Not that dark, not the dark into which our lives must pass, not the dark of ignorance, of the torture chamber, of the killer cop uniform, no, the dark, the dark from whence each of us came, the nihilo without which there is no creatio, yes, that dark, “the fecund dark in which we create” (Cocteau), the dark in which we imagine, disrobe, caress one another, fuck; the dark of the moonless sky that lets the paradoxical dark of the stars appear- magical lights that do not illuminate but still tell us where we are; not the dark of a black hole from which nothing escapes, but the dark of the unformed imagination from which all human things come, the primordial dark, the dark that was upon the waters before it was commanded that there be light; the space between the words, the rest between the notes, the silence that allows for speech; the dark of the vacuum into which particles pop into existence for no reason, the productive emptiness of mind into which thoughts come (from that same void? why not?); Master Niall of Preston and not Meister Eckhart is right (“Nature throws us into darkness”– the scintlilla animae unites when what understanding requires is distance); the dark that comes first and abides as the future into which being is projected, the conditio sine qua non open to any possibility, prime matter, formlessness receptive to the forms we choose to give to the world, our world, rotating in the dark, the dark that allows gravity to act and our feet to stay planted to the earth, thus the dark of life, the dark which allows refreshing sleep, the dark of winter preparing spring renewal, that dark, yes, that dark, the dark of cool evenings that dry the sweat of our brows, the dark of the water that does not reflect our face, the dark that absorbs us so that we do not become self-absorbed, the dark of tarrying in an experience without classifying it, the dark that resists the light-speed exchange of information in the name of free thinking, the emptiness of not being full of oneself, that dark which people are afraid of because they cannot be alone with themselves. This dark.
The world needs mothers so that hope can be sustained even when history testifies to its groundlessness. Who but a mother could say, after her son was beheaded by ISIS militants in Syria, what Paula Kassig said: “Our hearts are battered, but they will mend. The world is broken, but it will be healed in the end. And good will prevail.” [No doubt there are other mothers, whose names we are never told, who say the same thing, looking at the broken body of their sons, killed by a weapon they never saw, in the name of a crime no one ever proved they committed, in the name of ‘our’ security]. Mothers, whoever they are and wherever they live, need these hopes so that their love does not destroy them when their children are killed or die too young.
The world needs fathers too, to demand justice and hope that death produces positive change. In the wake of the decision of the grand jury not to charge the officer responsible for the death of his son, Michael Brown Sr. argued that “I do not want my son’s death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change. Change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone.” [Think here too of the father from Gaza, who lost his three daughters in the 2009 invasion, who tried to sublimate his loss into peace, to no avail]. Everyone knows–mothers and fathers too– that a new wound will be opened as another heals, one heart will be rent asunder as another one mends, another black youth will be killed by police as the memory of a previous killing fades, another drone strike will re-ignite an anger that might otherwise have cooled, and good, while it might make inroads here or there, cannot prevail absolutely.
Everyone knows this truth just by virtue of being alive for a few years. We know that we cannot justify history form the standpoint of an imagined future in which all suffering has been redeemed. Unjust death cannot be redeemed because nothing can bring it back to life. One life saved cannot transform the badness of another life destroyed; the dead cannot inhabit the bodies of the living and consent retroactively to their having been made a sacrifice along the road to the final triumph of the good. Can any universe be good in which the living and blameless must be destroyed, chopped into pieces, in order for it to triumph? We must insist that the good come into being as a pure positivity and all at once, without requiring the destruction by evil means of anyone that already exists.
That seems to be what an ethical politics would require, but it is impossible. The good cannot prevail absolutely because “the rotten acts that human beings commit against each other are not just aberrations– they are an essential part of who we are.”(Man in the Dark, Paul Auster, p.46) Auster’s character understands that beneath the structural causes of violence lie more primal fears, protean ignorance, an unlimited capacity for inconsistency and hypocrisy, cowardice, desire, and laziness that no ideology or systematic change is capable of erasing without trace. History bears witness to the myriad ways in which we can set ourselves at odds with one another. In personal or political life, conflicts are easy to begin, difficult to control, and easy to begin again, even when all parties have claimed to have learned their lesson.
Hope and despair cannot be separated from each other. Each disaster rekindles the hope that it will be the last one. But it never is. As hurricanes develop over the Atlantic each fall, so cycles of violence repeat themselves, even though we know, in principle, how to prevent them. Perhaps we fail because we rely too much on the social scientific hope that once we have addressed the external causes, the internal dispositions will atrophy and disappear.
Perhaps here we can locate a political function of literature– not didactic instruction on the politically correct line, not the construction of boring utopias, but excavation and laying bare of that in us which does not disappear with toppled institutions and systems, that which stands in the way of the realization of the good. Uncovering and provoking confrontation with the rottenness that lies deep within the human heart would at least undermine the self-serving belief that we can change the world without changing ourselves. To the extent that literature has a political task it is perhaps this: the construction of characters and narratives that evoke in us an understanding that the ambivalences, fears, and desires that are the inner causes of “the rotten acts” people commit exist in everyone, and not just “the enemy.” Perhaps through this confrontation we will learn to stop making exceptions in our own case, a practice which, if universalized, (and it is) entails that the inner causes of violence are never comprehensively addressed, and the outer changes our struggles achieve come to naught.
