Saturday, December 08, 2012

Scapegoating and SGing.

When you need friends to help you on your way

Tribune 1 December 2012

Ian Williams

 United Nations SG Ban Ki Moon has often quipped that the acronym for his title, SG, stands for “Scape Goat”. Events both in Goma in the Congo and the kickback over the recent Sri Lanka report could reinforce that feeling. They certainly highlight the weaknesses of the international organisation.
 The UN can only function if its member states want it to. As Ban’s predecessor as Secretary General, Boutros Boutros Ghali, used to lament, the UN has no army of its own. It relies on others to provide troops, whose professionalism is not always guaranteed. Nor it just a case of developing world contingents not caring to risk themselves. The troops who seem to have acted as traffic cops for the Rwandan rebels who took over Goma bring back sad memories of the Dutch contingent that handed over Srebrenica to Ratko Mladic and his thugs.
 Rwanda has achieved a sort of historical symmetry all of its own. The previous murderous government was actually sitting on the UN Security Council while the latter was being totally ineffectual over the mass killings of Rwandans. Now, while a UN report blames Rwanda for effectively running the M23 rebel group that has just taken Goma, the country itself is preparing to resume a seat on the Security Council in the New Year. The recent elections to the Human Rights Council manifested the same UN problem, in which almost all the regional groups but particularly Africa, operate on the Buggins’ turn principle which avoids elections and results in completely inappropriate candidates being appointed unopposed. The results are appalling.
 One might have mixed feelings about Venezuela’s Bolivarian record – but Hugo Chávez’s government consistently supports murderous regimes against international scrutiny, while Ethiopia and Kazakhstan, also elected unopposed, have abysmal records in their own right.

Sri Lankan diplomacy has always been masterful in its cultivation of international allies. Prominent among the non-aligned, it maintained relations with all sides during the Cold War and still does now. So its conduct of the war against the – admittedly unsavoury –Tamil Tigers has been ignored by most other governments. The UN found that, in the closing days of the war that defeated the Tamil rebels, there were indeed war crimes committed, but among member states no one has a dog in the fight, in former US Secretary of State James Baker’s memorable phrase.
The UN Security Council refused to take action about the unfolding disaster, since no members seriously wanted the issue raised. After all, even nations which used to talk about human rights had decided that the importance of war against terrorism overshadowed mere details like human rights. In Sri Lanka, various UN agencies repeated the Sarajevo syndrome.
 As long as the perpetrators allowed some humanitarian aid through, why would they consider human rights an issue? In response to human rights groups, the UN set up a Panel of Experts, which detailed the wholesale violations of international law by both sides. When Sri Lanka refused to investigate the allegations in any meaningful way, Ban went ahead with yet another inquiry into what the UN should have done.
 The government of Sri Lanka has blustered since, and its supporters want to know why Ban had the temerity to keep the issue alive instead of burying it at the crossroads – or wherever the tens of thousands of disappeared Tamil civilians ended up. In the meantime, there has been the deafening sound of silence from the member states, which did not discuss the issue in the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly or the Security Council while it was going on and have shown no great eagerness to push the issue since.

 With the United States vetoing a statement simply calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, and Russia and China still providing diplomatic cover for Bashar al-Assad’s bloodshed, it is perhaps hardly surprising that Sri Lanka feels entitled to bluster against Ban and the UN for his persistence in asking the country to honour its own promises to investigate. To his credit, Ban has stood his ground on all those issues. To their discredit, the so-called great powers on the Security Council have ignored him and the victims Whenever they deem it expedient to do so.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Mature Philosophy!

GP Libations No. 3: Aging Spirits

 A PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION: Given a choice between the Mona Lisa and an identical copy thereof, which would you prefer? Understandably, albeit perhaps illogically, most of us would select the original. In a similar vein, we prefer a fine spirit that has actually been aged a quarter-century over one that merely tastes as though it has been.
For generations, aging has improved, not lessened, the attractiveness of brown spirits. The oak barrels in which they’re stored transmute them, making them richer and smoother. Cognacs, dependent on judicious balancing of different years, are stuck with “VSOP” and other subjective designations to indicate their age. Whiskeys, though, stick to clearly defined rules and straightforward numbers. The general consensus: Older is better.
Well, maybe. Accepted industry wisdom used to be that anything that spent more than 25 years in a cask would be undrinkable. Then cellar masters at The Macallan discovered a cask that had been hiding in the back of a cold, damp warehouse for 53 years. It was, they discovered, very, very good. What’s more, collectors were eager to pay a premium for it. As such, Appleton has just introduced a 50-year-old at $5,000 a bottle. Island rum producers, meanwhile, have introduced a truth-in-labeling regulation that will require bottlers to list the youngest rum therein. Authenticity costs.
Other companies have been somewhat more cavalier about age — particularly those from the Spanish Main, who claimed anything up to 20-plus years. Havana Club, for example, has told me its ages are uno medio — an average. The rum producers’ labeling law seems to have shamed some of the Hispanic bottlers: Many of them still use numbers, but without “years” or “aged for” alongside.
I’m a firm believer in authenticity, so I can now stop denouncing consumer fraud and admit that these spirits are as good as, and often better than, those that are simply stored in barrels for a long time. The rums, for example, are made according to the solera method, in which the cellar master decants the rum into different barrels and blends it with different ages. It’s labor-intensive, but not especially time-consuming.
As ever, it all comes down to the consumer. You can purchase a spirit whose authentic age is listed on the bottle, but whose quality might not live up to its billing. Or you can seek out those that have benefited from true artistry and therefore hit all the notes of an aged spirit despite being relatively young. You need not wait decades to enjoy a superb spirit — and you can spend the extra time philosophizing as you sip.  - IW
[Opening photo + The Macallan Bottle photographs via The Macallan + The Macallan Masters of Photography photos by Albert Watson + Cognac photos via Sig
Posted on October 29th, 2012

Monday, November 26, 2012

Paper toiletries shaping the modern world.

Speculator Column IR Magazine, November 2012
A measure of madness in modern systems
 Ian Williams

Finance has units and premises that make even astrology appear ultra-scientific


We sometimes find, on further investigation, that what we thought was solidly based science is based on foundations of jello. Take the metric system used in all our physics, chemistry, biology and cosmology: it was based on a false premise – that the earth is spherical and fixed in its dimensions.

Back in the day, methodical French scientists measured the distance from the pole to the equator, based on the angles of the sun at midday, and divided it by 10 million. Et voila, messieurs! Le mètre!

In fact, the earth is not spherical and it changes shape and size over the seasons; but this misconception is the basis of the whole system, along with the seconds and minutes derived from equally spurious certainty about the regularity of the calendar.

Similarly, most of the world’s railways use a gauge measuring four feet eight and a half inches, allegedly based on five Roman feet; it’s the width of the gates in Hadrian’s Wall in the UK and thus of the standard wagon in the north east of England, where George Stephenson built the first rail lines.

A foot is of course the length of that flat bit at the end of the leg. So now Chinese high-speed trains whoosh along at hundreds of kilo-meters an hour on tracks built to accommodate a Roman chariot, using units originally pegged to a legionnaire’s boot size.

In finance, however, we have units and premises that make the cubit, the scruple and even astrology appear ultra-scientific. Governments, banks and chief executives prognosticate on, for example, the business cycle – compared with which the spherical nature of the earth is as regular as a ball bearing.

Think of the natural rate of interest, currently being ignored by central banks across the world. Think of the ‘natural rate of unemployment’, altered according to year and geography. Or think of the good old efficient market theory, blown up more often than a Nevada nuclear test site.

This brings me to my developing tableware stationery theory of everything. Much of our computer hardware is apparently based upon the five and a quarter inch floppy disk, itself the brainchild of a crack design team in a bar using a folded paper napkin to illustrate its desired drive dimensions.

And it was on yet another table napkin that Arthur Laffer drew the famous curve that confirmed the already strong opinion of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld that tax increases were a bad thing.

Those Roman legionnaires used to socialize in communal latrines and shoot the breeze. Imagine if their habit had persisted, along with the non-metric foot, into the modern age – would such discussions have led to computer drives modeled on a roll of toilet tissue?

Would the Laffer Curve achieve its apotheosis as a Möbius strip with no beginning and no end so that instead of taxing businesses, governments just kept giving them money? Or is that what actually happened?

