“Only when socialism means the period of revolutionary transition between capitalism and communism is it anything worth supporting”.
(Julie Borowski’s website is here)
“Only when socialism means the period of revolutionary transition between capitalism and communism is it anything worth supporting”.
(Julie Borowski’s website is here)
I’ve asked Barry York, publisher of this blog, to provide a halfbaked tag to assign to this article and future articles from me.
Otherwise I would need to keep explaining in each article that I’m just bloviating like other bloggers and not presenting a careful analysis or even a view that I undertake to defend and explain in comments.
I assume that comments in a discussion forum are understood to be informal, similar to conversation, so I have felt less inhibited about just quickly typing them into a comments box. But I resent the fact that people write so much more than they have reason to, given what they have read and actually thought about, so I don’t like just bloviating.
At the start of “Notes on Trump” I warned:
“Even if I had a deep understanding of US and world politics and economics I could not hope to figure out what’s happening at the moment. We are at an important turning point in multiple processes, many of them dependent on unknowable contingencies.”
Basically that is my view on pretty well everything at the moment. I will just repeat it here instead of in each article.
That article was based on several hours a day following news on Trump from the election day right through to the day before inauguration. I thought that was necessary to come to grips with a different political situation from what I had got used to and had expected to continue. I am still reasonably happy that I did explain something important. I followed up with more than 100 quick numbered notes so far but I still haven’t been able to produce a series of carefully considered articles based on the much larger number of links I have collected
What I want to do is contribute some serious theoretical analysis towards a future revolutionary left, especially on economics and political programs dealing with capitalist crisis and the transition from capitalism. As noted at the end of that article:
“If there was a left, we would be in a good position to finally rid ourselves of the pseudo-left who can be shown to espouse essentially the same anti-globalist and isolationist ideas as Trump. But in order for there to be a left,we have to be able to present a coherent economic program that explains how to unleash the productive forces of a globalized world for the benefit of the majority who only work here rather than primarily for the owners.”
Unfortunately I have not been getting much done at all. Although bloviating is a distraction from getting on with far more important things I am hopeful that it may still be of some interest to others and even if not, that it will at least help me get into writing and improve my morale as it does for other bloviators.
The time stamp at the end of each item indicates the start and stop times for actual writing and number of minutes spent.
alby Arthur Dent
The missile strike against an Assad regime air base was a “limited” and “proportional” response to chemical weapons. That is the opposite of what U.S. allies should be saying. One might as well stress that it was militarily pointless since the warnings given enabled those planes not grounded for repairs to escape.
The real point was explained by the International Red Cross – there is now an “international armed conflict” between the United States and the Syrian regime. Pretending that will not end in invasion and occupation does not prevent the far right and the pseudo-left jointly mobilizing against it, helped by “opinion leaders”. Pretence only delays understanding why we must fight.
For domestic reasons the U.S. government needs to maintain ambiguity. It was elected on an isolationist “America First” platform in a country where most “opinion leaders” are actively hostile to getting involved in another war and where much of the “mainstream” mass media has recently been devoted to deranged conspiracy theories appealing to the intelligence agencies to do their patriotic duty by undermining the elected government who are supposed to be in collusion with the Kremlin. But U.S. allies should help by clarifying that we are ready to fight.
Typically Australia just echoes whatever the latest U.S. pronouncement happens to be, obediently switching positions whenever the U.S. does. Usually such switches are executed more smoothly than the latest one, in which U.S. policies were reversed over a few hours and Australian policies followed immediately but pathetically maintaining the same ambiguity when the opposite is needed.
The U.S. policies for Syria followed for the last few years have been completely absurd. Inaction has resulted in half the population displaced, nearly half a million killed, millions of refugees throughout the region and a serious threat to European unity. Even distant Australia has been affected by the increased terrorist threat resulting from the callous Western indifference to the slaughter. Cowards have attacked muslims here instead of actually fighting our common enemy.
Things can only get worse the longer intervention is postponed. Safe Zones to protect the displaced civilian population were required long ago and must be implemented soon.
The Srebrenica massacre in the Bosnian war occurred in a “safe area” protected by U.N. armed forces under Security Council resolution 819. About 100,000 were killed in the Bosnian war until a NATO occupation force of 80,000 ended it. Two decades later there are still some troops supporting an international “High Representative” supervising the two competing governments.
The Syrian war has been left to fester for so long that it is much more savage and will require a much larger occupation force for much longer. There is no question of “peace enforcing”. There is no peace to enforce. Making peace requires international forces able to kill people and blow things up until other armed forces surrender and are interned.
