Tag Archives: Richard Seymour

Why civil resistance works

Why Civil Resistance Works
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
17 February 2014

I’ve been reviewing books for over eight years and feel I’ve just finished one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It’s a book that should cause a paradigm shift in international politics and foreign policy because it turns a lot of conventional thinking on its head.

The book is Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, co-authored by Erica Chenoweth, an Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, and Maria J. Stephan, a strategic planner with the US State Department.

Analysing 323 examples of resistance campaigns and rebellion from 1900 to 2006, Chenoweth and Stephan conclude nonviolent campaigns have been twice as successful as violent campaigns in achieving their objectives. They contend that this difference is down to nonviolent campaigns being more likely to attract mass support, noting “the moral, physical, informational, and commitment barriers are much lower for nonviolent resistance than for violent insurgency.” This greater level of participation tends to lead to more tactical innovation, more loyalty shifts among the regime’s supporters and raises the political, economic and social costs to the regime – all of which increase the overall chances of success. Moreover, they find that nonviolent resistance campaigns are more likely to lead to democratic forms of government than violent campaigns.

Chenoweth and Stephan’s conclusions chime with Gene Sharp, the world’s leading expert on nonviolence, who told me that using violence to overthrow a dictatorship was foolish: “If your enemy has massive capacity for violence – and modern governments today have massive capacity for violence – why deliberately choose to fight with your enemy’s best weapons? They are guaranteed to win, almost certainly.”

Like me, no doubt many people will be surprised by these findings. But our ignorance isn’t surprising when one considers just how dominant the conventional view of power and violence is: physical and military force is seen as the most powerful and effective action an individual, group or society can take, while nonviolence is viewed as idealistic, passive and fearful of confrontation.

Nonviolent resistance has been hidden from history. We can all rattle off the names and dates of famous battles in recent history, but how many of us know about how peaceful demonstrations overthrew the Guatemalan dictator General Ubico in 1944? Or how mass protests overthrew Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986? If Ben Affleck wasn’t so American-centric Argo would have told the extraordinary story of how the Shah of Iran was deposed in 1979 by a campaign of civil resistance rather than focussing on staff from the US Embassy that had supported the dictatorship.

Civil resistance is rarely taken seriously in the media. Even the most radical voices at the Guardian seem to be as quick as many others to support violence. Writing about the looming war in Iraq in late 2002 George Monbiot quickly summarised one proposed diplomatic solution to the crisis before arguing “If war turns out to be the only means of removing Saddam, then let us support a war whose sole and incontestable purpose is that and only that”. A decade later Comment is Free regular Richard Seymour dismissed the idea of nonviolent resistance to the Syrian Government and backed violent resistance as the most effective option.

“Ah, this is all well and good”, the sceptic will say, “but how can nonviolence possibly succeed against a repressive dictatorship?” According to Chenoweth and Stephan, the evidence they have collected “rejects the claim that there are some types of states against which only violence will work.” Rather their results show “that when regimes crack down violently, reliance on a nonviolent strategy increases the probability of campaign success”. The Iranian Government overthrown in 1979 had the worst human rights record of any country in the world, according to Amnesty International in 1976. Not harsh enough for you? How about East Timor, where Amnesty International reported Indonesian troops had killed 200,000 people between their 1975 invasion and 1999 – approximately one third of the total population of East Timor. Despite this mass murder a largely nonviolent mass movement eventually managed to eject the Indonesian forces, and declared independence in 2002.

Another tick in the pro column for nonviolent resistance is the fact it generally leads to a much smaller death toll – on all sides of a conflict. For example, the largely nonviolent people power in Tunisia and Egypt overthrew their dictators with far less death and destruction than the violent (and externally supported) uprisings in Libya and Syria.

Of course, nonviolent resistance is not a magic wand and does not guarantee success. However, the hard evidence shows it generally has the strategic edge over violent resistance. With the debate over Western intervention in Syria rumbling on among liberal commentators, Chenoweth and Stephan’s findings raise profound questions for those living under dictatorships and Western citizens considering how best to help those resisting oppression.

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Defending the status quo: Labour and leftist responses to the Green Surge

Defending the status quo: Labour and leftist responses to the Green Surge
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
29 January 2015

The on-going Green Surge – the Green Party of England and Wales now has over 50,000 members – has produced some illogical and politically blinkered responses from progressives both inside and outside of the Labour Party.

In December, before they increased their membership by nearly 25,000 people, the bizarre advice from The Guardian’s Richard Seymour to the Green Party was “to discover their dark side.” Bafflingly, he explained to one challenger that “any real compassion and concern must logically entail a rigorous hatred.”