But the Romans used sponges, not tissue, so our economic theories could have ended up pretty much as they are now: formless, soggy and messy, although infinitely recyclable, just like most of our financial nostrums. After all, no one ever discarded a good theory just because it failed.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Race is on (the agenda!)

by Ian Williams
Tribune UK Friday, November 2nd, 2012
I have seen the future – and it stinks. In fact, I have seen it several times over and its twin pillars are the rapid onset of amnesia and mendacity on the part of candidates, which is reaching its apotheosis in the 2012 American presidential election. The first time I saw it was Liverpool Liberals’ “pavement politics” in the 1960s, where David Alton and his chums realised that the purpose of elections was, well, to get yourself elected. Standing on principle was contra-indicated. My next clear manifestation was seeing Bill Clinton at work, radiating concern and empathy with the poor and underprivileged even as he began the continuing task of dismantling the New Deal. Even while John Smith was still leader of the Labour Party, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair came over to New York to see what Clinton was doing and: “Lo! They saw that it was good.”  New York Labour Party members remonstrated that Clinton had no principles and would sell his grandmother to win votes. Blair replied: “But he wins elections.”
And so to now. Barack Obama has his faults – many – but Mitt Romney deserves the President’s apt coining of “Romnesia” to describe his acrobatics. It is part of the American political tradition to tell each separate audience what they want to hear, but more sophisticated politicians are “economical” in the breadth of their stated positions. They only tell segmented groups what they want to hear to avoid contradicting themselves, and use sweeping platitudes for larger audiences.
Romney epitomised that with his speech to mega-rich ultra-conservative donors in Florida denouncing 47 per cent of the voters as tax-guzzling drones. No one is accusing Romney, who thinks that Iran is landlocked and connected to Syria, of sophistication. But it is amazing to consider how many of those 47 per cent will vote for him, and for tax breaks for those who are much richer than they are.
Underneath it all is the sound of the dog whistle. When John Sununu, former New Hampshire Governor, attributed Colin Powell’s support for Obama to their shared race, it could have been a mis-speaking – like Romney’s 47 per cent, a thought in the minds of the campaign, but best not expressed publicly. However, cynics might see it as a cunning attempt to make race an issue – not least since Sununu, of Cuban Arab but Christian origins, has previously suggested that Obama is not really an American. Opinion polls suggest that 40 per cent of whites support Obama, but that drops to less than 20 per cent of whites in the former Confederacy. Even in the rest of the country, a significant percentage of whites could be motivated to vote for anyone against a black candidate. Evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics who – with some justification – consider Mormons to be a non-Christian cult are prepared to overlook Romney’s actual faith and vote for him. But then lots of them think that Obama is a non-Christian Muslim anyway.
It is a dangerous strategy. It might well bring out the white racist vote, but it might also motivate the minorities and the progressive fringe, which have not always been so enthusiastic about the President’s record, to turn out for Obama. The Republicans have been preparing for that contingency with a farrago of claims of widespread voting fraud, for which they have initiated voter identification laws in many states. Although the few proven cases of fraud tend to involve Republicans, laws demanding voter ID target the poor, the old and minorities, who are less likely to have driving licenses, for example.
To complicate matters, at the time of writing, a combination of one of the worst tropical hurricanes to hit the north-eastern states, running into an Arctic storm system from the north, promises huge disruption and devastation to millions of people. It is perhaps symbolic of the  detachment of American politics from reality that there is almost no discussion of climate change in the election or in connection with the monster storm. With such tight margins, the disruption to election arrangements in the Obama leaning north-east and the effect on public confidence of the government’s responses could be significant. Obama is likely to be efficient, but less likely to score in the public relations war against an opposition that would happily blame the storm on his socialist policies. This election is so close and local administrations so partisan that it might well be decided in the Supreme Court again – with predictable results.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Kofi Annan interview!

 From Catskill Review of Books!

Syria, Israel and the UN

October 2012, Pages 40-41
United Nations Report Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Will Lakhdar Brahimi's Credentials and Credibility Help Him With Syria Assignment?

By Ian Williams

Lakhdar Brahimi, the new United Nations peace envoy to Syria, speaks to the press following a meeting with French President François Hollande at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Aug. 20, 2012. (Patrick Kovarik/AFP/GettyImages)
Lakhdar Brahimi has a long record of working on behalf of the United Nations. The good-humored and quietly spoken diplomat has a strong track record of cutting through rhetorical obfuscations and getting to the underlying reality. As a former Algerian freedom fighter, he has an exemplary record—especially compared with most of the sundry hereditary officials around the Arab world—which is second to none. Indeed, as one of the "Elders," the independent group of global leaders brought together in 2007 by Nelson Mandela, Brahimi has a global diplomatic reputation based on strong principles.
Of course, he picks up the Syria baton that his fellow Elder, Kofi Annan, did not so much drop as cast it aside in disgust. I had always suspected that Annan's intention was to test to the limit the sincerity of Moscow and Beijing—and he did. But their shamelessness knows fews bounds. Brahimi is a logical successor—an astute choice by Ban Ki-moon.
To affirm Brahimi's diplomatic bona fides one need look no further back than his work in Iraq as U.N. special envoy in the dark days after the U.S. invasion, when he was roundly attacked by Israel's U.N. envoy, Dan Gillerman.
The occasion was Brahimi's "undiplomatic" lapse into the truth, when he told a French radio station that Israeli policies toward Palestinians, and Washington's support for those policies, hindered his search for a transition government in Baghdad. "The problems are linked, there is no doubt about it," he said. "The big poison in the region is the Israeli policy of domination and the suffering imposed on the Palestinians."
Brahimi complained of the difficulty of dealing with Iraqis in the face of "Israel's completely violent and repressive security policy and determination to occupy more and more Palestinian territory."
The more things stay the same—the worse they get! Now of course, Israel has occupied even more territory than anyone conceived possible.
In Iraq, and previously in Afghanistan, Brahimi's credibility and reputation for integrity enabled him to pull together disparate elements into coalitions of the grudging, at least. As the endgame in Syria looks far off and bloody, if anyone can pull off a compromise among the various elements, it has to be him—not least since he is securely insulated against allegations of being part of any terrorist or Zionist plot.
It is just possible that his veteran Third World credentials—almost in at the foundation of the Non Aligned Movement—might give him more credibility to dissuade the Russians and Chinese from their support for the Syrian regime, which is every bit as unprincipled as Washington's unconditional support for Israel.

Target Iran or Target Obama?

As Syria disintegrates and Hillary Clinton wrings her hands, the secretary of state must console herself that the mass killings there take attention away from Iran—which Israel is threatening to attack. These are times when it appears that we are observing a parallel universe in which the laws of logic and reason have been spun around, in which the Red Queen often believes three impossible things before breakfast.
The psychopathic wing of the Israeli government wants to attack Iran, no matter what arguments against that reckless and illegal action are produced. Frankly, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu one cannot be sure whether this is a pathological hatred of any rival military power in the region—in which case, with Syria and Iraq gone, if Iran were removed from the equation then one could suspect that Turkey would suddenly move up the pariah ladder.
But it is equally probable that the Israeli prime minister wants to ensure that President Barack Obama is not re-elected. Netanyahu has what we can only hope are substantial fears that a second-term Obama would remember all the insults and campaigns waged against him by the right-wing Israeli leader, as well as the U.S. president's own tarnished international reputation because he allowed Netanyahu to thwart his earlier outreach to the Arab and Muslim world.
We have come a long way since the Zimmerman telegram—it is now the hasbara leak. The current bright ideas emanating from the Israel lobby—sorry, I mean senior Middle East advisers in Washington—really tax belief. In an Aug. 17 New York Times op-ed, Dennis Ross, the former Clinton administration Middle East peace coordinator who currently is a "counselor" at the AIPAC spin-off Washington Institute for Near East Policy, advised that the way to stop Israel from attacking Iran was to give it the bunker busters, tanker planes and other weaponry necessary for it to attack Iran effectively.
So, the way to stop Jack the Ripper was to leave large bags of surgical instruments about for him? Along similar lines, the Israeli leak factory Debkafile declared that Obama was going to pledge that the U.S. will attack Iran later, in order to abort Netanyahu attacking earlier.
So Israel, which does not have the capability to attack Iran on its own, will refrain from doing so only if the U.S. provides it with the weaponry to do so, or attacks in its place. And the reward would be that Netanyahu would have succeeded in his main aim, which is to make Obama a one-term president.
What is missing here is any sense that the Iraq debacle taught America's various pro-Likud factions anything at all about international law, let alone international relations. There is no legal mandate whatsoever for Israel, or indeed the U.S., to attack Iran. On the contrary, the constant threats from Israel would possibly constitute a defense for a pre-emptive attack by Iran on Israeli, and maybe even U.S., military positions. Certainly under the version of international law espoused by both of them on various occasions, Iran could justify, say, mining Israeli harbors!
Of course, in reality Iran is not in a superpower position that could support such novel legal interpretations. But consider Obama. He has spent his first term embroiled in two wars, one of which he opposed not least because Bush began it against international law and without U.N. authority, allegedly on the issue of weapons of mass destruction.
U.S. intelligence, and many Israeli intelligence authorities, aver firmly that Iran does not (yet, at least) have a nuclear military program or capability. Indeed its leading political and religious figure issued a fatwa against such immoral weapons.
The U.N. is not going to threaten to issue an ultimatum to Iran to stop a program it does not have—so if Obama were to go ahead, his position would be even weaker than that of George W. Bush.
That is, of course, quite apart from the human casualties and financial consequences for a fragile U.S.—and, indeed, global—economy of a war that would threaten much of the world's oil supplies.

