Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Beyond particulars

Robert Fisk gave a lecture a couple of years ago at the University of Auckland's Law School, in a little hall where visiting academics and nervous postgraduate students normally deliver papers on the intricacies of corporate tax regulations or nineteenth century maritime conventions to steadily thinning audiences.
On the day of Fisk's appearance the hall was packed, so that members of the audience had to sit in the aisles or stand near the doors. With his sunburnt, sweating face screwed up in agitation, Fisk spoke in his loud, occasionally hoarse voice for over an hour, yet nobody left the hall. What Fisk offered was not an argument or a narrative, but rather a series of images - burnt-out tanks in the Iraqi desert, the rubble of downtown Beirut after an Israeli bombing raid, a child with a bomb strapped to his back like a schoolbag - which were at once shocking and instantly familiar. We recognised the images not only from the footage we'd seen on Al Jazeera, CNN and the rest of the twenty-four hour news stations, but also from the prodigous body of superbly impressionistic journalism which Fisk has produced during decades of service in the Middle East.
When members of the audience finally asked the famous journalist a few questions - about the state of Middle Eastern politics, the vicissitudes of American foreign policy, and the notion of a just war, amongst other subjects - his answers were unexpectedly short and banal. Europeans are in the Middel East because they have a colonial mindset, Fisk declared. The West is fond of oil. George Bush did bad things because he was, well, a bad man. There is a lot of evil in the world.
There was a peculiar sense, though, that what Fisk actually said to his audience was irrelevant. What was important was where he had been, what he had seen, who he had met. Fisk had interviewed Osama bin Laen, had rode into a war zone on an Iranian tank, had walked through Beirut as bombs fell around him. To an audience of mostly young people from tranquil New Zealand, Fisk represented an exotic world of war, high stakes diplomacy, and revolution. Fisk represented history.
Over the past week Tariq Ali has been delivering a series of lectures at the University of Auckland, and drawing very large crowds. Like Robert Fisk, Ali has been a witness to a series of political and military storms over the past four decades. But where Fisk likes to do his reporting from the back of a jeep, and is more comfortable in a bullet proof vest than a dinner jacket, Ali is a suave figure who seems, these days at least, as comfortable in a research library as on the frontlines.
Fisk is a relentlessly brave and precise documentor of the bloody particulars of Middle East conflicts, but he has little besides rhetoric and hunches to fall back on when he is confronted with the problem of generalising his experiences. Ali, on the other hand, is at home with synthesis and summary. Where Fisk's prose describes tank movements and artillery barrages, the long articles Ali has written on a series of Middle Eastern and Asian nations for the New Left Review and the London Review of Books in recent years describe the movement of capital and the eddy and flow of ideologies. Ali was a supporter of Trotskyist outfit the International Secretariat of the Fourth International back in the 1970s, when its intellectual godfather was the Belgian polymath Ernest Mandel, and the influence of Mandel's lapidarian brand of Marxism can still be seen in his work.
Ali is probably the most radical thinker to be chosen to deliver the annual Douglas Robb series of lectures at Auckland university since his friend EP Thompson back in 1988, and it is especially pleasing to know that Stuart McCutcheon, the unctuous vice-chancellor of the university, has had to navigate his way through crowds of workers protesting against union-bashing policies on his way to this year's lectures.


Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

And yet, watch Ali give answers that are not only banal, but pretty bloody stupid, to a
Dominion Post interviewer just the other day.

8:33 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez thinks capitalism may be responsible for the lack of life on the planet Mars. “I have always said, heard, that it would not be strange that there had been civilization on Mars, but maybe capitalism arrived there, imperialism arrived and finished off the planet,” Chavez said in a speech on Tuesday. The socialist president has been a fierce opponent of capitalism, and during his World Water Day speech, Chavez blamed capitalism for destroying Earth’s water supplies as well.

9:07 am  
Blogger maps said...

That is a slightly silly interview with Mr Ali, isn't it? I suppose it must be exhausting having to give so many interviews.

I was more impressed by the article he published on Yemen this time last year:

He gets credit in my book, too, for producing Derek Jarman's very fine movie on the life of Wittgenstein back in the early nineties.

