Posts Tagged ‘Noam Chomsky’

Repudiating the Stalinist Legacy: Critique of “A Marxist-Leninist Perspective” on Stalin (Part III/III)

November 19, 2018

“In a totally fictitious world, failures need not be recorded, admitted, or remembered. […] Systematic lying to the whole world can be safely carried out only under the conditions of totalitarian rule.” – Hannah Arendt1

Lenin Stalin

Lenin and Stalin in 1922 (courtesy Keystone/Getty Images)

So far, in parts I and II of this response to “A Marxist-Leninist Perspective on Stalin,” we have seen how the “Proles of the Round Table” and their host Breht Ó Séaghdha have systematically lied on their infamous ‘Stalin podcast’ about the history of the Soviet Union, from covering up the Barcelona May Days (1937), the GULAG slave-labor camp system, the Hitler-Stalin Pact (1939), and the NKVD’s mass-deportation of Muslim and Buddhist minorities during World War II to declaring mass-death through Stalin’s forced collectivization of the peasantry to have been “extremely successful.” It is clear why Jeremy and Justin confidently present such a fraudulent version of history: were they even to mention any of these realities, it would become clear that their presence as Stalin apologists on a radio show ostensibly dedicated to an examination of “revolutionary left” history and theory would be immediately revealed as absurd. Yet here we are.

In this final third of my critique of this travesty, we will examine Jeremy and Justin’s genocide denial and their enthusiasm for the Moscow Show Trials. In contrast to the “Proles of the Round Table,” we will explore how anti-Semitism, ultra-nationalism, and sexism are essential aspects of the Stalinist legacy. We will then close with some comments about Soviet ecocide and a critical analysis of neo-Stalinist international relations today, which cover for pseudo-anti-imperialist executioners.

Holodomor Denial

While the breadth of Jeremy and Justin’s Stalin’s apologia on this interview is quite astounding, few aspects are as vile as their denial of the genocidal Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933. Justin is very clear about their view: “there was no mass-famine,” and the idea of Holodomor (the “Great Ukrainian Famine”) is a “myth.” Jeremy jumps in to claim that “Ukrainian nationalists” sought to undermine Stalin and “intentionally starv[e] the Soviet Union.” First, let’s note that, in making the latter claim, Jeremy unwittingly admits that the Soviet Union was imperialist, and should be that way: the implication is that Ukraine and other former colonies of the Tsarist Empire exist to serve Russia, or, in this case, Stalin’s regime. Beyond that, certainly there was famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933: the “Proles of the Round Table” are almost unique among neo-Stalinists, in that, rather than claim that the reported Holodomor death-toll has somehow been exaggerated for political purposes, they claim that it never happened. In so doing, they quite literally ape Stalin’s refusal to accept the reality of famine in Ukraine in spring 1932 upon receiving word of it from Vlas Chubar, Bolshevik leader of Ukraine, after which the General Secretary denied famine relief and banned the use of the word from all official correspondence.2 While climatic conditions played a part, it was arguably the unrealistic quotas for the extraction of grain from the Ukrainian peasantry following in the wake of the “extremely successful” experience of forced collectivization that tipped the peasants into the first famine (spring 1932); once Stalin doubled down on the confiscation of grain and cattle after hearing initial reports of the famine, adding reprisals against those villages that failed to meet production quotas by cutting them off, this exacerbated an already disastrous situation. The result was the death of nearly 4 million Ukrainians, more than 10% of the population, with an additional 1-2 million Caucasians, Russians, and Kazakhs succumbing as well.3 Unsurprisingly, Justin and Jeremy have nothing to say about these Central Asian and Caucasian Muslim victims of famine.

To advance their lies about Ukraine, the “Proles of the Round Table” rely on one Grover Furr, a Stalin propagandist who also denies the Holodomor by citing the work of Mark Tauger, a supposed historiographer who actually quite fraudulently argues against the idea that the British Empire or the Soviet Union were responsible for the Great Irish Famine or the Bengal Famine, in the former case, or Holodomor, in the latter. As Louis Proyect has shown, Tauger wants to exclusively blame “environmental conditions” for these devastating catastrophes, and thus hide the role of political economy, power relations, and imperialism. This is the kind of ideology that the “Proles of Round Table” hold up as legitimate historical investigation.

Following the argument of the Jewish Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, originator of the concept of genocide, historian Norman Naimark holds Stalin responsible for genocide, if we consider the term’s original definition, which meant to include social and political groups. In targeting the “kulaks” for elimination and thus provoking the Holodomor, Stalin certainly was genocidal. This conclusion becomes even clearer when we review Stalin’s imperialist policies, his regime’s concurrent purging of most of the Ukrainian Communist Party leadership for their putative “nationalism,” and his August 1932 letter to fellow Politburo member Lazar Kaganovich, in which the General Secretary “set [forth] the goal of turning Ukraine into a real fortress of the USSR, a truly model republic.”4

Apologism for the Moscow Show Trials and Terror

“The insane mass manufacture of corpses is preceded by the historically and politically intelligible preparation of living corpses.” – Hannah Arendt5

While we have examined the Purges in parts I and II, let us now focus specifically on Justin and Jeremy’s apologism for the infamous Moscow Trials of the “Old Bolsheviks” (1936-1938), which were clearly nothing more than show trials. Justin begins by mistaking the Bolshevik leader Gregory Zinoviev for “Alexander Zinoviev,” a Soviet philosopher, and then mentions Trotsky’s analysis of “Soviet Thermidor” without in any way clarifying its application to Stalinism in power: that is, with reference to its historical antecedent—the French Revolution—whereby the bourgeois Directory seized power after overthrowing the Jacobin leaders Maximilien Robespierre and Louis de Saint-Just. To be clear, Stalin’s counter-revolution is highly suggestive of the legacy of the Directory—which is not to suggest that either Lenin or Robespierre were revolutionaries. In parallel, the “Proles of the Round Table” will mention Trotsky’s analysis of Stalin’s guilt over Hitler’s rise—written years after his expulsion from the party—and somehow consider this as retroactive criminal evidence for Trotsky’s supposed conspiracy against the General-Secretary-to be (as in the Left and United Opposition). Yet tellingly, they will not present the actual content of Trotsky’s argument: namely, that Stalin’s Comintern policy on “social fascism” facilitated the Nazi takeover of Germany.

Continuing on, Justin states that Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev “recanted” following their joining with Trotsky in the United Opposition to Stalin—but no reason is given as to why. Certainly, as in the case of Nikolai Bukharin, Zinoviev and Kamenev feared for their lives and that of their loved ones, particularly after seeing the example made of Trotsky, who was expelled ignominiously first from the Communist Party, and then the Soviet Union altogether (in 1928). Instead of contemplating such factors, the “Proles of the Round Table” begin to attempt to explain “why […] the Purge [is] beginning to become a necessity [sic].” Attempting to insert a victim-blaming narrative, Justin and Jeremy suggest that not all the “Old Bolsheviks” were “Communists”—meaning Stalinists—and therefore imply the necessity of their liquidation—and, in many cases, that of their families, who were also murdered so as to prevent revenge attacks against the Party emanating from the “clan” of those executed.6

This is a positively ghoulish illogic—one that is reproduced in Jeremy and Justin’s distortions about Bukharin, another victim of the Terror, whom they portray as a “social democrat.” In the first place, Bukharin was not a social democrat. Social democracy is incompatible with dictatorship: as Karl Kautsky, the preeminent theoretician of orthodox Marxism and German Social Democracy, insisted, there can be “no Socialism without democracy.”7 As a “believer in party dictatorship, Bukharin was no democrat”: though he disagreed with Trotsky and Stalin in desiring a continuation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) and “peace with the villages” in place of rapid “super-industrialization,” he and his supporters, known as the ‘Right Opposition,’ had no plan to institute a participatory form of government in the Soviet Union.8 Therefore, it would appear that Justin and Jeremy are being rather dishonest about Bukharin’s ideology, claiming that he’s been “waging a counter-revolution for years,” in an attempt to prepare their rationalization of his execution following the Moscow Show Trials of 1938. They make much of Bukharin’s confession to the charges of being an agent of foreign, imperialist powers—but they do not admit the reality that Bukharin confronted credible threats against the lives of his young wife and baby if he failed to confess. As Catherine Evtuhov observes,

“The question of why the falsely accused confessed to the fantastic crimes is not really an intellectual puzzle: Some feared for the lives of loved ones […]. Others were subjected to unbearable torture. A few many may have been convinced of the rightness of false confession for a higher good: the future of communism.”9

Once again, then, we find the “Proles of the Round Table” lying to their audience: referring to Bukharin, they suggest, “it’s not like he had a gun at his head […].” Actually, he most certainly did. Yet such spurious ‘analysis’ of historical events is one with their expressed faith in the official transcripts of Bukharin’s trial, which, in being “thorough,” are somehow to be considered legitimate evidence against him. They mention how the U.S. ambassador to Moscow endorsed the Moscow Show Trials, but fail to note that the U.S. philosopher John Dewey wrote the report Not Guilty in defense of those falsely charged by Stalin.10

For a more honest perspective, consider that Jean-Paul Sartre had by 1947 in Les Temps Modernes identified Stalin’s Soviet Union as a class society based on a “concentration-camp system.”11 According to Hannah Arendt, within totalitarian regimes, “th[e] place of positive laws is taken by total terror.”12 Indeed, the Comintern’s efforts to propagate its top-down vision for “revolution” were greatly hindered by the disillusionment of many Western sympathizers in light of the Terror of the 1930s and, ironically, the execution of many foreign communist leaders who had previously taken refuge in the Soviet Union.13 Alongside killing an astonishing 90% of Soviet trade-union leaders, Stalin ordered the following far-reaching executions:

“The entire leadership of the Polish Communist Party fell victim, as did the many other foreign Communists and those who had served in Spain and China. Comintern activists were recalled to Moscow from all over the world and shot. Non-Russian nationalities were assailed; a large segment of the party leadership in Ukraine was annihilated.”14

Imagine framing these sweeping atrocities, as Jeremy does, as the “defense of the Revolution,” and denying that they served the ends of Stalin’s consolidation of power. Imagine unironically claiming that “Stalin was a critic of Stalin: he was able to self-criticize.” Such naked apologism represents nothing more than the regurgitation of Soviet State propaganda and the worship of power.

To accommodate fetishizing the Stalinist cult of personality in 2018—harkening back to a 1930’s view which sees the General Secretary as both “hero and father-protector”—Jeremy and Justin are fully prepared to falsify history and deny Stalin’s world-historical crimes.15

Repression of Tolstoyan Peasants

To demonstrate how terribly mistaken this view is, let us briefly consider the testimony of three Tolstoyan peasants who lived and worked in the “Life and Labor Commune,” which was founded in 1921 just outside Moscow and then relocated to Western Siberia in 1931. As Tolstoyans, these peasants followed the Christian anarchist Lev Tolstoy, who had proclaimed altruism, humanism, internationalism, anti-militarism, and vegetarianism in his late novels and essays.16 Yet in 1936, Stalin’s regime retaliated against the Commune for what might be termed excessive ‘idealism’: “You are building communism too soon [sic]; it is too early for you to refuse to support violence and murder,” declared the judge passing sentence on these pacifist stateless communists.17

Life and Labor

Courtesy William Edgerton

Boris Mazurin, a Tolstoyan leader of the “Life and Labor Commune,” writes in his memoirs that NKVD agents arrested several comrades from the Commune on the arbitrary basis of Article 58 of the Soviet criminal code, which was utilized by the State to suppress anyone considered to be a threat. Between 1936 and 1940, sixty-five Tolstoyans detained by the NKVD for being “counter-revolutionaries” never returned; the loss of so many members destabilized the ability of the Commune to continue operating. In addition, more than a hundred male Tolstoyan communards were executed by the Soviet power for refusing military service in World War II.18 Ivan Dragunovsky, another communard whose father Yakov was executed by the State in 1938, elicits the frightful night in October 1937 when NKVD agents came to arrest him and several of his young comrades, most of them never to be seen again, simply because they were Tolstoyans.19

Dimitry Morgachëv, a peasant-intellectual from the “Life and Labor Commune,” recalls his experiences in the Cheremoshniki transfer prison:

“There was terrible despotism in that camp, the kind you might think would be inadmissible in a land of workers and peasants […]. More than thirty years have gone by, and it still makes my flesh crawl when I remember how we lived, not for hours or days but for whole years, in that savage, inhuman life where people died like flies in autumn from the hard labor, from starvation, from the smarting consciousness of our innocence and our undeserved infamy and punishment […]. Could this be done by the representatives of Communist power, whose ideal—the withering away of the state, and a society without violence—was dear to them and to me alike? Could all this be perpetrated by the same people who had grown so indignant about the savagery and arbitrary rule of the tsarist authorities over the common people?20

Defending an Anti-Semitic, Ultra-Nationalist, and Sexist Legacy

By interview’s end, Jeremy, Justin, and Ó Séaghdha all sound quite pleased with themselves. The host praises his guests’ uncritical take on the Soviet Union, which he claims to have represented “a socialist [sic] f*cking powerhouse” that was “so successful at so many things.” Right. That’s just as ideological as Jeremy and Justin’s denial of the charges of anti-Semitism and Russian chauvinism raised against Stalin which Ó Séaghdha meekly poses before the triumphant conclusion. In this section, we will examine Stalin’s anti-Semitism, ultra-nationalism, and misogyny—the latter being a category that goes virtually unmentioned by the “Proles of the Round Table” and Ó Séaghdha.

Stalinist Anti-Semitism

Responding to Ó Séaghdha’s question about Stalin’s anti-Semitism, these “Proles of the Round Table” say that they “don’t know where you get the idea that he was anti-Semitic.” No? Let us count the ways.

  • Vis-à-vis Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Trotsky’s United Opposition (1926), Stalin at the least took advantage of the anti-Semitic hatred among Party members directed against these men as Jews to outmaneuver and disarm them and expel Trotsky from the country in 1928;21
  • The matter of conspiring to assassinate Trotsky (1940), exiled in Mexico;
  • The Molotov-Ribbentrop, or Nazi-Soviet Pact, of August 1939, which partitioned Poland, home to Europe’s largest Jewish community before World War II, between the two totalitarian regimes: with the Hitler-Stalin Pact in mind, it’s simply untenable to pretend that Stalin bore no responsibility for the deaths of millions of Polish Jews at the hands of the Nazis, the question of the Comintern’s facilitation of Hitler’s coup to the side for the moment;
  • Tellingly, Hitler clarified that the only man for whom he had “unqualified respect” was “Stalin the genius [sic],” in an echo perhaps of his earlier view (from the 1920’s) that “in our movement the two extremes come together: the Communists from the Left and the officers and the students from the Right,” and reflected as well in his May 1943 declaration that, “in this war bourgeois and revolutionary states are facing each other,” with ‘bourgeois’ meaning ‘Western’ and ‘revolutionary’ [sic] referring to Nazi Germany and the USSR;22
  • The murder of Shlomo (Solomon) Mikhoels in January 1948, as mentioned in part I, and the liquidation of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC) he had led later that year, resulting in at least twenty death sentences and nearly a hundred others being sent to the GULAG—as the historian Bożena Szaynok confirms, “Stalin personally supervised all activities directed against [the] JAC”;23
  • Gripped by fear and paranoia in the post-war environment regarding the possibility of a third world war, Stalin became increasingly suspicious of all elements considered “disloyal,” and, within the context of Politburo member Andrei Zhdanov’s triumphalist demand for the fetishization of nationalism in culture, his regime launched an anti-Semitic campaign that was first announced in Pravda in January 1949 against the “emissaries of rootless cosmopolitanism,” meaning Soviet Jewish artists and intellectuals, for their supposed Zionism and attendant lack of pride in the Soviet Union, leading often to their being replaced in the State sector by non-Jews, expelled from the Party and their professional organizations, and having their works censored;24
  • Stalinist repression against Yiddish-language newspapers and institutions in the Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) located in Birobijan in the Soviet Far East, together with prison and death sentences for JAR leaders, accused of “anti-State activity, espionage, and attempts to create a Jewish state in the USSR”;25
  • In parallel to the shuttering of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, the Jewish Labor Bund was dissolved in Soviet-occupied Poland in 1949;26
  • Whereas Stalin’s regime was the first country to recognize Israel in May 1948—in an attempt to undermine British imperial power—Soviet authorities regarded the Rosh Hashanah celebrations in Moscow in August 1948 which coincided with the visit of Israeli envoy Golda Meyerson (later Meir), who was received enthusiastically, as highly disloyal;27
  • The announcement in January 1953 in Pravda of the “discovery” of the supposed “Kremlin doctors’ plot,” whereby dozens of physicians, many of them Jewish, were accused of having conspired with Britain and the U.S. to murder Zhdanov by medical malpractice, and of planning to similarly murder Stalin.28

