Why “Fund Education, Not War” is important

One of the best political groups to come out of the University of Sheffield in a long time is the Fund Education, Not War campaign. The massive breadth and depth of support the group has garnered – there were just over eighty people present at the launch event, and around twenty people regularly attend the open organising meetings – is impressive. The campaign has brought together activists involved in societies like Amnesty International, Ethical and Environmental Committee, CND, Stop the War Coalition and the Palestine Society (and more). The diversity of the campaign, and the number of activists involved, is an inspiration.

But this isn’t the principle reason that Fund Education, Not War is important.

The government has spun a crisis of investment into a crisis of public debt. The deficit in Britain is overwhelmingly a symptom of a decline in private investment. Unable to guarantee profits in the turbulence following the 2008 crash, the private sector stopped investing, the economy ceased to grow and tax receipts declined, punching a hole in the public finances.

As cuts devastate the public sector and higher education, private companies now register a return to record profits, yet still refuse to invest. The government has hiked fees for students to a massive £9000 at the same time as it has said that it will reduce corporation tax to a meagre 23% by 2015. It is rebalancing the economy even further away from wages, towards profits – from maintaining the living standards of the 99%, to increasing the living standards of the 1%. Justified by a hysterical cry to cut the deficit – a cry to cure the symptom, not the disease – the government is rushing to restore profitability at the expense of the majority.

As it is on the national stage, so it is on the international stage. The clarion call of “profits first” echoes across the globe at the same time as Western politicians – aided by the media – beat a march to further war in the Middle East.

It is has become a cliché that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought for oil. This makes it no less true. Similarly, it’s no accident that at a time of global economic crisis in which profits are at stake, the oldest imperial powers renew a vicious assault on the Middle East, from their attempts to turn the tide of revolution in Tunisia, then Egypt, to the recent “humanitarian” intervention in Libya, the results of which have been catastrophic.

Having installed a puppet government which has already capitulated to the economic needs of Western big business, all concern for human rights has been abandoned. As Tawergha is emptied of its Black population, as Black people are beaten and forced into cages and as the government signs the extra-judicial executions of those it arbitrarily deems to be the agents of Gaddafi, the advocates of liberal interventionism now turn their eyes to Syria and Iran, ignoring the abuses of the rebels they supported, whilst loudly condemning the human rights abuses of those they do not.

This ideological capriciousness is a function of the real motive for military and political intervention – the bolstering of a political superstructure that sanctions the easy extraction of profits from the region.

It is our military that has facilitated the creation of this superstructure, partly funded by the redirection of funds from Higher Education into military spending. Although many on the political Right bemoan the underfunding of “defence”, the government’s special reserves – reserves only ever used for war – have increased. To maintain its position of military power, the government proposes spending hundreds of billions on the Trident missile system. Money once used to educate the 99% is now being used to subsidise military adventures designed to benefit the 1%.

Perversely, it is the arms companies profiting from the wars fought by western governments who step into the funding breach. A recent Fund Education, Not War FAQ points out that the University of Sheffield has taken over £41 million from arms companies.

FENW started from the premise that a moral commitment to human life means that Universities should not be taking money from arms companies that make weapons designed to kill thousands of people. It was an alliance of people united in attempting to stop the watering down of the Students’ Union policy against the University of Sheffield’s dealings with the arms trade. It has subsequently expanded into a critique of the system which produces the University’s reliance on arms companies for funding.

The strength and vibrancy of the campaign is in this embryonic, but nevertheless valuable, critique. In bringing the peace movement into dialogue with the anti-cuts movement, the campaign is one of the most exciting in which I’ve had the pleasure to be involved. The lesson inhering in this success is that broad, united front campaigns are created by taking hold of the immediate political problem of the day and using it to illuminate a broader understanding of the system that produces it. As one famous Bolshevik wrote:

Every question “runs in a vicious circle” because political life as a whole is an endless chain consisting of an infinite number of links. The whole art of politics lies in finding and taking as firm a grip as we can of the link that is least likely to be struck from our hands, the one that is most important at the given moment, the one that most of all guarantees its possessor the possession of the whole chain.

