Monthly Archives: December 2016

Book review: Viking Economics by George Lakey

Book review: Viking Economics by George Lakey
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2016-January 2017

Though it is written for a US audience, George Lakey’s new book Viking Economics: how the Scandinavians got it right – and how we can, too has much to offer progressive activists in the UK concerned about the ongoing imposition of austerity measures and the political settlement that will come out of Brexit.

According to Lakey, the economies of the descendants of the Vikings ‘have a sixty-year track record of delivering increased freedom and equality’ – a political reality he believes is within reaching distance for the US. A visiting professor for Issues of Social Change at Swarthmore College in the United States and Peace News regular, Lakey bases his thesis on a wealth of academic studies, interviews with experts and personal experience – he married a Norwegian, lived in Norway for a year in 1959 and has returned many times since.

At the turn of the twentieth century the Nordic countries had very high levels of inequality and poverty, with many people emigrating to the US and elsewhere. However, as Lakey notes above, today the Nordic countries have been transformed, consistently topping international measures for human development and well-being. Focusing on Norway but also covering Denmark, Sweden and Iceland, Lakey highlights how the relatively high-tax ‘Nordics’ have achieved close to full, largely well-paid employment, universal healthcare, free higher education, a healthy work/life balance, and generous welfare states, while significantly reducing poverty and building modern and efficient infrastructure.

Lakey does a good job of highlighting how this differs from the neoliberal, business-friendly US and UK, citing Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s seminal work The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better to explain how high inequality has a detrimental effect on a range of social factors, from trust among the population to levels of crime.

How the Norwegians and other Nordics achieved all this comprises the heart of the book, with Lakey telling a fascinating history of struggle that is largely unknown to progressive activists in the UK.

Following the fight to gain union recognition in the 1880s, the infant union movement set up its own party, the Norwegian Labour Party, and national trade union. Influenced by the advanced labour movements in the US, a vibrant leftist political culture emerged, with supportive middle-class intellectuals setting up Mot Dag in 1921, arguably the most influential periodical in Scandinavia at the time. After the Great Crash of 1929, strike activity – including a general strike – significantly increased despite harsh repression from the government and employers, with the defence minister Vidkun Quisling sending in the army to quell a strike in the town of Skien. During this period, labour increased its representation in parliament until it eventually became the dominant party. ‘Norwegians created a small, visionary social movement that grew, engaged in struggle, attracted allies, and won’, Lakey summarises. Victory led to a fundamental power shift in the country, forcing a political settlement that led to the ‘Nordic Model’ being established in the 1930s.

More recently, noting how the defeat of organised labour during the Miners’ Strike in 1980s Britain allowed Thatcherism to run rampant, Lakey compares it to the industrial struggle that occurred at the same time in Denmark. With a centre-right government seeking to impose austerity measures, the Danish unions went on the offensive, pushing for a pay increase, shorter working week and more taxes on corporations. When the government tried to impose its will and ban strike action, workers gathered outside parliament and wildcat strikes erupted around the country. The government was forced to compromise, and their neoliberal agenda was largely shelved.

In short, it was union-led, nonviolent struggle that led to the transformation of Norway and the other Nordics. And, importantly, with electoral channels often blocked, it was extra-parliamentary direct action that was the initial engine of change. Furthermore, Lakey is keen to highlight the fact that the social democratic consensus that has largely held firm in Nordic politics for decades is itself the product of ‘harsh polarisation and open struggle’ in the first half of the twentieth century. Only later, he notes, ‘did most Norwegians who resisted change realise that the change actually was a big improvement on the bad old days’.

Using an accessible Q&A format, in the final section Lakey addresses questions and criticisms about applying the Nordic Model to the US. It’s directed at people in the US but, like his thesis on what lies behind Norway’s political transformation, his answers and strategising generalise to the UK and our contemporary political strife.

He believes activists need to remember their own nation’s long history of people-powered change – from the civil rights movement to social security, LGBT rights and beyond. Moreover, he maintains it is important for movements to remember the well-known adage ‘The best defence is a good offence’.

For example, he criticises the post-financial-crash campaigns in the US for trying to protect previous gains instead of going on the offensive as people in the US did after the 1929 crash. With the US oligarchic electoral system rigged against progressive change, Lakey argues that people taking to the streets in large numbers could create the political space for real change, pointing to how people-power brought Iceland back from the brink after its 2008 crash. Finally he argues for the importance of a strong vision for a new society, ‘to project the contours of what a political economy could look like’ – of which his book is the perfect example.

