Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Grayndler and the Greens’ dilemmas

By Hall Greenland

In the days that followed the election perfect strangers were constantly bailing me up to express their congratulations and commiserations. They were aware our vote in the seat of Grayndler had dropped compared to our 2010 result - three percentage points as it turned out - and were disappointed (and wary of the Abbott victory) but they were not despondent.

They were right. The drop in Grayndler was nowhere near as large as the overall fall in the Greens vote across the country (see the accompanying table at the end). And if we take a longer view, the Greens vote in Grayndler is up 20% on our 2007 vote (from 19 to 23 per cent). Undoubtedly also injecting some optimism into the reaction was the magnificent victory in the seat of Melbourne, the re-election of Senators Scott Ludlum and Sarah Hanson-Young and the extra senator (Janet Rice) in Victoria.

The local reaction reflects the certainty that we won the political debate during the campaign. There was, after all, no convincing Labor answer to the criticisms of their punitive refugee policy, or the cuts to single parent pensions, or the slashing of university funding, or the promotion of coal exports, or the approval of fracking, or the failure to protect iconic wilderness areas and farmland.

The positive vibe also had much to do with our campaign. We definitely won a few rounds during the run-up, including the Meet-the-Candidates debate in Marrickville Town Hall. It is little wonder that the sitting member Anthony Albanese refused our challenge for debates during the campaign.

The wins during the campaign were important because at the beginning of this year the Greens in Grayndler were in the doldrums after the setbacks in the local elections last year. In all the municipalities within Grayndler, the Green vote went backwards – in some cases by as much as 25%.

Early in the campaign we were buoyed by exaggerated hopes (based on 2010 figures) of actually winning the seat. However that close-run thing in 2010 was the result of receiving Coalition preferences and five weeks out from this election Tony Abbott announced that Labor not the Greens would be getting Coalition preferences this time. It was testament to the strength of our campaign team – and our campaign coordinator Lesa de Leau - that we did not falter.

Our media people, to cite one example, were terrific. We received a number of front pages in the local press and our social media and internet presence could not have been better. The campaign videos were also consistently interesting and garnered positive feedback.

This local and social media presence was important because Anthony Albanese received a charmed ride from the liberal mainstream media. The ABC and SBS rallied to Albanese’s defence with soft treatment on everything from Radio National to the Hamster Wheel to the Observer Effect.

The Grayndler Greens campaign was well-funded compared to other Greens lower house campaigns in NSW. But to put it into perspective, we only had about one-tenth of the resources of the Greens in Melbourne and less than half the resources committed to the key seats in the last state election.

Why then didn’t these strengths translate into more votes? The short answer is we should not underestimate either the strength of our Labor opponents or the mood of our electorate. We were pitted against the deputy prime minister and long-term incumbent, who had comparatively huge party, union and media networks to draw on as well as solid vote banks in the local ethnic and sporting communities.

As for the mood, the most common reaction I encountered from sympathetic voters when I was doorknocking was, “Yes, I like the Greens but the important thing is to stop Tony Abbott, so I’m voting Labor”. This defensive, fear-of-Abbott mood largely explains the continued strength of the Labor vote in Grayndler which was relatively impervious to reminders of how right-wing Labor had become, or to explanations of how preferences worked, or to assurances that the Greens would never support an Abbott government. It completely overwhelmed any impact the Greens official campaign messages might have had.

Yet it is important not to miss the first part of that doorstep declaration – “Yes, I like the Greens…” It is that which is also a source of our measured but upbeat reaction. There is much goodwill towards us in the ranks of Labor voters, which is no surprise as most of us are former Labor voters.

This raises the strategic question of how the Greens relate to Labor now. The experience of the past three years is instructive. There was no real alternative to guaranteeing confidence and supply to the minority Labor government after the August 2010 elections. It was the best government that was available in the prevailing circumstances. It was also right to secure concessions from the minority government. What went wrong – and the work of Tad Tietze & Elizabeth Humphrys and Tony Harris is pretty valid on this subject - was to get cosy and close to that government and to oversell the concessions. Any unpopularity of that government was also sure to rub off on us.

We needed to keep in the front of our minds that the minority Labor government was committed to an unsustainable model of capitalism, its policies were neoliberal to the core and it was a toady of Washington in foreign affairs. Fortunately the party room in Canberra has now reclaimed its freedom of manoeuvre.

While a dynamic, critical, alternative approach to the Canberra consensus is always in order, there is no guarantee that it would have produced better results in the political circumstances of a general shift to the right among voters. The magnitude of this shift is being overlooked in too many quarters: the combined Greens-Labor vote in 2007 was 52%, 50% in 2010 and 43% in 2013.

This problem of relations with Labor remains a real political dilemma for us as we will need to attempt some kind of cooperation with Labor in resisting the Abbott government’s bid to reverse climate change action, undo environmental safeguards, turn the screw on refugees and accelerate redistribution upwards.

The dilemma is thrown into sharper relief by the current Labor leadership ballot. We in Grayndler know how fake or limited Albanese “progressivism” is – given his support for the imprisonment of refugees, promotion of coal exports, privatisations of public enterprises, local Council alliances with the Liberals etc – but his victory can make resistance to Abbott stronger in that it could revivify the long-suffering Labor base who will almost certainly vote overwhelmingly for Albanese as the most “progressive” candidate.

We are now entering a new period. It is to our advantage that Senator Lee Rhiannon has kicked off the discussion amongst us about how we proceed after the election setbacks. Left Flank and Antony Loewenstein are weighing in as well. The virtue of the Greens party room’s present position is that the Greens can regain their freedom of political independence and initiative. What the issue or issues will be that arouse important parts of the citizenry to action is yet to be determined but already climate change has joined refugees as causes around which people – and certainly the Grayndler Greens - are willing to act.  

