Anarchists: ‘unemployable layabout scum’?

The TUC March for the Alternative in London resulted in a story that’s all too familiar. You’ve heard it a hundred times: a minority of anarchists spoiling an otherwise peaceful, law-abiding march attended by up to half a million families, teachers, football supporters and students.

At least that’s how much of the media reported what happened. Yet this dichotomy created to divide ‘anarchists’ from ‘peaceful marchers’ reflects a hopeless misunderstanding of anarchism, a political movement I am researching as part of my Ph.D.

The folly of dividing up people into fixed identities is exposed by the fact that I am an anarchist: but I am also a family member, a teacher, a football supporter and a student. My march on Saturday was the very model of the polite anger that Ed Miliband and Brendan Barber are trying to claim for the non-anarchists (this was ‘the voice of Middle Britain’, said the latter).

I was peaceful, good-spirited and made sure I put my empty couscous tub in the bin. I didn’t wear a hoodie, nor have a bandana over my face. I damaged no property, was not aggressive to a single police officer and remained on the main route of the TUC march. I was indeed the very model of ‘Middle England’- a polite young man brought up in privileged comfort in South Staffordshire. Yet I was still an anarchist, and I resent that my actions as a ‘peaceful marcher’ have been co-opted by those whose agendas I do not fully support.

That others have sought to use my actions on Saturday for their own ends is not surprising, however, and is nothing more than the logic of liberal democratic representation in action. As Gilles Deleuze – a theorist who I draw heavily upon in my work – has argued, the politics of representation which currently predominates is not interested in representing as the term is commonly understood; it is no process of ‘speaking on behalf of’, but rather one of silencing; one of crushing difference in favour of identities constructed by those in positions of power. In this instance, the diverse, plural and problematic identities of those marching have been collapsed into the creation of a majority which cannot speak for itself.

That I am an anarchist is, in part, born of a desire to overcome such a way of doing politics. I do not authorise Ed Miliband or Brendan Barber to speak on my behalf; I wish to speak for myself. Through a tolerance of difference and consensus decision-making, anarchism allows for individual differences to be heard and respected, without collapsing into a politics of wanton individuality. It is a diverse, creative philosophy which – in my Ph.D. thesis and my forthcoming book for Zero Books- ‘The Shape of Utopia to Come’, I apply to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel ‘We’ and musical improvisation. I believe it offers us a new way to think about the kind of world we wish to live in: something I am experimenting with through the Eastside Island Utopia project, which I am curating. To those who remark that such a politics is impractical in organising ‘real life’ communities I point to the successes of the Zapatistas, to free schools, to climate camp and to the proliferation of autonomous social centres.

This is not the vision of anarchism that you will get from reading mainstream accounts of the demonstration that took place on 26 March 2011. What you find there is a cartoon construction: anarchism as empty violence- the pathetic actions of ‘unemployable layabout scum’.

I do not claim that anarchism is inherently non-violent. Many anarchists believe that violence against the property of oppressors is a justified form of ‘propaganda by the deed’, directed against companies whose actions form part of a far greater structure of violence. Still others would go further and argue that violence directed against agents of oppression – the police – is justified; certainly when the police are using violence themselves to defend the interests of those anarchists see as oppressors. Many anarchists believe that there is a qualitative difference between the violence of the weak and the violence of the strong, though they certainly don’t all endorse the former on all occasions.

Anarchism is a mature philosophy which contains numerous viewpoints on these issues, but which is honest enough about the world in which we live to have frank, open and dissensual discussions about if – and when – violence might be justified.

It is this maturity and complexity that gets lost in the representation of anarchism in the mainstream (with occasional exceptions) and especially in the media where – like everyone else except the ruling elites – anarchists are to be seen and not heard.

David Bell

Ladies first?

Kay Burley is one of the top presenters on Sky News. That means she is a person of influence. If you get Sky News.

Ms Burley has just published a novel about politics called Ladies First. She has her detractors so I doubt the novel will be read in its own terms. Some people think it’s a bit rubbish; Peter Mandelson apparently likes it; others believe that it depicts versions of Tony Blair, Rebekka Wade and even (self-servingly) Burley herself. That’s not for me to say.

As someone who has made it their business to map out how politics has been depicted on the stage, page and screen over the last hundred years or so, I put this new addition to my data set (as we academics say) into historical context for the benefit of the good readers of the Guardian.

If you read the comments provoked by the peice you’ll see how certain Guardian readers despise Sky News (its always been good to me) in general and Burley in particular, so I think my point got a bit lost. However, I did not write it to have a go at Burley but merely to suggest that her novel is, sadly, typical of the decline of a certain kind of novel written about politics.

