A confession from the amoral Left: reply to Andrew Chitty, Dec. 2001

Posted: December 13, 2009 in 2001, Global War on Terror, the left

from http://www.theglobalsite.ac.uk/justpeace/112shaw.htm

There is a small irony in the fact that Andrew Chitty, an academic philosopher (in his comment, Moralism, Terrorism and War) should accuse me, a social scientist, of ‘moralism’ in my Ten Challenges to the Anti-War Movement. In responding, I shall compound this irony by insisting on the importance of the moral ground that Chitty is happy to evacuate. But I shall suggest that the contradiction is more apparent than real. Our philosopher insists on historical explanation, but has little real sense of the historical forces at work. His argument for amorality conceals, moreover, an approach that is politically reactionary.

Historical understanding … or ignorance?

The first part of Chitty’s response accuses me of ‘presuming the legitimacy of the world status quo’. I don’t think any reader will find this in my original piece. His real point, however, is that I ‘see the attacks of 11th September as an “initial aggression”, an irruption into this status quo from out of the blue. Yet in fact the attacks are a continuation and escalation of a war for the colonial subjugation of the Middle East that has been fought more or less continuously since World War 2 between the US and its proxy state Israel on the one hand and their locally-based opponents and the other.’ Chitty is quite explicit about the extraordinary range and duration of this singular ‘war’: ‘Suez, the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur war, the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf War of 1991, the bombing of Iraq which has continued ever since, and the two Palestinian intifadas are all episodes’. What he quaintly calls ‘Islamic revivalists’ are apparently legitimated in their attacks because they are taking up the baton passed to them by the ‘socialists and communists’ defeated in earlier phases of this struggle. From this it is a short step to his ‘positive defence of the Taleban and Osama Bin Laden, as the current representatives of Middle Eastern resistance to imperialist power, in their war against the US and its proxies.’

This extraordinary conclusion doesn’t invalidate the ‘attempt to understand the political and historical origins of these last attacks’ as such – the general alternative to my supposed moralism that Chitty advocates. But it certainly demonstrates the failure of his particular understanding. Anyone who sees everything that has happened in the Middle East over the last 45 years as a single war in which the US is the chief protagonist, and then draws the conclusion that anything goes – even al-Qaida – needs lessons in historical understanding as well as morality. Anyone who believes that Bin Laden’s politics can be described as a revival of Islam, a world religion that provides justification for peace and tolerance, rather than a murderous reinterpretation of it, needs lessons too in the relationships between religion and politics. What is most pernicious about this historical framework, with its casual legitimation of reactionary Islamism, is the way it cuts the ground from the many courageous people who continue to work for democracy, human rights and indeed socialism throughout the Muslim world.

Chitty’s loose historical understanding descends into ignorance when it comes to international justice. ‘As for the system of international justice Shaw recommends,’ he writes, ‘so far it is noticeable that its chief victims have been those that have posed an obstacle to the US, or at best those it has no use for. The chances that the members of the Russian, Turkish, Indonesian, Salvadorian, Chilean, Israeli and (most of all) American governments responsible for the massacres of the last 50 years will ever face trial for those massacres before its courts are effectively zero. It is a system that has functioned overwhelmingly as another tool of US power.’ The curious thing about these comments is that is assumes a working general system of world justice: I made no such assumption, nor does the evidence warrant it.

What I did was to commend the International Criminal Tribunals for Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda as the ‘the available models of international law enforcement’, and ‘a remarkable example of international justice at work.’ By definition, these ad hoc tribunals established for particular regions do not have universal jurisdiction. They were established not by the US but by the UN: I argued that they are ‘a triumph for European-driven ideas of law over might’. There is, of course, a new treaty to enforce universal criminal justice through an International Criminal Court, but as I pointed out Clinton watered it down and Bush wishes to abort it. The ICC will not try those responsible for all the massacres of the last 50 years for the simple reason that it will not have retrospective jurisdiction. But it will have purchase over future crimes, even those committed by Americans, which is precisely why US Republicans want nothing to do with it. Chitty’s response shows that he knows little and cares less about these niceties. His attitude only confirms what I argued: that the hard Left lines up squarely with the American Right to contest the development of international justice.

Genocide and moralism

When it comes to genocide, Chitty’s ignorance leads into serious conceptual confusion. It also demonstrates his failure to grasp the links of morality with law and politics. He sees my use of the term ‘genocidal massacre’ to describe the 911 attacks only as a symptom of ‘moralism’. This shows that he simply hasn’t thought through what genocide means. My use of this term wasn’t a matter of ratcheting up the moral condemnation. Genocide is, first of all, an international legal term, defined by the international political process that determined the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide. It has a precise definition in this context, although social scientists (among whom I am one) have frequently criticised the imperfections of this politically contrived legal definition, and have proposed improvements to it. Nevertheless its international origins tell us that genocide has a clear moral meaning: it designates a class of social action that is profoundly illegitimate. Genocide was declared illegal because the intentional destruction of a civilian group as such was considered a profound affront to the common moral sense of humanity. Whatever the contradictory, even hypocritical positions of some of the signatory states, this understanding holds.

