Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Just the Norm

Much as it pains me to do anything that might even slightly increase the triumphalist arm-waving accompanying the launch of the “Euston Manifesto”, it's simply too tempting a target (unlike, for instance, the comparably self-important and inane “Unite Against Terror” initiative). Like all bar room soliloquys, it's long and tedious, so I'll confine myself to making a few points.

Broadly speaking, the manifesto is a statement of the obvious, larded with unsubtle jabs at political opponents who are, as ever for the decentist “left”, left-wing: nobody on the right is worth criticising. So we're for “democracy” and against “tyranny”; we want “human rights for all” and “equality”; we oppose “racism”. We like “critical openness” and “freedom of ideas” (and, oddly, Linux). So far, so dull.

Strangely, though, the manifesto also elevates to a principle “opposing anti-Americanism”:
“That US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported regressive and authoritarian ones does not justify generalized prejudice against either the country or its people.”
What do they mean by “country”? If it doesn't mean “people”, it seems to mean “government”. The US's extraordinary history of supporting dictators, then, is axiomatically excluded from the discussion. To draw any lessons from it would be to exhibit “generalized prejudice”.

Elsewhere, under innocuous headings, we see the usual Harry's Place jibes re-draped as high-minded scruples. “No apology for tyranny,” they declare in Principle 2, when they mean “we don't like George Galloway”. They decline, they inform us, “to make excuses for... reactionary regimes”, forgetting in their rush to stick it to Respect that they regularly make excuses for George Bush.

“Human rights for all,” the Eustonites shout, but only so they can moan of “double standards” underpinning attempts to hold Bush accountable for Abu Ghraib. In the “elaboration” on this subject, Guantanamo, etc. are “roundly condemned” in the preamble to a near-identical gripe about people trying to hold democracies to higher standards than dictators (how dare they!).

In principle 8 they're “Against racism”. Who wouldn't be? Except that the racism they highlight most specifically (leaving aside the cancer of anti-Americanism) is “prejudice against the Jewish people behind the formula 'anti-Zionism'”. It's a fairly clear warning to those taking Principle 7's purported even-handedness on Palestine too seriously: get too anti-Zionist and you'll be suspect.

They're in favour of “critical openness” and “[h]istorical truth”, but these are just openers for insinuations of holocaust denial, Stalinism, etc. among their opponents.

Nowhere do they address the catastrophic increase in death rates in Iraq since the invasion, the bombing casualties, the shooting victims – i.e. everything that shows that even by the same standard as dictators they've actually made things worse there if human suffering has any relevance. Nor do they apparently care, for all their vaunted commitment to democracy, that most Iraqis want US troops out.

Even on its own terms it isn't a new manifesto for the left, because the only novel elements are not principles, or commitments, but simply over-familiar and weightless complaints about political opponents. “Millions”, the second elaboration solemnly informs us, “live in terrible poverty.” You don't say. “We repudiate the way of thinking according to which the events of September 11, 2001 were America's deserved comeuppance, or 'understandable' in the light of legitimate grievances resulting from US foreign policy,” we hear, as the manifesto switches from Oxfam Press Release to Hitchens-lite. That's slightly newer, but it's still a straw man dating from 2001.

Alongside all this, perhaps the strangest tack is the attempt to pretend that the Euston group in some way incorporates the principles of some who opposed the Iraq War. Even though the defining, the creating, issue for decentists as a group was this war, they step back from suggesting that supporting it is crucial. This appears to be an attempt, like so many others, to suggest that their pro-war fervour derives from some deep-seated liberal creed rather than an ever-changing collection of debating points.

But if this is so, if you can oppose “the justification for the [Iraq War]” and still be a decentist, what is the point of the whole thing? Do all these highfalutin principles funnel into nothing more than loud support for Iranian bus drivers? Here the manifesto descends into incoherence, because Eustonites believe Saddam's overthrow was “a liberation of the Iraqi people”, and you have to be in favour of liberation if you sign up. (In practice, the aim seems to be to foreclose fundamental criticism in favour of Andrew Sullivan-style, “sack Rumsfeld” fault-finding, but the language is too vague to be sure.)

So what do they stand for? Well as far as we know, they're self-described leftists who rank Linux and combating the scourge of “anti-Americanism” alongside “equality” as founding principles – surely a minority group.


Anonymous i hope you get cancer™ said...

Stuart, I share your ambivalence - Euston is, ahem, a train-wreck that we can't help taking a morbid fascination in, even though it's against our better instincts to do so.

Even though it's such a big target, you're spot on with your comments. Although it's a rich seam of incoherence, self-contradiction, etc etc etc, it's also evidently a serious attempt at neocon propaganda, and at preparing the ground for the strike on Iran.

8:15 am  
Blogger StuartA said...

Thanks for your comments.

It is a strange one. The intent, as you say, was clearly serious, yet the execution was astonishingly poor even by their standards. It really does read as if they knocked it out in a few hours between drinks, yet they apparently believe it will have some sort of noticeable impact on the political landscape.

