Thursday 19 October 2017

Fisking Mark Wallace Fisking Young Labour

What is the point of fisking? They were all the rage back in the halcyon days of the UK Left Network. The point-by-point rebuttal of another contribution largely fell out of use with the passing of first age of political blogging. Yet nostalgia freaks occasionally enjoy giving the form a dusting down. Mark Wallace of Conservative Home is the latest to wheel one out, taking objection as he does to the anti-imperialism/anti-NATO statement agreed by Young Labour's conference last weekend. He says "Impressively, it is stuffed to the brim with ahistorical nonsense – basing its pitch on what appears at best to be a total misunderstanding of British and world history." Bold claims. Let's see how his fisk goes by subjecting his fisk to a fisk. YoungLab are in bold and Mark is in italics. Seat belts ready?

Since at least the mid-nineteenth century, the relationship between ‘the West’ and the rest of the world has been one defined by imperialism

At least the mid-nineteenth century’? If you’re going to cast yourself as an anti-imperialist, at least appreciate the true length of the history of imperialism.

How very dare Young Labour. Because they haven't condemned the Romans for occupying Gaul nor criticised the Spanish sacking of South America, how can these preposterous people possibly call themselves anti-imperialists? Amateurs.

Mark isn't a stupid man, but like most Tories he can't help but be disingenuous. He knows there's a world of difference between the imperialism of slaver societies, absolutist regimes and the imperialism of 19th century colonialism. In his more honest moments he might recognise the hierarchy of nations that dominate the world (the Tories' desire to crawl up the United States' backside, in spite of its idiot president, shows they do), and acknowledge this dominance is wielded in ways some might find problematic, even if he doesn't. And though he disagrees with their analysis, he might accept there is a collection of scholarly work that traces the lineage of these relationships from the War on Terror back through the Cold War, the World Wars and to the pulse of imperial plunder and annexation that establishes a line of evolutionary continuity between them. What continuity might that be? The forcible integration of peoples and territories into the world market to the benefit of the leading powers.

… the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was formed, in order to enshrine the dominance of American interests.

Or to protect the free, democratic nations of Western Europe from a very real threat of invasion or destruction by the Soviet Union. The Young Labour version of these events is straight out of Stalin’s lines-to-take – and a huge, shameful misrepresentation of the decision of the Attlee Labour Government to join NATO in the first place.

Is this supposed to be a refutation? The United States weren't persuaded of the necessity of rebuilding Western Europe and guaranteeing its security out of charitable or avuncular concerns, but because it believed it was in its interests to do so. It's why it overthrew the liberal democratic (and anti-communist!) government of Jacobo √Ārbenz in Guatemala and backed the absolutist monarchy of the Shah of Iran until his overthrow. As Henry Kissinger famously observed, "America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests". America's wars and police actions sometimes enforce economic objectives, and at other times are designed to shock and awe would-be opponents and challengers, and as the US favours confronting weak regimes it gives others an impetus to try and match them.

Second, there was never any threat from the USSR in the immediate aftermath of the war. As this analysis by the RAND corporation - a nest of pro-Soviet apology if there ever was one - makes clear, Western intelligence on the Soviet military was poor. While it concedes the American and British armies demobilised very quickly, it also notes many opposing units and divisions in the East had an existence that didn't extend beyond Stalin's filing cabinet. Nor did Western accounts recognise troop quality. It was only in the latter stages of the war after force of numbers had ground Nazi Germany down that the Red Army could be considered better fed and equipped than the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS. After the devastation visited on Eastern Europe and the resources thrown into reconstruction and acquiring a bomb, your average Soviet soldier was still more likely to suffer worse rations, be barracked in worse accommodation and handle dud equipment than Western forces. This matters, as the huge number of Soviet war dead vis a vis that inflicted on Germany brutally demonstrates.

Third, who's talking about Attlee? Seeing as Young Labour don't mention the 1945 government and focuses on America's role in NATO, it's a clumsy and desperate aside to suggest a "shameful misrepresentation" when there is no representation at all.

Between 1945 and 2000, American imperialism bombed at least 27 countries, assassinated or attempted to assassinate thirty world leaders and tried to overthrow forty governments

I’m not sure ‘American imperialism’ is a person or state, but assuming the author means ‘America’, which exact actions are included in this list? To reach ’27 countries’, the list would have to include: the 1995 campaign to prevent Serbian forces in Bosnia, which had just committed the Srebrenica massacre, from carrying out further atrocities; missile strikes against Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan in 1998; and bombing Iraqi forces which had invaded Kuwait in 1991. Are Young Labour of the opinion that these actions should not have taken place?

