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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. 


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.

Comment | Waiting for the Barbarian: We can’t allow Trump’s UK visit to distract us from our own shameful treatment of migrants

Mon, 2017-12-18 16:30

Anyone familiar with horror films will recognize the following scenario: a group of people are being terrorised by a monster/serial killer/alien.  They find a hiding place and fortify it. All their attention is focused on keeping the intruder out. Not until it’s too late do they discover that the monster is already inside the building.

There is something of this trope in the response of the UK public to the political horror film starring the orange-haired beast known as Donald J. Trump. 

Last week a poll revealed that 1 in 10 people would be willing to protest against a putative ‘working visit’ from Donald Trump next year on a date that has yet to be determined. It is still not certain that this visit is even going to take place. Yet already the community networks that helped organise last February’s Stop Trump/Stand Up to Trump protests are bracing themselves for the occasion and putting dates into their diaries.

On one level this response is admirable. It’s a healthy sign that so many people are willing to disregard the grovelling decision by May and her hapless cronies to invite Trump anywhere near these shores. But we should not allow the beast in the White House to distract us from our own political monsters already in our midst. Because like Godot, Trump may not come. And as far as migrants in the UK are concerned, Trump is by no means the most pressing threat that this country faces right now.

On the contrary, for the past eighteen months the lives and futures of 4.4 million people have been placed in limbo as a result of Brexit – and more particularly by the stunningly cynical decision of our own government to use EU citizens as bargaining chips in its cack-handed negotiations with the European Union.

Right now, the UK government is implementing a ‘hostile environment’ policy, which is intended to strip ‘illegal immigrants’ of the basic components of survival in a modern society, from healthcare, driving licenses, bank accounts, to the right to rent a place to live.  

Until it was declared illegal by the High Court last week, this policy was extended to include EU citizens — who are not technically ‘illegal’— have become homeless. Last week, a Polish man who reported to the police that he and his wife had been terrorised by their landlord was arrested and placed in detention prior to deportation. Last week the Nigerian boxer Bilal Fawaz, who once boxed for England, was told he would be deported. Two weeks ago, the Home Office told a Jamaican woman who has been living here for fifty years that she would have to return to her “own” country. Every week — indeed, almost every day — the Home Office makes ‘mistakes’ like this.

The UK is unique in Europe in that it has a policy of unlimited detention. According to the Children’s Commissioner for England, some 15,000 children are permanently separated from their parents as members of “Skype families” — as a result of being subjected to the arbitrary income thresholds imposed on married couples by the UK government. 

The vicious treatment of migrants by the British state is, to some extent, a product of a more general hostility towards immigrants and immigration that has become powerfully embedded in the British media, the public and the political class, and which reached a dismal apotheosis in the Brexit referendum. 

You will have to look a long way to find much condemnation of these developments by British politicians. Even the Labour Party in its current, more leftist, incarnation, has largely kept a distance from the May government’s scandalous refusal to guarantee the rights of EU nationals, fearful as it still is of being seen as ‘soft’ on immigration or unresponsive to those famous ‘concerns’ on which Labour believes its political future will be decided.

Indeed, Corbyn and his circle often appear alarmingly willing to accept arguments from the ‘Lexit’ left, not only in regards to the EU’s supposedly ‘hardwired neoliberalism’, but also in respect to migrants and migration. A significant section of the Labour movement continues to regard EU migrants as a problem, to be dealt with by restricting or even rescinding the free movement of people — one of the great progressive achievements of the European Union — regardless of the fact that labour exploitation of migrant workers is liable to be easier without free movement. 

One section of the left — most notably represented by the Communist Party and Trade Unionists Against the EU, an organisation part-funded by Arron Banks — continues to depict migrants as if they were little more than vapid commodities shifted from one country to another by ‘the bosses’ — an argument that in its worst incarnations, dovetails neatly with the UKIP narrative of a culturally beleaguered (white) working class marginalised in its own heartland by the neoliberal bureaucrats in Brussels.

We shouldn’t be entirely surprised by this. Trump and Trumpism are products of many of the same political forces that were instrumental in driving Brexit: ethnonationalism, anti-immigrationism, xenophobia, nostalgia for a vanished ‘greatness’, cultural anxieties about national identity and loss of white status, and outright racism, a populist rage against ‘elites’ that has too easily emboldened and legitimised the exclusion, persecution and ‘othering’ of foreigners – or people who ‘look like’ foreigners.

All these forces were present during the referendum and have continued to course alarmingly through our body politic. It’s not for nothing that Trump and even his failed nominee Judge Roy Moore have praised Brexit, or that Arron Banks and Nigel Farage rushed off to Trump Towers within weeks of Trump’s election, or that Farage has campaigned for Moore and idolizes Steve Bannon. These are all chips off the same old far-right bloc, lubricating fake revolts against the ‘ establishment’ by stoking a steady drip-drip of hatred — whether directed at Muslims. immigrants or foreigners — and we should not need Trump to remind us of their existence.

Many UK opponents of Trump have rightly condemned the violence and the potential for violence in Trump’s rhetoric and in the actions of some of his supporters. But over here, we have had an MP shot dead as a ‘traitor’ by a follower of the same movement whose videos Trump has just retweeted. We have regular death threats directed against any prominent figure who appears to be getting in the way of Brexit — or who even has the temerity to suggest that Brexit should be subjected to parliamentary scrutiny. When that person happens to be a woman — and a woman of colour at that, as is the case with Gina Miller — such threats come marinated in a savage mixture of sexism and racism.

Yet when Miller revealed a few months ago that she was thinking of leaving the country because of the threats made against her family, no major political figure saw fit to denounce this state of affairs. Arron Banks, the architect of Leave.eu, even joked about it.

The abuse directed against Miller, high court judges and Tory ‘rebels’ is just the most prominent expression of the rage that burst across the country during the referendum. According to a recent survey by Migrants Rights Network, hate crimes have risen by 29 percent in the last twelve months. Anecdotally, EU citizens and even third- or fourth-generation migrant-heritage UK citizens routinely report verbal and even physical violence, as well as incidents in which they have been told to ‘go back where they came from.’

Such tendencies are not entirely new. Racists may feel emboldened by the referendum, but they were not created by it. Only today, Bristol police and town council were accused by the Safer Bristol Partnership (SBP) of ‘institutional racism’ for the way they responded to the horrific murder of Iranian refugee Bidram Ebrahimi, who was beaten to death in 2013 after being wrongly suspected of paedophilia.  

Once again, we should not need a ‘working visit’ from Donald Trump to galvanise us to act in response to these developments. Yet Trump’s grotesque barbarity often seems to eclipse the everyday barbarities that have become part and parcel of the post-referendum UK.

As one of the organisers of the 1 Day Without Us campaign in solidarity with UK migrants, I’ve seen how difficult it is to persuade people to stand up alongside the migrants who are already here. When we organised our first day of action, last February, the Stop Trump campaign  declared its own ‘Day of Action’ on the same day. To their credit, the organisers of the campaign went to great lengths to highlight at their event the issues we were already raising, and to include them within their own anti-Trump message. But it should not have needed Donald Trump to bring this about, and the UK’s shameful treatment of migrants should not be added as an afterthought.

Next year we are planning another day of action around the slogan ‘Proud to be a migrant/Proud to stand with migrants.’ We are asking people to join us – not just to ‘Stop Trump’ but to stand with and for the migrants who live in our communities across the country. We are asking them to help us reclaim the word ‘migrant’ from the debased coinage that it has become in UK political discourse, and turn it into a source of pride.

In the face of ever-more strident demands from the ethnonationalist right for a monocultural, migrant-free UK, we are asking the public to celebrate and embrace the society that the UK has become – diverse, open, multicultural and multi-ethnic.

If Trump is foolish enough to come to the UK, by all means let’s see hundreds of thousands of people in the streets to say that we reject his politics. But it’s worth remembering that when he has gone, this country will be the same as it was before. And, right now, as we scan the horizon for the monster who may or may not come shambling towards us, we ought to bear in mind that we have our own monsters to fight, that many people are threatened by them, and that our solidarity will always be incomplete until we stand with them.

Analysis | ‘Greater Jerusalem’ and beyond: The Netanyahu-Trump Doctrine is Under Way

Mon, 2017-12-11 14:43

A few weeks before US President, Donald Trump, announced his country’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a debate was raging in the Israeli Knesset.

A Knesset Bill that would have annexed major illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank was abruptly postponed. Media reports indicated that the deferment of the vote was the result of behind-the-scenes US pressure. The so-called ‘Greater Jerusalem law’ was surprisingly shelved, for now, despite the fact that it enjoyed the backing of a majority of Israeli lawmakers.

But why would the Trump Administration, which has offered full backing and support to the rightwing government of Benjamin Netanyahu pressure the latter in any way? And why would Netanyahu cordially oblige?

In fact, ‘Greater Jerusalem’ is hardly a controversial topic in Israel, and the process to achieve that long-planned design has been in full motion for years.

The delayed bill called for expanding the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem to include major illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including Ma’aleh Adumim and the Gush Etzion settlement cluster. Moreover, it endeavored to bring 150,000 Jewish settlers into Jerusalem as eligible voters, who would have naturally tipped the political scene more to the right. Concurrently, the law would have further demoted the status of 100,000 Palestinians, who would find themselves in a politically gray area.

Yet, Netanyahu conceded to the purported US pressure. Curiously, the reaction of his rightwing constituency was largely muted. Why would that be the case?

Prevailing political analysis at the time concluded that the Trump Administration made the request to postpone the vote on the bill so as not to torpedo efforts by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, aimed at restarting some kind of ‘peace process’. Unlike previous talks, the new ones would center around the concept of ‘regional peace’, or, what Trump referred to as the ‘ultimate deal‘.

