18 March 2011

The teachable moment

The momentum seems to have gone against the revolutionaries in Western Asia and northern Africa, but President Obama has an opportunity to step up and show the world what he meant by his high-minded rhetoric about democracy and self-determination.

The basic assumption of al-Qaeda is that there is no getting rid of autocratic regimes in the region. Legitimate sources of opposition are either killed, imprisoned, otherwise intimidated or else co-opted into the regime. They offer fake militant Islam, violence mixed with trancendence, as the only option that hasn't failed. They adopt the Leninist approach of making law-and-order impossible (autocratic societies are particularly brittle in this regard) so that society collapses and they can offer their own self-discipline and the absence of competitors as their right to rule, whereupon they become an autocracy in itself.

Al Qaeda has no place in a country like Australia, because blowing yourself up is not going to help anyone. They'd be just another eccentric and powerless minority: they only work where other alternatives are exhausted, and here in Australia we are not without alternatives. Yes, there is discrimination against Muslims here to be sure, petty and gutless stuff: powerful people who are slow to condemn it, or who truckle to it, are called to account. There is a real sense that such people are failing this country because they indulge the worst aspects of this country and fail to bring out its best. This is what I'd call a liberal mindset; socialists can share it but not own it.

A few weeks ago, the revolutions in the region put the lie to that: those regimes were beatable, and it wasn't necessary to rally behind fake militant Islam to bring down the dictators. Al-Qaeda was caught out by the overthrow of the Tunisian regime and the coup in Egypt, and their significance in the politics of Yemen and Bahrain is roughly equivalent to that of, say, the Central Coast Mariners. These were genuinely popular uprisings, not Islamist and not socialist either (I'll get to them later).

People in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere want rights and freedoms but not in some abstract sense, in the way that Western civil libertarians do. They want economic opportunities that neither fake militant Islam nor socialism can provide, but they don't want the proceeds of working those opportunities to be siphoned off or abrogated outright by friends and relatives of the dictator. These are liberal uprisings, and it is with great optimism that I refer to them in the present tense.

The late Mohammed Bouazizi was a small business operator doing his best against the dead hand of government. Western libertarians and market-fetishists would have you believe that this sort of struggle is experienced on a daily basis in Western countries, but they are attempting to elevate inconvenience to life-or-death melodrama. It is important to note that he was not trying to organise a strike, or leaking government secrets, or doing anything that socialists might recognise as intrinsic to their philosophy. This is the key reason why Western socialists don't support these revolutions: they can't recognise them as socialist, so they don't support them.

Since the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe 1989-91 it's pretty stupid supporting socialism as a live objective. It's a sentimental archaism; you may as well campaign to restore the Papal states or apartheid. If there are any socialists in Western Asia/northern Africa they aren't leading this revolution, it is leading them. The socialist regimes of eastern Europe (and, to some extent in Italy, with which Libyans will have degrees of familiarity) were not dissimilar to the dictatorships of Western Asia/northern Africa, in their co-opting of any activity that couldn't be suppressed.

Socialism assumes that it is in the avant-garde of history. Once that assumption is over, and the socialist model is shown to be dysfunctional, there's not much point to being a socialist. The 1989-91 revolutions in eastern Europe were anti-socialist, liberal revolutions: libertarians and capitalists followed rather than led those revolutions, and this is what we're seeing this year across northern Africa/Western Asia. Socialists are following, not leading, these revolutions. They are simply not in the vanguard of history in any meaningful sense.

The autocrats are going over the heads of their people and appealling to the Americans and other powers by claiming that the uprisings in their streets are the work of al-Qaeda. This is rubbish, a desperate act by desperate people rather than the measured assessment of successful politicians in a democracy who need to distinguish a trend from a structural shift. The problem is not that those politicians in Western countries assume that any bunch of Arabs getting cheesed off for whatever reason represents a triumph for al-Qaeda, or a dire threat to Israel. The problem is not getting past their record in propping up dictators for the sake of "stability". The problem is that they are reinforcing the idea that liberalism is a non-starter and that only anti-liberal regimes are stable.