Washington Echoes Tel Aviv's "Advice"

In that context, it is reassuring that Ban Ki-moon scorned Netanyahu's "advice" to stay away from September's Non Aligned Summit in Tehran. Indeed, he boldly also repudiated similar U.S. advice as well. With a straight face, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that Iran "is a country that is in violation of all kinds of U.N. obligations and has been a destabilizing force."
Most of the Non Aligned, indeed most of the world, might think that a country building illegal settlements in defiance of U.N. resolutions and constantly threatening to make war on another country fitted that description better than Iran, no matter what reservations they had about Tehran's human rights policy or support for Syria.
Hillel Neuer, who founded "U.N. Watch" to scrutinize the world organization—albeit only in relation to Israel—condemned Ban's attendance but urged him to "at the very least, bring with him the latest U.N. General Assembly resolution detailing Iran's massive human rights violations, the report by the Human Rights Council's Iran monitor documenting the country's 'striking pattern of violations of fundamental human rights guaranteed under international law,' and the six Security Council resolutions on Iran's illegal nuclear program."
In its way, all that is fair enough. But we wonder when U.N. Watch ever called upon the secretary-general to take the much longer list of resolutions addressing Israeli crimes to Mr. Netanyahu.
Tapping the same rich vein of chutzpah, Israel's Soviet-born Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman sent a letter to the foreign ministers of the Middle East Quartet, calling on them to press for new elections in the Palestinian Authority to replace President Mahmoud Abbas. In a whole new dimension of chutzpah, Lieberman described Abbas, seen by many Palestinians as a little too pacific, as "an obstacle to peace."
"The Palestinian Authority is a despotic government riddled with corruption," Lieberman wrote. "This pattern of behavior has led to criticism even within his own constituency. Due to Abbas' weak standing and his policy of not renewing the negotiations, which is an obstacle to peace, the time has come to consider a creative solution, to think 'outside the box,' in order to strengthen the Palestinian leadership."
As his comrade in buffoonery, Humpty Dumpty, said, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." Lieberman's concern with "strengthening" the Palestinian leadership is an example of outstandingly Orwellian doublethink, worthy of Goebbels. His government has locked up any strong Palestinian leadership whenever it gets the chance—and, to underscore its contempt, defied U.N. and EU censure to announce the building of yet more settlements in East Jerusalem for Jews only.
U.N. Watch of course, maintains total silence on that inconvenient issue.

Ian Williams is a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations who blogs at <>.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Walk On By - Or Not!

 After three weeks of bowdlerization/editing, the United Nations Association of the US, who for two weeks said they were going to run this, decided they couldn't. This is an earlier version. Their timorous attitude suggests why, despite many admirable local chapters and active members, the national leadership of the UNA has made little or no impact in DC.

R2P Strikes a Chord: Sovereignty Alone Is Not Enough

The concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has gained more quickly quicker than anticipated.

Former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy.
Former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy.
While it is no consolation for beleaguered Syrians, the concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has moved to general acceptance much more rapidly than many of those who steered the 2005 World Summit declaration expected at the time. They saw it as a first, almost tentative, step on a Long March to global acceptance. In 2009, for example, only four manifestly expediently motivated states (Venezuela, Cuba, Sudan, and Nicaragua) expressed any wish to rescind the 2005 decision—despite the latter’s foreign minister pushing that view in his capacity as President of the General Assembly. In the recent UN General Assembly debate on R2P, few delegates questioned the principle itself. Indeed, the Assembly, representing mostly the smaller states which are supposedly so concerned about their sovereignty, had already overwhelmingly supported action in Syria and were clearly as unhappy with the Russian and Chinese abuse of veto power as they often are with Washington’s. Countries like Brazil and other “middle powers” have been actively working out methods of ensuring that R2P can be implemented over expedient superpower objections - while making sure those powers do not abuse the principle as, for example, some of them tried in Iraq.
Former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, now President of the University of Winnipeg, comments, “In 10 years [R2P] has moved from a concept to a principle to a basis for some action. It has had a very fast track, going from being accepted as a concept, on to being enshrined in the 2005 resolution to being cited in the Libya Security Council resolution. If you think about the ways the world runs, the present nation states have been around for about 250 years, while R2P has only been around for ten—and it has made huge inroads. It clearly struck a response: people really understand that sovereignty is not enough.”
However, on Syria, Axworthy sees “A perfect storm of self interest. Putin coming back to the presidency in Russia, [President Obama] coming up for reelection reluctant for stronger action, the EU financial crisis where the Europeans got cold feet. My own country now has a very conservative government that does not recognize R2P. The major players needed to make R2P work have been absent.”
Axworthy also admits that the current form of R2P suffers from the compromises that were needed to pass the concept initially.
The concept of humanitarian intervention flew in the face of the founding principle of the United Nations. Despite the reference in the preamble of the Charter to “We the Peoples,” the UN has always stood for national sovereignty, as well as the somewhat idealistic notion of equality that gives China the same vote as Nauru in the General Assembly, even if the pragmatism of the veto for the larger powers tempered that metaphysical concept.
In that respect, the UN has been more successful than people give it credit. There might have been annexations, but with few exceptions those have yet to be accepted as legitimate by the world community—whether Kuwait or East Timor. Mired in exegesis about sovereignty, however, the organization failed in Rwanda and the Balkans, just as it had failed the Kurds and Shi’a in Iraq.
The two principles intersected with the second Iraq War in 2003, which, as Kofi Annan admitted, had no UN legitimacy whatsoever, and which terminally polluted the concept of humanitarian intervention when British PM Tony Blair expediently added it to the list of dodgy excuses for the war.
Just as “ethnic cleansing” became a near synonym for genocide, so “humanitarian intervention” was transformed to signify Western neocolonialism under camouflage of do-gooding. That made the achievement of Annan, Axworthy, and the others so much more creditable when they shepherded R2P through the GA. For those who scorn the weaselly language of diplomacy, the evolution of R2P is instructive not least for the way it neatly replaced the degraded phrase of humanitarian intervention.
The failings of the 2005 Declaration are part of the price it took to get the concept accepted. Axworthy points out that the delicate negotiations had to stroke susceptibilities about expedient use of the concept, so “every sentence in the crucial paragraph 139 of the Outcome Document repeats verbatim the formula that prescribes the only four events agreed to trigger rise to R2P’s application: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.”
That, he points out, narrows the scope. “Simply measure the elements of risk. … Disasters, environmental disasters, changes, refugees, desertification in Sahel or hurricanes in Caribbean,” and of course, shortly afterwards, we had governments refusing international aid for populations devastated by storms and floods. What does that mean for R2P, if your life is threatened? It doesn't matter if it’s a new epidemic virus or environmental disaster or an AK47 transcending boundaries, if you can’t feed your kids.” Within three years in 2008, the world looked on horrified as the government of Burma decided its sovereignty was more important than rescuing typhoon victims.
Even so, he considers that “It’s very healthy that it is now a basis for discussion. But there has to be a better balance between those who lean to the Old Westphalian system, and establishing an international framework, ensuring that it is used positively for a practical function and not for fairly narrow purposes. Safeguards issues should be built on exit issues, early warning issues, some form of constabulary."
He cites Libya, as “a case in which political will (largely inspired by strong regional calls for action) combined with R2P’s principles to produce effective action to stop a threatened atrocity. The Security Council’s steadily escalating responses included sanctions, referral to the ICC, an arms embargo and then the imposition of a ‘no fly zone.’ These culminated in the Council’s authorization of ‘whatever steps may be necessary’ to protect the Libyan population.”
It is sad but true that often in the court of world public opinion actions that are entirely justifiable in themselves can be damned as expedient because opponents can point to other cases that implied impunity. Why is it so insufferable to allow the Libyan or Syrian governments to murder—but not Bahrain? Why should the world unite to stop the shelling of Homs, but nod understandingly when Gaza comes under fire? So, although the Russians and Chinese did not directly veto the action, they used it to mitigate effective action.
They might not have been that attached to Gaddafi’s survival but they used the exigencies that the compromise resolutions forced on NATO and the Arab League first to hamper effective action and then to decry it as going too far. It gave them the traditional prerogatives of the harlot: power without responsibility. As a result, Axworthy points out, “Part of the problem is that the way the Libyan thing ended up, since it did end up looking like the white guys in suits running the world.” That perception obviously plays to the pro-Assad gallery at the UN -- although his friends are noted more for their obduracy and power than the number. But one of the reasons the P5 still have a real veto is that they are among the few powers that could threaten a force projection that would be effective in R2P."
The veto will stay for the foreseeable future, although, just like R2P itself, that should not stop the small and medium powers waging a campaign of attrition against it. Somewhat naively the original Axworthy Commission looked to the GA and “the Uniting for Peace Resolution” as a means of bypassing the veto if the P5 refused to accept limits. But the US, which had originated the bypass mechanism to bypass unreasonable Soviet vetoes has since denied it when the Palestinians brought into play to bypass what most of the world sees as equally unreasonable vetoes on behalf Israel.
“What we are missing is a voice around the issue that can contend with these things, that can raise issues,” concludes Axworthy—even as he points out that the Harper government in Ottawa has effectively abandoned the high moral ground Canada once had.
Although Susan Rice is a strong supporter of the concept, the US and even President Obama are hamstrung by domestic politics in relation to Israel and the veto. Looking around the world, there is a distinct shortage of the presence that could once have shamed Moscow and Beijing, let alone the financial clout to make them listen.
It is fortunate that SG Ban Ki Moon is a strong supporter of R2P, but his diplomatic work-style is built on strong talking in private but less ostentatious, albeit firm, statements in public. He lacks that concentration of global influence that Annan could call upon -- and he has surely been trying.
R2P as a concept might have arrived sooner than expected -- but who would have expected such an almost complete absence of ethics and charisma in world capitals. Almost, with Syria, the endgame might depend on the Ba’athist regime doing something silly to provoke Turkey to invoke the traditional right of self-defense, as did for example Vietnam, Tanzania and India to halt atrocities in neighboring countries. It would not be the best outcome for international law, the UN or R2P—or for that matter, the Syrians.
More realistically, those Middle Powers could put their efforts together with those of Ban Ki Moon and his new Deputy Jan Eliasson to press the recalcitrant superpowers to show them that there is a price, diplomatic or financial, for covering for mass murder.
Ian Williams has written for newspapers and magazines around the world. He is currently writing a book on the Americans who blame the United Nations for all the ills of the United States. For more by Ian Williams visit Deadline Pundit.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Masocho-Leninism and its Pathology

