Monday, August 30, 2010
Saturday, August 28, 2010
In 1970, a jury convicted Robert Hillary King (formerly known as Robert King Wilkerson) of a crime he did not commit and sentenced him to 35 years in prison. He became a member of the Black Panther Party while in Angola State Penitentiary, successfully organizing prisoners to improve conditions. In return, prison authorities beat him, starved him, and gave him life without parole after framing him for a second crime. He was thrown into solitary confinement, where he remained in a six-by-nine foot cell for 29 years as one of “the Angola 3.” In 2001, the state grudgingly acknowledged his innocence and set him free.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
During this year’s protests against the Eurozone’s austerity measures—in Greece and, on a smaller scale, Ireland, Italy and Spain—two stories have imposed themselves.
The predominant, establishment story proposes a de-politicized naturalization of the crisis: the regulatory measures are presented not as decisions grounded in political choices, but as the imperatives of a neutral financial logic—if we want our economies to stabilize, we simply have to swallow the bitter pill. The other story, that of the protesting workers, students and pensioners, would see the austerity measures as yet another attempt by international financial capital to dismantle the last remainders of the welfare state. The imf thus appears from one perspective as a neutral agent of discipline and order, and from the other as the oppressive agent of global capital.
There is a moment of truth in both perspectives....Yet while each story contains a grain of truth, both are fundamentally false....the protesters’ story bears witness yet again to the misery of today’s left: there is no positive programmatic content to its demands, just a generalized refusal to compromise the existing welfare state. The utopia here is not a radical change of the system, but the idea that one can maintain a welfare state within the system. Here, again, one should not miss the grain of truth in the countervailing argument: if we remain within the confines of the global capitalist system, then measures to wring further sums from workers, students and pensioners are, effectively, necessary.
One often hears that the true message of the Eurozone crisis is that not only the Euro, but the project of the united Europe itself is dead. But before endorsing this general statement, one should add a Leninist twist to it: Europe is dead—ok, but which Europe? The answer is: the post-political Europe of accommodation to the world market, the Europe which was repeatedly rejected at referendums, the Brussels technocratic expert Europe. The Europe that presents itself as standing for cold European reason against Greek passion and corruption, for mathematics against pathetics. But, utopian as it may appear, the space is still open for another Europe: a re-politicized Europe, founded on a shared emancipatory project; the Europe that gave birth to ancient Greek democracy....
Monday, August 23, 2010
The real bind was that this [white male] Left assured us they spoke in the name of Marxism. They threatened that if we broke from them, organizationally or politically, we were breaking with Marx and scientific socialism. What gave us the boldness to break, fearless of the consequences, was the power of the Black movement. We found that redefining class went hand-in-hand with rediscovering a Marx the Left would never understand...
...Our identity, our social roles, the way we are seen, appears to be disconnected from our capitalist functions. To be liberated from them (or through them) appears to be independent from our liberation from capitalist wage slavery. In my view, identity-caste-is the very substance of class.
Here is the “strange place” where we found the key to the relation of class to caste written down most succinctly. Here is where the international division of labour is posed as power relationships within the working class. It is Volume I of Marx’s Capital:Manufacture . . . develops a hierarchy of labour powers, to which there corresponds a scale of wages. If, on the one hand, the individual labourers are appropriated and annexed for life by a limited function; on the other hand, the various operations of the hierarchy are parceled out among the labourers according to both their natural and their acquired capabilities. (Moscow 1958, p. 349)
In two sentences is laid out the deep material connection between racism, sexism, national chauvinism and the chauvinism of the generations who are working for wages against children and old age pensioners who are wageless, who are dependents.
A hierarchy of labour powers and scale of wages to correspond. Racism and sexism training us to develop and acquire certain capabilities at the expense of all others. Then these acquired capabilities are taken to be our nature and fix our functions for life, and fix also the quality of our mutual relations. So planting cane or tea is not a job for white people and changing nappies is not a job for men and beating children is not violence. Race, sex, age, nation, each an indispensable element of the international division of labour. Our feminism bases itself on a hitherto invisible stratum of the hierarchy of labour powers - the housewife - to which there corresponds no wage at all....
....Let me quote finally from a letter written against one of the organizations of the Italian extra-parliamentary Left [Autonomia Operaia] who, when we had a feminist symposium in Rome last year and excluded men, called us fascists and attacked us physically.. . . The traditional attack on the immigrant worker, especially but not exclusively if he or she is Black (or Southern Italian), is that her presence threatens the gains of the native working class. Exactly the same is said about women in relation to men. The anti-racist (i.e., anti-nationalist and anti-sexist) point of view -- the point of view, that is, of struggle -- is to discover the organizational weakness which permits the most powerful sections of the class to be divided from the less powerful, thereby allowing capital to play on this division, defeating us. The question is, in fact, one of the basic questions which the class faces today. Where Lenin divided the class between the advanced and the backward, a subjective division, we see the division along the lines of capitalist organization, the more powerful and the less powerful. It is the experience of the less powerful that when workers in a stronger position (that is, men with a wage in relation to women without one, or whites with a higher wage than Blacks) gain a “victory,” it may not be a victory for the weaker and even may represent a defeat for both. For in the disparity of power within the class is precisely the strength of capital.4
How the working class will ultimately unite organizationally, we don’t know. We do know that up to now many of us have been told to forget our own needs in some wider interest which was never wide enough to include us. And so we have learnt by bitter experience that nothing unified and revolutionary will be formed until each section of the exploited will have made its own autonomous power felt.
