I feel like it’s all falling apart.

I mean this both as a diagnosis of the social moment, and as a description of my private life.

In my private life, which is to say in my personal relationships, multiple things have happened over the last year, the last month, the last few days, which have revealed to me two things: just how brittle any apparent community consensus really is, and to what extent the majority of folks’ political views are grounded more in antagonism and opposition to some big other (i.e. “US Imperialism”), rather than in a cross-contextual commitment to a set of values and principles. I’m amazed at just how many “left wing” folks are ready to equivocate between Trump and the existing American elite. I’m also amazed at how my Facebook wall remains full of posts about refugees that appear to be set in 2003 (meaning, they take the US invasion of Iraq as the contemporary crime to be opposed). I’m stunned at an old friend’s flirtation with the alt-right, to the point where she wouldn’t deny being a Trump supporter. I’m floored by my inability to have real conversations with people I disagree with, that don’t break down into metaphysical-like opposition, and I have to mobilize huge amounts of emphasis on human relations to avoid fracturing (I think this is what Victor Turner referred to as “anti-structure). Unfortunately, there isn’t always enough anti-structure to go around.

In my observation of the political environment, political issues in general appear more and more to have this fracturing character. The election, that goes without saying. But other things too – Syria, the Jordan Peterson controversy. It’s starting to seem like the normal paradigm for discursive politics is one of characterizing any substantial critique of your position as symptomatic of a person being subhuman. Peterson in theory is against this (and his lectures on authoritarianism I believe remain relevant and helpful), and yet in his public life he practices precisely what he denounces: standing as a sort of prophet of the apocalypse, he is unable to heed any criticism of himself, and dismisses those who oppose him with a logic eerily similar to anti semitism (this secret kabal of neo-marxists, as a subconscious collectivity are conspiring to take over the university and the country).

On the topic of Syria, the levels of abandonment are just appalling. This week has brought a series of major breakthroughs for the regime in Aleppo. This is, many are saying, really the end to the Revolution. And I don’t mean to say no one cares – there is tons of mainstream media coverage. But in terms of my Facebook feed, only the usual suspects continue to post about Syria. I haven’t seen a single person who doesn’t regularly post about Syria post anything this week about the increasingly genocidal situation in Aleppo. Actually that’s not true, one person did today, sharing a post I had made about the Canadian government’s attempt to get a UN General Assembly Resolution through to call for a stop to the slaughter and aid to the residents of East (Rebel-held) Aleppo. A topic which, by the way, I have not heard discussed by anyone, despite its obvious relevance for Canadians. For the most part, what I continue to see are a kind of de-contextualized leftist fetishism – posts about Castro, posts about how if white people didn’t want to deal with immigrants they shouldn’t have colonized the globe.

Some folks have argued that the concept of “virtue signalling” is itself virtue signalling, but I don’t think that’s true. Actually what this comes down to is the question: is it possible to act authentically, or is all action a priori a kind of performance constructed for an audience. Or, in other words, is it relevant whether one’s performance is self-consciously a performance, is there any difference between conscious and non-conscious forms of manipulation? I would say that there is, and anyone who says there isn’t is lying because you can’t deal with people in every day life without assuming they are being genuine with you – and when you realize someone is being manipulative, it totally changes the way you deal with them. This means Butler is wrong about performativity, and that people like Goffman and Turner have a much better understanding of it. Which is to say, an understanding of performativity that understands “performance” as one mode of human behaviour amongst others, rather than the character of human action as such.

Is there a link between the left’s adoption of Butler’s theory of performativity over the dramaturgical tradition and the current atmosphere of the acceleration of social fracture? Perhaps if we add to this its stepchild on the right – the post-truth. Or, “truthiness” – Colbert has argued that post-truth is a rip off of his earlier concept, and I think it’s pretty clear that he’s right. This is also a practical implementation of the post-structuralist insight that there is no limit to the number of ways you can interpret a text, although I think fewer on the right have actually read Derrida. Except, on the right, it isn’t that authenticity doesn’t matter (i.e. no distinction between performativity and genuine utterances), but rather that it’s all that matters, a kind of back to late 18th century France emphasis on the genuineness of aesthetic feeling (quick: someone tell the Trump supporters that their aesthetic epistemology set off the French Revolution). But it amounts to the same thing: instead of virtue signalling that depends on the absence of hypocricy, you have the direct appeal to gut feeling, which is allowed to be hypocritical (see: the election of Trump despite his constant exposure as a hypocrite). In both cases there is no room for third parties to critique the relationship between word and object: in the first case because the word links primarily to a holistic, non-contradictory system of articulated beliefs, and in the second because the word links primarily to an aesthetic capacity for judgement which, because it exists in a world of contradictions, can’t be held accountable for making mistakes.

