Friday, March 28, 2014

Pessimism posted by Richard Seymour

My long-form piece on austerity, drawing on Against Austerity, for the Guardian, concludes:

...The above analysis may be too pessimistic. And pessimism is a problem to the extent that one of the ways in which neoliberalism prevails is through consistently demoralising people. Yet what is ultimately more demoralising? To soberly face our situation and begin the hard, slow-burning, patient work of reconstruction, or continue to rally to sloganistic exhortations, thinking that each new protest or strike might radically shift the balance in our favour?
As the Brechtian maxim has it: "Don't start from the good old things, but the bad new ones."

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There's something about Nigel posted by Richard Seymour

This post belongs in a series of posts called The English Ideology (IIIIII & IV).

If one thing became absolutely clear in the dismal, joyless 'leaders debate' between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, it is that some things are more important to people than jobs and money.  It's not the economy, stupid.

In fact, to push the point home, it never was the economy, stupid.  'The economy' doesn't exist outside of representation and discourse, in part because 'the economy' (as a hermetically sealed, intrinsically immutable, self-sufficient space) is itself an artefact of representation and discourse. Thus Clegg, in his defence of EU membership,  summoned a discourse of 'growth' and 'jobs' as unarguable goods.  What could be bad about it?  Thus he posed as what he is: a middle-of-the-road technocrat.  And if he couldn't any longer position himself as the honest broker and the outsider, he could at least prove that Farage and his party were demagogues sacrificing British leadership, British values, and British justice to some fanatical doctrine.  Only a few years ago, this might have worked very well - but that was before his own disappearance up the Rose Garden of power, and before the repeated class injuries endured in the context of recession and austerity.

The UKIP leader, for his part, adopted a moral idiom.  He spoke the language of exasperated social resentment, in this case against immigration and EU bosses.  (This is the classic right-wing populist gesture, identifying an occult collusion between an empyrean elite and the wretched, and fecklessly poor. )  With this language, supplied in large part by the popular press and think-tanks such as Migration Watch, he was able to undermine the seemingly commonsensical nature of Clegg's interpellations.  Don't bang on about the 'benefits', he said: mass immigration from poor countries in the south and east of Europe is hurting ordinary working people and it's not fair.  Of course he also played the numbers game, casting doubt on Clegg's figures.  UKIP are good at the numbers game, precisely because they understand that it is a purely rhetorical exercise.  The right figure is that which a) efficiently demonstrates a point, b) tells people what they expect to hear and confirms their 'worst fears' (even if they derive an obscure pleasure from it), and yet which is c) time- and effort-consuming to track down and rebut.  The right figure is just an element of a morality fable.

To expand on the morality a little bit, Farage, recently asked about the contribution of immigration to jobs and growth, claimed that, after all, money isn't everything.  This essentially boiled down to his saying, "I would rather have a bit less money than live next to a bunch of foreigners."  The cri de coeur of any privet-hedge-hugging white petty bourgeois: that was his exalted position.  The Cruddasite centre-left, predictably, wet themselves.  A Labour shadow minister gushed to the Guardian that this was a hammer-blow against "the tyranny of the market".

You can see the logic of this: in principle, neoliberalism favours compulsory competition at every level, whereas Farage is suggesting that British workers be protected from at least this form of competition, the kind that comes from peripheral flotsam of overseas.  For Blue Labourites banging on about 'faith, flag and family', such exclusionary identity politics really is the only alternative to 'the market' - and therefore, somehow the task must be to incorporate such attachments into a progressive articulation, (cf. 'UKIP of the Left').  However, as we ought to have learned from Mrs Thatcher, there is nothing at all new in the egoistic calculations and desiderata of a particular class being commuted into the idiom of a moral common sense.  And what UKIP favour is not, in fact, protection of workers from competition, but the protection of small business from EU regulations such as labour laws, environmental restrictions and so on.  What UKIP wants is a more aggressively competitive, Atlanticist capitalism.

And Farage's morality tale is fairly cliched, folkish stuff.  The British people, so long the repositories of common sense, the temperate yet stalwart defenders of liberty, the inheritors of the Magna Carta and the tradition of common law, the possessors of the best justice system in the world, at some point allowed themselves to be led astray by an out-of-touch political class, and joined an "expansionist, imperialist" superstate-in-becoming.  (The mere fact that he could say this about the EU, uttering those words comfortably, and then just as comfortably reference the Commonwealth, as if Britain doesn't know anything about being an empire-state, is a tribute to the pervasive power of the ideologies which he draws on.)  They have surrendered their liberty to a foreign power.  Their laws are no longer made in the mother of all parliaments.  They have regulators and bureaucrats breathing down their necks, forcing them to sell only bananas of a particular curvature, and only in metric measurements, and only under certain conditions, and ideally in competition with Polish or Spanish fruit sellers.  They have the 'madness' of open borders to half a billion people.  They are no longer sovereign, but are exposed to unaccountable political and cultural flux.  Their renaissance can only come when they coalesce and, through the agency of UKIP, overthrow the Westminster elite and put common sense back on the agenda of government.

There remains, then, something to be said about Farage's plausibility in all this.  His performance showed that he not only knows what he's doing, but more importantly that he looks like he knows what he's doing.  He has the look and manner of a corporate salesperson - all those patently phoney spontaneous 'quips' and 'asides' that he keeps up his sleeve - yet this is actually what many people want and expect from their politicians.  In contrast to upper crust establishment figures like Clegg and Cameron, he sounds like a perplexed outsider, and even his years as a commodity trader, can be invoked as a source of 'real world' authenticity.  And they can be harnessed to homely little platitudes, which he is an absolute master of: "In the real world, the customer is king."  No such thing has ever been the case, but we are so used to hearing it that it sounds vaguely like it might be true.  Finally, he has a way of not reeking too badly, in public performance anyway, of the kind of twitchy, sweaty, moonbat racism that characterises his party as a whole.  He instead articulates the polite, aversive racism of a certain 'British' common sense, and in so doing manages to sound quite 'reasonable': we can have a few foreigners, but only if they can pay their way, and only if they're here to work, and only if we can deport them when we don't like them, and only if they aren't too culturally dissimilar.

Yet, of course, the major condition of Farage's ascension is Cameron's declension.  Cameron enjoyed a very brief period of grace, as a kind of post-Thatcherite liberal.  By 'post-Thatcherite', I do not mean that Cameron rejected Thatcher's legacy, but that he operated basically on the same terrain secured by Thatcher, as do all the dominant parties now, while abjuring certain of the specific ideology and policy thematics that defined Thatcherism as an 'insurgent' political project.  He came across as an undogmatic, competent 'entrepreneur', comfortable with Britain's multiculture, and here to manage the country like a business gone awry.  Even his poshness wasn't necessarily a drawback.  Even as it poured execration on the poor, the dominant culture has learned once again to venerate dominant class values.  And, precisely as a toff and thus someone with a certain 'traditional' mien, he even effectively tapped into the ideology of 'fair play'*, an old theme of British nationalism, which returned like so much nostalgic kitsch in the aftermath of the credit crunch.

There has always been a widespread belief among certain social classes, particularly the middle class, that if Britain is not actually a meritocratic society then it is at least not far from being one; that, at any rate, there is no structural impediment to it being so.  It doesn't matter that 'meritocracy' is conceptually incoherent.  In its common sense understanding, it means 'fairness', which in its turn means whatever the dominant social norms prescribe.  In Cameron's earliest phase, he made it clear that 'fairness' would mean the bankers and the rich paying 'their share' toward clearing Britain's debt (no such thing happened, of course), while the poor would be weaned off the welfare teat and 'encouraged' back into work.  'Everyone' shares the costs, even if 'everyone' only includes those whom the greater number of the British middle class blamed for the crisis - reckless bankers and the feckless poor, those who either would not or could not keep a disciplined budget.  There will be tough times but if we all tighten our belts and grit our teeth, we can get through this and the good times will return.  Traditional British fair play.

Well, few people believed for very long that this government was overseeing a fair and equitable settlement of the crisis.  Real incomes, and living standards, have declined year after year.  Nor has stagnation given way to buoyant growth.  We are left with neither fairness nor efficiency.  Somehow the invocation of the spirit of the Blitz, of empire, of the years of British grit and global power, did not help.  And then, along comes Nigel.  He does not evoke the spirit of social compromise, of 'fair play', of mutual sacrifice.  He tells us that it's not fair, that we have sacrificed too much, and that at any rate, some things matter more than money.  He comes in the spirit of common sense insurgency, of a folkish Britishness long repressed by the parliamentary elites.  He articulates the sense of loss, of having been cheated, of injury, experienced by polyglot social layers, and in response urges the recovery of lost British potency as the means of redemption.

