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.

Towards a non-vacuous concept of “Just Peace”

All parties in conflict want peace. Oppressed groups want peace in the sense of the end of their oppression, which they interpret as a continuation of war, whereas oppressor groups want peace and quiet, in the sense of the absence of any rebellion against the oppression they instituted through mechanisms of pacification. Calls for “peace” without reference the context, or the terms of peace have, politically speaking, no content, and certainly cannot be assumed to contain anything like “justice”. At best they are context-poor expressions of a desire to see the end of the most extreme forms of human suffering, at worse, they are affirmations of mechanisms pacification towards oppressed people who refuse to let oppression be carried on in an atmosphere of peace and quiet. Worse, the concept of “justice” has no special relationship with “peace”, because a “just war” is only as far away as some example of rebellion you consider justified.

Generally, the problem with both these concepts, “peace” and “justice”, is that there is a tendency, we might even speak of an incentive to call for their implementation without specifying their content. The more we say what we mean by “justice”, the more we specify the terms for “peace”, the more we risk division, disagreement. In other words, there is an incentive, especially in online environments where the gladiatorial nature of the public space is more explicit than usual, to avoid saying what we mean by things, to avoid conflict by allowing each to interpret a value such that the appropriateness of that value obtains for them. Baudrillard talks about this in terms of his concept, (or his interpretation of Reagan’s concept) of the “silent majority”:

Microgroups and individuals, far from taking their cue from a uniform and imposed decoding, decode messages in their own way. They intercept them (through leaders) and transpose them…contrasting the dominant code with their own particular sub-codes, finally recycling everything passing into their own cycle…

We perhaps should see the incentive to speak in a way that avoids conflict as the object side of a coin to the tendency to re-interpret in terms of a particular sub code forms the subject side. And “flame wars” are perhaps just one kind of symptom that manifests when our normal agreement to sustain this two-sided mechanism of non-interaction, breaks down. No one wants flame wars, but also, none of us should want rhetorical exchanges based on false manifestations of agreement, from the perspective of the desire for the genuine interaction of interpretive perspectives, these are both disasters.

Instead, I would suggest, and I think is especially relevant for philosophers desiring to influence the public discourse, that when we assert the need for “just peace”, to be as explicit as possible concerning which prescriptions we believe must be implemented in order for a state of affairs to qualify as both just and peaceful, and also to be as thoughtful as possible concerning the mechanism for instituting of those prescriptions, including the contradictions and conflicts that can be predicted to arise from their implementation.

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.

 

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.

Beamish historical park: a living history of life and class realities in Northeast England

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I’ve always loved living-history museums. Growing up I was lucky enough to visit many in Canada – grand ones like Heritage Park in Calgary and Fort Steele in south eastern B.C., and smaller ones closer to home – Burnaby Village and Fort Langley (both in the greater Vancouver area) come to mind. When I was four I also visited Beamish, a living history museum in the Northeast of England, while on a family trip. Now back in England, visiting the same family, I’ve had the chance to make a second visit.

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I’m not sure if I can sum up in a sentence what museums are for, but in my view living history museums give you a sense of what they should be for – granting you a felt as well as cognitive sense of how people lived in difference places and times. Of course there are limitations – we know so little about ancient times that a living history museum of, for example, Ancient Greece, would really tell us a lot more about ourselves than about the Greeks. This perhaps explains why living history museums tend to be started by people who still have a lived connection to the history displaced, and why they tend to be started only a generation or two after the oldest time portrayed on the site.

Beamish focuses on the Northeast of England during the height of industrialism. The large site, mostly farmland on rolling hills, is dotted with villages enacting different periods and different forms of live. Set in 1900 there is a town, railway station, a mining (“pit”) village, and a coal mine. In the 1820s there is a manor house, a farm, and a steam powered wagonway (early term for railway). There is also 1940’s (wartime) “home farm”. There are plans to add a Georgian area, as well as one set in the 1980s. Since the last time I visited Beamish was in the 1980s, I found that last one a bit of a shock, but really it shows the commitment of the place to be relevant in an ongoing way.

