Piping for the 'Covert Battalions'



How does a working-class hero reconcile conservative ideas with a revolutionary reputation? After participating in a Melbourne press conference with Billy Bragg, I am convinced it is an amusing and confusing exercise in self-deception.

Allegiance to social democracy and the ballot box seems to be the core of Bragg's vision for social progress. He acknowledges the experience of the British Labour Party which "took the centre ground and then drifted right with the Conservative Party", but suggests this occurred because the Labour Party had "no ideology anywhere but subscribed to the dogma that whatever works, works", even if that means wholesale privatisation.

Bragg ignores the clear manifestations of the Labour Party's neo-liberal ideology from economic rationalism to racist policies on refugees to military build-up.

Indeed the main source of his concern stems from the 60% voter turn-out in the most recent UK election, "the lowest since women got the vote". Certainly a low voter turn-out is significant but does this not suggest that voters recognise that the major political parties do not represent their interests?

Bragg's support for the British Labour Party even extends to its leader, British PM Tony Blair, whom he admires for having a "world view". He nonetheless cautions Blair against using the present war as an opportunity to appear "statesmanlike".

He approves of Blair's close relationship with the United States, merely remarking that "standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States does not mean giving a carte blanche to do whatever they want".

Indeed Bragg's explanation for British engagement in the present war stems from a "nostalgia for the days when we had gunboats to impress our will on natives". He is silent on the recolonisation of the Third World or Western control of the oil-rich Middle East or the legitimation of conservative governments in Australia, Britain and the US or the many other benefits offered to the Western ruling classes by this war.

Bragg vociferously defends the United States' response to the World Trade Center bombing, rejecting other analyses as the "moral equivalence argument".

"Saying the US deserved what it got is like saying a woman deserves to be raped because of what she wears. All nations and governments are complicit in the WTC bombing. We can't lay it at the feet of the US by referring to what Kissinger did in Chile."

Bragg declares that the terrorists on September 11 did not have an aim, yet in a confusing reversal goes on to state that "They want an all-out war between Muslim and infidel".

Why does he then refuse to condemn the bombing of Afghanistan which clearly plays into that agenda? In answer he muses, "How do you respond to the event in a way that makes people feel secure?"

He then attempts some critical analysis by querying the need for the Australian SAS in Afghanistan, instead suggesting a role for the World Health Organisation or the United Nations.

Bragg's faith in institutions of the ruling elite reflects his core belief that current political problems stem from "accountability and connecting".

When asked how the European Union, the UN and transnational corporations can be made accountable he replies "by traditional methods", such as consumer boycotts and the dissemination of information.

By contrast he does not support the 300,000 strong protest at Genoa, stating "I don't believe you can change the world by smashing up McDonald's but you can by organising a trade union in McDonald's".

For this reason he recognises the Zapatista struggle as it is "organised outside of consumer societies".

"We need indigenous movements to make the connection with us, we don't say to them 'don't wear Nikes', as many in the Third World may wish to wear them."

Bragg ignores the reality that indigenous struggles in the Third World have been attempting for decades to "make the connection with us". Since Seattle we are at last responding, not to some imaginary cry not to wear Nike shoes, but to desperate pleas to cancel Third World debt and permit refugees to escape the prison of poverty and oppression.

In a statement dear to leftie hearts Bragg asserts "globalisation can be harnessed, the negative force is capitalism".

Yet his definition of capitalism suggests he defines it by symptom, "excessive exploitation", rather than as an all-embracing structure. He suggests "the concern is free-market, laissez-faire capitalism", which needs "post-Marxist ideas and a society based on compassionate ideas" to redress the balance.

Betraying astounding ignorance of basic Marxist concepts he argues that "the language of Marxism is around class, it does not deal with globalisation, it does not deal with internationalism" and that "the language of Marxism does not strike a chord in the 21st century, instead we need to talk in terms of compassionate society".

When challenged with the rise of young, non-Stalinist socialist parties, such as the Scottish Socialist Party, he hastily agrees Marxism has relevance today, "but the end of the Soviet Union means we need to rethink this analysis".

What does Bragg suggest in place of Marxism?: the meaninglessly profound doctrine of "socialism of the heart not socialism of the mind".

It seems a long time ago since Bragg sang "revolution is just a T-shirt away".

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