I don't mean to denigrate Fisk in any way: I think what he does is extraordinary. There just seemed to me an over-reverential and unthoughtful air about the way his lecture was received a couple of years ago. Other people who were there may have different memories of the event.

Fisk did have one pithy and seemingly very accurate generalisation to offer that day: referring to the divisions between the country's sectarian communities and the grubby playing off of factions by the US, he said that the 'peace' which had come to Iraq in US recent years was 'the peace of walls'.

10:07 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

That is a slightly silly interview with Mr Ali, isn't it? I suppose it must be exhausting having to give so many interviews.

"Slightly silly"? I thought a couple of the comments were inexcusable and betrayed a rather alarming intellectual schematism. I don't care how many interviews he gives.

10:40 am  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Giovanni,

I thought Ali might just be baiting the colonials, rather than being entirely serious.

Do you know much about Michael Field, the man who did the interview? Is he the same Michael Field who writes regularly about the Pacific, and who published a good book on Samoa's Mau rebellion back in the '80s?

I looked at the chapter on Tonga in Field's most recent book, Swimming with Sharks, and was alarmed at how unserious it seemed, and how many unsympathetic cliches about Tongans it contained (I'm not complaining about Field having a crack at the Tongan royals, but rather about things like his characterisation of Tongans who choose to remain in Tonga as unthinking and unambitious, and Tongans who move to Auckland and settle there for the long term as comfortably, romantically pro-monarchy and anti-change). I wonder if Field might have encouraged Ali's whimsical, facetious side?

10:53 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

The tone wasn't substantially different from the Kim Hill interview on Saturday, which was exceptionally poor I thought. And I was certainly well disposed towards the guy going into it. But the bombast about New Zealand beign a vassal state doesn't really stand up to the most benign of questionings.

10:57 am  
Blogger maps said...

Perhaps I'm on the wrong track with this talk of interview fatigue and whimsy. Perhaps Ali was doing what Lenin called 'bending the stick' - deliberately exaggerating his points in order to drive home his underlying message.

Far too many Kiwis, including Kiwis on the left side of the political spectrum, have an exaggerated view of the independence of their country's foreign policy. They think that our nuclear free policy and our reluctance to be quite as enthusiastic as our Aussie neighbours about Iraq somehow make us islands of neutrality. In making this assumption, they ignore the way New Zealand acts alongside Australia as a proxy for the US in the Pacific and South Asia regions, acts as a 'good cop' to the US's 'bad cop' in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, and hosts US military and security facilities like the Waihopai spy base and the Harewood air base.

Perhaps Ali was trying to shock New Zealanders out of their delusions of neutrality with his talk of this country being a mere vassal of the US with no independent foreign policies at all? Did he 'bend the stick' so far that it broke, though?

It's fascinating to remember that when Ali's friend EP Thompson gave the Douglas Robb lectures back in the '80s, he was introduced by the young Helen Clark, who was then a Minister in the Lange government, and took the opportunity to praise that government's foreign policies, or at least its anti-nuclear policy. I think Thompson could be accused of over-stating the extent to which the Lange government had rejected the Cold War and made New Zealand neutral, and I also think he could be faulted for failing to mention the Thatcherite economic policies that Lange ministers like Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble were pursuing at home while their leader took the anti-nuclear message to the world stage.

11:20 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

"Perhaps Ali was trying to shock New Zealanders out of their delusions of neutrality with his talk of this country being a mere vassal of the US with no independent foreign policies at all? Did he 'bend the stick' so far that it broke, though?"

Insofar as there is a difference between being provocative and coming across as a patronising and uninformed idiot, I think the answer is yes.

I'm all for questioning the actual independence of our foreign policy. But when you use terms like vassal state or utter the word imperialism five times in the same sentence, it rightly switches people off. It's just rhetorically ineffective, so it's hard to see the point of that if nothing else.

I wish Hill had questioned Ali further on his idea that it's a state's neighbours that should be given the instruments to intervene in situations like Libya's. I wonder how he'd reconcile that position to, say, Israel and Palestine. Or, to borrow from something that Gino Strada said last week: what's to stop Spain from bombing Sicily because there's the mafia there?

