dinsdag, oktober 12, 2004

The Australian election is the first major defeat of the anti-war movement.

From Michael Moore's repeated rallying cry that 'we' are in the majority to the title of Janeane Garofalo's evening radio show on Air America (who, by the way, it turns out, as funny and smart and right-on as she is, is a complete control-freak bitch to her poor, put-upon sidekick, Sam Seder), 'Majority Report', the left has succeeded at reminding ourselves that, in fact, the overwhelming majority of people in the world broadly agree with the basic tenets of the left: peace, public education, public health-care, protecting the environment, a woman's right to choose, trade union rights, anti-racism, a generalised sense that equality is preferable to inequality, even opposition to the death penalty (so long as the question posed is phrased 'Knowing that as a result of the death penalty innocent people will occasionally die, do you support capital punishment?') - an elementary 'social democratic' consciousness, if you will. Noam Chomsky has noted this repeatedly as well, although relying more on compendia of surveys to prove the point than on the (nonetheless correct) the gut instinct and anecdotes of Moore and Garofalo.

And, you know what, it feels good. C. Hitchens may be correct in his fat-headed Letters to a Young Contrarian when he says that the 'contrarian', or radical, or misfit-what-have-you, must ultimately be prepared to be alone in his views, and not just on occasion, but for his entire life, if necessary - but Shelley's insistance that we are many certainly makes me feel inside the same way I do when I have a bowl of piping-hot, tinned rice-pudding.

I have been lucky enough (or enough of a revolutionary tourist, as some would uncharitably put it) to have been in Toronto for the Metro Days of Action in 1996, Seattle in the late November of 1999, in Quebec City and Genoa in the summer of 2001, and in London last February 15 - all of which, especially the last, were truly transcendent moments of mass solidarity.

But as true as all this is, we must recognise that not everywhere are we in the majority, and where we are, the right is not standing still, and as blunderingly calamitous as Iraq has turned out to be for Bush and Blair, there is still much room for the forces of reaction to use even such indecorous misadventure for their own gain.

The Australian election is the first major defeat of the anti-war movement. And it is a considerable defeat.

For the left, it is axiomatic that those great, apathetic masses who are truant on election day are not apathetic because they are happy with their lot, but because no matter who they vote for, nothing changes. Now, it is not the case that all - or even many - non-voters are socially aware; the consciousness of non-voters is a mixture of good ideas and reactionary ones, as is the case, to a greater or lesser degree, with the proportion of society that does vote. However, there is no question that non-voters are overwhelmingly of a poorer demographic, and their interests are certainly not those of elites in society. It is this essential fact that makes the mobilisation of non-voters key to left electoral advances in North America in particular, but in Europe as well, and not that workers and the working poor automatically vote in accordance with their interests if only we can drive them to the polling station.

Unlike the US, Canada, the UK, and other jurisdictions, in Australia voting is mandatory, which means that - as Conservative John Howard not only won the election, but increased his party's standing in the House of Representatives and Senate - many among those who would be non-voters elsewhere and whom we regularly assume to be apathetic but more-or-less in accordance with our views, in Australia voted for the pro-war, neo-liberal government.

We have often seen the abandonment of social democratic parties by workers and the working poor for conservative parties (or, worse, the far right) when social democrats engage in deregulation, privatisation and the other, usual assorted neo-liberal shits and giggles. This is normal. And voters swing back the other way too. But this will be John Howard's fourth term in office. He has instituted a programme of structural adjustment and general ass-cheek-spreading for big business at least as obsequious before capital as any Blair, Bush, or Schroeder has introduced and has been as war-mongering as Berlusconi and Aznar or any other in America's Franklin Mint collection of miniature declining-power toadies.

How is it that in such circumstances Howard could not only have won but been returned with a significantly enhanced majority?

The international anti-war/global justice movement has to recognise that there has not been an uninterrupted advance of anti-war and anti-globalisation sentiment in the last few years. It is true that the international left is stronger than it has been since 1968, but there are peaks and valleys in consciousness, and anti-war consciousness is geographically uneven as well. The right can make advances within the present period as much as we can. The right can and has been able to take advantage of what are manifest horrors perpetrated by al Qaeda, sections of the Iraqi resistance, and 'al-Qaeda-ism' in general around the world.

The left internationally will develop analyses of the Australian defeat in the coming days (some of them have already begun to appear in Green Left Weekly and on Marxmail) that attempt to explain away the result in terms of how the war was hardly mentioned over the course of the campaign, and how Howard skilfully exploited the mortgaged-to-the-hilt middle class's fear of interest rate rises under Labor [sic], and how the far left and Greens made extremely modest but real gains, and this will all be true, and the Socialist Alliance and Greens there are to be congratulated.