A possible principle for a political aesthetics: The beautiful is that which evokes the feeling of pain violence causes in such a way that we recognise ourselves in both the perpetrator and the victim. Finding beauty in the literary construction of violence is possible because literature is a series of experiments in possible modes of being in which horrendous acts can be explored without being committed to the crushing objectivity that history demands. Here we can explore the implications of action on the basis of maxims derived from the worst within ourselves without having to actually harm anyone. Literature does not offer proofs, (any art so unambiguous as to be capable of proving something would not be art, or art worth tarrying with, in any case). Rather, the aim is to provoke a struggle with ourselves to acknowledge our capacity for rottenness, in the multiple forms this rottenness can take, and to remind us that when attention is diverted from the vulnerable bodies of others, harm ensues.
A Philosophical Sky
does not quibble over mere adjectives.
Let me just remark, then, on the purity of its blue,
Without trying to get too fine, about which shade or hue.
In any case, it did not come to be described,
but to say: “Don’t call it sleep,
Call it what it is:
Death, and Resurrection.”
The sheltering soil is deep,
safe from the relentless wind,
that returns surface prettiness
to earth’s more essential purpose.
Kneeling in that shit-brown mud,
fetid and worm-worn,
I feel myself
a thousand years from now.
This “I,” this sore back,
this self-conscious flesh
digging into its origin and destination,
Can it say it is happy?
“I” and the thought of me will die,
the soil will endure.
That is no comfort, you say.
Perhaps it is not.
But it is true.
Agape in Theory, not in Official Practice
“Arnold Abbott handed out four plates of food to homeless people in a South Florida park. Then police stopped the 90-year-old from serving up another bite.
“An officer said, ‘Drop that plate right now — like I had a weapon,'” Abbott said.
The officer was enforcing a law passed in Ft. Lauderdale against feeding the homeless.
“Just because of media attention we don’t stop enforcing the law. We enforce the laws here in Fort Lauderdale,” said Mayor Jack Seiler.”
A working definition of Totalitarianism: The promulgation and enforcing of laws conceived of in opposition to the requirements of the embodied human being, and the justification of the consequent suffering as good for the victim who suffers.
His Worship continues: “I’m not satisfied with having a cycle of homeless in the city of Fort Lauderdale,” Seiler said. “Providing them with a meal and keeping them in that cycle on the street is not productive.”
A working definition of productivity: To be useful as an exploited body to capitalist industry.
Hence, Totalitarian Productivism= a unified body of violently enforced social policy and law which restricts legitimate human activity to those forms of exertion that produce money for private accumulation by the owners of capital.
You can serve, or you can starve, the mayor is saying, giving voice to the real secret of capitalist society, while thinking he is an independent thinker uttering a profound moral truth.
Starting From the Body, An Opening Towards Freedom
One imagines the well-fed men of Fort Lauderdale, standing on the steps of a well-financed church, cigars protruding from their over-tanned orange faces, basking in another warm Sunday afternoon, congratulating the mayor for his tough-mindedness.
Perhaps they even listened to a sermon on how the Gospels are to guide Christian life by disclosing some abstract duty towards God. But there are no abstract duties to God (What exactly do people think could be owed an omnipotence)? The relevant duties are concrete, and owed to each other, on earth:
“For I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you entertained me, I was unclothed and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you visited me. Then the just will answer: Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you? … The King will answer them, “I tell you truly, in so far as you did it to one of these my brothers, even to the least of them, you did it to me.” (Matthew, 25:35-41)
Attend first to the needs of the human body– that is the starting point of all ethics and law. Pastor or atheist, the starting point is the same: the action you can take now to alleviate the suffering of the deprived flesh. There is no revolution worth pursuing without attentiveness to the evil of suffering deprivation of the necessary and to the goodness of being full of what we need
Imagine now the homeless person, reaching for a plate of food only to have it smacked away by the police. When I try to put myself in his place I do not feel hungry, but a profound loneliness, an emptiness at the intentional destruction of caring contact with another human being, and for no reason other than to uphold the law because it has been decreed that hunger that you cannot pay to satisfy is illegal. What else can the starving man conclude when armed force intervenes to prevent him from eating than that his existence does not matter? And what is worse for a being conscious of his own existence– conscious of his own mattering– than to feel that mattering negated by those who are supposed to uphold the law, a force which, one presumes, ought to protect people.
The law either serves this fundamental goal or it must be abolished in favour of a new law: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27). That is, the law exists to satisfy the requirements of good human life; good human life is not a function of satisfying the law, come what may for our own existence. A law which makes eating illegal has become unhinged from the human purposes of law and annexed to the Totalitarian Productivism that determines life space and time everywhere. When it becomes a crime to feed the poor because it has become a crime to be poor because the poor have become manufactured in such numbers as to become both a nuisance and a threat to the rich we have reached a civilizational turning point. But while the values we need to criticise are ever present, (whether one assigns a material or a religious foundation is not important) the organizational forms needed to make them realities are lacking.
And the consequences: piles of unfed and unclothed bodies, thousands interred in squalid migrant camps along the periphery of Europe (can anyone in Europe really ignore the historical analogy staring everyone in the face- racially demonized others ‘concentrated’ behind barbed wire and blamed for their misery?); uncared for sick, expelled from hospitals even where these are supposed to be a publically funded good; the aged lying ill and alone, unvisited, uncared for, but as yet undead, and crying out, but the earphones on everyone’s head drown their feeble voice; and for the lucky, the working ones, they get to enjoy the cell by cell destruction of their stressed, working bodies stretched across the abyss of a pensionless future with no net to catch them when they fall.
But the law is upheld.
Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before
One of the first acts in the tragedy that has been the neo-liberal phase of capitalism was the financial crisis of New York City that culminated in 1975. As David Harvey explains, decades of de-industrialization and out-migration to the suburbs led to growing decay. This decay catalyzed the emergence of radical urban activists whose struggles were successful in securing public investment in essential services and stable, unionized municipal jobs. Then, as the stagflation crisis of the early seventies grew, the US federal government decided to pull its support for public investment in impoverished urban spaces. Understanding that crisis is a time for decisive action, a group of investment bankers (who just happened to hold a sizeable proportion of New York’s debt) seized their opportunity to drive the city into (technical) bankruptcy. Bankruptcy then provided the legal pretext to strip the city of its public assets and undermine the power of the municipal unions. Harvey describes the outcome: “The bail-out that followed entailed the construction of new institutions that took over management of the city budget. They had first claim on city tax revenues …. The effect was to curb the aspirations of the city’s powerful municipal unions, to implement wage freezes and cut backs in public employment and social provision (education, public health, transport services), and to impose user fees.” (David Harvey, A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism, p. 45). In relatively short order, a poor but culturally and politically dynamic city, the city of Leroy Jones, Lou Reed, Martin Scorsese, and the most incredible subway graffiti the world has ever seen, became the leading financial centre and family friendly tourist paradise it is today.
If the bankruptcy of New York was the opening act, perhaps the curtain call for the neo-liberal phase of capitalism will be the bankruptcy of Detroit. We shall see. But at the moment, the script is being replayed, almost to the letter.
What is certain is that, as the court proceedings concluded in mid-October, the losers will be the people and public assets of the city of Detroit. In powerful metonymy, one of the final decisions the court made was to finalize the closure and demolition of the Joe Louis Arena and hand the lands to a private developer. Yes, yes, it is an arena mostly for white suburbanites to watch hockey and antediluvian rock bands, but its namesake, Joe Louis, was everything the ‘new’ Detroit is slated not to be: black and working class. (If you rotated the iconic sculpture of his fist that lines Jefferson Avenue in front of Hart Plaza 90 degrees, it would form a black power salute. Louis was not a political radical by any means, but his symbolic value goes beyond his own political commitments). Corrine Ball, a lawyer for the city, explained that the decision was a “‘turning moment for this area of Detroit.” And indeed it was– it will be turned from a city owned asset with a unionized workforce into, first, a field of rubble, and later, no doubt, some generic condo-hotel monstrosity blocking working class Detroiters’ access to the riverfront. Much has been made of the attempt to restore the city’s waterfront, but from the Renaissance Center to whatever takes the place of Joe Louis, almost the entire west side of the river walk will be separated from the city by corporate castles and their security details.
Forgotten in the “rebirth” of Detroit, of course, are the hundreds of thousands of mostly black citizens whose perseverance is the only reason there is anything at all left on the North Shore of the Detroit River. Like the artists of Lower Manhattan in the 1980’s, they will soon be priced out of the downtown and probably (irony of ironies) driven to the (poorer) suburbs by service cutbacks (i.e., having their water cut off) and land-clearings (a new American enclosure movement). I am by no means romanticizing poverty and violence, but rather celebrating the tenacity, the ingenuity, the creativity, the love, and the struggles of the people of post-rebellion Detroit. They will not be counted amongst the “creative class” entrusted with the city’s latest transformation– from backwater of French colonialism, to the birthplace of the second industrial revolution, to the “arsenal of democracy,” to Motown, to Murder City USA, and now, no doubt, to tourist-friendly sports-entertainment-condominium-land (The developer dreamt-up name of the area where the new arena is being built –The District– epitomizes the ahistorical vacuity of contemporary urban “development).”
Whatever one could say in criticism of the social processes that led to the old Detroit, there was never any doubt about where one was when one was there. I am not talking about the “disaster tourists” who over the past decade have come to document the ruins, but rather simply being there for a drink or to see a local band or a late night gallery opening. Detroit had a feel to it, the feeling of uniqueness that is, paradoxically, shared by those spaces in cities across the world that make them worth visiting. The shared feeling of being in a unique space depends upon long-evolved local histories that are preserved– architecturally, gastronomically, linguistically, rhythmically– in an ongoing pace of life, i.e., organically, because people still live like that, and not artificially, so others can visit it. The feeling that arises in these spaces is one of being amidst a form of life that cannot be simulated, whose value is not reducible to a single abstract element but is an emergent property of the whole system of dynamic interaction in a space that has developed to satisfy local needs, as opposed to having been ‘developed’ with only land-values and tourists in mind.
The sameness of feeling oneself a momentary part of a system of evolved cultural uniqueness contrasts starkly with the absence of feeling when standing amidst the contrived differences of urban megaprojects which– like shoppers trying to buy individuality– pay the same star architects to build signature spaces which all end up looking the same. Stand in La Defence in Paris, the Canada Wharf district of London, or Bay and King in Toronto, shut your ears to the different languages and accents, and you would find yourself unable to say where exactly you are. But do the same experiment in Montmartre, Brixton, or Kensington Market and you will know you are in three very different spaces.
