Blood Brothers? Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama

Blood Brothers? Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
13-14 November 2021

Having released a joint podcast earlier this year, US music superstar Bruce Springsteen and former President Barack Obama have just published those conversations as a book – Renegades: Born In The USA.

The podcast was hugely popular, and no doubt the book will be a bestseller this Christmas and beyond.

As a Springsteen fan, I’m very uneasy about this partnership.

First, I was surprised Springsteen decided to do it. Since President Ronald Reagan’s attempt to appropriate his epic Born In The USA song in 1984, The Boss has been wary of intervening in party politics. As he explained in 2012, “I don’t write for one side of the street … normally I would prefer to stay on the sidelines.”  This general stance shifted in 2004, when he campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, and then Obama in 2008. However, it’s worth noting he told Channel 4 News he didn’t “have any plans” to campaign for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election, just three weeks before he did exactly that. Beyond these endorsements, there is a sense Springsteen thinks very carefully before acting in the political arena, aware the more he campaigns the less power each intervention has.

Second, though both men are Democrats, arguably Springsteen is further to the left than Obama, and certainly the 2008-2016 Obama Administration.

Springsteen’s concern about the lives of Americans stretches back decades. In October 2016 he told Channel 4 News “The past 40 years, as the deindustrialisation and globalization has affected a lot of work lives, the issues that matter to a lot of hardworking folks haven’t been addressed… neither party has really addressed their concerns.” Note the timing of his criticism of all US political leaders – the tailend of Obama’s supposedly paradigm-shifting presidency.

Speaking about his 2012 album Wrecking Ball, his angry response to the financial crisis and its effects on Mainstreet USA, Springsteen told the Guardian “What was done to our country was wrong and unpatriotic and un-American and nobody has been held to account.” Of course that’s because Obama didn’t take any significant action to punish or reign in Wall Street. Meeting the US’s top thirteen financial executives in March 2009, according to Politico Obama told them “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” He continued: “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help… I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you… I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.”

During a 2012 press conference in Paris Springsteen praised Obama for keeping General Motors alive and killing Osama Bin Laden. However, though he noted Obama “got through healthcare” he said it was “not the public system I would have wanted… big business still has too much say in government and there has not been as many middle- or working-class voices in the administration as I expected.”  

This is an accurate analysis. Obama stuffed his administration with Wall Street insiders. Larry Summers, who as Deputy Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton played a key role in the deregulation of the finance sector that led to the 2008 financial crisis, was appointed Chief Economic Advisor, Timothy Geithner, a protégé Summers, was made Treasury Secretary, and Mark Patterson, a former lobbyist for Goldman Sachs investment bank, Geithner’s Chief of Staff.  

On healthcare, Springsteen is in agreement with Obama circa 2003, when as a state senator he supported “single payer” (universal public healthcare), though explained its introduction would require Democrats to take back the White House and Congress. By 2009 Obama was in the White House and the Democrats controlled Congress. However, the Obama Administration “worked to deliberately marginalize the idea” of single payer, according to Tim Higginbotham, writing for Jacobin in 2018. For example the White House held a summit on healthcare reform in March 2009 where “every voice has to be heard” and “every idea must be considered”, according to the president. But as always with Obama, it is best to attend to his deeds, not words. The idea of creating a single-payer programme had already been rejected, it seems. Asked at the start of the summit why Obama was against single payer, the White House press secretary Robert Gibbs answered “The President doesn’t believe that’s the best way to achieve the goal of cutting costs and increasing access.”

The Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) was eventually passed in 2010, expanding health insurance coverage to around 20 million people but it wasn’t the public option Springsteen favours. As Matt Taibbi explained in Rolling Stone in 2009: “Even though [Obama] and the Democrats enjoy a political monopoly and could have started from a very strong bargaining position, they chose instead to concede at least half the battle before it even began.”

While it is important not to exaggerate the differences but Springsteen and Obama, the former is probably best described as a New Deal Democrat, giving a voice to politically and economically dispossessed Americans on albums like The Ghost of Tom Joad and Nebraska. In contrast, in 2008 US writer Paul Street described the first African American president as a “relatively conservative, capitalism-/corporate-friendly, racially conciliatory and Empire-friendly centrist”. As US journalist John R. MacArthur said in 2013: “He never stops serving the ruling class.”

Listening to the eight-episode podcast series the lack of time given to hard politics is noticeable, with no serious discussion about Obama’s actual record in office.

Turning to US foreign policy, a survey of Springsteen’s albums suggests it’s a secondary concern for the New Jersey native. And largely only of interest when it negatively impacts Americans. His epic Born In The USA song, for example, refers to “Viet Cong” and the “yellow man” but is far more interested in the dark days facing the returning Vietnam veteran. During his recent Broadway show, he introduced the song as a “G.I. blues.” Ditto Youngstown from 1995, which mentions wars in Korea and Vietnam, and alludes to the forces of globalisation (“now sir you tell me the world’s changed”) but is primarily concerned with how industrial decline impacted the American worker. And I think his 2002 album The Rising – made in the wake of 9/11 – is a great record, but its lack of interest in what the US had been doing around the world – when the national political debate cried out for exactly that – was telling.

This disinterest (or should I say ignorance?) likely suits their friendship: Obama’s murderous foreign policy record wouldn’t be the best fit with the relaxed atmosphere of the podcast.

As Peter Bergen, then CNN’s national security analyst, wrote in 2014: Obama is “one of the most militarily aggressive American presidents in decades”, bombing seven Muslim countries – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Syria. Obama embraced drone warfare, conducting ten times more air strikes in the so-called war on terror than President Bush, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. In a Council on Foreign Relations blog, Micah Zenko and Jennifer Wilson note the Obama Administration dropped 26,172 bombs in 2016 – an average of 72 bombs a day.

Infamously, “Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” for air strikes, the New York Times explained in 2012. Citing several Obama Administration officials, the report noted this approach “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants… unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

Tellingly, Springsteen recently told US talk show host Stephen Colbert that it was Obama who approached him about doing a podcast. It seems Obama, a master of dazzling, criticism-muzzling presentation and PR, still has an expert eye for engagements that will burnish and improve his image.

But what does Springsteen get out of it? Over his more than 50-year music career he has built up a perhaps unprecedented level of respect and trust with his audience. Why risk endangering this?

Personally, I’m all for more political interventions from artists – just not a close collaboration with a former Imperial Administrator who is up to his neck in the blood of thousands of men, women, children and babies from the Global South.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

What the media and political establishment isn’t telling you about Afghanistan

What the media and political establishment isn’t telling you about Afghanistan
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
October-November 2021

‘There is a general policy by the MoD [Ministry of Defence] to keep the horror of what’s going on in Afghanistan out of the public domain,’ a senior officer told the Telegraph in September 2008. ‘If the real truth were known it would have a huge impact on Army recruiting and the Government would come under severe pressure to withdraw the troops.’

Unsurprisingly, then, while there has been a huge amount of media coverage of the US-UK-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, lots of important information has not been presented to the British public.

________

  • Spreading Western-style democracy to Afghanistan was not a priority for the West.