Nigel Farage won the debate with Nick Clegg, hands down.  And with that, signalled that a highly authoritarian, exclusionary form of 'Britishness' is winning too.

*I am indebted, for this part of the post, to discussions with persons who shall remain anonymous.

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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Against imperialist intervention in Ukraine posted by Richard Seymour

I think it's worth pausing, and reflecting on the fact that the EU has applied sanctions.  

Well.  Don't make the EU angry.  You wouldn't like them when they get angry.    Raaaahhhrr!  EU SMASH!  

And yet - and yet - Russia continues to 'defy the international community'.  Such rare valour.  Such nose-thumbery.  Such bare-faced insouciance.

I don't want to be misunderstood.  I am obviously happy that the US and EU are not flexing serious muscle, that the dire warnings of neocon expeditions are looking so utterly threadbare, that Obama is specifically ruling out "a military excursion in Ukraine".  I just think that the futile pretence at scolding the Russian Federation by applying a few paltry sanctions to "Putin allies" is inherently hilarious and ought to incite torrents of deprecatory laughter.

Still, if you think that the major issue in Ukraine is imperialism, then the response of sections of the British Left to the situation is bizarre indeed.  Because it wasn't very long ago that Russian troops in unmarked uniforms occupied key positions in the Crimean peninsula, and started the process that led to the 'referendum' for secession.  There could hardly be a clearer attack on Ukrainian sovereignty, and it will have reverberations beyond Crimea, inasmuch as those secessionist tendencies already being expressed in other parts of the south and east of Ukraine will be accentuated while simultaneously the nationalist reaction in the west will be bolstered.  If you want to know how it came to be that a popular movement against a thuggish government of the oligarchs, resulted in a right-wing nationalist government with fascists in leading positions, you need as part of your explanation the role of Russian imperialism in supporting Ukraine's stupendously wealthy ruling class.  Whoever does not want to speak of Russian imperialism should be equally silent on Ukrainian fascism.  You see, Lindsey German was right after all: it's a messy situation that imperialist intervention will only make worse.

Now I hardly think state 'sovereignty' is a thing to be treated with holy veneration.  There are already far too many countries in my opinion, and at least a few of them could stand to be invaded and annexed by neighbours.  Still, this is the international order that we live in: the primary power which any state claims is the exclusive right to final political control over a bounded territory which it administers.  And, oversimplifying, one of the primary of imperialist states is that it routinely abridges or cancels that right within its 'sphere of influence'.  If the United States sends troops into a country and starts overseeing votes on this and that, which does happen sometimes, we on the Left tend to call it imperialism and oppose it.

And the consequences of said 'sovereignty' being breached are usually not negligible.  After all, if you have a country that is potentially divisible by two or more factors, then the fastest way to catalyse that division is for at least one imperialist state to intervene.  So, Russian military intervention in Crimea would be, I think, a thing to take very seriously and even oppose.  And if it turns out - and we may wish to look into the history here - that Russia has some sort of past habit of militarily and politically dominating Ukraine, then this should make it all the more urgent to oppose what it is doing.

However, there are some on the British Left expressing a degree of sympathy for Russian imperialism's claims in this, despite in other respects not being fans of Putin or the ruling class he fronts.  Forget the grim old tankie polemicists and their formulaic bombast.  They'll be saying the same things until doomsday - just fill in the proper nouns.  Consider instead the indomitable Irish socialist Eamon McCann, who did once leaflet against Russian imperialism in Czechoslovakia, but who now argues in favour of siding with Russia on this issue.  This piece has been shared as the top article on the Stop the War website, and I see that  John Rees, of Counterfire and Stop the War, has lauded the piece as a great blast against the 'Russophobes'.  I doubt that this position commands the support of the majority of the British Left, but nor is it the view of a marginal grouping.

So, let's consider the argument.  The crux of it appears to be that the territorial wishes of the population in Crimea are being fulfilled.  Whatever the problems with the referendum, the incorporation of Crimea into Russia has a democratic mandate.  Setting aside everything that is ridiculous about a rigged ballot conducted under military occupation, McCann is probably right that the majority of Crimeans used the ballot to express their real preference.  But since when was that the end of the matter?  The majority of residents of the Malvinas, and Gibraltar, wish to remain British.    The majority of Israelis probably favour conserving a Zionist territorial entity.  Probably the majority of people in Northern Ireland still favour British rule.  The majority of people in the southern United States once favoured secession, I hear.  I am not claiming that pro-Russian attitudes among Crimeans represents the same type of phenomenon, but there is nothing sacred in a majority.  Do we have no interest in the politics of nationalist belonging?  And even if you decide that you can't oppose the annexation of Crimea 'because it's what the people want', I see no imperative reason to actually support it.

The wider argument, though, is that NATO has been encircling Russia for years, that it has been driving eastward into Ukraine, and that the Russian Federation's actions - while no less self-interested than those of Washington - are essentially reactive.  This, essentially, is the case that Stop the War's political leadership has been making since the beginning.  But, setting aside arguments over 'who started it', this is simply to describe an inter-imperialist rivalry.  And, moreover, it is one in which the Kremlin has scored a number of significant successes in recent years - including, for example, winning the war in Georgia, and helping its man get back into power in Ukraine after the first 'Orange Revolution' went sour.  Since when did we have to choose sides in such rivalries?

This brings me to my last point.  What is all this for?  I can well understand the need to explain (not exaggerate) the role of the US and EU, and to place Russia's actions in a geopolitical context of inter-imperialist rivalry.  But why is it so necessary, now, to soft-sell Russian imperialism, or even take its side?  Recently, in a rather cantankerous piece, Andrew Murray took issue with my critique of Lindsey German's appalling article about Ukraine.  I don't think it deserves an exhaustive retort, but in it he informed readers that the difference between the leaders of Stop the War and people such as myself is that the former are oriented toward action (while - I think this is strongly implied - the latter merely enjoy pontificating about outré sexual kinks and splitting the left).  Now I too occasionally yearn for the simpler, hesternal days of 2003.  But I have to wonder in what nostalgic fug one could fail to notice that the military action here is being undertaken by the Russian Federation, about which Stop the War proposes to do nothing, while the risk of US or EU military intervention is palpably negligible.  So what 'action' are Stop the War actually proposing?  To what practical end?  You can't hope to make the slogans and positions of a previous conjuncture relevant again by sheer rhetorical exertion!

That seems to me to be the problem.  Of all the problems besetting Ukraine, the threat of a US-led intervention is at present not as close to the top of the pile as are a right-wing government with fascists in it, and Russian domination.  That can change, but in the meantime it leaves a certain model of 'internationalism' predicated on exclusively opposing 'our' imperialists looking somewhat redundant.

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Gramsci, Machiavelli and the 'modern prince' posted by Richard Seymour

Peter Thomas is invaluable:

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Is Erdoğan a moron? posted by Richard Seymour

Pace Auden, it is not only dictators who talk 'elderly nonsense'.  Take Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

I'm sure people remember that Erdoğan's response to the Taksim uprising consisted, to a significant degree, of futile sabre rattling about the menace of Twitter.  And, almost as if he were a dictator, the cops soon began to arrest people who use social media to spread 'untrue information'.  

But that is hardly to begin exhausting the idiocy of Erdoğan s gyrations during that inspiring moment.  Drunks, terrorists - everyone but the government, and everything but government policy and state repression backing it up, had caused Taksim.

Earlier this week, a boy who died of serious head injuries sustained from police violence during the Taksim movement was described by Erdoğan as having 'links to terrorism':  

"This kid with steel marbles in his pockets, with a slingshot in his hand, his face covered with a scarf, who had been taken up into terror organisations, was unfortunately subjected to pepper gas," he said in the speech broadcast on state TV.

Now the government has followed up by literally shutting down Twitter.  Why?  Because he is threatened by a robot army.  Or because, to put it another way, leaked phone calls between himself and his son show him advising the youngster about how to dispose of large amounts of cash in order to avoid suspicion in a corruption investigation.  Now, there's an interesting question about how such a recording was made and then distributed via the internet, which presumably has to do with the many enemies he has created while refashioning the state apparatuses along AKP lines.  But he's actually blaming Twitter for this scandal.

So is he a moron?  I am well aware of the dangers of posing the question in this way.  One should always respect one's enemy.  One should look for the intelligence in their strategy.  One should avoid stupid liberal personality politics.  And clearly, the extraordinary, contemptuous authoritarianism that constitutes Erdoğan's particular arguably stupidity in these cases has some sort of social basis.  Nevertheless, the question is for real: can Erdogan's moves be interpreted as anything other than pathologically stupid?

