Category Archives: US domestic politics

Sanders, not Biden, has the best chance of beating Trump

Sanders, not Biden, has the best chance of beating Trump
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
9 March 2020

If you have followed the race to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States you’ll have heard the argument a lot: Bernie Sanders, the social democratic senator from Vermont, would never beat sitting US President Donald Trump.

Indeed since Super Tuesday, when Democratic supporters in a slew of states voted on who should face Trump in November 2020, this assertion has become more prevalent – with an additional clause: it is former vice-president Joe Biden, not Sanders, who is best positioned to defeat Trump.

Even commentators who profess to support Sanders’ policies make this argument. After telling Channel 4 News he agrees with Sanders on “an awful lot of political issues”, Eric Alterman, a columnist at the left-leaning Nation magazine, said he fears the example of UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. If Sanders ran against Trump “it would be the end of the American republic”, he said.

Addressing the popular argument that Sanders is “sure to be an electoral disaster” a couple of days later, MSNBC host Chris Hayes was unequivocal: “I am just here to tell you that the evidence we have, to the extent we have evidence about an unknowable future, just doesn’t support that at all.”

Summarising the Real Clear Politics polling averages from February on head to head match ups between Trump and the Democratic presidential candidates, Hayes noted Sanders “is consistently, in poll after poll after poll, at or near the top in all of them” – in beating Trump.

Author Steve Phillips, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, concurs. Writing in the New York Times on 28 February, he explained “most of the available empirical evidence shows Mr. Sanders defeating President Trump in the national popular vote and in the critical Midwestern states that tipped the Electoral College in 2016”.

He continues: “This has been the case for nearly a year now, with Mr. Sanders outpolling the president in 67 of 72 head-to-head polls since March [2019].”

Furthermore, Phillips argues Sanders’ “specific electoral strengths align with changes in the composition of the country’s population in ways that could actually make him a formidable foe for the president.”

In a February Reuters/Ipsos poll Sanders led Trump by 18 percentage points among independent voters in a hypothetical general election match-up – the highest score among all the Democratic candidates.

Famously, the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton claimed “nobody likes” Sanders. In contrast, Peter Beinart, Professor of journalism at the City University of New York notes “polls of Democratic voters show nothing of the sort”. While the Democratic Party elite are deeply sceptical of Sanders, “among ordinary Democrats, Sanders is strikingly popular, even with voters who favor his rivals… on paper, he appears well positioned to unify the party should he win its presidential nomination”, Beinart explains in The Atlantic magazine.

Sanders’ popularity seems to stretch to being relatively personally popular too. Asked for their thoughts on the personal characteristics of several Democratic presidential contenders and of Trump, in a February USA Today/Ipsos poll Americans consistently gave Sanders the highest marks for his values and empathy. 40 percent of respondents said they admired Sanders’ character, well above the 31 percent for Biden and the 26 percent for Trump, while 39 percent of respondents said Sanders “shares my values” compared to 30 percent saying Biden and 31 percent for Trump.

And Alterman’s comparison to Corbyn is a red herring, of course. First, because in 2017 Corbyn led the Labour Party to its best electoral performance since 2001 – before the Brexit issue polarised the party and electorate. And second, because Sanders is a much better political communicator than the often reticent Corbyn. In debate performances the 78-year old Brooklynite is laser-focussed, impressively able to summarise his policies in everyday language and soundbites, and is unafraid to attack his rivals.

Johnny Burtka, executive director for The American Conservative magazine, agrees. “Bernie clearly has the pugnacity”, he told The Hill website in December. “He’s the only one that I think could ultimately take on Donald Trump on the debate stage.”

And it is Sanders, not Biden, who has a young, energetic mass movement backing him – an army of small donations giving Sanders a clear lead in campaign funding over Biden, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics until January.

Frustratingly though, politics, and political change, is never this simple and straightforward – since Biden’s strong performance on Super Tuesday the polling results have shifted. Biden is now favoured as the Democratic nominee by 54 percent of Democratic primary voters, compared to 38 percent supporting Sanders, according to a new Morning Consult poll.

However, the polling data is just one reason Biden would be a disastrous candidate.

Many are concerned about Biden’s long record of being on the wrong side of many political issues – from his 2003 vote for the illegal invasion of Iraq, to his support for the Wall Street bailout, the Rust Belt-decimating NAFTA trade agreement, mass incarceration and cutting social security.

“The Trump people are going to fillet Joe Biden, they are going to fillet him in their ads, and Trump is going to mercilessly fillet him in the debate,” journalist Jeremy Scahill recently argued on Democracy Now! Why? “Because a lot of stuff they will say about him will be true! And Biden is lying, or he doesn’t know what room he is in.”

That last bit is a reference to what journalist Glenn Greenwald called Biden’s “serious issues with his cognitive abilities”. Or, as Scahill puts it: “Joe Biden is not a well man… he can barely complete a sentence.” Recent well-publicised examples include Biden forgetting the “all men are created equal” passage from the Declaration of Independence, telling an audience he was running for the US Senate and his statement that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids”.

So why is Biden, and not Sanders, being presented as the safe pair of hands in the race to be the Democratic presidential candidate?

Beyond the party elite and corporate media falling in line behind the very establishment Biden, arguably a simplistic understanding of politics underpins the belief Sanders is an electoral liability.

This view sees a linear left-right political spectrum, with Sanders on the far left and Biden in the centre. Therefore, it seems obvious the so-called centrist Biden who would be able to appeal to a larger section of the American voting public, rather than the ‘extreme’ Sanders, who would likely alienate much of the political spectrum.

However, what this type of analysis misses is the fact around 13 percent of Trump voters in 2016 backed Obama in 2012, according to the American National Election Study. Interviewing more than a dozen Obama supporters who were planning to vote Trump in 2016, the New York Times reported “a common theme: The message of change that inspired them to vote for Mr. Obama is now embodied by Mr. Trump”.

Adam Ramsay, an Editor at Open Democracy, provides some insight into this seemingly contradictory voting behaviour. “While journalists and pundits and academics tend to see politics as a question of policy and ideology” for the broader public “the first thing they go to is the question of trust”, he noted in a video recently. Turning to the Democratic primaries he argues “the question isn’t really whether voters are looking at these candidates on a left-right spectrum… because most voters right across the Western world don’t really see politics like that. What they look at is whether they think they can trust each of these people to stand up for them or whether they think these people are going to be co-opted by the interests of the rich and powerful.”

Of course, Sanders might end up being a terrible presidential candidate, and Biden may defeat Trump. Nothing is certain. But the majority of evidence we have right now doesn’t support the argument Biden is more electable than Sanders. As The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan recently explained on MSNBC about the Democratic Party elite: “They tried to run a pro-Iraq War, pro-Wall Street establishment Democrat with a history of dubious claims, and dodgy dealings, and dodge comments about incarceration and super predators” in 2016. “Where did that end up? What’s the old saying? Insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Rosa Parks: The Real Story

Rosa Parks: The Real Story
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 February 2020

In December an exhibition about the life of Rosa Parks opened at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The same month a new statue honouring the civil rights icon was unveiled in Alabama’s state capital, Montgomery.