Having supported the most fanatical elements of the Mujahidin fighting Russian forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the US and UK returned numerous warlords to power after they invaded and occupied the country in October 2001. Hamid Karzai became president, following ‘deep political manipulation by the US’ (Bleeding Afghanistan, 2006), with the CIA dropping off ‘wads of American dollars packed into suitcases, backpacks and, on occasion, plastic shopping bags… every month or so’ to his office for over a decade (New York Times, 28 April 2013). However, it wasn’t Karzai who held power when Afghanistan was building new governing institutions in the 2000s but US Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, ‘dubbed the viceroy, or the real president of Afghanistan,’ according to a 2005 BBC report.

‘The US government and its allies promised our people democracy, but imposed upon them the most undemocratic, corrupt, and mafia government of our history,’ explained the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan in 2013.

  • The presence of US-UK-NATO forces fuelled the insurgency.

‘Before the British burst onto the scene [in 2006], Helmand was “stable” in the sense that there was almost no Taliban presence and little prospect of any,’ Frank Ledwidge, a British military intelligence officer who worked in Afghanistan, observes (Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War, 2013). ‘After three years of British presence, the province was the most savage combat zone in the world.’ Academics Theo Farrell and Antonio Giustozzi came to a similar conclusion after interviewing elders and 53 Taliban fighters from Helmand, noting the British deployment ‘became a magnet, drawing Taliban in from surrounding districts and provinces’ (International Affairs, July 2013). This correlation was confirmed by a 2012 report from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, which explained International Military Forces’s ‘disengagement is the cause of AOG [Armed Opposition Group] de-escalation – not the other way around – as by removing themselves they remove the key driver of the AOG campaign.’

  • The US-UK-NATO occupation was marked by high levels of violence.

‘We’ve said we’ll be different to the Americans who were bombing and strafing villages, then behaved exactly like them,’ Leo Docherty MP, who fought as a British officer in Afghanistan, told the Sunday Times in September 2006. The US-UK-NATO reliance on air power has had deadly consequences for Afghans, with children making up 40 percent of all civilian casualties from airstrikes, according to United Nations data for the last five years (AOAV, 6 May 2021).

Speaking in 2009 Colonel Richard Kemp, Commander of British forces in Afghanistan in 2003, noted the UK military deployed White Phosphorus ‘even in areas that do have a certain amount of civilian population’ (The World Tonight, 23 February 2009), while US forces wiped out three villages – Tarek Kolache, Khosrow Sofia and Lower Babur – in Kandahar in 2010 (Wired, 2 January 2011). ‘We ended up killing a lot of people, destroying lots of bazaars and mosques’, General David Richards, the UK Chief of Defence Staff 2010-13, admitted about the early part of the British deployment (War Against the Taliban, 2012). Indeed, Ledwidge estimates British forces ‘killed thousands of non-combatants in Helmand’ (Guardian, 6 September 2021), while the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, an affiliate of the Norwegian Refugee Council, reported about 730,000 people were displaced between 2006-10, mostly due to military operations by US-NATO forces (IRIN, 21 April 2011).

‘The presence of foreigners, particularly the British, whose injudicious use of firepower was reminiscent of Soviet military operations, made funding and recruitment non-issues’ for the Taliban, explains Mike Martin, a Pashto speaker who spent two years in Helmand as a British army officer (An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, 2014).

  • The insurgency in Helmand was largely made up of local people fighting to defend their communities.

Docherty estimates that in the first 18 months of the British deployment 6,000 people were killed in Helmand (Investment in Blood). Areas would be ‘cleared’ again and again – ‘just like mowing a lawn’, notes Ledwidge. ‘One reason these “Taliban” returned was that they were, in fact, local farmers and they had nowhere else to go; they were defending their homes against foreigners.’ Adam Holloway MP, who also served in Afghanistan with British forces, echoed Ledwidge’s analysis in 2010, noting ‘most of’ who we call the Taliban are ‘the sons of local farmers… approximately 80 per cent of those we call the enemy die within 20 miles of where they live’ (Independent, 21 February 2010). With recruitment largely voluntary, Farrell and Giustozzi note ‘Taliban interviewees… described forming what we might call “pals platoons”’.

  • The UK intervention in Afghanistan increased the terror threat to the UK.

Appearing on BBC Any Questions in August 2021, James Heappey, the Minister for the Armed Forces, mendaciously described the war in Afghanistan as a ‘success’ because ‘in the 20 years that have followed [the 9/11 attacks] there have been no international terrorism attacks from Afghanistan into the West’. In reality, the US-UK intervention has inspired terrorist attacks in the West. In his martydom video Shehzad Tanweer, one of the suicide bombers in London on 7 July 2005, said ‘What you have witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq and until you stop your financial and military support to America and Israel’. Similarly, Michael Adebolajo was clear why he killed off-duty British soldier Lee Rigby in London in 2013, telling a bystander: ‘I killed him because he kills Muslims over there and I am fed up that people kill Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.”’

Indeed the UK government itself has long understood the war in Afghanistan heightens the terrorist threat to the West, with the Home Office and Foreign & Commonwealth Office warning in 2004 that a major driver of ‘extremism’ among young British Muslims was ‘a perceived “double standard” in the foreign policy of western governments’. The study elaborated: ‘the war on terror, and… Iraq and Afghanistan are all seen by a section of British Muslims as having been acts against Islam’ (see PN 2537).

_________

Though there is evidence anti-war feeling amongst the British public constrained the UK military in Afghanistan (see PN 2644-2645), arguably the anti-war movement has been unable to exert decisive pressure on UK policy. One thing that would likely increase opposition to  the war in Afghanistan – and, importantly, future UK wars – would be if damning facts like those presented above were better known – something the government and military are actively trying to stop, and which therefore should be a key task for peace activists.

Book review. Roads, Runways and Resistance: From The Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion by Steve Melia

Book review. Roads, Runways and Resistance: From The Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion by Steve Melia
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
October-November 2021

Steve Melia has taken a topic that could be dully technical and written a book that is both interesting and infused with a sense of urgency in terms of the climate crisis.

Underpinned with 50 original interviews with activists, policymakers and lobbyists, he surveys the key campaigns against government transport policy over the past 30 years, from the anti-roads protests of the 90s to the fight against airport expansion, and the Extinction Rebellion (XR) mass actions in 2019. His review includes the fuel protests of 2000, which nearly brought the country to a standstill.

As a Senior Lecturer in Transport and Planning at the University of the West of England, Melia’s writing leans toward the academic, though he has a journalist’s eye for detail and a good story. He relates how one of the first targets of the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, with its new offence of ‘aggravated trespass’, was ‘a pantomime cow called Buttercup’ at the Newbury Bypass protests: ‘The front half pleaded guilty to aggravated trespass while the rear half argued that his vision was obscured when they pranced across a security cordon’.

His analysis of the impact of protest will be of particular interest to activists – all the movements in the book ‘did have at least some influence on policy and practice’, he argues. For example, the anti-roads movement triggered a significant shift in public opinion and government policy, with most of the Tories’ planned road schemes dropped by the mid-90s. ‘Swampy had a lasting impact,’ notes a government advisor in the mid-2000s. ‘To build a road now is a lot of aggro.’

