Spain Versus Catalonia

Political struggles demand that you take sides, but there are some political confrontations that you just wish weren’t happening.   Watching the struggle for Catalan independence unfold over the last seven years, I have certainly not felt like a neutral or indifferent bystander.  Indifference is not possible when dealing with a country – Spain,  that I love – and a country within a country – Catalonia, where I lived for nine of the best years of my life and which I also love.

Throughout the last seven years I have often felt that I was watching a political tragedy unfold with potentially devastating and uncontrollable consequences for both Spain and Catalonia.  I have never believed that Spain would allow a ‘divorce’ like the one agreed between the Czech Republic and Slovakia – or which would have almost certainly happened here had Scotland won the independence referendum.

Not only is Catalonia too important politically and economically for Spain to let it go, but a successful Catalan separatist movement would open the way to secessionism in the Basque Country and other regions. There is no way that the Spanish state or army will allow that to happen.

Knowing this does not mean that I could side with the Spanish state, especially a state represented by one of the most corrupt political parties in Europe, the Partido Popular – a party so riddled with sleaze and corruption that it constantly amazes me to find it still in power, and which combines these failings with a political cloven-footedness and instinctive authoritarianism that too easily reveals the party’s Francoist lineage.

The Partido Popular’s corruption, coupled with the overwheening centralism that led it to rescind the reform of Catalonia’s autonomy statute in 2010, has led millions of Catalans to embrace the secessionist cause to an extent that was unimaginable when I lived in Barcelona in the 1990s.   Contrary to the arguments of Thatcherite reactionaries such as Mario Vargas Llosa – Catalanism does not represent some retrograde and anachronistic retreat into ‘nationalism’.

Nationalism and self-determination can take many different forms, from the racist US Confederacy and the ethnonationalist chauvinism of the Bosnian Serbs to the progressive political and socioeconomic aspirations that were partly responsible for the rise of the SNP – and the Catalans.

Personally, I would prefer to see such aspirations pursued outside a nationalist framework,  but regardless of what people like me might think, millions of Catalans see an independent state as a means of pursuing them, and when it comes to the issue of self-determination, their opinions are what counts.  Because self-determination is exactly what it sounds like; it means the right of a particular people to define its own political future.

The secessionist movement which has now coalesced around the Junts pel Sí coalition has campaigned peacefully with skill and passion,  and built a genuine popular movement.  It has compelling political, cultural and historical arguments on its side for an independent Catalan state – even if the arguments about ‘paying too much to Madrid’ are not amongst them, to my mind at least.

That said, the case for self-determination has not yet been won.  Independence cannot be decided on the basis of a 51 percent vote and previous surveys have not even reached that.  A political transformation of this magnitude requires a much higher participatory threshold and a much higher majority – and a broad consensus within Catalonia.

For all that the secessionist movement has achieved these last seven years, it is by no means clear that such a majority exists.  Nevertheless the movement has certainly made the case for a broad democratic consultation,  and the Spanish government’s repeated refusal to allow this has been a monumental political error.

Now, showing the political tin ear that it has always shown, Rajoy’s administration has turned to repression, whether confiscating ballot papers, arresting Catalan officials, threatening members of the Catalan government with sedition, or attempting to subject the Catalan police the Mossos d’Esquadra to the direct control of the Interior Ministry

Such actions are grist to the separatist mill.  They have further discredited Spanish institutions in the eyes of many Catalans, bringing back old memories of the Francoist era, and threatened to turn the ongoing confrontation into an explosive crisis with grave implications for the future of Spanish democracy.

Rajoy and his supporters have used the law and the constitution to justify the government’s clunking response, but legalistic arguments aren’t  a valid response to a popular movement of this scale, and repression will not succeed in extinguishing it.   The only way this confrontation can be defused and worked through – one way or another – is by a process of democratic consultation, which allows the Catalans to decide their own political future.

If the secessionist movement has not yet won its case for independence, it has surely won its right to put its case to the same kind of popular vote that we saw in Scotland and the UK, and which the Kurds are currently demanding in Iraq.