Taught in schools in the US and UK, mythologised on the left and celebrated across popular culture, from Outkast’s 1998 hip hop single Rosa Parks to the 2018 Doctor Who episode titled Rosa, her story will be very familiar to Morning Star readers.

But do we really know Parks’s story?

Here is US news organisation CNN’s crude take on 1 December 2018: “It was on this day in 1955 when a simple act of defiance elevated a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, into a pivotal symbol in America’s civil rights movement. Parks refused to move to the back of a city bus. Little did the 42-year old know that her act would help end segregation laws in the South.”

This popular understanding of Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott she triggered is only “half true”, Noam Chomsky argues in the 2002 book Understanding Power. “What’s in history is one person had the courage to do something – which she did”. But, the US dissident notes, “nobody does anything on their own. Rosa Parks came out of an organised community of committed people.”

Indeed, if you read up on the boycott you find “a network of intrepid organizers, situated in overlapping black institutions” in early 50s Montgomery, as Stewart Burns explains in his 1997 book Daybreak Of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott.

These included the Women’s Political Council (led by English professor Jo Ann Robinson), the Citizen’s Coordinating Committee and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A key figure was E. D. Nixon, the head of the Alabama region of the African American labour organisation the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He had also been the president of Montgomery’s NAACP branch from 1946-50.

Parks herself was not just a seamstress, but “a civil rights activist of long standing”, according to Burns. She was the secretary of the Montgomery and Alabama chapter of the NAACP. In 1944 the NAACP had sent Parks to Abbeville, Alabama to investigate the gang rape of 24-year-old African American woman Recy Taylor. And a few months before she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, Parks had attended a school desegregation workshop at the influential Highlander folk school in Tennessee.

Though Parks had not planned her famous act of resistance on 1 December, some of the local black leaders were primed for action. “We had planned the boycott long before Mrs. Parks was arrested”, Robinson admitted later, according to David Garrow’s 1986 Bearing The Cross, his majestic history of Martin Luther King, Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Garrow notes Robinson had written to the mayor of Montgomery in May 1954, explaining that three quarters of the riders on the city buses were black and threatening a boycott.

Like many of the leaders and organisers in the wider civil rights movement that transformed the American South over the next decade, the activists in Montgomery were incredibly smart strategists and tacticians. This is well highlighted by the fact another member of the black community had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus nine months before Parks – 15-year old Claudette Colvin.

This arrest “galvanised Montgomery’s African American community”, Burns notes. Robinson and Nixon thought they might have an ideal test case to challenge segregation. However, problems soon developed. First, Colvin’s had resisted arrest, resulting in her being charged with assault and battery. Second, and likely more important, Robinson and Nixon learned that the young, unmarried Colvin was several months pregnant.

“Both leaders concluded that Colvin would be neither an ideal candidate for symbolizing the abuse heaped upon black passengers nor a good litigant for a test suit certain to generate great pressures and publicity”, Garrow explains. “The black leadership chose not to pursue the case.”

In contrast, Robinson noted “Mrs Parks had the calibre of character we needed to get the city to rally behind us.”

And rally they did. With Parks arrested on a Thursday, Robinson organised the printing of a reported 40,000 leaflets calling for a one-day bus boycott on the following Monday. Aware they needed the help of the black church leaders, Nixon called a 26-year old minister who had arrived in the city just over a year before – Martin Luther King, Jr. “Hesitating at first, King offered his support”, Burns notes. At a mass meeting that evening it was agreed to continue the boycott, with King heading the coordinating organisation, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). It seems King was chosen, in part, because he was new to Montgomery. “He had not been here long enough for the city fathers to put their hand on him”, Dixon relates in the 1987 PBS documentary series Eyes On The Prize.

The boycott “mobilised the entire black population” of Montgomery, Adam Fairclough notes in his 2001 history Better Day Coming: Black and Equality, 1890-2000. “50,000 men, women and children walked to work, gave each other lifts, and even on the coldest, wettest days refused to ride the buses.”

A complex car pool system was put in place by the MIA, with hundreds of volunteers driving private cars to move people around the city, complete with ad hoc pick-up stations and taxi-style dispatchers coordinating the operation.

In parallel with the street mobilisation a legal challenge was also mounted, with local black attorney Fred Gray – representing the MIA and supported by the NAACP – filing a federal lawsuit in February 1956 against segregation on Montgomery’s buses.

Despite strong opposition from city officials the boycott continued, with participants and the movement leadership enduring intimidation, threats, police harassment, legal challenges, trials, prison time and even the bombing of King’s and Nixon’s homes.

Finally, after a series of rulings and appeals, the Supreme Court affirmed its support of integration on Montgomery buses in November 1956. The boycott came to end on 20 December 1956 – an incredible 381 days after it started. Keen to make the transformation as trouble-free as possible the MIA provided advice to black people riding on the newly integrated buses: “be quiet and friendly, proud but not arrogant” and “do not deliberately sit by a white person, unless there is no other seat.”

Placing the boycott in historical context, Burns argues it was “a formative turning point of the twentieth century”.

“Harbinger of the African American freedom movement… springboard for the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr” and the “launching pad for the worldwide era of upheaval known as ‘the sixties’”.

The boycott also provides a number of valuable lessons for those working for progressive change today. First, it shows mass nonviolent direct action – combined with a successful legal challenge, in this instance – can be very effective against established power.

Second, it illuminates the nature of the relationship between leaders and the wider movement. “Martin Luther King was an important person, but I do not think that he was a big agent of change”, Chomsky argues. “In fact, I think Martin Luther King was able to play a role in bringing about change only because the real agents of change were doing a lot of the work.”

Robinson concurs, telling a reporter at the time: “The amazing thing about our movement is that it is a protest of the people. It is not a one man show. It is not the preacher’s show… the leaders couldn’t stop it if they wanted to.”

So, yes, we should celebrate Parks. And the role played by King. But we shouldn’t settle for this simple story. We also need to remember the deep organisational roots of the movement and the crucial role played by what Burns calls “ordinary people acting in extraordinary ways” – people like Robinson, Nixon, Colvin, Gray, and, most importantly, the 50,000 strong black community of Montgomery.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

The myth of Labour’s antisemitism crisis: interview with Jamie Stern-Weiner

The myth of Labour’s antisemitism crisis: interview with Jamie Stern-Weiner
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
10 February 2020

In November 2019 Verso Books published the free e-book Antisemitism and the Labour Party, edited by Jamie Stern-Weiner, an Israeli-born, London-raised DPhil candidate in Area Studies at the University of Oxford.

With antisemitism cited by many as a factor in Labour’s defeat in the general election, Ian Sinclair asked Stern-Weiner about the controversy.

