Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’

Review of Herbert Marcuse’s Paris Lectures at Vincennes University (1974)

October 27, 2015
The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 exhibited 1835 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Philadelphia Museum of Art: The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928

J. M. W. Turner, “The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons” (1834). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Published on Heathwood Press on 27 October 2015.  Co-written with R.C. Smith

Herbert Marcuse’s Paris Lectures at Vincennes University
ed. Peter-Erwin Jansen, Charles Reitz
142 pp. – $20
ISBN: 1512319023
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015

Discovered in 2014 by Peter-Erwin Jansen, then annotated and edited by Jansen and Charles Reitz for publication in 2015, Herbert Marcuse’s 1974 Paris Lectures at Vincennes University do not necessarily provide any radical new material in comparison to some of the well-known works which he was already writing at the time when these lectures originally took place. That is to say that there is no grand treasure of previously unseen revolutionary insight waiting to be discovered in these hitherto unpublished manuscripts. With that observation in mind, what makes these lectures significant and worth reading for the Marcuse scholar has to do with some of the finer nuances of analysis that Marcuse presents regarding American society as the most advanced stage of monopoly capitalism. His discussion on the dynamic forces of revolution and counterrevolution are also notable in this regard. When considered in the context of his more major works, these lectures provide further insight into Marcuse’s overall critical theory. For the non-Marcuse scholar on the other hand – that is, the conscious citizen looking to understand the dynamic context of contemporary neoliberal capitalism and its historic genesis – this book offers an entry point into Marcuse’s thought and his excellent, highly reliable analysis of our modern times. This potential entry into Marcuse’s social philosophy is further reinforced by supplementary commentary by Sarah Surak, Detlev Claussen, and Douglas Kellner.

Integration, the dialectic between rulers and ruled, and new social movements

Though these lectures were first presented in 1974, Marcuse’s sharp analysis of some of the key trends of American society at the time highlight much of what we continue to observe today. In some instances, it could be said that Marcuse even anticipates what we now identify as neoliberalism, not to mention the rise of the mass-surveillance state and the underlying struggle and emergence of contemporary social movements.

Consider, for example, his discussion on the integration of the population with the dominant and coercive system of capital. By “integration” Marcuse means to describe: “the acceptance of, and even the identification with, the capitalist system among the majority of the population, including the majority of the working class” (p. 22). The general thrust of Marcuse’s analysis in this regard is the manner in which the dominant forces of contemporary society (the ‘bad totality’) attempt to keep people “within the framework of the capitalist system and, perhaps, even within the frame work of the capabilities of capitalism” (p. 22). As Marcuse explains, this integration is understood to take place “on three very different levels” (p. 22). The first is the sphere of consumption in which, “In satisfying the needs beyond the mere subsistence needs for a large part […] of the population, the increasing productivity of the service industries churns out more and more comforts, luxuries, and services like organized vacations, traveling, and so on and so on. These are powerful mechanisms which bind people to the established system” (pp. 22-23). In a sense these mechanisms of control help mask over surplus repression. They deflect from the suffering and misery which, in many ways, becomes the hidden reality of capitalist society. This is especially so, Marcuse explains, “when the people cannot imagine a better alternative” (p. 23).

The second level is what Marcuse terms “the management of the mind” (p. 23), which means “the consciousness as well as the unconscious” of the subject. In a sense, what Marcuse is surveying here is a reality we now know all too well: the maintenance of the present social order through structural and systemic mechanisms, albeit sometimes subtle, of control and coercion. The rise of the mass-surveillance state, as Edward Snowden has disclosed, is a perfect example. It is worth noting that it is an example that Marcuse also references in his lectures, decades before Snowden’s leaks revealed the hidden reality of state surveillance programs. Other examples can be found in what Marcuse describes as “two less noticeable phenomena, namely, the release and the satisfaction of primary aggression” (p. 23). In other words, “The increasing violence of films and television” as well as “The increasing aggressiveness in sports and entertainment, and so on” are exemplifications of a sinister psychological paradigm, one which we first learn about in the work of Freud. This paradigm, this play of psychic forces, can be described according “to the degree to which a social system frees the aggressive instincts of man and woman and at the same time succeeds in keeping them within the established framework so that they don’t blow up the society, that this satisfaction of aggressiveness strengthens the society which produces such satisfaction” (pp. 23-24).

To further describe the reality that Marcuse is pointing toward, we could cite several other phenomena as practical examples, including the self-deceiving satisfaction of consumerism. At the heart of consumerism and, equally, the greed and egoism commonly observed in contemporary society, is the unleashing and ultimate rationalization of excessive or rapacious desire for material goods, which, in many ways, is linked to deepening repression. On the one hand, consumerism reinforces the existing system; it strengthens some of the basic drives of contemporary capitalist society. On the other hand, in unleashing greed and egoism and rapacious desire, there is a sort of strange rationale on a systemic level which moralizes greed and attempts to keep the ailing psychology of consumerism in check. Thus, in the case of the Libor scandal for example, where it was discovered that banks were falsely inflating or deflating their rates so as to profit from trades, the bankers involved were condemned on a moral level. They were labelled as ‘greedy’ and ‘immoral’ and, in some cases, it was even argued that these bankers were in no way a representation of the system they inhabit. In popular discourse and reaction, it was rare to see any question of the capitalist context, of the logic or rational of modern political economy, which fosters the sort of behaviour of the bankers in question on the basis of the very impulses the contemporary social system unleashes. Thus, in an odd way, we observe another case of the degree to which the contemporary social system fosters, supports or frees antagonistic forces of man and woman while at the same time endeavouring to keep these destructive forces and impulses within the established framework. The satisfaction of greed and rapacious desire, as opposed to generosity, solidarity and egalitarianism, strengthens the system which produces such satisfaction; but it is moralized so as to ensure the maintenance of that system.

The final, third level “on which integration takes place is systematic and overt repression” (p. 24). Marcuse cites a particularly relevant example which concerns many young people today. To quote in full:

Students know all too well, for example, that if there is anything that indicates radical activity on their record, it will be all but impossible for them to find a job, especially with the entirely negative job market.

Allied with this systematic repression we witness a reduction of civilized sensibilities. You only have to look at some of the decisions made by the Supreme Court in the last years in order to see the dangerous extent of this reduction of civil liberties and, at the same time, the systematic and methodical increase in the power of the police, the National Guard, and other so-called forces of law and order.

This may suffice in order at least to outline the integration, the popular support of the system and some of the basic mechanisms which engender this support.

Following this, Marcuse turns his attention to a fruitful discussion “on the question of who is the actual agent of this repression”, or, as he rephrases, “who is actually the dominant class, the ruling class which is in control of American society” (p. 25). Here another example of particular relevance in our attempt to understand the broader social trends of contemporary society might be found, as Marcuse discusses the dialectic between rulers and ruled, offering some key passages which could be said to describe certain aspects of the unfolding of the contemporary neoliberal context (pp. 27-29). Referring back to the analyses offered by C. Wright Mills, Marcuse reiterates that “domination over the capitalist societies today is shared and organized by three groups” (p. 27), namely corporate leaders, politicians and the military. He then describes how this ruling class, “which not only is not monolithic but permeated with antagonisms, has a common feature, namely, the preservation of the established system” (p. 28). It is along these lines where Marcuse offers a valuable insight which further highlights the importance of this text in these early years of the 21st Century. He argues, when discussing the dialectical relationship between rulers and ruled, that the “various components of indoctrination, manipulation, and management of the mind also become […] instruments for expressing the will and the interests of the indoctrinated population” (p. 28). In essence, Marcuse is explaining the relation between structure and agency, in which “the government and its institutions, the ruling class, systematically makes what is called public opinion, but once made, this public opinion, which is constantly being reasserted, has in turn its own influence on the policy makers” (p. 28). One could argue that this practice is even more prevalent now, after decades of liberalization, in which the growing appearance of freedom – to debate policy or to vote according to one’s own will – is actually countered insofar that the people participate in the rule of society – that is, in the perpetuation of the misery of dominant, coercive and hierarchical social, economic and political conditions.

