Saturday, July 26, 2014

Fighting Without Winning, Winning Without Fighting

published originally on CounterPunch

The supreme art of war consists in subduing an enemy without fighting.

- Sun Tzu



As military and paramilitary forces (and the institutions they serve) continue to bombard and maim the people of the world - and as the death tolls in Gaza, Congo, Iraq, and other war zones, continue to rise - one cannot help but wonder whether the relatively voiceless, seemingly dis-empowered, people of the planet are really unable to do anything - beyond offering largely symbolic condemnations and demonstrations of solidarity - to halt these monstrosities.


The not just political, but physiological, fact of the matter, of course, is that, though the people of the world may not possess the coercive, violent power of the state (of the police and the military, for instance), there is another dimension of political power extant in the world - one that we already possess.


Rather than any coercive power (what the philosopher Spinoza referred to as potestas - the power to command and force others to obey), the "little people" of the world already possess non-coercive power - the power to command ourselves, to determine ourselves (what Spinoza referred to as potentia).


This non-coercive power, of course, is not un-problematic; it is itself limited, and can be deformed (by social norms, and coercive institutions - in short, by ideology) beyond recognition. Despite this problematicity, though, to some degree we enjoy this immanent, non-coercive power already (what can be thought of as "labor power", among other notions, or as that which the poet Dylan Thomas referred to as "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower"). As such, the issue should not be whether we need to seize power, or not. The issue, rather, is how to employ this non-coercive power in a strategic manner - to bring about peace.


In light of this, it is worth considering the fact that Dylan Thomas' generative metaphor (of the force that drives the flower) shares a number of qualities with the generative power embodied by the mythic Greek goddess of the harvest, Demeter. One of the principal Greek deities, Demeter not only caused food to grow, she was the source of the force animating the life cycle itself in ancient Greek myth. And, just as she gave life, Demeter could also easily withdraw this vital force. For instance, when her daughter Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and abducted to the underworld (to cite the most well-known example) Demeter reacted with a radical passivity. By shutting down, by ceasing to cooperate, Demeter caused the world to wither, its grains and grasses to shrivel. And none of the gods could do anything but entreat her to revivify the world.


Analogous to Demeter's radical passivity, by ceasing to cooperate, the people of the world could stop the global economic system - a system which the various war machines are dependent upon and cannot function without (they cannot, for instance, function without state aid, etc.). In other words, by withdrawing, by radical non-cooperation in general, and by means of a general strike in particular, the people of the world can stop the war machines of the world from inflicting their various harms.


Although any attempt to counter the coercive power of police and armies on their terms, on their terrain, would only lead to "fighting without winning," a critical mass of people figuratively walking out of this system (shoplifting ourselves, so to speak), depriving the hegemonic, ecocidal political-economy of the energy it requires to function, could just as likely lead to winning without fighting. 


How does Monday work for you? 



Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Trickle Down Civil War

originally published on CounterPunch


For those who haven't heard, a major offensive is being planned in the ongoing war between the classes. While the poor, and what remains of the middle and the working classes, suffer defeat after defeat, the wealthy are hammering out yet another "free trade agreement." Memorably described by Global Trade Watch Director Lori Wallach as "NAFTA on steroids," the Trans-Pacific Partnership - or TPP - is the largest such agreement to come along since the creation of the WTO in 1995.


Negotiated in secret between the US and 11 other Pacific nation-states (including Chile, Peru, Vietnam, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan), the deal is regarded as central to Obama's economic agenda (as well as ancillary to his "pivot to Asia"). And yet, despite its list of horrors (which include the predictable assaults on labor, and the further desecration of the global environment, along with the virtual enclosure and privatization of the public domain via patent and copyright protections), the further aggrandizement of corporate power, and the further privatization of the commons, doesn't seem too novel; perhaps because corporations already pretty much run the political-economic show.


