Statement on the rising situation in al Quds

When an abused, repressed and oppressed people fights back using means that cause genuine hurt to members of the oppressor group, even members who are not directly involved in oppression themselves, and even when the acts are even arguably “counter productive” with respect to the struggle for justice, these acts must not be equivocated with the acts of violence used to pacify their resistance and maintain an unjust status quo.

I disagree with acts of resistance that are not legal under international law. However as a matter of priority,  it is qualitatively more important to condemn and bring to a halt acts of pacification that suppress even these acts of resistance. Acts of resistance,  even those which are not morally justifiable, must be recognized in the context of oppression and reverse oppression, rather than the “terrorism”  discourse which only sees violence that challenges the status quo as a problem.

Political violence must come to an end through an agreement based on the recognition of Rights and real promises to dissolve institutions that sustain oppression, not through counter insurgency,  policing,  and military actions.

Short Note on the Synonymity of ‘Militant’ and Activist’ and its Conceptual and Practical Implications

The term “militant vegan” is used by many as a derogatory term, implying those who refuse to consume animal products are participating in a sort of violence. I actually have no issue with the term itself, but this usage is deeply problematic. If veganism is associated with militancy, or violence in any way, this violence is secondary to the primary violence of the food animal-agriculture industrial complex. Furthermore, the vast majority of struggle carried out by vegans is strictly non-violent, in part because of the strength of ideological “nonviolentism”, which tends to equivocate between primary and secondary violence, and in part because ‘non-violent’ struggle tends to be the most effective kind (because any secondary violence that is not willing to go all the way can easily be used to justify an increase in primary violence, with mass support).

Still, even with all the “military” connotations to the term “militant”, I think it is worth re-appropriating, and I’ll give a few reasons. First, the term “militant” includes the connotations of discipline, organization, and collective focus, shared tactics and strategies, singular common goals held in common. These are qualities that activist struggles sorely need. Second, the term “militant” in French actually just means “activist”, and the verb “militer” means “to do activist work”. Canada is a bilingual country, and we would do well to build bridges, including linguistic bridges, across the Anglophone/Francophone barrier, which today largely remains a gap between solitudes. Third, using the term “militant” encourages us to speak and think more precisely about “violence” – it does not benefit struggles to fail to distinguish between violence that preserves unjust structures, and violence that challenges and breaks those structures. The fact that the second kind of violence may take a “non violent” form does not make it any less violent, and thinking as such creates a conceptual gap between violent and non violent struggle as a principle, when it ought to remain purely a question of tactics and efficacy.

Proud to be a militant vegan. Proud to be a militant of many causes. Proud to refuse to perpetuate the conceptual and linguistic boundary between “activist” and “militant”. Militants and Activists unite, for you are one people struggling for the liberation of humanity!

Zizek’s Pseudo-Analysis of the Syrian Revolution


A year on, Zizek’s article on the Syrian Revolution as a “Pseudo struggle” probably deserves more critical consideration than it got. Not because it wasn’t widely read, but because I think it was largely read by folks who reactively absorbed it, or who found it so distasteful it was difficult to read without fuming in anger. And to be clear, I’m suggesting reconsideration now not because it was actually good, but because we can perhaps learn more from the interpretive failures and failures of solidarity than from seemingly “good examples”. It’s true that as a whole, the article amounts to an interpretive war against revolting Syrians. Worse, it’s deeply orientalist in the sense that everything “revolutionary” about the Arab spring is expected to centre around Zizek’s own perceptive subject position. It does however, have a good interpretive point about what constitutes revolutionary processes:

“[In the Egyptian Revolution] the explosion of heterogeneous organisations (of students, women and workers) in which civil society began to articulate its interests outside the scope of state and religious institutions. This vast network of new social units, much more than the overthrow of Mubarak, is the principal gain of the Arab spring; it is an ongoing process, independent of big political changes like the coup; it goes deeper than the religious/liberal divide.”

This is basically a good idea – a key part of revolutionary processes is the creation of new social units, new interpretive and relational ways that society can articulate its own interests to itself. What’s wrong with Zizek’s article is that just because he can’t easily perceive these processes going on in Syria, doesn’t mean they aren’t happening there.

