Saturday, May 30, 2009

You aint from round here... posted by Richard Seymour

Islamophobia Watch draws attention to a depressingly dim column by the occasionally sharp Matthew Parris. The whole thing is a tiresome whinge, culminating in this disingenuous musing:

Would it be wrong to try to convey to communities in Britain who adopt the full hijab that, though it is a woman's legal right to dress as she chooses, she should recognise that she's in a country where many people will find a masked face disturbing, and that (without meaning to) she is acting in a culturally inappropriate manner, which may offend?

One is struck, powerfully, by how pathetic this is. If you are offended, or even disturbed, by someone covering a part of their face, I strongly suggest you seek treatment. Failing that, I suggest you keep it quiet, and try to remain indoors as much as possible. The modern world was not made for such precious creatures. But this attitude is also most telling. After all, the objection to the hijab/niqab/burqa (such sartorial distinctions evidently don't matter if the garments are assumed to be cut from the same evil cloth) is supposedly a universalist one. It supposedly has some connection with women's rights. Behind it all, though, one consistently finds a cowardly authoritarianism, a desire to regulate the apparel of Muslim women on behalf of that dowdy particularism known as 'British values'. Such values, where they do not amount to an assertion of the inviolable rights of property, seem to involve being bourgeois, conformist, timid, insular, and pig-ignorant. Would it be wrong to try to convey to Matthew Parris and those of his ideological persuasion that this is not the 1950s? That while it is their legal right to believe and even write whatever lame nonsense occurs to them, they should realise that they live in a society where many people will find their paranoia ludicrous? And that, without meaning to, they are confirming what everyone already knew - which is that Britain doesn't have a culture?

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Review and appearance posted by Richard Seymour

Ashley Smith of Socialist Worker (US) has written a lengthy and positive appraisal of The Liberal Defence of Murder here. I will also be appearing on CBC on Sunday morning (8.45am Canadian time) for a live interview and discussion of the British pull-out from Iraq.

Update: the CBC appearance has been cancelled at the last moment, unfortunately. This seems to happen a lot with television.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Lion of the Desert posted by Richard Seymour

About Mussolini's conquest of Libya and the resistance:

Article here, review here.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

And now they're coming for your pensions posted by Richard Seymour

This is how the capitalist class would like to pay for the national debt created by its crisis: by crudely increasing the rate of exploitation. Behind the disingenuous headline, which just reflects the fact that people can be pushed into accepting a longer working life if the alternative is destitution and poverty, the real story is this:

The National Institute for Economic and Social Research recently estimated that adding five years to working lives by raising state social security ages could help the UK return to a level of debt below the “golden rule” of 40 per cent of gross domestic product by 2023.
This could be called capital's "five year plan". You can bet that the first place it will be pioneered will be in the public sector, where previous efforts to raise the pensionable age to 67 have resulted in big strike waves. David Cameron has just been given his instructions for 2010, and he and his team are definitely up for a battle with public sector workers. Part of the article's justification for the attack on pensions is this canard that the UK isn't producing enough young people to support the elderly population who are living for too long. (Not to be an idle dreamer or nostalgist or anything, but didn't it used to be the case that living for longer was a good thing?) The trouble is, aside from the fact that there are millions of people of working age who are de facto excluded from the workforce (reserve army of labour and all that), rises in productivity should cover any decline in the economic support ratio (see here). So, there isn't actually a crisis in pensions. Just like the 'social security crisis' in the US, it is fabricated. It is an attack on some of the most valuable gains of social democracy, and it has to be resisted.

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A few points about fascism posted by Richard Seymour

In order to be effective, anti-fascists focus on the specific threat posed by fascism, and refuse to allow the term to be watered down by claims that 'NuLab is a bit fascist, innit?'. They seek to unite the broadest possible constituency against the far right, including liberals and Tories as well as trade unionists and the Left. But not every would-be anti-fascist accepts this priority. Roobin rightly takes issue with the idiotic Thatcherite meme that describes the BNP, and thus fascism as such, as 'extreme left-wing'. You get this from the supporters of John Redwood on CiF and elsewhere, but it is congruent with a broader set of claims about fascism being a 'revolutionary' movement rather than a counterrevolutionary one, one with a coherent anticapitalist and antiliberal philosophy which belongs in the same category as Stalinism as a form of 'totalitarianism' originating in early modern organicist thought (it's all Rousseau's fault). In this view, right and left are divided not by their attitude to human equality, but by their attitude to liberalism and the state. This has been regurgitated in preposterous arguments that one should have no truck with antifascist movements that include the far left, since revolutionary socialists are only 'red fascists' and so on. By dividing the antifascist majority and effacing the specific danger that the far right poses, this gesture assists the BNP. The BNP are also benefiting from arguments popularised in the 'war on terror', maintaining that Islam is the 'real' fascism. Since that party is being puffed remorselessly in the national as well as local media (check out these instances of local churnalism spotted by Sarah Ditum), and since they stand a good chance of sending their duce to the European parliament, it's important to get this right.

The first point to make about fascism is that, as Robert Paxton, the great historian of Vichy France argues, it possesses no coherent ideology or philosophical system. It is no accident that there was no Fascist Manifesto. There is a great gulf, not only between what different fascist movements have said, but between what they have said and what they have done when given the opportunity. Fascists have had few shared assumptions, or shared enemies. European fascists were often hostile to Christianity, but this was not true of Franco or Petain. Indeed, Marrus, Paxton and Hoffman's book, Vichy France and the Jews, points out that Petain sought the approbation of the Vatican for his anti-Jewish policies (which he received), and was sensitive to even the relatively restrained criticisms that came from some Catholic clergy. Similiarly, while fascists from the northwest and east of Europe directed their most deadly ire against Jews, mediterranean fascists were far more conscpicuous in their hostility to the Left and colonized peoples. As for ideological inconstancy, Mussolini's 1919 programme promised sweeping social change, from the eight hour day to workers' involvement in industrial management. The 'Twenty-Five Points' of the Nazis in 1920 boasted hostility to all forms of non-artisanal capitalism. In neither case did the programmes prefigure the regimes, both of which involved coalition with conservative elites.

The second, related, point is that the difference between fascist programme and action is by no means reducible to the corruption that the achievement of power supposedly exerts on all political programmes. As Paxton points out, fascism is unlike Stalinism in the sense that fascism "never produces a casuistic literature devoted to demonstrating how the leader’s actions correspond in some profound way to the basic scriptures. Being in accord with basic scriptures simply does not seem to matter to fascist leaders, who claim to incarnate the national destiny in their physical persons." (Robert O Paxton, 'The Five Stages of Fascism', The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 70, March 1998) Fascists dissimulate about certain core tenets, but not about programme for they have none. If fascists were 'revolutionaries', their actions would have been different. They would not have come to power on the basis of an alliance with conservative elites or formed such effective coalitions with concentrated capitalist power. In truth, however, they could not have come to power otherwise; they would not have been able to take power except in a counterrevolutionary pact with the ruling classes. This counterrevolutionary function, moreover, preceded accession to power: the main way in which early fascist paramilitaries acted was to violently attack the left, particularly the revolutionary left, and the organisations of the insurgent working class. The main goal once in power was not to 'transcend' social conflict, as the sociologist Michael Mann would have it, but to suppress it by any means necessary. It was recognised, in fact, that such conflicts of interest would continue to exist, but the point was to protect the national state from its effects.

Thirdly, European fascist parties tend to emphasise their willingness to use the state to assist (white) people. But for all its emphasis on what Mann refers to as the 'fetish-object' of the nation-state, for all its corporatism, the statism of fascism, particularly as regards the economy, is over-stated. Such state intervention as was practised was highly conditioned by the exigencies of economic collapse and the need to develop an efficient war machine. It was often aimed at disciplining labour and reducing incomes. And efforts to coopt the working class were always curtailed by the fascists' hostility to social equality and their social Darwinist belief that the success of industrial capitalists was meritocratic. The 'four year plan' of the Nazis, the technical details of which were drafted by IG Farben, represented not an attempt to contain capitalist development but the on-going fusion of sectors of capital with the state. It was succeeded, moreover, by a sweeping wave of privatizations. Moreover, the most barbaric successes of fascist doctrine were created in those spaces where the party either trumped or escaped the national state - in wars of expansion, most obviously, during which highly efficient regimes of mass destruction were created without the simultaneous creation of effective administrative structures.

