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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Robert Fisk: 'No wonder they were rioting in Damascus. This was insulting both to the living and to the dead'

Robert Fisk on the reality behind Bashar al-Assad's address to the nation

It was sad. It was ridiculous. It was totally out of touch. The thousand Syrian dead (and counting) were, according to President Bashar al-Assad, victims of that well-known Arab animal: the plot, the conspiracy, the "foreign hand", the same dastardly enemy that confronted Mubarak (before he was chucked out) and Ben Ali (before he was chucked out) and Saleh (before he was driven out, wounded, like an animal) and which still supposedly confronts Gaddafi and the Khalifas and, well, Bashar al-Assad.

The idea that the thousands of mourners, the tens of thousands of bereaved Syrians whose sons and brothers and fathers and uncles – and, yes, wives and daughters and mothers – have been gunned down by Assad's Alawi armed gangs and his brother Maher's special forces, are going to be assuaged with a "national dialogue", "consultative meetings" for "a few days", chats between a hundred "personalities" to discuss "mechanisms" after which "dialogue will begin immediately", is not only patronising. It is a sign of just how far the "sea of quietness" in which all dictators live has cut Assad off from the lives of the people he claims to rule.

Assad tells Syrians to be of good cheer. Trust the army. They are your brothers, he tells them. Trust the government. Yes, Assad will rid Syria of corruption – as he and his father promised to do approximately 22 times in their rule. The young Bashar has already undertaken five anti-corruption campaigns – and only last week did his own outrageous cousin agree to give up his billion-dollar business dealings and devote himself to charity. Charity! No wonder the protesters rioted again in Damascus. This wasn't just incredible – in the literal sense of the word – it was insulting to the living and to the dead.

Then came the threats. Those who had spilled blood would be chased down – as if the people of Syrian cities and towns and villages don't know what that means. They were encouraged by the Caliph Bashar to return to their homes where those kindly gunmen and torturers would protect them from the "saboteurs and extremists" who were upsetting their lives by attacking the brave members of the security forces (when they weren't torturing civilians, although that is not what Assad said).

And then there was that wonderful line, that the protesters were suckers, taken in by extremists, used as a "shroud" – a grimly suitable expression, though Assad apparently did not realise it – for the gunmen and murderers who represented a dark hangover of the Muslim Brotherhood uprising of 1982 (another rebellion met with staggering cruelty by Syrian troops loyal to Assad's uncle Rifaat, still happily residing in London of course).

Odd, this. For the "gunman" in the crowd, the "terrorist" using civilians as "human shields" is a myth propagated for decades by the Israeli army when they kill civilians, by the French army in Algeria, by the British Army in Northern Ireland, by Nato forces in Afghanistan. By God, our Bashar is in good company!

It was the same old game. The people are the children, innocent, unaware, taken in by the foreign saboteur's hand while the worldly-wise Assad wants only to save Syria from its enemies. And we are supposed to be surprised when the unarmed men and women of Syria march in the streets yet again to reject this nonsense.

The Independent Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Mark Steel: Pensions: no wonder firemen are on the rich lists by Mark Steel

How is the Government getting away with this idea that a public-sector pension is a "luxury"? Is it something that suave bachelors could show off, saying: "Once I've taken you for a spin in my Aston Martin, how about I show you the mid-range forecast for my teacher's pension over a bottle of Veuve Cliquot."

A pension is a necessity, so you might as well say we simply can't go on enjoying the luxury of a sewage system, given that the amount of waste we're flushing is 35 per cent higher than in 1996, so from 2015 we've got to throw it out the window otherwise we'll end up like Greece.

Also, a pension is part of a wage, not an added-on bonus. Employers don't come round to schools and fire stations once a month slipping a bundle of notes into each member of staff's pocket, whispering: "There you go doll, get yerself summink nice." The next complaint will be: "Public-sector workers who enjoy the privilege of spending all day in job centres and prisons paid for by the taxpayer are also paid MONEY to spend on THINGS, it was revealed in a shocking inside report today."

But apparently these pensions are gold-plated and it's where all our money has gone. So when you read that the richest 1,000 people in the country increased their wealth last year by £60bn, number 34 in that list must be Alf, a retired fireman from Ipswich, who now lives in Cannes on a boat he outbid Roman Abramovich for, and holds parties where he uses his skills to spray cocktails into everyone's glass from a hose. And number 49 will be Beryl, a retired midwife who's planning to buy Tottenham Hotspur if she can mount a challenge to the current chief shareholder, Amy, the retired lollipop lady from Workington.

One of the most infuriating arguments to justify cutting pensions is that private-sector workers don't have them, so why should anyone else? This is a strange way of assessing society, that if someone is badly treated everyone else should be as well otherwise it's not fair. Maybe that's the answer to the scandal in these care homes. People of all ages should be left for two hours face down in a bowl of cold soup and then it would be nice and equal.

Instead the public-sector unions asked their members if they wanted to take action against these cuts, and overwhelmingly they've said they do. It's argued by various politicians that the strikes are a stupid tactic as they'll make the unions unpopular. Presumably unions should adapt to the modern climate by no longer bothering with issues such as their members being asked to work three extra years for no money and instead bring in colouring books and grow watercress.

Strangely, the unions have rejected the advice of people who can't stand them anyway and have gone along with the votes of their own members. Because we do seem to be in a battle between opposite ways of seeing society. For example there's the view of the caller on a phone-in this week, who supported the rise in tuition fees because, "I haven't got kids so why should I pay for other kids' education?"

One answer to this is to point out that education benefits all of society, not just students, and suggest a mild redistribution of wealth would make such facilities affordable, and the same is true of looking after people once they've retired. But a better response, I think, is: "Oh really? I bet you see kids in a recreation ground squealing with delight and think, 'Baah, I'm paying for those swings and that climbing frame, it's not fair', you miserable, bitter, cynical, poxy, selfish pile of sludge. Well, seeing as you've got no kids I don't suppose a soul will turn up to your funeral, but that better not mean you get a pauper's one because the taxpayer will have to fork out for that." But I wonder if that's why I probably wouldn't be a very successful politician.

The Independent, Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Brainwashing the polite and professional way by John Pilger

John Pilger
One of the most original and provocative books of the past decade is Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt (Rowman & Littlefield). “A critical look at salaried professionals,” says the cover, “and the soul-battering system that shapes their lives.” Its theme is postmodern America but also applies to Britain, where the corporate state has bred a new class of Americanised manager to run the private and public sectors: the banks, the main parties, corporations, important committees, the BBC.

Professionals are said to be meritorious and non-ideological. Yet, in spite of their education, writes Schmidt, they think less independently than non-professionals. They use corporate jargon - “model”, “performance”, “targets”, “strategic oversight”. In Disciplined Minds, Schmidt argues that what makes the modern professional is not technical knowledge but “ideological discipline”. Those in higher education and the media do “political work” but in a way that is not seen as political. Listen to a senior BBC person sincerely describe the nirvana of neutrality to which he or she has risen. “Taking sides” is anathema; and yet the modern professional knows never to challenge the “built-in ideology of the status quo”. What matters is the "right attitude".

A key to training professionals is what Schmidt calls “assignable curiosity”. Children are naturally curious, but along the way to becoming a professional they learn that curiosity is a series of tasks assigned by others. On entering training, students are optimistic and idealistic. On leaving, they are “pressured and troubled” because they realise that “the primary goal for many is getting compensated sufficiently for sidelining their original goals”. I have met many young people, especially budding journalists, who would recognise themselves in this description. For no matter how indirect its effect, the primary influence of professional managers is the extreme political cult of money worship and inequality known as neoliberalism.

The ultimate professional manager is Bob Diamond, the CEO of Barclays Bank in London, who got a £6.5m bonus in March. More than 200 Barclays managers took home £554m in total last year. In January, Diamond told the Commons Treasury select committee that “the time for remorse is over”. He was referring to the £1trn of public money handed unconditionally to corrupted banks by a Labour government whose leader, Gordon Brown, had described such “financiers” as his personal “inspiration”.

This was the final act of corporate coup d’état, now disguised by a specious debate about “cuts” and a “national deficit”. The most humane premises of British life are to be eliminated. The “value” of the cuts is said to be £83bn, almost exactly the amount of tax legally avoided by the banks and corporations. That the British public continues to give the banks an additional annual subsidy of £100bn in free insurance and guarantees - a figure that would fund the entire National Health Service - is suppressed.

So, too, is the absurdity of the very notion of “cuts”. When Britain was officially bankrupt following the Second World War, there was full employment and some of its greatest public institutions, such as the Health Service, were built. Yet “cuts” are managed by those who say they oppose them and manufacture consent for their wider acceptance. This is the role of the Labour Party’s professional managers.

