Saturday 12 February 2011


The defeat of Hosni Mubarak is an exhilarating moment for the popular movement in Egypt, for those who strive for democracy in many other benighted places, and for people who strive to maintain existing democracies throughout the world.

However, the removal of Mubarak has simply dislodged the semblance of civilian rule and unmasked the military as the real rulers of Egypt. After all, the military has been in control of the state, and helping themselves to land and other assets, since it came to power with the overthrow of King Farouk I in 1952, and the abdication of King Fuad II in June the following year.

By overthrowing the monarchy and subsequently driving the British out of Egypt, the army established its nationalist credentials. Yet, for all this, it has been the most resolutely anti-democratic institution in Egyptian society. Within a year of the colonels coming to power, all political parties were banned, and the country has been run by army officers ever since.

Egypt has been run by the dictators, Naguib, Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, for fifty-nine years; all these dictatorships have, with or without a civilian veneer, been military dictatorships. The suppression of political parties, the manifest corruption of of state officials, the imprisonment and execution of political opponents, and the torture chambers and secret prisons of the security apparatus, could not have existed for one day without the full engagement and support of the officer corp. Consequently, the army cannot 'save' Egypt, or install a democracy.

The unarmed masses have heroically driven the dictator, Hosni Mubarak, from office. It is a glorious popular victory, but it is only the opening act of the revolution. The second and subsequent phases of the revolution must involve dislodging the army from power; it must prise the generals' fingers off the Egyptian state; relieve the army of it industrial and commercial assets, establish the rule of law, and displace the military oligarchy, once and for all.

It is a racing certainty, that without a powerful political movement among non-commissioned officers and the rank and file of the army nothing can be achieved. First and foremost the generals must be deprived of their soldiers. The democracy movement must set down firm roots in the army by ensuring that the common soldiers and conscripts begin organising themselves and asserting their independence from the orders and outlook of their senior officers.

The popular movement in Egypt is clearly capable of this if it focuses upon wresting political control and influence from the generals and the officer corp. If it focuses all its efforts upon uniting the rank and file soldiers with the working class, the trade unions, and the largely middle class democracy campaigns, it will put the revolution on a firm footing. Through the organisation of the conscript soldiers, tens of millions of unskilled workers, day labourers, and poor peasants can be brought into the struggle, and victory will be assured.

Thursday 11 February 2010


A friend of mine has just introduced me to the joys of Pat Condell and his many You Tube appearances. He's certainly Godless and Free and I agree with most of his robust opinions about Islam, and the 'People of the Book' in general - you know, the Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Oh, and the Hindus, Sikhs, and all the other God worshippers.

There are, however, some problems with Pat Condell's sort of rhetoric. Because once one has overcome the deeply entrenched taboo against saying rotten things about particular religions, and then about religious faith in general, you can end up, as you warm to your subject, attacking 'uncontrolled' immigration and diversity in general. As you wax, if not exactly lyrical, but certainly angrily, you can be swept into such open-ended attacks upon 'multiculturalism' and 'political correctness' that you can lose sight of the pluralism that you are trying so earnestly to defend from the faithful bigots, with their faithful schools, and their faithful rejection, of our tolerance. The thought of people using our hard-fought freedoms to attack everything which democratic and pluralist society stands for is certainly enough to make one mad. It has obviously made Pat Condell extremely mad.

It has also led Pat into airing transparently foolish opinions, like the idea that religion has produced nothing good. One need only think of architecture, music, painting, philosophy, and poetry, to quickly understand that Pat's atheism has overreached itself. Religious belief has produced much that is not merely, like the Curate's egg, "good in parts", but is actually ravishing and luminous in the way that it addresses the human predicament. Because, we really do have a predicament: we are apes of a very special sort; like all apes we suffer, however, we can anticipate suffering, and we know that we will die.

Religion has attempted to address these existential questions throughout history, and its influence has appeared to decline in direct proportion to the extent that we have employed our scientific and technical capacities to reduce and minimise suffering and our sense of helplessness in the face of "God's Creation". This is a very good thing. Religion and religious belief, despite all the uproar and bloodshed it continues to cause in the world, is on the run. The ayatollahs, rabbis, archbishops, popes, the born again merchants, all of those who preach submission to belief systems pioneered in the bronze age, know this.

They know that prosperity and material progress is their enemy. Which is why they love the poor and benighted - they like nothing better than careering about the world teaching the impoverished about love and forbearance in the face of oppression and exploitation, they love nothing more than propping up the kinds of prejudices that are perpetuated by very 'traditional' arrangements. They can't stand equality for women, homosexuals, freethinking and much else, because they have seen the writing on the wall and it says, as it said to Nebuchadnezzer, "Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin", the game's up, all your thrones and sacred books, and all the paraphernalia of your cults, will be thrown down; we are finally growing up; we can live very well without your outmoded attempts to cope with human helplessness. We can take care of ourselves.