Accessible and hopeful, Viking Economics is essential reading, providing ideas and inspiration for how the UK Left can maximise its power, moving forward to kick out the emboldened Tory government, boost Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral chances and win a progressive ‘People’s Brexit’. ‘Change requires hard work’, Lakey notes at the end. Or as the freed slave Frederick Douglass once said ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’

Viking Economics: how the Scandinavians got it right – and how we can, too is published by Melville House, priced £19.99.

 

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Spotlight on Saudi: interview with Medea Benjamin

Spotlight on Saudi: interview with Medea Benjamin
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2016-January 2017

Having become one of the most prominent US anti-war activists protesting against the US-led ‘war on terror’, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the group CODEPINK, has now turned her attention to her nation’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia.

‘I’ve been doing a lot of work around the Middle East conflicts since the 9/11 attacks’, Benjamin, 64, tells me when we met in London during her recent speaking tour of Europe. ‘I realised as the years went by that there was this elephant in the room and it was kind of crazy that the anti-war movement, at least in the United States, was not doing anything on Saudi Arabia’, she says. ‘I just thought how ironic it is that the US is spending at this point trillions of dollars fighting a “war on terrorism”, and yet is arming the country that is the most responsible for the spread of terrorism.’

The outcome is Benjamin’s new book Kingdom of The Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection, which charts the history of US ties to the absolute monarchy. A key moment was the 1945 meeting between US president Franklin D Roosevelt and Saudi king Abdul Aziz ibn Saud to agree US access to the kingdom’s vast oil supplies in return for military support. Since then, ‘one by one, US presidents promised to keep Saudi Islamist theocracy in power’, Benjamin notes in the book.

Buying silence

‘Oil is the foundation of the relationship, but it’s become much more complicated today’, she says, highlighting the ‘mindboggling’ $110bn of US arms sales to Saudi Arabia during the Obama administration. In addition, she notes, the Saudis ‘have invested in the US economy buying hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of US treasury bonds, and investing in Wall Street, investing in real estate’ and have ‘bought silence or complicity by giving millions of dollars to US universities and think-tanks and paid lobbyists’.

‘There is so much intertwining of this relationship that to start peeling away the layers is very important to do’, she believes.

Fearful of growing Iranian influence following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and buoyed by high oil prices, Saudi Arabia has spent huge sums of money exporting Wahhabism, their extremist version of Islam, across the Middle East. Madrassas (religious schools) and mosques were built and imams and teachers brought to the kingdom to be indoctrinated. ‘It has become such a potent mix and has corrupted the minds of a lot of young people who live in poor countries, who don’t have job opportunities, who are looking for some kind of outlet, something to believe in.’

As part of this mission, the Saudis – collaborating with the US central intelligence agency (CIA) – funnelled weapons to the armed resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, strengthening the most extreme jihadis, out of which came the Taliban and al-Qa’eda.

Benjamin personally experienced the consequences of this policy after the October 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan. ‘I was at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and I was told there was a rally against the Western invasion of Afghanistan’, she notes. ‘We were two Western women and when we got there we were attacked by the guys there and we had to get out for our lives because they were after us. I had never been in such a situation. I had always been able to talk to people and say: “Hey, I’m an anti-war activist in the US, I don’t like the invasion either.” And people said: “No, you can’t do that here because these are the Saudi-funded madrassas and they are really taught to hate people from the West.”’

The CIA’s role in arming the jihadis in Afghanistan in the 1980s was a covert operation – a cornerstone of the US-Saudi relationship, Benjamin says. ‘When the CIA has wanted to do illegal activities around the world and doesn’t want to go to the US congress, because they want these to be unseen and unheard by the American people, they go to the Saudis to get the funding.’

According to a January 2016 New York Times article, the CIA and Saudi Arabia continue to work closely together, arming the insurgency in Syria since 2013. ‘The US is selling all these weapons to Saudi Arabia; where do these weapons end up?’, she asks. ‘They are being channelled into groups that the Saudis are supporting in Syria, including the al-Qa’eda affiliate in Syria’.

Divest Saudi money

Turning to Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen, Benjamin quotes the Yemen Data Project, noting that one-third of Saudi airstrikes have struck civilian sites, including hospitals, schools, markets and weddings. ‘They are getting munitions from the West, they are getting the logistical support. The US is even refuelling their planes in the air’, she explains. With the Saudis unable to continue their air campaign without US and UK support, Benjamin believes the peace movements in the US and UK have a great opportunity to exert pressure on the kingdom. How? ‘The number one thing is weapons. Look and see who is providing the weapons, what weapons are they providing, starting to do protests at the headquarters and the production facilities. We are even looking to see where the shipments are going out of and seeing if we could block the shipments.’

