Monthly Archives: April 2011

Land Grabs

India has had 55 million people displaced by large dams built since Independence.  Medha Patkar is one of the founders of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, an organization that spearheads popular resistance against these displacements. The images that accompany this live blog of the conversation between Patkar and David Harvey, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center, show satyagrahis, demonstrators who remained on their land as the dam waters slowly rose, inundating villages and threatening protests with a watery grave.  This conversation between the two was moderated by Biju Mathew, Associate Professor at Rider University.

Biju Mathew (BM): This is a conversation that’s been waiting to happen for many years.  Both of our speakers today have played key roles in challenging neoliberalism for the last several decades.  I want to open with the issue of land.  Land didn’t seem to be an issue in the immediate postcolonial period, but began to be more important in the 1980s.

Medha Patkar (MP): It’s a great pleasure to be part of this conversation with Professor Harvey, who has played such an important role in struggles here.  Our struggles in India are no longer isolated but are part of a broader set of struggles around the globe.  Land has become a key issue for both neoliberal capitalism and for people’s movements.  British imperialists passed Land Acquisition Act of 1894; this same act is used to take over land of indigenous and rural peoples today in the name of the common good.  What is this common good?  If a piece of land is acquire by this act, then everything attached to the land – the surface water, the mountains, the fisheries, minerals, etc – are acquired along with that land.  So it’s really about commodifying the property, and then legitimizing the take-over using juridical means, and then killing the people who live on the land.  This take over is done in the name of progress.  Multinational corporations come with one kind of capital – market capital – and say that their capital is more important than natural capital of rural peoples.  Recent transformation of the Land Acquisition Act during the last three parliaments is to include defense, education, and other “infrastructural” projects.  So is 70% of the land is purchased, the other 30% passes automatically into private hands.

David Harvey (DH): It’s a great inspiration to be here with you.  And it’s also great to be in this space, so close to Wall Street.  We need more spaces like this – we need to surround Wall Street like the Maoists would advocate.  But let me begin by talking about land issue.  Dominant economic theory ignores land issues, focusing instead on macro-economic theory.  This carries over into Marxism, which ignores land-grabs.  Much of my work has been about rescuing this notion.  It turns out that the bourgeoisie has made more money out of land speculation than they have out of industrial production.  That’s particularly true today, when there’s a financial crisis and there’s nowhere for capital to go.  So a dominant strategy to deal with this crisis is to engage in land grabs: examples include Africa and internal Chinese affairs.  Another example is the proliferation of soy bean plantations in Latin America, which is part of agribusiness networks with China.  Such land-grabs are about trying to find secure sources of profitability.  One of theses I’m looking at right now is the idea that capital has run out of options for profitable production, and that the capitalist class is therefore trying to live the rest of its life as rentiers: land-owners, IPRs, etc.  So land-grabs are not just fortuitous, but are the product of a particular phase of capitalism in which shift into land is happening.  We’ve seen this before, for example when capital shifted into land and property markets after 1999 crash of bubble.  One economy that’s going strong right now is China: property prices have increased by more than 800% over last five years there.  Speculation in housing and land are crucial to what’s happening in China and elsewhere in capitalist system.  This connects with the economy of dispossession.  If land is going to become more significant, then you have to dispossess people residing on the land.  This has characterized India after neoliberal turn, but similar things are happening in Africa.  Indian boom is not one for the masses, but for a small elite.

BM: I want to go back to the question of law that you both brought up, and I’d like David to talk a little about the history of eminent domain in accumulation by dispossession or primitive accumulation.  To Medha, I’d ask you to point to both urban and rural cases, since you’ve been active with Garbacha Andolan.

DH: Eminent domain is simply taking over private land in the name of the public good.  But to be honest, I don’t think that this is the problem.  I wouldn’t mind using eminent domain down Park Avenue.  The issue is how it works.  When I worked at Johns Hopkins, the university was planning to expand.  Their trick was to use a subsidiary corporation to buy up properties around the university and then just board them up.  They could then argue that these areas were run down, and could use eminent domain to kick the rest of the people in the neighborhood out.  So eminent domain comes at the end of a broader process of destruction and displacement.

MP: When the land, the life-supporting matrix, in the hands of the so-called poor, who are rich in resources, is seen in both rural and urban areas.  In Mumbai, 60% of the population lives in slums, horizontal and vertical slums. Yet they live on only 6% of the land. And even that is taken over.  Planners chance policies, the World Bank comes in and sets up one kind of infrastructure that fulfills the agenda of the auto industry. This displaces the people who build, clean, and run the cities.  They don’t even have a place to sleep after they spend the day working to keep the city running. Slum dwellers from around the world have come together. We came together around slogan “save the houses and build the houses.” The only thing we can live on at the end of our lives is our resource base – our land and our labor. We challenged eviction of slums by rebuilding them after they were demolished. But we also challenged the builders and the construction firms, exposing the sweetheart deals they got to purchase land. We only went into the courts after long struggles in the streets. We climb up to the 4th floor of the building ministries and blockade the banks, and then the administrators have to come down. To release the land in India is just as difficult as establishing democracy in Iraq. When we can show linkage between big Western interests and land grabs (which are represented as “lawful occupations”), we get more traction. Who are the people in the so-called slums: the Dalits and others who were on the peripheries of the rural areas, and who are now on the peripheries of urban areas.  They are the real builders. Human rights are about legal rights.

BM: The picture you paint is of naked power of the corporate sector, so I’d argue that we’re in a situation where the politics of radical change is immediate.  Capital seems to be running into limits more and more.  What is your sense of these limits?  In Latin America, neoliberalism takes place a decade or so earlier than in South Asia.  Do you see similar social movements in opposition arising?

MP: One would like to say enough is enough. But we said this in Madrid at the 50th anniversary of the Bretton Woods Declaration. But communities in Narmada still have the sword of submersion hanging over them. The struggle continues. And not just armed struggle, which may shake the state to a certain extent. It’s really the long-term non-violent struggles, including reconstruction and bringing in theorization of living with resources, that are key. The state kills the poor – once in the name of caste, now in the name of development and progress.  What is happening today in India and elsewhere is the transfer of power. Popular sovereignty over resources such as the Bolivians asserted, in order to transform lifestyles, is a key goal. We’ve stopped dam building in Narmada. But beyond issue-based movements, the bigger effort is to build alliances, which give us strength. We need to explore non-electoral popular politics. The state must not totally wither away, but it must be limited, and its occupation, dispossession, commodification, and its killing must be controlled. So we need to create new people’s politics, which is beyond electoral politics but not distinct from it. We need to know what elite’s designs are to occupy power. I distinguish between NGOs and popular power. Beyond Dalits and other marginalized peoples, the mass middle classes in India are also becoming mobilized. The Free India of Corruption campaign is an example of such civil society mobilizations: 200 people fasting were very genuine. We strive to make our movements not just national but even global – this is obviously a huge challenge just in India. We need allies in the global North who can research the connections between corruption and land-grabs in India and powerful corporations or government organizations in places like London and New York. We look at the People’s Parliament as one such struggles.

DH: One of my favorite quotes from Marx is that the state is the executive committee of the bourgeoisie.  This is not true everywhere, as in Bolivia.  But it’s more and more true around the world over the last 30 years.  So you not only have to do battle with capital, but also with the state.  We see in the US how the Supreme Court belongs to the bourgeoisie.  All these institutions have been taken away from real democracy and the people, and isolated so that we don’t see how budgets are made.  How did this come about? It all goes back to neoliberalism and the crisis of the 1970s. out of this crisis a solution emerged.  There are two kinds of costs that capital doesn’t want to bear: environmental degradation & social reproduction (who raises children, cares for the sick, etc). Capital tries to turn these into externalities, so they don’t have to pay for them. Historically, social movements pushed the state to pay for some of these costs. By the 1970s, you have the establishment of the EPA, welfare, affordable housing, etc.  What neoliberalism was about was forcing externalization of these costs by dismantling the welfare state. the strategy behind this was interesting. When Reagan came to power, he cut taxes for the rich and launched a debt-financed arms race with the Soviet Union. Towards the end of his administarrtion, his budget advisor David Stockton admitted that his strategy was to creat a huge debt so that they could then go after social programs.  Bush Sr. and Jr. did the same thing, and now Republicans in Congress and in state governments are doing the same thing: arguing that social programs need to be cut to deal with debt. David Cameron in the UK is doing the same thing: you never let a good crisis go to waste. Same thing happening in Ireland, Portugal, and other places, and their standard of living is crashing.  This strategy was exported in the 1980s using IMF structural adjustment. The upshot is to create a global plutocracy, with about 400 families controlling a huge amount of the wealth around the world.  There’s something else crucial to put into the picture.  Capital is a growth machine; it’s committed to 3% compound growth annually. This was one thing in Manchester in 1800.  Today it’s another.  Capitalists have been running into difficulties finding profitable outlets.  So instead of investing in making things, you invest in owning them.  Which is why under neoliberalism you have an acceleration of accumulation by dispossession.  And it’s also a dispossession of rights: pension rights, health care rights, housing rights (which have been almost totally dismantled).  My argument would be that we need to think about a zero growth economy.  This is not a zero development economy.  But it is a state in which we no longer need 3% compound growth.  If we want to reject this 3% compound growth rate, we need to reject capitalism. We need a global anti-capitalist politics.  But this is hard to achieve, because we constantly hear the argument that we need more capitalism.  I say that people in anti-poverty organizations that they’re in the wrong organization: you should be in an anti-wealth organization.  You can’t solve the problem of poverty without destroying global plutocracy. People are realizing that we need a global anti-capitalist organization.