Only the U.S. has the logistics capacity to maintain such a force. Other countries will be expected to pay for it as well as contribute to it.
The longer it is delayed the more it will cost, to the world as well as it already has to the Syrian people. Australia should help speed things up, not add to the confusion.
The Syrian Coalition calls upon our people and their active forces to close ranks and unite into one political, military, and popular front to confront the new challenges, combat terrorism in all its forms, and make every effort to topple the criminal regime of tyranny and sectarianism and work on the establishment of a democratic, pluralistic state.
April 7, 2017
The Syrian Coalition welcomes the strikes the United States launched on Shaerat airbase from which airplanes took off to carry out the horrific war crime of gassing our people, including women and children, in the town of Khan Sheikoun. The Coalition sees in these strikes the beginning of change where the words of US messages, for the first time, were translated into action to punishment perpetrator of the crime. It also sees in them a turning point in the American position on Syria as the Trump administration, unlike its predecessor, did not allow the murderous regime to continue its crimes of using internationally banned weapons.
The US strikes have sent strong messages to backers of the Assad regime, especially Iran and Russia, to stop playing tricks with the fate and blood of the Syrian people and attempting to gain the upper hand in Syria. They have sent messages that the United States will not allow any more breaches of international law and the disregard for international resolutions as well as the most heinous, terrorist acts against civilians and children.
The Syrian Coalition expresses its support for the action taken by President Trump and his intention to answer the cries of the Syrian people and children. The Coalition also supports President Trump’s calls for the formation of an international coalition of the civilized world to confront and work on deposing this deadly backward regime; contribute to the efforts to reach a just political solution; and continue the fight against forces of terrorism in all its forms, including the Assad regime and its allied sectarian militias.
The Syrian Coalition stresses that the Assad regime bears full responsibility for exposing our country to various types of domination, occupation, mandate, and destruction. The Coalition expresses hope for the continuation of the new US position to lead to the imposition of a no-fly zone; the neutralization of the military bases the Assad regime uses to target civilians; putting an end to the crimes being committed by the Assad regime and its allies; achieving a just political solution that puts an end to the Syrian tragedy and in which the head of the regime and his clique do not have any position or role to play; and help bringing them before the International Criminal Court.
The Syrian Coalition today calls upon our people and their active forces to close ranks and unite into one political, military, and popular front to confront the new challenges, combat terrorism in all its forms, and make every effort to topple the criminal regime of tyranny and sectarianism and work on the establishment of a democratic, pluralistic state.
“It’s a strange world when the most conservative people on earth call themselves ‘progressives’ and no one bats an eyelid” – email from Bill Leak, 4-10-15
“These people are trying to take us down the road to fascism. It might be nice, PC, inclusive, compassionate, non-gender specific smiley-face fascism but it’s still fascism” – email from Bill Leak, 30-10-16
I had the privilege of becoming one of Bill Leak’s friends. We corresponded, sometimes in substantial emails, and chatted by phone. We never met, but wanted to.
I did not agree with all his cartoons, needless to say, but defended his right to express his views via his excellent technical skills, brilliant intellect and wit, powerful way with words and awesome imagination. In terms of political philosophy, I had very little in common with those on the Right who supported him – other than a shared, stated, commitment to free speech.
And I didn’t agree when he would use the term ‘the Left’ to assail his opponents. It was understandable that he would regard the censorious reactionary creeps who John Pilger and Andrew Bolt both agree are ‘the Left’ as actually constituting some kind of left. After all, where is the alternative – a genuine Left – in public discourse? But I managed to point out to him that the Left is not defined by self-labelling, or by the right-wing media, or by some dogmatic formula into which reality is forced, but rather by long-established values and theory, and politics based on the ever-changing real world.
In an article Bill wrote defiantly for ‘The Australian’ after being summoned before the Human Rights Commission, he again attacked ‘the Left’. I emailed him, arguing that “such types have nothing in common with Marx’s rebellious spirit, let alone revolutionary political philosophy, and the term ‘pseudo-left’ and ‘faux-Marxists’ needs to be popularised”.
“Thanks SO much, Barry. If ONLY I’d spoken to you while writing it. I squirmed in my chair for a fortnight but couldn’t come up with the terms pseudo left and faux-Marxists and now it’s too late”.
Our contact began when I wrote to him, three or four years ago, to congratulate him on an excellent cartoon in ‘The Australian’, attacking a union boss who had been dog-whistling about ‘foreign workers’. As a leftist influenced by Marxism, I knew there was no such thing as foreigners when it came to the working class. I told Bill. He agreed.
