The Hon. Emmanuel Macron
President of France
Palais de l’Élysée
Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré
It was to our great astonishment, consternation, and shock that we perceived the Japanese Self Defense Forces display the Rising Sun Flag in front of the gathered crowds during the military parade on Bastille Day, 2018.
Not since the Nazis paraded the Swastika on June 14th, 1940 has there been such a sight on the Champs Elysées.
As you know, the Rising Sun banner is the war flag of the Japanese Imperial Military and the global symbol of Japanese Imperial Terror from 1894-1945. This is the emblem of the military empire that murdered, tortured, enslaved, raped and terrorized their way through Asia and the Pacific, brutally invading and subjugating entire countries and peoples, while perpetrating innumerable crimes of aggression, crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
The leaders of the Japanese Military High Command, representing command responsibility for the Japanese military, were ultimately found guilty and hanged for these crimes.
Article R 645-1 of the French Criminal Code, rightly prohibits “the public exhibition or wearing of such insignia, symbols/emblems, uniforms that recall those used by…organizations…or persons found guilty of one or multiple crimes against humanity by…a [competent] international tribunal”.
We also remind you of the ineffaceable, irrevocable, inviolable right to redress (“imprescriptibilité“) regarding crimes against humanity, codified in French Law (Law No 64-1326, December 26th, 1964).
We further draw your attention to the fact that these leaders were found guilty of multiple Crimes Against Humanity in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, convened on April 29th, 1946.
We therefore assert that the members of the Japanese contingent parading the Rising Sun were in clear violation of R 645-1.
We request that they be charged and prosecuted according to the law.
Technically, on their own soil, the Japanese SDF are allowed to fly the Rising Sun, due to a 1955 accommodation arising from the US SCAP designs of cold war geopolitics. However, it staggers the imagination and shocks the conscience that Republican France—to whom we ascribe higher ethical standards and a demonstrated history of banning symbols and actions like this–would, within the heart of the French Metropole, on the very occasion of its commemoration of opposition to Absolutism and celebration of Universal Human Rights, permit the display and flaunting of a flag that represents the worst excesses of Imperialist Absolutism, unmitigated human rights atrocities, and genocidal and femicidal violations of international law.
We refuse to believe that French standards of governmentality, morality, decency, and common sense allow the public flaunting of the Rising Sun.
We refuse to believe that France allows the symbolic legitimation and normalization of Japanese Imperial Militarism with its long, unimaginable train of irrefragable, but unacknowledged, unatoned-for atrocities.
We refuse to believe that a public holiday also constitutes a moral holiday, where the historical oppressor is dispensed legal exemption to parade violent, traumatic, racist symbology at the cost, shock, and mortification of all its survivors and victims.
We live currently in chaotic, troubled, and morally unsettling times. Symbols have power: the power to incite or to calm, to divide or bring reconciliation, to heal or to harm. The inflammatory public display of the Rising Sun is a symbol of everything that is harmful, divisive, violent, and destructive of human decency, morality, society, and peace.
We urge you to consider our concerns and request prompt and rapid action and redress.
With Deepest Respect,
CWJC (Comfort Women Justice Coalition)
A recent European Council summit in Brussels was meant to articulate a united policy on the burgeoning refugees and migrant crisis. Instead, it served to highlight the bitter divisions among various European countries. Considering the gravity of the matter, Europe’s self-serving policies are set to worsen an already tragic situation.
True, several European leaders, including Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, went home to speak triumphantly of a ‘great victory’, achieved through a supposedly united European position.
Italy’s Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, used more derogatory terms in explaining his country’s new policy on refugees and migrants. “They will only see Italy on a postcard”, he said, referring to refugees who have been arriving in Italy with the help of humanitarian rescue boats.
The first of these boats, carrying over 600 refugees and economic migrants, the Aquarius, was sent back on June 11, followed by another, carrying over 200 refugees. When Italy carried out what then seemed like excessive action, the decision erupted into a massive political controversy between Italy, France, Spain, Malta and others.
However, the pandemonium has subsided since then, as Italy’s Conte declared that, following the Brussels summit, his country ‘is no longer alone.’
What Conte, who presides over a populist, right-wing government, meant is that his country’s unwelcoming attitude towards refugees is now gathering greater European consensus.
The debate over refugees and migrants has reached the point that it has become a source of political instability in countries like Germany. The latter is not considered a ‘frontline state’, as in countries that are likely to be the first destination for refugees escaping war or poverty at home.
Austria and other countries are also caught up in the crisis, each with its own angry constituency to appease.
On paper, representatives of European countries did, in fact, reach an agreement. The real problem ensued as soon as delegations returned to their respective countries.
Despite opposition from Poland and Hungary, and Italian threats to ‘veto’ any text that is not consistent with Italian priorities, the Council agreed on four main points:
First, the establishment of disembarkation centers outside European territories, to be stationed mostly in North Africa. At that early stage, economic migrants would be separated from political asylum seekers.
This first stipulation is made hollow simply because, as the Guardian reports, “no North African country has agreed to host migrant centers to process refugee claims,” in the first place.
Second, Europeans agreed to strengthen borders control through the Frontex system.
Aside from the questionable tactics of this pan-European border police, this system has been in use for years and it is difficult to imagine how ‘strengthening’ it will translate into a more efficient or humane border control system.
Third, the Council called for the creation of ‘controlled’ refugee and migrant processing centers within Europe itself, like the North African non-existing centers, to quickly separate between refugees fleeing strife and economic migrants.
This clause was offered as a ‘voluntary’ step to be exercised by any state as it sees fit, which, again, will hardly contribute to a united European policy on the issue. Yet, despite the voluntary nature of this provision, it still stirred a political controversy in Germany.
Soon after the Council issued its final statement, Horst Lorenz Seehofer, Germany’s Interior Minister, threatened to quit Angela Merkel’s coalition government.
The German Chancellor is now under dual pressure, from within her fractious coalition, but also from without, a massive political campaign championed by the far-right party, the ‘Alternative for Germany’. In fact, the latter group’s popularity is largely attributed to its anti-immigrant sentiment.
A compromise was reached, calling for the establishment of migrant ‘transit centers’ at the German-Austrian border. However, instead of resolving a problem, the decision created another one, propelling a new controversy in Austria itself.
Austria, which also has its own populist, anti-immigrant constituency to placate, fears that the proximity of the German ‘transit centers’ would force it to receive Germany’s unwanted refugees.
“If Berlin introduced national measures, which would have a chain reaction, it could mean that Austria would have to react,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz commented in a press conference. The magnitude of this ‘reaction’ is, of course, to be determined later, depending on the nature of counter-pressure emanating from Austria itself.
Austria has, in fact, already threatened to shut down the Brenner Pass, connecting Italy and Austria.
The fourth, and last, decision by the European Council called for the boosting of North African economies and offering training for Libya’s coastguard.
As altruistic as the last stipulation may sound, it is, indeed, the most ridiculous, especially since it was placed on the agenda with French enthusiasm. Even if one is to ignore France’s colonial history in Africa – grounded in the notion of usurping African resources under military threat – one can hardly ignore the current role that Emmanuel Macron is playing in the current Libyan conflict.
Various media reports suggest that Macron’s government is carrying on with the legacy of intervention, initiated by the government of Nicolas Sarkozy, most notably in the military intervention of March 2011.
Libya, a failed state par excellence, is now fighting proxy wars in which France and Italy are the main players.
Bearing that in mind, it would be absurd to suggest that Macron is keen on respecting the sovereignty and supporting the economies of Libya and other North African nations.
Considering Europe’s past failures and foot dragging on the issue of refugees, it is hard to imagine that one of Europe’s greatest challenges is to be resolved as a result of the Brussels summit and its lackluster ‘agreement’.
Europe continues to view the refugee crisis in terms of security, populist pressures and national identity, as opposed to it being a global humanitarian crisis invited by wars, political strife and economic inequality, of which Europe is hardly innocent.
As long as Europe continues to operate with a skewed definition of the crisis, the crisis will continue to grow, leading to far dire consequences for all of those involved.
• Romana Rubeo, an Italian writer, contributed to this article
In June 2018 alone, more than 500 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. Their boats were refused access to land in either Malta or Italy. They were force-driven back by gun-boats to the North African shores they came from, mostly Libya, but many boats capsized and countless refugees didn’t make it.
