Category Archives: democracy

Fossil Free

fossil freeThe campaign to divest from fossil fuels continues to pick up steam on campuses around the US and throughout the rest of the world. Only days ago the Norwegian parliament voted to divest its country’s sovereign wealth fund from investments in coal. This is a huge victory: Norway was one of the world’s top ten investors in the global coal industry.

But the struggle faces immense odds. A recent report from the International Monetary Fund – of all places – assessed the annual subsidies to fossil fuel industry at a jaw-dropping $5.6 trillion, or 7% of annual GDP for the entire world. These subsidies come in the form of direct payments, tax breaks, and unpaid environmental costs.

The report by IMF researchers, How Large are Global Energy Subsidies?, is pretty shocking in its frank condemnation of these subsidies to fossil fuels. Among other damaging impacts, the report states that subsidies:

  • Damage the environment, causing more premature deaths through local air pollution, exacerbating congestion and other adverse side effects of vehicle use, and increasing atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations.
  • Impose large fiscal costs, which need to be financed by some combination of higher public debt, higher tax burdens and crowding out potentially productive public spending (for example, on health, education and infrastructure).
  • Discourage needed investments in energy efficiency, renewables and energy infrastructure, and increase the vulnerability of countries to volatile international energy prices.
  • Are a highly inefficient way to provide support to low-income households since most of the benefits from energy subsidies are typically captured by rich households.

Among other benefits of ending these enormous kickbacks to dirty energy producers, the IMF researchers calculate a $1.8 trillion net gain in social welfare, a gain that could be increased were this gain used to invest in education, health and other public benefits.

So why don’t we cut these suicidal subsidies immediately? The answer, of course, is that the fossil fools have our politicians in their back pockets. Breaking their political hegemony is one of the greatest radical tasks of today.

The campus-based movement for fossil fuel divestment is a great start. But it is only a drop in the bucket.

As Sasha Abramsky argues in his brilliant Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution, there are exciting potentials for alliances between rural social movements (where most of the fossil fuels are located), urban dwellers the world over (who need affordable and sustainable forms of decentralized energy), and workers in the energy sectors (both carbon-based and renewable).

This kind of radical movement is, not surprisingly, hardly touched upon by the IMF analysts. Instead, they talk of ending fossil fuel subsidies through a series of environmental taxes. But we need a far more radical program, one that brings energy production squarely under public control during this moment of crisis.

As Pete Dolack puts it in an article in The Ecologist:

Energy is too important not to be put in public hands. The trillions of dollars of fossil fuel subsidies are the logical product of allowing private interests to control critical resources for private profit and leaving ‘the market’ to dictate outcomes.

We can’t make what is unsustainable sustainable through a better tax policy. That the enormous scale of reform proposed by the IMF paper still falls far short of what is actually necessary to create a sustainable economy demonstrates the severity of the crises we are only beginning to face.

Time to go fossil free!

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Climate Wake Up Call from the Establishment

RiskyBusinessCaptureViaRiskyBusinessYouTubeThe political and economic establishment in the United States has finally woken up to the threats posed by climate change.

In a new report, appropriately entitled Risky Business, members of the business and policy-making establishment sound the alarm call about the potentially cataclysmic impact of climate change on the US economy.

Published by an economic modeling firm that normally works for the fossil fuel industry, Risky Business predicts starkly apocalyptic scenarios over the coming two centuries: more than a million homes and businesses along the nation’s coasts could flood repeatedly before ultimately being destroyed; agriculture will become impossible in Midwest, the nation’s grain belt; heat and humidity will become so intense that spending time outside will become impossible in much of the eastern half of the United States.

What does the group propose should be done about this dire situation? According to the summary article in the New York Times, many of the power brokers involved in the report are in favor of imposing a tax on carbon emissions.

A step in the right direction, but adequate to the horrifying scenarios depicted in the report? Not half likely! What we clearly need is a wholesale reorganization of the economy away from the cardinal principle of headlong, heedless growth. Not much about that in Risky Business.

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Free Speech Zones

imagesAs heads of state from around the world descend on South Africa to memorialize Nelson Mandela and the struggle against apartheid, it’s worth asking how free we are today to challenge state power, as Madiba did.

In an excellent article in the Guardian, Jeff Sparrow points out that many of the same leaders who are waxing eloquent in South Africa about Mandela’s struggle for social justice are currently making it virtually impossible to engage in any form of public protest in their countries.