Romney and Ryan are a one-way ticket to disaster

Obama may have disappointed, but a Republican in the White House would be bad news for the world, warns Ian Williams
by Ian Williams
Tribune October 4th, 2012
Barack Obama has under-fulfilled his own modest promises in many respects, but compared with the Philistine farrago of his opponents’ positions, only the tried and tested school of Masochism-Leninism could wish for his defeat or do anything like abstention that would assist a victory for the Grand Old Party.
In the face of an unrelenting and unprecedented war of attrition by Republicans on Capitol Hill, Obama does have some solid achievements. In the fuzzy logic of political calculus, the President eschews grandstanding about what he has done, not least since, when outwitting your somewhat dim opponents, it is not clever to explain your tricks.
Apart from the healthcare bill that, despite its faults, infuriates the GOP to the extent that it tries to repeal it on a weekly basis, the last budget compromise possibly saved the world economy by smuggling in a stimulus package whose passage was dependent on it not appearing as such.
That has been good in terms of pragmatic – one might almost say Fabian – tactics. But it underestimates the attachment of the American electorate to theo-ideological appeals – and voters’ aversion to evidence-based analysis.
In a country where almost half of the population are creationists, climate change deniers and so many Republican voters think their President is a foreign-born Muslim, it is hardly surprising that American voters in their untold millions are convinced that Obama has increased their taxes and that the economy
has worsened during his first term.
Obama’s tactical call is to decide when he broaches the big ideas. This carries dangers. Attracting the independent-minded voters who look at technical details like reality could conflict with the communitarian ideals that he needs to rally his own core supporters and motivate them to turn out to vote.
It is Obama’s acute dilemma: he has to win over the independents, who often do vote, and yet motivate the traditionally abstaining minorities and poverty-stricken who, with some good reason, fail to see what a battle between different bankers’ surrogates has to offer them.
In both cases, his biggest asset is inadvertent: the insouciant cretinism of his opponents. It might be observed that the Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan ticket is taking the shape of a Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin duet to disaster. Romney’s comments on the 47per cent whom he puts in the position of spongers, dependent on the largesse of a state funded by people like him, will certainly upset many.
But we are not talking about a group of avid readers, even if the video leak of his speech to wealthy fundraisers had made as much of splash in the media as it should have done. Is the world really ready for a devout former Mormon bishop in the White House who will tell his backers whatever they want in order to gain power?
There was little or no fuss when it was revealed that Romney’s “charitable” donations were, in fact, mostly tax-deductible tithes to the Church of the Latter Day Saints.
Faced with the doctrinaire reality detached nature of current Republican positions, it could almost be reassuring that Romney is so gymnastically flexible in his positions. However, that tactical flexibility is a thin veneer on a harsh and selfish neo-liberal, Mormon core ideology.
As befits an American bred religion founded on the search for golden treasure and disciplined hierarchy, the Mormon Church has not exactly been in the forefront of American progress.
Romney does have a communitarian vision of sorts. Along with a pattern of patriarchal sexist authoritarianism, his record as a Mormon bishop includes many examples of care –within the church community.
Similarly, his fundraising talk shows that he prepared to extend the LDS community of blessed, provident and self-sufficient Americans to include the general congregation of committed “self-made” and self-reliant billionaires – the “Church of Lucky Damn Sods”, as it were. Of course, such definitions of self-made persons exclude any help from rich parents, conspiracies with rich insider colleagues and similar examples of divine providence.
Here, his expedient running mate comes into his own. Apart from the general inclination to shovel money from the poor to the rich that he shares with Romney, Paul Ryan is a true believer – in an atavistic form of Catholicism which is so reactionary that it outflanks Franco on the right and ignores half a century of Roman Catholic developments in social concern. Ayn Rand meets Savanorola, in his peculiar worldview.
Both Mormonism and Ryan’s Catholicism share an unhealthy pre-occupation with how people screw each other sexually that covers their with enthusiasm for mass financial rape by the rich. People who need food stamps to feed their kids will vote for candidates who oppose abortion – but will take away their food stamps.
When Ryan produced his deficit reduction plan, which every sane economist saw as an extended plan for euthanising the United States economy while amputating the last vestiges of the New Deal, the mainstream punditocracy greeted it with respectful clucks. It was like watching the emperor’s new clothes being made in front of your eyes.
So that is why the Romney-Ryan ticket is still in with a chance. While a refreshing number of people do remember that the financial crash came on non-person Bush’s watch, far too many have been mesmerised into thinking that taxes are too high, as are (everybody else’s) welfare entitlements.
They think that the deficit is the biggest problem – except when it comes to military spending (which Ryan wants to increase).
So, this presidential election does make a difference. Obama’s technocratic competence and attenuated concern for the disadvantaged, not to mention seeing his feet on the ground of the New Deal and the real economy, is in total contrast with the unmitigated disaster promised by the opposition.
The Masochist-Leninists are probably beyond hope, but we can hope that the Romney-Ryan double act can persuade the poor and minorities who see Republican attempts to clear them from voting rolls, who see their healthcare evaporating, and their jobs and even unemployment benefits threatened, to turn out on the day.
If any of them claims voting does not make a difference, they should be directed to Britain’s former mining towns, where Margaret Thatcher showed that it did.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Like-Minded Traitors to Their Class

