Thursday, 30 March 2017

Chomsky ponders Trump 'False Flag' Op


As you may know, I'm a big advocate of the work of Noam Chomsky. His writing and talks changed my political outlook. I discovered Chomsky when I was 17 and it quickly set me on the course to where I am today. Though I am no longer a left-wing libertarian, I am still a socialist and I think there are important lessons to be drawn from the anarchist tradition. Chomsky is a key figure in contemporary anarchism.

One of the main attractions of Chomsky's work is the level of moral clarity and intellectual honesty. He cuts through the bone to the marrow with precision. Going to the fundamentals of a political question is the cornerstone of radical thought. As an analytical critic Chomsky takes apart US foreign policy and unravels its claims before our eyes. It's a thankless task in many ways. Another side of this has been Chomsky's opposition to 9/11 conspiracism on the left.

Yet in a recent interview Noam Chomsky contradicts his past record on combating conspiracy theories. He suggests that the Trump administration may opt for a 'false flag' operation to save its right-wing agenda. When I first heard about this I didn't believe it until I read the Alter-Net interview. In his own words, Chomsky says: "I think that we shouldn't put aside the possibility that there would be some kind of staged or alleged terrorist act, which can change the country instantly."

I was very surprised to read these words and I even feared the old man may be losing his touch. If you want the full context, here it is for your judgement:

JF: Do you think there will ever be a moment of awakening, or a disconnect for Trump's supporters of his rhetoric and what he's been doing in Washington, or can this just keep going? 
NC: I think that sooner or later the white working-class constituency will recognize, and in fact, much of the rural population will come to recognize, that the promises are built on sand. There is nothing there.
And then what happens becomes significant. In order to maintain his popularity, the Trump administration will have to try to find some means of rallying the support and changing the discourse from the policies that they are carrying out, which are basically a wrecking ball to something else. Maybe scapegoating, saying, "Well, I'm sorry, I can't bring your jobs back because these bad people are preventing it." And the typical scapegoating goes to vulnerable people: immigrants, terrorists, Muslims and elitists, whoever it may be. And that can turn out to be very ugly. 
I think that we shouldn't put aside the possibility that there would be some kind of staged or alleged terrorist act, which can change the country instantly.
Now let's break this down. It's certainly true that the Trump administration is increasingly unpopular and isolated. President Trump's approval rating stands 35% - a historically low precedent for a new president. Even George W Bush only reached 25% at his lowest point, just as Nixon reached 36% after Watergate. In these conditions, it is plausible that the administration would want something, anything to shore up support for the government. But this is not the basis for a false flag operation.

I should add I'm not saying the US government has not been guilty of false flags in the past: the Gulf of Tonkin being the obvious example. It's now uncontroversial that the Johnson administration leapt on Tonkin to expand the war against Vietnam. It's also true that there are real conspiracies in history. Look up COINTELPRO or the Iran-Contra affair, if you want to see a real conspiracy in action. There are even questions around Pearl Harbour and the extent to which FDR provoked Japan.

So, what is the problem with Chomsky's points here? Professor Chomsky might be defended on the grounds that this was a throw-away remark - one line in a full interview, with little clarification. There are gradients of what a 'staged' or 'alleged' attack could mean. Many of the 9/11 conspiracy theorists accept the case that the Bush administration had "advance knowledge" and simply allowed the attacks to go ahead. A more plausible theory is that the administration was so incompetent that it failed to act on the information it had about the plot.

This is a long way from the Ickean dimension of reptilian lizards, the whackjob theory that the Twin Towers falling was CGI, or the blatant anti-Semitism behind the idea that it was all staged by Mossad. However, the view that the US government had some role in the 9/11 attacks still belongs to the conspiracists. Chomsky has dealt with these theories well in the past. He would point out that the 9/11 attackers were mostly Saudi citizens. If it was an 'inside job', it would make little sense to frame Saudi Arabia if the aim was to invade Iraq. This is still a major hole in the theories.

