O’Doherty a platform, I suggest they would respond that they had sought to achieve a ‘balance’, that other contributors from the audience included a member of an organisation opposed to racism, a person with experience in aid work in Syria, and a woman living under Ireland’s Direct Provision regime. Pressed further, they might admit that controversy generates excitement and therefore viewing figures whereas informed debate is sterile. One imagines, moreover, that they would likely reject any suggestion that their editorial decisions produce racist effects.

In this regard it is interesting to consider not what O’Doherty had to say but what the presenter said. She repeatedly voiced the concern that resources devoted to assisting homeless people in Ireland might be jeopardised if the country took in more refugees.

Such proposed trade-offs arise with dreary regularity. It is always those most at risk, we are told, who are put at greatest risk when we wish to extend solidarity to others.

But even if we impose an arbitrary scarcity of resources in this way, the fortunes of the affluent are rarely, if ever, cited as the first port of call: it always falls, as if by nature, to those most at risk, who are supposedly now expected to take on even greater risk.

These economic trade-offs, of course, find a more vulgar expression in the notion that ‘we have to take care of our own first’. What all this hides from view is the fact of certain groups who will always already be taken care of.

It is not a question of racist cranks simply being given a platform. We should also ask: what kind of platform? In the case of the Claire Byrne Live show, we might best describe it as a pseudo-scientific wrapper.

Following the initial discussion, Claire Byrne said:

“We wanted to find out how people felt about this, so we asked our Claire Byrne Live – Amárach panel ‘Can Ireland cope with the planned intake of 4,000 refugees by the end of 2017?’”

Liam Cunningham, called on to respond to the results of the survey that showed a majority responding No, rightly pointed out that this was mere opinion. But Byrne insisted on how demographically representative the survey was. As if this could be detached from the actual question posed.

What does it mean, anyway, to ask “Can Ireland cope” with anything? Are we referring to Irish people on the whole? The State? The government? Are we speaking in terms of logistical assessments or mental resilience?

Since different people respond to such questions in different ways, the meaning of the question is ultimately established by the person who interprets the data.

In this case, Byrne was clear, or rather, clearly unclear:

“It’s about sentiment. Irish people saying “we can’t cope with this problem”.”

Well, how would she know? Where did the “we” come from?

Byrne, in her own mind, and likely at one with the producers of the programme, identified “Ireland” as “Irish people”. Hence it did not mean people in Ireland who are not Irish -a sizeable proportion of the population- and thus beyond the supposedly rigorous demographic scope of the survey.

But not only did “Ireland” mean “Irish people” here, but no distinction was drawn between the institutions of the state and people -strictly speaking, Irish people- at large. It’s doubtful that any such distinction could ever be drawn in a situation where the audience has just applauded members of the Navy in full uniform for making us all proud.

The overall effect of this concoction was to lend empirical weight -bogus, but weight nonetheless- to what O’Doherty was arguing.

If you want to trace the origins of the idea that “we have to look after our own”, with all the racist logic that emanates from it, it is best not to start with the likes of Ian O’Doherty or the National Party, but rather with those convinced they should be given a voice, in the supposed interests of ‘balance’.

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Between True and False

biglie

I will not lie, when I saw the article with the photos suggesting that Justin Trudeau was the secret son of Fidel Castro, I laughed. The photos showed a striking resemblance between the two, in contrast to the apparent absence of family resemblance between Pierre Trudeau and Justin Trudeau. I thought it was funny because of the hero-worship of Trudeau on the part of liberals who see him as the shimmering saviour of West Wing-style politics, and the horror I imagined them contemplating the possibility that he was the immediate descendent of a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary to whom they had dedicated so much time reviling in recent days. (It was nothing against Canada, even if it does need to rein in its ambassadors)

Then I realised the whole thing was not so funny. To be clear, I could not care less if Trudeau is the son of Trudeau (which he probably is), or Fidel Castro, or if he was raised by wolves in the tundra. The first thing that made it feel a bit off was the reference, in the article I read and shared, to Castro ‘committing genocide against his own people’: a false claim, albeit not unusual, given comparisons made between Fidel Castro and Hitler, or Fidel Castro and Mussolini, that were commonplace in recent days. For examples of these beyond the usual Miami sources, consult recent copies of the Irish Examiner.

Following this I saw a similar piece getting shared, through my Facebook news feed, from Milo Yiannopolous. The themes in this piece, and the accompanying commentary, were altogether racist and fascist. The way of understanding the story, along these lines, was as follows: Canada is not a proper white nation. This is because its head of government was cuckolded by a Latino beast from the south. Therefore Canada as a nation is racially impure and deficient in white masculine vigour. The nation’s figurehead is a mongrel, and is likely incubating (no pun intended) Bolshevik ideology so as to unleash it at some point upon an unsuspecting, naïve and weak populace. The appeal here for Nazis who believe that such attributes as political views and even language are genetic should be fairly obvious.

