Monday, January 6, 2014

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict at the XXVII Guadalajara International Book Fair


Considered the most important Book Fair in the Spanish-speaking world, and second in the world only to the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Guadalajara International Book Fair in Guadalajara, Mexico, concluded this Sunday, December 8th, under heavy security. The unusually high level of security resulted from the guest of honor of this year’s book fair, the State of Israel. For the past 20 years, the book fair has honored a city, country, or region as its guest. No earlier guests, however, have been as controversial, or have aroused as much protest and dissent, as has the State of Israel. Hence, the unprecedented levels of security.
Along with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, the Israeli President Shimon Peres was in attendance. And although several protests against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, and demonstrations in support of the Palestinian people, took place outside the fair, there was little press coverage on the issue. Likewise, there was no acknowledgment within the fair of the political controversy – until the final day of the book fair.
As a guest I was invited to introduce my most recent collection of short stories, “El suicidio y otros cuentos” (“Suicide and Other Tales”), as well as a collection of essays on the catastrophic effects of NAFTA in the Mexican culture. To the great disappointment of my publisher, who attempted but failed to interrupt me, I surprised the assembled guests by raising the issue of international justice as it relates to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Marco Vinicio Gonzalez of Radiobilingue wrote, “the sophisticated security measures around the Israeli president Shimon Peres could not prevent the entrance of a Trojan horse.” As this “Trojan horse”, I brought with me and read a letter of solidarity written by the contemporary Jewish writer, attorney, and theorist, Elliot Sperber. While my Spanish translation of Sperber’s letter has been printed in Spanish language media, and has generated a very grateful, engaged response from my readers, it has not been published in its original English version. It appears below.
In Solidarity,
Malou H.D.T. (Malú Huacuja del Toro).
***
Dear Neighbors,
I hope you won’t find it presumptuous that, though we’ve never met, I should address you as neighbors. Though we don’t know one another, however, the fact of the matter is (especially in light of instant telecommunications, and the ease of travel that has shrunk the world over the past few decades) that we are all neighbors on this planet. So, I would like to not only address you all as neighbors, and to think of you as neighbors, but to live with you as neighbors as well.
It is a profound honor to be, however marginally, a part of the 27th Guadalajara International Book Fair. When Malú asked me if I would write something (to address, in particular, the controversy surrounding this year’s guest, the State of Israel), my initial reaction was: No, absolutely not. Although I have lived in Israel, and attended school in Israel, and briefly worked in Israel on a kibbutz – a collective farm – and though I have strong feelings about the injustice of the ongoing occupation of Palestine, among other aspects of the State of Israel’s general aggressiveness, my initial reaction was that it would be best to remain silent. Why entangle myself in such a heated, complex controversy? Besides, there are certainly people more qualified than I am to speak on the subject. Israelis, perhaps. No thank you. Moreover, it’s a book fair – a cultural event. Why drag politics into it?
Upon further reflection, however, it occurred to me that (though international book fairs hold out the promise of eradicating national differences, obliterating borders, and comprise an important dimension of the developing world community) insofar as International Book Fairs distinguish groups of people based on national affiliation – as opposed to merely cultural or linguistic associations – and because nations are thoroughly political institutions, an international book fair is a manifestly political event. And, as a political event, it is an entirely appropriate forum to raise important international political issues. It is in this context that I was reminded of the legendary Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno’s observation that “at times to be silent is to lie.”
In addition to its other dimensions, Unamuno’s insight shares an analogue with the jurisprudential concept of the criminal omission – which holds that crimes are not only committed by positive acts. In addition to positive acts, crimes can also be committed by omissions – when people fail to act. And it seems difficult to deny that it would be a singular crime of conscience to honor the State of Israel as a guest without raising attention to the fact (and this should not at all disparage the deservedly celebrated writers who hail from Israel) that the State of Israel – as a political entity – does not ever travel alone; wherever Israel travels, she is accompanied by her prisoner – the Palestinian people. For the two are not only physically, territorially, shackled together, they are morally shackled together as well. And while this enchainment is a tragedy for both parties, as the more powerful – as the jailer, rather than the jailed – it is Israel who holds the key to the lock. As the exponentially more powerful, it is Israel that holds the key to peace.
Since they arrive together, shackled together, in addition to honoring Israel as a guest, we must also honor the Palestinians, for they are here too. And their struggle cannot be ignored.
While it may sound peculiar to state so – in light of what was just said – it would be difficult to find a more appropriate choice for guest of honor at an international book festival than the State of Israel. This is not because of the fact that the Jewish people are known as Am Hasefer – the people of the book.
While the Jewish people are indeed known by this honorific, we must be careful not to conflate the rich cultural heritage of Judaism with the political entity that is the State of Israel. Though decidedly related, the two are distinct – as distinct as any political construct is from a cultural and social one. A Jew is not an Israeli. And an Israeli is not necessarily a Jew. Indeed, as the celebrated Israeli activist and writer Uri Avnery recently wrote, “Jewish Israelis are already a minority in the country ruled by Israel.”
And although plenty of Jewish people may be ardent supporters of the State of Israel’s policies, within Israel and throughout the world, just as many are fierce critics.
Though the Israeli flag is emblazoned with the mogen David – the star of David – or Jewish star – this should not lead people to infer that the State of Israel’s policies represent those of the Jewish people – any more than all of the nations of the world that bear a cross on their flag represent the political opinions of Christians – or the policies of any state with a flag bearing a crescent represents the political thoughts of the Muslim people of the world. As with every group of people, the Jewish people are tremendously heterogeneous. And though we all already know this, it bears repeating that all of us must be careful to resist the prevalent racist gravitational pull that leads us to think of people, any people, according to stereotypes.
Notwithstanding this distinction regarding the people of the book and the State of Israel, however, one could still maintain that Israel is a uniquely apt guest of honor for an international book fair. For insofar as the book par excellence – not just any book, mind you, but The Book – the Bible – originated in the ancient land of Israel, it is more than appropriate to celebrate Israel at a festival that honors books. Moreover, because, in addition to books, an international book fair necessitates nations, it is also appropriate to honor Israel. This is so, because, in addition to being the birthplace of the quintessential book, the State of Israel, in many respects, exemplifies what the nation-state is. For a nation-state is an instrument of war.
Not just the State of Israel, but all states are instruments of war.
The State of Israel is only unique to the degree that its aggression is not only well-recognized, but is nearly universally reviled. Though it is often regarded as exceptional, Israel’s violence should instead be recognized – not as any sort of exception – but as that which characterizes the rule of the state in general – the general rule of the state.
The state is an instrument of war – and not just against its rival states. Each state is also an instrument of war against its own people. Those who witnessed the Mexican state’s recent crackdown of the teachers’ protest in Mexico City, or witnessed the crackdown of the Occupy movement in the US, or witnessed the violence that any other popular protest movement received from its respective state cannot deny this simple truth. This is what constitutes a state; the state is an instrument of war.
And insofar as this is the case, the Palestinians are only the most visible of the State of Israel’s victims. In addition to the Palestinian people, who have bravely resisted Israeli aggression for decades, the poor people of Israel, the working classes of Israel, the immigrants of Israel, among others, such as the hundreds of thousands of Israelis involved in ongoing demands for social justice, are also victims of war.
For let us not forget what it is that we speak of when we speak of the state. The state is not only an institution comprised of a military, and defined by well-guarded borders. It is also comprised of a government, of laws and courts and administrators. And these laws and courts and administrative bodies do not function to create the conditions of justice and peace. If they do, this is incidental to their main purpose, which is to maintain Order. That is, they maintain a particular type of Order – the Order that is, as we speak, cannibalizing the world. The people, the public, we – we are regarded as a population – a natural resource to be managed according to the interests of the state. When justice arises – if it arises – it arises always as an exception to, and as a rupturing of, this Order.
One might note, at this point, that my remarks may not constitute an entirely respectful way to treat or otherwise honor a guest. But let’s not forget, I am not addressing the State of Israel – or anyone here for that matter – as a guest. As I mentioned earlier, I am addressing everyone as a neighbor – as neighbors on the planet we all share. Or, rather, as neighbors on the planet that we all do not share – neighbors on the planet that some of us own, and make decisions about, and govern, and mine, and bomb, via various states – all the states represented here, under all of these flags, contrary to whatever democratic proclamations they may from time to time espouse.
And here we are. Here we are, simultaneously determined by these states and, at the same time, holding the keys to our own liberation. For just as we make the abstractions and laws of the state incarnate through our cooperation, and participation, we also possess the potential to disappear the state by non-participation – to disappear the state, as so many states have done to so many of us.
Blended in with this world of states – this world of force – of course – let us not forget that we are surrounded by this other world – this world of ideas, this world of books. This is why we are really all here. This is what really brings us together – to honor books – and language, and stories, and ideas. We mustn’t, of course, make the simplistic mistake of proclaiming that all books are good. Books can be put to many uses. Like bricks, books can build walls, and fortresses, and can be used as weapons. Among other things, books can justify monstrosities. Tragically, history is replete with such books.
Likewise, the ideas in books can lead us beyond our particular, national barbarities. Among other places, books can lead us to the recognition of, and respect for, the truth of our actual human interdependence – to the universal enigma we all share.
Beyond our national, cultural, religious, and class differences, books can lead us to the recognition of the fact that though we may be strangers, we are all also neighbors. And, as such, as neighbors, we are all subject to the duty of the neighbor – to help one another – the duty to care for one another as neighbors. This is the duty of the neighbor. And because we are all neighbors, this duty, in turn, leads inexorably to the duty to dismantle our states, all of our states – and to dismantle our armies, all of our armies – to not only dismantle our borders, but to share and respect the great wealth of this planet, as neighbors, in peace.
Thank you,
Elliot Sperber