However, Melia notes government transport policy tends to change for three interconnected reasons: the strength of argument and evidence, the economic context, and public opinion – often driven by direct action. On the last point, he maintains ‘the main message of this book for XR or any other protest groups is that your actions will only work if you bring public opinion with you.’ This reference to XR – Melia was arrested during the April 2019 Rebellion – is, in part, about the controversial action to occupy a tube train at Canning Town in October 2019.

‘The need for disruptive protest action has never been greater’, he concludes. With the government attempting to push ahead with the expansion of Heathrow airport and a huge road building programme (sound familiar?), Roads, Runways and Resistance couldn’t be more timely.

Roads, Runways and Resistance: From The Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion is published by Pluto Press, priced £16.99.


BBC Newsnight: the more you watch, the less you know?

BBC Newsnight: the more you watch, the less you know?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 October 2021

“Watch Newsnight tonight.” This was the response from BBC Newsnight’s Policy Editor Lewis Goodall to someone tweeting on 12 August “Who should I follow to understand the contemporary situation in Afghanistan? Feel like the media in the UK not covering it enough/from all angles.”

How well has Newsnight been reporting on Afghanistan? In an attempt to gain some insight into this question, I made a list of the people the BBC news programme directly interviewed about Afghanistan in August, when the Western military forces were compelled to hastily withdraw and a crisis ensued in and around Kabul airport. This amounted to 118 people interviewed either from the studio or as part of a video report (this figure includes multiple appearances on different days by the same person). I didn’t include pooled news clips of speeches and interviews – those shared with other outlets – which were largely of US-UK government and military figures.

Who gets invited on the UK’s premier news programme, who gets to speak, who the BBC believes to be an expert and therefore worthy of our time is, of course, very important. Those who appear have the power to frame the debate, and inevitably bring their own experience and politics, and therefore bias, to the topic. An appearance on Newsnight confers legitimacy and credibility – at least in the eyes of many – and will likely lead to more invitations from other news outlets, increasing the power of the interviewee to define the debate across the wider media.

My analysis shows just 32 per cent of the 118 guests were women, with Afghans making up 31 per cent of interviewees.

In contrast, Western voices (current and former representatives of the US and UK governments, US and UK political parties, Western militaries and thinktanks based in the US, UK and Canada) made up 48 per cent of interviewees.

Of the Afghan interviewees, 62 per cent were either current or former representatives of national government, local government, MPs or had worked for the British.

And who were the guests on the 12 August, the night Goodall recommended people tune into Newsnight? Three Afghans were interviewed – freelance journalist Bilal Sarwary and Gul Ahmad Kamin, the MP for Kandahar, appeared in a news report, while Mariam Wardak was a studio guest, appearing via video link. Wardak was billed as the founder of the women’s rights charity Her Afghanistan. However, she also worked as the Communication Adviser to Afghan National Security Adviser from 2015-18, which wasn’t mentioned (though was when she appeared on the programme earlier in the month). Joining Wardak for the studio discussion was General Lord Richards, the former British Chief of the Defence Staff, and David Sedney, ex-US Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Afghanistan. Hardly a recipe for deep understanding and enlightenment.

Of course, an examination of guests invited to speak by Newsnight only gives a small insight into how the programme has covered Afghanistan. The guests aren’t robots. Affiliation is not destiny: interviewees may, intentionally or unintentionally, say something that significantly conflicts with their current or previous employer’s interests or viewpoint. For example, ex-British Army officer Michael Martin, who briefly appeared in a news report on 2 August, wrote the 2014 book An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, which contains many inconvenient and important facts about the British intervention in Afghanistan. (Martin didn’t say anything controversial during his Newsnight appearance, just gave an update on what was happening on the ground in Helmand).

Despite these caveats, I believe Newsnight’s selection of guests is very telling, and is a good indicator of their broader coverage of Afghanistan. However, arguably as important as who is chosen to appear on Newsnight, is who doesn’t appear on the programme, those whose voices are excluded.

No representatives of the Taliban are directly interviewed by the programme (pooled interviews with Taliban spokesmen briefly appear in a couple of video reports). From what I can tell this exclusion isn’t because of access – several other news organisations, including France24, NPR in the US and Turkey’s TRT, all conducted in-depth interviews with Taliban representatives in August.

Except for a representative from peace organisation Pugwash, no one from the British or American anti-war movement appeared. No one from Stop the War, the Peace Pledge Union, Peace News or individuals like peace activist Maya Evans, who has visited Afghanistan many times in recent years. This omission is especially frustrating when you consider, as Richard Burgon MP tweeted in August, “The political establishment needs to learn the lessons of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. They got it disastrously wrong and the anti-war movement got it exactly right.”

All of the 13 British MPs who appeared were either members of the Conservative Party or the centre and right of the Labour Party. No members of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, namely Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, all three of whom opposed the war in parliament in November 2001, were interviewed by Newsnight. No one from the Green Party, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party or Plaid Cymru.

Organisations like Veterans for Peace UK and individual ex-soldiers who served in Afghanistan and who take a principled stand against the war, such as Joe Glenton, did not appear. No one from the lower ranks of UK and US forces who served in Afghanistan got to speak – all of the current and former Western military representatives who were  interviewed were mostly very senior figures in the military (General Lord Richards appeared twice, while Major General Charlie Herbert, NATO Adviser to the Afghan government from 2017-18, appeared four times).

All of this won’t be a surprise to most Morning Star readers. As academic Tom Mills summarises in his 2016 book The BBC: Myth of a Public Service, the BBC’s “journalism has overwhelmingly reflected the ideas and interests of elite groups, and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives.”

This pattern of news coverage holds for Iraq too. Speaking about the run up to the 2003 Iraq War during a 2020 Aljazeera panel discussion, former Newsnight Business Editor Paul Mason argued the programme “had become a government mouthpiece” and “specific voices,” including writer Tariq Ali “were not allowed.”

This broadly fits with academic research done on the BBC’s performance during the Iraq War. For example a 2003 Cardiff University study of peak-time television news bulletins during the course of the Iraq war found the BBC was more reliant on government and military sources than other UK broadcasters. According to a Guardian summary of the study “The BBC was the least likely to quote official Iraqi sources, and less likely than Sky, ITV or Channel 4 News to use independent (and often sceptical) sources such as the Red Cross.”

As Newsnight Editor Peter Horrocks reportedly told staff in 1997, “Our job should not be to quarrel with the purpose of policy, but to question its implementation.” This power-friendly MO was perfectly illustrated in 2005 by Horrocks’s successor, Peter Barron. Challenged by media watchdog Media Lens about a Newsnight presenter assuming President Bush wanted democracy in Iraq, Barron replied “While there’s bound to be a debate about what kind of democracy the US is furthering in the Middle East, there can be no doubt that President Bush regards it as a foreign policy goal to install what he regards as democracy.”

