1980s >> 1988 >> no-1002-february-1988

Running Commentary: It’s the greatest

As Ronald Reagan’s autocue prompts him to tell us, America is the greatest country in the world. It is the Land of the Free, awash with good living — where someone can rise from barefoot log-cabin poverty to become rich, famous and powerful; where even an actor playing second fiddle to Errol Flynn can be elected President. What a place to live.

At this point a recalcitrant autocue might begin to flash up a few facts about America which Reagan either doesn’t know about or doesn’t care to consider. For example there is the report, published last December, of a group of 23 doctors who found that for a significant number of Americans prosperity is a sick joke and freedom a choice between different adjustments of their destitution.

Describing it as an “epidemic of malnourishment”, the report said that 20 million Americans now suffer from hunger. Nearly 14 per cent of the population live at or below the official poverty line, with the conditions worsening according to skin colour. For whites the percentage is 11; for Hispanics 27.3; for Blacks 31.1.

Even in sunny California — the home of so many good things American like Hollywood, oranges, smog and Reagan himself — the doctors found 3.6 million people existing within the definition of poverty, with ten per cent relying on regular food relief from charities. As hundreds of thousands of Californians can’t afford to consult a doctor when they are ill. the infant mortality rate there is rising for the first time in 20 years.

Of course this account, grim though it is. is not nearly so bad as those of people in other parts of the world, where mass famine regularly wipes out millions every year (which is perhaps why Reagan can make such extravagant claims for American lifestyles). But it represents a fairly typical sketch of working class life in an advanced capitalist state, where the excessive wealth of capitalists like Reagan stands in contrast to the most desperate and degrading deprivation.

When they are confronted with the stark facts about working class poverty — about slums, malnourishment. needless disease and death — the politicians’ conditioned response is a programme for a few financial re-arrangements like changes in state benefits or charitable grants. The apparent plausibility of such programmes is effectively undermined by the fact that poverty is persistent within capitalism and universal to it. Its degree will vary from time to time and from place to place but it is always present, always degrading, always repressing, always killing.

The reason for this is to be found in the basic nature of capitalist society, whose class division over the ownership of the means of life causes the majority to have only a limited access to wealth. At times this can mean a relatively genteel impoverishment. At others it can mean clinging to life at the most basic, essential level. This is the everyday experience of millions of workers throughout capitalism, including those who are so fondly addressed by Reagan as his “fellow Americans”. inhabitants of the greatest . . . Well, yes.

Revenge

Fearless fighters against terrorism, like Thatcher and Reagan, are agreed that the one effective way to wipe out the problem is to create the certainty of swift and complete repression. Send in the Marines, or the SAS or, in the face of some extreme outrage, get Thatcher to denounce it in the House.

Among the world’s most ardent practitioners of repression are the Israeli ruling class whose state, let it be remembered, was supposed to be founded on humane motives, forged in the Holocaust. Israel is now among the most powerful military states in the Middle East, with a reputation for dealing ruthlessly with anything it sees as a threat to its stability. This policy has brought about many bloody episodes and has been vented particularly harshly on the Palestinians for whom, it might be supposed, an Israeli government should have some fellow-feeling.

What has been the effect of this policy? Has it dissuaded potential guerrilla fighters? Can guerrilla terrorism be suppressed by officially sanctioned, state organised, terrorism?

In 1985 a group of Palestinian guerrillas made an apparently indiscriminate attack on people at Rome airport, throwing hand grenades and spraying the terminal with machine gun fire. They were opposed by Israeli and Italian security staff; it is not entirely clear — and does not matter — who fired first but what is not in dispute is that 16 people were killed and about 80 injured.

Last December one of the Palestinians — Mahmoud Ibrahim Khaled — was on trial in Rome for his part in the attack. Just turned 20 years old. Khaled expressed his remorse for the “gesture full of horror” and, in what was unlikely to be an influential part of his statement, told why he came to be at the airport on that awful day.

Khaled’s childhood was spent as a refugee, in a camp for displaced Palestinians where both his parents were killed in a raid by Israeli bombers. What did this experience teach him? Raised in conditions of the most fearsome deprivation and assault. Khaled’s defence was to become hardened into an easy prey to the delusions of Palestinian nationalism. In this, he was not unlike those other guerrillas who, many years ago, committed what were called acts of terrorism to make the case for an independent Jewish state. He joined what was intended to be a suicide squad to launch an indiscriminate massacre. It probably seemed a way of coping with the terrors and indignities he experienced every day of his young life. The Israelis who went in to attack the refugees certainly taught them a lesson — but it was not one they intended to teach them.

The fact that he now bitterly regrets what he did is not entirely to the point: “The sentence does not matter to me.” he wrote to the court in Rome. “. . . I expect nothing from life”.

Ideas are not to be eliminated through violence; the more likely response is counter-violence, if only in revenge. The people of the Middle East are suffering now under their appalling burden of fear and destruction, not because any of them are especially cruel or reckless but because there are huge, supranational investments absorbed in the mineral wealth and the strategic importance of the area. That is the problem to be dealt with if there are to be no more massacres and no more desperate young people for whom life is cheap because they expect nothing from it.

Celebration

Off the top of the head it is difficult to remember a time when CND thought there was anything to celebrate so it came as a jolt to see them dancing and breaking open the champagne to toast a more hopeful future for the human race. Plainly, something was up.

In the more sober morning after they might have taken a calmer look at the reason for their celebration — the INF treaty between Russia and America which promises, among other things, to remove Cruise missiles from Britain.

Well apart from the fact that this may eventually make the winding lanes of Berkshire and Cambridgeshire rather easier for civilians to use, was that anything to get happy about? By even the most sanguine of estimates, it is likely to be some years before the missiles leave Greenham Common and Molesworth.
Then there is the fact that such missiles are only a part of the nuclear powers’ armoury. There still exists the fearsome array of super weapons, which can virtually wipe out settled life on this planet in a day or two and render whoever and whatever survives in no state to carry on.
Another uncomfortable, but largely disregarded, fact is that the warheads are not to be destroyed because this is to all intents and purposes impossible. The delivery systems will be dismantled. leaving the knowledge and the productive techniques, as well as the motivation for their original production, intact.
And as we pointed out last month, the superpowers were soon at work seeking out ways of bridging any gaps the treaty might leave in their capacities to kill and destroy. Anyone who thinks that capitalist states easily and voluntarily surrender positions which they have expensively and painstakingly built up, over a long time, in opposition to each other suffers from a tendency for self- delusion which alcoholic celebration is likely to exacerbate.
In any case the worth of the INF treaty must be seen in its perspective. The history of capitalism is crammed with pacts which were solemnly signed only to be ignored. The Locarno Treaty of 1924 was seen as a cause for celebration because in a war weary Europe the powers committed themselves to keep the peace but come 1939 the signatories were at war with each other. The Russo-German pact of 1939 did not stop Germany invading Russia, nor Russia expecting the attack to happen. Signatories to the United Nations Charter consider themselves bound by it only when it suits their ruling class’ interests to be so. And so on.
There is no cause to invest any more hope in the INF treaty. No reason to dance, to quaff champagne in celebration. No cause to think that war, in whatever form, is less of a threat. No reason to be diverted from the work to abolish the cause of war the capitalist system whose ugliness is so aptly characterised in nuclear weapons.