Yes, everything bears the stamp of the political-economic logic of the age, but that does not mean that the logic of life of local producers’ markets, local shops catering to immediate life-requirements, and local artists articulating the universal from the concrete local space they inhabit (and share) is something worth fighting to protect against the monotony of ‘urban renewal.’ What makes a city great is not its instrumentally-created signature pieces but its unintentionally-evolved historical differences– the one’s that are bull-dozed first to make way for “turning points.” When I think of what a democratic socialist city might feel like, I think of the neighbourhoods I love in the cities I have lived in and visited. Why? Concrete instantiations of community, solidarity, historically evolved identity; each is defined by the energy and struggles and creativity of the people who live(d) there; people who create(d) not for the sake of tourists but for its own sake, and to express themselves in ways that only people who make themselves part of the history of the neighbourhood can create. The living creation of worthwhile urban spaces, (arguably, the greatest creation of the humans species – the cauldron from which the boldest experiments in living endlessly bubble forth) is the non-alienated labour that persists despite capitalism. This non-alienated labour is what struggles over urban space are really about.
Without positive, life-affirming values to coherently serve, our decaying “civilization” requires both spectacle and tragedy to perpetuate itself. While the nihilism of money-value rules, people are kept both entertained and terrified– neither are states conducive to thinking, understanding, or solving problems. In the past two days there have been two attacks on uniformed Canadian soldiers, the first in St. Jean-sur-Richilieu, Quebec and yesterday’s more spectacular attack on the National War Memorial and then Parliament itself. In response, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a televised speech to the nation last night. I use the complete transcript as the basis for an imagined dialogue between him and myself.
My fellow Canadians, for the second time this week there has been a brutal and violent attack on our soil. Today our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo of the Argyll and Sunderland Highlanders.
There are violent and brutal attacks on individuals every day in this country that pass without any comment from you. Why? Is there a fundamental moral difference between everyday brutality and politicized brutality? If so, please explain what that difference is. If you are concerned with violence and brutality as such then you should hold a news conference every time there is a murder. Perhaps more to the point, if your concern is with violence and brutality, then you should, as Prime Minister, ensure that measures are taken, every time there is a violent and brutal attack, to understand why it happened, to grasp its specific and general causes, and then work out policies that address those causes so that violence and brutality end. Yet, consistently throughout your mandate, you have refused to address causes; in fact, you have denied that violence and brutality have structural causes. So beyond decrying violence and brutality and, worse, using it for political advantage, what are you doing to solve them as social problems?
Cpl. Cirillo was killed today, murdered in cold blood, as he provided a ceremonial honour guard at Canada’s National War Memorial, that sacred place that pays tribute to those who gave their lives so that we can live in a free, democratic and safe society. Likewise our thoughts and prayers remain also with the family and friends of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent who was killed earlier this week by an ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and Levant] inspired terrorist.
What do you mean when you say “ISIL-inspired terrorist?” What evidence do you have to support this claim? Is there a manifesto somewhere? A note? More deeply, what sort of causal claim do you take yourself to be making? Was the inspiration direct, i.e., explicitly encouraged by someone known to be in ISIL? Or was this an act of someone who was going to act out violently for other (psycho-social) reasons and simply latched on to allegiance to ISIL as a convenient self-explanation? And then, does ramming a car into two soldiers really constitute “terrorism?” It constitutes murder, yes, but why is it “terrorism?” The word has become meaningless from overuse, so please explain what you mean by it.
Tonight we also pray for the speedy recovery of the others injured in these despicable attacks.
Fellow Canadians, we have also been reminded today of the compassionate and courageous nature of so many Canadians like those private citizens and first responders who came to provide aid to Corporal Cirillo as he fought for his life and, of course, the members of our security forces in the RCMP, the City of Ottawa Police and in Parliament who came quickly and at great risk to themselves to assist those of us who were close to the attack.
Fine, give thanks, and it is true that “first responders” can sometimes be compassionate and courageous. They can also be violent and racist, like the first responders in Saskatoon, whose preferred method of compassion for drunk First Nation’s men was to drop them at the edge of town, in minus thirty degree weather. My point is not to undermine the good work of some by the bad work of others, but rather to suggest that there is no innate goodness that drives people to become police, but rather that the nature of first responders is too often determined, in this country, by the colour of the person’s skin whom they have been called to deal with. Is the history of the RCMP a history of compassion towards people of the First Nations? Is every Ottawa police officer compassionate to the homeless, or to the impoverished street criminal? How often do they exercise the courage needed to not respond with violent force to the provocations of the enraged poor?
Fellow Canadians, in the days to come we will learn more about the terrorist and any accomplices he many have had. But this week’s events are a grim reminder that Canada is not immune to the types of terrorist attacks we have seen elsewhere around the world.
First, you have still not explained what you mean by “terrorist” or why this is being called a “terrorist attack” Was the explicit goal to achieve political aims by causing mass panic (one plausible definition of terrorism) or to kill Canadian soldiers in a more targeted way (which one might call political violence, but not terrorism). Beyond the question of definitions, and without intending any disrespect to the two soldiers killed, I must point out that quantity matters in politics. You cannot compare the deaths of two people in fairly random and not terribly sophisticated attacks using an automobile and a legal hunting weapon with the deaths of thousands on 9/11 or hundreds in the bombing of Madrid’s train station. Moreover, an unsympathetic listener might think that you are happy, in a sense, to now be able to include Canada under the umbrella of victim countries, the better to further your reactionary and authoritarian agenda. Even if you disagree with me, there is still the even bigger point: the real comparison we need to make is between singular deaths at home and millions of deaths in the 20th and 2ist century in imperialist wars in which Canada has either been directly engaged or supported. I am not asserting, necessarily, that there is a precise causal relationship between imperialism and these two attacks, or, that even if there were, they would be legitimate. Progress comes by breaking out of revenge cycles, not giving in to them. But, to exploit these killings to create even more of a police state by calculated cultivation of fear that the attacks do not warrant is morally abominable- it treats these two dead citizens as tools to gain partisan advantage.