Trump’s Middle East ‘vision’ is different from the traditional US political framework in the sense that it espoused secretive multiparty deals, as opposed to open unliteral talks. In the new formula, Palestinian rights and demands would be marginalized, with Saudi-Israeli-US interests lying elsewhere, namely on pushing back — as they see it — Iranian expansionism in the region.

Yet, to the surprise of many, including members of Trump’s own administration, he did something else entirely. He agreed to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thus violating international law regarding the status of the occupied city.

“I have determined that it is time to officially recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Trump said in Washington on December 6. The US president has done what many had asked him not to do. But the truth is, US foreign policy has been bankrupt for years. It was never fair, nor did it ever intend to be so.

Trump merely pulled the plug, not only on the so-called peace process, two-state solution, ‘land-for-peace formula’ but also all the other tired clichés that have been long dead.

Trump’s announcement has also laid to rest the illusion that the US was ever keen on achieving a just and lasting peace between Israel and its neighbours.

If Trump continues to advocate his ‘ultimate deal’, his decision on Jerusalem signals that he wants to do this with or without a Palestinian leadership on board.

With the Saudis and Egyptians already showing willingness to participate in the US regional designs, Trump might be bold enough to at least try.

This leaves the Palestinian leadership in a very tight spot. What is left to be said by those who have placed the Palestinian national project of liberation on hold for nearly three decades, waiting for the US to fulfill its self-designated role of an ‘honest peace broker’?

The Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas declared a ‘day of rage’ in response to Trump’s announcement. This politics of ‘rage’ is a way to deflect attention from the real crisis at hand: the fact that the Palestinian Authority (PA) has miserably failed in leasing the fate of Palestine to Washington, and, by extension to Israel as well.

Some are arguing that the two-state solution is not US property to keep or give away, and that Palestinians can continue to advocate what seems to them to be the most plausible solution. 

However, the unpleasant truth is that the ‘two-state solution’ in its current form was itself an American formulation, part of a larger framework that was championed mostly by the US as it pushed Israelis and Palestinians to the ‘negotiation table’ since the Madrid Talks in 1991.

Surely, there will be others who will attempt to continue playing that role, but what difference can Paris and London, for example, make if Tel Aviv and its powerful Washington benefactors have no interest in the subject whatsoever?

Despite the initial doubts over whether Trump will go through with his decision to relocate the US embassy, his announcement should not come as a complete surprise.

Between the hasty American withdrawal from Iraq, the ‘pivot to Asia’, the ‘leading from behind’ doctrine throughout the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, and the failure to press Netanyahu on freezing the illegal settlements in Occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank, US policies have been growing bankrupt and futile for some time.

This paved the road for a new type of thinking, one that moves away from pandering to Israel, while paying lip service to peace, to wholly embracing the Israeli political discourse and future outlook.

In fact, Trump’s announcement was a tamed version of his statement before the Israel lobby last year. In March 2016, Republican presidential candidate Trump delivered his famous speech before the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Of the many false claims and dangerous promises Trump made, a particular passage stood unique, for it offered early clues to what the future administration’s policy on Israel and Palestine would look like.

“When the United States stands with Israel, the chances of peace really rise and rises exponentially. That’s what will happen when Donald Trump is president of the United States,” he declared.

“We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem,” he announced. The mixed cheers and applause were deafening.

Now that Trump is president, he inherited a failed Middle East policy from his predecessor, a policy that Trump finds of no benefit to his administration. What truly matters to the new president is the support of the very constituency that brought him to the White House in the first place. The rightwing, conservative, Christian-evangelical constituency remains the foundation of his troubled presidency. 

So, on December 4, Trump picked up the phone and began calling Arab leaders, informing them of his decision to announce a move that has been delayed for many years: relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Arabs fumed, or needed to play that part, for such a move would surely create further destabilisation in a region that has been taken on a destructive course for years. Much of that instability is the outcome of misguided US policies, predicated on unwarranted wars and blind support for Israel.

Recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is the last straw in an ailing discourse. The US Middle East political framework of the past is collapsing to the confusion of US allies in the region, and, of course, to the pleasure of Israel.

In fact, Trump’s decision constitutes a total US reversal in its approach towards the entire Middle East, considering that Palestine and Israel have been at the center of most of the region’s conflicts.

There are factors that made this embassy move an attractive option for the Trump administration: 

The US is currently experiencing unprecedented political instability. Talks of impeaching the president are gaining momentum, while his officials are being paraded before Department of Justice investigators to answer to various accusations, including collusion with foreign powers. 

Under such circumstances, there is no decision or issue that Trump can approach without finding himself in a political storm — except one: Israel.

Being pro-Israel has historically united the US’s two main parties, the Congress, mainstream media and many Americans, particularly those in Trump’s political base.

Indeed, when Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, back in 1995, Trump’s interest in politics was quite haphazard and entirely personal.

At  the time, Congress had gone even further. Attempting to twist the arm of the White House, it added a clause, giving the administration till May 1999 to carry out the Congress’s diktats or face a 50 percent cut in the State Departments’ budget allocated to “Acquisition and Maintenance of Buildings Abroad.”

To avoid violating the Congress’ public law, and to maintain a thread, however thin, of credibility, every US president has signed a six-month waiver; a loophole in the law that allowed the White House to postpone the relocation of the embassy.

Fast forward to Trump’s AIPAC speech. His pledge to move the embassy seemed, at the time, merely frivolous and opportunistic. Clearly, that was the wrong assessment.

Collusion between Trump’s team and Israel began even before he walked into the Oval House. In December 2016, President-elect Trump worked together with the Netanyahu administration to undermine UN efforts to pass a resolution condemning Israel’s continued illegal settlement in the Occupied Territories, including Jerusalem.

Chosen to lead the ‘peace’ efforts was no other than Jared Kushner, a Trump family member and a good friend of Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump’s dedication to Israel was clearly not fleeting.

Trump has finally decided to shed a mask that every US president has worn for decades. And by doing so, the US will, oddly enough, negate the paradoxical role it had carved for itself over the past 50 years – that of “peacemaker”.

Netanyahu now may resume with his plans to expand the borders of Jerusalem. His ‘Greater Jerusalem’ dream is increasing becoming a reality.

Comment | Occupation, Dispossession, Apartheid: These are the realities unmasked by Trump’s Jerusalem speech

Fri, 2017-12-08 09:50

IDF soldiers lead a blindfolded Palestinian boy away at protests in Hebron.

President Trump creates his own reality. Climate change is a myth because he thinks it is. Targeting Muslims travelling to the US is not discriminatory. And now he wants us to believe that declaring Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel, overturning decades of US policy that reflects the international consensus, will advance peace.
But it is what he didn’t say yesterday that spoke volumes about his position on the status of Jerusalem. In particular, there were two crucial things missing from his White House announcement: first, any recognition of international law; second, any acknowledgement of the rights and legitimate claims of the Palestinian people.

In 1980, when Israel attempted to legitimise its annexation of East Jerusalem by passing a bill through the Knesset, the international community acted swiftly to condemn its actions as illegal. UN Security Council resolutions 476 and 478 identified the annexation as a violation of the 4th Geneva Convention and resolved that no States should locate their embassies in Jerusalem.

Every State has respected that Resolution and successive US Presidents have, every six months, signed a waiver under the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, which called for the US to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate its Embassy, thus preventing the process from beginning.

In supporting Trump’s decision, Israel and its dwindling allies across the world have pushed the narrative of the historical importance of Jerusalem to the Jewish people and its place as the centre of Jewish spiritual life. These are, of course, true. But it is equally true that Jerusalem is central to Palestinian life, politically, spiritually and culturally.

Over 300,000 Palestinians reside in East Jerusalem, which was unlawfully and unilaterally annexed by Israel in 1967, and the Palestinian economy cannot function without the city. In short, there is no viable Palestinian state that does not have East Jerusalem as its capital; a point widely accepted by the international community. 

President Trump framed his speech as a simple acknowledgement of reality; meaning, surely, the reality established on the ground by Israel through the application of brute force: An illegal 50-year long occupation, the demolition of Palestinian homes, the denial of residency rights to Palestinian Jerusalemites, and the building of illegal settlements— all designed to maintain a Jewish majority in Jerusalem and privilege the rights of Jewish people over those of Palestinians.

This is naked realpolitik. The message to the Palestinians is clear: wake up and smell the coffee. Israel has colonised your land and established control over your lives. Accept your fate.

However, Trump may have helped remove some of the myths that have sustained western policy-making towards Israel and Palestine for decades: that there is a peace process towards a ‘two-state solution’, one to which Israel is fully committed and which can be achieved without any meaningful pressure on Israel to comply with international law; and that the US can be an honest broker of this process.

Oct 13th 2017, IDF soldiers arrest minors arrested in Hebron (Source: btselem)

The reality is that Israel is not committed to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. This has been clear for many decades, during which Israel has relentlessly colonised East Jerusalem and the West bank whilst paying lip service to the two-state solution.

This is true not only of the Netanyahu government but also of the so-called ‘progressive’ opposition  in Israel, chiefly represented by the Labour Party. Its Leader, Avi Gabbay, recently opposed the removal of any settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This week he welcomed President Trump’s speech with great enthusiasm, and proclaimed that Jerusalem would remain the undivided capital of Israel in any future agreement between Israel and Palestine.

If Israel is allowed to continue with its programme of colonisation then the reality will be either an apartheid state that privileges the rights of Jewish citizens above those of Palestinians and others, or a democratic state that respects the equal rights of all.

