Monthly Archives: March 2013

What We Communists Want

Following on my last post concerning the danger of reproducing the dismal logic of contemporary capitalism in representations of uneven development, this morning I began thinking about the question of what we communists want.

well-being-map-gallopPart of the problem in trying to think this question today is that utopian horizons have been smashed and discredited by the patent failures of “really existing” socialism around the world during the last half century. But another strong problem is the way in which capitalism has gotten under our skin and into our minds, defining what is possible.

So, if we’re going to insist that another world is possible, what kind of world do we want it to be?  Certainly not the one we currently inhabit. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has been doing a great deal of work on the issue of Well Being. Two key facts they mention: since 1970, the UK’s Gross Domestic Product has doubled, but people’s satisfaction with life has not changed; 81% of Britons believe the government should prioritize creating the greatest happiness rather than the greatest wealth.

The NEF has participated in some important attempts to redefine Well Being on a national and international level, shifting the conversation away from GDP, which, as they point out, can be augmented through increased sales of guns and tobacco just as much as through increased spending on education and child care facilities. The projects of theirs that are worth checking out: Happy Planet Index (the “leading global index of sustainable well being) and the National Accounts of Well Being project.

Part of the problem here is that prescriptions for well being can often come across as pretty banal. NEF’s Five Ways to Well Being thus includes a list of actions that seem pretty obvious:

  • Connect
  • Be Active
  • Take Notice
  • Keep Learning
  • Give

They also seem hopelessly oriented to middle class citizens of affluent, overconsuming nations of the global North. It makes sense on some level to target such hyperconsumptionist subjects since the materialistic values that we Northerners have been coaxed to embrace are at the leading edge of destroying the planet through anthropogenic climate change, and our materialism is being disseminated through the global media as the paradigm to which all developing countries should aspire. We have to shift values in the global North if we are to avert catastrophe.

We also need to dismantle the skein of false desires generated by capitalist culture. This has been a dominant preoccupation of the Left over the last century, from the Frankfurt School intellectuals’ dyspeptic critiques of consumer culture, to Thomas Frank’s more recent discussion of the rise of Right-wing sentiments among the U.S. working class in books like What’s Wrong With Kansas?, to Sara Ahmad’s The Promise of Happiness, which discusses the ways in which the imperative to be happy leads to straightened and oppressive definitions of the self and social being.

Despite, then, the importance of this discussion of alternative definitions of well being in the North, it’s important to simultaneously ask what the question of well being would look like from a global South perspective. A partial answer to this question is given in the Vivir Bien project. Growing out of the insurgent Bolivarian movement in Latin America, the project is explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist.

An immediate set of demands on the path to well being were articulated at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.  The People’s Agreement crafted at this conference in Bolivia includes the following demands:

  • harmony and balance among all and with all things;
  • complementarity, solidarity, and equality;
  • collective well-being and the satisfaction of the basic necessities of all;
  • people in harmony with nature;
  • recognition of human beings for what they are, not what they own;
  • elimination of all forms of colonialism, imperialism and interventionism;
  • peace among the peoples and with Mother Earth;

I’d be very interested to hear what kinds of other models of well being have been articulated by social movements around the globe in recent years. At the beginning or the end of these lists, of course, should come the abolition of capitalism and its drive to ceaseless accumulation, which is of course at the roots of everyone’s unhappiness as well as the threat of planetary extinction.

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Uneven Geographies

uneven 2In his important book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon discusses the efforts of writer-activists to document what he describes as forms of “attritional violence whose effects are scattered across time and space.” How, he asks, do such intellectuals made visible the otherwise hidden, imperceptibly gradual but nonetheless deadly impact of environmental toxins such as depleted uranium.

I’ve been thinking about these questions as I write an essay for an edited collection focusing on the visual arts and critical landscapes. My piece looks in particular at artists such as Allan Sekula, George Osodi, Ursula Biemann, and the World of Matter collective.

