Archive for the ‘anarchism’ category

Some reflections on a demonstration (and by extension, the Irish left)

July 4, 2013
James O'Toole of the Socialist Workers Party address a 'Jail the Anglo Bankers' rally. Photo Credit: Paul Reynolds/Rabble

James O’Toole of the Socialist Workers Party address a ‘Jail the Anglo Bankers’ rally in Dublin. Photo Credit: Paul Reynolds/Rabble

Note: This is a post I published on Facebook earlier this evening. A few people suggested that I also publish it on this blog, as my Facebook is set to Private. So here it is for your perusal, along with some of the discussion from the comments thread. Enjoy. Or not.

Here are some thoughts on yesterday evening’s ‘Jail the Anglo Bankers‘ protest, organised by the SWP/People Before Profit (or perhaps by one of the front groups like Enough, I don’t really know to be honest – EDIT: It seems the group is in fact called ‘Jail the Anglo Bankers’, and would appear indeed to be a SWP front group). Note this is not an attack on any one group, or individuals, just some musings how I felt after the demo. If you think I’m unfairly attacking an organisation, then be assured I’m an equal opportunities complainer!

The first thing to say is that I was disappointed by the numbers. Despite over 2,000 people ‘joining’ on Facebook, less than 500 people turned up (and I think I’m being generous there). Of course, Facebook ‘attendees’ are not a particularly reliable gauge, but can show a certain mood – and I thought given the high number of ‘attends’ in such a relatively short period of time, spurred by the Anglo recordings, that there would be a big turnout. Of course, I was wrong, but one can’t blame the organisers for that. Or can they?

One thing that struck me was the absence of other groups at the action. The only organised groupings in attendance were SWP/PBPA (obviously), flag waving delegations from the 32 County Sovereignty Movement and Republican Sinn Fein, and the Dublin Says No/Occupy Dame Street remnants (more on the latter later). I spotted a couple of Socialist Party members seemingly selling their paper The Socialist, two members of Sinn Féin (one taking photos for An Phoblacht) and one member of the anarchist Workers Solidarity Movement. Sinn Fein, it should be noted, have a similar protest this Saturday, themed ‘Jail the Bankers’.

This appears to have been a solo run by the SWP/PBPA, based on the relative success of a demo they held last week were “400” people marched through Dublin (I wasn’t at the demo, so can’t say whether that’s an accurate figure) – and was reflected in the make up of the speakers – James O’Toole, Richard Boyd Barrett, Memet Uludag, Madeleine Johansson, Kieran Allen (I think the latter two spoke anyway) and a few random punters and/or people I didn’t know. That I could see, there were no representatives from any of the other Left groups given a platform – perhaps they would have been had they shown up, I don’t know.

Anyway, the bigger point about this is, was any outreach done with other groups to try and build for this protest? Or was it merely a case of one left group (in this case the SWP) running with the idea? I wasn’t involved in the building, so I can’t say. But surely, it would have made more sense to try and bring as many groups (political, community and NGO-types) and left independents together as possible, to maximise the message and attendance? I know it was a short space of time to organise things, but I think a genuine effort could have been made.

This brings me to the actual message of the protest, namely the demand for jailing the Anglo bankers. This is a very timid demand, barely reformist and far from revolutionary. ‘Punish people for breaking the law’ was the gist of the demo, something I think even a moderately sensible Blueshirt could support. Personally, for what it’s worth, I don’t think it was a very good demand. Notably absent from the speeches of these revolutionaries (or at least the ones I heard) were any concrete demands about the actual economy. For example, no one said anything about nationalising the banks, thereby taking the control of major finance away from these criminals once and for all. Jailing a few bankers and crooked politicians won’t change anything fundamental, in fact it probably won’t even change behaviour; it’s never worked for the mafia, for example. Personally, while sending the likes of Drumm and Bowe to prison for a few years might have a certain schadenfreudian appeal to it, I would rather see these people walk free in a world where the method they chose to perform their criminality no longer exists. Of course, the two outcomes aren’t mutually exclusive!

Another demand that could, and should, have been made in my opinion, was for the repudiation of the socialised private debt foisted upon the people of Ireland by this criminal and craven congealment of bankers and politicians. “It’s not the people’s debt” to use the Communist Party slogan. As with Ecuador, who successfully repudiated their odious debt, there is a strong (now even stronger, in light of the Anglo recordings) case to be made for the southern Irish state to attempt such a move – if the political will were there of course.

But this leads on to the question of the effectiveness of this type of ‘let’s march from A to B and listen to some speeches’ protest in general. Or in this case, let’s listen to some speeches, then march from A to B with greatly diminished numbers cos lots of people have fucked off during the seven or eight speeches. Of course, protests are important and have a significant role to play in the struggle. I think however, that ‘protest politics’ is pretty much a dead end. And before you point to Egypt or wherever, there people are mobilised with fairly coherent aims, and are mobilised in large numbers. I really don’t think the anger – or at least the anger-translated-to-action – exists in Ireland for such a protest movement at present, and as such these constant calls to take to the streets to voice our outrage are kind of useless – even the biggest mobilisations (eg the CAHWT march on the Fine Gael conference, or the ITCU demo) have achieved little to nothing. The one exception I can think of is the X Case stuff, where relatively large mobilisations are undoubtedly responsible for the government legislation, as crappy as that legislation is in reality. The government’s back down on the sell off of Coillte was mentioned by Richard Boyd Barrett yesterday as a victory for people power. I have to admit to not knowing a lot about that campaign, so I can’t say if that’s true one way or the other. Regardless, presuming it’s true, these (limited) victories had clear, basically reformist, demands and don’t really challenge anything fundamental about the capitalist state.

However, when it comes to economics and ‘big picture’ politics, I think the left falls down badly in its coherency. What exactly should be the demands of a mass movement (for if there is to be a mass movement that has a chance of success even in a limited reformist manner, there must be surely be demands to organise around, no)? I have suggested two above – which I think should be the staple of any left economic protest movement/organisation. There are plenty of others I can think of – I’m not saying I have the answers by the way, just that for the left to be credible in people’s eyes, it should have some concrete and coherent positive answers, rather than just being against cuts, austerity, or whatever. To be fair, Sinn Féin have done this relatively successfully – though I would disagree with many of their economic policies. In addition, the implosion of the ULA and the seeming disarray that the CAHWT/CAPTA campaign is in and the ultimate failure of the boycott strategy, doesn’t lend the far left any credibility, to say the least.