In matters of war and peace, Schmidt’s disciplined minds promote violence, death and mayhem on a scale still unrecognised in Britain. In spite of damning evidence to the Chilcot inquiry by the former intelligence chief Major General Michael Laurie, the “core business” manager, Alastair Campbell, remains at large, as do all the other war managers who toiled with Blair and at the Foreign Office to justify and sell the beckoning bloodbath in Iraq.

The reputable media play a critical often subtle role. Frederick Ogilvie, who succeeded the BBC’s founder, Lord Reith, as director general, wrote that his goal was to turn the BBC into a “fully effective instrument of war”. Ogilvie would have been delighted with his 21st-century managers. In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, the BBC’s coverage overwhelmingly echoed the government’s mendacious position, as studies by the University of Wales and Media Tenor show.

However, the great Arab uprising cannot be easily managed, or appropriated, with omissions and caveats, as an exchange on the BBC’s Today programme on 16 May made clear. With his celebrated professionalism, honed in corporate speeches, John Humphrys interviewed a Palestinian spokesman, Husam Zomlot, following Israel’s massacre of unarmed demonstrators on the 63rd anniversary of the illegal expulsion of the Palestinian people from their homes.

Humphrys: ... it’s not surprising that Israel reacted the way it did, is it?

Zomlot: ... I am very proud and glad [they were] peacefully marching only to... really to draw attention to their 63-year plight.

Humphrys: But they did not march peacefully, that’s my point...

Zomlot: None of them... was armed... [They were] opposed to Israeli tanks and helicopters and F-16s. You cannot even start to compare the violence... This is not a security matter... [the Israelis] always fail to deal with such a purely political, humanitarian, legal matter...

Humphrys: Sorry to interrupt you there but... if I marched into your house waving a club and throwing a stone at you then it would be a security matter, wouldn’t it?

Zomlot: I beg your pardon. According to the United Nations Security Council resolutions, those people are marching to their homes; they have the deeds of their homes; it’s their private property. So let’s set the record right once and for all...

It was a rare moment. Setting the record straight is not a managerial “target”.

23 June 2011

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Overcoming Despair as the Republicans Take Over By Noam Chomsky and Michael Lerner

Noam Chomsky
 Michael Lerner (ML): You have made many excellent analyses of the power of global capital and

its capacity to undermine ordinary citizens’ efforts to transform the global reality toward a more

humane and generous world. If there were a serious movement in the U.S. ready to challenge global

capital, what should such a movement do? Or is it, as many believe, hopeless, given the power of

capital to control the media, undermine democratic movements, and use the police/military power

and the co-optive power of mass entertainment, endless spectacle, and financial compensations for

many of the smartest people coming up through working-class and middle-income routes? What

path is rational for a movement seeking to build a world of environmental sanity, social justice, and

peace, yet facing such a sophisticated, powerful, and well-organized social order?

Noam Chomsky (NC): There is no doubt that concentrated private capital closely linked to the

state has substantial resources, but on the other hand we shouldn’t overlook the fact that quite a

bit has been achieved through public struggles in the U.S. over the years. In many respects this

remains an unusually free country. The state has limited power to coerce, compared with many

other countries, which is a very good thing. Many rights have been won, even in the past generation,

and that provides a legacy from which we can move on. Struggling for freedom and justice has

never been easy, but it has achieved progress; I don’t think we should assume that there are any

particular limits.

At the moment we can’t realistically talk about challenging global capital, because the movements

that might undertake such a task are far too scattered and atomized and focused on particular

issues. But we can try to confront directly what global capital is doing right now and, on the basis of

that, move on to further achievements. For example, it’s no big secret that in the past thirty years

there has been enormous concentration of wealth in a very tiny part of the population, 1 percent or

even one-tenth of 1 percent, and that has conferred extraordinary political power on a very tiny

minority, primarily [those who control] financial capital, but also more broadly on the executive and

managerial classes. At the same time, for the majority of the population, incomes have pretty much

stagnated, working hours have increased, benefits have declined — they were never very good —

and people are angry, hostile, and very upset. Many people distrust institutions, all of them; it’s a

volatile period, and it’s a period which could move in a very dangerous direction — there are

analogues, after all — but it could also provide opportunities to educate and organize and carry

things forward. One may have a long-term goal of confronting global capital, but there have to be

small steps along the way before you could even think of undertaking a challenge of that magnitude

in a realistic way.

Worker-Managed Businesses

The most inspiring examples of workers taking over factories have been coming from Argentina. Sin

Patron, published in English by Haymarket Books, tells in the workers’ own words the stories of ten

occupied and recovered workplaces.

ML: Do you see any strategy for overcoming the fragmentation that exists among social

movements to help people recognize an overriding shared agenda?

NC: One failing of the social movements that I’ve noticed over many years is that while they are

focusing on extremely crucial and important social issues like women’s rights, environmental

protections, and so on, they have tended to ignore or downplay the economic and social crises

faced by working people. It’s not that they are completely ignored, but they are downplayed. And

that has to be overcome, and there are ways to do it. So, to take a concrete example right near

where I live, right now there is a town near Boston where a multinational corporation is closing down

a local plant because it’s not profitable enough from the point of view of the multinational. Members

of the workforce have offered to purchase the plant and the equipment, and the multinational

doesn’t want to do that; it would rather lose money than offer the opportunity for a worker selfmanaged

plant that might well become successful. And the multinational has the power to do what

it wants, of course. But sufficient popular support — community support, activist support, and so on

— could swing the balance. Things like that are happening all over the country.

Take Obama’s virtual takeover of the auto industry. There were several options at that point. One

option, which the Obama administration chose, was to restore the old order, assist in the closing of

plants, the shifting of production abroad and so on, and maybe get a functioning auto industry

again. Another option would have been to take over those plants — plants that are being

dismantled — and convert them to things that are very badly needed in the country, like high-speed

rail — it’s a scandal that the United States doesn’t have this kind of infrastructure, which many

other countries have developed. In fact at the very time that Obama was closing down plants in the

Midwest, his transportation secretary was in Europe trying to get contracts from Spain for highspeed

rail construction, which could have been done in those very plants that were being


To move in the direction that I suggest would take substantial organization, community support,

national support, and recognition that worker self-managed production aimed at real social needs is

an option that can be pursued; if it is pursued, you move to a pretty radical stage of consciousness,

and it could go on and on from there. Unfortunately, that was not even discussed.

Amend the Constitution?

ML: Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives have proposed the Environmental and Social

Responsibility Amendment to the Constitution or ESRA [read it at spiritualprogressives.org/ESRA],

which we think could potentially unite many segments of the liberal and progressive forces in this

country. It starts with a first clause that essentially takes money out of national elections by

forbidding private money in elections and requiring that they be funded by public sources. It

overturns Citizens United, it requires the mass media to give equal and free time to all major

candidates, and it bans any private advertising in the months before an election. It then goes on to

the issues of corporate environmental and social responsibility and requires that any corporation

with income above $100 million per year would have to get a new corporate charter once every five

years; to get the charter, a corporation would have to prove a satisfactory history of environmental

and social responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens so as to avoid the control of regulatory

agencies by the people they are supposed to be regulating.

I wonder if this kind of idea makes sense to you, not as something that is likely to pass but as

something that is likely to frame an agenda that is potentially unifying and that does give people a

concrete vision of what it might look like to get significant advances toward democratic control of the

society and some semblance of responsibility from corporations.

NC: I think those are ideas that I would endorse. I’m sure that they can be used for organizing and

education, but until those organizing and educational efforts reach a much higher plateau than

anyone can envision today, the proposals are impossible to implement. So yes, as a platform for

organizing and bringing people together, ideas of that kind make good sense, as do the kind I

mentioned, and many others, but work has to be done.

ML: Dennis Kucinich has promised to introduce this into Congress. It’s not something that we’re

expecting to have passed in this current Congress, but something that — if we can get them

endorsed by local city councils and state legislatures — might raise the kinds of issues that right

now are not even in the public sphere at all.

NC: It’s a reasonable tactic, especially trying to implement it at the local level. There are things you

can do with local councils, communities, and maybe someday state legislatures that aren’t really

feasible at the congressional level, and that is a way of building popular organizations.

Run a Progressive Candidate against Obama in 2012?

ML: Now in trying to find a way to bring together some of the forces that responded to what they

believed to be a progressive candidacy in the Obama campaign of 2008, I wonder what you think of

the notion of trying to create a progressive candidacy to oppose Obama in the 2012 Democratic

primaries, and to use that effort to build a public face for a progressive opposition that could then

split the Democrats and create a third party with a greater mass base than the Greens.