It isn't surprising there have been so many attacks on it, and that Harry's Place stuck up a stream of defensive articles implying their critics were those usual anti-semites. It's perhaps most useful as an indicator of the psychological state of the pro-war "left": a vague, babbling incoherence ineptly masked by strutting self-importance and ludicrous appeal to principle.

As for Iran, it'll be interesting to see how they play that. Obviously they've already been talking up the threat from Iran's nuclear arsenal. Presumably we'll hear more about Hezbollah and Iranian human rights violations. Maybe they'll try to blame more of the problems in Iraq on SCIRI et al. But they'll be faced, yet again, with arguing that an insanely dangerous and illegal attack will somehow improve the world.

2:07 pm  
Anonymous i hope you get cancer™ said...

But - to pick up on your final point - the legality and consequences of war are, in their view, quite immaterial. The original document and much of their subsequent defence of it specifically supports the principle of "intervention" (that's "war" to you, me and the poor fucks being bombed and shot) and positions any critique - on the grounds that such intervention might be illegal, or create more problems than it solves - as beyond the pale.

Thus they will have no difficulty justifying attacks on Iran, Syria, wherever.

10:13 am  
Blogger Simon said...

Found this via Aaro Watch. Very good stuff, well done.

re: the anti-war Decents: I think they perform a similar function to that performed by the 'pro-war left' for the 'pro-war right' (ie the US government and its supporters) in the run up to the Iraq invasion. They're a sort of totem to hold up, with the insinuation "look! they opposed the Iraq war and yet are still Decent! If they can be Decent, why can't you be?"

Ultimately, though, the anti-war Decents can't have believed very firmly in their position, because they have since swallowed every obfuscatory New Labour talking point designed to let the war's architects off the hook, while seemingly abandoning any sense of anger at the failure of a war they correctly believed in advance to be a folly. They exist as a cover for the other Decents' support of the greatest foreign policy disaster of the modern age. Worse, they believe that contemplating the implications of the greatest foreign policy disaster of the modern age is 'picking over the rubble'.

8:48 pm  
Blogger StuartA said...

Agreed, they're setting themselves up to support whichever "humanitarian" intervention they need to flak for next, and putting out some vague terms under which sovereignty can be suspended is helpful for that.

That's not to say that certain decentists didn't attempt to claim that the Iraq invasion was legal. I particularly remember Kamm banging on about resolutions 687 and 1441 somehow legitimising the attack (echoing, of course, Blair, and his claims to be upholding international law).

But I can't see any similar pretext being available for Iran, so I think your point stands: they'll need some sort of interventionist justification so they've laid one down in their "manifesto".


I hadn't considered that theory behind the supposed anti-war decents. If I understand correctly, you're viewing it as a means of suggesting a "decent centre", outside of which everybody is a lunatic extremist? Seems plausible.

Aside from that, I can see it as a stab at making their movement look broader, and hence more important.

Still, I can't help but think it betrays a loss of nerve. Would they be inviting opponents of the war into their special club if they felt more confident about defending it?

The "picking over the rubble" phrase was extraordinary -- I meant to raise that. Very much of the Blair "let's move on" school. Why, if the war was so obviously correct, don't they want to pick over the rubble? Surely it's good rubble? But that would be to forget that consequences are not of interest to decents...

10:55 pm  
Anonymous Simon said...

I hadn't considered that theory behind the supposed anti-war decents. If I understand correctly, you're viewing it as a means of suggesting a "decent centre", outside of which everybody is a lunatic extremist?

That's exactly it. I think that was why they coined the term 'decent left' in the first place (easy to forget they started it!).

5:06 pm  
Blogger james higham said...

I've read enough of the Euston garbage to concur with Stuart on this. More than this, it's an incoherent insult to the intelligence of supposed one third intelligent who see it as an insult to their intelligence.

2:58 pm  
Blogger Anglonoel said...

Hello- I wish I had come across your blog ages ago. I had a quick skirmish with a Eustonie on my blog earlier in the summer when I made a few quick points about the 'Festo. I was accused by "Paulie" of being a "donkey" for not reading the whole thing & being told that some people who opposed the war in Iraq were Eustonies too. To be called a "donkey" by someone on your own blog is not the way to win friends and influence people is it? I resolved to totally "Fisk" the 'Festo but events ie Israel in Lebanon made the 'Festo a bit of a paper tiger. However, I might get back to my piece as part of an end of year round up ("Where Are They Now? Part 23").

However, 3 points I'd quickly make about the Manifesto...

(1) No mention of China, human rights abuser par excellence? When will the Eustonies advocate "regime change" there?
(2) Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I didn't come across any mentions of capitalism in the 'Festo. Considering that many Eustonies have or claim left-wing/marxist backgrounds, this is quite an omission.
(3) The whole thing reads like those appalling and dated CPGB/
Marxism Today documents that came out in the late 80s. (Anyone admit remembering "Manifesto for New Times" or "Face/Facing the Future"?)

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