14 September 2013
My initial response to election result https://www.facebook.com/greensforgrayndler

The Greens’ percentage of the vote: House of Representative/Senate

2007 election
2010 election
2013 election
7.79 / 9.04
11.76 / 13.11
8.33 / 8.58

7.88 / 8.43
10.24 / 10.69
7.76 / 7.57

8.17 / 10.08
12.66/ 14.64
10.32 / 10.70

13.5 / 18.13
16.82 / 20.27
8.08 / 11.37

South Australia
6.95 / 6.49
11.98 / 13.30
7.99 / 7.03

Western Australia
8.93 / 9.30
13.13 / 13.96
9.54 / 9.78

5.63 / 7.32
10.92 /12.76
6.03 / 6.09

Thursday, 9 May 2013

As the Gallipoli centenary approaches: is the Anzac Legend bubble in danger of bursting?

Anzac Day has come and gone as principle urgers like Australian War memorial Director Brendan Nelson and NSW Anzac Centenary chief and ex-General Peter Cosgrove crank up the volume on their plans for the 2015 Gallipoli anniversary. On the surface this year’s Anzac commemorations continued to demonstrate rude good health with new records for dawn service attendance – close to 50,000 in Melbourne and 35,000 in Canberra.

But the commemorations have not gone unchallenged with thoughtful critiques this year appearing in the mainstream media from Clare Wright, Ian Sysons, Christopher Bantick, Ben Pobjie, Kim Johnston, among others. There was Robert Bollard’s new book re-challenging the myths of Gallipoli and World War One. And a debate on the “puff” versus “substance” of Anzac Day, featuring Marilyn Lake, Jeff Sparrow and ex-ADF solider Graham Wilson, against a team including new Australian “War” Memorial generalissimo, Brendan Nelson, saw Lake et al win 71% of the 250-300 person audience vote, with few pro-Anzac contributions from the floor discussion. When it comes to the arguments the anti-Anzac perspective is strong but is crowded out by the jingoistic commemoration, fuelled by a largely obsequious and compliant mainstream media.

But is it possible to detect a whiff of panic and bluster among the Anzac legend urgers? Are they running the risk of going “over the top” in the run-up to 2015? Might the bubble burst?

While the numbers turning out to ceremonies in Australia and overseas are impressive we should remember that they represent a shifting concentration of public turnout, towards dawn ceremonies, that may be still be less than the number who turned out for (the now less significant) veterans’ marches during the 1950s and early 1960s. Should this perhaps be the point of comparison, relative to population size, rather than comparing the current turnouts with the downturn from the late 1960s?

Anecdotally and subjectively I recall a bigger fuss being made in my hometown in the 1950s and early 60s with not one but two Anzac marches, a preceding schools march on April 24 (with the benefit of losing a double period in the classroom two mornings a week, in the weeks prior, to practice marching). And even in the classroom it seemed then that Anzac Day received more attention with mass compositions written on Simpson and his Donkey etc. On this point I take issue with Marilyn Lake. It seems to me as a teacher who has spent a good part of my teaching of history and politics at matriculation and university level, the interesting question is not the use of pro-Anzac materials provided by Remembrance institutions like the AWM and Veteran’s Affairs, but why, after decades of teaching by baby-boomers like me: the WWI “Home Front” conscription struggles, the Vietnam War and peace movements; the Anzac Legend is so enduring. This points to the more important cultural and political setting outside the school.

Again, anecdotally, even the “good war”, World War Two, received more attention back in the 1950s and 1960s. Coral Sea Week, following close on the heels of Anzac Day was prominent and in my town and featured an annual fly over by military aircraft, (and we were nowhere near an airbase) with pilots flown back by transport that evening for a ball! This was a celebration of the alliance with the US. There has been the more recent nationalistic shift to Kokoda and the bombing of Darwin, but with the alliance still in tow.

This writer senses that what we may be seeing with the current commemorative hype may be all we are going to get – that the Anzac urgers have committed much of their army to the field. Living in a part of Melbourne where “leakage” from such patriotic events might show up in boozy public displays of nationalism, there was none of this around on Anzac Day this year, as the populace largely seemed to get on with enjoying the sunny late autumn opportunities of a (in this case informally extended) long weekend - something that is going to happened every time Anzac Day does not fall on a Wednesday.

The jingoes potentially are facing problems – could it be that the 2015 anniversary might mirror 1915 where the news from Gallipoli caused a flush in recruitment before enthusiasm for the war waned (back then, in the face of industrial conflict and the conscription debates)?

As historian Clare Wright has pointed out the revitalisation of Anzac commemoration has been part of the political project emanating from the Hawke-Keating and Howard eras. Howard in particular, she argued, used the Anzac legend “as a political opportunistic tool for rallying the nation behind a particular version of Australia's history.”

Anzac and neo-liberalism.

Much of this relates to the emergence of a dominant and largely unchallenged neo-liberalism in the Hawke and Howard eras. The corollary of this emphasis on free markets and the rule of capital has been the attempt to collapse the state back to its core military-security function: not just war making but also anti-terrorism policing, containing unionism and border security. This has been accentuated since 9/11 and the “war on terror”. The focus on the state’s war-making function has required an intensifying of the military legends provided by Anzac to sustain this. It may not be, as Wright and Marilyn Lake argue, that the Anzac Legend crowds out other important national narratives, such as the emergence of democracy in Australia. Rather it may be the other way around – the weakness of any strongly articulated social democratic, internationalist and peace alternatives in Australia’s contemporary political culture, gives full reign to the jingoistic nationalism of the Anzac Legend.