Of course, all these fracturings, there is a social-science tendency in me to want to be able to read them as symptomatic of underlying processes, an example of which I have just put forward. But at the same time, the articulation of those processes in discourse re-inforces, more often than not, versions of those same fracturings. A vicious cycle between normativity and knowledge increases the difficulty of articulating the problems which need to be worked on. The caricaturizing of the description of problems as the problem turns solutions into problems, and poses as solutions remedies which themselves propagate problems.

I want to continue to believe in the power of language to comprehend complex processes taking place in social and political life. And, I want to continue to believe in the common humanity of my brethren as their ability to undertake such a comprehensive project together, both discursively and in practical engagement on levels like community building, collective discussion and political organizing. But it is become increasingly difficult to hold this belief. I’m feeling the need to restrict this level of activity to increasingly tight circles of friends – in essence, to people who stand on the same side as me on a whole set of these fragmented political issues, as well as on the same side as me in terms of the attitude towards fragmentation as such (which is itself a divisive position). This feels like a defensive step. A step in the direction of preservation rather than enhancement. A step on the trail of conservatism, rather than boldly pursuing social progress. A step to the right?

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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.

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. 

In Gaza, I can hear the rumble of victory

Since 1982, Israel has responded to every Palestinian “peace offensive”, i.e. any suggestion that the Palestinian leadership was prepared to resolve the political conflict on the basis of international law, in the same way: provoke, create a pretext, go to war, destroy the political institution with which they otherwise would have to negotiate. Hamas’ unity with Fatah is, like the 1981 ceasefire agreement between the PLO and Israel, an implicit granting of recognition of Israel’s existence. More importantly, it is an implicit recognition of the existing political framework between the PA and Israel, and therefore of the “peace process”, at least from the Palestinian perspective. From the Palestinian point of view, the political logic in the peace process, the Oslo Accords, the 1988 statehood declaration, all the way back to Breshnev’s “September Plan” in 1982, is not “land for peace”, but “law rather than war”; it is explicitly about resolving the conflict not on the basis of the balance of military force, where Israel enjoys a clear advantage, but through recourse to international law.

Since Israel enjoys such a superiority over the Palestinians in force but not in law, we should perhaps not be surprised that Israel uses war not as a continuation of politics, but as a means of avoiding politics. Rather than engage in politics, Israel inflicts pain, today they even use “pain maps”, that map the “pain that the enemy sees, we create a lot of pain so that he will have to think first to stop the conflict”.  Using this tactic, Israelis have many times achieved military victories that leave Palestinians physically and politically weakened. The expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon, and the Abbas-Dahlah coup at the end of the al-Aqsa intifada were both important Israeli victories, which took pressure off Israel and allowed it to continue settlement construction while preventing Palestinians from achieving an independent, unified, and internationally recognized political representation committed to their rights under international law. Every day the Palestinians do not go to the ICC, similarly, is one day longer Israel enjoys immunity from the law on the basis of its domineering power relationship against the Palestinians.

This time the resistance is strong, however, much stronger than for instance in ’82, or in 2008-2009.  Israel is responding to the success of the Palestinian resistance with brutal shelling of people in their homes while ambulances can’t move, and many ambulances have been hit directly (I see these reports constantly on my facebook feed, from activists who are on the ground in Gaza). But by all accounts the people of Gaza are fed up, they will not life on their knees but would rather die on their feet, or as Israel prefers, in their homes. Moreover, and perhaps just as importantly. Hanan Ashrawi has announced that the decision has been made to go to the ICC. So this time it may not only be “allegations” of Israeli war crimes, there may be real political pressure for Israeli politicians to stand trial for the crimes they have committed over the past weeks.

