After Nice

15 Jul

How can you deal with an enemy that is truly incorrigible? That is the problem facing western European states (notably France and Belgium) in the face of mass casualty attacks by Islamic State and their affiliates. The playbook that many western states have been using is based on a set of premises that simply do not apply to Islamic State and the lone attackers they inspire. The playbook goes something like this: alongside robust security responses to attacks, we can very probably negotiate with our foes. These negotiations are not about finding some sort of perfect peace. Instead, they are about lowering the costs of violence, seeing if there can be negotiated outcomes on some issues and – cynically – exhausting foes and encouraging splits within their ranks.

The basic premise is one of negotiation. There are, of course, my varieties of negotiation (face-to-face, shuttle, leveraged, pre-conditioned etc.) but the notion of exchanging ideas is constant. But what do states do in the case of opponents that seem to want only one thing: your life? These opponents live in a zero sum world in which there is no prospect of harmonious co-existence between groups.

The obvious response is a security one: if the other party is not open to listening then there is no point in speaking. Yet, security responses have been the default. Britain, France, the US and many other states are engaged in permanent war (with airstrikes in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere) and permanent securitization of travel, infrastructure and key events. Doubtless this has averted many attacks, but events in Paris, Nice, Brussels and elsewhere show that security is less than total and that civilians are likely to be the main victims.

But looking at the profile of the attackers, they seem disaffected individuals and small groups of individuals who feel no stake in the society they live in. This, it strikes me, is more fruitful territory to try to stave off further attacks. This strategy would not please Captain Kneejerk or Colonel Bomb Them Back to the Stone Age. It does not have any immediate pay-off and does not bring a sense of ‘striking back’. There is no guarantee that it will not stop lone actors. As the Anders Brevik case showed, even a society with good social provision can produce disaffected individuals capable of extreme violence.

But minimising disaffection seems to be the best long-term strategy. This would involve multiple measures and be something more than the empty rhetoric of a ‘360 degree response’ (copyright David Cameron’s speechwriter) that delivers the same old nonsense. Minimising disaffection would involve addressing the legacy of colonialism, avoiding pointless and unwinnable wars, an ethical foreign policy (that disassociates western states with serial human rights abusers like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Israel), a political rhetoric based on understanding the other and – fundamentally – domestic policies of social inclusion that regard ghettoes as unacceptable.

All of this might sound like pie in the sky. But consider, for a moment, the level of disaffection required to make an individual drive a truck through a crowded street – crushing children along the way. This level of indiscrimination came from somewhere. Surely it deserves serious investigation.

Otherwise yet another set of European politicians can don on black clothes, come up with the usual statements, and continue along the same path.

The implications of Brexit for UK universities:

5 Jul

1. Once freedom of movement comes to an end there will be the immediate expulsion of all UK universities from European funding streams (happened to Switzerland). So: Less research and collaboration.
2. EU students – who are brave enough to come to the UK after the message Brexit sends out – will need visas and will probably decide it’s not worth the bother. So: declining class sizes and redundancies, and a massive boost for German and Dutch universities.
3. Staff from EU countries (and there are very, very many) will need a visa. Many will calculate that they would be more welcome in the EU and leave. So: a brain-drain.
4. Potential research collaborators from the EU will think twice about including UK partners in research projects. So: less cutting edge research, and much less collaboration.
5. Spending cuts (already promised by Osborne). So: less money to teach and do research.

But at least an internal Tory party row has been sorted out.

A very affecting commemoration

1 Jul



There was a very affecting piece of commemorative theatre at Manchester Piccadilly station today to commemorate the centenary the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1 July 1916). A group of sallow-faced, subdued and somewhat scruffy young men were dressed as WWI soldiers. They were unarmed and silent. They simply stood around, disconnected from the hurly burly of a busy train station on a Friday afternoon. They did not interact with the ‘audience’, instead they had a ghostly presence (accentuated by make-up to make them pale), as others ran for trains clutching coffee or barking into their phones.

I went to speak with one to ask him what he was doing he looked at me silently and sullenly and handed me a card (pictured above). Presumably Private Makin (from a local Manchester regiment) had left from or traveled through Manchester Piccadilly station before being killed on the Somme.

On the first day of the battle, some 19,000 British soldiers were killed – along with large numbers of French and Germans. To put that into perspective, the British Army today has just under 90,000 regular soldiers.

The station theatre was in marked contrast to the stiff formalism of a lot of commemorative activity. It was impossible to see these young men and not think of another group of young men 100 years ago. Indeed the youth of the participants was striking – all in their late teens and early twenties. And their sullen disposition seemed to say: “I was robbed. I was killed but you are lucky. You are alive.” Whoever put this together deserves praise.

The Murder of Jo Cox and the disgraceful culpability of David Cameron and the gutter press in creating an enabling political context.