Both the Labor Party “Left” and the Greens, have effectively given up on presenting antiwar perspectives. This is particularly egregious for the Greens, which in large part began in the 1980s as an antiwar global movement (linked to ecology through the nuclear issue). While critical of US alliance policy, the Greens have recently subtly embraced the alliance itself – and how many people noticed, especially in the mainstream media (MSM), that the 2010 Afghan War debate contained no Green criticism of that alliance – the equivalent of criticizing global warming without mentioning carbon.

At its worst this is electorally-driven cowardice by Labor’s “Left” and the nominally antiwar Greens - at its best it is a gross political negligence. However in the context of global economic crisis, the neo-liberal consensus underpinning war culture is in danger of fracturing. This, coupled with the waning enthusiasm for the war on terror and the failures of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, may open up more space for alternative political visions, threatening the Anzac Legend.

The jingoes’ commemorative problems.

In this wider context there are other more immediate commemorative problems.

There is the increased and overt military presence on Anzac Day, with catafalque guards, fly-pasts, speech-making by the military brass, and the presence of uniformed veterans. Unlike the short-term volunteer armies of the two world wars, and conscripts of Vietnam, veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan contain among their numbers a higher percentage of still-serving soldiers. This increased presence of uniforms on Anzac Day, and its threat to the image of the citizen-veteran has been concerning enough for arch-hawk and Australian Defence Association chief Neil James to express concern.

The military is in a jam here. The war culture, which the Anzac mythologies promote, is a “Janissary” culture which says it is fine to have sacrificed one’s life for empire (British or American) and military defeat (Gallipoli, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan). This has been essential to maintaining Australia’s war machine – one still built around the alliance with the US. There is also the general fear, recently expressed by the Chief of Army, that post-Afghanistan, governments might be tempted to wind back military spending and recruitment, as happened for a time after Vietnam. This is a particular danger at a time of fiscal problems associated with the GFC and these anxieties have been expressed around the release of the latest Defence White Paper. Hence the military’s hyperactive support for Anzac commemoration, a support that risks martialising and damaging it.

But along with this is the shift in focus away from the big marches as a consequence of the overall declining number of veterans. While we need to remember 17,000 Australian’s have served in Iraq, and the wash-up from Afghanistan may be similar, the veterans from the first AIF have gone, the second AIF almost gone, and the 50,000 who served in Vietnam are ageing. It is doubtful, and controversial, as to whether families wearing dead ancestors medals can compensate for this (ex-ADF Graham Wilson savaged this trend at the above-mentioned Melbourne Town Hall debate). Thus the shift to the dawn services and the attempt to widen commemoration to the Western Front and to Kokoda and Darwin, encouraged by the remembrance elites in order to guarantee the survival of the Anzac Legend.

The focus on the dawn services and the cemeteries of Gallipoli and the Western Front however is problematic. Thousands of young people are looking not at marching hero-veterans, but at the graves of the dead. This produces conflicting emotions among these participants about the nature and purpose of war, as has been documented in the research of historian Bruce Scates. Those turning out to these ceremonies may be open to alternative antiwar narratives. They’re just not getting them.

Soft Jingoism.

One of the responses to these problems, and the more questionable, and questioned, wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, has been for the commemorative elites, the military and politicians, to shift to a kind of “soft jingoism’ which admits of the “futility” of war but still sees it as inevitable: a kind of melancholy acceptance of war. This is reflected in the just-ending “peace” exhibit at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne (see comment my earlier “Lies of War Memorials” blog below) with its website summation that “peace cannot be taken for granted and, it seems, demands our eternal vigilance” a softened version of the longstanding RSL motto that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”.

This melancholy acceptance of the permanence of war can be seen in the Anzac Day speech given by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, at Townsville. The site of a major military base, the location of this year’s speech is testament to the conscious link between the Anzac-driven war culture and the war machine.