NC: You know, that’s sort of a difficult tactical question. My own guess is that efforts that are

undertaken at the national level make sense if they’re connected to a program of local organizing. I

think we’re very far from being able to carry out large-scale changes at the national level.

You could see the limitations of a national campaign in the 2008 election. A tremendous amount of

energy and excitement was generated, but it was clear from the beginning that it was going to head

toward severe disillusionment because there was nothing real there — it was based on illusion. And

when people dedicate themselves and work hard to try to bring about something that is illusory,

there’s going to be a negative effect, which in fact happened, so there’s been tremendous

disillusionment, apathy, pulling away, and so on.

Organize Locally, Defend Public Sector Unions

I think we should be careful to set realistic goals — they don’t have to succeed, but if they fail, the

failure itself can be used as a basis to go on, and that’s not the case when you get involved in

national electoral politics. So the kind of suggestion you make, I think it can be developed in such a

way that would be constructive. But making clear that the real goal is the development of the kind of

organization that can change things on the ground; it may ultimately have a national impact, but

only when it’s developed far beyond what it is right now.

It’s not a great secret that the business classes in the United States, which are always fighting a

bitter class war and are highly class-conscious, have been dedicated to destroying unions ever since

the 1930s. And they’ve succeeded considerably in the private sphere, but not yet as successfully in

the public sphere, and that’s what’s being targeted now: a major effort, a propaganda effort — the

media are participating, both parties are involved — to try and undermine public unions. And that’s

one of the points on this attack on public working people, turning them into the criminals that were

responsible for the fiscal crisis. Not Goldman Sachs, but the teachers and policemen and so on.

We just saw that take place in Washington a couple of months ago. There was a big issue — the

great achievement of the lame-duck Congress was supposed to have been a bipartisan agreement

on taxes. Well, the crucial issue there was whether to extend Bush’s tax cuts for the very wealthy.

The population was strongly opposed to that, maybe two to one, but the Democrats and Obama,

instead of making use of that fact to try to eliminate that huge tax break for the rich, went along

with it.

At the same time, both parties were trying to outdo each other and screaming about the danger of

the federal deficit, when the fact of the matter is that we ought to be having a deficit in a time of

recession. It’s an incredible propaganda achievement, for the Republicans particularly, to advocate a

tax cut for the very wealthy that is extremely unpopular and that will of course substantially increase

the deficit, and at the very same time present themselves as deficit hawks who are trying to protect

future generations. But that’s only part of it, because at the very same time, Obama declared a tax

increase for federal workers — it was called a pay freeze, but a pay freeze for workers in the public

sector is the same as a tax increase on those workers. So here, a lot of shouting about how we’re

cutting taxes and overcoming the deficit, and at the same time we’re raising taxes on public-sector


This is part of the large propaganda campaign to try to undermine the public sector: demonizing

teachers, police, and firemen with all kinds of fabrications about how they are overpaid, when in fact

they’re underpaid relative to the skill levels in the private sector — denouncing their pensions and so

on. These are major propaganda efforts, a kind of class war, and that ought to be combated, and I

think that public opinion can be organized to combat it. Those are very concrete things that are

happening right now, like the possibility of ending the closing down of factories and the mass

suffering that it leads to, and turning that into something really radical: mainly worker self-managed

production for human needs.

ML: Now, let’s imagine that the things that you’re saying, which right now are heard by a tiny

percentage of the population, could be heard by virtue of somebody articulating them in a

presidential primary against Obama — wouldn’t that, in and of itself, be of value? Particularly if that

person were going to simultaneously be saying, “and we can’t expect to get the changes we want

simply through the Democratic Party, so we need to use this campaign also to bring together people

who are willing to continue this struggle as part of an organization that works both inside and outside

the Democratic Party.”

NC: I think that should be done. I don’t know that one should necessarily take a strong stand on

whether it should be a third party or change the Democratic Party — both are options. After all, the

New Deal did succeed in changing the Democratic Party through the mechanism of popular


ML: So you’re not one of those on the left who say it’s simply a poison to continue working inside

the Democratic Party?

NC: I’m not coming out in favor of working inside the Democratic Party or opposing working inside

the Democratic Party, I’m just saying I don’t see a point in taking a strong stand on that question. If

it can be done [inside the party], fine; if it can’t be done, do it outside. In fact, it’s a little bit like a

standard progressive approach to reformist goals — the goal is to press institutional structures to

their limits. If in fact they can’t be pressed any further, and people understand that, then you have

the basis for going onto something more far-reaching.

You Run. No, You Run.

ML: So knowing no one that has a better understanding of these dynamics than you, would you be

willing to be a candidate for the presidency?

NC: I’m not the proper person to be a candidate. So personally, no, it’s not the kind of thing I can


ML: Since you have the analysis and can articulate it so clearly, why would you not be a good


NC: In our system, a candidate has to be someone who is an orator, or someone with some

charisma, someone who tries to arouse emotions. I don’t do that, and, if I could do it, I wouldn’t. I’m

not the right kind of person.

ML: That might be just why you’re the right person. The right kind of person is precisely the person

who wouldn’t want to do it.

NC: Well, you do it. Your writing is very, very good.

ML: Okay, thanks Noam.

[I’ve already stated publicly that I’ll run the moment some group of wealthy people donate a billion

dollars to that campaign so that we can hire organizers that would work on building a movement

that grows out of the campaign and focuses on the environment, peace, social justice, economic

democracy, human rights, and the New Bottom Line proposed by the Network of Spiritual

Progressives. Until then, I’ll continue to edit Tikkun; work on building the Network of Spiritual

Progressives’ campaigns for the ESRA and for a Global Marshall Plan; write books on theology,

psychology, and social transformation; and spend time in prayer and meditation and celebration of

the grandeur and mystery of the universe. And while Tikkun and the NSP don’t participate in

electoral politics (they are nonprofits banned from doing so), I personally have been reaching out to

better-known figures like Bill Moyers, Marian Wright Edelman, Senator Bernie Sanders, Rachel

Maddow, and former Congressman Joe Sestak in the hopes that they and others might join together

in an effort to build that kind of electoral campaign in 2012.]

ML: Do you have any other strategic advice for those of us who are seeking a transformation of our


The Urgent Threats of Climate Change and Nuclear War

NC: I don’t think there are any deep, dark secrets about this. There are many specific goals that we

ought to be working hard to achieve; some of them are those that you’ve formulated in ESRA,

others are the kind that I’ve mentioned.

Then there are others that are overwhelming in importance. For example, the looming global

environmental crisis, which raises questions of species survival. It’s very urgent right now. Even

some in the business press over at Business Week are nervous about the fact that the new

Republicans that were elected are almost entirely climate-change deniers. In fact they quoted one

recently who may be gaining the chair of an important committee, who is so off-the-wall he said,

“We don’t have to worry about global warming because God wouldn’t allow it to happen.” I don’t

think there’s another country in the world where a political figure can get away with that. Yet here

there has been a major corporate propaganda offensive, quite openly announced, to try to convince

people that the environmental crisis is a liberal hoax. And it’s had some success, according to the

latest polls. The percentage of Americans who believe in anthropogenic global warming, human

effects on climate change, is down to about a third. This is an extremely dangerous situation: it’s

imminent; we have to do something about it right now.

There are other issues that deserve our immediate attention. The threat of nuclear war is very

serious, and in fact is being increased by government policy. Right now one of the more interesting

revelations from the WikiLeaks cables has to do with Pakistan: it’s obvious from the cables that the

U.S. ambassador is well aware that the actions that the Obama administration is taking with regard

to Afghanistan and Pakistan are increasing a very serious threat to the stability of Pakistan itself,

and are raising the possibility, not trivial, that the country might fall apart, and that its huge store of

nuclear weapons might end up in the hands of radical Islamists. I know there’s not a high probability,

but it’s conceivable, and what we’re doing is accelerating that threat. Also, supporting India’s huge

nuclear weapons buildup and blocking efforts supported by almost the entire world to move toward a

nuclear weapons-free zone in the extremely volatile Middle East region — those are issues of great


So there are plenty of urgent tasks, they just require always the same thing: efforts to educate, to

organize, to bring together the forces that are concerned and develop strategy and tactics and

implement them. So supporting, say, gay rights in the military is important, but it has to be linked to

other efforts if it is to have a significant effect on the society.

What Do We Do about Religiophobia?

