Currently living in America makes it a challenge to follow the general election happening in my homeland in anything close to real-time. Apart from living in a relatively self involved continent which has its own electoral obsessions, not being able to read every paper or watch and listen to as many media outlets as possible has meant I have a time-delay on debates, policy announcements and anything interesting. This means I end up boring American friends who have no real personal investment in this election, assuming that my excitement and interest is just because I happen to come from there. Whilst this is true, this election is looking to be very different and objectively exciting (if you’re not from the UK please watch this ever so slightly patronizing guide to our electoral system by the BBC).
The overwhelming probability of this upcoming election is that no one will win an overwhelming majority. This, David Cameron and the conservative party have insinuated that this will lead to a chaotic political landscape and that this will be a bad thing. I will contest that the only way anything will ever change for the better in the UK will be a period of political chaos forcing the hand of political actors toward structural change.
If nothing especially exciting happens in the next three weeks the parliamentary dynamics of the UK are probably going to look something like this:
To do some brief electoral maths; Whilst the Conservatives would be the largest party by six seats the fact that the SNP-Plaid Cymru Westminster alliance has explicitly stated they would support a Labour government vote-by-vote brings a potential voting block of 322; 4 votes short of an overall majority which, once you take Sinn Fein’s almost certain absenteeism into account that block becomes 1 vote short. Add this to potential SDLP and the Green Party support if properly bought with the right legislation would make a potential voting majority of 326. This is as opposed to the a potential Conservative led coalition comprising the Liberal Democrats, the DUP, UKIP and the UUP, which using probable results adds up to around 317. Meaning that despite leading the largest party David Cameron is unlikely to get back into Downing Street. Whilst this isn’t uncommon in other European countries this has literally never happened in the history of British politics.
It was a desire to avoid this exact scenario that lead Nick Clegg and David Cameron to come together last time around. The prospect of a ‘constitutional crisis‘ looms in the background of this election, (for the benefit of foreigners I should point out that we don’t have one of those fancy written constitutions, we have a long series of precedent and statute, making the idea of a ‘constitution’ in British politics much more abstract and fluid than the average state) this is all made more ‘dire’ by the existence of the fixed parliament act. This act, introduced in 2011 ended 400ish years of executive privilege to call elections at will. This means that whatever combination of MPs we end up with on May 8th – barring some kind of mass resignation – will stay there, more or less, until 2020. This means that, if the result currently projected are slightly different, or the various parties decide to organise themselves into different combinations or – for some reason – no one wants to work with anyone initially; we cannot simply have another election if no one gets along, they have to get along. This will force the all to long ignored issue of Britain’s antiquated parliamentary system, meaning we will actually have to reform instead of holding an ill-informed, half-hearted referendum about one aspect of the system, we will have to reform almost everything. If you’re a reform minded Briton I recommend you hope for this result, as the last time anyone had both the mandate and the power to reform anything in the UK; Tony Blair made the house of lords less hereditary and called it a day. Sadly as a people, we don’t tend to change anything unless we absolutely have to. Incidentally, a parliamentary free for all would have the added benefit of making the Daily Telegraph reading contingent of Parliament fluster with rage as the fact that they’re the largest single party lies flaccid in the face of a progressive anti-tory coalition.
That by the way is a worst case scenario. I mentioned what I think is the best case scenario in a previous blog post; That being a progressive, Celtic orientated coalition. This could ultimately change, not simply the austerity driven policies of the last five years but the balance of power in the United Kingdom as a whole. Whilst the way we send MPs to Westminster may not change at all, autonomy to the nations and regions are exponentially more likely to increase with the SNP and Plaid Cymru selling support to a Minority Labour Government. Whatever the combination of MPs the UK wakes up with on May 8th; I believe we have in front of us, gradual move to normalizing coalition governments or a chaotic parliamentary flux that will ultimately lead to a better form of government. Either way, I recommend we all embrace the chaos; it will certainly be interesting.