That shouldn’t mean a referendum with no participatory threshold.  Independence is too serious a business to be decided by a first-past-the-post race in which whoever gets 51 percent ‘wins.’  The parameters should be agreed on, the referendum should go ahead, and Spain should accept the result.

Because, if the government doesn’t allow this, and continues on its present course, then it is by no means beyond the bounds of possibility that Catalonia will be placed in a state of emergency and that we will once again see the Spanish army in the streets of Barcelona.  And as ambivalent as I might feel about Catalan independence, that is not something that I will ever support

 

 

Trump Goes to Westphalia

There is nothing entirely new under the sun when it comes to US presidents and US military power, at least since the end of World War II.  All American presidents, whatever their political inclinations, preside over a quasi-imperial system of military power that spends spends more than twice as much on the military as the rest of the world put together.   They take it for granted that America has the ability to destroy any country in the world many times over; that America, and only America, can maintain military bases pretty much wherever in the world it chooses; that it can use its military power whenever and wherever it chooses; that it can ‘intervene’ in the internal affairs of any state it chooses, and can act whenever it sees it necessary to eliminate potential threats or regional ‘challengers’ to its global dominance.

Some presidents, such as Reagan and George W. Bush,  depict this military power as an instrument of divine will, that is always used for benign ends in moral confrontations between good and evil – a rhetorical tradition that reaches all the way back to the ‘evil empire’ to the ‘axis of evil’ and ‘moral clarity’ espoused by Bush’s two administrations.

Most presidents have tried to align with the wider interests of the ‘free world’, the ‘West’, civilization, the international liberal order etc, and many US allies share this assumption, at least most of the time.  Even when pursuing American economic or strategic interests, the more intelligent US administrations have always prefer to project military power within a multilateral format, building coalitions and working within international organisations like NATO or the United Nations where possible.

When this is not possible, or when these organisations don’t behave the way the United States wants them to behave, then it will act alone, perhaps dragging in a few partners as a multilateral fig leaf.  Given these precedents, we shouldn’t be entirely surprised by Donald Trump’s performance at the UN yesterday.  As in George Bush’s big international speeches there was a lot of theology and God, accompanied by Old Testament divisions of a world divided between  the ‘righteous many’ and the ‘wicked few.’

Taking a cue from Flannery O’Connor, Trump even warned that some nations were already ‘going to hell’.  There were some spectacularly crude explanations for this hellishness, from Trump’s suggestion that ‘international criminal gangs… force dislocation and mass migration; threaten our borders’ to his  crude analysis of Venezuelan ‘socialism.

There was also a lot of emphasis on about ‘sovereignty’, and ‘sovereign nations’, such as the assertion that ‘Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny, and strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God.’

Such observations have been interpreted by some commentators as a reaffirmation of the old ‘Westphalian’ international order after the R2P interventionism of the last few decades.  This is giving Trump far more coherence and credibility than he will ever deserve.  One minute he was suggesting that the best way to ensure international order was to allow ‘sovereign’ states to act selfishly.  At the same time he persistently singled out members of the ‘wicked few’ such as Syria, Iran and Venezuela, because of the way their governments treated their ‘own people.

At one point, Trump told his audience that military action might be necessary against Iran, not only because of its supposed role in exporting ‘  violence, bloodshed and chaos’ – something the US itself knows a great deal about – but also because ‘The longest suffering victims of Iran’s leaders are in fact its own people.’

So are we ‘Westphalian’ or still ‘post-Westphalian’?   No point in asking Trump because he probably doesn’t know.   Still it’s worth remembering that R2P was never the altruistic ‘post-Westphalian’ phenomenon it was supposed to be.  After all, the US had been intervening in the affairs of other states for decades before such ‘humanitarian’ interventions were justified as an international ‘responsibility’ that  supposedly overrode the notion of the sovereign Westphalian state.