After all, though those objecting to the TPP warn that its passage will weaken governments' ability to regulate corporations and constrain corporate abuses, as it presently stands the corporate interests behind the TPP are already powerful enough to keep the agreement's contents (aside from a few leaks) virtually secret. The few politicians privy to the deal's contents are effectively banned from discussing its substance with their constituencies. And, as we've time and again witnessed, widespread public dissent is simply ignored. In other words, so-called "national sovereignty" (which many TPP protesters fear is being undermined) in many respects does not risk taking a backseat to corporate interests - for the very reason that they aren't distinct to begin with.


Let's not forget, although many of us have had it hammered into our heads that we live in a democracy, the fact of the matter is that we live in a "representative democracy" - one that represents the wealthy - in which money is equated with political speech - i.e. a plutocracy.


In addition to the fact that the Democratic and Republican parties are corporate parties through and through (who represent the interests of the rich nearly exclusively), those decrying the loss of national sovereignty sound particularly absurd considering the fact that they echo throughout a political context characterized by extreme abuses of sovereign power - abuses such as Obama's "disposition matrix" (which, for those who haven't been paying attention, allows the Executive to assassinate anyone s/he likes, without any meaningful due process of law). In light of this, perhaps, we should take a moment to briefly examine the concept of sovereignty.


As Carl Schmitt, the notorious Nazi jurist - whose thoughts on sovereignty are among the most influential of the past century - pithily put it: "Sovereign is he who decides on the exception." That is, the sovereign is the person able to decide what the law is by deciding what and where the law's exceptions reside, and has the capacity to declare a "state of exception," suspending the law entirely.


The sovereign is s/he "who decides on the exception." Given this, it is highly revealing that, in discussing his official function, George W. Bush described himself as "the decider" - the one who decides. And when Obama assumed Bush's office, this baton of sovereignty - this power to decide - passed on to him. Now Obama decides. He decides, for instance, that certain practices (targeting people for assassination without due process of law, or indefinitely detaining people without charging them with a crime, or killing people with drones throughout the world) are exceptions to the law. As such, demands for the protection of sovereignty (of "the ultimate power to command") sound confused at best.


Rather than lamenting the loss or diminution of national sovereignty to corporate hegemony, then, we should instead consider the thoughts of the late Zapatista Comandante Ramona who maintained that, instead of seizing power, emancipatory political movements ought to break power into little pieces so that all can exercise some degree of (noncoercive) power - and that none will be subject to (coercive) power. That is, corporate sovereignty ought to be rejected, but not in favor of national sovereignty. National sovereignty ought to be rejected too.


In light of the above, some of those protesting the TPP to some degree (to me, at least) resemble the subculture of people obsessed with so-called "chemtrails." This, of course, should not be construed to mean that TPP protesters are conspiracy theorists. What's commensurable is just the utter superfluousness of their respective concerns.


Chemtrail enthusiasts, let us recall, who are disturbed by lingering condensation trails left in the sky by passing jets, believe that a government plot to control the weather is poisoning the world with various pollutants. Yet, while chemtrail theorists excite themselves over what may not even exist, mountains of firmly established factual reports point to the prevalence of actual pollutants in the environment causing epidemic rates of cancer, not to mention global warming, and the acidification and death of the ocean, among other actual, factual problems. Why don't chemtrail obsessives concern themselves with these firmly documented harms?


Likewise, TPP protesters (like Ralph Nader, and other liberals) ought to recognize that though the harms expected to accompany the TPP are projected to exceed those that accompanied NAFTA, the TPP is itself just a symptom, a product, of the capitalist system subtending it. For even if the TPP is defeated, capitalism will just produce more trade agreements like it. That's just what capitalism does. In addition to producing high-tech gadgetry - not to mention wars, ecocide, and widespread poverty, along with extreme concentrations of wealth - capitalism produces these inequitable trade agreements. So why not just go to the root of the problem - the radix (from which the word radical - as well as the word rational - derives)?


Some, of course, may object to this characterization of capitalism as an economic system that (re)produces poverty. But capitalism is hardly the efficient system its profiteers, and their minions, insist that it is. Just consider the relation capitalism has to the most basic economic product there is: food.