This is why religious leaders are getting nastier and nastier as they begin to see that their end is in sight. The Pope knows full well that most Catholics disagree with most of what he has to say. The Archbishop of Canterbury knows that most of the people who put "C of E" down as their religion think that 'he should get out more' rather than spend his time attempting to appease misogynists and 'queer bashers'. This is why the Muslims and Islamists are setting the standard for intolerance and the hatred of modernity. Muslim leaders know that if they're not careful the mosques will be as empty as the churches. This is why they are so hateful - they can see exactly how pluralism and modernity dissolves religious faith and prejudice - and they fear for the future. This is why their extremists have, by using the rich resources which Islam provides, turned the religion into a militant death cult. Which is, of course, what all religions actually are, death cults. They are all borne out of our ancient helplessness, and our fear of death. However, in our struggle with the dangerously inflamable, but dying embers, of these death cults, we should not be stampeded into vituperation or into plainly false statements.

Religion has given us much, in the past, and much that we can carry into the future, but its days of making interesting or compelling contributions to our self understanding, or to our culture, are long gone. Religion is simply a dead thing about death. All that priests and imams have to offer is fear and we should make it abundantly clear to them that they have outlived their usefulness by at least a couple of centuries.

Monday 4 January 2010


As the War on Terror spreads decisively into Yemen and Somalia there can be little doubt that military personnel from the leading Nato powers will increasingly become involved in military training and planning, and in armed actions against insurgent Islamists in both countries. Civilians – men, women, and children – will become the victims of this widening war as the Nato forces and their local allies engage in battle against Al Qaeda and associated Islamist groups. This much is certain.

What is also a foregone conclusion is that most left wing organisations, most self-declared Anti-Capitalists, will condemn the forces fighting against Al Qaeda and the Islamists. They will condemn Nato and its allies as murdering brigands and will highlight, throughout the radical press and the socialist blogosphere, every single civilian death; the suffering of every victim of ‘imperialism’ and the bloody machinations of the ‘American Empire’ will be recorded in graphic detail.

We can also be equally certain that the same socialist newspapers and blogs will entirely ignore the daily mass killings wrought by Islamists in Iraq, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, and anywhere else these heavenly warriors are able to establish themselves. Insofar as the sectarian bombings, the violent assaults on government employees, and the random murder of members of the public on trains, in the air, or on the streets, are acknowledged by radical commentators, the leftwing response will be to blame the Americans and their allies.

All responsibility for the carnage will be laid at the door of something called ‘imperialism’. The Islamists will escape censure or any serious opposition from the modern phoney or ersatz left, because, by and large these leftwing newspapers have forgotten their prior historical commitment to women’s rights, freedom of religion, and equal rights for all. Despite, the fact that the Islamists are waging the War for the express purpose of, among other things, establishing the fundamentalist rule of fundamentalist Islam, most ‘socialists’, ‘communists’ and ‘radical’ liberals will shrink from outright and unconditional condemnation of Islamist fighters. Instead they will engage in elaborate apologetics for insurgent Islam.

If those on the left believe that the strategy of the Western powers is oppressive and flawed, it is up to the radicals to engage in a thorough critique, which must also include a set of coherent alternative ideas about how to win the War against Islamism. Calling for troop withdrawals, and explicitly refusing to take sides in the War, will consign the radical left to oblivion.


One day after the initial posting of the above Ann Talbot of the World Socialist Web Site had this to say:

"The real target of the US and UK military is not Al Qaeda, but the Yemeni civilian population. The use of air power against civilians is a modern version of the British tactic of bombing the villages of rebel tribes. This state terror has been taken to a new level of destructiveness, but the purpose is strikingly similar. The intention of the US is to extend its colonial control over this strategic region. Britain, the former colonial power, is intent on securing its share of the spoils."

Quite what Ann Talbot imagines the "spoils" are going to be is anyone's guess - I suggest that if pressed on the subject she would start to talk airily about "oil" and "regional domination" rather than any specific "spoil" she could actually put her finger on. But this pales into insignificance against the poisonous allegation that "The real target of the US and UK military is not Al Qaeda, but the Yemeni civilian population."

If this allegation could be simply dismissed as the product of a fevered Trotskyist imagination all would be well, but I suspect that some version of this unfounded and profoundly reactionary assertion will inform much of the ersatz left's arguments in the coming months.