As misdirection and whataboutery goes, this lunge is as clumsy as Mark's use of the semi-colon. He knows there are grisly skeletons knocking about the State Department's closet, like the aforementioned Guatemala. And, thanks to a recent document dump, America's collusion in the murder of 500,000 Indonesians. The one thing that unites these barbarities with the 90s heroism against targets barely able to fire back are interests. If Bush senior and Bill Clinton were in the business of smiting evils, where was the intervention against the sinking of Rwanda into depraved slaughter? That's right, from the State Department's point of view US interests were unaffected, so they stayed away and wrung their hands. I also have no doubt Young Labour would have opposed the actions listed because they have a more advanced understanding of the dynamics and drivers of American military action while Mark's analysis owes more to Autobots vs Decepticons then anything considered and thoughtful.

‘Such episodes include the wars of aggression in Korea in the 1950s …’

Sorry, what? The Korean War was sparked by the North, under Kim Il-Sung, invading the South. It wasn’t a ‘war of aggression’ on the part of the US, or the wider West. Nor was it a NATO action – the defence was mounted by the United Nations. If we hadn’t defended South Korea, then the whole Korean peninsula would now be a hellhole, not just the northern half. Does Young Labour wish that South Korea did not exist as a free and sovereign nation?

And we're off to disingenuous territory again. Young Labour know the Korean War had nothing to do with NATO. Which is why their point three submits that America has bombed "at least 27 countries", to which they follow up "Such episodes [emphasis mine] includes wars of aggression in Korea in the 1950s ...". If you can't argue honestly, it's not worth arguing at all - especially when your half arsed deception is easily exposed. But on the question of Korea itself, while I would accept that describing the American-led UN intervention as an act of aggression is suspect, nevertheless the utter devastation visited upon the north by the US Air Force set the pattern for the shock and awe that was to follow in Vietnam and Iraq. More bombs were dropped on North Korea than the entirety of Europe during the Second World War. The North's claims that only two buildings in Pyongyang made it through the conflict unscathed sound, for once, credible. Also, Mark can chalk up ignorance about the political economy and social development of North Korea as another thing about which he knows little. The country is obviously a hellhole, and a lot of this has to do with its response to abandonment by the USSR and having to maintain its own Cold War frontier itself. The division of Korea has distorted its development. Had the country united under a Stalinist regime it's unlikely to have assumed the absurd proportions of the Kim monarchy and would probably be a lot like contemporary China. Being able to suggest credible scenarios on the basis of analysing social trends and dynamics is a wonderful thing.

The collapse of Communism post-1989 rendered any real logical justification for NATO moot, since the European glacial states no longer needed defence ...

Try telling that to NATO member states in Eastern Europe like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, who feel a very real need for defence against a certain neighbour which has carried out cyber- and real-world attacks against their institutions and citizens.

I knew this would get wheeled out. The West's relations with Russia after the Cold War and fall of the Soviet Union could have been very different. Putin is certainly no friend of leftwing politics. He is a Great Russian chauvinist in the same vein as dear old Uncle Joe, sans the gratuitous brutality but capable of matching him for cynicism and ruthlessness. Yet Putin, like any leader, didn't simply pop out of nowhere. He hasn't stayed atop Russian politics by violence and ballot rigging alone - there is genuine popular support, even if it is fraying and under increasing challenge. Nevertheless, Putin's appeal lies in restoring national pride and prestige to a great power fallen on hard times, and here he has the West - particularly NATO and the State Department - to thank for his aggrieved, Russia-is-hard-done-to narrative. There is a prolonged and running dispute over the assurances given to the USSR during the negotiation over a reunited Germany about whether NATO would expand Westwards. The Russians say the West ruled out an expansion of membership after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and various Western diplomats say no such assurances were given. Alas, the documentary evidence bears the Russians out. From Russia's point of view, running troll farms, buzzing NATO aircraft and piling into the Ukraine conflict are entirely legitimate responses to what they see as aggressive moves by powers that didn't keep to their word. Perhaps if the West had kept to its promises, we might not even have Putin running the show and Russia could have turned out an altogether happier place.

…the European glacial states…

Isn’t that a peculiar phrase? In fact, a Google search reveals this motion is the only time the precise term ‘European glacial states’ has ever been used online. It seems to be an auto-correct of ‘glacis states’, ie the Eastern European states used by the Soviet Union as a defensive rampart or buffer zone. Indeed, it would be more common in English to use the words buffer zone, or Warsaw Pact countries, or former Communist countries – ‘glacis states’ is the preferred name in Trotskyist terminology.