This is just by way of disputing any reading of European far right parties as being in some sense the necessary beneficiaries of the collapse of social democracy, as being the 'natural' home for alienated left-wing constituencies, of the 'white working class'. Such claims are not only patronising (just as patronising as the Archbishop's claim that the BNP might be a natural resort of people riled by the expenses scandal), they are also extraordinarily dangerous. But some of the above might also help explain a few apparent peculiarities about the fascist threat today. We are used to fascists posing as defenders of the welfare state and trade unions, opponents of privatization and so on. This is what the BNP do when they address working class audiences, it is what Le Pen did to woo French workers, and historically the whole rebarbative conjugation of 'national socialism' was in the first place an attempt to win over the German working class. But we are entitled to ask: how did we end up with parties of the far right positioning themselves as defenders of liberalism? I'm not just talking about the late 'Pim Fortuyn List', but the way in which European fascist parties are increasingly taking up the mantra of 'free speech', 'civil liberties' and so on (in opposition to supposed 'outside' threats to them). Why do they attempt, however unconvincingly, to disavow or attenuate some of their most reactionary stances (on homosexuality, for example)? And why are European fascists aligning with Israel while ostentatiously shedding their antisemitic stances in public - the effort is insincere, but why bother? It is tempting to see all this as pure dissimulation, an accomodation to certain fortuitous conditions provided by the 'war on terror'. But I don't think the support for Israel is actually just a pose: it makes perfect sense in the current global alignments for the far right to support Israel, and it by no means entails that they give up their antisemitism. The language of a 'clash of civilizations' is, moreover, entirely compatible with the colonial assumptions embedded in fascism. On the other, it makes perfect sense for movements whose hallmark is to appropriate 'traditions' supposedly belonging to the 'communities' they valorise, to adopt certain liberal cynosures without actually being liberal themselves.

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Empire and the making of the nation state posted by Richard Seymour

"It is in the colonies, rather than Britain, that many elements of the modern nation-state were first put into place. The disciplinary mechanisms of the colonial state, from police services to fingerprinting, inspired like developments in England. It is in India that fingerprinting, which rapidly became accepted all over the world, was developed by members of the Bengal police, and E. R. Henry, who played a large (but perhaps not indispensable) part in this venture, went on to become commissioner of Metropolitan Police in London. The police services, as a whole, were more well-developed in India than England, not surprising when we consider the active role of the colonial state in not only putting down crime (as might be expected), but in repressing revolutionary activity and instituting a regime of surveillance. Scotland Yard was preceded by the Thuggee and Dacoity department which, when it disbanded around 100 years ago, gave way to the Central Intelligence Department. If the so-called ’rubber bullet’ was to be used by British troops in Ireland in the 1970s, it was in India in the nineteenth century that the British pioneered the use of the fatal Dum-Dum or expanding bullet, subsequently used in the Boer war. The same war saw the British imprison Boer women and children in what were in effect concentration camps, and though Britain, the island civilisation, prided itself on its unquestionable moral superiority to the militaristic Germans, it undoubtedly had a thing or two to teach to the Huns, as they were then called. It was India, Ireland, and later the African colonies that served as Britain’s laboratory, and where methods of riot control and police action were mastered before being deployed against the working class and communists in Britain." (Vinay Lal, 'Good Nazis and just scholars: much ado about the British empire', Race & Class, Vol 38, 1997)

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Also appearing posted by Richard Seymour

I will be speaking at the University of Sussex this week on my book, The Liberal Defence of Murder, this Thursday at 5pm. You can find me at Room 133, Arts C, University of Sussex, Brighton. I will also be speaking on the same topic at the Oxford Working Class Bookfair, from 4pm on 20 June, at Ruskin College (see link for more details). If anyone else needs me to do a talk, send a quick e-mail to the address in the sidebar.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

A note on 'humanitarian' concentration camps posted by Richard Seymour

The British invented concentration camps, in South Africa during the Boer War. They were described by their architects as humanitarian institutions designed to protect the widows and abandoned wives and mothers of white Boers from the potential depredations of the natives. They were, of course, places of extraordinary cruelty and neglect where tens of thousands died. This reflects the tendency for liberal ideals to transform into their opposites under capitalism, a tendency which marxists have sometimes been inclined to describe in terms of the literary tropes of 'the dialectic' (which tropes they have absurdly taken to be in some sense a 'science', and one with cosmological implications at that). It happens that institutions of terror and cruelty have so often been organised under a humanitarian remit that one is inclined to wonder if the values that supposedly gave rise to them are, 'dialectically', interpenetrated with their opposites. And here it comes up again. The terms of humanitarianism turn out to have crucial national and raciological dimensions (this will be vaguely familiar to British watchers of the news,who are used to being told about 'Britons' who died in a particular calamity). Sri Lanka constructs what it refers to as 'refugee camps', to contain the victims of its war, who happen to be its supposed racial enemies. And in these camps there will be a quarter of a million people without the necessities of survival, being raped and beaten and humiliated because they are Tamils. The government turns away aid (just as the Bush administration did during Katrina), and justifies it on the grounds that aid is an affront to the dignity of the victims who don't need charity. The spectral 'international community' is advised that 'standards' are being maintained. But even if this were true, these 'standards' are being applied to a programme of obliteration, a programme carried out with intent to destroy the resistance of the Tamil community to its 'inclusion' in Sri Lankan sovereignty. This is a kind of neoliberal 'humanitarianism': if we can destroy any figment of radical statist opposition to the Sri Lankan national unit, we can promote growth and ultimately benefit those poor Tamil farmers while we're at it. Of course this promise is a lie, but surely the point is that such promises are routinely made to accomodate people to exploitation and immiseration. The recent success of the Congress Party in the Indian elections depended in part on their promise that with some modest pro-poor initiatives and opposition to communalism, the country would experience GDP growth that would lift all boats. On such ostensibly humanitarian edifices, enormous works of extraction and exploitation are constructed. And if, in some cases, it requires the imposition of technologies of authority originating in 'Old Europe', who is going to be sentimental enough to oppose it? If necessary, I should think, a healthy round of executions would be appropriate, for the good of the victims if nothing else.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Teaching the British Empire posted by Richard Seymour

An interesting article: "At the Prince of Wales Education Summer School for English and history specialists in July 2003, calls were made from the Prince himself, along with historian Professor Niall Ferguson and Scott Harrison, Specialist Adviser for History at the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted – the official schools’ watchdog in Britain), for the history of Britain’s imperial past to be reinstated at the core of the secondary-school curriculum (Pike, 2003). Ferguson presented a television programme on the British Empire that was watched by more than two million people in Britain. I will argue that Marxists should endorse these calls..."

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

The scorched earth of Tamil Eelam posted by Richard Seymour

The leaders of the LTTE have immolated themselves, and it is reported that chief Prabhakaran is dead. The Sri Lankan army has rounded up the last fighters. Thousands have been killed by the Sri Lankan army, and hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped in internment camps, where they report being raped, abused, and starved by Sri Lankan soldiers. The Tamil Eelam state that LTTE fighters had been building in areas where they controlled has been demolished. A struggle that has lasted for over a generation now looks like it has ended in a decisive victory for the Sri Lankan state against the Tamil separatists. But what manner of struggle is it that is now apparently subsiding into a bloody twilight, and what will replace it? It would be difficult for anyone relying on the mainstream news to tell. In the UK, some awareness has been raised thanks to the efforts of networks of Tamil activists. But these activists have had to operate under scrutiny, because the LTTE was banned in the UK in 2001, and anyone suspected of being a member could end up being arrested.