From Clinton to Obama, the US flirted with R2P when it suited its national interests or geopolitical agendas, ignoring some dictatorships and autocracies and only targeting the ones that were seen as potential ‘challengers’.  Yesterday Trump was more or less arguing exactly the same thing.   Nevertheless his speech left a lot of jaws dropping, and there was an unmistakable sense when it was over that the world had become a more dangerous, unstable and unpredictable place than it was when he took the podium.

Such anxieties aren’t entirely unfounded. American politicians have often reveled in their ability to ‘destroy’ countries that opposed them.  A drunken Nixon once talked about nuking North Vietnam and flooding dykes.   Hilary Clinton warned that the US could ‘obliterate’ Iran.  John McCain composed a little ditty about doing the same thing. Even Obama once politely reminded Iranians that the US could destroy their country if it chose to.

Few presidents have issued such threats with the same bullying arrogance that Trump displayed yesterday.  There was no talk of ‘regime change’ or ‘surgical strikes’ to ‘take out’ missile sites.  Just a little joke about ‘Rocket Man’ and the casual, almost bored suggestion that the US might have ‘no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.’

Thus, with a little flourish of a speechwriter’s pen, 25 million lives were rendered worthless, invisible and disposable – to say nothing of the devastation and carnage that will spread through South Korea and beyond if anyone attempts to resolve this crisis militarily.

No doubt Trump would just munch on a piece of chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago through all that, but the rest of us should be genuinely alarmed to hear such bloodthirsty Al Capone-like language delivered at an institution that,  for all its failings, still embodies the possibility collective security and multilateral, non-military solutions to international crises that was first mooted after World War I with the failed League of Nations. .

The US cannot be held uniquely responsible for the disastrous game of chicken that is now unfolding with Korea, but the Trump administration has made a bad situation worse and yesterday’s speech does not suggest that it has any intention of changing course. Trump declared yesterday that ‘No nation on Earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles.’  True, but the experience of the last two decades suggests that when it comes to the axis of evil, only countries that have them can guarantee their survival.

To say that this is not a desirable outcome does not even begin to describe it, but Trump’s frat-boy belligerence will do nothing to prevent it.  And North Korea isn’t the only looming conflict on the horizon. Trump’s attack on the Iran nuclear deal made it clear that sections of the US military and political establishment are still intent on ripping up that agreement –  regardless of whether there is any evidence to prove that Iran has breached it.

Trump is not interested in evidence.  He is listening to Saudi Arabia, to  the likes of John Bolton and Benjamin Netanyahu, whose applause blew like tumbleweed through the stunned auditorium yesterday, and that is very bad news indeed.

Because whether or not Trump has gone Westphalian, this is a president who combines the emotional empathy of a toddler with the instincts of Lucky Luciano and the military hardware of a superpower, and unless some serious diplomatic and popular pressure can be brought to bear on this administration soon, he and his fellow plotters stand a very good chance of unleashing precisely the kind of catastrophic confrontation he has been boasting about.

 

 

 

Twilight in Brexitland

Yesterday evening I shared a horrific post on Facebook about a tetraplegic woman whose disability benefits have just been cancelled, and has just been summoned to a job interview by her local job centre.  As shocking as it was, this dreadful decision was a fairly typical example of the cruelty and incompetence that has been repeated again and again under the brutal sanctions regime introduced by successive Coalition and Tory governments.  Most of the commenters were as outraged as I was, but there were also messages like this:

No shame when it comes to the white British benefits office. Maybe if she was immigrant that’s might of made a differance (sic).

It’s deeply depressing to know that someone took advantage of such an awful tragedy to express such thoughts.    Once upon a time I might have written off such comments as a occasional freak intervention from some semi-literate racist nurturing their Nazi memorabilia in some dank basement somewhere.   But such interventions are not occasional and they are not from the fringes.

They are all over the place.  You can find them, in below-the-line comments sections on any online forum that has anything to do with immigration – or not.  When a Frenchwoman living in Kent announced last week that she was leaving the UK because of racism and xenophobia, her comments section was sprinkled with racist and xenophobic comments and jeering invitations to go back home if she didn’t like it.