We are also reminded that attacks on our security personnel and on our institutions of governance are by their very nature attacks on our country, on our values, on our society, on us Canadians as a free and democratic people who embrace human dignity for all.
Some Canadians do in fact embrace the dignity of all, and our constitution asserts it, but our country’s history has actively denied it, for people here and abroad (and those from abroad who seek refuge here and are denied. The most stunning denial of human dignity, of course, is our colonial domination of the people of the First Nations. Have you forgotten Attawapiskat already?
But let there be no misunderstanding: we will not be intimidated. Canada will never be intimidated. In fact, this will lead us to strengthen our resolve and redouble our efforts, and those of our national security agencies, to take all necessary steps to identify and counter threats and keep Canada safe here at home. Just as it will lead us to strengthen our resolve and redouble our efforts to work with our allies around the world and fight against the terrorist organizations who brutalize those in other countries with the hope of bringing their savagery to our shores.
Why would anyone be any more intimidated by two isolated acts of violence than they are intimidated by any other random street crime? The brutality of terrorists is of course real, but we need, again, to understand social and historical context. ISIS(L) did not come from nowhere, they arose in the power vaccuum of post-Saddam Iraq and the Syrian civil war. Again, the great unmentionable goes unmentioned- the unparalleled brutality of US wars of aggression throughout the Cold War and into the twenty-first century. Savagery is causing a tenfold spike in the cancer rates in Iraq by the use of depleted-uranium munitions.
They will have no safe haven.
Who will have no safe haven and how far do you intend to go to deny it (once you have explained who, exactly, you are talking about)? How many civilians will you be willing to kill in order to make good your challenge? Leadership is not macho tough talk. It requires the cultivation of understanding, not adolescent male posturing.
Well, today has been, without question, a difficult day. I have every confidence that Canadians will pull together with the kind of firm solidarity that has seen our country through many challenges. Together, we will remain vigilante against those at home or abroad who wish to harm us.
Let us hope that rather than herd solidarity people start to think about the reality of the global posture you have used your control over foreign policy to assume. If you maraud around the world talking tough and killing others alongside the leaders of global violence, you put your own citizens at risk of revenge attacks.
For now, Laureen, Ben and Rachel and I join all Canadians in praying for those touched by today’s attack. May God bless them and keep our land glorious and free.
May God bless them after their loved one’s have been killed? Did you really think about that concluding statement?
Poets: More Adjectives of Outrage Please
The ideological struggle to build support for the bombing campaign against ISIS is foundering not only against the rock of The Pentagon’s open admission of its uselessness, but also against the hard place of an exhaustion of adjectives of outrage that can clearly distinguish ISIS from last year’s devil– Basher al-Assad, against whom ISIS was/is fighting.
In announcing Canada’s commitment to the courageous bombing of an army with no airforce, Stephen Harper castigates ISIS for “a campaign of unspeakable atrocities against the most innocent of people.” Last year, as signatory to a joint declaration against Assad he condemned “in the strongest terms the horrific chemical weapons attack.”
Obama denounced ISIS as “the cancer of violent extremism” but warned after the chemical weapons attack that “when “dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry argued that “ISIL and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed, and those responsible for this heinous, vicious atrocity will be held accountable,” while a year earlier excorciated Assad for using “the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.” Joe Biden reiterated for good measure that the use of chemical weapons is “heinous.” And John Baird, the Canadian Foreign Minister, in a speech at the United Nations denounced Assad’s “brutal and repressive regime” for continuing to “slaughter … its own people,” while noting that “the United Nations continues to fail to impose binding sanctions that would stem the crimson tide of this bloody assault. Until the last syllable of recorded time, the world will remember and history will judge Member States that are allowing the atrocities to continue.” Perhaps he has spent the last year trying to understand what he meant by “the last syllable of recorded time,” (surely Member States, or those representatives with at least a high school education, know that time is not measured in syllables) because he has certainly not spent it thinking about the contradiction between that speech and the government in which he serves now offering to seek the permission of this same “brutal and repressive regime” to bomb ISIS.
How are spectators in North America and Europe supposed to pick sides and lay their bets if both sides are denounced with essentially the same epithets? Last year, the overwhelming moral imperative was to overthrown the Assad regime. Western leaders were more or less silent about the fact that ISIS was one of the few effective military forces in the Syrian opposition. What changed? ISIS moved into the Sunni heartland of Iraq, overrunning Kurdish forces and the Iraqi Army alike, looting American military equipment, and then beheading two American hostages. As horrific as beheading hostages is, in the context of the unending mass killings that have characterized the Middle East for decades– primarily by America, its allies, and its proxies– they can hardly be a justifiable pretext for a bombing campaign that will only add to the body count. Moreover, as George Monbiot argues in a superb essay, the “humanitarian” case for bombing ISIS is at the same time a case for bombing almost every regime in the Middle East. If beheading is your preferred tipping point (as it seems to have been for the United States), then first in the crosshairs should be its stalwart ally Saudia Arabia, which last year alone beheaded 59 people for such scientific, twenty-first century crimes as “sorcery.”
