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Special Report | Against Israel’s brutality, Palestinians remain undeterred

Fri, 2018-04-20 10:46

Palestinians hold flags as youths practice their parkour skills at the March of Return protests in the southern Gaza Strip, April 10, 2018. (Credits: SAID KHATIB/AFP)

When thousands of mainly young Palestinian protesters decided to flock to the Gaza border areas as part of their Great March of Return, they explicitly asserted these protests would be peaceful.

Advocates of non-violent struggle hailed the absence of armed Palestinian men at the protests. Scores of Palestinian women were seen at the frontline. Giant posters and placards of world peace legends — Gandhi, King and Mandela — were erected near the border area to reiterate the peaceful character of the protests.

Predictably enough, however, this was another case of heavily armed Israeli occupation forces versus Palestinian civilian protestors. Stone throwers were met with live ammunition and sniper shots. A brutal, crushing force was used by the Israeli army to intimidate and terrify at the protests — be it civilians, journalists or paramedics.

With the killing of 33 unarmed protestors, including 3 children and a journalist in the three weeks of the protests so far, Israeli forces have turned the protests bloody.

Over 4000 injuries have been reported since the start of the protests on March 30th, including 134 in critical conditions. Some have lost limbs due to the severity of their wounds. Some patients were denied permission by Israel to be transferred to hospitals in Israel or the West Bank.

As Palestinians gear up for the commemorations of Nakba Day on May 15th, these measures are clearly aimed to punish the injured for taking part in the protests and weaken the morale of others. While reports of Palestinian casualties have become the norm, the Israeli side was completely unaffected, with zero casualties of any kind.

On the face of it, for unarmed Palestinian protestors to approach a fence manned by heavily armed Israeli soldiers and snipers — knowing the likelihood of being shot at was virtually certain— can seem to verge on the suicidal. The stark asymmetry of the balance of power, highlighted in the images of unarmed, defenceless protestors maimed or injured by IDF live ammunition have shocked the world.

For many of the protesters, images of the destruction, killings, attacks on fishermen and farmers, as well as arrest campaigns during previous Israeli invasions are engraved in their minds. On that first day, Friday 30th, as crowds started to gather along Gaza’s Eastern border under the watchful eye of ambulance crews and journalists. Palestinian boys attempted to reach the fence, always keeping eye contact with the Israeli soldiers in a show of defiance and heroism.

Despite Israel’s brutality, Palestinians remain undeterred. “Duty is calling” is what they would tell you. Of the many protesters sharing photos on social media, some poignantly bid their loved ones goodbye, lest they might not return alive.

No one is immune. In some cases wounded paramedics were carried off by their colleagues. Even Journalists are having to take extra precautions because they know they might not be spared by IDF fire during the course of their work.

The Israeli army has invited foreign journalists to report on the protests from behind the Israeli fence, taking cover from a distance behind piles of sand. I wonder whether these journalists were able to see their injured Palestinian colleagues across the border.

The scale and deadliness of Israeli force deployed against the protesters in the last few days has been less than the horrifically bloody toll of previous weeks. It is obvious that this is a direct result of Israel’s desperation to avoid more international outcries. Tel Aviv has undoubtedly suffered a real PR disaster this month, after numerous videos of Palestinian civilians being shot dead or seriously injured have gone viral across social media platforms and onto the mainstream media.

Scores of Palestinian women have also been visible on the frontlines, standing side-by-side with the men sharing their struggle. This was presumably their response to those Israeli officials who had criticised the participation of Palestinian women at the protests. Since the IDF has boasted that its snipers knew, in the words of an army official, “where every bullet landed” it seems clear they have been deliberately avoiding shooting female protesters to avert international condemnation.

No one is safe or immune in the besieged Gaza strip. This was made abundantly clear recently by Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who has stated that “no one is innocent in Gaza.”

Preparing for the next round

Over the past few weeks, the Palestinian Ministry of Health has been releasing ongoing updates on the causalities, as newly bereaved families prepare to bury their loved ones.

In recent days, protesters have been using increasingly inventive means to defy Israeli forces. Some have been long-range slingshots, others are flying homemade kites with burning rags dangling from their tails, letting them go at the right moment. The aim is to set ablaze drying wheat fields on the Israeli side just across the border. On every Friday since the start of the march, protesters left the border areas at nightfall, retreating to the safety of the encampment sites, about 700 meters from the fence.

For the fourth planned round of mass demonstration,  taking place today (Friday 20th), the organising committee of the protest moved the sit-in tents to within 300 meters from Israeli border fence. Bulldozers were used to  create protective sand berms around them.

While tensions continue on the ground, another battle is taking place online. Israeli army officials — including the Army’s Arabic spokesman,  Avchay Adraee, and Yoav Mordechai, known as the “the coordinator” of the Israeli Government Activities in the Palestinian Territories (COGAT) — have been posting messages in Arabic on their social media pages to communicate directly with the Palestinians, in an attempt to divert the attention and anger of the protesters against Hamas — accusing the latter of being responsible for the miseries in the besieged territory and for using Gazans under its control are hostages. 

The stubborn determination of Gaza’s youths cannot be punctured through intimidation or propaganda, however, especially when, for many of them, Israel’s occupation and blockade have left them with nothing to lose.

Gaza — which has been subjected to all-out devastating wars three times in the past decade alone, in 2008, 2012 and 2014 — is often described as a “pressure cooker”. The border fence with Israel represents a curse that haunts its inhabitants. As someone born in Gaza — a tiny piece of land; 40 minutes’ drive from the north to the south — I can tell you that when a Gazan says they wish they were a bird that can fly across the border, they are not joking. The width of the overcrowded enclave does not exceed seven miles while the zone allowed for Gaza’s fishermen does not exceed six nautical miles. Palestinian West Bankers have a 440-miles concrete wall to contend with, which runes four times as long as its infamous predecessor in Berlin.

Adding insult to injury, Israel has dismissed this latest round of nonviolent protests as a Hamas ploy. Although desperate Gazans are bearing the brunt of their bickering rulers’ failures (Hamas and Fatah alike), no one is forcing any one of them to march to the border.

Of course, the local authorities in Gaza, under Hamas’ rule, have facilitated some of the protest arrangements, by setting up the encampments and makeshift tents for people to rest, as well as by transporting people towards the border areas. The public medical sector has been out on high-alert standby.

Ordinary Gazans are paying the price for internal splits

Gazans are hoping for a better life. Some families cannot find bread to put on their table. What adds insult to injury is the prolonged division and punitive measures taken recently by the West Bank-based Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, by cutting the salaries of former PA employees (mostly former security forces and civil servants) in Gaza, and now threatening to cut them off altogether.

Many rounds of mediation talks have failed to achieve national unity, and bring an end to years of rift between Hamas and Fatah, the two major Palestinian factions. The latest attempt, last month, collapsed following an assassination attempt targeting Palestinian PM Rami Alhamdallah upon his arrival in Gaza through the Israeli-controlled Erez pedestrian security crossing. Hamas disarming and relinquishing total control over Gaza has been Abbas’s main condition, but Hamas, as Fatah’s main rival, has made it clear that “the resistance weapons” will be a red line as long as Israeli military occupation remain.

A grim reality prevails amongst the tiny enclave’s nearly 2 million inhabitants, half of whom are young people under the age of 18. Life is unbearable, and it is amazing how people are surviving on a day-to-day basis, with a large proportion of them relying almost entirely on aid assistance from international agencies such as UNRWA. Many cases of suicide have been reported in Gaza in recent years.

Those who can afford to have been leaving Gaza for Europe, in search for a better future. Two thirds of the population are decedents of refugees. Many of those taking part in the protests have told local media, “there is no life in Gaza”.

Today’s fourth weekly protest coincides with the annual Palestinian prisoners’ day, commemorated on April 17th. Now that Gaza — the world’s largest open air prison — has got the world’s attention, for a brief moment at least, and making headlines worldwide, it awaits international intervention to help find a political solution that will bring hope to its people. Of course, unless Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas reach a just solution, the people of Gaza will continue to suffer.

The Palestinian leaderships across the two territorial units — Gaza and the West Bank — should put the national interest of the Palestinian people above their factional and personal priorities and concerns.

What is happening in Gaza is a man-made disaster. The current protests along the border, largely by disillusioned and angry youth, are a cry of despair and defiance against the architects of their misery.

Analysis | Gaza’s wake-up, unifying call: Reflections on The Great Return March

Fri, 2018-04-20 08:47

Three weeks ago today, on Friday 30th March, thousands of Palestinians in Gaza launched their Great March of Return, a series of peaceful demonstrations along the 65-kilometre frontier between the blockaded Gaza Strip and Israel, marking the Palestinian ‘Land Day’. On that same day in 1976, six Palestinian residents of Israel were killed by the Israeli army during protests against Israel’s continued confiscation of Palestinian land.

A century of dispossession and resistance

In 1948, the state of Israel was established after a long history of Jewish persecution in the diaspora, most recently and poignantly at the hands of European powers. However, concurrent with the settlement of European Jews in Palestine, was the creation of another diaspora.

In order to allow for the settlement of Jews in Palestine, the Zionist movement, buttressed by the promises of Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, in 1917, carefully oversaw and conducted a plan for the systematic expulsion and removal of the Palestinian inhabitants of the land, in what is now known as the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. To this day, two-thirds of Palestinians live in the diaspora, barred from returning to their homeland.

In the decades since the creation of Israel and the dispossession of the Palestinians, Palestinian resistance to the Zionist project has taken a multiplicity of forms. From the tactics of guerrilla warfare and warplane hijackings, in the 1970s and early 1980s, to mass civil disobedience during the First Intifada, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, through a period of suicide attacks inside Israeli towns and cities during the Second Intifada, in the early 2000s. Most recently (and least successfully,) was the spate of rocket fire attacks from Gaza into Israel, mainly since Hamas assumed power in the coastal enclave in 2007.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, over the past decade or so, alternative non-violent protest strategies have been adopted and regularly organised, primarily in villages such as Bili’in and Nabi Salih — where Ahed Tamimi, a 17-year old teen has been recently handed an eight-month sentence by an Israeli court for slapping an Israeli soldier in her own front yard.

No less importantly, in response to the call for boycott by a large coalition of Palestinian civil society organisations, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has marshalled international efforts to bring about justice and equality for Palestinians through boycott, advocacy and other non-violent means.

This is far from an exhaustive list of the multivariate forms of Palestinian resistance against Israeli colonial domination of Palestinian life, land and resources over the past decades. But it offers essential context for understanding the ‘Great March of Return’, whose grassroots organisers have made sure to repeatedly emphasise the mass (as opposed to factional) and civil (as opposed to militant) nature of the protests.

Despite this, sixteen Palestinians were killed by Israeli snipers on the first day of the march. Equally alarmingly, over seven hundred were injured by Israeli live ammunition and rubber-coated steel bullets. Nine more Palestinians were killed during the protests held on the following Friday (April 6th). Tires were burned by Palestinian protesters on that day in response to the killing by the IDF of 19-year old Abdul Fattah Abdul Nabi, who was shot while simply trying to get a tire across to the Palestinian side (probably in order to burn it afterwards). Over three hundred Palestinians were also injured on the same day, taking the total toll to over a thousand injuries, at least, to date.

When Non-Violence meets ‘Shoot to maim’

The huge number of casualties, and most likely disabilities, that Israel has been inflicting upon Palestinians is certainly not accidental. In fact, it is precisely in line with its deliberate policy of ‘shoot to maim’. After all, by unleashing its full force on unarmed Palestinian demonstrators, the Israeli state is only doing what it does best: kill and maim Palestinian civilians on a mass scale.

Israel acts this way because it is deeply emboldened by one simple fact, which is that it has always done so with impunity. The Israeli state acts with the prior knowledge that whatever it does and no matter how brutally it acts, it will not be made to account for its war crimes and other well-documented breaches of international law. This, alone, is reason for us to follow closely how these events are going to unfold over the next few days and weeks, and to be truly alarmed by the scale of the violence that the Israeli state might resort to in its efforts to quell these demonstrations.

12-year-old Adbul Rahman Nawfal had his leg amputated two days after being shot with an Israeli explosive bullet while peacefully protesting on Gaza’s eastern border.

Notwithstanding this morbid reality, however, there also seems to be something different about the current wave of demonstrations which, in my opinion, could give us reason to believe we are witnessing perhaps the start of something that has eluded Palestinians all these decades: The most significant expression of Palestinian popular demands for equality and self-determination in decades.

It is quite reasonable to view the current marches, which are planned to continue for six weeks (until the 11th of May), as truly original if only because they are the first of their kind to take place in the Gaza Strip since the Palestinian Islamic resistance movement, Hamas, took control in 2007. In one particular sense, the marches could signal a significant departure from the militant form of resistance spearheaded by Hamas and, more generally, from the monopoly by various Palestinian political factions over the resistance against Israel.

In this regard, the civil and non-violent nature of the marches poses a palpable threat to the Israeli state and its authoritative narrative around the political reality in Gaza, as well as its relations towards it and the Palestinian territories more broadly. According to this narrative, Israel always acts in self-defence; whenever it kills and maims Palestinians, confiscates their land, demolishes their houses, arbitrarily arrests their children, separates their families, destroys their infrastructure, blockades them from land and sea, Israel is acting in self-defence. Hence, the violence of the Israeli state — embodied in its complex colonial enterprise — is always rationally and judiciously employed in order to protect itself and its citizens against the barbaric violence of irrational and innately hateful Palestinians.

More specifically, Israel has consistently employed a civilizationalist discourse to present its conflict with the Palestinians in Gaza as a perennial battle against a Hamas-led enclave inhabited by Jew-hating, irrational and extremist militants. In this light, the ongoing mass civil demonstrations will serve to challenge this gross, albeit largely dominant, distortion of reality and provide a more accurate reflection of the underlying situation in Gaza, namely that we are not dealing with a conflict between two parties, let alone a conflict that has its roots in cultural factors or religious hatreds. Rather, this is an illegal military occupation, by a powerful and nuclear state, of another civilian population — an occupation that has its roots in a colonial project that extends back into the late nineteenth century.

Predictably, Israel has been quick to denounce the current demonstrations as a “cynical ploy” and “a dangerous provocation” by Hamas, evidently as an a priori justification for its planned, customary brutality against Palestinian demonstrators. Further, Israel has subtly invoked its right to ‘self-defence’ in justifying its use of live ammunition, which have so far killed dozens and injured over a thousand Palestinian civilians.

Still, the demonstrable fact that the vast majority of the demonstrators are not “members of Hamas”, or of any other militant group, has seriously undermined the Israeli state’s claim to be protecting itself and its citizens. Despite its best efforts to portray the protests as being violent, and linking them to Hamas, Israel’s official narrative has been clearly subverted and damaged. Of course, it should come as no surprise that Israel would attempt to portray the protests as being “aggressive”, “threatening” and “hostile” activities. It has become customary practice for it to justify its systematic and deliberate killing of Palestinian civilians by denying that they were civilians at all, and reflexively associating any Palestinian victims with militant groups or “hostile” activities.

‘Hostile activities’: Blaming the victims

Most alarming in this regard, however, has been Israel’s ability to expand the category of such “hostile activities” to include symbolic acts, such as burning tires or even throwing rocks — acts which have been historically associated with Palestinian mass civil disobedience. Rather brazenly, Israel is now treating visibly non-militant and non-threatening activities as hostile acts that pose immediate threat to the security of the formidable Israeli state, its army and its citizens — acts which, in consequence, require and justify its shooting dead any Palestinian civilian who commits them.

It was on this basis that Israel killed Abdul Fattah Abdul Nabi during the first Friday protests, on 30th March 2018. This also explains the Israeli Defence Forces spokesman’s sinister assertion on Twitter (swiftly deleted since) that the Israeli army knew “where every bullet landed” — thus explicitly acknowledging responsibility for deliberately shooting unarmed civilians.

On the second Friday (April 6th), however, Israel found itself in hot waters following the fatal shooting by the IDF of a popular Gaza photo-journalist, 30-year-old Yaser Murtaja, while he was filming the protests. Murtaja was wearing a clearly marked ‘press’ jacket when he was shot in the stomach with an exploding bullet. In this case, the facts were crystal-clear and Israel could not invoke its customary pretexts (denying the civilian nature of the victim and linking him to hostile activities).

Gaping cracks started to appear in the official Israeli narrative around the incident. While the IDF initially denied that it intended to kill Murtaja, the following day the Israeli Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, accused the victim of operating a drone above Israeli soldiers, and even claimed Hamas militants had disguised themselves before as journalists — thus suggesting Murtaja was posing a threat to Israeli soldiers.

In adopting this stance, Lieberman was only staying true to Israel’s long-standing tradition of blaming the civilians it kills by turning them into “militants”, “threats”, “terrorists” and so on. When a Palestinian civilian is killed, the logic goes, it is because they were not “really” civilians. They were “in the vicinity of militants”, or were being “used as human shields” by them. Needless to say, the Israeli army’s denial that it intended to kill Murtaja is exceptionally unconvincing and blatantly self-contradictory, especially when, only a week earlier, that same army was boasting of how its troops knew “where every bullet landed”. 

The glaring inconsistencies of Israel’s explanations for the killing of unarmed Palestinians — which have proved hugely costly in its public relations battle — are further confirmation that Israeli snipers have, indeed, been operating an official policy of shooting to kill or maim Palestinian civilians deliberately, some even filming and cheering themselves while doing so.

Evidence for this can be seen not only in the facts on the ground, as relayed by human rights groups, or even the aforementioned deleted tweet by the IDF spokesman, but in another official statement by the Israeli army, in which it declared it had “opened fire only when necessary, against those taking an active part in the demonstrations.” This explicitly confirms that all those killed by the IDF during the protests were targeted deliberately, not because of their participation in “violent” or “hostile” acts, but simply because of their “active involvement” in the protests.

Thus, “active involvement” in a protest, which seems to amount to the mere act of being present at one, has become Israel’s way of expanding the legal category of “participation in hostilities”. Just like it killed Abdul Nabi on 30th March for being an “active protester” who, as the footage clearly shows, bravely attempted to carry a tire towards the Palestinian crowd, Murtaja was also shot for being “actively involved” in a protest, filming and photographing at the frontlines. This is the logical result of the absurdity of the Israeli colonial logic, coupled with its internationally-protected and enabled impunity.

It should be entirely clear that, based on the colonial logic of the Israeli state, any action, violent or otherwise, taken by any Palestinians to protest against the mass incarceration, relentless control and collective punishment of their people, is now automatically considered a “hostile act” that requires and deserves the full might of the Israeli state being unleashed on them. One sincerely wonders what is left for Palestinians to do in the face of this injustice.

‘Unlivable’: Gaza’s humanitarian catastrophe

Equally important, Gaza’s demonstrations along the border with Israel are taking place at a time when the humanitarian situation within the enclave itself has hit rock bottom. Gaza has been under a tight Israeli-imposed blockade for over a decade, which has effectively hermetically sealed Gazans from the outside world. They had been teetering on the brink of collapse since 2007, but there has been an unprecedented tightening of the blockade in recent years, particularly after the last major aerial Israeli bombing campaign in 2014. This has drastically accelerated Gaza’s implosion, rendering it, in the words of a recent UN report, “unliveable.”

The quasi-permanent and complete closure of crossing points between Gaza and the outside world (the Rafah crossing point with Egypt, and the Erez crossing point with Israel), has meant that the two-million-strong population of Gaza, one of the most densely-populated areas in the world, have been fully consigned to a besieged, minuscule bit of territory — exactly 360 square kilometres, including the Buffer Zone (or the Access-Restricted Area) along the border with Israel, which accounts for 17% of Gaza’s overall territory and 35% of its agricultural land.

To this macabre picture, one must append all the subsequent details integral to this lethal blockade — such as the severe lack of the most basic services, including electricity supply, sanitary infrastructure, adequate medical services and equipment, as well as educational services and facilities. Add to that the highest unemployment rate in the world — at over 40% overall and 60% among Gaza’s youth — increased food and oil prices, toxic and endemic levels of stress, severe anxiety and mental health issues, and you will come to the conclusion that this is one of the most horrifying stories of human-orchestrated mass suffering, collective punishment and systematic, prolonged torture in modern history.