These are de facto murders, high crimes against humanity, committed by the very European Union. The same “leaders” (criminals, rather), whose forebears are known to have raped, exploited, tortured, ravaged peoples and their lands of Asia, Africa, Latin America over the past 1000 years of abject colonization. Europeans have it in their genes to be inhuman. This can possibly be extended to the ‘superior’ greedy white race in general. At least to those who make it to political or corporate high office in the formidable EU or exceptional US, or to those who appoint themselves into the European Commission. We should call them “The Heartless Bunch”.
This is the so-called West, now led by the United States of America, basically the British empire transplanted across the Atlantic, where they felt safer between two shining seas, than as a rickety island in the Atlantic, just in front of the enormous, contiguous land mass called Eurasia. The Old Continent, alias Europe, was given by the new trans-Atlantic empire, the new masters of the universe, a subservient role. And that was in the making for at least the last 100 years, when the new empire started weakening Europe, with two World Wars.
Today’s European (EU) leaders are puppets put in place by the Atlantist elites, to make sure that the rather educated Europeans do not go on the barricades, that they are debilitated regularly by free market corporatism creating unemployment, taking their hard worked-for social safety nets away, saturating them with fake news, gradually oppressing them with growing police states, with a massive militarization, and finally using the articulately planned flood of refugees from the very US-EU-NATO destroyed countries – destroyed economically and by wars as a further destabilizing weapon. Greece should serve as a vivid example of what’s really going on and is planned, starting with “inferior” southern EU states, those bordering on the strategic and economically important sea way, the Mediterranean Sea.
You think I’m crazy? Start thinking again and connect the dots.
The refugee death toll in the Med-Sea in 2017 was about 3,200, 40% down from 2016, and more than 600 up to end of April 2018, and another more than 500 in June. This figure is bound to increase drastically, given the European closed-border policy, and more. The EU is contracting among others, the Libyan Coast Guard with gun boats to chase refugee vessels back to the Libyan shores, many sink, and saving those thrown into the sea is ‘forbidden’. They are simply left to die. That’s the rule. Malta, a little island-appendix to Brussels, but important as a refugee transit, has issued strict bans on private fishing boats and NGOs trying to rescue refugees.
As a consequence, the by now well-known German NGO “Lifeline” boat with 234 rescued refugees and migrants on board from Africa and the Middle East, miserably poor, sick, desperate people struggling for sheer survival, many with small kids, who wanted nothing more than their children to have a better life was rejected by Malta, turned back into the sea under guidance of NATO and EU hired military-type private contractor gun-boats. Eventually Portugal offered her safe shores for the refugees. Malta has a Partnership for Peace (PfP) Agreement with NATO; i.e. obeys NATO orders. NATO, a killer organization, has, of course, not a shred of humanity in its structure, nor in the blood of the people at its helm anywhere in the world.
Imagine in this context, an EU summit took place at the end of June 2018 to “arrange” and agree on how to handle the refugee crisis in the future, in other swords, how to keep them out of Europe. None of the countries, other than Germany, were even considering accepting some of these poor souls out of sheer humanitarian reasons, to give them shelter, food and medication. The discussion even considered where to build a wall – yes, fences were discussed to keep them out – Europe a xenophobic free-port for the rich, acting in questions of migration as a carbon copy of Trump. They deserve each other, Trump and Brussels, trade wars not withstanding – let them shred each other to pieces.
Well, this almost happened during, before and after the now-called “mini-summit”, with Madame Merkel almost losing her Chancellor’s job, as she, against all odds, represented the most humanitarian view of all the 28 neolibs. This did not go down well with her partner party, the ultra-conservative Bavarian CSU. Calls for her resignation abounded. The German Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, was about to resign over Merkel’s alleged refugee ‘generosity’, in which case the highly fragile right-left coalition would have collapsed, and who knows how Germany may have continued to govern. Perhaps new elections would have had to be called, and then only god knows what might have happened. The empire could not allow this uncertainty to prevail, because Washington needs Germany as the chief-slave driver to lead Europe into total disarray and serfdom. It worked. Germany is alive and saved – and ticking.
Instead, the European refugee/migrant policy is in shambles. The EU are literally out to kill refugees, as a means of dissuasion? Mass-murder as a means of discouraging the desperate to seek shelter in those very countries that were instrumental in destroying their livelihoods, their families, their towns, their infrastructure, their education and health facilities, their youth? Generations of young Middle Eastern and African people are gone, destroyed.
Did these high-ranking EU officials in Brussels mention their own huge responsibility for the refugee floods with one single word? – No, of course not. Not with one breath. Has the conscience in one single head of these fake, neolibs-neonazis, as it were, self-serving EU heads of state been awakened by this very fact of guilt for what they are to confront? Has it caused sleepless nights? I doubt it. They are far from this level of human compassion; they are monsters.
Then, there was and is Italy, with her strange new coalition, a coalition of convenience. The leftish 5-Star Movement in alliance with the right-wing Lega Norte, selling their human conscience to be able to reign, giving away their responsibility for migration to the xenophobic, narcissistic, and yes, close to fascist Lega Norte which is adamant not to receive migrants. They would boycott any result that would force Italy to take in refugees, or even build border transit camps. In the end, they reached a toothless agreement; a non-agreement, rather; an accord that obliged none of the parties to do anything. Everything is voluntary. Period. And Macron said that this was the best refugee summit the EU ever had. So much for dismal brainlessness.
All was voluntary. The only agreement they could book for themselves is to build refugee camps in North African countries for the shipped-back survivors. Fortunately, every North African country, from Egypt to Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco said no. Having seen what happened in such literal slave camps in Libya, they had at least the compassion for these desperate human beings to prevent this from reoccurring. Compassion, a term, a feeling or sensation, the Europeans are devoid of.
However, no Israeli- Trump- Brussels-type wall or barbed-wire fence will keep the desperate in their economically, or by war, or western terrorism destroyed countries. The west, and only the west, is responsible for the endless destructive chaos, torture and lawlessness in these nations that the west wants to dominate, for myriad reasons – to steal their energy, minerals; for their strategic location, and finally on the way to total full spectrum world hegemony. This, the west will not achieve. That’s for sure. Evil will not prevail in the long run. Darkness will eventually cede to light. That’s the way nature works. But on its way to collapse, Evil will maim and kill millions of lives. Countless children will have no future, no parents, no education, no health services, no drinking water. They will be made to slaves as a means for their survival, to be raped and exploited or eventually killed. The European crime is of infinite dimension and nobody sees it, let alone stops it.
Ties between Europe and Africa have never been rosy. A relationship based on predatory conquest and the exploitation of resources (slave flesh, minerals, and such assortments) is only ever going to lend itself to farce and display rather than sincerity. The late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, whose death must be placed squarely at the feet of the Franco-Anglo-American intervention in the Libyan conflict of 2011, typified the cruelly distorted relationship, a man who morphed from erratic, third way statesman of revolution to terrorist inspired “Mad Dog”; then to a modern, if cartoonish figure capable of rehabilitating a state from pariah to flattered guest.
A neat expression of Euro-African ties was captured in the 2007 Dakar address by then French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Like the current French President Emmanuel Macron, Sarkozy wanted to make an impression on those in what had been formerly characterised as the Dark Continent. The leaders of the Maghreb and West Africa had been led to believe that promise was wafting in the air, that France would have a grand update on its relationship with former colonies on the continent. The system of Francafrique, larded with neo-colonial connotation, would be scrapped. Sweet sensible equality would come to be.
An impression he did make, albeit in spectacularly negative, sizzling fashion. “The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history… They have never really launched themselves into the future.”
Sarkozy’s speech seemed a cribbed version of texts produced at a time when European officials were falling over each in other in acquiring and renting portions of the continent. But in 2007, a French leader could still be found speculating about the limited world view of African agrarianism, its peasantry cocooned from enlightenment. “The African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words.” This, for the French President, was a “realm of fancy – there is neither room for human endeavour nor the idea of progress.”
The impact of the speech was such as to prompt Senegal’s foremost scribe Boubacar Boris Diop to suggest a cognitive confusion of some scale. “Maybe he does not realise to what extent we felt insulted.” Defences were offered in France, one coming from Jean-Marie Bockel. The speech, he concluded, had one thread through it: “the future of Africa belongs firstly to the Africans.”
And so now, in 2018, where history has again become an issue, throwing up its human cargo of suffering from conflict, poverty and strong shades of neo-colonialism, France, fashioned as a European leader, again finds itself considering how to respond to relations with the southern continent.
For various African states, the signs are not good. Historical condescension and the sneer seemingly persists. Macron, in an effort to steady the refugee control effort in the European Union, has gone into full school teacher mode. The EU, he has iterated, cannot take decisions on behalf of African states, though he does suggest that, “Helping Africa to succeed is good for Europe and France.”
