Monday, March 28, 2011

Burkes and Paines

As the Arab rebellions continue across the region, it is as if a legion of Tom Paines are sweeping through the Middle East. I haven't seen the demonstrators waving copies of The Rights of Man, but their sentiments seem to match entirely Paine's support for democratic revolutions to destroy the old autocracy; "Man is not the enemy of man, but through the medium of a false system of Government".

For every Paine there seems to be an Edmund Burke*; anti-revolutionary, distrusting radical enthusiasms, advocating slow, incremental change. They are becoming more visible as a result of the UN intervention in Libya, though they had always been there, expressing reservations about the revolutions themselves, often making their governments hesitant. They don't ostensibly support the existing regimes, but would prioritise stability over rapid change.

A few Burkes are drawn into denial if not outright apologism. For example, Richard Falk can actually write,

The main pretext given for the intervention was the vulnerability of Libyan civilians to the wrath of the Gaddafi regime. But there was little evidence of such wrath beyond the regime's expected defence of the established order, although admittedly being here undertaken in a brutal manner, which itself is not unusual in such a situation.

But mostly they produce this sort of stuff from Abdelkader Benali - it could be seen as a Western plot, it looks like a tribal war between rival regions, better to have a broader coalition, more Arab involvement is needed, etc., etc. Sometimes the sceptics give credence to regime propaganda, raising the spectre of Al Qaeda or the risk that something could go terribly wrong in the aftermath. Thankfully in Libya, the Paines seized the day at the last minute, though the Burkes still rumble on about not exceeding the UN resolution or not backing regime change, rather than accepting that whilst Gaddafi remains so does the threat to civilian lives. This caution produces talk about a cease fire or even partition, both of which would cement Gaddafi's position in the west and allow him to regroup and rearm. Neither policies have a great pedigree, though both are wonderful excuses for inaction.

And so the debate over Libya is much the same as the one Burke and Paine had over France in the 1790s; the radical, democratic activist against the cautious, conservative reformist. One of the odd things is how conservatism seems to have infected the left, whilst some on the right have become revolutionary sympathisers.

I am temperamentally disposed to be a Paine, so I dislike this cautious conservatism. In Libya it played for time when there was none left, hoping for a fait accompli, meaning that western governments could wring their hands over the coming repression without having to actually do anything about it. And what really strikes me is that the whole critique is based on a pessimistic assessment of what might be, not what actually is. They are fearful, when reality often tells a different story.

There are strengths to a Burkean analysis. Revolutions can go very wrong indeed, especially when informed by impossibilist ideologies. Yet this is not what is happening in the Middle East. What is being demanded is something humdrum, the dignity of an ordinary life lived in the sort of polities that people have seen on satellite TV, on YouTube, or experienced as students in the west. A type of regime where 250,000 people can march against a government policy and even indulge in some minor rioting, without deaths, shooting, arbitrary arrests and torture. They want something that we live with and take for granted, usually grumbling about the harshness of our lot all the while.

This maybe our everyday reality, but we tend to forget that it too needed to be fought for. Here in Manchester we remember our own massacre, nearly two hundred years ago, of peaceful demonstrators demanding the vote. Far more recently we have experienced fascism, war and genocide. We know that there is much that can go wrong, that victory comes with imperfections. We can be certain that once new regimes are in place that there will be a longer struggle for women's emancipation, something that always lags behind when male public freedom often means continuing female public and private oppression. Women's liberation needs its own activism and mobilisation. Even so, today, when we see people struggling and dying to bring down the nasty police states that they were born into and to claim their own imperfect freedom, their own slice of normality, the least we can do is offer some practical solidarity, abandon faux neutrality and search for the Tom Paine inside us.

*Sometimes this should be confused with a berk. For those that don't know, the word 'berk' comes from Cockney rhyming slang - Berkeley Hunt ...


mikeovswinton said...

Berkshire Hunt I think you'll find, Peter.

The Plump said...

Seen it attributed to both Mike - here is the fount of all wisdom on the Berkeley Hunt.

I did spell Berkeley wrong though - now corrected.

Roger said...

Great post.

Only thing I'd add historically is that while Burke and Paine were on the same side on the American Revolution which the latter justified in his 'Common Sense', they parted company as soon as wider abstract 'Rights of Man' came into contention.

Burke (on whom I've always followed Hazlitt who once said that he judged someone by whether he was willing to admit that Burke was a great man) does I think have one fundamental point which also underlies much of the 'anti-imperialist' left's rantings on Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan etc.

The American Revolution could succeed because it was founded upon a common inheritance of limited representative government and expressed the will of a real civil society.