As a former Trot who was variously involved in Trottery for 15 years, I've never encountered this term. Rather it appears to be an academic term used by a small number of scholars discussing the USSR's East European satellites. Why make the claim, then? I can only suppose Mark is trying to discredit YL by implying they're a bunch of Trots. If anything, the politics of the YL statement sounds very official communism-y, but that's for another time.

In order to regain an ideological justification, NATO member-states, including the UK, pursued a policy of wars of aggression against predominantly Muslim countries, first in Afghanistan ...

Yes, that’s why we invaded Afghanistan. Nothing to do with 9/11 at all. Also, why has the author leapt from ‘the collapse of Communism post-1989’ to Afghanistan in 2001? Given the author’s apparent interest in the history of NATO operations, why has he missed off the campaign to protect Bosnian civilians from Serbian war crimes, or the campaign to protect Kosovo from similar atrocities?

Why has Young Labour leaped from discussing Eastern European to Afghanistan? Well, if you read the original statement it's pretty obvious. YL is claiming the end of the Cold War robbed NATO of its justification, and suddenly, post September 11th, it had a raison d'etre again. Either Mark has temporarily misplaced his capacity to follow an argument that builds on preceding claims (YL's paragraphs are numbered for a reason) or bad faith got the better of him. I'll leave it up to the reader to judge.

... then in Iraq.

Which wasn’t a NATO war. Remember Bush putting together the ‘coalition of the willing’ for that precise reason? NATO’s presence in Iraq dated from 2004, as a training mission after the invasion. Is Young Labour of the opinion that once the Iraq War had taken place, there shouldn’t have been an effort to retrain the Iraqi police and military in the hope of stabilising the situation?

Mark's lost the ability to read as well. Young Labour here says NATO member states (italicised for Mark's benefit) were determined to give the alliance a lick of ideological paint. The only way the YL statement is wrong is if the US and Britain weren't NATO members, or the US and Britain didn't attack Iraq.

These wars did nothing to make the citizens of Western countries safer; instead they fuelled Islamophobia at home and intense resentment abroad.

We can argue forever about the security impact of Afghanistan and Iraq – though it seems unlikely that leaving Al Qaeda free to operate in Afghanistan unimpeded even after 9/11 would have made us any safer either. More generally, it is a fallacious argument that the reason for the Islamist threat to the West is foreign policy, when in reality it is grounded in a fundamental opposition to our existence and way of life. Furthermore, if the author is concerned about ‘intense resentment abroad’, what does he think the reaction would have been if the West had sat on its hands and done nothing to defend muslim civilians in Bosnia and Kosovo?

Why is it a fallacious argument? In the 1980s Islamism was variously encouraged by the West, and America in particular. They enabled the creation of an international brotherhood of fundamentalists who, after the collapse of the USSR in Afghanistan, then turned their sights on Western interests. Then with the series of wars in the Middle East, the aiding and abetting of Israel's murderous assaults on Gaza, the blockade and invasion of Iraq, too many drone strikes to count that have killed innocent civilians, and the wave of Islamophobia in the West itself, you might start understanding that the growth of Islamist terrorism is linked to grievances and resides in a dialectical relationship to the policies and actions of Western states. A couple of weeks ago Mark nodded through a piece on how the Spanish state is fuelling and exacerbating nationalist grievances in Catalonia by its stupid heavy handedness. He therefore understands how actions and reactions interplay and can escalate situations. Except, it seems, when the topic of Islamism is to hand.

Today Donald Trump stands astride NATO ...

What does ‘stands astride NATO’ even mean? Trump is famously a sceptic and critic of NATO – placing him closer to Young Labour’s position than to that of the alliance.

If Mark had bothered quoting the rest of the paragraph, he'd know attention is being drawn to the fact an idiot and a narcissist has the world's most powerful military at his fingertips. Rather than be concerned about this situation Mark would presumably like us to cosy on up to Donald Trump in the manner of his dear leader.

Jeremy Corbyn is a long-time opponent of imperialism and aggressive wars.

Unless they’re imperialist or aggressive wars prosecuted by people who dislike the West, of course. This point appears to be the actual purpose of the motion – they’d have done better not to have bothered writing the rest of it.

If there is any such evidence of this "support" we would have heard about it by now. But there is none. Since becoming leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn has continued to comment on conflicts around the globe and has consistently argued for negotiated settlements in Syria, in Israel and Palestine, to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims, to the crisis in Venezuela and many more besides. In the same two years what has Mark's party done? While denouncing Corbyn for chumming up with Venezuela, the Tories have sold them actual weapons. As they've attacked Jeremy for giving succour to Islamist radicals, they've been caught apologising for and receiving gifts from the most disgusting fundamentalist regime of them all. And so it goes.

