by John Pilger
New Press, 1999
John Pilger is the greatest journalist of his age. Like George Orwell in a previous era, he reports with rare insight the crucial struggles that define our times. In his latest book he is in full form, shedding light upon the ugly human reality beneath the buzzwords "globalization" and "privatization" and trumpeting the efforts of individuals who resist political and economic oppression. Guided by a profoundly humane intelligence, Pilger manuevers through the trenches of worldwide opposition and penetrates the hypocracies of the western democracies.
Amongst the "hidden agendas" deftly exposed by Pilger is the sham leftism of Tony Blair's "Third Way," which has proven itself to be little more than Thatcherism by another name. Along with consulting with Thatcher on a wide range of issues, Blair and New Labour have aligned ideologically with British think tank Demos, whose board members include Thatcher's old economic advisor. Pilger descirbes how Blair has drawn inspiration from Bill Clinton in his war against the poor and his nostalgia for communitarian values and old-fashioned "pre-welfare state" morality. He even quotes memorandums by Frank Field, Labour Social Security Minister, which include direct echoes of Charles Murray regarding the moral depravity of the poor.
Pilger also offers a revealing picture of the UK arms industry, the second biggest in the world after the US. He describes how Mark Thatcher (son of Margret) amassed a private fortune throughout the 80s, when his mother awarded huge contracts to the Saudis and Kuwaities in deals that he brokered.
The flow of money from the bottom up that is the arms industry, with public funds being turned into private profit, has continued unabated under the Labour government. So too have sales to brutal regimes with horrendous human rights records--this despite the promise of foreign secretary Robin Cook that Labour would maintain an "ethical foreign policy". In fact, one of Labour's first acts in power was to approve the sale of fighter planes to the government of Indonesia, even against expert testimony that the planes would be used against villagers in East Timor.
Pilger also takes on the claim that the government subsidation of the defense industry is crucial to job creation, noting that in many pork-barrel projects it costs as much as $600,000 to produce a single job in Britain.
But critique makes up only half of Pilger's project. The other half involves inspiring sketches of Resistance. Such as the story of four female East Timor activists who snuck into a British Aerospace military site and took household hammers to Hawk jets being shipped to Indonesia, causing over £1.5 million in damage and putting one jet totally out of commission. The "East Timor Ploughshares" were ultimately acquitted and promised to step up their direct action.
Another moving chapter recounts the efforts of the Liverpool dockers to retain hard won jobs in the face of privatization and downsizing. Following Thatcher's abolition of the National Dock Labour Scheme, which gauranteed overtime and stable hours, the Liverpool docks were privatized and the old workers fired. The new contracts offered the archaic conditions of "casual labor," which generations of Liverpool dockers had fought long and hard to eradicate.
The struggle that followed proved to be the most dramatic show of international labor solidarity in years. Longshoremen throughout Asia, North America and Europe, facing the same threats of "casualization," refused to unload cargo from Liverpool. In Japan alone, over fifty ports were affected; over a hundred worldwide causing almost 2 billion in losses. One of Pilger's passages about North America personalizes the events:
At a longshoremen's meeting in Florida, [the organizer] came away with $50,000 in support money. In Los Angeles, workers set up a picket line at the port and among those who refused to cross it were a convoy of Mexican truck drivers who had no union and were among the lowest paid in the country. In Canada, the Liverpool dockers walked in with a morning shift at the Port of Montreal, climbed a gantry and unfurled a banner announcing that the Canadian Pacific-owned container firm CAST was employing scab labor in Liverpool. When police tried to arrest them, a ring of Canadian dockers protected them....
Pilger also describes the solidarity of the East Timorese in their struggle against a genocidal regime in Jakarta, a struggle Pilger himslef has done much to expose over the years. His interviews with former American foreign service officers demonstrate to a chilling degree how consciously the US intended its heavy military and logistical support to be used against defenseless villagers. His interviews with the jailed Timorese resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, however, make clear that the spirit of the Timorese people remains strong and is growing stronger.
Pilger runs through the history of Australian and New Zealand governmental collusion with Suharto, and shows that even the "nicest" countries have blood on their hands.
As for Indonesia itself, Pilger attempts to rescue the proud history of democracy and human rights that defined the trajectory of Indonesian political life before the Western-backed military coup that put Suharto in power. He describes the religous tolerance and social justice concerns of the populist Sukarno regime and notes that in 1955 a thriving civic culture nurtured over thirty competing parties. As current unrest is bearing out, Indonesians have not forgotten this rich history of popular resistance. With strikes and revolts spreading in scale and intensity, one doubts that the country will remain an "investors paradise" much longer.
Perhaps now, fifty years after independance from the Dutch, the Indonesian working class can forge a society ofjustice for the Timorese and dignity for everyone, the interests of foreign investors be damned.
Pilger's point is that the fight for a just Indonesian society is also a fight for a just South African society which is also a fight for a just Brazilian and British society. Winning this struggle necessarily means the global triumph of democratic socialism, which Pilger rightly holds as still our best and only hope.