11:26 am  
Blogger maps said...

The only thing worse than the indiscriminate use of the word 'imperialism' is the refusal to use the word at all. I remember that Jared Diamond, the man who delivered the 2006 Robb lectures, irritated some historians and anthropologists by refusing to concede the role that imperialism had played in the troubles of societies like Rapa Nui and Rwanda.

Rapa Nui scholars contested Diamond's popular and influential claim that their society had fallen apart because of internal matters, like poor management of resources. They pointed to the role of the blackbirders who kidnapped a quarter of the island's population in the ninteenth century and infected another quarter with fatal diseases.

Diamond's explanation of the background causes of the 1994 Rwandan genocide dwelt on poor ecological practices and overpopulation, but critics felt it ignored the role of the economic dictates of organisations like the IMF and the legacy of European colonialism.

The general public tends still to think of imperialism in terms of military conquest, but Marxist-influenced scholars see modern imperialism as a stage in the development of capitalism. After capitalism had grown to a certain size within nation states like Britain in the nineteenth century, it began to generate needs - the need for new markets for goods, or for new sources of the raw materials used by industry - which could only be met outside the nation state. A form of 'primitive imperialism' had already existed in places like the Americas for some time, as Europeans looted resources there and helped create a basis for the industrialisation of their societies.

But modern imperialism saw the much more sophisticated exploitation of the non-European world, as capitalism was imported into those societies.

Unfortunately for the locals in these capitalist colonies, the imperialists took the profits they generated in their new territories home. The architectural glories of European capitals like London and Paris were paid for in Africa and Asia.

Today, the policies of Western governments and the power of institutions like the International Monetary Fund make sure imperialism is still a going concern. Early accounts of imperialism, like those produced by the British liberal Hobson and by Lenin, have been modified and elaborated in diverse ways, but the theory of imperialism has stood the trial of time.

continued in next post...

1:45 pm  
Blogger maps said...


Unfortunately, as I've noted a number of times on this blog, there's a tendency for sections of the left, and indeed the right, to use terms like 'capitalism' and 'imperialism' as, essentially, curse words.

There's also a tendency on the left to fetishise 'capitalism' and 'imperialism' - to treat them not as technical terms attempting to describe aspects of reality but as sentient, autonomous, infinitely
powerful forces.

'Imperialism' has become a sort of boogie monster which is invoked to explain any event which occurs in a region like the Middle East.

It has been interesting to observe the discussion about the bombing of Libya on the large Marxmail list, which brings today scholars and activists influenced by the Marxist tradition (or traditions). Some commenters on the list decided, apparently without doing any real empirical investigation, that the bombing must be part of an elaborate plan by 'imperialism' to steal Libya's oil. The differing motives of the various nations involved in the bombing raids, the chaotic way the campaign has proceeded, the opposition to US involvement from many of that country's key Republicans, the fact that Gaddafi has been a loyal friend of the West for some years and more than happy to sell the West his oil - all these inconvenient facts were ignored, as the boogie monster of an unified, infinitely cunning 'imperialism' was invoked.

More sensible contributors to the Marxmail list pointed out that imperialism is a system, and that the workings of this system do not always produce results which are logical and useful, even from the perspective of imperialists.
(Kiwis shouldn't have much trouble understanding this point: we should remember that the Wakefield settlements which planted British capitalism in many parts of this country were, from an economic point of view, a disaster for the imperialists who launched them).

The bombing of Libya is unquestionably being conducted by imperialist nations with imperialist ends, but the campaign may well be the product of chaos and improvisation and inter-imperialist rivalry, rather than of some vast, long-meditated plan.
Perhaps Ali has fallen into the trap of treating imperialism as a swear word, or a boogie monster, or both.

1:46 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

"Some commenters on the list decided, apparently without doing any real empirical investigation, that the bombing must be part of an elaborate plan by 'imperialism' to steal Libya's oil."

