Despair and the fantastic
The London bomb attacks signal the failure of the left, says Eddie Ford
Over recent weeks, the spectre of terrorism has dominated the media. Last week there were the failed bomb attacks in central London and Glasgow and then on July 11 there were the convictions of the 21/7 failed bombers.
All this follows the year-long trial of five men jailed for life on April 30 at the Old Bailey, where the jurors heard about their lurid - and predictably amateurish, of course - plans to target a shopping centre, nightclub and the gas network with the mother of all fertiliser bombs. Afterwards, the presiding judge declared that the men, all British citizens with purported links to al-Qa'eda, had "betrayed their country".
The latter trial and conviction led to a political hue and cry, if not scandal, when it emerged that some of the 'April 30' plotters had met two of the far more successful 7/7 bombers. Indeed, in 2004 Mohammad Sidique Khan - alleged to have travelled regularly to Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to attend military training camps and also to have been directly involved in the 2002 Bali bomb - was spotted on four occasions with at least one of the fertiliser bomb conspirators. Unsurprisingly, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats have called for an independent inquiry into the 7/7 link, but both John Reid and Tony Blair summarily ruled out such a possibility - declaring than an inquiry would "divert" the sterling efforts of all those involved in the 'war on terror'.
One of the immediately striking feature of the London-Glasgow attacks - apart from its fundamental idiocy - was that it was ordinary people who tackled and hence helped to thwart the half-baked but murderous plans of the bombers. So what happened then to the much touted - and no doubt very expensive - 'ring of steel' which our rulers are supposed to be continuously strengthening to protect us day and night from evil terrorist bombers?
Surely a rational conclusion to draw would be that people are much safer - or better protected - by an atmosphere of social solidarity rather than an oppressive, and vast, police-state apparatus. But, heck no, the response from the authorities seems to point in the very opposite direction - more authoritarianism, not less. Or the 'ring of steel' on stilts, if you like.
Hence the appointment of Sir Alan West as Gordon Brown's security adviser, one of the figures chosen by the prime minister to demonstrate the 'consensual' or 'non-tribal' nature of his fresh-faced and bushy-tailed administration (and which, in reality, represents yet another step in the deLabourisation of Labour).
The former first sea lord - who will become a life peer - was a commander of the frigate Ardent during the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas war, which saw the unlucky ship sink with the loss of 22 crew. In 2002 West became chief of the naval staff. Well chuffed, Sir Alan lost no time in informing the media about how thoroughly "amazed" he was to be offered a ministerial job in the new Brown government - not to mention the heart-rending fact that he had taken a "considerable drop in money" in order to defend the country's fair shores from madmen and fanatics.
In comments on July 8-9 to The Sunday Telegraph and the BBC West ventured the view that the "fight against terrorism" could go on for "up to 15 years". Apparently, the UK was up against a "disparate core" of people - often based abroad - who were attempting to "destroy our entire way of life". Not only that, he said, these people were "racist", "bigoted", "seek power", are "avaricious in money terms" and talk endlessly about "the caliphate".
West also informed us that he "hated" the expression, 'war on terror', on the grounds that it "demeans the value of a war" - god forbid that anyone would do such a terrible thing. In fact, he added rather cryptically, the term demeans the "value of a lot of things". Unfortunately though, thought West, "we are not getting our message across properly". Subsequently, he argued, the "most important" aspect of countering the terror threat was "prevention", which meant dealing with the "radicalisation" of young muslims. The former first sea lord also strongly disagreed with the use of generalised phrases like "the muslim community" - as he explained, "I have a lot of muslim friends and they see themselves as British", so the "threat is to our British way of life and all of our British people".
Finally, West urged people to be "un-British" by "snitching" to the proper authorities whenever they encountered something or someone exhibiting suspicious behaviour.
Hot on his heels, the Muslim Council of Britain on July 7 - after a meeting in London attended by more than 200 people, including imams, community activists and police representatives - issued a statement telling muslims that it is their "islamic duty" to cooperate with the police.
As for Brown himself, he has said that he wants a system put in place across the whole of Europe to help identify potential suspects. This entails, for him, expanding the current security 'watch list' system so as to create a better flow of information about "the potential recruitment or the actual recruitment" activities of terrorist groups.