Answers below, please.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The meaning of 'accumulation' posted by Richard Seymour

At some stage early in every Marxist textbook of political economy it is stressed that “capital” is not a thing, but a social relation, and an antagonistic social relation at that. But frequently, after this proclamation is made, the accumulation of capital is substantively treated as the accumulation of things, of machinery, buildings, raw materials, and so forth that are usually grouped under the rubric “constant capital”. This is fundamentally incorrect from a Marxist point of view: capital accumulation must be understood as the reproduction of capitalist social relations on an ever-expanding scale through the conversion of surplus value into new constant and variable capital.
— Erik Olin Wright, Class, Crisis and the State, Verso, London, 1979, p. 113

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Against Austerity special offer. posted by Richard Seymour

Buy the book, get the t-shirt.  Philosophy Football are running an offer on Against Austerity, which you can read more about in Mark Perryman's welcome of the book published over at Socialist Unity and Left Futures:

Richard Seymour’s Against Austerity book is available exclusively at half-price, postage free and a signed edition for just £6.49 when purchased with Philosophy Football’s Against Austerity T-shirt. The T-shirt is just £14.99, beating inflation by reverting to 1994 prices. The entire package just £21.48 from here.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

An open letter to Miley Cyrus posted by Richard Seymour

Right.  First of all, you have been tricked.  I am not actually Sinead O'Connor, and I am not writing an open letter to Miley Cyrus.  My letters to Miley are private, just between me, her and the NSA.  And any rumours you may have heard about that are probably untrue.

It's actually, readers, that time of year again - where 'that time of year' means, when I need money.  I haven't hit you people up since November 2012.  Donations have mostly tapered off some time ago, as they are wont to do.  And despite my carefully cultivated image as a fop and bon viveur - a ruse, my dear messieurs and madames, which conceals my lowly origins - this is not an income stream I can do without.

And do not be pretending that nothing major has happened on this blog between then and now.  I mean, what did this blog do over the last year or so?  Oh nothin'.  Nothing. At. All.  And it's not like I had anything useful to say about the Woolwich killing, the Left's failures, anti-racist strategythe rise of UKIP, anti-austerity strategy, the attack on the welfare state, Taksim square, Syria, the endless niqab 'debate', the Tea Party, the Grangemouth defeat, and above all Miley Cyrus.  It's not like I've got myself denounced by everyone from the SWP and its fragments, to Newsweek, to the Golden Dawn.  It's not like I do all this for you, you utter selfish bastards.

Now, don't be tight.  Don't be thinking, "I didn't like what you wrote about such-and-such fiasco, so I can't in good conscience give you money."  What will your conscience look like if I stamp it into the pavement?  Flat, that's what it will look like.  It will look like conscience road-kill.  And don't be thinking, "you haven't written as prodigiously as in previous years, so I will hold on to my thousand million pounds* for now".  Because if you are thinking that, I will personally come and give you a colonoscopy with a cheese grater.  I have been busy, often for reasons not unconnected to a minor episode I documented on this blog early last year.  But I still wrote for you, didn't I?  Exactly.  And don't be thinking, "you're not a very nice person, so I won't give you money."  Nice?  Who the fuck wants nice?  You don't want nice.  What you want is, when someone is on the wrong side of the argument, for me to be their worst fucking nightmare.  Which, mission accomplished.

So, kindly set aside your rationalisations and help a blogger out.  I want to see Paypal's server overloaded with your munificence.

Actually, the above isn't the real post.  The real post is, in fact, an open letter to Miley Cyrus.  So here goes:

Dear Miley,

As an older person, I often write to young women whom I do not know and patronise them about  dressing in suggestive clothing and putting all that muck on their face.  Because that is the wrong kind of objectification.  Go and objectify yourself properly.  And please have a look at the attached photograph and tell me if you think my new beard is cool.  I mean, maybe you're into beards, I don't know.  Cos, like, I grew it for you Miley.  Erm.  Write back soon.  Or at all.

Yours etc...


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Monday, March 10, 2014

Bosnia rebellion: an interview posted by Richard Seymour

This is an edited version of an interview I conducted with Matija Medenica of Marks21 about the insurgent social movement in Bosnia.
This uprising in Bosnia seems to be a serious repudiation of the Dayton settlement.  The one thing that rulers of former Yugoslav states all seem to have had in common, and shared with the EU, is the commitment to neoliberalism.  This looks very much like a class-conscious, popular rebellion against that programme.   I suppose the first question is, why now?  Can you outline what you think are the bases of legitimacy and control for the Dayton regime until now, and why these have broken down?  Is this linked to the politics of austerity in the European Union?
First, it is important to notice that Bosnia and Herzegovina have already witnessed mass violent outbursts of anger towards the authorities during the past decade, including setting up street barricades and stoning the local government buildings. Last year’s ‘bebolucija’ was only the latest wave, with people protesting fatal effects of what Dayton Bosnia turned out to be – ethnically divided, impoverished and privatised country where poor ‘raja’ can’t find a decent job while the complicated state machinery – populated by competing national elites playing zero sum games and vetoing each other over everything but the IMF deals – is so detached from the people that it will let an infant die due to bureaucratic idiocy that grew out of the Western sponsored peace arrangement that ended the war but at the same time made Bosnia the most dependent neo-colony in the post-1989 Drang nach Osten.
Bosnia is among the poorest countries in the region, with youth unemployment at almost 60%. That’s literally generations of people whose daily lives depend onengaging in any sort of activities strictly forbidden by the system (blackmarket economy etc):
“With a continuous rating downgrade for ease of doing business, with diminished foreign investments and credit rating downgrade as a consequence of permanent political crisis and lack of economic development, Bosnia and Herzegovina youth unemployment rate, according to the official data, reached over 54% in 2012 and 57.9% in the first half of 2013. Enormous debt, 235,000 unemployed persons without any work experience and over 10,000 closed companies in the last year are only some of the consequences of such a situation which have a significant negative impact on unemployment.”
The final say is reserved for the unelected Office of the High Representative (OHR), the face of the ‘international community’ that works “to ensure that Bosnia and Herzegovina evolves into a peaceful and viable democracy on course for integration in Euro-Atlantic institutions“.
Add to this the last several years of EU’s policies towards its periphery. As Živković notes:
"Moreover the political class of Bosnia and the EU do not just stand together in defence of privatisation, but have also been imposing an IMF austerity programme now in its fifth year to make the workers of both entities pay for economic collapse. Under the two Stand-by Agreements, budgets have been frozen, public sector pay cut repeatedly, consumption has collapsed, growth flatlined and external public debt has doubled, reaching 32% of GDP. Normally unable to agree on any federal legislation, the federal government last year passed the IMF-inspired Global Fiscal Framework (GFF) for 2014–16, which sets parameters for the entities’ budgets and hardwires cuts to reduce the budget deficit for the next two years, rendering neoliberal austerity immune from democratic challenge at the forthcoming elections. And since, as the IMF admits in its latest country report, none of this will actually restore growth and thus revenues, legislation is planned to raise the pension age, increase labour flexibility, and continue with privatisation."
Back in 2009, The International Crisis Group’s report on Bosnia admitted that the Dayton democracy lost legitimacy and that a simple removal of the OHR would intensify the on-going crisis – brought about by extensive privatisations andother neoliberal Troika measures. (See also this for an example of the political stalemate) So, a new strategy was needed and the West demanded recentralisation. No need to go into details here, I think Andreja explains it sufficiently in his article.
In short: among ex-Yugoslav states Bosnia has had one of the most devastating ‘transitions’ to being part of a global market economy, directly overseen by the West and implemented by the nationalist politicians within a complex ethnically divided system. In the Bosniak/Muslim majority part of the country (FBiH – Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina) the only card Bosniak politicians can play is the nationalist card of Serbs or Croats blocking this or that decision from taking place: but the material basis for this argument is weak, ie. ordinary Bosniaks are not afraid anymore of falling under Serbian or Croatian domination. That is I believe the most important factor in why the Bosniak part of the country has seen more class conscious and more radical protests (not only within BiH but regionally), while Croatian and especially Serbian constituencies are much quieter – silenced by the idea that any unadvised move could change things for the worse.
So, what is the real social depth of the movement we have seen, and what are its prospects?  What kind of political articulations are available to help organise and direct this struggle, beyond the initial ‘high’ of spontaneous rebellion?
All I can say for sure is that the movement is definitely genuine in its spontaneity. It is being run through city-wide ‘Plenums’ (direct democratic citizen assemblies, open to everyone except those claiming to represent any political organisation). This is also interesting because this institution had been (re)discovered as a tool of struggle during the student occupations at the University of Belgrade back in 2006, then became much more popular once the students in Croatia took it to another level in a series of occupations in 2009. I’m saying this in order to point out how these ‘spontaneous’ wide movements in the Balkans (and more specifically in ex-Yu) cut through the national borders, but also across the lines that used to effectively isolate struggles of one group of ‘transitional losers’ from another.
It is widely recognised that the Bosnian uprising started as a workers’ protest. This is true and important on the level of initial ideological characterisations the movement, but not so much more than that. There was no visible engagement of workers’ organisations. On the first night of protest, Josip Milić, leader of the Alliance of independent trade unions of FBiH was taken in for questioning. In mid-February he was brutally beaten up and hospitalised. When visited by members of Plenum he called them ‘my revolutionaries’ etc. – he himself is seen as one of the leaders of the uprising – but the Union as such did not join the protests.
A slogan emerged on the regional left calling for ‘all power to the Plenums’. But this shouldn’t be taken too optimistically. Plenums are not Soviets (of deputies). They are discussion platforms where different people get the opportunity to share their opinions and vote on the course of struggle. It is there where the left has a great chance to test its demands and general approach (see for example reactions to the speech of Goran Marković, editor of the leftist Novi Plamen, when he calls for cross-ethnic solidarity, limiting PM’s salaries to average worker’s wage, re-introducing self-managing bodies in enterprises etc).
Damir Arsenijevic writes:
"The plenums have given citizens a forum to vent their anger at the everyday terror they endure. That is, the worker who has not been paid for almost four years but is forced to go to work every day, with no health benefits, or has to watch his wife die in agony because he cannot afford healthcare. The student who was forced to give huge bribes or sell her body to pass an exam. The woman whose son was severely beaten by the police because he took part in a street protest, and who came to the plenum at Tuzla and asked her son to show his bruises to the gathering of more than 700 people."