My argument is that these artists are intent on documenting the forms of accumulation by dispossession that uneven 1characterize contemporary capitalism. One of the most interesting questions that I have come across while working on this essay has been the issue of how the visual arts can engage in forms of what Fredric Jameson called cognitive mapping while avoiding simply reproducing the soul-crushing landscape of exploitation that characterizes uneven development today. How, in other words, can you document without enervating?

It seems to me that this is a crucial question which many on the left are asking today. I think, for example, of Judith Halberstam’s recent The Queer Art of Failure and Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, each of which in its own way grapples with the pessimism of our current historical moment.

In thinking through these questions, I found the catalog essay by TJ Demos for Uneven Geographies, a show he uneven 3co-curated at the Nottingham Contemporary Art Museum, particularly useful. Demos puts the issue in the following terms: “in focusing on uneven development today we risk simply reaffirming its existence in the realm of representation.” How are visual artists, curators, and intellectuals more broadly to respond to this dilemma?

Demos argues that we may respond to the dismal moment in which we find ourselves by engaging with creative work that does not simply document but also responds to the uneven geographies of capitalism in a variety of modes and genres. We also need, he suggests, to document movements which are intent on articulating alternatives to the present suicidal state of affairs. Here is Demos from the exhibition catalog:

The exhibition’s ambition has been to highlight numerous aesthetic approaches—sociological as well as affective, documentary as much as performative. These approaches not only record, map, and explore forms of inequality related to neoliberal globalisation, but also reveal the power of oppositional and creative energies that are already directed against its economic-political arrangements, and open up other modes of globalisation. They thereby complicate and challenge the analysis of uneven geographies as an otherwise potentially disempowering fatalism.

Demos’s argument resonated for me in particular in relation to environmental issues. As Eddie Yuen argued recently in Catastrophism, “the politics of failure have failed.” While we need to be clear about the extremely grave future we face as a result of anthropogenic climate chaos, trying to galvanize public opinion through further displays of environmental catastrophe is a losing proposition. We need to concentrate our intellectual energies on viable alternatives to the grim present, as well as on articulating plausible alternative futures.

 

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Cartographic animations of casualties from US drone strikes

geographical imaginations

Following up my post on the air campaigns waged by the United States and by Pakistan inside the Federally Administered Tribal Territories and the North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), here are some screenshots from Chris Herwig‘s remarkable cartographic animation of casualties from US drone strikes from 2004 through to the present (data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism):

You can see the rapid escalation of strikes in 2009-2010 and their contraction in 2011-2012.  There is also a tendency for later strikes to cause fewer casualties; the Bureau suggests that this may have been the result of a deliberate decision to limit civilian casualties (the CIA was already reported to be using new, smaller missiles with a restricted blast field and minimal shrapnel by the spring of 2010, so the later change is likely to be down to a mix of better intelligence and greater circumspection) and, more recently…

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Representing the Landless

images-3Earlier this week I went to see a film in the MOMA New Directors/New Films series. The film was They’ll Come Back, a meditative, beautifully immersive film directed by the Brazilian Marcello Lordello.  The film tells the story of a teenage girl from a wealthy family who is left by the side of a road in the middle of the countryside as a punishment for fighting with her brother. Her parents do not return – we learn later that they are both left in a coma after a car hits them – and the girl, whose name is Cris, is left by herself when her brother hikes off in search of a gas station.

They’ll Come Back follows Cris as she moves from one good Samaritan to the next. She initially is helped by a boy who takes her to stay with his mother and sister, who are squatters on land occupied by other landless families under the leadership of members of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement. The film shows Cris’s disorientation in the rural world inhabited by these people, and traces her gradual return home to the affluent but sterile, reactionary world of city-dwelling bourgeois family. Of course she returns home completely changed.

images-1Lordello’s film offers a gentle critique of the massive inequalities of contemporary Brazilian society. The film’s conceit of following the unformed girl Cris reminded me in some ways of Hollywood’s anti-apartheid films of the 1980s. The assumption behind those films was always that white audiences couldn’t or wouldn’t identify with black actors, so each film had to have a middle class white protagonist, whose eyes are opened to the injustice of apartheid by an increasingly violent train of events. Similarly, They’ll Come Back clearly expects Brazilian audience members to identify with the middle class, extremely white character Cris as she journeys through the worlds of her poorer, darker-skinned compatriots.  What sort of film, I wondered as I sat watching They’ll Come Back, would result if the lens were turned around and a kid from the rural regions of Brazil were suddenly catapulted into the antiseptic elite world into which Cris was born.