“The only thing to keep in mind is that this pseudo-struggle thrives because of the absent third, a strong radical-emancipatory opposition whose elements were clearly perceptible in Egypt. “

Worse, Zizek doesn’t even actually say that these processes are not happening in Syria, only that these processes are not “clearly perceptible”. But clearly perceptible to who? If Zizek had bothered to speak with activists who organized in the first years of the Syrian revolution, such as Razan Ghazawi, before Assad’s violent repression of protests militarized the struggle, then he would know that these processes were taking place in Syria. Moreover, if he listened to Syrian activists like Yasser Munif, he would learn about the important role of “local coordinating committees”, revolutionary democratic local and accountable committees set up to operate liberated areas.

Another argument in the article which I didn’t recognize when it first came out, or perhaps it just looks prophetic in retrospect, is this commentary on the Taliban and the future of Syria. Zizek disputes the standard reading of the Taliban as just another “fundamentalist Islamist group” enforcing its rule by terror, pointing to a “class revolt” they engineered, exploiting fissures between “a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants”. In relation to Syria then, Zizek claims that even if Assad “somehow wins and stabilises the situation, his victory will probably breed an explosion similar to the Taliban revolution which will sweep over Syria in a couple of years.”

ISIS did not come out of Assad’s victory, although perhaps it is related to the stagnation and failure of the revolution to topple Assad (and perhaps the revolution’s failure to articulate itself in radical emancipatory frameworks that extend beyond religious/liberal divides). It’s worth asking, also, about what class fissures (although tribal and sectarian fissures seem more relevant here) has ISIS exploited?

Perhaps the way to end is with a surprising implication of Zizek’s position on Syria. While he dismisses what he perceived about Syria as “Pseudo struggle”, he also argues that there is no alternative to Revolution for Syrians. The only alternative to the “Taliban” scenario, according to Zizek, is the “radicalisation of the struggle for freedom and democracy into a struggle for social and economic justice.”

The only pseudo in here is Zizek’s pseudo-analysis of Syria. One word that does not appear in Zizek’s article is ‘dignity’.

An Open Letter to Folks Re-Posting George Monbiot’s Article on the US bombing of ISIS

This article you have posted by the George Monbiot engages in reductive equivocation across a whole list of conflicts and tensions. It’s by a white English guy who has written about the middle east only sporadically (I can’t find anything else by him that’s recent on Syria, Iraq, or ISIS). Since you are probably well aware of identity related issues in relation to the ongoing normalization of oppression, can I suggest that you try to read Syrian and Iraqi intellectuals as well before developing an opinion on what’s happening there?

The major fallacy in Monbiot’s article is the fact he focuses only on a very specific form of military intervention, while remaining quiet on the much more normal form of military intervention: the supply of arms. America funds the Israeli army something like 3 billion a year, the Egyptians 1 billion. The Iraqi army is built out of US debt (although the most recent planes they are flying are Russian), and in fact the entire history of the colonial and neo-colonial processes in the middle east have been of supplying various states with various kinds of security apparatuses, whether those are security guarantees, or arms.

Simply opposing the act of bombing, without a more radical critique of the history of European and American involvement int he middle east, leaves much to be desired. Should middle eastern countries not be allowed to sign treaties which include security guarantees from Western nations? If a middle eastern country does sign such a treaty, it is a treaty obligation for that western state to intervene in favour of the attacked nation. Iraq today is under attack – much of it’s territory is under occupation by an insurrectionary group.

The lack of analysis concerning the American bombing of ISIS is summed up in the use of the phrase “Second War on Iraq”. Not to mention the fact that the 2003 war was a “second war on Iraq”, unless the Gulf war is forgotten, this war – unlike the first two – is not a war against the Iraqi state, but an intervention in something like a civil war on the side of the Iraqi state. And, crucially, these attacks of not only been agreed to by the Iraqi state; the Iraqi state was actively requesting them.