Thankfully, Stalin died before this vile campaign could escalate into another Purge, this one exclusively targeting Jews. There is ominous evidence of orders for the construction of new concentration camps in the Soviet Far East from early 1953, confirming that Soviet authorities were preparing for a large influx of new political prisoners at a time when few remained after World War II.” For Arendt, this shift from accusing Soviet Jews of Zionism to implicating them in a putative Jewish world conspiracy ultimately signals the true affinities between Hitler and Stalin:

“The open, unashamed adoption of what had become to the whole world the most prominent sign of Nazism was the last compliment Stalin paid to his late colleague and rival in total domination with whom, much to his chagrin, he had not been able to come to a lasting agreement.”29

Stalinist Ultra-Nationalism

We have just seen how, toward the end of his life, Stalin contemptibly promoted open anti-Semitism and may well have been preparing another Holocaust. Yet even before this, as examined in parts I and II, Stalin combined Great Russian chauvinism, authoritarian high modernism, and a continuation of Tsarist imperialism from the beginning of his rule to “stabilize” his control over the Soviet Union and pursue its becoming a superpower. As such, “Stalinism was a deeply conservative structure of privilege for a ruling class that rejected many of the utopian ideals of the [Russian] revolution.”30 The emergence of “national Bolshevism” as Stalinist ideology in the 1930’s owes much to nationalism within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the revision of Marxist principles—as reflected in the catastrophic Comintern policies not only to facilitate Hitler’s rise but also, in seeking to protect the Soviet Union by destabilizing imperialism, to order the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to ally with the nationalist-feudalist Guo Min Dang (GMD), led by Chiang Kai-Shek, who promptly and murderously suppressed the Shanghai and Canton workers’ communes upon taking power with the CCP’s aid in 1927.31 Mao bitterly noted Stalin’s refusal to seriously assist the CCP during the Civil War against the GMD.32

In 1934, Stalin, Kaganovich, and Zhdanov mandated nationalist revisions to the Soviet history curricula which would do away with what the General Secretary and his colleagues saw as an excessively “sociological” understanding of history that had, in promoting internationalism since 1917, supposedly failed to promote a unified sense of Soviet identity. Stalin and co. demanded a narrative emphasis on the “progressive interpretation” of centralizing and “state-building” Tsarist heroes such as Ivan IV (“the Terrible”), and an attendant de-emphasis on historically insurgent rebels such as Yemelyan Pugachëv and Stenka Razin; a focus on medieval Rus’ while excluding consideration of medieval Western Europe; and the communication of the ‘lesser evil theory’ to explain Russia’s colonization of Ukraine and Georgia, among other questions.33 According to this rationale, Stalin essentially appealed to a continuity between his regime and the Tsarist Empire for legitimation: as such, Stalinist historiography “virtually ignored the history of Ukrainians and Belorussians, not to mention other, non-Slav peoples of the USSR.”34 This was the age of ‘socialist realism,’ when Soviet novels were written without any conflict, and it was understood that music should be melodious, optimistic, exuberant, and nationalist: hence Zhdanov’s attacks on the composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev for their putative “formalism,” which was supposedly related to an imitation of Western modernist styles.35 Indeed, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky, which depicts the medieval war in the Baltic region between Nevsky’s forces and the German Teutonic Knights, incorporates classic Stalinist tropes regarding the “urgency of strong leadership, the courage of the Russian people, and the purported sadistic impulses of the German invader.”36 As the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick observes, this ideological transformation from a discourse of internationalism to national-Bolshevism reflected Stalinism’s “shift in emphasis from the workers as the vanguard class of the Soviet experiment to the Russian people as its vanguard nation.37

In addition to the invasion and occupation of Georgia; forced collectivization, “dekulakization,” and Holodomor in Ukraine; and counter-insurgency, famine, and the imposition of ethno-linguistic divisions in Central Asia, Stalin was also responsible for occupying and then subordinating the ill-named Eastern European “People’s Democracies” following the Yalta Conference of February 1945. Though these countries remained formally independent of the USSR, they essentially were (with the exception of Yugoslavia) “Sovietized” after WWII, such that Purges and dictatorship rather than self-determination and democratic self-rule followed the end of the war for millions of Eastern Europeans.38 Stalin’s end-of-life anti-Semitic campaign, then, noxiously spread to several of these “People’s Democracies,” particularly Poland and Czechoslovakia.39

Stalinist Patriarchy

Ó Séaghdha begins this interview on an actually promising note: he emphasizes that he wants to get away from the “Great Man of History” narrative when discussing Stalin. As with his parallel introductory comment about combating anti-Semitism, however, this is a purely opportunistic assertion, given that he provides the “Proles of the Round Table” nearly three hours to espouse historical lies that are framed within this very same narrative about the singular importance of the General Secretary.

As a putative “Great Man of History,” it should not therefore be surprising that Stalin was quite a sexist and a traditionalist on the woman’s question: he was after all responsible for advancing an “authoritarian and patriarchal political culture that […] pervaded social relations.”40 In 1930, the Zhenotdel, the women’s section of the Soviet Communist Party, which had been established by Alexandra Kollontai and others to promote female literacy and knowledge about marriage and property rights, was shuttered, and the perspectives of Communist feminists marginalized; in 1936, Stalin’s regime restricted divorce and abortion. Whereas the regime publicly recognized “Heroines of Motherhood” for bearing several children to serve the State, his officials engaged in rape campaigns in the GULAG camps and detention centers as a means of torture and humilation.41 When the Red Army entered Germany, moreover, toward the end of World War II, Soviet troops engaged in mass-rape of “thousands of females of all ages.”42 Additionally, in the wake of M. I. Ryutin’s appeal to depose Stalin in 1932, and following the General Secretary’s reprisals against Ryutin, Kamenev, and Zinoviev, his second wife, Nadezhda Allilueva, reportedly became very disillusioned with him; when Stalin rudely insulted her one evening at a dinner party, she was found dead the next morning, the result of an apparent suicide.43

central asian harvest mural

A Soviet mosaic in the Uzbek city of Bukhara (Courtesy The Guardian)

In Central Asia, otherwise known as Turkestan, Stalinist high modernism coupled with a paradoxical mix of Soviet feminism, imperialism, and Orientalism led authorities to attempt to promote sexual equality in the region beginning in the late 1920’s. This campaign “threatened a total abrogation of the primordial status system,” and in promoting it, Soviet officials “meant to pose a fundamental challenge to the structure and life style of local communities.”44 Soviet family legislation in Turkestan sought to outlaw polygamy, allow women to divorce their husbands, establish a minimum age for marriage, and prevent arranged marriages, among other things; yet in response, many Muslim men divorced their wives, forcing them onto the streets. When some women employed the new rights afforded them by divorcing their husbands and publicly unveiling themselves, many Muslim men “responded with an explosion of hostility and violence apparently unequaled in scope and intensity until then on any other grounds.”45 Prompted by clerics, many men began persecuting, assaulting, and murdering unveiled women, female activists and their families, and those related to these figures. This conservative backlash resulted not only in the reveiling of unveiled women but also the spread of veiling among women who had not previously been veiled. Even some men who had benefited from Soviet land redistribution turned against the regime after this imposition of sexual equality. Soviet authorities then doubled down against the emergence of such male-supremacist resistance, reconstituting crimes against women as counter-revolutionary, carrying the obligatory penalty of execution; outlawing not only the Islamic veil but all other forms of traditional dress; and beginning to exclude veiled women from Soviet programs. The result of such intensification proved to be rather counter-productive, as many men tended to become more resistant to efforts to emancipate women, more violent, and less cooperative with overall Soviet policy. Ultimately, Soviet officials realized that deeply embedded cultural norms could not be eradicated merely by decree, such that this policy of “feminism from above” was promptly reversed, with accommodation and stability coming to replace the pursuit of fundamental social changes in gender relations.46

CA women

Courtesy Catherine Evtuhov et al.

Stalinist Ecocide

Though this critique of a “Marxist-Leninist Perspective” on Stalin is focused primarily on history and politics, I would be remiss not to at least mention some of the environmental depredations resulting from Stalinist industrialization and the USSR’s self-assertion as a superpower. Against Ó Séaghdha’s characterization of Soviet mass-industrialization as representing “proletarian beauty,” these ecological ill-effects range from persistent radioactivity resulting from Soviet nuclear tests, particularly in Kazakhstan, to the near-collapse of the Aral Sea as a viable ecosystem and natural-resource provider secondary to the industrial-scale expansion of cotton production in the USSR, which was based on the mass-diversion of water for irrigation from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers that supply the Aral Sea, together with the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe and the legacy of mass-chemical pollution.47 These lamentable realities provide a stark reminder that “[s]ocieties that have abolished or statized private profit have not escaped the most brutal dimensions of the ecological crisis.”48 Furthermore, a landmark 2013 study regarding historical responsibility for global warming which blames a sum total of 90 companies for fossil-fuel extraction holds investor-owned capitalist energy firms responsible for about one-fifth (21%) of carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution, and Soviet State-owned oil, gas, and coal corporations responsible for just under 9% of total emissions.

tank prod

Soviet women working on wartime production of tanks (courtesy David Goldfrank)

Neo-Stalinist International Relations: Siding with Executioners Globally

“The Nazis were well aware of the protective wall of incredulity which surrounded their enterprise.” – Hannah Arendt49

Besides peddling historical lies to rehabilitate genocidal totalitarians of the past, neo-Stalinists notoriously run interference for authoritarian, neo-fascist, and (sub)imperialist States of today, if they judge them to be sufficiently “anti-imperialist”—by which these opportunists do not mean opposed to imperialism as such , but rather U.S. imperialism. Instead of internalizing Hensman’s critical points that “anti-imperialists [must] oppose all oppression by one country of another” and “understand that socialist internationalism demands solidarity with democratic revolutions, not with the counterrevolutions trying to crush them,” contemporary neo-Stalinists very typically adhere to a “campist” analysis, following Stalin’s identification of “the two camps” at the Potsdam conference of July 1945: the British and U.S. vs. the USSR.50 Overlaying the various complexities of international relations with a manichean worldview, Western neo-Stalinists prioritize Karl Liebknecht’s identification of the main enemy [being] at home”: whereas U.S. imperialism certainly must be opposed, their excessive attachment to this principle leads them often to the fallacious conclusion that popular uprisings against putative enemies of the U.S.—such as the Syrian Revolution, the Iranian revolt of late 2017 and early 2018, or the Ahwazi struggle for justice and self-determination—must be “CIA,” “Gulf,” or “Zionist” conspiracies. Given this framing, which is ideological rather than empirical or materialist, neo-Stalinists will implicitly—and evermore so recently, overtly—provide passive and/or active support for despots such as Bashar al-Assad, (the overthrown and now-defunct) Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. As such, they side with executioners, hence violating the basic responsibility Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky assigned to intellectuals—however much Chomsky himself appears to have violated this principle when it comes to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of thousands of Muslim Bosniak men and boys by Serbian ultra-nationalists.51 In light of Stalin’s mass-deportation of Muslims during World War II, and considering also the vile, potentially genocidal anti-Semitic campaign launched by the General Secretary toward life’s end, it should be clear how much of a continuity the neo-Stalinist “analysis” of popular uprisings against reactionary, pseudo-anti-imperialist regimes represents relative to Stalin’s own attitude toward “fifth columns” and putatively “disloyal elements.”

Indeed, substituting formulaic scripts for actual investigation, many neo-Stalinists of today completely fail on an analytical level to understand U.S. policy toward Syria. They ignore clear collaboration between the U.S. and the Assad Regime, from Hafez al-Assad’s deployment of 1500 Syrian troops to fight in Desert Storm against Saddam Hussein’s forces to Bashar al-Assad’s torture of ‘terror suspects’ detained by the U.S. in the ‘War on Terror.’52 Since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in March 2011, the U.S. has not been committed to overthrowing Assad and does not appear ever to have supported the democratic opposition against him. Yet prominent “tankies” in the media, including Ó Séaghdha himself, continue to hold that the U.S. empire seeks Assad’s downfall and his replacement with “Salafi-jihadists.” Yet this is the opposite of what the U.S. or Israel want. The “tank” zeal to blame the Syrian catastrophe on Western imperialism quite clearly overlooks the very obvious imperialist role played there by Russia, especially since September 2015, when Putin intervened decisively to save Assad’s Regime. Neo-Stalinists have nothing to say about the estimated 18,000 Syrian victims of Russian aerial bombardment, or the destruction of entire cities by the Russian air force. To accord with their campist perspective—and, indeed, continuing in their denialist pedigree regarding Stalin’s world-historical crimes—they deny Assad’s vast atrocities, from the extermination of detainees to the numerous occasions on which the Regime has resorted to using chemical weapons.

As such, they lend their support to neo-fascist and genocidal ruling classes, such as the Assad Regime, or as the neo-Stalinist propagandist and “Revolutionary Left Radio” veteran Ajit Singh does with regard to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): in August 2018, he co-authored with Ben Norton an infamous article on the campist disinformation site Grayzone which denies the well-documented mass-internment of indigenous Muslim Uighurs. It is simply a non-sensical piece, given that the official Chinese State newspaper, The Global Times, had already defended the suppression of the Uighurs two weeks before the Grayzone article was published by alluding to the supposed need to prevent the Xinjiang province from becoming “China’s Syria” or “China’s Libya.” Moreover, in early October, the Xinjiang government legalized the camps. To date, the Grayzone article’s fraudulent title continues to be “No, the UN Did Not Report China Has ‘Massive Internment Camps’ for Uighur Muslims,” and it does not appear that either Singh or Norton has published an update or a correction; indeed, the article is still live. How telling that these Stalinist ‘journalists’ are comfortable with legitimizing the neo-fascist war on truth, as reflected in Donald Trump’s belittling of “fake news.”

Whereas for most neo-Stalinists, support for Palestinian self-determination against Israeli settler-colonialism is a matter of principle, Hensman clearly identifies their opportunism when she asks:

“How can anyone who feels anguish when Palestinian children are targeted and killed in Gaza not feel anguish when Syrian children are targeted and killed in Aleppo?”53

This pointed question is implicitly raised in the new film A Private War (2018), which shows the American journalist Marie Colvin interviewing a Syrian mother with her young infant daughter in a bomb shelter in Homs in early 2012—sheltering, of course, from the Assad Regime’s indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas. While we would consider it very difficult to deny human solidarity to this oppressed Syrian mother, just the same as an oppressed Palestinian woman, neo-Stalinists are “quite prepared to sacrifice everybody’s vital immediate interests to the execution of what [they] assum[e] to be the law of History.”54 Everything else, from mass-death in Assad’s dungeons to mass-imprisonment of Uighurs in Chinese concentration camps, are details to them, whether historical or contemporary. Decisively, the CCP’s rationalization of its mass-internment of Muslim Uighurs very closely echoes Stalinist propaganda about and policy toward the supposedly “backward” Muslim peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus Mountains: note that Uighur Muslims have been cut off from the Ummah, just as Soviet Muslims were in Stalin’s era, and that the CCP, in seeking to forcibly divorce the Uighur youth from Islam, has consciously sought to suppress Uighur nationalism and the related possibility of independence for Eastern Turkestan, as Xinjiang is also known.