Sparrow’s article offers up some important historical memories about the virtually complete condemnation of Mandela by the political establishment in the UK and US. But it also itemizes the many special laws invented since 9/11 to justify the suppression of public protest.

This trend towards militarization of police forces, evacuation of political protest from public spaces, and silencing of dissent is something that ought to be fought on every level. Such struggles truly honor the memory of Madiba.

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Revolutionary Grace

What might revolutionary grace look like? How can we snatch radical egalitarianism from the jaws of authoritarianism? In what visions of the past can we find the resources to make a just future?

These seemingly abstract questions could not be more important for our present. We live at a moment when purblind elites are driving the world over the brink of environmental destruction. We need alternative visions of social justice.

As we struggle to come up with a revolutionary subject adequate to the challenges we confront, we are likely to find that the radical social movements of the past offer important inspiration. I was reminded of this recently when I came across Democracia’s amazing Ser Y Durar at the Hirshhorn Museum during a trip to Washington DC. Looking for more info online, I found that the exhibit had in fact been expurgated of some of its more radical political content.

The show features a team of traceurs (practitioners of the street sport parkour). This sport originated in Paris in the 1980s and quickly spread to become a global urban subculture phenomenon. The term comes from the French for “course,” and the movements derive from military drills designed to train soldiers to navigate over and around architectural barriers.

The traceurs have appropriated this military acrobatics and redeployed it in Almudena civil cemetery, built in Madrid in the 1880s for those forbidden internment in Catholic burial grounds, including prominent political progressives, intellectuals, founders of the country’s democratic society in the pre-Franco era, Socialists, Communists, atheists, Jews, and others.

The motto of traceurs, “never stop and never give up,” is echoed by the continuous camera movement, which pauses only briefly on various headstones. Inscriptions such as “Love, freedom, and Socialism;” “Freedom and reason will make you stronger;” “After death there is nothing;” and “To be and to last” connect those resting in peace to the bodies in motion.

A video version of the film that I found online makes some of the radical references more clear:

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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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Occupy Sandy and Emerging Forms of Social Organization

occupy sandyI recently attended a forum organized by New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge. The topic was “Occupy Sandy and Emerging Forms of Social Organization.”

The organizers described the event in the following terms:

This Public Forum will address Occupy Sandy and Emerging Forms of Social Organization. By a number of accounts, many neighborhoods in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy experienced confusion, disorganization, and a lack of engagement by city, state, or federal government agencies or traditional civil society groups. Occupy Sandy, however, in coordination with local neighborhood organizations, proved to be nimble, effective, and fast acting to help with the distribution of supplies and cleanup, and they continue to be deeply involved as neighborhoods are making decisions about rebuilding. What worked, what didn’t, and how are the ways in which people are organizing themselves shaping their ability to have an impact on communities? How can New Yorkers organize to effectively tackle the realities of decades of rising temperatures, moving flood lines, and intensifying storms?

Presenters at the event included Max Liboiron, Nick Mirzoeff, Michael Ralph, and Andrew Ross, with moderation by Harvey Moloch. For biographies of these presenters, check out the IPK site for the event.

It was a fascinating forum, one I felt was worth recording. What follows is my transcription of the talks and Q&A session that followed. Any errors in transcription are obviously my own.

Harvey Moloch: Welcome everyone. Postmodernism largely ignored nature, thinking that it would be like clay in our hands. That’s obviously not the case. We have a desperate situation. This panel responds to this situation, looking at Occupy Sandy and emerging forms of social organization.

Andrew Ross: It’s unfortunate that it takes a disaster to bring out the best in us. Disasters sometimes bring out best forms of community solidarity. Rebecca Solnit’s Paradise Built in Hell shows that distressed communities more often resort to solidarity than they do to forms of predation. Prefigurative communities that anarchists like Solnit would like to bring into being tend to arise spontaneously in disasters like the ones that Solnit studies. Rich field of disaster studies that looks at how communities create forms of resiliency and manage to rebuild after storms. Eco-disasters tends to generate common social resources that we need to fight ecological collapse, but these are resources that we don’t often manage to conjure up in face of slow-motion destruction of the planet: ocean acidification, CO2 emissions, etc.clothes

In situations like Hurricane Sandy, people learn and earn new forms of solidarity, building on informal networks on neighborhood level. Tragedies like Sandy can set new forms of community into formation. Occupy Sandy offers Occupy movement a possibility to revive itself, and showed that spontaneous self-organization can be more effective than state organization. Experiences in trenches of Occupy Sandy inspired some activists to think more seriously about the dream of going off the grid and setting up their own autonomous urban communes.