ML: As a side question, we in the NSP and Tikkun have found that our positions and analyses —

which are in some ways more radical (going to the root) than many of the programs that you hear

coming out of the Left, because we do have a class analysis and we do have an analysis of global

capitalism — are nevertheless not paid much attention by the rest of the Left because of what we’ve

experienced as a pervasive religiophobia. And that has also been experienced by people like Jim

Wallis and those involved with Sojourners , and people around the Christian Century, and other

progressive religious organizations. And I’m wondering if you have any advice to us on how to

overcome that religiophobia, since it seems ludicrous to us that a secular left would not understand

that, in a country where you have 80 percent of the population believing in God and 60 percent

going to church at least once a month, it would be in their interest to have a unification with people

who have a spiritual or religious consciousness.

NC: I think you should approach them, not just on the pragmatic grounds that it’s in their interest,

but also on the grounds that it’s the right thing to do. I mean, personally, I’m completely secular,

but I certainly recognize the right of people to have personal religious beliefs and the significance

that it may have in their lives, though not for me. Though we can certainly understand each other at

least that well, quite apart from pragmatic considerations. I mean, say if a mother is praying that

she might see her dying child in heaven, it’s not my right to give her lectures on epistemology.

ML: But it’s not just issues of epistemology, because there we could have a good debate; it’s that

there is a climate or a culture in the Left and the liberal arenas that simply assumes that anybody

who would have a religious position must be intellectually underdeveloped or psychologically stuck,

needing a father figure or scared of the unknown, or some other psychologically reductive analysis.

That approach — a kind of ridicule of anybody who could possibly think that there was a spiritual

dimension of reality, when it’s pervasive, pushes people away even if they agree with much of the

rest of what the Left is saying. How does one raise that issue? How does one deal with that issue

among lefties who are simply unaware of the elitism and offensiveness of these suppositions? There

was a time when it was extremely difficult to raise the issue of patriarchy, sexism, or homophobia,

because people thought, “well that’s ridiculous, it’s just not true, it’s not happening” — there was a

huge level of denial. Do you have any advice for us on how to deal with that level of denial that exists

in the culture of the Left? In my own study of this — I’ve done a rather extensive study of the

psychodynamics of American society, which involved over 10,000 people — we found that this was a

central issue for a lot of middle-income working people, who agreed with much of the Left’s

positions, but felt dissed by the Left.

NC: Well, the way you approach people is to explain to them that not only is it not in their interest to

diss other people, but it’s also morally and intellectually wrong. For example, one of the greatest

dangers is secular religion — state worship. That’s a far more destructive factor in world affairs than

religious belief, and it’s common on the Left. So you take a look at the very people who are

passionately advocating struggling for atheism and repeating arguments that most of us

understood when we were teenagers — those very same people are involved in highly destructive

and murderous state worship, not all of them but some. Does that mean we should diss them? No,

it means we should try to explain it to them.

Israel: U.S. Public Opinion Is Changing

ML: Let me ask you a little bit about Israel. Our standpoint is that Israel is headed for perpetual

domination of the Palestinian people — a position that you recently articulated, that neither twostate

nor one-state is likely to occur, but instead continuing domination. So, I’m asking you what

strategies you suggest for those who are not satisfied with the organizations that advocate for

peace, but do so in a way that frames the issues solely in terms of Israel’s interests. Tikkun would

have a much bigger impact in the Jewish world if, for example, we had been willing to denounce the

Palestinians more, particularly during the second intifada, and if we were to frame our issues solely

in terms of why it’s irrational and self-destructive for Israel. But since we are committed to a different

view — since we come from a religious perspective that every human being is created in the image

of God and is equally deserving of care and support — we find it unconscionable to be quiet about

the human pain and destructiveness that the Occupation of the West Bank and the transformation

of Gaza into a huge prison camp has generated. Yet the Washington-based peace people and many

(not all) among the secular Left in the Jewish world think that the smartest strategy is to downplay

that issue and to play up only Israel’s interest. Do you have any advice for us on how to champion

the end of the Occupation and the end of the oppression of Palestinians, when we — Tikkun and the

NSP — are unable to frame the issues solely in terms of self-interest for Israel but are morally

obliged to raise those issues in terms of the suffering of Palestinians and the ethical dimensions,

even though doing so seems to be counterproductive to building support in the Jewish world?

NC: Well, first of all I’m not at all convinced that it’s counterproductive to building support — maybe

among the existing Jewish institutions it is, but you’re not going to influence the Zionist

organizations. But especially among younger Jews, yours is a position that has growing appeal. I’m

coming not from a religious perspective but from a secular one and doing exactly the same thing,

and the changes I’ve experienced over the last couple of years are enormous. Critical analysis of

Israeli policies is one of the most popular issues on campus now.

However, my own view is that the real issue for us is not what Israel is doing but what the United

States is doing — it’s in our hands to determine how this turns out. If the United States continues to

lend completely uncritical support to the Israeli policies of expanding their control and domination,

as is in fact happening, that’s what will eventuate. But that can change. And it can change by

bringing the American population — Jewish and non-Jewish — to recognize that these U.S.

government policies are unacceptable and have to be reversed. If the U.S. were induced or

compelled by popular opinion to join the world on this issue, and I thoroughly mean that, then there

could be a short-term resolution — not the end of the story, but at least significant improvement —

by at least moving to a two-state settlement stage and an ongoing longer process. I think that’s

quite realistic.

ML: And how do you imagine that change taking place? Given the constellation of forces right now in

which this seems to be the only issue in which Democrats and Republicans are totally united,

producing votes of 415 to 20 in support of crazy resolutions…

NC: You’re speaking of Congress, but I think we should look at the population, which is by no means

unified on this. In fact, the majority of the population favors the formation of a Palestinian state, and

our goal should be to organize the population so that the popular will is expressed in state actions.

This has happened in the past: it happened on South Africa. I mean, the Reagan administration was

strongly supporting apartheid, condemning the ANC as a major terrorist organization, and within a

couple of years it shifted. The same thing happened with East Timor — as major atrocities continued

through 1999, the Clinton administration continued supporting the Indonesian atrocities strongly,

and then, rather suddenly, under international and domestic pressure it shifted position.

ML: Yes, but neither of those countries had a significant section of this population here in the U.S.

supporting the existing repressive regimes and committed to them on a deep personal and

emotional level. Whereas here, while I agree that there is a growing split in the Jewish community on

these issues and Tikkun reflects the perspective of a very large section of Jews under the age of fifty,

I don’t see a similar split among Christian Zionists, who represent a very large part of the population

— much larger than the Jewish population, anyway.

NC: The Christian Right also supported apartheid. There are all kinds of differences, on the other

hand, in the case of Israel-Palestine. By now there is a growing section inside the military and inside

intelligence that is pulling for an end to U.S. support for Israeli intransigence because it’s harming

U.S. operations in the field. If that spreads to the population, it could lead to a major wave of anti-

Semitism. There are lots of differences among the cases, but the point is that policies can change,

and my own sense is that even within the Jewish community, younger Jews are drifting away because

what Israel is doing is just intolerable to their general liberal attitudes; I think we should welcome that

move and try to direct it toward changing U.S. policy.

ML: Yes, the focus on changing U.S. policy is one of many reasons our NSP focus on the Global

Marshall Plan is so important. The central point of our Global Marshall Plan is that “homeland

security” cannot be achieved through the current “strategy of domination” of countries around the

world, but only through a new “strategy of generosity” in which the U.S. acts in a caring way toward

the people of the world. That same kind of caring and generosity will not likely take hold in Israel,

where it would change everything, making peace a real possibility, not just a permanently elusive

goal, until it takes hold in the West, primarily in the U.S. So that is one of many reasons why I agree

with you that our work is in changing the foreign policy approach in the U.S., and that will only

happen through a massive educational program at the grassroots level. By seeking city councils and

state legislatures to endorse the Global Marshall Plan, we at the Network of Spiritual Progressives

will be able to raise this new way of thinking about homeland security and eventually make a

significant change in the mass consciousness in America on the question of what really works to

bring safety, security, and peace to the U.S. and to the world.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, author of The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious

Right is editor of Tikkun Magazine, chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives, and

author of the forthcoming book Embacing Israel/Palestine, which will be out in December.

June 17, 2011  Tikkun.com

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Make O'Farrell’s industrial laws unworkable By Susan Price

A bill attacking the rights of NSW public sector workers pushed by the O’Farrell Coalition government are set to pass through the upper house on June 14, with the support of Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats and the Shooters Party.

It can then be put through the Liberal dominated lower house on June 15.
The anti-union bill is a draconian measure. If passed, it will give the state government the power to unilaterally set the wages and conditions of public sector workers.

It means the government could not only freeze or even cut wages but also cut penalty rates, shift allowances, maternity leave payments, redundancy payments and other entitlements without public sector employees having any redress to the NSW Industrial Relations Commission (IRC).