She also suggests ‘shaming the political figures who are supporting the weapons sales… doing a divestment campaign to get universities and pension funds to take their money out of the weapons industries that are profiting from Saudi sales’ and ‘looking at the places that received Saudi money, like universities, and asking them to renounce taking Saudi money.’

During our interview in September, Benjamin mistakenly predicted a Hillary Clinton victory in the US presidential election. However, though she says Donald Trump in the White House would be ‘a wild card’, she expects ‘there will be a continuity of the present relationship’ between the US and Saudi Arabia. ‘There is a certain momentum that the military-industrial complex keeps in motion no matter who is in the White House… it’s bigger than one individual.’ She is also hopeful there will ‘be much more of a possibility of building up an anti-war movement like we had under the Bush years’. Presuming a president Clinton, she argued that nobody had any illusions about her ‘being a peace candidate or a peace president, so I don’t think it is going to be so hard to get people to protest her policies.’ This, of course, applies even more so to Trump.

Medea Benjamin is the author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection, OR Books 2016, 246pp, £13.

 

The Granai massacre: interview with Guy Smallman

The Granai massacre: interview with Guy Smallman
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
August 2009

On 4 May 2009 the US bombed the village of Granai in Farah Province, Afghanistan killing 140 civilians according to the Afghanistan Government, including approximately 90 children. It was the single largest loss of life caused by US/NATO forces since the 2001 invasion. President Hamid Karzai denounced the air strikes as “unjustifiable and unacceptable”, hundreds of people demonstrated in Kabul, and in Farah City there was a riot outside the governor’s office and traders closed their shops in protest.

The US military initially claimed the civilians were killed by grenades hurled by Taliban fighters. These baseless assertions were shown to be false by eyewitness accounts, and quickly withdrawn. The US military has since published a 13-page report, estimating that 20-30 civilians died in the bombing along with 60-65 Taliban fighters. The investigation conceded errors had been made in the military operation, but did not call anybody to account or apportion blame, and, importantly, did not “recommend the curtailment of close air support.”

In contrast to the findings of the US military’s investigation is the testimony of British photojournalist Guy Smallman, the only western journalist to visit the site of the air strikes. Back in London after visiting Granai in late May, Smallman – an experienced journalist who has previously reported from Iraq, Lebanon and the social movements in Bolivia and the factory occupations in Argentina – spoke to me about the events of 4 May.

With Granai and the surrounding area in western Afghanistan “pretty much controlled by the Taliban” the 37-year old photographer explains that it was “very risky” for him to photograph the bomb sites. “I was taken there by a couple of local people at a certain time when they thought the Taliban were less likely to be around”, he says. “I was dressed as a local and my face was covered and I was wearing sunglasses. I was told to take the photos and keep my mouth shut. My translator did all the talking.”

By combining the evidence he gathered on his trip to the village (he photographed the bomb sites and cemetery and spoke to several locals) with an indepth interview with a village elder, media reports and the US military investigation, Smallman has built up a detailed picture of what happened in Granai on 4 May.

Most accounts of the bombing start with the battle between Taliban insurgents and the Afghan government forces that took place “about three kilometres from the village” along the main road all afternoon, Smallman says. Pinned down by the Taliban the Afghan government troops called for US assistance, and ground troops and close air support were dispatched. Early news accounts and the US military reported that fighting had taken place in Granai with the Taliban firing from civilian compounds. Smallman says this is “absolute bullshit” – the villagers he spoke to insisted the Taliban never entered the village. “We walked the length and breadth of that village… we never saw a single bullet hole or single shell casing anywhere.”

The bombing – carried out by a B-1B bomber – started at least an hour after the end of the fighting. “From the villagers’ point of view they didn’t have a clue what was going on”, says Smallman. “As far as they were concerned there was no reason for their village to be bombed.” He notes there were two concentrations of air strikes in Granai, the first outside a mosque where a crowd had gathered after evening prayers. “You could see that trees were snapped in two by the bombs, so you can only imagine what happened to the people there”, he says about photographing the bomb site.

Understandably this air strike produced “blind panic” among the villagers, with the elderly, women and children evacuated to a compound at the far end of the settlement. “A single 2000lb bomb was then dropped in to the middle of them”, reports Smallman. “That was where there was the biggest loss of life. That is why the number of children killed was so high. A 2000lb bomb vaporises literally everything at its epicentre”. During his visit to Granai, Smallman says he was saddened to see a mass grave in the cemetery with the remains of 54 people. “The reason they are buried together – which is very out of keeping with Muslim tradition – was because they were all in pieces, and it was impossible to tell who was who.”