4. From a letter by Lotta Femminista and the International Feminist Collective, reprinted in L’Offensiva, Musolini, Turin, 1972 (pp. 18-19). I wrote the paragraph quoted here.
-Selma James, (PDF)Sex Race and Class(PDF)
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
CPS: You have argued, speaking of neoliberalism, you have argued that neoliberalism does not simply promote economic policies but to quote you “disseminates market values into every sphere of human activity.” What distinguishes your perspective here from the despair found in someone like Adorno? What would it require to translate the despair that many people experience in very personal and de-politicized ways into a form of political mobilization?
Wendy Brown: That is an interesting question because it assumes that neoliberalism produces despair. I wish it did but I am not convinced that it does. I think that the process that some of us have called neoliberalization actually seizes on something that is just a little to one side of despair that I might call something like a quotidian nihilism. By quotidian, I mean it is a nihilism that is not lived as despair; it is a nihilism that is not lived as an occasion for deep anxiety or misery about the vanishing of meaning from the human world. Instead, what neoliberalism is able to seize upon is the extent to which human beings experience a kind of directionlessness and pointlessness to life that neoliberalism in an odd way provides. It tells you what you should do: you should understand yourself as a spec of human capital, which needs to appreciate its own value by making proper choices and investing in proper things. Those things can range from choice of a mate, to choice of an educational institution, to choice of a job, to choice of actual monetary investments – but neoliberalism without providing meaning provides direction. In a sad way it is seizing upon a certain directionlessness and meaninglessness in late modernity.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
A rat race is for rats. We're not rats. We're human beings. Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement.
- From his speech to the students of Glasgow University after they had elected him rector (way back in the prehistoric year of 1972, when there was still such a thing as society).
Maybe the world breaks on purpose, so we can have work to do.
Saturday, August 07, 2010
Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with. The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth. The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country.
Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).
Bad Western characters may include children of Tory cabinet ministers, Afrikaners, employees of the World Bank. When talking about exploitation by foreigners mention the Chinese and Indian traders. Blame the West for Africa's situation. But do not be too specific.
How to Write about Haiti:
You are struck by the ‘resilience’ of the Haitian people. They will survive no matter how poor they are. They are stoic, they rarely complain, and so they are admirable. The best poor person is one who suffers quietly. A two-sentence quote about their misery fitting neatly into your story is all that’s needed.
On your last visit you became enchanted with Haiti. You are in love with its colorful culture and feel compelled to return. You care so much about these hard-working people. You are here to help them. You are their voice. They cannot speak for themselves.
Don’t listen if the Haitians speak loudly or become unruly. You might be in danger, get out of there. Protests are not to be taken seriously. The participants were probably all paid to be there. All Haitian politicians are corrupt or incompetent. Find a foreign authority on Haiti to talk in stern terms about how they must shape up or cede power to incorruptible outsiders...
...Point out that Port-au-Prince is overcrowded. Do not mention large empty plots of green land around the city. Of course, it is not possible to explain that occupying US Marines forcibly initiated Haiti’s shift from distributed, rural growth to centralized governance in the capital city. It will not fit within your word count. Besides, it is ancient history.
If you must mention Haiti’s history, refer vaguely to Haiti’s long line of power-hungry, corrupt rulers. The ‘iron-fisted’ Duvaliers, for example. Don’t mention 35 years of US support for that dictatorship. The slave revolt on which Haiti was founded was ‘bloody’ and ‘brutal.’ These words do not apply to modern American offensives in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Today, Cite Soleil is the most dangerous slum in the world. There is no need to back up this claim with evidence. It is ‘sprawling.’ Again, there’s no time for the thesaurus. Talk about ruthless gangs, bullet holes, pigs and trash. Filth everywhere. .
Thursday, August 05, 2010
Our capacity as human beings for imagination and story-telling makes us exquisitely vulnerable to exploitation by those who understand the properties of ideological power. Our natural propensity to credit commentary above any more detached understanding makes us more than prepared to open our minds to versions of ‘reality’ which are laced with some kind of appeal to our tastes, preferences or perceived interests. We are, one could say, naturally credulous. The societal apparatus which exists for the manipulation of our credulity forms an absolutely essential part of the technology of power. In everyday parlance this is, of course, for the most part what we mean by ‘the media’. But the news and entertainment media are not the only determinants of the way we see and interpret the world. Education and the related institutions of intellectual endeavour and instruction are also crucial to our understanding. None of this, of course, is lost on those in whose interest it is to channel the fruits of our labours into their pockets....