Anyway, back to protests. It seems that in this case the SWP’s answer to the question ‘what is to be done?’ is as predictable as being asked to buy a copy of Socialist Worker at a SWP-organised action: ‘Let’s have another demo! More people on the streets!’ And so we’re asked to come out again in two weeks, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel, to stand around outside the Dail and listen to speeches. If we’re lucky there might be a bit of argy-bargy with the cops to keep us mildly entertained for ninety seconds. The ultimate aim of this protest is actually to build for the next protest in September, which one speaker last night suggested could be our Tahrir Square moment, where we would “surround the Dail”. Another speaker (or perhaps the same speaker) asked the crowds to raise their hands if they wanted to achieve and Irish version of Tahrir Square. Of course, almost everyone present raised their hands. Who wouldn’t want a progressive mobilisation on that scale here? However, I was compelled to shout out “but hands up who thinks that’s going to happen?” Alas, I didn’t have a microphone, so probably only about ten people actually heard me. Of course, we’re not going to achieve a Tahrir Square moment in Ireland in the near future.

Let’s just break down the figures for a moment. Cairo has a population of 9 million or so. Let’s say at a minimum the renewed Tahrir movement has mobilised around 1 million unique people on a sustained basis (though I have seen estimates of up to 3 million). That is 1/9th of the population of the capital city – not counting other mobilisations around the country. Applied to Dublin, 1/9th of the 1.1m-odd people in Dublin is 123,400 people. The last couple of these protests have seen around 400 of these people turn up. Where are the other 123,000 going to come from? Ok, I’m being a bit mechanical here, but it’s a serious point. If you are telling people that an Irish Tahrir is possible in the near term, I just don’t think you’re being honest. Yes it would be great if such a thing happened (the closest we’ve ever come was probably the outpouring of relatively spontaneous anger against the war on Iraq on 15th February 2003, ten years ago – but let’s not open that can of worms right now), but realistically will it? I think the answer is no, unfortunately, and I think we should be honest with people about that.

But even if it were possible, then we must ask ourselves – around what political program, around what demands, would such a protest be built, and could 120,000 people on the street actually change anything? It didn’t stop the war on Iraq of course (anyone who thought it could was deluding themselves I think), but it didn’t even achieve the limited aim of ending US imperialism’s use of Irish airports and airspace to carry out their vicious wars, and transport their torture victims. Of course there’s the argument about direct action vs mass mobilisation vs both, but I’m not going to go into that here. The upshot was that 100,000 or so people marching for a day changed nothing then, why would we think it would change anything now? At least not on its own and in and of itself. Now maybe I’ve created a strawman here, and am accusing the SWP and/or others of a perspective they don’t actually hold. Maybe, maybe not. However, what I think is clear is that any such mobilisation – were it even possible in the first place – must be coupled with a strong, relatively disciplined and coherent genuinely non-sectarian leftwing organisation (be it a party – unlikely, given the history of groups on the left – or a coalition/federation type thing) united around a series of progressive demands that are both achievable and desirable. They don’t even have to be revolutionary demands as such (and here is where I’ll probably get called a reformist, sellout, social democrat, or worse, petite bourgeois), eg the demand for nationalisation of the banks is not in and of itself revolutionary. However, such a demand can – and should – be made and organised for by revolutionaries. And should it happen, the nationalisation of the banks, and/or our national resources for example, could have revolutionary consequences, allowing people to believe that yes, ‘another world is possible’, and indeed, ‘necessary’, to use the slogans of a decade ago. In essence, what I’m trying to say, I think is that a protest shouldn’t be a goal, it should be an outcome and auxiliary action of successful organisation towards a goal. Or something.

Anyway, alas, for now, it seems the strategy will remain (at least for the SWP), as one Anarchist wit once put it to me, “organise a relatively successful demonstration, repeat until demoralisation”.

In fact, what I found most disheartening about last night’s demo was the disempowering nature of it. I’ve already talked about the barely-reformist demand it was organised around, ie, ‘jail the Anglo bankers’, but the demo actually did propose a concrete action that people could take. They were asking people to fill out Garda complaint forms – to me, this is asking people to ask the armed wing of the state, the enforcers of capitalism, to take action against the people who they basically serve (in a broad sense I mean) – the rich and powerful of society. I think there may also have been a petition floating around as well, but forgive my scepiticsm regarding that – you can probably count the amount of lefty petitions ever handed in to their prospective recipients on one hand. And so, after being told to turn up in two weeks, and again in September and to build(!), build(!!), build(!!!) the protests(!!!!), a somewhat frenetic and fairly small march made it’s way to Pearse Street Garda Station (I presume) to hand in loads of these forms for consideration by the 100%-totally-free-of-political-interference police. I and the people I was with didn’t follow it down, we’d all had enough by then.

No, instead I stayed to have a look at what the Dublin Says No/Freemen/Anonymous/Occupy remnants-type people who sat down on the road afterwards were doing. This gathering of maybe 40 or so people, complete with jazz hands, brought back some piercingly painful memories of Occupy Dame Street at its worst. I’m tempted to make a comment about tragedy and farce here actually. Anyway, they held a consensus based ‘general assembly’ type discussion, with Liam Mac An Bhaird seemingly facilitating it. At one point some be-suited people left Leinster House and were chased and heckled by some of those present – whether they were politicians, civil servants or just people in suits I have no idea, I didn’t have a great vantage point. Then Liam called them back to the circle. The discussion seemed to consist of a slagging of the Socialist Workers Party/leftwing political parties (“all parties are the same, they just want money and power”), a lot of shouting about how awful things were, a constant heckling by one man who may or may not have been drunk, and an exhortation to join the “real protest” (I think that was the phrase used, forgive me if I misremember) that the recently formed ‘Dublin Says No’ group hold every Sunday afternoon. Dublin Says No, it seems, tries to model itself on Ballyhea Says No – I can’t say I know enough about them to speak with any authority, but I would guess they are of the “we’re not rightwing or leftwing” anti-politics type of protester. Anyway, that was even more depressing than the demo in some ways.

