Tuesday, 25 November 2008

In favour of an amnesty for illegal immigrants

In recent days, London Mayor Boris Johnson has come out in favour of an amnesty for illegal immigrants. There are thought to be about 400,000 illegal immigrants in London alone, part of a total 700,000 across the country and, in Boris' own words, a mass "programme of explsions" is "just not going to happen." Instead, he has suggested that the UK "should have a system whereby people who have been here for a long time can earn a way out of the mess they're in" whereby after five years those who could "show their commitment to this society and to this economy" would achieve an "earned amnesty." His idea has been backed by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

Typically, the right, their voices in the tabloid press, and their flatterers in government have been quick to denigrate the idea of treating illegal immigrants as human beings. Hardline immigration minister Phil Woolas, whose prior calls for a cap on migration and accusations that asylum seekers are "playing the system" smack of the far-right, has branded Boris "a bit of a nincompoop" and "naive in the extreme." The Daily Express tried to suggest that Murphy-O'Connor's backing of the plan attracted "strong criticism" and "anger," and yet was ony able to cite "Sir" Andrew Green of MigrationWatch UK, often the sole source of "widespread" discontentment when the issue of immigration pops up, whilst Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail has led the way in calling the proposed amnesty an idea of "staggering stupidity."

Despite the frankly predictable chorus of opposition, and despite my personal reservations about the politics of both Johnson and Murphy-O'Connor, the idea put forward by the former holds considerable merit.

On an ethical level, the question is a simple one. There are a variety of reasons that people become illegal immigrants, and most of them are borne of desperation. Failed asylum seekers terrified of being deported will go to any lengths to avoid the horrific consequences of deportation. The case of Mehdi Khamezi illustrated this vividly when he fled the authorities after his case, like so many others, was rejected despite the fact that he faced the death penalty in Iran simply for being gay. Others are victims of the modern day slave trade, brought here either as sex slaves or as labour slaves forced to work in the black economy. They are not criminals, as the right are so quick to brand illegal immigrants, but victims of horrendous crimes. Deportation would serve only to worsen their situation, either as freed slaves sent back to where they were captured and could be again, or refugees who face torture and death. Granting these people an amnesty, whilst working to solve the root problems so that more aren't forced here by circumstance or gangmasters, is the only humane way to tackle the issue.

But it's not just ethics and a sense of common humanity that cries out in favour of an amnesty, so too does practicaity. The alternative of rounding up and deporting all illegal immigrants is, as Johnson said, "just not going to happen." There are roughly 700,000 illegal immigrants in the UK, or "2 million plus" according to the BNP, though I suspect that 1.3 million margin of error is deliberate to accomodate some of those who wouldn't "volunteer" to be repatriated if the party gained power. How exactly would the government find all of these people, all of them already having evaded borders and customs across several countries? How much would it cost for the necessary resources and manpower to achieve this? According to estimates, about £4.7bn, as compared with the £6bn economic boost of an amnesty. And where would this money come from at a time of recession when government borrowing is at an all-time high?

Both ethics and practicality support the idea of an amnesty for illegal immigrants. If only the politicians could hear this fact over the din and clamour of the anti-immigration press.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Antifa, the fight against fascism, and the anarchist movement

With the most recent victory in local elections for the British National Party, David Owens has become the newest of over fifty councillors for the white nationalist party. The level of success currently enjoyed by the BNP is unprecedented for the far-right in the United Kingdom. There are a variety of reasons for this, but it should be starkly clear to everyone that the tactics of the anti-fascist movement are failing. Both the statist anti-fascist groups (Searchlight, Unite Against Fascism, and Hope Not Hate) and the anarchists of Antifa have failed to grasp how the reasons for the party's electoral success alter the battleground and to formulate tactics against white nationalism that would be both effective and coherent.

The most obvious major factor is the party's moves towards "modernisation" under Nick Griffin, which, as Griffin himself admitted in a speech to American white nationalists alongside former KKK leader David Duke, is nothing more than a superficial change of image and terminology. He is not "selling out" the old BNP but merely "selling" it. With appropriate irony, the BNP website's "countering the smears" section confirms this. Here you will find them using comparison to conservation of non-sentient animals to justify opposition to mixed marriage; describing homosexuality as something that "affects less than 2% of the population" that they don't want to "promote" or "encourage" (as though it were akin to, say, nose-picking or dressing like a goth); trying to justify only allowing whites to join on "interest group" grounds despite being a political party that intends to run the entire country; and trying to play off an immigration policy aimed at the repatriation of as many non-whites as possible (although they'd tolerate a few as long as hey remain "just that – minorities") as "colour-blind."