18 Jun

Let’s be clear: the murderer of Jo Cox was the man who shot and stabbed her. But the murder occurred in a context in which verbal and written incivility among certain politicians, parties and media outlets has become main-streamed. British Prime Minister David Cameron has repeatedly accused the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, of being a “terrorist symapthiser”. On one memorable occasion in the House of Commons, Cameron was given repeated opportunities to apologise for his comments. He refused – because he is a Prime Minister who regards his job as the equivalent of a sixth form debate – a debate with no consequences. Cameron has form on this: he reveled in accusing Labour’s London mayoral candidate of sharing a platform with an Islamic State supporter, and spent one Prime Minister’s Questions concentrating on the alleged anti-Semitism of the Labour Party.

These were thoroughly disgraceful displays. And entirely cynical. Cameron does not truly believe that Corbyn is a terrorist sympathiser. Indeed, if he did, he would be duty bound to inform the police. Instead, for Cameron it was all part of the theatre of politics – an opportunity to score a few cheap points. Over decades, British politicians – from all of the main parties – have engaged in personal attacks – denigrating the character of individuals whose politics they disagree with. Establishment figures regularly laugh off these debates by describing them as ‘the rough and tumble of politics’. They are no such thing. Attacking the character of people you disagree with is … the phrase ‘character assassination’ comes to mind.

The gutter press is front and centre of the coarsening of British political debate. Britain’s gutter press is licenced to occupy the gutter – a position confirmed by the shelving of the Leveson Report that looked at how Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper had bugged the phone of the mother of a murdered child. For many years, the British press has been lampooning politicians it does not like – figures on the political left (including Jeremy Corbyn, Gerry Adams, Ken Livingstone) have been the most regular targets. These media character assassination are often deeply gendered: Clare Short, Margaret Beckett, Nicola Sturgeon, Kate Hoey, Cherie Blair and many others have suffered attacks that simply would not be launched on men.

While the political Establishment and gutter press are engaged in the theatrical mourning of Jo Cox, they are absolving themselves of the blame of creating the context in which citizens think it is OK to murder, intimidate and abuse politicians. It is doubtless comforting (and expedient) for many politicians and journalists to see this murder as a one-off – the act of a ‘mad’ ‘loner’. But all violence occurs in a political context. This context has been created by the gutter press and politicians like David Cameron.

Many politicians are not particularly likeable. Many hold views that are abhorrent. But they deserve the same workplace protections as everyone else. Moreover, we – as citizens – deserve political debates that are honest and serious. I have been struck by the number of times that Jeremy Corbyn has called for debates to be ‘civil’, ‘dignified’ and ‘comradely’. It is a pity that many of his fellow politicians aren’t big enough to take a leaf out of that book.

David Cameron and his ilk do not bear direct responsibility for this murder, but the chain of implication includes a political context that Cameron encourages. Shame.

The myth of the neoliberal university

13 Jun

We have heard a lot about the neoliberal university of late, especially in the UK where universities are increasingly pressured to compete with one another for students, to attract funding, and to ‘productize’ their outputs. Yet, the more I experience life in UK universities the more I wonder if they are truly neoliberal. They are so incredibly bureaucratic and stuffed with a fast-growing layer of managers that they cannot be considered truly neoliberal.

Certainly universities give the impression of being market-orientated. Indeed, quite a few vice chancellors and other senior ‘managers’ seem convinced that the only strategy is one of growth of all things at all times: student numbers, income … and debt. It was reported this week that University College London is £1.2bn in debt in the midst of a growth strategy. £1.2bn! Such a figure would be fine if we were talking about a private corporation, but we are talking about a complex public sector organisation whose main role (one would think) is the education of students and advances in research. In most universities it goes without saying that vice chancellors and their ‘senior management team’ are academics by training and usually have minimal business experience. Yet, somehow, a good portion of vice chancellors have convinced themselves that they are equipped with the skills to launch bonds and take out incredibly complex long-term loans. This isn’t neoliberalism, or indeed good old-fashioned business, it is maxing out credit card.

One of the striking features of UK universities in recent years has been the growth of managers: teaching and learning managers, business managers, impact managers. I was at meeting on teaching recently in which I counted seven people with the term ‘manager’ in their job title. Needless to say none of them had ever helped me deliver a lecture, put together a reading list, or help a student with a problem. The number of managers in UK universities is about to grow again as the government rolls out its ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ – yet another administrative behemoth camouflaged by the language of new public management.

The sheer number of managers and other bureaucrats means that UK universities cannot be considered truly neoliberal. If neoliberalism is about being market-orientated, lowering costs, and transfering public sector functions to the private sector then the maintenance of superfluous bureaucracy does not fit the term neoliberalism.

Why I am still abstaining from the EU referendum

7 Jun


On most days, the main news story in the UK involves a rich middle-aged white man saying that the sky will fall on our heads if we leave OR remain in the European Union. The outcome is always catastrophic. It is never a case of ‘If you leave/remain in the EU there will be mild consequences’.