Addendum: Around ten hours after writing this, Sinn Fein did something they haven’t done for about a century and decided to actively participate in this general election, bringing the number of seats needed back up to 326 and putting another party into the mix.
Preface: every time the word ‘Libertarian’ or any of it’s derivatives appears in this article, I’ve put quotation marks around it. I have done this because I object to people who think that the problem with society is that corporations and robber barons don’t have enough power over their employees using any word associated with ‘Liberty’ to describe themselves. I do however Understand that that word is in common usage and that i don’t have superpowers that can erase fallacious definitions from people’s heads…. yet.
Earlier this week Kentucky’s junior senator, eye doctor and Second generation ‘Libertarian’ Rand Paul announced his intention to run for the presidency of the United States in 2016. Paul’s announcement was much better than his now rival, Ted Cruz’s announcement speech as he managed to get actual supporters along, rather than forcing students to attend. Unlike his father Paul has something close to a chance, not enough to win the nomination but probably enough to drag whoever does toward his ‘Libertarian’ points of view come the general election, possibly putting parts of his agenda in the GOP’s platform. This is likely as ‘Libertarians’ are the part of the republican party that are going to be alive in large numbers come 2020 and 2024. As a result I felt the need to quickly talk about Rand’s Announcement speech and the specific policies and implications he laid out in it.
Paul began with some fun bluster around the need to have a government that adheres to the constitution; something I always find tedious in American political dialogue as it usually comes from people who have very little interest in reading the, actually relatively vague, document itself, rather than idolizing the rich, white slave owners who wrote the thing. After a loud round of applause Paul began to make the argument for a Balanced Budget Amendment.
The Idea of a balanced budget amendment; That is making it a matter of constitutional mandate that the United States cannot go into debt, has been a pet peeve of mine ever since I found out what it is and politicians began reviving the idea around 2009 to stop some black guy spending all the money. Dissecting the idea that we need a balanced budget at all times and in all circumstances misunderstands how sovereign debt works and why it is possible, sustainable and in fact, probably necessity for a nation-state to run a national debt is a subject for better researched and learned blogs to explain. From this poor position I will simply make the point that if we have learned anything from the collapse of Soviet Communism, it is that pre-ordaining how a government will react to hypothetical future economic events and trends cannot end well. And that it is strange that someone who claims his ideology is actually an anti-ideology, devoid of isms or dogma to propose such a restrictive and undemocratic measure.
Paul’s second big idea is term limits for members of Congress. Now the 22nd Amendment is a great idea. particularly coming as it did at the dawn of the atomic age as it shut down the possibility that any one person might have their finger on the button for longer than eight years. However, term limits for the executive branch make sense in a very specific way as it means that presidents cannot realistically try to destroy their internal political rivals in a way prime ministers, or other presidents do, without at least raising up successors to take over, meaning that their political ideology cannot run on the demagoguery of one powerful individual (George H. W. Bush is a fine example of this political truth). This however does not apply to members of legislators, (theoretically) representing as they do interests of the general population rather than the authority of an organ of the state, legislators should stay in power as long as people want them there. I’m not saying all of congress are wonderful democratic flower children, far from it. I’m simply pointing out that the unrepresentative nature of American democracy has a lot to do with money, Gerrymandering and other many problems, none of which are the lack of a govern-by date.