The main way in which we have come to understand the LTTE and the Tamil secession struggle has been through the prism of counterinsurgency, terrorism, the strategic logic of suicide attacks, funding networks and - so it has darkly been hinted - possible ties with 'Al Qaeda'. History and context are only raised on the rare occasion that someone in the field of 'counterterrorism' thinks it matters. Otherwise we are advised that it is simply an ethnic conflict, between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. The Sri Lankan state, which blames the entire conflict on the LTTE and purports to be 'liberating' Tamils from their rule, is apparently convinced that a military demolition of its opponents means that they have secured a long term victory. In fact, however, their turn to this brutal military solution is a result of failure. It is the inability of Sri Lanka's rulers to accomodate even partially the interests of the Tamil minority within the terms of its sovereignty, as was made clear by the failure of peace accords earlier this decade, that has led to this state of affairs. This is the hallmark of a weak and fractious ruling class, not a strong and confident one. The LTTE may be broken, but that doesn't mean that the people of the Tamil north will simply give way.

As usual, there is a colonial background here, inasmuch as the ethnic divisions are rooted in the practises of rule and exploitation by British colonial powers in what was Ceylon. British imperialism was hardly loyal to one ethnicity over another - its 'race management' strategy changed over time. On the one hand, the British imported indentured workers from Tamil Nadu in southern India to help extract those rich rubber, tea, cinnamon, indigo and sugar resources. These were subject to tough labour legislation and restrictions forbidding them from leaving the plantation. On the other hand, modest advantages were conferred on some middle class layers of the Tamil minority who had already lived there for hundreds of years, as well as on some upper class Sinhalese and particularly on Burghers (descendants of European colonists). Moreover, British ethnology absurdly maintained that the Sinhalese and Tamils were distinct 'races': the former were 'Aryan', while the latter were 'Dravidian' - this on the basis of a divergence between languages spoken in central and southern India, and the Sanskrit-derived languages of the north.

This was an important aspect of imperial power-knowledge, as the British based their administrative units on such ethnology, while the owners of capital used anti-Tamil feeling to break strikes and disorganise workers. Such 'divide and rule' strategies were reflected in the censuses which, after 1911, placed indentured Tamil plantation workers in a separate category as 'Indian Tamils'. Legislation pushed through by Governor Manning in 1924 was used to undermine the unity of the emerging Lankan nationalist movement by introducing more communal representation systems into the Legislative Council. On this occasion, the British chose to under-represent the Sinhalese majority. Later, the Fabian-led Donoughmore Commission would reject communal representation and propose a 'universal franchise' under British rule. The Tamil nationalists had to decide whether to oppose it in the interests of conserving a communal position, or whether to oppose it because it didn't concede self-government, and ultimately chose the latter, but you begin to see how such divisions had become a terrible disabling factor for the independence movement.

That brings us to another crucial background, which is the rise and eclipse of the Sri Lankan revolutionary Left in the 20th Century, and its ultimate inability to overcome the divisions inherited from the colonial period. For, despite the mass communist and trade union movements that fought for independence, when independence was finally achieved in 1948, it was on terms that maintained powerful British interests in Sri Lanka, with large naval and air facilities based there to help the empire defends its holdings in Malaya. Moreover, it was in a way that deepened the extant ethnic divisions. Tamil plantation workers were excluded from the franchise by the new ruling party, the UNFP, and thus the Tamil minority was stigmatised as being in some sense not properly Sri Lankan. A split from the UNFP produced the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) which was even more hostile to the Tamil minority. It claimed that Sri Lanka had a Buddhist identity, despite the fact that a sizeable minority were Hindu. Peaceful protesters, however, were attacked and killed, while the government continued to discriminate against the Tamil minority. They were the target of riots, pogroms, and state repression, and in opposition to this there developed a guerilla movements such as the Tamil New Tigers.

Sri Lanka was unique in developing a mass communist movement based on Trotskyism. The role of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), founded in 1935, was quite extraordinary. Not only was it not a communally based party, but it made a surprising and concrete connection with the British working class with the involvement of its prominent agitator Mark Bracegirdle (the spectacle of a white man rousing Sri Lankan labourers with his speeches against the planters was something that the British administrators absolutely detested). It was instrumental in building the union movement, was one of the few forces that continued to fight the British during World War II, and became the main opposition party after the war. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the party made great strides while resisting the Sinhala nationalism of the ruling SLFP. Moreover, the most powerful trade union movements at that time were aligned to the LSSP. But the party made the mistake of forming a coalition government with the SLFP, first in 1964, then again in 1970. It became part of a ruling administration that actually continued to discriminate against the Tamil minority. And it was also a suicidal move, since the front split in 1975, the LSSP representatives were expelled, and the party later lost all its MPs. It has since been involved in several coalitions with the SFLP, and has never recovered its former standing. But to be absolutely clear about this, the LSSP's early opposition to communalism was, as far as I can discover, most unusual. The majority of left-wing groups - and bear in mind that even the SFLP is nominally a socialist party - had long supported Sinhalese nationalism.

And that brings us to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was formed in 1976 to replace the Tamil New Tigers, and the Tamil independence struggle which was launched in 1983. The rise of the Tigers did reflect the left's historic failure, even if the LTTE adopted nominally marxist politics. It reflected the fact that a non-communal left had been unable to hegemonise the working class, that even explicit revolutionaries and Guevarists had been party to oppression of the Tamils. It also reflected an enormous increase in state repression, with increasing reliance on mass arrests and torture. The tactics of the LTTE in response have been the focus of a lot of study of late. Kidnappings, bombings and, later on, suicide attacks. These were the tactics of a national struggle, one that necessarily didn't recognise any allies among the Sinhala majority.

But the dirty war was overwhelmingly fought by the Sri Lankan army. For example, when Tamil fighters attacked an army convoy in Jaffna in July 1983, the army retaliated by attacking and killing sixty civilians in the city - university lecturers, housewives, engineers, students, all shot dead in their homes. The Colombo-based press, however, focused overwhelmingly on the dead soldiers (does this sound familiar?) and whipped up an atmosphere of hostility to the Tamils. The government then proceeded with an extraordinarily vicious series of pogroms, which began with the burning of huts in Trincomalee and the expulsion of their residents. In Colombo, Sinhalese nationalists organised and attacked Tamil homes, shops, and vehicles, murdering dozens in one evening. Tamil prisoners were systematically murdered in cold blood. For weeks and weeks, similar episodes raged. The streets, empty apart from armed men on the prowl and their victims, were scenes of devastation. One town, the Tamil town of Kandapola, was utterly destroyed. The government began to round Tamils up, ostensibly to protect, and drove them into wretched 'refugee camps'. 90,000 refugees were created in Colombo alone by the first week of August. That wave of violence is known as 'Black July'. It lent awful credence to the argument that the Tamils didn't have Sinhalese allies they could look to. It sparked the war that thundered for more than twenty five years.

I have emphasised that the LTTE struggle can't be reduced to its tactics, but its tactics did flow from its nationalist premises. That is why it chose to pursue a guerilla struggle when it didn't have mass support, and why it eventually sought the help of the Indian government who at first armed the Tigers, then negotiated a peace deal, then sent in a 'peacekeeping' force which ended up attempting to disarm them - thus producing another horrendous bout of conflict, this time with the Indian army who were forced to withdraw in 1990. The Tigers, to make up for their lack of firepower, pioneered suicide bombings and invented the suicide belt. They repeatedly targeted civilians, seeing them as complicit in their oppression. They killed Muslims where they didn't simply extort them for funding. They also engaged in the recruitment of child soldiers. Such callousness was mandated by the argument that the Tamils could never live at peace within Sri Lanka, that they would always be oppressed, and could never look to Sinhalese or anyone else to defend them - but could in Tamil Eelam, they would be free.