I have devoted much of the past two years to organizing in relation to the Syrian revolution, and I was very active for the past three years with organizing with various Palestine solidarity student groups and IAW’s. Since I became involved, but especially since the uprising in Syria began, I have been very upset at the lack of engagement I’ve seen on the Canadian left with the politics of the Arab/Muslim region – it’s very low especially in relation to the volume of leftist voices against the various things are government does there. It’s better with respect to Palestine, but only after more than 50 years of organizing by Palestinians have western activists adopted a progressive and non reactionary anti-apartheid discourse. Compare this with western leftists discourse on Iraq and Syria, which despite a lot of “anti war rallies”, has remained extremely thin.

In my view, reactive pro nor anti intervention discourse helps Syrians fighting both the fascist Assad regime and the also fascist Daesh (“ISIS”). Neither does it help Iraqis, either those who are allied to the Iraqi state, or those who are to varying degrees supporting ISIS (although the majority of the anti-state forces in Iraq are Iraqi nationalist forces (including Iraqi Ba’athists) who are in a tactical alliance with ISIS).

Both the discourses which are being widely promoted in relation to intervention against ISIS – the “this intervention costs a lot” discourse, and the “there are so many people trying to kill each other in the middle east why would we possibly get involved” discourse, are deeply orientalist because they reduce the people of Iraq and Syria to a footnote in a conversation about America. Therefore I’m not surprised that, in actuality, the point Monbiot is making in this article is pretty much the same as Sarah Palin’s position (“Let allah sort it out”).

I am extremely opposed to the US bombings in Syria. Not because I oppose intervention in advance, in all cases (that perspective is unaccountable to the many Syrians who have called for intervention against Assad who has been carrying out genocidal processes against Syrians which has killed more than 250k and displaced many millions), but because of the particular character of those bombings. For example in Manbij, a town that was liberated from the regime without the use of arms, neither the regime nor ISIS dared to attack the grain silos because the fighters could not avoid accountability to the local population. The unaccountable US bombers however did target the silos, and have seriously reduced that town’s capacity to feed itself and maintain food sovereignty, which is one of the reasons it has been strong in the face of the regime and in the face of ISIS. The targeting of these silos shows the extent to which the USA wants the Syrian revolution to fail.

Here are some links interviews with Syrian intellectuals, which I think are far better analysis than either what is being promoted by the mainstream news fear mongers, or the leftist knee jerk “anti war” folk. And yes, these are all anti-intervention positions. I apologize that I can not link to any Iraqi intellectuals – and I fully acknowledge the insufficiency of my own intellectual engagement, manifested in the fact I don’t have off hand links of Iraqi intellectuals that I can cite to explain the political discourse inside Iraq regarding the Iraqi state’s requisitioning of these air strikes against Daesh.  

Yassin Haj Saleh:…/conscience-of-syria…

Yasser Munif:

Leila Shrooms:…/syria-the-life-and…/

Rania Khalek:…/syria-s…

The Need for Honesty and Clarification for the Consumer Boycott against Israeli Apartheid

The BDS consumer boycott campaign feels hopelessly disorganized as soon as you try to step beyond the huge targeted campaigns, such as against Soda Stream or Hewlett-Packard. Unlike the Arab League Boycott, there are no simple set of self-consistent guidelines to determine what makes a product “boycottable”, and targets chosen by people often fail to reflect a sense of really having thought things through.

For example – McDonalds and Coca Cola. Are they boycottable? They both do business in Israel, but are they “complicit in Israeli violations of international law”? Paying taxes in Israel is to some extent complicity in these violations. Coca Cola goes farther and actually has a factory in an illegal settlement. However, McDonalds also in a sense “respects” a boycott against Israeli violations of international law by refusing to open locations in the occupied territories. Also, while Coca Cola is indeed involved in settlement factory activity, their main competitor – Pepsi – is a part owner of the Israeli company Sabra Hummus, which is itself a major target of BDS (due to being an Israeli export). So whether you support Pepsi instead of Coke, you are supporting Israel either way.