So basically, that’s some of my rambling thoughts about yesterday’s action. They may not be coherent, they may be contradictory, they may be full of logical errors and unrelated thought processes; you may agree enthusiastically or fumingly disagree; but they’re what I think at this point in time. Thankfully, things are fluid, and I hope to be proven wrong by the process of events.

TL:DR? Went to protest, came away even more downhearted, but maybe I’m wrong.

So, I’ll end on a joke – yesterday I found myself wondering what the collective noun for Trotskyists should be, and after the sixth or seventh time I was offered a copy of Socialist Worker, it became clear, it’s obviously ‘a paper sale of Trots’.

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Some of the comments and exchanges (slightly abridged):

Garrett M: Excellent critique and it certainly gives a downbeat picture of Ireland protest movements but the problem is there is no positive alternative emerging and you do not suggest one.

Citizen Partridge: Yes you’re probably right, it’s a bit stream of consciousness-y. I think I’m arguing for what I said about a coalition united around a series of progressive demands that are both achievable and desirable, maybe. I am dispirited I have to admit, not just with yesterdays’ demo, with the Irish left in general. This is me basically thinking out loud.

Garrett M: You are entitled of course to feel dispirited. It is a dispiriting picture. My spirits are not raised with the Left Forum or anything else really.Maybe what we need to do is get the left on a big long bus trip to the next G8 summit in Russia and use the trip to discuss ‘where we are now’ – politically speaking of course. The prize for a coherent answer is flights home and for not coming up with something that amounts to a left vision which will be respect is the bus journey home.

Christopher L: I would go for a ‘programme of Trotskists’ myself! But that debate is for another day! Suffice to say I agree with 90% of what you said there Kevin. Very good post. I just do not see any strategy for the future development of the left, at least not from any of the organised far left. All of them are hidebound by past practice, sad but true.

Raymond D: All very well, but what’s the point of going on at length about such matters on Facebook? Are there not other fora, or even forums, at which to voice such a critique? Speaking as someone who didn’t turn up for the demo, for various reasons. And I don’t actually believe in “jailing the bankers” ‘cos I don’t really believe in jail – except for homicidal maniacs. Put them to work on the roads instead.

Citizen Partridge: I would agree with your final comment there Chris. Raymond, Facebook is as good a place as any to post this I think. I’m not sure any lefty blog would be interested in posting it, and I steer clear of political forums in general for the good of my health!

Christopher L: I just feel like a complete fetish of organisational form has been adopted by the far left, with very little evidence or supporting reasons for why such a form has been adopted. The left, as a whole, has always been most successful when it has been at the forefront of the fight for democracy and democratic rights. That is the great legacy 200 years of socialist struggle has left us. Really though, the significance of what you are saying is ‘we do not have a f****** clue’. We need to be adult and human enough to admit that. Once you know where you are, you can begin to navigate away.

Christopher L: I think it is worthwhile to draw a balance sheet up of where the left actually is and in fairness I would not dedcribe the ‘left’ as anything other than the fairly small number of individuals named above. There is a potential resevoir of millions of progressives to mobilise in Ireland, how we get there is the other question. Personally, I think some form of far-right victory may be the only thing which may conceivably shake a number of people into action. The ‘whip of counter-revolution’ and all that.

Garrett M: No Christopher- many people thought that an economic crisis ‘which confirms our perspectives’ would galvanise the left but it didn’t and nor would a right wing government. In the UK, Labour moved to the right after Thatcher’s second election victory. I think [the piece] nails it in his first or second paragraph when he asks ‘was there any outreach done’. The collapse of the ULA has left a vacuum but arguably the ULA was not a very honest venture. The ‘partners’ did not respect each other, nevermind like each other. As for Raymond asking why post on FB, well if we don’t then we all think that we are the only one’s thinking like that.

Raymond D: I seem to remember that view was current in 1933.

Christopher L: I am not talking about a right-wing government though Garrett. I think something much more dangerous, frightening, and conceivably galvanising may reignite the left.

Garrett M: Like Nazis???

Christopher L: I wouldn’t say Nazis. But the crises occuring in Europe right now mean there are parallels. Fascism will never re-emerge in its open C.20th form. However, as we all know there are right-wing, neo-fascist and populist organisations mobilising across Europe.

Citizen Partridge: Unfortunately it seems many on the far left think that the organisational form of a revolutionary party in 2013 should mirror the Bolshevik party of almost a hundred years ago – or rather, their sometimes imagined view of what that party was like. (I’ll admit I’m far from an expect on the internal workings of the Bolsheviks). And indeed, Menshevik, a term denoting a section of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party which was outlawed and basically ceased to exist by 1921, is still seemingly considered to be a valid term of abuse to be thrown at ‘rival’ leftwing organisations. It’s kind of a little bit strange.

What does ‘the left’ – however one describes it’s constituent parts, and however much of the ‘left spectrum’ one wants to include – want a fairer more equal society to look like? That is indeed a good question.

For years I used to believe “[insert some generalities about workers control, economic and political democracy, right of recall] and ah sure everything will sort itself out after the revolution, be grand sure”. But I’ve come to think that that simply isn’t enough of an explanation for people when you are trying to convince them a socialist/communist society would be materially better for them. Some kind of speculative empiricism is needed (if that’s not too much of a contradiction in terms) in terms of future models. At a very basic level, what would an election look like in a socialist society? What would the decision making process entail in a workplace? How would we concretely plan the economy so there isn’t underproduction or that everyone isn’t wearing the same fucking clothes? Again, I’m just thinking out loud here – I’m not saying I have the answers to such questions, cos I don’t. But expecting Russian Revolution Mk II, or a Cuban or Chinese style guerilla war, in an industrial country in 2013, is expecting the improbable/impossible.

