Donald Trump: so how’s that draining-the-swamp thing going?

draining-the-swamp

Listen to much of the so-called ‘alt-media’, and one could be forgiven for thinking that four-times bankrupt-come-billionaire, US President-elect Donald Trump, really is going to give the establishment what for.

While much of the corporate media is transfixed by the horrors that await, other leading commentators, notably Infowar’s Alex Jones, and Max Keiser and Stacy Herbert of Keiser Report fame, have delighted in America’s exciting new departure.

But the events since the 8 November election do little to suggest that Trump really will wield the sword of justice to cut the bankers, corporations and special interests down to size.

Instead, he intends to reduce bank regulation and let Wall Street do its thing unhindered, while offering tax cuts that will mainly benefit the wealthy.

Trump was going to drain the swamp of corruption. But, it turns out, he’s turned his inauguration into exactly the sort of money-making opportunity that cries out shady deals. After all, anyone who contributes a sum of six figures or more to his inauguration committee will have special access to the new president.

In fact, rather than representing some uprising for the common man, Trump is beginning to look like he’s more at ease among the corporate establishment than many of his predecessors.

And where Trump has talked their language – such as bringing all those factory jobs back from China and elsewhere – the process is vague. For instance, Making America Great Again involves abandoning the albeit dodgy free-trade agreements and replacing them with the results of his wheeler-dealering magic.

The problem is twofold: not only are his policy positions, such as they are, undefined, but then there’s his changeable temperament to contend with as well.

For instance, does Trump have the nouse to handle globally-interconnected issues, such as the mammoth debt China has racked up over the last decade, with the sensitivity that would avoid economic catastrophe in today’s debt-saturated world economy? Well, we’ll soon find out.

And it’s Trump’s core, blue-collar support that will likely suffer most if he gets it wrong. As Greece’s former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis writes:

Trump’s plan for helping those left behind since the 1970s, to the extent that one is discernible, seems to turn on two axes: a domestic stimulus and bilateral deal-making under the threat of tariffs and quotas. But if he plays hardball with China, pushing the Chinese to revalue the renminbi and employing threats of tariffs and the like, he may well end up pricking the bubble of China’s private debt – unleashing a deluge of nasty consequences that would overwhelm any domestic stimulus he introduces.

It’s difficult to find convincing signs of that sensitivity in anything Trump has done, outside his acceptance speech comment that he would govern for all Americans. And, still, there’s the uncertainty as to what his policy pronouncements really mean.

For instance, the markets have been all excited about the prospect of Trump borrowing shedloads of money – between $1trn and $2trn – to resuscitate America’s crumbling infrastructure. Yet there are significant doubts that his ‘proposals’ really amount to the stimulus package many are hoping for.

Even the certainties about the death of Obamacare, a policy he routinely pilloried during the hustings, are no longer certain after he suggested that parts might be retained.

These outward signs of concilliation have allowed some, such as Max Keiser, to suggest Trump is really a pragmatist at heart and will abandon policies that make no long-term sense – such as ditching renewables and pulling out of all climate change initiatives and research.

Such a touching faith in Trump’s better nature is not, however, supported by his nominees for government positions, nor the post-truth universe he currently seems to inhabit – check out his fact-free comments about winning the popular vote, for instance.

Even if his own better nature does rise to the fore, the people he is surrounding himself with are framed by a narrow, right-wing agenda. Here’s Trump’s nominees so far:

The big position that Trump is still to announce is his nominee for State Department. However, his cordial restaurant meeting with Mitt Romney on Tuesday evening might suggest that the 2012 Republican presidential candidate has the edge over his two main competitors, Sen Bob Corker and the retired, ‘scandal-scarred’ General David Petraeus.

All in all, this looks a robust team, keen to roll back the state once again and give yet more scope to the private sector.

The problem is that, though big government may not be the answer, this most neoliberal of strategies doesn’t often work. Instead, rather than spreading the prosperity around, it has a track-record of increasing inequalities of wealth and power – and this at a time when many Americans are already on or close to the breadline.

Indeed, in its Global Wealth Report 2015, Credit Suisse said that holding just ten dollars in nett wealth would make you richer than a quarter of all Americans. Could Trump be set to attack the safety net that many rely on just to get by? It sounds like we’ll be revisiting the trickle-down effect all over again.

Reassuringly, Trump has said he won’t let Americans “die in the streets” due to poverty, homelessness or hunger. But the very real danger is surely that, beyond the far-right, many of those who voted for him could soon be much worse off than they are now.

If that comes to pass, then many Americans will feel bitterly betrayed. And, given his influence beyond US shores, they’re unlikely to be alone.

The politics of rage: Trump, emotion and some lessons for the Left

donald-trump-acceptance-speech

Humans are emotional first and rational second. I’ve long believed this and the events of the last 12 months have merely confirmed this in my mind.

This is not to say we are incapable of acting rationally in our own self-interest, either individually or collectively. But what it does mean is that our decisions are framed not only by the choices we’re confronted with, but by the emotional power of the symbols and narratives that make up our belief systems.