So the left has its audience in place, practicing solidarity outdoors and indoors. There is only one left-wing group, called The Left (Lijevi), mostly versed in student struggles. I spoke to some of them the previous weekend and to be honest I’m not so sure that they are using the situation the best way they can. They are frontlining but also dissolving into the movement – much like the left in Serbia during its first important test (the student occupations in 2006) or in Macedonia in 2011 against police brutality. Bound by the formal rule demanding from participants not to ‘promote’ any political parties, activists of The Left are usually silent about their political background.  I fear they lack political experience in order to gain what they rightfully should.
Plenum is a step in a good direction, but it is necessarily an ad hoc instrument that should primarily serve the purpose of struggle. But the fact that it offers a platform for all the silenced voices from below can also make it hard to struggle at the same time (speaking from personal experience in similar settings). People tend to go on about their personal stories which at first build others’ resolution and morals, but then gradually become boring and numbing. Direct democracy is also something to be practiced. We see that despite the good will, plenums in various FBiH towns didn’t break the fear of Serbs in Republika Srpska, thus challenging the imperial divide and rule strategy. To my knowledge they raised no concrete demands that targeted the national question and neo-colonial rule in Bosnia.
So right now it seems it’s slowly fading. There are regular protests and meetings, but usually not bigger than a few hundred people, and generally less political than at the beginning (checking if the masses are shouting ‘thieves, thieves’ is how you easily spot an unsuccessful protest in ex-Yugoslavia; that’s what they’re shouting now). This leaves the most prominent activists to state repression (you can get a picture if you Google translate this article), isolates them from the movement and lowers the chances of them building any sort of more permanent structure (organisation). Our experience in Serbia, primarily in student and workers struggles, is the one of intense police and para-state repression, which seems to be the case in Bosnia as well. The left will need to produce in-depth analysis and lessons to combat these problems in future settings, because Bosnian example is indeed the best case scenario of how a spontaneous uprising in the region can look like.
What makes Bosnia so very different from other, neighbouring states?  There have been popular movements, for example in Bulgaria: but nowhere as self-consciously class-based.
I believe I partly already answered this question so I would only like to say something about cultural hegemony, because that is something where Bosnia really stands out. Bands and artists such as Dubioza Kolektiv and Frenkie gained enormous popularity by mixing reggae and hip-hop with verses that openly attack the status quo, call for general strikes, for burning down the IMF and Brussels, for legalisation of marijuana, against nationalist divisions etc. And I’m not talking about the ‘underground’ kind of popularity. Every kid from Macedonia, let alone Bosnia, can sing you at least one Dubioza song. So a by-product of Dayton neoliberalism was a resurgence of the left in popular youth culture.
Also, divided into cantons, Bosnia has no central city that hosts bureaucracy and where different grievances can be directed to. So, for example, groups of striking workers would not be sent to Sarajevo to protest, rather they could find all the answers they needed at the local, cantonal level. This kept the spirit of the community alive and might be important in forming the general attitude towards fighting outside official channels.
As if to dramatise the link between imperialism and neoliberalism, the Office of the High Representative has spoken of the deployment of EU troops to contain the insurgency.  Paddy Ashdown, the former High Representative, has openly called for external intervention.  The language used is very familiar: the ‘international community’ must not abandon Bosnia, and so on.  Yet, far from abandoning Bosnia or the other former Yugoslav states, the EU, the IMF and so on seem to have taken an inordinate interest in determining the future of the Balkans.  Indeed, in the report of the International Commission on the Balkans in 2005, it was argued that the region had only two alternatives: subsumption into an expanded EU, or the perpetuation of colonial control; in reality, two forms of empire.  Can you describe the actual role of the external powers in Bosnia and the Balkans more generally, and suggest a way out of these false choices?
For some time now there’s been that talk, on the imperialists’ side of table, of how the Dayton agreement needs to be overcame – so as to centralise the country because this ethnically decentralised system has been basically defunct from the beginning. But reshaping the Agreement in this way would be an attack on the position/rights of Serbs, because they might not have the same treatment under a majority Muslim rule. So the divide and rule tactics of the Great Powers still plays a central role, and it is obvious that the popular ‘strategy’ of the new regional left that proclaims the way to solve the national question is not to engage with it at all is not only naïve but disastrous.
Now, if Serbs and Croats might have something to lose with the new deal from above, and thus tend to believe that even a corrupt Dodik is better than nothing, Bosniaks do not have that issue. They have seen the naked truth of betrayed hopes, after the USA intervened on the side of Bosniaks in the Yugoslav war. Their elites have been servile to the EU and NATO, their citizens didn’t attack EUFOR troops that remained on the ground long after the last bullet had been shot, they mostly kept quiet about the racist and sexist jokes that solders and other representatives of the much proclaimed “Western values” have been disseminating. Bosnia suffered the same IMF neoliberal policies as the rest of former Yugoslavia. It is the part of the EU dependent periphery, part of the pool designated for exports of finance and goods, where debt is used as the tool for making any decision comply with the wishes of the creditor, rather than the voting population. In Bosnia this has only been much more obvious because they don’t need to go to Brussels every now and then because they already have Brussels in their homes – and it’s obvious it doesn’t care for ordinary people’s welfare.
Balkans is important from the geopolitical perspective, as grounds of competing US and Russian funded pipelines that should bypass the divided Ukraine and provide EU with gas. It is also, as mentioned, a territory designated to enter the EU on its push towards East. But it is also a region where Russia still plays a significant role, primarily via Serbia, and we have seen how resolutely Putin can act on regional level. The national question is still hot, with competing Great Powers sponsoring competing nationalist elites. The two biggest common issues of all the Balkan countries are debt slavery and imperialist control. Presence of two imperialist powers and lack of organised progressive forces makes it hard to act in a way that will not actually work for at least one side, and there is no country strong enough to win against any imperialism. Therefore we have been developing the old strategy of the Balkan socialists – the Balkan Socialist Federation – in order to connect the struggles against debt slavery and imperialism.  This article by Živković and I on the history of the subordination of the region provides some the perspectives for the struggles ahead.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Ukraine: against infantile realpolitik posted by Richard Seymour

The enemy of your enemy might still be your enemy.  Because, complexity.  Because, nuance.  Because, concrete analysis of concrete situations.  How much do I really need to underline this?

I raise the point because the tendency to try to distil the situation in Ukraine into one or at most two relatively simple contradictions is apparent in abundance.  Lindsey German's article for Stop the War is a classic instance of this.  It attempts a 'clarification' of the political stakes, largely by way of clearing away complicating clutter and allowing people to see the interests of US imperialism and its allies at work.  But in so doing, German's article resorts to utter nonsense and embarrassingly crude reductions.