MP: Communal commons are being taken over, and so we question the present form of the polity.  Just like we question the present form of the economy, which is rule based on inequity.  We cannot look at the state as our ideal. Hence we are neither statist nor marketist. We want popular movements to be part of decision making. Here principles of self-reliance would be central: rights to resources and also human rights to life, biodiversity, etc.  We have to think about new forms of institutions, which are forms of new consciousness.  We’re also not in favor of notions of conservation that say that we can’t touch the forests etc., but we are in favor of collective responsible use of the commons. Our vision may sound utopian, but we have to be utopian today or we’re doomed.

BM: What we’re talking about is not just material change but also a change of consciousness in people. In the US, people think in terms of hyper-individualism. Such consciousness is being exported to India. How do we transform this attitude into a different sense?  Where would we look for answers?

MP: Our social identities being fragmented and atomized is worse than corporatization. In fact, what the trend towards marketization is doing is exactly this. Hence the revivalism that also sometimes takes a dangerous turn, towards fundamentalist assertion of identity at the cost of others, regionalism that excludes those who are from other areas. We need to question divisiveness. We have to be in struggles, but we also have to be in reconstruction. Creating schools so that children in Adivasi communities have a sense of identity. And even strategies like the alternative media are important.  And time is short.

DH: What I try to do in my work in works like The Enigma of Capital is to give an outline of how social change takes place.  There are 7 spheres in which change has to take place: 1) transformation in our relation to nature; 2) technology; 3) social relations; 4) production; 5) daily life and reproduction processes; 6) institutional arrangements (law, etc); 7) mental conceptions of the world.  Social theory tends to focus on only one of these spheres.  Paul Hawken for example stresses consciousness alone.  Orthodox Marxism focused on economics alone.  But Marx himself showed that end of feudalism involved all these spheres.  And this is what neoliberalism did as well.  Neoliberalism changed not just economics but also social relations: there were many more collective solidarities around in 1970 than there are today.  Social change happens by all of us collectively working on elements of this ensemble that we’re good at.  All these changes take place slowly.  The issue today is that there’s no radical new strategy emerging from the bourgeoisie.  The 1930s gave us Keynesianism etc.  The 1970s did the same, even if it was horrendous.  There’s no equivalent today.  Only strategy is to try to find an arc and ride out the storm.  So this is a moment when there’s a possibility of change.  One of the big difficulties today is that we have this huge infrastructure of universities that is almost entirely devoted to maintaining the status quo. In US, it’s totally impossible to get through to mainstream journals. And we can’t of course get through to mass media.  The Left also hasn’t done a good job since a lot of what we produce is incomprehensible.  But I recognize that no matter how much mind-changing we do, we also need institutional changes etc.

BM: Let me turn our discussion to ecology and the question of resources. In India, what we’re seeing right now is the imperative to just dig resources up and sell them to the world market.  The state and the bourgeoisie is in such collusion in this regard.  How do we deal with the ecological limits we’re up against?

MP: Our movements build not just on Marxism but also Gandhian and Ambedkarian thought. But all these ideological trends have to come together.  All these ideas are leading communities towards self-reliance. We oppose eminent domain of the state to eminent domain of the people; they would have right to use and conserve the natural world. They would know the stakes inherent in the resources at hand; these stakes are nothing short of survival. There’s a danger in addition that so-called renewable energies will continue to perpetuate dispossession.  Solar energy in India, for example, was to be a project of Enron’s.

DH: My approach to the environmental issue is based on idea not of technologies but on how social life and institutions would have to be arranged.  In the US, the attitude is that there will be a technological fix. This is totally false.  What we really need to do is to change social relations.  If we wanted to do something serious here, for example, we could just demolish the suburbs.  This would also be a big employment generator.  We need to think about a real transformation in our relation to nature.  The Cochabamba Declaration is an example of this.  Also, work is being done on challenging agribusiness and showing that more labor-intensive forms of agriculture are more productive.  This would again solve the employment problem.  There are ways we could start to reconstruct the agrarian base.  There’s also a big paradox: wind power, for example, requires rare earth metals.  Mining this is an environmental disaster, but it is also 90% controlled by China because they don’t care about environmental damage. So we’re faced with a situation in which a solution in one area creates problems in another.


1)    The rural-urban divide and the north-south divide: how do we theorize these?

2)    What struggles do you see that effectively challenge finance capital?

3)    What kinds of organizational innovations can we see that can bind together different struggles since we see a lot of local, molecular organizing but little more broad-based molar work?

4)    What other utopian solutions can you tell us about?

5)    What do you mean by zero growth and how is it different from development?

MP: cities are growing like mad at cost of communities that once occupied the land. The entire infrastructure is import-export based, taking a toll on both the rural and urban areas. We see no attempt to keep people on the land in India, and as a result the urban poor population is booming. There’s a huge shift of land from agriculture to non-agriculture going on in India.

DH: The tendency under capitalism is to industrialize the countryside, erasing the difference between rural and urban areas. Theoretically I prefer to use the concept of uneven geographical development, which is going on inside cities as well as between the city and the rural. In US, countryside is being taken over by the rich, who go to mansions in places like Long Island. But there’s a distinction between what’s happening in so-called emerging markets, where all the growth is taking place. As a result, there’s some geopolitical tension between the so-called BRICs, and older centers of finance capital.  The question of how to organize is a complicated one.  There’s a lot of movement going on around the world: factory occupations in Argentina, solidarity economies around the world, etc.  in part, this arises from the fact that capital doesn’t need most people any more. Some of these have been economically quite successful: eg. Mondragon in Spain. Biggest economic disparity in Mondragon is 1-3, whereas in typical US corporation disparities are 1-600. Mondragon’s genius was to not just produce, but to organize credit and retail. Having said this, I find that many radical organizations are plagued by the fetishism of organizational form: many insist on remaining totally local, are totally anti-hierarchical, and are completely opposed to any kind of negotiation with the state. The result is that you’re not in a position to scale up what you’re doing into anything that can go beyond the local.  If you say you should, you’re labeled a Leninist. There’s a strong appeal of anarchism, localism, etc. today.  But this is not to say that there aren’t organizations that put things together: Via Campesina is an example.  It has great ideas at the local level, but is also making a global movement that can deal with global environmental issues.  This seems like one of the big challenges the Left faces today.

MP: Our struggles may seem utopian today, but you never know when things may change. When we battled Enron, we never expected to see their CEO tearing his clothes in the streets here in NYC.

DH: One of the troubles with utopian plans is that they evoke a model of harmony that is static.  That’s why no Christians want to go to paradise, because it’s boring. Alfred North Whitehead talked about the perpetual pursuit of novelty as being a characteristic of humans. It seems to me that many human capacities and powers are denied by market culture.  Not that there needn’t be a material base.  But we could, in many part of the world, just freeze the economy and begin exploring human creativity, and not allow it to be channeled by corporate growth.

MP: We need to check the growth of capital, which brings in parasitic exploitation of the majority who are productive. Not that there should be no change, but change in the value framework of society. Who would define and decide what the change should be is the critical question. Zero growth and zero aid: we need self-reliance. We are struggling to set up popular tribunals, popular education, etc. to further this ideal of self-reliance. We cannot wait for this change, we have to make it now.

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Filed under class war, environment, imperialism

The Rights of Mother Nature

This is a live blog of a panel convened by the Graduate Center’s Center for Place, Culture, and Politics in honor of Earth Day 2011.  It also happens to be the first year anniversary of the World People’s Conference on the Rights of Mother Nature in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Shannon Biggs: Nature is a system governing our well being.  Yet our culture treats nature as human property, like a slave.  When we talk about what it means to recognize rights for nature, a good place to start is to look at the BP oil spill and ask what would have been different if Nature had rights.  What would be different today?  The only people who can sue BP today are those with a property claim.  What if nature could sue BP to be made whole again?  We know that there are thousands of miles of dispersant lying beneath the surface.  Things would look very different.

