Syria. Uttered in Arabic, we hear Sou-ree-ah. What is the meaning of this word today? Its utterance produces shivers, sighs, perhaps sparks of hope along with the horror. And of course fights. There is alive in the 2.0 world of print/blog media a war of words concerning Syria – is it a revolution? is it still a revolution? what about the islamists? what about Assad’s nominal anti-imperialist stances? What about resistance against American hegemony? What about American funding of the rebellion? It might be said that it does not matter so much what is said on blogs in the West about Syria, that the revolution or rebellion continues regardless of what we think about it. But there is a universal human obligation to try to understand those things to which one is connected. And a still more universal obligation to pay witness to suffering, and to those who stand up against oppression. There is something to be learned from every rebellion, every revolution, because there is a truth in the physical manifestation of standing up against injustice. Not because this standing necessarily leads to justice, but because it opens a door, a way towards justice. Because without sacrifice, there is no justice.
This came across my facebook feed. A twelve minute film about American celebrity culture, gaming culture, reality TV, and imperialism. Basically, it is a film about American narcissism, and the disconnect between American culture and American foreign policy. We in the west could certainly make a film critical of North Korea’s propaganda and internal culture, but since North Korea does not have a military that threatens states all around the world, and is in a real position to start new wars, maybe we have less of a reason to worry about domestic North Korean culture than they have a reason to worry about us.
EDIT: Here is the full length version. The film is called “Propaganda” and it is 82 minutes.
Strange, the concept that has most enamoured my conscience since returning from my travels is that of “love”. I read “Prisoner of Love” on the airplane, and it put a lot of things together for me. Solidarity, revolution, resistance, taking sides. These are not acts of conscious reason, acts of pragmatic improvement. These are acts which have the feel the absolute in them, the transcendent. And I think there’s a good reason for this.
But first – liberal politics, what is it? I think I learned in Foundations 103 about a hundred ago that politics, and by that they meant liberal politics because we didn’t study any revolutions in Foundations 103, was the ‘art of the possible’. I think it’s more often theorized as the science of the possible, whereas “art” is probably a fairer description of what politiciens actually get up to,but I won’t get into that distinction at this time. The emphasis on the “possible” is essential, and “possible” is actually a very restrictive idea. It means (liberal) politics only concerns itself with things which are possible given the existing arrangements, given the existing organs of power, given the existing discourse, given existing public sentiment, etc… Liberal politics isn’t concerned with transforming the world, just making it a little bit better as is possible given the circumstances.
Liberal politics doesn’t need love, because it doesn’t transcend anything. It doesn’t go beyond the normal, the everyday – it stays within those parameters, ideally making the most progress possible without stepping over the pragmatic boundaries for action. Liberal politics doesn’t need a family, or an in-group, it doesn’t need a militia or people to die on the barricades when the army stands down their non-violent protest.
Revolutionary politics is a politics of love because it transcends, it demands the impossible. To be clear what it actually demands is for the situation to revolve, to re-orient, for the topography to shift, for the questions to change. That usually involves a miracle – an event which could not have been predicted, who’s outcome could not be foreseen. An event which outstripped the capacity of liberal politics to contain the goings of things within the possible and the pragmatic. An event which changes the orientation, the relationship network between other events – literally changing the meaning of normal, everyday happenings. Miracles can’t be expected, but they can be demanded. They can’t be produced, like a house, but they can be instigated, like an earthquake.
The logic of colonization is brutal, but at least it includes within its practice the redemptive forces of its own undoing. The colonizer oppresses and dispossesses the native, but the native can rise up in a sort of republican and emancipatory anti-colonial nationalism which resists by force his and her dispossession, oppression, subjugation. In other words: colonization is bad, but at least there is someone positioned to fight against it.