Foreign workers’ cartoon… (112 years) after Livingston Hopkins…
He had an indomitable sense of humour and wit. Early in 2015, when very serious death threats were made against him by Islamo-fascists, he had to uproot his family and move house and studio at short notice, and adopt a false name. Armed protection had to be arranged for him and his family. His crime had been to portray a figure in a cartoon that resembled Muhammad. It was not gratuitous stuff, but a response to the murder of cartoonists in France.
“Je suis Charlie’. Remember?
Bill’s response to me, in an email was:
“In much the same way that it takes a bit of time before you can laugh at tragedies, it might still take a while before Goong [his wife] and I can laugh about all this upheaval. I feel pretty sure though that it won’t be long before I’ll be able to say, “You remember that day when I woke up with a roaring fatwa? Best thing that ever happened for both of us.”
“It is of course galling to read the letters in the paper from people “daring” me to “dare” to draw a cartoon that may offend Muslims in the way Saturday’s cartoon appears to have offended some of the more humourless Christians. It’s not as if I can write a letter myself, demanding they go back and check the cartoon from January 10. I’d love to tell them it resulted in me having to find a new home and live under an assumed name because the people I’d “offended” wanted to square things up by tracking me down and cutting my head off but, for obvious reasons, the less people know about it the better.
“Right now the thing that worries me most is the prospect of discovering I’m being targeted by Evangelical Christians, wanting to turn up at my place in a mini-bus and stand around on the front lawn strumming guitars and singing songs at me.
“One fatwa at a time, please!”
State censorship and the spirit of ’68…
As someone radicalised in the 1960s, who still regards 1968 as the Left’s finest year and high point internationally, I saw in Bill’s spirit and many of his cartoons the long-lost spirit of that year: its irreverence, rebelliousness, defiance and challenge to the dominant ideology (what we today call ‘Political Correctness’ – yes, it was around back then but in an openly right-wing form).
Much of the censorship back then was undertaken by the state under the guise of clamping down on obscenity. There was an Obscene Publications Act, which banned art and writings that members of a Vice Squad regarded as sufficiently pornographic for them to physically remove them from bookshops. If a magistrate shared the Vice Squad’s view, then the literature was banned.
Publications exposing US war crimes in Vietnam were also banned under the Obscene Publications Act. At high school, I unlawfully distributed the banned pamphlet, ‘US atrocities in Vietnam’ (I think it was called that, from memory).
The attempt at state intimidation and censorship that Bill Leak experienced, and fought, was undertaken via ‘human rights’ legislation: the Racial Discrimination Act. Go figure. And see the Appendix below for Bill’s email of 30-10-16 as to why and how the cartoon sought to support Indigenous people in remote communities and was not racist.
Every society has a dominant sense of what is right and wrong, what is fair comment and what is going too far, but the real question concerns the parameters as set down by the state, by official censorship.
That action could be taken against a cartoonist in the C21st by an arm of the state – and let’s not be coy about it, that’s what the Human Rights Commission is – showed that the parameters are way too broad and censorious. Even the Greens Senator, Nick McKim, stated on national television that he felt Bill’s controversial ‘Dear old dad’ cartoon was exempt under Section 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act (which basically exempts on the grounds of ‘fair comment’).
‘Dear old dad’ cartoon…
Bill tapped into a mood of resentment on the part of many people who grew sick and tired of being smugly admonished by their finger-prodding ‘betters’ in the Establishment that they should not do this or that, or think ‘like that’. This is not to suggest that those feeling resentment are always right, they are not, but the culture of Political Correctness has made nuance almost impossible. You either toe the line entirely or you are racist and any variety of ‘phobe’. There is little room in this culture for debate, for the open clash of conflicting ideas. In this context, ‘Being offended’ has become an argument – a case for opposition to something – rather than just a subjective feeling.
Punching up… at the cultural establishment
Those who accused Bill of ‘punching down’ have it upside down. His cartoons in the main were actually punching up, challenging those at the top, the decision-makers, those with great and sometimes dominant influence in the media, the senior bureaucracy, bourgeois academia, the ‘aristocracy of labour’ (or ‘union bosses’ as we described them in the communist party) and mainstream politicians of all stripes who, in general, prefer to deny or obfuscate life-threatening problems and restrict civil liberties. It takes a weird sense of victimhood – a denial of human agency – to see it the other way ‘round.
