Posts Tagged ‘French Revolution’

Review: Foucault and the Iranian Revolution

September 15, 2016

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Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission. Originally published on Sept. 13th, 2016

Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson’s Foucault and the Iranian Revolution presents a fascinating historical account of the process whereby the despotic Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was overthrown by the Iranian masses in 1978-79, only to yield a dictatorial Islamist regime led by reactionary clerics. The transition to the Islamic Republic, ruled over by Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini, found the unlikely support of Michel Foucault, the French philosopher well-known for his anti-authoritarian critique of Western modernity, who expressed great enthusiasm for the Shi’ite Islamist elements of the Revolution in a number of public articles he wrote about the fall of the Shah, as based on the two visits he made to Iran in 1978.

Afary and Anderson observe that, while many progressives and leftists — both in Iran and elsewhere — favored the Revolution against the Shah but could not countenance the notion of an Islamic Republic replacing such despotism, Foucault was less critical toward Khomeini and the possibility of clerical rule. The authors argue that Foucault’s attitude in this sense — rather than signify some aberration or lapse in judgment — indeed follows from his post-structuralist political theorizing, which rejects the Enlightenment and despairs at the historical possibility of emancipation. As such, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution serves as an important warning for Western radicals and intellectuals vis-à-vis revolutionary movements, anti-imperialism and political authoritarianism in the rest of the world. Moreover, it raises questions about the liberatory potential of post-structuralism, detailing how that tendency’s preeminent spokesperson so clearly betrayed Iran’s workers, women, LGBTQ citizens, dissidents and religious and ethnic minorities by romanticizing what French leftist Maxime Rodinson refers to as “a type of archaic fascism.”

In their investigation of Foucault’s relationship with the Iranian Revolution, Afary and Anderson situate the philosopher’s writings within the context of the rejection of modernity he advances in works like Madness and Civilization (1961) and Discipline and Punish (1975). In this way, the authors hold that Foucault privileges pre-modernism, irrationalism and traditionalism — and therefore patriarchal domination. In fact, Foucault was not very attuned to feminist concerns, as is clearly seen in the October 1978 essay, “What Are the Iranians Dreaming About?” Here, the writer uncritically cites the vision of a future Iranian Islamic state in which there would supposedly not be any “inequality with respect to rights” between men and women, but “difference, since there is a natural difference.” Beyond this, in certain ways, the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini can be said to typify the “will to power” developed by Friedrich Nietzsche, the authoritarian irrationalist whose thought was central to Foucault’s worldview, as was that of Martin Heidegger, the Nazi-friendly phenomenologist whose concept of “being toward death” resonated with Foucault. The authors have a point, then, in observing that “Foucault’s affinity with the Iranian Islamists […] may also reveal some of the larger ramifications of his Nietzschean-Heideggerian discourse.”

Psychologically and philosophically, Foucault found the 1978 mass-demonstrations against the Shah that re-enacted the historical drama of the battle of Karbala (680 CE) and the martyrdom there of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad revered by Shi’ites, highly compelling. For Afary and Anderson, Foucault’s attraction to the Iranian Revolution can be explained by the common interests the philosopher shared with many of the insurgents in terms of traditionalism, anti-imperialism and death. During the Revolution, the mourning celebrations of Muharram and Ashura, which commemorate the death of Hussein ibn Ali, his family and followers at the hands of the Sunni Umayyad dynasty, saw Shi’ite Islam being interpreted to emphasize the righteousness of masses of people electing to give their lives for the cause of overthrowing the Shah. Indeed, the principal intellectual forerunner of the Iranian Revolution, Ali Shariati, stressed martyrdom as the defining element of Shi’ism: Alavid or “red Shi’ism” (that of Hussein ibn Ali) against Safavid (institutionalized) or “black Shi’ism.” Shariati’s view is that all generations are invited to give up their lives in the struggle if they cannot kill their oppressors.

While Shariati did not live to see the Revolution he inspired, the major uprisings of September 1978 followed his predictions, as scores of protesters were killed in the streets by the Shah’s security forces on “Black Friday” (September 8). Thereafter, general strikes were launched in various industries and the Shah’s end drew precipitously closer. Foucault was deeply struck by these mobilizations involving hundreds of thousands of people, seeing in them the total “other” of established Western society. Indeed, his enthusiasm for the advance of the Revolution through Islamist “political spirituality” led him to disregard the secularist and left-wing elements participating in the movement as less authentic than the expressly Shi’ite protestors, and in fact to declare that the collective political will of the Iranian people was entirely unified by political Islam and a generalized love for the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini.

In the aforementioned article regarding Iranian dreams, Foucault also embarrassingly reproduces a line from a cleric stipulating that Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities — Kurds, Jews, Baha’is, Zoroastrians — would be respected insofar as their lives did not “injure the majority.” This lapse, together with the anti-feminist sentiment Foucault reproduced in the same essay, led an Iranian woman named “Atoussa H.” to call him out publicly. In a letter to Le Nouvel Observateur published in November 1978, Foucault’s critic issued a warning about the philosopher’s romanticization of Islamism and the prospect of an Islamic State in Iran, noting that, “everywhere outside Iran, Islam serves as a cover for feudal or pseudo-revolutionary oppression.” Atoussa H. despaired at the prospect of having the reign of the bloody Shah merely yield to religious fanaticism. Foucault’s public reply to Atoussa H. was condescending and evasive — rather than respond to the woman’s concerns, Foucault accused her feminism of being Orientalist.