The anti-fascist movement is aware of this attempted rebranding, and wholeheartedly reject it. Antifa's response to the BNP's attempt to "have us all believe they are a new 'whiter than white' (pun intended) reincarnation of their former selves" is that they "do not buy this lie for a moment." UAF simply states that despite the BNP's attempts "to present itself as a ‘respectable’ political party" they remain "a fascist party." However, they seem unable to grasp how significant the image change has been in the party's electoral success. Enough people are taken in to make the far-right a significant presence in British local politics, and they will not be convinced of their folly by the UAF's "BNP fact sheet," part of a policy which, Antifa astutely observe, amounts to "shout[ing] racist at the working class folk who are hoodwinked into voting for the far right while urging us all to vote Labour who were responsible for failing the working class so miserably in the first place." However, Antifa can claim no greater success in this area, as both groups support the stance of "No Platform," which the BNP's continued rise has attested to the utter failure of.

As more people are convinced by the party, more want to know exactly why they are such a bad group and why they should be opposed. Neither the UAF's insistent and patronising rhetoric nor the wider stance of "No Platform" provide any answers. Instead, the white nationalist party are thriving in censorship and demonisation, claiming empathy and support as martyrs of free speech. Censorship of extremism, as I have argued before, is counterproductive. The entire policy of "No Platform" needs to be scrapped as it is more helpful than harmful to the party. Instead, what we need is a consistent and in-depth challenge to the nationalist ideology and policies they espouse. If we are to call the BNP racist, fascist, or totalitarian, or to say that a policy of theirs is unjust, inhumane, or utterly unworkable, we cannot simply assert it by fiat. We must back up our assertions with solid, evidence-based reasoning.

The hysteria that the media have whipped up over immigration, combined with their branding of the government - whose immigration and asylum policies are at best inhumane - as "soft" has taken the genuine concerns and anxieties of the working classes and aimed the resentment they create in entirely the wrong direction. Instead of the captains of industry who exploit migrant labour for their own gain, and who use the mass migration engineered by globalisation to undercut wages and undermine trade union rights, and the successive Conservative and Labour governments that both pander to the whims of big business over the working classes and use migrants as a scapegoat to divert attention from their own follies, it is migrants themselves - fellow victims and fellow working classmen - who take the brunt of the blame. This, as Antifa correctly surmise, has also been a factor that the BNP have been able to capitalise on and increase their successes with:
Traditionally fascist parties have used ethnic minorities as a scapegoat for the problems created by capitalism. For instance the BNP often point to migrant workers as being the cause for the degradation of the NHS or the reason for the lack of decent social housing. Similarly they blame migrant workers for “taking our jobs” instead of attacking the employers who routinely pay derisory wages and treat workers like disposable commodities. The reason fascist groups tend to attack ethnic minorities and immigrants in this way are because they want to divide the working class. By sowing the seeds of division, fragmentation and suspicion in working class communities they undermine notions of solidarity and cooperation thus strengthening the status quo and perpetuating existing inequalities in society.
Which, of course, is also another point in favour of coherently rebutting rather than censoring the claims made by the far right (not to mention the media and capitalist classes). "No Platform" has not stopped the BNP from organising or from saying their piece, it has distracted the left from countering their claims in a way that people can engage with, as simply crying "fascist" serves only to put them off, as well as venerating the BNP stereotype of their opponents as bullies.

As does Antifa's primary tactic of "militant antifascism," which involves "confronting fascism physically when it is necessary." Although the group state that street-fighting is "only one of our tactics," and that they "do not aim to fetishise it as one tactic above all others," the appearance they give off contradicts that assertion. Their actions at the BNP's annual Red White and Blue festival recently, though proclaimed by the group as a victory, was not seen as such by the BNP, nor even by other opponents of the party.

This is not to say that I entirely condemn physical resistance. In the past, for example against the Fascists in 1930s Spain or the Nazis in World War II, it has been not merely commendable but necessary to wage physical war against the far-right. And it remains so today in countries such as Russia or Germany where the far-right still use violence and physical intimidation against opponents. In Britain, however, nationalists have deliberately refrained from using these tactics in order to demonstrate "reform," and win votes, and thus using physical resistance here only enables them to label their opponents as the thugs and bullies and denigrates the anarchist cause. We should, and do, fight back in kind when nationalists and neo-Nazis use violence, but to do so when their only weapon is rhetoric is to concede a huge propaganda coup to the enemy.