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Because it shows sites from different periods, it’s possible to make comparisons as to how people from different socio economic classes lived in different periods. I was absolutely floored to discover that an average mine worker from 1900 might live with 14 children, his wife, and grandparents in what basically amounts to one room and a loft – and yet, keep a parlor the same size again as the cooking/living area for use only on high days and holidays. Also, there was nothing meek about the way the mine workers house was decorated – if I wasn’t told it was a mine workers house, and I’d seen it only from the inside, I think I would have guessed it was a middle class house for a small family in the city. Decorated with quite ornate goods (both in the living area and the rarely used parlour), it felt aspirational, as if the whole place was laid out to convince (guests? themselves?) that the family was richer than they really were. And they really were not that rich: they did not own their home, and if for any reason no people in the house were any longer working in the mine (including if the workers were killed in a mining accident), they had to be out of the house in five days, so it could be ready for the replacement worker. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened in Britain if mine workers had put as much effort into organizing against capitalism as they did into pretending to be wealthier than they were. (This insight obviously applies equally, if not infinitely more so, to people today).

There is a standard way to talk about the lives we discover in historical museums: to say “oh dear, their lives were so hard, I can’t imagine living like that”. I used to repeat this kind of talk, and of course, it’s completely true: we are totally dependent on the most modern of privileges, we can’t imagine living without all the consciences of home. Cars, vacations, computers, appliances, these all cost huge amounts of our meager earnings, and yet we don’t want to go without. Living a washing machine, who could imagine? (Besides some hipsters in Brooklyn, who I’m sure have taken up hand washing as some kind of D.I.Y. craze).

Trying to think in a way that is a little more wordly, however, this “oh their lives were so hard” talk starts to feel deeply disingenuous. Why should I pity the life of a mine worker in 1900, a mine worker who could afford to have a parlour which he only used on Christmas and Easter, when the keyboard I’m typing on was made by someone who I’m basically certain is much materially poorer than he was? And as for working conditions, yes industrial age working conditions were bad – but there are still no global standards for industrial labor or resource jobs. Am I sure that the miners who worked to get all the specific metals required for my phone and computer had working conditions any better than miners in Britain in 1900? Or even 1800?

We look at the lives of people who lived earlier in our societies and see the hardship and struggle, and feel good about ourselves because things are so much better today. And they are, for us at least. But this can lead to a vulgar progressivism – to be honest we should think not only about how what is called “development” has made some people’s lives better, but also other’s lives worse. Who gets included or excluded when a new standard of living is achieved?

This hypocrisy in the way we perceive the living museum reveals problem of global capitalism from the perspective of labour is, in a nutshell, that trade and production is global but regulation is local. Coal is no longer mined in the U.K. in large quantities, not because the coal ran out, but because (and I know this isn’t the only reason) increased standards for workers safety and the high standard of living of workers makes U.K. coal production uncompetitive on the global market. The problem is, in essence, that British families have the right to buy coal from workers who work in conditions which would be illegal if their employer subjected them to. This is a real material form of benefitting from the national inclusion/exclusion barrier to legal guarantees of well being. 

Of course, Beamish helps answer this question as well – the presence of ideological content from the different periods helps explain how it was (and how it is) that British workers care more about status aspiration than about their own material oppression, and care little at all about workers elsewhere.