There were other forces that were not so benign. Record of disaster capitalism that Naomi Klein has made well-known to us in The Shock Doctrine is the obverse side of story Rebecca Solnit would like to tell. Consider banks and other agencies that circled around disaster-affected communities like vultures. Miriam Greenberg and Kevin Fox-Gotham have done a study of New Orleans in wake of Hurricane Katrina that shows massive upward redistribution of wealth in wake of disaster.

It’s still too early to say how disaster capitalism will play out in relation to Sandy, although Mayor Bloomberg’s appointment of the head of Goldman Sachs to redevelopment is an early and ominous indication.

Waterfront communities all over NYC have been in transition for some time from low to high income. Fortified enclaves like Battery Park City withstood the storm quite well, and are now being seen as a model. Much of city’s public housing is situated in flood zones. What will be their fate? Ordinarily we would expect them to be cleared away for development. But land isn’t simply a commodity; it also has a social character. This is how and why the waterfront has become a site of contention. Social character of Zone A land can operate as a buffer for storm surges, but it’s also a site where people live. Voluntary retreat seems like a no-brainer, but it’s a choice that communities have to make. Here in NYC, it’s shaping up to be a classic face-off between NYC mayor and state governor. Cuomo’s plan to buy up homes in flood zones to demolish houses is being opposed by the Mayor; he’s likely to get a lavish consolation prize.

Environmental justice is aimed at combating uneven distribution of resources in metropolitan areas. Disparities in life expectancies in different parts of metro. In contrast with this approach, push to reduce carbon footprint across an entire metro area ignores disparities within the city. This is one of the ways that mayors like Bloomberg have jumped on the sustainable cities bandwagon. Platitudinous notion that climate change affects everyone. Sandy was an important watermark in the shifting mentality in urban justice. In its wake, new watchword seems to be resilience; how cities will fortify themselves in face of climate change. Window for sustsainabilty seems to be over. New mentality of adaptive resilience is about surviving the worst onslaughts. In some respects, it’s close to liveboat ethics of Garrett Hardin in 1970s. Putting resources into the defense of resource islands is a different pathway from the idea that we should be cutting emissions to allow poor cities in other parts of the world to use their carbon allotments to develop their way out of poverty. This resilience argument is a big challenge to those of us who care about climate justice and about inequality.

Michael Ralph: I recently coordinated a series of events called Alternative Spring Break NYC. One of those involved working with New York Communities for Change to survey communities in Rockaways about whether they had the means to recover from Sandy. 75% of FEMA aid comes from federal govt and 25% comes from state government. Some of this aid is available to organizations, and some to individuals. Latter tends to be very diminutive, around $3,000 per person. We saw this in wake of BP oil spill in Gulf, where aid that got to affected communities and individuals was slender. Most common financial mechanisms in wake of Sandy are federal aid in form of loans or grants.

I’d like to play you a video clip of Kenneth Feinberg, who has been appointed to oversee distribution of funds after Sandy (as well as BP oil spill and 9/11). His discussion of potential insurance claims is based on idea that insurance companies can foresee natural disasters and factor it into their calculations.

Congress only approved Sandy Relief Bill recently. Feinberg claims that insurance companies factor all these forms in. The reporter mentions that Feinberg’s discussion of insurance sounds like a derivative. Feinberg’s commentary contradicts his own record of distributing relief.

Delivery of payments can only take place if legal causality can be proved. FEMA classifies Sandy as a hurricane, while we got thisStorm Center classifies it as a tropical storm, meaning that insurers won’t have to pay out. Insurers have policies that include anti-concurrent policies, which mean that homes destroyed by multiple forces of nature are not going to be covered.

Many New Yorkers don’t have flood insurance, which is available through FEMA, but provided by private companies. The problem here is that FEMA guarantees a certain amount of coverage to firms to draw them into a national insurance program, but they then benefit from this program even if they don’t provide adequate relief to disaster victims.

Insurance becomes a site where people can contest established regimes of finance capital, which tends to be the primary means for adjudicating environmental crises.

Max Liboiron: I and my comrades at the SuperStorm Research Lab have been interviewing different stakeholder groups about their experience of Sandy, including policy makers, businesses, volunteers and first responders, and residents effected by the storm. We’re interviewing people every 6 months to see how stories develop over time.