What the last year has also confirmed to me is how ill-equipped the political Left is in trying to influence the qualitative, emotionally-charged challenge of meaning and belief. This is not to say that if it played its hand to its fullest advantage, it would sweep to power. But it seems to me that it’s barely at the races, let alone in the race.

Much of the political Left is reacting with startled disbelief at Donald Trump’s rise to become US President-elect. It’s almost exactly the same startled disbelief that disabled much of the British Left as an effective political force in the wake of June’s Brexit vote.

There is no doubt that the challenges are enormous, but the Left has in many cases retreated into the comfortable traditions borne of distant victories and today’s struggle of futile resistance. The Left is still reading from a narrative about collectivised labour, of some generalised socialist fraternity, of statist protections; of a defensive position that has been comprehensively eroded and discredited since the Thatcher-Reagan years.

Today, these ‘workers’ prefer to see themselves as self-realising consumers whose consciousness is divided into market niches of segmented identities and needs. They might increasingly see their employment as meaningless, debased and precarious. But, in the absence of a believable alternative dream, their fight is more about clinging onto what they’ve got than jumping ship from the endless, deadening treadmill of economic growth.

The fact that there is a widespread feeling of rage against the machine is undeniable. It’s not confined to Britain, the US or Europe. It’s a global phenomena, though one without a political focus.

Unfortunately, the Left’s lack of traction in this process clearly shows three things. Firstly, it does not have the conceptual tools to reliably stir its natural power base, let alone park its intellectual tanks on opposition territory. The emotional connection between the political narrative and the experience of ordinary people has turned to dust, thanks to a seemingly-terminal lack of imagination, ambition and courage.

Secondly, even if the Left did have the conceptual tools, it has not found a way to use mass media to effectively communicate its message beyond its core support. This goes to the heart of the very notion of democracy, which is dominated by psychopathic political and economic elites which shape policy formulation and the news agenda. The Left’s failure to openly accept and articulate the problem betrays a touching, and hopelessly misplaced, faith in a profoundly hostile system.

Thirdly, the Left has not accepted, even less articulated, the moral case for challenging power – and especially corporate and economic power – and thus has not come close to developing a strategy around applying any political and economic leverage for change. This lack of imagination and ambition is in evidence even when one observes those outside the established political system. Pounding the streets of central London during last Saturday’s Million Mask March, organised by the ‘hacktivist’ ‘organisation’ Anonymous, it struck me how futile and eminently containable such otherwise laudable efforts are. In its current form, protest is toothless.

slave-to-the-banks
A protestor at the Million Mask March in London talks to the media

In the UK and US, the traditional Left has almost wilfully made itself into a self-indulgent, irrelevant force that even despised by the very people who should appreciate its support. The UK’s Labour Party has so lost its connection with ‘ordinary working-class people’ that even the hideous Theresa May can court their support without being mercilessly ridiculed. Over in the US, the way the Democratic Party establishment unfairly weighted the presidential campaign against Bernie Sanders is another prime example. Though hardly a socialist firebrand, Sanders tapped into a rich vein of working- and middle-class fury. But his agenda was dismissed by the Democratic elite as dangerous and counter-productive, and he meekly bowed out of the political battle.

This was despite the fact that opinion polling research clearly suggested he was not only more popular than Hillary Clinton among likely Democratic voters, many of whom disliked her history of dishonesty and corporate cronyism, but he was much better equipped to fight Donald Trump. He articulated real concerns, yet the political establishment smothered him and he was ultimately happy to defer to its sense of entitlement.

In other words, the Left has barely spoken to today’s politics of rage. And the fact this rage exists is surely now blindingly clear. Brexit was not the only precursor to Trump; remember the now-stalled anti-austerity movements in Greece and Spain (though Portugal’s still lives on), along with the decline of the established political Left in countries such as France and across much of Europe. Happily, though it has failed to grapple with the politics of rage and is in some disarray, economic instability is likely to provide opportunities to fight back – among them the fallout from Italy’s forthcoming constitutional referendum and the persistent weakness of its financial system.

The Left has the tendency to romanticise far-distant battles in a bid to rekindle a golden post-war consensus that actually preceded today’s unremitting industrial decline. While the successful battles for worker rights, for instance, are worth celebrating, they do nothing to disguise 30 years of industrial and political retreat.

Quite the opposite, in fact, because such lapses effectively cede the initiative to a neoliberal elite that never tires of using a technocratic agenda of economic growth to increase its share of wealth and power.

So, the Left should dispense with triangulation, and not only because the problems we face require fresh, radical ideas. The centre ground is not a place where you’ll find vision and courage because it’s too rooted in compromise and the denial of truth. What’s more, the ‘centre ground’ almost certainly no longer exists, if indeed it ever really did. The idea that a progressive managerial class can reclaim the centre ground for the Left is a sad delusion that will take us nowhere.

