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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Peter Singer is out to lunch on Gaza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

“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.

Imperial and Revolutionary BDS

One thing that was made eminently clear during Ross’ discussion of Egypt and Iran last night was the commitment of America and Israel to economic coercion as a mechanism of achieving its foreign policy goals. With respect to Egypt, the whole imperial logic of ensuring Egypt maintains its peace treaty with Israel is based on investment and the threat of divestment if it refuses to play by Israel’s rules. It is not strictly a divestment campaign, but rather based on a combination of investment and divestment – first invest to make Egypt reliant on western Capital, and then threaten divestment if they stop playing by the rules. This is both a method to ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood does not prevent a political pluralism from emerging within Egypt, as well as to ensure Israeli security. In both cases the logic is to put the Muslim Brotherhood’s own ideology in a tension with its economic needs and its responsibility as a government to bring development and stability to the Egyptian people.

In Iran the threat of western divestment is not strong enough to disuade its leaders from pursuing their own agenda, but sanctions are beginning to have an effect. Because Iran’s economy is largely dependant on oil sales the fact that sanctions have cut Iranian oil production by half and cut sales by 75% has produced a situation where the central bank is devaluing the currency by half about every two months. This is starting to create a situation of internal instability in which the leader of the revolutionary guard has openly criticized the head of the central bank, and protests in the Bazaar are calling for money to be kept in Iran rather than given to Hezbollah and Hamas. The sanctions may be successful – it is not easy for leaders to maintain their political line even if it is internally popular when the cost becomes internal economic devastation.

There is strong internal pressure in Egypt not to cow-tow to the Israelis and Americans, and strong internal pressure in Iran to continue to nuclear program. And yet, the sanctions and investment/divestment tactics may succeed in coercing these states to follow US orders. Of course, if they don’t work, America and Israel also have recourse to overwhelming military force. We should think about these dynamics when talking about building a popular BDS movement because, although there are obvious differences, some similarities exist between US/Israeli coercion and popular pressure supporting Palestinian demands. The current Palestinian leadership does not have recourse to economic pressure and sanctions to support their cause because they are not in direct control of economic and political forces in the way American and Israeli leaders are, this is why they use the political powers they have – resistance and compromise. If we build a popular movement of economic divestment, boycott, and sanctions which support Palestinian consensus demands, however, the Palestinian political forces will find themselves in a strong situation where they can demand of the Israelis all of their rights. If BDS becomes strong, then we will find ourselves in a situation where the Palestinians’ pressure against Israel is of the same kind as the contemporary US pressure against Egypt and Iran. This is important because it means we don’t have to normalize with Israelis and convince them to love us and change their minds with arguments. The only thing that will bring freedom for Palestine is force, but we make a big mistake if we think force only means the Resistance. Just as America finds economic coercion with Egypt and sanctions against Iran the most appropriate tool, BDS is a tool we need to give the Palestinians to use against the US and Israel to gain their rights.

One other thing I want to comment on is the different role of emotion and motivation between imperial and revolutionary politics – the difference between those who believe in the Palestinian cause, or any revolutionary cause, and liberals is not simply a difference in values but a different relationship with the status quo. When Dennis Ross talks about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process he is talking about resolving the conflict given the current power imbalance between the Palestinians and the Israelis. For this reason, his talks are de-politicizing, the listeners are not agents. If anything he wants his largely Israeli audience to calm down and accept a compromise with the Palestinian compromisers who are in power in Ramallah. On the other hand, when we talk about the political situation for the Palestinian people, we want to talk about the way we can be agents to transform the current power imbalance – not how to best solve the current puzzle of geo-political relations but how can we alter the status quo such that solutions which are impossible today become possible. This is motivating, this makes you part of the solution, this is about building solidarity through which you can actualize yourself as a political agent. This is about politicization, this is about having an analysis and resisting injustice and standing in solidarity with people who live in a much less stable situation than us in Canada. This is about empathy and recognizing that in situations of absolute need, people don’t have the luxury to wait for political movements that match their own political visions perfectly. And no matter what our enemies say, the lessons one learns from being politicized by this conflict give us tools of analysis and understanding and action that can be used on the side of freedom and against empires and racism all over the world.