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A bit of a coup
The events of 6 January in Washington DC, and the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, have been well analysed. However there is some learning about power and powerlessness arising from this which has been absent from mainstream media coverage.
The assault on the Capitol building by very assorted Trump followers came after Trump had insistently lied about the results of the US presidential election, and Trump and Giuliana had egged on protesters on the day. The word ‘fight’ was used frequently and Trump’s language was incendiary, while Giuliana spoke of ‘trial by combat’.. One lingering question following the election victory of Biden was when and if Trump would give the likes of the ‘Proud Boys’ the nod to wreak some havoc. On 6 January they felt they got that nod. Protesters were not told what to do but neither were they told what not to do. Some of the harder elements invading the Capitol building would certainly have kidnapped or killed if they had the opportunity (and one policeman was killed directly by an attack) while others were more tourists than terrorists.
The descriptions and analogies have included (attempted) coup, insurrection, and (to his credit Arnie Schwarzenegger talking about, though perhaps not very accurately) Kristallnacht. Another comment was that it was more like the ‘Beer hall putsch’ of 1923 when the Nazi Party of Adolf Hitler attempted a coup in Munich which it was hoped could be built on to take power in Berlin; it was a complete failure. So what was the invasion of the Capitol? It was often violent chaos with some of the invaders having very definite goals and others just wandering around; to call it a ‘full blown’ coup or even insurrection elevates it to a level of organisation it does not deserve, even if part of US democracy was at some risk. While some of those involved would have used the assault on the Capitol to bring about a coup (the overthrow of the presidential election result to allow Trump to continue in power) there was no central organisation to this invasion of the seat of legislatitive government and this is one crucial point in it not being a ‘full blown’ coup..
On the other hand, the last time the Capitol had been invaded violently (apart from four Puerto Ricans firing at congressmen in 1954) had been by the British in 1814 during a war, so it was certainly serious but there was no real chance those storming in were actually going to get Trump reinstated as President, even if they killed and kidnapped. That said there was a very real attempt to get the election result overthown by Trump and Republican Party allies through devious or misplaced court cases and attempted political pressure. But even many Trump nominees and Republican Party politicians refused to declare that black was white.
The reality is that while Donald Trump would have been quite happy if intimidation, violence and lies had led to his continuation as US president, he was neither organised nor aggressive enough – and maybe too lazy – to organise this himself. The analogy might be with the Rev Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland; for most ofhis life he spewed hatred and vitriol which ‘led people on’ but when they acted, as in violent sectarian and paramilitary actions, he disavowed any responsibility. Initially it seems Trump was happy with people invading the Capitol building and even when told it could have consequences for him he was slow and half-hearted in calling for calm or condemning violence.
It should be clearly stated that there can be nonviolent changes of regime, or indeed nonviolent defence of democracy. The revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989 against communist rule were primarily non-violent, populist uprisings. The transfer of allegiance by republican MPs in Ireland in 1919, from the Westminster parliament to the first Dáil in Dublin was a classic nonviolent tactic. There are hundreds of other such historical examples and in Gene Sharp’s typology in “The Politics of Nonviolent Action”, around 30 out of 198 examples are specifically to do with political noncooperation (with a particular government regime). Interestingly, US activist George Lakey was one of those busy training people before the election in how to nonviolently resist a coup.
Donald Trump was one of the worst presidents the USA has ever had, though there was one point of truth in his final White House statement – that he hadn’t started any new wars. However internally he was the most divisive president in modern times – and that is saying something – and there were big increases in gun ownership during his time.
However his followers, as well as violent neo-fascists, include many of the ‘left behind’ in US American life. Again there is an analogy with Northern Ireland; in the latter case Protestants and unionists who have had to cede something like equality to Catholics and nationalists have felt discriminated against and deprived because they had been used to a superior position, and that culture was, has been, slow to change. In the USA ethnic groups including blacks and Latinos have been unwilling to submit to inequality but tend to have worse life chances. The USA is a big place with many different experiences and the decline of blue collar employment has been part of the picture, causing resentment at the powers that be; the irony here is that Donald Trump was part of the economic elite if not the political elite until he became President; to project himself as ‘a man of the people’ was an amazing propaganda coup.
The reality is also that Donald Trump and Trumpism offered many people a vision, inchoate as it was, to be part of something bigger than themselves and promising a better future. Of course this was a chimera and anyone but the richest voting for Trump was a turkey voting for Christmas, given the tax breaks and derugulation he brought in, which also threatened to severely exacerbate the dire climate heating which is taking place.