A common trope coupled with legislative term limits holds that the cornerstone of the rot at the core of American government is that every single legislator does not read the entirety of bills they vote for. The fact that this argument carries weight in certain circles speaks more to a disinterest in the mechanics of government rather than an actual problem. The fact that legislators don’t read all bills in their entirety is the basis of the committee system congress is based on. This system essentially delegates the reading of bills to small groups of Congressmen who listen to experts and try to understand and then decide if a bill should be voted on. This system exists because every single law will have to stand up to teams of lawyers at one time or another. I’m not necessarily saying this is a good or a bad system, just that to simply demand that everyone reads the whole of the bill is a non demand considering you’re asking every single congressman, who are not necessarily constitutional lawyers, to read every single sub-article and amendment in every bill, that can run up to several thousand pages, particularly if we’re dealing with something as complex as healthcare or military spending. Baring this in mind, getting them to read every word that goes into a bill would be somewhat redundant in a lot of cases versus having a legal expert read it and then explain it to them, like they do in committees. At best this argument is a naive attempt to make government accessible, at worst (and to be honest more believable) it’s a cynical way to make Paul sound down home. Either way it’s a stupid thing to say.
I’ve always found ‘Libertarian’ claims of standing up for individual rights suspect. For a start they seem to be standing up for very specific individual’s rights. Whilst building a factory that destroys the surrounding landscape, poisons the water-table and irradiates the soil is a part of the nature of freedom, forming a union against the perpetrator or trying to get them to clean up their own mess is tyrannical statism. Paul brought this to mind in me when he discussed phone records. In part I agree with him; no one should be allowed to keep someone else’s phone records and use them for purposes unknown and unwanted to the owner of those details. Not the NSA, not the FBI, not Google, not Verison, no one; which is where Mr Paul and myself part ways. If we’re into privacy and control over your online presence, we need to be for it in all circumstances or it means nothing. I focus on this specific because i believe it is my core problem with ‘Libertarians’ and why I resent them utilizing the language of freedom and liberty; They are not for privacy, they are against institutions having access to your records when they’re not doing so for profit, they’re only against tyranny when it’s subject to public oversight. In this sense, on a fundamental level, Rand Paul has very little to differentiate him from the Classic republican brand.
In what I assume he believes to be his main appeal to left-wing voters, Rand Paul makes the very laudable statement that any law that disproportionately affects people and communities of colour should be repealed. This is all very well, however it doesn’t really address why drug possession laws are overwhelmingly used against People of Colour verses their white counterparts. Decriminalizing drugs isn’t enough. If we made all drugs legal tomorrow instances of black teenagers being arrested for loitering, trespassing, damaging police property and resisting arrest, verses possession would sky-rocket. Trayvon Martin didn’t have drugs on him, nor did Mike Brown or Eric Garner or Tamir Rice or Walter Scott. It’s kind of cute that at the core of ‘Libertarian’ drug policy is a fundamental misunderstanding of why those policies exist and who they’re designed to be used against.
Prohibition is apparently just another example of killjoy liberals trying to control everyone, rather than a tool to use against America’s poor and dispossessed. The idea that if we just took one reason to arrest and harass black teenagers out the equation, police forces would stop this very lucrative practice is ridiculous. Wanting to legalize substances without changing anything else about law enforcement is doing the best you can to sound like you’re doing something without doing a damn thing. For a point of reference the 15th Amendment states that every male citizen of the United States gets to vote, it was specifically designed to enfranchise African Americans. It was ratified in 1870. Without reforming law enforcement or making an exerted effort beyond signing a piece of paper, the segregated south found other means to discriminate wholesale against their African-American citizens. As much as I think drugs do need to be decriminalized or legalized (depending on the drug) the fact that you could safely get high in your dorm room wouldn’t lessen the systematic racism of the police force. That said, what are a few civil rights violations between friends?
On the whole I hope that the kind of people who Rand is trying to bring in with this campaign; young people disillusioned with the ineffectiveness of the DNC and repelled by the GOP for being quite so tone deaf to modern America, see this upcoming campaign for what it is; a warmed over version of the Reagan ‘revolution’ with the moral outrage turned down from 11 to 6. What Paul is offering people is a world were underemployed people remain underemployed, where the cops still harass and kill people of color, where people generally are still denied healthcare and women are denied reproductive rights in defence of religious or economic ‘freedom”. But hey, we could all get high after our terrible underpaying job though. Swings and roundabouts I suppose.