For example, the article reduces the 'colour revolutions' to simple acts of US orchestrated client-installation.  This is crass.  That the US has intervened in, and attempted to shape the outcome of these revolts is hardly in question.  That in some of these revolts, they have played a far more significant role than in others is also not in question.  That in Ukraine, this took the form of funding a series of lobbies, think-tanks and 'civil society' groups, is also uncontroversial.  

However, one would think that socialists, and particularly marxists, would have more interest in: why masses begin to move; why they respond to particular slogans; why they assemble around particular political leaderships and organisations; and why certain influential layers are able to take command of a situation they neither created nor control.  One would expect, surely, some attempt to work out why anyone thought to form 'people's councils' and 'self-defence forces' in such a situation; why a parallel government was formed in Kiev; why the symbolic targets of popular rage should be a statue of Lenin; why the popular demands should include for a time integration into the EU; and so on.  (This is a rather good interview on that subject.)  German evinces no such interest.

Indeed, while German gestures toward the complexity of the situation, the effect of what she actually says ("historical divisions ... complex and difficult to overcome ... highly contested" etc) is to evoke that complexity as a barrier to understanding.  It is so summary, so glancing, that she may as well have said, " it is, after all, a country far away, of which we know little...".  It is not analysis, and it is not internationalism.  

And if imperialism is really the only factor that deserves analysis, then the power of Russia and Russian-allied oligarchs in the east to help put Yanukovich in power in the first place, and its considerable economic leverage over that government, ought not to be ignored.  Masked Russian troops occupying the Crimea, likewise.  Because, and of course this also applies to Syria in ways that German's article obscures, there is more than one imperialism operating in Ukraine.

A logical corollary of the above error, however, is to then reduce the overthrow of Yanukovich to something which the US "oversaw".   If all that matters is the analysis of US imperialism in the situation, then the key in this situation is to work out the ways in which the US has power over the situation.  Yet there is simply no evidence that the US has had a very significant role, let alone the executive, overseeing role, in deciding the outcome of these struggles.  

As Volodymyr Ischenko writes, what we have seen is a genuine mass uprising, "overwhelmingly supported in western and central Ukraine without majority support in the eastern and southern regions, leading to a change of political elites".  This change of political elites has led to a right-wing government, fusing neoliberals and nationalists who have no interest in fulfilling any of the class demands of the popular layers of the rebellion.  This could and most likely would have happened without the US government lifting a finger.

Perhaps as serious an analytical error as the above, though, is to reduce US imperialist strategy to the manoeuvrings of "neocons" who, supposedly, are desperate "for war with the Russians".  This is simply vulgar populist drivel on German's part.  The neoconservatives are hardly the currently dominant force within the US government.  The dominant foreign policy elites in the Pentagon and State Department are a mixture of realpolitikers and liberal imperialists.  Robert Gates and John Kerry are the leading personnel here, and only by the most tortuous logic does either of these two qualify as a neoconservative.  This sort of polemical focus on "neocons" doesn't simply evade the question of Russian dominance in Ukraine, but actually shifts the focus away from any analysis of US imperialism.  It is soft on imperialism.

A subordinate aspect of this over-simplification of imperialist motives in the region, incidentally, is that the relationship representation of Ukraine's fascists as uncomplicatedly "allies" of the European Union.  The major fascist organisation to have gained in these protests, the Svoboda Party, is far from simply pro-EU.  It has pro-European to the extent that it is white supremacist, and linked to a series of European fascist parties which are bitter opponents of the EU, and is itself quite explicitly hostile to the EU.  The geopolitics of the situation are such that a protest against Russian domination initially took the form of a pro-EU protest (remarkable as that is), but the fascists were always a minority current in it, are a minority in the new government (reactionary though it is), and are most likely not the allies and instruments of the EU agenda in the country.

The key reduction, though, which lies behind everything else, is to limit the analytical and political imperatives to the British Left to those of identifying and combating imperialism on the part of the US and its allies.  One would think that socialists had never protested the Soviet invasions of Hungary or Czechoslovakia.  The rationale for this reduction is bizarre.  German says that those who want to oppose Russian imperialism in Ukraine and Crimea are "ignoring the history and present reality" of the region.  She does not say how, but goes on instead to offer this non-sequitur:

 "The B52 liberals only oppose wars when their own rulers do so, and support the ones carried out by our governments. The job of any anti-war movement is to oppose its own government's role in these wars, and to explain what that government and its allies are up to."

The 'job' of an antiwar movement, on this account, is thus to precisely mirror the attitude of the B52 liberals.  This goes much further than the old saw that "the main enemy is at home", which obviously would not preclude international solidarity.  Ruling out analysis of and opposition to Russian imperialism in this context simply doesn't follow.  Perhaps it is a version of the tactic known as 'bending the stick', or exaggerating a point in order to counteract entrenched ideas.  If this is the case, then it is a particularly debased form of realpolitik, relying as it does upon an extremely cynical view of people as essentially manipulable objects of an elite political strategy.  After all, what happens when the situation changes, the imperative changes, and you must suddenly start exaggerating in the other direction?  Will people simply accept it, credulously, and forget about how much this new exaggeration jars with previous exaggerations?  You see, even as realpolitik, it doesn't work.  If everything you say is a predictable exaggeration, then people stop listening to you; you stop being effective.

Presumably, however, there is a theoretical edifice sustaining all this.  Lindsey German is, apparently, a marxist and not some simple-minded libertarian, nor a bombastic Russia Today analyst.  But since the theory is impossible to infer from German's polemic, it unfortunately comes across as facile opportunism, and any theory that does now emerge to bolster it - even should it direct us to seize the 'key link in the chain' - will tend to look like a post hoc rationalisation.

This is a serious problem, precisely to the extent that US imperialism continues to be the dominant global force that German says it is.  There will be further wars, further interventions.  But Stop the War, which is at present still the only significant antiwar organisation in the country, is beginning to make a habit of fucking up.  Its decision to invite 'Mother Agnes' to its conference, withdrawn under pressure, gracelessly and without a serious political explanation, was one example of such.  It resulted in a politically disastrous picket of the same conference by Syrian opposition supporters.  Now, Lindsey German has publicly aligned Stop the War with a position that is analytically vacuous, politically derelict, and soft on imperialism.  And to expend so much political capital on that, quite unnecessarily, when Russian military intervention is a far more pressing reality than any potential US military intervention... well, that isn't smart realpolitik either.

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Monday, March 03, 2014

The crisis in the SWP, part V posted by Richard Seymour

About time I completed this series.

The two weeks following the public eruption of the rape scandal were ones in which the central committee and the apparatus was almost totally incapacitated. There were no expulsions. There was no direct communication from Vauxhall. Everything we heard suggested that there was a funereal mood in the headquarters, with leading members breaking down into tears, or weeping into pints of lager.

At a personal level, the short-term relief and catharsis of publicly lancing the boil started to give way to a new fear: they might not actually fucking expel me, and I would actually have to actually stay in and fight as I was urging everyone else to do. Worse, I would be expected to evince 'leadership'. In an organisation where the majority of people already thought I was suspect because of my mildly heretical leanings on Syriza, I would have to persuade people that the organisation was in such a severe crisis that the entire leadership had to be overthrown and replaced with... well, something nicer. I would have to attend branch meetings for the first time in years, that would be fun.

The first sign of an organised backlash was from among more hardcore members of the organisation who started to query whether it was really in our tradition to 'automatically believe' women when they alleged rape. (Rosie Warren's responses to this question are salutary.) They reminded us of the Scottsboro Boys, a comparison that drew spittle-flecked, bulge-eyed incredulity from those of us, still a minority, who understood that Comrade Delta was not an oppressed black man from the Deep South in the 1930s, much as he may have felt he was in his soul. They started to mention that Seymour was some writer who thought he was above the party, who never attended branch meetings, and who was actually heading in a reformist direction. Wasn't it just possible that I was cynically exploiting this crisis in order to build a British Syriza?

Throughout all this, frantic emails and furtive messages were exchanged as we sought to build up an email group, the basis for a new faction of some type. We quickly pulled together a few dozen people and gained a more or less national view of the unfolding situation - we got report backs from meetings, conference report-backs and so on. We heard when suspected oppositionists within the centre were taken aside, interrogated, bollocked, and threatened with being sacked or expelled - indeed, sackings and 'sideways promotions' did take place. It was only, in my view, the scale and publicity of the organised backlash against the leadership that prevented a far more efficacious purge of the centre.