When people tell the story of the liberation of Palestine, perhaps the steadfastness of the people of Gaza and the heroism of the resistance in Gaza in 2014 will be story of the decisive blow. It feels like it could be the key moment, when time stood still, and resistance forces both on the ground by arms and around the world’s airwaves finally forced ideas to change and political forces to re-aligned and make Palestinian rights a reality. Inshallah Palestine will soon be free, and Israel in defeat will be forced to re-interpret itself, so that it can become something other than what it has been for the first 67 years. Maybe one day, a day long after decolonization, something called “Israel” could become something like a light among nations. In that Israel, perhaps Israelis would respect and salute the martyrdom of Palestinian heroes.

In Gaza, the Palestinian Revolution is alive. In Gaza, they are still holding down to the ground.

On the need for honesty as Gaza burns

We have no right to dishonesty of any sort. The Israeli massacre of Palestinians is political, it is what they judge to be required to maintain the current situation of political impasse. We must avoid calling for an end to violence by both sides and instead recognize that the explicit violence of massacres is part of an order of violence that maintains occupation, siege, colonization and dispossession. The violence that needs to end is not only the air strikes, but the settlements, the occupation, and the exclusion of refugees from their homeland.


 It is deeply misleading to characterize what’s happening in Palestine as a “cycle of revenge”. Israel occupies Palestinian land, and prevents refugees from returning to their homes, and this is maintained by a state of war which has lasted since the creation of the state. From the perspective of refugees, and people living under occupation, every day is a day of war – not only days of escalation. The escalation, just like all forms of resistance against the colonizer, is an attempt to make Israelis also experience the abnormality of the ongoing war which they do not normally experience. Rather than speaking of a “need for peace”, we should ask, “peace for who”, and realize that “peace” is only peace for the oppressor, and the continuation of war by other means for the one whose defeat is instituted as normality.


For Israel, war is something that begins and ends (with the exception of the October war) at the choice of the military leadership. For the occupied and the refugees every day is lived in a state of war. We should stop focussing on the need for “peace” and begin thinking about the unequal distribution of war in deeply one-sided conflicts.


We must have the courage to commit ourselves to the absoluteness of the distinction between violence that preserves institutionalized oppression, and violence that threatens and exposes that oppression as nothing but privileges defended by a regime of brutal domination.


 The true ground of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) is the need to resist against colonial violence including dispossession and aggression. 

The truth is that the conflict is political, and it is over land and who gets to live in it – as Ahamad Yassin says, who has a greater right to the land, a refugee who was pushed out a few decades ago, or a Russian Jew descended from people who left the land 2000 years ago? It’s easy to say that there is enough room for everyone, and it’s easy to believe that from a position of safety in the first world, but would you believe there was enough room in the land for everyone if you were a refugee living in Gaza, and the Israelis had been keeping you out of your land, killing members of your community or family, and demolishing your houses, for the last 65 years? If there is room enough for everyone, let the Israelis say this, stop their aggression and welcome the refugees home. Do not ask the oppressed to first reach out the hand that builds trust. 

Most people in Gaza are refugees, and Hamas insists on their right of return, whereas the Fatah since the early 80s became politically associated with giving up this right. Is it any wonder that Hamas is popular in Gaza? 

As for the question of racism, why are we so quick to insist that there is no racism by racialized people against whites in the first world, and yet not apply the same analysis to Palestine? Israel is a white supremacist state, and it is not possible to be racist against those who act from a position of white privilege. Any similarities between statements about Jews coming from people suffering under Israeli oppression should not be called “racist” anymore than statements about whites coming from racialized people anywhere else where white privilege is a key structural factor in the oppression of one group by another.


The only countries supplying arms for the defence of Gaza [Iran, Syria] are the ones also supplying weapons for and carrying out the siege of Yarmouk.

 

ISIS in Iraq and the need for Interpretation and Precise Concepts

As I write this, ISIS forces are advancing towards Samarra, and at the latest word being repelled by the Iraq army. In recent days they took control of Mosul and much of the province of Niveneh. They have released prisoners from the jails at Tikrit, and kidnapped the Turkish embassy staff.

