Tuesday, March 13, 2007

On Nick Cohen's "What's Left?"

Bit late with this, I appreciate. Paulie kindly sent me a copy of Nick Cohen's "What's Left?" ages ago. In my defence I'd say at least I've taken the trouble to read the book all the way through, which is more than can be said for most of its critics. Paul Anderson doesn't waste words but fairly summarises them here. I doubt I've anything particularly original to say but I'll make a couple of observations anyway.

There was much I recognised in Cohen's account of growing up in a leftwing family. I can't say my own got quite so worked-up about citrus fruit but the the key elements of the traditional anti-fascism of this generation were well-described. Franco's regime, for example, was fascist - end of story. I mention this, not only because it is familiar but because the use of the term 'fascist' has been disputed when it has been applied to Baathist Iraq and Al-Qaeda by Nick Cohen and others. Take Peter Osborne, for example:
"Cohen grabs key Western concepts and applies them very loosely in a Middle-Eastern context, where they have a problematic application. For him Saddam Hussein's Baath Party is 'fascist' and so are the Islamic movements that it suppressed. There is no doubt that the word 'fascist' adds power and apparent clarity to Cohen's polemic, and it is of course the case that Saddam borrowed some of the most loathsome Nazi ideas. But the use of such a specific and emotive Western term to describe a variety of complex and distinct phenomena hinders rather than enables genuine understanding."
Peter Osborne does not, of course, belong to the left that Cohen suggests has lost its moorings but I use this to illustrate the argument. One could make a case that neither Franco's regime nor Baathist Iraq were fully-fledged fascist regimes but the point is that by the very criterion they used to use, Baathist Iraq - with its secret police forces, the monopoly over the means of communication, its party elevated above the state, and the cult surrounding the personality of the leader - certainly was. Certainly it was a more clear-cut example than Franco, so why did we, and do we, hear these appeals for a nuanced understanding of a term that hitherto was used with a promiscuity that threatened to empty it of all meaning?

In this sense, Cohen is right on target when he describes the grotesque behaviour of the tyrant-appeasing sycophant George Galloway. The central thesis of the book though is more controversial because it is that the behaviour one finds on the fringes of the present totalitarian left 'magnify' more general trends. Few have the stomach to actually grovel before dictators, for example, but many more make excuses for them. Few are stupid or vicious enough to explicitly glorify Hezbollah and its leader but many more march in docile fashion apparently unconcerned, or maybe unaware, that when they walk under banners that declare "We are all Hezbollah", they are aligning themselves with terrorist murderers with an explicitly anti-semitic programme.

Cohen's thesis is that this reflects a new strain of an ignoble tradition amongst sections of the left that were always willing to sacrifice the principles of democracy and liberty should they collide with the need to keep one's anti-Western, anti-capitalist and specifically anti-American credentials in a pristine condition and further that it is this that has gone mainstream, albeit in diluted form, amongst the mainstream liberal-left.

The question is, how accurate is this? John Harris is one of many who accuses Nick Cohen of erecting straw-men, whereas Oliver Kamm, for example, is one amongst many who find in "What's Left?" a reasonable account of the state the liberal-left has got itself into.

Am I allowed to say I don't know? On one hand, Cohen is right, I think, to castigate those supposedly liberal-left journals like the Guardian, the Independent and the New Statesman for the often nauseating contortions they put themselves through with their invitations to understand the behaviour of homocidal dictators, nihilistic terrorists or more straightforward reactionary religious movements. On the other hand we just don't know the extent to which this sort of rubbish is taken seriously by the 'mainstream' left not least because - and perhaps it takes someone who isn't a journalist to point this out - not that many people actually read these publications.

On the mainstream liberal-left Jenny Tonge's explicit sympathy for suicide-murderers could be taken as evidence for the sort of phenomenon Nick Cohen is talking about - but then again, she was sacked for it. I could repeat the examples but wouldn't get any further than this: I think Nick Cohen is probably more right than wrong, which is the reason I thought it was worth signing the Euston Manifesto. On the other hand, I didn't think the book gave enough recognition to the other left that while opposing the invasion of Iraq nevertheless decline to make excuses either for fascism or ultra-reactionary religious movements. Where are the totalitarian left amongst the antiwar crowd? They are those who are presently supporting the 'resistance'. The bad faith of these can be demonstrated by the way they utilised essentially Hobbesian arguments to oppose the ouster of Saddam Hussein, then proceeded to negate this by supporting a 'resistance' that can be only subversive to any sort of order. Unless they won, in which case they would have a regime that would represent the antithesis of everything they profess to believe in. Everything, that is, except anti-Americanism.