Instead, if the Left is ever to regain the initiative, it must expose the mundanities of economic power. For instance, a monetary system that relies on fractional-reserve banking is one that gives a parasitic, rent-seeking financial elite the invisible power to fleece the population of its wealth and freedom through debt-dependancy and the inflation of unsustainable asset bubbles. The banking sector’s role in the cycle of boom and bust and promotion of overconsumption and climate change has never been properly aired politically. The Left could usefully popularise public understanding of the Minsky moment.

Any Left agenda that does not seek to regain control of the money supply from the banks and replace their debt-money with some form of sovereign money will never address the core driver of inequality and is doomed to fail.

As part of this, the Left must explicitly start talking about neoliberalism in terms that ordinary people can understand and relate to. Neoliberalism is dangerous precisely because it’s a love that dares not speak its name. None of its supporters identify themselves as neoliberals, while the whole neoliberal enterprise is anti-democratic because it seeks to move the servicing of all need into private hands. If EU membership can be portrayed as a theft of sovereignty while the extension of corporate power is allowed to remain faceless and invisible, then the custodians of the Left have abandoned their heritage and the people they claim to represent.

Moving forward will also involve the Left accepting uncomfortable facts about capitalism. For instance, without accepting that ‘the market’ has been the greatest dynamo of wealth creation known to man, the Left cannot talk honestly about its flaws. The Left needs to start addressing the issue of market failure, an easy-to-understand economic concept with a rich history and a wealth of political applications. Indeed, it can easily be argued that the state grew during the first half of the last century precisely because of market failure. But it can equally be argued that the state grew well beyond the consequences of market failure to become a burden on its own citizens. The Left’s abject refusal to ever mention market failure or put forward any equitable notion of state power is an abdication of responsibility and a retreat from the truth.

The Left must also develop and project a greater understanding of and empathy with the desire of ordinary people to improve their own lives. Human beings are much more than simple units of consumption as defined by today’s pseudo-classical economists; we are social and emotional beings connected by much more than economics. We are co-dependant, which means that without specific counteracting measures, such as the implementation of progressive taxes, some of us become richer precisely because those who only have their labour to sell are poorer and more numerous – a mechanism described by Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. This is one of the consequences of how markets work that is obscured by our emotional sense of entitlement.

Is the market there to serve us or to rule us? I would suggest that if we put any real value on human life, than we need to accept that some form of economic safety net needs to exist to protect the weakest from poverty and destitution. The Left should be particularly exercised about this issue considering how technology is deleting jobs and propelling us towards an age of post-employment. The Left should at least be leading a debate about how ordinary people should be sustained once the traditional mechanisms of wealth distribution have ceased to exist. The Left should, for instance, be talking about the social and economic pros and cons of universal basic income. But it’s not.

What’s more, the Left should explicitly identify with entrepreneurs that are actively seeking to reshape the way we actually do business. After all, should business really be about exploiting the life out of people and planet simply to enrich a small bunch of investors and directors? By engaging head-on with questions about what business is actually for, the Left could engage with issues of aspiration, ethics and sustainability, and at the same time foster strands of theoretical economic thinking that do not ‘externalise‘ unwanted – and, therefore, unaccounted for – social and environmental costs. It’s time the Left underwent a process of comprehensive theoretical and moral renewal.

Back to today, and Donald Trump is the US President-elect because millions of Americans identify with him as a businessman and a solutions provider. Trump embodies a dream that so many admire and wish to emulate. The problem is that his emotional appeal supersedes any awareness of the facts. Trump’s fact-free narrative has appeal because the US political and economic system is psychopathic and unresponsive to the needs of ordinary people – and especially, as the exist polls suggest, white working- and middle-class men. For instance, Trump’s denial of climate change as nothing but a Chinese conspiracy would be completely laughable had it not been endorsed by so many supposedly-intelligent people. There are too many incentives to find comfort in reassuring delusions.

Climate change does not have a human face and so does not engender the fear and loathing of a murderous lone gunman or an army of Islamic extremists. The fears and dreams that role models, sex and status engender in us is a primary means by which our emotions betray us. It’s time the Left escaped its reverie, developed some intellectual courage and constructed a convincing, emotional narrative with which to reconnect with mass society. Because, on their own, rational arguments and the niceties of principle deliver surprisingly little.

Question Time, cosy assumptions and misplaced fears

24_g-co2-l

A few years ago, I simply stopped watching Question Time, the BBC’s premier televised forum for ‘topical debate’.

For a journalist with an interest in current affairs, it was important, if not essential, viewing. A panel of politicians, joined by academic or cultural figures – all drawn from a comparatively narrow social and political class – discuss the issues of the day before a live audience, which both asks the questions and gets stuck into the answers.

Some time ago, I decided the BBC’s current affairs showcase was just a talking shop far removed from the real world. I found it rather depressing, not always because of the panel, I must stress, as leaders and experts have their professional territories to defend and, therefore, will always protect their worldview.