The revolution in Libya is touch-and-go. In Egypt, it is not yet complete: the military that took orders from Hosni Mubarak is still in charge of that country, and could well impose another unelected jack-in-office on them (or bring Mubarak back from his comfortable villa, on his home soil). If Gaddafi succeeds, Mubarak is going to look stupid and cowardly by giving in to the mobs, and none of the other regimes are going to do anything but crack down hard. Those who led this liberal revolution will not be kept in reserve, like Mandela was in the latter days of apartheid South Africa; they will be slaughtered or exiled, like the leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, or the 1991 uprisings against Saddam Hussein.

This will leave the autocrats in office, shaken but in command. Yes, it may make them beholden to the Americans, but only to a point and they will thumb their noses at Western governments wherever they can (particularly for "five-minute hate" sessions against Israel). They will tolerate fake militant Islam on their soil provided it is for export only (just as Libya provided training for the IRA). Western socialists will sneer at Western business interests profiting from dictators, but why would anyone care what they think?

This will mean that Islam will be the only activity not controlled by the state that is allowed by the autocrats. Therefore, any opposition to the autocrats must be Islamic in nature. This is what happened to Iran under the Shah, all mild annoyances were disposed of until only those remained who a) wanted to do away with the system of government root-and-branch, and rearrange the economy for its own benefit; and b) had the organisational skill to work within Islam, avoid arrest and build a parallel regime.

This means that politics in Western Asia/northern Africa will be limited to reactionaries vs ratbags. The assumption that Arabs can't handle democracy depends on that dualistic assumption to clothe its naked racism - and wherever there is dualism, socialists think they're in with a chance and look for a bandwagon to jump on. External powers will always favour reactionaries as they know which side their bread is buttered on.

The fact that Libya can suppress its revolution to the extent that it has with such outdated equipment is amazing. The need to upgrade that equipment should inform those Western leaders who found Gaddafi chummying up to them a few years ago ("OK, I'll pay compensation to Lockerbie bomb victims - now can I have some new tanks?").

The revolutions in Western Asia/northern Africa vindicate Western societies. We have what they want: not autocracies, but not squalid you'll-get-what-you're-given-so-shut-up socialist or Islamist regimes either. They seem to want the sorts of rights and freedoms we have. Are they wrong to do so? Reactionaries and ratbags are wrong to want rights and freedoms they won't share across their communities; if these revolutions fail, the only political options available to people will be these two.

The latter half of last century was devoted to wiping out fascism and communism in Europe, which some would have as the only two legitimate forms of politics. Liberals stood and fought those regimes as well as the very assumption that they were the only real options. In Western Asia/northern Africa, the assumption of reactionaries vs ratbags must also be smashed, within those countries and beyond.

There's plenty about conflict in Bahrain and Libya, lotsa images from the wires. There's very little about Jordan, which hit the headlines a few weeks ago. Either it has maintained its reputation for relative liberalism and tolerance and worked out some solutions with aggrieved parties; or it is a desolate wasteland of the dead, the imprisoned, and those intimidated by either prospect. Either way it merits more attention than we've been offered so far. We can download stuff too, MSM, but if you want us to go to Jordan and do our own journalism then you'll really be irrelevant.

People who want a broadly liberal way of working, living and government should have it: making the case for autocracy should be hard, and ratbaggery harder still. People who are fighting for a broadly liberal kind of country deserve our support: a no-fly zone is the least we can do, and disempowering autocrats and their toadies with awesome weaponry is deeply satisfying on different levels. I have never been to northern Africa or Western Asia but I'd go to see and help liberal regimes working themselves out. Western military force is more justified in Libya than it was in Iraq or Afghanistan, because those who are wounded or killed do not do so in vain.

Teach our leaders to embrace regimes in those countries that are as complex as our own, and to face reality by abandoning reactionaries vs ratbags. You don't just sit back and let the liberals get massacred, then deal with the ratbags. If they'll face up to reality abroad there's hope for them to do so at home. Societies abroad that allow for complexities, challenges and opportunities are less likely to exude refugees, are more likely to provide trade opportunities, and will help us put down the dualists (racists, socialists, other anti-liberals) within our midst.

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