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What kind of war? What kind of anti-war movemnet?
The terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on 11th September was a genuinely shocking event. It was both inhuman and reactionary. Inhuman in its callous killing of thousands of defenceless and innocent, mostly working class people, and reactionary in its political significance. Although there is still, over two months after the event, no indisputable evidence as to its perpetrators there can be no doubting its reactionary consequences.
Impact in US
George Bush junior had a severe problem of legitimacy following his presidential election. Having more or less stolen the election through his brother’s control of Florida State where it has now been revealed he actually lost the popular vote, and having half a million fewer votes in the whole country than his Democratic Party rival, he now sits with approval ratings of 83% thanks to this attack.
His plans for huge tax cuts for the rich had been deeply unpopular even after his election yet now he seeks retrospective repeal of the 1986 Alternative Minimum Tax law that stopped profitable companies from paying little or no tax. Over the last 15 years this had cost big business $15 billion, which they now could get back!
The total price tag of Bush’s plans to stuff the rich with money now its system is in the midst of recession is $100 billion. The class nature of the measures can be seen in the fact that not one cent of the $15 billion aid package for the airline industry is going towards workers in the industry, 150,000 of who have been laid off. Instead Bush is moving to use the law to prevent workers in United Airlines from going on strike to defend their living standards. This, by the way, in an ‘employee owned’ company where union delegates sit on the board of directors, not unlike the current situation in Aer Lingus.
Of course if the law doesn’t suit it will be dispensed with as can be seen in the way it has been ripped up by Bush’s breathtaking assault on civil liberties. Executive orders have created special military courts to try alleged terrorists and introduced indefinite detention of selected non-citizens. The state has imprisoned thousands of people without revealing what the charges are – if any, has stopped revealing how many it is holding, and has authorised the monitoring of lawyer-client conversations. The media meanwhile has openly discussed the need of the FBI to use torture!
The events of 11th September has allowed Bush to introduce police-state measures that would have been unthinkable before this date and when we recall that he presided over 152 executions when governor of Texas we can appreciate the danger of the power he seeks to concentrate in his hands. The tearing up of the US constitution in such a manner is of utmost importance to the people of the United States.
So what’s all this got to do with the war in Afghanistan? The answer is everything. The US has become a grotesquely unequal society. By 1999 the top 1 percent of the US population received as much after-tax income as the bottom 38 percent combined. From the mid-1970s the top 1 percent has doubled its share of national wealth from under 20 percent to 38.9 percent. We should note that this is after the longest expansion in US history, an expansion that has now come to an end.
The US is now in recession. In New York City alone 79,000 workers lost their jobs in October. It is inconceivable that this level of inequality can exist and grow without social tensions exploding in one way or another. American workers face huge attacks on their living standards and a mood of hysteria generated over terrorist attacks and war plus a battery of repressive measures can well be used when polls stop showing approval ratings of 83%. .
This has everything to do with the war in Afghanistan because foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy and if we can see how little Bush has to offer the people of his own country we can appreciate what he has in store for the rest of the world. Domestic policies indicate that this war is not one for freedom and democracy but one that is intended to strengthen the power of the US State so that it in turn is better able to defend the interests of American big business.
This inevitably means restricting freedom and increasing inequality. Anti-war slogans that call for food not bombs therefore miss the point. There is not the slightest chance of an imperialist war putting humanitarian concerns on its agenda. To believe it can is to peddle the worst sort of illusions. We have seen what it leads to when yellow pack food was dropped while bombs blew up Red Cross warehouses in Kabul.
Similarly Bush’s ability to impose his agenda in the US enormously strengthens his ability to impose it on the rest of the world. A crucial limiting factor on the US State during the Vietnam War was the protest movement back home and the millions opposed to the war that it spoke for. What prospect for a new American anti-war movement if US workers are unable to turn back such attacks on itself? A strong US anti-war movement is therefore not a luxury but a necessity. We should be aware however that setting an example is the best way for the rest of the world to create one.