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A Soviet mosaic in Semey, Kazakhstan (Courtesy The Guardian)

In the U.S., it is the ill-named Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and the Workers’ World Party (WWP), together with their front-groups, such as the Act Now to End War and Stop Racism (ANSWER) Coalition and the International Action Center (IAC), that propagate neo-Stalinist and campist approaches to international relations, which inevitably end up translating into passive and/or active support for pseudo-anti-imperialist executioners. Yet it is not only the PSL, the WWP, ANSWER, or IAC which do so in the U.S.: just on Sunday, November 11, 2018, in Los Angeles, members of the similarly ill-named Peace and Freedom Party picketed a presentation about the Syrian Revolution and the occupation of Syria by Russia and Iran that was given by the Syrian pro-democratic activist Samir Twair, whose 39-year old brother was murdered by Assad’s forces in the notorious Sednaya prison, and hosted by LA Jews for Peace. While these “tank” trolls’ aggressive booing, hissing, and intimidation of the speaker during his presentation and the discussion which followed was lamentable enough, the sign one of them brought to the event (shown below) itself speaks volumes to the naked opportunism, ruthlessness, and atrocity-denial that today grips a part of the Western so-called left, reflecting the persistence of the shameful Stalinist legacy.

As Theodor W. Adorno observed correctly, “the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive.”

Screenshot_2018-11-18 Global Anarchy 🏴Ⓥ ( intlibecosoc) Twitter

Notes

1Arendt 388, 413.

2Plokhy 250-251.

3Ibid 253-254; Evtuhov 669.

4Evtuhov 675; Plokhy 252 (emphasis added).

5Arendt 447.

6Evtuhov 676.

7Lee 236.

8Evtuhov 642-644.

9Evtuhov 674.

10Ibid 674.

11Ian H. Birchall, Sartre against Stalinism (New York: Berghahn Books, 2004), 53.

12Arendt 464.

13Meyer 102.

14Evtuhov 675.

15Ibid 693.

16See for example Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1893), Resurrection (1899), or Hadji Murat (1912).

17Ivan Dragunovsky, “From the Book One of My Lives,” in Memoirs of Peasant Tolstoyans in Soviet Russia, trans. William Edgerton (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993), 251.

18Boris Mazurin, “The Life and Labor Commune: A History and Some Reflections,” in Memoirs of Peasant Tolstoyans in Soviet Russia, trans. William Edgerton (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993), 91-108; Dimitry Morgachëv, “My Life,” in Memoirs of Peasant Tolstoyans in Soviet Russia, trans. William Edgerton (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993), 177.

19Dragunovsky 252-257.

20Morgachëv 166-167, 171 (emphasis added).

21Evtuhov 642.

22Arendt 309n12-13.

23Evtuhov 723; Boena Szaynok, “The Anti-Jewish Policy of the USSR in the Last Decade of Stalin’s Rule and Its Impact of the East European Countries with Special Reference to Poland,” Russian History, 29, nos. 2-4 (2002), 302.

24Evtuhov 722-723; Szaynok 302-303.

25Evtuhov 723; Szaynok 303.

26Szaynok 310.

27Evtuhov 723; Szaynok 304.

28Evtuhov 728-729; Syaznok 305.

29Arendt xxxix-xl.

30Evtuhov 729.

31D. L. Brandenberger and A. M. Dubrovsky, “’The People Need a Tsar’: The Emergence of National Bolshevism as Stalinist Ideology, 1931-1941,” Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 50, no. 5 (1998), 873; Liu 8-13.

32Evtuhov 721.

33Brandenberger and Dubrovsky 874-881.

34Ibid 879.

35Evtuhov 722-723.

36Ibid 693.

37Brandenberger and Dubrovsky 882 (emphasis in original).

38Evtuhov 716-720.

39Szaynok 305-315.

40Evtuhov 729.

41Ibid 686-687.

42Ibid 711.

43Ibid 671.

44Gregory J. Massell, The Surrogate Proletariat (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 250.

45Ibid 275

46Ibid 284, 316, 320-325, 351-354.

47Evtuhov 755.

48Jean-Paul Deléage, “Eco-Marxist Critique of Political Economy,” in Is Capitalism Sustainable: Political Economy and the Politics of Ecology, ed. Martin O’Connor (New York: Guilford, 1994), 45.

49Arendt 437n124.

50Hensman 15 (emphasis in original); Evtuhov 717.

51Hensman 283.

52Reese Ehrlich, Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect (Amherst, Massachusetts: Prometheus Books, 2014), 71, 146-149.

53Hensman 284.

54Arendt 461.

On Internationalist Socialist Solidarity and Anti-Imperialism

August 27, 2018

Presentation at Left Coast Forum panel on imperialism and anti-imperialism, August 25, 2018

In light of the fate of the Syrian Revolution, which has now nearly been crushed entirely by the bloody counter-revolution carried out by Bashar al-Assad together with his Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese allies, there has been renewed debate on the global left regarding the meanings of imperialism and anti-imperialism, and the political implications these carry. Many authoritarians claiming leftism cross-over with the white-supremacist right’s open support for the Assad Regime by denying its crimes and overlooking the (sub)imperialist roles played by Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran in Syria, focusing exclusively on the U.S.’s supposed opposition to Assad’s rule.

This tendency is a worrisome development, suggestive as it is of a red-brown alliance (or axis) that is not consistently anti-imperialist or internationalist but rather, only opposed to U.S. imperialism. It also fails analytically to see how the U.S. has increasingly accommodated Assad’s ghastly ‘victory,’ as reflected in Donald Trump’s cutting off of the White Helmets in May and his non-intervention as Assad, Russia, and Iran defeated formerly U.S.-supported Free Syrian Army (FSA) units of the Southern Front, reconquering Der’aa, birthplace of the Revolution, and the remainder of the southwest last month. In stark contrast to such approaches, today we will discuss militarism and imperialism from anti-authoritarian and class framework-analyses.

Toward this end, I want to suggest that Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation’s definition of imperialism is apt: from their Point of Unity on Internationalism and Imperialism, Imperialism is a system where the state and elite classes of some countries use their superior economic and military power to dominate and exploit the people and resources of other countries.”1 This brutal concept applies clearly to contemporary and historical global practices which since 1492 primarily Western European and U.S. ruling classes have imposed onto much of the world, from the trans-Atlantic slave trade—this month marks 500 years—to colonial famines, genocide, military occupation, and settler-colonial regimes. Yet, more controversially among many so-called leftists who adhere to a ‘campist analysis,’ whereby the world is split up into competing military blocs,2 this concept of imperialism and its related concept of sub-imperialism can also be applied to the contemporary practices of the ruling classes of such societies as Russia, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, otherwise known as the BRICS. According to Rohini Hensman in her new book Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism (2018), the “pseudo-anti-imperialists” of today can be divided into three categories: tyrants, imperialists, and war criminals; the neo-Stalinists who openly support them; and Orientalist ‘progressives’ who focus exclusively on Western imperialism, to the exclusion of all other considerations, such as the agency of Middle Eastern peoples, as well as the realities of non-Western imperialism & sub-imperialism (47-52). For those to whom the concept may be unfamiliar, sub-imperialism is defined in the Marxist theory of dependency (MTD) as a process whereby a dependent or subordinate country becomes a “regional sub-centre,” unifies “different bourgeois factions by displacing internal contradictions, develops a “specific national and sub-imperialist political-ideological project,” forms and advances monopolies, and simultaneously transfers value to the core-imperialist countries while also exploiting materially and geopolitically weaker countries for the benefit of its bourgeoisie.3

The central military roles played by Putin and the Islamic Republic in rescuing the Assad Regime from defeat in the Syrian Revolution—and, indeed, their joint responsibility for the overall murder of 200,000 civilians and the forcible disappearance of over 80,000 Syrians in this enterprise over the past seven years, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), and as confirmed recently by Assad’s mass-release of death notices for detainees—thus starkly demonstrate pressing cases of imperialism and sub-imperialism on today’s global stage, yet in contrast to the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians just across Syria’s southwest border, it is apparently eminently controversial among U.S./Western neo-Stalinist ‘leftists’ to acknowledge the reactionary, authoritarian, and yes, (sub)imperialist functions served by Vladimir Putin and the Islamic Republic in propping up Assad,4 a neo-fascist who does not just rule over a ‘dictatorial regime’ but rather heads an exterminationist State, as the Syrian communist Yassin al-Hajj Saleh observes, and as the death toll attests to. According to Saleh:

“I do not talk about Syria because I happen to come from this country afflicted with one of the most brutal ruling juntas in the world today, nor because Syria is under multiple occupations while Syrians themselves are scattered around the world. Rather, I speak of Syria because the Syrian genocide is met by a state of global denial, where the left, the right, and the mainstream all compete with one another to avert their eyes and formulate cultural discourses, genocidal themselves, to help them see and feel nothing.”

The Russian Defense Ministry just announced on Wednesday, August 22, that 63,000 soldiers have fought in Syria in the past three years, while in June, Putin announced that Russian troops were “testing and training” in Syria so as to prevent a similar situation arising in Russia proper. (Does this sound to anyone like Dick Cheney talking about Iraq?) Hence, in light of the effective occupation of Syria perpetrated by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and other Shi’a militias (e.g. Liwa Fatemiyoun) to prop up the regime, taken together with their attendant contributions to what Saleh calls the Syrian genocide—a counter-insurgent reaction which others have termed ‘democidal’—it is my view, and I believe that of my co-panelists, that several of the struggles against Assad, Putin, and the Islamic Republic of Iran form critical parts of the global anti-imperialist movement which by definition resists militarism and regional and transnational domination and exploitation. If human rights are the “tribunal of history” and their end (or goal) the construction of an ethical and political utopia,5 these regimes, in parallel to Western imperialism, are on the wrong side of history. In accordance with the conclusion of Hensman’s book, democratic movements like the Iranian popular revolts of early 2018; the ongoing Ahwazi mobilizations for socio-ecological justice; those of feminists and political prisoners in all three countries; and Russian Antifa, among others, demand our support and solidarity as socialists. Of course, anti-imperialist forces should continue to oppose established Euro-American imperialism and settler-colonialism—“the main enemy is at home,” as Karl Liebknecht declared in 1915, denouncing what he termed the ‘genocide’ of World War I6—together with the neo-colonial crimes of allied autocracies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Yemen today. Liebknecht’s statement notwithstanding, we must recall that he in no way supported the Tsar or other imperialist rivals of the German State, but the Russian Revolution instead.

Therefore, a truly humanist form of anti-imperialism today cannot exclude the Syrian, Russian, and Iranian regimes from critique and, it is to be hoped, support for organization toward their ultimate demise.7 The atrocity-denialism engaged in by many self-styled ‘progressives’ and ‘leftists’ in the West when it comes to the Assad Regime, as identified by Leila al-Shami and others, is abhorrent. If we really believe as internationalists and egalitarians that each human life has equal dignity and value, we must play no part in it.8

For our own sake and for the sake of the global revolution, too, it would behoove us to examine the actual affinities between the Trump Regime and Putin, which span allegations of collusion or conspiracy during the 2016 election to Trump’s very obvious servility before the former FSB chief at the Helsinki Summit of July 2018, besides Trump’s aforementioned withdrawal of U.S. support for the Syrian rebels, a move that may well have been coordinated with Russia as an affirmation on Trump’s part of Assad’s ghoulish campaign to retake the entire country.

Appendix:

The red-brown axis certainly has its precedents: the historian Marko Attila Hoare has correctly diagnosed several self-described Euro-American ‘anti-imperialists’ as being ‘left-revisionists’ who reject the orthodox Western view that holds Serbian nationalism to be the primary aggressor in the Balkan wars of the 1990’s that led to the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Muslim Bosniaks and Kosovar Albanians, as reflected in the so-called leftist intellectuals and publications (Noam Chomsky, Diana Johnstone, CounterPunch) who effectively supported the embattled ultra-nationalist Serbian president, Slobodan Milošević, for his ‘resistance’ to the US/NATO, thus betraying their campism where we should expect humanist solidarity with those victimized by Serbian expansionism.

Rohini Hensman argues as an alternative to established pseudo-anti-imperialism that we pursue and tell the truth; critique ideologies that delegitimize democracy and promote authoritarianism; reaffirm the morality of resisting oppression and proclaiming solidarity with the victims of violence; place internationalism center-stage; and consider reforms to State sovereignty in light of mass-slaughter and the absence of democracy.

Notes

1This definition differs somewhat from Lenin’s definition of imperialism as “the monopoly stage of capitalism,” whereby the merging of big banks and industry exists inevitably alongside “a colonial policy of monopolist possession of the territory of the world.” It does not contradict Lenin’s subsequent redefinition in the same text: “Imperialism is the epoch of finance capital and of monopolies, which introduce everywhere the striving for domination, not for freedom. Whatever the political system, the result of these tendencies is everywhere reaction and an extreme intensification of antagonisms in this field. Particularly intensified become the yoke of national oppression and the striving for annexations, i.e., the violation of national independence (for annexation is nothing but the violation of the right of nations to self-determination).”

2Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), World Workers’ Party (WWP), World Socialist Website (WSWS), Max Blumenthal, Rania Khalek, Vanessa Beeley (actually fascist), Seymour Hersh, “Revolutionary Left Radio,” Glenn Greenwald, and others.

3Adrián Sotelo Valencia, Sub-Imperialism Revisited: Dependency Theory in the Thought of Ruy Mauro Marini, trans. Jacob Lagnado (Haymarket Books: Chicago, 2017), 67-8.

4By BRRN’s definition, above; also cf. Rudolf Hilferding, cited in Lenin’s “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism”: “European capital can maintain its domination only by continually increasing its military forces.”

5Costas Douzinas, The End of Human Rights (Hart Publishing: Oxford, 2000), 380.

6“International proletarian class struggle against international imperialist genocide is the socialist commandment of the hour.”

7See Asr Anarshism’s open campaign to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran.

8See the conclusions of a lab working for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which confirm use of sarin gas from regime stockpiles in Ghouta (2013), Khan Sheikhoun (2017), and Khan al-Assal (2013). According to OPCW findings, it was chlorine, not sarin, that was used in the chemical attack on Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in April 2018.

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.

Rebellion and Prefiguration against Refeudalization and Saktiná

December 22, 2015

Marcuse_74_ParisPublished on Heathwood Press, 21 December 2015

In Salisbury, Maryland, from Thursday 12 November 2015 to Saturday the 14th, the sixth biennual International Herbert Marcuse Society conference took place: “Praxis and Critique: Liberation, Pedagogy, and the University.” Held at Salisbury University (SU), the conference was hosted by Professor Sarah Surak. It was comprised of approximately 23 panels, together with a few workshops—notably including a collective art-making effort to “Express Your Fantasies,” inspired in part by reflecting on the above image of Marcuse speaking in Paris. The convergence brought together a number of radical philosophers and activists who spoke on historical and contemporary struggles and their relationship to Critical Theory, the Frankfurt School theorists—particularly Herbert Marcuse, of course—Marxism, and anarchism.

At the panel on “Critical Theory in the Twenty-First Century” held on Friday afternoon, speakers reflected on the meaning of Critical Theory today: the question of its relevance for the present world, and its relationship to the project of liberatory social transformation. Professor Arnold Farr, host of the 2013 Marcuse Society conference at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, spoke to the multiple sites of oppression in capitalist society—race, gender, and sexuality, alongside class—that constitute the various contradictions through which capitalist society is “shot through.” In parallel, Farr identified the cycle whereby critique opens the possibility of change, while the possibility of change helps critique along in turn. Co-panelist Lauren Langman then observed that Critical Theory and its theorists should be primarily concerned with three matters: critiquing society, promoting open-mindedness, and having a vision. He optimistically observed that the strength of the transnational capitalist class is “based on a bowl of jello,” and that humanity “will get a better society” eventually. Stefan Gandler, author of Critical Marxism in Mexico, discussed autonomous Mexican movements, including the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), other armed left-wing guerrilla forces, and the mass-popular resistance evinced throughout the country in response to the State’s forcible disappearance of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in September 2014, as well as the popular mobilizations that undermined the heavy-handed response the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) initially had launched against the EZLN during the latter’s insurrection of January 1994. In terms of militarism and non-cooperation, Gandler mentioned that several Mexican Army units refused to follow orders mandating suppression of the Zapatista rebellion, thus greatly limiting the amount of blood shed during the twelve days of war. Andrew Lamas, host of the 2011 “Critical Refusals” conference at the University of Pennsylvania, affirmed the continued relevance of W. E. B. Du Bois’ analysis, emphasizing that capitalism can only be overcome in unison with the abolition of white supremacy.