Ian Sinclair: What is your assessment of the antisemitism controversy that has engulfed Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party since 2015?

Jamie Stern-Weiner: Over the past two decades, whenever Israel’s grotesque human rights violations aroused popular indignation in the UK, Israel’s supporters depicted this reaction as a ‘new antisemitism’. The propaganda offensive against Labour that began in 2016 formed a novel variant of this strategy—a new ‘new antisemitism’. Whereas previous such controversies saw Jewish and pro-Israel networks mobilise against Palestine solidarity activists, the post-2015 campaign saw allegations of antisemitism instrumentalised by the full breadth of the British elite in order to delegitimise, demoralise and ultimately demobilise the Corbyn movement.

The smear campaign was pushed by three distinct but overlapping networks: the Conservative Party, the Labour Right and the pro-Israel Jewish establishment in Britain. Each played an indispensable role. Tory and Labour Right antisemitism allegations would have lacked plausibility without the validation of Jewish leadership groups, which also mobilised their considerable organisational resources behind the campaign. Conversely, the Jewish establishment’s vendetta against the Left would have gained little traction had it not been amplified by other political and media elites.

The allegations against Labour are groundless. Jeremy Corbyn is not an antisemite but among our most dedicated anti-racist politicians, while no persuasive evidence has been presented to show that antisemitism in Labour increased or became widespread under his leadership. Surveys indicate that anti-Jewish prejudices are less prevalent on the Left than on the Right of British politics, while a recent study commissioned (and then misrepresented) by the Campaign Against Antisemitism found traditional ‘anti-Jewish’ stereotypes to be disproportionately concentrated among Conservative voters and supporters of Boris Johnson. Even as the ‘Labour antisemitism’ inquisitors spent years combing through party members’ social media histories for incriminating material, the proportion of Labour members accused of expressing anti-Jewish prejudice rounds to literally zero.

The direct electoral impact of the ‘antisemitism’ smear campaign appears to have been slight. Its indirect contribution to Labour’s defeat was likely more significant: the leadership’s vacillating and defensive response to antisemitism allegations made it look weak—a perception that ranked among the most widely cited reasons for Corbyn’s unpopularity; scarce Leadership Office resources were expended on constant media firefighting; and grassroots enthusiasm was enervated by the failure of any senior party or media figure to defend activists from the sweeping accusations against them.

IS: What has been the media’s role in all of this?

JS-W: The British press is disproportionately sensitive to elite opinion and is itself part of the political establishment. Intense media hostility to the Corbyn project was therefore inevitable. Already in 2015, the Media Reform Coalition described how ‘the press set out to systematically undermine Jeremy Corbyn… with a barrage of overwhelmingly negative coverage’. A London School of Economics study the following year found ‘most newspapers systematically vilifying the leader of the biggest opposition party’. And during the 2019 election campaign, research from Loughborough University indicated that newspaper coverage was overwhelmingly biased against Labour.

The ‘Labour antisemitism’ controversy was the most extreme and protracted manifestation of this vilification campaign. Reporting was replete with factual errors. Rational criteria for assessing newsworthiness were abandoned, to the extent that random Facebook posts by ordinary Labour Party members and factional wranglings over the efficiency of internal Labour Party complaints procedures became headline material. No effort was made to set the allegations against Labour within a broader context, either politically or in terms of what is known about the distribution of racism and prejudice in contemporary Britain. And information which undermined the claims against Labour was effectively suppressed.

More fundamentally, no mainstream reporter ever investigated whether the allegations against Labour were true. Where journalists did not reflexively endorse the accusations against Labour, they were content to uncritically relay them alongside the party’s response. Accusations by Jewish communal figures or anti-Corbyn MPs were considered inherently significant, whether or not they were accompanied by supporting evidence. At the same time, individuals and entities that led the charge against Labour were not themselves scrutinised as political actors, despite the manifestly partisan aspect of the campaign.

The result was to grossly misrepresent the reality of antisemitism in Labour and the UK as a whole. For example, whereas it was widely reported that the 2017 Labour Party conference played host to numerous instances of antisemitism, none of the concrete allegations withstood investigation, while nearly all turned out to implicate people who were themselves Jewish. Perhaps more importantly, the disproportionate attention given the ‘Labour antisemitism’ story, combined with the failure to situate it within any broader statistical or political context, wildly distorted the scale of the phenomenon. Respondents to a 2019 survey estimated that over a third of Labour members had been subject to an antisemitism-related complaint; the real figure was less than one-tenth of one percent. It is difficult to conceive a more damning indictment of British journalism.

IS: There seems to be a broad consensus that the Labour leadership and the Labour Party handled the antisemitism controversy badly. Do you think they should have responded differently?

JS-W: ‘Labour antisemitism’ was never a grievance amenable to resolution through reasonable compromise, but rather the pretext for a campaign to overthrow Corbyn’s leadership and demobilise his base. It follows that nothing Labour might have done, short of total capitulation, could have prevented or moderated the media campaign against it.

It also follows that the strategy of compromise and appeasement was a mistake. None of Labour’s many concessions silenced its critics for even a millisecond. But they did divide supporters, strengthen the other side’s position and make the leadership appear feeble. Every time a senior Labour figure apologised for the party’s antisemitism problem, they merely validated wholly unsupported claims that such a problem existed. The party’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism did not win the leadership any support but did hand its enemies an additional weapon with which to smear and drive out Corbyn’s supporters.

In the course of its misguided attempt to appease unappeasable critics, the party betrayed its libertarian heritage and instituted a regime of censorship. The provision in the Code of Conduct which provided that the party’s disciplinary body ‘shall not have regard to the mere holding or expression of beliefs and opinions’ was nullified. And whereas the Chakrabarti Report of June 2016 urged a moratorium on trawling members’ social media archives for offensive posts, December 2019 found Labour’s general secretary boasting about the party’s use of algorithms to sift the online histories of not just members but potential members to ‘detect patterns of behaviour’.

What else could have been done? Any response should have aimed not at ending the defamation campaign but at minimising the internal divisions it provoked and the resources it consumed. To these ends, the leadership should have forthrightly stated and held to its view that allegations of a Labour antisemitism ‘crisis’ lacked evidence; that Labour’s critics were acting in pursuit of a political agenda; and that Labour did not intend to use party resources to police the thoughts and utterances of its 500,000 members.

As Norman Finkelstein has suggested, Labour might have established a small rebuttal unit to respond to significant allegations. Otherwise, each and every media story about ‘Labour antisemitism’ should have been met with the stock response: ‘The elected leadership of the Labour Party has made its views on this matter clear. Any information concerning individual misconduct should be referred to our disciplinary mechanism, where it will be dealt with according to our standard procedures. We have no further comment’. Mere expression of an unpopular opinion should not have been considered legitimate grounds for disciplinary action. And complaints statistics should have been released on a routine basis with as much transparency as possible.