Smallman is keen to highlight the absurdity of the US investigation’s claim that the civilians targeted were “moving in a tactical manner – definitively and rapidly in evenly spaced intervals across difficult terrain” in the dark. “This is bullshit – the Taliban are not renowned for their marching or drilling. They are guerrilla fighters.” He also argues the US estimate of the number of civilian dead is “way off the mark”. He agrees the exact number will never be known, but believes the best estimate to be 140 civilian deaths – a figure supported by the Afghan Government, the Red Cross and the villagers themselves. Smallman does not believe the US military deliberately targetted civilians in Granai – “they’ve got nothing to gain from this and everything to lose” – but he contends it should be investigated as a war crime. “What has happened so far is the US military has investigated itself, and found itself not guilty.”

Smallman points out the US/NATO occupation forces in Afghanistan are caught in a Catch-22. “If they take away the air support then they would immediately level the playing field between their troops and a very determined enemy fighting on their own turf. The NATO casualty rate would soar.” However, if they continue using air strikes he believes “civilian casualties are absolutely inevitable” and “every time an innocent dies it brings money and recruits to the Taliban.”

So what prospects does Smallman see for Afghanistan‘s future? “Would things be any better if the troops were pulled out?” he asks rhetorically. “It is hard to imagine that things could be any worse. Certainly the occupation is not working – it is a magnet for every jihadist headcase on the planet.”

By documenting the attacks on Granai on 4 May, Smallman has done a great service for those who wish to know the truth about the US/NATO occupation of Afghanistan. However, due to the danger to himself and his contacts in Afghanistan, he says he is unlikely to return to Afghanistan this year. “I don’t particularly want to push my luck – I‘ve been there three times already”, he says. “It is the maddest place I’ve ever been too, bar none.” The question of safety is hugely important because, as Smallman explains, if independent journalists can not gain access, then the US military is better able to control the information flowing from the battlefield. “How many more massacres have gone completely uninvestigated because the slaughter has been off-limits to the press?”

Meeting the Iraqi resistance: interview with Steve Connors

Meeting the Iraqi resistance: interview with Steve Connors
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
February 2009

With several academic studies now published on the subject and public apologies from the two most influential US newspapers, it is now widely understood that in the run up to the invasion of Iraq the mainstream media completely failed to hold government to account on both sides of the Atlantic. As Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post news website accurately pointed out, the “watchdogs acted more like lapdogs”.

Less talked about is the mainstream media‘s subsequent failure to accurately report on the continuing occupation of Iraq, in particular the large, violent resistance that sprang up after the initial US/UK assault in March 2003.

Sheffield-born photojournalist and filmmaker Steve Connors believes most western journalists working alongside him in Iraq just after the fall of Baghdad “weren‘t all that interested in going out and doing this story” because they had “swallowed the party line – we are the good guys, they are the bad guys. The people who are resisting us are dead-enders, it was foreign fighters.” Connors, 50, explains the right to resist is enshrined in the UN Charter, but “when we go and invade somebody‘s country all of a sudden their right to resist is not legitimate in our eyes.”

Working closely with fellow journalist Molly Bingham, Connors soon came to understand it was “ordinary Iraqi people” who were resisting the occupation. Sensing an important story, they started hanging out in the teashops of Adhamiya, a northern suburb of Baghdad, spending ten months speaking to 45 Iraqis involved in the growing resistance movement.

Eleven of these interviews make up Connors and Bingham‘s superb 2007 documentary Meeting Resistance, a much-needed antidote to the crude propaganda that has been disseminated about those resisting the occupation. In the middle of conducting a statistical study of the resistance, a Professor of Political Science at Baghdad University sums up the film‘s main findings: “the vast majority of resistance is a nationalist, popular resistance by Iraqis who have no relationship to the former regime.”

Talking to me at a screening of the film at the British Museum in London, Connors suggests the inconvenient truths they uncovered in Adhamiya are the main reason why they‘ve been unable to get their work out to a wider audience. Both the BBC and Channel Four declined to show the documentary, with the latter refusing to “believe these people were who they said they were.” Despite this setback, Connors is upbeat as joiningthedocs.tv are releasing Meeting Resistance on DVD next month, and there will hopefully be a limited theatrical release in the near future too.

With the interviews occurring more than four years ago, is Meeting Resistance still relevant to the situation in Iraq today? “There were more attacks in 2008 than there were when we finished making the film”, Connors replies. “It peaked and then it went down again.” He also quotes Department of Defence figures off the top of his head: “from May 2003 to May 2008, 73 per cent of attacks that were carried out in Iraq were directed at US forces. 12 per cent against civilians. 15 per cent against Iraqi security forces. So the main violent energy is being directed at the occupation.”

