Unite Against Fascism

I write this because my trade union branch has diverted some of the branch funds to Unite Against Fascism. I feel Unite Against Fascism is an affront to its own name, and consequently that I should repair for my inadvertent complicity. I can say that I did speak during the debate of that motion but my trade union branch tends to attract a like-minded attendance at meetings and the outcome was not what it should have been.

Wrongs perpetrated against Britain’s Muslims have dramatically increased since poor Lee Rigby’s murderers invoked Islam as justification for their Woolwich atrocity. Support for their actions was virtually non-existent – although it’s worth pointing out that the disgusted British Muslim majority had to fight for British media attention. So, among other things, Woolwich has revealed a strengthening of social cohesion – for example, since the notorious YouGov poll of British Muslims conducted for the politically-right Telegraph after the London bombings of July 2005, which revealed worryingly high levels of support. However, the Faith Matters’ initiative Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) has recorded a newsworthy increase in attacks on Muslim people and property since Woolwich (it’s worth mentioning that questions about the credibility of Tell MAMA are to be expected for any group trying to raise the issue of racism – some criticisms will have their roots in reflex denial, others will have racist motivations, and others will be valid; that said, Tell MAMA isn’t yet very good at reporting its data). It’s clear that the British nationalist far right has moved swiftly to exploit the Woolwich outrage by blaming Muslims, organising intimidatory marches and – the criminal among them – attacking Muslim people and property.

When street activity is intended to, or has the effect of, intimidating people in minority groups, it’s commendable to take to the streets in solidarity. Unite Against Fascism has so far both convened and dominated street-based counter-protest against the British nationalist far right. However, on balance and for the following reasons, I think that Unite Against Fascism does far more harm than good. I’d also say it’s over-focused on the gratifications of street protest. The University of Northamptonshire and Demos both identify the EDL has a highly Web-enabled movement, but the UAF has neglected to organise against the far right on the Web.

UAF members are known for provoking and getting involved in charged, antagonistic exchanges on the street. As such, UAF contributes to what Roger Eatwell calls ‘cumulative extremism’ and Paul Jackson calls ‘tit for tat radicalisation’,

“‘Tit for tat’ radicalisation emerges when two radicalised perspectives
discover antagonistic features within each other’s ideology and actions,
leading to an escalation of radicalisation within two or more groups.”

The EDL was formed in response to an Al Muhajiroun rally in Luton in 2009. Clearly anti-facist organisations need to interfere with this reciprocal relationship between jihadis and the British nationalist far right – UAF does the opposite and actually feeds the division.

But by far the worst aspect of Unite Against Facism is its betrayal of its own name. UAF welcomes support from jihadis (militant fundamentalist Muslim totalitarians who comprise a tiny proportion of Muslims as a whole), and this has made it impossible for it to oppose fascism, racism and bigotry which is endemic to jihadism, particularly against Jewishness, women, homosexuality and Muslims who disagree with them. Critics of UAF on this count include Sunny Hundal, who wrote,

“…left-wing groups don’t mobilise against these religious extremists as they do against the far-right. Anti-fascists who happily march against the BNP or EDL rarely show that level of commitment against Anjem Choudhary’s group. Why? There even seems to be a reticence to admit that the EDL feeds off Muslim extremists …”

and Peter Tatchell (former – perhaps continued – supporter) who wrote,

“UAF commendably opposes the BNP and EDL but it is silent about Islamist fascists who promote anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism and sectarian attacks on non-extremist Muslims.”

UAF’s Vice Chair Azad Ali is a terrible choice – the opposite of appropriate for an anti-racist organisation. He opposes democracy if it prevents the implementation of sharia law in Britain. He also lost a libel case against the DM for calling him “a hardline Islamic extremist who supports the killing of British and American soldiers in Iraq by fellow Muslims as justified”.

Unsurprisingly, the UAF’s problems with analysing facism aren’t limited to blind-eye-turning. According to those who study them (see the aforementioned Demos and Northampton reports) the EDL is not fascist but populist far right. This is important because unless UAF is committed to an impartial analysis of the changing far right in Britain, we need to recognise that it has no chance of identifying effective opposition to fascism.

As well as undermining the ‘against facism’ part of its name, it also tramples the ‘unite’ bit. In case there’s any doubt by this stage, UAF is not a democratic organisation and has made it very hard for individuals and groups to influence its decision-making unless they are politically aligned. So, it becomes clear that UAF’s programme is not after all anti-fascist. It feels its own political ends are best served by leaving some fascists to go about their business.