Whether the party leadership had sufficient internal leeway to implement a response along these lines, I do not know. But had such an approach been pursued from the outset, it would have equipped members with a consistent and defensible line, minimised consequential internal divisions, reduced the time and money wasted on this non-issue, and—at minimum—avoided the leadership appearing unprincipled and indecisive before the wider public.

Antisemitism and the Labour Party is available as a free download from Verso Books https://www.versobooks.com/books/3215-antisemitism-and-the-labour-party

Best books of 2019

Best Books of 2019
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
6 December 2019

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.” From its first sentence The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future (Penguin Books) by US writer David Wallace-Wells is a deeply frightening book chronicling the existential threat the climate crisis poses to humanity.

He notes all the commitments made at the 2015 Paris United Nations climate summit by the 195 signatories would still mean a deadly 3.2oC of warming by 2100. If this isn’t terrifying enough, he explains that as of 2018 “not a single major industrial nation was on track to fulfil the commitments it made in the Paris treaty”.

Answering Amitav Ghosh’s call for more fiction devoted to climate change, John Lanchester’s allegorical novel The Wall (Faber & Faber) considers how British society and politics could react to a climatic event called “the change”. Giving a nod to George Orwell’s 1984, Lanchester imagines a dystopian near future in which a colossal wall has been built along the entire coastline of the nation, manned by conscripted soldiers (“Defenders”) tasked with keeping out climate refugees (“The Others”) trying to get into the country.

Two other novels made an impression on me this year. Set in Chicago, Halle Butler’s The New Me (Orion) is a cutting, pathos-filled exploration of millennial work and social life, the bored and depressed female narrator is full of loathing for her work colleagues, so-called friends and, most of all, herself. Comic novelist Sam Lipsyte’s Hark (Simon & Schuster) also has a laser-like focus on the foibles and hypocrisies of contemporary Western culture, brilliantly skewing self-help gurus, hipsters, liberal parenting and mid-life crises – hell, pretty much everything and everyone is a target for satire. Rarely have I read an author where each sentence is so full of rich, imaginative language. And like the New Yorker’s 2010 novel The Ask it’s also hysterically funny, often in the most dark and delicious ways.

The new Glasgow Media Group (GMG) book Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief (Pluto Press) is an essential read for anyone interested in the accusations of antisemitism directed at the Labour Party. In addition to showing how the media have played a key role in massively exaggerating the scale of the problem, the authors provide some welcome advice on how Labour can communicate much more successfully to the general public on this crucial issue. Heavily influenced by the GMG tradition, Mike Berry’s The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan) highlights how the British print and broadcast media, including the BBC, played a key role in narrowing the national debate after the 2008 financial crisis in ways that suited elite interests.

Taken together these two books have much to teach about contemporary British politics and the hugely negative role played by the media. As US media analyst Robert McChesney succinctly put it, “So long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible.”

“It is worse, much worse, than you think”: David Wallace-Wells interview

“It is worse, much worse, than you think”: David Wallace-Wells interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 March 2019

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.” So begins The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future, David Wallace-Wells’s brilliant new book on the existential threat of climate change which, judging by its frightening contents, should be placed next to Stephen King in the horror section of every bookshop.

“I don’t come to it with a life of attachment to environmental causes”, Wallace-Wells, 36, tells me when I ask him about his initial interest in the subject when we met in a central London hotel last month. “Five years ago I would have said climate change was an important issue and we should be addressing it but I didn’t understand it was a totalising challenge that actually governed all of the other political goals that we might have in this world.”

He says he has been “completely transformed” by his research and writing on climate, which received national and international attention with his 2017 article in New York Magazine, where he is Deputy Editor. Quoting climate scientists, the article – which has the same title as the book – looked at some of the likely effects of the worst-case scenarios in terms of global temperature rise. It became the most read article in the history of the publication. “There was a vocal minority of scientists who took issue with it”, Wallace-Wells concedes. “So I wanted to really rigorously focus the book on a smaller range possible outcomes. In the article I was talking about warming up to 5, 6 and even 8°C. In the book I mention those levels a couple of times but it’s very much focused on 2°C to 4°C, which is inarguably the boundaries of reasonable contemplation.”

For the uninitiated, these figures refer to the increase in global temperature on pre-industrial levels. The world has already experienced a 1°C increase. At the 2015 UN climate conference in Paris the 195 signatory nations pledged to keep global warming to “well below” 2°C and “endeavour to limit” them to 1.5°C. However, speaking to the Morning Star in 2016, the respected climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson explained the commitments made at the summit would likely lead to 3-4°C of global warming by 2100.

Despite the book’s narrower focus, its conclusions – based on hundreds of references to the latest scientific research – are still horrifying. “Warming of 3 or 3.5 degrees would unleash suffering beyond anything that humans have ever experienced”, Wallace-Wells writes. And just to scare you further, it’s important to understand that the larger the temperature increase, the more likely feedback mechanisms and the sheer complexity of the world’s climate system will lead to runaway climate change that humanity will be unable to control.

“At 4°C of warming we will have made inevitable the total collapse of all the ice sheets on the planet, which will mean, over time, at least 50 and probably 80 metres of sea level rise”, he tells me. “That will take centuries to unfold but it will mean millions of square miles of coastline underwater, many of the world’s biggest cities completely drowned” and “will literally redraw the map of the world and make the planet unrecognisable in many, many ways.”

Turning to the dire effects of heat, he notes “it’s possible as soon as 2050, when we will be at about 2°C of warming or a little bit warmer than that, that many of the major cities in India and the Middle East will be lethally hot in summer. You won’t be able to reliably go outside, work outside during the summer months without incurring some lethal risk.”

He believes this will contribute to an unprecedented global refugee crisis, and notes in 2017 the UN estimated climate change might create as many as a billion climate refugees by 2050 – “which is as many people as today live in North and South America combined.” He is careful to qualify this, explaining the UN’s estimate is very much at the high-end of projections: “Even if we only get to 75 million 100 million that’s a refugee crisis many times bigger than anything with ever seen before”.

The evidence points to “dramatic” economic impacts too, he argues. “The best research suggests at about 4°C of warming we will be dealing with the global economy… that was 30 per cent smaller than it would be without climate change. That is an impact twice as big as the Great Depression. And it would be permanent.”

With the effects of climate change so serious and all-encompassing, the environmental movement has long debated how best to present the facts and dangers to the general public in a way that will engender engagement and action. The consensus, in the UK at least, has been for messaging fixed around notions of hope and positive visions of the future. For example, speaking at a World Development Movement public event in 2008 Green MP Caroline Lucas argued “the rhetoric of fear and disaster and tipping points is deeply scary, and it’s deeply unhelpful.”

“It doesn’t work to try to terrify people in to action”, she continued.

Wallace-Wells, as readers of his book will attest, takes a very different position: “As I look out at the world it just strikes me that although there are some people who are at risk of being pushed into despair and fatalism, the number of people who are living complacently in the modern world about climate is just so much bigger.”

