Making sense of a rollercoaster year
Whether we were cheering uprisings or challenging nuclear panic, spiked cut to the chase in 2011.
It has certainly been an eventful year. Not-so-great dictators have fallen (and died), the Eurozone has undergone a slow-motion collapse, a 168-year-old, bestselling newspaper was shut down, and during a few days this August, parts of English cities became arenas of rioting and looting. And throughout, spiked has been busy cutting to the chase on the issues. Here is what we said.
The Arab uprisings
‘Anyone who believes in freedom and democracy will be thoroughly heartened by recent events in Tunisia’, we wrote in January, after protesters threw off President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s ’23 years of authoritarianism, corruption and the flimsiest kind of “democracy”‘. But as Egypt became engulfed in protest and commentators rushed to hail the Arab ‘revolts’ as if they were already successful ‘revolutions’, spiked sounded a critical note at the end of January: ‘These protests are themselves diffuse, even directionless at times, expressing an aspiration for more freedom, yes, but with little sense of how that might be enacted or by whom.’ By August, this had become what we called the hole at the heart of the Arab revolts, a lack exemplified most clearly in Syria, where President Assad was desperately but brutally hanging on to power, but also in the unresolved tensions palpable in Tunisia and Egypt. ‘Neither side has been victorious, not the peoples fighting for freedom nor the regimes desperately trying to shore up the old order.’ In November, we argued that the second Egyptian uprising had brought this absence of leadership, of cohering ideas, ‘this diavowal of politics’, to the fore. ‘The uprisings put questions of power and authority on the table, but were unable to resolve them in any meaningful way. Let’s hope that the second Egyptian uprising will go some way towards clarifying the enormity of what is at stake here, and the importance of the Egyptian people moving from Tahrir Square into the heart of power itself.’
As the cheerleadering for Western intervention in Libya reached fever pitch in early March, with the implementaion of a ‘no-fly zone’, spiked was quick to object that such interference is ‘anti-democratic in principle, taking the struggle for power out of the hands of the people themselves’. And what gave this intervention a dangerous arbitrary quality, we argued, was that it was almost entirely ungoverned by any geopolitical interest: ‘This is not the return of the politics of Empire or a re-flourishing of Western colonialism in north Africa, as some have claimed. Rather it is the barbarism of buffoons.’ That Gaddafi was eventually toppled in August was no triumph, we argued: ‘The key dynamic in Libya is not the push for power from rebel groups or the colonial designs of external powers, but rather the disintegration of Gaddafi’s regime… Rebel groups are not so much “taking power” as they are walking into evacuated palaces – and when it comes to setting up a new, legitimate and authoritative government, there’s a profound difference between those two things.’ Indeed. As we reported in December, protests in Benghazi against the supposedly ruling National Transitional Council showed just how uncertain the situation remains in Libya: ‘Perhaps now the genuine battle for democracy in Libya, forged by the Libyan people themselves, can resume – without the dead weight of Western interference.’
The Eurozone crisis
In January, the punitive conditions of Ireland’s Euro bailout led to the collapse of Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s government. But as spiked reported at the time, this was not a triumph of democracy, but its usurping by the EU. We said that amongst Irish politicians there was ‘a grubby, court-style battle involving princes and prima donnas, to see who can demonstrate to the current kingmaker of Irish politics – Brussels – that they are the right ones to enact its wishes’. It was to become a familiar tale. In October, as European leaders gathered once more to discuss the Eurozone crisis, spiked pointed out that ‘Greece, the current cockpit of the Euro-crisis, is suffering the same fate [as Ireland], sentenced to a debtors’ prison and subjected to dictatorship-by-bureaucrat’.
As the crisis has escalated this year, so the European elites’ fear of ‘their uncontrollable electorates’ has trumped concerns over their ‘out-of-control finances’. From Greece to Italy, technocrats have been installed in power, at the behest of the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the EU itself. As we argued in an essay this autumn, the attack on popular sovereignty has continued apace: ‘In Brussels, and among an influential coterie of European opinion-makers, the idea that ordinary people have the capacity to self-govern is dismissed as at best a naive prejudice, and at worst a marker for right-wing populism.’ The outraged response from Europhilic commentators to then Greek premier George Papandreou’s proposal in October to hold a referendum on the EU’s latest austerity package told its own story: ‘All this panic and chaos, apparently, because somebody suggested the outrageous idea of giving the Greek people a say on their future?’
The Japanese earthquake and the meltdown of nuclear ambition
In March, an earthquake and tsunami devastated large parts of Japan, killing thousands of people. But, as spiked observed, the world’s media were far more interested in hyperventilating over problems at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Throughout, we urged people to calm down, pointing out that not only is Fukushima nothing like Chernobyl, itself an exagerated disaster, but also no one has died as a result of Fukushima. Unfortunately, ‘alarmist nonsense’ won the day as Germany, Switzerland and Italy all decided to end nuclear programmes or chose not to start one. As spiked explained in July, ‘There are lessons to be learned, of course, about nuclear plant siting and safety, but there is nothing about Fukushima that should stop us from pressing ahead with new nuclear plants. A motorcar built today is very much safer than one built in 1971 – thanks to seatbelts, airbags, windscreens with safety glass, safety “cages” to protect passengers in collisions, better brakes, and so on. Likewise, nuclear power stations are much safer, too.’