Consequently UAF has no answers to social division along ethnic and religious lines. This is intolerable to me and I find the argument that these ills are outweighed by UAF’s contribution to street protest entirely unacceptable. I can only imagine the disorientation experienced by young people who come into UAF’s orbit and find a definition of anti-racism distorted beyond recognition.

I can’t bring myself to turn out under a Unite Against Fascism banner and I will be conscientiously avoiding its events. I’ll continue to support all genuinely anti-racist organisations, including  Hope Not Hate.

Update

Although I’m not capably keeping up with with commentary at the moment, there’s plenty more to say about this, including:

Occupy London

Anti-austerity protesters are peacefully and unintentionally occupying St Pauls with the consent of Canon Giles Fraser (canon chancellor of St Pauls and former militant socialist) after the police headed them off from approaching the stock exchange.

The initial statement. It’s not bad, and it’s not good enough. But it’s good it exists.

On #3 of the statement, how do we refuse to pay for the banks’ crisis? Tax protests don’t work. Not paying taxes is for Tea Party types. Now Cantona’s proposal is coming of age with Move Your Money – closing bank accounts in irresponsible banks. But then again how much are we worth anyway? As a population aren’t we in debt to the eyeballs? And isn’t this our crisis as well as the banks’? And if it is, maybe there is no we because the young didn’t get themselves in debt to the eyeballs.

But if there is a we, there’s a lot that can be done through consumption and lifestyle. Buy as little as possible. Make a shared agreement to live as modestly as if we were materially equal. Set out our rations, live by them, and put our money into the Coop with a view to contributing it into a shared fund. We arrange to tax ourselves. We take over the Coop and make it a people’s bank. We work out what we can do to live in dignity and we set up a parallel system with a view to starving the old one out and wooing its functionaries over.

Accounts from Occupy London in The Guardian, the AWL (“It would be wrong to be snooty about a protest movement because all of its members are not fully worked-out Marxists”),

The government’s consultation on squatting contained a question which led SQUASH to surmise that they were going to take a broad view of illegal occupation which included stuff like this. Peaceful protest is a precious right, and it is a good thing to gather in the streets, spend the night, and trade ideas about what lies between where we are now and a world where everybody can be confident about their material future. I wonder if I can persuade anybody to stay there with me.

Hashtags #occupylsx (may be on borrowed time), #occupy (for global protests), and #occupylondon.

Aside, it’s really important to put something between your tent groundsheet and the concrete or you’ll wreck its lining at which stage it’s tempting to throw it away, contravening item #7 of the statement – the bit about caring for the planet. Second aside – they’re allowing booze. That may be a problem. Aggro, alcoholic dyspraxia, damage and mess are bad for protests.

Update: Norm has focus – he’s looking for proposals.

A donation page with a list of immediate needs to keep the protest going in the meantime.

A colleague who was down there yesterday at the general assembly said that the amplification was so bad that Twitter was the only way those at the peripheries could hear  and so cast their vote. Mustn’t rely on personal technologies though, smart phone batteries don’t last –  tapping street lights is very dangerous and more than a bit freeloadery. Electric pedals powering an amp would be better.

The Indymedia-hosted chat is compelling – a groping towards a purpose and plan peppered with requests for information about toilets.

Pro-sharia campaigners march through Walthamstow

You can tell Muslims Against Crusades are a tiny groupuscule because all their placards are done by a single person, there’s no report from yesterday’s mini march on their site, and their Media page doesn’t load. They’re expensive clowns and tossers, though – a lot of police, a lot of verbal (though the EDL mostly remained in the pubs), two arrests. Things are getting a bit bigoted round here.

