Squatting On the Edge of the World
Watching a fairly inconsequential hour long documentary Not in My Name: The Human Shields – Iraq, you might find yourself laughing at a situation that would seem to demand the utmost seriousness. Here we have group of activists taking three buses from London to Baghdad, determined to become human shields as they protest the immanent war in Iraq. Yet the film has an almost inbuilt absurdity: imagine, if you could, a bus load of Iraqis coming all the way over to Britain if Iraq were announcing a war on this country. There are so many reasons why this hypothesis is improbable that it might be a good idea to ask why it’s entirely probable in reverse. What is it in Western culture that allows for activism – as opposed to engagement – to have such a prominent place?
But of course first of all we should try and say something about the difference between those two words so casually slipped in – activism and engagement. Isn’t there a world of a difference between these two terms, or at least a difference in parts of the world? Engagement often concerns a political struggle, an attempt to improve the rights for oneself and those around us, and Britain has a long tradition of such acts of engagement. From the Peterloo massacre where people protested against the starvation-inducing corn laws, to the Tolpuddle Martyrs, who downed tools as they demanded a proper rate of pay; from the Jarrow marchers who walked to London to protest unemployment, to the miners striking in the mid-eighties as they tried to protect their jobs. These were all engaged actions.
It is hardly coincidental that these were also all working class situations, and also situations devoid of a religious and moral context. “The basis of irreligious criticism is this: man makes religion; religion does not make man. Religion is indeed man’s self-consciousness and self-awareness so long as he has not found himself or has lost himself again.” So says Marx in Essential Writings, before going on to add, “but man is not an abstract being, squatting outside the world. Man is the human world, the state, society.” Yet perhaps one of the problems with political activism over political engagement is that man does become an abstract being, if not quite squatting outside the world, then at least speaking about it at one remove, somehow squatting on the edge of it. It reminds us of a couple of comments from Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier. “The typical socialist…a prim little man with a white collar job, usually a secret tee-totaller and often with vegetarian leanings”; and “to the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about.” Is this idea of engaging with the world or squatting outside it not really the difference between activism and engagement? If we find the characters’ determination to become human shields somehow absurd, it resides at least in part in the vainglorious aspect of the mission.
It is of course a vain-gloriousness exacerbated by the incompetence and in-fighting of those on the buses. First of all there is Ken, the sort of character whose own contradictions are lithely corralled into political purpose. An ex-marine who fought in the first gulf war and decided he wanted nothing to do with a second one except as an activist against it, Ken also happens to be someone for whom one could say: you can take the man out of the army but you can’t take the army out of the man. As he cusses and curses and tells everybody that this is essentially his ‘mission’, we notice that his activism contains within it a sort of belligerent sense of misplaced energy. For all his crisis of conscience and shift from action man to pacifist man, he seems somehow to have the wrong energy level for such pacifistic aims. The idea of travelling on a bus from London to Iraq seems contrary to the demands of his nervous system. We can’t help but feel he is someone who is temperamentally better suited to flying from a to b rather than bussing it: which is exactly what he ends up doing at a certain stage in the journey. Having foregone his US passport in a gesture of protest at American imperialism, Ken can’t get into Turkey and therefore has to backtrack before flying into Iraq. By the time he arrives in the country, his role as leader of the group has become almost non-existent, and if anything he causes more trouble than he resolves. When he gets to Baghdad, his first speech is chiefly about how his position of authority has been undermined and how others have taken over the mission.
Nobody more so, it seems, than the person responsible for the buses; who at one stage, early on in the trip, defies Ken’s orders. Ken takes off to Amsterdam to try and gather more recruits, telling the others to wait in Paris until he returns. However, others decide to carry on, believing hanging around in Paris needlessly holds up the trip: after all, they’re trying to reach Iraq before the outbreak of the war. Ken is livid, and we witness lengthy phone calls between bus driver Joe and the rest on the buses, and Ken, stuck in Amsterdam. As they bicker over their mobiles, we get one of the first clear examples in the film of both the luxury and absurdity of activism. We’re talking not so much mutual incompatibles but certainly clash of personalities, and perhaps in a situation where the problem was so much greater than the individual clashes, the problem would subsume the personal. But here there is a sense that the personal is bigger than the situation, because, basically the individuals have chosen the conflict they are getting into; the situation hasn’t chosen them. Certainly there is much arguing in many a film – fact or fiction – where choices have to be made. We could call to mind that lengthy and often maligned scene from Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom where the workers discuss the issue of land rights and distribution. But to call the argument in Loach’s film bickering would be to misunderstand the word, a word that basically means a petulant or petty argument. Discussing land rights is hardly a minor concern; yet arguing over whether buses should wait in Paris before Ken arrives from Amsterdam certainly seems to be, and it is this petulance and pettiness that we find so amusing.
