The Revenge of History by Seumas Milne – essential reading for understanding global politics

Seumas Milne is a regular political writer for The Guardian newspaper in Britain. He is also an associate editor of the paper. He writes weekly columns about political and economic subjects, ranging from the capitalist economy, to British politics, to the ‘war on terror’, and to the fightback by the victims of the imperialist states. His columns are incisive, eloquent expositions of the deceptions, misinformation, and distortions promoted by the corporate-controlled media, and he returns dignity to the profession of journalism. He is a forensic reporter, forever dissecting the messages of the rich and powerful in order to empower readers with the realisation that we need not buy the corporatised messages sold to us.

His writings from 1999 through to 2012 have been collected and printed in the book The Revenge of History: the battle for the 21st century. This volume contains the articles that Milne has written over the decade, expounding on the twists and turns of neoliberal globalisation, the growth of unrestrained corporate power, the anti-globalisation protests, the eruption of US militarism and imperial wars, and the resistance of ordinary people to the impositions of capitalist corporate power. This volume is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the workings of the new global disorder since the end of the Cold war in 1991.

The title of the book is an obvious riposte to the widely disseminated yet anaemic thesis of the ‘end of history’ promoted by Professor Francis Fukuyama, a RAND corporation acolyte and spokesperson for US financial capital, in the early 1990s. The contention was the as the Eastern bloc adopted capitalist policies and structures, there was no remaining serious ideological and political challenge to the capitalist prescription. The Eastern European countries, and the world generally, could look forward to a period of prosperity and peace based upon the abundance created by the capitalist institutions. These illusions soon evaporated into nothing, and by the end of the 1990s, the unfettered application of privatisation, unregulated markets and corporate power had run into serious trouble.

Milne examines the progress of the 1990s, and takes their measure. His columns demonstrate that the Anti-1989 era has well and truly erupted. In a chapter of the book entitled ‘In Thrall to Corporate Power’, Milne documents that not only has unrestrained corporate power penetrated Europe, but has also made its way into the political platforms and ideologies of the traditional social-democratic parties of Europe. In powerful articles, Milne lacerates the adoption of neoliberal policies by the ‘New Labour’ administration of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The decades-old established goals of public funding, nationalisation of key industries and a social safety net, enshrined in Labour party policy, were gradually eroded by ‘New Labour’ politicians like Blair and his allies, Mandelson, Brown, Byers and Prescott. Blairite protégés were promoted, and his government, showing its true colours, included former corporate executives. Never before had the leaders of multinational corporations been included in a Labour Party cabinet, until the rise of Blairism. Milne ably demonstrates the corrupting influence that this free-market fundamentalism has had on the British political system, with democratic functioning being hollowed out and replaced by the operations of corporate power. As Milne elaborates in the book (page 81) “The New Labour disposition of social priorities has already made itself felt in the government’s deference to boardroom barons.”

Back in 2001, Milne noted the ‘Return of Anti-Capitalism’ in Britain, examining the surge of anti-globalisation protests, grassroots movements and campaigning organisations that loudly proclaimed their opposition to the wave of mass privatisations and the resultant increase in inequality. The protests were organised for May Day, the traditional Labour day holiday that has symbolised solidarity with workers everywhere. As Milne explains (page 20) “ten years after the end of the cold war and the supposed global triumph of liberal capitalist ideas, the international workers’ day has again become a focus of international protest…” The May Day holiday has provided a common platform of opposition, involving the rejection of capitalist policies in favour of pro-social programmes.

There is one other political feature of Blairism, one that has made an enormous impact around the world. This is in the area of foreign policy. Blairism tied its mast to US imperialism early on, and participated in wars overseas. In 1999, British military forces were involved in the attack on Yugoslavia and Kosovo. Why is this significant? As Milne states in his article from 1999 – this was a war, launched by European powers against another European country on the pretext of ‘humanitarian intervention’ (pages 4-5). Liberal interventionism has become an almost permanent fixture since then, with the US and Britain disguising their predatory interests in the cloak of ‘humanitarianism’. Feigned concern for human rights, in countries designated as ‘enemy states’, has become the favoured propaganda tool to stampede public opinion into accepting imperial wars.

Global justice was to be dispensed by the imperialist powers, in a manner of their choosing and on their own pre-defined terms of justice and human rights. The US attack on Iraq in 2003, the occupation of Afghanistan, the drone strikes on Pakistan and Yemen, are all expressions of deep commitment to human rights, not measures designed to bring recalcitrant peoples into line with imperial interests. Never forgetting his native Britain, Milne is a strident critic of the English capitalist state. Back in 2000, Milne noted Blair’s renewed enthusiasm for ‘humanitarian wars’ in his article ‘Sierra Leone: Raising the crusader’s flag in Africa’ (pages 5 – 7). The deployment of British troops to its former colony was the largest military operation involving English soldiers since the end of the 1982 Falklands War.