Even despite their relative weakness, the Tigers could be a devastatingly effective force, and were very efficient at raising funds through the diaspora. It wasn't beyond them to rout the Sri Lankan army, such as when they took the strategically essential Elephant Pass from the Sri Lankan army in 2000, and then destroyed half the Air Lanka fleet at Colombo airport when the army tried to take it back. They successfully assassinated the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, partially as a response to India's role in northern Sri Lanka. At the same time, because of their inherent military disadvantage, they repeatedly engaged in diplomatic attempts to end the war. Throughout the conflict, there were five separate peace agreements, and several unilateral ceasefires on the part of the LTTE. The Sri Lankan state consistently refused to reciprocate on unilateral ceasefires and generally didn't hold up its end of the bargain in negotiated ceasefires. This isn't to say that the Tigers were angelic in their conduct of negotiations. One doesn't expect that. And nor does it mean that peace held no advantages for the Sri Lankan ruling class. To secure the territory would certainly open new avenues for growth and allow the further penetration of the economic liberalisation programme throughout the country. The question was always whether they preferred a peace with autonomy for the Tamil north or a peace achieved by a comprehensive defeat for the Tigers. Given the choice, and given the prevailing constituencies, they tended to choose the latter.

The last ceasefire started in 2002 and ended in 2004, and it is instructive to see just how it ended. The Sri Lankan army had, since the fall of the Elephant Pass, been actively seeking arms and counterinsurgency training from any source it could. It forged a new alliance with Israel to this end, and raised its defence budget to $1bn. The army engaged in an energetic recruitment drive. The LTTE, evidently not trusting the government and unwilling to reduce its fighting capacity until a political settlement had been reached, sought to mirror the army's build up. The ceasefire was looking fairly shaky by late 2004. A new coalition had come to power involving leading Sinhalese nationalist forces, the SFLP and JVP, with the support of he LSSP. They did not support the federalist idea that both the LTTE and the previous government had been negotiating around. They declared that the negotiations process was tainted at source, and that the ceasefire no longer held. And then the tsunami struck. The army took the advantage of the devastation to restore its position in the Tamil north, just as the Indonesian army was doing in Aceh. It deliberately withheld aid from Tamil areas and started to penetrate refugee camp. Soon after, the war resumed. It resumed with the Sri Lankan army in a far more commanding position than it had been in before. And it ended with the military devastating its opponents and slaughtering civilians as it had always done. It ended the dream of Tamil Eelam.

But what would Tamil Eelam have looked like? The structures of an incipient state were being constructed in the Tiger-run territories, partly out of sheer necessity. Unwilling to be ruled under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, they had to elaborate their own legal system and civil codes. The structures they developed were highly effective. There is a rather simplistic argument over whether the peace and low crime rates that obtained in the Tiger controlled areas were the result of authoritarian policing or social justice. The state structures were indeed highly authoritarian in some ways, which is perhaps unsurprising in the context of war. On the other hand, they were based on welfare and development, codifying womens' rights, criminalised all forms of caste discrimination, and so on. The welfare functions were paid for by a form of taxation that in other circumstances would just be called 'rent'. The Tigers also pioneered the creation of an NGO, the Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation which, for example organised tsunami relief aid. As brutal as the Tigers could be in their tactics, they evidently tried to prefigure a more socially just society. And this made sense as a political strategy, since their ability to wield effective force had to be embedded in their political hegemony. Nonetheless, it's important to see the limits of this. The LTTE had traditionally been in favour of a heavily state-run developmentalist economy, but in negotiations in 2004 made it clear that while the LTTE had to urgently mount a humanitarian and development programme, it favoured a long-term strategy based on "an open market economy", and it voiced no opposition to the state's liberalisation measures. The glorious Tamil Eelam would have been a neoliberal state, perhaps no more than an autonomous zone within a federal structure, implementing the same IMF-driven policies that have been pushed from Colombo for some years.

That this, ultimately, is what so many young men and women were prepared to kill an die for, is not the least of the Tamils' tragedies.

ps: see Socialist Worker's archive of articles on Sri Lanka for some useful background.

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Egotistical sublime posted by Richard Seymour

An interview with yours truly about The Liberal Defence of Murder and related subjects, at ReadySteadyBook.

I will also be speaking in Sussex next week. Details to follow.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Benefit cheats posted by Richard Seymour

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Comments policy posted by Richard Seymour

You gauche lot, you. Until you've learned to handle your cutlery as if it wasn't a set of crayons, you're out of bounds, rusticated, sent down, like the dirty, perverted, Oz-reading filth that you are. If anyone wants me, I shall be reading this, albeit only as a prepatory for shoving a big, dirty, intellectual jackboot right in your face, darlings. Oh. Some of you have ejaculated already. How tasteless.

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Horrors and humanitarianism posted by Richard Seymour

This is just a prefatory note to something lengthier. You have been warned.

The 'Bulgarian horrors', and Gladtone's response, have been cited a number of times in prehistories of 'humanitarian intervention'. For example, Martha Finnemore cited it in her 1996 essay, 'Constructing norms of humanitarian intervention', and Gary Bass cites it again in Freedom's Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention. I have alighted enough times on the simple wierdness of advocates of humanitarian intervention seeking validation for such a programme in 'Old Europe'. As the two examples mentioned indicate, this trend is not restricted to the vulgarising, coarsening rhetoric of the belligerati. It is also evident in serious scholarship, such as in the work of Neta Crawford (see some astute criticisms in Patricia Owens' review [pdf]).

But, specifically, what is it about the British Empire and the 'Eastern Question' that seems so susceptible to such a reading? After all, there is no doubt that the institution of race was a crucial normative factor justifying calls for intervention, whether in the lurid pamphlets of Gladstone or in the letters of Bishop Strossmayer of Zagreb (whose reading of the Koran in his is October 1876 correspondence is quite similar to that of Sam Harris, by the way). Moreover, it is precisely through this institution that the impassioned moralism, the 'humanitarianism' itself, was convoked and expressed. Gladstone's "pilgrimage of passion", as his detractors called it, was itself both a phenomenal display of electrifying wrath-of-god popular agitation (a mode of communication which Blair sampled and looped, causing some liberal and neoconservative commentators to lose both mind and underclothing) and a vulgar racist crusade against Islam. (This liberal imperialist allowed that the Mahometans may be manageable when a subordinate minority, as in British-ruled India, but in Turkistan the deficiencies of Islam became all to evident). Both Finnemore and Bass are aware of this, and duly embarrassed by it. After all, if Finnemore was right and a new humanitarian norm was being defined in this era (though she hastens to add that this was evident more in justification than in policy), this would confirm that this norm was being constructed as an aspect of that ascriptive hierarchy known as 'race' (and the contiguous hierarchy known as empire). It would also tend to support the point made by Marc Trachtenberg that "To be a target of intervention—indeed, even of humanitarian intervention—was to be stigmatized as of inferior status". And that, of course, undermines the assiduously constructed narrative according to which humanitarianism in the context of imperial foreign policy represented the successful intrusion of egalitarianism into foreign affairs.

Yet, the temptation to scour the annals of Old Europe, particularly those instances in which there is a putative clash with Islam (Greece in the 1820s and Lebanon in the 1860s are the other two key examples that tend to be cited), persists - and it has to be read symptomatically.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Liberal posted by Richard Seymour

Via Angry Arab, the NYT picks an Afghan "liberal":

I will not be the one to dispute the description, but I can't help but be reminded of "Jakarta's new moderate leader, Suharto".

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Subtle posted by Richard Seymour

Israel wipes Palestine off the map:

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Friday, May 15, 2009

And they call it 'responsibility' posted by Richard Seymour

One of the most interesting questions that came up in my talk at Wadham College last night was whether those who lead us into war on the pretext of saving women from oppression or upholding human rights are purely cynics, or whether there is a sense in which they uphold a sort of neoliberal or bourgeois 'common sense' which happens to be contiguous with a defence of ruling class interests. I suggested that there are an awful lot of naked cynics - people like Rumsfeld and Cheney, for instance - but that beyond that there is a sophisticated intellectual culture, a technical expertise and a system of conceptual operations which academics, state officials, journalists, lawyers and various technocrats are educated in. There is a certain amount of cynicism built-in to that training, I think, a half-assed worldliness and pseudo-scepticism that is necessary to make it effective - a point that I'll come back to.