The essential message Trump wanted to deliver to the world was that it is time to accept reality. It is indeed, but not in the way he suggests. The reality the world faces is the existence of a 21st century apartheid state; unless we are prepared to act now and start to place meaningful sanctions on Israel.

An A to Z of Theory | Hakim Bey: Chaos, altered consciousness, and peak experiences

Thu, 2017-12-07 09:05

Ontological anarchist Hakim Bey argues that chaos is ontologically primary.  Meaning can only be produced subjectively, through self-valorisation. In this third essay of the series, I explore the role of peak experience and altered consciousness in ontological anarchism. I examines how immediacy can provide a basis for resistance to alienation, explore Bey’s ethical theories, and look at whether social life is still possible if outer order is rejected.

The orientation to chaos leads to a political theory of altered consciousness. In order to be felt as really meaningful and existing, something needs to interact with the body and with imagination. It needs to exist in the ‘imaginal’ realm – the realm of images, unconscious archetypes, and imagination. Bey seeks an intensification of everyday life – a situation in which marvellous, ecstatic, intense, passionate forces enter into life. The passions are not pale shadows of higher realities, as in Platonism, but are themselves supernatural realities. Everyday life can be raised or sublimated to ‘a degree of intensity approaching full presence, full embodiment – and yet still indistinct… an erotic dream of a utopian landscape’. A TAZ is a case of life ‘spending itself in living‘, rather than simply surviving. It can entail risking the abyss. This position involves a particular kind of affective politics. Bey clearly sees boredom or lack of meaning as the major problem in contemporary life.

Bey also proposes a particular path to creating meaning. Chaos means that anything ones does must be ‘founded on nothing‘. No solid groundings are possible. Yet still, we need projects, because we are not ourselves ‘nothing’. The project which remains is an uprising against everything that posits an essential nature of things. Anarchism is faced with a philosophical problem deriving from the contradiction between meaninglessness and ethics. It seeks a ‘right way to live‘ in an ‘absurd universe’. In ‘The Palimpsest‘, Bey distinguishes between theory – which drifts nomadically – and ideology, which is rigid, and creates cities and moral laws.

Ideology re-orders the world from outside, whereas theory refuses to let go of desire and thus creates organic movements. Theory is like a palimpsest, in which different texts are written over one another. The idea of theory as a palimpsest comes from Derrida. However, Bey is looking for ‘bursts of light’, moments of intensity, rather than Derridean ironies. He is seeking values, or the creative capacity to create values out of desires. Bey’s style of theory aims to be a ludic (play-based) approach. It is not moral relativism in the usual sense. A viewpoint is given value by a kind of subjective teleology – the individual’s search for purposes, goals, and objects of desire. The epistemology (way of learning and knowing) associated with this theory will involve juxtaposing distinct elements, rather than developing them consistently. 

Awareness of chaos is intensified by altered states of consciousness and intense experiences, including those arising from psychedelic drugs, shamanism, meditation, and aestheticised living. Such practices are ways of sucking everything present into the Other World, the spiritual or chaotic world. They are attempts to reconnect with ‘original intimacy‘, prior to cognition. Without such ‘higher states of consciousness‘, anarchism dries up in resentment and misery. Hence the need for an anarchism both mystical and practical. Bey lists a wide range of possible sources of such intense, unmediated perception, including inspiration, danger, architecture, drink and sexuality. One passage refers to Iranian poetry set to music and chanted or sung, producing an affect known as hal – somewhere between hyperawareness and an aesthetic mood. Another passage refers to the techniques of heretics and mystics, seeking inner liberation. Some such techniques get trapped in religion, whereas others become revolutionary. Bey uses the term ‘magic’ or ‘sorcery‘ for practices which cultivate altered awareness and disrupt the false selves that result from ordinary perception. A sorcerer recognises the reality of consciousness. This leads to a state of intoxication. Sorcery is a set of means to sustain this state of being, and expand it to other people. 

Such practices produce a particular relationship to the universe. True mysticism creates what Bey calls a ‘self at peace‘, a ‘self with power’. Awareness of the ‘immanent oneness of being’ is at the root of various anarchistic heresies such as the Ranters and Assassins. Another passage (from the Black Fez Manifesto) refers to the ‘potential of an idleness money can’t buy, the thrill of zilch, the zen of ZeroWork’. This idleness, ‘natural to childhood, must be strenuously defended’. Bey effectively calls for us to avoid being broken-in by capitalism, to remain in or return to a childhood orientation to play and immediacy. A shaman of bard uses a combination of words, music and archetypes to create altered consciousness. Everyone is an artist, but not necessarily all of the same type. Some might specialise in the ‘grand integrative powers of creativity‘ or telling the ‘central stories’ of the group. Such integration by bards is posited as an alternative to integration by laws.

Many fields of life are already inflected with altered consciousness. Hermetic powers have been appropriated by dominant institutions. The means to prevent such capture is to insist that each adept control the powers, rather than be manipulated through them. Bey periodically refers to Bakhtin’s ‘material bodily principle‘, or the valuing of the body in carnival, as typical of intensity. He counterposes the celebration of the body to gnostic body-hatred, which he believes is prevalent in the Spectacle. In a poem, Wilson suggests that animals already practice zerowork economics. 

Bey suggests that language does not have to be representational. The structure of language may turn out to be chaotic, or complex and dynamic. Grammar might be a strange attractor, rather than a structuring law. Language is a bridge (of translation or metaphor) and not a structure of resemblance. Language should be ‘angelic‘ – similar to the figure of the angel as messenger or intermediary. It should carry magic between self and other. Instead it is infected with a virus of sameness and alienation. This virus is the source of the master-signifier in language. 

In many ways, Bey’s work can be understood as a theory of alienation. Alienation (whether social, psychological or ecological) separates us from awareness of, and life in, ontological chaos. For instance, belief in order leads to normativities of good and evil, body-shame, and so on. The family is criticised for encouraging miserliness with love. Christianity, even in its liberationist variants, is condemned. The point is to seize back presence from the absence created by abstraction. Life belongs neither to past nor future, but to the present. Idealised pasts and futures are rejected as barriers to presence. Time can become authentic and chaotic by being released from planned grids. 

Bey criticises negative ontology, in which he apparently includes much of poststructuralism, for flattening reality onto a single, level plain. This process makes altered consciousness and escape from capitalism difficult. Everything becomes equally meaningless. Negative consciousness is a predictable effect of the present system. But for Bey it is a kind of ‘spook-sickness’ caused by alienation. It serves the status quo, because it keeps people afraid, and reliant on leaders for salvation. This makes attacks on leaders seem stupid. It creates a binary between pointless action and sensible passivity. This argument is similar to my own work on theories of constitutive lack.

Chaos is misappropriated when used as a scientific basis for death, as nihilism, or for scams. Chaos is everywhere, and so is unsaleable. At one point, Bey argues that both New Age spirituality and religious fundamentalisms derive their power from the spiritual emptiness of modern life. However, they divert the rejection of emptiness into new abstractions – commodification in the New Age, morality in fundamentalism. Escaping spiritual emptiness instead requires escaping abstractions.

Bey specifically rejects the view of chaos as lack, entropy, or nihilism. Instead, he argues that chaos is Tao, or continual creation. It is a field of potential energy rather than exhaustion, of everything rather than nothing. Bey speaks of moments when he’s overcome the feeling of powerlessness and futility. He writes that these are the only times he breaks through into a state of consciousness which feels like health. In other words, action is necessary to disalienate, even if it has no outer effect. Existence is a meaningless abyss. Yet this is not cause for pessimism. Rather, it leads to an open world in which we can create or bestow meaning through action, play, and will. 

Bey seeks to make an offer of disalienation, which, once felt, breaks the functioning of capitalism. Even a few moments of joy may be worth considerable sacrifice. Awareness of the holism of being, or ‘metanoia‘, can go beyond categorised thinking into smooth, nomadic, or chaotic thinking and perception. Bey denies that he is pointing to a secret which he is refusing to share. Rather, the material bodily principle is secret because it is forgotten. The body is degraded both by the world of images and by bodily narcissism. 

Immediacy, or presence, is a central concept for Bey. Immediacy is valued as a counterpoint to representation and simulation – which are definitive of the dominant system. Immediacy can also be expressed in or through representation, by means of chaotic processes which disrupt order. The spirituality of pleasure, as Bey terms it, exists only in a presence which disappears if it is represented. In Bey’s reading of religious imperatives, such imperatives are not outer impositions but a kind of inner choice – to live fully, or to risk dying without having lived. The point seems to be to experience chaos as play, rather than trauma. ‘The universe’, Bey states at one point, ‘wants to play‘. One loses one’s humanity or divinity if one refuses to play. People sometimes refuse to play due to alienated motives ranging from dull anguish to greed to contemplation. The ‘magic’ practices of Bey’s politics are ways of experiencing chaos in a suitably joyful way. In Scandal, Wilson argues that one can handle pain, suffering and negative emotions by ritualising them, turning them into reversible symbols. Cultures also symbolise and channel the potentially destructive power of Eros. Bey insists that this approach does not deny that there are ugly, frightening things in the world.  However, many of these can be overcome. They can only be overcome if people build an aesthetic from overcoming rather than fear. If one reads history through ‘both hemispheres‘ – meaning both affectively and logically – then one realises the world constantly undergoes death and rebirth. 

If life is chaos, then Bey’s response is what he sometimes terms ‘aimless wandering‘ or nomadism, and compares to the Situationist drive and Sufi ‘journeying’. Nomadism, along with the Uprising, provides a model for everyday life. In Sacred Drift, Wilson invokes the figure of the ‘rootless cosmopolitan’, a Stalinist slander against Jews, as a general modern strategy. People wander or drift today because nothing fixes them in place or commands fixed loyalties. This process of movement is also a kind of psychological nomadism which moves among different bodies of theory. There is an ambiguity in that, since being is oneness, journeys start and end in the same place. 