For those who might like to delve a little deeper into the matter of how men and women have been depicted in novels and fiction about politics more generally this might be of interest.

Be warned, it’s only a conference paper so it’s a bit rough round the edges – my final word will come in a book to be published in 2012 by Bloomsbury.

When I write it.

Steven Fielding

Libya and the ‘necessary laws of nations’

Many people like to think that they are living through unique times, with new problems and challenges. Yet they are often merely playing out issues identified centuries ago – as is the case with the current Libyan crisis.

The United Nations Security Council voted on 18th March to authorise member states, ‘acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack’  in Libya.

The authorisation of ‘all necessary measures’ came as a surprise to most observers, who had expected that anything more than military measures to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya would have been vetoed by China or Russia.

Since the vote, however, attention turned to the proper interpretation of ‘all necessary measures’. Can air power be used by NATO against rebel as well as government forces, if at any point they should decide to attack civilians seen as loyal to Qaddafi? Or if government forces appear to use civilians as human shields, can those civilians legitimately be targeted by NATO, on the basis of a utilitarian calculation that this ‘collateral damage’ (as it is horribly called) is a necessary price to pay for the protection from government depredations of many more innocent civilians?

The ethical dilemmas here are clearly apparent. But the dilemmas would still be there had Resolution 1973 not allowed that ‘all necessary measures’ could be taken to achieve the UN’s goals. The unique contribution of the language of necessity might however be to close down the space for ethical debate about the legitimate scope of armed conflict in this case.

In an article to be published in History of European Ideas, I discuss the Enlightenment international lawyer Emer de Vattel. What has that to do with the events being played out in Libya you might ask?

Its relevance lies in the fact that Vattel’s 1758 book The Law of Nations was the first on that subject to introduce the language of necessity into the subject of the ethics of war. The book was seen to be so important, President George Washington took time to read it in 1789 – although he famously forgot to return it to the New York Society Library.

Before Vattel, going all the way back to St Augustine, those who had taken up their quills to discourse on the subject wrote in the ‘just war’ tradition. The idea of the just war required that various kinds of judgement – about one’s own mental and spiritual state, of absolute moral imperatives, of circumstances, of consequences, of legal authority – were made in the process of coming to a decision about whether military action was just or not.

Vattel wrote about war in the wake of the early modern conviction that the job of moral philosophers was to establish permanent moral ‘laws’, universally applicable, rather than transitory guidelines. Vattel’s laws of war aimed to be as exhaustive as possible, narrowing down the scope for contingent judgement and reliance on the good character of rulers.

But Vattel recognised that a systematic, internally coherent exposition of rules of conduct in war would still be unlikely to take account of every concrete situation in this high-stakes realm. There would always be a domain outside those rules. It was this ‘outside’, wherein the usual rules did not apply, that Vattel considered the sphere of what he called ‘the necessary law of nations’. This law said only that states may do whatever they deem necessary for their survival or well-being. It was not a sphere where difficult choices are made, but one where there simply are no choices; outside the normal laws of war, anything goes.

Vattel’s legacy for modern international law was profound. International legislation has grown apace, and with it also the notion, most famously articulated by Michael Walzer, that the normal rules of war can be set aside in a ‘supreme emergency’, when the fight is for humanity, and necessity means that ethical evaluation must cease.

In Resolution 1973, endorsement of humanitarian intervention is propounded in the language of necessity. However, the interests of the international community are best served by open ethical argument, and the language of necessity mobilised in favour of the UN’s intervention in Libya’s civil turmoil closes space for that argument, just when it is most needed.

Ben Holland

Confused by AV?

For those confused by the many arguments being bandied around over the merits or otherwise of the Alternative Vote, the Political Studies Association have just released a short, and relatively easy to understand, briefing document on the pros and cons of the Alternative Vote.

It’s written by Alan Renwick, of the University of Reading, with advice from a large number of other academics. It’s especially good on myth busting, noting that many of the claims made both by the Yes and No camps are over-played. For example:

AV would uphold the principle of ‘one person, one vote’. Every voter would still be treated equally; each vote would count only once in deciding who is elected in each constituency.

AV would not eliminate safe seats, though it will probably reduce their number.

Other conclusions include:

AV would probably not change turnout at elections. Nor is it likely to change significantly the number of spoilt ballots.

AV is unlikely to change the structure of the party system fundamentally. But it is likely to increase the Lib Dems’ seat share somewhat, at the expense of the other main parties.

AV would probably make coalition governments slightly more frequent (but changes in how people vote mean coalitions are already becoming more likely under FPTP).

AV would probably sometimes exaggerate landslides.

Minor parties under AV would probably win more votes, but not more seats. AV would be likely to increase the bargaining power of some minor parties, but not of extremists such as the BNP. It did not help Australia’s One Nation party.

