Tuesday, May 29, 2007


The Hull Peace Conference on Friday was certainly stimulating. One of the frustrations of my job is that the administrative demands tend to squeeze out academic work and so attending a conference like this was a joy. (I really regret that a teaching commitment will prevent me getting to London for this week’s Euston Manifesto Conference, I hope that some who read this blog will be there.)

The theme of the conference was democratic peace and much of it was about democracy promotion. There were a number of thoughtful papers which all rested on the strong correlation between peace and democracy. The star speaker though had to be Johan Galtung. He is founder and director of TRANSCEND and the Peace Research Institute amongst others. Now in his seventies he is still involved in speaking, publishing, and active conflict mediation. I am sorry that there is no text to link to, so this is a report based on my notes alone. I am wholly responsible for any errors and, of course, the opinions expressed are solely my own

I have used Galtung’s writings, particularly those on violence, in my teaching for many years. By developing the idea of structural violence he draws the boundaries widely and develops the idea of positive peace as being something that confronts violence in all its manifestations, including social injustice. It is a powerful analysis. On the day, he was charismatic, talked with authority and humour, and, blessed relief, did not use PowerPoint. And I thought what he had to say was terrible.

He started well enough by saying that we tend to use a fallacious concept of conflict prevention and that we can’t prevent conflict, only violence. Conflict, for Galtung, is a 'fantastic challenge' and it finds its resolution in the creation of a 'new reality' that 'transcends and transforms' the situation. It demands creativity and imagination, something most politicians and bureaucrats are completely lacking in. But then I could see where we were heading when he said that there was no solution to conflict 'in exporting your own society'. My worst suspicions were confirmed, he was going to argue against democratisation.

He next discussed mediation, which he argued is a process based on equity between the parties and a recognition of the validity of the other. The essence of peace is some type of equity, it is the 'process and the solution'. This is an obvious and important principle where an intrinsic equity exists. However, Western policy was, he said, based on arrogance, self righteousness, inequity, and imposition. Though he stringently opposed democracy prevention and felt that the slogan of the anti-war movement should have been, 'no to war and yes to democracy in Iraq', he took pertinent criticisms of the oligarchic tendencies of democracy into a realm inhabited by the followers of Noam Chomsky, that democracy and human rights are the ideological premises of the CPLD club – Christian – Protestant – Liberal – Democratic.

He then came out with what I felt were dubious assertions, dodgy statistics, and even flirted with conspiracy theory, suggesting that the real reason for the Iraq war was to secure oil and materials for the coming war with China! There was so much I could fisk on but I will concentrate on a few examples, ones where he used some of the rhetorical tricks of the politicians he professed to despise.

The first ploy is a neat one, most of his talk rested on it. He kept stressing that the two essential parts of a process of peaceful conflict resolution are that the parties approach each other with equity and that each recognises the validity of the other. If you say that the position of one party to the conflict is one that does not recognise the validity of the other, you have defined them as illegitimate. As a result, equity and mutual recognition are used to create inequity and illegitimacy. Hmm… clever.

Now here comes the crunch. According to Galtung, the West’s thinking is dominated by a self righteousness that undermines that equity and respect. 'Hard readings of the Abrahamic religions' have, apparently, given us a concept of good and evil and we are in the grip of this. It makes us unbearably self-righteous and we are, therefore, incapable of recognising the validity of the other. Instead we try and impose a model of our own society. Thus the West is inescapably in the wrong unless it can undergo a profound cultural change.

Hold on. So this concept of good and evil doesn’t exist anywhere else? It doesn’t come from human moral conscience? Surely, a distinction between good and bad is an essential part of the process of building any society. Galtung was certainly judgemental about the USA and Britain. Must democracy approach violent and repressive totalitarianism as an equal without making a judgement? Are all morals relative? Surely we have to make a judgement over when equity and mutual recognition are appropriate and when they are absurd.

By using this trick he also plays games with moral agency. Galtung entered the familiar territory of seeing 9/11 as an ‘unsurprising’ response to American actions rather than a horrendous act of arbitrary mass murder of innocent people inspired by a lunatic, fascistic ideology. It is a position that I find preposterous. Whatever the level of conflict faced, is a sane response the slaughter of civilians going about their daily routine? Are there indeed ‘no innocents’? I can find no justifications and I would call it evil, but then is that merely my self-righteousness speaking?

The import of all this is that we may not say that murder is wrong, that torture is wrong, that fascism is wrong, that theocracy is wrong, that genocide is wrong and that action must be taken as this is arrogant and a result of our hard Abrahamism. I refuse to see human rights as an imposed ideology. I view them as an expression of our common humanity, of our compassion for others and as the unity that binds, rather than as an instrument of the governments that divide.

The next tricks he used were in his adept ways of deflecting questions. One woman asked about real dilemmas caused by the challenge of Islamism, his answer was words to the effect, ‘that is the argument of the establishment’. Indeed, but what about the substance of the question? It was left unanswered. Of course, the provenance of an argument may have some bearing on its interpretation, but it does not alter its substance. Just because it is the argument of the establishment does not mean, on this occasion, that it is not right.

Then I asked a question. Mine was about an earlier comment about the Versailles Treaty. He had played another trick. Using the point that he made about the need to always see something good in the opposition, even Hitler, he said that if the Versailles treaty had been renegotiated in 1932, Hitler would not have come to power in 1933. First, it is impossible to prove or disprove a counterfactual so we cannot know whether he is right or not. However, the Versailles Treaty seems to have had less bearing on Weimar elections than economics. The rise of the Nazis rested on an economic crisis and mass unemployment in the wake of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, leading to a loss of faith in democratic politics by a substantial part of the electorate. So, a revision of Versailles may or may not have affected the popularity of the Nazis. Unprovable assertions, of course, make a weak basis for an argument and another of his devices was the habitual use of counterfactuals throughout the talk.