In his writings from late 1978, moreover, the intellectual provided significant ideological cover to Khomeinism, claiming the Shi’ite clergy to be non-hierarchical and reassuring his readers that “there will not be a Khomeini party” or a “Khomeini government.” Some months later, after the Shah’s abdication and the “victory” of the Revolution, Foucault announced that “religion’s role was [merely] to open the curtain,” and that now, “the mullahs will disperse.” Meanwhile, Rodinson publicly challenged Foucault’s delusions on Iran in Le Monde, arguing that the domination of the Revolution by clerical elements threatened to merely have one form of despotism be succeeded by another. In parallel, Iranian Marxists and the Fedayeen guerrillas made known their unease at the prospect of the same.

The oppressive nature of the clerical regime that Foucault had helped to legitimize became readily evident after February 1979. Upon his return from exile, Khomeini moved swiftly to overturn established laws protecting women’s rights, and on International Women’s Day, March 8, 1979, he announced that all Iranian women were obligated to wear the chador. Such actions led masses of women to mobilize on the very same day to denounce the incipient dictatorship, declaring ironically that, “In the Dawn of Freedom, We Have No Freedom.” Their courage as women rebelling against a new “revolutionary” order was hailed from afar by Simone de Beauvoir and Raya Dunayevskaya — but not by Foucault. Neither did the philosopher in question speak out after the new regime’s summary executions of political opponents and men accused of homosexuality became evident, to say nothing of the state’s attacks on the Kurds and Baha’is. Such silence led yet another critique of Foucault on Iran to be written, this time by Claudie and Jacques Broyelle. As they argue: “When one is an intellectual, when one works both on and with ‘ideas,’ when one has the freedom […] not to be a sycophantic writer, then one also has some obligations. The first one is to take responsibility for the ideas that one has defended when they are finally realized.”

Foucault’s public response to the Broyelles was as unsatisfying as his response to Atoussa H.: dismissive and opportunistic. While it is true that Foucault came in passing to acknowledge the chauvinistic and nationalistic aspects of the Iranian Revolution — and even questioned in the end whether it could be considered a Revolution, as it had installed a “bloody government of a fundamentalist clergy” — his stance toward Khomeini and the Islamic Republic was “fundamentally a stance of support,” as Afary and Anderson conclude. From June 1979, by which time the regressive nature of theocratic rule had become undeniable, to the time of his death in 1984, Foucault guarded silence on the question of Iran and the Revolution. Never did he recant his previous excitement about Shi’ite Islamism or plead forgiveness, much less express support for the Iranians who suffered so terribly under the very Islamic Republic for which he had served as an unwitting propagandist. On the contrary, Foucault in his writings on Iran advanced reactionary criticisms of human rights, democracy and feminism.

Post-Structuralism and Counterrevolution

The case of a renowned anti-authoritarian Western philosopher legitimizing the coming-to-power of a brutal theocratic ruling class in Iran raises a number of pressing questions. How could this have come to pass? In the first place, Afary and Anderson are right to observe that Foucault failed to grasp that “an anti-Western, religiously based system of power” could be as oppressive as fascism or Stalinism. His lapse in this sense owed in part to his ignorance and romanticization of political Islam in general and the thought of Ayatollah Khomeini in particular — for Khomeini in 1970 had already anticipated the despotism of the Islamic Republic with his text Velayat-e Faqih, which calls for clerical domination of the state. As has been mentioned above, as well, his attitude toward Iran was surely influenced by his affinities with traditionalist, non-Western elements.

In addition, nevertheless, Foucault’s unique philosophical proclivities likely played an important role. Post-structuralism rejects the “grand narratives” of socialism and historical progress, basing itself instead in the nihilist-irrationalist approach of Nietzsche, a thinker who argues in On the Genealogy of Morals that the French Revolution represented the victory of slave morality, ressentiment and the supposed power of “Judea” over Roman virility, centralism and imperialism. It is arguably Foucault’s pseudo-radical innovation of post-structuralism that set him apart from the rest of the global progressive movement on Iran; earlier that decade, in his debate with Noam Chomsky, the philosopher had already rejected anarcho-syndicalism. Moreover, according to Edward Said, he sided with Israel over the Palestinians, losing his close friend Gilles Deleuze in the process. In truth, one need only review Foucault’s shameful attitude toward a clerical-fascist regime that executed more than 20,000 citizens — many of them gay people and guerrillas — during the remainder of Khomeini’s lifetime to see the regressive qualities of his post-structuralism manifesting themselves clearly.

Beyond this, Afary and Anderson do recognize and commend Foucault’s activism and organizing in favor of prisoners, the Polish Solidarity Movement and the Vietnamese “boat people” fleeing Stalinist victory in Southeast Asia, but they argue that the Iranian Revolution formed a much more central commitment in the life of the philosopher. Foucault’s delusions regarding Iran mirror the serious errors expressed by several left-wing intellectuals in history — Albert Camus, for example, who rejected Algerian independence from the French Empire, or the numerous thinkers who lent their support to the Soviet Union and Maoist China — and they are well-critiqued by Dunayevskaya’s denunciation of observers of the Iranian Revolution who prioritized anti-imperialism over internal oppression. Such considerations remain very much germane today, particularly with regard to the catastrophe in Syria, where the Islamic Republic has played a most oppressive role together with Russia in propping up the fascistic Assad regime.

KPFK Interview on Eros and Revolution

April 17, 2016

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On April 11, I was invited to speak with Chris Burnett, host of the Indymedia on Air program (KPFK 90.7, Los Angeles), about my forthcoming book, Eros and Revolution: The Critical Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse.  The recording of our conversation can be found below.