Chitty considers my use of the term genocide ‘inappropriate’. ‘The World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were attacked’, he says, ‘as the greatest symbols of US economic and military power, not for the number of American people in them.’ The first part of this statement is true: indeed in this sense, the attacks can be considered an act of war. However the second part is clearly inaccurate. The terrorists clearly knew – they had had the twin towers in their sights for a decade – how many people worked in them and this knowledge was intrinsic to their attack. The terrorists must have calculated that the way in which they would make their point against American power was to kill large numbers of American people. Indeed they probably counted on more victims than they actually claimed. As Christopher Hitchens has pointed out, they may reasonably have assumed that the towers could collapse across downtown Manhatten, which could have caused tens of thousands of deaths, rather than in on themselves as actually happened. (Moreover we know from Bin Laden’s own statements that he encourages attacks on American civilians.) The 911 attack was on the cusp between degenerate war – where civilians are attacked in order to defeat the enemy state – and genocide – where the attack on a civilian population becomes an end in itself. Historians have shown how frequently this line is blurred.

Chitty refrains from joining ‘the roar of moral condemnation of September 11th a roar whose volume is quite out of proportion to the numbers killed on that day if we take as a standard the corresponding levels of public condemnation of, say, the Rwandan genocide, the Russian butchery in Chechnya, or the ongoing slaughter of Turkish Kurds.’ The difference between him and me is not just that he ignores the distinct possibility that the killers may have intended more victims than they achieved. It is also that I don’t think it is much of an argument to say that, because other episodes of butchery have received insufficient attention, this one should be minimised too. Nor do I agree with him that numbers are the prime criterion. And above all, the difference is that I think that all episodes of mass killing require a moral response, which informs our political positions.

‘For Shaw’, Chitty argues, ‘every act must first of all be named and judged in the language of morality and right: the attacks of 11th September (a “genocidal massacre”), the launching of a war on Afghanistan (America had a right to do so, though doing so may not have been right), the method of bombing to prosecute the war (“questionable”, which is to say morally questionable), and even the actions of the anti-war movement (which show a “moral failing”).’ Yes, but not of abstracted morality. I have already shown that genocide is a political, legal and sociological concept, with moral meaning, not simply a moral term. Likewise, America’s rights, to which I referred, were legal rights according to international law as well as moral rights according to just war theory. (Since Chitty and others criticised America for disregarding international norms over Kosovo, they are under an obligation to consider its claims in this case.) Bombing is questionable in similar terms, because of the distinctive politics of Western ‘risk-transfer militarism‘ (which I have analysed). Law, politics and morality are not entirely separate, each from the other. Rather they are comprehensively intertwined.

In American strategic decisions, Chitty argues, morality will play no part; indeed the latter’s role is to rationalise decisions after the event: ‘If the decision is to launch military action then the necessary moral fervour to justify it will be whipped up … . In the sphere of international relations, public moral discourse in the West is little more than a means of selling decisions that have already been arrived at by other means to the domestic population in a language they can understand.’ Taken literally, Chitty’s denial that either terrorist massacre or American bombing is a moral issue shows that he himself adopts fundamentally the same amoral stance that he ascribes to his enemies. His evacuation of moral argument is even more extraordinary than his bland support for Bin Laden.

However, the fact that moral rhetoric may be utilised by Tony Blair or George Bush to justify the unjustifiable does not mean that all morally informed discourse must fulfil this role. If we follow Chitty in believing American policy is amoral, surely opposition should claim the moral ground. The substantive immorality of US policy should spur us to develop a morally and politically adequate alternative. But Chitty perversely refuses this challenge. Instead he matches – even trumps – the supposed American amorality, refusing the moral element in criticism of American power. He denies the anti-war movement this basis needed to build a serious opposition. He advocates an anti-war coalition with no principled basis – the mirror image of Bush’s own lowest-common-denominator coalition. His realpolitik shows how close some anti-war politics comes to sharing the general philosophy of its American Conservative enemies – with which, as we have seen, it also shares specific positions like the rejection of international justice.

We have seen where Chitty’s amoral historical explanation and his amoral politics lead: to the endorsement of Bin Laden and the Taleban as the latest historical agents of the inevitable anti-American struggle. What is happening here is that moral concerns are being collapsed into a purely reactive response to American power, whatever the latter’s precise content. Thus whichever forces are opposed to the US, even if they are more reactionary than US policy itself, must be broadly supported. Having abandoned any kind of alternative moral claim, Chitty’s intellectual opposition to the US appears as little more than a pale reflection of the vicious reactionary forces that he locates as actually opposing it in practice.

No one claims that morality by itself tells us what to do about great international issues. I do not abjure historical explanation, nor do I substitute morality for politics. And yet theory and politics that cannot find a place for morality are even more vacuous than a morality that fails to engage properly with history and politics. That a section of the left, of which Chitty is only one representative, should reach this amoral state tells us something rather shocking about the depths into which it has sunk. Chitty’s response is a confession of moral emptiness, a bleak testimony to the dead-end that is contemporary anti-imperialism.


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