No other mainstream cartoonist so incisively mocked the Green quasi-religion. His ‘Christine Milne’ sitting self-righteously with the fairies at the bottom of the garden, in vivid unreal technicolour, was among my favourites.
Green fairies at the bottom of the garden…
No other cartoonist so effectively challenged economic protectionism. None so willingly revealed the absurdity of all the religions, including the quasi-religious totalitarian impulses of the reactionary pseudo-left. None so courageously stood up to the current brand of ‘clerico-fascism’.
He will be best remembered for his defence of free speech. He stood up to fascists, at great personal cost. To me, regardless of the cartoons with which I disagreed, those qualities make him a cultural hero.
I’m devastated by his death, and disgusted by the attacks he endured from what passes for ‘the left’ today, by the state and by Islamo-fascists.
Bill, thank you for your work, and for having me as a friend. And for your spirit, the best long-term hope for which is the revival of a genuine left.
* * * *
Bill’s email of 30-10-16 on why his ‘Dear old dad’ cartoon was not racist:
Sorry I didn’t reply to your previous email that arrived just a few days after I received news I was about to be hauled before the Inquisition. Since then I’ve discovered drawing cartoons and fighting the dark forces of tyranny at the same time is bloody hard work and doesn’t leave me with much time to spare for writing emails.
I have to give my cartoons names when I put them up on the website and the name I gave the one that’s caused all this latest trouble was “Dear Old Dad”. Well, dear old dad is having one hell of an impact. I hoped it would prompt people to take a good, hard look at the plight of aboriginal kids in remote communities but it seems that’s something so confronting they prefer not to look at it at all. So much easier to accuse me of racism for having brought the subject up. It’s pleasing to see, though, that finally the virtue signallers are running out of abuse to hurl at me and the conversation is starting to focus on the little boy in the middle of it and his indescribably sad, desperate life. The cartoon was supposed to be about him after all, for Christ’s sake. Col Dillon (Anthony’s father) [both of Indigenous ancestry] rang me on the morning of the day it was published to thank me and congratulate me for doing it. He knew what I was trying to say and knowing he was glad to see I’d tried to say it clearly was good enough for me.
I grew up in a place in the bush called Condobolin among aboriginal kids. When I went back there in 2001 (for the first time in over 30 years) it was depressing to see how much worse things were for the indigenous people than they were in the 60s. Intergenerational welfare dependency is like a slow working poison. Killing with kindness is just the ticket I suppose if, deep down, what you really want to do is discreetly eradicate a population while simultaneously parading your compassion and telling everyone how much you care.
To tell you the truth I had no idea dear old dad would also trigger a debate on 18C, let alone that I’d end up at the pointy end of a battle to get it amended or (dare I hope) repealed. Two shitfights for the price of one! Perhaps by now Southpommasane and Triggs might be regretting they decided to try to rid themselves of this turbulent cartoonist. But they did, and I’m going to fight like buggery. It’s just as well I like a blue, Barry.
These people are trying to take us down the road to fascism. It might be nice, PC, inclusive, compassionate, non-gender specific smiley-face fascism but it’s still fascism. And if that’s where we end up the Triggses and Southpossums and all their fellow members of ‘the new monocled top-hatted elite who hold the workers in disdain for their consumerism’ won’t know what hit them. – Bill Leak, 30-10-16
This is a presentation by socialist economist David McMullen at a Melbourne Argument debate at the Royal Oak Hotel, North Fitzroy, Melbourne, on February 8, 2017. His opponent was Ted Lapkin, a former adviser in the Abbott government.
Private Property Rights are Essential not only to Economic Prosperity but to Political Liberty – The No Case
February 12, 2017 via Different Wavelength
* * * *
When looking at economic prosperity and political liberty, the private property rights we are concerned about are the ownership rights of the capitalist class over the means of production or productive assets. We are not arguing about private property rights over items of consumption. So I acknowledge everyone’s right to their own toothbrush.
What I want to contend is that in the future we will get by very nicely without private ownership of the means of production. We will do this by creating a class free society where the means of production are socially rather than privately owned. This will free the economy of the many shackles placed on it by capitalism and at the same time create a society that requires the fullest political freedom for its proper functioning.This future system is generally referred to as communism.