Simultaneously, on the “Rationalizing Environments” panel, SU undergraduate student Jake O’Neil examined environmental and “green” discourse, posing the question, “Is Going Green Enough?” Applying a Marcusean analysis of one-dimensionality, instrumental reason, and the performance principle to the ever-failing project of attempting to “solve” the ecological crisis within the strictures of capital and the State, O’Neil provided a genealogy of the rise of “green consumerism” and the “green economy” over the past generation, contrasting the colonization of the concept from its original association with anti-capitalist politics. Once one becomes enthralled to green consumerism, one’s commitment to a better future is individualized and commodified, thus serving the end of recuperation—that is to say, falsely to integrate the contradictions of capitalism, in turn shoring up that very same system. O’Neil’s clearly Marcusean alternative is to “open up” the realm of environmental discourse, subject hegemonic approaches to critique, and hence allow for “the possibility of liberating, radical change”: namely, a global transformation propelled by the flowering of a Marcusean “new sensibility” among the general populace that would valorize the importance of all terrestrial and marine life, in place of the prevailing valorization of capital and destruction.

Meanwhile, at the panel “Popular Culture and Prefigurative Politics—on which the Brazilian Marcuse scholar Imaculada Kangussu addressed the question of how art can help to advance the new sensibility and provoke “inner revolutions”—John-Patrick Schultz intervened on “Walter Benjamin and Prefigurative Politics: The Utopian Hermeneutic of Space.” Schultz opened immediately by juxtaposing the Benjaminian concept of the “dialectical image”—whereby “capitalist materiality converges with radically democratic possibility” through direct action and decolonization—with the 30 November 1999 (“N30”) actions taken by the ACME collective, the anarchist Black Bloc, and the Global Justice Movement (GJM) as a whole against the World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Seattle—otherwise known as the “Battle of Seattle.” The speaker stressed how the GJM instituted prefigurative politics in its actions, seeking not a utopian futural break with capital but instead the immediate founding of “an alternative social order” based on direct or horizontal democracy—these being demands and orientations that “reject[ed] the idea that there can be no other future and provid[ed] a concrete illustration of that alternative.” In Benjaminian terms, Schultz detects in the anti-WTO protests in Seattle and in the recent “movement of squares” of 2011 to the present a “surviving historical desire for democratic social control.” Through their prefiguration of a “novel future,” Schultz emphasized, such movements disprove David Harvey’s questionable claim in Rebel Cities (2013) that autonomous, decentralized models of opposition are incapable of presenting a serious challenge to capitalism and the State. Instead, as Schultz writes, their “utopian hermeneutic […] entails a highly antagonistic demand for collective, egalitarian enjoyment [that is] wholly at odds with neoliberalism” and the capitalist system.

On the evening of Friday the 13th, a number of conference-goers attended a reception at an art gallery in downtown Salisbury, featuring a number of beautiful surrealistic paintings by Antje Wichtrey that appear in the volume Versprechen, dass e sanders sein kann (“Promises that it can be different”), edited by Peter Erwin-Jansen. Besides this, the gallery exhibited works that had been created by graduate students attending the “Express Your Fantasies” workshop on Thursday. Apparently, the discrepancy seen between the original Marcuse photograph discovered in the Paris lectures that served as the conference’s main image and the edited version reproduced by the university administration on campus—one lacking the graffiti depicting female breasts, as above—inspired many of the students to express artistic fantasies involving breasts. In addition, those assembled at the gallery celebrated the birthday of Herbert’s son Peter that night—in the presence of Peter himself and his wife—but negatively, it was while we were indulging in art and enjoying the gathering that we first learned about the attacks in Paris. One of the participants made an announcement about the scores of lives taken, and he invited conference-goers to share in a collective discussion about the events and their likely impacts on war, international relations, and the fate of refugees at lunch-time the next day.

At our Saturday morning panel on “Post-Soviet Marxism: Marcuse in the Developing World,” George Katsiaficas began with a presentation on “Eurocentric Views of Civil Society.” Katsiaficas argued that the established power of Western capitalism has often led to the repression of consideration of alternative views of the meaning of civil society, especially in non-bourgeois and non-Western terms. He offered the politeness and fairness of Confucian social norms on hand in Korea and the enlightening thought of Islamic thinkers like Ibn Rushd (Averroës, 1126-1198 CE) and Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) as promotive of different forms of individuality. Furthermore, he mentioned the early republican governance structure of Lugash under Gudea in classical Mesopotamia (ca. 2144-2124 BCE) as well as the assembly-based republics that arose along the Ganges River from approximately 600 to 300 BCE, together with the parallel birth of Buddhism and Jainism as more egalitarian off-shoots of Hinduism. Moreover, the investigator declared forthrightly that the “theory of Oriental despotism” which permeates much of Western political sociology vastly underplays the very real Western despotism imposed on the non-Western world through imperialism—as starkly illustrated in the estimated 10 million Asians who were murdered by the U.S. military during the twentieth century. Katsiaficas remarked that civil society played an enormously important role in the Gwanju Commune (1980), adding that it still has a great task to accomplish today, in light of the propulsion of domination—the “gangsters running society” and “freedom of war and private property”—intensifying reification and what Jürgen Habermas has called outright “refeudalization” of the globe. I then followed, examining Marcuse’s views on authority and the transition away from capitalism—the question of whether the critical theorist is more in keeping with anarchism and libertarian socialism or Jacobinism and authoritarian socialism. Though the answer is not entirely clear, given the ambiguity Marcuse expressed at times about the need for an “intellectual” or “education” dictatorship to lead humanity and history out of the capitalist impasse, my view is that Marcuse’s political philosophy is more consistently libertarian than authoritarian—it is more concerned with decentralization and autonomy than temporary or “transitional” dictatorship. This is clear from “Protosocialism and Late Capitalism: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis Based on Bahro’s Method” (1979), Marcuse’s last essay. Still, like the EZLN, which has a political system governed by assemblies and a parallel military command-structure, Marcuse may have felt that there was some degree of a need for both: a “Committee for Public Safety” alongside mass-popular intervention and the creation of the commune. Next, comrade Nick Zeller spoke on the fascinating case of Marxism in Thailand, a cause advanced by one Jit Phumisak, who originally and dialectically had been contracted by the CIA to translate Capital into Thai in an attempt to pressure the Chakri monarchy to take evermore authoritarian-repressive measures against the regional specter of agrarian and proletarian revolution. While translating and thus confronting Marx’s work on political economy, Phumisak himself became a communist militant. He went on to write The Face of Thai Feudalism (1957) and was for this reason imprisoned. After being released, Phumisak joined Thai communist guerrillas—this being a commitment that would lead to his martyrdom in battle against the State. Zeller shared the radical theorist’s analysis of the joint exploitation of the Thai masses, as prosecuted by imperialism and feudalism (saktiná); discussed the similarities and differences between this analysis and that of Marx’s views on non-Western societies like India and Russia; and related the stress Phumisak placed on an alliance between the peasantry and the small but expanding industrial proletariat of Thailand and Southeast Asia in overthrowing the “Western saktiná stage” of world-history. Zeller even mentioned the possibility of engaging in historiography from the vantage point of “saktiná history”—that is, of analyzing history as domination and the struggle against it. Such could be a dialectical counterpart to the “dharma history” or “Bodhisattva history” Kim Stanley Robinson envisions in his alternate-history book, The Years of Rice and Salt: namely, “any history that believed there was progress toward some goal making itself manifest in the world [… or] which suggested that there were enlightened cultures that had sprung ahead somehow, and then gone back to the rest and worked to bring them forward […]” (Stanley Robinson, 2002, p. 733).

At the panel “Biopolitical Spaces of Resistance and Domination,” Jennifer Lawrence presented on critical artworks developed in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the emancipatory potential for aesthetic eco-resistance as a means of speaking to truth to power and its propaganda in a talk called “In Order Not to Die from the Truth: Disaster, Art, Resistance.” Lawrence’s co-panelist James Stanescu then expounded on stupidity, rationality, and animality. He noted that we humans cannot suppress our similarity with the other animals with whom we have co-evolved: that children cannot but recognize themselves in apes and vice versa, and that the interest we take in clowns, metaphysics, and the aesthetic dimension reflects our prehistorical, primordial animality. The “idiot,” in the sense of an intellectually challenged person, slows everything down, and asks the questions which need answering. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote, it is a question of becoming-minor, or “becoming-animal.” Stanescu cited Marcuse’s observation in One-Dimensional Man (1964) that materialism demands the overcoming of the ill-treatment of non-human animals in the historical process, and that our profound commonality with the other animals should lead us to conceive of our own selves as potential “meat,” and thus to reject speciesism on the one hand while practically adopting veganism or vegetarianism on the other. Alexander Stoner spoke next on “Human-Ecological Transformation and Contemporary Ecological Subjectivity,” addressing the dynamics of capitalism and discontents revolving around catastrophic climate change and the environmental crisis writ large. Taking an historical view, Stoner examined the challenges presented by environmentalism during the third quarter of the twentieth century (1950-1975), as more people came to question the superfluousness of work and the utter irrationality of environmental destructiveness, but he noted how the realm of necessity re-asserted itself in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis and “stagflation,” much as the Empire strikes back. Stoner spoke to the seeming paradox of increased environmental attention and concern amidst accelerating planetary degradation, and asked whether, as eco-crisis becomes increasingly apparent, the causes of this crisis are becoming increasingly illusory. Stoner took Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014) to task in this sense, for Klein identifies the problem as neoliberal capitalism—a surface phenomenon—rather than the capitalist system as such. The speaker expressed concern that radical environmentalists who fail to advance the understanding that it is capitalism which is the problem—as expressed, for example, in Allan Schnaiberg’s formulation of the “treadmill of production”—we will in fact run the risk of enabling capital. Stoner nonetheless conceded that Klein’s examination of the alternative represented by “Blockadia” has value, though he clearly indicated the superiority of anti-capitalist analyses that concern themselves with the productive apparatus, as compared with primarily redistributional approaches like social democracy or Keynesianism.

During the final session Saturday afternoon, SU Professor Michael O’Loughlin gave a presentation on “Dispelling Ideology: Marx, Marcuse, and Chomsky.” During this talk, O’Loughlin principally counterposed the philosophies of Marcuse and Chomsky, stressing that the former—that is to say, the Marcuse of One-Dimensional Man—is far more pessimistic than Chomsky, who believes that the various problematics of capitalism and domination can be resolved through progressive activism and anarcho-syndicalism. Whereas Marx believed the subject in struggle to be the proletariat, Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man more or less expresses the thought that false consciousness is all-consuming, that class-consciousness is marginal, and that there is “No Exit” from the capitalist hell. Yet O’Loughlin conceded in passing that, by the time Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation (1969) had been published, numerous radical movements had arisen across the globe to challenge regnant one-dimensionality. The professor argued that Chomsky, throughout his sustained and productive career as radical public intellectual, has sought to undermine ruling mystifications through empirical “takedowns” which activate public reason and the instinct for freedom he, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believes humans innately to possess, as well as by promoting alternative modes of social organization rooted in equality, justice, and democracy. Chomsky’s intellectual and political activism was portrayed as following from the dissident’s faith in ordinary’s people capacity for reason and his belief that intellectuals must be with “the people,” and that the revolution will be made by everyday people themselves. Though O’Loughlin did not explicitly proclaim the inverse of such comments—that is, that Marcuse was an aloof elitist and authoritarian who despaired of the people’s incapacity for critical thought and revolutionary social transformation—it was to a degree implied, however great a distortion of Marcuse’s life and work such an interpretation would be! It is quite unjust to limit “Marcuse” to his most pessimistic book, One-Dimensional Man, and to suggest that he, like Vladimir Lenin or the Jacobins, did not believe that the common people proper were capable of changing the world. One need only consult Marcuse’s 1978 conversation with Habermas and company, “Theory and Politics,” to be freed of such an illusion, for in this intervention, the critical theorist declares faithfully that “everyone knows what is necessary,” and that the truth of a revolutionary general will and “the possibilities for its realization” are demonstrable to all (Marcuse et al. 1978/1979, pp. 136-138).

O’Loughlin concluded his presentation by considering three future scenarios for the U.S. in January 2016: the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, thus confirming the deepest pessimism of One-Dimensional Man; the alternate presidential inauguration of Bernie Sanders, an eventuality which O’Loughlin believed would be consonant with the spirit of Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation; and the inauguration of Hillary Rodham Clinton, signifying a compromise between these two options, and a “partial” victory for social movements, in O’Loughlin’s analysis. Whatever the outcome of the elections, though, it ultimately remains puzzling to associate Marcuse with electoral politics at all, given his well-established emphasis on extra-parliamentary opposition as the primary means of historical progress.

 

References

Marcuse, H, Habermas, J, Lubasz, H, & Spengler, T. (1978/1979). “Theory and Politics,” Telos 38.

Stanley Robinson, K. (2002). The Years of Rice and Salt. New York: Bantam.

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

September 18, 2014

 grabbingback

[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.

After the Climate Movement: Ecology and Politics in the 21st Century (1/2)

September 12, 2014

grabbingback

[This is part one of a two-part interview. The next part is forthcoming.]

Also published on Counterpunch, 15 September 2014

Edited by Counterpunch regular Alexander Reid Ross and newly published by AK Press, Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab assembles a formidable collection of articles and reports written by scholars and activists from North and South alike who are concerned with the distressing acceleration of massive land-expropriations executed by capitalist interests in recent years. Otherwise known as the “New Scramble for Africa,” the “New Great Game,” or the “Global Land Rush,” the global land grab has involved the acquisition by foreign power-groups of anywhere between 56 and 203 million hectares of lands belonging to Southern societies since the turn of the millennium. The corporations responsible for this massive privatization scheme hail from both wealthy and middle-income countries: India, South Korea, Israel, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, China, and the U.S., among others.

In part, the global land grab can be explained by the progression of ecological degradation, particularly through climate change, as combined with the desire of the ruling classes of these countries to ensure food security for their populations—the fate of local populations in the countries whose lands are colonized for export-oriented production be damned. Another factor has to do with the vast concentration of wealth in the hands of the transnational financial aristocracy, who are lending out capital less readily now during the Great Recession than before, such that they have more capital on hand with which to invest in overseas land ventures. However, not all the territory which has been usurped by corporations and banks of late is to be dedicated exclusively to food production; much of it instead will be directed toward the cultivation of agrofuels (biofuels) that are slated to replace petroleum to a limited extent as a base or transitional fossil fuel, with this being a situation that can be expected greatly to exacerbate food insecurity and starvation in the countries whose governments welcome (re)colonization. The scale of investment in agrofuels is truly staggering, in light of plans to occupy almost 6 percent of the territory of Liberia and 10 percent of that of Sierra Leone with African palm plantations; a similar if more immediately acute dynamic is unfolding in Indonesia and Malaysia, whose vast swathes of tropical rainforests are being expeditiously torn down in favor of palm oil crops. Summarized briefly and correctly by Sasha and Helen Yost, this process is one whereby land-based communities are dispossessed in order to “feed the industrial nightmare of climate change.”

The focus of Grabbing Back, as the title suggests, however, is not exclusively to analyze the machinations of global capital, but rather much more to investigate a multitude of forms of resistance to the land grab, from militant ecological direct actions to port strikes and land occupations (or decolonizations). Bringing together such dissident writers as Vandana Shiva, Silvia Federici, Benjamin Dangl, Andrej Grubačić, Noam Chomsky, Max Rameau, scott crow, and Grace Lee Boggs, Grabbing Back presents a number of critically important perspectives on resisting the land grab in particular and global capitalism in general. It is with great pleasure, then, that I have had the opportunity to interview Sasha on the magnificent volume he has edited.

Sasha, your editorial introduction to Grabbing Back frames the collection of essays within a tour de force overview of what you see as the most important factors driving the global land grab. You list these origins—quite rightly, in my view—as climate change, financial speculation, the “Great Recession” of 2008, resource scarcity and extractivist policies and orientations, as well as established imperialist history. Of these, I would like to examine the last of these concerns, in light of the clearly neo-colonial implications of mass-capitalist land expropriations today.

