The anti-war movement’s dilemma – and how to resolve it | Richard Seymour

People sympathetic to the Arab uprisings, but sceptical of war, are looking to the anti-war movement for analysis and direction

The war on Libya produced a strange effect in British politics. The majority of the public opposed the war, but very little of this opposition was expressed on the streets. Nor is the possibility of intervention in Syria producing sizeable protests as yet.

The first and most obvious reason for this abstention is that behind a general scepticism about war lies a more conflicted sentiment, as people overwhelmingly sympathise with the democratic uprisings in both Syria and Libya. In a situation like this, the ideological relics of “humanitarian intervention” can be reactivated, as they were when the government packaged its bombing of Libya as a limited venture in support of human rights. But this is not the only factor. In the US, the election of Barack Obama took tens of thousands of Democrat-supporting activists off the streets. It would be mistaken to discount an extension of this effect to the UK. The stabilisation of the occupation of Iraq and the subsequent withdrawal of troops has also contributed.

Perhaps the government would like to believe that this reflects a death spiral for the anti-war movement. But there is a much more interesting story to be had. It is absolutely true that the anti-war movement on both sides of the Atlantic has been in abeyance in recent years. Yet, the fact that opinion was so against intervention in Libya is a product of the anti-war movement, its social depth and durability. And while the situation created by the Middle East revolutions has raised critical debates among anti-war campaigners, these issues are not entirely new. It would be far from the first time that the US military has been deployed ostensibly on the side of a revolutionary movement – a tradition that goes back to the Spanish-American war. Ironically, one of the best retorts to such posturing was supplied by the founder of “liberal internationalism”, Woodrow Wilson, on the occasion of US intervention into the Mexican revolution: “I challenge you,” he said, “to cite me an instance in all the history of the world where liberty was handed down from above. Liberty is always attained by the forces working from below, underneath.”

Indeed, while researching the history of anti-imperialist movements in the US, I found that many of the same strategic issues affecting the anti-war movement today have consistently reappeared. From this historical perspective, it is easier to see why it is wrong to write off the anti-war movement.

To help the debate about where to go from here, I would submit three broad strategic arguments. The first is that one has to evaluate the possibilities for a movement in reference not just to the immediate issue involved, but to the whole social formation and its antagonisms. So, for example, one of the main reasons why the Libyan intervention did not produce a movement in opposition is because of the relative brevity of the war, and the comparatively low-key nature of the bombing. Yet it would be extremely naive to think that every war could be as brief and inexpensive for those prosecuting it, or that public acquiescence would follow.

The current global situation is characterised by deep, “organic crisis”. Multiple problems at various levels of the system – recession, phone hacking, EU crisis, the riots, etc – are combined in a single, prolonged convulsion. The result is that public passivity cannot be taken for granted: one crisis, and the movement it generates, is likely to flow into others. For example, Israel’s 2009 assault on Gaza provoked very large, militant protests. It sparked a wave of student occupations, itself a tributary of the student protests in 2010. This is historically typical. Social movements tend to be mutually reinforcing, the tactics learned in one cause quickly redeployed in another context. The classic instance is the role of the civil rights struggle in preparing the ground for the anti-Vietnam war movement.

Second, these struggles are not just won or lost in the cut and thrust of tactical manoeuvres. There are valid debates, partly raised by the successes of the Occupy movement, over how much emphasis to place on disruptive action, and how much on communicative action. This is a good argument to have as long as tactics aren’t fetishised. What is important is the strategic orientation that these tactical repertoires are embedded in.

Third, anti-war activism is a long game, its veterans often lasting through several cycles of upsurge and dissipation. States certainly take the long view, working hard to prepare the political, cultural and ideological terrain for war. To take one example, in the runup to the 1991 Gulf war much of the US media began to regurgitate long-standing rightist claims that Vietnam veterans were spat on by anti-war activists. So successful was this campaign that many anti-war activists who were interviewed actually “remembered” the abuse of veterans and felt compelled to distance themselves from it. This left them on the defensive, and the famous “yellow ribbon” campaign was a soft sell aimed at leveraging that advantage for the government.

Today in the UK, one can see an attempt to create a basis for pro-war sentiment in two ways. The first is the low-key revival of “humanitarian intervention” among some liberals. The second, perhaps more important in the long run, is the investment by the Ministry of Defence in implanting the military into the daily life of communities, as a popular institution. The Defence Schools Initiative was one example of this. Arguably, the phenomenon of the Military Wives, supported by the MoD, is another. The specifics in each case vary, but the constant factor is that the popular “common sense” has to be worked on and constructed over time.

This means that even where there are not mass protests, there are still things to do. At moments like this, there is a premium not just on preparing for future action, and sustained ideological work, but above all on analysis and open debate. The reason why this is so crucial is because of the conflicted sentiment I mentioned earlier. People sympathetic to the uprisings, but also sceptical of war, are looking to the anti-war movement for a clear analysis and direction. Amid a certain fragmentation of opinion on Libya and Syria, the centre of gravity on the left seems to favour something like the following “line”: the democratic revolutions in the Middle East are overwhelmingly a positive phenomenon, fatally weakening a chain of pro-US dictatorships; but interventions led by the US, Britain and France, whether in Yemen or Libya, or indirectly in Bahrain, constitute attempts to contain this process and must be opposed. However, there are important differences of emphasis and analysis within that, which are grounds for urgent debate. For, how one evaluates Libya or Syria today will shape how one understands and acts on future wars – not to mention how many people will be willing to listen.

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