Against this bleak context, the Great Return marches have been planned in response to yet another failed attempt — though one that came closest in years — to reach an agreement between Fatah and Hamas, the two largest Palestinian factions, in control of the West Bank and Gaza respectively. In mid-2007, after a period of armed internal skirmishes, Hamas forces took full control of Gaza, having defeated and expelled their Fatah rivals. Since then, Palestinians have had to live under the rule of two antagonistic governments, one in Gaza, the other in the West Bank. Many a regional effort to bring the two sides together under one unified government has fallen apart. To the chagrin of other Palestinians, the disagreements between the two parties remain deep-rooted.

Still, the most recent Egyptian-mediated deal, signed in October last year, was, at one stage, believed by some to have finally ended this schism, especially as many practical steps were taken following its signing, notably Hamas relinquishing its control of the Rafah crossing point to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. However, a few months later, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the PA, was swearing and hurling accusations at Hamas after a bomb attack had targeted his prime minister, Rami Hamdallah.

In the midst of all of this, it seems that Palestinians in Gaza have come to terms with their gruesome reality: No positive change will be forthcoming, they have to come to realise, unless they take things into their own hands. This may certainly require a much dearer price than what Palestinians are willing to pay, and could take longer than what Palestinians are willing to go.

The right of return: A unifying call

Nonetheless, regardless of how successful they turn out to be, the March of Return protests are another act of Palestinian resistance that, once and for all, underlines the inextricable relationship between Palestinians’ uprooted-ness and their current political predicament, a connection that was almost lost to them, largely as a result of deep political and societal divisions, a series of successive military defeats and diplomatic capitulations, and a structural lack of regional and international diplomatic and political support.

The call for a return to the homeland will surely serve to remind Palestinians, in Gaza and elsewhere, of the origins of their physical and political entrapment. Of course, no one is expecting Palestinians to be able to physically march on to their actual homes and cities in what has become Israel. However, the potent symbolism of these protests is that they are taking place in Gaza and under the most unlikely circumstances.

Indeed, that it is those Palestinians who are most isolated from the outside world — completely excised from the material structure of Israeli state itself, deprived of their most basic rights seventy years after their original displacement — who are calling and marching not for some minor adjustment but for their right of return, is extremely powerful and significant.

Palestinians in Gaza are not simply pleading with their ruthless, colonial masters for better treatment or for a loosening of their shackles. They are no longer demanding only the easing of the blockade or even the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 armistice line, but a return to their homeland. Palestinians in Gaza are, in essence, reclaiming their narrative and their reality.

It is also greatly significant that although Israel had intended, and systematically strived to create, a separate reality for Gaza — one which relegated it from being a political question to a purely humanitarian one — Palestinians are transforming this reality by placing the political roots of their problem at the heart of their struggle for dignity and basic rights.

While Gaza has been reduced to soundbites about basic, individual rights that appeared to be separable from their collective and national rights, Palestinians in Gaza are now calling for their individual human rights through invoking their most fundamental and collective right: Their right to return.

In this context, this call for return acts as a horizon that unites all Palestinians around the most constitutive element of their collective identity, namely their mass displacement from their original homeland in 1948 — known as Al-Nakba (‘the catastrophe’) — and is a reminder that, despite their systemically manufactured contemporary circumstances, Palestinians in Gaza have not lost sight of what their decades-long struggle has been for.

In short, it is not through ephemeral ceasefires, humanitarian proposals and partial solutions involving further compromises, but through fully (re)claiming what they view as theirs — and is explicitly recognised as being so by international law, specifically in the UN General Assembly resolution 194 — that they will be able to, at last, bring an end to their decades-long homelessness and suffering.

This re-centring of the right of return at the heart of the struggle of Palestinians in Gaza, in addition to the peaceful manner in which the protests have been planned and conducted until now, is why I see in these marches a cause for cautious optimism; particularly I see the Israeli state bracing itself for what it rightly sees, yet tragically underestimates, as a threat to its occupation and dispossession of the Palestinian people.

Comment | Fighting Antisemitism: We cannot cherry-pick which racism to fight

Thu, 2018-04-19 04:28

As someone who has spent nearly his entire career pushing for Palestinian rights, working with MPs, taking them on visits to Palestine to see the situation Palestinians face under occupation, the whole crisis over antisemitism fills me with both anger and sadness.

Not only do I abhor any form of racism, I also see the devastating impact of antisemitic comments not only on the Jewish community but on the Palestinian cause as well. So I find it upsetting because I detest racism, bigotry and discrimination; and also because it harms the cause to which I have dedicated all my professional life.

The number of people spreading, or turning a blind eye to, ignorant, prejudiced ahistorical conspiracy theories, holocaust denialism, and the like is just appalling. No ifs, no buts. How many more times do we have to read comments saying the “BBC is controlled by Jews” or that “Jews buy up all the media”? Anti-Jewish hatred exists in all parties, but this does not mean the Left does not have an issue, and this should not be dismissed as merely part of an anti-left or anti Corbyn agenda.

According to a survey published by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) last year, a “relatively small group of about 5% of the general population can justifiably be described as antisemites: people who hold a wide range of negative attitudes towards Jews.” That is a considerable number of people, and the survey found that up to 30% of British society hold at least one antisemitic belief. (You can question the methodology, if you really want to, but even 0.1% would have been too high.)

The survey did point out that levels of antisemitism in Great Britain are among the lowest in the world, and that levels of positive opinion about Jews, at 70%, were comparable to those towards other religious minorities, such as Hindus.  Moreover, relevant in the context of Labour’s struggles, the survey found that “the most antisemitic group on the political spectrum consists of those who identify as very right-wing.”

Jeremy Corbyn’s failure has been one of a lack of leadership on this issue. The way he handled it has created a climate where many Jews do genuinely feel very uncomfortable being part of the party he leads. Like many, I do not believe Jeremy himself is antisemitic and, for sure, as ever in politics, some of his opponents are trying to make the most of this opportunity to slam him. But the trouble is Corbyn simply has not acted hard and fast enough to make antisemitism as unacceptable as it should be, leaving himself open to charges of complacency.

Corbyn should have spoken out much earlier and ensured, at a minimum, that the recommendations of Shami Chakrabarti report were implemented. The case of Christine Shawcroft was just the latest example. As chair of Labour’s disputes panel, on what planet was she on when she called for a candidate who had reportedly posted that the “Holocaust was a hoax” to be reinstated without, by her own admission, having read his comments. Either she was stunningly incompetent, or willing to overlook the issue. She remained on Labour’s National Executive Committee for several days afterwards, before being compelled to resign. That is not “zero tolerance”.

At the same time, we face a rise in anti-Muslim hate as well. This has to be addressed just as strongly and vigorously. Neither Theresa May, nor her predecessor, David Cameron, have done enough to challenge this. Boris Johnson is in no position to chastise Corbyn given his own past record. When Editor of the Spectator, Johnson published an article by Taki which stated that “Orientals … have larger brains and higher IQ scores. Blacks are at the other pole.” At a public debate a few years later, Johnson infamously referred to black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”. Instead of censoring and suspending him, as should have happened, the Conservative party made him Foreign Secretary.

These are not isolated incidents on the right. Leave.EU, the campaigning group, plumbed the depths last month when it posted a tweet in which it asked rhetorically: “Is it any wonder that Labour can’t be bothered to deal with the disgusting antisemitism in their party when they are so reliant on the votes of Britain’s exploding Muslim population? It’s a question of maths for these people, not justice!” This was rightly condemned by the Board of Jewish Deputies, and it is hugely welcome to see so many voices unwilling to allow this division to be exploited.

Likewise, I have utter contempt for those who embrace anti-Semites simply because they appear to back Israel. How can Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, tolerate the likes of Steve Bannon, with his record of racism and support for neo-Nazi movements? The Zionist Organisation of America, likewise, offered public support to Bannon, a position that attracted considerable outrage amongst American Jewish communities.

What about those who did not speak out against the disgusting antisemitic campaign targetting the Hungarian-born Jewish businessman George Soros, launched largely by white supremacists who objected to his views on immigration, Brexit or Israel? Netanyahu not only said nothing but instead was happy to stand should-to-shoulder with Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, whose party had waged the anti-Semitic campaign against Soros.

Netanyahu’s son, Yair, even posted on Facebook a grotesque anti-Semitic cartoon depicting Soros dangling the world in front of large reptile, a cartoon that subsequently was promoted by antisemitic websites, including by the Ku-Klux-Klan leader, David Duke. In the same foul boat, I would include those who make fake and exaggerated claims of antisemitism to smear people because they do not like their views. This is in itself a betrayal of all the millions of victims of this ancient hatred.

“Netanyahu not only said nothing but instead was happy to stand should-to-shoulder with Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, whose party had waged the anti-Semitic campaign against Soros.”

You cannot cherry-pick in the fight against racism. This is why no friend of the Palestinians should be silent about some of the anti-Jewish imagery on Palestinian media, or the anti-Jewish rhetoric by Hamas and Hizbollah. No friend of Israel should be silent when Israeli leaders compare Palestinians to animals, or call for water and electricity to be cut off to two million Palestinians in Gaza. Of course, true friends of Israel should be demanding an end of the occupation as well.

Two weeks ago, a tweet from the Board of Deputies, commenting on unarmed Palestinians being shot with live fire in Gaza, on Friday 30 April, failed to condemn this outrage and showed contempt for Palestinian lives. Those responsible for this should be held accountable. As the Israeli human rights group B’tselem stated: “Shooting at unarmed demonstrators is illegal & any command allowing such action is manifestly illegal.”

And to those who just brush the issue of antisemitism off as exaggerations and smears, think again, please. Check through all the twitter feeds of members of Parliament, who both stand up for Palestinian rights and joined the Parliament Square rally calling for action against antisemitism. Check out the responses to Jess Phillips MP, who in February joined Caabu on a delegation to the West Bank and is highly critical of Israeli actions against Palestinians. She was one of many Labour MPs who stand up for Palestinian rights and also attended that protest. A man was arrested and imprisoned for two years for vile anti-Semitic attacks against the Labour MP Luciana Berger. He had also praised the “Filthy Jew Bitch Campaign” run by the white supremacist website Daily Stormer in the US. Berger says that three people have received prison sentences for antisemitism directed at her from the far right, but in recent days it has been abuse “purportedly from the left.”

Check out the posts that were made on a Facebook Group, Palestine Live, which included Holocaust denial and all forms of historic anti-Jewish tropes based around the Protocols of the Elders of Zion , conspiracy theories about Israel and 9/11, and the Rothschild family running the world economy. Start questioning the sense and insensitivity of comparing what is happening to the Palestinians to what the Nazis did before and during the Holocaust.

Scores of politicians, thinkers, academics, human rights campaigners, lawyers, religious leaders, aid workers rightly speak out for Palestinian rights in the strongest terms on an almost daily basis, without needing to express a scintilla of hatred except for the crimes and injustice they oppose. Amongst them are many people who also happen to be Jews and, indeed, Israeli Jews prepared to take a stand often at great personal cost.  

For the Palestinians, they are damned by both plagues. They suffer from anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred, but also their noble cause for justice is undermined by antisemitism amongst too many — once again, one person is too many — in pro-Palestinian movements. The chances of achieving their legitimate rights will increase a thousand-fold without this scourge contaminating their cause.

Palestinians need our support. They have endured more than fifty years under occupation; seventy per cent of them are refugees, with no state of their own, and suffering a whole host of human rights abuses. Questions should be asked of those who do not support their liberation and their legitimate rights. For instance, it was valid to criticise Theresa May and her government for celebrating the Balfour declaration, given what has happened to the Palestinians as a direct consequence of that fateful promise by Britain 100 years ago.

So to all antisemites out there, enough of your bile, get the hell off the Palestinian case, and scurry back under the stones from which you crawled out.

An A to Z of Theory | Hakim Bey: Capitalism, the State, and the Spectacle

Wed, 2018-04-18 11:12

In the previous essay, I examined Hakim Bey’s theories of alienation and the state. Completing the examination of Bey’s analysis of the dominant system, this fifth of sixteen columns examines Bey’s theory of capitalism. It shows how Bey situates capitalism as a trance-like manipulation of desire, and as a process of alienation from the body culminating in a flight to the ether. It also examines Bey’s critique of ‘cop culture’ and his comments on American global hegemony, and provides an analysis of Bey’s view of the dominant system.

Capital and Capitalism

Bey also analyses capital as a machine for the production of scarcity and the destruction of intensity. Capitalism seeks, not to satisfy desire, but to exacerbate longing through utopian traces. This idea – which Bey attributes to Benjamin – plays on the idea that commodities are advertised in terms of future promises. The commodity will provide enjoyment or validity or reality, or validate one’s experiences. Capital needs the promise of such future benefits to sell products. Yet it also needs to avoid actually delivering on these promises. If it delivered, then there would be no need to buy further products. 

Hence, capitalism constantly reproduces scarcity to stimulate demand. This renders art threatening to capitalism. Art, or creativity, is based on the gesture of reciprocity, or presence. Everyone is an artist, in the sense of co-creation through lived experience, play, and meaning. But capitalism intervenes to mediate between people. It interrupts reciprocity and introduces scarcity and separation. Capitalism is vampiric. It relies on consuming others’ creativity. It liberates itself by enslaving desire. Much of what the system offers has no real use – it is ‘snake oil‘ – but it works because it has a placebo effect.

Capitalism stems from the invention of scarcity as an existential condition. It is driven by a totalitarian logic of eternal growth. It claims eternity, and therefore ahistoricity. Capitalism cannot “really” escape production. But the ideology of globalised capitalism creates the appearance of escaping production. It appears to be pure, disembodied and ecstatic. The triumph of capital is connected to the triumph of the screen. The system represents itself as a state of oneness, and as invulnerable. But its weakness is shown in the feeling that it is ‘not reflected in lived experience‘ – in experiences of alienation, emptiness and boredom.

Contemporary capitalism takes this process to new extremes. Today, the system is evolving towards rule by technocrats over a mass of homogenised but atomised consumers, linked only by ‘CommTech’ and mutual surveillance. The current situation is like the story, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – in which a junior wizard uses magic in which he is untrained, causing disaster. Today this is happening with technology. The current phase of capitalism involves a kind of historical blockage. The world has basically remained in – or looped back to – the nineteenth century. Authors as early as Fourier, in 1799, were already discussing today’s problems. However, the system conceals such history. Capitalism is building an ‘8-lane bypass over the Past’. Like the state, it operates at the level of images.

The current situation is not so much postmodernist as anti-modernist. Modern insights have been denied and jettisoned. For example, the Freudian discovery of the unconscious has been rejected. It is denied and spread-out across various forms of downmarket media. One might add that Marxian insights are similarly rejected in neo-classical economics, and that sociological knowledge has been displaced by policy discourse and individualised explanations. The dominant system is today defined by its denial or warding-off of certain directions of development of knowledge, leaving knowledge as a kind of Lysenkoite shell.

Money may have originally appeared as a type of religious, symbolic power. Coins might have been temple souvenirs deemed to have mana or numinous value, which could be exchanged for real wealth. Alternatively, it might have first appeared as debt. Either way, Bey suggests that its basic gesture is to separate wealth from its symbol and recombine them later, making the symbol tradeable. The rise of money is also part of the rise of cumulative mediation. Whereas commodity currencies (such as cattle or barley) still had personal uses, money is entirely impersonal – a floating signifier.

However, writing and money are not enough to explain the rise of alienation. Money existed for 4000 years before the state emerged. The material world tends to restore equality. It resists accumulation. In any case, the State provides ‘protection’, which is not a material resource. Bey believes that symbolic power is central here. The State can only gain an advantage over diffuse social institutions when it can present its power in symbolic terms. 

Capital operates at the level of magic, or interpretation, the same level where Bey locates resistance. The capitalist type of imagination is negative, reducing everything to debt and sucking it into a black hole. Debt mutates into peonage (slavery) as jubilee (debt write-off) never comes. Abstractions are handed down from one generation to the next. Nothing is experienced directly; everything is mediated by money. Capital seeks a monopoly on interpretation. It constructs a space of supposed dialogue which in fact precludes any response, resonance or resistance.

This is similar to the idea of forced communication within dominant terms. Whereas in totalitarian systems, the regime censors by fiat, in capitalist systems the market censors through market failure. Today, capital seeks to detach images from experienced life entirely. In tourism, even the real world is experienced as an image. Tourists are seduced by the utopian trace of difference, but bear the virus of sameness into living spaces. Bey likens this process to the indigenous idea of soul loss. 

Capital Today

In Millennium, Bey suggests that, in the recent past – up to the 1990s – it was still possible to see the Spectacle or the Planetary Work Machine as the enemy. It was then possible to resist through exodus. This was the analysis underpinning TAZ – creating nuclei of alternative forces and using resistance to defend them. Today, in contrast, capitalism does not need to concede space to such ‘third forces’. It has shed its ideological armouring and initiated a full onslaught. It now treats all opponents directly as enemies. This means we are left with a global neoliberalism and a superpower which doesn’t even obey its own rules.

Bey opposes the postmodern position that all binaries and categories have now dissolved. He argues that one category – the system – survives. Survival in this context depends on persistence – on determination to remain in history after its declared end. Bey suggests that capitalism is triumphalist because of the end of the Cold War. But he argues that it is only the winner by default – because viable alternatives have collapsed first. Today, money is turning into a phantom-like, imaginary entity outside the world. The energy of life remains outside the system.

In Escape from the Nineteenth Century, Bey/Wilson argues that the increasing abstraction of capital renders it increasingly unreal and ineffective. Over 90% of money has escaped into a kind of ‘CyberGnostic heaven or numisphere’. This sphere has no relationship to production or government. Bey is here alluding to the expansion of finance capital, which has grown out of proportion to productive capital. This is similar to the Marxist idea of fictitious capital. 

However, Bey/Wilson believes it also has existential or spiritual significance. Cyber-gnosis realises the Enlightenment dream of a unified rational world-consciousness. It has expanded into a fragile membrane around the earth, a bubble filled with hot gases. It has become self-enclosed and self-referential. In another paper, Bey argues that money referring only to more money in an endless chain is the most abstract idea humanity has ever had. 

In the poem Creepy Sensation, Bey speculates that we are being watched by future people who might redeem our lost sensations, envying our sensations which they lack, and our closeness to species extinct in the future. Similarly, in ‘Islam and the Internet‘, Bey argues that the spirit/body split and the hierarchical organisation of religion reaches a culmination in cyberspace – the principle of mind separated from body.

The Internet was designed to resist physical destruction, such as nuclear war, by rapidly transcendentalising matter, transferring it between sites. It does not offer immanence, but a false transcendence based on the gnostic mind-body split. It is a kind of heaven. The conflict over the future of the Internet thus seems to be a ‘war in heaven’. (In Riverpeople, Wilson reverses this and suggests that money has virtualised itself into Hell). There is barely even a ruling-class, firstly because CEOs are replaceable functionaries, and secondly because only a few hundred people ‘control’ half the money. Actually, Bey believes that nobody is in control any more. The ruling class has lost control of virtual capital.

Capitalism today pretends to be the only possible world. For Bey, this entails a kind of closure of reality. This closure has created a sense of numbness and powerlessness. It also leads to ennui and anomie, as ways of covering-up an anger with no clear target. It is impossibly pessimistic to actually feel what is happening today, a ‘tragedy without catharsis’. The current world is marked by a new kind of psychological malaise.

Bey suggests that this malaise stems from a ‘cognitive collapse’. This collapse is focused on the single world of capitalist monoculture. It is the effect of a deep psychological capitulation to this world as the only alternative available. Echoing Baudrillard, Bey argues that the relationship of alienation, the ‘mirror of production’, has been replaced by a ‘vertigo of terror‘.

This new phenomenon realises tendencies inherent in capitalism. Indeed, money has always been nothing but absence or debt. Most people are now in debt to de-realised finance capital, and excluded from the heaven reserved for the very few. Capital takes off into a timeless future, leaving the rest of us stuck, reliving the past. The stock market soars, but leaves zones of depletion everywhere. Such zones of depletion are both regions and groups of people. Such zones of depletion are not rescued by the system but punished. 

Bey sees money as a religious phenomenon, striving to remove itself from the world of bodies to the world of spirit. Coins were initially seen as ‘liminal’ objects, existing at the intersection of the material and spiritual worlds. Whereas nomads move between spaces, money moves from time to time, obliterating space. It is based on what Bey calls the ‘sexuality of the dead’ – a type of inorganic reproduction through constant splitting.