The people can indeed express their will, which is no longer their will but has been made their will by the ruling class and its instrumentalities. The people as authors, the people as buyers and sellers, in turn influence the policy of the rulers. […] There is no doubt that the people who cast their vote in any election are even, in the sense of the system, free people because nobody forces them to vote. But, still, are these the same people who can become subjects of radical change? (p. 29)

There is something horrifying about the reality that Marcuse is surveying here – a trend which, perhaps now more than ever, can be observed in its fullest. It is debatable, firstly, whether one’s vote can actually influence the policy of rulers. The crisis in Greece is a clear example of why such a question is justified. Even in the so-called radical party politics in the UK and the US led by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders respectively, there is still an element of conformism – an element of conservativism, which, in essence, attests to the deepening of the status quo. The “oppositional” economic policies outlined by Corbyn and Sanders alike are really not that radical. They are viewed as progressive precisely because the social, political and economic context has, after so many years – perhaps beginning with the fall of the movements from the 60s and 70s – moved so far to the right. The arguably general absence of radical political subjectivity within these two examples of so-called radical Left party politics today attests to what Marcuse was indicating decades earlier. In a sense, the dialectic between rulers and ruled has developed beyond Marcuse’s conception, if we consider that, in the very existence of the party itself, the status quo of a less-than-revolutionary politics is upheld. Moreover, there is a distinction which must be drawn today – a distinction between the radical subjectivity of autonomous participatory (democratic) movements and the so-called radical subjectivity of the party, particularly as the politics of the latter persists as an extension of the hierarchical and institutional world, and, generally speaking, is framed largely by the ideology of representative democracy (i.e., democratic capitalism). It is debatable whether Marcuse was feeling his way toward this distinction in his 1974 lectures, but one could interpret his argument along such lines when he writes: “that there is a feedback, there is indeed a considerable degree of activity, opinions, and attitudes by the people influencing the government, and that on the other hand at least recognize themselves in their leaders” (p. 31). He then leaves us with one remark which is particularly telling:

The people as authors, the people as buyers and sellers, in turn influence the policy of the rulers. And it is interesting to think back, and not too long back, when among the American Left the slogan was “Power to the People.” “Power to the People.” The slogan is now used to far less a degree because the question “Who are the people?” cannot for any length of time be postponed (p. 29).

In some respects, the distinction highlighted above seems to be playing out today between the emergence of new social movements – which are grassroots, participatory, generally prefigurative, and more or less horizontal – and the lingering ideology of party representation. One could argue that it is, in part, the question “Who are the people?” that contemporary movements are attempting to answer in precisely the same way that they are also responding to the crisis of democracy. In other words, the question “Who are the people?” is symptomatic of alienation, socially and politically. The correct response is not a turn further away from democratic assembly and participation, to a further deepening of the questionable satisfaction of collective reliance on a leader; it is instead a revitalizing of the idea of the commons, of the grassroots, of collective struggle and solidarity – that is, dealienation on several levels. Occupy-style movements are a perfect example of the general political horizon contemporary social movements are suggestive of in this regard. Attempting on the level of praxis to answer questions around the contemporary crisis of democracy, participatory politics and what it means to be ‘public’ in twenty-first century society, the very political concept and definition of “the people” is brought into direct focus, so much so that the existence of hierarchy is challenged on the basis of a ‘mutually recognising’ politics which insists that the ultimate goal of emancipatory change must be, from the start, a product of (dealienating) interaction.

For Marcuse, the real possibility of a revolution in the most advanced industrial countries is one “not on a basis of poverty and misery, but rather on the basis of wasted abundance” (p. 49). Even though misery and suffering and struggle still play more of a role than what Marcuse may let on, especially now in the context of neoliberal austerity and the systematic dismantling of the welfare state, he is nevertheless on to something when he writes:

The result of the ever more explosive contradiction is the gradual development of what we may call an anti-capitalist consciousness; the development of an anti-capitalist consciousness and of an anti-capitalist mental structure, unconscious, among the population in the metropoles, a consciousness still largely unorganized, spontaneous, without definite goals, but, in any case, the consciousness and instincts, drives, “compulsions,” which very definitely come into conflict with the operational values required to sustain the capitalist system. That is to say, the protest comes into conflict with the so-called performance principle, which is the reality principle governing capitalist society. And against this performance principle, we see now the gradual emergence of an opposition―and I repeat, an opposition still unorganized, still to a great extent spontaneous―an opposition against toil as such, an opposition against alienated labor as a full-time job, opposition against the fact that life for the vast majority of the population, is to cite the phrase from Marx, “life as a means to an end and not as an end in itself,” namely life as a means to make a living, as one says, as a means for daily reproducing one’s own existence without ever, or only when it is too late, getting at the joy of really enjoying life (pp. 56-57).

Perhaps it is no coincidence that, in various instances of Occupy-style events and the ‘movements of the squares’, protest and struggle are just as present in action and language as joy, solidarity, and collective caring. Returning back to the joy of life, while practicing and experimenting with variations of participatory democracy and actual egalitarian possibilities – public and co-operative libraries, public medical tents, solidarity kitchens, social clinics, mutual aid networks, sustainability initiatives, self-managed workplaces – can it be that contemporary movements represent a more developed politics than what Marcuse saw fragments of in his own time? Is it not that these occupied spaces, these commons-oriented and participatory spaces of practice, are built on the idea of alternative forms of social relations which, in the process, seem to demonstrate a more mature form of the sort of new revolutionary movements of the 60s and 70s?  That contemporary social movements are beginning to emerge in challenge against not only the economic status quo but also the social, relational, emotional, psychological, political, cultural, and so on, attests in many ways to the many-sided transformative politics that Marcuse spent years arguing toward. To conclude this thought, consider the passage below in relation to some of the social movements we are witnessing throughout the world today, who aim toward a radical egalitarian and democratic horizon and seem to suggest some sense of a critically retrieved and holistic notion of social progress:

What is required to bring out the full, entire, and qualitative difference between socialism and capitalism is not so much the continued ever more efficient development of the productive forces, but the total redirection of the productive forces altogether towards new goals and toward a new quality of life. Now, in view of this fact, there must be not only the political and economic revolution, not only new institutions and basic social relationships, but also the reversal and subversion of the entire system of values that kept at least Western civilization going, going on the ever more repressive and destructive aspects, until this very day (pp. 59-60).

Capital, radical consciousness, and world-historical revolution

As alluded earlier, one of Marcuse’s principal concerns in the 1974 Vincennes lectures is to continue with a lifetime of investigation into the conditions underpinning the reproduction of the “bad totality” that is global capitalism, as juxtaposed with the possibilities of breaking free from this “Iron Cage,” to use Weberian terminology. As in his “Assessment” of “The Movement in a New Era of Repression” (1971), he observes in these lectures that the contemporary U.S. left lacks a “mass base” among the populace precisely because of the strength of integration, while on the other hand he laments the “sad phenomenon” whereby the oppressed racial and national minorities in the U.S. have been depoliticized and suppressed (p. 4)—thus blunting the revolutionary hopes he had identified as emanating from militant people of color at the conclusion of One-Dimensional Man (1964). The critical theorist moreover notes that, on the international stage, the “arrangement” the U.S. ruling class has made with the Soviet Union contributes to the overall stabilization of world capitalism, and he presciently speculates that a similar “arrangement” would be made with the People’s Republic of China (p. 7). Defining the “objective conditions” as “the strength or weakness of the State or the ruling class [versus] the strength or weakness of the working class,” Marcuse soberly acknowledges that the prevailing tendency is toward neo-fascism rather than any kind of socialism (p. 13, 10). In this sense, Marcuse observes knowingly that the problem of consciousness—the “subjective conditions”—does not have to do with any lack of knowledge regarding the factual situation, for the implicit and expressed political philosophy of the conformist majority in late-capitalist society would seem to be driven much more by powerlessness:

Yes, there are the objective conditions which one knows well: It is repression; it is corruption; capitalism no longer works without   inflation, unemployment, etc., etc. But what can one do? Nothing at all. (p. 18)

In idealistic terms, Marcuse counterposes against such widespread resignation the radical consciousness, which in Kantian terms mobilizes the “imagination as a cognitive faculty” to show “that the impossible is not impossible” (p. 16). It is in this sense that the radical consciousness is “way ahead” of the objective conditions, for it dialectically “projects potentiality in the objective conditions” and “anticipates possibilities not yet realized” (p. 18). Though Marcuse clearly sympathizes with this latter approach, he defines both the conformist and radical consciousness alike as manifestations of false consciousness—insofar as the latter refuses to apply a Marxist analysis to the changes in the capitalist system since the nineteenth century (p. 19). Speaking to the disillusionment felt by many of those formerly in opposition when ‘the Revolution’ was not consummated at the end of the 1960s, Marcuse criticizes the disengagement into which many radicals fell: “Any absenteeism from political life, any absenteeism from links with political activity is escapist and is conformist” (p. 33). Taking an historical view, the critical theorist observes that social revolution is a process, and that it cannot be presumed to be without its regressions. This is particularly the case for the world-historical revolution that Marcuse anticipated as possible for the end of the twentieth century or the beginning of the twenty-first: being “more radical and more sweeping in scope than all preceding historical revolutions,” this “would be a revolution not only in the political and economic institutions, not only a revolution in class structure, but also a total transformation and subversion of values in all spheres and dimensions of the material and intellectual cultures” (p. 59; emphasis added). The philosopher observes that:

we cannot possibly assume that the largest and most radical revolution in history […] would come about in a straightly ascending curve and would come about in a relatively short time. (p. 34)

Though Marcuse remains faithful to the possibility of this world-historical revolutionary transformation, and agrees with Marx that it would have to centrally include the advanced-capitalist core of the world-system, he specifies in the Vincennes lectures that he expects this revolution to be the work of “75 to 150 years” (p. 34)—in an echo of the closing lines to Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972). He clarifies that, though he believes the prospects for this revolution to be long-term, it will never come if the radical opposition does not strive to incubate it now.

As in Counterrevolution and Revolt, Marcuse in these lectures also discusses the phenomenon of the vast extension of the U.S. working class. Citing statistics compiled by Stanley Aronowitz and the U.S. government, Marcuse shows that monopoly capital has largely suppressed the middle class and made 90 percent of the population into a dependent class (pp. 40-42). The theorist then cites a famous letter from Marx to Engels (1865) in which the former tells the latter that the “working class is revolutionary or it is nothing at all” (p. 61). Marcuse interprets Marx’s statement here as suggesting that the laboring class is revolutionary insofar as its “needs and aspiration […] are irreconcilable and incompatible with the capitalist system” (p. 62). Returning to the discussion on conformist consciousness, he then declares the contemporary U.S. working class not to be revolutionary as a whole, though he does endorse Marx’s general point about the conflict between capital and labor, concluding that this antagonism is “bound to explode in the long run” (p. 62). As in a number of other addresses from this time-period, the critical theorist points out the militancy of a radical minority among the U.S. working class, compelled as it is by the combination of workplace alienation and revolutionary consciousness to engage in spontaneous acts of subversion, such as absenteeism, sabotage, and wildcat strikes (p. 63-64). Marcuse sees in such acts, and in the parallel vague public awareness of the obsolescence of the capitalist mode of production, the decline of the performance principle and a growing threat to regnant obedience (pp. 64, 52).

The critical theorist concludes by suggesting that this militant minority among the workers could, like radical students and people of color in struggle, serve as the catalyst for the future disintegration of U.S. and thus global capitalism (pp. 66-67). Closing on an ecological and syndicalist note, Marcuse anticipates laborers challenging workplace hierarchy and humanity engaging in a “total redirection of production […] towards the abolition of poverty and scarcity wherever it exists in the world today,” together with a “total reconstruction of the environment and the creation of space and time for creative work” (p. 69). Anticipating the profound exacerbation of the environmental crisis which was already evident at the end of his life, Marcuse announces that the “abolition of waste, luxury, planned obsolescence, [and] unnecessary services and commodities of all kind” would imply a lower standard of living for the world’s privileged minority, but that such a ‘sacrifice’ in capitalist terms would not be an excessively high price to pay for the possible “advent” of libertarian socialism (p. 69).

Closing thoughts

It is a testament to the fundamental character of Marcuse’s thought that he was able to identify, decades earlier, some of the deepest trends underlying the evolution of late-capitalist society. That he could, with remarkable precision, analyze the earliest developments of what we now understand as neoliberalism is one of many examples of the acute, incisive and penetrating qualities of Marcuse’s social philosophy (and also that, more generally, of the early Frankfurt School). Though it is certainly true that there are dated aspects to Marcuse’s argument in these lectures, this is only understandable considering that it is a basic principle of critical theory to remain rooted in history. Looking back, there may be concepts and arguments which can be retrieved and advanced. But this does not take away from Marcuse’s overall theses, formulated by way of remarkably complex and comprehensive research on the dynamic processes and forces of modern dominant, coercive and authoritarian society – as well as the foundational basis for emancipatory praxis and the development of an actual democratic, egalitarian social conditions.

At a time of endless “critical studies” and commentary, which do not always reach down to the levels of fundamental interdisciplinary analysis representative of the very essence of critical theory, we would do well to reflect on the crisis of contemporary social theory and the need to return to the roots of the Frankfurt School. In confronting the crisis of apolitical social theory, Marcuse can help show us the way forward as almost every sentence he composed in these lectures and elsewhere reminds us of the precisely foundational nature and transformative potential of critical theory.

The manner in which the critical theorist identifies, for example, the changing dynamics of capitalist society—whereby Marcuse suggests that revolution within the most advanced industrial nations will no longer be primarily based on hunger and misery but on wasted abundance (p. 49)—in many ways anticipates what we’re witnessing in these early decades of the 21st Century. Popular movements today – such as the sustainability movement, the circular economy, or the rise of eco-socialism, to name a few – are emerging in response to this very concept. The question of whether these movements are actually revolutionary and evidence an emancipatory politics is a legitimate one. In many cases, these mainstream initiatives – consider, again, the rise in the notion of the circular economy – seem to lack a more fundamental transformative project of thought. But what these movements are responding to – their language, their direction of imagination, and their efforts at re-designing modern political economy, no doubt exemplifies one of Marcuse’s basic arguments in his 1974 Paris lectures. Efforts in the realms of voluntary simplicity, political veganism, green syndicalism, and direct action for the climate represent more radical and direct manifestations of Marcuse’s argument with regard to ecological politics.

It unfortunately seems to be the case that many commonalities can be seen between the world-political situation today as compared to the case forty years ago. In light of the endless wars, extreme and burgeoning economic disparities, and ever-worsening environmental-health indicators, it is evident that capitalism continues to hold all of humanity and nature ransom in the Iron Cage. Though Occupy and the popular uprisings in the Arab world have demonstrated the significant potential for resistance and even revolution, the pendulum has clearly swung back again toward the consolidation of the system in recent years, as seen especially in Egypt, Syria, and the U.S. Perhaps the radical consciousness is more widespread now than before these breakthroughs, but it still confronts an entrenched conformist consciousness among the general populace, at least in the U.S. and Europe, as well as a fascistic concentration of power, wealth, and military might that is coordinated by the transnational capitalist class. Recent events in Greece evidence precisely this point. Here, a counterhegemonic movement emerged as a significant wave of grassroots energy only to crash upon the counter-revolutionary shores of the European Union, its entrenched neoliberal governments, and institutional politics. Greece may have seen mass mobilization, but much of Europe left revolutionary Greek movements to struggle for themselves (aside, perhaps, from the odd ‘solidarity’ march). In this sense, Marcuse’s comments on the glaring absence of a “mass base” for revolutionary social transformation remain apposite, as is the theorist’s analysis of the ideological basis for conformism, underpinned as it is by nihilistic fatalism and a mistaken feeling of powerlessness. Marcuse’s conclusion in the 1975 assessment of the “Failure of the New Left?” remains entirely true today: “[t]he transition to socialism is not now on the agenda; the counterrevolution is dominant.”[1] Though the inertial perpetuation of these negative conditions over time might lead one to conclude that a change in tactics and strategy would be justified, the problem of capitalism and domination still remains, such that the response in parallel likely remains radical mass-struggle to construct an anti-systemic multitude to disrupt and reorganize the hegemonic social, economic, and political institutions in all their facets.