What really depressed me was how confined the audience’s opinions were – usually more so than the panel before them. We might test children from the age of four in the idiotic exam-fest that is Britain’s education system, and we might have thousands of TV channels to choose from.

But if the usual level of Question Time debate is anything to go by, then they are obviously failing in the most basic terms of identifying the challenges, threats and opportunities our society faces.

Partly through my own aversion therapy and partly as ongoing research for my book, Psychopath Economics, I returned to the programme a couple of years ago to find the same lack of inquisitiveness among our political leaders and newspaper leader writers.

The point was amply illustrated by a question about the government’s dithering over allowing a third runway at London’s overstretched Heathrow Airport during yesterday evening’s edition, broadcast from Slough.

Audience member Duncan Reid got the show on the road: “Will Heathrow’s expansion provide the promised number of jobs? And can this justify the cost to the environment?”

Interesting and well-put questions which Duncan backed up, when challenged, by stating: “Well, Heathrow Airport Limited has not complained that the Davies Commission Report has happily traded the shortening of people’s lives for profit. And that cannot be right.”

Duncan was, of course, referring to the effects of nitrogen dioxide pollution on the people who live near Heathrow, mainly caused by the traffic struggling to reach the airport from the A4.

UKIP’s Mark Reckless was the first on the panel to tackle the question. As has become a UKIP tradition, he used the question to vent his party’s obsession with the European Union. Reckless railed against the EU’s lack of clarity on air pollution regulations, on the one hand, and its promotion of diesel vehicles, on the other.

His solution was to expand Gatwick Airport, south of London, so it could compete with Heathrow, and that “we should get on with doing it”.

Reckless was followed by the impeccably turned out Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg. He was all for extending Heathrow because “we need a functional airport that is close to London, that is well connected, allows us to compete internationally, [and] has all the routes to China and the Far East.

“Every project we come up with is stopped by a particle, a bat, a badger or a newt,” he concluded. “Well, what about people and thinking of the needs of our economy?” Cue applause.

Labour’s Emily Thornberry was up next, refuting another audience member’s assertion that London Mayor Boris Johnson’s plan for an airport in the Thames Estuary was the best solution. But apart from saying Heathrow could not be expanded until the diesel threat was removed, we didn’t get to hear where she thought the new runway should go – if, indeed, it should go anywhere.

And then the debate made its inevitable foray onto the economic rationale when another audience member said Heathrow’s expansion would “add £100bn to the economy”.

Piers Morgan, a man never knowingly short of an opinion, took up this point with gusto. “In the time we have dithered over this, China has built 80 new airports, never mind just extra runways. The reason Europe seems to be in decline is precisely because of this kind of nonsense.

“Heathrow is a world-class airport. It’s a massive asset to this country. And, frankly, we should be looking at not just one new runway, but probably two.

“And I would build another spanking new airport just outside the M25 and with travel into central London. And I would make [us] the European hub for anyone coming from America or China or the Middle East or wherever. And I would do this fast so we can actually seize the moment and not let [businesses] – as Willie Walsh, the BA guy, [did] this week – say ‘we’ll take our business to other countries’.

“This is a dangerous situation for our economy.”

Stirring words, indeed. But, of course, if we’re talking really dangerous situations, then there’s a much bigger and more threatening context to this whole debate that didn’t get the slightest mention. Even from the SNP MP, Hannah Bardell, who had just enough time to say before the credits rolled that she’d happily have the new aviation capacity located in Scotland.

That unmentioned, more dangerous context is, of course, the environment. Or, more precisely, the effects of climate change, a topic which exercised world leaders’ minds in Paris last week – at least temporarily.

The UN’s 21st climate change conference since 1995 ended with a commitment to limiting the global average rise in temperatures to as close as damn it to 1.5 degrees centigrade as possible.

The Question Time panel could have been asked what they thought of this “historic, durable and ambitious” agreement and what it could mean for our lives, but they weren’t. Any one of them could have taken up the climate change angle to the question they were asked on Heathrow, but they didn’t.

No one challenged Morgan and Rees-Mogg et al on the existential threat posed by rising temperatures; or whether the 1.5 degree target is achievable or even necessary; or how expanding Heathrow fitted into the glorious low-carbon future that Britain has signed up to.

There was no mention, either, of the cuts in subsidies for solar installations revealed this week, or the 6,000 solar technicians’ jobs already lost as a result of similar cuts made since 2010 to an industry regarded as on the cusp of major growth.

In other words, the whole focus on ‘economic issues’ was a very narrow one indeed, given the commitments that our government made in Paris, and the likely effects that our continuing carbon emissions will have on our planet.

And if the climate scientists are right, this is where the very real threats to our wellbeing lie. The most dangerous trends are already clearly in evidence – from storm-submerged Carlisle and drought-hit California, to the tide of Syrian refugees risking their lives to reach Europe.

Yet far from confirming the sheer scale of the challenges we face, the Paris agreement seems to have reinforced our collective complacency and the notion that we are the masters of creation.

