Category Archives: Protest/activism

Book review: Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis by George Paxton

Book review: Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis by George Paxton
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2017

“But what about Nazi Germany?” No doubt many Peace News readers have been asked this question when they have voiced support for nonviolence outside activist circles.

Summarising a range of published material, George Paxton shows that nonviolent resistance to Adolf Hitler’s government was widespread. And though it is often poorly referenced and somewhat repetitive, Nonviolence Resistance to the Nazis feels like one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time.

From underground newspapers, open letters, graffiti, socially ostracising the occupiers, to slow working, boycotts and hiding and rescuing Jews, Paxton sets out what is effectively secret history in a culture that reveres the violent struggle against Nazi Germany. Who knew, for example, that on the first day Copenhagen was occupied handwritten leaflets appeared on the streets, titled ‘Ten Commandments for Passive Resistance’?

In the book’s middle section Paxton zeros in on case studies of resistance, such as the extraordinary White Rose Group. Active in Munich in the 1940s, this secret band of young people printed thousands of anti-Nazi leaflets and distributed them throughout Germany – often travelling to other cities to post them on to avoid detection.

Though they worked under an extremely repressive state, individuals, groups and populations were able to win some limited successes – highlighting the fact the Nazi leadership was not all powerful, but often compromised for political reasons. In Denmark nearly all of the Jewish population were rescued from the Holocaust, while a 1941 strike in France against food shortages involving 100,000 miners won more food coupons. In Berlin in 1943 the non-Jewish wives of Jews protested in the street over the threatened deportation of their husbands. Though the Gestapo HQ was close by “they did not act against the women fearing that the protests might spread”, notes Paxton, and the deportations were suspended.

Citing French historian Jacques Semelin, Paxton argues a number of factors increased the chances of success: a united front by the occupied populace, strong democratic traditions and grassroots organisations, a belief in tolerance and a good source of money and food. Like nonviolence guru Gene Sharp (PN 2543), Paxton, who is a Trustee of the Gandhi Foundation, believes that nonviolent resistance would have been most effective against Nazi Germany if it had been deployed at the earliest stage possible.

A goldmine of information, fascinating stories and inspiration for peace activists, Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis deserves a wide readership.

Working to stop the war in Yemen: Interview with peace activist Sam Walton

Working to stop the war in Yemen: Interview with peace activist Sam Walton
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
11 April 2017

On 3 April 2017 Sam Walton made headlines when he attempted to carry out a citizen’s arrest of Saudi Arabian Major General Ahmed al-Asiri in London.

Walton, a British Quaker activist, explained the reasoning behind his actions to Ian Sinclair.

Ian Sinclair: Why did you attempt a citizen’s arrest of Major General Ahmed al-Asiri?

Sam Walton: Al-Asiri is a senior adviser and spokesperson for a regime that routinely carries out executions, locks up journalists and tortures dissenters. It’s a regime that would never allow the kind of protest I took part in, let alone allow the publication of an article like this.

Al-Asiri is the frontman for the Saudi military and a spokesperson for the terrible bombardment of Yemen. The bombing has lasted for over two years now, destroying vital infrastructure and killing thousands of civilians. In that time, Saudi forces have flouted international humanitarian law and shown a total contempt for human rights.

Last year, a leaked UN expert panel report into the war reported widespread and systematic attacks on civilian targets, as well as starvation being used as a weapon of war. The punishment has been indiscriminate. One month after the UN report, al-Asiri told Reuters, “Now our rules of engagement are: you are close to the border, you are killed.”

Saudi forces haven’t just shown a total disregard for international law and human rights, but also for the truth. In November 2016 al-Asiri told ITV that Saudi forces had not been using cluster bombs in Yemen, only for the UK parliament to later admit that they had.

It’s a sign of how warped Whitehall’s priorities are when a man like al-Asiri, a senior adviser to one of the most brutal and oppressive regimes in the world, can be welcomed and invited to meet with MPs and whitewash his crimes to prestigious think-tanks. If real justice is to be done, then governments like the UK’s need to stop putting arms sales ahead of human rights and call for people like al-Asiri to be arrested and investigated for war crimes.

IS: Al-Asiri was in London when you tried to arrest him. Does the UK bear some responsibility for Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen?

SW: The UK’s complicity in the destruction has been so absolute that it only made me more determined to stop the General. How could I ignore him when the government of the country I live in has offered political and military support for the appalling war that he and his colleagues have waged?

In fact, it’s not just been supportive – it’s played an utterly central role. Data compiled by Campaign Against Arms Trade shows that the UK has licensed over £3bn worth of arms to the Saudi regime since the bombing began. These include many of the fighter jets flying over Yemen and the bombs falling from the sky.