Dialectical Light, Nature, Negation: Modern Minima Moralia Project

December 3, 2015

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Published on Heathwood Press, 30 November 2015

 

Nature-History Walk. To take a walking tour within a natural-history museum located in New York City amidst the sixth mass-extinction of life on Earth is to experience the contradictions of reveling in the profundity of natural beauty while consciously or subconsciously bearing witness to capital’s ceaseless war on existence and evolution. It is true that, in contradistinction to most other museum exhibits on display in the heart of empire—by nature affirmative—the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York at least provides some critical perspectives on the profundity of the present environmental crisis: the curators have recognized that we “may” be in the throes of this sixth mass-extinction event. Within the museum’s Hall of Biodiversity is emblazoned a warning made by the politically authoritarian biologist Paul R. Ehrlich: that, in “pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.” The AMNH has also promoted Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2014 investigative volume into this most distressing of realities, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.[1] Yet the spirit of absolute negativity to which the sixth extinction attests hardly can be said to permeate the exhibits within the museum that examine the relationship between nature and humanity: quite naturally, these presentations in no way explicitly recognize the responsibility that capitalism and domination bear for the current ecocidal and suicidal natural-historical trajectory. To a degree, then, the clear link that exists between the social relations imperant in the world outside the museum—as well, indeed, as inside it—and the unmitigated destruction of life on Earth’s continents and oceans can thus only be made intuitively. The unity of all living things—and hence the vast disunity which ecocide implies—can indeed be perceived in the contemplation of the great similarities between the human visitor and the numerous other species on display in the Great Hall of Biodiversity, as in the compelling hall on oceanography, the exhibits on African, Asian, and North American mammals, the Hall of Primates, and the Hall of Vertebrate Origins.

As the museum’s displays are directed primarily toward children, and considering the multitudes of minors who visit the museum with their families and on school-trips, it is to be hoped that these children, as well as their adult counterparts, grasp the more subversive meanings that the encounter with life and evolution can yield, activating Eros, biophilia, and—yes—revolutionary sadness in a counter-move to hegemonic brutality and unreason. However, childhood in late capitalism is little more than a preparatory stage for getting along: conformity, adjustment, and alienated labor. The system progressively negates the radical potential of the unintegrated child. For our part, we adults have overwhelmingly abdicated. The coral reefs are in the process of practically all being boiled off, the Arctic is melting, and Amazonia is choked by drought, while every successive year brings record-breaking global temperature rises together with record-breaking aggregate carbon emissions. In the destruction of the life-world has the nightmare of childhood come true.

 

Denial of Affirmation. Theodor W. Adorno writes that “[t]he will to live finds itself dependent on the denial of the will to live.”[2] Whether the philosopher meant with this to comment on evolutionary processes as a whole or human social organization more narrowly, it is certainly well-said as a description of existence in late capitalism. The seeming contemporary universality of Android and iPhones in U.S. society, for instance, presupposes the super-exploitation of Chinese proletarians who produce the devices directly, as well as slavery and genocidal wars in central Africa related to control over the extraction of the various minerals necessary for such cellular technologies. The libidinal attachment many of us users have to our smartphones, the means with which we connect, rests precisely on the suicide, suffering, and death of our fellow laborers elsewhere—just as the casual use of air travel for work (or “business”), study, vacations, weddings, funerals, political meetings, and even revolutionary summits implies the destruction of the lives of those imperiled by the droughts, famines, and superstorms brought on by anthropogenic climate disruption, to say nothing of our poor future human generations, or the millions of other species devastated by the cancerous capitalist growth economy. In psychological terms, it would seem that people who are complicit in these systems of oppression regularly repress their participation in them in a parallel manner to the way the thought of death is continuously warded off: that is, to avoid inducing terror and Angst. The solipsism of such interpersonal brutality is reflected as well in the thoughtless and entirely unnecessary consumption of non-human animals and their products for sustenance, as in the utilization of animals for medical ‘research’—whether it is a matter of “testing out” the latest pharmaceutical absurdity, or developing drugs that are actually needed for human welfare. Even if one were to be a strict vegan for whom no medication involving vivisection would be indicated, the vegetables, fruits, and legumes one consumes to maintain one’s constitution are almost invariably cultivated by migrant workers who labor and survive in neo-feudal conditions. Practically the same is true for any new article of clothing one may purchase at present. What is more, those who can regularly afford organic food in the U.S. are usually more economically privileged—while a mass-turn to popular urban agriculture as a progressive-collective movement may not be advisable in many U.S. cities, due to the very accumulated and ongoing pollution spewed by the workplaces, cars, and trucks that underpin the monopolist-capitalist everyday.[3] No individual or individualist solution is possible for such negative realities; clearly, it is capitalism and the domination of nature that are the primary problems. Yet amidst the negative context, one cannot reproach others for adopting positions of personal resistance: for non-cooperation embodies the “Great Refusal” that is radically opposed to consumerism and getting along, with all the vast suffering, exploitation, and destruction these imply. As negations of what exist, the ideas and practices of voluntary simplicity and anarchism, together with the militant minority that strives quixotically to be faithful to these ideals, prefigure the possibility of an entirely different and potentially reconciled world-order, one that humanity in concert is capable of bringing into being. Yet the observed conformist attachment to the dominant values and badly misnamed “goods” handed down by the capitalist system, for example, in mainstream U.S. society, presents a great challenge to this potentially hopeful prospect for transformation—does it not?