This thought set me wondering about representations of the landless. With exceptions such as the Courbet painting at the outset of this post, the Western landscape tradition has tended to represent rural areas as idyllic zones of repose and retreat from the hectic crowds of modern urban life. Sebastiao Salgado’s photograph above offers a far more challenging view of the militancy of landless workers that is clearly influence by the Brazilian context.

Given the forms of accumulation by dispossession that David Harvey analyzes as increasingly characteristic of contemporary capitalism, what kinds of representations of landless people do we find in the media today? They’ll Come Back offers a glancing one, at best. Here’s the film’s trailer; it starts at the end of the film and works back to the beginning. As this clip shows, the MST interlude is a brief one:

A brief search turned up a couple of other films, both documentaries, depicting Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (whose acronym in Portuguese is MST).

History Did Not End is a documentary about the MST directed by the Italian Mario Alemi:

The NGO Other Worlds, which is also behind the Harvesting Justice project, has also done a documentary about MST:

In addition to such visual representations, there’s also the recent important book by Wendy Wolforth, This Land Is Ours Now, which discusses the rise and subsequent crisis of the MST.

We need more fictional or at least creative representations of such organizations. Such representations can offer us a sense of why such movements arise, what keeps them alive, and how they might be linked more effectively to one another.

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Profiting from Climate Insecurity

philliThese days, virtually everyone knows that the world we take for granted is becoming more precarious as a result of climate change. The key question is what we do as a result of this knowledge.

The official answer is various forms of mitigation and adaptation. In reality, however, there are many sectors of the economy and state in overdeveloped nations such as the U.S. that are primed to benefit financially and politically from climate chaos.

One of the main areas which stands to profit from climate change-induced social precariousness is the security industry. Policy analysts in this sector are already predicting that the security industry and the military will have to be augmented to deal with the social displacement and turmoil generated by climate change. Instead, in other words, of thinking about how to establish solidarity with affected nations and climate refugees, policy wonks in the U.S. and elsewhere are entrenching the lifeboat ethics that characterizes current racist anti-immigrant policies.

images-2Examples include a recent report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences called The Security Implication of Social Stress from Climate Change. The same agency also recently released a report discussing the national security implications of climate change for the U.S. Navy.

Such efforts by the security industry and military to profit from climate change are itemized and denounced in a key recent article by Nick Buxton and Ben Hayes. The Secure and the Damned, which excerpts a forthcoming book, provides an overview of the rationales advanced for securitizing climate change, and challenges the basic logic of such moves. Here is a paragraph from the article that summarizes some of the key issues:

In a world already demeaned by concepts like ‘collateral damage’, participants in these new climate war games need not speak candidly about what they envisage, but the subtext to their discourse is always the same: how can states in the industrialised North – at a time of increasing potential scarcity and, it is assumed, unrest – secure themselves from the ‘threat’ of climate refugees, resource wars and failed states, while maintaining control of key strategic resources and supply chains? In the words of the proposed EU climate change and international security strategy, for example, climate change is ‘best viewed as a threat multiplier’ which carries ‘political and security risks that directly affect European interests’.

Christian Parenti works some of this same territory in fascinating detail in his book Tropics of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. This is dangerous trend that the movement for climate justice is going to have to fight with all its power. We should remember, as the Cochabamba Declaration underlines, that the military is the source of a significant amount of world-destroying greenhouse gas emissions rather than a just solution to climate change.