The impact of the bombing has been devastating. There are already 17 million people in Yemen that are food insecure and need humanitarian intervention – how much worse does it have to get before the UK finally does the right thing and stops fuelling their suffering?

I’ve been frustrated for a long time about this, and have tried pretty much everything to stop my country arming Saudi Arabia. That’s why a couple of months ago I broke into BAE’s Warton base to try and physically disarm the Saudi warplanes we are making and servicing that are being used in crimes against humanity in Yemen.

IS: Can you talk a little about the planning and preparation that went into the action?

SW: There was barely any planning at all – we had very little notice of where al-Asiri was going to be or when. It was simply a group of people with a high level of trust using our different expertise and skills to make this happen.

IS: Some people dismiss activism as something that doesn’t make a difference, arguing that “nothing ever changes”. However, your action seems to have made a big impact already?

SW: As I’m sure you’ve seen on the internet, some people are wrong.

The Saudis have a contempt for democracy and get very upset by any form of protest against them. It’s frankly pathetic that the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to grovel an apology for the incident. He should have defended our democratic protest and demanded an apology for al-Asiri’s guards interrupting the citizen’s arrest. His behaviour does show our government’s dedication to pursuing arms sales at the expense of the rule of law, human rights and ultimately the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding in Yemen right now – driven primarily by a Saudi bombardment using British weapons. What is amusing is that we wouldn’t have known about Boris’ apology if the Saudi’s weren’t so thin skinned and press released it in a desperate attempt to save face.

We’ve helped to trigger a very serious legal process – the Metropolitan Police’s War Crimes Unit looking into the allegations of war crimes. Something that could lead to al-Asiri being questioned or even arrested if he sets foot in the UK again. Of course political interference from upon high will mean ultimately that goes nowhere. But that too has a cost for the government and arms trade when it comes to the legitimacy and the social license it needs to operate.

Not only that but it’s put a dampener on Theresa May’s trip to Saudi Arabia – a trip with a primary purpose of securing more arms sales. Royals and ministers have been visiting Saudi Arabia for decades to flog arms, but I can’t remember a visit where they have had anything like this level of opposition to it. It was not public that the Prime Minister was off to Saudi when the action happened – it turns out al-Asiri’s presence in the UK was designed to whitewash Saudi’s crimes in Yemen. Our action meant al-Asiri’s trip to the UK had the opposite effect – it framed the media agenda into one about Saudi war crimes and British complicity in them.

All in all we’ve caused a diplomatic incident, made the British Foreign Secretary apologise, disrupted the core purpose of a Prime Ministerial visit, and made news headlines across the world criticising the Saudi bombardment of Yemen and British arms sales to them. Not bad work for a couple of hours work from less than a dozen people.

IS: Beyond attempting a citizen arrest of Saudi Arabian government officials visiting the UK, what other action do you suggest people concerned about the continuing war in Yemen could take?

SW: It’s important that we protest any official Saudi government presence in the UK at the moment since 2.2 million children are in danger of starvation because of their actions in the Yemen. If you see them coming, get some people together and make a scene. This is particularly effective because they hate hate hate protest and, because they can’t lock you up and torture you as they would do in Saudi, just don’t know how to deal with it.

In the absence of a Saudi presence in your vicinity, Campaign Against Arms Trade have a wonderful set of ideas of what you can do about Britain’s out of control arms sales. They are currently organising opposition to DSEI – one if not the biggest arms fairs in the world which is coming to London in September. Get involved!

More broadly I think one of the secrets to a happy life is asking yourself how can your gifts be used to make a better world. The answers can be pretty broad! But acting on them always brings joy in my experience.

Follow Sam Walton on Twitter @samwalton.

Patriarchy and radical feminism: an interview with Robert Jensen

Patriarchy and radical feminism: an interview with Robert Jensen
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News blog
13 March 2017

Robert Jensen, Professor of Journalism at the University of Texas, has a long history of activism focusing on US foreign policy, journalism, climate change and pornography.

Ian Sinclair spoke to Jensen about his new book The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, published by Spinifex Press.

Ian Sinclair: How does radical feminism differ from other forms of feminism?

Robert Jensen: First, by radical feminism I mean the understanding that men’s subordination of women is a product of patriarchy and that the ultimate goal of feminism is the end of patriarchy’s gender system, not merely liberal accommodation with the system. Second, radical feminism is central to the larger problem of hierarchy and the domination/subordination dynamics in other arenas of human life; while not sufficient by itself, the end of patriarchy is a necessary condition for liberation more generally.