The danger for the jingoes is that this softened approach may nonetheless open the door to more critical appraisals of the Anzac legend. What do we make for example of the Anzac Day comments of the Tasmanian Governor who in 2012 suggested that Anzac Day should be used to “ask hard questions about the meaning of wars, their causes and outcomes” and this year made controversial reference to Australian soldiers pissing his pants in fear in Vietnam, while cautioning that Gallipoli centenary may cause people to overlook the brutality and reality of war. Veterans, he said
deserve honouring and remembering as they struggled to overcome the terror and do their duty: not the mythical tall, lean, bronzed and laconic Anzac, enthusiastically and unflinchingly carrying the torch of freedom in the face of murderous enemy fire, Australia needs to drop the sentimental myths that Anzac day has attracted.
This may still be soft jingoism, but of a form that runs the risk of straying too far off message.
Can the bubble be burst?
While the jingoes run the risk of puffing up an unsustainable Anzac mythology it is going to take more than a little help from outside to burst the bubble
Hopefully this may come through a revitalised antiwar movement. The problem is that, notwithstanding the actions by a number of antiwar groups, and Anzac-related initiatives like the Melbourne Town Hall debate, such a cohesive and assertive movement doesn’t really exist at the moment.  Of course it may be possible that the 1914/15 centenaries, and the jingoes over-reach, may open the door to the entry into the debate of the thousands who came out in Australia before the Iraq War. This shows how quickly political support for an antiwar position can come to the surface. There certainly seems to be a potential antiwar sentiment linked to lack of public support for the Iraq and Afghanistan adventures.
Occasions such as the centenary of the outbreak of World War One and the Anzac Day events of 2014 and 2015 might be an opportunity for large events such as “Never Again” rallies around the anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, or Anzac Day Eve sunset vigils. The latter may provide a counterweight to the dawn services, pointing out that for the victims of war the day is ending, not beginning.
But how to get to this point? Much of this will be tied to the general re-emergence of political alternatives to neo-liberalism and its related military-security nationalism. But much will also need to be done to actively combat the Anzac Legend, and the war culture it sustains, in order to build to action around the centenaries. The entry of Wikileaks into the up-coming federal election may have some impact given the antiwar tenor of their disclosures, particularly as the result of Bradley Manning’s work. But clearly the main focus is going to have to be at a grassroots activist level, hopefully building support for wider action.
There are already signs this is happening with Anzac eve peace concerts and vigils emerging in Australia’s major cities, and the Melbourne Town Hall debate, showing there is a thirst for alternative activities and perspectives. However even this can become a battleground with the jingoes seeking to appropriate the soporific term “peace” as evidenced in the Shrine of Remembrance Peace exhibit (which eschews any meaningful reference to Australia’s antiwar history) and the Anzac eve concert spot in Brisbane occupied by the RSL.
We need more than a “peace” response. We need an assertive antiwar response that specifically and critically takes on the historical misrepresentations and omissions of the Anzac Legend and the memorialisation of war: the absurd notion of a (masculinist) national ethos or character type emerging from Australia’s war history; the absence of any commemoration of the non-Australian military victims of war; the assertions that Australian soldiers have died in war for “democracy”, “freedom”, or just “us”; and the shameful celebration of a national history that has seen Australia almost continuously at war.
We need a critique that links the Anzac-driven war culture to the maintenance of Australia’s war machine, its alliance relationship to the US, and its bloated military expenditures.
There is, of course, a need for a compassionate respect for veterans. Given what we now know about mental and physical health issues, and the grief of veterans and families for the dead, we need to give them space to gather – for veterans for example, meeting and seeing each other is important (I came to appreciate this in part from the experience of my WW2 ex-POW father). This of course reveals the true cruelty of the Anzac Legend-driven war culture, the way it appropriates the personal experiences of soldiers, and the grief of families, and fashions this into a collectivised, phony, national legend and mawkish, insincere public grieving, dominated by politicians, military brass and remembrance elites. Any challenges to this during official commemorations will probably have to come from antiwar veterans and their families.
Occupying war memorials?
However outside and around the official commemorations, “war” memorials are prime sites for protest, utilising them for example for “flash” poetry readings, antiwar songs, speeches or visual protests and antiwar performance. Social media provides outlets for the dissemination of these activities. Memorials can be useful sites for protest action in support of Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, Wikileaks, and other activists under legal threat. This kind of action can be done by individuals, through to small and larger groups of people.
As I have argued in an earlier blog below, these monuments are not in truth “war” memorials but military memorials and museums – they leave out stories about the (non-Australian military) victims of war or any analysis of the causes of war. And they are not (as Alan Bennett points out in The History Boys) about remembering, but forgetting.
Hopefully, actions and debates around Anzac Day, and at memorials year round, might start to inspire (or embarrass) more prominent political and cultural figures to come out and shine the light on the “inconvenient truth” about the Anzac Legend.
That it is a lie.

Saturday, 20 April 2013


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This is not a Shrine of Remembrance:

And this is not a war memorial

The militarisation of the Canberra constitutional landscape


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Sunday, 24 March 2013

Peacewashing Syria?

Marrickville Peace Group held a vigil calling for an end to the violence in Syria on March 20. Their statement reporting on this is reprinted below.

The attention of MPG to the Syrian crisis and their vigil is to be applauded – we need more groups and initiatives like this around peace and disarmament issues and the members of this group deserve support and respect for their action. It is however in this vein that I must take up some of the arguments used. I respectfully take them up because they have wider currency in Left/antiwar thinking about the situation in Syria. First the MPG statement:

Marrickville residents call for peace in Syria

Residents attending the peace vigil at the war memorial at Marrickville Town Hall on Wednesday morning called for a peaceful resolution of the war in Syria and an end to arms sales to either side of the conflict.

“The terror that each day confronts the people of Syria is fueled by the international arms trade, said Colin Hesse, spokesperson for Marrickville Peace Group.

“The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States are the five largest arms exporting countries in the world, and these weapons are predominantly used against the civilian populations of the countries these weapons are sold to.

“The suffering of the Syrian people is directly supported by the most powerful nations, so we call for an end to the arms trade and peaceful resolution of the civil war in Syria, said Mr Hesse

Father Dave Smith from Dulwich Hill Anglican Church spoke passionately for peace, saying “So many of our sisters and brothers have suffered and so many acts of inhumanity have been performed that the country will remain scarred for many years to come.

“Though it’s not always obvious what we can do from here, one thing we can do is to tell the truth about what is really happening - about media bias, and about the way we profit from seeing Syria destroyed.

“We all have blood on our hands, but we can make a stand today for truth and for peace for the people of Syria, said Father Dave.

“Amnesty International has been campaigning for the last 10 years for an international arms trade treaty to stop the flow of weapons to those who will use them to abuse human rights, said Amnesty International spokesperson Karl Weaver.

“This week the negotiations for that treaty have resumed at the United Nations in New York and we are hopeful that a treaty will be secured.
"It is time for the killing in Syria to stop. It is time to take the weapons out of the hands of those who will use them to commit war crimes.

There is much to agree with here: the sentiments in favour of peace in Syria and opposition to arms flowing into the country, and the role they play in the commission of war crimes, no matter on which side of the conflict. The last thing the Syrian people need are weapons coming in from ANY source, or foreign intervention by ANY of the imperial powers or the wannabe’s like the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Iran. However I take issue with the casting of the Syrian conflict as some kind of symmetrical civil war.