 

Historical Climates, Dialectical Light. Disconcerting is the experience of visiting familiar places—cities, states, and regions—and observing how their climates have changed so drastically over the course of just the past ten to fifteen years. Summers in southern California reach much higher temperatures now as compared to the average experienced during my adolescence, while the falls retain the vernal warmth too long in the Pacific Northwest and mid-Atlantic U.S. East Coast. Moreover, there is so little rain, such that wildfires have raged, burning up at least 11 million acres in 2015.[4]

Diagnostic impression: the planet is running a fever that may prove fatal. Featuring a strong El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), 2015 is the hottest year on record, with seven of the first nine months of this year having been the hottest recorded since 1880.[5] The Indonesian peat-bog fires of 2015 can be clearly observed from a satellite a million miles from Earth, and half the myriad tree species of the Amazon are threatened with immediate extinction.[6] The ongoing destruction of life on Earth thus illustrates the world “radiant with triumphant calamity” identified by Max Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947)—together with the “allied […] melancholy hope” Adorno feels “for other stars,” as he expresses in reflections on Gustav Mahler’s Song of the Earth, for “the earth that has grown remote to itself is without the hope the stars once promised” (1971).[7] Since the time during which such words were written, monopoly capitalism’s “Great Acceleration” has expanded calamity and irrationality to unbounded dimensions, and the fate of human and non-human life is at stake. In this way, the negative hegemonic light which falsely illuminates the world constitutes the inversion of the “Luz” (“Light”) which guided the Mexican anarchist movement as part of the anti-authoritarian syndicalist wing of the International—together with the “Lucha” (“Struggle”) that its constituents recognized as the dialectical means by which to counterpose the emancipatory spectrum of colors: that is, through rationalist education and anarcho-syndicalist federations, inter alia.[8] It is negative-dialectical thought and spirit that seeks the total overturning of atrocity and authority, as both mobilize to ensure the inertial reproduction of the social-property relations impelling self-destruction.

 

Medical-Industrial Waste. Is it not a contradiction for one to work to promote health while acting to degrade human-environmental health—to affirm wanton wastefulness in the provision of healthcare? One thinks of mobile vans that open access to medical services within particularly oppressed communities, but that continuously emit noxious, nauseating, and cancerous gases during their hours of operation. In parallel, the present “best practice” in several U.S. cities seemingly is to run ambulances incessantly on diesel, a known carcinogen.[9] A not dissimilar dynamic governs the driving of personal cars to any work-site, though the contradiction seems most evident in terms of labor, for example, at community clinics—the pollution emitted by workers’ and providers’ commute rains down from the highways onto the very communities whose individuals, particularly children, present to such clinics for treatment of various ailments, many of them indeed related to the normalization of environmental racism and class apartheid within capitalist society. “[A]t no time have all powers been so horribly fettered as [the present], where children go hungry and the hands of the fathers are busy churning out bombs,” writes Horkheimer.[10] Just where do doctors and nurses think all the waste produced by mainstream medical practice goes? To be fair, this problem is in no way limited to the fields of medicine and nursing. Few of us wish to think of the ever-burgeoning landfills filled with plastic and the vast chemical pollution born through production and consumption patterns in the West, the medical-industrial complex, and global capitalism taken as a whole. “Out of sight, out of mind.” This is the dynamic of bourgeois society externalizing its problems to the detriment of the commons—reflected in turn in the frequent compulsion to “just focus on the details,” not the larger picture or world, and never to “get distracted.” According to their own maxims, practitioners of medicine and nursing must firstly do no harm, and it is for this reason that they should resist the “business-as-usual” imperatives of mass-wastefulness together with the rackets trading internationally in wastes, in effect dumping hazardous wastes—medical-industrial and nuclear—on impoverished societies like Haiti, Somalia, Angola, and Côte d’Ivoire.[11] Perhaps the increased adoption of the practice of sterilizing medical equipment, as in autoclaves, and the use of vegetable oil-powered mobile vans and ambulances could represent but two facets of elements of a rational transition toward a health-care model instituting a holistic, Hegelian-anarchist perspective, integrating concern for the means to the desired end of collective, social, and terrestrial well-being: an overcoming of the bad present that, in seeking to attend to the wounds and other ailments caused by prevailing power, as by historical circumstances, greatly avoids the generation of new ones in the overall healing process.

 

Locomotive Ride. Global class society, as Walter Benjamin knew, resembles a train headed to disaster.[12] On this ride the passengers are governed by necessity, coercion, distraction, and integration. Intuitively they sense the falsity and danger of the established course, and though they sympathize with the erotic cry of life—the beauty in the lands passed by, as well as nature’s marked recent deadening—their immediate concerns are with particulars, like family, work, and entertainment. By design, some of the cars lack windows with which to even regard the outside world, while in others—particularly the work-sites of the laboring classes—they are shuttered, and external reality ignored. The laborers exhaust, injure, sicken, and kill themselves to keep the engine running, while the members of the upper classes dine in the luxury sleepers. Ubiquitous police, surveillance, and security measures ensure that the system continues on lock. As the train accelerates, those on board increasingly sense the abyss toward which the conductors are driving them. Over the intercom system they are not informed of the train’s route, whether precisely or generally speaking, other than to be told that all is well, that they should soon expect some minor alleviation in their conditions in recognition of their hard work, and not to worry about matters that are the exclusive concern of the administration anyway.

Amidst the directional negativity of this train, dissident groups in the working-class cars regard the given course as increasingly alarming, and they seek to distribute their findings and organize alternatives among the multitude. Even among the privileged there is a minority that concurs with the analysis for general alarm, and these renegade aristocrats surreptitiously share the knowledge to which they are privy with the workers, emphasizing the need to coordinate rebellion. Yet the train evermore accelerates, and a palpable sense of powerlessness and atomization dominates the passengers as a whole. Numerically speaking, most people on board this train would not be expected to favor the course taken by the administration, in light of the terminal consequences that are becoming increasingly evident. But what is to be done practically? Rational-collective choices self-evidently will not assert themselves ex nihilo under the reign of the Iron Cage. In light of the strict established security measures on board the class-divided train, it may well be that the workers cannot at this time storm the engine room to pull the emergency brake directly, as necessary as such a move might be—yet they could refuse their labor and disrupt the train’s route that careens to oblivion. Clearly, such a radical syndicalist approach would not be entirely without its losses, considering the injuries and deaths that would be outrightly inflicted by the police in reprisal to strikes, as well as the question of how non-cooperation would affect the well-being of workers’ children, and the possibility indeed that the rebellion would be crushed altogether. If it did not come at the right time, when would hope for social revolution return?

