Thursday, February 21, 2008

Making allowances for what is democratically worse

Norman Geras:

Unwilling to profess a clear allegiance towards what is democratically better, a certain type of leftist is always ready to make allowances for what is democratically worse.

Christopher Hitchens on Lakhdar Brahimi:

A few years ago, his party and his government were challenged by an extreme fundamentalist movement that actually won the first round of a general election but would probably not have permitted any subsequent one. In any event, the Algerian authorities announced that on no account would they surrender the country to the "insurgency" that followed. They showed themselves willing to kill on an unprecedented scale, employing measures that the U.S. Marines would never be permitted. Repulsive though many of the tactics were, I think the FLN was broadly right. Certainly, Algeria today is a far better society for the outcome, and so is the whole of North Africa and therefore Southern Europe. These are the stakes.

21 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Norman Geras elides the consideration of power politics. Is he really suggesting that in a confrontation between a Great Power and a small, subaltern country or movement, the leftist of good faith will determine his allegiance solely on the ground of which side operates a more democratically convincing domestic constitution? On this basis, has there been any US intervention in Latin America, say, where Geras's leftist of 'good faith' would not be obliged to support the Yanks?

There have been many political sins associated with 'anti-imperialism', but this really is throwing out the baby with the bath-water.

Marc Mulholland

2/21/2008 12:58:00 PM  
Blogger The Couscous Kid said...

This post of Norm's reminded me of the middle sections of this account of the politics of the New Left Review in the 1980s, when he was on its editorial board.

I was struck especially insistence in the journal's 1983 Charter that the actually-existing socialist states represented "historic progress over the capitalist or pre-capitalist societies that preceded them", that they were "a vital bulwark against imperialism", and that they should be defended "against every variety of capitalist attack, to which they are ceaselessly subject."

(Of course, there was also reference to these states' "repressive tutelage over the working population" and to the denial of "fundamental rights of self-expression and self-determination", but Nick Cohen helps us to see that for what it is -- a kind of throat-clearing.)

Or did even the editorial board of the NLR not really ever go along with the politics that it itself claimed to espouse?

2/21/2008 01:13:00 PM  
Blogger The Couscous Kid said...

"struck especially *by the* insistence", obviously.

Oh, and the reference to "Gulagism" is quite striking, too.

2/21/2008 01:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

flawed as they may be, the capitalist democracies are democracies"

Coming from anyone but a distinguished philosopher, that would be called 'begging the question'.

none of the would-be anti-capitalist countries, anywhere, has managed to sustain comparably good or better democratic institutions over any length of time ... the democratic institutions we are familiar with have yet to be improved upon in any of those places that some leftists are given to casting an indulgent eye upon

I'm not a political scientist, but really - "the democratic institutions we are familiar with", forsooth. The bicameral system with hereditary peers and a hereditary head of state? The presidential system with a two-term limit and a wholly-appointed executive? Abrogative referendums? Coroners' juries? Or what?

I mean, we know what he's saying - "stop trying to tell us Castro wasn't a dictator", basically - and I think there's actually the beginnings of a decent point in there. If he'd confined himself to the kind of apologetics that periodically jump from one set of grounds to another, like someone crossing a marsh, I'd have more sympathy. I could even support going from "tell the truth about relatively undemocratic regimes" to "always oppose relatively undemocratic regimes", although it would leave you in a rather strange and lonely place. But his conclusion is more like "always oppose those relatively undemocratic regimes that are further down the democratic scale and support those that are further up".

It starts as analysis but it ends as flag-waving, I'm afraid.

2/21/2008 01:29:00 PM  
Anonymous dude where's my dude said...

hard to believe that this man spent most of his adult life as a firm defender of the political legacy of Lenin and Trotsky, the creators of a regime whose record on the question of human rights or democracy (between 1917 and 1823, ie before the advent of "Stalinism") was infinitely worse than that of Fidel Castro

2/21/2008 02:35:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

always oppose those relatively undemocratic regimes that are further down the democratic scale and support those that are further up

Actually even that last might itself be the beginnings of a reasonable position, if it took into acount:

(a) that it is not at all historically abnormal for states to be democratic at home and oppressive abroad ;

(b) that because people are elected to office in democracies does not mean that they themselves are convinced democrats or pursue democratic aims.

2/21/2008 02:36:00 PM  
Anonymous gastro george said...

The flag-waving tendency is all the more appalling when you consider that we can actually do more about the state of our democracy (or that of the US) than we can about other countries.

This is what annoys me most about Decent complaints of "knee-jerk anti-Americanism". All it means is that you end up as a do-nothing saloon bar bore complaining about bloody foreigners.

2/21/2008 06:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hasta la victoria siempre!