What the mainstream, corporate press and media do not generally tell us is that even containing global warming to the 1.5 degree limit is probably not achievable and would probably not save us even if it was.

For we have already set in train a series of long-term positive feedback loops that will almost certainly fuel rapid, uncontrolled warming and significantly higher sea levels. This much is clear, as this talk by world-renowned professor of economics and sustainable development, Jeffrey Sachs, shows.

So rather than the convenient settling of our climate that the celebratory statements around Paris suggest, we are on course for ever more serious droughts, storms and floods, along with the increases in conflict, migration and food shortages all this will entail.

In short, what we face is far worse than anything the likes of ISIS can do to us, yet it’s these albeit abhorrent threats from our human enemies that absorb our collective imagination. The gathering environmental storm we have stoked is emotionally neutralised by what Sachs describes as the “internationalisation of indifference”. The evidence is that our indifference will kill us – or, at least, our children.

The problem is that climate change doesn’t have a face; we can’t anthropomorphise the forces of flood and drought. What’s more, there are plenty of corporate interests that want to prevent the majority of us from visualising the symbols and narratives that reflect the existential threat that climate change poses.

That’s because much of the ‘elite’ doesn’t like what combatting climate change implies: the need for co-operation. The financial and corporate elite is too sold on its own symbols of status. It doesn’t like to think we humans are inter-dependent, because that would imply a moral imperative to reduce inequality.

And this is the point: human consciousness – the ‘reality’ we feel and believe – is nothing but a social and emotional construction. We inhabit a world of symbols and narratives, most of which are supplied ready-made by media and advertising executives. History shows that disaster ensues when the emotional and symbolic universe we inhabit becomes detached from the physical reality of living on a finite planet. Unfortunately, this is where we are today.

In other words, thanks to the all-pervading, multi-billion dollar infrastructure of ‘reality maintenance’, unprecedented in human history, we are repeating exactly the same terrible mistakes of previous civilisations – only, this time, on a global scale. We’ll have nowhere to escape when the proverbial really hits the fan.

Yesterday’s Question Time was but a microcosm of the consciousness straightjacket that political discourse is confined within. Worse reality distortion happens elsewhere – just watch Fox News on an average day.

But unless we somehow wake up to the terrible environmental debt we have created, then all we are doing is robbing and lying to our children, as well as ourselves. Without a stable climate, there will be no economy, period.

We need to deconstruct the entire set of institutions and belief systems that maintain our unreal and unsustainable lives, along with the interests that seek to enforce them. We need to repudiate the view that trade is sacrosanct whatever the cost. And we need to embark on this soon.

You won’t hear such things uttered on Question Time, but anything less and we’re surely signing our own death certificate.

Hilary Benn’s speech was a victory of style over substance

 

screen shot 2015-12-02 at 6.08.15 pm.png

Shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn made what was, by widespread consent, an extremely powerful speech in support of bombing ISIS targets in Syria to conclude the marathon Commons debate on Wednesday.

According to most parliamentarians, it was one of the great speeches of recent times, and Benn junior has been lauded by commentators across the political spectrum – particularly in the right-wing press – for his stirring efforts.

And his evocation of Labour’s internationalist traditions in support of military action against ISIS “fascism” has marked him out in some quarters as the party’s leader in waiting.

But for all his craft, the drama and his obvious betrayal of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Hilary Benn’s speech failed to answer some pretty basic questions.

Benn failed to give any idea as to what would happen after the bombing stops. He didn’t give us a clue as to what the bombing would actually achieve, other than it would hider the free movement of ISIS fighters.

He didn’t acknowledge any misjudgement in supporting Tony Blair’s ill-conceived war in Iraq – a war that created the conditions under which ISIS would eventually thrive.

If ever there is an illustration of how the British political establishment can be so mesmerised by style over substance, then this is surely it.

Of course, the right-wing press lapped it up, particularly Dan Hodges in The Daily Terrorist – sorry, Telegraph – who described Benn as not only a real Labour leader, but as a future prime minister.

Such hyperbole is par for the course: The Terrorist will take any and every opportunity to undermine Corbyn. But even some on the Left praised it as a powerful, impassioned and intellectually rigorous performance akin to Robin Cook’s speech in opposition to the Iraq war in 2003.

However, by alluding to Britain’s comparatively distant victory over fascism in Europe, instead of its recent role in the Middle East, Benn seems to be attempting to claim ownership of Labour’s democratic traditions for himself and joined the media’s routine rubbishing of Corbyn.

In doing so, the shadow foreign secretary seems to have turned his back on the political inheritance from his own father. Tony Benn believed that those who fail to understand their mistakes are fated to repeat them. It seems his son is at risk of doing just that.

In voting with David Cameron, Benn junior ignored the failure of post-war reconstruction and state-building in Iraq that created the power vacuum into which ISIS poured. Put in those terms, his talk of humanitarianism and international solidarity seems horribly naïve. It’s a backstory that damns his analysis.