I wouldn’t be that optimistic about people organising in the face of a far right threat to be fair Chris. People have already mentioned the Nazis, but then again, in France and Italy after the fall of fascism in those countries (brought about by years of total war it must be said) , there did emerge strong and respected communist parties. Of course, that didn’t end up too well either. Maybe we need years of brutal repression and fightback by lefty partisans to earn the trust of the masses… oh fuck I don’t know!

Fearghal O: I’m surprised I actually agree with so much of this. Our model of organising is fundamentally broken, and continuing to flog this very, very dead horse is only going to demoralise and burn-out the ever shrinking core of activists even further. The fact that those who perhaps have realised this failing are actually the anti-politics ODS\Independent\Sovereign types does make me feel even more uncomfortable.

A – B marches with abstract or unachievable demands are completely pointless. Our aim should be to empower people and give them confidence in their own ability to take action, direct their own lives, and protests ending with the same big talk, meaningless boring speeches does nothing to empower people.

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Book Review: Revolutionary Pirates?

September 21, 2011

Review: Life Under the Jolly Roger: Reflections on the Golden Age of Piracy by Gabriel Kuhn (PM Press, 2010)
LookLeft #7, July 2011

Almost 100 years before the French Revolution gave the world the slogan ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’, the imperial sea-trading routes were plagued by “floating republics”. These pirate ships of the Golden Age (c.1690-1730) and their crews of “rebels, robbers and rovers” plagued the high seas from Madagascar to the Bahamas. Much has been written about these “republics of rogues”, from both radical and reactionary perspectives. Kuhn’s short book, an attempt to distil the reality from the myth, draws on many sources and illustrates what was indeed revolutionary about these pirates and their rejection of the aristocratic status quo – turning their backs on “institutionalised authority” and attempting to build internally “egalitarian communities” that were the antithesis of the dictatorial regimes that existed on the imperially-sanctioned vessels on which many of these pirates once served.

Kuhn himself is an anarchist, but unlike some other anarchists, he does not ideologically romanticise these Golden Age freebooters either. He is careful to point out that there was much that was decidedly unprogressive about their behaviour – they were brutal, violent, often slave holders and while their democratic form of organisation was revolutionary, generally “they had no social ideals at all” and that if anything, the perceived radicalism of these pirates lies more in their symbolism than in their actuality.

Finally, it has to be said that while the book is not a chronological history of Golden Age piracy – for the most part it explores themes and ideological interpretations – it is an extremely engrossing work that anyone with an interest in this era of history will be rewarded for reading. 

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As the National Debt grows, so do efforts to dump it

August 4, 2011

Repudiate the Debt! - RTD Website

As the National Debt grows, so do efforts to dump it
LookLeft #6, April 2011

According to the IFSC website the National Debt now stands at more than €101 billion – that’s over €22,000 per person! Of course, this is not the public’s debt, though we’ll be paying it for generations. It is private banking debt which the outgoing FF/Green government ‘socialised’, called in the IMF/EU loan-sharks to “bail us out”, and hoisted the financial burden onto public shoulders. The new FG/Labour government has carried on in the same manner, tossing a further €24 billion down the banking black hole in early April.

In response there have been a range of campaign ideas floated amongst the Irish left. The Workers’ Party have called for a referendum that would guarantee the primacy of “the common good” and “social justice” asserted in Article 43 of the Irish constitution, which would result in the reversal of the bank bailout. The Communist Party are campaigning for a similar referendum, producing a comprehensive booklet on the crisis called Repudiate the Debt. The People Before Profit Alliance and Independent TDs have begun a campaign seeking a referendum on the IMF/EU loan. Other groups like Debt and Development and Afri are looking at protest tactics like those being used by the British group UK Uncut, while the 1% Network continue street theatre-style awareness raising.

It is abundantly clear that dumping the debt and the IMF/EU deal is – and should be – the main focus for progressive Irish groups and citizens. The above tactics aren’t mutually exclusive to each other; instead they can be seen as complimentary. However, it’s to be hoped that – in the interests of the vast majority of Irish people – these groups can come together at some level and consolidate a concerted campaign that can build an effective nationwide resistance to the bank bailouts, the IMF/EU deal, cuts, privatisation and austerity measures that threaten to destroy Ireland’s social infrastructure. The government made clear their contempt for the public, flatly ruling out any referenda on these issues, while FG Transport Minister Leo Varadkar recently admitted that “by and large… Europe is calling the shots”. It’s up to us to reclaim our country from the domestic and international parasites that want to ruin it for private gain.

Note: The version that was published in LookLeft was slightly edited, this is the unabridged version.

Comedy, activism and Palestine: An interview with comedian Mark Thomas

April 25, 2011
Mark Thomas in Palestine

Mark Thomas in Palestine

In March 2011 I interviewed the English ‘activist-comedian’ Mark Thomas in Dublin. Mark was once a familiar face on British television with The Mark Thomas Product and various one off features. Today sadly, it seems he’s been relegated to BBC Radio 4 – though his output is still great. Mark was performing his new show and promoting the tie-in book Extreme Rambling: Walking Israel’s Barrier. For Fun.

The afternoon before the show, I get a call asking me to meet Mark in one of Dublin’s most upmarket hotels, a scene most definitely at odds with the image I have of this muck-raking lefty, whose career I’ve followed for the best part of twenty years. Happily, as Mark arrives for the interview, virtually his first words are “let’s go somewhere else”; he clearly feels as uncomfortable as I do in these plush surroundings. The lobby staff, who’ve been eyeing me with suspicion for the past fifteen minutes, also look relieved to see the back of us too. En route to a nearby cafe a man bounds up to us, hand outstretched to shake Mark’s. He’s a big fan, would Mark pose for a photo? Ever the gent, Mark is happy oblige.

As we begin our discussion, what really strikes me is that Mark is soft-spoken and reflective, totally unlike his highly animated and agitated stage-and-screen persona. At times I’m concerned my temperamental dictaphone won’t pick up his voice  over the general hubbub of the cafe. I’m happy to report that Mark was a thoroughly nice chap, and remains a courageous, trouble-making, muck-raking, rabble-rousing lay preacher of truth, justice and progressive action – an enemy of all the right people and funny to boot.

An opinion I’m sure you’ll share once you’ve read through the interview below.