It thus captures chaos of sorts, but a type of chaos stripped of life. It cannot deal with true complexity, reducing it to sameness. Today, the attempt to posit capitalism as the only existing world turns money into the one God. Capital increasingly needs no authority except money. It has placed itself beyond the human – beyond conservatism as much as beyond leftism.

Today (or at least in the 1990s), capital has gained primacy over the state. All states, even the US, are simply turned into mercenaries of capital. One might expect a showdown between capitalism and the State for absolute power. However, the State seems to have realised it was beaten. With money breaking free of the state, the state loses its power to claim to be providing ‘something for nothing’ – protection.

The post-Fordist state provides ‘nothing for nothing’ and its power is shattered.  It has given up its protective role in every sphere from human rights to economics. It seems to believe it can give up its powers and functions and yet still survive as an ‘elected occupying army’. What remains are empty ceremony and the exercise of terror against the poor and different – for instance, the ‘war on crime’. However, Bey speculates that the state could be used as a kind of social ‘custom and right’ against capital.

Bey’s reaction to 9/11 in ‘Crisis of Meaning‘ is based on the idea that meaning is already in crisis. This is not changed by ‘5000 murders’. Yet others thought something had changed. For instance, articles after 9/11 were arguing that advertising now seemed shameful. Wasn’t it already shameful, since death and tragedy happen every day? 

Bey argues against the view that any trauma or tragedy is so great that art or poetry are no longer possible. They have already survived the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the Gulag, in spite of predictions to the contrary. Bey predicts – probably rightly – that 9/11 would quickly be sublimated into the collective unconscious, after an orgy of fear, hate, and destruction of freedoms.

In a later interview, Bey suggests that globalism has emerged stronger than ever, because it now has the enemy it had been looking for since the Soviet collapse. America is able to sustain globalism and hegemony together. People were hypnotised by the media for two or three weeks after 9/11. This produced a ‘neurotic, obsessive, trance-like consciousness’. I would suggest that this kind of hypnosis is commonly repeated when tragedies or atrocities occur. It has become an important mechanism of stabilisation. 

Spectacle as Trance

Bey sees economic systems as producing, or being co-produced with, corresponding worldviews. Indigenous and agricultural systems have an organic consciousness. Civilisation emerges from ideologies, which rigidly order the world as if from outside. It makes abstract ideas concrete, rather than emerging naturally or organically.

As technology expands in modernity, a corresponding machinic consciousness emerges. The rigid psychological repression of the unconscious in Victorian thought is based on a mind-machine model which reflects the production line. It leads to puritanism and imperialism. We are now undergoing a further paradigm shift focused on cybernetics, quantum physics, and dematerialisation. Today, the law seeks to suppress this shift (for instance, through the ‘War on Drugs’). 

However, the system is also using the newly-recovered esoteric powers unleashed by this shift. For Bey, civilisation is a ‘trance-like state‘ which produces a ‘bad consciousness’, somewhat like a bad drug trip. Hermetic powers have also been appropriated by science, the State, capitalism, and the media. For example, adverts use erotically charged symbolic imagery, intelligence services use cryptography, and money has a spiritual origin. 

The power of such institutions can only be understood in terms of their recuperation or turning-aside of hermetic processes originally designed for liberation or immediacy. Such recuperation occurs by using the powers to control users, thus leaving them alienated rather than enchanted. Bey considers many forms of transformation to be alchemical. The system uses a lot of ‘evil alchemy’, a category which includes nuclear weapons, commodification, and acts such as 9/11. Both drug addiction and the war on drugs are ‘shamanism gone bad’.

Bey theorises capitalist ideology as a variety of the gnostic ideology of disembodiment. Information theory is now producing fantasies of disembodiment worthy of Puritans or gnostics. The ‘information economy’ is a new mask for body-hatred. It involves revulsion against the heaviness of material production, and the ongoing replacement of organic space with machinic space to organise consciousness.

Computers are a kind of prosthesis of consciousness. They make the religious mind-body split even more acute, by reifying consciousness in technology. Virtual life encourages a false transcendence, in which people believe consciousness will become immortal as pure information.

This ideology forgets that we can’t eat information. Capital seeks to transcend the body into pure spirit or information. In fact, the gnostic capital which escapes embodiment also relies on a huge exploited periphery of old-fashioned industry and agriculture, mostly in the global South. This process shows the falsity of commodities. The idea that images are wealth is a delusion caused by the Spectacle and believed by its supporters.

Bey argues that the ‘gnostic dualists are wrong’ – body and spirit cannot exist without each other. The rule of spirit has alienated us from the language of the body, which we scarcely even speak today. Modernity believes in rationality, unified consciousness, teleological history and so on. Public discourse pretends to be secular, and separate from religion. But in fact, religious phenomena keep resurfacing, for example in moral panics, conspiracy theories and so on. Such social phenomena channel similar energies to religion. Bey views the current system as in fact deeply religious, based on a gnostic separation of mind and body, and a particular answer to the religious problem of intensity.

Bey argues that the media’s extension across the social field also creates problems for power. The media has paradoxically approached a limit of ‘image-enclosure’ (by analogy with the Enclosures of land). This leads to a ‘crisis of the stasis of the image, and of the complete disappearance of communicativeness’.

In other words, because all images are captured by the media, images lose the ability to communicate. Everything the media says refers to itself, and lacks an external connection to an outside. This idea is derived from Baudrillard, and points to transformative strategies focused on horizontal communication and intimate media. Soviet communism failed because it failed to embrace the Spectacle. Capital adapted, and so will disintegrate instead of imploding. 

In one essay, Bey suggests that the Evil Eye exists, in the sense of having apparent effects. It’s a complex way in which humans affect each other. Westerners are especially vulnerable to the Eye, because the western social ethic is rooted in envy, and because defences are not used. Capitalism and Russian-style communism are both rooted in envy, and require it as a survival trait.

The gaze thus becomes a gaze of hate, rather than love. It is expressed around us as the panopticon (surveillance, performance management and so on). It manifests as an experience of deprivation and misery, often focused on lack of some commodity. This experience is fuelled by the ways we are represented, as lacking commodities or rights. Against envy, Bey proposes not morality (‘another abstraction’) but over-abundant power.

As in his other occult pieces, the claim that the Evil Eye ‘exists’ is not so much an ontological claim as a metaphor for a particular affect or social force – in this case, envy and lack. This in turn is a variant of the recurring theme of alienation, which is counterposed to life-force. 

Critique of Representation

Bey theorises representation as a hardened form of imagery. Capitalism, or the ‘cruel instrumentality of Reason‘, has a flattening effect. It reduces consciousness to a 2-dimensional map. This map is viewed mechanically. Meaning is excluded, as it would disrupt mechanical order. This leads to a contemporary ‘plague of meaninglessness’ and a collapse of ethics. Marxism is similarly limited because it reproduces meaninglessness. The theory of meaning implied here is expressive or affective. Instrumental rationality destroys meaning because it is difficult to invest emotionally in it.

The type of image used in modern society reflects this tendency towards meaninglessness. Writing and computer coding are based on images. However, they are reified, solidified forms of images. Computer coding is based on a very simple, binary image-system. It never escapes images, but they are buried more deeply. In Abecedarium, Wilson argues that writing is a form of alienation, which brings with it the state. It enables communication and therefore action at a distance. This tends to destroy earlier, direct forms of community.

However, various so-called ‘pre-writing’ systems, such as wampum, manage to avoid alienation. They should be renamed (and not called writing or pre-writing) to avoid implications of evolution-as-progress. Such systems belong to complex, wealthy societies which refuse the emergence of capitalism and the state.

Symbolism through images arises in non-state societies. However, writing based on abstract letters is inherently statist. States seem to require writing, along with irrigation and metallurgy, to exist. Writing is a kind of magic, or ‘action-at-a-distance’, which entraps people for the state. Wilson argues that Native American wampum is neither money nor writing. Instead, it operates to ward off these technologies. Colonisers turned it into money by mass-producing and counterfeiting it, cornering the market. 

In Abecedarium, Wilson recounts the evolution of the letters of the English alphabet from hieroglyphs with pictorial resemblance to the things they represent. He portrays this process as a kind of entrapment and alienation of imaginal meaning. Letters capture the spirit of the image so it can be manipulated or worshipped. Words maintain a magical (imaginal) connection to things, but this is hidden by letters.

Nevertheless, the power of images persists beneath letters. Most images are turned back-to-front or upside-down, to conceal their image-power. A, for example, is a bull or ox – but the image of its head is turned upside-down. Originally a proud bull, it is now domesticated. The underlying pictoral meaning of letters is taken to rebut the structuralist idea that writing is arbitrary. 

“Cop Culture”

The police-state logics of the contemporary state also have an imaginal element. In a 1980s piece, Bey calls for a boycott of ‘cop culture‘. He argues that police TV shows encourage identification with power – which he terms a ‘police-state-of-consciousness’. Viewers are encouraged to identify as powerless victims. This victim identity plays into the grievances of identity groups. It encourages us to see the police as the mediator between criminal and victim, and between each other. This stops us identifying as chaotic heroes. The power of the police is built on the viewer’s helplessness and lack of autonomous substance.

In police dramas, if we aren’t powerless victims, we are criminals. These shows also encourage people to act as amateur cops and ‘help’ the police. While real vigilantes are threatening to the police-state, media vigilantes support it. People are turned into extensions of the state’s surveillance machinery through shows like Crimewatch. This process turns people into a nation of toadies sucking up to an elite of bullies. It prepares us for a messianic moment of police-state control which is at once total control and leeched of content – ‘meaningless violent spasms’ as the ‘last principle of governance’.

The signifiers involved in this phenomenon are contradictory. People ambiguously identify as victims or amateur cops, but also identify as criminals and want ‘crime’. The signifier of ‘crime’ has come to stand for unmediated desire. Hence, police shows enact a kind of inner conflict between superego and id, across an abandoned landscape of alienation.

The success of police shows is a result of popular acceptance of the Manichean worldview of the police. It plays to an inner personality in which passion is dammed and diverted against itself. Bey seeks the destruction of the archetypal image of the cop or the cop-in-the-head (not necessarily of individual cops). Destroying this inner repressive force releases tides of passionate energy – not the negative disorder feared by authoritarians. 

American Global Hegemony

Bey also occasionally discusses global geopolitics. In ‘The Information War‘, Bey distinguishes three kinds of conflict. Indigenous war is a ‘ritual brawl’, voluntary and non-hierarchical. Statist or classical war is compulsory and hierarchical. Hyperreal or ‘pure’ war – the kind discussed by Baudrillard – is based on images and psychological effects. Wilson portrays the founding of America as a successful conspiracy by a white male elite against Church and King.

The elite’s power is founded on enterprise, including slavery and swindling, and a political system designed to perpetuate their rule. The US has defined itself as the hegemon over an illusory ‘free market’, acting as both CEO and ‘security cop’ at a global level. Overt discrimination has largely been replaced by psychological racism, or hostility to other cultures. Imaginative participation in other cultures is a way to resist psychological racism. 

America has tried to avoid the problem of diversity through its melting-pot approach. But in practice, American consensus culture was English colonial culture with amnesia and frontier bluster. Multiculturalism emerged as a response to the failure of assimilation. It is designed to save the American system of social control, by allowing a small degree of cultural self-identity and tokenistic inclusion.

Minority cultures are still valued only in relation to a ‘universal’ culture of the dominant group. They are also ‘appropriated’ in the sense of being commodified, and reduced to images or ‘Spectacle’. Liberal integration posits a false separation of cultures, which in fact are only tolerated or encouraged if they tacitly recognise the centrality of the consensus. Particularities and cultures are spokes in a wheel around a central hub, the dominant system. Genuine cultural autonomy and horizontal connections across cultures are forbidden.

The consensus thus sucks in energy in a death-like process. Since particularism is a source of resistance, the system offers a false form of it, devoid of insurrectionary desire. At the same time, it encourages hatred and conflict among groups, and responds to social problems with securitisation. The system provides false, packaged particularities articulated by the commodity system, whereas Bey proposes autonomous groups articulated through reciprocity and a gift economy.

Instead of multiculturalism, Bey calls for ‘radical tolerance’. This is a situation of creative chaos and multiple relations among relatively equal powers, without a centre. The system’s pluralism focuses on the specific object of desire – such as a particular food or dance – whereas the real issue is ‘to be yourself‘ or to ‘be free’. The possibility of autonomous desire is more important than the object of desire. The system can offer the object (conditional on conformity), but not autonomy – and this renders partial victories and reforms problematic.

Today’s ‘pan-capitalism’ in theory permits any image, but in practice proves unable to generate anything but sameness. Images of relations other than exchange are implicitly prohibited. For example, a documentary about an indigenous group cannot convey the meaning of gift economy, although it might create ‘cognitive dissonances’ through things which remain unseen. 

Discussion

Bey’s analysis of capitalism, the state, and the Spectacle is thought-provoking and insightful. It is written with an eye to strategic responses to particular configurations of power. Counter to certain critics, I wouldn’t interpret Bey as reducing the system to an imaginary construct, or a ‘discourse’ in a narrow sense. Rather, he is suggesting that the imaginal underpinning of the system provides the matrix for its real functioning.

The imaginal aspect of the system disrupts responses on a purely material level. It is necessary to fight at the imaginal as well as the material level to be effective. This is similar to Gramsci’s view that civil society insulates the state and capital from revolution.  It by no means implies that the system’s violence, or its human consequences, aren’t ‘real’, or that the system will disappear simply from not believing in it.

However, I feel Bey often places too great an emphasis on recuperation relative to repression, as a threat to social movements. He seems, therefore, to overemphasise imaginal strategies over material control of spaces, resources and so on. Especially in the post-9/11 era, repression is a very real threat. It responds in a targeted way to the danger posed to it by autonomous zones.

The idea that the state can function as an ‘adversary’ against which to sharpen one’s claws seems naive in a control society, in which state-produced fear and anxiety have such a debilitating effect on dissent. In addition to its imaginal operation, capital and the state also rely on spatial dominance. It seems impossible to prevent this dominance without some kind of counter-power. I would analyse legalisation, and other border-conflicts with the state, as more than just recuperation – they are also means to push back the state, to create space for autonomy.

For the other essays in the series, please visit the In Theory column page.

Editor’s note: With regards to Hakim Bey’s controversial personal stances, these will be discussed in Part 10 of this series. In the meantime, please read our ‘Note to readers’ at the end of the introductory essay of the series.

Comment | The Land Day Massacre: The cost of our continued inaction is paid for with Palestinian lives

Fri, 2018-04-06 10:17

A girl, affected by tear gas fired by Israeli forces, is carried away during the “Great March of Return” in Gaza, March 31, 2018. [Photo credits: AlJazeera/Anadolu]

“I dream of us no longer being heroes or victims; we want to be ordinary human beings. When a man becomes an ordinary being and pursues his normal activities, he can love his country or hate it, he can emigrate or stay. However, for this to apply there are objective conditions that are not in place. As long as the Palestinian person is deprived of his homeland, he is obliged to be a slave to that homeland.” -Mahmoud Darwish

On March 30th, thousands of Palestinians congregated near the Israeli controlled border in Gaza, launching a series of protests planned to last until at least May 15th under the banner of the ‘Great Return March’.

By the end of the day, 15 Palestinians lay dead, shot by Israeli snipers positioned on the other side of the heavily militarised border fence and sheltered behind mud embankments; a toll that has subsequently risen to 18. Approximately 1,500 Palestinian protesters were injured, more than 750 of them by live ammunition. Pictures that have emerged online of these injuries show horrendous exit wounds from which survivors will take years to recover. Not a single Israeli casualty was reported.

Videos of the shootings clearly show protesters were being shot at whilst running away from the border. One video shows a boy shot to death while praying. Most devastating, perhaps, are the images of young men and women walking calmly towards the border, waving the Palestinian flag before being felled by sniper fire. These protesters were propelled by the shared history of injustice of which Darwish spoke, and a belief that to protest, at whatever cost to the self, is not only a right but an obligation.

The date chosen for the protest, Land Day, marks the anniversary of another massacre carried out by Israeli forces in 1976, when Palestinian citizens of Israel were fired upon while protesting the Government’s decision to seize over 2000 dunums of Palestinian land for Jewish settlements; killing 6 and wounding 100.

The Gaza demonstrations are primarily motivated by two things. First, a reassertion of the right, recognised in international law, for Palestinians to return to the homes from which they were forcibly expelled in 1948 and again in 1967. It is worth remembering that 70% of the population of Gaza are UN-recognised refugees.

The second motivation is the ongoing siege of Gaza, now in its 11th year, which according to a UN report will render the tiny coastal enclave uninhabitable by 2020 unless the siege is lifted. As Medical Aid for Palestinians reported on Monday: “This influx of casualties has occurred in the context of a health system that was already on the verge of collapse after a decade of illegal closure and de-development”. In February, the World Health Organisation reported that 42% of essential medicines were completely out-of-stock in Gaza.

Those who were killed on Friday are, in death, denied the right of a universal acknowledgement of their humanity. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has praised the soldiers responsible for the killing of what he has described as ‘terrorists’. The majority of the UK media has also been complicit in denying the value of the lives lost. Where fatalities were reported, these victims of a massacre were described as casualties in ‘clashes’ between themselves and Israeli forces. 18 Palestinians killed, approximately 1,500 injured, and no Israeli casualties.  By what definition can this be described as a ‘clash’?

The Great Return March will continue for six more weeks, until May 15th, the 70th anniversary of the 1948 “ Nakba”. The Israeli government, shielded from international censure by its western allies, has announced that it will continue to meet peaceful demonstrations with live fire.  

The only thing that might prevent more Palestinians being gunned down in the coming weeks is the force of international public opinion. The Israeli government is effectively acting on the presumption that people across the world do not think Palestinian lives matter. On Saturday 7th April, a national demonstration in London, called by Palestine Solidarity Campaign and its partners, is an opportunity to send a clear message: Palestinian lives do matter.

PSC has also called on all citizens of the UK to demand action from the government. At a minimum, the UK government should support the UN call for a full, independent and transparent investigation. Concerted international action to lift the siege is also long overdue. Moreover, as one of the main arms exporters to Israel and a major purchaser of Israeli weapons and weapon technology, the UK must re-examine its bilateral trade agreement with Israel. If the UK government properly enforced its own export guidelines, the result would be a de-facto embargo on arms exports to Israel.

We are not calling for exceptional treatment of Israel. To the contrary, we are calling for an end to the exceptional treatment of Israel, which has, for too many decades, allowed for ethnic cleansing, military occupation and the imposition of apartheid practices against Palestinians. The cost of our continued inaction is being paid for with Palestinian lives.

Write to Boris Johnson and urge the Government to take action now, and join us tomorrow, Saturday 7th April, to call for an end to the siege of Gaza and ask UK government to condemn Israel’s actions.

When: Saturday 7 April, from 1pm – 3pm.
Where: Opposite Downing Street, SW1A 2AA.
Nearest Station: Westminster

Please help spread the word by sharing the PSC Facebook event page

Weaponizing the Benign | How Israel weaponised tourism to strengthen its Occupation

Thu, 2018-04-05 13:59

 

Among the different forms of tourism peddled by the Israeli state, war tourism has seen a remarkable expansion in recent years, and today represents a key occupation-strengthening mechanism. According to Haaretz, “IDF-style training for tourists has become a full-fledged industry.”

War tourism in the occupied territories can be divided into two principal categories: Simulatory War Tourism, which trains tourists to shoot at Palestinians through war simulation exercises, and Participatory War Tourism, which aims to recruit non-Israeli, often non-Jewish, individuals directly into the IDF, usually for military holidays on a temporary basis but, in some cases, as an avenue for obtaining Israeli citizenship.

Simulatory War Tourism

The function of Simulatory War Tourism is to acclimatise tourists to the organised violence of the Israeli occupation, thus enlisting them into its contours of power. There are four main organisations specialising in this field: Caliber 3, Funtum, Zikit Extreme and Cherev Gidon.

Caliber 3

This organisation operates from a military base in Gush Etzion, a cluster of settlements near Jerusalem. It is an IDF-certified organisation, founded in 2003 by IDF Colonel Sharon Gat with the blessing of the Prime Minister, the Defence Ministry and the Ministry for Homeland Security.

The organisation offers a myriad of services; from infantry training to firearms licenses and ‘VIP protection’. However, as Judy Maltz writes in Haaretz, “understanding that they have nothing to sell the locals because military service is compulsory in Israel, these businesses only target tourists.”