Twenty Three Years of Death From Above
Of course, what is currently going on in the Middle East, and especially Iraq, is not humanitarian intervention. The idea “humanitarian” implies care for human life and that which protects and enables it. Since 1991, almost without pause, the United States and its allies have been systematically killing Iraqis, destroying the infrastructure their lives depend upon, and creating a political vacuum into which murderous sectarian groups can operate and gain support. By any objective measure– and they exist– the United States and its allies are the only real machine of death on the planet, and have been since the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823. Bogey man after bogey man has emerged to justify the endless killing: Saddam Hussein, Moqtadar al-Sadr, now ISIS. Through it all, anti-war movements have come, burned out, and gone, but the UN and the International Criminal Court have remained- silent and useless. If the principle of Right to Protect (R2P in its Twitter and text friendly form- go ahead, hashtag it and save the world) is now a guiding principle of international law, it should mandate global intervention against the United States and its “partners,” including the disgrace of “democratic government” that currently rules my home, the dreadful Stephen Harper and his abhorrence of understanding the causes of social events. Since it is the world’s wealthiest countries destabilizing, destroying, and killing the world’s poorest people– the overwhelming majority of which have done nothing that could be construed as a threat to the West, who wish to either be left alone or emulate what they (wrongly) think its values to be– then they are the one’s, clearly, who need protection. What they need is not bombs– which sever heads, rather than restore them to those who wrongly an unjustifiably lost theirs– is a coherent plan, drawn up by the people who live in and understand the region, that will force the warring sects to sit down and work out mutually acceptable rapproachments. Can’t happen? Why not? Europe solved 300 hundred years of almost unending war (The Thirty Years’ War to World War Two) without intervention from the Middle East.
What more confirmation is needed that “Western civilization” has hit a moral, spiritual, political, social, and cultural dead end then Leon Panetta’s claim that it will take the world’s richest and most powerful armies 30 years to defeat ISIS? Militarily, this claim is nonsense. ISIS could be wiped out in a matter of twenty five minutes (as long as it takes for the ICBM’s to arc from North Dakota to Syria and Iraq). What Panetta is saying, without saying it out loud, is that if America and its allies are not engaged constantly in war, people will begin to ask questions (as they did in Occupy, as they are doing in Hong Kong) about what exactly justifies this way of life of alienation and exploitation for the many and inhuman luxury for the few? And the answer, which they fear, is: “nothing.” The only remaining raison d’etre of the United States is to prolong military conflicts (ruining millions of others’ lives in the process) to distract people from this world-historical fact: the enlightenment values of individual freedom, formal and substantive equality, reasoned political discourse, an end to government by superstitious idiocy, diversity, cosmopolitanism, anti-racism (read L’Abée Raynal’s Histoire Politique et Philosophique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans des Deux Indes, if you do not believe me), women’s equality (Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe des Gouges); those principles that (imperfectly) animated the French and American Revolutions, are dead. Once again, irrational fear of “terrorists” and political exhaustion will prevent an effective mobilization against this fanatical desire to kill Arabs and keep their societies destabilized. As in Egypt, where the West abandoned pro-democracy activists in favour of the generals, so too in Syria, the west will opt to sustain chaos in which tens of thousands more people will die, all the while pretending to be on the side of the “Syrian people.”
We live in prisons or we live in shopping malls. And the meaninglessness of that life must not be felt, so governments continue to amuse us with the spectacle of drone attacks and fighter jets, whose exhaust fumes cloud the soul-killing emptiness which is the twenty-first century.
Unlike John Lydon, I am not an anarchist (or the antichrist, despite what some may say). Leadership- of social movements, of societies, of complex institutions– is, I would argue, both necessary and valuable. In their moment of birth and initial development, “horizontal” movements and consensual politics allow the subaltern a voice and create a transformative experience of agency, of their capacity to debate the rules they will live by, and to figure out means of enacting those rules. However, horizontalism and consensus have never proven to be sustainable over historically relevant periods of time in complex orders in which multiple and opposed perspectives have to be reconciled into a coherent organizational or social direction. Allowing every voice endless play and never moving until everyone is convinced is not a recipe for viable democratic communities, but rather permanent instability and implosion. The inability of Occupy to sustain itself for more than few months is a most recent case in point.
It does not follow that democratic self-organization and self-governance is impossible, but only that both require leadership. Those who think that leadership is contrary to the democratic organization of societies or institutions confuse it with the power to command. The power to command derives from the model of military hierarchy in which subordinates must obey their superiors. But the power of leadership is not grounded in the capacity to use force against insubordinates, but the ever tested and ever proven capacity of the leader to discover the point around which diverse views can be unified. Complex entities need leadership not because people need to be told what to do, but because they require unity of purpose. Unity of purpose emerges out of deliberation and argument, but the coherence required for action depends upon there being someone a little above the fray, who can evaluate the relative merits and demerits of different perspectives, synthesize the perspectives as far as possible, and re-present the compatible parts as a coherent proposal for the members (of the movement, the society, the institution) to approve or reject.
Good leaders do not, therefore, substitute themselves for active membership. On the contrary, the best leaders energize members to give the most they can give to the collective enterprise that brings them together. They are replacing themselves even as they serve their term by helping to develop an active cadre willing and able to take over the reigns at any moment. Every leader should be challenged all the time, not by ambitious social climbers seeking the spoils of office (there should be no spoils) but by committed members serving the mission of the organization. The function of good leadership is indispensable, the person of the good leader should be fungible. Any group dependent upon a single person for charismatic direction is doomed, since functions can be replaced, but not the unique characteristics of a person.
Commanders, by contrast, tend to identify their person and their role. They tend to treat themselves as agents and everyone below as a passive object. This fact is not accidental, since only passive objects can be commanded. People who can and do think for themselves can be persuaded, but never commanded. Democratic self-organization dies as soon as there are commanders, because the very existence of commanders proves that the followers have ceased to exercise their capacity to think for themselves. As soon as they regain the confidence to demand participation, command becomes impossible. The commander who cannot lead people who have freed themselves from fear and apathy will soon lose the power to command. Over the long term, fear has never proven to be an effective source of social stability.
