Archive for June, 2010

Famine imperils the lives of millions in West Africa—for the abolition of class society

June 23, 2010

One of the many of the radically excluded (@BBC)

“There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no shall starve any longer.”1

The development NGOs Oxfam and Save the Children reported on Monday 21 June that some 10 million people face starvation this summer in the countries of Niger, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria, all of which lie on the semi-arid Sahel belt south of the Sahara.2 Nearly 400,000 children are said to be at risk of dying in the coming months for lack of food.3 The present situation seems to find its basis in the severe drought conditions, driven by another year of failed rains, that currently grip the Sahel. Worst-affected seem to be the people of Niger, some seven million of whom face what Oxfam refers to as “food insecurity,” with 3 million being “severely food insecure.”4 Oxfam says that this year’s harvest in Niger amounts to three-quarters of that of last year, while in Niger’s Diffa and Tillabery regions, no harvest was had at all.5 Cereal production has declined by 34 percent this year in Chad relative to that which was achieved in 2008, while nearly a third of cattle—a traditional means of storing capital—have perished this year in western and central Chad6; the lives of 2 million in the country are said to be at risk.7 Responding to dwindling supply, food prices across the region have reportedly soared, in some places at least 30 percent.8 To provide for food, many in the region have resorted to selling their cattle and other livestock, despite the abnormally low prices being fetched for such, given that so many are doing the same. The next harvest is not expected until September.9

Caroline Gluck, spokesperson for Oxfam in Niger, has likened the present crisis to that faced in Ethiopia in 1984-1985, when the agricultural policies of the putatively Marxist regime directed by Haile Mengistu Mariam—helped along by failed rains that may have at least in part resulted from the mass-emission of rain-inhibiting pollutants by industrialized Western societies10—led to the death of over a million Ethiopians. Those interviewed by the BBC have claimed the present situation to be far worse than that experienced during the 2005 food crisis suffered in the region, during which the lives of 3.6 million were estimated by the UN Children’s Fund to be threatened in Niger alone.11 Referring to the specter of mass-starvation to which millions of West Africans have presently been subject, Brian O’Neill, regional director of the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Organisation, warned of a “strong risk” of famine in the region, while UN representative Mariam Khardiata Lo Ndiaye has claimed that “the magnitude of this crisis has not been seen before.”12

Across much of the Sahel, the failure of rains has caused the so-called lean season—which Reuters reporters John and Fominyen define as “the annual battle to survive from the end of one year’s food stocks to the start of a new harvest,” which was “[f]or millennia” the “curse of most of humanity,” now “largely the reserve of millions of Africans”13—to begin this year three months earlier than usual, in February rather than May.14 It seems, then, that this “hunger gap” is unprecedented.

Few if any reports to date have linked the emerging famine conditions in West Africa with climate change. It should not, however, be taken as surprising that 2005 and 2010—the former year being that of the second-highest average global temperatures recorded before 2010, with the latter threatening to be the hottest year ever recorded15—have seen famine conditions that jeopardize the lives of millions. The primary effect of climate change on human populations—the “most savage impact on humanity” it will likely have “in the near future,” as Oxfam’s writers put it16—is a dramatic rise in hunger and starvation rates which result from the disrupted rainfall patterns, declining agricultural productivity, and markedly increased water scarcity that accompany increased average global temperatures. Given the present crisis in West Africa, it seems that the report Mark Lynas cites which asserts that three-quarters of the population of Mali would starve in a world experiencing a 2°C increase in average global temperatures beyond those that prevailed in pre-industrial times17 is overly optimistic, given that the 0.8° C that has been achieved to date has subjected nearly half of Niger’s population to starvation. Horribly enough, the mass-suffering presently experienced in the region likely previews the effects climate change could have in much of Africa and the world, as famines kill millions and entire latitudinal belts simply become uninhabitable to human life. That 10 million lives are presently in question belies the hope seemingly held by many that climate change can be taken as a far-off threat that could in some way be averted; generally conceived, “hope,” then, “has grown very poor.”18

Ibrahima Fall, Save the Children’s Country Director in Niger, declared in recent days that “[t]he extent” of the present crisis “is being grossly underestimated”19; Oxfam has found the international community’s “overall response” to the specter of mass-starvation in the Sahel “woefully inadequate.”20 Constituted power’s failure here certainly is fundamental, however ‘normal’ and myriad such failures are in the present system. But it must be said that no social system that allows for humans to die for lack of access to adequate nutrition can be considered legitimate; one that subjects 10 million to the threat of such, and a billion others to chronic malnutrition,21 can never be justified. It must, rather, surely be abolished.


1Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (London: Verso, 2005 [1951]), p. 156 (trans. modified)

3 “Food crisis emergency in Niger,” ReliefWeb, 21 June 2010

4Oxfam, op. cit.

5Barry Mason, “Warning of famine in West Africa,” World Socialist Web Site, 11 June 2010

7 Oxfam, op. cit.

9 “Niger’s silent crisis,” BBC News Online, 21 June 2010

10 Joseph B. Verrengia, “1970-85 Famine Blamed on Pollution,” Commondreams, 21 July 2002

11 BBC News Online, op. cit.; Mark John and George Fominyen, “World wakes to African hunger—late again?” Reuters, 18 June 2010

12 Mason, op. cit.; BBC News Online, op. cit.

15John Vidal, “2010 could be among warmest years recorded by man,” The Guardian, 2 June 2010

17 Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008)

18Theodor W. Adorno, Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992 [1971]), p. 163

21Jerry White, “UN reports 1 billion of the world’s people going hungry,” World Socialist Web Site, 19 September 2009

For the reader

June 18, 2010

A gift for the reader, on the occasion of the author’s birthday (or, in fact, one day after such): “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a short-story composed by the anarchist writer Ursula K. Le Guin, first published in 1973.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, OpenOffice version

Obama’s Comments in Cairo on Palestine, One Year On

June 10, 2010

Palestinian youth flee tear-gas fired by the IDF, Bil'in, January 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech—given by official sources the rather absurd title “A New Beginning”—was at the time of its presentation decidedly unjustifiably hailed by many hegemonic commentators as marking the birth of productive changes in relations between the U.S. and Arab and Islamic peoples; its reception in this sense mirrors much of the dominant reaction to the November 2008 election of Obama to the U.S. presidency. One year later—following Obama’s caving-in on Israeli settlement-expansion in East Jerusalem, his dismissal of the UN Goldstone Report on Israeli war crimes vis-à-vis Gaza, his silence on Israel’s assassination of a Hamas official in Dubai, and the marked lack of condemnation he has made of the recent Israeli attack on the Freedom Flotilla convoy to the Gaza Strip—disappointment with Obama’s take on Israel and Palestine is widespread among people of conscience, just as is disillusionment with his administration’s regressive policies more generally. If we are to examine the comments he made in Cairo last June, however, we find little more than mystificatory platitudes that largely legitimize the power relations that currently prevail in historical Palestine; that the seventeen months during which Obama has held power have seen little to no progress that could justify hope for a more livable and humane future for Palestine should, then, be entirely unsurprising.

Obama begins his comments on the question of Palestine in his Cairo speech by firmly asserting that the “bond” between the U.S. and Israel is “unbreakable.” Claiming this tie to be “based upon cultural and historical ties,” he fails explicitly to specify the rather disagreeable nature of this relationship—that is, that it has been the U.S. government that has largely bankrolled Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians, both historically and contemporarily. Unsurprisingly, he says nothing about the courageous counter-hegemonic efforts of several prominent U.S.-based critics of Israel—Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Judith Butler, and Joel Kovel come to mind—who have long worked to oveturn U.S. support for Israeli apartheid and colonialism. Instead, he goes on to explain that the U.S.-Israel relationship is “rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied,” one that he seems to claim to have justified the historical establishment of the Israeli state in what was before 1948 the home of more than a million Palestinian Arabs. No explicit mention, of course, is made by Obama of the “tragic history” of the Nakba, the Deir Yassin massacre, or of the various other massacres of Palestinians overseen by Israel since its founding—Qana, Sabra and Shatila, Jenin, Gaza.