While guidelines exist, not only do they fail to give a definitive answer to the question of what qualifies a business to be boycott-able, it self-consciously avoids the question. The BDS movement website reads “Trying to boycott the products of every single company that participates in Israeli apartheid is a daunting task that has a slim chance of having a concrete impact.” However, to boycott companies (and countries!) that economically co-operate with Israel was the strategy adopted by the Arab league boycott against the Zionist movement which in 1946. According to the Israeli chamber of commerce and cited from a 1994 New York Times article, “the boycott has cost Israel $20 billion in export opportunities and $16 to $32 billion in lost investment”. Compare this with the cost to Israel’s economy from BDS, which is measured in the millions, rather than billions. While the current policy of many Arab League states is not to observe this boycott, this is not evidence that the boycott tactic itself is ineffective, rather it is evidence that American power has effectively neutralized Arab resistance against Israel.

“Trying to boycott the products of every single company that participates in Israeli apartheid” was in fact the policy of the Arab league boycott, which included a primary boycott (boycotting Israel and Israeli exports), a secondary boycott (boycotting companies that do business with Israel) and a tertiary boycott (boycotting companies that do business with boycotted companies). The BDS movement includes a version of the primary boycott (although it does not target individuals), and the secondary boycott (but only insofar as the companies “are complicit in Israeli violations of international law), and might include some version of the tertiary boycott when the engagement between companies concerns matters that sustain Israeli power.

BDS activists should clarify the Boycott of Israeli products in relation to the question of the secondary boycott. The notion of an “effective” or “strategic” target is a dangerous ground for hypocricy because it suggests the possibility of a situation where two companies which are equally supportive of Israeli crimes, but only one would be considered a “target” for boycott. The basis of a products boycott ability should be some standard of their degree of support to the Israeli apartheid system. Personally, I can’t see how we can draw any qualitative boundary between companies who participate directly in the occupation and security apparatus, and companies who merely help support and sustain the Israeli economy. The Israeli economy and the Israeli military-occupation machine are one and the same power system.

In my view, we should recognize that internal consistency is a part of the nature of activist solidarity – we shouldn’t make fun of people’s desire to be consistent. We should learn about the Arab league boycott in detail, and consider taking from it this sense of consistency in refraining from economic activity that strengthens the power systems that sustain Israeli crimes. Because…

2014 Peoples’ Social Forum and the Anglophone/Francophone Political Gap

This past weekend I travelled to Ottawa to attend four days of workshops, seminars, lectures, assemblies, and conversations concerning social and political issues. I attended sessions on global inequality, guaranteed minimum income, the state of the left since ww1, co-operative self-management, the 2012 student strike, quebec independence as resistance to neo-liberalism, the coup in Egypt, veganism and colonialism, the state of indigenous land defence today, and how to move forward with Palestine activism. I also met some very interesting people, who I hope to stay in contact with, as well as rekindled some old friendships. I also discovered that I really like dancing to progressive hip hop. 

I thought initially I would go through every seminar, but this might be boring for readers. I think instead I will write about a general theme that emerged for me over the weekend. It was something I had inklings of already, but after this weekend I am no longer able to deny the gap in political discourse that exists between the anglophone and francophone communities in Canada. Attending the same number of events in French as I did in English, I noticed different issues coming to priority, different political ideals being mobilized to discuss the issues, even some differences in conversational norms.

This was all somewhat of a surprise, mostly because I hadn’t expected, and this is partially because I hadn’t spent any time looking at the schedule in advance, any of the convergence to be in French. After all, we all know that Francophones (are expected to) speak English, whereas Anglophones don’t (are not expected to) speak French. This isn’t descriptively false, and it was a cause of tension at several points when Anglophones complained that some event wasn’t being held in English. However, nearly all sessions provided for the language divide with simultaneous translation, UN style. It was outside my normal experience to see quiet rooms set up inside all the sessions, and people wearing headsets listening to the session in the other language. Probably quite expensive too, but I suppose this is what it takes to bring together the two solitudes. Except it isn’t really, because as I would have expected, Francophones came to Anglo-centric sessions, but virtually no Anglophones attended sessions given in French, despite the resource of simultaneous translation being offered.