Moving forward, the challenge for emerging scholars and writers in critical theory is to understand what key concepts need retrieval, critical sharpening or abandoning. In light of this challenge, an important question might be raised: how might these previously unpublished lectures inspire a project aimed toward advancing the Frankfurt School? What new ideas do they inspire? In what ways might Marcuse’s thought assist the pressing question of emancipatory politics and contemporary critical theory as we move forward in the 21st Century?

Another key challenge, as Marcuse would have it, is to engage with popular movements and help inform and guide their diversity of struggle today. Marcuse understood, in many ways, that revolutionary societal transformation is a complex, dynamic and many-sided process. In essence, we could say that it is subject to an extended social-historical process of revolutionary transition which could very well “take a time of at least 75 to 150 years” (p. 34). How can critical theory assist new social movements in establishing the basis for emancipatory societal transformation? Marcuse teaches us that, in the years past and in the years ahead, critical theory must constantly and normatively present the challenges of theory to movements in the field of practice. It is always possible that, in an actionist rush of blood for the thrill of practice, movements become inclined to abandon theory, usually to the detriment of practice which then turns incomplete, contradictory and incoherent. To borrow from Andrew Feenberg, theory must be a ‘philosophy of praxis’ – a ‘philosophy of praxis’ that engages on the level of practical action. If Marcuse (and arguably the first generation of the Frankfurt School in general) are the torch bearers when it comes to this philosophy of praxis, it is the challenge of the new wave of thinkers in this tradition to claim this torch and further illuminate the path forward. In doing so, theory must continue to draws its concepts and its inspiration from the revolutionary activity of new social movements and, as Charles Reitz recently commented, normatively challenge them to work for the radical rather than the minimal goals of socialism. If one were to take a single stirring inspiration from these lectures, this would be it.

[1]     Herbert Marcuse, The New Left and the 1960s: Collected Papers Volume 4, ed. Douglas Kellner (London: Routledge, 2004), 189.


Mobilizing for Justice in the Anthropocene: Autogestion, Radical Politics, and the Owl of Minerva (2/2)

September 18, 2014


[This is part II of an interview on Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press, 2014). Read part I here.]

Also published on Counterpunch, 19 September 2014

In the interviews you hold with Chomsky and Hardt in Grabbing Back, both thinkers point out the irony whereby the so-called “socialist” governments that have been elected throughout much of Latin America in recent years—Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Uruguay, for example—notoriously have in fact been engaged in a significant intensification of the extractivist trends which their neoliberal precedecessors oversaw. This developmentalism has inexorably brought these “Pink Tide” governments into conflict with indigenous peoples, and it certainly has not been auspicious for nature, however much posturing Rafael Correa and Evo Morales like to advance in terms of the “rights of nature.” The fate of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park is emblematic in this sense. As editor of Upside-down World, Grabbing Back contributor Benjamin Dangl has written at length on these tensions. How do you see indigenous concepts like sumak kawsay (“living well”) as realistic alternatives to State-capitalist depredation?

I think the implications of Dangls analysis of extractivism is as important today as, say, Rosa Luxemburgs work on the Accumulation of Capital in the 1910s or David Harveys work on the Limits to Capital in the 1980s, and it fits with some really important thinking going on by people like Silvia Rivera CusicanquiRaúl Zibechi, and Pablo Mamani Ramírez. The Pink Tide governments are interesting to me, because they show how rhetoric centered around land can lead to a kind of fixation on natural resources and infrastructure, which precludes the Prebisch-style development of the Third World. So I wonder, does the focus on the land come about through the export-based economies that were generated by the annihilation of industrial infrastructure vis-à-vis globalization, and does it also reflexively work to thrust into power a so-called populist leadership that makes gains in the social wage by simply speeding up the process?

It seems strange to me that so-called neo-Peronism (if there ever was a populist moniker, that was it) could dismantle and sell Mosconis YPF, a highly technical model of a nationalized energy industry, to the former colonial power, the Spanish oil giant Repsol, for pennies on the dollar while basically forfeiting huge gas fields despite the resistance of the Mapuche, whose land they are destroying in the process. Former Argentine President Carlos Menem became one of the most despised figures in the Latin American Left, but now Kirchner is selling off the Patagonia oil fields to North Atlantic powers and Malaysia while bringing in Monsanto. What if the populist wave has just ridden an exuberant surplus of popular political involvement, and is returning to the kind of elite populism expressed by people like Menem? We might say, let us not be so hasty in condemning the governments of Latin America, because look at what happened with Manuel Zelaya and deposed Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, let alone the Central African Republic. They have to work with global hegemony, and that means either bringing in Chinese investors as in Ecuador, or US investors as in Argentina. But we should not concede the reality and the basis of what made “¡Que se vayan todos! such an important global position.1

In contradistinction to these problems, there is the Indigenous idea of sumak kawsay, as you mentioned, which places spirit and land along the same axes, and is epistemologically less driven to accept the division and privatization of land. It will be interesting to see changes in the ways that this concept is used over the next decade or so. Mahmood shows how the Islamic concept of dawa changed over generations to become tools of more general liberation—both from neoliberalism and from strict gender norms. But signifiers can be hollowed out through capitalism as well, so I think that its also important not to separate concepts from the people who produce them; for example, the ayllus that form Indigenous microgovernments, as Pablo Ramírez calls them, are profound structures that provide an interesting example of popular representation as opposed to the general diplomatic-discursive field of geopolitics.

It is also important to take note of Simon Sedillos excellent work tracking the mapping projects underway by Geoffrey Demarest and the Department of Defense in Colombia and Oaxaca, which are defined by this bizarre concept of geoproperty that mixes old English and Jeffersonian ideals of private property with contemporary land-titling strategies developed by economists like De Soto.2 Geoproperty is the conceptual artifice of a rather brutal strategy that deploys paramilitaries in order to separate Indigenous peoples from their lands, and it works both on a level of what Mignolo calls geography of reason3 and a level of pragmatic force (defoliation, paramilitaries, and militarization). Connecting neoliberalism to geography, James C. Scott notes how, during the commercialization of the ejidos in Michoacán, “the first task of the state has been to make legible a tenure landscape that the local autonomy achieved by the revolution had helped make opaque.”4

It’s here that Guillermo Delgado-P’s article in Grabbing Back becomes so crucial, because it takes back the notions of territory and land, and provides a kind of alter-anthropology that thinks Indigenous cultures with agrarian polyculturalism and a kind of negotiation between the popular concept of the commons and Indigenous practices of conservation. So the challenge for local activists is, perhaps, to create growth from within the “Pink Tide by learning from those who have always existed in a kind of threshold of state practices, and to do this in such a way that is, perhaps, illegible to the great powers in order to dodge the military incursions and counterinsurgency strategies while protecting increasing amounts of land. I find the more autonomized urban structures that sparked the mass movements in Chile in 2012 to be very inspirational along these lines, and in conversation with some of their organizers, I was told that they do have a relatively high level of respect and solidarity with the Mapuche. At the same time, these movements are different on several fundamental levels, and solidarity also becomes a question of recognizing ones limits, keeping the borders open, but understanding that the urban organizer is not the savior of the Indigenous peoples or the rural campesinos. In a sense, this is an inversion of politics in the classical sense, which relies on the polis for its basic way of thinking in Plato and Aristotle, but that is why anarchism today manifests a fundamentally different method of thinking than is possible within a strict adherence to the tradition of Eurocentric thought.