Because the core of patriarchy is men’s claim to control—even to own—women’s bodies, particularly women’s reproductive power and sexuality, radical feminism puts at the core women’s reproductive rights and the end of men’s sexual exploitation of women. In practice, this has meant that radical feminists have sought the abolition of the sexual-exploitation industries of prostitution and pornography, the ways that men routinely buy and sell objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure. That’s one of the most contentious issues within feminism, and liberal/postmodern feminists often don’t share that analysis of those industries.

IS: What is patriarchy?

RJ: The term describes various systems of institutionalized male dominance, with a history going back several thousand years. The sociologist Allan Johnson suggests that a society is patriarchal “to the degree that it promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered.” I quote the historian Judith Bennett, who points out that “Almost every girl born today will face more constraints and restrictions than will be encountered by a boy who is born today into the same social circumstances as that girl.” That recognizes that all men are not always dominating all women—obviously other forms of power affect life outcomes—but women face obstacles and threats that men in similar circumstances do not face.

IS: Who benefits from patriarchy?

RJ: In some ways, all men benefit in short-term material ways from being a member of the dominant sex class, though of course the fate of men depends on those other factors, such as race and class. And in patriarchy, as in any system of power, some members of the subordinated class find ways to serve the system of power. But as a man, I focus on the responsibilities of men to challenge patriarchy, and if we can see past our own short-term interests I believe it’s in men’s interests to embrace radical feminism to move toward a fuller and richer sense of our own humanity.

IS: How is patriarchy maintained?

RJ: In various times and places, the women’s movement has been successful at eliminating the formal, legal rules that upheld patriarchy, though those struggles continue. But the cultural norms that support patriarchy, such as the assumption that women will present themselves as sexual objects for men’s pleasure, have proved to be tenacious. And, of course, the struggles to ensure women’s reproductive rights and to hold men accountable for sexual violence continue, and victories won are not necessarily permanent.

Patriarchy has conservative and liberal forms. Conservative men typically want to give fathers and husbands control over daughters and wives. Liberal men often want to maximize their access to as many women as possible. Religion and pop culture play a role. Like any other system of power, patriarchy is complex and changes over time, differing around the world. In my writing, I focus on the society I’m part of: the United States in the last half of the 20th and first part of the 21st centuries.

IS: When feminist ideas are raised in certain circles, the response is often “The central issue is class, not gender – class inequality, including powerful women, causes more suffering to women than patriarchy.” What is your response to this line of argument?

RJ: My glib response is that we can walk and chew gum at the same time; we can analyze and attack more than one illegitimate system of hierarchy at a time. There will always be difficult decisions about strategy and tactics in a particular political moment, but the idea that men’s domination of women is less relevant to people’s lives than the exploitation of people in capitalism is silly. And, as is encompassed by the focus on an “intersectional” analysis, there’s no sensible way forward that doesn’t take into account the interplay of all these hierarchical systems, primarily sex/gender, race/ethnicity, nationality, and class. Given that patriarchy is the oldest of those systems in human history, it would be folly to treat it as being only of secondary concern.

IS: Your book, along with other feminist texts, points to a deep-seated problem with the dominant type of masculinity men are expected to embody today.

RJ: The masculinity norms that are routinely imposed on boys and men in contemporary U.S. culture are rooted in the idea that men must seek to control the world around them, to focus on conquest, which requires high levels of aggression and inevitable violence. Some of us describe this as a very toxic conception of masculinity. This isn’t the only way to understand what it means to be a male human being, of course, but it’s the common understanding that most boys learn. In patriarchy, to “be a man” is to demonstrate the ability to dominate women and to challenge other men.

IS: You discuss “rape culture” in your book. What is this?

RJ: Decades ago, radical feminists challenged the assumption that rape is a rare occurrence, and disputed the claim that these few sexual assaults are perpetrated by deviant men who can be handled in the criminal justice system and through psychological treatment. Instead, these feminists pointed out that rape is normal, both in the sense that is common and an expression of patriarchal conceptions of men’s right to use women sexually. So, rape is both illegal and routine. A rape culture doesn’t command men to rape but does blur the line between consensual sex and non-consensual rape, and also reduces the likelihood rapists will be identified, arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and punished.

Pop culture and pornography provide a flood of examples of this conception of men’s sexual domination of women. Turn on the television, go to the movies, play a video game, or download pornography—you’ll see what a rape culture looks like.

IS: What concrete steps can men take to support women?

RJ: As is the case in fighting any system of oppression, there are countless ways to be part of a movement that seeks justice. Men can support—whether financially or through commitments of time—the existing institutions that seek to advance women’s liberation and aid the victims of patriarchy, such as reproductive health clinics and rape crisis/domestic violence centres. Men can join the movements to abolish prostitution and pornography, as well as publicly state their commitment to not using women in those sexual-exploitation industries. Men can hold other men accountable for sexist behaviour and speak up for gender justice in places they have power and privilege.