Taken as a whole, however, Obama’s speech is not at first glance the obvious product of Zionist apologists. He claims it to be “undeniable” that the Palestinian people have “suffered in pursuit of a homeland” for over sixty years, and mentions with some sympathy the “[m]any” Palestinians who still reside in various refugee camps, awaiting the realization of a “life of peace and security” that has long been denied them. Typical, however, of a mainstream politician who in 2007 claimed there to be “nothing false about hope” in the course of U.S. history, he here says not a word about the U.S. and Israel’s long-standing complicity in the very negation of the dreams of the Palestinian people for freedom and justice, and he of course does not apologize for such—this, despite his observations regarding the “daily humiliations” endured by the Palestinians as a result of military occupation, and his rather strong assertion that the “situation for the Palestinian people” is “intolerable.” He closes this part of his comments by claiming that the U.S. will not proverbially turn its back on the “legitimate” Palestinian aspiration for “dignity,” “opportunity,” and an independent state. The U.S.’s historical role with regard to the question of Palestine—which, as the Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali captured quite expressively in his creation of Handala, has been precisely to turn its back on the Palestinian people and deny the realization of their aspirations—is here again omitted by Obama.

One of the seeming preconditions for the achievement of Obama’s dreams for the region—that is, the two-state solution—is that Palestinians “abandon violence,” for violent resistance, we are told, is “wrong” and “does not succeed.” One must wonder if Obama intends this as an absolute statement, or one that applies only to the situation of the disposesssed Palestinians who, largely defenseless, face one of the most powerful war machines of the contemporary world—one that would conceivably have been less successful in advancing its settler-colonialist project without the not insignificant amount of aid, both military and otherwise, given to Israel by the U.S. for many years. It would indeed seem outright Kafka-esque for the commander in chief of the largest military in the world to be calling on others to abandon violence for both moral and practical reasons, especially in light of Obama’s expressed future vision for Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan, together with the reactionary actions he has endorsed in these regions. More generally, however, his claim here, if taken as an absolute one, is a rather strange one: was the United States, the country of which he is the current president, itself not forged through violence? Can Obama seriously hold that the violence historically employed against the Nazis and their collaborators, for example, was wrong and impractical? Would he express similar denunciations of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance or the Bielski partisans, or of those Jews who attempted to overthrow their executioners at the Treblinka and Sobibor extermination camps? Are the Haitian and Cuban revolutions to be dismissed because they were won through violence? Is all violence to be found illegitimate, regardless of the goal sought by such?

Unsurprisingly, Obama does not concern himself with such questions. He speaks of Palestinians’ “shoot[ing] rockets at sleeping children” and of the “blow[ing] up” of “old women on a bus,” actions that he quite rightly finds morally abhorrent. He nonetheless mentions nothing of the far more devastating violence that has been visited on the Palestinian people for more than sixty years by Israel, and the U.S. government behind it; there is not a word in his entire comments regarding the barbarous assault by the Israeli military on Gaza that left over 1400 dead, 5000 injured, and 100,000 homeless in December 2008 and January 2009, nor anything about Israel’s 2006 war on southern Lebanon that killed nearly 1200 and injured 4400 Lebanese civilians, an attack for which Obama, then a senator preparing for his future presidential campaign, refused to endorse a cease-fire.

Following his admonition against subaltern violence, Obama goes on to tell the Palestinians that they should “focus on what they can build.” The arrogance of such an assertion is astounding, given that it was with U.S. weapons that Israel destroyed a year and a half ago, just as generally it has been with U.S. arms and essentially unconditional political support that Israel has prosecuted its project of domination over the Palestinians these past sixty years. The U.S. is, moreover, entirely complicit with the macabre Israeli siege directed against the people of Gaza that has since Operation Cast Lead allowed little to no concrete or other construction materials for the rebuilding of the physical infrastructure that was destroyed during the assault to pass through. Obama provides no criticism in his comments of the Israeli destruction of Palestinian society: Palestinians are once again told, as they too long have been, to be patient, to bear their burdens; there is no mention here of overthrowing such burdens. Speaking in Cairo, a guest of Hosni Mubarak, Obama fails to chastise the Egyptian government’s inhumane policies toward the Gazan Palestinians, as he more generally fails to condemn the international community as a whole for allowing for the present situation in Palestine. Such failures on his part are unsurprising, though, for we can imagine that were Obama to have provided such critical perspectives on matters, he would surely have undermined his own position and that of the government and society he represents.