Within your discussion of imperialist history and inter-imperialist rivalries vis-à-vis the global land grab, you suggest that, had the US and France in fact invaded northern Mali in 2013 “for the quite valid reason of combating the human rights abuses being carried out” instead of for naked geopolitical interest, their intervention would have been palatable; furthermore, with reference to the crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR), you write that “[t]he French had every reason [in 2014] to intervene in defense of human rights and CAR’s uranium deposits.” Are you taking a cynical view of “interest” and raisons d’Etat (“reasons of State”) here? What, then, would you say about NATO’s invocation of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine as a pretext for its 2011 “intervention” in Libya?

I wouldn’t call my analysis “cynical,” but I am certainly a materialist when it comes to the “raisons d’Etat” of NATO. You have only to look at the works of Samuel Huntington and the Trilateral Commission or the Bush Doctrine or Obama’s American Exceptionalism to find out what those interests entail. I do not support NATO intervention in Africa, although I share Noam Chomsky’s belief that non-imperialist aid to democratic movements is by no means ethically wrong. What if, for instance, instead of giving military aid to the Egyptian and Turkish governments, the US sent communication equipment and supplies to the protestors in Tahrir Square and Gezi Park?  Of course, the reflexive response is, “Well, that would never happen without some pretty serious strings attached,” but that’s why the transformation of the established order of the US becomes so critical on a global basis.

During the Spanish Civil War, the Republican side was aided by thousands of people throughout Europe and the US who came to fight Fascism. Che Guevara fought with Augustinho Neto against colonial power in Angola, and the French anarchists maintained an eager engagement with the FLN [National Liberation Front] and the ideas of Ben Bella until the Boumédiène regime (recall the Situationist International’s criticism of Daniel Guérin, that his excessive support of Ben Bella made it seem as though “Over a cup of tea, he met the ‘world spirit’ of autogestion).5

NATO intervention in the interests of protecting human rights would not necessarily comprise some form of evil—the problem is, it’s a purely hypothetical situation, which I don’t believe the world has ever seen. Look at the trials of the RUF leaders and Charles Taylor in the new world court two years ago; the RUF was armed and supported by Taylor, who was working with the CIA throughout the 1980s (they even helped him break out of jail), and there is evidence that he was on the US’s payroll until 2001.  Prosecuting people for doing what you pay them to do is obviously propaganda, and that’s what so much of the “humanitarian” military or juridical intervention amounts to.  Let’s face it, the NATO countries always intervene to preserve their “interests,” and I do not believe that these “interests” have ever coincided with rule by the people. Rather, as in Mali and the Central African Republic, the “interests” of NATO coincided with colonialism and control over resources.

I believe that the structure of NATO, itself, is antithetical to popular rule, and I do not believe that NATO can ever “intervene” in defense of human rights without a special interest of preserving capitalist relations in whatever form which, in the larger picture, only serve exploitation and displacement. Obviously NATO involvement in Libya was purely cynical—the operation to take out a cornerstone in Pan-African self-reliance has left Africa more dependent on EU countries than the BRICS—and the same operation has been seen with regards to Mali and CAR.

I would like to dedicate two more questions to your analysis of Middle Eastern history and politics in Grabbing Back. First, you claim Egypt to have been a critical part of the regional US/NATO axis during the Cold War, along with Israel and Saudi Arabia—please clarify what you mean by this. Surely under Nasser, Egypt’s orientation was greatly anti-Zionist, and even under Sadat, Egypt participated with Hafez al-Assad’s forces in the 1973 “Yom Kippur War” against Israel. What is more, Egypt was federated with Syria in the United Arab Republic that lasted for three years, 1958-1961.

I admit I didn’t flesh this point out, largely because of word count constraints and my anxiety about getting bogged down in diplomatic rivalries. First of all, I feel uneasy about saying, “if a country is anti-Zionist, it is not a US ally.” Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have long financed militant struggle against Israel, for instance. Second of all, Egypt was one of those dynamic countries whose conversion to the side of NATO in the 1970s and ’80s was arguably a tipping point in the diplomatic struggle. In the book, I state that Egypt became an ally of NATO during the Cold War, and played an establishing role against the hegemony of Russia in Libya. While Egypt maintained significant antagonisms with Israel until the peace process following the Yom Kippur War, Sadat drew closer to the US, and a terrible fallout between Libya and Egypt ensued (leading to a brief border war in 1977). Sadat’s policies were a turning point in the direction of the Third World and the Non-Aligned Movement, and Gadhafi saw this as a huge problem. Mubarak projected those policies, which were indeed devastating, throughout the 1980s, and after the Cold War “officially” ended around 1989-1991.

Next, on Syria, you rightly situate Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’athist State within the regional “hegemonic bloc” comprised by Iran and Hezbollah that stands against the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia, and you claim the U.S. to have backed anti-Assad “rebels” affiliated with al-Qaeda in the civil war that has raged for years. While this latter claim has been made by the Syrian State since the very beginning of the uprising in March 2011—as it similarly was made by Gadhafi with regards to the Benghazi “freedom fighters” before he was deposed by NATO—even hegemonic Western news sources now openly concede the point, amidst recent revelations that the U.S. government provided training and arming for the ISIS militants who have established the “Islamic State” in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. Even if the CIA could somehow have performed an accurate screen of anti-Assad rebels and denied support to fundamentalist actors—neither of which conditions would seem to remotely resemble historical reality—it is undeniable that U.S. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar have contributed immensely to the cause of Islamist “rebels” in Syria and—big surprise—the subsequent rise of the Islamic State. Indeed, if ISIS commander Abu Yusaf is to be believed, even the putatively “secular” and “moderate” opposition to Assad manifested in the Free Syria Army (FSA) units have in large part decided to join the ranks of Islamic State partisans; Nafeez Ahmed, for his part, cites Pentagon sources who claim at least 50 percent of the FSA itself to be comprised of Islamic extremists.  It would seem, then, that the conflict is now centered around a regional power-struggle between Assad and the Islamic State in Syria on the one hand, and Nouri al-Maliki’s successor Haider al-Abadi and Iran against ISIS in Iraq on the other, with the Obama administration in the confused position of now drawing up military plans to attempt to crush Islamic State forces. State-fascism against Islamist-fascism, then, as Ibrahim Khair put it at Left Forum this year. What of an anti-imperialist struggle at once opposed to Ba’athist authoritarianism and Wahhabism, as has been endorsed by Syrian anarchists?

Well yes, I completely agree with that call, and I think that Valentine Moghadam makes a great case for a global justice approach in her book, Globalization and Social Movements: Islam, Feminism, and the Global Justice Movement. But then I also think Maia Ramnath makes such an important case in Decolonizing Anarchism for anarchist participation in non-sectarian liberation. Would you say to Swadeshi militants training with anarchists in Paris at the turn of the 19th Century, don’t go back to India and fight in the independence movement, because you know, eventually Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s philosophy of Hindutva will take power through the legacy of Hindu Masahbha, and then the country will be ruled by a kind of “new fascism”? I don’t think so. There is much to be said for figures like Lala Lajpat Rai and Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya. They weren’t anarchists and some call them populists, but they helped make Independence a joint effort. There’s always a grey area, and I think we need to support and nourish the movement for liberation. That means taking part in what Antonio Gramsci calls a “historic bloc.”

