Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Euston Manifesto: not a capital idea

A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of Tony Blair. Indeed, the Euston Manifesto, which has the left wing of the blogosphere mildly abuzz, could have been written by the British Prime Minister. The Manifesto is presented to us as a bold reassertion of progressive political values, intended to reinvigorate an enervated left that has lost its way. What we get instead is a laundry list of things we should all be against (like evil dictators, racism, and suicide bombers) and things we should all be in favour of (like democracy, human rights, and, uh, open-source software).

The authors of the Euston Manifesto are clearly irritated by the descent in recent years of at least part of the left into post-modernist, politically-correct, namby-pamby relativism: the unwillingness to stand up and fight for universal humanist values, if need be with a rocket launcher. But they set up a straw man. An inordinate amount of the Manifesto is given over to denouncing unspecified leftists who allegedly are so blinded by anti-Americanism that they are prepared to apologize for the Saddam Husseins of the world. Many of those behind the Manifesto are supporters of the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq, and have clearly been stung by criticism aimed at them by former comrades. Their response is to reiterate the idea that since Saddam was a monster, it was incumbent on all who respect human rights to support his overthrow and that Iraq is better off without him. What they conveniently fail to add to that last bit is "all things being equal". But all things were not and are not equal. The invasion of Iraq was not a crusade to liberate the Iraqi people, after all else had failed. It was a major push for U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, and involved abruptly cutting short the massive U.N. inspection effort already under way at the time. The invasion has undermined the fragile framework of international law and arguably made the world an even more dangerous place. (But we are warned that to talk of imperialism is "simplistic".)

The fundamental failing of the Euston Manifesto is implicit in a word that is nowhere to be found in the document. That word is capitalism. We live in the era of the global triumph of capitalism. It is the economic system that rules the world and shapes the lives of everyone and the politics of all nations. As a system based on the need for never-ending growth, it is in the process of eating the planet alive. One does not have to be a Marxist or to believe that capitalism is incapable of being reformed (that's an open question, and a crucial one) in order to recognize that we must confront the workings of this global system. Yes, the Manifesto mentions globalization and economic inequalities, but the failure to speak directly of capitalism indicates a willful blindness. It is also symptomatic of the fact that the document is a call to arms without a coherent understanding of the problem, and with little in the way of a plan for achieving its goals.

Scott McLemee has an essay with the nice title "Euston.... We Have a Problem".

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