In the field of international relations, there is a dense clutter of overlapping and contradictory conceits that help elite thinkers explain world affairs with some basic verisimilitude. On the more sophisticated end, there is the constructivism of Alexander Wendt, Martha Finnemore et al, which critiques neorealist assumptions - not junking them, not saying that 'anarchy' and 'balance of power' and so on aren't operative, just explaining the obvious point that they are socially constructed and subject to reconstruction according to new norms and paradigms. It challenged a crude, and reductionist materialism but remained orthodox enough to become widely accepted in mainstream IR discourse. It was under the influence of a certain version of constructivism that IR theorist and former Clinton official Stephen Krasner argued that state sovereignty was 'organised hypocrisy', a 'cognitive script' that we need not take too seriously. And it is this trend of thinking that academics and writers such as Thomas Weiss, Alex Bellamy and others look to when they try to elaborate a new norm of 'humanitarian intervention', and the 'responsibility to protect'.

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) - involving senior dignitaries from various governments and the United Nations, and co-sponsored by foundations such as the Carnegie Corporation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and also the Canadian government - represented a zenith for this movement. The doctrine of 'Responsibility to Protect' (referred to in ICISS circles by its rebarbative acronym, 'R2P'), which has roots in the 'Just War' tradition, amounts to an attempt to seriously curtail notions of state sovereignty. It is motivated by what is seen as unconscionable instances of inaction in the face of catastrophe throughout the 1990s, most obviously in Rwanda (forget about what they actually did in Rwanda). But precisely because of that, it expresses, in its cold legalese, the renascent paternalism of post-Cold War imperialism. At its heart is the fantasy of knowing, benevolent Western power. Its moral warrant is 'enlightened self-interest', since the argument is that to leave suffering and oppression to fester is likely to be counterproductive and produce a security threat in the medium to long-run.

The drive to secure a central place for this doctrine in state postures has been somewhat sidelined by developments, but it is still percolating away in the academia, among diplomats and statesmen, and it's a live concern of Wilsonians in the State Department, such as Anne-Marie Slaughter. One of its most notable advocates, a former Australian foreign minister and co-founder of the ICISS, authored an introduction to Thomas Weiss' 2007 book, Humanitarian Intervention, which contained an assertion of the constructivist wisdom that states no longer operate in a principle-free universe, that there is widespread acceptance of certain moral claims upon them by the oppressed and neglected and so on. The book itself, considered a classic in the field, re-states this idea at some length, but just to give you a flavour of the necessary cynicism involved, here's a quote:

"Motives behind humanitarian interventions are almost invariably mixed. Looking for parsimony in motives does not really advance the discussion, because not all political motives are evil. If only altruism without significant interests had to be present, there would rarely be sufficient motivation to get involved in the first place or to stay the course - the feeble international military involvement in Darfur and the US withdrawal from Somalia after losing 18 Rangers in October 1993 are illustrations." (p. 7).

To explain everything that is wrong with this brief passage would take too long, so let's leave to one side the whole business of the consequences of actual US intervention in Somalia and the terrible likely consequences of any military intervention in Sudan. I just note that the basic argument is that we can't take too seriously all this stuff about humanitarian norms, that states really need the promise of some booty to keep them interested for long enough, and moreover that it is churlish to worry to much about this, as if motives didn't somehow bear on consequences. In fact, to cavil about the underlying assumptions of 'humanitarian intervention' would appear to be equivalent to professing a lack of moral seriousness - why worry about such trifling matters when there are people needing to be rescued?

Another of the conceptual innovations underlying the reigning dogma is the idea of 'failed' or 'failing' states. The ICISS report [pdf], for example, makes explicit reference to this in justifying its restoration of the idea of "trusteeship". It is a topic of fevered research by government departments, and bodies like the Carnegie Corporation offer substantial research grants for those studying 'at risk' states, and so on. The idea reflects, as Charles Call acidly put it in Third World Quarterly, "the schoolmarm’s scorecard", ascribing failure "according to linear index defined by a univocal Weberian endstate". The concept has its origins in the early post-Cold War years, and particularly in the Somali civil war, during which the state effectively collapsed. Following this and the failed US intervention, a series of articles in establishment foreign policy outlets and books by mandarin thinkers were produced on the topic of failed states and the appropriate response. Since then, the idea has taken off. Afghanistan was described as a failed state by Condolezza Rice. Robert Rotberg, one of the pioneers of the idea, argued in 2003 that failed states included Iraq, and also North Korea, Colombia, Indonesia and the Ivory Coast. Pakistan is regularly referred to in similar terms. Now Foreign Policy, a publication of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, publishes an annual 'Failed States' index, at the top of which is Somalia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Chad, and Iraq. Clearly, there's a great deal of imprecision built in to the concept, since it embraces such a diverse range of societies with different social resources, economies, institutional structures, dilemmas, etc. - but this is quite useful in a way, because it sweeps a number of concerns of imperial planners up into a tidy-looking category, providing a catch-all explanation for whatever the US wants to do in these areas. And though the basic focus of such elite thinking is how the US can effectively deploy its resources to support state-building and produce 'stability' - as per the new Obama gospel in 'Afpak' - it is easy to see how this would be congruent with humanitarian justifications for war.

Imperial ideology has its spurious 'messianic' or 'missionary' element, but ultimately it strives toward the appearance of pragmatism, technical virtuosity, and 'common sense'. This was something that the pioneers of neoconservative ideology learned very quickly, and throughout the 1980s they worked on developing institutions with state backing such as the National Endowment for Democracy, accompanied by pseudo-scholarly journals such as the Journal of Democracy (which is not peer reviewed), pushing quasi-technical discourses of 'democracy promotion'. The larger ideological questions, if this process is successful, can be taken for granted.

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Malalai Joya on the Farah bombings posted by Richard Seymour

I got this statement in my inbox:

MP for Farah Province condemns NATO bombings:
’This massacre offers the world a glimpse at horrors faced by our people’

(Photo: Humayun, a resident of Bala Baluk district, who lost 20 members of his family in the U.S. air strikes on May 5, 2009, was present at the May 11 press conference in Kabul.)

By Malalai Joya

As an elected representative for Farah, Afghanistan, I add my voice to those condemning the NATO bombing that claimed over 150 civilian lives in my province earlier this month. This latest massacre offers the world a glimpse of the horrors faced by our people.

However, as I explained at a May 11 press conference in Kabul, the U.S. military authorities do not want you to see this reality. As usual, they have tried to downplay the number of civilian casualties, but I have information that as many as 164 civilians were killed in the bombings. One grief stricken man from the village of Geranai explained at the press conference that he had lost 20 members of his family in the massacre.

The Afghan government commission, furthermore, appears to have failed to list infants under the age of three who were killed. The government commission that went to the village after three days -- when all the victims had been buried in mass graves by the villagers -- is not willing to make their list public. How can the precious lives of Afghans be treated with such disrespect?

The news last week is that the U.S. has replaced their top military commander in Afghanistan, but I think this is just a trick to deceive our people and put off responsibility for their disastrous overall strategy in Afghanistan on the shoulders of one person.

The Afghan ambassador in the U.S. said in an interview with Al Jazeera that if a ‘proper apology’ is made, then ‘people will understand’ the civilian deaths. But the Afghan people do not just want to hear ‘sorry.’ We ask for an end to the occupation of Afghanistan and a stop to such tragic war crimes.

The demonstrations by students and others against these latest air strikes, like last month’s protest by hundreds of Afghan women in Kabul, show the world the way forward for real democracy in Afghanistan. In the face of harassment and threats, women took to the streets to demand the scrapping of the law that would legalize rape within marriage and codify the oppression of our country’s Shia women. Just as the U.S. air strikes have not brought security to Afghans, nor has the occupation brought security to Afghan women. The reality is quite the opposite.