This is actually the beginning clue to the division between the communities, in my view – the lack of interest in the issues that concern the other. The 2012 student strike, for example, was a massive event in Canadian student history, especially for progressives. And this forum didn’t disappoint – a session was set up for three members of CLASSE (the amalgam of student unions that organized the strike) to speak in the large auditorium about the history and future of that movement in a talk titled “A student strike, but a social struggle” (it sounds better in French: “La grève est étudiant/e, la lutte est populaire“). They built it, but they didn’t come – the event was attended by a scant twenty people (which looked especially minuscule in the large auditorium), and not a single person made use of the simultaneous translation.  That surprised me, especially because knowledge of the political history of that strike is not well known in English Canada, and most Anglo-Canadian progressives will tell you that it interests them and they would like to know more about it. What didn’t surprise me, however, was the nearly complete absence of Anglophones at the talk “Quebec Independence: beyond nationalism, solidarity grounds to think about social transformation“. Maybe it is a bit much to expect anglo-Canadians to care about the issue of Quebec independence, but it would do them well to take notice to how the sovereignty discourse has changed on the progressive left in Quebec. This event was interesting enough that it deserves its own post devoted to what I learned in it, but for the meantime I want to focus on the gap – for example how many progressive anglo-Canadians continue to use the derogatory term “separatist” to refer to the Quebec sovereignty movement? What’s worse is how many anglo-Canadians use the term “Progressive Canadian” or “Canadian” as if it unproblematically includes Quebecois who are committed to sovereignty? The pinnacle of this disconnect in my experience happened at the 2012 Student Strike event when two Anglophone (but fluently French-speaking) members of CFS made statements during question period in which the term “Canadian” was used to unproblematically cover Quebec students, including contexts of belonging that are strongly anti-federalist. Now, the talk itself hadn’t touched on the issue of federalism, but the fact that the talks were in French, and the absence of the use of the term “Canadian” from the talks made it clear to me that that word, “Canadian”, was not an inclusive term in this space. 

Ignoring Quebecois contexts of belonging speaks to the gap in understanding between the communities. But what was actually much more interesting to me was the differences in political discourse between most events in English versus French. The first Francophone events I attended was perhaps the strongest example of this, titled “A Universal Guaranteed Income to meet Human Rights“. Guaranteed income is an issue which is important to me because, looking forward, I see it as the only alternative to increasing inequality as low income jobs aren’t simply squeezed with lower wages, but literally eliminated through mechanization (nearly 50% in the next 20 years). However in Toronto the issue hasn’t really been taken on by the radical left. OCAP doesn’t focus on it, although folks at this talk did say that they discuss it sometimes. However, if you search OCAP’s website for “minimum income”, nothing directly about guaranteed minimum income comes up. In Toronto, the only ground openly advocating for guaranteed minimum income is the Green Party, not exactly a bastion of radical progressive thought. This presentation did have a radical feel about it, however. It was put on by a group by the name of RSUG, which stands for committee for universal, social, guaranteed revenue (income), and the FCPASQ, the common front of people on social assistance in Quebec.  From their presentation I was able to glean a few reasons why perhaps their discourse has not spread through radical circles in Anglophone Canada. For staters, their presentation began with a focus on rights, and the way rights are inter-dependant – such as it would be mistaken to think someone has the right to free speech if they are starving and freezing to death, and therefore speech rights depend on rights to access food and shelter. RSUG also focussed on the pragmatic side, emphasizing that the cost of poverty is much higher than the cost of eliminating poverty. They differed from other guaranteed minimum income proposals, such as Milton Friedman’s (!), in that their proposal would include the continuation of all social services (whereas neo-liberal versions of guaranteed minimum income use the income supplement as a pretext to convert all social services to for-profit private companies). They said that such a supplement, which should by their calculations amount to 19k$ per year, would free people to volunteer, to raise children, and serve as a recognition for the 33% of national GDP (by their calculation) which is currently unpaid labour. They focussed on pilot projects which showed promising data including a surprisingly small decline in willingness to work, and spoke about how the desire to work to contribute to society is a basic human need, and the belief that humans only work to gain their food and shelter is an incredibly depressing view of the human species which few people actually believe. 

