Capitalism, Palestine, Politics and economics, Socialism, UK

The Choice

The Second Coming by W B Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

On Jewish Communists

I am the only socialist in my family. My granddad might still call himself one, but, in reality, his own material struggles and money fetish have left him a socialist of the heart and capitalist of the head. There is no doubt about where his heart lies, however. He met his own beloved wife at a British Communist Party social event in the East End in the late 1940s.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Jewish East End was solidly communist. Jews were at the vanguard of the struggle against fascism both at home (against Mosley’s ‘Blackshirts’) and abroad (both in Spain and then, of course, in the Allied fight against Nazi Germany).

For many Jews, the ideological commitment to communism ran deep – deep enough to give their lives. For many others, communist affiliation was primarily a strategic position to take in the face of fascism. According to the historians, most Jews at that time seemed to have identified themselves more as ‘Jewish Communists’ rather than ‘Communist Jews’. For them, communism constituted not a means to reach out to the world beyond, but to protect themselves from a threatening world outside.

The dilemma

Seventy years on, and, whilst socio-economic developments have dispersed and diluted Jewish communities and cohesion, a core of religious and/or culturally conservative Jews remain, understandably proud of their traditions and heritage. For them, the parochial East End world remains internalised. Their friends are all fellow Jews, the media and culture they consume reinforce their worldview. However, now a similar combination of capitalist crisis and fascism threatens their world, and, unlike their parents and grandparents before them, the choice they face is not straight-forward.

This past Saturday, the English Defence League held a march in Bournemouth. In response, the anti-fascists, led by trade union Unite, held a counter-demonstration to stop their progress. Ahead of their march, the EDL produced this hate-filled, intentionally provocative video ahead of their march.

The march was planned to go past or near the local synagogue. I suspect that the vast majority of the congregation did nothing other than hurry straight home. However, whilst in the 1930s and 1940s, their affinities would have been anti-fascist, paradoxically, their instinctive self-interest today lies not with the anti-fascists, but with the fascists of the EDL!

The EDL is staunchly pro-Israel. In contrast, the anti-fascists clearly stand in solidarity with the long-suffering Palestinian people against the Israeli state. This amazing video vividly captures this remarkable political dilemma. 3 minutes in, we see a religious Jew making a speech at an EDL rally. 6 minutes in, we see Hassidic Jews standing against the EDL, with the anti-fascists, and denouncing the fascism of the Israeli state!!

‘Dilemma? What dilemma!?’ would be the predictable response of most conservative British Jews, ‘We are in support of Israel, not of the EDL! We can’t help it if these thugs support Israel too!’ That may be true. Yet, as the EDL-aligned Jewish man in this video shows, capitalist crisis can bring together strange bedfellows…

The ‘centre cannot hold’

The British capitalist state, indeed global capitalism, is in profound crisis. While the richest prosper, most people are suffering from historic falls in living standards. Real wages have already fallen around 15% from 2008 levels. Most of the government’s austerity cuts are yet to be implemented. When the next market crash hits, there is the real possibility for a further huge drop in living standards, even for economic collapse.

Graph taken from Michael Robert’s blogpost entitled ‘UK: cost of living crisis continues’

The recent rapid rise of extremist parties and politicians across Europe shows again that during capitalist crisis ‘the centre cannot hold’, and that the supposed ‘best’ indeed ‘lack all conviction’.

The choice

Whether they like it or not, the Jews of Europe face a choice. They can endeavour to maintain ever more abstracted ideological, cognitive constructions in an effort to preserve their current worldview and sense of self. These false cognitive constructions are founded on deep-rooted myths about the Jewish people: as a pure race; as ‘chosen’ by God; as the ‘light of the world’; as perennial victims of jealous, godless enemies. Maintaining such constructions will necessitate ‘the worst’ thoughts and acts of ever-increasing ‘passionate intensity’ that will inevitably lead them into alliance with fascists against the supposed enemies of Islam and, ultimately, socialism.