This now infamous law is but the tip of the iceberg of the women’s rights catastrophe in our occupied country. The whole system, and especially the judiciary, is infected with the virus of fundamentalism and so, in Afghanistan, men who commit crimes against women do so with impunity. Rates of abduction, gang rape, and domestic violence are as high as ever, and so is the number of women’s self-immolations and other forms of suicide. Tragically, women would rather set themselves on fire than endure the hell of life in our ‘liberated’ country.

The Afghan Constitution does include provisions for women’s rights – I was one of many female delegates to the 2003 Loya Jirga who pushed hard to include them. But this founding document of the ‘new Afghanistan’ was also scarred by the heavy influence of fundamentalists and warlords, with whom Karzai and the West have been compromising from the beginning.

In fact, I was not really surprised by this latest law against women. When the U.S. and its allies replaced the Taliban with the old notorious warlords and fundamentalists of the Northern Alliance, I could see that the only change we would see was from the frying pan to the fire.

There have been a whole series of outrageous laws and court decisions in recent years. For instance, there was the disgusting law passed on the pretext of ‘national reconciliation’ that provided immunity from prosecution to warlords and notorious war criminals, many of whom sit in the Afghan Parliament. At that time, the world media and governments turned a blind eye to it.

My opposition to this law was one of the reasons that I, as an elected MP from Farah Province, was expelled from Parliament in May 2007. More recently, there was the outrageous 20-year sentence handed down against Parvez Kambakhsh, a young man whose only crime was to allegedly distribute a dissenting article at his university.

We are told that additional U.S. and NATO troops are coming to Afghanistan to help secure the upcoming presidential election. But frankly the Afghan people have no hope in this election – we know that there can be no true democracy under the guns of warlords, the drug trafficking mafia and occupation.

With the exception of Ramazan Bashardost, most of the other candidates are the known, discredited faces that have been part and parcel of the mafia-like, failed government of Hamid Karzai. We know that one puppet can be replaced by another puppet, and that the winner of this election will most certainly be selected behind closed doors in the White House and the Pentagon. I must conclude that this presidential election is merely a drama to legitimize the future U.S. puppet.

Just like in Iraq, war has not brought liberation to Afghanistan. Neither war was really about democracy or justice or uprooting terrorist groups; rather they were and are about U.S. strategic interests in the region. We Afghans have never liked being pawns in the ‘Great Game’ of empire, as the British and the Soviets learned in the past century.

It is a shame that so much of Afghanistan’s reality has been kept veiled by a western media consensus in support of the ‘good war.’ Perhaps if the citizens of North America had been better informed about my country, President Obama would not have dared to send more troops and spend taxpayers’ money on a war that is only adding to the suffering of our people and pushing the region into deeper conflicts.

A troop ‘surge’ in Afghanistan, and continued air strikes, will do nothing to help the liberation of Afghan women. The only thing it will do is increase the number of civilian casualties and increase the resistance to occupation.

To really help Afghan women, citizens in the U.S. and elsewhere must tell their government to stop propping up and covering for a regime of warlords and extremists. If these thugs were finally brought to justice, Afghan women and men would prove quite capable of helping ourselves.

Malalai Joya was the youngest member of the Afghan Parliament, elected in 2005 to represent Farah Province. In May 2007 she was unjustly suspended from Parliament. Her memoir, Raising My Voice: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice, is forthcoming later this year from Rider.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

The (liberal) politics of exclusion posted by Richard Seymour

The argument here is three-fold. The degeneration of the Russian Revolution, and the transition from Leninism to Stalinism, should be retrospectively deemed unavoidable. Taking an analogy from Lenin derived from mountaineering, Zizek re-deploys it as a fable of revolutionary failure. The entire path taken from 1917 to 1968 (why 1968?) was the wrong one, that could lead to a great height but never the desired peak. A painful retreat is indicated. We have to begin again. Where to begin? This is the second step in the argument. The history of Western Marxism is a history of the absence of the proletariat. It didn't make the transition from being a class 'in-itself' to being a class 'for-itself', in Gramsci's terms. Western Marxism therefore sought various supplements - intellectually, from psychoanlysis (and German idealism - I suppose it's telling that Zizek doesn't actually say this), and politically from students, peasants, etc. That search was a rationalisation for passivity, but the fact remains that the working class did not fulfil its alloted role as revolutionary subject.

The third step: communism can only be restated as a hypothesis, albeit one with reference to "a set of social antagonisms which generates the need for communism". The only social antagonisms which are capable of generating a life-threatening opposition to capitalism are ecological catastrophe, intellectual property, biogenetics and - the 'point de capiton' - new global systems of apartheid, slums, walls, immigration controls, etc. This latter points to the fundamental tension in society, which is now located between the included and the excluded. In a sense, we are all excluded from decision making over these vital matters and this itself calls for a new commons. This will be fought for not by any one agency in particular, but by "an explosive combination of different agents". The name for this struggle, for "the intrusion of the excluded into the socio-political space" is supplied by Ancient Greece: democracy. I apologise if you had a sense of bored déjà vu while reading this: this is a cut n paste job of an argument Zizek has been making for years now, including in his latest books and recent articles (eg). I'm sure he must have argued something similar at the 'Idea of Communism' conference at Birkbeck.

But I would like to make a few points about this, just by way of noticing. First of all, I note that Zizek is explicitly moving away from class. In previous polemics with Judith Butler and Ernesto Laclau, he insisted that class antagonism possessed a "key structuring role" in political struggle. Although the "postmodern" narrative of the passage from 'essentialist' marxism (what Laclau and Mouffe had characterised as "the 'scientific' cosmovision" of the Third International in which the vanguard apprehends the 'historic interests' of the working class) to plurality, contingency etc. was an historical fact, it was nonetheless a problematic one. This was not Zizek championing old-school Leninism: he conceded the caricature of 'essentialist' marxism, and granted that it was oriented toward an 'outmoded problematic' of class and commodity production. Arguably, in so doing, he deprived himself of any solid political-economic basis for his insistence on class struggle. No wonder Laclau dismissed the argument as a series of dogmatic assertions. Nonetheless, Zizek was quite clear that in order to repoliticise the economy, it was necessary to place a central emphasis on class. That no longer appears to be the case, and in advocating a strategy based on a plurality of agents with no particular hegemonising role attributed to the working class and no especial focus on class antagonism - one conducted under the rubric of 'democracy' no less - he comes much closer to Laclau and Mouffe than he has been in the past. He's definitely putting the post- back in post-marxism.

Secondly, Zizek refers to the need to "renew the political economy of exploitation", I think primarily because he doesn't accept the 'labour theory of value'. Previously, he has argued that the theory is unsustainable because it would lead (reductio ad absurdum) to the conclusion that Chavez, by monopolising oil wealth and using it to extract surplus to fund his social democratic programmes, is exploiting 'the West'. I'm not batting for orthodoxy, and I'm quite aware that there are serious challenges to the 'labour theory of value', but this is not one of them. I'm just saying is all. Zizek does, however, accept in its stead some of the more esoteric value-theory of postoperaismo, specifically the ideas of 'cognitive capital' and 'immaterial labour'. At any rate, the role of 'exploitation' is subordinated here to the master-category of 'exclusion'. So, thirdly, this raises the question of whether this suspiciously vague apparatus of exclusion and inclusion can adequately address even those issues that Zizek argues are central. It is doubtful. Zizek acknowledges that it is a mainstay of neoliberal democracy (and also, in a different way, of Schmitt) that the main social antagonism is between the excluded and the included, and that the business of politics is about enabling everyone to take part, and play the game. Perhaps this acknowledgment is intended to foreclose a potential opening for critics, but it is not clear that his conception of exclusion offers a way out of the neoliberal paradigm. For, the actual conceit is rather threadbare, and the dimensions of inclusion and exclusion are left sufficiently vague that it could be congruent with any aim.

