Platform Five

Alan Johnson addresses recent commentary on the manifesto in the serious press.

Mind the Gap at Euston

‘Mind the Gap!’ warns the recorded voice, saving the alighting London tube passenger from plunging down the space between carriage and platform. The Euston Manifesto Group may need something similar. Our manifesto has attracted comment from left (Martin Kettle in The Guardian, Will Hutton in The Observer) and right (the neo-conservative William Kristol in The Weekly Standard), but a gap has opened up between some widespread perceptions of it (that we are ‘pro-war’, ‘ageing journalists’, and, oddly, both ‘old-time socialists’ and ‘Blairites’) and a much more interesting reality.

First, Euston is not a ‘pro-war Manifesto’ as the New Statesman (17 April) misleadingly, and perhaps mischievously, claimed. Many of the authors of the manifesto, including myself, and many signers (such as Michael Walzer), opposed the war. I addressed school-student walk-outs and teach-ins, blocked roads and train-tracks. I wanted more inspectors, coercive containment, and solidarity with Iraqi democrats. The banners we held up said ‘No to war, No to Saddam’ and ‘Regime Change from Below’. We had been waving those banners since the 1980s when we fought with Saddam’s goons outside Iraqi embassies.

The correctness of our anti-war position may be doubted. Personally, and overall, I still think I was right about that war, at that time, with that coalition. Time will tell. But how anyone can simply mock the position of the pro-war left and demand from it an apology after the removal of Saddam and the Ba’ath, the return of the refugees, the reflooding of the marsh-lands, the opening of the mass graves, the burgeoning of a free press, the purple-fingered joy, the new constitution, the rise of a free trade union movement—well, it is beyond me. But the fierce anger many of us who had opposed the war felt at the spectacle of that anti-war left can’t be doubted. Boy, was it real. The shame of it. The cheering on of fascists, the talk of Bush as ‘the real terrorist’, the indifference to the democracy aborning in Iraq, the sneering at tortured and murdered Iraqi trade unionists, the alliances with radical Islamists, the hoisting of George Galloway to the leading table, the indulgence of 9/11 conspiracy theories, the inchoate anti-Americanism.

Out of our shared fury at such a disgrace—and our shared and fierce commitment to democratic and egalitarian and liberal values—we fashioned an alliance with the pro-war left in which Norman Geras stood for many as the most articulate and inspiring figure. Immediately we allied for the new Iraq. For a year we explored the idea of a renewal of the progressive left. The reaction to the Euston Manifesto—200,000 hits on Google within days, reported Will Hutton—suggests we have found a niche-market: half the liberal-left.

Second, as should now be clear, the Euston Manifesto was not the work of journalists sitting in a pub. Those journalists form part of a very loose political network that has coalesced around, amongst others, Harry’s Place, normblog, Labour Friends of Iraq, Engage, Unite Against Terror, Democratiya. This network is able and keen to take on the negativist reactionary-anti-imperialist left in a way the Labour Party and the Broad Lefts have either not wanted to, or have been frightened to.

The emerging network is global—the online statement ‘Unite Against Terror’ was translated into 13 languages and signed by people from over 40 countries. Democratic leftists from around the world are getting in touch all the time. Seventy percent of Democratiya’s online readers live outside the UK.

Moreover—again, mind the gap!—this network is not just living out a spectral half-life in hyperspace. It is defeating the academic intifada in the AUT as quick as you could say ‘better arguments, better organizers’. It is winning practical solidarity with Iraqi trade unionists threatened by the fascists of the so-called ‘resistance’. It is speaking up and down the country to Labour Parties that are desperate for the ‘beef’ of real political discussion. It is creating new journals that link democratic left intellectuals across the globe.

The American leftist and Dissent writer Paul Berman, author of Terror and Liberalism and a signer of Euston, called the online journal Democratiya ‘a voice from the lost continent of modern politics—the anti-totalitarian and internationalist left’—and claimed that ‘the world keenly needs this journal’.

To reduce this political moment—perhaps we will look back and say it is when the shape of a post-Blair democratic left came blinking into the light—to a few familiar names from the pro-war wing of the UK press is absurd. But convenient for those who have pinned their sails to the mast of Galloway and Pilger and Gott and ‘Blair’s Bombs’.