There are two interpretations that I have heard of what is happening in Northern Iraq. One is conspiratorial: the Iraqi leadership has basically staged, or at least allowed, this insurgency to take control of part of the country because chaos benefits them. Chaos is an open door for corruption, for more aid, and to increase their power insofar as it relies on the perception that they are the only ones that can bring security. This interpretation sees ISIS in the same light: they are not genuine in their intentions, they are a band of elite powerful figures who benefit from chaos and who use ideology to control people, while basically lying to them about their “plan” to set up a state. The other interpretation is that ISIS is an independently powerful entity, which while it might make some secret agreements with Assad and Malaki, is basically genuine in its interest to create a state and is willing to use any degree of force, corruption, and ideology to achieve this. This interpretation sees Malaki as much weaker – as the commander of a military unable to control Iraq, and crucially exposed to the possibility of a military advance that might come all the way to Bagdad.  Continue reading “ISIS in Iraq and the need for Interpretation and Precise Concepts”

A few thoughts on Bayat’s notion of “Social Non-Movements”

Asef Bayat‘s idea of “social non-movements” might be crucial for thinking about “social movements” today. The very idea that we “ought” to respond to the political crises we face by organized “movements” is perhaps overly narrow.

Let me say that by “social non-movements,” I mean broadly the collective action of dispersed and unorganized actors. These include the non-movements of the poor to claim rights to urban space and amenities; the non-movements of youth to reclaim their youthfulness, that is, to realize their desired life styles, and fulfill their individualities; and the non-movements of women to struggle for gender equality—say, in personal status or in active presence in public sphere. These claim-making practices are made and realized mostly through direct actions, rather than through exerting pressure on to authorities to concede—something that the conventionally-organized social movements (like labor or environment movements) usually do. In a sense, the non-movements emerge as an un-articulated strategy to reduce the cost of mobilization under the repressive conditions.

The has been raised that what Bayat is describing is a sort of “life style” politics. In a sense that is clearly true, but I think not in the pejorative sense of for example “lifestyle anarchism”. Bayat isn’t proposing “life-style” as an alternative to politics, in fact, I don’t think he’s being prescriptive at all. The very notion of a prescription would seem to be counter to the idea of a social non-movement. I think the point is a descriptive one: that because of the repression and ineffectiveness of social movements to respond to certain sets of grievances, social non-movements are emerging to respond to those grievances. I think this is the key quote:

“These claim-making practices are made and realized mostly through direct actions, rather than through exerting pressure on to authorities to concede—something that the conventionally-organized social movements (like labor or environment movements) usually do. In a sense, the non-movements emerge as an un-articulated strategy to reduce the cost of mobilization under the repressive conditions.”

The emergence and repression of social-non movements is something I’ve seen this in Palestine first hand. It is sometimes either impossible or practically impossible for Palestinians on occupied territory to get the permit to sell their goods, or to build a house, or run a business. Or even if it is not impossible maybe some refuse to engage with the authorities because they don’t recognize their legitimacy (and to be fair, there isn’t a state in the world, not even the United States, which recognizes the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem). A social-movement response to this would mean organized protests with demands, or participating in electoral politics according a constitution (you certainly know the debates about “constitutionalist” politics on disputed territory in the Irish context!), or right the way up to open, potentially militarized struggle against Israeli institutions. But, if the costs of any of these options were too high, and they are high, it isn’t surprising that people in a non-coordinated way simply break the law and do the things they need to do and get on with their life. Sometimes the border police come through the Muslim quarter of the old city of Jerusalem and kick over people’s stalls if they don’t have the right permits – Bayat isn’t saying that social non-movements are without cost. But, the cost of sometimes having your food knocked over, or even sometimes having your house torn down (which happens on a daily basis, and there are literally thousands of standing demolition orders), maybe the cost is still lower and differently distributed than the cost of a social movement to change the law. 

But Bayat’s point is not that this is a politics. Rather, he’s describing the social field’s aversion to politics, but also how that aversion has political implications:

“non-movements” keep their actors in a constant state of mobilization, even though the actors remain dispersed, or their links to other actors remain often (but not always) passive. This means that when they sense that there is an opportunity, they are likely to forge concerted collective protests, or merge into larger political and social mobilization.”

So, describing the social non-movements that exist might certainly be relevant for people trying to organize social movements. But you can’t organize a social non-movement, because the very act of organizing it would make it a social movement. At the same time, there may be opportunities to politicize non-political non-movements, by repeating the same non-movement direct actions with increasing amounts of organization. 

I wonder if this is a way of opening up Michael Hart’s thesis that to think “leadership” in the contemporary series of uprisings we need to reverse the links between “leadership – strategy / mass – tactics”, and think of leadership tactically and the mass as a source of strategy. Maybe the non-movements, which are a-political, are actually strategic because they are directed immediately towards the problems that exist, and we could add a political level to them by tactically bringing non-movers together, on a short term basis, with a leadership which would tactically spontaneously dissolve rather than increase its authority over time.