Cormac Cullinan: I came to this work from a practical angle.  I was encountering difficulties generating legislation, and this made me realize that there was an underlying problem.  At this time I was fortunate enough to encounter Thomas Berry, who showed to me that our legal systems facilitate the exploitation of Earth.  I was shocked, because I’d practiced as an environmental lawyer for many years.  I felt that I was part of the solution.  But he was right.  What we call environmental law really isn’t working.  In the last three decades, we’ve seen an unprecedented increase in the amount of environmental legislation.  We’ve forgotten that we’re part of the natural order.  The idea that there’s a system of order out there, Nature, is not something that’s simply not considered.  I came to this through trying to find practical ways to deal with what we’re facing.

As someone brought up in South Africa, it was always clear to me that the law was a product of those in power.  But in this case we can see that our legal systems have entrenched an exploitative environment between our legal systems and Nature, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the outcome.  We’ve defined our system by Rights, but unless we can include Nature in this circle, we cannot include the natural world.  So we need to expand the Earth community to include such rights.

Vandana Shiva: Forty years ago I got involved in the Chipko Movement, which strove to challenge exploitation of forests.  Today, for the majority of people around the world, the notion that nature has rights is not strange.  The opposite is probably strange.  The idea that seeds can be treated as property by Monsanto is bizarre.  All they do is put toxins into seeds.

Some years ago, I got involved in the TRIPS agreement controversy.  All of this made me realize that for most cultures, humans are just one part of the Earth community.  But the scientific revolution changed things so that we saw the Earth as inert.  What corporate power has done is to make corporations into the only things that count.  We need to work to rebalance things.  Natural rights are not opposite to human rights.  Human rights are a subset of natural rights, because we’re a part of nature. An example is the legal battle I was involved in over limestone mining, which was going to destroy drinking water.  Today we’re involved in struggle over dams on the Ganges.  Our slogans are to allow the Ganges to flow freely.

Yesterday at the UN, Cormac reminded us that apartheid means “separation.”  Today, we have to overcome our sense of separation from nature.  This is a forced separation, something against our will.  This is something that affects everyday people, who are being displaced through landgrabs in places like Africa. The real thing we need to do is to build the Earth democracy that we’re a part of.  The corporations have such a stranglehold on power now.  We need Nature to rescue us from the corporate dictatorship.

Maude Barlow: Modern humans, not tribal peoples, tend to see Nature as a resource for our pleasure.  This has led to great damage and a crisis of huge proportions.  By 2030, demand for water is going to outstrip supply by 40%.  Right now we’re in a massive sixth wave of species extinction.  But all of our governments, with few exceptions – Bolivia among them – are still out there promoting free trade and the rights of corporations.  The environmental movement is left just negotiating with governments to lower the amounts of pollution. But it’s coming at it in such a debilitating way. And even the so-called green economy, the way our elites go about it, is a market solution to the crisis.  The idea is that you just replace bad technology with good ecology, and you don’t have to replace any of the current paradigms: growth, development, etc.  The only way to “save” nature is to bring it into the market. So ideas about the Rights of Nature seek to shift this paradigm.  Our whole mindset is based on human law; what would it be like to shift our mindset so that other species have the right to exist.  Does this mean that insect rights are equivalent to human ones?  No, but it does mean that we shouldn’t drive species to extinction.  We’re hoping that the Declaration of the Rights of Nature will one day take its place with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one of the founding documents.  Every now and then, the human race takes an evolutionary step forward.

Pablo Solon: Last year, we managed to pass, in the UN, a declaration of the human right to water.  About 60 years after the Declaration of Human Rights, we finally got recognition that water was a human right.  This 29 of July, we’re going to celebrate the one year anniversary of this event.  But we’re also going to celebrate the Rights of Water.  If we don’t respect the rights of water, we cannot respect the rights of humans to water.  There are vital cycles in nature, and when we don’t respect these rights, we break the system and lose our place in it.

What exactly is nature?  A thing, a bunch of resources, or a system?  This system, does it have laws and rules?  If it does have laws, should the society respect those laws?  Are we respecting those rules?  This is the key question, from our point of view.  We believe that we’re just one part of the Earth system, and we humans, and in particular, the capitalist system, don’t respect these laws.  So we’re now facing a situation, as all scientists agree, in which we’ve broken the balance of nature.

How will we restore this balance?  We have two proposals on the table:

1) The green economy, which places monetary value on nature, not just on forests, but on environmental services provided by nature.  The Rio + 20 conference is intended to approve a series of market mechanisms that have to do with nature.  From this perspective, we’re facing a critical situation because nobody owns environmental services; once they’re in the market, balance will be restored.  This isn’t something hypothetical.  The third round of WTO negotiations is slated to be focused on environmental services.  We’re at the beginning of a third round of capitalist accumulation.

2) Our view is based on the Rights of Nature.  We have to respect the laws of Nature, or else we will no longer have any place.  If we want to have Rights of Nature, we have to fight against capitalism.  There is no way to begin a new relationship if we’re trapped in a system that tries to make profit out of everything.  Are we going to be able to transform this capitalist system?  That’s the key question.  We think that the only way for humankind to survive is to develop another system, with another relationship with nature.

David Harvey: We need to remember that there are laws of capital accumulation.  A basic law is that of compound growth.  Since capitalism took off, the basic trend has been an average of 3% compound growth; this is the minimum with which capitalists feel happy.  3% in Manchester in 1800 is one thing; 3% today is an astonishing prospect.  What we’re running into is that we’re at an inflection point in capital’s history at which the growth rate cannot be sustained.  In spite of the environmental movement’s vibrancy over last 30 years, things keep getting worse.  Christopher Stone’s argument (in “Should Trees Have Standing” in 1972) was the first example of the notion of the Rights of Nature that I came across.  But we should remember that we’ve already created fictitious rights for corporations, so why not for nature?  Capitalism has always been about more, and even more.  Capitalists have no choice; they have to accumulate or die.  The system has to grow or die.  The system has gotten to the point where it’s prepare to die, and to kill us and everyone else with it.  If we’re going to confront the present situation, we have to deal with two key things: 1: the environment (which is treated as an externality); 2: social reproduction (the Republicans want to gut the state and hive off social reproduction to individuals so that capital doesn’t have to bare these costs).  One of the answers is to come up with a market solution to social reproduction.  We’re told that the answer to global poverty is more capital accumulation, even though this produced poverty in the first place.  Carbon trading is a very nice market, but it just makes things worse.  One of the things you can’t talk about is what the alternatives to capitalism are going to be.  How many people in universities are working on such alternatives?  We have to be clear about the politics and the means by which we make change.  Nothing is really going to be changed unless there’s a mass social movement to change things.  Legal measures before the UN will not do it.  What was wonderful about Cochabamba was how many people were there.  We’re faced with a huge crisis, but in conventional circles there’s very little original thinking about how to deal with the crisis.  In the movement for Rights for Nature, there’s the beginning of this kind of original thought.

Cormac Cullinan: What we’re seeing in the world is a sense that we need to make an evolutionary leap, which starts off as shifting one’s perspective.  This is similar to the Copernican shift.  Unless we make a jump to seeing ourselves as part of the Earth, and recognize that we’re part of the system, and reshape our governance systems to reflect this reality, then we’ll not make the necessary changes and we’ll face a precipitous decline in human populations and possibly even become extinct as a species.  Now, for the first time, we have a global manifesto that can unite all the social movements: the Declaration of the Rights of Nature.  What we’re proposing is not some ideology, but a recognition that we must abide by natural laws.

Vandana Shiva: We’ve been sold a bill of goods.  We’ve been told that all we need is growth.  India has been growing like gangbusters, but we’ve got more hunger than ever.  We find that the more we follow the natural laws, the more food we have.  The UN has just submitted a report saying that agro-ecology produces enough food to sustain the human population.  We don’t need genetically engineered foods, we don’t need toxins.  In every sphere, we’ve been sold economic systems and technological systems that impoverish human life because they impoverish human nature.  Part of the liberation we need is to recognize that taking less from nature and giving more to her actually empowers us.

Maude Barlow: I think it’s worth exploring some specific examples.  One includes the question of whether to put water on the market.  Where it’s been done, it leads to terrible consequences.  An example is Australia, where they have one source of water: the Murray Darling aquifer.  It’s being exploited by large agricultural concerns, and is now dying.  In 1993, the conservative government of the time converted the licenses of big corporations to water rights.  The idea was that this would lead to more efficiency.  But what really happened was that big organizations bought up water rights and pushed small industries out of business.  The price of water went up like mad in one decade.  The government then couldn’t get water back into the system.  My prediction that big investors would move in has come true; hedge funds are buying up water rights and telling Australian farmers what to grow.  Compare this to exploitation of groundwater in Vermont. Four years ago, the state government passed a bill saying that water resources were common property.  They set up a licensing system saying that if you want to use over a certain amount, you need to pay.  In times of shortage, local food production gets preference.  So there’s a fundamental distinction in terms of outlook here.  What they mean is that Nature has rights.  This has fundamental consequences in our lives.