Once again, the attribution of greater reality to words than to worlds is already prefigured in the almost irresistible priority we accord as we grow up to commentary. Pretty well everybody is in this way primed to attach enormous importance to language, and I would not want to suggest that this phenomenon is in any way the invention of a cynical controlling power. It does not have to be conspiracy that rules our society (though sometimes it may be), but merely the sliding together of the interests which oil the wheels.
Modern philosophy, for example, has over the twentieth century come more and more to credit the importance of language and to discredit any notion not only that the world can be directly known (which certainly seems impossible), but that there is any point at all in speculating about what lies beyond language. There is nothing, says Derrida, outside the text; popular readings of Foucault privilege ‘discourse’ above all else; Rorty scoffs as the idea that our understanding could ‘hold a mirror up to nature’.
While these philosophers have serious, possibly even valid, points to make, their standpoint also lends itself wonderfully well to a society which seeks ideologically to detach its citizens from their embodied relation to a material world. Serious intellectuals seem to be the last to anticipate the use to which their work will be put. When, for example, Jean Baudrillard writes of the ‘hyperreality’ created by unfettered consumerism, it is all too easy for the edge of critical irony to be lost from his text and for it to become a kind of sourcebook for marketing executives, admen and other cultural illusionists. The whole notion of ‘postmodernism’ becomes popularized as the cutting edge of social and intellectual progress, distracting us from the (much more comprehensible) insight that what we are involved in is in fact a recycling of high capitalist economic strategies which reached a previous peak seventy or eighty years ago.
Psychology also has played an enormous part in helping to de-materialize the Western world over the past century. Freud managed to represent the significance of our experience as not only all in the mind, but most of it in the ‘unconscious mind’ such that it became well and truly impossible for us to criticize our world (just to criticize our selves, and that only with the help of a professional psychoanalyst). Indeed, for much of psychology, what goes on in the world, what are the material relations between individual and society, is a matter of complete irrelevance. All that counts is what goes on inside the individual’s head. Whatever the benefits of this view in terms of the hope it may bring to people of controlling their fate, it is an absolute godsend to those who have a less rarefied grasp of how to make the world work to their advantage. Thieves sack the mansion undisturbed while its occupants remain sunk in their dreams.
Wednesday, August 04, 2010
Tuesday, August 03, 2010
Monday, August 02, 2010
When governments justify war on the grounds of freedom from oppressive gender regimes, it helps to recognise that theses justifications have a history, to refuse to hear them as in any way ‘new’. As Gayatri Spivak taught us, empire itself was justified in these terms, with a description that remains extraordinary for its precision: ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’.
- Sara Ahmed, Problematic Proximities or Why Critiques of "Gay Imperialism" Matter
In Chapter 4, I introduced the idea of “social alexithymia” (Feagin 2006), Hernan Vera’s term for White Americans’ curious lack of empathy for the feelings of people of color. We can now see that this lack of empathy involves a chain of reasoning that goes something like this: “I am a good and normal mainstream sort of White person. I am not a racist, because racists are bad and marginal people. Therefore, if you understood my words to be racist, you must be mistaken. I may have used language that would be racist in the mouth of a racist person, but if I did so, I was joking. If you understood my meaning to be racist, not only do you insult me, but you lack a sense of humor, and you are oversensitive.” Notice that this entire chain of reasoning makes the speaker the sole authority over what her words shall mean. But this exclusive control is merely the common sense of personalist logic, and it is very hard to interrupt common sense….
Van Dijk argued that ‘knowledgeable minority group members’ are our surest guides to where racism is active. People of color have produced some of the most profound thinking about racism, and, while they pick their battles carefully, letting much that is offensive pass by without objection, both in small acts of everyday rejection and in deliberate public manifestations by entire communities, they have been active in resistance. When I have talked to people of color about “covert racist discourse,” I often find that they have understood this concept, in an informal way, since childhood. Among Whites, the idea of “linguistic appropriation” is a concept encountered, if at all, during university education. Among African Americans, it is a commonplace of everyday understanding. So, not only do people of color deserve civility and respect as fellow citizens, they deserve the attention of anti-racist Whites as knowledgeable experts in the analysis of White racism, which is surely one of the greatest challenges faced by American society.
Along with accusations of “oversensitivity”, the media ritual of moral panic over “gaffes” should cease. I have followed these affairs for about a decade. Their terms are rigidly formulaic. The exchange of blame and excuse is utterly predictable, with Harvard-educated Washington Post columnists and middle-western talk radio hosts alike invoking the same hackneyed formulas, knotting up once again the frayed ends of the folk theory of racism and the personalist rhetoric of motives to return to the same tired conclusions about decent people who somehow slipped. It is time to simply hold people responsible for their words. If victims claim that those words were hurtful and damaging, that alone should carry blame and bring appropriate punishment. Arguments about whether or not speakers are racist are not useful, and function largely to reproduce White racism’s central ideas.
Jane Hill, The Everyday Language of White Racism
Sunday, August 01, 2010
Flo Kennedy, Black Power, Radical Feminism, Anti-War, Anti-Imperialism, "White Civilizing" Committees, And More
This is a really great lecture about really important history, which can also be read about here.