Most would probably agree that an economy's purpose is the production of basic services and goods. Within capitalism, however, this is not exactly the case. The primary purpose within capitalism is the extraction of profits. Goods, or commodities, are produced for exchange (exchange-value) rather than for use (use-value). And since goods are produced not for their own sake, but as a means to acquire money, one encounters a fundamental conflict of interest in the capitalist production process. For instance, farmers who produce enough crops to feed their communities ultimately find themselves forced out of business in a capitalist system. Though successful in the sense that they produce a large amount of food, and provide sustenance, in a capitalist system this very productiveness renders them failures. For, within the upside-down logic of capitalism, a too-productive farmer, by lowering demand (by satisfying a need) leads the price of his or her product to drop. And the more the farmer produces, the less valuable the food becomes. This valuation/devaluation ultimately renders the farmer both unable to pay her debts and forced out of business. This is why millions of tons of perfectly good food are intentionally destroyed each year - not only is food sacrificed to profit, in a commodity economy food items become instruments of a low-burning civil war. (Of course, by decommodifying food - by treating it as a commons - this problem could be corrected. Yet, decommodification is anathema to capitalism. Capitalism runs in the opposite direction, attempting to privatize and commodify - and thereby profit from - everything).


Rather than meeting human needs directly, then, capitalism meets (some of) these needs incidentally - actively undermining human well being in the process, by artificially maintaining scarcity. This is why Henry Ford, faced with the problem of having new models of cars to sell to a public unwilling to trade in their perfectly functioning Model-Ts, contributed to the development of what has come to be known as planned obsolescence. That is, he developed cars that would break down and need to be replaced after awhile. Commodities (like computers) that aren't rendered obsolete by technological advances are designed to break in a capitalist society. To be sure, manufactured scarcity, as well as planned obsolescence, and other strategies designed to create demand and profit, are integral to capitalism; these do little, however, to provide goods and services.


Capitalism's general tendency to deprive (some degree) of goods and services from all but the wealthy is illustrated by another example. Due to the rising price of real property, the owner of a senior residence home in Brooklyn - which provides housing for vulnerable members of the community - is evicting this population, rendering them homeless. Why? In order to transform this necessary housing into luxury condominiums, of course. In other words, necessary housing for a vulnerable population of elderly people is valued less than, and subordinated to, luxury housing (which by definition is unnecessary). It is this upside-down system of values (which is anti-democratic - subordinating basic housing for the many to luxury housing for the few, for instance) that needs to be corrected.


While it may be counter to the reigning ideology, it is nevertheless the case that, rather than being a democratic political-economy (animated by a concern for the well being of all) capitalism is actually a highly aristocratic economic form, concerned with what is best for those it considers the aristos, the best (which, within a system that values things according to their monetary worth, turns out to be the rich). This is precisely the aristocratic logic undergirding "trickle down" theories. What is in the interest of the best, the theory holds, is in the interest of the many as well - as it will "trickle down" to the rest.


Unlike (aristocratic) capitalism, however, a society aspiring to actually democratic social relations ought to concern itself not with what is in the interest of the "best," or even with the "majority," but with the flourishing of all people. As long as an economy functions according to the demands of exchange-value, instead of use-value, though, we will wind up not only subordinating the well-being of all to the luxury of some, we will continue to produce avoidable harms such as global warming, famine, and poverty, along with trade agreements like the TPP. Rather than narrowly focusing on the TPP, then, we ought to direct our attention to developing an actually egalitarian, critical democracy. Unlike the capitalistic system, which regards everything as alienable (i.e., for sale), such a project would not only recognize, for instance, that political rights must be inalienable (not for sale); it would recognize that the preconditions for these rights (such as food, and housing, among other conditions necessary for human flourishing) must be decommodified and inalienable as well. Humankind may yet have time to recognize this.




