Tag Archives: protest

The Power of Protest: the anti-Vietnam War movement

The Power of Protest: the anti-Vietnam War movement
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
26 October 2017

The new 10-part Vietnam War documentary from legendary American filmmaker Ken Burns and Lynn Novick has garnered much praise (in the Guardian and the Morning Star television guides), along with some searing criticism from journalist John Pilger.

In addition to the conflict in South-East Asia, the series covers the extensive and diverse anti-war movement back in the United States, the influence of which continues to be contested today. For example, in his 2012 study Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement Simon Hall, currently a Professor of Modern History at the University of Leeds, argues “when it comes to the ultimate test – whether it helped to end the war in Vietnam – it is far from clear that the anti-war movement had any meaningful impact at all.” Interestingly, many anti-war activists at the time also saw the movement as powerless against the US military machine, according to historian Tom Wells.

The impact of social movements is certainly often difficult to quantify. The evidence is messy, sometimes contradictory. ‘Decision-makers’ are usually loath to admit they have been swayed by public opinion on matters of war and peace. And there are many influences on governments and public opinion during wartime, including domestic and international politics, geopolitical concerns and the progress of the war itself.

However, despite these caveats the evidence of the power of the anti-Vietnam War movement is clear. Wells, who interviewed over 35 senior US government officials from the period for his 1994 book The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam, notes “If many protesters failed to appreciate their political clout, officials in the Johnson and Nixon administrations did not.” Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Nixon administration: “The reaction of the noisy radical groups was considered all the time. And it served to inhibit and restrain the decision makers.” For Moorer the movement “had a major impact… both in the executive and legislative branches of the government.”

Wells elaborates: “The movement played a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war.”

US dissident Noam Chomsky remembers becoming active against the war in 1962, when the US intervention in Vietnam was still relatively light. “You couldn’t get two people in a living room to talk about it”, he notes. “In October 1965… in Boston… we tried to have our first major public demonstration against the war on the Boston Common, the usual place for meetings”, he recalls. “I was supposed to be one of the speakers, but nobody could hear a word. The meeting was totally broken up—by students marching over from universities, by others, and hundreds of state police, which kept people from being murdered.”

From these modest and difficult beginnings, the movement – which continued to be unpopular throughout the war according to opinion polls – grew in tandem with the increasing levels of US military aggression in Vietnam. According to Gallup, in 1965 24 percent of American felt sending troops to Vietnam was a mistake. By 1971 the figure was 61 percent.

Like Wells, the historian Melvin Small also believes the anti-war movement had “a significant impact” on the Johnson and Nixon administrations managing the war, highlighting two key points of influence – October 1967 and October 1969. Informed by interviews with US policymakers and archival research, Small argues in his 1989 book Johnson, Nixon and The Doves that the famous March on the Pentagon in 1967, which involved 35,000-50,000 protesters marching to the heart of military power in Washington, “shocked” the Johnson administration. By early 1968, Pentagon officials were warning a further increase in US troop levels in Vietnam in the face of the public’s “growing dissatisfaction” risked provoking “a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions.” Clark Clifford, who served as US Secretary of Defence for a short period from 1968-69, said this advice had a “tremendous” impact on him.

In autumn 1969, President Richard Nixon was threatening North Vietnam with an escalation in violence if it didn’t play ball in peace negotiations. The historian Marilyn Young notes the proposed assault – known as Operation Duck Hook – “explored a new range of options, including a land invasion of the North, the systematic bombing of dikes so as to destroy the food supply, and the saturation bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong.”

However, Small notes The Moratorium – a series of demonstrations held across the country in October 1969 that drew more than two million people – “helped to convince Nixon that Americans would not accept the savage blows envisaged by Operation Duck Hook.” Nixon’s memoirs support this conclusion, with Tricky Dicky writing that after the huge protests “American public opinion would be seriously divided by any military escalation of the war.”

“The protester’s victory over the war machine was not, of course, absolute”, Wells notes. The movement had not prevented the war’s escalation, some two million Vietnamese deaths, or the 58,000 Americans who returned home in a body bag. “Nonetheless, their influence on their government had been profound”, he explains. “Had they not acted, the death and destruction they mourned would have been immensely greater.”