No one disagrees that ISIS is a murderous blot on the face of humanity, but Hilary Benn avoided any honest reflection on how it came into being and the wider agenda of Western involvement in the Middle East.

It can easily be argued, for instance, that ISIS is a product of Western policy – and by Western, I primarily mean the US and its closest allies, such as the UK. Hilary Benn has a track record of supporting that policy from the moment he supported Blair’s war in Iraq.

Only occasionally does the West take military action where it has no underlying strategic interest. But the very strong suspicion is that the US has not bombed ISIS effectively over the last year because it was happy for an insurgency to destroy the Assad regime.

So while the West does not condone Daesh’s enforcement of sex slavery, the dumping of older, less sexually-interesting women in mass graves, or the savage murder of anyone that isn’t as mad as it is, the terror and disruption ISIS spread across Syria seemed to serve a ‘useful’ purpose.

Even after it was obvious that ISIS had taken American munitions and military equipment that its forces had left behind in Iraq, the US kept funding, training and arming the anti-Assed Free Syrian Army. But most of the money and weaponry the US has supplied it over the last year have ended up in ISIS’ hands, along with the fighters who defected.

So what is the West’s underlying purpose here? Well, the cynics among us might put it this way: which Middle Eastern nation has the largest unexploited oilfield? Answer: Iraq. Which Middle Eastern nation has the second-largest unexploited oilfield? Answer: Syria. What links these two nations, other than a common border? Answer: the West has destabilised both.

Assad is a brutal dictator – no one disputes that. But the West tends to ignore the grotesque human rights abuses of its strategic partners, a point that Robin Cook made in his resignation speech. Saudi Arabia and Israel are given a relatively free ride. In fact, Hilary Benn recently criticised the BDS movement against Israel’s theft and genocide. So much for internationalism and the fight against fascism.

So, it would appear that Hilary Benn is happy for Britain to wage yet another ill-defined, probably unending, morally-dubious war that has at its root the Western need for oil, a topic that his father was often very exercised about, and protecting the petrodollar. Western oil interests – and especially US oil interests – have long wanted a pliant Syrian government, but Assad wouldn’t play ball. Those interests are keen on reopening and constructing new oil pipelines across Syria to the Mediterranean coast. A regime change agenda has helped create the conditions that allowed ISIS to thrive, and now the citizens of Raqqa are paying the price.

ISIS must be destroyed, but Britain’s involvement as currently defined by David Cameron is unlikely to achieve this. Those who voted against the government on Wednesday are right to argue that beating ISIS must be a truly international effort that includes significant numbers on the ground from its neighbours if it is to work and be seen to be legitimate.

Until that happens, those like Hilary Benn who plant their flag on the moral high ground should be treated with suspicion. If human rights was really an issue worth fighting for, the West would be challenging the Saudis over their bombing of Yemen and their beheading of dissidents. Instead, Britain has entered another murky theatre dominated by oil and a set of warring factions that the West has helped to create. Don’t let Hilary Benn’s fine words about democratic values and internationalism persuade you otherwise.

Thanet’s mercy missionaries find Calais refugees clinging to shreds of hope

refugees

“I don’t want to stay here because they’re horrible people. They’re horrible to us. They try to make our lives difficult – as if it’s not difficult enough. You English, you’re so kind. Are all people like that in England?”

Such was the recurring message that confronted Paula Erol at the makeshift refugee camp known as The Jungle, outside Calais, earlier this month (November).

She described a camp increasingly cut off from the outside world and patrolled by riot police “dressed like Transformers”. They block access and mount dispersal operations with the apparent intention of reducing its 6,000-strong population by two thirds.

The refugees’ view of the UK couldn’t contrast more starkly. While the French police fire stun grenades, rubber bullets and water canon to contain them, what relatively little comfort they do enjoy is largely thanks to British donors.

“That’s the impression they get,” said Paula. “Someone said to me: ‘Loads of English people come over to help us and they’re really kind.’ I didn’t want to burst his bubble. ‘The people are, yes,’ I said. ‘But the politics, no.’”

Paula, from Broadstairs, was one of a collection of Thanet people who have launched appeals for food, clothing, sleeping bags, shoes and other goods over the last few months and crossed the Channel to distribute them among The Jungle’s inhabitants.

She was joined on the trip earlier this month (November) by fellow Broadstairs residents Joyce Edling and Aram Rawf, who himself escaped war-torn Iraq with thousands of other Kurdish refugees.

What they saw was a mass of people from a variety of unstable and/or impoverished, mainly African and Middle Eastern nations who now face increasing political hostility, in addition to institutional isolation, in France.

Their actions belie the fact that just a few short months ago, Thanet looked likely to become Nigel Farage’s political bridgehead for UKIP’s anti-immigration, anti-EU message.

In a journal about her visit, Joyce wrote: “The Jungle is exactly how I imagined it would be: mainly scruffy tents and tarpaulins inhabited by desperate people, trying to make the best of their situation. The rain did nothing to enhance the appearance. Indeed, we were walking ankle-deep through mud.”