Antonio Guterres’s United Nations: a democratic institution?

Antonio Guterres’s United Nations: a democratic institution?
by Ian Sinclair
The New Arab
11 January 2017

“We the people of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person”.

The humane, internationalist and poetic preamble to the United Nations (UN) Charter is one of the many reasons the UN continues to be a broadly popular institution, with the Pew Research Center noting in 2013 that “publics around the world continue to have a positive impression of the international organization”.

Having taken over from Ban Ki-moon on 1 January 2017, the new UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will, like his predecessors, become “a secular saint, an ambassador of peace and voice of the poor and downtrodden”, according to The Guardian’s Julian Borger.

Western governments have instinctively understood the importance of the UN’s popularity to their own foreign policy objectives. For example, the University of Connecticut’s Dr Stephen Benedict Dyson notes that in the run up to the March 2003 US-UK invasion of Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair “was aware that his stance on Iraq was not popular but remained confident that he could achieve support with a campaign of public persuasion, bolstered by the international diplomacy that would secure UN cover.” And Blair was right. Though he failed to get UN backing, polling conducted by Ipsos MORI just before the invasion showed that the backing of the UN would have massively increased support for the war among the British public.

Considering the global public’s high opinion of the UN, and the important ramifications this popularity can have, it is worth taking time to investigate just how democratic the UN is, and how the most senior position in the organisation is appointed.

With the UN set up in 1945 by the victors of World War Two, the 15-member Security Council dominates, wielding the real authority in the organisation, able to make and enforce decisions. In contrast, the far more representative 193-member, one-nation-one-vote General Assembly is relegated to a deliberative role, its resolutions recommendations only.

Within the Security Council itself the P5 – the permanent members of the Security Council, the US, UK, France, China and Russia – hold the real power. The other ten seats are non-permanent, with nations elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms. Importantly, the P5 have the power to veto any resolution put before the group, even if it has majority support among the 15 members.

“The US is such a big power that it has enormous clout in the Security Council as its defacto ‘majority leader’, putting together the votes and resources to make things happen”, notes international affairs specialist Jeffrey Laurenti.

Accordingly, “for almost 30 years (since 1984) the leading wielder of the veto in the UN security council has been the United States”, explained John Weston, the UK’s permanent representative to the UN between 1995-98, in 2013. Most of Washington’s vetoes have been deployed for a specific reason – since 1982 the US has used its veto 35 times to block resolutions critical of Israel.

Beyond using its veto the US has a variety of other methods it can use to get its way. When Yemen joined Cuba on 29 November 1990 in voting against a Security Council resolution authorising force to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait, a US official told the Yemeni ambassador “That was the most expensive vote you will have cast”. Shortly afterwards the US aid budget to Yemen was severely cut.

With the US and UK once again looking for the UN’s stamp of approval as they geared up for war in Iraq 13 years later, massive pressure was again applied to the members of the Security Council. The US Ambassador to Mexico warned that if Mexico didn’t support the US it could alienate members of the US Congress. “Relatively straightforward issues related to Mexico” might be “difficult to pass”, he said. President George Bush was blunter, absurdly telling the Mexican President Vicente Fox “I want your vote, the security of the United States is at stake”.

Alongside this bullying diplomacy, the US, working with the UK, instituted a ‘dirty tricks’ spying campaign against the Security Council – involving the interception of the home and office telephones and emails of UN delegates – which was heroically uncovered by Government Communications Headquarters’s whistleblower Katharine Gun.

“When the United States leads, the United Nations will follow”, noted John Bolton, Under-Secretary of State for International Organizations under President George H Bush, in 1994. “When it suits our interest to do so, we will do so. When it does not suit our interests we will not.” This arrogant pick ’n’ mix attitude to working with the UN is also held by members of the Democratic Party establishment, with Madeleine Albright, the US Ambassador to the UN under President Clinton, telling the Security Council “We will act multilaterally when we can and unilaterally as we must.”

Sadly, the undemocratic structure of the UN is reflected in the secretive and opaque process used to choose the Secretary-General. Traditionally the Secretary-General has been chosen behind closed doors by the Security Council, and then presented to the General Assembly for approval.  There is no public record of these discussions except for brief communiques from the Security Council President, and at any point the P5 can veto a candidate.

Borger notes Ki-moon was the US’s preferred candidate ten years ago. During the recently concluded contest, Borger maintains Vuk Jeremic, the ex-Serbian foreign minister, will likely have been vetoed by Washington because of his opposition to an independent Kosovo.