For Bey, life is to be lived through peak experiences, and conviviality. The peak experience becomes the goal of aimless wandering, much like a shrine is the goal of a pilgrimage. Bey’s concept of peak experience is modified from Maslow’s. Against the false unity of a flattened, commodified world, Bey argues for disloyalty to the dominant culture and nomadic movement among different alternatives. 

In a poem in the Black Fez Manifesto, Bey cites Ibn Khaldun’s view that nomads who awake at night to see the stars are like animals reassured the universe is still there. But he adds that city-dwellers who awake similarly while on a trip are sucked into ‘panic’ and ‘freefall’. The point here seems to be that the experience of chaos is negative only because of the habits and alienation of modern subjects. Embracing chaos is not a loss in itself, but seems as such from a certain point of view, because of a lack of familiarity with chaos. Modernity or the Enlightenment tries to blot out the stars with light pollution, to destroy the vitality of night. Night here symbolises a type of energy associated with smooth space and altered consciousness. In a related piece, Bey calls for a ‘Bureau of Endarkenment’ to encourage superstitions about technologies such as cars and electricity. 

Ethics and society

Like other post-left and politics-of-desire writers, Bey rejects normativity and top-down morality. Instead, he argues for a type of immanent ethics based on one’s own desire and ethos. In a fragment on crime, Bey defines justice as action in line with spontaneous nature. He argues that it cannot be obtained by any law or dogma. The moment someone discovers and acts in line with a mode of being different from alienated reality, the state or ‘law’ tries to crush it. This means that we are all criminals. Instead of claiming martyrdom as victims of persecution, we should admit that our very nature is criminal. 

Ontological freedom stems from ontological chaos. We are already sovereigns in our own skins, by virtue of the absence of order. Freedom is not, therefore, something we have to achieve through revolution or struggle. Freedom is realised in the experience of intensity, or emotion experienced to the point of being overwhelmed. Bey supports Fourier’s idea that unrepressed passions provide the only basis for social harmony. However, people also seek other sovereigns (i.e. other autonomous subjects) for relations. Reciprocity, or pleasure with others, is the non-predatory expansion of intensity. It is a kind of eros of the social. In one passage, Bey argues that ‘each of us owns half the map‘, so finding intensity is often a cooperative activity. He suggests that the self/other or individual/group contradictions are false dichotomies created by the Spectacle. Self and other are complementary. The Ego and Society are absolutes which do not exist. Rather, people are drawn into complex relations in a field of chaos. Bey refers to Stirner’s union of self-owning ones, Nietzsche’s circle of free spirits, and Fourier’s passional series as inspirations for such relations. They involve processes of redoubling oneself as others also do so. The ‘gratuitous creativity’ of such a group would replace the specialised field of art.

In a sense, Bey is constructing a virtue ethics very different from the usual type, in which virtuous life consists in the pursuit of peak experiences and a type of living compatible with ontological chaos. Some readers see Bey’s politics as emphasising sincerity as a virtue. In such a worldview, enjoyment is almost a moral imperative. One has an obligation to experience joy, and not postpone it to the future or afterlife, so as to do justice to oneself. In Sacred Drift, Wilson argues that this is a prerequisite for doing justice to others. By combining various Sufi theories of disalienation, Bey suggests that we arrive at a position which valorises all kinds of sexualities, both as permitted bodily enjoyment and spiritual practice.

Bey, following Bob Black, favours the abolition of work. The subset of work-like tasks which remain necessary are to become a kind of play for those attracted to them. Bey thinks that relations among autonomous beings might find ways of working themselves out. He sometimes suggests that we are all ‘monarchs’ or ‘sovereigns’. Today we survive as pretenders, but we can still seize a little reality for ourselves. Monarchy is closer to anarchy than other forms of government, because it recognises individual sovereignty. Bey here plays on the Situationist idea of ‘masters without servants’, which is an egalitarian attempt to address hierarchical aspects of Nietzsche.

However, this does not mean that people should optimise their own enjoyment in predatory ways. The point is to realise intensity in altered consciousness, not to appropriate alienated experiences in a maximising way. In ‘The Anti-Caliph‘, Wilson distances his position from ‘libertinism’, in the sense of doing what one likes regardless of others’ values or lives. The difference between an antinomian (Wilson/Bey’s position) and a libertine is that the former acts from a personal ethic. This ethic is considered higher than outer laws and social norms, and thus provides a basis for defying them. Such an ethic is more demanding than normativity or law, since it involves the expansion of the self to include others, rather than self- or other-denial.

‘A freedom or pleasure that rests on someone else’s slavery or misery cannot finally satisfy the self because it is a limitation or narrowing of the self, an admission of impotence, an offence against generosity and justice’.

Bey does not want to realise desires at the expense of others’ misery – not for moral reasons, but because it is self-defeating. Misery breeds misery, and desires to cause misery stem from psychological impoverishment. He is sympathetic to Fourier’s argument that desire is impossible unless all desires are possible. Everyone aspires to certain ‘good things‘ which are available only among free spirits. This is particularly true in cases of love. The spiritual meaning of sexuality, for instance, precludes uncaring, violent and dominating types of sex. Bey thus advocates the destruction of all social relations which treat some as subordinate to or owned by others – including marriage and the family. One’s sexual code should be ‘both highly ethical and highly humane’, valuing both pleasure and conviviality. It should include a spiritual dimension, and not succumb to ‘joyless commodification’ or ‘vulgar materialism’. Such an ethic is distinct from normativity, and continuous with shamanism. For instance, Bey remarks that paganism invents virtues, but not laws.

‘Wrong’ in Bey’s code of ethics means counterproductive and self-immiserating. Causing misery to others is wrong because it is self-defeating (misery breeds misery). Those who immiserate others are in Bey’s experience psychologically poor, and themselves miserable. Bey associates de Sade with fascism – the satisfaction of desires of an elite through the creation of enemies and victims. Against these positions, Bey turns to Fourier’s view that desire is impossible unless all desires are possible. This seems to be partly a response to Bookchin’s critique. It is a similar critique of simple egoism to that found, for instance, in Ancient Greek thought, which similarly argued for ethical positions without assuming a standpoint higher than the self.

Other passages also emphasise the relational aspect of chaos and becoming. For instance, Bey argues that speech is dialogical or ‘diadic’ in structure. It relies on a pairing of speaker and hearer, and this pairing can be reversed. In Sacred Drift, Wilson argues for reciprocity, sharing, mutual benefit, and harmony, instead of either quarrelling or submitting. In ‘Utopian Blues‘, he claims that utopia is a unity, not a uniformity. It is based on something like Fourier’s idea of harmonisation – a combination of widely different people and desires, through each pursuing their own attractions. Utopian desire ‘never comes to an end, even – or especially – in utopia’. 

The primary conflict of the current world is the conflict between the authority of the tyrant and the authority of the realised self. In Ec(o)logues, Wilson claims that social life is to be based on conviviality and creativity, rather than mediation. A key step towards a different way of being is to summon the will to experience other living beings as relatives or relations. The valuation of a different kind of world is crucial here. Many people are forced to live by means of conviviality or social networks due to poverty (for instance, collective squatting). They don’t necessarily value such practices. However, ontological anarchy values such a way of life as preferable to mass consumerism.

At times, the imperative to support chaos and promote freedom lead to ambivalent positions. For instance, Bey is ambivalent about abortion, supporting women’s freedom but desiring that the entropic force of family planning be negated by chaos. This position does not imply optimism about human nature. Bey opposes the view that humans are ‘basically good’. Instead, he argues against others holding power ‘precisely because we don’t trust the bastards’. In another passage in Sacred Drift, he argues that brilliance is not itself desirable. He observes that people can be brilliant for good things like love or humanity, but also for bad things like hatred and self-aggrandisement. In the latter case, there is a need for self-defence against brilliance. The best of human potentiality seems to come out in altered consciousness, whereas capitalism stimulates the worst.

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.

Politics | Susiya: Israel expands plans to demolish almost half of Palestinian village

Wed, 2017-12-06 12:15

(Source: Active Stills)

  • On the 22ndNovember, the Israeli State Attorney’s Office announced a plan to demolish 20 buildings within 15 days in the West Bank village of Susiya, which represent one-fifth of Susiya village.
  • Today, villagers were reportedly handed a document and map detailing a demolition of 40% of their land.
  • The demolition will violate the fundamental human rights of many of the villagers, half of them children.  
  • The village’s health clinic, which provides health services for around 500 people, is among the buildings under threat.

Susiya is located in the South Hebron Hills, in Area C of the southern occupied West Bank. This means that, despite being in Palestine, Israel has complete control over the village. Area C, which contains over 60% of the West Bank, is under full military control, and Israel refuses to issue permits for Palestinian construction.

Susiya: A community at imminent risk of forced displacement. (Source: Mondoweiss/OCHA)

Susiya is considered “illegal” by Israel and has been embroiled in legal battles with the Israeli state for many years; despite the fact that many of the village’s 300 residents have ties to land that predates the creation of Israel, and have Ottoman-era land documents to prove it. In 1986, Israel declared Susiya an archaeological site, displaced its people and demolished their homes. Since then, the villagers have faced multiple demolitions, and Israel has denied all their requests to formally regulate their residence of their land, denying every single request for building permits, including appeals. Susiya’s inhabitants have, therefore, lived under constant threat of expulsion by the Israeli state, leaving them extremely vulnerable.