It’s important to distinguish between progressive and reactionary social movements, but the logic of counterinsurgency policing and the international prison industry complex (Guantánamo Bay being the tip of the iceberg) as well as prevalent social Islamophobia makes this prospect extremely difficult. So we have our work cut out for us in solidarity to fight Islamophobia and militarization within the US while building a mass movement to close the chapter of the War on Terror forever. That means that we, ourselves, need to be fearless in our organizing—we need to dissolve the images of terror being promulgated by the US’s foreign and public relations agencies in a movement of our own autogestion, our own self-management. Hegemony is about how groups are organized to do what and with whom, so it is important to recognize the relationships between movements and their different potentialities. There are always prospects for hope, as identities are diffused and transformed by working and communicating together collectively. Hegemony is not about who wins or who has the power; it is about building and understanding relationships and generating power.

I think we share a common dream beyond BDS (which I strongly support), in what Seyla Benhabib and others have proposed as a “Confederation of Israeli and Palestinian Peoples.” I suppose I am particularly thinking about it through my own perspective based in tendencies advocated by Bakunin and Malatesta highlighting the federalist model of anarchist organization. But what tactics could bring about such a decentralized and engaged political horizon?

Where have such secular projects (the PLO had potential as such) failed and non-secular groups like the Muslim Brotherhood succeeded (at least until Morsi’s ouster)? The Muslim Brotherhood has been tied to all kinds of terrible things, including the CIA and ISIS, but perhaps this is why they deserve further analysis; how did they take power? In his excoriating evaluation of their strategy and tactics, Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm compared the Muslim Brothers to the accion directes terrorist groups of Europe during the 1970s. Their strategy smacks of “their own brand of blind and spectacular activism, also heedless and contemptuous of consequences, long-term calculations of the chances of success or failure and so on.” Their tactics include “local attacks, intermittent skirmishes, guerrilla raids, random insurrections, senseless resistances, impatient outbursts, anarchistic assaults, and sudden uprisings.” Al-Azm downplays some of the deeper organizational models developed by the Muslim Brothers in syndicates and religious networks, and it is significant that he wrote this description before the Arab Spring. That the Muslim Brothers assumed power [in Egypt] so rapidly suggests that what seems spontaneous is not to be underestimated, and that makes it even more interesting. What if Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof had suddenly become president of a united Germany—if only for a year or so—and then acted the way that Morsi had acted? This appears to be a whimsical fantasy, of course, but its the question to which Al-Azms comparison leads us.

I definitely share a common self-criticism that we romanticize resistance, and there is no sense in romanticizing the strategy and tactics of the Muslim Brotherhood, but we should learn about their successes and failures as a kind of “diagnostic of power” to use Abu-Lughods term. How did the insurrectionary strategies of the Muslim Brotherhood benefit from the mass movement organizing, and vice versa? What are the tools that we have to move forward?

It is interesting that you compare Morsi here to a theoretical German State headed by Baader and Meinhof, given the relatively more humane policies Morsi oversaw vis-à-vis Gaza when compared with Mubarak and al-Sisi, and keeping in mind the continuity of Egyptian military power as a stand-in for the very militarism and fascism which sympathizers of the Red Army Faction saw concentrated in the ruling class of the Federal Republic of Germany after Nazism.

Briefly, though, I would comment here to say that the PLO as a secular movement “failed” in its historical acceptance of the Oslo Accords (1993), which it seems to have taken in good faith—while Israel and the U.S. have spent the last 20 years upholding and expanding the former’s colonization of what remains of historical Palestine. That the PLO has since Oslo largely reduced itself to the Palestinian Authority (PA), which manages Area A lands in the West Bank as a police force in the interests of the Zionist State and the Palestinian bourgeoisie, has certainly contributed to its alienation from the Palestinian people, who overwhelmingly consider Mahmoud Abbas a puppet, fraud, and traitor—he has been the unelected President of Palestine for over five years, and he has most sordidly buried the Palestinian request that the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigate Israel’s barbarities during the ghastly “Operation Protective Edge.”  In this way, the PLO’s myriad failures cannot be dissociated from the compensatory surge in recent years of support for Hamas and the general posture of resistance (muqawama) to Zionism, which of course extends beyond Hamas to include the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and other groupings. However, it is unclear that it should be the PLO and its cadre that bear most or even much of the blame for the perpetuation of the Occupation since Oslo, considering the well-known actions of the U.S. and Israel in the past two decades; furthermore, it has been reported that Fatah’s armed wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, has now reactivated itself to engage Israeli forces in the West Bank. Naturally, it is to be imagined that matters would be rather different in Palestine today, had Israel not assassinated Yassir Arafat with polonium in 2004. Now, following “Protective Edge,” and in light of the insult upon injury represented by the Netanyahu administration’s announcement that Israel will be embarking in its single-largest expropriation of Palestinian land in 30 years as revenge for the murder of three Israeli youth which initiated this vicious episode of colonial violence, the situation is most acute, arguably the worst it has been since the beginning of the Oslo period. In Hegelian fashion, we can hope that Israel’s mindless brutality will only accelerate the coming of its downfall—much in the tradition of Rhodesia and other reactionary regimes similarly dedicated to white-supremacism.

Thinking of the children of Palestine—particularly those of Gaza, who are the living embodiment of Naji al-Ali’s iconic Handala character—we are also struck by the plight of the thousands of Central American migrant children who have arrived at the U.S. border en masse in recent months. Aviva Chomsky has stressed the role that imperialist history and present U.S. foreign policy have played in destabilizing these children’s home societies of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, while her father Noam plainly asks why Nicaragua is not included within the list of sender-countries for these children: “Could it be that when Washington’s sledgehammer was battering the region in the 1980s, Nicaragua was the one country that had an army to defend the population from U.S.-run terrorists, while in the other three countries the terrorists devastating the countries were the armies equipped and trained by Washington?” To what extent do you see capital and the global land grab as intersecting with the global “pediatric crisis,” if we can call it that—not only in Gaza or Central America, or in Japan after Fukushima, but throughout the globe? Can the children of the world save the world’s children, as Dr. Gideon Polya asks?

The extent is terrible, because it is not merely the land grabs themselves but the political blowback that continues to have a cascading effect on global politics. In Mali, where an uprising in 2012 was caused in no small part by the liberal land and agricultural policies of the Amadou Toumani Touré government, nearly half a million people were displaced virtually overnight. With the ongoing food crisis in Northern Mali, the effect on children, in particular, is egregious. Ethiopia’s forced villagization program is an even more direct example of the global refugee crisis being created by the thirst for land coming from countries all over the world—including Saudi Arabia, China, India, and South Korea, as well as the North Atlantic countries.

Israel poses an interesting model, because land grabs have been accelerating every year, and as you mention, it reflects not only a kind of economic exigency, but a revanchist, populist sentiment. According to the UN, Israel has made 1,500 new orphans with its Protective Edge, and has made the largest land grab in 30 years in the aftermath. At the same time, Israel really has to be viewed geopolitically in terms of the hegemonic contest between the North Atlantic and the BRICS countries, where the fighting in Syria becomes critical, because Syria manifests Russias cornerstone in the region. The civil war stoked by the US and leading to the exponential growth of IS has led to a refugee crisis with 6.5 million internally displaced people and three million refugees in other states. Over 1.5 million of these Syrian refugees are children, according to the UN.

The US intervention in propelling ISIS to power and supporting the revolt against Assad seems to have been generally based on a desire to control infrastructure and hegemony in the region. So the terrible refugee crisis in and around Syria and Iraq can be viewed ultimately as locked into this New Great Game that has transpired from Afghanistan to Syria as an attempt to control the world’s diminishing fossil fuels, as well as farmland, mines, and other raw materials.

Within the diplomatic crises of warring states, you have an economic model of developmentalism, or “neoliberalism with Southern characteristics,” which leans heavily on extractivism and is propelled forward by the BRICS countries. There is a moral obligation for dewesternization of global hegemony, but it does not extend to a repetition of the mistakes of state capitalism. For example, does a new “development bank of the South” sound like something that will bring more wealth to terribly impoverished countries who really need it? I believe so, yes, and it is also a process of the accumulation of capital; will it not create greater ethnic divides and wealth disparities, as in Gujarat or the events surrounding the World Cup in Brazil? One can’t say, but it seems as though a reversion to “neoliberalism with Southern characteristics” is not an adequate goal.