And nobody that I've come across thus far has invoked the name of Enrico Mattei, which I personally find staggering. At any rate, I agree, if you use the phrase Western or US imperialism, especially to an audience of non-converts, you had better explain what it means. And if you say things like "there is a mindset in countries like Australia and New Zealand that they were superior civilisations to those of the Middle East", you had better be able to back it up.

2:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

4:19 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enrico Mattei (April 29, 1906 - October 27, 1962) was an Italian public administrator. After World War II he was given the task of dismantling the Italian Petroleum Agency Agip, a state enterprise established by the Fascist regime. Instead Mattei enlarged and reorganized it into the National Fuel Trust Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi (ENI). Under his direction ENI negotiated important oil concessions in the Middle East as well as a significant trade agreement with the Soviet Union which helped break the oligopoly of the 'Seven Sisters' that dominated the mid 20th century oil industry. He also introduced the principle whereby the country that owned exploited oil reserves received 75% of the profits.[1]

Mattei, who became a powerful figure in Italy, was a left-wing Christian Democrat, and a member of parliament from 1948 to 1953. Mattei made ENI a powerful company, so much so that Italians called it "the state within the state."[2] He died in a mysterious plane crash in 1962, likely caused by a bomb in the plane.[3] The unsolved death of Mattei has obsessed Italy for years and was the subject of an award-winning film The Mattei Affair by Francesco Rosi in the 1972.

4:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tiso doesn't know what the f___k he's talking about, so don't talk with him Mr Maps. I've been studying his confused and bitter statements carefully lately. He always has a bone to pick and and has no sense of humor. It is clear that all this crap about freedom in North Africa has been carefuly engineered by the US Imperialists and others (just as they probably "did 9/11" (many highly educated people think that and so they should); we are seeing it used as an excuse for US and other Imperialist nations (and New Zealand is has blood on its hands also) to invade, and bomb, again.

More of the same.

The trouble with the Tisos and even the Fisks of this world is that they cant call a spade a spade, they might see a lot of nice images and write novels and make good money from their syndications and their "names" as T. Ali does but they are basically myopic. Almost childlike

This whole "freedom" and "democracy" stuff is a farce. There will be no real democracy of significance and no real freedom.
I say this as a citizen of Uncle Sam's great nation

The United Nations of America?


7:46 pm  
Blogger maps said...

I've been reading Giovanni's stuff for a while, too, JDB, and I don't see what you see. The irony of these all-embracing conspiracy theories - and they've discussed at considerable length on this blog(see for instance http://readingthemaps.blogspot.
com/2010/02/id-rather-play-tennis.html) - is that they vastly overestimate the power and competence of entities like the US government. To imagine that the magnificient protest movement which has swept Mubrarak and Ben Ali from power, and thrown down the gauntlet to other dicators in Bahrain and Yemen as well as Libya, is the creation of a group of men sitting in a beige room somewhere in Washington DC really is to do a disservice to the Arab peoples, as well as to reality.

7:54 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

Reading the Maps: the blog where I come to be called names.

(Although JDB, you have to get up pretty early in the morning to best Chris Trotter on this count I'm afraid.)

7:56 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Sorry about the ruder patrons here, Giovanni. I don't try to encourage paranoid conspiracy theorists!

10:42 pm  
Blogger Bette said...

Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa ( may be another solution to hoarse and sore throat. i know a lot of people use it, its also non alcoholic, though it's effectiveness is not as good as alcohol based cough medicine, but it's still good to use on not so serious sore or hoarse throat. Hope you are getting well soon!!!

1:59 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look. My big Yank heart bleeds torment for Tiso, truly I admire the man, he is deeply in earnest, and deeply involved in life and conscience and beautiful ideas of art and philosophy, wonderful! (I wish I had some ideas some times.) But he is so wrong!! So tragically wrong!! So full of simplicity and beauty, that I fear for him, and YOU Mr Maps should know better! Haven't you got over all that Trotsksyist stuff??!! You KNOW!! that this world is Evil!!!

I don't believe in the Paranoia that is all a Commie Moslemic Jew CIA Rothschild Alien Plot. No! I understand and can spell gray.