There is no way the problems of the USA have gone away with the election of Biden. Divisions, inequality, Trumpists, militia and right wing conspiracy theorists are still just as present. The US system of democracy is antiquated and inadequate and while at a micro level there can be vibrant and progressive people and movements, at other levels its political system is woefully in thrall to big money and corporate lobbyists.
While Biden’s regime represents a very significant step up from the last incumbent, we have to see what it means, though on the global climate emergency it is certainly on the positive side. And no, Mr Biden, we do not want the USA to resume leadership of the ‘free world’; we will pass on that one. ‘Normal service’ can mean more misplaced military interventions internationally. The USA may see itself as the world’s policeman; the reality is that it approximates to the greatest bully in the world, and certainly the best armed one.
Brexit goes North
‘Be careful what you wish for’ is an adage which should be heeded but not paramount. It should not be an argument against working for change but it should be a strong argument for careful analysis and planning, and taking others’ views into account. The possibility of unintended consequences is not something which was really analysed by the DUP before they bought in completely to both Brexit and later Boris Johnson’s false promises, resultantly changing political realities in Northern Ireland less in unionism’s favour. The DUP thought that Brexit would make Northern Ireland more ‘British’; the reverse has been the case (though at this point it cannot be said it has made the North more ‘Irish’).
In the 19th century, economic interests in the North, with industrialisation and dependency on a British market, contributed to the growth and development of staunch unionist feeling. The realities of the current economic and trading situation is very different, and Northern ireland is far from being an economic powerhouse, but it is possible that now, in the 21st century, economic interests will pull the North more towards unification with the Republic. But this is neither a certain nor a speedy process, and issues of health and social security may determine the result.
The outworking of the Northern Ireland Protocol between the UK and EU has been causing a certain amount of pain and anger, in the political sphere particularly among loyalists, and there have been threats to port inspection staff at Larne. There may be no tariffs but some trade, including GB-NI trade, is disrupted by a knotted bundle of red tape. Some unionists and loyalists have been calling for Article 16, an emergency measure to derogate from the Protocol, to be invoked – and then foolishly it looked like it was the EU Commission which was going to invoke this article, over the vaccines dispute with AstraZeneca, before they pulled back following expressions of horror from all sides in Ireland. A new opinion poll shows the DUP suffering a haemorrhage of support to Jim Allister’s TUV; this does not bode well for cooperation in the North (though conversely Alliance is shown to continue to do well).
While some issues to do with the Northern Ireland Protocol will be resolved by mutual agreement with the EU, there are many that will not, and in any case considerable bureaucracy is likely to remain.
‘Be careful what you wish for’ also applies to those working for a united Ireland, and those, such as Sinn Féin, who want a border poll or one to take place within a few years. Fortunately or unfortunately (through what is written in the Good Friday Agreement) a united Ireland can be brought about by a “50% + 1” vote in favour in a referendum in Northern Ireland. While on the one hand it would seems unfair that if “50% + 1” in favour of remaining in the UK means the North does just that, “50% + 1” should not mean a united Ireland. But how does this happen? How soon does this happen? And what guarantees of fair treatment would unionists and Protestants receive? A ‘yes/no’, binary referendum can be very divisive, even destructive, as the de Borda Institute frequently points out.
If nationalists feel the fair wind at the moment is in their direction, they would do well do take it easy and not rush anything. Loyalist commitment to any form of democracy in relation to a united Ireland is far from certain, despite their majoritarian views in the past, and a ‘united Ireland’ which has not gone through a fair process of engagement with everyone is going to be a failure for a long time. Things have to be worked out. While many unionists and loyalists may refuse to engage in such a process, and therefore make it difficult, a referendum delivering an arithmetic majority in favour of a united ireland should not mean a united Ireland the next day. But it might mean that unionists and loyalists who had previously been reluctant to engage with any process would see the writing on the wall and decide that it was in their interests to do so.
In other words, if a referendum does give a majority for unification, it should not be seen as the end of a process but the start or continuation of another. Nothing is written in stone and much more needs to be spelt out by those who favour a united Ireland so that people can make an informed judgement.
Jude Collins in the ‘Andersonstown News’ of 30/1/21 states that ‘the south’ needs a health service that matches or surpasses the NHS in the north before any border poll. He emphasises that unfication means an entirely new state – “we need to be open to radical, maybe uncomfortable change: a new national anthem, a new flag, Stormont as a regional Assembly, a guaranteed number of unionist places in the Dáil.” This is starting to think creatively. Unionists need to think creatively too about the future, either for NI-in-UK or how a united Ireland could give them the protection they would seek in such a circumstance.