The third misperception of the Euston Manifesto is of a different character and it concerns our stance towards global capitalism. Martin Kettle in a largely fair-minded and thoughtful critique, claimed that Euston was anti-capitalist and therefore living in the past, trying to rescue the dodo of socialism. Others have labelled the manifesto ‘Blairite’ and a betrayal of the left. Again, a new reality is being missed. Old categories are being clamped down atop the Euston manifesto in ways that distort its meaning.

Martin Kettle asserts that we ‘concentrate exclusively on the threat from corporations, while ignoring the massive benefits from globalisation within our lifetime to billions of historically impoverished people in Asia whom state socialism has failed’. Not true. The manifesto says:

We stand for global economic development-as-freedom and against structural economic oppression and environmental degradation. The current expansion of global markets and free trade must not be allowed to serve the narrow interests of a small corporate elite in the developed world and their associates in developing countries. The benefits of large-scale development through the expansion of global trade ought to be distributed as widely as possible in order to serve the social and economic interests of workers, farmers and consumers in all countries. Globalization must mean global social integration and a commitment to social justice. We support radical reform of the major institutions of global economic governance (World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Bank) to achieve these goals, and we support fair trade, more aid, debt cancellation and the campaign to Make Poverty History. Development can bring growth in life-expectancy and in the enjoyment of life, easing burdensome labour and shortening the working day. It can bring freedom to youth, possibilities of exploration to those of middle years, and security to old age. It enlarges horizons and the opportunities for travel, and helps make strangers into friends. Global development must be pursued in a manner consistent with environmentally sustainable growth.

How did Kettle miss our open acknowledgement of ‘the benefits of large-scale development through the expansion of global trade’? How could he mistake our call for an alternative globalization—‘global social integration and a commitment to social justice’—for anti-globalization?

The Euston Manifesto Group has no agreed economic programme but as the first phrase (‘development-as-freedom’) should have made clear, the paradigm-altering work of the Nobel economist, Amartya Sen, is thought by many of us to be an important signpost. It cuts through sterile debates for and against markets and, like the work of John Kay, explores how markets can work best and for the ends of social justice, when embedded in humane social and cultural contexts marked by freedom and democracy.

What the manifesto added to that, I think, was a restatement of the idea that the working class organized in global democratic free trade unions remains the most important context of all. Sen argues that ‘a process of expanding the real freedom that people enjoy… requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom: poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or over-activity of repressive states’. In similar terms Gordon Brown has argued that we must ‘tackle injustices that breed resentment [and] show by the empowerment of poor countries through debt relief, aid, and support for education healthcare and economic development that globalisation comes to be seen not as a cause of injustice and poverty but a force for social justice on a global scale.’ Without strong free trade unions organizing from below those goals will not be secured.

Yes, global capitalism has not created a world in which workers have ‘nothing to lose but their chains’. But our world remains inhuman. Max Shachtman expressed the thought in the late 1950s that ‘capitalism is… increasingly incapable of coping with the basic problems of society, of maintaining economic and political order’. Alongside its surging productivity and ceaseless innovation—the growth in wealth, income and life-expectancy is indisputable—a voracious and out-of-control economic system threatens to eat up the resources of the planet, churn up communities, exclude the ‘redundant’, corrode social institutions, and overwhelm representative democracy. Many fear that everything it touches—and it touches everything—is being turned into a commodity to be bought and sold, priced but devalued. We feel cheapened by that. And we feel insecure and harried—at the mercy of forces we have created.

In many parts of the world basic human needs remain unmet on an appalling scale. Sen reminds us that despite ‘unprecedented increases in overall opulence’, the world ‘denies elementary freedoms to vast numbers—perhaps even the majority of people.’

The democratic left must offer better answers than the easy embrace of the global marketplace and brazen nonchalance at the appalling inequalities it throws up. Humanizing a ‘runaway world’ by tethering the global economy to development and tethering development to freedom and social justice, will marginalize the lure of what Albert Camus called ‘primitive baying at the moon’ and which, in our times, takes the form of Totalitarian Political Islam.

So, like the tube passenger who skips over the gap between carriage and platform, the better to explore the exciting city that lies waiting, it would be good if comment on the Euston Manifesto was more nimble-footed. Jump! There is a lost continent on the other side.

Alan Johnson is Professor of Political Theory at Edge Hill University.

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