Gat estimates that between 15,000 and 25,000 tourists make use of his organisation annually. The Caliber 3 website offers a 2-hour training session to “tourists of any age.” This includes “shooting assault rifles and sniper rifles” and “competing in a sniper tournament.”

They also offer discounts to celebrities, and were seemingly taken up on this by US comedian Jerry Seinfeld and even rock group Aerosmith who, according to a Caliber 3 employee, did not want their visit publicised.

In news reports regarding the compound, Caliber 3’s abrasive employees are recorded showing children and the elderly how to shoot live ammunition at targets depicting elderly fellahin (Palestinian farmers) adorned in red kufiyyehs, actions clearly intended to desensitise tourists to violence against Palestinians, whose faces and bodies come to represent mere practice targets. Gat claims he and his staff consider their mission to be converting tourists into “ambassadors for the State of Israel.”

Funtom

Based in Nez Tziona and founded in October 2014 by Ben Carmel, Funtum is estimated to attract between 5,000 to 8,000 tourists a year. The organisation differs from Calibre 3 in its more flexible approach to where it operates, typically arranging trips to a range of different locations.

Funtum offer clients the opportunity to take part in ‘concept events.’ The ‘boot camp’ option on their website displays footage of expeditions to the occupied Golan Heights, where ‘terrorist kidnappings’ are staged in which a man dressed in a dishdasha and a kufiyeh takes the tourists hostage. The lone terrorist takes the group into an abandoned building, where he is eventually brought down by IDF soldiers, upon which the group celebrates their ‘liberators’.

The group then take part in a make believe enlisting in the IDF, during which they put on new imitation IDF uniforms and begin training in Krav Maga. They are generally given paintball weapons, though in some cases guns with live ammunition are used to shoot at targets. They also carry each other on stretchers, which presumably makes up the boot camp part of the day.

A striking aspect of Funtom’s online marketing is the extent to which it is targeted at children. Their YouTube channel features children being led around carrying weapons and shooting at targets. While their ages cannot be discerned from the footage, they are visibly children. This aspect of Funtom allows it to serve as a gateway for children into later IDF recruitment by cultivating and normalising within them violence towards Palestinians.

Zikit Extreme

This organisation is led by CEO Elchai Finn who (according to his Instagram account) appears to have taken part in Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 campaign in Gaza that left around 2,300 Palestinians dead. Zikit Extreme claims to offer “the IDF experience” with the training modelled on “the IDF’s counter terrorism course” and, again, featuring people supposed to be Palestinian kidnappers.

Zikit seems to be more focused on use of paintball and rubber bullets rather than training with live ammunition. However, they enthusiastically offer a “Boot Camp for Kids” option, including generous offers of “pizza and birthday cake.” The insidious targeting of children is prominent in their promotional videos, emphasising the “fun” in the systematisation of violence by an army of occupation.

Zikit Extreme CEO Elchai Finn appears to have taken part in Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 campaign in Gaza that left around 2,300 Palestinians dead.

Cherev Gidon

This organisation offers programmes based in Arizona, in the winter, and Pennsylvania, in the summer. Its website boasts of being an “Israeli tactical training academy.” Its founder, Yonaton Stern, claims he wanted to launch it in Israel but was not able to because this “would not have been legal.”

Having grown up on an Israeli settlement, and later serving in the IDF, Stern has clearly developed quite the penchant for firearms. He has been based in the US for eleven years, and claims to have “trained hundreds of students.” His students have the option of different courses in the use of rifles, pistols, shotguns and Uzis. At the start of every session, students are dressed in IDF uniforms.

They take part in exercises imitating military formations and shooting at targets. An employee on the ranch is quoted on the company’s website explaining that “Every Jew has to be armed because the goyim don’t care where you live. Eventually they are going to come for you.”

A process of militarisation linked to the IDF is thus clearly taking place within the borders of the United States — one that seeks not only to export an IDF culture of violence into the US, but also to export foreign wo/manpower to Israel in service of the occupation.

Participatory War tourism: The gateway of “lone soldiers”

The term ‘lone soldier’ refers to foreign national volunteers who join the IDF from abroad, often returning to their country of citizenship at the end of their military service. These volunteers — who do not benefit from a local family network once in the army — are supported by independent organisations, notably ‘the Lone Soldier Centre’ which claims the IDF comprises up to 7,000 such soldiers.

A range of common routes are available for these volunteers through different organisations, each of which encourages a particular form of war tourism. The four best known such organisations are Mahal, Marva, Tzofim Garin Tzabar and Sar-El.

Mahal

The organisation’s name is the acronym (in Hebrew) for “Volunteers from outside the country”. The original Mahal brigade was formed in 1948, and was estimated to have comprised between 3,500 and 4,500 members. Following the Nakba, most of the volunteers returned to their country of nationality but some stayed and became citizens of Israel. According to David Teperson, the late South African director of the Mahal Museum, and a member of the original 1948 Mahal:

“There were 800 South Africans, 700 Americans, 230 Canadians around 400 British with the Indians and that, and around 600 from the French speaking countries.”

Today, the organisation hosts foreign national volunteers who serve in the IDF for periods of between 15 and 18 months. The programme is purposely targeted at non-Israeli citizens between the ages of 18 and 23, and is described by the IDF as “an administrative gate through which non-Israelis enlist” in the military.

Marva

Marva charges students around $2,000 for an eight-week-long programme in which they are taught about life in the IDF. Students must be aged 18 to 28 and ready for the “mentally demanding programme.” The training includes target practise, using M16s with live ammunition, as well as staying on army bases and undertaking expeditions where students sleep in tents and learn the basics of field techniques (camouflage etc.) It also includes hikes and political lectures.

The main training takes place at the Sdeh Boker Gadna Base, in the Southern Negev. Gadna is a programme designed to militarise Israeli school children and Marva students are integrated into this process. The Marva training also extends to trips as far from the base as Jerusalem, the occupied Golan Heights and the Galilee. This programme, which aims to quickly acclimatise young non-Israelis to life in the IDF has a proven track-record as a gateway to joining the army of occupation.

Tzofim Garin Tzabar

This programme is focused on a more holistic all-encompassing approach to enlisting foreign nationals into the IDF. It involves a set of five seminars, held throughout the year in the United States, in preparation for a move to a kibbutz where they will be greeted by a strong network helping them to settle in.

Over the course of the five seminars, newcomers are imbued with a sense of their military duties and psychologically prepared for the process ahead. The seminars are carried out in Hebrew to help them adjust to regular use of the language. According to the IDF, this programme has “helped over 1,500 teens from all around the world” enlist in the military, and it is estimated that around 70% of the “immigrants have stayed in Israel after their service.”

Sar-El

This well-known organisation boasts branches across the world, and runs programmes, each lasting a minimum of two weeks, working at IDF bases. It is believed to bring around 4,000 volunteers annually. Between 1983 and 2011, it is claimed the programmes recruited more than a hundred thousand volunteers to the IDF.

Sar-El offers the chance volunteers to work in IDF warehouses, cleaning military hardware and also in hospitals. The volunteers stay in army barracks, and work 8 hour days, 5 days a week, all dressed in IDF uniforms. The organisation explicitly targets Christians in its recruitment advertising.
There also appears to be large elderly constituency for Sar-El, who seem to relish being put to work painting walls in military barracks.

Conclusion

Israel has weaponised the ostensibly benign practice of tourism to normalise the extreme violence of its occupation and, more importantly, for the recruitment into its army of foreign nationals in order to strengthen its grip on the territories it occupies.

Its simulatory war tourism converts tourists into ambassadors for the occupation, emulating and replicating Israeli mechanisms of oppression, while the practise of participatory war tourism is a gateway for an IDF volunteer class that often serves in Israeli campaigns before returning to their societies of citizenship, with no accountability for their deeds.

In the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, tourism functions as a tool to strengthen the occupation. Such voyeuristic war tourism has fostered a sense of celebration of the technologically-sophisticated, organised killing of Palestinians. 

A fully referenced version of this article is available upon request from Ceasefire. 

On 30 March 2018, Land day, peaceful Palestinian protestors were fired at with live bullets by Israeli snipers that killed 17 people and injured over 1500. Write to Boris Johnson and urge the Government to take action now, and join us this coming Saturday to call for an end to the siege of Gaza and ask UK government to condemn Israel’s actions.

When: Saturday 7 April, from 1pm – 3pm.
Where: Opposite Downing Street, SW1A 2AA.
Nearest Station: Westminster

Please help spread the word by sharing the PSC Facebook event page

#GreatMarchOfReturn
#LandDay

Comment | Israel’s bullets, and the world’s indifference, won’t stop our Great Palestinian March to freedom

Sat, 2018-03-31 14:59

(Photo credit: GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

‘Beware the Ides of March.’ So goes the fateful warning, ignored by Julius Caesar, in Shakespeare’s eponymous play. Had he chosen to stop and reflect upon it, Caesar’s life, and the course of world history, may have taken a different turn.

That same message now goes to the State of Israel, its right-wing government and its supporters in the current US Administration. Beware the Ides of March.

How is history going to judge those ignoring what happened at yesterday’s Great Return March in the Gaza Strip? How are we going to look back at a momentous opportunity for peace wasted by self-indulgent politicians who chose to stick to their extremism?

Yesterday, the Israeli army killed 17 unarmed Palestinian civilians and injured over 1400 people. What if, instead of killing and maiming us, it had opened the borders to allow my people to return to their homes? This feels like a crazy idea, but one has to ask the question: “What if?”

Not only did the Israel Army maim and kill defenceless Palestinians for daring to express a basic human right — of wanting to go back home to the towns and villages from where they were kicked out for seven decades — Israel is now promoting the absurd notion that the Great Return March, in which thousands of men, women and children took part, was a ‘Hamas-organised’ ploy — that Palestinians were using their own children as “human shields”.

In addition to killing and maiming us, Israel is denying that we Palestinians can act and think for ourselves. This is not only preposterous but offensive.

Let us just pause there for a few seconds, and consider the notion any kind of propaganda would convince a mother to take her child to the firing line. As you put your own children to bed, reading them a story or two; as you wake up and prepare breakfast for your loved little ones, please take a moment and think of how insulting and obscene this Israeli propaganda line actually is.

No amount of propaganda in the world, no matter how sinister or ingenious, could make tens of thousands of people walk willingly towards the border of their open-air prison, in full knowledge thousands of ruthless soldiers awaited them on the other side, willing to pull the trigger at any minute.

Only one thing can make people do this: Desperation, the feeling that you have nothing left to lose. And this is precisely what life in Gaza — after decades of occupation and blockades — represents today: Hell itself.

And yet, once again, the Israel army, and the world media, have chosen to ignore this simple, inescapable fact.

Why would journalists at the New York Times care about the basic realities of life in Gaza? About the fact that electricity, water and food supplies are scarce or non-existent? About the fact two million people are trapped in an open air prison? About the fact that I haven’t seen my family for the last five years because the borders are constantly shut? About the fact that my four-year-old daughter constantly asks me whether I ever had parents, because she never saw them? Why would anyone care about that? To them we are sub-humans.

Unarmed , no stones , no aggressive move , but still he was shot by an #Israeli army sniper in #Gaza today . #GreatReturnMarch pic.twitter.com/gGnxlzyCHA

— Nasser Atta (@nasseratta5) March 30, 2018

It is, of course, typical of the coloniser to do this. From Gandhi’s Great Salt March to Martin Luther King’s march on Washington, we’ve all been called the ignorant barbarians who are trying to destabilise the status quo of freedom and democracy.

We are “deceived” and motivated by some evil agenda that is threatening innocent people’s lives – those people on the other side of the line enforced by a system of segregation. But history will march on, and those who stand against the freedom of people will be thrown to the wayside.

Yesterday in Palestine, a peaceful March was organised, one which insisted on its peacefulness right from the start, and did not include any political party or faction. This did not stop Israel’s soldiers from mowing the men and children down in cold blood.

This act of systemic and deliberate murder was described in many of the world media outlets as ‘clashes’, implying two equal sides sharing equal blame. This is the easiest and cheapest way to demonise people; a way also not to examine the sources of their plight, and the realities of their suffering: The reality that it has been 70 years since those people were made refugees, as the State of Israel was established, an apartheid regime that has spent decades segregated the indigenous Palestinian population, deporting people stripping them of their rights to their homes, and most importantly, denigrating those who dare ask to be granted the same basic rights as everyone else.

Today there are 12 million Palestinian refugees living outside their ancestral land — most in difficult and inhuman conditions across the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and other places around the world.

They are watching intently what is happening at the moment. They admire Gaza’s creative and brave responses to decades of suffering and injustice and, one day, they too may follow suit.

When that day comes, no occupying army, no matter how powerful or ruthless, will be able to stop them going home.

Israel, like Caesar, should beware the Ides of March.

Comment | The Sudanese government has kidnapped my father, he must be released now

Thu, 2018-03-29 08:57

Dr Sidgi Kaballo, speaking at the University of Khartoum, November 2013.

Ten weeks ago, on Wednesday 17th January, I was sitting on a busy London tube carriage on my commute to work during the morning rush hour when I saw a WhatsApp message from my mother, explaining that my father, Dr Sidgi Kaballo, had never returned home from work the day before. She feared the Sudanese authorities had detained him.

As I had no signal, I anxiously waited until the train emerged back over ground before I could get to the bottom of what had happened to my old man. The District line had never felt so slow.

When I finally managed to speak to my mum, she explained that many activists had already been detained the day before, for simply peacefully protesting the dire state of the economy and the austerity measures that have been imposed on the country. Knowing my father, he was most likely in attendance.

The 2018 Sudanese budget saw extraordinary price hikes in basic food commodities, taking staples like bread out of the reach of ordinary families. The government removed its subsidies on all medical supplies, meaning that people relying on medicine were struggling to survive. It also decided to devalue the Sudanese currency by half, which has left Sudan with the second highest level of inflation in the world, overtaking its war-torn and poverty-stricken neighbour, South Sudan.

But while education and health are severely neglected, up to 70 percent of the budget was being siphoned-off by the military, and their associated militias, to fight the many conflicts the government has decided to pursue against various regions of Sudan – as well as against the people of Yemen on behalf of the Saudi-led coalition.

No one from the Sudanese intelligence services or the police contacted our family to let us know my father had been detained. We had to rely on leaked lists of detainees. My father turned 70 yesterday, and heavily relies on medicine for his diabetes and eye cataract. We had no idea whether he had access to these medicines or funds to purchase them.

As the days went on, rumours began circulating about the mistreatment of prisoners; that some student activists had been electrocuted and badly tortured. I started wondering whether this was happening to my dad, and I knew my mother was thinking the same thing – but we kept our fears private so as not to worry one another.

I informed my work about what happened, and they offered me a couple of days off to make sure I was ‘ok’. After just a few days, I was back at work, pretending to be ‘ok’, whilst my father sat in a cage under only God knew what conditions.

My father is an old man, enjoying the twilight years of his life. He worked hard and ensured that my sister and I were old enough to look after ourselves before he returned from exile to his beloved Sudan. He has been spending most of his time there trying to change the country for the better, as a member of the central committee of the Sudanese Communist Party, the SCP.

My father’s heart never left Sudan: in every story and every joke he ever told, Sudan was somehow involved. When I was younger, he would insist that our family holidays were always to the same destination — Sudan. He would drop us off at the airport but never board the plane with us. He couldn’t.

He first sought sanctuary in Britain after came to Leeds to do his Ph.D in the 80s. During that time there was a political coup and a new military regime took control of the country which regarded my father and other influential members of the SCP as their enemies. Indeed, all political opposition was their enemy, and after seizing power, they made the country a one-party state. My father could not even go back to bury his mother.

This all changed in 2005, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in Addis Ababa, marking the start of a falteringly hopeful period. After returning to Sudan for the first time in 26 years, my father dedicated himself to grassroots activism, using his background as an economist.

When he saw the 2018 proposed budget, he knew it was going to have a devastating impact on the lives of all Sudanese people. He and his party began to organise peaceful protests — as is their right under the 2005 Sudanese Constitution and the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

We now know he was detained before he even reached the protest. In actuality, the term ‘detained’ is a tad bit generous. My father has been kidnapped by the Sudanese state authorities arbitrarily and, after almost 11 weeks, has still not been charged with any crimes.

He has been moved to the war-torn district of Darfur and is being held in the infamous Zalingei prison. As my father has still not been charged with any crime, we have no idea how long he will remain arbitrarily in custody.

My father turned 70 yesterday. Under normal circumstances, he would fly back to the UK to be with his family on his birthday, although he would never admit that was the reason, pretending instead that he was back for a doctor’s appointment or some other innocent reason. The truth is he loves to be with his family on his birthday, he loves the birthday cake, the presents, and a handmade card from his 9-year-old granddaughter.

We were planning a big celebration for his 70th;– a big Sudanese party in Birmingham. We were planning on getting a live singer and arranging for the Birmingham Sudanese community to bring food. It would have been epic. What we were not planning for, was my father forced to spend his 70th birthday inside a Sudanese dungeon thousands of miles away from his family. 

The UK is normalising relations with the Sudanese government at the moment, undergoing a ‘Strategic Dialogue’ on issues of mutual concern. Surely the fate of a British national languishing in a Sudanese jail should be a litmus test of this new relationship? And if it is not, then I fail to see the benefits of this so-called ‘dialogue’.

For diplomatic pressure to bear fruit it is also of vital importance that we receive the support of the British public to get my father released. Otherwise, I fear his stay could turn into years, something that is sadly common in Sudan.

My father is an old man who might not have years left in him. I would never forgive myself if he were to die in a Sudanese jail cell without ever being charged with an offence. I am urging you to contact your local MP and raise my father’s case with them.

If you would like to write to your MP about Dr Sidgi Kaballo’s case, please contact Maddy Crowther at maddy.crowther@wagingpeace.info to be connected to Ahmed Kaballo.

Film & TV | Untapped Power: On the politics of Black Panther

Mon, 2018-03-26 14:33

Spoiler alert: This essay contains (many) plot spoilers.

Already a critics’ darling, Black Panther, the latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), has gone on to achieve immense commercial success since its release last month. This is in itself important, simply for the fact that it should finally dispel the myth that Hollywood can’t afford to take risks with black leads in its blockbusters. Furthermore, this was also a film with a black director (Ryan Coogler), a predominantly black cast, and a black creative team that included costume, jewellery, make up and music.

In addition to being the first ever black superhero, Black Panther is being released at a time when the President of the United States (POTUS) has publicly supported neo-Nazis by calling them “very fine people”, and the Black Lives Matter movement continues to protest the execution of black people in America’s streets. As such, the film was bound to be seen in the light of contemporary black identity politics. It did not disappoint.

When the character first appeared in 1966, in Fantastic Four volume 1 #52, he not only broke the mould of white-only superheroes, but Stan Lee and Jack Kirby also presented him in a way that challenged many of the racist tropes still dominant in the comics of the day.

Black Panther, whose real name is T’Challa, is king or chieftain of an African country called Wakanda that has remained hidden from the outside world and, until very recently, had not been subjected to the damaging effects of colonialism.

In the story, Black Panther invites the Fantastic Four to Wakanda so he can test the defences he has created to fight off the evil Klaw who has attempted to steal the country’s supply of the precious mineral vibranium. When the Fantastic Four arrive we are introduced to a kingdom that is socially, economically and technologically advanced, a highly developed utopia that Adilifu Nama, in his book Super Black, sees as an example of Afrofuturism. The character continued to appear in various Marvel titles, fighting alongside the Avengers, until he received his first self-titled story, in the unfortunately named Jungle Action, in 1973.

This first story, running from issue 6 to issue 18, was called “Panther’s Rage” and is the inspiration for the film. Having been away with the Avengers, Black Panther returns to find another Wakandan, N’Jadaka, has assumed the identity of Killmonger and is violently and cruelly attempting to subject Wakandans to his rule. Importantly, we learn that while T’Challa was away, Killmonger had been captured, enslaved and shipped to America by Klaw — who had returned to steal more vibranium. Having escaped and returned, Killmonger is committed to taking revenge on T’Challa for failing to properly protect the country and its people.