Given that empire is yet to be abolished, analyses of past experiments in European colonialism are quite germane to the present predicament, as you observe, like Hannah Arendt did before you in The Origins of Totalitarianism. The madman capitalist Cecil B. Rhodes, who sought to found a “Red” (or British) Africa from the Cape of Good Hope to the Nile Delta, is famous for his saying that he would “annex the planets if [he] could.” The domination and enslavement of peoples of color seen in formal colonialism, coupled with the mass-suffering, deprivation, and super-exploitation of said peoples for which neoliberalism and the “Mafia Doctrine” are responsible, has severely constrained the latitude which Southern societies have been able to exercise in terms of alternatives to capital in the modern and postcolonial periods.

Within the schools of political economy and critical development studies, this problematic is known as the “path dependence” imposed by historical circumstance:1 for humans “make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances already existing, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon [1852]). Please discuss examples of resistance to the imposition of thanotic capital, as examined in Grabbing Back and beyond.

The three discursive positions of the Mafia Doctrine, Dependency Theory, and Marxism that you cite are extremely important in breaking down, or attempting to understand, the critical movements against land grabs around the world, and they each encircle one another in a growing overview of the processes at work. I think we can approach this triad with a claim that resistance to the Global Land Grab, and the capitalist process of accumulation outlined above, might counter the dominant paradigm with a three-part response.

1. From what I have observed, virtually every position against the current swathe of land grabs formulates itself as a small community-led movement, linked to one another by a generalized refusal of the schema of globalization. Not every movement has achieved the kind of generality necessary to comprise a mass rejection of the system, as with the People Power movements that swept through the Asia Pacific in the 1980s and the rise of Latin American populism in the late 1990s, but they all reject the position of North Atlantic hegemony. 

2. Neocolonial dependency is at the heart of the Global Land Grab, which is essentially becoming a hegemonic struggle over resources between the growing BRICS sphere of influence and the NATO bloc. As has been shown in the Central Africa Republic, both during the Scramble for Africa and today, Imperialist countries are perfectly happy to watch a country implode, as long as their resources stay out of the hands of Imperialist rivals. Resistance to the Global Land Grab, therefore, can emerge within a developmentalist paradigm as a kind of radical synthesis of a movement that is antithetical to globalization. This is what we see in Bolivia and Ecuador today, where Indigenous peoples are rising up against the developmentalist model forwarded by governments who seek to remain independent from the North Atlantic, but cannot maintain their integrity as sovereign nations without making concessions to capital.

3. The problem with transforming the diplomatic relations of a nation state lies in the continuing failure of the model of the nation state, itself, which is what Marx points to in the 18th Brumaire. So the last position that I would say that many resistance movements take to the Global Land Grab is one of tacit refusal, not only of globalization and of developmentalism (or extractivism), but of the idea of diplomatic relations as they stand today. It is as impossible for the idea of the nation state to move “beyond capital” as it is for the modern field of geo-politics (developed at the turn of the 20th Century by German nationalists) to recognize alternative forms of power. For this reason, I would argue, many formations of resistance to the Global Land Grab share characteristics of what Maia Ramnath calls a kind of “decolonizing anarchism.”2

So this triad of (1) resistance to neoliberalism, (2) formulation of alternate diplomatic articulation, and (3) rejection of the geopolitical paradigm is somewhat interpenetrating, moving, it would appear, from generality to particularity in one perspective (generally against globalization, specifically towards the slogan “a new world is possible”) and then in the opposite direction from another perspective (specifically against globalization and generally in favor of what Chatterjee calls “timeless” liberation outside of historicity).3

Ward Anseeuw and Mike Taylor’s essay in Grabbing Back on “Factors Shaping the Global Land Rush” identifies the Weberian tendency toward neo-patrimonialism as contributing to the “corruption” of the authorities who facilitate land expropriations in the global South, and they furthermore point to a lack of decentralization of power; a widespread institutional disregard for the customary, informal, and usufruct property regimes utilized by the majority of the world’s rural denizens; statist ideological and policy biases against small-holder agriculture in favor of industrialization and the maximization of growth; and a brutally business-oriented global governance structure—as manifested for example in the World Trade Organization (WTO), the myriad treaties on investment, and the machinations of international commercial arbitration bodies—as other key drivers of the present land grab. Concluding their article, Anseeuw and Taylor close by highlighting the greatly accelerated trend toward foreign expropriation of territory in the global South since 2005, and they grimly observe that “today’s enhanced investor interest in land resources is unlikely to go away for the foreseeable future” (my emphasis). Would you say that you agree with such an assessment? In one of your editorial sections, you do write that “[w]hat we have to look forward to, then, is a twenty-first century full of oil palm land grabs.”

It is a pretty terrible situation, and I can’t pretend to predict the future. In Thailand, just a few months after a military coup overthrew the democratically elected, populist government of Yingluck Shinawatra [in May 2014], the military junta installed a new constitution, put into place a fully-military cabinet, abolished the farm subsidy program, and announced an agricultural switch to palm oil plantations in the South where most of the insurgency is happening. At the same time, people in countries like Liberia and Indonesia continue to fight the spread of multinational corporations’ oil palm land grabs on their land, while the REDD+ climate accords seem to be opening the door for more transformation of biodiverse forests into monocrop palm oil plantations. In the US, something like half of agricultural land is going to be put on the market over the next 20 years, and Wall Street is more than interested. As long as palm oil is seen as a solution to the climate crisis, the demand will increase, and so will the number and size of plantations. As long as the financialization of markets, the deregulation on derivatives and speculation on commodities continues, food crises and the accumulation of capital will continue apace. It’s not just a question of resource scarcity; it’s about waste, overproduction, and the unequal distribution of knowledge and power through capitalism.

In her essay for Grabbing Back, “Women, Land-Struggles, and Globalization: An International Perspective,” Silvia Federici highlights the global participation of women in forest-defense and reafforestation struggles—Chipko in northern India and the “Green Belt Movement,” for instance—and she notes the crucial contributions made by the world’s female subsistence farmers, who ensure that billions of our sisters and brothers survive while instituting organic, anti-capitalist practices that hold great promise as regards the cause of self-management. Similarly, in “Black Women on the Edge,” Keisha-Khan Y. Perry and Cristina da Silva Caminha converse on a black women’s uprising for land and housing rights in Gamboa de Baixo, Brazil, which has resulted in a process that has significantly expanded ordinary women’s economic and sexual freedoms in that community. How do you see militant feminism and women’s liberation movements intervening to disrupt the vast concentrations of power and wealth of our day?

I think that these movements for gender and sexual liberation are absolutely essential. What Keisha-Khan Y. Perry and Cristina da Silva Caminha show us in their discussion is that the fight for land binds these women together through a shared sense of place, giving them greater power within their community to stand against patriarchy not only in the city, but in their small enclave. Really, I think that like Mike Taylor and Ward Anseeuw say, the struggle against extractivism has become a struggle against neo-patrimonialism as well as patriarchy; it is a struggle, in Uganda for instance, against the combination of witch trials and antihomosexuality laws that are instigated and encouraged through US religious-right groups like the abhorrent International House of Prayer (IHOP).4

In her essays, Federici shows that women are so often in the lead as to become the object of repression when the corporation or State (or both) want to take over, and as Fanon noted in Wretched of the Earth, adulterated tradition often becomes the fulcrum by which colonial power is able to deploy a “native” population against itself. The sense of standing up on one’s own, being joined by a community of participants, and working to establish a sense of place and self-management is really what is at the heart of the resistance movements that we are discussing in Grabbing Back, and the leadership of powerful feminisms of Vandana Shiva, Helen Yost, Federici, Perry, and da Silva Caminha have been important in guiding my own thought and action.

Graham Peebles presents a moving anti-authoritarian analysis of the Ethiopian State’s forcible displacement (“resettlement” or “villagization”) of hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples from the southwestern Gambella region and the Lower Omo Valley to make way for massive foreign-owned export-oriented agricultural schemes and a hydroelectric megaproject named Gibe III, respectively, in “Destructive Development and Land Sales in Ethiopia.” Indeed, in some ways this essay brings to mind the chapter James C. Scott dedicates in Seeing Like a State (1998) to the mass-forcible resettlement campaigns engaged in by Julius Nyerere’s authoritarian-socialist government in Tanzania (1973-1976), which are not so different the State-led agricultural collectivization imposed by the Derg that overthrew Haile Selassie in Ethiopia itself (1974). Yet Peebles closes his report for Grabbing Back by hailing the prospect of a legal case against the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) for its contributions to the financing of the Gibe III project, and he waxes almost utopian about the obligations which all involved parties—the Ethiopian State, foreign investors, DFID, and the World Bank—have as regards the people whose fundamental rights they are violating through dispossession. My question to you in this case, as in the case of the land grab more generally and naked power politics or Realpolitik broadly conceived, is what potential—if any—you see in legalistic and incrementalist approaches to accountability for corporate and State crimes and the larger struggle for anti-systemic social change?

I’m glad you brought up Julius Nyerere. It is hard to disagree with Scott. I believe very strongly, as he does, that it is important to create dewesternizing models of power. The difference between Nyerere’s villagizaton project in Tanzania and what we are seeing in Ethiopia now is that the former was an attempt to modernize and generate a technical base for the subjective engagement in global hegemony, such that the IMF and World Bank could be avoided. It did not work, in the end, but Nyerere stood out as a symbol of resistance to the debt crisis when much of the Global South had been submerged in crisis.5

In a way, Nyerere’s ideal was a kind of autogestion, but of course its failure was that the government cannot mandate autogestion. I would almost venture to say that the neo-Sandinistas are closer to Nyerere’s ideals, although they have followed it up with a far less modernist (and more egalitarian) appraisal of how to “do” land reform. Of course, on the other hand, when you think of Nicaragua today, you think of the huge canal that a Chinese aristocrat has decided to cut through the land, which would have drastic consequences for Lake Cocibolca and the Rama and Garifuna communities. This is why state politics is always “dancing with dynamite,” in the phrase that Ben Dangl uses.

Is there the possibility for some accountability for egregious offenders through state and international entities? Yes, but only when it’s “in their interests.” Take the trial of the leaders of the RUF [Revolutionary United Front, i.e. anti-government opposition in Sierra Leone], for example. The trial was not controversial in the North Atlantic. Clearly these people had engaged in the training and deployment of child soldiers, and numerous atrocities were executed in their names. Yet, the trials came only after the leaders disarmed the RUF and engaged in a successful peace process; how unheard of is it to undergo a peace process in good faith, and then try and convict the leaders of the combating force?6 Yes, they are international violators of human rights and should be convicted, but it seems as though that frame of mind only works when you also have to look at the hypocrisy of the countries involved in the convicting—do the leaders of the US and EU not have war crimes executed in their names? Should they not also be held accountable? If there is such a thing as justice, then of course they should.

This is the same argument that Ahjamu Umi makes in Grabbing Back about people of color, mostly African American youths, sent to prison for emulating the gangsterism of the bankers, lobbyists, and politicians—did they do something wrong? Yes. But what about the rich who are getting away with the same kind of crime, only on a far grander scale? It goes back to the British imperialist Benjamin Disraeli’s famous missive, “what is a crime among the multitude is only a vice among the few.” The racist prison industry and militarization of the police is part of the transformation of the spatial composition of the city and the disempowerment of communities of color, which has been going on since the 1970s, and is precisely what we are seeing with police harassment in places like Furgeson. The same paradigm goes on in the diplomatic arena for all to see when the US points out a humanitarian crisis (Libya in 2011, for instance) that it’s in its interests to solve (through more civilian bloodshed, of course).

The problem of universal justice is where the flaws in international institutions always lie, and why it is critical to maintain organizational distance from them, even when working within or with them. Who defines justice, freedom, virtue, liberation?—these are all questions that boil down to hegemony. But I don’t see a complete separation from state apparatuses as exigent; if I believed that, I would say our movement doesn’t need lawyers or professors, workers who practice their values on the shop floor, and so on. You have written about Robespierre in the past; do you believe in an antagonistic force against the state, or do you believe that a “State of Virtue” can be established, as he did?

I think this “State of Virtue” is a very interesting idea. Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, Robespierre’s youthful lieutenant in the Committee of Public Safety, famously desired virtue and reason to come to be instituted by popular custom, rather than merely be mandated from above—as from the Committee of Public Safety itself! Idealistically, Robespierre and Saint-Just believed the people to act as a sort of reservoir for reason and virtue, such that history is not indefinitely compromised if the counter-revolution is seen to be hegemonic. One must contrast the hopes that the most radical Jacobins and the members of the Committee had for France as well as European and world history with the disagreeable means they resorted to in self-defense—in defense of the Revolution, or simply for self-preservation, depending on your perspective—particularly during the Reign of Terror of 1793-1794. In more than a few cases, the punishments meted out by the Revolution in this period were undeniably disproportionate, as anti-government insurgents of Lyons and Nantes would learn after being defeated by Jacobin forces. Certainly, Robespierre and Saint-Just had a point in emphasizing natural law, freedom, human happiness, and Enlightenment progress as guiding principles which were embodied to varying degrees during the Revolution—yet their facile resort to the guillotine and centralization forever mar their example, particularly when we think of Robespierre’s elimination of rival left-wing currents shortly before his fall: Georges Danton and his followers the Dantonists, in addition to the Hébertists, who subscribed to the thought of enragé Jacques Hébert—himself executed like Danton. That Robespierre and the Committee were overthrown by the Thermidorian reaction shortly after performing such purges is quite telling. Personally, I find the example of Gracchus Babeuf and the members of the Conspiracy of Equals, who drew up plans for insurrection against the Directory two years after the fall of Robespierre, far more inspiring than the Jacobin experience while in power—even though Babeuf and his co-conspirators admittedly were arrested before the planned uprising could be carried out, such that the “post-revolutionary” legacy of Jacobins and Babouvists can in no way be compared.

To return to present rather than historical questions of inequality and revolution, though—in “Biofuels, Land Grabs, Revolution,” you quite plainly note the “biofuel boom [to be] truly an extension of a prolonged colonial affair designed to displace subsistence, food-based autonomy for global commodity production,” and you show how international capital has little to offer the peoples of the world other than “sweat shops and extractive industries, make sancrosanct by International Financial Institutions and global trade partnerships.” I definitely agree with you, though I would argue that instead of calling them biofuels we refer to them as agrofuels, for there is certainly nothing biotic about this blight on humanity and nature—if we return to the etymological origins of the word βίος (bios), or life!

You point out the macabre relations imperialism and international finance have had with the meteoric expansion of agrofuel production in recent history, particularly in the case of Sukarno and Suharto in Indonesia and Lever and the United Africa Company (UAC) in West Africa. However, in spite of the disconcerting implications the “agrofuel boom” has had for forest ecosystems and biodiversity in Malaysia especially—think of the fate of the orangutan (“person of the forest”) as a stand-in for the hundreds of thousands of species similarly imperiled by agrofuel-driven deforestation—you discuss the case of Madagascar, where the people overthrew the government after learning of its handing over of nearly half of the island-nation’s arable land to foreign investors, and of the Somali pirates as promising countercurrents. How do you see resistance trends developing effectively to check the suicidal trajectory of agrofuel expansion and capitalist imperialism more broadly?

Agrofuels, as you call them, are something that drive me up the wall. But it’s hilarious, because you can get someone from the oil industry talking about how bad land grabs are and how agrofuels don’t help the environment, but then you ask them about the tar sands, and a halo on their head glows a bit brighter. They act like the tar sands are just as clean as God’s toothbrush. Of course there’s lots of resistance to all of these things throughout the world, but they’re all different and shouldn’t be romanticized.

For instance, I’m not sure I would call Somali pirates “promising.” First of all, the shift of piracy is taking place towards the Gulf of Guinea, which has a direct relationship both to the peace agreements with MEND and the increasing amount of commodities shipped out of West Africa. They are better than some so-called “resistance movements,” but I would generally take note of them as a kind of necessary internality of the current system of global trade.