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

This Is Not a New Year

published originally on CounterPunch


While in some respects the end of the month of December marks the conclusion of a year and the beginning of a new year (the 2014th year anno domini - the "year of our lord"), in a far more important sense what is being celebrated is not a new year at all. It is, in fact, an actually ancient year - or, if you prefer, an ancient type of year (a calendar comprised of Sumerian - or biblical - seven-day weeks, and twelve ancient Roman months, among other cultural distinctions).

At this point one might remark that I am conflating the year with the calendar; but, in this context, is there really any meaningful distinction between the two? To be sure, whenever one celebrates the beginning of a year, one is celebrating a specific (formal or informal) calendar. Otherwise, every day (every hour!) would be the beginning of a new year. This leads us to another question: what kind of calendar - what kind of distribution of time, and organization of life - are we, in fact, celebrating?

The word calendar itself, it should be remarked, supplies us with a clue to the solution to this question; for the word "calendar" derives from the Latin word "Calendarium," which means a banker's account book. And there is little doubt that in this society money, as the trope has it, indeed "makes the world go round." This is so, irrespective of the concrete fact that it isn't money that makes the world go round so much as people who (through force, among other manipulations) determine that money should be our society's "bottom line," the final word. For instance, regardless of whether or not a particular project - military, social, economic, or otherwise - makes any sense, money, above any other consideration, will be the factor that determines what will be pursued.

In spite of the above, and in spite of the fact that the present calendar helps to naturalize an unjust social system, there are many among us who (though they may be metaphorically sick of, and literally sick from, this particular Gregorian calendar - with its manifold workdays, and workhours, not to mention its idiotic, patriotic holidays and religious vacations) unquestioningly submit to this distribution of time.

And since many among us will be celebrating the New Year in some fashion (whether because of some sort of inertia, or from genuine pleasure at having, ironically, a bit of a vacation from the everyday calendar), it would do us well to reflect a bit on what the designation "new year" actually means. What does this truly entail? Will there ever be a genuinely new year? And, if so, how would - or, what may be a better way to phrase the question: how should a new year look?

