So let us go back and do our own inquiry.[i] Its starting point is professor Held’s apologia, published shortly after the spring uprising, and before the NATO intervention in Libya. On their own terms it is hard to disagree with these justifications. They are all so reasonable! For wherever there is a real possibility of softening the cruelty of a regime, of weakening it from within, a serious person will try to do so; although it may lead to difficult moral choices. However, we must be careful; for self-interest and political myopia can blind us to the real consequences of our actions; and it is easy to hide the truth from ourselves.
In 1979 Ernest Gellner discussed this very dilemma; in his case Czechoslovakia under a Communist state. For him there was a distinction between an authoritarian regime that was amenable to reform and one that was not:
[When the regime was still highly repressive t]o have gone would have meant, among other things, shaking the hand of this Director [a party hack and placement of the dictator], an ignoramus who had benefited from the incarceration, and worse, of his predecessors. Moral problem No.1 is simple: in these circumstances, would you accept an invitation to go? The question answers itself. No decent man would go, and I wish no decent man had gone.
He goes on to write:
But now it is more than a quarter of a century later. The regime has softened. Above all, all kinds of internal cross-currents and strains can be discerned, and some of those internal currents earn one’s respect both by what they stand for and by the courage of those who represent them… [and after writing of various complex scenarios he concludes] The moment when it counts has come at last… Would I go? Of course I would go… In [this] situation… when decency and oppression have joined in battle under reasonably well-defined banners, most men would go and help. (Culture, Identity, and Politics)
Gellner recognises these are two extremes, and that in most cases the choices will be far more difficult; with the hardest choice right at the beginning - when can we know that the regime has softened? The decision has to be a personal one, based on the knowledge of the country and a judgement as to its political situation. We can often get it wrong.
Gellner was writing about Eastern Europe, a country occupied by an enemy power. Liberalising the regime was therefore in accordance with the geo-political wishes of Western governments. Thus although the politics were complicated internally, they were a relatively simple external matter: there was no tension between our rulers’ interests and our intellectuals’ liberal ideals. [ii]
This was not the case in Libya. As the history shows, and contemporary events all too clearly illustrate, our governments do not want democracy in the Middle East.[iii] The populations have to win it for themselves; not only from their own regimes, but from their supporters: America, Britain and the other European powers. This complicates matters considerably, for not only must the engaged intellectual navigate the complex situation inside the host country, he must also do so within his own.
Libya today is no longer the pariah state it was not so long ago, when gross violations of human rights took place against the backdrop of UN, EU and US sanctions against the country, which was designated as a state sponsor of terrorism by the USA until 2006. There is no doubt that the climate of fear and repression that prevailed in Libya for more than three decades is subsiding gradually, and that some Libyans are now more willing to take risks –
albeit modest and within limits – to speak out about issues that affect their everyday lives…
Nonetheless, Libya’s reintegration into the international community has not been accompanied by significant reforms or long-lasting improvements in the domestic human rights situation. The slow pace of domestic reform contrasts sharply with Libya’s increased visibility on the international scene and prompts fears that members of the EU and the USA, rather than using the opportunity to encourage reforms, are turning a blind eye to the human rights situation in order to further their national interests, which include cooperation in counter-terrorism, the control of irregular migration, trade and other economic benefits. (Amnesty International’s 2010 report on Libya)
A Memorandum of Understanding was agreed between Britain and Libya in 2007, which covered extradition; criminal, civil and commercial law. Was the purpose of these agreements to promote civil society in Libya, or was it to help the British authorities: to make deportation easier, and to facilitate the transfer of diplomatically embarrassing prisoners; one of whom was an obstacle to lucrative defence and commercial contracts?[iv] According to Amnesty International when it agreed this memorandum Libya gave assurances that it would not torture repatriated terrorist suspects; and that the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation (GDF) would monitor this undertaking. However, a British court did not accept these assurances, made by both the British and Libyan governments, and rejected an extradition request for two men suspected of terrorism.[v]
Although human rights are often sacrificed to geo-political interests our governments also need to convince us they are acting in good faith. It is not surprising, therefore, to find Britain promoting an organisation like the GDF, which gives legitimacy to both the regime and to our resumption of diplomatic relations with it. It doesn’t follow that we should completely reject this organisation, its very existence can protect people; and it appears to have done so since its formation. However, there are serious questions about its sincerity and purpose; and the wisdom of identifying too closely with it.[vi] These are tough questions, and it would be wrong to focus on one individual, as John Keane does in his open letter to David Held.[vii] His judgement may have been poor; but it was largely determined by the culture in which he works.
Most British universities take money from repressive regimes. Libya was singled out because Gaddafi had long been a hate figure for the Western media; never fully assimilated since Tony Blair turned him into a respectable statesman in 2004. Libya was a “rogue state” for many years, and its repression and cruelty were a continuing part of its identity, reinforced by its terrorist acts against British citizens, which have not been forgotten. The outrage against the LSE reflects this media bias; shown in its lack of concern about funding from other authoritarian states,[viii] as robustly argued by Meghnad Desai. His responses are instructive: our universities are dependent upon private funds and they will get them from anywhere, from dodgy corporations to mad tyrants.[ix]
The endowment of this chair should be seen as part, and a very important part, of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to present the beliefs, thinking and culture of Islam to the non-Moslem world. The professor of Islamic Studies, when he is appointed, will not be here simply to pronounce on dogma but to enlighten and explain the development of Islamic thinking in the past and to encourage its development in the future. (A Degree of Influence,)[x]
This is the Saudi ambassador establishing a Chair in Islamic Studies at SOAS. Should a university accept a million pound donation to help a state propagate its ideology; which it uses to validate its existence, and prevent popular reform?