a journal of modern society & culture

Orwell and MacDonald: Like-Minded Traitors to Their Class

The long-lasting relationship between George Orwell and Dwight Macdonald is at once intriguing and illuminating. On a personal level, one can see the strong personal affinity and similarities of temperament between them, but on the political level their political disagreements on an issue so fundamental as the Second World War were equally apparent, especially in the early wartime years. While both benefited intellectually from the exchange it was clear that Macdonald’s position shifted closer to that of Orwell’s but with sufficient detachment to make him a more convincing exponent of his British colleague’s ideas to American audiences.
Partisan Review seems to have been Orwell’s first contact with the American Left and Macdonald. Cyril Connelly’s estranged wife, Jean Bakewell, had left London for New York and was having an affair with PR editor Clement Greenberg. She recommended Orwell, whom she had known in London as a London Correspondent for the magazine. It is possible that she inadvertently misrepresented his views, which had changed rapidly from opposition to war as it loomed in 1939, to support for the war after the Hitler-Stalin pact in August of that year. Others have credited Macdonald with the initiative and Greenberg did indeed seem to walk in his shadow.
In any case, Greenberg, whose anti-war views marched in step with Macdonald’s, invited Orwell’s London Letter at the end of 1940 and the first one appeared in the Spring of 1941, but afterwards it seems to be Philip Rahv who carried the organizational burden of corresponding with Orwell.
Ironically, in view of the close relationship that he and Orwell later maintained, it was Macdonald’s uncompromising anti-war position and his attempts to secure ripostes to Orwell’s pro-war letters in Partisan Review that finally led to Macdonald’s break from the other editors, William Philips and Philip Rahv and his launch of Politics. However, his equally uncompromising idiosyncrasy immediately led him to invite Orwell to write for his new publication and indeed to hold him up as a model for the new publication.
Despite the growing personal empathy between Orwell and Macdonald, it was clear that on the question of the war that Orwell was much closer to the outlook of other Partisan Review editors. The duality of their relationship is perhaps summarized in Orwell’s letter to Rahv in which he promises to keep sending political items to the Partisan Review, but would confine his contributions to politics to cultural subjects.  (CW III p 71).
But despite the paucity of direct Orwell contributions to politics, it is clear that his influence on Macdonald grew, especially in the post-war years when the British writer’s anti-totalitarian books and essays resonated strongly with the American’s increasingly anarchist tendencies. Macdonald almost became Orwell’s amanuensis in the USA, and teased from him in his correspondence some of the more definitive statements of Orwell’s continuing socialist ideals.
Partisan Review
Partisan Review was originally the magazine of the John Reed Clubs, which gathered writers and workers in what could certainly be called a front organization for the Communist Party. In 1935, the clubs were wound up as a new line issued from Moscow and the magazine faltered and folded.
In December 1937, Rahv and Philips relaunched it, joined by Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, and his old friends, Frederick W. Dupee and George Morris. The board were making their break from the Communist Party, in both politics and cultural outlook.
The political genealogy of the people who made Partisan Review a powerhouse for left and liberal intellectual life in America was somewhat complex. It, and the New York intellectuals who surrounded it, drew on several streams. One was the older “Menshevik” tradition of social-democracy which was especially strong among Jews. However, it suffered from an image problem compared with the Communists and their Trotskyist offspring. The October revolution was romantic and stirring, and pulled at the heartstrings in a way that various forms of Fabianism or Menshevism could not. In the words of 1066 And All That, the Bolsheviks were like the Cavaliers in the English Civil War, “Wrong but Wromantic.”
Many of them joined the Communist Party, but throughout the thirties, members left in disillusion with the news from the Soviet Union,  and many of them thought Trotsky could best explain and express their doubts about how to square the circle: how to reconcile the promise of October with the real horrors that were developing in the Socialist Motherland.
Some Trotskyists had joined, or rather infiltrated, the Socialist Party of the USA, which had in times past had some modest electoral success with its Social Democratic platform and its labor connections. By the time the Socialist Party had succeeded in shaking the infiltrators off, they had ruined its political future by driving away many of the labor activists and officials whose presence distinguished the party from the Leninist organizations. However, the expellees succeeded, in their own terms, since they took more people in the party than they went in with, and if the host died in this process of reproduction by fission, from their point of view it was a blow for the revolution.
The expellees formed the Socialist Workers Party, which was tied directly to Trotsky. But it seems to be inherent in such groups that, like amoebae, they split once they reach a certain size. The comrades who left to found the Workers Party took their anti-Stalinism a stage further than their mentor, Trotsky. He defended the Soviet Union, which after all he had done so much to create and shape, It was, he said, still a workers’ state, albeit degenerated. Max Shachtman, Irving Howe, Macdonald, and others thought this was being too kind. They retained their fierce revolutionary belief, but decided that the Soviet Union was past redemption and indefensible.
In this totally sectarian milieu, any deviation from “the line” was anathema, and so splits, expulsions and denunciations were, and have in fact remained, the currency of Trotskyist politics ever since – the precise nature of the Soviet Union being a favorite litmus test – but of course the nature of the Second World War then unfolding became another, with the orthodox Trotskyist position agreeing for once with the Communists that this was an imperialist war, to be opposed by workers everywhere. Of course, the Communist Party changed its collective opinion when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union.
That sectarian purity allowed Irving Howe, for example, after he had joined the  board of Partisan Review to denounce in fairly typical polemical style the “uniformly pro-imperialist letters” from England, particularly the “preposterous statement – fit for the garbage pails,” from George Orwell, that “to be anti-war in England today, is to be pro-Hitler.”
Dwight Macdonald
In contrast to the archetypal New York intellectuals like Howe, who came from poor but aspiring Jewish families and who were steeped in politics almost from childhood, Dwight Macdonald came late to sectarian politics, was somewhat idiosyncratic in his exposition and practice of it while he was associated, and left earlier. In fact he was also a decade or so older than Howe’s generation.
Rather than a product of tuition-free City College in New York, Macdonald was an alumnus of Philips and Yale, and the scion of two generations of lawyers. His background as a founder writer for Fortune was almost diametrically opposed to the intensely socialist education and experience of many of his new comrades and colleagues.
Like many intellectuals, he had become associated with the Communist Party in the mid thirties until events in the Soviet Union such as the Moscow Trials led to a growing dissatisfaction with the party line and an increasing interest in Trotsky and his analysis of the events back in the socialist motherland.
So Macdonald overtly joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1939, and did so with the fervor of a new-born convert – but with the critical faculties of someone who had grown up outside the movement. He was much less inclined to agree that two and two made five just because the Party and its leaders said so, not least because he had independent life and reputation outside.
Although Partisan Review certainly had overt political leanings, its strength was that it eschewed strict party lines and orthodoxies. It tended towards Trotsky’s side in the great schism, but the exiled leader was not much more tolerant of dissent than his Communist opponents, and took Macdonald to task for allowing the magazine to stray too far from the class struggle and orthodoxy – and for having the temerity to disagree with him.
“Everyone has the right to be stupid, but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege,” declared Trotsky with his typical polemical flair. Indeed, one of his last works before he was assassinated in 1940 was a reply to Macdonald.(Whitfield p 20)
Certainly, Macdonald was temperamentally unsuited to the Party that he had  joined. In full conspiratorial mode, members took party names and his was “James Joyce,” perhaps in deference to someone who attracts exegesis almost as complex as Trotsky. As Macdonald said of his membership, where he was penning internal polemics almost as soon as writing out the membership form, he was “either high minded, or arrogant, or naive, or just plain schitzy, maybe a bit of each.”
Indeed, Macdonald’s patrician self-confidence and gadfly independence in the face of attempts to rein him in do lead irresistibly to comparisons with P. G. Wodehouse’s Comrade Psmith (where the “P” is silent) – effective, supremely confident,  but doubtless infuriating and exasperating for the comrades.
Why did they put up with each other?  Macdonald’s journalistic skills, and avenues to the outside world were obviously useful even for somewhat claustrophobic and incestuous sectarian world of Trotsky’s followers. For his part, Macdonald revealed the attractions of Trotsky for many of the New York intellectuals, clearly still visible decades later in, for example, Irving Howe’s biography of the revolutionary (Leon Trotsky, 1978). Macdonald noted that Trotsky showed that that “intellectuals, too, could make history.”
Macdonald’s short sojourn with the SWP, and then the Workers Party as the Trotskyist factions split on points of theological nicety, placed him briefly in the mainstream of the “New York intellectuals” who frequently had shared such sectarian experiences.
However, few of them were as quick as he was to conclude that Trotskyism was “a variant of Stalinism” as the Old Man and his followers remained unrepentant about the inherent flaws in Bolshevik methodology. As Whitfield points out, for Macdonald, “extirpation of dissent was the most offensive aspect of Trotskyism,” especially when set in the context of how the Soviet Union developed.
Orwell and Partisan Review
Despite the generally Trotskyist ambience of Partisan Review, the people around the magazine were probably the closest group that Orwell could relate to in the United States, not least because of the literary and aesthetic tastes he shared with them.
Certainly his denunciation of the Soviet and Communist behavior in Spain gave them a common enemy in Stalin and his followers. Although Orwell, despite numerous posthumous academic attempts to co-opt him as one, was never a Trotskyist, his experiences in Catalonia had crystallized his growing anti-Soviet feelings, which he himself dated back to 1935.