African states also suffered from a distinct problem of fecundity: unplanned population growth threatened further northward migration. Immigrant processing centres in North Africa designed to halt the flow into Europe’s south, he suggests, “can fly, just if some African governments decide to organise it”.
This is something Macron has been onto for a time, and it replicates a broader formula adopted by wealthier states to more impoverished ones. No doubt eyeing such ghoulish experiments as Australia’s Pacific Solution, which shifts the burden of processing and assessing refugee claims to small, low-income Nauru and unstable Papua New Guinea, Macron suggested in 2017 that states such as Libya carry the can, a suggestion as absurd as it is venal.
In August that year, he ventured, with agreement from German, Spanish and Italian counterparts, to focus on the setting up of migrant processing centres in Libya, Chad and Niger. These would involve European resources to help create and sustain them. The gaping flaw of this suggestion, one carried over into the EU negotiations last week, ignores the shattered status of Libya, a state in all but name.
Such plans, in the assessment of Left MEP Malin Björk, were “tainted by structural racism towards the African population”. In the opinion of the Swedish MEP, “Europe has not right to criminalise mobility of movement especially not in third countries.” Such views are coming across as marginally quaint in the hard nosed and distinctly inhumane line of EU politics.
The value of Macron’s schooling is also compounded by manifold problems on what Europe actually intends to do. The EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan that came into force on March 20, 2016 was meant to be a holy of holies, stemming the flow of refugees into frontline Greece. It came with the natural consequence of shifting the routes of movement towards the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean. Like aqueous matter, human flows will find a way.
Macron is only speaking for Europe in one respect: regaining control of borders and putting the refugee genie as far as possible back into the bottle. Disagreement reigns over the method. During negotiations in Brussels, EU leaders agreed, for instance, that “regional embarkation platforms” established outside the zone would be implemented to target the people-smuggling process. In principle, it was also agreed that there would be secure migrant processing centres set up in EU countries.
On this point, member states remain deafeningly silent, though Macron has insisted on the traditional formula that states who first receive the migrants should have those centres. The current Italian government hardly sees the point of why; other EU states are more than fit to also conduct such processes.
As such squabbling to the richer North takes place, the impecunious South will simply continue to be a massive conduit of dangerous, often deadly travel. This, along with Francafrique notions and various lacings of European suspicion towards African states, will continue with headstrong stubbornness.
In our hyper-alienated and media-saturated societies, struggles for collective liberation are all too often reduced to a contest of ideas. Rather than fighting tooth and nail against conditions of exploitation, oppression and ecological devastation, we often instead find ourselves mired in an endless cycle of argument, critique and debate. But while theory can and should play an important role in informing our actions and helping to build relationships based in trust and mutual understanding… at the end of the day, any meaningful practice of collective autonomy requires the capacity to actually defend territory.
Though they often draw inspiration from one another, struggles for territorial autonomy – if they are to be successful – must be based on local realities. After all… defending a physical space means fighting where we stand. And so the battle to defend a squatted social center in an urban neighbourhood will necessarily look very different from one waged by Indigenous land defenders against the encroachment of pipeline companies through their territories. But though these struggles may assume different forms, they stem from a shared resolve to draw a line in the sand and to defend it… come what may.
In this month’s episode of Trouble, subMedia showcases three ongoing land defence struggles: the Unist’ot’en Camp, located on the unceded Wet’suwet’en territories of so-called “British Columbia”; the autonomous spaces movement in Ljubljana, Slovenia and the eco-defence occupation known as La ZAD, in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, France.
Ever since the achievements of Renaissance humanism with the triumph of art over nature, with the development of new artistic techniques (the optics of perspective, the structure of anatomy, the mixing of pigments, and the development of movement) art was strengthened and, combined with the scientific explorations and achievements of the Enlightenment, led to the idea that Man could become stronger and better and hold an optimistic view of the future. He could improve his well-being and even take control of nature to create a better life for all. This view continued through the decades and was associated with social revolutions and political activity which connected progressive ideas about society to artistic forms of expression which would illustrate and advance the hopes and desires of the masses for a better life and future. These artistic movements changed and developed from the Enlightenment to Realism to Social Realism and then to Socialist Realism as artists both inspired and reflected the people’s progressive movements the world over.
However, at every juncture, oppositional movements also stepped in and opposed progressive change and revolution by the people; from the Romantic movement in Revolutionary France to the Modernist movement to Postmodernism and now Metamodernism. These movements have derided every aspect of the progressive forces, from the quietist “l’art pour l’art” of Romanticism to the attack on artistic form by Modernism, to the later attack on ideological content by Postmodernism and now the ‘oscillation’ between the two (form and content) of Metamodernism, a movement caught between self-obsession and the pressing desire of the masses for ideas and culture that will deal with climate change, financial crises, terror attacks and the neo-liberal squeeze on the social welfare system.
These two movements, Romanticism and the Enlightenment, have their basis in attitudes towards and beliefs in the efficacy of the burgeoning scientific movement. Romanticism, beginning in the 1770s, formed the basis of an anti-scientific strand in culture over the last two hundred years while the Enlightenment formed the basis of a scientific strand roughly between between 1715 and 1789. Both strands have been in opposition ever since, their ideas reflected through various cultural movements which sprang up in different countries and at different times, some revolutionary and some reactionary.
Let’s take a look at these two opposing strands in more detail.
The Anti-Scientific Strand
One of the most important movements is Romanticism particularly as it still has a strong anti-science influence today. Romanticism
was characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism and glorified the past and nature, putting emphasis on the medieval rather than the classical traditions of ideals of harmony, symmetry, and order. The Romantics rejected the norms of the Age of Enlightenment and the scientific rationalization of nature which were important aspects of modernity. Isaiah Berlin believed that the Romantics opposed classic traditions of rationality and its basis in moral absolutes and agreed values which led “to something like the melting away of the very notion of objective truth”.
Objective truth and reason were elevated by the artists and philosophers of the Enlightenment to understand the universe and solve the pressing problems of the world. However, Romanticism promoted the individual imagination as a critical authority allowed of freedom from classical notions of form in art (harmony, symmetry, and order). Romantics were distrustful of the human world, and tended to strive for a close connection with nature to escape elements of modernity such as urbanisation, industrialisation and population growth and therefore allowed them to avoid questions centred around the working class, such as alienation, the ownership of the means of production, living conditions and conditions of employment. The Romantics pursued the idea of “l’art pour l’art” (art for art’s sake) believing that art did not need moral justification and could be morally neutral.
According to Arnold Hauser in The Social History of Art:
Revolutionary France quite ingeniously enlists the services of art to assist her in this struggle; the nineteenth century is the first to conceive the idea of “l’art pour l’art” which forbids such a practice. The principle of “pure”, absolutely “useless” art first results from the opposition of the romantic movement to the revolutionary period as a whole, and the demand that the artists should be passive derives from the ruling class’s fear of losing its influence on art.1
This position originated with the elites in the nineteenth century and still serves the same function, Romanticism being the main influence of culture today.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the Modernist movement was generally referred to as the “avant-garde” until the word “Modernism” became more popular. Modernism was the rejection of tradition, and the creation of new forms using reprise, incorporation, rewriting, recapitulation, revision and parody. The Modernist ‘rejection of tradition’, like with Romanticism, is the rejection of classical notions of form in art (harmony, symmetry, and order). Modernism (like Romanticism) also rejected the certainty of Enlightenment thinking. Modernism emphasised form over political content and rejected the ideology of Realism and Enlightenment thinking on liberty and progress.
The Realist movement began in the mid-19th century as a reaction to Romanticism, and Modernism was a revolt against the ‘traditional’ values of Realism. Realist painters used common laborers, and ordinary people in ordinary surroundings engaged in real activities as subjects for their works. However, Modernism rejected traditional forms which over time became less and less ´real´ and more abstract and conceptualised.
The Great War brought about more disillusionment with Enlightenment ideals of progress among the Modernists who turned inwards and attacked art forms, instead of war-mongering capitalism. The Romantic continuity in Modernism produced individual, horrified reactions but were ultimately no threat to the ruling elites. Like an angry child smashing his own toys, the Modernist attacked his particular cultural forms and then expected the public to pick up the pieces. What was left was atonalism and abandonment of traditional rhythmic strictures in music, the departure from traditional realist styles in art and the prioritisation of the individual and the interior mind and abandonment of the fixed point of view in literature. The Dada movement, for example, was developed in reaction to the Great War by ‘avant-garde’ artists who rejected the logic, reason, and aestheticism of modern capitalist society but then only to respond with nonsense and irrationality in their art works.