However, it is not all doom and gloom: there are chinks of hope in this relentless pursuit of national interest and power. Proposals for reform have been repeatedly raised by many nations.

Conveniently, in the West ‘reform’ has largely been interpreted at considering the UN’s financial management and inefficiencies. Writing in her essential 1996 book Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN, Phyllis Bennis has a different take: “The key UN problem… is the question of power.” Suggestions to equalise the existing rank power imbalance include enlarging the Security Council to be more representative of the planet’s population; restricting the Security Council’s currently wide mandate; curtailing or abolishing the P5’s veto power; and empowering the General Assembly.

One small victory was the opening up of the process to appoint Guterres himself, with the contest beginning with all the candidates publicly explaining their ideals and intentions to the General Assembly – the first time this has happened. This increased transparency arose from pressure applied by the 1 For 7 Billion movement, a campaign supported by 750 organisations across the world working for “an open and inclusive selection process, with genuine involvement by all UN Member States.”

The Security Council still got to choose the final candidate but it is a small step in the right direction. “What we are doing is raising the costs for the permanent five of parachuting a candidate in at the last moment”, Natalie Samarainghe, the Executive Director of the United Nations Association UK, told The Guardian last year. “So it could still be a stitch-up but it wouldn’t happen without an outcry.”

Gulf countries need revolutionary climate action, not glossy mega-projects

Gulf countries need revolutionary climate action, not glossy mega-projects
by Ian Sinclair
The New Arab
20 December 2016

In May 2016 researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Cyprus Institute published a deeply concerning study for the Middle East. According to the academics, climate change could make large parts of the region uninhabitable. By the year 2100, midday temperatures on warm days could reach 50°C, with heat waves potentially occurring ten times more than today. The expected temperature rises could put “the very existence of its inhabitants in jeopardy”, noted Jos Lelieveld, the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry.

The future looks similarly bleak on the global level. In 2013 Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, explained that “We are already planning for a 4°C world because that is where we are heading. I do not know of any scientists who do not believe that.”

What would a 4°C world look like, I asked Professor Kevin Anderson, the Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, earlier this year? “Global chaos and collapse I think would be a fair assessment”, was his frightening reply. He went on to list a number of likely outcomes: Sea level rise of one metre by 2100; an increase in the frequency and severity of storms; a 40 percent reduction in staple crop yields; substantial changes in rainfall patterns and massive migration.

In the face of this crisis, Middle East governments have slowly started to turn their attention to the problem of climate change, largely presenting it as an uncontroversial topic that requires technical solutions – a perfect example of fatally flawed “techno-optimism” if ever there was one.

A number of large-scale, press-friendly projects are being built, including Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy and Masdar City near Abu Dhabi. “Designed to be zero-carbon and zero-waste, home to a population of 40,000 people, 50,000 commuters, in an area of six square kilometres” Masdar City is “playing a crucial role in the development of sustainable design and technology”, gushed Susan Lee from the University of Birmingham.

However, though it’s rarely said, these top-down mega projects are unlikely to help in addressing climate change. Take Masdar: in reality, as Grist noted earlier this year, it “is, essentially, the world’s most sustainable ghost town”, with only a small part of the planned city built and the completion date pushed back from 2016 to 2030.

According to Deutsche Welle, critics “see Masdar first and foremost as a clever project to improve Abu Dhabi’s image” when “it remains one of the world’s worst polluters”.

And it’s not just the United Arab Emirates. The World Wildlife Fund’s 2014 Living Planet report found Kuwait and Qatar have the world’s highest per capita ecological footprint. “If all people on the planet had the footprint of the average resident of Qatar, we would need 4.8 planets”, the report noted.

“The thing about a crisis this big, this all-encompassing, is that it changes everything”, Canadian author Naomi Klein argues in her seminal 2014 book on climate change. “It changes what we can do, what we can hope for, what we can demand from ourselves and our leaders. It means there is a whole lot of stuff that we have been told is inevitable that simply cannot stand.” Klein maintains the scale of the problem means radical transformations are required in the political, economic and cultural spheres. In the Middle East this will mean revolutionary change. For example, the Paris climate agreement pledged to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels”.

What does this mean for oil producing states? Using industry data, a recent report from US-based thinktank Oil Change International explained that “the potential carbon emissions from the oil, gas, and coal in the world’s currently operating fields and mines would take us beyond 2°C of warming”. Averting runaway climate change, according to the study, means no new fossil fuel extraction and some existing fields and mines closing before being fully exploited. Furthermore, Klein argues it is dangerous to consider environmental problems on their own. Rather they will only be solved together with other problems such as economic inequality, the corporate domination of the political and social world, consumerism and western imperialism. A classroom guide created to accompany Klein’s book even asks students to provide a “feminist ecological critique” of extractivism.