I have yet to hear an account of the 9/11 attacks which can account for this hole. Most conspiracy theorists don't even talk about it because it's outside the reach of their assumptions. The politics of conspiracism are uncritical of the surrounding world, in fact, the point of such theories is to reinforce passivity and provide excuses for inaction. Why try to change the world when the Illuminati run everything? They're all powerful. So any attempt to challenge them is doomed to failure. This is why there are no movements or parties based on these theories.

Serious political action and theory requires hard work. It requires commitment. Naturally the online 'truthers' have jumped on Chomsky's comments, while the remarks have left many of Chomsky's friends and fans perplexed. I am not alone in this regard. Israel-based journalist Jonathan Cook has criticised Chomsky's comments. Here's what Cook posted on his Facebook page:

One doesn't need to be convinced that Bush-Cheney or the US security services were implicated in 9/11 to see that there is a deep problem with Chomsky adopting his new position. He has previously suggested in different places both that a major false-flag operation in the US would be almost impossible to conceal and that it is a waste of the left's energies, and its credibility, to indulge in this kind of speculation. 
That was at least a plausible position for him to adopt. But it is entirely inconsistent with his new position that we should expect Trump to carry out a false-flag operation and even accuse him of intending to do so before it occurs.

I have no doubt that Chomsky was right to argue that conspiracy theories are a dead-end for the left. So it's disappointing to read these comments, even in their full context. This isn't a reason to discard everything Chomsky has ever written. Demanding infallibility is unrealistic and ultimately puerile and rather conservative. Let's be mature about this. Furthermore, it is more in line with Chomsky's free thinking to disagree with him than it is to blindly follow him.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

How welfare supports the 'gig economy'

Last Friday, I was sent to a jobs fair by my work coach. The fair was at another job centre a short bus ride away. There, the claimants waited patiently, and some impatiently, to speak with seated representatives of various companies and public bodies. I found long queues for the local council — offering admin jobs and other opportunities — and nonexistent queues for tutoring and personal training (I went for the former).
Apart from admin roles, tutoring and personal training, the fair had desks for construction work, retail, catering, even health and social care. Names of brands caught my eye: Westfield, Nando’s and Tesco. It got me wondering. How much of this is about what the employers want? Take a guess. Here we are, the reserve army of labour, queuing to sell our time and our skills to would-be employers. Is this really what the unemployed need?
Of course, there was a catch: if I failed to attend the jobs fair, I would face the possibility of my benefits being slashed to £10 a week for up to 90 days. This is what’s called a ‘sanction’. Once at the fair, you queue to talk to the reps, sign up in the hope of an interview and they sign you off for having applied for a job. It’s unclear how much of this is about paper-shuffling. A cynic would suspect quite a lot.
However, this is not a worry in itself. I suppose some people may find a job this way, and I might even be starting out in some temporary arrangement. But it is an example of something else. The work coaches are eager to get claimants to sign up for agency work, which will provide temporary employment and sometimes ‘self-employed’ or ‘free-lance’ contracts. I’ve worked these before. It can leave you at the beck and call of a company.
If you’re on Universal Credit and working you can keep 35p for every pound you make. That’s £35 for every £100 (in theory). I’ve yet to find out if this system works (in practice), but it sounds like it could serve as a transition back to full-time work. It’s meant to ‘wean’ the claimant off of the public teat. So you re-enter the labour market and never return. This may help reduce the official figures of unemployed too.
There is an industry in waiting for the jobless. The ‘gig economy’ — so-called for its offer of work on ‘self-employed’ contracts, such as Deliveroo andUber— is eager to gobble up cheap labour. These types of flexible contracts leave workers with their rights undermined, including the minimum wage, sick pay and holidays. It shows just how fragile these protections have become. And maybe this is why unemployment is officially falling.
At the time of writing, unemployment stands at 4.8% and, at least on paper, the UK has reached an employment level of 73%. This is the highest since records began in the early 1970s. Naturally, Tories like Toby Young love to play this up as an achievement for the right. Yet the lowest unemployment rate on record was at 3.4% in 1973. Those were the days when governments aimed for ‘full employment’.
Although employment is officially high, real wages have fallen by more than 10% in less than a decade. The TUC found that the wages have continued to stagnate, leading to a fall of 10.4% from 2007 to 2015. The UK is now alongside Greece in terms of shit pay for a hard day’s work. Even Poland has seen real wages increase by more than Britain. Meanwhile the super-rich continue to pig-out, with their salaries hitting £5.5 million.
It looks like the job centres are pushing claimants into short-term, low paid jobs — only for them to be kept on a lower rate of benefits. The government gets to say unemployment is falling, while the reasons for people falling out of work are worse than ever. As we’ve established, Universal Credit isn’t much of a cushion to land on, especially with the ‘sanctions’ regime of benefits. No wonder most people would rather be rinsed by the ‘gig economy’.
This article was originally published at Notes from the Underclass.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