The spike Connors refers to is the much heralded February 2007 US ‘surge‘, seen by many commentators and politicians as a huge success, including the new US president Barack Obama. In contrast, Connors argues the ‘surge‘ itself did little to reduce the overall levels of violence. “It was a set of political conditions that happened at the same time as the surge”, he explains. “You had the Mahdi Army standing down, there was a sectarian cleansing of districts of Baghdad – there was nobody left to kill.” He also points to the creation of the Awakening Movement, presented as a successful counterinsurgency operation by the US forces, as it supposedly increased security in Anbar province, “What they have done essentially is chosen elements from some tribes and promoted them over other elements, upsetting a system that is hundreds of years old”, he says.  “I liken it to handing over Scotland Yard to the Kray twins. For a short-term tactical gain there is going to be a huge price to be paid for this. They are creating the conditions for another civil war, this time among the Sunni tribes.” And Connors attributes the reduction in violence to one more glaring factor – “the Americans started to withdraw in that period, so they were not presenting targets.”

Although he has previously reported from Sri Lanka, the violent break up of Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Israel/Palestine, Connors is still shocked by the “state of chaos” in Iraq, the dire security situation making it very difficult to accurately estimate the number of Iraqi dead. He believes the Iraq Body Count figure of around 100,000 – calculated from cross-checked reports of violent deaths in English language media – is a gross underestimate, noting that in Iraq “especially in the summer, you can have someone killed and buried within two hours. There is no report of that death. Most people don‘t go to the morgue.” And although the 2006 Lancet study that estimated 655,000 Iraqis deaths has been criticised by both the US and UK governments, Connors highlights that the epidemiological studies upon which the figures are based “have been accepted in virtually every other conflict throughout the world”.

“The reason we find it so difficult to accept, is because we are the bad guys this time.  We have caused all this pain and suffering”, he says.

Rather than arguing over the exact number deaths, Connors is quick to point out the central question “is the magnitude of the crime is the crime itself – and everything accrues from that. If you go back to the Nuremberg Principles, to commit aggressive war is the supreme crime. And what we did in Iraq is we committed aggressive war.”  Summing up, he laments, “Britain is as guilty as the United States. We are on the wrong side of history.”

www.meetingresistance.com

Understanding the Taliban insurgency: interview with Dr Antonio Giustozzi

Understanding the Taliban insurgency: interview with Dr Antonio Giustozzi
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
December 2009

In the introduction of his new book Decoding the New Taliban. Insights from the Afghan Field, Dr Antonio Giustozzi argues the public debate surrounding Afghanistan has been “dominated by superficial or plainly wrong assumptions.”

In an attempt to gain a better understanding of those violently resisting British and NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, I recently spoke with Giustozzi at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he works as a research fellow in the Crisis States Research Centre.

Since 2003 the 43-year old Italian academic has visited Afghanistan about three times a year every year, including twelve months working for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. This extensive fieldwork informed his 2007 book Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan and his new study – two academic volumes that have made him the foremost expert on the Taliban working in the UK today.

Giustozzi uses the term “neo-Taliban” or “new-Taliban” to refer to the Taliban who has been operating in Afghanistan since the US/NATO invasion and occupation in October 2001. “It has the same leadership”, he notes, but it is now “an insurgent force – essentially an underground operation.”

In southern Afghanistan, an area dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, the Taliban and the insurgency are essentially synonymous, he says. From 2001 to 2006, he explains the Taliban largely consisted of small groups of young, hardcore fighters based in remote, rural areas. “By and large there was a certain correspondence between clerical influence and the spread of the Taliban, for the obvious reason that during the Taliban government they were in power”, he says. “The judiciary was totally clericalised. Education was largely clerical. All the governors and ministers were Mullahs.” In areas where state education has been traditionally weak, such as the south, Giustozzi notes “the Taliban and clergy have been proportionally stronger.”

He estimates that between 10-15 percent of Afghans are linked to the clergy directly. “On top of this there are the people who are not Mullahs themselves but are very religious and likely to be influenced by the clergy”, he adds.

From this core base, the Taliban were able to gain additional support from marginalised people dissatisfied with or opposed to the Government presence in their community, and through a gradual process of Talibanisation. “If the Taliban had been in a community a long time, the Taliban fighters would marry local girls, and the Taliban themselves would actively eliminate elders they didn’t trust”.

However, Giustozzi sees the large-scale NATO deployment to the south in 2006 (the British to Helmand, the Canadians to Kandahar and the Dutch and Australians to Oruzgan) as “a turning point” in the conflict.