The government’s wages policy will limit pay rises for new agreements to 2.5%, despite inflation running at more than 3%.

The laws mean that if public servants strike for better pay, the strike could be stopped by the Commission. If public servants tried to bargain for better pay, the government could simply refuse to bargain.
No public sector worker is safe. The state government could decide to review all current awards and change them through regulation.

This could also open the floodgates to more attacks on workers' rights outside the state public sector. If the Coalition wins at the next federal election, these kinds of attacks could be generalised across the country.

NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell’s attacks are worse than Howard’s Work Choices. They will place the wages and conditions of 400,000 NSW public sector workers in the hands of the finance minister. No new awards will be able to be made unless the minister says so.

The new laws will give NSW public sector workers the worst industrial rights of any worker in Australia. They will end the independent role of the IRC; cut the pay and conditions of public sector workers in NSW; undermine the ability of public sector unions to represent their members, and cut services to the community.

In response, unions have chosen June 15 to hold a big protest at parliament house, which will be built through stop work actions across NSW by public sector unions.

In early June, a key meeting of public sector unions took place. The meeting heard proposals for a 24-hour strike on June 15. Most union leaders opted for a four-hour stop work action and some will take the proposal back to members for debate.

Unions NSW has launched a petition campaign, with a target of 20,000 signatures by June 15.

The rally follows several snap protests outside parliament over June 2-4. These actions attracted hundreds of workers.

The initiative for these mobilisations came from the NSW Public Service Association (PSA) and the NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF), with support from the bus drivers’ section of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU), the Fire Brigade Employees Union (FBEU) and the NSW Nurses Federation.

These snap protests took place against a backdrop of one of the most historic filibusters in NSW parliamentary history.

In an effort to delay the passing of the legislation, Greens Upper House MPs David Shoebridge and John Kaye delivered speeches of almost six hours. Labor's industrial relations spokesperson, Sophie Cotsis, spoke for three hours. Debate was finally suspended after 11 hours at 3.19am on June 3.

On June 9, 16 branches of the NSW Nurses Federation (which has 35,000 members), fresh from their campaign for better nurse to patient ratios, voted to take a four-hour stop work action on June 15. This represents 80% of the federation’s NSW branches.

The FBEU also voted to stop work across metropolitan Sydney, the Illawarra and the Hunter Valley on June 15.

The NSWTF Executive has not yet voted to take stop work action, but has decided that delegations of its members will mobilise from schools across Sydney to attend the rally, leaving a skeleton staff behind.

The Health Services Union will also take stop work action for the rally.

The NSW PSA (which represents 45,000 members) has left it to sections and workplaces to vote on strike action. At least one PSA workplace has voted unanimously to take strike action if its request for leave is not granted.

The PSA is also organising buses to transport members to the rally.

The RTBU have responded strongly to the attacks and will mobilise for the rally. It is considering stop work action.

There has been a lot of talk in the media about the so-called deal to exempt police from the changes. Nile pushed the government for the exemption because the police had a wage case before the IRC.

But apparently the police exemption is not a certainty. O'Farrell has even denied any such exemption exists, saying that any wage rises for police above 2.5% will have to be funded out of the Police Officer Death and Disability Scheme.

The Police Association have said 500 of its members will attend the June 15 rally. NSW Police threatened to take strike action over wages in 2008, but they haven’t actually taken such action in about a century.

They should join the campaign rather than allow themselves to become O’Farrell’s shock troops deployed against their NSW public sector colleagues.

The attacks have taken many union leaderships by surprise, but already there is talk among unions about a statewide general strike in August, with regional actions in the lead up across the state.

Progressive unionists and activists across NSW are organising to help ensure the June 15 rally is huge, and that momentum builds for a general strike across NSW.

After all, the state runs on the labour of public sector workers, so withdrawing that labour is the only way to make these laws unworkable and force O’Farrell to back off.

The most effective way to ensure union members and workers across the state are mobilised is to explain the seriousness of these attacks and to show how industrial organisation is the key to defeating these laws.

Cross-union delegate meetings and building strong union-community alliances is essential. This will also allow non-public sector workers to join the campaign, plus students, parents, churches, other concerned citizens and users of public services in NSW.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Friday, June 10, 2011

“Russian Lessons”—a full version of Ali’s latest LRB article

Tariq Ali
Late one night in 1897, a Pashtun tribe (with whom the British wrongly assumed they were not in dispute), launched a stealth attack on the British encampment. Winston Churchill, an eager twenty-something subaltern on his first visit to the turbulent North-West frontier, was outraged by the ‘treachery’. The guerrilla attack cost the British Indian army forty officers and men as well as many horses and pack animals. To the young Churchill’s delight, the commander of the operation, Sir Bindon Blood ordered an immediate retaliation. The new recruit joined General Jeffreys in the punitive expedition to ‘chastise the truculent assailants.’ The exciting encounter between the flashing swords of the Pashtuns and English rifles was all in a day’s work, as he later wrote in My Early Life, but what afforded young Winston the greatest pleasure was the disciplined accomplishment of a colonial mission: ‘The chastisement was to take the form of marching up their valley, which is a cul de sac, to its extreme point, destroying all the crops, breaking the reservoirs of water, blowing up as many forts as time permitted, and shooting anyone who obstructed the process.’ Who can blame the Afghans in subsequent centuries for believing that in the second and third intrusions, they’re once again seeing the first in a new guise? What has changed is the technology and the rhetoric: helicopter gunships and drones instead of bayoneted rifles; ‘humanitarian’ explanations and lies instead of Churchill’s straightforwardness.

Soviet academicians (and their Tsarist predecessors) specializing in Central Asia were close students of the disastrous Anglo-Afghan wars of the 19th century. Nor could Soviet leaders forget the basmachi (bandit) rebellion, as they called it, led by Muslim nationalists in Central Asia from 1918 onwards against the new Soviet authority. The guerrilla resistance was fierce, fearless and brutal, accompanied by tribal punishments: enemy testicles were often filleted and pocketed. The rebellion lasted for over a decade. An independent-minded Kirghiz intelligentsia, that otherwise might have been won en bloc to modernization, was treated with suspicion by Moscow: later deported, imprisoned, killed and replaced with loyal apparatchiks. The rebellion left an abiding memory in literature and later, the less-gifted Soviet film directors mimicked Hollywood Westerns with the basmachi taking the place of the Indians. Red Army officers sent to ‘pacify’ the locals shuddered when they recalled the conflict. Despite all this the new generations born in the Central Asian Republics of the USSR received the same education as the rest of the country, similar social welfare systems and were modernized on the Soviet pattern with all its shortcomings and advantages. Women, in particular, benefited greatly.

Knowing all this, what possessed the Politburo of old men in Moscow, which had first, repeatedly and unanimously, rejected the option, to succumb to the siren voices in Kabul and send in the specially-created Soviet 40th Army to occupy Afghanistan in December 1979? Opinions varied. The United States and its allies, taken by surprise, unanimously condemned the intervention as a violation of Afghan sovereignty. Those were days when the independence (however nominal) of states outside the Yalta system played an important part in cold war debates. Western ideologues of the woodenheaded variety saw the move as part of a grand Soviet design to gain access to warm-water ports. A majority of the Non-Aligned movement and China denounced the intervention, speaking respectively of ‘great-power chauvinism’ and Soviet ‘social-imperialism’. Braithwaite argues convincingly that it was neither.

Illusions of every sort accompanied what was soon to become a bitter and brutal war, a disaster on virtually every level. If the invasion of Prague in August 1968 was the first nail in the coffin of the Soviet Union (Solzhenitsyn later wrote that it was this disaster that finally convinced him that the system could not be reformed), the attempt, two decades later, to pacify Afghanistan would be the last. Soviet troops were forced to pull out in 1989: two years later, the country itself had ceased to exist. A visionless gerontocracy had ruled the Soviet Union for far too long and virtually ensured that this would happen anyway. The fall-out from Afghanistan merely speeded the process.

Rodric Braithwaite, a highly—respected Foreign Office mandarin, Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1988-92) and author of two previous books on that country, was in Moscow when Soviet troops crossed the Oxus/Amu Darya. He has produced a fascinating account of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, based almost exclusively on Russian sources: interviews with participants, careful monitoring of the websites of individual veterans and their organisations and access to some of the old archives, if not those of the GRU or the KGB, most of which remain sealed. Each page reads like a warning to the current occupiers of the country. Artemy Kalinovsky, an LSE academic attached to the department of cold war studies has utilized the same archives in Moscow and, as a result, the two books complement each other.