Friday 16 October 2009


This appears to be the product of a remarkable movement in which religious orthodoxy and religious faith is challenged by the assertion of an essential human spirituality which resides in the oneness of each human being with every other human being, animal, plant, and element within the firmament; we are as Carl Sagan might have said: “star stuff harvesting star light’.

Well, yes, this is a reasonable observation. However, it is part of the film and the Zeigeist Movement’s conceit that this observation will enable a transformation of consciousness, which will, in turn, permit us to take “Actions for Social Transformation”. These actions it turns out are remarkably modest:

  1. We should move our bank accounts and mortgages from big corrupt banks to smaller ones.
  2. Turn off the network news and rely instead on the Internet.
  3. Refuse to join the military and encourage others to avoid military service.
  4. Leave the national power grid by installing solar and wind devices to our houses and apartments.
  5. Buy smaller hybrid cars
  6. Refuse to vote or participate in the political system.

These limited goals are, however, merely preliminary to the struggle to revolutionise our consciousness by signalling our oneness with all other people, things, and phenomena. Although, Zeitgeist is novel in advocating this rather baggy spirituality in opposition to religious faith, it is also novel, or at least unusual in today’s climate, in advocating technology as the solution to all our problems, because “our problems are technical and not political.”

This rejection of the “political”, and indeed of the “social”, is based upon a technical critique of the nature of the money supply and the banking system. In order to do this, Zeitgeist luminary, Peter Joseph, describes the creation of money and debt without any discussion of their relationship with productive activity and the fact that credit is, in fact, advanced in anticipation of future production. Joseph’s mangled and extraordinarily partial account of how a modern capitalist economy functions owes much more to the fears and suspicions of John Adams and Andrew Jackson than it does to any serious attempt to either understand or present a coherent picture of modern capitalist relations.

The system is described as a “scam” which is “designed to conceal” its real nature from the great masses of wage slaves who are compelled to work because of their indebtedness. Indebtedness is also arraigned as the manner in which the “corporatocracy” proliferates dependence, not simply among individual wage slaves, but also amongst the poorer countries of the earth. “Economic Hitmen” are sent out encourage rulers to take on unrepayable loans, if this fails, “the Jackals are sent in” to murder incorruptible leaders and overthrow uncooperative governments; finally, if all else fails, “the military are sent in to do the job.” “This”, says Peter Joseph, “ is Globalisation”. It is a “scam” which aims to build the empire and control the world through “leverage”.

Joseph does not discuss the relationship between money and debt and production. This relationship is often defied or ignored by bankers and many engaged in financial services. The fact that it is ignored is revealed by the manner in which bankers have lent money to people and institutions on the strength of assets, which have turned out to be, not assets at all, but merely more debts. The current financial crisis is in fact a violent adjustment which is forcing bankers to realise what they should never have forgotten: loans must be advanced on the clear understanding that the borrowers will be able to repay, and if they can’t repay, they must have collateral assets which will more or less cover the cost of the original loan should the debtor default.

However, Peter Joseph and Zeitgeist do not want to discuss this or the manner in which loans and investment actually move around the world opening up new points of production, permitting the expansion of industrial and agricultural activity. Interestingly, by insisting that our problems are “technical” and not “political” or social, he is able to avoid the central problem within capitalist society which is that private property in the form of capital is employed, in the pursuit of self-interest, to create many goods and services, with the result that many things which people actually need are not produced, or at least not in the required quantity or at the necessary quality. These problems of the relationship between private capital, wage workers, and public authorities, remain untouched by an analysis which seems to rest upon assertions of conspiracy and evil intent which have little relationship to reality.

This presumably explains why, as a film maker, Joseph has resorted to intense black and white images, a shadowy world, in which black and white figures move through cityscapes and more intimate scenes which appear to be entirely drawn from mid-fifties America; they are spooky images of alienation set amidst office blocks, electric advertising signs, and the multi-finned automobiles of a vanished world. We do get some contemporary images of automated car production and of starving children, but that’s all. The plenitude and prosperity of much of the modern world is nowhere to be seen. For the purposes of this film the industrial revolution in China is not taking place, Brazil has not paid off vast debts to the IMF and yet continued to maintain substantial aid programmes for the very poor, and most of Latin America is not governed by freely elected governments. What is much more important for Zeitgeist is to focus on the coups and repression of yesteryear and to posit the existence of a conspiracy of bankers, a corporatocracy, determined to sustain an “invisible government”.