OK why do I take this singularly unpopular position which everyone knows has been totally discredited? Well, I subscribe to the Marxist view that capitalism creates the conditions for this new more advanced system.In a nutshell, capitalism eliminates the need for the profit motive and hence the need for its own existence. It does this through the creation of modern industry and technology which open up the prospect of universal prosperity, and of robots and computers doing all the work that we really don’t want to do. Under these new conditions we can begin to imagine people working because they like what they are doing and they want to contribute, while at the same time being happy with an equal share of an increasing level of prosperity. In other words we can see social ownership having a totally different and better form of motivation than the profit motive that is associated with private ownership.
This means that what was previously impossible becomes possible.Past history already tells us that sharing poverty and laborious work is impossible. You cannot create equality under those conditions. It is a utopian dream. For example, as the Middle Ages illustrate it only requires a small band of thugs who would prefer to live off everybody else’s hard work and you end up with a very nasty class society. Also when assessing the experience of the Soviet Union, and the various regimes derived from it, it is important to keep in mind their backward economic conditions as a factor in determining how things turned out there.
Now, favorable economic conditions presently only exist in the rich countries where less than 20 per cent of the world’s people reside. What about the rest of the world? It looks like it is going to take a number of generations for them to develop. It is hard to be any more definite than that. However, I would suggest that the prospects are best if there is a healthy global economy and a willingness to provide well directed economic aid and also to offer diplomatic and military assistance to those resisting the forces of tyranny and corruption.
Anyway, why do I consider that social ownership will bring greater economic prosperity and progress? There are five reasons that strike me as being particularly important.
OK those are my arguments for why I think that private ownership of the means of production is a fetter on the economy. Now I want to address what I think are the two main arguments against what I’ve been saying. Firstly, we are told that social ownership would require excessive centralization and secondly that you can’t change human nature.
Economists argue that all this well-intentioned motivation would come to very little because an economy based on social ownership has an inherent economic calculation problem: in the absence of market transactions between enterprises it could not have a properly functioning price system. And as a consequence social ownership would require clumsy centralized resource allocation of the kind that existed in the Soviet Union. I am not going to speculate on how economic decisions will be made in the future under communism. However, we can say that there is nothing about the non-market transfers of custody over components from producer to user enterprises that would prevent them from making decentralized decisions based on prices. Furthermore, we could hardly do a worse job of allocating investment funds than do highly fluctuating interest rates and exchange rates produced by capitalist finance. Indeed, there are good reasons for thinking that economic decision-making would be far superior to that under capitalism. To begin with, because of the absence of ownership barriers, there would be far more scope for coordination, and less scope for secrecy and deception.
Human nature and mutual regard
Now what about human nature? A society based on social ownership requires far more than simply state ownership, although that is a prerequisite. There need to fundamental changes in people’s behavior and abilities.
The behavior change can be best summed up in the expression ‘mutual regard’.You do the right thing because you want to contribute and you know that your efforts are not futile because a large and increasing section of society is doing likewise. As well as being the basis of morality and what is considered honorable it is also enlightened self-interest. By everybody serving others we are all served. This altruism is not the self-denial that Ayn Rand made it out to be.
Many would doubt the ability of rank and file workers to do the complex kinds of work required in the future. However, I would suggest that people have greatly untapped potential. There are many ways that they are presently held back or find themselves unchallenged.
The kinds of changes we are talking about here will not happen overnight. There will have to be a transition period that will take a generation or more and is generally referred to as socialism. It will take time to totally eliminate private ownership, starting with the big fish, and it will take time to move completely away from the old capitalist work incentives. And it won’t be smooth sailing. Good behavior will only win out once the good majority gain the confidence and moral courage to stand up to those who behave badly. And there will be lots of old management types trying to run things in the old way and convincing workers that the new ways are futile. So it will be touch and go for a while and we may need more than one stab at it.
Now let’s look at political liberty
With the emergence of capitalism we have seen for the first time a degree of political liberty. We have constitutions limiting the power of government, we have elections, the separation of powers, habeas corpus. These would have been unimaginable in the Middle Ages or in any other pre-capitalist society.
The main problem however is that the capitalist system tends to abandon political liberty in times of crisis. Also a big test of political freedom is our freedom to confiscate the means of production from the capitalists and convert them into social property. In the face of a serious revolutionary movement one would expect to see states of emergency, unofficial death squads, and well-resourced propaganda campaigns spreading fascism and xenophobia.
What conclusions should we draw about the lack of democracy in the so-called communist bloc countries? The Soviet Union etc? The first thing to note is that we dealing with an historical accident. By virtue of some rather specific or contingent circumstances,communists found themselves in charge in countries that with few exceptions were economically and socially backward, and totally unsuited to undertaking a communist revolution. Also, the regimes did not arise as a result of popular support for communism. In the revolutions in the Soviet Union and China the primary concern of the peasant masses was nothing more than land reform. In Eastern Europe the regimes were due to the arrival of the Soviet Red Army at the end of WWII rather than popular revolutions. So I think it is safe to say that these regimes would not have survived if they had been democratic.