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It isn’t prominently displayed, in fact it feels like there might have been a purposeful downplaying of the Imperial narrative, but you can still find evidence of British Imperial propaganda around Beamish, and in working class contexts. The above banner is from the school house where the children of mine workers were educated (at least until they began to work in the mine). There were no maps of the world displaced anywhere in the school house, but if there had been I can be sure that every British colony would have been coloured red, and children would have been taught that the sun never sets on their empire. In the hallway there were paintings of British imperial battles, and the same in one of the mine workers houses. Some of those children might have gone off to fight in imperial wars. But those who didn’t, those who stayed home to work the mines, in a sense their efforts were equally important to Britain’s imperial-industrialist projects. And while I might be inclined to interpret the worker’s situation as one of being oppressed by the owners of the means of production, it’s also possible to see the British workers as lower status members of the British imperial “team”, members whose efforts were crucial to that “team” continuing to “win”, and members who have, in the long run, materially benefitted from those ongoing victories. After all, the very fact that we look back on those times as hard proves that today’s working conditions have, on balance, improved – and not only historically in relation to earlier British workers, but also geographically in relation to non-British workers. Maybe this is just what “winning” looks like, and the battle between nationalism and socialism is a conflict over which game we interpret ourselves as playing – are we playing the game where we want our country to do better than other countries, or are we playing the game where we want the production of the material needs of a society to be more or less a tool for reproducing the status privilege of wealthier families?

This perhaps helps us define very exactly what class aspirationalism actually is: the desire to improve the economic status of oneself or one’s family, without the desire to overcome the system of domination that allows those with higher economic status to extract wealth from those with lower economic status. And this same dynamic can be discerned on national (both Russian “socialism in one country” and British “socialism not communism” varieties are examples of this), and international (i.e. Trotskyist) levels. In all of these cases the defining characteristic appear to be a combination of seeing oneself as part of a larger group that shares common interests, caring about other members of that group, and distinguishing that group from another group or groups to which your group has either an antagonistic or neutral orientation, and about which you do not particularly care.

Perhaps the only example of socialism in action at Beamish is the presence of the co-op store in the 1900 town.

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The co-op movement started in Rochedale, also in the Northeast of England. Built and run by workers for workers, the co-op movement was a way of avoiding high prices. You had to be a member to shop there, and as a member you had the right to elect the board of directors which hired the workers and ran the shop. As such, everything was done in the interests of the co-op’s members. The co-op sold goods with a lower mark up than other stores, and they also dealt directly with manufacturers and sold goods under their own C.W.S. (co-op wholesale society) brand.

Co-ops are interesting. You can imagine a mine worker in 1900 who cares about his own well being and the well being of other workers, and sees his interests in common with them. He has the choice between joining the co-op society, or joining the union (working in the mine he has limited capacity for organizing). If he joins the co-op, he works for the interests of workers as consumers – improving the access to quality goods at lower prices. Imagine he has been elected to the board, and been enlisted with the task of finding a supplier for a new product which the co-op wishes to offer as C.W.S. (in-store) brand. He finds two suppliers that can offer the product at the same quality, but one supplier can offer the product more cheaply because of a combination of lower wages and less concern for workers safety. Which supplier should he choose? Because he is entrusted to work in the interest of the membership, who are workers but workers as consumers, he will most likely have to choose the supplier that can offer the product more cheaply, unless he can convince the board and membership to adopt some kind of “fair trade” standard for suppliers. This illustrates an interesting paradox: advocating for workers, but advocating for them as consumers, one can end up reproducing (or in some cases increasing) the exploitation of the very workers on whose behalf he is advocating.

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I want to finish this by writing about trains. This might seem like a strange departure from a post which has mostly focused on working conditions and worker’s consciousness, but bear with me. The steam locomotive was invented in the Northeast of England, and the importance of the locomotive to the history of industry in this area is obvious from the fact that there are no less than 3 different and separate steam railways at Beamish: a reproduction of the first railway locomotive ever (pictured above) from 1815, a typical mining railway from 1900, and a passenger railway from 1900. There is also an electric tramway that circles the park, bringing you between the different areas on vintage streetcars. In other words, trains are clearly very important for the history of this region.