What is driving me to abstain from this whole referendum campaign is that the staging of this argument suits those in power. It suits them to divert our attention onto the EU issue while they continue with an anti-people agenda of privatising the National Health Service, taking benefits from the poorest in society, de-regulating the City of London, and dismantling universities. Every second of airtime given to this issue is a second that does not scrutinise a government of millionaires presiding over increasing homelessness, less care for the mentally ill, fewer police officers on the streets, and shoddy treatment of doctors.

So I am not playing the game. And this is a game. The issue of whether the UK remains in the EU is essentially an internal Conservative Party issue that the Prime Minister has decided to turn into a campaigning issue. It is an issue of choice. It is an unnecessary indulgence for a man who will leave office in three years and resume being what he is: a multi-millionaire elitist. It was entirely his choice to turn this into a major political issue. And to give him and his coterie attention on this issue is to play into his hands. Obviously, the media are playing into his hands. They love this issue. It is a simple binary choice. It pits supposed allies against each other. It touches on weather-vane issues beloved by the right-wing gutter press such as immigration, welfare, and ‘foreigners’.

If I were to vote (and I will not) I would vote to remain in the EU. My confidence in the European project was severely shaken by the patently undemocratic treatment meted out to Cyprus, Greece, Ireland and Portugal by the European Commission and the European Central Bank (but really by the German government). This foisting of bankers’ debt on populations was a crime against decency and democracy. This issue aside, the European project has generally been a good thing. The central message – that cooperation between states is better than unilateralism and nationalism – is an important one. After all, nationalism cost tens of millions of European (and other) lives in the twentieth century. The EU has been an important tool in blunting that on continental Europe.

What we are seeing with this UK referendum campaign is essentially theatre. The UK will vote to remain in the EU. If there is any doubt about this, take a look at what happened during the referendum on Scottish independence. The extent to which the people of Scotland were bludgeoned on a daily basis by London-based corporations, media and political parties was something that had to be seen to be believed. The corporations, media and political parties united to form a massive steamroller that bullied and threatened people about the ‘benefits’ of remaining in the UK. Cynically, the remaining in the UK campaign called itself ‘Project Fear’ – it was predicated on the notion that it would win if it scared people about tax, cost of living, pensions, and security. And it worked. Prime Minister Cameron and his rich white boy allies know this. Project Fear II will prevail and the UK will remain in the EU. And safe in that knowledge, I am going to concentrate on issues that matter – not on a sham referendum campaign.

Neuroscientists are the new rock stars of peace studies

31 May

There was an arresting comment at the Alliance for Peace/United States Institute for Peace conference last week: “Neuroscientists are the new rock stars of peace studies”. It was made by a leading figure in a US policy and practice organization. As such, it is important. A number of people suggested that if this person deems this topic important then other people, organizations and resources will follow. The herd leader has spoken. The herd will follow.

Basically, advances in neuroscience are suggesting that the impetus for violence is often chemical-biological and there are interventions (basically peace drugs) that can – in some circumstances – deter individuals from violent acts. I won’t pretend to have expertise on the science, but my sceptical antennae were immediately raised by the prospect of administering some sort of ‘peace serum’ to the pro-government militias in Sudan who are engaged in extreme violence against civilians.

Maybe such drugs would work, but it seems just too simple. For a start it – yet again – locates the ‘solution’ to the world’s problems among the technologically advanced peoples of the global north – where the largest pharmaceutical companies are based. The idea of a peace drug replaces the white saviour complex with a chemists in white coats complex. Secondly, if private pharmaceutical companies stand to gain from the development of peace drugs then what are the ethical restraints on them gaming the system – fomenting conflict in order to magically appear on the sidelines to offer their pacific (and profitable) services?

Thirdly, the idea of peace drugs shifts attention away from all of those contextual socio-economic factors that cause and sustain violent conflict: unequal trading relationships, global capital that moves without responsibility, national and international elites who are spectacularly corrupt and exploitative. To concentrate on peace drugs risks taking attention away from the structural issues that often implicate us in the global north in the political economies of war and peace. Fourthly, can these drugs differentiate between the precipitants of actual violence (imminent direct violence) and support for violence by others? It is not only the violent actors (individuals and members of militaries) who are responsible for violence but also the long chain of enablers that includes arms manufacturers, politicians, and voters. To put it bluntly, would a peace drug administered to Tony Blair in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq have helped to avert the tens of thousands of deaths he is responsible for?

And then there are a range of practical and ethical questions about who would have access to these drugs, who would administer them, what level of consent would be involved, who would make the bio-ethical decisions (clinicians or judges or politicians or military actors) ….?

So there is an endless list of questions, but I get the impression that some of those who would consider themselves to be connected to peace studies are about to go off on a wild goose chase. Every dollar and hour invested in that is a dollar and hour not invested in thinking about poverty, inequality, the arms trade, militarism, bad choices by political leaders …


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