“Up to 2006 Helmand was not a stronghold of the Taliban”, he notes. “They were not able to fight openly. Then from 2006 there was a major upsurge in resistance against the British.” This resistance “was crushed” by the British forces, with thousands of Taliban fighters dying. However, Giustozzi says if you look at the fighting from the Taliban’s perspective “it gave an impression, not only in Helmand but throughout the country, of popular mobilisation, a people’s war against the British. Whole communities rising up.” In addition the large number of Taliban casualties meant whole “communities got disrupted and destroyed and people – particularly young men – were on the loose. These people become recruitable by the Taliban as core fighters.”

Similarly Giustozzi believes what has become known as The Battle of Pashmul was another example of what he calls the ‘Tet Offensive effect’ – when a superior military force is successful on the battlefield, but loses the propaganda war. Engaging a large Taliban force in the vineyards just outside Kandahar in summer 2006, the newly-arrived Canadian troops inflicted a heavy defeat on the Taliban. But, as Giustozzi explains, “in terms of perceptions it showed the Taliban were able to fight against NATO with all its power on open ground near Kandahar, and showed they were no longer a marginal movement but a big force to be reckoned with.” Just like the British experience in Helmand, this propaganda success “started to have a big effect in terms of recruitment, and opened new constituencies to Taliban influence”, he says.

Regarding President Obama ordering of an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan, Giustozzi argues the “numbers don’t mean much.”

“It depends how they use the troops”, he says. “If the troops stay in the barracks it won’t have any effect.” However, if the US soldiers engage the Taliban – and the fighting is “indecisive, protracted and creates destruction” – he contends this is likely to have “a destabilising impact, certainly at the beginning. Also it produces extremists.”

Giustozzi’s description of growing support for the Taliban and his belief that between 60,000 and 70,000 Afghans are now actively involved in the insurgency jars uneasily with the dominant narrative in the West of the Taliban being very unpopular. In particular I ask him about the 2009 BBC/ABC opinion poll conducted in Afghanistan that puts support for the Taliban at around 9 percent and support for the Government at 65 percent.

“The 9 percent is an underestimate”, he replies. Having studied the methodology of previous BBC/ABC polls, he explains it is very unlikely the polling staff travelled to the rural areas in the south (“where the Taliban are”), instead focusing on the cities and provincial centres. “The sampling is very, very biased.. there are very few unemployed people, whereas even the Government says unemployment is 40 percent. In the poll 5 percent were police and army, whereas in Afghanistan the actual percentage of the population in the army and police is 0.2 percent. 14 percent were managers and directors. There were no Mullahs.” If the sampling was balanced, he estimates the Taliban would get around 15 percent support nationwide, and between 30-40 percent support in the south.

Interestingly, Giustozzi mentions that he has seen polls conducted by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) which use different methodologies and get very different results – much higher support for the Taliban and much lower support for the Government. “In ISAF polls in early 2009 support for [Afghan President] Karzai was 4 percent”, he reports. “They don’t release them, of course, because they show a completely different picture.”

After spending more than an hour speaking to Giustozzi, I certainly learned a lot, but couldn’t tell you what he personally thinks about the war in Afghanistan. Such is the nature of academic analysis, with its emphasis on objective and detached thinking, I suppose. Throughout the interview he continually highlights the contradictory nature of Afghanistan and the current war, and rarely provides blanket answers. Instead he chooses to highlight the importance of local factors, such as power struggles and individual self-interest, and bureaucratic explanations. Moreover, I am happy to concede this article has significantly simplified and shortened his often complex arguments.

However, there is no doubt Giustozzi’s careful and considered analysis – best encountered in his two academic books – is an essential stop for those interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the continuing British involvement in Afghanistan.

Decoding the New Taliban. Insights from the Afghan Field is published by C Hurst & Co, priced £16.99.

Hollywood at war: interview with Matthew Alford

Hollywood at war: interview with Matthew Alford
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
November 2011

Last year Matthew Alford published Reel Power: Hollywood cinema and American supremacy (Pluto Press), an analysis of mainstream US cinema’s representation of US foreign policy since 9/11. He discussed his book with Ian Sinclair for Peace News at the Rebellious Media Conference.


PN: What is the main argument of Reel Power?

MA: That Hollywood films which depict American foreign policy have a very strong tendency to support notions of American “exceptionalism” and almost never criticise it at a serious level.

PN: Why do the vast majority of Hollywood films routinely promote the United States as a benevolent force in world affairs and support the foreign policy of the US government?

MA: Hollywood is a corporate media system akin to the news in that it is ostensibly free but nevertheless directed by strong factors that determine a pro-establishment line. These factors are: the concentrated ownership within Hollywood, which is owned by the same parent companies that own the news media; the prevalence of product placement and the general commercialised feel; the influence of the department of defence and the CIA, and the fact that if filmmakers do push radical political positions they tend to cause themselves a lot of problems (the Jane Fonda effect). Then there is the pervading ideology which says there is an “us” and “them”, that America is good and benevolent, with enemies throughout the world.