Against religious bigotry stand – among others – the National Secular Society, One Law for All, Quilliam, the British Humanist Association, and British Muslims for Secular Democracy:

Against the far right of various stripes, Searchlight and Hope Not Hate but I should remark that I was recently told in infuriatingly sanguine tones that Hope Not Hate cannot treat the Islamists as they treat the BNP types because they will be called ‘Zionist’ and their credibility will suffer. The point was that HnH are better off sticking to fighting the white far right. If true, this is a disappointing kind of anti-fascism which will tie its own hands (though HnH is excellent at analysis and the absolutely crucial job of getting the anti-racist vote out – both indispensable), and why I will always appreciate Harry’s Place, which researches and fights all the authoritarian, racist, fascist or proto-fascist fuckers regardless of hue, don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world to be taken for a Zionist, and make surprisingly few mistakes while they’re about their business – LibbyT excepted (tosser). There’s also the Guardian’s Matthew Taylor who has been undercover with the EDL and recognises that they can’t be dismissed as thugs:

“At each demonstration I attended, I was confronted by casual racism, a widespread hatred of Muslims and often the threat of violence. But I also met non-white people, gay rights activists, disaffected working class men and women, and middle-class intellectuals. I came to the conclusion that the EDL is not a simple rerun of previous far-right street groups.”

Basically, fighting an anti-Muslim alignment like the EDL entails disrupting anti-Muslim views, and there is plenty of material via the links above. Depending on whether policing is sensitive to the communities targeted by the EDL, it can require some bodily obstruction to prevent EDL types intimidating Muslim communities. It also entails arguing and lobbying against sharia – not because Muslims Against Crusades are any good at what they do – they’re an embarrassment to Muslims – but because the authoritarian and chauvinistic religious right – Christian, Muslim and the rest – feed on each other and the work to keep them from taking power is never done. Harder, it requires circumstances in which a moderate majority exists and turns out to vote to keep the far right out of the seats of power.

For every privilege granted to religion, others’ rights are betrayed

For anybody worried about the advance of religion on civil rights, it has been a bit of a week.

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission, fronted by Trevor Phillips, is intervening in the cases of Lillian Ladele, the registrar who refused to fulfil her duties with same-sex partnerships, and Gary McFarlane of Relate who wouldn’t give counselling same-sex couples. If their religion prevents them from doing this, then they have chosen a homophobic religion. I’m an ardent defender of freedom of worship, but if the law finds these people entitled to enact their prejudices in the workplace then the law is an ass.

Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society comments

“Mr Phillips should realise that by encouraging these worthless cases he is putting at risk the rights of gay people and others to live free from discrimination and injustice. For every privilege granted to religious people, someone else’s rights are diminished. The fight for equality for gays has been long and hard, and now we see this campaign putting them at risk as religious believers fight for the right to legally enforce their prejudices against LGBT people.”

And alarming news from Maryam Namazie, whose organisation the Council of Ex-Muslims – mutual support for apostates from Islam – was denied charitable status by the Charity Commission. She writes in a mail-out

In its refusal letter the Charity Commission says:  “Under English law the advancement of religion is a recognised charitable purpose and charities are afforded certain fiscal privileges by the state. The prohibition of any such financial privilege as called for in the demand made in Manifesto would require a change in law. Similarly a separation of religion from the state and legal and education system would appear to require both constitutional reform and change to the law.”

“There is something fundamentally wrong when the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain can’t get charity status but the Sharia Council legislating misogyny in its sharia courts can. And how absurd that defending secularism is not a charitable object but advancing religion is.”

Pretty disappointing then that the best inter-faith organisation I know of, Faith Matters, doesn’t seem to be engaging with secularism at all.

If I can find any, I’ll post details of any campaigns to remove charitable status from organisations advancing religion, or extend it to organisations advancing secularism.

Bonus link: One Law For All.

Update: the Pink News reports that the National Secular Society has gained permission to intervene in four cases – including those referred to above – to come before the European Court of Human Rights. And after strong criticism, the Equality and Human Rights Commission seems now unlikely to argue for reasonable adjustments for religious adherents. Sanity breaks out.

Deciding about Alternative Vote

The coming referendum on electoral reform is about more than a simple “Vote yes if you want a foot in the door for electoral reform” and “Vote no if the status quo suits the party you support”.

Below are some questions about the Alternative Vote (AV) system, and an outline of the debate around those questions, with the First Past The Post (FPTP) and Single Transferable Vote (STV) systems discussed by way of comparison.

Don’t assume my sources below are neutral unless you read to the contrary.

How do they work?