But why do we find it so laughable? Perhaps because it lacks, to use Sartre’s term, facticity. “Without facticity consciousness could choose its attachments to the world” Sartre says in Being and Nothingness, “in the same way that souls in Plato’s Republic choose their condition. I could determine myself to ‘be born a worker’ or to ‘be born a bourgeois’.” Is there something in western culture that allows us to function a little like Plato’s souls as Sartre describes them, and that returns us to our initial point about the absurdity of reversing the situation, of imagining Iraqis coming to Britain to protect us from Iraqi bombs? Thus when we mentioned Peterloo, the miner’s strike and the Tolpuddle Martyrs, we were, using Sartre’s term, discussing facticity. When Sartre goes on to say that “we must not confuse facticity with that Cartesian substance whose attribute is thought” this could lead us into murky philosophical waters, but actually it will help clarify one or two distinctions between engagement and activism. If engagement is basically facticity, is the nature of the event; activism requires instead thought. “The for-itself is, insofar as it appears in a condition which it has not chosen, as Peter is a French bourgeois in 1942, as Schmitt was a Berlin worker in 1870; it is in-sofar as it is thrown into a world and abandoned in a ‘situation’…” Now of course there are choices to made within that situation, but the conflict is itself not a choice. An Iraqi may or not choose to leave Iraq to escape the war, but he is in a situation that he must choose to remain in or to escape. He can engage in the struggle or escape from it. But the activist chooses to be in the situation or not, and that is a very different choice – choice chooses its facticity; facticity forces us to make choices. To choose our facticity is if you like very much an issue of thought. If we choose to engage with one struggle over another that concerns us indirectly, then why this one over that one; why Iraq over Palestine, Palestine over Indonesia, Indonesia over Sri Lanka?
What is required from activism that we do not necessarily require from engagement is an intellectual first principle: a clear comprehension of the nature of the struggle, and what it represents. It needs to be a first principle because its actuality is not necessary, it is chosen. It becomes of course a principled stand, but how many of these principled stands are third or second principle rather than first principle? And so when we use the term bickering, is it because there is something in the stance taken that seems more important than the principle underpinning it? A couple of years ago an article in Scotland on Sunday reported on a conflict erupting at an anti-Trident camp at Faslane, near Helensburgh. “They’ve decided to give war a chance” the journalist opens the article. Now of course there is basically a lazy journalistic agenda here when the writer says “instead of their usual earnest debate on how to turn missiles into ploughshares, the sandal-wearing, dreadlocked and holey-jumpered denizens of the camp are locked in a dispute that makes the MOD look positively pacifist.” But can we share in the sense of absurdity without agreeing with the potentially politically reactionary stance? If we have a problem with Not in My Name, or with the anti-Trident protestors near Helensburgh, we need to find the problem not in the pacifist stance in each instance, but in the sense that neither stance seems first principled enough. If it were, surely the principle could be found and the argument resolved. But it seems, according to the article, that the tension arose when long standing Faslane protestors came into conflict with a new protest group called the 365 Project – a group of younger protestors who intend to hold a year long protest outside the base. Now according to Monica Ridley who has been protesting for peace for 30 years, the new group isn’t interested in “peace and protesting for it. They are only interested in power.” Now let us not assume who is right or wrong, here – though the article seems to lean very heavily in Ridley’s favour – but try to understand why such disputes might erupt. Is it partly because a first principle gets sacrificed to a second principle? Now if the first principle resides in an anti-nuclear weapons position, and that the second principle resides in defending an anti-nuclear stance, what happens when the defending of the stance takes precedence over the position, when the tactics become more important than the principle? Then we have situations like the anti-Iraqi war protestors in Not in My Name, or the situation in Faslane.