Climate change is much worse. Not only because it will cause dispossession and dislocation around the entire globe, disproportionately effecting the poor and the global south, but also because the position of victim and perpetrator is less clear. Climate change is not a form of colonization not because it is less violent or less exploitative of the third world, but because it is emissions rather than geographically based. So how can you establish an anti-climate change nationalism? You may laugh at the idea, but this is because you don’t understand the purpose of emancipatory nationalisms – their role is to allow many people to act together, with one hand, to stand with more force than the few and powerful than benefit from their oppression. For people to act together, they must both be in a situation where their objective needs coalesce towards a goal, and they must feel that their individual sacrifice for the cause is more valuable than the cost that it makes on them as a self interested individual. In other words, the people must be together, and they must not be selfish. This is exactly what is missing in climate change politics – stopping climate change is in everyone’s interest, but no one, at least no one yet, is immediately dispossessed by it in a way that their interests coalesce and the situation motivates selfless action in the face of it.
This may change as the weather effects get worse. Climate refugees may become climate revolutionaries, carrying out guerilla campaigns against the elites that benefit from the very pollution that caused their dispossession. This will play into the logic of the “global war on terror”, but it will be more difficult for the state to sell this war as “evil” because those fighting it will be “climate patriots”. The idea of the nobel lie may by used to justify massive disinformation on climate change to prevent the people from supporting climate guerillas – insisting their are alarmists and their dispossession was caused by the natural progress of nature, not a rich industrialist in the Western World.
In order to prepare for the conflicts of the future, we should begin to think seriously about what motivates conflict, what sustains conflict, and we should try hard to see the truth in the revolutionary so as not to miss something in our reactionary opposition to “terrorism”. Furthermore, we should re-examine the paradigm of republicanism and think about what it means to be a “sovereign people”, and what collective knowledge and/or collective projects this requires. We should not simply “imagine” a better future, we should think clearly about what forces are likely to emerge in the future, and stand with those forces on the side of freedom and emancipation for all peoples – including the people of the future.
Last week Abbas annouced that for the first time in years, there would be high level talks between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, and this would take the form of vice Israeli prime minister Shaul Mofaz visiting the Mukata in Ramallah.
Shaul Mofaz has been to the Mukata before, when he was minister of defence during the 2nd Intifada, when the Israelis came to the Mukata by tanks but were not able to get inside.
Unsurprisingly, there was public opposition to Abbas’ invitation from Palestinian society, even from within his own party Fatah. There were protests planned last week to take place in Ramallah on Friday against the visit. However, by Friday, Abbas had already cancelled the visit. The protests took place anyway, with chants against Mofaz and people saying “how can we allow Mofaz to come here when he came here by tanks and killed 27 people”. But the chants didn’t make sense, since the visit had already been cancelled. This didn’t stop brutal repression by the PA, I saw myself a shirtless man draged on his back along the street into the police station. He was also roughed up, and stomped on by one of the undercover officers. This violence prompted another protest on Saturday that I didn’t see, this time against the police brutality, and which apparently involved more violence. But while the protestors are willing to oppose the PA’s brutality and Mofaz’ visit, it seems they are unwilling to take a harder line against Abbas – to oppose his security co-operation with the Israelis, oppose the statehood, even oppose the giving up of much of the territory East of the green line.
Instead, because Abbas cancelled the visit, he comes off looking like the democratic character in this ordeal – after all, he listened to the people! But what he really did was remove an opportunity for the people to rise up against him. As the statehood project continues, and as it becomes clear who benefits and who does not – and most importantly who is unwilling to abandon the Palestinian Revolution.
As the resentment in the camps increases, and as those Palestinians only provisionally willing to support the statehood bid, that is, on the condition that it improve things in the Westbank, begin to turn against the PA’s leader and political line, the proximity to the third intifada increases. Today, there was some decent coverage in Hareetz on the PA’s fear of the third intifada. Ironically, it relates the recent protests to resentment towards the PA from refugee camps – a logical link, although one which I believe doesn’t exist in practice (those who would have joined the protests from the camps stayed home once they found out that Mofaz’ visit was cancelled).
The current direction of things in the Westbank does point to conflict, even potentially to war – but not a war between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but rather between Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority.
That said, by cancelling Mofaz’s visit, Abbas has shown political skill in de-escalating a situation which could have lit things on fire. This will likely be the road he continues to take – symbolically deferring to his opposition, and trying not to allow a situation to escalate to the point of open conflict between the PA and the camps. But if he makes a mistake, it could be his last.
