The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

People talking politics in a bar

Last night in the Angel Cafe, the basement bar of the Roxy Arts Centre, Charlie Stross and I did our bit for the excellent series of free events - a sort of fringe to the Fringe, as well as to the Book Festival - organised by Edinburgh's radical bookshop Word Power. We each read a passage from our work and then we launched into a discussion about SF and politics. Word Power used the joke of the Scottish Socialist Science Fiction Vanguard Party in its publicity leaflet, but a joke it definitely is: Charlie, as he said firmly last night, is not a socialist, and I've been out of the vanguard-party construction business for the past thirteen years.

We, and a small but interested audience, talked about a lot of things, from the information economy and globalisation to the question of why (or whether) more men than women read science fiction. The audience even came back after the event was interrupted half-way through by a fire alarm, and the Word Power people seemed happy with how it all went, and keen to put on events with us again. Thanks to them, and to all who attended.

If the discussion had ambled differently, I might have talked about some related matters that have been on my mind recently. So I'll just do it here instead.

Looking back on that past thirteen years, part of what I've been doing in terms of writing both fiction and non-fiction can be seen as a political project. Here's a sample of what that project has been about:

A British Marxist, Mike MacNair, has written a short series of long articles on the nature of present-day imperialism, closely reading the arguments of theorists deservedly famous and deservedly obscure. Not light reading, but of particular interest for an original and striking suggestion, which at once locates imperialism within the long view of history and coincides with certain classical liberal and libertarian critiques of imperialism: namely, that the definitive symptom of a system in decline is an increasing dependence on, and hypertrophy of, the state.

This is an example of the sort of thing I would at one time have made much of.

It seemed to me, once, that some radical libertarians were saying, in one language, something that radical leftists had been saying in another language. It seemed to me, once, that the obscure Marxist sects had kept alive a continuity with the radical, democratic and anti-state elements of classical Marxism, elements long familiar to serious scholars and obvious to unprejudiced readers, but obscured by Stalinist monolithism and Cold War fog. Likewise, it seemed to me, the libertarians had pertinent points to make about issues that, while perennial, had become urgent after the Soviet collapse: the critique of central planning, and the defence of civil and personal liberties.

To the extent (in fact slight) that any of the characters in my books 'talk about politics in pubs', this, or something close to it, is usually what they're talking about. I didn't drag these conversations in by the hair - they usually tell us something relevant about the characters and advance the plot. But they were also the kind of dialogues I hoped the books would advance in real life. And, indeed, I engaged in such dialogues myself, arguing with Trots about planning and porn and guns, and with libertarians about workers' co-ops and market socialism and What Marx(ists) Really Said and what did or didn't happen in Russia.

What a schmuck!

So, on to other matters.

It's recently struck me that the moderate, liberal, democratic and humane response to the build-up to the Iraq war should have been to argue for the West to arm Iraq. It's not merely the case that invading Iraq was a distraction from fighting Al-Qaeda: it was objectively fighting on the same side as Al-Qaeda. If you're serious about fighting Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, the last thing you'd want to do, on the face of it, is overthrow - or even weaken - one of the few regimes in the region that was capable of and interested in crushing them within its borders. But that's what the US and UK did. The conclusion must be that they have other priorities that come higher than fighting Al-Qaeda.

The Brits have just charged eight men with conspiring to commit heinous terrorist acts. It seems that the arrests had to be made before enough evidence could be gathered to really nail them, but time will tell. Juan Cole has the story. It's a case study of the other priorities. Feel free to argue about it in a bar.


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