Contrary to what Goodall self-servingly believes, the brief survey of the people interviewed by  Newsnight suggests watching the programme is unlikely to provide an accurate picture of what has been going on in Afghanistan. Indeed, for anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of Afghanistan and Western foreign policy a good idea would be to seek out the groups and individuals excluded by Newsnight and listen to what they have to say.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

The New Corporation: Joel Bakan interview

The New Corporation: Joel Bakan interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
17 March 2021

Published in 2004 alongside the 2003 film documentary of the same name, Joel Bakan’s The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power was a timely and influential critique of the central institution of contemporary capitalism.

Bakan, Professor of Law at the University of British Columbia in Canada, has now published a sequel – The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations Are Bad For Democracy. And, true to form, he has also co-directed a documentary based on his new book. Ian Sinclair asked Bakan about his book, whether corporations have really changed and what concerned citizens can do about corporate power.

Ian Sinclair: In your 2004 book and 2003 documentary you argued corporations, as institutions, are imbued with the character traits of a human psychopath. What is the central argument of your new book? 

Joel Bakan: Shortly after that book and film were released, companies began making sweeping commitments to social and environmental good. One hundred percent carbon neutrality, zero waste to landfills, 100% recycling, moves to renewables, proclamations about inequality and climate change, cascades of corporate programmes designed to help people in need and promote sustainability – all promises signaling that companies were now part of the solution, no longer the problem. It was as though they were saying, “we’re not psychopaths anymore; we’re good actors now, caring and conscientious,” a clear rebuttal to my earlier charge. I felt I needed to answer that – not least because these ideas would soon define big business’ overarching ethos, and also bring everyone else, including many progressive people, under their spell. This project is my answer.

I argue that the apparent turn to good – the ‘new corporation movement’, as I describe it – is animated by corporations’ discovery of something human psychopaths have known all along: a sheen of charm works better than overt skulduggery. Commitments by companies to social responsibility and sustainability, along with pious claims to be conscientious and caring, create a sheen that, in turn, hides their legally-imbued self-interested character. It’s not that that character necessarily bars companies from doing good. But it does limit the kinds of good they can do to what will help them do well – a profound limit – while also requiring they do bad when that, rather than doing good, is the best way to do well. No one in business denies any of this. None say social and environmental values should trump financial ones. Rather, what they say is that companies should, when possible, leverage the former to serve the latter. Hardly a road to the New Jerusalem.

IS: Can you give a couple of examples of how these “new” corporations act in contradiction to their socially conscious public rhetoric? 

JB: Here are some examples from the book. British Petroleum’s criminal negligence leading to the Deepwater Horizon disaster is juxtaposed to the company’s green branding. Volkswagen’s emissions scandal is compared to its reputation as an environmental leader while the scandal was unfolding but hidden. Honeywell’s boast that its manufacturing plants are super-sustainable is set against the company’s weapon-making, including nuclear weapons, inside those sustainable plants. British American Tobacco’s claim its tobacco fields are biodiverse is set against its use of those fields to make a product that kills people and makes them ill. Google’s vaunted use of renewable energy is compared to the fact it helps fossil fuel companies boost production with its Artificial Intelligence. And fossil fuel companies’ commitments to the Paris climate accord are contrasted to their intensive lobbying to ensure it imposed few real constraints on them, and contained no mandatory enforcement mechanisms. 

What these and other stories show is that while it is true corporations pursue social and environmental goals, and sometimes do some good, they necessarily pursue those goals within limits created by the legal imperative to serve self-interest. And those limits – in marked contrast to the limitless possibilities for goodness conjured by corporate marketing and public relations campaigns – are, as noted, profound.

IS: What do you mean by the book’s subtitle “How ‘good’ corporations are bad for democracy”? 

JB: Many, including some on the left, acknowledge the kinds of corporate deceptions and limits I talk about. But they say in response: “Isn’t it at least better than nothing that corporations try to do some good, and sometimes succeed?” My answer is “no”. It’s worse than nothing. And that’s because the notion that corporations can be good actors, along with the entire new corporation movement it animates, is part of a worrying ideological trope. It suggests that, because corporations are good now, we should welcome, not resist, their increasing power, impunity, and control over society; we should trust them to regulate themselves, to run our schools and water systems, to partner with democratic governments, rather than be subject to their sovereignty. That is why the new corporation’s charm offensive is not just deceptive, but dangerous. It puts a smiling face on all of neoliberalism, not only on the corporations operating within it.

This all became clear to me during a visit to the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos (which plays a central role in the book and film). There I spoke with many new corporation leaders, none more candid than Richard Edelman, one of the world’s top business gurus. Corporations have become “good actors,” he told me, “agents of change” ready to “fill a void” left by retreating governments. “I’m not much of a believer in political citizenship,” he continued. “I actually believe much more in the power of the marketplace.” I found chilling this casual dismissal of “political citizenship” (in other words, democracy) in favour of markets – and all the more so for reflecting (as was confirmed during my further wanderings around Davos) a core belief among new corporation advocates, the supposed ‘good guys’ of capitalism, that because corporations are now publicly-minded, ready to take the lead on social and environmental issues, governments can, and should, retreat from doing the same. Which helps explain how new corporations can both celebrate social and environmental values while, at the same time, lobbying vociferously against governments’ efforts to protect those very values through regulation and programmes designed to foster equality, justice and the public good. 

IS: In terms of how concerned citizens should respond to corporate power, you argue “protest is not enough”. What do you propose? 

JB: My book and film end on a note of hope, showing how people around the world are working and fighting for deeper ideals of democracy, of justice, of planetary survival – sometimes with and through governments, other times against and outside of them. The Black Lives Matter protests, uprisings against autocratic rule in eastern Europe, climate protests by school children, indigenous struggles against colonialism, experiments in participatory democracy – these are some of the stories I feature, and that give me hope. I also argue that though the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and injustices (a dynamic I explore throughout the book), there are some signs of hope in how, at least to some extent, people’s responses to it exhibit counter-neoliberal sensibilities of humanism and the importance of collective endeavor.

But you’re quite right, I also argue protest is not enough, while insisting it is often necessary. Because corporations are created and enabled by government and the state, as are the market systems they plie for profit, I argue, challenging their power and impunity must happen from within state institutions as well as from outside. I feature in the book and film progressive movements that have sought this kind of political presence within the state, and show how their work is aimed not only at getting a place within existing democratic institutions, but also, once there, deepening the democratic character of those institutions. The latter aim, I argue, requires at a minimum bringing the social into democracy. Political democracy cannot exist in any real way without a foundation of social equality and justice. It’s the growing separation between these two realms, the social and political, that now threatens democracy so profoundly. That (along with many other things) needs to change, and there are signs – which I point to in my book and film – that it just might.

The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations Are Bad For Democracy is published by Vintage.

The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel documentary is playing at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival from 18-26 March on Barbican Cinema On Demand. Joel Bakan and co-director Jennifer Abbott will take part in a Live Zoom ScreenTalk about their film on Sunday 21 March at 5pm. Buy tickets here: https://ff.hrw.org/london

Tell Me Lies About Afghanistan

Tell Me Lies About Afghanistan
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
15 September 2021

The omissions and distortions that have been made by politicians about Afghanistan over the last few weeks, echoed by much of the media, have been so big and unremitting it’s easy to start questioning one’s own grip on reality. Why are the media giving so much airtime to the politicians and senior military figures responsible for the carnage in Afghanistan? Why is no one pointing out it was the violent Western occupation of the country that fuelled the rise of the Taliban-led resistance? Or that the West worked closely with warlords and human rights abusing militias? That the West backed the “worst crazies” amongst the Mujahideen forces in the 80s?