In the first place, the trajectory of the current course is clear enough. Beyond this, and to the question of the success or failure of the revolution, human history repeatedly demonstrates the anti-systemic activation of Eros under conditions of mass-rebellion.[13] It follows that the sacrifices of the rebels and martyrs of today and tomorrow disrupting the normal functioning of the system in an attempt to avert the destruction of self and Other would pale in comparison to the alternatives—if Eros cannot assert itself.

 

Images of Protest. I will say that the strongest protest-action in which I have participated was the general strike called for by Occupy Oakland on 2 November 2011. Though the strike in fact proved to be far from general, hundreds of thousands took part in rebellion and refusal that day. The climax of the day—which for many protestors likely also represented something of a peak life-experience—came in the late afternoon, as the mass-multitude converged on Oakland’s ports from the east, where the day of action had been based: Oscar Grant Plaza, or Frank Ogawa Plaza. The police could not stop the multitude as it took over the ramps and highways normally dedicated to the movement of capital and goods, pouring into the shipping terminals like alluvial fans. Once the port was taken over, protestors climbed on top of trucks, danced, cheered. Anarchist flags were waved, and one comrade knowingly expressed with a banner that said, “The People are Strong.” The port shut-down was truly a prefiguration of the radical change that could and can be accomplished through the collective organization of those from below—the reordering of the productive apparatus, its occupation and disarticulation. In this sense it was an action that has to my knowledge not been surpassed in scope in the U.S. since—to the detriment of the struggle, clearly, as capital markedly intensifies its destructiveness. Another recent mass-protest effort was made with the People’s Climate March (PCM) of September 2014, but as the organizers of this action in no way wanted to replicate the experience of Occupy, let alone the riots against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle (1999), the march was channeled into a non-threatening route, had no practical target, and made no demands, much less substantive ones.[14] Still, to recognize problems with the PCM’s organization is not to discount the authentic concern evinced by the hundreds of thousands who took part in the actions that day, including a number of explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-systemic contingents. The PCM’s approach was one that bears little in common with radical actions like the Oakland port shut-down and eco-socialist concepts of “Climate Satyagraha.”[15] The “Flood Wall Street” protest that followed the day after the PCM was more clearly in the militant spirit of Oakland, as it aimed to shut down New York’s financial district—though realistically, all we flooders accomplished was to blockade road access to the trading floor, and not to interrupt the normal functioning of capital inside.

Alongside the Oakland port shut-down, two other rebel-experiences I will share include the 2 October 2010 protests in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, and the anti-COP protests in Cancún in December 2010. 2 October, of course, marks the day on which the Mexican military murdered and forcibly disappeared hundreds of students and protestors assembled in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco district of Mexico City in 1968, ten days before the opening of the Olympics being hosted in the same city. For this reason this date is commemorated every year in Mexico—and indeed, it was to join the protest-action for the observance of the anniversary in Mexico City in 2014 that the 43 student-teachers from Ayotzinapa were forcibly disappeared in Iguala by the State. In the highland city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, university students and other youth led the protest in 2010, occupying the main streets, disrupting the existing order, and distributing flyers to inform the public of their actions, in addition to engaging in direct action against symbolic and actual centers of reified power, such as the local headquarters of the National Action Party (PAN) and the transnationally owned OXXO convenience stores. In Cancún three months later, La Via Campesina organized a counter-summit to the official UN summit, COP-16, at which the member-states were supposedly meeting to discuss how to address the problem of climate change—a meeting which Obama did not deign to grace with his presence—and from this alternative summit in downtown Cancún some of the largest counter-mobilizations were organized. The Anti-C@P, a grouping of autonomous youth who proclaimed their opposition both to the COP process and to capitalism, engaged in a number of unpermitted actions in the streets, and had even planned to disrupt official celebrations being held at the luxury hotels on the city’s eastern peninsula, including one featuring the Mexican president, the head of the World Bank, and the owner of Walmart. However, the ubiquitous police check-points erected near the tourist zone dissuaded anti-C@P from following through on these plans. As with the general strike in Oakland proclaimed nearly a year later, and following the mass-action against the Copenhagen COP the year prior, the culmination of rebellion against COP-16 came during a mass-march from downtown Cancún to the Moon Palace several kilometers to the south, where the negotiations were in fact being held. By the end of the several hours-long counter-mobilization, which had been monitored closely by several military helicopters, most protestors were really quite tired. As we finally approached the Moon Palace, the official organizers of the march stopped and organized a rally, while the bolder among us pressed on. Though we did approximate the Moon Palace, eventually we came face-to-face with a police cordon several lines deep. Then suddenly, scores of more riot police appeared from the inauspiciously small building in which they had been hidden, awaiting us. None of us was prepared to resist such a show of force directly, so we retreated back to the rally, hopeful that our spirit of rebellion temporarily beyond the limits of the accepted and given was meaningful.