FPTP is used for constituencies to elect a single representative from a number of possible candidates. It’s very simple – candidates are listed on a ballot form, voters make a single mark on the ballot paper for the candidate they most want to vote for, and the candidate with the most votes wins, regardless of whether or not they have the majority’s support. Norm provides a scenario to demonstrate how this can elect candidates without majority support:

‘In Lower Zogby by the Fen 35 people vote Tory first, 33 vote Labour first, and 32 vote LibDem first. But the Labour voters would prefer the LibDem to the Tory, and the LibDem voters would prefer the Labour candidate to the Tory. As is, with first-past-the-post, the preferences of 67 out of 100 people to have a candidate elected other than the Tory are nullified, where with AV Labour would win.’

Like the current FPTP system, AV is used for constituencies to elect a single representative. Like the STV system, AV is a preferential voting system, but a much simpler one which works as follows:

  1. you (the voter) rank the candidates on the ballot form in order of your preference;
  2. if a candidate gets more than 50% of the first preferences, they are elected outright;
  3. otherwise the candidate with the fewest first preference on the ballot forms is ruled out. If you voted for that ruled-out candidate, your ballot paper’s second preference is then redistributed, with the same value as your first preference;
  4. then there’s a second round of counting to see if any of the candidates are now polling over 50% – if so, that candidate is elected;
  5. if not – and let’s say you voted for the candidate with the least votes in that round – then your second-preference candidate is ruled out and your ballot paper’s third preference is then redistributed;
  6. and so on, until a candidate polls over 50% and is elected.

See the pro-AV Electoral Reform Society’s AV Questions Answered pamphlet [PDF]. As Arieh Kovler puts it, unlike our current FPTP system:

“…votes under AV aren’t necessarily rival – a vote for one candidate doesn’t always mean a vote against another candidate. That vote might only be with your first choice for one round, but could stick with your second choice all the rest of the rounds until the end.”

STV won’t be an option for the coming referendum. STV systems are used to vote for candidates in multi-member constiuencies. Rather than polling a majority, successful candidates have to reach a quota – a minimum number of votes – to be elected. This tends to be the number of valid votes cast, divided by the number of available seats plus one. If a candidate exceeds their quota, their surplus votes are redistributed. The best way to avoid chance here involves weighting the second-choice votes of any candidate who exceeds their quota at a fraction of the value of the first choice votes to reflect that they have already been used. This is explained on page 1 of this ERS information sheet [PDF].

What is a ‘wasted vote’ under these systems?

For FPTP it’s often said that a wasted vote is any vote cast for any candidate who doesn’t have a chance of winning the election. The contest is between the parties who are doing well in the opinion polls and stand a chance of winning – any other vote effectively disenfranchises that voter.

Under the STV system, Arieh Kovler points out:

“…it’s also a wasted vote to vote for a popular candidate who’s going to be elected anyway. If Candidate A gets elected with 1000 votes but less-popular Candidate B gets 500 and both are elected to the block, then votes for Candidate A were only worth half of those for B.”

Under the AV system, the more support your first choice candidate has from other voters, the less likely your second, third, fourth etc votes are to be counted. Norm encourages us to view an AV election as a series of one-on-one contests between each of the candidates.

Would the extremist vote – e.g. BNP – be empowered under AV?

This concern is shared by people who are liberal first, democratic second.

The BNP do not want AV. Part of this is that while their supporters are empowered, the smaller parties themselves do not stand to gain. However, this fact hasn’t stopped the Green Party campaigning for AV on grounds that it demonstrates an “appetite for change”. Unlike the Greens, the BNP thrives on disempowerment and the anger it breeds. The danger AV poses for the BNP is that if extremist voters were empowered, the empowerment may well have a mitigating effect on the extremism by removing the need for a protest vote (anecdotally, this is the view of some local Labour canvassers I met in the pub today). So while the BNP detests the current system and wants a bloc proportional representation system, unlike the Greens it is not prepared to lose ground under AV to get it.

What about the BNP’s supporters, the nearly 564,000 people who voted BNP in the last election? The worry is that their second preferences could have significant effects in the reallocation process. Marco Attila Hoare argues that because voters who preferred extremist parties would have their second, third, fourth, etc preferences counted more than those who preferred the leading parties, in effect these minority voters would be privileged with more votes. What are the implications here?

IPPR research suggests that BNP voters’ second preferences would not ultimately affect the outcome:

“Given the marginality and distance from 50% for both the first and second placed candidates it is true that BNP supporters’ second or third preferences will be counted in the 35 seats listed by the ‘No to AV’ campaign.