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KS: Your new book is about walking the length of the West Bank Wall. This is probably a bad question to begin with, but I’ve been a fan of yours for almost 20 years, and this is the first time you’ve done something on Palestine. If this isn’t too bad a question, how come it took you so long to get around to Palestine?

MT: No that’s not quite right. There’s a lot I’ve done on the arms trade that went back into Israel and went back into the UK government’s relationship with the Israeli and the Defence Forces and certainly there’s a lot of stuff about the Head-Up Displays and the armoured vehicles that were used in the occupied territories by the Israeli Defence Force and the Air Force so I slightly dispute that, I’ve done quite a lot on this before.

KS: No I do apologise, I’ve just remembered that it was also actually here in Ireland where you brought the Israeli stone throwing machine manufacturers over. The whole “shoot sweets at Palestinians” thing!

MT: Also there was some of the companies we had thrown out of the London Arms Fair were Israeli companies, we’ve organised pickets outside Rafael which is an Israeli company, we’ve done stuff to coincide with Tom Hurndall’s anniversary, and we did quite a successful embarrassment of the Israeli Embassy when they agreed to pay the family some of the cost of transporting Tom and the cheque bounced, which was really, really out of order.

KS: I had not heard that at all, wow!

MT: So we did an action, a bring-and-buy to save Israel from going bust. So there’s been quite a lot I’ve done, including a number of benefits and so on as well.

KS: Haha! Yes, well I retract my original question, I guess what I was trying to get at was what was it that made you actually want to go to Palestine and do this amazing tour of the Wall?

MT: In all the stuff that I do, people make this great mistake and say, is part of your job to go and help, to tell people your message so that they can go away. Well I think it’s pointless for me to do this stuff unless it’s part of some process of change. But part of that process of change first and foremost is me. So it’s me finding out things, it’s me going to work out how things are, and if I can go and find this thing and examine it and find out how it works then come back and tell the story, then other people will sort of get to see it as well. So for me, part of the reason I wanted to go was curiosity. And really, I mention this in the show, that the second intifada made me switch off. I just really didn’t care a huge amount, I did carry on working on the stuff about the arms trade, but actually the second intifada was this huge, y’know, bloody mess and lots of Palestinians you’d speak to would say ‘Oh we lost everything’. Certainly international support was lost during the second intifada. And I know there are traditions in the international solidarity campaign that say we have to support this, it’s not up to us to choose the direction. And that’s fair enough, and that’s true, but it’s also up to me to decide whether I support something or not, and the direction that something goes in becomes a factor within that. So part of the reason I stayed away from the issue – and I have done a lot on it, but part of the reason that I hadn’t grasped it perhaps as firmly as I have now – is because the second intifada just switched me off it.

KS: So what switched you back on?

MT: What switched me back on was Operation Cast Lead. And I suppose both of those two things are important moments, not just for me but I suspect for many fellow travellers who would be like, y’know, ‘we don’t want anything to do with this shit’ – I mean the suicide bombs were horrendous, and yes there are the arguments about proportionality: there were more Palestinians killed than Israelis – which is true – but that doesn’t therefore justify the use of indiscriminate violence. These are kind of issues that somehow people either swerve or excuse – and I think actually it’s like the issue of, you know the Israeli soldier who’s been imprisoned?

KS: Gilad Shalit.

MT: Yeah, he’s been there for four years now and y’know, he’s just got to be released, y’know it’s just inhuman to keep someone in solitary confinement for four years. It’s as simple as that. And yet thousands of Palestinians are in jail. I went to see the Israeli military courts in action, and they are really unedifying. One guy was jailed for ‘harbouring a wanted person’, he was a taxi driver and the guy was in the back of his cab! It was like ‘Oh my Lord!’, y’know? So there is of course disproportionate abuse of human rights [by Israel], but that doesn’t excuse it on any count. I suppose my journey from going just ‘I don’t wanna know about that’ to being involved is one that lots of lots of people made, I suspect.

KS: I’ve certainly found that in our work. After Cast Lead, people became far more interested. Obviously Cast Lead was this totally brutal assault…

MT: It was. It was just hugely cruel, y’know, no matter what the analysis of it, no matter what viewpoint you had, you had to actually come down and say ‘you’re dropping banned weapons on a captive civilian population’. I think that was quite an important moment in me going ‘I wanna find out more’.

KS: And did the Flotilla have any effect, or were you already out there when that happened?

MT: I’d already been out there and back by the time the Flotilla happened.

KS: You’re not planning on going on the next one yourself are you?

MT: You know I’ve got a few dates to put in the book haha. I don’t know… maybe. Maybe. It’s one of those things I think you have to consider very carefully and think about a lot. Perhaps.

KS: I’ve heard that Russell Brand might be going, but whether that happens or not is another story obviously.

MT: I like Russell, he’s a great guy. He’s far more moral and intelligent than people portray him as. I think he’s a good fella.

KS: So obviously I only got the book this morning, and I haven’t seen the show yet, so when you walked the wall, you actually went out twice, is that right?

MT: That’s right.

KS: And did you start at the bottom and walk to the top? Or…

MT: We started at the top and went to the bottom. We started right where the River Jordan meets the Jordan Valley, right at the beginning of the very first part of the wall, basically the furthest east that we could and then just came all the way around.

KS: How long did it actually take?

MT: The whole thing took about eight and a half weeks in total. And that was because we were working with Israeli fixers and Palestinian fixers and all sorts of groups and we stopped to do interviews as we went along the wall. Sometimes we did interviews with people we’d just meet, sometimes people who were bussed in, sometimes just, y’know with whatever was out there. When we talked to the mayors in the settlements or with the army people that we spoke to, those took some getting in just to speak to them, and invariably there’d be times when someone would agree to an interview and we’d be in the south and have to get back up north to do the interview etcetera.

KS: These were filmed interviews?

MT: Yeah.

KS: So will there be a DVD coming out?

MT: A film, hopefully.

KS: On Channel 4 or what?

MT: In the cinema, we hope!

KS: Well that’s great, something to look forward to, fingers crossed anyway. Again this is from my brief flick through the book, it seems you would have met a lot of the same type of people I would have met when I was out, people from the non-violent resistance Popular Committees. People who I found really inspiring, what are your thoughts on them?