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Indigenous activists and their allies stand up to big oil.

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The Politics of Climate Change

xin_15212061620171092619063Some good academic work has been coming out on the politics of climate change lately.  Here are a couple:

The latest special issue of the ACME, an online, open access journal of critical geography, is devoted to this topic, and features articles by Erik Swingedouw, Kelvin Mason, and David Featherstone, among others.

The Open Humanities Press, another open access project, has a series of books devoted to Critical Climate Change. Particularly interesting in this regard is Impasses of the Post-Global, which has contributions by a fantastic group of scholars working across a wide variety of genres.

Finally, the most recent issue of American Book Review, which I edited, has some great essays on Post-Apocalyptic Literature. Contributors include Jayna Brown, Brooks Landon, Rob Latham, Tavia Nyong’o, Lee Quinby, Sukhdev Sandhu, and myself.

(Un)happy reading!

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The World Bank funds the wrong projects

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The Right to Heal

shock_and_aweLast night I attended an event at the Brecht Forum to commemorate the Tenth Anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  The event featured Yanar Mohammed, President of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, Iraq Veterans Against the War Director of Organizing Maggie Martin, and Pam Spees of the Center for Constitutional Rights.  It was moderated by Ali Issa of the War Resister’s League.

The following is a transcript of the conversation.

Ali Issa: We’re here to mark the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and well as the launching of the Right to Heal Initiative.  I’d like to begin the evening by introducing playwright and activist Eve Ensler, who will introduce our guest from Iraq, Yanar Mohammed.

Eve Ensler: I spent the last two days revisiting Iraq, in a state of mourning about what has happened to the country.  Remember that moment in the Halliburton documentary when Dick Cheney is asked if he ever thinks about anything he’s done wrong.  He arrogantly responds that he never thinks about what he’s done wrong.  For those of us – millions – who protested against the war, it’s clear that things went very wrong from the beginning of the US invasion of Iraq.  I remember meeting Yanar during a phone interview; I couldn’t see her, but I felt she was fierce.  I went to many people in the government to see if they could host her here in US, but they said we couldn’t bring her because she’s a communist and is opposed to the war.  Now I spend a lot of time in the Congo, which has similar representation in the world to that of Iraq.  My experience with women who are fighters and revolutionaries is that they are the ones who bring new energy into the culture.  Like them, Yanar has started newspapers, opened shelters for women, opened radio stations.  The world is held up by such women activists who give their lives to keep the world going.

Ali Issa: Thank you, Eve.  Panelists: can you talk about the conditions that Iraqi activists face, as well as the achievements of the past 10 years and the demands of the Right to Heal Initiative?

Yanar Mohammed: It’s hard for me to sit here and be happy with applause.  I’m here because we’ve been bombed for 10 years.  Iraq has been turned into a country where women have the status of slaves and neighbors kill one another.  Before speaking about our achievements, I have to talk about the history of struggle in Iraq.  The political formula for Iraq imposed by the US has turned us into divided sectarian groups; it’s a blueprint for civil war.  This is exactly what has happened.  Since 2008, almost half a million people have been killed because of sectarian conflicts.  And in addition, the women of Iraq have been subjugated by a constitution that imposes sharia were it did not exist.  The US has not had to kill Iraqis – they just set a formula that divided the country along sectarian lines and we proceeded to kill one another.

Our opening up of shelters was a message to women that they don’t have to surrender to ‘honor killings,’ which have grown up since the war as a result of the imposition of tribal law.  We found out that some women are escaping sectarian war, and some even are escaping being trafficked.  There are 5 million orphans of war in Iraq.  We’ve tried to reintegrate such women into national life but have found that the government doesn’t want to give them citizenship.  So we keep them in our shelters, and try to give these women IDs from women who have died.  One thing a feminist can do: keep on talking.  We began talking about trafficking in 2007 and we haven’t stayed silent.  In February 2012, an anti-trafficking law was passed, so there are small achievements here and there.

iraq_prostitution_0306But our biggest achievement was to show to Iraqi youths that they do not have to take the war as the only solution.  There are very few alternatives to such violence.  In addition, we put together a report about disabled children who have been exposed to contaminants by US military weaponry.

