Declaring moral bankruptcy
Our leaders cannot justify Israel’s war on the Palestinians, writes Paul Demarty, so they slander protestors and try to suppress dissent in their own ranks
There are many grim features of Israel’s assault - not just in Palestine, but in this country, around Europe and in the United States. There is just the one positive feature, however, which is that the effort to dragoon politics into support for Israel does not seem to be working.
In Britain, we have had the absurd spectacle of Suella Braverman upping the ante week by week. She threatened to ban the display of Palestinian flags as “glorifying terrorism”, but they have been everywhere in the nation’s cities. She declared the boilerplate slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free”, to be incipiently genocidal, and promised to send in the police on anyone heard chanting it. That went as well as could be expected, given that cops were outnumbered by maybe a thousand to one on the October 28 demonstration in London, and only a trivial handful of arrests were made. On many occasions, police snatch squads were faced down by groups of demonstrators, and retreated.
Now Braverman has reached the last refuge of the damned cabinet minister - convening an emergency meeting of Cobra, the government’s crisis response body. What, in god’s name, is the emergency? What is the crisis? Diane Abbott has pointed out that more people were arrested at the average football match than on Saturday’s march. Braverman complains that there is an “elevated” terror threat, which may mean that MI5 has gotten wind of a 7/7-style bombing campaign, or may merely reflect the reality that the British government has seen fit to redefine many ordinary, non-violent protest actions - from ‘nuisance’ blockades of the Extinction Rebellion sort to (as noted) merely coming out with the same chant your movement has used for half a century as ‘terrorism’. There is an ‘elevated terror threat’ all right - the ‘elevated’ threat of being designated a terrorist by a deranged, blood-crazed home secretary.
We suppose these are cheques she and her floundering government are looking to cash at election time next year: the usual Tory trick of winding up rural, petty bourgeois enragés, of exploiting the paedophobic tendencies of provincial pensioners by saturation-bombing them with images of militant youth on ‘pro-terrorist’ demonstrations. (In the spirit of the season, I remember one Halloween - after an unusually high level of house-eggings in the area - the local paper designated my sleepy suburb “the Beirut of Plymouth”.)
Perhaps, in due course, it will even work. In the meantime, its effect has not been to smother the flames, but to throw petrol on them. Some have suffered, it is true: individuals have been disgracefully sacked from their jobs, reported under the tyrannical ‘Prevent’ strategy for “deradicalisation”, and so on. But there is not yet much evidence of a “chilling effect”: if anything, the opposite. The pattern is also visible in other countries. Germany and France have straightforwardly outlawed Palestine demonstrations, but they have been defied repeatedly. The inability of any serious US ally (except Israel itself, naturally enough) to oppose (rather than abstain on) the UN general assembly ceasefire resolution testifies to a kind of moral paralysis, resulting from the failure to manufacture consensus at this critical time.
Why this should have been the case is an interesting question, perhaps not answerable in the thick of things now. It is clear, in retrospect, that the state core was divided over the wisdom of invading Iraq, and this allowed a free hand for elements of the bourgeois media and even the Liberal Democrats to oppose it. A million people attended the February 15 2003 demonstration in London, following the route on a pull-out sheet from the Daily Mirror. Labour MPs spoke from the podium (and not just the usual suspects).
But there is scant evidence of such a division today, because the media was (at least initially) wholly united in its support for an Israeli attack “on Hamas” and labelling dissent as support for terrorism. So were the leaderships of all major parties (unless you count the Scottish Nationalist Party).
One important element is surely the international situation, and the fact that the relative decline of US power is now two (clearly disastrous) decades further along. Hamas’s offensive seems, at this point, to have been aimed at destroying or delaying the Saudi-Israeli rapprochement painstakingly brokered by the US, which wants to leave the region in the capable hands of its lieutenants and pivot to confrontation with China.
The trouble with disengagement is that you really do have to give up control; which means in turn that the regional media cannot be so easily kept on a leash. Anthony Blinken, Joe Biden’s reptilian secretary of state, recently urged the Qatari authorities to “tone down” Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Israeli onslaught, but at a glance that seems not to have happened. So people in the west can easily distribute its output on social media, and through institutions like mosques. It is not, altogether, very hard to puncture the pro-Israel narrative at the moment - one need merely point a camera vaguely in the direction of Gaza. (It is, however, quite a brave thing to do, given Israel’s policy of deliberately targeting journalists and their families.)
The western media itself, furthermore, is less able than it once was to maintain a firewall against ‘irresponsible’ ideas. As we have argued often recently, the monopoly over advertising enjoyed by modern web platforms presents irreducibly harder problems for censorship. Readers may remember how, in the days after the January 6 coup attempt, tech giants conspired to crush a small far-right Twitter clone, Parler. Among the many demerits of this action was the plain fact that Parler had had basically nothing to do with January 6, which was organised largely on Facebook. Facebook has been happy to censor all kinds of material, including Trumpite conspiracy theories; but it could not stop the Trumpites from cooking up an insurrection on its turf.
With no viable way to stop perfectly accurate reports of atrocities from spreading, and with the hundreds of thousands defying government bullying and police snatch squads on the streets, the consensus begins to crack - just at the edges.
But courage is infectious. Labour MP Andy McDonald had the whip suspended for daring to utter the words, “from the river to the sea” - even though he actually said: “We won’t rest until we have justice. Until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea can live in peaceful liberty” (emphasis added). Meanwhile, the Tory parliamentary private secretary, Paul Bristow, was sacked from the front bench for calling for a ceasefire. Both, we assume, knew that this was a risk, but finally saw it as a risk worth taking.
‘Message discipline’ in Starmer’s front bench more generally is breaking down; Starmer’s insistence on timidity means he is always a step behind events and liable to be wrong-footed. And some in legacy media have given up trying to hold the line, pleasingly. A Financial Times editorial on October 30 called for a “humanitarian ceasefire”, as did The Guardian last week (though you really had to read closely to see it - perhaps they were hoping that Jonathan Freedland would not notice).
I have been on the ‘free speech’ beat at this paper for a long time now, and I am accustomed to writing from a position of weakness. The left is frequently too weak to legitimise itself against the slanders of bourgeois society; and in any case frequently acts in counterproductive ways, demanding censorship of its enemies. Our prescription is ever the same - building up the institutional strength of the workers’ movement, creating oppositional media, strengthening the labour movement, so that outrages like the sacking of pro-Palestinian individuals would be impossible; and also spreading a culture of free speech in the left, fighting against the censorship of white supremacists, anti-vax cranks, and so on.
All these things are still necessary. It is difficult to see how those sacked will be reinstated, and the respect of wider society will not pay the rent. The attempts by some academic union branches to somehow argue that pro-Palestinian sentiment is a matter of academic freedom, while gender-critical feminism or imperialist revisionism is not, testify to the ideological confusion on this vital point.
Yet that is not the main lesson of the attempts to censor the movement these last few weeks: instead, we learn that the bourgeois ideological machinery is weak and rickety. It is possible to fight back, always and necessarily so: because our enemies have to lie, and liars sooner or later trip up.