City Summer Swimming


originally published on CounterPunch


New York City’s municipal swimming pools will open their gates, and their blue, chlorinated depths to the public in a few weeks. And while local and even national papers will report the advent of the city’s swimming season, the conduct of the crowds, the (overwhelmingly petty) crimes that tend to arise when so many people are concentrated into such tight confines, and (to a lesser degree) the ongoing privatization of the public realm that is limiting these spaces ever further, as so often happens the real issue will hardly be discussed at all – the real issue being: why is it the case that in a city that is almost entirely built on islands – a city literally surrounded by water – are there so few places to swim and cool off in the first place?
Though billions of dollars were recently spent refurbishing some of the city’s municipal pools, such as the McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn, these pools can only accommodate a fraction of the overheated. All the while, the potentially refreshing waters of the Hudson and the East River – among other bodies of water which could radically improve people’s quality of life – are treated less with respect, and more with sewage and toxic runoff. Notwithstanding the occasional, anomalous swimming events (such as the annual Brooklyn Bridge Swim) and the accommodationist efforts of advocates of pools designed to float in the East River and filter the river water – the city’s natural waterways are practically unswimmable. Why?


Anyone who takes a not-so-short view of the city’s (and the world’s) history will quickly recognize the answer to this only apparently beguiling question; the present political-economic system, today’s exploitative, exchange-value economy (capitalism), has deformed the once bucolic harbor and rivers – not to mention the land and its inhabitants – into their present carcinogenic configurations. Indeed, in their descriptions of the region, early European chroniclers (such as Henry Hudson) without fail called attention to not only the salutary beauty of the harbor, and to the abundance of fish, but to the intensity of the sweetness of the air as well.


It takes little to see, and smell, that these conditions no longer prevail. And just as early explorers (blind to the indigenous inhabitants’ cultural practices) erroneously attributed this apparent pristinity to untrammeled nature, they raise a question as important as it is elementary: What is the point of an economy, and of technological prowess, and of society itself? Is it to create good swimming conditions – and, by extension, a healthy, peaceful world? Or is it to destroy these things?
As the planet continues to heat up (limiting places to cool off while creating greater demand for such places), and as the writing drips from the storm-washed walls, it is only becoming more evident that radical, transformative political and economic changes need to be enacted to keep cities, and the rest of the world, from growing ever more unlivable. Radical (and critically rational, as opposed to merely instrumentally rational) political and economic changes cannot take place, however, before a deeper shift occurs – one in which, among other reprioritizations, exchange-value and profit are subordinated (normatively and, ultimately, legally as well) to use-value and the well-being of the people, animals, and habitats of the planet.


As New York City’s municipal pools prepare to open for the summer season, many will no doubt dismiss projects designed to create a genuinely healthy environment, and to renew swimmability to New York City’s waterways, among others, as utopian and misguided. Yet such a project – which demands the correction of vast social and ecological harms – really ought to be regarded as what it in fact is: one of the most crucial social, economic, and practical questions of our time.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Welcome to the Planet of the Frankensteins





It seems these days that the name Frankenstein is used to designate not only the scientist Victor Frankenstein, but also the monster he created in Mary Shelley's early 19th century novel. Rather than reflecting a mistake of some sort, however, this may reflect the recognition of a deeper, underlying truth. For while both creator and creation are monstrous in the novel, in many respects it is the creator who is the more horrible. As such, it seems entirely appropriate that his name should come to designate not merely the monster, but the monstrous. 


 


Among other things, it is especially noteworthy that the man who would end up creating the now legendary monster was not only a scientist; he was a rich scientist working in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Obsessed with electricity – that is, with the union of technology and power – he employed this electrical power to realize his dream of creating a 'life form.’ That he should do so at the very historical moment that new and horrible 'forms of life,' or ways of life, were being shocked into creation throughout the world by the Industrial Revolution and European imperialism – and that these newly created ways of life of the colonized, enslaved, and industrial working classes were indeed monstrous – seems hardly coincidental, irrespective of Shelley's intent. (Also worth noting here is the fact that the quality of the monstrous – in its association with the sublime, as well as in its opposition to beauty – is not restricted to the sphere of aesthetics. Indeed, to the extent that it is opposed to beauty – to fairness (which designates both harmony and that other variety of fairness, justice) – the monstrous also represents the ethical and political concept of injustice.)