There you have it, a fisking thinking it reflects the historical record but is a stream-of-consciousness mess of misdirection, woolly and wishful positions, whataboutery, bad faith and a demonstrable inability to comprehend basic English. Remember, Mark is supposed to be one of the smart Tories. If this is all their brightest can manage, they're further up shit creek than I thought.


Lidl_Janus said...

I'd respond to this point-by-point, but then I'd be fisking a fisking of a fisking; it'd turn into a complete clusterfisk.

Jonathan said...

It doesn't occur to you Phil that nations like Poland and the Baltic States might have wanted to join NATO of there own accord.

Ed said...

"It doesn't occur to you Phil that nations like Poland and the Baltic States might have wanted to join NATO of there own accord."

And of course the US had absolutely no say in the matter, which was why they enrolled Georgia as a member as soon as ... oh, yes. The decision to expand NATO was made in Washington, not in London or Paris or Berlin, and certainly not in Prague, Warsaw or Budapest. If the US had wanted to dissolve NATO or reconstitute it on a completely different basis, that's what would have happened. They chose to preserve it in its existing form, as a military alliance directed against Moscow (albeit now a post-communist, shrunken Russia, not the USSR), while expanding its field of operation into North Africa and the Middle East. A number of very mainstream, middle-of-the-road foreign-policy experts in the US warned that expanding NATO to Russia's borders would be an act of folly and lead to a nationalist backlash in Russia itself, back in the 1990s. They were proved entirely right.

Boffy said...

There is a point, however, that much of the discussion of "imperialism" is very lax. For example you say,

"Mark isn't a stupid man, but like most Tories he can't help but be disingenuous. He knows there's a world of difference between the imperialism of slaver societies, absolutist regimes and the imperialism of 19th century colonialism. In his more honest moments he might recognise the hierarchy of nations that dominate the world (the Tories' desire to crawl up the United States' backside, in spite of its idiot president, shows they do), and acknowledge this dominance is wielded in ways some might find problematic, even if he doesn't."

To which I would respond that there is also a world of difference between colonialism which is what existed under essentially feudal/mercantilist regimes, and imperialism, which is a feature of industrial capitalism, and really only arises in the 20th century, when industrial capital not only becomes dominant, but also begins to operate via multinational corporations, and within transnational structures.

The US, which typifies this latter of course was not a colonial power, but the victim of colonialism. Having fought a war against the colonial power, it was also a means of opposing the remnants of colonialism in the 20th century. For example, Roosevelt described Churchill as a gin soaked colonialist, and proposed an alliance with Stalin to break up the British and French colonial empires.

The material incentive for that, of course, was that US industrial capital sought to break apart those colonial monopolies so that its large-scale industrial capital operating through its multinational corporations was able not to secure unequal trade arrangements, which was the modus operandi of the colonial merchant capitals, but to be able to have access to large reservoirs of exploitable labour-power.

M said...

There is a genuine problem that the popular leftist interpretation of "imperialism" is heavily relativistic and prone to special pleading, and not necessarily consistent within itself.

I rarely see any clearly drawn boundaries for why this form of "imperialism" is different from other demonstrations of the same or similar behaviours elsewhere. Which leads me to conclude that it's not really different at all. It comes back to moral relativism e.g. pre-modern or underdeveloped cultures didn't know any better when they did it, and/or special pleading e.g. the Soviet Union had a whole theological doctrine to justify why it didn't count as imperialism if it was them doing it!

It reminds me a lot of when people use the Crusades as metaphor for this form of "imperialism", the focus on a superficialy well known but relatively limited and intermittent period of activity by white European militants overlooks thousands of years of such activity in the same arena by successive waves of Asian, African and European empires, both before and after.

David Parry said...


'Which leads me to conclude that it's not really different at all. It comes back to moral relativism e.g. pre-modern or underdeveloped cultures didn't know any better when they did it'

I disagree. I think the reason why those of us on the left don't expend too much time or energy condemning ancient forms of imperialism is because they happened too far in the past for them to have any impact on contemporary geopolitics or economics, unlike West European colonialism (which was still a thing within the lifetime of many people alive today) or US imperialism (which is ongoing). It has nothing to do with moral relativism. In fact, if you want to apply the label of any particular ethical system to it, consequentialism seems to be a much better fit, I'd say.

'and/or special pleading e.g. the Soviet Union had a whole theological doctrine to justify why it didn't count as imperialism if it was them doing it!'

I might be wrong, but I think the only people on the left who would deny that the USSR was imperialist are Stalinists. Certainly, as an anarchist, I feel fairly confident in claiming to speak on behalf of those within my tradition when I say that I have no issue whatever in describing the USSR as an imperial power.