Many of the necessary changes will be difficult for rulers in the Middle East to contemplate. Analysing the Economic Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index and the World Energy Council’s Energy Trilemma Index, Professor Robert Looney from the Naval Postgraduate School in California explains that democratic governments are “more likely to comply with global agreements that set specific targets for carbon agreements” and “give environmental sustainability priority over either energy security or affordable energy supplies”. Concerned about their own survival, authoritarian regimes will invariably prioritise energy security and equity, Looney argues, since rising fuel prices risk social unrest.

A media free of government censorship and corporate influence is a key component of Looney’s findings, as it creates an informed citizenry. And once large numbers of people understand the dire threat of climate change, they will likely push for government action. An independent and critical media also engenders discussion and disagreement. The alternative – sadly commonin the Middle East – is hugely counterproductive and threatening to young people and future generations as it muzzles criticism and serious debate. For example, one critic of Masdar (who described it as a “green Disneyland”) said they wished to remain anonymous “Otherwise, you could get in trouble in Abu Dhabi”.

Another key feature of more democratic societies, is an active and independent civil society. As freed slave Frederick Douglass once said “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Progressive and lasting change almost always comes from below – something Klein implicitly understands when she calls for a “grassroots anti-extraction uprising”.

The blocking of the Dakota Access pipeline in the United States, the cancellation of Margaret Thatcher’s road expansion plans in Britain (“the biggest road-building programme since the Romans”), the introduction of the United Kingdom’s groundbreaking 2008 Climate Change Act – all of these environmental victories happened because of long campaigns by activist groups overcoming state-corporate power.

In short, far from being an uncontroversial, technical issue, climate change is actually a real threat to the status quo – in the Middle East and elsewhere. Because if we are serious about addressing climate change, then we need to successfully challenge established power – that is the extractive-enriched, growth-obsessed, profit-driven, largely unelected elites whose actions have led us to this existential crisis point.

With some of the region’s governments repeatedly trying to impede international agreements to combat climate change, this is especially true for the Middle East. With time running out, the future of the Middle East and the wellbeing of humanity depends on how quickly we win the revolutionary changes that are so desperately needed.

 

How we can win the Nordic model for the UK: an interview with George Lakey

How we can win the Nordic model for the UK: an interview with George Lakey
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
19 December 2016

Active in social movements since the 1960s, in 1971 American George Lakey co-founded the radical group Movement for a New Society, and in 1973 he wrote the influential book Strategy for a Living Revolution, a guide for achieving nonviolent revolution. More recently he was Visiting Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College in the United States and has been involved in the Earth Quaker Action Team campaign opposing mountain-top removal coal mining.

Now 79-years old, Lakey has just published Viking Economics: How The Scandinavians Got It Right – And How We Can, Too. Having married a Norwegian, lived in Norway for a year in 1959 and visited the region many times since, he argues the superior Nordic model is within reach of the neoliberal US and UK, although it will take large-scale struggle with the economic elite to achieve it.

I interviewed him about ‘the Nordics’, their history and how their social and economic policies could be won in the US and UK.

Ian Sinclair: What have the Nordic countries “got right”?

George Lakey: What economists call the Nordic economic model generates an extraordinary amount of both equality and individual freedom. We can see the synergy on both small and large levels in those countries.

All new parents, for example, are offered many months of paid family leave when they give birth or adopt. In a mixed-gender couple, part of the leave is reserved for the male. If he refuses to take his part of the leave, the couple loses his part of it. With parental paid leave each member of a couple experiences fuller opportunity to parent in the first year of a child’s life – or not, as that person chooses. In other societies that opportunity would be reserved for the better off. At the same time, the policy nudges the couple toward equality in roles and responsibilities.

This is one of a thousand features supporting both equality and freedom made possible by the Nordic design. A macro example is a typical large Norwegian corporation being owned largely by government but individuals invited to own shares as well up to a certain amount. Widespread public ownership, alongside the large cooperative sector, reduces the inequality that otherwise accompanies an economic market. Substantial individual wealth and inheritance taxes further reduce inequality.  Nevertheless, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well, and there are more start-ups in Norway per capita than in the US. Entrepreneurship can be seen as the application of creativity, and it gets public support just as does the thriving sector of performing arts.

While the countries I studied – Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden –may share an economic design with a half century track record of remarkable outcomes, they are not utopias. Norwegians admit to me, “We are a nation of complainers.” I’ve met many Nordics who see more problems that need to be solved.

IS: In your book you note that at the turn of the twentieth century the Nordic countries had very high levels of inequality and poverty, with many people emigrating to the United States and elsewhere. However, as you say, today the Nordic countries consistently top international measures for human development and well-being. How did this transformation occur?