Careful not to dismiss hopefulness and optimism – “anything that sticks” is good – he points to the history of environmental activism and political mobilisation to back up his argument. The influential role Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring had in banning DDT pesticide, drunk driving and anti-smoking campaigns – all of these successes were not accomplished “by messaging optimistically and talking about hope” but were based on fear and alarm, he argues.

He also points to the historic recommendation of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year – that to stay below a 1.5°C temperature increase the world must immediately embark on a World War II-level mobilisation to shift away from fossil fuels. “There were threads of hope and optimism that was part of that [the mobilisation in World War Two] but there was also, obviously, a lot of fear and panic and alarm about what would happen if we didn’t mobilise”, he says.

While The Uninhabitable Earth is certainly alarming, Wallace-Wells himself is hopeful about the future in many ways, highlighting new activism such as Extinction Rebellion and 16-year old Swede Greta Thunberg and the global school strikes she has inspired.

He also points to significant shifts in US public opinion, with a recent Yale University/George Mason  University survey finding six in ten Americans were either “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change, with the proportion of people “alarmed” having doubled since 2013.

Turning to US politics, he is excited that the Democratic Party is “effectively and totally” signed on to the Green New Deal, the proposed economic stimulus programme that reiterates the goals of the UN to hold global warming to 1.5°C. Mirroring what happened with Heathrow expansion and UK politics in the mid-2000s, he notes the Green New Deal has become “a kind of litmus test for any Democratic candidate” for president, with climate change likely to be a first order priority alongside healthcare and education in the Democratic primaries.

”I even think that will impact the Republican Party over time”, he predicts.

Looking at the big picture, in the book Wallace-Wells maintains the climate chaos which is now upon us “has been the work of a single generation.” The generation coming of age today faces a very different and essential task, he believes: “the work of preserving our collective future, forestalling… devastation and engineering an alternate path.”

“We are living in incredibly consequential times. What we do now politically, culturally, economically will determine the – not to put it too bluntly – that habitability of the planet going forward”, he tells me. “Humans have never been in that position before, never held that kind of power in our hands before.”

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future is published by Allen Lane, priced £20.

Book review. The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells

Book review. The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 February 2019

Clearly intended to shock, last month the Guardian published a report titled Climate Risks ‘Similar To 2008 Financial Crash’.

The problem with this formulation, to partially quote the soon to be iconic first sentence of The Uninhabitable Earth, is that “it is worse, much worse” than this.

“What climate change has in store is not… a Great Recession or a Great Depression but, in economic terms, a Great Dying”, David Wallace-Wells, Deputy Editor of New York Magazine, argues.

The 2016 United Nations Paris Agreement, which aims to limit warming to an increase of 2°C on pre-industrial levels, gave hope to many. Wallace-Wells injects a dose of frightening realism into the debate, noting all the commitments made at the summit by the 195 signatories would still mean 3.2°C of warming by 2100. And most terrifyingly of all, as of 2018 “not a single major industrial nation was on track to fulfil the commitments it made in the Paris treaty”, he explains.

What does all this mean? “Warming of 3 or 3.5°C degrees would unleash suffering beyond anything that humans have ever experienced”.

The twelve chapters which make up the core of the book flesh out this alarming reality, looking at how climate change is raising sea-levels, increasing wildfires and disease, reducing crop yields, killing the oceans and making conflicts more likely. An expansion of his 2017 magazine article that went viral, he is right when he says this section contains “enough horror to induce a panic attack in even the most optimistic”.

For example, he notes the planet has experienced a fiftyfold increase in the number of dangerous heatwaves since 1980.” Even if warming is limited to an increase of 2°C, big cities in the Global South like Karachi and Kolkata “will become close to uninhabitable”, contributing to a massive increase in refugees. A 4°C increase will mean the European heat wave of 2003, which killed 35,000 people, “will be a normal summer.”

Frustratingly, when the mainstream media reports on climate change it invariably uses 2100 as the end point for projections. In contrast, Wallace-Wells inconveniently highlights that the death and destruction will not end there. Infact, some observers call the 100 years after 2100 “the century of hell.”

A necessary and urgent wake-up call, The Inhabitable Earth is the most important book about climate change since Naomi Klein’s 2014 This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. But while Klein focused on the ideology of economic growth as the central driver of climate change, the topic is largely – and strangely – absent from Wallace-Wells’ work. And though he emphasises how climate change is “the biggest threat human life on the planet has ever faced”, highlighting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s push for an immediate global mobilisation on the scale of World War Two, exactly how people should organise to stop climate change is also not something he dwells on.

“I think there just has to be an energetic mass popular movement”, was US academic Noam Chomsky’s recent take on the necessity of large-scale activism on climate change. Likewise, Klein recently tweeted three central questions for assessing the candidates in the upcoming 2020 US Presidential election: “1. Who best understands that anything short of transformative action on climate is tantamount to genocide? 2. Who, if elected, will be most porous to social movements/ least likely to seal themselves off with elite consultants? 3. Who has a solid chance of beating Trump if we all work like hell?”

Similar questions need to be asked at the next UK general election and across the globe if humanity is to stand any chance of arresting the ongoing and escalating existential threat of climate chaos.

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future is published by Allen Lane, priced £20.

Russian Interference in Western Politics? What about Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE?

Russian Interference in Western Politics? What about Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 October 2018

With almost the entire Western media in a constant state of mass hysteria about Russian interference in Western political systems, it’s worth considering some pertinent information largely missing from the debate.

First, it is likely the scale and effectiveness of Russian interventions has been greatly exaggerated. “The simplistic narrative that basically imagines that a bunch of subliterate-in-English trolls posting mostly static and sort of absurd advertising could have influenced American public opinion to such an extent that it fundamentally changed American politics is ridiculous on the face of it”, argued Masha Gessen, a US-Russian journalist and outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, when asked about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election by National Public Radio.

“I feel a lot of pressure… from interviewers and from people to kind of blow up the threat”, said New Yorker’s Adrian Chen – one of the first to write about Russian internet trolls – agreeing with Gessen. “People want to talk about how scary this is, how sophisticated it is. There’s not a lot of room for, you know, just kind of dampening down the issue.”

Turning to the Brexit vote, research by the Oxford Internet Institute looked at 22.6 million tweets sent between March and July 2016, finding just 416 tweets from the Russian Internet Research Agency – the organisation the US Senate says is involved in interfering in Western elections. A second report from the University of Edinburgh discovered 419 accounts operated by the Agency attempting to influence UK politics. However, the study’s lead researcher told the Guardian these 419 accounts tweeted about Brexit a total of just 3,468 times – mostly after the referendum had taken place.

Second, when asked about US claims of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential race, US academic Noam Chomsky replied “My guess is that most of the world is just collapsing in laughter.” Why? Because when it comes to undermining democratic systems Russia is an absolute beginner compared to the United States.