When we first see Killmonger attacking Black Panther he is accompanied by his familiar white leopard called Preyy. In the comic, Preyy stands above and behind Killmonger on a rock, but is drawn to appear as if he is standing on Killmonger’s back. To understand this scene, we need to remember that the Black Panther Party was also created in 1966 and that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had been so concerned about creating some distance between their character and this particular brand of the black civil rights movement, that they very briefly changed Black Panther’s name to Black Leopard in 1972. The appearance of the white leopard in the 1973 story is therefore no accident, and can be — perhaps should be — read in opposition the Black Panther’s liberty as the haunting or burden of white colonialism that Killmonger carries.

In the film, direct reference is made to the fact that Killmonger was “born” out of the legacy of colonialism and white supremacy he experienced on the streets of 1990s America. The film opens in Oakland, the home of the Black Panther Party — the actual filming location is in Atlanta across the road from the Ebenezer Baptist Church that Martin Luther King Jr used to preach in — where we learn how N’Jadaka was abandoned as a boy by T’Challa’s father.

N’Jadaka explicitly recounts how the racism, marginalisation and exploitation he experienced motivated him to help black people around the world by any means necessary. Although he doesn’t say this, the Malcom X parallel is also strong. To add extra weight to the black consciousness of his 1990s boyhood, the apartment he grew up in has a Public Enemy poster on the wall. This boy, raised in Oakland, thus becomes an avatar for the militant politics of the Black Panther Party within the film.

The problem, of course, is that Killmonger’s desire to return to Wakanda and wrest the throne from T’Challa — just as his namesake did in the comic — in order to use Wakandan technology and weapons to free black people by force turns him into the villain of the piece; the inverse image of the violent colonial legacy that formed him. He becomes a black imperialist in order to counter white imperialism. He is shown to be a tyrant at home — defeating T’Challa in ritual combat and then destroying all the herbs that give Black Panther his powers so that no one can challenge him in return — and a man who intends violent subjugation abroad, all in the name of liberating the African continent and the black African diaspora.

So, while the film is replete with powerful African symbolism, such as the use of Nelson Mandela’s native tongue as the African language spoken in the film, and the use of the colours of the Pan-African flag in the casino scene in Korea (Okoye is in red, T’Challa in black and Nakia in green), the film seems to have a major problem when portraying the militancy of revolutionary black politics, despite clearly showing its causes are legitimate.

In the end, the only proper course of political action we are shown in the film is T’Challa opening Wakanda to the world and practicing some aristocratic outreach. The way forward, we are told, is the generous charity of billionaires, and in that the entire logic of neoliberal capitalism is reproduced. At least that is what I thought.

Another feature of the film is the incredible gender politics. At a time when POTUS is not only a white supremacist but a self-declared sexual predator, the importance of this cannot be overstated. Okoye, the warrior; Shuri, the scientist; and Nakia, the spy (and social justice warrior) are all powerful, autonomous, independent women.

And yet, it was thinking about another woman in the film, Killmonger’s girlfriend, that began my reappraisal of its politics. Unlike the other three women, Killmonger’s girlfriend is entirely disposable. She is murdered by Killmonger himself in what seems to be a blatant example of “fridging”. But how is it possible that a film so conscious about its gender politics can be so crass in this instance?

The most important aspect for me is that when Killmonger assumes the throne, and the Black Panther powers, he does not actually manifest as the Black Panther, but as the white leopard. He is wearing a suit that looks like an old Black Panther suit, but his transformation clearly shows he is spotted like a leopard.

It has been noted that this is just another “Easter Egg” for the comics fans, but I believe it is much more. When Killmonger takes the Wakandan herb and visits the ancestral plane, as is the custom, he does not go to the spiritual world of Wakanda, as T’Challa did, but returns to the scene of his abandonment in Oakland. What Killmonger brings with him or channels in his transformation is the racism and the legacy of colonialism he experienced there. This is why he manifests as the White Leopard (let’s capitalise that now) and not the Black Panther.

So, does the emasculation he experiences as a young black man tell us something about his treatment of women, and does this also say something about the politics revealed in the film? From this perspective, Killmonger is not the avatar of the Black Panther Party. Quite the contrary, He doesn’t represent the men in that organisation, or the organisation as a whole. What he represents is the blind rage that stems from the persistent legacy of colonialism; a rage that is dangerous without political organisation.

In the end, while the film may indeed show us the “wonders” of aristocratic benevolence, I think Ryan Coogler is also sending audiences a coded a message about the enormous untapped potential of black politics and a call to get organised.

Comment | What UK politicians can, and must, do about the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal

Fri, 2018-03-23 07:08

President Barack Obama, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, holds a town hall meeting at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, California, April 20, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

The ongoing Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal is a wake-up call for UK policy-makers who too often encourage and promote digital industries over the protection of people’s personal data. The scandal has shown that the public is concerned over companies’ exploitation of their data. The current lack of transparency into how companies are using people’s data is unacceptable and needs to be addressed.

Reform should not be limited to the behaviour of individual companies, however. Consumers are confronted with an entire hidden ecosystem of companies harvesting and sharing their data. From credit scoring and insurance quotations to targeted political communication, this data is being used for far-reaching purposes.

With this in mind, we would like to offer a few simple actions politicians must take:

1) Defend privacy as a fundamental right  —  stop pitting data protection against innovation

Data protection and privacy are fundamental rights. To enshrine data protection as a fundamental right in the UK post-Brexit, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights needs to be retained. Data protection and privacy rights are also fundamental to users’ trust in new technologies, because they address the vast power imbalances between consumers and those that process their data. Without such consumer trust, innovation cannot thrive. Countless polls and consumer surveys show how consumers’ trust in new technologies, like AI, ultimately depends on how these technologies prove to be effective in protecting consumers’ privacy. (See thisEurobarometer study)

2) Data Protection law, not market-driven ‘Data Ownership’,is what we need

People should be in control of their data, no matter which company or agency holds it. Yet politicians are promoting the notion of ‘data ownership’ instead. Ownership implies that people can sell away their fundamental rights. This is a false solution that risks exacerbating the imbalance of power rather than addressing it. It will result in the exploitation of people’s economic concerns at the expense of their personal data and fundamental right. Instead, data protection law provides individuals with rights and protections on the processing of all personal data, regardless of who holds it. Privacy shouldn’t be a luxury.

3) Data Protection and consumer protection authorities need more resources to do their job

The Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal shows that even blatant violations of the law only ever reach the public eye if someone investigates. Data protection and consumer protection authorities play invaluable roles by instigating investigations, responding to complaints and taking enforcement action. Government must provide more resources and powers to consumer and data protection authorities to do their job. In the case of the Information Commissioner, the Data Protection Bill currently in the House of Commons provides a golden opportunity.

4) Political parties cannot be above the law

The current draft of the UK Data Protection Bill contains a number of problematic provisions. Of particular concern is paragraph 17 of Schedule 1 to the Bill which permits registered political parties to process personal data ‘revealing political opinions’ for the purposes of their political activities. While political parties’ engagement with voters is a key part of a healthy democracy, we are concerned that this exception would continue to give political parties too much leverage in processing data for targeted online advertising. Paragraph 17 should be removed from the Bill or, at the very least, amendments must be made to ensure that the scope of the condition is proportionate, and adequate safeguards are established. (See Privacy International’sevidenceon the UK’s Data Protection Bill and proposed amendments.)

5) Individuals need effective remedies

The current scandal shows that many unlawful practices take place without being seen or noticed, and are only revealed when independent researchers conduct lengthy and detailed investigations. This is why the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) includes Article 80.2, an optional provision that would allow qualified non-profit organisations to pursue data protection infringements on their own initiative. Sadly, the UK Government chose to not include this provision in the UK’s Data Protection Bill. We urge the House of Commons to implement this crucial provision. (See Privacy International’sevidenceon the UK’s Data Protection Bill and proposed amendments.)

6) Support strong e-Privacy regulations

If you are worried about third-party data harvesting on Facebook, you should be really worried about the state-of-the-art tools in online and location tracking. The draft EU ePrivacy Regulation complements the GDPR by providing clear and specific rules on issues such as tracking of individuals online and offline and the use of location data. Companies are lobbying to prevent this regulation from being adopted. Governments are dragging their feet, and there is a real risk that the law will not see the light of day, despite the strong support of the European Parliament and consumer protection organisations. (See Privacy Internationalbriefingon ePrivacy regulation.)

7) A right to know when you’re politically targeted

Political campaigning and advertising must be more transparent and therefore accountable. Political parties need to report which data analytics companies they have contracted, how much they are paid, and exactly what role these companies will have in campaigning. Simply describing activities as ‘surveys’ or ‘research’ is unacceptable, as data can be misused under such vague descriptions. In addition, political parties must be transparent about which online targeted messages they have funded.

Now is the time to identify the stringent safeguards needed to protect our data. We urge you to send these recommendations to your Member of Parliament.

Comment | ‘We are not animals. We are human beings’: Why we went on hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood and why our struggle continues

Wed, 2018-03-21 08:27

People inside the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre wave at activists outside from their windows in 2015 (Photo: iDJ Photography/Creative Commons)

I am one of 120 people detained in Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre (IRC) who had been on hunger strike for a month — since Wednesday 21st February, until today Wednesday 21st March — to protest the inhumane conditions we are subjected to and the cruel and unjust system of immigration detention in the UK.

Throughout our month-long hunger strike, the Home Office and Serco, the private company contracted to run the centre, continued to deny that we were protesting. When we staged a peaceful sit-in protest outside Yarls Wood’s Home Office department, one official asked if we were having a party.

We went on hunger strike because we are suffering unfair imprisonment and racist abuse in this archaic institution in Britain. We are fighting peacefully and respectfully for our rights as human beings. It has been a desperate measure in desperate circumstances. We feel voiceless, forgotten, ignored. This is how we had chosen to be heard.

After the Home Office refused to acknowledge our strike and ignored our protest, we decided to stop participating in their project of detaining innocent people altogether. Our peaceful occupation of the healthcare and Home Office departments at the centre have been met by threats and intimidation from the guards, who have threatened us with transfer to prisons.

We have had our messages to the outside world intercepted — some of the messages we have sent out have had all their content removed. Some of us have been told that if we don’t eat, this will affect the decision on whether we we can remain in the UK.

The Home Office does not want the world outside to hear our voices and what we have to say. They have been refusing to acknowledge our struggle, our strike, the legitimacy of our claims.

On Tuesday 27th Feb, one of our group was called to see a home official, and that same official asked her “why don’t you go back to your country?”. She is an asylum seeker with a case pending in the Home Office. This is racist and xenophobic, and an example of how we are treated.

On Thursday 1st March, one striker collapsed and was taken to medical in a wheelchair. We are hungry and we are tired, but we will not give in until our demands are listened to.

We decided to take this collective action, as we believed this was the only option we were left with to express how we feel, and to force the government to acknowledge the conditions under which we are forcibly detained. We are not granted access to healthcare and we are not given decent food.

Systematic torture takes place in detention. We live in a constant state of anxiety knowing that at any moment an officer could arrive and take your roommate, or you. The way they take people is inhumane. They round people up in the middle of the night, at 11, at midnight, at two o’clock in the morning, and the next day you don’t see them. They lock them up in offices and then you find out they have been deported. Someone had an appeal coming up in a few months but she was deported before it was held.

Furthermore, some of us are kept in solitary confinement. Those who are suicidal now have their privacy taken away because they are being watched – you don’t know whether an officer is coming to check on you or coming to take you away. Our rooms are searched at random and without warning; they just search first and explain later.

The government justifies its system of immigration detention as a temporary holding facility, before people are forcibly deported, or because they believe people are at risk of absconding. Yet they detain people who have appeals still pending with the Home Office and who, before being detained, had followed all of the rules the Home Office outlined for them (e.g. reporting to an immigration centre every week without fail).

The government claims that the Home Office does not detain asylum seekers. This is a lie. They do detain asylum seekers, alongside survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, survivors of human-trafficking, modern day slavery and other forms of torture. I can tell you this place [Yarl’s Wood] would be more or less empty without them.

Home Office/government officials are lying outright, repeatedly. When they finally agreed to meet with us as a group, they said they don’t detain asylum seekers and torture victims. False. They said our detention is lawful, but how can they claim lawfulness when they are breaching the European Convention of Human Rights?

The Home Office is not fit for purpose, it systematically fails to provide timely decisions and frequently acts outside of domestic and international law. Being in Yarl’s Wood doesn’t feel lawful, and according to the Convention of Human Rights, it isn’t. The UK is the only country in the EU with no time limit on immigration detention.

We want an end to indefinite detention. We want the Home Office to respect Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. We want the Home Office to stop deporting people before their cases are decided or appeals are heard.

We want a fair bail process. We want adequate healthcare and the mental health nurse to stop operating as an extension of the home office, asking, “did you know you were going to stay in the UK when you entered?”

We want amnesty for all people who have lived in the UK for more than 10 years and an end to the exiling of those who came as children and are culturally British. We want the Home Office to stop detaining vulnerable people: victims of rape; the disabled; the mentally ill; and LGBT people.

We want an end to working for £1 per hour: it prays on the vulnerable and forces them to participate in their own detention. We want an end to charter flights and the snatching of people from their beds in the night and herding them like animals.

We are not animals. We are human beings. Some of us in here are mothers (we have been separated from our children who need our care for months and years). Some of us in here are victims of torture, rape (rape is also torture, but the Home Office is denying this), trafficking and domestic violence.

Some of us members of the LGBT community who face discrimination here in Yarls Wood and who face persecution or death in the countries the Home Office wants to deport us to; some of us are older, up to 69 years of age; some of us came to the UK as minors and are facing detention not because of our actions but because our parents, or lawyers or the Home Office, did not ensure our paperwork was complete.

Some of us have chronic health conditions, for which we are not receiving adequate medication or care; some of us suffer depression, are suicidal, are cutting ourselves. When the officers know about this they start checking on us every hour.

But instead of checking up on us, they should be asking: why do these women, who have children and families, want to take their own lives? Instead of ignoring our strike, denying our rights, intimidating us with xenophobic slurs, confining us and doing random invasive searches on us, the Home Office officials and Serco officers should be asking: why are these women on hunger strike?

We have been staging our all-out strike to protest the Home Office’s continued immoral practices and the hostile conditions we face. They lie to us and they lie to the world outside these walls, but we will not sit silently as the government tries to conceal their lies from the world. We are demanding that these practices are stopped along with the practice of detaining people indefinitely.

Strikers have been targeted for individual legal meetings with the Home Office, where decisions about their cases have suddenly been made. People have been targeted — rounded up and separated from other detainees — for a charter flight to Nigeria and Ghana. Several amongst us have been deported since the start of the strike.

They are waiting to see if we do anything violent, but there will be no violence, no abuse, we just want to be silent, calm and respectful. There are as many demands as there are detainees, everyone in detention is unfairly treated, and all we want is a fair process.

Immigration detainees at Yarl’s Wood have been staging hunger strikes, work strikes and a series of occupations inside the building since Wednesday 21st February.  They are calling for an end to indefinite detention, an end to mass deportations by charter flight, and an end to mistreatment at the detention centre. A full list of strikers’ demands is published on the Detained Voices website.

In a statement this morning, the strikers in Yarl’s Wood have announced an end to the hunger strike, but a continuation of Hunger for Freedom protests. The strikers’ emphasise; “We are still hungry for our freedom and justice. We will continue to fight for our human rights and will not participate in our own detention”. The strikers will continue to organise internally and fight for their demands.

On March 21,2018, solidarity groups will be staging demonstrations across the UK in:

Glasgow: https://www.facebook.com/events/319801881880913

Leeds: https://www.facebook.com/events/361984667615143/

Liverpool: https://www.facebook.com/events/397793477351203/

Bristol: https://www.facebook.com/events/560292434350887/

Manchester: https://twitter.com/WASTCampaigning/status/976239864873136128

Comment | ‘We’re drawing the line’: Our fight against university marketization is about more than pensions

Wed, 2018-03-14 07:29

The solidarity and collective nature of the defiant stand taken these past few weeks by university staff and students across the UK has been commendable and inspiring. The strikes have prompted people from all levels of the university community to join the pickets; from lecturers, students, librarians and heads of schools, to post-doctoral researchers and newly appointed staff on precarious contracts (to name but a few).

But the ongoing disputes are clearly about so much more than pension cuts. We have come out in numbers showing solidarity with one another because we are all well aware of the dire situation that has come to engulf the HE sector. The long and short of it lies in the fact that many of us are simply fed up. The current state of higher education in the UK is no longer sustainable. It is as simple as that. 

The pace at which UK universities have succumbed to brutal neo-liberal practices has been startling. Only recently, the action taken by junior doctors illuminated the painstaking conditions they face in an increasingly privatised NHS. In HE, the experiences of frontline staff are less known, although more and more are bravely stepping forward to expose the scandal that lurks behind the walls of the university.

Many academics joined this profession because we are committed to our disciplines; we thrive on our research and get so much out of teaching our students how to think critically. However, with extortionate tuition fees and impossible demands to meet, the love for our craft is rapidly being destroyed.

When we undertake PhDs, many of us envisage a fulfilling academic career. As a result, we close the door on other possible job opportunities and cement our faith into a life in Higher Education. As soon as we get a foot in the door, after sending our numerous applications, we are immediately faced with the severity of the situation whereby competition is the new norm. Early career academics find themselves taking on unmanageable workloads, working day and night, seven days a week, on insecure contracts.

Those of us lucky enough to have permanent posts are tasked with heavy administrative roles and pressure to outperform via REF, TEF, NSS and personal development reviews — this on top of our teaching, writing and existing research projects. With threats to our pensions we are increasingly finding ourselves being pushed to our limits. This is a toxic environment in which the university has been transformed into a ruthless corporation. We are now merely ‘service providers’ while students are paying customers.

For many of us, this shift is not only untenable but also deeply saddening, frightening and humiliating. When university managers talk to us about ‘work-life balance’, it seems like a cruel joke. Our wellbeing is compromised on a daily basis, we battle through our anxieties, we have no choice but to put our personal lives on the back burner, and we have to tolerate the fact that, day in and day out, our bodies and minds are exhausted.

This, however, only scratches the surface. There are so many other issues that need to be addressed, including a persistent culture of racism and sexism; the ongoing exploitation of international students; complying with the Prevent policy; having to act as UK border agents; serving as careers advisors; and the endemic problems of grade inflation and lecture capture. The list goes on and on and on.

We are well aware that this is the result of wider neoconservative government policies, which have crushed the public sector. But we must not be so easily fooled into blindly accepting this fate. Our strikes have shown that we have the power to push back — with or without support from the UCU, whose leadership appears to have internalised crass management logics.

If we are to profoundly challenge the neoliberal university, we must continue our push-back, and keep our momentum going. The resounding rejection by UCU members of its appalling deal with UUK shows that, collectively, we have the power to change, resist and oppose backdoor deals which keep the VCs’ pockets bursting at the seams, while many of us struggle to keep up with our rent.

Over 5,000 people so far have signed an Open letter rejecting the UCU/UUK agreement at ACAS. Our collective push-back has shown that we have the strength, courage and vision to fight for a university that works for everyone, not only now but for decades to come.

Analysis | ‘Their Jobs, Our Education’: How the USS strike took university managers by surprise

Fri, 2018-03-09 08:00

Since early February, the University and College Union (UCU) and the employers’ association for pre-92 UK universities, Universities UK (UUK), have been locked into a bitter battle over pensions in the UK Higher Education sector.

Overall, 14 days of strike action have been scheduled for February and March (see Lecturers on strike), and staff at 64 universities have joined the strike to date. As was the case in similar disputes three and six years ago, an apparently large deficit in the USS pension fund is at the heart of the dispute, and has been used by the employers to demand major cuts.

To address the deficit, the employers want to drop the current defined contributions scheme whereby every staff member knows what pension they can expect upon retirement, in favour of a defined contributions system in which pensions depend on the uncertainties of the stock market. In addition to pushing the risk onto employees, it is estimated that this proposed defined contributions system implies a loss of up to £10,000 per retirement year. 

To the surprise of the University employers (UUK), support for lecturers on strike has been strong, resulting in a fragmentation of UUK’s position. The University of Oxford is only the latest in a line of universities changing their position. In this contribution, I will identify four ways in which the employers have seriously misjudged the situation:  

First, they have underestimated the resolve of staff in Higher Education to stand firm and carry out extended industrial action, despite the heavy salary losses involved. At my own institution, the University of Nottingham, never before have we been able to mount this many picket lines across the various campuses. Day after day, we have had four picket lines on University Park campus, three on Jubilee Campus, one on King’s Meadow Campus and one on Sutton Bonnington campus. Moreover, never before have the picket lines been this large with, at times, more than 30 people congregating on individual pickets. The picture is pretty much the same at other institutions across the country.