And there are obvious questions that arise. By what means is one excluded or included, and to what end? What produces the criterion by which one can be considered included or excluded? There are some things one would rather not be included in. And is one's being in some sense 'excluded' a sufficient basis for unity? Given the oddly random set of problematics that Zizek yokes together under the category of 'exclusion', this seems unlikely. Does my being potentially alienated from my genetic code necessarily make me a likely ally of Palestinians being expropriated and shoved behind an apartheid wall? Or would the experience of having one's immaterial labour capitalised by New York University press or The Guardian make one a lifelong opponent of immigration controls? I don't want to be facetious, but you could argue that the situation objectively demands facetiousness.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Also appearing posted by Richard Seymour

I'll be speaking in Oxford this Thursday:

‘The Liberal Defence of Murder’, with Richard Seymour
7:30 – Thursday, 14th May
Wadham College, Old Seminar Room, Oxford
A ‘Cider and Socialism’ Event!

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NATO: Taliban 'fiddling their expenses' posted by Richard Seymour

Mullah Omar, the peek-a-boo playing head of the Taliban, has been claiming expenses for a subscription to an online pornography website off of the internet, 'T-Girls Aloud', NATO chiefs said yesterday. A press release issued by Omar's stationery office confirmed that Omar had entered the claim after he experienced difficulty downloading his favourite clips from a free website. "The quality was rubbish, anyway," Omar said. "I've been making shaky videos for years and these amateur hacks make me look like Stephen fucking Spielberg." An internal inquiry is pending.

And if you think that's a piss-take, read this.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Al-Afghani's response to imperialism posted by Richard Seymour

In an era in which the topic of Islam and associated political movements are subject to unprecedented scrutiny, with as many books, monographs, articles and polemics on the subject as there was on communism following the Russian revolution, it is striking what is omitted. The accent of most research and exposition is on those ideas that are held to have contributed to the 'Al Qaeda' brand, with Sayyid Qutb usually cited as the doyen: 'the philosopher of terror', as Paul Berman branded him. (This in an unimaginative article which apparently arose from an afternoon's tour of New York's Islamic bookshops, and in which Berman distinguishes himself by referring to the Israel-Palestine conflict as a 'border dispute'). It is unfortunate that this interesting but thoroughly excavated seam continues to be mined at the expense of other backgrounds and contexts, but then it has to be this way: an appropriate moral framework for the 'war on terror' cannot begin with colonial oppression and anti-colonial revolt. Among the figures I would wish for more discussion of would be Abd-el-Krim, Mir Said Sultan-Galiev (Mirsäyet Soltanğäliev) and Jamāl-al-dīn Asadābādī "al-Afghani". Krim, as regular readers know, is the old Rifian anticolonial rebel who inspired Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara (recent correspondence has brought my attention to material that suggests he had contact with both), and who had offered his services to the Spanish Republic during the civil war. Galiev, a far more neglected figure and every bit as interesting, is the Tatar communist whose thought on Muslim National Communism was in many ways a precursor to what would become known as 'Third Worldism', and whose attempts to synthesise Islam, nationalism and communism met with Stalin's disapproval. (See Maxime Rodinson's appraisal here.) Sadly, there's not much literature available about Galiev in English beyond an inaccuracy-laden book - which at least contains some translated writings - by Alexandre Bennigsen and S. Enders Wimbush, Muslim National Communism in the Soviet Union: A Revolutionary Strategy for the Colonial World.

Al-Afghani has had a mountainous reputation in Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Iran. He was once a bit more prominently discussed in Anglophone writing about Political Islam, both because of his influence on conservative revivalist strains of Islamist thinking via Rashid Rida, and because he was seen as an example of a sophisticated Islamic reformer with liberal sensibilities. Albert Hourani's classic Arabic thought in the liberal age: 1798-1939 dealt at some length with the mysterious anti-imperialist. Nikki Keddie's now out-of-print work, An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamal ad-Din "al-Afghani", is one of the few English language sources that contains a selection of his writings. And to give you an idea what that means, the book was first published in 1968 (it was reprinted during the Khomeini era). Though al-Afghani is generally referenced in books on 'Political Islam', the treatment is usually tentative and unenlightening. Perhaps this is because his legacy is a difficult one to assess. As Keddie points out, a certain amount of dissimulation was part of his persona. The very name "al-Afghani" results from his claim to have been born and raised an Afghan Sunni (it is no longer a controversial matter that he was an Iranian Shi'ite). In fact, while in Afghanistan, he professed to be a Turk. While in Turkey, he claimed he was Afghan. And the British thought he was a Russian agent, becxause of his attempt to persuade the Amir to side with Russia against the British Empire.

Though he was in some ways the first Pan-Islamist, there has always been some controversy over what he really believed. While some of his writing is concerned with refuting materialism, his 'Answer to Renan', written in 1883, indicates profound scepticism about religion, and he had earlier incurred the Ottomans' wrath for heretical speechifying. His vocal orthodoxy seems incongruent with the heterodox sources of his thinking. His modernism is curiously commingled with an idealized appreciation of the early years of Islam, the age of the Prophet and the first four caliphs. As a religious reformer and a defender of science and rationalism, he was also a vocal defender of traditionalism and orthodoxy, especially in his later years during which he shed his reputation as an apostate. Keddie, who treats al-Afghani's thought as a kind of proto-nationalism (see 'Pan-Islamism as Proto-Nationalism', The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 41, No. 1 March, 1969), resolves this by suggesting that al-Afghani evinced religious orthodoxy and traditionalism only when he was addressing the masses, whom he distrusted yet wanted to unite. The project of unity inhibited the project of reform. For, though al-Afghani wished to reform Islam in order to help meet the challenge of imperialism, he could offer no consistent programme without alienating a conservative constituency whom he needed to win over. His arguments against a certain kind of materialism, Keddie maintains, emphasised the practical virtues of religion, and were probably intended to bolster the cohesion of Islam vis-a-vis the West. Such a treatment, if decidedly vexatious for both his conservative and liberal admirers, seems to be consistent with al-Afghani's career.

One aspect of his life that there is no mystery about, however, is his hatred for imperialism, and particularly for the British. He opposed the British in India, in Ireland, and in Egypt. He participated in the Urabist revolt, although his role has been grossly exaggerated by his admirers. And it was his response to imperialism, particularly during his eight years in Egypt, that defined him. Here, the Indian background is essential for three reasons. First, it was in his contacts with Indian Muslims that he first became apprised of the discrimination they faced under British rule. Secondly, because it was in this context that he was immersed in an emerging pan-Islamist sentiment that British imperialism was arousing across south Asia. Thirdly, it was during his stay in India in the early 1880s that he noticed that those most explicitly embracing 'Westernisation' (an anachronistic term, but I don't know of a better substitute) were also the worst collaborators. His attacks on 'materialism' were really directed at the comprador followers of Sayyid Ahmad Khan. It shouldn't be assumed that Afghani was in some sense a supporter of 'communalism'. His Indian articles defended nationalism, and unity between Hindus and Muslims. This is not strictly congruent with his Pan-Islamism, but then Afghani was nothing if not inconsistent, and his modus operandi was to tailor what might seem to be abstract polemics over Islam, philosophy, the socio-linguistic basis of nationalism, etc., to whatever was best suited to the local situation, or to whatever would most advance the struggle against imperialism. Just as he mobilised Egypt's era of pre-Islamic greatness, so he appealed to a proud Hindu past when addressing Indian Hindus. Equally, when arguing with the Orientalist writer Ernest Renan, he mobilised his grounding in liberal rationalism, and his immense philosophical knowledge, and explicated an evolutionist view of religion that he would in obscure in other contexts.