Here is the New York Times in February 2018: “Loch K. Johnson, the dean of American intelligence scholars, who began his career in the 1970s investigating the C.I.A. as a staff member of the Senate’s Church Committee, says Russia’s 2016 operation was simply the cyber-age version of standard United States practice for decades.”

According to a database compiled by political scientist Don Levin from Carnegie Mellon University, the US attempted to influence elections in other countries 81 times between 1946 and 2000. In contrast, he found the Soviet Union/Russia had attempted to sway 36 elections in the same period. Reporting on the database in December 2016, the Los Angeles Times notes the US figure “doesn’t include military coups and regime change efforts following the election of candidates the US didn’t like, notably those in Iran, Guatemala and Chile.”

On top of all this, the evidence clearly shows other nations have exerted a level of influence on Western governments and political systems that Russia could only dream of.

Chomsky again, this time speaking to Democracy Now! in August 2018: “If you’re interested in foreign interference in our elections, whatever the Russians may have done barely counts or weighs in the balance as compared with what another state does, openly, brazenly and with enormous support.”

Chomsky is referring to Israel, whose “intervention in US elections vastly overwhelms anything the Russians may have done”, he says. “I mean, even to the point where the Prime Minister of Israel, [Benjamin] Netanyahu, goes directly to Congress, without even informing the president, and speaks to Congress, with overwhelming applause, to try to undermine the president’s policies” —a reference to Netanyahu’s attempt, in 2015, to destroy the US-led deal to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Back in the UK, in January 2017 the Middle East Eye reported on “undercover recordings” that “revealed how an Israeli diplomat sought to establish organisations and youth groups to promote Israeli influence inside the opposition Labour party, in an effort to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.” Shai Masot, the Israeli diplomat, said he had helped set up other groups in the UK which, although they presented themselves as independent, received support from the Israeli Embassy.

Israel is not the only Middle East nation who works to undercut Western democracies. In 2006 the Guardian reported that the British government – citing ‘national security’ concerns – had halted a Serious Fraud Office investigation into alleged corruption by the arms company BAE Systems, connected to their dealings with Saudi Arabia. According to the article “In recent weeks, BAE and the Saudi embassy had frantically lobbied the government for the long-running investigation to be discontinued.”

Like its regional ally in Riyadh, the United Arab Emirates has also been busy, carrying out an “intense lobbying campaign… over the last few years” in the UK, according to a new Spinwatch report. This campaign has “helped shape UK government policy towards Muslims at home, and UK and US foreign policy in the Middle East”.

This “massive” PR effort by the corporate-friendly Gulf dictatorship appears to have “had the desired effect”, Spinwatch notes. “With pressure building on Downing Street… the Emiratis pulled off” a “spectacular lobbying success… in March 2014, [British Prime Minister David] Cameron, out of almost nowhere, announced a review into the Muslim Brotherhood” – a useful folk devil for the UAE government.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have also been trying to influence the heart of global power in Washington. For example, the Associated Press noted the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and the UAE that started in June 2017 “ignited a multimillion-dollar battle for influence” with the two rivals spending “heavily over the last year on lawyers, lobbyists, public relations and advertising to seek better trade and security relationships with the United States”.

In a March 2018 article the New York Times reported on “an active effort to cultivate President Trump on behalf of the two oil-rich Arab monarchies” UAE and Saudi Arabia. The aim? “Pushing the White House to remove Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson” and “backing confrontational approaches to Iran and Qatar” – something Tillerson was seen as a block on.

This lobbying seems to have achieved one of its goals, with the New York Times’s Roger Cohen revealing that a European ambassador had told him about a December 2017 dinner party in Washington he attended along with Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner and UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba. After the ambassador had complained to Kushner that his nation’s foreign minister was having difficulty organising a meeting with Tillerson, apparently Otaiba said “Things will be much better when Mike’s installed.” Tillerson was sacked four months later, replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

What all this confirms is that media reporting and commentary is largely framed by the concerns of the governing elite. Which explains the difference in the size and tone of coverage – Russia has been designated an Official Enemy of the West, while Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE are close allies. However, it is important to separate the interests of Western elites and those of the general population. So while it is obvious why the British elite would want a close ties with the authoritarian monarchies in the Gulf, it is difficult to see what the British public get out of these unholy associations.

The obsessive focus on Russian interference serves a couple of important functions. First, as highlighted above, it hides inconvenient but important truths – that many of our so-called allies are carrying out sophisticated and long-running campaigns to undermine the will of Western publics. And second, it acts as a displacement activity – instead of looking at the deep-seated domestic reasons behind Trump’s victory and why the UK voted for Brexit we continue to be fixated on the all-powerful evil Disney villain Putin.

As always, to see through the fog of propaganda and gain an accurate understanding of the world citizens need to be careful and critical consumers of the mainstream corporate news, making sure to combine their intake with a healthy dose of alternative and independent media.

Ian Sinclair tweets at @IanJSinclair

Inside Corbyn’s game changing election campaign: Steve Howell interview

Inside Corbyn’s game changing election campaign: Steve Howell interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 June 2018

Appointed the Deputy Director of Strategy and Communications in the Labour leadership team in February 2017, Steve Howell had an insider’s view of the most extraordinary general election of recent times.

The Cardiff-based Howell was the Chief Executive of Freshwater, a communications consultancy he founded in 1997, when he got the call from his old friend Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s Director for Communications and Strategy.

“Politics is not a spectator sport”, he recounts Milne telling him in his new book Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics.

“People have said ‘Why did you call it Game Changer?’”, Howell, 64, tells me over breakfast in a central London hotel. “It’s a fair question but I think it’s valid to call it Game Changer for several reasons. One is we denied them [the Tories] a majority, and that meant they couldn’t do most of the things that was in their manifesto”, he argues. “We have still got austerity but some of the nasty stuff like getting rid of winter fuel allowances, dementia tax, scrapping the triple lock [on state pensions] they haven’t been able to do because they haven’t got a majority.”

“I think it was a game changer in the sense it was a campaign like no other”, he continues. “We were told by people who are experienced in these things manifestos don’t change people’s minds. Well, this manifesto did – in a positive way. We were told that you don’t move opinion during election campaigns by more than two or 3%. Well, we did. Massively.”

He is right. When Theresa May called the election Labour was polling around 24 percent (YouGov) and 29 percent (Survation). On election day less than two months later Labour won 40 percent of the vote – 10 percent more than Labour’s vote share in 2015 under Ed Miliband.

Most importantly, Howell maintains the election result “marked the end of the stranglehold of neoliberalism on British politics, which has dominated politics since the Thatcher era.”

At the end of the book he lists several reasons for the Labour Party’s extraordinary performance, including Corbyn being “a great message carrier”, the size of the Labour Party, the voter registration drive and the manifesto itself.

As a dual American-British citizen, Howell saw Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination first-hand in California. With the parallels between the insurgent Sanders and Corbyn obvious, Howell says he and others were influenced by the dynamism and energy of the Vermont Senator’s campaign, such as its “hard-hitting” political messaging. “Communications is all about building a story, building a narrative”, he explains. “That was very much on my mind – how could we talk and communicate our political arguments in that very clear, direct way.”