Wells sets out a number of other effects of the decentralised, often chaotic anti-war movement: it fed the deterioration in US troop morale and discipline; hastened troop withdrawals, promoted congressional legislation that limited US funds for the war; and applied pressure on the Nixon administration to negotiate a settlement of the war. Writing in 1988, McGeorge Bundy – National Security Advisor to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson – argued that public opinion was a key factor behind why the US government never seriously contemplated using nuclear weapons against North Vietnam. One could also point to longer term influences, including playing a key role in germinating other social movements such as the environmental movement, and its constraining effect on US military actions abroad until the epoch-changing 9/11 attacks.

“The movement cannot be measured on the basis of its instrumental achievements alone”, argues scholar Winifred Breines. “The whole culture was transformed.”

Why is it important to highlight the power and influence of the American anti-Vietnam War movement over 50 years later in a British newspaper?

Rebecca Solnit’s extraordinary introduction to the new edition of her powerful book Hope in Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities provides a good explanation. Quoting theologian Walter Brueggemann that “Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair”, Solnit argues established power is always keen to present the status quo as “immutable, inevitable and invulnerable”. Highlighting the success of the anti-Vietnam War movement gives hope, showing people that protest and activism – broadly nonviolent in nature – is a powerful force that can compel significant changes in government policy and save lives.

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The Biggest Fight of Our Lives

The Biggest Fight of Our Lives
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
October-November 2017

An ‘epic fight’ between the broad left and the forces of the establishment has begun (see PN 2586–2587). The prize couldn’t be bigger. The British left, for the first time in decades, has a very real opportunity to implement significant progressive change on the epoch-altering scale of the 1945 and 1979 elections. As Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani tweeted: ‘If we win, and survive, and enact a major program of economic and political change, the whole world will watch. The UK really could be prototype.’

The June 2017 general election result was ‘one of the most sensational political upsets of our time’, according to Guardian columnist Owen Jones. Despite being repeatedly laughed at and written off by an intensely hostile media, by other parties and by much of the Labour Party establishment itself, Jeremy Corbyn led Labour to its biggest increase in vote share since 1945. Labour leapt to 40 per cent of the vote after the party had achieved 30 per cent under Ed Miliband just two years earlier.

On 20 April, only 22 per cent of people had a favourable opinion of Jeremy Corbyn, and 64 per cent had an unfavourable view. (Added together, that was 42 per cent unfavourable overall). By 12 June, the figures were 46 percent favourable and 46 percent unfavourable. (Overall, neither favourable nor unfavourable.) (YouGov, 15 June).

Though the Tories have managed to cling onto power, Corbyn’s rise has created shockwaves throughout the political system.

Writing for Open Democracy, Jeremy Gilbert, a professor of cultural and political theory at the University of East London, noted the election ‘was a historic turning point’ as it ‘marked the final end of the neoliberal hegemony in Britain’ (1 August). In response the Tories are reported to be considering relaxing the pay rise restrictions on public sector workers, while Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon unveiled a range of progressive policies, including possible tax rises, ‘in an effort to reinvigorate her government’ (Guardian, 6 September). With a recent poll from Survation showing Labour on 43 per cent – five points ahead of the Conservative Party on 38 per cent – Jones believes Corbyn now ‘has a solid chance of entering No 10’ (Guardian, 9 August).

Corbyn is a threat

Though some commentators have argued Corbyn’s Labour Party differs little in policy terms from the party under Miliband, ‘those criticisms were dispelled by the election manifesto’, Alex Nunns tells me. Nunns, author of The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power, says: ‘It’s inconceivable that Miliband would have stood on a promise to renationalise energy, water, railways and the Royal Mail’, as Corbyn did.

More broadly, Matt Kennard, a former Financial Times reporter and author of The Racket, explains to me the key is the direction of travel Corbyn represents: ‘The threat Corbyn poses is that he shows that another world is possible.’

Echoing Gilbert’s analysis, Nunns believes: ‘Corbyn is seen as such a threat by the establishment because he would mark a historic break with the Thatcherite consensus that has dominated British politics for three decades.’ The Labour manifesto ‘unashamedly outlined a vision of a different society based on the principles of collectivism and universalism, after decades of individualism and means-tested entitlements’, he says.

‘Of course, what the British establishment fears most about Corbyn is his foreign policy stance’, Nunns notes. Dr David Wearing, a lecturer at SOAS University of London, agrees that Corbyn represents a huge challenge to the foreign policy elite – and conventional wisdom. Though he has had to compromise on Trident and membership of NATO, Corbyn ‘is a straightforwardly anti-imperialist, anti-militarist figure’, Wearing recently argued on the Media Democracy podcast. ‘I can’t think of any time in the last several decades where it has been a realistic possibility that the leader of a UN security council permanent member, a great power, a great capitalist Western power, could be in the next few years an anti-militarist and an anti-imperialist.’