The ban was also backed by the president of the Mutawa’een (religious police), the Council of Senior Ulema (religious clerics) and the Shura Council (a consultative body appointed by the king). (Saudi Arabia urged to reverse ban on peaceful protest.)
It is clearly authoritarian:
The authorities used a range of repressive measures in the name of countering terrorism, undermining embryonic legal reforms. Vague and broadly written anti-terrorism laws were used to suppress freedom of expression and other legitimate activities. The security forces failed to respect even these laws, knowing they could act with impunity. (from Amnesty International’s 2010 report on Saudi Arabia)
Its repression includes religious persecution:
Shi’a Muslims and at least one Christian were targeted for their beliefs. Eighteen Isma’ili Shi’a Muslims, 17 of whom had been serving 10-year prison sentences since 2000, were released. Most were prisoners of conscience.[xi]
Saudi Arabia is not promoting Islam, only one of its sects – Wahhabism -, which it uses to undermine other Islamic traditions not only within its own borders, but also in other countries.[xii] One by-product is the ideology of al-Qaeda and the Jihadi movement generally, used to justify terrorism both against Western imperialism and other Muslims who do not share these beliefs. As one reads this ambassador’s words one wonders: in the Cold War did any British university accept an endowed chair from the Soviet Union, the purpose of which was to spread the state’s ideology? And whose ideological off shoots killed German business leaders and an Italian Prime Minister.
There are two questions here:
- Does this funding have a political purpose?
- Does it affect academic freedom?
The answer to the first question is yes.[xiii] It is used to legitimatise these regimes. And although there appears some direct manipulation of thought and opinion, legitimacy is achieved by subtler means; more akin to the Fabian idea of permeation. This is the way states and political leaders become absorbed into the Western establishment, where perceptions are changed through the natural processes of human sympathy; such as regular and positive contact between their respective elites.[xiv] Lobbyists have been doing it for years.[xv] It is not difficult! There are few obstacles to a warm welcome, for those who want to be our friends. For there must be no illusions about our own society, and its real but limited liberalism: too forgiving of the abuses of our mates; hysterical in the denunciations of our enemies.[xvi]
There is no necessary connection between academic freedom and funding.[xvii] Part of the resistance to the Vietnam War took place in a university department wholly funded by the Pentagon.[xviii] It is up to the universities and the individual to exercise their consciences; and to ensure they remain independent. The conformist pressures of these institutions make this difficult;[xix] thus the majority of academics are not radical critics; most tend to support their governments. Yet, if we are concerned about academic freedom it is the influence of the British state that should concern us; massively increasing its control of the universities since the reforms of the 1980s.[xx]
Take Liverpool John Moores University. In a press statement we read its Libyan work had the “full support and encouragement of the UK Government and associated agencies.”[xxi] Its projects included health, education and business. Two things are occurring here: the narrowly technocratic and the political; the government using the university to embed Libya within its sphere of influence. This could lead to better living conditions (for some), and a stronger authoritarian regime. This creates a tension, which each person must recognise and navigate; although this requires some scepticism and a political understanding. Are the university’s administrators even aware such tensions exist?
The universities are part of a culture where business and national security interests are conflated, and where increasingly it is the market that determines priorities.[xxii] Given such a society, and the imperialism on which it rests,[xxiii] it is inevitable that hard moral issues will arise; and people will make mistakes. Held put into a political situation without the requisite skills and experience.
However, it doesn’t follow that we are just victims of an impersonal historical force.[xxiv] Did you spot my previous mistake? It is not the market but its institutions, particularly the multi-national corporations, who determine our government’s policies. But if you didn’t, mightn’t that be part of the acculturation we accept so naturally; reconciling ourselves to the inevitability of our servitude.
As Chalmers Johnson has written, globalization has many names, but its most revealing is the Washington Consensus. Thomas Frank and Susan George provide insights into this American nexus of ideology and power: the large corporations and wealthy billionaires whose money supports foundations, publishers, journalists, academics and large media outlets.[xxv] It is a movement that arises naturally out of the corporate structure of America; and which resembles the old Communist Party; though with a significant difference – no one notices.[xxvi] This is only one strand, but a major one, in the creation of the contemporary world economy. In the 1990’s one target of the Washington Consensus, as Johnson shows, was to remove any competing model of capitalism: thus the ideological attack on the East Asian economies; and the concerted efforts, resulting in the 1997 financial crisis, to undermine and change them.
The last forty years has seen an intense class war: the very rich against the rest. A problem for the Left has been that the political organisations created to stop the previous one have been co-opted – the Labour Party an enthusiastic member of the Washington establishment. This has obscured this conflict, as many liberal intellectuals seek to justify it, through the rhetoric of “liberalization” and the “free market”.