The alternative – one being embraced by ever-growing numbers of Jewish people – begins with challenging and reconstructing one’s ideology, one’s identity, one’s very self. This is a difficult and painful process, but it is one not just of deconstruction, but of ultimate reconstruction. There is an alternative heritage to claim – one of radical, ‘other-regarding’ Jewish history; of the proud and important role that Jewish people have played in human history in the struggle for freedom and justice for all people. What we might call Yad Vashem’s ‘Righteous Among Nation’s in reverse is an awe-inspiring list indeed! It would include such luminaries as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, Naomi Klein, Albert Einstein, Frances Fox Piven…and my new hero, Hedy Epstein!

The Second Coming

We are all born into random places, times, and social groups. We are all told that our god is the true god, that our food is the best food, that our culture is the richest culture. We are all right. We are all wrong.

E F Schumacher once said that ‘everything can be seen directly except the eye through which we see’. The violence of genocide is only possible through dehumanisation of the other, and dehumanisation of the other is only possible through uncritical eyes.

The ‘Second Coming’ is nigh! The ‘rough beast’ in his twenty-first century guise crashes through Bethlehem and on to Gaza. Once more, propelled by capitalist crisis, barbarism looms large.

My call is in no way for any Jewish person to give up their cultural or religious practices. Yet, all Jewish people do now face a choice. We can choose to remain uncritical and, according to a logic of self-regarding self-preservation, ally with the fascists. Alternatively, we can, via a process of self-discovery and reconstruction, proudly recognise the vital role that other-regarding Jewish people have made to the struggle for universal freedom and justice, and to ally with those groups who have always fought, and continue to fight, against anti-Semitism but also against prejudice, oppression, and hate of any kind. In this way, Jewish people can continue to make a major contribution toward building peaceful and equitable multi-religious/ethnic and, therefore, truly socialist societies.

This article was published on the Column F website here

Capitalism, Ideology, Singapore, Socialism

Arms, Legs…Limits!

Check out this brief video. It’s at the top of the homepage for the upcoming ‘National Achievers Congress’ in Singapore (where I currently live)…

Now take a look further down the NAC homepage below the video. Here, the NAC introduces its philosophy.

There are big problems in society today, we are told. Some of us can rise above them, but most are ‘stuck down below – working our whole lives meaninglessly and never realizing our full potential’. However, this itself is not the problem, but the symptom. Most of us blame our condition on various things – ‘the government, our education system, foreign talent, the widening income gap’. Nope. None of this is remotely relevant to our circumstances. Instead, we are told in no uncertain terms that the problem is us. We are 100% responsible for the circumstances we find ourselves in: You are the problem, you are the solution. Let’s think about this diagnosis and prescription in the context of Nick’s video.

There’s no doubting that Nick Vujicic is an incredible man. His immense bravery, strength, determination, and charisma are clear to all. I’m sure that he is an inspiration to countless men and women. Yet…and yet…I have a huge problem with his message, with the principles, with the worldview he and this NAC conference espouse

Two observations about the video. First, I think that it’s particularly revealing that the makers of the video did not actually show another human being refusing to come to Nick’s aid. This is a crucial manoeuvre. The whole focus of this event is on the individual. Therefore, Nick’s success, and by extension the success of any human being, has to be portrayed as a sole endeavour. ‘No one is going to help you in your life’ is the clear message we are to take away early on into the film. Yet, since this is as patently untrue for Nick as it is for all of us, it is necessary for the film-makers to abstract from reality. Were they to actually show a fellow human being refrain from helping another in such a desperate and perilous situation they would probably render their plot untenable. This is why we are not allowed to actually see the act of a human being ignoring another’s cry for helpbecause it would virtually never, ever happen.

Second, it’s pretty obvious that the river is there to signify the River of Life. Yet, if this is so, and if we are to believe that whether we sink or swim in the River of Life depends solely on our own attitude and efforts, then pray tell who constructed the makeshift bridge that Nick seeks to cross by? However talented Nick clearly is, I’d like to see him try to build that bridge himself! Finally, it is important to point out that we don’t actually see Nick crossing the river. As an individual, he doesn’t actually attain his goal, or at least we don’t see him doing it. We’re just led to believe that he is now going to make it.