GL: People organized themselves into mass direct action movements to force the economic elite out of dominance.  Of course the privileged defended themselves, suppressing the press, jailing organizers, hiring strikebreakers. The historic details vary for each country. In each case it required cross-class alliances.

In Norway the elite organized the Patriotic League in 1926 to wade into strikes and violently defend replacement workers. In the ‘30s [the government minister Vidkun] Quisling organized a Norwegian Nazi paramilitary force to march in the streets to provoke violent clashes with working class activists. Nonetheless, the nonviolent militancy in the workplace and rural areas made the country ungovernable, and the economic elite was forced to allow the workers’ and farmers’ movements to take leadership of the country.

For Sweden the turning point came in 1931 when, in Ådalen Valley, workers struck three lumber mills at once and four thousand workers picketed the owners and government officials. Troops fired into the workers’ march, killing five and injuring five more. The workers called a national general strike, forcing the conservative government out of power and replacing it with the Social Democrats who ruled almost without a break until 1976.

IS: You also discuss the key role played by trade unions in this transformation.

GL: To make a nonviolent power shift a mass of people whose cooperation is necessary to operate the system must be willing to force change by withholding that cooperation. A century ago, when nonviolent struggle appeared to have only a few tactics in its arsenal, the obvious means of noncooperation was the strike. Industrialization was generating the “nonviolent soldiers” who could do strikes: the workers. These days we know far more nonviolent tactics that can make a country ungovernable. Mass noncooperation can be precipitated in more ways than the Nordics did, so today’s revolutionary strategy is not so dependent on the workers and their unions.

Union organizations, of course, vary widely on their willingness to wage class struggle.  The Nordics give us a recent example.

The influence of Thatcherism in the 1980s became threatening to Scandinavians and the unions there lost confidence. The governments of Norway and Sweden relaxed some bank regulations, with nearly disastrous results. Observing this trend among their Viking cousins and knowing Thatcherism was also growing in Denmark, the Danish workers defied their own unions and launched a general strike in 1986, including barricading parliament in its building in Copenhagen. The workers frustrated the neo-liberals’ plans and prevented Danish bankers from running wild. Remembering the distinction between the union leadership and the members can matter for strategy.

IS: What is the current political situation in Scandinavia today? Are the gains made by the social movements in the twentieth century holding firm or being degraded?

GL: Forcing a power shift in the last century doesn’t mean the class struggle disappeared. Small countries are vulnerable not only to internal tensions but also to manipulation by global market forces. Knowing this, Norway refused to join the EU, even before it gained the security of its oil find. Norwegians could see that the EU was led by neo-liberals, and they wanted the freedom to continue on their left course. Sweden and Denmark did join the EU but stayed out of the Eurozone, maintaining maneuvering room for themselves.

In my book I present a mixed picture of today’s Nordic class struggles: both losses and wins.  Here are a few of the many on both sides. Inequality has risen, although they remain at the top of the heap for equality. Belts are tightening on services, although they are still far more generous than other countries. Sweden struggles with maintaining the Nordic full employment policy. The mighty cooperatives are not matched by achievements in worker democracy in the other workplaces.

On the other hand, Sweden took in per capita the most Middle Eastern refugees of any European nation. Norwegian citizens can challenge Norwegian corporations’ behavior in the Global South and force changes. Iceland only a few years ago jailed bankers and brought down their government in the “Pots and Pans Revolution.” All the Nordics are speeding ahead in addressing climate change.

The Nordics remain largely faithful to their trademark approach to benefits: not means-tested (“welfare”), but applied to all (universal). I don’t call those countries by the misleading term “welfare states.” They are actually “universal services states,” and that is key to their success in virtually abolishing absolute poverty.

IS: What strategies and tactics do you think activists in the US and UK should employ to move from our current neo-liberal, high inequality economies to something approximating the Nordic Model?

GL: First, we should learn from the example of the Danish 1986 general strike: “go on the offensive.” The Danish workers didn’t just try to defend previous gains – they fought for further gains for working people.

Gandhi and military generals agree on at least one point: nobody wins anything on the defensive!  The activist history of the UK and US since the Thatcher/Reagan counter-revolution sadly forgot this strategic necessity of staying on the offensive – and paid the price. In fact, the biggest UK/US activist win since 1980 has arguably been rights for lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans people. The LGBT struggle stayed vigorously on the offensive!

Remaining on the offensive requires a vision of what we truly want.  Vision is where our demands should come from rather than from our fear of what we might lose. The Scandinavians a century ago took the time to get out of their little activist groups to gain wide agreement on a positive vision.

