Celebrity talk and the problem of inequality

Open Democracy News Analysis - 7 hours 4 min ago

Do attitudes towards the rich and famous help to legitimize gross disparities in wealth and power?

David Beckham and Michelle Obama at the White House in 2013. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1992, social psychologist Michael Billig wrote a book on how ‘ordinary’ people talk about the British Royal family. He argued that through their conversations, people compared their situations with those of royalty in ways that made their own lives come out better—helping them to ignore gross inequalities of wealth and power in the process. This makes action on inequality much less likely.

Could the same be true today for the ways in which young people think about celebrity more broadly, and how celebrity is intertwined with inequality and austerity?

To explore these questions, Laura Harvey, Kim Allen and Heather Mendick from Brunel University in the UK revisited Billig’s work and published their findings in 2015. Their research focused on one apparently simple question: how do young people in England talk about contemporary celebrities, and what difference does this make?  

Inequalities between rich and poor in the UK are much greater now than when Billig published his book. Five years of austerity policies have meant that young people face cuts in education, health and youth services; increased levels of unemployment; and greater costs if they choose to attend university because of huge rises in tuition fees.

In this context, differences in wealth, status and opportunity between celebrities and the rest of the population both illustrate and accentuate the problems of inequality, and provide a space to explore how young people feel about and respond to these increasing disparities.

The Brunel team’s research examines how 148 young people who were interviewed at different locations in England respond to austerity in talking about celebrities. Like Billig, the researchers see talk as a space of social action, a way that people get things done. This doesn’t mean that young people deliberately set out to justify or legitimize inequalities—simply that particular patterns in their conversations end up doing so because they strengthen certain meanings that solidify as ‘common sense.’

By becoming more aware of these patterns it should be possible to call inequality into question, and open it up to a more energetic challenge. Five of these patterns emerged as especially important.

1.      Celebrities do extraordinary things

When young people talk about the extraordinary things that celebrities do, they position them as ‘better’ than ordinary people. Bill Gates was the most popular example of this kind of talk, often featuring in discussions about the ‘ideal celebrity.’ In one case an interviewee asserted that “he was like helping eradicate polio from the world,” and this silenced any criticisms of him and his work. Gates’ extreme wealth is also part of his extraordinariness as a celebrity, and is legitimized by being accompanied by talk of his philanthropic work. So for example, when one respondent said “he’s like a beast, he’s got loads of money,” another countered by saying that “he gives it away for free.”

Extreme wealth was also a feature of how young people talked about the footballer David Beckham. Here, as for Gates, Beckham’s philanthropy and hard work served to justify his wealth. As one interviewee put it, he trained “tirelessly, day in day out, in order to progress from £10 a week to £100k a week.” 

2.      Celebrities are ordinary within extraordinary circumstances

Young people want someone who they can relate to, and are drawn to those celebrities who they feel are ‘ordinary’ and do ‘everyday’ things. But what makes them ‘better’ than other people is that they manage to maintain their ordinariness in the extraordinary circumstances of fame and media scrutiny in which they find themselves. Foremost among such celebrities was Hollywood actress Jennifer Lawrence.

The respondents referred to her very public fall at the 2013 Oscars, the way in which she laughed at herself, and how she stated that she loved fast food and would never diet. As one interviewee said, “She’s just normal. Like she was on the red carpet, and she was ordering McDonald’s, and I thought she was cool.”

3.      Celebrities cannot do ordinary things in ordinary ways

Other participants in the study spoke of the fact that celebrities are subject to constant media scrutiny, and face press intrusion that they must ‘suffer.’ Echoing Billig’s findings about people who were talking about the royal family, some of the respondents talked about Prince Harry living in the media spotlight. One said that he thought Harry was “just trying to be a normal bloke, he wants to go out and have a good laugh…He just wants to be normal”—to which another  responded that she thought Harry shouldn’t have to “live a life of misery.”

4.      Celebrities are disgusting and inauthentic

By contrast, another pattern from the research described celebrities as ‘fake’ and ‘arrogant’, even ‘disgusting’ and ‘inauthentic.’ When talking about extreme surgery for example, respondents focussed on the likes of Nicki Minaj and Katie Price, speaking of them as ‘too fake’ and saying that “it’s the plastic surgery and stuff that makes me dislike her.” 

In relation to Minaj, one participant asked “How are you going to know if she is good person? She’s hiding behind an image that makes her look like a good person, then she must be a bad person.”

In contrast to the first pattern where ‘ideal’ celebrities were usually identified as white men, these examples were predominantly working-class and ethnic minority women: racism and sexism occur in the everyday processes of analysing which celebrities people feel are ‘real’ and ‘just like us,’ and which are not.

5.      Celebrity lifestyles are risky and vulnerable

In contrast to views of celebrities who have had plastic surgery, young people discussed the risky and vulnerable lifestyles of famous people who become addicted to drugs and alcohol with empathy and sympathy—like Amy Winehouse. As one respondent said, “They grow up like they’re already pressured from when they’re kids because they’re famous and then as they grow up they just give up caring anymore.”

Stories of ‘car-crash’ celebrities like Whitney Houston and Lindsay Lohan circulate as cautionary tales of what might happen if you become famous. Their overdosing on drugs and alcohol, and their risky lifestyles which are constantly reported in the press, make them appear as warnings. Some interviewees felt that celebrities had a greater level of vulnerability to these ‘risky’ lifestyles because of the pressures they faced. In so doing, they presented their own lives as safer and more desirable.

So what have we learned?

Young people discuss celebrity lives critically in relation to success, money, hard work, philanthropy and authenticity. This is a long way from the media stereotype of teenagers who idolise celebrities and want to become just as famous. In fact, their ‘celebrity talk’ is much the same as that of people who are older. Both groups focus more on the downsides of celebrity than the upsides of fame. While this may initially be reassuring, the patterns found in the Brunel research constitute a problem for anyone who wants to challenge social inequalities. Why is that?

In talking about celebrities, young people are also talking about themselves. The claims, criticisms and justifications they make about celebrities operate as evaluations of themselves and the world in which they are growing up. These evaluations matter.

Talk of ‘extraordinary’ celebrities who ‘triumph over adversity’ makes it seem as though such people deserve what they have. Talk of ‘vulnerable’ celebrities makes it appear safer to stay within the realms of anonymity. In these ways, talking about celebrities may serve to legitimize the massive inequalities that young people see between their own lives and those of the rich and famous, at least indirectly.

In addition, by talking about ‘ideal’ celebrities like Bill Gates and David Beckham who are male, white and middle class, and labelling others as ‘disgusting’ like Nicki Minaj who is female, black and working class, inequalities based on gender, class and race are reinforced.

It is especially important to explore the power of such cultural stories in the current context of deepening austerity in the UK and elsewhere. By breaking apart and analysing these stories we can begin to create new narratives to support the transformation of society.

Sideboxes Related stories:  On superheroes: who will save us now? Love, vanity and wealth A year of living generously Topics:  Culture
Categories: les flux rss

The Greek showdown, what if No means Yes and Yes means No?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 5. July 2015 - 0:13

"A strange referendum, then, when both sides want the same thing: a viable agreement with the institutions... that keeps Greece in the Eurozone." Anthony Barnett pursues clarity.

I am a member of a small nationality: the English Europeans. Like any attractive nationality this is one of becoming as well as tradition and allegiance – a patriotism of change, not a hunched, defensive chauvinism. It means looking forward to being more English and more European as my country becomes simultaneously more attractively and less aggressively English and more profoundly and freely European; as, in other words, both sides of my nationality enhance each other to strengthen my liberty and expand my democracy in a globalizing world. 

It is a privileged nationality that has come about thanks to the creation of the EU. It means I can understand and identify with Greeks who at one and the same time want to be both more Greek and more European. Like them I experience myself as belonging to a country and continent harnessed together in a single vehicle. It is not an experience shared by most of my fellow countrymen. They are English-Britains, who even when ‘pro-European’ mostly regard the EU in an instrumental way. They experience their nationality as already fulfilled without further need for definition. For them any European claims on their identity feel like a subtraction of their nationality, more of a threat than an enhancement.

The argument with my own countrymen is not going well. Sorry, that is a classic British understatement: it is going badly. What is going even worse is the EU itself; its policy towards Greece has been atrocious and is turning the Union from a framework that strengthened the nations of Europe into one that threatens them.

Today the Greeks are voting in a referendum on their relationship to the EU. Whatever happens the poor are likely to be punished. I am going to Greece to witness and share in the immediate aftermath. Before setting out to listen to my Greek friends I decided to set down my outsider’s view.

What is the referendum about

The referendum is divisive, incoherent, ill-prepared and may lead to an outcome so close as to be unclear  - dangerous energies in a country whose civil war and military dictatorships are not tucked safely in the seventeenth century but are raw and present. Yet it has brought democracy into the chambers of the European process where I hope its unruly presence stays put. It is easy for me to say so but I welcome its taking the issue to the people. The issue of the referendum being, should the Eurozone be governed in the way it has been, or not.

My answer to this question is NO. This is how I hope the Greeks will vote. My experience of the Scottish referendum leads me to expect a YES.

On the face of it, the NO vote should storm through. The formal question is should Greece say YES to the creditors' terms for continued austerity, cuts to the pensions of the poor and no debt relief that the Troika of the EU, the European Central Bank (ECB), and the IMF put on the table as a “take it or leave it offer”. Or should they say NO so that the better terms the Troika will now offer can be agreed, now that the IMF’s judgment that massive debt relief is essential is openly on the table? And speedily agreed, according to the assurance of Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis.

In this official version of the choice, NO means better terms, an acknowledgement of the wishes of the Greek people, less impoverishment, debt relief and a very hard but potentially sustainable way out of the country’s economic and financial crisis. Whereas YES means embracing the Troika at its worst and carrying on the spiral of economic decomposition.

But if you read the compelling collection of openDemocracy contributors speaking their views in the forum put together by Alex Sakalis, another perspective emerges. Firest, the official one is neatly summed up by Dimitris Boucas:

YES means accepting the current proposal of Greece’s creditors and opening the road to more severe austerity measures with the least possible negotiating power for the Greek government.

NO means rejecting the current proposal and not condemning generations of young people to decades of austerity. It strengthens the government’s negotiating hand towards reaching a better agreement, with debt restructuring, coupled with measures for growth, always within the Eurozone.

Second, the other view is summed up by Iannis Carras (sequence slightly altered)

A NO will lead to a post-Sovietisation of Greek society. The economy will tank, hunger will become widespread, pensioners and the poor will be disproportionately affected. Violence is likely. It is thus with a sense of mourning for the Greece and the EU that are failing us that I will vote YES.

But this YES comes with an addendum: if, after a YES, the EU and the creditors do not provide substantial debt relief in return for structural reforms, thus helping the Greek economy grow, they will bear the ethical responsibility for the inability of the Greek side to live up to impossible obligations.

This view sees a NO as being YES and a YES as being a NO. It is not without plausibility. Far from a NO leading to a more honest acceptable negotiation, the EU leaders have spoken out bluntly warning that if the Greeks say NO the EU will have no alternative but to punish the country.

Instead of coming to the deal that Varoufakis promises, from which some pride and relief can be extracted, a NO vote will plunge the country into unimagined austerity as the Germans decide that Greece has to leave the Euro – the fact that there are no rules that allow this being irrelevant. What happens will happen. The ECB can decline to switch on the Greek banks, Greece will have to default and then start to print its own currency. But there will be no easy write-off that might permit the economy to bounce back with a cheap currency, in case this inspires other Euro members to think for themselves. It is a NO vote that will mean long-term subordination to a vengeful Europe intent on depressing the Greek economy, undermining, bribing and despising its officials in the process.

A YES vote, on the other hand, will defenestrate Tsipras and Varoufakis. They will be replaced, at least this is what the Eurocrats hope, with a Greek simulacrum of themselves who wear ties. Germany and Brussels cannot but then offer decent terms in gratitude to the Greek people’s act of loyalty. In particular they can’t go back on the moderate concessions they conceded to Syriza but will in addition agree the debt relief they refused the Greek leftists. Furthermore, only a YES will end the isolation from Europe that many Greeks now fear.  As Kalypso Nicolaïdis, and Othon Anastasakis put it,

“we are ready to make a leap of faith and say yes to Europe, however flawed that Europe is. We are ready to trust the other Europeans that if we vote yes today, they will take it as sign that we want to trust them again and ask them to trust us”. It is an argument that seeks to turn the table on the rhetoric of the NO voters, by claiming dignity and self-determination belong to those who say YES,

A YES with dignity can in this way be the best path to regaining our credibility lost in the rest of Europe and the world, by telling the creditors: you may be responsible for the dreadful economic recipes of the last 5 years and the current mess, you may be insensitive about our terrible economic depression, we may detest your moralising tone about who we are, but our Europe does not belong to you. Europe belongs to all of us. With our YES to Europe, we ask to become again actors of our own destiny.

On Thursday July 2, three days before the referendum, the IMF released a draft document on debt sustainability that had been drawn up the week before, on June 26. This states that a huge write down of the Greek debt is essential, precisely what the Syriza government have been arguing but which the Troika refused to concede. There was an intense debate between the IMF, the EU and the ECB over whether the report should be published, as Paul Taylor of Reuters reported the next day,

"It wasn't an easy decision," an IMF source involved in the debate over publication said. "We are not living in an ivory tower here. But the EU has to understand that not everything can be decided based on their own imperatives."

The board had considered all arguments, including the risk that the document would be politicized, but the prevailing view was that all the evidence and figures should be laid out transparently before the referendum.

In other words, they agreed it would be politicized. On the face of it, it seems to support the NO side, who have claimed all along that the debt question must be dealt with and confirms that it will have to be if there is a NO. But it probably reassures the YES side even more. Its supporters can now be absolutely confident that better terms are indeed on the table for them because debt sustainability will now be part of the negotiations.

There is a comparison here with the Scottish referendum in September last year. As the vote approached Scottish opinion started to swing towards supporting independence thanks both to the energy and spirit of the YES to independence campaign, and the lethargy of the NO campaign that backed the status quo and Scotland staying in the United Kingdom. The NO side played on all the financial and political risks - including expulsion from the European Union. But were offering nothing positive. At the last minute a “Vow” was extracted from all the main Westminster parties to deliver considerably more domestic powers of self-government to Scotland. In effect the NO campaign turned itself into a call for change! Its final leaflet delivered through front doors across Scotland headlined: “A vote for no is a vote for change” and “When change is coming it’s not worth the risk”.           

In a similar way the argument in Greece against Syriza’s call for a NO is becoming a claim that it is a YES that will achieve the new and better terms, but without the risks of polarisation and awkward left-wingers in control. A strange referendum, then, when both sides want the same thing: a viable agreement with 'the institutions', to use the polite name for the troika, that keeps Greece in the Eurozone.

The government says that by endorsing its rejection of an unacceptable ‘final offer’ and saying NO, an acceptable one will be agreed rapidly, with the Greeks able to hold their heads up high, dignity renewed, despite the pain that will surely follow. The opposition, including most business interests and the media, say only the political defeat of the government thanks to a YES will secure Greece the self-same negotiated outcome with the EU and the pain that will surely follow.

But if both sides have the same aim it means the real issue that divides them is who will decide. And this could prove very divisive and have significant political consequences. A left-wing victory would be magnificently against the odds.