But what does this mean for the lives of the people who lived here? The locomotive above only carried coal. It was a good deal better than horses at hauling coal – a horse could pull a half ton of coal along a wagonway, whereas this engine, named “steam elephant”, cold haul 90 tons of coal in a 15 wagon long train. It meant mines could be built farther from canals, which means more mines and more work. At a more general level, the steam engine (and this means primarily the stationary steam engine) was a source of work – work which elsewhere would have needed to be done by men or non human animals. Really what the steam locomotive is is a symbol of the transition to the fossilized carbon economy – where the key fuel transitions from food (from recently deceased plants), and the fact this transition happened here earlier than other places is not only a source of pride, but firstly one of material wealth. The actual mechanization of labour was slow – in 1913, which was the highest production year of the mine at the Beamish site, less than 10% of the coal was taken off the coal face by machine. But at the same time, if locomotives were the reason the mine could be there, and made it feasible to transport all that coal to market, then the workers benefitted deeply from the locomotive. Beamish has an incomplete mock up of a coal mine from the Georgian era. Basically a hope in the ground, topped by a wooden crane powered by oxen to lift the coal out of the mine. It was worked by a whole family, father and son underground, mother and daughter above working the animals. The transition to steam powered industrial mining meant that instead of the whole family needing to work mining, a family could buy their material needs from the labour of the men only. Another impact was the growth of new jobs in railroading. My mother’s grandfather worked for the Stockton and Darlington railway, a good step up from his previous job as Gardner. With that income he was able to buy a stately family home in Redcar, a stroll away from the seaside. And don’t forget the advent of the working class holiday- made possible by the railway as well.

So, perhaps the truth of this story is that what at first appears as false pretention (the aspirationalism of a mine workers parlour), is in the end a real material truth (opportunities arising from industrialism for class ascension). At least for some. And of course today the story is the opposite – young people leaving for want of jobs, pit villages are depressed, many houses deserted. The high street in Redcar, although nicely pedestrianized, does not show signs of economic prosperity. Perhaps this is not something that can be altogether separated from how good the museum is – places whose glories are in the past, it’s not wrong for them to celebrate them.

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)

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”

Injustice is Not a Beautiful Colour

I sometimes look at a sunset and see so much pollution, but it makes the sunset look so much more beautiful.

As I write this, I’m riding on a bus from Montreal to Toronto, observing a sunset. It is deeply beautiful, with purples and yellows, and clouds lit up with bands of crimson. And yet, at the same time I feel uneasy – are not the colours of this sunset to some extent the product of man made pollution? A quick internet search reveals that to get deeply red sunsets, “you need aerosols”, and

In an atmosphere with no junk at anytime, you’ll never get a sunset that would make someone with normal color vision say, ‘Wow that’s red!'” says Craig Bohren, professor emeritus of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University. “It is certainly true that the ‘pollution’ results in redder sunsets. (Scientific American

So if we’re looking at a red sunset, we’re looking at the presence of aerosols in the atmosphere. However, just because we know this, doesn’t mean all of a sudden sunsets will stop feeling beautiful. We might feel a tinge guilty about enjoying a sunset, but basically we will still appreciate the beauty.

 Now think of another example. Imagine if you are standing on a rooftop in occupied Palestine, and looking out at lights in the distance. The lights are beautiful to you, and you say so out loud. Oops, those lights belong to the Israeli settlement next door, perhaps the settlement that stole land belonging to your friend’s village, or even your friend’s family. Imagine you are told a story of crimes carried out by people of that settlement against your friends village, or against his or her friends, or even against them. 

 What just happened? Your experience of beauty was interrupted in a jarring, unexpected manner. What at first you saw as pretty twinkly lights, you now see as signs of oppression. And not signs in the symbolic sense, but literal pieces of the infrastructure of occupation that dispossess the land’s native people and installs a foreign group as privileged and dominant status residents. Do those things appear beautiful any longer? Probably not, because your emotional reaction towards them is mediated by your solidarity with your friend. You feel resentment churning in your gut, you break your silence by exclaiming “fuck the occupation”, you imagine a new ideal of beauty for the foreground – one of a darkness under the moon punctuated by the lights of farm houses. You turn and take the stairs back down again, head buzzing with ideas of how to fight the occupation, how to delegitimize Israel’s ongoing colonial actions in the eyes of the citizens of empires who support them. 

