Review: What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way by Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen’s new book is a rebuke to liberal intellectuals who have drowned in their own jargon and Leninist apparatchiks who have become apologists for Islamic fundamentalism. It sounds like a timely and salient contribution to debate, right?

Submitted by Steven. on April 24, 2007

Wayne Foster explores the silences of social democracy.

Ever been on an internet forum when someone’s posted an article about plans to shut the local hospital, or the German workers-council movement, and someone else has replied, ‘so you’re basically defending paedophilia? Well you haven’t explicitly condemned it ;-)’ ?

Nick Cohen asks why there have been no mass protests against regimes such as North Korea, and he’s not joking. His answer is that ‘what fuelled the anti-globalization movement was a passionate and often well-merited hatred of the rich world in which its supporters lived’ (p-116). This politically motivated misconception is significant enough to Cohen’s argument that it’s worth considering in some detail.

The network that coordinated the ‘global days of action,’ which became the hallmark of the anti-capitalist movement, was called People’s Global Action. PGA developed from the Zapatista ‘encuentros’ that were held during the nineties. It involved mass social movements from the global south such as Brazil’s landless peasant Movimento Sem Terra, the Karnataka State Farmers Union and the Bangladesh Garment Workers’ Union. Although the Canadian Postal Workers’ Union was involved from the start, in the richer countries most of the participating groups were small activist collectives, including many that had developed from the radical ecological movement. When PGA called a day of protest against the 1998 World Trade Organisation meeting in Geneva, there was rioting in Switzerland, while tens of thousands mobilized across Brazil and hundreds of thousands protested in Hyderabad. This new global politics emphasised direct action, horizontal organisation and respect for diversity, so it formed a natural (though not always comfortable) alliance with the traditional anarchist movement, libertarian Marxists, autonomes and others. The first convenors of PGA in Europe were the London based Reclaim The Streets collective who were involved in organising a series of ‘actions’, culminating in the Carnival Against Capitalism on June 18th 1999. At this point the British press labelled the demonstrators ‘anti-capitalists.’

Given the scale of the struggles in the global south, and the deadly repression they often faced, it’s understandable that these groups largely set the agenda for PGA. Quite simply, if you’re opposing water privatisation in Bolivia, the World Bank, and American influence within it, are more relevant that the dictatorship in North Korea, regardless of which would triumph in the evilness cup. The movement in the west was ultimately impotent because it lacked any grassroots organisation beyond these spectacular protests, but the claim, so often repeated, that this was a movement confined to wealthy nations, is inaccurate and betrays extreme prejudice.

Cohen lumps what he calls the ‘anti-globalization movement of the Nineties’ (p-115) in with the Social Forums that started in Port Alegre in 2001. These were separate political movements; the social forums were encouraged by political parties that were excluded from PGA and were dominated by NGOs rather than popular movements. The traditional left (with exceptions such as Workers’ Power) largely ignored the anti-capitalist movement until after Seattle when groups such as the Socialist Workers’ Party launched opportunistic recruitment drives. Hence the first European Social Forum wasn’t until Florence, 2002.

Cohen’s other target is recent academic theory and he claims that ‘In the rowdy demonstrations outside the summits of the World Trade Organization and in the chaotic meetings of the European Social Forum and World Social Forum, you could see all the theorists’ frenzies laid out.’ There was some resonance between post-colonialist and post-structuralist theory (particularly the work of Foucault, Lefebvre, Deleuze and Guattari) and the new politics of PGA. For example, the group that replaced Reclaim The Streets as convenors of PGA Europe was Ya Basta!, a Milan based organization that combined bad politics with an equally bad reading of Foucault. However, anti-capitalist politics and post-structuralist theory can both be seen as explicit reactions against the old left politics that provide most of the examples in Cohen’s book.

Cohen’s argument is confused by his limited acquaintance with the theories he discusses. For example, in introducing Jean Baudrillard (hardly the most difficult thinker to discredit), he writes:

To him the hegemonic empire was represented by American mass culture that had the terrifying power to make manufactured images more real than reality. It had brainwashed US citizens – although not, once again, French philosophers – into believing that lies were true and the truth was a lie. (p-110)

Baudrillard died soon after the publication of Cohen’s book and perhaps this wasn’t coincidence. If there was one thing Baudrillard emphasised, repeated, insisted on to the point of tedium over decades, it was that the media didn’t brainwash people, or lie about reality, but that it was so constitutive of reality that ‘reality’ in the old sense had dissolved. We may well disagree with this, but if Cohen wants to discuss Baudrillard, he should at least take the time to flick through a bluffer’s guide.

If this is bad then his comments on Chomsky’s theory of the media are beyond parody. Chomsky has observed how media debate operates within a limited paradigm and how the repetition of ‘accepted truths’ serves to restrict what is sayable to a narrow consensus that’s concomitant with the capitalist political order. Without irony, the example Cohen gives against Chomsky is that the British media turned against John Major’s Conservative government ‘and allowed their reporters to reveal as many of the sexual secrets of its members as they could find’ (p-159).

Far from offering a critique of Chomsky, Cohen eloquently demonstrates the manufacture of consent in action; this is a book in which radical alternatives to capitalism are comprehensively silenced. When we are told that ‘Democratic reform was the only way. It had always been the only way, and the only good and true way at that’ (p-120), the achievements of working class self-organisation (and their brutal repression) are conveniently written out of history. This is a rewriting that continues in the present as Cohen ignores the mass struggles in the global south. There is no mention of the autonomous communities in Chiapas that have successfully organised for over a decade, building their own schools and hospitals, in one of the poorest regions of the planet, while protecting themselves against attacks from government and paramilitary forces. There is no mention of the Argentinian uprising, the neighbourhood assemblies or the self-managed factories.