Israel is actively pursuing a policy of forcibly transferring Palestinians out of many West Bank villages in order to establish illegal Jewish-only settlements in Palestine. One of the tactics used by Israel to force Palestinians off their land is the demolition of homes and essential infrastructure.

On Wednesday 6th December, during the week the demolitions are scheduled to take place, there will be a Parliamentary debate on the effect of Israeli demolitions on Palestinian communities. An Early Day Motion (EDM) has been tabled in response to the demolition order.

Ben Jamal, Director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said:

“These demolitions will expose this farming community not only to the winter weather conditions, but also to the theft of their land by settlers living in the adjacent Israeli settlement; an act which will not be easily reversed. This demolition order, if enacted, will constitute a violation of the most basic human rights of the people of Susiya as well as their most basic humanitarian needs for shelter. The UK government must act now to prevent the demolition of Susiya, and to reject Israel’s policies of denying Palestinians permits to build on their own land, home demolitions, and land theft.”

Politics | New documents reveal GCHQ tried to undermine the independence of its own regulator

Fri, 2017-12-01 06:00

(Source: Privacy International)

In today’s latest hearing in our ongoing legal challenge against the collection of massive troves of our personal data by the UK intelligence agencies, shocking new evidence has emerged about GCHQ’s attempts to yet again avoid proper independent scrutiny for its deeply intrusive surveillance activities.

In a truly breathtaking exchange of letters between the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (“IPCO”) and the Director of Legal Affairs at GCHQ, it has emerged that GCHQ have attempted to undermine legal proceedings against them, as well as the independence of the very body that is tasked with seeing that our intelligence agencies operate lawfully, by suggesting that the government and IPCO should work together to decide together what evidence is submitted during legal proceedings.

GCHQ’s proposals would fundamentally undermine the integrity of legal proceedings as they would mean that IPCO, an independent regulator, would in effect be cooperating with the government during legal actions against the government itself. Sir Adrian Fulford, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner (IPC), rebuffed GCHQ’s proposals, stating that as a robust oversight body “I do not believe this would be appropriate”, and adding that “I do not anticipate any situation where that engagement could be the subject of any form of prior agreement, however transparent, especially with a party [to legal proceedings]that is subject to my oversight”

In the letter from GCHQ to Sir Adrian, dated 8 November 2017, GCHQ proposed a process whereby not only the intelligence agencies but also “wider government” can influence the evidence provided by IPCO to the courts, on issues that are actively being considered in legal proceedings. They refer to this as the ability to “manage any circumstances” which relate to oversight activities. The procedure would enable the agencies and wider government to make “our submission of evidence and presentation of facts or issues” to avoid “misunderstandings” and reduce the issues before the Tribunal.

This disturbing proposition of meetings to agree the IPCO’s evidence in advance of it being disclosed to the Tribunal and to the Claimant, are an anathema to the independence of the organisation only recently established by the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. GCHQ appears at pains to persuade the IPCO that “we would want to suggest nothing that had, or could be seen to have, any impact on the independence of your office or the proper conduct of proceedings”, even though the proposals themselves are clearly an attempt to do just that. The Commissioner, in rejecting this proposition, stated by contrast that the independent nature of his role is “a crucial aspect of the work of my office” and this factor “has significantly underpinned my response to your suggestion.”

(Source: Privacy International)

GCHQ made a second proposition, also rejected, in which they wished to “explore whether in the current cases there may be any appropriate options for resolving any factual issues which may exist in relation to evidence currently before the IPT”, again outside the legal proceedings. The desire of GCHQ to do this should be seen in the context of the IPCO’s recent revelations to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal in Privacy International’s challenge to the intelligence agencies’ collection, retention and use of ‘bulk personal datasets’ and ‘bulk communications data’. At the last hearing, the IPCO revealed for the first time that GCHQ collects bulk personal datasets of our social media data, and confirmed the lack of technical oversight of the intelligence agencies.

GCHQ suggests sharing its letter only “if appropriate”, which the Commissioner has done. In rejecting the proposals, The Commissioner also considered it necessary to provide the exchange to the Tribunal to ensure transparency in the ongoing litigation, stating: “My role (and that of the Judicial Commissioners) in respect of matters before the Tribunal is clearly outlined in section 232 (1) of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. I am required to give the tribunal all such documents, information and other assistance, including my opinion, as the Tribunal may require…I would also say that it is not for my office to attempt to reduce the list of issues before the Tribunal but, rather, comply with our statutory obligations and provide a wholly independent assessment of the material before us.”

It is extraordinary that GCHQ has written to its independent regulator to ask if it and ‘wider Government’ can work together, essentially to head off legal claims. It is a blatant attempt to bury embarrassing evidence and claims against them. They seem to want to avoid the kind of extraordinary disclosures that we had at the last hearing, such as the revelations that the intelligence agencies are collecting massive amounts of information, including from our social media accounts.

GCHQ is in effect suggesting to the IPCO, ‘can we agree your evidence before you give it to the Tribunal, so we avoid anything we don’t like?’. IPCO rightly pushed back against GCHQ’s brazen proposals. Whether the government knew about GCHQ’s indecent proposal to its independent regulator is a mystery.

In short, GCHQ has embarrassed itself publicly in trying to avoid public embarrassment.

If GCHQ believes these are acceptable propositions to make to its new independent regulator, one can only wonder, what did they do under the previous regulatory regime? We are pleased to see the new Commissioner doing his job by expressing in clear terms that his role is to provide a wholly independent assessment of the material before the IPT. Long may it last.

For more info on Privacy international’s campaign against , visit the Privacy International website.

Comment | How many more Yemenis must die before Theresa May stops putting profits before lives?

Thu, 2017-11-30 06:00

“Theresa May was in Riyadh for high-level trade meetings with the world’s largest buyer of UK arms: the Saudi Royal Family.” (Source: SPA)

If there is one word that the UK government likes to use to describe its arms export policy it is ‘rigorous.’ Of course nothing could be further from the truth, but that hasn’t stopped Theresa May and her Cabinet colleagues from wheeling it out time and time again.

It’s a word that was used only yesterday by the First Secretary of State, Damian Green, when filling in for May at Prime Minister’s Questions. He was responding to a pointed question from the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford.

“Obviously I am aware of the current terrible situation in Yemen”, he began, somehow maintaining a straight face, “but he should also recognise that this country has one of the most rigorous and robust defence sales regimes in the world.”

Meanwhile, at the exact same time as Green was talking up the supposed strengths of UK arms export legislation, Theresa May was in Riyadh for high-level trade meetings with the world’s largest buyer of UK arms: the Saudi Royal Family.

Despite the upheaval taking place in the upper-echelons of the Saudi Royal Family, there is little doubt that arms sales were on the agenda.

Talks between Saudi Arabia and BAE Systems have been taking place for quite some time. Only last month, and prior to his resignation, the then Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, was urging opposition MPs to stop criticising the Saudi regime in case it undermined the ongoing negotiations to sell a new batch of fighter jets.

May’s visit comes at a time when the Saudi military is rightly facing condemnation from around the world for the terrible humanitarian crisis it has inflicted on the people of Yemen. Over the last three years, Saudi forces have waged a terrible bombing campaign, which has killed thousands and displaced millions.

Things are getting even worse. The last three weeks have seen the awful bombing campaign complemented by a military blockade, which has stopped vital medical equipment and food from reaching those in need.

There have been small steps to ease the impact, but they don’t go anywhere near far enough. It has created a situation so appalling and dire that even Boris Johnson has called it “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

Regardless of Johnson and May’s concerns, none of this has done nothing to get in the way of pushing arms sales. It has created devastation and tragedy for people on the ground in Yemen, but to the arms dealers it has been a business opportunity.

The UK has licensed over £4.6 billion worth of fighter jets, bombs and missiles since the bombardment began. These include Eurofighter Typhoon jets, which are flying over Yemen, and Paveway IV bombs that are being dropped from the sky.

In that time, Saudi forces have bombed schools, hospitals, homes and even a refugee camp. Last October, 140 people were killed when Saudi forces struck a funeral.

This indiscriminate bombardment has been widely accused of undermining international law, with a United Nations Expert Panel accusing the Saudi military of “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian infrastructure.

Despite the pain and the destruction, not a single arms export licence has even been suspended, let alone revoked. In fact, this September, even as the worst cholera outbreak on record was taking root in Yemen, the Saudi military was being welcomed to London by civil servants and government ministers for the DSEI arms fair.

No matter how intolerable things have become for Yemeni people, the Saudi regime has always been able to count on the unbending and uncritical support of May, Johnson and the rest of their Cabinet colleagues.

Even now, after almost 1000 days of air strikes, and with millions of lives under threat, May and Johnson still can’t bring themselves to do the main things in their power that could help meaningfully the situation: stop the arms sales, which have fuelled this terrible war, and end their fawning support for the Saudi dictatorship.

Books | Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Militant Introvert, by Hamja Ahsan

Sat, 2017-11-25 18:00

“Hamja Ahsan is well versed in the language of struggle — he is an activist, writer, curator and artist.”

This year, separatist claims have resonated globally across a range of contexts. From the brutal ongoing oppression of the Kurds longing for Kurdistan, to Catalonia, subsumed (increasingly violently) within the Spanish state, to the continuing advocacy for Tamil Eelam in the wake of genocidal violence by the Sri Lankan state; separatism is being considered and theorised anew.

These claims are often made on the basis of territory as spaces for self-determination of a ‘people’ bound by culture, history, ethnicity, and/or ‘ties of mutual affection or sentiment.’ They also arise from the unbearable situations in which the self-defining ‘people’ find themselves.