Who is to blame

How did we (that's my European "we")  get into this situation and who's to blame? It is hard not to conclude from the public evidence that the breakdown in negotiations that led to the referendum was precipitated by the EU. Of course they have better access to the media and are spinning it as caused by unreliable Greeks.  But it does not seem that way to me. Without getting caught up in the details, or even claiming to understand them all, here are the highlights as I see them.

On 14 June the Chief Economist of the IMF, Olivier Blanchard, set out the IMF position in a short statement headed Greece: A Credible Deal Will Require Difficult Decisions By All Sides. Referring to changes in the situation, he wrote:

The offer made to the Greek government last week reflected these considerations and these trade offs.  It proposed to lower the medium term primary budget surplus target from 4.5% of GDP to 3.5%, and give Greece two more years to achieve that target—so the target for this year was reduced to 1%—and it asked for a more limited set of reforms.

The primary surplus is money raised and taken out of the economy by the government to be used to pay back its loans. What is not invested back into the economy weakens growth and lowers incomes and goes by the name of ‘austerity’. The argument against it is simple: that what both Greece and its creditors need is growth, therefore extracting a primary surplus which shrinks an economy is counter-productive especially when it has shrunk so much. Blanchard shows that to some degree the IMF took this point on board by lessening its demands. Blanchard continues,

For a deal along these lines to be effective and credible however, two conditions must be satisfied.

On the one hand, the Greek government has to offer truly credible measures to reach the lower target budget surplus, and it has to show its commitment to the more limited set of reforms. 

He then sets out the need for “comprehensive reform of the value-added tax (VAT)… and a further adjustment of pensions”.  He explains why they need to “insist on pensions” saying that the changes they want can protect “the poorest pensioners” and adds, “We are open to alternative ways for designing both the VAT and the pension reforms, but these alternatives have to add up and deliver the required fiscal adjustment”. Blanchard then makes a crucial further stipulation,

On the other hand, the European creditors would have to agree to significant additional financing, and to debt relief sufficient to maintain debt sustainability.

In other words there has also to be debt restructuring or reduction (a haircut) or both, as well, otherwise the tough package will not lead to a sustainable route out of the mess. Hence the words in the title: “difficult decisions by both sides”.

The Syriza government' s response was to come up with alternative ways to achieve a budget acceptable to the creditors. For the argument over pensions see the document presented by Varoufakis to the Eurogroup, posted on his blog and published in openDemocracy. But the critical point is that the Greek government accepted in principle the terms set out by the IMF for the creditors. As the Financial Times reported on 26 June this can be seen in the eight-page Greek government document leaked to them that was presented to the creditors on the 22 June. This opens with a commitment by the Greek government to, “A new fiscal path... premised on a primary surplus target of 1, 2, 3, and 3.5 per cent of GDP in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018”. This is as close to capitulation as you could want and signals an agreement by Syriza to continue with austerity - an abandonment of its central electoral appeal, that it could persuade the Europeans to stop squeezing money out of them until they achieved growth.

According to a careful analysis of the negotiations by Landon Thomas in the New York Times the initial response to the Greek document was positive. In Brussels “The Greek team was elated. For the first time, the Greek numbers were adding up”. The next day their optimism evaporated, it was returned covered in red re-writes especially on pensions. They would have to compromise further. But Tspiras and Varoufakis concluded that,  “Their only chance… was to push Europe hard for some flexibility on debt relief because without that, their plan had no chance of making it through the Greek parliament”. And not just the parliament. There was no point in such an agreement without a parallel one to reconfigure the country’s un-repayable debt. Unless this became sustainable there would be no large scale investment, no growth and no escape from their economic disaster.

Thomas’ account of the meeting is gripping. The Europeans recoil in distaste from the Greek Finance Minister’s requests to consider the deb question. In what seems to have been a cross between the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and an audience with the Red Queen, Europe tells the Greeks to shut their eyes and believe in impossible things. They resisted, here is how the Times report concludes,

Mr. Varoufakis persisted on the issue of Greece’s staggering debt load [and turned to] Christine Lagarde, the French director of the I.M.F….  “I have a question for Christine, Mr. Varoufakis said to the packed hall: Can the I.M.F. formally state in this meeting that this proposal we are being asked to sign will make the Greek debt sustainable?”

“Yanis has a point”, Ms. Lagarde responded — “the question of the debt needs to be addressed”. But before she could explain, she was interrupted by Mr. Dijsselbloem. “It’s a take it or leave it offer, Yanis”, the Dutch official said, peering at him through rimless spectacles.

In the end, Greece would leave it.

What else could Greece do? For at the same time that Lagarde avoided the question and Dijsselbloem closed down the exchange, she knew that her own IMF draft report on the sustainability of Greek debt, which was finalized and sent to her that same day (if it was not already in her phone) spelt out the need for massive debt relief of over €50 billion. They all knew in principle anyway. For it had been signaled by the IMF's Chief Economist in his warning that there had to be difficult decisions by both sides.

Paul Mason got an excellent, 15 minute, robust interview with Varoufakis. He put it to him that they had effectively agreed to the creditors' terms and no one could understand why they walked out and called the referendum when the differences were so minor. Varoufakis finds it hard to accept how far they had capitulated but is clear about the decisive issue of difference which determined the breakdown, “Two words: debt restructuring”. He even emphasises the point that Syriza are not themselves asking for a haircut on the lines the IMF recommend, simply restructuring so that the debt becomes sustainable – without which he convincingly shows the country cannot grow.

The European leaders thought they had trapped the Greek leftists. They had extracted a serious programme (at least on paper) of institutional reform and modernisation; they had gained agreement to continued austerity via an annually rising primary surplus; they had successfully insisted on painful pension reductions. Then they refused to offer any debt relief, which would have made the package one Syriza could advocate as creating a sustainable outcome. And not just advocate. Without it the package made no sense and simply stored up further disaster. It would have been reckless and rotten to have signed it. It was shameful for the Europeans to have advocated it without the debt relief that could make it work. The Greeks should be proud that their government did not bend or break, Instead, they spring the trap, and they called the referendum.

Who should take responsibility

If the Europeans are responsible for the breakdown, thanks to their irrational and dishonest refusal to countenance debt restructuring as part of the package, thus undermining its credibility, who is responsible for this European policy?

The answer seems to be Angela Merkel. Before Tsipras decided to go for the referendum he “had asked Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany about including debt relief with a deal, only to be rebuffed again”, according to the New York Times. This was it seems after Varoufakis had been told to take it or leave it without debt restructuring.

I have always liked Angela Merkel for not being like Thatcher. She is not bossy or self-righteous in public, takes her time and seeks consensus and as a result seemed to build a self-confident country rather than a hysterical one puffed up by Westminster bluster. But after reading Der Spiegal writers' Peter Müller and René Pfister devastating critique of Merkel’s infectiveness, capacity for drift and evasion, I am not so sure. They write,

She could have offered Greece a safe and supported path out of the euro zone. That is the course of action that Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has supported internally for years. She could also have offered Greece a debt haircut. Had she done so at the right moment, she could at least have prevented the radicalization of Greek politics. None of these options would have been free of risk. They would have required courage and money, and they would have opened up Merkel to attack. And that is something she didn't want. So she hid behind the troika, behind the hated technocrats, thereby accelerating the rise of Syriza. Indeed, Tsipras is, to a certain extent, a product of Merkel's vacillating leadership style.

The result has been to divide Greece, open up internal European policy to the United States, and in the end divide Europe itself. Last Monday, according to the Spiegel team, “Merkel stood in front of a blue screen in the lobby of the Chancellery and uttered a sentence that typifies her European policy. She was discussing the question of whether a "no" vote by the Greeks to the creditors' reform program was tantamount to a "no" to the euro. Instead of saying "yes" or "no," she said: "I will say quite openly: I am divided on this issue." If she does not know, how are the Greeks to be expected to know the answer to a question that has a huge impact on how they vote?

There is also the element of German indifference to their own responsibility for the deeper causes of the Greek crisis. They not only helped to permit it, they actively exploited the weak, clientelist corruption of the Greek state they now rile against. “Once, during a flight”, Spiegel reports of Merkel, “she was suddenly gripped by a laughing fit. She said that the Greek government was refusing to pay the bill for German submarines it had purchased. Their justification was that the subs were crooked. "Crooked!" Merkel said as tears of hilarity rolled down her cheeks”. But what is so funny? A well known, very experienced international financier once told me, “Germans think corruption is taking bribes not giving bribes”. This is the real joke. The irritation that the European leaders feel as they bridle at the ‘undiplomatic’ language of the Syriza negotiators and the claims that their style has isolated Greece from Europe goes back to Merkel; somebody who has been so powerful and whose country is so rich can't be wrong? No one in the EU is going to support the Greeks against Germany by blaming Berlin. If Merkel finds you difficult this suddenly turns into your isolating yourself from Europe. It is surely German childishness (in terms of willing the end but not the means), procrastination and profiteering, that bears the greatest responsibility for the emiseration of Greece.    

Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

“We have already voted NO”

Open Democracy News Analysis - 4. July 2015 - 17:16

Personally it took me a while to feel more hopeful about this referendum and to overcome my own anxieties and fear.

Doctors and hospital staff protest against closing hospitals and lay-offs, 2013. Demotix/Thanashs Kambyshs. All rights reserved.Various articles have been written in the last few days over why Greeks should vote No. The restoration of hope and dignity are of course topping the agenda, as my friends Antonis Vradis and Hara Kouki explain in this platform and elsewhere. But I would argue there is another, less obvious reason why we should vote No.

We have already voted No. Since 2009, we have been facing brutal neoliberal reforms and yet we resisted becoming neoliberal subjects. We refused to judge people by their falling spending power and commodity value. We came together in local assemblies and public squares, formed solidarity trading networks and alternative economies as well as self-managed health centres, education centres and time banks that catered for all - independent of class, race, age and gender. It was all about solidarity across difference and distance, the struggle to retain human dignity, and our collective capacity to overcome fear.

This is why in a sense, we have already voted No. We are simply called to deliver at a more structural, macro-economic level what we have already delivered at the micro-level of everyday life and social struggles. We have to say NO before our solidarity structures fail, before we become subaltern in an increasingly dystopian Europe.

Personally it took me a while to feel more hopeful about this referendum and to overcome my own anxieties and fear. Contrary to Antonis Vradis’ article I thought this was a lose-lose scenario for Syriza and by and large, for the Greek antagonist movement too. I could not see how a No could take on the ‘market’ or the ‘criminal gang-in-suits’ in the streets of Brussels. I was afraid that a No would only serve to remove responsibility away from the elites of Europe and onto our shoulders, the corrupt, lazy and irrational subjects that lacked “adult-like” qualities as Christine Lagarde recently put it. 

Put differently, a No could be the final jigsaw piece in a prevailing quasi-Orientalist narrative that portrays Greeks as morally inferior subjects worthy of their own fate. This is after all what many of our Northern Europeans neighbours still believe. As far as this narrative goes, a narrative that foregrounds individual “choice” and blameworthiness, we are now asked to decide ourselves whether we want to leave Europe. It is not about the socio-historic conditions of our existence, conditions that have largely been imposed in Brussels.

I am now less pessimistic, not least because the terms of the debate have started shifting. The IMF, for instance, is now accepting (at least) some responsibility, its own “childishness” and “irrationality” in this ongoing political drama. No matter the outcome, this seems to be a critical juncture capable of bringing about radical upheavals. It is time to say NO via this voting platform too.   

Country or region:  Greece EU Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

What happens after the Greek vote

Open Democracy News Analysis - 4. July 2015 - 17:15

If YES wins, Tsipras could lose everything; if NO wins Tsipras could gain nothing. But, in the longer term, YES would prolong the agony of the country, while NO would show that some democracy is left in Europe.

A 'NO' demonstration in Athens. Demotix/Alexandros Michailidis. All rights reserved.In Greece, on Sunday evening, the referendum called by the government of Alexis Tsipras could deliver a success of the "yes" vote.

Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis announced last Thursday that he would resign; he could not sign a memorandum - a revised version of the one on which negotiations broke last week - which would bring austerity back to the country and would not address debt restructuring.

It would be difficult for the Tsipras government to survive such a result; the new proposals from Berlin and Brussels would make life impossible for the coalition between Syriza and Anel; many members of parliament would not be prepared to vote for a surrender. A change of government in Athens is what European powers have pursued in all these months; now they are close to success and are using all available means to destabilize the country and push the Greeks to a "yes" vote. Once a new government - obedient to the troika – is in place, new proposals from Berlin and Brussels could give the country some breathing space.

In addition to the media campaign, the ultimate weapon used against Greece was the closing down by the ECB of the flow of liquidity towards the Greek economy, which led the Tsipras government to close banks for a week and put in place capital controls.

There is nothing like a bank panic to unleash a demand for order in countries that have experienced well-being. Mario Draghi had tried to push European authorities to take responsibility for their political choices on Greece, but the measures he has taken have strangled the country. It is reasonable to think that Draghi used all his power to prevent Athens from freezing capital movements in previous months. In the name of common rules, hundreds of billions of Euros have fled Greece: the rich and the corporations are now safe with their cash abroad, not waiting in line at banks’ ATMs.

The decision not to stop capital flights has bled the country's economy. In return, €89 billion in emergency liquidity funds (ELA) have reached Greek banks; the flow stopped after the breakdown of negotiations, resulting in the forced closure of banks until next Tuesday.

But even before the failure to pay the debt to the IMF, the ECB had tightened up the requirements of collateral for loans to Greek banks, reducing credit (and increasing its cost) to the country. In addition, according to its rules the ECB cannot lend money to insolvent banks; but Greek banks’ balance sheets contain a lot of government bonds that are not accepted at their full value; as a result, several major banks are now at "almost default" according to rating agencies: no credit is now available for them, even in private capital markets. In short, the senseless rules of the Monetary Union are making increasingly difficult to supply the cash needed to keep the Greek economy going. On Monday the ECB will decide – taking into account the result of the vote – whether to supply liquidity and avoid the collapse of the country’s economy.

But on Sunday the referendum could deliver a success of the "no" vote, a rejection of austerity and of the humiliation imposed on Greece. The policies imposed by Europe have cost Greece a quarter of its domestic product in five years; with a "yes" vote, spending cuts and depression would continue. The Tsipras government has made clear that with a "no" it would have a stronger mandate to negotiate, and that there is no possibility of Greece leaving the euro. But with whom will Tsipras negotiate? On the basis of which proposals? A complex game would then start; Germany’s intransigence may stay, but the blame game against Greece would not work anymore. If Europe’s  politics had any democratic content, we would have the resignation not of Tsipras, but of the President of the European Commission Jean Claude Juncker, who has asked the Greeks to vote "yes" and was incapable to cope with the crisis.

The agenda for the new negotiations would then be very different from the decimal points of the primary surplus in the government budget or the VAT tax rates discussed so far. A rethinking of how we behave and make decisions in Europe and the Eurozone would be on the table. It would be a perfect timing to convene a major conference on European debt, to introduce the "mutualisation" on which the Italian economic minister Pier Carlo Padoan is so optimistic.

A common responsibility of the Eurozone on public debt could be introduced, immediately bringing to zero current spreads - as they had been between the introduction of the euro and the crisis of 2008. Part of the outstanding debt could be transformed in perpetual bonds with zero yield, left in the balance sheets of the ECB and European funds. Actions that would be acceptable for international finance. And that would allow the whole European economy to come out – at last - from the depression that began in 2008. With a great sigh of relief – by the way – from the White House in the United States.