Indeed, arguably the influence of Sanders can be seen in the broad strategy the Labour leadership team settled on for the election – the creation of a “majoritarian coalition” around a positive and “transformational” offer to the public, as Howell explains in the book.

Howell was also impressed by Sanders’s use of social media to work around the mainstream media, and the massive rallies that propelled the campaign forward.

“Rallies are much more important in US politics than they are in British politics”, he says, pointing out that though “the Blairites openly say they fell in love with Bill Clinton” they dismiss “the idea that rallies are a good thing.”

“If you listen to the Blairites they will always say rallies are just preaching to the converted – and they will say social media is an echo chamber.”

Talking of Blair, readers of Game Changer may be surprised at the sophisticated communications and public relations tools and tactics used by Corbyn’s Labour Party. Focus groups were used to road-test slogans, polling companies and communications agencies employed, and there was even a “narrative consultant” on their books.

“Communications theory is a methodology. You shouldn’t assume it has a political bias. These are tools of analysis”, he says, explaining many have erroneously and nonsensically mixed them up with their first serious advocates in the Labour Party – New Labour.

“If you are trying to mount an effective political campaign you need to understand your audience, you need to understand what they are worried about, what they are thinking, what they will be persuaded by.”

“We are talking about persuading millions of people here”, he emphasises about the enormity of the challenge – and the success Corbyn’s campaign achieved. “We’re not talking about what goes down well with the hardcore of activists. We are talking about how you move people in a short space of time to get them to see your point of view.”

He highlights how Labour used a polling agency to talk to people about how they perceived Corbyn. “There was a fair amount of negativity towards Jeremy that was simply repeating what people had read about him in the media”, he says.

“But within all of that that the polling company did, one thing interesting came through it, which was that what people particularly liked about Jeremy was that he was a politician who went against the grain.” Also, Corbyn scored well on sticking up for working people, whereas Theresa May did not.

“We were being told by people in the Labour Party ‘Don’t make this election about leadership or about Jeremy versus Theresa because you’ll lose.’ But what that [the polling] was telling us was actually it’s not as simple as that. There are lots of things people like about Jeremy and therefore it’s not whether we make leadership an issue or not it’s how we make leadership an issue that’s important.”

In the book Howell highlights one particularly difficult leadership moment on the campaign trail – Corbyn’s response to questions from the audience and presenter David Dimbleby about whether he would press the ‘nuclear button’ during BBC Question Time’s Leader’s Special.

“Jeremy had begun to look uncomfortable”, he writes, noting Milne was also worried about how the Trident issue would play out in the media.

Surely, I ask Howell, nothing has changed? The lifelong anti-nuclear campaigner Corbyn will never say he will use nuclear weapons, while maintaining Trident will continue to be Labour Party policy. And, like Howell, the Tories will have watched Corbyn’s discomfort carefully and be ready to hit him hard on this come the next election?

He suggests two lines of argument to move the debate on. First, if one believes in nuclear disarmament, unilateral or multilateral, then “ultimately Britain’s nuclear weapons have to go into that process.” Long ignored by the mainstream media, Howell, like Corbyn himself, highlights the importance of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: “What the nuclear powers were saying to the non-nuclear countries is ‘You sign up to this Non-Proliferation Treaty and in return we’ll disarm nuclear weapons.’ The second part of the deal has never happened. So it’s time the second part of the deal did happen.”

Second, Howell points to Corbyn’s Chatham House speech in May 2017, which he – Howell – was heavily involved in writing, and which deals with the question of using nuclear weapons. “That situation represents failure”, he argues. “Think about all the things that would have had to have happened for you to get yourself into that position, or for you to be forced into that position… you have failed as a prime minister in that situation… you haven’t done what you are there to do, which is to safeguard the security of the British people. So you’ve got to then roll the question back and say ‘What is it we need to do to make sure that no British prime minister ever gets into that situation where that is even a question?’”

Though he is no longer formally connected to Corbyn’s team, I ask Howell what Labour’s broad strategy should be for the next election. “An election can’t just be a rerun of the previous election”, he explains. “There will be some new things that have to be taken into consideration which are borne out of the political situation but I don’t think the core argument that we have been putting against neoliberalism and against austerity will be any different because those basic problems in society are the same.”

“And our answer to those problems is a Socialist answer and the Tory answer is a neoliberal answer”, he says. “There is a very clear political choice there.”

Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics is published by Accent Press.

Book review: Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics by Steve Howell

Book review: Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics by Steve Howell
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
August-September 2018

Achieving 40 percent of the vote – a record breaking 10 percent increase on its 2015 performanceJeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party carried off one of the biggest political upsets ever at the 2017 general election, dealing a serious blow to the Tory government and broader neoliberal ideology.

Steve Howell, the Deputy Director of Strategy and Communications in the Labour leadership team, gives a detailed and engaging insider account of this game changing campaign. Diplomatically written, there are no big reveals. However, there are many interesting nuggets of information that will be of interest to activists.

Though Corbyn’s team defines itself in opposition to New Labour, much of the political methodology of the Blair era continued to play a vital role: focus groups were used to road-test soundbites, media contacts carefully cultivated and communications agencies employed.

Social media strategy was central to Corbyn’s success, Howell argues, allowing Labour to bypass the mainstream media. They advertised on Snapchat, invested significant energy in Twitter and Facebook and purchased Google Adwords, meaning a Labour advert would appear next to Google searches of terms such as “Dementia Tax” and “Shoot-to-Kill”.

Howell also emphasises the influence of Bernie Sanders’ popular campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, which he witnessed first-hand in California. Though Corbyn’s large ‘Feel the Bern’-style rallies were derided by many commentators for preaching to the converted, an LSE study found the Labour vote share rose by almost 19 percentage points in constituencies visited by the Labour leader. Imitating Sanders’s strategy, Labour even employed a “narrative consultant”, with Howell seeing the effective deployment of emotive “narrative arcs” highlighting Labour’s positive and “transformational” offer to the nation as the key to victory.

One note of caution appears during the BBC Question Time Leader’s Special, when Howell notes Corbyn looked uncomfortable answering questions about whether he would ever use the UK’s nuclear weapons (retaining Trident is Labour Party policy, even though Corbyn himself is a lifelong anti-nuclear campaigner).

With the Tories bound to focus on this potential weakness at the next election, this is an critical issue where peace activists have the knowledge and organising skills to make a positive intervention. Because while Howell’s book naturally focuses on the role of the leadership team, it is important to understand it is the mass movement/s behind Corbyn that played the decisive role in getting him elected Labour leader, protected him from attempted coups, underpinned the extraordinary 2017 election result – and will likely be the deciding factor at the next election too.

Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics is published by Accent Press, priced £15.99.