However, the BNP vote is still very small in each of these seats, averaging a vote share of just 4.5% – yet the average distance from 50% for the winning candidate is 11.3% and 14.2% for the runner-up. Even if we assume all BNP preferences go to a single candidate (which they wouldn’t) they would still require more than twice the number of BNP supporters to win under AV. BNP voters cannot therefore single-handedly change a result.”

In addition, Norm quotes Brian Barder, an anti-AV campaigner who nevertheless points out:

“All the valid votes are counted again at every recount. Those giving their first preferences to the two candidates who come first and second, and who are therefore never eliminated from the next recount, don’t get their second and lower preferences redistributed and counted, but that’s not a disadvantage: their first preferences continue to count right to the last round.”

Lastly, since I risk forgetting that BNP support isn’t merely a function of an electoral system, here’s a list of other things associated with BNP support.

What does tactical voting look like under these different systems?

New systems mean new games.

The FPTP system tends to render votes for smaller parties wasted votes. Accordingly the Liberal Democrats has tended to encourage their supporters to ‘go long’ and think of a vote for the Lib Dems as an act of incubating the party, an investment for the future. However, the leading parties work hard to deter voters from ‘splitting the vote’. Consider a scenario in which Conservative is the likely winner, followed by Labour, followed by UKIP. Say a Conservative Party supporter with strong anti-immigration views is considering giving their vote to UKIP; the Conservative Party would argue against this on grounds that it splits their vote and improves Labour’s chances of winning – Labour is even less anti-immigration than the Conservatives.

Under STV, tactical voting is very complicated, needs to be precise, and tends to be worked out by election geeks for various factions and parties running models on surpluses and transfers, making deals, and then telling their supporters how to vote.

For tactical voting under AV, here’s Arieh again:

“Imagine that at the next election there was a ‘no to cuts’ party which opposed Government spending cuts. All the party would do is talk about how bad the cuts were and how much better it would have been if they didn’t happen or were slower. They’d also call for a second-preference vote for the Labour party. It would get Election Broadcasts. Its candidates would appear at hustings and be interviewed on the TV where they’d put their messages across and call for people to vote Labour (second).

A new party like this probably wouldn’t win any seats, but that’s not what it’s trying to do. If people voted through all their preferences then a new party like this could help the Labour party get its message across and pick up more votes. Equally, I could have given examples that would benefit the two governing parties instead, e.g. a Taxpayers Alliance Party.”

And that second preference vote for the big party would stick for far longer than the first preference one. There’d be a lot more horsetrading between politicians in advance of an election according to AV, and minor or single-interest parties would gain attention as they announced their second preferences.

So if I were the BNP (a pariah whose second preference votes nobody wanted) I might consider starting some single issue parties – on environmental issues, social housing, import and export – and having them recommend a second vote for the BNP. But I think that’s pretty unlikely – the barriers to contesting an election entail significant expenditure of time and money.

Does a No to AV amount to a No for electoral system reform?

Conscious that rather than being enamoured of AV, the Greens are anxious to indicate an appetite for reform itself, I wonder what the effects of a No vote will be. Norm quotes from a Political Studies Association briefing paper [pdf]:

“A “no” vote in a referendum is always followed by what Professor Lawrence LeDuc calls a “battle for interpretation”. Those who support the status quo argue that the people have spoken and that the issue should be left alone. Supporters of change, by contrast, argue that the referendum has not decided the issue: they might say, for example, that voters were offered the wrong reform option or that a better information campaign should have been launched.

This will happen in the event of a “no” vote in the UK too. Supporters of FPTP will say that the people have decided in favour of the status quo. Supporters of change will argue that AV was the wrong reform and that a more substantial change should be offered.

The question is, who will win this battle? Given that the issue of electoral reform has not caught the public imagination and that few voters understand the intricacies of electoral systems, it is likely to be difficult for reform supporters to convince many that another reform should now be considered. Such was the experience of reform supporters after recent referendums in three Canadian provinces: the battle of interpretation was decisively won by the supporters of the status quo.

It is clear that changing the electoral system is easier where change has already recently happened: the idea of reform is no longer so radical…”

So if you want any kind of reform, vote Yes to AV. Hear that, BNP?

Will AV improve voter turnout?

The Yes campaign says “We can’t promise the earth with AV”.

Professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde John Curtice told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme (Thurs April 14th) that, based on the literature, a modest improvement in turnout is associated with proportional representation but since AV is a disproportional system, there’s no reason to suppose it will help in that respect.

(There’s a better way to solve that problem, anyway: treat not voting as the personal travesty it is and outlaw it.)

Are coalition governments more likely under AV, and what are the implications?

Barder again:

“There are also other unanswerable objections to AV.  By increasing the number of seats won by third party candidates, it would make hung parliaments much more frequent, and thus produce more coalitions or minority governments, which in turn undermines the convention of the party manifesto mandate and the public accountability which that entails.”

Have to save that one for another day – but it’s an important one and I can’t decide how I’ll vote without it.

A selection of more baroque / diversionary reasoning:

From one of Waterloo Sunset’s comments on Bob’s blog, a means justifying ends argument: ‘No’ vote for the AV referendum will break the coalition and precipitate an election which will return Labour to power.

The vote counting machines will cost more [see update below]. Small price to pay if it’s a more democratic system.

That’s it for now – run out of time…

Update: vote counting machines a No Campaign fabrication. On the BBC:

“In his speech [Cameron] also suggested that if AV was used, “we may have to buy and install electronic voting machines to make sense of all the different outcomes and possibilities”.

But when the topic was raised in a question session after Mr Clegg’s speech, the deputy PM dismissed it. He said in Australia, which uses AV, votes were counted by hand. Reports it would cost millions to administer AV were “wildly inaccurate”, Mr Clegg said, adding he hoped the No campaign would not “create a whole barrage of scare stories and myths about this”.

Fighting, fallen, virtual undergrowth

Paul Mason’s twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere piece is one of the reasons he’s a stand-out candidate on the Orwell Prize shortlist:

“9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

12.The weakness of organised labour means there’s a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris – heavy predomination of the “progressive” intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a “stage army” to be marched on and off the scene of history.

13.This leads to a loss of fear among the young radicals of any movement: they can pick and choose; there is no confrontation they can’t retreat from. They can “have a day off” from protesting, occupying: whereas twith he old working-class based movements, their place in the ranks of battle was determined and they couldn’t retreat once things started. You couldn’t “have a day off” from the miners’ strike if you lived in a pit village.

14.In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week.

15. People just know more than they used to. Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives and truth. More or less everything you need to know to make sense of the world is available as freely downloadable content on the internet: and it’s not pre-digested for you by your teachers, parents, priests, imams. For example there are huge numbers of facts available to me now about the subjects I studied at university that were not known when I was there in the 1980s. Then whole academic terms would be spent disputing basic facts, or trying to research them. Now that is still true but the plane of reasoning can be more complex because people have an instant reference source for the undisputed premises of arguments. It’s as if physics has been replaced by quantum physics, but in every discipline.”

I recommend reading 1-8 and 16-20. Find some of it hard to fit with what I already know and very thought provoking.

Worth reading, this International Socialism piece by Jonny Jones on Social Media and Social Movements (HT Evgeny Morozov) – I haven’t read it properly the following excerpt seems to contrast with the picture Paul Mason paints of the ‘mix and match’ activist – the ‘mix and match’ activist utlimately depends on an infrastructure of protest:

“The 10 November protest—organised by the NUS and the University and College Union under the name “Demolition”—saw over 50,000 protesters take to the streets. This turnout could not have been achieved without the structures of the NUS, which invested time and money promoting the demonstration and laying on coaches. But within days of Millbank the mainstream media had picked up on the Day X protests. The newspapers highlighted the role of student activists such as EAN spokesperson and NUS executive member Mark Bergfeld, picking up on his comments about the use of “legitimate force” to “bring down the government”.35 In an echo of the G20 mobilisations, there was a reciprocal relationship between the bourgeois media, student activists and social media. In the absence of official NUS structures (or, indeed, of left wing student organisation in many parts of the country), Facebook became a way for students in disparate areas of the country to find out about what was going on, who in their area was going to protest. It was able to give school students with little or no experience of protest the confidence to get large numbers to walk out of school.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to think that the walkouts and university occupations simply emerged from horizontal networks. The schools and colleges that saw the biggest walkouts, such as Chiswick Community School and Le Swap in London, and Bury and Holy Cross Colleges near Manchester, were driven and built by socialists and radical activists. Over 30 universities went into occupation, but the “first wave” of occupations—from “University College London, School of Oriental and African Studies and King’s College, to universities like Bradford, Bristol, Nottingham, York, Leeds, Edinburgh, Manchester Metropolitan University, Dundee, Sheffield and the University of East London”—were all marked by the presence of organised left wing activists and socialists.”