I’m going to outline how grassroots responders tend to organize space and time differently from state agencies, which leads to different definitions of crisis and aid.  It’s not a case of government “screwing up,” but that there’s something foundational to the structure of government that prevents it acting like autonomous groups such as Occupy Sandy.

Government is always too slow, according to descriptions, while Occupy Sandy is seen as nimble.

Ubiquitously people talked about government being absent during and after Sandy. What we’re dealing with here is government that matters as opposed to pure spatial proximity. Neighborhoods went off the grid, ending up working like and with community organizations like Occupy Sandy.

This results in very different types of aid, a social justice problem. People say that FEMA came in but didn’t help people living in public housing. So the aid that did get in tended to be people from the community.

Another issue is that houses of worship are not eligible for FEMA aid, but such sites were critical.

In addition, deadlines are a big problem for many people. Filling in forms requires a huge amount of time.

Finally, nationalization of spatial boundaries meant that many people affected by storm who are not US citizens are not eligible for aid. So organizations like Occupy Sandy had to figure out how to dispense aid without asking about citizenship status.

Occupy Sandy coming out of Occupy Wall Street movement, so there’s a refusal to require people to identify themselves in order to help. This also goes for who can help: anyone can help.  Occupy Sandy folks talk about the importance of the flexibility of roles, which makes the organization far more nimble and able to escape silos.

Temporality of disasters. Government agencies spend a lot of time drawing deadlines and deciding when aid will no longer be available. But Occupy Sandy is clear about the fact that Sandy is a moment in a broader crisis. Things go back to the low-level crisis point where they were. That’s why Occupy Sandy moves to mutual aid. This is also why organizers are moving out of Sandy-affected areas to deal with crisis in other areas.

There’s lots of discussion of “We Got This” – idea that mutual aid is solution to governance crisis. But then critics say that state has to have responsibility for redistributing resources and keeping certain infrastructure going.

Problem that different government agencies don’t talk to one another; this is problem of silo. When storm hits, Mayor Bloomberg calls Police Chief Kelly rather than his Office of Emergency Management.

Nick Mirzoeff: What is the emerging possibility that comes out of experience of Sandy and Occupy Sandy? One of the emerging social possibilities, I want to argue, is revolution.

One way of thinking about this: rise of CO2, which has put us at over 400ppm. Last time this happened was 3.5 million years ago, when there were mastodons. 350ppm is level at which we’re supposed to be safe. 400ppm is revolution; we’re no longer in frame of evolution but revolution since humans have altered all the contexts in which social life unfolds. We have no clear sense of where things will go from here.

On the other side, we should be talking about what Occupy Sandy did. If you were looking for a record of what OS did from the established media, you’d have trouble figuring out what happened. There was, for example, an article in NYTimes on May 1 which quoted Occupy spokesman said that OS is not revolutionary. What did he mean? He meant that Occupy isn’t like a traditional revolutionary movements since it’s based on mutual aid. Social movements are based not on social Darwinist competition, but rather on solidarity. The idea that social life is conducive to mutual aid is revolutionary.

We’re going to have to establish prosperity without growth. Instead of growing our way out of crisis, we’re going to have to figure out a way of redistributing what we have.

But we also have to think about the fact that the event of Sandy was a leap. Rockaway boardwalk was totally destroyed. People just rolled up their sleeves and pitched in. Patterns of organizing that had been established at Zucotti Park were quickly reproduced, but this time it wasn’t about sustaining people in park but people who needed help throughout the city. Occupy doesn’t have any preconditions: if you need, you get. This is democratic in the oldest possible definition.

Also, we have a pivot, a moment at which people change their points of view. There’s been no questioning that Sandy was caused by climate change. This wasn’t true for Irene. What this represents is a palpable change in attitudes towards climate change. People are now really interested in ideas like climate debt.

Just because we haven’t had a climate agreement since November doesn’t mean that people don’t care about climate change. EU’s attempt to create carbon market has collapsed.  EU’s climate footprint doesn’t factor in production of good in China.

We need to reconfigure climate justice. We’ve tended to use it in terms of charity: we’ll give up our carbon emissions because we’re good people. This was never likely to happen. It gets much more interesting when we begin to think about revolutionary politics.

Tar Sands is one of the next major struggles we face. That oil will be burned in China. Massive pollution in Chinese cities, where we’re sending our students. Chinese people are beginning to rise up against such pollution. At this point, it becomes possible to create international connections and think about climate justice not as charity but as mutual aid.

This may sound abstract, but we need to keep in mind that we’ve been living for the last 20 years with huge experiment to create communication exchange: internet. We can share knowledge in a way that we never could previously.  We can’t let elites depress us about the current situation. We should see it as an opportunity to create solidarity.

Questions and Answers:

Q: Do different stakeholders you talked to, Max, agree about ecological causes?

Max: No, people don’t necessarily agree that Sandy was created by climate change, but they all agree that climate is changing. So climate change has become a brand that people don’t identify with.  Also, another person we interviewed identified banks as a problem.

Q: Can you talk about Occupy Sandy’s social media use and implications for disaster management?

Max: I’m part of Occupy Data, and I can tell you that no one can agree about how social media are used. Social networks are not all online. Tweets were not coming out of disaster-affected areas because people didn’t have electricity.  We need to have better communication strategy – some people argue that it needs to be paper. There’s lots of disagreement on this regard.

Nick: Amazon was used by Occupy Sandy to specify exactly what kinds of things were needed, in a kind of online “wedding list”. This allowed organizers to get the things they needed.

Michael: When we were doing interviews in Rockaways, we had to go door to door. Many people would only respond if they could connect with you on a personal level.

Andrew: When we’re talking about climate justice, the core principle is climate debt, which needs to be paid by Northern nations to Southern nations. Part of the problem has been the nation-state framework, which has been the approach when trying to adjudicate climate change agremeents. Perhaps cities, whch have been far more progressive in this regard, could be key site for recognizing climate debts and thinking of innovative ways of paying off these debts. In addition, once you break down nation-state framework, you can begin to see uneven effects of climate change, both within a nation and within metropolitan regions. When you begin to look at plans like that of Bloomberg, you find out that they’re mostly plans for economic development or cost avoidance. There are no sustainability plans which are vehicles for civil rights, for paying back debts to sidelining of populations historically. Global movement for climate justice is modeled on US movement of environmental justice in 1980s and 1990s; Bali Declaration is explicitly modeled on EJ movement that preceded.  Rhetoric of mutual aid has to be thought about carefully because notion of aid depoliticizes debt owed as a result of uneven development. We need to introduce a language of indebtedness and obligation, which takes us to a different level of social bonding and interactivity than language of aid.

Q: I’m one of the founders of Rockaway Emergency Plan. Social Media was crucial on day of storm, and after. We used social media to get hundreds of people to turn out. Even today we’re using FB and Twitter to engage community. But my question is for Andrew, about disaster capitalism. There’s a lot of distrust and nervousness about how things are being rebuilt. How can we protect communities against disaster capitalism; it seems like a lot of things are out of people’s control. For example, we’re seeing how rebuilding of the boardwalk is out of control.

Andrew: you need to have watchdogs who stay on the job 24/7, disseminating information about the actors. It’s often difficult since predators make deals individually. State makes collective deals so it’s often see when it’s assisting capital. But it’s harder when predators operate in dark, as with bad loans for disaster-affected communities. We can see what’s happening at the level of the state: Cuomo vs Bloomberg plans. Under latter, land that is liberated by demolitions can be sold to developers. That’s a huge difference.

Michael: part of what complicates the plans of developers is bad PR, as well as work by lawyers who are willing to do pro bono work.

Andrew: We have a real opportunity in the upcoming mayoral elections to highlight many of these issues.

Q: Hard vs soft social organizations. How do things stay nimble and yet be sustained?

Max: we asked this in our interviews, and best answer was undesignated common space. For example, houses of worship functioned as key nodes where people could congregate and organize in disaster situations.

Michael: I take Andrew’s point about problem of language of aid, but I think mutual aid is nonetheless an important concept. Insurance companies purport to replace institutions of community mutual aid, but they often don’t do this at all. So by emphasizing mutual aid, we challenge ethos of financialization that undergirds much of the insurance industry.

Nick: In the wake of slavery, people asked for a Jubilee – 40 acres and a mule, which would have made their lives sustainable. Today, people are trying to maintain their systems of mutual aid in places like Rockaways. We need to build these kinds of links between cities. If we want to claim a commons in this city, the NYPD beat the hell out of us and closed hubs.

Andrew: Watch what you wish for: there’s a very thin line between left and right wing libertarianism. Colin Ward, the British anarchist planner, had a formative experiencew when working with govt relief agencies in Lima earthquake. His analysis was that self-organization was much more effective than relief organizations. This is taken up as model by UN: sites and services model, which is thinnest form of relief you can image. It takes on neoliberal template. This approach can happen very quickly. So, although I’m an advocate of the commons, I’m not about to give up on public provision, because there are things that don’t scale up, particularly when we’re talking about infrastructure. It’s absolutely necessary to transition infrastructure away from its current status quo. We don’t have time to scale up molecular organization to level of the state. We need a good state, and we need it now.

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Old King Coal

imagesCoal is the big dirty secret of our time. When we turn on our sleekly designed iPads and MacBooks, we seldom consider that the energy used to power these totems of the global economy is derived from fiery combustion of the fossilized remains of massive Paleozoic plants. Nor do we often think about the human labor or environmental toll associated with the consumption of power today.

How else can one explain advertising campaigns such as that associated with the Nissan Leaf, an electric car which, as its name suggests, is represented as an embodiment of pristine nature despite the fact that its power source is more environmentally destructive than gasoline?

Although coal-fired power plants provide more than 50% of the electricity currently consumed in the US, when they stop to reflect on where their power comes from few Americans think about coal. The tense diplomatic brinksmanship associated with global oil supplies occupies a far more prominent place in news headlines than discussions of coal, yet 35% of the world’s electricity is currently generated by coal power, and developing nations such as China and India bring hundreds of pollution-belching coal-fired power plants online each year.

To consider coal is to step into a time machine that transports us not just back to the origins of terrestrial life, but to the images-1more proximate human inventions and struggles that gave birth to modernity. The sulfurous odor given off by burning coal meant that it was long associated with dark satanic powers. Despite fueling industrial revolutions in countries such as Britain, Germany, and the United States, coal was always regarded with ambivalence and even fear, its life altering energy ineluctably linked to forces of physical and racial degeneration. For much of the last half-century, the Age of Oil, coal has been associated with a bygone time, the era of King Coal. But coal is no longer invisible. As a major contributor to anthropogenic climate change, coal once again appears to hold the key to our collective future.

To stop today’s coal boom, the climate justice movement must make coal’s environmental and political toxicity visible. The campaign against coal can draw strength from the historical memory not simply of the importance of miners in the struggle to deepen democracy in industrialized nations, but also from the specific weaknesses of the coal industry’s infrastructure. Climate and environmental justice movements need to join with workers in the energy sector to choke the infrastructure of coal.

However, as the British film Brassed Off reminds us, workers will fight to retain their jobs in a dirty industry that kills them unless they are offered a clear alternative. The campaign against coal must therefore demand a just transition to a renewable, decentralized energy infrastructure.

We have powerful imaginative resources to mobilize in this regard. After all, the figure of King Coal reminds us that the energy infrastructure created by what Lewis Mumford called carboniferous capitalism has bred rampantly undemocratic forms of corporate oligopoly. Taking power thus implies a radical democratic transformation of both global energy systems and governance. Let us dethrone Old King Coal.

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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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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

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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Cities in Conflict

With the ongoing uprisings in Cairo and other cities in the Arab world, the role of cities as crucibles for social egypttransformation and conflict is clearer than ever. Urban dwellers across the globe are more intent than ever on claiming what the great French theorist Henri Lefebvre called the right to the city.

In tandem with such democratizing current, however, today’s megacities are also sites for various forms of escalating inequality and violence. From urban warfare among drug cartels in cities such as Medellin, to increasing interpersonal violence against women, to the many forms of imperial destruction visited on far too many cities around the world today, cities are sites for a variety of key conflicts today.

This sgunemester I’m teaching a seminar at the CUNY Graduate Center that focuses on urban culture in the global South. The topic of conflict features prominently on the syllabus, a copy of which can be found here: ENGL 86600 syllabus.

Fortuitously, the OpenDemocracy project has just started an essay series on the topic of Cities in Conflict. The site describes the brief of the series in the following terms:

The Cities in Conflict series seeks to examine the manner in which cities are conceptualised, planned or contested as sites of conflict, security or resistance. With increasing public awareness of cities’ role in hosting globally significant conflicts and social upheaval, whether in Cairo, Athens or Mumbai, the series will look to examine the city as a key terrain of conflict and a politics of spatial securitization. In particular the series will scale down mainstream media security discourse to the urban/local level – examining the everyday, covert ruminations of urban conflict.

Contributors to the series include some of today’s foremost analysts of urban conflict.  Well worth checking out!

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Filed under culture, democracy, imperialism, urbanity