Likewise, Antifa's determination to not collaborate with UAF, Searchlight, or any other "organisation that works hand-in-glove with State agencies" or the authoritarian left serves only to isolate the wider anarchist movement. Anarchism's most effective campaigns are those we have waged without deference to isolationist policies, such as the Global Justice Movement, or the labour struggle of the late nineteenth and early to mid twentieth century. I can, truly, sympathise with the sentiments behind this policy, and share their distrust of "the agenda that [statist groups and the authoritarian left] pursue." However, as Noam Chomsky has previously pointed out, we have to face the often glaring contradictions we are faced with between our short-term goals and long-term visions, including siding with the lesser of two evils when necessary:
My short-term goals are to defend and even strengthen elements of state authority which, though illegitimate in fundamental ways, are critically necessary right now to impede efforts to "roll back" the progress that has been achieved in extending democracy and human rights. State authority is now under severe attack in the more democratic societies, but not because it conflicts with the libertarian vision. Rather the opposite: because it offers (weak) protection to some aspects of that vision.
He was, in this example, talking about the need in the short-term to defend the state against the "private tyrannies" of free market capitalism, but I believe the example can be applied to defending the (vaguely) democratic state against the encroachent of a more authoritarian ideology. Yes, the government is unfavourable to liberty regardless of who is at the helm, but whilst we are not in any position at present to dismantle the mechanisms of hierarchical government at present - "Rome wasn't destroyed in a day" is my favourite description of the anarchist struggle - we must defend one flawed form of government, where we are allowed at least a degree of equality and freedom, against another that offers none.

Isolationism will not win Antifa, or the anarchist movement at large, either victories or a larger base of support. It will only marginalise us further at a time when, more urgently than ever due to the impact of the global economic crisis and the resurgence of nationalism and neo-fascism, what we need is solidarity and clarity of purpose.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Why prisoners should get the vote

In 2004, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK's Representation of the People Act of 1983, which denies prisoners the right to vote, breached the European Convention on Human Rights. They ruled that prisoners, including lifers, should be free to vote in order for the country to have "free elections ... under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature." However, for the past four years, the Government has ignored the ruling, listening instead to conservative voices that have vehemently opposed such a move.

However, on the 9th November, the Joint Committee on Human Rights warned the government that if prisoners cannot vote the next general election would be unlawful. The response to this announcement was, of course, the hysteria that dominates British politics. "They talk about prisoners’ rights – what about the people they maim and rob?" Demanded Lyn costello of the pressure group Mums Against Murder and Aggression, apparently unaware that the proposal doesn't involve preventing victims of crime from voting, insisting that punishment must mean "taking away their rights." Meanwhile, the Tories branded the idea "ludicrous," and claimed that we "have lost sight of the importance of balancing responsibilities."

It is important at this point to inject some perspective into the debate. Prisoners are not, despite conservative propaganda, kept in the lap of luxury, given Sky TV and computers, and insistently pandered to. Those who propagate this believe consistently overlook the fact that are prisons are now obscenely overcrowded, to the point where some prisoners are sleeping in the toilets, that there has been a forty per cent rise in the number of prison suicides, that bullying is rife, that number of babies born in prison has doubled in the last decade, and that the token attempts at rehabilitation and teaching new skills has been a massive failure. This is not to mention the recent condemnation of the UK by the UN for its policy on the jailing of children. Clearly, as much as the right would like to condemn our penal system as "soft" on crime, human rights abuses are rampant. More than this, as the reoffending rate and the availability of drugs in prisons demonstrates, prisons truly are the "universities of crime" that Pytor Kropotkin described them as.

So, giving prisoners the vote would be but a small step as far as improving our human rights record goes. It is, however, an important one, as it is a step in the right direction on several fronts. As well as opening up a dialogue about the treatment of prisoners with such a reform, it would also allow us to begin work towards a much more democratic system. As well as the central issue of voting that the First Past the Post system is unrepresentative of the will of the people (or, more accurately, even less representative than other forms of parliamentary democracy), the issue of prisoners voting highlights another flaw in our system. Convicts are not the only ones exempted from the right to vote. So, too, are members of the House of Lords, the Windsors, those guilty of election corruption, and the mentally disabled. Clearly, if we do not include all sections of society, no vote - even under perfect conditions and devoid of obstacles such as FPTP - can be considered legitimate or representative.