 So what about those aerosols, why didn’t the same thing happen to your experience of sunsets when you found they were largely coloured by man made pollution? For starters, you don’t really understand what aerosols are (particles of liquids or solids suspended in a gas), what causes them (burning things, mostly), or, and most importantly, what their effects are (too broad to summarize, includes increasing cloud cover and increasing reflectivity of clouds, also can contribute to lung diseases in mammals). There is no simple story to tell about aerosols, no simple way to understand how to get rid of them, or even if we would want to get rid of them.  Your aunt wasn’t murdered by aerosols, they didn’t steal your cousins car or put your best friend from kindergarten in jail. So why shouldn’t you find the sunset beautiful? 

I’ll give a reason. Your tendency to have strong emotional reactions to morally abhorrent ills which harm you or your friends directly makes it very difficult to act on dangers which threaten us all. If people were highly motivated by the changes to the physical world which were the visible signs of manmade interference which threatens to upset precarious environmental balances, balances on which our habitat depends, then it wouldn’t be so impossible to act on climate change. Climate change is perhaps the purest example of the motivational gap between abstraction and narrative – climate change will harm far more people, and with equal or not worse intensity than the zionists, but because it isn’t possible to tell a compelling story about it, and because we can’t vilify climate change as an actor needing to comply to some moral standard, we focus instead most of our efforts elsewhere. I often explain the problem of liberal reformism with the phrase “no one dies on a barricade for incremental progress”, meaning people will struggle and sacrifice for redemptive stories, for dreams of the last revolution, but not (or at least not to the same degree) for incremental improvements to their well being. 

 I’m not saying any of this to put down people with commitments to Palestinian liberation. I feel able to write in this way about that national liberation struggle precisely because I am so committed to it myself, and by “committed” I mean not only arguing with people on the internet about it, but more importantly belonging to two anti-apartheid organizations, and making ongoing visits to Palestine to see my friends there and stay engaged with the ongoing and constantly transforming situation there. 

Rather than put down the Palestinian struggle, rather than put down the role of narrative and solidarity in political engagement, I instead advocate the need for stories in all social justice struggles. The Palestinians are not too focusses on narrative, and they are absolutely not lacking in sober rationality. It’s the other way around – to confront climate change (and also aerosol pollution) we need a compelling narrative that explains what is going on in terms of winners and losers, criminals and martyrs, defeats and victories, and – and this is really important – any visual manifestation of climate change needs to fit into the story just like those lights on settlement houses. 

Because man made threats to the stability of the environment, to the perdurance of our human habitat, is nothing other than a Nakba brewing all over the world. And the guilty are all those who fail to see it and make it seen. 

“Dialogue” beyond Liberal Illusions: from a-Political Surrender to a Hermeneutics of Resistance

Liberals love dialogue. They think that if we just sit down together over tea and coffee, and talk out our divergent needs and interests, that we’ll all bend and compromise to the point where any conflicts are resolved, and we can all just get along.

And they aren’t entirely wrong. In many situations, especially personal situations, even engaging in dialogue is a sort of opening up to others, allowing ourselves to be affected by the needs of others. In dialogues where the implicit rule is to not come off as a jerk, the mere exchange of perspectives can be enough to motivate change.