Hence, one cannot lead by threat of sanction. Leadership is exercised by persuasion. Members argue, leaders listen, they channel, they pose problems, they encourage further argument, all the while gathering and unifying the elements that will become the position the group will have to decide upon. Sometimes arguments fail, sometimes they bog down in splits, sometimes they are outright rejected by the members. The coming to pass of those possibilities need not prove fatal to an organization or its leaders. Changing, like staying the course, requires leadership as well. The commander insists on pressing forward no matter what the cost; the leader understands that his or her duty is to the future of the organization, and has the courage to adjust a strategy when circumstances make that necessary. The commander insists on his or her own way, the leader, as I said above, synthesizes democratically expressed positions of the members. Since in a living organization members are constantly democratically engaged, the work of synthesis never stops. Command appears clean from the outside but its dogmatism ends up incapacitating everyone further down the hierarchy; leadership is messy and chaotic from the outside, but it ensures the long term health of the organization by constantly engendering the emergence of a new generation of leaders from the active cadre. Leadership takes time, and takes it time. Command is urgent.
Crisis generates a false sense of urgency. A false sense of urgency allows commanders to assume the mantle of leadership. They stand on the balcony and promise bold new directions– and the need for decisive action to break from the old ways. Of course, crises are turning points. Human life is not– and ought not be–static. But when commanded rather than lead in a new direction, people do not have time to ask the crucial questions: what lies beyond the horizon, where is it, in fact, the we are going? Is the new direction consistent with the purposes which first brought us together, or is it a re/destruct-uring of those purposes masquerading as service to them? Finally– and this is the most important question that does not get asked- what is the cause of the crisis? Is the problem in the operations of a particular institution, or is it in the basic dynamics of the society in which that institution is embedded and upon which the successful carrying out of its mission depends? Is the particular being blamed for a problem of the universal, and being destroyed so that the whole society can carry on its problematic path, dragging every particular institution down with it? If there is no time for question, argument, and dissent, if there is no time for reflection upon what the mission of particular institutions really is and/or ought to be, and how it can be organized to ensure that purpose is fulfilled, if, in short, people allow themselves to be commanded (for ultimately, it is only our acquiescence that allows commanders to function) then the real problems are not solved (they are not even understood) and the mission of institution and the purposes of social life in general can be undermined without anyone seeing the danger.
Strike rates in Canada have been in decline since the 1980’s. In the 1980’s there was an annual average of 541 workdays lost per 1,000 employees. By the 1990’s, this average had dropped to 233. By the 2000s’s the average had declined further, to 203, far less than half the 1980’s rate. The drop is not attributable to more enlightened labour policies– the same time line demonstrates growing inequality between those who derive their income from labour and those who derive it from invested capital (see Thomas Picketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century). So what explains the long term trend? There are two clear factors which reciprocally influence each other. First, differences in labour costs and the scope and depth of legal protections have been exploited by international capital. Zones of lower labour cost and weaker legal protections for unions and workers have acted as attractors of capital. More mobile international capital has put pressure on states- whose legitimacy largely depends upon their ability to ensure economic growth as measured by standard capitalist metrics– to prove to international capital that they are “open for business.” In practice this cliché means– and this is the second factor–competition with low wages zones to drive down labour costs through coordinated attacks on existing labour law and unions. These changes have made it more difficult to strike, on the one hand, and more risky, on the other.
A glaring example of the dangers of striking occurred in February of 2012, when workers in London, Ontario were taught a brutal object lesson in the reality of global capitalism. Then Canadian Auto Workers on strike against the locomotive maker Electro-motive were given an impossible choice. The company (a subsidiary of Caterpillar) demanded that the union agree to cut their existing wages in half, or face the closure of the plant. Seeing that what was at stake was not just their plant, but the future of the union movement in the Ontario manufacturing sector, these workers heroically sacrificed themselves, went on strike, and watched their livelihood move to Muncie, Indiana. Had they not stood up to the brutish tactics of Electro-motive, every manufacturer in the country would have been encouraged to make the same demands. What boss wouldn’t want to cut her or his workers’ wages in half? While the jobs were lost, the massive public outcry against legalized extortion preserved the possibility of meaningful collective bargaining in other plants, at least for the time being.
The heroism of the Electro-motive workers brings me to my main point. Strikes are generally derided as selfish, as morally (if not physically) violent, because they “use” people not directly party to the dispute as tools to secure the union’s victory, and as counter-productive. What is worse is that these criticisms are generally not leveled by the owners of capital (they understand that in current conditions most strikes are doomed to fail after a fairly short period, so they do not need to get apoplectic in the press). Rather, the criticisms tend to stem from the “general public” the vast majority of whom must work for a living and would thus materially benefit from any improvements that successful strikes might win. In all the hue and cry about “using” innocent people as pawns, the violence to which working people are regularly subjected is almost never mentioned. This violence is sometimes overt–as when 34 striking Platinum miners were murdered in Marikana, South Africa in 2012– but more often invisible from the outside: the ever increasing stress of rising workloads and fewer workers, the ever present threat of lay off, of losing benefits, of having one’s pension evaporate in a bankruptcy court. Those already defeated, instead of taking heart from those still willing to fight, cheer from the sidelines, for their own side’s defeat!