The best hope Northern Ireland has is that people break away from the strait-jacketed and polarised views of past divisions and look at opportunities for the future anew. This is not impossible but it is a big ask and needs a huge amount of work and goodwill to take place.
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Larry Speight brings us his monthly column
In the course of a year the Covid-19 pandemic has infected 100,000,000 people, killed over two million, led to a massive increase in the number of people suffering acute anxiety and mental health problems and reduced incomes worldwide.. (*1) The latter has had a crushing effect on those who at the best of times find it a struggle to live. According to the IMF Covid-19 has cost the global economy, as of October 2020, £21.5 trillion, which translates into a considerable loss of money to public services.
Another cost is the curtailment on people living their life to the full as in not been able to take part in cultural and sporting events, socialise, form friendships, exchange and test ideas and provide each other with emotional sustenance. School pupils, college and university students are an example of a set of people whose education and personal development has been negatively impacted by the necessary health restrictions.
In spite of the social visibility of the virus there is a difficult to calculate but sizeable number of people who believe it is a hoax contrived and disseminated by unnamed powerful individuals to increase their level of control over people’s lives. Credence to this perspective appears to be on the basis of emotionally identifying with the source, rather than on critical assessment. Perspectives that have no basis in science act as a vector for the virus as they reduce caution.
There is another group of people who in the spirit of libertarianism say they won’t be told what to do and therefore, regardless of whether they believe Covid-19 exists or not, don’t follow the health guidelines and say they won’t be vaccinated. People with these mindsets turned out in high numbers at Donald Trump’s presidential rallies and some have protested outside Downing Street, on the streets of Dublin and Belfast, the Netherlands, Denmark and Spain.
Whatever reason people have for not believing that Covid-19 exists, or abiding by the health guidelines, it is critically important that they are persuaded that the virus is as real as the sun in the sky if it is to be eliminated. This is because the pandemic shows that we are not, as libertarians believe, discrete autonomous individuals who can behave as we like but rather are part of a symbiotic community.
Our interconnectedness pertain to an even greater catastrophe than Covid-19 which is our ruination of the biosphere through global warming, deforestation, the building of mega dams, our poisoning of the air, water and soil to mention a few of the environmental harms we exacerbate by the day. To take just one harm caused by our reckless regard for nonhuman nature, 8.8 million people die prematurely every year due to outdoor air pollution, a death rate that far exceeds that of Covid-19. (*2) Indoor air pollution also takes a heavy toll.
Covid-19 provides the world with what one hopes is not too late a reminder that individualism, long considered by western societies as a desirable character trait, is counter to the common good unless imbued with a strong sense of community responsibility underpinned by an understanding of the systems view of life. This view holds that all things are connected, share a common interest and that we, for good or ill, affect each other. It means, as Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi write in the preface to their book on the subject, “thinking in terms of relationships, patterns and context.” (*3)
Individualism is on display in ordinary every day events such as when a farmer, thinking that they can do what they like with the land they are custodians of, digs up a mature hedgerow and sets it alight. When this happens harm is caused to neighbours and passers-by who breathe in the toxic smoke and the survival prospects of innumerable creatures is undermined through the loss of habitat. There is also a cultural and aesthetic loss. People who litter may tell themselves that they have a right to behave as they want to blithely ignore the fact that they are harming the bio-community and the livelihood of farmers whose cattle and sheep are liable to swallow what they have scattered around them or thrown out of a vehicle window.
In spite of errors of judgement and decades of ignoring scientific evidence of the strong likelihood of a pandemic, governments who are acting with great urgency to address Covid-19 are to be commended. However, unless they imbue the cultural milieu through public education programmes with a systems view of life, pandemics will reoccur, the climate will continue to get warmer, air pollution along with other environmental woes will get worse and as the research shows we will by century’s end be living on a planet that is unable to provide for human need or support other life-forms. (*4) Thankfully it is not too late to adopt a systems mindset and in doing so make the world a better one for everyone to live in.
(*1) The Mental Health Pandemic, Patrick Freyne, The Irish Times Weekend Review, 23 January 2021.
(*2) Damian Carrington, Air pollution deaths are double previous estimates, finds research, Guardian, 12 March 2019.
(*3.) Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luigi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, 2014, Cambridge University Press.
(4*) Increase the discoverability of your research, Conservation Science, 13 January 2021.