The principal dynamics of the conflict in Syria have their origin in the brutal response of the Assad regime to demand for political reform and the determination of the Syrian people to resist. Sure the conflict has taken on the characteristics of a civil war through its degeneration into an armed conflict. Like all such armed conflicts it has seen the emergence of some dodgy, armed groups, and human rights abuses but the underlying politics cannot be ignored. The task for a peace group, I believe, is to assert the primacy of civil resistance in the struggle, not retreat to position of false political symmetry.

This is analogous to casting the Israel-Palestine situation as a “conflict” between equal partners, only needing the intervention of a peace process. This ignores the asymmetry of the situation faced by the Palestinians and the validity of their struggle against occupation and ethnic cleansing, So it is in Syria, describing the struggle as a civil war only requiring only the intervention of arms controls and a peace process ignores the underlying asymmetrical political dynamic.

Further, as recently highlighted by a Syrian Leftist activist Ghayath Naisse in Socialist Worker, the principal imperial intervention in terms of supplying arms, and fuelling the violence, is the role of the Russians. There is also the lesser imperial wannabe in this context, Iran. This isn’t to say that the other powers, principally the United States, Britain and France aren’t playing a role or would not like to do more, but while fanning the conflict, they have to date been limited by their own fears of weapons in the hands of Islamic-oriented groups. Paradoxically, the Western imperialism’s trying to operate through their proxies in the Gulf states and Turkey has probably made this situation more difficult, skewing some of the power in the Syrian armed resistance further towards the more violent sectarians.

But as Ghayath Naisse and others have pointed out, here is a lot more going on in Syria, with the armed sectarians actually not as significant as both the West, and some in the anti-imperialist Left, believe, Outside of and alongside the armed struggle (which, as a response to the violence of the Assad state, I understand but do not, as a non-violent, antiwar activist, support) there is a vibrant civil resistance and tens of thousands of Syrians building community governance mechanisms to try and manage their lives in a war zone or in areas freed from Assad’s influence.

Of course elements in the Syrian opposition “leadership” are calling for US and Western armed assistance but does this invalidate the Syrian people’s struggle on the ground? The links of the Palestinian leadership to foreign powers (the corrupt Fatah to the US and the authoritarian Hamas to the Iranians and the Brotherhood-dominated Egyptian government) does not invalidate the grassroots Palestinian struggles, particularly those involved in civil resistance, the BDS campaign and what is likely to be a coming, renewed, intifada. People fighting for their liberation are not necessarily to blame for the manipulations of their often self-appointed or unaccountable leaderships.  The presence of this manipulation in the direction of encouraging foreign intervention in Syria is no excuse to abandon political support for the oppressed Syrian people.

We are right to be concerned by the US and other Western imperialists – the US is the principal predator power in the Middle East with its support for Israel, its invasion of Iraq, its fuelling of conflict with Iran, its link to undemocratic states from Jordan through to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and its attempts to undermine the Egyptian revolution through continuing to fund the Egyptian military. But as explained, it is not, as yet, the pre-eminent imperial power in Syria.

In this context I find the date chosen for the Marrickville vigil, March 20th, curious. This is the anniversary of the outbreak of the Iraq War, an American imperial venture. Why not the preceding Friday, the second anniversary of the March 15 beginning of the Syrian revolution, when protest broke out in Dara’a over the arrest of school kids for painting anti-Assad slogans on walls?. This avoids singling out the prime culprits in Syria, the Assad regime and its Russian backers, for criticism. MPG was not alone in ignoring this important anniversary, It was also ignored the bulk of the anti-imperialist Left, the Greens and anti-war activists in general. I except here Socialist Alternative, and there are no doubt others, who have maintained a consistent and principled stance of support for the struggle of the Syrian people.

If we are to genuinely seek peace in Syria it has to be in the context of supporting the Syrian people in their struggle, one which is part of the broader uprising throughout North Africa and the Middle East and which encompasses the struggle of the Palestinian people. The rights of people to push for their liberation are not divisible.

There are plenty of ways those of us who oppose violence can offer our support to the Syrian political struggle. By taking the side of the Syrian resistance political terms and being willing to clearly sheet home to the Syrian state and its Russian backers that the starting point for peace must be their ending attacks on the Syrian people, releasing political prisoners and implementing genuine democratic reforms (the departure of Assad will come, it does not necessarily have to be a precondition). And yes, we should call on the opposition to respond in kind, reject violence, and demand that both sides respect human rights. And yes we should continue to be vocal about demanding an end to all attempts at foreign interference in, and arms flows to, Syria, as MPG has effectively emphasised.

As peace activists, we should support a renewed emphasis on civil resistance against the Assad regime, in preference to armed struggle which ultimately only internalises the violence of the oppressor and debauches movements for political change.

Further suggest reading: the informative “Why Civil Resistance Works” by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan (Columbia University Press, Paperback Ed. 2013). Includes sources to the wider discussion on non-violence and civil resistance. There was also a shorter Q and A by Chenoweth on this subject in a 2011 edition of Foreign Policy magazine.

See also my February 11 blog below which deals with broader issues of war and violence.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Australian Labor in Crisis – go back to where it all began.

With the unravelling of the Left in the ALP in the 1980s.

This case study of the “making and unmaking” of the Labor Left in Leichhardt Municipality in the 1970s and 1980s presents insights into the changes in social democracy in Australia during this period – part of the global changes related to the post-Keynesian capitalist economy, the rise of the ecology and other social movements and the onset of the post-Cold War (and new Hot War) world.