The political conditions for such a wide-ranging rethinking are yet to be built: the Socialists and Democrats (and the Greens) would have to clash with the Christian Democrats and Conservatives; France and Italy would have to clash with Berlin; Merkel would have to clash with Schauble; the real economy would have to reverse the power of finance. These are the stakes in the vote of the Greek referendum, and this is a battle that is fought throughout Europe.

The vote in Athens is a turning point. If the "yes" wins, Tsipras could lose everything; if the "no" wins Tsipras could gain nothing. But, in the longer term, the "yes" would prolong the agony of the country, and would give a free hand to the disastrous inability of Germany to govern Europe.  A "no" would show that some democracy is left in Europe, and that political change is not impossible.

An Italian version of this article has been published on Friday 3 July in Sbilanciamoci.info and in the daily Il Manifesto.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Greferendum - once upon a time in Europe democracy broke out Country or region:  Greece Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

SYRIZA crash-lands against the euro

Open Democracy News Analysis - 4. July 2015 - 16:29

Tsipras’ room for manoeuvre is completely circumscribed by the euro.

Alexis Tsipras addresses the Greek people after the elections, January, 2015. Demotix/Nikolaus Georgiou. All rights reserved.A man goes to the tailor to pick up a custom-made suit. He puts it on, and notices that the sleeves are too long. When he complains, the tailor says: ‘just bend your arms a little’. ‘But the collar is too low!’ ‘Just raise your back a little’ says the tailor. ‘But the trousers are too long!’ ‘Just stand on your toes’ says the tailor. The man goes out into the street and can barely walk in his new suit. Everyone says: ‘poor guy’. ‘Yes, but great suit!’

This joke represents the structure of entanglement of working class Greeks with the euro over the past five years. Unemployment presently stands at 27 per cent. Millions have been plunged into poverty and homelessness. The country has seen the biggest increase in inequality and xenophobia in Europe since the 1930s. But hey, at least we’ve got the euro!

The referendum announced by the Greek government on Sunday is its last-ditch attempt to get some leverage against the latest round of blackmail by the troika of the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, however, the chances that SYRIZA will be able to orchestrate an economic recovery with Greece in the Eurozone are still virtually nought. Let me explain.

During last week’s negotiations, the Greek government and its creditors failed to reach agreement on a new bail-out. Part of the reason was IMF’s insistence that the revenue-raising measures proposed by the government, amounting to some €8bn, involved too many taxes on the rich. They were therefore likely to choke off the chances of economic recovery. The IMF effectively said: if you don’t cut taxes on the rich—while cutting back on everything else—there isn’t going to be more private investment. For greater investment requires greater net profit, and greater net profit only accrues when taxes on the rich are low. Such is the inexorable logic of capital accumulation in the neoliberal era.

The irony of all this is that, even if SYRIZA reaches an agreement to cut a ‘mere’ 8bn from an already depressed economy, it will, eventually, have to follow IMF advice. For how else will it get the Greek economy out of depression while committed to the euro? How, in other words, is Greece to reduce its massive reserve army of the unemployed without cutting taxes for the rich, thus raising profits and eventually investment in the private sector?

The standard Keynesian response to this question is: by raising public spending and employment. But this avenue is not open to straitjacketed Greece. If the country had its own currency, then it could print its way out of the recession. But this cannot be done while it is dependent on the ECB for liquidity and interest rate policy. On the one hand, the ECB’s liquidity programmes, disseminated as they are through the national central banks—and governed by a colonial ideology worthy of Montague Norman—offer a pittance compared to the country’s spending needs. On the other hand, Greece cannot engage in deficit spending due to prior Eurozone commitments, including the Growth and Stability Pact. For these reasons, Greece cannot fund a recovery by resorting to deficit spending or the printing press. It follows that even in SYRIZA’s best case scenario—where Greece stays in the euro and the government gets the deal it wants—it cannot both reduce unemployment and tax the rich. For Greece there is no such thing as a labour-friendly recovery: the Eurozone is a one-way street to labour emasculation. The implication is that there is no way for SYRIZA to implement its programme, or even rudiments thereof.

These important but neglected facts have ramifications for Greece’s immediate future. If the Greek people vote ‘no’ on Sunday, then the Greek government might be able to extract some minor concessions from its creditors and reach a new bailout agreement within the week—that is, assuming that the ECB does not force a Grexit. It will then have to enforce further austerity in order to revive the economy. This is likely to destroy SYRIZA electorally, by bringing about its pasokification and eventual demise. This is the message of the previous paragraph: no Grexit, no labour-friendly recovery.

If, on the other hand, the Greek people vote ‘yes’, then the plot thickens further. Say the government does not declare an election. Then it will have to enforce the same kind of austerity that has decimated the country over the past five years. The Greek Left will be all but eradicated for a generation. Say the government does declare an election. It will then have to give in to the creditors’ threats until such time as the election takes place—or worse, enforce austerity on the event of its reelection! The opposition from the Right will naturally blame austerity on SYRIZA’s ‘capitulation’, on its negotiating ‘ineptitude’, and similar gimmicks. Whatever happens, Tsipras’ room for manoeuvre is completely circumscribed by the euro; and you can’t really conduct an orchestra in a straitjacket.

Country or region:  Greece EU Topics:  Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government Economics International politics Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

The Greek burden: confronting neoliberal authoritarianism on July 5

Open Democracy News Analysis - 4. July 2015 - 16:25

Much like the mythical Atlas, Greece must carry the struggle against austerity on its shoulders as punishment for its government challenging the neo-liberal European consensus in Europe.

Atlas. Flickr/H M Cotterill. Some rights reserved.In Greek mythology Atlas is a titan condemned to the task of supporting the world on his shoulders. We could not find a better metaphor for the task before the Greek electorate on Sunday 5 July.

To understand why the outcome of the referendum vote affects people far beyond Greece, even beyond Europe, I must dispel the many misrepresentations and mendacities that the mainstream media and most politicians use to distort and discredit this exercise in democratic decision making.

The forces of neoliberal reaction have challenged the referendum on procedural and administrative grounds in the Greek high court (challenge was rejected). More surprising and quite disappointing is the statement by the Council of Europe that "the vote falls short of international standards, because the poll was called at short notice and the questions asked are not clear".

Both arguments, that the referendum comes too quickly and that the question is not clear, are nonsense. Council of Europe's non-binding guidelines call for two weeks notice, and the Hellenic Parliament approved the referendum to be held in eight days. The allegation that six days constitutes a violation of democracy would seem rather bureaucratic in the most favourable interpretation.

I find it difficult not to characterise as duplicitous the "short notice" argument. At the end of June the "institutions" (aka Troika, IMF, European Central Bank and euro group of finance ministers) presented the Greek government with a proposal that it had to accept or reject by midnight 30 June when the existing funding programme would expire.

By accepting the Troika proposal the Greek government would violate its campaign pledge to end austerity. By rejecting the proposal the government might have set in motion a process leading to an exit of the euro zone, which it had also promised not to do.

A critic of the Syriza government could charge that it should have not promised an end to austerity and to stay in the euro zone. Be that as it may, the Syriza government had made that combined promise. Therefore, the Syriza government faced a dilemma; either choice resulted in doing what it promised never to do.

The referendum represented the only democratic way to escape this dilemma, and the ultimatum laid down by the Troika required that the date for it be extremely soon. Thus, if the Council of Europe finds fault in the timing of the referendum, it should take its compliant to Washington, Brussels and Berlin, not Athens.

The second objection, that the text for the referendum is too vague, unclear and/or complex for an informed vote, is so absurd as to be laughable. The two documents that the electorate is asked to accept or reject have been publicly debated in Greece for at least six months. The documents state the well-known austerity conditions demanded by the Troika.

These are essentially unchanged from what the Samaras government accepted in December 2014, and that confronted finance minister Yanis Varoufakis when he attended his first euro group meeting in February of this year. Wolfgang Schäuble, the finance minister of Germany, has repeatedly stressed the unchanging character of the "bailout conditions", that "Greece will receive no special treatment" (see my previous openDemocracy article).

Neo-colonialism in Southeast Europe

There is a strong scent of neo-colonial condescension in the "unclear" and "complex" criticisms of the referendum text. They suggest a simplicity and innocence among the Greek electorate that makes the Troika the better judge of its interests. This is exactly the argument used by a member of the euro group to disparage the referendum (and the Greek people), which was compounded by the paternalistic assurance from the president of the euro group, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, that he was motivated in his support of austerity by the "best interests" of Greek people.

Though the outcome is very uncertain, Greeks are only too aware of what they will vote for or against. That is what causes the anxiety in Brussels, Berlin and Washington. Several media outlets have criticized, even ridiculed, the text of the Greek referendum, asking the apparently killer question, "could you understand this text?" The fact that "it is all Greek" (apologies requested) to the BBC and The Telegraph is hardly surprising -- the documents in question are unknown in the UK but common knowledge in Greece.

Another Council of Europe objection is that because of the short notice it (the Council) could not send observers. This represents nonsense squared. If the Council cannot bring together a few observers with a week's notice to observe a major event in modern European history, it is in serious need of reform.

To my knowledge the Council of Europe will not be monitoring the UK referendum on membership in the European Union to be held next year (and I doubt that it will send observers to the next German election). Why does it consider Greece a suitable case for democratic monitoring? Again, the scent of neo-colonialism is strong.

What the Referendum is not

The near hysteria of the EU leaders in anticipation of the democratic vote in Greece on 5 July manifests itself in quite clumsy and extraordinary attempts to influence the outcome. The attempts are not without their comic aspects, such as the offer by the German president of the EU parliament to go to Greece and campaign for a yes vote -- yes a German politician proposing to campaign in Greece! I suspect that Alexis Tsipras would gladly pay his airfare.

Not in the least humorous is the misrepresentation of the vote as in/out of the euro zone. The referendum wording is absolutely clear to Greeks (who will do the voting, not the BBC, The Telegraph or Forbes), reject or accept the continuation of the austerity measures that have destroyed the economy and generated social conflict for four years.

In a ludicrous attempt to make the austerity vote appear a euro vote -- and simultaneously discredit the referendum -- the euro group (read "Wolfgang Schäuble") and the head of the IMF has announced that the "offer" that Greeks will vote on is "no longer on the table", rending the vote pointless. In the league of simplistic idiocies this takes first place.

Every Greek, whether a "yes" or a "no" voter, knows what will happen if a new Troika programme begins. It will be close to what Samaras accepted last December, and likely to be much more draconic as punishment for Syriza's challenge to the EU neoliberal order.

What the Referendum is

The referendum is the only substantial challenge in Europe to austerity orthodoxy. It is only a slight stretch to write that it is the only substantial challenge in much of the world to this right wing ideology. The leadership of the Scottish National Party pledges to oppose austerity. But the party currently lacks the power to change UK policy, though a Scottish independence referendum could give it that power in Scotland.

The Greek referendum may unambiguously commit the country's government to end the austerity policies coming from Berlin, Brussels and Washington, and thus to launch an alternative fraught with uncertainty but creating the possibility of economic recovery.

Atlas carries the world on his shoulders as punishment for siding with the titans in the war against the Olympians. The Greek electorate carries the Europe-wide struggle against austerity on its shoulders as punishment for its government asserting the country's policy independence. It is a heavy burden for the people of a small country to bear, and through no fault of its own.

If you enjoyed this article then please consider liking Can Europe Make it? on Facebook and following us on Twitter @oD_Europe

Sideboxes Related stories:  Greferendum - once upon a time in Europe democracy broke out Greferendum: an anthology Country or region:  Greece Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

The last couple of days in Athens and in solidarity

Open Democracy News Analysis - 4. July 2015 - 15:30

Tribute to the Greek left from a fellow European who won’t forget the run-up to the historic Greek referendum.

Today, if the result is ‘Oxi’, the Syriza government will have a mandate to enter a more radical phase of government. A defeat for Syriza would, at least for the moment, extinguish the only left government and much of the credibility that its existence has lent to its counterpart movements all over Europe. More importantly, it would force any Podemos government in Spain to fight, as Syriza has had to, alone.

For Greeks, the impact of the vote will be existential and personal.  Last night, at the gigantic ‘Oxi’ rally in Syntagma Square – reportedly the largest demonstration in Greece since the fall of the dictatorship – tension was brimming over. What felt like hundreds of thousands of Athenians sang songs and chanted slogans, some new and some decades old.

Many may have known the words because of Greece’s much larger and more serious left political traditions. But the passion of the demonstration had nothing to do with any essentialist tropes about the Greeks, and everything to do with the now desperate social situation, which, as many accept, may well deteriorate regardless of the outcome tomorrow, at least in the immediate term.  

Thursday rally, Athens. Michael Chessum. In the middle of the crowd, a woman grabbed my attention: “do you know how many people have committed suicide over the past few years?” After we’d spoken, she added: “We need your support”. Some of the biggest cheers at the rally were also for announcements of solidarity demonstrations taking place abroad, but, for all that, the outcome of the vote will now be determined by the voters of Greece – supposedly.

March, Athens, Thursday. Author's pic.Many commentaries on the situation in Greece have described the referendum as a test of national sovereignty – but in reality, any notion that Greece is a truly independent state has already been swept aside by the events of the past few weeks. The Eurozone creditors have made it plain that what they really desire in Greece is not debt repayment (which, as the IMF now admits, needs a long holiday) but regime change, and they have used their financial muscle in the days running up to the referendum in order to deprive the Greek banks of cash. The capital controls that this has incurred are cited by almost everyone as the number one reason for the narrowing of the polls and the growth of the Yes vote.  This strategy has willing domestic participants, in the form of every stripe of the old Greek establishment – including some ‘soft left’ figures (take Athens’s mayor for instance) – and the oligarchs who own almost all of the media.

What the referendum will really test is the ability of Greece’s left, through its popular support and its sheer grit and willpower, to win in spite of the overwhelming efforts of both Greece’s creditors and the old Greek establishment. Across the country, a ground war has been waged by thousands upon thousands of activists – outside metro stations, in workplaces, on pavements and in local communities.

Friday, rally, Athens. Author's pic.‘Hard-working’ doesn’t really cover the attitude of the Greek left. The picture that one gets from spending time around it is one of constant leafleting, demonstrations and rallies. Then there are the workplace struggles, the constant critical engagement and discussion that so many leftwing activists have about the strategy of the government, and for some the community projects supporting those without access to food and basic amenities – not to mention the task of coping personally effects of austerity. Being in eight places at once isn’t possible, but sleeping four hours a night and taking a lot of vitamins is. This is the movement with which the Troika is now at war.

The contrast between the Nai (Yes) and Oxi (No) campaigns is visible on every street corner in Athens. The Nai campaign puts large glossy posters on lamp-posts and takes out bus station adverts, usually with the same design. Oxi posters, stickers and graffiti – coming in a hundred different designs and from a hundred different groups – are fly-posted on walls, sprayed on pavements and tied to lamp-posts all over the city.

The whole event is a gigantic exercise in mass, bottom-up persuasion. Local Oxi rallies, like one which we attended in the east end of Athens on Thursday night, march noisily around residential areas, drawing fist-pumps and cheers, as well as the odd bucket of water, from balconies. For the Oxi campaign, building a sense of social solidarity, and counteracting the sense of isolation and fear that many wavering voters may be feeling in the wake of the economic gloom, is just as important as convincing people that the Troika’s demands are unreasonable.