The key quality of a successful dialogue is that the exchange of perspectives between the parties have a reflexive character. What I mean is that in the dialogue the position of each of the parties bend, or flex, in re-lation to each other. The “re” is both recognition and re-peting. This relation is an integration, a crossing, a crux. Mutually affective, but not in a material or mechanistic sense – after all we are human, cognitive, understanding beings. In the reflexive dialogue our understanding works on our interest and our interest on our understanding, and we engage in a mutual becoming which facilitates new forms of life, new ethical postulates, new I’s and We’s. It is essential is that these transformations are both individually and mutually willed, or at least accepted consensually so that we can imagine transitioning to a point where we do will the compromises. But what is most crucial is that between the parties, a higher and more considered intelligence emerges – we might call it an inter-subjective comprehension of the situation as a whole. If you want to call this a metaphor, that’s fine, but it’s a metaphor for the active role that the relation, rather than the individual parties themselves, play in transforming the interpretation of the situation and therefore the situation itself.

But as was clear from the introduction, in my view the whole liberal project is a little naive. Naive because where there is a need for dialogue, there is often a power imbalance – which itself might a reason why grievances emerged. Asking people to dialogue in a situation where one party has more power than the other is to presume a false equivalency between unequal parties. Even if the stated goal is to overcome the injustices on the table, the effective goal is to normalize the status quo, and to get the weaker parties to accept their oppression as the condition of moderating it. More often than we would like to admit, slight improvements in their situation are offered as the payoff for peacefully acquiescing to the order in which the subordinate group is structurally under-privileged.

From the perspective of dialogue as reflexivity, we can state more precisely what is wrong with dialogue across large imbalances of power. Reflexion is self critique, and mutual critique, but most importantly it is allowing the perspectives of others to affect your own perception of your own needs. But if you are much more powerful than the other you are claiming to “dialogue” with, you don’t need to do this, you don’t need to change your own view of yourself – you can simply make an offer and then say that the cost of not accepting the offer is you will continue to enforce the status quo with your superior force. This is why accepting the status quo is a precondition for dialogue with rebel groups, even when accepting the status quo means accepting the superiority of the stronger party. This can not be called dialogue, it should rather be called discussions regarding the terms of surrender.

In order for dialogue to take place, there must be some equivalency between the parties in their experience of precarity. If your life is in no way precarious, then you have no reason to expose yourself to the possible transformative effects of a genuinely reflexive interchange with another. In inter personal drama, the mutual precarity of losing friends in common, or simply appearing to be a jerk, might be enough to drive both parties into a dialogue and genuine compromise.  However, in dialogues between representatives of groups, the stronger party can only be forced into dialogue if the conflict creates a precarity which is unsustainable for its own members. Thus we should be highly suspicious when governments say they “will not negotiate with terrorists” – because in fact governments can only negotiate with groups which create a precarious situation for their own citizens. A government declaring that it will refuse to negotiate so long as the precariousness situation caused by the attacks is maintained, is effectively declaring that for the sake of avoiding a dialogue with the rebels it is willing to sacrifice whatever human lives that might be lost in the military campaign to wipe out all of the rebel forces, to the point where their ranks are so weakened that they can no longer resist the status quo and will instead sign terms of surrender, or simply return quietly to their unrecognized subordinate position.

Rather than thinking about force and dialogue as opposed to each other, we should see how they work together. Force can prevent the possibility of genuine dialogue, but force that restores a balance of force can restore this possibility. Only precarious lives can dialogue, and in situations where force makes some lives precarious white protecting others, a countervailing force is one of the things that can restore equivalency.

Of course, on the other hand, precarious situations can drive people into recalcitrance, especially if they think they can appeal to their ability to mobilize enough force to blot out the source of their precarity. The anguish of fear is a prime breeding ground for fascism, for tribalist thinking, for racism, sexism, an idealization of the “golden age”, and all forms of cultural inertia. A complete account of the dynamics of reflexive dialogue across different situations of force would require unpacking this tendency, and distinguishing more closely what forms of precarity motivate entry into reflexive dialogue, compared to which tend towards greater and more self-destructive appeals to might-as-right. It is, however, possible that the difference between these reactions is not a matter of external factors, but the internal decision and freedom of the members of the society under pressure.