Defending the Portland Hotel Society

If you aren’t from Vancouver, you’ve probably never heard of the Portland Hotel Society (PHS) a non-profit started in ’93 to provide services and advocacy for the marginalized people of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The society operates many hotels which rent mostly single-room-occupancy (SRO’s) in that area, and specializes in harder to house populations. In conjunction with Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), they opened insite, Canada’s first supervised safe-injection site for harder drugs.

Right now, PHS is under attack following two audits which raised some questions about the use of certain administrative fees. The audits recommended that “VCH and the PHS jointly develop requirements for record keeping and service evaluation plans”. However, instead what has happened is the two founding directors of the PHS have been sacked, and many of the programs PHS runs which were funded through administrative fees are in danger of being cut.

These programs include: paying veterinarian bills to keep their beloved pets alive when they can’t afford to; to continue providing residents with transportation, suitcases and pocket money for family reunification, or for presenting their work in harm reduction at the conferences to which they’re invited; to continue hosting dignified memorials and celebrations of life when residents pass away, with coffee, sandwiches and flowers for the bereaved; to continue the lunch program that feeds ~200 residents of the Sunrise, Washington and Stanley Hotels; to continue serving hot Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners with all the trimmings at every project each year, and eggs and bacon breakfasts on Christmas mornings at the New Fountain Shelter.

In short, what is happening is the war on the poor is being waged in the name of the poor, in the name of transparency and efficiency, and in the name of holding non-profits to scrutiny. But don’t take it from me, the main purpose of this blog post was to provide a space where I could host a set of links by real journalists and writers who have something to add to the discussion.

“We should decry the cynical timing of the audits’ release — hot on the heels of the disgraceful DTES local area plan, which announces the imminent dispersal of hundreds of people who call the Downtown Eastside their home. We should reject the mainstream’s framing of this audit and note that it asks questions but says exactly nothing on corruption, longterm financial solvency of the PHS, or its ability to deliver public money to those who need it most.” The Portland Hotel Society should be defended. (Rabble)

“Patrick May works the front desk for the PHS at the Pennsylvania Hotel, site of the original Portland Hotel. “I feel a bit confused, kind of scared for the future, not only for myself but for the culture of the organization. We work in unorthodox ways and that is why we have been effective. It think it will be difficult for us if we have to be more bureaucratic.” Passionate former clients defend Downtown Eastside non-profit as audit reveals loose spending. (the Tyee)

“PHS staff work under extremely challenging and highly stressful conditions without pension plans, employee assistance programs or disability benefits. They are seldom, if ever, paid overtime, and they are rarely paid to attend staff meetings. The incredible commitment on the part of PHS staff is reinforced by kindness. They are a small army of dedicated people who are committed to doing hard work that is producing real change in peoples’ lives on a daily basis; work in which it is not uncommon to find a person who has overdosed or is otherwise traumatized. These are tough conditions that many would not chose to work in.” Mark Townsend: the Portland Hotel Society’s work must go on. (National Post Editorial)

“If [the founding directors] had paid themselves $40K per year more over the 3 years in question (a figure of approximately $500K- 4 people X $40k X 3 years) and paid the controversial excesses out of their own pockets 3 things would have happened. 1. Their wages would have still been lower than the top 4 BC Housing Execs. 2. They still would have been far more effective than any other organization, including BC Housing. 3. Nobody would have cared. But they screwed up and there are enough people in power who hate them for their activism and lack of bureaucratic process that have been waiting, salivating for this moment.” I work for the PHS. (blog)

“Did the PHS board need to quit/ be let go? That depends…, did they lose confidence within the eyes of front-line workers or service users?  From what I’m seeing in social media and some news that bothered to talk to people directly affected, the answer is ‘no’.  People remain confident in the services, programming and overall harm reduction mission that PHS facilitates.” The Facts on PHS Scandal and Following Reactions of critics, Boards and Jenny Kwan. (blog)

Samah Idriss speaks at Israeli Apartheid Week 2014

Samah Idriss spoke on a panel along with Carrie Lester and David from CAIA at Israeli Apartheid Week tonight. It was a historically significant event for two reasons. First because we don’t hear a lot of voices from the Arab world outside Palestine in relation to the boycott Israel movement, and second because of the analytical links he made between armed and civil struggle in the Lebanese context.