A recent edition of BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions political debate programme raised the propaganda and dishonesty to stratastrophic levels.

Asked by an audience member if the war in Afghanistan has been a failure, James Heappey, the Minister for the Armed Forces who served in Helmand himself, replied “In the 20 years that have followed [the 9/11 attacks] there have been no international terrorism attacks from Afghanistan into the West, and in that sense it was successful… on the macro level, no international terrorism. That’s success.”

No one, not BBC presenter Chris Mason, the other three guests or any of the audience said anything in response to this disingenuous BS. Frustratingly, fellow panellist Diane Abbott MP, who boldly opposed the UK participation in parliament in 2001, made a similar argument herself:  “If you are going to look at it in narrow security terms, you can point to some success. Osama bin Laden was found and killed and so on”. Note: Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

Presumably on a list of talking points given to Tory appearing in the media, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the same point as Heappey in his “address to the nation” on 29 August: “To the families and loved ones of those British troops who gave their all, your suffering and your hardship were not in vain. It was no accident that there has been no terrorist attack launched against Britain or any other Western country from Afghanistan in the last 20 years.”

There are several obvious flaws in this astonishingly deceitful claim.

First, terrorist attacks have taken place in the UK and US that have been inspired by the US-UK invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.

In his martydom video Shehzad Tanweer, one of the suicide bombers who killed 52 people in London on 7 July 2005, said “What you have witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq and until you stop your financial and military support to America and Israel”.

Michael Adebolajo was clear why he killed British soldier Lee Rigby in London in 2013, telling a woman who spoke to him: “I killed him because he kills Muslims over there and I am fed up that people kill Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

And according to the Huffington Post, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the perpetrators of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, “told interrogators that the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan motivated him and his brother to carry out the attack”.

Second, it is widely understood by intelligence agencies and experts that the West’s military intervention in Afghanistan led to a heightened terrorist threat to the West.

In 2004 the UK’s Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office co-published a report titled Young Muslims and Extremism. The study concluded that a major driver of “extremism” among young British Muslims was “a perceived ‘double standard’ in the foreign policy of western governments… in particular Britain and the US”. The study elaborated: “the war on terror, and in Iraq and Afghanistan are all seen by a section of British Muslims as having been acts against Islam”.

After Prime Minister David Cameron claimed in 2010 that British troops in Afghanistan made people “safe and secure back home in the UK”, Richard Barrett, a former Director of Global Counter Terrorism Operations at MI6, was scathing: “I’ve never heard such nonsense… I’m quite sure if there were no foreign troops in Afghanistan, there’d be less agitation in Leeds, or wherever, about… what Western intentions are in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

The establishment Chatham House thinktank came to a similar conclusion, noting in a briefing published just after 7/7 “The UK is at particular risk [from al Qaeda terrorist attacks] because it is the closest ally of the United States” and “has deployed armed forces in the military campaigns to topple the Taleban regime in Afghanistan and in Iraq… riding pillion with a powerful ally has proved costly in terms of British and US military lives, Iraqi lives, military expenditure, and the damage caused to the counter-terrorism campaign.”

The final problem with the government’s claim that the war stopped terrorism on the West from Afghanistan is that it’s based on a simplistic understanding of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks – that it was necessary for terrorists to “have a safe haven to plan and launch attacks on America and other civilized nations”, as President George Bush explained in 2006.

In reality we know 9/11 was “conceived and initially planned in Germany, that the training was carried out in the US and that most of the hijackers were Saudi”, as Frank Ledwidge explained in his 2013 book Investment In Blood: The Trust Cost Of Britain’s Afghan War. 7/7, the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing and London Bridge attacks – none of the perpetrators of these atrocities required a “safe haven” to deliver death and destruction in the UK.

Indeed, as foreign policy analyst Micah Zenko argued in his 2015 article The Myth of the Terrorist Safe Haven, “Americans, themselves, have been responsible for 50 percent of plots and attacks against the United States since 9/11, followed by Brits at 21 percent.”

“If anywhere is a safe haven for terrorism against the United States, it is America.” Ditto the UK.

In addition, Western military action in so-called safe havens increases terrorist attacks on Western forces in these countries. Zenko again: “According to the State Department and Global Terrorism Database, of the 335 Americans who have died from terrorism since 9/11, 268, or 80 percent, died within Iraq or Afghanistan — the very places where the United States started wars to prevent or destroy safe havens.”

The government’s focus on the impact of the British war in Afghanistan on terrorism in the West serves a broader purpose: obscuring the real reason for the UK intervention. Ledwidge explains: the UK was involved so heavily in Afghanistan (and Iraq) because of “the perceived necessity of retaining the closest possible links with the US.” This, he notes, “is accepted in private by most politicians and senior soldiers.”

After his staff interviewed over 600 people with firsthand experience of the war, the head of the US government’s Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, told the Washington Post “the American people have constantly been lied to” for 20 years.

The Post’s impressive December 2019 reporting of the $11 million Lessons Learned project was covered by the UK media, but has been quickly forgotten, and hasn’t framed the subsequent political debate and media coverage of the conflict. There has, in short, been no national reckoning in the UK about the Afghan war, no public inquiry. The families and loved ones of the 457 members of the British armed forces who were killed in Afghanistan, and the thousands of civilians who died at the hands of the British military, deserve the to hear the truth.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Uncovering the Ignorance of the BBC’s Big Beasts

Uncovering the Ignorance of the BBC’s Big Beasts
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 March 2021

Increasingly shared on Twitter, Andrew Marr’s 1996 interview with Noam Chomsky has become a well-known TV moment for many on the left.

Over the course of 30 minutes discussing the politics of the media on BBC2’s The Big Idea, the seemingly unprepared Marr, who would become the Editor of the Independent in 1996, is repeatedly corrected and out-argued by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Chomsky begins by summarising the Propaganda Model he developed in the late 1980s with Edward Herman, which they argue shows the media “serve to mobilise support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity.”

Discombobulated, Marr says: “I was brought up like a lot of people, probably post-Watergate film and so on to believe that journalism was a crusading craft and there were a lot of disputatious, stroppy, difficult people in journalism.”

Chomsky doesn’t dispute there are people like this in the media but argues the Propaganda Model can be applied to US media coverage of the Vietnam War and Watergate. For Chomsky, one of the roles “of the liberal intellectual establishment”, within which the New York Times, BBC and Guardian operate, “is to set very sharp bounds on how far you can go. This far, and no further.”

“How can you know that I’m self-censoring?”, Marr asks. To which Chomsky replies: “I’m not saying you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believe something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”

It’s an extremely telling interview – at one point Chomsky has to explain what COINTELPRO is to Marr – which is well worth watching if you haven’t seen it.