Maggie Martin of Iraq Veterans Against the War:  In 2008 we held the Winter Soldier event, but it was largely shut out by the mainstream press.  This was a huge lesson for us: it isn’t enough just to tell the truth.  Another idea we have is to get soldiers to resist, so that military won’t have enough soldiers to keep fighting imperial wars.  But now we have an economic recession, and it’s very hard to ask people to turn down deployments when they need to support their families.

I spent time with soldiers in various bases with this new initiative, Right to Heal.  We need to stop soldiers who are suffering from various forms of PTSD being sent back into battle.  Troops who go to get help for psychological conditions are being disciplined and facing ‘bad conduct’ discharges.

We feel that we cannot ask people to stand up and speak out when their basic human needs aren’t being met.  So we started talking about the Right to Heal for service members and veterans.

One of our three central points has been reparations for the people of Iraq, but it’s a huge accomplishment that we’re now moving to campaign aggressively around this issue.  One of our big accmplishments at Fort Hood was the commanding officer holding a town hall (via Facebook) about the needs of traumatized troops.  People still feel a lot of stigma about speaking out on this issue.

Pam Speer of CCR: We launched our Right to Heal initiative in front of the White House yesterday.  Remember the story of Tomas Young, whose body was almost totally destroyed in the Iraq War.  Soldiers such as Tomas Young were sent to fight an unjust and illegal war, and this has a huge impact on people.  Tomas Young’s letter to Bush and Cheney demonstrates this.  The efforts of members of Congress to challenge covert wars in Central America in the 1980s are very relevant today, particularly in terms of the tactics and forms of torture deployed in Iraq based on the so-called Salvador Option, but discussion of these issues has been foreclosed by US courts.

One of the efforts I’ve been involved in from early on was the establishment of the International Criminal Court, which the US did its best to stymie.  It now has over 120 states.

I say all of this to explain the context of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.  This was set up to monitor compliance with the Inter-American Declaration of Human Rights.  This is a place that the US has to engage at times.  Our petition to the Inter-American Commission is just the first stop – we’re going to keep petitioning other organizations such as the UN.  We’re constantly chasing George Bush and Dick Cheney – as soon as we hear that they’re going to travel, we start drafting indictments.  They will ultimately be brought to justice.

What are we demanding?  Reparations for people of Iraq.  Responsibility for skyrocketing cancer rates.  The fact that people are deciding not to have children in Iraq – this is a form of genocide.  The irony is that after the first Gulf War, Iraq was made to pay reparations to Kuwait.  But the US is not doing any such thing.  Reparations should involve more than just money, but also health care, decontamination, cancer treatment centers, etc.  In this document, we also tried to make clear the fact that US soldiers sent to fight in Iraq are facing some of the same problems as the people of Iraq.

Ali Issa: How are we defining reparations?  State-to-state?

Yanar Mohammed: It’s commonly believed that everything is ok in Iraq since we have a government.  But things are more complicated.  Our organization, the Organization for Women’s Freedom, has been blocked for years.  Eventually the government sat us down and said that they would recognize us but only if we stop sheltering women.  The other condition is that we not do any political work.  I said that the law does not say this.  They could put me in prison at any point because it doesn’t suit them, but for the time being we carry on.

On the subject of the constitution, we want a secular democracy. One million people came out to Tahrir Square in Baghdad on February 25, 2011 in solidarity with the Arab Spring, but the military surrounded us and chased us.  These troops were clearly trained by the US, and they engaged in brutal tactics against us.

Many people would question me for organizing a campaign with Americans, and, moreover, with an American soldier who was part of the invasion.  Our answer is that the war did not come from the US because the people wanted it.  We know that the same is true in Iraq.  The people of Iraq and the people of the US did not want the war.  Today’s the day to see this go into effect.  We learn from these organizations and help challenge US imperialism.