The official reaction to my own denunciation therefore came after a fortnight of breakdown on the part of the apparatus. Now, the usual procedure when I had said something wrong on the internet was for two members of the central committee, known to the faithful as Bishop Brennan and Father Jessup, and to the wider world as Alex Callinicos and Joseph Choonara, to sit me down in a coffee shop and quiz me about my wrongness. I would be gently bollocked, but also have my ego fluffed. "A lot of people hang on your every word, Richard, you really must watch what you say..." Well, not this time. Although Callinicos, upon phoning me up, appeared to be doing his best to maintain his usual charm - quite bizarrely, given the circumstances - he was obviously rattled. Not as much as I was by his fucking phoning me, mind you, but he seemed not to have his shit together to the normal degree.

There had been... a breach of some sort. They wanted to meet me, and discuss some of the things which I had been saying. They wanted to persuade me that these things were untrue. Could I come down and meet? Just himself and Joseph again? I abandoned the phone call and frantically consulted with fellow factioneers. Why should I go along by myself? This wasn't just about me. This was an attempt on the part of the leadership to isolate the problem by scapegoating one person for a deep, systemic crisis which they had created. And also, what exactly did they want to discuss? I was told I should demand a group meeting in which CC members confronted all of us, and dealt with us as a bloc. I was told that the tactic of isolating individuals was a classic managerial technique, and was intended as intimidation, so I should at least equalise the numbers.

When Callinicos phoned back, his disarray was greatly aggravated. As he tried to explain that the meeting was about why I had been shouting my head off to the whole world that the CC was corrupt and covering up rape allegations and all sorts... his voice choked and he broke into quite audible, mournful sobs. I froze. My stomach froze. He was a sixty year old man, of colonial aristocratic pedigree, and fairly tough I assumed. The last thing I expected or knew how to deal with was him weeping down the phone. He was back to normal quite quickly, and a meeting was eventually negotiated in which I could bring along one other person "as a companion" but that was all. But still, I confessed to comrades that everything about this situation made me sick, and I really didn't want to be doing it.

In preparation for the meeting, we had emailed discussions and caucused beforehand. I was warned that the CC would try to get me to admit some error or other, and that this admission would be used as a weapon with which to bludgeon me, regardless of the significance or veracity of the confession. So, if they produced some fact or other of which I was unsure, I should simply say "I need to discuss it with my comrades". The only question was, what would Choonara's role be? He was supposedly some top secret ninja dissident on the CC, although his main role to date seemed to have been to phone people known to be in the opposition and warn them about 'the radical elements' who were pushing too far, too fast. So, in the meeting would he be anything but a sock puppet of Callinicos? Short answer: no. He sat there, eyes grimly sweeping the floor, saying little, but backing up the boss on everything he did say.

I took with me a comrade who, though quite mild-mannered and unassuming, I knew to be tough and intellectually confident. (I think Callinicos was frightened of him. At one point, when I tried to explain that I wasn't trying to trip him up with my questions, the professor angrily retorted "no, but he is!")

The first thing that Callinicos did was attempt to take the initiative by demanding to know what this cover-up was that I had been talking about.

I said, "you mean you don't know...?"

"DON'T PLAY GAMES WITH ME!" Callinicos retorted, really channelling Bishop Brennan at this point.

I replied, a little uncertainly (because this had to be a ploy) that my understanding was that serious sexual allegations had come to light before the 2011 conference, and that conference was led to believe that essentially 'Comrade Delta' was accused of little worse than mild harassment.

"This is nonsense, absolute nonsense." Callinicos scoffed.

He went on to explain that the charge of any kind of cover-up was false because in fact, there were no allegations to cover-up prior to that conference. "What there was, was a dispute between two people over what they said had happened. And the central committee mediated in that dispute." I considered this legalistic game-playing, but it formed the fulcrum of the central committee's argument. I was then invited to admit, as had been predicted, that I had got this detail wrong. I could have argued, since I didn't believe I had got anything wrong. But the sensible play was to say, as I did, that "I have to discuss this with my comrades."

The discussion moved on to how the party crisis had come about. I suggested that it was patently obvious, given what had happened, how it had been handled, and the nature of the internet and media, that the party would be thrown into crisis as a result of this. Callinicos and Choonara maintained that the crisis was not inevitable, and that the true responsibility for it rested with whoever had leaked the conference transcript, then Tom Walker for what he had said in his resignation statement, and then myself for what I had written on my blog. (I was also blamed for the trouble in the International, as if I had ever been that organised in my life.) They could give no account of any mistake they might have made, although Callinicos did at one point airily permit that of course mistakes are always made without mentioning anything specific.

On the matter of the disputes committee, which was notoriously filled with acquaintances and direct political subordinates of the accused, we were assured that there was in fact no problem. What I had failed to understand, what I plainly did not understand, what I obviously had complete contempt for, was political morality. You see, it is the "political morality" of a revolutionary party which ensures that if members of a disputes committee, long-standing cadres, believe that someone is guilty of rape, they will discipline that person. I suggested, of course, that they would be far less likely to 'think' the person guilty given their relationship to the accused. The comrade who had come with me raised the issue of 'unconscious bias' in the context of such a trial-by-mates. It seemed an obvious point that, even if the best of intentions, individuals who knew Delta and were politically subordinate to him, but knew the complainant not at all, might have some bias. Yet we had to overcome several rhetorical hurdles to even get a vague, shrugging admission that the disputes committee members perhaps knew Delta better than most members. Eventually, Callinicos admitted that unconscious bias was always a potential problem, but asserted that this was why there was a committee, a large panel, not just one person. I said that this wasn't much help if most of the panel was subject to this potential bias.

I sensed that the weakest point for the leadership in the party was that they were asking members to carry the can and defend a position that none of them, in their workplaces, coalitions, union branches or whatever, could practically defend without incinerating their credibility. So, I asked what strategy the central committee had for how to handle this shitstorm going forward, neither Choonara nor Callinicos offered any answers. Callinicos said that the question was whether one accepted the legitimacy of the democratic decisions taken at conference. If those decisions were accepted, then everything follows from that. I said "but where does that lead to, Alex?" No reply. When I suggested that we, the opposition, at least had an answer to dealing with this issue, Callinicos said that our answer was "surrender". When pressed as to what we were surrendering to, he changed the subject.

In general, the central committee gave the impression that they were in denial. When asked if the party was now toxic, or becoming so, Callinicos said 'no' because he had just come back from a UAF demo with Tony Benn, David Lammy, and two leading SWP members, etc etc. (There were so many responses like this from the hacks: I just came from a paper sale, and no one mentioned it. I was just petitioning at a bus garage, and ordinary workers couldn't give a fuck.) Otherwise, when further pressed as to whether he thought this was all just going to blow over, Callinicos said after a long pause, "we'll see". Well, we saw alright.

I was struck by two things in this meeting. Callinicos was bitter, paranoid and insulting, but ultimately running on empty.* Choonara may as well have been furniture. The only point at which the pair of them had any offensive at all was when they challenged: "you are fighting for the leadership of the party, whether you like it or not; what do you intend to do if you win?" I pointed out that I was not there as a delegate but as an individual, and that I therefore had to decline to say. Callinicos argued that we were inciting a very irresponsible rebellion since we had no perspective about how to deal with "little things like fascism and austerity that you don't want to talk about".

This was clearly cynical coming from the central committee, and not terribly convincing given the failure of our anti-austerity strategy, and the quotient and hype and bullshit surrounding our limited successes on the anti-fascism front. Nonetheless, our lack of an alternative would become a serious issue. The crisis had only just opened up a whole series of issues to do with the party's failure on gender politics, oppression, democracy, the internet, the global crisis, the analysis of neoliberalism, the state, and so on. The initial instinct of most of us in the opposition was to try to return to the resources of an untainted Cliffism - a gesture which quickly gives way to pallid sentimentality: "Hallas, there was a comrade! Widgery! Now there was a comrade! Foot! What a comrade!" And so on. But as we thought, the less it was clear that this 'tradition', for all that was good about it, possessed in itself the resources that were needed. This was one reason why, once out of the organisation, the initial wave of leavers quickly began to drift off in different directions.

Callinicos had been angered throughout the meeting by us taking notes. He repeatedly demanded, particularly of my confederate in the meeting, "what are you doing? What are you writing? Stop writing!" At the end of the meeting, he demanded from both of us that we undertake not to publish our notes all over the internet.

"Don't worry," I told him. "This isn't for blogland."

"Get out," he snapped.

* In fairness, to him, his humour hadn't entirely deserted him. At one point, I tried to explain that this wasn't all about me, and I didn't see myself as a leader. He retorted, "you call yourself 'Lenin' on your blog." I said "yes, but with a small 'l'." "Not nearly small enough in my opinion," he rejoined. Suh-nap!