In a rapidly polarising atmosphere, both sides are throwing everything they have at the campaign. For the Oxi campaign, this means mass mobilisation. For Nai, it means a fusion of mobilisation and mass organised blackmail. The bias of the mainstream media has been well-reported: one of the favourite anecdotes of our contacts in Syriza Youth was that one of the main stations had just tweeted, from its main account: “Do you want access to medicines on Monday? Yes or no”.

But beyond the media, the old Greek ruling class is running at full throttle: whole companies have gone on lock-out. Some employers have reportedly threatened their employees with non-payment if they fail to attend Nai rallies, and with mass redundancy if Oxi wins. The Ministry of Labour has responded with a declaration stating that these practices are illegal, and that it will back workers in this position. Leftwing activists are showing up at workplaces with the declaration in hand, but how effective this proves remains to be seen.

If the Yes campaign is being conducted in a language of fear, the No campaign is described just as much in terms of dignity as it is in terms of hope. Nonetheless, a victory for Oxi and for Syriza would give hope to millions across Europe. It would represent the victory of a mass movement of the left over the forces of press barons and the old neoliberal political order – in Berlin, Brussels and the richer side of Athens – which seems intent on making a debt colony of Greece.  

Country or region:  Greece EU Topics:  Civil society Conflict Democracy and government Economics International politics Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Drawing the line between free speech and online radicalisation

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. July 2015 - 21:15

Two court rulings in Denmark and Sweden reveal the contradictions at the heart of the European debate on free speech versus incitement to terrorism.

People commemorate the victims of the Copenhagen shootings at a gathering in Århus. Demotix/Gonzales Photo. All rights reserved.

The global spate of terrorist attacks has brought the phenomenon of online radicalisation to the forefront. Governments and intelligence services warn that extremist groups use social media to recruit new adherents and potential terrorists. From the perspective of human rights, this raises a question – where should the line be drawn between protecting free speech and criminalising “extremist speech” related to terrorism?

Last week that question was answered very differently in two similar cases by Norwegian and Danish appeal courts. Both cases dealt with radical Islamists who had uploaded comments, photos and videos with vocal support of terrorism and violent jihad on their respective Facebook accounts. In the Danish case the defendant had also sent a number of e-mails to a list-serve, and had edited and distributed a number of books on jihad.

In the Norwegian case the defendant was charged for public incitement to murder with terrorist intent, whereas the Danish case included charges for both “otherwise advanc[ing] the activities of another person, group or association, committing or intending to commit” terrorism, “incitement” to terrorism and “publicly condoning” terrorism. While there are important differences between the relevant provisions in the Danish and Norwegian criminal codes, both have been amended to take into account the Council of Europe’s Convention on Prevention of Terrorism (CPT), which includes an obligation to criminalise the “public provocation to commit a terrorist offence", which means “the distribution, or otherwise making available, of a message to the public, with the intent to incite the commission of a terrorist offence, where such conduct, whether or not directly advocating terrorist offences, causes a danger that one or more such offences may be committed”. 

However, the convention also states that such prohibitions must be implemented “while respecting human rights obligations, in particular the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of religion” as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The statements in the Norwegian case included the following comments on a news story about hostages killed by Islamists in Algeria: “May Allah swt reward our brothers with the biggest and best [of] paradise and expel the enemies of Islam from our country and destroy them”.

After the Boston bombing in 2013 the defendant wrote “To hell with Boston and may Allah destroy America!! Our prayers and tears go to our loved ones in Afghanistan, Mali, Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, Yemen, Pakistan, Chechnya, Somalia, Bosnia and to all the Muslim Ummah” as well as “REAL LIONS!!! May Allah reward them!!! Amiiin!” accompanied by two pictures of the Boston bombers. He wrote similar updates praising the killers of a British solder beheaded by Islamists in London and the perpetrators of a terrorist attack against the Westgate mall in Nairobi.

The Danish case involved more than 40 comments on Facebook, e-mails sent to a list serve and a number of books. While some of the comments explicitly called for violent jihad other statements were more ambiguous. For instance a photo of the World Trade Center in flames and a manipulated 7-11 logo, reading “9-11 made by Qaeda”, a picture of horsemen with raised swords and black flags with the following Quranic verse: “Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you”, a picture of water and rock formations with the following quotation from a Danish Islamist killed in Syria: “Paradise has one hundred degrees and between each two degrees is a distance like that between the heaven and the earth, and Allah has reserved these degrees for the Mujahedeen who fight for his cause”, and these quotes also from a known Al-Qaeda member: “any person, who calls for Islam and fights for it, will be persecuted as were the prophets. Every prophet was persecuted due to his calling, so it doesn’t surprise me, but rather it pleases us, since we follow in the footsteps of the prophets”.

While The Danish appeal court did distinguish between the above statements and simple quotations from the Quran, the judges had no reservations about treating explicit calls for jihad and the more ambiguous and abstract statements identically and found that all of these comments “advanced” and “publicly condoned” terrorism. The court summarily and with no balancing of competing interests, dismissed the argument that article 10 of the ECHR, protecting freedom of expression, could lead to another result. Perhaps even more controversially, the appeal court also found that by editing and distributing three books that included theoretic, mystical and theological discussions and justifications for jihad, the defendant had “advanced” and “condoned” terrorism.

In stark contrast with the Danish case, the Norwegian courts handed down a detailed and meticulous judgment that did not merely pay lip service to the ideals of the rule of law and freedom of expression. At the first instance, charges of “glorification of terrorism” were dismissed as inapplicable since “glorification of already committed acts are not punishable”. Accordingly, in the context of the statements cited above, the appeal court only had to decide whether the defendant was guilty of incitement to murder with a terrorist intent.

The appeals court took great care in emphasising that freedom of expression is a fundamental right of great importance. The court scolded Parliament for not having drafted the provision with sufficient clarity and found that the legal uncertainty created by such vague criminal provisions had to benefit the defendant and thus interpreted “incitement” as requiring a “degree of concretisation” and “strength” to be met. The court also confirmed previous Supreme Court case law determining that no one should risk criminal liability for expressions based on inferred interpretation rather than explicit statements. Accordingly, the court found that the statements in question constituted “mere” glorification of already committed terrorist acts, rather than “incitement” to commit new ones and thus acquitted the defendant (who was also acquitted for racist hate speech but convicted for threats in relation to a number of other statements). 

It is arguable that both the Danish and the Norwegian decision are in line with the CPT as well as the ECHR, since the CPT provides very little guidance on how to reconcile the requirement of criminalising terrorist speech while respecting freedom of expression. Moreover, the most authoritative guide to reconciling these competing interests, the European Court of Human Rights, has delivered a number of judgements that set a low threshold for cases where terrorist speech, including glorification, may be restricted. In the Leroy case, a French cartoonist was convicted for “glorification of terrorism” for having made a cartoon of a plane crashing in to two towers with the caption “We all dreamt about it – Hamas did it” days after the attacks on 9/11, which the court found in accordance with article 10. On the other hand the Norwegian approach seems more in line with Security Council Resolution 1624, which calls upon member states to “Prohibit by law incitement to commit a terrorist act or acts”. The threshold may also well be higher under Article 19 of the ICCPR, than under the ECHR, though there seems to be little case law from the Human Rights Committee.

Regardless of whether the restrictive Danish approach is consistent with CPT and the ECHR, from the point of view of the rule of law and human rights, the decision of the Norwegian appeals court offers a much more convincing and robust framework for determining where to draw the line between permissible free speech and unlawful statements in support of terrorism. Mere glorification of terrorist attacks that have already occurred (however morally reprehensible) should not be criminalised, and convictions of incitement to terrorism should be based on clear and unambiguous calls for terrorism, rather than inferred interpretations that attribute meaning to words that may or may not be an accurate reflection of what the author intended. While it may be tempting for governments to crack down on extremist speech in order to send a clear signal, the consequences of such a draconian response should not only be measured in the erosion of basic freedoms but also includes social costs.

With more than 100 prosecutions for glorification of terrorism after the Charlie Hebdo attack, including for comments that constituted nothing more than poor taste and lack of moral character, it is inevitable that the idea of freedom of expression as a truly fundamental value, is rejected as hypocrisy among communities affected by such spikes in prosecutions.

Moreover, the focus on terrorist speech also creates an unacceptable level of arbitrariness and selectiveness. For instance under Danish law it would be legal to glorify and praise Assad’s gassing of children and slaughter of civilians, the Holocaust and Stalin’s mass murder of millions, whereas people have been convicted for praising the perpetrator of the terrorist attack in Copenhagen on 14 February 2015.

At any rate it is surely naïve to think that overcoming the very real and increasing threat from terrorism can be achieved through cracking down on speech (especially on social media, where identities can be hidden and new accounts can be created at the click of a button). Apart from traditional approaches, including intelligence operations and policing, open societies must be engaging in a battle of ideas with the people who create, share and become attracted to the extremist narrative. That can only be achieved in a setting where the right to freedom of expression is robustly protected.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Scope-creep in Denmark To curtail mass surveillance, you have to be pragmatic: an interview with Jacob Mchangama How generalised suspicion destroys society Democracy and terrorism: when definitions stifle free speech Will the democratic debate over counterrorism gain the edge in battle? Has the west given up on democracy? PODCAST: Defending human rights in a digital age In privileged white man land, freedom of speech is always under attack What freedom of speech? Of foxes, chickens, and #JeSuisCharlie Country or region:  Denmark Sweden Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Drawing the line between free speech and online radicalisation

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. July 2015 - 21:15

Two court rulings in Denmark and Sweden reveal the contradictions at the heart of the European debate on free speech versus incitement to terrorism.

People commemorate the victims of the Copenhagen shootings at a gathering in Århus. Demotix/Gonzales Photo. All rights reserved.

The global spate of terrorist attacks has brought the phenomenon of online radicalisation to the forefront. Governments and intelligence services warn that extremist groups use social media to recruit new adherents and potential terrorists. From the perspective of human rights, this raises a question – where should the line be drawn between protecting free speech and criminalising “extremist speech” related to terrorism?

Last week that question was answered very differently in two similar cases by Norwegian and Danish appeal courts. Both cases dealt with radical Islamists who had uploaded comments, photos and videos with vocal support of terrorism and violent jihad on their respective Facebook accounts. In the Danish case the defendant had also sent a number of e-mails to a list-serve, and had edited and distributed a number of books on jihad.

In the Norwegian case the defendant was charged for public incitement to murder with terrorist intent, whereas the Danish case included charges for both “otherwise advanc[ing] the activities of another person, group or association, committing or intending to commit” terrorism, “incitement” to terrorism and “publicly condoning” terrorism. While there are important differences between the relevant provisions in the Danish and Norwegian criminal codes, both have been amended to take into account the Council of Europe’s Convention on Prevention of Terrorism (CPT), which includes an obligation to criminalise the “public provocation to commit a terrorist offence", which means “the distribution, or otherwise making available, of a message to the public, with the intent to incite the commission of a terrorist offence, where such conduct, whether or not directly advocating terrorist offences, causes a danger that one or more such offences may be committed”. 

However, the convention also states that such prohibitions must be implemented “while respecting human rights obligations, in particular the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of religion” as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The statements in the Norwegian case included the following comments on a news story about hostages killed by Islamists in Algeria: “May Allah swt reward our brothers with the biggest and best [of] paradise and expel the enemies of Islam from our country and destroy them”.

After the Boston bombing in 2013 the defendant wrote “To hell with Boston and may Allah destroy America!! Our prayers and tears go to our loved ones in Afghanistan, Mali, Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, Yemen, Pakistan, Chechnya, Somalia, Bosnia and to all the Muslim Ummah” as well as “REAL LIONS!!! May Allah reward them!!! Amiiin!” accompanied by two pictures of the Boston bombers. He wrote similar updates praising the killers of a British solder beheaded by Islamists in London and the perpetrators of a terrorist attack against the Westgate mall in Nairobi.

The Danish case involved more than 40 comments on Facebook, e-mails sent to a list serve and a number of books. While some of the comments explicitly called for violent jihad other statements were more ambiguous. For instance a photo of the World Trade Center in flames and a manipulated 7-11 logo, reading “9-11 made by Qaeda”, a picture of horsemen with raised swords and black flags with the following Quranic verse: “Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you”, a picture of water and rock formations with the following quotation from a Danish Islamist killed in Syria: “Paradise has one hundred degrees and between each two degrees is a distance like that between the heaven and the earth, and Allah has reserved these degrees for the Mujahedeen who fight for his cause”, and these quotes also from a known Al-Qaeda member: “any person, who calls for Islam and fights for it, will be persecuted as were the prophets. Every prophet was persecuted due to his calling, so it doesn’t surprise me, but rather it pleases us, since we follow in the footsteps of the prophets”.

While The Danish appeal court did distinguish between the above statements and simple quotations from the Quran, the judges had no reservations about treating explicit calls for jihad and the more ambiguous and abstract statements identically and found that all of these comments “advanced” and “publicly condoned” terrorism. The court summarily and with no balancing of competing interests, dismissed the argument that article 10 of the ECHR, protecting freedom of expression, could lead to another result. Perhaps even more controversially, the appeal court also found that by editing and distributing three books that included theoretic, mystical and theological discussions and justifications for jihad, the defendant had “advanced” and “condoned” terrorism.

In stark contrast with the Danish case, the Norwegian courts handed down a detailed and meticulous judgment that did not merely pay lip service to the ideals of the rule of law and freedom of expression. At the first instance, charges of “glorification of terrorism” were dismissed as inapplicable since “glorification of already committed acts are not punishable”. Accordingly, in the context of the statements cited above, the appeal court only had to decide whether the defendant was guilty of incitement to murder with a terrorist intent.

The appeals court took great care in emphasising that freedom of expression is a fundamental right of great importance. The court scolded Parliament for not having drafted the provision with sufficient clarity and found that the legal uncertainty created by such vague criminal provisions had to benefit the defendant and thus interpreted “incitement” as requiring a “degree of concretisation” and “strength” to be met. The court also confirmed previous Supreme Court case law determining that no one should risk criminal liability for expressions based on inferred interpretation rather than explicit statements. Accordingly, the court found that the statements in question constituted “mere” glorification of already committed terrorist acts, rather than “incitement” to commit new ones and thus acquitted the defendant (who was also acquitted for racist hate speech but convicted for threats in relation to a number of other statements). 

It is arguable that both the Danish and the Norwegian decision are in line with the CPT as well as the ECHR, since the CPT provides very little guidance on how to reconcile the requirement of criminalising terrorist speech while respecting freedom of expression. Moreover, the most authoritative guide to reconciling these competing interests, the European Court of Human Rights, has delivered a number of judgements that set a low threshold for cases where terrorist speech, including glorification, may be restricted. In the Leroy case, a French cartoonist was convicted for “glorification of terrorism” for having made a cartoon of a plane crashing in to two towers with the caption “We all dreamt about it – Hamas did it” days after the attacks on 9/11, which the court found in accordance with article 10. On the other hand the Norwegian approach seems more in line with Security Council Resolution 1624, which calls upon member states to “Prohibit by law incitement to commit a terrorist act or acts”. The threshold may also well be higher under Article 19 of the ICCPR, than under the ECHR, though there seems to be little case law from the Human Rights Committee.