Shannon Biggs: How do we create social movements?  We’re all so much in agreement about fundamental principles.  But democracy is messy; there’s no one way to move forward.  Things can look very different in different places.  In the US, Global Exchange has been involved in Mt. Shasta, where communities have been battling water bottling companies.  Another issue that this community is fighting is cloud seeding.  If you seed clouds in one area, you create droughts in other areas.  The idea that we can geo-engineer solutions is folly.  The common thread here and in other places such as Pittsburgh, where fracking has destroyed drinking water, is that corporate rights have to be challenged legally.  Laws were made to protect and enshrine rights of people and ecosystems.  We’ve made such moves in the past: slavery is an example.  In Mt. Shasta and in Pittsburgh, laws have been passed to strip corporations of the right to remove water.

Pablo Solon: I agree that the key issue is how to build a social movement that is capable of defeating capitalism.  Our humble experience has shown that social movements develop when they are unified and when they win concrete victories.  Ten years ago in Bolivia, we were facing multiple defeats.  We focused on a specific issue: privatization of water.  We defeated the powerful Bechtel corporation.  Then we had the strength to challenge the privatization of gas.  We had to nationalize our gas.  Otherwise, how would we be able to share the revenues of our country with the population?  It’s not enough to have a movement that fights for specific goals; the movement has to fight to take over the government.  If you don’t gain power, all the victories that you achieve will be lost.  So we were able to build a movement that for the first time raised an indigenous person to president.  We were able to create a government through which we could develop our own strategies.  We don’t speak much about capitalism. We don’t want more and more, as capitalism does. But we want to live better.  This means that our growth has to satisfy basic needs, rather than be an example of rampant growth.  The problem though is that even if you manage to get power in a particular nation, you can’t solve the whole problem, because government is now global. We have to solve this at the world-wide level, or it won’t be solved.  If there isn’t a movement that goes beyond our borders and our continent, and that maybe comes to the key areas of capitalism, like the U.S. and E.U., we won’t survive.  So we look for the common thing that unites people around the world.  The key thing is that we all live on one planet, and we all face a common problem: our governments and our states are not respecting the laws of nature, and this is one of the main causes of why we are in this situation.  So, to build a movement requires having a paradigm that can open a way to a new way of thinking.  This is why the Rights of Nature is a key issue to build a movement to change the world.


What problems arise from the language of rights as extended to Nature?

What kinds of strategies of social networking do you foresee being implemented?

What should we make of the Limits of Growth and The Population Bomb today?

Comment on the food sovereignty movement, please?

What do you think of Zizek’s comments about it being good that Mother Earth is dead?

What does it mean to say that water has rights?  Aren’t you really talking about how an inert substance can support rights to live of other sentient beings?

In U.S., regulatory agency that enforces rights is EPA.  Problem here is that such agencies are subject to corruption.  Do you see alternatives to this model, or means of refining this model?

Can you comment on the role of spirituality in reconfiguring the world and the movement today?

What about the role of women in transforming the planet?

We as indigenous people have been caring for Mother Earth for centuries.  This concept of the Rights of Nature is not new.  It’s not enough to pass laws; we have to live with nature and respect nature.  We need to create our own indigenous nations to defend nature.  Do you support this?

We’ve seen language of natural rights used before – in quest to conquer New World. Isn’t there a danger of this language being used again in imperialist manner?

Cormac Cullinan: The notion of Rights may not be the best way for humans to regulate their affairs.  Rights tend to set up a conflictual relationship.  Interests might have been better.  But we’re faced with the situation that our legal systems are based on rights.  This means that for practical purposes we need to use the language of Rights, at least unless we’re in a position where we can scrap the entire language of rights.  Until then, we need to use legal machinery to get the state to enforce rights of nature.

David Harvey: Wouldn’t it be useful to think of other patterns of rights, such as common property rights?

Cormac Cullinan: No, we try to get away from property rights.  We prefer to emphasize that it’s about relationships.  The key thing to think about is that the ecosystems and the universe are held together by relationships.  The more intimate those relations, the more healthy the system.  We try to promote such intimate relations using the legal system, spreading the idea that this is a web of relationships.

Vandana Shiva: The language of a “population bomb” is totally obnoxious because it makes women’s wombs look like ticking bombs.  The point is that the resource and consumption question is key.  Industrial agriculture is the most wasteful system you could have.  The more you expand it, the more hunger you create.  US= 60% biofeed.  Where’s the food?  10 units of energy are put in to create one unit of food.  New data shows that in industrial agriculture systems, 50% of the food is wasted.  But in India, all food is used.  In nature, there’s no waste; there’s only recycling.  The more you work in decentralized systems and closed loops, the more you feed people.  Food sovereignty is the ability of local communities to feed themselves.  The current system is creating stuff that isn’t food.  The second reason that it’s so important to have food sovereignty and food justice is because the rights of nature is the cutting edge for creating a new world.  And the food sovereignty movement is the cutting edge in this cutting edge, because everyone needs to eat every day. Once we begin to change the emphasis from corporations dictating what we eat, we will be able to secure all sorts of other democracy.

As far as Zizek goes, he’s got it totally wrong.  Relating to the rights of Mother Earth IS a post-industrial idea.

Pablo Solon: When we speak about the rights of Mother Nature, we’re not speaking only about living beings.  We’re talking about the rights of all the components of the living system.  That means the rights of glaciers, forests, and all other aspects of ecosystems.  From our point of view, these are all part of one living system.  The Earth is a whole living system.  So it’s not just animal life that has rights.  No, the system as a whole has life.  And this is something that scientists agree on.  The UN told us that this was religion, Pachamama.  So we came with documentation from NASA showing that scientists looked at it this way.  Water has rights.  The cycle of water is something vital for water, but also for the whole system.  We can break it, or we can respect all these rights and all these rules that the system as a whole has.  Why rights?  When we began this discussion two years ago at UN, we were told to speak about “principles for responsible way of living with nature.”  But the key issue is to call it rights.  Why don’t people want to call it rights?  Because you can be sued if you infringe on rights.  This would mean that all citizens could stand up and defend the rights of nature when they’re affected.  I would agree that in theory it would be better not to have such a legal system, but this is what we have at the moment.  To speak about Mother Earth’s rights challenges the entire legal system that this capitalist system is based.  This is why we insist on talking about rights.  Someone who kills someone else goes to jail, but if you pollute a river, nothing happens to you.  We have to be accountable. The key issue is to make us accountable in relation to our Earth system.

Maude Barlow: We need to be careful about our language of decentralization.  Shifting responsibility down to local level is a form of power grab.  We need local empowerment, not simply decentralization.  We also need to be aware that the powerful have a right not to know – they are so powerful that they don’t have to think about the terrible situation we’re in.  In opposition to this, we need a right to care.

Shannon Biggs: The regulatory system was created to regulate citizens not corporations.  It was taken for granted that corporations could pollute in order to make profit.  This is what contemporary movements are challenging.

Cormac Cullinan: I’m very conscious of the fact that many of the ideas we’re talking about are ancient.  I tried to include many quotations from indigenous peoples around the planet in my work.  But the point is that we’re not proposing more environmental laws.  Such laws are already designed to regulate the rate at which we exploit.  Like a law that says you may only whip your slave twice a day.  The point is to challenge the entire system.  We’re trying to say that we need to use this language of rights because it forces us to look at Nature as a subject in a different way. We’re trying to map our human governance systems onto natural governance systems so that they’re consistent.  To the extent that they’re not, we need to change them.

Vandana Shiva: Just as feminism is about respecting women as independent subjects, ecofeminism enlarges that circle to all life on Earth.


Filed under environment, imperialism

The Visual Economy of Urban Empire

A squad of twelve Marines edges into the home of an Afghani villager named Omar, whom they have learned is sympathetic to U.S. forces and wants to exchange information about enemy insurgents for help with his broken generator. While the squad is in Omar’s home, however, a woman whom they find out is his mother grows increasingly agitated. Her husband has been killed by Coalition air strikes, and, upset about the presence of so many soldiers in her home, she begins to yell at Omar to get them out of the house. How will the squad leader react to the curses of Omar’s mother, uttered in a language he doesn’t understand? While Omar is initially calm and courteous, his behavior changes markedly if the squad overreacts to his mother’s yelling. Will the squad succeed in extracting information from Omar and in maintaining calm?