This is generally how resistance works, as Baudrillard tries to explain apropos terrorism—terrorism is not some sort of external enemy that attacks capitalism but rather is a product of capitalism almost to the same extent as a commodity is the product of capitalist exchange. Baudrillard claims that through its very totalization, capital creates a necessity within its structure for explosive events of difference. Through its dismissal and repression, it generates a kind of sublime internal enemy.

Insurgency is similar, but somewhat different, because insurgency represents not a media strategy to attract attention to a greater violence through a smaller act of seemingly random violence (which terrorism is in its basic form), but a more generalized and networked opposition that takes place on deeper, cultural levels. This is generally the response of colonized people to colonialism, which is why counterinsurgency arose during the British colonial experience in Malay and Kenya and the French colonial experience in Algeria, and it explains the proliferation of counterinsurgency operations throughout the world, not just by the US, but also Brazil, Russia, and Israel as a result of the global land grab. The more “multipolar” the global matrix of hegemony becomes, the more land grabs are resisted both internally and on the periphery.

In Madagascar, the resistance was generated through alternative structures, which were the traditional basis for the community sense of responsibility and justice (very different from our understanding of such a concept), and it spread through the rural areas into more generalized unrest. I see this happening in the US as well; while most geographers look to the metropolis as the center of unrest, I think there is a much more open field of resistance in the world today, partly as a result of extractivism, which is transforming the demographics of the world. It is relatively clear to me that we have environmentalism on the side of class consciousness on the one hand fighting things like oil trains, tar sands, and fracking, and then on the other hand, we have the forces of capital and extractivism in the forms of the ultra-right tea party, logging and oil companies, and ranchers.

Against all neoliberal Hegelianism and capitalist apologism, Andrew Herod in his Grabbing Back essay on “Ports as Places of Stickiness in a World of Global Flows” details the profound revocability and contingency of the capitalist monster, as revealed through an autonomous-Marxist or anarcho-syndicalist analysis of the great potential that workers—particularly dockers—have for impeding the smooth movement of capital flows. Like Chomsky, Herod sees solid community support as an important precondition for the successful intensification of worker militancy against the capitalist everyday. Indeed, his discussion of the sustained resistance engaged in by workers belonging to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) calls to mind the general strike organized by Occupy Oakland in November 2011, and his examination of the mutual aid shared between Australian and South African unions to resist formal Apartheid on the one hand and the anti-labor legislation contemplated by the Australian government in the 1990s on the other illuminates the fundamental reality that proletarian struggle is necessarily internationalist—as Marx and the (other) anarchists knew well. We can hope that coming waves of increased worker militancy will come to affirm the ecological general strike advocated by the Environmental Union Caucus of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW EUC), so as to unite radical ecology with proletarian self-management in a militant struggle to defend nature and humanity. Keeping in mind the encouraging recent example of the blockades of the Israeli Zim ship on the U.S. West Coast in the wake of the Zionist State’s genocidal “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, what can you say about the future promise of such “logistical” approaches to anti-capitalist struggle?

I think it’s critical to remain open to tactics, but I think that you’re onto the right strategy. I don’t think it’s responsible to talk about land grabs without also talking about global trade, which is synonymous with the capitalist world-system. The simple truck and transport of so many useless manufactured goods and raw materials from one port to another to another is an important contributor to climate change in and of itself, but ports and shipping networks have also become central to the global land grab and extractivism.

You mention the port shutdown in Oakland, and I’d like to add the Longview, Oregon, cooperation between Rising Tide and the ILWU, which has been shut out of a bargaining agreement for a grain terminal. These two groups, ostensibly with little in common, have joined to shut down the port of Longview twice now, not only because of the grain terminal, but because of a prospective oil terminal to ship Bakken shale oil out through the West Coast. The ILWU respects their allies in the working class climate movement, and also thinks of the “bomb trains” as a hazard to the community.

There’s a point of collective interest that centers around both environmental concerns and the treatment of workers that has created a much needed and fully beneficial alliance. We do need more local systems of production and consumption, and we need greater emphasis on use value, rather than a constant system of symbolic exchange that effectively “borrows from itself” (as Adorno said of Heidegger’s philosophy). With this in mind, we need to develop those systems of social and ecological value that can translate into an equal or greater value than the capitalist paradigm, and that can only happen by sharing ideas, mobilizing together, and building community roots.

In the meantime, I think workers and ecologically-minded people (who are usually also workers!) need to organize together to build global resistance to the demented regimes of apartheid in Palestine as well as here in the US. In recent months, we have seen solidarity work magic through national protests against police brutality and military brutality abroad. Of course those things go together, and it’s that kind of double movement that will bring class consciousness (really also the consciousness of the urgent, historic task with which we are charged) that can bring us out of this “imperiled life,” as you describe it.

Apropos titles, what can you say about the conception of Grabbing Back‘s title? To me it is reminiscent of Rage Against the Machine’s song “Take the Power Back.”

Well, I was corresponding with Sam Moyo who teaches in South Africa and Zimbabwe, because I wanted to include some of his work in the compilation. Moyo’s work on postcolonial Zimbabwe illustrates the very complex hegemony that emerges out of decolonization and land reform. Incidentally, Johannes Wilm’s work chronicling land reform in Nicaragua is similar. Decolonization is not a process of leadership switching hands; it is a very intense transformation of a society, right down to the individual level, and this involves a kind of centripetal force that drives a postcolonial nation surging towards further liberation, land reform, and land occupations. When governments, like the Algerian coup [executed by Houari Boumédiène against Ahmed Ben Bella in 1965], try to control the surge of popular liberation, they are often met with widespread resistance, and then postcolonial countries become dragged down into dynamics of power and control.

So “grabbing back” is related to this complicated internal and external struggle of popular liberation movements fighting to take land back from multinational corporations by any means necessary, and then often fighting the new governments in a continuing and often frustrating rupture. It is not a kind of wishful or abstract thinking that puts all land grabs on the side of evil, but is in fact a complex power struggle where land is grabbed, grabbed back, territorialized and deterritorialized.

I do frequently have that line running through my head where Zach de la Rocha screams, “Take it back y’all, take it back y’all, take it back, take it back, take it back y’all!” I was actually in an anti-Arpaio march with him back in 2009, but he was up front I think. It was that infamous march where everybody got pepper sprayed, but that was my 15 minutes of habanero-eyed fame.

Many if not most of the essays collected in Grabbing Back explore direct action as a critical resistance measure, whether taken to block infernal industrial-capitalist megaprojects—as throughout much of rural China, where thousands of socio-ecological “group events” or mass disturbances have surged in the decades since trade liberalization, among the Mi’kmaq peoples resisting the “gas grab” in eastern Canada, and as instituted by members of the Wild Idaho and Portland Rising Tide chapters who have physically blockaded the movement of tar-sands megaloads—or as a means of land- and eviction-defense, as seen in Portland (Blazing Arrow and allied organizations), post-Katrina New Orleans (N.O.H.E.A.T.), and Haiti and South Africa (Take Back the Land and Abahlali Basemjondolo). Do you see all these direct actions made for the sake of humanity and nature as somehow coalescing in the future into a generalized anti-systemic multitude, as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt have theorized?

This is really a deeply philosophical question. I like Negri and Hardt very much; they are such wonderful people! Insofar as they are positing the multitude into the future, I think that they see a kind of avenire, “time-to-come,” as a futurity in the sense that [Ernst] Bloch talks about the “not yet.”

In his writings on Spinoza, Negri takes a route past reaction towards a sense of joy that is distinguished through an active coexistence: “For Spinoza, time exists only as liberation. Liberated time becomes the productive imagination, rooted in ethics. Liberated time is neither becoming, nor dialectic, nor mediation, but rather being that constructs itself, dynamic constitution, realized imagination. Time is not measure but ethics. Imagination also unveils the hidden dimensions of Spinozian being—this ethical being that is the being of revolution, the continuous ethical choice of production.” Together, Negri and Hardt write about “autonomous times” that are produced in the process of being together, which is very similar to what Grubačić’s essay in Grabbing Back refers to as “exilic spaces.”

In Declaration, Negri and Hardt write, “You can’t beat the prison, and you can’t fight the army. All you can do is flee… Since security functions so often by making you visible, you have to escape by refusing to be seen. Becoming invisible, too, is a kind of flight. The fugitive, the deserter, and the invisible are the real heroes (or antiheroes) of the struggle of the securitized to be free. But when you run, think of George Jackson and grab a weapon as you go.” This returns us to the Pan-African style of direct action written about by Ahjamu Umi and Max Rameau in Grabbing Back as well—not a flight of cowardice, but self-defense. This is how we ultimately have to view scott crow’s essay about Common Ground as well—a kind of radical space of exile that brings together people from all over the world to help others who are also struggling with their forced removal. This is what presents itself as liberation in time and space, a kind of being-for-others, which spreads through attraction.

But with this, are we not also assuming a kind of utopian futurity, which requires a different way of presenting ourselves in the here-and-now? Jürgen Habermas calls Bloch a “Marxist Schelling,” but I really think we have to understand the importance of [Johann Gottlieb] Fichte here as well to turn utopia into action. Fichte writes that freedom “is always posited into the future… to the extent that the individual himself is posited into the future.” Noting an ethical crisis of the individual in time, Martin Luther King, Jr., writes, “Ethics for Fichte deals with the internal conflict which arises within each person between his natural impulse for self-preservation and his rational impulse to secure freedom through conformity to the moral law. The two impulses must be reconciled in such a way that rational freedom will prevail, and the individual will do his duty and fulfill his vocation. This can never be completely achieved in time, so the individual is immortal so that he may achieve his infinite duty.” We have this sense of the “future anterior,” the problem of what “would have been” that accompanies both the “not-yet-present” and the “alteriority of the past.” Our ethical task is to expiate our conscience through the present action of being, playing, and working together. This effectively generates what Katsiaficas calls the “eros effect,” the mass-spreading of autonomous struggle.

No stranger to such autonomous struggle, King continues in his philosophical contemplation of Fichte: “Man’s behavior is not only reactional. And there is always resentment in a reactionTo educate man to be actional, preserving in all his relations the basic respect for the basic values that constitute a human world, is the prime task of him who, having taken thought, prepares to act.” So the action, or the active life, brings us to a behavior consistent with liberation and hope, and a collective uprising of freedom becomes a matter of assuming a dignified role in history.

While the resilience identified by Grace Lee Boggs and company in their Grabbing Back essay exploring the life-affirming possibilities for a new, post-industrial Detroit is quite inspiring, one is struck by the proposal so rapidly to convert this historical center of industrial capitalism into a self-sufficient urban-agricultural oasis. Given the saturation of the city’s soils by the heavy metals emitted by all the polluting industries formerly concentrated there, does this recommendation not run the risk of worsening health outcomes for Detroit residents? Capitalism Nature Socialism editor Salvatore Engel-di Mauro has warned about this possibility, especially in his Ecology, Soils, and the Leftas elsewhere.

There are lots of ways of bringing soil back to health, which you can find in various permaculture books. Composting makes soil that is perfectly healthy, and some cities have compost programs that collect people’s food waste with the garbage, makes compose, and sells it back to people as soil for cheap. Other than this, lots of communities experiment with humanure, which actually creates tons of nutritious soil in a relatively short time period. In reality, this outdated notion of defecating in clean water in the midst of climate changed induced droughts should be viewed with the utmost shame and contempt, and our societies should be learning about how to live resilient, natural systems.

I am skeptical that composting and humanure can effectively negate the effects of heavy metals accumulated in soils.

Of course I share your opinion that cities aren’t just going to turn into utopias overnight, nor should we focus all of our efforts on the metropolis, as thinkers have tended to wish for in the past. There is a lot to be said for supporting rural movements that do not abide by the status quo, and for taking land away from the huge agribusiness cartels and (1) returning it to the Indigenous peoples; (2) if it’s possible, given the amount of affective trauma caused by the settler population on the Indigenous peoples and land, restoring the tradition of local farming in the US. I just don’t believe in a movement driven by white settlers in the US—it will turn out like the populist movement of the late 19th Century: horribly racist, politically opportunist, and cursed by its leaders to dissolve into the mire of party politics. You can call me a raging skeptic or a sunny idealist on that issue, but I would rather take that as a compliment than believe that we can overcome the colonial legacy through white leadership.

In an article examining Israel’s genocidal “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, acclaimed Guardian columnist Nafeez Ahmed presents the thesis that the latest Zionist pogrom finds its basis in the Israeli State’s desire to “uproot Hamas” to make way for the exploitation of the estimated $4 billion worth of gas deposits discovered off the coast of Gaza in 2000. Personally, I find such a view to typify “vulgar Marxism,” or economic determinism, the idea that all actions taken by States and capital are based in crass material interests. Of course, materialism is critical for understanding the Zionist project of ethnic cleansing, genocide, and mass-colonial land expropriation, as it is for the struggle to overcome Zionism altogether, as through BDS, direct action, and armed struggle—yet to rely solely or even largely on such a type of analysis would seem crucially to overlook the psychological, subjective, and ideological reasons for the perpetuation of Israeli racism and fascism toward the Palestinians, other Arabs, and Africans. What are your thoughts?

I think Nafeez Ahmed is a terrific and responsible journalist, and there are many dimensions to the fight in Gaza. In this case, he might be approaching the problem from a more old-fashioned geopolitical side, but in any case, you’re right to assert the many psychological dialectics of colonialism. I rely principally on the tremendous works of feminists like Valentine Moghadam (who even writes about Earth First!), Lila Abu-Lughod, and Saba Mahmood who provide some of the critical nuances on the impacts of globalization and diaspora on the consciousness of peoples, and whose observations on the dialectics of religion, gender, and postcolonial hegemony offer a kind of understanding that is very difficult to find in contemporary discourse.

We all know so little about the extent of suffering, the need for action, and the capacity to collaborate; there has been so much violence, so much hatred all in the name of this little, tiny place on a map, and why? Much of it is based on strange, spiritual conceptions of the sacred, even for people living thousands of miles away—simply because that’s what they were taught in their respective place of worship. For that reason, I think it’s important to maintain a materialist analysis of place, Indigeneity, and human dignity that resists a kind of religious claim to universalism, but I also agree that we are not going far enough when that materialism boils down to natural resources.

The settlers during the internal colonization of the US did not simply move to Oregon because of its natural resources; they moved there, because they believed they were on a spiritual mission to take land from the Natives and produce civilization. The hard Zionist right-wing represented in the Knesset is like this—as Moshe Dayan’s famous saying goes, “we are fated to live in a permanent state of fighting against the Arabs… for two things: the building of the land and the building of the people.” Just like most analyses of Tahrir Square and Diren Gezi Parki do not boil down to qualitative analyses of consumer economics, our analyses of “the other side” should not be so monolithic. In particular, we need to analyze the rise of populism throughout the world today, whether religious or cultural, and note how deterritorialization of the marketplace and “hegemonic masculinity” (to use Moghadam’s term) is leading to a backlash that Samir Amin likens to the rise of a new fascism.

1 Thandika Mkandawire and Charles C. Soludo, Our Continent, Our Future: African Perspectives on Structural Adjustment (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1999).

2 Maia Ramnath, Decolonizing Anarchism: An Antiauthoritarian History of India’s Liberation Struggle, (Oakland: AK Press, 2011)

3 Partha Chaterjee, “For an Indian History of Peasant Struggle,” Social Scientist 16, no. 11 (1988): 15.

4 See the unsettling film, God Loves Uganda, dir: Roger Ross Williams (Pull Credit Productions: Brooklyn, 2013)

5 See Vijay Prashad, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso: New York, 2012)

6 For an interesting insight into this trial, see the film about Issa Sesay, War Don Don, dir: Rebecca Richman Cohen, Racing Horse Productions, Naked Edge Films, 2010

Noam Chomsky on Israel’s “Hideous Atrocity” in Gaza and BDS

August 25, 2014

Coming over two weeks after the fact, these are parts I and II of an 8 August interview held with Noam Chomsky on Democracy Now! regarding Israel’s brutal atrocities against the Palestinians, particularly in light of the thousands of Gazans maimed and murdered by Israel during its latest “Operation Protective Edge.” Chomsky discusses history and present reality in the first part and the boycott/divest/sanction (BDS) tactic in the second part.