Is it just an irony of history that a religious progressive should have inspired Rashid Rida and, later, Hassan al-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood? I don't think so. Their dilemma was much the same as his, even if they were devout where he was an occult atheist. They shared his hatred of the British, who had exploited Egypt ferociously before grinding its revolts with an iron fist. They agreed with him that a renewed Caliphate was the best defence of the Muslim world against colonial incursions. And they shared the elitist thrust of his thinking. Afghani's legacy is summed up by Keddie as a kind of proto-nationalism. This implies a natural progression in which religious identifications generally proceed toward national ones, but such a progression can no longer be relied upon. I would simply describe Afghani as a conservative anti-colonial nationalist. I have quoted Partha Chatterjee here before, but these quotes seem apt again:

'Nationalist thought is “born out of the encounter of a patriotic consciousness with the framework of knowledge imposted on it by colonialism. It leads inevitably to an elitism of the intelligentsia, rooted in a vision of radical regeneration of national culture”. This elite either pursues ‘modernisation’ through a period of tutelage until such time as its institutions and social bases allow for independence; or it takes a more uncompromising position against colonialism, and accentuates what is different, unique, non-Western – this movement is often behind chauvinist or fundamentalist cultural currents. For this elite to stand any chance against the colonists, it has to mobilise the peasantry (in an agrarian economy) – and since it does not intend to revolutionise their social conditions, it must appropriate their power and their consent.' (See Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought in the Colonial World, 1986)

'Indeed, both of these tendencies in the bourgeois-national elite are caught between on the one hand the desire to replicate the material modes of organisation that has made the West so effective, and on the other the desire to reinforce the national spiritual identity. Materially, the West has better means and methods; spiritually, the East is superior. In this, the justification resides for the selective appropriation of Western "modernity".' (Chatterjee quoted in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Critique of Postcolonial Reason, 1999)

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Record bombs dropped on Afghanistan posted by Richard Seymour

Got this in the mail:

Air Force, Navy and other coalition warplanes dropped a record number of bombs in Afghanistan during April, Air Forces Central figures show.

In the past month, warplanes released 438 bombs, the most ever.

April also marked the fourth consecutive month that the number of bombs dropped rose, after a decline starting last July.

The munitions were released during 2,110 close-air support sorties.

The actual number of airstrikes was higher because the AFCent numbers don’t include attacks by helicopters and special operations gunships. The numbers also don’t include strafing runs or launches of small missiles.

Over Iraq, 26 bombs were released during 767 strike sorties.

Transport crews airdropped 1.8 million pounds of supplies, mostly in Afghanistan, and tankers off loaded 85 million pounds of fuel.

Reconnaissance aircraft flew 1,402 missions over Iraq and Afghanistan. [Italics mine].

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Rhetorical question posted by Richard Seymour

"How much moral moxie does it really take to come out, guns blazing, against torture? I mean, you don’t have to be a saint or anything to enlist in a campaign to ban pulling off the fingernails of defenseless prisoners, you just have to be halfway normal."

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The saved and the damned posted by Richard Seymour

I have been reading Mahmood Mamdani's Saviours and Survivors. It is a book of extraordinary power, not merely contesting the follies of the 'Save Darfur' bunch, but rectifying a whole distorted tradition of writing about Darfur from the colonial age to the present. More will follow on this in future posts, but as I was reading that, I got this in my inbox:

So, a quote from Mamdani seems apt:

"Another example of silent death is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In 2006, UNICEF issued a 'child alert' on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The report documented that '1200 people die each day in the DRC' due to the conflict and that 'over half of them are children'. On the basis of four mortality studies between 1998 and 2004, the International Rescue Committee estimated that 'about 3.9 million people have died as a result of the conflict between August, 1998 and April, 2004'. ... Those disturbed by evidence of silent slaughter around Africa, such as the English journalist Lara Pawson, have focused on silence as the price exacted by Western corporations with an interest in these locations. Pawson points out that about 8 percent of US oil imports have come from Angola, before and after 2002. the war may have led to the death of 3 percent of Angola's population, but it did not halt the flow of oil to the United States, even if the oil fields in question had to be protected by Cuban soldiers. She points to the Congo, where a UN panel of experts highlighted the role of up to eighteen British-based companies in the plundering of Congo's minerals, the revenue from which fueled the conflict in the eastern part of the country. The UN Security Council advised governments to follow up investigations into the biggest of these companies, such as Anglo American, and Barclays Bank, advice the British government continues to ignore, citing a lack of adequate evidence. A 2005 Human Rights Watch report alleged that AngloGold Ashanti, part of the mining giant Anglo American, had developed links with mercenaries and warlords in order to gain access to gold-rich mining areas in eastern Congo. These accusations notwithstanding, Lara Pawson reminds us, Anglo American's chairman, Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, was invited to join the UK prime minister Tony Blair's Commission for Africa and played a leading role in it. ... The economic factor may explain the silences of power in the face of some human catastrophes (Congo, Angola, Uganda) but cannot by itself explain the opposite phenomenon: popular outrage, as in the case of Darfur. The most important factor that distinguishes Darfur from any other African tragedy - Congo, malaria, AIDS - is that Darfur has become the core concern of a domestic social and political movement in the United States, one whose scale recalls the antiwar movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s..." (pp. 20-22).

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Peace in the valley posted by Richard Seymour

The Swat valley peace deal is over, which is exactly what President Obama wanted. The US and its allies opposed the deal from the beginning, applied immense pressure to the Pakistani state to overturn it, and finally offered another massive bribe to get them to resume war. This has resulted in the Pakistani army resuming its indiscriminate attacks, "flattening villages" into the bargain. As a consequence, the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) rescinded the deal and yesterday took control of the valley's largest town. The latest refugee exodus, apparently taking place on the instructions of the Pakistani state, comes on top of 1m refugees who had already fled Obama's air strikes and the attacks of the Pakistani army. The US administration has been using the threat of a nuclear-tipped "Talibanistan" to justify this intensified aggression, and that scaremongering has worked with the American public. (The surrounding press campaign also seems to be working with some antiwar liberals.) So, the Obama administration is now driving a regional apocalypse, using much the same propaganda tactics as the Bush administration to galvanise a sceptical public. Needless to say, it is also continuing that titanic air war in Afghanistan, which has just killed another 100 civilians in a single massacre. The next thing you'll hear is that the TTP caused the breakdown of the peace deal by seizing Mingora and that it just goes to show that you can never negotiate with such people.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Afghanistan insurgency tactics posted by Richard Seymour

An interesting note about Helmand accompanies Simon Assaf's article on the collapse of the Afghanistan occupation:

According to intelligence sources quoted by the influential Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), Taliban leader Mullah Omar ordered his forces in September 2008 to concentrate on pinning down British troops in Helmand.

In 2006, occupation forces poured into the region in an attempt to expand the remit of the Afghan government.

Instead the move widened and deepened the resistance to foreign forces.

The Taliban hoped a “hard pounding” of British soldiers would draw in troops from other regions, freeing up the insurgency to spread. The tactic seems to be working.

The bulk of the new surge of US troops are heading to the region to bail out the British forces, while the British officers have been complaining that they have insufficient troops and equipment to fend off the insurgents.

Who knows if Mullah Omar really is dispensing orders from his underground bunker in Quetta? The point is that the strategy is being implemented, and it is working. The "neo-Taliban", as they have been dubbed, may well be the worst possible leadership for the resistance (which is of course far, far broader than the Talibs themselves). For a start, all indications are that they remain politically unpopular and couldn't possibly gain hegemony. However, the fact that the strategy is working is indicative of growing effective support for the Taliban. This could be in part due to the political tactics that Giustozzi attributes to them. Giustozzi notes, for example, that unlike some of their ideological confederates in Iraq, they have not targeted civilians. Intriguingly, Giustozzi also points out that the polls from Afghanistan are heavily biased toward educated, non-Pashtun sectors of the population, which he says explains why support for the insurgency has been so difficult to measure. There is, of course, a wider geopolitical reason why the tactic of pinning troops down in Helmand is proving effective. This is the disintegration of the Euro-American alliance, which was signposted during the Georgia crisis (which is back in the charts), and is increasingly obvious in the disinclination of many NATO states to contribute substantially to the occupation.

Update: interview with Giustozzi here.

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