The French failed (in Burkean terms) because it was implemented by sophists and calculators who had lived under despotism all their lives and could only conceive of freedom and equality in the abstract - and whose efforts to turn them into reality would flounder in the face of their people's ignorance, barbarism and apathy.

This ultimately does seem to be the position of both the far left and of some of the more realistic/Kissingerian elements of neoconservatism (which will become more evident as Obama gathers either brickbats or bouquets depending on how the intervention plays out) - if peoples must be left to free themselves without external intervention then their defeat and extermination just shows that they lacked the 'maturity' to be worthy of our support all along.

Personally I prefer a Burkean realism which openly admits that not all societies are alike and that some may just be too crippled by the burden of history to free themselves.

What we are really looking at are bourgeois democratic revolutions in societies that are caught in varying degrees between the despotic politics that have ruled them literally from time immemorial and modern capitalist economic advances that ultimately are not compatible with kleptocratic despotism.

In some of these societies it will be the despots who triumph as their societies simply lack the moral and physical forces to overthrow them - but in others we may just see real progress towards capitalism and democracy - which in turn will allow the building of a genuine socialist movement.

But for the Far Left (and with minor alterations in terminology) much of the Right as well) the only thing that ever matters is Imperialism which being both everywhere and nowhere - something captured brilliantly in Hardt and Negri's Empire where it becomes a primarily metaphysical force - can be safely 'confronted' from the comfort of a well-padded London or New York armchair.

Capitalism on the other hand is made up of real material things - companies, individuals and institutions that can and must be confronted physically with votes and marches and occupations and pickets that can get you arrested, beaten up or even killed in our own city streets.

It must be so much more congenial to be a Priya Gopal or AbdelKader Benali pontificating about other people's politics.

Tim B said...

Of course there are some idiots like Richard Falk who are essentially apologists for the regime but I think you'll find that most opponents of the military intervention are just people who don't want the UK to get into another war with a Muslim country, after previous ones which have cost us a lot of blood and treasure and had consequences with regard to the terrorist threat back home in the UK. And in particular, a war on the side of rebels whom we don't know much about; some of whose reported behaviour e.g. generalised attacks on darker-skinned people and shelling residential areas is questionable; and who it's far from clear have majority support in parts of the country like Tripoli. Forgive me as it's a while since I studied political theory but I don't remember the Burke-Paine debate revolving around whether or not to intervene in another country's affairs - indeed I seem to remember Mr Paine being generally against (for instance) the UK having a role in the affairs of America.

Will said...

"who don't want the UK to get into another war with a Muslim countryand balh blah blahdy blah" . Timmy proves the point you are making. Fuckking hell -- have these people no reflexivity? Thick retarded rightist tory fuckking filth. Bomb them as fuckking well.

Tim B said...

Assume you're volunteering to fight this war then Will as you're so aroused by it. Good luck over there. By the way, how many do you think your little Iraq adventure killed? Do you go with the Lancet million plus estimates or just the WHO quarter of a million one? God those Libyans have so much to look forward to.

The Plump said...

Hello Will.


Where I differ from you is that you are basing your judgement on the specific issue of Libya on either speculation about what might happen or on what did happen somewhere else, eight years ago, on the assumption that the events were analogous and set an automatic precedent.

There is much that we could dispute, but if you focus on the specific issue of Libya then there was only one choice. Either Gaddafi wins due to superior fire power (maybe using foreign mercenaries) or the UN agrees to the request of the rebels and intervenes. There was no other option.

If you think that a Gaddafi victory was preferable to intervention with all its associated risks then fine. I do not and I would suggest that neither do most Libyan people.

Will said...

timmY B sez: "blah blah bl;ahdy blah blah blah anal leakage blah."

horse cock

James Bloodworth said...

Great post. Spot on.


skidmarx said...

Richard Falk says - Long ago, Gaddafi forfeited the legitimacy of his rule, creating the political conditions for an appropriate revolutionary challenge.

Recently he has confirmed this assessment, referring to his own people as "rats and dogs" or "cockroaches", and employing the bloodthirsty and vengeful language of a demented tyrant.

Tim B - there are some idiots like Richard Falk who are essentially apologists for the regime

Fat Man - A few Burkes are drawn into denial if not outright apologism. For example, Richard Falk

I'd rather my first visit to your establishment were as polite as possible, but it does seem this is the most invalid dissection since Burke and Hare.

The Plump said...


Will comments here - and you are worried about being polite!

The Falk article is a classic argument in the form of yes ... but. You know the type of thing: 'I deplore racism but immigration, etc, etc.'

You have quoted the 'yes' part, I have quoted the 'but', which you don't address. I think that in these kinds of arguments it is the 'buts' that matter and form the substance of the argument.

skidmarx said...