FENW is important and exciting because it is beginning to grasp that chain and use it to pull a not insignificant number of students to its cause.

Some thoughts on religion, politics and the New Atheism

It’s a judge’s job to interpret the law. In America, the appointment of judges is an incredibly political act. It can change the ruling on hugely important issues like a woman’s right to control her own body, the death penalty and the legal constitution of the entire state. Rightly, judges are seen as political actors – they fit into the political spectrum and are labelled “Liberal” or “Conservative” according to the interpretation of the law they endorse (notably, there are no “socialist” high court judges…). Zizek has argued that when we talk about the law, the most important thing to examine is not necessarily the laws themselves, but how those laws are interpreted and the ways in which people relate to them. Law is one arena in which political battles are fought.

The parallels between law and religion are striking. Within the religious community, there are conservative, liberal and – indeed – socialist interpretations of scripture. Both the legal statutes and religious scriptures provide the terrain for what are effectively political battles. Although rhetorically theological, religious debates are in substance political. Theology is the ideological expression of politics within the domain of religion, just as legality is the ideological expression of politics within the judiciary.

It is for this reason that the New Atheism’s attacks on religion are simplistic. They label religion – or the faith-based argument – as inherently reactionary. It is religion that is at fault for persecuting gay men and women and for the subjugation of women throughout history. But to see religion in this way is to ignore the fundamentally political nature of religious institutions. It is to ignore the living, breathing dynamism of theological ideologies and resort to arid, abstract formalisms of the type “Leviticus says…”, or “this Hadith says…”. In short, it is to substitute for reality – that is, how religions are actually practiced by the plurality of their followers – for scholarly abstraction – that is, how the New Atheist believes the scripture should be interpreted.

Therein is the perversity in the New Atheist’s argument. It is an analytical contradiction. On the one hand they condemn the reactionary content of some scripture, whilst on the other condemning those who “cherry-pick” only its liberal or socialist interpretations (or those who ignore that section of scripture completely, believing them not to be the voice of God for whatever reason). Religious conservatives are taken to task for their doctrinarism, whereas the liberals and socialists are taken to task for not being doctrinaire enough.

If all interpretations of scripture are deficient, whatever their political motivation, then, to the New Atheists (like all good liberals…) it is the process by which these interpretations are reached that must be at fault. Faith is, to them, the key problem. But could anyone with any intellectual honesty say that they came to a particular set of values or beliefs rationally, in the sense of reasoning inductively or deductively?

Che Guevara once said that it is great love which motivates the revolutionary. It is passion – “the optimism of the will” balancing “the pessimism of the intellect” as Antonio Gramsci formulated it – which drives many secular progressives (like myself) to dedicate the time and energy to political activity. Before anyone ever read Capital – Marx’s rational, reasoned analysis of the inevitable decline of capitalism – some had faith that the world could change for the better.

Given the centrality of secular faith and emotion to the everyday experience of political life of the progressive activist, how could any of us criticise the deep well of religious faith motivating the political actions of believers? To say that faith is the problem is to say that the civil rights activists were mistaken; that the liberation theologians of Latin America were mistaken; that the Irish republicans were mistaken; and that the Palestinian resistance is mistaken in drawing strength and conviction from faith (to name only a few liberation movements). It is to ignore their concrete political achievements, and fetishise their psychological motivations.

In all this, it’s not the motivation that matters, but the politics – for what, concretely, do believers stand and whose interests do they articulate?

In his famous statement containing the immortal words ‘religion is the opium of the people’, Marx also wrote that ‘to call on [the oppressed] to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions’. Paradoxically, it may be that to reach the point at which faith is surplus to ideological requirement requires the faith of some of us who fight to get us there.