Regardless of whether the restrictive Danish approach is consistent with CPT and the ECHR, from the point of view of the rule of law and human rights, the decision of the Norwegian appeals court offers a much more convincing and robust framework for determining where to draw the line between permissible free speech and unlawful statements in support of terrorism. Mere glorification of terrorist attacks that have already occurred (however morally reprehensible) should not be criminalised, and convictions of incitement to terrorism should be based on clear and unambiguous calls for terrorism, rather than inferred interpretations that attribute meaning to words that may or may not be an accurate reflection of what the author intended. While it may be tempting for governments to crack down on extremist speech in order to send a clear signal, the consequences of such a draconian response should not only be measured in the erosion of basic freedoms but also includes social costs.

With more than 100 prosecutions for glorification of terrorism after the Charlie Hebdo attack, including for comments that constituted nothing more than poor taste and lack of moral character, it is inevitable that the idea of freedom of expression as a truly fundamental value, is rejected as hypocrisy among communities affected by such spikes in prosecutions.

Moreover, the focus on terrorist speech also creates an unacceptable level of arbitrariness and selectiveness. For instance under Danish law it would be legal to glorify and praise Assad’s gassing of children and slaughter of civilians, the Holocaust and Stalin’s mass murder of millions, whereas people have been convicted for praising the perpetrator of the terrorist attack in Copenhagen on 14 February 2015.

At any rate it is surely naïve to think that overcoming the very real and increasing threat from terrorism can be achieved through cracking down on speech (especially on social media, where identities can be hidden and new accounts can be created at the click of a button). Apart from traditional approaches, including intelligence operations and policing, open societies must be engaging in a battle of ideas with the people who create, share and become attracted to the extremist narrative. That can only be achieved in a setting where the right to freedom of expression is robustly protected.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Scope-creep in Denmark To curtail mass surveillance, you have to be pragmatic: an interview with Jacob Mchangama How generalised suspicion destroys society Democracy and terrorism: when definitions stifle free speech Will the democratic debate over counterrorism gain the edge in battle? Has the west given up on democracy? PODCAST: Defending human rights in a digital age In privileged white man land, freedom of speech is always under attack What freedom of speech? Of foxes, chickens, and #JeSuisCharlie Country or region:  Denmark Sweden Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Public opinion on human rights is the true gauge of progress

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. July 2015 - 9:00

External, “objective” measures of South Korea’s human rights progress will only take us so far. What we need now are the opinions of the people. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Public Opinion and Human Rights.  Español,        한국어 

In the 1960s, Nordic countries initiated awareness campaigns to mobilize support for their aid programs, which effectively galvanized public enthusiasm for the delivery of aid. Consequently, Nordic aid had a strong development orientation and sustained broader humanitarian goals, including enhancing human rights in developing countries. The same logic can be applied to the connection between public support of human rights and the chances that a national government will set human rights as a public policy agenda. Without insistence from the public, elected leaders will rarely give priority to respecting and protecting human rights in the country and around the world.

Central to the methods of measuring this public opinion is the social survey. But such a “human rights survey” has not yet emerged as a substantiated and/or legitimated tool to capture public understanding of attitudes towards and experiences of human rights and their violations. For the most part, only sketchy opinion polls with selected items of human rights have appeared, and these provided a limited understanding of what citizens think about human rights. Consider, for example, the Foreign Policy Leadership Project, conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, which began to assess the significance of human rights as a foreign policy frame in 1978. In particular, it asked the public to rate the importance of various American policy goals—including the goal of defending human rights in other countries—and found that the human rights goal consistently ranked lower than goals serving national interests.   

The available opinion polls fall far short of conceptualizing and measuring human rights in a broader spectrum. Even now, the available opinion polls fall far short of conceptualizing and measuring human rights in a broader spectrum, nor do they sufficiently or systematically identify individual traits responsible for higher or lower human rights orientations. Globally, there is an increasing consensus that human rights are multidimensional and that remarkable differences exist among global citizens in their human rights orientation. The existing data limitations have now pushed thoughtful people to design questionnaires explicitly and exclusively focused on human rights and their potential determinants.

That this innovation was recently made in South Korea contradicts a common belief that the country has a weak liberal tradition, shows reminiscences of authoritarian rules, and faces a continuing conflict with North Korea. After the adoption of a national human rights commission in 2001 under the leadership of President Kim Dae Jung, a Nobel Laureate, the country experienced a breakthrough around human rights. Not long after, in 2005, the National Human Rights Commission of South Korea (NHRCK) conducted the first human rights survey, which despite its considerable limitations planted the seeds for subsequent improved efforts at capturing public opinion on rights.

The greatly refined 2011 National Human Rights Survey of South Korea (NHRSK) substantially improved upon the previous surveys: first, it was exclusively devoted to understanding general human rights with 170 questions. Second, it was based on a nationally representative sample. Third, many items were systematically derived from existing human rights opinion polls for comparability. Fourth, it captured multiple dimensions of human rights orientations as well as their contributing individual traits. Sponsored by NHRCK, NHRSK was designed by several Korean sociologists trained in eminent sociology programs in the US.


Demotix/Ben Weller (All rights reserved)

A labor rights demonstration in Busan. "The 2011 NHRSK revealed that respondents had high levels of awareness of human rights. However, levels of actual respondent-participation in rights-promoting activities were much lower."

The 2011 NHRSK revealed that respondents had fairly high levels of awareness of domestic and global human rights. However, levels of actual behavior—respondents’ participation in rights-promoting activities, such as making donations in support of minorities, signing petitions for human rights causes, having memberships in human rights NGOs—were much lower (see Figure 1). The level of support measured by respondents’ endorsement of pro-human rights policies remains in between. Over time, general awareness levels of both domestic and global human rights have moved upward (see Figure 2), confirming the widely known thesis of worldwide human rights diffusion. Even more interesting, the findings suggest that urban status, education and global citizenship are closely associated with higher awareness of and higher engagement in human rights. Liberal political outlook and higher level of trust are also correlated with higher awareness. Respondents’ socio-economic status, however, appear to be irrelevant to any dimension of human rights orientation.

Figure 1. Dimensions of Human Rights Orientations, South Korea (Koo et al., 2015)

Figure 2. Awareness of Human Rights Practices, South Korea (Koo et al., 2015)

In her contribution to the debate on internationalizing human rights, Louise Arbour highlighted the need of each country to look for indicators to measure progress, regression or stagnation of human rights. She suggested that a policy measure, such as the Universal Periodic Review, might serve the purpose of comparing each country against its own record.

Missing here, however, are citizens’ perceptions and experiences of human rights in each country. After all, the practice of human rights is experienced by individuals and thus individual persons are the only genuine bearers and/or appraisers of human rights. The future reforms of the global human rights policy need to be guided by what the local constituents think about the current state of human rights protection for women, the disabled, the elderly and the unemployed. Therefore, policy interventions need to be made in ways to monitor their experiences of, and attitudes towards human rights in order to have a real impact on rights practices. For instance, the National Human Rights Commission of South Korea is currently in the process of transforming the survey-based subjective data into the DB of human rights statistics in an attempt to make it publically available.  

The UN Human Rights Council, in collaboration with national human rights institutions and NGOs, should take the lead in considering the voices not only from the victims of human rights abuses but also from the local public—normal citizens—in many parts of the world. We need to further develop human rights surveys or other opinion polls into globally agreeable vehicles for the measurement of global citizens’ human rights orientations. In fact, until now, most researchers have looked for “objective” indicators of human rights practices, as perceived by outside observers. What is now required is a better sense of how the people themselves feel about human rights issues, infringements and organizations. If realized, all these promising efforts would eventually lead to the spread of human rights culture worldwide and result in the real improvements of human rights on the ground.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

Sidebox: 

Related stories:  Doubling down on human rights data Research-based messaging changes public support for human rights Does it matter when polls go wrong? Data-driven optimism for global rights activists Let the pollsters pick? Navigating public opinion in Israel More than smoke and mirrors: citizen perceptions of human rights Mapping human rights skepticism in Mexico In Israel, implementing human rights feels wrong Use of force: the American public and the ethics of war International law and US public support for drone strikes The struggle for a truly grassroots human rights movement Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Research-based messaging changes public support for human rights

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. July 2015 - 9:00

Amidst widespread negative views on human rights in the UK, public opinion research can help improve outreach strategies. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate, Public Opinion and Human RightsEspañolFrançais

Since the early May election, human rights chatter has taken over the United Kingdom (UK). The Conservatives, now in a parliamentary majority, hope to repeal the Human Rights Act of 1998, which gives citizens the ability to raise human rights cases in UK courts, and change Britain’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights. The pro-human rights camp, for its part, is mobilizing to counter this message.

Research shows, however, that pro-human rights ideas are not getting through to the general public. To up their game, advocates must invest in more and better research, and use the results to reframe their work. Taking audience insight research and turning it into effective communication with human rights sceptics is a significant, but necessary, challenge.

An analysis of human rights discourse by Counterpoint, the Public Interest Research Center (PIRC)  and my organization, Equally Ours, shows that in the UK, media narratives typically link human rights to “undeserving” groups and to anti-European views. The media portrays human rights as undermining, rather than enhancing, traditional freedoms, and as purely legal protections, rather than as tools to empower citizens.

Figure 1: % Positive and negative messages about human rights in the UK media, 2013

Source:  Building Bridges: Connecting with values to reframe and build support for human rights. Contact info@equally-ours.org.uk for a copy.

Consider Figure 1, which analyses human rights messages appearing in broadsheet and tabloid UK newspapers, political blogs and parliamentary speeches in 2013. Researchers identified, classified and measured the frequency of positive and negative frames, and compared their frequency across the media in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

As Figure 1 suggests, the UK human rights conversation that year was overwhelmingly negative. The most frequently repeated frame was that UK human rights protections decrease national security, closely followed by the view that human rights reduce the UK’s sovereignty.

The frames shown in green are positive about human rights. They are not used very frequently; the most common is that human rights laws “protect our basic rights”, a frame that research at Equally Ours suggests isn’t the most persuasive. Instead, our polling shows that when advocates argue that, “everyone has human rights”, they do a better job of persuading sceptics that human rights are good. The media analysis, in other words, suggests that human rights groups should shift their focus to speak about human rights in more effective ways.

Our analysis of the “everyone has human rights” frame shows that this message triggers intrinsic values that build greater public support for social justice.

Amnesty International UK’s Keep the Act campaign is the kind of research-based campaign we advocate. The research showed that when advocates link the Human Rights Act to ordinary people and everyday concerns, this is more persuasive than citing international or legal standards. Building on our research, Amnesty identified a growing UK cohort that is positive or persuadable about human rights, especially when linked to things they already care about. With the help of advanced statistical analysis, we uncovered messages that target audiences agree with, and that make people feel more positive towards human rights overall.

Based on this research, Amnesty discussed stories like that of Jan Sutton, who has multiple sclerosis and successfully challenged her local authority’s proposed care package, which would have confined her to bed. Jan’s story is human, easily understandable to a UK audience, and is an example of the stories missing from the way human rights advocates generally speak of their work.


Flickr/Amnesty International UK (Some rights reserved)

British youth outside Amnesty UK's Annual General Meeting. "Amnesty identified a growing UK cohort that is positive or persuadable about human rights, especially when linked to things they already care about."

Although the legal flavour of human rights may be unavoidable, it is often unhelpful. Human rights practitioners know they need to reach a public that switches off when they hear legal or technical language such as the “universality” of human rights, or “universal jurisdiction” of international courts.  

Instead, research shows that the phrase, “human rights are for all of us,” is more accessible than “human rights are universal”. The two phrases resonate quite differently.

Other groups are also taking up the challenge of research-based campaigning. In April 2015, for example, one group launched the Rights Info website to make the law more accessible, and to redress the way in which human rights are talked about. One of the ways they do this it be creating easily accessible infographics, such as this one:

Highly trusted NGOs in other issue areas are an important ally. Age UK, for example, is a leading charity for older people, and has been campaigning on behalf of elders abused in care homes. This year, the group released a short film, “Charles’ story”, which powerfully highlights links between dignity, respect and human rights. The film was designed to evoke intrinsic values and an emotional viewer response, resulting in positive feelings about human rights. At the time of writing, Charles’ Story had reached over a million people with more than 300,000 unique views. For many, this could be their first exposure to a positive take on human rights.

Consider also Women’s Aid, a domestic violence charity that launched a film targeting football fans and their clubs. Entitled “Unpunished”, the film uses football imagery and metaphors to address domestic violence. Again, the strategy was to introduce human rights to a new audience in an unexpected context. These films do not educate about the details of human rights; rather, they connect issues the viewer already cares about with “human rights”, perhaps for the first time.

When the discourse on human rights is as negative as it currently is in the UK, it’s hard to tell a positive story. And it will take more than a few words or slogans to influence the many unconvinced people that human rights are worth defending. But audience insight research has repeatedly shown that the public is more positive about human rights when it understands how human rights are connected to the values and freedoms they already care about.

Public opinion research helps us understand the frames, values and messages that can help people view human rights more favourably. We must use these insights to change our messages; otherwise, we will just carry on preaching to a choir that sings a song most people don’t like or understand.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

Sidebox: 

Related stories:  Doubling down on human rights data Public opinion on human rights is the true gauge of progress Does it matter when polls go wrong? Data-driven optimism for global rights activists More than smoke and mirrors: citizen perceptions of human rights Mapping human rights skepticism in Mexico Let the pollsters pick? Navigating public opinion in Israel In Israel, implementing human rights feels wrong Use of force: the American public and the ethics of war International law and US public support for drone strikes The struggle for a truly grassroots human rights movement Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Public opinion on human rights is the true gauge of progress

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. July 2015 - 9:00

External, “objective” measures of South Korea’s human rights progress will only take us so far. What we need now are the opinions of the people. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Public Opinion and Human Rights.  Español,        한국어 

In the 1960s, Nordic countries initiated awareness campaigns to mobilize support for their aid programs, which effectively galvanized public enthusiasm for the delivery of aid. Consequently, Nordic aid had a strong development orientation and sustained broader humanitarian goals, including enhancing human rights in developing countries. The same logic can be applied to the connection between public support of human rights and the chances that a national government will set human rights as a public policy agenda. Without insistence from the public, elected leaders will rarely give priority to respecting and protecting human rights in the country and around the world.

Central to the methods of measuring this public opinion is the social survey. But such a “human rights survey” has not yet emerged as a substantiated and/or legitimated tool to capture public understanding of attitudes towards and experiences of human rights and their violations. For the most part, only sketchy opinion polls with selected items of human rights have appeared, and these provided a limited understanding of what citizens think about human rights. Consider, for example, the Foreign Policy Leadership Project, conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, which began to assess the significance of human rights as a foreign policy frame in 1978. In particular, it asked the public to rate the importance of various American policy goals—including the goal of defending human rights in other countries—and found that the human rights goal consistently ranked lower than goals serving national interests.   

The available opinion polls fall far short of conceptualizing and measuring human rights in a broader spectrum. Even now, the available opinion polls fall far short of conceptualizing and measuring human rights in a broader spectrum, nor do they sufficiently or systematically identify individual traits responsible for higher or lower human rights orientations. Globally, there is an increasing consensus that human rights are multidimensional and that remarkable differences exist among global citizens in their human rights orientation. The existing data limitations have now pushed thoughtful people to design questionnaires explicitly and exclusively focused on human rights and their potential determinants.

That this innovation was recently made in South Korea contradicts a common belief that the country has a weak liberal tradition, shows reminiscences of authoritarian rules, and faces a continuing conflict with North Korea. After the adoption of a national human rights commission in 2001 under the leadership of President Kim Dae Jung, a Nobel Laureate, the country experienced a breakthrough around human rights. Not long after, in 2005, the National Human Rights Commission of South Korea (NHRCK) conducted the first human rights survey, which despite its considerable limitations planted the seeds for subsequent improved efforts at capturing public opinion on rights.