25 years later and Aljazeera has provided another illuminating example of an established journalist having the politics of their own profession explained to them by a left-wing academic.

After broadcasting their Battle for the BBC documentary, last summer Aljazeera organised an online discussion with key interviewees from the programme – BBC big beast David Dimbleby and the academic Tom Mills, author of the 2016 book The BBC Myth Of A Public Service. Former BBC Newsnight Economics Editor Paul Mason was also on the panel, but the crux of the debate is between Dimbleby and Mills.

Aljazeera presenter Flo Phillips led the discussion on three key events in BBC history: the 1926 General Strike, the Thatcher era and the corporation’s coverage of the Iraq War.

As the Aljazeera documentary set out, the BBC backed the government during the General Strike, with BBC founder Lord John Reith even helping to write one of the Prime Minister’s speeches, which was delivered from Reith’s own home. This supportive relationship occurred within the framework of a typically British compromise: the government did not commandeer the BBC, as some members of the cabinet wanted, on the tacit understanding the BBC would broadly serve the government. “Dissenting voices, from the trade unions to the opposition Labour Party, were banned”, Phillips notes in the documentary.

“They know they can trust us not to be really impartial”, is how Reith put it in his diary at the time.

Dimbleby is quick to dismiss the focus on 1926: “It’s like talking about an adult who is now in his middle age, like the BBC as it is now, and then complaining about what it did when it was a toddler. It’s absurd to go back that far.”

Mills explains why the history is important: “If you want to understand the BBC, if you want to understand any institution, you have to understand first of all its origins.”

“It tells us something about the ambiguous position that the BBC has found itself actually since the General Strike, which is that it has neither been independent of government, nor a direct instrument of government.”

Turning to the BBC under Thatcher, Mills sets out how John Birt pushed through a radical process of organisational and cultural change when he became Deputy Director of the Beeb in 1987 (and then Director-General from 1992), integrating the BBC into the market and making its journalism more risk averse.

“Birt was allied with the New Right”, Mills says. “He was a neoliberal in the very narrow sense of the word. He would go for lunch with [right-wing Tory Minister] Keith Joseph and… the Institute for Economic Affairs.”

Dimbleby, though opposed to Birt’s ‘reforms’, is again dismissive. “I don’t think there was a political agenda here”, he says, before layering on the sarcasm: “He had lunch with Keith Joseph? Wow”. To back up his position, Dimbleby notes Labour-supporting Peter Jay, who was Economics Editor at the Times and then at the BBC, also supported Birt’s changes.

Mills is fully aware of this, and unlike Dimbleby can clearly think outside the narrow Tory vs. Labour framing of British politics, replying that Jay “was one of the largest advocates of monetarism in that period” and “a big fan of Milton Friedman.”

“I’m surprised you don’t know that”, Mills says, likely annoyed by Dimbleby calling him “Tim” moments before.

Dimbleby can’t quite believe what he is hearing: “Sorry. What are you saying? That Jay and Birt came in to take over the BBC with monetarist policies? Is that your line?”

Mills: “That’s what happened, yes.” Mills tries to elaborate but is unable to as Dimbleby temporarily takes over as chair and invites Mason to comment.

Dimbleby has less to say on Iraq, other than to point out that the anti-war campaigner Tariq Ali had been a guest on BBC Question Time (Mason had noted BBC Newsnight “had become a government mouthpiece” and “specific voices”, including Ali, “were not allowed”).

It is left to Mills to provide the key bits of evidence, mentioning the 2003 Cardiff University study which found the corporation displayed the most pro-war agenda of any broadcaster in the UK.

Marr himself infamously became the government’s spokesperson as the BBC’s Political Editor. Speaking about Prime Minister Tony Blair on the News At Ten just after US-UK forces had taken Baghdad in April 2003, Marr opined “It would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result.”

Mills also highlights how Kevin Marsh, the Editor of the BBC Today programme from 2002-6, had admitted they were not interested in covering the anti-Iraq War protests.

Mills is referring to testimony that appeared in my 2013 book The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003.

“Since we, rightly or wrongly, see ourselves as public policy journalists then necessarily we look at what is happening in public policy i.e. politicians and officials”, Marsh told me. “And it is probably true that we would think more about what politicians and the military and so on were saying to us than we would think about those who were not in a position to make decisions, like the anti-war movement.”

As Mills explains, many people at the BBC believe the job of political journalism is “to report what is going on in the corridors of power.” Indeed, responding to complaints about his reporting on Iraq, in 2004 ITN reporter Nick Robinson – soon to become a BBC big beast himself – explained “It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking… that is all someone in my sort of job can do.  We are not investigative reporters.”

Two conclusions can be drawn from the Aljazeera panel discussion and Marr’s interview with Chomsky.

First, senior media figures often simply don’t understand the history and political economy of the institutions they work – and exercise considerable power – in. As Chomsky might say, it is precisely their establishment-friendly, ideologically-restricted mindset that has allowed Marr and Dimbleby to rise to the top of the BBC: if they had a more radical worldview they wouldn’t be senior figures at the BBC.

Second, faced with academic evidence and critical thinking both Marr and Dimbleby had very little to offer in response except spluttering disbelief, well-worn clichés and anecdotal evidence.

Rarely has Upton Sinclair’s well known dictum been illustrated so well: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Andrew Marr’s interview with Noam Chomsky can be viewed on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjENnyQupow. As can Aljazeera’s The Battle for the BBC panel discussion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74qcsksuqtU

Has the West tried to build liberal democracy in Afghanistan?

Has the West tried to build liberal democracy in Afghanistan?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 September 2021

As the Taliban approached Kabul in mid-August, Channel 4 News’s Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson noted on Twitter that the West has been “obsessed about trying to turn Afghanistan into Sweden with sand, fetishising democracy and educating women” but “Afghans outside Kabul kept telling me the Taliban ended corruption and brought security which they want first and foremost.”

The idea the West is sincerely interested in spreading democracy in Afghanistan is widely believed across the political spectrum. For example, in the recent House of Commons session devoted to the Afghan crisis, the brilliant Labour MP Zarah Sultana warned “the West cannot build liberal democracies with bombs and bullets.” This, she noted, was a “dangerous fantasy cooked up by neo-conservative fanatics in Washington and championed by their faithful followers in London.”

Certainly the US and UK governments and their cheerleaders in the media often claim benign intentions. However, if we take seriously Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s dictum that “in general, the words uttered by power are not meant to express its actions but to disguise them” then it’s vital to consider the West’s deeds in Afghanistan, rather than its public statements.

So what does the historical record show?

Following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan on 7 October 2001, in December 2001 the New York Times reported the military campaign “has returned to power nearly all of the same warlords who had misruled the country in the days before the Taliban.” Hamid Karzai, “a previously little-known figure nationally who controls no real army of his own and no territory… was handpicked by the United States” to head the interim government.

Karzai was installed in early December 2001at a gathering of key Afghan players in Bonn, Germany. “The Bonn conference was only for show,” Haji Attaullah, a Pashtun delegate, told the New York Times. ”The decisions had been made before.” Writing in their 2006 book Bleeding Afghanistan, Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls concur, arguing “This new Afghan ‘democracy’ was ultimately not shaped by ordinary Afghans, but by the US and its agent Zalmay Khalilzad.”

