The attacks in Norway weren't an attack on us all

We should not turn Norway's shattered buildings and shrouded bodies into a party political broadcast

Horror, yes. Shock, yes. But also relief. Relief that we had no need for caveats. Calls for historic perspective or dialogue, or remembrance of the fallen innocents on the other side. The massacre in Norway could be condemned unequivocally.

Anders Behring Breivik is the right's Angel of Death. His act of barbarity perpetrated with brutal political clarity. A Labour prime minister, Labour government and a Labour youth camp his targets.

But as the slaughter was unfolding we still hadn't encountered that cold, blue eyed stare. Initial reports indicated an attack in response to Norway's interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Labour MP Tom Harris, responding, predicted on Twitter that "we'll still have the apologists for terrorism saying it was caused by "foreign policy" or by "disrespect to the Prophet."

Harris was wrong about the terrorists' identity and motives. But the apologists rushed forward nontheless. "You have a better chance of a wet floor killing you than an Islamist", tweeted Dr Eoin Clarke, founder of GEER, the new Gender, Environment, Equality and Race think-tank. "Hamas have a mandate better than the Tories", was a follow up intervention. That's the same Hamas that launched a rocket attack on Israeli schoolchildren in April. I tried to find Dr Clarke's condemnation of that attack, but couldn't.

On Utoya people were scrambling for their lives. Across the UK elements of the left were scrambling for their Twitter feeds. "Solidarity", was a favoured response to cold blooded murder. In reply to the initial bombing, author Owen Jones took the opportunity to point out that "working class Norwegians have just been slaughtered". Of the dead and dying of the Norwegian middle and upper classes there was no word. The BBC was condemned for describing Utoya island as a "summer camp". The attack was a "political crime". Not to report it as such was to "diminish" the young Labour members targeted.

By morning, the death toll had risen to 90. And empathy turned to appropriation. We had witnessed a "political act". It would be "madness not to draw political conclusions considering politics". Political points "should be made". The victims had been "killed for their politics by a political activist". It was important to defend "people's right to use the language of solidarity when a right-wing extremist targeted young socialists".

I was in the hall at Labour conference when the relative of one of the victims of the Dunblane massacre spoke of her campaign to introduce a total ban on handguns. It was silent, save for the sound of grown men and women crying. There was no political connection. Or motive to the crime. We cried anyway.

That night I was telephoned by a friend of mine who has no interest in politics. That moment had been shown on the television news. "I didn't think your lot were like that", he said.

He didn't mean he thought we were heartless monsters. Just that we had too often let our politics obscure our humanity.

It's important to put some of the responses to the Norwegian attacks in perspective. Many of those responding on Twitter are themselves still young. And you cannot fully appreciate the horror of a child's murder until you have children of your own.

But there is something wrong when someone's initial reaction to the scenes from Oslo is to reach for an expression of political solidarity, rather than one of basic sympathy. And we have been here before. The shooter of Democratic Senator Gabrielle Giffords and nineteen bystanders hadn't even been charged before some on the left were rushing to place the blame squarely at the door of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.

This isn't just a matter of poor taste. There are massive issues raised by the events in Norway. If we feel a need to tackle the radicalization of Muslim youth then we clearly have to examine the influences that set Oslo's Timothy McVeigh on his own murderous rampage. If we wish to focus on the threats posed by domestic terrorism then we clearly have to ensure our efforts and resources are focused across all our communities. And we need to examine which "preachers of hate" had Anders Behring Breivik's ear.

But none of this will be achieved by turning Norway's shattered buildings and shrouded bodies into a party political broadcast. The dignity of Jens Stoltenberg and his pledge to fight back with "more democracy and more humanity" stands on its own. It doesn't require cheap comparisons with David Cameron or George W Bush.

Nor will it be addressed by retreating into moral relativism. Far right terrorists; barbarians. Palestinian terrorists; freedom fighters. Irish Republican and Loyalist terrorists; folk heroes. Al-Qaeda terrorists; by-products of US neo-conservatism.

The attacks in Norway weren't an attack on us all. They were an attack on 80 children who went on a camping trip and never came home. Let us mourn for them. But please, let's not grasp for the tragedy and the horror, and try to claim it as our own.

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New Times: Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

The mustering of Bernie’s and Donald’s armies, along with the Brexit vote, may signify the end of the neoliberal world order which has ruled since the 1980s. So what next?

The economic crisis of 2008 looks more and more like a pivot in world history. The worst possibilities of that moment did not materialise: global financial structures did not melt down, and a decade-long great depression did not ensue. But the consequences in Europe have been wrenching all the same: a severe recession followed by long stretches of achingly slow growth; billions of euros expended on bailouts of banks and national governments; a regime of barely relieved austerity imposed on all of Europe by a coalition of conservative ruling parties in Germany and Britain, the most powerful countries in Europe. And, worst of all, a sense within Europe that the EU and much of what it stood for – regimes of free trade and free movement of people orchestrated by only partially accountable governments in Brussels and Strasbourg – were no longer working well enough.

Since 2008, it has become clear that the EU has produced economic winners and losers, the lines running not only between different regions of Europe – north v south, Germans v Greeks – but between different regions of the same country. British citizens in England’s globally dynamic south—London writ large – voted in overwhelming numbers to remain, while those in the country’s left-behind north voted by equal margins to leave.