Compromise does not motivate actors, or encourage them to become engaged. No one gets excited about incremental progress – that’s why activist politics is dominated by revolutionary ideologies, if people are going to commit their time to something, they want not just to remedy the thing that they detest, but overturn it and bring about a new era.
Finkelstein is right that BDS is secretly anti-zionist. Why shouldn’t it be? No international pro-Palestinian movement can sustain its own supporters if it kowtows to liberal zionism, and supports Israel’s supposed right to continue the dispossession of the refugees by military force.
There is a fundamental tension in the ground and application of all political revolutionary movements – they always intend a radical overcoming of the situation they turn their attention towards, but they almost always result in some kind of compromise, the old leaders negotiate with power that exists and the result is a kind of altering of the status quo just enough to pacify the majority of those who demand things are overturned, while not offending too much the old guard to the point where their protest creates total intransigence which inevitably spurs on radicalization of actions on the part of those who oppose the situation.
The apparently mutually exclusive truths are not mutually exclusive but emanations of different but equally real forms of temporality. The radical lives in the temporality of redemption – the historical error of the past must be undone by an overturning of the situation, not necessarily a return to an idyllic past, but an undoing of a crucial wrong from its root upward. The politician, the policy person, they live in the temporality of the eternal now – the time of endless hypocricy, of incremental improvement, of the necessity of evil, of the necessity of forgiveness not based in compensation or redemption but in forgetting.
Abu Iyad once said that what he feared the most was the prospect that treason would become policy and accepted by everyone as patriotism. This statement can be understood in the context of this difference between two experiences of time – when the time of redemption is replaced by the everyday time of normalization and the acceptance of hypocricy, a time underpinned most of all by the experiencing of forgetting and dismissing the past as irrelevant, and of the project of redemption as impossible. And it is impossible within that experience of time.
So we should not be surprised at all by yesterday’s article in the Jerusalem Post by a young Palestinian from Hebron, who claims that the quiet revolution in Palestine today is one of the youth increasingly de-politicized, increasingly un-committed to their right of return, and increasingly peaceful and secure in their belief that today Israel can no more kick them out of their homes than they can kick the Israelis into the sea (never mentioning the fact that Israeli house demolitions of Palestinian homes remain a regular occurrence - including the recent plan to destroy the entire community of Susya, a strange thing to overlook because it’s near Hebron where this Palestinian lives).
A common refrain you hear in the territories is “the good people die, the traitors stay alive, the young people forget”. And so is the way of compromise – not a new way forward, not a new Palestinian aspiration, but the absence of aspiration – the erosion of the Palestinian revolution, the acceptance of submission and unequal rights. We should see this process as part and parcel with the de-politicization process which has been so successful in North America over the past half century. A key question here is – does that mean that the way forward for Palestinian politics includes western style big-tent “occupy” politics, like Israel’s ‘social’ protests? And what would the relationship between “occupy” style politics, which is characterized by the lack of focus, cohesion, common goals, and traditional Palestinian revolutionary politics, characterized by a consensus on revolutionary anti-Zionism. Personally, I don’t believe that a goal-less grassroots politics, a politics which obscures the question about the Palestinian right to the homeland, the rights of refugees to return, which both effectively come down to the right of Palestinians to wrest political control from the Zionists on the land of Palestine. This is no longer a consensus amongst Palestinians, but because their de-politicization is a new rather than old phenomena, I doubt North-American methods for confronting it based on a common disillusionment could be effective.
While much of Belfast is pristine, with lots of 21st century money and glass and capitalism, it only takes a short gander of the main street to see shades of a city ravaged by bombs and fires. The following photos illustrate this.
This mall is at the centre of Belfast’s capitalist prosperity. But take two steps down an alley and the picture changes.
Ok, this is a cheap way to creep the Palestinian issue into yet another blogpost. But to be honest, to see Occupy and Palestinian graffiti, well, at least it isn’t dissident republican graffiti (of which I saw a disturbing amount in Derry). But more generally what I’m illustrating is the radical storefront inequality – on the main drag the rents are obviously very high, but as soon as you step off of it, everything is closed.