There is a lot more where that came from, and a lot worse too.  Twitter is seething with hatred of this kind, whether directed at foreigners. immigrants, Muslims or people of colour.   Diane Abbott gets hundreds if not thousands of such messages everyday. Gina Miller has been threatened with gang rape, lynching and acid attacks simply because she tried to ensure that Parliament had a say in the Brexit negotiations.

What’s happening on social media is also happening on the streets.  In July this year the Independent reported that incidents of race and faith-based attacks rose by  23 percent in the eleven months since the referendum –  from 40,741 to 49,921.    These incidents included acts of physical violence, acid attacks and verbal insults.  There are undoubtedly many more, since many victims of verbal attacks don’t go to the police.

What is striking about so many of the incidents that are recorded is that – like the comments and tweets on social media – many of their perpetrators clearly feel emboldened, empowered and legitimized by the referendum result.   They feel their time has come, and some of them are clearly dreaming of some kind of ethno-nationalist reckoning in which all the people they don’t like ‘go home’ – even if this country is their home.

Once upon a time some of these people might have felt ashamed to say what they’re thinking; now they don’t.  And why should they?  When Gina Miller said she might have to leave the country, Arron Banks’s Leave.EU – a mainstream lobbying group – merely laughed and tweeted that it hoped other ‘liberals’ would go with her.  Why would people feel any reservation about expressing hostility to immigrants when politicians boast of their ability to turn the UK into a hostile environment?  When ‘commentators’ can tweet about ‘final solutions’ and call refugees ‘cockroaches’ and still get a slot on the Jeremy Vine Show?  Isn’t it all just free speech?

Every week and sometimes everyday, the Home Office – an institution which currently embodies everything that is most malignant about the British state and society – displays how hostile it is by deporting or threatening to deport another immigrant or group of immigrants.

Meanwhile politicians um and ah, or shake their heads about the public’s ‘concerns’.   Some, like the iniquitous and loathsome fraud Boris Johnson, mutter darkly about ‘dual allegiances’.  When they’re caught out deporting tens of thousands of students using false language tests, they don’t bat an eyelid.   When it’s found that their own estimates of students who ‘overstayed’ their visas are wildly over the mark, they just change the conversation and boast of their ability to keep more people out.

Left-of-centre politicians aren’t always much better.   Some talk of the need to exclude immigrants in order to win votes in their constituencies or prevent exploitation or the undercutting of British workers by migrant workers.  Others, like the dreadful Frank Field, celebrate the draconian proposals in the Home Office’s outline document for a post-Brexit immigration policy.

Few pause to wonder where all this is leading us.  It’s a truism to observe that you only stand a chance of curing yourself of an illness if your illness is actually diagnosed and recognised, and right now we are becoming  a sick society – sick with xenophobia, anti-migrant paranoia and unacknowledged racism hidden behind discussions about ‘culture’ and ‘numbers’ and ‘social cohesion.’  We slowly but inexorably poisoning our society with our own fears, prejudices and hatreds.   We are becoming mean, vindictive, callous, bitter and aggressive, constantly whining about what immigrants have supposedly done to us without thinking through what we are doing to them – or to ourselves.

Not only are our politicians ignoring and even pandering to these sentiments, but the government is actually instrumentalising the Home Office to act on them and turn them into policy.   We didn’t get to this situation overnight, and the referendum is by no means uniquely responsible for it.    But there is no doubt that in the last eighteen months, the UK has become a deeply unpleasant and threatening place for many foreigners and immigrants – and for many who simply look or sound foreign – and it may get a lot worse unless we can stop it.

So we need to recognize how serious this is, and we need to act.  The tendencies that have been unleashed these last eighteen months do not express the majority sentiments of the population, but too many of those who don’t share them have not condemned them – or have not argued forcefully against the arguments that foreigners and immigrants are responsible for the social problems of 21st century Britain.  Such arguments aren’t even restricted to the right – I’m constantly coming across them from sections of the left – albeit wrapped up in a veneer of progressive politics and concern for the working class.