I don’t believe, however, that if RSUG came to Toronto, that they would be well recieved. Rights are not popular amongst the radical left right now, and RSUG fundamentally bases their analysis on a theory of human and juridical rights. Moreover, RSUG sees the state as an institution which should be held accountable to those whose needs it must serve (a view which, when I vocalized it at a later anglophone session, I was virtually laughed out of the room). The current thing is to be critical of “rights-discourses”, especially because of how they are co-opted by the state and serve to preserve the marginalization of the most oppressed by including others. And as for the state, the current version of anti-colonial, anti-oppression discourse sees no possibilities for redemption with the state. My problem with these critiques is that they both go too far. For example Dean Spade had effectively argued the thesis that rights-discourses can permit the co-option of radical movements in relation to the gay-rights movement. I agree with his account of the history of the gay and queer liberation struggles in North America/Turtle Island, and that in that context rights-discourse served as an avenue for liberals to co-opt a radical struggle and marginalize those who always have been and continue to be the most at risk of being subjects to anti-gay and anti-queer violence. However, generalizing this insight into a general principle of suspicion or rejection towards rights-discourses commits the error of confusing strategies with principles, and ignores the radical and revolutionary history of rights discourses especially in 18th and 19 century France. 

This difference between an Anglo-centric (post-modern) focus on specificity and a french-revolutionary style left-Republican focus on universality is also made evident by RSUG’s prolific use of the term “universal“, which they explained to mean that the guaranteed income should be available, and the same, for all residents of the territory in which the plan is implemented, regardless of age (so long as they are over 18), gender, ethnicity, language, etc… The motivation here is to be as inclusive as possible, to build social solidarity based on the meeting of concrete needs across the broadest possible context of belonging. I asked in the question period if this would include non-status persons, and the answer I received was pragmatic but reasonable: according to the presenter of the event, yes, but according to the RSUG and FCPASQ the income would be only for people of status. I pointed out that this is a major problem because of an increasing number of non status migrant workers working in our economies, the presenters agreed with me, but said that this is a project of social solidarity, and it can be implemented only so long as people agree to pressure institutions to implement it. The project is already pushing to increase the scope of who is included in the context of care, and it’s reasonably possible that those committed to the project and those being mobilized could be convinced that including non-status people is essential. This demonstrates an essential kind of gap between the politics of general inclusion, and the politics of dismissing universality and focussing exclusively on the most marginalized, because I’m sure when I present this politics to my anglo progressive, anti-rights discourse friends there will be a tendency to dismiss the project on the basis of its exclusion of the most marginalized. However, if a project is genuinely grassroots and democratic, and that is the only chance to implement RSUG, the project will only be as exclusive as the people carrying the project forward, and if the tendency of the project is towards greater inclusion of the marginalized by increasing greatly the income of the least well off, in a project which will also benefit lower-middle class workers, this is an organizing context which is fertile with the possibility of pushing the bounds of who is included increasingly outwards. 

The difference between RSUG’s attitude towards rights and the state, and the attitude which is becoming prominent in anglo-radical contexts was really driven home by a seminar I attended late on Friday evening by the name of “Veganism in the Occupied Territories: Anti Colonialism and Animal Liberation“. Dylan Powell made a great presentation, as usual, where he called out racist vegans for being racist in their attitudes towards indigenous people who hunt animals for food. He also presented a lot of substantive information of which I was not previously aware, at least not consciously, on the newness and hugeness of animal agriculture on Turtle Island, which really demonstrates how problematic it is to focus on indigenous hunting. However, he tied “animal rights” discourse to the racist veganism that often comes from settlers, and when I suggested in question period that a welfarist approach to opposing animal cruelty was even more susceptible to the problem of racism, and referred to the work of Will Kymlicka which has tried to address exactly this problem but does so from a rights-framework, he dismissed Kymlicka by making slanderous allegations about the kinds of things Kymlicka’s followers tend to say. When I suggested to differentiate between the euro-settler community, to which the state is accountable, from the indigenous communities which are struggling for sovereignty, I was basically laughed out of the room for suggesting that the state could even potentially be accountable to anyone. And the thing is, while saying it, I realized that it was going to sound ridiculous, and I experienced this self-alienation as an intense difference between linguistic communities because I had just come from the seminar on new approaches to Quebec Independence.