Phone hacking and press freedom
As the phone-hacking controversy began to escalate in January, following the resignation of prime minister David Cameron’s press chief and ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson, we argued that, sometimes, journalists should operate outside the law. The closure of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World in June, celebrated by many in the liberal media as one in the eye for Rupert Murdoch and tabloid culture in general, marked, for spiked, a dangerous new phase in the phone-hacking furore. ‘You don’t have to have been a fan of the News of the World, still less of its recent indefensible antics, to recognise that the anti-Murdoch moral crusade is likely to have a chilling effect on the British media and on press freedom.’
Indeed, as the clamour for increased regulation of the press has reached deafening levels with the Leveson inquiry into press conduct, spiked has been consistently arguing, often alone, in defence of press freedom. As we wrote in July, ‘a “bad” free press is always better than a “good” controlled one – if you hope to get to the truth about politics, war, or scandals’.
The August riots
A deluge of comment followed the riots in English cities this August, much of it attempting to insert the looting and arson into a comfy narrative about coalition cuts or I-♥-the-80s-style policing. But as we countered in the immediate aftermath of the riots: ‘The political context is not the cuts agenda or racist policing – it is the welfare state, which, it is now clear, has nurtured a new generation that has absolutely no sense of community spirit or social solidarity.’ As for those subsequently attempting to blame gang culture, spiked was equally unforgiving: ‘”Gang culture” is almost entirely the imaginary creation of a political elite which prefers to fantasise that urban implosion is a product of gang conspiracies, rather than face up to the harsh reality [of the riots].’ As we argued in December, after the Guardian published its insightless report on what it believed happened that August, ‘the riots did indeed reveal a great deal about modern Britain, particularly about the dearth of social solidarity amongst younger generations of poorer communities and the collapse of police and state authority in inner cities and elsewhere in England; yet neither of these things can seriously be discussed so long as all political factions remain more interested in plonking the rioters on their knees and getting them to mouth What We Want To Hear.’
Occupy – but why?
In mid-September, spiked reported on a few hundred protesters who were attempting to ‘take down Wall Street’, a fearsome gathering of ‘MacBook-armed, middle-class warriors who want their student debt cancelled’. This, the embryonic Occupy movement, proceeded to spread to other cities, towns and campuses around the world and to dominate the media for much of the autumn. Yet despite the broadsheet-led praise that came their way, as spiked noted in November, the occupiers were all process and no political trousers: ‘Anyone who asks what the protesters actually want is dismissed as a hopeless simpleton who fails to grasp that incoherence and inarticulateness are the new chic.’ If the vague, cynical anti-capitalism of these posing hipsters in V for Vendetta-style masks wasn’t depressing enough, in November the London occupiers proved their radical credentials by snitching to the cops and getting a group of the right-wing EDL supporters arrested.
The death of Osama bin Laden
The killing of al-Qaeda’s end-of-level boss, Osama bin Laden, by US marines at the beginning of May initially sparked what we at spiked called a form of celebration as therapy for the West. But within days many right-thinking liberals, especially in the UK, were voicing concerns about the legality of America’s action. spiked argued, however, that this ‘now widespread “uncomfortable feeling” with the shooting of bin Laden is really an expression of moral reluctance, even of moral cowardice, a desire to avoid taking any decisive action or expressing any firm emotion that might have some blowback consequences for us over here’. That the ‘uncomfortable feeling’ arose more from a navel-gazing moral cowardice than anything more principled was clear in June when, as spiked reported at the time, the subsequent assassination of rather less celebrated al-Qaeda operatives prompted precisely zero in the way of ‘tortured editorials’ or ‘homilies from the Archbishop of Canterbury’ in response.
The US debt-ceiling fiasco
As the Eurozone lurched from crisis to cop-out and back again, the US political class showed itself to be equally clueless when in June, the Republican-dominated congress threatened to force the US to default on its national debt. That it did not in the end was nothing to be celebrated. ‘The American people’, we argued, ‘should not have been subjected to this bad political theatre. Default or no default, the American political class has already shown itself to be dysfunctional and out of touch.’
The Norway massacre
There was palpable relief in much of the media when it turned out that the horrific mass shooting in Norway in June was committed not by some al-Qaeda-style Islamists, but by Anders Breivik, a blond Aryan with far-right leanings – that is, the kind of person it is easy to unambiguously hate. Yet as spiked argued, this meant ‘that while the attacks may not be “Norway’s 9/11”, they could well be the cultural elite’s 9/11 – in the sense that this is an act which the influential liberal classes may seek to politicise in an opportunistic fashion, to make moral mileage out of, in the same way that the right did after 11 September 2001.’
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.