Though such a question, arguably, ought to be decided democratically at the community level, there is at least one point that should be beyond dispute: in order to improve our lives - to ameliorate the harms that our political-economy has caused, and continues to cause, ourselves as well as the world at large - a new year should have, at the very least, half as many workdays as the present year has. And since we not only have the technological capacity to maintain (and even improve) our quality of life while, at the same time, halving the number of  hours we work each year, simple good sense demands that we work toward creating a calendar in which at least half of all of the days are vacations. That this may sound fanciful simply reflects the degree to which pathology has become the norm; for, aside from the fact that it makes a few people obscenely rich, there is no reason for people to work as many hours as people are forced to work - and the obscene wealth of a minority should not be terribly persuasive in a nominally democratic society. Some will no doubt remark - correctly - that such a "new year," or new calendar, will not be compatible with, among other harmful institutions, the capitalistic political-economy. This is indubitably the case. That the present calendar is incompatible with democracy, however, is equally so. Which deserves priority?



Monday, December 9, 2013

Kill the Landlord, Save the Man

originally published on CounterPunch





Some expressions are so familiar, so deeply entwined in our history that, although they are thoroughly racist, even homicidal, they fail to elicit much surprise or shock. Familiar with their presence, we become inured to their depravity. And, because they fail to surprise us, they oftentimes fail to offend us as well. While the degree to which they influence us is subject to dispute, few will doubt that our culture is stitched together by just such threads. Maintaining an infamous position among these is the phrase "the only good Indian is a dead Indian."

Derived from statements delivered by the Civil War hero Philip Sheridan, the notion that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" contributed to not only the justification of the conquest of the continent; it also abetted that which is indistinct from the conquest, the dehumanization and genocide of Native Americans. What deserves to be considered alongside this fact is that, intimately related to Sheridan's phrase is the somewhat more subtle, though no less genocidal, civilizational motto of the founder of the Carlise Indian Industrial School: "kill the Indian, save the man." To be sure, as Ward Churchill, among others, apprises us, the Carlisle School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was designed to assimilate (by force, and with the express intent of eradicating the cultures of) the indigenous people of North America. 
  
The association and affinity of these two phrases is not subject to contention. The founder of the Carlisle School, Richard Henry Pratt, himself admitted as much. In 1892, in his Official Report of the Annual Conference of Charities and Correction, after referencing the statement attributed to Sheridan that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian," Pratt added: "I agree with the sentiment." However, he went on to explain, this agenda can be pursued in a far more effective and profitable manner than Sheridan's. One can "kill the Indian," Pratt continued, and still "save the man."


In light of this, it may come as a surprise to note that, in his time, Pratt was regarded as something of a progressive. Among certain crowds, his position would even be regarded as progressive today (which, obviously, doesn't speak well of today's general social atmosphere). For, in spite of his racism, mingled in with his white supremacism, lurked the fundamentally universalist (even egalitarian) recognition that, when born, each person is, as he put it, "a blank, like the rest of us." That is, contrary to prevalent conceptualizations, Pratt did not maintain that people from different cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and "races" possessed some distinct essence. Rather, Pratt recognized that, though not exclusively, people are largely products of their environments and cultures. As he put it, "Transfer the infant white to the savage surroundings, he will grow to possess a savage language, superstition, and habit. Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit. These results have been established over and over again beyond all question."

Needless to say, Pratt's "open-mindedness" is very much restricted. Not only were Pratt's characterizations of indigenous people (as savages), and of mainstream US culture (as civilization, and superior) unambiguously racist. The violent manner by which students were forcibly removed from their families (a process hardly distinct from kidnapping) evinced a deep lack of respect for his students' humanity. This should not come as much of a surprise since, according to Pratt, the humanity of indigenous people was not so much present as merely potential - a potential to be developed by force. For let's not forget, Pratt's intention was to destroy his students' languages and cultures. His students, and all Native Americans in his opinion, were to be transformed - or deformed, rather - into the "blanks" referred to above. Once blanked out (as cells in the cloning process are flushed of their genetic material), new information - imperialistic US culture - was to be inserted, replacing his students with a type of cultural clone. It is from this perspective that we should read Article 2, section (e), of the Genocide Convention. According to this, the crime of genocide is defined as "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group," "with intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, or religious group." And, as the legal scholar Kurt Mundorff argues in the Harvard International Law Journal, it is only by ahistorical circumlocution and dissimulation that the actions of Pratt, and others, can not be recognized as genocide.

Along with outright conquest and murder, the forced removal of indigenous people to reservations, and the removal of children to boarding schools like Carlisle (schools designed to delete a culture, to "kill the Indian, save the man") were part of a sustained effort that, among other harms, reduced formerly economically independent peoples to conditions of utter dependence. As such, there is a heinous irony in the fact that, as Pratt put it, the Carlisle School (and all of the boarding schools participating in these policies) strove to teach its students how to live "by the sweat of his brow." For Native American people already knew very well how to live "by the sweat" of their brow. Before their territory was appropriated (by way of deceptive treaties and fraud as much as by outright force), and before the resources they, for the most part, lived in respectful interdependence with were - like the bison - negligently, recklessly, and intentionally destroyed, First Nations people lived "by the sweat" of their brows very well. Pratt must have known this.
  

As a career soldier who served as an officer for eight years on the Great Plains, and fought in several campaigns in the so-called Indian Wars, Pratt may be said to have contributed directly as well as indirectly to the destruction of Native Americans' independence. As such, it seems tremendously unlikely that he was unaware that indigenous societies very much knew how to live, and did live, by "the sweat" of their brows. Beyond this, it takes an astounding degree of hypocrisy for Pratt to state that US culture (which is inextricable from the exploitation of slave and "free" labor alike - the sweat of others' brows) could meaningfully instruct a formerly independent people to live by "the sweat" of their own brow. This hypocrisy is only amplified by the fact that the abject poverty and dependence indigenous people were reduced to by the late 19th century was the direct result of the bloody colonization of the US. Insofar as hypo-critical literally means sub-critical, however, it is very likely that Pratt was not even aware of this twisted irony. 


Irrespective of whether or not Pratt was able to recognize this irony, or whether he was aware of the degree of harm he caused, it ought to be remarked that, as the English philosopher Francis Bacon observed in his essay Of Usury, it is the command "in sudore vultus tui comedes panem tuum; not, in sudore vultus alieni ["in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread—not in the sweat of another’s face]" that is "the first law." 


