Nameless, blameless, shameless

'Not in my name' means ditching democracy in exchange for victim status. We might as well die-in now.

Jennie Bristow

Topics World

Imagine, if you can bear to, the next UK general election.

The ballot papers are issued, listing all the candidates plus a statement: ‘Not in my name.’ Half the voting population – or even the 40 percent who did not vote last time – put a cross in that box. What’s the reaction: despair, at the crushing blow delivered to the electoral system? Delight, at the apparent wholesale rejection of all that The System has to offer? Deep sighs of relief, because at least people bothered to vote?

I’d guess disquiet, as a creeping realisation takes hold about what ‘Not in my name’ really means. While many of those alert to the shortcomings of current party politics would not empathise much with the government’s sense of isolation and despair, they would recognise that ‘Not in my name’ is no slogan of revolution, or even of the most basic forms of engagement.

It is not a questioning of politics, but a complete disengagement from politics, leading to a denial of democracy. And anybody who feels compelled to support this slogan in the deepening crisis over Iraq, should ask themselves if this is what they really want.

‘Not in my name’ has risen to prominence as the slogan of the movement against war in the Gulf. But on a web-search, ‘Not in my name’ throws up the website of a Chicago-based Jewish peace-group opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The phrase also brings up a listing for a protest play against the death penalty. ‘We understand that there is some confusion between our group, Not In My Name, and the new, anti-war group, Not In Our Name’, states a helpful pop-up frame on the Jewish site, before giving links to both sites.

All these choices about whose name what’s not in indicate that ‘Not in my (our) name’ has very little to do with the impending war on Iraq. It is a sentiment that is capable of attaching itself to anything, but carrying a very specific message: not ‘I don’t support this’, or even ‘I don’t agree with this’, but ‘I don’t want anything to do with this at all’. That’s what makes its widespread take-up by the antiwar movement so disturbing.

Why go for ‘Not in my name’ rather than something shorter and to the point – like, for example ‘No war’? Possibly because, as we have argued before on spiked, many of those proclaiming themselves to be against the war on Iraq are not really against it at all. What they are against is an aggressive war fought by the USA and the UK. What they would have been more comfortable with is coercion by diplomacy, and a safe war fought under the auspices of the UN.

‘Not in my name’ reconciles both these positions, in a way that is utterly unprincipled. A war led by the UK and the USA is opposed because they don’t agree with it. On the other hand, a war waged under the auspices of the UN would be acceptable because they would need to take no responsibility for it.

This is the first indication of how ‘Not in my name’ refers not to war, but to democracy. The British electorate holds some power over how the British government acts – we vote for politicians to represent us, and we can vote them out of office. ‘Not in my name’ sloganises powerlessness, and turns this formal process of democracy on its head. It encapsulates the notion that whatever our government might do about the war, it has nothing to do with us.

Writing in the UK Guardian back in January 2003, commentator Catherine Bennett poured scorn on ‘Not in my name’: ‘Compared to the anti-war slogans of the past, NIMN sends out a piqued, self-regarding sort of message that seems more suited to use by picky consumers who define themselves, say, by their disapproval of GM foods, or boycotting of Starbucks rather than by a mass movement aiming to change the views of a legitimate government in whose actions everyone, assuming they have a vote, is implicated whether they like it or not.’ (1)

In a rather po-faced way, she has a point. In a representative democracy, we mandate a government to act on our behalf; and if we disagree with the government, we argue. Simply dissociating ourselves from things that we don’t agree with might make us feel morally virtuous, but at a hefty price: annihilating our ability to change things for the better, in exchange for presenting ourselves as victims when things get bad.

Bennett is right to criticise NIMN for its self-regarding, individualistic, conceited quality. One of the least appealing aspects of the recent antiwar protests have been the way the protests have been treated almost as a personal therapy session – an absolution, in advance, for the sins of history. You can imagine today’s school-pupil placard-waver telling his or her grandkids, ‘I was there, at the time, and I said – Not in my name!’.

But the problem with this movement is not that it appeals to a heightened sense of self more than it does to a collective movement against the war. On the contrary, it represents a collective denial of the self, for the sake of victim status.

Of course, representative democracy has its limits. But when people pointed to and fought against these limits in the past, it was with the aim of finding more direct, genuine ways to exercise their own power. Today’s Not-in-my-namers, by contrast, are so disillusioned with democracy that they opt out of it: yet their alternative to democracy is none other the undemocratic personalities and institutions of the UN and Europe. Far from fighting for more power, they are desperately pleading for less.

Ask yourself why, exactly, a war waged under the auspices of the UN is better than one waged by Britain and America alone. Would the outcome be any different, the consequences any less bloody? No. The difference is that, if the UN goes to war, it is tantamount to the wrath of God. We have no control over the UN, and therefore we have no responsibility for it. The UN, like the EU, is a supra-national body without accountability to any demos to give it even a formal sense of democracy. Nothing can be done ‘in our name’, because our views and interests count for nothing.

This is what makes the UN, and the EU, and any other multilateral body currently enjoying the status of flavour of the month so dangerous. For anybody committed to stopping wars of intervention, for anybody interested in taking responsibility for changing policy of which they disapprove, such stateless institutions deny us even the limited power of decision-making allowed by the vote.

But for those crying ‘Not in my name’, the attraction of such bodies is precisely that they let the electorate, us, individuals, the little people, off the hook. Bad things happen, but we cannot be implicated, because we have no control. So we become, not individuals with limited power, but victims with no power at all.

It seems curious that protests ostensibly decrying the powerless of people and the limits of democracy (‘Blair’s not listening!’ and so on) should end up calling for the obliteration of the roots of democracy, by ceding decision-making to the UN. But the antiwar movement, with all its confusion and apparent contradiction, is a product of its times.

Whether the million or so individuals in the UK that have protested against the war went looking for political principle or personal salvation, whether they objected to Iraqi children dying or to the fact that it was George Bush, not Kofi Annan, killing them, those leading the debate about the war have offered nothing but ‘Not in my name’. Including those whose purchase on democratic decision-making is clearly greater than that held by people on the street.

At the time of writing, three Cabinet ministers in the UK government have resigned. Another cabinet minister – our friend Clare Short – has notably not resigned, after previously declaring to the world’s media her intention to do so. (See The war of Clare’s ego, by Jennie Bristow)

All of these people are opposed, not to the war, but to the lack of UN involvement. None of these people are fighting to take control of the situation, to galvanise a political opposition to this new Gulf war or anything else. All of these people are taking the opportunity to air their personal objections to the latest twist, to gain their personal absolution from the bloody mess. All of these people are saying, ‘Not in my name’. And all of these people were supposed to be responsible for running the country.

Outside Downing Street, the antiwar lobby stages die-ins to show just how seriously they take their victim status, and encourage working people to take an impromptu coffee break when war breaks out. Database inputting? Not in my name! Schoolchildren – who really do have no decision-making power – are applauded for skipping lessons to show how much they do not want to be a part of world politics. Double maths? Not in my name!

Maybe these kids are looking for politics and principles, and maybe these office workers are looking for ways to stop senseless bloodshed. But they are not going to find these answers in the cowardly confines of the antiwar movement; because the antiwar movement does not consider them capable of anything more than passive resistance to politics. It looks like the only way to stop any war, now or in the future, is to stop the antiwar movement before it inflicts more cynical damage.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Is this the silliest slogan ever?, Guardian, 23 January 2003

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Topics World


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