Hamja Ahsan’s book, Shy Radicals: the anti-systemic politics of the militant introvert, draws our attention to a largely unacknowledged, yet ubiquitous oppressed people, whose voices are drowned out by their oppressors and face marginalisation and discrimination across states, class, race, gender and sexuality.

Cruelly, this systematic silencing is abetted by the people’s own preference for solitude and quiet, and fear of public speaking. Ahsan’s book calls for the acknowledgement of the situation of Shy people in an extrovert-supremacist world. It is a perceptive and entertaining analysis of late capitalism’s aggressive invasion of our senses, time and privacy.

The separate state of Aspergistan, the Shy Radicals political project, is imagined as a safe haven for Shy people, introverts and those on the autistic spectrum. It is designed for those who seek a quiet, unharassed existence, free of intrusive advertising, neon and strobe lighting, and compulsory social events. Aspergistan’s Constitution is set out in detail in the first pages of the book, establishing its political and social ideals in articles that are appealing, sensible and very amusing.

Hamja Ahsan is well versed in the language of struggle — he is an activist, writer, curator and artist. He was shortlisted for the Liberty Human Rights awards for the Free Talha Ahsan campaign. His vision of Aspergistan provides a gentle and revealing analysis of structural violence. It is a political project arising from personal experiences (the first line in the acknowledgments is: “This book is written on the back of a lifetime of resentment”). It is also intensely relatable. The promise of Aspergistan will appeal to the bullied, the socially awkward, the introverted, the marginalised and the medicalised, and to all self-identifying Shy and autistic spectrum people. It imagines a world in which we value and give apposite space to ‘alternative,’ quiet and nonconformist ways of being.

In our world of celebrity culture and reactionary politics, where the loudest and often the most obnoxious voices shape public debate and hold political office, this book describes a fictional but compelling project of radical societal transformation.

In a funny and insightful way, Ahsan highlights how power is communicated and attained in social situations and in political performances. The ‘new lexicon of democracy,’ beautifully and simply drawn by the artist and zine-maker Rose Nordin, visualises Aspergistan’s recognised and approved political communication through body language. These gestures include slouching, curling up on the floor, deep sighing, and standing by a wall.

Ahsan asks us to imagine a world in which political campaign leaflets are unobtrusively scattered on park benches for the population to pick up, if they feel like it. Compare that to the glaring, professionally oratorial and expensive campaigns of our contemporary politics. Imagine a world in which one is encouraged to contemplatively read manifestos (again, if one feels like it) rather than consume catchy and reductive soundbites.

The world encapsulated in Aspergistan is one where thoughtfulness and reflection, solitude and listening, are prized over brashness, over-confidence and self-promotion. It is a state free of coercion, where people are free to behave as they feel comfortable, without being labelled as ‘weirdos,’ ‘loners’ or ‘freaks. (These US teen movie categories are banned in Aspergistan.)

The neologisms that Ahsan introduces throughout the book are brilliantly funny: the militant underground movement is called the Introfada, the state will be subject to Shyria law, and House Introverts are deemed as every bit as dangerous as the explicitly extrovert Trendy Club.

The entire book is written through with a biting but hilarious critique of liberalism and conformity. The heroes and cultural representatives of the Shy Radicals movement include Rosa Parks, Wednesday Addams, Splinter (the sensei of the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles), Ali La Pointe (the Algerian guerrilla protagonist of the Battle of Algiers), and Lisa Simpson. Through (imaginary) interviews with political prisoners of the Shy Radical movement and individuals who contributed to the oral history project of the (imaginary) Introvert Rights Association, Ahsan overturns contemporary social and politic realities.

Shy Radicals offers a lens through which to see the world: it will make you laugh, prompt you to recognise the violence of loudness, and tempt you to contribute to this creative state-building project. I imagine that the establishment of the state of Aspergistan would lead to mass visa applications.

Asylum, of course, according to the Constitution, will be granted to all Shy peoples suffering persecution in extrovert-supremacist states.

Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Militant Introvert

Hamja Ahsan

Book Works (2017); 164pp; £9.99

ISBN: 978 1 906012571

Analysis | “When I’m down again, there will be nothing for me”: The Government’s Unseen War on Migrant Health

Fri, 2017-11-24 18:00

(Source: keepournhspublic.com)

Last month, on October 23rd, new regulations came into force, with little fanfare, making it an obligation for providers of NHS healthcare in England to check whether patients may be charged for that care, and demand payment up-front before treatment is given. In addition to secondary care in hospitals, those deemed not ‘ordinarily resident’ may now be charged for mental health services, drug and alcohol services and midwifery in the community.

These changes are billed by the government as a crackdown on health tourism that will generate savings for the NHS. The reality is that the charges will target some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the UK — people who simply cannot afford to pay. The Department of Health has erected obstacles to healthcare for groups who are supposed to be exempt, and is deterring many from seeking health care in the first place. The impact of this discriminatory policy on public health could be huge.

I work for a charity that provides advocacy and support to asylum seekers and refugees — two groups supposed to be exempt from the charges. Since the new charging regime came into force, I have already had to advocate for asylum seekers refused care because they couldn’t pay for it, or charged for care they had already received. A Kurdish asylum seeker who was referred to the local hospital for a scan for breast cancer was sent back to her GP because she couldn’t pay up-front for it, even though asylum seekers are officially exempt from the charges.

Similarly, a pregnant asylum seeker from Iraq was charged for all of her prenatal scans. The Overseas Visitors office had decided she would only be exempt once she was issued with a Home Office Asylum Registration card (ARC), even though this may take several months from when an asylum claim is first lodged. Is it any wonder that pregnant asylum seeking women are being deterred from seeking care?

A Zimbabwean client undergoing treatment for a cancer that developed since she arrived in UK was granted exceptional leave to remain because of this condition — yet she cannot receive treatment until it is ‘immediately necessary’ and, in the meantime, will have to pay tens of thousands of pounds for it. Her status document indicates that she has no recourse to public funds, which means that when she is sick after chemotherapy and unable to work she will not be able to claim any benefits to help her survive, let alone pay off massive health bills.

“I am really worried about what will happen to me when I go back to the hospital again,” she told me. “For now I can work, I have a job, but when I’m down again there will be nothing for me.” She risks eviction and being returned to a country where healthcare is inadequate and inaccessible, and where she has no surviving family members.

In recent months, our clients have also suddenly started receiving bills for hospital care dating back as long ago as 2013. They were not charged at the time, and were not even aware that they would be charged. However, as the letters prominently state, the details of unpaid debts over £1,000 — and bear in mind that these patients are being charged at 150% the actual cost of treatment — will be passed on to the Home Office, and can be used to deny future requests for immigration status.

A mother who gave birth to her child after the Home Office refused her asylum claim in 2014 has just received a bill for her maternity care from the hospital. Since she gave birth she has been granted leave to remain but that expires next year. She now has a bill of several thousand pounds to pay off before she must apply for further leave. “I thought that when the Home Office gave me leave to remain I was safe here,” she told me, “but now… I don’t know.”

Another change that has occurred since 23rd Oct is to the GMS1 form, the standard form for GP registration in England. Although GP registration is supposed to be open to everyone, regardless of immigration status, and despite the fact that GP services are supposed to be exempt from the new charges, migrants have to tick a box and sign a declaration to state whether they think they are chargeable or not. This information will then be recorded on their health record and may be checked against Home Office records. Some GPs are resisting this intrusive questioning by crossing out the section on their registration forms.

The effect of these changes on the behaviour of migrant communities is likely to be profound. Once stories like those above start circulating within a community, people will have the impression that they shouldn’t seek out healthcare in the first place, in case they incur debts they cannot pay or, worse, get into trouble with the Home Office. It won’t matter whether the treatment for their hepatitis is exempt from charging or that, if they provided their ARC, the bills would go away; they will stay untreated, possibly passing the disease on to others, rather than jeopardise their immigration application.

These are not isolated cases. In April of this year, Doctors of the World warned that thousands of asylum seekers had wrongly been denied treatment at hospitals and GP surgeries. The organisation ended up having to take legal action in order to secure treatment for a man suffering from a heart condition, and another suffering from renal cancer. According to campaign group Docs Not Cops,  this new charging regime has led to “racialised outcomes”, with certain patients under greater scrutiny because of their appearance, speech or having a foreign-sounding name.

In light of these concerns, an open letter signed by a large number of advocacy groups, medical professionals and even a former chief executive of the NHS, was sent to the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, in October, demanding that the regulations are withdrawn. The letter cited concerns over racial discrimination and health inequalities, as well as increased patient waiting times, the risk of withholding lifesaving care and net costs to the NHS, as reasons to dump the regulations. Docs Not Cops also organised mass complaints against the regulations on the day they came into force.

However, the Conservative Government is keen to press on with the measures, whatever the cost, because they are an essential part of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ for undocumented migrants. It’s not just healthcare but housing, bank accounts and even driving licenses that are to be denied to those deemed to be the wrong kind of migrants.

It seems that no amount of individual or societal suffering is too great to deter certain politicians from trying to look tough on immigration. Those who understand the injustice of denying migrants rights need to make alternative arguments to those deployed by the anti-immigrant lobby, forcefully and throughout society, if we want to see equal rights for all.

An A to Z of Theory | “Chaos never died”: Hakim Bey’s Ontology

Fri, 2017-11-24 10:56

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, an example of self-organization in a complex and chaotic system. (credit: NASA)

“Chaos never died”. This is one of the best-known slogans from Hakim Bey’s seminal work, TAZ. In the second of a sixteen-part series, Andrew Robinson reconstructs the ontology of Bey’s “ontological anarchism”. He examines what it means to take chaos as ontologically primary, and how a sense of meaning or order can emerge from chaos.