In fact, Britain’s humanitarian wars first took off in Africa, shedding any remaining concerns about the savage record of English colonialism in that continent. Milne accurately describes the ‘blanket of cultural amnesia’ (page 6) about the crimes of British and Western colonialism that enables the promotion of new colonial adventures. Never matter that British troops, back in the day of good old-fashioned colonialism, killed Sierra Leonean workers, nailed the severed limbs of Kenyans to signposts to intimidate the population, and posed in pictures with the heads of Malayan guerrillas. All this is irrelevant in the new era of the ‘wars of values’. Milne has a firm grasp of modern history, especially the history of Western colonialism. A sense of outrage at the atrocities committed by the English ruling class permeates Milne’s writings. Milne turns his journalistic fire on the ruling bodies that govern the country of his origin.

Milne regularly denounces the history of Western colonialism, a necessary historical lesson in today’s culturally amnesiac world, to use Milne’s turn of phrase. However, criticising the crimes of the imperialist powers colonial history is not merely an academic exercise, but an essential part of a political and cultural battle for the future. The wilful ignorance and blind dismissal of the appalling savagery and massive scale of the crimes of Western colonial imperialism is part of a wider battle for history.

In his 2002 article “The battle for history: Stalin, Hitler and colonial crimes”, Milne makes the point that while the Nazi holocaust and Stalinist purges were horrific and the numbers monstrous, a whitewashing of Western history makes these atrocities emblematic of the twentieth century. The equally barbaric crimes of French, British, American and other Western imperialisms are portrayed as tame and carried out only in the service of ‘humanitarian’ motives. In this distorted prism of history, as Milne writes, the monstrous atrocities of Euro-Atlantic imperialism are buried beneath an avalanche of manufactured outrage over the crimes of official enemies. The false equation of Nazism with the USSR further serves to bury the other, emblematic horrors of the twentieth century, and distorts our perspective for the future. As Milne writes (page 42):

Consider a few examples. Up to 10 million Congolese are estimated to have died as a result of Belgian forced labour and mass murder in the early 1900s. Up to a million Algerians are estimated to have died in the war for independence from France in the 1950s and 1960s. Throughout the 20th-century British empire, the authorities gassed, bombed and massacred indigenous populations from Sudan to Iraq, Sierra Leone to Palestine, India to Malaya. And while Martin Amis worries that few remember the names of Soviet labour camps, who now commemorates the name of the Andaman islands penal colony, where 80,000 Indian political prisoners were routinely tortured and experimented on by British army doctors, or the huge Hola internment camp in Kenya where prisoners were beaten to death in the 1950s?

If Lenin and Stalin are regarded as having killed those who died of hunger in the famines of the 1920s and 1930s, then Churchill is certainly responsible for the 4 million deaths in the avoidable Bengal famine of 1943 – and earlier British governments are even more guilty of the still larger famines in late 19th and early 20th-century India, which claimed as many as 30 million victims under a punitive free market regime. And of course, in the post-colonial era, millions have been killed by US and other western forces or their surrogates in wars, interventions and coups from Vietnam to central America, Indonesia to southern Africa.

Milne is not dismissing the horrors of the Stalinist purges, neither is he minimising the culpability of the German ruling class for the crimes of Nazism, or ignoring the suffering of their victims. On the contrary, Milne is encouraging us in the West to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that we have no place for claiming the moral superiority of the capitalist project, while we demonise attempts at social change with the usual conservative objection that radical social movements only led to even larger abominations. This suppression of the colonial West’s savage imperial project only serves to legitimise today’s imperialist adventures, disguised as they are with ‘humanitarian’ clothing. Liberal imperialism is essentially a continuation of the imperialist mission, albeit with different, more covert tactics and newer technologies. However, Milne also points out that this new liberal interventionism, while more cunning in its tactics, will be forcefully resisted by those at the receiving end of its strikes. Milne wrote in 2008 that the defeats of the imperial project in Iraq and Afghanistan have dealt a powerful, if not mortal, blow to the notion that intervention is motivated by concerns for human rights (page 174-175).

Milne’s ability to handle complex social and political issues is demonstrated by his December 2004 article on the role of, and struggle inside, religion. Milne’s sympathies are with the secular political Left, and he makes no secret of the ongoing philosophical conflict between the secular, naturalistic underpinnings of the political Left and the primacy of the supernatural in religion. He correctly notes that the Left has struggled against clericalism, meaning those institutions of organised religion that were or are pillars of the established conservative order. The issues of how the secular Left relates to religion resonate with us until today. However, Milne also correctly observes that many secular parties, particularly in the Arab and Islamic worlds, have failed to attract broad masses of support. Into this breach, the Islamist political currents have stepped in. Added to this is the fact that Western, particularly American imperialism, aims its lethal forces at Muslim-majority countries, and one can see that resurgent Islamism is a force with social and political resilience.