On a political level, the Moscow Trials of alleged traitors, the stifling or outright suppression of dissident artists, many of whom did not even know they were dissident until the Secret Police knocked on their doors, had left erstwhile admirers of the Soviet experiment the choices of repudiation, or rationalization.
Both Orwell and the Partisan Review editors went for repudiation of the developments in the Soviet Union, and its effect on socialism abroad, notably in Spain. Additionally, as intellectuals, they also broke with new Soviet cultural policy and its renunciation of the modernist movements of the previous decades.
It is perhaps significant that Clement Greenberg, who was to first invite Orwell as a contributor, was more interested in the literary and cultural aspects of the magazine. Typically, Orwell, Macdonald and others around Partisan Review, shared an appreciation for T.S. Eliot, by no means a leftist.
Indeed Eliot was denounced as “Anti-people, and fascist-minded,” by more orthodox Communist Party critics. (Wald  94). But the Partisan Review circle had all escaped the tyranny of Socialist Realism which tried to judge aesthetic creation by its political orthodoxy, and Orwell, for example, met Eliot in a professional capacity, not least by having him as a frequent guest on his BBC Indian Service program. On the other side of the Atlantic,  Partisan Review published two of the Four Quartets– a strange venue indeed for an Episcopalian monarchist who has posthumously had to contend with accusations of anti-Semitism!
Despite this affinity, there were at the beginning strong disagreements on the war, with Macdonald and Greenberg taking particularly strongly orthodox Marxist antiwar positions – and as suggested earlier, it is possible that their initial invitation to Orwell may have been based on outdated news of his previous positions.
Although before the war, Orwell had taken a similar “plague on all their houses,” attitude as the American revolutionaries, he rapidly moved to a position of trying to combine a social revolution and defeating Hitler, and eventually to an even more sanguine position, that winning the war, with or without a revolution, and almost certainly without, was the most important thing.
 Newsinger (op Cit 99) makes the point that the somewhat idiosyncratic response of Partisan Review to their disagreements about the War – namely not to mention it themselves – allowed Orwell’s view in his London Letters to become the default position for the magazine, which certainly brought it closer to reality, and the views of the mainstream society.
Indeed, Orwell’s political development in the early forties was in part spurred by the experiences that he shared with so many compatriots during a total war that left little or no social experience untouched. It was not just bombs, and the Home Guard, but the taxation, the rationing, the military and labor conscription, which at least blurred and on occasion transcended existing class differences and suggested that socialism and the nation state were compatible without descending to national socialism or communism.
In fact, the war was also a life and death issue personally for Orwell, who from his experiences in Spain knew that at least two possible outcomes: either a Nazi victory or a Communist takeover, would have him standing against a wall, with the ever present possibility that any wall he stood near in the meantime may be brought down by German bombers.
Understandably, living in a country faced with annihilation, it was difficult for Orwell to treat the war as if it were some Marxist version of the Athanasian creed, simply a marker for true belief. “The issue was between having a war and letting Germany dominate Europe up to the Urals,” he reprimanded Macdonald.
Indeed Macdonald’s purist attitude to the war, hoping that the fascists would be defeated but denying the moral validity of British or American capitalist attempts to do so, is a part of a long lasting idealistic tradition in the American left, seen most recently in attitudes to possible intervention in the Balkans or Rwanda. Macdonald eventually grew out of this habit of magnanimously bearing the suffering of others until a champion with the correct politics could be identified. Much of the American left didn’t.
Personal Politics
Even though Partisan Review was certainly an ecumenical operation, it is interesting to see how the epistolary relationship between Macdonald and Orwell developed despite such profound political disagreements. There were clearly other factors than a theoretical convergence that kept them corresponding although that is almost certainly one of the results of their exchanges.
The intimacy of the surviving correspondence implies a much more extensive now missing communication, whether from the letters about mundane details such as loans, shoes and book purchases, or the developing literary and political affinities. In the days before readily available transatlantic phone calls, and in the absence of a physical meeting, the degree of rapport between the two, even allowing for Macdonald’s clubbable personality, suggests that there were many other letters now lost.
Macdonald’s predication of the need for his new magazine politics, in which he sought to emulate Orwell, while justifying it by Partisan Review’s failure to tackle Orwell’s politics was the dialectic stretched beyond rational synthesis.
However, it is clear that Macdonald agreed with Orwell’s overall world view, while disagreeing with its particular manifestation in support for the “imperialist war.” One has to have experienced the cultish world of unforgiving far-left politics to appreciate how rare such subtleties were.
Their relationship was also explicable in terms of shared temperament. Michael Wreszin probably had it right when he concluded that “Dwight loved Orwell… for the enemies he had made.”  (108 A Rebel in Defense of Tradition) They shared an idiosyncratic intellectual viewpoint, in each case based upon a formidable intellect, and similar class origins.
As Sumner says, Macdonald saw in Orwell, “A fellow exile from the cloister of class privilege and private schools, a writer whose work combined empathy for the suffering of the dispossessed (which he witnessed at close range, on the streets of Paris and London and among the POUMist forces in Spain) with a plain writing style purged of ideological cant and hyperbole.” (21 Sumner)
In fact, despite his criticisms, it was precisely Orwell’s empiricism, his contact with reality that attracted Macdonald, and maybe even made him somewhat envious, albeit not to the extent of say, paralleling the Road to Wigan Pier with a similar expedition to the Appalachian mines!
Orwell and Macdonald both came from elite positions in their related Anglo-Saxon societies that assumed their members had authority by birth, background and education. Their easy self-assurance even when the vicissitudes of family life and business cycles had eroded the economic basis for their self-assurance suggests that this was a caste as much as a class position. That assurance allowed them the idiosyncrasy to adopt positions that increasingly paralleled each other’s despite the pressure from others to hew to rigid lines.
Orwell’s seemingly consciously adopted persona of a crusty Tory, nostalgically assuming that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, certainly became more attractive than it already was to Macdonald, who was an overt Anglophile, who commented to a British editor in 1958 “I prefer your country morally and culturally to my own.” (Discrimination 387)
From Jonathan  Swift to William Cobbett and right up to the present, British radicals have often used a fictional former golden age to make odious comparisons with the benighted present. Some modern critics fail to see how this aspect of Orwell could in reality be quite radical. Indeed, even the Levellers of the English Revolutionary period saw their demands as a restoration of ancient liberties rather than as innovation.
It is not surprising that Macdonald imagined (149 Wreszin) that Orwell shares his “private enthusiasm” for Doctor Johnson, and it would have been a fitting presumption since the Good Doctor was the epitome of the curmudgeonly Tory critic of his own age. Yale Alumnus Macdonald certainly fitted the bill from an American standpoint.
Perhaps equally indicative was Macdonald’s comment about the British on Lord Melbourne’s insouciant acceptance of the prime ministership, almost on a dare, “only a race as much at home in politics as a fish is in water could be so offhand about it.”
His anarchist comrade George Woodcock in his 1946 essay for Politics, described Orwell as a  “rare survivor in the atomic age” referring to his “old fashioned pragmatism,” “his radical honesty and frankness, his respect for such excellent bourgeois mottoes as ‘fair play” and “don’t kick a man when he’s down.” In fact, he has pinpointed exactly the persona of the crusty Tory radical that Orwell was happy to present.
It is instructive that for some left critics of Orwell, notably Scott Lucas, his “decency” is the occasion for a sneer and an insult. In contrast, for most British workers, it is a sine qua non political principle As Orwell knew, Woodcock’s description is of precisely the virtues that the British working class considers its own, and why they have reacted so well when they are displayed, as they often have been by a whole British political spectrum.
James Maxton, Michael Foot, former editor of Tribune and later leader of the Labour Party, all had these qualities. This is what put them and their left politics in the mainstream of the British political tradition, because unlike the purer American ideologues, these virtues appealed to the British working class and won their votes, along with those of many of the middle classes as well.
In 1943, when their disagreements about the war were at their sharpest, Macdonald’s draft prospectus for his new magazine, politics, designed to remedy the failings that he saw in Partisan Review, pledged “to try to do for (the) USA scene what Orwell does for London.” At a time when Orwell was not the eminence he later gained in Britain itself, Macdonald had already recognized his special skills and indeed made a sterling effort towards his goal of emulation.
In fact, the clear influence that Orwell had on Macdonald’s politics belies his relatively minute direct contributions to politics itself. Macdonald later told an Anarchist journal that Orwell was “a liblab (tho’ of the finest quality in my opinion), I’m a radical; he supported the late war, I didn’t; he has hopes for the Labor Party. I haven’t.”(Sumner 23) Even the term liblab, a Macdonald neologism in its American sense, was a British term referring to the period at the turn of the 19th  Century when Labor candidates for parliament stood on a Liberal Party ticket.
On the other hand, although he later recommended Macdonald’s magazine, Orwell could not agree with the “policy of this paper, which is antiwar, not from a pacifist angle, but I admire its combination of highbrow political analysis with intelligent literary criticism.” (CW III 202) Interestingly he likens it to the British New Leader – which was the journal of the Independent Labour Party – an organization that, as we shall see later, had figured largely in Orwell’s own political development.
In fact the politics of politics moved closer to Orwell than any of the parties at its inception concerned could really imagine.