To me, these struggles seem more important than an old left MP pretending to be a cat (pp-288-293). But just as God needs the Devil, Bush needs Bin Laden and Washington needed Moscow, so Cohen’s left needs its farting bedfellows. Much of the book is devoted to attacking what he calls the ‘far left’ (Trotskyists etc) and what he says is true; most of these dinosaurs are annoying parasites who would compromise any principle if it helped with recruitment. However, it’s an extraordinary leap of logic to brand the anti-war movement ‘a disgrace’ on the basis of the haverings of the self-appointed vanguard of the proletariat. Given that Cohen is at pains to stress the insignificance of the ‘far left’, it’s surprising that he’s so quick to subordinate the political expression of millions of people to their leadership.

He claims the protests were ‘against the overthrow of a fascist regime’ (p-280 & 281). This is mendacious and does him little credit; we – the great majority of us at least – were always for the overthrow of Baathism, but we understood that this had to be done by the Iraqi people. Of course, that’s impossible to imagine when you view most of the world as politically passive. The mutiny of 1991 , the workers shoras in Northern Iraq , and the western collusion with their brutal suppression, is overlooked as conveniently as anti-capitalist struggles in the global south.

Must we recap again? When the British took Baghdad in 1917, General Sir Stanley Maud announced ‘we arrive as liberators not occupiers.’ In 1921 the British commander was Sir Aylmer Haldane and when the local population revolted, Chemical Aylmer called for the poison gas, which was easy to obtain because in 1921 Britain’s Secretary of State for the Colonies was Winston Churchill, a man who said he agreed totally with ‘the use of gas against uncivilised tribes.’ Yes, these were glorious days for the RAF; squadron leader Arthur Harris boasted that ‘An entire village can be erased within forty-five minutes,’ etc. etc. We know all this. We know how the West funded tyrants and supported coups and how all of this has been done for geo-political and economic reasons… we know all this. But Cohen still believes, after ninety years during which history has repeated itself – beyond tragedy, beyond even farce – that it’s the job of the western governments (or rather the working class youths drafted in to do their dirty work) to civilise the rest of the world.

As capitalism’s traditional justification – that it increases production – becomes obsolete in a world of limited resources and material abundance, the defence of spreading democracy becomes more important. It’s on these grounds that Cohen would defend the extreme violence of the invasion. This logic sits uncomfortably beside his condemnation of the Greek anarchists (‘leftists’ according to Cohen) that threw petrol bombs during anti-war marches (p-281). Surveys suggested that over 95% of Greece’s population opposed the war, but Greek territory provided some of the most important bases for the invasion.

According to Cohen, ‘Historians will tell how [Antartica’s] first political demonstration was a protest against the overthrow of a fascist regime’ (p-281). I doubt this is how history will remember the anti-war movement, and it may not be too kind on the last apologist for an abhorrence that has been a disaster even in the terms of capital.

However, Cohen does approach the important issue of how political dissidents should relate to Islam. Like the Class War Federation, he’s keen to avoid the soft liberal attitude that shies away from criticising a reactionary ideology. During their annual bonfire last November, London Class War burned an effigy of the prophet Mohammed. There are no images of said prophet but they did their best to build a brown skinned figure holding a copy of the Koran. Myself and others have argued that a group of mainly white activists burning a symbol that’s important in another culture, a culture that’s under sustained attack in this country and around the world, is very different from symbolic attacks on the reactionary ideologies we have grown up with.

I’m not prepared to abandon ideas of tolerance and respect for diversity, and I don’t think Cohen is either; most of his examples regard particular outrages that his leftist bedfellows have failed to condemn. If we place a different emphasis on the need for cultural tolerance it is perhaps to do with the people who have surrounded us since the Iraq War. Cohen was presumably talking to leftist chums who are afraid of criticising Islam; I was working in a bus station where passengers sometimes refused to travel if a Muslim was praying, and staff wrote ‘Kill Paki fuckers’ on toilet walls. ‘Islamophobia’ does exist and here and abroad (in France the row over headscarves was a prime example) it is encouraged and manipulated to create division and justify repressive legislation. I think we need to show a human solidarity with those sections of our community that are under sustained attack, while also criticising a reactionary ideology. There is a need for a reasoned consideration of how we balance these concerns, but Cohen fails to provide it, and instead we’re left to spectate another lefty spat. The Revolutionary Workers Group (the RWG FFS!) was a sinister cult, and yes the Socialist Workers Party are rather annoying, but by silencing the voices of marginalised others, Cohen creates a false opposition between two versions of centralised capitalism. I think he’d appreciate that description.

As to the question, what’s left of the left? Let’s hope not much. The idea of building a de-centralised, non-hierarchical alternative to (inter)national capitalism was at the heart of the ‘new’ politics that emerged from the nightmare of Leninism. Those of us who reject a world defined by capital, and who recognise and respect the potential of ‘ordinary’ people to transform exploitative power relations, will shed few tears for the politics of the past.

The Old Left was always about managing the capitalist economy (usually badly – at least neo-liberals sometimes get that right) and ensuring the status quo. Cohen’s own political project is condemned in one word. He was furious about New Labour ‘quietly rigging the system to stop genuine refugees reaching Britain’ (p-7, my emphasis). Genuine – that one word – how much it says! For with it appear the ‘bogus’, the economic migrants, those people who have had the audacity to come seeking a fairer share of the global wealth they and their families have helped to produce.

Wayne Foster, April 2007

What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way, is published in London by Fourth Estate.