Dear British voter,
As you are no doubt aware you are living in a country in the throes of an electoral quagmire; one which is probably the most confusing election the UK has ever held. Unfortunately I currently live in the United States and thus my relationship with this election cycle will be one-way, involving me yelling at the world service before sending off my postal ballot to begrudgingly vote against my local MP and then continuing to be angry.
As an expat I have a few requests for this election season to make the whole process much more fun and at least a little worth it.
1) Stop David Cameron being Prime Minister.
This isn’t necessarily a call to beat the Torys out of office, though these two things are interchangeable at the moment, and something I would also like to happen, I specifically hate David Cameron being the leader of my home country. This wish has nothing to do with policy it’s shit like this.
If you didn’t watch the video, David Cameron is responding to the insane claim by Fox News that Birmingham is a no go zone for non-Muslims. Whilst he has the substance of a good answer, being that the “expert” Fox used clearly knows nothing about the west Midlands. My problem is that he decided to begin this answer by referencing porridge and April fools day in the kind of clumsy, weirdly synthetic feeling way Cameron does everything. This struck a nerve because this answer was spread all over American Media, meaning this ridiculous parody of an English aristocrat took up the airwaves fixing the idea of Britain in the American mind as run by Bertie Wooster.
Say what you will about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, they never made my skin crawl in the presence of foreigners in quite the same way Cameron does now. This isn’t just because he’s a Conservative (more on that later), David Davis; the runner up in the last Tory leadership race, doesn’t have the same weird inhuman manner the prime minister conducts himself. For all his slimy spinning Blair at least knew how to talk on camera without sounding like he was failing to convince us he was human. Please stop this man being the person who represents us as a nation, it’s sad and weird.
2) Make sure the Green Party end up with more seats than UKIP.
If you haven’t left the UK in the last decade or so I need to break something to you; UKIP is an embarrassing party. I live in America, where the idea of Britain as a world power died a death around the time of Suez Crisis, at this point Americans i meet and talk to are confused that there is a movement to get Britain to leave the EU gaining traction. The idea that we would then be anything other than an insignificant island that sometimes turns up on the wacky section of the news from time to time if we left is equally confusing.
The biggest embarrassment surrounding UKIP however is the fact that they’re given so much more credibility than the Green party; an organisation with more members as well as a party platform without an unhealthy obsession with people who aren’t local. I don’t even want the Green party to get that many seats, they don’t even have to get more seats than they do right now, I would just like UKIP to have at least one less seat than the Greens on May 8th. I want this because whilst it may be a minor issue the idea of Nigel Farage’s gurning face filling my T.V. screen on election night makes me sad to be English and I really would like my homeland to prove they’re not crazy by either giving the Greens more seats or taking some away from UKIP.
3) Let’s have a coalition of the Nations.
There is a current worry being permeated through the media over the idea of the SNP having an influence over the next government. The narrative as far as i can tell goes that Ed Milliband will grant Scottish independence to get power. The way this has been manifesting has involved the Torys demanding that Labour promise not to be ‘propped up’ by the Nationalists. At time of writing whilst they haven’t quite taken the bate Labour HQ is edging toward ruling it out, I think this is a terrible idea. I honestly think that the best outcome for the UK in the long run would be a Minority Labour government beholden to the SNP and Plaid Cymru, two parties whose cores’ center around greater autonomy for the nations combined with social democracy.
Since Neil Kinnock the Labour party has had a tendency to take the left for granted and drifting to the right to gain the vote of the kind of person who reads the Times because they’re too embarrassed to read the Mail, this has been a source of frustration for many voters who have seen Labour run away from the center left the moment they get into a ministerial car. A government involving input from parties who reject the Neo-Liberal consensus would be so much more the antithesis of the aptly named ConDem government than a Labour majority government could ever be.
