The Euston Manifesto and all that

I didn’t sign the Euston Manifesto mainly because it avoided any mention of capitalism’s inherent limitations. The Eustonite advocacy of the need for bourgeois  revolution was fine, as far as it went.  I agree that this is the most pressing task in the world today.   However,  for all its talk of extending human freedom, it failed to face the issue of wage slavery.  Once the bourgeois revolution has been completed this will be the main restriction on human freedom.  The Euston position remained wedded to the idea of social reform: kinder bosses,  rather than no bosses.   Were it not for this, I would probably have seen it as worth signing.

Nevertheless, I did still think it was positive that there was a group prepared to come out and say that:

[it] reject[s] fear of modernity, fear of freedom, irrationalism, the subordination of women, .. reaffirm[s] the ideas that inspired the great rallying calls of the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century: liberty, equality and solidarity; human rights; the pursuit of happiness … But we are not zealots. For we embrace also the values of free enquiry, open dialogue and creative doubt, of care in judgement and a sense of the intractabilities of the world. We stand against all claims to a total — unquestionable or unquestioning — truth.”

And then to go on to maintain that a new alignment of forces is necessary, possibly crossing traditional left-right lines, and defined by “unambiguous democratic commitment”:

“It is vitally important for the future of progressive politics that people of liberal, egalitarian and internationalist outlook should now speak clearly. We must define ourselves against those for whom the entire progressive-democratic agenda has been subordinated to a blanket and simplistic “anti-imperialism” and/or hostility to the current US administration. The values and goals which properly make up that agenda—the values of democracy, human rights, the continuing battle against unjustified privilege and power, solidarity with peoples fighting against tyranny and oppression—are what most enduringly define the shape of any Left worth belonging to.”

These things do need to be said. However I see the task of Strange Times as being to go further than just restating fundamental principles. In fact, the principles cited in the first quote above are not even especially controversial, very few people would oppose them. The problem is more complex than that.

If we look specifically at “left” opposition to the war in Iraq we will see that this is mostly based on a deeply suspicious attitude to US imperialism. Certainly this has some of its origins in confusion between the (good) idea of tolerance for difference and the (bad/wrong) idea of cultural relativism as well as in a naive anti-capitalism which romanticises the pre-capitalist era , fears modernity and suspects science and rationality. However the driving force is definitely an inability to grasp that the US intervention in Iraq could have been anything other than an oil grab. People are naturally unprepared to take the US rhetoric about democracy at face value. The idea that currently the US sees the spread of democracy as in its own interests in incomprehensible to them.

The “pro-war Left” has not engaged in any analysis of why the US is now atempting to implement a pro-democracy foreign policy. As far as I know, the only group of Leftists to have done so has been the LastSuperpower group (us). We have proposed the “draining the swamps” theory (more links at the end of this post).

Recently Bill Kerr wrote a piece on his blog about the launch of Strange Times. I’d like to make a few comments about that because although it was a supportive article, I think it characterised us incorrectly. This was in part because it just threw us in with the rest of the pro-war Left and presented only the simple humanitarian argument in favour of US intervention against fascism and genocide. I’ve partially covered that issue above.

My other disagreement with what Bill wrote has to do with his notion of why we have called this blog “Strange Times”. He claimed that we have done so because the times are “unusally horrifying”. This isn’t the case – in fact historically things have generally been just as bad – or worse. He also claimed that the Western civilized world is “insulated” against this horror and that this is one reason why people just continue with “life as usual” rather than seeming to care very much. On the contrary I think that the civilized world is less, rather than more, insulated. Daily we see the rest of the world on our TV screens. As far as I can see the consequence of this is that more people than ever before are both aware of, and concerned about, these horrifying things. The real problem is that they see it on their television screens along with the message that things are going (inevitably) from bad to worse and that everything is senseless and hopeless.

In my view, the political strangeness of the times has to do with the fact that what passes for Left today is in many ways to the right of the Right. I tried to explain this in my post “Bonjour étrangers“. It’s not “strange” that horrifying things are happening.

Links to previous discussion of the “draining the swamps” theory:

Spelling out the “Drain the Swamps” theory

Can we talk?

Draining the Swamps

Draining the swamps in 2007

2 Responses to “The Euston Manifesto and all that”

  1. 1 Bill Kerr

    It’s unfortunate that you’ve connected my supportive blog with the Euston Manifesto (which I haven’t signed), not directly, but by combining your thoughts in this way. I view this writing style of lazy connection as essentially sectarian or “in house” (the incorrectness of Euston + Kerr versus our correctness at ST). If you are going to treat your supporters in this way don’t be surprised if they become pissed off.

    “it just threw us in with the rest of the pro-war Left”

    It did no such thing, my article did not even mention “Left”, that was not the topic of my article – my article was about how I felt the times were strange

    “… and presented only the simple humanitarian argument in favour of US intervention against fascism and genocide”

    I don’t see the humanitarian argument as “simple”. Nor do most normal people see the US intervention in Iraq as humanitarian. This can lead onto the reasons why in discussion. The way I presented my blog was more to do with what effects me emotionally, such as, the recent violence in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and I try to empathise with my readers in that way as a starting point. Perhaps you see this as a “the simple humanitarian argument” compared with your more “scientific approach”. I see it as one complementing the other but do appreciate the strategic analysis that has been developed at “last superpower”

    “the [Enlightenment] principles cited in the first quote above are not even especially controversial, very few people would oppose them”

    I don’t agree. I do agree with Furedi’s analysis that Enlightenment principles are under fierce attack and like the way he throws light on how the “left” became conservative in part by abandoning those principles.

    I think you make a good point about my strangeness theme. I agree that things are slowly getting better and this includes people in general becoming more aware. Nevertheless, I would defend my approach and do think it is new and strange that we have such public apathy in the face of unprecedented media coverage of the world’s horrors, cf the mobilising effect of graphic imagery in the Vietnam war era. At any rate, I think it’s healthy for people to think about their own individual perspective of how times are strange and share them – a positive generative theme for your blog.

  2. 2 keza

    The apathy is because people have no idea what they can do. The message is that everything is terrible and that this probably has a lot to do with our “luxurious lifestyle”. It’s a murky, confusing message. But people have this picture of rampant, unstoppable imperialism wrecking the planet. At the same time they are encouraged to feel guilty. It’s the sort of thing which does make people switch off. These sorts of depressing, negative messages just don’t mobilise people.

    I agree with you that the “humanitarian argument” isn’t really simple. In fact it’s very difficult to win a humanitarian argument. Such arguments can very quickly degenerate into callous sounding comparisons/predictions of body counts etc. That’s why “abstract ethics” is so full of the most mind numbing imaginary scenarios and choices. The idea that we can ground “morality’ in some sort of absolute bedrock is fundamentally flawed (I think).

    We know that human progress is almost inevitably painful for those living through it. In some cases, a purely “humanitarian argument” would probably have to span decades – or even centuries. As such it would quickly begin not to qualify as a purely humanitarian argument.

    That’s why we need to embed any serious discussion in terms of history and what the choices really are. Most people (especially the pseudo-left), tend to debate these issues from a (philosophically) idealist position. They start from abstract principles/ideas and demand that the world conform to them.

    I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be principled – of course we should. We must be. That’s why I considered signing the Euston Manifesto. However we can’t afford to just assert those principles without engaging in analysis of real world conditions to explain why we support one thing and not another.

    The driving forces in the world are not “principles” but the reality of clashing interests. If we want a better world we need to analyse things and work out how we can make use of the struggle between these different interests in order to get the best outcome.

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