Shelley, of course, was not unaware of the fact that she was writing her novel at the beginning of a new historical period. Frankenstein's subtitle, after all, is The Modern Prometheus. Moreover, beyond the notion of modernity, Prometheus himself is symbolic of historical ruptures. A trickster who challenged Zeus’ omnipotence, Prometheus was the Titan who transgressed the rules of the gods to bestow fire (and, more generally, technology) to humanity – mythopoeically representing a moment in the history of humanity that is rivaled in importance by the Industrial Revolution itself.

Following Prometheus’ theft, and his gift of fire, Zeus punished the former by chaining him to a rock on top of Mount Kazbek (where, each day, an eagle would tear out Prometheus’s ever-regenerating liver). Zeus, however, was not content to merely punish Prometheus; he would also punish those who benefitted from Prometheus’ crime. Commissioning the god of technology, Hephaestus, to fashion a woman from clay, Zeus would set Pandora (and her jar of misfortunes) to the world to punish humankind. Indeed, it was by way of her notorious jar that not only disease, but work itself was introduced into reality. That is, prior to Prometheus's theft, there was no disease or work in the world. Relatedly, across the planet that industrial imperialism was increasingly subjugating during the period of Frankenstein's creation and publication, work and disease were being introduced with great rapidity. As Karl Polanyi describes it in his seminal The Great Transformation, European colonizers often introduced work to the natives they conquered. Unwilling to toil for those colonizing their homes, Polanyi relates that the natives would remark that there was no need to work and earn money since there was plenty of food growing more or less wildly for them to eat freely. The colonizers’ response to this was to destroy the freely growing food, creating a state of dependency, compelling the conquered people to work[1] – creating work and disease, just like what resulted from the theft of Prometheus. It was not simply imperialism, though, so much as a new type of industrial imperialism that was transforming the world in the early years of the 19th century. And it is primarily this industrialism – marked by its particularly monstrous electrical, economic, and political power – an electrical power that, like fire (and like capitalism itself) requires the perpetual consumption of fuel – that is represented by Dr. Frankenstein.

Dr. Frankenstein, then, is a monster who creates monstrosities. But not only were conquered natives being monstrously subjugated by the British Crown, and their lands turned into monstrosities; the industrial working class was also being created during this time, and being subjected to monstrous conditions. As such, just as we can see Dr. Frankenstein as symbolic of the forces of science and industry, we can see Frankenstein's monster as symbolizing to some degree the industrial working class and the slaves and other subjugated peoples of the empires - the poor in general who threaten and frighten the dominating classes. These monstrous forms of life, however, are not limited to people. The monster that Dr. Frankenstein created, which becomes hostile and harmful to people, can also be regarded as the natural environment itself. To be sure, with its increasingly destructive hurricanes, floods and other 'extreme weather events', and with its polluted toxicity, all caused by Prometheus/Frankenstein/Industry, much of the natural world today is being monstrosified. 

But the monster-making of the combined forces of science, industry, and empire did not by any means end in the 19th century. The 20th century's biopolitical monstrosities are far too numerous to list. Aside from the monumental horrors of concentrated violence witnessed in genocides and nuclear bombings, and the more quotidian forms of diffused violence endemic to modern life, a new technology would find itself attached to the term Frankenstein toward the end of the 20th century: frankenfoods. Combined, like Frankenstein's monster, from sundry parts, frankenfoods are distinct from the monster insofar as they are the result of not so much anatomical, but genetic engineering. And closely related to Frankenstein and genetics, or epigenetics, rather, is Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 film Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

While it may be a coincidence that an actor named Franco plays the Dr. Frankenstein character, the scientist Will Rodman,
[2] other structural similarities abound. Indeed, beyond sharing characteristics with Dr. Frankenstein, Will Rodman is also much like Prometheus – for the technology he sacrifices so much to convey to humanity directly creates world-changing disease. 