Born in Afghanistan and ensconced in the US foreign policy establishment since the late 70s, Khalilzad was appointed as the US Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan in December 2001. Then, from November 2003 to June 2005, he served as US ambassador to Afghanistan. “No major decisions by the Afghan government have been made without his involvement”, a 2005 BBC report noted. “He has sometimes been dubbed the viceroy, or the real president of Afghanistan.”

His job, the New York Times explained in 2004 without a hint of self-awareness, was “to ensure that the elements friendly to America gain ascendency in a democratic Afghanistan.”

Karzai himself went onto to win two dubious presidential elections in 2004 and 2009 – exercises perhaps best described as “demonstration elections”, which Edward Herman defined in 1992 as “the art of staging elections in Third World client states as a means of assuring the home populace that a US interventionary process is meritorious and serves a higher purpose.”

In 2013 the New York Times reported “For more than a decade, wads of American dollars packed into suitcases, backpacks and, on occasion, plastic shopping bags have been dropped off every month or so at the offices of Afghanistan’s president — courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency.” Khalil Roman, Karzai’s deputy chief of staff from 2002 until 2005, said “It came in secret, and it left in secret.” The New York Times noted some American officials told the paper “the cash has fueled corruption and empowered warlords.” Indeed, according to one US official, “The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan was the United States.”

No doubt Swedes reading all this will recognise the close similarities to their own nation’s political system.

The reviled night-time kill and capture operations (night raids) conducted by US Special Forces give another window into the West’s real position on democracy in Afghanistan. In February 2009 a leaked US diplomatic cable showed Karzai asking the US Under-Secretary of Defence Policy for a limit on the raids. Karzai, it seems, was ignored, with a 2011 Open Society Foundations study noting a fivefold increase in raids between February 2009 and December 2010, with a total of 1,700 raids between December 2010 and February 2011. A deal was eventually brokered between Karzai and the US in April 2012 to shift control of night raids over to the Afghan government. However, Atlantic magazine explained the agreement “appears to offer Karzai an applause line for speeches rather than significant changes in the way raids are carried out.” The night raids – and the extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses that occurred on them – continued, albeit now nominally led by Afghan forces.

With the Afghan president perhaps becoming a little too independent for the US’s liking, the Guardian reported in 2014 that the US had attempted to intervene in Afghan elections. Citing the memoir of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the newspaper noted “top US diplomats connived in delaying an Afghan presidential election in 2009 and then tried to manipulate the outcome in a ‘clumsy and failed putsch’ that aimed to oust” Karzai.

In addition to all this, any summary of the West’s role in Afghanistan needs to include the torture centre at Bagram airbase and the thousands of Afghans killed by airstrikes carried out by the US, UK and their allies (in the past five years 40 percent of all civilian casualties from airstrikes were children, according to UN data). Speaking to journalist Sandy Gall, General David Richards, the former UK Chief of Defence Staff, said in the early stage of the British deployment to Helmand “we ended up killing a lot of people, destroying lots of bazaars and mosques.”

And what about the armed militias roaming the country? Reporting from Afghanistan, in July the Guardian’s Emma Graham-Harrison made the astonishing claim Afghan officials “are embracing militias, after years of western-backed efforts to disarm the country’s unofficial bands of armed men”. The truth is the opposite: a 2019 study from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University noted “the CIA is still running local militias in operations against the Taliban and other Islamist militants”. The study goes on to note “the militias reportedly have committed serious human rights abuses, including numerous extrajudicial killings of civilians” and that “CIA sponsorship ensures that their operations are clouded in secrecy. There is virtually no public oversight of their activities or accountability”.

As David Wearing, a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, wrote in a Guardian in 2013, “the idea that the British state’s involvement in Afghanistan was due to some principled commitment to democracy and human rights is one that scarcely passes the laugh test.”

Patricia Gossman, Associate Director for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, echoed Wearing’s analysis in May: “The United States has since 2001 consistently subordinated human rights and good governance to short-term political objectives, partnering and funding Afghan warlords who used their new power to target not just the Taliban, but local rivals.”

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan put it more forcefully on the twelfth anniversary of the 2001 invasion: “The US government and its allies promised our people democracy, but imposed upon them the most undemocratic, corrupt, and mafia government of our history”.

Rather than “Sweden with sand”, the evidence suggests the West’s primary goal has been the creation of a client state in Afghanistan – “a politically and militarily allied government in a strategically important country”, Wearing explains.

None of this will be a surprise for those who are close observers of Western foreign policy. Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House thinktank in 2013, provided the key context: “The long history of Anglo-American great-power involvement in the Middle East… has, for the most part, not involved an effort to democratise the region.”

“Rather, the general trend has been to either support authoritarian rulers who were already in place, or to participate in the active consolidation of authoritarian rule, including strong military and intelligence cooperation, as long as these rulers have been seen as supporting Western interests more than popularly elected governments would.”

Western democracy promotion in Afghanistan? To paraphrase Gandhi: it would be a good idea.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review. The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations Are Bad For Democracy by Joel Bakan

Book review. The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations Are Bad For Democracy by Joel Bakan
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News

August-September 2021

Published in 2004 alongside the film documentary of the same name, Joel Bakan’s The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power was a timely and influential assault on the central institution of contemporary capitalism.

Bakan has now written a sequel, a response to the ‘trend of corporations claiming to be different, to have changed into caring and conscientious actors – ready to lead the way in solving society’s problems.’ This shift is, it seems, a reaction to public concern, with Larry Fink from investment management firm BlackRock writing to business leaders in 2018 to tell them ‘Society is demanding that companies serve a social purpose.’

Bakan, Professor of Law at the University of British Columbia, is having none of it. ‘Making money for themselves and their shareholders remains their top priority’, he notes about these ‘new’ corporations. ‘So while they might care about social and environmental values, they care only to the point such caring might cut into profits.’

Despite their progressive-sounding public rhetoric these profit-seeking entities fight against ‘policies aimed to promote social welfare’ including workers’ rights and unions, taxes on wealth and regulations that restrict the power of big business to rule the world.

Bakan weaves numerous shocking examples of corporate malfeasance into the book, including Volkswagen fitting a ‘defeat device’ in diesel engine cars sold in the US that detected when they were being tested and changed the environmental performance to improve results. Elsewhere he highlights how Johnson & Johnson were caught hiding from consumers and regulators the fact some of its products used by children included harmful materials.

With corporate influence weakening democratic institutions, Bakan’s solution is more and deeper democracy – to ‘expand the floor of the cage’, as Noam Chomsky says. ‘Protest is not enough’, Baken argues. ‘Electoral movements are needed to put sovereign power behind the values and energy people express in the streets’. He highlights the successes two municipal politicians have had in taming corporate power – activist turned Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau, and Seattle City Council Kshama Sawant, who was re-elected in 2019 despite a multimillion dollar lobbying effort from Amazon.