The world summoned up by Zeitgeist is one in which selfish evil forces plot against the oneness of things. Consequently, Zeitgeist adds little or nothing to our understanding of capitalism, and does little to enable us to think of ways of actually strengthening social solidarity.


The truth is that governments in rich capitalist countries are not responsible to their populations simply because they hold periodic elections which are by and large ‘free and fair’. Governments in the US or Canada, in Britain or in Germany, are responsible to their citizens because they exist within a dense matrix of law governed institutions and practices which ensure that the state protects most of its citizens, most of the time, from arbitrary acts of violence and injustice at the hands of public officials, criminals, local businessmen, power-brokers, or incipient or emergent oligarchs of various kinds.

This kind of democracy rests upon a strong civil society of trade unions, employers’ organisations, professional associations, think tanks, pressure groups, political parties, neighbourhood organisations, and clubs and societies of all kinds; it exists in the context of a widely practised freedom of speech, of publication, of assembly, and of organization. It is these freedoms, which restrict the inevitable tendency of public officials to act arbitrarily and even corruptly. It is these freedoms that make it much less likely that policemen will brutalise or kill prisoners or citizens with impunity. Indeed, it is the exercise of these freedoms, which perpetually constrict the, perhaps inevitable tendency, of a culture of impunity to arise among people and institutions capable of exercising power over us.

These freedoms and practices are the bedrock upon which free and fair elections take place and in which governments, ministers, and public officials are held to account in the law courts, in tribunals of inquiry, in the newspapers, in the broadcast media, and on the Internet.

It appears to be the case that capitalism, the full development of capitalism, is a necessary condition for the development of democracy. Evidently, capitalism is not a sufficient condition, but it is glaringly obvious, that this kind of dense matrix of law-governed institutions and freedoms, surmounted, or crowned, by elected governments, have only developed within the context of highly developed capitalist economies.

Consequently, there is something irretrievably absurd about the angst expressed by the NATO powers about fraudulent elections in Afghanistan. In the absence of law-governed institutions, in the absence of a vibrant civil society, there cannot be ‘free and fair elections’. Public officials cannot be held to account in a society in which power is wielded by patriarchal cliques, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, and region by region. There can be no protection for individual citizens if access to ‘justice’ is handed out on the basis of gender, clan, ethnicity, or merely personal connections. In such a situation elections are merely a cosmetic exercise in which intrinsically corrupt and anti-democratic practices are ratified by the powers that be.

Consequently, it is only the building of effective institutions, it is only the construction of a state whose writ runs throughout the country, it is only the creation of law courts who act without fear or favour, it is only the development of citizens capable of fighting for their rights, and of sustaining them when they’ve won them, that will pave the way for real elections. This means that building roads, airports, power stations and schools must take precedence over everything else. Without breaking up the isolation and ignorance of the citizens – without breaking up their dependence on the power of parochial patriarchs and local potentates – democracy cannot be built. Free and fair elections will not take place in Afghanistan unless the NATO powers make the material development of the country, the development of its infrastructure, and the development of its institutions their principal war aim.

Wednesday 26 August 2009


A couple of week’s ago the Professor of Political Science at Toronto, Ramin Jahanbegloo published an article in the quarterly magazine, Dissent, called ‘Reinventing Stalin in Tehran’. It’s an interesting piece. The Professor compares the show trials of Kian Tajbakhsh and Maziar Bahari, and many others in the hands of the Revolutionary Guard’s regime, to the repressions carried out by Joseph Stalin in the Moscow Trials.

It’s a fair comparison, considering the theatrical nature of these events and the dramatic confessions, of the prisoners in the dock, to plots concocted with foreign enemies of the people. The fact that everybody knows that the victims have been tortured and brutalised into self-incriminating lies is irrelevant. What is wanted is the spectacle of once coherent and intelligent opponents humiliating themselves in the theatre of self-abasement and patent falsehoods. Show trials are just the ticket for a regime intent on imposing a reign of terror and insecurity.

The really important point about the trials in Tehran is, however, missed by Professor Janhanbegloo. Comparisons between Stalin’s regime and that of Ahmadinejad’s are all very well, but the really important comparison is not between Ahmadinejad and Stalin, but between the Green Opposition in Tehran, and the so-called ‘Trotskyite-Bukharinite Fiends’ in Moscow. The central problem for the opposition in Moscow was its commitment to the Party and the Communist state. They were incapable of disentangling themselves from the corrupted verities and pieties of the very regime which they were attempting to reform, indeed they saw reform as crucial to the defence of the revolutionary government; they were in thrall to the very forces that were crushing them.