Like this place for instance (directly to the left of previous image).
Turn around from the previous perspective, and you are faced full on with the reality of Belfast’s troubled history. So many bombs disturbed these streets, and while the North Arcade (pictured here) wasn’t bombed, there were paramilitary links to its arsen. Still, looking at the place, you get a sense of its former grandeur, and you wonder why it hasn’t been rebuilt. But then you get it – they can’t rebuild everything, in fact, some of the modern richness you see in some areas of the Belfast city centre might be in a sense a result of bombings and attacks – because stores were pushed out of this arcade they would have needed to move somewhere, so why not move to the new glass mall (seen above). Such is life, such is moving on. But the stark inequality from street to street reminds the citizens here as well as visitors of the political violence which defined this city for thirty years.
After speaking about Occupy and the situation of protest in North America last week at TAPSS, I realize I need to write something about what I think of the state of protest and what I think the real challenges are against the formation of societal consensus against the current elites. Basically, the question I’m grappling with is the same everyone in the Occupy camp is grappling with (unless they’ve adopted an easy answer) – what is the role of unity in the movement, what is the relationship between demand and unity, and what is the relationship between demands and dis-unity? In the park even I repeated last year the chorus that to ask us for our demands was to oppress us – and I still think that was true in that context, but nevertheless it expresses a sincere weakness the consciousness of the left today: the inability to perceive specific demands as universal. And this is related to my academic work, where I’m trying to rescue the idea of universality from its perceived contradiction with partiality. In fact, in the German idealist tradition stretching forward to German and French phenomenology, no such contradiction exists – and the role of the universal is always a partial role, a partial appearance, and is never a guarantee that the values it claims to motivate and guide it will in fact be anything other than the next tyranny. This was already Hegel’s critique of the universal, and I think it’s frankly a bit pathetic that people are so quick to identify the critique of the universal with feminism, or post-colonialism. This semi-formed thought has been meant to serve as an introduction to an article I want to recommend which is related to this question. Called “New Radical Alliances for a New Era“, and published on Z-net, Joshua Khan Russell and Harmony Goldberg argue against the discourse that Occupy has been “co-opted” by mainstream liberals. They argue that the more mainstream left must be part of a boarder based revolutionary movement, and that those who deny the importance of ready-existent institutions confuse mobilization for organization, and get stuck in a “harvest” mentality where they only want to see demonstrations which are manifestations of ready existent public sentiment, rather than do the difficult work of building and education the public to consider themselves part of movements which can direct this sentiment to revolutionary or reformist ends. They therefore oppose critiques of broad based alliances on the basis that excluding the moderate left to “purify” the movement is counter productive and weakens the political possibilities that can be achieved by the broad base of the “99%”. In conclusion, they claim
Uncomfortable alliances are not just necessary; they reflect and speak to the tremendous possibility of our political moment. The experience this week with May Day illustrates our point: May Day actions in areas that involved deeply rooted alliances between labor, immigrant groups, and community organizations were vibrant, well sized, and got largely sympathetic public attention. Largely, actions in places that lacked this collaboration weren’t as successful. Our goal therefore isn’t to “purify” the 99% movement to keep radicals in our comfort zones, but to break it open, to make it accessible to the leadership of people of color and working class organizations that are in tune with the needs of huge sectors of our society. In doing so, we shift society closer to our transformative visions. Continue reading
Nearing my departure to Ireland, France and the middle east, I find myself a little sad that my trip prevents any time for a visit to Quebec. The current student strike there, which is in its tenth week, does appear to be a real political situation – and one in my home country nonetheless. Everything occupy did wrong, this student strike appears to be doing correctly – they have a clear prescription, a relatively clear leadership, and their disruptive civil actions go on day after day rather than exploding in disconnected “days of action”. They have created and sustained a conflict against the austerity movement which stands for a substantial notion of freedom, and by standing on the principle of ‘no tuition hikes’, they also stand for the whole movement against austerity. By focussing on one demand and creating a confrontation they clarify the situation, whereas Occupy insisted on (and continues to insist) that every marginalized group’s demand be considered equal in action as well as in principle. Clarification is essential because politics is an exercise in simplification: the complex world is real but can’t be acted in – the trick is to simplify it in the right way.