In Australian Labor, the opportunity to build a vibrant diverse and combative Left within the party during these two decades, drawing on the energy of the new social and union movements, failed. The Left, particularly in the dominant NSW branch, chose to fight the Right on their own terms, becoming co-opted into branch-stacking, rulemongering, parliamentarism and the creation of an inward-looking, authoritarian, factionalism. This was to become dominated by the emergence of a party political caste of full-time political professionals and union bureaucrats.

Much of this was played out in the febrile politics of inner Sydney, where this case study is based.

In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of people sought membership of the ALP branches of the inner-Sydney municipality of Leichhardt. These were people whose politics had been shaped by the social movements of the times and by the hopes and disappointments associated with the Whitlam Government. The political clashes between this Left-leaning new membership and the conservative working class, and working-class-made-good, patriarchs of the local Labor Right have become legendary. Yet as the fruits of victory were in reach, the Left began to fall apart in often bitter conflict. By the beginning of the 1990s many of these participants, in what has sometimes been called the ‘middle-classing’ of Labor, had deserted the branches and switched their political allegiance to independents, Democrats and the Greens. This is the story of this turbulent transition told from the point of view of the members at the branch level, and the ALP political life they sought to construct. As the Australian Labor Party struggles with its identity and purpose at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Basket Weavers and True Believers provides a timely case study of the recent making, and unmaking, of the Labor Left. 

Basket Weavers and True Believers, is based on my PhD and my own party activism, and is freely available on Google Books or in hard copy from Gould’s Book Arcade, Sydney (some may also be still available through Gleebooks, Sydney).

A curious historical footnote: One of the episodes in the book is the preselection contest, which resulted in the Left’s Peter Baldwin replacing the Right’s Les MccMahon for the federal seat of Sydney in 1980. I was one of the three Left candidates – the minor one on the far Left campaigning as a “Socialist for Sydney”. Our preferences along with those of the other Steering Committee Left candidate Ann Catling were essential to getting Baldwin elected but my own vote was quite small (around 35 out of over 600). One thing I didn’t mention in the book was that one of those votes came from an activist in Young Labor at the time: Anthony Albanese.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Lies of Australian "War" Memorials

This is not a war memorial – it is a museum of Australian military history.

The galleries of Australian military war dead at this military museum are moving, particularly when we consider that overwhelmingly these young soldiers had their lives thrown away for empire: British or American. But missing from these gallery walls are the victims of the wars in which Australia has fought: the Egyptian nationalists gunned down by Australian troops in 1919, the millions who died in Vietnam and the tens of thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan; the thousands of Iraqi’s who died as a result of the post Gulf War naval blockade and sanctions (aided by the internal policies of the Hussein dictatorship). If this were a war memorial it would have something to say about these dead and the folly of the wars in which they died..

An example of the failure of this museum as a war memorial is seen in the exhibit dealing with post-1945 conflicts. While there is some lip-service paid to antiwar sentiment around Vietnam and Iraq, overwhelmingly the exhibit extols the virtues of Australian troops in these dubious conflicts complete with the usual display of war toys: a long-range patrol vehicle used by the SAS in Iraq and Afghanistan, (the military units most prone to situations of human rights abuse and unlawful killing); an armoured personnel carrier from the Vietnam era (of the kind used to drag dead suspected National Liberation Front fighters through a Phuoc Tuy village); a loud and ridiculous boys-own Iroquois helicopter display which ignores the fact that this was an instrument of terror deployed by occupying armies against the Vietnamese people. No mention is made of issues raised by veteran and historian Terry Burstall: the general carelessness and brutality directed against the Vietnamese of Phuoc Tuy province by Australians, water torture of a female National Liberation Front fighter, targeting of civilians with artillery, and forced relocation of villagers.

Set in a décor of battleship grey the post-45 exhibit is oppressive, presenting a dismal celebration of Australia’s war culture, concluding with the “soft-jingoism” that is becoming more typical of ANZAC and other commemorations in the light of more controversial recent wars – a melancholy acceptance of both the futility and inevitability of war:

Despite the efforts of all those who served in conflicts from 1945 to today, peace remains as elusive as ever

And near the aeroplane hall, the footnote to the museum’s exhibits, the extolling of the “Anzac Spirit Today”, the familiar nationalistic mythologising of “courage and endurance and duty, and love of country, and mateship, and good humour and the survival of a sense of self-worth and decency in the face of dreadful odds”

…And this is not a Shrine of Remembrance - it is a Shrine of Forgetfulness.

Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys has the teacher Irwin questioning the motives behind war commemoration. In Britain’s case it was to mask that country’s own responsibility for the First World War in the face of the large number killed.

We don't like to admit the war was even partly our fault 'cause so many of our people died. And all the mourning's veiled the truth. It's not "lest we forget," it's "lest we remember." That's what all this is about — the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes' silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.

Using memorials like this as part of a process of forgetting is seen in the current ”Peace” exhibit at the Shrine. The exhibit presents a mélange of items including Australia’s participation peace-keeping operations, some peace activist paraphernalia, quotes form the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, information on the Quakers and peace movements and activists in Liberia, Northern Ireland, and Afghanistan, to name a few items. But there is virtually nothing on the rich history of antiwar and peace movements in Australia (a photo of the Peace slogan daubed on the Shrine during the Vietnam War era is included). The Women’s Peace Army and WW1 conscription struggles don’t get a look in and nor does the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era in any systematic way. There is no reference to the antiwar opposition to the construction of the Shrine in the 1920s, including by Labor Premier George Prendergast.