Part I:

Part II:

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt Pershing Square in Los Angeles

Recommended Readings for May Day 2014

May 1, 2014

capitalismo

As in 2013, I would on the occasion of International Workers’ Day 2014 like to provide a number of links to particularly illuminating and challenging online articles that have been published of late.  The topics covered by the important investigations done by the writers of these pieces range from climate change to militarism, pollution, migration and migrant labor, non-human animals, astronomy, empire, resistance, and cooptation.  What is more, a few specific pieces dealing with the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Venezuela are included.

Best regards for this May 1st.

In solidarity

 

Sarah Boseley, WHO calls for urgent action to preserve power of antibiotics and make new ones.  Guardian, 30 April 2014.

Jessica Aldred, Human litter found in Europe’s deepest ocean depths.  Guardian, 30 April 2014.

Seamus Milne, It’s not Russia that’s pushed Ukraine to the brink of war.  Guardian, 30 April 2014.

John Vidal, Yasuni campaigners claim oil drilling petition results are being manipulated.  Guardian, 30 April 2014.

Tom Peters, Wall Street Journal outlines US military options against China.  World Socialist Web Site, 30 April 2014.

Julian Borger, Risk of nuclear accidents is rising, says report on near-misses.  Guardian, 29 April 2014.

Suzanne Goldenberg, Almost half of Americans live with unhealthy levels of air pollution.  Guardian, 29 April 2014.

Jeremy Brecher, The Working-Class Mini-Revolts of the Twenty-First Century.  Counterpunch, 28 April 2014.

Associated Press, Philippines agrees to 10-year pact allowing US military presence.  Guardian, 27 April 2014.

Patrick Martin, US sends Apache attack helicopters to Egyptian junta.  World Socialist Web Site, 25 April 2014.

Andre Vltchek, Unite Against Imperialism!  Counterpunch, 25 April 2014.

Benjamin Dangl, The Politics of Pachamama.  Counterpunch, 25 April 2014.

Carlos Zorrilla, The Struggle Over Sumak Kawsay in Ecuador.  Upside Down World, 22 April 2014.

Out of the Woods, Après moi le déluge! Fossil fuel abolitionism and the carbon bubble, part II.  Libcom, 21 April 2014.

Pablo Dávalos (trans. Danica Jorden), Latin America-Economic Socialism in the 21st Century: Neoliberalism “Pure and Simple.”  Upside Down World, 15 April 2014.

Elliot Sperberg, Climate Change as Crime Against Humanity.  Counterpunch, 15 April 2014.

Nina Lakhani, Surge in deaths of environmental activists over past decade, report finds.  Guardian, 15 April 2014.

Suzanne Goldenberg, UN: rate of emissions growth nearly doubled in first decade of 21st century.  Guardian, 11 April 2014.

Lizzy Davies, Italian intellectuals up in arms over hotel named after Antonio Gramsci.  Guardian, 10 April 2014.

Dan Roberts, White House defends soaring number of deportations for minor crimes.  Guardian, 7 April 2014.

Eric Holthaus, Why This Year’s El Niño Could Grow Into a Monster.  Mother Jones, 7 April 2014.

Noam Chomsky, The Prospects for Survival.  Truthout, 1 April 2014.

Naufrago, Opinión: Beware of the Anarchist Police.  Periódico El Libertario, 29 March 2014 (en Castellano).

Cory Morningstar, McKibben: Red, White, Blue and Gold(man Sachs).  Counterpunch, 28 March 2014.

Free From Harm Staff Writers, Eating Animals: Addressing Our Most Common Justifications.  Free From Harm, 27 March 2014.

Ian Sample, Dwarf planet discovery hints at hidden Super Earth in solar system.  Guardian, 26 March 2014.

Steve Early, Lettuce Picking and Left-Wing Organizing.  Counterpunch, 25 March 2014.

Jeffrey St. Clair, Camus in the Time of Drones.  Counterpunch, 21 March 2014.

Jon Hochschartner, The Vegetarian Communard.  Counterpunch, 19 March 2014.

Eric Zuesse, One Quarter of US Greenhouse Gases Come From Just 43 Companies.  Truthout (Buzzflash), 15 March 2014.

Suren Moodliar, No Middle Road on Venezuela.  Counterpunch, 14 March 2014.

Cory Morningstar, 350.org’s Friends on Wall Street.  Counterpunch, 14 March 2014.

Mark Karlin, Developed Nations Give Up on Stopping Climate Change, Turn to Mitigating Impact, Largely Abandoning Third World.  Truthout, 12 March 2014.

Douglas Valentine, Glenn Greenwald and the Myth of Income Inequality.  Counterpunch, 3 March 2014.

Alyce Santoro, Liberty, Equality, Geography: An Interview with John P. Clark on the Revolutionary Eco-Anarchism of Elisee Reclus.  Truthout, 4 March 2014.

Northwest Public Radio, How Farmworkers Experience A Warming Climate.  Oregon Public Broadcast, 27 September 2013.

Ecology, Ethics, Anarchism: In Conversation with Noam Chomsky (transcript)

April 3, 2014

chomsky and javier

First published on Truthout on 3 April 2014 (copyright, Truthout.org, reprinted with permission)

 

There can be little doubt about the centrality and severity of the environmental crisis in the present day. Driven by the mindless “grow-or-die” imperative of capitalism, humanity’s destruction of the biosphere has reached and even surpassed various critical thresholds, whether in terms of carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, freshwater depletion, or chemical pollution. Extreme weather events can be seen pummeling the globe, from the Philippines—devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in November of last year—to California, which is presently suffering from the worst drought in centuries. As Nafeez Ahmed has shown, a recently published study funded in part by NASA warns of impending civilizational collapse without radical changes to address social inequality and overconsumption. Truthout’s own Dahr Jamail has written a number of critical pieces lately that have documented the profundity of the current trajectory toward anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) and global ecocide; in a telling metaphor, he likens the increasingly mad weather patterns brought about by ACD to an electrocardiogram of a “heart in defibrillation.”

Rather than conclude that such distressing trends follow intrinsically from an “aggressive” and “sociopathic” human nature, reasonable observers should likely associate the outgrowth of these tendencies with the dominance of the capitalist system, for, as Oxfam noted in a January 2014 report, the richest 85 individuals in the world possess as much wealth as a whole half of humanity—the 3.5 billion poorest people—while just 90 corporations have been responsible for a full two-thirds of the carbon emissions generated since the onset of industrialism. As these staggering statistics show, then, the ecological and climatic crises correspond to the extreme concentration of power and wealth produced by capitalism and upheld by the world’s governments. As a counter-move to these realities, the political philosophy of anarchism—which opposes the rule of both State and capital—may hold a great deal of promise for ameliorating and perhaps even overturning these trends toward destruction. Apropos, I had the great fortune recently to interview Professor Noam Chomsky, renowned anarcho-syndicalist, to discuss the question of ecological crisis and anarchism as a remedy. Following is a transcript of our conversation.

Professor Chomsky, thank you so kindly for taking the time today to converse with me about ecology and anarchism. It is a true honor to have this opportunity to speak with you. Before we pass to these subjects, though, I would like to ask you initially about ethics and solidarity. Would you say that Immanuel Kant’s notion of treating humanity as an end in itself has influenced anarchist and anti-authoritarian thought in any way? The concept of natural law arguably has a “natural” affinity with anarchism.

Indirectly, but I think it’s actually more general. My own view is that anarchism flows quite naturally out of major concerns and commitments of the Enlightnment, which found an expression in classical liberalism, and classical liberalism essentially was destroyed by the rise of capitalism—it’s inconsistent with it. But anarchism I think is the inheritor of the ideals that were developed in one or another form during the Enlighnment—Kant’s expression is one exmple—exemplified in a particular way in classical liberal doctrine, wrecked on the shoals of capitalism, and picked up by the libertarian left movements, which are the natural inheritors of them. So in that sense, yes, but it’s broader.

You have described humanity as being imperiled by the destructive trends on hand in capitalist society—or what you have termed “really existing capitalist democracies” (RECD). Particularly of late, you have emphasized the brutally anti-ecological trends being implemented by the dominant powers of settler-colonial societies, as reflected in the tar sands of Canada, Australia’s massive exploitation and export of coal resources, and of course the immense energy profligacy on hand in this country. You certainly have a point, and I share your concerns, as I detail in Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe, a book that frames the climate crisis as the outgrowth of capitalism and the domination of nature generally understood. Please explain how you see RECD as profoundly at odds with ecological balance.

RECD – not accidentally, pronounced “wrecked” — is really existing capitalist democracy, really a kind of state capitalism, with a powerful State component in the economy, but with some reliance on market forces. The market forces that exist are shaped and distorted in the interests of the powerful—by State power, which is heavily under the control of concentrations of private power—so there’s close interaction. Well if you take a look at markets, they are a recipe for suicide. Period. In market systems you don’t take account of what economists call externalities. So say you sell me a car. In a market system we’re supposed to look after our own interests, so I make the best deal I can for me, you make the best deal you can for you. We do not take into account the effect on him. That’s not part of a market transaction. Well there is an effect on him: there’s another car on the road, there’s a greater possibility of accidents, there’s more pollution, there’s more traffic jams. For him individually it might be a slight increase, but this is extended over the whole population. Now, when you get to other kinds of transactions, the externalities get much larger. So take the financial crisis. One of the reasons for it is that—there are several, but one is—say if Goldman Sachs makes a risky transaction, they—if they’re paying attention—cover their own potential losses. They do not take into account what’s called systemic risk, that is, the possibility that the whole system will crash, if one of their risky transactions goes bad. That just about happened with AIG, the huge insurance company. They were involved in risky transactions which they couldn’t cover. The whole system was really going to collapse, but of course State power intervened to rescue them. The task of the State is to rescue the rich and the powerful and to protect them, and if that violates market principles, okay, we don’t care about market principles. The market principles are essentially for the poor. But systemic risk is an externality that’s not considered, which would take down the system repeatedly, if you didn’t have State power intervening. Well there’s another one, that’s even bigger—that’s destruction of the environment. Destruction of the environment is an externality: in market interactions you don’t pay attention to it. So take tar sands. If you’re a major energy corporation and you can make profit out of exploiting tar sands, you simply do not take into account the fact that your grandchildren may not have a possibility of survival—that’s an externality. And in the moral calculus of capitalism, greater profits in the next quarter outweigh the fate of your grandchildren, and of course it’s not your grandchildren, but everyone’s.

Now the settler-colonial societies are particularly interesting in this regard, because you have a conflict within them. Settler-colonial societies are different than most forms of imperialism; in traditional imperialism, say the British in India, the British kind of ran the place: they sent the bureaucrats, the administrators, the officer corps, and so on, but the place was run by Indians. Settler-colonial societies are different; they eliminate the indigenous population. Read, say, George Washington, a leading figure in the settler-colonial society we live in. His view was—his words—was that we have to ‘extirpate’ the Iroquois, they’re in our way. They were an advanced civilization, in fact they provided some of the basis for the American constitutional system, but they were in the way, so we have to extirpate them. Thomas Jefferson, another great figure, he said, well, we have no choice but to exterminate the indigenous population, the Native Americans; the reason is they’re attacking us. Why are they attacking us? Because we’re taking everything away from them. But since we’re taking their land and resources away and they defend themselves, we have to exterminate them. And that’s pretty much what happened—in the United States almost totally—huge extermination. Some residues remain, but under horrible conditions. Australia, same thing. Tasmania, almost total extermination. Canada, they didn’t quite make it. There’s residues of what are called First Nations around the periphery. Now, those are settler-colonial societies: there are elements of the indigenous populations remaining, and a very striking feature of contemporary society is that, throughout the world—in Canada, Latin America, Australia, India, all over the world, the indigenous societies—what we call tribal or aboriginal or whatever name we use—they’re the ones who are trying to prevent the race to destruction. Everywhere, they’re the ones leading the opposition to destruction of the environment. In countries with substantial indigenous populations, like say in Ecuador and Bolivia, they’ve passed legislation, even constitutional provisions, calling for rights of nature, which is kind of laughed at in the rich, powerful countries, but is the hope for survival.

Ecuador, for example, made an offer to Europe—they have a fair amount of oil—to leave the oil in the ground, where it ought to be, at a great loss to them—huge loss for development. The request was that Europe would provide them with a fraction—payment—of the loss—a small fraction—but the Europeans refused, so now they’re exploiting the oil. And if you go to southern Colombia, you find indigenous people, campesinos, Afro-Americans struggling against gold mining, just horrible destruction. Same in Australia, against uranium mining, and so on. At the same time, in the settler-colonial societies, which are the most advanced and richest, that’s where the drive is strongest toward the destruction of the environment. So you read a speech by say Obama, for example, at Cushing, Oklahoma—Cushing is kind of the center for bringing together and storing the fossil fuels which flow into there and are distributed. It was an audience of oil types. To enormous applause, he said that during his administration more oil had been lifted than any previous one—for many, many years. He said pipelines are crossing America under his administration to the extent that practically everywhere you go, you’re tripping across a pipeline; we’re going to have 100 years of energy independence; we’ll be the Saudi Arabia of the 21st century—in short, we’ll lead the way to disaster. At the same time, the remnants of the indigenous societies are trying to prevent the race to disaster. So in this respect, the settler-colonial societies are a striking illustration of first of all the massive destructive power of European imperialism, which of course includes us and Australia, and so on. And also the –I don’t know if you’d call it irony, but the strange phenomenon of the most so-called “advanced,” educated, richest segments of global society trying to destroy all of us, and the so-called ‘backward’ people, the pre-technological people, who remain on the periphery, trying to restrain the race to disaster. If some extra-terrestrial observer were watching this, they’d think the species was insane. And in fact it is. But the insanity goes back to the basic institutional structure of RECD. That’s the way it works. It’s built into the institutions. It’s one of the reasons it’s going to be very hard to change.

In Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (2013), you argue that global society must be reorganized so that “care for ‘the commons’ […] become[s] a very high priority, as it has been in traditional societies, quite often.”[1] You make similar conclusions in an essay from last summer reflecting on the importance of the efforts to defend Gezi Park in Istanbul, which you frame as being part of a “a struggle in which we must all take part, with dedication and resolve, if there is to be any hope for decent human survival in a world that has no borders.” How do you see the possibility of thoroughgoing social transformation and the devolution of power taking place in the near future—through the emergence and sustained replication of workers’ and community councils, as in the participatory economic model (Parecon), for example?

That’s a well-worked out, detailed proposal for one form of democratic control of popular institutions—social, economic, political, others. And it is particularly well-worked out, in extensive detail. Whether that’s the right form or something other, I think it’s a little early to tell. My own feeling is that a fair amount of experimentation has to be done to see how societies can and should function. I’m a little skeptical about the possibility of sketching it in detail in advance. But that certainly should be taken very seriously, along with other proposals. But something along those lines seems to me a prerequisite first of all for reasonable life, put aside the environment—just the way a society ought to work, with people in a position where they can make decisions about the things that matter to them. But also I think it is a prerequisite for survival at this point. I mean, the human species is reaching a point which is unique in human history—just take a look at species’ destruction, forget humans. Species destruction now is at the level of 65 million years ago, when an asteroid hit the Earth and destroyed the dinosaurs and a huge number of species—massive species destruction. That’s being replicated right now, and humans are the asteroid. And we’re on the list, not far.

In a speech reproduced over 20 years ago in the film version of Manufacturing Consent, you describe hegemonic capitalist ideology as reducing the life-world of Earth to an “infinite resource” and “an infinite garbage-can.” Even then you had identified the capitalist tendency toward total destruction: you speak of a looming cancellation of destiny for humanity if the madness of capitalism is not halted within this, the “possibly terminal phase of human existence.” The very title and argumentation of Hegemony or Survival (2003)continue in this line, and in Hopes and Prospects (2010), you claim the threat to the chance for decent survival to be one of the major externalities produced, again, by RECD. How do you think a resurgent international anarchist movement might respond positively to such alarming trends?