And on horizontalism:

“It conducts meetings via Twitter and is avowedly “non-hierarchical”. But when one member tried to set up an event in praise of the anti-union “cooperative” John Lewis, an argument ensued which was only resolved through long arguments among small numbers of people who had the time to debate the issues over multiple online mediums. The idea of unstructured online decision-making may seem inclusive and democratic: it is actually unaccountable and exclusive.”

That is food for thought.

There is also the issue of how information and communication technologies are used. For example, as Charles Shaar Murray puts it:

“Old-fashioned totalitarian societies control information by suppressing what they consider inconvenient for their people to hear, while the more sophisticated capitalist democracies control information by swamping the truth in a deluge of disinformation, through which it is virtually a full-time job to sift.”

Paul Mason gets to the 20th reason then proceeds to list complications, including reference to the Chinese state model for hiring social networkers to generate pro-government memes. Egyptian blogger Dalia Ziada is quick to admit that US Government-aided social networking strategies catalysed revolution across the Middle East; I assume that they were generating memes of their own. I can’t find a reference, but there are artificially intelligent software agents out there which will create accounts on social network sites, befriend a feasible number of people there, and then manufacture political blog comments on a theme. So I’m not sure about Paul Mason’s confidence in incontrovertible facts.

I know that pessimism is a luxury for when things are going well, but we’re currently in another financial bubble related to Web 2.0 and when that bursts you also have to anticipate a scenario where a few very powerful companies are left and there’s a great enclosure of the open web, as happened with telephone, television, and many other things which started off open. I was also unable to tweet for a period during the March 16th demo, because of network overload. How do the masses organise themselves to accommodate this?

And, more fundamentally, you have to anticipate the lights going off during the great bloody struggle for resources to come. Enough people I know with advanced knowledge of computer systems administration have an interest in survivalism – morse code, self-sufficiency, that kind of thing – to catch my attention. It’s an anecdote I know, but coming from them I take it seriously. They know about systems vulnerabilities, and they understand the extent to which we rely on computer networks to exist. And I’ve got somewhat far from my point now, but when you hear a usually sober economist say that during the crash of 2008 she not only withdrew as much cash as she could, but also bought in as much food as she could, you do wonder how securely the technocracy is perched.

I think the right thing to do is to treat the speculation about the power of social media as contingent, and prepare contingencies accordingly.

Back to Paul Mason’s complications:

“…what happens to this new, fluffy global zeitgeist when it runs up against the old-style hierarchical dictatorship in a death match, where the latter has about 300 Abrams tanks? We may be about to find out.”

From my Observer today (where the Middle East uprisings are now relegated to p27):

“Egypt’s deepening political crisis, which has followed the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, took a dangerous new turn yesterday as soldiers armed with clubs and rifles stormed protesters occupying Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a pre-dawn raid, killing at least two.”

And in Yemen:

“…about 100,000 marched in the city of Taiz, where four protesters were killed and about 400 injured on Friday … More than 12people have been killed since protests against Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, began in February.”

In Syria:

“More than 170 people have been killed since the protests began, human rights groups say. But the rallying cry was met with a warning by Syrian authorities that they would crush further unrest, raising the risk of further bloodshed.”

For more on Syria, Al Jazeera’s silence, and Bashar Al Assad’s free pass to murder his own people, read DaveM on Harry’s Place. We-the-people’ will never get a UN resolution to go in there and rout that bastard.

In Bahrain:

“Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, 50, who formerly worked for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, was detained in a pre-dawn raid. His daughter, Zainab, said armed and masked men stormed her house aoutside the capital, Manama, and beat her father unconscious before taking him into custody.”

More on Abdulhadi al-Khawaja on the BBC site.

And elsewhere I read that in Zimbabwe:

“Forty-six people in Zimbabwe have been charged with treason, and some allegedly beaten by police, after watching videos of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia

The activists, trade unionists and students were at a meeting on Saturday titled Revolt in Egypt and Tunisia: What lessons can be learnt by Zimbabwe and Africa?, when it was raided by police who seized a video projector, two DVDs and a laptop.”

Fluffy will be flattened.