However, it is important to keep in mind the alternative in most cases was right-wing tyranny rather than democracy. And of course these regimes eventually lost the minimal revolutionary content they may have originally had.So their authoritarian nature could no longer be blamed on communists. Instead we just had phonies like Vladimir Putin who pretended to be communists until the collapse of the Soviet Union and we presently have people like Xi Jinping in China who still pretend to be communists. The take-home message here is that the conditions were very different from what we would expect in the future when revolutionary regimes come to power in highly developed societies on the back of widespread support for their political program.
Freedom of speech
Now, the economist Milton Friedman famously argued that freedom of speech and the emergence of diverse political groups require the decentralization of resource ownership that only capitalism can deliver.He argued that under capitalism you have the possibility of finding a rich patron. Marx and Frederick Engels and the Bolsheviks received money from anonymous benefactors as well as from robbing banks. Under social ownership, however, resources would be centralized in the hands of the very authorities that you may want to criticize. However, I would argue that with everyone having very high disposable incomes and access to the Internet you would not have to rely on central authorities providing resources. Also I do not see any insurmountable obstacles to ensuring open access for various resources needed for a vibrant political life.
I do not want to paint too rosy a picture.A revolutionary government during its initial phase may have to declare a state of emergency if there is a rebellion by supporters of the old order. Their rebellion could take the form of civil war, terrorism and sabotage, and dealing with it will not be easy. At the same time, for success, we will need the freedom to criticize those in positions of authority when they display incompetence or lack of revolutionary politics. Bottom up supervision will be a critical part of the system. Indeed, a social system that relies on people taking the initiative without external prompting, could not function if people are not able to say what they think is wrong and what they think should be done about it.
I will now make two points to briefly sum up.
Firstly, capitalism creates the very economic conditions required for a more advanced classless society that will be based on social ownership of the means of production.
Secondly, a primary task for the present period is ensuring economic and political progress in the more backward regions of the world. For this we need a liberal global economic order, well directed economic aid, and diplomatic and military support in fighting the battle for democracy. And critical to this is beating back the nationalist anti-globalist wind that is blowing at the moment.
Many thanks to Joel Newman and Open Borders: the Case for permission to run this piece.
* * * * * *
I had hoped that the Syrian civil war would produce, against the odds, a democracy which protected the diverse ethnic groups who live in the country. Either non-jihadist democratic Syrian rebels would prevail and be charitable towards those who have supported the Assad government, or an agreement between the rebels and the Syrian regime would transition the country toward democracy.
None of this has materialized, Syria is devastated, and with the oppressive Assad regime firmly in control of the western portions of the country, political progress appears impossible.
According to David Lesch, writing in The New York Times, most Syrians now live in extreme poverty, the unemployment rate is over 50%, half of Syrian children are not enrolled in school, typhoid, tuberculosis, and other diseases are endemic, hundreds of thousands are dead, and millions are injured. Different forces, including the Islamic State, control different parts of the country, and fighting likely will continue between these groups. Hundreds of billions of dollars would be needed to rebuild the country, and Mr. Lesch believes that other countries will not step up to provide reconstruction money.
Not surprisingly, almost five million Syrians have fled their country, not including millions of others who have been displaced within Syria. Almost a million have migrated to Europe. About 18,000 Syrians have been resettled in the U.S., and about 40,000 Syrians have gone to Canada. Most of the refugees are stranded in Turkey (about 2.5 million), Lebanon (about 1 million), and Jordan (about a half million), with limited opportunities to resettle elsewhere.
It is past time for the U.S. and Canada to allow the millions of Syrian refugees living in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan to immigrate to their countries. In addition to the fundamental moral reasons that oblige countries to open their borders to almost all immigrants, there are several compelling reasons why there should be swift acceptance of these refugees.
First, while multiple nations and groups have been involved in the Syrian war, the U.S. bears some responsibility for the catastrophe. Since the U.S. has the world’s mightiest military, it always has the option to intervene and have an impact on a conflict. In Syria, the U.S. intervened by providing some support to rebels fighting the Assad regime, but the intervention never was forceful enough to quickly resolve the conflict.