Tweeting at Green MP Caroline Lucas, feminist writer and Labour supporter Julie Bindel demanded to know “will the Greens hold its policy of legalising and legitimising the international sex trade? This is a deal breaker for many.” Apparently the Labour leadership’s direct responsibly for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan men, women and children, it’s pro-austerity policies – which, incidentally, would push women into prostitution – and, er, the future of humanity, are not deal breakers for Bindel.

Finally, there is left-wing Labourite Owen Jones. In his latest Guardian blog Jones sets out some of his arguments for not voting Green, before explaining that Labour should not base its anti-Green strategy on these arguments. By feigning sympathy for their position at the same time as bashing potential Green voters Jones is very much attempting to have his cake and eat it.

Before I get into the detail of Jones’s arguments, I want to make it clear my criticism is not personal – Jones is simply the most prominent, and therefore most influential, figure on the Labour Left. I think Jones does magnificent work in and out of the media spotlight. As I’ve noted previously “Like many on the Left I see Jones as representing ‘my team’ against the Establishment.” However, on the topic of electoral politics the inescapable fact is Jones is currently acting as a conservative force, attempting to hold back the progressive, arguably radical, surge coming at Labour from the left. Jones wants to increase the number of people voting Labour and decrease the number of people voting Green.

All this leads to some bizarre political contortions. For example, Jones desperately wants Labour to back rail nationalisation to take votes away from Greens – the party that actually backs rail nationalisation.

Talking about Green voters, Jones also snidely comments that “Few of those who claim there is no meaningful difference between a Labour and Tory government are being hammered by the bedroom tax.” This, of course, plays into the popular, though questionable, stereotype of the Green Party as a haven for the middle-class (the Green Surge will likely change the composition of the Green Party). And it also hides the blindingly obvious fact the Greens are attracting support, including many former Labour voters, precisely because of their emphasis on social and economic justice and their opposition to the bedroom tax.

Echoing the age-old Labour fear-mongering, Jones notes that Green voters could well wake up the day after the election with “buyer’s remorse” when they realise their principled vote has helped another Tory Government into power. Jones, of course, fails to mention the “buyer’s remorse” hundreds of thousands of Labour supporters have felt since 1997 when they realised they helped to elected a New Labour government – again, a key reason many people are switching their vote from Labour to the Greens.

More importantly, Jones seems to be unaware of the history of his own party. Circa 1900 there were two main political parties in the UK. The Tories who, as now, commanded the support of much of the ruling class, and the Liberal Party, whose establishment reformism received substantial support from recently enfranchised working-class voters. The newly born Labour Party – then known as the Labour Representation Committee – won just two MPs in the 1900 election. The Owen Jones’s of the day would have argued that voting for the nascent Labour Party, however unhappy you were with the Liberals, would have split the anti-Tory vote. Luckily for us today, millions of voters ignored such pleas, and voted for the Labour Party, eventually leading to the watershed 1945 election victory. In short, the Labour Party is only a serious contender for power today because people ignored Owen Jones’s argument about not splitting the anti-Tory vote.

But it’s not just early twentieth century history that people wearing their specially-fitted Labour Party blinkers are unable to see and comprehend. Last weekend Jones travelled to Athens to support Syriza’s astonishing election victory. However, Syriza received just 4.7% of the vote in the 2009 Greek election. PASOK, Greece’s equivalent of the British Labour Party, received 43.9% of the vote, winning the election. Following PASOK’s support for the savage austerity agenda, by the June 2012 election Syriza had become the second party in Greece with 26.9% of the vote, while PASOK had slipped to third place, gaining just 12.3% of the vote. So, again, it needs to be emphasised that if Syriza supporters had followed Jones’s logic and voted for Greece’s Labour Party, PASOK, then Syriza would never have been in a position to win the last week’s election.

There is an obvious question for those who scream “You’ll let the Tories in!” at any progressives who vote for anyone other than Labour: When, exactly, will it be safe for people to vote for a left-wing party other than Labour? The answer for those keen to protect the political status quo, of course, is never. Luckily many people are ignoring this conservative argument and joining and voting for the Green Party in increasing numbers.

Defending the Green Party from Richard Seymour’s Darth Vader shtick

Defending the Green Party from Richard Seymour’s Darth Vader shtick
by Ian Sinclair
29 December 2014

Since January 2014 The Green Party of England and Wales has more than doubled its membership to over 30,000 and is now regularly polling above the Liberal Democrats. The party received over one million votes in the 2014 European elections gaining three MEPs and beating the Liberal Democrats, and came third in the 2012 London mayoral elections behind the Tories and Labour.

