During the debate caused by the recent hijacking of a British airliner to a Middle East airstrip, the Daily Telegraph published a delightful letter. It was, like a lot of the Telegraph’s correspondence column, the work of a military man. Its main point was that the Arab guerillas were cowards — full of bounce when dealing with women and children but how would they fare against men!
This rather quaint argument is typical, in its way, of the idea we are fed with from an early age — the idea that there are absolute standards which can be identified as Right on the one hand and Wrong on the other and by which we can conduct our lives. It is ironical, but unexceptional, that the very people who promote this idea are themselves so ready to modify it when it suits them to.
One example of this is in the matter of international trading. The present, capitalist, social system is made up of a host of separate states which, as states, operate in the accepted and necessary way of capitalism. They try to sell the products of their industries to each other; they compete with each other. At times this competition is represented as healthy, productive, necessary.
In this country, as we have all seen so many times during recent times, it is considered a major triumph when British goods are sold successfully abroad; there is no hero like an export salesman who wins an order from a foreign buyer, especially if he is bidding against competition from traditional trading rivals like the Germans and the Japanese. But when this situation is reversed — when firms abroad succeed in capturing a market, or even a part of a market, in this country — it is a different matter.
The motor car industry, for one. is at the moment very anxious about the threat from foreign imports. As the Volkswagens. the Renaults and the Fiats come rolling ashore, the British car makers do not sing ecstatic praises to the purifying joys of competition. Instead, they assert bitterly that British cars are the best in the world and that anyone buying a car in this country should exercise patriotic discrimination in favour of the British-made product. They talk of threats from foreign imports, as if each imported car were some virulent microbe which may destroy us all. To the car firms, as to all exporters, exporting is fine, provided it is all in one direction.
This type of attitude is not confined to British firms. In recent years America has been one of the world’s most aggressive and successful exporters. In one way or another American exports have dominated many important international markets — for example in long-range jet aircraft, where no other country gets a look-in. But when the flow seems likely to be reversed, when industries abroad seem to be a threat to American firms, how does Washington react? They do not welcome it. Here are two reports from The Guardian, which illustrate this; the first (5 November) is about an American protest at action aimed at hampering their exports:
The Nixon Administration issued an unusually tough statement tonight expressing displeasure and concern that Britain’s new agricultural levy system threatened to affect American grain exports worth £40 millions a year . . . This protest, hinting at the possibility of a trade war. was being interpreted here today as evidence of the Administration’s growing suspicion of the Common Market’s price support system towards which Britain has now taken an initial step.
The second, from an earlier (7 October) issue, gives details of a Bill going through Congress which seeks to protect American industry from foreign imports:
The Bill proposes quotas on US imports of textiles and footwear, which in themselves account for only £5 millions of British exports. But there is also a “trigger” mechanism which could lead to anti-import action by the US on 120 items ranging from ceramic tiles to bicycles and cars in cases where imports have more than 15 per cent of the market.
The Americans, of course, have upset many people in Britain with some spectacular take-over operations. A large part of the car industry is American owned and this has been a source of anger to many a patriotic worker in Luton and Dagenham. But these same workers can have no objection in principle to one country investing in another, else why do they not grow angry about the British money which is sunk in production abroad and which British troops have so often been sent to defend? The argument which raged a few years ago over the presence of British forces in the Persian Gulf area was really about the stake which the capitalist class of Britain had there. They owned about one third of the oil production in the Gulf, with investments worth in 1967 about £900 millions.
Little wonder, that under capitalism war and oil are almost synonymous terms. And when a country goes to war we are confronted with yet another example of double-think, when its propaganda machine puts out the idea that whatever atrocities are committed (nobody seems to doubt that there will be some) will be the work of the other side. Because in war “our” side is made up of people like the boy next door, our own brothers and fathers, no one is too eager to believe that they could be involved in acts which are readily attributed to the other side. For a person to uncover and denounce any barbarous acts by his own side takes great courage and persistence and in any case has to meet a general assumption that the “enemy” is less than human and is, therefore, not too sensitive or needing consideration.
Such double standards have been freely used during the recent hijackings, which we have already mentioned, and when the FLQ
in Canada carried out their kidnapping of Quebec Minister of Labour Laporte
and the British diplomat Cross
. In all these cases, people were held as hostages while their captors demanded some political concessions. This loosed off torrents of advice to the governments concerned, usually from those whose lives were not in any danger, not to give way to the threats (the hostages probably thought differently about the morals and the tactics of the affair.)
At the same time the captors were described as cowards, brutes, blackmailers and worse. It is true that there were the customary elements of ruthlessness in these events. In particular the killing of Laporte was a chilling business. In the same way, if the guerillas had blown up the aircraft with all its passengers, as seemed possible at one time, that would have been a horrifying act.
But none of this should obscure certain facts. The men who carried out these escapades displayed characteristics which, in different circumstances, are glorified. All of them are devoted patriots ; they are determined, even ruthless ; they arc brave enough to pull off a daring exploit and to take the consequences. Anyone who committed similar atrocities in the name of British capitalism would be hailed over here as a hero, decorated, almost canonised.
In the last war there was an extensive guerilla system on the Continent, working against the German occupation. The underground fighters were responsible for all manner of sabotage, murder, disruption. Sometimes they did something knowing that it would call down a reprisal in which their own side would suffer out of all proportion to the damage they did to the Germans. In all this they were supported by the Allies, whose official propaganda emphasised only their courage and the savagery of the reprisals.
The Allied policy of support for the guerillas did not always pay off. In Yugoslavia they backed Tito’s men only to find after the war that they had done much to set up a hostile regime. Since then, of course, the alignments of world capitalism have changed somewhat. This has not happened in other cases; for example in Indo-China. where the Ho Chi Minh guerillas were supported during the war and then, soon after the cease fire, were double-crossed with the help of Japanese troops. That was a long time before the name of Vietnam came to mean a bloodshed obviously useless, apparently endless.
Ho Chi Minh never came to be accepted by the rulers of the Western capitalist powers although there is reason to think that in time he would have been. It is a common experience, for yesterday’s hated bogeymen to change into today’s honourable leaders and fellow bargainers. They have only to go over, from one side of thieves to the other. We saw this happen to De Valera, who was once under sentence of death for his anti-British activities. More recently there have been Nkrumah, Makarios
Perhaps it is more accurate to describe these examples not as double dealing but as treble, quadruple, inexhaustible . . . The guerillas of the Middle East and the kidnappers of the FLQ are wildly, tragically misled, as were the lrgun Zwei Leumi
in post-war Palestine. as were the EOKA in Cyprus in the Fifties. All such movements are devoted to the idea that they are struggling for humane, useful ends; in truth they are seeking to replace a ruling class of one nationality by one of another nationality. And as we have seen in Ghana. Israel, Cyprus, Kenya, that is not something worth struggling for, certainly not worth killing for.
What it comes down to is the guerillas and the FLQ differ only slightly, if at all, from those who denounce them from the other side. Capitalism misuses and perverts human qualities like courage and loyalty. By consistent standards these should be recognised for what they are but here again capitalism distorts and denies. The social system which prates about bravery makes cowards of us all.