This can put radicals in a dilemma. Many Nordic radicals who wanted to win understood that the movement’s vision couldn’t express the full extent of their personal yearnings and still gain broad agreement. The vision had to be seen as practical and achievable within the middle term, a horizon that could inspire all-out struggle.

A sufficient number of middle class intellectual radicals overcame their class training (to be superior, differentiating egos) so they could join the growing mass movement that could unseat the one per cent, thereby opening the space for all kinds of possibilities – even some radical ones.

We are in a fundamentally new political moment from that of the 1920s/30s. At that time, no one knew for sure if there was a variant of socialism that would actually work to achieve a high degree of equality, freedom and shared prosperity. Now, we know. There is a track record, an economy that consistently out-performs the Anglo-American economic model, despite the disadvantages of small countries in a fierce and globalized world. My book shows that the practical argument is now entirely on our side.

What remains strategically is to sharpen the art of nonviolent direct action campaigning that meets people where they are and deepens their skills and knowledge while building ever more powerful movements. It may be time to drop the one-off protest and routine march and rally!  Campaigns with (a) specific grievances and (b) winnable demands and (c) a target that can be forced to grant the demand are the campaigns that empower. Empowered campaigners can then merge into mass movements that – when history opens the opportunity – become a “movement of movements” that can force a power shift.

The Nordic examples are included in an online, searchable database of over a thousand campaigns from nearly 200 countries: the Global Nonviolent Action Database. Campaigns range from those that have overthrown military dictatorships to those that forced local resolution of environmental dangers.

Campaigns are not sufficient to make a revolution, but their vitality, creativity, and escalating confrontation are central in making the power shift that gives us a chance to build the new society, as different from our present order as contemporary Scandinavia is different from that of a century ago.

IS: A common critique of your argument pushing for the US and UK to adopt Nordic-style economic and social policies is that it is unlikely to work as Nordic countries are very different to the US and UK – they are smaller, more homogenous and have very different political cultures. How do you respond to these challenges?

GL: The Nordic countries represent to me small laboratories in which experiments have been tried and conclusions reached. Through theory, trial and error they have achieved “best practices” in many areas, according to third party global measures.

Two attitudes are commonly held toward these practices. The first attitude was voiced by Hillary Clinton in an election debate with Bernie Sanders when he referenced a feature of Denmark’s political economy. “That’s Denmark,” Clinton said dismissively, certain it could have no relevance to the exceptionalist USA.

The second attitude was voiced by a delegation of Chinese economists and policy-makers who were sent by Beijing to investigate Norway.  I interviewed researchers in Oslo who had previously received the Chinese. They told me they were surprised by the Chinese government’s interest. I was as well, knowing that China makes the U.S. seem a small and homogeneous country compared with its own size and cultural complexity.

When asked, the Chinese said some economic questions are affected by scale and cultural diversity, and some are not. The Chinese were curious to learn what had been working “in the lab,” eager to identify the features that could scale up to provincial or even national size within China.

As a curious sociologist, who is strongly dissatisfied with the US economy, it is easy for me to be interested in the best practices of others.

IS: Doesn’t the election of Donald Trump as president suggest, if anything, the American population is moving further away from supporting the things that make up the Nordic Model? 

GL: The situation on the ground is the opposite from what you imagine. When we compare the votes for Trump and Clinton, we find that more supported Clinton than Trump, but the voters for the major candidates were far exceeded by those who didn’t vote for either Clinton or Trump – almost half the total electorate, most of whom didn’t bother to go to the polls at all.

The election reveals a deepening crisis of legitimacy for the American political class. In November the polls attracted the lowest percentage of eligible voters in 20 years – only 58%. Because of this, our next President was elected by roughly one in four of the eligible voters. And in exit polls, about one fifth of Trump’s voters said they don’t actually consider him to be competent to be President. To me, this does not sound like a mandate from the American people!

The story of voter participation is accompanied by the trend away from registering as Democrats or Republicans; more people are choosing “Independent.” Deep anger and alienation is felt by voters who feel abandoned by both of the major parties. Recent opinion polls asking about issues find majorities backing policies characteristic of the Nordic model, including aggressive anti-poverty measures, decreased rewards to the rich, the equality profile of Sweden rather than that of the US, and actively addressing the climate crisis.

For the history-minded, the combination of declining legitimacy of the established order with preference for an alternative is the recipe for system change.

The 1,000-year ago Viking spirit of expedition emerged in the twentieth century and inspired people to, economically-speaking, go where no one had gone before. We need not be so brave as the twentieth century Nordics were; we do not need to expedition. We can, more cautiously, learn from best practices already established, then take on the struggle with some confidence.

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.