This is exactly what is wrong with the Green Opposition in Tehran. Most opponents of Ahmadinejad are eager to express their commitment to the “true democratic values of the Islamic Republic”; they are committed to defending the ‘revolutionary gains of 1979’. Unless the opposition break from this absurdity they will condemn themselves to yet another generation of bitter repression and defeat.

Neither Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mohammad Khatami, or Ali Akbar Rafsanjani can lead the democratic struggle because they are wedded to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Until the opposition in Tehran realises that the Islamic Revolution is structurally incapable of ushering in sound economic development and the rule of law, they are doomed to perpetuating the very system that is crushing them.

Friday 24 July 2009


Many people on the left in Britain and further afield are generally dismayed and confused about the nature of Islamism. The traditional Muslim opposition to charging interest on loans, the clear preference of many Islamists for nationalised property, when linked to hostility towards America, Western interests and multinational corporations, creates a thoroughgoing anti-capitalist impression. Despite socialist hostility towards what Tariq Ali has called ‘the social programmes’ of Islamists, many socialists are always prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to America’s enemies.

However, the nature of nationalisation and the relationship that exists between the public and private sector creates an extremely complicated picture in countries where capitalist relations are thin or poorly developed. Such is the case in Iran where the relationship between the public sector, the private sector, charitable trusts (Bonyads), cooperatives, and the organs of state security, are often interfused: sharing a webwork of senior officials, politicians, and clerics between them.

In the struggle to understand more about how these complicated networks function in Iran the US Secretary of Defense recently commissioned a study of the Revolutionary Guards by the RAND Corporation. This study has just been published as The Rise of the Pasdaran: Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, and it looks in some detail at the nature of the Guards’ relationship to the rest of the Iranian state and society.

Founded by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 as an ideological police guard for the infant revolutionary regime the Pasdaran (or Guards) have grown into a vast net of political, military, economic, and social influence embracing hundreds of companies engaged in large civil engineering projects, manufacturing, chemicals, housing projects and health facilities. The 120,000 Guards train and supervise the tens of thousands people in the Basij Militia, in youth camps, student and professional organizations; they have interests in think tanks, press and publishing houses; they work closely with the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and the Islamic Propagation Organization. All this, together with their own army, navy, air force, and the crack troops of the Jerusalem Force (Qods), makes the Revolutionary Guards Corp a truly formidable organization, one sewn into the very fabric of Iranian society.

In their economic role they are not dissimilar from the armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan or China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) before the reforms of the late nineties. In 1998 Jiang Zemin’s government forced the PLA to give up all its interests in agriculture, transport, information technology, and entertainment: the PLA lost all of its business enterprises. In Pakistan, however, the army continues run the country’s largest construction consortium, it has interests in petrol stations, shopping centres, farming, and in ‘charitable foundations’ that have spun off more than a hundred companies in banking, insurance, education, and information technology.

So Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is not alone in engaging in extensive business activities. There are circumstances in which it is often necessary for military and police formations, in countries unable to subsidise them sufficiently from taxation, to assist the state by generating their own income. In the case of the Guards this is further complicated, and their economic influence greatly enhanced, by their capacity as a police agency and armed militia, to place people in key positions in private companies, in nationalised enterprises, in the judiciary, in Parliament, and in university faculties.

Following the Revolution some eighty per cent of the Iran’s economy was state owned and controlled. Since then only 15% of state enterprises have been privatised. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s attempts to strengthen economic activity in Iran by privatising much of the economy have run into numerous difficulties. To carry out successful denationalisation you need a stable environment for investment, good regulation, developed capital markets, open competition in the delivery of goods and services, and the capacity to get the workers, sacked in the process of privatisation, back into good jobs. None of these conditions exist in Iran. Consequently, the process of privatisation grinds very slow indeed, in the face of considerable opposition within the middle class and throughout many other sectors of society which benefit from the continuation of economic arrangements dependant more upon the quality of personal contacts than upon competence and technical expertise – more upon military, paramilitary, and clerical influence, than upon professionalism, profitability or efficiency.

In a situation like this it is clearly inappropriate to think in terms of the kinds of struggles, which in Britain or France might centre on the defence of public enterprises against the introduction of private capital. In the context of the thin or fragile development of capitalist relations, in which pre-capitalist formations, clerical elites, oligarchies, armies, militias and police organizations are vying for political and economic power by seeking control of the state, the rhetoric of ‘public ownership’ versus ‘private enterprise’ makes little or no sense.

It remains to be seen how the struggles taking place within the Iranian Revolution and within Iranian governing circles play out, but we can be sure that nothing resembling a socialist defence of public ownership will have any part to play.    

  •   See the note on RAND Corporation below.