Most essentially, during this process of land seizures for resource exploitation, people are displaced from the countryside, move to the cities, add to unsustainable food and water systems, and often further displace the urban poor. This works on these interconnected levels of international and domestic crisis, so it would be ridiculous to criticize without acknowledging NATO’s fundamental role in this postcolonial system. Taking action domestically to bring down the one percent, while providing an alternative model for the future.

In terms of Middle Eastern radical politics, the Kurdish freedom movement has certainly undergone a fascinating evolution from affirming the Leninism of yesteryear to now embracing Murray Bookchin’s social ecology, or “democratic confederalism.” In fact, Reflections on a Revolution (ROAR) has just published a lengthy examination of these libertarian-socialist achievements, which would seem to include a conscious rejection of money as an organizing principle, a marked stress on women’s emancipation and participation in society, and even a ban on deforestation and an encouragement of vegetarianism. Arguably, the Kurdish resistance represents among the most encouraging signs of the times, wouldn’t you agree?

It’s not so much a question of whether I support the peshmerga, but what openings are available. In a search for encouraging signs of the times, I think beginning with the Kurdish freedom movement is a fine place to start. In fact, when I was in the planning stages of Grabbing Back, I thought that including a piece about Kurdish liberation would be wise, but it did not work out—but not for lack of trying! It’s a well-known fact that the some of the Kurdish factions have had a rather close relationship with the US and Israel for some time, as has the Kurdish intelligence service, and collaborated against Saddam and Iran. Recall that Saddam used the chemical weapons that Reagan sent him to gas the Kurds, and Madeline Albright came to his defense when he was accused of war crimes. The history of this region is very complex and involves many traumatic moments, which involve a cautious understanding, not only of the organizations and movements, themselves, but of the potentialities within those entities for both autonomous liberation and co-optation by the US armed forces. This is why it’s exciting that New Compass Press recently has published a book about the Kurdish democracy movements, gender liberation, and ecology.

In the epilogue to Grabbing Back, you discuss the Spanish, Algerian, and Mexican Revolutions as luminous historical examples of autogestion, and you identify the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) as a heartening contemporary embodiment of the practice of self-management. I very much agree, and with regards to the focus of your book, I would highlight the EZLN’s recent joint declaration with delegates from the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) against the “plundering of [their] peoples.”  Yet, reflecting on the neo-Zapatista example, you claim it to have been inspired by “the militancy of peasant-led anarchist movements during the Mexican Revolution,” particularly—as is befitting—the indigenous insurgents who formed part of Emiliano Zapata’s Ejército Libertador del Sur (“Liberatory Army of the South”). I would like first to ask whether the original Zapatistas can rightfully be called anarchists. While the Plan de Ayala of 1911 can be said to have anarchistic elements, especially given the stress on devolving lands controlled by hacendados to those who work it, and though Zapata personally was friends with famed anarchist revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magón, the General was not necessarily opposed to individual holdings in land, if memory serves, and he is said to have expressed confusion and disagreement with Magón on this very matter.

I don’t want to romanticize Algerian or Spanish autogestion, because there was a lot that didn’t go well. Then again, we can learn from those movements, and understand that perhaps they were a step in the right direction—self-management and mutual aid. I do believe that the EZLN is a heartening model of these kinds of dialectics today—of course, it’s not without its problems, but no group is, and those must be addressed from a constructive position (namely, within their group). My reference to “peasant-led anarchist movements” is, of course, a generalization of a discursive field of very contentious, complex political and social relationships that created the revolutionary movement of Magón and Zapata.

There is a large and ongoing debate about whether or not Zapata was an anarchist, and I find neither side to be completely convincing. Zapata had his own revolutionary persona and program to quote Colin M. MacLachlan, but he was also radically influenced by Magóns indisputably anarchist platform, and remained ideologically close to those anarchist principles. He was also studying Kropotkin while first engaging in land struggles, and remained closer to his troops than Magón to his.

It returns to the question of what makes you an anarchist? Are you an anarchist, because you assert yourself as an anarchist? From what I understand, David Graeber doesnt think so—since anarchism is about praxis, if you carry out anarchist praxis, then you would be an anarchist. Of course, being called anarchist by others does not necessarily make you an anarchist either (unless we are thinking through a Sartrean argument of identity and the Other, as in his fascinating text, Anti-Semite and Jew). But what if your practical work corresponds to anarchist ideas?

Is it not possible to apply a label of anarchist with the little-a as an adjective and not an identity? Godwin, for instance, never used the word anarchy at all, but not only is he universally thought of as an anarchist, he is even called “the father of anarchism,” for having influenced anarchists like Percy Shelley.

Proudhon, as the first person to really popularize and advocate “anarchy” realized its power as just that, an adjective that the ruling class utilized to describe the general order of the masses, the peasants, the workers. He used “anarchy” more as a way of stirring the pot and stoking controversy than as way of setting into order a new ideological regime.

You know, for me, I get sick and tired of the sectarian bitterness around labels. The fact is, Kropotkin called himself a communist and an anarchist communist; Bakunin called himself an anarchist and a socialist; Emma Goldman called herself an anarchist communist, Berkman a communist anarchist; the old IWW folks read Marx, believed in union syndicalism, and appreciated anarchism. I agree with José Rabasa that “When Hardt and Negri define ‘communism,’ we can imagine Flores Magón and Marcos agreeing….” Similarly, I think we can imagine Zapata’s “persona and program” within the general parameters of anarchism—the more “outside” it seems, the better.

For a similar reason, I dont necessarily think anarchism is about the absolute seizure of all individual land holdings, nor does Grabbing Back seem totally in that spirit. In Perrys essay, for instance, there is a general defense of the neighborhood by a black womens neighborhood association, and the women seem to open their homes or belongings to a commons. Their mode of organization is horizontal, and they do not accept fixed hierarchies of leadership. They are already participating in the commons, both intellectually and physically, and thats part of their practical struggle to defend their land; the commons are not a post-revolutionary end point” or a prerevolutionary dogma.  They happen through praxis.

The commons is an idea of participation and collective organization, not of an abstract proprietary system, and I would say that the non-authoritarian struggle for the commons is the basic structure of anarchism. Now if we say, “this person is not anarchist, because they have not proclaimed themselves as such,” I think we are using anarchism as a reductive ideological framework, whereas the concept, itself, is more dynamic.

For the same reason, I think Marx rejected the idea of Marxism. Some people believe that Marx believed in the total communalization of all things on earth, but it is more complex than that. He saw the commune as a collection of heterogeneous social relations with intimate relations to nature—not as property, but as something else (see his discourse on the commune in the Grundrisse, for instance). If you look to Proudhon as well, he says property is robbery, but then how can you hypostasize theft if there is not ownership in the first place? Proudhon defines capitalism as a system of legalized robbery, but it is robbery in a special way—not of private property, but of possession, a rightful sense of what’s due, where the basic structure of value is destroyed. I think there is room for an understanding of possession with dignity; not along the old “mine and thine” paradigm, but along the lines of use value, in particular.

Most collectives function through an assumption of mutual dignity, which appreciates aspects of generative gift giving, barter, and trade. Such mutuality is part of a sense of belonging that is collected and developed through individual contributions. I think that the individual develops out of the social, and not the other way around, but individuals develop different affinities that reshape and transform the social. Hence, unique characteristics are developed, while a collective story is generated. Of course, relationships are at the core, and it is through those relationships that we understand consensus of how things belong, either individually or collectively.