Gadafy steps into the vacuum left by the absence of effective mechanisms of government, and the result is a de facto dictatorship. Libya will not progress if the current system stays intact. Libya needs a new constitution, and representative government must play a significant part in it. On economic change, Gadafy was less equivocal. He was not negative about globalisation, as so many politicians in developing countries are, and recognised that Libya must change to prosper. He accepts the need to reform banking, diversify the economy, train entrepreneurs and dismantle inefficient state-owned enterprises. Impressive progress has been made towards these objectives in the past three years.
As one-party states go, Libya is not especially repressive. Gadafy seems genuinely popular. Our discussion of human rights centred mostly upon freedom of the press. Would he allow greater diversity of expression in the country? There isn't any such thing at the moment. Well, he appeared to confirm that he would. Almost every house in Libya already seems to have a satellite dish. And the internet is poised to sweep the country...
Will real progress be possible only when Gadafy leaves the scene? I tend to think the opposite. If he is sincere in wanting change, as I think he is, he could play a role in muting conflict that might otherwise arise as modernisation takes hold. My ideal future for Libya in two or three decades' time would be a Norway of North Africa: prosperous, egalitarian and forward-looking. Not easy to achieve, but not impossible. (Anthony Giddens)
“No decent man would go, and I wish no decent man had gone.” Maybe Gellner was too harsh; and all tyrants should be talked to, if only to find out what they think. This though goes way beyond mere “engagement”; it is boosterism for a newfound friend. Amnesty International writing just three years after this visit described Libya’s human rights record as “dire”. In 2008, a year after Giddens wrote these words, it said:
The UN Human Rights Committee commented that “almost all subjects of concern remain unchanged” since it last examined Libya’s record on civil and political rights in 1998.
It is the insouciance of his remarks that both shocks, and is somewhat repugnant. This was the same year Blair made his visit to the country, and one year after the US took Libya off its terrorist list (at the time the ANC and Nelson Mandela were still on this list). Did he do any research, or did he just pick up the vibe in the foreign office and the British Council; a general sense that Gaddafi is a good guy now because one of us? He wasn’t listening to the US ambassador:
“Despite the GOL's strategic decision in 2003 to take steps to facilitate its acceptance back into the community of nations, the regime remains essentially thuggish in its approach, particularly on issues it perceives to involve domestic political equities.” (2009 cable – Wikileaks)[xxvii]
What is apparent is the professor’s lack of interest in politics. Only the technical details count: get the formal arrangements in place, such as the constitution; change the economic structure, obviously increase privatisation; while the talk about freedom of expression is quickly conflated into one about technology – the internet and satellite dish are the solution, although the details are left unspecified.[xxviii] And everything is looked over by our friendly tyrant, who we trust to reform the nation. This is the worldview of the technocrat, and a member of the establishment, who believes that fine phrases and gentle persuasion, the sharing of ideas (or more accurately intellectual formulas and clichés), and the implementation of the right policy, are enough to change the world. There is little understanding of politics, with its desires for power, and the aggression and ruthlessness of those who have acquired illegitimate authority, and risk losing it.[xxix]
Gaddafi is no longer a tyrant but a “de facto” dictator; a sort of switch or cog who exists only because the “mechanisms of government” are not in place. He can’t help it. He has become an historical force; there is no agency whatsoever – at best he will play a “muting” role if modernization leads to any conflicts.[xxx] He has to be a dictator until the experts arrive to provide the means that will deliver freedom and prosperity. Everything is reduced to either the technical details or to the law of historical inevitability – no, not Marxism, but globalization; the new opium of the intellectuals.
“’Stalin is not a dictator… [he] is the Pope.’ The religion is still Lenin’s and the faith lies in collective immorality. Stalin becomes an instrument of the Life Force needed to implement Leninism and to break the pattern of collapsing civilizations… [in the Soviet Union] he saw the realists in charge of the philistines… ‘he was overwhelmed by the purposefulness and earnest conviction he met’… When progressive ideas appeared in the Soviet Russia [he said] ‘ the entire state apparatus, all its organs, the press and public opinion set about realizing these ideas’…” (Michael Holroyd, The Lure of Fantasy)
George Bernard Shaw was also a technocrat, who by the 1930s disliked democracy because it got in the way of progressive reform. Things have changed since then: today it is believed that progressive reforms by themselves will create the good society. I have to say, I think Shaw was more honest and realistic.
The reason Shaw disliked democracy was because the rich and powerful used it to frustrate reform. However, he put too much faith in the bureaucrats. Giddens, by contrast, thinks those same vested interests are the carriers of progressive politics. Now it is their opponents, more accurately their victims, who are the problem: they are so negative about globalization; which he equates with enlightenment. He doesn’t want to understand their concerns; instead he dismisses them completely – they are heretics from the true faith, and thus by definition cannot be reasonable men.[xxxi] It is an easy tactic to avoid their substantive criticisms; such as of Joseph Stiglitz’s about Russian shock therapy, which pauperised the majority to allow “a few oligarchs to become billionaires.”[xxxii] I imagine Gaddafi had a better understanding of contemporary history. Giddens is very close to Shaw – the continuities are striking. However, although the approach is similar the values have changed; for the liberal technocrats are now inside the establishment, whose nature has been transformed.