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Sunday, March 02, 2014

Dieudonné through the prism of the white Left, or conceptualizing a domestic internationalism posted by Richard Seymour

I have been given permission to publish this excellent paper from the Penser l’émancipation, closing plenary, Nanterre, on February 22, 2014.  It was written and delivered by the excellent Houria Bouteldja, a member of Le Parti des indigènes de la République.

Before I begin, I would like to give a small introduction, emphasizing four points:

1/ I would like to warn that my discourse is not Leftist. It is not Rightist either. However, it is not from outer space. It is decolonial. I am inclined to say that, after I finish, it would be up to you to decide if it is leftist or not, or in other words whether it could belong to you, or in other words whether you think it can be incorporated in the political programs of the radical Left.

2/ I would also like to ask you to keep in mind that I am an indigène of the Republic, that this constitutes a political and social status, and that my speech is therefore rooted in the social and historical experience of a colonial subject. This positionality introducing paradoxical conflictualities and a certain dialectic within the struggle, revealing a social divide along a different axis: one of race and coloniality of power, which often blurs the Right/Left divide. This blurring is what we attempt to explain through the concept of “space/time”, which I will not have enough time to develop here.

3/ I would like to add that I belong to a political organization, within which we think in terms of political stakes, power relations, and strategy and not in terms of abstract morality and principle.

4/ Last, keep in mind the following quote by Sadri Khiari: “Because it is the indigènes’ indispensable partner, the Left is their primary adversary.”

In “Français d’origine contrôlée”, a recent documentary by Mustapha Kessous broadcasted on France 2 on the 30-year anniversary of the March for Equality and Against Racism, which retraces the trajectory of immigrant activists, one of the interviewed activists, Hanifa Taguelmint explains: “In 83, we offered ourselves to France. We gave ourselves to her. I’m pretty sure that if on that day we had been told ‘Go ahead, eat ham!’, I don’t think we would have refused. We offered ourselves to France and she didn’t want us. She didn’t want us. But we were really willing… The French national motto was the most beautiful motto in the world in our eyes. The most beautiful. Something went wrong. Terribly wrong. There was like a 'system failure' in history at that moment. We got up to tell France we love you, love us back. And we went back home with our tails between our legs. So I think something happened”.

I would like to pause at two powerful points in this quote:

1/ “We were ready to eat pork”: Today, this kind of talk would be unthinkable. No muslim, even the least practicing muslim would dare, or want, or contemplate making such a statement. Such an integrationist/assimilationist project would be perceived as high treason, a form of alienation, and a serious renouncement of oneself, one’s history, and one’s cultural heritage. 30 years after, we are in a different world.

2/ “We got up to tell France ‘we love you, love us back’.” I interpret this as follows: We who are not legitimate in your eyes, who are towel-heads, who are not real French “de souche”, mold us into French people. Indeed, the March for Equality and Against Racism was not a struggle for wage equality, or for raising the minimum wage, or for retirement pensions. It was a struggle of colonial subjects demanding to be treated as legitimate citizens. Plainly, to become French just like everybody else. The first necessary step would have been to end criminal police brutality. “We are not hunting game animals for the police”, they used to say. Their demands were not met, since instead of true citizenship they were only given the right to be immigrants for a longer period of time. They obtained the new 10-year residency permit. This was not what they were demanding. Their true demand was to “be loved”. And I must tell you that it is still the case. And believe me it saddens me to say it. However, the radical and progressive Left, wary of anything that does not fit neatly in socioeconomic frames, does not understand this. Alain Soral, however, understood. And in his own way, he is giving the children of post-colonial immigration the possibility to become the true French citizens they dreamed of becoming. And a considerable segment of this youth is receptive to his call. Of course, he sets some conditions: the defense of the flag and the nation, and a patriotic, strong and manly Islam. But in the process he fulfills a central social need. I must add that it is the best offer that the white political realm has made towards them. Not that I adhere to it myself, but one cannot deny that no other offer is coming from the white political realm in their direction. Moreover, Soral’s offer has come after thirty inglorious years for the institutional Left on the one hand, and for the radical Left on the other.

So what has happened between these two generations: the potentially pork-eating immigrants who were tied to the Left and the non-pork-eating immigrants drifting towards the Right? We have just celebrated the 30-year anniversary of the March for Equality and Against Racism. But the big celebration did not take place. The autonomous immigrant movements missed the mark. It was an anniversary that we should have celebrated with great pomp, because it marks the moment when the immigration question forced itself into the white political realm, and because it marks the first blows against the white and immaculate republic.

Certain immigrant spaces have tried to celebrate, but their lackluster attempts did not resonate. The PS tried as well, and struggled to ride the wave of the Taubira affair last autumn, but their worn-out moral anti-racism, in the style of SOS Racisme, is at death’s door. Indeed, for the past thirty years we have been witnessing a general shift to the right in french politics. The consequence: most of the official representatives of anti-racism have followed this trend, and most of them have supported the racist law “against religious symbols in schools”.

So the legitimate anniversary did not take place. Neither did a co-opted version of the anniversary. But the candles were blown. And who blew them? Dieudonné and Farida Belghoul! Thirty years after the spectacular entrance of the indigènes on the French political stage in the company of their friends on the Left, here we are again: a new occurrence in the political arena. As spectacular and resounding as ever. Only this time with “our friends” who are not on the left, and not only on the right, but on the far-right. That is a middle finger, a big “f*ck you” to the Left. Or if you prefer, a quenelle. This pendulum swing to the right, contrary to appearances, is one of liberation. We are freeing ourselves from an embrace that has suffocated us, crushed us even. A group rarely vows eternal loyalty to political organizations that do not serve that group’s interests. From this materialist point of view, populations coming from immigration or from the popular neighborhoods have no reason to stay loyal to the Left. And they are right. Their fault lies not in freeing themselves from the Left. It lies in the fact that they are going from one master to another; of changing guardians. Their mistake is that they chose the easier path, and avoided the paths of autonomy. Of course, we in the PIR know that it is immoral and suicidal to conflate left and right, and especially to conflate radical left with far-right. We know that the latter carried out and will continue to carry out racist raids attacking Blacks and Arabs, vandalizing mosques, desecrating cemeteries, and defending white supremacy. And we haven’t forgotten that despite its paternalism, its islamophobia, and its eurocentrism, in short despite the fact that it belongs to the white political realm, the radical Left envisions itself as part of liberation projects, and have always been on the side of the undocumented immigrants and on the side of immigrant's struggles against imperialism. That is why, as I have said in the introduction: “Because it is the indigènes’ indispensable partner, the Left is their primary adversary.” However, the PIR is the PIR, and the social indigènes are the social indigènes. Most of them are not politically organized because they were abandoned, or more precisely because on the one hand they were excluded from the white political realm, and on the other hand they were prevented from self-organizing autonomously.

1/ On the front of the institutional Left, we have witnessed: the neoliberal turn of the PS in 1981; the advent of flabby ideas, of abstract humanism, of moralistic anti-racism, embodied in SOS racisme, which replaced frontal and firm ideologies; the rise of the National Front; the first and second Gulf wars; the affairs of the Islamic veil in schools and the subsequent laws consolidating State racism and islamophobia; the impunity of the police. We have also seen the institutional Left wrecking the autonomous movements and systematically co-opting the elites of the immigration movement. There was also the control of the mosques by the state, the February 23, 2005 law recognizing the “positive work” of France in the colonies, unashamed support for Israel, and the uninterrupted pursuit of Françafrique.

2/ On the front of the radical Left, we have witnessed: complicity of parts of the radical Left with moralistic anti-racism; hostility towards autonomous immigration movements; collusion and active complicity with islamophobia; focusing on fascism at the expense of structural racism and a critique of white supremacy that cuts across the radical Left itself; the centrality of the Holocaust at the expense of the history of colonialism and slavery; clientelism in the neighborhoods (in particular in Communist Party municipalities); white anti-Zionism, that is an anti-Zionism that is supportive of resistance movements that resemble the left (the PFLP for example) and that is contemptuous of those who do not resemble it (such as Hamas at the time of the attacks against Gaza).

3/ On the front of the immigration movement and the popular neighborhoods: there was the Vaulx-en-Velin riots at the end of the 80’s; the 2005 riots; systematic racial discrimination; a continuous process of pauperization and increasingly precarious conditions in the popular neighborhoods (unemployment rates four or five times higher than the national average); the plagues of drugs and AIDS who have killed thousands of sons and daughters of immigrants and have traumatized thousands of families; the continuation of police crimes; the systematization of police racial profiling; massive islamophobic violence since 9/11; incredibly violent ideological campaigns accusing the indigènes of antisemitism, sexism, and homophobia, and accusing them of producing insecurity and of soiling France’s national identity.