Strikers are derided as selfish, while they in fact are the people who suffer the most. They forgo pay, they suffer the opprobrium of myopic critics, they risk physical attack, and they risk their jobs.
Yes, it is true, people can get caught in the middle. But anyone who thinks that people go on strike to punish third parties has never been on strike. People go on strike (at this point in history, at any rate) only in response to the most serious provocations. For many workers, who live pay cheque to pay cheque, those provocations generally involve the threat of reduced wages. For the temerity of demanding a living wage they will be denounced as greedy. Note to anonymous comment trolls: “greed” refers to the desire to amass wealth without limit. Demanding a pay increase of x-% is, by definition, a limited a demand, and therefore not greedy. For others, (very few, today), still well-remunerated workers, the provocations can take other forms– serious threats to long established workplace rights, job security or pensions being the most common. In a society supposedly free and democratic, ought not people willing to stand up to protect their rights– rights which others can and ought to enjoy too– be celebrated, rather than demonized?
Yet, given the very real stresses, difficulties, and dangers of striking, given the precarity of almost everyone’s job today, is it not the height of irrationality to strike? In some cases the answer might be “yes.” And, as I said above, no group of workers strikes for frivolous reasons. But what if current trends continue and workers the world over become too cowed to ever strike? What will have been lost? Some would say: “nothing,” others: “a nuisance.” But these answers, when not rooted in simple class prejudice, are extraordinarily out of touch with the history of democratic development. Democracy, or those elements of it that exist, had to be fought for, because no ruling group has ever willingly limited its power to exploit those below.
When we focus on depth values, it becomes evident that what critics of the right to strike miss is that the right to withdraw labour is one of the crucial distinctions between being a worker and being a slave. Slaves were the legal property of their masters; they worked when they were commanded and rested when they were allowed; they had no input into their conditions of work. Marx used the concept of “wage-slavery” to emphasize the continuities between capitalism and slave economies, but he was not being ironic when he argued that the distinguishing characteristic of capitalism was that its workers were free. Of course, the material compulsion exerted by the need to earn money is normally sufficient to limit the exercise of this freedom to trivial and non-threatening forms. At the same time, legal freedoms are spaces carved out by struggle which workers can use to expand their collective agency and their collective and individual well-being. Marx was always clear about the importance of trade unions in the struggle for democracy, and the importance of the struggle for democracy to the struggle for socialism. As he noted, it took centuries of struggle for working people to achieve the legal right to freely associate in unions and to legally withdraw their labour: “Only against its will and under the pressure of the masses did the English Parliament give up its laws against Strikes and Trades Unions, after it had itself, for 500 years, held, with shameless egoism, the position of a permanent Trades’ Union of the capitalists against the labourers.”(Capital, Volume 1, p. 691). The right to strike is material proof that workers are human beings who have the capacity to help intelligently shape their conditions of life. Behind this power stands the real object of ruling class fears– the capacity of working people to recognise the superfluity of capital to the provision and institutionalization of the material and social conditions of life. Lest that power be felt by too many workers, the right to strike has always been precarious– long denied, won only through the harshest of struggles, and always in danger of being undermined, by armed violence, by legal coercion, or by global market pressures.
Anyone who has been on strike has felt that power, the eros of common struggle, the euphoria of solidarity. Anyone who has been on strike for more than few days has also felt these feelings of collective democratic power wane. Strikes are very hard work, undertaken under conditions of extreme stress, in ever worsening economic conditions for the strikers. But sometimes (not all the time) accepting some hardship is necessary to prove that one’s position in a hierarchy does not determine the degree of one’s humanity. Human beings determine the conditions of their social lives through the work that they do and the relationships that they build. If people have no say over their conditions of work, they cannot meaningfully be called free human beings. And sometimes it is necessary to struggle to protect or extend our rights as workers to help determine our conditions of work.
Of course, it would be best to live in a world in which all disagreements were resolved through uncoerced negotiation and compromise. But that world would require deep agreement upon the purposes of social life and the democratic control over the resources needed to realise those purposes. Sadly, that is not the world we inhabit. So long as we do not live in that world, those most subject to the harms of unconstrained market forces, to austerity policies, to the power of capital and its servants, need means of protecting themselves, and the right to strike is one of those means.
The basil grows fragrantly alive
as I pluck its leaves,
but all I can think is:
What needs to be done tomorrow?
Is there a law that says
I shall not enjoy the sun,
Gently caressing my skin now,
its angle falling towards autumn?
Why is it better to struggle
than to tarry on this pier,
watch the boys test their mettle
against the lapping river,
and listen to the silence of ships
as they glide past,
bound for Duluth or Montreal?
I want know:
Why can’t I enjoy the cool humidity of my sweat
as I strain, pedalling hard against the slope,
stealing glances at the northern skyline,
still and silent as a painting,
too big for even Christo to imagine?
Those who give a fuck must sacrifice these moments?
And for what?
Didn’t sans cullotes just become lumpenproletariat?
Always the same, no,
some smell shit,
others smell basil?
[A Logically Possible Prayer:
O Sun, glint on the water and dance with my eyes
and then burn my papers,
vaporise the solder that holds together
this machine architecture through which I do my duty].
But I do not believe in prayers,
even those only logically possible,
so I have learned to float.
It’s easy, there are no incantations,
just swallow, drink, inhale.
Time expands, space contracts.
For a moment, there is just me,
But gravity is too powerful,
it drags even thoughts back to earth,
home of no lingering,
of endings and heavy beginnings,
that a gossamer instant of untension
is too frail to stop.
There is no reprieve.
Windsoria, September 10th, 2014.