Orwell was from Britain, Macdonald was from America
When we compare Orwell’s place in British politics and society with that of Macdonald and the New York intellectuals in the United States, we can perhaps see why so many more of the latter dropped any pretensions to socialism – and perhaps why, despite inauspicious beginnings, Macdonald and Orwell grew closer.
Sadly, in the U.S. with the demise of the Socialist Party, there really was no practical alternative role for socialists in effective daily political life, although many carried on trying. Those, like Irving Howe, who kept the faith did so in their role as intellectuals, which is why almost the last strongholds of any kind of socialist belief in the USA are now in academia. In Britain, there clearly was an alternative, and editors and writers of left wing magazines naturally made the transition into parliament and the cabinet, as did union leaders and activists.
In contrast, many of the New York intellectuals were isolated within their own American society, although Macdonald’s WASP upbringing, and his previous journalistic career probably connected him more closely to the wider society than was likely for his comrades.
Macdonald eventually realized that Orwell was rooted in a more homogeneous political and literary society, and that his views were shared by much broader sections of his society. Certainly, Orwell did not need Trotsky’s inspiration to think that a different form of socialism from Stalin’s was possible. In Britain, the Trotskyists were always a marginal growth in an already large and successful working class socialist movement with strong social roots in the unions and churches.
In particular, overlooked by many commentators on Orwell’s politics is the important role of the Independent Labour Party, which had left the Labour Party, but still had a relatively widespread base, and indeed still had many close connections and sympathizers inside the Labour Party itself.
It held what it called a “Third Way” position between Leninism and Labour Party right’s reformism, which is, of course, not to be confused with Tony Blair’s and Bill Clinton’s later appropriation of the title.
As an example, Newsinger, (p 89 Newsinger) says that “the claim that he (Orwell) became a Tribune socialist, as supporter of the Labour left is too simplistic. It neglects the extent to which Orwell conducted a dialogue with the revolutionary left.”
However, this in its turn imposes a retrospective and anachronistic conflation of “revolutionary” with Leninist. The ILP believed that an elected Labour Party, could “suppress (counter-revolution) by ordinary legal power backed by a Labour organization,” (Brown 182) and could effect the revolutionary change to socialism.
Indeed their claim to a distinctively “British Road to Socialism,” backed by mass organizations, was later usurped by the Communist Party of Great Britain itself, even down to the name.
Reinforced by the shared experience of war, this is clearly the same political wellspring that Orwell was drawing on, when he declared, “England is the only European country where internal politics are conducted in a more or less humane and decent manner.” He claimed, along with the ILP, that it “would be possible to abolish poverty without destroying liberty,” and its people were  “more capable than most people of making revolutionary changes without bloodshed.” (See The English People,  CW III) The emphasis of the ILP was just this, the abolition of poverty in the course of a massive makeover of society.
As if to prove their point, in the course of the Second World War, the British government had seized control of the economy and directed it towards the war effort to an extent far beyond anything that even Nazi Germany had managed. Draconian rationing and taxation had, unchallenged by the rich, brought about a serious leveling, indicating what was possible in peacetime.
Newsinger refers to Orwell’s comments to the convergence of the parties as if it proves Orwell’s dissatisfaction with Labour. In fact, to put it in context, he celebrated such convergence as an example of a distinctive and implicitly better way of doing things. Orwell goes on to explain, “Thus, no Conservative government will ever revert to what would have been called conservatism in the nineteenth century. No Socialist government will massacre the propertied class, nor even expropriate them without compensation.” (Op cit 29)
Proper appreciation of the ILP connection erodes Newsinger’s concept of Orwell as a “literary Trotskyist,” It was the ILP that made the connections for him to go to Spain and join the militia of the POUM, which may indeed have leaned more to Trotsky – but was certainly roundly denounced by him.
Indeed, it was ILP leaders like Fenner Brockway who introduced him to Secker and Warburg for publication of Homage to Catalonia, and later Animal Farm when the more communist-inclined Victor Gollancz demurred at Orwell’s political direction.
Showing the same humanistic approach that Orwell certainly shared, and in a way anticipating the theme of 1984, the ILP’s leader, James Maxton MP, in his last major speech in 1945, repudiated statist versions of socialism, declaring, “We must not allow ourselves to become ants in an anthill.” (Maxton, Gordon Brown, Mainstream Publishing p 302)
Their positions on the war were, also initially, reflected by Orwell and many ILP leaders, such as Maxton, continued to oppose the “imperialist” war with Germany without, however, ever subscribing to the Soviet embrace of their new Nazi ally. However, after several years of war, the ILP remnants had mostly either joined the Communist Party, or more often returned to the Labour Party, where many of its ex-members were in the first post-war Labour cabinet, and for years afterwards formed part of the left Caucus of the Party. There, they usually organized around Tribune, the independent paper for which Orwell wrote so much.
Like many others, Orwell left the ILP during the war, and although we are unsure whether or not he actually joined the Labour Party, he certainly canvassed for it in the May 1945 election that returned it, self declared socialist party, to power with a massive majority. Right up to his death, as we know in his attempts to correct American misapprehensions about the purpose of 1984, he described himself a supporter of the Party and the government.
So Orwell was part of broad and generally relatively non-sectarian left, with strong social roots. He retained his old school and class connections and their contacts with decision-makers, and indeed through his Labour party connections added more as people connected with Tribune or the ILP joined both the wartime coalition cabinet and the post-war Labour government.
Macdonald himself recognized this social homogeneity when he eventually went to Britain after the war. “When I lived in London last winter, I noticed that I actually met trade union leaders and members of Parliament at parties and that intellectuals were part of the political life.” In contrast, he says, “A New York intellectual even in the politicalized thirties and forties had no contact with Congressmen or government officials or businessmen or labor leaders.” (386 Discrimination).
Macdonald certainly had no such broad-based non-sectarian left with access to power that Orwell could fall back on and it is hardly surprising that for a long period he was regarded as “apolitical”– since in the American context, his choice was between sectarian irrelevance or reconciliation with reaction.
A Writer’s Life
Having eschewed the organizational forms of sectarianism, Macdonald reverted to what he did best – thought-provoking journalism. It has been suggested that Orwell was more politically pure, in that, unlike Macdonald, he did not, until much later write for the mainstream press.
However, this may be more a symptom of artistic than political purity. Orwell self-consciously wanted to be a writer, not a reporter (a fairly plebeian occupation, certainly in Britain). Even though, as Macdonald said, he had a flair for sociological reporting, this was in terms of collecting material for larger projects.
For Orwell, writing reviews for literary journals was both a means of turning a crust and getting his name out. He never did a Comstock as far as we know, preferring the dubious alternatives of small holdings and country shop keeping to writing for the tabloids and commercial press. In fact, Macdonald obliged Orwell by finding him copies of George Gissing novels in New York. New Grub Street’s depiction of the struggling writer resonated strongly with Orwell.
However, the life of a Grub Street hack was not one of luxury or stability and one reason for Orwell’s extensive contacts with American intellectuals was of course the famous rationale for robbing banks – that is where the money was! Those dollar checks, as well as doing sterling patriotic duty by bringing in foreign exchange for the war efforts, kept Orwell solvent in the years before Animal Farm began to rescue him from shabby gentility. Indeed, it was its American publication that launched him from genteel poverty to such affluence that he had to form a company to avoid punitive double taxation of the royalties.
In Britain throughout the war, there was rationing, of clothes, food and even paper. There was the blitz, and absolute mobilization to a degree that was unprecedented for a capitalist society. Production was completely geared to the war effort, which is presumably why Orwell had to ask Macdonald to get him a pair of size twelve shoes in the US – and to send them separately since shoes were valuable commodities that could be pilfered in transit.
Macdonald seems to have kept Orwell supplied with literature from the US, including, of course, his own worlds such as the one on Wallace. “One cannot buy magazines from abroad nowadays,” Orwell recorded baldly in 1944, even as he recommended Politics to Tribune readers. (III 202)
But what about the politics?
By the post-war period, Macdonald’s flirtation with Anarchism and Gandhi also converged towards, but never quite touched, Orwell’s growing fears about the powers of the state and his revulsion against tyranny. As always, Orwell was more empirical in his approach than Macdonald’s typically root and branch approach.
Despite the unpromisingly uncompromising start, Macdonald shed Marxist  dogma faster than most of his comrades of the era, and reverted to what one may consider the native Anglo-American empiricism that, with more than a flavor of Psmithian idiosyncrasy and eccentricity, he shared with Orwell. At the end of the war, Macdonald was admitting that Orwell was right about it. Their shared attitudes lent themselves to a consistency that was difficult to match by some of their more expedient contemporaries. Both opposed the vindictiveness of post-war witch-hunts against alleged Nazis and Communists.
Orwell’s defense of P. G. Wodehouse and his distaste at the attacks on alleged collaborators in France, marched in harmony with Macdonald’s editorial in support of the first Bollingen Prize for poetry going Ezra Pound, which annoyed many Jewish intellectuals, for obvious reasons, but amusingly also irritated Pound himself who Macdonald playfully recorded, “Scrawled a note so vituperative and hot-tempered that I took a great personal liking to him.”(Wreszin 169)
Indeed that comment inadvertently reveals one of the differences between Macdonald and Orwell despite so many similarities: it is difficult to think of Orwell, despite the wry smile in many of his portraits, being quite so whimsical as Macdonald so often was, allowing his characteristic lightness of touch to detract sometimes from the seriousness of his message.