Braithwaite expressed his public opposition to the Iraq war and his disgust at the atmosphere of fear created by New Labour propaganda in two devastating critiques published by the Financial Times. The tone was that of cold anger. His stance encouraged many refuseniks still working in the Foreign Office during the Iraq war. Subsequently the outfit underwent a political cleansing. Afgantsy is written in a very different register to the FT commentaries. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan—reluctant, confused, semi-coherent—is viewed as a terrible tragedy for both the Russians (his affection for the country and its people manifest throughout the book) and the Afghans, who hate being occupied. Braithwaite writes of Soviet soldiers lacking in knowledge and experience, short on training dispatched across the historic river to shore up a failing regime that Moscow never wanted in the first place.

The principal aim of Soviet foreign policy since Lenin’s time was to preserve Afghanistan as a neutral state. Even if offered a choice of instituting a social transformation from above, the founder of the Soviet Union was too orthodox a Marxist to believe that tribals and shepherds could make a sudden leap forward to socialism and had mocked all such notions: ‘Herdsmen can’t be transformed into a proletarian mass’.

His successors, likewise, were not at all pleased when, in 1973, a royal cousin, Daud, toppled King Zahir Shah in a palace coup and proclaimed a Republic. Moscow had enjoyed warm relations with the King, a genial old buffer who presided over the tribal confederation that constituted the Afghan state. As Braithwaite documents, the Soviet leaders were even less pleased when a few years later in April 1978 a group of Communist officers in the Army and Air Force organized a coup, together with a few supportive demonstrations in Kabul—ninety percent of Afghans lived in the countryside—and tagged these events as a revolution. Parcham (Flag) and Khalq (People) two rival communist factions, consisting largely of university graduates, urban intellectuals, and several dozen officers and their fellow clansmen in the armed services, had in July 1977 but with great reluctance, united their forces in the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a misnomer except for the name of the country. Noor Mohammed Taraki, a Khalqi, was appointed the General Secretary, with Babrak Karmal (Parcham) as his deputy. Hafizullah Amin, another leading Khalqi was elected to the Politburo but only after a struggle. His Parcham opponents claimed he was a CIA agent, recruited during his spell as a student at Colombia University.

Accusations of this sort, without any basis whatsoever, were not uncommon on the South Asian Left to discredit political opponents and were usually ignored. Amin’s response, however, was not an outright denial. According to Braithwaite (referencing a Russian work based on Afghan transcripts of the meeting) Amin replied ‘that he was short of money and that he had been merely stringing the CIA along.’ Heard that one before? Whatever the real truth, it should be acknowledged that in the two years that followed, no in-house CIA agent could have done a better job than Amin in isolating and destroying the Afghan Left and effectively offering the country on a platter to the enemies of light. The PDPA claimed a joint membership of 15,000. Parcham, the orthodox pro-Soviet group with 1500 members was in a permanent minority. Both figures were exaggerations and even the narrow base of political support in Kabul evaporated rapidly, forcing the Khalq leaders to rely increasingly on tribal cronyism inside the army, while its Parcham rivals depended on support from the Soviet Embassy.

The KGB preferred Parcham; the GRU [Soviet Military Intelligence] had direct relations and accordingly more confidence in the Khalq, which controlled the military. One of the self-serving myths peddled by PDPA apologists was that the regime was popular and had it not been for Western support to the mujahideen, the PDPA would have held on with the aid of Soviet troops, consolidated power and modernized the country. It’s a farcical notion as this book reveals. Braithwaite is sympathetic to the Soviet developmental model—mainly on the health and housing fronts and education, especially that of women– and contrasts it favourably to subsequent Anglo-American efforts in the region and elsewhere.

The country in which two Communist groupuscules had seized power was one of the most backward in the world. Its antiquated social structure harked back many centuries. The Pashtun tribes dominated the landscape and each unit maintained a semi-sovereignty over its territory, especially land, water and grazing grounds; but common property had long disappeared and the khans or chiefs had become landowners, employing clansmen as tenant farmers and others as virtual serfs. Each tribe had its own band of armed men. Land ownership created a huge gulf between the khans and the peasant-serfs. Of the country’s surface area of 63 million hectares only one-seventh was arable and a shortage of water prevented crop rotation throughout the year.

A king ruled this confederacy of tribes, but till the late 1930’s, monarchs were regularly assassinated or exiled after revolts within their camp or tribal rebellions. A previous attempt to modernize the country by King Amanullah (1919-29) had failed. Amanullah favoured a secular state on the Turkish pattern. His draft Constitution envisaged an elected lower chamber on the basis of universal adult franchise (had this happened Afghan women might have got the vote before most of their counterparts in Western Europe and North America), a co-educational education system, regular free elections; import substitution through the creation of light industries, re-organisation of the tax structure, formation of a National bank and the development of roads and a communications network. This was not to be. British political agents organized a tribal revolt against the reforms and their progenitor. Amanullah and Soraya, his pro-feminist consort, went into exile in 1929 on the Italian Riviera and died there in 1960.

Had the PDPA simply revived this programme in 1978 together with rationally considered land reforms, they might have won more support, but their Khalqi leaders, in particular, were fantasists. Hafizullah Amin boasted that they were going to teach the Russians the meaning of Revolution: ‘ … after our great revolution the toilers should know that there does exist a short-cut from the feudal class to the working class and our revolution proved it.’ The proposed land reforms were intended to leap from landlordism to collectivization, without any mediating force in the countryside. It was lunacy. The peasants were scared to act on their own and the landed proprietors denounced the communist as atheists and infidels. Amin’s statement that ‘98 percent support the reforms, only 2 percent oppose them’ and his pledge to physically exterminate the two percent did not go down well in a region dominated by clans.

The more experienced Soviet leaders, Yuri Andropov (head of the KGB) and veteran foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, were contemptuous of any notion that what had taken place in Kabul was a revolution. Andropov, in particular, excelled his contemporaries in the sharpness of his intellect and an instinctive and instantaneous ability to understand causes and their consequences. His experience as Soviet Ambassador in Hungary during the 1956 uprising had scarred him, but he had learnt a few lessons. Backed by Gromyko, Kosygin and defence minister Ustinov, he correctly analysed the changes in Kabul. It was a coup d’état, carried out in a hurry by a relatively small Communist faction embedded in the Armed Forces. Unlike the South Yemeni revolution of the same period it had limited mass support. That was a huge problem. Sending in the Red Army would be totally counterproductive.

The Afghan leaders, faced with an army mutiny in Herat and expressions of discontent elsewhere, kept up the pressure for ground troops. Moscow’s first response was forceful. Yuri Andropov was particularly sharp and warned the Politburo that given the character of the Afghan regime, Soviet troops, if sent in, would appear as aggressors and would be compelled from the very start to fight the ordinary people. He was strongly backed by the Prime Minister Kosygin and the Defence Minister General Ustinov. Kosygin on the phone to Taraki in Kabul, Braithwaite informs us, ‘naively argued from Marxist first principles’ by suggesting that the Kabul regime, ‘should arm the workers, the petty-bourgeoisie and the white-collars workers in Herat. They should emulate the Iranians, who had thrown out the Americans with no outside help. Could the Afghan government not raise, say, fifty thousand students, peasants and workers in Kabul and arm them with the weapon supplied by Moscow.’ I don’t think this was so much an expression of naivete as a polite way of pointing out that the regime lacked a social base. A bemused Taraki, failing to detect the irony, responded by pointing out that even in Kabul the workers constituted a tiny minority, thus confirming that the vulgarised Marxist categories employed by his propaganda ministry, were useless, a crude device to shield themselves from reality. The Kosygin-Taraki exchange lay at the heart of the problem: A regime without support at home dependent for its survival on the arrival of military support of an outside power. Kosygin might have pointed out the example of Cuba. Despite an ill-fated invasion, numerous attempts to bump off Castro and an economic blockade (partially neutralized by Soviet economic aid), the United States had failed to institute regime change on an off-shore island with 2 million inhabitants. The reasons were obvious. It was a real revolution. It maintained mass support.

The PDPA’s lack of a social base was a huge problem, which could not be surmounted. The attempt to transcend this reality by imposing a repressive regime on the people could only make the situation worse. When Politburo member Kryuchkov visited Kabul in early 1979 for an on-the-spot survey he was horrified to hear Taraki boasting that in a few years the mosques would be empty. There were more political prisoners and executions in the first two years of PDPA rule than in the preceding fifty years of the country’s history. When Puzanov, the Soviet Ambassador, protested the scale of the repression to Amin, he was told that they were merely following the example of the early Soviet Union. Had not comrade Stalin’s purges and forced collectivisations created the foundations of a strong state? The problem, according to the Afghan leaders, was the unwillingness of the Soviet Union to commit ground troops and defend ‘the revolution’.