That is, from the biblical exhortation delivered to Adam that "in the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread" (that one must derive one's bread from one's own labor), Bacon infers a deeper truth: that, beyond this, one should not eat, or profit, from the toil of another. And while living off the sweat or toil of others is a clear violation of this "first law," this is precisely the law that both undergirds the US economy historically, and continues to subtend profit-making in general. 

No person (or social role, rather) exemplifies this eating in the "sweat of another's face" as unambiguously as the institution, or arrangement, of the Landlord - the rentier, in general, who simply sits back and lives off of the rents, "the sweat" of others' labor. Some, no doubt, will contend that because the Landlord provides a much needed service (housing, among other things), the Landlord is rightfully entitled to collect this sweat. It takes little scrutiny, though, to see that this claim is hardly more than an unsupported assertion. For what is the service that the Landlord provides? When it comes to housing, the Landlord merely pays other people, plumbers, for instance, to provide services - a payment, by the way, that is always less than the amount of rent the Landlord obtains. Were this not the case, the Landlord would suffer a loss, and would have no incentive to maintain the relation at all. In other words, if the "duties" of the Landlord outweighed the Landlord's "rights," if the Landlord derived no profit, it would be in his or her interest to simply surrender the property, or to evict everyone. The landlord, however, very rarely does this. And this is so because, supported by the police, the courts, and other apparatuses of the state, the landlord is always deriving a profit from this business relationship. That is, the Landlord is always eating from the "sweat" of his or her tenants - in violation of what Bacon referred to as "the first law."
Another argument that people may raise in favor of the Landlord is that, because the Landlord owns the land, the Landlord has a right to collect rent, or sweat, from his or her tenants. Aside from the circularity of this reasoning, however, one should ask how this landlord came into possession of this property in the first place. One person, no doubt, purchased land from another. But how did a piece of land become a piece of property? No one built land. As George Orwell reminds us, the original owners "simply seized it [the land] by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to supply them with title-deeds." And it hardly takes an expert in the intricacies of US History to see that, in the context of the United States (though not only in the United States), all of the land now owned as property was taken by just such force from the continent's indigenous people. As such, property owners do not provide a service so much as profit from a harm. Or, rather, they profit from two harms: the harm of the seizure of the land, and the harm of the ongoing consumption of their tenants' "sweat." Those who regard the nullification of title to excessive real property as a harm simply confuse a harm for a harm's correction.


This argument, however, should not be construed to mean that people should not have the right to be secure in their homes. As George Orwell phrased it in his As I See It column of August 18, 1944, "It is desirable that people should own their own dwelling houses, and it is probably desirable that a farmer should own as much land as he [sic] can actually farm. But the ground-landlord in a town area has no function and no excuse for existence. He is merely a person who has found out a way of milking the public while giving nothing in return. He causes rents to be higher, he makes town planning more difficult, and he excludes children from green spaces: that is literally all that he does, except to draw his in-come."

As more and more people spend ever larger portions of their incomes on rent, and as more and more homes are being foreclosed upon and acquired by hedge funds and banks (which now comprise society's largest class of landlords), and as society continues to polarize into the extremes of rich and poor, it may be time to consider adopting Bacon's "first law." Insofar as this relates to property ownership, by nationalizing, for instance, and then internationalizing real property, land and the resources derived therefrom can be shared among the people of the world - as opposed to being hoarded by the few, as they are today.

Among its other benefits, the elimination of Landlordism (which is nothing short of the legalization of Warlordism) would alleviate up to half, and often more, of people's financial burdens; in so doing, this would free people from unnecessary work - an unburdening that would allow for not only a resurgence of community, but a democratization of society. Additionally, the elimination of excessive work would result in the lessening of the pollution that such work produces - leading to a far healthier environment. That is, in addition to ameliorating social harms, the elimination of Landlordism could also contribute to the correction of climate change.

In light of people's tendency to resort to violence, it must be stressed that the Landlord, as a human being, is not exclusively responsible for the harms reproduced by contemporary socio-economic relations. Though the Landlord profits from exploitation, insofar as this particular political-economic system reproduces myriad social, ecological, and other harms, it is this system that needs to be changed - and such a change is negated to the extent that it involves harm to any person, including the Landlord. Rather than harming the Landlord, the elimination of Landlordism entails simply the vaporization of the excessive advantages the Landlord enjoys, and the concomitant restitution of the land s/he hoards to the community. In other words, a necessary though not necessarily sufficient pre-condition for advancing toward an actually just, actually democratic, actually egalitarian political-economic system requires, among other steps, that we strip the Landlord of the right to gross excess - that we Kill the Landlord, and Save the Man.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Commerce or Community

Originally published on CounterPunch


Because the history of the United States is comprised of contradictions (proclamations of liberty, for instance, are coupled with the practice of slavery), it should come as little surprise to find that the holiday of Thanksgiving – so steeped in hyper-consumerism – itself derives from the rejection of a compelled commercialism. This history is especially relevant today, as we consider how to reconcile another crucial contradiction – the conflict between commerce (the mercenary) and community (the common – that which is shared). 
 
 Before the Reformation transformed much of Europe, public and private life were in many respects determined by the calendar of the Church – a calendar comprised of, among other things, dozens of compulsory holidays and feast days. Not only were people compelled to attend church services on these days, purchasing those items employed in these holidays’ respective rituals was also compulsory. Candles and knickknacks, and other religious bric-a-brac (the cost of which, in the aggregate, was not insubstantial) had to be purchased, irrespective of whether one wanted these items or not.


Rejecting this compulsory consumption for a life of dogmatic austerity, the Puritans of the time eliminated not only feast days and rituals, but all holidays from their religious practices. Instead of Easter, Christmas, and the rest, simple days of thanks (celebrating propitious events) and days of fasting (honoring the more solemn occasions) were observed. And when they set sail to colonize Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Pilgrims brought this approach to holidays along.