What bothers me here is not the fact that I shared the piece initially, but rather how I perceived the matter of whether it was true or not. Some things are so plainly untrue, so ridiculous, that it is obvious that by sharing them you are not endorsing the truth of the claim. But this is different since, in fact, there is indeed a striking resemblance between Fidel Castro and Justin Trudeau, and the matter of whether it is true or not is also, albeit for different motives, a matter lent weight by Nazis.

To elaborate: the British writer and Owen Jones wrote a piece yesterday in which he outlined his thoughts on Cuba. For him, Fidel Castro was a dictator and Cuba should not be seen as a model to follow. He prefaced his piece with a reference to a ‘revolutionary leftist in Spain’ who had called him ‘spokesman for Soros’ bitch mother’. I found this disturbing. Not Jones’s views, but the claim that he had been apparently referred to as such by a revolutionary leftist in Spain. I have spent some time in the company of leftists in Spain who see themselves as part of revolutionary traditions. Nothing I have ever encountered suggested a leaning towards antisemitic conspiracy theorising of this nature. So, I did some searches – things like ‘Owen Jones Soros puta madre’ and indeed, on Twitter, he had received abuse of this nature. I could not find any instances of people identifying as being part of the revolutionary left, but I’m prepared to believe Jones that it did.

This raised a couple of questions for me. First, why would someone maintain Owen Jones was in the pay of George Soros -who is the subject of conspiracy theories both overtly and covertly antisemitic? As I remarked to people, this seems a long way from theorising about Rothschild Central Banks. I then realised that it was not: earlier in the day I had seen tweets circulating that the reason Castro’s death was being celebrated, the reason Cuba was being subjected to such hostility from mainstream news sources and politicians, was that Cuba was one of the few countries in the world left that does not have a Rothschild Central Bank (a recurring theme in neo-Nazi propaganda). It is no great leap from this to concluding that prominent critics of Cuba, perhaps especially prominent critics of the left-wing variety, were being funded by George Soros.

castrobank

The second question was whether it was true that a revolutionary leftist made this claim about Owen Jones. There is, of course, no absolute definition of what a revolutionary leftist is. I can only propose a working definition. A revolutionary leftist is someone whose ultimate goal is the abolition of class society. Within this definition, people may differ on the ways and means of achieving this. But antisemitic conspiracy theories are not concerned with the abolition of class society. Rather, they are concerned with how the old world is being corrupted and undermined by shadowy tentacular forces who, to cite a common motif, seek the imposition of a ‘New World Order’.

In the figure of George Soros, and previously in figures like the Rockefellers and Bernard Baruch, the problem is never capitalist class society as such, or even the accumulation of vast wealth, but rather the particular purposes to which this wealth is devoted, or imagined to be devoted. These are schemes imagined as undermining existing society to the detriment of ‘the people’: basically, in Europe and North America in particular, white people whose rights are a function of their whiteness. In this light we can see the appeal of Donald Trump to Nazis and antisemites: he is a white billionaire, he accumulates vast wealth, but he is clearly on our side, rather than the side of the degenerates, terrorists and subspecies.

By this working definition, it is not possible to act as a revolutionary leftist and uphold conspiracy theories of this character. Not least because one would expect a revolutionary leftist to have sufficient consciousness of the fact that the first people to be liquidated under fascist regimes would be people like them. It is of course possible, however, for someone to act contrary to how they present themselves. Most people do this – including Nazis posing as revolutionary leftists (cf. Trump advisor Steve Bannon presenting himself as a ‘Leninist’), and so we need to be careful.

Whatever the media conniptions about ‘post-truth politics’, whatever the vogue for ‘fact-checking’ as a substitute for actual political debate, being able to distinguish between what is true and what is false matters. If revolutionary leftists in Spain are calling Owen Jones a Soros puppet that indicates the revolutionary left has a problem. If Owen Jones or anyone else, however, is not able to tell the difference between a revolutionary leftist and a Nazi, I suggest that is a bigger problem.

The bigger problem is also expressed in variants of so-called ‘horseshoe theory’, which, ironically, emanate from precisely the same sources that denounce ‘post-truth politics’. The smirking self-contradiction of a Donald Trump, who thrives on the feeling that it does not matter one way or the other, can be mapped onto would-be political scientists and avowed experts who cannot distinguish between someone who campaigns to close down migrant detention centres on the one hand with someone who wants to fill them up on the other, between someone who wants to expand women’s rights and someone who wants to eliminate them, between someone who seeks the democratisation of politics and someone who wants all decisions over what matters to be in the gift of those with the greatest financial power.

As far as conspiracy theories are concerned: for any particular claim about Soros that springs up, not only does the truth not matter, but there is a release of excitement that comes from making these connections, a feeling that it’s all being pieced together now, that the reality of the conspiracy is making its shape known. We need to get beyond the idea that such theorising is merely the work of isolated and paranoid individuals -though they are a necessary condition for them to spread. They are actively promoted by people who may know very well that the particular claim has no basis in fact, but no matter: they create an ambience of confusion and paranoia and the release of vindictive inclinations. In this process the annihilation of being able to make any political distinction between true and false is all to the good. If we are deprived, or we deprive ourselves, of the means of making these distinctions, the consequences are quite clear: the Nazis win.