As for the Great War, the avant-garde and Modernism – like the Romantic movement and the French Revolution – failed the masses again as it stood outside the people’s movement, turning in on itself and attacking reason instead of uniting with the progressive forces against war. In the end it was mainly the political movements of James Connolly in Ireland and V.I. Lenin in Russia (the two geographical ends of Europe) who organised the working classes against the war and destruction.
David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), the revolutionary artist and founder of the Mexican Mural Movement, had this to say about the Modernist ‘avant-garde’:
If we look closely at their work it is the most reactionary movement in the history of culture. It has not developed anything new in composition or perspective and has lost much of that which has been accumulated over twenty centuries. It is based on the hysteria of novelty for the sake of novelty, in order to satisfy a parasitic plutocracy. The artist who changes his style every 24 hours is the best-known artist. When he has exhausted all the solutions, the others become his followers and sink into repetitious imitation.2
The allusion here presumably to Picasso (1881–1973), famous for changing his style many times, is interesting in relation to Joaquín Sorolla (1863–1923) the great Spanish artist whose depictions of ordinary Spanish people in monumental works of social and historical themes was overshadowed by Picasso until relatively recently. Cubism, credited to Picasso as its inventor, was an art style that conflicted with the representational system in art that had prevailed since the Renaissance, as the subject was depicted from differing viewpoints at the same time within the same painting.
Many pseudo-scientific explanations were given to explain Cubism regarding art in modern society, new scientific developments etc. but even Picasso himself ridiculed this: “Mathematics, trigonometry, chemistry, psychoanalysis, music and whatnot, have been related to cubism to give it an easier interpretation. All this has been pure literature, not to say nonsense, which brought bad results, blinding people with theories”.3 Indeed, Cubism is probably the most parodied of all forms of Modernist art.
Other Modernist forms such as Expressionism have been seen to be at least critical of capitalism and war, but according to Lotte H. Eisner who quotes a ‘fervent theorist of this style’, Kasimir Edschmid: “The Expressionist does not see, he has ‘visions’. According to Edschmid. “the chain of facts: factories, houses, illness, prostitutes, screams, hunger’ does not exist; only the interior vision they provoke exists.” [p. 10] Therefore, the external reality of life and death for the working class is ignored for the ecstasy of ‘interior visions’.
For Eisner, writing in The Haunted Screen, German Expressionist cinema is a visual manifestation of Romantic ideals. She writes:
Poverty and constant insecurity help to explain the enthusiasm with which German artists embraced this movement [Expressionism] which, as early as 1910, had tended to sweep aside all the principles which had formed the basis of art until then. [pp. 9-10]
Richard Murphy also notes: “one of the central means by which expressionism identifies itself as an avant-garde movement, and by which it marks its distance to traditions and the cultural institution as a whole is through its relationship to realism and the dominant conventions of representation.”3 Expressionists rejected the ideology of realism, and Expressionist art, in common with Romanticism, reacted to the dehumanizing effect of industrialization and the growth of cities with extreme individualism and emotionalism, not collective social empathy and political change.
After the Great War and the Russian Revolution, in the 1920s and 1930s, the idea of depicting ordinary people in art spread to many countries in Realist and Social Realist forms especially as a reaction to the exaggerated ego encouraged by Romanticism. In the United States the Ashcan School was well known for works portraying scenes of daily life in New York city’s poorer neighborhoods. However, the unsettling depictions of the darker side of capitalism by the Ashcan School was soon displaced with Modernism in the Armory Show of 1913 and the opening of more galleries in the 1910s who promoted the Modernist artwork of Cubists, Fauves, and Expressionists.
This takeover by Modernism in New York continued into the 1940s and 1950s with the development of Abstract Expressionism, an art form which was soon promoted globally as a counterweight to the Socialist Realism style developed in the Soviet Union, especially during the Cold War. The loose, splashing and dripping of paint in the work of Jackson Pollack became used as a symbol of the ideology of freedom and free enterprise in the United States. The victory of Modernism in the United States served two purposes: national and international. It dampened down the critical dissent of the Ashcan School while at the same time serving as a useful tool of foreign policy.
According to Frances Stonor Saunders in The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, Abstract Expressionism was “Non-figurative and politically silent, it was the very antithesis to socialist realism. It was precisely the kind of art the Soviets loved to hate.”4 This was Modernism at its zenith as the wealthiest of art investors and the most influential art critics promoted Abstract Expressionism as “independent, self-reliant, a true expression of the national will, spirit and character.”4 However, the size of the confidence trick being perpetrated on the unsuspecting public became unsettling. According to Saunders:
It was this very stylistic conformity, prescribed by MoMA and the broader social contract of which it was a part, that brought Abstract Expressionism to the verge of kitsch. ‘It was like the emperor’s clothes,’ said Jason Epstein. ‘You parade it down the street and you say, “This is great art,” and the people along the parade route will agree with you. Who’s going to stand up to Clem Greenberg and later to the Rockefellers who were buying it for their bank lobbies and say, “This stuff is terrible”?5
The imposition of Modern Art on the public was also noted by the journalist, Tom Wolfe, who wrote about the 1960s and 1970s art scene in New York in The Painted Word:
The notion that the public accepts or rejects anything in Modern Art, the notion that the public scorns, ignores, fails to comprehend, allows to wither, crushes the spirit of, or commits any other crime against Art or any individual artist is merely a romantic fiction, a bittersweet Trilby sentiment. The game is completed and the trophies distributed long before the public knows what has happened. […] We can now also begin to see that Modern Art enjoyed all the glories of the Consummation stage after the First World War not because it was “finally understood” or “finally appreciated” but rather because a few fashionable people discovered their own uses for it.6
It was also in the early 1970s that the Irish artist Seán Keating (1889–1977), a Realist painter who painted images of the Irish War of Independence, the early industrialization of Ireland and many portraits of the people of the Aran Islands, was brought face to face with Modernism. In a well-known televised interview, Keating, now in his 60s, was brought around the ROSC’71 exhibition and asked to give his opinion on the exhibits. As Eimear O’Connor writes: “When confronted by The Table, made by German artist Eva Aeppli (b.1925), Keating said it was ‘downright horrible perversity, nightmare stuff … an old lady who had gone completely mad and is dangerous … I think it is morose … vengeful against the human race…'”7 This baiting of a famous Irish humanist whose love of the Irish people and progress displayed the new confidence of the Irish elites who had jumped on the Modernist bandwagon as an symbol of fashionability and of final acceptance by the European elites who would allow Ireland to join the EEC (EU) in 1973.
Economic Pressure by Seán Keating (1949)
Scene of man bidding farewell to his family as he prepares to emigrate from Aran Islands.
(The Irish peasant betrayed: elevated as a national symbol before Independence yet ignored afterwards.)
In the meantime, Postmodernism was gaining strength. Some features of Postmodernism in general can be found as early as the 1940s but it would compete with Modernism in the late 1950s and became predominant by the 1960s.
Postmodernism is defined as follows:
Postmodernism, also spelled post-modernism, in Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power. Postmodernism as a philosophical movement is largely a reaction against the philosophical assumptions and values of the modern period of Western (specifically European) history—i.e., the period from about the time of the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries to the mid-20th century. Indeed, many of the doctrines characteristically associated with postmodernism can fairly be described as the straightforward denial of general philosophical viewpoints that were taken for granted during the 18th-century Enlightenment, though they were not unique to that period.
In other words, Postmodernism had a direct line of descent from Modernism and Romanticism before that. The same Romantic characteristics show up again – the suspicion of reason, subjectivism and denial of the ideas of the Enlightenment. Once again cynicism towards the idea of progress and working class improvement is the mainstay. Every technique and trick of avoidance of the important issues facing the people’s movement is used in Postmodernism: “common targets of postmodern critique include universalist notions of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, language, and social progress” and “postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to self-referentiality, epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, subjectivism, and irreverence.”
Postmodernist artists decided that past styles (once criticised for being ‘traditional’) were now usable in a parodic way along with appropriation and popular culture. The Postmodernist critique of universalist notions of objective reality and social progress, or the Grand Narratives, has particular implications for the working classes and popular political movements as their liberatory philosophy and ideologies are based on them – whatever their supposed successes or failures in the past. To take them away is to fall back on the neo-liberal philosophy of the end-of-history and more of the same globalised capitalism ad infinitum. After the attack on Form in Modernism, we now get an assault on Content in Postmodernism.