In developing what he hopes will be a cure for Alzheimer's, Will Rodman conducts series of drug tests on a number of apes. But while his experimental drug increases the research subjects' intelligence by extraordinary bounds, the drug also has a deadly side-effect – an infectious disease that, by the end of the film, gives rise to a pandemic wiping out much of humankind – allowing the apes to rise to global hegemony in this Planet of the Apes origin story.

After an accident leads to the cessation of Rodman's medical research program at the beginning of the film, Rodman is forced to euthanize his lab animals. One infant chimpanzee, however, is spared. Although he could have just as easily been named Moses, the infant chimp is named Caesar. Brought to Rodman's Bay Area home, Caesar is raised in Rodman's house like his own child. Possessing an intelligence more powerful, we are told, than that of most humans, Caesar learns sign language, communicates linguistically, and develops into a sophisticated 'person.' In one pivotal scene involving a leashed dog barking at Caesar (who is also on a leash) a distressed Caesar asks Rodman if he is also a pet. And if he is not a pet, what is he? With his unique capacities, assembled by a scientist, this creation of Frankenstein/Rodman – Caesar – is a type of Frankenstein's monster. But unlike Frankenstein's monster, who was entirely alone and alienated in the world, Caesar is not completely unique. There are others, other apes, who are like him. Caesar is not only a type of Frankenstein's monster; he will become a type of Dr. Frankenstein as well. 

When a violent incident results in his banishment from Rodman's home to a primate refuge, Caesar learns to live among other apes – and, as befits his namesake, he attempts to organize these apes into an army so that they may resist the abuses to which they are submitted.
However, and to some degree illustrating Spinoza’s observation that “Subjection to domination impedes the subject’s ability to use reason correctly,”[3] the other apes are a mostly thoughtless and bestial lot. So, to aid the raising of their 'class consciousness,' Caesar decides to expose them to the Alzheimer drug under renewed development in Rodman's lab. Shortly after the apes' exposure to this drug, their intelligence greatly enhanced, they begin to understand Caesar's plan for liberation. And it is not long before they have exacted revenge on their jailer and climbed out of the compound. 

Having freed themselves from the primate refuge, the apes proceed to Rodman's lab where the drug is being studied. Liberating the test apes there, they then head en masse to release the apes trapped at the zoo. And from the zoo, Caesar decides to lead his army to Muir Woods on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is not long, however, before the police are on their trail. Cutting them off, what results is an exciting battle in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge – one that calls to mind Occupy Wall Street protesters' attempted occupations of bridges. Rather than marching right into the arms of the police, though, as Occupy protesters often did, Caesar directs his troops to climb over and under the bridge, avoiding and then surrounding the police and ultimately prevailing over their adversaries. And while it may not be fair to expect Occupy protesters, or others, to be able to climb as well as CGI orangutans and chimpanzees, it may not be entirely unrealistic to expect present-day political protestors to employ something approximating Caesar's tactics and strategies – tactics that could have just as well been gleaned from studying Sun Tzu.

At any event, Caesar – the monster of Frankenstein who becomes a type of Dr. Frankenstein himself – winds up leading his wounded army to Muir Woods and safety. And while their freedom might have been only short-lived otherwise, the pandemic that was only flaring up when they were making their escape from the primate refuge has, by the movie's end, engulfed the globe, ensuring that their freedom (from humans, at least) will be a lasting one.

This conclusion, in some respects, mirrors the end of Shelley's novel – for Frankenstein's monster escapes as well, banishing himself to the arctic at the end of the story. The story in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, however, leads one to wonder whether Frankenstein's monster would have risen in revolt had he had the company and support of an army of monsters. To be sure, unlike his cinematic depictions, Frankenstein’s monster was in possession of an intelligence comparable to what Rodman's intelligence drug provoked in the apes. Had he had the company of other monsters, who knows, they might have revolted actively (as opposed to revolting merely passively, committing the daily mini-sabotages people tend to commit in workplaces and other locations across the world
[4] – for, just like in Shelley's time, most people today are Frankenstein's monsters of sorts as well). Of course, even though we are told, by enemies and allies alike, that we are all 'singularities,' we are not alone like Dr. Frankenstein's sui generis freak of a monster. We may all be Frankensteins, but in this respect we are less like Dr. Frankenstein’s singular creation and more like Caesar and the apes, together in our alienation. What we lack is their consciousness of their Frankenstein condition(s).