The problem of concentrating on individuals should be manifest: it is the culture that will determine how people will in general act – only a minority ever escape its conditioning. This establishment culture may well have become a political problem, of a particularly peculiar kind.[xxxiii]
In the late 1950s it was argued that the old critical intelligentsia, often Marxists outside the academy, had been replaced by technical experts; who provided value free solutions to the problems of modern society. In this view, called The End of Ideology thesis, the businessman could hold hands with the intellectual; and everybody would benefit. Daniel Bell was providing an ideological justification for a trend taking place across the Western World.[xxxiv] In Britain there was the large influence of Anthony Crosland on the Labour Party: his idea that high growth would enable limited redistribution; managed by the executive and its agencies. Ernest Gellner called this the danegeld state. Legitimacy would be won, and popular disquiet bought off, by ever increasing economic prosperity.[xxxv]
In the 1960s this rather complacent view was attacked. A new Left evolved, influenced particularly by Gramsci, but which was separated from the institutions of the traditional working class. In the 1970s and 80s this new Left tried to change the Labour movement; but it failed and was expunged.[xxxvi] Since then the political parties have turned to business. Politicians are corporate managers, and parliamentary politics is a lucrative career, rather than a vision of social change. Meanwhile the critics, the so-called “value intellectuals”, are once again alienated; just like the bohemians and radicals of the 19th century. Politics has been reduced, all rhetoric aside, to facilitating corporate business; which means leaving the culture and its institutional structure largely intact. We are back to the expert. Thus Giddens’ analysis, which assumes values arise naturally from out of the technical details: get the forms right and freedom and democracy will follow, almost automatically.[xxxvii]
There were other changes too. Daniel Bell was writing close to the heyday of social democracy. By the 1960s the ideology of the corporate state was a mixture of social justice and business; the latter always in the ascendancy. Since the 1970s business has become all pervasive: it is the ideology of the state sector. To take just one example: local authorities are themselves dominated by the corporate culture, with its auditing, its ideology and its PR departments; which have grown extraordinarily over the last 20 years.[xxxviii] This has resulted in a subtle shift. By the 1960s the Fabian idea of permeation seemed to have worked, with the Keynesian ideology, predicated on competent administration of the macro economy by state officials, ensuring a managed capitalism where profit and justice could reach a fruitful compromise. Capitalism could be reformed, and be made more successful.[xxxix] In the 1970s the balance shifted – towards the financial institutions. This changed the governing culture and the technical experts who worked for it; now providing their analytical and hieratic skills to the multi-nationals[xl] and the transformed corporate state; run now on business principles. A by-product of this shift has been the huge growth in corporate foundations and their think tanks; producing a vast infrastructure of “experts” who help create a thick texture of orthodox opinion; and which includes our universities. For its results compare Giddens with Shaw, and notice that slight change in emphasis, which turns the corporations into a progressive force. The consequence is that we have a business culture but no organised opposition. The results are not surprising. The Browne Review, hardly a radical document of the Left, and although talking about higher education, sums it up quite nicely:
[i] I will look at the Woolf Report and its media coverage at a later date.
[ii] Or only a little tension: thus the curious incident involving Frank Zappa, where the US administration put pressure on the first post-Communist government in Czechoslovakia not to work with him. See Ben Watson’s Frank Zappa; the Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play.
[iii] A good overview of the recent history is Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation. See for example his coverage of the aftermath of the First Gulf War and Bush Senior’s decision not to aid the Shi rebels in their uprising against Saddam Hussein.
The ‘Arab Spring’ has been an unwelcome surprise for Washington and its allies. It has reluctantly followed events; sometimes supporting the peoples’ demands when a dictator loses power; and it has become impossible to maintain him (Libya the one exception). However, as Chomsky has noted, these regimes are still in place; just a few personnel have changed. One would expect over the coming months for the West to support these regimes against their peoples’ demands; with greater attention, perhaps, to the forms of a democracy, rather than its content.
[iv] At the same time as these were being signed Blair was agreeing a defence contract worth £325 million and a BP contract of £500 million. There are strong suspicions, and from within the establishment, that these contracts were tied to the release of al-Megrahi. See the US ambassador’s remarks in the Wikileaks cables:
“Saif al-Islam implied that former UK PM Tony Blair had raised Megrahi with the Libyan leader in connection with lucrative business deals during Blair's 2007 visit to Libya. [Note: Rumors that Blair made linkages between Megrahi's release and trade deals have been longstanding among Embassy contacts.]” (parentheses in original)
While in another Wikileaks cable the US ambassador quotes the threats made to British business if al-Megrahi were to die in prison, and the results for US interests if the administration was seen to be connected to this decision:
“…that U.S. interests could face similar consequences, including regime-orchestrated demonstrations against the Embassy, retaliation against U.S. business interests and possible obstruction of the travel of official and private Americans...”
Perhaps more telling is the following, from the same cable:
“U.K. Embassy interlocutors here tell us they are planning for a scenario in which the U.K.-Libya Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) is ratified in early March and the GOL makes application shortly thereafter for al-Megrahi's transfer to Libya.”