It is worth remarking that the year 1621, the year of the Pilgrims’ legendary first Thanksgiving dinner, was also the year that the extremely powerful commercial enterprise, the Dutch West India Company (which would begin to colonize, among other places, what now includes the New York Metropolitan region) received its corporate charter. Initially only interested in the region to the extent that it was presumed to provide access to the fabled Northwest Passage, and thereby to the spices and silks of Asia, as the value of the plentiful fish and furs of the New World became apparent, the Company sought to secure it in its own right. When one considers the legendary reputation for natural wealth the region enjoyed, one wonders what took them so long.


Since at least 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed into New York Harbor, chroniclers of the region consistently recorded that, in addition to the abundance of fish, and the other riches, one could even smell the sweetness of flowers at significant distances from the shore. Although many would attribute this presence – among other things – to some sort of natural chance, or happenstance, the random richness of the land perhaps, recent studies reveal that what was formerly conceived of as merely natural plenty was, in fact, the result of the respectful economic and cultural practices of the indigenous people, the Lenape.


Although they were distinct from the Lenape, a similar eastern woodland culture – the Wampanoag people of Massachusetts – reputedly shared the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving feast. And as the centuries passed, and as the indigenous people of the Americas were systematically annihilated or “removed” to reservations, it is interesting to see the degree to which – in spite of their initial antipathy – the Pilgrims’ religious fundamentalism would blend with the commercial aggressiveness of their neighbors into the fundamentalist commercialism, or commercial fundamentalism, that has become hegemonic today. Along with its “Indian removal” policies, and its slavery-based economy, its general exploitativeness, and its array of technical wonders, as this commercial culture developed it managed to transform (or, rather, to deform) the formerly bucolic land of the Lenape, and others, into the toxic sprawl of traffic, industry, and garbage presently polluting the planet. Unlike the mariners of Hudson’s time, those who arrive in New York City these days hardly smell the scent of flowers. Those not already inured to it are often overwhelmed by the blend of car exhaust, and other toxic fumes, blanketing the region.


In light of these consequences of commerce, it is a further irony that the pre-Reformation period’s compulsory consumption (not to mention production) has become, in many respects, the rule today. Instead of candles, and other votive objects, though, the Thanksgiving ritual practiced across the country consists of purchasing thanksgiving-related paraphernalia. Not only does this entail a significant expenditure of money, time, and effort, as Thanksgiving segues into Christmas these are followed by ever greater levels of consumption. Unlike the consumption dictated by the priests of the pre-Reformation world, however, in the post-Reformation world of thePanopticon (manifesting, most notoriously these days, in the NSA’s pervasive surveillance), the agent delivering commands is not only external, like the priest – it is internal as well, often occupying the position of one’s own super-ego.


Following the Reformation-era shift that led from priests serving as intermediaries to the divine, under the constant possibility of surveillance by the all-seeing, people increasingly began to police themselves. Unlike the laws that parceled the world into plots of property (owned by a small number of owners), depriving people of the common land and resources necessary to sustain communities (and consequently compelling people to sell themselves to commerce to survive), no specific law compels people to engage in such rituals as buying and eating turkey. Nevertheless, people are taught, conditioned, and pressured in varying ways, to conform to these standards of behavior. And it is perhaps nothing more than a coincidence (albeit a particularly odd one) that the Greek Goddess of compulsion, Bia, was closely associated with the Greek Goddess Ananke – for Ananke, let’s not forget, also happened to be the mother (the origin) of the Fates. And the tripartite structure of the Fates not only corresponds extremely closely to that of the Trinity, but the spinner, the measurer, and the cutter of the Fates corresponds identically to the US Constitution’s tripartite separation of powers structure, the law of the Order determining us all.


Beyond all of this, however, perhaps the largest irony brought to mind by Thanksgiving (and its shadow, Black Friday) is the fact that all of this buying and selling and consuming – that is, commerce – is inimical to the ideal of community Thanksgiving ostensibly celebrates. For commerce and community are diametrically opposed. Indeed, whereas the former, the commercial, is essentially mercenary (reducing all to buying and selling – to a price – and subordinating all other values to the dictates of the market), the latter, community (exemplified by the radically egalitarian societies of indigenous people) is marked by the opposite of commerce; that is, not by buying and selling but by sharing the common. To the extent that one preponderates, the other is diminished. And as commercial fundamentalism determines the distributions of the world (with its so-called free trade agreements, corporate-bought legislatures, and other apparatuses), nearly all social relations are replaced by commercial ones. Even the concept of ‘neighborhood’ is being privatized and commodified. Although the primary definition of neighborhood is a social relationship (a neighborly, i.e. amicable relationship), its colloquial, everyday meaning has become a section of a city. Influenced by commercial notions of property, the social relationship designated by the term neighborhood has largely been supplanted by commercial relations – neighborhood is conceived of as real estate.


The virtually total subjection of social life to the dictates of commerce has reached a degree of intensity that even the Pope claims to be concerned about it. Of course, from his other remarks it is clear that the Pope is not interested in the dissolution of the superstitious ideologies and hierarchies that this economy depends upon. Though the Pope may not approve of the commanders in your head compelling you to do whatever capitalistic thing it is he disapproves of, he would not eliminate these commanders so much as replace them with his own – with the ministers of the Church. For, let’s not overlook the fact that the Pope’s recent statements are less a departure than a return to earlier Church concerns about poverty – words that, in the pre-Reformation period, consistently honored and exalted the poor, yet nevertheless managed to coexist with feudalism (that is, with lords and landlords) pretty well, reproducing poverty for centuries.


Notwithstanding the above, and though social relations based on mutual aid and trust (community) have been forced to the margins of social life over the past few decades, this forcement has been recently meeting increasing levels of resistance. Inseparable from the legacy of the Occupy movement, the labor strikes and protests planned by Walmart workers for Black Friday comprise just such an instance of community resisting commerce.


Beyond its commercial elements (and the fact that it derives from a rejection of commercialism), and the degree to which it illuminates the conflict between community and commerce, it is also worth reflecting on the genealogy of the word Thank. So central to Thanksgiving, the word ‘thank’ is etymologically rooted in the word Think. And when one thinks about the historical, imperialist horrors associated with Thanksgiving – not to mention the contemporary harms our commercial culture constantly recreates (from the mundane, everyday forms of domination, like police brutality, to ecocide and wars) – one would think that, instead of contributing further to the exploitation and harm of that which we share in common (community), it might make sense to not only refrain from the thoughtless consumption of consumeristic rituals, but to refrain from reproducing the exterminatory commercial political-economy ruling our lives entirely.