Having failed to convince the Russians, the Afghan communists now turned on each other. It was this brutal settling of factional and inter-factional scores within the party that ultimately provoked the Soviet intervention. The dominant Khalq faction led by Noor Mohammed Taraki and Hafizullah Amin purged their Parcham rivals from the government and three cabinet ministers sought refuge in the Soviet Embassy. They were hidden in containers, taken to the Bagram air base and flown out of the country. Braithewaite reports that their leader, Babrak Karmal, was regarded by the Russians as ‘emotional, inclined to abstraction to the detriment of concrete analysis’, but invaders can never be choosers. They have to make do with the human material on offer (or bring their own baggage). The Parcham leadership was put in mothballs till it was needed, which was sooner than anyone had thought.

Amin decided to get rid of Taraki and organized a classic Stalinist pretext to do so: a fake assassination attempt on his own life, in which one of his bodyguards was killed, which he then blamed on Taraki. Kalinovsky, whose book in most other respects confirms much of what Braithwaite has written, differs on this crucial episode. He speculates that Amin was indeed the intended victim, but produces not a shred of evidence. Everything suggests the opposite. The power-hungry Amin, whose Pol Pot tendencies were never hidden, wanted total control. He imagined that his grip on the army was sufficient to ensure his elevation and would be accepted by the Russians as a fait accompli. His troops surrounded the Presidential palace and arrested Taraki. In Moscow the old men were annoyed but, as Amin had calculated, prepared to accept the new leader. Amin now made a deadly mistake. He proceeded to organize Taraki’s murder. Three intelligence officers from the Presidential guard were deputed to kill and bury the leader they had sworn to protect.

“Taraki was in his dressing gown when the three men came for him”, writes Braithwaite. “Lieutenant Ruzi said, ‘We’ve come to take you to another place.’ Taraki gave him some money and jewellery to pass on to his wife … The party went downstairs to another small room, in which there was a dilapidated bed. Taraki handed over his party card and his watch, which he asked should be given to Amin. Ruzi told Eqbal to bind Taraki’s hands with a sheet and ordered Taraki to lie down on his bed. Taraki did so without protest … Ruzi then covered Taraki’s head with a pillow and when he removed it Taraki was dead. The whole business lasted fifteen minutes. Not bothering with the cotton shroud, they rolled Taraki’s body in a blanket and took him in their Land Rover to the cemetery, where they buried him. They were in tears when they reported back to (their boss) Jandad.” Next morning, the Kabul Times reported the sudden and tragic death of ‘a genius, a great and much-loved leader’ but nobody was deceived.

It was this event that triggered the Soviet intervention. Moscow, in the person of the General Secretary, had promised to protect Taraki. Brezhnev was livid. ‘What a bastard, Amin, to murder the man with whom he made the revolution,’ he said to Andropov, conveniently forgetting the early history of his own country. ‘Who will now believe my promises, if my promises of protection are shown to be no more than empty words’. Andropov, head of the KGB, and till now the staunchest opponent of intervention was shaken by the failure of the KGB to predict and preempt the killing of Taraki. He changed his mind on intervention. Amin had to be removed at all costs to limit the damage. The stage was now set for the direct entry of Soviet troops, after a lengthy discussion that had lasted well over a year and is carefully documented in both books.

For its part, the military high command was still not convinced of the need to replace Amin. The senior most Soviet military advisor in Kabul, General Gorelov, described him as ‘a man of strong will, a very hard worker, an exceptional organiser and a self-proclaimed friend of the Soviet Union. He was, it was true, cunning, deceitful, and ruthlessly repressive’ but they could still do business with him. Few agreed with this assessment. The KGB in particular were convinced that Amin, a man who could not work with people on his own side, was unsuitable because he was incapable of creating a popular coalition that could resist the mujahideen. The Parcham leaders were more likely to do so and in any case they could be fine-tuned by their Soviet advisors. Nobody seemed to have realized that it was already too late. The horrendous goings-on in Kabul had alienated most of the country.

Braithwaite and Kalinovsky explain in gory detail how the intervention turned out to be a military and political disaster. Even with the tame Parcham back in power, the Russians could not prevent the revenge victimizations of Khalq cadres. Many of them were purged, others imprisoned and some killed. Babrak Karmal, the new President, explained that they were merely punishing those who had carried out the repression against ‘innocent’ Afghans but the method chosen was neither transparent nor convincing. This Communist faction, too, found it difficult to garner support from those caught in the middle of the conflict.

The Soviet 40th army had been created in conditions of maximum secrecy to fight in Afghanistan. A bulk of the recruits were drawn from the poor in town and countryside, a quarter from ‘broken families’ and none from the children of the party-bureaucracy-military elite. Braithwaite quotes the military historian, General Krivoshev suggesting ironically that perhaps the time had come to reinstitute ‘the old romantic name of the armed forces—The Workers and Peasants Red Army.’ This hurriedly assembled, but well-stocked strike force was faced with an impossible task.

‘Never before in the history of the Soviet armed forces,’ remarked its last commanding officer, General Gromov, ‘had an army had its own air force. It was particularly well supplied with special forces units—eight battalions in all, alongside the highly trained air assault and reconnaissance units.’ But it had never had to confront a counter-insurgency in a foreign country against the will of a large majority of its people. When compelled to do so it resorted to the time-honored tactics utilized by occupying armies—Napoleon during the Peninsular War, the Americans in the Philippines, Korea and Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan—as outlined by Churchill. Interestingly, the fear that Soviet soldiers from Central Asian Muslim backgrounds would desert in droves to the enemy was disproved on the battlefields. There were relative few desertions and not confined to Central Asians.

The Afghan guerrillas—‘freedom-fighters’ in the Western lexicon at that time—were brutal. So were the Washington-requested ‘international brigades’ despatched by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Algeria and which included the late Osama bin Laden. Before killing them, the Afghans tortured, mutilated and, occasionally, skinned alive the Russians they captured. Braithwaite details a particularly horrific incident in Kunar province (where American soldiers were ambushed a few years ago) where the mujahideen surprised a Russian group. Several soldiers committed suicide rather than surrender. The others were disemboweled and burnt alive. The sole survivor never recovered his sanity. The 40th responded in kind. A veteran wrote:

The thirst for blood … is a terrible desire. It’s so strong you can’t resist it. I saw for myself how the battalion opened a hail of fire on a group that was descending towards our column. And they were OUR (Afghan) soldiers, a detachment from the reconnaissance company who had been guarding us on the flank. They were only two hundred metres away and we were 90 percent sure they were our people. And nevertheless—the thirst for blood, the desire to kill at all costs. Dozens of times I saw with my own eyes how the new recruits would shout and cry with joy after killing their first Afghan, pointing in the direction of the dead man, clapping one another on the back, and firing off a whole magazine into the corpse “just to make sure”… Not everyone can master this feeling, this instinct, and stifle the monster in his soul.’

Another soldier, Vanya Kosogovski from Odessa, described how, after lobbing a grenade in a village house, he went in to inspect the results. He’d killed an old woman and a few children. A younger woman and other children were still moving. He shot them dead, hurling another grenade afterwards, just to make sure.

There were no illusions in Moscow on any front. The late Yuri Andropov’s fears had all been justified. They knew the war was going badly wrong and was unwinnable; that the US and its allies were, via Pakistan’s ISI, arming the mujahideen with the latest weaponry, including the deadly Stinger missiles (which soon became black market bestsellers in Pakistan) to down helicopters. Above all they were aware that their own people running the government in Kabul were mostly useless. They began to discuss an exit strategy.

In April 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the First Secretary of the CPSU and the new leader of the country. As Kalinovsky points out, it took three years before Gorbachev could even circulate a letter within the CPSU in which the Soviet leader confided to party members that ‘by the beginning of May 1988, we lost 13,310 troops [dead] in Afghanistan; 35,478 Soviet officers and soldiers were wounded, many of whom became disabled; 301 are missing in action … Afghan losses, naturally, were much heavier, including the losses among the civilian population.’ In December 1989 the 40th Army left Afghanistan, humbled and defeated in its mission. General Gromov, ever a drama queen, was the last Soviet soldier to march across the bridge and return to his country. Many Afghans, encouraged to bid a fond farewell for the cameras by showering the departing troops with flowers were disobliging; some pelted the soldiers with dried camel dung. They left behind a Parcham government with the former KHAD (Afghan secret police) chief, Najibullah as President in Kabul, a city and regime besieged from within and without.

Some months prior to the departure of the 40th Army, Yevgeni Primakov had met with senior figures from the Pakistan Foreign Office and suggested that it was in everybody’s interests to put a national coalition government in place. If Pakistan attempted a take-over its writ could not extend beyond the Pashtun region. If nothing was done, warned the Soviet leader, Najibullah would fall but the mujahideen would be at each other’s throats before too long. These views were conveyed to Pakistan’s then Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, but rejected on the advice of the United States.