I’m glad the SNP have stated that they wouldn’t join the Government if asked, but enter into a vote sharing deal, this would avoid the possibility of the Nationalists being co-opted in the same way the LibDems have been. This would lead to a solidifying of the Union as having to take Nationalist votes into account will mean Ed Milliband being forced to make good on the promises for greater autonomy laid out by the ‘No’ independence campaign last year; something that will have to happen in the next parliament anyway if Scotland is to remain in the union for much longer (something I would like), so bringing in the SNP who look likely to control the majority of Scottish seats in Westminster come May 8th will mean Scotland and Scottish voters will have more influence in their own lives than ever before. This will also mean Labour will have to extend similar options to English regions, something I don’t trust English voters to support until it’s in place. Whilst I quite like being English I’ve spent enough time amoung my fellow countrymen to know we as a nation are largely small C conservatives who won’t try anything new until it’s forced down our throats and we claim to have always been for it. I honestly think a minority Labour government with external pressure from the nationalist left will leave the UK a fairer and more democratic place than any other option this election.
4) Make spoiled ballots win a constituency or two.
I’m ambivalent about voting. I do understand the necessity of keeping certain parties at bay but this then involves giving power to other just as unsavory parties. I do however believe in turning up to voting booths and making marks. One of my pet peeves in political discourse is the manner in which people who do not vote are dismissed as apathetic or stupid or both. I have yet to vote for anyone in a European Parliamentary election despite the fact I am both informed about and care about the European Union. A reason I love paper balloting over the electronic methodology in the US is that it’s possible to spoil ballots. If you have no interest in voting for any parties, please go to the ballot anyway, write in yourself, or a friend, draw a comedy penis or a pair of breasts, a poem, anything. If everyone who didn’t want to vote for anyone, turned up regardless and spoiled their ballots. Spoiled ballots would win removing any real legitimacy from second place. Showing the political class that people who don’t vote care about the future of the country enough to turn up and demonstrate that they would give their vote to someone if only there was someone worthy of it.
5) Get at least one Class War candidate their deposit back.
For those not in the know Class war is an Anarchist organisation fielding candidates this campaign season to amplify their campaigning voice. I don’t seriously believe that Class War can or will come close to winning any seats (I don’t think Class war wants to win any seats) however the UK seems to be a country were all the parties jump to the right on immigration and race relations the minuet a Nazi gets five percent of the vote out of fear of losing out on those racist votes, so why can’t we get this to go the other way.
(PS, If you’re in Norwich North Vote for my mate, he’d be a great Anarchist MP)
6) Punish Nicholas William Peter Clegg.
Okay I admit this is pure id speaking, however that doesn’t stop the fact that in 2010 Nick Clegg stole my vote. I, and many people of my Generation, particularly University students voted for the Liberal Democrats that year because the party’s manifesto had stated that they would do everything in their power to end tuition fees for higher education institutions. Far from being wide-eyed and naive, the logic behind voting for Clegg’s party was that as the other two were for raising fees, thus the result of a coalition would most likely be a wash, keeping fees at their then $3,000 a year. The Smug ‘What did you expect, we’re politicians’ attitude that permeated from LibDem HQ is something that will make me hate Nick Clegg and revel in his failures until one of us is dead.
For me Clegg will always represent what is wrong with this parliamentary democracy; whilst I understand that politicians don’t have the power to change everything and anything, it’s hard to believe in anyone when the baseline reason for why they betrayed a keystone manifesto promise to shrug their shoulders and close the ministerial door, only to come out with a weak-willed apology far too late for it to possibly matter. Whilst I hadn’t been particularly sold on the idea that parliamentary democracy could work for me before 2010, Clegg’s betrayal of a large section of his voter base pushed that notion over the edge into a pit of bubbling despair with the whole thing. I don’t want Nick to loose his seat, in a perfect world I would love every Liberal Democrat except Nick Clegg to loose their seat so he was to walk into Parliament and sit at the back on his own. The idea of the Cameras lingering on him as he stares at his shoes, considering the terrible mistakes he’s made, whilst other parties do the business of government makes me feel warm inside.