Doris Lessing, who of course wrote a key fictional book on activist terrorism, The Good Terrorist, says elsewhere “when we’re in a group, we tend to think as that group does: we may even have joined the group to find ‘like-minded’ people.” But as she goes on to say in Prisons We Choose to Live Inside: “It is the hardest thing in the world to maintain an individual dissident opinion, as member of a group.” What happens here is the first principle of a crisis of conscience gets lost to a more immediate factionalism.
And is there not a very good chance of this happening if one’s an activist rather than engaged, if one chooses rather than is chosen? In an activism of choice the lack of facticity may leave the person involved losing sight of the principle because the situation is literally out of sight, and the group dynamics Lessing talks about take precedence. For this is undeniably the case in Not in My Name. Putting aside the obvious fact it’s is a carefully edited documentary that points up the absurdity, and was no doubt cut down from many more hours of footage, there is the sense that everybody involved was more concerned about their own stance in relation to other members of the group than the potential war in Iraq and what their involvement would be. We say this not on the basis of the footage left out – who knows what wasn’t included – but on the basis of the anti-war group’s response when they get to Iraq. It’s as if they’ve been so busy in-fighting that it didn’t occur to them that as soon as they arrive on Iraqi soil they’ll be used for propaganda purposes. Thus if we find it funny that these poor souls won’t be standing next to hospitals and schools when the planes attack, but against military sites, it lies in the absurd mismatch of liberal expectation up against Iraqi pragmatism. The Iraqis can hardly believe their luck that a group of westerners have come into their country to become the human shields while their own people won’t be much more than cannon fodder, and so why shouldn’t they make maximum use of these privileged do-gooders? Much of the confusion that arises out of the Iraq scenes might have been avoided if the activists had thought through exactly what the Iraqis would have expected from them. After all, wasn’t this the dictator who famously gassed his own Kurdish population; why should he care to give special care and attention to a handful of westerners daft enough to offer themselves up as human sacrifices?
Except of course the activists don’t really see themselves as human sacrifices but as human shields, and this is an important distinction because it tells us something about the assumptions of the activist. Now activists die, of that there is no doubt, and at least two in recent years have become renowned as a consequence: Rachael Corrie, who died in Palestine as a human shield, and Carlo Giuliano, who was killed during the Genoa protests. But that they’ve become so well-known resides partly in the low level of risk generally. Does activism so often work not as a crisis of conscience, but as an act of false consciousness? Does it sometimes resemble almost a mis-guided hobby, gap year or holiday? Now that there are eco-friendly excursions, where you get some sun and build a hospital in Sudan, why not excursion trips to war zones where you get to play with the adrenaline rush of warfare without really risking your life? It reminds one a little of Slavoj Zizek’s comments in the documentary Zizek! When he claims products and situations now contain their own antidote: alcohol free beer, decaf coffee, casualty-less wars. Here we can have war holidays – as paradoxical a term Zizek would no doubt say as alcohol free beer – where people can go off and share the adrenaline rush, retain a pacifist stance and presume their life is relatively un-endangered. Obviously there is risk involved in being a human shield, but the whole point is that as a shield one’s role is to protect others from the firing line by not oneself being likely to be fired upon. Is it the bad faith adrenaline rush, and somehow consistent with Zizek’s claims that many situations, food items and drinks contain their neutralising impact? Might he have added the human shield as a sort of risk without risk, with Rachel Corrie in some ways the exception that proves the rule.