The greatly refined 2011 National Human Rights Survey of South Korea (NHRSK) substantially improved upon the previous surveys: first, it was exclusively devoted to understanding general human rights with 170 questions. Second, it was based on a nationally representative sample. Third, many items were systematically derived from existing human rights opinion polls for comparability. Fourth, it captured multiple dimensions of human rights orientations as well as their contributing individual traits. Sponsored by NHRCK, NHRSK was designed by several Korean sociologists trained in eminent sociology programs in the US.


Demotix/Ben Weller (All rights reserved)

A labor rights demonstration in Busan. "The 2011 NHRSK revealed that respondents had high levels of awareness of human rights. However, levels of actual respondent-participation in rights-promoting activities were much lower."

The 2011 NHRSK revealed that respondents had fairly high levels of awareness of domestic and global human rights. However, levels of actual behavior—respondents’ participation in rights-promoting activities, such as making donations in support of minorities, signing petitions for human rights causes, having memberships in human rights NGOs—were much lower (see Figure 1). The level of support measured by respondents’ endorsement of pro-human rights policies remains in between. Over time, general awareness levels of both domestic and global human rights have moved upward (see Figure 2), confirming the widely known thesis of worldwide human rights diffusion. Even more interesting, the findings suggest that urban status, education and global citizenship are closely associated with higher awareness of and higher engagement in human rights. Liberal political outlook and higher level of trust are also correlated with higher awareness. Respondents’ socio-economic status, however, appear to be irrelevant to any dimension of human rights orientation.

Figure 1. Dimensions of Human Rights Orientations, South Korea (Koo et al., 2015)

Figure 2. Awareness of Human Rights Practices, South Korea (Koo et al., 2015)

In her contribution to the debate on internationalizing human rights, Louise Arbour highlighted the need of each country to look for indicators to measure progress, regression or stagnation of human rights. She suggested that a policy measure, such as the Universal Periodic Review, might serve the purpose of comparing each country against its own record.

Missing here, however, are citizens’ perceptions and experiences of human rights in each country. After all, the practice of human rights is experienced by individuals and thus individual persons are the only genuine bearers and/or appraisers of human rights. The future reforms of the global human rights policy need to be guided by what the local constituents think about the current state of human rights protection for women, the disabled, the elderly and the unemployed. Therefore, policy interventions need to be made in ways to monitor their experiences of, and attitudes towards human rights in order to have a real impact on rights practices. For instance, the National Human Rights Commission of South Korea is currently in the process of transforming the survey-based subjective data into the DB of human rights statistics in an attempt to make it publically available.  

The UN Human Rights Council, in collaboration with national human rights institutions and NGOs, should take the lead in considering the voices not only from the victims of human rights abuses but also from the local public—normal citizens—in many parts of the world. We need to further develop human rights surveys or other opinion polls into globally agreeable vehicles for the measurement of global citizens’ human rights orientations. In fact, until now, most researchers have looked for “objective” indicators of human rights practices, as perceived by outside observers. What is now required is a better sense of how the people themselves feel about human rights issues, infringements and organizations. If realized, all these promising efforts would eventually lead to the spread of human rights culture worldwide and result in the real improvements of human rights on the ground.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

Sidebox: 

Related stories:  Doubling down on human rights data Research-based messaging changes public support for human rights Does it matter when polls go wrong? Data-driven optimism for global rights activists Let the pollsters pick? Navigating public opinion in Israel More than smoke and mirrors: citizen perceptions of human rights Mapping human rights skepticism in Mexico In Israel, implementing human rights feels wrong Use of force: the American public and the ethics of war International law and US public support for drone strikes The struggle for a truly grassroots human rights movement Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Research-based messaging changes public support for human rights

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. July 2015 - 9:00

Amidst widespread negative views on human rights in the UK, public opinion research can help improve outreach strategies. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate, Public Opinion and Human RightsEspañolFrançais

Since the early May election, human rights chatter has taken over the United Kingdom (UK). The Conservatives, now in a parliamentary majority, hope to repeal the Human Rights Act of 1998, which gives citizens the ability to raise human rights cases in UK courts, and change Britain’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights. The pro-human rights camp, for its part, is mobilizing to counter this message.

Research shows, however, that pro-human rights ideas are not getting through to the general public. To up their game, advocates must invest in more and better research, and use the results to reframe their work. Taking audience insight research and turning it into effective communication with human rights sceptics is a significant, but necessary, challenge.

An analysis of human rights discourse by Counterpoint, the Public Interest Research Center (PIRC)  and my organization, Equally Ours, shows that in the UK, media narratives typically link human rights to “undeserving” groups and to anti-European views. The media portrays human rights as undermining, rather than enhancing, traditional freedoms, and as purely legal protections, rather than as tools to empower citizens.

Figure 1: % Positive and negative messages about human rights in the UK media, 2013

Source:  Building Bridges: Connecting with values to reframe and build support for human rights. Contact info@equally-ours.org.uk for a copy.

Consider Figure 1, which analyses human rights messages appearing in broadsheet and tabloid UK newspapers, political blogs and parliamentary speeches in 2013. Researchers identified, classified and measured the frequency of positive and negative frames, and compared their frequency across the media in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

As Figure 1 suggests, the UK human rights conversation that year was overwhelmingly negative. The most frequently repeated frame was that UK human rights protections decrease national security, closely followed by the view that human rights reduce the UK’s sovereignty.

The frames shown in green are positive about human rights. They are not used very frequently; the most common is that human rights laws “protect our basic rights”, a frame that research at Equally Ours suggests isn’t the most persuasive. Instead, our polling shows that when advocates argue that, “everyone has human rights”, they do a better job of persuading sceptics that human rights are good. The media analysis, in other words, suggests that human rights groups should shift their focus to speak about human rights in more effective ways.

Our analysis of the “everyone has human rights” frame shows that this message triggers intrinsic values that build greater public support for social justice.

Amnesty International UK’s Keep the Act campaign is the kind of research-based campaign we advocate. The research showed that when advocates link the Human Rights Act to ordinary people and everyday concerns, this is more persuasive than citing international or legal standards. Building on our research, Amnesty identified a growing UK cohort that is positive or persuadable about human rights, especially when linked to things they already care about. With the help of advanced statistical analysis, we uncovered messages that target audiences agree with, and that make people feel more positive towards human rights overall.

Based on this research, Amnesty discussed stories like that of Jan Sutton, who has multiple sclerosis and successfully challenged her local authority’s proposed care package, which would have confined her to bed. Jan’s story is human, easily understandable to a UK audience, and is an example of the stories missing from the way human rights advocates generally speak of their work.


Flickr/Amnesty International UK (Some rights reserved)

British youth outside Amnesty UK's Annual General Meeting. "Amnesty identified a growing UK cohort that is positive or persuadable about human rights, especially when linked to things they already care about."

Although the legal flavour of human rights may be unavoidable, it is often unhelpful. Human rights practitioners know they need to reach a public that switches off when they hear legal or technical language such as the “universality” of human rights, or “universal jurisdiction” of international courts.  

Instead, research shows that the phrase, “human rights are for all of us,” is more accessible than “human rights are universal”. The two phrases resonate quite differently.

Other groups are also taking up the challenge of research-based campaigning. In April 2015, for example, one group launched the Rights Info website to make the law more accessible, and to redress the way in which human rights are talked about. One of the ways they do this it be creating easily accessible infographics, such as this one:

Highly trusted NGOs in other issue areas are an important ally. Age UK, for example, is a leading charity for older people, and has been campaigning on behalf of elders abused in care homes. This year, the group released a short film, “Charles’ story”, which powerfully highlights links between dignity, respect and human rights. The film was designed to evoke intrinsic values and an emotional viewer response, resulting in positive feelings about human rights. At the time of writing, Charles’ Story had reached over a million people with more than 300,000 unique views. For many, this could be their first exposure to a positive take on human rights.

Consider also Women’s Aid, a domestic violence charity that launched a film targeting football fans and their clubs. Entitled “Unpunished”, the film uses football imagery and metaphors to address domestic violence. Again, the strategy was to introduce human rights to a new audience in an unexpected context. These films do not educate about the details of human rights; rather, they connect issues the viewer already cares about with “human rights”, perhaps for the first time.

When the discourse on human rights is as negative as it currently is in the UK, it’s hard to tell a positive story. And it will take more than a few words or slogans to influence the many unconvinced people that human rights are worth defending. But audience insight research has repeatedly shown that the public is more positive about human rights when it understands how human rights are connected to the values and freedoms they already care about.

Public opinion research helps us understand the frames, values and messages that can help people view human rights more favourably. We must use these insights to change our messages; otherwise, we will just carry on preaching to a choir that sings a song most people don’t like or understand.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

Sidebox: 

Related stories:  Doubling down on human rights data Public opinion on human rights is the true gauge of progress Does it matter when polls go wrong? Data-driven optimism for global rights activists More than smoke and mirrors: citizen perceptions of human rights Mapping human rights skepticism in Mexico Let the pollsters pick? Navigating public opinion in Israel In Israel, implementing human rights feels wrong Use of force: the American public and the ethics of war International law and US public support for drone strikes The struggle for a truly grassroots human rights movement Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Let's change how we think about mental health

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. July 2015 - 8:45

Seeing psychological distress as a mental health problem supports a modern cultural myth.

My depression story. Credit: Youtube.

Recently it has seemed like attitudes towards mental health are changing. During the UK General Election this year, for example, the seven main political parties all included mental health in their manifestos.

Each included the need for more funding for research, the better setting of standards and time-frames for access to treatment, a focus on young people, motherhood, the disabled and prisoners, as well as the need for more talking therapies. There was also talk of mental health being comparable to physical health and an emphasis on the need to tackle discrimination.

To many this might seem like progress. Attitudes are developing. So is terminology, with softer language used, and less emphasis on the term ‘mental illness’.

Even so, when psychological distress is not explicitly described as mental illness, it is still usually regarded as something different in kind from what would be considered ‘normal’ experience. It is perceived as arising from a 'disorder' or 'condition'.

Current ideas around mental disorder pay little attention to the power of human thought and its causal role in our distress. When we regard depression and anxiety as mental illnesses, we should do so with more reflection on the underlying assumptions at work: do we think about the symptoms only when they happen, or does thinking have a part to play in producing the symptoms?

An alternative approach would be to recognise thinking’s complexity, richness and especially its power to move us. When we ‘think’, we are not simply seeing the world as it is. We are imposing on it our view of what we like and dislike. what we want or fear. We are considering what we feel the world should be like, and what we hope it is not. As we think, we interpret, predict and judge.

YouTube is a good guide to how ideas about mental health play out in the community. Many people have courageously posted video accounts of their experiences. These are often moving narrations of times in the person’s life when things were difficult. From the supportive comments that many of these have received, they clearly resonate with others. These accounts are clearly useful descriptions of how it can feel to be very distressed.

However, there are aspects of the accounts that seem limited.

In these video accounts, vloggers almost always present the widely accepted view that their distress is a result of ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’. The vloggers usually describe a difficulty in understanding their experience and a belief that there is something inherently wrong with them. Naturally, from this perspective, they become concerned with identifying what is wrong and seek diagnosis, which will help them towards seeking appropriate treatment. In this situation, the distressed person’s focus is on the feelings, symptoms and thoughts they experience.

This may all seem obvious because it is the most common way of thinking in our society, but there is another way of understanding our experience of distress and these videos provide a rich source of evidence for an alternative.

To see this evidence we need to watch the videos with fresh eyes.

Throughout the videos the bloggers give clear details on how they were thinking when they first became distressed, as well as throughout their journey. Each person is different but it is clear that when we are distressed we can become preoccupied by our situation and do lots of intense thinking.

Amongst the thoughts the bloggers describe is confusion at not being able to understand their feelings. They describe: fears of what is wrong and how bad they might become, attempts to trawl through past events to find a cause, intense reactions to specific events they suspect of being the cause, ideas about what they could do to get better, treatments and techniques that might make them feel better.

These personal descriptions demonstrate the thought processes at work that are not necessarily considered when labeling distressing experiences ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety’. These thoughts matter. They make a difference. They frame our lives.

It is also important to see the intimate relationship between the thoughts we have and the feelings and emotions we experience as a result. Our thoughts are the source of our emotions. We can think of ‘thoughts’ a bit like Trojan horses; from the outside they may appear like the gift of rationality but they trick us, take us by surprise. They are full of emotions that can make our heads spin and our stomachs churn.

When we regard thinking and emotion as separate we overlook their intimate connection. If we do not see the thinking that lies behind our feelings we are left only to focus on the emotions and their concomitant physical sensations and we fail to recognise the emotional consequences of the thinking we have engaged in as we try to make sense of our psychological distress: What is wrong with me? Am I going mad? How bad will it get? What would people think of me if they really knew what I was like? These are not neutral thoughts that don’t matter. Try thinking them with absolute conviction and you will realise the emotional power they have.

Thinking is not simply a rational process. It is an on-going, active, expressive, creative process. It is fast-moving and often restless. It is with our complex subjective, value-laden thoughts that we colour our world and animate ourselves. Since much of the time we are relatively unaware of what we are thinking, we are, in effect, the secret agents of our own experience. If we don’t pay attention to what we are thinking, we will very likely make our predicaments worse.

What the YouTubers describe are good accounts of how it can feel to be distressed. Up to a point this is very useful. However, if we listen more carefully to their accounts we find plenty of evidence of extremely powerful thoughts, like the ones described above. These are the thoughts that people are naturally led to once they perceive their distress as a mental health problem they are ‘suffering from’.

In the process they are, at the very least, intensifying their distress, making it harder for them to find practical solutions. Though this is entirely understandable, it becomes a problem when they limit their understanding when they think about their distress purely in terms of disorders and conditions. These ideas can be misleading, by focusing solely on symptoms and diagnoses and ignoring the power of thought.

When we add our voice to the established view of psychological distress as a mental health problem we support a modern cultural myth. The distinction between the ordinary psychological ups and downs of life and mental health problems rests on the belief that the latter cannot be understood in terms of normal psychological processes.

Mental health problems are seen as strange and inexplicable, at least to the layperson. This makes them seem unpredictable and frightening and, ironically, increases stigma and discrimination.

Perhaps, what we really need is not campaigns to stamp out stigma, or even necessarily new funding programmes, but new ways of understanding ourselves, based on a recognition of the powerful role our thinking plays in our experiences.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Mental health: why we're all sick under neoliberalism Politics as therapy: they want us to be just sick enough not to fight back It's off to fucking work we go: the politics of workplace misery What’s normal? The politics of psychiatric labeling Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Let's change how we think about mental health

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. July 2015 - 8:45

Seeing psychological distress as a mental health problem supports a modern cultural myth.

My depression story. Credit: Youtube.

Recently it has seemed like attitudes towards mental health are changing. During the UK General Election this year, for example, the seven main political parties all included mental health in their manifestos.

Each included the need for more funding for research, the better setting of standards and time-frames for access to treatment, a focus on young people, motherhood, the disabled and prisoners, as well as the need for more talking therapies. There was also talk of mental health being comparable to physical health and an emphasis on the need to tackle discrimination.

To many this might seem like progress. Attitudes are developing. So is terminology, with softer language used, and less emphasis on the term ‘mental illness’.