Obama’s decidedly regressive conclusion on the question of Israel-Palestine in his Cairo speech is to claim that the induced starvation and impoverishment of the Palestinians of Gaza, as well as the dispossession and violent repression of West-Bank Palestinians, do not serve the security interests of the Israeli state. We know this argument well, or at least we should, for it was advanced by the ‘realists’ John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their 2007 book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. The aspirations of the Palestinian people for happiness and liberation are entirely instrumentalized in this approach: the myriad crimes of Israel against the Palestinians are relevant only insofar as they result in resistance on the part of the Palestinians to the prevailing state of affairs. Were the Palestinians not to struggle against the realities that Israel and the U.S. have imposed upon them, and were Israel’s ‘security’—and that of the U.S.—not hence to be threatened, then, there would be little to be said by much of the world’s political classes about the question of Palestine. Obama’s treatment of this question here is unfortunately but unsurprisingly not terribly different in this sense.

Obama closes the section of his speech dedicated to Israel and Palestine by promising that the U.S. will “align [its] policies with those who pursue peace.” He further tells us that “[a]ll of us” have a “responsibility” to work toward a future reality in which Israeli and Palestinian children alike can grow up “without fear.” How it is that the latter project follows from the commitment to the former—the promised allying of the U.S. with those forces it deems to pursue “peace”—is a rather open question, for it seems entirely doubtful that Palestinian children will be able to live in peace and without fear as long as the U.S. government continues to express “unbreakable” support for Israeli apartheid and to donate billions of dollars a year in military aid to the Israeli state every year, as Obama has done, in completion of past promises.

Clearly, then, something far more substantive than Obama’s weak criticism of Israeli settler-colonialism is needed: if we do actually value the emergence of a reality in which both Palestinians and Israelis can in fact live without fear and in peace, let alone with liberty and justice, we surely cannot rely on the deeply compromised approach delineated by Obama and seemingly supported by many U.S. ‘progressives,’ whether inside the imperial policymaking apparatus or outside of it—let us not forget, for example, that it was the majority of the Senate Democrats who voted in 2002 to authorize a war of aggression against Iraq, that nearly every Congressional Democrat came out in support of Israel’s winter 2008-2009 assault on Gaza, or that nine-tenths of the U.S. House of Representatives endorsed a resolution in November 2009 calling for the rejection of the Goldstone Report.

I would submit that the complicity of Obama and many Western liberals generally with the perpetuation of the dispossession of Palestine should not in fact be seen as an aberration or contradiction of their expressed philosophies, for liberalism in power has overseen the unchecked perpetuation of mass material poverty in an age of historically unprecedented material wealth and stood idly by to the degradation and destruction of much of the Earth. As a political philosophy, it clearly has made its peace with many of the profound social ills of the contemporary world; Palestine is but one illustrative example of such. Resistance to the myriad injustices suffered by the Palestinian people must then come to resist the imperialism and world-destructiveness advanced by Obama and much of mainstream Western politics as a whole, for it is to be hoped and imagined that such illegitimate realities as Zionist brutalization of the Palestinian people would be overthrown with the realization of a more reasonable and humane set of social relations on Earth.