The expectation was that the 2007 agreements would lead to al-Megrahi’s release. Surely one doesn’t have to be too cynical to think that they were drafted for that very purpose; with perhaps a touch of ambiguity to allow for a get out clause, if things were to go wrong later. Jack Straw seems to have confirmed this:
“Official documents published this week show that Mr Straw initially intended to exclude Mr Megrahi from a PTA that was being negotiated as part of normalising British relations with Libya. The justice secretary subsequently changed his stance, asserting that it was in the UK's interests to agree to Libyan requests not to exclude the convicted bomber. The U-turn followed lobbying by BP, the energy group, which consequently sealed an oil deal with Libya.” (Financial Times)
The justification for all this activity is that it will make the country internationally respectable. In this worldview it is money that is the great civilising force… As we shall see the former chief executive of BP has a more blunt and realistic view of what is going on.
“…the repatriation of Megrahi was recently unveiled by the QDF as one of its three priority objectives.”
It’s work done we wonder if this was one of the reasons it decided to no longer promote political reform and human rights in Libya in December 2010 (Ronald Bruce St John).
Professor Held was a trustee of this organisation, until advised to step down.
[ix] This assessment is confirmed by the Browne Review: “We recognise that public investment in higher education is reducing.”
Reacting to the plagiarism charges Lord Desai concentrates on funding by foreign students, thus sidestepping the issues of corporate and foreign state financing (so does Browne in his review – I couldn’t see any figures in the report). If both are to be believed it is only the government and the students who fund our universities (in Browne’s case he makes the fallacious inference that if the latter pay more fees they will have more influence; an argument the report itself contradicts: funds are to be targeted to key academic categories, defined by government and the business world). Emmanuel Akpan-Inwang notes that only 15% of the LSE funding comes from government; while 70% of the students come from outside the country. This latter figure reflects the LSE’s particular history, but may also suggest one result of market pressure: to increase the number of high paying foreign students to make up for the funding gaps. Simon Jenkins is sadly confused in his article. After a brief summary of the history, and the Thatcher decision to "bring higher education institutions closer to the world of business”, with the inevitable tightening of government control this entails, he concludes:
“But higher education institutions need governance with the guts to break the umbilical cord with government and the past, and with the guts to tell good private money from bad. Leftwing academics may regard tycoons, like Tory ministers, as capitalist oppressors of the working class. But they are preferable to Libyan dictators.”
It is precisely because the LSE and the other universities have become businesses that they have gone after repressive regimes (governments can actually preserve intellectual freedom, if they rule within a culture that values public service, as our universities before the 1980s showed, however imperfectly. Jenkins’ understanding of the market is also strangely deficient: contrary to his belief it requires a strong state, for it has to impose its rules and ideology onto the rest of the society; that is why Baker and Thatcher did what he described.). The companies and tycoons (remember Tiny Rowland?) that Jenkins would tap for cash are also the same ones who work in Libya, Saudi Arabia and China; and who also encourage religious extremism (eg the Religious Right in America) and deregulation; with their attendant social costs (unemployment and pollution to name just two). George Soros actually recommended Saif Gaddafi to the LSE. It isn’t so easy to separate the good money from the bad – what standards should we use? Rather, we need to change the culture, as Stefan Collini suggests; a utopian idea, perhaps, in a world where the corporate ethos rules. His example of the drive for external funding of the administrators shows how far that ethos is now embedded within our universities. However, it is much wider than this – if you are interested take a look at the charity sector.
In a different article, quoted in the New York Times, Lord Desai is more explicit: “Academic research needs money - Rockefeller was a Robber baron once, we take his money.”
His reasoning in the original Guardian piece is odd, but instructive. He is right that the LSE should not be criticised retrospectively; but locates the problem in Gaddafi’s actions now, which have upset the Western governments and its intellectual class. The real issue, of course, is the relationship with Gaddafi and the government over the previous seven years, and the then decision to accept substantial funding from the regime, and which may have been politically motivated. But for a businessman or technocrat morality isn’t important – profit and results are all that counts. Therefore, on his own terms, he is quite right.
It is unfair to single out the LSE and to concentrate on Libya. To do so reflects the bias of the culture; where the bad guys are really the nice guys, when they are our friends. Of course, when we don’t like them anymore they change miraculously: all of a sudden they become noxious and untouchable. David Held, as we will see, exhibits this tendency, almost to the extreme; because he is personally involved. Lord Desai, more distant, and more cynical perhaps, but also more honest, notes our hypocrisy.
[x] The Centre for Social Cohesion. This report shows a curious and telling bias: it concentrates on Arabic, East Asian and Eastern European/Russian funding of UK universities; but doesn’t mention the USA at all; the worst offender, when it comes to human rights abuses worldwide. Neither is there a discussion of the malign influence of corporations and right wing foundations, particularly in the United States, but in Britain too, who support environmental and human degradation in return for high profits and market share; and who spend millions seeking to influence public opinion, through a variety of channels, including the universities. Why are these not targeted, as they are both more influential and more dangerous? In the report there is mention of only two examples: BBV and British Petroleum.