How representative are these? One of the problems of Cohen's thesis is it is very difficult to quantify but I suspect that this group is not quite as large as he assumes. The Keep-the-War-Going objectively pro-resistance marches have, after all, been rather smaller than those held to oppose the war in the first instance. And the grouping on the left that opposed the war yet still remains resolute in its opposition to the Baathists, clerical fascists and ultra-nationalists presently tearing Iraq apart is probably larger than he allows for.

But what is prevalent, I think, is the mainstreaming of more straightforward conservative ideas amongst some on the left. Not objectively pro-fascism, rather a feeling that what goes on in far away places has nothing to do with us. Not pro-theocracy, rather the vague notion that cultures are different and perhaps not amenable to democracy. Not pro-dictatorship, merely the understanding that any order, regardless of how bad, is better than chaos. For example, for me one of the most shocking arguments against the overthrow of the Taliban is the idea that at least they kept Afghanistan's opium production in check. Never mind unveiled women having acid thrown in their faces; a price worth paying to avoid Western drug users being put in harm's way. What could be more insular than that? This too was a theme of Cohen's book which hasn't received the attention that other aspects of it have.

Critics will no doubt complain that this last point was the substantive one, that this is the one that has been vindicated by events and that this was what they were marching for all along. Perhaps this was true for many but I have reason to believe that this honest position was not held by, at the very least, a significant minority. I concede again it is practically impossible to quantify but there's been a couple of indicators. One is the indifference towards, if not a downright hostility to, the plight of those attempting to establish a democratic order in Iraq. The other is a question that formed in my mind as I witnessed the anti-war marchers, as I know it did with many others in much the same way. It goes something like this: if you really did, as you claim, only oppose the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, not because of anti-Americanism, or insularity, or indifference, but because you thought that as heinous as it was, any attempt to overthrow Baathism by military means would only make matters worse - why were your hearts not heavy with the knowledge of this hideous choice?

Update: Some fair criticism from Norm and Steven Poole makes a similar point in the comments below this post. Re-installed Haloscan so these have gone - sorry.

16 comments:

Steven said...

I don't really understand the last question, for two reasons.

"My heart is heavier than yours!" is not really a political argument, even if there is any way of demonstrating it, which there isn't. On what basis do you decide that people who did not support the war were frivolous, or at least not as emotionally serious as you? (It's just as irrelevant to ask why Mr Cohen himself did not volunteer for the armed forces in time for the righteous war.)

Secondly, the "hideous choice" between invading Iraq and leaving Iraq alone (with Saddam "emboldened") was of course a false, manufactured "choice", manufactured in terms of the options with regard to Iraq, long discussed since Clinton's ILA and before, that it left out, and also manufactured in its concentration on Iraq as opposed to anywhere else. ("Remember the mass graves!" is not an argument for an invasion in 2003.) Some people did not accept the argument on those artificial terms in the first place.

Those who did, on the other hand, can hardly be accused either, without any evidence, of being somehow frivolous or light-hearted in their sober view that a large-scale campaign of bombing and killing - or, as you delicately put it, an "attempt to overthrow Baathism by military means" - would indeed "make matters worse".

Shuggy said...

On what basis do you decide that people who did not support the war were frivolous, or at least not as emotionally serious as you?

I think you know perfectly well that I'm arguing that this was not the case for everyone or even a majority of those who opposed the war - but if you are genuinely unclear on this point, can I suggest you re-read the post? But that it was for some was fairly obvious to me and a number of others that witnessed the carnival they were trying to pass off as a demonstration. It's not really a case of 'emotional seriousness' - not a few people, and I know because I spoke to them subsequently, had really no idea what they were asking more time for. And if it were concern for the effects that an invasion would have on a civilian population, why was the concern so ephemeral?

Another thing I think you know perfectly well is that the level of civilian casualties caused by the initial invasion was a fraction of those that have been subsequently caused by the insurgency. Given that a small but significant section of the left has taken to supporting this, you'd think you might have mentioned it. Instead in your comment, you've decided to pretend that this has been solely the result of "a large-scale campaign of bombing and killing". Why is that?

Secondly, the "hideous choice" between invading Iraq and leaving Iraq alone (with Saddam "emboldened") was of course a false, manufactured "choice", manufactured in terms of the options with regard to Iraq, long discussed since Clinton's ILA and before, that it left out, and also manufactured in its concentration on Iraq as opposed to anywhere else. ("Remember the mass graves!" is not an argument for an invasion in 2003.) Some people did not accept the argument on those artificial terms in the first place.

I don't get this really. It was certainly manufactured but why does this make it false? If you oppose something it is because you think the alternative, in this case the status quo, would be the lesser evil. It's a reasonable position but I don't quite see why this is somehow an inauthentic choice.

Steven said...