Not only should we support Walmart workers and others struggling for a just distribution of the community, we should extend these struggles. Not only should we recognize that the dictates of community ought to restrict and determine the limits of commerce, we should recognize that those things that people need to live well – that are common to and commonly needed by all – should not be privatized. Instead of being deformed into private things, they should be transformed into public, common, community things. Moreover, we should recognize that such things are what a community – a society – has an actual duty of care to provide to itself (not to sell between individuals, but to share among neighbors). If we gave it some thought, we just might recognize that those entities that people need to live well (nutritious food, housing, education, and the ability to govern our own lives, among other things) are so valuable that they should not be for sale at all.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Sleepwalkers of the World, Wake Up and Take Over


originally published on CounterPunch


As ever more work’s combined with ever more stress – among other results – people sleep less and less. And, as various spectacular pseudo-events dominate the public’s reputedly shrinking attention span (a phenomenon indistinct from the shrinking span of the reputedly public itself), it should come as little surprise that the Center for Disease Control’s nearly year-old finding that sleep deprivation has reached epidemic proportions has failed to generate significant public outcry.
To be sure, no small degree of irony inheres in the fact that the people most affected (negatively affected, I should add – since many business interests are indubitably positively affected by this epidemic-cum-business enrichment plexus) are too sleep-deprived to even recognize the gravity of the situation – a gravity determining our mechanical somnambulation toward ever-graver ecological and physiological degradation (the generally unsustainable situation).


Having passed the point where exposure to toxic waste (like lead, radioactive waste, and e-waste – from our designed-to-be obsolete gadgetry/machinery) now comprises as significant a public health menace as tuberculosis and malaria, and the very air we breathe constitutes the single most significant known carcinogen, we nevertheless trudge along, insensate.


These “hidden,” collateral costs, or harms (which are, let’s not forget, part and parcel of profit), are intrinsic to this disposable commodity economy - a political-economic arrangement that, lest we forget, doesn’t just pollute our skies and oceans and stultify our imaginations, but distributes the resources of the world according to an exchange insuring, among others, that ever-increasing amounts of labor receive ever-diminishing levels of compensation; an arrangement that not only deranges the ranges of mountains and reduces the rainforests of the world to pulp, but also degrades and deranges untold lives; for of what else are these lives comprised if not, among other things, time? Indeed, in a manner  analogous to Lavoisier’s law of the conservation of mass, what is somewhere deprived somewhere else comes back. And the aggregate of this abuse of energy and time returns not only as toxic pollution, and poverty, cancer and general immiseration, but also in this epidemic of sleep deprivation.


Symptoms of this disease, of this malaise, include, by the way, degrees of disorientation “equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication” and results in, among others, poor decision-making abilities – i.e. poor judgment – as well as misplaced or unfounded optimism – a process of stupefaction and stupidity that, in addition to theories of cultural hegemony and heteronomy, can significantly contribute to our understanding of that flap where the ideological and the empirical, or physiological, overlap – one of the loci of that dead-eyed and narcotized blitheness with which so many face the waste and haste that these days typifies our culture – or, more specifically, our barbarism.


With respect to these thoroughly diseased conditions, insisting on and then actually sleeping – especially when this involves potentially punitive repercussions – can constitute a genuinely revolutionary interruption. In other words: wake up – and go to sleep.

Friday, November 15, 2013

At the Edge of the Apocalypse

Though severely limited by the vast carnage Typhoon Haiyan spread throughout the region – destroying roads and reducing entire villages to fields of rubble – relief efforts are underway across the devastated islands of the Philippines. And as the Climate Change Conference (the COP 19) proceeds in Warsaw, Poland – and as the representative from the Philippines, Naderev Saño, continues the hunger strike he vowed to maintain “until a meaningful outcome [to the ongoing crisis] is in sight”, more and more people across the planet are beginning to recognize that, in order to prevent further ecological catastrophe and misery, radical, structural, political-economic changes need to occur.

As virtually all climate scientists agree, and as report after report confirm, it is a practical certainty that Typhoon Haiyan and other extreme weather events (like last year’s Superstorm Sandy, and Typhoon Bopha) not only result from climate change, climate change is anthropogenic. That is, not only are extreme weather catastrophes caused by climate change, climate change is caused by human activity. What should be added, as well, is that the activity that contributes to climate change is not just any activity. It is human activity of a particular type.

Much of the human activity of indigenous cultures, for instance (which in many respects recognize the degree to which our lives are intertwined in the larger enigmatic world, and consequently exhibit a degree of respect and care for the natural world – one at odds with the efforts of our present economic Order to turn every natural resource into a commodity) do not, in any significant manner, contribute to climate change. To be sure, many of these groups are at the forefront of battling it. Nor do these cataclysmic, extreme weather events result from various forms of sexual activity – as numerous superstitious preachers contend. Rather, these catastrophes are largely the result of activity that is inextricable from an industrial, profit-based, commodity economy. And as economies continue to grow, deforming the forests and mountains and other natural resources of the world into so many plastic cups, and hamburgers, among other things, these extreme weather catastrophes – as a necessary counteraction, or byproduct – are only increasing.

Indeed, even as relief efforts are proceeding in the Philippines, the traffic of the cities of the world, and the CO2 spewed by the meat industry, among other forms of diffused violence, are presently concentrating into entirely new superstorms. As the status quo continues, storms certain to be more massive, and more deadly, than such record-breaking storms as Haiyan and Sandy are being produced. And unlike, for example, the potential destructiveness of nuclear weapons – which only ever manifest by way of some sort of accident, or deviation from a norm – the catastrophes attending climate change will continue, and will continue to grow, unless a genuine change or deviation from the norm transpires.