When applied to the people’s movement itself, such as the French Revolution, Postmodernist historiography, for example, all but wipes out its historic relevance and importance. As Richard J Evans writes in In Defence of History, Simon Schama’s book Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution over-emphasises the bloody and violent nature of the revolution as if the politically-conscious people taking their lives into their own hands were irrational beings exploding with an animal lust for violence. Evans comments:
In Citizens, indeed, the French Revolution of 1789-94 becomes almost meaningless in the larger sense, and is reduced to a kind of theatre of the absurd; the social and economic misery of the masses, an essential driving force behind their involvement in the revolutionary events, is barely mentioned; and the lasting significance of the Revolution’s many political theories and doctrines for modern European and world history more or less disappears.8
The more opaque forms of relativistic Postmodernist writing and thinking were exposed when Alan Sokal refused to get into line and exposed the French Postmodernists in a hoax essay published in Social Text in 1996. According to Francis Wheen in How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World:
As a socialist who had taught in Nicaragua after the Sandinista revolution, he [Sokal] felt doubly indignant that much of the new mystificatory folly emanated from the self-proclaimed left. For two centuries, progressives had championed science against obscurantism. The sudden lurch of academic humanists and social scientists towards epistemic relativism not only betrayed this heritage but jeopardised ‘the already fragile prospects for a progressive social critique’, since it was impossible to combat bogus ideas if all notions of truth and falsity ceased to have any validity.9
The obvious contradictions and cul-de-sacs of Postmodernism eventually brought it into decline and soon doors opened for a new obfuscatory philosophy to buttress increasingly crisis-ridden globalised capitalism – Metamodernism.
According to Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker in ‘Notes on Metamodernism‘:
The postmodern years of plenty, pastiche, and parataxis are over. In fact, if we are to believe the many academics, critics, and pundits whose books and essays describe the decline and demise of the postmodern, they have been over for quite a while now. But if these commentators agree the postmodern condition has been abandoned, they appear less in accord as to what to make of the state it has been abandoned for. In this essay, we will outline the contours of this discourse by looking at recent developments in architecture, art, and film. We will call this discourse, oscillating between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, metamodernism. We argue that the metamodern is most clearly, yet not exclusively, expressed by the neoromantic turn of late.
So there you have it – this is the best that Metamodernism can offer – a return to Romanticism! We have now come full circle as “the metamodern is most clearly, yet not exclusively, expressed by the neoromantic turn of late”.
And where is this pressure coming from, to allow a little reality back into the arts?
Some argue the postmodern has been put to an abrupt end by material events like climate change, financial crises, terror attacks, and digital revolutions […] have necessitated a reform of the economic system (“un nouveau monde, un nouveau capitalisme”, but also the transition from a white collar to a green collar economy).
So the contemporary crises of capitalism and climate change are finally impinging on the disintegrating Postmodern artistic consciousness and the answer is reformism and ‘new capitalism’. However, Metamodernism is “Like a donkey it chases a carrot that it never manages to eat because the carrot is always just beyond its reach. But precisely because it never manages to eat the carrot, it never ends its chase”. With a little bit of progressive critique, the Metamodern artist can regain credibility without ever really challenging the status quo.
From all of the above we can see the common threads tying Romanticism, Modernism, Postmodernism and Metamodernism together: individualism, art for art’s sake, suspicion of reason, subjectivism and denial of the ideas of the Enlightenment. All individualist movements that oppose the idea of collectivist ideology and action. Movements that ultimately serve the status quo and the ruling elites. Yet some of these same elites were involved in the development of the concepts of the Enlightenment in the beginning. What happened to them?
Ardnacrusha: Ireland’s first power-station built by Siemens post-independence in the 1920s, a hydro-electric dam built on the river Shannon, north of Limerick.
(Disillusioned Irish workers unemployed and drinking as the new elites begin the process of state-building.)
The Scientific Strand
The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century. Enlightenment thinkers believed in the importance of rationality and science. They believed that the natural world and even human behavior could be explained scientifically. They felt that they could use the scientific method to improve human society. For the artists and philosophers of the Enlightenment, the ideal life was one governed by reason. Artists and poets strove for ideals of harmony, symmetry, and order, valuing meticulous craftsmanship and the classical tradition. Among philosophers, truth was discovered by a combination of reason and empirical research.
In the field of political philosophy the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought: the right of the individual, the natural equality of all men and the idea that legitimate political power must be “representative” and based on the consent of the people. Therefore the Enlightenment popularised the idea that with the use of reason and logic social development and progress would be the norm for the masses and science and technology would be the instruments of human progress. The ideas of the Enlightenment paved the way for the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries as it undermined the authority of the monarchy and the Church. The French Revolution became the first main conflict between the men of the Enlightenment and the aristocracy. Within the arts this conflict arose between those who believed that art had a role to play and those who believed in art-for art’s-sake. As Hauser notes:
It is only with the Revolution that art becomes a confession of political faith, and it is now emphasized for the first time that it has to be no “mere ornament on the social structure,” but “a part of its foundations.” It is now declared that art must not be an idle pastime, a mere tickling of the nerves, a privilege of the rich and the leisured, but it must teach and improve, spur on to action and set an example. It must be pure, true, inspired and inspiring, contribute to the happiness of the general public and become the possession of the whole nation.1
However, the rising bourgeoisie who advocated the ideas of the Enlightenment realised that their objectives and those of the revolutionary public were not the same:
Yet as soon as the bourgeoisie had achieved its aims, it left its former comrades in arms in the lurch and wanted to enjoy the fruits of the common victory alone. […] Hardly had the Revolution ended, than a boundless disillusion seized men’s souls and not a trace remained of the optimistic philosophy of the enlightenment.10
Thus began the conflict between the new rulers, the bourgeoisie, who wanted to set limits on progress, and the interests of the toiling masses who had not yet achieved one of the most basic concepts of Enlightenment philosophy: the natural equality of all men. This struggle for political and social freedom took different forms over the next century or so but had as one of its bases the idea that the arts would play a role.
As the bourgeoisie stepped up its development of capitalist society building factories and markets, the Realist movement reacted to Romanticist escapism in favor of depictions of ‘real’ life, emphasizing the mundane, ugly and sordid. The Realist artists used common laborers and ordinary people in their normal work environments as the main subjects for their paintings. Its chief exponents were Gustave Courbet, Jean-François Millet, Honoré Daumier, and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Courbet hated the aristocracy and royalty, and advocated political and social change. He painted ordinary people and in sizes usually reserved for gods and heroes. Realist movements, like the Peredvizhniki or Wanderers group in Russia, developed in many other Western countries.
Meanwhile, as the the Industrial Revolution grew in Britain, concern for the factory workers led to a meeting between Marx and Engels and a major change in the ideology of the working class organisations seeking better conditions. While the Romantics believed that the Industrial Revolution and its exploitative extremes in the factories was the result of science, the Marxists instead questioned the ownership of the factories and who benefited from the greatly increased power of the new means of production, means that could benefit society as a whole. Therefore while the Romantics looked back to the medieval artisans and peasants, the Marxists saw science creating new possibilities for a better future for everybody.
Social Realism grew out of these changes as Social Realist artists drew attention to the everyday conditions of the working class and the poor and criticised the social structures which maintained these conditions. The Mexican and Russian revolutions gave a fillip to the Social Realist movement which reached its height of popularity during the 1920s and 1930s when capitalism was under severe pressure from the global economic depression. The Ashcan School in the USA and the Mexican muralist movement were two groups who exerted a huge influence at the time and many of the artists involved at the time were supporters of political working class movements. While contemporary Social Realism has been kept in the background it is still a popular style with progressive artists.
As nationalist struggles of the nineteenth century changed into socialist struggles during the twentieth century, the style and form of the art changed too as ordinary people were now depicted as subjects with dignity and power. This style became known as Socialist Realism. It was pronounced state policy at the Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934 in the Soviet Union and became a dominant style in other socialist countries. Like Social Realism, Socialist Realism also met with fierce denunciations and controversy. However, despite its caricature as a style that depicts people as naïve, happy, joyous ciphers, its originators condemned any attempt to portray people living in an idyllic paradise as the work of shallow artists who would never be taken seriously by the populace:
An artist who tried to represent the birth of socialism as an idyll, who tried to represent the socialist system, which is being born in hard-fought battles, as a paradise populated by ideal people – such an artist would not be a realist, would not be able to convince anyone by his works. The artist should show how socialism is built out of the bricks of the past, out of the material which the past has left us, out of the material which we ourselves create in the sweat of our brow, in the blood of our toil and struggle, in, the hard battles of classes and in the hard toil of man to remold himself.
