Monday, August 25, 2008

Georgia, foreign policy and the left

What are the recent events in Georgia all about? I've read a fair bit of what various journos and bloggers have to say on the subject and apparently it's all about us - how 'we' respond, how 'they' respond, how 'we' respond to what 'they' have to say about it. Us and them? Yes ladies and gentlemen, we're talking about the left here - our positions, our opinions, our purity. I'll get to the point in due course - one that will no doubt offend many. This I don't care about because frankly I feel inclined to throw the blogging towel in after reading some of the shit that's been written on this topic. I'll begin with this:

Eric Hobsbawn in the introduction to his melancholy Age of Extremes talks about the time when during the Bosnia crisis, Mitterand chose the 28th of June to visit Sarajevo - this being the date that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by the Black Hand, the event the precipitated the outbreak of the Great War. His point was that while the choice of date was obviously deliberate, there was not even a single journalist writing about the subject who appeared to have noticed the significance of this. Concluding, Hobsbawm described the prevailing ignorance of history today as 'eerie'. More simply I'd prefer to describe this state of affairs as shocking. It is only an ignoramus that could, for example, imagine that Russia requires American influence and machinations before she is prepared to exert her influence in her 'own backyard'. That, frankly, is all I'm prepared to say about Stalinist idiots like Seamus Milne presently cluttering up the cyber-pages of Comment is Worthless with their stupid and misanthropic apologias for Russian imperialism.

But to be candid, I'm not sure the response from 'our' fragment of the left has been much better. For the most part, as far as I can see, it isn't motivated by concern for the plight of Georgians but rather by a need to ask in an accusing sort of way, "Are the antiwar left prepared to condemn unequivocally Russian imperialism?" Of course they fucking aren't - haven't we learned anything in the last five years? I'm not convinced asking this rhetorical question reflects particularly well on anyone because it is, as I said above, all about us.

Never mind mundane questions like whether anything can be done about this - perhaps because any sensible response would be slightly less than fuck all, unless you're prepared to countenance the prospect of all out military conflict with Russia. Instead, let us pre-occupy ourselves with questions about what this means for the US, for Britain, for Israel (yes of course this has been factored in), for the left. For Conor Foley, it's all about the failure of 'faith' in foreign policy - courtesy of Tony Blair. I take the deference with which his post has been received as a sign, not of any profundity in his argument, but of the fact that most people - if they were honest with themselves - know very little about this part of the world. Then there's Martin Kettle whom Foley links to who thinks this is all about the left's failure to learn the lessons of the Prague Spring and by extension its failure to adjust to a 'post-socialist world'. Last time I read him he was going on about the left's failure to learn the lessons of Hungary.

Aaaargh! Can't we catch a break from this shit? It's not that foreign policy isn't important. I have an interest in it myself, have opinions about it, get incensed when I think people are talking shite about it - but I'm increasingly of the view that the left has lost the fucking plot here. The left is supposed to be about politics that appeals to the masses, addresses their concerns, speaks their language. Do we find this here? I don't think so. Think of the number of supposedly leftwing blogs that talk about foreign affairs to the virtual exclusion of domestic politics - reserving a small space for the discussion of politicians who have what are considered to be fucked up views on...foreign affairs, of course. This is not an appeal for parochialism but there's quite a few 'leftwing' blogs that have never - to my recollection not even once - shown even the slightest interest in how the shoe pinches in Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, or London.

How did we get here? I've got a couple of explanations. One has to do with the idea that morality is a function - not of how one behaves as a worker, a parent, a neighbour, a friend - but of the position one takes to big abstract geo-political problems that you can do fuck all about. It is, in other words, the idea that the content of one's character has to do with being on the right side of history. I'd like to claim credit for this formulation but it's one I've lifted from Chris Dillow's thoughts on the subject.

The other is more narrow and has to do with the left's historical attitude towards capitalism, the United States and the Soviet Union. By any objective measure you care to take, economic and political history has long since rendered absurd the idea that you could draw any kind of equivalence between the Soviet model, liberal capitalism and the way these different systems treated their subjects. Not being entirely stupid, most of the hard left secretly understood this so focused instead on the behaviour of the nation-states from both camps and their propensity to interfere in the affairs of other supposedly sovereign nations, their involvement in coup d'etats of various kinds, in wars and invasions, their support for dictators, for their disregard for environmental degradation, their support for various subversive - often terrorist - organisations, and by extension the behaviour of their intelligence services - and so on. Here the claim for moral, or rather immoral, equivalence has been much more plausible.

But it has left us with a language, a mode of discourse, and a choice of subject matter that is almost completely irrelevant to the concerns of the overwhelming majority of the 'people'. When did the left lose the plot? After 1917? 1956? 1968? Even 1989? Or was it at the point when the 'left' started to think these dates should be of earth-shattering significance to people struggling to pay their electricity bills?

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