It’s easy to be critical of the current anti-capitalist movements for their lack of direction and lack of organization. But a year ago they did not even exist. As the struggles mature, analysis and leadership and key confrontations must emerge, it must become obvious who stands on which side of Right, who stands for freedom, and who remains the utopian who says things can go on indefinitely as they are. At the same time, the revolutionary positions must not become intertial, ossified, and so many little tyrannies themselves. The strength of a conservative revolutionary movement, one which sacrifices the plurality of demands for the clarity of a single clarion call, must give way to the weakness of a progressive one, one which doesn’t merely critique the failure of the existing system to provide what it promises, but demands much more from the idea of justice and liberty than is even conceivable to the defenders of the status quo. at the moment when a new world can be imagined by more than a few, just as the fluidity of progression must be instituted and conserved by structures and values which can take root in systems and in the social fabric of the places in the world as they undo and remake themselves.
I am not an expert on the #occupy movement. I’ve spent some time at the occupy toronto site, and I’ve visited and spoke with various people at the encampment in Kingston and in Zuccotti park in New York City. Still, I’d like to say something in response to a consistent complaint made about the movement – that they lack a coherent set of demands, a coherent leadership, and that if they “really want change”, they should simply join the existing democratic political system.
Unfair Burden Expected of Protestors
The first fallacy I see in critiques of occupy is the implied and unjustified burden placed upon the occupiers to have the answers to all the problems they choose to concentrate on. Political progress can not occur when a problem is not even focussed on – first we need to put our attention towards a problem, and then we can come up with solutions. We’re used to politics of politiciens, where problems are only talked about if the politicien has a story about how the problem will be fixed – and really this is usually only brought up to increase the politicians popularity. That’s what’s normal to us, so it’s strange to see a group of activists focussing on problems without a coherent clear solution. But, actually, that’s what a revolt should look like in a democratic country – we’re not going to demand the fall of dictator, because we already have somewhat democratic structures. Instead, we’re going to demand that issues that concern everyone be focussed on, become part of the political conversation.
There is a coherence of demands
As for the list of demands, if you wander around the encampment, you’ll see lots of demands. But, if you can’t see a coherence between them, then there is something wrong with your eyes. The first demand is that society be run for the benefit of the 99%, rather than the 1%. These numbers may be too extreme for Canada – but they certainly work in the US, where the 1% really does own the government through lobbyists. The situation in Canada is not as extreme, but the demand is the same because if income inequality and american-style politics continue to grow in Canada, we’ll begin to look more and more like the failed democracy of the United States.
Every other demand falls within the rubric of the idea that society should not exploit the less well off for the benefit of the wealthier. There are lots of specific demands, but I’ll just concentrate on two – one is to reduce economic inequality, and one to move towards just solutions to the problems that still face first nations people hundreds after hundreds of years of colonization.
Income Inequality Hurts Everyone
As for economic inequality, this should be a mainstream of the political centre. The research is in, and we know to a much greater degree of certainty than we normally know anything in the social sciences that too much inequality results in people being worse off not only at the bottom and middle of society, but at the top as well. Basically, the wage share has not increased since the 70s, and yet consumer consumption has increased hugely. How? Well, maybe the 25,000$ average consumer debt of Canadians can explain why we own more and more and yet make the same as we did 40 years ago. This is not a sustainable situation – not even for the 1%, who own the consumer debt of Canadians, and who will themselves begin to lose out as that debt becomes less and less serviceable.
Canada’s treatment of its colonized Peoples – Dishonesty and Embarrassment
The situation of indigenous peoples in Canada is a national embarrassment. Just for an example, the Globe and Mail reported this morning the findings of a controversial national panel on native education:
The decision to open the schools on some native reserves is made on a day-to-day basis according to whether or not the water is running.
The staff turnover rates range between 20 and 40 per cent as teachers leave for better pay in non-aboriginal schools. Libraries, special education and computers are unaffordable luxuries.