PN: How do you respond to the argument that Hollywood is simply giving audiences what they want?

MA: Hollywood corporations provide what they think audiences will accept. But would audiences feel the same way if they were to see at the beginning of the credits for Transformers (2007-11) or Terminator Salvation (2009) or Battle: Los Angeles (2011) “This film was made with the cooperation of the department of defense”? I suspect not.

PN: In Reel Power you highlight some films such as Redacted (2007), Syriana (2005) and Avatar (2009) that are, to a degree, critical of US foreign policy. How do you explain these films being made within corporate Hollywood? What makes them different?

MA: There are special cases which do come up and that’s because Hollywood is a free system. There is no one censorship body saying you must not produce political films which attack American exceptionalism. So a film like Avatar did get through, largely because of the enormous power that [Avatar director] James Cameron wielded through his reputation for making very profitable movies. Typically, though, such ideas slip through in films like Redacted and War, Inc (2008), which are made on low budgets and tend to be distributed very poorly. To take another case, Disney was very unhappy about the political content of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). We don’t quite know why. It might have been due to the general political edginess of it. Others suggest it was because it looked at the relationship between the US and the Saudis. Disney prevented their subsidiary from distributing the film, which was a big move to make for one $10 million documentary movie.

PN: Are there any historical periods in which more critical and questioning Hollywood films have been produced?

MA: Yes, in the immediate aftermath of World War One, there was a general feeling of anti-militarism which was reflected in Hollywood. Perhaps most famous was All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which provoked the Nazis in Germany to release rats in cinemas. Also to some degree in the 1970s there was an opening up of creativity prior to the big parent companies coming in and buying up Hollywood. This was the era of Apocalypse Now (1979), The Deer Hunter (1978) and Taxi Driver (1976). But even these films have to come with an asterisk attached. The Deer Hunter is widely seen as a great anti-war film but it still has really vicious representations of the Vietnamese. Do you remember the Russian roulette scene? Well the filmmakers just made that up. And although war was depicted negatively it was the American invaders who were suffering.

PN: Reel Power focuses on American movies and American foreign policy. Could your analysis be applied to British cinema and British foreign policy?

MA: When it matters to the powers that be, yes. So Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965) docudrama, that “recreated” a nuclear war, was banned by the BBC for twenty years. Or go back to the early days of cinema and consider the film biopic The Life of David Lloyd George (1918), which was bought and suppressed by someone in the Liberal Party and found in mint condition eighty years later (Lloyd George was the wartime British prime minister). However, it’s worth pointing out that Hollywood is uniquely open to military influence because its filmmakers frequently need the assistance of the armed forces, due to the traditional emphasis on high-budget, action-packed blockbusters.

PN: What can concerned citizens and activists do to encourage films that are critical of US foreign policy?

MA: I think we should be primarily concerned about criticising films that encourage US foreign policy, rather than the other way around. We should actively oppose the most egregious, corporate-led, CIA/department of defense-backed movies through protest, boycott and criticism. If people also want to encourage anti-war films, then yes, that’s fine – they can make them and they can distribute them fairly easily through the web. One of the things that came out of the session [at the Rebellious Media Conference] was a whole range of activist ideas from the audience. For example, people were talking about calling up their local cinema to encourage certain films to be put on there. And, yes, I think if people are actively engaged in film rather than being passive consumers that will usually result in better products.

The ideology of masculinity: interview with Michael Kimmel

The ideology of masculinity: interview with Michael Kimmel
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
February 2012

Today Michael Kimmel is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York and probably the biggest name in the academic discipline of Men’s Studies. However, over thirty years ago he completed a PhD on seventeenth century British and French tax policy. How did he get from the potentially sleep-inducing latter to the former?

“My scholarship begins with my position as an activist”, the 60-year old American academic tells me as we sit in the breakfast room of his hotel in central London. In town to give a lecture at the London School of Economics about his new book, Kimmel explains his partner had started working at a battered women’s shelter. “I had led a very kind of protected life as a suburban boy. I really had no idea about men’s violence against women until I began to hear the stories that she was telling me, and meet the women she was talking about.” After hearing Kimmel give a speech at a Reclaim the Night rally on why men should take responsibility for the violence women face, a student suggested he teach a course on masculinity. Visiting the library to compile the course reading list he found “shelves and shelves of books on women – this is thirty years ago – and nothing on men. Nothing on men as men. There is plenty of biographies of great men in history but rarely do you find them talking about masculinity.” To fill this scholarly hole he developed his own programme of research – “I needed to write the books I needed to read” – to run alongside the first ever course on men in the state of New Jersey.