Maggie Martin: Any of us could end up in jail because of our political work.  Our new values, vision, and mission is based on addressing militarism, solidarity with war-torn peoples, people negatively affected by US militarism.  On the local level, there are many questions about what we were doing 10 years ago.  I was thinking about the children of Iraq, who have lived under occupation for a decade.  And that also made me think of kids in the US, who have been living in a highly militarized society for at least a decade.  We need to think about the kind of culture that we are building through militarism.  SO I’m happy to be celebrating popular resistance to militarism.

Pam Speer: We’re talking about working in solidarity.  One of the things AI has always stressed is to talk about the activism that’s going on in Iraq.  There’s so much strategic brilliance there that we need to take our lead from them. On the Right to Heal website, there’s a link that allows people to support Iraqis affected by ammunition testing in sites such as burn pits near US bases (sites to get rid of highly toxic, carcinogenic materials).  These toxins got into the air, resulting in birth defects, illnesses, cancer.  Organizations like Madre are channeling aid to sites affected by such toxicity.

We need to think carefully about what the needs are and what the US is responsible for.  In particular, we need to think about responsibility of US occupational authority for gender-based persecution that’s being carried on at the moment in Iraq.  We need to make this part of our analysis.  We have to frame the harm and then insist on accountability and acknowledgement.

Audience question: What can we as Americans do?

Maggie Martin: How to get involved: sign pledge on website, join our campaign, check out www.civsold.org

Audience question: Is the Right to Heal linked to demands for justice?

Pam Speer: Right to Heal should not be seen as exclusionary of justice and accountability.  We see the two as linked, as does international law, which says that you have to have acknowledgement, apology, and accountability, following by responsibility for repairing.  The US isn’t going to do this by itself; in fact, the Obama administration is already talking about ways to expand the War on Terror.  We have to keep talking about this here, and also go the international community, showing them that there are people on all sides of the equation and not allowing others to frame the questions for us.

Audience question: What can you tell us about the situation of women in Iraq today?

Yanar Mohammed: The situation of women was not great before the war.  We’d been starved by UN sanctions for years.  Then another war came, and the public sector was starved of funds.  40% of the public sector in Iraq is women.  What happens when you stay without a salary for years?  You agree to become a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th wife.  You cannot get a job.  You become vulnerable to more vicious symptoms of post-war society, such as human trafficking.  Women are leaders all over the world, but there are problems in Iraq since the quota system brought forward some of the most reactionary women, who were willing to vote for a constitution that says that women are worth one quarter of a man.

Audience question: What problems do military contractors raise?

Pam Speer: It’s still a state that is responsible.  We have a case set to go to trial that involves the interrogators at Abu Ghraib, who facilitated many of these egregious abuses.  No government prosecutions have taken place, but civil cases are moving forward.

Please check out Costs of War to remind yourselves of the massive economic debacle of the war on Iraq.

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What does it mean to understand democracy as a form of political life grounded in consumption of abundant fossil fuels? How might we conceive of collective futures beyond carbon democracy? Great review of Timothy Mitchell’s new book focused on these questions.

AntipodeFoundation.org

MitchellMazen Labban – visiting professor in the Department of Geography at Rutgers University, Antipode author (see here and here) and International Advisory Board member, and author of the excellent Space, Oil and Capital – here reviews Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. It’s an exemplary review – substantive, engaged and critical – and can be read either below, or as a pdf here.

Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, New York: Verso, 2011. ISBN: 9781844677450 (cloth); ISBN: 9781844678969 (ebook); ISBN: 9781781681169 (paper)

As Something Animal

If a lion could talk, we could not understand him” Wittgenstein (1958: p.223) remarks towards the end of the Philosophical Investigations. Lions have a “form of life” different from that of human beings, a form of life inaccessible to human beings, which makes their hypothetical language similarly…

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