Socialist Realism went into decline in the 1960s as the Soviet Union itself went from crisis to crisis until its end in 1991. Today it is a style which is still much criticised. Why is Socialist Realism such a taboo? Because Socialist Realism is a quadruple whammy – it contains four elements that elites don’t like:
1 Anything to do with the Soviet Union (then) or Russia (today);
2 Any depictions of the working class anywhere (which are not subservient);
3 Any discussion of socialism or socialist ideology (past, present or future); and,
4 Any realist depiction of opposition to capitalism (that could influence others).
If one looks at ‘history of Western art’ books it becomes apparent that there are very few positive images of the working class but plenty of images glorifying monarchs, aristocrats, the middle classes and Noble Peasants (the useful idiots of nationalism). Representations of peasants usually take the form of non-threatening genre paintings and any Socialist Realist art is excluded.
Irish Industrial Development (oil on wood panels) by Seán Keating (1961)
International Labour Offices (ILO) Geneva, Switzerland
(Positive images of Irish workers by Irish artist in Geneva – must be Socialist Realism!)
The fact is that Romanticism in its different forms has made sure to keep the working classes out of the picture and the only response of the people’s movements should be to keep Romanticist influences at arms length. Romanticism has become the capitalist art par excellence. Romanticism vacillates between cultures of despair and Nihilism. It is opposed to logic and reason and its extreme individualism ensures a divisive affect on any collectivist organisation. Romanticism pervades most mass culture today and sells egoism and impotence back to the very people who turn to it for solace from desperation.
The long conflict between Romanticism and Enlightenment ideas contained in art movements over the last two centuries is set to continue as new responses to the contemporary crises of capitalism try to ameliorate the situation or fundamentally change the system underpinning it. What is needed are new national debates on the role and function of art in maintaining or changing the structure of society. Debates similar to those described by an eyewitness to the Paris Commune, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, who wrote: “a whole population is discussing serious matters, and for the first time workers can be heard exchanging their views on problems which up until now have been broached only by philosophers.”11
- Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, Vol 3 (Vintage Books, 1958) p. 147.
- D. Anthony White, Siqueiros: Biography of a Revolutionary Artist (Booksurge.com, 2008) p. 413.
- Richard Murphy, Theorizing the Avant-Garde: Modernism, Expressionism, and the Problem of Postmodernity (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,1999) p. 43.
- Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (The New Press, 1999) p. 254.
- Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (The New Press, 1999) p. 275.
- Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word (Bantam Books, 1987) pp. 26/7.
- Eimear O’Connor and Virginia Teehan, Sean Keating: In Focus (Hunt Museum, 2009) p. 33.
- Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (Granta Books, 2000) p. 245.
- Francis Wheen, How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World (Harper Perennial, 2004) pp. 89/90.
- Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, Vol 3 (Vintage Books, 1958) p. 157.
- Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, in Le Tribun du Peuple, May 10, 1871, quoted in Stewart Edwards, The Paris Commune 1871 (Quadrangle, 1977) p. 283.
The concluding sentence of Roy Medvedev’s superb account of Russia during the Stalin years reads:
When the cult of Stalin’s personality was exposed [in the XXth and XXIInd Congresses in 1956 and 1961 respectively] a great step was made to recovery.1
It’s a vital point, similar to that made by the incredible truth and reconciliation commission event that followed the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, and that point is this: before any society can really advance it must recognise and admit to itself the mistakes and crimes perpetrated by its own trusted leaders. Or, as Rosa Luxemburg once put it:
Self-criticism – ruthless, harsh self-criticism, which gets down to the root of things – that is the life-giving light and air of the proletarian movement.2
Yet self-criticism of our own governments is almost impossible. Infinitely more effective than state censorship – which can restrict criticism – is self-censorship, and that’s pretty much what we have: a society which is incapable of seriously challenging those in power, let alone calling them to account for any wrongdoing – not through any state-imposed censorship, but through creating a culture that’s utterly brainwashed into believing the perfection of their constitution and therefore refusing to even imagine its very considerable imperfections. Whilst we do not have the domestic death squads and concentration camps of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia to enforce domestic obedience, we still have loyal populations that are almost as effectively programmed to believe the perfections of their state leaders and their institutions as many Germans and Russians were during the Hitler and Stalin years.
In Britain, for example, in 2015 when the leader of the Green Party Natalie Bennett was provocatively questioned about the Party’s well-known opposition to monarchy she remarked,
I can’t see that the Queen is ever going to be really poor, but I’m sure we can find a council house for her — we’re going to build lots more.
This obviously whimsical comment, although factually reasonable, provoked the following headline in The Independent: ‘We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,’ say Greens
Similar sensationalist headlines led in almost every newspaper and TV news broadcast. Green Party membership, which had been surging until that moment, immediately fell off a cliff. I was a membership secretary for our local Green Party branch at the time and had been signing up new members at the rate of about two a week. New memberships not only stopped completely, but some who had just joined us immediately cancelled their memberships. And this from people who would see themselves as progressives. No need to guess how Tory voters, who comprise most voters, reacted to Bennett’s quip. Such is the level of brainwashing in a supposedly democratic country about the perfection of the British monarchy, and its unchallengeable position as unelected head of state.
But it’s not just Britain that has to endure a majority of brainwashed citizens. I remember seeing a TV documentary about the time of the illegal Iraq War in 2003. The programme was about heroic US marines bravely defending western freedom, by helping to kill defenseless Iraqi civilians. Some of the heroes were interviewed about the hard time they were having, and the one that will forever stick in my mind implied that no amount of personal suffering was too great for him. “I would slit my own throat for my president”, he said. So Iraqi civilians didn’t have much chance.
The marine’s remark reminded me of a quote in Medvedev’s book, showing the similarity between modern US citizens and the brainwashed Russians of Stalin’s day:
Just as [religious] believers attribute everything good to god and everything bad to the devil, so everything good was attributed to Stalin and everything bad to evil forces that Stalin himself was [supposedly] fighting. “Long live Stalin!” some officials shouted as they were taken to be shot.3
When, very occasionally, some of the major crimes of our great trusted leaders are brought to our attention, there is never any clamouring for justice, no national outrage that the public’s trust could be so cheaply squandered. Whilst some newspapers might print a subdued story or two, located somewhere towards the bottom of page thirty nine, and whilst national TV stations may record a few words tucked away deeply buried somewhere on their websites, in the sacred name of “balance”, the real gravity of the misdeeds of our trusted leaders are otherwise routinely ignored, and the revelations are quickly lost in the usual myriad of trivial distractions.
For example, when, after many years and thirteen million pounds of treasure, the Chilcot Report was eventually published, effectively providing sufficient evidence for Tony Blair and other establishment leaders to be indicted for war crimes, no such calls from our trusted leaders were heard – just a deafening silence, followed almost immediately by business as usual. But those who dare to provide the evidence of our rulers’ misdeeds are quickly and viciously victimized – as any whistleblower could easily confirm; with the better-known of whom, such as Daniel Ellsberg, Mordechai Vanunu, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Ed Snowden standing as fine examples of the terrible consequences of speaking the truth about power. This is how Rosa Luxemburg’s ruthless self-criticism is rendered impossible in our “free” societies where official censorship doesn’t exist, but where official “news” isn’t worth censoring.
One of the holiest cows of the establishment, the institution which, almost above any other, will not tolerate any form of criticism, are our so-called “defence” forces. The word “hero” has been re-defined to mean absolutely anyone wearing a military uniform. TV commercials encouraging young people to join the armed forces appear almost every night. TV programmes depicting the military as brave heroes resisting overwhelming odds in the sacred name of freedom and democracy appear almost every night. Every year people adorn themselves in little plastic poppies and stand in silence for two minutes on the 11th November, not so much to recall those who were needlessly slaughtered for the supposed “war to end all war”, but to serve as a subliminal recruitment aid. Criticising the armed forces is always strictly off limits.
The Annihilation of Raqqa
Yet a recent report by Amnesty International (AI), who investigated the devastating attack by western coalition forces on the Syrian city of Raqqa, is so damning that anyone who does not criticise those responsible is guilty by association of war crimes.4 They are in a similar position to those who silently stood by as their neighbours were carted-off to Nazi concentration camps. Although AI has a somewhat dubious reputation, earned mainly by its very tepid response to the multitude of horrors perpetrated over many years by the Zionist regime in Occupied Palestine, its latest report on Raqqa has some merit.