Perhaps the most important question raised by the problematic film Rise of the Planet of the Apes, however, is whether one can free oneself from Dr. Frankenstein (i.e. capitalism and its ideology, and dominating forms of power generally) without becoming a Dr. Frankenstein oneself. And whether, relatedly, we are all, to varying degrees, hybrids of Dr. Frankenstein and his monstrous creation.




[1] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, Boston, 1944, p. 164
[2] A name, by the way, comprised, of the phallic “rod,” not to mention the problematic “will.”
[3] Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

[4] See James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, Yale University Press, 1985.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Climate Change as Crime against Humanity

originally published on CounterPunch


Have you ever found yourself thinking about the fact that climate change is both caused by and benefits a certain class of people, and generally does not benefit – and actually harms – another, far larger, class of people? Have you? And have you ever thought that, just maybe, this is not just a moral or ethical problem but a criminal matter? Something like a reckless or negligent crime against humanity? Have you? Well, maybe you have.

Maybe you’ve even thought, as I do now and then, that there’s no reason to hatch up yet another crime, another law  - since that’s just what reckless or negligent crimes against humanity would be. To be sure, there are already plenty of laws – prohibiting all sorts of horrible, exploitative, harmful things. They’re just not enforced. So what’s the use? What would it accomplish to frame climate change as a crime against humanity? I mean, you’re not going to drag anyone off to the International Criminal Court, are you? Or maybe you’ll set up your own tribunal, right here in the street. Why the hell not? It might feel good. And you can still boycott the fossil fuel industry – you and Desmond Tutu and so many others. Why not? It’s not as though – for all practical purposes – you’re forced to drive a car – forced to drive a car to get to work to pay the rent and pay for food and pick up groceries…

But let me tell you, as long as we’re discussing food, the meat industry, according to that UN report, is an even bigger climate change causer – or, if you prefer, bigger perpetrator of negligent and reckless crimes against humanity – than even the fossil fuel industry. I mean, that’s just a fact – just as the very air we breathe is the world’s leading carcinogen. And it’s only getting worse. I mean, I know that facts are somewhat unfashionable. Remember that old Mr. Gradgrind? Wasn’t that his name?

The point, however, is that if we’re going to meaningfully boycott the fossil fuel industry (which I’m all for, by the way) we shouldn’t stop there. I mean, it makes little sense to boycott one ecocidal industry while perpetuating others. For instance, did you know that the information technology industry is as big a polluter as the airline industry is? Look it up if you don’t believe me. And you’ll see, too, that search engines generate no small degree of CO2. That’s another one of those facts. At any rate, what was my point? Oh yeah, even though climate change is a horrible problem – a crime against humanity, not to mention a crime against so many animals, and forests, and rivers – it’s only an offshoot of a far larger problem. But you knew that, right?

I mean, just imagine what would happen if nuclear fusion were perfected – if an unlimited source of “clean,” “green” energy were available, and climate change were no longer a problem. What do you think all that energy – all that power – would be used to pursue? You’d still have to pay the rent. That wouldn’t change. Not with these laws. It’s not going to wipe out poverty, or malnutrition, or starvation either. That’s all, as a matter of fact, already technically feasible. I mean, you know that tons of food are willfully destroyed every day to keep up prices – exchange value, not use value, makes this world go round, right? Exchange value – a type of religious thought – backed up with guns, and all sorts of crimes against humanity – negligent, reckless, intentional, and otherwise.

In other words, there’s a whole hell of a lot to boycott beyond the fossil fuel industry – this entire coercive, unthinking society. If we can boycott that – I don’t know. Perhaps a non-coercive, thinking society can emerge from the former. One sees little hints of this here and there, from time to time.

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).
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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