But it is undeniable that following the revelations about Abu Ghraib, which left the US and its allies momentarily rudderless and on the defensive, there have been a number of terrorist (and I use the term in it's appropriate sense - the deliberate killing of civilians) atrocities that have been so barbaric that the anti-war left has been partially silenced.

It is not so much the random bombings - although events such as the Egyptian hotel bombing and the Bali bombing (the latter having a particularly polarising effect in Australia) don't help - that are doing this. Most people, despite the propaganda, are fairly well-equipped morally to say to themselves 'Okay, 12 civilians bombed by the darkies this week bad, but 650 bombed by us last week way bad.'

No, it is the beheadings in particular, available to view on the internet, that are as opinion-changing for our side as Abu Ghraib was for those previously sympathetic to the other side. Not just Ken Bigley, but also the 12 Nepalese workers. My roommate, a cameraman for Kurdish television and robust supporter of the Iraqi resistance (more than me) was struck dumb when the Nepalese workers were beheaded.

I remember a anti-rape activist once told me that, in fact, there are things worse than being killed. This, I think, is why I find capital punishment so barbaric: It's the knowledge, both by yourself and your family, that you are going to die shortly. While in number, clearly the Americans reproduce 9/11 every few months, there is something ineffably abominable, something of the Devil about being able to saw off a live man's head.

But it is also kidnappings such as those of the French journalists and of the Italian anti-war activists - the suspicious circumstances surrounding their abduction notwithstanding [of which I have written earlier] - that has helped push Italy, for example, from being as muscularly anti-war a year ago to a country now pretty evenly divided on the issue. (Although the wave of national chauvinism following the killing of six Italian soldiers has also contributed to this as well)

The second thing that has contributed to this erosion of anti-war sentiment is the silence of the far left in the last few months. There are, in turn, two aspects of this silence. The far left has itself been confused on how to respond to such actions, especially in continental Europe. Where the far left has been more clear-headed on the issue - in the UK mainly - a ham-handed stewardship of the Stop the War Coalition has resulted in a dearth of on the street actions that could have kept the advantage with the anti-war movement.

Liberals often ask, 'What is the point of a demonstration?' Lefties respond by mumbling something about how they pressure governments into changing their activities. But there are real, concrete consequences that result from extra-parliamentary activity. One of the main objects is to keep an idea alive in the public imagination. Another is a rallying of the troops, another still is in the organising itself. For every one person you leaflet convincing them to come to the demo, you leaflet fifty others who don't come but have been affected or changed in some way. When I was organising for the Canadian Federation of Students in Canada, we always used to say of demos themselves that they were the least important aspect of the whole process. It was the awareness raising that went on as a result of trying to get people to the demo that was what really mattered. And since February, we haven't really seen much of a concerted effort - a march or rally here or there excepted - to maintain much of anything.

Chomsky is right. There are two superpowers in the world today: the US and the global justice movement. We are beginning to have a counter-hegemonic influence. But we will lose it if the movement's erstwhile leadership is paralysed.

This is what has allowed the right to regroup and even advance. Australia is the warning. A year ago, had an election taken place in Italy, even taking into account the disarray of the various reformist forces, Berlusconi would have been toast, or rather bruschetta. If an election were held in the country tomorrow, you couldn't call it either way.

Oddly, in America, the crucible of world politics, where, theoretically, it should be hardest to mobilise, the liberal-left has never let up. Throughout the course of this year there have been enormous demonstrations. Now, yes, it's an election year, and come Kerry's election, there will be a lot of pressure to take down the bunting and remove the stickers from the back of the Volvo [BTW, apparently Volvo drivers rarely vote Republican, or so the Guardian told us this weekend], but the mobilisation of the left in the US, for all its Democratic squishiness, leaves the rest of the world in the dust as far as sustained extra-parliamentary activity goes.

The left needs clarity on the resistance, and we need to return to the streets, and we need to do both now. The European Social Forum that is to take place in London this weekend should have been the site of such discussions, but, given the Red-Ken-a-palooza the whole thing is turning into, I don't hold out much hope.

Howard remains in Canberra; Blair isn't going anywhere and Brown would be no different anyway; Bush may still be in the White House after November; the German Christian Democrats will win in 2006; Italy's next general election is scheduled for the same year, but Berlusconi could call a snap election at any point he feels the wind is changing more clearly in his favour; Canada's opposition Conservatives - who to a man wish they had been born in the States - backed by the Bloq Quebecois, are plotting to unseat the Liberal minority government sooner rather than later if the reports of NDP leader Jack Layton are to be believed, and Vladimir Putin has taken some sizeable goosesteps away from bourgeois democratic norms in the wake of Beslan.

We are in the majority, but it is a slim majority, and our enemies are far from demoralised.

We may have won Spain, but they won Australia, and if the global left doesn't take its finger out of its ass, it will only have been Spain we win.