I wonder if one of the reasons Anglo-Canadians find it so difficult to believe that state structures could be radically reformed, that the state could be held accountable to its people, has something to do with the Franco-Quebecois experience of the sovereigntist movement. Although both referendums failed, they both came close to succeeding, and I don’t think the experience of either was felt as “oh, well I guess this was impossible”. Maybe Quebecois believe that their state institutions can be radically reformed because they very nearly were radically reformed on two separate occasions – I can’t think of any similar examples of popular movement for restructuring the state ever happening in Anglo Canada. One thing that Quebecois sovereigntists speaking at the forum on approaches to Quebec independence all repeated was their encouragement to English Canadians to radically reform their state as well, because it is a “prison for them as well”. This encouragement in my perception is not being heard, and perhaps can not be heard in a political climate dominated by anti-State discourse coming both from anarchists and post-modernists, culminating in the all encompassing focus on “anti oppression”. 

There are other things I’d like to mention, but I can’t write forever at the greatest level of detail. The first session I attended, “World Cafe: Collaboration for Greater International Solidarity” was run by by the Quebec Association of International Co-operative Organizations (AQOCI), the Canadian council for international Co-operation, and Inter Peres. In other words, or rather in their own words, international development workers (although it hadn’t said so on the write up). When I heard the presenter say “development workers”, I immediately assumed “liberals” and looked towards the door. But the session was actually very solid, there was uncompromising analysis of power gaps, and an emphasis that all through the weekend we should view sessions with an eye to global and local inequality, the way power inequalities distort collaborative projects, and we even talked about the pitfalls of solidarity work! (You should have seen their faces when I answered that question by referring to support for Hezbollah in the context of their intervention in Syria, although they, after I explained, agree with the point). I think the good politics of these solidarity organizations might also have to do with the Quebec connection – there is a much larger co-operative movement in connect, and focus on building a “solidarity economy”. I see a continuity between this faith in institution building from the co-operative movement and a more open attitude towards reforming the state. It might be hard to articulate this, except that I found a video from Quebec Solidaire that makes the case for me, titled “Quebec Solidaire est Communiste“. The video is in French, but I think it’s worth translating:

When you hear Quebec Solidaire speak, we would say they want to give everything to the State. Health? The state. Education? The state. Economy? The state. Environment? The state. What Quebec Solidaire wants is to create an immense state that will take care of everything. We will have to pass by the way of the state to eat, se diverter, leave, we will never have a word to say on everything, it will always be bureaucrats to decide everything. We know well who Quebec solidaire sees at the head of this state. They are like the communist party in the USSR or China. 


In fact, it isn’t exactly this. Quebec solidaire considers the state as a tool that can permit us to realize things together, and this tool must not be turned against us. For Quebec Solidaire, the state must be at the service of the population, for example, to finance public services, but also when a factory closes, workers should be allowed to change their factory into a co-operative. In the same manner, when Quebec Solidaire proposes to nationalize wind power, is is the state which will fix the national objectives, but it will be left to local communities to decide how those objectives will be met in their areas. Currently, there are too many decisions made without consultations, and this comes not only from the government but also from corporations over which we have no power at all. Quebec Solidaire proposes to render our society more democratic at all levels, and put an end to all the little dictatorships that restrict our lives. 