He then stated that, as a consequence, ‘Hitler was elected to power in a coalition with 52% of the votes’. This is not true. The Nazi party stood as a single party and not as part of a coalition and had lost two million votes in the second election of 1932. It seemed that they had missed their chance. Although still the largest party, they gained only a third of the votes. It was at that point that Franz von Papen made his fateful mistake. He tried to negotiate a coalition with Hitler and then persuade President Hindenburg that he could deliver a majority in the Reichstag. Hitler would not go into any coalition unless he was offered the Chancellorship and all the mainstream party leaders would not countenance the fact. Kurt von Schleicher could have continued as Chancellor with a minority government supported by the President’s emergency powers. Papen broke ranks to serve his own ambitions and offered Hitler the deal that he could be Chancellor and that Papen would be Vice-Chancellor. He then sold the package to Hindenburg on the basis that Hitler would be powerless and that he would control him from the Vice Chancellorship. Hitler was not elected to power; he was placed there by an elite coup.

So, Galtung’s history was wrong (and it is very basic history indeed) but it made his case stronger. And it played yet another trick. The example he used was to explain something good in the opposition’s case, even Hitler’s. But that was not what he was talking about. He was suggesting a way to stop Hitler coming to power. This is where my question came in. I asked what happens if the attempt fails and Fascism comes to power with a desire for war? This was a bit tricky because, of course, Britain did precisely what Galtung suggested. It renegotiated Versailles in a process of appeasement, thereby strengthening fascism and enabling Hitler to dominate central Europe and dismember democratic Czechoslovakia against the wishes of its government and people. The result was the Second World War. This was hardly a howling success for peace and reconciliation.

So how did he deal with my question? He didn’t, he dodged it. He answered on the United States, saying, in an ironic tone, that it was probably not the example I had expected. Dead right it wasn’t, I had asked about Hitler! Once again, he had played a trick. He had diverted the discussion away from an area that was weak in his argument (this took some cheek when he had earlier emphasised the necessity to honestly acknowledge error). However, he did something else. He played the guilt by association card by morally equating the USA with Nazi Germany (and he used some spurious statistics on combat deaths to actually imply that America was worse). This is ridiculous by any standard, whatever the failings of the US government.

He followed this up by pointing out that there were good things about Saddam. He mentioned three positives. I can only remember two as my notes are incomplete; one was the creation of a welfare state and the other was improved women’s rights. Both are true though both were the creation of the Ba’ath party before Saddam came to power as part of a process of totalitarian mobilisation and secular modernisation. Arguably, Saddam’s disastrous rule actually weakened them. But even if it was true that Saddam was Iraq’s Beveridge, surely the development of a reign of terror, systematic torture, mass executions, collective punishments, purges modelled on his hero Stalin, the launching of an unprovoked and bloody war against Iran which ruined the country, the invasion of Kuwait, the systematic murder and ethnic cleansing of the Kurds, the slaughter of the southern Shi’a, the draining of the marshes, the endemic corruption and cult of personality and the creation of a regime whose rationale was the practice of systematic violence against its people might just outweigh the benefits of a welfare state? I notice too that welfare did not extend to the bullets that were used in executions; the victim’s families were billed for the cost.

If Galtung was saying that these strengths should form the basis of a post-Saddam settlement then we are in complete agreement. If they are really a version of ‘at least he made the trains run on time’ or a way of legitimating his power then we are ardent opponents.

There was so much else that was dubious on Israel/Palestine, Iran, Algeria, etc.. He was deeply one sided. But let’s get back to his central point. That conflict resolution rests on equity.

I am certainly no Blairite, but I vehemently refute that there is any equity between contemporary Britain and the perpetrators of crimes against humanity, the genocidal and psychopathic regimes in the world – the Pol Pots, Hitlers, Stalins, Saddams, Amins and, moving only a notch down the scale, the grotesque Mugabes. It is intellectually shabby to equate America, for all its failings, with the Nazis. The people who suffer under such tyrannies yearn for liberation and long for our flawed democracies. They do not care about what Galtung denounces; they want the killing stopped, by force if necessary. As I listened I felt that Galtung was betraying the principles his work was founded on and especially his theories of violence and of positive peace. He used to be right. The work of peace movements is to resist and end violence, not conflict, nor even war. Now he wants to resist the use of war to end violence. To his credit, Galtung is an interventionist, though one based on peaceful mediation. However, I cannot see how we can mediate between people and psychopaths without prolonging and legitimating their rule.

In questions and interjections, Galtung repeatedly asked how we would end Britain’s ‘belligerence’. OK it is my turn to be unfairly selective, but this piece in Saturday’s Guardian is from one of the countries where this belligerence imposed our values, Sierra Leone.

Augustus Kamara, a news editor for the state news agency, spent much of the conflict in hiding. Even today, he sobs when he relives the stress of trying to keep his family alive. "I would not be here speaking to you [if not for] all these risks Tony Blair took, because it was a political risk intervening where you know some of your troops will die," he said.

When his wife gave birth to a boy in 2001, Mr Kamara named him after his hero. Tony-Blair Kamara is six years old.

Would Galtung deny young Tony-Blair Kamara his life and liberty?

Pamela Bone gets all Abrahamic in really nice piece on the universality of human rights here . (via Norm)

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