Kennard agrees: ‘It’s a huge moment in British history – and arguably in world history’. The establishment ‘have every right to be fearful’, he adds.

Rejuvenated Tories

For the words ‘prime minister Jeremy Corbyn’ to become a statement of fact rather than wishful thinking, Labour needs to win the next general election. Standing in their way will be a rejuvenated Conservative party and their powerful supporters, who will likely have learned lessons from their poor performance in June.

According to the Guardian, the Tories have been undertaking an internal review, which will urge the leadership to offer voters clear messages on policy and shake up the party machine (Guardian, 29 August). ‘What didn’t happen in the [general] election was almost as interesting as what did’, Nunns says. ‘There were no doom and gloom threats about a Labour government from big business, there didn’t seem to be an effort to sabotage Labour by the state. Given that even Conservatives now expect Corbyn to win the next election, you’d expect it to be different next time.’

Interviewed on BBC Newsnight, former Labour leader Tony Blair voiced similar concerns on 17 July. ‘The Tories are never going to fight a campaign like that one’, he said. ‘I know the Tories, they are not going to do that. And they are going to have a new leader as well. Secondly, our programme, particularly on tax and spending, is going to come under a lot more scrutiny than it did last time round’.

Barriers

With a Corbyn-led Labour Party victory in the next election a real possibility, it is worth considering the challenges it would face. Speaking to Jacobin magazine, Jon Lansman, chair of Momentum and a close associate of Corbyn, is clear: ‘We will face opposition from all aspects of the establishment, from the powerful, from global corporations’.

Having reported extensively from the Global South, Kennard notes ‘the method of choice’ for undermining leftist governments ‘in peripheral world economies has been military coups and political assassinations.’ The UK, of course, has a very different political landscape with very different political traditions.

Despite this, it’s important to note that soon after Corbyn was elected Labour leader, in September 2015, the Sunday Times carried a front page report that quoted ‘a senior serving general’ saying the military ‘would use whatever means possible, fair or foul’, to prevent a Corbyn-led government attempting to scrap Trident, withdraw from NATO and ‘emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces’.

There is also evidence that MI5 attempted to undermine Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the 1970s (see David Leigh’s book The Wilson Plot: How the Spycatchers and Their American Allies Tried to Overthrow the British Government), and Corbyn himself has been monitored by undercover police officers for two decades as he was ‘deemed to be a subversive’, according to a former Special Branch officer (Daily Telegraph, 7 June).

However, though he notes the British establishment ‘has never been tested properly in this way for centuries’, Kennard is quick to clarify he doesn’t expect a military coup or assassination attempt to happen in the UK.

‘We know from history what usually happens when left governments are elected’, Nunns says. ‘They face destabilisation from capital, both domestically and internationally, they are subjected to a hysterical press operation to undermine them, they face diplomatic pressure from other countries, and they have to deal with sabotage from the state they have been elected to run.’

North American radical activist and author of Viking Economics: How The Scandinavians Got It Right – And How We Can, George Lakey tells me the elite ‘will use whatever tactics and strategies will put us on the defensive, because, as Gandhi never tired of pointing out, going on the defensive is a sure way to lose.’ If those trying to undermine Corbyn ‘are smart strategists, they will be flexible and keep trying things that will get progressives to mount the barricades in defence’, he notes.

The Labour leadership are, of course, aware of these likely challenges, and seem to be making early moves to neutralise them. ‘The issue for us is to stabilise the markets before we get into government, so there are no short-term shocks’, shadow chancellor John McDonnell told the Guardian on 19 August, explaining he had been meeting with ‘people in the City – asset managers, fund managers’ to reassure them about Labour’s plans.

Mobilisation is key

Speaking about US politics in 2007, Adolph Reed Jr, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, noted: ‘Elected officials are only as good or as bad as the forces they feel they must respond to’.

In the UK context, this means the actions of the movement supporting a Corbyn-led government will need to match – and overpower – the establishment onslaught that will be waged against it.

‘The first 19 months of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership proved one thing above all else – it’s not enough to just elect a leader and think the job is done’, Nunns notes, pointing to the movement’s central role in fending off the attempted coup against Corbyn in June 2016. ‘The need for the movement to stay mobilised will be multiplied by a hundred when Corbyn is in government.’ Moreover, Nunns points out that the movement ‘will have to be on a scale we haven’t seen so far’.