Milne examines how the Left should relate to this conjuncture of politicised religion in the Arab and Islamic-majority countries in his article “The struggle is no longer against religion, but within it.” (December 2004, pages 122 – 125). The wars conducted by the United States in the Middle East, and its proxy the state of Israel, would not be possible without a domestic political climate of intense hostility to Islam as a monolithic block. Indeed, Islamophobia has become the acceptable hatred, demonising the entirety of the Islamic world as uniquely irrational and hostile to the ‘good guys’ of the West. This political agenda is resisted by the insurgent actions of various Islamist groups. The Left, while not abandoning or compromising its basic philosophical platform, should stand in solidarity with the victims of US imperial power, denounce the wars conducted in order to expand access to markets and natural resources for transnational corporations.

In fact, many of the political groups and forces that routinely denounce Islam for its supposedly rigid and uncompromising character, are the very forces that welcome imperial aggression overseas – namely the xenophobic, anti-immigrant Right, the evangelical Christians and some secular libertarians. As Milne elaborates in his 2004 article (pages 124 – 125):

Outright opposition to religion was important in its time. But to fetishise traditional secularism in our time is to fail to understand its changing social meaning. Like nationalism, religion can face either way, playing a progressive or reactionary role.

Milne avoids the sweeping condemnations of religion and religious people – a la Richard Dawkins – and seeks to understand the role of religion in today’s political and social order.

Many of the liberal secularists, who have traditionally opposed religion, have singled out Islam as a unique threat and thus have joined the cheerleading chorus for US expansionary wars and predatory economic practices in Muslim-majority countries. Indeed, many of today’s avowedly secular political leaders, like the Egyptian military dictator al-Sisi, are guilty of perpetrating crimes against their own people with the full backing of the patron, the United States.

There is so much more that Milne has covered in his writings, and it is beyond the scope of the current article to examine each in great detail. The war on terror and the gradual erosion of civil liberties; the 2008 economic crash and its consequences; the end of the unipolar world and the eruption of uprisings; the Arab Awakenings and their impact on the status quo of the Arab world – all these issues are examined at length by Milne. The book contains the eloquent expositions of a political journalist who has studied each topic, become a well-versed expert, and can write an academically sound article but also relate to the general audience. He is not writing for the benefit of other academics and professionals, but for us, the people that are most affected by the crisis of the corporatised imperialist system.

Let us make a number of concluding observations. Milne is an expert at dissecting the lies, distortions and deceptions sold to us by the mainstream media. He is articulating an alternative vision, a vision of a non-corporate world, where decisions about the future of humanity are not made in secret corporate boardroom meetings. He regards the reader as fully capable of becoming cognisant of the class politics, economic inequities and social injustice that has led us to the current unstable global disorder. He also has no doubt that people can organise, and have the capacity and strength to collectively fight back.

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3 thoughts on “The Revenge of History by Seumas Milne – essential reading for understanding global politics

  1. Interesting article, Rupen.

    Regarding the relationship between religion and the Left, both groups need to be careful not to develop a relationship that is based (at least solely) on common enemies. The whole notion of a Left-Muslim alliance at any level is fraught with challenges and contradictions, as there are obvious clashes of values in a number of areas, not least the role of women. Plus Islam’s vision and ultimate goal is not the same as that of the Left, so any alliance would be short-lived at best, and quickly betrayed at worst.

    The Right tried the same with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and these groups have now come back to bite them.

    • I do not think that Milne was suggesting a political alliance between the Left and political Islamism – that subject did not come up at all in Milne’s writings. What he was arguing for was a confrontation with the forces of Islamophobia, solidarity against all forms of racism, and a united effort to wind back the attacks of imperialism. Of course there is a clash of values between the Left and political Islamism, just as there is an ideological cleavage between the secular Left and Christianity. But somehow, cooperative relations between secular groups and rank-and-file Christians operate, and do not give rise to warnings about the impending cultural clash between the two. Christianity’s vision, just like the other great monotheistic religions, is not the same as the Left. But we need dialogue and cooperation to resist the relentless injustices of the oppressive imperialist system. There are strong cultural clashes in western countries surrounding the place of religion in schools, the teaching of evolutionary biology, and the relation between a materialist-scientific worldview and the supernaturally-based religious perspective. This conflict is not exclusive to Islam.

  2. Neither Milne nor you were talking about a formal alliance, of course. What I’m warning of is the danger of inconsistency in the Let’s treatment of Islam and Christianity due to Islam being seen as the underdog (which it often times is) and Christianity seen as being aligned with the imperial west and Israel (which it often times is).

    And yes, the conflict of values is not exclusive to Islam. I only singled out Islam in my comment because the article was about Islam.

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