2/21/2008 08:08:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

If Che is accessing this site via a ouija board it should be able to spell out a name as well as a message...

2/21/2008 10:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

This is what annoys me most about Decent complaints of "knee-jerk anti-Americanism". All it means is that you end up as a do-nothing saloon bar bore complaining about bloody foreigners.

Some mistake here, as anti-Americanism is...

2/21/2008 10:32:00 PM  
Anonymous bubby said...

that it is not at all historically abnormal for states to be democratic at home and oppressive abroad

Right. On. The. Money.

One of the key Decent sleight of hands has always been to contrast domestic Western liberalism with undemocratic/islamic regimes, rather than consider the murkier recesses of foreign policy.

Berman has built his Decent reputation using such bad faith arguments.

Fucking hell I'm just watching the Politics Show and caught sight of Andrew Neil's hair. Now that is shocking.

2/21/2008 11:47:00 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

It's a reverse will-you-condemn http://decentpedia.blogspot.com/2007/08/will-you-condemn-thon.html

Like much of Decency its all about proclamations and condemnations, usually of the most unctuous nature.

2/22/2008 08:48:00 AM  
Blogger Jonny said...

Well said Mr Hitchens. Algeria, yes, what a fucking triumph that is. I love his use of the word 'probably'. What he is saying is that he is not sure what the Islamists would have done had they gained power, but that it was right to annul the election results all the same, just in case. Extraordinary argument.

I'm always surprised that people like Hitchens have such an aversion to Islamists winning elections, since it is probably the best way of discrediting them. Within 18 months of taking power, their popularity will have disappeared.

2/22/2008 09:59:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

It may well, but as Hitchens would probably argue, so would the ability to democratically remove them.

(This is not to say that I agree with him, which I decidedly do not.)

2/22/2008 10:02:00 AM  
Anonymous bubby said...

This very much reminds me of Nick Cohen's implied argument in What's Left that the West was right to support Saddam against Iran because the threat of Islamism was more serious than that from Ba'athism. Hundreds of thousands died but hey we put a brake on Iran's export of the Islamic Revolution.

Similarly Hitchens seems to be arguing that the hunderds of thousands of Algerians who perished in the Civil War (with a strong suspicion that the Government he appears to support, had a hand in the worst of the massacres) was a necessary price to pay to keep the Islamists out of power.

There is a terrible callousness at the root of these arguments where genocidal violence is just waved away as long as it thwarts Islamism.

Incidentally a good friend of mine, who is Algerian, is fairly certain that the Islamists who won the election would have not have been able to introduce a Saudi or Taliban style theocratic state because this was opposed by virtually the entire population including those who voted for the Islamist parties.

2/22/2008 11:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

It's a reverse will-you-condemn

Yes - it's a won't-you-endorse.

2/22/2008 11:54:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

hey we put a brake on Iran's export of the Islamic Revolution.

Not all that effective a brake, mind. I thnk we may have stepped on the wrong pedal.

2/22/2008 12:06:00 PM  
Anonymous matt w said...

What he is saying is that he is not sure what the Islamists would have done had they gained power, but that it was right to annul the election results all the same, just in case.

This reminds me of Milton Friedman's contemporary reaction to Pinochet's coup (not whatever post facto justifications he came up with)

--which I've been unable to track down, so I'm reconstructing from memory of having found this interview before, so take it with an enormous grain of salt--

which I remember as being, "Yes, Pinochet has killed a lot of people. But Allende obviously would kill a lot of people, because he's a socialist and that's what socialists do. So Pinochet is preferable because he gives some prospect for reform."

Once you allow yourself "these are the stakes" you can justify any amount of crimes against your preferred opponents.

(I suppose this is banal by now, but Norm can't be bothered to provide any evidence for his assertions about what the left thinks, can he?)

2/22/2008 12:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Simon said...

Presumably then Hitchens would also support the repression of Islamist movements in Egypt and Jordan, which have the entirely coincidental effect of also suppressing democracy in those states? How quickly Decentism turns to realpolitik.

2/22/2008 12:40:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

As I remember it, the worst excesses in Algeria were carried out by the security services using agent-provocoteurs, in part to strengthen the position of the military. I'd guess that Hitchens knows this (its not impossible that the Bali bombings in Indonesia were something similar. The devil you know can be a slippery, deceptic, beast - with his own agenda), in which case what the fuck is he arguing? Would 9/11 be okay if it had been carried out by the CIA, because it provided an excuse to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran? Is this where Decent politics leads you?

2/22/2008 05:11:00 PM  
Anonymous gastro george said...

"Yes - it's a won't-you-endorse."

LOL. I'm waiting for the encyclopedia entry already.

2/22/2008 05:30:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home