The Iraq war and the left: ten years on

Alongside pro-war cheerleaders like Christopher Hitchens, were those who expressed honest doubt and ambiguity, such as Ian McEwan.

No event since the 1984 miners’ strike has divided the left more than the Iraq war. Friendships were ended, political reputations were destroyed and antagonists accused each other of betrayal. Few were more stridently supportive of the US-led invasion of what was once Mesopotamia than Christopher Hitchens. Because he was such a good writer and such a powerful rhetorician, and because he had disciples and followers and inspired lesser imitators, his influence became all pervasive during the run-up to the war and in its long, desperate aftermath. For a time, the “pro-war left” had momentum and even its own “Euston Manifesto” – and Hitchens was cheerleader-in-chief.

One of the best pieces I read on the eve of the invasion was by Ian McEwan, on the openDemocracy website, an anguished expression of honest doubt and ambiguity. “The hawks,” he wrote, “have my head, the doves my heart. At a push I count myself – just – in the camp of the latter. And yet my ambi - valence remains . . . One can only hope now for the best outcome: that the regime, like all dictatorships, rootless in the affections of its people, will crumble like a rotten tooth . . . and that the US, in the flush of victory, will find in its oilman’s heart the energy and optimism to begin to address the Palestinian issue. These are fragile hopes. As things stand, it is easier to conceive of innumerable darker possibilities.”

In the event, darkness prevailed as the state of Iraq, an artificial post-colonial construct held together by one man’s brutality, fragmented into sectarianism, suicide slaughter and chaos. Today, McEwan is among those liberal writers and intellectuals – one includes here the New Yorker journalists David Remnick and George Packer – who publicly regret supporting the war.

The only major writer I can think of who made the journey in reverse is the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. He opposed the invasion but then, several years later, following a visit to Iraq, wrote unequivocally in support of it: “All the suffering that the armed intervention has inflicted on the Iraqi people is small compared to the horror they suffered under Saddam Hussein.”

Saddam may be long dead, but the suffering goes on and surely nothing short of partition can ease the conflict between Kurds, Shias and Sunnis as the blood-dimmed tide washes over this desert land.

This is an extract from Jason Cowley's First Thoughts column, which appears in this week's issue of the New Statesman

Thousands of people march along the Embankment towards Hyde Park as they participate in an antiwar protest march February 15, 2003 in London, England. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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When the world seems dark and terrifying, we shouldn’t feel ashamed to dream of Utopia

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there.

There are many cruel and routine lies we tell to children but perhaps the most indicative is this: if you tell anyone your wish, it won’t come true. This parable was probably invented by parents trying to avoid the trauma of not being able to give their children what they want but we carry it with us to adulthood, when it is repeated to us by our leaders. Don’t tell anyone the sort of world you would like to see – at best you’ll be disappointed and at worst you’ll be arrested.

“We want more.” This week, exhausted by the news, I dragged myself out of the house to a book fair, where I came across a new collection of utopian fiction by radical women. That was the first line and it stopped my breath in my throat. When basic survival seems like a stretch goal, caught as we are between the rich and the rising seas, hope feels like an unaffordable luxury. The precise words I used to the bookseller were, “Shut up and take my money.”

There has never been a more urgent time for utopian ideas, precisely because the concept of a better world has never felt further away. Right now, world leaders are deciding how many cities are going to sink before something is done to reduce carbon emissions. They are meeting in Paris, which very recently saw the opening scene of a new act in everyone’s least favourite dramatic franchise, “War in the Middle East”. We seem to be living in a dystopian trilogy scripted by a sadistic young-adult author and I very much hope that our plucky young heroes show up to save the day soon, even if there’s a clunky love triangle involved.

Dystopias are easy to construct: to paraphrase the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, you might as well pick five news headlines at random, make a collage and there’s your plot. Utopias are harder. Utopias require that we do the difficult, necessary work of envisioning a better world. This is why imagination is the first, best weapon of radicals and progressives.

Utopian stories existed long before the word was coined by Thomas More in the 16th century to mean an ideal society, or “no-place”. Plato’s Republic has some claim to being the first but there are as many Utopias as there are communities that dreamed of a better life. The greatest age of utopian fiction was the turn of the last century and it is no accident that the early 21st century is a great age of dystopian fiction. The ideology of late-capitalist patriarchy has become so all-encompassing that it no longer looks like ideology. Fredric Jameson observed, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – and the reason for that is not that capitalism is the inevitable destiny of humankind but that we have spent our lives being told that even thinking about any other future makes us ridiculous.

Most leftists do have an idea of the sort of world they would prefer to see. We don’t say what we want for the same reason that we were told as children not to tell anyone else what we wished for – because it’ll be awkward and painful if we don’t get it.

When I think about Utopia, I think about my grandmother. My mother’s mother left school at 13, lived through the Maltese blockade and was obliged by religion and circumstance to marry young, suffocate all her dreams of education and adventure and spend her life taking care of a husband and six kids. Half a century later, I can choose when and whether to have children. I can choose to live independently from men. I regularly travel alone and there are no legal restrictions on getting any job I’m suited for.

The kind of independence many women my age can enjoy would have been almost unimaginable half a century ago – but somebody did imagine it and that is why we got here. A great many somebodies, over centuries of struggle and technological advancement, asked how the world could be different for women and set about making it happen.

Exactly a century ago, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland envisioned a society of women in which production was communal, motherhood was valued, relationships were equal and rape and violence were unknown. Reading Herland today, it is striking that for every proposition that came true – women are now allowed to divorce their husbands and participate fully in political life – there are two more that seem as far-fetched now as they did in 1915. Motherhood is still not valued as work. Women are still expected to organise our lives around the threat of sexual violence. But all that can change as long as we continue to ask for more.

For as long as I have been a feminist, I have been asked – usually by grumbling men – when, exactly, we will be satisfied; when women and girls will decide we have enough. The answer is contained in the question: because the instant that we do decide that we are satisfied, that there can never be a better world than this, is the instant that the future shuts down and change becomes impossible.

Utopia is the search for Utopia. It is the no-place by whose light you plot a course through a harsh and unnavigable present. By the time you reach the horizon, it is no longer the horizon but that doesn’t mean you stop going forwards.

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there. In the midst of multiple global crises, the only truly ridiculous proposition is that things are going to stay exactly the same.

Human societies are going to change beyond recognition and from the conference table to the streets, our best shot at surviving that change starts when we have the courage to make impossible demands – to face down ridicule and say, “We want more.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State