Even so, when psychological distress is not explicitly described as mental illness, it is still usually regarded as something different in kind from what would be considered ‘normal’ experience. It is perceived as arising from a 'disorder' or 'condition'.

Current ideas around mental disorder pay little attention to the power of human thought and its causal role in our distress. When we regard depression and anxiety as mental illnesses, we should do so with more reflection on the underlying assumptions at work: do we think about the symptoms only when they happen, or does thinking have a part to play in producing the symptoms?

An alternative approach would be to recognise thinking’s complexity, richness and especially its power to move us. When we ‘think’, we are not simply seeing the world as it is. We are imposing on it our view of what we like and dislike. what we want or fear. We are considering what we feel the world should be like, and what we hope it is not. As we think, we interpret, predict and judge.

YouTube is a good guide to how ideas about mental health play out in the community. Many people have courageously posted video accounts of their experiences. These are often moving narrations of times in the person’s life when things were difficult. From the supportive comments that many of these have received, they clearly resonate with others. These accounts are clearly useful descriptions of how it can feel to be very distressed.

However, there are aspects of the accounts that seem limited.

In these video accounts, vloggers almost always present the widely accepted view that their distress is a result of ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’. The vloggers usually describe a difficulty in understanding their experience and a belief that there is something inherently wrong with them. Naturally, from this perspective, they become concerned with identifying what is wrong and seek diagnosis, which will help them towards seeking appropriate treatment. In this situation, the distressed person’s focus is on the feelings, symptoms and thoughts they experience.

This may all seem obvious because it is the most common way of thinking in our society, but there is another way of understanding our experience of distress and these videos provide a rich source of evidence for an alternative.

To see this evidence we need to watch the videos with fresh eyes.

Throughout the videos the bloggers give clear details on how they were thinking when they first became distressed, as well as throughout their journey. Each person is different but it is clear that when we are distressed we can become preoccupied by our situation and do lots of intense thinking.

Amongst the thoughts the bloggers describe is confusion at not being able to understand their feelings. They describe: fears of what is wrong and how bad they might become, attempts to trawl through past events to find a cause, intense reactions to specific events they suspect of being the cause, ideas about what they could do to get better, treatments and techniques that might make them feel better.

These personal descriptions demonstrate the thought processes at work that are not necessarily considered when labeling distressing experiences ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety’. These thoughts matter. They make a difference. They frame our lives.

It is also important to see the intimate relationship between the thoughts we have and the feelings and emotions we experience as a result. Our thoughts are the source of our emotions. We can think of ‘thoughts’ a bit like Trojan horses; from the outside they may appear like the gift of rationality but they trick us, take us by surprise. They are full of emotions that can make our heads spin and our stomachs churn.

When we regard thinking and emotion as separate we overlook their intimate connection. If we do not see the thinking that lies behind our feelings we are left only to focus on the emotions and their concomitant physical sensations and we fail to recognise the emotional consequences of the thinking we have engaged in as we try to make sense of our psychological distress: What is wrong with me? Am I going mad? How bad will it get? What would people think of me if they really knew what I was like? These are not neutral thoughts that don’t matter. Try thinking them with absolute conviction and you will realise the emotional power they have.

Thinking is not simply a rational process. It is an on-going, active, expressive, creative process. It is fast-moving and often restless. It is with our complex subjective, value-laden thoughts that we colour our world and animate ourselves. Since much of the time we are relatively unaware of what we are thinking, we are, in effect, the secret agents of our own experience. If we don’t pay attention to what we are thinking, we will very likely make our predicaments worse.

What the YouTubers describe are good accounts of how it can feel to be distressed. Up to a point this is very useful. However, if we listen more carefully to their accounts we find plenty of evidence of extremely powerful thoughts, like the ones described above. These are the thoughts that people are naturally led to once they perceive their distress as a mental health problem they are ‘suffering from’.

In the process they are, at the very least, intensifying their distress, making it harder for them to find practical solutions. Though this is entirely understandable, it becomes a problem when they limit their understanding when they think about their distress purely in terms of disorders and conditions. These ideas can be misleading, by focusing solely on symptoms and diagnoses and ignoring the power of thought.

When we add our voice to the established view of psychological distress as a mental health problem we support a modern cultural myth. The distinction between the ordinary psychological ups and downs of life and mental health problems rests on the belief that the latter cannot be understood in terms of normal psychological processes.

Mental health problems are seen as strange and inexplicable, at least to the layperson. This makes them seem unpredictable and frightening and, ironically, increases stigma and discrimination.

Perhaps, what we really need is not campaigns to stamp out stigma, or even necessarily new funding programmes, but new ways of understanding ourselves, based on a recognition of the powerful role our thinking plays in our experiences.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Mental health: why we're all sick under neoliberalism Politics as therapy: they want us to be just sick enough not to fight back It's off to fucking work we go: the politics of workplace misery What’s normal? The politics of psychiatric labeling Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Capitalist dispossession and new justifications of slavery

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. July 2015 - 4:00

Discussions of migration are becoming increasingly dystopian. Based upon either exclusion or exploitation, new neoliberal arguments for open borders are not about freedom, but institutionalised domination.

Migrant workers process green peppers in California. Bob Nichols for USDA/Flickr. Creative Commons.

The plight of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to seek entry to the European Union raises profound issues for Western democracies and their responsibilities for those beyond their contemporary borders. The current response of governments is that maintenance of a ‘European model’ of welfare requires strictly policed borders and populations, as well as military action against the ‘business model’ of those they are pleased to call ‘traffickers’. We suggest a different way of defending welfare regimes and addressing the legitimate claims of the world’s poor through an alternative global social democracy based upon reparations and a collective concept of freedom.

A modest proposal?

The current official EU response invokes the language of ‘anti-slavery’, but directs it against migrants fleeing poverty and civil disruption caused by war and other acts of oppression. However, a new ‘economic’ argument has entered the debate. Recently put forward by Chicago University law professor Eric Posner and economist Glen Weyl, and pitched to the World Bank, this is a ‘pro-slavery’ argument for the free movement of unfree labour. An echo of their argument is heard in the suggestion by Italian interior minister, Algelino Alfano, that migrants should be made to work for free.

Posner and Weyl argue that attempts to address inequality within nation-states do nothing to alleviate global inequality. This is because of a perceived need for closed borders, which are assumed to shield domestic labour markets and welfare budgets from the competition and claims of the migrant poor (notwithstanding that migrant consumption of welfare benefits is greatly overstated). Yet, they argue, it is precisely the movement of poor people from the global South to the North, together with the sending of remittances back to the global South, that will do most to reduce global inequality (even if inequality rises within the national welfare states of the global North).

They are conscious that ‘open borders’ would need to be sold to populations and politicians in the global North. Their solution—and this is no Jonathan Swift-style satire—is a rigorous ‘othering’ of migrants, to create what they explicitly describe as a caste system. Their model is Qatar where migration by co-religionists of the majority population is discouraged in order to reduce the development of solidarities between local populations and migrant workers. ‘Belonging’ is a privilege of local citizens; migrants are displaced from where they belong and are to be offered no recognition in the places to which they move.

At the same time, Posner and Weyl suggest that migrants should be paid significantly lower wages than those typical of even low-paid workers in the host society. They must also be deprived of rights to organise and protest, and are to be delivered into a strict subordination to employers as indentured labour. While the exploitation of indentured labour will be to the benefit of employers (and some consumers) in the North, they claim that it will also be to the betterment of indentured labourers themselves, who are escaping the worse conditions they otherwise face ‘at home’.

If only they weren’t serious

The idea of the ‘betterment’ of indentured labourers and those they have left behind, however, depends on the idea that the global North bears no responsibility for the conditions found in the global South. It furthermore relies on the notion that, however constrained, indentured labour represents a ‘choice’. At what point does ‘indentured labour’ become so constrained that it represents enslavement? In a separate piece, Weyl argues that the forced transport of enslaved Africans to the US brought about an improvement in the circumstances of African Americans, when compared to those that remained in Africa. At the same time, he describes systematic racism as the way in which this beneficial outcome was achieved.

However distasteful, this is a simple utilitarian argument for the efficiency of free trade. What should be clear, however, is that for Posner and Weyl, freedom of trade is on only one side of the capital/labour relation. Global capital is allowed unregulated free movement, while free movement of labour is to be severely regulated. Domestic capital should be free to exploit indentured labour, while migrant labour should be policed and prevented from claiming rights enjoyed by other citizens (though it is unlikely that local populations in the global North could be insulated from the effects of divided citizenship and merely enjoy the fruits of the indentured labour in the form of cheap services).

Like other advocates of free markets, they are doubtful that alternative models of alleviating poverty, such as foreign aid, can ever overcome the corruption of governments (though they endorse private philanthropy). What they ignore, however, is that corruption is very much a product of the free movement of capital that they endorse. ‘Payoffs’ to local elites for access to land, minerals, and fuels are, almost always, cheaper than properly compensating those dispossessed by that access. If there is any ‘business model’ that public policy should disrupt, it is this one.

Posner and Weyl furthermore fail to address the fact that while efficiency gains accrue to a tiny minority of the world’s population, all ‘rational’ individuals are enjoined to accept their necessity. They thus argue strongly for market freedom of individuals based on private property, yet do not interrogate how asymmetrical possession of private property itself derives from systematic dispossession. In other words, they do not (or choose not to) see how the accumulation of private property is based on land grabs, enclosures, displacement of local systems of subsistence, and access to mineral extraction through corrupt contracts with local elites. It is dispossession that produces the conditions of impoverishment that make indentured labour a ‘choice’ preferable to starvation.

Reparations in the service of global social justice

Why should public policy support the individual rights of the few over the collective rights of the many? Why should individual rights provide returns to owners of private property while no compensation is offered for the concomitant loss of collective rights? Back in the eighteenth century, Thomas Paine wrote in Agrarian Justice of the need to provide reparation for the loss of concrete and specific rights by agricultural workers following the enclosure movement that drove them off the land (in turn, for some to migrate to settle supposedly ‘virgin’ lands and dispossess indigenous populations elsewhere). Paine’s argument remains urgent in the present as an argument for global social justice. It is one that is potentially transformative in the current debate about migration.

Current EU policy towards migration seeks to establish a hostile environment to discourage migration, while the free market option is based on unfree labour. Yet it is possible to envision a different way forward that addresses the conditions from which migrants seek respite. This would involve transfers from the global North to the global South, but they are not well-described as foreign aid. In contrast, they should be described as reparations that compensate for past dispossession (through colonial appropriation and enslavement) and that ensure compensation and proper participation in decisions about current appropriation.

A new initiative that is arguing for global social justice on this basis is the Caribbean reparations movement. The Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) has established a reparations commission to design a development agenda for the region based on the redress of historical wrongs associated with colonialism, enslavement, and dispossession. The arguments for reparatory justice are codified in a 10-point plan that includes the address of the public health crisis and combatting illiteracy. Reparations are to enable a social democratic solution to the problems continuing from the legacies of colonialism, enslavement, and dispossession.

Once aid is re-described as reparation, it is evident that the UN Millennium goal of rich countries contributing 0.7 percent of their GDP—a goal that few meet—is scandalously low in relation to the benefits they derive from the past appropriation of resources from other countries. The problem is not that social rights (embedded in the welfare states of the global North) are an obstacle to market solutions to global inequality, but that the market itself is an obstacle to the internationalisation of social rights and democratic accountability.

Now that the language of anti-slavery is used to target the trafficking of migrants, it is time that the plight of migrants themselves, and their rights, become the focus of political attention. We are at a moment when a new slavery is being argued under the guise of a liberal realism. We should be aware that its realism derives from the defence of privilege and not from concern for the global poor.  

Note: As well as the op-ed piece with Posner, Weyl has written ‘The Openness-Equality Trade-Off in Global Redistribution’, a lengthy paper on the topic. The argument endorsing slavery is made on page 29 and illustrated through the case of slavery in the US on page 32.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Reparations are too confronting: let’s talk about 'modern-day slavery' instead Servants of capitalism Illegalised migrants and temporary foreign workers: the new international segmentation of labour Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Capitalist dispossession and new justifications of slavery

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. July 2015 - 4:00

Discussions of migration are becoming increasingly dystopian. Based upon either exclusion or exploitation, new neoliberal arguments for open borders are not about freedom, but institutionalised domination.

Migrant workers process green peppers in California. Bob Nichols for USDA/Flickr. Creative Commons.

The plight of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to seek entry to the European Union raises profound issues for Western democracies and their responsibilities for those beyond their contemporary borders. The current response of governments is that maintenance of a ‘European model’ of welfare requires strictly policed borders and populations, as well as military action against the ‘business model’ of those they are pleased to call ‘traffickers’. We suggest a different way of defending welfare regimes and addressing the legitimate claims of the world’s poor through an alternative global social democracy based upon reparations and a collective concept of freedom.

A modest proposal?

The current official EU response invokes the language of ‘anti-slavery’, but directs it against migrants fleeing poverty and civil disruption caused by war and other acts of oppression. However, a new ‘economic’ argument has entered the debate. Recently put forward by Chicago University law professor Eric Posner and economist Glen Weyl, and pitched to the World Bank, this is a ‘pro-slavery’ argument for the free movement of unfree labour. An echo of their argument is heard in the suggestion by Italian interior minister, Algelino Alfano, that migrants should be made to work for free.

Posner and Weyl argue that attempts to address inequality within nation-states do nothing to alleviate global inequality. This is because of a perceived need for closed borders, which are assumed to shield domestic labour markets and welfare budgets from the competition and claims of the migrant poor (notwithstanding that migrant consumption of welfare benefits is greatly overstated). Yet, they argue, it is precisely the movement of poor people from the global South to the North, together with the sending of remittances back to the global South, that will do most to reduce global inequality (even if inequality rises within the national welfare states of the global North).

They are conscious that ‘open borders’ would need to be sold to populations and politicians in the global North. Their solution—and this is no Jonathan Swift-style satire—is a rigorous ‘othering’ of migrants, to create what they explicitly describe as a caste system. Their model is Qatar where migration by co-religionists of the majority population is discouraged in order to reduce the development of solidarities between local populations and migrant workers. ‘Belonging’ is a privilege of local citizens; migrants are displaced from where they belong and are to be offered no recognition in the places to which they move.

At the same time, Posner and Weyl suggest that migrants should be paid significantly lower wages than those typical of even low-paid workers in the host society. They must also be deprived of rights to organise and protest, and are to be delivered into a strict subordination to employers as indentured labour. While the exploitation of indentured labour will be to the benefit of employers (and some consumers) in the North, they claim that it will also be to the betterment of indentured labourers themselves, who are escaping the worse conditions they otherwise face ‘at home’.

If only they weren’t serious

The idea of the ‘betterment’ of indentured labourers and those they have left behind, however, depends on the idea that the global North bears no responsibility for the conditions found in the global South. It furthermore relies on the notion that, however constrained, indentured labour represents a ‘choice’. At what point does ‘indentured labour’ become so constrained that it represents enslavement? In a separate piece, Weyl argues that the forced transport of enslaved Africans to the US brought about an improvement in the circumstances of African Americans, when compared to those that remained in Africa. At the same time, he describes systematic racism as the way in which this beneficial outcome was achieved.

