CONTENDING FOR THE LIVING
Red Pepper, April-May 2009
['Contending for the Living' is Mike's new column for Red Pepper.]
Something special took place in Durban in February and though the media have rushed past, we should pause. In solidarity with the people of Gaza, dockworker members of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union refused to unload a ship carrying Israeli cargo. Here was a local intervention in global politics, driven not by national, ethnic or religious affinity but by principle, experience and common humanity.
Significantly, in explaining their action, union leaders and members stressed the similarity between Palestinians’ experience of Israeli rule and their own experiences under apartheid. Supporters of Israel object fiercely to this analogy; but they are on thin ground when it is being explicitly drawn by those with most authority to draw it.
The analogy is loathed not only because of the negative light in which it casts Israel, but because of the positive way out it offers Palestinians. Apartheid was overthrown and international support – boycotts and sanctions – played a material role in that overthrow.
Those who dismiss ‘international labour solidarity’ as a relic of a superseded age need to think again. True, far too often it’s empty rhetoric. But what we saw in Durban was international labour solidarity not as a slogan or impossible ideal or bit of wishful thinking but as a living practise, a pointer to the future. Among much else, it exposed the selectivity and superficiality of the “universalism” promoted by supporters of the war on terror. In a world of over-hyped spectacle, Durban was the real thing.
It was also the crest in a wave of global protest that followed the assault on Gaza. In Britain, students at more than twenty-one universities (at last count) mounted occupations demanding an end to ties with Israel. Victories have been secured: scholarships for students from Gaza and in some cases cancellation of contracts with Israeli-based corporations.
The boycott and divestment campaign has, of course, a long way to go. The British government wants to see a significant expansion of trade with Israel. It’s also sobering to note that the US Congress supported Israel’s actions in Gaza by a majority of 390 to 5.
Nonetheless, for dockworkers, students and many others, Gaza epitomised basic divisions, basic choices. Between the powerful and the powerless; between the ‘war on terror’ and respect for human rights and human life; between Western interests and the interests of the world majority. Perhaps most piquantly, the choice between passively standing by and actively pursuing justice.
The international response to the horror of Gaza brings hope, but it also highlights our difficulties in rousing opposition to the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though British soldiers are directly engaged in both conflicts, it’s unlikely that at this juncture a demonstration focussed solely on Iraq or Afghanistan would attract the numbers, feelings and focus of the Gaza protests. Withdrawal from both countries enjoys wide public support but it is passive. To the limited extent that these wars are visible in Britain, their course seems dictated by a confusion of forces beyond our control.
In Iraq, the British military role is seen to be nearly negligible. The myth of the “surge” is widely accepted; Obama is believed to be keeping his pledge to withdraw. The fact remains, however, that Iraq is an occupied country in a state of war and that 35-50,000 US troops will remain there for another two years. Attacks on and by US forces and their Iraqi allies are and will continue to be a daily occurrence. The corporate invasion of Iraq – with British companies in the lead – is only just getting underway.
Meanwhile, the 8 year old war in Afghanistan grows bloodier, more costly, more futile. Obama has made this war his own. Here, he has declared, is the real front line in the war on terror. Accordingly, tens of thousands of additional US and British troops will intensify and expand what is already a brutal war of counter-insurgency, the burden of which is born by the civilian population. Instead of taming resistance, the occupation has spurred it – something it required no PhD. to predict..
We know far less about Afghanistan than about Palestine (partly because there is no Afghan counterpart to the articulate Palestinian diaspora). We hear no one from ‘the other side’; we see them only at a distance, in stock footage of turbaned men with mules and kalashnikovs. In a typical recent BBC feature, talking heads tried to explain why the war seemed so intractable, why so many initiatives had failed. But unexplained and unexamined was the underlying fact – accepted by all – that resistance keeps growing. No one asked why. No one asked who these people are or what they want.
As foretold, the overspill of the Afghan war into Pakistan has had dire results. Again, Obama seems wedded to an aggressive policy. US military mount regular cross-border attacks, by unmanned drones or helicopter lifted special forces, targeting “terrorists” and terrifying civilians in Pakistani villages.
That this crass violation of sovereignty goes largely un-remarked is a big part of our problem. Critically, the US attacks place Pakistan’s fragile democracy in an untenable position: unable to protect its own people from violent assault by an “ally”. The worse than useless Zardari has found himself cornered, under pressure from the US, from India following the Mumbai attacks and from the Islamist insurgency within.
In response, the government has offered to institute Shariah law in the Swat Valley in the north west. It’s a disastrous concession in every respect, and strongly opposed in Pakistan. As election results have confirmed, the Pakistani majority is both anti-US and anti-Taliban. The ‘war on terror’ paradigm excludes and silences them – one of its basic flaws.
The attraction of Shariah law is that it promises relief from the corrupt, dysfunctional Pakistani justice system, under which the rich are beyond the law and the poor without redress. It is a false promise, but it highlights once again that it is the failure of the secular order on secular questions that fosters the politics of religious identity. The quest for secularism will not prosper if it is conceived as a battle against religious ideologies and divorced from struggles for social justice and against imperial occupations.
While there is a good deal of activity in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan in Britain, no one can doubt that overall the anti-war movement is becalmed. Part of the problem, as widely noted, is a sense of impotence. In the absence of any electoral punch, what leverage can we exercise? There’s no simple recipe for success here. If there is I certainly don’t have it.
But as the response to the horror of Gaza has shown, the chemistry of protest is unpredictable. Gaza made many people feel that they had to something now, not tomorrow, and the boycott campaign offered them an avenue.
Common assumptions about the limits of human solidarity are routinely and excessively pessimistic. It is taken for granted that our loyalties – our willingness to sacrifice – are confined to family and close friends, and beyond that, to ethnic, communal or national groups, somehow also assumed, like the family, to be “natural” categories. Anything wider is weighed as too abstract, too remote, too theoretical to motivate human activity. In their uncompromising, far-reaching and at the same time concrete universalism, the Durban dockworkers and their global allies have shown that this is not the case.