Lakey points to the successful strategies used in 1920s and ’30s Norway and Sweden as examples Corbyn supporters should follow. ‘The movements’ mobilisations took place mainly through direct action campaigns and cooperatives, both of which remained independent of the [political] parties’ that represented them in parliament, he explains. ‘The movements strategised independently because they believed that equality, freedom, and shared prosperity could only come from a power shift in society.’

‘I learned from studying Norway and Sweden that if they had relied on parliament and the electoral process, they would still be waiting for the power shift that in the 1930s enabled them to invent the Nordic model that has outperformed Britain and the US for over 60 years’, Lakey continues. ‘From the perspective of power, parliaments negotiate and express change, they don’t make change.’

Kennard is strongly in favour of joining the Labour Party and hitting the streets to campaign. ‘I door knocked for the first time [during the June general election] and I’ll do it again’, he notes. Indeed the importance of traditional campaigning techniques was highlighted by a London School of Economics study which found the seats where the Labour leader campaigned – often holding large rallies – saw an average swing of 19 per cent in the Labour Party’s favour (Independent, 15 August).

Kennard also supports the democratisation of the Labour Party to give members more say in policymaking and choosing their representatives. Finally, he recommends people get involved on social media. Though sceptical of the medium initially, he now sees platforms such as Twitter as a way to combat the misinformation and lies spread by newspapers like the Sun and Daily Mail.

With the establishment likely to try to put a Labour government on the back foot, Lakey says it is essential that Corbyn stays on the offensive. ‘So avoid trying to maintain any previously-made gains; instead, go forward to make new gains’, he argues.

The general election campaign provided a good example of how successful this could be following the May 2017 terrorist attack in Manchester. Thought to be weak on ‘defence’ by many, Corbyn could have chosen to follow the government’s line on terrorism. Instead he confronted the issue head on, giving a relatively bold speech that, in part, made a connection between Western foreign policy and the terrorist attacks directed at the West. Rather than being cornered and weakened by the government and media, Corbyn took control of – and arguably changed – the narrative surrounding terrorism, with a YouGov poll showing a majority of people supporting his analysis (YouGov, 30 May) [See editor Milan Rai’s article on the PN blog about Corbyn’s speech and ‘foreign policy realism’.]

Defend him and push him

With foreign policy likely to continue to be a significant line of attack on Corbyn, the peace movement has an essential role to play, both in defending Corbyn’s broadly anti-militarist, anti-imperialist positions and in pushing him to be bolder.

For example, Greens such as Rupert Read have criticised the Labour manifesto for pushing for more economic growth in the face of looming climate breakdown (Morning Star, 12 July), while British historian Mark Curtis has highlighted a number of problematic foreign policy pledges contained in the Labour manifesto, including support for the ‘defence’ industry. And despite Corbyn’s historic opposition to both, as Wearing indicates, the manifesto confirmed Labour’s ‘commitment to NATO’ and its support for Trident renewal.

Despite these important concerns, Corbyn’s campaigning and current polling, showing Labour would have an opportunity to form the next government if an election was held tomorrow, puts the Labour Party, the peace movement and UK politics firmly into uncharted territory.

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.

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.

Do you have to gain power to make change?

Do you have to gain power to make change?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 November 2016 

“The greatest lesson that we can take from our history is that we can only implement our vision and apply our values when we win power and form a government”, Labour MP Owen Smith repeated ad nauseam during the recent Labour leadership contest. Owen Jones, generally considered to be on the left of the Labour Party, seemed to echo Smith on the issue of power and influence on his Youtube channel in August 2016. “Instead of sticking our fingers in our ears and going ‘lalalala it’s all fine’ there just needs to be strategy to improve those ratings”, the Guardian columnist argued about Labour’s poor poll ratings. “Otherwise we are finished, and the Conservatives will run the country for years. I’ll just keep doing my videos whinging about things, coming up with ideas. Waste of time. Just words, isn’t it? Just words.”

However, despite what the two Owens assert about the futility of opposition, the historical record suggests a far more hopeful conclusion.

“Power is not the only factor instrumental in creating change”, Salim Lone, a former Communications Director at the United Nations, noted in a letter to The Guardian in May 2016. “In fact it’s what one does in ‘opposition’ that has historically paved the way for real change. Humanity’s progress has resulted primarily from the struggles of those who fought for change against entrenched power.” US author Rebecca Solnit agrees, noting just before the US presidential election that “election seasons erase the memory of movements that worked for years or decades, outside and around, below and above electoral politics.” She describes these as “the histories that matter.”