AV would be unlikely to increase the number of women or ethnic minority MPs.

AV would be unlikely significantly to change  the standards of  MPs’  behaviour or the relationship between MPs and voters. It might make some MPs focus more on constituency work – which might or might not be desirable.

Philip Cowley

The Libyan no-fly zone: for and against

How coherent are the arguments provoked by the no-fly zone over Libya?

I teach ‘Air Power and Modern Conflict’ to MA students studying International Relations at Nottingham. This critically evaluates the utility of air power and asks whether expectations of its effect are exaggerated and if the belief that it can lead to ‘quick and clean’ victories has encouraged politicians to resort to military force too easily. The current Libyan no-fly zone has understandably provoked a lot of debate between the students and myself.

First of all we raised questions about the grand strategy underlying the no-fly zone. For, analysing the successes and failures of air campaigns in recent decades, it is clear that operations succeed only where there is a clear strategy linking military means explicitly to a specific and limited political goal.

The air campaign in the 1991 Gulf War, for example, aimed at ending Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait and the coalition was able to achieve this fairly ‘conventional’ military mission with impressive speed. In contrast, the use of air power in Afghanistan over the past ten years has yielded far from impressive results. Here grand strategy was less clear and included aims such as fighting ill-defined terrorist groups of international reach, as well as regime change and turning Afghanistan into a stable and secure state. Many have questioned the relevance of conventional military power, including air strikes, for achieving these political goals and some have even argued they have been counterproductive.

What, then, are the political goals of the Libyan no-fly zone and are the chosen military means suited to achieving them? Due to the swift decision and implementation of the no-fly zone questions remain about the operation’s grand strategy.

The immediate goal is to prevent further human rights violations and the killing of civilians by forces loyal to Qaddafi. However, have coalition members properly considered the variety of possible outcomes? No-fly zones are coercive missions and their success depends on the coercee’s susceptibility to those means. How likely is Qaddafi to respond to the no-fly-zone in the way the coalition hopes? He has after all experienced decades of economic sanctions as well as previous attempts to alter his behaviour militarily – notably following the 1986 US air strikes.

Is there a strategy in case the no-fly zone fails to prevent human rights abuses? Is there a strategy to avoid much feared ‘mission creep’? Or is the coalition willing to escalate and to implement its demands with greater force, for example, by the use of ground troops (a prospect that seems highly unlikely)? Longer term prospects for political developments in Libya and the no-fly zone’s potential contribution in this respect also remain unclear. Does the coalition expect Qaddafi to continue ruling the country in the aftermath of the no-fly zone or is he, indeed, a target of the operations? If so, does the coalition have enough intelligence on the intentions of the rebel forces and their ability to establish a stable and more democratic regime in the future?

We had, secondly, wider questions concerning the ability of no-fly zones to influence events on the ground. Operation ‘Deny Flight’ – a no-fly zone imposed in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, for example, prevented the use of air power by Serbia, but was unable to prevent the Srebrenica massacre in which 8,000 people were killed. Several no-fly zones were in operation in 1990s Iraq. Whilst they limited Saddam Hussein’s freedom to manoeuvre they did not prevent the persecution of civilians by ground forces. Moreover, Saddam’s grip on power was not significantly weakened.

Criticism of the no-fly zone in Libya as a mere compromise that does not show sufficient resolve and can only have limited effectiveness for the protection of civilians on the ground can therefore be understood. Having said this, its imposition needs to be evaluated in consideration of what alternative options there were for dealing with the problem.

One option would have been to focus on diplomatic efforts and to try and influence Qaddafi with further economic sanctions. Arguably, given the acuteness of the human rights situation, this would have amounted to ‘doing nothing’. It would have also sent a problematic message to rulers in other Middle Eastern and North African states currently facing challenges to their authority. The second option would have been to go for a more comprehensive military operation, possibly including the use of ground forces. This, of course, would have been very unpopular in the UK and US especially as they are already stretched militarily due to ongoing commitments in Afghanistan. More importantly, it is unlikely that a UN resolution for such an option could have been achieved. Support from the Arab League, too, for a ground option would have been weak to say the least. In consideration of these alternatives, and in view of the decision made by UN resolution 1973 that swift action was required, a no-fly zone seems to have been the least worst option.

Of course, none of these arguments will satisfy critics of the very idea of humanitarian intervention. For them, the most important question is: why do international actors decide to intervene in some cases, but not in others? Why Libya but not, say, Yemen? However, as one student argued, if a criminal is caught robbing a bank it would be wrong not to arrest them ‘just because a murder committed elsewhere had not been solved’.

Bettina Renz and students on the MA module ‘Air Power and Modern Conflict’