Chris Harman

Thinking it through

The wrong attack

(January 2002)

From Socialist Review, No.259, January 2002.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Chris Harman looks at why the anti-war movement in France has not matched others

I wrote two months ago how in most countries the movement over globalisation had moved on to become a movement against the Afghan war. One reason for this was the way the movement’s best known figures had seen the war as the military face of globalisation.

Unfortunately there were exceptions. A year ago France had the biggest movement around globalisation, focused to a very large extent by the organisation Attac. Yet it was the one major European country without serious protests against the war.

Susan George, who is vice-president of Attac, has a long and honourable history of campaigning against the ravages to the world’s poor caused by the western corporations and institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. Yet she told a globalisation conference in New York, according to the Nation, that the bombing of Afghanistan hadn’t turned out to be the disaster she’d feared, leaving her a bit confused about what to think.

She then outlined her own views on the world, terrorism and Islamism. These are also to be found in Attac’s weekly newsletter (21 November 2001).

Central to them is the notion that ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘terrorism’ are among the worst problems the world faces:

‘11 September 2001 has ushered in an age of radical insecurity and post-state conflict. We now face a shadowy, undeclared, non-territorial enemy who is not fighting for traditional goals, who respects none of the "rules of war" evolved over past centuries and who brings the full horror of unpredictability into the homes and workplaces of the wealthy, the democratic, the law abiding.’

This enemy consists of ‘fascist fundamentalists’, she says, quoting favourably Hosni Mubarak, the ruler of Egypt, to the effect that Bin Laden is ‘a megalomaniac who wants to take power over the world’. She insists, ‘We must hand him no opportunities.’

Existing western governments have imperfections: ‘So far our political leaders appear stunned and without vision’, and, ‘The United States has a far from perfect record and has embargoed, bombed, harmed and liquidated unnumbered civilians.’ But it is not a question of fighting such rulers. Rather ‘it will be up to citizens to convince them that they must act boldly’, but to avoid playing into the hands of ‘Bin Laden and his fellow fascist-fundamentalists’ through a ‘"clash of civilisations" à la Samuel Huntington’.

What is needed, she writes, is ‘a new updated Keynesian strategy’. It would be ‘adequate to confront the clusters of crisis and, in the bargain, pull the world back from the brink of recession where it now hovers’. It could be implemented, she claims, for ‘200 billion dollars a year’ – money that could be raised easily, through ‘Tobin-type’ taxes on currency and other international financial transactions. A ‘planetary contract’ would include an aid and debt cancellation package for Third World countries, but only to those that promised the western states they were going to abide by certain ‘conditions’. ‘Governments in the South would be required to include the representatives of their own civil society in the management and distribution of these resources ... organisations representing farmers, workers, women, the business community [sic] and so on.’ ‘Arab and/or Muslim countries wishing to join in the Planetary Contract would need to show good faith in weeding out their own dangerous fundamentalist elements.’

I wonder if Susan George has thought through the implications of what she is saying. ‘Weeding out’ is a euphemism for repression. Mubarak, for instance, is a past master of this. In the 1980s and early 1990s he used military force to seal off poor areas of Cairo, going from door to door dragging out suspected Islamists, executing scores and confining thousands of others to concentration camps. Assad in Syria was even more brutal, bombarding the city of Hama in 1982, killing thousands. In Algeria the military staged a coup which led to a nine year long civil war involving thousands of deaths – more at the hands of the army than at those of the Islamists – rather than recognise the electoral gains of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in 1992.

Susan George, who has campaigned so much against economic and political repression in the past, seems to be urging western governments to engage in economic blackmail so as to push more Third World governments to embrace repression. It is, of course, only a short cut from that to bypassing the mediating role of Third World governments and letting US bombs do the job directly. Once you’ve adopted the language of the ‘global coalition against terrorism’ you are not well placed to object to its methods.

But how did she come to join it at all? Partly it is because like much of the left internationally, she fails utterly to understand the character of Islamism and the roots of its ‘terrorism’. These lie in the failure of the secular left (historically nationalist or Stalinist) in the Middle East to provide any alternative to regimes that have presided over successive structural adjustment programmes, declining real wages, growing rural landlessness and rising unemployment, including among the educated middle classes (from which the New York suicide hijackers came). Islamism has arisen in such a situation both as a reaction to impoverishment and repression (‘the sigh of the oppressed, the heart of the heartless world’) and as a diversion from effective struggle (‘the opium of the people’).

But there is also a wider confusion. In the globalisation movement, as in any new movement, there has been a degree of confusion as to what was the source of the evils it opposes. Is it capitalism as such? Or is it simply one variant of capitalism, ‘neo-liberalism’, in which states seem increasingly overwhelmed by the power of international finance? If the enemy is capitalism as such, then the state is the enemy as the accomplice of capitalism, the military face of globalisation. But if the enemy is simply neo-liberalism, the aim can easily become that of strengthening the state in the hope that it will use its power for good.

This logic has pushed the leadership of Attac in France to make great play of the French assembly passing a resolution in favour of the Tobin tax, and to downplay the support of French imperialism – with its own disgusting role in Africa – for Bush’s war in Afghanistan. It has led a ‘confused’ Susan George to believe that bombing, organised by oil millionaire George W. Bush, may somehow have done humanity some good. And it has paralysed those who should have built a French anti-war movement.

Bombing Afghanistan left her a bit confused about what to think

Last updated on 27 December 2009