Second, university management have seriously misjudged the resolve by UCU to maintain the pressure of industrial action. Unlike three years ago, when our national leadership caved in prematurely (see The Great Pension Robbery – UCU unravelling), this time round the mere offer of renewed talks was not used to call off action. On the contrary, this time members were asked to continue striking — and so we did. The mood on the picket lines, as well as at UCU Head Office, is clear: until we have concrete proposals for an alternative solution on the table, we will not stop engaging in industrial action.   

Third, university managements have completely misjudged the reaction of students. Rather than turning against staff members in anger over cancelled lectures and seminars, students have spoken out strongly against the pension cuts. For the first time at Nottingham University, the Students’ Union has issued an official declaration in support of industrial action:

As representatives of the student population we stand with UCU as they take industrial action and urge you to show solidarity too. You can do this by writing to the Vice Chancellor to tell her your concerns, or joining our academics on the picket line during strike days’ (SU Nottingham University, 7 February 2018).

Additionally, the Students’ Union drew up a model letter for students to send to the VC, to demand she put pressure on UUK to re-engage in meaningful negotiations. This supportive stance has been replicated across a range of student societies and significant numbers of students on picket lines. Again, the picture is similar at other Higher Education institutions and campuses. At universities in Bath, Bristol, Leicester, Liverpool and London, students have even occupied the VCs’ offices to underline the seriousness of their opposition to pension cuts.

Finally, university managements have failed to understand that there is a change in wider British society. With Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of the Labour Party and the party’s much stronger than expected performance in last year’s general elections, there is a broader shift towards a focus on social justice issues.

Poverty wages, poor working conditions and pension cuts, and continuing austerity in general, are all less and less accepted by large parts of the population. Student support for the strike comes against the background of increasing concerns over high tuition fees, student indebtedness and the fact that the Labour Party has acknowledged this in its Manifesto pledge to abolish fees. 

Times are changing and university managements around the country are learning this lesson the hard way.  

Considering the developments of the past few weeks, a victory for UCU members has become increasingly likely. Nevertheless, while academics may be able to protect their pensions, defending Higher Education as a whole against further marketization is a more difficult task. High tuition fees, increasing casualization of the workforce, downward pressure on salaries and pension cuts, are all part of the same process, making Higher Education attractive to private sector investment. Clearly, the struggle has to carry on beyond the protection of pensions.

A picket line at the University of Nottingham (Photo: @murraygoulden ‏)

Comment | Why we challenged fascists on our campus, and why we’ll do it again

Thu, 2018-03-08 08:38

On Monday 5th March, a talk by Carl Benjamin (Sargon of Akkad) was shut down at King’s College London (KCL). We protested this event — organised by the KCL Libertarian Society — in line with the right to protest enshrined in our SU policy. Benjamin’s speech was later stopped by Antifa, independently from our counter-demonstration.

The events of this evening show both the complexity and urgency of the present moment on university campuses. It is also a clear indication of KCL’s failure to protect marginalised students while instrumentalizing and manipulating the ‘freedom of speech’ narrative to give platforms to alt-right speakers.

Not surprisingly, liberal and right-wing media outlets have focused on the violence that broke out — victimising and threatening students who were present — while King’s management has handed the matter to the police, calling for “the most stringent measures”.

But then we ask: if our university is so quick to condemn violence, why are they paying host to a Nazi,Gabor Vona, the notorious fascist leader of Hungary’s Jobbik, later this month? An event initially scheduled for tomorrow and postponed after the incident on Monday? If our principal, Edward Byrne, was so “shocked” about a smoke bomb being used on Monday, how is he not shocked about giving a platform to a man who admires the Hungarian fascists who helped send 475,000 Hungarian Jews to their deaths in the Holocaust?

We protested Benjamin’s event because he is known for advocating violence. He incites cyberbullying, racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and anti-semitism. He has also been promoting the alt-right, having invited figures such as Millennial Woes (a Scottish white supremacist alt-right YouTuber) onto a live-stream. In the past, Benjamin has been endorsed by the reactionary neo-Nazi blog, MoreRight, the English Defense League, and far-right news site Breitbart News.

Furthermore, Benjamin was present amongst the alt-right supporters of Milo Yiannopoulos when the latter recently spoke at an event at the University of California – Berkeley. Right Wing Watch states how Benjamin “has exposed his regular audience of hundreds of thousands of viewers to white nationalists and their hateful ideologies.

Lucy, one of the students who attended the event, said:“I was outside the event, since I couldn’t get it. I wanted to go because Benjamin has made me feel really unsafe, since he constantly pushes against women’s rights and minority causes. Outside, I was overwhelmed by the attitude of his supporters, one of whom shouted “fuck you communist whore!” at a woman who was shoved out by security. I think the argument that this was freedom of speech to be pretty obscene, since I felt silenced by their aggressive behaviour.”

It is clear that Benjamin is aligned with a set of far-right ideologies, groups, and individuals whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack by multicultural forces using “political correctness” and “social justice” to undermine “white civilisation.” He has claimed that “feminism is cancer,” “Islam is just a fucking cancer,” and “the Jews did 9/11.”

In a livestream with alt-righter Colin Robertson, Benjamin peddled the alt-right conspiracy theory that Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer died because of a heart attack, and not because she was run over by a white supremacist, thus being a terrorist apologist. Those who still claim that he’s a classical liberal should reflect on the fact the co-leader of Generation Identity Austria, Martin Sellner, when expressing concern over right-wingers being “silenced”, gave Benjamin as an example for being shut down at King’s?

The safety of marginalised students must be a priority, not an afterthought. While the university has taken care to ensure that speakers like Benjamin are guaranteed their right to freedom of speech, by refusing to erase the harmful messaging, it has failed to consider that it has a duty to protect its students (particularly from minority backgrounds) from racism and hate speech.

We must not forget that during Trump’s election, some students at King’s were seen waving Confederate flags and making hateful comments — we reported this and sent evidence but were ignored by both KCLSU and KCL without any investigation.

Here we can see King’s everyday, institutionalised hypocrisy play out: war criminals and members of the alt-right are allowed onto campus, with no issue, whilst marginalised and international students on campus are surveilled through the Prevent programme, as well as border control and border surveillance both inside and outside the classroom.

The role of the university is inseparable from these material conditions. It is crucial to challenge this systemic, inherently violent bigotry, in whatever form it takes. We demand that KCLSU and KCL do not provide spaces, platforms or resources for the alt-right. We will never allow their speech to be normalised.

Let it be clear that we will always oppose the organising of alt-right spaces (such as the one on Monday night, where Benjamin used the framework of public/free speech in order to advance his political goals). This is not a question of free speech — but a question of whether or not we will allow the alt-right to organise on our campuses to implement their programme. We say no.

Although Gabor Vona’s event was postponed due to pressure from the community, we demand a full cancellation, no platforms for fascists and a public apology from our Vice Chancellor Edward Byrne for even considering him as a speaker on our campus. We urge every student and outside supporter to keep our university accountable.

King’s College will not provide a safe environment for its marginalised members, this will only be possible through collective direct action and the power of solidarity across communities. There is no place for fascists, whether on our campus or beyond it.

Comment | Theresa May’s welcoming of Saudi Crown Prince visit shames Britain — We can’t let it pass in silence

Tue, 2018-03-06 06:21

Last Wednesday, nine civilians were killed by Saudi air strikes in north Yemen. The assaults were barely reported: a sign of how long the war has endured, and how regular these atrocities have become.

Three years of bombardment has ensured that almost nowhere is safe: with a refugee camp,  a wedding, a market and even a funeral having all been turned into the scenes of massacres.

There is no way of knowing the true death toll from the war. The UN has said that over 10,000 people have been killed, but that figure is over a year old, and predates the cholera outbreak, which Oxfam has called the worst on record.

Analysis from Save the Children has found that 130 children are dying every day as a result of the humanitarian catastrophe, with over 50,000 having died in 2017 alone.

The architect of the brutal war will be touching down in London tomorrow. At only 32 years of age, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman, may be young, but he has overseen the three year bombing campaign since day one.

His trip will include high-level meetings, newspaper puff-pieces and friendly photo-ops with government ministers and Royalty. In short, it will present a major propaganda victory and a chance to flex his political muscles on the world stage.

We will no doubt hear lots of hyperbolic platitudes about the small-scale reforms and cosmetic changes that he has brought in Saudi Arabia. However, he will say nothing about the appalling repression that has been inflicted on the Saudi people, or the thousands that have been killed by the deadly war on Yemen he has spearheaded.

There is no doubt that arms sales will be on top of the agenda. For years now, BAE Systems has been trying to confirm the sale of a new batch of fighter jets to the Saudi military. Their efforts have been supported by Whitehall, with Ministers and civil servants working to secure a deal.

Irrespective of a new deal, Saudi Arabia is already by far the largest buyer of UK arms, and has been for decades. Major arms deals took place under Thatcher, Blair and Cameron. It is a long and inglorious tradition that Theresa May has indicated she will pull out all stops to continue.

Since the devastating war in Yemen began, the UK government has licensed almost £5 billion worth of arms to the Saudi military. Right now, UK made fighter jets are being flown over Yemen by UK-trained military personnel and firing UK-made bombs and missiles.

The arms being pushed by Downing Street this week could be used in atrocities for years to come. There are no controls over how these weapons will be used once they have left the UK, or who they will be used against. Arms sales may have been promoted by successive governments, but poll after poll has shown they are opposed by the vast majority of people in the UK.

For far too long, Westminster has looked the other way and willingly ignored the awful atrocities being committed by the Saudi dictatorship. This hasn’t been a coincidence, it is by design. This was implied last year when the then Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, urged opposition MPs to stop criticising the Saudi authorities in case it undermined future arms sales.

A lot is riding on the visit, with Downing Street promising that it will “usher in a new era in bilateral relations” between the two countries. A successful visit will be welcomed and celebrated in the palaces of Riyadh. It would be seen by the image conscious regime as another major step towards international legitimacy.

It wouldn’t just be Saudi Royalty celebrating, it would also be the board rooms of arms companies like BAE, that have actively profited from the repression and conflict. They will see it as another great business opportunity and a chance to cash-in.

That is why a protest has been called for 5pm on Wednesday 07 March outside Downing Street, with activists from across the UK holding similar local events. Join us in sending the message loudly and clearly that the Crown Prince is not welcome.

Essay | We Are Here Because You Were With Us: Remembering A. Sivanandan (1923–2018)

Sun, 2018-02-04 07:10

“That he was still alive at the time, though in comparative retirement, makes that neglect even sadder.” So wrote Ambalavaner Sivanandan in 1980, commenting on the lack of acknowledgement by black political movements of the 1960s in the United States of the immense contribution and influence of Paul Robeson. Sivanandan pointed out that although they rightly honoured Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, they failed to acknowledge the struggles and sacrifices of Robeson that preceded them.

These words echo the sentiment felt by activists, scholars and communities involved in the anti-racist movement in Britain with the recent passing of A. Sivanandan* himself, whose neglect by today’s generation is both disappointing and shameful. He was, for four decades, the Director of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), and the founding editor of its journal Race & Class, which has had contributions from the likes of Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Walter Rodney, Aijaz Ahmad, Chris Searle, Manning Marable, Cedric Robinson, Ilan Pappe, Basil Davidson, John Berger, Eqbal Ahmad, Angela Davis and John Newsinger.

Sivanandan was in a class of his own as a thinker, writer and speaker. His deliberations on the issues of racism, immigration, capitalism and imperialism were a particular beacon of hope for activists and communities during the bleak Thatcher years of the 1980s. He was a visionary whose insights were original and whose ideas still remain relevant today, yet his name – with few honourable exceptions – is seldom, if ever, cited by the British left. Simply put, Sivanandan’s influence upon those involved in the anti-racist movement – whether they are aware of it or not – is monumental.

Sivanandan was very conscious of how racism evolved – especially with changes in the economy and how reduced demand for labour consequently affected immigration policy. His landmark 1976 essay Race, Class and the State was the first serious and radical explanation of the political economy of race and immigration in post-World War Two Britain, and set the benchmark for all future analysis.

Over the years he documented and explained the ‘rationale’ for the racism that was weaponised by the state and the popular press against black peoples (using the term in the political sense; i.e. those deemed outside of ‘whiteness’), including refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers. There was, according to Sivanandan, “The racism that discriminates and the racism that kills.” He mostly concerned himself with the latter, focusing on its primary victims: the working class and those catching hell on the streets, rather than the middle-class woes of well-to-do ethnic minorities.

Often mischaracterised by the liberal-left, bourgeois academics and middle-class minorities alike as an out-dated relic from the past, it was clear to anyone who read and reflected upon Sivanandan’s writings or listened to him speak that, in fact, it was they who were being left behind by reality – a failure to ‘catch history on the wing’, as he put it. Take, for example, the continued inability of some elements of the left to incorporate race into their analysis of class. The latest and most notable illustration of this is the ‘Lexit’ brigade, who (mis) calculated that they could hijack the ‘Brexit’ narrative from the long-term clutches of the right – a mouse riding the back of a tiger, as one commentator astutely put it.

In his final public statement, writing the foreword for a report by the IRR on the spike in post-referendum racial violence, Sivanandan referred to the entire Brexit façade as being “born of fortuitous circumstances” and “lacking programme or policy” – the only discernible plan subsequently agreed upon by the government being the tactical weapon of racism and a reactionary ideology of nativism. He also blamed the government for reducing racial violence to the status of ‘hate crime’, achieving the dual outcome of reducing the former into an individualised issue of law and order, and thus, secondly, absolving itself of its own responsibility in implementing racist policies and creating a toxic environment. Asked about his political thought and the work of the IRR in a 2013 interview, Sivanandan’s words, though reflections, appear as a forewarning in light of Brexit and its cheerleaders amongst the left:

“We contested the Marxist orthodoxy that the race struggle should be subsumed to the class struggle because once the class struggle was won, racism would disappear. That did not speak to the lived experience of the black working class. Racism had its own dynamic. ‘Black and White unite’ is a goal to strive for, not the reality on the ground and therefore required that White and Black workers had to traverse their own autonomous routes to the common rendezvous… We have fought the idea that racism was an aspect of fascism – our take was that racism was fascism’s breeding ground.”

There were few, if any, contemporary intellectuals who wrote with such lucidity and poetry  on the intersection of race and class. Sivanandan was as at ease quoting T.S. Eliot, Keats and Oscar Wilde as he was citing Marx, Fanon and Cabral. However, unlike some theorists that name-drop for their egos and obfuscate pretentiously at their audiences, every sentence of Sivanandan’s was both intelligible and purposeful. He would often reaffirm, “The people we are writing for are the people we are fighting for.”

He produced neither full-length works nor any academic treatises. Instead, Sivanandan wrote complex-yet-digestible essays of a prophetic nature for those at the barricades of the struggle, enabling those at the grassroots to see the wood from the trees. Some of these writings were subsequently compiled into separate anthologies on three occasions: A Different Hunger (Pluto Press, 1982); Communities of Resistance (Verso, 1990); and the most recent collection, Catching History on the Wing (Pluto Press, 2008).

Experiencing racism in Ceylon

Sivanandan was born on 20 December 1923 in Colombo, then capital of the British colony of Ceylon (later ‘Sri Lanka’). He was from an ethnic Tamil background, his family originally from Jaffna – the cultural capital of the Tamil people, who are predominantly found in the North-East of the island. Though there were already tensions lingering under the surface, when the country gained independence in 1948 it rapidly began to disintegrate along ethnic lines. This was no accident: as Sivanandan later summarised British colonial rule with his trademark simplicity, “It divided in order to rule what it integrated in order to exploit.”

Politicians from the majority Sinhalese ethnic group – helped by the growing clout of the fascist-minded Buddhist clergy – used racism as a tactic in order to achieve a ready-made political majority at the expense of the numerically fewer Tamils. Their first crime upon independence was to render stateless, and then disenfranchise, the Tamils of the central hill-country, who were amongst the most militant workers on the island. These people were descendants of indentured labourers brought over from South India by the British in the mid-nineteenth century to toil on their lucrative tea plantations, which Sivanandan later described as a “colony within a colony.” The ruling elites next focused their efforts on the ‘indigenous’ Tamils.

Sivanandan witnessed the total bankruptcy and betrayal of the Sinhalese left as they subsequently chose an exclusionary racial ‘solidarity’ over a united class struggle, eventually collaborating with the government. Though the means used were initially discriminatory legislation – orchestrated by the state through the avenues of language, education and employment – they soon evolved into targeted racial violence against Tamils, led by Sinhalese ‘Buddhist’ monks and goon squads.

After surviving the 1958 anti-Tamil pogroms in Colombo, Sivanandan fled to London, where he walked straight into another episode of racial violence – this time the attacks on the black community in Notting Hill. Directly experiencing these two horrific incidents of violence convinced Sivanandan that he could not stand on the sidelines any longer, that he needed to study the root causes of racism in order to fight against it.

The Empire Strikes Back

When Sivanandan obtained work as a librarian at the Institute of Race Relations in 1964, it was a government orientated think tank used by British foreign policy planners in order to serve the corporate interests of its multi-national funders. After the so-called ‘race riots’ of 1958, the IRR began to focus more attention on domestic ‘race relations’ – as opposed to combating racism itself.

Sivanandan and other more radical members of staff began to question the ethical responsibility of the IRR, clashing with management over their right to scrutinise government policy on race and question the racist frameworks of the institute’s policy-orientated research. With the rise of fascist politics in Britain, along with racist anti-immigration legislation controls (starting with the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act), which the Labour Party also capitulated to, the seeds of revolt were planted. As Sivanandan was to later summarise, “What Enoch Powell says today, the Conservative Party says tomorrow, and the Labour Party legislates on the day after.”

By 1972, the contradictions within the institute had reached a point of no return. That year, Sivanandan led a dramatic and gruelling struggle by the staff and took control of the IRR from its council, supported by a democratic mandate from its membership. The organisation immediately lost its wealthy funders and was thus transformed. Its journal, Race, was renamed Race & Class, its aim now dedicated to ”Black and Third World liberation.” Sivanandan described the IRR’s new function as “a think-in-order-to-do-tank for Black and Third World peoples” and a “servicing station for oppressed peoples on their way to liberation.”

Black British history and education

In her obituary of Sivanandan, Liz Fekete, current Director of the IRR, made a point of mentioning his recent concern that younger generations of British anti-racist activists were ignorant of their own history, tending to focus solely on American movements such as the Black Panther Party for inspiration and guidance. However, Sivanandan articulated previously unknown stories of how black peoples had resisted on this side of the Atlantic, even when solidarity from their white comrades was rather lacking.

His 1981 essay From Resistance to Rebellion: Asian and Afro-Caribbean Struggles in Britain is one of the best examples of this alternative, history-from-below. It is an electrifying piece of writing – its opening lines encapsulating Sivanandan’s gift of joining the dots from the colonies to the mother country. The introduction begins in 1940, with Udham Singh’s hanging in London after his revenge shooting of ‘Sir’ Michael O’Dwyer – the man responsible for the 1919 Amritsar Massacre – but ends with the former’s lesser-known involvement in setting up the Indian Workers’ Association during his stay in England.

The essay made a massive impact upon its first publication and, decades on, there are still numerous stories told by activists recounting how they would copy and distribute multiple copies of it everywhere.

By incorporating and transmitting the unwritten racial dimension within the historical class struggle – something the orthodox white British left, including such luminaries as E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm (and today’s pale imitations Ken Loach, Owen Jones et al) have generally failed to do – Sivanandan inspired others to do likewise. His legacy can be seen, for instance, in the works of Satnam Virdee, Anandi Ramamurthy and Arun Kundnani; as well as the recent commemorations of the epic Grunwick Strike of 1976-78 – a struggle that was led by Asian women and had lasted longer than the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85.

Sivanandan also had a pedagogical impact through an influential series of educational booklets published by the IRR in the 1980s that attempted to address the absence of black history in schools, particularly racism and its connection to imperialism. There were four booklets in total: Roots of Racism; Patterns of Racism; How Racism Came to Britain; and The Fight Against Racism – the latter two focused on the British context, whereas the earlier books were more general in emphasis. How Racism Came to Britain was especially explosive in its impact, resulting in a sustained witch-hunt led by the right against the IRR, and even attempts by the Secretary of State for Education to ban the books from schools.