Hi Plump - the substance of your argument seems to be that Paines want intervention and Burkes are against it (and thus all implicitly Gadaffophiles). When it is explicit, in the piece you quote to support your case from the first source you cite,that Falk wants to see Gadaffi gone, to say "Ah, but he opposes intervention so he must secretly be on the other side" is just garbage.To claim against all evidence that this is a sign of a trend whereby all the leftists who have been vocal in their support for the Arab Spring aren't really, is nonsense on stilts.
Claiming A said X therefore A means Y is one thing. Claiming that A saying X means A means not X is into getting Winston Smith to learn, understand and accept that 2+2=5 territory.

The Plump said...


That isn't what I am saying at all. The debate around my imperfect analogy of Burke and Paine is about the consequences of policy and the attitudes that inform it. I am certain most of those who oppose intervention would be delighted to see Gaddafi gone.

My argument over several posts is that without the intervention that the Libyan people were pleading for, Gaddafi would have cemented his position and the revolution would have been defeated.

If you oppose intervention you have to accept this would be the consequence of inaction. What Falk is doing is accpeting this but using sophistry to minimise the consequences with a line that it would be brutal but not anything as bad as is being made out - almost an acceptable level of repression.

My view is that the consequences would have been terrible and it would have been more than possible to have stopped it and that we should not be minimising the slaughter and the subsequent terror that would have been put in place if the UN had done nothing.

The problem to my mind is that some on the left, embracing a cautious strand of thinking about foreign policy desire the end without willing the means - or at least this specific means.

That too is a contradiction - especially as there is foreign intervention on the Gaddafi side in the shape of thousands of foreign mercenaries.

skidmarx said...

My argument over several posts is that without the intervention that the Libyan people were pleading for,
Requests for intervention have varied from the NFZ to requests for weapons. There seems to be a fair amount of unity opposing troops on the ground which most interventionists in the West have been happy to see in other conflicts. All these are lumped in together.
If you oppose intervention you have to accept this would be the consequence of inaction.
If you think that the intervention would have the effect of shoring up the regime you most certainly do not, let alone the question of whether something other could have been done.
almost an acceptable level of repression.
Your words not his, but again ones that you trying to shove in his mouth.

The Plump said...

1. The requests for intervention have been consistent and it took three weeks to respond. They wanted a NFZ, air strikes and no troops on the ground. They got a NFZ, air strikes and no troops on the ground - bloody late. Now they would like arms as they are still completely out-gunned. They still don't want troops on the ground and no one is suggesting there will be any. And no one is arming them yet, though I think that they should. There have also been consistent requests for humanitarian aid and that is starting now.

2. I am at a loss to understand how on earth an intervention would shore up the regime. At the time of the intervention thousands had been killed in crushing the uprising in the west. Tanks had entered Benghazi, Gaddafi had the bulk of the army, fully equipped, bolstered by mercenaries, snipers in place killing civilians. The rebels had nothing but courage. They were doomed. What the fuck else could be done? Tell me.

How does stopping Gadaffi's army from winning somehow bolster the regime? I am totally baffled. It certainly isn't a view shared by Libyans who are overwhelmingly grateful for the action.

3. I think my comment was a pretty fair interpretation of this:
there was little evidence of such wrath beyond the regime's expected defence of the established order, although admittedly being here undertaken in a brutal manner, which itself is not unusual in such a situation.

The Plump said...

Oh on Misrata and that Tory MP

“We no longer recognise the place. The destruction cannot be described. The pro-Gaddafi soldiers who made it inside the city through Tripoli Street are pillaging the place, the shops, even homes, and destroying everything in the process. They are targeting everyone, including civilians’ homes. I don’t know what to say, may Allah help us.”

skidmarx said...

I am at a loss to understand how on earth an intervention would shore up the regime.
By making him more popular at home and abroad. Iraq may have taught you nothing, but it has for others.

What the fuck else could be done?
Not believing that it was all over in Benghazi if it only took a few airstrikes to turn the situation around.

I think my comment was a pretty fair interpretation
Go on thinking that partially quoting someone to make it appear that they say the opposite of what they do if you want. It isn't going to convince anyone who doesn't already agree with you and even then will involve a deliberate weakening of their analytic intelligence.

Will said...

That Skidmarx cunT is nothing but a troll from the outer-reaches of the Swamp bleRgghs of crackpotTT-land -- a contemptible little snot-nosed scrote full of hot piss and vinegar.

"An individual, a group, a party, or a class that “objectively” picks its nose while it watches men drunk with blood massacring defenceless people is condemned by history to rot and become worm-eaten while it is still alive." - Leon Trotsky The Balkan Wars 1912-1913 (Sydney: Pathfinder Press, 1980), pp.292-293.