“…the British Petroleum Institute Fund in Cambridge is ‘under the control of a Board of Managers’ who consist of a variety of academics but also ‘three persons appointed by the General Board, two of whom shall be appointed on the nomination of British Petroleum plc.’
Though the criticism is very light: there can be conflicts of interest. No examples are given, though a few recent ones come to mind, particularly regarding Libya and the LSE.
Let’s look a little further. The author, Robin Simcox, is a Section Director at the Henry Jackson Society; another seemingly innocuous think thank, working for the public good. Let’s have a look at some of its principles:
“Supports the maintenance of a strong military, by the United States, the countries of the European Union and other democratic powers, armed with expeditionary capabilities with global reach…” to protect against strategic threats, terrorism and genocide.
“Believes that only modern liberal democratic states are truly legitimate, and that the political or human rights pronouncements or any international or regional organisation which admits undemocratic states lack the legitimacy to which they would be entitled if all their members were democracies.”
This rules out the UN, of course, and buttresses the first point: unilateral action by the United States and its allies; on the grounds that they determine. One result: the invasion of Iraq.
Who supports this organisation? Let’s look again:
· Michael Chertoff, former director of Homeland Security in the United States
· Richard Perle, former Secretary of Defence in the United States
· General Jack Sheehan, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander
· James Woolsey, former director of the CIA…
Their website has links to all the usual suspects: The Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, The Cato Institute…
Given the power and influence of these characters and their organisations, and the actions of the country they have served – invasion, terrorism and torture, to name just a few – shouldn’t the author be a little more self-reflective, and critical of his own work, and the institutions that may influence it? Shouldn’t he be writing a detailed report about them? Will it be his next one, I wonder. If it is, will the Centre for Social Cohesion publish it…
Shouldn’t we be suspicious of an author who only concentrates on the actions of the perceived enemies; rather than the often more pernicious ones of our national friends? To give just one example: why concentrate on the religious influence of Saudi Arabia in UK universities, whose effects are debateable, but ignore British and American arms sales to this same country, whose results are not – we saw them in Bahrain throughout this year. Surely, of the two, this is the more serious concern; if you are really worried about the repressive nature of such a regime. And given the patrons of the foundation, a task which is in many ways much easier to rectify.
The Independent quotes the report’s press release; while the New Statesman uses it to attack our universities, for their “morally dubious sources” of funding. However, in Duncan Robinson’s piece there is no reference to the nature of this think tank, the author, the foundation for which he works, or its patrons; all of whom may have an agenda; and may also be responsible for supporting more heinous crimes than our preferred enemies. Gaddafi and King Fahd are bad enough, but they haven’t been responsible for anything like the devastation Britain and the United States has achieved during the last decade alone.
The Duncan Robinson article shows the limits of debate on this topic within the left-liberal culture. The most tolerant tacitly supporting the pro-British regimes whilst looking to work within its ruling culture; while the intolerant attack Islam altogether. The one quietly supports British imperialism; the other shouts it from the rooftops, and is much more totalitarian – our clients must worship not only our dollars and planes, but our thoughts and thinkers too. (There are exceptions but they tend to be marginalized: compare the treatment of Terry Eagleton to Martin Amis; an example of market mechanisms, but where the pressures towards liberal conformity reinforce the commercial appeal of the celebrity author over the critic). This prejudice is reflected in Robinson’s article: it only refers to Islamic countries, and ignores the report’s extensive coverage of East Asia and Russia (the only Asian state mentioned is Malaysia, which just happens to be majority Islam).
For more on the Centre for Social Cohesion see Spinwatch; which notes its heavy bias against Islam; which can be easily confirmed by visiting its website.
[xi] Compare these comments with the Guardian’s editorial on February 25 2011. Note the lack of harsh criticism: the regime could almost be benign with its “deep pockets”, its conservative religious establishment, and its “formidable” security apparatus. We are given only a little sense of its repressive nature; while there is no moral condemnation at all. Yes, it is conservative, and yes, it must change, but fundamentally the regime is sound, is the view here. Thus that last sentence:
“…ordinary Saudis want a share of power, not just to be the beneficiaries of it.” (my emphasis)
Despite the emollient language we can see what is at stake, and how this could be connected to religious repression:
“If the al-Khalifa ruling family in Bahrain were to go down, that would be a terrible moment for Saudi Arabia. If it were to be saved from such a fate by Saudi intervention, that might be almost worse.
“Yet the most likely outcome, a settlement which gives Bahrain's Shia community real power, cannot but embolden Saudi Arabia's own Shia, clustered heavily in the oil rich eastern region.”
[xiii] As we shall see a former chief executive of BP would agree.
[xiv] The Guardian’s editorial, mentioned above, is a good example of the results of this exchange.
[xvi] The work of Noam Chomsky provides thousands of pages of evidence on this alone.
[xvii] Though the Browne Review on funding in higher education believes there is. See footnote xli below and the quote to which it refers, which is very explicit on this connection.
[xviii] I refer of course to MIT, and Noam Chomsky.
[xx] See footnote xii in Dropout Boogie, and the comments from Simon Jenkins above.