This initiative can be seen as a precursor to some of the more recent campaigns of our times, many currently being fought at several universities throughout the country, such as ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and, in particular, ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ and ‘Decolonising Our Minds’. Sivanandan would certainly support such initiatives, though he would surely warn the more liberal-minded of these students against merely settling for redistribution of quotas or greater diversity (e.g. more non-white thinkers included in philosophy courses/modules). In one of the forewords he wrote for the IRR series, Sivanandan critiqued multi-cultural education for its limitations, namely for only emphasising differences between cultures; he stressed (below) that a critical re-evaluation – and thus, transformation – of entire institutions and orthodoxies was required to truly ensure a radical change in such a racist society:

“Our concern is not centrally with multi-cultural multi-ethnic education but with anti-racist education (which by its very nature would include the study of other cultures). Just to learn about other people’s cultures, though, is not to learn about the racism of one’s own. To learn about the racism of one’s own culture, on the other hand, is to approach other cultures objectively.”

“Sivanandan’s influence upon those involved in the anti-racist movement – whether they are aware of it or not – is monumental.”

“We are here because you were there”

Whereas some on the left retained their endless faith in trade union agitation in social democracies, harking back to some Keynesian ‘golden era’, Sivanandan refused to go along with religious orthodoxies and rigid dogmatism. He forewarned of the massive changes taking place as developed countries within the capitalist metropolis evolved from industrial to information-based economies. These themes were brilliantly analysed and anticipated in essays such as Imperialism and Disorganic Development in the Silicon Age, written in 1979, and in New Circuits of Imperialism (1989). Sivanandan pointed out that labour in the west was so preoccupied with emancipating itself from capital, that it had not been able to prepare for the opposite scenario: with the development of technology, capital had been able to emancipate itself from labour, leaving the working class in the metropolitan countries paralysed, with no economic – and therefore political – clout.

However, Sivanandan reserved sharp criticism for those who declared the class struggle – even within the imperial centre – as redundant or futile, consistently citing the crucial role of part-time, temporary or migrant labour, such as security guards, fast-food chain workers, porters, cleaners, etc. He described their precarious existence as, “rightless, rootless, peripatetic and temporary,” and without whose labour “post-industrial society cannot run”. However, as recently demonstrated by the long and arduous struggle of the cleaners at SOAS – predominantly women workers from ‘Latin’ America – even the toughest battles can be won by the most marginalised and exploited.

With his holistic view of the world, Sivanandan stood in sharp contrast to the dogmatic Eurocentric Marxists who have dominated the discourse of the left (or what’s left of the left). Unlike them, he positioned his analysis of capitalism (i.e. ‘the system’) around imperialism (i.e. “the project”) and its devastating effects – via globalisation (i.e. “the process”) – upon the peoples at the periphery of the world economic system. Sivanandan would always demonstrate cause and effect, describing the economic policies (e.g. Structural Adjustment Programmes) of transnational organisations (e.g. the EU, the IMF, the World Bank, etc) and multi-national corporations, as well as their political and military agents, whether in the form of nation-states or through collective alliances such as NATO. He would explain how the actions of these entities caused the forced migration of people from the Third World – often as a direct consequence of war and poverty – on a mass scale into the metropolitan countries of the West, where upon arrival they would often meet new racisms and oppressions.

Journalist Phil Miller is the author of two groundbreaking reports that investigate Sri Lanka’s intimate post-independence relationship with its former colonial power. His research has exposed how Britain provided high-level counterinsurgency assistance to the Sri Lankan state in its genocidal war against Tamils. Miller also demonstrates in his writings how the Home Office uses repressive policies against those same people when they seek refuge here in the UK. When asked to describe the political impact of Sivanandan upon his work, Miller stated, “Sivanandan’s aphorism ‘We are here because you were there’ informed my approach to writing about Tamil asylum cases. It also prompted me to research British foreign and colonial policy towards Sri Lanka/Ceylon to gain a deeper understanding of how Britain was partly responsible for the displacement of Tamils from their homeland.”

Identity politics and ‘New Times’

Though critical of economic determinism, Sivanandan cautioned against the potential excesses of the politics of identity. In RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle, written in 1985, he delivered a scathing indictment of the US-imported ‘racism awareness training’, which removed state and institutional responsibility for racism, instead turning it into a ‘natural’ social phenomenon independent of material conditions, a ‘white disease’. This type of approach is perhaps best exemplified by the ‘calling-out’ culture of social media, and the rise of the politically limited and intellectually lazy discourse centred on personal ‘privilege’. Today’s Twitter generation often prioritise the issue of who retains cultural rights instead of fighting for the right for an inclusive political culture, i.e. within the context of class. For Sivanandan, the concept of ‘the personal is political’ only concerns what is owed to one by society, whereas its inversion – ‘the political is personal’ – concerns what is owed to society by one.

He was sceptical of identity politics as a means to liberation, referring to it as an “inward-looking, naval-gazing exercise” that stemmed from the individual. But the self is also found within the world, pointed out Sivanandan. By focusing instead on grassroots struggles, such as migrant worker rights, addressing deaths in custody or stopping deportations of asylum-seekers – which are inherently community-orientated and organic – one begins to change the field of play, rather than merely changing the goal-posts. Throughout his work and life, he repeatedly stressed, “Who you are is what you do.”

Sivanandan’s prescient analysis (below) in 1990 (before ‘intersectionality’ became the favourite buzzword of humanities and social sciences departments and the blogosphere) still reverberates today with regard to the potential pitfalls of a politics of identity bereft of class, which leads to a harmonious liberal accommodation with capitalism. A women’s movement that does not factor in the poorest and most marginalised women; or a Green movement that does not consider the ecological devastation caused by Western capitalism in the Third World; or a Peace movement that cares only for preventing nuclear catastrophe at home but not stopping the arms industry from fuelling wars and genocide abroad, wrote Sivanandan, becomes narrow in focus, elitist and reformist at best – and ultimately permits capitalism to continue thriving via imperialism. Class is not simply another ‘identity’ but is, rather, an objective reality and the modality through which identities must be perceived. Oppression goes in tandem with exploitation, and vice versa. As Sivanandan put it:

“If these issues are fought in terms of the specific, particularistic oppressions of women qua women, blacks qua blacks and so on, without being opened out to and informed by other oppressions, they lose their claim to that universality which was their particular contribution to socialism in the first place. And they, further, fall into the error of a new sectarianism – as between blacks versus women, Asians versus Afro-Caribbeans, gays versus blacks and so on – which pulls rank, this time, not on the basis of belief but of suffering: not who is the true believer but who is the most oppressed. Which then sets out the basis on which demands are made for more equal opportunities for greater and more compound oppressions in terms of quotas and proportions and that type of numbers game. That is not to say that there should be no attempt to redress the balance of racial, sexual and gender discrimination, but that these solutions deal not with the politics of discrimination but its arithmetic – giving more weightage to women here and blacks there and so rearranging the distribution of inequality as not to alter the structures of inequality themselves. In the process, these new social movements tend to replace one sort of sectarianism with another and one sort of sectional interest for another when their native thrust and genius was against sectarianism and for a plurality of interests.”

The essay The Hokum of New Times, where most of the aforementioned criticisms of identity politics is found, has become more notorious for other reasons. Sivanandan, out of comradely love and intellectual honesty, ruthlessly eviscerated the arguments of, amongst others, his friend Stuart Hall in a scintillating polemic. Hall had outlined in the pages of influential magazine Marxism Today how the industrial age was giving way to ‘New Times’ – a rapidly accelerating information age, whereby, in the process, “Our own identities, our sense of self, our own subjectivities are being transformed.”

The Marxism Today collective were terrified of allowing Thatcher, and the right, to consolidate their own ideas within the increasingly alienated and disillusioned general public. The solution, according to the disciples of ‘New Times’, was that one should begin to resist through the vehicle of identity and culture – as opposed to linking them to, let alone changing, the economic base. Hall, in particular, consequently focused much of his intellectual work on the superstructure politics of culture and ideology, rather than the politics of economy: a total inversion of Marxist methodology. “Philosophers have interpreted the world,” Marx famously said, but instead of seeking to change it, added Sivanandan, referring to the intellectuals of Marxism Today, now they sought to “change the interpretation.”

Stuart Hall was also rebuked for overlooking in his analysis the masses of workers throughout the Third World, upon whose exploitation these Eurocentric ‘New Times’ would be owed to and built upon. In fact, Hall had, in 1986, used the previous year’s hugely popular ‘Live Aid’ concert of Bob Geldof – Bono’s predecessor as musician-turned-missionary – as ‘proof’ of the changing political climate in Thatcher’s Britain. Sivanandan had no time for such liberal window-dressing, castigating Hall for changing the discourse of anti-imperialism into one of Western humanism and charity.

Sivanandan ‘s The Hokum of New Times essay can also be interpreted as a prologue to the left’s capitulation under Thatcher; its submission to her mantra of ‘There is no alternative’ (TINA). He infamously characterised the political conclusions of ‘New Times’ as ‘Thatcherism in drag’ – an especially sharp denunciation since it was Hall himself who had initially coined the term ‘Thatcherism’, arguing many years ago that she was not ‘just another’ Tory. With his relentless critique, Sivanandan in some ways projected how the Marxism Today collective’s attempts to fight Thatcherism perhaps unwittingly led them to midwife the birth of New Labour and the ‘Third Way’ ideology of its intellectual guru, Anthony Giddens.

Marxism Today’s editor Martin Jacques went on to found New Labour-supporting think-tank Demos with Geoff Mulgan, a regular writer for MT who later became a key policy adviser for yet another former contributor: none other than Tony Blair. Indeed, when asked years later, Thatcher is said to have cited her greatest achievement as New Labour. Stuart Hall, who had briefly befriended Blair in the 1990s, eventually conceded what Sivanandan had had the foresight to warn against, complaining to the Observer in 1997, “All he [Blair] seems to be offering is Thatcherism with a human face.”

Sivanandan was also far-sighted enough to warn communities of being the unwitting victims of the age-old British tactic of divide-and-rule. In the Scarman report of 1981, which was in response to the Brixton riots of the same year, the response of the state was to co-opt and buy-off black struggle – as opposed to suppressing it as it had always done before. Rather than admitting to state and institutional racism, the Scarman report had concluded that different ethnic groups had different needs (or ‘racial disadvantages’) that must be accommodated (i.e. compromised) by the state – whether by grants or through positive discrimination. Sivanandan later described the latter as akin to “breaking our legs and giving us crutches.”

The logical conclusion of this new government policy was the rise of a multitude of ethnicities, self-appointed leaders and cherry-picked representatives coming to the fore, disaggregating the previously militant black working class. Sivanandan had warned about the flight of race from class in 1983, telling communities, “We don’t need a cultural identity for its own sake, but to make use of the positive aspects of our culture to forge correct alliances and fight the correct battles.” It is important to note, however, that his earlier criticisms of multi-culturalism were specifically about the post-1981 state policy of divide-and-rule; he later defended organic, community-led multi-culturalism – so long as it was infused with anti-racism. This was in light of attacks upon this brief era of relative progress from nativists and advocates of ‘British values’ after the 2001 race riots in northern England, and the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks.

When memory dies, a people die

In terms of his birthplace, Sivanandan’s lasting legacy is his epic historical novel When Memory Dies – probably the most ambitious and significant piece of literature written about Sri Lanka in the last century. It is his first and only novel, published in 1997 when he was in his early 70s, and, tellingly, took him around two decades to write. The novel tells, in three different parts, the history of the island: from colonial British rule, to the newly independent Ceylon and, finally, to the ethnocracy that rebranded itself in 1972 as ‘Sri Lanka’. 

When Memory Dies is a story told not from the point of view of authoritarian presidents and prime ministers, nor that of jingoistic army commanders or bigoted religious leaders, but from the viewpoint of the subaltern – the ordinary people. It threads together various features of colonial rule in Ceylon, addressing issues such as the wretched conditions of the workers that plucked the tea for the imperialists; the hegemony of the English language over the natives; and debates between characters arguing reform versus revolution when deliberating over what form the class and anti-colonial struggles should take.

Readers familiar with Sivanandan’s better-known essays on racism will stumble across many of his political aphorisms and poetic language throughout the novel. “If you read my political stuff you’ll find it is creative – I hope my creative writing is political – I don’t separate the two,” he once declared. To understand Sivanandan the man; what events formed his personal character and political principles, and the struggles of the people of the island, especially his fellow Tamils – massacred in their tens of thousands by the Sri Lankan state in 2009 – this novel is fundamental reading. Indeed, he once told this writer, “My book is my gift to my country and my people.”

In 2016 students at SOAS were asked to submit a list of key figures important to decolonisation for artists to commemorate in a series of murals. The-then president of the Tamil Society at the university, Bava Dharani, proposed that Sivanandan’s image should be included. When asked to elaborate upon her reasons for choosing him, she explained

“I think Sivanandan’s work on race was not only critical but also provided a different perspective on decolonisation, race, etc. Given his background, being a Tamil forced to flee from Sri Lanka and finding himself in the UK, his writing had a lot of heart – especially When Memory Dies. I remember being moved by and relating to so many parts of that book. And this quote – it stayed with me because it highlighted how important it is to write our own history. That is exactly what I think SOAS is trying to achieve with all these movements towards decolonising the syllabus. It just made sense for him to be up there.”

Alas, thus it came to pass: those frequently in the area may have noticed a painting of Sivanandan’s face – accompanied by the quote in question (picture in the photo at the top of the essay) from his novel – in the students’ union bar at SOAS. It is fitting that Sivanandan, whose funeral took place exactly forty-two years to the day that his hero Paul Robeson died, is honoured at SOAS – the institution where Robeson himself once studied and was later immortalised with a building named in his honour.

Now, more than ever, it is time for those who tremble with indignation at injustice to acquaint ourselves with the writings of A. Sivanandan to help guide us for the battles ahead – to be proactive rather than reactive in the struggle for economic, political and social justice, both home and abroad. We must catch history on the wing.

*In traditional Tamil culture – though this practice is declining particularly in the diaspora – one’s father’s initial or name is used as a prefix. Ambalavaner is, therefore, the name of Sivanandan’s father. American missionary Robert W. Holmes (1997: 107) explains in his ethnographical study Jaffna (Sri Lanka) 1980: “The usual method of naming children in Jaffna is to give them their own name by which they will be known throughout life, with their father’s name as an initial. So Mr. Kandasamy’s children will be K. Nadarajah, K. Kandiah and K. Saraswathi. His friends and neighbours are expected to know these names and never to forget them, so they are not confused by the system as foreigners so often are. However, not all Jaffnese follow the Tamil system. Some, particularly Christians, keep the family name for generation after generation as is common in the West.”

An A to Z of Theory | Hakim Bey: Alienation and The State

Sat, 2018-02-03 06:40

(Image: fractal-recursions.com)

Hakim Bey’s TAZ is a well-known manifesto of anti-capitalism, providing a model for alternative living. Yet Bey’s work has been criticised for neglecting the critique of capitalism. In the fourth and fifth parts of the series, I aim to show that Bey has an astute, unusual analysis of the structure of the dominant system.  This fourth part explores the view of the dominant system as a ‘Spectacle’, the theory of alienation, and the history and contemporary forms of the state.

Bey’s work is thoroughly anti-capitalist. Critics sometimes miss this fact because of Bey’s unusual terminology. He rarely talks about ‘capitalism’. Nevertheless, his theory is clearly directed at a more-or-less unitary adversary, identifiable as capitalism or modern society. Bey seeks to challenge the whole system, rather than be distracted by any particular issue. He does not see power as localised, diffuse, or irrelevant. In this column and elsewhere, I’ve generally paraphrased Bey using the words ‘system’ and ‘Spectacle’. In fact, Bey tends not to talk about the system in such general terms. He assumes it in the background of his theory. When he names it at all, he uses terms like ‘consensus reality’, ‘scarcity’, and ‘images’. Sometimes, Bey uses the Hegelian term ‘Totality‘ to refer to what he considers the false consensus expressed on behalf of society. He also sometimes uses the term Spectacle, derived from Situationism. Other times, Bey refers to the Planetary Work Machine (from P.M.’s Bolo’Bolo), or to Empire (from Hardt and Negri. While these terms don’t necessarily connote a dominant system for some readers, they are used in a way which clearly refers to a systemic structure. In a related discussion, Sellars suggests that Bey’s view of the system is basically Debord’s. 

Bey’s theory of capitalism draws heavily on the Situationist idea of the Spectacle. This approach sees capitalism as a type of life mediated by images. Bey similarly sees the system as a regime in which images dominate life. If someone is within ‘consensus thought’, they accept the dominant beliefs of the current system. For example, they only recognise the existence of things that are represented, not those that are present. Representing something (within the Spectacle) makes it ‘semiotically richer but existentially impoverished’. This process gives something a more symbolic meaning, but a less emotional or lived meaning. A represented thing becomes a potential commodity. This, in turn, destroys the existential meaning of objects, especially those which produce altered consciousness. Take an example such as dance music. As part of a rave, it is hard to represent. At the same time, it generates intense energy, such as ecstatic experiences and collective bonding. Now suppose the same music is recorded, sold, and classified. It gains symbolic meaning. It becomes easier to name, categorise and compare with other things. But it loses some of its emotional meaning. It is no longer part of the context of intense practice. 

The Spectacle is also a system of scarcity. Like many eco-anarchists, Bey contrasts the system of scarcity with an ethos of abundance in indigenous societies. Modern cultures, and agricultural indigenous cultures, often symbolise scarcity as a loss or fall. A familiar example is the story of the fall from Eden. For Wilson (in Ploughing the Clouds), this type of story symbolises the loss of original anarchy and autonomy. In the passage to modern life, intimacy with nature is replaced by separation from it. Abundance is replaced by scarcity. Gift economies are replaced by commodity economies. ‘Polymorphous co-sensuality’ in sexual relations is lost to kinship and marriage structures. 

If something went wrong in modern history – and Wilson/Bey is sure it did – then it must have happened in the imaginal realm. He thinks that humanity’s main historical mistake was to lose the experience of the imaginal realm. Modern humans have lost the experience of intimacy with the cosmos. Most of us can no longer attain altered consciousness. In Shower of Stars, he adds that every society produces an excess, which it needs to squander. There are different ways to do this. Wealth can be squandered in rituals of consumption, such as potlatch. It can be consumed by a large ‘idle’ population, such as monks. It can be consumed in carnivals. Or it can be managed through the artificial production of scarcity. Capitalism opts for the last of these options. This is not a good way to deal with excess. Seen from an altered state of consciousness, he adds in Riverpeople, authoritarianism and conventional morality come to seem like a disease. 

Bey also endorses most of the standard objections to capitalism. The system is objectionable for a whole range of familiar reasons. Wealth is too concentrated. Financial capitalism separates money from production. The media enclose meaning in a limited sphere. Capitalism leads to securitisation, repression, and ecological destruction. The benefits of civilisation are only ever available to an elite of about 10%. The system, or Empire, brings with it murder, famine, war and greed, all of which are effects of the triumph of death over life.

Bey claims to be ‘personally at war‘ with each of these facts because ‘they violate my desires and deny me my pleasures’. In other words, Bey is an anti-capitalist, but his grounds for anti-capitalism are largely Stirnerian. He objects to capitalism because it blocks self-actualisation and the personal production of meaning. He embraces the Marxist critique of alienation, but not Marxist collectivism. Capitalism is emptiness – what Bey in a poem terms a ‘lukewarm necromantic vacuum of dephlogisticated corpse breath’. It is figured archetypally as death, rather than life or joy. For instance, the dead were the first to get privatised space and to invest in futures. 

Alienation

Much of Bey’s theory focused on the question of alienation – though he prefers the less ‘lofty’ term ‘loneliness’ – and he theorises the system in such terms. Capitalism involves both sameness and separation. In Riverpeople, he portrays capitalism as a form of monoculture. Property is a type of ‘spectral alienation’, as opposed to the ‘mutualism of usufruct’ (a Proudhonian term for temporary ownership based on use). The problem with modern society is ‘civilisation‘, not culture or technology. In other words, Bey identifies the main social problem as a certain kind of social system, based on alienation. Civilisation reproduces itself through alienation, negation, and unfulfilment. It offers the appearance of fulfilment from which one always awakes unhappy. The Totality renders people isolated and powerless. It offers only illusory forms of self-expression. Alienation is a ‘demonic democracy‘, everything equal but valueless. It is a ‘bad mood in which every day is the same’. In his ‘Esoteric Interpretation of the IWW Preamble‘, Bey argues that alienation is psychological as well as economic. He argues for a political orientation to all of those affected by alienation, not only industrial workers. 