Kabul had been dented, but had survived foreign occupations. During the early 90’s it would be destroyed by an intra-mujahideen civil war in which the warring factions gave no quarter to each other or the people who lived in the city. Chaos enveloped the country, with rival tribal combinations controlling different cities. Each of them joined the battle for Kabul like stray dogs fighting over an upturned, flea-ridden cadaver. Who were these mujahideen leaders? Where had they sprung from? They were a mirror-image of the divided Left, whose leaders they knew well and against whom they had fought over political space in Kabul University during the Sixties, when the cities functioned normally. It was the ferment within the tiny student movement that produced both Communists and Islamists. The latter insisting that Islam was a complete code of life that covered all aspects of modernity and the former holding up the Soviet Union and/or China as models to be emulated. The clash of ideas led fifteen years later to a clash of arms.

The Afghan Jamaat-i-Islami was founded by Burhannudin Rabbani (a student of theology and specializing in Islamic Law) in 1968 and concentrated its activities on winning cadres and defeating the Left on the campus. It won over Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a sharp-tongued student from the Engineering faculty. A nimble operator, like Amin, he wanted his own outfit. He split on spurious grounds from the parent group and set up the Hizb-e-Islam, with support from Islamabad. Five years after the Soviet withdrawal, Rabbani had became the President of the country with Ahmed Shah Masood, a charismatic Tajik guerrilla leader from the North and the one most respected by the Russians, as his defense minister. Two years later, Hekmatyar, now a highly-regarded asset of Pakistan’s ISI, linked up with a former pro-Soviet warlord, General Dostum and tried to dislodge his old rivals from power. Over a single year (1994), 25,000 people died in Kabul and half the city was reduced to dust. A new wave of refuges began to pour into Pakistan, destabilizing the country’s already fragile social structure.

The Bhutto government, nervous by the growing activities of the Afghan jihadis in Pakistan, decided to arm and train the madrassah matriculates (children of the Afghan refugees who had fled the country in the 80s) back them with armour and Pakistani ‘volunteers’ and take the country. It was the most successful operation in the history of the Pakistan Army. The Taliban took Kabul and ended the disorder by imposing a clerical dictatorship on the country: women in burqas, thieves amputated, rapists executed, poppy fields destroyed, etc. Gradually Mullah Omar’s government acquired autonomy from its patrons in Islamabad and was engaged in friendly negotiations with US oil companies. Their Wahhabi connections proved fatal. The rest we know.

How do the Russians view the Americans in Afghanistan, apart from the obvious schadenfreude? Kalinovsky quotes a NYT op-ed of January 2010, written jointly by General Gromov (currently Governor of the Moscow region) and Dmitri Rogozin, (Moscow’s ambassador in NATO) in which they express strong neo-con-like reservations about a premature withdrawal that will give radical Islam a huge boost. They pledge support: ‘We are utterly dissatisfied with the mood of capitulation at NATO headquarters, be it under the cover of a ‘humanitarian pacifism’ or pragmatism.’ Not a word about the suffering of the Afghans. Braithwaite reveals how, on another front, the wheel has come full circle. The flourishing market in arms and mercenaries has resulted in a grotesque synthesis in Afghanistan. A Moscow-based commercial company, Vertical-T, is supplying Russian Mi-8 helicopters and experienced pilots to help NATO in Afghanistan: ‘When one of these helicopters was shot down in 2008, the Russian Ambassador in Kabul contacted the Taliban for the return of the bodies. ‘You mean they were Russians?’ said the Taliban. ‘We thought they were Americans, Of course you can have them back.’ With or without their balls?

in Comment & Debate,London Review of Books, News June 8, 2011

Sunday, June 05, 2011

'Worse than WorkChoices' -- O’Farrell to slash public service wages By John Gauci

NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell. 
The newly-elected Barry O’Farrell Coalition government in NSW has introduced a bill that gives it unprecedented power over pay and conditions for the state's 400,000 public servants —gutting the NSW Industrial Relations Commission’s (IRC) role.

The Industrial Relations Amendment (Public Sector Conditions of Employment) Bill 2011 amends the state industrial relations act to require the IRC to “give effect to aspects of government policy declared by the regulations relating to NSW public sector conditions of employment”.

Industrial relations minister Greg Pearce told parliament on May 24 that the policy was intended to cap annual wage rises at 2.5% a year in cases where they are not funded by trade-offs in working conditions.

He said the bill was meant to ensure the “wages policy or the government’s fiscal strategy is not rendered ineffective by decisions of the Industrial Relations Commission”.

The proposed 2.5% capped wage rises are less than the rate of inflation. This would mean a wage cut for NSW public sector workers.

The amendments will apply to claims already before the IRC — which include cases brought by the Public Service Association (PSA) and the Police Association. It will also apply to appeals to any matters already decided.

NSW public school teachers are scheduled to begin bargaining in December 2011.

One of the government’s proposed amendments explicitly requires the IRC to give effect to the government’s policy on conditions of employment for the public service when it makes or varies an award or order.
Pearce said that the “policy on conditions of employment” reference was “intended to be broad enough to enable all relevant elements of the public sector wages policy to be included in the declaration made under the regulations”.

This “may also refer to other relevant conditions of employment, such as increased leave entitlements or a new classification structure”.

He said the regulations “may declare particular aspects of government policy on public sector conditions of employment, or they may adopt an existing policy set out in a relevant document”.

Under subsection (3) of the proposed section 146C, any award or order that is inconsistent with the government's declared wages policy will have no effect.

Pearce said that the government was “mindful of concerns about the independence of the judiciary”, and the legislation did not apply to the NSW industrial court.

Public sector employees are defined in the bill to include public servants, teachers, police, and health services employees. Pearce said the new requirements “clearly” wouldn’t apply to local government employers and employees.

Pearce told parliament that each 1% rise in public sector wages permanently raised government expenses by about $277 million a year.

He said the former Labor government had introduced the 2.5% cap on unfunded public sector payrises but had failed to implement it, leading to a wages “blow-out”.

Justifying his move to take the public sector wage-setting power away from the IRC, Pearce maintained the tribunal had rejected key aspects of the former government’s wages policy on a number of occasions, and it was “not a good outcome for NSW when government wages policy is disregarded”.

Opposition Leader John Robertson, formerly the secretary of Unions NSW, said the bill was “worse than Work Choices” and would give “unprecedented powers to the O'Farrell government to slash wages and conditions for nurses, teachers and police”.

He claimed: “Every single condition of employment is now at risk, including wages, penalty rates, nurse ratios, shift allowances, sick leave, long service leave and maternity leave.”

Unions NSW secretary Mark Lennon told the government to expect a campaign against the changes.
“The government has a right, as an employer, to go and argue their case for wages and conditions that they think are fair for their employees,” he said on May 25.

“But ultimately the decision has to be made by the independent umpire, and that's the right that will be removed as a consequence of this legislation.”

Greens NSW MP David Shoebridge said the powers the bill would give government were “frightening”.
The PSA also condemned the legislation, saying it would remove the union’s right to bargain for wages and conditions for its members.

It said: “The PSA will campaign across its entire membership base to oppose this legislation which will adversely affect the lives of more than 300,000 NSW public sector workers and their families.
“The campaign will commence immediately and will involve all PSA structural units including workplace groups, branches and departmental committees, and will continue until wage justice is achieved.”

The Police Association described the bill as a “betrayal of every police officer in NSW”. and said it would give the new government powers to cut “pay scales that reward experience; special rates for detectives; protections for injured police officers; provision of uniforms; and annual and long service leave”.

On May 25, O'Farrell said the changes were “minor”, and said the only difference between his government's and Labor's 2.5% curb on unfunded pay rises was that he was going to make sure the policy was carried out.
He said NSW public servants had on average won wage increases of 4% a year since 2007, but only 54% of productivity offsets had been delivered.

The Coalition is still to prove a “budget black hole” actually exists, especially during a mining boom. Of course there is no “budget black hole”, only the desire to further drive down the wages and conditions of public sector workers and make cuts to badly needed public services.

On May 26, the PSA announced it would place a ban on overtime in response to the attacks.
But unfortunately, instead of organising a coordinated public sector-wide campaign that coordinates industrial action and mobilises public sector workers and the community against the attacks, Unions NSW is focusing on an online campaign where public sector workers are asked to email members of parliament.
NSW public sector workers need to demand their union leaders organise cross-union mobilisations against these attacks. Only united action will defeat them.

From GLW issue 881