Category Archives: imperialism

The Extermination of Charismatic Megafauna

rhinoThe world’s last charismatic megafauna are being exterminated.

This slaughter is taking place with particular gory ferocity in Sub-Saharan Africa, for reasons linked to the continent’s enduring poverty and vulnerability to global regimes of resource exploitation.

An article in The Guardian describes the record-breaking tally of rhino deaths in South Africa. So far this year, 558 rhinos have been killed. The slaughter is on track to exceed last year’s horrendous tally of 1,004.

Articles such as the above one often mention that animals such as the rhino are killed for Asian markets, where the horns are (falsely) believed to augment male sexual potency. elephantUnfortunately, these articles seldom mention the decades of structural adjustment programs – administered by Western-dominated institutions such as the World Bank – that have made sub-Saharan nations and peoples vulnerable to the globe-girdling trade in illicit megafauna flesh.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in The New Yorker offers a similarly decontextualized analysis of the contemporary slaughter of elephants such as Satao (pictured above). Her article puts these tragic deaths in the context of the worldwide extinction of megafauna since the Neolithic revolution. What she does not mention, however, is the culture of European colonial big-game hunting that was responsible for the vast majority of such extinctions around the globe. Nor does she talk about how Western policies of  “development” are linked to enclosures of land and resources around the world, encouraging strapped locals to plunder the remaining resources for global markets.

A lot of work remains to be done to place this slaughter in adequate political-economic context. Tragically, animals like the elephant and the rhino may well be effectively extinct before the policies that are promoting their slaughter are reversed.

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Inter-Imperial Rivalry and Intensified Resource Exploitation

imperialismThe recent Sino-Russian gas deal needs to be seen as part of a broader shift in global power relations. From a uni-polar world dominated after the end of the Cold War exclusively by the United States, a multi-polar global contest is emerging. The major powers challenging US world hegemony are China and Russia, and the recent gas deal helps cement their growing alliance.

As Michael Klare has documented in The Race for What’s Left, the upshot of this emerging multi-polar world is an increasing inter-imperial rivalry to gain access to as much of the world’s hydro-carbon energy resources as possible. This is, of course, terrible news for the environment, and for the sustainability of life on the planet.

Ashley Smith recently published an excellent article tracking these rising inter-imperial rivalries. It concludes with a ringing call to climate justice activists to interrupt the planet-destroying machinations of both new and old imperial powers.

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Too little, too late

nigerian oil spillThe chief executive of Shell is scheduled to visit Nigeria, according to a recent article, to win support for clean-up efforts in the Niger Delta.

This after a Unep report called for $1 billion to clean up oil spills in Ogoniland, which, according to Nigerian government data, number more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000 alone.

After decades of inaction, Shell is finally making some moves in the right direction. Undermining such moves, however, is the fact that Shell blames spills on attacks on its installations – rather than on decades of lax environmental standards, evident in the flaring of methane that is a part of everyday life for residents of the Delta.

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20th Anniversary of Zapatista Uprising

zapatistas2This new year brings a date that’s worth remembering: the 20th anniversary of the Zapatista Uprising. This struggle to resist NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and neo-liberalism helped to catalyze the global justice movement that went on to challenge the WTO process in Seattle in 1999. The lineage of this movement was evident in Occupy Wall Street, and in the many popular uprisings of the last year.

It’s worth remembering on this twentieth anniversary of the EZLN that the Zapatista struggle was a key expression of Global South environmentalism. As Anne Petermann reminds us in this post published on the eve of the 20th anniversary, the uprising was sparked by a struggle to preserve the Lacandon rainforest from exploitation by multinational companies. The post includes a link to a film that documents the EZLN’s struggle against illegal logging oil drilling, and hydro-electic dams in the Lacandon.

The Zapatistas are still struggling to preserve the jungles in which they live from greedy developers. Their battle reflects resource wars unfolding with greater severity around the world today.

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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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Poisoning Paradise

imagesYesterday I reblogged a great piece on organizing against GMO agriculture in Hawaii. My friend Dean Saranillio just sent me a link to an interview with Vandana Shiva that fills out more of the context for the anti-GMO struggle in Hawaii.

In this interview, Shiva, a brilliant environmental thinker and founder of the Vavdanya seed-saving organization, makes some powerful connections between the US military’s use of the Hawaiian islands as a testing ground for toxic munitions – including depleted uranium weapons – and the presence of GMO corporations like Monsanto, Syngenta, and BASF.

Shiva argues that these companies, which emerged from the war industry by producing toxic defoliants such as Agent Orange (used widely in the US war in Vietnam), have a history of turning military chemicals into agricultural products. The fate of corporations such as Monsanto and Dow is, in other words, linked not just to the US military but also to the Green Revolution and its high-intensity forms of petro-agriculture.

Over the last few decades, these same corporations have begun peddling GMO crops which force farmers to buy seeds annually through [seed] “terminator” technology, and which has unknown toxic effects on plant, animal, and human life.

It seems that Hawaii is ground zero for experimentation with these militarized biotechnologies. Here’s a link to a good film that offers more background on GMOs in Hawaii, and on the resistance movement to the poisoning of paradise:

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What’s Wrong with Global Climate Negotiations?

appClimate negotiations have long been deadlocked. I remember the anger and frustration when the-recently-inaugurated President Obama descended on the COP15 talks in Copenhagen and pretty much torpedoed any possibility of a negotiating a way out of the current suicidal course.

Nothing has improved since then. In fact, the hold of capital-oriented neoliberal “solutions” to the climate crisis has only deepened.

Adrian Parr‘s recently published book The Wrath of Capital offers a scathing overview and indictment of this state of affairs. Parr brings a strong interdisciplinary background to her anatomy of this horrendous failure of governance and imagination.

Also worth consulting for a recent review of the failure of global climate negotiations is Pablo Solon’s post on this topic from the recent World Social Forum in Tunisia. Solon’s post is hosted on the website of the excellent Focus on the Global South, an organization that has played a key role in challenging neoliberalism on a variety of fronts in recent decades.

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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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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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