No one will ever know how many civilians perished in last year’s battle for Raqqa. However, estimates for the numbers of people living in the city prior to the war are given at around 220,000, whilst the number estimated to be living there earlier this year is around 61,000. Some civilians managed to flee the city, but many did not, as they were prevented from doing so by IS. Amnesty summarised the terrible situation for civilians as follows:
The four-month military operation to oust the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS) from Raqqa, the Syrian city which IS had declared its capital, killed hundreds of civilians, injured many more and destroyed much of the city. During the course of the operation, from June to October 2017, homes, private and public buildings and infrastructure were reduced to rubble or damaged beyond repair.
Residents were trapped, as fighting raged in Raqqa’s streets between IS militants and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, and US-led Coalition’s air and artillery strikes rocked the city. With escape routes mined by IS and the group’s snipers shooting at those trying to flee, civilians fled from place to place within the city, desperately seeking refuge or escape. Some were killed in their homes; some in the very places where they had sought refuge, and others as they tried to flee.5
If Amnesty was referring to North Korea, say, or Iran, Russia, China, or the Syrian government, almost certainly its report would have been leading the western world’s news broadcasts. Outraged politicians and their tame propagandists in the mainstream media would have been demanding that “something should be done”. But those countries were not the subjects of the Amnesty report. It was referring instead to the biggest villains in the world — the US and British governments, joined on this occasion by France. Although other countries were implicated in this particular “coalition of the willing”, their roles were relatively minor. Consequently our politicians and their lackeys in the mainstream media seem hardly to have noticed AI’s report. Once again the truth is available, but has been conveniently self-censored by all the usual tricks of state.
Two investigators from AI spent two weeks in February 2018 visiting the ruins of Raqqa. They went to 42 different locations and interviewed 112 civilian residents. About half of the report focuses mainly on the personal stories of four families whose lives were devastated by the “liberation” of Raqqa from IS occupation by the combined efforts of western firepower, and ground-troops supplied by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a mainly Kurdish militia.
Although the so-called global coalition:
boasts membership of 71 countries and four inter-governmental organisations; an eclectic alliance including nations as diverse as Panama and Poland, Australia and Afghanistan. Some Coalition members, Chad, for example, or Niger, are likely to have given support in name only. Others, particularly European states, were more deeply involved, although the exact extent of their actions is not always clear.6
Whilst most people are probably aware that US, British and French air forces bombed countless targets in Syria generally, and specifically here, in Raqqa, fewer people know about the involvement of western ground troops. But AI tells us:
[T]he US deployed some 2,000 of its own troops to north-eastern Syria, many of whom were engaged in direct combat operations, notably firing artillery into Raqqa from positions outside the city. In addition, a smaller number of special forces were operating close to front lines alongside SDF members. British and French special forces were also deployed to the area, but in much smaller numbers.
Among the US deployment were Army High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) with GPS-directed 227mm rockets, which could be fired from 300km away, as well as hundreds of Marines from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and the 24th MEU equipped with M777 howitzers, which they used to rain down 155mm artillery fire upon the city from a distance of up to 30km.6
AI concludes its summary of the involvement of “coalition” forces as follows:
The Coalition launched tens of thousands of strikes on Raqqa during the military campaign. Of these, more than 4,000 were air strikes, almost all of them carried out by US forces. British forces carried out some 215 air strikes, while the French military was responsible for some 50 air strikes with the overwhelming majority – more than 90% – carried out by US piloted aircraft and drones. No other members of the Coalition are known to have carried out air strikes in Raqqa. At the same time, US Marines launched tens of thousands artillery shells into and around Raqqa…
While Coalition forces operated mostly from positions several kilometres outside the city, a small number of special operation forces from Coalition member states – notably the US, UK and France – operated alongside the SDF close to front line position in/around the city, reportedly mostly in an advisory rather than combat role.
The SDF were partly responsible for locating targets for Coalition air and artillery strikes. It is not clear what percentage of the Coalition air and artillery strikes were carried out based on co-ordinates provided by the SDF – as opposed to strikes on targets identified by Coalition forces themselves through air surveillance or other means – and the extent to which Coalition forces verified targets identified by the SDF prior to launching strikes on those targets.7
Although Kurdish militia were reportedly too lightly-armed to be physically accountable for the destruction of Raqqa, their target identification function was clearly significant.
It has long been routine for the military’s propaganda machine to dismiss concerns about civilian casualties inside war zones, and the carnage wreaked on Raqqa was no exception. Furthermore, the military’s word is always accepted at face value.
[A]t the height of conflict in Raqqa, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend wrote that ‘… there has never been a more precise air campaign in the history of armed conflict’.8
But the alleged accuracy of the ordnance used by the military is not the point. The point is that no matter how smart the smart bombs are, they’re still killing civilians – and that’s a war crime. An estimated 4,000 bombs were dropped on the defenceless civilians of Raqqa by “coalition” warplanes. Given that many of those are only accurate, on a good day, to within ten metres of their target, it’s very clear to see that these alone must have accounted for considerable civilian casualties. But they may not have been the main problem.
Sergeant Major John Wayne Troxell (senior enlisted adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), suggests that the Coalition operation was far from precise: ‘In five months they fired 35,000 artillery rounds on ISIS targets… They fired more rounds in five months in Raqqa, Syria, than any other Marine artillery battalion, or any Marine or Army battalion, since the Vietnam War.’8
But legitimate ISIS targets must have been almost negligible, as IS had immersed themselves amongst the civilian population. Given also that most artillery shells are considerably less accurate than guided missiles, and can only be expected to strike within a hundred metres of their targets, and given that tens of thousands of these things rained down on the trapped and defenceless civilians of Raqqa, the claims by the military’s propagandists that they tried everything possible to minimise civilian casualties are obviously ludicrous.
There has never been a more precise air campaign in the history of armed conflict [than in Raqqa]
— Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend
Isis withdraws, undefeated, from Raqqa
Sometime in October some sort of deal was suddenly worked out which allowed Isis to simply pack up and leave Raqqa, in a convoy of trucks, together with most of their weaponry. According to a BBC report, the deal:
enabled many hundreds of IS fighters to escape from the city. At the time, neither the US and British-led coalition, nor the SDF, which it backs, wanted to admit their part. Has the pact, which stood as Raqqa’s dirty secret, unleashed a threat to the outside world – one that has enabled militants to spread far and wide across Syria and beyond?
Great pains were taken to hide it from the world. But the BBC has spoken to dozens of people who were either on the convoy, or observed it, and to the men who negotiated the deal…
[T]he convoy was six to seven kilometres long. It included almost 50 trucks, 13 buses and more than 100 of the Islamic State group’s own vehicles. IS fighters, their faces covered, sat defiantly on top of some of the vehicles…
Freed from Raqqa, where they were surrounded, some of the [IS] group’s most-wanted members have now spread far and wide across Syria and beyond.
The US-led “coalition” undoubtedly committed a vast number of war crimes in the “liberation” of Raqqa, and the considerably-referenced AI report summarises the particular breaches of law applicable:
(a) The Principle of Distinction
This requires parties to conflict to at all times, ‘distinguish between civilians and combatants’ and to ensure that ‘attacks may only be directed against combatants’ and ‘must not be directed against civilians’. Parties to conflict must also distinguish between ‘civilian objects’ and ‘military objectives’. Anyone who is not a member of the armed forces of a party to the conflict is a civilian, and the civilian population comprises all persons who are not combatants. Civilians are protected against attack unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities. In cases of doubt, individuals should be presumed to be civilians and immune from direct attack. Making the civilian population, or individual civilians not taking a direct part in hostilities, the object of attack (direct attacks on civilians) is a war crime (My emphasis).9
It isn’t clear how hard the “coalition” tried to distinguish combatants from non-combatants, but in the four detailed case studies that Amnesty supplied – which were the tragic stories of just four families from a city of tens of thousands – it would appear they didn’t try very hard at all. One such piece of evidence was supplied by “Ammar”, who
told Amnesty International that on ‘the second or third day of Eid” [26-27 June 2017] an air strike killed 20-25 people, mainly civilians but some IS too, at a communal water point, around the corner from Abu Saif’s house.’10
So, clearly essential water supplies were either deliberately targeted by the “coalition”, or some “legitimate” target was so near that the likely presence of defenceless civilians was simply ignored.