That we are involved in a world wide struggle is easily appreciated when we note that the attacks on civil liberties in the US have been copied in other countries. In Britain a state of emergency has been declared and internment reintroduced. The EU seeks a new definition of terrorism that could be used to justify suppression of many forms of political opposition.
Israel has used the war to intensify its subjugation of the Palestinian people and Russia has taken the opportunity to further its war against Chechnya. In Ireland neutrality has been binned as Shannon airport is at the disposal of the US military and attacks on jobs, pay and conditions are pursued with justification derived from the world crisis.
What the war has therefore crystallized is a global political and military offensive that has many dimensions. Making sense of them all and understanding their priority is no easy task. A special responsibility devolves to the left and to the ‘anti-capitalist’ movement that has presented itself as the leadership of the opposition to the globalisation forces that this war is designed to further. In so far as the war in Afghanistan is the sharp end of this global offensive it is entirely correct for the left to prioritise creating an anti-war movement.
The brutality and hypocrisy of the war is brazen. There is little attempt to hide the murder of Taliban prisoners. Donald Rumsfeld the US Defense Secretary calls for no prisoners and a week later they are massacred. This war is deliberately brutal so that the world becomes desensitized to future brutal wars and an increasingly brutal world system it seeks to protect.
It must therefore be understood that in a war between the Taliban and the US there is only going to be one winner. The Taliban is a relatively small and reactionary movement heavily dependent on the Pakistan State. Its crumbling in the face of US military might and loss of Pakistani support is therefore not surprising. Socialists must normally defend semi-colonial countries attacked by imperialism in order to defend the right of nations to self-determination, i.e. to defend democracy. The Taliban cannot be regarded in any sense as defending such a right to self-determination. They represent nothing progressive and are an enemy of democracy both inside and outside the country.
Some on the left have quietly relied on the Taliban to put up a fight and excused their reactionary nature. This is wrong and cannot be justified even by reference to the correct standpoint that imperialism is the main enemy. It is, but their erstwhile allies in the Taliban do not become our friends because they fall out with each other.
Recent imperialist wars show a revealing pattern of previous friends of imperialism becoming enemies or obstacles. In each case the lesson learned by imperialism is that local allies, such as Saddam Hussein and now Bin Laden, can develop interests and policies which conflict with their own. They have therefore judged it wise to maintain a presence after the war even when the original justification for it has disappeared. This has led to post-war settlements more in common with 19th century colonialism than 20th century neo-colonies. Ultimately it may prove to be an indication of weakness.
In the Gulf the US continues to station troops in Saudi Arabia ready to project its power on its own behalf or on behalf of the fundamentalist Saudi regime. In Kosova, NATO with UN support, has actively stood against Kosovar self-determination despite the original justification for the war being to protect the ethnic Albanian population from Greater Serb nationalism.
In both cases the left supported anti-war campaigns that centred on opposing imperialist bombing and calling for peace. In both cases the bombing ended and so did the campaign, but with precious little left in terms of political lessons learned or of a politicised current in the working class. Instead the latest anti-war campaign will rely to a significant extent on an ‘anti-capitalist’ radicalisation that owes little to these previous anti-war campaigns.
The call for an end to bombing has been advocated as an alternative but when the imperialists stop bombing, because they have won, where then is the alternative? In the past there hasn’t been one and the basis for a campaign has disappeared. It is not enough to wait for the next target since that will only have confirmed our failure and embolden US imperialism to claim yet another victory and the possibility for another similar ‘solution.’
This is not simply a question of anti-war movements having the correct slogans. It reflects a real problem. Progressive democratic and socialist forces in Afghanistan are tiny. At this point they do not realistically present an alternative to an imperialist inspired settlement. The left would take a step forward however by recognising this and supporting what indigenous left forces there are. Not preparing to run after the next bombing target and forgetting the last. Western workers can be well aware of a left that professes deep concern for a people, but only when it is being bombed.
Such a political alternative prevents exaggeration of the powers of the Taliban and constant claims that the war is not over when it is clear the war has turned into a massacre and the only real question is the shape of the imperialist imposed settlement. It is the duty of the left to explain this so that the movement is prepared for the war’s end and ready to oppose the imperialist resolution.