Alongside the metaphorically and literally toxic commodities this economy produces, and the occupational and stress-related diseases, such as cancer and heart disease – not to mention poverty, malnutrition, sleep-deprivation, police violence, and the other injustices it produces – it systematically produces still more. For these alone this political-economic order should be discarded. When coupled with the recognition that the political-economy responsible for the proliferation of these harms is also causing the deadly weather events witnessed the world over, the existing system should be stripped of whatever vestige of legitimacy it has managed until now to retain. In many respects, this loss of credibility is just what’s unfolding. And it is in this context – the context of the existing Order’s legitimacy, or lack thereof – that we should briefly examine the concept of Apocalypse.

Derived from the Greek term Apo, which means ‘away from’, and Kalyptein, which means ‘hidden’, apocalypse literally means ‘away from the hidden’ – or, in other words, Revelation. But just what is being revealed? And how does this primary meaning of the term apocalypse fit with its secondary meaning – with its identification with the end of the world?

When our very way of life (organized by a coercive, plutocratic political-economic system) is revealed to be the utterly destructive, unsustainable, system that it is – that is, when what is still, to some degree, a secret becomes a broadly accepted fact, the first type of revelation will lead to the second. The revelation of this Order’s fundamental injustice will lead to the dissolution of popular support; and, as history repeatedly demonstrates, when popular support for, and faith in, a given order evaporates, that concrete order quickly collapses. In other words, apocalypse should not be construed to simply mean the end of the world. Rather than the end of the world in general, apocalypse should be understood to refer to the end of a particular type of world: the unjust world. And as we breathe, this unjust, reckless, exploitative world is peeling away; what comes next is as of yet undetermined.


Russell Brand and the Necessary Planetary Adjustment

originally published on CounterPunch


Russell Brand's recent political essay, viral BBC interview, and ongoing comedy tour - The Messiah Complex - raise important political and philosophical questions concerning, among other issues, the nature of justice, the importance of voting, and the need for radical, revolutionary change. These deserve serious consideration.

Since at least the time of the Athenian statesman Solon (c. 638 BC - 558 BC), whose reforms are credited with setting the historical stage for the emergence of democracy in ancient Athens, the concept of law has contained a crucial ambiguity. While the law is rightfully recognized as an instrument of Order - legitimizing and maintaining a status quo - it is not restricted to this function. Beyond this conservative function is its more vital dimension. In addition to its retentive, conservative aspect, Law has a protentive, metamorphic aspect. Law may even be likened, in this respect, to DNA; it not only clones, it mutates. For, along with maintaining Order, law (or, the spirit of the law) is also employed in pursuing that which disrupts Order (that is, Justice). This latter, law-nullifying aspect of Law is what allowed Solon to not only nullify the law of Draco - abolishing people's debts, freeing debt-slaves, and constraining the power of Athens' ancient oligarchy, according to Plutarch - but enabled a relatively egalitarian redistribution of the social world of the ancient Athenians as well. And while it is important to note that this egalitarianism did not extend to women, slaves, and other excluded people, and so exposes the limitations of Athenian democracy, it does not diminish this emancipatory aspect of the law. In many respects, law - as such - is constituted by this very  contradiction. Unstable, it is forever adjusting (a term which, by the way, literally means toward the just). Unlike the dead letter of the law that Order appeals to for support and legitimacy, Justice, the spirit of the law, is the living, vital aspect of the law - the truth of the law as opposed to its mere semblance. 

Among other things, this ambiguity of the law has a corollary in the contemporary French philosopher Jacques Ranciere's concept of the political. According to Ranciere, like law, the political has two dimensions. On one hand it is the maintenance of Order - what he terms politics as police. On the other hand, corresponding to justice, is actual politics. Actual politics disrupts the Order maintained by the politics as police. As he defines it in his Disagreement, actual politics only arises when "the natural order of domination is interrupted by the institution of a part of those who have no part" (11). That is, politics proper only emerges with this disruption of Order by this striving toward an egalitarian redistribution of the social sphere - the adjustment toward the Just.

It is in this context that we should situate Russell Brand's recent statements concerning politics and justice in general, and voting in particular. While many have criticized and mocked Brand for dismissing the practice of voting, it is paramount to recognize (that is, to cognize and to re-cognize) that, according to Ranciere's formulation, of itself voting is not necessarily a political act at all. In general it is a function of politics as police - the maintenance of Order. Indeed, insofar as it signals one's consent to be governed, voting is a largely acclamatory gesture - applauding a particular character in what is political theater more than actual politics. While voting is intrinsically problematic, however, this does not mean that it is necessarily or essentially anti-political in Ranciere's sense. In theory, one could acclaim (and go beyond acclamation) an entirely new type of distribution of the world - a distribution of the world according to egalitarian priorities. Instead of the priorities and rules of the inertial Order busy dividing and conquering and distributing and consuming and desecrating the world, in theory voting could acclaim a Just distribution of the world - one that subordinates the dictates of profit to the actual well-being of the people and the environment - an adjustment that does not stabilize into some new inertial Order, but rather is stable only insofar as it continues to adjust. 

Needless to say, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, among the other institutions that represent and manifest the interests of the present Order, are existentially hostile to any meaningful adjustment; for such would involve a significant redistribution of the cultural and physical wealth of the world, produced thus far by humanity as a whole, from their control. In other words, in spite of all the sanctimonious blather regarding Democracy, no such thing exists. In this so-called "representative democracy" a very narrow slice of "interests" is in fact represented. And politics in any meaningful sense is in part dream, in part delusion.

Contrary to the repeated assertions of Jeremy Paxman, Russell Brand's interlocutor, as well as countless others, we do not live in a democracy. We in fact live in a political arrangement more properly described as a plutocracy. Ploutos (wealth), not the demos (the people), is in charge. While this claim may not jibe with the hegemonic doxa, it is a matter of simple observation that one cannot even participate in a non-marginalized manner in the political theater unless one is backed - supported - by the rich. Before votes are ever counted, money determines the outcomes of elections. It acts as a gatekeeper. Excluded from ballots, and debates, third party candidates with millions of supporters are effectively barred from participating. Millions of supporters matter less than millions of dollars. Unless backed by the rich one cannot compete in campaigns that cost fortunes. And once in office, the constant need to raise funds ensures that those who deviate from the desires of the rich are cut off, and cut out.