Last Friday’s ISIS attack on Paris has darkened the political climate further, raising the likelihood of a backlash against the refugees, even though it was such cold-blooded brutality that drove many of them to Calais in the first place.

“It’s moving how they get on and have a life,” Paula said. “People sitting around cooking together, making coffee together, children playing. Obviously, they’re not happy there but what choice do they have?

“The general atmosphere on the camp is stoic and friendly. I said ‘morning’ to everybody I passed, whether they looked or smiled at me or not, and I always got a good response. People always responded with a smile.”

Until recently, it was possible to rock up in a van to help out and deliver donations directly to The Jungle. However, in recent months, the French authorities have restricted access to only volunteers issued with passes, and even this limited contact with the outside world is under threat.

So now, the constant stream of donations are delivered to ‘The Warehouse’, a short distance away. Its location is not widely publicised to avoid far-right groups from targeting it – both the English Defence League and Pegida have been active in Calais.

With the exception of Médecins Sans Frontières and Doctors of the World, there are no recognised non-governmental organisations (NGOs) managing the site. Instead, Paula, Joyce and Rawf arranged access with a non-profit solidarity organisation working on the ground. They were emailed details of where and when to turn up, as well as the times of the briefings at which volunteers can choose which of the day’s projects to be involved in.

But despite the lack of NGOs, what system there is seems to function well.

Aram speaks Kurdish, Arabic and Farsi, and spent his time working as an interpreter. He was so busy that, once there, his compatriots barely saw him during their stay. Meanwhile, Paula and Joyce spent their first day helping to sort donations in The Warehouse, before they participated in cleaning and other projects on the camp itself.

“We unpacked the car and shared a cup of coffee with some friendly helpers,” wrote Joyce in a journal about her experiences there. “About 20 volunteers were sorting through a colossal mountain of clothes in cartons and bin-liners. The task looked unsurmountable.

“The variety of articles was astonishing. How could people imagine that DVDs, stiletto heels and electric toothbrushes could be useful for refugees living at best in tents and at worst in the open air?

“Having said that, there was a simply amazing amount of fantastic clothing, a lot of which seemed quite new or hardly ever worn.”

The following day, Joyce and Paula reported to The Warehouse for the 9am briefing. “We stood round in a circle [for] a sort of yoga session to loosen us up,” wrote Joyce. “We are really impressed by the organisation here. No one seems to be in charge and there is no real rota as such, but somehow it all works.”

They joined around 40 volunteers for yet more sorting, among them Jeff, who had travelled to Calais all the way from San Francisco. Then it was off to help the various communities clean their area of the camp, and leave gloves, bin bags, sanitation gel and litter pickers so they can manage it themselves.

“This was our first introduction to the camp’s inhabitants,” wrote Joyce. “At one point, I heard a shout ‘Hellooooo!’ I turned round and there was such a sweet little Kurdish girl, about four years old, who then launched into helping us with great gusto. Another girl about the same age joined in. The innocence of children! They thought it was a fun game.”

Joyce said she found the work “back-breaking, even though it doesn’t involve any hard labour at all”. And Paula definitely agreed: “We were so busy that we were totally and utterly knackered by the end of each day.”

Shoes are in great demand on the camp. Many of The Jungle’s inhabitants struggle around in flip-flops or walk the unforgiving, muddy terrain with their heels sticking out of shoes that are far too small.

Said Paula: “On the Friday morning, we sorted in The Warehouse before doing the clean-up. We were advised to take a shopping list if we saw anything that people needed, and to liaise with the communities to see if there was anything they wanted us to bring back.

“We came back with a shopping list of mainly shoes – they’re desperately in need of shoes. The next day, we sorted for another hour or two and made up our shopping list and went back to give them out. We went to visit the women’s centre, because we had a big box of Lego to donate, but Saturday was ‘beauty day’. I’m a masseur, so I got nabbed and spent the rest of the day giving massages to about 14 women. That was exhausting.

“On the Sunday, we took as many shoes as we could carry into the camp, but they were quickly gone. We were surrounded by people needing shoes. We wrote down people’s names and their shoe sizes and went back to The Warehouse, did some sorting and arranged to give them out at the water tap [on the camp].

“But, of course, people saw us carrying the bags through the camp, so they followed us. When we reached the tap, not everyone had turned up, so there were maybe eight pairs of shoes left. Lots of the people who had followed us wanted shoes, but how do you decide who gets a pair?

“You look around at this sea of faces and say ‘what size are you?’ They say ‘42’ and, as you get them out, there’s eight hands all trying to grab them.

“At one point, two guys grabbed one pair tied together with their laces and they were struggling. One of them was really angry.

“At the end of it, there were plenty of people who didn’t get. At one point I said: ‘Guys, guys, if it was possible, I’d open a shoe shop for you all.’ That kind of diffused the atmosphere. Some people laughed and tempers calmed, and some people came up and said ‘you’re really kind, thank you very much’.