Though perhaps not as hard-hitting or revelatory as his 2004 book, The New Corporation is nevertheless a hugely important polemic. Written in an accessible journalistic style, with plenty of footnotes for those wishing to investigate further, it could be a valuable and inspiring campaigning tool for both experienced anti-corporation activists and those new to the topic.

Defending democracy? The UK and Uganda

Defending democracy? The UK and Uganda
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
1 August 2021

The June G7 summit in Cornwall generated the usual liberal drivel about the West’s noble global goals. The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour noted Joe Biden and Boris Johnson “had a grand agenda ahead of them, covering democracy’s defence, climate change and pandemic.” The photo illustrating this “analysis” piece was captioned “Defending democracy is crucial to Joe Biden’s tour of Europe.” A couple of days later, in his Guardian review of Gordon Brown’s new book Seven Ways to Change the World, the academic William Davies stated the former prime minister “clearly holds deep-seated moral views regarding the responsibilities of wealthy countries to less wealthy ones, combined with a sense that true justice… is never adequately achieved, but needs constantly pushing for.”

When considering the UK’s role in the world, the UK’s relationship with Uganda provides a useful case study.

With a population of close to 45 million, and 75 per cent of people under the age of 30, on 14 January 2021 Uganda held a general election. The contest for the presidency was between authoritarian incumbent Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, and the 38-year old opposition politician Bobi Wine.

According to Human Rights Watch, the elections, of which Museveni was declared the winner, “were marred by widespread violence and repression. Security forces arbitrarily arrested and beat opposition supporters and journalists, killed protestors, and disrupted opposition rallies.” More broadly, Amnesty International note “the authorities continued to restrict the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”

Shockingly, over 50 people were killed during a government crackdown following the arrest of Wine on 18 November 2020. In comparison, two people died in the 2019-20 Hong Kong protests, and no one has died in the anti-government demonstrations in Russia that started in January. The Ugandan authorities claimed the dead were rioters, though a BBC Africa Eye documentary investigated several of the killings and found none had been involved in rioting when they were killed.

Wine was put under house arrest for 11 days after the election, with his National Unity Platform party claiming in February that 3,000 people had been detained by security forces since November 2020. Jason Burke, the Guardian’s Africa correspondent, reported “some detainees have had joints or genitals beaten with wires, been burned with cigarettes, or had fingernails torn out.”

On 16 January the UK Minister for Africa, James Duddridge, released an extraordinary statement on the elections: “The UK Government welcomes the relatively calm passing of the elections in Uganda and notes the re-election of H.E. Yoweri Museveni as President.” Duddridge went onto note “Many in Uganda and beyond have expressed concerns about the overall political climate in the run up to the elections as well as the electoral process,” before asking “all parties, including the security services, but also all of Uganda’s political movements, act with restraint to ensure the peaceful resolution of disputes.”

I have searched the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office’s website and cannot find any statement about the November 2020 massacre (the FCDO press office has not replied to repeated emails asking if a statement exists). Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab doesn’t seem to have tweeted anything about the election or the November 2020 killings. He has, though, found time to tweet about opposition politicians in other nations, including support for Joshua Wong in Hong Kong, Alexei Navalny in Russia (25 times), and Juan Guido in Venezuela (five times).

Perhaps in response to criticism, it should be noted Duddridge tweeted a stronger response on 19 January: “We have significant concerns about restrictions of political freedoms following the Ugandan elections, including denying Robert Kyagulanyi’s [Bobi Wine] fundamental freedoms.”

Despite this shift, the UK’s response to the election and killings is deeply troubling – “inconsistent with the political reality,” is how Angelo Izama, a Ugandan journalist and analyst, put it to development news site Devex. “It didn’t speak at all to the scale of what was going on in Uganda, which by any standards was a uniquely severe challenge to democratic norms.”

So what’s going on? Rosebell Kagumire, the Uganda-based editor of the African Feminism website, told Devex the UK has “played a very important role in propping up this regime… they are partners with it”.

Ugandan journalist and TED Fellow Yasin Kakande explained these close ties. “British economic interests… remain prominent in Uganda’s economy”, he noted in The London Economic in February, highlighting the role of Standard Chartered and Barclays in the financial sector, and Shell in the oil sector. Incidentally, Kate Airey, the British High Commissioner to Uganda, used to work for Shell. And Declassified UK have revealed that until recently Duddridge himself “earned tens of thousands of pounds as an adviser to a London-based finance house whose advisory board is chaired by an ally of Uganda’s authoritarian ruler”.

Furthermore, Johnson met Museveni during the UK-Africa Investment Summit in January 2020 and “spoke of the UK’s commitment and investment in Uganda and his desire to see the two countries’ trade relationship go up a gear”, according to Number 10.

Writing for Declassified UK in January, ex-Morning Star journalist Phil Miller noted UK troops train Ugandan forces, supposedly as part of the so-called war on terror. In 2006 Oxfam claimed Ugandan forces were using armoured vehicles sold by BAE Systems to suppress opposition demonstrations. And echoing the Pegasus revelations last week, in 2015 BBC News reported a “UK-based firm has sold surveillance technology to Uganda which has been used to crush and potentially blackmail opponents of the president.”

While liberal theory posits the media acts as a fourth estate, holding the government to account and lubricating democracy by keeping the public informed, in reality the media has a remarkable tendency to echo the government’s interests and concerns.

For example, in his Declassified UK article Miller noted Wine has been mentioned in 39 articles in The Times newspaper since he announced he was running for Uganda’s parliament in April 2017. During the same period, Miller found the same newspaper named Wong in 94 articles, and Navalny in up to 600 articles.

A similar pattern can be seen with the Guardian. A search of the Lexis-Nexis database on 13 July found Wine has been mentioned in 57 Guardian articles since April 2017, while 150 articles naming Wong and 345 articles mentioning Navalny.

Even when there is reporting on Uganda, the UK’s close relationship to Musevini is rarely mentioned. The Financial Times’s 18-paragraph story on 13 January looking at the Ugandan elections didn’t mention the UK, and neither did a full page, 19-paragraph report in the Guardian two days before. A June report from Burke in the Guardian did note Musevini “has long been perceived as a key ally of western powers”, with Uganda receiving £150m of assistance from the UK in recent years, but this information appeared in paragraph 20 of 21 of the article.

Of course, there are exceptions. Miller has put the UK’s nefarious involvement at the forefront of his reporting for Declassified UK, while Burke wrote an April report about “the country’s worst wave of repression for decades” that made a more prominent reference to the West’s support for Musevini.

However, overall it is clear the British media have failed to adequately inform the British public what their government has been up to in Uganda, a situation the British government is more than happy with, I’m sure.

“What seems to be happening so far is the UK is privileging its strategic interests over its concern with open societies,” Samuel Hickey, Professor of Politics and Development at the University of Manchester, told Devex in January.

The article also quoted Nicholas Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy and International Development at the University of Birmingham: “If you are going to support democracy around the world, Uganda is a pretty easy test case. This is not China or Saudi Arabia, a major economic power with influence at the United Nations and beyond. If you are going to pull your punches on Uganda, you’re going to pull your punches on most countries out there.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair