Category Archives: class war

Always at War

Police_State_FullDossier on Perpetual War, edited by Patricia Clough and Sandra Trappen, just published on the Social Text website.

The dossier reminds us that the War on Terror has normalized a state of perpetual war, in which militarism is both invisible to the vast majority of US citizens and also permeates our culture in ineluctible but often subtle ways.

New articles to be posted every couple of days.

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Stop Land Grabs

I’ve been writing quite frequently of late about land grabs, which can be directly tied to images-2what David Harvey calls accumulation by dispossession.  In fact, one could argue that land grabs are the most egregious instance of that dynamic today.

I haven’t been following academic analysis of this trend so intently, but just learned of an article by Saskia Sassen, available free online at the moment, which anatomizes land grabbing. In the article, Sassen describes land grabs in the following terms:

This essay focuses on the larger assemblage of elements that promoted animages-1d facilitated the sharp increase in foreign land acquisitions by governments and firms since 2006. The concern is not to document the empirics of foreign land acquisition. Conceptually the essay negotiates between the specifics of the current phase of land acquisitions, on the one hand, and, on the other, the assemblage of practices, norms, and shifting jurisdictions within which those acquisitions take place. This assemblage of diverse elements does not present itself explicitly as governance. But I argue it is a type of governance embedded in larger structural processes shaping our global modernity; in fact, it may have had deeper effects on the current phase of land acquisitions than some of the explicit governance instruments for regulating land acquisitions. This mode of analysis is based on the conceptimagesual and methodological work I developed in my book, Territory, Authority, Rights (Sassen, 2008); put succinctly it proposes that to explain the x (in this case, foreign land acquisitions) requires a focus on the non-x (in this case, that larger assemblage of elements that amounts to a structural enablement and embedded governance). This deeper structural level is also what makes the current phase of land acquisitions potentially deeply consequential, to the point of signaling the further disassembling of national territory. Such disassembling can enable the rise of a new type of global geopolitics, one where national sovereign territory increasingly is subject to non-national systems of authority—from familiar IMF and WTO conditionality to elementary controls by diverse foreign actors over growing stretches of a country’s land.

Sassen’s essay is published by Taylor and Francis, a for-profit publisher of academic journals and books, so ironically her analysis of these attacks on the global commons may not be freely available for much longer.  Read it while you can!

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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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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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Accumulation by Dispossession

imagesEarlier this week, David Harvey appeared on a panel about contemporary Land Grabs along with activists Somnath Mukherjee, Smita Narula, Kathy LeMons Walker. I unfortunately was not able to attend. In searching fruitlessly for a video of the event, I nonetheless came across some interesting materials online.

The first is a video of a talk David Harvey did with Medha Patkar, founder of the anti-dam organization Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Campaign), and founder of the National Coalition of People’s Movements. This was a fascinating dialogue between a key activist working to roll back land grabs and an theorist who provides an incredibly important overview of capitalism’s strategies of accumulation by dispossession, of which land grabs are a key strategy.  Here’s the video:

I also came across a really interesting blog post by Raj Patel that analyzes a 2010 World Bank report on Land Grabs.

Last of all, I came across my own transcript of the discussion between Harvey and Patkar (I attended the event, which was held in an Occupy-aligned space near Wall Street).  Here’s a link to my transcript.

From the perspective of a cultural critic, I want to ask what forms of hegemony need to be established in order for these sorts of land grabs to take place. Part of the problem may be that many of these activities remain invisible to most of the public in imperial nations such as the U.S.  In this context, it might be worth recalling Fredric Jameson’s argument in Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature that colonialism shifted a significant structural segment of the economic system overseas, beyond the metropolis, outside the quotidian experience of imperial subjects, rendering significant segments of everyday life unknown and unimaginable for these subjects.

But while Jameson’s point may make some sense in relation to land grabs, I think it’s important to see such strategies of accumulation by dispossession in a broader context, as part of an ensemble that includes free trade agreements, Structural Adjustment Policies, transnational flows of migrants, food riots, and uprisings such as the Arab Spring.  So ultimately I think a position such as Edward Said’s in the same volume as Jameson makes more sense: to see the anxiety that permeates much modernist (and contemporary) cultural production as a product of the troubling of fixed borders that results from empire. It is probably also worth thinking about land grabs as part of a broader cultural of uneven development. Bret Benjamin’s Invested Interests is an important investigation of the culture of contemporary accumulation by dispossession. I’m sure there are other examples of cultural studies work along these lines. I’d love to hear suggestions…

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Taking Power

coal1Where will the energy that runs modern societies come from? It is not an exaggeration to say that the fate of this planet hangs on the answer to this question.

The news is mixed on this front. Here in the US, citizens’ movements against killer coal have been surprisingly successful. As Ted Nace explains in his crucial book Climate Hope, the US Energy Department’s drive to build more coal-fueled power plants has been rolled back through citizen action on a local and regional level. In 2007, Energy Department analyst Erik Shuster circulated a document which revealed that more than 150 coal-fired power plants were slated for construction in the coming years. Since then, grassroots movements have managed to block construction of over 2/3rds of these power plants.

The story in other parts of the world is not such a happy one. In particular, in rapidly industrializing countries such as China and India, development of coal power has proceeded quickly in recent years. Nace’s useful site Coalswarm tracks coal development around the world. Some of the world’s most populous countries, with sharply increasing, energy-hungry urban populations are looking to coal to power their vast emerging energy needs in coming years.

For all the gains in the US, in other words, the world as a whole has swung decisively in the wrong direction. It could also be argued that the struggle against coal in the US has been so successful because of the development of other polluting energy sources such as natural gas.

A fundamental question that underlies the issue of energy is who controls power generation. In many places, power companies have been privatized during the last few decades of neoliberal hegemony. The Transnational Institute has just made a powerful film on the privatization of public energy supplies available for public consumption:

Another key resource in thinking these questions of who controls power (in both senses of the term) is Kolya Abramsky’s coal2excellent book Sparking a Worldwide Energy RevolutionIn his work, Abramsky underlines the various struggles among workers who produce energy in various parts of the world, as well as the efforts of citizen movements in rural areas and in the burgeoning megacities of the global South to gain access to clean and affordable sources of power. These struggles are life and death ones on a daily level for many people – think about the number of people who die from various respiratory ailments as a result of burning cheap coal and dung indoors in poor communities around the world.

Such struggles also are key ones for the future of the planet as a whole. Popular democratic control of energy is the linchpin of the transition to a new and better world that lies on our doorstep. Gaining control of the energy commons by breaking our dependence on killer coal and other dirty fossil fuels is a key goal of the revolutionary movement that we must build.

Note: images in this post are from the Beehive Collective’s brilliant work The True Cost of Coal

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