Alienation functions partly through the disruption of horizontal social relations. In the essay ‘Immediatism versus Capitalism‘, Bey argues that capitalism only supports or enables, or even allows, particular kinds of groups. It promotes groups based on production (such as work colleagues), consumption (such as self-help groups) or reproduction (such as nuclear families). Capitalism is organised to prevent conviviality in Bey’s sense – or coming together for purposes of play, life, or mutual enhancement. Bey argues that pressures on people’s time and energy from work, consumption and reproduction are today a bigger force in oppressing people than things like police repression and unjust laws. The structure of social life, which really makes everyone miserable, goes unnoticed. 

Conviviality is possible within small affinity-groups – in Bey’s terms, bees or tongs. However, capitalism subtly disrupts such groups. Affinity-groups come up against barriers such as the ‘busy‘ lives of members, the need to earn money, or difficulties which seem like bad luck. Today capitalism has fragmented people to an extraordinary degree. Most people are caught in ‘involution‘ (shrinkage, or production through their own inverse) with the media. Small groups are also isolated from each other. Neoliberal capitalism is based on isolating people to an increasing extent. Forms of ‘combination’, or life in common, have been destroyed or turned into simulations. Poverty, terror, mediation and alienation all contribute to this process of isolation. Hence, while Bey rejects collectivism, he also opposes standard types of individualism. The ego, as much as the group, can be a Stirnerian ‘spook’, or false essence. People can be subordinated and captured through their own appearance – for example, through self-branding. 

Recuperation through representation is identified by Bey as the main problem facing dissent. The system captures and redirects everything simply by representing it, and changing its context. It can even pre-empt opposition through simulation. In earlier works such as TAZ, Bey argues that opposition is open to recuperation, as it gets converted into post-revolutionary normality. Each generation’s dream becomes the next generation’s parlour decor. People construct artificial outer images of themselves, known as personae. They succumb to a kind of generalised common sense or ‘consensus-perception‘ which filters out much of what exists. The global crisis does not in fact result from scarcity, but from the ideology of scarcity. The world doesn’t run out of resources. Rather, it runs out of imagination, or creative energy. Today there is too little, too thinly spread. 

Bey sometimes goes as far as to see power as mainly an image. In ‘The Information War’, he argues that the state is now a ‘disembodied patterning of information’ rather than a force in its own right. There is no ‘power’ today, but instead a complete and false totality which contains all discourse through commodification and mediation. Individuals always remain outside of this, but as something pathetic and meaningless.  One cannot appear in the media with one’s true subjectivity, but only disappear in representation. The system’s power does not stem from a solid structure – a possibility precluded by Bey’s insistence on the primacy of chaos. In Immedistism, Bey repeats his view that any order, except that arising from existential freedom, is illusory. However, illusions can kill. Only desire creates values. Civilisation is based on the denial of desire. In other words, it is a kind of upside-down value which values its own denial. Knowledge has also been alienated today. It is replaced by a simulation – the same ‘data’, but in a dead form. It is alienating because it fails to interact with the body, or with imagination. The illusions created by finance capital have become consensus reality, but remain illusions. Bey seeks to recover the call of a submerged reality accessible only rarely – the reality of intensity. 

The persistence of this system offers a kind of de-intensified, meaningless experience. We’re at the end of history, götterdämmerung, and yet it’s also ‘goddam dull’. In one poem in Black Fez Manifesto, he suggests that we hide in ‘squatted character armor’ which is not our own, like hermit crabs. In another poem (this time in Ec(o)logues), Wilson discusses his native New Jersey. Modern agriculture is associated with death. It is opposed by ‘secret ludic economies’ connected with meadows, woods and wild spaces. Today, the system tries to force people into mediation. Today, unmediated pleasures are nearly always illegal. Even simple enjoyments like outdoor barbecues often violate bylaws. Pleasure becomes too stressful and people retreat into the world of television.

The media play a central role in Bey’s theory of capitalist power. In ‘Media Creed for the Fin de Siécle‘, Wilson argues that the term ‘media’ should refer mainly to those media which claim objectivity. Subjective media tend to resist mediation. Books, for instance, have become an intimate or subjective medium because anyone can write one. The mass media constructs an image of false subjectivity by blurring the boundary between objective and subjective. It sells an illusion that each of us has expressed her/himself by buying a lifestyle or appearing within representation. The system still had ‘glitches’ in the 1960s because the media failed to convince. War appeared as Hell, not glorious; the counterculture appeared exciting, not evil. This led to cognitive dissonance, or a gap between experience and representation. When the system is able to produce experiences in line with its discourses, it eliminates virtually all cognitive dissonance. The 1960s movement saw and exploited the glitch, but fell into the trap of seeking to seize the media, and thus becoming images and commodities themselves. In any case, these tactics are no longer viable. However, in ‘Utopian Blues‘, Bey argues that the ‘con’ of alienated civilisation is wearing thin to the point of transparency. Capitalism is threatened by a ‘mass arousal from the media-trance of inattention’. 

The State and the Rise of Alienation

Bey discusses the state as a central aspect of alienation. In Bey’s historical theory, the rise of the dominant system is an effect of increasing alienation and mediation. In other words, lived, immediate, intense symbolism and imagery are gradually replaced by increasingly abstract, emotionally empty symbols. These symbols are in turn captured and monopolised by dominant institutions, which are effectively accumulations of such symbols. Law, writing, money, and computer coding are all examples of extremely abstract symbolism with only an attenuated relation to their original, imaginary basis. This contrasts with indigenous symbolism such as shamanism, origin narratives (‘myths’), symbolic exchange, and wampum. These all  involve a close connection between imagery, social use, and emotional or existential significance. Bey seeks alternatives to capitalism, of a certain type. He seeks to recover more intense, less mediated types of imagery and symbolism. 

Bey rejects the view that either capital or the state is a determinant, final instance of alienation. Oppressive, alienating institutions are not reducible to a single matrix. There are a number of different sources of alienation. Money (or Capital) and the State are distinct institutions, although they are sometimes allied. Authoritarian religion is a third, distinct force. The emergence of the state seems to have been a revolution when seen from the longue durée of historical time. But it is more gradual in human terms. The rise of the state is the rise of separation and hierarchy. The early State had to coexist with social forms – such as rights and customs – which resisted it. An absolute State or ‘free’ market was inconceivable, as it violated reciprocity. Only in modern times are there absolutist States or ‘free’ money. Although distinct from capital, the state always remains mired in production. In contrast, money can escape production as pure symbolisation.

The emergence of the state requires the emergence of statist images. The state has to ‘invent’ surplus and scarcity to disrupt indigenous bands, which are based on abundance. The rise of the state must have been a result of human actions (not for instance population growth or climate change), since the state is a social relation. Bey suggests the rise of the state must have involved a revolt by one or another group differentiated by role. Maybe chiefs, shamans, or warriors revolted, or of men revolted against women. The resultant structure is still with us. In some ways, we are still within the Roman Empire. The Roman form of the state, law, and property are still fundamental to modern power.

As we shall see later, Bey sees indigenous social forms as a type of social ‘machine’ which includes a gift economy, shamanism, and diffuse power as theorised by Clastres. The state had to defeat this social machine to take power. Why was it defeated?  What ‘went wrong’?  Wilson suggests in E(c)logues that excess production may have given the temple political power, and metal-smithing may have strengthened warriors. A new ideology of human sacrifice was created to replace the old religions. The state was based on an elite, which captured the social surplus. This elite then focused on war instead of food production. War already existed as an aspect of indigenous diffuse power. However, it changed with the rise of the state. The new, ‘classical‘ (rather than indigenous) form of war was a means to capture wealth and slaves. Corresponding to this process, land was privatised. Originally, myths and institutions existed which warded off the state – for instance, shamanism. Something went wrong somewhere, and the founding myths are now those of alienation. The State is founded on symbolisation as mediation and alienation. It thus has a magical basis, in writing as ‘action at a distance’. It also rests on the monopolisation of violence. Violence originally belonged to everyone. It was monopolised by the state. The state might even have started off as a scapegoat, carrying off blood-guilt. 

The state is also based on homogenisation. Planned statist cities are designed as gridworks, whereas grottos associated with mysticism are shapeless and meandering. Medieval cities are similar to grottos. In statist systems, a single worldview and value-system is locked in place. This is true of Christianity, and also of capitalism since the collapse of Stalinism. This single worldview reshapes language. Linguistic categories are a secondary structure used to interpret incoming chaotic flows. Modernity is unusual in insisting on only a single structure. Bey suggests that any map (or language) will fit any territory (or experience), given enough violence. Capitalism seeks to fit the whole world into a single conceptual language. This contrasts with the hermeticist and indigenous views of multiplicity, in which many worldviews contain part of the truth of a world based on difference. The hegemony of a single image of the world obstructs the circulation of images and undermines the expression of difference. Instead, the same discourse is endlessly recycled or reproduced. 

However, the state has also changed in the neoliberal period. With the rise of the Spectacle, the function of law has changed. In Nietzsche’s day, law still appeared as the oppressor’s arsenal of tools, which is useful in providing something to struggle against. Today it is less an edged weapon than a ‘viral ooze’, operating through the Spectacle and ‘cop culture’ which become indistinguishable from real power. The law should still be used as ‘an edge to sharpen our lives‘. However, law has mutated from a tool of oppressors to the self-image of the spectacle. Law simulates power, while offering and denying the utopia of justice. Anything which provides unmediated experience is a threat to the Spectacle and at risk of being banned. 

In some pieces, Bey argues that the law is a useful stimulus for the subversive effects of dissent. Paradoxically, a liberal regime can disempower dissent by making it safe. In ‘Against Legalisation‘, Bey argues that dissident media is impossible without censorship. American-style free speech absorbs or co-opts dissent as images, thus rendering it ineffectual. Today, reform is impossible, because partial victories are always absorbed as commodity relations. For example, Bey suggests that legalisation would absorb drugs as a ‘new means of control’. It could be used, for instance, to control drug research more effectively, as the underground would disappear. The 10% of the world economy which is ‘grey’ or quasi-criminal is a new frontier for capital to recuperate. This article shows clearly Bey’s emphasis on recuperation as a greater danger than repression. 

The Contemporary State

Today, the state is undergoing a process of decline marked by its current death-spasms of apocalyptic violence. Hence there are periodic ‘spasms of control-by-terror’ directed at perceived enemies, such as hackers. ‘Robocop‘, or the automation of war, is the last interface between power and its others. Bey portrays the state as simultaneously liquefying and petrifying – its outer rigidity marking its emptiness. Bey likens these spasms of repression to medieval public executions, intended to terrorise and paralyse rebels. This is simulated justice, or terror, as opposed to systematic repression. This pattern of repression makes publicity a bad tactic and clandestinity a good one. 

Another aspect of the contemporary state is its use of ‘depletion‘ as social control. The old liberal approach sought to assimilate marginal groups. Today’s approach instead relies on repression and isolation in zones of depletion. In this context, immigration is really a problem for global capitalism. Undergoing decay, capitalism practices social triage. It lets go of areas (and classes, races, etc) which fall below a certain level of participation in the Spectacle. This leads to no-go-zones where control is mostly simulated. Officially these zones remain state-controlled. They are not allowed political autonomy, and spasms of spectacular terror are sometimes unleashed against them. The Spectacle still tries to destroy any threat to its monopoly on spectacular authority. In theory, everyone is represented. In practice, however, most people are sacrificed. They cannot enter the deathly world of virtual reality or Cyber-Gnosis. There is thus a process of polarisation between included and excluded. Bey thinks this process will speed up, and even parts of America will be affected. Triage will occur even within the zones assigned to supposedly ‘safe’ subjects with rights. However, this creates possibilities through the occupation of zones of depletion, or NoGoZones.

Corresponding to its creation of zones of depletion, capital actually retreats on a spatial level. A philosophy of risk-management and protection is accompanied by a process of withdrawal into fortress-like spaces such as gated communities and malls. This corresponds to the disappearance of certain zones into virtual reality, and the consignment of others as zones of depletion. Most people are left behind in the resultant ‘social triage’, even if they remain media-entranced. There is also a clever control strategy in which the system threatens something very extreme, and when it falls short, people are relieved and find it tolerable. The surveillance state creates a danger of ‘information totality’ in which the map finally covers the whole territory. Such a regime would amount to unchallenged terror and the triumph of order and death. Our hopes in such a system are computer glitches and venal human controllers.

In an earlier paper, Bey argued that the right-wing need an enemy. In the absence of communism, they worry about the UN, or Arabs, or drugs. This is partly because they cannot theorise the current regime of rule by virtual capital. Elsewhere, he argues that both right and left are caught up in identifying symptoms and enemies. These enemies actually stem from the political subconscious, which is affected by neoliberalism and the resulting dissatisfaction. Some symptoms are noticed from the right, others from the left, but both are searching for a scapegoat for the general malaise. This leads to a society which is waging war on itself. In Sacred Drift, Wilson notes that the west has rediscovered ‘its ancient Other’. He cites Marx’s dictum that history repeats first as tragedy, then as farce. Today’s Islamophobia is a farcical re-enactment of medieval conflicts.

One of the more unusual aspects of Bey’s theory of the state is his relative preference for monarchical and single-leader states over mass culture and modern regimes. The only regimes which exist at an archetypal level – in dreams, for example – are anarchy and monarchy. Both are rooted in sovereignty and will. Monarchy is objectionable for cruelty and capriciousness. But it is closer to anarchy than modern regime-types. Monarchs at least are human in their flaws. Today’s rulers barely even exist aside from the Ideas, or spooks, they serve. Such people are functionaries, not archetypes. Bey suggests that anarchism is actually a mutation of monarchy, in which each person becomes sovereign in a creative sphere.

For the other essays in the series, please visit the In Theory column page.

Editor’s note: With regards to Hakim Bey’s controversial personal stances, these will be discussed in Part 10 of this series. In the meantime, please read our ‘Note to readers’ at the end of the introductory essay of the series.

Comment | How to destroy a life: On one deportation among many

Fri, 2018-02-02 06:19

Wed, 31st January — It’s 10.40pm on Wednesday evening and I start writing because it’s all I can think to do. It is helping, in a way, to distract me from thinking about where Michael* is. His phone has been off for the last two hours.

He might already be on the plane. He might be on the coach waiting to get on the plane. He might even be restrained in a body belt, although I don’t imagine he resisted them. Either way, he will be sitting and waiting, with tens of other people being forcibly expelled to West Africa.

I met Michael through work I was doing with detainees, and I connected with him because he grew up in Manchester. He is 22, a few years my junior, and he grew up a few streets down from where my mum did, four decades earlier.

Michael arrived in the UK when he was nine years old, in 2004, and has lived in Manchester ever since. The Immigration Rules state that if a person under 25 has spent over half of their life in the UK, they should qualify for regularisation – so long as they have a clean record and can prove ‘continuous residence’.

It was the ‘continuous residence’ part that caught Michael out. He visited Nigeria when he was 11, for a few weeks over the summer holidays. That trip, and the fact he had re-entered the UK with a new visa, meant the clock was re-started again. And so, eleven years later, Michael was detained. He was kept in prison-like conditions for nearly a year. Last night, he was deported.

I visited him twice in detention. It was only twice and now I wish it’d been more. Or maybe not. We spoke about the area of Manchester where my mum grew up, about the street where he lived. We worked out that the two were just a few blocks away.

We spoke about the barbers we both knew in Old Trafford, about school, immigration control, detention, my PhD and about music. He had been listening to Sade the night before on his stereo, which I thought was cool, and had spent the morning in the gym. He did not elaborate on his mental health, but intimated that detention had worn him down, had changed him.

At this stage, I still thought he might get out.

Michael did not have a criminal record, not that he would have been less deserving if he had. ‘Overstayers’ and ‘criminals’ are juridical categories, products of the state’s power to classify us; and to enforce these classifications with (extra)ordinary violence. But his not being ‘a criminal’ did mean I thought he’d get out.

A lot could be said about Michael’s deportation and what it reveals about the UK’s immigration regime. Firstly, the fact that he was ineligible for ‘Leave to Remain’, despite having lived in the UK since he was in primary school, reflects how draconian the system has become. Michael fell foul of the ‘continuous residence’ rules, and this is a widespread problem. Simply proving your continuous residence – i.e. that you have lived in Britain continuously, every month of every year – is incredibly difficult. This is the story for those Caribbean migrants (if they can still be called migrants) who have lived in the UK for decades yet now face the threat of removal.

Michael’s case also reveals that non-citizens cannot access justice. He would probably have been able to avoid deportation if a decent lawyer had taken his case on a couple of years ago. But legal aid has been decimated, and he ended up with a lawyer who made bad, lazy decisions, which made things much harder later on.

It is not only legal aid but the slashing of appeal rights that makes these cases hard to win. The Home Office has become very good at preventing people from lodging appeals. After all, appeals frustrate removal. For example, Michael was not given flight directions in advance. Instead, he was given a three-month removal window, so that, at any stage in those three months, the Home Office could put him on a flight without warning. This makes organising your legal defence, and your thoughts and emotions, impossible. In early January, Michael was getting hopeful because his removal window was nearly up, and he planned to apply to be released on bail. But the Home Office simply extended the window — no doubt because a charter flight had been scheduled.

Immigration control is defined by controls over temporality – over how long you can stay and how long you need to be resident before you can regularise. Illegality is experienced as an ‘enforced orientation to the present…the revocability of the promise of the future’. Time goes slowly for those waiting for Home Office decisions, and then speeds up when they are detained. Time might slow down again once a person is locked up, and then suddenly speed up in the days leading up to removal, when there is no longer enough time. This is deliberate. And it is torture.

There is so much more that could be said about Michael’s deportation. We could talk about how charter flights are the immigration system’s most brutal and terrifying instrument. About how they rely on enforcement sweeps in the weeks leading up to flights, with tens of people detained while dutifully signing at reporting centres. After all, charter flights are expensive. Seats need to be filled.

We should definitely talk about the neo-colonial bilateral relations on which these charter flights depend.** We could talk about the British government funding a prison wing in Lagos so that ‘foreign criminals’ can be deported ‘back home’ earlier. We could talk about prisoner transfer agreements reached with Ghana. When the UK says that such agreements work because of the countries’ ‘similar legal systems and practices’, we see that deportation relies on and reproduces a suffocating colonial amnesia. Asking the simple question, ‘who built these prisons’ might be the starting point for a different analysis.

But right now, all I can think about is how much I like Michael. How I sort of imagined seeing him in Manchester when all this was done and he had his leave to remain. How he would be a person I had helped, sort of, to not get deported – to not be another young man I came to know in the context of the catastrophe that is deportation: the banishment, forced separation and isolation.

There are others, tens of others, flying with Michael right now. None of them want to leave the UK, and their families and their communities, behind. None of them want to “return” to Nigeria or to Ghana, countries where some of them know nobody at all.

There was a charter flight to Nigeria and Ghana two months ago. There will be another one in two months. There will be further charter flights to Albania, Pakistan, and Jamaica in the coming weeks.*** I won’t know anyone on those flights. But as with Michael, each deportation will do unknowable, unthinkable damage in the lives of individuals and families.

There are many ways to destroy people – individuals, families, communities – and racism is one concept we use to capture that violence. How can these deportations not be connected to race? We know why the policies are popular. We know why Nigerians move to the UK and not the other way around. We know why they are unwanted here. We know why tens of West Africans restrained and forced onto planes feels uncomfortable. And we know that deportation means expulsion from home rather than a return to one.

A couple of months ago, I really thought Michael would get out. I thought he would be able to stay with his mum, his brothers, his friends; with his memories, his home, his place.

I thought him staying would help me deal with the fact that most people in his situation do not.

I was wrong. And so now I am writing. It is ten past midnight and Michael is in the air, on his way to Nigeria. And I am just so sorry.

* Not his real name ** And I will do so in another piece soon. *** It is important to note that most people are removed from the UK on commercial flights.