Along with the explosion of an improvised explosive device at an Afghani police recruitment center and a coordinated attack on an isolated base, this scenario unfolds in a virtual Afghanistan located inside the Combat Hunter Action and Observation Simulation (CHAOS) exercise in Camp Pendleton’s Infantry Immersion Trainer (IIT) virtual environment. Part of U.S. Joint Forces Command’s Future Immersive Training Environment (FITE) scheme, the CHAOS exercise was developed with the help of the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), creating a simulated experience through which soon-to-be-deployed Marines interact with live role players while realistic virtual sights, smells, and sounds, as well as animatronic figures, mimic the Afghani reality they will soon encounter. Jay Reist, FITE operations manager, opined that the aptly named CHAOS exercise is “not about the gadgets… We’ve focused on figuring out how people make complex decisions in sensory-overloaded environments and what we need to do to achieve that realism in training.”[i]

FITE and CHAOS are part of a series of simulation exercises developed by the U.S. military in recent years to help troops deal with a relatively new reality, the anarchic experience of what the armed forces term Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT). The virtual and mixed-reality exercises carried out in the FITE program are not so distant from the forms of virtual gaming available online through military-sponsored programs such as America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior.  These sophisticated games are also available to civilians, offering a potent recruitment tool as well as a visceral experience of the forms of hypercapitalized militarism that characterize U.S imperialism today. In this presentation, I explore the genealogy of these games’ representation of the urban space of empire.  Looking in particular at Calcutta under the British Raj and Algiers under the French, I argue that the visual economy of urban empire is constituted by increasingly sophisticated scopophilic representational technologies that paradoxically produce an ever-more disembodied imperial cybernetic subject. If, that is, imperial visual technologies have become far more capable of peeling back the skin of the city to reveal the urban viscera that lie beneath, the colonial gaze remains enduringly phobic about the forms of corporeal propinquity that result. The upshot today is a turn towards forms of virtuality such as robotic warfare that help to legitimate notions of virtuous imperial war.

As the high visibility of urban environments in Joint Operation Environment (JOE) 2010, U.S. Joint Forces Command’s most recent strategic document, suggests, the military is highly aware of the urbanization of warfare over the last three decades.  If the paradigmatic image of the Vietnam War was the burning village, today’s key icon of war is the rioutous city.  It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  In the late 1980s, Pentagon theorists began discussing a so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) that would endow the US with unparalleled “full spectrum dominance.”[ii] In many ways this was a reaction to the protest catalyzed by Vietnam; in fact, US commander General William Westmoreland famously predicted the future automation of warfare in reaction to the guerrilla tactics of anti-colonial insurgents in the late 1960s.[iii] By the 1980s, military theorists were doing their best to realize Westmoreland’s vision, arguing that the US could use cutting edge networked information technology to vault beyond all potential military antagonists in the same manner that the Germans’ use of coordinated air- and armored-assaults had handed them primacy in the blitzkrieg against continental Europe at the onset of World War II.  As James Del Derian has remarked, the ferocious destructive potential of US military technology as it developed in the 1990s had the paradoxical effect of strengthening the belief in virtuous warfare by allowing civilian and military leaders to unleash violence from a distance and by remote control – with few to no American casualties.[iv] The satellite-controlled destruction that rained down on Iraqi forces retreating from Kuwait during the first Gulf War seemed to confirm the hype associated with the Revolution in Military Affairs, helping to exorcise the ghost of Vietnam by banishing fears about US casualties in a protracted ground war.

Yet these visions of god-like military supremacy quickly dissolved as war went urban.  For much of the military, the urbanization of war was a product of the US’s overwhelming hegemony in traditional combat.  In order to explain Operation Urban Resolve, a Joint Forces Command war gaming “experiment” that I attended several years ago, for example, spokesmen cited the US superiority as a primary factor for insurgents’ move to urban terrain:

The explosive growth of the world’s major urban centers, changes in enemy strategies, and the global war on terror have made the urban battlespace potentially decisive and virtually unavoidable.  Some of our most advanced military systems do not work as well in urban areas as they do in open terrain.  Therefore, joint and coalition forces should expect that future opponents will choose to operate in urban environments to try to level the huge disparity between our military and technological capabilities and theirs.

Given the military’s renewed interest in urban constabulary actions, it is worth looking back at colonial representations of urban space to see how the imperial gaze constructs city culture.  Keeping in mind Henri Lefebvre’s seminal arguments about the way in which the city does not simply express social relations but rather shapes and produces them, we will want to pay particular attention to the ways in which the imperial gaze navigates the social relations played out in the colonial city, seeking not simply to lay bare these social relations to its inquisitive eye but also to transform those relations through processes of representing, surveying, and cataloguing.  To what extent, we will want to consider, does such colonial urban scopophilia anticipate the technologies of representation deployed in the new urban wars?

For heuristic purposes I initiate this discussion of the visual economy of empire in Calcutta under the British Raj, but, as I hope to demonstrate, similar dynamics were at play in many if not all colonial cities.  British artists in Bengal in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were confronted by a terrain that lacked the ideally variegated topography inherited from the Italian landscape tradition; Bengal was, after all, mainly flat swampland.  In place of sublime mountains and lakes, however, British artists such as William Hodges and William Daniell added lustre to their depictions of Bengal by focusing on the picturesque decaying remains of the Mughal Empire in the region.  These crumbling, vine-strewn mosques piqued the European fascination with lost civilizations and sparked a craze for Oriental architecture in late 18th century Britain.  At the same time, though, such images legitimated the expansionist designs of the East India Company in Bengal by suggesting that Indian civilization was in a phase of decadence, unable to develop the land adequately and incapable of ruling itself.

When they turned to representations of Bengali cities such as Calcutta, British artists redeployed such pictorial codes, creating a panorama that mixed vibrant commerce with what looked to an aristocratic European eye to be brutish squalor and decay. In James Baillie Fraser’s “A View of the Bazaar Leading to Chitpore Road” of 1819, for example, we see precisely this combination of desire and dread in the European colonial gaze.  Fraser’s painting catalogues the tremendous variety of wares for sale in the Calcutta bazaar, but also depicts decaying buildings and native bodies in various states. This ambivalent visual economy was paralleled by accounts of urban space in contemporary travel narratives.

Representations of the European portions of Calcutta could not been more starkly different.  Here, artists such as Thomas Daniells depicted a neo-classical idyll in which the orderly symmetry of the administrative buildings of the East India Company lends visual and moral authority to British rule in Bengal .  In this image, taken from James Baillie Fraser’s “Views of Calcutta and Its Environs” (1826), we see Government House, the seat of East India Company rule.  In the distance, just in front of the massive neoclassical company headquarters, we catch a glimpse of Governor General Lord Hastings about to set off for a drive, with his carriage and bodyguard awaiting.  The segregationist intentions of colonial urbanism are made quite evident by the separation of the well-trafficked roadway in the foreground of Fraser’s painting from the grounds of Government House, which is set off by an iron railing on a plinth that is interrupted by four triumphal gateways at both ends of the carriageways running across the north and south facades of the building.

As these images of Calcutta under the Raj suggest, the visual economy of urban empire was underpinned by a broader representational politics that suggested that Europeans alone had the right to occupy the key institutional sites of city space.  In her discussion of representations of Calcutta, Swati Chattopadhyay argues that Orientalist discourses represented authentic India as grounded in village life, cultural antiquity, and defective theocracy.[v] Similarly, in discussing colonial rule in Africa, Mahmood Mamdani makes an analogous point, arguing that the colonial state in Africa was “bifurcated, with different modes of power in rural and urban areas.  Urban power spoke the language of civil society and civil rights, rural power of community and culture.  Civil power claimed to protect rights, customary power pledged to enforce tradition.”[vi] If, in other words, colonial rural areas were the space of authentic colonial subjects, the city was the space of the European citizen, transplanted from Britain or France, as the case may be, in order to administer the extraction of natural wealth and labor that was the underlying rationale of empire.

This neat Manichean division of colonial space was a convenient fiction of empire, one that had little to do with the quotidian realities of colonial power.  As James Baillie Fraser’s representations of early nineteenth century Calcutta suggest, everyday life in Indian cities for European colonials involved inevitable propinquity to Indian officials, merchants, concubines, and servants of many different kinds.  Moreover, as Chattopadhyay convincingly shows, the myth of “dual cities” divided into segregated “white” and “black” towns is based on imperial narratives of difference and superiority that were belied in Calcutta by the constant blurring of spatial boundaries as heterogeneous populations moved in and out of particular portions of the city and as specific buildings were put to heterogeneous uses.[vii]

These regulatory fictions of spatialized racial difference were nonetheless extremely powerful, and continued to overwrite empirical realities that demonstrated precisely the opposite.  By 1847, for example, James Snow had discovered the water-borne nature of the cholera epidemic that decimated Britain after traveling across the Eurasian continent from Bengal in the early 19th century. Yet colonial medicine in India retained its belief in a miasmic theory of disease that emphasized the danger of noxious airborne contaminants, which were in turn connected in texts such as James Ranald Martin’s seminal Notes on the Medical Topography of Calcutta of 1836 to the notion that disease was produced by a combination of the insalubrious tropical climate and the lax morals of the indigenous inhabitants of the city.  By the mid-19th century, colonial medical discourse had shifted from the notion of “seasoning” Europeans to the tropical climate that had prevailed in earlier centuries to sanitary paradigms based on mapping disease onto a biopolitical grid of race, religion, and caste difference in order to establish a cordon sanitaire around the aptly named European civil lines and military cantonments. Cholera maps such as this one, produced in 1886, represented the native precincts of the city as a pathological space, its unsanitary conditions linked to superstitious, pre-modern beliefs.  The epidemiological mapping of colonial urban space was linked to broader biopolitical and cultural practices of urban segregation.  As Anthony King put it in his still-valuable study of colonial urbanism, “above all else, the [European] compound was a culture area, an area modified to express the value-system of the metropolitan society as interpreted by colonal community.  In conditions of exile, creation of this environment was instrumental in maintaining a sense of identity.”[viii] The aim was to create a rigidly differentiated, systematically hierarchized, and therefore thorougly salubrious space of imperial urban spectacle, a goal that necessitated the transfer of the Raj’s capital to Delhi and, ultimately, the construction of New Delhi.