MT: I think they are inspiring. The non-violent resistance movement that is building there is really, really exciting and it is incredible. I mean, the national leadership is fucked, on both sides, and actually, y’know is just fucked. The most interesting stuff is the grass roots stuff, that’s what’s really interesting, the community leadership that’s coming out and the community action that’s coming out is just superb. It really is brilliant! And I love the fact and I find it really intriguing that people are quite honest about their approach to non-violence. The people I met would talk about, a lot of people would say to me ‘it’s way to do it, it’s the way to change things’. Other people would say ‘I was in jail and we started reading and discussing Gandhi and we’re not winning militarily, we need to change tack’. Other people would say ‘we’re giving it a go because violence hasn’t worked’, other people would say ‘we’ve just found it’, or what have you. People were very honest about it. And I was fascinated by the fact that there was discussion all the way along the walk about non-violent resistance and what it meant, whether it was like the anarchists over in Bil’in who talked about ‘unarmed resistance’ versus ‘non-violent resistance’, or campaigning work, whether it was attacking the theological underpinnings of Zionism through the Kairos Palestine document or what have you. I met some of the guys who drafted the Kairos document and they were wonderful, y’know? And the bits I enjoyed most of all were walking with folk and just getting into nice long conversations. Those were the most pleasurable. I have to say I found the Israeli activists absolutely morally on the money, and that was really exciting. I mean, I expected the Palestinian grass roots groups to be good, but I just didn’t have the Israeli activists really on my radar. People like ICAHD [the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions] I was aware of, but actually Combatants For Peace, who I met quite a few people from who I adore, just absolutely wonderful people, and also Breaking The Silence who are absolutely amazing, with a real moral sense of purpose. That I found really surprising, and absolutely brilliant, just absolutely brilliant. I suppose you get shocked by the things you don’t expect, and I didn’t expect that.

KS: I was actually going to ask you about the Israelis that you met, because last night we organised a talk with Gideon Levy, the journalist from Haaretz, and he painted a very, very pessimistic view of the Israeli society. I don’t know if I’m as pessimistic as him, but I wanted to know your general impressions of those that you met from the Israeli side, because I think it is important to recognise that it’s not just Palestinians involved in resistance, there is, I think, a growing sector of Israeli society that is involved.

MT: I’m not an expert, but I don’t know whether they are growing.

KS: Oh, really?

MT: No, I’m not saying I question your analysis, I mean that I genuinely just don’t know. What I think was very clear was obviously that Israeli groups and activists are coming under increased political pressure. Whether it is the criminalisation of advocacy of BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions], whether it is investigations into foreign funding of groups that criticise Israeli policies as is the case with Breaking The Silence. These are obvious moves that show that the Israeli authorities are worried by the campaign for sanctions and boycott, they genuinely are.  Despite the fact that there is, if I could generalise for a moment, a certain bellicose nature, that’s a bit Millwall – ‘no one likes us, we don’t care’. And I’ll argue with Israelis, saying ‘you’re gonna be isolated, you’re gonna be isolated from the world, that’s what’s gonna happen’ and they just go ‘ the world deserted us in 1936’, y’know? But you were stateless then! I think there’s a very interesting mood, the Israelis that I met were the rump of the activist movement, and everyone seems a bit knackered, almost as if the second intifada just burned everyone out and y‘know I remember speaking to people from the Al Aqsa Brigades up in the north and they were also saying everyone’s tired. Everyone’s just keeping their heads above water. And to see all these different attitudes, these attitudes which were about trying to get non-violent campaigns off the ground, whether it’s challenging the wall, organising stuff, whether it’s Budrus or Bil’in or what have you, you know that there’d also be this feeling of actually, people are a bit shattered.

KS: Yeah, I kinda got that impression myself the last time I was out there. Ten years of the intifada and aftermath, it’s a long time to exist like that.

MT: Yeah. Hope and optimism isn’t in big supply out there. But I think the one thing that is, is the fact that the Palestinians have just remained there. One thing that somebody said to me on the first day was the thing that they were most proud of was the fact that ‘my people are still here’. I think by the time I got to the end of the walk I kind of understood a little bit about that. And that’s actually quite amazing and stunning that people have withstood the onslaught that is going on. That is quite amazing.

KS: As the slogan on the wall in Bethlehem says, ‘To Exist is to Resist’, I think encapsulates it.

MT: Absolutely, you’re right, it encapsulates it.

KS: Obviously when you were going along, doing your thing, you had cameras with you.

MT: One camera.

KS: Did you encounter much hassle from the military?

MT: Loads! Loads! Why do you think it took eight and a half weeks? Because we kept getting detained. There is a very weird thing in Israel that people believe that actually you can’t film them, y’know ‘you can’t film me, you can’t film me!’ You’re in a public place, and I come from that sort of culture, you know, you’re in a public place, of course I can film you!

KS: Ok so final question, it’s more about comedy really, as a vehicle for, well topical comedy as I called it earlier as opposed to satire.

MT: What I do isn’t stand up. What I do has a foot in theatre and a foot in comedy. But it’s not stand up. To me it’s about getting out and telling the stories and taking people on a journey, taking people somewhere they didn’t expect to go, that’s tradition that I sort of started in – you go to see a cabaret or you go to see a performance because you don’t know what you’re gonna see. You might see something that you really like, and you didn’t expect to see it. That was the gig, that you’d and see something that you didn’t know about. I think the major sea change that has happened is the proliferation of very cheap panel shows and comedy shows and stuff like that – and they are very economically viable to make, because you don’t need a script or an editor or a producer or a cast or rehearsals, you just have very highly motivated individuals with a vested interest in doing the best they can writing their own material. Which is very much a sort of neo-liberal version of economics. And people will go see a comedian in the O2 after doing a couple of series of a panel show… and it’s a fucking panel show, y’know?! I’m always amazed at how easily people will be fobbed off, that actually you buy a Frankie Boyle ticket and you’ll have seen all the stuff already on TV. The sea change that happened was that people started to go and see things that they knew they would like, and they knew what they were getting, ‘I wanna go and see Andy Parsons’ – good fella – ‘cos I know what I’m getting with Andy Parsons’. So people will turn up going, ‘I know what I want’ rather than saying ‘well, what’s on?’ And for me that’s always been part of the gig, I mean I was doing a gig the other night in Cardiff and the best moment of the night was finishing the set, packing up to go, and the bouncer just came up and said to me ‘that was fucking great, I’ve never seen anything like that. That’s marvellous!’ My job is done! Do you know what I mean? You can talk about anything, you can put anything into performance, you can put anything into writing… there should be no boundaries on art, simple as that. I just depends on the individual, whether they think it’s suitable or not. There are certain Zionists who are very upset that I’m even talking about this, because they say that even to criticise the wall is to criticise Israel and therefore to be an anti-Semite which is madness.