However distasteful, this is a simple utilitarian argument for the efficiency of free trade. What should be clear, however, is that for Posner and Weyl, freedom of trade is on only one side of the capital/labour relation. Global capital is allowed unregulated free movement, while free movement of labour is to be severely regulated. Domestic capital should be free to exploit indentured labour, while migrant labour should be policed and prevented from claiming rights enjoyed by other citizens (though it is unlikely that local populations in the global North could be insulated from the effects of divided citizenship and merely enjoy the fruits of the indentured labour in the form of cheap services).

Like other advocates of free markets, they are doubtful that alternative models of alleviating poverty, such as foreign aid, can ever overcome the corruption of governments (though they endorse private philanthropy). What they ignore, however, is that corruption is very much a product of the free movement of capital that they endorse. ‘Payoffs’ to local elites for access to land, minerals, and fuels are, almost always, cheaper than properly compensating those dispossessed by that access. If there is any ‘business model’ that public policy should disrupt, it is this one.

Posner and Weyl furthermore fail to address the fact that while efficiency gains accrue to a tiny minority of the world’s population, all ‘rational’ individuals are enjoined to accept their necessity. They thus argue strongly for market freedom of individuals based on private property, yet do not interrogate how asymmetrical possession of private property itself derives from systematic dispossession. In other words, they do not (or choose not to) see how the accumulation of private property is based on land grabs, enclosures, displacement of local systems of subsistence, and access to mineral extraction through corrupt contracts with local elites. It is dispossession that produces the conditions of impoverishment that make indentured labour a ‘choice’ preferable to starvation.

Reparations in the service of global social justice

Why should public policy support the individual rights of the few over the collective rights of the many? Why should individual rights provide returns to owners of private property while no compensation is offered for the concomitant loss of collective rights? Back in the eighteenth century, Thomas Paine wrote in Agrarian Justice of the need to provide reparation for the loss of concrete and specific rights by agricultural workers following the enclosure movement that drove them off the land (in turn, for some to migrate to settle supposedly ‘virgin’ lands and dispossess indigenous populations elsewhere). Paine’s argument remains urgent in the present as an argument for global social justice. It is one that is potentially transformative in the current debate about migration.

Current EU policy towards migration seeks to establish a hostile environment to discourage migration, while the free market option is based on unfree labour. Yet it is possible to envision a different way forward that addresses the conditions from which migrants seek respite. This would involve transfers from the global North to the global South, but they are not well-described as foreign aid. In contrast, they should be described as reparations that compensate for past dispossession (through colonial appropriation and enslavement) and that ensure compensation and proper participation in decisions about current appropriation.

A new initiative that is arguing for global social justice on this basis is the Caribbean reparations movement. The Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) has established a reparations commission to design a development agenda for the region based on the redress of historical wrongs associated with colonialism, enslavement, and dispossession. The arguments for reparatory justice are codified in a 10-point plan that includes the address of the public health crisis and combatting illiteracy. Reparations are to enable a social democratic solution to the problems continuing from the legacies of colonialism, enslavement, and dispossession.

Once aid is re-described as reparation, it is evident that the UN Millennium goal of rich countries contributing 0.7 percent of their GDP—a goal that few meet—is scandalously low in relation to the benefits they derive from the past appropriation of resources from other countries. The problem is not that social rights (embedded in the welfare states of the global North) are an obstacle to market solutions to global inequality, but that the market itself is an obstacle to the internationalisation of social rights and democratic accountability.

Now that the language of anti-slavery is used to target the trafficking of migrants, it is time that the plight of migrants themselves, and their rights, become the focus of political attention. We are at a moment when a new slavery is being argued under the guise of a liberal realism. We should be aware that its realism derives from the defence of privilege and not from concern for the global poor.  

Note: As well as the op-ed piece with Posner, Weyl has written ‘The Openness-Equality Trade-Off in Global Redistribution’, a lengthy paper on the topic. The argument endorsing slavery is made on page 29 and illustrated through the case of slavery in the US on page 32.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Reparations are too confronting: let’s talk about 'modern-day slavery' instead Servants of capitalism Illegalised migrants and temporary foreign workers: the new international segmentation of labour Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

What David Cameron could learn from Marx about radicalisation (but probably won't)

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. July 2015 - 23:11

In the hands of politicians religion becomes impregnated with 'polemical bitterness' - to talk about religion without considering its 'political tendencies' is to chose a path of willful blindness. 

Karl Marx. Flickr/Montecruz Foto. Some rights reserved

The government is, apparently, concerned about radicalisation. David Cameron told the Globsec conference in Slovakia that the Islamist narrative about the evils of the west is given too much credence. “[It] paves the way” he said, “for young people to turn simmering prejudice into murderous intent. To go from listening to firebrand preachers online to boarding a plane to Istanbul and travelling onward to join the jihadis.” 

George Packer, writing in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre last January, put forth a similar argument. He was adamant that the murder of twelve people in the heart of France was not the result of France’s foreign policy, it had nothing to do with the invasion of Iraq, and it certainly was not connected to Islamophobia. It was, he wrote, “only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades.”

Ideology alone, according to this line of thinking, creates murderers. Western actions play no part in the process. Jihadists are created, not by war abroad or discrimination at home, but solely by hate preachers and the YouTube videos they use to indoctrinate impressionable young minds.

This is not, of course, an entirely false picture. Islamism is a noxious ideology (yes, even in its most peaceful forms) and people are manipulated by hate preachers on the Internet. But there is more to it than this and Karl Marx can, perhaps, provide some guidance.

In an article for the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842, Marx discussed the relationship between religion and political actors. “In their hands” he wrote referring to politicians, “religion acquires a polemical bitterness impregnated with political tendencies”. This is not merely the truism that religion is exploited for political ends. Marx was also saying that religion--and by extension all ideologies--is always infused with and animated by objective, historical factors or, as he put it, “political tendencies”.

This is most certainly the case with Islamist ideology. It is steeped in the politics of the present and to deny this obvious fact is dishonest. To explain radicalisation simply in terms of an ideology spreading, like a disease, through Muslim communities and infecting the naive without reference to foreign policy in the Middle East or Islamophobia is to opt for a willful blindness to reality.

Radicalisation is about the “war on terror”. It is about the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and the catastrophic results of this that we are seeing today. And it is about Islamophobia. There are other factors involved, to be sure. But to ignore these very real, concrete issues - the “political tendencies” - is to fall dramatically short of understanding why Islamism is able to find itself an audience and why it is that a minority of Muslims are attracted to its “polemical bitterness”.

There is another important, and related, aspect to this issue. Who exactly is Cameron talking to? He is happy to upbraid the Muslim community in Britain but he is more reticent when it comes to our allies abroad. The government was less concerned about Islamist ideology when it flew the flag half-mast over Whitehall out of respect for the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia or when it sent Prince Charles to develop our “special relationship” with the Wahhabist kingdom. It is easier to preach to Bradford than it is to stand up to Riyadh, and, it seems, “British interests” trump the interests of British people.

A frequent response to any analysis of Islamism and the attractions of jihadist violence that seeks to view them in their correct historical and political context is one of anger. Explanation, it is argued, is equal to justification. This is nonsense and to avoid approaching the former in a realistic fashion out of fear of drifting towards the latter is simply to opt for a willful blindness.

David Cameron is unlikely to read any Marx in the near future. Perhaps, though, if he is so concerned about the spread of Islamist ideology and the threat of jihadist terrorism, he should read, and learn from, the recent history of the catastrophic failure of the “war on terror”. War abroad, discrimination at home and the propping up of dictatorial regimes have proven to be ineffective and immoral ways to fight terrorism.

 

Topics:  Civil society Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

The Lab-Lib pact that never was, but should have been

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. July 2015 - 23:11

What would have happened if Clegg had stood down and allowed Cable to lead?

Flickr/Liberal Democrats. Some rights reserved.

Last year Nick Clegg and his predecessor, coach and trainer Paddy Ashdown, shaped the future of Britain. If only for the briefest of moments it is worth looking back at what happened, not least as it also signals the shallow nature of the Tory victory.

Clegg and Ashdown claim to be the tough hard-fighting realists, the true patriots who saved the country from the extremes of Tory supremacy. This conceit is blown out the water by Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt’s long, fascinating account of the Clegg leadership of the Lib Dems in the Guardian. In May 2014, after the local and European elections prefigured this year’s Lib Dem parliamentary wipeout, Clegg called Ashdown saying, “If I am the problem I will resign”. Ashdown, for it was surely he, replied "tough titties” and told him to carry on. Wintour and Watt quote Ashdown telling them that Clegg moved with “astonishing speed... from the darkest of the dark nights of the soul to utterly on form, utterly clear about what he was doing”. The ridiculously hyperbolic language tells us the opposite: the clarity Clegg enjoyed was the bright light of self-deception.

Responding to the article, Clegg kindly agreed to the flattering description that he had experienced “the darkest of the dark nights of the soul” but insisted that his resigning would have made “no difference” to the outcome of the General Election. Yet the article spells out how he knew that Vince Cable was waiting in the wings as the alternative leader.

The decision was not therefore whether Clegg would resign but whether he would allow Cable to be his replacement. Another part of the long account reveals that Naomi Smith and other ‘Social Liberals’ wanted Vince Cable to mount a stronger direct challenge. The real point however is that the risk of their coming political annihilation was clear to all the Lib Dem leaders and the case for a change overwhelming.

Cable could have delivered this. Unacceptable as a member of the ‘quad’ (the two Tories, Cameron and Osborne, and two Lib Dems, Clegg and Alexander, that steered the coalition), had Cable become leader he would have taken the Lib Dems out of the coalition. He and his team understood this was the task.

Momentum and direction determine much of politics. Leaving the Tories would have turned the Lib Dems facing towards Labour a year before the election. Playing a hard to get piggy-in-the-middle with just twelve months to go would have been ridiculously unconvincing. Anyway an offer from Cable would have been an invitation Labour would have been insane to refuse. An offer, that is, of a pre-election Lib Dem pact.

Creating the new coalition in opposition is certainly more principled than doing it after the election. Cable could have become shadow chancellor, relieving Ed Miliband of his heavy chain of Balls. At a stroke it would have shifted Labour from having no answer to the question of whether it had changed from the Brown years. An opposition coalition would also have offered a firm base for opposing the SNP. With Labour and Lib Dem candidates standing down in seats where the other was stronger, Balls would today still be an MP (he lost by 450 votes the Lib Dem candidate got 1,400). Indeed, he would have been in government.

The Clegg-Ashdown claim is that their approach allowed their party to moderate and temper the extremes of Tory and/or Labour rule, as demonstrated in 2010 with an original and far-reaching coalition agreement. But as the next election approached this made their posture entirely passive-reactive from the point of view of the voter, while their integrity had been shot to pieces over student fees and the NHS. Meanwhile, the Tories were hunting them down constituency by constituency. Faced with the need to rethink Lib Dem strategy, Clegg urged on by Ashdown put personal pride before party and country and stopped thinking at all. The result delivered the country to unrestrained Tory rule. In this way they buried the very legacy of being the moderating influence that was their most plausible claim to achievement and destroyed their party in the process.

Of course, nothing is certain and I am indulging in a ‘what might have been’. The exercise is worth a few seconds of reflection, however. It shows that the self-proclaimed patriots of Clegg and Ashdown were losers not leaders, thanks to their self-righteousness. It shows that the defeated like Cable, Smith and Oakeshott, were right to see the coming disaster and seek to prevent it. And it shows that a quite different election outcome could have taken place in May this year, however much local Labour parties might have resisted an electoral pact. And what all this reminds us of is that the Tory victory rests on a shallow electoral base of 37 per cent support.

It does not follow that while Labour and the Lib Dems might well have been in government that either will ever find it possible to return. On the contrary: a pact would have been a desperate measure demanded by the desperate situation both parties were in. Labour too was in denial. Neither now seem likely to undo the self-inflicted damage. Hence the historic character of that moment in the spring of 2014 when Clegg and Ashdown were brought face to face with making way for an alternative.

 

If you liked this article, you can support us with £3 a month so that we can keep producing independent journalism.

Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

What David Cameron could learn from Marx about radicalisation (but probably won't)

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. July 2015 - 23:11

In the hands of politicians religion becomes impregnated with 'polemical bitterness' - to talk about religion without considering its 'political tendencies' is to chose a path of willful blindness. 

Karl Marx. Flickr/Montecruz Foto. Some rights reserved

The government is, apparently, concerned about radicalisation. David Cameron told the Globsec conference in Slovakia that the Islamist narrative about the evils of the west is given too much credence. “[It] paves the way” he said, “for young people to turn simmering prejudice into murderous intent. To go from listening to firebrand preachers online to boarding a plane to Istanbul and travelling onward to join the jihadis.” 

George Packer, writing in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre last January, put forth a similar argument. He was adamant that the murder of twelve people in the heart of France was not the result of France’s foreign policy, it had nothing to do with the invasion of Iraq, and it certainly was not connected to Islamophobia. It was, he wrote, “only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades.”

Ideology alone, according to this line of thinking, creates murderers. Western actions play no part in the process. Jihadists are created, not by war abroad or discrimination at home, but solely by hate preachers and the YouTube videos they use to indoctrinate impressionable young minds.

This is not, of course, an entirely false picture. Islamism is a noxious ideology (yes, even in its most peaceful forms) and people are manipulated by hate preachers on the Internet. But there is more to it than this and Karl Marx can, perhaps, provide some guidance.

In an article for the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842, Marx discussed the relationship between religion and political actors. “In their hands” he wrote referring to politicians, “religion acquires a polemical bitterness impregnated with political tendencies”. This is not merely the truism that religion is exploited for political ends. Marx was also saying that religion--and by extension all ideologies--is always infused with and animated by objective, historical factors or, as he put it, “political tendencies”.

This is most certainly the case with Islamist ideology. It is steeped in the politics of the present and to deny this obvious fact is dishonest. To explain radicalisation simply in terms of an ideology spreading, like a disease, through Muslim communities and infecting the naive without reference to foreign policy in the Middle East or Islamophobia is to opt for a willful blindness to reality.

Radicalisation is about the “war on terror”. It is about the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and the catastrophic results of this that we are seeing today. And it is about Islamophobia. There are other factors involved, to be sure. But to ignore these very real, concrete issues - the “political tendencies” - is to fall dramatically short of understanding why Islamism is able to find itself an audience and why it is that a minority of Muslims are attracted to its “polemical bitterness”.

There is another important, and related, aspect to this issue. Who exactly is Cameron talking to? He is happy to upbraid the Muslim community in Britain but he is more reticent when it comes to our allies abroad. The government was less concerned about Islamist ideology when it flew the flag half-mast over Whitehall out of respect for the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia or when it sent Prince Charles to develop our “special relationship” with the Wahhabist kingdom. It is easier to preach to Bradford than it is to stand up to Riyadh, and, it seems, “British interests” trump the interests of British people.

A frequent response to any analysis of Islamism and the attractions of jihadist violence that seeks to view them in their correct historical and political context is one of anger. Explanation, it is argued, is equal to justification. This is nonsense and to avoid approaching the former in a realistic fashion out of fear of drifting towards the latter is simply to opt for a willful blindness.

David Cameron is unlikely to read any Marx in the near future. Perhaps, though, if he is so concerned about the spread of Islamist ideology and the threat of jihadist terrorism, he should read, and learn from, the recent history of the catastrophic failure of the “war on terror”. War abroad, discrimination at home and the propping up of dictatorial regimes have proven to be ineffective and immoral ways to fight terrorism.

 

Topics:  Civil society Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Pages