Chaos Never Died

Bey’s ontology is based on the primacy of chaos. The concept of chaos should not be seen as a synonym for disorder, or an attention-grabbing rephrasing of anarchism. Chaos is not simply the absence of laws or the state. It is an ontological condition characterised by constant flux and flow, the absence of normative or other criteria of order, and a state of being akin to intoxication.  Chaos, Bey tells us, is ‘continuous creation’. He also repeatedly states that ‘Chaos never died‘. Chaos has survived the supposed foundation of order. It is a basic ontological reality we should embrace and celebrate.

There are thus no essential or natural laws to provide us with meaning. Nature, says Bey, has no laws, only habits. Meaning creation is, then, a matter of personal construction based on desire. The only order possible is the order one produces and imagines through ‘existential freedom‘. All other orders are illusions. Life and the body are permeable, ad hoc, impure, and full of holes. Yet nevertheless, existential autonomy and self-actualisation must be accomplished in this field. In any case, Bey prefers a world of ‘indeterminacy, of rich ambiguity, of complex impurities’ to purist utopias. Chaos is therefore desirable as well as ontologically basic, or necessary. Bey sometimes portrays his theory in terms of a decision to say yes to life itself. In another work, Bey describes himself as a ‘bad prophet‘ who bets on unlikely anomalies and chaos.

Chaos is something prior to thought and social construction. Bey conceives Chaos as a creative potential underlying all reality. It means that living things can generate their own spontaneous orders. It also undercuts the legitimacy of all hegemonic and hierarchical systems. Bey suggests that something comes into thought which consciousness attempts to structure. The structure appears to be the foundational level, but it isn’t. This analysis rules out representation, but not thought as such. Indeed, thought and images are both important. Letters or hieroglyphs are both thoughts and images. Bey celebrates a type of in-betweenness which deals with both thought and images. 

Chaos is primary over order. In fact, order is an illusion. We are always in chaos, but sometimes we fall for the lie that order exists. This lie leads to alienation. The world is real, but consciousness is also real since it has real effects. In one passage, Bey suggests that the self cannot produce things, nor be produced. Everything simply is what it is, spontaneously. In ‘The Information War’, Bey argues that information is chaos, knowledge is spontaneous ordering from chaos, and freedom is surfing the wave of that spontaneity. He counterposes this view to the gnostic dualism of those who use information (or spirit) to deny the body. Instead he seeks a ‘great complex confusion’ of body and spirit.

Access to chaos comes through altered consciousness, but chaos is also always present in everyday life, beneath the surface. Chaos, or imagination, is the basis of a field which is outside the ordinary. However, it is also the field from which the ordinary is composed. It can enter into ordinary life. Interpretation, for example, occurs in this field. It is similar to the field of becoming in Deleuzian theory, of time or the virtual for Deleuze and Bergson, and the unconscious in Jung. The numinous is ‘banal‘; it can be found everywhere. Bey refers to himself as a radical monist, in distinction from the gnostic or Manichean dualisms of the right-wing. Although he does not say so directly, he seems to treat oppressive systems as distorted forms of the field of chaos, turned aside by ‘dark magic’ or negative forms of trance. The zone of altered consciousness is also the zone of hybridity, the zone where the boundaries provided by interpretive categories break down. 

Psychological liberation consists in actualising, or bringing into being, spaces where freedom actually exists. This is not something unimaginably other. Bey suggests that many of us have attended parties which have become a brief ‘republic of gratified desires’. The qualitative force of even such a brief moment is sometimes greater than the power of the state. It provides meaning, and attracts desire and intensity. Similar claims are made elsewhere in post-left anarchy. For instance, Feral Faun suggests that we all knew this kind of intensity in childhood.

Chaos as the Basis for Meaning and Order

In the field of chaos, things are held together by desire or attraction. Action is possible at this underlying, chaotic or quantum level. Magic is ‘action at a distance’. Chaos also produces a kind of order, through Eros (love) or the self-ordering activity of a Stirnerian ego. Bey adopts Fourier’s view, which he also attributes to Sufi poets, that love or attraction is the driving force of the universe. The Big Bang is ‘beautiful and loves beauty‘, although dirt is also the mirror of beauty. For instance, flowers grow from dirt. 

The possibility of ‘action at a distance’ is the main belief of the Hermetic approach with which Bey identifies. This approach was supposedly banished from science in its mechanistic phase, but keeps coming back – in gravity as ‘attraction’, in quantum physics, strange attractors, the power of media, and so on (and rather differently, in Fourier’s work).

Hermeticists believed that the ‘moral power‘ of an image could be conveyed across distance, by some kind of energy beam, especially if boosted by other sensory inputs. Bey believes that artists continue to do this, even when they deny it. Advertising, for example, conveys a particular affective or ‘moral’ frame. Hermeticism thus has a dual aspect. In its positive form, it is liberatory and politically radical. However, it also provides the basis for advertising, PR and so on. 

The only viable government is that of attraction or love among chaotic forces. Only desire creates values. Values arise from the turbulent, chaotic process of forming relations. Such values are based on abundance, not scarcity, and are the opposite of the dominant morality. Bey describes ‘peak experiences‘ as value-formative on an individual level. They transform everyday life and allow values to be changed or ‘revalued’. Creative powers arise from desire and imagination, and allow people to create values. Catastrophe has negative connotations today, but it originally meant a sudden change, and such a change is sometimes desirable. 

Bey talks a lot about magic, spirituality, Hermeticism, esotericism, and so on. This is not ‘mystification’ in the usual sense, nor a literal belief in the kinds of magic seen in fiction. Rather, it involves reflections on the symbolic and imaginary nature of many taken-for-granted practices and objects. Something is ‘magical’ or ‘spiritual’ in a positive sense if it leads to an altered state of consciousness.

Things can also be ‘magical’ or ‘spiritual’ in enacting invisible forms of long-range communication or control. ‘Magic’ or ‘spirit’ in this sense is something immanent, something most of us have experienced already – as an intense emotional experience, romantic or sexual attraction, a psychedelic trip, a meditative state, a powerful dream, an empowering protest or direct action, a random moment where everything feels right. It does not involve reference to a transcendent field outside experience, although it is certainly taken to be outside ordinary, ‘consensus’ experience. 

Bey writes as if the entities experienced in altered consciousness, or the archetypes found in dreams and stories, are real. But this is part of the process of mythically initiating the reader. The ultimate ontological status of these entities (whether they are merely imagined, or have some real existence) is not particularly important. (In a sense, if everything is chaos, oneness, or becoming, then nothing of a categorisable type is real in any case). What matters is the role of these figures, and belief in them, in producing altered consciousness and intensity.

Chaos, Religion, and Science

Bey’s idea of chaos has a number of resonances. It is similar to the idea of chaos in chaos theory, but qualitative, rather than mathematical. It has similarities with a particular style of reading quantum-level realities. It is also similar to Deleuze’s claim that becoming or difference-production is ontologically basic, and Spinoza’s univocity of being.

Bey periodically refers to Taoism, Buddhism, Sufism, Kabbalah, quantum physics, and other bodies of thought as similar to his own, although his relationship to them is often syncretic. To the extent that one understands the Tao as an undifferentiated force of becoming, it is similar to Bey’s chaos. To the extent that one understands God as immanently coextensive with being, then God is another name for chaos. 

In ‘Quantum Mechanics and Chaos Theory‘, Bey argues that scientific worldviews both influence and are influenced by wider social discourses. Ptolemaic theory echoed monarchy and religion, Newtonian/Cartesian theories echoed capitalism and nationalism. Quantum theory and relativity similarly co-constitute a current social reality. However, theory continues to lag behind quantum mechanics, as scientists struggle to explain phenomena which clearly “work” scientifically. Quantum theory seems to validate Eastern and New Age worldviews, which might provide an organising myth or poetics for quantum science.

Bey summarises a series of different possible readings, some of which recover some form of realism, others of which do not. He insists that the universe must be a single reality, and suggests that the underlying chaotic nature of reality produces effects such as quantum uncertainty. This possibility could shatter ‘consensus reality’ and its claims to truth.

This could have various social effects. For example, an economy mirroring quantum theory would have to abolish work, because work is similar to classical physics in structure. The result might either be a Zerowork utopia, or a form of enslavement worse than work (probably cybernetic, and following Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of machinic enslavement). 

Taoism and Buddhism are recurring points of reference. According to Wilson/Bey in Escape from the Nineteenth Century, Taoism is a Clastrian machine for warding off hierarchy, which offers direct experience in a manner similar to shamanism. Historically, it undermined Chinese Imperial mediation. In another piece, Bey calls for a ‘new theory of Taoist dialectics‘. In Taoism, Wilson argues in Shower of Stars, chaos is not a figure of evil, but full of potential. It is the source of creation. The only difference between ontological anarchism and Taoism is on the question of action versus quietism.

Bey also embraces the Zen Buddhist idea of Beginner’s Mind. In another piece, Bey compares the Buddhist concept of satori with the Situationist Revolution of Everyday Life, and the Surrealist and Dadaist concept of the eruption of the marvellous. All involve perceiving the ordinary in extraordinary ways. While Situationism neglects the spiritual aspect, Buddhism neglects the political.

Bey also likens his position to Sufism. In the Sufi tradition, a ‘single vision’ of holistic divine reality is contrasted with the ‘double vision’ of alienated consciousness. Wilson relates this to the one-eyed monsters associated with the Soma-function and with magic mushrooms, taking it to be a form of altered consciousness.

Bey’s readings are sometimes rather selective. Many of the traditions he discusses counterpose spiritual awakening to bodily pleasure. They also emphasise the channelling, constraint, or balancing of desire, not simply its release. However, Bey nonetheless traces interesting parallels among traditions of disalienation.