Again, with recent wars being more controversial and the shift in ANZAC commemoration from the marches of declining numbers of living veterans to the war dead (commemorated at dawn services) it is necessary for the political, military and remembrance elites to soften the jingoism that has accompanied Anzac day in the past, referring to the futility, yet inevitability of war. As the Shrine’s own description of the Peace exhibit puts it:

Peace cannot be taken for granted, and it seems, demands our eternal vigilance.

Peace ultimately can only be secured by war.

“War is the Health of the State” (Randolph Bourne 1918) – war memorials and the militarisation of the Canberra constitutional Landscape.

The memorial to Australian and US collaboration during WWII (long called “Bugs Bunny” by Canberrans) forms the centre piece of the Russell Hill “Jannisariat” – the cluster of Defence buildings (with ADFA and Duntroon nearby) that holds down one of the points of Canberra’s parliamentary triangle, a physical expression of the construction of Australia’s war machine around the interests of the US. Indeed this is one corner of the Western part of the parliamentary triangle, the “iron triangle” that represents the increasing militarisation of the Canberra constitutional landscape. The War memorial/Anzac Parade and the bunker-like parliament house itself make up the other points with the new ASIO headquarters buttressing the base.

Below, the Eastern axis of the “iron triangle” from the Russell Hill complex and Australia-US memorial, looking towards Capital Hill – the new ASIO headquarters is being constructed along the base to the right.

The Western  axis of Canberra’s “iron triangle” – looking from the “war” memorial to the Capital Hill parliamentary bunker

But does this war memorial also hide truths?

This Canberra memorial is to the seventy Australia men and women who went to Spain between 1936 and 1939 to defend the fledgling republic against Franco and German and Italian fascism. It is a welcome departure from the usual nationalistic and jingoistic remembrance of the involvement of Australians in war. It rightly commemorates those who were prepared to stand up to fascism at a time when Right-wing nationalists in Australia and elsewhere either ignored, or were sympathetic to, the emergence of military nationalism in Italy, Germany and Japan. Yet even here the full truth is avoided. As historian of the involvement of Australians in the civil war, Amirah Inglis, explained it:

The civil war has been argued and the character of the (International Brigades) disputed in Australia by old fashioned anti-communist and catholic journalists like Gerard Henderson and BA Santamaria by revisionist historians like Michael Jackson who following George Orwell and more recently Ken Loach ignore every other aspect of the Civil war but the May days of 1937 and focus only on the nasty facets of the Soviet Union’s role.

There was more to the conflict between Stalinism and the other revolutionary and socialist forces in Spain than a few “nasty facets”. Sweeping this history under the rug doesn’t serve the interests of revealing the truth about war, politics or revolution. For the Left as well it can be the case that “there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it”.

Monday, 11 February 2013

When war and violence are in the historical equation: shit happens.

"I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than to eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life." Ho Chi Minh 1946.

A recent Al Jazeera survey showing strong Malian support for French military intervention was no doubt skewed towards those of the two-thirds of Malians who have a mobile phone and who are likely to be more concentrated in the south. With secular and some Islamic Tuareg resistance fighters in the north collaborating with the French occupation, it would seem Malians have opted for the time being to “sniff French shit” in the face of the alternative most felt they faced: a destructive quasi-criminal/religious warlordism.

The Malian people are not to blame for the breakdown of their own government and military (and the long-term consequences of colonialism), leaving them potentially defenceless, but eventually they will have to confront French neo-colonialism, its surrogates in the coming military presence from Chad, Niger etc., and the new Western “scramble for Africa” of which it is part. They will also have to confront the marginalisation, and demands for regional autonomy of the Tuareg and other minorities in the north, as well as ongoing divisions within the Malian army and society. There is also no doubt much more yet to come out in terms of the civilian casualties of French bombing and there is clear evidence human rights abuses (before and after the French intervention) by the Malian army directed against the northern minorities.

This situation in Mali is reflective of the “Sophie’s choice” that often confronts people where war and violence are concerned. The general context of violence and the threat of violence compels people to make choices among bad alternatives based on fear, confusion, lack of information, absence of hindsight and the immediate imperatives of the violent “moment”.

We can see this at a level that affects our own daily lives. Violence can impel us to act against our better political sentiments; like calling the cops (as I have done), on neighbours engaged in yet another a violent dispute, wrecking the house around their ears, while their primary school children screamed at them to stop. While I have personally intervened in such situations in the past this was unlikely to have been useful on this occasion. I wish there had been some other more appropriate social agency to call but there wasn’t. I felt the choice I made was the only one possible. We are often confronted by such situations throughout our lives.

In the larger context of war and violence, and the specific context of the Arab revolution, a similar problem was presented in the Libyan “Benghazi Moment” when, notwithstanding the early manipulations of the British, French, Qatari’s and ex-Gaddafi loyalists, the Libyan people as a whole were confronted with a choice between wrong and wrong: whether to take the risk and face the blood-curdling threats of Gaddafi (I see no evidence that he was likely to be any less brutal than the Assadists in Syria) or invite in the neo-colonial war machine of the British and French.  The choice made would I think would have been welcomed at the time by most Libyans. To say this is not to endorse foreign intervention. Rather it is a question of empathising with the dilemma the Libyans faced, being willing to respect their decision and be supportive of them as they struggle to deal with the consequences, while at the same time maintaining a strong critique of imperialism and shining a harsh light on the realities of intervention.