What does Corbyn have to lose?


For a long time, I thought that the Conservative government was a weak regime depending on a slight majority in Parliament. This starting point was necessary to proceed on the assumption that the Labour Party stands a chance of winning in 2020. Particularly as Jeremy Corbyn and his left-wing supporters are trying to turn the party around from Blairism. However, the new terrain of Brexit shows 2020 is far from a certain defeat for the Tories.

What I failed to take into account: The Conservatives could well expand their majority by swallowing up the UKIP vote. The Tory majority, the smallest since 1974, counts on just 24.6% of the eligible electorate, which translates to 36% of the vote under our antiquated electoral system. Note UKIP counted for 12% of the vote in 2015 - that's 4 million votes. So Theresa May is going for a full-blooded Brexit because she thinks she can steal back these right-wing voters.

If the Corbynistas are to succeed, the Labour leadership needs to refocus its policy initiatives around a few key areas, adopt a permanent campaigning style to remobilise the base, a voter registration drive and, perhaps most importantly, reshape the media debate. This is vital if Labour is to answer the questions facing the country. In short, Labour's only hope is to increase voter turnout (which is easier said than done) to thwart Tory incursions and expand into enemy territory.

Stoke and Copeland

This is why the by-elections are not simply reflective of future prospects. For starters, the victory in Stoke was partly based on a low turnout and yet Labour came out on top: the Tory-UKIP vote fell by 4,000 votes, but remained split in the end. So the first-past-the-post system favoured Gareth Snell's Blue Labour campaign to rescue English nationalism from the racists. In other words, this win was not an unambiguous one. Though it is possible to rebuild the party's Stoke base over time, it just depends on what happens over the next three years.

That being said, it was great to see Paul Nuttall knocked back on his ass. It wasn't just because Nuttall lied about Hillsborough though, more importantly UKIP has lost its raison d'etre since Leave won the referendum. Still, Paul Nuttall was thick enough to believe the bogus media narrative that the Northern working class vote was more UKIP than Labour. The UKIP base has always been a strange right-wing coalition: one part Tory lite, one part fascist, one part libertarian fruitcake. This is a multi-class bloc, but the working class element are unlikely to come from the Labour base.

At the same time, the real triumph of Nigel Farage may be that the Conservatives are taking up UKIP's nationalist agenda. The May government has made it clear it is going for a hard Brexit and that it is open to restricting immigration, even at the detriment to economic growth and stability. Farage has already won without ever coming close to real power. The electioneers around May will have calculated that the party can survive the social fallout, while Labour remains divided and weak.

By opting for a hard Brexit, Theresa May has successfully neutered the UKIP threat to her party. UKIP was only gaining in Labour seats because it was subsuming the right-wing opposition vote under one umbrella. If the Tories had been more focused on Stoke they might have eaten through Nuttall's base and squeezed Labour's majority even further. But the Conservative leadership decided to focus on the easy target. This brings us to Copeland.

There's no doubt about it, the loss of Copeland was a serious blow. It revealed three factors: 1) the Conservatives were able to swallow up UKIP, while the Labour vote was squeezed on two fronts by 2) the Tories over Sellafield and 3) the Lib Dems over Brexit. The lack of a clear message on nuclear power cost Labour the jobs vote, whereas Corbyn's three line whip on Article 50 cost the party support among Remain voters. The latter factor may be far more important in the end, compared to the more localised nuclear issue.