For communists, vainglorious declarations about '15 more years of war' or the worthiness of "snitching" are regressive, irrational garbage. Clearly, such acts as 7/7, 21/7, etc were not committed by people in thrall to some sort of supernaturalist-driven 'evil'. Therefore, the overriding question must be - why did they do it? This is a question that needs real answers and solutions, not cheap throw-away sound bites or slogans that look good in the Daily Mail and The Telegraph or even ... Socialist Worker, albeit in a 'leftist' form.
Yes, obviously, the argumentation of someone like West serves to exonerate imperialism and the capitalist system as a whole from any blame or responsibility for current events. But this in no way justifies or excuses the left coming out with their own 'common sense' propositions and counter-arguments which at the end of the day are a mere inverted echo of its antagonists in the mainstream press.
Rather we need an independent working class, Marxist critique - and effective rebuttal - which seeks to go beyond the 'normalised' terms and categories of this argument. Regrettably, however, we have time and time again seen the left - most classically of course, the Socialist Workers Party - get locked into a circular debate which ends up reproducing the law of diminishing political returns.
We saw this quite nakedly in the post-21/7 issue of the Socialist Worker, where that paper's editorial gave us a master class in the SWP's self-serving political approach to the London bombings: "Unlike the hypocrites and moral simpletons of the right, most people understand that these deaths happen for reasons that cannot be deflected or contained. There is a chain of responsibility that inevitably links trigger-happy police officers to their warmongering political paymasters. There is a context to all the deaths that have occurred - Bush and Blair's war on Iraq. That is why we say stop 'shoot to kill' and get the troops out of Iraq" (July 30 2005).
Naturally, the analysis proffered above at the time was at best banal and at worst a shifty apologia for such terrorist actions. Clearly, if we had fallen for the SWP's diagnosis, we would have been forced to believe that 9/11, 7/7, 21/7, etc were simply the outcomes of a 'mistaken' foreign policy, and therefore the answer must be to reverse the decisions taken by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, George Bush et al.
And, with regards to the SWP, nothing appears to have changed. Communists cannot pretend to be amazed by this non-development. So, in the latest issue of Socialist Worker, under the headline "Gordon Brown tries to hide war link to bomb attacks", an article by comrade Anindya Bhattacharyya tells us that the London-Glasgow attacks were a "reaction" to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Previously, notes Bhattacharyya, "most leading muslim organisations are openly opposed to the presence of British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan" and "explicitly linked the issue of the war to the issue of terrorism and called for the troops to come home". But now, writes the worried comrade, "in their reactions to the latest bombing attempts, many muslim groups have decoupled the issue of terrorism from the issue of war". It is as if, the comrade continues, that Brown "has tacitly offered them a deal - 'I won't blame you for terrorism, if you don't mention the war'".
Putting things right, comrade Bhattacharyya concludes: "But any analysis that does not mention the war fails to explain why it is that innocent people in Britain are the targets of terrorist attacks. Nor does it explain what makes ordinary men and women attempt to bomb airports, buses or tube trains" (July 14 - my emphasis).
Quite grotesquely, the SWP would have us believe that those hoping, and praying, for mass carnage in the streets of London and Glasgow were just "ordinary men and women" reacting to the imperialist occupation of Iraq. Of course, communists do not deny for a single minute that the Iraq war is a cause for bombers (suicidal or otherwise) in Britain and elsewhere. But is Iraq the cause - that is, the reason for the fertiliser bombs?
The answer to that question, as we have pointed out before in the Weekly Worker, must be an emphatic no. Becoming attracted to jihadism is a symptom of far wider malaise in contemporary society than immediate concerns about the imperialist occupation or Iraq or the plight of Palestinian masses. Instead, the actions of the bombers is an extreme manifestation of near pathological desperation - born of a longing to escape alienation and the dread of non-belonging. Like many, but in a more intense way, sections of the young muslim population in the UK feel that life is essentially meaningless, and that they are powerless before the chaotic inhumanity that is the current imperialist system and its false gods of mammon and state power.
Rejecting any practical or material-sensual way to realise their humanity, and having lost all hope in Britain and its political system, they turn to the realm of the fantastic - ie, to the darkly utopian programme of jihad, which holds out the promise of a revival of Mohammed's values of justice and community (umma). A happy and secure global future governed by the divinely appointed elect - uncorrupted by human and hence inherently fallible political or governmental systems.
When the fantastic appears more realistic than the socialist and democratic project, then we know that it is we ourselves - rather than Brown or Bush - who have really failed.