We can cut a little slack for the Libyans, and the Syrians, just as we might cut some slack for the Vietnamese revolutionaries who aligned themselves with the US during WWII, later showed an initial willingness to cut a post-war deal with the French, and then ultimately sought assistance from the Stalinist states. Or the situation faced by the Bolsheviks who not only sought German Imperialist assistance to enable Lenin to return to Russia but who were later forced to bargain with them at Brest-Litovsk in 1918; choosing between wrong and wrong, and accepting German terms for an armistice in order to save Petrograd and the Russian revolution itself. Brest-Litovsk was in many respects the Bolsheviks’ “Benghazi Moment”.

World War Two also presented challenges for the anti-imperialist Left – a war with its origins in imperialist conflict but one that threw up a particularly virulent strain of military nationalism that had to be responded to. The concept of that war as an intersection of two wars: an imperialist war and a people’s war against fascism contains the inference that the interests of the imperialists (the Allies) and Leftists/Liberationists might at moments coincide – as they did in Vietnam, or in Europe where resistance groups collaborated with Western intelligence.

Recognising this does not mean becoming part of a “pro-war Left” or privileging imperialism over local dictatorships – rather it is a recognition of the imperatives driven by war and violence and the fact that in such circumstances the interests of imperialists and liberationists will sometimes, temporarily, coincide.

Take up the gun, take up the gun-runner.

In the Arab revolution, foreign intervention in Libya, and later Syria, began with the taking up of the gun against the Gaddafi and Assad regimes. Foreign intervention follows armed struggle as night follows day. Foreign supply or application of weaponry becomes inevitable on some level – the only questions remaining being to what extent the revolutionaries are able to hold together a cohesive, credible and genuinely inclusive organisation or movement and keep the level of foreign intervention under some sort of control. Once armed struggle had commenced, a Libyan rejection of British and French bombing, would still have led down a path that would have involved some degree of reliance on foreign assistance, perhaps, as in Syria, via the Gulf states, particularly Qatar.

There are obvious risks involved in accepting this foreign intervention in the context of armed struggle. After all the Vietnamese people relied on the “fraternal” Stalinist states for assistance in their revolution at the same time as these states were suppressing their own population and collaborating in the undemocratic intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The long-run effect of this may have been a further contribution to the Stalinist militarisation of the Vietnamese revolution. And in Syria, the limited support from the Gulf States and others, in the context of Western paralysis about supplying arms to potentially anti-Western groups, has no doubt skewed the Syrian opposition in a more Islamic and specifically Sunni direction.   In Libya in contrast, the reliance on French and British bombing has left a legacy of Western interference at the level of the new Libyan transitional government.

It is for these and other reasons I remain an advocate of unarmed civil resistance as the best way forward for political change – it is not cost free but would 60,000 have died in Syria if the opposition had stuck to this path? What would the situation have been in Libya had the opposition not taken up the gun against Gaddafi in the first place? Civil resistance doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be attempts at foreign intervention by imperial powers, but the mass participation necessary for its success militates against interference. Armed struggle on the other hand creates inward looking, security conscious armed elites, clustering around the internalised violence of the oppressor and ready made, when the time comes, to enforce a political sell-out. An example here is the Fatah-led PLO, which choked off the First Intifada at the end of the 1980’s and took the Palestinians down the disastrous path of the Oslo Accords.

Armed struggle ultimately debauches the political movement/s it springs from. In the Palestinian struggle for example, the “success” of the Gaza based rocket attacks in resistance to the recent brutal assault by Israel is not a cause for too much celebration. The rocketeers of Gaza have no more long-term answers for Palestinians than the racketeers of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Arguably a more effective way forward for Palestinians is to return to civil resistance and global boycott, building to a restarting of the First Intifada, engaging Palestinians inside Israel and in the refugee camps as well as Gaza and the West Bank.

It is imperative for those of us on the Left to continue to shine a harsh light on the machinations of the imperialist predators but not to the point of political paralysis in terms of supporting peoples, like the Libyans or Syrians, struggling against tyranny.

Notwithstanding human rights abuses on both sides of the equation in Syria, and the rise of some dodgy Islamist elements within the Syrian resistance, the situation emerged from the brutality of the Assad regime and its resistance to reform. At the very least the Assad regime should have been subjected to more pressure from the Western Left. For example, there have been virtually no public demonstrations of support for Syrians in Australia – the Syrian honorary consulate in Sydney, in the middle of Left-Green Balmain, has been undisturbed as has the Vietnamese consulate in Melbourne which hosts Syrian consular affairs there. Contrast this with the (quite correct) political actions against the Max Brenner shops in both cities, and the very rapid and effective protests against the Israeli assault on Gaza. Let’s face it, with notable exceptions (such as Socialist Alternative), Syria has not been the anti-imperialist Left’s finest hour.

While a supporter of unarmed civil resistance (and one who lies on the more non-violent end of the spectrum of what “unarmed” means) I feel we should nonetheless be empathetic towards, and supportive of, those who, in dire, historically determined, circumstances feel that they have had no choice but to go down the path of armed resistance and respect the problems of managing the influence of the imperial gun-runners that inevitably ensues. We should continue to shine the light on the real motives of the imperialists and interventionists while being supportive of the locals as they are forced to ultimately confront the consequences of this interference. We should support attempts to take violence out of the equation such as through political negotiations (while being critical of those negotiations, as in Yemen, that seek to cement in the status quo). Negotiations should be seen as a transition, not a “solution”: a transition that can restore non-violent and civil resistance/mass action methods to the centre of the move for political change.  Such negotiations may now become possible with the stalemate in Syria, and in the context of restoring the Malian people’s control over their political situation, just as such negotiations may have been possible in Libya had the gun not been taken up, or at least in preference to the latter “regime change” stage of the British/French intervention.

Above all we should strive to find a way back to that peaceful mass political activity which can help shape a better world in ways that war and violence never can.