Lebanon is a very different environment in which to do organizing for the boycott of Israel than North America. The first reason is, boycotting Israel is already the law. This would seem to be a large advantage. However, Israeli and Israeli linked companies have found ways to circumvent the anti-Normalization legislation and penetrate the Lebanese market. The fact that so many apologists for normalization exist in Lebanon, especially among intellectuals, is according to Idriss evidence that the laws that prescribe the boycott of Israel are no replacement for consciousness-organizing. Another reason is Idriss campaign is not actually part of BDS – his “Campaign to boycott supporters of Israel” began before the BDS call, and was motivated from watching the Israeli massacre Palestinians in Jenin. Idriss’ campaign is not opposed to BDS, however, but rather that the specific context of Lebanon requires a different approach than is appropriate in countries where boycotting Israel is not already a state law.

Idriss is a key link between boycott organizing and the Arab League boycott of Israel. Despite the fact that Syria is in the grips of an uprising, the Arab League boycott of Israel committee is still meeting once or so per year, and the presence of his movement at these meetings has caused the Arab League Boycott to adopt this boycott of several new companies including cosmetics companies operating in Lebanon, as well as to re-instate Nestle to the boycott list, which seems to have only been removed because of some corruption inside the Syrian regime.

Idriss is a key figure also because he edits an important cultural magazine. Imagine if a major editor of a significant cultural magazine in North America was pro-BDS! This publication is a major opportunity to call out collaborators with Israel, including perhaps business people working in North America on projects which are subject to Boycott but who have personal ties to the Arab world such that it would be embarrassing for their business dealings with Israel to be widely known. This is my own speculation, however, Idriss did not address this in his talk, or speak about any of the implications of editing an important magazine.

Idriss affirmed that organizing to boycott Israel is not opposed to armed resistance, or even a way of avoiding armed resistance, but rather that boycotts as civil resistance, and armed resistance must work together to resist the Israeli entity. He affirmed that without the use of armed resistance, Lebanon would still be occupied partially by Israel, and Israel would have colonized Lebanese lands up to the Litani river. He also pointed out that the resistance was initially secular and leftist. Lebanon is a key example of resistance, and successful resistance, against the Israelis, however paradoxically the success of armed resistance is sometimes used to dismiss the importance of civil resistance such as boycotts. However precisely because Lebanon is seen as a beacon of the resistance, convincing Lebanese people that boycotting Israel could have knock-on effects throughout the Arab world. For example, Idriss’ movement campaigned to prevent the screening of a film made in Tel Aviv by a Lebanese director (entitled “The Attack”) was successful, and subsequently it was banned in many other Arab countries.

In the question period, Idriss affirmed that his organization is committed to protecting Palestinian refugees in Lebanon from racism and bad treatment. He in fact claimed that in Lebanon there is Apartheid against Palestinian refugees. He dismissed the claim that granting Palestinians normalized status, i.e. the rights to study and work, would somehow work against their right of return. He also spoke about the direct work his organization has been doing to protect the rights of a Palestinian worker who was recently fired for having a Palestinian accent.

 

Identity and Community as Interpretive Limits

“You end up creating your identity by defending the thing people think you are.”

“People still think I’m Jewish….I look and act like a person they know, but deep inside I’m the person they hate.”

“In the end, well, people say it’s just because I’m Edward Said’s daughter.”

-comments by Najla Said, left out of context

This essay is not a normative critique of anyone’s identity. Rather, I want to bracket the questions we ask about identity: questions about details, dynamics, relationships with discourse and power, about our own identities and those of others. Placing these (questions about identity) in a bracket, I want to ask: what is signified by these questions? Why is ‘identity’, even a specific person’s identity, considered a legitimate object of interest, of discussion, of questioning? Following along this line of thinking I will question the implicit effects of framing questions in terms of identity rather than community in relation to a recent presentation by Najla Said and Spivak’s essay on the subaltern.

If we de-familiarize ourselves from the normalcy, the average-everydayness of such questions in the humanities, we might notice that there is a slight feeling of taboo that accompanies these questions. Perhaps feeling that we are straying a little too close to something private, perhaps also a sense of vanity – why, after all, is this ‘identity’ so important?  Continue reading “Identity and Community as Interpretive Limits”