7) Get the Torys out.
Seriously I don’t care how you do it. Labour-Liberal-SNP-DUP-Respect-Green coalition will do for me. This isn’t about specific policies or even an endorsement of Ed Milliband who will ultimately be Prime minister if the Conservative party are ousted; This is because I hate Torys. I hate them with a passion, they represent everything that is wrong with British society, they are the parliamentary manifestation of greed, bigotry and servile classism. Growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s meant I grew up in a country were members and supporters of the Conservative party were justly ashamed of themselves to the point at which there was talk of them becoming a third party.
I miss those days, I miss regarding the Torys as relics of a by gone era. I miss conservative supporters feeling embarrassed and having to explain themselves to skeptical listeners, I miss William Hague leading a redundant party with little or no influence to a slightly less devastating second place. I’ve realised this could possibly come off as wanting to persecute Torys. That’s probably because I do, I miss the days of the post war consensus when Labour politicians openly mocked and berated Conservatives for their beliefs, I want to get back to a time where the likes of Nye Bevan casually called Torys cowards and idiots whilst disparaging anyone who might consider compromising with them, and claiming the mantel of social progress that should be what the Labour party does.
I understand this probably says more about me than David Cameron that there is absolutely nothing Republicans can say or do that enrages me more than the pathetic bleating of the current occupant of Number 10. I however urge you, dear British voter; please find a way to end the systematic destruction and grotesque rebuilding of our society into something harder and meaner before I, and others like me have nothing familiar to come back to.
A concerned ex-pat
It is fashionable among a certain kind of leftist to denounce Nigel Farage and United Kingdom Independence Party as fascists these days. It is equally fashionable among a certain kind of rightist to denounce those denunciations of UKIP as ludicrous for as no one in UKIP has (publicly) run around in black shirts Sieg Heiling everywhere. Residing as I do outside the UK and watching the upcoming election develop as it is, I think we should start talking about the fact that both those opinions are wrong, UKIP aren’t fascists; what they are is a Conservative nativist party, something that makes them unique in the history of British politics and much more dangerous than a communal garden fascist.
Britain is one of the few countries in Europe that have never elected fascists its national legislator; A major factor effecting this is historical differences in the way popular politics came about. The Conservative Party is a good example of the unique nature of Britain. Unlike it’s French and German counterparts whose founding was a response to a religious or economic need; or just a direct response to liberal-democratic movements, the Conservative and Unionist party of Great Britain is simply the parliamentary Arm of the British Aristocracy; Though the modern party was founded in 1834 it was a restructuring of the Tory Party (why we still call them Torys) who had gained the original insult from their more liberal opponents in the 1700s, in reference to the Irish Soldiers who had fought for the Absolute Monarchy of James II in 1690, who was trying to reverse the powers Parliament had won during the English Civil war. In this sence the British Conservative party is unique in being able to draw a more or less unbroken line from Cavaliers to themselves.
This is relevant because it’s important to note that British politics is not primarily about Ideology as much as it’s about interests. Ed Miliband is leader of the Party of Labour not the party of Social-Democrats, This has meant that parties in the UK have a wider appeal, dealing with identity and self-interest much more than ideological tenants. This has meant that the two major parties, the conservative party in particular, have historically been very good at absorbing most of their political fringe and driving what remains into political irrelevance.