The invention of a verticle axis of vision through which urban space could be catalogued – evident in the cholera map I just displayed – was an important component in legitimating and facilitating this politics of the imperial cordon sanitaire.  By lifting the viewer above the incessantly mutable hurly burly of everyday life in the colonial city, representations such as the cholera map constituted a powerful representational technology that could quantify and freeze urban space into a decipherable and actionable set of discrete segments.  Yet this verticle axis of the urban visual economy always existed in tension with the horizontal axis, through which the often opaque but always titillating flow of city life could be recorded.  Nonetheless, technological changes of the late 19th and early 20th century added to the potency of the vertical axis, as first photography and then cinema allowed the imperial gaze to adopt a bird’s-eye perspective.  As we shall see, the bird’s-eye ultimately became a bombardier’s point of view.  These transformations in the visual economy of urban empire are particularly evident in the Maghreb, where the invention of aerial bombardment in fact took place in 1911.  I turn now to a discussion of representations of Algiers under French rule that illustrates these mutations in the visual economy of urban empire particularly powerfully.

Just as in India under the British Raj, the primary dynamic driving the production of urban space following the French colonization of Algeria in the mid-19th century was the engineering of racial segregation.  One of the first comprehensive designs for Algiers, Charles-Fréderick Chassériau’s plan of the 1860s, carried out the effective division of the city into a European zone, the Marine Quarter, which was firmly separated from the indigenous casbah on the densely populated hills above by a broad boulevard.[ix] This principle of segregation remained of cardinal importance into the modern period, as the influential experimental plans of Le Corbusier for the city’s development in the 1930s demonstrate As in other colonial cities, French urban planners in Algiers evinced a lively concern with the creation of clean, well-ventilated spaces.[x] Located outside the cordon sanitaire that putatively insulated European colonial society, the casbah during the colonial era exemplified the original dynamic that Foucault identified within biopower: a race war in which the tag “society must be defended” comes to legitimate the deployment of forms of power that blur the boundary between regulation and warfare.  Indeed, the colonial city demonstrates the fallacy of assuming that regulation and warfare are antinomies; only by ignoring the Manichean spaces of the colony can these two apparatuses of power be seen as opposed to one another.[xi]

Despite its association with racial alterity and contamination, the casbah nevertheless always exerted a strong pull on the French colonial imaginary.  European writers and painters alike found the casbah’s sweeping wall of whitewashed houses with their rooftop terraces irresistibly picturesque.  The fascination of the casbah for the Orientalist gaze lay not simply in its dramatic vertical architectonic qualities, however, but also in the specific interplay of public and private space that characterized the area.  While she is critical of sweeping stereotypes concerning “the Muslim city,” urban historian Janet Abu-Lughod nonetheless argues that Islam did shape social, political, and legal institutions in the cities of the Maghreb, and that gender segregation was perhaps the foremost concern molding the urban fabric in the region.[xii] As a result of this emphasis, public spaces such as streets in Algiers tended to be the domain of men, while women occupied the domestic spaces of traditional houses.  Because of these gendered codes and the climatic qualities of the region, areas such as the Algiers casbah were composed of narrow, twisting alleys bordered by high, nearly uninterrupted building facades.  Inside these blank walls, however, traditional houses opened out onto courtyards surrounded by arcades.  In addition, the serried rooftop terraces of the casbah provided a common living space that allowed women in different buildings to communicate with one another.  The frisson of difference and mystery generated by this architecture of gendered seclusion proved endlessly provocative for French urbanists and colonial policymakers.

In fact, the lure of the casbah, represented in metonymic form as a feminized other, was rampant in French colonial culture. The prototypical image in this regard is, of course, Delacroix’s 1834 painting “Femmes d’Alger Dans Leur Appartement”.  Delacroix’s painting gains its power not simply by laying bare the exotic garb and proscribed flesh of a group of Algerian women, but also through the fantasy it unfolds of effortless penetration into the hidden sanctum of the Algerian house.[xiii] These themes of voyeuristic penetration into proscribed spaces, and the objectification of women that went along with such male fantasies, are repeatedly obsessively throughout the late nineteenth and into the twentieth century.  The seductive character of these representations of oriental mystery and sexuality in academic art became even more prurient after the invention of photography catalyzed a lively trade in pornographic postcards of Northern African women.[xiv]

Such imperial urban scopophilia reached a crescendo as cinema turned to the colonies for subject matter.  Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le moko of 1937 offers us the tale of a French gangster who goes to ground in the casbah, represented in the film as an impenetrable space of multiracial, polyglot, feminized alterity.  In Duvivier’s film, the dashing gangster Pépé is ultimately undone by his desire for a Parisian woman who penetrates into his lair in the casbah, suggesting that he has become unmanned despite his tough-guy exterior by his sojourn in the bowels of the Orient.

If the imperial gaze is both lured and repelled by the casbah, the increasingly powerful technologies of representation through which that gaze came to be deployed during the late colonial era present the titillating fantasy of penetrating the casbah’s labyrinthine streets in ever more realistic ways.  Yet this realism was of course a construction, as the orientalistic excess of Pépé le moko underlines.  Film, as Walter Benjamin suggested, might have been able to carve up reality like a surgeon, yet it hardly did so in a sanitized and objective manner.

Indeed, the scopophilic imperial gaze often substituted fantasies of technological penetration for the far less seemly modes of power assumed by colonial urban conquest and counterinsurgency.  Gillo Pontecorvo’s great docudrama of the Algerian revolution, The Battle of Algiers, consciously juxtaposes these conflicting modes of urban biopower.  The film opens with a torture scene in which the French paratroopers force a captive member of the Algerian resistance to confess the hiding place of the last remaining leaders of the liberation movement.  Pontecorvo’s film then cuts to the opening credits, which unfold over scenes of the paras swarming through the streets and across the rooftops of the casbah.

The French ability to move effortlessly across the proscribed rooftops of the casbah and to penetrate into the private spaces of Algerian homes, the rest of the film demonstrates, is gradually developed and ultimately won through systematic practices of torture and summary execution that polarized French society and threatened the liberal regime of parliamentary rule that obtained in the metropole with the forms of authoritarian power articulated in the colony.  Such blowback, Battle of Algiers implies, is the ineluctable outcome of imperial urban scopophilic fantasy.

How do representations of contemporary urban warfare compare with these colonial-era texts?  Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down might be taken as a particularly paradigmatic example in this regard.  Released in early 2002 as the US was preparing to invade Iraq, the film recreated the bruising defeat suffered by an elite group of Army Rangers at the hands of ethnic militias in Mogadishu in 1993.  The film hammers home the message since repeated in great detail by theorists of Military Operations in Urban Terrain: war in cities is combat in hell.  The scene in which the Rangers descend on the city from their remote base is particularly revealing.

The segueway from the preternatural calm of the troops as they approach the city in helicopters and the ensuing chaos on street level contrasts all too clearly with that other famous Hollywood representation of airborne assault: the “Ride of the Valkyrie” sequence from Apocalypse Now.  Instead of an adrenalin-pumping soundtrack followed by the imbecilic orders issued to his surfing G.I.’s by the apparently invincible Lt. Col. Kilgore in Coppolla’s film, Black Hawk Down’s protagonists disappear into a sandstorm that literalizes the chaotic fog of war.

Yet if Black Hawk Down brutally reverses the gonzo heroism of Coppolla’s sequence and offers an unremittingly gory street-level depiction of urban warfare in the scenes that follow, it nevertheless shares a good deal with Vietnam revision films. Critics such as Susan Jeffords and Marilyn Young have argued that such films perform their ideological work by erasing the problematic political terrain of U.S. Cold War interventions.[xv] In films from The Green Berets (dirs. Ray Kellog and John Wayne 1968) to We Were Soldiers (dir. Randall Wallace 2002), the Vietnam War is transformed into a series of isolated battles of which Americans can feel proud through a recycling of World War II themes, with the crucial focus being on the combat troops themselves, the beleaguered “band of brothers” with whom the audience is encouraged to identify.[xvi] The tight focus on these noble warriors, almost always shown dying heroic deaths while clutching photos of loved ones, offers a strategic elision of political considerations of the war’s motives, and pits the lone soldier against not only hosts of enemies but also against the “Establishment” in the form of superior officers and the policy-making elite in Washington.  True to this now-dominant form of Hollywood military myth making, Black Hawk Down sticks in many ways to the “support the troops” script.  Despite a few scenes that raise concerns about the morality of the US military’s engagement in humanitarian interventions, the film retains a carefully circumscribed focus on citizen-soldiers under fire, a narrative thrust that leaves the viewer “in the position of vaguely distrusting government – a faceless, ambiguous ‘Washington’ – but embracing the military as embodied in the soldier-patriot – and thus, ironically, deferring to the decision-making of government institutions so as not to oppose the soldier culture that serves those institutions without question.”[xvii] Within the street-level perspective of the shooting and bleeding warband, there is quite literally no possibility of seeing through the eyes of the Somali other, who is depicted almost exclusively as a menacing horde.