Heatwaves kill scores in South Asia as 2010 is slated to be the hottest year on record

June 9, 2010

Jason Burke of The Guardian recently reported that ferocious heat-waves have claimed the lives of hundreds—perhaps thousands—in the South Asian countries of Pakistan and India in recent weeks.1 The deaths induced by these heat-waves come during what is preliminarily being termed the hottest summer in the region since official records began in the late nineteenth century. The ruins of Mohenjo-daro, located in Pakistan, were said to have experienced record-breaking temperatures of 53.7° C (129° F) just last week.2 This ‘achievement’ is a few degrees C short of the global historical records reached in Libya’s Al ‘Aziziyah in 1922 (57.8° C), California’s Death Valley in 1913 (56.7°), and historical Palestine’s Tirat Zvi in 1942 (53.9°).3

The heat-waves seem to have affected the peoples of the northern states of India most severely; more than 100 are said to have died during the last week of May in Gujarat, with similar numbers for Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Bihar.4 This number of deaths should however be taken as an underestimate, as most who have succumbed do so in rural regions, where their deaths go unrecorded. The heat-waves have also met with chronic power-outages in much of Pakistan, leaving those who can afford air-conditioning without access to such, and have reportedly increased melt rates of snow in the mountains of northern India, a development that has somewhat ironically resulted in greater electricity-generation on the part of the hydroelectric dams now faced with increased water discharge-rates.5 In other areas, though, the heat has precipitated severe water shortages.

All of this comes as renowned North American climatologist James Hansen and a number of his colleagues from NASA submit a paper to the Review of Geophysics journal claiming that average global temperatures in the year 2010 will surpass the all-time highs seen in 2005,6 and while the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association reports that the first four months of 2010 were the hottest ever measured; average ocean temperatures for March were the highest since records began.7 The US National Snow and Ice Center furthermore reports that the Arctic’s sea ice currently finds itself at the lowest extent ever recorded for this time of the year:8 it is expected, then, that the Arctic sea-ice extent will this year reach a low even less than that observed in the watershed year of 2007, when in September of that year it fell to a record total of 4.13 million km², or nearly 1.2 million km² less than seen in 2005, the second-hottest year yet recorded. It was principally the alarming developments observed in the Arctic during 2007—developments that, in the calculus of climatologist Richard Alley, were taking place “one hundred years ahead of schedule”9—that led climate commentators David Spratt and Philip Sutton to find conventional understandings and responses to climate change totally ineffectual and, indeed, profoundly dangerous.10 What is instead needed, in their view, is to recognize that the present is an emergency that as such demands the immediate abolition of business-as-usual practices—or, in x terms, the “introduc[tion],” in Walter Benjamin’s words, of “a real state of emergency,” an eventuality that he saw as helping to “improve our struggle against Fascism.”11

It is unclear if those who have to date perished this summer in India and Pakistan due to the heat-waves are to be included in the figure of 300,000 that the Global Humanitarian Forum last year estimated to constitute the annual number of global deaths attributable to climate change.12 It is also unknown if the death-toll from the heat-waves in South Asia this summer will reach the 35,000 killed by heat-waves in Europe in 2003, an occurrence that British environmental journalist Mark Lynas claims will be a perennial event in a future world experiencing the a two-degree increase in average global temperatures—the global-warming ‘safe limit’ endorsed by most hegemonic global institutions.13 What is clear and known is that the suffering and negation seen today in the heat-waves ravaging South Asia will be made drastically more acute and general still without radical, immediate action aimed at averting climate change. Echoing Rosa Luxemburg and Cornelius Castoriadis’ twentieth-century declarations on socialism or barbarism, Paul Street succinctly and accurately summarized humanity’s predicament last week by concluding that “[o]nly revolution can save the Earth”14—and, I would add, humanity itself.

1“Hundreds die in Indian heatwave,” The Guardian, 30 May 2010

2John Vidal and Deccan Walsh, “Temperatures reach record high in Pakistan,” The Guardian, 1 June 2010

4Burke, op. cit.

6John Vidal, “2010 on track to become hottest year ever,” The Guardian, 2 June 2010

7Vidal and Walsh, op. cit.

8Vidal, op. cit.

9David Spratt and Philip Sutton, Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action (Scribe: Victoria, Australia, 2008), p. 3.


11“On the Concept of History,” trans. Andy Blunden, 1940 (trans. modified)

13Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008)