According to Philip Gordon, who worked on Middle Eastern affairs at the U.S. National Security Council from 2013 to 2015, the U.S. has only prolonged the Syrian war: “… our policy was to support the opposition to the point that it was strong enough to lead the regime and its backers to come to the table and negotiate away the regime. And that was an unrealistic objective…I think it is fair to say that we ended up doing enough to perpetuate a conflict, but not enough to bring it to a resolution.”
The U.S. could have disabled the regime’s air force, as Senator McCain has recently advocated, especially before the Russian military became directly involved in the conflict. That might have saved the lives of many civilians targeted by Syrian aircraft and perhaps led to a settlement between the rebels and the government. (I recognize that direct military action doesn’t always lead to positive outcomes, considering the results in Iraq and Libya.)
In addition, other actions short of direct attacks on the Syrian military could have been undertaken to protect civilians, as Nicholas Kristof has noted. These include creating safe zones in Syria protected by the U.S. military and destroying military runways so Syrian warplanes couldn’t be employed. Accepting Syrian refugees would be some compensation for the U.S. failure in Syria to resolve the conflict and protect civilians.
Second, Syrians in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan are struggling. (Some refugees are also struggling in Greece.) Many children are not able to go to school, it is difficult for adults to get work, and the refugees are becoming impoverished. Some Mercy Corps teams “have seen families living in rooms with no heat or running water, in abandoned chicken coops and in storage sheds.” The desperation of the refugees is reflected in the attempt by many of them to reach Europe by making risky sea crossings, during which some have perished.
The host countries are apparently unwilling and/or unable to incorporate the newcomers into their societies. According to Mercy Corps, in Jordan and Lebanon, “weak infrastructure and limited resources are nearing a breaking point under the strain.”
As to Turkey, one observer stated: “It remains unclear how the embattled country – which is also dealing with declining GDP, multiple attacks, and a war against Kurdish fighters in the southeast – will be able to accommodate nearly three million refugees, the vast majority of whom are young adults and children seeking jobs and education.” The U.S. and Canada, with wealthier economies, more political stability, and a tradition of incorporating immigrants, would provide a better refuge for the Syrians than the Middle Eastern countries.
Third, the rapid migration of Syrian refugees to Canada and the U.S. could diminish the threat of terrorism. It is risky to continue the Obama policy of allowing very few Syrian refugees to enter or maintain the Trump policy, which indefinitely bars Syrian refugees from the country. The longer Syrian refugees are stuck in their host Middle Eastern countries, the greater the risk that they will become radicalized.
According to a Brookings Institution article, “the risk of radicalization is especially heightened where IDPs and refugees find themselves in protracted situations: marginalized, disenfranchised, and excluded. Finding solutions for displaced populations should be an urgent priority for humanitarian reasons but also as a security issue.” (See also here. )
While ideally the Obama administration’s thorough vetting of refugees for admission into the U.S. would continue, its sluggish nature makes it imprudent to maintain. A faster screening process must be implemented in order to bring the refugees into economically advanced, mostly tolerant North America, where they could thrive and become more immune to radicalization.
In addition to rescuing the refugees from potentially radicalizing conditions in the Middle East, there is another mechanism by which admitting them might prevent terrorism. In a previous post, I suggested how open borders could help protect receiving countries from terrorism, including by freeing up resources for screening immigrants for terrorist threats, by improving government relations with Muslim immigrant communities which could assist with stopping terrorism, and by providing more Muslim immigrants who could join Western intelligence agencies. Similarly, admitting Syrian refugees from the Middle East could generate goodwill among the American and Canadian Muslim communities, perhaps resulting in an increase in the number of Muslims willing to assist in preventing terrorism.
Evidence of this may be found in the German government’s recent admittance of over a million immigrants, many of whom are Syrian refugees. This may have earned Germany more support from its Muslim community in efforts to prevent terrorism, according to Robert Verkaik, writing on CNN‘s website. He notes that
“In October last year, two Syrians managed to capture a terror suspect in Leipzig who was planning a bomb attack on German airports… And in November last year, a German Muslim man who had returned from fighting ISIS in Syria provided information to German security services that led to the arrest of a major extremist cell. These examples show that the German security services, in common with agencies across Europe, critically rely on intelligence passed on by members of its Muslim communities”.
He also seems to suggest that a Muslim informant warned the security services about the suspect before the attack on the Berlin Christmas market last year.