Discussion of films depicting urban combat such as Black Hawk Down perhaps misses the mark, however, for such forms of representation have been to a significant extent replaced in the popular imperial imaginary by a new technology of scopophilia: the video game.  Such games not only surpass film in terms of annual revenue, but in addition they have been taken on board by the military as an active tool not just for recruiting but also for training troops about to be deployed to urban combat zones.[xviii] It would be wrong to see videogames as antagonistic to cinematic technologies, however, since they build on and incorporate many of the key tropes of Hollywood representation.  This should not be so surpring given the fact that, through outfits such as the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, what James Der Derian calls MIME – the military-industrial-media-entertainment complex – has consolidated notable synergies between academia, Hollywood, and the military.  Importantly, these video games vastly augment cinema’s claims to realism by allowing players not simply to look at a spectacle but to perform acts within the imaginary world conjured up through digital aesthetics.[xix] In fact, claims to fidelity of representation seem to be central aspects of the appeal of such games.  During an era in which “embedding” prevented most members of the American public from gaining access to representations of the battle zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, videogames produced either by the US military or through the many cooperative agreements that characterize the burgeoning military-entertainment complex offered privileged glimpses of the predominantly urban battlefields of the War on Terror.

One of the most successful of these videogames is America’s Army.  Developed using $7 million of taxpayer money, the game was made available for free on an Army website and was downloaded 2.5 million times during the two months following its release.[xx] The game theoretically takes players through strenuously accurate versions of the Army’s basic training program that include training in military operations in urban terrain (MOUT), allowing successful players to graduate eventually to Special Forces operations in combat zones.  Promotional material for the game, which also serves quite openly as an Army recruitment drive, stresses the verisimilitude of the game by ironically blurring the dividing line between reality and the game, suggesting that warfare has become a totally cybernetic experience.

Yet, just as was true in cinema, this imperial cybernetic technology interpolates subjects in a particular manner.  The first-person shooter format of the game reduces urban spaces to free fire zones.  Game players are always positioned as American or British troops.  When groups of networked players battle one another, each team sees their antagonists through a form of cybernetic Orientalism, their opponents’ skin tone magically rendered more swarthy and their upper lips sporting Saddam-style mustaches.  The feeling of interactivity and somatic immersion programmed into the game thus creates an illusory experience of realism since the game always reproduces the dominant ideological orientation of the current policy establishment.  No consideration is given to the broader ethical questions raised by warfare in the name of fostering democracy, and there is little opportunity within the space of the game to consider the impact of war on civilians or on the long-term psychological health of combatants.  The more such games emphasize contextual detail, the more glaring is the discrepancy between such gestures towards verisimilitude and the streamlined and endlessly reproducible character of the first-person shooter game on which they are all modeled.  This contrast is particularly stark in a game like Kuma\War, whose website regularly features updated mini-scenarios grounded in specific events in the War on Terror, with abundant journalistic back stories and detailed testimony from members of the Armed Forces to support the game’s realism, but which ultimately devolves into first-person shooting matches.

While screening out the contradictions of urban warfare, post-9/11 video wargames emphasize bonding through combat in a manner analogous to and perhaps more powerful than that of cinematic relations of theirs such as Black Hawk Down.  The game Full Spectrum Warrior, whose title archly refers to JFCOM’s doctrine of supremacy on multiple different levels of the battlezone, hinges on precisely such male bonding.  The game begins with two squads – Alpha and Bravo companies – dropped off like the Rangers in Black Hawk Down in the midst of a city filled with hostile fighters and cut off from their commanders by the static of war.  Players must leapfrog their teams through dangerous city streets.

What unfolds in the game is an intense homosocial fantasy, one in which the soft flesh of the enemy is the medium through which video war-gamers achieve immortality by bonding with a band of brothers and by freezing time in the eternal present of the gaming battlezone.[xxi]

None of the video games I have discussed attempt to hide the bloody character of urban war; instead, the thanatopoetic performance of the war-gamer is an extension of the erotomaniac gaze of the colonial scopophiliac.  There are few women present in these games, civilian or otherwise, and none of the eroticized objects that attracted the colonial gaze.  Instead, the city itself is turned into a plastic, feminized body, to be swarmed over and penetrated at will by the cybernetic warrior.  There is, I would argue, a strong link between the repetition compulsion of cybernetic death dealing in games like Full Spectrum Warrior and the desire for eternal life that characterizes the ambivalent drives of the imperial imaginary across the colonial-postcolonial divide.  War games literally provide an intoxicating opportunity for players to live out General Westmoreland’s fantasy of fully automated warfare, creating a space in which death can be overcome through the cybernetic extension of the self into an eternal imperial future.

Although Full Spectrum Warrior locates its players in the chaotic spaces of global cities of the South, the vertical axis of the imperial gaze always beckons.  When either of the squads gets particularly badly pinned down by enemy fire, for example, team leaders/players can use GPS to survey the area and, when things get really hectic, can call in helicopter reconnaissance and bombardment.  At these moments in the game, as the vertical axis of imperial vision reasserts itself, players adopt the perspective of what Jordan Crandall calls “a militarized, machinic surround,” an angle of vision involved in “positioning, tracking, identifying, predicting, targeting, and intercepting/containing.”[xxii] The fantasy here is of a militarized cyborg identity in which the horizontal and verticle axes of imperial vision blend seamlessly together.  The libidinal tug of this form of what Crandall calls “armed vision” is strong.  As he puts it, “One cannot underestimate the extent to which representation, cognition, and vision are embedded within this circuit. The drive is bound up in an erotic imaginary of technology-body-artillery fusion, fueled under the conditions of war.”

Yet as critics such as Stephen Graham and P.W. Singer have argued, the dreams of technological mastery that animate Pentagon robotic technologies such as the Predator drone program raise dramatic practical and ethical questions.[xxiii] On the most immediate level, they tend to turn warfare into a bloodless video game, deadening US warfighters’ sensibilities to killing and incensing target populations, as even the generals seem willing to admit.  In addition, as armed robots become increasingly autonomous, particularly thorny issues concerning agency, responsibility, and violence arise.  As the philosopher Peter Asaro argues, new legal regimes need to be developed to ban autonomous military robots since it is impossible to determine ultimate responsbility for war crimes committed by such weapons.  Finally, many technologies of robotic destruction, like IEDs, are relatively inexpensive and easy to manufacture.  Unless the desire for technological mastery that characterizes the vertical axis of the imperial urban gaze is checked, it is only a matter of time before such robots become as ubiquitous and deadly as landmines for everyone in (and even outside) combat zones.

The massive growth of the global cities of the South over the last quarter century and the increasing prevalence of warfare in these cities has made the technophilic fantasies of robowar very attractive for the contemporary imperial imaginary.  As I have tried to demonstrate, however, these desires and the visual economy that supplements and underpins them did not emerge out of thin air.  Although the question of urban empire today is connected to networked digital warmaking technologies, these issues are never simply technological but are rather deeply embedded in visual economies and imaginaries with a long imperial history.  Moreover, the genealogy of the imperial urban visual economy that I have traced by looking at representations of colonial Calcutta and Algiers underlines the extent to which the spectacular architecture of imperial urbanism was always shot through with an unstable mixture of fear and desire.  The inescapable propinquities of the imperial city ensured, in other words, the mutability of identity in the urban realm, rendering strategies aimed at constructing condons sanitaire of various forms futile in the long run.

The same might be said for contemporary imperialist military operations in urban terrain, for although  such operations may produce tactical successes, they almost inevitably generate broader strategic debacles.  Even contemporary Pentagon operatives seem willing to admit this fact.  Six months after the start of the Iraq War, for example, the special operations chiefs at the Pentagon organized a screening of Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers for their employees that sought to highlight the pitfalls of attempts to stamp out urban counter-insurgencies.  The flyer for the screening set out the parallels between the battle of Algiers and urban conflicts in contemporary Iraq quite clearly: “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas…  Children shoot soldiers at point blank range.  Women plant bombs in cafes.  Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor.  Sound familiar?  The French have a plan.  It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically.  To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.”[xxiv] One can’t help thinking that the Pentagon could have used a few more screenings of The Battle of Algiers.