How would Kimmel define Men’s Studies? “For me the point of masculinity studies is to talk about how does gender shape men’s lives”, he replies. “How does the ideology of masculinity shape men’s lives? How does masculinity, the idea of being a man, effect our behaviour, our relationships, our work lives, our relations with our friends, with our children?” He elaborates: “The critical study of masculinities is an effort to use the theoretical tools that had been developed, for example, by critical race theory, queer theory, feminist theory, to talk about men’s lives. It is in the same kind of arena as talking about whiteness. How do you mark the unmarked? How do you talk about the centre?”

He argues there are many different types of masculinity. Nevertheless, after conducting workshops with young men in 49 of the 50 US states and in the UK, he maintains American and British men generally have similar views about what it means to be a man: “Don’t show your feelings, don’t cry, be stoic, succeed, be responsible, be powerful, be strong, get rich, get laid… Don’t ever do anything that is feminine, don’t ever be weak, don’t ask for directions.”

Defined and maintained through, among other things, socialisation, mainstream media images and sports (“The locker room is the last preserve of the all male world”), Kimmel believes the dominant form of masculinity seriously impoverishes men’s lives. “The thing that holds men back from having the relationships we say we want with our partners, with our friends, with our wives, with our kids, is the behaviour and attitudes of other men”, he says. “Which is to say the ideology of masculinity.” And it also damages women’s lives. “Every study of the advancement of women in the public sphere finds the thing that holds women back is the behaviour and attitudes of men.”

In an attempt to get more men thinking about gender and feminism, Kimmel has co-authored The Guy’s Guide to Feminism with Michael Kaufman. Made up of jokes, skits, fake interviews and short essays it is a consciously popular and accessible A-Z of feminism. “If you are looking at this as the great treatise on men and feminism, it is assuredly not that”, he says. “If you are looking for it as a way to help men start the conversation, that’s what it is. It’s an ice-breaker.”

The book is also an implicit attempt to rectify the “concerted effort by large numbers of groups to delegitimate feminism”, a backlash which has severely distorted the debate over the past thirty years. Cutting through the misinformation, Kimmel insists feminism boils down to two basic points: “One empirical observation and one moral position.” First the empirical observation: “Women and men aren’t equal. If you look at parliament, or every legislature in the country, the board of every corporation, the board of trustees at every university, you would probably come to the conclusion women and men aren’t equal.” Now the moral position: “They should be equal. That’s all. Inequality is wrong. If you share that empirical observation and take that moral position then you support feminism.”

Those who resist feminism “believe that gender is a zero-sum game”, Kimmel notes. “That as women gain, men will lose. As long as you believe it’s a zero-sum game you are not going to support it because it is not in your interest.” In contrast, Kimmel argues that feminism is good not just for women but men too. “Despite this ideology that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, that there is a war between the sexes, if they win we lose, the actual empirical evidence about gender equality shows that the more equal you are with your partners, with your friends, the happier you are.”

When I ask Kimmel what steps concerned men can take, he replies that the younger generation’s lived experience of work, family and friendship means it “is going to be more gender equal than any generation ever.” A self-professed member of the When Harry Met Sally generation where women and men couldn’t be friends, Kimmel notes every young person today has a good cross-sex friend. All of the 400 young men he interviewed for his 2008 book Guyland accepted that a female partner should have a career. And all accepted that men should take an active role in raising children. For Kimmel these social changes point the way forward. “You already know the answer. You don’t need me to tell you. You are living it. The question for you is how do you apply it in every arena of your life.”

Just like the book, Kimmel’s arguments in person are inclusive and persuasive. I find myself nodding along a lot. One can imagine many young men being deeply affected after taking one of his classes. Indeed, his use of the plural “you” during the interview is occasionally confusing. So when he looks me in the eye when discussing advertising and says “When you are that anxious about proving your masculinity when you have to worry about the cola you are drinking… Let’s talk about this. Why are you so anxious?” I feel close to breaking down and blabbing “It was all my father’s fault!”

More seriously, something that is never made explicit enough for this interviewer – in both the book and this interview – is whether Kimmel thinks it is an errant, minority form of masculinity or the normal, socially accepted masculinity that is the central problem? With Kimmel agreeing that around 1 in 4 American women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, it seems likely he leans towards the latter. Or take this fact that appeared in The Guardian recently: 81% of speeding offences are committed by men. If the problem is indeed ‘normal masculinity’, the implications for individual men and women, parents and wider society are enormous, it seems to me.

The Guys Guide to Feminism is published by Seal Press, priced £10.99.