This, I would argue, is behind the fact that Britain has never come close to electing fascists or indeed electing any fascists to Parliament, If we imagine politics as a sliding scale from left to right, until UKIP came along there was a genuine gap between the Conservative party and the various incarnations of British Fascism. This was because the Conservative party had been able to appeal too and lock down the demographics that typically populate a Fascist coalition; lower middle class, rural poor and the landed gentry. They have managed to do this because unlike their European counterparts, the British gentry have never been under any serious threat of destruction, and thus never fell into the kind of reactionary politics taken on by the European ruling classes at the start of the 20th century, which is arguably why the British aristocracy is still here. This meant that the only demographic available to British fascism was working class kids disaffected with the failures and/or collaborative attitude of the trade union movement, as a result fascism in Britain has taken on a distinct working class identity; distasteful to the upper and middle classes in most cases. This is why if you’re from an English-speaking country and you think of Nazis, you think of shaved heads and football shirts rather than dueling scars and riding crops. As a result fascism in the has never really had a significant group of people who advocate for any of their ideas that – for want of a better phrase – respectable people would and will listen to with a degree of seriousness. Until now that is.
The UK Independence party, along with the Green Party are the symptom of a new kind of politics, ironically much more European in nature, ending the de-facto internal coalitions and moving toward actual coalitions of a balkanized political class. Whilst, on the one hand this has the potential for a wider, more varied political discourse. This however does mean that the kind of people whose support has been withed from fascism in Britain are now freed up to empower the political far right without the shame of being associated in the popular mind with the decedents of Oswald Mosley. This is why organisations like Britan First and the English Defense League have been campaigning for UKIP, whatever the actual intentions of Nigel Farage, The party he leads represents the respectable end of British fascism, and need to be treated as such during the upcoming election, and beyond.
About a year ago the the world’s press threw out and then buried possibly the most important if relatively uninteresting indicators of the nature of the so called Islamic State; the destruction of the Borders between Syria and Iraq. Whilst this event did cause some commentators to bring up the 100 year old Sykes-Picot agreement that established the framework for what became the Arab States, almost all of these news organisations failed to take these facts to the next level and point out that abolishing the Syria-Iraq border, along with many other goals of the Islamic State, was and is one of the major goals of the Ba’athism; A school of Arab Nationalist thought that is the Ideology of the Assad regime in Syria as well as the pre-2003 Iraqi regime. The reference point that most news organisations have used to place I.S.I.L. is as a successor to Al Queda – emphasizing the need to label state as the next logical step in radical Islamic development. Whilst it’s true that the flavor of is certainly that of a specific interpretation of Sharia, the driving substance of the caliphate is, far from a cosmic battle between the forces good and evil, an extremely temporal restoration project on behalf of those who prospered under Saddam Hussein.
The history of Iraq and Syria (something it’s necessary to have a working knowledge of before talking about I.S.I.L.) is long and complex, for the sake of brevity I will try and condense what I understand as the essentials into five paragraphs. I would recommend you don’t take my biased perspective at face value and do your own research when you have the time, for the time being:
The Collapse of the Ottoman Empire (something western empires had been worried about since the end of the Napoleonic war, as the collapse of Turkey would pave the way for Russian Domination of the region) was preempted by an Anglo-French agreement, carving up the oil-rich, northern part of the empire into spheres of influence, these spheres would, under the treaty of Versailles, evolve into protectorates governed by these empires on behalf of the League of Nations.
These territories were Nominally independent but under the control of their mother country, breaking what had been previously an alleged united peoples back into the various tribal and then national identities that had existed during the Ottoman occupation. The end result of this process put Iraq under British control and Syria under French control. During this period the British put the hero of the Arab revolt: King Faisal on the throne whilst the French administered Syria in a much more direct manner, modeling the country on the French republic. The result of this was that Iraqi and Syrian political culture developed apart from each other finding orientating separately around Baghdad and Damascus. This all despite the large pan-Arabist contingent within both countries seeking an eventual union.
