Friday, March 09, 2007

Arguing about Amnesty

It seems (see the comments box) that some readers of this blog aren't too keen on shelling out for Amnesty International, even when the promise of a dirty poem or two from Jack Ross is thrown in to sweeten the deal.

I saw a sticker on a car the other day that read JOIN AI - USE YOUR FREEDOM. To me, that slogan sums up the positive and negative sides of Amnesty.

The organisation is very good at using the free speech and liberal democracy that exist, most of the time at least, in countries like New Zealand to raise awareness about repression in faraway places. A quick visit to Amnesty's local website reveals their members are propagandising and lobbying on behalf of an imprisoned Egyptian blogger and the victims of Estonia's rather sinister 'language police'. How many of the rest of us in this part of the world even knew about these cases of injustice?

Even if their lobbying doesn't always succeed, Amnesty's members provide a mass of information which is usually (though not always - see below) reliable, and which can be invaluable to political activists and left-wing journalists. I'd wager that more than one lefty leaflet-writer has tapped into Amnesty's extensive archive of material on the human rights wasteland that is Guantanamo Bay.

But by taking the liberal democracies of the wealthy West as its benchmark for freedom, despite admitted blemishes like Guantanamo, Amnesty falls into a very old trap. The reason that the West boasts many of the world's most stable and democratic societies is complex, and not very pleasant.

To (try to) put it in a nutshell, we've achieved limited democracy and relative social stability by plundering the rest of the world. We force poorer countries to provide us with cheap raw materials, cheap labour and, increasingly, wide-open markets for our goods, and then take the profits we make out of this superexploitation back home.

Most of the profit goes into the hands of a small minority who own capital, but some goes to a section of the local working class, which becomes a 'labour aristocracy' enjoying a better standard of living than its counterparts in the Third World. This higher standard of living, expressed both in higher wages and salaries and in the 'social wage' of the welfare state, means less social and political instability, and fuels cosy national narratives of a 'democratic culture'.*

Recognising all this doesn't mean ignoring the fact that bourgeois democracy is a good thing, for the people who enjoy it, or glorying in the exploits of Third World dictators, or cheering on the 9/11 attacks. It just means putting the good thing into context, as one side of a dialectic.

In the Third World there is very little room for the state and for political forces based in the poorer parts of the population to manoeuvre and buy support for the status quo. Democracy becomes very dangerous, because the masses take hold of it and try to use it to challenge the system. They elect populists like Allende or Arbenz or Chavez or Morales, whose efforts to win a better deal quickly run up against the limits imposed by the domination of foreign capital over the local economy. There's no money in the kitty to pay for free education or a rise for the miners, because most of the wealth of the country is going abroad.

Getting more money into the kitty means taking control of the local economy from Western multinationals and their friends in high places, and this is a tricky task, to say the least. Western governments destabilise the offending country, spreading phoney propaganda, fomenting capital flight and other sorts of economic sabotage, paying for assassinations, and even organising insurgencies and coup attempts. Along with their allies in the local ruling class, they can make a country ungovernable. As part of the bargain, they also make nice, liberal Western-style democracy impossible.

Let's be honest: it's hard to respect the freedom of the press when that press spends all its time calling for your overthrow by coup or American invasion. It's not easy to deal with Opposition MPs who spend more time in the local US consulate than in parliament. Whether you're governing Chile in the early '70s or Venezuela in the noughties, it's not long before you're being accused of creeping red tyranny by your local opponents and the big media everywhere.

Because it takes the capitalist democracies of the West as its benchmark for freedom and human rights, Amnesty is inclined to join the chorusing voices of the New York Times, the Miami Herald, the Sun, and our own dear old Granny Herald, and denounce Third World governments which have the temerity to challenge the hegemony of the West. Amnesty's fileof articles on Venezuela makes sad reading, because the organisation prefers recycling State Department talking points to discussing the real human rights catastrophe in Venezuela, which is the systematic murder of hundreds of pro-Chavez peasant activists by death squads operating across the Colombia border with the approval and funding of the United States, which has a massive military presence in Venezuela's western neighbour.

Armed with a dialectical understanding of Western bourgeois democracy we are more likely to avoid the tendency of William Schulz and other Amnesty bigwigs to fetishise it, make it a model for the rest of the world, and look to the imperialist powers of the West to spread it. We're more likely to be able to recognise that the democracy that exists in societies like New Zealand is limited in scope, based upon the suffering of other societes, and not reproducable in most of the rest of the world. We're more likely to see that a new, superior model of society, based on local, democratic control of local resources, is necessary, if real freedom is ever to be achieved in most of the world.

*Admittedly, this is a bit simplistic, but I'm pressed for time. I should acknowledge, before I get dragged into an internecine quarrel amongst Kiwi Marxists, that New Zealand does not earn most of its wealth through the direct exploitation of poor countries. It would be fairer to say that, as the 'farm' exporting primary products to many directly imperialist countries, New Zealand lives indirectly off imperialism. Even that statement, of course, is very simplistic, and requires considerable qualification.


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