In my view anarchism is just the most advanced form of political thought. As I’ve said, it draws from the Enlightenment, its best ideals; the primary contributions of classical liberalism carry it forward. Parecon, which you mentioned, is one illustration—they don’t call themselves anarchists—but there are others like it. So I think that a resurgent anarchist movement, which would be the peak of human intellectual civilization, should join with the indigenous societies of the world so that they don’t have the burden to save humanity from its own craziness. This should take place within the richest, most powerful societies. It’s kind of a moral truism that the more privilege you have, the more responsibility you have. It’s elementary in every domain: you have privilege, you have opportunities, you have choices, you have responsibilities. In the rich, powerful societies, privileged people like us—we’re all privileged people—we have the responsibility to take the lead in trying to prevent the disasters that our own social institutions are creating. It’s outrageous to demand or even observe the poorest, most repressed people in the world taking the lead in trying to save the human species and in fact innumerable other species from destruction. So we should join them. That’s the role of an anarchist movement.

In “Human Intelligence and the Environment” (2010), you raise the possibility of factory workers taking control of the means of production and autonomously deciding to break with business as usual, opting instead to produce solar panels or high-speed rail. This recommendation is entirely anarcho-syndicalist in nature, in keeping with your own proclivities: indeed, it bears much affinity with the prospect of an ecological anarcho-syndicalism, a concept that has been advanced by the Environment Union Caucus of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW-EUC) recently. A particularly promising proposal the EUC has made is that of an ecological general strike. In a similar vein, economic historian Richard Smith recently called for the mass-shuttering of large corporations and vast swathes of industry as a means of giving humanity and nature a chance against climate destruction. Moreover, since the U.S. military is the single largest contributor to the problem of anthropogenic climate disruption, the Pentagon should effectively be dismantled for this reason, among others, of course. How might activists present these pressing goals in ways that do not lend themselves to being dismissed as mere utopianism?

Well, let’s take the idea of converting industry to producing solar panels, mass-transportation, and so on. That was not utopian. The US government virtually nationalized the auto industry a couple years ago—not entirely, but took over large parts of it. There were choices at that point. If there had been a powerful movement of the kind that we’re discussing, with a popular base, it could have pressed for something very realistic, which I think would have had the support of the working class. A strike will be regarded as a weapon against them—it’s taking away their livelihoods, their survival. The choices were two, really: either the government rescues the auto industry at the taxpayers’ expense and hands it back to pretty much the original owners, maybe different faces, but structurally the same owners, and have them produce what they were doing before, which is destructive. That was one possibility; that was the one that was taken. The other possibility, which could have been taken, and with a sufficient powerful popular movement might well have been taken, is to put those factories into the hands in the working class, and have them make their choices rationally, in the interests of themselves, their communities, the general society—and do exactly what you were describing: produce solar panels.

Take mass-transportation. Going back to markets—if you take an economics course, they tell you markets offer choices. That’s partly true, but very narrowly. Markets restrict choices, sharply restrict choices. Mass transportation is an example. Mass transportation is not a choice offered on the market. If I want to go home today, the market does offer me a choice between a Ford and a Toyota, but not between a car and a subway. That’s just not one of the choices available in market systems, and this is not a small point. Choices that involve common effort and solidarity and mutual support and concern for others—those are out of the market system. The market system is based on maximization of individual consumption, and that is highly destructive in itself. It’s destructive even for the human beings involved—it turns them into sociopathic individuals.. But it also means that the kinds of things that are needed for survival are out of the market system—like mass-transportation. That’s the form of economic growth that could help preserve the hopes for survival. I don’t think that it was at all unrealistic for that to have been done; there was nothing utopian about that.

Now as compared with things like say general strikes, I think that’s much a better step to take. It’s not saying, let’s throw a wrench in the machine and harm everybody in the interest of some longer-term goal. It’s saying, let’s take a wrench and fix the machine, so it can function right now, with all you guys working, doing better jobs, running it yourselves. You’re better off psychologically, socially, in every respect, and you’re also producing a world that makes sense to live in. That’s I think the better way to proceed, in general.

According to German critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, revolution can be defined in part as action which seeks to secure the life, freedom, and happiness of future generations.[2] In light of looming catastrophic climate change, this definition would seem to hold a great amount of importance today. Within the modern Western revolutionary tradition, some of the most promising movements have arguably been Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals, Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartacus League, and the Spanish anarchists. What would you say is the role of direct action in revolutionary struggle?

First of all, I think we shouldn’t assume that revolutionary struggle is the only option. What we’ve just been discussing, for example, you can call reformist if you like: it’s taking the institutions, reshaping them, reconstructing them, turning them into democratic institutions, and carrying out actions that are quite feasible and would be beneficial for all of us. Is that a revolution, is it a reform? Who knows? What’s the role of direct action, say, in that? Well, the role of direct action would have been realistically for popular movements to have pressured the government to take that direction, which would not have been impossible. In fact right now in the Rust Belt—something like this happened in the old Rust Belt, on a much smaller scale. Back in 1977, U.S. Steel, a major corporation, decided to close their operations in Youngstown, Ohio, which was a steel-town that had been built by steelworkers, by the union; it was a major steel town. That was going to destroy everyone’s occupation, the community, the society, everything—and it’s a decision made by bankers somewhere, who weren’t making enough profit. The steelworkers union offered to buy the plants and have them run by the workforce. This was an effort that the corporation didn’t want. Actually it’s kind of interesting—it would have been more profitable for them, but I think a class interest militated against it. This happens frequently. A multinational frequently will refuse an offer by the workers to buy out something they want to close and prefer to take the loss of just destroying it to having the precedent of worker-owned enterprises. That’s what is looks like to me; I can’t prove it. Corporations are totalitarian institutions—we don’t get access to their internal decisions—but that’s what it looks like.

Anyway, the company refused, and it went to the courts. I think it went all the way to the Supreme Court. Staughton Lynd argued the case for the community and the steelworkers; they lost, but they could have won, with enough popular support. Anyhow, after they lost, the steel [factories] were abandoned, but they didn’t give up. Working people started developing small enterprises—worker-owned—which they tried to integrate into the community, and it’s now proliferated significantly. Around Cleveland, northern Ohio, there’s quite a network of worker-owned enterprises—not worker-managed. There’s a gap. But worker-owned enterprises which can become worker-managed. It’s expanding. Right now there’s an effort by the US steelworkers union to make some sort of a deal with Mondragón, the huge Basque conglomerate which is again worker-owned, with management selected by workers, but not worker-managed. And that’s got some prospects, too.

So what is direct action? Well all of these things are direct action; they’re direct action geared to the existing circumstances. Direct action has to be based on an analysis of what the existing circumstances are, and how an action can modify them positively. There’s no general formula; you can’t say direct action is good or bad. Sometimes it can harmful, sometimes it can beneficial; sometimes it can be revolutionary, sometimes it can be reformist. You simply ask yourself what can be achieved now. So these developments in, say, northern Ohio really are reformist—they’re even supported by Republican governors and by some sectors of business, because it sort of fits their right-wing, libertarian conceptions. Fine, let’s pursue that—nothing wrong with it. But you just can’t give general formulas for tactical choices. They depend on an exact, close analysis of the situation.

The Sparticists are a good case in point. Rosa Luxemburg went along with the Spartacist uprising, though she was opposed to it. She was opposed to it not in principle but because she realized it was going to fail, was going to be crushed. But out of solidarity she went along with it, and she was killed.

Returning to the question of natural law, I would like to ask whether you think natural right applies to non-human animals? In an interview from 2010, you acknowledged that there exists a “moral case” for vegetarianism, but at a recent talk at University College London you claimed that animals cannot have the same rights as humans because, lacking reason, they cannot be considered to have responsibilities. Can you clarify what you mean by this? As you likely know, many anarchists and anti-authoritarians today consider vegetarianism and veganism essential to the project of reducing humanity’s domination over nature.

That makes sense, but that’s separate from the question of whether animals have the same rights as humans. It’s a fact that animals don’t have responsibilities; we can’t overlook that. If I have a dog, the dog has no responsibilities. Maybe I’d like it to bark when a criminal comes, but I can’t say the dog’s guilty if it didn’t do it. So it’s a fact that animals don’t have responsibilies. Responsibilities are related to rights. This does not say you should murder animals, but it is a recognition of reality. In fact, vegetarianism or veganism I think have a moral basis. But so do lots of other things. Like when you got here, you drove or took public transportation, meaning you used energy—that harms the environment. You made a choice: your choice was to harm the environment in order to come here so we could have this discussion. We’re making choices like that every moment of the day. Well, one of the choices has to do with people in countries where there is meat but not much else: should they eat it? That’s another choice. We have our own choices. We are always—we can’t overlook the fact that we are constantly making choices which have negative effects, and this is one of them. There is an opportunity cost to vegetarianism.

Personally, I’m not a vegetarian—I almost never eat meat. The reason is I just don’t have time for it; I don’t have the time to think about it, I don’t want to think about it. I just pick up whatever saves me time, which usually is not meat, but I don’t purposely check to see if there’s a piece of chicken in the salad. Okay, that’s a choice. I don’t like—I don’t think we should have factory farming, the free range business is mostly a joke—I understand that very well. With regard to rights and responsibilities, they do relate, and I don’t think we can overlook that. You can say the same about an infant: an infant doesn’t have responsibilities. But the reason we grant the infant rights is because of speciesism, and you can’t overlook that, either.

In theoretical terms, I sense a great affinity between the analysis you and Edward S. Herman present in Manufacturing Consent and the dissident cultural research engaged in by Western Marxists during the twentieth century. You are famously given to quoting Antonio Gramsci’s saying, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” I would like to ask whether you believe the U.S. populace to be too conservative, distracted, and enthralled by the system to move radically against it? Do you think the public will become the “second superpower” you hope for in Hegemony or Survival?

I’m not sure the public is that conservative, frankly. There’s some interesting indications to the contrary. So for example in 1976, the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, there were polls taken in which people were asked what they thought was in the Constitution. Nobody has a clue what’s in the Constitution. But the answers basically were, do you think this is an obvious truth, and if it is—it’s probably in the Constitution. One of the questions was “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” and the majority of the population thought that was in the Constitution, because it’s obviously true. In the late 1980s, there were polls taken asking people, “do you think that a right to health care is in the Constitution?” A very large proportion, I think maybe a majority of the population, thought it was in the Constitution. If you take a look at polls generally, you find that even among sectors of the population that are considered very right-wing—you do studies of people who say, “get the government off my back, I don’t want the government”—they turn out to be social democrats. They want more spending on health, more spending on education, more spending on, say, mothers with dependent children—but not welfare, because welfare was demonized by racists, Reagan and others. And this runs across the board, even on international affairs. So a majority of the population thinks that the US ought to give up the veto at the Security Council, and follow what the general world population believes is right. You take a look at taxes, and it’s striking. There’ve been polls on taxes for about forty years. Overwhelmingly, the population thinks the rich should be taxed more—they’re undertaxed. The policy goes in the opposite direction. Polls are not definitive: you have to inquire into why people are answering the way they do; there could be a lot of reasons. But they’re not insignificant, either.

My own feeling is that people like Adam Smith were basically right, that there is a natural sympathy for others. I think the rich and powerful understand that. I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s such massive effort to destroy the institutions in the society that are based on solidarity. So for example why is the right wing—and in fact not just the right wing, because it goes over to Obama—so intent on undermining Social Security? It costs nothing, essentially; it’s a very efficient program; people survive on it; it works very well; there’s no economic problems that couldn’t be tinkered with—it’s really marginal. But there’s a major effort to destroy it. Why? It’s based on solidarity. It’s based on concern for others. There’s a major attack on the public schools—deep underfunding, vouchers, all kinds of things. Foundations are trying to undermine them. Why? Public schools are a major contribution to modern society. They’re one of the real contributions of American society—mass public education. Why destroy them? Well, they’re based on solidarity. If you take the ideology that we’re supposed to believe in, why should I pay taxes for the schools in my neighborhood? I don’t have kids in school, I don’t have grandchildren in school, and I never will. Why should I pay taxes? Well, you pay taxes so that the kid across the street will go to school, because you care about other people. But that has to be driven out of people’s heads. It’s a little like markets and consumption. Markets are favored by the economics profession, by the rich, and so on, up to a point—they really don’t believe in them, they want the powerful State to come in and save them if they’re in trouble. But ideologically they’re preferred, because they restrict human action to individual self-gratification—not mutual support, not protection of the commons.

Actually the commons are an interesting case. We’re coming up to the eight hundredth anniversary of the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta had two parts. One part was the Charter of Liberties—the central part was presumption of innocence. That’s out the window. By now, being “guilty” means Obama wants to kill you tomorrow; that’s the definition of guilty. “Innocent” means he hasn’t gotten around to it yet. But the other part of the Magna Carta was the Charter of the Forests—that’s the part that you find in popular myth, like the Robin Hood myths. Robin Hood was protecting the commons from the predators. That’s a big part of our history—English history. The commons were cultivated by the general population. The commons were the forests, the fields, the source of fuel, food, welfare—you know, widows would pick things from the forest to survive. And it was nurtured—it was nurtured by the public, it was cared for—they weren’t let to grow into jungles. They were carefully cared for. The Charter of the Forests was an effort not by the population but by the barons to protect the commons from the king, but the population wanted to protect the commons for themselves.

Then you move into the capitalist period, beginning with the enclosure movements which drove people off the land and so on, and you have a destruction of the commons. Today, in the capitalist ethic, there’s a concept called the “tragedy of the commons” which you study in economics, which teaches you that if you don’t have private ownership of the commons, it’s going to be destroyed. Well, based on capitalist morality, that’s true. If I don’t own it, what should I do to try to preserve it? But in ordinary human life, that’s just totally false. Privatization is the tragedy of the commons. We can see that in fact: when you privatize the commons, it gets destroyed for private profit. If the commons are kept under common control, they are cultivated and nurtured, because people care about each other, and they care about the future. When you ask, is the population conservative? I doubt it. I think these are deeply rooted sentiments and understandings which show up all the time: they showed up in labor struggles against the industrial system which was dehumanizing people, in peasant societies they show up, in indigenous societies today struggling against, say, gold mines—maybe it’ll give them more material wealth, but it’ll destroy their lives. You find this everywhere. And in the great thinkers of the past, you know, in the people we aren’t supposed to admire, like Adam Smith, it’s a central doctrine.

Actually it’s kind of interesting, if you look at Smith—everybody knows the phrase “invisible hand,” but practically nobody looks at how he used the phrase. He rarely used it, a couple of times. One of the uses is when he discusses what would happen—it’s an agrarian society he’s talking about—what would happen if some landlord controlled almost all the land? What would happen? He says, well, out of his natural sympathy and concern for other people, he would distribute the wealth, so, as if by an invisible hand, society would end up being egalitarian. That’s the invisible hand. The other major usage of it actually is in an argument against—against—what we call neo-liberal globalization. He considers England and asks what would happen if in England the merchants and manufacturers decided to invest abroad and import from abroad. He says, they would gain, and England would suffer. However, they have a kind of natural tendency to want to function in their own society—a kind of a ‘home bias,’ it’s sometimes called, kind of like an affinity to their own societies. So as if by an invisible hand, England will be saved from the ravages of what we call neo-liberal globalization. That’s not what you’re taught. But they’re coming from a different era. That’s the precapitalist era, and conceptions were quite different before capitalist morality distorted them.

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[1] Noam Chomsky and Laray Polk, Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2013), 83.

[2] Herbert Marcuse, “Ethics and Revolution,” in Ethics and Society: Original Essays on Contemporary Moral Problems, ed. Richard T. De George (New York: Anchor Books,1964), 140-1.

Ecology, Ethics, Anarchism: In Conversation with Noam Chomsky (video)

March 31, 2014

This is a video of my interview with Noam Chomsky that took place at his office at MIT on Friday, 28 March 2014.  We discussed the place of anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism vis-à-vis the profound and ever-worsening environmental and climatic crises today.  Specifically, we conversed about Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment, participatory economics (Parecon), indigenous struggle, the commons, direct action, really existing capitalist democracy (RECD), vegetarianism and veganism, conservatism, democracy, and reform vs. revolution.

A transcript of our conversation is forthcoming.