The idea of the the gift in anthropology is really interesting here, because it shows that, while individuals do not necessarily select the things that are given to them, they are said to possess the gift once it is given (and expected to give something back of superior value). Similarly, the usage of money in noncapitalist societies does not hold the same sense of exchange value; it is primarily a use value of exchange that manifests a different feeling of expenditure. I think David Graebers work in Debt: The First 5,000 Years as well as Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value is pretty fascinating in giving insight into these forms of relationship-building baseline communism that dont take away from individual achievement or personal growth.

Also regarding Mexico and the epilogue, you note the dialectical process whereby communal property in land—the ejido system—was enshrined in the 1917 Mexican Constitution yet progressively degraded in fact thereafter by neoliberalism until the coming of NAFTA in 1994, which “effectively liquidated” the power of the ejidos, on your account. Please clarify what you mean by this. I know that the ejidal system continues to provide a robust model of participatory decision-making and substantive equality in land distribution for a great number of indigenous and campesin@ communities in southern Mexico even nowtwo decades after the beginning of NAFTA, the concurrent amendment of Article 27 of the Constitution, and the introduction of land-privatization programs like PROCEDE and FANAR, to say nothing of the state-sponsored terror imposed by paramilitary groups like Paz y Justicia against EZLN sympathizers in Chiapas in the 1990’s.

You are correct, on the one hand, in insisting that we maintain adequacy to the facts regarding the continued struggle of ejidos in general, as many ejidos do still exist and have continued the revolutionary tradition of resistance to illegal land grabs since NAFTA—for instance, in Atenco and Chiapas.

It also depends on how you interpret the law. Manuel Castells believes that the transformation of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution “ended communal possession of agricultural property by the villagers (ejidos), in favor of full commercialization of individual property, another measure directly related to Mexico’s alignment with privatization in accordance with NAFTA” (The Power of Identity, 78). In Life During Wartime, Fatima Insolación claims that the revision of Article 27 “allowed peasants to use their land as collateral for loans. Many farmers took out loans, which they were unable to service due to currency devaluation, the associated cost of living increases, and an inability to compete in the ‘free market.’”6 This is what I consider the greatest aspect of liquidation done through the free market; communal land holdings are turned into capital through loans that are impossible to pay off, so the property is turned over to the banks, which allow aggregation and transnational corporate land grabs. David Harvey marks this process as a kind of “accumulation by dispossession,” linking the “reform” of the ejidos to the subprime market crash and other neoliberal land grabs.7 Public Citizen documents the change after NAFTA, showing that in just ten years, the income of farm workers dropped by two-thirds, while millions of people became refugees from the lack of opportunity, growing violence, and drug wars that emerged particularly in Southern Mexico.

I think that the basic source of disputation is marked by a difference between what we might call the “ejido system” as the formal, constitution-based juridicial system of protection of indigenous land holdings, and what we would think of as a more general ejido system, which manifests traditional landholdings that have been in place since well before the 16th Century. The question of “What to do with ejidos?” has been an issue faced by governing regimes of Mexico since the Spaniards seized power—for instance, the Constitution of 1857, which incorporated the Ley Lerdo, and institutionalized ejidos as civil corporations. I in no way want to claim that there are no more ejidos, or that the power of the traditional form of agriculture has been liquidated. At the same time, Article 27 has been modified in order to privatize and “open up” markets, such that the system as it existed from 1917 until 1991 was transformed or “rolled back” in the words of Roger Burbach to a kind of neocolonial state.

A final question for you, Sasha. You write in the epilogue to Grabbing Back that we may not have much time left, given the profundity of the ecological crisis—a distressing reality that is certainly not lost on your colleague Helen Yost, who pens a moving report about the dignity of resistance to tar sands megaloads in northern Idaho for the volume. For his part, Chomsky has just written a column in which he employs the metaphor of the Athenian owl of Minerva—who begins her flight, as Hegel observed, only with the falling of dusk—as an extra-historical or even extra-terrestrial judge of the course of human history, which may well be coming to a violent end because of catastrophic climate change. Indeed, Chomsky cites Arundhati Roy’s recent note on the receding Siachen Glacier in the Himalayas, the site of various battles between the Indian and Pakistani armies since 1947, as the “most appropriate metaphor for the insanity of our times”: there, the disappearing glacier is revealing “thousands of empty artillery shells, empty fuel drums, ice axes, old boots, tents and every other kind of waste that thousands of warring human beings generate” in meaningless conflict. Amidst the depths of negation promised by climate catastrophe, what would you say are our responsibilities as activists committed to human freedom and the health of our Mother Earth? Is it just all for nought—a tale “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”?

In a Hegelian sense, I suppose it can be said to be a negative process. Then again the Omnis determinatio est negatio [“All determination is negation,” Hegel with Spinoza] returns us to autonomous times and history as “the development of the order of freedom,” as Martin Luther King, Jr., notedI think an important concern is organizing sustainable infrastructure like gardens, tool libraries, schools, and skill shares in our neighborhoods while also reaching out to indigenous communities whose land has been stolen, and who may appreciate mutual aid. What really hits home in Chomsky’s essay is the sense of meaninglessness—I think we create meaning by doing, we actuate meaning, and destruction of our work is an attempt to destroy actual meaningful existence. We perhaps require such a transformative chain of events that one would not even recognize the way of thinking “after the orgy,” as Baudrillard used to say.

What are we going to do after the People’s Climate March? My problem with the Climate Movement in its broadest formulation is that it opens the door to false solutions like agrofuels and fracking for gas, while destroying the land base. Water is a diminishing resource in the world today; we need to defend the land and radically transform the political and economic systems annihilating the planet, and I think that means we need to start thinking climate change beyond the current parameters of the movement and toward genuinely understanding problems of global justice that accompany the acknowledgment of biodiversity and the interconnectedness of all things.

That being said, there’s a tremendous need for mass mobilization to fight imperialism and climate change, which you correctly position in the same category, and that isn’t possible without also truly involving oneself in community efforts against environmental racism and extractive industry, as David Osborne recently noted in a critique of the climate march. We have to avoid the crushing homogeneity of misdirected populism in the sense of supporting or pandering to the conventional parties’ platforms just because they tell us what we want to hear. They have always betrayed their promise to the people, and it’s time to say, “We’ve had enough.” But we also can’t fall into the trap of attacking populism, as such, from an elitist point of view; I agree with Fanon that an idea is liberating insofar as you can use it tactically to recognize “the open door of every consciousness.” Once that door starts closing, it’s time to move on.

Perhaps that idea of the eternal return, what Nietzsche ideated as “how I become who I am,” brings us back to process of revolution in time: we find a kind of satisfaction in growth, but we only find real development in sustainability. All of life is in rebellion against the foreclosure of consciousness that is modernity. Finding another way is also a process of expressing revolutionary joy, and learning how to teach or spread that feeling to others.

1 For a general history of the movement against neoliberalism in Argentina, see the documentary Social Genocide: Memoria Del Saqueo: Argentina’s Economic Collapse, dir: Fernando E. Solanas, (ADR Production, 2004).

2 Teo Ballvé, “The De Soto Dillema: Squatters and Urban Land Tilting,” (The New School University: New York City, Mar 20, 2008).

3 See Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity (Duke University Press: Chapel Hill, 2011), 72.

4 See James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale University Press: New Haven, 1998), 39n74.

5 For this latter part, see David Porter, Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria (AK Press: Oakland, 2011), 113 [also, Internationale Situationiste, no. 10 (March 1966), 80.]

6 Fatima Insolación, Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency, (AK Press: Oakland, 2013), 189.

7 See David Harvey, The New Imperialism, (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2003), 152-161.

Friday Funeral March for Gaza in New York

July 19, 2014

Today, hundreds of individuals mobilized in New York City to express their repudiation of the present Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip.  Organizing around a “Friday Funeral March” to commemorate the more than two hundred and fifty people in Gaza who have been murdered by the Israeli military in the past 10 days, this vastly diverse multitude occupied 42nd St. and protested with rage and dignity in front of the Israeli and Egyptian consulates.  Here are some photos of today’s action.