Producing change while not in power can broadly be separated into two camps: transformation that is forced on an unwilling ruling elite, and government policies that are stopped or modified by strong opposition. And let’s not forget that any change from below almost always involves an extra-parliamentary direct action struggle, from the setting up of trade unions and women winning the vote to the success of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s – all forced on an initially resistant ruling class. In the 1990s direct action played a key role in stopping the “biggest road building programme since the Romans” planned by the then Tory government and the attempt to introduce GM food to the UK.

Indeed, a close reading of the news demonstrates that successfully making change while not in power happens all the time. Last month The Guardian headline was “Poland’s abortion ban proposal near collapse after mass protests”. Back in the UK, Corbyn’s Labour Party has inflicted a number of defeats on the government – on planned cuts to tax credits and housing benefit, and the proposed prison contract with Saudi Arabia. It was a Tory-led Government, let’s not forget, that introduced gay marriage – 25 years after they introduced the anti-gay Section 28. And responding to the Chancellor’s recent announcement about investing in the economy, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell quipped “It’s clear Philip Hammond is now borrowing from Labour to invest in his own speech”.

Unsurprisingly governments will try to take the credit for any popular changes – former Prime Minister David Cameron making it known he had personally intervened in favour of legalising same-sex marriage, for example. But rather than taking the powerful at their (retrospective and self-justifying) word, a more accurate explanation of the process of positive change is highlighted by Tony Benn’s famous dictum: “It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

Of course, being in power is preferable to not being in power. Far more change is obviously possible when one is in control, when it can be planned, coordinated and sustained. Those attempting to force change from the outside do not have control of the process, the timing or the details. However, it is important not to underestimate the power of social movements and activism – the power of ‘ordinary’ people to create real, long-lasting change.

Indeed, with Donald Trump likely to be in the White House for the next four years it is essential this hopeful understanding of political change is widely understood and acted upon. The signs are promising: with Trump reviled and distrusted by a large section of the American public, it is likely there will be a much needed resurgence of progressive activism following the unjustified lull during the Obama Administration. Trump is dangerously unpredictable, so making predictions about his foreign policy is difficult, US dissident Noam Chomsky noted in a recent interview. However, he ended on a note of optimism: “What we can say is that popular mobilization and activism, properly organized and conducted, can make a large difference.”

Book review. Rebel Footprints: A Guide To Uncovering London’s Radical History by David Rosenberg

Book review. Rebel Footprints: A Guide To Uncovering London’s Radical History by David Rosenberg
by Ian Sinclair
Red Pepper
August-September 2015

Rebel Footprints is effectively two books woven into one. First, in response to the statues celebrating imperialist and ruling class men that dominate the streets of London David Rosenberg has written an exciting radical history of the capital. In addition, interspersed throughout the lively prose are delightful practical walking guides that the reader can use to explore the rousing accounts of resistance and rebellion Rosenberg has unearthed.

Focussing on the hundred year following the widespread disappointment of 1832’s so-called Great Reform Act, the book honours those who refused to accept the poverty-ridden, undemocratic status quo and who, as one newspaper said of Labour MP George Lansbury, were “impatient to put the world right.”

Refreshingly, Rosenberg balances familiar names, organisations and protests with lesser known history. Who knew that in response to the huge Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common in 1848 the Queen was evacuated to the Isle of Wight and 3,000 soldiers were sent to London? The dissidents of Clerkenwell and Bloomsbury gets a chapter each – but so does the relatively unknown socialist agitation in Battersea which led to the election of London’s first Black mayor and first Communist MP. Turning to the women’s vote, Rosenberg skirts past Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union to highlight the work of her pacifist, class-conscious daughter Sylvia and the East London Federation of Suffragettes.

Rosenberg is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide who is particularly good at showing the myriad of links between different campaigns. For example, as well as agitating for votes for women with the Women’s Freedom League, the vegetarian activist Charlotte Despard also set up a community centre, campaigning for socialist causes and Irish Home Rule.

“London remains a vibrant and rebellious city”, Rosenberg concludes, pointing to the Occupy camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral and “the uprisings” in Tottenham in the 1980s and 2011. With a Tory majority Government elected in May, Radical Footprints will hopefully inspire people to fight back against the next five years of austerity-driven class warfare.