KS: Madness which is unfortunately accepted in certain sectors of society…

MT: I don’t think it’s hugely accepted, y’know, if you start going ‘we will decide what you can and can’t talk about on stage’, no you won’t, you’ll fuck off! I think quite a lot of people still think that about journalists – ‘fuck off you can’t tell people what to say’. But also I think there is a mood that is generally going ‘oooh you shouldn’t upset people’, and that’s to do with perceived racism, and that’s akin, there are parallels here, people are frightened of being accused of being an anti-Semite, regardless of whether you are or you aren’t, there is a fear that if you engage with the issue, you might be perceived as an anti-Semite. And that’s really awful that that fear is out there, in the same way – I don’t think it’s huge by the way, I don’t think it’s as big as people sometimes think – there was the play up in Birmingham, the Sikh play that was taken off because people from the Sikh community demonstrated against it, woah woah woah woah, no way! Once you start determining what constitutes what we can talk about and what we can’t talk talk about in public we’re on a really slippy slope about what constitutes freedom of speech and what constitutes state or religious control of speech. And I suppose the Zionist movement who would advocate and say that if you criticise the wall you are an anti-Semite, they’re part of that nexus of religious and ideological censorship.  For me it’s really about, I love the fact that I get people sending me little messages and texts and what have you, just going ‘great, I’d never thought about this or I’ve never realised this’ y’know? And to me it’s actually exciting, it’s really, really exciting and it’s just me saying how I started in my state of ignorance and learned a little bit, not a huge amount – I’m not an expert – but having done this walk and met these people, it’s very much about the people I met.

KS: If I could just big you up here to yourself, when I was I guess 14 or whatever I first saw one of the Mark Thomas Comedy Products on Channel 4, I’d grown up with y’know Fawlty Towers and all this kind of stuff…

MT: Which is great.

KS: … oh no, don’t get me wrong I love it, but I’d never seen comedy that could actually have a social purpose.

MT: Well for me it was about actually not just being a cheerleader for change, but being an instrument of change, and actually just going ‘you can get things done!’ And I love the fact y’know that when people go ‘well what good has come from your work’, I’ve got a small list that I like to look at! That’s really exciting, and there has to be a purpose to art, there has to be a purpose to all our expressions – whether it is right-wing literature or whatever, there is no such thing as an ideologically neutral piece. There is a very odd thing that happens, I mentioned it to someone this morning, there’s thing that happens that on the left we’re constantly questioned, people say, ‘what comes first, the politics or the comedy?’ Or ‘do you think comedy is a good vehicle for politics?’ Nobody turns around to Jim Davidson and says ‘Jim, is it the racism or the laughter? Tell me is it the bigotry that’s most important to you, are you getting new bigots?’ Do you know what I mean?

KS: That’s a very good point that I’d never really thought about before.

MT: So there’s always, always a political slant, just mine is slightly more pronounced and declared.

KS: So can we expect to see you back on television any time soon, no?

MT: [Laughs] Someone asked me that last night from the audience when we were finishing up, and I replied ‘I looked out this window this morning and there’s still no ice in Hell!”

KS: Well that’s very unfortunate.

MT: It is and it isn’t. The point being that with this tour, there’ll be 50,000 people that see the show. In the space of a year, that means the programs for the show, we’re doing these programs that have actually sold out before we got to Dublin, but we have these programs which are all about Zaytoun and their olive oil and about farmers struggling for economic viability, as so part of the profits go back to them. At the end of it all, I think we’ll have made a few quid for Zaytoun, we’ll have covered all the costs of doing the thing in the first place, and kept me and my family with our heads above water. We’ll have performed to 50,000 people, the program will probably sell something like 10,000 to 15,000 copies, which have got articles by Jamal [Juma’], Zaytoun, Stop The Wall, Ben Yeger from Combatants For Peace, War On Want on boycotts and divestment, we’ve published the BDS call from Palestinian civil society on the back of the program, we’ve got the maps that show the reduction of Palestinian land since 1917, y’know there’s all sorts of stuff that’s quite exciting for people to take away, it’s also like intellectual ammunition to take away with you so you can come out fighting at the end of it. And the book, well I don’t know how many people the book will reach, maybe 50,000 maybe 100,000 copies, I don’t know. And who knows what will happen with the film. They’re still quite good figures. It’s not as much as telly, but I’ve got complete control over the thing. I seriously had a producer, someone at Channel 4 had suggested a program for me to make, it really sort of symbolised the end of our relationship, the program that she asked me to consider making was Celebrity Guantanamo Bay. Now at that point you have to question whether there’s anything viable there. And I’m really pleased with this work that’s going to get out to 50,000 people, that’s gonna go to Glastonbury and Reading and Leeds festivals and y’know all those places where it’s not just the usual suspects, and that’s exciting. I don’t really wanna get into sort of the state of play of TV comedy cos that’s just… [long pause]

KS: Depressing?

MT: Some of the people in it are really good, some of the people are really, really great. And there is some great stuff, like Inbetweeners, Phone Shop and stuff like that are really great programs, really good programs. I was doing a benefit the other night for the Linda Smith [Tribute Fund]…

KS: What’s it now, her fifth anniversary?