For a party campaigning in a political landscape where political party membership is plummeting, with relatively little financial backing and media exposure, these are impressive results, I think many would agree. The kind of results that would suggest the overall Green Party strategy is working. The British writer Richard Seymour, who runs the Lenin’s Tomb blog, strongly disagrees. “The problem with the Green party is that it is too nice”, Seymour explained in a recent Guardian Comment is Free blog. “They don’t hate, and if left-wing politics in this country needs anything it is a dose of rigorous hatred.” Perhaps excited by the recently released trailer for the new Star Wars film, Seymour ends his blog paraphrasing Darth Vader: “If they genuinely want to get ahead, they need to discover their dark side.”

Initially, I thought Seymour’s piece wasn’t entirely serious. However, a quick look at his tweets in defence of the blog show he was, indeed, being serious. For example, he bafflingly explained to one challenger that “any real compassion and concern must logically entail a rigorous hatred.”

Before I get into the detail of Seymour’s blog I think it’s important to take a step back and ask ourselves whether we want to encourage a politics based on “hate”? Call me naïve, but I presumed that all progressives, all Leftists, would think such a suggestion to be morally repugnant, practically dangerous and completely the opposite of what should be done.

To begin, it’s worth pointing out the inaccuracies in Seymour’s argument.

According to Seymour the Green Party is “not prepared to get their hands dirty, too committed to the niceties of parliamentary politics.” In reality Green representatives are often very active outside parliament. Caroline Lucas MP was arrested at a protest against fracking in August 2013. Jenny Jones, the Green Party peer in the House of Lords, was arrested at an Occupy protest in October 2014. This direct action follows a long tradition of Green politicians working both inside and outside of electoral politics to push for progressive change. For example, Derek Wall, a prominent member of the Green Party, is a strong supporter of direct action.

Seymour goes on to argue:

“It is excellent, but not enough, for the Greens to say they won’t scapegoat immigrants and other folk-devils. If immigrants aren’t to blame, then we need to know who is to blame. Left-populist movements in Europe that succeed tend to know who the enemy is, and name it. For Syriza it is the troika; for Podemos, it is la casta or the caste, their term for the parliamentary elites, businessmen, media elites and bankers who dominate Spanish society.”

Perhaps Seymour hasn’t been paying attention but recent media appearances suggest the Green Party is very clear about “who is to blame” for the crisis we find ourselves in:

  • ‘Stop attacks on welfare benefits and tackle bankers’ bonuses’ – Headline, Green Party website, February 2010
  • “This legacy was not a result of Government spending, it was the result of the banks very nearly crashing and going down and us having to rescue the banks. And that is why we have to look at dealing with the banks.” – Natalie Bennett, Leader of the Green Party, BBC Question Time, April 2013
  • “We have a chronic housing shortage, we have an NHS under strain, we have a culture of low pay. But the fault of that lies with the government not with migrants.” – Caroline Lucas MP, BBC Question Time, May 2014
  • “Well I think there’s an awful lot of disillusioned voters out there, whether they’re Lib Dems who thought they were voting for a freeze on tuition fees, or indeed Lib Dems who thought they were voting against nuclear weapons and nuclear power, to Labour people who just are really fed up with a Labour Party that isn’t prepared to stand up to the bankers, to stand up to the multinational companies.” – Natalie Bennett, Left Foot Forward, May 2014
  • He’s [George Osborne] made the disabled, the ill, the disadvantaged and the young pay for the errors and fraud of the bankers for which they bear no responsibility at all.” – Natalie Bennett, Huffington Post, 3 December 2014

Seymour also argues the Greens have achieved a rise in popularity “while maintaining some unfashionable stances”, citing – without any evidence – “local bigotry against Travellers” in Brighton and national public opinion on immigration. In reality, as I’ve argued elsewhere, many of the Green Party’s major policy positions have majority support among the general public. This is confirmed by the website Vote For Policies, which shows the Green Party’s policies are the most popular out of all the parties when people choose blindly without knowing the political party they are connected to. These hopeful results are supported by the recent YouGov/Times poll which found that 26% of voters would vote Green if they “had a chance of winning” – making the Green Party the third most popular party under these conditions.

What these two polls suggest is that two of the key problems the Green Party has are the media landscape and the electoral system we have in the UK – both of which Seymour fails to mention, let alone grapple with.