I can recall a far more desperate spirit during the counter-inauguration demos in Washington, D.C., in January 2005, as those assembled expressed displeasure with the legal continuation of the Bush regime. Access to the parade route was entirely blocked off by fences; police presence was heavy; and snipers could be readily perceived, perched atop several buildings. The presidential limo sped quickly past the section containing the protest block—no doubt just another “focus group” to Bush—what a despotic fool, reminiscent of the tsars. A similarly absurd and negating atmosphere surrounded Israel’s massacres in Gaza during December 2008 and January 2009. I can never forget the expressions of rage and pain I encountered on the faces of the Palestinians in East Jerusalem during one of the first few days of the airstrikes and invasion of Gaza at the end of 2008. I had entered the Old City and the Occupied Palestinian Territories after having restfully visited Jordan’s Wadi Rum for Christmas. While being driven north from Jerusalem to Nablus, I saw that rocks were strewn on several roads, evidence of direct action taken by Palestinians against the reified, hated power of occupation and destruction. In Nablus itself, a protest camp was established in the dewar, or downtown circle, with the participation of several children (‘otfal), that involved art-making activities, speeches, denunciations, providence of news, publication of the faces of all those martyred. This solidarity arose despite the clear overall tensions between the Fateh-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The Palestinian multitude participating in the commemorations and protests evinced a collectivist-humanist concern for the fate of their sisters and brothers suffering under the Israeli bombs in the other major Occupied Palestinian Territory, rather than any adherence to divisive political ideologies. The same however cannot be said of the Palestinian Authority forces, who repressed numerous public expressions of sympathy with the people of Gaza, particularly in Ramallah.[16] I recall that on the New Year’s Friday demonstrations in Bi’lin—where the local Palestinian population has been cut off from its agrarian lands due to the erection of the Apartheid Wall—the Israeli forces were especially brutal, opening fire straightaway on the adolescent and youth sections of the weekly communal mobilization to resist colonization, rather than beginning by launching tear-gas grenades first. Among the Palestinians a great rage and outrage could thus readily be gleaned. “How dare they try to take our lives away from us, how dare they treat us like that?”[17] As a negative mirror-image of human rebellion, the cruelty of the occupying force was obvious for all to see.

The seemingly eternal return of negative historical developments in Palestine would re-assert itself most acutely in summer 2014, when the Israeli military once again engaged in a massively murderous campaign in Gaza. In New York, Direct Action for Palestine (DA4P) organized several emergency protest mobilizations in midtown Manhattan directed against the Israeli consulate; a number of banks financing Zionist crimes, including expropriation of land and settlement of the West Bank; and the Diamond District, comprised of numerous jewelry shops owned by Zionist Jews. In this last locale, we protestors encountered the fury of a number of Zionist chauvinists, thoughtlessly and incessantly chanting “Israel!” as we defied them, all the while the State they championed extinguished hundreds and thousands of Palestinian lives. Had it not been for the police cordon accompanying the march, ironically, several of us Palestinian sympathizers would likely have been attacked and injured by this proto-fascist mob. In such a strongly pro-Israeli city, we represented the militant minority opposing itself to authority, authoritarianism, settler-colonialism, and militarism, revindicating the right to rebel against despotism, injustice, domination, and absurdity. Retrospectively, though, in parallel to the counter-protests against COP and Wall Street, one can question whether DA4P concretely helped to stay Israel’s iron fist in any way. As Subcomandate Marcos—now Galeano—movingly observed during the winter 2008-2009 assault: “Is it useful to say something? Do our cries stop even one bomb? Does our word save the life of even one Palestinian?”[18] Yet, as Marcos/Galeano remarks, and as the resistance of Palestinians and their comrades demonstrates, it becomes necessary forthrightly to express one’s repudiation of events once these come to surpass basic principles of humanity so brazenly. “Only a humanity to whom death has become as indifferent as its members, that has itself died, can inflict it administratively on innumerable people” (Adorno).[19]

 

Theses on Repressive Tolerance

1. I am in full agreement with Herbert Marcuse: there can be no right to advocate imperial war, exploitation, racism, sexism, fascism, or genocide.[20] The numerous victims of capital, colonialism, white supremacy, and hetero-patriarchy—prisoners; the institutionalized; racial minorities in the West; women and children; LGBTQ individuals; workers; anti-imperialist movements in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America; the millions of non-human animal species; and the biosphere as a whole—demand the overthrow of these systems of domination. Rather than any sense of expediency or conformism, concern for the fate of nature and history brutalized by hegemony must become central to radical ethics and politics today.

2. The concept of tolerance must return to its original sense of being a “weapon for humanity,” moving into the future victorious against the counterparts of the clerical-absolutist regimes of yesteryear.[21] This implies an active counter-movement from below incorporating direct action and dual-power to take down capitalism, militarism, and all other forms of oppression. Marcuse is right to stress that the revolt of the oppressed against the system historically has served to pause the continuum of domination—if only momentarily. One thinks of numerous historical examples illuminating the path: the French Revolution; Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals; the Paris Commune; the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM) and the Mexican Revolution; the February Revolution, deposing tsarism; the Spanish Revolution of 1936; Rubén Jaramillo, Genaro Vázquez, and Lucio Cabañas, Mexican guerrilleros; the global uprising of 1968; the Gwanju Commune; the Tahrir Commune; the Palestinian Intifada; the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN); and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), among many others. As Marcuse observes rightly:

The tolerance which is the life element, the token of a free society, will never be the gift of the powers that be; it can, under the prevailing conditions […] only be won in the sustained effort of radical minorities […]—minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which tolerate destruction and suppression.[22]

[1]     Kolbert, E. (2014). The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

[2]     Adorno, T. W. (1974). Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (p. 229, E. F. N. Jephcott, trans.) London: Verso, 1974.

[3]     Engel-Di Mauro, S. (2014). Ecology, Soils, and the Left: An Eco-Social Approach. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan..

[4]     Agence France-Press. (2015, 14 October). “2015 becomes worst US wildfire year on record,” Phys.org. Retrieved 22 October 2015 from http://phys.org/news/2015-10-worst-wildfire-year.html.

[5]     Associated Press. (2015, 21 October). “Warmest September ever points to 2015 being world’s hottest year on record,” Guardian.

[6]     Plait, P. (2015, 27 October). “Indonesia Fires Seen From a Million Miles Away,” Slate. Retrieved 22 November from http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2015/10/27/earth_from_space_indonesian_peat_fires_show_up_in_satellite_photos.html; Carrington, D. (2015, 20 November).“Half of tree species in the Amazon at risk of extinction, say scientists,” Guardian.