I think you know perfectly well that I'm arguing that this was not the case for everyone or even a majority of those who opposed the war - but if you are genuinely unclear on this point, can I suggest you re-read the post? But that it was for some was fairly obvious to me and a number of others that witnessed the carnival they were trying to pass off as a demonstration. It's not really a case of 'emotional seriousness' - not a few people, and I know because I spoke to them subsequently, had really no idea what they were asking more time for. And if it were concern for the effects that an invasion would have on a civilian population, why was the concern so ephemeral?

So, some people were badly informed, or bandwagoning, or concerned only "ephemerally". So what? This is all ad hominem reasoning: that some number of people made certain arguments for what you say are the wrong emotional reasons does not count as a rebuttal of those arguments. For what it's worth, I think speculative psychoanalysis of those who argued in favour of the war is also beside the point.


Another thing I think you know perfectly well is that the level of civilian casualties caused by the initial invasion was a fraction of those that have been subsequently caused by the insurgency. Given that a small but significant section of the left has taken to supporting this, you'd think you might have mentioned it. Instead in your comment, you've decided to pretend that this has been solely the result of "a large-scale campaign of bombing and killing".

Eh? I "pretended" no such thing. But it's comforting to know that our boys have killed only a "fraction" of the total number of civilian casualties. Expressed in that way, I suppose it doesn't really matter how many actual dead people constitute the "fraction". It's a nice style of argument, that Christopher Hitchens also employs.

In fact I agree it is disgraceful that a section of the left has taken to supporting the insurgency, or as they call it, the "resistance". But I am not by disgust at them necessarily driven into the arms of the euphemists on the other side.

Shuggy said...

This is all ad hominem reasoning: that some number of people made certain arguments for what you say are the wrong emotional reasons does not count as a rebuttal of those arguments. For what it's worth, I think speculative psychoanalysis of those who argued in favour of the war is also beside the point.

Ok, appreciate the last point - that's refreshing. But I think you're dwelling too much on the emotional aspect of it anyway. Probably my fault for finishing the post with the reference I did. I repeat some opposed the war not for the wrong emotional reasons but for the wrong reasons period. Did I really imagine that what a significant proportion of those who were most vocal in opposing the war feared was not failure but success because they think that liberal capitalism is the worst thing in the world? This certainly seems to be the view of those who support the resistance.

The book and this post is not, in any event, all about the invasion of Iraq and those who opposed it. While I broadly shared Nick Cohen's view here, there were also a number of us who didn't support the war in the first place, along with some like Prof. Geras who have changed their minds. Yet the idea persists that, for example, the Euston Manifesto is a prowar document. It isn't; I wouldn't have signed it if it were. What do you think about the other stuff - like the position some have taken on the issue of politicised religious movements, for example? The change here on the left in my life-time has been absolutely extraordinary and I'm pretty sure I'm not imagining that.

P.S. I'm not avoiding any answer you might post - I have to go for now...

Steven said...

Did I really imagine that what a significant proportion of those who were most vocal in opposing the war feared was not failure but success because they think that liberal capitalism is the worst thing in the world?

Oh, sure, doubtless there were some people who thought like that. But I don't think that illuminates the wider context, or tells us anything except that there are always some people with really weird opinions. For instance, if you think about the other side: doubtless among those arguing in favour of the war were some who also thought it would subsequently be a good idea to nuke Iran and Syria. But, in the same way, it would be silly to tar all the war's supporters with that brush.

What do you think about the other stuff - like the position some have taken on the issue of politicised religious movements, for example? The change here on the left in my life-time has been absolutely extraordinary and I'm pretty sure I'm not imagining that.

I agree that politicised religious movements ought to be anathema to any self-respecting "left" ("politicised religious movements" taking in, too, the current US administration). I think you're right to imply that what's happened is that an overwhelming anti-liberal-capitalism has resulted in some quarters - maybe through a kind of sentimental archaism - in some really foul alliances. But again, I'm not convinced this is anything more than the morally bankrupt activity of a lunatic fringe - though it does make for an interesting parallel with the current alliance of the US with Sunni Islamists in Saudi Arabia, as recently reported by Seymour Hersh.

Igor Belanov said...

I think the problem with Cohen's argument is that it is journalism as opposed to a reasoned analysis and understanding of the varied currents of left-wing opinion on 'imperialism' and politics in the third world.
Many of us on the left are dismayed at the crass anti-Americanism and sympathy for terrorists and religious movements that are held by large numbers of people who call themselves socialists. We differ from the likes of Cohen, however, in that we find it easy to dismiss the argument that the actions of the US, UK etc are spreading democracy in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. For one thing, as the record in those places has shown, it was naive to think that invasion could do much more than topple the existing regimes. Constructing 'liberal democracy' has proved to be a lot more difficult, and this is due to political and social conditions, not any inherent cultural divide.