The annual hike in federal funding for native schools has been capped at 2 per cent, while provinces have been getting increases of 6 per cent. At the same time, the growth in the number of on-reserve students has dramatically outpaced the number attending provincially funded schools.
While this and a thousand other stories can tell of the experience of Canada’s colonized peoples, I think the cause of their continued plight can be distilled remarkable easily: dishonesty. When the British set out to take control of the resources of a land the size of Europe as a whole, the sovereign native peoples of the land were perceived as a challenge to British/Canadian sovereignty – either they had to go, or we wouldn’t get the resources. Compared to the revisionist zionists dream of a “Greater Israel” which might include Jordan and part of Syria and Egypt, the dream of Greater Canada was much grander – dozens of times more territory. The land was taken by disabling the local populations from presenting serious resistance against the occupying forces – this was sometimes done militarily (sometimes through germ warfare, sometimes open combat), but more often it was done by subsidizing European settler communities who would, to borrow a phrase, make the desert bloom and extracted great bounty from sometimes not terribly rich Canadian farmland. But their presence on the land pushed off the natives, who often used the land in a nomadic way rather than sedentary farming. But once the natives had been pushed off their traditional territory, which made their traditional ways of life unsustainable, they were literally imprisoned in permanent refugee camps that we call “reserves” (which were studied by South Africa for the development of the Bantustan and Apartheid system there). And, if imprisoning natives on “reserves” (as if they were some kind of wild animal) wasn’t bad enough, the next stage involved kidnapping their children, and forcing them to learn the British ways of life – in child prisons, or “residential schools”, where they were punished for speaking their own language or doing anything from their own traditions, like carving for instance. After the residential school system became too gruesome for white Canadian society to accept, it was replaced by an agressive child services department which took more native children away than the residential schools every had – giving birth to the famous “sixties scoop”, which continues today as my lawyering friends try to defend the rights of native families to keep their children at home.
But, we never tell the story this way – we tell a tiny bit of it, and we find some way of blaming the chaos of native communities on themselves, rather than on the colonizer/occupier. At occupy Toronto there is a strong native presence, and a strong contingent of native activists who can tell you about the problems in their communities in relation to Canada’s colonialist and genocidal policies. And if you’re willing to listen, you might learn something. And, I honestly believe, that if we were all just honest with ourselves about the situation of Canada’s colonized peoples, it wouldn’t be so impossible to put the practical programs into place that would improve their situations greatly. If we understood the context in which we took sovereignty away from them, we might think it a bit more reasonable to give it back – to negotiate away Canadian sovereignty over large tracks of stolen land, and over resource and airspace rights. To negotiate away our right to tell the band councils how they are allowed to organize themselves, and to decide which treaties we want to obey, and which ones we can safely ignore. This is of course considered “politically impossible”, but I contend it is only politically impossible due to the standardization of dishonesty about history as concerns first nations people in Canada.
Effective Leadership? (Isn’t that an oxymoron?)
The other thing I want to address is the idea that the occupiers don’t have an effective leadership. This is a more complicated issue – certainly it is sometimes important for revolts or reform groups to have leaders. However, the occupy movement grows out of a new political tendency – group autonomy, and consensus rather than leaders. I first experienced this kind of group interaction at my first Critical Mass bike ride - Halloween in Vancouver about 10 years ago. Certainly there are advantages to a clear leadership – but there are also disadvantages. It’s easy to frame the leaders, put them in jail, and use attacks against them to discredit the movement. Wikileaks is a great example of what can go wrong if you have a public leader. Not having leaders doesn’t mean you can’t organize – the General Assembly has facilitators, and resolutions do get made. So, it is possible without a leadership to develop a list of demands – something Occupy New York is currently working on, with difficulty, and with some resistance against the idea of demands in general. There already is a list of demands from #occupywallstreet called the “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City”. I’m not sure if there is any list of demands from Toronto, if there is, I haven’t heard about it.
Watch Gord Perks’s CBC interview
Even without demands, Gord Perks put it well on the CBC recently when he said that important things are happening at the park, regardless of whether the protestors have all the answers.