I want to end on a note which is at least half uplifting. During the forum on approaches to Quebec Sovereignty, Jonathan Durand invited English Canadians to reform and re-invent their state such that it would no longer be “The Canadian Prison” that holds hostage both francophone and anglophone Canadians. His call won’t be heard, partially because I don’t think there was a single anglophone besides myself in the room when he said it, and also partially because anglo Canadians don’t believe in the possibility of these kind of radical reforms. For example, when the referendum to change the British Columbian election structure to Single Transferable Vote failed for a second time, the overwhelming social emotion was: well that’s done, no chance in changing it. The same thing happened when a similar referendum failed in Ontario – the feeling was “well, that’s impossible, but at least we tried”. The belief that changing state structures is impossible is, however, the crucial lock on the door that keeps it impossible. Any political idea can be powerful if people believe in it, and I believe the central failure on the radical anglo left today is the commitment to ideas which are non-starters for most of the left’s “natural base”, i.e. lower income working folks. Focussing above all on specificity and difference isn’t inclusive to the broad majority, and moreover the near complete ignorance of Francophone issues by Anglophone “progressives” shows that the focus on difference among radicals is selective at best. Moving forward might be helped by changing form a focus specific identities, “difference”, towards respecting contexts of belonging and building new shared contexts of belonging. 

Peter Singer is out to lunch on Gaza

Yesterday, Peter Singer published this article discussing the morality of Israel’s recent war with Palestinians in Gaza. Normally, I am a fan of Singer’s work which usually contains a high degree of moral seriousness. However, in this piece, his moral seriousness is undermined by his uncritical acceptance of Israeli talking points:

“Israel, blaming Hamas, arrested hundreds of its members in the West Bank, though it has never explained the basis of its accusation.”

Why is Singer taking Israel’s word that the people it arrested are actually members of Hamas?

“The Israeli government may have seized on the outrageous murders as a pretext for provoking Hamas into a response…Hamas responded to the West Bank arrests with a barrage of rockets that reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem”

This goes from mischaracterization to flat out lie. Hamas was responding not only the arrests, but several days of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, which were a violation of the 2012 ceasefire it had signed with Israel.

“In firing rockets at Israel, Hamas invited a military response. A country subject to rocket attacks from across its border has a right to defend itself”

Unfortunately for Singer, this logic actually defends the Hamas rocket attacks, because its land was under attack by Israeli rockets.

“Hamas’s strategy of launching rockets from residential areas and storing them in schools”

While some rockets were found in schools, there is no evidence that this represents a “strategy”. The actions of the few, acting against the institutional norms and orders, don’t constitute an institutional strategy.

“Israel has legitimate military objectives in Gaza: to stop the rockets and destroy the tunnels.”

These are not legitimate military objectives. They are legitimate political objectives, which can legitimately be pursued militarily if there are no other means possible. However, Hamas has offered another means: stop the siege of Gaza. Which is, not incidentally, a crime.

Singer’s failure to overcome the media talking points on Gaza might tell us something fundamental about the gap between ethics and politics: perhaps ethics is asking difficult questions about right and wrong when the facts are not themselves up for question (or, when whether the facts are up for question is itself known, and becomes an ethical problem itself). Politics, on the other hand, is the world where ethically relevant facts are manipulated by public relations armies, which if they do their job right will result in otherwise good people affirming processes which are in fact unjust.

Singer is a decent philosopher, and he’s actually more politically engaged than average because he takes the uncontested but ignored facts about cruelty towards non-human animals and draws ethical implications from them. However, on political matters where it is already taken for granted by everyone that the lives at stake are valuable, he can not avoid the manipulative representations of power structures which results in blaming the victim, and representing the problem as the solution.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this article is, however, that he begins with a recognition of the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but then denies that it has any relevance to morally understanding the current conflict.

“Different answers to that question are possible. Some depend on answers to prior questions about the founding of the state of Israel, the circumstances that led to many Palestinians becoming refugees, and responsibility for the failure of earlier efforts to reach a peaceful solution. But let us put aside these questions – which have been explored in great depth – and focus on the moral issues raised by the latest outbreak of hostilities.”

Rather than ignoring context, and taking media talking points as a given, I would expect from Singer (and from any serious philosopher) an original interpretation of the situation on the basis of that context, and ideally one that uses thinking to break through media taboos which make our public discourse anemically ritualistic, and unable to hold power to account and stop the perpetual reproduction of injustice at which we sigh but fail to confront.