The principle of proportionality, another fundamental tenet of IHL, also prohibits disproportionate attacks, which are those “which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated”. Intentionally launching a disproportionate attack (that is, knowing that the attack will cause excessive incidental civilian loss, injury or damage) constitutes a war crime. The Commentary on the Additional Protocols makes clear that the fact that the proportionality calculus requires an anticipated “concrete and direct” military advantage indicates that such advantage must be “substantial and relatively close, and that advantages which are hardly perceptible and those which would only appear in the long term should be disregarded (my emphasis).11
Whilst it is undeniable that the head-chopping organ-eating occupiers of Raqqa were about as vile a group of psychopaths as it’s possible to get, and that their removal from Raqqa would no doubt be extremely difficult to accomplish, it’s deeply questionable that the total destruction of a civilian-occupied city could be considered proportional to the reign of terror it was supposed to terminate. The fact that IS were eventually cleared out of Raqqa, very much alive and well, shows that they were not committed kamikaze warriors and suggests that alternative methods for bringing to an end their repulsive occupation may have been possible.
In order for parties to an armed conflict to respect the principles of distinction and proportionality they must take precautions in attack. “Constant care must be taken to spare the civilian population, civilians and civilian objects”; “all feasible precautions” must be taken to avoid and minimise incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects. The parties must choose means and methods of warfare with a view to avoiding or at least minimising to the maximum extent possible incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects. As well as verifying the military nature of targets and assessing the proportionality of attacks, the parties must also take all feasible steps to call off attacks which appear wrongly directed or disproportionate. Parties must give effective advance warning of attacks which may affect the civilian population, unless circumstances do not permit. When a choice is possible between several military objectives for obtaining a similar military advantage, the parties must select the target the attack on which would be expected to pose the least danger to civilians and to civilian objects.
The limited information available on the precautions in attack taken by the Coalition suggests that they were not adequate or effective. The cases examined in detail indicate that there were serious shortcomings in verification that targets selected for attack were in fact military, with disastrous results for civilian life. Further, several attacks examined by Amnesty International suggest that the Coalition did not, at least in those instances, select weapons that would minimise harm to civilians. Also, the warnings that were given to civilians were not effective. They did not take into account the reality that civilians were blocked from leaving Raqqa, and did not include specific information (such as warning civilians to stay away from tall buildings).11
Amnesty claim that up to the point of publication of their report repeated approaches to “the coalition” for specific details regarding their attacks on Raqqa were either inadequately answered or had not been answered at all. Therefore questions relating to whether sufficient precautions were taken remain unanswered, and could imply breaches of international law.
(d) Joint and individual responsibility of coalition members
One of the attractions to “coalition” actions is the difficulty in attributing specific responsibility for possible crimes after the event, and Amnesty states:
It is concerned that this lack of clarity may enable individual Coalition members to evade responsibility for their actions. The UK Government, for example, maintained until May 2018 that it had not killed a single civilian in Syria or Iraq, despite carrying out thousands of air strikes across the two countries. On 2 May 2018 it admitted for the first time that one of its drone strikes had caused one civilian casualty in Syria in March 2018.11
However, there is very limited wriggle-room in attempting to evade responsibility by trying to divert attention to others. International Humanitarian Law (IHL):
Requires all states to ‘respect and ensure respect’ for its provisions under Common Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions. This includes both positive and negative obligations on states providing assistance to another state which is then used to commit a violation of international humanitarian law. The negative obligation is not to encourage, aid or assist in violations of IHL by parties to a conflict. The positive obligation includes the prevention of violations where there is a foreseeable risk they will be committed and prevention of further violations where they have already occurred.
The USA, UK, France, and other states involved in military operations as part of Operation Inherent Resolve therefore may be legally responsible for unlawful acts carried out by Coalition members.12
(e) Duty to investigate, prosecute and provide reparation
States have an obligation to investigate allegations of war crimes by their forces or nationals, or committed on their territory and, if there is sufficient admissible evidence, prosecute the suspects. They must also investigate other war crimes over which they have jurisdiction, including through universal jurisdiction, and, if appropriate, prosecute the suspects.12
Life-giving light – and those who would snuff it out
The Amnesty International report provides compelling evidence that, at the very least, there are legitimate questions to be answered regarding the attacks on Raqqa by the USA, Britain and France. And it must never be forgotten that the whole IS phenomenon is mostly a creation of the west, that without the deeply cynical plotting of the US, British and possibly French deep states, IS would likely never have come into existence. The words of French foreign minister Roland Dumas should be recalled:
I’m going to tell you something,” Dumas said on French station LCP. “I was in England two years before the violence in Syria on other business [in 2009]. I met with top British officials, who confessed to me that they were preparing something in Syria. This was in Britain not in America. Britain was organizing an invasion of rebels into Syria. They even asked me, although I was no longer minister for foreign affairs, if I would like to participate. Naturally, I refused, I said I’m French, that doesn’t interest me.
So Dumas may have said – but the French were involved in the destruction of Raqqa.
If similar probable war crimes had been carried out in some other country by Russia, say, or China, or Iran, or any other nation to which the west is routinely hostile, almost certainly outraged voices would be heard caterwauling in Westminster and Washington. Front pages of newspapers, together with TV and radio news programmes would be howling that “something must be done”. Yet in Westminster and Washington the silence is deafening. Not a single word of protest appears on the front pages of our newspapers, and our TV and radio stations appear to be looking the other way. Why? Because our “heroes” are personally involved, and personally responsible for the terror, and that is the terrible truth that cannot be admitted.
The cold hard fact is that far from being heroic, many people in the military are de facto war criminals. From at least as far back as the second world war, when defenceless civilians were bombed to death and incinerated in their homes in the pointless bombing of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo, for example, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, through the slaughter of countless defenceless civilians in later wars, in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to the more recent civilian killing fields of Iraq, Libya and now Syria, our so-called heroes have just as much innocents’ blood on their hands as any Nazi war criminal ever had.
With very few exceptions, the military seldom do anything heroic. The very last thing that senior officers want, the generals, admirals, air marshals and so on, is a peaceful world – for the very obvious reason that they would all be out of work, vastly overpaid work requiring very little real and useful effort, work that not only pays these people far more than they’re worth, but also, which is far worse, gives them far too much power in our societies. Consider, for example, the words of an unnamed general in a recent Observer interview that if Jeremy Corbyn – a lifelong pacifist – was to win a general election:
There would be a mutiny in the armed forces… unless he learnt to love NATO and the nuclear bomb.13
The cold hard fact is that these people, those who run our so-called “defence” forces are out of control. They are more interested in protecting their own careers than doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and which so many people mistakenly believe they are doing – protecting us. We are not made safer by the ruthless and illegal destruction of civilian cities such as Raqqa. The people that carry out these war crimes should be brought to account and charged like the common war criminals they really are, which is pretty much the same conclusion reached by Amnesty International:
Where there is admissible evidence that individual members of Coalition forces are responsible for war crimes, ensure they are prosecuted in a fair trial without recourse to the death penalty.14
We need complete, truthful information. And the truth should not depend on whom it is to serve.
— V.I. Ulyanov, (Let History Judge, Roy Medvedev, Preface.))
Self-criticism – ruthless, harsh self-criticism, which gets down to the root of things – that is the life-giving light and air of the proletarian movement.
— Rosa Luxemburg15
Sometimes I think we biologists may find ourselves coming into politics from our own angle. If things go on as they are going – We may have to treat the whole world as a mental hospital. The entire species is going mad; for what is madness but a complete want of mental adaptation to one’s circumstances? Sooner or later, young man, your generation will have to face up to that.…
I have an idea, Father, a half-formed idea,that before we can go on to a sane new order, there has to be a far more extensive clearing up of old institutions… The world needs some sort of scavenging, a burning up of the old infected clothes, before it can get on to a new phase. At present it is enormously encumbered… This is just a shadowy idea in my mind… Something like breaking down condemned, old houses. We can’t begin to get things in order until there has been this scavenging.
— HG Wells, The Holy Terror, Simon and Schuster, 1939.
- Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism, Roy Medvedev, p. 566.
- Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism, Roy Medvedev, Preface.
- Medvedev, p. 363.
- Amnesty International Report, p. 9.
- AI Report, p. 5.
- AI Report, p. 48.
- AI Report, p. 49.
- AI Report, p. 53.
- AI Report, p. 62.
- AI Report, p. 44.
- AI Report, p. 63.
- AI Report, p. 64.
- How the Establishment lost control, Chris Nineham, p. 93.
- AI Report, p. 67.
- Let History Judge, Roy Medvedev, Preface