Now we don’t want to overstate this point, and nor do we want to dismiss the sincerity of those who become human shields in difficult situations and with the best of motives, but we must accept that it’s a very different sense of choice from that of someone who must choose within their predicament, or even someone who chooses well aware that someone else’s predicament could readily become theirs. When for example numerous men from around the world went off and fought in the Spanish Civil War this could be seen activism – it was after all a Spanish civil war – but was actually an issue of engaging with the choice between Fascism and Communism, with these two political forces opposed to each other in an actual given situation – namely the civil war in Spain. If the war was obviously only about Spain, then an Englishman’s decision to go and fight would have been very much a decision of conscience, but when it looks like the whole of Europe would soon be making a choice between opposing ideologies, then the issue becomes more urgent than that of consciousness. It becomes an issue of anticipatory survival. As Ken and his cohorts take off to Baghdad there is if anything a twofold sense of security. First of all that they’re unlikely to lose their lives as human shields, and secondly that the war in Iraq will very much be a war in Iraq. Blair and Bush might misguidedly be going there so that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction won’t be used sometime in the future on Britain and the States, but Ken and co are intervening under the very assumption that Iraq doesn’t have, and won’t use these weapons on the West. We can see how one situation possesses an element of urgency and facticity; the other more about sensitivity and abstraction.
Does this mean that activism has no place? No, but in looking at its limitations and its potential bad faith, it does allow us to understand why though we might approve of the general political stance taken by the activists in Not in My Name, we also find it amusing. This might not be much of a film, but it captures well many of the problems evident in western assumption meeting eastern manipulation. After all, when the activists arrive in Iraq not only are they expected to shield military sites, they’re also dragged into pro-Saddam Hussein rallies. The activists seem shocked that they’re so readily being used as pawns in the political game, but what did they expect? Isn’t Saddam notorious for his under-hand methods and manipulation for his own gain; why wouldn’t he, would seem the more pertinent question. It’s as though the activist’s believed their own good-will would bring out the good-will in the Iraqi government, but this was one of the world’s cruellest dictatorships, and one needn’t be George Bush to offer such an observation. John Pilger, for example, in the early nineties, was quick to admit that Saddam was a “tyrant”; his problem was musing over why, in a piece in Distant Voices, the Allies attacked Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait, and yet in the wake of Saddam gassing his own Kurdish population had no interest in intervening. This is Pilger searching out the first principle; trying to understand something of the hypocrisy at work in the first Gulf War. He isn’t offering sympathy to a cause, but working through the paradoxes of a political position.
However what we have in Not in My Name is a political position as given – the desire to help the Iraqi people avoid the terror of western bombing – and then factionalising over how to get to Iraq. There seems very little political debate over the sort of issues that Pilger discusses, very little that allows for political scepticism to take precedence over political emotiveness: it is as if the emotional surge is more important than the political rationale. We might be reminded here of the exchange in The Life of Brian that the Scotland on Sunday piece invokes. Here Brian goes up and asks some people if they’re the Judean People’s Front only to be told fuck off. “We’re the People’s Front of Judea!” Brian asks if he can join the group; they say he can’t and that he should piss off. Brian insists he hates the Romans as much as anybody; and The People’s Front let him in, before dissing the people they hate even more than the Romans they’re ostensibly against: namely other factions equally protesting against the Romans. It’s as though there is some emotive fundamentalism that takes precedence over the political focus, and this is perhaps almost inevitable if the situation is too abstract, and if the first principle hasn’t been searched out. The problem thus becomes one’s own immediate situation, and so it makes more sense to fight with others of a similar ilk rather than the more abstract body you’re fighting against. When in Not in My Name Ken finally arrives in Iraq, his priority seems to be to take on not the Iraqis who are exploiting the human shields, but the other human shields whom he feels have been exploiting him: his mission has been commandeered by others, Ken insists.
So what we’ve been exploring here is the problem of political action if the action lacks the situational significance proposed by Sartre, or the principled stance that understands the situation as a universal first principle – which would basically be Marxist. When Marx insists the workers of the world unite, what he’s proposing is seeing the situation on a global scale (that one’s exploited labour is more or less universal), and, theoretically, looking at the principle that underpins that exploitation: surplus labour. But what do Ken and his band of merry men and women have to offer but a situation that isn’t their own (the possible bombing of Iraq) and a vague sense of why they should be doing it superimposed upon by the factionalism that takes up more of their energy than the analysis of the Iraqi situation? Not in My Name isn’t much of a film, but it does at least symptomatically suggest what’s wrong with much that passes for political protest. However, one’s laughter here shouldn’t be at the absurdity of protesting, more the un-thought through nature evident in much that passes for political activism.