These Dark Suit guys are very clever though. They set up Mubabbaric (whatever his name was) or some dictator somewhere then they knock him down, over and over again (its an old "good old boys" trick the gotten from from baseball, they did it in Vietnam (I know, I was goddam in Nam, in the heart of the hollow dark); Panama); the List is very very long. You can read your own ex Kiwi Peter Arnett on all this or even Tariq Ali (although he is badly star struck it is true): when did he last eat apple humble pie?). ?

Earthquakes (bring the fookers on I say!!) are nothing to the evil in the hearts and heads of these goddam Capatalists and those Freak Oil Men! Big Money!! For Goad's sake, lets call Napalm Napalm or a Faucet a Faucet!!! Your E. Thomson would be proud of me! He knew how to use a gun. Power comes out of the barrel of a gun and it is right to rebel. For me yes, gray is gray, but I don't hold a gun to Tiso's head; or Mr Tucker's (I saw him bein' crank to poor old Tiso, but I admire his style also, recalls me of a good old Harvard Man hailing from from the Deep South of Dixieland). Only I.

For God's sake let's all look at these pathetic (let's all goddam get real here!) movements for Democracy. We have to get rid of Demonocracy for a begin. Good old Guy Fawkes. (And Ben DID have to get involved!).

No one in that part of the world needs democracy. No one needs goddam democracy! Hypocracy more like! ("They all died for Hypocrisy"). They will Never (never never never never!!!) need it.

Let's all us get Raael for Goawds sake!?? I admired (and still do) Saddam Hussein who maintained a very high living standard in his country until they put sanctions and starved the people there (o.k we all know the CIA put him there), the Imperialists invaded his nation in an illegal and barbarous act which Tiso, sadly, out of love (and pity for those getting their heads cut off in the Saudi Lands gaddam it), would probably applaud. And I unnderstand! I'm no Arab lover either! And that's the funny thing! I love Tiso! But e is a typical godamm intellectual liberal. (But goddamm we NEED such, how we need them!) We fall on thorns! The Rose is Sick! Bless him!!

6:05 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But he has Heart! He BELIEVES in things! Oh Lard! Quaint! Queer and quaint. Quaint maybe in this insane age but true! But in the Rael Politik world there is NO mercy given or taken or plead for and no hope. Get rid of Hope. Hope is for anals. Those of Dark NA are being duped, the agents provocatures and opportunists have moved in, sadly, sugar coated, the people think they are approaching El Dorado but that will vanish like Huge Mirage full of sweet wasted blossoms blushing unseen, as the US now corrrupt things - my own Great Nation and I weep for it, and why not , it drove me Mad after Nam where I had to kill and butcher in Nam and i loved it!!! You dont understand!!! No one odes! No one cares! You you dumb lorn Kiwis!?!! We saved you all from endin up talking Jap for God's sake!!) Corrupt things and bomb them into "freedom" and Hypomocracy. For God's sake!
The apple pie bleeds and screams alone in the

The answer is Plato's Philosopher King. True Anarchy in fact. Democracy is failure as Socialism will be. We need
great men such as Gaddafi. He is the Rightful Ruler. I love him. But I hate Obama. Obama is traitor to blacks and the working class.!

Long live Gaddaffi! Death to the US!


6:06 pm  
Anonymous Edward said...

Just a Lybia-related question. I'm not at all for invasions and occupations, and would not like yet another Iraq or Afganistan, but what is there to do if dictators start sending armies against civilians. Ideally sending in other armies or equipment to blow things up isn't the best, as it usually ends up being civilains who pay anyway. I'm just unsure what to think. Does a response by a coalition of western and non-western countries santioned by the UN de facto mean a play of various imperialist motives? The immediate concern is the rights and safety of the people, what to do?

4:01 pm  
Anonymous Edward said...

By the by, I do not mean to equate the UN with 'imperialist motives' in the above - I happen to have faith in the UN which possibly makes me rather isolated these days. Also, I have to agree with Giovanni re: the Ali interview. Perhaps he was merely stirring, and he did have some points, but acting in such a way is probably going to close people's minds.

4:08 pm  
Anonymous M said...

Mind you, Bette does make a good point. Incisive, astute, and bang on topic.

8:56 pm  

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