This is not to say that a sufficiently popular political and social movement could not overcome these barriers. It is placing the proverbial cart before the horse, however, to suppose that such support could be achieved by the ballot. In order to overcome the institutional barriers to the political stage, a person - or group, or party - would have to possess an enormous amount of popular support in the first place. And even if some hypothetical candidate prevailed in some contest for some office, unless enough like-minded people occupied comparable positions, very little could be accomplished. To meaningfully change the design of the existing Order, the laws that function to maintain the Order and preclude the Just need to be changed or dissolved. All of which is to say, if a social movement were large enough to allow for an actual takeover of congress, such a movement would already enjoy a degree of support sufficient to force congress to step down without having to step into congress' shoes - those shoes of the old Order - in the first place. 

If, for example, a political movement enjoyed enough popular support to change the constitution (to include such mild, though necessary, alterations as a positive right to housing, education, a guaranteed universal income, health care, debt forgiveness, not to mention more radical, structural changes) - if such a movement had a measure of popular support sufficient to overcome the onerous hurdles placed before amending the constitution, why even bother? For the sake of tradition (i.e., the old Order)? Why not just write a new constitution altogether? Perhaps this is what Jesus of Nazareth meant when he reputedly said that he would not change a jot of law. Rather than changing the law of Order, he would leave it to rot. The actual law, the law of justice, is a different matter. 

Notwithstanding the above, and in spite of the fact that it has received so much attention, it is important to consider the fact that Russell Brand's main point was not "don't vote." In his New Statesman essay, and in his BBC interview with Jeremy Paxman, Brand's position vis-a-vis voting was ancillary to his main argument: political change must be preceded by a change of consciousness; before an actual politics can even arise a recognition of not only the pure arbitrariness of the existing Order, but its concrete harmfulness and injustice, needs to take place. People must see the cold hard fact that poverty and profit - the infernal conditions of the slums of Kibera, outside Nairobi, not to mention the slums of the Bronx, and the decadent excess of plutocratic luxury - are two sides of the same coin. Each creates, and recreates, the other. Just as profit is not generated without a corresponding loss somewhere, wealth creates poverty and vice versa. Beyond the horrors inflicted by the inertial Order on billions throughout the world, there is also the fact that, in a world with finite resources, it is patently self-destructive to maintain a political-economy based on waste and exploitation. The net result of our collective work, our "economic production," is a world that is being steadily deformed into toxic refuse. And, contrary to the reigning ideology, it does not have to be this way. Existing conditions are neither natural nor inevitable. Slums, poverty, war, third world as well as first world indentured servitude - these things are made by people, and as such can be unmade by people.

Among the many reactions to Brand's argument for revolutionary change, a particularly pervasive one is that revolutions are dangerous and reap more harm than good. In advocating radical change, these people maintain, Russell Brand is little more than a dangerous fool. For example, in Russell Brand: Good Pundit, Bad Thinker, Parker Brown argues in The Atlantic that revolutions are generally accompanied by terrors, and that these terrors tend to leave people worse off. Citing multiple horrors, Brown argues that radical change is too dangerous to seriously consider. Best to forego such radicality. Aside from the esteemed historian Arno Mayer's findings inThe Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions that, more often than not, the resistance to revolutionary change is what heightens violence, contrary to Brown's contention, many revolutions do not experience any terror phase at all. Indeed, the US revolution is only one among many revolutions that experienced no revolutionary terror. Of course, one must not overlook the fact that after the US Constitution was ratified, and the ongoing terror of slavery was cemented into law (a body of law that also paved the way for the systematic removal and annihilation of the continent's indigenous population), terror abounded. From this perspective, "reign of terror" takes on a decidedly different meaning. 

It is a gruesome irony that Brown raises starvation as a key example of revolutionary harms, noting that during the Chinese Revolution hunger was so severe that the exhumation and consumption of corpses was widespread. Because, while horrific levels of starvation did occur in China, as well as in Stalin's USSR, among other places, the spectacular nature of eating corpses should not blind us to the fact that, as these words are being written, extreme starvation is rampant throughout much of the world today - and this is caused, in large part, by the very neoliberal economic Order that people like Parker Brown defend. In Haiti, for instance, systemic famine is so severe that people regularly resort to eating dirt. And though malnutrition has been rising precipitously in Haiti in the years following the massive 2010 earthquake, it remains less severe than in Guatemala, and parts of Africa, among other places. 

As Mark Twain wrote in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, as bloody as the terror of the French Revolution, and other revolutions' terrors, may have been, there is another terror whose horrors far surpass these. Of these two types of terror, one, like that which sprouted from the French Revolution, is short. Lasting months, it claims thousands of lives. The other type of terror is long. Lasting thousands of years, it enslaves and brutalizes and reaps the lives of hundreds of millions. 

While both of these terrors are anathema to justice, Twain raises an urgent point - a point that is largely congruent with what Brand refers to when he writes of his trip to the slums of Nairobi. The long terror that Twain described is by no means over. Neither anomalous, nor an aberration, it is necessarily produced and reproduced along with the rest of our political-economy, and inextricable from the present Order. 

While Russell Brand is by no means perfect, and among other things exhibits a considerable deal of disturbing behavior - rape jokes, and other forms of sexism that both stem from patriarchal privilege, and reproduce the existing patriarchal Order of domination - he is nevertheless entirely correct in pointing out both the need for what the ever-problematic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche referred to as a "revaluation of all values," and a radical deviation from the present, ecocidal Order. Though characterized as a sort of simpleton savant spouting the need for violent change, rather than advocating violence, Russell Brand may be more accurately characterized as agitating for the recognition of the need for an end to what the philosopher Walter Benjamin referred to as the systemic "law-preserving violence" of the present violent Order.

Without raising him to the status of anything above a fellow fallible human being, we ought to support Russell Brand's call for replacing the political-economy cannibalizing the planet with an actual politics. While remaining critical of his shortcomings, and the power his celebrity visibility wields, we nevertheless ought to encourage and support the popularization of his call for a radically egalitarian redistribution of the cultural and physical wealth of the world.