The first point I’m clearly making is that we are not atomised individuals. We are fundamentally social creatures, linked inextricably to a countless number of others by bonds that stretch far and wide, not just through space but through time as well. These bonds are not just direct ones of kith and kin. Just like Nick’s connection to the people who constructed the makeshift path across the river, everything we utilise/consume or produceconnects us with the people who respectively producedor utilised/consumed that very same item, whether we recognise it or not, whether we ever know about those others or not. From this perspective, the whole of human society is linked together through innumerable social bonds.

The second point I wish to make, that follows on from this, is that, since thisinterconnected society is unfortunately structured by different intersecting forms of oppression and hierarchy, the social bonds that constitute our society are expressive of these structural relations. To refer back to my point about consumption and production, for example, it is obvious that social relations of class permeate here throughout. Thinking of who gets to sit in the boardrooms of big companies or the cabinet rooms of government, i.e. in positions of power, it is far more likely to be rich, white, able-bodied men than poor, black, disabled women. Thinking of our education system – an institution which, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, we are told to believe has no influence on life outcomes – we see a whole system that is reflective and constructive of oppressive structures of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc.

Taking these two points into consideration, if I had one question to ask Nick Vujicic, it would simply be this: ‘Do you think you would still be standing there today if you were an Aboriginal woman with the same condition?’

I don’t know what Nick really thinks about the factors behind his incredible achievements. What I do know is this: It’s no coincidence and it’s far from irrelevant that Nick is a white man, and that he comes from a supportive and loving middle-class Australian family. In earlier parts of history or in other parts of the world today, Nick wouldn’t have even been given the chance of life to succeed in the struggle the way he did. I speak with painful honesty when I say that people with significant disabilities were, and many still are, either aborted, did not survive early childhood, forced into freak circus or, may even be killed at birth.

Nick Vujicic deserves all the praise he gets, but to describe his experience as solely the triumph of the individual is a dangerous half-story peddled by those in positions of social privilege who wish to tell the world about their individual success, and whose greater initial endowments make them trumpet the wonders of natural liberty, free markets, and competition.For them, Nick is the ultimate poster boy: ‘Look, so fair and just is this world that you can make it even without limbs! So, you have no one to blame for your poverty or unemployment but yourself!’

The omitted other half of the story is actually far more fundamental. In reality, it was only fortuitous social conditions that gave Nick even the opportunity to live his remarkable life. For every Nick, there are hundreds, thousands of others to whom unjust social structures bequeath a poisoned inheritance. Even with arms and legs, however much they might seek to improve their position, to grow and develop, to love their life, they find themselves borne down by the weight of oppression. The message propagandised by organisations like NAC has a far wider political significance, of course. Currently, many governments (and their supporters in business and the media) are pushing through severe programs of austerity. At the same time, they are telling those in poverty that it’s their fault. The poor, the weak, the oppressed are told by the rich, the strong, the oppressor that the fault for their misfortune lies solely and purely within themselves. This is a myth that has to be challenged and disproved. It is nothing more than a lie.

The real story of Nick Vujicic is that, in terms of one’s life chances,being born with no arms and no legs, but into a privileged social situation, is actually in many ways considerably easier than being born fully able-bodied into a situation of social poverty, oppression and discrimination. Of course, the individual, her/his abilities, efforts, and application matter. They matter a great deal. Yet, I believe that we are, first and foremost, what Marx called ‘social individuals’ – we all have individual preferences, abilities, and dreams, yet we all want and need to satisfy these in harmony and cooperation with each other, and in the service of our society. We want to achieve personal dreams, but we want to achieve dreams that have social meaning and often benefit. I also believe that this can be achieved by the collective creation of a democratic, socialist system. In such a system, we can create the conditions for every one of us to prosper and thrive. Only social individuals, only socialism can create a world for alla world in which every person, regardless of their physical abilities or disabilities, can achieve what Nick Vujicic clearly has.