The incident also showed some finer tuning on Orwell’s part, compared with Macdonald’s delight in tweaking the feathers of orthodoxy. He felt the prize awarders should have repudiated Pound’s politics even if they did give him the award for his poetry. (Partisan  Review May 1949  CW IV p 551
Macdonald went to the nub of the issue. “Orwell’s code was a simple one, based on truth and ‘decency’; he was important- and original- because he insisted on applying that code to his own socialist comrades as well as the class enemy.” (Macdonald, Discrimination, p 330)
He elaborated the reasons for this later in Trotsky, Orwell and Socialism, where he made the contrast between “the British empiricist versus the Russian-Jewish ideologue.”  “Trotsky applied a consistent and taken-for-granted doctrine to each new situation, showing the greatest ingenuity in each application but never modifying the basic dogma. Orwell, a trueborn Englishman, had no talent for systematic thinking, and, indeed, tended to regard over-all ideologies as either absurd or harmful, or both: he was always ready to abandon on his most cherished beliefs if he came to the conclusion that it no longer ‘worked.’”
In fact, Whitfield describes Macdonald himself in very similar terms. The founder of politics and berater of liblabs was he says, “certainly no theorist, no purveyor of overarching visions, no schematic thinker….his remarkably engaging and lucid style denied to its author the indulgence granted to clumsier writers, who are often beneficiaries of the belief that behind impenetrable prose they must be thinking.” (Whitfield 3)
Indeed the road that Macdonald had embarked on when he first criticized Trotsky’s suppression of the Kronstadt uprising was paralleled by Orwell who noted “All the seeds of the evil were there from the start, and that things would not have been substantially different if Lenin or Trotsky had remained in control.” (Catastrophic Gradualism, p35 IV)
Like Macdonald, Orwell continued to express his revulsion for the Soviet Union  during the period in the Second World War when many saw it as expedient to soft-pedal their criticisms. While before the war, the Communist Party had the sympathy, if not always membership, of many intellectuals, once Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, followed as it was by a foolish declaration of war by Hitler on the United States, had made Soviet Union an ally, even non-Leftists widely regarded any criticism of the Soviet Union as unpatriotic.
Macdonald recounted for his readers Orwell’s difficulties in having a book review that was even mildly critical of the Soviet Union published in the Manchester Evening News. And of course, it was not only communists but the US and British establishments who tried to thwart publication and distribution of Animal Farm.
Orwell and later Macdonald moved to the shared faute de mieux position that when faced with a choice between the capitalist USA and the Soviet Union, they would support the USA, pending a hoped for genuine socialist alternative.
While Orwell, Macdonald, and much of the British left, kept a sense of perspective about their anti-Sovietism, the antithesis became the thesis for some of the New York Intellectuals and many of their contemporary anti-Stalinists in New York mutated into millennialism of another kind – neo-conservatism, which dropped the socialist aspirations while maintaining the rabid anti-Sovietism.
Politics shortly became, almost in spite of its prospectus, a repository for a non-sectarian, communitarian version of socialism, heavily influenced by anarchist and left-libertarian ideas. What linked Orwell and Macdonald most strongly was a refusal to temper criticism of totalitarian behavior for sectarian or partisan reasons. Reasons of state, party lines, class morality, were all exposed to the same rigorous critical standards.
It is a token of the closeness of their relationship that Orwell seems to have owed more than an intellectual debt to Macdonald, who graciously told him not to worry about a previous loan. He tells him in reply to what seems to be a missing anxious letter from Orwell promising repayment of the unspecified amount that may have been prompted by Macdonald’s discussion of the magazine’s financial position., “not to worry about the loans… all we meant to say was that, when repayment is convenient to you, it could be nice for us.. But we weren’t thinking of getting anything at all back in less than a year, and we perfectly understand that what you can do on it depends on how well things work out as to climate etc. So please don’t make any sacrifice, there’s no hurry at all.” (Wreszin p 179, 1949 July 19)
In fact, of course, there was. Orwell was hurrying to his grave.  We can only conjecture that this loan was from before Animal Farm’s publication helped assure Orwell’s financial position, but as Gordon Bowker points out, by then Orwell was actually lending other people money.
Letters to Oceania?
However, perhaps more important than the financial support Orwell clearly derived from his American connection, the question is how did the ideas bubbling among American intellectuals add to Orwell’s developing worldview?
One of the benefits of writing for these American magazines was, of course, that he could surmount the foreign exchange controls and Macdonald provided him with books and magazines–U-boats permitting. (p150 W), and his own essays, for example on Burnham, show that they provoked ideas in him. It is perhaps too simplistic to repudiate the influence of Burnham on the schema for Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is clear that ideas can be provoked by analyses that one disagrees with, and Burnham’s views were sufficiently provocative for Orwell to think hard about them.
It is to the continuing correspondence and relationship between Orwell and Macdonald that we owe some of the most convincing exegesis of, for example, Animal Farm, and the particular British context of the ILP illuminates what he was saying.
When asked by Macdonald if the book was antirevolutionary, he distinguished his ideas of revolution from “that kind” of revolution, (violent conspiratorial revolution, led by unconsciously power-hungry people) can only lead to a change of masters.” In effect he was continuing the ILP’s line, “You can’t have a revolution unless you make it for yourself; there is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship.” (Letter Orwell to Macdonald Dec 1946 cited Sumner 22)
In addition, Macdonald and Orwell shared many interests, some of which were highly significant in the development of Orwell’s work. For example, both had an interest in Utopias, as shown by Macdonald’s anticipation of M.L. Berneri’s book on them in July 1949 (letter to Orwell, Wreszin 179). “A subject peculiarly close to my own current interests,” says Macdonald, but of course even more so for Orwell, whose work was to become the archetypal obverse of the genre, a Dystopia.
Such works were of course in a solid literary, and even left literary tradition, from Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, William Morris’s News From Nowhere on the positive side, to Jack London’s Iron Heel and Zamyatin’s We on the darker side and Orwell at various times refers to them, along with Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes and Huxley’s Brave New World,  (See Orwell’s Prophesies of Fascism, p 45 CW ,).
One cannot help thinking that such interests may have seemed frivolous to the more dourly doctrinaire comrades on the harder left – but such literary explorations of alternative futures doubtless appealed the growing empiricism of Macdonald.
In one small matter, the correspondence was even more seminal for Orwell’s dystopic vision. The British censors had deleted a paragraph from one of his London Letters for the Partisan Review about possible lynchings of downed German airmen, and had done so by retyping the letter as if nothing had happened. It was almost certainly an inspiration for Winston Smith in his cubicle rewriting history for his daily bread.
Nineteen Eighty-Four shows some the syncretic results of this correspondence and transatlantic acquaintanceship. While Airstrip One is indeed quintessentially English, – not even British – in its setting and flavor, and it has a Soviet style political ethos mediated through that setting, it is clearly part of an Anglo-American polity which, perhaps if death had not been looming, he would have drawn a more intellectually satisfactory and coherent way.
On the wider New York Intellectual circle, it is a tenable hypothesis that between the two, they managed to create a vocabulary that escaped sectarian catchwords and stilted dogmatic thinking. It allowed the great issues of the day, in particular geopolitical issues, to be examined in a principled humanistic way that applied equal moral yardsticks to all the actors. We may take this for granted now (indeed, after a decade of Fox TV, we may no longer take it so much for granted!), but it was not an easy task, as indeed shown by the immediate misappropriation of Animal Farm and 1984 by many on the right.
Macdonald was not only foremost among those who looked closely at what Orwell was saying when he was alive, he was of course one of those who carried the flame for him when he was dead. The old saying de mortuis nil nisi bonum is ambivalent in the case of Orwell. There are far too many people whose views he would certainly have repudiated when he was alive, from revolutionary Trotskyists to reactionary conservatives, who have declared his work good beyond all measure, and expropriated it to their own causes.
Almost from the beginning, Orwell had been revolted by the deadness of party-line prose, and developed his distinctive idiom. Possibly, one of the reasons why he has been so susceptible to adoption by so many distinctive political strands may be his studied avoidance of partisan tropes and clichés that would otherwise have labeled his writing as leaning to particular sects or parties.
In the sometimes content-light world of left wing polemics it is the way things are said as much as what is said the identifies the protagonists. In contrast, Macdonald, in the end, had moved from being a polemical opponent, to one of the best expositors of their shared message against tyrannies of whatever hue Macdonald may have worried less about the exactness of his content, but he was equally interested in lively prose, and so it was perhaps not surprising that Macdonald discussed with Sonia Orwell the writing of his biography. Clearly, by then his political temperament, and his Anglophilic appreciation for the context of Orwell’s life and work would have made him an interesting biographer. Certainly, Trotsky, Orwell and Socialism, his 1956 New Yorker essay lays out more clearly than some more recent exegesis the reality Orwell’s relationship to the Left.
However, one cannot help but suspect that the very idiosyncrasy and sense of self-worth that Macdonald customarily displayed would have produced a work that was more illuminating about its author than its subject. The dialectic between the two would indeed give us some insights about both.
1 comment
1 Richard Kostelanetz { 08.30.12 at 3:11 am }
thanks, Ian, for the informative, sensitive pieces, suggesting someone should do a book wholly of their correspondence. Different books of mine were dedicated to the memory of both men. RK