[xxii] The Browne Review of funding in higher education is instructive in this regard. Although there are the usual genuflections to culture and the free-standing intellect its primary focus is the competitiveness of Britain’s economy (which is not equal to its size). This is reflected in the diagnosis:
“Analysis from the UKCES suggests that the higher education system does not produce the most effective mix of skills to meet business needs. 20% of businesses report having a skills gap of some kind in their existing workforce, up from 16% since 2007. The CBI found that 48% of employers were dissatisfied with the business awareness of the graduates they hired.”
The conclusion follows as a matter of course:
“This evidence suggests there needs to be a closer fit between what is taught in higher education and the skills needed in the economy.”
This will be achieved by targeting resources to:
“…science and technology subjects, clinical medicine, nursing and other healthcare degrees, as well as strategically important language courses.”
The review is gift wrapped in the language of student choice. However, inside the pretty boxes all we will find are the glossy brochures of our corporate companies.
[xxv] How many people are worried about this money, and its deleterious effects? Clearly not the Centre for Social Cohesion, that benefits from them; but what about the liberal academics in our own universities? As Thomas Frank shows, part of this Right-Republican strategy is to “defund the left” (that is the Democrats who, as Chomsky notes, are now the moderate Republicans of about 40 years ago). Susan George writes of how these institutions oppose liberal values, spending millions every year to destroy them. How many of our academics and commentators resist this influence? How many are even aware of it?
[xxvi] Though their own ideologues are very explicit about it: often modelling themselves on Lenin, or the radical groups of the 1960s. The other difference is there is no central committee, rather it is a “network of networks”, and resembles, in many respects, the jihadists they hate so much.
[xxvii] This cable is interesting for a number of reasons. Its main concern is the technical question of how the US can reconcile the competing demands of its domestic constituency with its support for Britain and the Libyan regime. There doesn’t seem to be a way out! The whys and wherefores of the case are not considered; and one assumes are regarded as unimportant; which is, note, the exact opposite of most of the newspaper commentary; which tends to frame issues in moral terms, albeit usually in a very narrow, biased and intolerant way. This suggests the executive are far more rational and clear headed than the commentariat; albeit their thinking is determined by the instrumental needs of the state. They will tend to know more about our enemies than our newspapers do, and will have a wider focus – other concerns weigh more than the narrow range of issues discussed by a commentator or editor. In this case there are three constituencies for policy makers to consider; while the moral angle, foregrounded by the press, matters not all – they are not even thinking about it.
The discussion is framed around protecting US facilities in Libya, should there be a public uproar if al-Megrahi dies in prison, and if the regime is unable to control it. However, given the recent uprisings, it has a larger resonance: the danger to Gaddafi and his supporters of popular outrage. For the ambassador recognises the differences between staged demonstrations and genuine ones; and highlights the tension between popular sentiments on sensitive issues and the actions of the regime.
A question immediately arises. The release of al-Megrahi is usually seen as a pay-off for oil and defence contracts, and better diplomatic links. But was the effect to bolster the regime, by reducing popular pressure and tribal tension within the country?
One wonders just how much of British policy has been concerned with reducing this tension by strengthening the state; by providing weaponry and by some mild social engineering; in effect creating safety values to release some of this popular pressure. This is recognised by Fred Halliday in an indirect way in his criticism of the LSE’s engagement with Libya; although he frames it differently: the purpose of liberal elements inside the country is to reduce pressures from outside it. While this is undoubtedly true, I think the emphasis is wrong: Western states can live quite easily with harsh, but stable, regimes; providing the repression is not too obvious and severe so that it affects the political culture back home. In Libya this “external pressure” is greater because of its past actions against the West and the erratic character of its leader; given maximum airplay over the years.
[xxviii] Previously the Left believed in educating people as part of a movement of social change – learn the truth about your oppression so you can act upon it. This seems to have subtlety changed: technology by itself will make you free.
[xxix] For an excellent analysis of how the development formulas of the World Bank and IMF are changed and corrupted when introduced into “failed states” see Alex de Waal’s article in the LRB. My Remove the Tribes has more comment.
Bertrand Russell, in his classic Power: a new social analysis, writes that power is the explanatory factor to explain the workings of a society. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, when our illustrious social scientists ignore it.
[xxx] An embarrassing phrase now of course. More importantly: what are these conflicts, so quickly passed over? The history of the last two centuries would suggest that most of them are between the ruling elite and the populace; especially those parts of it that are either impoverished by the new social changes or do not receive the civil and political rights commensurate with their newly acquired wealth. The history also suggests that the imperial powers tend to support the rulers; and their repression of dissent. That is, modernization doesn’t necessary lead to either prosperity or democracy for most of the population; and given the fragility of the whole process one would be a little wary of keeping a “thuggish” tyrant on the throne; especially one who is prone to follow the shifts of international fashion (Gilbert Achcar has a good summary of these in his interview with Doug Henwood).
[xxxi] So we have this caricature at the beginning of his piece:
“Along with Fidel Castro, Muammar Gadafy is the last of the revolutionaries. Most of those who, 30 or 40 years ago, believed that capitalism could be overthrown, and a different world ushered in, have long since disappeared. The radical left now defines itself only by what it is against: America is the enemy, and anyone who stands up against the west must be a force for the good, no matter how corrupt or illiberal they might be.