The idea of chaos is also similar to the primordial force which is slain by the founder of civilisation in a number of statist epics (such as the Epic of Gilgamesh). Bey further likens his view of chaos to hunter-gatherer worldviews, arguing that we need to recover shamanism against priesthood, bards against lords and so on. His approach is modelled on a language which does not yet distinguish ritual from art, religion from harmonious social life, work from play, art-objects from useful objects, and so on. In one passage, Bey depicts a war between two sets of forces. Chaos, Mother Gaia and the Titans are on the side of aimless wandering, hunter-gatherers and freedom. Zeus and the Olympians are on the side of order.

If humans are different from animals, it is because of consciousness or self-consciousness, not awareness. Animals are also aware, in a spiritual sense. However, only humans have technology – which can either be a means or can dominate us. Symbolic systems are related to consciousness. Humans are thus split between an ‘animal’ level of intimacy and unified consciousness, and a distinctly human level of alienated consciousness. 

Religion stems from this tragic separation of mind and body. This, in turn, leads to a huge range of practices of ‘knowing’, ranging from psychedelic drugs to computers. But since early civilisations, religion has sought to escape the body, becoming increasingly gnostic and body-hating. Bey seeks to re-valorise the ‘animal’ level of immediate awareness. 

Bey’s position on altered consciousness puts him in disagreement with many anarchists. He rejects the ‘two-dimensional scientism’ of classical anarchism. The idea of being, consciousness, or bliss contained in mystical conceptions is not for Bey a Stirnerian spook – an abstract figure to which people subordinate themselves. It is a term for a type of intense awareness or ‘valuative consciousness’ resulting from immanence, which is to say, the rejection of spooks. Techniques for higher consciousness can be appropriated by anarchists.

Bey sees science as a ‘way of thinking‘ without special ontological status. He therefore opposes the common assumption that only one type of consciousness, the scientific, has validity. One kind of consciousness – universalising, Enlightenment, linear, rational, mechanical – has dominated for too long. For Bey, experiences in altered states of consciousness have as much reality as any other kind of experience. Also, if something has effects, then it might as well be real.

Bey describes his approach as a ‘rationalism of the marvellous‘ – neither science nor religion. This rationalism accepts that some things cannot be explained. However, in Scandal, he also suggests that there is ‘something mad’ about any metaphysical experience of the oneness of being, which is chaotic and primordial. Altered consciousness is both rational (as something there are good reasons to believe in) and extra-rational (as an experience). In Sacred Drift, Bey argues that spiritual realisation is ‘good for quite a lot’, worth tasting and striving for. But it is not the end point of human development.  Rather, it is a means to something deeper.

Joseph Christian Greer has explored the origins of Bey’s thought in the zine movement, and the new religious movements of Chaos Magick and Discordianism. He argues that Bey’s ontology is largely derived from these movements. He also contends that Bey’s thought is formed in debate with alternative (especially nihilistic) positions in particular zines. TAZ, he notes, is a compilation of already-published articles, which had appeared in zines such as Kaos and Mondo 2000. 

The zine scene of the 1980s was rhizomatic and transgressive, often covering taboo topics. Chaos Magick and other esoteric zines overlapped constantly with those focusing on punk music, alternative sexuality, cyberculture, and radical politics. Many of Bey’s pieces appeared in the Chaos Magick zine Kaos, which operated a policy of printing everything submitted to it.

Chaos Magick is a playful religious tradition which nevertheless focuses on a central belief: that magical forces can be used to manipulate reality. It maintains, like Bey, that one can achieve ‘gnosis’ through ritual and psychedelic practices. Gnosis gives access to the forces structuring reality. Such access is normally blocked by the mass media, or other ‘psychic propaganda’.

The controversies between Bey and other contributors were focused on Bey’s insistence that the death-drive, or ‘thanatos‘, belongs exclusively to the Spectacle. Bey reads chaos as a creative force, and the role of the Chaos magician as encompassing others’ desires. This brought him into conflict with nihilistic and individualistic contributors. 

In ‘The Ontological Status of Conspiracy Theory‘, Bey argues that conspiracy theory is right-wing only because it emphasises individual rather than group action as the source of social problems. Similarly, vanguardists believe the state is a conspiracy, and conspire to seize it. Alternatively, one can maintain that elites are ‘simply carried by the flow of history’. The state does not have power, so much as it usurps individuals’ power.

However, social forces do not simply determine individuals. Rather, there is also a feedback mechanism in which people modify the forces which produce them. He calls for an existentialist valuing of acting as if actions can be effective, to avoid a poverty of becoming. We have to act as if we act freely, whether we really do or not.  Bey also suggests that history is chaotic, and abrupt denials of all conspiracy theories reveal an irrational faith in the superficial social world. 

Chaos and Technology

For Bey, techniques and technologies are associated with ‘action at a distance’. Technology is a kind of magic. This position renders Bey both sceptical of modern technology, and hostile to the wide-ranging anti-technology positions of some eco-anarchists. For Wilson, writing in Ec(o)logues, only a type of technology which ‘enhances freedom and pleasure for all humans more-or-less equally’ can provide a basis for the flourishing of creativity and individuality.

Neolithic technology fits this definition. However, some modern technologies – such as bicycles and balloons – are basically of the Neolithic type, even though they were invented much later. Similarly, renewable energy, handlooms and the like are the right kinds of technology.

In a piece titled ‘Domestication‘, Wilson argues for Fourier’s idea of ‘horticulture’ as a system which combines aspects of agriculture and gathering. A transition to horticulture seems more viable than the anarcho-primitivist idea of a transition to hunting and gathering. Furthermore, Bey suggests that domestication was initially not control, but an effect of love (caring for a young animal). However, in another paper, Bey argues that agriculture is the only truly new technology, and amounts to ‘cutting the earth’. It instantly seems a bad deal to non-agricultural peoples, and leads to authoritarianism.

In ‘Back to 1911‘, Bey suggests that refusing technologies past a certain point can allow the recovery of imagination and ‘human life’. For example, amateur communal music is preferable to recorded music, and letters to telephones. Like many of Bey’s experimental proposals, this is a way of creating altered everyday experiences.

Bey has an ambiguous relationship to eco-anarchism. He opposes the rejection of technology of authors such as Zerzan. But he also calls for a psychological return of ‘paleolithic‘ or ‘primitive’ techniques such as shamanism. He frames this as a return in a psychoanalytic sense – a return of the repressed. The paleolithic continues to exist at an unconscious level. Bey also supports Luddite tactics against technologies used for oppression today, whatever their future potential.

But chaos implies a right to appropriate the high-tech as well as the paleolithic. Bey does not seek to reduce the level of technology, but instead to recover lost psychological or spiritual techniques. He also suggests there is a kind of future which is at once paleolithic and sci-fi, and also immediately present to those who can feel it. This future involves new technologies of the Imagination, and a new science beyond quantum science and chaos theory. 

In ‘Primitives and Extropians‘, Bey responds to the appeal of his theory both to deep ecological and anarcho-primitivist approaches, and to Internet-focused and science-fiction movements, which have radically different attitudes to technology. He accuses anarcho-primitivists of a puritan impulse which uses the ‘primitive’ as a metaphysical principle (an essence, trunk, or spook).

On the other side, pro-technology ‘Extropians’ lack a critique of modern technology. They are also too purist, whereas the field of desire is ‘messy’. Zerzan criticised Bey on the back of this article for failing to understand the oppressive effects of technology. In Seduction of the Cyber Zombies, Bey suggests that there is some point at which technology flips from serving to dominating humans, and we need to keep it serving humans. 

Bey calls on people to think about technology and society without absolute categories. Instead, a ‘bricolage’ or ad-hoc approach should be used.  ‘Appropriate’ technology should be selected based on maximum pleasure and low cost. Bey suggests that the basic principle after the system is destroyed would be freedom from coercion of individuals or groups by others. The ‘revolutionary desire‘ of freely acting people would then arrive at the appropriate level of technology.

In terms of levels of technology, Bey suggests that it ultimately comes down to desire. Do people who want computers or spaceships really want them enough to make the components themselves? If so, they will happen, if not, they are impossible, since people will reject alienated work.

While primitivists are sure that such a situation would preclude all technology, Bey is less certain. Both sides will be reconciled to it because it is based on pleasure and surplus, not scarcity, and the process of creation and conviviality would be more immediate and human-scale.

In TAZ, Bey opposes the idea of a return to the Paleolithic or any other period. Instead, he writes of a return of the Paleolithic through shamanic practices and zero-work, a return analogous to the Freudian return of the repressed. This position is implicitly directed against anarcho-primitivism. Similarly, he rejects the primitivist position of trying to reverse the rise of agriculture. 

Later, however, in Riverpeople, Bey/Wilson has come round to the view that people were ‘meant to live’ like indigenous hunter-gatherers or gardeners. This is the high stage of human development – not today’s ‘Civilisation’. Hunter-gatherers may know hunger, but not scarcity. He calls for a return to gathering, hunting, or swidden (slash-and-burn) cultivation, and the renunciation of literacy. 

In Shower of Stars, Bey argues that hunter-gatherers have a way of thought based on the generosity of the material bodily principle, similar to peasant carnivals. He also argues that wilderness can be recovered. Even if it has disappeared today, it can be restored or summoned back. We need to forget (but not forgive) the system, and become radically other to it, remembering our ‘prophetic selves’ and bodies.

In Ec(o)logues, Wilson includes a ‘Neo-Pastoralist Manifesto’ which suggests inculcating superstitious fear of nature as a way to ensure it wins the ‘war on nature’ against humans. It is important that any return to nature take the form of ‘coherent actions for re-enchantment’, not passive tourism.

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.