On the electoral system, it’s widely understood – and made plain by the YouGov/Times poll – that the UK’s first past the post general voting system tends to disadvantage smaller parties. In contrast, Spain’s Podemos and Greece’s Syriza have become popular in nations where general elections are held under forms of proportional representation. Turning to the media, The Guardian’s Zoe Williams has noted, the Green Party tend to receive very little media coverage – especially compared to UKIP. This defacto media blackout was recently taken to a mind-boggling extreme when the BBC Daily Politics programme showed viewers a poll that excluded the Green Party even though they polled more than the Liberal Democrats, who were included in the poll.

Finally, there is a third problem for the Greens that is rarely discussed – again not mentioned by Seymour: the Left itself seems to have a blind spot for the party, as I discussed here. For example, I am not aware of any mention of the Green Party in Seymour’s impressive new book Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made, even though they are the only party of the five largest nationwide parties who are opposed to austerity.

Of course, no one knows whether the Green surge will continue. And if it does no doubt a number of factors will have caused it. But what we can say is the evidence above suggests Greens would do well to take Seymour’s diagnosis, prognosis and prescription with a large dose of salt.

Why Do Left-Wing Commentators Ignore Climate Change?

Why Do Left-Wing Commentators Ignore Climate Change?
By Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
26 May 2014

Question. What do Seumas Milne, Owen Jones, Mehdi Hasan, Laurie Penny, Julie Bindel and Richard Seymour all have in common? All are, of course, prominent left-wing commentators who write for mainstream newspapers like the Guardian. And all do brilliant work drawing attention to lots of important issues. But they also have one other thing in common – all have had relatively little to say about man-made climate change.

Perhaps their relative lack of concern is because the health of our climate is not that important or particularly pressing? After all, what could be more important or pressing than issues such as war and peace, the Government’s austerity agenda, the next election, poverty, inequality, homophobia, racism or feminism?

The basic facts on climate change point to a different reality. As early as 2009 the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan’s think-tank, the Global Humanitarian Forum, highlighted how climate change was responsible for 300,000 deaths a year and affecting 300 million people. And with the scientific consensus estimating the world is currently heading for a minimum temperature increase of 4°C on 1990 levels by 2100 (and perhaps even earlier), the future is looking very bleak indeed.

The World Bank summarised what this future will look like in its 2012 report ‘Turn Down The Heat: Why A 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided’. “The 4°C scenarios are devastating”, the report’s foreword explains. “The inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.” Let’s go into a couple of these areas in a little more detail. According to a 2009 Guardian report new research by climate scientists show sea levels may rise by a metre or more by 2100, affecting “ten percent of the world’s population – about 600 million people” who live in vulnerable areas. Regarding the effect of climate change on our oceans, the former making the latter more acidic, the International Programme on the State of the Ocean summarised the situation last year as follows: “This [acidification] is unprecedented in the Earth’s known history. We are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change, and exposing organisms to intolerable evolutionary pressure. The next mass extinction may have already begun.”

Not frightening enough for you? Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester, argues a 4°C world will likely be “incompatible with organised global community.” Three of the academic co-authors of the health chapter of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report recently wrote that “human-driven climate change poses a great threat, unprecedented in type and scale, to wellbeing, health and perhaps even to human survival.”

It gets worse. Last year the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency said the world is currently on course for not 4°C but 6°C of warming by 2100 – a figure also predicted by the Global Carbon Project, a group of 31 scientists from seven countries led by Professor Corinne Le Quéré, now the Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Climate specialist Mark Lynas, author of the award-winning book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, argues a 6°C increase by 2100 would mean “we are going to face nothing less than a global wipeout.”

With the situation as grave as this, the aforementioned journalists relative silence on the topic seems downright reckless. If you are interested in the wellbeing of those who live in the Global South, or issues such as poverty, women’s rights, migration, hunger and war then you also have to grapple with climate change. “It is climate change that speaks to me most loudly. Partly because it is so overarching”, the American nonviolent activist George Lakey told me in 2012. “If we don’t solve that one there is a whole lot else we won’t get much space to work with. We will be on such a survival level. It will be very, very tough.”

To be clear, I’m not taking the moral high ground. As a writer I recognise that I too need to focus more of my time and energy on climate change. In fact all of the Left needs to raise its game and exert more pressure on this issue. Because when the World Bank has a greater understanding about, and concern for, the dangers climate change poses to the world than many of our top left-wing commentators, something is very wrong indeed.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He tweets @IanJSinclair