MT: Yeah. It was great cos there was lots of us in unions who were all mates with her, and she was a righteous drinker. And so there was Jo Brand, John Hegley and myself and Andy Hamilton and Rory Bremner as well, and a jazz pianist called Ian Shaw who really is quite remarkable, and so there’s some of the most creative and original voices of my generation are on this stage and they’re still doing their stuff. Rory is brilliant, really sharp as a dart and the two Johns [Bird and Fortune] are incredible. So on one hand you have got 8 Out Of 10 Cats saying ‘my cock is bigger than yours’ or whatever, and on the other hand you have performers like Rory and you have programs like Inbetweeners which are genuinely brilliant, really fantastic TV, and there’s also the sort of like, I love all the state of the nation stuff that comes out of HBO. I adore y’know all the stuff like Breaking Bad which is a really incredible state of the nation declaration about this is what happens when you take money out of the public sector and these are the consequences of when we go down this route, when we don’t back teachers, when we dump them. There’s lots of good stuff coming from HBO. There’s loads of amazing theatre as well, stuff like Black Watch which was a show about Iraq which really was quite an amazing piece of drama, this is stuff that moves people and affects people in a very profound way. Does it get a little complacent? Yeah it all does at times. Does it need a kick up the arse? Yeah of course. But with television [becoming] a kind of awful freeview satellite [thing],  I now say ‘this is shit’ about eighty times a day!

===================

Mark’s new book Extreme Rambling was published by Ebury Press on 7 April. The live show is touring Britain until 25 September 2011. Mark’s website is www.markthomasinfo.com

An edited version of this interview, combined with a review of the book and show appeared on the Electronic Intifada website on 13th April 2011.

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Israeli repression of Palestinians & Jewish activists continues

March 15, 2011

Below is an article I wrote for the January 2011 issue of Socialist Voice.

Funeral of martyr Jawaher Abu Rahmah, Jan 2011

Funeral of martyr Jawaher Abu Rahmah, Jan 2011

Israeli repression of Palestinians & Jewish activists continues
Socialist Voice, January 2011

At the time of writing we are less than a week into the new year, and already the Israeli military has killed two Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. Jawaher Abu Rahmah, a woman in her thirties, died on 1 January from tear-gas inhalation. She was tear-gassed while attending a non-violent protest against the Wall in Bil‘in the previous day.

She began vomiting and foaming at the mouth and later suffered a fatal heart attack in hospital. The Israeli disinformation campaign began immediately, the state’s official Twitter claiming she died of cancer! Multiple eyewitness and medical accounts refute this nonsense.

Tragically, Jawaher’s brother Bassem was also murdered by the military, in April 2009, when he was shot in the chest with a high-velocity tear-gas canister. Her cousin Abdullah languishes in an Israeli prison on a charge of “possession of arms,” which relates in fact to an artistic display he created using spent tear-gas canisters.

The second victim, a young man in his twenties, was shot in the chest at the Al-Hamra roadblock near Nablus on 2 January. A medical eyewitness reported that the man had his arms raised and posed no threat, yet he was shot multiple times from close range. According to the Israeli military, the soldiers “felt their lives were in danger,” as he was holding a glass bottle. In the previous week two shepherds and two resistance fighters were also killed in Gaza.

Of course the “routine” oppression also continues. Gaza continues to suffer under the siege. According to a coalition of rights groups, including Amnesty and Oxfam, there has been “little improvement” since the alleged easing of the siege six months ago. Israeli air strikes continue to hit Gaza, while inside Israel a “new war” is openly talked of.

People in the West Bank are denied freedom of movement, detention swoops and beatings by settlers and the military are almost daily occurrences, houses continue to be demolished, and illegal colonial settlements continue to expand.

Meanwhile, inside the Israeli state the crackdown on democratic expression continues apace as both Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jewish-Israeli human rights activists are targeted. The Israeli parliament has just passed a law establishing a Committee of Inquiry to investigate rights groups that monitor the Israeli military. Protesters were charged for returning American-made tear-gas canisters to the US ambassador, the homes of Israeli leftists have been raided, and activists have received intimidating phone calls from the secret police.

On average, the secret police arrest an anti-occupation Israeli or international every thirty-six hours [this appeared as “thirty-six days” in the original, my fault]. A raft of proposed new laws aims to equate anti-occupation activities with “terrorism.”

The Israeli Coalition of Women for Peace has just produced a report on the development of anti-democratic measures over the past two years. Entitled All-Out War: Israel Against Democracy, it makes chilling reading and also exposes the oft-repeated lie that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East.” The report is available from www.bit.ly/hlo9xm.

Appeal: Help Seomra Spraoi win a car just by taking a minute of your time

January 17, 2010

Hello everyone,

Seomra Spraoi, Dublin’s only autonomous collectively run social centre – and general wonderful place full of wonderful people – is in with a real chance of winning a car, which we’ll then sell for money. You can help us win by merely voting here: http://www.gumtree-winsomewheels.com/individual_entry.php?id=660 (its takes one minute or less – and if you’ve got more than one email account then you can use that too – the more the merrier obviously).

[6pm, Sun, 17 Jan] Seomra is currently in the lead by about 90 votes, but we need more more more. I’m not even sure when the closing date for this is.


If you’re wondering why you should vote for Seomra, here’s ten reasons:

1 ) It’s a non corporate social space in one of the most corporatised places in Ireland – ie Dublin.
2 ) It receives no state or any kind of other grant funding – it survives solely on the donations and standing orders of its users.
3 ) It puts on fucking great nights – (live and DJ) reggae, hip hop, punk, soul, rock ‘n’ roll, dubstep, big beat etc etc. Hell, even I’m allowed to do the music sometimes.
4 ) The food is cheap and great – and its BYOB which is always a plus.
5 ) You’re guaranteed to make new friends there – and see people you haven’t seen in ages.
6 ) The rent is crippling and we’re in a recession
7 ) The volunteers are lovely people (except me, I’m a cunt obviously)
8 ) They host talks you’re unlikely to hear anywhere else, even on the left. Agree or disagree with the content, at least they are getting a forum. Not to mention the workshops and creche.
9 ) The best play I’ve ever seen was on there, Marx in Soho. Fair enough, I’ve only ever seen two plays, but still.
10 ) They are friends of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and we jointly held a very successful Palestinian cultural night there in October.

We are all Semora Spraoiso go and vote!

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