None of this takes place in a vacuum, the Labour Party is in historic decline because the Blair years cost the party 5 million voters. The New Labour strategy of taking the working class vote for granted, as it chased after middle class families, has cost the party dearly. This is why the 2010 and 2015 elections were lost. It's partly why Scotland was lost. Despite the flaws of the Corbyn leadership, the Blairites and Brownites lack an alternative. A return to New Labour is not possible in a world where the combined Tory-UKIP vote stands at 48%. But a nationalist turn won't cut it either.

Corbyn's Promise

The promise of Corbynism to reverse this trend has not yet been realised. I put this down to a lack of political strategy and coherence on policy and message, as well as the overwhelmingly hostility of the media and the efforts of Blairites to undermine Corbyn. The illusion is that Corbyn is the fundamental problem for Labour, when it was clear that the Brown government lost power and Ed Miliband lost Scotland. Putting a David Miliband or a Dan Jarvis in Corbyn's place will not change the reasons why Labour is in a losing streak.

It's not about your jawline or what suit you wear. The bid to transform Labour is still real for as long as there is no alternative to the radical left in the party. But it takes work to repair 40 years of damage. Some pessimists would argue it is hopeless. If Labour is unsalvageable, then Corbyn may go down with the ship - taking the blame for decades of rot. Even still, I think it would only ensure the collapse of the party to turn back now. It's not about Corbyn, it's about what kind of country we want to live in. The old phrase "socialism or barbarism" is more than rhetorical now.

Bizarrely, Conservative Lord Finkelstein has offered some recommendations in his Times column. Far from arguing for retreat in the hope of saving face (as Owen Jones has done), Danny Finkelstein suggests the only hope for Corbyn is to instigate a new antagonism within the Labour Party to change it forever:
"[Corbyn's] only hope must be as a subversive challenger, relentlessly organising to take over the party and talking about his efforts to do so. He should come out with huge, earth-shaking radical left-wing policies and not care that Yvette Cooper and I both think that they are bonkers. He should skip prime minister's questions in order to attend protest rallies. He should organise to deselect critics and win selection contests for his people."
Finkelstein is not alone, but it's interesting to hear this from a prominent right-wing journalist. Another writer, Benjamin Mercer, has taken to the pages of The National Student to make the case for far-reaching democratic reform within the Labour Party. This is surely the best case for Corbynism, and the best hope of the Labour left:
"Much as the franchise has been expanded for the leadership elections, so it must be expanded at the level of the CLPs. power should be transferred downwards from the General and Executive Committees to the grassroots. Participation should be made easier and the decisions should be made by a committee of the whole membership, not merely a clique of the same. Every member of the CLP must have the right to become its MP, and the membership should be ballotted before every election - or by-election - in order to choose the party's candidate. This should end the practice of 'parachuting' supposedly orthodox candidates into allegedly safe seats. No more Hunts in Stoke. labour Party MPs will be accountable, first and foremost, to their constituencies and not to the leadership, the PLP or the NEC. Re-selection at every election will ensure that this remains the case."
Up until now Jeremy Corbyn has stuck to a centrist style of leadership. However, the Labour coalition of liberals, social democrats and socialists, may just be too broad for the new situation. The broad church approach has been a recipe for incoherence on policy and a lack of strategy on the media. If Corbynism is to succeed, the party has to be transformed in the long-term and that requires thinking beyond 2020. A surrender or a retreat would just offset this process of democratic reform.

If the experiment ends with Corbyn stepping down in 2020, the opening for transforming Labour into a mass democratic party would be lost. This would close the space for a radical leadership. Not only would it mean that the left would not be able to contest the elections in 2025 and 2030, it would mean Labour would fall back into the hands of the extreme centre. Contrary to Blairite illusions, the party would resume its lacklustre performance under Ed Miliband, or, worse, try to stake out a position as the party for English nationalism under the guise of Blue Labour. Either way, Labour is dead meat.

This article was originally written for Souciant on March 3, 2017.