As it doesn't affect the rights of victims in the slightest, outside of right-wing hysteria, and it's only potential effect on the penal system would be the positive one of aiding rehabilitation by letting those convicted of crime take a more active role in local and national affairs, the arguments against giving prisoners the vote are weak, at best. More than that, in a country striving towards a prison state, with protesters (including elderly "council tax rebels") and minor offenders amongst those incarcerated, denying the vote to prisoners doesn't merely exclude murderers, paedophiles, and rapists.

And, frankly, with the free public already leaning more and more to the right, and the British National Party's support on the rise, even allowing them to vote could hardly make things worse, now, could it?

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

We can hope for change, but we shouldn't expect miracles

There shouldn't be any doubt that the results of this years US Presidential elections have made history. Barack Obama's story is not only remarkable for shattering the last barrier in the civil rights movement and becoming the first black president of the United States, but also for the personal adversity he has overcome and political obscurity he has risen from to reach this point. However, in the euphoria over his victory and the progress it symbolises, we need to reacquaint ourselves with a certain degree of realism.

In the domestic United States, Obama's victory does offer the hope of genuine and radical change for the better. There are a great many policies, from the Reagan era right through to the incumbent reign of Bush II, that have made live harder and more miserable for ordinary Americans and increased both class and racial injustice.

Abortion is one example of such an issue. Although legal in the US since the case of Roe v. Wade in 1973, 87% of the counties in the US have no abortion provider, a situation exacerbated by the harrasment and terrorism perpetuated by anti-abortion groups and by over 350 legal restrictions enacted by individual states and the federal governmentsince 1995. From the outset, Obama has been candid on his intent to alter the injustice in this situation and a whole plethora of women's issues, from pay equality to domestic violence.

The president-elect's stance on other areas are equally refreshing. Taking no heed of the prejudices of the conservative-dominated media, he has laid out visions to sort out the injustices of the health care and education systems, tax cuts, welfare, poverty, business ethics, and the economy. His stance on the environment and climate change is also admirable, especially after George Bush.

However, I must confess, I remain dubious about what changes we can expect in US foreign policy under Obama's presidency. There is, indeed, lots to be admired in his foreign policy campaign promises. Most obvious is his stance on Iraq, but at least as important is his stance on nuclear weapons (particularly in securing loose nukes and strengthening the Non-Proliferation Treaty), as well as a truly progressive attitude to Africa. However, on the wider stage the imperialist leanings that have dominated the White House since the end of World War II still persist.

Whilst, on Israel-Palestine, Obama's campaign has asserted its commitment to "the goal of two states, a Jewish state in Israel and a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security," he has also shown an unreserved and contradictory support for "a strong US-Israel partnership." In principle, there may be no intrinsic conflict of interest between these goals, but in practice the Middle East peace process has always suffered when America's "first and incontrovertible commitment" in the region is "the security of Israel." This truism in relation to Obama is cemented by support for "Israel's right to defend itself from Hezbollah raids and rocket attacks" by decimating the civilian populace of Lebanon and of America's "the annual foreign aid package" that funds such attrocities, especially alongside "continuing U.S. cooperation" for "the development of missile defense systems."

Similarly, Latin Americans who remember the implications of the Reagan-Bush I era will be familiar with policies that "bolster U.S. interests in the region by pursuing policies that advance democracy, opportunity, and security." The aggressive and subversive actions of the US in Nicuragua, Panama, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Argentina, Grenada, Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic also "strengthen[ed] the American economy and create more American jobs" and stood "firm against agreements that undermine our economic security." However, the effects for ordinary Latin Americans weren't positive, to say the least. There is some cause for optimism, however, in Obama's mention of sustainable energy policy in the region, and his overall commitment to Fair Trade and to spreading "good labor and environmental standards around the world."

So, overall, the election of an Obama-Biden administration does offer a substantial hope for positive and enduring change in a lot of areas, both in America and internationally. We can perhaps even hold out hope that the rhetoric on Latin America and Isreal is worded as it is to appease neo-conservatives and that we will see similarly grand change in America's attitude towards the rest of the world. However, I would advise those who would proclaim Obama as a new messiah not to put all their eggs in one basket.

Barack Hussein Obama may well be the progressive antidote to George W Bush that we have needed for the past eight years, but he is also in an office that is powered by corporate funding and at the helm of the world's largest economic and imperial superpower.