[7]     Horkheimer, M. and Adorno, T. W. (2002/1947/1944). Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (p. 1E. Jephcott trans.). Stanford, California: Stanford University Press; Adorno, T. W. (1993). Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy (p. 154, E. Jephcott, trans.). Chicago and London: Chicago University Press.

[8]     Hart, J. M. (1978). Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class (pp. 111-120). Austin: University of Texas Press This affirmation of Luz/Lucha in no way seeks to overlook its metamorphosis into the House of the Global Worker (COM), which during the Mexican Revolution unfortunately played the reactionary role of serving in the counter-insurgent war waged by Venustiano Carranza and Álvaro Obregón against the Zapatistas (ibid, pp. 126-135).

[9]     Gani, A. and Nicholson, B. (2015, 28 October). “The 116 things that can give you cancer—the full list,” Guardian.

[10]   Horkheimer, M. (1993). Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Writings (p. 35, G. F. Hunter. trans.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

[11]   Clapp, J. (2000). “Africa and the International Toxic Waste Trade” (pp. 103-124). In The Environment and Development in Africa (M. K. Tesi, ed). Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

[12]   Benjamin, W. (1977). Gesammelte Schriften I/3 (p. 1232). Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag..

[13]   Katsiaficas, G. (2012-2013). Asia’s Unknown Uprisings: Volumes 1 and 2. Oakland, California: PM Press.

[14]   Gupta, A. (2014, 19 September). “How the People’s Climate March Became a Corporate PR Campaign,” Counterpunch Retrieved 22 November 2015 from “How the People’s Climate March Became a Corporate PR Campaign,”; Saul, Q (2014, 16 September). “Like a Dull Knife: The People’s Climate ‘Farce,’” Truthout. Retrieved 22 November 2015 from http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/26215-like-a-dull-knife-the-peoples-climate-farce.

[15]   Saul, Q. and Sethness Castro, J. (2015, 10 April). “On Climate Satyagraha,” Counterpunch. Retrieved 22 November 2015 from http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/04/10/on-climate-satyagraha/.

[16]   Juma’, J. (2012, 3 July). “PA repression feeds flames of Palestinian discontent,” Electronic Intifada. Retrieved 23 November 2015 from https://electronicintifada.net/content/pa-repression-feeds-flames-palestinian-discontent/11456.

[17]   Holloway, J. (2010). “Of Despair and Hope,” Interventionistische Linke. Retrieved 23 November 2015 from http://www.dazwischengehen.org/node/669.

[18]   Subcomandante Marcos (2009, 1 February). “Gaza Will Survive,” Counterpunch. Retrieved 23 November 2015 from http://www.counterpunch.org/2009/02/01/gaza-will-survive/.

[19]   Adorno, op. cit. (1974), p. 233.

[20]   Marcuse, H. (2014). Marxism, Revolution, Utopia: Collected Papers, Volume Six (pp. 293-297D. Kellner and C. Pierce, eds.). London: Routledge, 2014.

[21]   Ibid, pp. 218-221.

[22]   Marcuse, H. (1965). “Repressive Tolerance.” In A Critique of Pure Tolerance (p, 123, R. P. Wolff and B. Moore, Jr., eds.). Boston: Beacon Press.

Intervention as Radical Struggle: On Arendt, Negativity, and Resistance

October 7, 2013

poles-on-santo-domingo-by-suchodolski

First published on Truthout (copyright, Truthout.org, reprinted with permission)

NB: This essay is a modified version of the author’s submission for the 2013 Hannah Arendt Prize

“What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.”

– Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition1

Doubtless, there exists much reason to study disobedience, the spark behind all knowledge,” as Gaston Bachelard claims in his Fragments of a Poetics of Fire. I would argue that Albert Camus is right to claim rebellion—which, as he says, can only ever be a social project infused by notions of solidarity, rather than individualism—intimately to be related to the defense of human existence—survival, in the first place—as well as to the political task of advancing human flourishing.2 Alarmingly, both such struggles today confront especially severe threat: as Noam Chomsky describes it plainly, the prospect of decent human survival is presently imperiled by the twin specters of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe.3 Given the totally inadequate approaches that constituted power have presented vis-à-vis these world-historical problems—radical denial on the one hand, and conscious exacerbation on the other—the question becomes whether we can hope for revolutionary interventions from below, emanating from that which Giorgio Agamben terms “the non-State, which is humanity,” to address these pressing dangers in rational and humane fashion.4 As we have seen in recent years with the shattering entrance onto the public stage of oppressed humanity seeking to manage its affairs autonomously from and antagonistically against the State and capital, such hope does not seem entirely without merit.

In this sense, Arendt is correct to note, as she did in reflecting on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, that the tide of history can shift radically and rapidly, once established hierarchies are disrupted by the broad-based delegitimization of prevailing power relations.5 Indeed, such a perspective seems to be one of the major, optimistic conclusions to be gleaned from George Katsiaficas’ sweeping study of People’s Power movements throughout much of Asia—that despotism is doomed once the demos struggles together to overthrow it, and that the militaristic repression perennially visited on dissident movements reflects the oppressors’ very fears of the power of the people.6 Hence, I completely reject the nihilistic notion that intervention constitutes little more than a “decoy or distraction in the face of futility” or a “cover or compensation for hopeless battles and set-ups.” Consider for a moment the Great French Revolution of 1789-1794: one would be at a loss to think of a similarly shattering event in human history, one that abolished monarchy and feudalism at a stroke—not to mention recognizing the end to formal slavery in Saint Domingue/Haiti, following the radical struggle of the slaves there themselves to destroy the system oppressing them. I claim that G.W.F. Hegel was right to celebrate this intervention as “a glorious mental dawn,” one that led “[a]ll thinking beings” to experience “jubilation.”Similarly, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just justifiably declared the Revolution as promoting the concept of happiness, which heretofore had been denied by existing social arrangements; it was for this reason “a new idea in Europe,” and a new reality.8