We need really major mobilisations to counter these developments.   We need to make the positive case for immigration and diversity and we need to make it loudly.   We can’t pretend that we are too British and too intrinsically decent to descend into a racist and xenophobic swamp.  We can, because any society can.

We need the famous silent majority to stand up for the kind of society we have begun to build –  a society that is comfortable with diversity and open to the world, where foreigners are welcomed, not considered the enemy.  We need to push the xenophobes and racists back to the fringes and restore the shame that once forced them to keep their bitterness and rage to themselves.

Because if we can’t do this, then we will be complicit, and we will also be trapped perhaps for decades, by the dangerous forces that have been unleashed, and which will leave few people unscathed if things proceed along their present course.

 

The Wars of Ralph Peters

Slowly, but inexorably, the world is drifting towards the prospect of an all-out war between the United States and North Korea.  At the very least such a conflict is likely to result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, most of them Koreans.  It also raises the very real possibility of the first nuclear exchange in history.

Primary responsibility for this terrifying prospect lies with the North Korean regime and the Trump administration.  A tyrannical despot with no other cards to play with except nuclear ones has attempted to wrest diplomatic and economic concessions from an unstable, chaotic and rudderless administration led by a sociopathic narcissist unconstrained by moral or humanitarian considerations or even any basic understanding of foreign policy.

Both North Korea and the US have bluffed and blustered to the point when neither of them can back down without losing face – unless some external pressure is brought to bear.  Yet such pressure is dangerously absent.   China appears paralysed and unwilling to intervene to prevent Kim Jong Un’s nuclear brinkmanship.  Trump’s allies have either been passive, or like our idiot foreign secretary, have actively supported the ‘tough’ US stance that has painted North Korea into a corner.

As consequence, the world is in very real danger of being dragged towards nuclear war by clowns and political gargoyles who either have no idea of the risks and consequences of what they are doing, or don’t care if they do know.   The North Korean regime undoubtedly knows that if there were a nuclear or even a conventional war, much of the country would be destroyed, and its provocations are clearly predicated on the on the possibility that the US can be brought to the negotiating table before such an outcome occurs.  But that is a big if when dealing with an administration for whom war offers possibly the only escape from political annihilation, impeachment and historical disgrace.

So this is as bad and as dangerous as it gets, and we will need common sense, diplomatic skill, sustained international pressure and crisis management, and very cool heads to defuse the situation.  What we absolutely do not need are the maniacal prescriptions of ex-lieutenant-colonel Ralph Peters.  For those who aren’t familiar with the name, Peters is a former US intelligence officer, turned novelist and military pundit, and a particularly bloodthirsty neocon and exponent of unconstrained US military violence.

Peters has not time for scruples about civilians lives or collateral damage, for fluffy strategies about soft power, or the democracy-building civic projects advocated by David Petraeus and the disciples of ‘COIN’ – countersinsurgency.  For him war is only about ‘Carthaginian’ solutions based on destruction, killing and the shedding of ‘blood’ – a concept that seems to arouse a visceral pleasure in him, as it does for the neocon imagination in general.

Peters first made a name for himself as a war pundit in an influential article in 1997 for the US military journal Parameters on ‘constant conflict’. Faced with a future of ‘multiple conflicts in mutating forms around the globe’, Peters argued that ‘the de facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing.’

In the autumn of 2004, Peters returned to the same theme in a piece for the New York Post on the brink of the second US assault on Fallujah,  in which he argued ‘The most humane thing we can do in that tormented city is just to win, to burn out the plague of fanaticism and prove to Iraq’s people that the forces of terror will not be allowed to enslave them…Even if Fallujah has to go the way of Carthage, reduced to shards, the price will be worth it.’