The sorting out of winners and losers in the globalisation process has been under way for a long time, of course: since the Thatcher revolution. But in the sunny Blairite days it was possible to believe that everyone would be a winner. That belief became unsustainable after 2008. The economic crash discredited the Blairites, and disoriented the Labour Party.

One of the most stunning features of the EU referendum campaign was the failure of a party of Europe to materialise in England, inside or outside the Labour Party. Where, south of the Scottish border, were the 100,000-person-strong marches for Europe, with EU flags flying? Where could one hear the soaring speeches articulating the principles of the EU and extolling its achievements? Why is it so impossible to imagine singing a European anthem with the capacity to arouse internationalist solidarity in the manner that the “Marseillaise” and “Internationale” once did?

This absence had partly to do with the peculiarities of British politics: Labour was led by a Eurosceptic, the Tories by a man in thrall to his party’s Brexit wing. The 2015 general election, meanwhile, had wiped the Liberal Democrats, the last true British believers (along with the Scottish National Party) in the European idea, off the electoral map. But these particularities are symptomatic in their own right of something more fundamental – a conviction that the EU regime was creating too many losers. This conviction has been convulsing politics not only in Britain but also across Europe.

Populisms of the left and right have been surging everywhere, imperilling mainstream parties perceived to be facilitators of the EU status quo. Similar forces have been roiling politics outside the EU, too. The emergence in the United States of the leftist Bernie Sanders and the reactionary Donald Trump, both animated by anti-globalisation politics, mirrors closely the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage in Britain.

Trump has received the lion’s share of attention in Britain, while Sanders has been largely ignored. But Sanders’s achievements were considerable: he won 23 of the 57 Democratic Party primaries and caucuses, attracted 13 million (43 per cent) of the 30 million Democratic votes cast, and raised $230m, almost entirely from small donations averaging a mere $27 apiece. None of these feats was enough to defeat Hillary Clinton, but Sanders’s impressive showing pulled the Democratic Party and Clinton to the left. Sanders has reintroduced the word “socialism” to US politics after a 70-year period when, in effect, it had been banned. His campaign rallies frequently drew more than 10,000 wildly enthusiastic fans, most of them young and white, eager to see, hear and touch this most unlikely of rock stars – a dishevelled, 74-year-old Brooklynite, awkwardly jabbing his finger in the air and calling for revolution. His charisma was as odd as it was unmistakable.

The same could be said of Trump, whose rallies were also large and passionate. Both men shared something beyond magnetism: fury at a regime of global free trade seen as undermining the American working man and woman while advantaging powerful corporations and the political parties that service their needs. Yet Sanders, unlike Trump, refuses to blame immigrants or minorities for America’s misfortune; and he loathes Trump’s strongman tendencies. In the 2016 election, left-wing and right-wing populists have been worlds apart. But they both espouse a belief that elites have rigged economics and politics in a manner that disadvantages ordinary Americans.

The mustering of Bernie’s and Donald’s armies, along with the Brexit vote, may signify that the neoliberal world order which has ruled since the 1980s and since the collapse of the Soviet Union is beginning to unravel. If this is indeed what is happening, there is no way that it is going to unfold in an orderly manner. Nor will its future be decided in Britain alone. The many national elections in European countries in the next year and a half, as well as the one in the US, are going to influence the process profoundly. A lot is at stake. If the left is going to play a role in this process, it must find its voice and develop a programme.

What is to be done?

First, in Britain, Tory-dominated plans for Brexit must be fought vigorously and on multiple fronts. The large demonstrations in London and other cities on 3 September were an encouraging sign. They should be repeated on the first Saturday of every month for the next two years.

This is not to challenge the legitimacy of the Brexit vote – too late for that – but to show the Tories how mobilised and determined the pro-European, pro-left voices in Britain are. A social movement of this sort can influence negotiations with the EU, and can shape the manner in which Brexit will occur.

So much about the EU itself is up in the air. In 12 months, after a bevy of European elections, even a modification of Schengen coming from the heart of Europe, in the form of emergency brakes on migration at times of stress, may become thinkable. There may well be a form of “Brexit” that a pro-European British left can accept and one that a British working class can embrace. All the more reason for a left to identify and promote it.

Second, the left must begin to imagine a different kind of world order, one in which equality has greater purchase than is common in the order in which we now live. The EU has excelled in promoting one kind of equality: an equality of human rights grounded in a commitment to the dignity of every person, irrespective of national origin, religion, or race. But it has not done nearly so well narrowing the economic inequality between classes, regions, or nations. This will not be accomplished easily, especially in an international polity transcending the nation state where the critical political institution that once enabled a broad redistribution of economic resources to occur – a parliament truly representative of the people – has yet to emerge. But developing this sort of vision, and devising a remedy for the EU’s democratic deficit, is precisely the kind of intellectual and political project that
a left worth its salt must engage with.

Third, Jeremy Corbyn is not the man to lead the British left to this future. He is a good man, steadfast in his principles. He deserves credit for bringing hundreds of thousands of new members into the Labour Party. But at this crucial juncture of British history – the most important since 1945 – he has repeatedly proved himself unable to move beyond positions he embraced in the 1980s, to rise above the infighting in his party, and to articulate a programme that can grasp the significance of this moment. 

Gary Gerstle is the Mellon Professor of American History at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times