Class Matters: Betsy Leondar-Wright interview

Class Matters: Betsy Leondar-Wright interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
17 July 2018

Visiting Britain last month to co-facilitate a workshop organised by Peace News, US activist Betsy Leondar-Wright read two books to prepare: Owen Jones’s Chavs and Estates: An Intimate History by Lynsey Hanley.

Important books in their own right, they were especially pertinent as the workshop explored a topic that is rarely discussed: class and classism in activist groups and organisations.

An assistant professor of sociology at Lasell College, Leondar-Wright, 62, has spent her adult life exploring this contentious issue, publishing Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures with Cornell University Press in 2014.

“Class-culture differences often hamper movement-building,” she explains in the book’s introduction. These differences often play a role in common organisational problems, she argues, such as low turnout, inactive members, offensive behaviour and certain members dominating discussion.

She tells me about her own elite class background when we meet in a central London hotel. “During my childhood my Dad rose through the ranks on Wall Street… he started out selling bonds and ended up the vice-president of an investment firm,” she explains.

“And my mum was a nurse and stopped working when I was born. So we kind of rose from middle middle-class to quite upper middle-class during my childhood.”

After attending a private school, in 1977 she dropped out of Princeton and joined the radical, nonviolent activist network Movement for a New Society (MNS) and became active in the anti-nuclear movement.

Hugely influential in its time, MNS ran workshops on racism, sexism and homophobia. After some members became angry at the classism that existed in the organisation, Leondar-Wright says there was an “internal class revolution” which led to workshops being introduced to deal with classism too.

Having co-facilitated many of those workshops, today Leondar-Wright sits on the board of Boston-based Class Action, an organisation that works to end classism and extreme inequality.

Why have activist groups that have a relatively high degree of awareness of racism and sexism ignored class for so long?

“The US is worse than Britain in how few people have class identities,” she says. “The majority of people if they are asked an open-ended question: ‘What is your class?’ people will say ‘middle class’ who have blue-collar working-class jobs and [so will those] who are very wealthy.

“It’s an absurdity of our culture,” she says about the aversion to using the term “working class.”

Even politicians on the left such as US Senator Bernie Sanders will not say “working class,” she says. “It sounds vaguely Marxist, and they are always on alert to not sound condescending and demeaning towards their voters.”

However, she also believes the left shares some of the blame, with what she calls “voluntary downward mobile” people — progressives who choose not to maximise their income — often obscuring and ignoring their own class privilege.

“So in the mainstream it is something to avoid — to identify as working-class. On the left something to avoid is to identify as class privileged. So between those two we are just a pit of confusion.”

Conducting extensive research on activist groups across the US for her book, Leondar-Wright found “a surprisingly large number of attitudes and behaviours” influenced by class.

“Two that really stick in my mind are language and leadership,” she says. “So language… vocabulary differences, how long or short you speak, humour differences, ways of speaking.”

For example, she found professional middle-class groups used more words but spoke less often, while members of working-class groups talked more briefly but more often.

Fascinatingly, she discovered working-class majority groups laughed on average once every 8.75 minutes, while professional middle-class majority groups only laughed on average once every 15.71 minutes.

She also highlights how university-educated activists are often attached to potentially alienating abstract terms: “They just have to say them. So among my radical friends there are people who have to say ‘white supremacy’ every time race is mentioned… there are people who have to say ‘patriarchy,’ people who have to say ‘capitalism’ and have to say ‘socialism’. Their radical politics are wound up in some word that compacts a whole analysis.”

This is fine as it goes, she says, “but one of the things that I want to persuade people to do is do not use your meaningful abstract word when you don’t have time to unpack it. Use it but don’t start with it. Start with something that connects to the listener.”

On leadership, she found “anti-leadership attitudes strongly correlated with professional middle-class and upper middle-class backgrounds.”

Meanwhile, in “the movement traditions that were majority working-class, there was just an acceptance that, as long as leaders are accountable, as long as they are acting on the community’s behalf, then it is a good thing. The strength of your leader is a good thing. It gives you more power.”

Though it’s a popular tactic among many progressives today, Leondar-Wright is highly critical of the concept of “calling out” — the “practice of if someone says something in which you detect some sexism or racism or classism you just immediately and loudly denounce them in front of others.

“It’s based on a misunderstanding of what causes change,” she argues. “It leads to people quitting groups and falling into factions and all these things that are not moving towards social justice.”

She paraphrases her MNS colleague George Lakey: “A university education trains you to sit in judgement of others. Professional middle-class dominated movements or elite dominated movements often get this harshness towards each other,” she adds. Calling out, then, often has a nasty element of classism to it.

Instead, Leondar-Wright favours the idea of “calling in,” a concept coined by African-American activists. This involves “moving toward” the oppressive person and empathically engaging with the person and their views, rather than shunning them.

“I think that is really smart. It’s building the strength and the closeness and the solidarity of groups. To me that is a better practice.”

As she was researching her book, the Occupy movement sprang up in the US. Leondar-Wright was a keen supporter, though found it embodied many of the class-based problems she was researching.

“Some Occupy groups had gotten bogged down in group process quarrels and ideological quicksand,” she writes in the book’s conclusion.

Several of her initially enthusiastic friends dropped out of Occupy Boston, she explains, complaining of “long meetings, jargon, eccentric hand signals and a shortage of specific winnable demands.”

Observing a three-hour general assembly meeting, she observed many people of colour and with working-class accents were not fully participating.

“The much-touted horizontal participatory democracy of Occupy… seemed to make space for some process-savvy people’s voices but to shut out others, including some of those personally affected by the financial crisis that triggered the movement.”

Turning to the political upheavals in her own country, Leondar-Wright has been dismayed by the response of many liberals to the rise of Donald Trump and his supporters.

“We have these plutocrats and would-be fascists in power,” she says. “We’re panicked about what has happened in Washington, but also panicked and infuriated by the super, super classism among liberals and even some leftists.”

In an article published on the Class Action website earlier this year, she criticises the liberal elite’s focus on the “white working class” and use of classist language such as “stupid,” “crazy,” “deplorables” to describe those who voted for Trump.

Not only is it inaccurate — the white working class itself is politically diverse and, moreover, 54 per cent of college-educated white men voted for Trump — it’s also deeply unhelpful.

“Respectful engagement with someone offering a different worldview is the context in which people shift their frames,” she writes. “Ideologies morph over time. People change their minds. The people who horrify us, whose votes brought this catastrophe upon our land, they’re regular human beings. We demonise them at our peril.”

With liberal contempt for democracy and the general public seemingly rising after the election of Trump in the US and the Brexit vote in Britain, her fascinating analysis of class and classism is more important than ever.

As she argues in her book: “In a country with a working-class majority, a mass movement must be built with working-class cultural strengths in its bones,” something which if successfully implemented “could be transformative for future social movements.”

For more on Class Action, visit: classism.org. If you are interested in holding a workshop exploring class and classism in a similar way to Class Action, please contact Milan Rai of Peace News editorial@peacenews.info.