In light of the institutional and radical Left's inability to take into account the demands of the popular neighborhoods, and in light of the institutional sabotage of any autonomous political organizing in these same neighborhoods, a considerable portion of immigrants’ descendants found refuge, at first, in the figure of Tariq Ramadan, who offered an alternative to the failed republican integration project. In substance he was saying: “you are full French citizens but you do not have to give up who you are. Fight for your rights as French citizens, but fiercely defend your dignity: it is not for sale.” I will not give the details here of an unpleasant, painful and heavily consequential event: the way Ramadan was received by the Left, including the radical Left, when he seeked, in vain, to engage with the European Social Forum. A merciless war was declared against him. With very few exceptions, almost no one within the radical Left took the trouble to defend him or, more precisely, was capable of recognizing his political potential. Dare I say, this Left was not even capable of being opportunistic. In other words, it was not capable of being political. Because to pretend to fight Tariq Ramadan, there had to be an alternative. What did those who accused him of being the Devil suggest in his stead? Nothing. Or at best, there were two types of suggestions: “the most important struggle is class struggle” and “we must trust the values of the republic.” No comment. And since there was no alternative to Tariq Ramadan, in a way Dieudonné has come to take his place. Today, if we were to strictly consider the political offer that Dieudonné and Soral embody, it is currently the one that best conforms to the existential malaise of the second and third generations of post-colonial immigrants: it recognizes full and complete citizenship within the Nation-state, it respects the muslim character within the limits and conditions put forth by Soral. 

It also designates an enemy: the Jew as a Jew, and the Jew as a Zionist, as an embodiment of imperialism, but also because of the Jew’s privileged position. The one who occupies the best seat in the hearts of the White, a place for which many indigènes are fighting. Because they dream of becoming the Prince’s favourites, but without questioning that Prince’s legitimacy: the legitimacy of the White Man. As we, in the PIR, often say: “The spontaneous ideology of the indigènes is integrationism.” And in the end, if Soral’s strategy is working, it is also because he revalidates arabo-muslim virility that was the target of racism and colonialism -- I will not detail here another episode, the one with Ni Putes Ni Soumises and Femen. We must not forget that those who are 25 years old today, and who form the greatest battalion of Dieudonné and Soral were between 13 and 15 years old during the period following 9/11, the period of collective hysteria against the veil and Tariq Ramadan, the emergence of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, the 2005 riots and the second war against Iraq. Needless to say all this leaves a mark.

Must we condemn this youth? Are they fascists? My reply is No! No, because the reasons of these defections are structural. If there is no fertile ground in this country for breeding qualified political activists of immigrant backgrounds, it is because appropriate spaces do not exist or are too precarious to ensure the transmission of memory, to accumulate knowledge and to capitalize. The struggles reflect the immigrants’ condition: disparate, precarious and lacking clear political directions. I don’t blame them. I blame those who have excluded them from their organizations in the name of class unity, and I blame those who have actively prevented the autonomous organizing of immigrants. And lastly I blame -- but gently -- the immigrant activists who have not been able to organize our unity.

The fact remains, however, that today we are destitute. I do not think we should panic in reaction to the pendulum swing which has pulled a significant portion of the postcolonial populations from the left to the right, even to the far-right. I am not saying that the situation is not alarming. I am simply saying that we should stop and think. I am also saying that this may be a divine intervention pushing us to reflect collectively. I dare add that, in my long experience of missed opportunities, the time for us to be political is now or never, because we are living a moment of truth. This is what the PIR is trying to do in the midst of general incomprehension. Let me give you an example:

When Manuel Valls attacked Dieudonné and the affair grew to the extreme proportions we know, we in the PIR found ourselves under fire from two groups:

1/ Many indigènes, Blacks and Muslims, demanded that we publicly express our support for Dieudonné.
2/ Our white allies demanded that we condemn him once and for all.

Now, the trouble is that we are not integrationists. And integration through anti-semitism horrifies us just as much as integration though White universalism and national-chauvinism. We abhor anything that seeks to integrate us into whiteness; anti-semitism being a pure product of Europe and the West. As a decolonial movement, it is self-evident that we cannot support Dieudonné. Yet we could not condemn him in the manner of the white Left, because there is a certain dimension that has escaped the Left, but one that is clear to any indigène with a modicum of dignity. It is what I have recalled in an interview in 2012: “For me Dieudonné is not Soral, because he is a social indigène. I cannot treat him as I treat Soral. I thoroughly disagree with his political choices: the fact that he has been seduced by Soral’s nationalistic views, that he knows nothing about Palestine and Zionism, and his alliance with the far-right. At the same time, I feel ambivalent. I would start by saying that I love Dieudonné; that I love him as the indigènes love him; that I understand why the indigènes love him. I love him because he has done an important action in terms of dignity, of indigène pride, of Black pride: he refused to be a domestic negro. Even if he doesn’t have the right political program in his head, his attitude is one of resistance.” I now add that in the eyes of the indigènes, this is what they see in him first and foremost, rather than seeing the nature of his allies. A man standing upright. Too often were we forced to say “yes bouana, yes bouana.” When Diedonné stands up, he heals an identitarian wound. The wound that racism left, and which harms the indigènes' personnality. Those who understand “Black is beautiful” cannot miss this dimension, and I emphasize, this particular dimension in Dieudonné.

Because we have refused integration through the far-right and because we identify with Dieudonné’s dignified stance, we could neither give in to the pressure from the indigènes, nor to the white pressure. We obviously seeked to explore a third way that explicates the present analysis. For the White Left, the most important thing was to declare that Dieudonné is a fascist. For us, it was more important to say that Dieudonné is the product of the White political milieu and more precisely of the Left and its renouncements. For this reason, we were boycotted. My goal here is not to lament our fate. I would like to underscore the fact that not only the Left has boycotted us, but more importantly we were also boycotted (so to speak) by the far-right. Dieudonné’s and Soral’s fascist friends understood that we were not their friends. We can only deplore that the Left has not noticed this. On the other hand, we have succeeded in symbolically achieving what every immigration movement must aim for: uniting the indigène opinion. Indeed, we have satisfied the demands of the majority of our people, even the most Dieudonnist, because -- pardon the expression -- we did not drop our pants. In other words, we have remained, to borrow Césaire’s expression, fundamental indigènes. This proves that the indigènes in France are not on the right or the far-right. They just need a political project.

At this stage, I would simply like to say that you and we have respective tasks to fulfill: we at PIR and in any other organizations from the neighborhoods or immigrant organizations, we must organize the indigènes autonomously. For your part, you must develop what Sadri Khiari calls a “domestic internationalism”; to understand that a fraction of the colonial empire is today within France’s continental borders, that the colonial/racial divide is a structural internal divide inside France, and that now is not a time for solidarity with the immigrants and their children, but it is a time for constructing alliances that respect our mutual autonomies. We should be considered allies. Not as a population that needs be saved, but as a group that participates in the collective liberation struggle, including the liberation of White people. For this to be possible, we must be accepted as we are: a group that is racially and socially dominated, not necessarily clear-cut on several issues: not clear-cut on capitalism, not clear-cut on class struggle, not clear-cut on women, not clear-cut on homosexuality, not clear-cut on Jews. As any group, we carry thousands of contradictions, which should be resolved in a dialectical manner within large groupings that have defined a common enemy and that respect the spaces/times of everyone. Needless to say, the project uniting us must be a project of radical justice for all. A generous project. A liberation project. For this, one must necessarily accept to get one’s hands dirty, as C. L. R. James advises us:

“The movements which seek ‘to drive the Jew out of Harlem or the South Side’ have a valid class base. They are the reactions of the resentful Negro seeking economic relief and some salve for his humiliated racial pride. That these sentiments can be exploited by fanatical idiots, Negro anti-Semites, or self-seeking Negro business men, does not alter their fundamentally progressive basis. This progressiveness is in no way to be confused with the dissatisfaction of the demoralized white petty-bourgeoisie which seeks refuge in fascism. American reaction can and probably will finance or encourage some of these movements (Bilbo and Back to Africa) in order to feed ill will. But the Negroes are overwhelmingly proletarian, semi-proletarian, and peasant in their class composition. Such is the whole course of American history that any nation-wide Fascist movement (however disguised) will be compelled to attack the Negro struggle for equality.”

Thank you.

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