With this in the background the Ba’ath party was founded in Damascus in 1947. An Arab Nationalist, Socialist party, the Ba’athists aimed to unite all Arabs under one government, seeing itself as akin to movements like the African National Congress, as an fundamentally anti-colonial party, however because the Arabic world has so many cultural and political centers (Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Mecca, Tripoli, Tunis, etc etc) there is no obvious center of the Arab world. This made it much easier for political tensions once the Ba’athists had taken over in both Iraq and Syria, to take on regional overtones. Despite a near successful attempt to unify the two states, an eventual split in 1966 left the Iraqi party (and state) as a much more Soviet orientated organisation and the Syrian Ba’athist government orientated much more toward Egypt and Nassarism, as shown by Syria’s Brief stint as part of the United Arab Republic.
As these two Ba’ath parties grew apart they began – inevitably – to portray each other as the immediate ideological problem within Arab nationalism, using each other as a convenient foil whilst never describing each other as enemies but not giving up on their stated goals of annexing each other either, in much the same way the Irish republic used to claim Northern Ireland without overtly stating it was the enemy of the British government. Because of it’s secular nature, Both Ba’ath parties have been dominated by religious minorities; Sunnis in Iraq and Alawites in Syria. This meant that by the 2003 Invasion of Iraq and the abolition of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, which under Saddam Hussein had cultivated Iraqi Ba’athism as the only thing holding back the Shi’a from killing the Sunni, leading to the conflict between those two religious groups that colored the Iraq war for the better part of a decade. Saddam’s disfranchisement of large parts Iraqi population was made worse by the fact that the Iraqi people have been subjected to war, crippling sanctions and isolation from the international community for the better part of the last three decades, beginning with Operation Desert Storm and continuing to time of writing.
The 2003 invasion also re-enforced the already prevalent notion within a large section of the party faithful as well as Arabs generally, that unity in the region is a necessity for independence. Something that has gained strength through mixing the cause of Arab Nationalism with that of international political Islam; thus tapping into the kind of liberation politics that managed to connect the likes of Hussein with a range of oppressed peoples from African Americans to Bosniaks.
All this history is necessary to emphasize that the mysticism I.S.I.L. is attempting to cultivate along with it’s self image as a a brand new form of government, completely detached from all past endeavors aside the time of the prophet, is the result of a cynical marriage between Saddam Hussein’s former lieutenants (who make up the bulk of I.S.I.L.’s leadership) and Al Queda rejects attempting to create a a new Saddamist government straddling the two states their wing of the Ba’athist party claims rights over.
Well after the Arab Nationalism that had brought him to power in the 1970s had faded from relevance Hussein was using Islam as his legitimacy crutch. it isn’t a stretch to then see his subordinates taking a large contingent of former Saddam regime soldiers into the desert to set up a haven for themselves, that is also the embodiment of the kind of adversarial nihilism, that draws the ire of western governments which then gives them credibility and support with the kind of adversarial nihilists from around the world who would come to the Syrian-Iraqi border to fight thus giving I.S.I.L. a ready made army of thousands without having to do much work in the way of recruitment.
This is why it is important to reject the notion that I.S.I.L. has any more to with Islam than say, the dude they’re fighting who claims descent from the Prophet, or the Party of God. I don’t mean this in a clickbatey, all-brothers-under-the-skin, way. It’s important part of the ‘degrading‘ process that Obama keeps talking about, too point out that far from a cabal of true believers, I.S.I.L. is a grubby little project to put Saddam Hussein’s successors back in power in Mesopotamia. That they are preying on a population that has been battered and broken by nearly three decades of war, utilizing religious sentiment of their region of choice like every other political charlatan before them. Whilst it’s easy to match the seeming endless violence and chaos in the region by simply shrugging and saying “oh dear” to it all, it is important to remember that I.S.I.L. are being checked by movements that are not just rational but down right progressive, and that those organisations need the support of the wider world. Whilst it’s fashionable among a certain kind of western secular thinker to shrug off I.S.I.L. as just another outpouring of just what those brown savages do, it’s important to remember that this attitude isn’t just racist, it’s stupid and will probably be remembered in history in the same vein as the governments who blocked aid to the Spanish republic allowing forty years of fascist violence to dominate the Iberian peninsular.
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