Many people are concerned that Syrian refugees could commit acts of terrorism in the U.S. However, they should consider that about half of the refugees are children, who “don’t fit the typical profile for terrorists.” And, as noted elsewhere, most Muslims are peaceful. (Some Syrian refugees are not even Muslim.) Furthermore, Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute has determined, based on historical data, the statistical chance of being killed by a foreigner committing a terrorist act in the U.S.: 1 in 3.6 million per year. For the risk of being killed by such an act by a refugee, the risk is 1 in 3.64 billion per year. If the 9/11 attacks are excluded, “21 foreign-born terrorists succeeded in murdering 41 people from 1975 through 2015.” Nowrasteh’s conclusion is that “foreign-born terrorism on U.S. soil is a low-probability event.” Its risks are minuscule when compared to other causes of death.
It is also notable that, as co-blogger Hansjörg points out, the German experience with the recent influx of Muslim refugees belies the predictions by restrictionists that their admittance would result in lots of terrorist acts there. Hansjörg notes that the number of lethal Islamist terrorist attacks in Germany (ever) is in the low single digits. There is minimal risk involved for Canada and the U.S. to accept millions of Syrian refugees, even without consideration for the aforementioned ways their admittance could actually help prevent terrorism.
Furthermore, it might be better for the Syrian refugees to go to North America than to some European countries. Many argue that the U.S. does a better job than European countries at integrating immigrants. One writer notes that “the conditions of Muslims in some European countries can create fertile breeding grounds for extremism, whereas societies with more-integrated Muslim populations like the United States are less susceptible.” (See also here, here, and here.) David Frum, writing in The Atlantic, states: “Europe is coping poorly with its large population of alienated, under-employed, and in some cases radicalized Muslim immigrants and their children. It seems then the zenith of recklessness to make that population larger still.”
Another writer even suggests that radical Muslims in Europe will infect Syrian refugees with their ideology, although he proposes vigorous integration efforts rather than exclusion from Europe.
At the same time, some are sanguine about European integration of its Muslim residents. Shada Islam of Friends of Europe asserts: “Make no mistake; while extremists of all ilk may decry multi-cultural Europe, the process of adaptation, accommodation, integration, of Europe and Islam is already well underway… Europe’s once solely security-focused approach to dealing with Muslims has been replaced with a more balanced view that includes an integration agenda and migrant outreach programmes.”
Similarly, co-blogger Hansjörg, who lives in Germany, states that “on the whole, my personal impression is that integration works quite well also in Europe. There is a tendency, especially in the US (but also in Europe from those who are critical), to present this as a story of severe problems, divides that cannot be bridged, etc. I don’t think that is true (not to say there are not some problems).”
Finally, admitting millions of Syrian refugees into the U.S. and Canada may not be very disruptive in other respects.
A study for the Centre for European Economic Research on the recent migrant influx into Germany has found that there are “no signs of quick and clear deleterious effects in Germany post ‘migrant crisis’ involving, as the authors conclude, ‘more than a million’ migrants entering Germany in 2014-15 on native employment, crime, or anti-immigrant politics specifically linked to the presence of migrants on the county level.” In the U.S. it is notable that “eleven percent of Syrian immigrants to the U.S. own businesses, according to a new report from the Fiscal Policy Institute and the Center for American Progress. That compares to four percent of immigrants overall and three percent of people born in the United States.” According to one Syrian immigrant, self reliance is emphasized in Syrian culture, a trait that is compatible with American culture. Moreover, a research director at the Fiscal Policy Institute states that Syrian immigrants in the U.S. have generally been successful and could help the refugees adapt to life here.
The economic impact on the U.S. actually could be positive.
People throughout the U.S. welcome refugees because they know from experience the beneficial effect that refugees have on communities, according to David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee. He writes that “to take one example, over the course of a decade, refugees created at least 38 new businesses in the Cleveland area alone. In turn, these businesses created an additional 175 jobs, and in 2012 provided a $12 million stimulus to the local economy.” In Rutland, Vermont, the mayor has advocated resettling refugees from Syria and Iraq in his city to help address a declining and aging city population. Population loss there could lead employers like General Electric to leave the city. (A 2013 post looks at efforts by various American cities to attract immigrants in order to help their economies.)
In summary, allowing millions of Syrian refugees to enter the U.S. and Canada not only would be morally warranted, it could minimize the risk of future terrorism, relieve the suffering of many, and enrich both countries. Unfortunately, the Trump administration is moving in the opposite direction, with Trump ordering an indefinite stop to the entry of Syrian refugees into the U.S. The longer he blocks their entry, the greater the perils for both the refugees and the West.
(Joel Newman has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon, USA).
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