Secondly, the very motives of intervention must be questioned. Why Iraq at that time? Why not Saudi Arabia, an equally abhorrent dictatorship but curiously a close friend of the US? Why not rush troops to Darfur, Zimbabwe? Why make such a fuss about WMD if the whole thing was about democracy?
It is unfortunately easy to be cynical about the whole rationale for intervention in these instances. That's why it has surprised me how keen people like Cohen, who describe themselves as 'left-wing', have been to support US action when they should naturally have been at least sceptical about their motives. Sadly there are no easy answers to problems such as the Iraq situation, and I fear the neo-cons and the pro-resistance types are desperately trying to see black and white where there are only numerous shades of grey.

Anonymous said...

C'mon, this is the sort of muddled thinking that saw Cohen recently label one-man peace campaign Brian Haw a Baathist (secular by the way) sympathiser in his most recent Grauniad CiF bleargh. And aren't we already tolerating the intolerable and excusing the inexcusable all over the world? Where are the Saudi, Uzbeki and Turkmenistani regime plans? Remember Burma? Zimbabwe anybody? I particularly loved the popmpous, hand-wringing rhetorical flourish at the end (a device oft-employed by the pro-war pragmatists - Aaronovitch, Cohen and Hitch et al. - in most likely every column they've written on the subject.

Larry Teabag said...

I don't agree with this post, but it's careful and measured post, which is why your blog's worth reading, and Cohen's book isn't.

Bloggers4Labour said...

Cohen's book may not have been careful or measured, but that doesn't stop it being worth reading.

dearieme said...

Hold on: "its secret police forces, the monopoly over the means of communication, its party elevated above the state, and the cult surrounding the personality of the leader" - that's as true of communism as of fascism. Whatever definitions you adopt should surely be capable of distinguishing these heteredox varieties of socialism from each other.

KB Player said...

Yes, I remember watching a programme on Saddam and thinking, that guy seems just like Stalin - moustache, giant posters of himself all over the place - then the programme presenter said that Saddam had a library of Stalin's works and was heavily influenced by him.

Re your heavy hearts:- Yasmin Alibhai-Brown for one was honest about struggling with the sense of disappointment when the Iraqi war looked like it might end with peace and stability and even democracy, as it did at some points. I would like those who opposed the war to ask themselves if they felt slightly let down when about 70% of the Iraqis did brave threats of violence to go and vote and there did seem some hopes of a better ending than its present state.

Bloggers4Labour said...

".. capable of distinguishing these heterodox varieties of socialism from each other" = flamebait

Gus Abraham said...

bloggers4labour = apologists for wmd

Shuggy said...

Why not Saudi Arabia, an equally abhorrent dictatorship but curiously a close friend of the US?

Beccause they've got lots of oil but unlike Saddam Hussein, aren't in the habit of invading their neighbours. Saudi Arabia is an interesting case. Personally I think Michael Moore got it almost completely upside down. The House of Saud was a sort of indirect target of the invasion of Iraq. The only piece of journalism that I can recall pointing this out was something in the Financial Times. For all the talk of "it's all about oil", analysis of this has been severely lacking, don't you think?

Why not rush troops to Darfur, Zimbabwe?

Why not indeed? I'm not interested in pretending the US had pristine motives but this also is one of the points of Cohen's book. Sometimes America does bad things, sometimes it does merely stupid things, sometimes it does schizophrenic things, and sometimes it does the right thing. So if people take the default position that the thing to do is to oppose the US regardless, they end up as, at best, as confused as US foreign policy often is and at worst, as unprincipled as the US can be.

Why make such a fuss about WMD if the whole thing was about democracy?

The emphasis on WMD came when the British and the American tried to internationalise the problem. Wolfowitz said this was, they thought - wrongly, as it happened - that this was the issue that everyone could agree about because it was on this issue Saddam had clearly broken terms of the peace established after Gulf War I. I don't think the WMD concern was made up, it's just that they were being rather disingenuous about it - as they still are being. I personally think, for example, what concerns the Americans about Iran is not that they will nuke Israel but that this will trigger an arms race across the region with regimes that are on a shaky nail acquiring WMD. This brings us back to Saudi Arabia. What they are worried about here is the prospect of an oil-rich state, with Pakistani nuclear technology with some radical Islamist outfit in power.

POMMI said...

the current alliance of the US with Sunni Islamists in Saudi Arabia, as recently reported by Seymour Hersh

Michael Young has a recent piece on the quality of Hersh's recent reporting:

http://tinyurl.com/yuj77o

Gus said...

As Chicken Yoghurt put it rather succinctly: "Yes, Iraq needed to be freed from Saddam. It’s just that expecting Tony and George to make a decent fist of it was like asking Jonathan King to run a youth outreach programme. They’re all the wrong men for the job."

http://www.chickyog.net/

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