So while fatalism, defeatism, and any sense of Schopenhauerian pessimism should be considered misguided—as well, indeed, as reactionary, given the effective legitimization such orientations afford the powers that be—it would also seem questionable to claim, as Bachelard does in his Fragments, that human progress “amounts to a series of Promethean acts.” Granted, my concern here may have more to do with my conception of Prometheus and the common use of the adjective Promethean: Prometheus is rightly celebrated as a rebel who opposes divine authority in order to make critical scientific knowledge readily available to humanity. Yet the charge of prometheanism is often made, I think rightly, against certain interpretations of Marxism—arguably following from Marx’s own works—and other ideologies which base their social projects on the unquestioning domination of nature and the “development of the productive forces.” In light of the undeniably pressing contemporary ecological problems which have resulted from the uncritical productivism advanced systemically by capital—species loss, ocean acidification, the progressive melting of the polar ice caps, a greater incidence of drought and famine—any sense of Prometheus as the founder of an unbounded quest for scientific and technological development should not be welcomed today: consider Mary Shelley’s subtitle to Frankenstein (“The Modern Prometheus”), or J. Robert Oppenheimer. Against Prometheus, Herbert Marcuse likely is more justified to present Orpheus the lyre-player as an alternative mythological figure from which to draw inspiration: tranquility, aestheticism, and eroticism (particularly queer varieties) seem more germane to the depth of the current crisis.9

Turning, then, to the questions of how intervention might become “powerful and compelling” within the current juncture, and what role thought should have in this process, I would strongly agree with the major figures of the Frankfurt School in their emphasis on the centrality of negativity within conceptualization and interpretation. Their “critical negativism,” as identified by C. Fred Alford, is particularly relevant today: thought cannot assent to any social arrangement which perpetuates deprivation, suffering, and alienation as radically as does capital—as T.W. Adorno writes, “So long as there is still a single beggar, […] there is still myth.”10 Put plainly, thought should today ceaselessly be pointing out the utter barbarism of the hegemony of capital, patriarchy, and the State. Philosophy, in sum, should serve the end of agitation, indignation, and education, toward the end of organization, to paraphrase B.R. Ambedkar. This final concern—that of praxis—would to my mind be the principal goal toward which thought should strive today; basing itself in the prospects for dialectical affirmation against capitalist barbarism, philosophy would do well to counterpose the range of possibilities which we know are readily at hand, from our own personal desires for alternative societal arrangements, as from the compelling history of revolutionary social movements across the globe. Waxing, then, between an Adornian disgust at the machinations of hegemony and a Blochian emphasis on the principle of hope, philosophy could come to serve radical struggle—that is, intervention.

Passing from idealist critique to material intervention, it would seem that the world-Geist [Spirit] should take on the form of revolutionary, anti-systemic mass-movements. Engaging in direct action—with the examples of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) and other black blocs in mind—this mass-movement would prioritize participatory democracy via popular control of all social institutions, from the means of production to cultural production and beyond. In this sense, I envision a mass-dual power strategy, whereby Agamben’s “non-State,” or humanity, both prefigures the emancipated future it desires and works actively to bring such into being—by doing- and being-other, as theorized inter alia by John Holloway.11 Concretely, this praxis would involve the physical blockade of capital, as seen recently in protests against the tar sands infrastructure or the planned Koondankulam nuclear plant in India’s Tamil Nadu state, as well as in the “mass disturbances” seen in China over ecological devastation, in addition to the disruption of its operations throughout the life-world, particularly through sustained general strikes. Indeed, the Industrial Workers of the World’s recent introduction of the concept of the ecological general strike, whereby laborers refuse their participation in capitalism’s ecocidal projects toward the end of developing participatory models that would allow for ecological balance, is an especially inspiring model for current and future intervention.12

In sum, it seems clear that radical struggle is the order of the day. Intervention, if it is to have concrete meaning or be relevant at all, seeks human happiness, tranquility, liberation—like art that is worth its name, in Marcuse’s formulation.13 Undoubtedly, the threats which are today aligned against the realization of these ends are considerable; Hegel was largely correct to identify history as a slaughterbench which sacrifices the happiness of humanity to hegemony. We can clearly see such analysis confirmed throughout the calamitous world today: think of the recent Tazreen and Rana Square disasters in Bangladesh, or the 2011 Somali famine.

However, it is also clear that humanity is capable of far more affirming projects than those which hold power today. Dialectical thought, and the praxis which may follow from it, can serve to overturn negation.

———————————————————————————————————–

1>Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 5.

2Albert Camus, The Rebel (trans. Anthony Bower, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1956).

3Noam Chomsky and Laray Polk, Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (New York: Seven Stories, 2013).

4Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community (trans. Michael Hardt, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 65.

5Hannah Arendt, On Violence (San Diego: Harcourt, 1969), 48.

6George Katsiaficas, Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Volume 2 (Oakland: PM Press, 2013); for the author’s review of Volume 2, please see “A Review of ‘Asia’s Unknown Uprisings,” The White Rose Reader, 21 July 2013.

7G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York: Colonial, 1899), 447.

8Quoted in Sophie Wahnich, In Defense of the Terror (trans. David Fernbach, London: Verso, 2012), 69.

9Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Boston: Beacon, 1966).

10C. Fred Alford, Science and the Revenge of Nature (Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1985), 15-16; Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (trans. E.F.N. Jephcott, London: Verso, 1974 [1951]), 199.

11John Holloway, Crack Capitalism (London: Pluto, 2010).

12For the IWW’s Environmental Union Caucus, see http://ecology.iww.org/.

13Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension (Boston: Beacon, 1978).