For Peters, the price is always worth it, and virtuous destruction is a kind of health cure for sick peoples who rarely happen to be white.  Such ‘remedies’ are especially required, and even essential, when dealing with ‘civilisational’ conflicts against ‘savages’ or ‘barbarians’.   In a discussion paper for the National Intelligence Council’s future (NIC) 2020 Project, written in 2004, Peters urged the US military to inflict ‘virtuous destruction’ on its global Islamist enemies, on the grounds that ‘there is no substitute for shedding the enemy’s blood in adequate quantities’ .

In the 21st century’s new conflicts, it was no good simply destroying things, Peters argued, or trying to distinguish between fighters and civilians because ‘ Such a policy not only complicates the achievement of victory, but extracts no serious policy from the population…Enemy populations must be broken down to an almost child-like state…before being broken up again.’

It is tempting, at first sight, to see Peters as a descendant of the ‘war is cruelty, but you cannot refine it’  philosophy advocated by William Tecumseh Sherman in the American Civil War.  But Sherman, for all his overheated rhetoric, was a humane and thoughtful man, who knew war at first hand and was revolted by it, and whose actual practices were never as extreme as his proposals.

Peters is very different.  Like many neocons, he is essentially a bloodthirsty voyeur, who has never personally experienced war or combat and observes the mass slaughter that he advocates from a comfortable distance.  Where Osama bin Laden once crowed about the mass murder of ‘crusaders’, Peters celebrates the destructive power of the most powerful military nation in the world, and his single obsessive demand is that this power should be used ‘virtuously’ by inflicting punitive destruction on America’s enemies, whoever they are.

It is no surprise therefore, to find him once again advocating similar solutions for North Korea in the Murdoch press.  In an article in the New York Post last month  Peters asked his readers whether ‘ we kill our enemies with sufficient ruthlessness at the outset, or do we attempt to minimize North Korean casualties and expose ourselves and our allies to the prospect of a drawn-out mutual butchery?’

For Peters there is only ever one answer:  ‘ in warfare there’s no substitute for killing your enemy and all those who support him. And you keep on killing until the enemy quits unconditionally or lies there dead and rotting.’

There are those, and Rupert Murdoch is almost certainly one of them, who find this kind of talk from an ex-military man, bracing, ‘truthful’ and sexy.  And yesterday, Peters was at it again, arguing for a preemptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, on the grounds that ‘Better a million dead North Koreans than a thousand dead Americans.’

As is often the case, Peters presented this equation as a form of realism, since ‘If there is any real hope of a peaceful solution, of course that would be preferable. But we cannot rely on miracles or mirages.’

In fact diplomatic negotiations are neither miraculous nor chimerical.  They could happen, but Peters doesn’t want them, and never does.  He is a true patriot, unwilling to ‘sacrifice American lives to shield the consciences of intellectual elites who, from protected positions of immense privilege, insist that all human life is precious.’

Instead Peters coolly advocates ‘ a million dead North Koreans’ from his own position of immense privilege.  He even has the gall to give this bloodlust a patina of pseudo-philosophical gravitas.  For Peters ‘warfare has been humanity’s ultimate means of resolving intractable issues since the first cave-dwellers went at the gang from the cave down yonder with rocks. We may not like it — I don’t — but to insist that war isn’t humanity’s sometimes-necessary default means of survival is to ignore all of human history.’

And again

‘I realize this column will leave liberals aghast, while even conservatives cling to lullaby chatter. I do not relish death or human suffering. But it would be immoral to allow North Korea to develop an arsenal capable of attacking our military, our cities and our allies.’

In fact this column ought to leave anybody aghast, and no one should be fooled by his faux-revulsion.  Once again,  Peters has demonstrated that he is a disingenuous hypocrite as well as a depraved and bloodthirsty savage.   Once again the man who claims not to ‘like’ war or ‘relish’ death or human suffering advocates mass slaughter as the only ‘solution’ and a reluctant last choice, and once once again Rupert Murdoch has given him a platform to do it.

But this time, unless the world can find a way to bring the Trump administration and the North Korean regime to their senses, there is a very real possibility that Ralph Peters might just get the total war he has dreamed about for so long, and Asia and the rest of the world may be sucked into a hell that could – and should – have been prevented.