It is equally useless to claim that the imperialist war will not succeed because the warring factions will leave the country in chaos. There are reasons to believe that imperialism can impose a new government by threatening and bribing surrounding powers such as Iran, Pakistan and Russia who in turn will try to impose it on the internal forces. In any case it is not yet clear whether vital imperialist interests will be threatened by a weak central government that allows local warlords to inflict a reign of terror on their populations and on each other. In such a case there would be no need to get sucked into a ground war of indefinite duration.
The justification for limiting the focus of the anti-war campaign has been in order to build as wide a movement as possible. This is certainly an important argument but it fails when the imperialists start winning the war and the bombing stops. It fails to register fully the nature of the ‘full spectrum dominance’ that the US seeks and which must be resisted.
We can say that there are particular problems facing an anti-war campaign in Ireland. The day long period of mourning for the victims of the terrorist attacks in the US exceeded that in every other country including the US. While it is popularly claimed that Americans love Ireland the reverse is much truer. Such popular sentimentality reflects a more serious underlying reality. The Irish economy and the society it is built on are more and more dependent on US multinationals. Recession in the US has led to an economic downturn in Ireland with similar attacks on workers rights and conditions.
The Irish State is also small and weak and has never been able to pursue an independent foreign policy. This weakness is felt by all classes and is used by the Irish capitalist class to try to instil a feeling of powerlessness among Irish workers especially when faced with US multinational demands. Acquiescence to the demands of the US State is justified because no alternative is possible. How much easier to dress up compliance with it by reference to ‘shared values’ and ‘Quiet Man’ sentimentality than the brutal reality of naked power.
If the country has just abandoned part of its national territory to British imperialism in a process that doesn’t even recognise the existence of that concept how much more difficult is it to build an opposition to imperialism half-way across the world? No surprise then that the anti-war movement is particularly weak in the north.
This problem is compounded by the methods of the leaders of the anti-war movement itself. While Bush puts together a coalition of support across the world the anti-war movement does not even have a national organisation. Such an organisation would call for democracy but this conflicts with the type of ‘front’ politics that characterises the history of left led campaigns in Ireland. Thus immediately a campaign is called for there is a split, not over political perspective or demands, but over who will be spokesperson for it.
We need an open and democratic campaign not subject to fragmentation into small groups whose only role is activity leaving political discussion of the of the war and the strategy of the campaign to its biggest component – the SWP – that by default becomes the arbiter of direction.
We need a campaign in which political discussion is supported as the only means to prepare for changes in the direction of the struggle. Above all we need to reject the notion that political discussion only arises when someone is thought to be a recruitment prospect for a particular organisation. This method substitutes the party for a politicaly working class movement and repeats some of the worst errors of subsitutionism made by the socialist movement in the 20th century.
The scale of the assault, from the US to Afghanistan, is a measure of the challenge facing the working class movement across the world. It also raises the stakes for US imperialism and its British lapdogs. A whole range of problems beset imperialism that give hope to those opposed to it and the barbarous world it seeks to impose.
Afghanistan may not turn out to be America’s Vietnam but the barbaric war it has unleashed there and the rotten mess it may leave behind will rob it of legitimacy in many people’s eyes across the world. Extending the war to other countries such as Iraq or Somalia will bring to the fore inter-imperialist contradictions and rob the war of even more support. Such a war might also be more difficult to win militarily. Direct occupation of imperialism’s victims proved unviable during the last century and this may still the case even for such a powerful country as the United States.
The assault on civil liberties will also come in for increasing resentment as the Afghan war grinds to conclusion. The Bush administration will have very little democratic legitimacy if it continues to tear up a constitution which is a central ideological pillar of capitalist rule.
Above all imperialism is in the midst of economic crisis and as usual will seek to get the working class to pay for the irrational nature of its system. The necessity for resistance will impose itself whether that resistance immediately comes under adequate political leadership or not.
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