“It was horrible to see people reduced to scuffling over something as simple as a pair of shoes.”

Both Paula and Joyce stress that the shoe incident was rather out of keeping with the rest of their time there, during which the desire for basic human dignity was clearly in evidence.

Said Paula: “As we were coming away from the shoe debacle, a couple of guys approached Joyce and said ‘I’ve got a €500 note, can you change it for me?’ She tried to give him a €250 note, but he just refused it. He was adamant he didn’t want it. He kept saying: ‘My friend, I just want change, please.’

“I’m sure a lot of British people think they’re criminals and crooks that would stab you in the back as soon as look at you, but even when someone tried to give him €250, he did not accept it.

“There might have been some cultural thing about taking money from a woman, but I think that was just stunningly admirable. He might not have been poor – after all, many of them have sold businesses and houses, and have left good jobs, cars and the rest of it.”

As if to emphasise the point, Paula and Joyce met Abdul Rahman, a linguist and university professor in his previous, more settled life. He helped them carry the bags of shoes, and insisted on being called by his first and last name.

“That really impressed me because, in the midst of all this crap, his loss of status – his loss of everything – he was holding onto his dignity,” said Paula.

“When Joyce and I were leaving the camp, he caught up with us again and thanked us for the shoes and for doing the distribution. I said to him: ‘Do you try to get on the lorries, Abdul Rahman?’ He said yes. And, I asked, if you get to Dover, what next? He said: ‘I don’t know.’”

The UK’s tightening border controls and the calls for reprisals against ISIS from the West makes this a particularly testing time for the refugees. Trying to maintain any hope of finding a better life – currently defined as getting inside or clinging to lorries and trains long enough to cross the Channel – is proving difficult.

The French police are becoming ever more punitive, not only when they catch a refugee near the ferry port or the Channel Tunnel, but also in The Jungle itself.

Joyce described how the police caught a teenage boy near the tunnel. They confiscated his shoes, so he had to walk bare-footed back to the camp. Next time, the officers told him, they would also take his trousers.

Encouraged by the sense that Britons are a generous breed, the bulk of the refugees still doggedly cling to the hope for a lucky break – if only because there appears to be no alternative.

Said Paula: “They’re very aware that it’s getting harder to get into the UK. Some Sudanese guys we met were upbeat, but they were saying ‘yes, I want to get to the UK, but I don’t think it’s going to happen’.”

Joyce also wrote: “I never cease to be astonished at the strength of the human spirit. So many people I met are doing so much to make the most of their miserable existence in the squalor. It is moving beyond belief.

“Along with this experience is my pride at all the help and support that so many from the UK are giving – from ordinary people to churches, schools, ex-army officers and charity organisations. The enormous mountains of clothes and food, the many vans which turn up loaded every day from all parts of the UK, the commitment of so many wonderful volunteers. It made me (uncharacteristically) proud to be British.

“One of the few French people there said he was ashamed at the paucity of helpers and donations from France. No wonder the refugees tell me – often with tears in their eyes – that they love the English.”

  • This article first appeared on Thanet Watch on November 19, 2015.

Current priorities

List created and updated weekly by L’Auberge + Help Calais

  1. Pre-made identical food parcels. For further information, please see this list.
  2. Volunteers – especially if you can stay longer than a day or two. Please complete the form for new volunteers or returning volunteers.
  3. Blankets
  4. Warm, four seasons sleeping bags
  5. Tents (preferably four-man or larger)
  • Tarpaulins
  • Sleeping mats
  • Firewood
  • Fire extinguishers (smaller, kitchen size – powder or foam)
  • Wind up or solar torches and lanterns – nothing that requires an electricity supply or batteries
  • Men’s waterproof walking boots with high ankle and trainers – especially sizes 42 and 43
  • Women’s boots or shoes up to size 39. No heels
  • Warm, waterproof winter jackets
  • Socks
  • Underwear – men’s, women’s and children’s
  • Goody bags of hats, gloves and scarves
  • Men’s jogging bottoms or jeans, especially black, from sizes 28 to 36
  • Flat pack cardboard boxes (size 60x40x32.5 or 90x60x48)
  • Builders
  • Building materials, including wood, nails, rope and tools

If you are taking any building materials or have building skills you’d like to put to good use, please email: calaisbuild@gmail.com.

  • Pallets

 

How to organise donated goods

Try to concentrate on one or two items as a large amount of one item is much quicker and easier to distribute than a mixed load of many items.

It is very important that goods are clean, pre-sorted and clearly labelled – for instance, a box of walking boots size 44, a bag of men’s jeans size 32 or pre-packaged food parcels.

If you want to be a real star, then the best box sizes are 60x40x32.5 or 90x60x48

 

How to donate

To deliver aid to The Warehouse and/or to arrange distribution in the camp with the support of experienced volunteers, please complete this form.

If you have any questions, please email them to calaisdonations@gmail.com.

Picture: Refugees with placards stating their name and where they want to end up. That was used by CalAid, the non-profit organisation.