[i] Jay Reist, quoted in USJFCOM press release, “FITE demonstration builds small unit teamwork, cohesion,” Accessed 3/21/11,

[ii] The doyen of US military theorists, Andrew Marshall of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, notes that the Soviets were the first to begin speculating about the impact of information technology on warfare, although it was his legendary memorandum of 1993, “Some Thoughts on Military Revolutions,” that triggered the full blown discourse on a revolution in military affairs within the US.  See James Der Derian, Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001), 28.

[iii] Ed Halter, From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games (New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 2006), 103.

[iv] James Der Derian, Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001), xv.

[v] Swati Chattopadhyay, Representing Calcutta: Modernity, Nationalism, and the Colonial Uncanny (New York: Routledge, 2006), 9.

[vi] Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject, 18.

[vii] Chattopadhyay, 77.

[viii] King, Anthony D., Colonial Urban Development: Culture, Social Power and Environment (London: Routledge, 1976), 142.

[ix] Zeynep Çelik, Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations: Algiers Under French Rule (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997).

[x] On the miasmic theory of disease, see Sheldon Watts, Epidemics and History: Disease, Power, and Imperialism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).  For discussion of the role of the miasmic theory of disease in the colonial urban development of New Delhi, see Anthony J. King, Colonial Urban Development.

[xi] For a discussion of Foucault’s notions of biopower, neoliberalism, and warfare, see Leerom Medovoi, “Global Society Must Be Defended: Biopolitics Without Boundaries,” Social Text 91 (vol. 25, no. 2, Winter 2008): 53-79.

[xii] Cited in Çelik, 15.

[xiii] For more extensive discussion of Delacroix’s painting, see Assia Djebar, Women of Algiers in their Apartment (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1999).

[xiv] See Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 1986).

[xv] Susan Jeffords, The Remasculinization of American Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989); Marilyn B. Young, “In the Combat Zone,” Radical History Review 85: 253-64.

[xvi] Young, 261.

[xvii] Stephen A. Klien, “Public Character and Simulacrum: The Construction of the Soldier Patriot and Citizen Agency in Black Hawk Down,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 22.5 (December 2005): 444.

[xviii] On video game sales, see Halter, xviii.

[xix] On the realist aesthetic in videogames, see Alexander Galloway, “Social Realism in Gaming,” Game Studies 4.1 (November 2004), accessed September 25, 2009, <;.

[xx] Halter, xviii.

[xxi] On Full Spectrum Warrior in particular and imperial video gaming in general, see Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 97-123.

[xxii] Jordan Crandall, “Armed Vision,” Multitudes 15 (May 2004).

[xxiii] Stephen Graham, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism (New York: Verso, 2010) and P.W. Singer, Wired for War: The Robotic Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (New York: Penguin, 2009).

[xxiv] Cited in Charles Paul Freund, “The Pentagon’s Film Festival: A Primer for The Battle of Algiers,” Slate (Wednesday, August 27, 2003), accessed February 11, 2008, <>

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Superfund Stories

A couple of weeks ago I attended my first public meeting at a Superfund site.  This site is a rather nondescript triangle of land in the Port Richmond neighborhood, just to the west of my home in St. George.  Like many other parts of Staten Island, this now overgrown plot is a reminder of the toxicity produced by centuries of industrial production.

The site is official known at the Jewett White Lead Site. From 1839 to 1890, John Jewett and Sons operated a lead paint factory on the waterfront along the Kill van Kull at 2015 Richmond Terrace. The business was then taken over by National Lead, another paint factory, and continued to produce lead-based white paint until 1943. Various other businesses operated on the grounds subsequently, including, disturbingly, an ice cream factory.

In December 2008, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) representatives collected soil samples from test pits on the site of the old paint factory.  They determined that elevated levels of lead are present throughout the site: the maximum detected concentration of lead (97,921 mg/kg) far exceeded the screening criteria for both children (400 mg/kg) and adults (880 mg/kg).

The statistics delivered by the EPA at the Jewett White Lead Site meeting prompted me to think about the toxicity that saturates the urban environment and seeps into our bodies, leaving ghostly traces and intensified concentrations over the years.  This toxicity is rendered in particularly graphic terms by a recent article in National Geographic in which reporter David Duncan tested himself for 320 toxic chemicals; he tested positive for 165, finding that his body harbored PCBs, DDT, dioxin, mercury, and PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), flame-retardant chemicals put in everything from mattresses to the plastic and fabric interiors of cars and airplanes.

Duncan’s article offers an extremely unnerving account of the way in which the chemical-laden objects that surround us in everyday life inevitably seep into our bodies, building up a potentially mortal charge over the years. As Nan Enstad argues in an excellent discussion of toxicity and the consuming subject published in the collection States of Emergency, toxins introduce ideas of risk to global commodity chains, leading us away from a focus solely on consumption.  Considering a history of toxicity’s flow, Enstad suggests, may raise questions about decision-making and the allocation of risk at all levels of capitalist production, from the body to the highest levels of globalization.  Attention to toxicity thus helps open the corporeal to cultural analysis.

The corporeal history inscribed by toxicity upon the body is rendered powerfully in the photo essay that accompanies Duncan’s article in National Geographic. From the spectral traces of lead that line a young girl’s pelvis in an X-ray taken in the US to the eye-less head of a Vietnamese child exposed to Agent Orange residues from the US war in Vietnam, these images make the all too invisible ramifications of toxic commodity chains visible.

As these images and the work of environmental justice advocates in recent decades makes clear, toxicity, like wealth, is not evenly distributed. The origins of the Superfund designation in fact go back to a working class community in Niagara Falls, New York.  Here, in the spring of 1972, a group of children found hard chalk-like lumps in the dirt of a playground near their local school.  After several of the children had to be hospitalized for burns produced by powder from these lumps, a history of environmental negligence and criminal duplicity began to emerge.  Residents of the city’s LaSalle neighborhood discovered that their houses and the community school had been built atop a toxic waste dump.  The Niagara Falls Board of Education, it gradually became clear, had bought the property on which the school sat from the Niagara-based Hooker Chemical Company in 1953.  Hooker Chemical had dumped the toxic residues of its production into the disused Love Canal on the site for decades, and then had sold the land to the Board of Ed for $1, with the proviso that they would bear no responsibility for damages caused by the chemical wastes buried at the site.

The grassroots campaign, lead by women such as Lois Gibbs, that developed around Love Canal is an important moment in the 20th century US environmental movement.  In subsequent decades, the environmental justice movement did much to underline the extent to which poor people and people of color are disproportionately exposed to toxic wastes in the land, water, and air of their communities.  Yet despite many decades of struggle, communities across the US and around the world continue to be subjected to forms of environmental racism and classism. In fact, it could even be argued that the soup of chemicals to which such communities are exposed has grown more lethal as companies develop increasingly complex substances, with genetically modified organisms now added to the catalog of toxins.

The ubiquity of Superfund sites around the US is highly unnerving, suggesting that few communities, particularly in the formerly industrial Northeastern US, are really very far away from a toxic site.  The illusion that the production of complex commodity chains has no impact on us is impossible to sustain in the face of this map, even if the residues and impact of toxins are often hard to detect in the individual body.

In the case of the Jewett White Lead Site, however, the long efforts of the environmental justice movement seem to have paid off.  The Port Richmond community in which the site is located is a predominantly African American and Latin@ neighborhood.  When the EPA called a public meeting to announce the results of its deliberations about how to clean up the site, there was consequently a great deal of community concern about whether the toxins would be safely removed from the soil.

At the public meeting, EPA officials were out in force.  They presented their decision with an almost theatrical flourish.  Before a decision was announced, an EPA spokeswoman outlined the various remedies considered by the organization: 1) do nothing; 2) remove all of the contaminated soil and fill the resulting hole in with clean topsoil; 3) put a soil cover over the contaminated site; 4) pave over the site; 5) immobilize the lead by adding concrete to the soil.

As these different option were described, the mandatory Powerpoint presentation itemized the costs of each of these approaches.  Everyone in the audience was silent as the staggering costs of the more preferable approaches were presented.

Despite this tension, however, the EPA pulled off a happy ending.  At the end of the presentation, officials announced that approach #2, complete “evacuation and off-site disposal/treatment,” was the preferred solution.

The public comment period for the Jewett site ended three days ago, and we now have to wait to hear what the final decision adopted by the EPA will be.  Yet while a thorough clean-up of the Jewett site may be in the cards, lingering questions remain about whether we can ever really make the toxic waste we produce go away.  When I asked during the meeting where the contaminated earth would be taken to, for example, the chief EPA official present answered that he didn’t know but that it would be a safe facility somewhere away from Staten Island.

To what extent, then, are we just moving toxins around?  Perhaps we are simply moving contaminants from Superfund sites to other, less-politically active sites.  Like an enduring answer to the issues raised by the rest of the waste stream produced by modern industrial capitalism, an enduring fix for the Superfund sites probably lies less in the pollute-and-evacuate approach currently prevalent in the US than in a determination not to produce toxins in the first place.  This, however, would require a sweeping transformation of today’s toxic cultures.

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