“Gadafy used to be as anti-western as they come.”
We can draw one only conclusion: those who oppose Giddens and his friends in Washington and Westminster are extremist lunatics. Reading this I was curious as to who he could have in mind. A quick search found some answers:
“We urge the working class of the world to oppose the imperialist intervention into Libya that is being made, and the greater, possibly military intervention to come into the affairs of the Libyan people.
“We urge the Libyan masses and youth to take their stand alongside Colonel Gaddafi to defend the gains of the Libyan revolution, and to develop it.” (Workers Revolutionary Party)
Eamonn McCann’s comments in The Socialist Worker bear comparison with those of Giddens:
“I once challenged Muammar Gaddafi when he suggested that Libya could support revolutionary movements around the world while maintaining agreeable trade relations with world power…
“ I found the exchange intriguing, congenial and charming…
“ For long stretches, Gaddafi was an attractive figure for many on the left…
“He rejected the Stalinist model as well as Western capitalism. He instituted free housing and education, banned the imams from politics and promoted the role of women…”
Notice how, like Giddens, he begins his positive description of Gaddafi by stressing a disagreement – not democracy in his case, but independence. And how, also like Giddens, he is impressed by his interlocutor. Then there is the theoretical overview, and Gaddafi’s positioning in the international scene; together with a brief discussion of the social benefits he has introduced. He fails to mention that at a time when our friendly dictator was supposedly “an attractive figure for the left” he was, in the words of Amnesty International, repressing them in his own country:
“The introduction of this new political system was accompanied by a crackdown on all political opponents including Marxists, Trotskyists and members of banned parties such as the Islamic Liberation Party, the Muslim Brotherhood and the pro-Iraqi wing of the Ba’th Party.”
And here is a description from 1972:
“…preaching a return to primitive Islam… Libyans were denied their alcohol. Mini skirts were made maxi by order. Street signs are in Arabic only… In November 1972, it was announced that the… punishment for theft and robbery, cutting off a hand and a foot respectively, were to be revived.” (Emrys Peters quoted in Ernest Gellner’s Muslim Society)
McCann and Giddens are mirror images of one another. In both cases there is a natural sympathy for the ruler, together with a projection of their own belief systems onto him; in the one a sort of revolutionary Marxism, in the other globalization. This blinds them to the realities on the ground – their intellectual formulas and their relationship with the benign ruler are more important than the lives of the people they are supposedly trying to help. Ideology trumps facts; and distorts them horribly; when they are not ignored completely (contrast with Alex de Waal’s article in footnote xxix, which is sensitive to the realities; and which shows how the mindset described here is also part of the culture of the international NGOs; a particularly worrying feature.).
[xxxiii] Susan George’s book, Hijacking America, shows how forty years of the corporate and evangelical propaganda has significantly affected US culture. In practice it means, as Chomsky has said, that Nixon was America’s last Liberal president. How far will it go? Will the boardrooms of Westinghouse and General Motors speak in tongues as well as in Milton Friedman? Will the country return to a time before its modest, but nevertheless important, welfare reforms? Is it regressing to the 19th century?
Edward Gibbon famously, but incorrectly, blamed the fall of the Roman Empire on Christianity (an early example of a modern intellectual giving too much weight to ideas). We may with more justice argue that the American empire could be wrecked by two religions: free marked economics and Christian fundamentalism; which together hide a true understanding of its institutions, and their destructiveness, from both the general public and its intellectual class; and thus prevent constructive reform.
In Britain it is only the cult of the market that has engrossed our political class. Tony Blair, as ever, was the exception – did he feel it made him more American?
[xxxv] Spectacles and Predicaments has an extended discussion of this idea, which appears throughout his work.
Interestingly Gellner demolished another cult of the technician: the Oxford Linguistic School. They also believed they had a found a value free technique; in this case solving the problems of philosophy through careful attention to ordinary language use. (See his Words and Things for a devastating analysis.)
[xxxvii] And is curiously reminiscent of the Oxford Linguistic School who conflated their technique with a value judgement (although they couldn’t see it). Here it is a given that the forms and processes are good in themselves, and because of their fundamental rightness will produce the desired results. Shaw believed bureaucrats would sign the progressive legislation. Giddens believes the pen can be automated, to do the signing itself.
[xli] The argument is itself narrowly self-interested: someone from the corporate sector advising the government not to ask it to make greater contributions to higher education. It also contradicts the main thrust of the report, which is to make the universities more responsive to the needs of the British economy; which in turn will affect what students can study – resources are to be concentrated in certain areas it decides are important. However, its analysis has surely a lot of force, especially when we consider who is writing this report, and the interests it reflects.
Nevertheless, though I bow to Lord Browne’s greater authority, I wonder if he is being too much of the vulgar Marxist: money is only part of the influence; which is essentially about creating a business culture, where vice-chancellors feel as comfortable with CEOs as they do with senior civil servants. Once that is achieved, everything else follows quite naturally; as certain assumptions will be shared; and become unquestionable (and are perhaps not even recognized). Surely the fact that he was selected to head the review, and by a Labour government, is an example of just such a process.