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More reflections on Cuba

'This year my daughter qualifies as a doctor. Thank you.' Claudia Yilén Paz Joa via Cubadebate

‘This year my daughter qualifies as a doctor.
Thank you.’
Photo: Claudia Yilén Paz Joa via Cubadebate

 

 

Cuba is going through a period, not just a moment, a thrilling period of changes. I think they were changes that reality had been incubating, that were not born like Athena from the head of some god. They were born from the energy accumulated by a society that is capable of changing, and that is the proof that it is alive.

Eduardo Galeano, visiting Cuba in 2012.

It’s important to stress that Fidel Castro was not a doctor or nurse, nor was he a schoolteacher. So when the Cuban health and education systems are widely -and rightly- praised, it needs to be borne in mind that there is no single figure with whom it originated, nor a single figure maintaining it. These are things built collectively, and we should not fall into the trap of thinking that they begin or end with Fidel (who was well aware of this), and hence that their defence in the here and now is neither here nor there.

One frustrating thing has come to the fore for me in recent days. I’m not sure how best to describe it, but it is something like the luxury people afford themselves of applying universal criteria to a particular situation of which they only have a partial understanding, combined with a refusal to see how that particular situation fits in with a broader whole. It might be summarised and simplified as hypocrisy, but there is more to it than that.

Let us take the example of people of the repressive aspects of Cuba following the Revolution. I agree completely with the idea that you cannot excuse repression simply because it occurs under straitened and dangerous circumstances. But a lot of people, while acknowledging the fact of US imperialism, place it, and its consequences in Cuba, on a plane of equivalence to internal repression by the Cuban authorities.

Thus people say “Yes, US imperialism is terrible but even so…” I get the feeling that this ‘It’s terrible but..’ operates as the same kind of disavowal you hear in “I’m not racist but..” (and more genteel variations). The effect is to say: let’s set aside US imperialism for the moment.

But what justifies your decision to set it aside? What allows you to separate one thing from the other in this way? What actual values and principles underpin your criticism of Cuba at this particular moment?

In his book with Ignacio Ramonet, Fidel Castro talks about witnessing, in the Sierra Maestre, the bombing conducted by the Batista regime with rockets provided by the US. He writes a message saying it will be his destiny to fight against the United States. Then, reflecting on this forty or so years later, he talks about the millions killed and mutilated in Vietnam, the destruction of the Vietnamese jungle with napalm, and:

the tortures in the prison at Abu Ghraib, the use of white phosphorous in Fallujah… Look at the dictatorships they imposed, the torturers educated by tens of thousands in institutions created for that in the US, those who ‘disappeared’ ten or twenty or thirty thousand Argentinians, whose children were stolen from them; I saw those who “disappeared” more than one hundred thousand Guatemalans- “disappear!”. If you add to this the repression in Chile and you add all the horrible things that have happened, a Dominican Republic in tremendous difficulties, with the Trujillo regime supported by the North Americans, created by them, the same as that of Somoza in Nicaragua…

One may be entirely at odds with the way that Cuba is run now, and how it was run with Fidel Castro in command. But I cannot see how an onlooker with little to say otherwise about the events Castro names above -which are all facts- can suspend these facts from view when considering Cuba, and leave it at that.

That is, if Fidel Castro was wrong, what was the right way of confronting this? I should stress: this does not mean Fidel Castro was right. It means that you have to have an alternative in mind, and one that goes beyond abstractions such as ‘movement from below’, or ‘respecting human rights’, and into concrete actions.

If you have no proposal -and I do not have any great solutions myself- then by default, you are saying the alternative is to submit.

This is not a matter of counterfactual history either. These facts are present in the here and now. It will not do to express admiration for Cuba’s health and education system whilst having nothing to say about a global dynamic that seeks to eliminate even the possibility that such achievements can be built or maintained anywhere. It will not do to be concerned about the oppression of LGBTQ people in Cuba -which was real, and horrific for those subjected to it, but major advances have been made- and yet have nothing to say, for example, about the disastrous consequences for LGBTQ people in Honduras following the US-backed coup in 2009. The continuum of life on this planet is not so easily split into discrete parcels. As Sartre said: we are all in the same soup.

In far too many cases, my sense is that this criticism I have described is mere opportunism, and that it has nothing to do with a genuine interest in what Cubans actually think, what they have fought for and indeed continue to fight for, or even with a preparedness to try and reach the facts of the matter.

What is interesting for me here, and ironic too, is that when I was in Cuba I spoke with plenty of people about politics, not only in relation to Cuba (and yes, they were often very critical of how things were going there) and the US, but throughout the world.

What I found -and I see no need to claim that this is representative, but it is one of the abiding memories of being there- was that they were better at listening than me, better at asking questions than me, more knowledgeable about the world than me, and better at dialogue. On reflection now it seems to me that people in these parts are far too quick to luxuriate in the criticism of the absence of democracy and democratic culture elsewhere, when they have not even thought about building their own yet.

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